||Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge
By Philip J. Ethington
"The enigma of history lies in what it means to be historical."
--Martin Heidegger, The Concept of Time (1924).
"If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty."
--Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty (1949-1951).
This essay invites readers to explore "Los Angeles" and the knowledge claims made by historians of the urban condition. Recent claims that Los Angeles is a quintessential site of postmodernity raise fundamental epistemological questionsmany of which rapidly turn into ontological ones. How can entities so vast as great metropolises be grasped, let alone compared, when it is not even clear what empirical elements (architecture, class, crime, culture, demography, economics, gender, political institutions, sexuality, street life) are preeminent? What exactly is and/or was Los Angeles? (Its icons, its neighborhoods, its people?) How can we know, and what might constitute certainty or at least usable knowledge? How do photography, cartography, textual documents, and quantitative data ("statistics") give us access to historical urban space and time? Influential writers on postmodernity such as Fredric Jameson have named specific sites within Los Angeles as evidence of a new condition, in which history itself is effaced by the "depthlessness" that characterizes a core condition of the "world space of multinational capital"the ultimate source of ongoing exploitation and alienation. Recent scholarship has singled out Los Angeles as either unique among cities, or especially representative of new conditions of urban life and globalism. But the concerns engaged by this essay go far beyond the relevance of Los Angeles. From Charles Baudelaire to Walter Benjamin and since, cities have been posed as the signature locations of modern indeterminacy. As Marshall Berman writes, about New York City, "The city has become not merely a theatre but itself a production, a multimedia presentation whose audience is the whole world." The stakes of these claims are extremely high, because they are used by many to deny the very possibility of historical knowledge in general. Los Angeles has become metonymic for the entire course of human history. How do we assess these claims?
I am motivated simultaneously by two ongoing debates: one among historians about "objective knowledge," and another among urbanists about the depthless postmodern condition. The first was sparked largely by the publication of Peter Novick's 1988 That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession, which portrayed historians as fated to epistemological impotence, caught between an untenable goal of "objectivity" and an inescapable "relativism." The second debate, that among urbanists, portrays the late twentieth (and twenty-first) century urban condition as a simulacrum, within which scholars and all subjects are trapped in a global hyperspace, far beyond the crisis of representation. I attempt here to use an archetype of "hyperspace"a web siteto link the discourse on Los Angeles with that on historical certainty.
This multimedia hyper-essay is an experiment, then, created to challenge historians' and other writers' use of "Los Angeles" as an exemplar of any condition, and specifically to probe Jameson's call for an "as yet unimaginable new mode of representing [the world space of multinational capital], in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain the capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion." I, the author, serve as your valet de place, a specially commissioned guide through an infinite tangle of urban space and time. What becomes immediately apparent is the extreme selectivity imposed by such an exercise. I present artifacts from "locations," which include "empirical paths" through the metropolis and many street-corner sites. These locations are vast in their own right, and yet remain only tiny fragments of the metropolis. Alternatively, I offer synoptic views of the entire metropolis or large regions of it. These, while seemingly comprehensive, are extremely limited in other ways: shallow might be the best adjective. In this essay, I explore basic issues involved in assembling knowledge about cities, and put at your disposal a large collection of representations, which you are free either to explore or not in connection with this essay about the epistemology and ontology of the historical metropolis.
I shall argue in this essay that "mapping" is indeed the key to "certain" knowledge (in a space-time phenomenological sense, to be explained further). Mapping is not only a powerful metaphor for the historical knowledge project, but a concrete tool for affirming the presence of the historical in the condition of the present, for mediating between the infinitely local and the infinitely global, and for building knowledge communities. It should be possible, in short, to meet Jameson's demand for a new form of representation, if beforehand we interrogate and elucidate the fundamental issues at stake.
Mapping the Certainty of Historical Artifacts
All history is the study of artifacts that exist only in the present. We historians claim for them a status as genuine "sources" of historical knowledge. Consider the detailed scale model called Model of the City of Los Angeles that was eated by the Works Progress Administration and the Los Angeles City Planning Department in 1939-1940. Only one portion of this once very large model survives, that portraying the central portion of downtown, including the old Bunker Hill. It is held behind glass in the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum (sharing space with 300 million-year-old fossilized life and 3 million desiccated insects). This model was meticulously constructed at a 1:120 scale to facilitate "urban renewal," and was instrumental, ironically enough, in planning the massive destruction of the historic Bunker Hill neighborhood in the 1960s. It is invaluable today for reconstructing the history of that and other neighborhoods, a relatively comprehensive representation of a built Los Angeles world "that is no longer." Artifacts, be they manuscripts or models or photographs or newspapers, give us access to history, but how? There is a spatiality to historical research itself that seems to go unnoticed. The historian goes to the archive to observe, or read, or copy the artifacts, and comes away with notes and copies and claims as to the being of the historical city.
