The Shock of the New: The Political Unconscious and the Future of Hope


What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?

– Mark Fisher,   Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?

In a world without hope, a world where despair and cynicism are the only thing left between living and dying, when life-in-death has actually and literally become the truth of existence where the absolute zero of sterility spells the end of the future Mark Fisher asks: “how long can a culture exist without the new?”1 Speaking of Children of Men is a 2006 science fiction thriller film directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, based on P. D. James’s 1992 novel he will tell us that this dystopian parable “connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation” (p. 3). Such political pundits as Francis Fukuyama would with the fall of communism tell us that what “we may be witnessing is … the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”2 Fisher taking his queue from the fascistic impulses in T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent reminds us that for Eliot the critic of the cultural malaise in modernity claimed “that the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all” (p. 3).

From the nineteenth century through early modernism the protracted debates raged in the better periodicals over the merits of tradition-minded artists compared to those of the innovators, avant-gardes were the self-appointed spokesmen for the new.3 As Peter Gay will describe it there is something singularly apt about the name “avant-garde,” which troublemakers among artists, writers, and philosophers began to give themselves, or had bestowed on them, well before mid-nineteenth century. In a time of dramatic change, artistic avant-gardes prided themselves in pointing their culture in the right direction. Indeed, this metaphor, evoking brigades of subversive painters or poets in martial action, was so appropriate because it was, of course, borrowed from military usage. It called to mind the spirited vanguard of an army on the way to battle, sounding the trumpet and flourishing the flag. Cultural avant-gardes were nothing if not bellicose, stoutly proclaiming the merits of their cause, the perils of their exposed position, and the fatal shortcomings of the smug establishment that dared to oppose— and vastly outsell— them.(Gay, KL 875-881)

Yet, along with this youthful pride in the new came hostility as well. “We want to demolish the museums, the libraries,” exclaimed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the  founder of Italian Futurism, in his Initial Manifesto of Futurism of 1909, “combat moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian acts of cowardice.” (Gay, KL 432) And as many would discover the populism of the fascists were enamored with both modernism and futurism. As the long-lived metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, who survived the tragicomedy of fascism, noted frankly in his autobiography: “For the sake of truth it must be said that the Fascists never forbade people to paint as they wished. The majority of the Fascist hierarchy was in fact modernists enamored of Paris.” (Gay, KL 6927)

At the heart of this would be the notion of speed. Speed in modernity brought with it this sense of conquering time: the regime of clock time, timetables, tables, clocking in, schedules, being on time, meeting deadlines, going faster. The sense of space had collapsed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was at the forefront of this. With the advent of technology the collapse of space through improvements in communications and transportation allowed the globe to be navigated and circumscribed to the point that space seemed to have been annulled. The notion of the earth as globe came at the height of colonialism and empire. As Enda Duffy tells us until this time, in the age of empire as exploration, it had suited Western ideologies to encourage dreams of exotic “other” spaces, spaces to be enjoyed, mapped, and conquered. This had been the basis for a long-standing Western conception of space as a dualist entity, with the known home close at hand, and the exotic and potentially infinite space of exotic and threatening otherness far away. When the sources of such other-continent continent dreamscapes ran out, attention turned inward to the excitement of movement for its own sake: Western culture turned to speed. Fantasies of movement as adventure and exploration aimed at discovering uncharted lands were replaced by fantasies of the rate of movement for its own sake: fantasies of speed.4

Yet, with the advent of our late capitalist age the pure speed of light would end in the polar inertia of closure. According to Paul Virilio we are all caught in time, immersed in light-speed, bound to a polar inertia that no longer allows us to move. The once movable body has become immovable due to the sheer speed of technology that encompasses it. Information flows while bodies remain still. In the ergonomic life of postmodernity the body is shaped to its environment inhabiting a domotics that cuts the user off from the world around it while the body is encased in information at the speed of light.5

Virilio like the great Pataphysician Alfred Jarry proposes a Museum of Accidents to stave off the potential threat of substantive atrocities coming our way out of this speed-culture of the near future. He tells us that a laboratory of accidents might benefit humans and keep at bay the great knowledge accidents – the biopower matrix of transhumanistic biogenetic engineering that like a time-bomb or information bomb threatens not only the annihilation of the human but its ultimate transmutation into alterity. (Redhead p. 257) This technification of human discourse has been a part of both modernism and postmodernity. As Stefan Herbrechter will relate even our everyday life practices and consumption, have reached a point at which ‘our’ contemporary lifeworld has literally turned into a ‘techno-culture’ and our social order literally corresponds to ‘techno-scientific capitalism’.6

