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Modern Nostalgic Fantasies

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University. Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now […]

The following text was originally published in Modern Nostalgic Fantasies, a collection of texts about politics, virtuality, and science-fiction and their relation to a graphic design practice. All texts were written by Raf Rennie during the completion of a two-year MFA in graphic design at Yale University.

Rennie is a designer and writer from Toronto, now based in New York. He currently serves as the designer/art director of Canadian art criticism magazine C Magazine and his previous work includes select projects for Scapegoat Journal, Serpentine Gallery, TBA21, and Metahaven.

A special thanks to Jan Horčík for his typeface Atlantic.


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His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

— Walter Benjamin, about Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee

 

SOVIET SPACE MODERNITY

October 4th, 1957, Elementary Satellite 1, better known as Sputnik, broke through the barrier of our atmosphere to become the first object to originate from Earth and enter Space. The journey of Sputnik signified the end of one history of progress and the creation of a whole new one—Sputnik was a catalyst that introduced modernity to the world. I am speaking less of the means of modernity in this, than I am speaking of the space in which modernity is concerned—that, as an endlessly utopian project, is the future. Marked by its relentless order, modernity is the aim to draw rational responses to the zeitgeist and extrapolate them into a vision of the future, so we can, in present, begin to develop infrastructure to shape the future of civilization on this planet into a rational utopia. To think about the future is to be modern.

The Soviet Union was a massively modernist experiment that took over trying to structure a union of countries under a strictly rational system, that of communism. While the Soviet Union struggled to continue on, politically and economically, they managed to put together a space program and became the first nation to enter space. This was possible because the core of the Soviet project was an immense importance placed on the shaping of the future. From after, the Tsar was the image of the new Russia and with this the modern Soviet man. The Soviet Union believed that the joint project of technological advancement and exploration would become the economic and spiritual backbone that kept the union together and ahead of the rest of the world—especially ahead of the United States whom the Soviets where in a cold war with accelerating technological threats and shows of power. The future was the endgame for the new Russia.

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Left: Russian science-fiction film The Sky Calls (1959), Right: SpaceX lands rocket on drone ship (2016)

So, the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space, showing the world they were literally and figuratively on a technological and raw powerful level above the rest of the world—though Sputnik means “fellow traveler”, it was a body of a ballistic missile, a tool of war. It was the punctum, the apex, of the Soviet Union’s futurist, modernist ideal. By being the first to enter a new unexplored terrain, the Soviet said to the world the future belonged to them. It was off this fear of losing the future to Russia, that the United States founded their own space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on July 29th, 1958, nearly 11 months after Sputnik had made it to space. With NASA, the United States revitalized their modernist project that once kickstarted the American economy before the World Wars with the Industrial Age and Fordist manufacturing and economics. Thusly, the Soviet Union spread modernity back into the United States, sparking what would be considered Late Modernity. Over the next few decades the Soviet Union and the United States raced their advancing space programs aiming to be the first to put man on the moon. This space race had many implications for the nations as world superpowers, enemies, and the eventual outcome of the Cold War. However, there was a side effect of this race, the massively accelerated invention of new technologies. This acceleration drove the American economy for those decades as subsequent technologies and advancements came from the research and work being done at NASA. NASA put together a sub-part of their association called the Technology Transfer Program to showcase and explore practical applications of the strides being made when aiming for the moon. New inventions were catalogued in an annual report called NASA Spinoffs and introduced; freeze-dried food, infrared thermometers, heart monitors, LED lights, artificial limbs, and much more. These technologies fed into the American dream of the future, from this rapid growth in technology artists, designers, manufactures, all started to imagine an American future. DisneyWorld built the “World of the Future” amusement park, designers like Ray and Charles Eames showcased America’s technological utopianism at the World’s Fair, manufacturers pushed ideas of the homes, the food, the car of the future. Dreaming about the future became the galvanizing force of the whole American economy—America became modern.

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The overlay of Modernity

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THE DARK POSTMODERN AGE

July 20th, 1969, just shy of 11 years after the founding of NASA, the space mission Apollo 11 brings the first men to the moon. America’s race with the Soviets was over, the new frontier was won by the United States. The modernism passed on by the Soviet Union found a better system for itself and flourished past the Soviet communist ideal. Forward-thinking became the mantra of the “American way”, which pushed their industries and economy into unprecedented production and wealth, spurred by an unbound hubris that America could achieve anything. Through new technological breakthroughs and abundance new products would fuel American commerce while industry used the latest manufacturing technologies, or took advantage of a new age of globalization, to maximize their returns. Here began that period of Late Modernism, the utopian future thinking, joined with American style capitalism to thrive in the existence of emerging mega-corporations that saw themselves as the tools to create a new future.

