Has the possibility of a future died? Matt Ossias examines time, history, change and stillness through the prism of Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, with reference to both literature and film, asking can we conceive of a still life that is in some sense still life?
The future has long receded behind its own eternal event horizon in ‘Western’ culture. Visions of paradise that were once too divine to imagine in this world have been transformed by an affirmation of utopia as no-place: a future that is always ecstatic, never present, always arriving, infinitely free, endlessly changing. Today a different future appears imminent: a future of catastrophes, a future without a future. The future shock of these looming cataclysms—global warming, nuclear threats, economic crashes, cultural wars—are already affecting the present with seismic upheavals. Looked upon from the perspective of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’, this prospective chaos may seem to just heap more wreckage on the pile of debris that constitutes history as such. The “‘emergency situation’ in which we live,” he protested, is not the exception but “the rule” (1986a: 221). And yet, the impending constellation of calamity forces into view a ‘real’ state of exception that was itself left uncertain in Benjamin - an exception to the permanent state of exception: the one possibility that infinity cannot admit, the one change that an incessant flux of change cannot abide, a change to the very principle of change - a death of the future.
If the theories of infinite change cannot admit a change to change itself, the possible negation of possibilities, then it is not truly infinite. This negativity resides at the absent (utopian) center of in-finity, the exclusion of which functions as the structuring absence delimiting the scope of much of contemporary critical thought in its fetishization of contemporaneity, the repressed impossibility that acts as the condition of possibility for the infinite potentiality valorized in modernity. This death of the future, the inverse of accelerationism, need not indulge in the millenarianism rampant in the so-called ‘Anthropocene’. Such a death only illuminates what was always already a death immanent to life, a negativity that has been repressed by an affirmative ethos that conceives of negation as wholly external, as that which must be inflicted upon the negative forces of oppressors, a negation we must immunize ourselves from. This is a death that has already arrived in the infinite production of the New which has become the consumption of the Same, the eternal repetition of difference involuting into that indifference which is as ravaging to thought today as is that political spirit which seems wholly opposed to negativity.
What this death asks of us is that question that runs throughout Giorgio Agamben’s work: can we conceive of a life without work, without a vocation, without a historical destiny, without a constant creation that seems to destroy itself in order to avoid the possibility of stasis, without an endlessly deferred future of redemption - a still life that is in some sense still life?
Concealed by the open emptiness of a vast desert, elite patrons on the verge of death, the mortal embodiment of a future without a future, travel to an impeccably designed facility where they will enter a transhuman cryogenic freeze in Don DeLillo’s Zero K (2016).
Sheltered from the violent contingencies of a world prone to calamity, the ultrarich come brittle with the hope of waking centuries or millennia away to a “new idea of the future” (30). Catastrophes unravel in slow motion on a silent screen hanging at the end of an austere modernist corridor that entombs the stillness of destruction left in the wake of this chaos on display. Flowers “coated or enameled, bearing a faint glaze” stand still against the breeze in a garden alongside mannequins “all worn down, eroded, eyes, nose, mouth, ruined faces everyone, ash gray, and shriveled hands, barely intact.” (130) The stillness of this space, its artifacts, do not just evoke the limbo in which the dead will be suspended. “Archeology for a future age” (249), this ‘catacomb’ anticipates a future “defined by stillness” (12), returning to a geologic and cosmic temporality where the future as time dissipates into spatial voids of intergalactic oblivion on the verge of the thermodynamic heat-death that is thought to await the fate of the universe. Future potentiality lapses into eternal inertia, infinite contingency into mortal finitude:
Once we master life extension and approach the possibility of becoming ever renewable, what happens to our energies, or aspirations? [...] Are we designing a future culture of lethargy and self-indulgence? Isn’t death a blessing? Doesn't it define the value of our lives, minute to minute, year to year? [...] Does literal immortality compress our enduring artforms and cultural wonders into nothingness? (66-7)
Zero kelvin is an impossible temperature toward which the realm of the possible is irrevocably bound, a perfect stillness. DeLillo’s novel poses this impossible stillness so as to question the limits of the possible.
