BY Tom McCarthy in Profiles | 01 SEP 11
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Issue 141

Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future’

Admonitions and Exhortations for the Cultural Producers of the early-to-mid-21st Century

BY Tom McCarthy in Profiles | 01 SEP 11

The First Committee of the International Necronautical Society (INS) notes the occasion of frieze magazine marking the 20th anniversary of its foundation, and has elected to respond to the Editor’s invitation to contribute to the vigintennial issue by publishing the following declaration.

Its subject shall be, in part, foundations – that is, grounds and groundings; but more, returns. To wish ‘happy’ returns is, at base (that is, at its foundation), no different to wishing disturbing ones: for Sigmund Freud, these are mere variations on the same drive structure, the structure of wishes. The motif of the return, though, is important – much more than a figure of speech. It speaks not of progress but of repetition; of a loop whose figure forms not the rim of a circle – a shape that, from Parmenides to G.W.F. Hegel, always denotes plenitude – but, more precisely, an ellipse. Ellipse as deviant post-Keplerian planetary movement, and also as typographic dot-dot-dot: the marker of a blind spot (as with the elusive feminine ‘A…’ in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1957 novel Jealousy) or an absence, an omission, as at the end of Aristotle’s Poetics (335 BCE) – a marker for all that’s left out. It has been our intention, from the outset, to celebrate remainders – shards, debris, lack’s inexorable lustre and the voiding hum and rush of radio static, the tinnitus of existence. Words – even those printed and circulated over 20 years in frieze – float not up towards transcendence but sidereally, in a long, wandering drift, as of Odysseus (whose cycle of departure and return was also 20 years), a drift that is the first and only writing.

The following declaration, then, takes as its subject a concept that is in need of rigorous demolition, of becoming-debris; one whose claims have made themselves heard amply in debates on culture over the last 20 years, and threaten to do so over the next 20: the Future. The INS position on this overstuffed and lazy meme – that is, on the presumptions and ideologies embedded in what is perhaps the presumptuous ideological meme par excellence – is one of outright hostility. We would declare war on it if we could be bothered. As it is, here we shall simply turn our back to it and feel the wave-beat of repetition suck it dry. The following numbered theses touch on some core elements of INS doctrine. Like all INS propaganda, they may be repeated, modified, distorted and disseminated as the listener sees fit.

1 The Future, culturally speaking, begins with a CAR CRASH. Or rather, an account of one: a disaster always-already mediated, archived and replayed. ‘We had stayed up all night, my friends and I,’ shouts Filippo Tommaso Marinetti from the front page of Le Figaro in February 1909. In a few paragraphs he’ll launch into a lyrical eulogy of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons, of factories, trains, steamers and aeroplane propellers cheering like enthusiastic crowds as they carry us forward; he’ll incite us to destroy the museums, libraries and academies, and inform us that time and space died yesterday. But first, the car crash has to be narrated. After their frenzied nocturnal pacing and arguing and their manic and purposeful ‘scribbling’, the Futurists (as yet unnamed or unannounced: the Future–Futurists) hear famished automobiles beckon from outside their window, and throw themselves into the driving seats of these. Curling watchdogs under the burning tires of his, facing down death at every turn, Marinetti hurtles towards two cyclists wobbling in the road ‘like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments’ – in other words, embodying the old cultural order and its foibles (reason, logic). Pulling up short, he veers, upturned, into a ditch, whose industrial sludge he laps up lovingly, since ‘it reminded me of the breast of my Sudanese nurse’.

