2 letters on History
Dear Salvatore Settis,
The definition of shared ground, and consequently a shared notion of heritage, implies the notion of an extended time horizon. We share a territory, a landscape or a city only if we can plan to inhabit it in the long period, only if we can imagine our children also living there. In the end, pharaohs or emperors built palaces only because they believed that their dynasties would use those buildings in the future. Certainly they lacked the idea of sharing, but they did not miss the idea of an extended time-frame.
On the contrary this long-term prospect disappeared from the contemporary perception of time. Capitalism removed the longer time frame to have everybody concentrated on a endless present, with respect to which we will never be updated enough. Is the lack of a consistent heritage policy in contemporary western democracies, just a consequence of their obsessive concentration on the present?
Is it necessary to move away from modernity (in the sense of an everyday effort to adapt to the newest incarnations of the Zeitgeist) in order to re-gain a perception of what we are being deprived of? And how to claim the relevance of an extended time horizon (extending to the future and to the past) without sounding terribly conservative?
In 1944, T.S. Eliot wrote
“In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is the provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turn and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials can only be hermits.”
The word “presentism”, used especially in France, is the new name presaged by Eliot for the provincialism that rules today for being so ingrained in neoliberalism. But neoliberal presentism is devoured by a contradiction: it preaches competitiveness (between businesses) but presents itself as an invincible dogma, and therefore refuses competition (with other ideas, world views and societal projects).
The destiny of our landscapes, cities and historic buildings is subjected to the menace of ferocious presentism, which tends to separate the reasons for memory and conservation (both rooted in history) from the reasons of management (entirely determined by the economy). It tends to cancel out cultural and immaterial values by identifying every monument, every landscape and even the fabric of the city with its relative price tag. Does studying history (by architects, too) work as an antidote to presentism? Perhaps, but it’s not enough.
In 1958, Lina Bo Bardi wrote
“What is the real meaning of architecture today? Is the modern architect — as a builder of cities, neighbourhoods and public housing — not an active combatant in the field of social justice? Must he not nurture moral doubt, awareness of human injustice, an acute sense of collective responsibility, and by consequence the desire to fight in order to obtain a morally positive outcome?”
Such a two-faced far-sightedness, directed both at cultural memory and at future generations, is needed now more than ever.