Trying to reground society: The politics of time travel by way of Xavier’s School for Gifted Mutants

I can only apologize that this site has been inactive for so long. Way too much real life. Or way too little, depending on how you look at it. Either way: the plan for the time being is so produce one article a week, ideally coming out on Monday, i.e. today. The topics are going to stay varied but basically, while there will be some book reviews and interviews here and there, the main idea is try an exercise in thinking out loud, ideally in conversation with interested parties, on how to come with a more overarching account of our current situation. Basically, I’m interested in trying to work out how to start threading together some ideas from what is a very frayed and disparate set of currents in left(ish) thinking.

Also, in light of some well received feedback that previous writing has been a little cold, (the word ‘boring’ was even used) there is going to be a freer hand with regard to talking about culture and slightly more disparate ideas. If not always correct, I hope it’s at least entertaining. 

Over the course of Phillip K Dick’s madness, according to the stories told, he became convinced that the nature of reality was, in a vital sense, a fraud: an image projected by hostile forces to delude us into believing in the passage of time. What it concealed was a world frozen in time. Frozen, rather precisely, at the moment of Christ’s cruxifiction in Golgotha. While the more esoteric details of the claim do not concern us, bear in mind the notion of the being out of joint in time, as it’s where we’re starting.

Casting a glance across the self-representation of Britain’s politics, left and right, there is also a sense of time out of joint. Student protests self-consciously call attention to the parallels with student movements from May ’68 (see, in particular, Springtime: The New Student Rebellions out on Verso). The union movement, at least in it’s mediation in the popular press, remains inescapably bound in time to the pre-Restoration period of industrial upset and turmoil. If rumblings of a Left Unity movement are to be trusted, the ‘Spirit of ’45’ appears to be a constituent point of reference. On the right, the EDL are a strange pastiche of various nostalgic longings, albeit sustained by men whose experience of the ‘glory days’ of the United Kingdom is in doubt. No Conservative in the UK would miss an illusion to the time of Thatcher, particularly given her sudden demise. The monarchists obviously also play on nostalgic imaginings of idealised pasts, as will the unionists over the course of the devolution debate. I’m sure this list could go on and on.

The inextricable link between the visual cues of past eras and contemporary politics is in part simply the result of an overtly visual culture, a natural evolution of ‘society of the spectacle’. It’s also, in part, a manifestation of Fredric Jameson’s insight that postmodern culture is a culture of pastiche and nostalgia, reliant on visual tropes and repackaging the ‘past’ for contemporary indulgence. It’s also probably not that new. Politics has always been particularly susceptible to this tendency to gaze into the past, the shared or imagined memories of the public has always been the lowest common denominator in articulating a vision of the future. When one’s own culture is wanting for vision, there is always the endless material of past empires (particularly Rome and Greece) with which a seemingly competent account of a social vision can be fashioned.

Visions of the past also vary in consequence. Certainly, it is not the only factor in shaping the outcome. Particularly with state manifestations of a regressive gaze (be it Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ or Stalin’s fixation on a Russian nationalist past) the consequences will largely hinge on the respective power and state apparatus in place, in addition to a host of other competing state concerns over the usual factors. With popular movements however this retaking of the commons, to draw on Hardt and Negri’s ideas, will be shaped by the memory of the past that informs it. It should not surprise us that the militancy of struggles which can reference conflict with a dictatorship in their immediate collective memory – for instance in Greece and in Spain – will be higher than those which refer back to movements of social democratic reform, as in the Britain, where the slow march of fighting for rights which are hard-won by long and tedious battle is a dominant narrative for interpreting social struggle. Again, I’m not saying this is the only factor, simply that is has a role to play.

It’s likely that this will intensify as ‘the future’ recedes as a horizon of collective engagement. This is to say, as Bifo argues in ‘After the Future’, the future has largely failed to deliver on the role assigned to it in a radical modernist appraisals of it’s emancipatory capacity. Rather, it has compounded our subjugation rather than intensifying our power over nature. It has also, naturally, come to lurk like a dark ominous cloud, only visible through an the infinite range of risks Ulrich Beck suggests characterises contemporary society.

