Stone Age House on isthmus in Svaerholt, Norway. Photo By Levi Bryant

I’m slowly walking along the isthmus in Svaerholt, Norway.  My legs are tired from climbing hills and mountains and I can’t move any faster through the grass and uneven terrain.  Earlier in the day I helped Esther, Ingar, and Stein dig a midden outside of the ruins of the Nazi officer quarters in the village.  We discover piles of fish bones, whale or reindeer bones, lots of fishing hooks and nails, and shards of porcelain and glass.  There are Nazi eagles stamped on the porcelain.  Despite being shattered, it looks brand new.  Despite the discomfort of laboring over middens, carefully peeling away layers of dirt with a trowel, archaeologists have the best job, I think to myself.  Everything they find is treasure, even cod bones and mysteriously bent, rusted nails.

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German Plate found in the Village of Svaerholt. Photo by Levi Bryant

Taking advantage of the emptiness of the camp on the other side of the peninsula, I head back a little early.  I stink to high heaven.  I bathe in the stream by the camp for the first and last time I’m there.  It’s the same stream the Russian prisoners would have bathed in and gotten their water from.  The water is freezing cold and it’s about 10C outside.  I lay my clean and dirty clothing by the stream, placing it so that I can easily reach it after I’m done.  The stream is barely more than a trickle this time of year and I realize the flaw in my plan.  I can wash myself easily enough, but then how to I rinse the soap when the stream is barely a trickle?  I sigh and rinse my cloth in the water, using it the best I can to brush away the soap.  It does the job well enough and I feel refreshed, even though I’m shivering beneath my clothes.  What would it have been like for the prisoners?

As I walk the kilometer back across the isthmus to find the archaeologists, I see them off in the distance.  I’m walking along the remains of a German road that the prisoners built.  It goes all the way up the mountain to the fortifications that were a part of the Atlantic Wall.  That part of the road is steep and treacherous.  I marvel that the prisoners built all of this in the space of two years and imagine both the hardship of that labor and what it must have been like to live in this cold place in the endless nights of the Arctic winters.  They did this wearing poorly constructed clogs that required constant repair.  I had good footwear and still struggled in the wet August summer weather.  These are elements of assemblages and how they exercise their power that we often overlook.  As I suggested in a previous post, space does not have the uniform metric suggested by flat maps.  Distance differs depending on whether it is through grass, across water, over loose stones, up hills and mountains, and depending on the footwear you’re wearing.  A kilometer on a road is entirely different than a kilometer on that isthmus, and both are different yet again depending on whether you’re wearing poorly constructed clogs or mucks.  In Onto-Cartography I speak of thermopolitics as the politics that arises in relation to things like calories and fuels needed to do work.  I suspect the thermopolitics of clogs is quite different than that of waterproof hiking boots.

German Quarters at the fortress at Svaerholt. Photo by Levi Bryant

Bjørnar and Chris have descended from the mountain where they were digging a promising trench in what seems to have been officer quarters in the fortress.  The day before I had seen large piles of green, broken glass.  Chris told me that this was remains of wine bottles the officers had broken when they initiated their retreat.  They had practiced a raze and burn retreat, blowing up all the fortifications in the fortress and destroying any goods that could have been useful to Allied forces.  They burnt the village far below to the ground as well.  I stop as I get close to Chris.  He smiles at me and says “you’re standing in the foundation of a 10,000 year old Stone Age house, my friend.”  I look down in surprise and I suddenly see it.  There it is, right on the surface, next to the German road.  And who knows, perhaps the Germans built the road there because there were traces of far more ancient roads that suggested this path as the ideal place to build the road.

This is how it is with material time.  We are accustomed to thinking of the past as something that is gone, the present as what is, and the future as what is yet to come.  This is the time of chronos described by Deleuze in The Logic of Sense.  With chronos, the pure present is all there is.  The past and future are not.  Yet with material time, we encounter a strange past that is present.  The Stone Age home is right there on the surface alongside a German road from the twentieth century and the village that was rebuilt and struggled along for a brief time following World War II.  All of this– this past that is present –is also right there alongside us.  We shouldn’t think of these ruins as traces of a past that was.  Rather, in a manner analogous to how Bergson describes memory in Matter and Memory, it is a past that is.  If this material past deserves to be called a past that is, then this is because it is not so much a history to be deciphered– though that too –but a present-past that continues to act in the present.

Barbed wire on beach at Svaerholt. Photo by Levi Bryant

Somewhere Olsen speaks of reindeer continuing to get caught in the remains of barbed wire placed around the island by the Germans.  He asks the question “did the occupation end?”  How do we date something like the end of an occupation.  Here the machinic assemblage that constituted the object known as the Atlantic Wall persists and continues to exercise itself, despite those soldiers and prisoners being long gone.  It is a past that persists and that continues to act and to effectuate itself.  It is a past that is, not a past of a present that was.

Under this model, it is clear that time is not linear.  It does not form a continuous line where the past recedes and the future approaches.  Rather, as I said in another post following Serres, it is like a crumpled piece of paper, where different elements of the past touch the present in a variety of ways.  If Svaerholt is such a special place, then it is because we find, crumpled together, Nazi roads and fortifications, Stone Age homes, fishing villages that date back to the 16th century, effects of the post-industrial world and climate change, and us.  All of it is folded and pleated together.

Here it is difficult not to think of Freud’s fanciful description of the unconscious in Civilization and Its Discontents.  To get some sense of the unconscious, Freud tells us, we must imagine the city of Rome, but not as it is today– yet that too –but where all of the periods of Rome from its beginning to present are superimposed upon one another with all of the activities that unfolded in these periods going on simultaneously.  This is what Freud means when he says that the unconscious is eternal.  The events of the past continue in the unconscious as if they were still happening, despite having happened long ago.  Imagine two adult siblings who get along and are wonderful friends.  They return home to visit their parents and suddenly bicker and fight.  What has happened?  They never fight?  Their return home activates their childhood sibling rivalry and they seamlessly enact these roles and conflicts, despite the fact that they are long over.  Well, this is how it is with the material past.  It is not past or gone, but is there continuing to effectuate itself.

Perhaps Hegel had something like this in mind with his concept of “objective spirit”.  Objective spirit are those products of mind that we produce in matter:  roads, buildings, monuments, fortresses, books, all manner of infrastructure, and all the rest.  Here in Texas, outside of Dallas, I’ve often experienced deep frustration with urban design.  Why did they design the roads in this way?  Why did they place the off ramp in just this place?  Not only is the road design sometimes dangerous and bewildering, with lanes suddenly disappearing, but it causes all sorts of bottlenecks and traffic jams where congestion occurs.  It is material time that explains this.  The larger Dallas/Fort Worth area has grown explosively, necessitating the expansion of existing roads and the building of new roads to deal with the volume of traffic.  However, the building of these roads does not occur in a vacuum.  Like the German road that was perhaps built along traces of Stone Age paths, the civic engineers had to contend with existing road layouts and buildings.  In effect, they had to navigate the past that is, the past that is present, in the design of their new roads.  And this design was not optimal, but perhaps the best they could do within the constraints of that time that persists in the machinic assemblage of the present.  Their road design did not take place in a smooth or empty space, but in a space haunted and populated by the past, of a city from another time.  It was not blindness on the part of our civic engineer– I hope –but the necessity of enacting a synthesis between the present and the past that persists.  The past is not merely there between our ears, in the folds of our brains, but is out there in the world in the things themselves, crumpled together with the new that emerges and contributing to that novelty.