To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.
The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.
[A] book about the attrition of a fantasy, a collectively invested form of life, the good life. As that fantasy has become more fantastic, with less and less relation to how people can live—its attrition manifests itself in an emerging set of aesthetic conventions that make a claim to affective realism derived from embodied, affective rhythms of survival.
♦ Laren Berlant, Cruel Optimism
There is reason to take issue with the historical present. That we have gradually, inexorably, been becoming detached from the genuine prospect of realistic achievement of a collectively entertained (and entertaining) fantasy life seems almost cruel in itself to acknowledge. The negative injunction—”don’t look!”—could rightly and more reliably be expected to emanate from an internal source rather than an external one. We do not desire to examine the very tenuous foundations on which we are so hastily and compellingly erected from. The project of living today in the Western world almost requires a blindness complicit with the unachievable nature of our ambitions; ambitions which are manufactured against the impetus of an ostensibly easily accessed sense of reason, along with features of social and political realities that we willfully attenuate to the point of polite dinner conversation. Actual, meaningful, cognitive assessment of the terms, conditions, cost, reliability, and plausibility of the models we project outward and upward from ourselves, on which we base life changing decisions and evaluate one another in society, can feasibly be apprehended to be inherently repulsive. Too much of our sense of coherence and intelligibility relies upon a hope that may in fact be toxic to any real form of stability. The point that Berlant hammers so deftly is one of precarity: as supporting and driving institutions continue to shrink from the business of real service to a larger community, and instead mobilize people as statistics which serve the bottom line of not even the 1% but rather composite, covetous corporate and national entities, the prospect of success becomes hazardous. It may never arrive. It likely won’t, not recognizably. The “good life” is so utterly contingent in a world with so few genuine supports that its mirage may be better understood as a form of abuse; but where does it emanate from? The sources at this point are inscribed on inner spaces as deeply as on outer. The “situation tragedy” which Berlant invokes lurks at the periphery of most modern lives, as a pessimism that acts almost as a force unconsciously moves in to inhabit the regions of projected futurity, spaces that were once mediated by a sustained and nourishing sense of hope. Perhaps we should ignore the injunction despite the allure of ignorance, and look to reevaluate our dreams.
But you know how shameless I am in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea. The idea is time. Living in the future. Look at those numbers running. Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man hours, using labour more efficiently.
♦ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis
“Shameless” is a good call. I think many of us lose our sense of propriety when it comes jumping at the chance to inhabit tomorrow; to exploit the concept; to make the best of the continuum purportedly so soon available to us. It is the fact of life that coaxes us forward. The merciless exigencies of capital force a certain speed: the spectre of falling behind is always haunting us, the fear of missing the boat. Harvesting every screed of the moment, spending it “efficiently,” becomes our conscience, a relentless task-master seeking to circumscribe our actions even as it drives us to comply. To make the best of our present, it sometimes feels like we must accept the judgement of an unremitting and disembodied third-person, one constituted by an inanimate mechanism that we use to interface with the shape of our lives. Unabashedly we focus on a prize that can never, definitively, materialize. We can only remain current by projecting into the future.