The future, as an aesthetic, is dead. It was murdered, slowly. It has been replaced by formal nostalgia. We are detectives trying to solve the mystery of who, or what, killed the future. But, as we look for clues and interview witnesses, we keep hearing things that aren't there, seeing things that cannot still be. Deja vu keeps slipping into jamais vu. Are the ghosts we keep hearing from the past or the future? Are they the murders or the victim? Reality keeps glitching. Haven't we done this before? Haven't we been here before? I know we've been here, I would swear this was our home and we grew up here, but it feels like the very first time.
Shhhh the ghosts are speaking again. If we strain our ears, I think we can hear them.
Time is out of joint
Anything you say, Lloyd. Anything you say.
we can provisionally distinguish two directions in hauntology. The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat’, a fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). The ‘spectre of communism’ that Marx and Engels had warned of in the first lines of the Communist Manifesto was just this kind of ghost: a virtuality whose threatened coming was already playing a part in undermining the present state of things.The example a student gave about how a future can be virtually real is the present was to imagine there is a report that a massive storm is coming (in the deep South in the US, we can imagine any storm that is supposed to snow). You know if you go the store it will be sold out of batteries, bottle water, milk, etc. It does not matter if the storm comes, the forecast is enough. Likewise, I suggested thinking about the recent bank runs. It did not matter if the banks were actually insolvent--the threat they were caused them to become so.
So then I said, "Okay, we know that fear of certain futures can create actions now. What about the possibility of a good future?"
The students didn't understand.
"Like, do you mean a hopeful night?"
"Sure. But I mean something more. What would it mean if we could believe in some sort of better future."
Another student spoke up, "Well, we know how we get promised things, but they don't happen. So we need to ask a better future for who?"
"Sure," I responded, "Every dystopia is someone's utopia and all that. But can you take seriously the idea of a better tomorrow for all us earthlings? What would it mean if we could believe, really believe, in the possibility of a real, true, better tomorrow? What sort of actions would we engage in today, if we thought a better tomorrow was possible?"
A student, who seldom speaks, sitting way in the back, yells out, "No one would believe you!"
Students laugh. Heads nod.
A student up front adds, contemplatively, "I'm not sure I can imagine the future as being really different from the present. Or if I can, it's only dystopias."
I think I can still hear the future, softly. I think I can still see it, sometimes. Out of the corner of my eye. It's standing near you. Even now.
In the 90s, when the seers came and chortled that it was the end of history, we knew it was a conservative doctrine. We knew it was despair, disguised as triumph. After all, was this as good as it gets?
Fisher tells us that pop music in the Aughts became melancholic party music. We are demanded to party as if it was our job. The biggest example is the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling." Despite the narrative claims of anticipation of the future, everything about the song is a longing for something lost. Something you know that will not be found tonight. Indeed, the feeling that one has is a desire that tonight can finally fill whatever has been lost, with knowledge of that impossibility. The song is a dirge of mournful loss. In the same way the 90s conservative triumph about the end of politics, the end of history, was just so much melancholic pop. But since then, something has shifted.
During a discussion of Tuck and Ree's "A Glossary of Haunting," one of my students pointed out that ghosts don't want rights, they want vengeance. I keep thinking about that. I wonder, for the ghosts of the future, what would vengeance look like? And who would they want vengeance against?
Something has shifted (haven't I said that already?). Now, anything that rejects a pessimistic affect is perceived as insufficiently radical. It is as if one believes in a better tomorrow is seen as rejecting the suffering around you. It is also seen as fundamentally unserious. As if the desire to find a better future makes one panglossian or polyannish. Perhaps worse is the reaction to finding anything good or improving today. If one ever disagrees that this is the darkest timeline, one is taken to be defending the status quo. Of course, the exact opposite is often the case. If everything is shit today, then you are absolutely right in assuming tomorrow will be shit too. Maybe you, too, can only see dystopias. If, on the the other hand, one wishes to build an alternative to the status quo, one has to find the elements that exist today that are not total immiseration. It is from these elements that we nurture, intensify, and coalesce around to create something different.
Fredric Jameson famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. The strange corollary is that for many leftists, they have come to believe that it is only by the world ending will we be forced to end capitalism. In a way they are like ecological Posadists. Not with the cool alien stuff, but rather a belief that, like the Posadists desire for a nuclear war to destroy capitalism, now we earn after ecological doomsday. This is why so many of my fellow travelers on the left react so differently to any kind of optimistic news. Time and again I have seen reactions to positive news stories about the economy, the pandemic, or the environment as if they are propaganda for capitalist industries. If they assume that it is is only by facing the end of the world that we will get mass revolutionary action against the capitalist status quo, then yes, any stories that are about things not being terrible become counter-revolutionary. Affectively this is a doubly whammy. First, of course, you are committed to the world being terrible, Second, good news becomes a kind of bad news--because it signals that the world is further away from ending than you had hoped.
Of course, there is no reason to believe the old slogan, often attributed to Lenin, the worse things are, the better. Fascists and strongmen do not seem to arise so easily when things are going well. It is not usually in times of plenty and hope that we seek scapegoats and leaders promising a return to a golden age. There is a reason that so many of the white supremacist terrorists have started explicitly identifying as eco-fascists. The future, the future as something different than a return to an imaginary past, has always been a weapon against reactionary forces. As the future as a power on the present recedes, I cannot imagine that liberatory alternatives to the present will expand.