2 To unpick the complexities of Marinetti’s document would take more space than we have here – indeed, it could take a lifetime. But let’s flag up three things: firstly, that at the break of the ‘very first dawn’, the moment of rupture with all pasts, lies an almost Proustian moment of nostalgia. Beyond its racial and colonial overtones, the maid’s remembered breast serves as a sticky, black madeleine. Secondly (and following the Proust-line), that the ‘event’ of futurism, of futurity, is so tied up with its own writing as to form a matryoshka doll of almost infinite regress: the text narrates the night during which the text was written, both containing and interrupting one another. Thirdly (and following the line of interruption), that the roaring surge towards the FUTURE is arrested no sooner than it begins: tomorrow’s avant-garde derails itself, and celebrates this derailment in the moment it announces itself, as though the derailment formed part of its raison d’être. The crash dramatizes the larger ontological impossibility of Marinetti’s claim: if time and space died yesterday, then where and what is the tomorrow into which we should be moving? The straight path, the highway leading to the Future, disappears; what remains is an imploded mulch of pasts and presents, a quite literal entrenchment; even more literally, what remains, precedes and entirely encloses the event (while simultaneously being partially enclosed by it) is a document, a text – the real black liquid in which Marinetti’s impetus embeds itself, ultimately, is ink – a text that bears within it a catastrophe.

3 LISTEN: the world is a sign of restless visibility, greater than six miles.

4 It is this organization’s strong contention that our current age – call it ‘modernity’, ‘late capitalism’ or the seventh phase of pre-thetan consciousness according to your disposition – has to be understood through the lens of catastrophe. This is both necessary and impossible: how could we stand outside or beyond the catastrophe? Conversely, it is equally impossible to penetrate its core, experience it fully, merge with it. To phrase it in temporal terms: the time of the catastrophe is not easily graspable. As Maurice Blanchot so eloquently puts it in The Writing of the Disaster (1986): ‘We are on the edge of disaster without being able to situate it in the Future: it is rather always already past, and yet we are on the edge or under the threat, all formulations which would imply the Future – that which is yet to come – if the disaster were not that which does not come, that which has put a stop to every arrival. To think the disaster (if this is possible, and it is not possible inasmuch as we suspect that the disaster is thought) is to have no longer any Future in which to think it.’

5 The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to Future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upwards movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet George William Russell claim that ‘Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,’ pictures Platonists crawling through William Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: ‘Hold to the now, the here, through which all Future plunges to the PAST.’

6 To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the Future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socio-economic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the Future belongs. We RESIST this ideology of the Future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The Future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the Future.

7 As Walter Benjamin correctly notes in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), contemplating Paul Klee’s watercolour Angelus Novus (1920) – a floating figure who stares intently at something he’s moving away from: the angel of history faces backwards. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events,’ writes Benjamin, ‘he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.’ What we call progress, Benjamin calls ‘the storm’.

8 Listen: babble of voices, 90.3 MHz, internal party dissonance. Several highs from the Atlantic to the Baltic. Ringtones in commercials and screaming hosts of the new generation.

9 Contemporary intellectual follies part one: ‘post-humanism’. The desire, as expressed, for example, in the novels of Michel Houellebecq, to leave behind the fury and the mire of human veins, thereby achieving some imagined ‘freedom’ or ‘autonomy’. This is not post-anything: it is merely Humanism 2.0. To rid the self of its contingency, its meshing in desire and networks of relationships, was Humanism’s aspiration in the first place. It’s a reactionary aspiration, one that forecloses any type of genuine agency or ethics. As Emmanuel Levinas so convincingly argues, we are not, nor should we strive to be, discrete or disconnected. As he puts it: ‘We exist in a circuit of understanding with reality’ and ‘we have one finger caught in the machine’.

10 Consider Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, lost in his tape archives: the spools, the reels, the indexes onto which he’s transferred his memories of former years, his fingers hovering over the play, pause and rewind buttons. Technology’s not there to carry him beyond his old condition, but to return him to it with added intensity. Despite his counting of his birthdays, one after the other, TIME, for him, moves not forwards but rather, like the tapes themselves, in a loop.

11 Consider the same author’s character Winnie in Happy Days (1961) buried to her waist in sand as she re-enacts the same acts and gestures day in, day out. By the second act, she’s buried up to her neck. Like Krapp, or Marinetti in his ditch, her experience is one not of progress but of entrenchment.

12 Listen: Risperidone and Bupropion for new-onset depression with psychotic features, filtering the voice of America. Withered into the air.

