Back to the Futures Past

It will become evident that the world has long been dreaming of a matter that it can possess in reality only if it becomes conscious of it. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realizing the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

    Karl Marx



We apparently still are. But are we still?

Several decades of ruthless political and economic restructuring, spurred by our old friend the falling rate of profit, have eaten at the dense stack of that high-frame-rate fact like acid ‘til it appears one meager photograph, of so much water tossed in the air and snap-shot, droplets never to touch, to regain the terrible weight of the seething wave, safely out of frame, below.         

We still appear. But we appear still.



We are assured that the style of the future reigns everywhere, or at least everywhere worth being.

As we’ve become increasingly unnecessary to the valorization process, the value of our labor-power has been tremendously driven down; it’s bad enough being a commodity, but we are today a very cheap, often unsalable one. Back-stock covered in dust. Moldering in bargain basements. Those of us still purchased are used like an old car one knows is about to die – don’t fix it up, run it into the ground, squeeze every last bit of value out of it, then discard.

How could a stagnant mode of production undergird a sense of futurity?

If we are stripped of a future, where does this much-touted style reside?

In the cool, clean, round-edged, brushed-metal commodity, devotional object of the cult of the instant. Like a black hole, it compresses all into a single point, makes all that’s past but a bad first take of this instant, which has had the future folded into it, a future that is nothing but a multiplication of instant messages traversing this slick, still singularity.

Such a future isn’t even the empty, homogenous time through which progress, eyes fixed forward, used to tramp: its emptiness is the refracting gleam of an involuted present eternally polished, ever-more concentrated, immobile. Its inlaid, decorative force-lines suggest motion, but refer to nothing but its reified idea.

The future isn’t what it used to be.



And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

    William Blake


Our present age is greatly enamored of ontological difference, the lateral, profoundly-branded being-different of competing wares for sale on the world market.

But it has lost the sharp sense of historical difference, of everything in the world – modes of production, social relations, relations to nature, spatial orders, ways of life, consciousnesses, beliefs, self-conceptions – having once been different, again and again and again.

The sense of historical difference is kindling for the fire of future possibility. Conscious of historical difference, we are now not standing stranded in the flat, blank two-dimensional instant; now we are the motive bridge between the Past and the Possible. Now we are not.

We become, like the traces and trails a light leaves in closed eyes, constituted by the matrix of historical conditions, propelled into the process of Could Be.

We Become.

The abstract principle of identity reveals itself as necessarily a sham: A never = A once it leaves the page to die in space and time; I is another and another and another, like a gradually decaying sound-wave. A moving target, at most relational, contents rushing through a porous container ever recomposed by its contents, and the moving, conditional, contradiction-driven forces in which it is suspended.

I is We and We all the more so.

A process of processes among processes in process; an unruly procession of little deaths ever leaving holes for the entrance of the Not Yet.

Thus the past begins to look far from finished: not a mechanical litany of Has Beens and Will Bes, but a gnashing concatenation of Could Bes, potential, posited, and negated, that leaves along the battlefield a trail of wounded Could Have Beens. It looks like a brewing storm of unresolved contents, a polyphonous chorus of promises suspended on the lips of the vanquished, crying out to be kept, redeemed, blown up by the wind of history in a moment of irruption.

Blake’s question is not the presumption of l’age d’or, mere perfume burned to a closed and perfect past from which we have fallen. It is a question that questions the open, unresolved case: could Jerusalem have been built? And did those feet in ancient time stride in struggle toward a tomorrow that would’ve been a far different, far better today than that of dark Satanic mills and the bleak streets they toss us on to when they close? And if the past was different from the present, and if the present could have been different, then may the future yet be, if all that has been left undone is taken up again?


A New Institute for Social Research