At the center of this empire of capital is the corporation as the vehicle of its institutional might. Yet, as we move into the twenty-first century the need for new ideas, new patterns of thought and behavior have become more and more apparent even to the capitalists.  As Luis Suarez-Villa remarks creativity, an intangible human quality, is the most precious resource of this new incarnation of capitalism. Corporate rate power and profit inevitably depend on the commodification of creativity through research regimes that must generate new inventions and innovations. These regimes and the corporate apparatus in which they are embedded are to technocapitalism what the factory system and its production regimes were to industrial capitalism. The tangible resources of industrial capitalism, in the form of raw materials,  production hardware, capital, and physical labor routines are thus replaced by intangibles, research hardware, experimental designs, and talented individuals with creative aptitudes. The generation of technology  in this new era of capitalism is therefore a social phenomenon that relies as much on technical functionality as on the co-optation of cultural  attributes.7

Yet, even as corporations seek out the nodes of creativity and invention the consumer lies numb, bereft of life caught in the zombified world of gadgets living in a shadowbox of communicative devices in a blip or slipstream culture of bytes disconnected from the touch of reality. Quoting Badiou Fisher tells us we live in a realism that is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.(Fisher p. 5):

‘We live in a contradiction,’ Badiou has observed: a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian – where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone – is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.(Fisher p. 5)

When Berard in After the Future stated that in our time the future is over he reminds us that this is not the time of temporality (which of course continues to unfold), but is rather our perception of time, 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 in the years after the Second World War” (p. 18).8 The notion here is that the conceptions of modernity that technologized time, that brought with it speed and accelerationism, the power of democracy and capitalism to encircle the globe in scientific knowledge: the mythologization of time as an industry that progressed and improved culture and civilization. This time of progress is over.

Our elites have become cynical believing we are living on borrowed time, that as consumers of time we should forget the future and be merry today: a culture of pure and unadulterated hedonism. As the liberal pundit Zygmunt Bauman will remind us we live on credit: no past generation was as heavily in debt as we are – individually and collectively. Living on credit has its utilitarian pleasures: why delay the gratification? Why wait, if you can relish future bliss here and now? Admittedly, the future is beyond control. But the credit card, magically, brings that vexingly elusive future straight into your lap. You may consume the future, so to speak, in advance – while there is still something left to be consumed … This seems to be the latent attraction of living-on-credit, whose manifest benefit, if you believe the commercials, is purely utilitarian: giving pleasure. And if the future is designed to be as nasty as you suspect it may be, you can consume it now, still fresh and unspoiled, before the disaster strikes and before that future has the chance to show you just how nasty that disaster might be.8

With this consumption of the future comes the Shanzhai. Shanzhai traces its roots back to 2004, when the Taiwanese company MediaTeK released a multipurpose chip that made mobile phones cheap and easy to produce. A wave of small factories, many of them family owned, immediately seized the opportunity to feed an already ravenous market for counterfeits and began pumping out copies at a delirious speed. Shanzhai companies operate in a nebulous, quasi legal zone external to both corporate regulations as well as government rules. The name shanzhai means mountain village and the term signals a kind of bandit, anarchist mode of production that functions outside the formal legitimacy of either capitalism or the state. Today there are hundreds of millions of shanzhai phones in circulation, not only in China but throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where some argue it was the “glut of cheap cell phones that helped enable the Arab Spring.” This knockoff technology has spread has spread to the most remote corners of the planet. Even in the hermit kingdom of North Korea the trade in shanzhai goods is said to be robust. Inside China the practices of shanzhai have spread far beyond cell-phones. The irreverent copy-cat – quick, flexible and close to the street – has come to define a culture that is anarchic, entrepreneurial and increasingly operates at the cutting edge of high tech.9

This counterfeit speed culture thrives in the interstices of time, floating among the waste zones of global capitalism, popping up in-between like a ghost world full of fake consumer goods. A second economy that lies below the surface of the visible one, a hidden world in plain site. The future seems to drift through time like a copy of several pasts that lay side by side in sidereal enclaves just outside the temporal zones of real time capitalism. Time cultures that haunt the edge worlds of corporate smart cities, hives of activity that come and go with the blink of an eye.

Describing the strange tale of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and The Book of the Machines we enter a time travel scenario, imagining intelligent creatures returning to the deep past when our planet was nothing but a “hot round ball.” No one could have dreamt from this embryonic state that life would one day sprout on Earth. Yet, Butler speculates, just as human consciousness emerged from dark matter, is it not possible that “a new phase of mind” could still arise that is “as different from all present known phases, as the mind of animals is from that of vegetables? It would be rash,” he warns, “to say that no others can be developed, and that animal life is the end of all things…” In doing so, he maps out a scenario that has never been more relevant – that technology may, as a result of its own driving forces, be transforming us as a species, stretching our senses, reformatting our brains, giving us new organs controlled from afar, altering all that is most intimately human. (FM KL 76-78)

This sense of the posthuman is like an info-bomb ready to overtake us in the delirium of an accelerating time capsule. As David Roden in Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human will relate it the basis of our interest in becoming posthuman is not our formal responsibility to current or future members of our species; any attempt to account for the posthuman is a necessarily irresponsible risk to the integrity of the species.10 As the Dada Collective reminds us if you have any doubt as to whether you are posthuman or merely human, take a look at the following parts of your body: the city, the house, the car, the iPhone, the laptop, the iPod, the pillbox, the nonflesh surround. If sixty percent of your body is now electronic or bioelectronic, living in space designed for efficiency, you will need Dada as a corrective to what will certainly be the loss of the modicum of liberty you still possess.11

