Rear View Mirror or What Happens When We Walk Backwards? | Julieta Aguinaco

Rear View Mirror

New analysis of the language and gesture of South America’s indigenous Aymara people indicates a reverse concept of time.

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans— a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind—the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.[1]

I have been working on a project that took the shape of a walkable correlated timeline of the history of The Earth. The first of this series of walks was done last June, in Marfa, Texas.

I am interested in the contemporary concept of progress. Not so many decades ago, in the middle of last century, the tectonic plate theory as an explanation for continental drift was still considered impossible by many. At that time the idea of progress was exemplified by modernity: canned food and microwave TV dinners to mention just one example. Today we seem to have realized that it may not be a feasible path. Some are starting to look backwards in the constant quest towards progress, many western communities turn to the past; seemingly craving a more “natural existence.” For these people, the latest idea of progress is no longer that of the canned food but that of the organic food. Things like microwave popcorn are now thought to contain high levels of poison that cause cancer. The new trend says that the more unprocessed our food is the better. So we have changed our minds about many things and look towards the past in search for clues to some savior answer on how to continue to advance forward.

Some look for sources of inspiration into our primitive past, and some into a digital future, to find a way in which to come to terms with nature. And, since we ARE nature, what we are really looking for is a way to come to terms with ourselves. But we are still chasing progress, or perhaps I should say we are still being chased by progress.

We also seem to be afraid. Since the moment we realize we are alive, there is a fear that we are going to die, as individuals, as civilizations and as a species. We know that we do not stand a chance against the next imminent massive volcanic activity period, as the unstoppable geological clock of our planet continues its course. Some people use religion as a solution for this seemingly universal fear. Others long for new possibilities, for a change of perspective, and make symbolic tryouts of what this could be.

What Happens When We Walk Backwards?

I am looking for a change of perspective. This collective performance is an attempt towards the possibility to consider new ways of thinking and knowing under the symbolic act of a new way of walking. I am not sure if physically and mentally we got anywhere near succeeding in this, but so far I am satisfied with the metaphor that exists in the action of ambulating backwards. If I am trying to find ways to experience things differently in order to see if it is possible to think of ourselves in another way, then this idea searches for a subtle transformation of our experience of the world and suggests that another way of knowing, living, being, going, walking, is possible.

The act, physical in itself, defies our intrinsic body motion, in an attempt to also defy our long-ago embedded and inherited but not intrinsic mental motion. As we evolve, our physicality adapts to our technological creations and our mental capacities and needs. I wonder if, by deliberately challenging such inherited mentality we could be capable of choosing the direction of what we may become.

This change of perspective is not only an allusion to the Aymara people’s conception of time, in which we “walk” into the unknown, the future, with our backs. Often jumping into conclusions of what and who we are without knowing, and many times also without the slightest interest in asking ourselves, about the consequences of our steps. Walking backwards is also an attempt to give up the illusion of an idealized progressive project, to give up what we can see far in the vanishing point that we usually face and aim at. Each step is about the instant when it is taken, and not about the goal that our sight can spot in the horizon. To arrive somewhere walking backwards is to arrive without having foreseen where one is heading. To arrive humbly.

More than being concerned with experiencing or trying to experience time pass in another way, this experiment is about trying to experience the present and paying attention to it—about not living for the future, or in the future, as we mostly do. And paradoxically, at the same time it is about looking at, remembering and learning from, what we walked through in the past, as we either aim for a safe next step wishing there is no snake hole, or just accept and embrace the potential risk that comes with it. Walking backwards is about having much more respect and caution for what is to come.

If extinction is a fact of life, from what I know, it can come suddenly as a steep fall, or it can fade into evolution as a very flat, unabrupt, sandy desert road. To accept the possibility of the imminent cliff would be to stop being afraid. Acknowledging our place in this world, understanding when and how it started and when and how it might end, could help us come to terms with nature. That is being with ourselves.


Photo: Vika Ushkanova.

Can There Be Progress Without Forwardness?

I try to reprieve from progress, to stop wanting it, thinking it. Ambition can take away the fun and affect in anything we do; still, without it, we might not manage to get anything done. Which is fine maybe. I don’t know. What I do want to know is if I/we (today’s humans) are truly capable of playing without wanting to win. If we are capable to keep going on without motivation as we know it. What would happen if we stopped wanting to go forward? If we stopped wanting to get better, to know more, to do more, to have more? Faster, bigger, better…and always using way more than we need and having way more than we can handle.

