Review of Brouhaha: Worlds of the Contemporary
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
232 pp. Paper, $22.95
The term ‘brouhaha’ with which Lionel Ruffel, who is professor of comparative literature and creative writing at the University of Paris VIII, indicates the messiness that is the contemporary, is well chosen. Usable in both French and English the term points to a certain noisiness. It has a sense of the comic, inviting to laughter due to the ‘haha’ at the end, but it also seems to be onomatopoeia for a burst of laughter. Ruffel however does not talk of laughter, although laughter is an act that is very much ‘in the moment’ and the contemporary escapes, or attempts to escape, any historicising outside of that. Or at least it adheres to a “history [that] is no longer thought of in terms of epochs” (p.10).
It is in that sense somewhat confusing that Ruffel discusses the contemporary in six ‘series’ – Exposition, Media, Publication, Controversy, Institutions, and Archaeology, combined with a solid Introduction and Conclusion called Locations of the Contemporary. In his discussion of the contemporary as replacement of the modern, Ruffel tries to avoid at all cost any chronology or analysis that might be seen as a modernist approach that neatly tries to box everything in. It would therefore maybe be better to talk of ‘strands’ or ‘threads’ instead of ‘series’ that would tie in better with his observation that we clearly don’t live in a modernist, future-orientated society anymore, but in a contemporary one that is chaotic and messy in its multiplicity, being multidisciplinary and thus undisciplined, but therefore also extremely rich.
It is however hard to avoid any kind of order in an analysis of or an enquiry into a perceived phenomenon. Ruffel connects the contemporary in the first place with Exposition as that is where we first became familiar with the term, in the sense of contemporary art. But typically for his approach Ruffel brings our attention in the first place to the fact that the question ‘What is the contemporary?’ was first raised by the fanzine Zum, published by the Centro de Expresiones Contemporáneas in Rosario, Argentina in 2004 – far away thus from the Modernist center New York or the typically Western world in general and before Giorgio Agamben would pose the same question a year later. It is an approach That Ruffel continues throughout his book. Although he references various famous ‘big’, white males, he also constantly counteracts them with off-center and/or female voices such as Donna Haraway and her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ (1984) or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak (1988) that Ruffel recognizes as already pointing in the direction of things to come.
Ruffel admits that in his investigation of the contemporary he mainly follows in the footsteps of Bruno Latour, exclaiming at one point that if we never were modernists, we were always contemporaries. Where Latour “called modernity an illusion that was in the process of being unmasked” (p.19), Ruffel places the contemporary which he sees basically as the result of ‘the very large number’ – of us and of our data. Interestingly, brouhaha in French refers to the confused noise that comes from a crowd. Its multitude makes it automatically no longer possible to hold on to a modernist unifying approach, but makes it “performative and temporary” and self-organises towards an essential horizontal point of view that is de-hierarchized, de-colonised and de-authorised. The brouhaha of the contemporary is equal to noise and pollution in Ruffel’s book, be it in a positive sense. It is therefore not surprising that much attention is given to collective (non-Western) undertakings such as that of Raqs Media Collective in which identities and tasks remain explicitly unclear.
Although Ruffel passionately opposes the use of any prefix, such as in the post- or alter-modern that are seen as theoretically ‘weak’ intermezzos, brouhaha nevertheless becomes a preposition such as when he discusses so-called brouhaha-literature. He can be forgiven for that as it is rather genius if he manages to get something as Dadaist as an Era of Brouhaha mentioned in future history books. That is, if there are ever going to be any future history books because Ruffel sees the contemporary as “signif[ying] the end of a sequential and successive representation of time and turn[ing] instead to a superimposition of temporalities” (p.179).
In the strand Media, Ruffel refers to the notion of simultaneity as an important quality of the contemporary by means of the work of Benedict Anderson who observes that “one could argue that every essential modern conception is based on a conception of ‘meanwhile’” (p. 54). Ruffel notes “a plural, dialectical coherence” amongst others in the anachronism of Georges Didi-Huberman or the nonlinearity of Manuel DeLanda that “makes the contemporary into an observation site and a field of action that unsettles modern historicity, with its linear and sequentialist narrative” (p. 165). Although somewhat unexpected archaeology therefore becomes the perfect tool to approach the contemporary as it is not solely directed to a past but combines all temporalities in an ongoing simultaneity.
Although at times unavoidably confusing, this is a very timely book that luckily got translated relatively quick so that it can find a wider audience (the book was originally published in 2016). It puts a new awareness of the world into context in which we realise we are only part of an intricate human/non-human construct. Or rather, a plurality of ‘worlds’ that constantly interact in a messy way.