Culture is not a Career.

There come multiple times in life, due to peer pressure or general reflection, where one becomes deeply concerned about the financial situation of temporal currency: have we spent time as best as we could have? Or at least, wisely? All centres on the unique assumption that productivity ensures our success. That the experience of being human operates more or less like a career.

The ‘American Dream’ is one example of such ideation: “have I accomplished enough for my age?” We cannot expect the ‘Maltese dream’ to be identical. But we ponder on any similarities.

During the ‘unofficial’ Covid-19 lockdown last year, a friend of mine expressed her disoriented state of mind. What I remember most is the incisive nature of her comment: “I cannot take it anymore, I want to do something new. I want to experience something that makes me feel this moment is different, that something is happening”. I did not pay much attention to her words as much as her need for consolation. Nowadays all I remember is this particular utterance. All I say to myself is are we truly back to normal? And when Covid recedes to memory, without a lockdown do we feel like change occurs, that moments are different, varied, and narrative?

What If our inability to perceive a future is due to the simple fact that we wrongfully see history as cumulative, like a timeline? As if each moment in time is a progress towards an ideal? If things change enough we can begin to feel like we’re getting there. The ideal is absurd after all.

Any idea of success relies on a similar conceptualization. The general thinking goes along the lines of starting from A and arriving at B. There might even be variations, going back and forth or skipping steps. Listening to elderly people narrate their lives is an easy way to spot this. When we find ourselves listening to our parents and grandparents narrate their histories, each instance is different. Each time we are audiences to their memories detail increases or shifts. The past is not coherent.

Each time they attempt to order their collection new ones emerge or are lost, especially if he or she has many. I like to think of memory as a collection of slippery stamps. When you try to sort them into a coherent, perhaps chronological order they will often intermix, or those long lost re-appear in all their majesty.

The key to a vast collection of memory-stamps is change. We cannot have too many duplicates to be content with our collection. To be satisfied with one’s life is (more so nowadays) to be certain that we have collected enough memories, enough ‘moments in time’ or durations that we can use to present a successful narrative with; so that when we are 60 or 70 we can say to our grand-children ‘I was born here, went to school there, met those people, applied here, then there and there, then this and that happened, then my child was born so I had to do more” etc…

Besides, each section of one’s collection also has individual memories attached to it. We might remember the time we worked in a certain place but it really is a bundle of individual memories itself: the smell of the office floor, the tacky touch of outdated keyboards, the offset step on the second floor, the co-worker we grew close to but then despised and the time the rules were broken.

If this idea of memory-making resonates with you to any degree we must concur that our dreams are now ever more threatened to remain in our minds. Change is not available so narratives turn into unconnected moments in time.

The reason we cannot come to terms with recognizing this, I argue, is its occurrence at a cultural level. The individual feels he has no words to articulate his sense of immobility because we are incapable of articulating any language against the idea of progress and modernity. As Mark Fisher notes, time has sped up but culture has slowed down.

In a BBC spinoff of Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson jumps into a cuboid time-machine in front of his guests to retrieve artefacts as proof that his contraption works. He ventures to the planning stages of the Battle of Waterloo where Lord Wellington is about to share his calculated strategy. Just before delivering the battle-plans Atkinson’s time-machine spawns on Wellington, crushing him to death. The calm Atkinson calmly collects the Lord’s very boots. Upon returning he slowly realizes that in doing so he had altered the course of history. The British never allowed the French advance and lost the battle of Waterloo. To his shock in his newly altered timeline, England was under French rule and his previously quintessentially British friends began singing the Marseillaise.

Snapshot from Blackadder: Back & Forth

If the 30-minute sketch was to be rewritten to reflect our current understanding of time, Rowan Atkinson would return to his temporal home with Wellington’s boots and all would be the same. We have grown increasingly distant from history. The ‘now’ has nothing to do with the ‘then’ and they are untethered. So too is the direction in which the present is heading. A sea of sameness. In the words of the late Fisher, the future has become an almost typified font: it is a distinct and pastiche collection of symbols such as lasers, minimalism, electronic music.

Vintage has always existed, but never at the current scale of cultural production. This is indicative of a larger problem. Unlike other futures, ours is an unidentifiable plethora of past trajectories, instead of a more unique ‘form of life’. To some extent, its negation has become ‘our’ style. A desperate undertone of sterility, depression, and dystopia.

We can with extreme ease distinguish between the 50s and 60s, the 70s and 80s. But one cannot imagine a song from the late 50s gaining popularity, or any partial temporal resonance with the 80s. However, we can certainly imagine a song from the early 90s becoming popular in 2020, despite possessing the same 30-year gap.

