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Every step forward· is also a step backward.
Progress always exists in only one particular sense.
And since there’s no sense in our life as a whole,
neither is there such a thing as progress as a whole.
Robert Musil

There’s no doubt about it. The question we need to start from is, in its radical formulation, quite simple: does the future still exist?

Common sense can only answer in the affirmative. If time is made up of what has headed off into the past already, and of what is here in the present moment, it is inevitable that what is yet to happen can be termed the future. However, this simple observation must be countered with some historical observations. If pre-modern civilisations possessed a great faculty for imagination, which enabled them to confront and cope with events not yet present, and if divinatory practices (which were aimed at reading into the future) were widespread in every tradition, it is also true that those very faculties and practices understood the future as a temporal region whose events, even if not currently present, would nonetheless inevitably occur. The Stoic conception of time as a cycle sums up in its beauty exactly this idea: the future is hidden from human eyes, but it has already happened, because it is nothing but a repetition. Upon every palingenesis (cosmic rebirth) a new Socrates would be born, and along with him a new Meletus, who would accuse him for the umpteenth time.[1] Upon this concept was based the mantic art taught by the Stoics: if the future has already been, then it is possible to “read” it and prophecy ceases to be an art of the uncertain, instead becoming a hard science of signs.

But this conception was, moreover, common to the main so-called “axial” civilisations, to borrow Karl Jaspers’ ingenious neologism,[2] at least until the ancient conceptual cyclicality shattered against a new initially religious and then directly philosophical conception, namely that of Christianity. With Christianity, and with its philosophical elaboration, especially in the writings of Augustine, an idea of the future was defined that we can to all intents and purposes call “modern”. In this new meaning, the future became that which does not yet exist, but which we can conceive through a new feeling, practically unknown to the ancients: i.e. hope.

We can say that from Augustine to the futurists, the modern concept of the future basically did not change. The futurists simply replaces Augustine’s faith with the worldly idea that it is possible to give substance to hope through technology rather than through prayer. But the sense of the future remains the same: it represents that promising dimension that has not yet happened and is thus intact, as a space untouched by any human foot, uncontaminated, and thus immensely more interesting than the already known or the merely present. The future, in its modern notion, becomes an actualised space, it is a futuristic future — that is, the attractive engine of action, as the past once had been. The future is seductive in an artistic sense (futurism, modernolatry), but also in a political sense (the “sun of the future” of Italian socialist tradition) and even in an economic sense (modern finance as a bet, value as futures). It is through this metamorphosis that the future becomes preponderant over the past and the present. Over the former, because it is abundant but fundamentally useless; over the latter, because it is caught between repetition (stigma of the ancient) and ontological scarcity (present as status quo, as a paralysing static state). The future, on the other hand, as an indeterminate, unlimited space, available to anyone, is the modern dimension par excellence — and it has been so also and especially for art. It is no coincidence that futurism was an artistic avant-garde: modern art (in the sense outlined thus far) is always an art of the future, in the sense of an art that always seeks to surpass itself, constantly to go beyond itself, and considers lingering on already achieved forms a mortal sin.

But does this concept really continue to exist and endure? Or, to put it more radically, does the future still exist? We could articulate a response to this question by avoiding appealing to a generic concept of postmodernism, of the “end of history”, or of post-avantgardeism, and trying to resort to more precise evidence. In this sense, the publication in 1972 of the Report on the Limits to Growth[3] by the Club of Rome (founded a few years earlier by the Italian Aurelio Peccei) marks a visible watershed with regard to modernist conceptions of the future. In the report, for the first time in an incontrovertible manner, the “progressive fates” of humanity are considered as a limited resource, as if even progress could no longer extend into a vague yet promising “infinity”. If not already earlier, from now on it could certainly be said that “the future isn’t what it used to be”, as countless works of art, fiction and film also testify.[4] An extraordinary example of this is a scene from a film in which this conceptual reversal is fully at work, i.e. Peggy Sue Got Married, by Francis Ford Coppola (from 1986). It tells the surreal story of Peggy who, falling under a spell, finds herself reliving — in her mid-forties — her adolescence as an eighteen-year-old, while retaining the awareness and appearance of a mature woman (visible to the viewers, but not to the other protagonists). Catapulted into the confidently “futuristic” America of the 1950s and 1960s, she unintentionally exposes its naivety: when her father proudly presents her with his new car (a real modern antique) she lets out an “Oh, daddy!” which combines genuine surprise and sincere pity: it is quite clear, both to her and to us postmodern viewers (the film is from the 1980s), that “that” future is now an old banger, like a car with chrome and tail fins.

