The Future, History and Auerbach’s “Figura”

I got to thinking recently about time, history, our common concepts of the past, present and  future. I don’t know if this is normal, if I’m just cynical or depressed or whatever, but I was thinking how I had not anticipated experiencing such a lack of historical consciousness at such an early age. By consciousness, I really mean significance, meaning, a faint sense of how we can participate somewhat freely and creatively in what’s to come.  It’s been a few years now that I’ve lost most any sense of a historical movement towards any kind of telos. When I was a poor, shy kid with bad grades and embarassing haircuts in the late 80’s, early 90’s, living in a small apartment in Montreal-North, there was obviously lots to look forward to; beyond the simple things like living in a peaceful neighborhood, having some kind of sustainable income,  an intellectual impetus, a girlfriend, etc,. there was this sense of a historical movement broader than my own subjective existential thread, beyond my own private little story of prosaic pleasures and disapointments, etc.

I know this sounds stupid and predictable. I know that history is a discourse. I don’t feel particularly depressed or nostalgic about my loss of historical consciousness. I have discovered in recent years that an Arcade Fire, or Nirvana or Talking Heads track, a Lars Von Trier movie, an emotionally tacky Richard Price novel, revisiting one of my many cherished hermetic readings from College, these simple things can sustain me for weeks on end. And then there are my kids, and work, short gatherings with smart friends and I find myself at the end of summer, preparing for my kids to start school, preparing myself to start a new session of classes, yet wondering how we can collectively manage to exist much longer on a large scale without some kind of apprehension of the future. That’s when I started thinking about Erich Auerbach, and Figura, his short and very technical treatise on figuration.

Imagining the future in the concrete

Figura sets out to describe a time (late Antiquity down into the middle ages) when literature (rhetoric, the liberal arts etc.), instead of trying and generally failing to re-present some small tidbit of zeitgeist, was a place where the vague contours of human hopes for the future were sketched out. The basic question that I see in the text is: how does one go about imagining the future ? Whereas today’s answers would inevitably involve some assessment of abstract concepts regarding sustainable development and technological prowess, Auerbach explains how, in the culture of classical thought, any sense of the future involved a constant reinterpretation of the words, ideas and images – the material elements that molded what “was” – inherited from canonical texts. This is why Samuel Beckett’s utterly modern narratives inevitably end up in a static nowhere (which was his point, I think): his characters are obsessed with getting rid of the words they inherited from the past. In many ways, our present time has accomplished the beckettian fantasy regarding the stillness of narrative time, except that, instead of shedding all signs of human existence and becoming worms or anxious cockroaches, we find respite in repeating the plastic forms of excitement we can still vaguely remember.

But the possibility of imagining a future still exists. In re-reading Figura, I realize how much of a literary issue this is. Of course, literature was what made historical consciousness possible in the first place, with the late 18th century advent of literary history. Perhaps now is a time to think of a contemporary way of dealing with the non-historical figurative movement we find in the simple figures of thought produced in everyday discourse and across our media-centric universe.

The first chapter of Figura: from Eidos to Skhèmata

The book is divided into 4 parts. The first is about the grounding of figura in the Rhetorical thought of Roman Antiquity. At first, Auerbach says the notion was used to signify “plastic form”. Instead of pointing to the absolute stillness of Plato’s “theory of forms”, for which words like eidos and morphè were usually used, figura suggested a weird mix of plasticity, novelty and movement. The plastic form of things, a form we can see and feel with our bodies – ancient Greek has the word skhèmata for this -, has a limited life span. Sculptures and paintings decay; we forget the narrative devices and descriptions of a specific novel, song, movie. We often contrast their fleetingness with the permanence of ideas and concepts (German begriff, suggesting a willful grasping that can only be accomplished by a not-so-figurative all-powerful Subject), which many believe can invest an unending variety of forms. My tape cassette of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album is useless today;”Thriller” is a song that had practically been forgotten before Michael Jackson’s death, and yet the concept of “pop music” seems to want to exist in a backstreet-boy-katy-perry-justin-timberlake-lady-gaga kind of way until the end of eternity. Common to all the artists I just named is a vulgar recycling of previous “plastic forms” (skhèmata) of pop music. Justin Timberlake, to his credit, is always quite candid about this. Of course, not all pop artists have the same cultural impact. The music critics at the New-Yorker might say: some- as they now say of MJ – simply have a greater sense of feel for the so-called “essence”  or “spirit” of pop music. To my mind, this “spirit” or “essence” of what is basically an artistic genre is very close to what Auerbach is trying to say about Figura.

Auerbach’s point is that figura hovers in a very subtle way between eidos  (the idea) and skhèmata (the empirical form one seizes with the senses), never suggesting neither in any restricted sense. In hindsight, it’s easy to cite Hamlet and Faust and things like Borges’ library of Babel as examples of how a truly literary figure exists in between the realms of abstract metaphysics and empirical reality. But those examples, handed down to us by an institutionalized Humanist tradition that is all but washed up, do not teach about how to apprehend the future.  Herein lies the mystery of figurative thought: it can only be useful and potent insofar as it helps us imagine the future without 1) passively repeating/copying the past, 2) simply relying on an individual’s limited experience of the world and his very own “imagination’ and “creativity”. As if Michael Jackson created his songs on a bench right next to the narrator of L’innommable

I’ll continue these thoughts in my next post, next week perhaps, after I’ve met my new Cégep students.


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This blog is dedicated to personal musings on the current state of critical thought and literary epistemology. The author - still slightly infected by things like post-heideggerian thought, Benjamin's Epistemo-critical preface to his Trauspiel book, Britney Spears, and junk food - is a 21st century linguistic marrano of sorts, living near Montreal, Quebec, and currently lecturing in the fields of ESL and English literature.

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