Such posthistoric stillness has been presaged by prehistoric forms of life. Although perfect stillness may be thought as impossible for the living, in a Rostock laboratory just after the turn of the last century “a tick was kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment, that is, in a condition of absolute isolation from its environment,” in total stillness, before lunging at an artificially introduced stimulus (Agamben 2004: 47). Recounting Jakob von Uexküll’s speculation that in this “period of waiting” the Rostock tick is suspended in “a sleep-like state similar to the one we experience every night” (qtd. in Ibid .), Agamben wonders whether there is any sense in speaking “of ‘waiting’ without time and without world” (Ibid.)? Does it make sense to speak of the tick as having sense experience in this state of stasis? Would even the experience of still ness, along with empti ness and nothing ness, evaporate—only still, just still, nothing but empty and still, without any further determination? Is stillness, the suspension of future possibilities, possible for humans? Or is there something that still persists for humans when confronted with radical stillness?
From the speculative posthistoric vantage of an “emancipated society,” Theodor Adorno confronted such a still life as an eddy amid the infinite torrent of the market and its philosophical apology in dynamism:
The concept of dynamism, which is the necessary complement of bourgeois ‘a-historicity’, is raised to an absolute, whereas it ought, as an anthropological reflex of the laws of production, to be itself critically confronted, in an emancipated society, with need. The conception of unfettered activity, of uninterrupted procreation, of chubby instability, of freedom as frantic bustle, feeds on the bourgeois concept of nature that has always served solely to proclaim social violence as unchangeable, as a piece of healthy eternity. [...] It is not man’s lapse into luxurious indolence that is to be feared, but the savage spread of the social under the mask of universal nature, the collective as a blind fury of activity. [...] If uninhibited people are by no means the most agreeable or the freest, a society rid of its fetters might take thought that even the forces of production are not the deepest substratum of man, but represent his historical form adapted to the production of commodities. Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars. (2005: 156-7)
Adorno here understood absolute freedom as a negation of oppression full stop, a posthistoric absolvement of freedom’s perpetual hysteria in hierarchies of unequal fulfilment of necessity, abolishing the image of the human as a being whose freedom is found in an eternal future. Freedom is hereby to be understood not as an Aristotelian capacity to be performatively enacted ad infinitum, but a historical achievement absolving the suffering imposed by the struggle for natural necessity as it has been displaced and redoubled in the dramatic historical conflicts of culture. Such struggle is to be resolved without that residual excess of dynamic potentiality that has served as a dispositif for power, “a piece of healthy eternity” (Ibid.) essential to both humanist notions of freedom and fascist conceptions of sovereign authority in the state of exception (cf. Schmitt). This posthistoric return of a repressed prehistoric natural necessity is thought as the cessation of dynamic social desires coursing through symbolic nexuses of hierarchies of power epiphenomenal to refused need in a vastly complex historical process.
The tide has yet to recede from the visage of the human Michel Foucault saw drawn in the sand, but amid the waves crashing upon the shore of history, in the absent (u-topian) center of Benjamin’s storm of progress blowing from paradise, the black hole no-place around which the present gravitates with ever more violent momentum, Adorno lays sur l’eau: “Rien faire comme une betê, lying on the water and looking peacefully at sky, ‘being, nothing else, without any further definition and fulfilment’, might take the place of process, act, satisfaction, and so truly keep the promise of dialectical logic that it would culminate in its origin” (157). The threshold of posthistory resurrects animal prehistory, to ‘leave possibilities unused’ at the very historical moment when infinite possibilities are evermore within the sight of transhumanists who reach out to grasp ‘strange stars.’ What is this ‘being without determination’ that still persists through this posthistoric stillness? Why is there not that nothing of the Rostock tick?
