Q/A Mark Fisher
It’s not so much that we can never forget as that we are suffering from a form of memory disorder. The fleeting sense of time that was the signature of the broadcast age – when cultural moments could be replayed only in memory and dreams – has given way to a time when nothing ever really dies, and every encounter can be deferred. The question now asked of every live event: “Is there going to be a recording?”
We are haunted in a certain way by the loss of loss. What we had thought gone returns as a YouTube video. Offhand remarks we made years ago linger on social media, waiting for the moment they can embarrass us. Our era is defined by an immense archival anxiety. But this is not only about the all-too-easy availability of the past. It is also about the work of archiving the present. This frenzied activity of recording and image-generating – to call images that will only ever appear on social media “photographs” is a misleading archaism – erases the very present it aims to capture. We become the archivists of our own lives, neurotically holding our cameraphones above our heads at every live event so that the machines don’t miss a thing, though we miss everything. And what is the strange narcissistic impulse that makes us believe that there is an audience somewhere in the future who will be more interested in picking through the exponentially growing heaps of cyber-junk from our time than in archiving (or living) their own lives? Who is this vast digital archive for? Neither this future audience, which cannot seriously be expected to attend to it – but not ourselves either, since we are endlessly fixated on the next thing to be captured. This is the dialectic of cyber-time: everything beyond the near-past recedes from our attention, but it’s all still there, indelible, lurking with an infinitely patient malignancy, waiting for its opportunity. In some respects – and somewhat counterintuitively – you could say that, rather than being weighed down by a past of which we are all too conscious, we are the victims of a strange kind of amnesia. This amnesia has something in common with the condition from which the character Lenny, in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, suffers. Lenny has theoretically pure anterograde amnesia, which means that his long-term memory is intact but he is unable to manufacture new memories. The deep past remains pristine, untouchable. But, since the recent past is not retained in memory, Lenny risks repeating himself, becoming locked into infinite loops without realising it. He cannot tell if he is doing something for the first time or the hundredth time.
Back in the 1980s, Fredric Jameson argued that the postmodern was characterised by just this kind of memory disorder. The postmodern subject, Jameson claimed, experienced a breakdown in linear temporality. Instead of a narrative connecting past, present and future, there were “a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” – an experience of time, that is to say, that is strikingly similar to Lenny’s. Paradoxically, for Jameson, this sense of living in an endless now – a now disconnected from any past, and unable to reach out towards any future – partly arose because of the disappearance of cultural forms capable of articulating the present. Instead, there was an increasing, yet disavowed, reliance on the forms of the past. Hollywood films came to rely on forms from much earlier in the twentieth century such as film noir or the adventure serials of the 30s, yet this was often disguised by their contemporary settings and use of modern technology. New gadgets and up-to-the-minute special effects distracted us from the obsolete forms upon which the films were built.
Jameson’s analyses proved extraordinarily prescient, and what was an emergent trend in the 80s is now the dominant mode of the twenty-first century. It is in fact so dominant that it is no longer noticed. The ubiquity of pastiche means that the “present” is saturated with the “past” to the extent that the very distinction between the two has been eroded. Increasingly, we are induced into forgetting that what we are hearing and seeing is not new. Our expectations have been gradually but inexorably lowered. We enter into depressive time: it’s always been like this. Somehow, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this isn’t the case. Once the new was possible – and perhaps soon it will be again.
Mark Fisher is a cultural theorist, music critic and blogger who lives in London. His collection of essays Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures was published in 2014 by Zero Books, and his much-discussed essay Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? appeared (also from Zero Books) in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis.