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:

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?

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I suddenly get a little time to have a quick look at the blog while C2 gets ready for school and you have so much time you blog for the US!

From just reading the entry here (and not all the links) I cannot help but think that historians' and archaeologists' perceptions of time are being grossly oversimplified here. OK the text says historicist but that is just the poor woman's historian - no?

This brings me to my point. Why when an argument is being advanced about different perceptions of time are opposing arguements institutionalised by being associated with opposing disciplines or departments or institutions which are then seen in dichotomic opposition (as in history v literature). There is a lot of literature on this mode of argument (and admirably it is one that Dinshaw avoids almost totally).

Linking it to another of your recent posts - I would suggest this is a facet of the traditional academic desire for the heroic triumph of the ego which leaves us all wondering whether we are really as self-confident as we are supposed to be. In reality I suspect we are all a little bit confident and a little bit lost, just as historians do debate the nature of time and the value of anachronism (see many voices in the huge field of public history for example) as much as do some literary types. Dichotomies are useful heuristic devices for structuring ideas - but when those ideas get personified they decline into the modern academic equivalent of jousting (as in your real man piece).

OK - so I have managed to comment on 3 posts in one - have I done my duty as a de-lurking reader for a couple of days?


Jeffrey Cohen said...

n50, you have more than done your duty. Thanks for your comments.

In Gil Harris's defense I do think he is arguing against a certain, suddenly dominant strand in early modern literary studies that we just don't have dominating in medieval studies. I also think medievalists are a bit less prone to seeing other disciplines (history, archeology, etc) as ensconced in ways of perceiving the past (and past/present border) that are opposed. Not that we all form some kind of happy or monolithic amalgam, by any means.

But your point is well taken: we do out of convenience have this way of constructing a unity in Those We Argue Against when in fact no such unity -- or coherence -- often exists. But supposing such opposition does make our own arguments seem the more urgent. RE: early modern studies and time, though, I'm inclined to take Harris's word, since he does know the field so well. It seems to me that early modern studies is fighting battles about what "history" and "historicism" are that medieval studies laid to rest in the 1990s.

Anonymous said...

Good post, n50. Having looked over Harris's article, though, it's clear he's critiquing not historians and archaeologists with shovels, but rather a certain kind of historicism and a (watered-down) Foucaultian archaeology of knowledge that he thinks has become dominant in early modern literary studies.

Whether he's right about that, I don't know. What I'm interested in is how, at the end of his article, Harris suggests "affinities" between models of anachronism in queer theory, post-colonial ethnography, and the history of science (he also refers to Michel Serres in the excerpted passage). And the trans-disciplinary affinities he teases out, it seems, are possible because all these models of anachronism are themselves theorizations of trans-temporal "affinity."

I'm rather drawn to this emphasis on affinity. But part of me wants to hear more about Harris's idea of "affinity" and how he theorizes it. Is "affinity" just a resemblance between two supposedly different entities? If so, that doesn't seem to do much more than licence a kind of arbitrary "oh, that reminds me" gesture on the part of the critic (Ghosh speaks about anachronism? oh, that reminds me, so does Serres!).

Or might "affinity" suggest - as it certainly does to me - an element of motion impelled by desire? What might that do to ideas of historical AND disciplinary difference? How might "affinity" allow us to reimagine both temporal and disciplinary identities not as fixed points, but as protean desiring machines that are perpetually becoming-other, even when they think they aren't?

Liza Blake said...

For more on Harrisian affinities, see: Harris, Jonathan Gil. "Cleopatran Affinities: Hélène Cixous, Margaret Cavendish, and the Writing of Dialogic Matter." _The Impact of Feminism on English Renaissance Studies._ Ed. Dympna Callaghan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

(Hi, Gil!)

Haven't read through the EMS yet -- mea culpa as an early modernist -- but will return later better read and better informed (a promise and a threat). At the moment, am taking a slight break from a morning of Anti-Oedipus and preparing myself to get back into it. (Hi, dogboy!) Will respond to desiring machines, and more, when I get a chance.