An extract from Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life…
The Slow Cancellation Of The Future
‘There’s no time here, not any more’
The final image of the British television series Sapphire And Steel seemed designed to haunt the adolescent mind. The two lead characters, played by Joanna Lumley and David McCallum, find themselves in what seems to be a 1940s roadside café. The radio is playing a simulation of Glenn Miller-style smooth Big Band jazz. Another couple, a man and a woman dressed in 1940s clothes, are sitting at an adjacent table. The woman rises, saying: ‘This is the trap. This is nowhere, and it’s forever.’ She and her companion then disappear, leaving spectral outlines then nothingness. Sapphire and Steel panic. They rifle through the few objects in the café, looking for something they can use to escape. There is nothing, and when they pull back the curtains, there is only a black starry void beyond the window. The café, it seems, is some kind of capsule floating in deep space.
Watching this extraordinary final sequence now, the juxtaposition of the café with the cosmos is likely to put in mind some combination of Edward Hopper and René Magritte. Neither of those references was available to me at the time; in fact, when I later encountered Hopper and Magritte, I no doubt thought of Sapphire And Steel. It was August 1982 and I had just turned fifteen years old. It would be more than twenty years later before I would see these images again. By then, thanks to VHS, DVD and YouTube, it seemed that practically everything was available for re-watching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost.
The passage of thirty years has only made the series appear even stranger than it did at the time. This was science fiction with none of the traditional trappings of the genre, no spaceships, no ray guns: no anthropomorphic foes only the unraveling fabric of the corridor of time, along which malevolent entities would crawl, exploiting and expanding gaps and fissures in temporal continuity. All we knew about Sapphire and Steel was that they were ‘detectives’ of a peculiar kind, probably not human, sent from a mysterious ‘agency’ to repair these breaks in time. ‘The basis of Sapphire and Steel,’ the series’s creator P. J. Hammond explained, ‘came from my desire to write a detective story, into which I wanted to incorporate Time. I’ve always been interested in Time, particularly the ideas of J. B. Priestley and H. G. Wells, but I wanted to take a different approach to the subject. So instead of having them go backwards and forwards in Time, it was about Time breaking in, and having set the precedent I realized the potential that it offered with two people whose job it was to stop the break-ins.’ (Steve O’Brien, ‘The Story Behind Sapphire & Steel’, The Fan Can)
Hammond had previously worked as a writer on police dramas such as The Gentle Touch and Hunter’s Walk and on children’s fantasy shows like Ace Of Wands and Dramarama. With Sapphire And Steel, he attained a kind of auteurship that he would never manage to repeat. The conditions for this kind of visionary public broadcasting would disappear during the 1980s, as the British media became taken over by what another television auteur, Dennis Potter, would call the ‘occupying powers’ of neoliberalism. The result of that occupation is that it is hard now to believe that a programme could ever have been transmitted on prime-time television, still less on what was then Britain’s sole commercial network, ITV. There were only three television channels in Britain then: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV; Channel 4 would make its first broadcast only a few months later.
By comparison with the expectations created by Star Wars, Sapphire And Steel came off as very cheap and cheerful. Even in 1982, the chroma-key special effects looked unconvincing. The fact that the stage sets were minimal, and the cast small (most of the ‘assignments’ only featured Lumley and McCallum and a couple of others), gave the impression of a theatre production. Yet there was none of the homeliness of kitchen sink naturalism; Sapphire And Steel had more in common with the enigmatic oppressiveness of Harold Pinter, whose plays were frequently broadcast on BBC television during the 1970s.
A number of things about the series are particularly striking from the perspective of the 21st Century. The first is its absolute refusal to ‘meet the audience halfway’ in the way that we’ve come to expect. This is partly a conceptual matter: Sapphire And Steel was cryptic, its stories and its world is never fully disclosed, still less explained. The series was much closer to something like the BBC’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Smiley novels – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had been broadcast in 1979; its sequel Smiley’s People would begin transmission a month after Sapphire And Steelended – than it was to Star Wars. It was also a question of emotional tenor: the series and its two lead characters are lacking in the warmth and wisecracking humour that is now so much a taken-for-granted feature of entertainment media. McCallum’s Steel had a technician’s indifference towards the lives in which he became reluctantly enmeshed; although he never loses his sense of duty, he is testy and impatient, frequently exasperated by the way humans ‘clutter their lives’. If Lumley’s Sapphire appeared more sympathetic, there was always the suspicion that her apparent affection towards humans was something like an owner’s benign fascination for her pets. The emotional austerity that had characterised the series from the start assumes a more explicitly pessimistic quality in this final assignment. The Le Carré parallels are reinforced by the strong suspicion that, just as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the lead characters have been betrayed by their own side.
