Iain Chambers reviews Third Text publication, The Importance of Being Anachronistic (2016), edited by Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll
Whenever we are before the image, we are before time.
The relevance of the essay is that of anachronism. The hour is more unfavorable to it than ever. It is being crushed between an organized science, on one side, in which everyone presumes to control everyone and everything else, and which excludes, with the sanctimonious praise of ‘intuitive’ or ‘stimulating’, anything that does not conform to the status quo… The essay… wants to blow open what cannot be absorbed by concepts, or what, through contradictions in which concepts entangle themselves, betrays the fact that the network of their objectivity is a purely subjective rigging.
Theodor Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’2
It is precisely the anachronism that renders what we call history productive. Contrary to the presumed veracity of the documents and the facts seemingly guaranteeing a time scale that endorses a transparent chronology, the language of history, is always historically, culturally, politically and semantically placed. The ‘facts’ have to be dug up and elaborated, the ‘documents’ identified and interpreted. The explanation, the narrative, no matter how neutral or scientific it pretends to be, has to be constructed. Georges Didi-Huberman has consistently argued for the positivity of the anachronism as method in art history.3 I would suggest that the insistence of the anachronism also takes us further afield. Sanjay Seth has caught the epistemological stakes here in an instructively emphatic manner:
… historiography is an intellectual and cultural construct, one particular way of construing and constructing the past; at once a tradition of reasoning, a way of being, and a certain practice of subjectivity. The desire to write history is specific to certain people (societies, classes) and not others. It is connected to some phenomena – the emergence of the modern state, ‘progress’, scientific rationality – and not others, which it usually defines itself against (magic, gods).4
To express it bluntly, the European humanist elaboration of history, particularly when it is relocated and re-proposed within extra-European coordinates, itself becomes an implacable historical problematic. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it, the plural claims of history inevitably lead to ‘radically questioning the nature of historical time’.5 To introduce the different and multiple histories of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and race, is to register the violence of their subjection, silence and repression in order to permit a single authorisation of time. Not only, as Seth points out, does this challenge the anthropological premises of history orbiting around Man in the abstract and European subjectivity in real terms, but it exposes to ‘external’ coordinates and knowledge its universal presumptions. This, more precisely, is a postcolonial problematic.
To believe in the neutrality of language as providing a direct and unmediated access to the past is to ignore the very history of the medium being employed. It is what in a telling affirmation Jacques Derrida once called a form of ‘linguistic imperialism’ and ‘colonial violence’.6 Either the historian is an artist of the anachronism, redirecting and reworking the past into the present, or else is a ventriloquist who never quite gets his or her lines right. Reinhart Kosseleck points to the critical recognition of this dilemma, arguing that the ‘historian was confronted with the demand, both in terms of technique and epistemologically, that he offered not a past reality, but the fiction of its facticity’.7 And then the archive, however strictly or loosely defined, is always contemporary, a work in progress, an ongoing presence and practice that can never shut its doors on the past precisely because the present continues to charge the questions that ignites its authority.
Historians hate you to say this but the act of history as writing and research is an event in time and place. It, too, is a historical and performative practice. Understanding the past through the lens and language of another location in time and space is to understand that historiography is always of a time and place that is inevitably anachronistic with respect to its sources. This is provocatively to insist that to think of origins, both historical and cultural, is to think of contemporary configurations.8 Remember how Walter Benjamin characterised origins as ‘that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearing’ where there is no stable source but rather a ‘whirlpool in the river of becoming’.9 This means that we are always working with a past that is inherently deconstructed with respect to any presumed totality or source. It is only by breaking apart the image of a presumed whole and origin that it is possible to release fragments into the present telling of time. Historiography originates in this ‘now’.10 Let us, mixing together the discussion on history and art, on the history of art and the art of history, consider this decisive statement by Georges Didi-Huberman:
Before the image, however old it may be, the present never ceases to reshape, provided that the dispossession of the gaze has not entirely given way to the vain complacency of the ‘specialist’. Before an image, however recent, however contemporary it may be, the past never ceases to reshape, since this image only becomes thinkable in a construction of memory, if not of the obsession. Before an image, finally, we have to humbly recognise this fact: that it will probably outlive us, that before it we are the fragile element, the transient element, and that before us it is the element of the future, the element of permanence. The image often has more memory and more future than the being who contemplates it.11
All of this, despite the despair of those historians desperately seeking to tear away the veils of time and get back ‘there’, is not necessarily a loss or defect. Rather, it proposes a different orientation to time and meaning that disturbs the presumed ‘plane of history’.12 If we acknowledge that the past is a cultural and conceptual construction contaminated by the present and is continually being rewritten, reassembled and reassessed, then it becomes both possible and necessary to dismantle the confident European conceptual coinage of universal ‘History’ that replaced localised histories in the eighteenth century and the positivism drawn from it subsequent nineteenth-century incubation as a discipline.13 In this explicit discontinuity, appeals to the veracity of empirical evidence explained and guaranteed by the sovereignty of the Occidental male subject become altogether more critically complex and politically pertinent to the making of the postcolonial present. This is not only to challenge the metaphysics of empiricism and its illusions of an unmediated appropriation of the world, it is also to refute and decolonise an epistemology whose method is ultimately colonial in its presumptuous universalism.
