6 PROPOSITIONS ON THE ENDS OF MODERNITY

“Could the only opposition to a culture dominated by what Jameson calls the ‘nostalgia mode’ be a kind of nostalgia for Modernism?” – Mark Fisher

 

  1. Having declared an end to History in its avowal to MAKE IT NEW, modernism “imagined itself to be beyond eschatology.”[1] This is the argument Irmgard Emmelheinz puts forward in her essay on “Self-Destruction as Insurrection, or, How to Lift the Earth above All that has Died?” in which the Anthropocene acquires something of the status of a uniquely authentic insurrectional force in the wake of the discrediting of modernity & the institutional avantgarde, in both their political & aesthetic formulations. Emmelheinz’s Anthropocene is presented as an insurrectional force entirely alienated from the idea of the human, like a glitched after-image of Klee’s Angelus Novus as it retraces Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in icon, not as a truth that is “recognized &… never seen again,”[2] but one which presents itself constantly without being grasped for what it is. Yet in doing so, this Anthropocene describes not a negation of modernism but its apotheosis. From its very beginnings, what characterizes modernism is a paradoxical nostalgia for the coming utopia of modernism itself: its own reification as the New World, conflated out of the kitsch of authenticity, the absolument moderne. The impulse of socalled postmodernism arises out of the desire to suspend this paradox in a dilated present, in which, as Emmelheinz says, “apocalypse” becomes “central to the neoliberal imaginary.” Such a suspended action is no mere sleight of hand, but a project – by which the dream of eschatology trans/forms itself into necessity by way of a certain Return of the Real. Emmelheinz characterizes this as the displacement of the “possibility of revolution” in its modernist utopian formulation, by the “intolerable” – that which can no longer be made anew in the image of modernity, since it is the very desolation of the image. “In this light,” she argues, “the actual legacy of modernism is not a horizon of worker-led emancipation but a biosphere on the brink of extinction… a world in ruins.” This much we can agree on.

 

  1. If it appears that the question of modernity acquires a certain spectral character in its tendency to haunt contemporary thought & return wherever the problems of technicity & futurity rear their heads, this tendency cannot simply be reduced to an antithetical moment – one among others – which merely requires (in order to “resolve itself”) to be properly historicized, within the scope of the long twentieth century for example, as a belated after-effect of the End of modernity: its “completion,” so to speak, as a project, subsumed into the abject form of an ideological artefact. Such would belong to that line of reasoning that seeks to expand a critique of aesthetic autonomy, & modernism in general, into the “objective” form of an Anthropocene that itself is merely a kind of residue, a by-product of the abstractive processes of industrial capital, & not as the very articulation of its logic. This line of reasoning can be summarised as: the culmination of the project of modernity comes definitively into view with the consciousness of the Anthropocene. It is accompanied by a similar line of reasoning which insists that the Anthropocene is the unfinished business of modernity, & that only by accelerating & enlarging the scope of modernity can the Anthropocene itself be trans/cended.

 

  1. While Habermas maintained that the “spirit” of modernity consists in the revolt against a “false normativity in history”[3] – brought starkly into view in the numerous debates surrounding postmodernism – the quasi-enlightenment “project” Habermas equates with modernity nevertheless retains the character of a humanism impervious to either those internal contradictions from which it had in fact arisen in the first place or to the complexity & indeterminacy of those increasingly global systems into which it had long since evolved. This tendency to reaction & counterreformation within a retrospective “modernism” may appear an unlikely fellow traveller of the neoliberalism that apparently succeeded it, yet the argument for the incompletion of the project of modernity & Fukuyama’s pronouncements of an “End-of-History” describe an identical teleology.[4] For Fukuyama, the neutralization of the modernist revolt was postmodernism’s (i.e. neoliberalism’s) masterstroke – what Habermas calls a “false negation of culture” under the appearance of an impossible emancipation from ideology or ideological antagonism. Yet at the same time, this “false negation” – conflated with capitalist realism’s promise of No Future – remains bound to a modernist discontinuity of History as the (paradoxical) means of its totalisation. Between revolution & apocalypse, this “means-ends” eschatology circulates as a kind of ideal tropism, which in turn is reified in what Emmelhainz calls “the highest stage of modernism”: the Anthropocene.[5]

