Contemporanullity in the digitas
(the imaginative wave crest of blindsight)
Contemporanullity in the digitas
Subsistence lifeways, non-monetary exchange systems, and self-sustaining regional economies are anathema to expansive capitalism. It seeks to destroy them wherever it finds them. The bottom line in the discourse of the capitalist vanguard was clear: America must be transformed into a scene of industry and efficiency; its colonial population must be transformed from an indolent, undifferentiated, uncleanly mass lacking appetite, hierarchy, taste, and cash, into wage labor and a market for metropolitan consumer goods.
– Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes:
Travel Writing and Transculturation
In a certain way of looking I find compelling, we say that everything is necessarily contemporary: prior texts and future hopes become contemporary texts and hopes. Every study becomes a contemporary study: we are doing it now, in a “present.” This is one frame in which the Euro-American writer Gertrude Stein addresses the difficulty of being “truly contemporary,” in her 1926 essay-talk “Composition as explanation.” For Stein, art wants to be in touch with the techne and challenges of the present rather than lagging in established patterns that keep one from seeing what now. Stein takes up the challenge of looking and writing in multiple zones of a now whose potential meanings, not yet digested within the meaning-making wave of culture, push you in advance, the literal avant-garde. To be truly contemporary, for Stein, one must resist perceiving that meaning-making wave as the reality of what’s here or possible. You must stay in the foam of the wave, the unresolved set of happenings before the wave of declared meaning overtakes you and makes you think you are “with it,” that you are hip to the groove. In this imaginative logic, being “truly contemporary” in art is not being “with it”; instead, it’s a devotion to blindsight, non-certainly participating in and creating crucial non-certainty, moment by moment.
And yet a moment is not a microcosm of the contemporary, whose temporality has a different as well as longer span. The moment is, perhaps, a permitting void around us, a zone of presentness. That presentness also mingles with absence, as one moment gives way to another in a continual process of displacement, and as we consider that our moment is not the same as someone else’s nor the same as we might have had and will not have again. A moment might be considered a free-floating continual irruption, itself in an unstable relation to temporal frames we call past, present, and future.
A moment, if it can be said to exist, is not so much new as particular. Any given persons in any given time experience momentness. A person carrying out a thousand-year-old artistic ritual is in a moment just as much as someone carrying out a 2015 techno-act. I set to one side, for now, the question of incommensurable psyches in different cultures that experience moment-ness in markedly different ways. I am operating in a certain mode, partly phenomenological, of current western suppositions about how time and life are experienced.
Defined as what we are in right now, a moment cannot exist as an object of contemplation: we can’t separate ourselves from being in it. It has haeccity and quiddity, this-ness and thing-ness, and these qualities give the moment (if it exists) the utmost interest as a ?constellated zone of simultaneously engaged and displaced transaction, an exemplar of being-meaning (itself a non-concept-to-concept suspension). At the same time, we can not think about the moment as a concept apart from our own particular experiencing of a moment right here and now, or then and there. Because of that situation, we can hypothesize that there is no such thing as a moment; instead, there are what we might call object-events, whether dinners or walks or battles or works of art. The concept of a moment falls through its non-conceptuality, and the specificity of something-happening – an event that gains the traction of an object, an object surrounded as its event – comes in its place. This paradox, of what we can and cannot fixate, renders the related terms “moment” and “contemporary” relevant in digital thinking.
We might consider the contemporary as a one-year to thirty-year span of a given set of persons. As a conceptual frame the contemporary comes into view less often than its application: we pay attention to what happens in a contemporary, or to what defines a contemporary. One of our own contemporaries – what might be called an Anglo-American-Autralasian one – is interesting for its reduced or trace foundationalism, with all the Derridean play of that paradox. This is the theoretically delineable “contemporary” within which this essay has its principal, and principle, push. In our putatively post-foundational era we may not be able to start anywhere, we may not have any given mental ground that we can begin by standing on, sure that everyone is with us, but at least we have the moment, right? At least we know we’re doing something now, right? After all, we have The Contemporary. The now becomes a highly valuable thing: the “15 minutes” of fame, the fashioned modernity of the “new and improved,” the thrill of an apparent cultural surprise (“apparent” because of the suppressed origins or context shift of an object-event we find “surprising”), the art movement that’s “important [or ‘real’] right now.”