Then there was Cyril Ornadel’s incidental music. As Nick Edwards explained in a 2009 blog post, this was ‘[a]rranged for a small ensemble of musicians (predominantly woodwind) with liberal use of electronic treatments (ring modulation, echo/delay) to intensify the drama and suggestion of horror, Ornadel’s cues are far more powerfully chilling and evocative than anything you’re likely hear in the mainstream media today.’ (‘Sapphire and Steel’, Gutterbreakz)
One aim of Sapphire And Steel was to transpose the ghost stories out of the Victorian context into contemporary places, the still inhabited or the recently abandoned. In the final assignment, Sapphire and Steel arrive at a small service station. Corporate logos – Access, 7 Up, Castrol GTX, LV – are pasted on the windows and the walls of the garage and the adjoining café. This ‘halfway place’ is a prototype version of what the anthropologist Marc Augé will call in a 1995 book of the same title, ‘non-places’ – the generic zones of transit (retail parks, airports) which will come to increasingly dominate the spaces of late capitalism. In truth, the modest service station in Sapphire And Steel is quaintly idiosyncratic compared to the cloned generic monoliths which will proliferate besides motorways over the coming thirty years.
The problem that Sapphire and Steel have come to solve is, as ever, to do with time. At the service station, there is temporal bleed-through from earlier periods: images and figures from 1925 and 1948 keep appearing, so that, as Sapphire and Steel’s colleague Silver puts it ‘time just got mixed, jumbled up, together, making no sort of sense’. Anachronism, the slippage of discrete time periods into one another, was throughout the series the major symptom of time breaking down. In one of the earlier assignments, Steel complains that these temporal anomalies are triggered by human beings’ predilection for the mixing of artefacts from different eras. In this final assignment, the anachronism has led to stasis: time has stopped. The service station is in ‘a pocket, a vacuum’. There’s ‘still traffic, but it’s not going anywhere’: the sound of cars is locked into a looped drone. Silver says, ‘there is no time here, not any more’. It’s as if the whole scenario is a literalization of the lines in Pinter’s No Man’s Land: ‘No man’s land, which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, which remains forever icy and silent.’ Hammond said that he had not necessarily intended the series to end there. He had thought that it would be rested, to return at some point in the future. There would be no return – at least, not on network television. In 2004, Sapphire and Steel would come back for a series of audio adventures; though Hammond, McCallum and Lumley were not involved, and by then the audience was not a general television, but the kind of special interest niche easily catered for in digital culture. Eternally suspended, never to be freed, their plight – and indeed their provenance – never to be fully explained, Sapphire and Steel’s internment in this café from nowhere prophetic for a general condition: in which life continues, but time has somehow stopped.
The slow cancellation of the future
It is the contention of this book that 21st Century culture is marked by the same anachronism and inertia which afflicted Sapphire And Steel in their final adventure. But this stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement. The ‘jumbling up of time’, the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed.
In his book After The Future, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi refers to the ‘the slow cancellation of the future [which] got underway in the 1970s and 1980s.’ ‘But when I say ‘future’’, he elaborates,
I am not referring to the direction of time. I am thinking, rather, of the psychological perception, which emerged in the cultural situation of progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated during the long period of modern civilization, reaching a peak after the Second World War. These expectations were shaped in the conceptual frameworks of an ever progressing development, albeit through different methodologies: the Hegel-Marxist mythology of Aufhebungand founding of the new totality of Communism; the bourgeois mythology of a linear development of welfare and democracy; the technocratic mythology of the all-encompassing power of scientific knowledge; and so on.
My generation grew up at the peak of this mythological temporalization, and it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get rid of it, and look at reality without this kind of temporal lens. I’ll never be able to live in accordance with the new reality, no matter how evident, unmistakable, or even dazzling its social planetary trends. (After The Future, AK Books, 2011, pp18-19)
Bifo is a generation older than me, but he and I are on the same side of a temporal split here. I, too, will never be able to adjust to the paradoxes of this new situation. The immediate temptation here is to fit what I’m saying into a wearily familiar narrative: it is a matter of the old failing to come to terms with the new, saying it was better in their day. Yet it is just this picture – with its assumption that the young are automatically at the leading edge of cultural change – that is now out of date.
Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st Century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next seventeen years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be. While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were incarcerated in their roadside café.
The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations. There can be few who believe that in the coming year a record as great as, say, the Stooges’ Funhouse or Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On will be released. Still less do we expect the kind of ruptures brought about by The Beatles or disco. The feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed. Compare the fallow terrain of the current moment with the fecundity of previous periods and you will quickly be accused of ‘nostalgia’. But the reliance of current artists on styles that were established long ago suggests that the current moment is in the grip of a formal nostalgia, of which more shortly.
