Thursday, 8 August 2013


Or, Can We Salvage the Future?

[The following is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing, which forms part of my PhD research]

‘Why are there no utopias today?’ is Judith Shklar’s opening gambit in her essay, ‘The Political Theory of Utopia: From Melancholy to Nostalgia’,  a question that assumes the utopian project to be a thing of the past, a historical artefact. This view forms part of a broader narrative of utopia, dominant since the late 1960s, which attributes its disappearance to the decline of modernist narratives of collective progress and improvement. So, where did these utopian visions go? Were they banished to the convenient ‘no place’ of the word’s Greek origins? Was the unfashionable and deterministic idea of progress responsible for their fall from grace? And what, if anything, stood in their (no)place? One version of events is that by the 1970s, the unifying drive of utopia was no longer up to the task of reconciling the competing claims of minority groups in a world with increasingly global perspectives.  As the utopian project waned, the concept of collective memory began to emerge in academic discourse, with all its evocative, recuperative and inclusive potential. Offering a means of coming to terms with the events of the past in order to move forward, memory seemed like an antidote to the perceived authoritarian strain in historical narratives. The past, then, having achieved a healthy distance from the present, was once again close and familiar, no longer a foreign country, but the vehicle for societies’ shared inheritance.  This temporal manoeuvre is well documented, whereby the past, through a discourse of social remembering, is shaped and interpreted according to the present situation.  However, there is something in the latest incarnation which, under the banner of memory, speaks of a particular anxiety about the future. The renewed impetus to remember, memorialise and pass on a legacy, particularly in the sphere of culture, is underpinned by the fear that a failure to do so will perpetuate the already pervasive spectre of cultural amnesia.   Consequently, stories, sites and monuments of the past were never so popular, as much for what they represent as for what they are. But the question of what they represent now is critical; do they memorialise the glories of the past or hold the promise of the future? Is there something faintly utopian about the new and oft cited memory boom?

I want to explore this possibility further and to argue for a theory of utopia that goes beyond its status as an artefact of the modernist era. So rather than asking, as Skhlar does, ‘why are there no utopias today?’, I will not foreclose the question of utopia because it seems to me to be intimately linked to the contemporary concern with memory, borne out of a desire for the future. There is, of course, a well-established precedent for locating the utopian impulse within the realms of memory, for example, in the figure Walter Benjamin's angel of history,  or in the mixing of ‘memory and desire’  in T.S. Eliot’s opening to The Waste Land. Theodor Adorno gave a succinct expression of this relationship in Aesthetic Theory, writing ‘ever since Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis, the not-yet-existing has been dreamed of in remembrance’.  Here, memory appears as the anchor for utopia, opening up the space from which it emerges. The anchoring function of memory is significant in an age where temporal boundaries are being increasingly challenged, effecting a sense of displacement that has been noted by several cultural theorists. For instance, Zygmunt Bauman comments that, ‘due to the ‘pendulum-like’ trajectory of historical sequences a close proximity of forward and backward or ‘utopia’ and ‘nostalgia’ pregnant with confusion is virtually inevitable’.  In this regard, utopia is peculiarly relevant to my study, where the museum, that shrine to the past, is explored in its relation to digital technologies, the current symbol of the future par excellence. Furthermore, my focus is on memory, specifically the discourse of collective memory, and its uptake in discussions about preserving cultural heritage digitally. The question of digital technology is not insignificant, since it potentially re-defines the transmission of culture as the flow of information. Nor is memory a politically benign concept in the projects, press and policies that have the digitisation of cultural heritage as their goal. The central proposition is that a loss of memory is what is at stake in a failure to digitise. Yet there is an irony in making claims, in the name of memory, for a technology which, arguably, changes the nature of how we experience time. As Andreas Huyssen, claims ‘the very organization of this high-tech world threatens to make categories like past and future, experience and expectation, memory and anticipation themselves obsolete’.  The study of memorial forms also entails the study of the history of communication technologies; Paul Ricoeur’s observation that ‘what is peculiar to a history of memory is the history of the modes of its transmission’  highlights the extent to which they are inter-related. Developing this thought, Patrick Hutton adapts Walter J. Ong’s theory of media communications to broadly distinguish four modes of mnemonic representation. He links ‘orality with the reiteration of living memory; manuscript literacy with the recovery of lost wisdom; print literacy with the reconstruction of a distinct past; and media literacy with the deconstruction of the forms with which past images are composed’.  In its latest phase, the opportunities for a more reflexive engagement with memory are both obstructed and enabled by technology. While the capacity to access and interact with heritage collections are greatly increased by their presence online, the process of digitisation potentially disrupts the conventional sequence of past, present and future events, since cultural memory (that sense of the past defined through human actions or social phenomena), is not applicable to the digital archive, which has a time-based element internal to the workings of technical media.  The attendant concern is that in an environment of instant messaging and real-time updates, temporal categories will be swallowed up by an all-pervasive present. 

However, rather than allowing that this situation precludes the emergence of utopian visions, I want to examine how the utopian project is manifested in the wake of temporal crisis. Contra Huyssen who concludes that ‘there can be no utopia in cyberspace, because there is no there there from which a utopia could emerge’,  I will suggest that there is a viable account of memory, technology and utopia beyond the narrative of ‘techno-utopianism’ critiqued by many contemporary commentators. 

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