Thursday, 2 February 2017

What is the Contemporary?



With the Trumpian counter-revolution underway at breakneck speed in the United States and proto-Fascist populist movements highly active across Europe too, this question, which was the title of a symposium held yesterday at Lancaster University, is certainly the right one to be asking.  But how might one approach an answer – if indeed there is such a thing?

Mike Greaney gave an intriguing reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopia Never Let Me Go, in which human clones grow up towards a grim future of having their organs reaped.  Chinese postgraduate Muren Zhang did not speak about China, as I had thought she might (no account of the contemporary which ignores it, and Trump’s planned war against it, will be worth the paper it is written on), but instead reflected on neo-Victorian fiction as a tool for approaching the contemporary in its subtle reworkings of the past.  This is a topic I’ve pondered painfully myself, wondering how my treasured notion of writing a political sequel to Morris’s News from Nowhere might avoid just becoming neo-Victorian kitsch.

Lynne Pearce addressed issues of driving, day-dreaming and mobility, through a focus on the vexed topic of driverless cars – strange to hear Ernst Bloch and Gaston Bachelard brought into this framework!  And visiting speaker Professor Mark Currie gave a subtle paper on contingency and narrative theory, reflecting on the fraught relations between the apparent moment-by-moment freedom of narrative and the ‘always-already’ necessity under which it actually operates.  Extreme contingency, as he argued, is indeed now one of our pervasive self-understandings, a Raymond Williams-style ‘structure of feeling’, one might say.

I greatly enjoyed this event, though I also wanted some sharper politics to enter its mostly literary register.  It is the kind of occasion that the William Morris Society – or perhaps some splinter group within the Morris Society – should surely be running.  Owen Holland has valuably organised a print symposium on Kristin Ross’s recent Paris Commune book in the Society Journal, but even this remains too historicist, despite Ross’s efforts to link the Commune to early twenty-first-century political struggles.  To address the contemporary – or perhaps, more complexly, what Ernst Bloch used to call the non-synchronicity of the present – should be the prime task of a Morris Society worthy of a man who threw himself into his own contemporary crisis with unique energy and utopian hope. 

1 comment:

Tony Pinkney said...

On reflection, it's a shame that the organiser of the symposium, Arthur Bradley, was under the weather on the day, since if he had wrapped a framework around the speakers' diverse contributions using the Giorgio Agamben quote about the contemporary reproduced on the poster for the event, that would no doubt have helped a great deal to give some overall shape to the occasion. Here is Agamben reflecting on what it means to be contemporary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsS9VPS_gms&feature=youtu.be