Arie Altena

Untimely Contemporary

Arie Altena

This text was written for the project Void( ) initiated by Wander Eikelboom at CMD Breda, and published in a publication with the same name, 2014.

What is contemporary? What kind of era are we living in? Are we still in a technological era in which developments keep accelerating so fast that we can scarcely keep up? Are there still major transformations ahead? Have we no conception of what awaits us? Transhumanists and other  prophets of the Singularity are convinced the time is nigh that computers will be more intelligent than humans. They outline a future in which radical applications of scientific knowledge and a cloud of even more intimate, even smaller, considerably faster and still more networked technology will lift humanity to a higher plane. Like the Oracle of Delphi they have inhaled the heady fumes of the future and pass on the message of their 'god'. Or are we living in a post-digital era in which the disruptive power of digitisation is no more? The digitisation of all society's domains has already taken place, accelerating technology's spell has been broken, the technology rush of recent decades is a historical phenomenon we can even look back on with nostalgia.

The meme of continuously accelerating technological development is repeated in order to maintain our belief in growth, to convince us that we really have to buy a new, even faster and even more intelligent device (that forces you to submit to the dictates of iCloud, iTunes and the data industry). This fiction drives the western economic system in an increasingly fraught manner. Do we even still need it? The transhumanists' story is more fascinating, but also suffers from a one-dimensional portrayal of the development and effects of technology. They are entranced by science and technology as if they are autonomous forces which we should solely give freedom so they can develop themselves and achieve a glorious future. The concept of the post-digital on the other hand is more a means of explaining the practical, cultural interaction with technology.

Insight into the contemporary is all about the future. If you are contemporary you are capable of recognising the portents of the future in the here and now. Those who can see the contemporary can imagine the future. But what exactly is that 'contemporary'? Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben provides and answer in his essay ‘What is the contemporary’. It was included in the Nudità collection – translated into English as Nudities. It would be too much to place ‘What is the contemporary’ in Agamben’s thoughts on the future, potentiality, messianism and the problematic aspects and to clarify his vision here. But even without this context his philosophical answer intrigues.

Agamben starts his essay with Nietzsche’s concept of the contemporary as the ‘unzeitgemäße’ – the untimely. For the German 19th-century philosopher the 'contemporary' does not adapt to the requirements of present day, is not aligned with his own time. (For the young Nietzsche it was a means of rejecting the historical obsession of the 19th century – in his opinion his contemporaries suffered from a 'consuming historic fever'.) If you allow yourself to be carried away by your own era, you cannot be contemporary. Precisely by adopting an uncontemporary attitude can the contemporary person understand their own era, being anachronistic enables him/her to hold onto their own era. Only those who are uncontemporary have insight into the contemporary. Agamben formulates this as follows: ‘The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.' (p. 14) He who is contemporary is not struck by the light of their own era, but by its darkness.‘The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to percieve not its light but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure' (p. 13) 

Agamben then tosses a few other ingredients into the mix including an interpretation of Osip Mandelstam’s poem ‘The Century’, the neurophysiological fact that darkness triggers peripheral cells in the retina (off cells), the fashion system (the actually fashionable are ahead of the trend) and the darkness at night between the stars. (Because in an expanding universe the light from the most remote galaxies can never reach the earth we see darkness in between the visible stars in the sky.) Important to Agamben is the fact that ‘… to perceive this darkness is not a form or inertia or of passivity. Rather, it implies an activity and a singular ability. In our case this ability amounts to a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch, in order to discover its obscurity.' (p. 13/14) In order to see the darkness, the bright light of the own era has to be neutralised.

To what extent would Agamben be ‘right’ if you were to assess this image of the ‘contemporary’ by linking cases from cultural history and the history of technological innovation? I don't know. Perhaps it's even a non-question, because you can only find out afterwards who was truly contemporary.

Imagine wanting to be contemporary, would Agamben’s ideas then be useful to us? He puts it into words beautifully and his description fascinates, and continues to haunt you once you start thinking about it. Intuitively he is right. Is  contemporary who is fashionable, uses all the latest gadgets, is technologically tuned in to what is prescribed by the dominant culture,? Not really. To be truly 'in fashion' you have to be unaware of being ahead of the pack. Contemporary people aren't blinded by the bright lights of marketing stories concerning the triumph of yet another technological innovation and are equally unimpressed by the customary, 'perfect' stories and explanations which are the centre of the all too visible culture, the things that seem undoubtable because they are 'naturally' the way they are and that's the way it just is. Contemporary is he who, perhaps without actually realising, is hit by the full bundle of darkness, who explores the back alleys of culture, finds intriguing objects in forgotten ones, has an eye for that which hides in shadows. Naturally Agamben’s idea cannot be converted into a practicably applicable rule: ‘Do this to be contemporary’. The appearance of the dark and unknown cannot be contrived to happen using a simple trick, so as to fill the emptiness of the future. It does provide a poetic and philosophical argument in favour of the idea that if you truly wish to look ahead, you have to have an eye for the dark sides, for what remains hidden, what is pushed aside. 

Actual innovations seldom arise from a simple multiplication of the existing. Technologically powered visions of the future which simplistically argue forwards on the basis of the existing situation hardly ever provide an accurate assessment of the future developments. 1950's science fiction – the car era – predicted flying cars for the 21st century; mobile phones, computer networks and GPS navigation scarcely play a role in these outlines of the future. Although the creed now is that the source of innovation lies in the ideas and solutions of a group of experimenting, researching ‘creatives’ who keep taking new paths, it is hard to avoid the impression that the belief in the driving action of innovation is based on the idea that technology in the future will be even faster and even smaller, and will have an even more far-reaching influence on human existence. Along the lines of the manner in which the accelerating technological development has played out under the eyes of the media in recent years. It is characteristic of a lack of imagination, perhaps a lack of being affected by the 'darkness'. The innovation almost always comes from ‘elsewhere’. From the shadows, from the darkness, the hidden niches, from the unexpected.

Because we know that our world is a lot weirder than we could have ever dared imagine. Astronomical observations and models have revealed that the visible matter in spiral galaxies does not have sufficient mass to explain the latter's orbital speed around their joint axis. There has to be more matter: dark matter. We cannot observe this matter and it cannot be detected in the electromagnetic spectrum. Various experiments in underground labs are attempting to capture some of this dark matter, but have so far failed. Nevertheless, the standard model that assumes that the mass energy of the universe consists of 4.9% visible matter, 26.8% dark matter and 68.3% dark energy is almost unanimously accepted – other models present much bigger problems. We can't see dark matter, but know that it must exist. Weird or in any case pretty disruptive to entrenched thinking is the fact that we are increasingly discovering that the distinct boundary between culture and nature – a building block of western thinking – is not aligned with reality and has damaging consequences for our planet were we to adhere to it. For instance it's also not a good idea to view technology as an independent category. Technology is always linked to society, human behaviour and cultural factors; it's a complex of series of translations and transformations Technology comes to fruition in a constant flow of new links. The question is what it links and how you link yourself to it. The way Agamben portrays his ‘uncontemporary contemporary’ seems quite abstract and unworldly, it should be a person who links things and links themselves to things thereby capturing the dark, the unknown and the obscure. Look from an angle, look idiosyncratically.

All quotations from Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, Stanford Ca.: Stanford UP 2011

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Arie Altena