And thus we return to end with that paradoxical feature of haunting. Haunting always harbors the violence, the witchcraft and denial that made it, and the exile of our longing, the Utopian. When I am a spooky phantom you want to avoid, when there is nothing but the shadow of a public civic life, when bedrooms and boardrooms are clamorous ghost chambers, deep "wounds in civilization" are in haunting evidence. But it is also the case that some part of me in abeyance of the injury and some part of the missing better life and its potentialities are in haunting evidence too. The ghost always registers the actual "degraded present" (Eagleton) in which we are inextricably and historically entangled and the longing for the arrival of a future, entangled certainly, but ripe in the plenitude of nonsacrificial freedoms and exuberant unforeseen pleasures. The ghost registers and it incites, and that is why we have to talk to it graciously, why we have to learn how it speaks, why we have to grasp the fullness of its life world, its desires and its standpoint. When a ghost appears, it is making contact with you; all its forceful if perplexing enunciations are for you. Offer it a hospitable reception we must, but the victorious reckoning with the ghost always requires a partiality to the living. Because ultimately haunting is about how to transform a shadow of a life into an undiminished life whose shadows touch softly in the spirit of a peaceful reconciliation. In this necessarily collective undertaking, the end, which is not an ending at all, belongs to everyone. (Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters, pp. 207-208)
The desire for hope, for Blockean concrete utopias, for listening to the ghostly mutterings of the the future, is not a demand for blind optimism. William James, who knew a thing or two about ghosts and the struggle to find hope and meaning in life, rejected the simplistic binary of pessimism and optimism. Instead, for James, the point was meliorism. As James points out, "meliorism treats salvation neither as inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a possibility the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become." The concept of meliorism sounds almost trite. Isn't it, after all, just saying we need to work to make the world we want?
I think any triteness here underscores my point. How can meliorism be both trite and unthinkable? For surely the idea that we can work to build the collective conditions of the salvation of the world is exactly that which we seem to no longer believe possible. It is why every response to global warming has the same double-bind. Either the action/policy is too small and therefore what even is the point. Or the action/policy is too big, and thus too demanding or controversial to actually be taken seriously. The idea that we can affect local conditions, the idea we can make more numerous the conditions for salvation, has washed away in a sea of systematic complaints. Simultaneously our actions are not enough and how dare you ask so much of us. More and more, people seem to think that only an apocalypse can save us now.
My students are obsessed with authenticity. I get it. While I have come to agree with Adorno about the fundamentally reactionary language of authenticity, I certainly cared about authenticity when I was a teenager. But as teenagers in the 90s, we didn't use the language of authenticity, exactly. We talked about poseurs and sell-outs. Authenticity, therefore, had something to do with keeping some sort of distance to crass commercialism, even if that distance was all a fiction. I still remember when Lars Urlich was responding to criticisms that Metallica had sold out, and he said, "Yes we sold out, selling out whole stadiums." Yeah, that didn't help.
I tried to explain this concept of selling out to my students--that authenticity had something to do with being orthogonal to capitalism, or at least commercialism, and my students didn't really understand. To be authentic, they explained, meant expressing one's own inner truth, and had nothing to do with capitalism. Indeed, authenticity was the key to making it as an influencer. It felt like that old joke (often attributed to Groucho Marx) "honesty and sincerity are the key to success. Once you can fake those, you have it made." For my students, the inability to take seriously claims about selling out follows from an intensification from a point made by Mark Fisher, who points to David Guetta's hit, "Play Hard," whose chorus demands of the audience to "keep partying like it's your job" (when I was a teenager I taught I had to fight for my right to party, now the party is work). Fisher then discusses the unpaid content creation we do for websites like Facebook, where we often post our images of partying. But as my students pointed out, they do know people who party as their job. Or they go on vacations as their job. Many students were envious. And who knows, they may be right. But my immediate reaction is that such influencers are perfect examples of real subsumption. You can never have a vacation from work, your night outs become just another task. Like Duffman from The Simpsons or Slurms MacKenzie from Futurama, their life is not just alienated from labor, but also from the very possibility of leisure. How, in such a world, is selling out even possible?
The future represented some sort of possible outside of capitalism. But if all we have are variations of dystopians, sold to us (would you like yours more Handmaiden's Tale or more Brave New World?) then there is no outside. Everything's a hustle, and "a hustler's work is never through."
What has the state tried to repress? What looming and forbidden desire is this system of repression designed to inhibit and censor? Subversion, opposition, political consciousness, the struggle for social justice, the capacity to imagine otherwise than through the language of the state, the ability to see "what is going on below: hunger, pettiness, misery" and to act on it (V 12.3). It has many names that I will call simply, and despite the reputation it has acquired of evasive naïveté, the Utopian: the apperception of the fundamental difference between the world we have now and the world we could have instead; the desire and drive to create a just and equitable world. The Utopian, the most general object of the state's repression, makes its appearance too, lingering among the smoldering remains of a dirty war. (p. 127)