Rome and the Feeling of History

It is a well-known fact that modern Western culture has been obsessed with the “past” for well over three centuries. The “story of history” – if we may indulge in this calembour – is a rather long one: we could perhaps synthesize it as an urge to expand Humanity’s rational control over anything that existed, both what was physically available and what was not – because far away in either space or time. In the classical age – that period of European culture that eventually culminated in the French Enlightenment – as maps emerged as a means of describing and measuring newly discovered territories, history was intended to crystallize in a univocal and centralized way events belonging to the past, but which nevertheless were understood as still actively exerting some form of influence. No human tool is more appropriate to this end than language: Michel Foucault describes the rise of language in that period as an all-encompassing system of rationalization, capable of making the absent present:

Language gives the perpetual disruption of time the continuity of space, and it is to the degree that it analyses, articulates, and patterns presentation that it has the power to link our knowledge of things together across the dimension of time. With the advent of language, the chaotic monotony of space is fragmented, while at the same time the diversity of temporal succession is unified (p. 113).

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