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Ideas in Time

John Potts

Chapter 9. Continuity Refound

Hodge and Kress, Serres, Agamben

Texte intégral

1I devote this chapter to various theories of historical continuity that may inform a study of continuity in intellectual history. Some of these theoretical approaches exhibit a respect for tradition as found in Gadamer; others emphasise the long continuities of cultural and intellectual development, as described by Braudel or Collingwood; others explore the historical dimension of Bakhtin’s dialogism; others still elevate the temporal dimension in disciplines that had previously repressed the diachronic. I consider various formulations of the longue durée in intellectual history, philosophy, art history, history of science, and also in contemporary art. My aim is to ascertain the significance of these diverse approaches for a reconstructed history of ideas.

‘Post-Foucauldian’ Intellectual History

2A secondary aim in assembling these theoretical perspectives is to determine whether they constitute – or at least participate in – a general post-1960s theoretical direction, whether they suggest – in the words of Ian Maclean – a ‘post-Foucauldian hypothesis’ in the analysis of intellectual change (Maclean 1999). In his attempt to modify Foucault’s theory of intellectual history, Maclean incorporates Collingwood’s philosophy of history. Indeed Maclean, who is generally sympathetic to Foucault’s 1960s work on intellectual history, considers one of its major weaknesses to be Foucault’s ‘failure to look beyond a very French context for ideas about the history of thought’ (Maclean 1999: 164). For Maclean, Foucault was unable to offer a satisfactory theory of intellectual change, in part because he ignored the insights of Weber, Collingwood and others. Foucault’s concept of the episteme is problematic for Maclean in that it allows no scope for human agency – it resembles ‘a laboratory without a scientist in it’ (166) – therefore containing no provision for change

3A contemporary practice of tracing the history of an idea need not be constrained by Foucault’s anti-humanist theoretical approach, which favoured discursive systems over human agency. Indeed, Foucault’s emphasis on the abstractions termed ‘discourse’ or ‘power-knowledge’ created in his historical works a form of discursive determinism, forging the impression that history is shaped by an entity known as discourse. As Maclean has stated, historians of ideas need not operate a laboratory devoid of scientists. In his book The Logic of the History of Ideas (1999), Mark Bevir makes a similar argument, that a contextualist history need not preclude the ability of individual authors ‘to act creatively in any given social context’ (1999: 33). Bevir defends ‘a space for conscious and rational human agency’ (311) within such intellectual histories.

4My history of the idea of charisma, for example, contained extensive focus on two chief scientists: Paul of Tarsus and Max Weber. The creativity of Paul invented the term ‘charisma’ – from the Greek charis or grace – in his epistles of the first century, bestowing on the word the meaning of ‘gift of God’s grace’ (Potts 2009: 23). This religious concept was transformed two thousand years later by the ingenuity of Weber, who installed ‘charisma’ as a sociological concept within his theory of authority or ‘legitimate domination’ (Potts 118). Weber redefined charisma as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.’ (Weber 1968: 241) As I remarked in A History of Charisma:

without the ingenuity demonstrated by Paul in his letters, ‘charisma’ may never have come into widespread usage; without the invention displayed by Weber, we may not include ‘charisma’ in our current vocabulary. (Potts 2009: 10)

5The creativity of these two individual authors is therefore crucial in the history of this idea. At the same time, a history of charisma must be careful to situate these two authors in their historical contexts. They were ‘two individual agents shaped by their circumstances’; the works of Paul and Weber, two thousand years apart, ‘were generated from within specific, historically determined, formations of knowledge’ (10).

6Maclean invokes Collingwood’s ‘logic of question and answer’ as a flexible means of assessing the thought of a period, one which does not imprison that age in ‘a categorical straitjacket of a Foucauldian kind’ (168). Collingwood’s model allows for localisation of thought within its broader context, while accommodating the ‘human reflective ability’ likely to prompt intellectual change. By supplementing Foucault’s archaeological model of thought with this insight derived from Collingwood, Maclean proposes a more ‘pluralist and polyphonic’ conceptual scheme than that offered by Foucault. Epistemic change – or paradigm shift – becomes more subtle and complex with the recognition – derived from Collingwood – of ‘thought at the margins and limits of discourses’ (175). Maclean’s ‘correction’ of Foucault (or of the construction of Foucault as a ‘philosopher of discontinuity’) accords with my emphasis, in Chapter Five, of Foucault’s attention to the ‘tangle of temporalities’ in intellectual history.

  • 1 Rose’s essay, ‘Cultural Analysis and Moral Discourses: Episodes, Continuities, and Transformations’ (...)

7In the domain of cultural history, Sonya O. Rose effects a similar theoretical move to that of Maclean. Her attempt to stretch beyond the ‘linguistic turn’ of cultural studies draws on work on ‘episodes, continuities and transformations’ in cultural history.1 Rose’s initial inquiry concerns the persistence of moral panics surrounding female sexuality. She is interested in the way these moral panics occur episodically over centuries, repeating the tenor of earlier upsurges while differing subtly with each occurrence. Her goal is to explain both the historical continuity of this discourse and the minor transformations intrinsic in each episode. The moral panics appear to draw upon, recirculate, and rearticulate cultural thematics and symbolic linkages that have earlier, recurring, and continuing incarnations. (Rose 1999: 223)

8For Rose, structuralist analysis is inadequate for this task, because ‘it cannot address the question of continuities in the content of moral discourses.’ (224) She suggests that each incidence of this moral panic should be considered an episode within an ‘ongoing historical process’ or ‘continuous narrative’ (224). As an illustration of this continuity, she quotes Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A Study of Respectable Fears (1983), an analysis of the periodic outbursts in Britain of moral panic concerning male ‘hooligans’, which suggests that ‘a fixed vocabulary of complaint rumbles on through… history almost without interruption.’ (224)

9Yet Rose is intent on formulating a theory of continuity and change: for her it is not enough to argue that some social codes are ‘durable’ because they express a ‘deep structure’ (225-226). In attempting ‘a more historical view of how culture works’ (228), she draws on Bakhtin’s theory of language as dialogue. For Bakhtin, language is always in use, which means that utterances are ‘history-laden – they are always part of an ongoing historical process’ (Rose: 228).

