Wednesday, January 10, 2024

the contemporary


It was the late nineteenth century social philosopher Gabriel Tarde who first suggested that the public and publics, which in earlier times were defined for the most part by their haptic proximity all those salons and coffee houses are formed, now, by the subordination of the haptic to another kind and degree of proximity, a social mode of temporality simultaneity that Tarde mentions in connection with the news.

News, in French, is actualité. Between the English and the French word, there is an important conceptual shift, in as much as news is connected, in English, to the new, whereas actuality is connected to a block of time we can call the present. Tarde speaks of the newspapers giving their readers a sense of simultaneity, but unfortunately he does not disinter the phenomenon of simultaneity in all its extension as a social form of time, instead  vaguely pressing on the idea of at the same time.

However, we know that  ordinary simultaneousness is transformed in the social mode of simultaneity. We speaking of catching up with, keeping up with, or following the news, or fashions, or tv, or books, or sports. There is a curious paradox in following the-same-time it is rather like following oneself on a walk. Is your walk separable from the you that walked it?

Yet the social temporality of the simultaneous is defined by the way it keeps moving ahead of us even as we are part of it, like a front.

The anthropologist Johannes Fabian coined the term allochrony to speak of the peculiar way in which Europeans, starting in the seventeenth century, started to divide up the contemporary world into different cultural time zones. Europe, of course, appropriated the modern to itself. Other contemporary cultures were backward, savage, stone age, traditional they were literally behind their own time. Modernity exists under this baptism and curse. Modernity is the era in which the modern is invented.

The philosopher Vincent Descombes, in What is the contemporary?, takes a shot at defining this form of social time. He divides its meaning into two grand and different semantic regions. The first is from the point of view of history: The contemporary is an age. It comes in the programs of history which include, as their last part, the study of the modern and contemporary world: the contemporary world appears as the most advanced point of the modern world.

The second is furnished by reflection on time. Descombes takes a strongly Aristotelian approach to time. There where nothing changes, there is no temporality. In fact, the notion of change imposes conceiving something like a temporal distance or a difference of times between many states of the world. Time is the order in which changes are made, an order of what is before and of what is after.

If one asks a philosophy of time for a notion of the contemporary, one would conceive the contemporary as a competition between many actual changes. To be contemporary would mean sharing historical actuality.

Descombes language is in the abstract philosophical line, so that worlds dont refer specifically to the history that we know of this world, but simply to ontic ensembles. In this way, the contemporary is lifted from its material anchors and one can talk of a contemporaneity in any world. This is useful, anthropologically it at least lays out the terms of an anthropological project. But to my mind, what is useful about the notion of the contemporary is that it gives us a quasi-transcendent which we can see emerge in what Lotman called the semiosphere in media itself.

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