I’ve been trying to reconcile these two thoughts lately…
The first comes from Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History
Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.
Divination, if done on either extreme of the futurist binary, has the potential to be a well-paid endeavor. As citizens of the U.S., we relentlessly project ourselves into that future, often with a much-lamented ignorance of the past that is seen culturally as a feature, not bug. Benjamin’s point here, I think, is that relationships to time are cultural, not essential – a host of possible reasons exist for why cultures look relentlessly backward or forward.
His example of the Torah and its instructions makes sense. As an example, consider the end-of-the-world groups who are constantly forecasting the exact date that something will happen and life on this planet will end. Benjamin’s argument makes particular sense in this case – if we spend our lives waiting for the messiah, then we have essentially done nothing with those years in between. They are “homogenous and empty” times.
The futurists of Marinetti’s Italy are another example. Past glories of ancient Rome haunting a newfound nation, perhaps, lead to a desire to ditch what is unrecoverable (ruling the known world through organizational and logistic genius) in order to hubristically imagine an Italy that embraces Rome’s power and vision while simultaneously inventing a future that is uniquely Italian and avant garde. That it is also intensely fascist is obvious, and the fact that the soothsayers did not see this inevitability is troubling.
In the U.S. we have a similar relationship with soothsayers. The imagineers of the future see either extreme order and cleanliness or unadulterated chaos, with nothing in between. They exhibit an anxiety about the present (and past) that leads us directly to the future, and their anxiety is transmitted there as well in the form of dystopic and utopic scenarios. Soothsayers make a lot of money, as assuaging our never-ending anxieties is a lucrative biz.
The second comes from Teju Cole’s “Memories of Things”.
But just as nothing can be permanently retained, nothing is ever really gone. Somewhere out there, perhaps in the cloud or in some clandestine server, is the optical afterimage of our interaction: the faces, the shoes, the texts. In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: We need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.
As someone with a foot in two national identities, Cole locates a specifically digital age phenomenon: the “memorializing impulse.” Our relationship with Benjamin’s cultural approaches to soothsayers changes (as he implies it would) to one in which our anxieties about the future are reflected in our desire to film large chunks of our lives. Posting those images on social media then produces the sort of memorials that I think Cole is talking about.
For instance, how many people, when they see the five or ten years ago tributes produced FB think to themselves, wow, I’ve come a long way since then, and I plan to go even farther? I’m guessing that most people respond to those tributes with nostalgia, reminiscence, and maybe even a little regret. The cultural moment passes…