The Aymara people seem to have opened up that possibility. I am extremely happy to have learned about them and their endangered “other” and “radically different” way of thinking about time and about everything.

Often elderly Aymara speakers simply refused to talk about the future on the grounds that little or nothing sensible could be said about it … The consequences, may have been profound. This cultural, cognitive-linguistic difference could have contributed, Nunez said, to the conquistadors’ disdain of the Aymara as shiftless—uninterested in progress or going “forward.”[2]

Such is the evidence that our way of thinking time can be less vast than, let’s say, the gap between our feet instead of the length of the distant vanishing point that our eyes can see and our minds can imagine in the horizon.

This makes me fantasize further, to try to imagine an even more drastic shift, a humanity that could give up directional progressiveness and embrace the idea of perpetual change in a nonlinear way. A vector-less repeating instant of constant flux as the way in which we understand ourselves… Without history, in which this walkable timeline, or any kind of timeline, could not exist.

But is it our choice to look for a new way of walking? Can we provoke through our deliberate actions the taking of a new direction of thought in which we understand ourselves differently? Is this shift of perspective up to us or is that beyond our decision and only in the hands of this planet’s evolutionary destiny?

In the words of Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse for their introduction of the book Making the Geologic Now:

Such a move has the potential to turn Western-encultured humans (once again?) toward what is most real about human life on this planet: we are not simply “surrounded” by the geologic. We do not simply observe it as landscape or panorama. We inhabit the geologic. We live within it. This means that humans are always forced to come to terms with earth forces, eventually.[3]

I very recently realized that geology is not something we study in the quest for making history, but something that we are part of. That volcanoes are as alive, or not alive, as us. The promise of a radically different human existence should be possible. Perhaps some day we could see ourselves as mini-volcanoes, as nonliving entities, like viruses. Like weather—rain, wind or solar rays. Maybe we are not that different from other agents of erosion. If we do not only observe the geologic and do not only inhabit the geologic, but are the geologic, then humans are one of such an Earth force. So what humans are always forced to come to terms with is, again, ourselves.

Deep Nostalgia

I wonder why I cannot seem to stop thinking about the far future, daydreaming about the day when we will all die. I also seem to dedicate a big part of my time to thinking about the past. The pleasure I find in imagining how the world looked like in the Cambrian or Pleistocene is strangely comforting. Maybe this explains why I have heard so many times that I am a very nostalgic person. If geologic time is deep time, I would like to call this kind of nostalgia deep nostalgia.

But the moments I enjoy the most are actually the scarcest ones—the instants in which I achieve to be in the present. Nostalgia and motivation are enemies for those who are looking for a way to withdraw from sequential time. Yes, I am probably idealizing a sort of life without the thrive for progress. And this brings me to question how far have we actually advanced as a civilization.

We are the only animals that can melt and forge metal, and still we do not stand a chance against the climatological adversities of our world. Volcanoes are not considered an animal, but they can also melt and forge metals. Humans and volcanoes are two things on Earth that are known capable of emitting so much carbon dioxide in such a small period of time, and so induce abrupt climate changes. The categorization and differentiation between volcanoes and humans, between the living and the nonliving, seems obsolete after acknowledging that we do not really know where one thing ends and the other starts. If we do not understand life, if biology is not the study of life but an instrument for totalitarianism, then maybe we are not the only animals that can melt and forge metal in this planet.

The day I learned that viruses are not alive (at least within the contemporary biological categorization) was the day that I could think of volcanoes in a truly radically different way. The manner in which we address volcanoes took a whole new meaning in my head. A volcano can be dormant, can wake up. A volcano can be active or can be dead. A volcano can have mood swings. Accepting that the line we place between the living and the nonliving is an imaginary one is already very helpful.

At the same time this makes me even more annoyed about the fact that we don’t seem to be sharing this with each other. Instead we teach and we are taught some pretty big lies. We keep telling each other that biology is the study of living organisms and that geography is the study of the physical features of the Earth and its atmosphere. National History is a mandatory subject in most high-school educational programs; philosophy or Theory of Knowledge are not. If we were taught as kids that we know nothing, and that the scientific and technological advances in the history of human knowledge have brought many questions for each answer, perhaps humanity would be less troubled and less ill. Perhaps then it would not seem so impossible to “come to terms with each other.”

