Wednesday, September 19, 2012

From Nostalgia to Utopia

The nexus of the argument of Anderson, Benjamin, and Jameson lies in how each understands either the constructed past of history or the constructed future of nationalism, utopianism, and progress as revealing of the present, or at the very least, the prevailing mindset (in Benjamin's case, that of the historical materialist).

Anderson in particular provides the connective tissue between Benjamin's "history" and Jameson "utopia" when he speaks about the rise of nationalism as a response to the declining influence of religion and an attempt to fill the void of continuity and meaning that this decline left.

"What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. . . If nation-states are widely conceded to be 'new' and 'historical,' the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future."
The past, which as Benjamin notes is not "as a cause, already a historical one, [but] becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia," is as it is constructed and imagined is perhaps one of the most potent forces in nationalism and perhaps belies at best the relative shortness of our memories, both collective and individual, and at worst a willful ignorance and manipulation. The turn of phrase "American exceptionalism" originally and mockingly coined by Joseph Stalin  is just one example of present political and nationalist forces adapting the past to their necessity and creating an imagined history in which America has always been and will always be "exceptional" and to say otherwise would be blasphemous. Put in a more witty context by Aaron Sorkin in The West Wing,
Josh: Ten words: "I will make America's defenses the strongest in the history of the world."Leo: "In the History of the world?" When we say that, are we comparing ourselves to the Visigoths, adjusted for inflation?
Just as Jameson views utopian (or dystopian) imaginings as revealing of the present state of affairs precisely because they are a product of it, this imagined past functions similarly and recognizing it as such gives rise to the space of artistic intervention that Jameson is seeking to define.

Perhaps, one last connection of Benjamin and Jameson by way of Anderson can help explain the tension between the occupy movement and those who decry class warfare as one of the most creatively productive spaces in recent memory. With guise of nationalism investing of the working class with the task of producing the unending and hopeful future of the nation, or as Benjamin puts it "the role of the savior of future generations," the actual and experienced state of affairs are pushed ever further apart as the hate of "enslaved forebears" is replaced with the hope of "emancipated heirs." The exposure of this functionality in the crisis of 2008 allowed for an opposite push and brought both extremes to attention and led to a proliferation of expressions of the present.

No comments: