Two selections from Giorgio Agamben’s “What Is the Contemporary?” published in Nudities, translated by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), pages 13-15.
3. The poet–the contemporary–must firmly hold his gaze on his own time. But what does he who sees his time actually see? What is this demented grin on the face of his century? I would like at this point to propose a second definition of contemporariness. The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present. But what does it mean “to see an obscurity,” “to perceive the darkness”?
The neurophysiology of vision suggests an initial answer. What happens when we find ourselves in a place deprived of light or when we close our eyes? What is the darkness that we see then? Neurophysiologists tell us that the absence of light activates a series of peripheral cells in the retina called “off-cells.” When activated, these cells produce the particular kind of vision that we call darkness. Darkness is not, therefore, a privative notion (the simple absence of light, or something like nonvision) but rather the result of the activity of the “off-cells,” a product of our own retina. This means, if we now return to our thesis on the darkness of contemporariness, that to perceive this darkness is not a form of inertia or of passivity. Rather, it implies an activity and a singular ability. In our case this ability 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.
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. Having said this much, we have nevertheless still not addressed our question. Why should we be at all interested in perceiving the obscurity that emanates from the epoch? Is darkness not precisely an anonymous experience that is by definition impenetrable, something that is not directed at us and thus cannot concern us? On the contrary, the contemporary is the person who perceives the darkness of his time as something that concerns him, as something that never ceases to engage him. Darkness is something that–more than any light–turns directly and singularly toward him. The contemporary is the one whose eyes are struck by the beam of darkness that comes from his own time.
In the firmament that we observe at night, the stars shine brightly, surrounded by a think darkness. Since the number of galaxies and luminous bodies in the universe is almost infinite, the darkness that we see in the sky is something that, according to scientists, demands an explanation. It is precisely the explanation that contemporary astrophysics gives for this darkness that I would now like to discuss. In an expanding universe the most remote galaxies move away from us at a speed so great that their light is never able to reach us. What we perceive as the darkness of the heavens is this light that, though traveling toward us, cannot reach us, since the galaxies from which the light originates move away from us at a velocity greater than the speed of light.
To perceive, in the darkness of the present, this light that strives to reach us but cannot–this is what it means to be contemporary. As such, contemporaries are rare. And for this reason, to be contemporary is, first and foremost, a question of courage, because it means being able not only to firmly fix one’s gaze on the darkness of the epoch but also to perceive in this darkness a light that, while directed toward us, infinitely distances itself from us. In other words it is like being on time for an appointment that one cannot but miss.
4. This is the reason why the present that contemporariness perceives has broken vertebrae. Our time, the present, is in fact not only the most distant: it cannot in any way reach us. Its backbone is broken and we find ourselves in the exact point of this fracture. This is why we are, despite everything, contemporaries. It is important to realize that the appointment that is in question in contemporariness does not simply take place in chronological time: it is something that, working within chronological time, urges, presses, and transforms it. And this urgency is the untimeliness, the anachronism that permits us to grasp our time in the form of a “too soon” that is also a “too late”–of an “already” that is also a “not yet.” Moreover, it allows us to recognize in the obscurity of the present the light that, without ever being able to reach us, is perpetually voyaging toward us.