It is not that nothing happened in the period when the slow cancellation of the future set in. On the contrary, those thirty years has been a time of massive, traumatic change. In the UK, the election of Margaret Thatcher had brought to an end the uneasy compromises of the so-called postwar social consensus. Thatcher’s neoliberal programme in politics was reinforced by a transnational restructuring of the capitalist economy. The shift into so-called Post-Fordism – with globalization, ubiquitous computerization and the casualisation of labour – resulted in a complete transformation in the way that work and leisure were organised. In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate any more.
Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s.
Where is the 21st-century equivalent of Kraftwerk? If Kraftwerk’s music came out of a casual intolerance of the already-established, then the present moment is marked by its extraordinary accommodation towards the past. More than that, the very distinction between past and present is breaking down. In 1981, the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today. Since then, cultural time has folded back on itself, and the impression of linear development has given way to a strange simultaneity.
Two examples will suffice to introduce this peculiar temporality. When I first saw the video for the Arctic Monkeys’ 2005 single ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’, I genuinely believed that it was some lost artifact from circa 1980. Everything in the video – the lighting, the haircuts, the clothes – had been assembled to give the impression that this was a performance on BBC2’s ‘serious rock show’ The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Furthermore, there was no discordance between the look and the sound. At least to a casual listen, this could quite easily have been a post punk group from the early 1980s. Certainly, if one performs a version of the thought experiment I described above, it’s easy to imagine ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ being broadcast on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1980, and producing no sense of disorientation in the audience. Like me, they might have imagined that the references to ‘1984’ in the lyrics referred to the future.
There ought to be something astonishing about this. Count back twenty-five years from 1980, and you are at the beginning of rock and roll. A record that sounded like Buddy Holly or Elvis in 1980 would have sounded out of time. Of course, such records were released in 1980, but they were marketed as retro. If the Arctic Monkeys weren’t positioned as a ‘retro’ group, it is partly because, by 2005, there was no ‘now’ with which to contrast their retrospection. In the 1990s, it was possible to hold something like Britpop revivalism to account by comparing it to the experimentalism happening on the UK dance underground or in US R&B. By 2005, the rates of innovation in both these areas had enormously slackened. UK dance music remains much more vibrant than rock, but the changes that happen there are tiny, incremental, and detectable largely only by initiates – there is none of the dislocation of sensation that you heard in the shift from Rave to Jungle and from Jungle to Garage in the 1990s. As I write this, one of the dominant sounds in pop (the globalised club music that has supplanted R&B) resembles nothing more than Eurotrance, a particularly bland European 1990s cocktail made from some of the most flavourless components of House and Techno.
Second example. I first heard Amy Winehouse’s version of ‘Valerie’ while walking through a shopping mall, perhaps the perfect venue for consuming it. Up until then, I had believed that ‘Valerie’ was first recorded by indie plodders the Zutons. But, for a moment, the record’s antiqued 1960s soul sound and the vocal (which on a casual listen I didn’t at first recognize as Winehouse) made me temporarily revise this belief: surely the Zutons’ version of the track was a cover of this apparently ‘older’ track, which I had not heard until now? Naturally, it didn’t take me long to realise that the ‘sixties soul sound’ was actually a simulation; this was indeed a cover of the Zutons’ track, done in the souped-up retro style in which the record’s producer, Mark Ronson, has specialised.
Ronson’s productions might have been designed to illustrate what Fredric Jameson called the ‘nostalgia mode’. Jameson identifies this tendency in his remarkably prescient writings on postmodernism, beginning in the 1980s. What makes ‘Valerie’ and the Arctic Monkeys typical of postmodern retro is the way in which they perform anachronism. While they are sufficiently ‘historical’-sounding to pass on first listen as belonging to the period which they ape, there is something not quite right about them. Discrepancies in texture – the results of modern studio and recording techniques – mean that they belong neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied ‘timeless’ era, an eternal 1960s or an eternal 80s. The ‘classic’ sound, its elements now serenely liberated from the pressures of historical becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology. It is important to be clear about what Jameson means by the ‘nostalgia mode’. He is not referring to psychological nostalgia – indeed, the nostalgia mode as Jameson theorises it might be said to preclude psychological nostalgia, since it arises only when a coherent sense of historical time breaks down. The kind of figure capable of exhibiting and expressing a yearning for the past belongs, actually, to a paradigmatically modernist moment – think, for instance, of Proust’s and Joyce’s ingenious exercises in recovering lost time. Jameson’s nostalgia mode is better understood in terms of a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past, a consequence of a retreat from the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience. Jameson’s example is Lawrence Kasdan’s now half-forgotten film Body Heat (1981), which, although it was officially set in the 1980s, feels as if it belongs to the 30s. ‘Body Heat is technically not a nostalgia film,’ Jameson writes,
‘since it takes place in a contemporary setting, in a little Florida village near Miami. On the other hand, this technical contemporaneity is most ambiguous indeed… Technically… its objects (its cars, for instance) are 1980s products, but everything in the film conspires to blur that immediate contemporary reference and to make it possible to receive this too as nostalgia work – as a narrative set in some indefinable nostalgic past, an eternal 1930s, say, beyond history. It seems to me exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonizing even those movies today which have contemporary settings, as though, for some reason, we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience. But if that is so, then it is a terrible indictment of consumer capitalism itself – or, at the very least, an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.’ (Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism And Consumer Society’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings On The Postmodern, 1983-1998, Verso, 1998, pp9-10.)
