Monday, 12 October 2015

Discussion on "What is the Contemporary" by Giorgio Agamben

by Toby Lattimore

There are a number of interesting areas in the essay that I discuss here.


Agamben says that a Contemporary is “more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time describing it as a “disconnection and out-of-jointness.” Further explaining that “those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands.”

I am interested in this placement of the contemporary. What creates such awareness? For me the displacement from a time, allowing the contemporary to form a reflective outlook, seems the root of the issue. Whereas Agamben looks to explain what and where the contemporary exists and find themselves I cannot help but focus on how they arrive there in the first place, potentially with some greater understand of the “darkness” that Agamben goes on to discuss in his essay. Not the moment when the contemporary recognises clarity but when this reflective mind set finds seed.

Agamben goes on to talk about the “Archaic” and how the light, or darkness, of now is present in the past and that this will inform the contemporary. “It is as if this invisible light that is the darkness of the present cast its shadow on the past, so that the past, touched by this shadow, acquired the ability to respond to the darkness of now.”

This is striking. He stretches his umbrella across the definition of the contemporary. For me he seems to be saying that some aspect unifies those who we perceived to be contemporary. That the past must be seen in the context of now and that this weighing of perceptions will allow a form of transition into realisation of contemporariness. Yet, I feel that this is too broad a definition of an aspect of what it is to be contemporary. History is a marred arena. The perception of past events is second hand, no matter what the source. Even our own experiences are clouded by circumstance, many of which we are unaware of at the time and never discover, so how can we see light hear if it is obscured?

The isolation of the person surely guides the contemporary. The role of history is surely to mislead the contemporary, the darkness of now, as Agamben cites it, is surely a more intense and distant reflection of the darkness that existed when the past moment happened in the then present. This is on many levels subconscious. Our perception of a set of circumstances is guided by our own experiences. Our now is a culmination of past events, a combination of histories, some told to us, some we read, some we gather and forget.

The forming of the subconscious mind surely has a greater say in the contemporary’s makeup, not the reflection of the light of the past. It is the darkness of now and how we reflect it into the mirror we create, no matter how cracked, that allows us to disconnect from what we see. More so it is this light that we look from within that guides us to the darkness. The observation of ourselves as a being within a given circumstance is the grounding factor.

Agamben says “He (The contemporary) is able to read history in unforeseen ways” and that this is “according to a necessity that does not arise in any way from his will, but from an exigency to which he cannot not respond”. This choice of action is from my perspective problematic. We are aware of many contemporaries but there are also many who, within our realm, we are not. It seems to me the choice to be contemporary is evident if the action that makes you contemporary needs to make you known. If you pass into history in obscurity does this in fact mean you were not contemporary.


Agamben says "The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time". This darkness that he talks about reflects the contemporary's "gaze on the darkness of the epoch" a sight on the now that is seeming dark in nature. This definition of what the darkness is, speaks of the problems of an age or moment, potentially a backward nature or situation that should be remedied and can be by the presence of a contemporary. He goes further and firmly states that the role is to also "perceive in this darkness a light."

This assumption of a balance of power and a responsibility has further connotations and Agamben goes on to say that "to be contemporary is, first and foremost, a question of courage." By making this statement he is elevating the contemporary but also maybe endangering them. The fear of change is strongly represented at times of revolution and advancement throughout history. If such an advancement threatens someone's position, or seems too radical to accept, this misunderstood revelation will be seen as a threat. But is the contemporary perceiving the light in the darkness.

The relationship to darkness is awkward. Darkness as a concept is absent. An animal that is nocturnal is perceived as a danger because it lurks in the night or the shadows but the reality is they hunt at night to escape the day and those who inhabit the light.

Radical thinkers, if that is indeed how we classify the contemporary in this context, are potentially feared because they can expose the darkness of society. Are we subconsciously evolved to recognise the contemporary as a threat to our society. This indeed may be a defence mechanism and only now that society has advanced to its current state can we recognise that contemporary minds are not the result of genetic anomalies but are the product of environment and the pressures put upon them and so a reflection of its identity and a product to be explored.


Agamben quotes from biblical texts as historical references. Surely if he wants to quote from a text such as the bible the contemporariness is that of the translator and not the character in the story which he seems to take as gospel.

"(thus Adam, through whom humanity received death and sin, is a "type" or figure of the Messiah, who brings about redemption and life to men)."

This bracketed statement seems very removed from contemporariness. This is not a reflection of the light of the past more the darkness of a translated text in a presence. Is using a disputed historical text contemporary?

Discussion on "What is Contemporary" by Giorgio Agamben from the collection What is Apparatus and other Essays - Translated David Kizhik, Stefan Pedatella - Stanford, Stanford, 2009

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