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Day: September 9, 2017

The past and the future

Nothing helps us to better understand any given historical moment than skipping  30+ years into the past and exploring the imaginaries of the future people had back then. Our medieval ancestors inhabited a world where the future existed as part of a sacralized cyclical time, on which the three Abrahamic religions superimposed the myth of the final revelation. The result was a synthetic vision of time, at once cyclical as personified in the festive rituals of the pre-Abrahamic solar calendar of equinox precessions, and millenarian as personified by the concept of a linear and foreordained end to the cycle. The future contained a repetition of rituals leading to an apocalypse.

The protestant revolution in Europe, and the displacement of the theist principle with that of Reason, shattered both of these futures. Now the future became infinite progress. The French revolution and the Napoleonic wars stabilized this future as the dominant paradigm of the West. The only question now became that of determining where infinite progress leads us to. This is the context in which Nietzsche declared that God is dead, a statement still vastly misunderstood, arguing that the void in the future of progress has to be filled by the Ubermensch.

Of course, the entire edifice of progress and reason was smashed to pieces in the Great War, with entire generations of Western men, reared on the myth of progress and triumph of reason, fertilizing with their blood the fields of Europe. Blood and soil was all that was left of the future now. Not surprisingly, that was the future picked up by the National-Socialists and Fascists, leading into the Second Great War, which accomplished the seemingly impossible by burning the future entirely into the hellish fire of the Bomb. After that, no future was left in the West, only an infinite one-dimensional now of endless consumption. The future was supplanted by two terms – more and now – which encapsulate everything the West has stood for ever since.

In the 1950s and 60s, the Soviet Union decided in a brief moment of collective hallucination to imagine a different future, in the stars. The Soviets even sent a multitude of emissaries into that future, first animals, then Gagarin and Tereshkova. However, the euphoria subsided, a generation woke up from the hallucination, and the future came crashing down, symbolized by the falling of the Mir space station and the collapse of the union. More and now triumphed here too.

In the 1960s and 70s China was undergoing its own collective hallucination moment, but unlike the Soviets, the hun wei bin were not imagining a future in the stars, but in progress purified from all past. Like all hallucinations, that one ended with a hangover, and an entire generation discovered that when the past is gone there is no meaningful future either. It is in that context that Deng Xiao Ping introduced a brand new future for China – that of progress towards more and now. It is at that precise moment, in 1981, when Jean Michel Jarre arrived in China to perform the first concert ever by a Western musician in that country. The choice of Jarre was not accidental. Here was a futurist par excellance, representing the country to first embrace progress as its default myth. Jarre’s music was hyper-futuristic, a glorious embrace of synth-induced progress, with no visible baggage of the past. Just what China needed at that moment. The documentary-like album released by Jarre in the aftermath is an amazing illustration of the arrival and implantation of a new myth of the future into the minds of an eager audience.