Agamben recounts Martin Heidegger’s thought that animals are altogether outside the horizon of Being:
For the animal is in relation to his circle of food, prey, and other animals of its own kind, and it is so in a way essentially different from the way the stone is related to the earth upon which it lies. [...] Plant and animal depend on something outside of themselves without ever “seeing” either the outside or the inside, i.e., without ever seeing their being unconcealed in the free of being. It would never be possible for a stone, any more than for an airplane, to elevate itself toward the sun in jubilation and to stir like the lark, and yet not even the lark sees the open. (qtd. in 2004: 58)
“The lark,” Agamben summarizes, “does not see the open, because even at the moment in which it rushes towards the sun with the greatest abandon, it is blind to it; the lark cannever disconceal the sun as a being” (Ibid . 59). Human ex-perience is said to be a standing outside of normal sensory experience, a transcendence of the ontic (sensory) realm of the beings revealed as ex-isting in the open of an ontological world. Lying in the water, gazingat the sky, Adorno finds himself laying next to his enemy, Heidegger, staring at the open totality of Being, the form of the world, an ontological ‘shining’ exceeding animalimmediacy like the silver lining of clouds. Animals are not deprived of this world in some hierarchy of Being, they are altogether outside of it: “[knowing] neither beings nor nonbeings, neither open nor closed, it is outside of being; it is outside in an exteriority more external than any open, and inside in an intimacy more internal than any closedness” (Agamben 2004: 91). But then how is one to read rien faire comme une betê, ‘to do nothing like a beast’?
Fredric Jameson describes Adorno’s call to ‘live like ethical animals’ in a posthistoric futureless future as an ‘eternal present’:
[...] a state in which, as with animals, a life in the pure present would become conceivable, a life divested of all those fears of survival and anxieties about the future, all that endless tactical and strategic struggle and worry — Sorge! — which makes up human history or pre-history, and in whose absence some altogether unrecognizable ‘human nature’ would take the place of this one. It is a frightening thought to the degree to which it posits the ultimate radical otherness and encourages visions of the far future in which we will have lost almost everything that makes us identifiable to ourselves as human: a vision of a population of sentient beings grazing in the eternal present of a garden without aggressivity or want. (141-4 :2005)
Jameson’s commitment to Hegel allows for the possibility of marking the disappearance of the present as the ‘vanishing mediator’ between past and future, suspended between being and becoming in a precarious nothing less than nothing like the Rostock tick. Rather than the beatitude of Being, as immanent as the immediacy of animal life, this stasis coalesces with the other side of animality, abysmally abeyant like the Rostock tick in a nothing without even the ‘outside’ implied by the ness of nothing ness —a nothing less than nothing, a pure void. Affirming or denying such a still life, an indifference that challenges the reigning theories of difference, may be one of the most troubling task of our time facing a future without a historical task.
Cemetery of Splendour
Cemetery of Splendour (2015), Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s most recent film, is set in a Thai suburb in which comatose soldiers, literally reduced to bare life, victims of some unnamed geopolitical warfare, have been moved from a city hospital into an ad hoc care center in an old school house. The windows above the soldier’s beds overlook a construction site, a government project to install fiber optic cable lines symbolic of the communication technologies instituting globalization, unearthing an area the locals believed to have been an ancient burial ground called the ‘Cemetery of Kings.’ Jen has volunteered to look after a sleeping soldier with no relatives to visit him, only to be surprised by his awakening. Her and this soldier, who continues to relapse into a solumbastic state, befriend one another and explore this liminal suburb. As they roam without destination, Jen comes to find that she can no longer tell whether she is awake or dreaming. Rather than being awash in a virtual dream-world, a surrealist collage of infinite possibilities, it would appear as though the film is suggesting a concrete crisis of experience, an emptiness of reality where only an anxious self-awareness separates this state from the vegetative coma the soldier continues to fall into. Jen desperately wants to wake up, to have some confirmation that she is awake, that her reality is real; not because it is too fantastic, but because it is so banal, indifferent, inert. Although nonlinearity is typically thought of as an interweaving of past and future like a Möbius strip, this film is nonlinear insofar as time itself seems to be negated, as if the flow of the Heraclitian river were drying up. The film’s understated, directionless plot is structured around an absence of meaning, a nihilistic chasm opened between what Weerasethakul gestures towards as the crisis of traditional Thai cultures and an empty modernity (the latter depicted by the slowly drifting crowds at a theater and a market). The film seems to show not the wonderful dream-like nature of Thai myth as a utopian space amid political oppression, but its voiding, its lack of ground as the past is being dug up and plowed over in the town set to dissipate into a global village.