The "scale" (i.e. 1:120) is an algorithm for converting the representation, or model, back into an imagined reality. It could stand for the entire enterprise of interpreting or inferring from historical sources. We create narratives, and these are suspended in language, but this fundamental insight of the linguistic turn does not in itself preclude certainty. It does make obsolete the "Cartesian anxiety" that has put Western philosophy on such a bad track, as Richard J. Bernstein and Richard Rorty have made so plain. The account of photographic urban knowledge given here is meant to stand for other modes of inquiry as well. While there certainly are genre distinctions between oral histories, written documents, quantitative data, maps, and photographs, each is subject to the same "Cartesian anxiety" that the knowing subject may not be adequately representing the reality of the urban condition, or that (as in Kant), the knowing subject is simply debarred from knowing the thing-in-itself of that reality.
Los Angeles is fatefully divided along the boundary of the Los Angeles River: to the east is the great Latino metropolis, historically anterior to the great Anglo metropolis to the west or the vast and varied Asian metropolis dispersed throughout both sides of this divide. Situational or perspectival explanations of knowledge would have it that these multiple, overlaid metropolises have their own, community-specific notions of certainty. In the heart of East Los Angeles, in a colonia or neighborhood called "Maravilla," stands a tiny tavern now called "The New Silver Dollar." In that place on August 29, 1970 a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy assassinated (allegedly, according to common sense) or accidentally killed (formally, according to the trials that ensued) the Mexican-American journalist and leading voice of Chicano L.A. by firing a tear-gas cannister through his head. Certainty about Ruben Salazar's death during a mass demonstration (The Chicano Anti-War Moratorium) holds great importance for a divided metropolis that has never come to terms with its ghastly history of collective and repressive racial violence. It is rare to encounter a Spanish-speaking Angeleno who does now know about the killing of Salazar; it is equally rare to meet a non-Spanish-speaking Angeleno who has ever heard of Salazar (even though the Spanish-language television station he founded, KMEX, has the largest viewership in the metropolis). Is it conceivable that some form of knowledge can bridge this public, social, cultural, and political chasm?
It is one thing to suggest that a faithful recognition of the linguistic turn does not preclude certainty, but quite another to show how certainty could be obtained. I will now attempt to do so through a kind of historical materialismreally a phenomenology of artifacts. Of course, there is insufficient space to make a full case, so I shall explore one particularly important kind of artifact for historical knowledge: the photograph.
Photography as Time Machine
"The true method of making things present," writes Walter Benjamin, "is to represent them in our space (not to represent ourselves in their space). We don't displace our being into theirs; they step into our life." We would do well to follow Benjamin's reflections on photography and history when pursuing the certainty possible in either, because he developed a compelling case, as Eduardo Cadava has shown, that history is essentially photographic, in the sense that our historical knowledge is a series of fleeting snapshots. In a much-quoted passage from his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin writes: "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." Crucial also to Benjamin is the necessary disjuncture between the photograph and its referent. By supporting a myth of realism, photography began modernity's erasure of a critical, reflective attitude. Benjamin, one of the first in a long line of twentieth-century critics who saw in aesthetic realism a dangerous prop for fascist domination via the image, proposed an epistemology of the "true" which was, nevertheless, not a "correspondence" theory of the image with reality. It was, in Cadava's summary, a "politics whose infinitely mediated relations prevent it from organizing itself around a particular form of instrumentality."
