How Communism Will Never Come
[guest post from CiS-Frankfurt]
The means through which an age understands another is often expressed through its vanity. Petrarch’s adjournment of the dark ages was less a commentary on the brutality and dearth of “the period of realized unreason”, than a veneration of his own time. It was a manner of disassociation, of carving out a demarcated epoch in which a distinctly human achievement served as the criteria for chronological register; the radiance of the vernacular sonnet outshines the ignoble residue of Roman glory. In short, it was a Weltanschauung of the present, rather than the simple act of repudiating the past. The anatomy of the present contains the key to the anatomy of the past.
In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, the past presents itself as an immense accumulation of suspended moments, each of which cohere within a sequential continuum whose cascading fragments necessarily gravitate towards the present. Allured by promises of either appraisal by the nostalgic, or disapproval by the progressives, the past heedlessly directs itself to the jagged and lustering pathologies of the present. There it is beckoned by the tendential logic of capital to constitute, in its own inverted image, the represented antecedents and successors of lived experience. Simply put, what are the defense mechanisms of an epoch incapable of experiencing historical depth?
To unpack the affliction, one must convene upon the wound. There, one discovers, yet again, that universal measure pervading the concrete wealth of society with little discrimination. Indeed, time is the weight of all commodities, their real common substance whose invariable and spatialized scrutiny renders all that is heterogeneous and non-identical forcibly equal within its abstract and empty continuum. Value expands to a desolate rhythm of innumerably commensurate units, a steady pulse of homogeneous intervals illuminated by the neon linearity of a heart rate monitor.
Once time no longer returns with the seasonal rhythm of agrarian society but instead passes under a linear succession of events, the substance of value inverts the determination of time by events into the determination of events by time. This triumph of abstract time is its transformation into a time of things, the time of commodities. Here, the meaning of inverting activity as the measure of time units into time units as the measure of activity becomes clear: the subservience of the qualitative to the quantitative. Under new calibration, cyclical time has no recourse but to display the sphere of circulation, a qualified repetition in which all rotation – from fiscal cycles to vacation time – is directed towards future cycles of accumulation.
As Cezanne has demonstrated, linearity can be the greatest falsifier of experience. The time of things is distinguished by its irreversibly directional, and above all, universal nature, one in which all events are subsumed under its abstract units of measurement. The working day overcomes the natural limitations of the rising and setting of the sun as an unprecedented exactitude administers the demands of labor. It is not coincidental that the Soviet labor regime procured “the fastest watch in the world”. As a perniciously real illustration of Newtonian “absolute time”, this uniform and homogeneous vacuum is divisible into equal, constant, and non-qualitative units which leaves man, in the best scenario, as a mere carcass. With the ancient line between time and organic sequence torn asunder,physiological rhythm is displaced by mechanical tempo adequately exemplified with synchronized marching. For the rest, jetlag makes for a great conversation starter.
There is temptation to grasp time as a withering force of physical transformation, evidenced in the decrepit remains of a pillaged vitality that chooses between resentment and senility. Abstract labor appears as physiological labor. Alongside the gaze of decomposition and the penance of experience, the categories of age, in their autonomy, derive from the circuits of production and circulation: a predictable lifespan of distinguishably serialized episodes each with their own differentiated commercial expectations. Here, the generic acquires a real and true existence through the idiosyncrasies of the aging individual. Adolescence did not exist for the Greek sensuality of antiquity; nor did the elderly formally require care.
As the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of abstract time contain the whole of history. Through the tautological telos of accumulation, capital inaugurates a perpetual present that shatters any past or future that isn’t under the grace of credit or obligations of debt. The prescience of abstract time sees nothing beyond itself, unfolding a circuit for producing surplus value that relishes in an entirely self-referential succession. Within its eternal continuation and amidst meager dramatizations, nothing ever happens – the repetition of the same majestic ruin. “The system of history, the elevation of the temporal to the totality of meaning, abolishes time and reduces it to an abstract negation.” Instantaneously, the same day appears the world over.
The resulting timelessness projected imbues, over time, a set of deceptively honest idiomatic expressions wherein time is “saved”, “spent”, “stolen”, “liberated”, “wasted”, and desperately “cherished”. Here, what is said is what is meant: time assumes a relentless objectivity that has been accorded the enthralling and magnificent ability to level mountains, ravage kingdoms, and extinguish stars.
Despite this, the commodity contemplates itself as its own historical culmination whilst chattering on in its own essentially atemporal language. Robinson Crusoe christens his primitive “Friday” because he will never forget his own origins, and, of course, to rightly laud his own accomplishments. The unremitting detritus is repurposed and fabricates a faculty of historical apprehension grounded within the invariable and universal schematic of the commodity, establishing the conditions of possibility for the total commensurability of historical knowledge. As capital expands, so too does the criteria of historical comparison. The form of unconscious historical consciousness expressed by Thucydides, for example, can only be contrasted with that of Eusebius of Caesarea from the ubiquitous perspective of abstract time. There is no standard by which to measure the diplomatic pleading of Corinth with that of the cunning of Titus against Jerusalem except by way of a universal historical continuum in which all of the past is rendered interchangeable. The temporality of capital periodizes history as a whole. There is little fluctuation in the exchange rates between Mahatma Gandhi and Genghis Khan. Even when there is, drowning in relativism “history remains one vast analytic proposition.” For this, Hegel may or may not have been a Keynesian. History becomes the ideal commodity for mimetically collapsing use-value into exchange-value: the relation between historical moments affirms and denies difference insofar as it contains the identity of the non-identical and the identical. With an allergy to revisionism and half an education, historical correlation has never been so painless.