13 In 1725, as the Enlightenment was gathering its forces for an overall assault on human consciousness, the Italian thinker Giambattista Vico published The New Science, a text that would sit like a time-bomb at the heart of the new ideology, exploding a century and a half later in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Michel Foucault and the like. For Vico, history proceeds in cycles: first comes corso, or ‘flow’, then ricorso – an ambiguous term that has the double sense of repetition and of ‘retrial’ or ‘appeal’. The point is that, historically speaking, we advance not into new ground but over old ground in new ways: more consciously, with deeper, more nuanced understanding. In Finnegans Wake (1939) – the defining moment of literary MODERNISM – Joyce will use Vico’s system as a trellis on which to grow his vision not only of social and international history, but also of that of culture: both, he tells us in the novel’s opening sentence (which is also the conclusion of its incomplete final one), follow a ‘commodius vicus of recirculation’.

14 Loops, not lines: already for the early Freud, the time, or temporality, of trauma has the circular structure of a repetition cycle. By the end of his career, he’ll have extended this traumatic logic to encompass consciousness tout court: humans are rear-facing REPETITION-engines, borne back ceaselessly (as F. Scott Fitzgerald more lyrically puts it) into the past.

15 Consciousness, as another of our heroes, William S. Burroughs, asserts, moves in a seven-second loop, creating temporary bursts of ‘now’-ness. Burroughs had a finger caught in the machine as well: he spent whole months experimenting with reel-to-reel cassettes, recording, splicing and transcribing – an extension of the cut-up techniques he had developed in the old medium of print-on-paper. He believed, not entirely incorrectly, that since the reality we inhabit is so profoundly shaped by media organizations, and by the corporate and governmental bodies hand-in-hand with whom these organizations operate, then to cut into and rearrange script-sequences of this REALITY would have the effect of short-circuiting it, blowing it up: a new catastrophe to counter the ongoing one of what Burroughs’s counterpart Guy Debord would call ‘The Spectacle’. The task, for Burroughs or Debord, is not simply to suggest Future plot-lines for the master-script, but rather to expose and subvert the Reality Studio itself. ‘Let it come down.’

16 In a series of carefully planned and executed media interventions hosted by institutions such as London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Hartware MedienKunstVerein, Dortmund, and others that must remain anonymous, the INS has deployed Burroughs’s cut-up techniques to produce, by splicing together phrases harvested from newspapers, websites, meteorological reports and other media sources, sequences that were then read out over FM radio. These have been inserted at selected points throughout this declaration. Burroughs believed that this process could give one glimpses of the Future – this last term being understood as something not to come but rather already-recorded on another point of the reel being worked over and savaged by the intervention.

17 Listen: Stockholm, within the umbra, 08:40–09:42. Brain injury to the right cerebral hemisphere, dark river-nymph, her name is Echo, and she always answers back, expressed in TERRESTRIAL DYNAMIC TIME. Tomorrow will be three minutes and 57 seconds longer.

18 Contemporary intellectual follies, part two: neuroscience. Or rather, the glib wholesale transferral of the logic of neuroscience to the realm of culture. Another trump card in a narrative of progress that presents itself as absolute, ‘objective’: the belief that art and literature can be ‘explained’ by a discourse that has no bearing on them whatsoever. As though the endless complexity of thought and interpretation demanded by Hamlet (c.1600) could be substituted by the act of taking a biopsy of Shakespeare’s brain, or the interminable challenges and provocations posed by Inland Empire (2006) neutralized by placing electrodes among David Lynch’s strangely coiffed hair. Meaning takes place in the symbolic, is constantly negotiated through language (be this spoken or visual), through the dynamism of metaphor, structured by desire, power, gender and the rest. This process is open, ongoing and – most importantly – contestable. That’s why we have ART in the first place.

