Royal Holloway, University of London
The contemporary notion of an ‘end of history’ is hardly a new one. According to Mike Featherstone, the French philosopher and mathematician Antoine Augustin Cournot was the first to use the phrase (in 1861) to signify what, for the most part, it continues to mean to us today: the end or conclusion of historical process—the culmination of progress—in the perfection of society and culture. Of course, this idea has its roots far earlier than the mid-nineteenth century, in texts such as Thomas More’s Utopia. More recently Francis Fukuyama’s texts of (neo)liberal triumph, “The End of History” and The End of History and the Last Man, popularised the phrase. Fukuyama’s writing, so epitomic of the western victory cries that sounded from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the incipience of the global War on Terror, seems a world away now. With that said, the ‘end of history’ mentality, the notion of “the finally achieved correct understanding of actual conditions subsisting always and everywhere” (Engels), has a long duration across time, from the nineteenth century “illusion of the eternity and finality of capitalist production” (ibid.) to the depictions of uninterrupted corporate hegemony which abound in contemporary literature and film, such as the megacorporations of Blade Runner 2049 and the billionaire dreams of cryonic immortality in Don DeLillo’s Zero K. It’s increasingly difficult to think up alternatives to the present state of affairs and feel convinced by what we’ve imagined (Mark Fisher’s term “capitalist realism” encapsulates this quandary). Rightist dissenting positions in contemporary politics are retrograde, finding alternatives to the status quo only in the barbarism of the past; hence the fashion for fascism. To espouse a notion of history coming to an end involves a desire to name and own this ending and thus, at the deepest level of inherence, a stake in the notion of historical progress, in a temporal experience which is fundamentally linear and causal, leading towards some final culmination. The issue we face today is that history appears to have ground to a halt–for both the privileged and the deprived, the primary shifts of experience are quantitative–and yet events, violences, disasters continue to take place with overwhelming speed. Indeed, the notions of decline and catastrophe appear to exist in harmony with history’s end, rather than in tension.
** “That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe.” (Arcades N9a, 1) **
It’s hard not to be pessimistic, to occupy the inchoate position of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, helplessly regarding the piling up of wreckage behind them whilst at the same time being driven inexorably into the ‘progressive’ future. Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion depicts a future Earth in which the Communist Party and the Catholic Church constitute a unified world order, a futuristic reimagining of Nixon’s America in which the latent content of society, the police state, has become its determining principle. In the novel, Satan (or, perhaps, Nixon) speaks to the protagonist as the sinister voice of historical finality: “Nothing has changed and nothing is different. You could not escape it then and you cannot escape it now.” It’s no wonder that some of the most enduring metaphors for the current moment enlist the imagery of undeath: necrocapital, zombie labour. In the USA, Donald Trump operates along the same syntagmatic plane as the educated, jadedly memeing youth of the country. In London, seemingly public space is increasingly managed according to the preferences of its private ownership (Guardian Cities). The homeless are an increasingly present sight, yet excluded from appearing within society, a contradiction neatly encapsulated by the automated voiceovers on the tube that announce the presence of “beggars and buskers” (homelessness as illicit labour) precisely in order to dismiss them from consideration. The most overtly present symptoms of suffering are necessarily excluded from appearance because, as Debord puts it, the Society of the Spectacle says that “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” such that “The attitude that it demands […] is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility” (Thesis 12).
These strands arose variously over the course of the second day of this past summer’s annual London Literary Society conference. During the first afternoon session, Joan Chang (National Taiwan Normal University) asked an astute, difficult question: why did the vast majority of the papers and discussions at the conference focus on unprivileged parts of London, on areas, stories and individuals mired in obscurity and/or deprivation? It’s always extremely interesting when someone cuts so close to the bone of what is taken for granted. In general, literary academia has a bias towards what is unknown or uncelebrated within normative social discourse. It makes sense, of course. As scholars, we are drawn towards discovery, and as intellectuals, there is a desire to undo the violence of official narratives of culture and history. It’s possible too that some part of this tendency is based in the guilt which comes from receiving the privilege of education and the accompanying self-awareness of educatedness as privilege. My own contribution to the discussion was to raise what struck me a key difficulty, namely the glittering sheen surrounding the world of appearances that is the life of the extraordinarily wealthy, particularly in a metropolis so permeated by the flow of global capital. (In connection to this, conference guest Vic James (author of The Gilded Cage) mentioned her work on the BBC Two documentary The Super-Rich and Us.) How can academic discourse penetrate such a veneer? Spectacular appearance is the opposite of the object of scholarship: the image of the real, what is excluded from appearance.
