Monday, January 19, 2015

Modern ruins

We live in a world in ruins. Every day, we walk and talk amongst these ruins - everything around us is to some degree in a state of decay. Every day we can see how ideas that were once modern trace themselves in the ragged, tired faces of our peers. The idea of a perfected world is a ruin once revered as a castle, yet its inhabitants seem reluctant to leave; everyone knows that our current way of life cannot go on forever, yet we still assume we will. Everyone knows that status quo is a reminder from a past with greater ambitions than the present, yet the thought of being reminded frightens us more than a potential realization that we ever forgot.

You only have to look at contemporary politics to see more ruins than is warranted. There is, to be sure, talk of growth and new constructions, but when push comes to shove it's only the same old same old. The thought of eternal progress, categorical purity, apotheosis hiding just around the corner of the next megaproject. The thought that problems can be planned away, the thought of central control, of five year plans, of market efficiencies.

Always the same question lurks behind these thoughts, the one question every politician and ideologue does everything to avoid answering: are we there yet?

The biggest ruin of them all, whose inhabitants seem to be ever resistant to the notion of moving out, is of course the notion that there is something to arrive at. That there is a "there", but not yet. That the present is an anomalous state of being, a waiting phase before history proper begins. You are free to choose your own props: the revolution, the apocalypse, a state of full employment, the ethnically cleansed motherland - choose your telos. It is a good map to these ruins of ours, telos. Everything will be fine after the revolution; the world as we know it just has to end first.

It is one of the greatest ironies of these modern ruins of ours. They remain.

We are not only surrounded by political ruins. There's plenty of physical ones too. Small factory towns whose main factory closed its doors and was promptly attacked by green growing things and forget alike; wharves that do not ship anything but nostalgia; city centers that fall apart because no one looks after them. In Detroit, whole parts of the city are uninhabited, and there are plenty of other places where the past insists without the cooperation of the present.

One of the most insistent and oft repeated messages we bombard our kids with is that we are entering new times. Some say these new times began at the end of the Cold War, others point to the beginning of the War on Terror, others to the advent of the internet, others to the financial crisis. There's plenty of news regarding the times about to begin, and news aplenty regarding those about to end.

Things do not disappear just because they are not newsworthy. Usually, they end up in storage spaces of different kinds, out of sights and minds. Sometimes, they are used in ways never intended. In other cases, such as with furniture, they simply remain in people's homes without much further ado.

The present - that thing we do when we do what we do - is a collection of thousands upon thousands of solitary things that happened to become the way they became, who insists on remaining. In that sense, the present is one big ruin, moving slowly and majestically towards the triumph of entropy.

What separates modern ruins from ruins in general, is that we for the most part already know that they are in fact ruins. We know it to such an extent that we tell our children: the industrial society is fading out, the information society is fading in. Even if few are so blunt as to say it out loud, the thought occurs: that many of our fellow human being are but living ruins from another time, whose only way to contribute to our modern contemporary world is to make room for it by dying. To no longer remain.

Growing up among ruins is one thing. Wanting to take care of them quite another.

Our children know that they are expected to live in the ruins of waiting, in preparation for a future that is very much not like today. It is a phenomenon that goes together with the telos of the day. The future is always-already a little closer than it used to be. A whole new world is within reach. It is, to be sure, already here, and those of us who arrived earlier than the rest of humanity will be all the merrier once company arrives.

New times. Yet, at the same time, very much remains of the old times, regardless of news to the contrary.

Strange times.

There will be much discord between the old political ruins and the new ones. When the salvation of the revolution will be replaced by the salvation of the global communication networks, the revolutionaries and the netizens will have interesting things to say to each other. Or whichever telos you prefer - the thought of getting there soon does not have to be a revolutionary thought, after all.

Some talk about "digital natives", to differentiate those who were born into the new world from those of us who remember the old world. Those who never lived without instant constant global communications, from those who once had the joy of discovering them. It is an intuitive metaphor - one intuits that it is reasonable to think there's a difference between those who grew up with something and those who didn't. Yet, at the same time, the notion of historical materialism is not new, and it is not a challenge to find modern ruins based on it.

Things do not happen with historic necessity. But there is no lack of effort to instill and imprint a feeling of inevitability in our postdigital newborns. Through the constant imprinting and overcommunicating that the new generations are living in new times, a feeling of historical necessity intuits itself. A feeling of sufficient intensity to rule out that these new generations want anything to do with any searches for lost times.

Modernity has never been kind to earlier times. They are lost for a reason. And why should it begin to show kindness at this particular time? It's almost there, yet.

Political ruins. Physical ruins. A time in economic ruins. A manifold of social ruins.

It is not surprising that this new time of ours sometimes feels very old.

At times, I think what's missing is a certain feel for the weight of history. Not the historical overload that Nietzsche went on about, but a more general feeling that those things that happen happen because of previous happenings. Those things that are are not random: behind many of even the seemingly most modest of things are thousands of dreams and ambitions. That things turned out the way they did is often a result of chance, but the massive amounts of thought and effort that went into attempting to nudge the odds of historical probability are hard to dismiss as mere historical accidents. There is a weight to these things.

Many have dreamt of making the world a better place. Many have acted on these dreams. Many have succeeded, many have failed. As these attempts have happened - all of them, many as they were - many things have been created, used, forgotten and turned into the ruins we know today.

The present is the sum of million dreams never fulfilled. Dreams and the millions who dreamt them. Millions of teloses never arrived at, whose ambitions were inherited by those who followed.

The present is a monument to the past, consisting mainly of the ruins we are remaining in.

The ruins of tomorrow will be the sum of what we choose to do in the ruins we happen to live in. Neither the revolution, apocalypse, full employment or any other telos will differentiate us from our children, and they will (just like us) live in a time where it is possible to create a better tomorrow.

The world will not end. Endings are good in stories, which have clearly defined beginnings, middles and ends. Only in stories will we live happily ever after, and only in stories will everything be solved by the time our telos arrives.

Only politicians, ideologues and dreamers dream of the end of the world. We, realists, historians and literary theorists, are stuck in an eternal middle section, until we end.

That, at least, is worthy of a monument. A monument to finitude, signed Ozymandias, asking:

are we there yet?

Originally published February 14, 2011

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