 

  1. “There is no other world,” McKenzie Wark writes in an article entitled “Late Holocene Style,” “& it is this one.”[6] And if the Anthropocene is, as a recent Alienist publication proclaims, the modernist “art object par excellence,”[7] this is precisely because it corresponds to what Wark defines as the coincidence between “the impossibility of the artwork” with the “impossibility of the divine.” The divine, as eschatological agency, is always that which, in accomplishing itself, supersedes itself. It is, so to speak, both the end that lives on & the afterlife before the fact. It’s in this sense that Lyotard’s remark about postmodernism as modernism in a nascent state[8] applies, for example, in Adorno’s insistence upon the barbarity of lyric poetry after Auschwitz & the impossibility of maintaining an aesthetic morality vested in the cult of rationalism that had produced it.[9] The acme of modernity has always been the art of the impossible: not a mimēsis of “another world” – some revolutionary utopia, for example, or some eugenicist heaven of ideal forms – but the means of production of the very impossibility of “an other world”; of a world subject to forces operative beyond the purview of modernity itself (yet whose idea is contained within it, as a form of transfuturism). The character of this movement of aesthetic foreclosure, & the crisis it represents, isn’t – despite appearing otherwise – that of a neutral geological register of human (i.e. industrialisation’s) impact on the biosphere, so much as it is ideological, since this “no other world” which “there is” is both the apotheosis & end of modernity only insofar as it “performs” a final negation of the “free spirit,” as Wark says, of the modernist work of art that lives on in the those cybernated ghosts of our present “world-machine.” What calls itself “posthumanism” in this scenario marks the return of an ever-more-apocalyptic humanism in the experiencing of its self-destruction as aesthetically unsurpassable.[10] Put otherwise, the “extinction paradigm” becomes the condition for alienation’s next evolutionary phase beyond the commodity form to the technopoetic sublime. To the extent that this evolutionary “event” acquires its own autonomous representation, it does so not in the elevation of the anthropos to the revolutionary status of world-transformation, but rather the contrary: its “alienated totality.”[11]

 

  1. If modernity presupposes a demystification & trans/cendence of the “natural world,” it does so on the basis of a radical idea that all worlds are reified technology. Two viewpoints dominate this line of thought: the first attributes agency to determinate ideological forces aligned with capital by design – which can be summed up by Negri’s understanding of modernity as “the definition & development of a totalizing thought that assumes human & collective creativity in order to insert them into the instrumental rationality of the capitalist mode of production of the world”[12]; the second attributes agency to evolutionary forces arbitrarily productive of capitalist ideological forms. The first remains mired in humanism, in which alienation is perceived as a theft of subjectivity – or, as Negri argues, “the negation of any possibility that the multitude may express itself as subjectivity” [13]; the second has a broadly cybernetic character in which alienation is constitutive of subjectivity. One conceives of the Anthropocene as the real product of industrial capitalism, which must be overcome – for Negri, by way of a “constituent power” that “points us beyond the limits of modernity” [14]; the other as the production of the Real itself, which cannot be overcome. This parallax view is not simply one of irreconcilable perspectives: the consciousness it implies is “unachievable,” & therefore only mystifiable.[15] Yet modernity has always had the Anthropocene in mind: from the beginning, it desired to become the future as such, rather than to simply project a futurism. To become, moreover, the only future possible. Or none. In this way it defines, in effect, the very horizon of the unachievable, which constantly falls back upon a future hypothesis “in order to formulate,” as Lyotard says, “the rules of what will have been done.”[16] Its movement remains that of an algorithm ramifying its bias along an exponential curve: feedback eschatology. And insofar as the Anthropocene corresponds to the “epoch” of this movement, it does so in the recursive temporality of the catastrophic.

