‘Of whom and of what are we contemporaries? What does it mean to be contemporary?’
James Riley introduced Giorgio Agamben’s “What Is the Contemporary?” from What is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford University Press, 2009):
Agamben interprets the contemporary as an experience of profound dissonance:
‘Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance from it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it, through a disjunction and an anachronism.’
Such a quote reminds us of the frequent elision that occurs between the conceptualisation of the ‘modern’ and the categorization of the ‘contemporary’. The terms are not synonyms. To be ‘contemporary’ is to experience a state of proximity with one’s temporality. In his discussion, Agamben attempts to articulate the idea that the contemporary is an ahistorical concept; not a label of periodization, but an existential marker. This perspective foregrounds the critical importance of context and re-contextualisation when forming and understanding of ‘contemporary literature’. For Agamben, the mode of thought that this position demands is one that involves an integral epistemological difficulty:
The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.
Contemporaneity as the perception of darkness. Agamben’s language is not without its own rhetorical obscurity at this point, but for a dramatization of the perspective he outlines we might look to Heart of Darkness. Historically it is a ‘modern’ novel but in its particular incorporation of narration, proximity and obscurity it encapsulates and also speaks from a point of con / temporal extimacy.