Travelling Forward, Looking Back, Ready For The Messiah In Everythings

Sometimes you feel better than others. But, in a way, you are always looking to feel good. How do you feel good? It might depend on what you eat, your health, your relationships, your economy, your housing, your environment, the news. I think that Walter Benjamin says somewhere that all our models of happiness are drawn from previous experiences. That might sound obvious, but I think he was getting at something profoundly interesting (as he usually is), i.e. though we appear to live and progress in something like a forward motion what we are fundamentally seeking – well being or happiness – is always based on past experiences, and in this way we might also be living backwards, or perhaps travelling into the future while looking back, or even not seeing new ways to well-being and happiness because they are ‘un-re-cognisable’.

If so, is it possible to change this, to perhaps become more open to, and aware of unprecedented forms of well being and happiness, of kinds we have never experienced, and derived from surprising sources? This seems desirable and advisable. There is a lot of ‘retro’ in our culture right now. The music and cultural critic Simon Reynolds recently published a book called ‘Retromania‘, and David Edgerton another called ‘Shock of the Old‘, while Craig Staff published ‘Retroactivity in Contemporary Art‘, and I have also been publishing my own ‘Technologies of Romance‘ series. All of these publications are interested in the way we might today need to glean values from the past in a society whose future seems to have become newly curtailed or compressed.

Some years ago, the cultural critic Francis Fukuyama published a controversial thesis (largely seen as conservative and later revised) proposing that we have arrived at ‘The End of History‘ – ‘we’ of course being a convenient and largely mythical abstraction or ideal loosely referring to all citizens of the so-called ‘leading nations’. I work with young students all the time and it’s true that = according to the experience of my generation – a certain dynamic narrative of endless innovation and renewal has come to be questioned, dampened, ironicised and itself rendered mythical.

And yet, we could argue that cultural progress is taking different forms, i.e. no-longer obeying, or being perceived as, a linear model but rather – and according to our new relationship with the globe and the global – as a constant, immanent state of volatility, a chaos of constant rejuvenations, explosions of non-linear progress that inform one another but don’t have any clear or geometric form or understandable accumulative effect.

My students seem to have everything contemporary available to them along with everything of the past, in ways that I can’t recall having when I was their age. Out of these multiple ‘everythings’ they create an unprecedented present constantly jolted by events, large and small (9/11, a text message). This way of life has no apparent plan or hope to guide it, rather, its philosophy might be characterised by that millennial buzzword ‘Whatever!’. This might sound resigned, cynical and negative but in fact it is equally vigilant, open to possibility and positive.

After all, Benjamin also wrote that all those who wait for some kind of messiah (this could be Christians, Marxists, Modernists … ) need to be aware that a, or the messiah can and might appear at ANY time and at ANY place. To live in such an enlightened state, prepared for happiness, well-being, fulfilment, as well as form and meaning, at ALL times and in ALL places, may just be the best way for us to live today.


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