Weerasethakul’s film playfully critiques the traditions of Thailand: Jen’s adornment of the plastic statues representing Thai deities to which she offers the plastic sacrifice of a cheetah “to help strengthen” her leg, and a gibbon to make her husband's hand heal, only to then meet these deities who have claimed to come to life, which she disavows as “crazy” in a scene with provocative postcolonial humor; the meditation guru who professes that we “think too much,” identifying this frenzied activity with dreaming, “we can’t stop the dreams any more than the thoughts,” and then claims to be capable of curing AIDS with meditation; the random, intentionally laughable falling asleep of the townsfolk who are said to be possessed by the dead soldiers dug up in the graveyard; the psychic who claims to read the minds of the sleeping soldiers, and who is said to have been offered a job by the FBI, which she rejected because she wanted to “serve her country” instead; the same psychic leads Jen through an invisible palace that she wanders with ironic disbelief. Jen tells the psychic that she thinks she is dreaming and she would like to wake up, to which the psychic replies “just open your eyes wide.” But she cannot overcome the sense of unreality inherent in her reality. The excess of her self-awareness that keeps her from being content with such a boring reality, like a cat staring into a void, appears not as an excess of creative potential, but of a lack, an alienation that seems superfluous to such an unbearably bare life. Instead of the now popular hailing of a blurring of the boundaries between reality and imagination, a confusion which always implicitly favors the latter, she is witness to a negation of both. The psychic urges Jen to simply indulge in unreality, in the fictions of tradition, to imagine “the green rice fields, the rivers full of fish.” Jen replies, “I see things clearly now [...] In the heart of the kingdom, outside the rice fields, there’s nothing.”
Posthistory, Agamben professes, “necessarily entails the reactualization of the prehistoric threshold” (2004: 21), a prehistoric animality returning distorted in the figure of bare life. “Paradise,” this petite bourgeois plateau, “calls Eden back into question:”
Do we not see around and among us men and peoples who no longer have any essence or identity—who are delivered over, so to speak, to their inessentiality and their inactivity—and who grope everywhere, and at the cost of gross falsifications, for an inheritance and a task, an inheritance as task ? [...] The traditional historical potentialities—poetry, religion, philosophy—which from both the Hegelo-Kojevian and Heideggerian perspectives kept the historico-political destiny of peoples awake, have long since been transformed into cultural spectacles and private experiences, and have lost all historical efficacy. Faced with this twilight, the only task that still seems to retain some seriousness is the assumption of the burden—and the “total management”—of biological life, that is, of the very animality of man. Genome, global economy, and humanitarian ideology are the three united faces of this process in which posthistorical humanity seems to take on its own physiology as its last, impolitical mandate. (78-9)
Without tradition to inherit, nor the task of its transmission, Jen finds herself living the waking version of the soldier's bare life. Her tradition is reduced to spectacle, her life reduced to consumption in the theater and the market shown in the film.
The most sublime scene of the film is a serene shot of clouds passing by a sun that illuminates its edges. The scene is shot from a perspective detached from character, narrative, or place. One imagines that this is what Adorno must have seen as the silver lining on those dark clouds of history. But this beatitude is disturbed by an amoeba floating on the screen as if on an iris. This form of life does not see the beauty above, as the lark does not see the sky it soars through. We are confronted with the mystery of the simply living being, a being more uncanny than that Edenic animal awash in intimacy.
Bare life is that which is abjected from those forms of life defined by their excess beyond natural necessity. Rather than seek a return to some phantasmatic animality, an animality that is never as pure as it seems, our task seems to be to affirm this negation. What remains to be thought is “a life inseparable from its form” (see Agamben 2016) insofar as it immanently maintains an indissoluble (non)relation to that death which at once separates this form-of-life2 from itself, and unites itself through this very separation: singular in its constitutive split, a recognition of a death indifferent to life that formally marks this form-of-life as different than those forms of life without an anticipation of such an annihilating death unbound from a transcendent beyond. Such a death is not an abstract negation of natural necessity, but is rather immanent thereto.
Once again, if there is anything redemptive in this embrace of the irredeemable, it is to be found in Walter Benjamin’s nihilism:
[...] in happiness, all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in good fortune is its downfall destined to find it. [...] To the spiritual restituto in integrum, which introduces immortality, corresponds a worldly restitution that leads to the eternity of downfall, and the rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also its temporal totality, the rhythm of messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing, even for those stages of man that are nature, is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism. (qtd. in Agamben 1999: 145)
With this we may walk through life as a cemetery of splendour.
Image credit: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Cemetery of Splendor (2016) © Kick the Machine Films