„Once upon a time, pop‘s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-in-to-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different. (…) Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‚Re‘ Decade (…): revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments. Endless retrospection. (…)“
– Simon Reynolds – Retromania (2011)i
Atari emulators, electro-swing, Polaroid replicas, or Hieronimus Bosch’s triptychs in Virtual Reality: everything nostalgia related sells better than ever, and we’re not just talking about pop and mainstream. Every obscure fraction of a subculture had also its 15 minutes of …revival in the past 18 years.
An obsessive (therefore unhealthy) attention to the past is influencing all aspects of cultural production in these days. This is certainly a “Sign o’ the times”ii.
Times of “Liquid fear””iii, that tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is present everywhere. Dangers can strike anytime, everywhere: no matter what’s your job, tomorrow you can be fired, like those guys at Leeman Bros carrying their stuff out in cardboard boxes; you can be shot while you sip your cappuccino, in the name of god or the N.R.A.: or you can be killed by some multi resistant bacteria, and you have the same chance to get infected on a safari looking for the big 5 or in your local hospital having a proctology check up. To quote Bauman’s favorite metaphor:
“We’re walking on a mine field, we are aware that all is full of explosives, but we don’t know where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures to rely on, nothing in which we can invest our hope and expectations.”iv
Or, using the words of Comité Invisible:
“From whatever angle you approach it, the present offers no way out. This is not the least of its virtues. From those who seek hope above all, it tears away every firm ground. Those who claim to have solutions are contradicted almost immediately. Everyone agrees that things can only get worse. “The future has no future” is the wisdom of an age that, for all its appearance of perfect normalcy, has reached the level of consciousness of the first punks.”v
In this context the past can be seen as a cozy and warm nest, a perfect world that we can control as it is shaped by our selective memory, a safe place. And so, as thinks are like that, instead of struggling to build up an uncertain future (to go for an Utopia), a very common choice is to aspire to return to a golden past, to go for a “Retrotopia”vi. The spreading of this approach is another “Sign o’ the times”, but one with very scary implications.
On April the 25th 1995, in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe from Nazi-fascism, the Italian semiotician, novelist and essayist Umberto Eco had a speech at the Columbia Universityvii. He presented a list of 14 points that are in common and at the core of different forms of fascism, 14 features of the Ur-Fascism. Here the first four:
”1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.
Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counterrevolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism. In the Mediterranean basin, people of different religions (most of the faiths indulgently accepted by the Roman pantheon) started dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history. This revelation, according to the traditionalist mystique, had remained for a long time concealed under the veil of forgotten languages — in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little-known religions of Asia.
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice;” such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a sliver of wisdom, and although they seem to say different or incompatible things, they all are nevertheless alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine, who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge — that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.
2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism.
Both Fascists and Nazis worshiped technology, while traditionalist thinkers usually reject it as a negation of traditional spiritual values. However, even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon blood and earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life. The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake.
Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore, culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Hermann Goering’s fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play (“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” and “universities are nests of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.
In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason. (…)”
Knowing and analyzing the past is essential for dealing with the present and imagining the future, no question about it. But the natural and healthy activity of collecting and transmitting knowledge has been twisted into a narcotic spectacle that leads to creepy perspectives. It is important now to redefine the borders, to separate clearly the vital act from its destructive counterpart.
”Retrotopia” and “Retromania” cannot be an option. Plus it is essential to get rid of fear (no matter in what …state of matter), and the consequent feeling of impotence, as these are the most powerful and effective tools to impose control. Italian activist and essayist Franco Berardi gets to the point when he writes:viii
“As the future is not prescribed, and the succession of now and tomorrow is not monolithic or determined, our task consists in distinguishing the layers of futurability that lie in the texture of the present reality and in the present consciousness. (…)
The present depression (both psychological and economic) obscures the consciousness that no determinist projection of the future is true. We feel trapped in the tangle of techno-linguistic automatisms: finance, global competition, military escalation. But the body of the general intellect (the social and erotic bodies of a million cognitarians) is richer than the connective Brain. And the present reality is richer than the format imposed on it, as the multifold possibilities inscribed in the present have not been wholly cancelled, even if they may seem presently inert.”
Is it possible to influence reality? As rational beings, the answer should be: yes. So, what is doing the job and what else could be imagined to be adequate and effective?
“I’ll call the artist, the engineer and the economist the main characters of the fable called the general intellect. Their story is the core of the social dynamics of intellectual life.
The artist, like the pure scientist, is the creator of new concepts and new percepts, disclosing new possible horizons of the social experience. The artist speaks the language of conjunction: in the artistic creation, the relation between sign and meaning is not conventionally fixed but pragmatically displaced and constantly renegotiated.
The engineer is the master of technology, the intellectual who transforms concepts into projects and projects into algorithms. The engineer speaks the language of connection. The relation between sign and meaning is conventionally inscribed in engineering. The engineer is a producer of machines, technical combinations of algorithms and physical matter that perform in accordance with concepts.
The third figure of the general intellect is the economist, the fake scientist and real technologist whose duty is to separate the artist and the engineer, keeping them to their specialized tasks.
Economists are more priests than scientists. Their discourse aims to submit the activity of other intellectuals to the rule of economic expansion. (…)
When the engineer is controlled by the economist, he produces machines only for the entanglement of human time and intelligence in the interest of profit maximization, capital accumulation and war.
When the engineer interfaces with the artist, his machines are intended for social usefulness and the reduction of work time.
When the engineer is controlled by the economist, his horizon is economic growth and his activity is made compatible with the code. When he is linked to the artist, his horizon is the infinity of nature and language. (..)
The problem is the following: can knowledge truly be disentangled from the semiotic grip of the economic paradigm? Has the economist totally subjugated the engineer and captured the artist, or can the engineer get free from the economic limitations and re-frame technology according the higher intuition of science and art – according to a shared sensibility?” ix
iSimon Reynolds – Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. (2011) – Faber & Faber
iiHere a chance to deploy your Retromania, listening to this song while you keep on reading:
iiiZygmut Bauman – Liquid Fear (2006) – Polity
vComité Invisible – The Coming Insurrection (2007)
viZygmut Bauman – Retrotopia (2017) – Polity
viiThe speech was then published by “The New York Review of Books” on June the 22nd 1995 with the title “Ur-fascism”
An excerpt with the 14 features can be found here:
viiiFranco ‘Bifo’ Berardi – Futurability – The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility (2017) – Verso
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