THE BAD ONE is comforting, false, deceptive, and more often than not deeply desired. It says things some people find easy to believe. In the United States after 2016, bad anachronism wears red baseball caps and threatens people who it doesn’t recognize.
The good one is disorienting, challenging, true, difficult, and hard to wrap your imagination around. It reminds us of things we might sometimes wish to ignore. This attitude toward history and social change may seem on the run just now, but it’ll be back. The arc of history bends into complexity.
In volume 1 of The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida makes a facile-seeming but quite useful distinction between “bad” and “good” anachronism. The deconstructionist ambiguity at which the philosopher eventually arrives seems both predictable and convincing: “every reading is [ . . . ] anachronistic.” But juxtaposing historicist rigor and nostalgic blindness isn’t simple or straightforward. Subtle slips lurk between the good and the bad. Whenever a scholar of premodern literature like me invokes the Anthropocene, a term popularized after the chemist Paul Crutzen coined it in 2000, we court anachronism—though the term also invokes a host of previous “Ages of Man,” from Renaissance humanism to the rise of sculptural naturalism in classical Greece.
I seek a historically aware environmental humanities that can distinguish between good and bad anachronism. I want anachronism to help me think about humans, humanism, and the humanities during this period in the twenty-first century when the political forces of brute nostalgia and bad anachronism—what Timothy Snyder calls the “politics of eternity”—wax stronger in the United States and Europe. Scholars and citizens need good historical examples, and we also require potent ways to fight back against the smothering nostalgia of eternity. We need good, factual historicism, and also responsible imaginative anachronism. The fortress of historical accuracy cannot protect humanist or posthumanist ideals. Historicist ecocritics especially need to anachronize positively, to use good and messy anachronisms to challenge bad and comforting nostalgia.
All the most valuable concepts in the environmental humanities flirt with anachronism, because they speak to at least two times at once. Anthropocene thinking uses a new geophysical designation to reframe received narratives about the relationship between humans and the nonhuman world. Such thinking dances up close to anachronism, stares deeply into its variably chronic eyes. What would it mean for anachronism to say yes to history? Or for historical scholarship to assent to anachrony? What polychromic chimeras are even now slouching toward turbid oceans to be reborn?
In mainstream literary scholarship today, as successive generations of graduate students have learned to their peril, anachronism serves as a cudgel with which to beat one’s rivals. When I was a grad student in early modern literature in the ’90s, anachronism seemed an unforgiveable error, the thing that would pull back the curtain and reveal me as scholarly imposter. I value the old and obscure as much as the next premodern scholar, and I would never forego the mysteries and pleasures of the archive, but we need a better language to define productive anachronism. The bugbear of “presentism,” which in different contexts can be either accolade or accusation, doesn’t sufficiently describe the multichronic perspective that literary scholarship brings to bear.
“The bug which you would fright me with, I seek,” says distraught Hermione on trial in The Winter’s Tale. What if anachronism isn’t a threatening slip into the nonscholarly abyss but an active challenge? What does anachronism want? What would anachronism do? (WWAD?) Humanities scholars need ways to promote good anachronism and resist its bad twin. Should we celebrate polytemporal lures or semi-legible palimpsests? Pay court to diachronic parallels? Resist, like Spenserian knights, the twin temptresses of past and present?
The dilemma is particularly acute for historicist and literary ecocritics, since our subfield can’t help but keep a Cyclopean single eye fixed on looming ecological catastrophe in the twenty-first century. Those of us who seek to pluralize the Anthropocene want to disperse environmental thinking beyond the postindustrial or post-1945 timeframes, but the hot oceans and parched deserts of the twenty-first century force themselves into view. Living in our time, we can’t help but be anachronistic—that’s Derrida’s unarguable point—so perhaps it’s time for us to come out and admit it?
I’m not ready to devise a comprehensive solution for anachronism policing, except perhaps to suggest that we do less of it, or at least employ less gleeful aggression when exposing its errors. A touch of empathy might benefit all reviewers, anonymous or otherwise. The Gordian time-knot of past and present resists unpicking, and the Alexandrine solution seems reckless. But perhaps a few principles are in order? Some goals to make our anachronizing more productive?
- 1. Anachronize now!
It is always the right time. The past is fluid, vast, and significantly unknown, but its presence leeches into our present each instant. The urgent now of lived experience undergirds all understanding, including that of historical scholarship; the sensation of living now anchors and motivates all our thinking, as it motivated the thinking of the historical actors who preceded us. The tension between anachronism’s multiplicity and now’s single precision helps remind us that, in the good anachronism, nothing stays still. Now moves and shifts, as different temporalities adjust themselves in dialogue with each other and with changing audiences. Anachronizing now commits us to discourses of change and worlds that do not remain the same. The constant and inconstant principle of change enables us to resist the imaginary stasis of the past’s eternal glories.
- 2. Anachronism’s opposite is not historicism but “timelessness.”
Good anachronism does not refuse historicism’s rigor but instead rebuts the fantastical and destructive dream of timeless ideals. The problem to be defeated is less the brute force of historical distance than the illusion that certain ideologies are “always” valid. Nostalgia can be pernicious. It’s the bad anachronism of falsifying nostalgia that encourages white men to believe their right to political dominion is sacrosanct. That same nostalgia insists that certain canonical figures—say Shakespeare or Virgil—represent “timeless human nature” about which nothing can or should change. A richly anachronized historicism combats timelessness with variety. Canonical literature unveils plurality, not eternity.
- 3. Anachronism favors utopia.
The reason to engage the past is to build a better future. Against the “again” in the backward-looking imperative to “Make American Great Again,” anachronism opens an untrod pathway toward utopia. One way of voicing that hopeful social ideal has recently turned a half-millennium old, with the five-hundredth birthday of Thomas More’s Utopia in December 2016. Via a famously bifurcated etymology, utopia is plural at it source; the word means both “no place” (ut topos) and “beautiful place” (eau topos). Good anachronism creates plurality; bad anachronism locks down eternal sameness. The road to utopia turns often.