10As Rose observes, Bakhtin’s ‘dialogism’ features the interaction between present and past in an act of ‘recuperation’. Because the discourse of the present constitutes a singular ‘network of meanings and social relationships’, each recuperation of a meaning or theme ‘creates something that was not there before: its meanings are the product of a particular conjuncture.’ (229) Discourse is thereby a mingling of past and present, so that while particular cultural themes may be repeated, each repetition has new resonances and produces new meanings and effects. (229)

11Rose contends that Bakhtin’s ideas are readily applicable to cultural history, and that they offer ‘a more historically dynamic understanding of the instability of discursive forms and meanings than do Foucault’s.’ (229) For her purposes, Bakhtin’s dialogism accounts for both the continuity of particular discursive patterns and the transformations – however minor – of those discourses with each manifestation. Each ‘retelling’ of the same story, theme or pattern ‘has the potential in some way to modify the one that preceded it.’ (234)

‘Semiosis in Time’: Hodge and Kress

12The process of continuity and change in discourse has been thoroughly elaborated by Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress in their book Social Semiotics (1988). Hodge and Kress maintain that a ‘comprehensive theory of the diachronic’ is urgently needed if semiotics is to prove capable of explaining ‘change, process, crisis and revolution in the smaller and larger scale.’ (Hodge and Kress 1988: 34-35) Their ‘social semiotics’, drawing on the idea of utterance as social phenomenon developed by Voloshinov and later theorists, installs the diachronic dimension as an ‘integral part’ of analysis (163). Hodge and Kress (1988: 37) cite the work of Benveniste, Hymes and Halliday, among others, as influencing an approach to semiotics that emphasises – as structuralist semiotics did not – the social context of semiotic acts. Discourse is treated within its social and historical context, so that discourse analysis reveals ‘semiosis in time’ (168). Transformations in semiosis are effected by diverse diachronic phenomena, ‘moving at different rates on different scales’ as they condition the meaning and interpretation of utterances (182).

13In their attention to the ‘historically oriented tasks of social semiotics’ (182), Hodge and Kress give consideration to the central theme of this book – namely the problem of continuity and discontinuity in intellectual history. In reflecting on the histories of thought proposed by Foucault, Althusser and Kuhn, they note that the most radical theories of discontinuity claim that ‘the “revolution” has altered basic modes of thought and possibilities of producing meaning.’ (183) Hodge and Kress are critical of the conception of art or culture as ‘monolithic blocks divided by deep fissures of incommensurability and incomprehension’ (185). They regard Kuhn’s paradigm-shift model as mistaken, in that it defines each age by its ‘ruling ideas’. Such a model commits two errors: in privileging dominant cultural forms, it obliterates other ideas of the period; and in dividing the history of thought into successive paradigms, it ‘turn [s] struggle in time into a difference across time’ (186). The ‘apparent ruptures’ dividing paradigms are over-stated in discontinuist models, because the rupture ‘is not a cognitive barrier’: a new stage may appear very different, ‘but it will never be unintelligible’ (186).

14In their efforts to build a ‘fully developed historical semiotics’ (192), Hodge and Kress draw on the tradition of etymology as utilised by Raymond Williams in his book Keywords. They comment that for Williams a ‘reading of history’ was indispensable for an understanding of the present, while he regarded ‘social forces as the motor for semiotic change.’ (192) Hodge and Kress find in Williams’ etymologies an appreciation of transformation that resists the overstatement of theories of ‘rupture’. Etymology recognises ‘shifts of meaning and discontinuities’ (186), but locates these transformations in society and history. Williams’ analyses accommodate ‘quantum leaps in meaning’, but the rationale for these changes – often involving the influence of powerful social groupings – makes historical sense (186). As Hodge and Kress observe, ‘they are leaps, but not ruptures’; at the same time, former meanings often survive, complicating the lexicon and violating any supposed ‘ruptures’ or discontinuities (186-187).

15Hodge and Kress make the further observation that historical change is a complex phenomenon involving ‘both relatively continuous and relatively discontinuous aspects’ (265). Models of historical change are likely to emphasise one of those aspects over the other. Thus the process of change may be constructed as a ‘transformation’, that is ‘a discontinuous progression from one structure to another.’ (265) If the theoretical model emphasises continuity, the same process will be constructed as a ‘slide’. For Hodge and Kress, the choice made by interpreters in selecting a model of slide or of transformation is ‘itself ideologically significant’ (265). This observation accords with my analysis of Kuhn and other theorists of discontinuity in Chapter Six. There I argued that Kuhn’s paradigm shift model repressed continuities (or ‘slides’) in the history of scientific thought, instead construing change in the terms of ‘quantum leaps’ or radical shifts. I also contended that Kuhn’s discontinuist interpretation needs to be placed in the historical context of the ‘revolutionary’ 1960s, which favoured models of upheaval and radical breaks. In the next section, I consider recent models of change in the histories of science and art that develop a continuist perspective.

Continuity and Change in Art

16Hodge and Kress perform their own act of historical art criticism – ‘decoding a classic’ – in Social Semiotics. The classic work in question is Donatello’s sculpture of St Mary Magdalene, created around 1455. Their analysis of this Renaissance statue as a ‘transformational work’ serves several purposes for their project of social semiotics. It is a critique of the decontextualised process of conventional art criticism, which typically imposes a heavily-loaded signification of ‘Renaissance’ onto such artworks; in this regard, Hodge and Kress refer specifically to Sir Kenneth Clark’s television series and book, Civilisation. In addition, their analysis demonstrates the importance of the diachronic dimension in the act of interpretation, while undermining the discontinuist perspective that would construe Donatello’s art as a radical break with the past.

