Week 7: Rebirth and Folds in Time

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Sitting here now, “organizing my thoughts” as I prepare to write up an account of our seminar today, I find myself more conscious than I would otherwise probably be of my reflexive resort to a chronological reconstruction of our discussion. We just spent a better part of three hours reflecting on the distortions, rigidity, and troubling ideological implications of this leap to linear, sequential, unidirectional reconstructions of lived temporality. And in the wake of that conversation, I do indeed feel a little estranged from one of my most native habits of mind.

So I am sitting here, thinking about how I might resist (a least experimentally, at least heuristically) my tremendous appetite for lining up my words in some simulacral representation/reproduction of a portion of the past that I please myself to conceive as having occurred.

So I am still sitting here.

What else might one do with “what happened”?

Let’s see…

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I broke my chalk at one point during seminar today. I did it intentionally. I held it crossways using the three middle fingers of my right hand (middle finger over piece of chalk the other two fingers under it — as a boy I used to hold my pencil that way because if one bent one’s fingers down it made a face, the fingernails of the pointer and ring fingers serving as eyes and the pendulous middle finger a dangling nose). I broke it by straightening the three fingers and bringing them into the same plane, snapping the piece of chalk in the middle. When did I do this?

I don’t remember when I did it.

I did it when Ryan pointed out that anachronism is a special case of the anachronic.

I did it when I looked at Hannah’s clock (the one she brought in to class today and put on the desk in front of her) for the second time and realized It was not running.

I did it when Ohad said he wasn’t sure he wanted to do a week on race and gender in this seminar.

I did it when I remembered that my mother (who gets around by wheelchair) was on an airplane back from Boston at that very moment.

I did it when Jamie said he felt we needed separate classes on the body and gender.

None of these accounts is in fact accurate. In fact, I planned from the start of class to break the chalk at the first moment someone in the class said a word that sounded like “Rawlings” – the name of my sixth-grade social studies teacher (and football coach) who once threw a piece of chalk at me in class.

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What I notice, experimenting with the above gestures in the direction of time-play, is the implicit “forensics” that attend close on the heels of each proposition. What are the stakes of my having broken the chalk in one or the other of these moments? There is an irresistible temptation to assign meaning to the act based on its position in time.

We got to exactly this point in seminar. I think it was Disha who underscored the question of “meaning” in relation to sequence. But others also touched on the same theme. If “position in time” amounts to a primary index of signification then the shape of time matters a great deal.

I feel stumped, though. I don’t feel that I am making any real progress in writing “against” the time signature of historicism — the “spine-time” of the timeline; the omnipotent configurator of all things; the void that can hold everything, organize everything.

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In a sort obvious way, our seminar had a circular shape, temporally speaking: we began on the question of reordering the syllabus in the second half of the term, and we ended in the same place. (NB: we ultimately agreed to move the “Body/Blood/Genes” week to right after the break, and to push the “Reenactment and Impersonation” week to week 11; and to share responsibility for making sure questions of gender, race, and class are well engaged week-to-week).

What happened in between the two movements of that conversation?

Basically, we worked to get handle on Nagel and Wood’s idea of the anachronic. Our “way in” on this was the work to establish whether in fact the category of the anachronic amounted to anything other than the sort of no-harm-no-foul synonym for anachronism. I stumped for the position that it is indeed something more (though I am not sure all of you were ultimately persuaded on this).  Maybe the simplest way to put this would be to say that “anachronism” is a special kind of “time-trouble” that arises in the context of a commitment to historicizing architecture of the timeline.  Anachronism is out-of-place-ness (either willed or naïve) with respect to this conjoint and linear temporal frame. The “anachronic” is a more expansive neologism, since it is meant to gather (as I understand it) all manner of time-trouble: a frozen moment intended to depict proleptic retrospection, for instance; a time compression in which many historical temporalities are rearranged in a scene notionally set in a past as it might be imagined by a figure in the future; a situation in which an object’s relationship to the past (its power to invoke that past; its ability to convey a link to the past) hinges on temporal or formal indeterminacies — which may not even be understood, to those engaging with the object, as such.   All of these are real “situations” in the time life of people and things.  But we have not, to my knowledge, had a ready term by which to gather them.  And anachonic strikes me as a felicitous coinage.

I would go so far as to argue that the Serres/Latour volume this week offered an exquisite instance of the anachronic (even though Serres did not have the term available, and therefore recurred to the language of “anachronism”—which is clearly inadequate to his own example):

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Anachronic Renaissance wants to show how much of this sort of time-trouble percolated through the period known as the Renaissance. And I was persuaded.  A period predicated on the “rebirth” of “antiquity” is, when one thinks about it for even a moment, a period working some pretty funky time dynamics.  The era is not my specialty, so I am not in a position to say who noticed what aspects of all the time-strangeness that plays out in the canonical works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  But there seems to be a fair bit of consensus in the review literature that Nagel and Wood have opened some new territory with this analysis.

