According to Giorgio Agamben1, we can think that the «contemporary» is essentially out-of-reach by one’s peers. He said to us that contemporary is impossible to seize, as those stars we feel the light even if they are already disappeared, and as fashion embodies ever-changing. At the same time, ever in an awkward position and inevitably involved in the real, he is enable to haul of this to analyse.
What if contemporary was quite the one that not embrace totally his time, that not join completely his movement but which is able to make a gap, a step aside, to consider it in whole complexity, to measure it in whole dimensions, and to detect its contradictions ?
« Contemporary is uncurrent » had said Roland Barthes in his final lesson at the Collège de France, probably preoccupated at this watershed of his life, by his own contemporaneity. With this affirmation, he refered obviously to « Uncurrent considerations» by Friedrich Nietzsche. But Agamben comes to mention these two philosophers because they adopt similar positions : « the one that belongs to his time, real contemporary, is the one that not concords perfectly with it, nor supports its pretensions, and define himself, in this sense, as uncurrent ». Like Nietzsche, Barthes is right on top of contemporary « precisely by this gap and this anachronic, he’s able more than others to perceive and catch his time »
Italian philosopher evokes an other aspect of contemporary which is also able to scrutinize darkness of his time, his dark side, and not let somebody approach it only because he appeared in full light. To be able to see it dark, it is precisely an ability to « feel its contemporaneity ». « The present’s access road has necessarily the form of an archeology : because archaic is out-of-reach as present, and we have to do mourning of this meaning of which origin ever goes away. »
Contemporary is endowed with an other ability. He is not only here to see in the dark, Agamben said to us, nor to divide time into slices. « […] this means contemporary is not only the one that, perceiving present darkness, determine inaccessible light . He is […] able to transform and to connect it with other times, to read the history in new way, to refer to it according to need that owes nothing to arbitrariness, but arises from an requirement to which he cannot answer. » Therefore, past’s light might clarify present’s darkness. Agamben based his argument on Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin’s works to see on them present’s historical scouts, because they knew how to update uncurrent and make it contemporary. Since it is necessary to use paradox, Agamben’s aim is a quest, a « making in light » of what hic and nunc is to clarify that. « It’s as this invisible light that is present’s darkness projected his shadow on past while this one hit by this shadow ray, acquired ability to answer to darkness of this moment. […] »
Real contemporary must know how to peel off slightly of his time to see it better. According to Agamben, evocation of the past, taste for anachronic or shifted is a sign of necessary lucidity for the interpretation of the present. If each one must be of his time, this « backward-looking attitude » is not a mark of nostalgia, which one, distorts irremediably the present. This notion of contemporaneity cannot let conservator indifferent, such that represents obvious correspondences with the approach and with the artifacts’ vocation that it is led to take care and to restore. To test the gap exercise, to define outlines and method to adopt the observer’s viewpoint that marks step in walk for « now », such is the goal that the Unity of Interdisciplinary Research Unit in and on Conservation, has also settled down.
[This note has been translated from French by Natacha LE ROY, L2 CR.]
- What’s Contemporary ?, opening lesson of theoretical philosophy’s class given in 2005-2006 in University IUAV of Venice, translated from the italian by Maxime ROVERE, Rivages Poche Petite Bibliothèque, 64p., ISBN : 2-7436-1857-4,