Review of What Is the Present? | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of What Is the Present?

What Is the Present?
Michael North

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018
210 pp., illus. 2 b/w,
Hardcover: $29.95 / £24.00,
ISBN: 9780601179698

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
November 2018

The question mark at the end of the title of Michael North’s new book should not be read as the promise of an answer. The question of the present, which is one of the most intriguing takes on the question of time in general, is a question that can only be answered by and through many other questions, that is, by and through a critical discussion of the best that has been said and thought on the subject – and this is exactly what Michael North is offering us in his, both very broad and well-focused, reflection on the present.

Michael North, who is a renowned specialist of Modernism and literary historiography, departs from the growing unease with “presentism”. This unease is less the tendency to read and interpret the past in light of present concerns and biases, than the exclusive attention given to what is happening here and now at the expense of the broader embedding of this present in a past as well as a future. Yet, as soon as one starts thinking of what this “present”, this now, this today, actually means, things get rapidly very blurred. “Now” is something that escapes clear definitions, not to speak of the many, often contradictory meanings, that it engenders in theory and in practice. Both dimensions are important for Michael North, who does not limit his book to a critical survey of philosophical and other theories on the present. A large part of What Is the Present? is indeed devoted to the way artists, (writers, painters and filmmakers) represent, if not reshape, the notion of “now”, which is also, and almost inevitably, a “here and now.” (North’s book ends with a well-deserved homage to Richard McGuire’s cult graphic novel Here, which is as much about time as it is about space).

North’s attempt to see more clearly in the mystery of the present is in the first place a dialogue with the great Western thinkers on the notion of time, from Aristotle and Saint Augustine to William James, Edmund Husserl, Paul Ricoeur, Gilles Deleuze and many others (to quote just some examples from the field of philosophy). The book also brings in many sources from other fields, such as psychology and aesthetics. However, What Is the Present? does not discuss these theories in a purely chronological way, although the author never loses sight of this aspect since all thinking on time has a strong genealogical dimension.  It clusters the debates around certain key questions, such as the delimitation of the present moment, the experience of the here and now, the link between a present now and past, or future moments of presence. This approach is highly rewarding, for it tightens the dialogue between a wide range of thinkers, while demonstrating at the same time how all reflections on the present are always open to a broad set of perspectives. North’s “present” thus becomes a kind of gem with countless sides that both attract and disperse the light of many sources. If the book does not offer a final or single answer to the question of its title, it certainly succeeds in make a very thick description of its central focus.

The diptych form of the book, which expands the more philosophical part with a section on artistic practices foregrounding the form and the idea of the present, gives a special attractiveness and pertinence to the initial conceptual underpinnings. As in the more theoretical part of the book, North focuses on Western art, but he seamlessly brings together works from the present and the past, aesthetic reflections on art and practice-based accomplishments, general issues such as the distinction between temporal and spatial arts (Lessing) and very concrete techniques such as the use of the present tense in historical fiction (David Mitchell) or the exploration of montage techniques in cinema in order to produce an effect of absolute simultaneity (for example with the help of a comparison of Griffith’s Intolerance and Christopher Nolan’s Inception).

Michael North gives us the best of both worlds. His theoretical overview of the existing literature on “present” is impressive, carefully contextualised and excludes useless jargon, (after all time and present, although philosophical issues, are part of an everyday experience that the author takes very seriously). His presentations of cultural artefacts are a good mix of theoretically founded observations and close-reading, always swiftly conducted and clearly addressed in relationship to the specific points the author wants to make. At the same time, and this is a great compliment, one never has the impression that the examples are just illustrations of a general point. For Michael North, concrete works remain as open and challenging as the concept of the present he takes as his springboard. In short, and no pun intended, What Is the Present? will certainly provide a safe guide for any reflection on the present in the years to come.