The Future Papers, Part Three: Stephen Melville


The third and final part in a short selection of transcriptions of talks from the recent series on ‘The Future’ at the David Roberts Art Foundation. Here’s Stephen Melville’s paper, which constituted a fitting finale to the series. Is the future now?

4. The Future is Now, Now is the Future
Stephen Melville

The two earlier discussions in this series that I was able to attend both seemed to turn quite strongly on a contrast between modern and postmodern representations of the future, more or less as they appear to line up with the contrast between so-called Golden Age and New Wave science fiction. It’s been hard for me, at least, not to hear bits of Beckett stammering in the background, so I was happy to hear Krapp’s Last Tape surface briefly on Saturday. The overall contrast seemed, roughly, one between a future fully distinct from the present and underwritten by a certain faith in science, and a future underwritten by technology and threatened with imminent collapse into the present (or, as one speaker put it, having the shape of an endless intensification of the present) – thus tending also toward a contrast between the utopian and the simulacral, as well as between progress and repetition, and – at least I’ve tried to suggest this – between a certain assumption of shared human being or community and a skepticism about other minds registered, among other places, in a shift in the understanding of the material basis or medium specificity of film from a photographic practice to a form of animation. This last maybe permits an expansion of the postmodern/New Wave text to take account of our apparent current interest in various forms of the undead, and most notably the emergence of the postmodern speed zombie. Neither of these representations seems satisfactory: the Golden Age is, as it were, too much future and in that sense doomed to fail, while the New Wave seems finally not a future at all. Both politics and religion have remained for the most part discreetly in the background, especially religion – which is odd to the extent that one of our continuing interests in the future is, I think, broadly redemptive (certainly notions of apocalypse and the post-apocalyptic, of things more or less shaped like the end of history or the end of the world have put in appearances). It’s perhaps worth opening the contrast a little further off its native ground by taking note of the evident difference between a modern stock market in which one invests for a future that must be awaited, and a postmodern stock market in which futures themselves become a primary commodity and one dreams – sometimes of course in real money – of a present profit made by strip-mining the contingency of the future. Our moment seems to be one that wants to read the phrase ‘the future is now’ – a phrase that I think goes back to the 1950s as a way of naming the new marvels of the present – as ‘now is the future,’ thus as a promise of no more marvels.


What is it for us, now, to talk of the future? If we have lost our marvels, do we want them back? Do we want some assurances about what follows if there is, now, no future? Do we rehearse these representations to ourselves in hopes of dispelling them, gaining or regaining access to an agency that feels somehow denied to us? Or do we perhaps rehearse them to maintain ourselves in just such denial? Do we want to know what time will tell? Stanley Cavell writes, ‘But my question is: What will time tell? That certain departures in art-like pursuits have become established (among certain audiences, in textbooks, on walls, in college courses); that someone is treating them with the respect due, we feel, to art; that one no longer has the right to question their status? But in waiting for time to tell that, we miss what the present tells …’

In advanced physics, as I gather, time at a certain point drops out of the equations – it’s in this sense not one of the deep features of a universe that by itself evidently knows no future. The future, then, appears to be our problem, and it may seem that ‘the future’ as we speak of it and admit an interest in it is first of all a matter of what we cannot know – the future matters because, like death, it is an unknown country. But this is maybe not as true as it sometimes sounds: I get out of the way of the falling piano because I know what’s going to happen, and a lot of my day and your day is filled with such incidents just as life is filled with unknowns that have nothing to do with the future. The problem, or interest, of the future is more nearly ethical than epistemological.

Kant, writing about art, claims that original works are exemplary: that is, that originality is the capacity to demand imitation, to engender new rules to be followed. Who makes art now with the aim of rendering the future answerable to it? What would we make of a form of life in which such promising had come to an end? A promise is a form of speech in which one binds oneself in time, binds oneself to time. There’s a lot to be said for the thought that we speak of the future because speech is the real home of the future, which is, in the end, not a thing or a space but a tense – or, more fully, the ongoing precipitate of the play of tense and mood within our acts of speech. That is, I suppose, one way to mean that the future is now – that it is in our present speaking, in the promises our words variously secure and offer.

Seeing this helps, I think, get at what is perhaps the deepest stake in our worries about the future: that what seems its emergent shape is such as to deprive us of our experience in the present, or (it’s the same thing) confine our experience to the terms of a present cut off from either past or future and thus obliged to imagine them only either as other places to which we have no access or as already wholly swallowed up by a present, which only ever vanishes and so is only every lost to us. One major response to this is to cling more tightly than ever to just that vanishing present, to insist on the punctuality and ineffability of experience, as if representation and articulation were not only alien but hostile to it. We keep our experience safe at the cost of never actually having it, monumentalizing its force while refusing it consequence. These are, I take it, ways of putting the stakes of what Derrida called the critique of presence and of what Foucault came to understand as the question of power. It’s certainly a version of Michael Fried’s controversial critique of minimalism: Tony Smith’s Die just is for him the monumentalization of an experience at once claimed and evaded, had only as that evasion.


Different as their intellectual idioms are Cavell and Fried, Derrida, and Foucault, all write from deep within a sense of what I think can only be called the absoluteness of the present – which cannot mean its isolation from past and future but its continuous unfolding into and thus radical responsibility for them. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, writing on Hegel, who is always lurking somewhere in the shrubbery when it comes to questions of the future, ‘What is asked of thought, consequently, is nothing other than this: to not give up on the inscription of the absolute in the present, such that no present, whatever its form (past, present, or to come) is absolutized.’

In an early essay on Beckett’s Endgame, Cavell suggests that one way to understand the play’s setting is as Noah’s ark after the flood, which would be to take the finishing enacted out there as the inauguration of the post-lapsarian world we still inhabit. But of course there’s plenty in the play to suggest that its world is just ours in its present or nearly present—say, future—ending. That’s been, with good reason, the dominant reading of the play—so if we are to given Cavell’s proposal its due weight, we may want to say that Endgame offers the world as at every moment ending and opening onto itself – is, that is, one attempt to make out what it means to inscribe the absolute in the present, to imagine an ordering of time and possibility inseparable from its speaking – and if that’s right, surely one of its lessons, that goes down into the smallest details of its staging, of its impossible decisions about tone and pace and expressivity, must surely be about how deep the bite of obligation – of promise, redemption, futurity – cuts into our words.

Cavell’s thought here – which seems to me exactly right – is that the problem Beckett’s characters have with language is not that it is or has become meaningless, but that it is all too full of meaning, so what Endgame places under scrutiny is our desire to be done with meaning, to become a present unshadowed by the future.

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