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Seeing the Future in the Present Past

Siobhan Lyons perceives the flow of history in terms of organic growth and decay.

“This is the lesson that history teaches: repetition.”
Gertrude Stein

Down the end of the street where I used to live in Melbourne there was an old house that became abandoned. For the longest time the house went through varying stages of decay, with boards put up over the windows, graffiti on the walls, and weeds obscuring the litter left behind by the teenagers who would frequently loiter inside the abandoned structure.

Our contemporary obsession with modern ruins, ambiguously dubbed ‘ruin porn’, has a tendency to trivialise the importance of such sites, which appear out of phase with our normal experience of the present. In her book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2015), historian Kate Brown talks instead of ‘rustalgia’ (cf nostalgia). For Brown, while some people speak of their ‘lustful’ attraction to such sites, “others will speak in mournful tones of what is lost, what I call rustalgia” (p.149). Rustalgia both transforms and transports us, underpinning the more philosophical elements of these places, while ‘ruin porn’ makes them into nothing more than objects to gape at. She thinks her term and what it draws attention to will help us understand how “sketchy is the longstanding faith in the necessity of perpetual economic growth.”

Focusing On The Future

Contemporary ruins such as those found in Detroit or Chernobyl attract thousands of ‘ruin tourists’, many of whom are attempting to engage with the existential threat these sights arouse. Modern ruins become a way of time travelling into the future within the present, giving us insight into what life may be like without us, and inspiring in us a kind of paranoia. Signalling the eventual decay to which we will all succumb, contemporary ruins inspire fascination and fear, a furious denial of our immortality, and a wary flirtation with death. These sights are fascinating to us because they prompt our asking about our place in the overarching narrative of history.

Although a fascination with the future is not unique to our time, we have increasingly focused on it; as Arthur C. Clarke once remarked: “This is the first age that’s ever paid much attention to the future, which is a little ironic since we may not have one.” Modern ruins offer us a glimpse into our future. As scholar Jason McGrath argues: “The posthuman gaze at modernist ruins reminds us that, no matter how many new objects we produce, consume, and discard, those objects will in many cases far outlive us and the purposes to which we put them.” Part of our sense of denial and resistance to modern urban ruin is because of its drastic implications regarding our everyday efforts. Thus sights of decay and abandonment provoke strong resistance in us not so much because we have a fear of death, but because we have a fear of insignificance – they remind us that we will not be remembered in the long term, especially once decay becomes a permanent feature of the global landscape. As author Alan Weisman notes in his book The World Without Us (2012), we have an “obstinate reluctance to accept that the worst might actually occur” (p.3). Writer Roy Scranton makes a similar claim when he says that “we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight [death] till the very last hour”, so that “much of our energy is spent in denial” (Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, 2015, p.90). Hence denial is very much a part of our relations with ruins. We find ourselves moved by these sites almost in an effort to make peace with what they ultimately signify. This is particularly true when visiting modern ruins that have been ruined by disaster or by economic downturn.

Abandoned Dadipark ride
Abandoned Dadipark ride
© P.J.L. Laurens 2009

The Poignancy of Abandoned Theme Parks

Abandoned amusement parks are even more poignant and disconcerting in the absence of the lights and sound that once signalled their life. America’s Land of Oz, Germany’s Cold War-era Spreepark, and Japan’s Takakanonuma Greenland in the Fukushima district, have all been abandoned and have subsequently decayed; but in their ruin they continue to attract a growing number of visitors. Why, exactly, is this the case? Why does the abandoned amusement park become a more powerful image in its sparseness?

Firstly, there is a modest mythology that encircles the amusement park, constructed to be a modern dreamscape, epitomising human enjoyment. Its abandonment, therefore, signals a reversal of this dynamic, becoming a site of radical anachronism, and thus perfectly symbolising the natural process of human death and decay. Secondly, whether operational or not, amusement parks resonate on a nostalgic level, and this nostalgia is amplified in the amusement park’s decay since that nostalgia no longer has an outlet. Australian writer and blogger Vanessa Berry wrote of touring around Sydney’s abandoned Magic Kingdom theme park, “In these abandoned places it is easy to imagine oneself to be one of the last humans alive, picking over the remains of a civilisation. Modern ruins are the delight of urban explorers, who enjoy the sense of finding value in what others have discarded. Abandoned theme parks are particularly resonant places” (‘Magic Kingdom’, Mirror Sydney, 2012). She also observes that amusement parks were “dreamlike from their conception… To explore the rusting rides, bright paint faded, is to be inside a metaphor of lost childhood innocence.” American scholar Mark Pendergrast, moreover, speaks of the separation from reality that amusement parks provide, noting that Coney Island, the New York City neighbourhood with its own amusement area, “revelled in illusion. In the distorting mirrors of its funhouse, everyday reality was suspended” (Mirror Mirror, 2003, p.253). When we visit decaying amusement parks, however, reality comes rushing back with unrestrainable force.