However, we should not simply assume that the only fate of the future is an irreversible nostalgic retrospectivism, analogous and symmetrical to modernist perspectivism. As the scene in Peggy Sue Got Married shows, the 1950s car lives again perfectly new, even if in its medial version (as a film image), which shows it to us in a present that is nevertheless here, with and beside us. This medial immanence should by no means be underestimated, on pain of falling back into an evolutionist idea of technology, from which technology itself in fact intends to remove us. A key example of this is the affair of the famous New York shop Kim’s Video, temple of VHS and DVD, with a collection of over 55,000 items, a must-see destination for filmmakers of the calibre of Quentin Tarantino since the 1970s. When, in 2008, following the spread of YouTube and streaming, the shop’s owner Yongman Kim, decided to close, the thenmayor of the small Sicilian town of Salemi, Vittorio Sgarbi, supported by the councillor responsible for culture Oliviero Toscani, proposed to acquire the entire collection and transport it to Sicily, asserting that “New York is the past, Salemi is the future”.[5] Quite apart from the fact that the venture did not get off the ground, there remains the idea of an epochal reversal in which — inverting McLuhan’s image of the windscreen of a car in whose rear-view mirror we see a stagecoach[6] — in the windscreen in front of us we see the past, and the highway of the future is now behind us, reflected in the rear-view mirror.

The recent pandemic crisis has only brought an explosive manifestation of these symptoms. As a catastrophe encompassing the whole planet, the pandemic has made us all feel the impossibility of an elsewhere, an inviolate space, dragging with it the fatal crisis of a notion of the future as a dimension of the possible, of uncontaminated time. Yet even in this case, it would be a mistake to think that this crisis has imprisoned us in a suffocating present with no path to salvation. Quite the opposite: in its radicality, lacking any escape route, the pandemic time forces us to come to terms with an “absolute temporal recoil” in which the future takes its place within the fibres of the present in a total, scandalising intimacy.[7]

If there is one theme we must come to terms with today, it is that the catastrophic end of the future is the most majestic and euphoric philosophical news since the failure of the Nietzschean eternal return. But it would be simplistic to imagine that the future is simply behind us. No: rather, the future as futurability has become an immanent necessity, which does not merely “exist”, but (to borrow Stoic terminology) insists in themiddle, presses between present and past, has replaced the present in its intimacy with the human and the past in the inhuman alienness of the ancient.

The Christian, ideological, cultural and artistic “beyond” is now, as per Hegel’s prophecy, already here. It is “the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for  its beginning”[8] — giving the popular saying “the future has arrived” an unprecedented cogency. To once again mention an old saying, referring to a bounder who boasted, in another time and place, of leaping marvellous leaps, it must be answered again and again that it is useless to invoke Rhodus, where one could do so many fine things, because Rhodus is already here: “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!”[9]

[1] Annabella Lampugnani, Il ciclo nel pensiero greco fino ad Aristotele. Evoluzione storica di un idea e sue implicazioni teoretiche, Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1968, p. 96.
[2] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, 2021 [1949], London, Routledge.
[3] D.H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth, New York, New American Library, 1972.
[4] For a review of artistic reflections of this, see D. Birnbaum, Chronology, Sternberg Press, London, 2007; on cinema, see among others D. Auteliano (ed.), Cronosismi. Il tempo nel cinema postmoderno, Campanotto, Udine 2006; on narration, F. Carmagnola, T. Pievani, Plot. Il tempo del raccontare, Meltemi, Rome, 2004.
[5] Sophia Hollander, “La Dolce Video”, New York Times, 6 February 2009; I owe the information on this episode to my student Michela Suraniti’s unpublished thesis, Accademia di Brera, Scuola di Nuove Tecnologie per l’Arte, 2022-23.
[6] The image can be found in M. McLuhan, Q. Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, Penguin, New York 1967.
[7] Slavoy Žižek, Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism, London: Verso Books, 2014.
[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 12-13.
[9] K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], in Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 11, 1979.