rock reading and remembering as strategies of telling time
‘(non)human histories: rock reading and remembering as strategies of telling time’ takes as its starting point the otherworldliness of the geologic time scale. In search of a more entangled, (non)human imaginary of time, it interweaves the geologic understanding of time with understandings of time formed through remembering and (hi)storytelling.
Keywords: nonhuman, geology, geologic time scale, histories, storytelling
As a non-geologist, this picture of the geologic timescale overwhelms me with a feeling of incomprehension and a good dose of science fiction vibes.1 The Paleozoic Permian Lopingian Changhsingian age? Or the Silurian Llandovery Sheinwoodian one? Did that actually occur on this earth, the one we live on today? Not to mention the measuring units I have never heard of, like Ma or eon (a quick search in an online dictionary tells me an eon is ‘an indefinitely long period of time; … the largest division of geologic time, … [and] one billion years’).2
Looking at the chart, and thinking about the time spans it seems to portray, it feels ‘out of this world’. Out of the world that I am sitting in right now, behind the table in my living room. Here I am enveloped by things, sounds, feelings. But when I look at the chart and its time spans, I am not part of it, I cannot place myself. I know that I, along with the rest of humanity, must be somewhere at the top left corner of the chart. Somewhere at the top, in the light pink yellowish section, where the Ma age goes down to zero (for now), in the age that has not been given a name (yet). The dot where I imagine myself to be right now is incomprehensibly tiny. The chart portrays something beyond myself, and even beyond humanity as a whole. It is portraying something Other, something with another age, another rhythm, another span of life.
Although the timescale of the earth seems incomprehensible to an individual, geologists are making it possible. By measuring and interpreting the layers of rock that are present still today, geologists are trying to understand the historical conditions of our earth. This information is used to make graphs, maps and scales like the time scale above. This study of rock layers and their formation is called stratigraphy.
But not only geologists are in the business of charting time. We all deal with charting and comprehending the workings of time on a daily basis. We have an idea of what happened an hour ago, last week, and when we were little. We use the measuring units of the clock and the calendar, the seasons, and if we are talking about longer periods, our own bodies and experiences (such as ‘when I was small’, or ‘when I was in college’). By remembering events and telling them to ourselves and each other, we create histories of the self. These histories are inevitably intertwined with collective histories, as we link our personal experiences to events that happen on larger scales, spanning multiple lifetimes before our own and multiple lives besides our own. Remembering is a day-to-day practice of making history, forming stories that create viewpoints into the past and future.
I wonder what would emerge if one conceived of remembering and (hi)storytelling through the logics of stratigraphy? And what more is there to learn from the geologic time scale when it is considered as a cultural object, a representation narrating the history of the earth? In what follows, I will be grappling with stratigraphy and remembering as ways of narrating history, exchanging the vocabularies and imaginaries these methodologies carry. By thinking about the processes of memory and history-making through the metaphors of stratigraphy and by looking at the geologic time scale as a cultural object, I entangle the concepts and therefore the imaginaries they produce. Through this interchanging, I hope to open up space for images and words that can conceive of human time and earth time together.
Practicing stratigraphy (or: how geologists remember)
To imagine the earth’s vast history, geologists base their observations on what remains today: layers of rock in the earth’s crust. They use various methods, such as sketching, measuring, and feeling the stone, to make interpretations about its type and age. This allows them to distinguish layers of rock from each other and make a diagram like the one below.3
These are the rock layers as found in the Grand Canyon. Each type of rock is related to a different geologic period, each of which had its own environmental characteristics. In the right column you can see how these periods are linked to the types of rock. These are the periods that make up the GSA, the geologic time scale.
During a period spent collaborating with a geologist, I became fascinated with the extensive methods geologists use to interpret stone. They sketch it, they measure it, they hammer it, they even lick the stone in order to understand it better. Whereas the geologic time scale does not show the human at all, the practice behind it is a very human undertaking. As a close collaboration between humans, tools and stones, the stratigraphic practice seems to be a translation of stone into diagrams and words. It is here, in the understanding of stratigraphy as translation, that I started to notice a first link with my own human way of dealing with time. It is the organizational logic that goes into the making of a representation, the logic of interpreting, of recording, of narrating. It is the braiding of events, one after the other, the layers of rock, one after the other, that makes me understand stratigraphy as the creation of a story.
