Whither the Future?

“There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times.”

— William Butler Yeats

With those evocative words Yeats began his essay on William Blake. Blake was, in Yeats’ estimation, one of these men who loved the future like a mistress. If he were thinking of nations rather than individuals, Yeats’ might have spoken those same words  of American culture. To say that throughout their history Americans have been more interested  in looking forward to the future rather than backwards at the past is a generalization, but it is rather safe one to make.

One stunning and not too distant instance of this future orientation was on display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I’ve been reading about the fair in both David Nye’s Electrifying America and his later American Technological Sublime. The 1939 Fair is interesting on a number of levels, but I’m especially taken by the manner in which the Fair synthesized perhaps the most remarkable generation or so of technological development with a (corporate) modernist aesthetic to produce an evocative and cohesive utopian vision of the future. The future, or The World of Tomorrow, was the theme of just about every major exhibit at the Fair, and for the first time the most extravagant and well-conceived exhibits were not the national exhibits, but the corporate ones (General Electric, General Motors, AT&T, Chrysler, to name a few). Three major exhibits featured intricate scale model representations of the future city complete with dramatic narration, symphonic music, and 1000 voice choirs making the whole a “quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future.”

During the planning that had led up to the Fair, architect and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford had called for the Fair to be a concrete anticipation of “the future of the whole civilization.” This heady, vaguely spiritualized optimism and expectation for the world of tomorrow is all the more remarkable when we consider that it was articulated and experienced in the latter years of the Great Depression. This may not be all that surprising if we imagine that the hardship of the Depression made people all the more hungry for an escapist model of the future. However, we might also consider the possibility that the Depression could just as easily have quelled all optimism and hope for the future after the very long decade.

And this is our segue to the present. It appears that the cultural mood has shifted. Our collective eyes seemed to be fixed not on the future, but on the past. One indicator of this shift is the resurgence of nostalgia in popular culture that we have noted here before. The nostalgic turn, however, did not just emerge with Mad Men (and now its imitations) and Instagram’s faux-vintage photo apps. It was noted by scholars in the 1990’s and is complicit with the postmodern repurposing of the past as far back as the 1970s. Take all of these together and over the last generation something has been afoot. And if it might be described as a gradual reorientation of American society’s collective gaze toward past rather than the future, then it amounts a startling transformation of immense cultural consequence.

All of this had been flitting about my head for the past several weeks when I came across a piece by Peter Thiel titled “The End of the Future”. Therein, Thiel argues suggestively that, despite appearances to the contrary, scientific and technological development has stagnated over the last couple of decades (with the not insignificant exception of information processing) and our current economic crisis is, in part, a reflection of this stagnation. Consider the following paragraph:

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003 … Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

Thiel also cites this 1967 passage from Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s The American Challenge,

In 30 years America will be a post-industrial society. . . . There will be only four work days a week of seven hours per day. The year will be comprised of 39 work weeks and 13 weeks of vacation. With weekends and holidays this makes 147 work days a year and 218 free days a year. All this within a single generation.

It’s not unusual, of course, for predictions of this sort to dissolve in the more turbulent waters of reality, but it’s not just that the prediction turned out to be mistaken, it’s that the thought of making any kind of similar prediction today would appear absurd, silly, or infantile.

I’m not necessarily endorsing Thiel’s argument, in fact, I’m not even sure Thiel is endorsing his argument, it felt more like a speculative piece than an argument. But it does add to the growing number of data points that together suggest Americans may be losing their confidence in the future. It would be ill advised to pin this on any one cause, but I especially want to resist pinning this on the economic downturn itself. Remember the exuberance of the 1939 World’s Fair came after ten years of the Great Depression and while the light at the end of the tunnel was not quite visible.

So any thoughts? What’s your take on the future? Any other relevant cultural indicators you can think of?


Fatal Nostalgia and Generalized Anxiety: Signs of the Times

“At the end of the eighteenth century people began to be fearful of extended sojourns away from home because they had become conscious of the threat posed by nostalgia. People even died of nostalgia after having read in books that nostalgia is a disease which is frequently mortal.”  — Jean Starobinski, “The Idea of Nostalgia”

No need to read that again, you read it correctly the first time.

Whatever else we may say, this is clearly something very different than what you felt when you recently learned that MTV turned 30 (and didn’t tell anybody) or when you watch Mad Men. It is also different than the nostalgia which infuses the Pottery Barn catalogue, drives popular segments of “contemporary” music, and inspires playful design concepts. It is also quite different from nostalgia animating the handle-bar mustached mixologists populating trendy urban bars. In fact, it is very different from most of what we tend to label nostalgic. And as you may have noted yourself, there is quite a bit that we might label nostalgic all about us. This is not exactly a sudden development, the “vintage” turn has been around for a decade or two at least, but it certainly does seem to be permeating experience to ever greater degrees lately.