Benjamin may be said to have opened the debate about the position of the photograph in history and as history. I wish now to contrast two distinctive positions within this long discourse. The prevailing view normalizes the photograph by contextualizing it as a mere species of text within a wide network of power and institutions that make each photograph perform specific functions. Photographs in this view have no special access to reality in general, let alone the past. John Tagg is the most forceful exponent of this view, formed in part in a critique of Roland Barthes's remarkable argument in Camera Lucida. There, Barthes seems to have committed a heresy within the radical skepticism of postmodern discourse, by asserting, "From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation." Photography, he claims, gives unmediated access to reality. Barthes recalls a photograph he had clipped as a child, of a slave market: "for my horror and my fascination as a child came from this: that there was a certainty that such a thing had existed: not a question of exactitude, but of reality. The historian was no longer the mediator, slavery was given without mediation, the fact was established without method." To this apparent naïveté Tagg responds first with an ad hominem dismissalthat Barthes's position was motivated by his grief and longing for his departed mother (much of the essay is devoted to what Barthes calls the "Winter Garden Photograph," of his mother at age five, in 1898)and then by his characteristic Marxian institutionalism. Always in Tagg's work, the photograph is suspended in institutions of power. Photographs are "evidence" only because the police in the bourgeois regimes of France and the United States forced it to perform this social task.
Tagg's critique is remarkably unpoetic. While Tagg the skeptic is clearly the more objective and even scientific analyst of the photograph, Barthes and Benjamin seize instead upon the mystery of the photograph's relation to death as the enduring element that gives it such power of truth:
In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as it the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe."
Let us compare the images of Broadway and Seventh Street, Los Angeles, 1905-2000, with a different pair of images, at Broadway and Temple, 1868-2000. Using Barthes' terminology, the studium of both the 1868 and the 1905 images resides in the recognizable traces of a world that is no more. But the traces of the present are far more faint in the 1868 image than those in the 1905 image, because fewer indexical features remain in the depicted landscape. It is possible that not a single building visible in the 1868 image remains standing. But landforms may be used to establish referents (how verifiable these are is the important question). Bunker Hill is quite visible in the south-by-southwest extreme (right-hand edge) of the 1868 panorama. The old Anglo courthouse is easy enough to verify through cross-referencing with official plans and other photographs. Indeed, although the 1905 image is far more easily verified as representing the same location than its 2000 analogue, even that shows few traces of the life world apprehended in 1905. All this destroyed? Not a soul left living? And yet there it is. Two truths stare us in the face: the studium of the indexical traces, and the punctum of a living world, those moving (blurred) figures who shriek at us from the grave: "We are alive!" (and we are going to die).
Now let us consider these archival photographs as truthful in a different manner. Kendall Walton makes a compelling and surprisingly blunt case about the "transparency" of photographs: "Mirrors enable us to see around corners. Telescopes and microscopes make distant and small objects visible. With the help of photography we can see into the past as well."
Can we really "see" into the past in this way, as though peering into a telescope? H.G. Wells imagined such a space-time instrument in his 1897 short story "The Crystal Egg." A crystal egg is discovered in a London second-hand store, through which a viewer may observe a living but fantastic Martian landscape. As the story unfolds, we become aware that the crystal ball was planted on Earth by the Martians as a portal through which to observe us. Their corresponding two-way communication unit is held high upon poles in an urban Martian public plaza: the flying Martians periodically approach these spheres, peering, as it were, into our world. Walton's argument holds that photographs are portals allowing at least one-way vision to the historical world. "We must resist the tendency to water down this claim, to take it as a colorful or exaggerated way of saying that in viewing a photograph one has the impression of seeing the thing photographed, or that the photograph one sees is some sort of substitute or surrogate for the object. Watering it down in either of these ways endangers both its interest and its truth. We really do, literally, see our deceased ancestors when we see photographs of them." In our current discourse, so saturated by the concept of "social construction," it is remarkable to read such an outlandish claim, but it is important to take it seriously at least as a hypothesis, so that we can begin to develop criteria for distinguishing between the genres of "fact" (the term I prefer is certain knowledge) and "fiction." No doubt photographs can be manipulated to represent history that did not occur, fabricated from whole cloth to represent sheer fantasy, or produced for abstract aesthetic purposes, like the photograms of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).
Accordingly, any account that takes seriously Walton's or Barthes's claim that photographs give us direct access to "the past" must also explain how to sort the spurious and the mendacious from the certain.
