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Friday, October 5, 2012

Philosophy of History of Philosophy (A History)—Introduction

[a] Cinder-past RF
I have been doing a lot of cycling lately. There is a rail trail stretching from South Beloit, Illinois to the little hamlet of Capron, Illinois, on the McHenry County line. It is a little over forty miles out-and-back, and passes through more than a few thickets of poplar, birch, oak, ash, and elm. Yesterday I saw a weasel and two deer. I know the symmetry will seem impossible, but this is the nonfiction truth: today I saw a deer and two weasels. It's a little bit like Noah's Ark with a dash of polyandry (or polygyny)...or a bike path with Don Knotts as landlord (c. 1980).

Much as I enjoy these little rubber-tired strolls through autumn foliage, it is the beginning and end of my ride each day that has gotten me thinking about the nature of human history and how we interpret the record of the past. You see, the trail is cinder for the first and last three miles, and I can't help but think about it in the way we might of history itself. The more I ponder it, the more I realize that the cinder bike path is just like the record of human history (and the movie Memento).
[b] Paved past RF

Let me explain.

The first things I notice are the tire tracks on the dry, beige cinder. Some are thick, some are thin, and many (most, really) retrace the etchings of earlier tracks. I cannot stress this point strongly enough. From Homer, Sima Qian, and Plato to Pierre Bourdieu, we have heard about the tracings of social behavior. Put simply, a whole bunch of us do the same stuff that a whole bunch of other people do (I apologize for the technical language). We retrace the habitus (habiti) of both our peers and of earlier generations. As several anthropologists and historians have said of social life, we are the embodiments of our histories. The tracks on the path "say" that as they wind their traces through the cinders (and as I run my own bike tires over those very same grooves). They don't tell us "what," "how," or "why," but they do bear a strong message of where (and a little bit of when). A significant part of interpreting history lies in understanding how we do pretty much the same things (eating with fork, spoon, and knife...or chopsticks...or our left hands) over and over and over—retracing the tire tracks of habitus for days, years, and generations.

Except when we don't. We're not bike-riding, historiographical lemmings, after all.

You see, some of the grooves are deeper and more gouged into the cinder record than the other lines of tire-track-upon-tire-track. Some have etched lines in such a fashion as to be seen for many days, and moons, afterward. They are not like the ordinary tracks. They are Charlemagne, Martin Luther, An Lushan, Giambatittista Vico, and Charles De Gaulle. They are not easily forgotten, and it will take many rains and high winds (as well as tens of thousands of ordinary tracks) to cover their record and erase them from view.
[c] Record RF

There are still others. These are not quite so deeply etched as those above, but they are prominent. They can't be missed. There is something about them, though. I might notice them on a Monday ride, and they seem to be a built-in part of the path. By Thursday, however, I can't make them out anymore, or the traces are so faint that I can barely discern them. How were they so prominent at one time and almost gone just "moments" later? How is this possible? We might call these William Edgar Geil, Theodore Dreiser, or Warren G. Harding—known by everyone, and forgotten almost as soon as they stopped spinning their wheels over the cinders and began to lie several feet beneath them.

There is even more, though. Some of the tracks weave from side-to-side, seemingly uninterested in (or unable to) mov/e/ing forward. A few even veer right off the path towards floral-faunal disaster, a brief rest stop, an exploratory excursion, or, perhaps, an amorous adventure. These might be something akin to Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary on Everest in 1953, the sinking of the Titanic, or, well, the Oval Office kitchen, c. 1995. It might also be American electoral politics in general, weaving from left to right every two years in an almost contrapuntal patterning through the ages.
***  ***
And then there are the macro-structural issues. Let's not forget these. Parts of the trail lie under an umbrella of dense foliage. In the autumn (as we are experiencing now), leaves cover parts of the path. Many small sections bearing the "record" of the cinder past are blanketed by leaves; the tire grooves that appeared so clearly moments ago on the open prairie are hidden in these places. They are nothing like the open sections. Some of the leaves are newly fallen and easily blown to the side of the trail by the first strong breeze of a day. These are like vice-presidential candidates in American politics...or promotions to brigadier general. They are a big deal while they last, but are easily forgotten after a news cycle or two (even in 1862 or 1964).
[d] Deep RF

They are quickly blown into the deep ditch of mnemonic loss. 

Other leaves are a good deal more problematic, though. Sometimes, under a dense covering of foliage (think of these as "sources"), they create a thick carpet over the path. This is still unproblematic if, as above, they might be blown to the side by a strong easterly wind. Bring a little rain, however, and that thick, leafy carpet becomes treacherous for the cyclist...or historian. It can be slippery, for one thing. The wet cover can transform into a sort of tectonic plate above the dry base of fallen foliage, causing the bike tires of historical interpretation to weave, slip, and slide just enough to unnerve the rider (or move Taiwan three inches closer to Fujian Province). The cyclist sees the path, "knows" that it looks solid, and proceeds forward with confidence—sometimes saying things such as "They will welcome us with open arms." This is like Napoleon in Russia, Hitler in the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and, well, the Americans in Iraq. Those bike tires can slip when you least expect it. 

Funny how the wet, leafy path works that way.

There is even more. Sometimes the cinder path has big, deep holes. Many of these are dug, and lived in, by gophers and prairie dogs. Gullible chipmunks also dive into them whenever they perceive danger, which is to say...pretty much all of the time. These holes can be jarring. The tire grooves may all weave together, but some of them lead (tens of hundreds of tire markings overlapping the others) right into a jaw-cracking, tongue-biting front-wheel dip into the gopher hole (usually in fading light at the end of a ride). This hurts. I have often cursed these hidden holes, sometimes shouting into the autumn air in angry disgust. Riding along with perfect equanimity, a misery-hole hits my palms, bashes my teeth, and causes me to utter phrases that would make a domestique blush right into the heart of civil twilight. What are these cracks out of the blue? Well, they are the unexpected little gopher holes of history. A little like the French Revolution...and a bunch of other stuff. They just crack you in the jaw, bend your wheel rims, and change everything. 
[e] Whiggish RF


And then there is the final thing, which really should have come first in this discussion. The path isn't "going anywhere." Let's get over that idea right now. Only the most Whiggish of riders would think that bike paths, cinder or otherwise, are about getting from Point A to Point B, and they are soooooo not about "progress" that I hope we are over that idea before we even begin. To the extent that you think that the path is "progressing," you have failed.

Oh, except when you haven't, and when we seem actually to be going "somewhere." Mark that previous point...and never mind. Sort of.

You see, even this is more complicated than it looks. The rail trail has points (the end of the Stone Bridge Trail to Poplar Grove and the La Esperanza grocery store) that are common, oft-ridden, and assumed (sort of like moving from primary school to high school graduation, or from young adulthood to middle-age). Hmmm. I guess there are points, goals, and assumed objectives, at least for the vast majority of riders—and people living in societies, past and present. To be sure, there is not one, big OBJECTIVE...GOAL (or DESTINATION), but there might well be checkpoints along the way, at least for the vast majority of groove-matching wheel tracks and human lives.

The cinder path of the past is like that. This series will explore it. All of it. 

And we'll discuss Memento later.
[f] Trail view RF


  1. Now this is the kind of post that the Polish biking trip could ride off of! Keep writing about bikes!

  2. Three-plus years later, Jack, I am re-reading this for class. It packs in so much (too much)...that it might require another whole blog to sort it out. And yet...I am convinced that a cinder bike path really is "like"..."history."