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
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” don’t 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.