- April 18, 2019
“Something’s missing.” –Bertolt Brecht
As the adage goes, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This is what the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher further articulated in his diagnosis of capitalist realism—a catch-all term referring to a variety of processes through which capitalism instantiates itself as the only possible society, a reality that can only be adjusted to rather than changed. He also wryly describes this state of affairs elsewhere as “business ontology.” The neoliberal suppression of the legacy of ’60s and ’70s countercultural radicalism, with its hopeful sense of time and plastic sense of reality, has been largely successful, robbing us of our very capacity to imagine a different way of life. Any coherent sense of imminent change, let alone progress, has disintegrated, yet one cannot shake the feeling that this is not the future we wanted. History remains “stuck” in an eternal present while the ever-intensifying onslaught of images and screens continues to saturate the simulation of everyday life. The future has disappeared.
The future’s slow cancellation and systematic dismantling of the utopian impulse is recognizable in all areas of cultural production, including architecture. Fredric Jameson characterized the cultural logic of late capitalism as the endless repetition and recycling of old styles, with a concomitant sense of historical depthlessness. What music critic Simon Reynolds terms “retromania” in popular music is also an instantiation of this postmodernist postmortem, with creativity today often denoting little more than a clever reproduction. With the arrival of mass-consumer society, Guy Debord argued that the history of social life can be understood as the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The precession of simulacra is upon us. To escape this stalemate, it is not only a matter of urgency for us to envision new, as-of-yet unknown futures, but also to critically remember previously dreamt futures that have been forgotten—lost futures, “futures past.” As epitomized by lifestyles projected in archaic cultural artifacts such as The Jetsons, the once commonly-held notion that new technologies would liberate us from the necessity of labor and replace it with a quasi-utopian state of leisure appears to us now as satire. The futuristic has become retro, and we all work for Facebook.
“At the very beginning Thomas More designated utopia as a place, an island in the distant South Seas. This designation underwent changes later so that it left space and entered time. Indeed, the utopians, especially those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, transposed the wishland more into the future. In other words, there is a transformation of the topos from space into time.” –Ernst Bloch, in conversation with T. W. Adorno
Architecture is a discipline in which the future is explicitly negotiated against the past. As implied in the relationship of a blueprint to time, it is by definition the not-yet-built, the not-yet-become, the Not-Yet. If we do not feel at home in this world, can we create one anew? We are reminded here of Marx’s remark that the architect is distinguished from the bee by the fact that the human architect erects her structure first in the imagination. In architecture, we can find a concrete attempt to grasp what the utopian critical theorist Ernst Bloch¹ described as Heimat (“homeland”): a place we have never been, yet would feel at home. At the same time, Bloch reminds us that utopia may not be a singular, preexisting telos or end, but an autopoietic process that is constantly generating the waking dream of a better life in response to our historically specific desires. According to this view, the yearning for the good life is as natural to human beings as our hunger for food— predicated on a lack. Utopia is thus a reflection in the mirror, for every criticism of our present situation necessarily implies its imagined negation.
When challenged to summarize his philosophy in a sentence, Bloch is said to have replied “S is not yet P.” Being a purely speculative, even unintelligible future, post-capitalism is the black swan at the end of history.² As a point in time which lies beyond the horizon of our historical consciousness and yet must be anticipated, the belief in its arrival begins to resemble something like religious faith; as Walter Benjamin reminds us, it is only for the sake of the hopeless that we have been given hope. A young Karl Marx wrote mystically in an 1843 letter, betraying his debt to Hegel’s Idealist philosophy: “the world has long since dreamed of a matter, of which it must only possess the consciousness in order to possess it in reality.”³ I would like to suggest that nowhere is this precarious causal relationship between idea and reality, between Zeitgeist and material culture, more apparent than in architecture. We must draw the blueprint for a better life.