And yet the burgeoning nostalgia industry is only distantly related to the reportedly fatal nostalgia described in the opening lines and which Richard Terdiman, in his study of the nineteenth century memory crisis, labeled, with a dash of hyperbole perhaps, a “dangerous epidemic.” This earlier, acute nostalgia occasioned by  prolonged journeys away from one’s home was, owing to its physiological symptoms, treated as a medical condition. This may at first seem quaint and evoke the image of Victorian fainting couches, but let’s not rush to judgment without asking some questions. Why an outbreak of nostalgia, and why then? Why the severity? And how is it that “nostalgia” was subsequently domesticated and even commodified?

As per usual, I’m thinking out loud here, and raising questions to offer what are at best only suggestive responses. It would seem that any response to the first and second questions would take into consideration the ongoing and multiple disruptions of settled agrarian life which characterized the long nineteenth century. What is interesting about nostalgia, then, is that it appears as a symptom of sociological change. It registers the psychic consequences of the onset of modernity and the subsequent disorder introduced into the human experience of time and place. Eventually, what is initially experienced as an acute disorder becomes generalized and to some extent domesticated. That it is later commodified should be of little surprise; there is nothing the market can’t and won’t price. So the “vintage” turn in contemporary society might be understood as a distant ripple  of an original, profound disturbance in the experience of time and place occasioned by rapid social, economic, technological, and political transformations.

I suggested earlier that we not too quickly dismiss the epidemic of nostalgia. Here’s why. Nostalgia was then a psychological condition with physiological consequences brought about by the rapid disintegration of the social order. This led me to wonder if we might find anything analogous in our own experience. With all of the provisionality a blog post entails, perhaps we need look no further than the epidemic of anxiety. Anxiety too is a psychological condition with physiological consequences and, it could be argued, is also generated by sudden social shifts and disruptions. Anxiety is to the late twentieth and early twenty-first century what nostalgia was to the long nineteenth century — a symptom of social change.

My sense is that anxiety is well on the way to generalization and commodification. But will it ever be chic?

Nostalgia as Active Memory and Index of Our Desires

Below is an excerpt of an email exchange between myself and Mark Garcia, my very thoughtful friend who generously reads what I write on here. The exchange was occasioned by my earlier thoughts on nostalgia in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It was, I thought, worth posting here for a (slightly) wider audience. My thanks to Mark for pushing these reflections further along.

Collaboration in action, although you’ll see the real insights are not mine:

MG:  … is romanticized nostalgia for the ahistorical past itself a signal of transcendence, pace Berger, but not only of a heavenly and ‘other’ present or purely vertical, up-there, or beyond reality, but a reach for a certain kind of heavenly future?

MS: Yes, and few have captured that better than C. S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory in which he remarks that we take our revenge on what amounts to a longing for transcendence by, among other things, labeling it nostalgia and being done with it.

MG: Nostalgia as revenge is fascinating. Is it possibly, then, a form of memory in action, the action being the pursuit of some perceived form of justice? Is nostalgia at heart a longing for a certain form of “putting things right” and thus, in that way, a longing for an order of perfect justice and goodness?

MS: Yes, absolutely, memory in action. Memory, insofar as it is a search and not spontaneous, is in an index of desire. Nostalgia in this sense names the desire not only for justice, but also peace, joy, belonging, settledness, wholeness — shalom, shall we say?

MG: So whatever adjustments, reconfigurations, and manipulations of history nostalgia introduces are themselves the index to the desire nostalgia acts upon, e.g., nostalgic reconfigurations of one’s painful past reflects a desire for justice, reconfigurations of a lonely past along more satisfying lines reflects the desire for belonging, etc. This could take positive or negative forms, too: a positive or upward reconfiguration of a painful history might make things seem better than they were in order to aid present coping with it, whereas a negative or downward reconfiguration of that same past might make things seem worse than they were in order to aid present justifications of felt bitterness, injustice, or whatever. How varied are our grasping at shalom! As varied as we are, inside and out.

MS: Just so.

I also find it worthwhile to quote at some length from the essay by Lewis I referenced in the exchange. It is one of the most enchanting passages in the whole of Lewis’ oeuvre:

In speaking of this desire for our own far- off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

He later adds:

Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.

