Memories of the future

After Krzhizhanovskii

Image: Recent picture of
Dom Narkomfin (2011)


Today it is well known that the future has become a thing of the past.

Gone are the days when humanity dreamt of a different tomorrow. All that remains of that hope is a distant memory. Indeed, most of what is hoped for these days is no more than some slightly modified version of the present, if not simply the return to a status quo ante — i.e., to a present that only recently became deceased. This is the utopia of normality, evinced by the drive to “get everything running back to normal” (back to the prosperity of the Clinton years, etc.). In this heroically banal vision of the world, all the upheaval and instability of the last few years must necessarily appear as just a fluke or bizarre aberration. A minor hiccup, that’s all. Once society gets itself back on track, the argument goes, it’ll be safe to resume the usual routine.

Those for whom the present of just a short time ago already seemed to be charting a disastrous course, however, are compelled to imagine a still more remote past: a past that humanity might someday revisit, after completing its long journey through the wilderness of modernity. Having lost its way some centuries back — around the start of the Industrial Revolution — this would signal an end to the hubristic conceit that society can ever achieve self-mastery. Humanity’s homecoming, in this model, is much like that of the prodigal son’s. Never again will it wander too far afield. From this time forward, it’ll stick to the straight and narrow.

Neither of these temporalities, whether oriented toward the present or the past, is entirely what it seems, however. How so?

For one thing, the present (at least, the present of the last two hundred or so years) is never fully present. It’s always getting ahead of itself, lunging headlong into the future, outstripping every prognosis and expectation. But no sooner has its velocity increased than it finds itself right back where it started. Just as swiftly as the present speeds itself up, it feels the ground beneath it begin to shift: a cyclolinear running in place, as it were. The ceaseless proliferation of the new now presents itself as the eternal return of the same old, same old. Novelty today has become quotidian, if not wholly antique. It should thus hardly come as a shock that Marxian theorists like Moishe Postone have described a peculiar treadmill effect that occurs under capitalism.[1] History of late may be going nowhere,[2] but it’s going nowhere faster.

The idea of a prelapsarian past, of the “good old days” before everything went wrong, proves just as problematic. Not by chance does the imagery used to depict this past recall biblical overtones. Make no mistake of it: this is Eden before the Fall, the paradise of a blinkered naïveté — those carefree days before humanity dared to taste the fruit of knowledge. Trying to locate the precise moment at which things took a turn for the worse is trickier than it looks, however. As suggested earlier, this past stands at a far greater remove from the present than the chain of presents that expired not too long ago.[3] Its reality recedes into the mists of prehistory. Continue reading

Notes to “Memories of the Future”

[1] Lukács, Georg.  The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature.  Translated by Anna Bostock.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 29.

[2] As necessitated by the production of relative surplus-value.  Postone, Moishe.  Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2003).  Pgs. 289-291, 293, 347, 350.

[3] “If it did not come to end in 1989, as conservative critic Francis Fukuyama expected, this is because, in Hegel’s sense, as freedom’s self-realization in time, History had already ceased.  Long before the new geopolitical configurations and institutional forms of the post-Soviet world, a new and unprecedented, though scarcely recognized, political situation had taken shape: The last threads of continuity connecting the present with the long epoch of political emancipation were severed.”  Leonard, Spencer.  “Going it Alone: Christopher Hitchens and the Death of the Left.”  Platypus Review.  (№ 11: March 2009).  Pg. 2.

[4] On the “chain of presents,” Postone, Moishe.  “Deconstruction as Social Critique: A Review of Derrida’s Specters of Marx.”  History and Theory.  (Volume 37, № 3: October 1998).  Pgs. 371, 386.

[5] Berardi, Franco.  After the Future.  Translated by Arianna Bove, Melinda Cooper, Eric Empson, Enrico, Giuseppina Mecchia, and Tiziana Terranova.  (AK Press.  Oakland, CA: 2011).  Pg. 18.

[6] On the dotcom crash: ibid., passim, pgs. 80-82; on September 11th: ibid., passim, pgs. 12-13, 78, 95; on the global economic downturn: ibid., passim, pgs. 71-73, 75, 139-143.

[7] “Progress opened up a future that transcended the…predictable, natural space of time and experience… The future contained in this progress is characterized by two main features: first, the increasing speed with which it approaches us, and second, its unknown quality.”  Koselleck, Reinhart.  “On the Relation of Past and Future in Modern History.”  Translated by Keith Tribe.  Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time.  (Columbia University Press.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 22.

[8] “The idea of the future is central to the ideology and energy of the twentieth century, and in many ways it is mixed with the idea of utopia.”  Berardi, After the Future.  Pg. 17.

[9] “The decisive threshold had been passed when change began to be ascertainable and measurable by the scale of an individual lifespan; when in the course of a single individual life the change was evident enough to demand a drastic adjustment of cognitive and moral standards.  Then it was duly reflected in the new and novel sense of history as an endless chain of irreversible changes, with which the concept of progress — a development which brings change for the better — was not slow to join forces.”  Bauman, Zygmunt.  Socialism: The Active Utopia.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 2010).  Pgs. 18-19.

[10] Berardi, After the Future.  Pg. 18. Continue reading