I wish I had learned from an early age that we do not understand life, that we do not know where it starts or ends, and that the idea of living and nonliving is, to begin with, a human concept whose boundaries are constantly being redefined.

They say that everything changed since mankind went to outer space and saw the planet from the outside. I suppose that having the technology to obtain data from the soil at the bottom of the oceans or deep under the polar crust, and invent complex tables to interpret and “discover” the past has also contributed to the change. The fact that we can now determine the age of our planet and map out its changes has probably also altered our cognition forever.

Things have changed. The world we live in is different. Perhaps this explains why the Aymara—as with most other indigenous peoples—world views and ways of existing seem to be on their way out. We can say that they are either heading rapidly towards extinction or evolving into the western globalized progressive way of thinking that seems obsessed with deciphering the past in order to control the future.

Photo: Sofia Ocana Urwitz

Photo: Sofia Ocana Urwitz

Enter the Anthropocene, Age of Man

As we walked through this correlated timeline of the history of The Earth, we crossed several red chalk lines, which represented important historical events of my choice. For example, the period from which the oldest known exposed rock Acasta dates, or the time when life moves from water onto land. Five blue lines demarcating the five massive extinction events that are known to have occurred on our planet were also drawn.

The sixth blue line is present in its absence. It is a matter of time, for there might be extinction for as long as there is life. So in one hand, it may be easier to just step into it with our backs when the time comes. On the other hand, the blue lines that we have walked past; those previous ones which are fading into the horizon that we face when walking backwards, are constantly reminding us of what we learned from past experience.

It looks like we are trapped between two horizons. The horizon of the past, that which we face and are walking away from. And the horizon of the future, that which we cannot see and are heading to. It is now when I consider if it might actually not matter how we walk—backwards, forwards, up, down, blinded, rapidly, slowly, running.

But if this linear and chronological way of existing and understanding time has not always been the same for our species, then it might be in our hands to look for other ways of thinking. We know of the possibility now, we can find examples in the elderly Aymara people and in the beautiful thoughts of Walid Sadek when he speaks about the necessity to move beyond hope and into possibility:

Each time a collectivity convolutes itself into a maze, the journey into the labyrinthine must again be set afoot.[4]

Walking Backwards in the Desert Can Be Many Things:

—A metaphor for the retrograde state of the political and social moment we are living.

—A symbolic act of solidarity to the thousands of undocumented migrants who cross a border illegally. Walking backwards in an attempt to leave misleading footsteps for the border patrol officers who are hunting them.

—A silly attempt to suggest a change of perspective and look for new ideals.

—An homage to the Aymara people of the Andes who will probably arrive at the sixth extinction way before the Western people.

—An actual call for support for the Huichol people. One of the last seminomad groups left in the lower Chihuahuan Desert, who pilgrim across it every year in search for peyote—their source of nourishment, both spiritual and physical. Their route has recently been blocked because of the concession of vast chunks of land to Canadian mining companies by the government of Mexico.

—A farewell to the last nomadic Mongols of the Gobi Desert that still inhabit our planet.

—An act of meditation, individual or collective, for living in the present.

—A contradiction in itself: Walking, even when done with the back facing the direction of flow, is still an exercise in which there is a point of departure and a point of destiny. We are still going somewhere. In that sense, unless we stand still, we will always be progressing. The important thing then becomes how to progress, with which point of view.

—A search for liberation, if understood as an exercise of spirituality, for a person or group of persons who are confused and want to hang out with other confused people.

Let us think of these words on the walk that happened June 12, 2014 in Marfa, Texas, as a moment dedicated to “respond to the geologic depth of now.”

[1] Kiderra, Inga. “Backs to the Future. Aymara Language and Gesture Point to Mirror-Image View of Time.” UCSD News. 12 Jun. 2006. Web.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ellsworth, Elizabeth, and Jamie Kruse. “Making the Geologic Now: Intro and Conclusion.” Making the Geological Now. Dec. 2012. Web.
[4] Sadek, Walid.“Beirut Open City.” N.p., 2013.

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