Memories of the future

After Krzhizhanovskii

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Image: Recent picture of
Dom Narkomfin (2011)

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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