19 Listen: Ovid 251 Fight the Chimera. Winds aloft extended decode. Seminole. Going once, going twice.

20 Listen: between cities, countries and continents, we are going to crash.

21 To loop back to where we started, to the ink-rich ditch we never left: the FUTURE ends where it begins – or ends before it begins, pre-ends in anticipation of its eternal recommencement, however you like to put it – with a car crash. Marinetti’s, Camus’s, James Dean’s, Jayne Mansfield’s, Princess Grace of Monaco’s or Princess Graceless and Dumb of Kensington’s, or the endless anonymous victims who populate the silkscreens of Andy Warhol’s repetition compulsion – the identities, ultimately, don’t differentiate themselves, any more than do the scraps of wreckage that pile up before the feet of Benjamin’s angel in the flow and reflow of the storm.

22 This is why, for us, the truest novel of recent modernity is J.G. Ballard’s CRASH (1973). At the book’s outset the author makes two claims: firstly, that we are already surrounded by fictions (lifestyle models, fantasies, sexual roles and identities, all pumped at us, à la Debord/Burroughs, by the media); the writer’s task, he claims (and here we could extend ‘writer’ to encompass artists of all sorts), ‘is to invent the reality’. This claim we find extremely compelling. The second, less so: Ballard asserts that the ultimate aim of Crash is to serve as a warning against ‘that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons […] from the margins of the technological landscape.’ The assertion is unconvincing not simply because the mode throughout Crash, far from being one of warning or disgust, is one of lyric celebration (of dented faces lit by broken rainbows, delicate latticeworks of blood and engine fuel burning in wayside ditches) – but also since the novel is obsessed not with any kind of Future, dystopian or otherwise, but rather with archives. Vaughan, the central character, gathers documents from road research laboratories and reports from forensic journals and from logbooks stolen from doctors. He collects films of test collisions that he plays again and again and again. He follows crash victims around armed with a camera, collating albums full of photographs. He is, above all, a curator. ‘Ballard’, the narrator–character, sees in the dents in windshields records of the people who’ve crashed through or into them; himself after his accident he describes, using Krapp-like diction, as ‘an emotional cassette, taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives – the television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the colour TV as we masturbated one another.’

23 And – here’s the genius of Crash – out of this landscape rises the event: the über-accident that fails to take place, that occurs precisely because it doesn’t happen. Vaughan’s ultimate goal is to die in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor at the precise moment of orgasm. He spends months planning it, down to every last detail (working out at what time she’ll be passing such-and-such a spot, the approach angle his car must take towards hers, and so on). But, disastrously, he gets it wrong and misses her car by inches; subsequently, while Taylor stands alone frozen in ambulance light touching her gloved hand to her throat, he drowns in his own blood. Vaughan, who has been in thousands of car crashes, has met with his first accident.

24 This, perhaps, approaches what we’re trying to feel our way towards: the breach, the sudden, epiphanic emergence of the genuinely unplanned, the departure from the script, or, to put it in fashionable Badiouan, the Event. The INS believes in the Event – in the power of the event, and that of art to carry that event within itself: bring it to pass, or hold it in abeyance, as potentiality. And, paradoxically, the best way that art can do this is by allowing itself to be distracted, gazing in the rear-view mirror.

25 A footnote on Ballard: when, in 2006, a range of writers, scientists, artists, architects and others were asked to contribute a sentence each to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s The Future Will Be … , J.G.’s cleaned the floor with all the rest. While they came up with sweeping, visionary statements on technology, society, the virtual and every other futurological motif, Ballard confined himself to five words: ‘The Future will be boring.’

26 Listen: Radio Essen, 102.2, from the Atlantic to the Ostsee. Mich aber umsummet die Bieen. Trumpets, Wupertaal. Reuters, down 48, IBM down .84, AT&T down .67. The bees hum around me and, where the plowman makes his furrows, birds sing against the light.

Tom McCarthy is a novelist whose work has been translated into more than 20 languages and adapted for cinema, theatre and radio. His first novel, Remainder, won the 2008 Believer Book Award; his third, C, was a 2010 Booker Prize finalist, as was his fourth, Satin Island, in 2015. In 2013, he was awarded the inaugural Windham Campbell Prize for Fiction. His new novel, The Making of Incarnation, will be published in September 2021.