17For Hodge and Kress, interpretation of an artwork must situate it in its historical context, which means paying attention to the many traditions and practices in which it is enmeshed. The meanings of this specific work are to be found in the set of transformations in which the statue is involved, in the various histories, short and long, which intersect it. (Hodge and Kress 1988: 196)

18It is a mistake to ascribe a meaning to the work that can then be related to history, because ‘ [i] ts history is its meaning’ (196). Their analysis of the statue is concerned with some of the diverse ‘diachronic chains’ connecting with the work. The most significant of these is the ‘discourse’ within which the statue was first inserted, including its original setting in the Baptistery in Florence. Considered in this context, the statue as a sign ‘is intrinsically dialogic’ (196). It was created in a dialogic relation with the pre-existing works within the Baptistery, most notably a huge thirteenth-century mosaic. Hodge and Kress argue that Donatello enacted a number of aesthetic transformations in relation to this and other works within the Baptistery. These transformations of traditional styles cohere into the ‘Renaissance’ quality of Donatello’s statue, but its break with the past is ‘not mysterious and absolute’ (201-202). For Hodge and Kress, the components of this work

are all explicable and motivated, and exist in some form in the previous system. We are looking at a new accent, not a new language, and Donatello as an agent of change remains totally fluent in the previous form. (202)

19Hodge and Kress interpret this work in the context of a series of transformations arising from its dialogic relation with the past; such transformations are shown to operate in a process of change within continuity.

20Several other commentators within art history and cultural history have questioned the process of ‘periodisation’, whereby art or culture is sectioned into discrete periods or paradigms. Nigel Wheale has asked whether the modern/ postmodern distinction in twentieth century aesthetics represents a break or a continuity. The division between modernism and postmodernism – in which the dividing-line is generally positioned in the 1960s or 1970s – may well prove to be misplaced; moreover, Wheale cites Charles Harrison’s contention that this division obscures important continuities. For Harrison, so-called postmodern art may be better understood as the revival of the conceptually challenging modernist tradition that had been ‘effaced by the “establishment” modernism of the 1950s.’ (Wheale 1995: 31) Vladimir Biti similarly interrogates periodisation as a ‘technique of cultural identification’, with specific reference to Foucault’s own writing. Biti points to the obvious continuities of thought – stretching back through Nietzsche, Marx and Kant – informing Foucault’s work, a continuity discrediting ‘the principle of discontinuity’ as applied to epistemes and radical breaks (Biti 1999: 177). These theorists, like Hodge and Kress, have exposed the shortcomings of a simplistic discontinuist perspective, which tends – as in Kuhn’s model – to ignore or repress elements of continuity.

21Peter Burke has considered models of continuity and change within the wide range of art and cultural history. These include the notion of ‘schemata’ used by Aby Warburg, Ernst Gombrich and other twentieth century theorists in the field of art history and cultural studies. For Warburg, schemata were elements of artistic tradition ‘which persisted over the centuries although their uses and applications varied’ (Burke 1997: 188). Burke notes that this and more recent models of continuity and transformation construe tradition not as unchanging, but as a process of perpetual adaptation. Burke’s remark on tradition in art history echoes the theorisations proposed by Gadamer and Rose, among others mentioned in this chapter. Tradition is subject to an inner conflict between the principles transmitted from one generation to another and the changing situations to which they are supposed to be applied. (Burke 1997: 189)

22This process of synthesis – in which both continuity and change are crucial – may be identified in art history, and in the broader cultural field. Burke notes that while many schemata, stereotypes and metaphors are ‘amazingly long-lived on occasion’, they are themselves ‘subject to change over the long term’ (177). Thus pagan gods survived into the medieval Christian world by transformations into other symbols such as angels, or traditional European stereotypes were relocated and transformed in the new world (188, 178). Much of this conceptualisation of cultural history, then, favours change as growth or adaptation within continuity, rather than a discontinuist model of dislocation and fundamental change.

Change and the Passage of Time in Contemporary Art

23In The New Time and Space (2015), I considered the treatment of time in twentieth century art and literature. The literature of the Modernist period revealed an obsession with the experience and consciousness of time; this emphasis reflected in part the influence of Bergson’s philosophy on Western thought in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In widely read philosophical works such as Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907), Bergson developed his idea of durée or duration, the consciousness of time experienced by intuition. Duration for Bergson was contrasted with the ‘imaginary homogenous time’ measured by clocks (Bergson 1919: 275). For Bergson, duration was unlike mathematical or clock time, in that it had multiple rhythms matching ‘the degree of tension or relaxation of different forms of consciousness.’ (275) Bergson’s philosophy of time discounted the present, which he found an inconsequential ‘indivisible limit’ separating the past from the future. The constant flow of time means that ‘we perceive only the past’, reducing the present to ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future.’ (193-194)

24In Creative Evolution Bergson further defined duration as ‘the continuous progress of the past which… swells as it advances’ (2007: 4). Elements of flux, change and becoming are built into the flow of duration, so that consciousness, ‘which is built up each instant with its accumulated experience, changes without ceasing.’ (5) Bergson’s emphases on intuition, flux and creativity endeared his thought to a generation of artists and writers: ‘we are creating ourselves continually, ’ he wrote (5); ‘it is the very flux of the real that we should be trying to follow.’ (219)

25The Italian Futurists took inspiration from Bergson’s elevation of flux and becoming, while literary Modernists including Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein explored interior states of consciousness and duration in their works. Bergson’s insistence that the present is continually occupied by the past, or ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’, was echoed in many literary works, including Faulkner’s play Requiem for a Nun (1950), with its observation that: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (Faulkner 1975: Act 1 Scene 3) Marcel Proust’s massive novel In Search of Lost Time begins and ends with the word ‘time’, and is a prolonged engagement with memory and the persistence of the past, suitably Bergsonian themes (Proust was personally acquainted with the philosopher and attended his public lectures).

26Artists in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have pursued themes of time and memory with a variety of techniques. The South African artist William Kentridge uses a number of means to incorporate the past into the present, including hand-drawn animation films in which the artist adds different layers of charcoal drawings onto the same sheet: as a result, each image is composed of traces of previous drawings. The German artist Thomas Demand uses the highly original method of building paper sculptures, based on photographs of objects; the sculptures are then photographed and destroyed. The final print exists at various levels of remove from the original object; various fine details will be omitted, as if the print is an approximation from memory of the original object. Through this process, the memory of the object is summoned and the object re-collected, dis-membered and re-membered.

