The future of the past

by on Nov.28, 2011

Jack Smith's future past

In the past few months, there have been some comments, both on this blog and in other places, that montevidayo is nihilistic, even quasi-fascist. It has even been called “satanic” by one commentator. And one of the frequent reasons for this has, I think, been the “no future” ethos taken up by some of the writers on this blog. Doesn’t skepticism toward the future imply lack of hope and a lack of political will? Doesn’t it imply a fashionable fatalism?

But the problems that arise  with “future” thinking are the same problems that arises from utopian thinking: 1) they both imply an essentialist notion of human nature, since any utopia is premised on the idea that in the near or far future the “true” elements of human nature will be able to be brought forth, in all their supposed unwavering immediacy and transparency, and 2) they frequently don’t realize one person’s utopia is another person’s hell, and that what might seem humanly essential to X or Z might seem unbearable to F or E.

Contrary to the future, I would side with Foucault, who argued for a constant move toward liberation, but with no end point in sight, no grand totalizing synthesis. And with an emphasis not on the liberation of some notion of “human nature” but on the creation of new ways of thinking, new forms of experience, new ways of moving through the world.

Along these lines, I recently came upon an essay by The International Necronautical Society called “The Declaration on the Notion of ‘The Future.’” It was published in The Believer late last year. Here’s an excerpt.

5. The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. This version is tied into a narrative of transcendence: in the Hegelian system, of Aufhebung, in which thought and matter ascend to the realm of spirit as the projects of philosophy and art perfect themselves. Against this totalizing (we would say, totalitarian) idealist vision, we pit counter-Hegelians like Georges Bataille, who inverts this upward movement, miring spirit in the trough of base materialism. Or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, who, hearing the moronic poet Russel claim that “art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences,” pictures Platonists crawling through Blake’s buttocks to eternity, and silently retorts: “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.”

6. To phrase it in more directly political terms: the INS rejects the idea of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of dominant socioeconomic narratives of progress. As our Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley has recently argued, the neoliberal versions of capitalism and democracy present themselves as an inevitability, a destiny to whom the future belongs. We resist this ideology of the future, in the name of the sheer radical potentiality of the past, and of the way the past can shape the creative impulses and imaginative landscape of the present. The future of thinking is its past, a thinking which turns its back on the future.

7. As Walter Benjamin correctly notes in “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” contemplating Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus—a floating figure who stares intently at something he’s moving away from—the angel of history faces backward. “Where we perceive a chain of events,” writes Benjamin, “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.” What we call progress, Benjamin calls “the storm.”

22 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    [Not that he’s the last word, but Habermas here on the potential linkages between the irrational and the abject and their slippery ideological implications–Bataille’s notions of “heterogeneity” certainly bear a real-time troubling relation to fascism and violence as freedom’s “true” release (the core Surrealists decisively broke with Bataille over this), and Nietzsche as philosophical ground for fascism is hardly news. (It would be interesting to speculate, though I don’t think I’ve ever even seen him mentioned here at Montevidayo, the extent to which Nietzsche could be seen as the half-rotted zombie Ghost Father of Montevidayo.) An essay by Kristeva, can’t now recall the title, on the abject in literature and fascism, with focus on Celine, might be relevant to check out. None of this, as I’ve said, points to a *necessary* correlation or mutual flow between literary “extremity” and political reaction (the links, in any case, have only secondarily to do with writer’s personal or stated affinities!). But that such potential deep intercourse can come into play, even *explode* into play in unsuspected ways, is only reasonable and responsible to acknowledge. Here’s the quote from Habermas, from the 1980s, where he’s talking mainly about post-structuralism, most of whose adherents were, as most contributors to Montevidayo are, of the Left (!)]:

    The young conservatives embrace the fundamental experience of aesthetic
    modernity – the disclosure of a decentered subjectivity freed from all
    constraints of rational cognition and purposiveness, from all imperatives of
    labor and utility – and in this way break out of the modern world. They
    thereby ground an intransigent antimodernism through a modernist attitude.
    They transpose the spontaneous power of the imagination, the experience of
    self and affectivity, into the remote and the archaic; and in manichean
    fashion, they counterpose to instrumental reason a principle only accessible
    via “evocation”: be it the will to power or sovereignty, Being, or the Dionysian
    power of the poetic. In France this trend leads from Georges Bataille. The spirit
    [Ceist] of Nietzsche that was reawakened in the 1970s of course hovers over them all.’

