Rourke     Thu, May 1, 2008  Permanent link
You continued our conversation in a way which almost predicted a further post I had planned, so I wrote it up real quick...
Robokku     Thu, May 1, 2008  Permanent link
To obvious:

Your palimpsest model of artifacts goes a long way, but I think your post crosses the purpose of my point here.

Artifacts representing histories
I watched the Seed Salon discussion you recommended (energetically) and I thought it was great - thanks! (Anyone else reading, watch it!) Lynn Hershman Leeson makes the point that there is a truth in the cracks of artifacts, the faults, the flaws, the bodily fluids - in the gaps, Shanks says. What they both get at, but don't say outright, is that it is in the cracks and in the filling in of the cracks.
  • The 'imperfections' in artifacts' representations of the truth are important;
  • the narrative constructed to smooth over the flaws is informative, too;
  • the fact that that narrative was chosen is informative in itself.
A slight reduction in the vagueness of all that is afforded by the following example: (1) there is interest in the reasons for the starting of World War II; (2) there is interest in the history that is known and passed on; (3) there is interest, too, in the reasons for that history (as opposed to another (perhaps equally or more precise) description of events and circumstances) becoming prevalent*. For this reason, if we want to get at the truth - as, usually, we do - we are better equipped if we have the version of events we are presented with, and, in addition, a grasp of the context, motivation, and causes (perhaps including an author) of that version of events. (That last sentence I have said before.)

A better example of this idea, though, is indeed your palimpsest. Take that Picasso painting. Yes, we're interested in the lines beneath the surface, but they're not part of the artwork itself. (1) The 'truth' here is just the thing(s) that Picasso had in mind that he wanted to convey, and (2) the 'smoothing over' of that truth, the prevalent version of events, is his final painting. The value of the lines beneath the surface is in showing an alternative 'narrative', and so shedding light on (3) the reasons for Picasso's choosing to show what he did. So we can perhaps gain greater understanding of the artwork by discovering, with lasers, what it specifically isn't.

Palimpsests as representations of time's passage

There might be sequence and progression encoded in the palimpsest because we can see that something superseded something else. However, it is not ordered in the way that hypertext is ordered. The difference between time represented by a film and time represented by a painting, is that all the temporal information in a painting is present at any one moment - it can all be perceived simultaneously. For that reason, the passage of time has to be inferred from the static artifact. (The same is true of the photos on Wired you linked to.) In film, on the other hand, you must experience the artwork itself in a temporal manner. You perceive time passing when experiencing the film because time is passing, and you perceive it. There is no inference involved (or at least none that isn't used in all temporal perception).

A palimpsest is an interesting case because all the information is in the artifact at once but it cannot always be experienced in one instant, as a painting can, in principle. (It is like the reel of film in this respect.) Some palimpsests, like the gable end of that building you showed, are like a painting: all the remnants of layers - all the temporal data - are there at once. In contrast, the different layers of a palimpsest like the Picasso one you pictured must be experienced separately - you either look with your naked eyes or with an x-ray; you can't do either properly if you do both at once. So there can be separation (the impossibility of co-perception) of the layers of that palimpsest built into the medium of representation, and the same separation of the things represented. The palimpsest then can realistically depict the impossibility of co-perception. (I think I am using Currie's terminology there - see the link below.) That impossibility of co-perception - of two events, say - has a part to play in the notion of order or sequence, which I already said was a key part of temporality.

Palimpsests then can "embalm time", which I think is a phrase I heard in the Seed Salon you linked, but only by capturing static traces of its passage. The interpretation of those traces - their decoding - is a matter of using techniques which may be familiar to all of us, but which are used in the direct experience of temporality. Our immediate sense of time passing is not called upon when reading history from a palimpsest. However, our immediate, intuitive sense of separateness, as set out above, might be called upon.

I think hypertext goes one better than that. In my post, my hypertext representation of Justin climbing (follow the pictures in the post) allows you to perceive in a realistic way that he is ascending rather than descending, whereas the pictures unlinked do not. (Even if I were to line them up, left to right, you must resort to convention to see ascent rather than descent.) If those eleven pictures were layered in a palimpsest, you could perceive their separateness, and perhaps their sequence, but minus its directionality. To think he is moving up or down would require some detective work and so go beyond the way we would directly perceive the 'truth' behind the representation. My hyperlinked sequence preserves some of that truth in its original form.

I hope I have not laboured my point too much. If it is still unclear, I recommend following the Currie link I gave in the post and reading the first couple of pages of Chapter 3 (which should come straight up). His 'realistic depiction' is a simple but strong and useful notion.

*It may well be necessary that a choice is made in recording history. Cf. Shanks' comments in the Seed conversation about his or a chemist's retelling of that occasion. However, the chemist's description is more useful if we know it came from a chemist because we can imagine what the situation must have been like for the description to have come out as it did: we know which realms of information have been ignored altogether.