27Contemporary art is well-placed to represent the passage of time, or duration, even the slow transformation associated with ideas in time. Durational art forms including performance art and video art have developed since the 1960s, embracing the passage of time and almost imperceptible change associated with long durations. In 2010, the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic sat in a chair for a total of 736 hours, while visitors to her performance The Artist is Present, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took turns sitting opposite her, for as long as they wished. Abramovic engaged in similar feats of long duration in subsequent performances, including 512 Hours at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2014.

28Part of the effect created by experiencing these works of extreme duration is a change to the audience’s experience of time. Curator Sophie O’Brien wrote of 512 Hours that Abramovic has ‘committed within her practice to changing our relationship to time’. The artist pushes through extended duration to create ‘black holes’, where the audience experiences ‘the depth of time’ (O’Brien 2014: 29). This experience perhaps brings the audience closer to duration as described by Bergson in Time and Free Will (1888): an ‘intensive magnitude’ of ‘pure duration’, not measured by clocks or instruments but ‘that which consciousness perceives’ (Bergson 1910: 106). These performances allow us to perceive time not as a succession of instants but as a flow, ‘the very flux of the real.’ (Bergson 2007: 219)

29The Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh has conducted even more extreme feats of endurance: beginning in 1978, he completed five performance pieces each of one year’s duration. In Cage Piece (1978-1979), the artist spent one year locked in a tiny wooden cage. In Time Clock Piece (1980-1981), Hsieh punched a time clock every hour for one year, taking a single picture of himself each time. In works such as these, photographic documentation – in this case photographs taken every hour for 365 days – yields a representation of the passage of time. Gradual change over extended duration is also made evident in the documentation process. The assembled photos taken in Time Clock Piece comprised a six-minute film, illustrating changes to Hsieh’s appearance including lengthening hair.

30The Australian artist Sue Ford used photography spanning long durations – of many years, even decades – to represent change. Although the individual photograph freezes time at a specific instant, multiple photographs taken across time become elements within an ensemble of images spanning great temporal distance. Ford’s Self-portrait with camera (1960-2006) was an installation of 47 black-and-white and colour photographs, spanning 46 years of the artist’s life. The curator and critic Judy Annear has remarked of this work: ‘Ford’s images ask, who is being photographed? And answer, this is me, a constantly changing yet curiously always recognisable entity both because of and regardless of time.’ (Annear 2015: 18)

31Annear quotes Ford on her particular concern with the way the past resonates in the present: ‘I have always been interested in how actions taken in the past could affect and echo people’s lives in the present.’ (Annear 18) The photographs in Ford’s Time Series 1962-1982 represent ‘unique interlocking documents’ that disclose a ‘scrutiny of the changing self’ (Annear 18). The portraits in the Time Series are in most cases dyptichs, separated by about a decade. Jenny, 1962; Jenny, 1974 (Figure 1) is an example of a portrait from the Time Series.

Fig. 1: Sue Ford
Jenny, 1962; Jenny, 1974
From the Time Series 1962-1974

32Ford wrote in 1974 that in the Time Series the camera became ‘a time machine’. She attempted to deploy the camera ‘as objectively as possible’, using no props, special lighting or effects of any kind. The subjects such as Jenny simply face the camera, with little display of emotion. The significance of one photo is only made apparent when it is paired with a photo taken of the same subject twelve years later, in the case of Jenny, 1974. For Ford the contrast between the two photos produces ‘an amazing experience’: ‘It wasn’t until I placed the photograph of the younger face beside the recent photograph that I could fully appreciate the change.’ (Ford 1974: 1)

33Change wrought by time is the abiding theme of the Time Series. As Kate Rhodes has remarked of these photographs, Ford ‘introduces flux into the Time Series – the gap between 1962 and 1974 is traversed in the flicker of an eye.’ (Rhodes 2002: 1) Rhodes observes that Ford ‘uses the passage of time like glue’; each parallel pair of photographs such as Jenny ‘works together and relies on the other for the development of narrative’ (1). This narrative connection between the photos is extended in the work Jim, 1964; Jim, 1969; Jim 1974; Jim 1979 (Figure 2) from Time Series II.

Fig. 2: Sue Ford
Jim, 1964; Jim, 1969; Jim 1974; Jim 1979
From the Time Series II 1962-1982

34This work spans the period of 15 years over four separate photographs. The changes in Jim’s physical appearance are more pronounced that in the Jenny pairing; the overall change between the first image and the fourth is greater. The subject of this work is not so much Jim as ‘Jim plus time’, or the changes undergone by Jim over a decade and a half. The significance of these works is located in ‘the temporal dynamic between the photographs’. The works suggest a ‘tension between what is presented, which is spare and economical, and what was lived “between time”’ (Art Gallery of NSW 2013: 1). The sequence of photographs constructs a narrative through time that allows us to glimpse change over extended duration.

35The Polish artist Roman Opalka dedicated his life’s work, beginning in 1965 until his death in 2011, to the project of externalising thought and visualising time. He achieved this aim through the medium of paint, and through a daily technique of painstaking rigour. Beginning with the first canvas or ‘detail’ in 1965, Opalka painted numbers in white pigment, stretching in horizontal rows from the top left corner of the canvas to the bottom right corner. Each new detail would pick up the number count from where the previous canvas finished. The title of the ongoing work of painting was 1965/ 1 – ∞. Apart from the changing numbers, transformation was reflected in the project in other ways. Initially Opalka painted his white numbers on a black background; he then shifted to a grey background. From 1968 he added 1 % more white to the background with each new detail; he calculated that by the time he reached 7,777,777 the background would be entirely white. Also from 1968 he took a photograph of himself after each day’s work; the progression of daily photos documented the passage of time in the appearance of the artist. From 1972 he added sound recording to the process of documenting time: he recorded himself counting the numbers as he painted them. The last number painted by Opalka, in 2011, was 5,607,249.

36Artists working with video have exploited the properties of the medium to investigate the working of time over long duration. In 24 Hour Psycho (1993) the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon slowed Hitchcock’s film Psycho so that its ‘running time’ lasted a day. Gordon’s video work created a ‘temporal dislocation’, as the viewer shifted between ‘the slowly changing present’, the past in the remembered original, and the future in anticipation of the (slowed-down) narrative (Gordon quoted by Powell 2012: 62).

