Tuesday, 22 July 2008

What Happened to the Future?



Robert Barry

In 1992, American neo-con philosophe, Francis Fukuyama, published a book, The End of History, or The Last Man, which claimed that, with the fall of the communist regimes in eastern Europe, the world had reached the 'end of history' in its current state of liberal capitalist 'utopia'. Of course, it wasn't long before history came along to bite Fukuyama from behind. In the meantime, fifteen years later, it does seem like something is missing. Not history, but in a sense, the future.



In the middle of the last century, when people were first preparing to go into space, and electronic music was being produced by modernist composers and enterprising outsiders alike, the presence of 'actually existing socialism' in the eastern bloc provided a locus for both the utopian dreams and the dystopian nightmares of several generations. All of this came together in American science fiction films like The Day The Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth and It Came From Outer Space, in which space travel, electronic music and invaders from a red planet, formed a kind of symbolic unity. The scarcity of information about socialist society, as well as public knowledge of the tendency for what little information there was to be distorted by both sides, only added to its ability to act as a kind of fantasy space.



In today's post-political society in which the public are systematically discouraged from taking an interest in politics, and political decisions are always presented as ideology-free, technical, administrative choices, we seem to have lost our grip on the future. Without a broad-based popular opposition to the status quo, we are left with the rather grim sense that there is no alternative. The future, as J. G. Ballard put it, is boring.

Walking into almost any live music venue in Britain today, be it jazz club, concert hall or rock gig, one could be forgiven for thinking that, since the 1970s, history had in fact taken a few steps in retreat, or that a pan-generic cult of conservatism had taken hold at the root of all musical activity. Lecturers in 'Innovation Studies', surely a forward-looking discipline if ever there was one, write papers on the 'post-original' – a term suggestive of the idea that the very attempt to do anything new is now thoroughly passé. Even our science fiction films are remakes of old favourites like Godzilla, War of the Worlds and Transformers.



And so what, you might say. The modernist demand for relentless innovation led to an art that lost touch with its public and the socialist 'utopia' in eastern Europe led to large-scale butchery and corruption. Good riddance to the future, I hear you carp. But behind these empty clichés concerning the Twentieth Century, what kind of baby are we throwing out with the avant-garde bathwater? Isn't the messianic promise contained, in different ways but equal parts, in revolutionary societies, stories about other galaxies, and music composed purely of electronic sounds, in a sense, the only real possibility of hope and transcendence: the promise of a better world in this world, i.e. before death and without the support of any mysticism or theocracy.

4 comments:

BG said...

Where do we fit in the cinematic counterpart to this -- the recent rash of US superhero films?

Isn't Iron Man the ultimate cop out in this sense of post-politics? An admission (of the horrible humanity hidden behind terms like 'collateral damage') dismissed by a naff, neat macho ending? And the circumvention of well-meaning humans -- out to change something in the way the US handles the world -- by other, lesser, evil beings?

To speak of the historical sci-fi in this piece... The counterpoint of the Hollywood films are the sci-fi narratives from the Soviets. This pair neatly dovetail. Both sides attributed to the other whatever their 'side' found abhorrent and perverted in modernity.

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