Utopia of a Tired Man Borges story Illustration by Federico Abuyé
The chronicler, who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and small, thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history. Indeed, the past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity. Said another way: only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour [order of the day] – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgment.
Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
Untimely reflections on history, subjectivity and revolution …
In Jorge Luis Borges’ “Utopia of a Tired Man”, all reality has been flattened out into an eternal repetition of the same. “No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same.” Every journey is indifferently a passage through empty space. The absence of museums and libraries, the prohibition of printing, have erased history. “We want to forget the past, save for the composition of elegies. There are no commemorations or anniversaries or portraits of dead men.” Without governments, cities, private property, politicians to rule – all dependent on particular mastery and mouldings of space and time – identities, facts, all that is solid, loses all significance, or fades into non-existence. If any thought remains, it is that of blind doubt, or the art of forgetting; the forgetting of all that is personal and local. Even the colours and sounds of art dim. The succession of time, measured only by the constant flow of the water – different, yet always the same – of a water-clock, is held in abeyance in the utopians’ efforts to live sub specie aeternitatis. Names have been lost. And the utopian of Borges’ story is but “somebody” or “you”.
The only question that remains to induce debate for the inhabitants of “nowhere” “is the advantages and disadvantages of the gradual or simultaneous suicide of every person on earth.” What pleasures there are to be found wane with old age. “When an individual has reached a hundred years of age, he is able to do without love and friendship. Illness and inadvertent death are not things to be feared … . When he wishes, he kills himself.” And so our weary, aged utopian willingly ends his life in the crematory “invented by a philanthropist whose name, I believe, was Adolf Hitler.”
The snow cover that silences utopia’s landscape is the accumulated ashes of past generations, of cremated histories.
Borges’ peaceful nightmare is our reality.
Not of course in the details, nor as a consequence of a utopian project gone wrong. Our “crematoria” are not ovens to dispose of the tired, but the destructive shrinking away of past and future before the shimmering spectacle of what we can own, the fetish merchandise that circulates the globe ever more rapidly, seducing with the promise of life. Our many gods have been metamorphosised into commodities; our one god has been illuminated in the flickering lights of currency traders.
Our memories go back only as far as our most recent purchases and our futures extend only to the next paycheck and debt payment. Our experience, imagination, emotions, dreams, thoughts are domesticated by work and the need for money to satisfy what are judged to be necessities. To be a salaried and debt slave are the markers of social “integration”. Objectively and existentially, we are defined as “human capital”, commodities in turn, to be invested in, so as to secure a place in the “market”. And the market of commodities knows no past or future. Like a fetish, the spectacle concentrates time and space in the moment, or in the promised moment, of satisfaction. The satisfaction though is fleeting; once sated, the seduction of excess, or the need for money to appease the seduction, reasserts itself.
The accumulating circulation of commodities knows no limits. As universally exchangeable, borders and locations, origins and identities, are constantly violated, except when they serve the flows of the former (most notably, the movement of the commodity of labour and those who make its reproduction possible must be controlled, so as to secure the intensification of the fetishisation of commodities). Older, local experiences of the sacred, ties to land and traditions, parochial social relations, sharing, giving and common-ing, must all be weakened, emptied of their moral force, or destroyed and/or exploited as a novel source of merchandise.
Commodity production and its fetishised expression as spectacle creates the first true world history. And yet paradoxically, it engenders simultaneously the end of human history, that is, the history of singular human experiences that has always been plural.
As all is reduced to money value, as the common measure. Particularities and specificities, localities and temporalities, are leveled, standardised, rendered banal and the object of sale. We are all in turn made the same: worker, worker and consumer, and finally “human capital”. And those who fall outside the obligatory pattern are the refugees, the wretched, the superfluous: to be quickly exploited (as cheap labour, as poor consumers; in either case, to be consumed) and then jettisoned, or to be ignored, left to die, or killed (or allowed to kill themselves).
Our breath, our blood, moves to the fluctuations of Capital.
There are of course exceptions to be found among what remains of the world’s indigenous and peasant populations, artisanal fishing communities, and amidst those, much smaller in number, who endeavour to create spaces and ways of life beyond capitalism. The islands of non/anti-capitalism are however fragile, and not only because they are the object of capitalist political violence, but ultimately because capitalist social relations threaten the very future of human life on the planet, in any presently recognisable form.
And if we speak of the indigenous, of peasants, of fishing communities, we speak of groups of people who are tied to land and seas, who have histories passed from generation to generation as traditions, whose identities are circumscribed by defined spaces and times. But it was these characteristics that had to be overcome, destroyed, in the making of a globalised capitalism; a process that in effect continues at all levels of nature that technology, political power and money exposes.