37The American artist Bill Viola has made numerous video works, often with spiritual overtones, often in extreme slow motion. Viola has adopted digital techniques that enable images to move exceptionally slowly, so that change in the image is at times almost imperceptible. At certain points, time seems to be suspended in Viola’s works; at other points, changing images unfurl gradually. Viola has stated that the slow pace of change in his video works is intended as ‘an antidote to the relentless pace of modern life’ (quoted in Taylor 2014: 5).

38In his use of poetic imagery, and his commitment to gradual transformation of images over extended duration, Viola’s works come close to providing a visual representation of ideas as they change in time. His Tristan Project (2004-2006) comprises a sequence of video works based on Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Fire Woman (2005), one of the works within the Tristan Project, uses elemental imagery in slow motion in an extraordinary eleven-minute sequence. The imagery is both of the world, with its preponderance of fire and water, and in the mind, in its dream-like transition between images. As Kira Perov observes, Fire Woman is a series of images ‘seen in the mind’s eye of a dying man.’ (Perov 2005: 49) The six still images below represent six points within the eleven-minute sequence (Figure 3).

Fig. 3: Bill Viola
Fire Woman 2005
Video/sound installation
Photos: Kira Perov

39The sequence begins with the silhouette of a female figure standing before a wall of flame. After several minutes, she slowly moves forward, opens her arms, and ‘falls into her own reflection’. The nature of the imagery changes with the realisation that ‘desire’s body will never again be met’, blinding the seer. Figurative imagery now becomes abstract: ‘the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into its essential form – undulating wave patterns of pure light.’ (49) The abstractions represented in the final two still images evoke something of the abstractions of the mind, even of ideas. The slow shift between images of the human figure and fire, into abstract patterns of fire, water and light, convey a visual representation of the changes within ideas in time.

Continuity and Change in Science

40Since Chapter Six was largely devoted to discontinuist models of scientific change, it is apt that I include the history of science in this survey of continuist theoretical models, this time from a different perspective. Some specialist studies of science history have proceeded by questioning assumptions of historical discontinuity; in this context, those assumptions have derived largely from the work of Kuhn, or from the French theorists such as Bachelard and Koyré. Thus David C. Lindberg, in his examination of the seventeenth century ‘scientific revolution’, argues that the generally accepted view of this period as a ‘global’ scientific upheaval effects certain distortions. Like Hodge and Kress, he contends that the choice of an interpretive model – emphasising either continuity or discontinuity – has major repercussions for the understanding of historical periods. He notes that historians have largely committed themselves to the historical construct – developed by Koyré – of the ‘holistic character of scientific change’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Lindberg 1987: 433). This theoretical predisposition then ‘virtually determines that one will find medieval and early modern science to have been discontinuous’ (434).

41Lindberg proposes instead that both continuity and discontinuity were characteristic of this transitional period; but to find them, ‘we must be willing to look for them in their natural habitats’ (434). This means studying specific disciplines over specific durations – in this case geometrical optics in the period when the discipline was supposedly ‘revolutionised’ by Kepler. Lindberg finds that this particular discipline, which enjoyed a ‘large measure of autonomy’ from other pursuits, maintained an ‘internal coherence and continuity’ (443). Kepler preserved the Neoplatonic metaphysics of light; he dealt with problems generated from within the medieval tradition, using ‘the conceptual tools of that very tradition’ (442). Lindberg reveals a transformation of traditional modes, in much the same way that the analysis of Donatello by Hodge and Kress described the transformation of pre-Renaissance modes. For Lindberg, there was no radical disjuncture operating within Kepler’s field. Rather, a model of change within continuity is appropriate in this instance: Many elements of ancient and medieval thought remained untouched, and others were remoulded to fit a new context. (444)

  • 2 Cohen nominates Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (1949) and Rupert Hall, The Scie (...)

42A more general account of continuity within science history is provided by I. Bernard Cohen in Revolution in Science (1985). Throughout this book, Cohen considers the counter-view to the idea of revolutionary change, which may be termed ‘evolution in science’. In part this view can be traced back to the Positivist thought of Comte in the mid-nineteenth century, with its conception of ‘the three stages’ of knowledge culminating in science; in part it has been influenced by Darwinian evolutionary theory. From this perspective, the idea of scientific revolution is stretched into a very long or even permanent ‘revolution’, incorporating the ‘industrial revolution’ (Cohen 1985: 275).2

43Yet many scientists and theorists have denounced the very notion of revolution in science. Cohen cites a number of twentieth century scientists who proposed that scientific breakthroughs were part of ‘long periods of evolutionary development’ which may not be apparent to observers (275). Cohen lists the scientists Mach, Botzmann, Newcomb and Einstein from the early twentieth century (275), as well as Dewey, Curie and Meyerson later in the century (381), all of whom publicly propounded the idea of science as evolution. The most prominent of these was Albert Einstein, who was critical of the overused notion of scientific revolutions. ‘The reader gets the impression, ’ Einstein wrote in 1947, ‘that every five minutes there is a revolution in science, like the coups d’états in some of the smaller unstable republics.’ (cited in Cohen 1985: 437) But unlike Kuhn, who would later propose this very analogy in his model of the history of science, Einstein regarded scientific progress as an evolutionary – not revolutionary – process. In many public presentations, he described relativity theory as the ‘finishing touch’ to a long continuum of scientific work. In 1919 he wrote of relativity: We have here no revolutionary act but the natural continuation of a line that can be traced through centuries. (Cohen 1985: 441)

44Thus Einstein, whose name has been invoked by Bachelard, Kuhn and others to signify the discontinuous structure of science history, is himself much closer to Collingwood, Gadamer and others who emphasise the continuity of thought and the persistence of the past within the present. Einstein explicitly denied that his work constituted a radical break with the science of the past; instead he stressed the continuity of scientific thought of which he was a part:

The men who have laid the foundation of physics on which I have been able to construct my theory are Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz. (quoted in Cohen 1985: 442)

45Cohen attributes the latter-day emphasis of discontinuity in science history to the impact of Kuhn’s work in the 1960s. Historians and philosophers of science must engage in some way with the ‘Kuhnian idea of revolution’, as Jane Maienschein argued in a conference paper on biology in 1981 (cited by Cohen 1985: 386). For Maienschein, the revolutionary model of scientific change ‘risks distorting the facts in the effort to illustrate the expected patterns’; she prefers to seek for ‘continua’ (386). Cohen notes that other historians of science have attempted to synthesise the evolutionary and revolutionary perspectives. Thus Garland Allen has compared the progress of science to the ‘punctuated equilibria’ proposed in paleobiology by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge (387). For Allen, scientific thought develops in a way analogous to the evolution of species: there are periods of rapid change, followed by ‘stable periods of slow change, where adaptations are perfected.’ (Cohen 1985: 387)

Kneading Time: Serres

46One of the most intriguing – and provocative – critiques of the discontinuist model of scientific change has been made by Michel Serres. In a series of books dating from 1968, Serres has probed at the boundaries of science and the humanities, history and the present. As Steven Connor has observed in an essay on Serres’ ‘shapes of thought’, the ‘tutelary spirit’ of Serres’ philosophy is Hermes, ‘the god of messages and crossroads.’ (Connor 2002: 105) Serres’ writing continually crosses over into thresholds and intermediary spaces, ‘between culture and science, between past and present, myth and physics.’ (105) Serres is also concerned with tradition, including ancient thought that survives in some form in the present.

47His book Rome: The First Book of Foundations, first published in 1983, is a reading of – or rather through – Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, or History of Rome, written between 27 – 9 BC. Serres ranges widely from this ancient launching-pad, considering not only the foundation of Rome as recounted in Livy, but the formation of knowledge, science and society itself. In an extraordinary passage in Rome, Serres offers a meditation on time and history as ‘folded’ or kneaded, rather than analysed and cut.

48Serres calls for a knowledge ‘that demands implication, and envelopment and the veil and the knot.’ (2015: 66) He then sketches this knowledge by developing the metaphor of a baker kneading dough. Serres observes that in the process of kneading, ‘Time enters into the dough, a prisoner of its folds, a shadow of its foldings-over’ (69). The baker folds not only dough but also time into the dough, so that the dough becomes increasingly complex: ‘each fold, every braid, each folding over changes the starting set into a more complex set.’ (68) Serres compares the multi-levelled nature of time to the ceaselessly kneaded dough: ‘The baker involutes time – circumstances and fluctuations – in the circumvolutions of the piece of dough.’ (70) Time for Serres is not a simple continuum; nor is it ‘discontinuous like layered puff pastry’ (70). He expresses some of the folds of time in a brief statement incorporating different temporal registers including history:

The path from local to global time, the path from the instant to time, the path from the present to history is not predictable; it is not integrable by reason, such as analysis has shaped it. It seems to go, crazily, just anywhere, drunk, and just anyhow. (69-70)

49Connor remarks that kneaded dough is just one of the metaphors used by Serres to represent ‘an image of time gathering into history, but also the image of the way in which time is thought, in time.’ (112) Connor finds ‘a huge ensemble of images for fluctuation’ in Serres’ works, including ‘skins, textiles, bags, tapestries, kimonos, rivers, coastlines, clouds, vortices, mountain-ranges and flames.’ (112) The kneaded dough metaphor for Connor produces an image of history as ‘the shape that time can take and the shape that historical reflexion (doubling back, doubling over) will make of it.’ (112)

50Given his poetic conception of history as a complexity of foldings through time, it should occasion no surprise that Serres rejects a discontinuist view of history. For Serres, the marking of scientific history by ‘ruptures’ has a ‘quasi-religious’ dimension, in which a new epistemological age appears as an ‘advent’, or ‘the birth of a new time’ (Serres and Latour 1995: 48). Furthermore, previous epochs are deemed obsolete, superseded by the contemporary paradigm: ‘ [t]he temporal rupture, ’ Serres declares, ‘is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.’ (50) He repudiates the tyranny of the contemporary implicit in the paradigm-shift model; instead, he asserts that ‘tradition often gives us ideas still filled with vitality.’ (50)

51Serres is concerned to maintain a dialogue with previous – even ancient – authors on science, who may be considered ‘contemporary’ despite the centuries separating them from us. Hence Lucretius, who wrote of atomic theory, flux, turbulence and chaos in the first century BC, is in one sense our contemporary, in that the present age is ‘rethinking similar problems’ (47). Serres is not here looking for precursors of current ideas, in the anachronistic manner critiqued by Foucault; he is fully aware that Lucretius belonged to an epistemological era distinctly different to our own. Yet he finds that in many ways Lucretius’ ideas are not ‘obsolete’ but relevant to current thought, given his wide-ranging reflections on religion, science, even violence. Serres practises not an ‘expulsion’ of this ancient thought but ‘a technique of rapprochement’ that brings it ‘back to our time’ (48).

52By dissolving epistemological breaks and other temporal divisions, Serres re-defines ‘the contemporary’. He contends that current science or technique is an amalgam of contributions spanning the history of thought. He uses the example of a late-model car, which he describes as ‘a disparate aggregate of scientific and technical solutions dating from different periods’ (45). One component was invented ten years ago; another a hundred years ago; the wheel is a neolithic invention. This ensemble, Serres proposes, is ‘only contemporary by assemblage’ (45); it is more accurately understood as a polychronic composite.

53Serres’ writings, probing the borders of philosophy and science, are at times obscure and deliberately paradoxical. Yet his rejection of the discontinuist approach to the history of science and technology is echoed in the work of other theorists and commentators. In his book The Language of New Media (2001), Lev Manovich asserts that this ‘language’, while largely shaped by the properties of digital technology, nevertheless contains many attributes derived from older media, especially film. Stewart Brand, in his book The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999), argues for a ‘long term’ view of technology and its social consequences. He cautions against a model of history based on revolutions, which ‘cut off the past’; he favours instead evolution, which ‘repurposes the past’ (Brand 1999: 75). Any technological innovation will build on the previous achievements of civilisation, which ‘stands on its past’ (126). Brand cites the ‘thousand-year continuity in modern Europe’ as described by the historian George Holmes: towns and cities built by the time of Aquinas; commerce and banking derived from the Florentines; academic degrees already awarded in medieval universities (126). Brand and other contemporary commentators on science and technology including Serres are attempting to foster a sense of the longue durée, in a culture more attuned to the delirium of novelty and ‘revolutionary breakthroughs’ in technique. His is a plea to respect the continuity on which any contemporary development must build: ‘the accumulated past is life’s best resource for innovation’ (75). In cultural theory the shortcomings of a purely discontinuous perspective have become increasingly acknowledged. Brand asserts that ‘ [s] tarting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history’ (Brand 1999: 74) – hence his respect for the ‘accumulated past’ of tradition.