What blocks Body Heat from being a period piece or a nostalgia picture in any straightforward way is its disavowal of any explicit reference to the past. The result is anachronism, and the paradox is that this ‘blurring of official contemporaneity’, this ‘waning of historicity’ is increasingly typical of our experience of cultural products. Another of Jameson’s examples of the nostalgia mode is Star Wars:
‘one of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that grew up from the 1930s to the 1950s was the Saturday afternoon series of the Buck Rogers type – alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliff-hanger at the end whose miraculous solution was to be witnessed next Saturday afternoon. Star Wars reinvents this experience in the form of a pastiche; there is no point to a parody of such series, since they are long extinct. Far from being a pointless satire of such dead forms, Star Wars satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artefacts through once again.’ (Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, p8)
There is no nostalgia for a historical period here (or if there is, it is only indirect): the longing of which Jameson writes is a yearning for a form. Star Wars is a particularly resonant example of postmodern anachronism, because of the way it used technology to obfuscate its archaic form. Belying its origins in these fusty adventure series forms, Star Wars could appear new because its then unprecedented special effects relied upon the latest technology. If, in a paradigmatically modernist way, Kraftwerk used technology to allow new forms to emerge, the nostalgia mode subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old. The effect was to disguise the disappearance of the future as its opposite.
The future didn’t disappear overnight. Berardi’s phrase ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ is so apt because it captures the gradual yet relentless way in which the future has been eroded over the last thirty years. If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current crisis of cultural temporality could first be felt, it was only during the first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls ‘dyschronia’ has become endemic. This dyschronia, this temporal disjuncture, ought to feel uncanny, yet the predominance of what Reynolds calls ‘retromania’ mean that it has lost any unheimlich charge: anachronism is now taken for granted. Jameson’s postmodernism – with its tendencies towards retrospection and pastiche – has been naturalised. Take someone like the stupendously successful Adele: although her music is not marketed as retro, there is nothing that marks out her records as belonging to the 21st Century either. Like so much contemporary cultural production, Adele’s recordings are saturated with a vague but persistent feeling of the past without recalling any specific historical moment.
Jameson equates the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ with the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, but he says little about why the two are synonymous. Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? Perhaps we can venture a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? Paul Virilio has written of a ‘polar inertia’ that is a kind of effect of and counterweight to the massive speeding up of communication. Virilio’s example is Howard Hughes, living in one hotel room for fifteen years, endlessly rewatching Ice Station Zebra. Hughes, once a pioneer in aeronautics, became an early explorer of the existential terrain that cyberspace will open up, where it is no longer necessary to physically move in order to access the whole history of culture. Or, as Berardi has argued, the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated.
The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological but to a cultural deficit: desperately short of time, energy and attention, we demand quick fixes. Like another of Berardi’s examples, pornography, retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction.
The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketized’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and postpunk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished. But perhaps it was only with the arrival of digital communicative capitalism that this reached terminal crisis point.
Naturally, the besieging of attention described by Berardi applies to producers as much as consumers. Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal – from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms – but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before. Or, as Simon Reynolds so pithily put it, in recent years, everyday life has sped up, but culture has slowed down. No matter what the causes for this temporal pathology are, it is clear that no area of Western culture is immune from them. The former redoubts of futurism, such as electronic music, no longer offer escape from formal nostalgia. Music culture is in many ways paradigmatic of the fate of culture under post-Fordist capitalism. At the level of form, music is locked into pastiche and repetition. But its infrastructure has been subject to massive, unpredictable change: the old paradigms of consumption, retail and distribution are disintegrating…
Detail from book cover courtesy of Chris Heppell
Mark Fisher’s Ghosts Of My Life is published by Zero Books