When we see the future now in our collective radical imagination, it’s as a decayed, dystopian landscape. There is no light at the end of the cultural tunnel, and this also pushes us in the direction of the past. Comic books, a modern art-form inordinately concerned with the future, has charted this evolution well. The gradual arc of depression in the X-Men over the decades is a case in point. As days turned blue to grey, a recurring theme became the transmission of the future into their present. The content of this generally miserable plot developing changed over time. Initially, the visions of the future are nightmarish – the ‘days of the future past’ which must and can be averted becomes a motivating factor. So far, so Earth Day. As time passes, the future becomes more intrusive: their ranks and rogue’s gallery swell with characters who have come from these various nightmarish futures – Cable, Bishop, Bastion, Dark Beast the list if endless – and whose brutal methods fit in an increasingly ‘complex’ and ‘dark’ worldview.

Fast forward to the present, and the X-Men’s dream has truly died. Professor Xavier, the team’s founder and mentor, is dead and Cyclops leads along with Magneto (the ultimate avatar for destroying the future by approaching it ‘in the rear view mirror’, as McLuhan would put it) lead a team of ‘revolutionary’, Baader-Meinhoff style mutants in a militant fight for mutant rights. There is a whole plot here involving mutant births that, now it’s been revised, I’m officially Sovieting from the X-men’s history, and need not concern us. However, in a final twist, the only characters with a chance of stopping them are – and I’m not making this up (not to say that no-one is) – the past, idealistic versions of themselves who have been transported from earlier in the timeline by an aging Beast in the hope that they might set things right.

Returning to our own predicament, the central questions is: what are the limits of the past? Tactically, they are numerous, as a direct result of times having changed, and power having changed with it. There is no Chartist example, for example, of confronting Goldman Sachs for their international financial hegemony. Persuasion rests on the existence of a parallel discretion, which in many cases has become impossible to account for in the political options box. They also presume the existence of a public, which is in diminishing evidence today, that defines itself in relation to it’s collective plight.

Also interesting are the conceptual limitations in terms of what they make possible. Put crudely, the best outcome of a movement for the refounding of the welfare state is the welfare state. This strictly defensive move, while not objectionable on its own terms, does boil down our demands to a request for a bare minimum, a modicum of respect, and nothing more. In turbulent times, we reassure ourselves that ‘something’ is better than ‘nothing’, and that the alternative of conceptual speculation is the greater of these two evils.

At the other end, some conceive of our situation as almost medieval (though not quite at Golgotha). One potential outcome of the focus on ‘debt’ and the semi-feudal relations of modern capitalism (best articulated by David Graeber), up to and including the proliferation of ‘rent-seeking’ activities with the economy and the theoretical interest in ‘primitive accumulation’ as a motor, might be an even further harking back. Could we ground our concerns about citizenship and power in terms of the motivation for a popular sovereignty which peels back this dimension too? It feels unlikely, if only because the outcome of the debate between the monarchy and the populace has already been over-determined by the liberal historical narrative. ‘Limited monarchy’ remains the best of all possible worlds, at least in the common view. All the same, Dan Hind’s discussion of George Winstanley and the unmediated by existing property rights claim for democracy of the Putney debates in The Return of the Public was a welcome discussion of some alternative readings we might make of this. In a similar vein, Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History is timely.

So in conclusion: we should stop using time travel as a means to try and hide, in the past, from our current impasse. The tools and the ideas are not sufficient, and it’s particularly at a point when we are seeing such recurring flashes of the real of capitalism that we should be least attempt a desperate return to our illusions. This is the unfortunate core of the often radical Dick’s vision (bracketing the insanity for now): it relies on a garden of innocence before the fall as it’s central redemptive narrative. Conversely, we should argue that, as Freud knew, the dream serves precisely to stop one from waking.

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