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.
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.