Even the conscious rejection of capitalism by the proletariat was shaped by a particular working class culture the served to defend against and contest the violence of capitalist social relations. But the old proletariat – however it is defined – is now dead. Its social position-identity and its ways of life swept away by the onslaught of global labour exploitation (and all of its consequences, as testified to by the permanent destruction of commons, the forced uprooting of populations, enforced salaried labour and intensified precariousness, local ecological collapse, and so on), its mores buried in the glamour of shopping.
Subjectivites are constituted in and through social relations, as the latter are made and reinforced by subjectivities. The urgent question then, for those who seek a non-capitalist or anti-capitalist politics, becomes what kind of subjects are made in the timelessness and non-places of contemporary capitalism? Without histories, without territorialities, does anything remain of the subject that is recalcitrant to the reigning order?
Without any pretension to a final answer to these questions, what can be proffered are doubts about older notions of revolutionary subjects. The subjectivities of the eternal presents of commodification lack depth; they are without memory, and thus without expectations constitutive of futures different from those that are not attentive to the next wave of “new and improved” products. Without memory and a consciousness of dependence, of fragility, they are devoid of any collective identifications, past or future. The atomised subjectivities of our time can only take hold of themselves through the mediation of what they possess. They are, in other words, reduced to self-flagellating narcissism, an induced narcissism held together only by a faith in the possibilities of money and consumption. Should these latter be impossible, then experience is reduced to frustration, guilt and failure. If indignation is still felt, then it is because memories of different, past social and political relations remain alive. But even these recollections weaken or become the object of nostalgic and delusional neo-fascist politics.
This is not an argument for passive hopelessness. But nor is it one that aspires to find new sources for active hope. Perhaps what remains to us, in the age of permanent crises, is the possibility of an “activism” or “militancy” of hopelessness.
The anti-capitalist “Left” came to grief in its insistence on a politics of progress, offering to the dispossessed and exploited the same that capitalism promised, but with greater justice. It failed because it chose as its battleground what capitalism itself defined as the stakes of the competition. The contest of course was not always one-sided, and capital did not always make off with the laurels of victory. The dominant narrative though, even if the story remains unfinished, has been one of defeats for those who have fought against capitalism, and this to such a degree that what lies before us is not the choice between socialism or barbarism, but between socialism or death. And the measure of the extent of the recurring and parallel crises is perhaps no better expressed than in the idea that it is today easier for many people to imagine the end of humanity, than the end of capitalism.
It has been said of revolutions, contrary to the myth of revolutionary subjects, that they upset, turn over, social roles and identities; that in the midst of rebellion and upheaval, social locations and roles collapse, as new roles appear as possible; that they are not the consequence of pre-given social actors affirming their existence or demanding their rights, but the unleashing of collective imaginaries liberated from social identities. In the passionate intensity of revolution, social relations appear as what they are: created and sustained relations of power for the ordering of collective life. Revolution thus suspends these relations, revealing what lies at their origin and what remains at their foundation: the desire and creativity to rule. The radical promise of anti-capitalist revolution has always been carried by the desire to create and live in non-hierarchical and free societies. But this desire can die, or be killed. And then there will be nothing left for us but collective suicide.
Borges’ weary utopian says: “There is nothing but quotations left for us. Our language is a system of quotations”. However to speak or write through quotations is to simultaneously cite the past, to copy it, and in the same moment, to tear the historical object from its context, and thereby rendering it real, as history.
In a world where all has become quotation, the tension between representation and reality, what in turn grounds the distinction between truth and falsity, collapses. All has become illusion and/or reality at one and the same time.
But then however strange the idea may appear, it is precisely at this moment, when all reality is flattened out by the flow of quotations-copies that are nothing more than the copies of copies (one can replace “copies” by “commodities” here), that all history opens up before our experience, without ranks and hierarchies, without major and minor, or central and peripheral, narratives. All that formerly would have been excluded by our truth now washes in upon us, as we flow out to others. The divide separating us and them, I and s/he weakens, unveiling the many “somebodies” that we have all become before the brands-identities of fetishised, consumable products. But it is just as “somebody”, as collections of the mutually anonymous, unmoored from any point in space or time, that our experience is capable of erupting across the virtual fullness of all human geography and history.
Borges wrote of both possibilities. In his Aleph, where after beholding all spaces, the main character is stripped of the possibility of wonder before what is strange: out “on the street … riding the subway, every one of the faces seemed familiar to me. I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me”. Or in his Garden of forking paths, where time is comprised of strands “which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect or ignore each other through the centuries” that form a web that “embraces every possibility”.
Can we not then imagine these fictions as portraits of the grounds for revolution?