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“We are ready and willing to ignite just born too late.” — Peter de Potter

As America continued in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and a hot war in Vietnam, the political left found this new American hubris to be a dangerous flag to fly. The American economy, driven by technological advancement and superiority, had led to the boom of a major thriving industry, the military-industrial complex. Corporations that lauded themselves as the builders of a better future worked with the American government and military, and their quick growth and globalization posed a threat of the exporting of American idealism and capitalism. In such, the left took opposition to this mantra of the American-way and therefore took up opposition to the future project of Modernism. As philosopher Simon Critchley put it, “we have to resist the idea and ideology of the future, which is always the ultimate trump card of capitalist ideas of progress.” The future was modern, the future was therefore capitalist, and to build a world outside of capitalism the people had to stop thinking about the future and start dealing with the reality of the present day. This thinking ushered in a movement of post-modernism, an ideology that aimed to reject the utopian promises of late modernism and remove the glossy veneer it had coated prevalent thinking with. Across America spread the notion that, in the mists of wars and a plateauing economy, spending federal money on missions to the moon was a frivolous vanity project, that was no longer needed as the United States had already claimed the moon and beaten the Soviet Union in the space race. Under growing pressure and economic difficulties, NASA’s budget was cut drastically. The last manned mission to the moon took place in December 1972 and no person has gone to the moon since.

 

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EXOPLANETARY STRUCTURES

With the end of the manned missions, NASA’s missions switched from the near frontier of our own satellite to the exploration of deep space. The late 80s and 90s usher an age of probes, telescopes, and rovers, tools that no longer focused on the immediate but set out to explore the vastness of the universe. What led was the discovery of whole new worlds and planets outside of our solar system. From being taught in schools there are nine planets we have come to learn there are solely nine in our solar system, elsewhere, in hundreds of other solar systems exist thousands of other planets, some much like our Earth—these planets are given the name “exoplanets.” As the changing thought and politics of the time seemed to push NASA aside in favour of focusing on our world, our countries, and local, tangible issues, NASA pushed back the other way, instead of looking at the local and at hand, to the very distant and unreachable. In 2004, NASA constructed the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to search deep space for new Earth-like planets—it has discovered 130 planets, a small part of the over two thousand known exoplanets in our universe. With the discovery of whole other possible worlds, solar systems, and possibly lives, Earth becomes decentralized in our understanding of the Universe.

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Construction of the James Webb Telescope, NASA’s new deep space telescope set to launch October 2018

Modernism, which looked to a singular whole, and post-modernism, which looked to act upon the present, both were eclipsed by the decentralizing of Earth within the universe. The Earth now was neither a totality, just a singularity in a vast cosmos, a planet that seems as a small pale blue dot in the night sky of another planet. Semantically, the human race no longer were the sole authors of the cosmological reality, but perhaps just a subjectivity in relation to 2,000 other planet’s realities. This model of thinking is shared, within the same vein, as the basis of an ideological, that is a predecessor to post-modernism, known as post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is an ideology that rejects singular narrative by rejecting the author as the sole authority or voice, it aims to seek out the peripheral to decentralize an idea from a singular subjectivity. The discovery of exoplanets does so on a, literally, universal scale—and such was the argument made by NASA. By exploring outwards, deep space, distant planets, dying stars, we could learn more about our own planet and existence than we could from an archeology of Earth.

Post-structuralism ushered in a model of thinking where subjectivity is everything, denying the notions of “objectivity” and “rationality” presented by modernism on the grounds that they were de-fined under a euro-centric, masculine, paradigm. Post-structuralism stands on two tendons, the first being Foucaultian anthropologies of all the standing structures we see governing in the world. The second, being more confusion, not listening to singular narratives or the belief in non-bias media, but an openness to varying voices and the proliferation of the minority’s voice, in order to disrupt any attempt at the creation of hegemonic structures.