Uncertainty and Certainty as Urban Conditions
Jeannene M. Przyblyski offers a remarkable reconsideration of Eugène Appert's notorious staged and superimposed photographic documents of the 1871 Paris Commune. She admits their fictive and reactionary political origin, but nevertheless locates them in a structure of modern practice of consumerist pastiche: the circulation of images for the urban spectacle of
"acutalité that might be said to inhabit the same discursive framework as such urban consumerist mechanisms as the grands boulevards, the new department stores, and the wealth of novelty attractions mapped across modern Paris, a framework within which distinctions between the real and the commodified were blurred according to the logic of commercial
enticement." Przyblyski meticulously deconstructs Appert's constructions, by a contextual mapping of their elements within a dense network of documentary evidence of and about the Paris Commune. Her performance demonstrates that every photograph, and by extension every other species of artifact, can in principle be verified, not by the Cartesian method of correspondence between "representation" and "reality," but by the new historicist method of mapping its relations to the network of texts of which it forms a part.
This is why my blatant manipulation of single still frames, both from the historical archive and from my own camera, to create that quintessential nineteeth-century spectacle, the "panorama" is not at all fictive. Ironically, I have used 1990s manipulative technology to achieve what the photographer was unable to do: render through stretching, skewing, and blending, images that he or she could only stand edge-to-edge for the circa 1868 or 1905 spectators to observe. The result is a form of "virtual reality," enticing the viewer to experience the sense of place one might have had at the corner of Broadway and Temple atop the roof of the Lankershim Hotel on that day in December 1905. Taking further steps to "animate" the image, through a viewer, we imagine ourselves peering through Walton's timescope into the past. Indeed, the very mimetic essence of this kind of fiction is what gives us the ability to map its reality.
We historians must always ask, "How would we know?" How could it be imagined that photographs provide knowledge of the past? How can they become part of our world of knowledge? Los Angeles, as global capital of the "culture industry" must provide the acid test for any phenomenology of certain knowledge. Director Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner has become emblematic of the depthless condition of postmodernity, set of course in a future Los Angeles, in which the "age of mechanical reproduction" has reached an extreme stage. Human beings themselves can be robotic "replicants" or natural bodies, and no one can really tell the difference. The replicants themselves verify their own "real" status via photographs of their childhood, and memories of this childhood has been programmed into the replicants' minds. Are we in such a condition? Do we fetishize the photograph because so much elseespecially verbal texthas become so dubious? Is it impossible, in principle, to distinguish the truthful history from the fictive in the photographs? Certainly, Hollywood's location in Los Angeles raises the stakes in answering this riddle of reality's merger with the fantasy world of "consuming images" (to borrow Stuart Ewen's phrase). Critical scenes in Blade Runner take place in the Bradbury Building (304 S. Broadway: George H. Wyman, 1893), a recurrent site of futuricity and pastness. Wyman was inspired by Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887 to achieve a futuristic, utopian space, and yet the sense of this place was reconstituted by The Maltese Falcon in 1941 as a dystopian setting of the 1930s film noir aesthetic. That aesthetic contributed to the underworld representation of Bunker Hill that was essential to the ideology of the 1950s planners who destroyed it. Blade Runner is an homage to film noir, and yet the edifice has been lovingly restored by a 1990s real estate magnate, Ira Yellin, in a supremely naive preservationist manner. The work of these preservationists (such as the Los Angeles Conservancy), to save from erasure the eroding fabric of the old downtown of Los Angeles, once centered at Broadway and Seventh, is powerfully supported by the Hollywood movie industry, which thrives on the "period" settings of this region to produce fictitious New York Cities, Chicagos, and Los Angeles itself in many eras.
"Hollywood" (another metonymic "Los Angeles") has manufactured for the human race a massive collection of what Vanessa Schwartz calls "spectacular realities." Schwartz and her colleagues have traced the geneaology of cinema as clearly descended from dioramas and wax museumsgenres that re-anchored sensations of "reality" for urbanites increasingly unmoored from networks of certainty. It is not difficult to read further back, relying on histories of popular visual culture to show that photography descended from centuries of urban depictions created with the intent of transmitting certainty. The Italian painter Canaletto's (1697-1768) well-known use of the camera ottica to produce his precise views of Venice exemplify only the high end of a market that also drew millions into crowded tents to view dioramas of infamous battles, fires, and other spectacles.
But the photograph, while clearly a direct descendant of the camera obscura and the diorama and panorama, is also unlike those media in a very specific sense. The difference does not lie, as many have thought, in the photographic instrument's independence from human intervention (each photograph is always intended and the camera is only human equipment). Rather, it lies in this instrument's capabilities to see around the corner of time, and to explode space into infinitely new dimensions.
