The Contemporary, As Soon As Possible: Periodization vs. Relationality
One way to understand “the contemporary” is as a new movement, moment, or “period” in artistic production. The academy is adept at producing names for such changes in literary and other movements, most visibly in the frenetic attempt to define “postmodernism” against High Modernism—an attempt that provided fodder for hundreds of books and articles in the 1980s and 1990s and ended up coming almost to naught, with only a few major studies (such as Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991) standing up to later pressures of the New Modernist Studies and the post-Cold-War reevaluation of C20 periodization. At the turn of the century, we see the academic machine once again churning out descriptors of the contemporary arts: digimodernism, cosmodernism, the New Sincerity, Remodernism, planetarity, performatism, geoculture, transculturalism, neo-cosmopolitanisms, network society. In these descriptions, there is usually an implied or stated date of origin.
Yet periodization of the contemporary should be seen as a false economy. My overall claims are rather common-sense ones. First, that “the contemporary” is a term that should escape the straightjackets of historical periodization. And second, that it doesn’t matter how we carve up aesthetic periods beyond a certain point, though I would defend certain breaks as logical in human time; rather, what counts is why we do so (and if we know and control why we do so), as well as what insights can result from seeing periods and breaks from new starting and ending points, from the sites of new art forms as they emerge on the historical scene. In this paper I’d like to discuss the alternatives to periodization that my own research and that The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present are built upon. Related but not the same, these two perspectives offer alternatives to what I see as the instrumentalized notion of instutionalized periodization. I will first discuss the alternative offered by my own current work, which is to focus on the ethics of relationality defined variously in relation to broad “planetary” space-time parameters as alternative to periodized and ironic postmodernism, and then discuss an alternative posited by A.S.A.P.’s mission, which is to create a salon-like environment of international practitioners and critics who focus on concrete art forms rather than theoretical abstractions such as periodization; national arts that tautologically reinforce the very period descriptors they are meant to create; or specific art genres (e.g. literature) in isolation from other arts.
Amy Elias is Professor of English at the University of Tennessee, is affiliated faculty with UT Cinema Studies and UT American Studies, and is a fellow at the UT Center for the Study of Social Justice. In 2013-2014 she was a University of Tennessee Humanities Center Fellow. Her book Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (Johns Hopkins, 2001) concerned with the relation between postmodern historiography and the historical romance tradition and won the George and Barbara Perkins Book Prize from the International Society for the Study of Narrative. She has co-edited two essay collections: Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, eds. Joel Burges and Amy J. Elias, under final review with New York University Press and concerning contemporary models of time, and The Planetary Turn: Relationality, and Geoaesthetics in the 21st Century, eds. Amy J. Elias and Christian Moraru (Northwestern University Press, forthcoming April 2015), concerning planetarity and dialogue in contemporary culture, aesthetics, and art criticism. In addition, she is the founder of A.S.A.P.: The Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present (homepage at http://artsofthepresent.org) and has served in various offices for that organization, now in its sixth year; she hosted the association’s launch conference in Knoxville in 2009, which featured work by 115 speakers from China, the UK, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. Her book in progress, titled Dialogue: Art, and the Commons After 1960, concerns the aesthetics of interactivity and relationality in the contemporary arts and posits a new model for understanding post-1945 periodization. Her numerous articles and talks can be found at http://utk.academia.edu/AmyElias