The beginning of a new year is a time for reflection and prediction across all forms of western media since who knows when. “The Future of [x]” is a typical headline this time of year, and the theme of this particular voyage down Dairy River. When tasked by our beneficent editors with penning a “Future of” article, my immediate thought was “the future of what?”, snarled with all the obnoxious eyerolling of a 15-year-old slamming the door to his bedroom. An immediate and negative reaction to being tasked with a job is certainly a common response for anybody save martyrs and sycophants, but the degree of snarling knee-jerk antipathy I’m aiming for here is best remembered as the venom often spat by one’s teenage-self. Probing the mechanisms at work in such an angry, nihilistic, possibly irrational view of the future is my intention for this piece, as I wonder why some take this stance against the daily array of hum-drum situations and more notable “events” so equally and so automatically. Is it just a risible case of bad attitude? My gut says no, and so I figure asking “the future of what?” might help us understand both the supposedly “positive” motives and desires embedded in the more well-mannered reflections and auguries permeating the turn of the new year as well as provide some depth and value to the processes and mentalities of rejection, too often dismissed as worthless negativity.
The soundtrack for my train of thought is The Future of What, the 1995 release of the underground Seattle-based punk group Unwound, to which I immediately free-associated in thinking about a “future of” piece. Beyond the title, the group’s entire catalog and this album in particular provide thoughtful yet intense rejections of all kinds of futures: consumerism, employment, social hierarchies, personal relationships, and basically every structure of the contemporary Western condition. While Unwound are neither the first nor the last punk rock group – or artistic endeavor of any kind – to challenge or refute these concepts, the years spent and the spectrum of emotions and subjects deployed by the group in its exploration of the willful rejection of just about everything are remarkable, and the music of Unwound again and again manages to provide raw glimpses into what we might consider a universal, non-rational, and perhaps unconscious impulse to reject social structures and relationships. As print cannot well convey the work’s sonic, tonal and emotional effects, a brief list will attempt to suggest of the attitude under consideration. Scanning some of The Future of What’s all-lowercase song titles – demolished, natural disasters, re-enact the crime, equally stupid, pardon my french, descension, accidents on purpose, petals like bricks, vern’s answer to the masses, here come the dogs, disappoint, full explanation of answer, excuse me but pardon my french – one sees a broad sweep of topics, from global to personal, each framed in a negative manner. Lyrics from here come the dogs express the futility, extreme skepticism and apocalyptic outlook sometimes associated with nihilism: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, you might believe in all of this. First of the last nocturnal songs. Anyone’s anything from nothing. Here come the dogs!” swan runs through a long list of inane polarities – “art wrong: swan song. No fun in sun. Cake walk, fake talk. Burn hot. Bad plot. Sick thought, fucked-up” – and concludes “what now?… what I see is the end is the end and what I think is the end is the end of the end”, highlighting the repetitive and eternal aspects of perceived conflicts. Outside of the emotional context of fully hearing the songs, it is easy to disregard or belittle what can come across as existential severity, but such disparaging reactions are intrinsic to the nihilistic stance, feeding it from its inception and continually serving as one of a number of bitter staples. Think of the parents’ reaction to a young person’s first donning of “punk” or some other oppositional subcultural attire – a reaction later and continually reinforced by other members of acceptable culture, and the punk’s need for this continuing conflict. These superficialities of manners and polite society allow “the squares” (and often the punks) to avoid the real issues in play: oppression, inequality, isolation, etc.
The perceived juvenility of negativity – and punk cultures – is one of a number of criticisms deployed against the threats nihilism are perceived to present. “Unpatriotic”, “unproductive”, “irrational” and “hysterical” are other critiques, each revealing the hierarchies feeling threat. Yet the disbelief that is central to nihilism does not necessary align with anarchy or action against power structures; if anything the socially “negative” conclusion of nihilism is complete resignation – the “dropping out” that follows “turning on” and “tuning in.” A slightly more “positive” endpoint might be the development of a highly insular individuality, wherein the nihilist passes through outer layers of society as a silent non-believer who avoids contributing to structures or relationships of the empowered, when and wherever they may be denied in safe anonymity. Obviously and importantly, these kinds of nihilistic passivity – the resigned and the insular – are pretty much the only forms of resistance undertaken in today’s first world, and on the surface appear to have no effect in the physical and social realities outside the individual. Why, then, would one or one’s unconscious expend the emotional and intellectual energy on such futile rejections? Is it an automatic gag reflex left over from a prelapsarian era of human existence, appalled at the contemporary condition? No – we’d reject the possibility of any utopia, and are suspicious that the rejection reaction is too strong to lack real effect, and its portrayal as juvenile, useless, and worse by the empowered may actually reveal quite the opposite.
What are the futures rejected by this pronoun at this time of year? The future of the stock market? The future of the economy? The future of the Healthcare Bill? Some political party? Who has a vested interest in the future and the power to affect it? Who can’t see past their next paycheck or next meal, much less the next year? Physicists could tell you that the present is the only time, encompassing a multitude of potential pasts and futures. Philosophers can argue the future is just fear and the past merely regret. When one is fully engaged, happy or fulfilled, or fully enjoying one’s self or the company of others, is there any perception of the future? Arguably only those with political interests and economic power have any need to prescribe a future, and the yearly trotting out of the predictions games and “best of”s are attempts to realize and rationalize the edifice. Try asking aloud “the future of what?” at your next Yearly Evaluation, or writing it into your next Work Plan, and compare (or imagine) the truth and relief you feel versus the reaction of your superior – here whose interest in the future of what becomes plain. The tropes of technological and social progress promise to ease work and adjust inequalities, but those futures never arrive. Asking “the future of what?” does not reject a particular future or hierarchy, but rather rejects the whole concept of the future and all the hierarchies and powers invested in it.
Unwound’s The Future of What ends an hour’s worth of raging punk rock songs with a low-key looping sampled piece entitled excuse me, pardon my french, which reprises and draws out for 13 minutes an interlude from earlier in the album. Comprising a slowly disintegrating collage of an old organ melody, a brushed snare figure, the warm fuzz of a skipping phonograph needle, and a slightly detuned doorbell or rotary phone note, excuse me… evokes a soporific, contented, endless moment and presents it as a sarcastic challenge, a reply that cannot be understood (or be effective) as it is uttered in the incomprehensible language of a somewhat smug society in decline that believes it has learned how to live life well. Perhaps this piece portrays the final state of insular nihilism, a quiet, entranced peace following a life of vehement rejections. Do such subjects present a challenge to those invested in the future? Do they own stock? Have they saved for retirement? Did they vote? Do they really produce for the organization, are they “team players” or do they scrape by doing only what is required? Are their behaviors radical, subversive and/or self-defeating? A healthy disbelief in the future in the least seems to recognize controlling interests and what can be gained or lost, while more effect may be wrought by willful absence or inaction. Greatest of all may be the understandings communicated through dialog and art: solidarity, comfort, moral certainty (or righteousness) – challenges to a civilized society, sure, but then what? What happens to the future of what?