I will not attempt a synopsis of the best bits of the book, or even of our conversation.  But it is worth underscoring that Nagel and Wood are particularly interested, as art historians, in art works — and their distinctive temporal posture (what they call the “chronotopology of art making” p. 34).  I found their invocation of this very affecting.  And impressive.  Simultaneously clear and profound:

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Central, of course, is their notion of a “substitutional” logic of the (art) work, as against (or, perhaps better, “in relation to”) a “performative”/authorial conception of the (art) work.  The former is exemplified by the Ship of Theseus, the latter by the gesture of a painter’s signature and date in the corner of a canvas.  The “continuous-creation” of maintenance (the durability of the object in the form of a “structural object”) elides the moment, the agent, and the act of “the” maker.  It may efface that moment.  It may make it transcendent. But at any rate, it does not allow for the particular pinning-to-time-and-person that characterize the emergent “modern”/historicist notion of authorship.  Nagel and Wood go out of there way to underline that they are NOT saying that a kind of pre-modern/cultic substitution-logic “gives way” across the Renaissance to a more easily recognizable notion of the authorial performance. They do, though, to me, seem to be a little bit saying this, and it also seems to be basically real and true and right.  But even if it is right, it’s not the really interesting thing, and this is what they are keen to assert.  The interesting thing is that the work of art, across the Renaissance, can be understood as the space where substitution logics and authorial performance logics met and circled each other — pawing, playing, and sometimes actually wrestling.  This is what their many short chapters richly document.  The book clearly demonstrates that going to a Renaissance painting or sculpture or architecture with these questions in mind yields many subtle and pleasing insights.

Can we activate any of this?  As non-art-historians?  Hard to say.  Jamie seemed grumpy. It may have been the jet-lag (see his pre-class post below), but it may also have been a sort of basic intuition that history as such cannot really work with these tools.  He invoked the basic problem of narrative.  In the end, if historians are going to write narratives, there questions, he seemed to be saying, are going to be narratological.  The time-tools of narrative are important, for sure, but we need to go to other texts for help thinking about those (Hayden White, etc.).  Is this what Jamie was thinking?  Dunno.  But it seemed like that.  Maybe he will put in his own thoughts here.

For my part, pressing the joys of non-linearity, I spent a certain amount of time trying to activate Serres’ idea of a temporal “manifold,” his riffing on the time/weather dyad of the French word temps.  What if time is turbulent?  How might we understand a car not as a pinprick innovation on the timline of history circa 1900, but rather as a strange nexus (see blackboard above, or detail here) in the tangled time-skein: Neolithic wheels; eighteenth-century leaf-springs; Victorian thermodynamics, etc.

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I like this sort of thing.  But I am not sure I succeeded in selling, say, Jenne, on the power of the proposition — or even its coherence.

[I’m really sympathetic to (what I perceive as) the move Serres is trying to make here. The notion of “rupture” seems to come in part from Chaos theory, which was itself a rupture in a seemingly linear and progressive accumulation of knowledge about the world. I am really interested in historical moments like these, and it’s so rare to find a document that captures the pause after the rupture, in which Serres considers the implications of a new theory.

This reminds me of a passage in Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps, in which Poincare considers the rupture of non-Euclidean geometry, but comes to a slightly different conclusion:fullsizerender-1

In Poincare’s view, choosing how to represent space should involve making the most convenient choice. The frame of reference doesn’t really matter. Is he right about this? Is anything lost when we reduce these different geometries (or conceptions of time) to flip sides of the same thing?

DGB, would it be possible to get a citation for when Serres outlines explicitly his theory of time? I’d be interested in looking at its mathematical implications. Ohad mentioned that what he found important about Serres’s theory is that it reveals that there is no a priori temporal significance. But I think if we’re going to take Serres seriously, we need to look anachronically at what his theory does to time. -JPO]

But we did something particular and practical this week, by having an assignment in advance of our meeting — an assignment that pushed us in the direction of trying to do something with these ideas.  A report follows…

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EXERCISES IN NON-LINEAR TIME

We agreed that we wanted to do some more experiments in the seminar, so I circulated the following in advance of class for this week:

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About midway through the seminar we broke up into groups of two, and set to the task of doing a selection of these exercises. Write ups below.

-DGB

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GROUP ONE (EXERCISE)

Here is the prompt we worked with:

I want to propose to take 15 minutes to write a short letter to our elementary school teachers. The letters should be either written in pencil on ruled paper and in block letters, or with pen in cursive writing.

Take time to think back to your earliest days of learning how to read and write, of your first experiences at school and of your teachers’ lessons, be they good or bad.

After having written to your teacher, please come up to the blackboard and write up your own and your teachers’ name, drawing the letters as carefully as possible.

