The End of History, Again

Even as historians abandon master narratives and other disciplines turning away from historical models of explanation, a historical narrative is still subtly in play, this time as a means of legitimating neoliberalism. In this model, given form by Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man, the end of history validates Margaret Thatcher's slogan "There is no alternative." But where the postmodernist Thatcher is insisting on neoliberalism as the only operative political position, Fukuyama and the neoliberals of our day argue that all other alternatives are shut down. For Fukuyama, Hegel's idea of history as progress comes to an end after the collapse of Communism and the worldwide adoption of neoliberalism as a political ideology.[1]

Jean Baudrillard, too, suggests that history has come to an end with the collapse of Communism, although he sees it causing the exhaustion of meaning and the heat death of civilization. Bereft of any direction toward an alternative or a future, Baudrillard concludes, history inevitably starts counting down toward the only remaining reference point, the only final possible moment of collective historical consciousness, the millennium. With the countdown complete, history expires and any sense of sequence is utterly undone: "the history of this century has already come to an end, because we are reliving it interminably and because, therefore, metaphorically speaking, we shall never pass on into the future."[2] 2000, for Baudrillard is not an end, but rather stands for the "illusion of the end." [3]

Beyond the collapse of the East bloc, Baudrillard sees the end of history as the product of the oversaturation of information: the endless, rapid circulation of signs undoes our capacity to make meaning out of life and prevents us from ordering time. Baudrillard explains

Now, through the impulse for total dissemination and circulation, every event is granted its own liberation; every fact becomes atomic, nuclear, and pursues its trajectory into the void. In order to be disseminated to infinity, it has to be fragmented like a particle. … No human language can withstand the speed of light. No event can withstand acceleration. No history can withstand the centrifugation of facts or their being short-circuited in real time…[4]

If both the contemporary city and information storage technologies produce hyperdensity, the omnipresence of the network, the spread of globalization, and the urbanization of the globe lead to a condition of equivocation, of horizontal spread and sameness. Information is simultaneously overdense and overdispersed. With everything available to us, our reaction is indifference. The wealth of "real time" information only amplifies this, Baudrillard concludes: "if we want immediate enjoyment of the event, if we want to experience it at the instant of its occurrence, as if we were there, this is because we no longer have any confidence in the meaning or purpose of the event." [5]

For Baudrillard, the closure of history marks not the triumph of the fittest but the onset of an era of "obscenity," governed by "an endless, unbridled proliferation of the social, of the political, of information, of the economic, of the aesthetic, not to mention, of course, the sexual." In this oversaturated condition, the result is nothingness, in which concepts can't be formed. [6]

Compelling as Baudrillard's analysis is, it leaves us with little prospect of analyzing network culture. Our ability to sequence time is undone, but this doesn't mean that we cease to exist. As Sterling suggests, network culture isn't a nihilistic chaos, it has distinct cultural manifestations produced by the collapse of the past and the future into the present. Such temporality may best be represented by the television show Lost in which the temporal sequence of the narrative is undone in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Instead of postmodern hyperspace, we have network culture's hypertime. Take the cinematic Matrix trilogy, in which the present is only a simulation produced by a dystopian future or novels like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History, cyberpunk author William Gibson turns away from projecting the future to carefully describing the just-past, a year or two before their date of publication. But network culture is marked less by science fiction and more by fantasy films such as the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Where J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy was an allegory for total war-remembered in the Second World War and feared in the Cold War-the cinema version is a simulation of an alternate reality, temporally out of sequence with ours.

Our new attitude toward the past is the product of a change in memory. New technologies make it possible for us to displace our memory into the database. The increase in inexpensive forms of data storage-both in terms of free online e-mail services with high storage quotas and portable hard drives-allow us to keep records of everything. A particular event becomes unnecessary when it has been recorded in our e-mail program or calendar and can be recalled at a moment's notice. Much as Plato suggested that writing was simultaneously a poison and cure in allowing humans to record information on paper instead of committing it to memory, fast, inexpensive storage makes the past accessible to us even as it undoes our need to conceptualize it in our heads. We no longer have to remember what the past is like when we can see it in a proliferation of time-stamped digital images.

The changes in memory also affect the physical past: until the advent of the global market on the Internet, collecting traces of the past required effort and threatened failure. The past hid in used bookstores and antique shops, necessitating that collectors seek out such places. Today, however, the past is readily available via eBay and other online venues. Generations of historians have scoured the world's archives. The past no longer waits to be discovered and exposed, it becomes a matter of connoisseurship instead. This is the past we see in the television show Mad Men, in which the historical reconstruction is not so much a matter of nostalgia as of a game of obsessive reconstruction, which is then immediately annotated and, as necessary, corrected at Web sites like the Footnotes of Mad Men.[7]

Under network culture, the past is revealed as ambiance, an environmental quality to be experienced. Take fashion, for example: the late 1990s and early 2000s are dominated by the supermodernist approach of haute-couture firms like Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Gucci, which used new fabrics and methods to produce clothing designed with performance in mind, but during the later part of the 2000s, fashion turns toward heritage, reviving classic brands like Filson, L. L. Bean, and Land's End, thereby turning obsolescence into commodified "trad." Unlike the 1980s preppy movement, this heritage turn makes no claim to class status or to continuity with existing traditions. Rather its fitted cuts indicate the arrival on American shores of a fascination with Ivy-League-college life that first emerges in Japan in the 1960s. [8] Although the heritage fashion movement relies on an obsessive knowledge of vintage styles, materials and techniques only possible under network culture, the past has also been thoroughly remade: items re-created with painstaking detail even as unfashionable flaws are removed, materials and cuts improved. The poverty of the past is as foreign to us as the smell of cigarette smoke that would have filled the offices of Sterling Cooper.