This reduced foundation, this Now Contemporaneity, is a kind of vortical frontier, its ideology imbued with weighty ghosts. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner declared the closing of the American frontier, and though he focused on the interactions of the geophysical body of America with its cultural expectations, his implications were global. It was clear by then, for example, that Aotearoa/New Zealand was going to be the last major world landmass to be colonized into fruition. Centuries of horizon-eating eyes were left wondering where to feed their geographical forwardism. The twentieth century divvied up the geographic spoils and turned capital itself into piles large enough to be thought of as acquirable land. Fortune itself might be thought of as mass, and colonisable.
So now we’re in the digital frontier, whose imbricated omnipresence (the bricks of the Internet, the suffusion of the web) is part of what I mean by the digitas. The digitas is digital performativity with constitutive perfusing by the techne and humans involved. We interact with the protocols of the Internet and we make and are made by the consequent webs, and all of this happens with the digits of our fingers, our habitus, and the civitas. As a world proposition, the digitas has been colonisable for less than twenty years, in the sense that workers can really be, to re-quote Mary Louise Pratt, both “wage labor and a market for metropolitan consumer goods.” As a frontier, the virtual spatiality of the digitas dovetails nicely with the virtual temporality of the contemporary. They are both technically-supported virtual reality. The “Make It New” of 20th-century modernism, from Ezra Pound’s literary imperative to the mechanical dynamo, can turn into the Make It Now of the digital. Calling Now Contemporaneity a colonizing ideology of the digitas points to commodity expectations for use value, for takeover, for micro- and macro-monopoly. When people claim, for example, that the digital year is really four months long, they propagate Now Contemporaneity: reifying digital time as though it were a productivity trace of the landmasses and capital of yore.
Defining a moment is on balance a phenomenological opportunity, a question of how a consciousness experiences a narrowly bounded zone of attention, and defining the contemporary is on balance a materialist opportunity, a question of what we value and emphasize in our particular habitus. Who can say the things that speak truth to our experience of a particular contemporary? The iterability of the contemporary is a question for power, and for the ideologies of distinct disciplinary approaches.
Contemporanullity, then, resists “marketable value” in the digitas and resists believing in The Contemporary as a real thing or position, since The Contemporary operates as an ideology, a trace foundation. As a term, contemporanullity brings together “contemporary” and “nullity” and two distinct emphases. First, it counters the term contemporaneity, which presumes to encompass the “state of” the contemporary, to know or describe what it labels. By contrast, contemporanullity gestures to the “positive Negation” of the “truly contemporary,” to link Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in his 1817 poem “Limbo”) with Gertrude Stein. Contemporanullity holds in suspension, simultaneously, the concept and non-concept of the present. Second, contemporanullity can help convey the phenomenology of a moment into the materialism of a contemporary so as to resist fixation and fetishizing in what we do and see in and as the digitas. Imagining contemporanullity in the digitas can help disperse power-moves to define “the contemporary” as what everyone is supposed to be doing now. In relation with object-events, we can strive to refrain from building empires of understanding. This does not mean there aren’t things humans should be thinking and making art about, from mitigating ecological violence to taking care of our children. The point here is to resist declaring an artistic mode or social approach au courant, to resist situations in which someone gets to define what and how it’s important to do and think now. Contemporanullity involves idealistic and artistic action with recognition of its interactive and crucially non-accumulating importance; it is a conceptual swerve from definition-oriented, and thus possession-oriented, contemporaneity.
As my second emphasis indicates, commitment is key to a contemporanullity stance. Commitment may seem a paradoxical coin when its other side is relinquishment, but let me explain with some further reflections on the term “nullity.” Nullity is the state of having been and having been ceased, thus nullity bears a strong resemblance to the moment, with its successive sublime presences and cessations. In both cases, as impossible subjects of contemplation, nullity and the moment have presence and absence. Nullity involves the negation of the assertability of what has nevertheless been happening. It is the trace of what has been use-real now located in a zone of contested cessation. The law is crucial to a materialist consideration of the digitas, and in legal terms nullities are either relative or absolute. Relative nullities apply only to those whose lives or actions are affected, and absolute nullities are those in which anyone may be said to be an interested party. Contemporanullity finds itself in the absolute: it indicates a committed participation within which we take the posture of relinquishment (to extend the argument launched in my essay “Relinquish Intellectual Property”). Everything is contemporary, and the contemporary does not, as a knowable fixed entity, exist. In re-wording our posture within our object-events as contemporanullity, I want to emphasize our present cultural interactions as gift and attention rather than as acquisition and accumulation. A contemporanullity stance is a committed letting go in the particular so as to avoid the accumulations of asserted importance that are frequently made coequal with being “with it.” A contemporanullity stance can help us attend to how we continually and ceaselessly invent culture and make the digitas. In this sense, Stein’s “truly contemporary” can be thought of as a materialist imperative for art brought into the blindsight of the moment.
