Modern cities and deep time

Those suffering negative consequences after earthquakes in Mexico City highlight the tensions between modern cities and deep time:

Photo by Bhargava Marripati on

If we consider the city a geophysical entity, we can think about being tocado as a uniquely historical form of relating with the Earth. Rather than Elena’s affliction being induced by a traumatic experience and a fear of future earthquake events, she and others fear the processes that were initiated by the earthquake: the grietas, the slumps, the leans, the fissures, the buildings collapsing years later…

This is a form of seismic time that is not only knowable through a seismic event. It’s a time that begins with an earthquake but continues through ongoing geophysical and political processes. Rather than a pathological individual condition or a culture-bound form of expression, we might see being tocado as an emergent form through which bodies, histories, legislations and earths come into relation. Deep time, in Mexico City, is resolutely present if you are compelled to notice.

Deep time might be a useful frame for contemporary analysis, a temporal literacy that places the long-term ramifications of the present moment into a deeper history. Conversely, such scales also risk subsuming deep time into the present.

Mexico City points toward something more physical, a sense of time that neither collapses the human and the geological nor holds them as irrevocably distinct. In their embodied apprehension of earthly processes, people who are tocado reveal that deep time is not only an analytic problem of scale, but a stranger temporal geometry, where homes are at once sites of security and indifferent geophysical entities. Deep time portals open in the city’s many cracks, slumps and fissures, revealing an inconceivable horizon forever rushing forward.

The modern city is often designed to avoid deep time or a deep understanding of the past. The modern city of the last two centuries often took existing land and communities and created a city on a new scale with new materials with new possibilities.

In this article, the primary point of departure from modern time are earthquakes that remind residents on what the city is constructed. Other features of cities that might do this could be other natural disasters, areas designed and established far before the advent of cars, ancient landmarks, and excavations that reveal the past.

But, I imagine many residents of such cities have limited interactions with a deep past. Take Chicago: what there would remind people of a deep past, let alone even a few hundred years before? And if residents and leaders did more regularly interact with the deep past, would they act differently in the cities that are now so important to modern life?