The Futility of All Ambition: Humanity, Language, and the Affront of Ruined Archives

H.G. Wells has an entire ruined museum complex in his novel, The Time Machine (1895). The “Palace of Green Porcelain” contains glass cabinets and numerous specimens, all of which, including the machinery and animal skeletons on display, interest the narrator because he wants to learn about the development of the world in the future. However, though his curiosity is whetted, the only real regret is the lack of written communication.  The Time Traveler turns to one of the Eloi, his friend Weena, to explain “an inscription in some unknown character” (Wells 1895, 72). However he “only learned that the bare idea of writing had never entered into her head.  She always seemed to me, I fancy, more human than she was” (Wells 1895, 72). It is interesting that the characters and the writing are what strike the traveler as human, and that Weena’s physically human appearance is taken as a deception.  Wells privileges the transmission of language as a sign of humanity, neglecting Weena as a person in herself, and, in many ways, uninterested in the things around him. As Ian Bogost notes, we have long occupied a philosophical era where “things mean ideas” (2012, 3) more often than they mean stuff. In addition, things mean human ideas. After all, chimneys, gardens, and villages built by ants are simply ‘instinctual’ not deliberate making of stuff and not conceptual. For the Time Traveler, human making is a conceptual practice, a set of ideas and the lack of it in Eloi society is linked to their lack of ideas from reading. That lack of ideas makes them less human in his eyes.  The Palace, with its innumerable unknown objects, is not of any interest to him if the things around him do not connect with his humanity or with his ideas of usefulness.

Certainly, the books, as things in themselves, do not rise to the level of concern, until they are ruined; “the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them” (Wells 1895, 51). Reflecting on his own “seventeen papers upon physical optics”  in  Philosophical Transactions [of the Royal Society]  (Wells 1895, 73), and all the proceedings of the Royal Society since they were first printed in 1665, he says that  if he had “been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this somber wilderness of rotting paper testified” (1895, 51). Books, for modern educated humans,  are “reinscribed like a chain letter through the generations” (Sloterdijk 12), and the Time Traveler sees them, as most moderns do, as a clear transmission of the past through time in space, with the books as mere intermediaries and not as mediators, translators in their very form.   He is shocked by the sight in the same way that the father in The Road, is surprised and shocked by “blackened books [that] lay in pools of water” (McCarthy 2007, 187) in a huge library. The libraries in both cases are huge and solid structures and, like the father, the Time Traveler would not “have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation” (McCarthy 2007, 187).  Museums are “disciplinary architecture”or “centers of calculation where things and inscriptions could be gathered and combined, making new knowledge possible “ (Olsen, 2012,  41).  The expectation is that books will carry the knowledge of the past to the future, and that even ruined libraries, ages on, will tell of the people who lived here, through inscriptions, or written language.  It reflects a long-held belief in the power of the archaeological to bring forth the past to us, in a direct chain from object to the person ‘behind’ it. The Time Traveler had hoped that his monographs would mean that he and others in the Royal Society would be known.  Instead, language itself, at least for the Eloi, is lost. The traveler and the father believe in the power of human language to bring about what they consider to be human progress and ‘civilization’ and they are both shocked at the loss of what the father finds recognizably human society in their travels.

The narratives acknowledge the sense of loss when language has failed. The father remembers finding a library that had been destroyed;  with “Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row… “(McCarthy  2007, 187), an expectation of readers and an expectation of continuing autopoietic communication as one book and reader links to other books and other readers. He lets the books lie where they are, accepting the rage, and his own feeling of betrayal that the stories no longer seem to apply. However, his rage, and the Time Traveler’s sorrow, both are evidence of a deeply held belief in the archive and its power to assign meaning to the past. The books and the things within the green glass palace are simply intermediaries from one human mind and history to the next. This assessment of things, like books, as a connection to or representation of other humans is part of our disturbance with modern ruins like this public library in Detroit (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Eastside public library

The fact that things in themselves might exist without humans is deeply disturbing to us. Margalit Fox writes about the discovery of Mycenean tablets at the turn of the twentieth century. Those tablets, found in the palace at Knossos in Crete, contained inscriptions in a language that no longer exists. Finding the key to the code that made them readable took almost five decades. The translation was hampered by the refusal of many translators to consider the images as things in themselves, simple forms rather than as sounds and living language. This view overlooked the fact that while we may be able to translate the symbols to ancient Greek or modern English, the language that they encode has long since vanished. The father and the traveler see the books, many archaeologists saw the writing on the tablet, not as things, but as communication. Rather than mediating that communication, they are intended as intermediaries of one human’s thought directly to another. For them, the translation of language is important because it brings us to other humans. Fox writes that “to look at the tablets even now is to be in the presence of other people—living, thinking, literate people”  (location 562). However, this is not true. To look at the tablets is to see fire-baked, beautifully colored clay tablets covered with symbols. The people that Fox so romanticizes are all dead, and so, apparently is their entire culture and language.   And, in the end, that is what so disturbs us about ruins, especially modern ruins like Eastside public library and St. Christopher House (Figure 2) in Detroit and Pyramiden (Andreassen et al. 2010) or Chernobyl in Russia. It is that they remind us that human beings exist in relationship with many things, natural and artificial, and that those things might persist long after any human people, culture, or language are gone.


Figure 2: St. Christopher House


Andreassen, Elin, Hein B. Bjerk, and Bjørnar Olsen. 2010:  Persistent Memories. Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press.

Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. Posthumanities 20.

Fox, Margarit.2013. The riddle of the labyrinth. The quest to crack an ancient code. New York: Harper Collins. Kindle Fire Ebook. Retrieved from

McCarthy, Cormac.  2007[2006]: The Road. New York: Vintage-Random.

Olsen, Bjornar, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Witmore. 2012. Archaeology: The discipline of things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2009:  “Rules for the Human Zoo: a Response to the ‘Letter on Humanism.’” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, 12–28.

Wells, H.G. 1994 (1895). The Time Machine. Electronic Text Center. University of Virginia Library. 1994 Web. 27 May 2013.

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