-AB

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Here are our experiences with it:

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AB and I wrote our letters on notebook paper while sitting at a table on campus. It has been a very long time since I have bent my head over an assignment next to a classmate doing the same. This was the first physical sensation of moving through time that this exercise engendered – the act transported me to a time outside of my own, but one that is still part of the present, insofar as my bodily memory conjured it up readily, and without regard for what year it was or how long ago I last engaged in a similar activity. I tried hard to adhere to the conventions I had been taught in school, specifically the cursive writing known as the Palmer method (for more on the evolution of handwriting as taught in schools, see Tamara Plakins Thornton’s Handwriting in America, from Yale University Press, 1997). This meant that I occasionally made errors, as the muscle memory of how I write now conflicted with my desire to adhere to AB’s suggestion that we try to recall how we wrote and communicated when we were children. I wrote this letter to my fourth grade teacher, and asked the kinds of questions that now seem banal, but which were the main functions of the letters I wrote to my grandparents growing up. I wrote it as myself today, though – which meant telling my former teacher where I was now studying, but not in sentences more complex than I wrote out when I was eight. I was stuck in between selves – and this letter, as much as it made me cringe reading it back, records my discomfort, nostalgia, and the kinds of memory and non-linear temporality locked in these rote acts.

-DKJ

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I had more or less the same experience of DKJ. The whole point of the exercise was, after all, to try to merge different points in time; our present as Ph.D. students with the beginnings of our “academic career”, a time in which the biggest challenges we faced were legible handwriting and intelligible sentence structure. I wrote in German, since that was the language I had to write in while in elementary school, and tried to remember what kind of cursive handwriting I was using. Much like DKJ, the muscle memory of my current handwriting posed considerable hindrances, and you will notice several mistakes in my writing which I had to cross out (including the word Princeton). Unlike DKJ I did not try to remember what kind of sentences I would have used in fourth grade, concentrating instead on the mechanics of writing. Nonetheless the hand I ultimately wrote in was neither here nor there. It was not the handwriting I had learned in school, and at the same time it wasn’t my current handwriting (which you can see in the Post-Scriptum to the letter). The result was a hand which was outside of time altogether.
Unfortunately we did not act out the last part of the prompt, which would have had us walk up to the chalkboard to write our name on the board. As such the disruption in linear time we achieved, if one may say so, was  confined to the limits of a ruled notebook page rather than to be ripple through the entire classroom, as I had originally intended. DKJ points out the strange feeling she had having to sit next to a classmate while writing, something we seldom do as students. Having to write while up on display for the whole class to see, is something that we do even less frequently as students, but which interestingly enough will become normal further onwards in our careers (one need only take a look at the pictures of the chalkboard that have been posted on this blog). This conflation of past, present and future, acted out within the physical space of the classroom and using the body and its movement (the act of writing, the act of walking up to the chalkboard) as a point of encounter, might be something to think about once we get to talk about reenactment.
-AB

GROUP TWO (EXERCISE):

“Paradoxically,” Nagel and Wood write in Anachronic Renaissance, “the substitutional relation of one structure to the next, copy to copy, lost force as it was more accurately rendered. The principle of substitution began to crumble under the weight of excess precision” (168). It became such that “the exact copy is a monstrous parody of the substitutional imperative” (281). Contemporary technological capacities for replication make this last sentence resonate; today, faithful replication has no magic, no possibility of collapsing time and sucking a body in.

But, taking some inspiration from the possibility of mutation in the replication of DNA/RNA, we wonder whether explicitly inserting the monstrous into the process of replication, might throw the temporal telos of replication and succession out of joint for even just a moment? We specifically wonder whether this might do something with respect to inhabiting the times of a poem. Here are three different monstrous doublings, mutations, with the first stanza of Meena Alexander’s “Birthplace with Buried Stones.” The first is a direct typed transcription of the poem (not copy-pasted). The second is a writing out of the poem by hand. For the third, we work through the poem’s exploration of absence/presence by absenting the invocations of absence; what sorts of jolts in experience might result from making absent a presence you know to be constitutive of a thing (in this case, a poem)? And what sort of other mutative jolts of presence might we imagine in our engagements with poem time?

“Birthplace with Buried Stones” –Meena Alexander

 

A. Typed Transcription

In the absence of reliable ghosts I made aria,

Coughing into emptiness, and it came

A west wind from the plains with its arbitrary arsenal:

Torn sails from the Ganga river,

Bits of spurned silk,

Strips of jute to be fashioned into lines,

What words stake – sentence and make-believe,

A lyric summoning.

B. Handwritten Transcription

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C. Absenting Presence

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-JPO/TS

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GROUP THREE (EXERCISE):On forcing involuntary memory.jpg

This exercise is about trying to recreate the feeling of involuntary memory voluntarily. It has a few parts, because I thought some people might already have experienced the first thing I propose, which is essentially trying to recreate and exploit the sensation you have when you wake up and don’t know where you are.

ILM said he had not tried this before, so he would do this take-home exercise before trying the latter part. Interestingly to me, the first thing he asked was to which previous home he should try to displace himself, which prompted a conversation about how this exercise might be about prioritizing spatial memories. Some—for instance, a long-term childhood home—might persist throughout one’s life, while others might fade. I can call up the feeling of being in the space of my childhood bedroom and all of the apartments I’ve lived in for more than a year. However, although I remember in good detail what my dorm rooms from college looked like, I don’t have what I would call spatial recall of them.