The administration of the world is also the administration of its history. Curious to learn the frequency of its own birth pangs, the commodity unearths an omnipotent display to survey under its temporal narration. Periodizations are always heuristic devices. Unlike previous ages in which historical moments or actors were repelled into barbarism and thus outside of history, the historicity of the commodity wields thorough tolerance for admitting a manifold of subjects. The fluctuation of rationality, to take an example offered by Voltaire, now occurs within history, rather than as history. From molecular resilience to celestial maneuvering; the pilgrimage of a cigarette to the fall of Rome: all plural developments are legitimate under its equitably fixed stare, an invariable canvas in which the history of sovereigns and of third wave feminism speak the same language. The movement of capital comprehends all other movements.
While at first it appears that history contains a multiplicity of temporal orderings, each with their own horological methods and standards, it is rather the case that a singular collation of successive units contains within it all modes of temporal and historical apprehension. It is not the case that there are competing historiographies or modes of temporal reckoning, but rather differentiated moments within a whole of homogenous abstract time. “The nourishing fruit of what is historically conceptualized has time as its core, its precious but flavorless seed.” The open book of history has as its subtitle the infinitely bad progress of productivity and accumulation. Uninterruptedly, an ahistorically historical continuum advances on its treadmill, one for which capital has always existed. All of history is the history of the coming-to-be of capital.
The philanthropy of correcting false narratives is a frantic attempt to preserve a relation to a deaf past, an unrequited love that wants nothing to do with those that plead for its tenderness.
Insofar as experience amounts to a mere sum of commensurable parts, the past is united in its separation from the present. This unity-in-separation concretizes itself as diversely affirmative and neurotic compensations, and as such, constitutes the recourse of a thoroughly damaged life. As the past recedes from the present, it also appears to nudge itself closer and closer with increasingly agonizing detail. The past appears as both separate and unified to the everyday life of those under the incessant weight of the perpetual present. In its separation, all that has been is expressed in exotic images whose relation to the present is scattered with anachronistic indulgences for causal occurrences already accomplished and vaulted into the abyss of human activity. In its unity – a more sophisticated of charms – one bears witness to the experienced friction from that which is immediately given, an anxiety displaced as pedagogical instruments serving to navigate a way through an incomprehensible present. For those under its dazzling aura, history will not stop repeating.
As a result of the intensified objectification of time into the eternal realm of commerce, man’s ability to store, retain, and recall his own past necessarily appears as a practice of accumulation. The memories of man, as a compass for his existence, confront him as mere objects for contemplation. In memory, the history of man accosts him with a hostility characteristic of commodity production itself: that of the dead weight of things. The present must then confront man as a potential past or future merely to be documented, and as a result, lived experience is banned from its own present, leaving that which is memorable incommunicable and forgotten, and thus, unmemorable. To remember is merely to redeem that which has been memorized, to recollect. “The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.” All of human life comes to be erected within the archive as an a priori taxonomy whose lifeless monument reigns supreme. What becomes sought after and treasured is not experience, but an excavated and documented afterthought.
Practices of historical preservation possess, as their unspoken model, the relation between dead and living labor, whereby the disquiet of past labor is hauntingly executed as eternally present in the cycles of reproduction. There, the submergence into documents and facticity has not vanquished the positivism of method. This science of the immediately concrete – which is aimlessly “more enriching and living than theory” – manifests grotesque ideas on the causal nexus of various historical moments through the real prosperity of one’s Sammeltrieb.
The perpetual present empties events of reality while cultivating a deranged appeal to historical identification realizing itself in the world. The concrete actualization of abstract time is a circle of progressive embodiments, material in which its ceaseless potential is wrought out. “We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us”. The theater of historical reenactment is the epitome of man’s self-estrangement.
The embalming of lived experience nourishes both the past and the present at an intimate distance. With the emergence of the modern archive, befittingly derived from the Greek ἀρχή, meaning “government” or “order”, the activity of man becomes the substance of reposition and management. With the advent of the modern museum however, in which the exhibition of the past confirms the generalized exoticism of human activity, the efflorescence of a world that is no longer a world, but rather a parody of its own animation, finds rapport with its ever-receding past. “Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association.”
The museum is a collection of monuments whose origins cannot elude a present dominated by the time of the commodity. The hidden asceticism of objects mirrors the explicit disfigurement of human history. As a result, the heritage of such monuments becomes a fragmented unity of objects constituting an intimately mediated relation between the past and present experienced as a motionless picture of immutable assets with an eternally similar meaning. Threading together all events into an implicitly comprehensible prediction of the future, the curators of time castrate the potential of the present with the secret hope that someone, someday, will be able to piece us all back together again – the confirmation of how communism will never come.