When such places are closed down and left to ruin we can no longer take solace in the illusion of immortality that these parks strive to promote when operative. But more than our engagement with our own mortality, again, these ruins disrupt our standard conventions of time and history. They work to dislocate the relationship between the past and the present, incorporating both the past and the future, the dead past existing simultaneously alongside living architecture. While authors, artists, directors and poets have always attempted to depict the aesthetic nature of the future and the possibilities of apocalypse, modern ruins show that we may already be there. As artist Tong Lam beautifully but simply notes, “In a way, we are already post-apocalyptic.” (Abandoned Futures, 2013). Indeed, when we talk of social destruction, we almost always do so hypothetically, situating the end within the future rather than in the present time; but as environmentalist David Suzuki put it in a 2007 interview: “The future doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is now and our memory of what happened in the past. But because we invented the idea of a future, we’re the only animal that realized we can affect the future by what we do today.” (Canada.com).

Progressing the Idea of Progress

If we as a global civilisation are already in the midst of our own ruin, what does this tell us about progress? For one, that progress is not, as is widely believed, irretrievably linked to the future, or to newness.

According to ‘technological determinists’, not only does technology supposedly drive history, but what’s new is better than preceding technologies, thus linking newness to progress. By this logic, digital downloads are superior to vinyl records; word processors are better than typewriters; and digital cameras are better than film-based analogue ones. Yet although an object may be technically improved, this is not necessarily an improvement in terms of its creative capabilities. In fact, the more technologically improved the gadget, the less effort required on our part to create art, meaning human creativity is often actually compromised. So what we are seeing is rather newness masquerading as progress. Yet typewriter usage – alongside that of vinyl and analogue photography – is on the rise, while some people and organisations never relinquished them, defying the logic of technological progress. While the image of a hipster sitting with a typewriter in Starbucks might appear chronologically inaccurate, the fact that many people continue to use typewriters does not, I believe, signal a regression, but in fact reframes the argument to favour the notion of intellectual rather than technological progress, showing that technology and intelligence are not one and the same. Yet the general narrative about the continued use of typewriters and other supposedly ‘anachronistic’ technologies is that this is backward, outdated, and strange, just like our obsession with ruins. But for a number of authors, a typewriter is actually superior to digital technologies. British author Will Self, for instance, says that the typewriter forces his mind to slow down and to process thought more efficiently, rather than having his thoughts scattered by the PC. As journalist Neil Hallows writes, “the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head” (‘Why Typewriters Beat Computers’, 2008). Such thoughts give credence to William Faulkner’s idea that “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.” Certain memorabilia can have a present function, defying the logic of linking objects to a certain time and place and discarding them with the momentum of history.

The Organic Nature of History

Dadipark entrance
Entrance to the abandoned Dadipark in Belgium

For many, history follows a linear development: there is to all things a beginning, middle, and end, and we can differentiate between each period.The plethora of ruins and the widespread use of old technology paints a picture of society not retreating into an antiquated era, but rather, proceeding nonlinearly. They show us that progress is not straightforward, and can be seen less as historical, and more as intellectual.

Instead of a linear pattern of history, what we actually see is that it has what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) calls a rhizomatic (rootlike) structure. With typewriters and decay existing alongside digitisation and growth, our understanding of progress becomes more about intellectual linearity, so that our ideas define and shape progress, rather than technologies and events in sequential time. That is, while we can’t conclusively say what history is, we can at least say what history is not: that it is not technological, and not straightforwardly chronological. Or if we talk about chronology, we need to do so through the lens of intellectual history rather than the history of objects.

But as Gertrude Stein points out, if history (not the chronological phenomenon, but our knowledge of that phenomenon) teaches us anything, it is that, paradoxically, repetition is almost a necessary aspect of cultural evolution. Of course, this makes it difficult to tell whether our own woes and complaints about the times differ in any meaningful way from those of earlier generations: whether there is more truth to our own fears for the future than to theirs – especially when we consider the similarities of discontent across centuries. Perhaps the only constant in the history of life is disillusionment with change. As Pyotr Voyd, the central character of Victor Pelevin’s novel Buddha’s Little Finger (1999) says, “we are descendants of the past. The word signifies movement downwards, not upwards. We are not ascendants” (1999, p.34).

This seems to be a manner in which we constantly frame history. For instance, we constantly ask of our society: are we getting stupider? Worried researchers tells us so; but then Socrates is said by Plato to have stated 2,400 years ago: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” We have more or less the same concern in the twenty-first century about the younger generations and their poor grammar, flagrant antisocial behaviour, and obsessive use of technology. We are also told to prepare for the book’s demise at the hands of the internet; but then, Victor Hugo expressed the same fears for the demise of architecture at the hands of the book; while Samuel Taylor Coleridge criticised the novel for impairing memory. As Jill Lepore puts it, “Every age has a theory of rising and falling, of growth and decay, of bloom and wilt: a theory of nature.” (‘The Disruption Machine’, The New Yorker, June 2014).

So is there any particular importance to our own cultural anxieties, or are they merely part of an inevitably repeating pattern? Is it simply that our own fears have been more easily voiced and disseminated via more efficient technologies? Is there any truth to our discontent that separates us from earlier centuries – thereby legitimising our fears – or is it simply part of one consistent, shared concern that is part of the same evolutionary matrix, in which history is not a thing divided but a continuous, uninterrupted stream of sameness – in which a distinction between time periods is all but illusory?

Historical Deleuzion

Gilles Deleuze is a particularly useful philosopher to employ here. Deleuze discusses a phenomenon he calls ‘difference within repetition’. For Deleuze, “life itself is described as a dynamic and active force of repetition producing difference” (Adrian Parr, Deleuze Dictionary, 2010, p.225), and in repetition there is the ‘possibility of reinvention’, for although we repeat, we do not uniformly repeat. Thus within a cycle of occurrences we can see subtle deviations emerging in a pattern perhaps mistaken as pure monotony. For instance, we still show all our fears regarding the state of our intellects – but in slightly different ways as our concerns move from one technology to another.

Hence we should not worry that many are returning to typewriters in lieu of their supposedly more sophisticated alternatives, because this demonstrates a rebellion against the rigid order of time; that is, with the expectations of behaviour and actions supposedly befitting one’s time. Perhaps we should laud those who retreat into such ‘anachronistic’ technologies, and ridicule those who unthinkingly pursue novelty. As Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out, the philosopher needs to be out of phase and at odds with their own time, and should ideally be “a person of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow… his enemy has always been the ideal of today” (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, p.106). For Nietzsche, the philosopher’s task lies in “being the bad conscience of their age.” In this sense, the philosopher, the writer, the artist, and the poet, are called to be women and men outside their time. For Victor Pelevin, there are those who adapt to change – those who essentially change with the times; those who anticipate change, adapting to it more quickly as a result; and those who make change “by creeping across to occupy the quarter from which they think the wind will blow. Following which, the wind has no option but to blow from that very quarter” (Generation P, 1999, p.36). Our task is to occupy that quarter.

When I think of the dilapidated house on my old street, the very concept of economy, or of culture, evaporates. On the face of it there appears to be a clear and discernable difference between the decaying house and the vibrant one next to it. But they belong to the same matrix of existence, because all things that are made are always already in the process of ruin. Progress is falsely understood as a resistance to ruin; but in that we neglect the fact that progress exists alongside ruin – that all the contradictory forces of time are occurring simultaneously. Just as this house sinks into the earth, so too will the one beside it, eventually. This recognition helps us disobey the conventions of time – hence our blatant engagement with modern ruins; hence our continued use of objects and phenomena some consider obsolete. These anachronistic elements force us to engage with phenomena before and beyond our own time in an effort to challenge the present. We may then be invited to see history as something chaotically overwhelmed by the struggle between the past, present and future, all within the same space. And only once we understand how time really operates and how to use elements outside of our own time effectively will we begin to understand the true nature of progress.

© Siobhan Lyons 2017

Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar at Macquarie University, where she earned her PhD in media and cultural studies.

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