What is the contemporary?

What is the contemporary, and how do we define the contemporary novel?

These are two questions that are difficult to answer, two questions that many literary theorists have struggled with. In this post I do not attempt to do the impossible (or incredibly difficult) and define the un-definable, I do however wish to discuss some potential answers, some potential theories surrounding what the contemporary novel is, and where it fits in in this world.

The contemporary should be considered as fluid, as something that is not still, something that is constantly moving and evolving. It is something that we are experiencing and living through right now, meaning that it is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to comprehend. Whilst our time has substance and shape, it seems almost impossible to see this, because we are too close to it. Therefore, in order to find and understand the contemporary, one must gain perspective and consider it from a distance.

It is not necessarily temporal distance that is needed in order to be considered contemporary, metaphorical distance is key. According to Giorgio Agamben:

“The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness.”

Agamben continues to explain that all eras have obscurities and that the contemporary is the person that knows how to see this obscurity.

“This obscurity amounts to a neutralization of the lights that come from the epoch, in order to discover its obscurity, its special darkness, which is not, however, separable from those lights.”

Is Agamben saying here that the contemporary is the opposite of the popular? Could the contemporary be considered as a reaction to the zeitgeist? One could consider that the zeitgeist at present is extremely negative, lead by the rise of fascism, racism, climate change denial and the rise of technology to name just a few. Is contemporary fiction, therefore, a reaction to these feelings that saturate the present with their light? Does contemporary fiction emerge from the darkness, the obscurity that these feelings cast, offering a critical reaction, an opposing ‘contemporary’ commentary? I think so, yes. In fact, I am quite certain. Agamben considers that:

“The ones who can call themselves contemporary are only those who do not allow themselves to be blinded by the lights of the century, and so manage to get a glimpse of the shadows in those lights, of their intimate obscurity.”

In a time of Donald Trump, Brexit and climate change denial, I think that this quotation is quite perfect. The contemporary then, offers opposition to this light that blinds so many. The contemporary writes having seen the ‘intimate obscurities’, they write critically of the feeling and mood of our time, critically against the rise in right-wing politics, against the climate change deniers, against technology.

So what is the contemporary? Someone who does not allow themselves to be captured by the ‘lights’ of the zeitgeist, instead, discovering the shadows and obscurities of their time, as a result, gaining the ability to write literature that opposes and critiques it. So, how do we define the contemporary novel, and how does it fit into our time? If we take Agamben’s theory, the contemporary novel is a novel of perspective, a novel that does not conform to the popular, that does not contribute to the ‘lights’ of the time. In allowing themself to disconnect, and distance themself from present rhetorics, by not allowing themself to coincide or adjust to the demands of their time, the writer creates their own opposing rhetoric, the writer creates a contemporary novel, a novel that submits to the shadows of the epoch and opposes the lights.

SOURCES CITED: Giorgio Agamben, Nudities, trans. David Kishisk and Stefan Pedetella, (Stanford University Press, 2011)

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