Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sense of Time Passing

I am currently in the process of revising a journal article in which I take the Karori Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand as an example of what I call a transitory place. I intend the paper, in part, as a revision and expansion of the notion of place as I articulate it in the book, as part of an experiential approach to ethics. I also intend it as one contribution to my current, much larger project of examining the possibility and practicality of a tragic outlook in environmental ethics and policy.

In the original version of the paper, I ended by introducing what I take to be the next question: What does it actually mean to have a sense that the Karori Sanctuary, or any other place, is transitory? What does it mean to have a sense of time passing, a sense of things passing away?

At the request of the editors, I have reconsidered whether raising this question at the end really makes sense, if I can't take the time to do it full justice. I've come to the conclusion that I should drop it from this particular paper.

So I don't lose the thought, though, I now post that section here.
There are, no doubt, many questions yet to be answered about transitory places and their ethical implications, but one in particular stands out as needing some attention, in another context: How does theoretical understanding of deep time – informed by cosmology, geology, evolutionary biology, biogeography, or what have you - enter into the lived experience of the place? What, cognitively speaking, was going on when a Latin phrase – sic transit gloria mundi – popped into my head while I was walking in Karori?

One possible account would have it that I saw what was happening at the sanctuary, referenced my general knowledge of natural dynamics derived from scientific theory, and reached an intellectual judgment as the conclusion of an argument: ergo, it is passing. This conclusion might then evoke an emotional reaction, such as the melancholy I felt as I made my way to the gate on my way out.

Another possibility is that my growing understanding of scientific theory from the domains of geology and evolutionary biology have led me to internalize a sense of deep time, such that it shapes my perception of the places with which I interact. If this is the case, I may look at the landscape and, with an imagination informed by scientific theory, see it and respond to it as transitory, as fragile, as already passing away, before I have the chance to think about it. I may subsequently thematize that perception with the statement, “it is passing”, and I may critically assess its basis with the aim of further informing my perception.

For myself, I lean to the second account. There may be some truth to the first account, but it does not really jibe with my experience at Karori. If anything, any theoretical argument I might have offered would have been an ex post facto explanation of a mood that was already upon me, a sense of the passage of time that seemed to suffuse the landscape itself.

I would propose a continuing exploration of the possibility of theoretical imagination, that is, the possibility that scientific theory might directly infuse the lived experience of place, especially theory that bears on the passing of time at various scales.
 As for the rest of the article, you'll just have to wait . . .

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