There is a common trope in Broadway musicals where characters who are separated by space and time, or who had been up to this moment, converge upon a common point for the onset of a certain happening. This happening is usually the main event around which the musical’s plot is centered (think “Tonight” in West Side Story, or “One Day More” in Les Miserables). It is worth noting that the unfolding of the plot after this point in the musical is usually underwhelming and feels excessively long to the audience.
Adam Curtis accomplishes a similar feat in his film Hypernormalisation (2016). Beginning in 1975, his story takes as its starting points the cities of New York and Damascus in 1975, homes of two characters that drive the film (twin Macguffins, if you like), Donald Trump and Hafez al-Assad. Even the most casual viewer can recognize the direction in which the film is going at this early point: toward the present; Curtis shows how objects from our past came to midwife our (strange, incomplete) today into existence. His masterful touch consists of constructing a detour in the narrative, thereby suggesting that there is not a direct, impenetrable trajectory from the the past to the present, so that our present feels fundamentally open.
The key scene in the film comes early on, but nonetheless “in the middle,” when Curtis invokes the unexpected fall of the Soviet Union—alongside, what was, at the time, Jane Fonda’s equally unexpected conversion from Hollywood radical to fitness video entrepreneur—as a kind of parable for the experts of our “society of control” today, who even after the most severe economic crisis since the 1930s hold onto power relatively unscathed and comfortably snug in the doxa of our time. The film cuts back and forth between Fonda’s sun salutations and footage of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu’s executions in the 1989 Romanian Revolution. “THE OLD SYSTEM WAS DYING,” reads text laid over the Ceauşescu’s bodies. “A NEW SYSTEM WAS ABOUT TO BE BORN.” By the time of the film’s closing apocalyptic-cum-farcical montage, set to the tune of Barbara Mandrell’s “Standing Room Only,” the effect Curtis produces is that we know we are now anticipating something: an event that, for the West, might be as shocking and unpredictable as was the fall of the USSR.
The contrast between the unexpected major event and stasis as the result of what seemed to be major illuminates a certain malaise of our time: either we feel that something is going to happen—that (as George W. Bush put it) it’s “going down”—but end up with a major let-down; or, we feel that nothing is happening, but since things used to happen they therefore might happen again. The experience of the let-down begets withdrawal and even timidity; knowledge of the unknown potentiality leads to undue anticipation (or, in a darker turn, fearmongering and Cassandra-ing), and if not anxiety, then a sense of certitude that will undoubtedly reveal itself to have been false or pathological, given that the perceived coming necessity is itself predicated on the undermining of a previous necessity.
Of course, there is an important difference between these two situations, in that the first clearly stages an event—precisely, of the convergence of elements into a shared reality—as a fiction while the second would not intuitively seem to have anything to do with fiction, because it is nothing but a foreward re-telling of historical events. But as Lacan famously noted, “truth is structured like a fiction,” and the conclusion of Curtis’s film does not anticipate future events as much as it creates the effect of anticipation as such. Our socio-political reality, on the other hand, produces something of the opposite effect: we not only live in the shadow of previous times—every generation does—but our present is characterized by an apparent impossibility of coming out of this very shadow. “Time heals all wounds,” some say—or, if you like, “the wounds of Spirit heal, and leave no scars behind”—and no doubt the wreckage of our past will not be the substance of the present for future generations as it evidently is for those alive today, but this history often seems positively unmournable. Or more desperately, even unforgettable.
Such a predicament has logically given way to attempts to erase events from the past altogether. It is as if it is not enough, as Sophocles wrote, to wish that one had never been born, but requires a wish for the erasure of the very conditions that gave rise to our own existence. One of the more notable and noble examples of this kind of logic is the movement in recent years to remove statues of disgraced American historical figures, Confederate and otherwise, from public spaces. This movement culminated in the August 11–12, 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and its fatal fallout, and it is worth noting that one of the chants of the white nationalists demanding that the city keep Confederate statues in place was “you will not replace us.”1
In the face of the persistence of historical evil, attempts to radically alter the historical ground of our present cannot but appear as tragic with regards to the the inertia—symbolized quite directly in the aforementioned statues—they run up against. Similarly intriguing are cases where statues that have already been condemned to a bygone past, by state policies initiated decades ago—those of Lenin in the former Eastern bloc, for example—are still standing and so have to be belatedly removed when this is noticed. It is even stranger when they appear in places seemingly unrelated to their direct historical fate, like statues of Lenin in Seattle or in New York. In such cases the random is almost, as it were, intruding upon the official history of the American Empire.
