“While the 20th century was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were incarcerated in their roadside café.” – Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life
We are Trapped in the Static Present
The song All The Things She Said by Russian duo t.A.T.u. was a huge hit when it was released back in 2002, seventeen years ago; if the song were a living, breathing human, he would happily be celebrating his eighteenth birthday next year with overflowing beer to drench the parched throat and plates of food to fill his lanky frame, after all eighteen is a good age to celebrate the realization that one is no longer a child but an adult, mature enough for the world to devour—the song made its mark almost two decades ago but as the cliché goes, it seems as if it were just yesterday. It is very common nowadays to conflate the present with the near and distant past, even if they are several years apart One only needs to skim through the comments section of a YouTube video of an old song or a vintage movie snippet, and one would stumble at something that profoundly describes the general feeling of chronological conflation being felt by majority of the people, just move past the “who’s watching this in 2019” or variations thereof. Joking aside, I saw a comment on a video I already forgot, the comment however is remarkable in that it is simple but speaks a lot about what we are experiencing in this historical juncture; here is the comment: “I can’t believe this came out in 1980.” 1980 was almost forty years ago, and yet we do not feel that it is that far away in the past. Why do we have this feeling, what is the reason behind this? Why is it that when our generation mentions the 90s, the 2000s, it is always with a hint of disbelief; it has been hard for us to imagine that these decades happened long ago. Is it simply a case of nostalgia muddling our sense of chronology, or is it something else?
Listen to this story: I once had an older friend (in his early fifties) who animatedly told me a story about a catastrophic event that he witnessed firsthand (his fingers were sinuously moving in the air as if conducting an orchestra) and the massive evacuation that ensued, both of which happened “just recently”—half-way through his story, I felt something wrong, no matter how hard I tried to remember, I could not recall events that happened recently that would fit his grandiose narrative—when I told him that I could not remember a disaster the magnitude of what he was describing that happened recently, he was surprised and said it was all over the news, in fact, it was a global event—covered by top international journalists. By this time, I knew what was happening. I did not react, I just asked him what specific event he was talking about. With a hint of bewilderment and perplexity in the tone of his voice, he said that he was talking about the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, and there it was. Staring me right in the eye. This encounter with my friend happened in 2016—a full twenty-five years after the Pinatubo disaster—I was born in May of 1992, I told my friend. He fell silent.
Following Bifo Berardi, Mark Fisher theorizes about what could be an important and exigent philosophical issue today, what they call the “slow cancellation of the future”:
“In his book After the Future, Franco “Bifo” Berardi refers to ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ [that] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s’.‘But when I say “future”’, he elaborates— I am not referring to the direction of time. I am thinking rather, of the psychological perception, which emerged in the cultural situation of progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated during the long period of modern civilization, reaching a peak after the Second World War. These expectations were shaped in the conceptual frameworks of an ever progressing development, albeit through different methodologies: the Hegel-Marxist methodology of Aufhebung and founding of the new totality of Communism; the bourgeois mythology of a linear development of welfare and democracy; the technocratic mythology of the all-encompassing power of scientific knowledge; and so on.
My generation grew up at the peak of this mythological temporalization, and it is very difficult, maybe impossible to get rid of it and look at reality without this kind of temporal lens. I’ll never be able to live in accordance with the new reality, no matter how evident, unmistakable, or even dazzling its social planetary trends. (After the Future, AK Books, 2011, pp18-19)” (Fisher, 6 – 7)
For mankind, the real possibility of a future came during the age of industrialization; this is the effect of compressing more than five decades worth of technological progress into a couple of years. This is not to say that people in earlier times were not fascinated with the future—of course they were—but during the age of industrialization the word future took a different meaning. The significance of the surface must not escape us, as some philosophers would point out, if one were to diagnose the ailments of a particular historical stage, one only needs to look into the surface, because the surface exhibits the symptoms of an era. The future of the medieval times was a biblical future, millenarian if you will; in those times the physical earth was a repository of sorrow and pain (the black death, countless wars, famine, incurable ailments) the future was the promised land of religion where the pious, because of virtuous living, would inherit the earth but the earth in this future was not the same earth where they were living—it was a metaphysical place of effulgent happiness and satisfaction, no more suffering, no more death, no more oppression: a divine utopia that drove everyone to continue living and took the fear of death from them. In medieval times the future was not strictly chronological; it was also geographical in fact more so. A gradual shift in the notion of future and futurity began during the age of enlightenment, when popular thinking slowly began to diverge from the dictates of religion and the confines of biblical imagery.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Aerial Screw, a prototype of the propelling mechanism of modern day helicopters is one of the testaments to this shift: the future of Da Vinci was not a biblical paradise, but rather, a time when humanity would already hold the secret to conquering the skies—for centuries, beginning in the enlightenment, flight had been the meaning of the future. When industrialization came, the horizon expanded, while the physical earth was still a place of sorrow and oppression intensified by the emergence of capitalism, a rabid social and economic system that preyed on the weak and powerless, and while religion was still a vital institution, majority would still think that a material future, a world which was unlike the present, was possible. This imagination of a material future was the motive force for the techno-economic developments that occurred in the century that proceeded the industrial revolution. Gerald Raunig calls this century the “long twentieth century” which started in the wake of the Paris Commune of 1871, this century saw rapid development in politics, economy, and culture, but when the peak of development appeared to have been reached, we abandoned the idea of development and experimentation altogether; critic Mark Fisher contends that this gives us the feeling that “we remain trapped in the 20th century (Fisher, 8)”—the present, the long twentieth century which is still in effect, which started as a horizon of infinite possibilities has begun to look like a dead end. A new song comes out today, and we get the eerie feeling that we have already heard it. A new cellphone contains features that were present in previous models. TV shows keep being remade barely two decades after they were last shown. Yes, we are still running but we stopped moving a long time ago.
