A few years ago, during a break from teaching, I was enjoying my favorite
snack: a madeleine dipped in espresso. One of my students asked me what
I was eating. A madeleine, I said. I explained that it was an important part
of the history of literature, that in Marcel Proust’s
Remembrance of Things
Past, the
act of dipping a madeleine into lime-tree tea, or tilleul, released
the totality of the author’s memories of his childhood and the meaning of
the work he was undertaking. “Oh,” my student said as he walked away, “I
learned something new today.” “About Proust?” I said hopefully, ever the
pedagogue. “About a new cookie,” he said.
This book is not exactly about new cookies.
It is perhaps a liability to advertise that to my prospective readers!
People are interested in books that will give them a heads-up on the next
cookie—I look for such volumes myself. But, in fact, most books are about
the past: only the journalistic publishing cycle and Internet manifesta-
tions occur in the present, everything else is by necessity retrospective or
predictive. In a culture focused on the celebrity of the new, there may be
some material of interest nestled elsewhere.
The first several pages of Proust’s
Du côté de chez Swann are
devoted to
an extended, detailed to the point of being soporific, description of the
mechanics of falling asleep. I considered reading it aloud to my class that
year but thought that the slow pace would seem like abuse to them. Yet we
all need sleep, we yearn for deep and restful sleep; desperate, we skip the
stages of experience described by Proust and just reach for the Ambien.
In this space bracketed by artificial stimulation and sedation, I want
to address artists who are encouraged on many fronts to operate in a lim-
ited field of new cookies by exploring instead the potential of a critical
but productive temporal counterpoint, a constant movement between the
undertow of the past beneath the wave of the present, and the powerful
counterflow of the present over reiterations of the past in contemporary
artworks and ideologies. Contested histories, networks of influence, and
feedback loops of recurrent tropes emerge as major themes.
As my writing of this book was slowed by rapidly shifting ideological
conditions, the effects of epochal disasters, religious and market funda-
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