Saturday, June 23, 2018

Michael North's "What Is the Present?"

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

North applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What Is the Present?, and reported the following:
In this book, page 99 comes toward the end of a chapter called “The Present in Pictures.” The thesis of this chapter is that our ideas about the present, and maybe even the belief that there is such a thing at all, come as much from pictures as from actual experience. Though we tend to think that all experience occurs in the present, there is really no way for us to apprehend it as time flashes past. The senses cannot verify the intellectual notion that human time is centered on some impossibly thin membrane between past and future. But we can see what passes for the present in pictures because these, unlike actual experience, are still. In fact, traditional aesthetic theory taught that pictures can only show the present. The trick of art, according to authorities on the matter, consisted in painting a moment that implied the past behind and the future before it. Painting came to be dedicated to the depiction of “fruitful” moments, instants that imply whole narratives, and when photography arrived it too attempted to portray such moments. Toward the end of the 19th century, though, when instantaneous photography became possible, the visual evidence it provided tended to contradict these assumptions about the present. For the most part, the moments captured by instantaneous photography were not fruitful. In fact, they were mostly illegible in that it was impossible to read in them evidence of some larger arc of motion. In other words, to quote from page 99, “the evidence of photography suggests that the fruitful moment is not a judicious selection from nature but an aesthetic convention.... Photography exposed the artificiality of the present stripped of the adjustments and justifications with which painting had surrounded it. Thus it tended to call into question not just the fruitful moment but also the moment itself.” These sentences offer a pretty good summation of the idea behind this book, that the present is not an experiential given but a convention. This matters because it suggests that certain normative assumptions about modern life, which is often criticized as too concentrated on the present, depend on opinion rather than fact. So, a closer look at the history of the present might make us rethink a lot of settled ideas about how we live now.
Learn more about What Is the Present? at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Novelty: A History of the New.

--Marshal Zeringue