The Joke of the Great Nothing

So you come to find that – increasingly as we head into a soulless millennium – all that soul from the past just rings louder and heavier.’ (Chuck D, Public Enemy)

Power to the bureaucrats! The hollow battle cry of crisis management reverberates in the Hague. Where once lived the notion of giving power to the imagination, now the exact opposite is taking place. Twenty some-odd committees of grey civil servants are pulling a cheese slicer across government spending. Even the sacred temples are no longer taboo: mortgage interest deductions, rent liberalizing, old-age pensions. The message is clear. There are no longer any illusions. From now on, it is realism that reigns. Its language is the objective and efficient journalistic newspeak of technocrats and the domain of the civil servants, spread out across stacks of paper that are meters high. Welcome to the political terminus. Please step off the train here and leave all your ideological baggage behind you.

What both neo-liberal capitalism and ‘realistic, existing socialism’ had in common was an unbridled faith in the future, where growth in the gross national product presumed an equivalent growth in gross national happiness. Current sacrifices were always legitimized with a view to a better future. But what now? A socialist future has been declared formally dead ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we lived in a world where only a neo-liberal, capitalist future was on offer. Now, this future has also lost its sheen. Neoliberalism has itself been declared dead. All kinds of doom scenarios are the talk of the day. We have arrived at the end of ‘the end of history’ once proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. As a result of this double ideological implosion, it is the future itself that is now in crisis – our power of imagining that future.

You might expect that the collective political drama of the worst financial implosion since World War II, an impending climate crisis, rising costs of food and raw materials, depleted oil supplies and an envisioned post-American world order might provide the stuff of reflection and innovation. It is a familiar assumption. In a crisis, the old dies off, creating space for radical innovation. Can we imagine a different future as a result of this flux in which everything finds itself? But no, the complex machinery of Dutch society seems perfectly capable of rigidly persevering, carrying on without the slightest idea of where it is headed. It is reminiscent of Ballard’s apocalyptic Voices of Time, in which the human race collects itself like a sleepwalking army for that one final march. Under the yoke of the great nothing, there is no more utopian horizon, just a conflict between proponents of soft control and hard control techniques, the politics of disaster response, damage control and crisis management.

The crisis of the future is perhaps still most clearly evident in the rising popularity of the past in politics. Geert Wilders and the New Right want a one-way ticket to a blank Once Upon a Time, when there were no Moslems and no headscarves. The CDA Christian democrats want to return to the fresh-new-shoots culture before the moral decay of the 1970s. The PvdA labour party still nostalgically pines for the days of Joop Den Uyl, when they still had ideals. D66 democrats and the GroenLinks left-wing green party want a return to tolerance, while the SP socialists want a revival of the 1970s leftist welfare state. Even the streets and the media are mesmerized by recycling retro and repeating recollections. The postmodernist pastiche of bygone days has reached a saturation point. We dance and dress up in a mix of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, times that in some way or other were more ‘raw’, more vintage and simply more authentic. ‘When nothing is real anymore, nostalgia assumes its true identity,’ as Baudrillard once claimed. ‘Poverty of experience’ was the name given to the classic modern experience: a kind of anesthetized condition of a person having to cope with too many stimuli, too many sensations from his environment to be able to identify and quantify them. In today's multimedia world, this seems to have become a real condition humaine.

It has always been art that has been the privileged intermediary between now and the future – art as a mirror, as the questioning or undermining of the contemporary, as a fruitful outlook on things to come. Art now actually seems to be living under the same affliction, an excess of falling back on itself, the endless reproduction of what once possessed symbolic power. Here, re-digesting past avant-gardes and the nostalgic return to craft characterize an overall crisis in authenticity and power of expression. We live in a comparable situation as the Maximalists once did under their Yoke of the Great Nothing, the world turned in on itself of which the petit bourgeois poets complained, but now on a large scale.
It is time for renewal. Die, you old forms and thoughts!

Merijn Oudenampsen is a researcher and critic based in Amsterdam.

This column is part of METROPOLIS M n06 2009, which is themed "Urgent" in which 13 artists, curators and critic call our attention to an issue that they consider urgent.