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Contemporaneity and Antagonism in Modernist and Postmodern Aesthetics

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 54-70 | 10.1353/com.2013.0006

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When Paul de Man writes in Blindness and Insight about the tension between literary modernity and literary history—a locus of antagonism, in his view—he seems in many ways to be prefiguring current discussions of contemporaneity as the term has been used recently in art critical and theoretical circles. De Man reflects that "there may well be an inherent contradiction between modernity, which is a way of acting and behaving, and such terms as 'reflection' or 'ideas' that play an important part in literature and history. The spontaneity of being modern conflicts with the claim to think and write about modernity" (142). Substituting here the term "contemporaneity" as a formulation for our current way of relating to the present, we arrive at a succinct description of the field of antagonism the idea of contemporaneity is meant to evoke. In discussions of contemporaneity, as in de Man's formulation above, the present becomes eternal through a constant reflective practice and a recognition of its own incessant incipience.

Has the postmodern moment therefore passed? Discussions of contemporaneity appear to mark a new stage of postmodernism and to describe what Okwui Enwezor refers to as the antagonisms of the "postcolonial constellation" and what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt would call "empire." Such discussions intend to counter Eurocentric ideas of both the modern and the postmodern that in their rigidity fail to take into account the full range of possible "modernities" that might coexist and conflict at a given moment, sharing a temporal moment but nonetheless asynchronous with respect to one another. Terry Smith, Marc Augé, Enwezor, Negri, and others describe the current cultural, political, economic, and artistic climate as one of "contemporaneity." For Smith, contemporaneity "consists precisely in the acceleration, ubiquity, and constancy of radical disjunctions of perception, of mismatching ways of seeing the same world, in the actual coincidence of asynchronous temporalities, in the jostling contingency of various cultural and social multiplicities, all thrown together in ways that highlight the fast-growing inequalities within and between them" (8-9). Given the simultaneous and conflicting movements toward both universalization and particularization on the planet, Marc Augé has formulated the question, "How may we conceive together the unity of the planet and the diversities of the worlds it comprises?" (16).

Contemporaneity is then a yoking together of disparate elements—people, places, times, spaces—all of which share the present moment, even if they are not immediately present to us. As Yates McKee suggests in response to a landmark questionnaire on the meaning of the contemporary that appeared on the pages of the journal October,

[I]t is crucial to reflect on the enigma of what it would mean to belong to or share "the present" with others who are not present to us, those who are dispersed in time, space, and discourse, and resist being joined together under the sign of the here-and-now. This would involve a never-ending negotiation between discontinuously inherited historical traditions, on the one hand, and those unforeseeable events of artistic production and critical writing that are always already exceeding our capacity to read or judge them (even as such events are inevitably marked—with varying degrees of self-consciousness and historical ambition— by the very frames they exceed), on the other.

(65)

If, as some critics have argued, the sublime is the trope for postmodernism par excellence, we also see that aesthetic category evoked in McKee's description of the frames and events that "exceed our capacity to read or judge them" as they rest beyond the horizon of our ability to cognize them.

For Negri, contemporaneity involves a decisive rupture from a teleological paradigm of modernity, thus opening up a new field of possibility "based on a new potential of resistance and difference" (25). Arguing for a postmodernity that escapes the direct lineage of modernity, Negri writes that "contemporaneity. . . is situated in postmodernity, when postmodernity is understood as a field where forces are not only new and orbiting the global circuit, but also are innovative and antagonistic" (24); it is necessarily rooted in a new political, economic and social context, which is that of biopolitics. As a result, "contemporaneity is the only way to express...



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