The past, as George Orwell knew, is infinitely flexible. Given sufficient power, brutality, and time, you can have any history you like, sending the inconvenient bits down the memory hole and inventing new pasts as necessary. You hire a few of Stalin’s air-brush artists, a Howard Zinn or two, and you are set to create your own history. It’s the future that we are stuck with.
Two exhibitions in New York this season revisit memories of futures past: Nam June Paik’s “Becoming Robot” (which will be at the Asia Society until January 4) looks to a cybernetics-obsessed midcentury avant-garde, while the Guggenheim’s “Reconstructing the Universe” show of Italian futurist works (which has just closed) documented a movement that, while aesthetically quite distinct from Paik’s, is organized around the same essential vision: man’s aspiring to the condition of machine.
Paik was born in Seoul and educated in music in Tokyo and then Munich, where he encountered Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Paik became interested in conceptual art, especially in the artistic potential of television, and, this being the early 1960s, inevitably relocated to New York. His work is mostly sterile, some of it the sort of thing that even conservatives attempting to parody the self-indulgence of conceptual artists would never think to invent: a silent video of the artist banging on a piano, while a nude woman, standing on the piano, stomps on his head to keep time; “TV Bra for Living Sculpture,” which is exactly what it sounds like, that being a woman (his frequent collaborator, the cellist Charlotte Moorman) with miniature television screens covering her breasts; the similarly predictable “TV Penis.”
There are occasionally clever pieces: A seated Buddha contemplates a television-and-camera set-up that contemplates him back, the Buddha and his image on the screen suggesting an infinite feedback loop. A reclining Buddha stretches atop two television screens showing a video of a nude woman reclining in the same position. (Paik very often cuts to the root of the avant-garde sensibility: “How do we get some naked chicks in this?”) His robots are still interesting to look at, some of them primitive mechanical assemblages, some of them televisions and other electronic devices piled together anthropomorphically, though the contemporary commercially made robot toys on display for context are at least as interesting, their nameless creators liberated from such pressures as attend those who understand themselves as artists. Though it should be noted that the makers of the Micronaut robot toys I loved as a child were not entirely immune from the puerile sexual obsessions of the so-called avant-garde: This, for example, was on the market long before anybody ever exclaimed: “Drill, baby, drill!”
The Italian futurists, whose love for machines and violence and the machinery of violence and whose hatred of women would do so much to shape the aesthetics of fascism, foresaw a less sexy future than Paik’s, if one that was no less mechanical: Biplanes soar over the Roman Colosseum, cities are fitted together like clockworks, machinery everywhere is ascendant. By the time Mussolini makes his inevitable appearance, he, too, has been reduced to a piece of artillery, his face simply another item in the Italian arsenal, a big, fleshy cannonball.
One of the purposes of art, high or low, is to make visible the philosophical; the fascist understanding of society as one big factory or one big machine was expressed in futurist art. In much the same way, the 1960s crusade to simultaneously impose on American culture both ruthless political conformity and what soi-disant intellectuals wrongly imagined to be sexual liberation had no better visual representation than the Star Trek uniform: everybody in their ranks, with miniskirts in space. While other science-fiction visions have tried to visually eliminate sexual differences with silvery unitards or the aggressively unisex aesthetic of Alien, Star Trek has always kept in mind exactly who is watching these shows, as Deanna Troi’s necklines attest. The Jetsons’ cityscapes and flying cars spoke to a different vision of the future. Putting buildings on tall stalks was not the point of The Jetsons’ architecture; the belief that the United States, and perhaps all of humanity, could rise above the unpleasant, unhealthy urban conditions of the time was what enlivened that view of the world. Star Trek was a galactic U.N.; The Jetsons was a cosmic Montgomery Ward kitchen department, full of labor-saving devices for the bedraggled housewife of the 21st century.
#page#The future that came to be was in many ways both far more beautiful and far more strange than Paik, the Italian futurists, or the 20th century’s science-fiction visionaries ever imagined. The human flourishing that has been made possible by greater material abundance is remarkable, and the best of our technology approaches the sublime, nothing so ugly or childishly executed as Paik’s works or so intellectually narrow as the futurists’. But our world is in many ways less dramatic than our forebears dreamt it would be: Imagine a city composed mainly of structures such as the Chrysler Building, completed in 1930 — it would be far more “futuristic” feeling than a city composed of such characteristic 21st-century architecture as office parks or exurban residential sprawl. From the point of view of 1950, our cars and highways and trains and cities would be different but fundamentally familiar, while much of our medicine and communication technology would be indistinguishable from magic. While I am more sympathetic to Marc Andreessen’s relatively optimistic view of the future, Peter Thiel’s view — that we’ve done a great deal with bits but haven’t had comparable success with atoms — is not entirely inaccurate, either. We have a strange new ghost in an old, familiar machine.
Among those currently imagining our possible futures, one of the most persuasive is the novelist William Gibson, who, having evolved quite a bit past the man who wrote Neuromancer in 1984, can hardly be said to be imagining futures at all, with his most recent novels constituting, in his words, “speculative fiction of the very recent past,” more oriented toward social situations than technological situations. With the possible exception of David Foster Wallace, no novelist of whom I am aware has ever written with such freshness and imagination on the subject of advertising and marketing, which is a big part of what Wallace called “the texture of the world I live in.” Nor has any novelist quite so precisely identified what is sinister in our world of ubiquitous sales pitches: that something whose entire purpose is to be at the center of our attention still manages to be somehow covert. The marketing mentality is an invasive species; earnest young people now speak entirely seriously about their “personal brands” at the same time they complain about the commodification of this or that. Gibson understands the strangeness of our times, and my own mental shorthand for the odd little details one sometimes encounters, particularly in urban life, when one identifies something that is entirely ordinary and yet feels as if it were not in its right time and place, is “Feeling like I’m living in a William Gibson novel.” I spend a great deal more time feeling like I’m living in a Christopher Buckley novel, but that’s an inevitable consequence of spending so much time with political types.
As for visual depictions of the future — which are an important insight into the mind of the present — there isn’t much that is interesting these days. The Hunger Games films recycle a great deal of earlier reimaginings of Roman and ancien régime excesses; Edge of Tomorrow, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and a dozen other indistinguishable science-fiction films all seem to be set in the same place, a little planetoid called Exhaustion on the edge of an obscure solar system. And perhaps that is the right thing for an era of stagnation: We are not thinking about the future, because we believe that we are, at last, there. We have arrived, and it is underwhelming. The resurgence of comic-book superhero stories coincident with a pronounced turn toward political authoritarianism is not a happy combination.
It should not be surprising that the stagnation is more than merely economic. Most of the world’s knowledge is at our fingertips, and the world’s greatest minds are in ever-closer communication with one another. But the texture of our times is Twitter, cable-news shows, pornography, reality television, etc., and, above all, the tyranny of illiteracy. In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe lamented the transformation of visual art into a species of literature, but the Internet has given the word dominion over all, even as, in a wicked twist of what I’m going to go ahead and assume is capital-F Fate, our language itself dissipates into a million billion variations on “lulzomgwtf??!?!?!” typed by people using the opposable thumbs that they really might as well abandon, having largely given up reason and language.
“Be Here Now” means one thing in the ashram, something else on Facebook. The culture of eternal adolescence is the culture of eternal stagnation, the permanent, endless, unbearable now, no past, no future, and no present worth taking the time to understand. The Italian futurists did not get their heroes, and Paik did not get his robots — at least, not the sort of robots he had imagined. Not machines, but mechanical; not robots, merely robotic.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of the recently published The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.