The articles in this dossier originate in an international colloquium entitled “What is the Contemporary?” that took place at Stanford University on May 21–22, 2012.1 We had the good fortune of having several distinguished speakers, some of them contributors here, approach this question in broad terms and with a special interest in Latin America. Our simple, yet compelling point of departure was the observation that “the contemporary,” as a critical category and an object of study, is often taken for granted or entirely omitted from academic discussion. Courses are taught and books are edited with the modifier “contemporary” as an organizing principle—as in “Contemporary Poetry from the Americas” or “Contemporary Brazilian Cinema”—but these coinages beg the question of what exactly the contemporary is. Even at the most basic, etymological level, the idea of “sharing the times” leads to asking when would that shared epoch begin, who shares it and how, and so forth. Declaring by fiat that contemporary Latin American literature, for instance, begins in key historical turning points like 1898, 1945, 1989, or 2001 is easily suspect of arbitrariness. Similarly, equating contemporary with modern, although grammatically correct, eludes an investigation about the aesthetic values associated with each of these evocative terms. Once we started to examine the matter more closely, and to ponder on the specific ramifications of the problem for Latin America, we found ourselves with a veritable field of inquiry.
It is high time to study the contemporary. Much scholarship assumes it is the purview of journalistic criticism, and waits for consensus to arise before considering it a viable subject of analysis. Higher learning favors the study of the past over the present, which adds institutional blindness to the inherent difficulty of considering a changing object, as the idiom goes, in real time. This is all the more pervasive in the case of Latin American culture, which does not circulate in mainstream metropolitan humanistic discourse, and is thus relegated to an always-already [End Page 97] past condition in many academic settings. Global English seems to be, for all intents and purposes, the language of the contemporary. Translations from Spanish or Portuguese, the most influential languages spoken in Latin America, hardly match translations into them. At the same time, the rise of social media and other technologies has ambiguous effects: on the one hand, it holds the promise of immediate relevance, of overcoming the obstacles to cultural exchange that hitherto existed; on the other, they bring about a form of presentism that disperses attention and forecloses historical depth.
Giorgio Agamben provides the articles in this collection with a common, underlying critical strategy. Glossing Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations, the Italian thinker asserts that “[t]hose who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands” (40). Further emphasizing disjuncture, Agamben goes on to define the true contemporary, in metaphoric terms, as someone “who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness” (44). Contributors have undertaken the task of being themselves contemporaries in the latter sense. As a result, the essays presented here not only reflect on the contemporary at a purely conceptual, abstract, or theoretical level, they also expand on the implications of this asynchronic outlook for the practice of literary criticism, for the configuration of our field, and for the study of specific cultural products that may respond to this model. The essays in this volume belong to each of these strands of reflection.
Another important referent that is at the background of several contributions is the work of Pascale Casanova. Influenced by Bourdieu, Casanova famously speaks of a Greenwich meridian of world literature, which “makes it possible to estimate the relative aesthetic distance from the center of the world of letters of all those who belong to it” (World Republic 88). Critics have bemoaned Casanova’s alleged Eurocentrism, in our opinion confusing the descriptive and the prescriptive aspects of her argument.2 She describes how Paris, as a legacy of colonial power but also as a reflection of its...