– Summer 2015

Events, Works, Exhibitions

What Is the Contemporary?

Peter Pál Pelbart

Bruno Pacheco, White Poppies (Meeting Point), 2013, oil on canvas, 260 × 160cm. Photograph: Pedro Tropa.
All images courtesy the artist; Hollybush Gardens, London;
and Galeria Filomena Soares, Lisbon


Two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant wrote an article in response to the question ‘What is the Enlightenment?’1 His reply was categorical: the Enlightenment is humankind’s emergence from its minority — a minority for which human beings themselves bear the guilt. Here is a definition that is simultaneously a realisation, a demand and a programme, under the shadow of which we have lived since. For Kant, the task consists in abandoning the state of tutelage, of dependency, of minority. Understood in this way, modernity is not a historical period but, rather, an attitude: a relationship to the present day, a way of feeling and thinking, what the Greeks called ethos — the ethos of modernity.

Michel Foucault emphasised the fact that this definition not only implies a relation to the present, but also a relation to itself, an elaboration of itself, a relation to behaviour, to feelings, to passions; indeed, to life itself. Hence the extravagant bridge that Foucault built between Kant and Charles Baudelaire: ‘Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself.’

  1. Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?”’ (1784), in I. Kant, Practical Philosophy (trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp.11—23.

  2. Michel Foucault, ‘What is Enlightenment?’ (1984), The Politics of Truth (ed. Sylvère Lotringer and Lysa Hochtroth, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter), Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), p.118.

  3. On the differences between Kant’s and Deleuze’s approaches to emancipation, see Diogo Sardinha, L'émancipation de Kant à Deleuze, Paris: Hermann, 2013.

  4. See ‘Control and Becoming’ (Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Antonio Negri), in G. Deleuze, Negotiations (trans. Martin Joughin), New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, pp.169—76.

  5. Samuel Beckett, Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams, 1982), available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWtIatoBK4M (last accessed on 25 February 2015).

  6. Jornadas de Junho, or ‘June Journeys’, is one of the monikers of the mass demonstrations that shook Brazil in the spring of 2013. Building on the global social movements that emerged in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring in the winter of 2010—11, including the Occupy movement, the Brazil protests were sparked by a rise in bus fares in various cities across the country. They soon encompassed the public’s broader disenchantment with the corrupt and classist policies enforced by Brazil’s ruling elite. These demonstrations occurred at the same time as protesters were taking to the streets of Istanbul to contest the Turkish government’s plans to develop Gezi Park near Taksim Square, and the regime’s authoritarian drift more generally.

  7. See Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (trans. Joshua David Morgan), Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014.

  8. Slavoj Žižek made these comments in an interview on Roda Viva, TV Cultura, 8 July 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gECgJbWOppo (last accessed on 25 February 2015).

  9. François Tosquelles, Le Vécu de la fin du monde dans la folie: Le témoignage de Gérard de Nerval (1948), Grenoble: Éditions Jérôme Millon, 2012.

  10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations (1876, trans. R.J. Hollingdale), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p.64.

  11. Charles Péguy, quoted by Jean-Marie Straub in François Albera, ‘Cinéma [et] politique: “Faucille et marteau, canons, canons, dynamite!” Entretien avec Jean-Marie Straub et Danièle Huillet’, Hors Champ, August 2001; also available at http://www.derives.tv/Cinema-et-politique-Faucille-et (last accessed on 25 February 2015).

  12. Giorgio Agamben, ‘What Is the Contemporary?’ (2008, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella), What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, pp.51—52.

  13. F. Albera, ‘Cinéma [et] politique’, op. cit.

  14. Ibid.

  15. A. Negri, The Labor of Job: The Biblical Text as a Parable of Human Labor (2002, trans. Matteo Mandarini), Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

  16. A. Negri, Time for Revolution (trans. Matteo Mandarini), London: Continuum, 2003, p.201.

  17. Franz Kafka, quoted in Walter Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death’, Illuminations (1955, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn), New York: Schocken Books, 2007, p.116.

  18. Ibid., p.117.

  19. G. Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1975, trans. Dana Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p.10.

  20. Ibid., p.27.

  21. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, What Is Philosophy? (1991, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell), New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p.108.

  22. G. Deleuze in ‘Control and Becoming’, op. cit, p.173.