What has been left out of historicism's false choice between synchronic and diachronic analysis is any theorization of anachronism. For historicists, anachronism is the bogey to be avoided. It is a byword for bad or unthinking scholarship; by implying proximity or affinity between past and present, anachronism breaks the law of temporal distance and difference. But at what cost do we cleave to this law as an apotropaic safeguard against universalism? What do we do when historicism's archeological layers get messed up, when we are confronted -- in Abbas's apt formulation -- with the "layers of fossil sedimentation after an earthquake, rather than properly buried strata of an orderly succession of historical moments"? Indeed, to what extent may such "earthquakes" be the norm rather than the exception? And what happens to the past's "fossils" once they are re-exhumed? How is the matter of the past not necessarily dead (as Greenblatt's famous séance-like tryst with early modernity -- "I began with the desire to speak with the dead" -- would have it), but still alive and active in the present?Harris's response in its entirety may be accessed here. There is even a response to Linda Charnes's response to the response in which Harris lauds medievalists for their work on the topic. Harris invokes many of the names we see frequently on this blog, and discusses the Menon/Goldberg PMLA piece that Michael posted upon recently as well.
In this context it's salutary to return to Fredric Jameson's Political Unconscious, the work that has not only provided historicism with its de facto imperative, "always historicize!", but also helped translate the terms synchronic and diachronic from linguistic to historical analysis. The new historicist/cultural materialist debates of the nineteen-eighties employed the terms of Jameson's study to advance two divergent ideals of what he supposedly meant by "always historicize!": always contextualize in relation either to a moment or to a transition. What got neglected was how Jameson's injunction is, in some respects, also a call to anachronize. Noting the propensity of literature to resist any univocal reflection of the material circumstances of its production, Jameson writes how literary "form, secreted like a shell or exoskeleton, continues to emit its ideological message long after the extinction of its host." With his suggestive metaphor of the exoskeleton, which boldly reanimates the dead fossil of Foucauldian archeology as a past organism partially alive in the present, Jameson suggests that historicism needs to do more than simply read synchronically and/or diachronically; it also needs to consider how its objects are anachronistic assemblages that are temporally out of joint with themselves and their moment. In the process, Jameson makes space for what Nietzsche called the "unfashionable" or "untimely."
The untimely is that which is out-of-time, inhabiting a moment but also alien to it. By resisting absorption into a homogeneous present, it also brings with it the difference that portends the future even as it conjures the past. This insight is developed with particular intensity in the work of Walter Benjamin. In his study of German baroque trauerspiel, Benjamin argues that this dramatic genre characteristically awaits a future that is enabled by the untimely figure of the ruin; the latter enacts the irruption of the past into the present, but in a form that strips both "now" and "then" of their synchronic plenitude. The ruin makes itself available to allegorical manipulation by the playwright, who seeks to bestow on it a new, future plenitude that may never come. The trauerspiel playwright's reworking of the untimely ruin thus resembles the "weak messianic impulse" that Benjamin identifies in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Like Nietzsche, Benjamin rails against the antiquarian spirit that insists on collecting historical facts simply so that these may be organized in orderly temporal sequence "as things really were." The "Theses" propose instead what we might call an untimely materialist historiography: Benjamin's historical materialist "seizes on a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger" in order to explode the empty homogeneous time of the present and usher in, if not the Messiah, then at least the hope of redemption from that danger. Benjamin thus qualifies historicism's investment in orderly temporal distance by insisting as well on the strategic proximity of past and present - an explosive time-brew, to paraphrase Serres once more, that has the power to generate new imaginative and material possibilities.
Monday, March 19, 2007
An untimely essay arrives just in time
The latest edition of Early Modern Culture consists of a cluster of essays meditating on time. Though they all have their strengths, check out the response by my GW colleague Jonathan Gil Harris, who writes: