How does one create a future that will acknowledge the past … without repeating it? How does one look at the past with understanding, yet critically, in the etymological sense of ‘critical’ (from Greek krinein, to separate, choose), which has to do with discrimination and choice in the present?
The contemporary is, as Susan Suleiman wrote with her characteristic lucidity a propos of Bataille, what ‘concerns us.’ And that entails, to cite her next book's title, ‘risking who one is’ by discriminating and choosing in the present. Sharing Suleiman's interest in the contemporary (and in French culture), and having been accused of anachronistic readings of old master paintings, I have thought through what that means and concluded, firstly, that anachronism is indispensible if we are to make cultural utterances of whatever era matter to us. Secondly, this includes a ‘first-person’ position that fleshes out the ‘us’ in her phrase. Indeed, Suleiman is one of a handful of academics—along with literary scholars Marianne Hirsch and Jane Tompkins, and art historians Eunice Lipton and Janet Wolff, among others—who, already in the 1980s, explored how her autobiographical and self-reflexive thoughts could help her academic analyses.
I share this interest in what personal experience, when handled carefully, can add to insights gleaned from published documentation without falling into the trap of self-indulgence. It is a form of ‘fieldwork’ with one's own history and present activities as the ‘field.’ Without it, it is hardly possible to grasp what it is that ‘concerns us,’ who and what we are when we write criticism, in and for our present time. Suleiman's most personal book, Budapest Diary, is an excellent example of how the temporality of contemporariness functions. As authors of cultural criticism, we inhabit this contemporariness by integrating memories of the past.
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