The most simple principle on which stratigraphy is based may be that new rock accumulates on top of the old. New geological strata are distinguished because of new environmental conditions and therefore new geological characteristics, forming on top of previous geological strata and their characteristics. The conception of time that follows from this is one of layers, connecting layers of rock to layers of time. Layers, however, have not always been the mode of classification for geologists:
It was around the turn of the 19th C – the time of Foucault’s transition from classical to modern epistemes – that geologists underwent a shift from classifying rocks as ‘natural kinds’ to categorizing them on the account of the processes of historical formation they shared. What mattered, proposed German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, was ‘mode and time of formation’, a distinction for which he introduced the term Gebirgformation – ‘rock formation’.4
Thinking about rock in terms of layered time is thus a culturally specific phenomenon, written in connection with a certain conception of history.
Working with this specific layered conception of time, considered in terms of formation, Kathryn Yusoff and Nigel Clark make the effort of trying to think about the formation of social worlds and geological ones together.5 In the picture they sketch, geological and human history are not two separate entities, but part of the same layering where larger and smaller timespans co-exist. From the slowest geological processes to the microhistories of everyday life, the number of possible timespans is endless. The older, longer timespans that continue underlie and form the basis of the newer, shorter ones. Histories are multiple and all work within a system of imposition where the older, slower processes carry the new.
The conception of time as a layered formation makes it possible to think about the past within the present. This is reminiscent of the concept of the cultural archive, zooming in on the development of cultural history.6 The concept coined by Edward Said explains how past social practices and ideas form the basis of the ones that can form today. It shows how people work, think and feel from a ‘repository of memory’, which contains practices and ideas from before. Thus, historical principles and practices form the base for future principles to unfold. Although re-shaped, they are still very much current in the present time. This does not mean these principles are not dynamic and cannot change, but rather that they form a certain logic for thoughts, practices and feelings to emerge. This movement of social development as happening from a repository of memory is a stark reminder of the layering of rocks, where the old ones form the base for the new. Not only is the earth in continuous formation, culture can also be seen as continuously forming itself through a logic of imposition.
By thinking about cultural formation within this framework, the present becomes extremely rich in terms of possibility for change. Since the past is somehow still alive in the present moment, the present moment functions as an entrance point for working with the past, providing opportunities to reshuffle the historical narrative. It provides opportunities to story ourselves into a different now, and perhaps even a different future.
More gaps than record
Stone accumulates (a geologist told me I cannot say it grows) very, very slowly. It depends on the place and the type of stone, but we are talking about only millimeters per thousands of years. When examining layers of stone, however, the known rate of growth never conforms with the thickness of a layer and its age. It is less thick than it should be according to its age and rate of accumulation. Geologists describe this as ‘breaks’ in sedimentation. This can be due to various reasons, such as erosion and changing environmental conditions. According to geologist Derek Ager, such gaps in layers of rock can also occur due to non-deposition. This is simply when no rock formation takes place. With this assertion, he critiques the frequent assumption that stone accumulates continuously, which is why it is seen as such an exact record of the earth’s history. Ager, however, argues that there are huge gaps in this record, or as he himself says:‘The stratigraphical whole is a lot of holes tied together with sediment. One long gap with only very occasional sedimentation.’7 The geologic time scale is therefore based on evidence that is full of gaps. This again draws attention to the storytelling processes that are part of stratigraphy, filling the gaps with human interpretation in order to form a neat scale of time.