 

  1. For Benjamin, the End of History corresponds to a generalised technicity: not as a moment of trans/cendence of its aesthetic or artefactual condition – which would in any case merely reinscribe the auratic delirium of the art object – but as the indefinite reproducibility of the End of History itself. That is to say, as the vector of reification. This “inauthentic” mode of Being would be none other than that of the Real construed as the order of an unconscious, whose operations would display a fundamental ambivalence to the categorical distinctions of art & technology, Being & ideology. For Benjamin, such an ambivalence is the risk of demystification of aesthetic autonomy, whose reification in the art object always threatens to inflate into a “transcendental commodity.” Yet the separation of art & life, of the aesthetic from the Real, History from technology, were never more than a reification of this ambivalence in the first place – within what Debord called “a whole irrational social praxis” of a “society that has every technical means to modify the biological foundations of the whole of life on earth”[17] – & whose trans/cendence has never amounted to anything beyond the ambivalence of its reification. Neither can the Anthropocene, then, be reduced to the status of an artefact of “autonomous alienation,” nor even a constellation of such artefacts into an “aggregate of data.” Its convulsions will not correspond to an “emancipation of Man” & will not be the work of any Angel of History. Nor will it stand as a monument to the Human Abstract that supposedly gave birth to it – nor simply to the “universal development of the commodity” which, by dialectising a collective subjectivity, will have been “wholly confirmed as the crowning achievement of political economy, in other words as the ‘abandonment of life,’” as Debord says, yet which would in turn merely confirm the commodity in its function as purveyor of a “tragic view of History.”[18] If nothing has escaped the pull of commodification, it is because the seeming eschatological movement of the Anthropocene in the “Return of the Real” also marks the return of an originary technicity, of “the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo),”[19] of the primordial catastrophe.

 

Postscript: By a certain dialectical movement it would appear as if the Anthropocene, in contradiction to a mode of thought that would situate it as an object or product of modernity (its metonymic dwarf), inscribes the entirety the discursive field of modernity itself, in an apparent movement of displacement that comes into view not at the end of modernity, but after the project of declaring an end has exhausted itself in its own contradictions: at that point, in other words, that critical discourse (born of – & bored with – its own modernism) believes it has finished with modernity. That is to say, that point at which critical discourse succumbs to the delirium of its own trans/cendental claims upon the Real, in the perverse pleasure of an “experience” – reified in this uniquely authentic critical artefact – of a self-destruction posited as the ideal “negation of negation.”

 

LOUIS ARMAND

London, June 2019

 

[1] Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Self-Destruction as Insurrection, or, How to Lift Earth above All that has Died?” e-flux 87 (December 2017): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/87/169041/self-destruction-as-insurrection-or-how-to-lift-earth-above-all-that-has-died/

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schoken, 1968) 255.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity — An Incomplete Project,” The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (New York: The New Press, 1983).

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

[5] Emmelhainz, “Self-Destruction as Insurrection.”

[6] McKenzie Wark, “Late Holocene Style,” Alienist 4 (2018)

[7] Interior Ministry, Principles of Anarchitecture (Prague: Alienist, 2019) 15.

[8] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington & Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991) 81.

[9] Theodor Adorno, “Cultural Criticism & Society,” Prisms, trans. Samuel & Sherry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1067) 19.

[10] See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1995) 242: “This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first degree.”

[11] Wark, “Late Holocene Style,” 17.

[12] Antonio Negri, Insurgencies: Constituent Power & the Modern State, trans. Maurizia Boscagli (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) 334.

[13] Negri, Insurgencies, 335.

[14] Negri, Insurgencies, 334.

[15] Cf. Negri, Insurgencies, 335.

[16] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 81.

[17] Guy Debord, “Theses on the Situationist International & its Time,” The Real Split in the International, trans. John McHale (London: Pluto, 2003) 23.

[18] Debord, “Theses on the Situationist International & its Time,” 24.

[19] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 81.

! AFTER HISTORY THE ANTHROPOCENE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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