The compulsion to exhibit dominates the living by endlessly killing the dead – its pilgrims unwittingly participating in the humiliation and ensuring the continued reproduction of abject self-preservation. As Resnais recalls in his 1953 film, Les Statues Meurent Aussi, “we recognize Greece in an old African head of 2000 years; Japan in a mask from Logoué; and still India; Sumerian idols; our Roman Christ; or our modern art.” The succession of different styles and forms renders the entirety of history accessible to the patron. As the debris of all periods and past civilizations, commodity society erects a baroque edifice that perfectly embodies the denial of history itself.
Ascertaining the unity of appearing fragments is the calculated result of the autonomous economy of abstract time. Exhibition becomes the asserted positive presence of value becoming visible to itself, the concrete incarnation of a life yet to be lived whose luminosity unfolds upon the terrain of the false. This monopoly of appearance does not, however, prohibit dialogue. On the contrary, department store windows now exhibit living mannequins. The museum is less a site of institutional privation, than it is an informal logic of interactive disclosure, a progressively pedagogical and user-friendly invitation for the utmost infantile; away from a mere station of exposed shards from a groggy dream and towards a significantly superior “recreation” of a past, enabling its votaries to acquire a participatory experience and ideally “transported to another time.” Everyone loves a petting zoo. The design of the building itself demonstrates this aspiration by becoming inextricably linked to the monuments held within, mausoleums becoming as treasured as their innards. The design of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, attempts to generate an experience of disorientation and uncertainty for its beholders in order to modestly replicate the disconcertment of Jewish life during the Second World War – aspiring to the dreams of Ranke in representing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen.
The logic of exhibition must extend beyond the skillfully ornamental walls of the museum and universalize its separations by exceeding any particular institution, always to be felt as real and true. This is the only meaningful definition of tourism. As such, exhibition can pervade the entire urban landscape of Venice, the destitution of Brazilian favelas, or even with living and breathing individuals, from indigenous groups to celebrities. The modern wax museum, in surpassing all other museums in terms of total average visitors per year, remains the ideal model for satisfying historical curiosity.
Experience is the ephemeral appearance of production, a wincing appendage whose skill for adaptation yields the most colorful substitutions. What experience acquires in richness, differentiation, and meaning, it proportionately concedes to a condition of heightening fatigue – an aged exhaustion from unremittingly wavering between the delight in emptiness or the lie of abundance. With age always comes the mockery of experience and triumphs in its soaring mileage. As the signature of authenticity, historical patina is only the appearance of a perpetually occurring present for which sameness reigns under the unendurable dread of duration. Through it, smeared eye shadow signals a night to remember; the shadowy enclave of a dive bar that has “been there for years” solicits the only life worth living. The pristine appears worn and conceals the reality of a society whose historical consciousness professes the fact that it “loves the 80s!” The empty drift of the “historically-minded” docks in the glorified aesthetics of squalor advertised as an exquisitely authentic ambiance. Merchandized bohemia pays little heed to the barred windows so long as the view is impeccable. Vintage aspirations are always parochial aspirations.
Nostalgia – that impetuous younger sibling of tradition – is, more than anything, a forlorn mechanism of reconciling loss. As the world compresses the past and future together so tightly, the present is left with nowhere else to turn but the refuge of melancholic displacement: nostalgia is the sentimental condition of being homesick. Attenuating the cruelty of a crippled present, nostalgia amounts to a way of consoling oneself with what otherwise appears as an immutable order. For this, to be nostalgic is always to be Romantic and in conflict with one’s parents. “Here we have the other method of making the past a living reality; putting subjective fancies in the place of historical data”. Driven into explorations of subjective interiority, the nostalgic vicariously enjoys what appears to be another era. This garnered amusement is however nothing other than a projection which will inevitably drain subjectivity of any real commitment that could matter to it. Theirs is a hopeless flight from the intolerably ordinary, a depraved reminiscing whose “light vanishes like a shapeless vapor that dissolves into thin air.” Their greatest accomplishment is the protection of dilapidated neighborhood districts. The desire for an authentic life can only end in disappointment.
Like an Ibsen play, the structure of life is full of intrigue and yet ends in indifference. We are fuming with ambition and yet produce only mediocrity. The search for authenticity, needing no external criteria, prematurely withdraws from history as it cowers from the sensuality of committing oneself to the materiality of the objective world. Taking refuge within the immediately subjective, it incessantly recites the only mantra capable of sustaining its degraded sense of possibility: be true to oneself – said another way: I’m sorry but I have an early meeting, please, let me call you a cab.
To assume beauty comes with age is always an empty flatter. The appraisal of wisdom is only the real nominalism of a frenzied longing to surround oneself with the inexperience and flippancy of young women. In accordance with the reproduction of the total commodity and its tendencies for novelty and obsolescence, tradition will always become short of breadth in its race against innovation. There is nothing more unbecoming than when those of an older generation desperately cling to an accelerating expedition. The socially necessary semblance of venerating age, and its contradiction, finds concrete expression as average life expectancies extend within an epoch that, as of late, admits of no future.