I propose 1a and 1b before the main exercise here because I have found that they work for me to invoke a sense of temporal displacement (explicitly, the displacement feels more temporal than spatial). I’m generally a bit skeptical of the idea that we can experience non-linear time in any direct way (even if we can understand and make use of it), so I wanted to start with the one instance I could think of in which I’ve actually felt something like that. The “Experiment” I proposed is an attempt to generalize this instance. Because it was rainy yesterday, it was a good time for me to try to use smell and sound cues to displace myself back to Cambridge, where I lived for five years and where are the public spaces of which I’m probably most likely to have spatial recall. I can somewhat effectively imagine myself back there because I have detailed memories of it, but I don’t have any feeling of spatial or temporal shifting when I do that. My guess is that the visual cues are so dominant when walking around in public space that it’s much harder to recreate the feeling of being in those spaces at some specific point in time without accessing the right visual information (whether that means being in that same space, or some other appropriate configuration of visual cues).

-RR

Ryan proposed this at-home exercise:

“At night before falling asleep, keep your eyes closed and realize that you can easily imagine yourself to be lying in bed in your previous bedroom(s). This may be facilitated by aural as well as tactile continuity –for instance, if you sleep with a fan on, or to any other reproducible white noise. Orient yourself mentally in each of your old bedrooms in succession. This will likely produce a singular sense of body with a multiplied sense of place –i.e., I feel myself to be in multiple spaces if not at once, then at least in rapid succession which causes a sense of displacement because of its physical impossibility”

When I did it, I tried to remember my teenage bedroom, full of posters, flyers, records, books, and photographs of contexts that I wanted to be part of or places that I wanted to be at that time. Immediately, it made me think in the work of artists like Christian Marclay and the reconfiguration of certain elements, in the re-appropriation of disconnected realities, which confronted with one another gain in symbolic readings, as in his “Body Mix” (1991-1992) series. They consist of a series of collages where the juxtaposition of recognisable record covers representative of a certain style or setting create a new body. Thus a record of classical music in the style of Herbert von Karajan, which could invoke a certain white supremacy due to the political connections of the Austrian conductor, is superimposed with a record by Parliament Funkadelic, known for its commitment to civil rights and its association with the Black Panthers. In this case, as in the bedroom experience proposed by Ryan, the work acted as a parliament that gives room to diverse temporalities and hybrid realities. A work that multiply the original interpretations of each record, of each context, in order to resuscitate them in a space where other readings are possible, where debates could happen.

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-ILM

See also: Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (excerpt)

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GROUP FOUR (EXERCISE):

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This is the exercise Hannah had outlined:Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 3.30.53 PM.png

There are many touching temporal fluctuations in this exercise on time, a winding, unwinding and silence.

However, as Hannah pointed out when we sat down to discuss it, this exercise was a point of access to nonlinear time only for her. Since I had never met her grandfather and was not embedded with those memories and haunting associations, the winding of the clock was just a winding of a clock for me.

But we wondered about the idea of access to nonlinear time or to be more specific, the individuality and simultaneity of experiencing non-linear time. To access non-linear time, the common path is that the past, present (and perhaps an exercise can be conceived with the future?) needs to be juxtaposed side by side or layered one on top of the other.

The disjunctive non-linear time of Hannah’s exercise was the transportation of Hannah’s past in simultaneous existence with the present–day world. But that node of the past only comes into existence inside of her and for her. As I’m writing this and reading what others have posted before us, I’m struck by DKJ’s shared experience with AB and the strange sensation of sitting side by side with a classmate, heads craned over the same exercise. They undoubtedly have different nodes of recall and nostalgia yet emerged in some form of shared temporally disjunctive experience, which was the miniature ripple that AB intended.

Interestingly enough, Hannah’s winding of the clock is not the performance of a gesture she made time and time again but instead the memory of the body of her grandfather, what I imagine as the twist of the arm, the flick of the wrist and the steady tick of the clock. It is the grafting of Hannah’s gesture onto her grandfather as a moment of recall, one that I can understand but not experience.

As I ruminated on both cases, I tried to imagine the individuality and simultaneity of sharing of non-linear time as somehow the dissolution and complication of edges. I’m sure some of this has to do with the particularity of these types of non-linear folds that exist within memory and bodily experience and yet… And yet, I can’t help but wonder if, somehow, this folding of time might have something to do with the folding of people. Not in an unsettlingly smooth and seamless stitching but instead, in the way of the complicated dissonance of the Dionysian.

-HHN/HL

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GROUP FIVE (EXERCISE):

Here was our “Protocol”:

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And so we walked to the Art Museum (somewhat arbitrarily, but in keeping with the spirit of the class and our mood), and, without knowledge of the protocol as yet, NB chose this:

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Which is pretty big.  Here’s a detail:

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It is  EDMUND DE WAAL, BREATHTURN, I, 2013. But that isn’t all that important for our purposes.

So we did the exercise.  And we each wrote up some notes.  NB’s are below, and mine (DGB) follow hers.