But there are also instances where the inertia of history begins, slowly but surely, to weaken, to lose its ability to keep things in their proper place, as if the force of gravity no longer remains constant in reference to historical objects. In the United Kingdom, for example, the return of socialism in the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has provoked accusations from political enemies that Labour wants to take the U.K. “back to the 1970s,” a tumultuous time in the country’s history but an at least ambiguous reference point relative to the malaise brought about by Brexit and austerity. This is particularly fascinating as Corbyn’s Labour effectively stands for an attempt not to erase, but to reverse the course of the historical victory of Thatcherism, whose greatest success may well have been convincing its enemies to accept its terms2: that it was irreversible, that “there is[/was] no alternative.”
From within the transitory perspective of the historical present in the United States, especially since the Civil Rights Movement, the irreversibility of past events, historical inertia, and the apparent impossibility of even the most subtle change in the future (other than, of course, Silicon Valley’s occultation of the future itself), it may seem as if not even earlier events—even traumatic or awful ones—matter or exert an influence on our present (the ongoing conservative erasure of the legacy of slavery attests to the existence of this position). In our daily lives, we simply follow a fully naturalized trajectory of events converted into terminable processes. It may seem, then, that appropriately calibrating our lives in relation to natural phenomena (like astrology, but there are a whole set of lifestyle practices that might fall under the category of “technology of the self”) would be the best or most relevant way of orienting ourselves in the present. Here, we are not so much caught between signifiers as reliant on the transmission of signs, something which reaches its apex in our use of telecommunication apparatuses, but is also grounded in the extrapolation of metaphors from cycles of events and processes in the natural world, including those of human biology.
Of particular interest in this context is the phenomenon of binary star systems. Earlier this year, MGMT sang about these in the song “Me and Michael” (“Binary star sink like the setting sun/ /Too happy with ourselves to notice when the change had come”). In contrast to how we usually think of the alternatives of geocentricism and heliocentricism—between the idea that the sun orbits the Earth and the idea that the Earth (as in fact it does) orbits the sun—binary star systems present a third option, where a star orbits another star, which orbits it. Whether the shared center of two bodies in a system of orbit is external to both bodies or within one of them, that center is an effect of the bodies’ mutual gravitational pull, called the “barycenter.” Beyond the mathematical “two-body problem” presented by binary stars, there is the “three-body problem,” involved in the attempt by mathematicians to model the way in which the Earth, the sun, and the Moon are gravitationally bound to each other. It was in the course of trying and failing to develop a solution to the three- (or n-) body problem that Poincaré developed the foundations of what would become deterministic chaos theory. In contemporary astronomy, most visible stars are thought to orbit other stars, forming the phenomenon of star clusters, groups of stars that are gravitationally bound with each other in a chaotic way.
Analogously, in the historical situation in which we find ourselves we see ourselves as no longer hierarchically subjected to some greater or transcendent body, yet as unable to break from processes and routines that we seem condemned to repeat indefinitely. Worse, those around us, “in our orbit,” so to speak, are caught in the same system of movement, as we look at them (looking at us) for orientation, as we are. It does not suffice to wish to break this cycle or rupture it, because we are not only in the shadow of what happened previously, but find ourselves enacting its repetition in our very attempt to deviate from it. So often when we speak of a “system” history is subsumed in advance, in its apparent capacity to circumvent all dissent or the possibility of rupture.
Subjectivity, however—unlike celestial movements—is not reducible to the relative positions of bodies. We are already aware of the various crises (ecological, economic, or otherwise) that constitute the horizon of our activity today, but our awareness of the gravity of these crises would seem to only reinforce the image of ourselves as inert bodies. For Curtis, the “hypernormalization” common to our present and the late Soviet Union consists in the fact that we are “so much a part of the system that it [is] impossible to see beyond it,” just as in the case of the binary star system metaphor. In actuality, the limit of these metaphors consists in imagining one’s self as a part of a system that is constituted by one’s own belonging to it. Historical events never repeat the same way twice, and this should lead us to consider the idea that our present might look quite different in retrospect—that is, if a new system is indeed about to be born.
- I owe this point to Daniel Tutt.
- I owe this point to Slavoj iek.