And--to pose a question that sums up all of the others--what do we mean by "anachronism"?--Hubert Damisch, "The Theme of Choosing," 1992 (1) What Erich Auerbach understood as an "omnitemporal" scheme of history that attempts to adopt God's point of view through figural thinking, grasping history all at once, Wood and Nagel develop into a brilliant reading of material works of art as "the capacity of the figure to embody materially its own signified." But is it surprising that Wood and Nagel do not acknowledge that their art historical ruminations perform (at a metacritical level) the same operations that occupy the depicted humanist saint in his studiolo, surrounded by works of art? The most obvious typological structure in Carpaccio's painting is (the presumed) Cardinal Bessarion's imitation of Saint Augustine. A memorializing portrait that captures its sitter receiving a lesson in humility offers many parallels to their stratified acts of interpretation, not the least of which are the multiple ways in which they tease out of the picture a series of distinctions between the discursive manner in which humans come to knowledge over time and the timeless presence of divine knowledge.
The topic of "anachronism" was discussed at length by historians of what came to be known as the French Annales school to express philosophical doubts about the practice of history as an exact science. Reconsiderations of the historian's "sin of sins," as Lucien Febvre referred to "anachronism" in 1942, were initially framed by Marc Bloch and Febvre, who worried about historians projecting their mental "equipment [outillage]" onto other eras. (2) The influential concepts of mentalite and longue duree emerged in response to the question of how, if ever, the past is objectively portrayed, given that historians necessarily approach the past from the present, anachronistically, "like a movie reel that is unwound in the opposite direction from which it is viewed." (3) In other parts of Europe, most famously in Frankfurt, where another "school" was simultaneously forming, similar discussions of the contingency of historical truth developed on the same Marxist foundation. (4) The most sophisticated theoretical model of "anachronism" conceived as a term operating in opposition to "chronism" is undoubtedly Walter Benjamin's notion of the "dialectical image."
Any methodological consideration of "anachronism" for the practice of art history deserves to be situated in the context of these conundrums and unfolding critiques of existing models of historical time in relation to the historian's subjectivity. The artwork's complex relation to time has always been central to the debates, though they took shape outside the discipline of art history. Karl Marx's contribution was considerable: the artwork's temporality was integral to his analysis of the commodity, laying the foundation for all future discussion on the understanding that what it means to do history must address what history does to members of society. After the revolutions of 1848-50 were crushed throughout Continental Europe, Marx and Friedrich Engels retreated to England, where they revised their short-term plans for attaining social justice through revolution into a long-range educational program intended to prepare the working class for leadership. (5) For the next decade, the British Museum library served as Marx's humanist study. Not since his shattering critique of the political economy in terms of the social relations involved in the production of commodities had European intellectuals been as politically engaged with the ongoing social crisis as they were during the years that World War II devastated Europe. The sudden loss of civil liberties, persecution, and genocide--the failed dream of the modern nation-state and its escalating nightmares--were the living conditions of the historians who first questioned the scientific historian's techniques of factual representation and linked them to explicitly political agendas.
Wood and Nagel seem to want to position themselves in relation to existing discussions of anachronism by locating a different sense of historical time, one that existed prior to the development of the hegemonic chronological narratives of modern nation-states that Bloch and Febvre, no less than Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Benjamin, dismantled in their critical writings. But the context of the discussion in which Wood and Nagel wish to participate has lost sight of its political engagement with society at large, transforming urgent concerns with social justice into the reductive terms of a debate directed to revising existing disciplinary and subdisciplinary practices. In Torn Halves: Political Conflict in Literary and Cultural Theory (1996), Robert Young argues that the dialectical form of theoretical conflicts, far from tearing academic institutions apart, constitutes their necessary structure. These "torn halves of an integral freedom" never add up because the dialectical structure of academic dissension reproduces the economy of capitalism itself. (6) What is the point of making "anachronism" a self-reflexive tool for interrogating the hegemonic structures of chronologically organized historical narratives today? I would like to broaden the terms of discussion, and it will be useful to dwell on the role that Marx assigned to the work of art, which has an unexcavated history of its own in the same historical continuum as Auerbach's "omnitemporal" scheme, Leonard Barkan's archaeological scheme, and Wood and Nagel's "principle of substitution" / "principle of performativity," which might just be two modern names for the same dialectical phenomenon seen from different, mutually exclusive points of view.
Historical time conceived as a chain of replicas somewhat resembles the structure of typological exegesis, Wood and Nagel observe, and both resemble the structure of "dialectical anachronism" defined as the strategic juxtaposition of heterogeneous moments in time. Yet the substitution of an "ana-chronic" structure for a "chronological" one does not eliminate the need to legitimize the reality of the historical account. It is crucial for the narrator to articulate his or her position in relation to the events narrated. Marx posed the question of why we moderns still find aesthetic appeal in the cultural products of past and different societies. For Marx and Engels, Trotsky, and Lenin, to name some of the most famous political analysts to address this question, the work of art is far richer and more "opaque" than political and economic theory. The work of art yields insight into the realities that ideology hides from view. (7) The specifics of Marx's arguments, grounded in typological assumptions of the nineteenth century, are probably less interesting than the way he framed the question.
In his reading of Marx, Jacques Derrida observed that "if a work of art can become a commodity, and if this process seems fated to occur, it is also because the commodity began [historically] by putting to work, in one way or another, the principle of art itself." (8) There are two fundamental ways in which the concrete work of art, in its distinctly modern sense that the word acquired by the late fifteenth century, prefigures the nineteenth-century commodity. First, because works of art commanded price and prestige beyond the cost of their manufacture, they illustrate Marx's concept of surplus value, source of both the capitalist's profit and the worker's exploitation. Second, because the work of art is too complex to be explained in terms of base and superstructure alone, it provided Marx with a test case for developing a theoretical model sufficiently subtle to explain the political economy. The majority of writing on art in the Marxian critical tradition obscures the relations and oppositions between artwork and commodity, however, and pressures to erase these distinctions entirely (thereby maintaining their conflation) persist in all fields, including art history, art criticism, museology, and visual and material culture studies.