The ancient and medieval idea of ‘old’ is very different from our own. Modern culture was the first to introduce the notion of historical distance in a way that was significant enough to bring a shift in our consciousness. For the premodern mind, old meant old in the way our grandparents are old. To get from old to ancient, a lot has to happen. To get from us to me and from me to myself, a lot has to happen.
A 3D camera captures the space between objects. A historical consciousness captures the time between events, the space between ages. The depth of field in history comes from an understanding of where we are relative to other points in time. It requires a visual image of time. One which moves away from a circle and towards a line.
The circle is the eternal return of history. History repeats itself, we’ve heard that many times. Resurrection is the keyword here. Things are different, but in fact they’re the same. And they are inevitable. And they keep coming back. The focus is on essence, which drives things on, or better yet turns the wheel. Accidents don’t matter.
The line extends from 1 to 2 and then to 3 rather than back. Moving on means leaving things behind. Leaving things behind means that the options for the line to keep extending are either transformation or creation. Transforming what’s been left behind or creating something new, which is never completely new.
The circle is closed, the line is open. The circle creates a ubiquity effect whereby all points on its circumference feel equally close. The line forces vision to adjust to distance, using different focal lengths every time. Historical consciousness is the cause and result of this constant refocusing.
We feel the ancient Greeks and Romans are farther away than the medieval French or the Renaissance Italians not because we know when these cultures developed, but because we have made the line ours. Unlike our pre-modern ancestors, we feel stylistically offended to see a Roman battle in medieval style, like so many depictions in medieval manuscripts. We feel offended because of the line, which produces an acute sense of historical distance and perspective. Timelines are a visualization of the basic structure of our time consciousness. And this is something we have acquired at the expense of the circle.