Such an argument about history, or, rather its dominant modalities of reasoning and representation, poses an unsuspected rendezvous with a constellation of contemporary art practices. In their willingness to make connections and recover the past in a manner that would be unacceptable to the premises of the historical ‘method’, these practices frequently take us further into unsuspected critical configurations. To read time backwards, explicit in much contemporary art and a postcolonial take on the past, implicit, despited the declared neutrality of its methods, in historiography, renders both of our time and out of time with respect to purported origins and location.14 As Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll points out in a recent publication dedicated to the Aboriginal artist Julie Gough, this transforms the idea of ‘anachronism’ from a negative disparagement, deployed by historians to patrol and impose their disciplinary protocols, into a ‘theoretical framework’ with which to rethink the past, memory, history and artefacts.15 This is what Didi-Huberman calls the ‘sovereignty of the anachronism’.16 It involves, as Foucault once put it, to perform a cut that inaugurates a new field of enquiry and study.17 Clearly I am not intending to suggest that this perspective has not been encountered and debated among historians. Reinhart Kosseleck spent much of his professional career as a historian wrestling with the linguistic and social mediation of concepts in seeking to break apart the presumed unicity of ‘historical time’ and better understand how ‘in a concrete situation, experiences come to terms with the past’.18 The critical sensitivity of Kosseleck, however, is an exception. Historians of all hues largely tend to avoid the epistemological and deeper political consequences of the question as they continue to write and research the past as documented objectivity.
Decolonising modern historiography, its methods and premises, involves the recognition of this (historical) problematic. To act against the normative interpretation of time and adopt a ‘strategic anachronism’ means to implode the present with what an existing order has repressed and annihilated to ensure its claims on the past. To work the present in order to better understand the past, that is to reason anachronistically, is precisely to construct archives that permit the retrieval of other histories, of the histories of others. The histories of the subaltern, of slavery, of forced diasporas, of feminism, gender and sexual rights, is surely about this necessary disturbance; that brushing of history against the grain proposed by Walter Benjamin which produces another history. This means to insist on the disruptive quality of a history that until that moment was unauthorised and invisible.19 To intervene in the recording and registration of the past is not simply to decolonise a certain narrative hegemony, it is also to query perspectives and procedures, the paradigm and the premises, that produced a particular object-document and one type of history as opposed to another. Such an amplification and extension of ‘history’ as a mode or reasoning and explanation clearly carries us beyond the disciplinary purvey of historians. Here the recent work of artists and critics, often themselves coming from the margins of subaltern and invisible histories, provide us with an altogether more extensive and dynamic theoretical script. Sharp distinctions between the factual and the fictional evaporate in a critical narrative willing to award the imagination in delivering to the present a more complex sense of the past.20 Giving form to what has apparently passed returns a loss that lives on in the present. Necessarily incomplete and ambiguous it produces another context, both analytically and politically. Documenting and bringing to our attention such practices and procedures – whether directly, obliquely, ironically or bitterly – the archive is traversed and trespassed so as to be de-linked from a unique authority (History, the museum, the nation-state) in order to promote a new series of negotiations. Historical temporality comes unstuck from a single measure secured in the ‘homogeneous time’(Benjamin) of the presumed ‘progress’ of the West and its version of the world. This is where, for example, the anachronism of archeology can lead to the critical honesty of what Yannis Hamilakis calls ‘assemblage thinking’ which:
involves by implication the commingling and the contingent co-presence of diverse temporal moments; this is a multiplicity of times, of various pasts and various presents, but also a multiplicity of temporal modalities: geological times, archaeological/historical times, human experiential times, non-human animal experiential times.21