What would happen if one did not try to fix the gaps, but instead emphasized them? What can the unseen, the un-told, the left-out tell us? In the case of the geologic time scale, as I have already observed, a big thing that seems to be missing is a connection to the human senses. The scale seems almost otherworldly, a world full of foreign rates and dimensions, imperceptible to the human body. It is trying to portray something else, something distinct from the human, as if its very existence is not tied to its relation to the human. Human, sensory bodies have written that story. They have felt those rocks on their hands. They have looked with amazement at enormous mountain ranges, felt small in between their slopes, and big on top of their summits. They have tried to look closer, taste better, understand their colours and shapes. They have invoked the help of tools and technologies to see differently, to see more, to see details and measures and relations. That is how this scale came into being, not at a distance, but in dialogue.
The idea that a history writer is never neutral and should show their opinion in their writing is something already firmly set in place in the sphere of cultural historical narration. Being explicit about your positioning is central to telling an objective story, as it puts emphasis on where you come from and where you don’t.8 Therefore, this practice of situating yourself places an emphasis on the gaps in your story, instead of hiding them away. Practices of narrating history in other domains should follow this lead, critically examining their constructed narratives and images.
Partial and incomplete storytelling happens on the timescales of the earth’s and society’s history, but surely also when considering a smaller timescale, that of personal, day-to-day remembering. In the act of thinking back, a complex situation emerges where the actual meets the imaginary, the present day the past, the known the unknown. One builds a partial account of what has happened, weaving in only the elements that fit into the already accumulating story of the self and the world.
On your own, it is quite easy to keep such a story of past and present clear and consistent. This story is only challenged when you critically examine your own thoughts, or when you are confronted with radically opposing evidence. We are also quite good at weaving our stories together with others, informing each other of events and agreeing on how things took place. When someone else is involved in the act of remembering, however, it can become more complicated. I recently had a remembering experience with my best friend, whom I have already known since high school. We sat together on her terrace after dinner, and started telling her roommate the story of how we became friends. This resulted in us thinking back on everything that happened during our time at secondary school together. Without fully apprehending the precariousness of the situation, we found ourselves reliving old childhood traumas, in which we were entangled differently. Re-telling what had happened, our differently told stories confronted each other. Suddenly the knots of identity that were formed back then started to loosen, showing what strands of meaning I had woven together to create a layer in my story of myself. Disentangling that layer with somebody else, somebody whose perspective I could not ignore, shook the foundations of this self-story. In the fluid unknown we found ourselves in, we tried to grasp some thin strands of memory, in order to carefully re-place our sense of time. Discussing what had happened confronted us with the impossibility of knowing the true story. After all, it happened a long time ago; we did not know the details anymore. We could try and fill them in based on the abstract drawings we had kept, but in all honesty, we did not know.
Rock reading of the mind: uniformitarianism versus catastrophism
In geoscience, there have been two dominant theories explaining changes in the earth’s condition. The first was catastrophism, which argues that catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and large tidal waves have changed environments drastically and have caused the extinction of whole species. That theory was countered successfully by geologist Charles Lyell in 1830, in his theory of uniformitarianism.9 Uniformitarianism, as opposed to catastrophism, pictures gradual changes that slowly but surely alter the earth’s shape. The story of the earth is narrated very differently according to these two theories. In the case of uniformitarianism, the evolution of the earth is caused by ongoing natural processes. It presupposes that one can look at the past through the lens of the present, as the same processes are still going on today.
When I apply these theories to another timescale, the one of personal evolutions and their self-stories, interesting questions arise. Replacing the ‘earth’ with the ‘self’, can we know our past human selves from the perspective of our present selves? Are we continuously evolving, following the same principles, only changing gradually? Or can we experience mental catastrophes, floods and breakdowns, that crush the sense of self in such a way that it changes in a radical manner?
I think back. I take a photograph from the album, and see myself being another being. A young girl, around 6 years old, holding her naked body while sitting on a rock, gazing at the stream of water below. Dark blue water in the foreground, dark green forest in the background. I wonder how it felt to be that person. I know the stories. I know what kind of person my mother and father saw me as at that time. I know the name of the place in the picture, although I do not know how it felt to be there. I look at the photograph and see the way I hold my body, still unaware of shame or looks. I wonder what that body knows that I do not.
Thinking of a past self is always done from within a present self, and this is never neutral. As Valeria Luiselli writes,
Beginnings, middles, and ends are only a matter of hindsight. If we are forced to produce a story in retrospect, our narrative wraps itself selectively around the elements that seem relevant, bypassing all the others.10
Whether the processes of today were already going on in the past or not, one is bound to look from your contemporary self-formation. Whether you narrate in gradual processes or catastrophic events, that is a matter of the present you, and how you decide to write your self-story.
Looking at representations of time in the geologic, cultural and personal domain, I notice the richness of the imagery at hand. Time in layers, time in process, time in story. Strata as stories. Culture as strata. Diagrams as translations and selves as formations.
By thinking about cultural and personal storytelling through the language of stratigraphical processes, a layered understanding of selfhood and culture starts to form. Layers of time hold (cultural) identities as processes in formation. Thinking about the geological time scale as a history, in turn, provides new insights into its partiality and its form as a specific story. The classification of geology in time is a result of historical formation being deemed an important criterion. Also, it is a specific and partial story, as it leaves out the human interpretation and sensorial information that were part of its making.
These earth and human stories are constructed in their own disciplines, leaving out many possibilities. Blending their languages and images constructs new narratives of thinking history and time. These connective stories are urgently needed, as humans are actively destroying themselves, thinking they are destroying something else. Re-telling the story of the earth and its humans is urgently necessary and a joyful task, so let’s continue to write it into being.
With many thanks to Jasper Hupkes for his patience and generosity in showing me the practice of geology, and the KAMEN Art residency for the facilitation of our research.
This essay is also part of Gaia’s Machine’s publication Into Polyphonies Unknown, soon to be published by the HKU Professorship for Performative Processes.
- Ager, Derek V, The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record,3rd ed. Chichester: Wiley, 1993.
- Clark, Nigel and Kathryn Yusoff. “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 2-3 (May 2017): pp. 3-23. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0263276416688946.
- The Geological Society of America, “GSA Geologic Time Scale,” August 2018. https://www.geosociety.org/GSA/Education_Careers/Geologic_Time_Scale/GSA/timescale/home.aspx.
- Haraway, Donna, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): pp. 575-599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
- Harding, Sandra. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity,’” In Feminist Epistemologies, edited by Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter, pp. 49-82. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Luiselli, Valeria. Lost Children Archive. London: HarperCollins, 2020.
- Oregon State University Ecampus, “Stratigraphy – Reading Earth’s History,” lecture, 15 June 2012. https://youtu.be/wDxFOEvHpSc.
- Quora, “What are the major landforms of the Grand Canyon,” accessed 21 October 2020. https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-major-landforms-in-the-Grand-Canyon.
- University of California Museum of Paleontology, “Uniformitarianism: Charles Lyell,” Understanding Evolution. Accessed 10 January 2021. https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_12.
- Wekker, Gloria, Witte Onschuld: Paradoxen van kolonialisme en ras [White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race], Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018.
“GSA Geologic Time Scale,” The Geological Society of America, August 2018, https://www.geosociety.org/GSA/Education_Careers/Geologic_Time_Scale/GSA/timescale/home.aspx.
Dictionary.com, s.v. “eon (n),” accessed 21 October 2020, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/eon.
This diagram is circulating on all kinds of blogs and forums on geology, the history of earth and earth science. Here is one of the sources: “What are the major landforms of the Grand Canyon,” Quora, accessed 21 October 2020, https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-major-landforms-in-the-Grand-Canyon.
Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff, “Geosocial Formations and the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 2-3 (May 2017): p. 11. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0263276416688946.
Gloria Wekker, Witte Onschuld: Paradoxen van kolonialisme en ras [White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race] (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), pp. 7-37.
Derek V. Ager, The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record, 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley, 1993), p. 53
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): pp. 575-599, https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066; Sandra Harding, “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity,’” In Feminist Epistemologies, ed. Linda Alcoff and Elizabeth Potter (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 49-82.
“Uniformitarianism: Charles Lyell,” Understanding Evolution, University of California Museum of Paleontology, accessed 10 January 2021, https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/history_12.
Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive (London: HarperCollins, 2020), p. 62.