In times of increasing technical, economical and social acceleration, a diffuse sense of cultural and political stagnation emerges. Many of us share an impression of a present which is not only increasingly inexplicable, but in which an intervention provoking substantial social change seems inconceivable. Disappearance and consolidation of the present seem to coexist – “instantaneousness without history”, as Paul Virilio put it. The present appears as both rapid and unconnected, as idle without past and without future.
Symptoms of this “rapid stagnation” vary: Shortening intervals between trends and hypes, increasing social mobility, global interconnectedness as well as modern day communication and information are affected likewise. But it is not only the media and information technology that appear to be involved: First and foremost, material security and the character of social relationships are afflicted. Flexibility and mobility evolved into all-encompassing mantras, accompanied by increasingly short-term changes in the economic world. Formerly subversive social technics such as adaptability or creativity found themselves being economically desirable as popular “soft skills”. An atmosphere of hecticness and rush prevails, finding its utmost hokum in a subject thoughtlessly ignoring, affirming, even enjoying the economic and social pressure objectively surrounding it. Simultaneously, an idiosyncratic alikeness and indifference of choices is replacing passionate decision making in favour of a lower threshold for changing one’s mind: Where one option is as desirable as the other, permanent assessment triumphs. It seems as if formerly unforeseen opportunities and open spaces would have lead to increasing psychological pressure on the subject, to technics of permanent (self-)evaluation and (self-)optimization. The reverse of the “enterprising self” is the “weariness of the self”.
“Future” perceived not only as term, but as social construction has lost its former bright, promising and positive abilities. Having served as a projection surface for collective imaginations of a “different tomorrow” during the 19th and early 20th century in cultural, artistic and social contexts, “future” has lost this specific quality nowadays. It is, in contrast, attested with negative affects, with projections of vague fears, conceptions of loss and economic depression. Experiences of historic disasters, disillusions with political projects as well as radical technical changes all in part contributed to this abasement. The destruction of big, somewhat meaningful narratives and the denunciation of their contribution to the disastrous were characteristic for post-modern sequences and perspectives. Not least because of shortening resources and nearing ecologic catastrophes, “future” is associated with primarily negative affects today. Talking about “future” nowadays is coincident with talking about ascesis, warning and concern in order to protect the status quo. Ironically, this figure of thought can be found in contexts as different as modern day austerity policy and ecological activism.
Despite several protests and uprisings during the latest economic “crisis”, a qualitative social change doesn’t seem even thinkable on a larger scale. Instead, it seems as if excessive knowledge and distancing criticism had their own, subjectively relieving functions. “There is no alternative”, the frequently used slogan by political elites when it comes to discussions about the character of our living together, objectively encompasses the described trends, legitimizes the status quo and restrains any perspectives of and debates about a different tomorrow. This slogan is, in fact, a downright perversion of any kind of modern day future orientation.
This atmosphere of ABSOLUTE PRESENT, suddenly and partly disrupted by acts of fundamentalism and terrorism, is an atmosphere in which resentments and a swing to the right of the post-political mainstream come to light. Sarcasm, irony and distance on the one hand, fatalism on the other have been the answering modus operandi in liberal and leftist contexts (or, at least, appeared as desirable options). Where remnants of criticism and opposition are articulated, personal liability becomes sacrosanct. Instead of organization, solidarization, cultural or aesthetic expressions of discontent, retraction and diffuse impressions of powerlessness and passiveness prevail. ABSOLUTE appears this present not only because of its idiosyncratic indifference and timelessness, but because of the unimaginability of substantial changes within this present.
This turns out to be problematic for emancipatory policies and politics as well. Political creative drive focuses, let alone resentment, hate and violent catharsis, on the immediate private sphere or the own peer group(s). Homogenous social formation is mistaken for political practice. Lifestyle choices (fair, ecological, local) tend to be the remains of what once was referred to as social context, as object for radical criticism. „Policies of the private“ and the negotiation of – partly bizarre – ethical and social codices successfully replaced forms of collective, political concepts aiming at the big picture.
All these are aspects of what we’re trying to embrace using the term ABSOLUTE PRESENT, introducing a sketch of parallel developments and trends interconnected and dependent on each other. Nevertheless, reflexion of our own perceptions – and their potential stabilizing function – remains critical. Maybe perceiving complexity and interconnectedness of global capitalism as topics worthwhile moaning about and simultaneously perceiving future as „project“ is a part of the problem itself?
Organizing pessimism (Benjamin) in a modern day context would mean to reveal and to politicize the pathologies of our time such as exhaustion, powerlessness, and depression, as well as substitutability and replaceability. That is, to politicize and thus to emphasize our impotency and potency, our joy, sorrow, our shortcoming and our desires apart from mere private spheres. Furthermore, it would mean to regain and strengthen our perception of past and future – in order to come to terms with the present.