George Alexander Kubler (26 July 1912 - 3 October 1996) was an American art historian and among the foremost scholars on the art of Pre-Columbian America and Ibero-American Art. This book was published in 1962 by Yale University.
I include this brief selection in my blog because it describes (though it does not directly refer to) in fairly certain terms the premise of the Deconstructive Project (e.g. the works of Jacques Derrida) and of Continental Philosophy as it might be compared to the American Analytic and Pragmatic philosophical traditions. What he says should at least provoke a note of suspicion with respect to convictions and conventions of popular history as agonizingly displayed on a daily basis by our benighted political classes and their lapdogs in the media; and perhaps serve as an encouragement to humility for those of us struggling to, as it were, turn the tide of current affairs.
Le passe ne sert qu'a connaitre l'actualité. Mais l'actualité m'echappe. Qu'est-ce que c'est donc que l'actualite?
[The past only serves to know the news. But the news escapes me. What therefore is actuality?]
For years this question – the final and capital question of his life- obsessed my teacher Henri Focillon, especially during the black days from 1940 to 1943 when he died in New Haven. The question has been with me ever since, and I am now no closer to the solution of the riddle, unless it be to suggest that the answer is a negation.
Actuality is when the lighthouse is dark between flashes: it is the instant between the ticks of a watch: it is a void interval slipping forever through time: the rupture between the past and future: the gap at the poles of the revolving magnetic field, infinitesimally small but ultimately real. It is the interchronic pause when nothing is happening. It is the void between events.
Yet the instant of actuality is all we ever can know directly. The rest of the time emerges only in signals relayed to us at this instant by innumerable stages and by unexpected bearers. One may ask why these old signals- stored like kinetic energy until the moment of notice when the mass descends along some portion of its path to the center of the gravitational system- are not actual.
The nature of a signal is that its message is neither here or now, but there and then. If it is a signal it is past action, no longer embraced by the “now” of present being. The perception of the signal happens “now,” but its impulse and transmission happened “then.” In any event, the present instant is the plane upon which the signals of all being are projected. No other plane of duration gather us up universally into the same instant of becoming.
Our signals from the past are very weak, and our means for recovering their meaning are most imperfect. Weakest and least clear of all are those signals coming from the initial and terminal moment of any sequence in happening, for we are unclear about our ideas of a coherent portion of time. The beginnings are much hazier than the endings, where at least the catastrophic action of external events can be determined. The segmentation of history is still an arbitrary and conventional matter, governed by no verifiable conception of historical entities and their duration. Now and in the past, most of the time the majority of people live by borrowed ideas and upon traditional accumulations, yet at every moment the fabric is being undone and a new one is woven to replace the old, while from time to time the whole pattern shakes and quivers, settling into new shapes and figures. These processes of change are all mysterious uncharted regions where the traveler soon loses directions and stumbles into darkness. The clues to guide us are very few indeed: perhaps the jottings and sketches of architects and artists, put down in the heat of imagining a form or the manuscript brouillons of poets and musicians, crisscrossed with erasures and corrections, are the hazy coastlines of this dark continent of the “now,” where the impress of the future is received by the past.
To other animals who live more by instinct than do humans, the instant of actuality must seem far less brief. The rule of instinct is automatic, offering fewer choices than intelligence, with circuits that close and open unselectively. In this duration choice is so rarely present that the trajectory from past to future describes a straight line rather than the infinitely bifurcation system of human experience. The ruminant or the insect must live time as an extended present which endures as long as the individual life, while for us, the single life contained an infinity of present instants, each with its innumerable open choices in volition and in action.
Why should actuality forever escape our grasp? The universe has a finite velocity which limits not only the spread of its events, but also the speed of our perceptions. The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses. The galaxy whose light I see now may have ceased to exist millenia ago, and by the same token men cannot fully sense any event cosmic storm which we all the present, and which perpetually rages throughout creation.
In my own present, a thousand concerns of active business lie unattended while I write these words. The instant admits only one action while the rest of possibility lies unrealized. Actuality is the eye of the storm: it is a diamond with an infinitesimal perforation through which the ingots and billets of present possibility are drawn into past events. The emptiness of actuality can be estimated by the possibilities that fail to attain realization in any instant: only when they are few can actuality seem full.
Historical knowledge consists of transmissions in which the sender, the signal, and the receiver all are variable elements affecting the stability of the message. Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal. Certain details seem insignificant and they are dropped in the relay; others have an importance conferred by their relationship to events occurring in the moment of the relay, and so they are exaggerated. One relay may wish for reasons of temperament to stress the traditional aspects of a signal; another will emphasize their novelty. Even the historian subjects his evidence to these strains, although he strives to recover the pristine signal.
Each relay willingly or unwillingly deforms the signal according to his own historical position. The relay transmits a composite signal, composed only in part of the message as it was received, and in part of impulses contributed by the relay itself. Historical recall never can be complete nor can it be even entirely correct, because of the successive relays that deform the message.
The conditions of the transmission of signals nevertheless are not so defective that historical knowledge is impossible. Actual events always excite strong feelings, which the initial, message usually records. A series of relays may result in the gradual disappearance of the animus excited by the event. The most hated despot is the live despot: the ancient despot is only a case history. In addition, many objective residues or tools of the historian’s activity, such as chronological tables of events, cannot easily be deformed. Other examples are the persistence of certain religious expressions through long periods and under great deforming pressures. The rejuvenation of myths is a case in point: when an ancient version becomes unintelligibly obsolete a new version, recast in contemporary terms, performs the same old explanatory purposes.
The essential condition of historical knowledge is that the event should be within range, that some signal should prove past existence. Ancient time contains vast durations without signals of any kind that we can now receive. Even the events of then past few hours are sparsely documented, when we consider the ratio of events to their documentation. Prior to 3000 B.C. the texture of transmitted duration disintegrates more and more the farther we go back. Though finite, the total number of historical signals greatly exceeds the capacity of any individual or group to interpret all the signals in all their meaning. A principle aim of the historian therefore is to condense the multiplicity and the redundancy of his signals by using various schemes of classification that will spare us the tedium of reliving the sequence in all its instantaneous confusion . .
For the most part the craft of history is concerned with the elaboration of credible messages upon the simple foundations afforded by primary signals- meaning evidence closest to the event itself- though this may require a great expense of energy for its detection and interpretation (e.g. an archeologist tracing a buried floor level with his assistants spends about the same energy upon reading the signal as the original builders put into the floor in the first instance). More complex messages have widely varying degrees of credibility. Some are fantasies existing in the minds of the interpreters alone. Others are rough approximations to the historical truth, such as those reasonable explanations of myths called euhemerist (holding that many mythological tales can be attributed to historical persons and events, the accounts of which have become altered and exaggerated over time.)
Still other complex messages are probably stimulated by special primary signals of which our understanding is incomplete. These ( such as is found in Spengler and other hypothesis proposed under the rubric of ‘social Darwinism) arise from extended durations and from large units of geography and population; they are complex, dimly perceived signals which have little to do with historical narrative. Only certain new statistical methods come near to detection . . .
The survival of antiquity has perhaps commanded the attention of historians mainly because the classical tradition has been superseded, because it is no longer a live water; because we are now outside it, and not inside it. We care no longer borne by it as in a current upon the sea: it is visible to us from a distance and in perspective only as a major part of the topography of history. By the same token we cannot clearly descry the contours of the great currents of our own time: we are too much inside the streams of contemporary happening to chart their flow and volume. We are confronted with inner and outer historical surfaces. Of these only the outer surfaces of the completed past are accessible to historical knowledge