    –Jurgen Habermas

  2. Johannes

    This is an interesting topic and I have things to say about it, but I am pressed for time this morning so let me just say this. Thinking that links art and “fascism” tends to be not actual, but something like metaphoric – ie these artists are not out there carting off jews to camps, rather it tends to be an easy-stand in for extremist art or art with a very powerful artist, or art that has a total art feel. All of these artistic modes are dear to my heart so many of my favorite artists tends to be criticized as “fascist.”

    The most interesting example I can use very quickly to bring my idea forward: Montevidayo’s two favorites Bolano and Zurita. Zurita opposed Pinochet’s fascist dictatorship with “total art” (definitely not some kind of communist/egalitarian idea of art – Zurita is very much affect, very much the grotesque, very transvestite and most of all total art), or as Bolano calls it in an essay, “messianic.” It’s no wonder Bolano casts Zurita as a fascist aerial artist in Distant Star – this doesn’t mean that he was secretly a fascist, but that his art was total and messianic, totally saturative. No wonder Bolano uses Nazism (Nazi literature in the Americas for example) as an icon of saturative/total art (Joyelle wrote a post about this a while back, I can search for it when i get some time).

    Mostly the lable “Fascist” – as the label “kitsch” – is used to shut down art that goes “too far,” that is not tasteful etc. It’s a taste-policing issue as much as anything. In fact what is viewed as kitsch and fascist often are the same art (ie art I love).

    I’m not an expert on Habermas. I have barely read anything by him but whenever I come across him he strikes me as a pedantic moralist and anti-art.

    I would say also that capitalism and progressive politics both participate in what Lee Edelman calls “Reproductive futurism.” A conservative model that ensures no ruptures in society. Fascism actually was in love with its own glamorous defeat – they built buildings that would look good when wrecked (ruined-futurism?). So fascism’s relationship to the future is complex.


  3. Kent Johnson

    And just to repeat, I realize this whole matter is greatly *unresolved*! And I give all credit to James for engaging the issue in his good post. By the way, Habermas and Zizek had a big fight somewhere about this which I remember seeing once upon a time, but can’t seem to find it. anyone know if that might be handily available?

  4. John Bloomberg-Rissman

    I tend to think of Montevidayo as lobbying for the subversion of both fascist and socialist and liberal realisms, which are pretty identical, in that each posits THE FUTURE, and that said subversion favors an infinite number of futures. I agree with Kent if I understand him correctly, that the relationship of a particular aesthetic practice to a particular politics is indeed “unresolved.”

    It seems pretty clear that James’s “Contrary to the future, I would side with Foucault, who argued for a constant move toward liberation, …” is anti-totalitarian on the face of it …

  5. James Pate

    Hi Kent,

    You bring up many good points…

    Habermas is an odd philosopher in many ways: he’s very much against the grain of quite a bit of modern Continental philosophy, and his contrarian stance is admirable in that way (if nothing else, he clearly is willing to go against the grain). That said, I’ve always found his anti-Nietzscheian approach to be based on an incredibly crude reading of him, almost as if he half-heartedly believed in the Nazi characterization of Nietzsche. Habermas also had a very public argument with Foucault over Nietzsche.

    My own take on Nietzsche largely comes from his belief that if there is going to be a style, make it plural. Like Joyce, who he resembles in many ways, there isn’t one Nietzsche, there’s several, each working to create the most intense effect…

    And John,

    I agree: any talk of the future should always be radically plural.


  6. James Pate

    Related to what Johannes says above, both Nietzsche and Foucault advocated a way of thinking that was dangerous, that flirts with the abyss. Thinking that makes both thinker and reader incredibly uncomfortable. Intense discomfort is total, and has a link, I think, to the notion of total art.

    It’s no wonder that Foucault, for example, was drawn so much to Goya (especially the black paintings), Artaud, Bataille, and other artists who attempted to do away with the supposed divide between the actual and the fictional…

    Total art doesn’t allow for a privileged vantage point, and neither does anti-foundationalism. Both are a dance of ghosts and masks.

