I remember in earnest the idea of flying cars during childhood, an idea commonly associated with the future. Visions of technological society, gigantic skyscrapers, robotic cyborgs, and the silver, glossy, and shiny architecture of the future have occupied the collective consciousness of many people as spurred by the wealth of science fiction novels, music, and other art forms. Decades later, it seems that that vision of the future is not going to arrive any time soon.
The slow cancellation of the future
William Gibson, a famous science fiction writer, and pioneer of its subgenre cyberpunk lamented this psychological notion of the future. He recounts that as early as 1920, people were already excited about what the 21st century might look like. The air is charged with anticipation and everyone was holding their breath at the future’s arrival.
In the 1920s, the phrase “the 21st Century” was already pop-ubiquitous. How often do we see the phrase “the 22nd Century”, now?— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 23, 2019
Today, we experience ongoing issues of climate change. And with the neoliberal framework of the economy, the notion of the future appears bleak. If it is going to come at all. Gibson posed a question that could only echo to the recesses of one’s mind: How often do we see the phrase “the 22nd Century,” now? Then, silence. Perhaps our inability to answer could only mean that it is the answer. What is to be done? To borrow from Alain Badiou, the future needs saving.
In his book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher characterizes the loss of our future by our inability to articulate our present. The ongoing cultural pastiche of the past is further proof of how it eroded our present and consequently our future. The proliferation of nostalgia in popular music is becoming a cultural malady which he cited in his book as the slow cancellation of the future. More and more, our globalized culture accedes to nostalgia both in the distant and immediate past.
The recurring phenomenon of sameness is apparent here in the Philippines during our karaoke sessions. The chorus of Elton John‘s Skyline Pigeon, Eraserhead‘s Ang Huling El Bimbo, Noel Cabangon’s Kanlungan, and other late ‘90s to early 2000s songs periodically catch our ears during celebrations, birthdays, or festivals.
These songs continue to hold a nostalgic grip in our collective psyche not just because of their own lyrical content. These songs also provide us with a glimpse of the time when these were released and experienced. Right now ‘90s are becoming an important cultural touchstone that everyone now seems to be increasingly fond of as the years go by. Nostalgia can be good, but can also be deadly. Because what is death if not perpetual stillness? A paralysis in which there is no way forward?
Fisher is adamant in his assertion that this lamentation could be misconstrued as the old recoiling to the new. However, he argues that it is simply not the case. the continued haunting of the past does not only manifest in our music’s sameness but even in the way, we express ourselves. The hazy, grainy filter of our pictures, the re-emergence of film cameras, and the resurrection of vinyl players and cassettes. Could it be that the retro, vintage aesthetic has become our way of saying that we cannot (or refuse to?), using present technology, articulate our present?
Saving the future
Fisher traces the loss of the future due to the transnational restructuring of the economy. The global neoliberal shift of the economy privatized most public industries in favor of capital and eroded any forms of social solidarity in favor of individualism.
This is apparent in the way we have perceived the construction of public places which are important avenues in the flourishing of culture. Since public places such as parks do not generate profit, their existence in the neoliberal logic is unjustifiable. But public places are places of communion and a way of rekindling the increasing atomization and individualization of our society. It is within these spaces of community culture flourishes and thrives, away from the hegemonic culture propped up by consumerism and media.
The future does not have to be a lustrous megalopolis laden with flying vehicles operated by cyborgs or automated machines. Community can be rooted in caring and looking out for one another. By rekindling the sense of kinship that the logic of capital forcibly and continually yanks from us.
The future might look bleak right now, with the persistence of the past, and its ghosts. But it could also mean that we are not ready to give it up yet.
Drex Le Jaena is a writer currently based in Cavite.