Parachronism: the Design of Time

HISTORY AND THE A-HISTORICAL PAST

 

The problem with history and historicism is that the present is assumed to be historically determined while the past should only be understood as its background. The task of historians and theorists is to probe for unheard relationships, unmask contradictions, disclose historical continuities, expose discontinuities, and show how the present is related to its past. They have to show how and why today’s practices are – in a pseudo-Marxist way - the farces of the past’s tragedies.[1] They must find today's historical roots and discover what is behind the veil of what we call “contemporary.” Before and beyond the present there is a past that, once transformed in history (ἱστορέω: to examine/to observe/to inquire), defines what we do in the now. There is no present that is not always already historicised. Ultimately, while the present is historically determined by its past, the past is – tautologically – of the past: it is assumed to be objective and detached from the contemporary. But if we get into this problematic, we might well consider this issue the other way around: that is to say, we could look at how the past is defined by the present and how the present reinvents its past. How and why do we decide what is the right past to consider for the present?[2]

 

To ask such question means to make our relationship with historical time more complex. Traditionally, it makes common sense to say that we look back at the past - even when the past is part of the present, as in Walter Benjamin’s allegory of the Angelus Novus: The angel of history is moved by the wind of progress while he looks back at history's “pile of debris."[3] What we see in Benjamin’s allegory is a direct and confrontational relationship between the present and its past: history is given to us in the now as a series of facts, symbols, documents, forms and ideas, but only if we are able to look back at them.[4]  So we look back into our past in search of predictions for the understanding of today, while we continue to follow in the footsteps of a deterministically understood and therefore predetermined "history." Or, maybe we think that the present is a repetition of a certain phase of the cyclical and morphological structure of history – a cyclical return of patterns. It would then be to our advantage to find the precedents in order to infer what might come tomorrow. So, for instance, thanks to Vasari’s definition of the historical eras of Renaissance art, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was able to speculate about the existence of different eras in ancient Greek art, influencing a new generation of artists, including Franz Pforr (1788-1812) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844).[5]

 

We look for models, and we seek historical roots. We find the causes of what we are today, for they have already determined what we do by now - or, at least, this is what we believe. We look, at the past as the reservoir of possible agencies to be used as defensive shields against our critics. Then we oppose the past and the present, and the “now” becomes the mask of history. Such a reality seems to be obvious when we look at the architect’s work and at how it is presented in the architectural debate: contemporary architecture deals with the problems of the present while precedents are used, sometimes with extensive knowledge, as legitimising tools. Yet, we could wonder: could we not think of a different relationship with the past? The usual answer to this question is as known as it is unspoken: “No!”. We should exclusively deal with the present and progress. The alternative, if we insist, comes at the cost of being labelled “anachronistic.” And yet, I argue, Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s work may suggest a different option: we could approach history in a parachronistic manner.[6]

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[1] An interesting critique to this dialectical approach to history is advanced by Jeffrey Kipnis in a footnote to his text Towards a New Architecture: 'Historians may note similarities in the work discussed here to the spatial of baroque architecture and/or to the formal character of German expressionism. I predict their observations will conclude that none of the architects or theorists working in this area are aware of these similarities. […] it will be assumed that the work was conducted in blissful ignorance of these similarities. This first conclusion is necessary to support the second, namely, that the similarities are far more important than the differences. Thus, recalling Marx, they will argue that the second instance is but a parody of the tragic profundity of the first (a tautological argument, since the first instance establishes the terms and conditions of similarity; by coincidence, this argument also happens to support the capitalisation of their professional activities).' Jeffrey Kipnis, Towards a New Architecture (1993), in Jeffrey Kipnis, a Question of Qualities, Essays on Architecture, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), 342.

[2] This problem was already discussed by the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce when he argued that history is always about the present. He wrote: 'If contemporary history springs straight from life, so too does that history which is called non-contemporary, for it is evident that only an interest in the life of the present can move one to investigate past facts.’ In Benedetto Croce Theory & History of Historiography (1917), trans. Douglas Ainslie, (London: George G. Harrap & Co, 1921), 12.

[3] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History” (1940), in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4 1938-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.

[4] Another example could be Ernst Bloch’s definition of the contemporaneity of the non-contemporary: “Not all people exist in the same Now. They do so only externally, by virtue of the fact that they may all be seen today. […] The strength of this untimely course has become evident; it promised nothing less than new life, despite its looking to the old.” See: Ernst Bloch “Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics” (1932), trans. Mark Ritter, in New German Critique, No. 11 (Spring, 1977), 22

[5] See: Ernst H. Gombrich, Kunst und Fortschritt. Wirkung und Wandlung einer Idee, (Köln: DuMont, 1978).

[6] A parachronism is a specific case of anachronism: a chronological inaccuracy for which something is set later than it actually is; or, to put it simply, a transformation of the past onto the present. As such, it comprehends both anachronism and progress. Anyway, a good definition is given by Percival Vivian, in his Dictionary of Literary terms: “the introduction into a scene or background of any given period of something which had ceased to exist before that time, and which could never therefore have coexisted with the other things represented as coexistent with it.”  Percival Vivian, Dictionary of Literary Terms, (London/New York: Routledge & Sons, 1880), 126.

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Cite:

Giacomo Pala, “Parachronism: the Design of TIme”, in Peter Trummer (edited by), Zero Piranesi, SAC Journal, No.5, (Germany, Frankfurt am Main, 2019), pp.

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