  7. Kent Johnson

    James and John,

    Hopefully it goes without saying, but wanted to make sure something was clear in regards my first comment, as I phrased the sentence awkwardly: I did not at all mean, when I referred to Nietzsche as “ground for fascism” that this is inevitable consequence of his work. I’m aware he’s been claimed and applied across the spectrum. But the “irrational” deep systems Habermas refers to are there, of course, unarguably lending themselves for potential dangerous impact and use. Habermas’s claim, though, seems to go even beyond this: the really interesting and controversial suggestion in that quote (one that to many, I realize, by this late-late stage of “progressive” post-structural flow would seem weird and counterintuitive) is that there is a built-in, deeper conservatism, even an historically (in terms of the future, that is!) reactionary nature informing the anti-rational currents he’s naming.

    Now, a kind of proof that I am NOT trying to be polemical or anti-Montevidayo, or whatever (I mean as proof that this whole matter is very unresolved and contradictory to *me*), is that I have co-translated two books by a REAL fascist poet of the Americas, or at least one who was a committed fascist in his younger years: Jaime Saenz. You want strange, Nietzschean, irrational afterlife-trip poetry, look no further than Saenz… So anyway, I’m raising the general issue because I think it’s an important one to think more deeply about, not because I have a hard “position.”

    Johannes, good comments on the issue above, and hope you will do that post when you have time. But I do need to offer a strong quibble with what you say about Zurita and Bolano (incidentally, I’m in touch with Zurita and we’ve begun a kind of interview/conversation, we’ll see where it might lead): It seems misleading to characterize Zurita the way you do, framing him as a “messianic” artist in *opposition* to “some kind of communist/egalitarian idea of art.” I certainly agree that his is a “total poetry” that has little to do with the dogmas of social-realism, but he is also a deeply, *specifically* political poet, who goes both far back into himself, and far outward into the actual, messy world of power, class, ideology, and struggle. And here (and in relation to this whole topic of James’s post) is where I think Zurita differs, immensely, from some of the work championed here at Montevidayo: it is political in the most human-rational, partisan, and polemical of ways, often much in the push of Vallejo’s great and strange poetry of Espana, aparta de mi este caliz. He is, first and foremost, a *political* poet, one who never loses his grounding in the material world, one whose psycho-somatic explorations are indivisible from the ethical demands of poetry as a profoundly *revolutionary political activity*. In fact, I have a moving letter from him written shortly before he read at the Poetry Foundation, that forcefully makes this central claim.

    And, too, on Bolano, I think you (and here badly) mislead: Nazi Literature of the Americas is a very odd, but deeply critical, satirical book–one, in fact, that engages the very ethical and political ambivalences within poetry that we are talking about!–not some kind of manifesto for Nazi spirit as shining example of “total Art”! And, relatedly, you get Bolano’s fascist sky-writing pilot wrong, really: Here, as well, the characterization has satirical registers–in fact, it is very much aimed AT the Communist Party member Zurita, whom the Trotskyist sympathizer Bolano held in contempt for taking a high position in the post-Pinochet transition (the pilot bears the same last name as the President who named Zurita to the post). I think we need to be careful (and know you would agree in principle!) not take certain historical particularities that have very different contexts and misread them into emblematic support for our own aesthetics.

  8. Johannes

    My point was absolutely not that Bolano loved total art – but in his own satirical way he certainly deals with it. And he does criticize Zurita for being “messianic.” That’s not my view; that’s what he writes in one of his essays. Now the question is of course what Bolano did in his own work (it’s part of a very complex meditation on art that runs through all of his books).

    And I totally agree with you that Zurita is a politically engaged poet – but his poetry is nevertheless (or perhaps especially) because of this what one might loosely characterize as “total”. It is absolutely not afraid of “fetishizing violence” or “aestheticizing violence” or some of these phrases used to dismiss various artistic ideas as fascistic. In fact when he was here at Notre Dame he said repeatedly, he wanted to make art that was as intensive as the oppression of the Pinochet government (or something roughly like that). And the fact that he’s a socialist is of course a key component of my argument: the form (aerial, violent, full of masks, total etc) doesn’t preclude his being anti-fascist. See what I’m saying? What I mean by “egalitarian poetics” is short for all those people who express concern about art being too spectacular because that’s tyrannical etc. Not that you can’t be a commie or whatever.