In her book Duty Free Art, critic and artist Hito Steyerl ruminates in an essay titled A Tank on a Pedestal about the aesthetic and philosophical implications of a World War II Russian tank that has been repurposed and deployed to participate in a conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. The tank has been on display inside a World War II museum before it was driven out by rebels into the stage of war, more than half a century after it was last used:
“One might think that the active historical role of a tank once it became part of a historical display. But this pedestal seems to have acted as temporary storage from which the tank could be deployed directly into battle. Apparently, the way into museum—or even history itself—is not a one way street. Is a museum a garage? An arsenal? Is a monument pedestal a military base? (Steyerl, 1)”
History’s invasion of the present as exemplified by the repurposed World War II tank being redeployed to fight in a modern war is a good metaphor for what we are experiencing today, the stasis of the present—for Steyerl, “The future only happens if history doesn’t occupy and invade the present (Steyerl, 8).” But if history is comfortable not only in frolicking in the present but asserting its dominance, its imaginary power, then we have no other choice but to bear witness to the slow cancellation of the future. The 80s seem to be just a few days past because the 80s never really left, or the 70s and 60s for that matter; they are just sitting on the pedestal or inside glass cages of a forlorn museum, waiting to be redeployed at a moment’s notice into the field of war with the mission of getting rid of possibilities, erasing the future.
The Supersonic Age in 1941
In the previous paragraphs, the invasion of the past to prevent the future from happening has been discussed—but could it be possible, to discuss theoretically the implications if we reverse the premise of the previous discussion, if the future (which in this case is actually the present) invades the past? The advent of supersonic aviation, arguably, is one of the defining moments of the long twentieth century. This century has also simultaneously been described in many ways, one of which is the “atomic age” or “the age of the atom” – the utilization of nuclear energy being one of the most significant technological advancements in recent times. French architect and urban theorist Paul Virilio would of course argue that one of the most defining characteristics of every age is speed— that “speed is power itself”, for him the figure of the pharaoh is one of the most eloquent images that portray the relationship of power and speed:
“Everyone has a mental image of King Tutankhamen with both hands crossed on his chest. This image can be seen in the tomb. In one hand, he holds a whip and in the other a hook. Some archaeologists have asserted that the whip is a fly-swatter – a fly-swatter as a sign of pharaonic power is just nonsense. The whip was actually used to accelerate the chariot of war, while the hook was used to slow it down, to pull back the reins. Therefore, pharaonic power, like all power, is at once restraint, brake, wisdom and acceleration.” (Virilio, 15)
Nothing exemplifies mankind’s achievements in the field of speed than the dawn of the “supersonic age”— when we became capable of traveling faster than the speed of sound, nothing seemed impossible. But while supersonic travel has been important to commercial aviation, it proved to be unsustainable in the long run, hence supersonic commercial travel was stopped in 2003 after almost three decades of operation, but it is a different story in terms of warfare. Two centuries ago, wars were won by countries who had bigger and more advanced naval fleets, but since the introduction of jet fighters capable of flying twice or even thrice the speed of sound, it is common knowledge that air superiority, meaning the number of jet fighters, bombers and other air assets in one country’s arsenal and how advanced they are technologically, is the biggest factor in conventional warfare. If you control the speed, you control the war—if you control the skies, you will win the war.