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GROUP SIX (EXERCISE)

Group six brief:

Go to Princeton Art Museum, and find an object on display (contemporary, historical, etc.) After reading any supplemental information provided and observing the object closely, contemplate the history of the object based only on information available (and any background knowledge you may have). Write a short narrative describing this object and its history based on your experience at the museum. This narrative should call into question the collapse of time from the object’s inception to its current state of display in the Museum.
Object 1:

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Donald Judd, Untitled (88-31 Bernstein), 1988

I chose to examine this work precisely because it attempts to be immaterial, exhibiting no marks of workmanship or authorship, no physical or visual record of production. Judd here attempts to produce pure, perfect form, and in this way (arguably) attempts to evade direct references to history, time, memory, and age in his work. Each of the ten boxes which have been produced are, in principle, completely identical and interchangeable; their form gives no indication of mounting hardware, installation methodology, or manufacturing process. Judd aims to represent pure space; with all marks of its construction hidden, we are left with a seemingly ahistorical artifact.

At the same time, however, the above strategies strangely project a viewer’s attention back onto their environment. In addition to the literally reflective surface of each of the ten boxes, Judd’s wall piece attempts to make manifest the spatial qualities of its display space, playing on the interrelation between art, viewer, and (in this instance) gallery. As one moves around Judd’s sculpture, the identical boxes (and the space captured in-between each unit) appears to shift; a seemingly inert, hermetic object somehow comes to life, and the viewer begins to understand the artwork’s surrounding environment as an integral component to the physical artifact itself.

But it is not just the gallery space which is implicated in this dialogue. With further thought, Judd’s piece connects the space of artistic production and assembly (his studio in Marfa, Texas) with the space of artistic reception (in the case, the Princeton University Art Museum). This seemingly inert series of boxes, precisely due to the emphasis on the assemblage’s environs, creates a linkage between two locales: one imagined, one immediate; one tied to the late twentieth century, the other tied continuously to the present. The boxes, in this sense, are a mediating device between Judd’s own workspace and the gallery, affording a temporal, spatial, and narrative collapse through the most abstract of forms.

We can imagine Judd and his assistants producing this precise work in a strange vacuum, without knowledge of where Untitled (88-31 Bernstein) will ultimately reside, without a precise understanding of the context in which the sculpture will be displayed. There is a strange tension between the extreme specificity involved in the artwork’s production and the completely unknown context for its future display; similarly, this tension extends between the exact moment of the artwork’s production, in a highly specific setting, and the generalized, potentially unending lifespan of its display and storage.

For these two linked settings and points in time to connect through the most abstract of artworks is a highly compelling understanding of space, time, and history; though some may argue that Judd’s Untitled series is merely concerned with ideological space, I would argue that it presents a highly compelling relation between different instantiations of space and time, linking the environmental past of Judd and his craft with the fleeting experience of the viewer.

– TC

Object 2:

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Being asked to go to the Princeton Art-Museum, I had decided to go back to my favorite painting presented there. RETURNING to this painting was the first, among many, time-folds I had experienced in the art-museum that day. The painting, Untitled by Ad Reinhardt (American, 1913-1976), is – as you can hardly see from the picture – not much more than a canvass painted black. I was fascinated by it, since the first time I saw it, trying to run away from a visiting friend, and earning few minutes of silence in the art-museum. Since then I took each and every visitor I had to this museum, and showed them this painting. I don’t know why exactly. I am usually not an enthusiastic art fan, on the contrary, I find art boring most times, but for some reason this painting captured my imagination.

In a sense, this painting is too abstract to be considered as anachronic in the sense that Nagel and Wood described their Renaissance paintings. This black-ness could have been produced whenever, it does not carry on itself the signs of its time. Its presentation, on the other hand, tells us another story. It is obvious that such a painting could have been presented in a museum only in the last couple of decades, and it is modern – as modern as it gets. So, why have I decided to talk about this painting in relation to our discussion on time folds? I will try to explain, but I suspect that my words would be meaningless, unless you will make the effort to go to the museum and look at this painting yourself. This painting contains a time-fold in itself, it incorporates time, in a sense. While it appears as uniformly black at first sight, it unfolds with time. As long as you look at it, you discover more and more differences among the uniform black. In the first time you look at this picture, it is rather surprising, that while you are trying to stare at the abyss of nothingness, represented by the uniformity of the blackness, this nothingness takes a form of something, of a difference. But, after the first experience it becomes even more interesting – because you are expecting it to happen, you are waiting for this effect to kick-in. Untitled is not a representation but an experience, an experience in time, and in a sense an experience of time as the pre-condition for change, time as the generator of differences.

This experience is not, however, the only time-related experience embodied in this art-work. Look at the caption, it contains a quote of Reinhardt describing his painting as the “last painting… anyone can make.” THE END OF HISTORY – Oil on canvas. I cannot look at this painting without thinking of G.W.F Hegel’s famous criticism of Spinoza’s conception of the Absolute – or, maybe it was on Schelling’s Naturphilosophie – which is like “the night in which all cows are black”. This is, I think to myself each time, the perfect representation of these nocturnal black beasts. But then again, this uniformity dissolves into the multitude, and it is just a matter of time.