This sense that the future has not only stopped, but has imploded upon us bringing with it the shock of the new that the original Dadaists only parodied become manifest everyday. The revelation of the substance of time preoccupied Freud, who saw it as a repository for repressed history, Carl Jung, who discovered (or thought he did) a space inhabited by prehistoric souffleurs who dictated their nature to ongoing generations of human actors, Albert Einstein, who added time to the three known dimensions, Heisenberg, who denied time altogether, and a variety of artists who adopted one or another dimension of time (futurists, the future; simultaneists, simultaneity; Dada, all or no directions). These cities were concentrations of virtualities that offered the possibilities of creative reinvention of the world. Within these rapidly morphing intensities, the fixities of societal conventions that led inevitably to war became painfully apparent. The bright energies remaking human beings drew their force from everything and anything, but mostly from laughter. Nothing fixed by convention could withstand the Gordian-knot-cutting laughter of Dada, though resistance was not futile. (Codrescu pp. 3-4)

As Douglas Rushkoff in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now argues our culture becomes an entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment. Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important— which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic. Which “now” is important: the now I just lived or the now I’m in right now?12 This is Virilio’s notion that we live in the instant: no before or after – the immediacy of imploded time. Amnesia. The speed of light causes the past and future to disappear in the presentism of the instance. No longer lost in the abyss of time, time is lost in the abyss of our singular instant.

As Baudrillard would suggest we’ve moved out of the age of simulation and into the integral age of immediacy, a time when the collapse of the past and future, mind and nature plunges us into the void of an instant without distance. We can no longer extricate ourselves from the moment, we no longer have the distance needed to create or critique the world. We are immersed in the immanent relations of machinic life. And, yet, there are accidents, ruptures, breaks that suddenly sicken us, awaken us out of the moment, that send us falling forward and backward in vertigo. These are the moments of absolute recoil of which as Zizek will tell us designates the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss. The most concise poetic formula of absolute recoil was provided by Shakespeare (no surprise here), in his uncanny Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, Scene 2):

O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt.

This sense of an argument for and against what one wants to demonstrate; a form of reasoning that rebels against its own line of argument without seeming to undo itself; and an unreasonableness that assumes the appearance of rationality without seeming to contradict itself. A cause that acts against itself, a reason that coincides with the revolt (against itself) …13

Is this not the political struggle today? Our struggle with and against ourselves, a reasoning that works with and against the future, past, and immediacy of the moment? The moment of an event when the political unconscious reveals itself in the in-between gaps of argumentation? Are we not seeing in the ruptures of anti-capitalist revolts around the world the movements of this antagonistic agonistes? Is the shock of the new, the surprise of a new form of political knowledge trying to arise out of this unconscious collective struggle? Is this not our future hope awakening from our modern and postmodern apathy? As Fisher will argue one of the left’s vices is its endless rehearsal of historical debates, its tendency to keep going over Kronsdadt or the New Economic Policy rather than planning and organizing for a future that it really believes in. The failure of previous forms of anti-capitalist political organization should not be a cause for despair, but what needs to be left behind is a certain romantic attachment to the politics of failure, to the comfortable position of a defeated marginality. The credit crisis is an opportunity – but it needs to be treated as a tremendous speculative challenge, a spur for a renewal that is not a return. As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality. (Fisher pp. 78-79)

1. Fisher, Mark (2012-08-07). Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Zero Books)
2. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest (Summer 1989)
3. Gay, Peter (2010-08-16). Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (Kindle Locations 873-875). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
4. Enda Duffy. The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism (p. 19). Kindle Edition.
5. Steve RedHead ed. The Paul Virilio Reader (Edinburgh 2004)
6. Herbrechter, Stefan (2013-08-01). Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (Kindle Locations 1494-1496). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
7. Luis Suarez-Villa. Technocapitalism: A Critical Perspective on Technological Innovation and Corporatism (Kindle Locations 52-56). Kindle Edition.
8. Bauman, Zygmunt (2013-04-17). Liquid Fear (Kindle Locations 178-185). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
9. Greenspan, Anna; Livingston, Suzanne (2014-04-08). Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species (Kindle Locations 50-54). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.
10. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 4343-4347). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
11. Codrescu, Andrei (2009-02-02). The Posthuman Dada Guide: tzara and lenin play chess (The Public Square) (pp. 2-3). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
12. Rushkoff, Douglas (2013-03-21). Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (p. 6). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
13. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 1-2). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

One thought on “The Shock of the New: The Political Unconscious and the Future of Hope

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:
    so hard for many folks to come to terms with the alltoohuman and therefore tragic limits of our capacities to manage ourselves and our creations,


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