    I think a lot of the work we discuss at Montevidayo is political; we have repeatedly been told our critical frame works are “too political.” It’s hard for me to imagine someone saying that we’re not political. We might not believe what you believe, but that doesn’t make us apolitical. And I’m hardly saying he’s got exactly the same exact aesthetics as each of us (who often have very different aesthetics, needless to say). But then he’s got a very different aesthetic from you as well and it doesn’t stop you from writing about him.

    But of course, yes, I think a lot of our discussions do leave the morality etc “unresolved.”

    Also, Kent, your interpretations of Bolano do not seem correct. I find Joyelle’s far more persuasive. And I think you are hardly the authority that determines what is the CORRECT view of Bolano and what is “misreading” Bolano for my own purposes. Seriously Kent, what makes you think you alone have the correct interpretation to these texts? Doesn’t seem very egalitarian to me…

    here’s one thing Joyelle wrote about Bolano and Evil:


  9. Kent Johnson

    Hi Johannes, that’s a good response–OK, I think we’re better understanding each other now on this. Thanks for it.

    Just to say, and forgive the perfectly friendly sarcasm: What makes YOU think *I think* I have the CORRECT view of Bolano? I hope offering my perspective in direct ways doesn’t put me in the Opus Dei category, or something. People in poetry *do* do this all the time, right? You know, put forward an assertive-sounding kind of tenor? You’re pretty good at it, yourself, poet.

    But on the matter of the Ruiz-Tagle figure, I was pointing out something pretty specific that is not really in the realm of “interpretation”! The Zurita allusion is hardly my “idea”…

    I’ll go back to Joyelle’s piece, thanks for the link.

  10. Johannes

    I’m re-reading your original post here. I guess I inferred from your concern with “literary extremism” the usual criticism of the spectacular etc as fascist.

    I’m not saying my point of view is right. I’m saying I’m more persuaded by Joyelle’s interpretation. You tend to posit yourself as an authority not subject to discussion.


  11. Kent Johnson

    >You tend to posit yourself as an authority not subject to discussion.

    I DO??

    Well, I’ll have to work on that, then.

  12. James Pate


    I have to admit, you and Johannes know much more about Zurita than I do, so I really can’t speak to that debate.

    As far as Bolano, I think there’s a huge Poe influence in his work (he once said he spent an entire year in his youth reading only Poe) and he’s also influenced by Buadelaire, plus there are references to “the abyss” all over his work, sometimes comically, sometimes horrifically, sometimes both. To me, Bolano isn’t a humanist, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have much faith is rationality, nor are his characters coherent, self-governing “selves.” They have much more in common with the ciphers we find in literature from the middle ages, or from a thousand and one nights. They’re blown here and there by desires, strange fears, wishes that seem to appear from nowhere. They have little past, little psychology in the usual sense of that word.

    More soon…teaching beckons…


  13. James Pate


    To finish my thought from the previous comment…

    You appear to be implying a similarity (thought I might be misreading your comments) between Habermas’ argument against “irrationalist” philosophies and Bolano’s ambivalence….

    But Bolano to me seems to come from a wholly different planet than Habermas. If there’s one contemporary writer who saw life as being swept through by irrational forces, it’s Bolano. His sense of amor fati has, to my mind, a lot more in common with Nietzsche and the like than with Habermas.


  14. Kent Johnson

    James, no, I mean there that part of what Bolano is doing in Nazi Literature… (and this is very much at heart of the satirical impulse of it all) is showing how easily and credibly (it all reads as perfectly non-fictional) prototypical modes of Lit (including “progressive” avant-garde ones) can be relocated within darker realms. Or darker realms relocated within prototypical modes… So in that sense of what we’re talking about. I agree that Bolano is completely different in his attitudes from Habermas!

  15. adam strauss

    I’ve never read him, but why is it Celine seems to be consistently cited as the fascist writer proper?