-ORS

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GROUP SEVEN (EXERCISE)

BL: Last week I dreamt about my uncle and his manifesto. I have at least a dozen uncles living in rural Minnesota. None have written a manifesto.

Unable to make sense of my dream, it seemed appropriate to hand the task of its interpretation over to Jon.

How, I wondered, would someone reconstructing this event? How would they extend the narrative of my vaguely remembered dreaming into historical time?

JC: When I sat down with Ben to do this thought experiment, he provided me with little to no context, and indeed could not provide more; as so often in dreams, he had forgotten the rest. Which uncle? (No set historical subject.) What kind of manifesto—political, aesthetic, etc.? (No delimitation to a certain genre or context.) If the manifesto hadn’t really materialized yet, and was only a dream, could such a dream count as history, as something that happened? More important than the dream’s content, its past, I decided, was the dream’s proleptic potentiality.

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I tried to recreate my experience at La Monte Young and Mariane Zazeela’s “Dream House” in New York, an ideal environment to float these questions. I drew some inspiration from Freud’s supra-historical (in Nietzsche’s sense, sans all forgetting)  line, “Nothing that is mentally our own can ever be lost,” and was led to return to the basics of what sources were available to me: What is a manifesto? I decided: An articulation of the way one thinks the world should be. Barring context, Ben’s uncle’s manifesto was to be more than a mission statement for a particular program. Not knowing its content, the idea of a manifesto itself functioned proleptically, through dream-work, to produce something in the future, namely our reflection that was to come. Hence the dreamed manifesto initially without content acquired the effect of anticipating its own insertion into historical time; this putting-into-time is effectively the labor of all dream-work. One takes the dream out of the hypothetical or the forgotten and puts it into historical discourse.

I realized that resisting this labor and instead remaining in dream space may open up archaic dimensions for thinking history anachronically, for thinking “what has happened” without regard only for where it fits into context. The fact that we don’t even expect dreams to occur at a single point in a linear time-context the way we expect history to may shed light onto our professional biases with regard to the latter.

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GROUP EIGHT (EXERCISE)

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Following the ‘anachronic’ model of time, and aiming to investigate whether it essentially departs from or merely concertinas (and would therefore rely on) the idiom of linear time, our exercise was each to reassemble a diary kept between certain years. Five excerpts would be taken from the diary at random, and spoken to a listener familiar only with the origin (i.e. ‘Berlin, 1930-1946’). I was intrigued to see how our impressions of the period – as historians working by mapping out time linearly, visually in our heads – would function in reception of these jumbled-up entries; that is, what kind of assumptions I’d make as I listened to Jamie’s selection from his text.

Whether these were spoken to a listener or just read didn’t strike me as especially important at first, but listening to Jamie’s tape I realised his delivery would of course prove an immediate point of interest. What he chose to stress – an unavoidable part of reading something aloud for the first time – opened the exercise up to involve the person preparing the text, i.e. the person who delivered it. So at-play here wasn’t just how I reacted to an anachronic diary, but of course how the conductor of the exercise presented it. I suspect Jamie had read the diary he chose[1] ‘through’, linearly, more than he had as I now received it[2]. And yet in delivery an overriding impression of the work became clear; one that was distinct from how it ‘works’ linearly, in fact instead dependent on the anachronic ‘essential’ Nagel describes emerging from non-linear time. There were lines to do with plans disrupted, things being broken-up, terminations, endings, suicides, that found distinct uniformity in the piece. This was something to do with Jamie’s delivery, but mostly I think about the structure to entries he sounded like he noticed in each: the writer had plans that fell apart that day, strikingly enough to write about. That four movements in this ended with a fifth entry contemplating suicide gave the disjointed, anachronic formation of this diary a definite, essential shape to do with the themes just outlined. We receive these reading a diary linearly, but something of this exercise felt like a concentrated dose. In delivery, these entries, made haphazard by the exercise, are forced into meaning in performance and reception.

What bearing this has on essayistic history I’m not sure. I jump to the essay form because its rearrangement of text by argument via footnoting – in other words an argument that proceeds dictating a rearranged text – seems like the closest analogue to this exercise found in disciplinary history. What took the place of an argument here were the impressions of a performer and their audience, as the normal boundaries of a text were collapsed and rearranged. This result doesn’t seem exactly Dionysian, just because the boundaries existent in the text continue to work as a constant irony to the performance; they are discarded elsewhere, but the performance relies on this being known rather than forgotten. The new versions, the ones emergent in the text’s random rearrangement, feel spontaneously created. So, maybe ‘nonlinearising’ a diary in performance is a kind of anti-Apollonian exercise, in that form is reconstructing a story already told, or at least given shape in a book cited by historians.

