Walter Benjamin once remarked that what drove men and women to revolt was not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors. Visions of future happiness are all very well; but happiness is a feeble, holiday-camp kind of word, resonant of manic grins and multicoloured jackets, not least when compared with the kind of past which, as Marx commented, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Benjamin was not wholly sceptical of the future, as Fredric Jameson points out in this monumental study. On the contrary, he discerned in it a messianic power to disrupt the present. Even so, he treats it with a certain Judaic wariness: you are forbidden to carve graven images of the future because to do so is to use it as a fetish or totem to manipulate the present. Just as you cannot name God, so you cannot put a face on his future kingdom. Speculating in futures is the opposite of Abrahamic faith. Benjamin reminded us that not even the dead are safe from Fascism, which will simply erase them from the historical record; and one might equally claim that not even the future is safe from those who envisage it as no more than the present stretching all the way to infinity. Or, as one caustic commentator put it, the present plus more options. On this view, the future has already arrived, and its name is the present.
LRB 9 March 2006 | PDF Download