Paradigm and Signature: Agamben

54Giorgio Agamben has published numerous works of political theory and philosophy, the most influential of which is Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998). In this and many other books, Agamben writes a history of the present, with particular emphasis on ‘biopolitics’, or social and political power over life itself, including the exercise of power on bodies. In this approach, Agamben is heavily indebted to Foucault, as he has readily admitted: Foucault, he states, is ‘a scholar from whom I have learned a great deal in recent years’ (Agamben 2009: 7) Agamben even adopts the term ‘archaeology’ from Foucault to describe his own historical method, and has published The Signature of All Things: On Method (2009) to describe his ‘philosophical archaeology’, a modification of Foucault’s archaeological approach. Agamben’s writing, then, does not constitute conventional intellectual history; it is rather a mix of philosophy, history and political theory. However, his books frequently concern ideas – often of ancient origin – which shape political thought of the present; these ideas are traced in Agamben’s works in ways that reveal their cultural, social and political impact.

55Homo Sacer, for example, is founded on Agamben’s identification of the ancient Greek distinction between zoe (bare life) and bios (life of the polis – the political or useful life). Bare life means bare existence, devoid of citizenship, rights or privileges – that is, devoid of power. The bearers of bare life rather will have sovereign power exercised upon them. In the law of ancient Rome, a man guilty of certain crimes had all rights as a citizen revoked; he was called ‘sacred man’ (homo sacer) because he no longer belonged to society and could not even be sacrificed to the gods. Homo sacer is the individual stripped of all rights and social power. Agamben finds this ancient idea alive in contemporary societies, specifically in those ‘states of exception’ such as detention camps.

56In Homo Sacer, Agamben declares that the camp is the ‘hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity’ (1998: 123). Individuals detained in camps, whether political prisoners or refugees, are the modern version of homo sacer: stripped of rights, functioning at the level of bare life, constrained by the sovereign power of the state, enclosed in a small territorial space that is ‘founded solely on the state of exception’ (169). Law within the camp operates a ‘state of exception’ from the laws of the state: rights and privileges accorded to citizens are removed from camp detainees, reducing their existence to that of bare life. For this reason, Agamben defines the camp as the ‘pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space’; it is the ‘space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.’ (168-169) Agamben has taken the idea of ‘bare life’ from ancient Greece, the idea of homo sacer from ancient Rome, and shown how they both operate in the contemporary camps which enclose millions of displaced persons around the world. Agamben finds that the camp ‘is the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living’ (166).

57In using the ancient Greek word nomos, Agamben is activating another ancient idea for use in the present, although nomos is mediated through the writing of the twentieth-century political theorist Carl Schmitt. Agamben’s political philosophy frequently engages in a critical dialogue with Schmitt, who was affiliated with the Nazi Party in the 1930s. For many left-wing or radical critical theorists, Schmitt’s work is stigmatised by his Nazi alignment and entirely discredited, but Agamben has taken ideas from Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth (1950) and deployed them within contemporary left-wing political theory. Nomos in ancient Greece meant law or custom, but Schmitt traced original meanings of ‘divide’ and ‘pasture’; Schmitt argues that nomos was originally based on land appropriation. The appropriation of land, a feature of societies based on agriculture, was for Schmitt ‘the original spatial order’ and the source ‘of all further concrete order and all further law’ (2003: 48).

58Nomos then for Schmitt means a spatial order or orientation to space; in The Nomos of the Earth he asserts that each society and each age will have its specific nomos or spatial order. This is the idea that Agamben appropriates in Homo Sacer, when he declares that the camp is ‘the new biopolitical nomos of the planet.’ (1998: 176) The camp is an oppressive construction of space and it is also a law – the state of exception – that forges a cruelly curtailed orientation to space for detainees.

59Agamben’s book The Kingdom and the Glory (2011) is a densely detailed ‘Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government’. In this work Agamben purports to demonstrate that modern ideas of power, economy and government have their source in early Christian theology, which itself incorporated the secular Greek idea of oikonomia or home-management, from which term ‘economy’ derives. The Kingdom and the Glory is thus an extended exercise of the secularisation thesis that has been propounded by numerous political theorists, including Schmitt: ‘All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.’ (Schmitt 2005: 36 cited by Agamben 2011: 2) Agamben complicates the secularisation thesis, however, by asserting that early Christian theology conceived ‘divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia’ (3). This meant that Christian theology was from an early point in its development already ‘economic’, and ‘did not become so at a later time through secularization.’ (3)

60A crucial factor in Agamben’s ‘genealogy of economy and government’ is another pair of opposed ancient Greek terms: polis and oikonomia. Polis related to the city-state and to public life; oikonomia described the domestic or home sphere, hidden from public view and considered of little importance by the Greeks. Yet the management of the oikos or home yielded the idea of home-management or economy; this idea was adopted by church intellectuals in the early Christian centuries and used in theological argument. Oikonomia was extended to describe the management by a transcendent God of all planes of activity: divine, political, economic, public, domestic.

61Agamben proposes that the Christian idea of the Trinity was a flexible tri-partite theological concept that could span such a ‘divine economy’ (33). If the Trinity was a key part of God’s economy, Agamben suggests that ‘the Trinitarian oikonomia may constitute a privileged laboratory for the observation of the working and articulation… of the governmental machine.’ (xi) The tri-partite separation of powers – a central component of modern democracies – is based, Agamben argues, on the earlier Trinity within the divine economy and management of the world. Agamben finds similar conceptual links between the Christian idea of Providence and Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ within capitalist economics; between Medieval ‘angelogy’ and the later secular bureaucracy; and an ‘archaeology of glory’ (168) linking the glorying of God to the modern acclamation and glorification of political power. The Kingdom and the Glory, then, finds many crucial ideas of contemporary political and economic thought sourced to theological ideas of the early Christian church.

