Herzog’s postscript was funny. He cuts from the cave to a nearby nuclear plant and the mutated albino crocodiles kept in some crazy mondo hothouse terrarium. With the camera on the crocs, Herzog’s voice-over imagines a science fiction scenario, a future in which albino crocodile archaeologists happen to find some ruin of our contemporary civilization. What would they think about us? Could they ever really know what life was like in this neoliberal paradise, a paradise that allows us to write in the morning, exchange our labor power during the day, busk in the evening, and wank the night away? Probably not. And what about us, Herzog wonders further, aren’t we the albino crocodiles looking back on a creature that is totally alien to us? Hasn’t the altered environment altered us along with the crocs? The pre-individual soups (natural, historical, ideological) that we swim in aren’t the same as those that surrounded Paleolithaca.
So in one breath Herzog proclaims the paintings as representations of the newly born modern human soul, and in the next he frets about the possible discontinuity between present and past, about the possible alteration in human nature that has estranged us from ancestors who may or may not have been more of one enduring collective spiritual organism than we are.
Herzog knows that the question of the continuity or disruption of the human soul can’t be answered empirically, with any knowledge. One could take a leap of faith in one direction or the other, if one wanted to keep tarrying with the question. Then, one would be forced to choose for an explanatory principle either the notion of progress or that of decline. But do we really need to tarry with this question? Aren’t we free to ask another, better one? A historiographical thought that wants to catch up to the true nature of history should move beyond the moral opposition of progress and decline. The concept of decline can be dropped altogether; the concept of progress can be de-coupled and de-moralized, then reconstructed within a historical materialist plane of immanence or image of thought. This, in any case, is what Walter Benjamin, here speaking slightly Deleuzian, has recommended.