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When in 1977 the punk movement cried out to the world “no future!”,it really seemed that an era was coming to an end. From that moment onward, indeed, the future would cease to be a horizon full of expectations and of individual and collective liberation. Over the decades that followed, it instead increasingly became a source of anxiety and ever-growing uncertainties and fears, until it disappeared from our perceptive experience altogether. But has the future, as this last counterculture of the 20th century prophetically anticipated, really exhausted its propulsive thrust, from an existential and cultural point of view? Is time really nothing but an eternal present, in which we can only feel nostalgia for the future — itself nothing but a memory, to be preserved as a precious heirloom, or around which we can build the plot of some TV series?

In fact, if we analyse a little better that “future” whose death punk decreed, we realise how it corresponded to that ideology of progress born from a slow and stratified secularisation of Jewish-Christian eschatology, something that had long characterised human history, its culture and its forms. The “linguistic Darwinism” of which Achille Bonito Oliva spoke in his essay-manifesto published in Flash Art in 1979 was in fact the product of that ideology. He himself noted its exhaustion in the context of a contemporary art which, instead of moving forward, was indulging in a drift that would soon lead to the repetition of languages belonging to a more or less recent past. It did so using the archaeological finds of our visual heritage as a tool to give life to works that would no longer respond at all costs to the obsession with the new.

In short, both punk and the Transavantgarde — albeit in different ways and with different strategic intentions — signalled the explosive arrival of the future child of a conception of linear time that, as “progress”, had always been “under guarantee”. At the same time, they signalled the fragmentation of that subject which had thought of itself as unitary — rather than just white, Western and male — precisely on the basis of a precise idea of time: a modern, Eurocentric and colonial one. It is no accident, then, that “other” subjectivities began to emerge — and also significant in this sense is the fact that Bonito Oliva considered his artists to be “minor” subjectivities — that began to occupy the emerging cultural and social scene. But do these subjectivities have their own time and their own idea of the future?

If we think about the consequences of the exhaustion of the future that we spoke about at the beginning, we realise that “nostalgia”, the predominant sentiment of our time, is in fact the product of the end of that same future: it is what was left when promises stopped coming true, when we became incapable of imagining the future beyond the contraction between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation in which we were trapped. If ours is a nostalgic culture — as Zygmunt Bauman, Simon Reynolds, and more recently, in Italy, Lucrezia Ercoli and Alessandro Gandini have indicated — this is because it has become hopelessly orphaned of that particular future it had believed in for several centuries, and has not succeeded in grieving for this loss. Thus, the various cultural pathologies from which we suffer (nostalgia itself; vintageas a reinvention of the past; the difficulty if not impossibility of having new memories, which forces us to continuously rework the same materials; the feeling that time is a broken record, loopingthe same song over and over again) arise from an inability to fully overcome that trauma.

Yet, as Walter Benjamin taught us, the time of progress that we have lost is none other than the time of the bourgeoisie and its civilisation. that of man as in-dividual (a unit that cannot be further divided). The future corresponded only to “his” time, as he had imagined, foreseen and desired it. But is post-bourgeois or post-modern society such as our own inevitably condemned to be an orphan of that time and, consequently, of any future? Or can it perhaps attempt to elaborate a different idea of the future, thus retrieving a future that is no longer based on the cultural and anthropological structures of that past world? If we examine the history of thought more closely, we realise that the concept of time — and consequently the structures of the present, the past and the future — comes from a metaphysical tradition through which a materialist alternative has always run, rather like an underground river. If we attempt to analyse this alternative (which expresses its full potential precisely when metaphysics has exhausted its own) and try to study it better than we have done so far, we realise that it has always conceived time in a manner similar to that of “post-Newtonian” and quantum physics, in which the idea of the future is, far from based on metaphysical principles, conceived as an aleatory space of the event. Something that is not yet, but could be, within a dimension in which the occasion opens up to the power [potentia]of the possible. This tradition, retraced in his last writings by Louis Althusser, thinks of the future as a possibility that is given in the encounter, as a contingency without guarantees. Here, the future is not what we have left behind, from which it seems we will be unable to free ourselves; rather, it is something completely different, which refers to the dimension of the possible: something that might, but might not, be.

Is this not an idea of time that retrieves the future, thinking of it as the possible, without nostalgia for something that once was but will no longer be? Is this not a conception without regrets, which saves us from being caught in the illusion of an eternal present which ends up depressing any possibility of collective and even individual transformation? Isn’t the dimension of the possible, of contingency, of the event (of the kairós, the ancient Greeks would have said) the one that – to answer the question we posed at the beginning – gives subjectivities a future horizon? Is this not the future that comes “after” the future? And is this not the time for a finally different cultural perspective, which is no longer “post-“or “hyper-“modern, but truly alternative to what we have left behind us? Is it not from here that we can concretely break out of an exhausted modernity, with all its relics, and try to rethink the world and our relationship with it? And is this not something that we do not need to wish for or pose as a theme — a must be that something or someone needs to impose upon us — given that in reality it is a cultural sentiment that is already widespread, as some artistic practices of recent years also testify?

In light of these brief considerations, we may think of the works by Claire Fontaine and Margherita Moscardini that reflect on the present and its contradictions and that understand politics as rupture and transformation, or the ones by Lara Favaretto and Eugenio Tibaldi, respectively dedicated to the theme of festivities and to marginal spaces, or indeed those by Rossella Biscotti and Gian Maria Tosatti on our collective memory and our recent social and cultural past. We will then realise that these works — far from being an example of nostalgic obsession, as has sometimes too hastily been said — are instead ones that, through their thorough work of mourning the loss, open up to a dimension of the event that restores to our horizon the opportunity to understand fracture as discontinuity, and thus as a possibility that stands opposed to inevitability. In this sense, it is reasonable to think that a long cultural cycle of “revivalist” celebration has come to an end, that the power of the event is succeeding in freeing us from the nostalgia trap, and that memories that are finally new are beginning to break through into our individual and collective imagination. This restores us that dimension of the “possible” that allows us, once again, to imagine the future.

Bibliographical references

G. Agamben, Infancy and History. Essays on the Destruction of Experience, Verso, 1993 [1978]
L. Althusser, On Aleatory Materialism, 1986
Z. Bauman, Retrotopia, Polity 2017
F. Berardi, After the Future, AK Press, 2011
A. Bonito Oliva, La transavanguardia italiana, Giancarlo Politi Editore, 1980
L. Ercoli, Yesterday. Filosofia della nostalgia, Ponte alle Grazie, 2022
A. Gandini, L’età della nostalgia. Populismo e società del post-lavoro, Treccani, 2021
G. Marramao, Kairós. Apologia del tempo debito, Bollati Boringhieri, 2020
S. Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, Faber and Faber, 2012.
C. Rovelli, The Order of Time, Allen Lane, 2018