Towards 2000, or News From You-Know-Where
Calendars are never innocent, but in recent times they have become positively lurid. Even the soberest temporal reckoning is open to the suggestions of political numerology, which fascinates by its very lack of reason. The year now ended was for a generation the deadline for the most widely propagated of latterday political forebodings, George Orwell’s vision of ‘Ingsoc’; and, as if that were not distraction enough, 1984 found us exactly mid-way between 1968 and the millennium, 2000. Such thoughts are whimsical, but whimsy is not random. It is a sign of anxiety, in this case a political anxiety whose real grounds are evident. The stronger probabilities of the years ahead appear dispiriting and dangerous, and, more gravely, it is increasingly widely feared that the reservoir of historical possibility is in fact a mirage. Contemporary culture is pervaded by what Raymond Williams has come to call ‘the sense of the loss of the future’—the future not as a continuation of recognizable forms of social existence but as a locus of realizable alternatives. It is ironic that capitalism should at length have ‘advanced’ to this. Familiar of the most dynamic mode of production in history, capitalist culture valorized the attainable earthly future as no prior culture could have done. The theme of ‘modernity’ was and is just this: an endless serial presentation (making present) of the future. The ambition was not empty: capitalism has remade and continues to remake the earth and its populations. But the accumulation of tomorrows is self-depleting. The physical landscapes of advanced capitalism are now littered with stalled and abandoned futures, things and people alike, much metropolitan culture is an aimless circulation of retro-chic, and apocalypse itself is just the last word.
’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’
By the same author:
A Party of Latecomers
Over the past decade the American political-intellectual scene has undergone a significant change with the emergence of a lively nexus of journals, ideas and activities, constituting a new kind of cultural left. Francis Mulhern etches the portrait of the Brooklyn-based n+1, which has been both forerunner and intellectual flagship of this effervescence.
Francis Mulhern on Rob Colls, George Orwell: English Rebel. The protean cult of Eric Blair finds its latest iteration.
Francis Mulhern on Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times. Considerations on the fates of bourgeois high culture, avant-gardes and mass art, in the ‘age of extremes’ and beyond.
Culture and Society, Then and Now
The idea of culture in Raymond Williams’s classic work, and discrepant readings of it, fifty years on. Gestation amid CP debates on the English tradition, hidden affinities with the Frankfurt School, and counterposition to the verities of today’s liberal multiculturalism.
Conrad's Inconceivable History
The fascination of Joseph Conrad’s novels with the transformative pressures of capitalist modernity threatens a revelation so intolerable, Mulhern suggests, that it can only be contained within dense narrative strategies of deferral and disavowal.
What is Cultural Criticism?
Meanings of culture, the place of politics and role of intellectuals in the practice of criticism, as conceived since Arnold. Replying to Stefan Collini in NLR 18, Francis Mulhern asks how far the arts of a conversible portraiture bear on a critical agenda.
Replying to Stefan Collini in NLR 7, Francis Mulhern extends his critique of the pretensions of culture to general social authority, to the Marxist versions of Kulturkritik in the Frankfurt School. What defines the difference between politics and culture as practices?
Britain After Nairn
How far can the path from Thatcher to Blair be written as a dynamic of Ukanian constitutional involution, or devolution? Francis Mulhern questions whether classes can be so quickly bundled off-stage. Is it possible to speak of nations—English, Scottish, Irish or any other—as political communities, without social or ideological dispositions?
'Teachers, Writers, Celebrities': Intelligentsias and Their Histories
Marxism in Literary Criticism