Joan and I spoke on the same panel later that afternoon, shortly after Caroline Edwards’ excellent keynote lecture. The talk I gave was about cities in William Blake and Walter Benjamin, and in particular about how for both of them the metropolitan environment enables a breaking away from conventional ways of thinking. The notion of appearance was significant to both writers, who considered the nature of our experience to be determined by our relationship with what we perceive. In Blake and Benjamin’s work, the boundary between symbolism and materiality breaks down; indeed, the objects of material life become imbued with a symbolic quality which nonetheless retains the trace of their position within complex cultural and economic networks.
** “Every thing possible to be believed is an image of truth” (Marriage Plate 8) “Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it” (Arcades N3, 1) **
My argument was that the metropolis constitutes a shifting plane of urban microcosms in their work, and enables a break from a linear, causal understanding of historical time—history as written by the victors, as it were—entering instead “the crystal of the total event” (ibid. N2, 6). In other words, there’s an interrelation of restrictive modes of perception & subjectivity and grand narratives of historical progress. Part of Blake and Benjamin’s strategy operates via attention to aspects of human experience prohibited from appearing in such accounts of history—what Blake names “minute particulars” in Jerusalem. To put it in spectacular terms, the figments of experience that are unable to ever appear in the world of the advertising poster.
Blake’s London exists as a multiplicity of objects, ideas and spaces, possessing multiple names, each reflecting a different state of existence: Golgonooza, Bowlahoola, Jerusalem, Babylon, Allamanda, Entuthon Benython. Each of these locations is a type of London, but also a not-London, much as the city itself constitutes a diversity of possibilities. Categorical, coherent mapping within time and space is not an option. Similarly, Benjamin’s Arcades Project is a non-linear chronicle of the nineteenth century read through the lens of Paris’ arcades. For Benjamin, the arcades were a dream space in which the desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie coalesced as objects. His fascination with these spaces was in part due to their quality of liminality, as threshold territories between street and intérieur. The Benjaminian flâneur is a street-goer who reads across orthodox historicism, encountering in the sidestreets of the present day a vanished time. The Arcades Project shares a common goal with Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, attempting to create an unpredictable, constellatory historiography which disrupts the “homogeneous empty time” (Theses XIV) of official history. Crucial to this transformation-as-process is the blasting away of epochal sequence, charging moments of the past with the time of the now, so as to encapsulate “the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment” (ibid. XVIII). Benjamin refers to this process as “chips” or “splinters” of Messianic time (ibid. A). In Blake’s Milton, the continuum of linear historical time is disrupted in several ways: via the planar multiplicity of the text’s London(s), in the titular poet’s return to Ulro (the fallen world of experience) on the cusp of the French Revolution, in a wrestling bout he subsequently engages in with the control freak demiurge figure Urizen on the banks of the Old Testament Jordan. Milton’s presence in Ulro signals an impending Messianic break in history, bringing with it the restoration of lost time: “Six Thousand Years/Are finishd […] for not one Moment/Of Time is lost, nor one Event of Space unpermanent/But all remain: every fabric of Six Thousand Years/Remains Permanent” (Plate 24).
Milton ends with events poised at the cusp of a forthcoming revolution—one both spiritual and political—a radical break in the now that is located in the yet-to-come. That contradiction is by no means incidental to the process it describes. Part of Benjamin’s imaginative brilliance was that he conceptualised the transformation of thought and experience not in terms of movement but rather as a pause or interruption: “Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly comes to a stop in a constellation saturated with tensions, it gives that constellation a shock, by which thinking is crystallized as a monad” (Theses XVII). Object, appearance and idea break down in a sudden, shocking moment of awakening, in which a new image or perspective of experience can coalesce or crystallise. In the discussion at the end of the panel, Caroline—who is a keen scholar of Benjamin as well as of Ernst Bloch—asked me a searching question. Neither of us remembers her exact wording, so instead I can offer a paraphrase which represents what I felt she was saying. In other words, this is what I imagined from Caroline’s actual question:
“If the Benjaminian monad is a cessation of movement, how, then, can we as scholars think through it? How can we introduce motion into this idea, so as to see a way into the praxis it demands?”
