Why Recent Decades All Feel Culturally the Same, and Why Mark Fisher Thought Capitalism Was to Blame

The nine­teen-sev­en­ties had its own dis­tinc­tive aes­thet­ics, ques­tion­able though that peri­od’s styles have often looked to sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions. So, in stark, jagged, neon con­trast, did the eight­ies. Those of us who came of age in the nineties have, in recent years, come to appre­ci­ate that look and feel of what then sur­round­ed us, which seemed both bland and exag­ger­at­ed at the time. But around the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, some­thing fun­da­men­tal seems to have changed. The brief “Y2K” era may now offi­cial­ly be retro, but how dif­fer­ent was the style of the two-thou­sands from that of the sub­se­quent decade, or indeed one after that — the one in which we find our­selves right now?

To put the ques­tion more blunt­ly, why don’t decades feel cul­tur­al­ly dis­tinct any­more? “The dimen­sion of the future has dis­ap­peared,” British the­o­rist Mark Fish­er once said in a lec­ture. “We’re marooned, we’re trapped in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, still.”

To be in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry is noth­ing more than “to have twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry cul­ture on high-def­i­n­i­tion screens.” Though Fish­er died five years ago, his obser­va­tions have only become more rel­e­vant to our cul­tur­al con­di­tion. We’re still expe­ri­enc­ing what he called “the slow can­cel­la­tion of the future,” a phe­nom­e­non explained in the Epoch Phi­los­o­phy video at the top of the post.

“The way we expe­ri­ence artis­tic time peri­ods is dying as we speak,” explains the video’s nar­ra­tor. “In our cur­rent state of this new post­mod­ern social exis­tence that we see in the West, his­toric­i­ty is gone. The way we inter­act and expe­ri­ence time is start­ing to fade away into a con­fused jum­bled mess of aes­thet­ic chaos.” The cul­prit, in Fish­er’s view? The tri­umph of cap­i­tal­ism, and more so the “cap­i­tal­ist real­ism” that clos­es off the pos­si­bil­i­ty of even imag­in­ing alter­na­tive social and eco­nom­ic orders. “Dur­ing the age of social democ­ra­cy, Britain fund­ed art pro­grams and film cen­ters,” result­ing in “exper­i­men­tal clas­sics” and “extreme­ly artis­tic British TV.” These and oth­er mech­a­nisms main­tained a “sub­lime val­ue around art” that pro­tect­ed it from “the whims of the mar­ket.”

Today we have only “a hyper-com­mod­i­fied sphere of art, where the pri­ma­ry goal is now mak­ing a prof­it — not nec­es­sar­i­ly out of pure love of prof­it, but the real­iza­tion that your abil­i­ty to be an artist will die with­out tan­gi­ble sales.” Hence the “recy­cling of old art” in forms as var­i­ous as “music, TV, film, and even video games.” This absence of the tru­ly new, to Fish­er’s mind, implied the death of the very idea of the future, of improve­ment on or at least a break from the present. No mat­ter our polit­i­cal views — or our abil­i­ty to digest Fish­er’s use of Der­ridean terms like “hauntol­ogy” — we’ve all felt the truth of this in our cul­tur­al lives. As tech­nol­o­gy march­es on, we indulge ever more deeply in nos­tal­gia, pas­tiche, and retro-futur­ism. Per­haps we can break out of this cycle, but Fish­er, safe to say, was not opti­mistic.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Pre­vi­ous Decades Pre­dict­ed the Future: The 21st Cen­tu­ry as Imag­ined in the 1900s, 1950s, 1980s, and Oth­er Eras

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Theodor Adorno & His Cri­tique of Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

Stephen Hawk­ing Won­ders Whether Cap­i­tal­ism or Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Will Doom the Human Race

How the Sovi­ets Imag­ined in 1960 What the World Would Look in 2017: A Gallery of Retro-Futur­is­tic Draw­ings

The Cri­sis of Cap­i­tal­ism Ani­mat­ed

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • PAxE says:

    It is neat to see this here. Iron­i­cal­ly, ideas like this are char­ac­ter­is­tic of the time in which they were pro­duced.)

  • Rod Stasick says:

    In that pic­ture of Fish­er clutch­ing his chest,
    some­one should Pho­to­shop a set of pearls.

  • Guy says:

    It’s not gonna stop until everyone’s got a slight­ly dark­er sense of humor and can laugh at it.

  • Thomas Montague says:

    It makes zero sense to blame “cap­i­tal­ist real­ism” for the cur­rent age’s dearth of cre­ativ­i­ty. The Unit­ed States has always been cap­i­tal­ist, but as the author states, the same­ness has only been since the mil­len­ni­um turned. Fur­ther, this yet to be ful­ly described aes­thet­ic is not being forced on the pop­u­la­tion. Those that choose it must appre­ci­ate it some­how or they would choose dif­fer­ent­ly.

    Peo­ple weren’t forced into an aes­thet­ic straight-jack­et at the begin­ning of this mil­len­ni­um by cap­i­tal­ism. Some­thing did hap­pen though: The tri­umph of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion. I watched it hap­pen. I cheered it on. I thought it would lib­er­ate and empow­er peo­ple. Instead, peo­ple have become duller and more socio­path­ic.

    Take music. In order to cre­ate new music that peo­ple want to lis­ten to, you have to believe that it’s pos­si­ble. That the songs all haven’t been writ­ten already. It’s dif­fi­cult to believe that in the face the enor­mous access dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy gives us to the music of the past. It’s easy to find some­thing that sounds sim­i­lar. Include the dam­age dig­i­tal devices do to our atten­tion, is it any won­der that today’s music sounds like some­thing from the 20th cen­tu­ry?

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