Midnight in Paris: Learning to Live With the Past

The past may be a foreign country where they do things differently as the L. P. Hartley line has it, but it is one to which many would readily immigrate given the opportunity. If you are among them, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris will likely enchant and delight you. (Warning: some spoilers ahead.) Gil, the main character played charmingly by Owen Wilson, and his fiancée tag along with her parents who have come to Paris on a business trip. She and her parents are crassly materialistic, he is a romantic — a romantic in love with the city, particularly its Jazz Age past. Having been a successful, but disenchanted Hollywood film writer he is determined to write real literature, even if it means surrendering the upscale lifestyle his fiancée craves. While they shop for chairs that cost as much as a moderately priced four-door sedan, he frequents outdoor shops that sell vintage vinyl records and works on his novel about a man who owns a nostalgia shop. The theme of his would-be novel tracks closely with Gil’s own sensibilities. He obsesses over the past and its artifacts, and his obsession is an index of his dissatisfaction with the present.

Without even a gesture toward explantation, and all the better for it, a vintage Peugeot filled with revelers stops to pick up Gil just after a clock has struck midnight. Gil, with some hesitation, joins the merry crowd and finds himself transported back to the 1920’s and the Paris of his dreams. Endearingly awestruck throughout the experience, he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, and a host of other luminaries just entering into the fullness of their legend. Each night he rides into the past, and each morning he finds himself again in the present, a progressively unfulfilling present.

When he is in the past, Gil comes alive. The characters are inspired: Adrien Brody plays a delightfully quirky Salvador Dali and Corey Stoll is almost absurdly intense as Hemingway. Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein provides Gil with straightforward counsel regarding life and writing. Gil, as he becomes increasingly at ease in the past, offers Luis Buñuel a suggestion for a film in which guests find themselves unable to leave a room. Buñuel, perplexed, wonders why they cannot simply walk out.  He also finds in Picasso’s lover Adriana, a woman who stirs his heart and a kindred spirit. Simply put, the past rekindles Gil’s passion.

Yet, Allen finally wants to critique nostalgia and reaffirm the present. The film builds up to an overly didactic moment when Gil, realizing that he cannot remain in the past indefinitely, launches into a not quite moving appreciation of the present. Allen foreshadows the moment throughout the film. While delivering one of his impromptu lectures, Paul, a pedantic intellectual and friend of Gil’s fiancee, pontificates about the “Golden Age Fallacy,” the unsubstantiated belief that the greatness  of some prior historical era eclipses the present, a chronological version of the grass is always greener. The character of Adriana is herself unimpressed with the ’20s and nostalgic for 1890s Paris, La Belle Époque. When Gil and Adriana, Inception-like, delve even further into the past via horse-drawn carriage they meet up with Degas, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec just as La Belle Époque commences.  But we find those  artists similarly dismissive of their own age believing it pales in comparison with the Renaissance. And it is then that Gil realizes the futility of inordinately longing for another age.

He returns to the present, reorders his life, and walks off happily ever after in the Paris rain. And we, likewise, leave the theater, returning to our own present, cured of our nostalgic longings, and determined to seize the moment. Yet, the film lingers in our minds and as we revisit it, we find ourselves charmed. It works its magic as we turn it over in our memory. Wasn’t the “Golden Age Fallacy” introduced by the most unlikeable, pompous character in the film? Wasn’t the past portrayed in delightful, vivacious, enchanting fashion? Wasn’t Gil, in fact, nourished and invigorated by his dalliances with the past? While Gil chose to return to his present, did not Adriana choose to stay in La Belle Époque? Finally, wasn’t Gil’s other climatic epiphany (that I will not spoil) revealed in the past?

Certainly, the past is shown to be complex and disordered in its own way. In one of the few more sober scenes, Gil and Adriana, on a moonlit stroll through the city, come upon Zelda Fitzgerald very near to taking her own life. Yet, even here there is ambiguity. Gil offers Zelda Valium which we learn he has been taking to cope with the anxieties of an impending wedding. Are we to conclude that while the past bequeaths great art and literature to the present, the best the present can offer the past is Valium? Not quite I suppose, I do recall penicillin also being mentioned at some point.

Midnight in Paris takes nostalgia as its theme, but the difficulty with any exploration of nostalgia is that in common usage the word indiscriminately names too many sensibilities, unfortunately dismissing appropriate and enriching ways of being with the past. Altogether, the film helpfully suggests that there is more than one way to have a disordered relationship to the past. We may succumb to the “Golden Age” fallacy and refuse the present, or we might also reject the past altogether uprooting ourselves from that which gives depth of field to lived experience. While Gil chooses the present, it is clear that the past nourished and educated him. While he has chosen not to live in the past, he has not abandoned it either. He will not live in it, but he will live with it.

It was Buñuel who wrote in his autobiography,

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives.  Life without memory is no life at all …  Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.  Without it, we are nothing.

Thus we may turn the commonplace on its head and suggest that the past is the only place we can live.