That said, the impressions made on me by this attempt to transpose of nonlinear time in performance (though not to suggest insodoing that anachronic time should be described as ‘random’) ultimately felt singular to the performance, as its constructor/animator, or for that matter unconnected to a pre-existing sense of what time is.

So:

1) This exercise was nonlinear time depicted by rearranging an account understood to be ‘linear’ in completion, but for that it did not feel like a concertinaing.

2) ‘Feel’ because I think it’s perfectly possible to see the significant of a pre-existent ‘linear’ in the ‘nonlinear’, but only out of its transmission.

3) Which is to say that in creating a performative exercise to settle a question launched from a Socratic point of view, we leave that question in unsteady hands.

4) There is witnessing, and there is describing after-the-fact.

5) The reasons behind this exercise’s failure to handle the question scientifically are maybe down to something in its nature, in the kind of concentration or posture demanded of the viewer/performer, who should not concern themselves with adopting an ironic stance on what’s before them. In this understanding, the immediacy of theatre should momentarily erase mental architecture constitutive of that posture, if it is to be successful.

6) Extracting a meaningful solution to the question of whether nonlinear chronology can meaningfully exist without constant, undermining reference to a linear forebear has been unsuccessful here. At least in this exercise, I’ve felt that my experience as a performer and my aims as an ever-post-emptive historian have been difficult to properly combine.

Back to the oil and water question with the perhaps (still perhaps) opposing disciplines of history and performance. I look forward to giving some time to this question, w/r/t the different experiences of the class, next week.

[1] an Ottoman soldier’s diary in Palestine, written early 20C.

[2] This wouldn’t always be the case. Passages from all over a book might be prescribed in a new order, sometime even to create a certain impression on a student, as Children of Pride, my chosen text for Jamie, certainly was at undergrad.

– JTD

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PRE-CLASS POSTS

“Follow the flight pattern of a fly. Doesn’t time sometimes flow according to the breaks and bends that this flight seems to follow or invent?”  Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, p.64-5

This is more literally true than Michel Serres may have known. The human eye does not pass smoothly over the world when one looks around; instead, it jumps in constant tiny starts called saccades, which are easy to see when gazing into someone else’s eyes, and impossible to perceive in oneself. The brain takes the jerky movements of the eye and knits them together in order to create a smooth panning image. To do this, it must distort time.

Perhaps historical perception also moves in saccades. I find it striking that certain periods of time—often, but not always, wars—are constantly lingered over in popular culture, while others fade from view. In the world of popular paperback romance novels, there are certain five to fifteen year periods in which literally tens of thousands of books are set, and others in which there is almost nothing. Books set in the years 1800-1815 account for an enormous proportion of total historical romance output, while the number of books set in the years 1815-1830 can be rounded down to zero. What makes certain time periods so arresting to the imagination? How do we distort time in collective memory? What do we skip over, without noticing any gap?

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Einstein’s Dreams is constantly preoccupied with how people’s behavior might change under various conditions of time distortion. In most of the dreams, people tend to fall into two categories; one that wishes to preserve, to linger, to conserve, and another that wishes to rush headlong into life. This strikes me as an incredibly twentieth-century duality, this opposition between progressivism and conservatism, this anxiety that we will miss something either by moving past it or by never getting to it in the first place.

So for me, the great strength of Anachronic Renaissance is its avoidance of dualism. The authors argue that Renaissance art was both/and: both an image which, like a saint’s relic, was unsubstitutable and unique, and a substitution for many cultural referents in the historical past, and perhaps future.

They also argue that self-consciousness of distance from the past constituted the necessary grounds for exploration of it, as “the differentness of the past made repetition an option.” As an orientalist trying to avoid Orientalism, I was very drawn to the suggestion that awareness of difference with the past also became grounds for the dismissal of other cultures and ethnic groups, as “the two remotenesses, temporal and spatial, were confused,” and they were relegated to being people of the past, being backwards, other in time as well as in space.

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I once attended a paper presentation at a linguistics conference on gesture and time. Literate language users tend to use a lateral axis to create a timeline in gesture as they speak about complex time events, and the direction of that timeline tends to map onto the direction in which their native language is read, so that Arabic readers gesture left to right, and English speakers, right to left. Less commonly, however, speakers may also map their gesture in the same way that speech maps them, i.e. sagitally, from forward to backward. Here is a link to a paper on the topic.

This paper’s author had investigated gestures made during speech by a student population in Spain made up of Moroccans and native Spaniards, and discovered that while Spanish speakers tended to place the future in front of them, Moroccans placed the future at their backs, and the past in front of them. As I remember it, he concluded that this was due to Morocco being a “past-oriented culture.” I wish to note my respect for this linguist, and intend no personal judgement in pointing out how jarring this was to the ear of a reader of Edward Said.

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One topic which is left largely unexplored in Anachronic Renaissance is the nature of religious time. The authors tend to elide historical referents and religious referents without much distinction. Is this valid? Or does the nature of time in the religious consciousness, which is always both immanent in the here-and-now, and profoundly of the past and future, differ from its nature in the secular consciousness of Einstein’s Dreams? To me, this is the major lacuna in this week’s texts, although Serres and Latour come the closest to addressing it. How are we to understand time with God?