Benjamin memorably unpacked the power of photography to achieve new feats of "seeing," in a manner perfectly consistent with Walton's claim about photography's transparency:
By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eyeif only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man"
Consider now the photography of Robbert Flick, with whom I have collaborated in a documentation of South Central Los Angeles. Flick's finished multi-frame artworks are poised between the unique vision of a vehicular flâneur and an accessible, cognitive map of the long streets of Los Angeles. His method is to use a Hi-8 video camera, mounted at a fixed 90-degree angle to the direction of travel and shooting to the left (driver's side) at the eye-level of the driver. He then captures still frames from the immense number generated by the 30-frames-per-second speed of the videotape, and selects from these those a limited number he wishes to use in composing a very large rectangle. The method is structuralist in the manner of twelve-tone modernism. His rule is to assemble the images in a linear succession from the upper left to the lower right, overlapping each frame with its adjacent frames, in order to give the viewer a verifiable reference. The result allows a guided tour of the studium of a recognizable grid, or alternatively, a free exploration of the punctums to be experienced across vast trajectories across the metropolis. "Along Central," the artwork produced from our collaboration, makes it possible to "see" in simultaneity, 20 kilometers of Los Angeles, through neighborhoods that are recognizable, if only by name and association with negative news, around the world. Just as Benjamin predicted, Flick explodes the reality of these supposed totalities of "South Central," or "Watts," allowing us to explore occupied space in its quotidian details. By "reading" the work out of order, the possibility of cognitive mapping becomes apparent. The fragmented life worlds of the metropolis are "seen" together, as social relations within the visual fabric.
The artistic practice of Robbert Flick may at first seem "depthless" in the sense that a) it is shot from a moving vehicle and does not attempt to gain intersubjective knowledge from the residents or various neighborhoods; and b) it is just a series of pictures, lacking contextual data (texts, quantitative, testimonies). But such is the division of labor in society that no one artist or investigator can supply the whole we seek. The critical point is that Flick's sequential frames are a kind of map that can be indexed with any manner of other empirical data. As we travel along the empirical path we have provided here, from the northern terminus of Central Ave at 1st Street to our stopping point at El Segundo, we travel through an immense variety of lived "places," spaces invested with place-ness by a myriad of "communities" (in the sense of communicating social networks).
Many urban scholars have been influenced by Kevin Lynch's method of cognitive mapping. In his landmark Image of the City, Lynch asked urbanites to self-represent their surroundings, to describe their own sense of place. Fetishizing this method, however, leads to another form of the "Cartesian anxiety." If we accept that only such forms of knowledge are authentic, then a generalized urban histrorical knowledge becomes impossible. The sense of place experienced by the blurred pedestrians in the 1905 Broadway and Seventh panorama is utterly inaccessible to us. But so too is the existential perspective of every living contemporary. The Spanish proverb has it that "Cada cabeza es un mundo" (Inside each head is a whole world).
To establish that in principle we can "see" the circa 1940 Harlem of the West Coast along Central Ave. between 21st Street and Vernon, I have superimposed the display ads from a 1940 Central Avenue Business Directory onto the building, circa 1999, in which those addresses corresponded, in "2150 South Central Avenue, 1940 and 1999." These "catastrophic spectacles," to borrow from Barthes, establish a map to the historical formation of a neighborhood, even though most of the physical traces of the remarkable cultural production by African-American artists, intellectuals, and professionals along Central have been destroyed (massively in the two riots of 1965 and 1992) or renamed by the current Latino occupants. Nevertheless, these historic neighborhoods can be attached to Flick's (or others') maps. Indexed together, the result is depth. I call this method "reflexive indexing," because each image may index, or map, another, by reflecting space-time coorindates identifiable in the other. The method is also "reflexive" in the cognitive sense of self-consciousness. Certain knowledge cannot arise from artifacts without the self-aware hermeneutics pioneered by historicist Willhem Dilthey.