In our day, Bruno Latour writes

… we have changed time so completely that we have shifted from the time of Time to the time of Simultaneity. Nothing, it seems, accepts to simply reside in the past, and no one feels intimidated any more by the adjectives "irrational," "backward" or "archaic". Time, the bygone time of cataclysmic substitution, has suddenly become something that neither the Left nor the Right seems to have been fully prepared to encounter: a monstrous time, the time of cohabitation. Everything has become contemporary.[9]

Our everyday experience of temporality has changed. Through the Internet, computers and mobile phones synchronize their internal clocks to accurate timeservers, establishing a common time with a degree of precision that only recently was reserved for scientists and the military.

This new degree of precision belies the looseness that technology makes possible. The strict regimentation of time under modernity-represented first by the pocket watch and then by the wristwatch-is undone. Modernity is marked by the rise of bureaucratized culture, timetables, schedules, event, appointments and the measure of time, a rationalized temporality from the railway station to everyday life. Although the omnipresent display of time on computer screens and cell phones may suggest a surfeit of time, mobile telephony also undoes the practical need for precise scheduling. Instead of planning to meet each other at a precise time and place, friends can easily make rough plans to meet and then get in touch with each other to coordinate the logistics, even choosing a time and a place while in transit. Mobile phones allow our schedules to soften: when running late, we can contact the other party to advise them. If time used to serve as a mediating device between two parties, mobile telephony allows more efficient continuous and direct contact between them.[10] With time both pervasive and more fluid, wristwatches are becoming superfluous, little more than fashion accessories.[11]

In part, the new looseness in time is due to the increasing demands of business for temporal flexibilty. The rigid modernist workday dissolves under network culture: constant on-the-go connectivity and globalization mean that the rigid division between work time and leisure time is undone. Workers take care of personal tasks and respond to personal e-mails during work time, but they are also asked to be always on call, always in touch. [12] In addition, a globalized world demands rapid response during what had previously been off hours, and for many, frequent travel across time zones. Instead of feeling prisoners to an inflexible system, workers are subject to oversaturation. [13] It's hardly any wonder that we lose the ability to sequence.

We can see the anti-temporal nature of network culture in its most distinct literary form, the blog. Organized as a Web site composed of a series of time-stamped posts, the newest first, older ones cascading downwards in reverse chronological order, blogs at first appear to have a temporal organization, but this is a ruse. By presenting material in reverse chronological order, blogs undo any potential narrative effect. In practice, one reads an unfamiliar blog in reverse, looking at the most recent post and then, if captivated, scrolling down a bit. Following a blog means catching it in mid-stream, skimming a little off the top and then adding it to an aggregator where it can be read in the future. Past entries are little more than an archive to direct traffic to the site via search engines.

Blogs are non-chronous: the precision of the time stamp is meaningless and, in general, bears little relationship to the actual chronological time (the exception being if the blog post corresponds directly to an event-generally a crisis of some sort-taking place in real time). Moreover, even the utility of the sequence is undone by uneven posting practices on different blogs. As one blogger posts much more than another, the latter's older posts may appear newer than the former's since greater frequency of posting ages older posts more rapidly. [14]

The changes in temporality that mark network culture are not without their effects for politics. When becoming is replaced by being, the possibility of transformation also disappears.[15] But where the reactionary strain in postmodernism stressed a return to family values, today we have left only what Mark Fisher dubs "capitalist realism." [16] The new realism eschews the need for legitimation or critique. It just is, positing no alternative. The critique of industrial society's homogeneity that was common in art under modernism and postmodernism is now absorbed into management theory, the alienated factory worker replaced by the knowledge worker with the "freedom" of job flexibility (which also means no benefits or job security) and the privilege of self-expression as a member of the creative class. [17]




[1] . Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), 211

[2] . Jean Baudrillard, "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown," Economy & Society 26, no. 4 (1997): 447. For Baudrillard, once the Bomb made it possible to conceive the end, our failure to destroy ourselves meant that "we ahve to get used to the idea thatthere is no end any longer, there will no longer be any end, that history itself has become interminable. Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, 116.

[3] . Baudrillard, "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown," 450-51.

[4] . ---, The Illusion of the End, 2.

[5] . Ibid, 9.

[6] . ---, "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown," 451.

[8] . David Colman, "Dress Codes; The All-American Back from Japan," the New York Times, June 18, 2009, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00E1DE153AF93BA25755C0A...

[9] . Bruno Latour, "From Realpolitick to Dingpolitick or How to Make Things Public," Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 30.

[10] . Richard Seyler Ling, The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society (San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2004), 73.

[11] . The result has been huge declines in recent sales, the watch market down 20% between 2005 and 2008 as timekeeping functions are absorbed by screens big and small. David Ho, "Tick. Tick. Tick. Will The Cell Phone Slay the Wristwatch?" Cox News Service (September 1, 2008), http://www.coxwashington.com/news/content/reporters/stories/2008/30/2008....

[12] . Ling sees this as the most important aspect of mobile telephony Ling, 58.

[13] . Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 2000).

[14] . Eric Baumer, Mark Sueyoshi, and Bill Tomlison, "Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging," inProceeding of the twenty-sixth annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Florence, Italy: ACM, 2008, http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1357054.1357228.

[15] . Doreen B. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 119.

[16] . Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[17] . Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005).