In War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, a book about how war is always already a spectacle and about the death of the sacred unmoving image in the new century and its replacement with the aesthetic of disappearance, Paul Virilio talks about the recurrence, and resurrection if you will, of those “transfigured by war” in one form or another, a general whose name has been bestowed on a nuclear-aircraft carrier for example, yet another manifestation of the past invading the present:
“Rest never comes for those transfigured in war. Their ghosts continue to haunt the screens or, most frequently, find reincarnation in an engine of war – usually a ship, like the Tirpitz, which sank in fjord in 1943 and whose technological metempsychosis was celebrated in a feature film. Admiral William Nimitz, the American commander-in-chief of naval aviation in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945, gave his name to a nuclear aircraft-carrier which featured in another recent film, Don Taylor’s The Final Countdown (1980). In this work of science fiction, whose theme is war across time, the Japanese fleet is steaming towards Pearl Harbor when it is detected by the Nimitz, which has been carried back half a century by a disturbance in the space-time vortex. The ship’s commander faces a dilemma: whether to let history take its course, or to block the attack on Pearl Harbor by using all the fire-power at his command. The most interesting thing in this film is the new crisis of decision making that results from non-peaceful coexistence of different technologies.” (Virilio, 61)
The Final Countdown, a science-fiction movie directed by Don Taylorand which came out in 1980, was not a massive commercial success earning just over $16 million on a budget of $12 million; critics were not generous either, giving it a mere 6.7 score on IMDB and 44% positive reviews on online aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. While the film is not a commercial, critical, or artistic success, it still offers one of the most fascinating sci-fi plots in recent years: The USS Nimitz, one of the largest aircraft carriers in history, is sailing toward the Pacific for a naval exercise when an atmospheric disturbance apparently caused by a huge glowing bluish circle on the horizon, which at first appears to be a typhoon, seemingly incapacitated the radar and other mechanisms of the ship for several minutes. The Nimitz is sucked in by the bluish circle; when the Nimitz emerges, the ocean is calm and the disturbance interfering with the radio signal and the radar has already vanished— it will take a while before the crew figures out that there is actually something wrong, that the radio news program they are listening to is not a vintage war record being played again, and the bluish circle in the horizon that sucked the vessel is not a simple atmospheric disturbance but is in fact a wormhole that transported them to another time—USS Nimitz is transported by the wormhole to December 7, 1941, a very significant date in United States Military History; this was the day when the Japanese Pacific air fleet bombed Pearl Harbor, sinking dozens of ships and killing thousands of soldiers—this attack by the Japanese on the Americans would prompt the US to enter the theater of war.
In the film, fictional US Senator Samuel Chapman is on a yacht with his secretary Laurel Scott and a friend, when they see two Japanese zero bombers which appear to be doing reconnaissance work, looking for any vessel that may report any suspicious activity, and hence, may preempt their surprise attack. The two fighters appear to have seen the yacht. While in the middle of a conversation, Charlie, Laurel’s dog senses something and starts barking ceaselessly, he goes out, and positions himself on the deck, looking at something indistinguishable in the horizon, Senator Chapman and Laurel, visibly alarmed, pace nervously out of the room to check why Charlie seems to be uneasy. Senator Chapman hears a faint humming sound from the distance, and in a few seconds, two F-14 Tomcat jet fighters, who were tasked by the Nimitz to do reconnaissance, emerge from the horizon; they are so fast that they vanish immediately—many times faster than the two Japanese zero bombers, and could fly higher. “They had US Markings!” Senator Chapman exclaims, “I thought so, too.” Laurel Scott concurs; the friend is bewildered “their speed! Are they ours?” Senator Chapman’s friend asks, “I don’t know, but if they are ours, they’ve kept them a closed secret.”
This scene when two modern jet fighters capable of flying higher and faster than any fighter or bomber in 1941 is one of the most important and profound scenes in the film. This is where the future and the past make their first contact—but there is an important point here, the difference between 1941 and 1980 is just 39 years. In 1980, most veterans of World War II were just in their sixties, some were even on active duty, in their fifties. But the gap between the military technology of 1941 and 1980 is very significant. For one, in 1980, the US Military Arsenal is composed of advanced weaponry that, hypothetically, could destroy the combined military arsenal of the Axis powers and Japan—precision guided missiles, nuclear missiles, jet fighters and bombers. The military might of 1941 – 45 will not stand a chance. It is not wrong to say that the devastation and panic caused by World War II were some of the main reasons why military technology needed to take a massive leap in the first place. When Senator Chapman and Laurel see the fast F-14 fighters slitting the throat of the sky, they know that they just saw advanced war machines, but they probably did not know that these war machines hail from the future—a future that will come only in 30 years. In the beginning of the essay, the strange phenomenon wherein we who are living in the 21st century experience a compression of chronological time, not in the sense that time is really compressed but rather our psychological perception of it has changed. For those who were living in the 80s, the 40s, which were practically just four decades past, seem for them so far away. People in the 80s could not relate to the culture, economy and zeitgeist of the 40s. Mark Fisher explains something similar to this phenomena, but Fisher compares the divide between the 60s and the 80s: “Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity (Fisher, 9).” Unlike now, there was real historical movement as the 40s transitioned into the 80s. History has been left where it should be. The supersonic age in 1941 therefore is a huge anomaly, but will those living in the 80s be perplexed when they see the 6th generation of fighter jets the way Senator Chapman and Laurel widened their eyes and gasped in, perhaps admiration, perhaps fear, when they see F-14 Tomcats flying across the sky? Just like 1941 in 1980, 1980 today is 39 years ago—but do we feel the difference? One of the most famous slogans of the 1968 student revolt in France was “art is dead, do not consume its corpse.” We paraphrase it a little to fit the contemporary age: the future is dead, do not consume its corpse.
Berardi, Franco. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. London: Verso, 2017.
___. Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. London: Verso, 2015.
___. Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions, 2009.
Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books, 2014.
___. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: Zero Books, 2009.
Virilio, Paul. Art as Far as the Eye Can See. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
___.The Futurism of the Instant: Stop – Eject. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010.
___. Politics of the Very Worst. Brooklyn: Semiotext(e), 1999.
___. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1984.
Steyerl, Hito: Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. London: Verso, 2017.