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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 — 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.” 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. Nothing to write home about. Once society gets itself back on track, so goes the argument, 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, 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 will stick to the straight and narrow. This would spell an end to that feeling of “transcendental homelessness” described by the young Lukács. Simultaneously, it would cure humanity of that desire the German Romantic poet Novalis claimed was expressed by philosophy — i.e., “the urge to be at home everywhere.”
Neither of these ideal 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 thus hardly comes as a shock that Marxian theorists like Moishe Postone have described the peculiar treadmill effect that occurs under capitalism. History of late may be going nowhere, 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 often contain certain 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. Its reality recedes into the mists of prehistory. Upon closer inspection, moreover, it soon becomes clear that by its very logic this must be a far more glacial, unchanging past than anywhere in fact existed. For insofar as the “future” (in the robust sense) is conceived as the possibility that historically given conditions can be radically transformed — that there is a τέλος toward which humanity might progress — it is necessary that this past preclude it. This is a past that has been hermetically sealed off from such eventualities. In other words, it is a past that prevents the future from ever presenting itself.
So on the one hand, there is the present that constantly chases after the future without ever arriving. On the other, there is the past that is nowhere presently available, which must, furthermore, maintain a safe distance from the present, due to the latter’s continued romance with futurity. If all this is true, however, what ever became of the future? What does it mean to say that one day, in history, the future ceased to exist? Continue reading