The heat was already unbearable, despite the early morning hour. It took too much effort to speak, so they sat in silence, protected from the scorching sun by a thick, canvas tent. Its striped sides were rolled up and fastened at the top with leather straps, allowing a slight breeze to blow through. Whenever unexpected gusts swept over the dunes, all three faces turned instinctively away from the stinging shower of sand.
After years of digging, both men had grown accustomed to the climate and barely noticed the sweat seeping through the vests of their linen suits. But every time they tasted salt in their mustaches or felt the tightening pressure of stiff collars and neckties, they asked again if she was sure she was alright. Someone could drive her back to the hotel in Cairo. She always said no. She was only 21, and made of younger, if not tougher, stuff than her father and his chief excavator. The temperature was excruciating under layer upon feminine layer of her white frock, but the anticipation, the waiting, was so much worse.
The distant clanging stopped abruptly. As muffled voices outside the tent grew louder, the men looked at each other nervously. A small boy, or at least it must have been a boy under the dirt-encrusted face, ran towards the tent, shouting in Arabic. The younger man jumped to his feet, reaching for the pith helmet nearby. “It’s time,” he said. “They’ve found the entrance.” This was the moment Howard Carter had waited for his entire life.
Does it really matter now–92 years later–what really happened the day Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? As a scholar, I’d say, “yes.” We have diaries and letters, first-person accounts and newspaper clippings. We could and should comb through the archive to reconstruct and preserve history. But this post isn’t necessarily about history–that is, it isn’t exclusively about history. It’s also about imagination–how we, as a culture, if we can even talk about a singular culture, imagine and re-imagine the past. More specifically, it’s about how I imagine the past, the stories and topics that make me curious.
A few weeks ago, I was browsing the Strand Bookstore in New York City. As usual, I found a lot of books that I wanted to read, but I was looking for something in particular. I wanted a book about archaeology, something I could learn a lot from, but I didn’t want another dry textbook-like tome. I wanted something that was serious and scholarly, but read like a novel. No matter how long or where I searched, I couldn’t find the specific book I had in mind because, just maybe, it hasn’t been written yet. That realization is undoubtedly the germ of more than a few research projects, including this one.
As an inveterate list-maker, I keep a running list of books I want to read or topics I want to research. I started vaguely and loosely grouping the subtopics under ten to twelve umbrella terms, and when I stepped back and looked at the list, which ranges from archaeology to urban design, the recurring theme was obvious–they are all thing that capture my imagination and that I find aesthetically interesting.
The phrase “visual imagination” is something of a neoplasm, a redundancy. Imagination is inherently visual. We imagine, we dream, and we understand the world around us as a series of rapidly moving images, like a cartoon flipbook or zeotrope. Even the metaphors we use to describe imagination are optic: We talk of seeing with our mind’s eye. From there, it is not too far of a stretch to say that we understand the world as a succession of signs, for what are signs after all, but images that encourage interpretation, consciously or otherwise. In other words, imagination is semiotic, and life is the practice of collecting signs that help us understand the world and our experience within it. As we group signs together, we are not just creating sign systems, but, I’d argue, we are also constructing aesthetic models. What really captures the imagination is a well-articulated aesthetic.
I hope that over the course of the next few months I’m able to research and dig deeper into the aesthetics and semiotics of visual imagination. I do not attempt a comprehensive study of each topic, and this project isn’t bound by all the normal rules of academic publishing. It’s not peer reviewed. It won’t get me tenure. It’s tangentially related to scholarly articles that I’ve published in the past or hope to soon, but I’m not feverishly paranoid that they’ll be scooped from underneath me before my monograph is finished. It’s an experiment, of sorts, in public digital humanities. I could give you a lofty disclaimer that I want to engage with these topics publicly and transparently, away from the shadows of the neoliberal university system. And that’s true. But this is more about my love of the topics, an insatiable curiosity, and the pleasure of learning and writing.
I don’t have to (and probably won’t) come to any grand conclusions. If I’m lucky, I might stumble across a theory or model about how the visual imagination works, or the relationship between nostalgia and imagination. But at its core, this is a very subjective and, admittedly, selfish project. I hope it might interest you as well.