Thus thinking contemporanullity can help us situate art events, which are absolute nullities although often treated as relative ones. Arts are absolutes insofar as they make place for what we experience as the excess of our desires for life and our astonishment that particular embodied consciousness, individual and group, blanks out in death. Arts are constituted as object-events that apparently exceed the requirements of our social capital, our statistical identity and civic use-value. We desire to love or serve or dominate or create in excess of our quotient of social capital. The centrality of desire and death in imaginative arts is one index of their absoluteness in relation to culture. At the same time the apparently useless value of the arts makes them one side of another metaphorical coin whose other side is idealist social action, the kind that continually wants to (re)make the world. The health of the arts bodies forth the health of the global human as well as of the particular human in location. The opportunity to participate in arts and social ideals is an absolute nullity: it must, if a culture is healthy, relate to everyone. Some would say art always enacts idealism and is always an act of hope. This is what I take the U.S. poet William Carlos Williams to mean when he writes, in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” (1955): “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men [sic: nowadays he might write “people”] die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” In other words, in a “productive” economy with a centripetal institutional imaginary of monied objects and consumption, arts are generally treated as a relative nullity, a status appendage, or a centrifugal castaway. In the contested dynamics of the digitas, every art ideal happens in contemporanullity, whose mirror sites – both technical and imagined – are like a thousand works of art.
Access to art, the imaginative wave crest of blindsight, has its best chance yet in the contact we make with each other in the digitas, whose techne goes hand in hand with human touch. Contemporanullity can help swerve the emphasis of digital interactions from spatiality to membranism, from distant machines to present bodies. If one thinks there’s no reified abstract thing called Our Times, one gropes around hopefully for what to build with. Instead of the face becoming a screen, the screen becomes a face, its haptics our response. Is there a term for sense innuendo after the inflection of a touch? Haptic resonance, perhaps. We are still young in our ability to think the digitas, our identities and possibilities here, and we are bodies as we do this thinking together.
Contemporanullity in the digitas, then, is the condition of contact relinquishment with materials – arts and related world-making – to which we are devoted. Instead of carpe diem one might say relinque diem. This deliberate, act-oriented relinquishment in art inherits aspects of what Laura Riding described as “designed waste” (in the 1920s), Georges Bataille as “general economy” (in the 1930s), and other writers (including Derrida) in similar ways later. General economy indicates the excess, the gorgeous dross, distinct from a productive economy, i.e. transactions of strictly “useful” social capital. Contemporanullity swerves from Pratt’s anthropology of the “gift economy,” which operates in an expectation of exchange value, although contemporanullity probably includes both “general” and “gift economy” ideas, given the centrality of the social body as both presence and absence in the digitas.
I take contemporanullity to relate to the gesture the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben makes in his essay “What Is the Contemporary” (Nudities, 2011) when he writes about “dys-chrony.” Starting with Nietzsche’s “untimely,” Agamben considers the dark energy of the present, the unseeability of the present for those who are looking at that dark energy. That posture, staring clearly at the darkness of the present, trying to see against seeing, to “imagine what we don’t know” (as I’ve put it elsewhere), is a contemporanullity hope. It resembles Stein’s “truly contemporary” before cultural meaning waves wash over it with their powerful claims. Contemporanullity recognizes the there-and-moving, the there-and-not-there nature of what we’re doing together, and contemporanullity in the digitas means to energize its non-foundational and anti-colonial ideals and its non-commodifying and perfectly mortal human arts.
Lisa Samuels’s recent books are Wild Dialectics (poetry, 2012), Anti M (creative non-fiction, 2013), and Tender Girl (novel, forthcoming 2015). Her voice and instrumental work includes a 2-CD version of Tomorrowland with soundscapes (2012) and collaborations with experimental composer Frédéric Pattar. Director Wes Tank is making a film version of Tomorrowland, and Tinfish Press will publish her essay-chapbook on experimental Aotearoa/New Zealand poetry later this year. She lives in Auckland/Tāmaki Makaurau with her partner and son, and she teaches at The University of Auckland.