We are living through postmillennial tension. We live in wait for a defining event that either never seems to come or, when it is declared to have arrived, only seems to reinforce the very darkness we dream of emerging from. This tension often takes the form of frozen anguish. We seem thoroughly jaded by the dreams of “progress” associated with modernity and capitalism but can hardly venture to move in another direction. Perhaps we cannot accept that there won’t be another grand narrative to guide us along, a new Moses floating down the river to guide us to some promised land.
The stasis we feel comes from waiting for a vanguard, a savior or a truth to set us free. The 20th century largely taught us to distrust such thinking, but the fog of postmodern depression that arose from the ashes of the dream of progress has been slow to lift. Beneath this frozen anguish, however, there is another sort of tension that describes our modernity: a productive tension.
Jean-Paul Sartre described anguish as the recognition of responsibility and the ensuing need to act without guarantee, without hope. Having just passed through the sea of hope and run aground on shores that look much like those we set sail from, we are straining to figure out where we stand, let alone where we are going. Perhaps we are in a position to reconsider modernity. We cannot return to a point in the past, but it might be safe to go back and take what we need from the wreckage. We are coming to grips with sorrow in our present, and we cannot complete this work of mourning unless we truly move away from the object of loss. Is there something in the modernist ideal that we cannot do without? Something that postmodern malaise has made us feel unable to deal with?
Michel Foucault’s conception of the “attitude of modernity” matches disciplined realism with the will to imagine things otherwise. We cannot understand ourselves by a return to our roots or by a notion of destiny. We must be able to face the harsh realities; modernity has left us without illusions, and with the determination to imagine the world anew. If the spectacular economy has gifted us anything, perhaps it’s the very wreckage left in its wake. The hegemony of “progress” has torn us from our traditional notions of order, identity and place. The current rupture in the global economy has perhaps made us more aware than ever of this void. The big question is whether we can turn this void of negativity into an opening of positivity: Can we act without hope? Without roots or destiny to guide us? Can we still envision another future? If we cannot, then we can be fairly certain of what our future will look like.
A NEW KIND OF TENSION
The tension we experience between our lives and the promises offered by modernity have often been suffered passively. The question becomes: Can this tension be put to work productively? Can we move past denial and depression and face the precariousness and risk we have been dealt? Can we use these antagonisms to animate our actions? The present moment offers us a clear picture of the divide between our dreams of progress and our reality.
For curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, the financial collapse of 2008 marks a turning point in history in which the tension between our dreams of progress and the realities of emerging disaster are plainly apparent. The illusion of the spectacular economy seems to have permanently ruptured. But even if the system seems to have died and people no longer seem willing to believe its promises, we cannot assume that overcoming it is inevitable. Even as the system fails, it seems to have an uncanny ability to cannibalize itself. The spectacular economy thrives on disaster, even its own failing is an opportunity for its profit.
Modernity has operated as a binary system in which progress is coupled with its negative: externalized risk, a mortgaged future, the excluded masses, precariousness and wandering … Our work consists in taking up what has been left on this underside of progress. As we wake up to see that what we have long been taught is realistic is actually impossible, we must work to turn this negative realization into possibilities. Within the complex lines of thought that made up modernism, there was also an ethos that strove to navigate an uncertain, discontinuous and ruptured world. It is this ethos that remains important to us. Bourriaud terms this emerging era “altermodern.” We have been broken from our traditional “ties that bind.” Precariousness, wandering and translation are marks of the altermodern. Purity and destiny no longer make sense for us; altermodernity is an other-modernity, picking up from those points left to the side of the dominant ideals of modernism.
That dominant ideal of modernity is tied to a notion of ever-expanding progress and limitless consumption. The oil crisis of 1973 signaled the onset of the postmodern malaise. “Our future was all of a sudden mortgaged,” writes Bourriaud in Altermodern. So while capital has continued expanding its reach in other areas, there has been a lingering denial – an inability to mourn the lost object and the dream’s impossibility. If this was the death of the dream, then our present reality of global warming, water and food shortages, market collapse and the continued proliferation of violent factionalism make it clear that we had better get on with mourning and confront the sorrow we have been trying to repress. Putting it off has only allowed the problems to grow.
A VOID IS AN OPENING
We have had a century of continuity in which the basic operating assumptions of the economic system have been hegemonic. In fact this version of “modernity” was to have closed the book on history: We have reached the best of all possible worlds; there are no alternatives. Proclaiming the end of history intimates that our desires have been satiated and that there is nothing further to strive for. To think that our desires could be fulfilled under this system is certainly beyond cynical. But that nihilistic cynicism complements the vision of progress associated with the modernist dream.
This spectacular rationality has been thoroughly cynical. The idea of progress we have held out is couched in exclusion, stacked “competition” and destruction of the natural environment. The idea that this could ever be “the best of all possible worlds” is nothing but calculated cynicism. That this system can no longer continue is not only due to the fact that so much of what it has tried to exclude, avoid and put off indefinitely is now proving impossible to ignore. Just as significant is that the very ideals of this system – the things it has deemed to be constitutive of “progress” itself – have been revealed as impossible. As the most recent financial collapse demonstrates, the system is thoroughly ruptured from within and riddled with contradictions.
So we find ourselves in this moment of rupture, precariously exposed to risk and perhaps devoid of hope. Can we think of these facts as possibilities? Can we confront our situation and imagine what things might be like otherwise, even without guarantees? The end of history has reached its end. Can we be the ones we have been waiting for?
Michael Larson teaches philosophy in Pittsburgh.