Lines – A Brief History by Tim Ingold

I read an eye opening book over the last few days thanks to the recommendation of Helen Carnac.

Lines - A Brief History by Tim Ingold

Its rare for me to describe a book of theory as a ‘page turner’. Very rare! But this is one.

Professor Ingold, Scottish professor of social anthropology, takes us on an anything but brief journey through the cultural history of humankind exploring ‘the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture’. Arguing along the way for the centrality of the line in human culture; as the wellspring of drawing, writing, music and wayfaring. He refines some widely used but until now poorly defined terms such as trace and thread – making the wonderfully esoteric but clearly argued assertion that ‘Threads may be transformed into traces, and traces into threads. It is through the transformation of threads into traces … that surfaces are bought into being. And conversely, it is through the transformation of traces into threads that surfaces are dissolved.’

He also coins the useful term ‘meshwork’ in contrast to ‘network’ – a web of interconnected pathways as opposed to a series of links connecting distinct hubs.

Along the way there are some wonderful yarns, propositions and perspectives. Such as, ‘old Khanty stoytellers would keep going in the evenings until everyone else was asleep, so that no one would ever know how their stories really finished’ – sounds like one of my classes at CCA! Quoting Bayarea icon and theorist of wandering Rebecca Solnit ‘To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as a guide … I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that the sentence is likewise a road and reading is travelling.’

It is this vibrant, hand drawn, visceral and physical line that Ingold argues has provided and marked our pathway through existence. The line that, as Kandinsy said, ‘goes for a walk’.

The final chapter is entitled ‘How the line became straight’ – love the double meaning. Ingold argues that by constraining and restricting the line from the hand drawn trace to the straightly ruled (and ruled over) connector we lose something essential, something existential.

Highly recommended if you are interested in language, writing, calligraphy, music, singing, map making, pathfinding, drawing, weaving, reading or wandering. That sounds like everyone I know!


  1. hi donald
    yes, it’s me again – your reliable comment blogger!
    i love the unending khanty stories – you are always going to listen to them again!
    the book sounds fascinating and i will hunt it out.

    in the meantime, as an antidote to the tyranny of ‘the line’ may i suggest another reading: ‘the spell of the sensuous’ by david abram. a couple of quotes:
    “the curvature of time in oral cultures is very difficult to articulate on the page, for it defies the linearity of the printed line. yet to fully engage sensorially with one’s earthly surroundings is to find oneself in a world of cycles within cycles.”
    “the multiple ritual enactments . . . are ways whereby indigenous peoples-of-place actively engage the rhythms of the more-than-human cosmos. the alphabet alters all this.”
    in other words, the advent of writing, with all its coming wonders, was also a major step in disconnecting us from the world of nature around us, of changing our cyclical, instinctive perceptions of time and space (because cyclical time is as much spatial as it is temporal) to linear rational ones.


  2. Thanks David.
    I’ll add Abram to my summer reading list.

    Tim Ingold teases apart the written word in very interesting ways and sees a strong haptic connection in the physical act of writing. He locates the fall from grace at the development of printing. When writing stopped being a direct physical act of laying out a line on a page and became a placement of discrete parts within a whole. This is a more top down approach rather than a bottom up exploration and discovery. I don’t necessarily agree with him in this regard.

    I have been writing in a huge variety modes lately; embroidering words on fabric, writing notes in my moleskin with my fountain pen, texting on the iphone, composing blogs and other larger works on my laptop, writing short stories on my old corona typewriter and even scratching marks in sand with a stick. Each has its own pleasures and each allows a different connection between my body and my thought processes. I’ve actually found typing to be the most direct and physical – hammering those imprints into a page, dealing with the strange imperfections and irregularities of the machine’s function, and of course the wonderful pre-editing – pre-typex irreversibility of the flow of thoughts and words. I’ll post some of these typed pieces later on my blog.

    Ingold’s core idea of the line as the fundamental DNA of human culture is very provocative. He talks a lot about circularity and spiral motifs within traditional cultures. He points out that its only in contemporary western thought that we automatically conceive of the line as straight, rather than curved, sensuous, circular or spiraling. By making the line straight we have removed those other modes which allow it to follow the rippling, labyrinthine path that our lives lead.

    Good bach read!!


Leave a Reply to David Trubridge Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s