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THE COSMOLOGICAL NEOLIBERAL

In the time of Late Modernism progress—societal and economic—was created through the aims of a singular goal. For everyone to work towards this goal they must understand each other as part of a whole, Modernism was a structure that was used to encapsulate nations and move them towards this goal. However, with emergence of Post-Structuralist thinking, the ability to maintain a super-structure is becoming challenging. The structure of Late Modernism no longer fits the public as the minority has come to view themselves in the position of being parts within the structure but not of the struct-ure, therefore they reject the goals of the structure. If the notions of progress and capitalism that Late Modernism proliferated and replicated, for its own expansion, were to continue, the fundamental structuring of those notions would have to adapt—and adapt it has.

Nearing the end of Late Modernism, before the Post-Modern moment, a collective of academics and theorists formed an inclusive society where they set themselves the goal of directing the global thinking to what they saw as a sustainable structure. The new structure would be open enough to allow multiple narratives and voices to exist in constant exchange, in fact it would be encouraged, so it could subsume political discourse within itself—for this the idea was named Neoliberalism. The specialty of Neoliberalism was a combining of Late Modernist notions of progress with Post-Modernism’s desires for locality. In place, Neoliberalism would encourage minorities and local politics but would proliferate an ethos of collectivism through it. By acknowledging all this disparity we could celebrate diverse people coming together to achieve a singular goal.

NASA, in 1998, became part of such a project, that would bring numerous people and nations together. In fact, NASA would come to work with their competitor that caused their creation and spurred on a Cold War, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and Japan whom the United States had attacked with atomic weapons fifty three years earlier. The project of the International Space Station brought together the United States (NASA), Russia (Roscosmos), Europe (The European Space Agency), and Japan (JAXA)—later on The Canadian Space Agency would join in the project as well. This International Space Station was a proving to the world, that regardless of history and politics, all kinds of people and nations could come together and work towards a better future—a wonderful case-and-point proof for Neoliberalism.

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Orbiting Neoliberal base

Diversity, the political calling card of Neoliberalism, also functions as its economic model, the freedom of choice. Late Modernism gave the world large mega-corporations that worked within a Fordist model of capitalism. Companies like IBM and Microsoft dominated the emerging technological market and ruthlessly tried to shut down competitive companies in order to maintain a monopoly. Neoliberalism instead encourages diversity, no large monopolies, but endless small companies that could be hyper-specialized to make them act at a local and global scale. This is the market of Silicon Valley and start-up culture, a womb for technology companies to build up and die out at unprecedented rates.

Within this market the investment into a singular entity is not financially sound. Why make one company to try to do everything when you can have numerous companies hyper-specialize in different areas and then bring the pieces together? It is also a way of hedging your bets, why invest everything in one pot? Diversify. Long standing entities have fallen to this new logic, even NASA. NASA is no longer seen as the one entity for the hopes of space exploration, but in the mists of smaller budgets has had to diversify and export some of its functions to smaller new companies. NASA now offers contracts to competing small companies to take over functions that NASA used to do exclusively, let delivering payloads to the International Space Station. Notably, a large portion of NASA’s contracts have gone to Silicon Valley company SpaceX, founded by the start-up veteran Elon Musk. NASA now functions as the overseer and manager of Space exploration, it is the neoliberal who brings together dispersed parts towards a singular goal.

 

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AN OLD NEW HOPE

Through the dispersed model of space exploration, NASA acts as the determinant, it defines the goal and brings various individually autonomous parts together to form relationships that work to-wards that goal. What goal is that? As a product of and the engine of Late Modernism, NASA functions through ideas of exploration and frontierism. The aims of the International Space Station as a laboratory for scientific experimentation had failed to capture the imagination of the public who could not grasp the intangible new grounds that would be made. As a result, NASA struggled on with diminishing funding. However, the new model of the Neoliberal market and the new ability for NASA to start exporting larger tasks, allowed NASA to refocus and now pull in other entities to work together towards a new goal that would spur on the public to support progress. NASA was looking for a renaissance of the golden age of Space Exploration when they were racing to the moon. The best disciple trying to bring about this renaissance of NASA is Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is known for his poetic and passionate speeches about why we need to economically support space exploration. Tyson appeals for support by evoking the technological and economic boom that accompanied the Apollo missions to the moon. To re-invigorate the space program he fantasizes manned missions to the next closest heavenly body, Mars. Mars is a tangible frontier, akin to the Moon, with new “firsts” to be made, something the public could understand and celebrate. Effectively Mars is to the current times, what the Moon was in the 1960s.