As it often tends to be, there wasn’t enough time to properly talk through such a difficult consideration. As a scholar of Science Fiction, I find the query to be particularly pertinent, as it’s asking what happens to thinking, reading, writing at the point when experience exceeds the boundary of available concepts–or, perhaps, exceeds the ‘now’ of present thinking. I would call it something like “the radically new,” but “the new” is a phrase which frequently has a weak relationship with the current moment. “New” is a thoroughly spectacular word. Benjamin’s notion of the monad or “dialectical image” is one permeated with destructive force.
To return to Caroline’s question as I understood it, there are two key points to address:
- What happens to thinking after it has come to a halt?
- How can an answer to (1) have a sufficient, worthwhile relationship with action?
Benjamin’s notion of an “arrest” of thinking is necessary because it slams the breaks on relentless productive forward motion of the storm called progress. Acceleration as the basis of (hyper)capitalist reality is something that has been written about by Benjamin Noys and Paul Virilio, amongst others. At the same time, our concepts of action are predicated on some form of movement. The status quo, invested as it is in the relentless accumulation of capital, embraces a contradiction, as we experience our lives in the twenty-first century as increasingly empty and homogeneous, characterised by a deathly stasis. This is the predicament described by Debord, in which any act of resistance is ultimately incorporated into the Spectacle’s skein. In The Arcades Project Benjamin cites Surrealism as both inspiration and a reference point of inadequate process, writing in entry N1, 9 that Louis Aragon’s shortcoming was to remain mired in dream, whilst the goal of Benjamin’s project was to synthesise dream and waking consciousness in the moment of awakening. Thinking comes to a halt in the instance of becoming awake, and it is not a moment of paralysis but rather one of tremendous energy. (Entry N3, 4 likens The Arcades Project to splitting the atom.) In other words, an “arrest of happening” (Theses XVII) is not a stasis, because it is the moment of waking from the dream. Interruption, a halt in motion, is not a cessation of force. Considered differently, if you cut the continuity in a film (rewrite the Burroughsian reality script), that doesn’t produce stasis. What the monad engenders is a different kind of movement, one which cognitive thinking will tend to elide. In Benjamin’s writing, this movement arises through the “splinters of messianic time,” as an action required by crystallisation: “If the object of history is to be blasted out of the continuum of historical succession, that is because its monadological structure demands it” (Arcades N10, 3).
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve yet reached a satisfactory response to the question. My instinct would be to say that the form of movement associated with “dialectics at a standstill” (ibid. N3, 1) can be located across a wide, inconsistent selection of texts and readings. Milton includes Blake’s description the threshold between episteme and world—the breakdown point of the dominant order of appearances—as a vortex (Plate 17), a tableau of personal transformation envisioned as a fulfilled moment of the now, imbued with force and energy. I would argue that the Blakean vortex is monadological, a nexus where rational cognition comes to a halt, and yet it is hardly stationary. Another relevant concept here would be anamnesis, both in connection to Benjamin’s citation of Proustian mémoire involontaire as well as to Blake’s poetry. It’s also a very important idea in Philip K. Dick’s work, and I’m hoping to knit together several of these strands in my own research. I suppose the last thing to say is that I am tremendously grateful to the LLS, and glad that I participated in the conference. If anyone wants to discuss any of these ideas with me, please do get in touch via my online Holloway research profile (which you can find if you Google my name). Otherwise, I’ll see you all next summer.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
— “On the Concept of History” in Selected Writings Volume 4 1938-1940
William Blake, Milton: A Poem in Two Books
— The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
Friedrich Engels, letter to Mehring, July 14, 1893
Mike Featherstone, “Global and Local Cultures” in Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change
Francis Gene-Rowe is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis focuses on William Blake and Philip K. Dick, and ties into his wider interest in texts which posit transformed concepts of time, language, and world. He co-directs the London Science Fiction Research Community, and was the recipient of the 2017 SFRA Student Paper Award.