62In The Signature of All Things (2009), Agamben offers a theoretical account of his historiographical approach. His investigations have, like Foucault’s, ‘an archaeological character’, and he states that ‘the phenomena with which they deal unfold across time and therefore require an attention to documents and diachrony that cannot but follow the laws of historical philology.’ (2009: 31-32) Yet he maintains that the end-point of his historical investigations ‘is not an origin presupposed in time.’ Again in a manner similar to Foucault’s, Agamben’s historical inquiries are ‘located at the crossing of diachrony and synchrony’, making the ‘inquirer’s present intelligible as much as the past of his or her subject’ (32).

63In further elaborating his historical method, Agamben refers to two central concepts; the paradigm and the signature. He cites as examples of paradigms in his own works: Homo sacer, the concentration camp, the state of exception, the Trinitarian oikonomia (31). He asserts that his aim was not to explain modernity ‘by tracing it back to something like a cause or historical origin’. Rather, the ‘very multiplicity’ of the paradigms meant that historical inquiry aims ‘to make intelligible series of phenomena whose kinship had eluded or could elude the historian’s gaze.’ (31) Agamben’s notion of ‘paradigm’ differs from the meaning attributed to ‘paradigm’ in Kuhn, which is close to the idea of ‘episteme’ as elaborated in Foucault’s works of intellectual history. ‘Paradigm’ for Agamben means something close to ‘idea’ or ‘figure’; it is ‘a form of knowledge’ that ‘moves from singularity to singularity’ (31).

64In an essay on Agamben’s ‘philosophical archaeology’, William Watkin defines the paradigm in Agamben as ‘the name of the particular mode and function of historical examples’ (Watkin 2014: 140). The paradigm for Agamben is much more, however, than a simple ‘unit-idea’ as found in Lovejoy’s history of ideas. Agamben himself points to the panopticon in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as a cluster of objects: the panopticon itself but also a generalised model or ‘panopticism’ and ‘panoptic modality of power’. As a paradigm, for Agamben it is ‘a singular object that, standing equally for all others of the same class, defines the intelligibility of the group of which it is a part’ (Agamben 17).

65What then is a signature? Watkin defines the signature in Agamben as ‘the mode of the distribution of paradigms through time and across discourses’ (Watkin 140). Watkin makes the further observation that the signature is ‘suspended between signifier and signified’; it is not a sign ‘but what makes a sign intelligible’ (140). Agamben states that the signature is what ‘displaces and moves’ a sign ‘into another domain, thus positioning it in a new network of pragmatic and hermeneutic relations.’ (40) He provides the examples of the yellow patch on a Jew’s coat and the coloured mark of the bailiff, which shift the relation into the political sphere and express ‘how one must comport oneself before’ Jews and bailiffs, as well as ‘the behaviour that is expected from them.’ (41) Agamben further elaborates:

the sign signifies because it carries a signature that necessarily predetermines its interpretation and distributes its use and efficacy according to rules, practices and precepts that it is our task to recognise. In this sense, archaeology is the science of signatures. (64)

66The signature, then, creates interpretation and meaning for the paradigm and sign. It bestows meaning on figures as they shift into different discursive domains, and into new historical periods. The signature encompasses transformation and change of meaning through time. Agamben’s ‘philosophical archaeology’ takes particular care, with the conceptual tool of the signature, to incorporate transformation through time.

Ideas in Time

67The many theorists discussed in the last two chapters are united in their belief that the past has more to offer the present than can be confined to a museum. Several of these theorists, most notably Gadamer, maintain that the past is not a burden but a form of nourishment for the present. The continuist orientation evinces a respect for tradition, or for aspects of thought or culture that persist across very long durations. These elements may undergo gradual transformation; they may be ‘repurposed’ in a new historical context. In Agamben’s terms, the signature may change. Yet the presiding emphasis of the continuist view is that the past somehow survives in the present.

68In the words of Christopher Lasch, such a perspective entails an ‘active type of remembrance that seeks to grasp the past’s formative influence on the present.’ (Lasch 1991: 88) In the same way that Gadamer drew inspiration from the Romantics’ veneration of tradition, Lasch approvingly quotes Coleridge’s admonition of those who ‘are not good enough to contemplate the Past in the Present’ and thereby ‘exist in fragments, annihilated to the Past… [and] dead to the future’ (88-89). The continuist perspective remains alert to the endurance of the past, and to the role it may play in the present.

69I take the lessons of this perspective into the final chapters of this book. In particular, Gadamer’s insistence on the persistence of the past is significant for my project. Bakhtin’s ‘dialogism’ has an important temporal dimension, rendering all forms of discourse ‘history-laden’. Bakhtin’s influence may be observed in the work of other theorists discussed in this chapter, including Rose, Hodge and Kress, and Serres; the notion of a dialogue between past and present informs my own approach to the history of ideas. Collingwood’s model of intellectual history, including his ‘logic of question and answer’, is also pertinent to my analysis. My task, however, extends beyond a simple application of these models of continuity to the history of ideas. This task entails the construction of a model for the history of ideas incorporating both continuity and discontinuity of thought. An idea may persist through time – but does it remain the same idea? Or does its altered epistemological context transform it into something radically new? These questions of the same and the different, of continuity and discontinuity, are addressed – within the framework of the history of ideas – in the final chapters.


1 Rose’s essay, ‘Cultural Analysis and Moral Discourses: Episodes, Continuities, and Transformations’, is included in the Bonnell and Hunt (eds) collection Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (1999).

2 Cohen nominates Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science (1949) and Rupert Hall, The Scientific Revolution 1500-1800 (1954) as twentieth century proponents of the idea of long-term or permanent scientific revolution.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1: Sue FordJenny, 1962; Jenny, 1974From the Time Series 1962-1974
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Légende Fig. 2: Sue FordJim, 1964; Jim, 1969; Jim 1974; Jim 1979From the Time Series II 1962-1982
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Légende Fig. 3: Bill ViolaFire Woman 2005Video/sound installationPhotos: Kira Perov
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