Notions of the Contemporary
History and the Contemporary: an unrequited relationship?
Lecture by Prof. Pier Alberto Porceddu Cilione, Lecturer of Esthetics at the Università di Verona
The first philosophical activity, which corresponds to a process of purification of language and of intelligence, is to reflect upon words, concepts, and their meaning. As soon as we realize the complexity of notions we use, we also start grasping the importance of such an activity. Not only we should observe that the word ‘contemporary’ is extremely interesting; but also, we should try to explain the reason why it permeates current debates and reflections. Why does our time, the ‘present’ time, need to ‘name itself’ in such a way?
First of all, a note on the question: it must be clear that ‘contemporary’ is not a thing. The contemporary seems to be rather a partition of time, a partition of History in itself, and, above all, a relationship we entertain with time. We could say that there is contemporaneity, when time claims a relationship of belonging to itself, when time claims a need for appropriating itself.
The contemporary is also always imbued with the need of being contemporary, or ‘present in one’s present’. We can also say that the contemporary is imbued with the need of having a certain experience of time – and historical time -, thus claiming to live up to one’s present. This relationship, however, is problematic when we realize that the term ‘contemporary’ is nothing more than an adjective, which names a pure and simple relationship of ‘synchronicity’. This relationship, as a purely logical one, is eternal. Here is another paradox: the name that should essentially express our time, the absolute peculiarity of the current time is in truth the term we use, whenever there is a relationship of contemporaneity, of synchrony. The one we have posed is a very difficult question to answer.
Another debated issue is understanding when does the contemporary start. Those who reflect on the contemporary are often exasperated by how it is usually determined. Where to draw the line? The threshold is problematically shifting, as we ourselves are moving along a timeline. What seems to us quintessentially ‘contemporary’ gets archived as obsolete in just a bunch of years. So how are we to imagine this threshold, this boundary? Perhaps, it should be thought of in relation to the number of years that have passed since the shifting notion of ‘today’? Or is it to be conceived as connected only to the relationship that those who live have one with another (therefore discarding from this threshold the relationship with the dead)? Can death function as a chronological threshold for the contemporary? These are mere hypotheses, and none of them appears as final. When we speak of the contemporary, we must be aware that its starting point is unknown to us. However, the contemporary exists, even if its starting point is under discussion.
The term ‘contemporary’ tells us something characterful about our time. The contemporary does have an eternal side, in its pure relationality, but, at the same time, it is the term we use to refer to something characterful, specific, typical, of our present. We use a paradoxical formula: the contemporary names the fact that our present is different from the present of the past. Our present seems so characterful, to the point of needing the term ‘contemporary’ to name this same feature.
The contemporary also forces us to ask ourselves another question: does the contemporary belong to History? We do not know exactly when the contemporary starts, because we do not understand the relationship between the past and the present, or, if you like, between History and Contemporaneity. This means that we do not really understand the contemporary, if we simply think of it as ‘ancillary to the present’, in a straight timeline. We are used to conceiving History as a sort of line, to visualize it as the spatialized tracing of collective time. Is the contemporary included in the well-ordered occurrence of historicity or not?
A possible hypothesis argues that the contemporary does not belong to the line of History. We would be mistaken if we thought that the contemporary is a sort of ‘our’ peculiar chronological moment, in which History reaches us. We would be wrong to think that, with the term ‘contemporary’, we name the relationship we have with our History. The general idea suggests the opposite: there is contemporaneity, to the extent that all that happens, happens after the end of History. According to this interpretation, the contemporary would be the name we give to everything that happens after History is over. This thesis may seem surprising, but it is not at all. There are now many texts, titles, works, arguing for this radical discontinuity. For example, I shall mention two essential texts, which may be almost ‘old’, due to their publishing date. One is a text on the philosophy of History, entitled The End of History and the Last Man, published 1992 and written by the American historian and philosopher Francis Fukuyama. Even earlier, in 1983, one of the great living art historians, the German Hans Belting, wrote a text entitled The end of the History of Art. Does this mean that we no longer make Art, or that contemporary Art does not exist? No, it simply means that contemporary Art is produced after the end of the History of Art, that is, in a time that can no longer be mapped as a historical event. Contemporary art has eluded History.
One of the most typical experiences of our contemporaneity is precisely that of not feeling part of History, that of feeling that all that happens never has the features of event, never has an ‘epochal’ feature. When we watch the news, we experience the fact that, despite the oceanic mass of information overwhelming us, nothing ever happens. Although everything seems to have the appearance of absolute emergency, we are unable to experience the vast continuity of historical experience – or the experience of an ‘epochal’ time, because everything seems to happen in a sort of absolute present. The contemporary claims a secession from History. The contemporary claims the outdated character of the past. Whatever happened before contemporaneity, is simply obsolete.
The contemporary is permeated by a ‘progressive’ idea, but it fails to articulate its progressive pathos, precisely because it fails to articulate its relationship with History (‘progress’ always implies a reading of the meaning of History). This paradox creates a logical short-circuit: we are innervated by progressive narratives, by a pathos of innovation (one of the fundamental terms of the contemporary), by motives of the future, without, however, being able to relate this pathos of innovation with a historical trajectory. It is therefore a matter of ‘innovation’ causa sui, performed for the sake of innovation itself, an innovative addition for an inexplicable need for innovation. Lifted from the task of shaping History, our progressive pathos runs in vain. It expresses itself in a temporal bubble of absolute present, which refuses the past and, symmetrically, is unable to think about the future.
Prof. Pier Alberto Porceddu Cilione
[English translation provided by Ashtart Creative]