-HL

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A thought exercise (stolen, but from where, I can’t remember):

A fire is spreading across the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In front of you is the $45-million “Madonna and Child” by Renaissance master Duccio di Buoninsegnao and, beside it, a museum guard. As you might guess, time is running out and you can only save one. Which will it be?

Perhaps the answer is obvious to you. But I wonder if it is less or more so after reading Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood’s “Anachronic Renaissance.” Does the fact that this painting is a “token” associated with a lost original (the living and breathing Madonna herself) cause you hesitation, either way? (Maybe you can experience some temporal instability yourself in that hesitation, like that felt in a Botticelli portrait or a Benedetto da Maiano epitaph?)

But back to the question: Do you rescue the painting or the guard?

The case for the guard seems easy to make. According to Nagel and Wood, Renaissance art is a chain of replicas, of infinite renewal and imitation. Like an arrow or index finger pointing back, the painting links together the succession of ‘nows’ to that lost past: the absent original, the once breathing Madonna and Baby Jesus. (Were others reminded of Joseph Roach’s “Cities of the Dead” in this discussion of image as “surrogate”?) And so the solution is clear. We can save the guard and rest assured that after the Duccio is burnt to a crisp, another artist will create an “anachronic” substitute. Aura be damned!

But what about the case for saving the painting? Does art’s substitutional quality mean it itself possesses some divine, magical power? Do we save a piece of Madonna by fetching the painting? Do paintings… look back at us? Have Nagel and Wood twisted not only temporal, but ontological categories?

In the end, the decision might come down to a matter of our personal sympathies: Are you more swayed by Nagel and Wood’s idea of “substitution” or their idea of “performance” in art? As I understand it, the “substitional” mode, typical of medieval times, sought to erase human authorship. Too much artistic intervention (restoration, over-painting) was suspect precisely because it pushed us further and further away from the original, the object of devotion. So, artists worked within a “substitional machine” that understood the Duccio, as an object dated from 1300, to possess a spark of the divine.

When the Renaissance dawns, however, artists perform repetitions, and are allowed space to play with conventions of substitution: by inserting incongruous fashion pieces or mismatched architectural elements. And when the artist became an imaginative “restorer” of the past, these two categories — “substitution” and “performance” — collapsed.

I’ve been wondering if artists (and historians) today work in this Renaissance mode and came up with an example of a really moving work by Ragnar Kjartansson, which showed at the New Museum a couple years back.

Enter the gallery and you met a band of a dozen or so hipster troubadours playing a three-minute lovesick ballad, over and over on loop. Despondent, sprawled across rumpled mattresses, slouched on threadbare chairs, they acted oblivious to visitors as they sang. Well, mostly oblivious. Their eyes sometimes followed you as you walked around their musty den of beer bottles and kicked-off shoes. And those looks of longing seemed totally in keeping with the depressed Young Werther act — an act that was also a feat of endurance. The performance went on daily for two months straight, museum opening to museum closing. In total, they sang the same mournful, polyphonic composition some 6,000 times.

The origin of that song? Kjartansson lifted the lyrics from lines in Iceland’s first feature film, made in 1977 and starring Kjartansson’s mom. His mother played a housewife, and in one scene fanaticizes about Kjartansson’s to-be father, who played a plumber in the movie. “Take me here by the dishwasher,” she says in the fantasy sequence, which would become a song lyric, and the work’s title.

The endless singing certainly seems to enact a symbolic substitution, with an “unbroken chain back to the origin.” And here that origin is, well, the origin of life: “Take me….” Art quite literally becomes a model of reproduction, an endless “imitation of itself.” Thinking back on the Duccio dilemma, maybe the distinction between the painting and the person feels less clear, both products of endless acts of… love.

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-NB

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I am worried that this post will devolve swiftly into platitudes. I began this week optimistic for the new tools/methods which considering time could bring to history. It was, potentially, a way to break through the linear narrative structure which is associated with much of the discipline’s aporia. I leave this week a little disappointed. I see no way to connect the achievements of ‘Anachronic Renaissance’ to method. I am sympathetic to the aims of Serres, especially in the ways that he frames them in these conversations, and believe that his ideas on comparison in particular can be put to use in historical frameworks. Is comparison the job of the historian? I am less sure of this. I am left, then, with ‘Einstein’s Dreams’ which offers different conceptions of time as a structure underlying life. This becomes clearer as the book segues from the physical times of the first half to the more socially constructed timescapes of the second. How do we proceed from here? Do we content ourselves with acknowledging that time is a structure? That timescapes change from context to context and must be interrogated as part of ‘solid historical inquiry’? Does time become akin to all other historical structures that we could contemplate or, depending on our methodology, not contemplate? Undoubtedly as part of a jetlag-induced myopia, I am left asking, ‘what is the point of time?’

-JP

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Readings for Week Seven:

Nagel and Wood, Anachronic Renaissance

Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Consider:

Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time

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