Anachronism and Emancipation

I’m more and more interested in theories of radical democracy because I think they do a good job of revealing the ways that structure and space matter, but also thinking that the answer (emancipation!) does not necessarily lie in either structure or space.  They also show how everything is political – EVERYTHING – without necessarily resolving the politics into a single form or project.

Having just read Jelica Šumič’s “Anachronism and Emancipation” essay, though, I would like to put pressure on her (and perhaps also Laclau’s) account of anachronism.  Because while she quite rightfully argues that structure’s inconsistencies (such as anachronism) “can only be made visible after the fact” (190), she still believes that anachronism is almost always a site of structural inconsistency.  In her words (with some of Laclau’s thrown in):

“Anachronism is not emancipatory in itself, rather, it only points to the structural inconsistency of the social, indicating in this way that any socio-political arrangement that emerges within this undecidable terrain remains irreducibly contingent, non-groundable.  On another account, however, the liberating effects of anachronism cannot be denied either.  Contemporary politics of emancipation is therefore confronted with the task of recognizing the irreducible undecidability of any institution of the social ‘and tak[ing] full advantage of the political possibilities that this undecidability opens’” (188)

The problem of seeing anachronism as a “structural inconsistency” that opens up “undecidability” is to forget the question of visibility that she points to later in the essay.  For anachronisms are not always – I would even suggest not usually – visible because they are so often implicit in the hegemonic structure.   It is for this reason that Dickens has no problem calling the Jewish Riah “a ghost of another time,” the English had no difficulty suggesting that the Irish were in need of education and development.  Within the structure of modernization and empire, there are always ‘premodern’ people seen as such precisely because modernity has define itself against its anachronistic others.  But this form of anachronism only becomes inconsistent when you see it as disrupting and disturbing the structure of modernity, rather than a product of this very structure.

Which is all to say, that we think in terms of anachronism to make one version of the social (in this case, the modern, the empire) cohere, but anachronism is also the very thing that can disrupt this coherence.  Visibility matters, especially because we only see anachronisms anachronistically.

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