Here to insist on the anachronistic as a method, and consider the ‘historical determination of time’ (Reinhart Koselleck), is to evidence the juxtapositions and entanglements that wrench the colonial past ‘from the terms in which they were once cast’.22 This is deliberately to unsettle an established consensus in which the conditions of semantic, cultural and… political production are consigned to their ‘origins’ in a separate past; now they need constantly to re-negotiate their place in the world as ongoing presence. As the artist Julie Gough puts it, referring to the (t)here of the ‘impossible return’ to the place of her Aboriginal ancestors, this is ‘to amplify the unattainable resolution’.23 It is to weave out of the mounting debris of the past another relational web drawn from what is apparently out of time and out of place. It is to hold on to the discontinuous in the productive montage that makes up the present, over and against the ‘temporal logic of historicism that posits a strict division between past and present’.24 It to insist on a ‘history beyond the historical record’.25
Let us return to the conversation between contemporary postcolonial art and the institution of history as a form of memory and knowledge. Both operate with the idea of the archive. If the postcolonial archive is one that comes from the future – its histories have been silenced and repressed and are still to be registered and narrated – the historian, on the contrary, presumes his or her objectivity is guaranteed by the absolute passage of time and the sharp separation of the past from the present. If this theological chronology apparently guarantees a historical ‘method’, we also instinctively know, simply by looking around and moving through the world, that what we call history has neither ceased nor been cut off from our present. The past has not passed. This unresolved tension, which I would suggest presents us with an instance of critical freedom, is probably most fruitfully put to work in contemporary postcolonial art. The names and works that can be evoked at this point are many. So much so that perhaps we should refer to a ‘postcolonial turn’ in modern art; that is, that revaluation of the archive and the associated documenting of historical time and place that operates a cut and proposes a critical discontinuity not simply within modern art practices, curating and art history, but across the knowledge formation we call modernity. Through a sensorial and corporeal engagement, the works of Mona Hatoum and Lorna Simpson, or Isaac Julien and John Akomfrah, Tracey Moffat and Jimmie Durham, propose a configuration of signs and senses in which the ethical and the aesthetic, the past and the present, become inseparable. They register the repressed return, reworking and releasing that conventional history is rarely able to acknowledge.
Let us take Isaac Julien’s multi-screen film installation Ten Thousand Waves (2010). Commencing from the helicopter footage of the tragedy of anonymous Chinese labourers, illegal immigrants, drowning in Morecambe Bay in 2004 while cockle picking, we are simultaneously drawn through the sensorium of the nine screens into multiple scenarios that take us to the Shanghai film industry of the 1930s, to the goddesses and myths located in a place now called China, through Jah Wobble’s musical score (remember post-punk PIL?) to the poetry, calligraphy and mise-en-scene of the installation itself. The mixture of location and temporalities sustained in the plurality permitted by contemporary audio-visual technology produces a complex constellation. We are pulled in diverse directions. We encounter a splintering of time whose fragments morph into the audio-visual immediacy of the present. The images are beautiful, the narratives intriguing, but there is also something more occurring here. Ten Thousand Waves is not only good to look at and experience, it is also good to think with and practice. For beyond the immediate terms proposed by trans-locality, globalisation and the unpacking of modernity through registering the ghosts of its anonymous victims, the work raises questions that touch on how we understand, receive and reason the present: reason, not rationalise. In that Nietzschean derived distinction lies the rub. For what a postcolonial art works like Ten Thousand Waves produces and sustains is certainly neither a definitive conceptual order nor a conclusive arrangement of meaning. This is to emphasise temporal and spatial multiplicity as essential to the violent and ambiguous making of modernity; both to its political economy and to its art. Here the processes of producing time and space, history and geography, as unfinished historical business comes to the fore. This is clearly neither a neutral experience nor merely an aesthetic act. Drawing on the languages and lexicons of the established art canon is central precisely to the degree that they are revisited, cut up and reworked so that other times and places emerge. The chronology of the West, and its associated teleology of ‘progress’, is necessarily interrupted, broken up and reassembled. Other maps emerge, other coordinates come into view. This cuts both aesthetically and critically into our understanding of the formation of the present.
