“REvisions” is the ongoing series launched with the Research Forum in which faculty and invited contributors are invited to rummage through Bard Graduate Center’s archive of video lectures, published chapters, and print articles and discover new themes and hitherto unexplored connections. The premise is that while all these varied research “outputs” are published with a coherence evident to their conveners and editors in the moment of organization that further connections may become apparent in time. Moreover, institutional intellectual commitments mean that continuities of this sort cannot be dismissed as merely adventitious. “REvisions” therefore offers, also, an opportunity to see the “hive mind” in action: an institution as a thinking, living, collective organism.

REvisions 6: When is After?

El Lissitzky. Runner in the City, ca. 1926. Gelatin silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987.

Virginia Woolf wrote that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” She immediately hedged, but the point was made: we make sense of the flow of existence by fixing beginnings and endings. “From the Founding of the City” was the way ancient Romans asked our question; from the birth of Christ was the way the early Christians did the same.

When is After? Periodization may not be father to the man, but it is to anyone trying to tell a story about the past. Without “before” or “after” how would we tell stories, determine causation, or assign responsibility? But knowing when to begin the beginning or end the end is an art in itself—or, as T.S. Eliot thought, “an occupation for a saint.” Nevertheless, or perhaps as a direct consequence, we students of the past spend far too little time thinking about the reasons why we choose one starting point over another. In the worst case, we don’t even ask this question at all, but unthinkingly repeat what we’ve been told—by others who may themselves not have asked the question. In the best case we would experiment with different beginnings and different endings: spinning the dial, as it were, is sure to reveal new connections and new dissociations, new answers and new questions.

When Voltaire published The Age of Louis XIV (1764), Goethe published Winckelmann and his Age (1815) and Burckhardt published Constantine and his Age (1852) they were using periodization in just this way: not to mark a before and an after but to corral a series of synchronic connections. Of course, there’s a bit of sleight of hand involved here, since only by presupposing some set of principles could one then identify them “in the field,” so to speak, but that’s not really the point. The point is that periodization cuts both ways, diachronically and synchronically. It is, along with biography (Life, or life itself), our main tool for making sense of the flux of existence but damming it up at various points and taming its unheeding onrush.

For an institution pre-occupied with making and knowing, “When is After?” takes on specific shapes. It is bound up with the lives of things and, just as much, with their afterlives. Histories from things and art histories of things must, equally, take a stand on exactly when the change of phase occurs that defines an explanatory context. Does the history of an object start from the moment of “conception” or “fabrication”? Do we need to dive deep into the mind of the maker in search of the first form of the originating idea? Or do we focus on the process of making? Or on the life—let’s avoid the biasing term “afterlife”—of the object only? As objects have become a more familiar type of source, and as consumption, re-use, and emotion have become roads more frequently taken, understanding when is “after” has become a more essential component of a properly panoramic perspective.

As Bard Graduate Center celebrates its twenty-fifth year the project of looking back in order to move forward in more interesting ways is one that we embrace. In the Research Forum the “REvisions” series gives us the opportunity to re-combined talks and book chapters so as to reveal them as answers to new questions. This “Revision” grew out of our 2018-19 theme “When is After?” and contributes to BGC’s goal of creating a library of fundamental questions for students of the cultural sciences.