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As the ISS brought together old Cold War enemies Ridley Scott envisions space as answer to American anxiety over relations with China in The Martian (2015)

Thinking and fantasizing Mars has been around in science-fiction since the birth of the genre, but now the push to get the general public joining in has become stronger than ever. On August 6th, 2012 the Curiosity Rover successfully landed on Mars, two days later it began to send back our first images of the foreign landscape. Not since the moon had we seen another world the way we see our own. Mars was no longer something we saw through a telescope, as a dot in the sky, we did not see it as a massive distant whole, but we viewed it as we experience our own world, limited, with perspective, and a gaze that lead to a horizon line. We were no longer looking at Mars but through photographic transmutation able to experience it—images from Curiosity have now been stitched together into 360 degrees images explorable through virtual reality to further push the feeling that we are in fact already on Mars. With the new images flooding in to NASA and being released to the public almost daily, Mars began to play a part in the cultural zeitgeist. Space exploration became not just resigned to the world of science-fiction, the obsessives, and the “nerds”, but entered into a total cultural space. Neil DeGrasse Tyson revised the classic show Cosmos (2014), first recorded by astrophysicist Carl Sagan in 1980, blockbuster film maker Christopher Nolan creates his space epic Interstellar (2014), and science fiction legend Ridley Scott directs the heroic survivalist film The Martian (2015). Based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir in 2014, The Martian is a tale of an astronaut stranded on the planet Mars after his team mistook him for dead and his struggle to survive on the foreign planet to make it back home to Earth. The film plays out the mythos of American determination and ingenuity that became the marker of the “American spirit” through the industrial and technological age. The can-do and ability to overcome any obstacles in the name of progress is the same mythos that drove the Cold War space race. The Martian presupposes that NASA, and therefore the United States, have already made it to Mars and began temporary colonies for exploring how one could sustainably live. When stranded alone against unimaginable odds, the hero, Mark Watney, learns how to tame and control the new world, a recurring theme in American history and mythos. At one point in the film, after having gotten potatoes to grow in Martian soil, Watney even claims that he has now officially colonized the planet. While set in a near future the film looks back to a nostalgic fantasizing of the American spirit, when America was great, innovative, and able to make new grounds through their dominance and greatness. Even more, under the guile of Neoliberal togetherness, the film imagines all the world coming together in support of the American heroic figure. As the ISS brought together old enemies to work towards one project, The Martian  imagines a future were their current tentative relationship with China is overcome, in the Chinese space program willingly offering up their aid, resources, and secrets to the Americans. At the climax of the film, shots are shown of people around the world watching out on the streets, from New York to London to China, anxiously to see if the American hero has in fact been able to overcome all odds and survive.

The film in itself appears as propaganda for a new space age—an age that is relentlessly American. This space age is already subsumed by the same rhetoric and ideology of the first space age of the 1960s and the missions to the moon. Mars is already claimed and a part of the capitalist progressive framework of Late Modernism, now reborn through Neoliberalism. It is simply an updating of prior rhetoric which it is looking to re-institute, a modernization of past fantasies.

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Government-backed nostalgia

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WHERE NO ONE HAS GONE BEFORE

What is there now for the left? For those who aim to step outside the ideological encapsulation of the capitalist progressive narrative? If Modernity means to be focused on the creation of the future, the future as laid out before us is already subsumed under its rhetoric. Neoliberalism, Modernism, and Capitalism have already exported themselves to become extra-planetary frameworks. What is the future if we keep playing out the same fantasies out of nostalgia? It is as Walter Benjamin describes the angel of time in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, instead of a chain of new events we keep piling the same wreckage upon wreckage—our time is not linear but a circular loop transpositioning rhetoric and ideologues into the present and future. Perhaps what there is now is the attempt to step outside our natural history, out of our time and space, to worlds without a past and without nostalgia. The legendary and progressive science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin once called for science-fiction writers to pick up where theorists have failed and to start imagining the end of capitalism. In her novels, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin defines new worlds with their own genders and non-genders and its own concept and working of time. Perhaps, it is by these propositions we can begin to step outside of our world into new ones where we can think and posit outside the looping nature of our time. In these worlds we are free to define progress for ourselves, not left to the modernist-capitalist understanding which we keep falling back upon. Through these postulations we can begin to imagine new futures that differ and reject the ones we are presented with. Instead of Mars, which is a modern nostalgic fantasy, we should look to the exoplanets and embrace their multitude and the confusion and possibilities they bring. In these worlds, upon these distant heavenly bodies, we are the Ubik, outside of time, the creators of suns and worlds.•

 

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