Here we have moved from considering the art work as a restricted object of art history and aesthetics, to registering it as a critical apparatus or disposition. Both aspects live on and survive within it. Yet in inviting us to look and think again there emerges the supplement that burdens the circulation of art with the anachronism: the present drawn into and reconfigured by a negated past that we can never fully recover nor know. Here, despite the crushing consensus imposed by capital, postcolonial art deliberately works the gap and sustains the contradictions that render its language critical. If, while pushing up against the white walls of the modern museum and art gallery, postcolonial art does not escape capture in the institutional frame it nevertheless disturbs its premises. It has led to some of the most significant critical debates within contemporary culture – and Third Text here provides significant evidence – practising the political and historical reach of art while reworking the very terms and languages of the present. Precisely through refusing to be in harmony with the exiting state of affairs, inciting a past still to come, imposing the anachronism, such art work and criticism constantly propels us into another history.26
Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, ed, The Importance of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations, Discipline/Third Text Publications, Kulin Nation/Wurundjeri, 2016
Iain Chambers teaches cultural, postcolonial and Mediterranean studies at the Oriental University, Naples. He is the author of a series of books of which the most recent is Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity (2008). He is currently preparing a publication on Mediterranean music and maritime criticism.
1 Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of the Anachronism’, in Claire Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg, eds, Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History, University of Minneapolis Press, Minneapolis, 2003, p 31.This is the translated Introduction from Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps: History de l’arte et anachronisme des images, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 2000
2 T W Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’, New German Critique 32, spring/summer 1984, p 170
3 Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps, op cit
4 Sanjay Seth, ‘Which past? Whose transcendental presupposition?, Postcolonial Studies, vol 11, no 2, 2008, p 215
5 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, University of Princeton Press, Princeton, 2000, p 16
6 Jacques Derrida, ‘Des Tours de Babel’ in J F Graham, ed, Difference in Translation, Cornell University Press, London, 1985
7 Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, Translated and with an Introduction by Keith Tribe, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004, p 206
8 Didi-Huberman, ‘The Supposition of the Aura: The Now, The Then, and Modernity’ in Andrew Benjamin, ed, Walter Benjamin and History, Continuum, London, 2005
9 Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London, Verso, 2009, p 45
10 Didi-Huberman, ‘The Supposition of the Aura’, in Benjamin, ed, Walter Benjamin and History, op cit
11 Didi-Huberman, ‘Before the Image, Before Time’, in Farago and Zwijnenberg, eds, Compelling Visuality, p 33
12 Koselleck, op cit, p 10
13 Ibid, pp 33–35
14 Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, ‘Sartre’s Boomerang: The Archive as a Choreographed Readymade’, in Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll, ed, The Importance of Being Anachronistic: Contemporary Aboriginal Art and Museum Reparations, Discipline/Third Text Publications, Kulin Nation/Wurundjeri, 2016, p 21
16 Didi-Huberman, ‘Before the Image’, in Farago and Zwijnenberg, eds, Compelling Visuality, p 40
17 Michel Foucault, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in P Rabinow, ed, The Foucault Reader, Pantheon, New York, 1984
18 Koselleck, Futures Past, op cit, p 3
19 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations and Reflections, Schoken Books, New York, 1969
20 Zinnenburg Carroll, The Importance of Being Anachronistic, op cit, p 27
21 Yannis Hamilakis, ‘Sensorial Assemblages: Affect, Memory and Temporality in Assemblage Thinking’, Cambridge Archeological Journal, vol 27, no 1, p 173
22 Zinnenburg Carroll, The Importance of Being Anachronistic, op cit , p 44
23 Julie Gough, ‘The Possessed Past Museums: Infiltration and Outreach and The Lost World (Part 2)’, in Zinnenburg Carroll, ed, The Importance of Being Anachronistic, op cit, p 66
24 Ellen Smith, ‘Obsolence and Ephemera in Postcolonial History: the Work of Julie Gough’, in Zinnenburg Carroll, ed, The Importance of Being Anachronistic, op cit, p 138
25 Ibid, 146
26 I would like to thank Johan Höglund as Director of Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies for providing me with the space, support and calm to write these few lines