History as a Landscape of Presence
Few historians reflect on the nature of time itself. Rather, they emphasize the craft of writing about history, as though the existence of "the past" can be assumed as a given. Still fewer urban historians have written on this subject. In what manner the past as such exists is a matter of paramount importance if one seeks to illuminate the conditions for urban historical knowledge. I take as my guides the hermeneutics and historicism of Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger. Dilthey's critique of knowledge in the human sciences grew from a theorizing of time as an eternal present:
"The present is the filling of a moment of time with reality; it is experience, in contrast to memory or ideas of the future occurring in wishes, expectations, hopes, fears and strivings. The present is always there and nothing exists except what emerges in it. The ship of our life is, as it were, carried forward on a constantly moving stream, and the present is always wherever we are on these waves--suffering, remembering or hoping, in short, living in the fullness of our
reality." The critical phrase is Dilthey's claim that "nothing exists except what emerges" in the present. Inquiry about the temporality of a city is distinguished from most other historiographic inquiry by a heightened importance of spatiality. We are necessarily answering spatial questions when we form historical urban knowledgeeven though the weight of modern discourse works to obfuscate space through an obsessive temporalizing of experience. This insight leads us to recognize the need to develop clear (transparent) linkages between space and time. It must be clear that I am not writing metaphorically, then, when I say that the "terrain" on which the history of a city can be apprehended is a vast landscape of the present, strewn with artifacts accumulated from countless "past" moments of human labor.
Heidegger's explication of the empirical status of these artifacts is highly useful, but it only makes sense within his account of being itself, which places the "past" in the "future" in the sense that the present is not simply filled with experience, as in Dilthey, but intended as in the work of Heidegger's sometime mentor Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). "The possibility of access to history is grounded in the possibility according to which any specific present understands how to be futural. This is the first principle of all hermeneutics." When interpreting what we understand as the past, we are "running ahead," as Heidegger puts it, or being futural. Being for Heidegger is always located, a condition he calls Dasein ("being-there"). "Dasein as human life is primarily being possible, the Being of the possibility of its certain yet indeterminate past." With this intentional phenomenology in mind, let us follow Heidegger's interpretation of historical artifacts at some length:
The "antiquities" preserved in museums (household gear, for example) belong to a "time which is past"; yet they are still present-at-hand in the "Present." How far is such equipment historical, and when it is not yet past? Is it historical, let us say, only because it has become an object of historiological interest, of antiquarian study or national lore? But such equipment can be a historiological object only because it is in itself somehow historical. We repeat the question: by what right do we call this entity "historical," when it is not yet past? Or do these "Things'"have "in themselves" "something past," even though they are still present at hand today? Then are these, which are present-at-hand, still what they were? Manifestly these "Things" have altered. The gear has become fragile or worm-eaten "in the course of time".
Heidegger turns here to focus on the use of the artifacts, or household "equipment" in his example, and distinguishes between two conditions. The "present-at-hand" is merely present, but not an object of familiarity, and not an expected element of the world we inhabit. The "ready-to-hand" is a part of our everydayness, the pen or automobile that we use and expect unselfconsciously to be part of our world:
What, then, is past in this equipment? What were these "Things" which today they are no longer? They are still definite items of equipment for use; but they are out of use. Suppose, however, that they were still in use today, like many a household heirloom; would they then be not yet historical? All the same, whether they are in use or out of use, they are no longer what they were. What is "past"? Nothing else than that world within which they belonged to a context of equipment and were encountered as ready-to-hand and used by a concernful Dasein who was-in-the-world. That world is no longer. But what was formerly within-the-world with respect to what world is still present-at-hand. As equipment belonging to a world, that which is now still present-at-hand can belong nevertheless to the "past." But what do we signify by saying of a world that it is no longer: A world is only in the manner of existing Dasein, which factically is as Being-in-the-world.
Mapping Knowledge of Institutions and Institutions of Knowledge
Knowledge claims about the significance, or interpretation, of particular artifacts locate an intersection in space-time between the institutions we seek to represent, and institutions of representation. The discourse of representation may be postmodern, rational-choice, Popperian social science, deconstructivist, narratological, queer, postcolonial, and so on. But each of these discourses is, as Benjamin asserted, essentially and practically
photographic. "The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. 'The truth will not run away from us': in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." 
Benjamin in this passage performs a cognitive mapping. To recognize (artifacts from) the past as part of our world (in the sense outlined by Heidegger, as being ready-to-hand even if mainly only present-at-hand) is to draw a set of index lines from the institutions of representation to the institutions we seek to represent. What confronts us most challengingly is not the barrier to reality imposed by Cartesian anxiety or Derrida's "il n'y a pas d'hors texte" but the sheer complexity of the mapping problem.
The historical knowledge project is neither more nor less than a large set of institutions. Institutions range in degree of formality from uncodified social practices such as handshakes, to highly formalized phenomena such as the U.S. Constitution, with all of its supporting statute law, Supreme Court rulings, and so on. Urban historical knowledge is suspended in concrete institutions of "higher education," such as the American Historical Association and the Urban Historical Association, but also in extra-professional historical societies, the site-specific work of journalists, and the folk knowledge of neighborhood residents. Conceived in this way, knowledge producers (historians, writers) can be located vis-a-vis the knowledge they produce. The "city" is neither more nor less than a very large set of institutions as well: religious, state, kin, economic, and creative institutions, to name just a few large families of institutions.
Cities are present to us as institutions. Cognitive maps and familiar pathways retraced by urbanites in their everyday practice are institutions, by the definitions given above. The infinite variety of these individual maps is formalized in historical knowledge. To gain concrete purchase on "Los Angeles" is to crystallize such institutions into maps. To illustrate both the immense complexity of this enterprise and also its possibility, we can attempt to portray the institutional totality we call "Los Angeles." As Mike Davis sarcastically remarked contra postmodern skeptics, "Los Angeles can be presumed to exist." Yes, but beyond that easy nod to common sense, we are left attempting to answer the acid-test question: What are its boundaries? When we study "Los Angeles" do we study the "Consolidated Metropolitan Area" of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, or do we restrict ourselves to the chartered City of Los Angeles? We could take the County of Los Angeles, or we could just ignore these official boundaries and use a wide variety of popular, vernacular definitions. Reputedly the most-viewed TV series worldwide is "Baywatch," in which viewers in Southeast Asia see Los Angeles portrayed as a strip of Pacific Ocean beach in Malibu, Pacific Palisades, and Santa Monica.
One of the ways to sort out this boundary problem is to map the actual descriptive and jurisdictional boundaries of the various definitions of Los Angeles. In my own research on Los Angeles, I have chosen the boundaries of the county by that name, because it is coherent and consistently encompasses the vast majority of the larger "metropolitan area." This remains a relatively arbitrary choice, but it is at least publicly visible and subject to critique. The county boundaries have remained stable since the late nineteenth century, but almost all political jurisdictions within that space have changed massively since the turn of the century. There were only eleven incorporated cities in 1900, and by 1994 there were eighty-eight. The incorporated City of Los Angeles itself has grown and sometimes shrunk by more than 300 annexations and detachments since it was created by the United States government in 1850. The bewildering overlay of state institutions as shapes on the ground are also, of course, shapes in time, as the single map of metropolitan spaces (giving dates of incorporation) illustrates.
This essay is undoubtedly too short to convincingly establish the case for a mappable historical certainty, but I hope to have suggested at least its possibility in principle. Orientation to history is an institutionalized practice. Narratives order the past. They do so about spaces, were written in spaces, and for spaces. Narratives are subject to narratology and, with myth, ideology, and fashion thrown in, are allin principlemappable practices in space-time. Maps, when they become reflexive with other maps, fix each other and create what Paul Ricoeur calls the "trace," the enduring artifacts (texts or photographs or models of the city circa 1940). The trace, Prasenjit Duara succinctly observes: "is a sign of the past whose materiality is revealed in that it is not exhausted by successive interpretations." Recall Barthes's similar tribute to the Photograph (his capital P): "From a phenomenological viewpoint, in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation."
The key element in my case is a space-time phenomenology, wherein we take historical evidence in its material presence as an artifact, and map that presence through indices of correlation within the dense network of institutions, which themselves are mappable. This method depends heavily on a "theory of practice" that has been developed by such figures as Michel de Certeau and Pierre Bourdieu, but it will require a great deal of work to adapt that theory to a phenomenology of space-time mapping.
I have not attempted to achieve anything so scientific as a critical map of "Los Angeles" but, rather, to raise the epistemological question: "How would we know?" by creating a "spectacular reality." That postmodern "hyper-space" of which Jameson complained turns out to be a very familiar urban condition. I want to suggest that the cognitive mapping necessary to regain agency within this global disorientation is nothing less than the cognitive mapping necessary to re-establish urban historical studies in a comparative and constructive manner. The central claim, in fact, is that the institutions of knowledge are themselves urban, in the sense that a complete map is impossible, and in the sense that the discourses that make it up are neighborhoods as well: communities with mappable locations.
"That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it," the early Wittgenstein wrote. Urban historical knowledge is the map of institutions and the institution of mapping itself. This web site is such a map, "laid out against reality like a measure."