In fact, we cannot see enough ‘retrofication’ occurring. 16-year-olds wearing clothes from the 80s, songs from the 70s being remixed, indie bands reviving the 60s. Mark Fisher furthers this argument with the apt example of recurring star wars reruns, a constant exercise in nostalgia, a film concept re-shuffled and repackaged in a hopeless attempt to transplant it to the modern audience in search of both the future and nostalgia. We are, quite literally, haunted by the possibilities of the past.

Can we truthfully discern what the ‘now’ is? Without re-articulating the recent past? The current situation certainly points at a perplexing attitude when conceiving our realm of possibilities. Perhaps our increasing historical consciousness has rendered in us a sense that ‘we have made it’. Like an old man passing time at the local pjazza, we now have enough collected and inherited memories to feel fulfilled. Enough collective change to make our individual mnemonic collections futile in comparison. We can stroll through our “villages” and feel the change in our bones. From old limestone houses with an antiporta and kileb in contrast to the imperceptible architecture and topography of concrete flats, glass apartment buildings, the complete hegemony of roads, and work-life.

Have we taken up the spirit of the old? Hopelessly wondering how much has changed in such a short time? Ever stuck in the habit of recollecting memories instead of making them? Are we to take the impending environmental catastrophe as the natural passage of death all aging people expect? Perhaps the untimely virus and impending economic recession are digested as the expected unexpected cancer or kidney complication, a cataract, or the onset of arthritis all societies must pass through? In 10 years we have seen as much technological change as others have seen in a hundred. It must feel only natural for culture to call it a day.

If so, that would explain why we have found ourselves in a situation where we are utterly incapable of finding alternatives. Many authors, such as Franco Berardi and Fredric Jameson attribute the sense of timelessness or “the slow cancellation of the future” as a product of capitalism; a symptom of its axiomatic assumption that we are on a linear trajectory towards progress, towards the maximization of capital. Let us briefly explore ulterior but not necessarily mutually exclusive explanations to our problem.

Why has every measure to introduce ulterior modes of transport such as cycling and efficient public transport never materialised? Perhaps we simply cannot afford to lose the time a car saves (although soon this advantage will no longer exist). Why do we keep on building the same type of apartments, or keep delaying building reforms? Are we ashamed to admit that progress is a myth, that life or human history is not a career with a constantly upward-facing trajectory? Why are we utterly incapable of imagining change on any level as if ashamed of admitting a misuse of human time in the past? That refinement of the established does not equate to creativity and innovation?

We keep recycling the same lost futures to replace the fact that we simply do not have one of our own. The same routines, clothes, music, jobs, housing crisis, and concept of education. Only heightening the experience of now as opposed to constructing alternatives. Culture is not a state of progress.

In the last few years, we have reached yet another climax, cementing the tomb of any original and articulate future: we cannot even imagine an alternative to our politics. We feel as if there is a certain standard to keep, which the current party fulfills. As long as those standards are met, such as a stable economy, as if a “good enough” mother, we are happy with the current situation. No matter how bad.

We are so satisfied and indifferent to any government that we only support it overtly for some ideological or political reason. Covertly support stems from the pure and simple condition that it reproduces the current situation, an ever-present and quaint ‘now’. We are so incapable of articulating an alternative to the font now that even in utter turmoil, corruption the likes of which this island has never seen, we feel we couldn’t have it any other way. Or that it could have been much worse…

All explanations of a weak-party, outdated ideology, or lack of support are missing the much larger scale of the problem. How can one state the problem is purely political when one sees the labour party recycling slogans and strategies from the 70s to the 2020s? Is it not worrying that most meetings for leadership within the party ended with a 50-year-old anthem and lyrics completely disjointed from today’s needs?

How can we stand behind such words as “Bierku s-seigħa li aħna fija rajna dawl rajna l-ħelsien” whilst in the European Union? When there is no longer a ‘we’, let alone one that speaks Maltese in its entirety? Is it not worrying that the chosen slogan for the 2017 election was “L-Aqwa Żmien” a direct and poignant claim that we have reached some sort of zenith?

Is the nationalist party really the only alternative we can imagine? Have we found ourselves “after the future” (or more aptly after the ‘ħelsien’)? Beyond petty political squabbles, if there is no goal to reach, no aspiration to be loyal to, we are gifting the upcoming generations the untimely culture of an eternal ‘now’, a complete and perfect way of living which I am certain most people would not vouch for.

We should take control of our memories not for the sake of progress but temporality. Culture—the reality we create together—is a constantly changing process. New avenues should open as others close. If it is merely preserved, as Fisher argues, it is no culture at all.

If Covid-19 has brought along anything positive, it is the sudden realization that the world is not ‘given’ to us. It can change completely in a matter of days. It should be an opportunity to understand that we can and should be daring enough to imagine alternative realities. Perhaps after Covid, we should not ‘return to normal’ but commence a return to constant change.

Written by: Nikolai Debono


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