    I agree that Fascist is about as loosely thrown around a term as there is, and I have a hard time imagining anything aesthetically excellent being fascist tho this cld easily be because I basically believe style is as important as anything.

    I bet this is dumb but I think of the declarative sentence as fascist–herr Michael Palmer, herr Anne Carson, herr just about everyone! and of course I gotta go and goof-up my argument, as a declarative sentence is definitely part of an aesthetic–or has it become too transparent/taken for granted a stylistic move and hence now it’s not aesthetic but rather a default?

    I am rather fond of Sp’s dictum “every woman adores a fascist”: that’s so deliciously droll/spot-on!

  16. adam strauss

    Yesyesyes, one can easily poke holes at positing aesthetic wowwowwow is unlikely to be Fascist: some seem to deem Plath to be; I just cant think of any examples, and again yesyesyes I have only read one RB short story and it was quite dull and not stylistically dazzling or maybe it was but I find hetero prostitution narratives boring–well I do love Pretty Woman tho!

  17. James Pate


    Isn’t the sentence “I bet this sounds dumb but I think of the declarative sentence as Fascist” itself a declarative sentence, and therefore Fascist? You mean this as a joke, right? What could be more “Fascist” than saying “I will be opening the window” is, actually, Fascist? Those kind of immense moral judgements always strike me as boring beyond belief…

    As for RB, all I can say is that it is sometimes better to read more of a writer than one story before making such sweeping and condemnatory judgements…

    Just a thought…


  18. James Pate


    And I don’t mean the tone of the above comment to be snide. When I ask “You mean this as a joke, right?” it’s actually a sincere question. I’m not trying to be a sarcastic asshole or anything…


  19. Lucas de Lima

    James, thanks for keeping the conversation about futurity going… that’s futuristic enough for me.

    Adam, Bolaño happened to write a gay prostitution narrative in the incredible “El ojo Silva,” which I’ve written about here a couple of times. If it’s not being pursued already, I’m sure someone somewhere will write a dissertation on Bolaño’s queer heroes. Also, he is anything but stylistically dull–just think of his gargantuan non sequitur sentences. I can’t help but think that your dismissive generalization is based on a kind of unexamined queer exceptionalism that privileges nonnormative sexuality above all else.

  20. adam strauss

    In many ways I’m not joking: I find the syntax of declaration frequently problematic–not the exciting problematic, the glitteryshifty ground out from under–and often favor a million modifications–which a sentence with, ironically, subordinate clauses can frequently better accomodate; but I DON’T imagine an artistic method is likely to always yield one result: staring a hungry buck in the face, cooing I love you and handing it an apple without poison is very unlikely to be fascist.

    I totally see how my dumb bit doesn’t get at how non-exegetic I wanted the statement to be: heaps of destabilizing words ought to be in that sentence! Maybe this makes more sense: complex sentences, for me, can be a way to destabalize expression/argument, to negate–and the impression could easily be a tromp l’oiel-a sense of finality, of uberconfidentbeallandendallness (I think I’ve botched the colloquialism).

    I defintely believe there’s room within declaratives to pronounce other dynamics: this second it’s seeming to me that some Chelsey Minnis strophes are interesting for the ostensible minorness of the declarations, so that at times it’s almost a spoof on authority, a counterfeit of authority.

  21. adam strauss

    My RB comment has very specific parameters–that one story, which was stated, tho clearly not clearly.

    I can assure you–wow so many conventional locutions are such bs: of course I can’t assure anyone about anything–I don’t privilege nonnornmative sexuality above all else: that would utterly not gell with my belief that every human–and non human!!!!!– dynamic must be looked at/thought about–that the world is a complex of connections (even if they often look like severance); this is not to say that I don’t get tired of apprximately conventional hetero narrative lines (yay for Yayo Kusama!) in a wAY which I think links very much to many comments Lara Glenum has posted over the past year. It seems I’m being read as synechdochic, where one specific point stands in for a total world view. And if I’m to be fully rational/impartial, that’s totally ok: I’m verrrry leary of the notion of correct reading/priveging the author–ok scribbler is apter in my case.

    I hope any of the above makes adequate sense.