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Angel of History

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Nostalgic futures and longing pasts

I. 

In Berlin 1989 an event took place that would have a profound impact on the following course, and discourse, of history. That night, 30 years ago, thousands of people were gathered around the Berlin Wall at Brandenburg Gate. Although the wall was pure concrete, it was heavily loaded with symbolism. But that day, as soon as the first damaging strike hit the wall, a new interpretation of the wall took place. What was formerly representing terror and intimidation now represented freedom and future. And the border between East and West Germany was once again open. The fall of the Berlin Wall not only marked the end of The Cold War. For Stanford scholar Francis Fukuyama it marked the end of global ideological struggle. In his words, the end of history.

The end of history does not refer to the end of mankind. Nor does it refer to a world free from cultural conflicts. It refers to the end-point of humanity’s sociocultural evolution: A complete universalisation of liberal democracy as the final form of human government. That was what Fukuyama saw when the Wall fell and the borders reopened. It was a bold statement. But in 1989, and the years following, there was an indisputable optimism about the future in Western democracies. Marxism and Fascism had lost the fight against the liberal democracy’s free market capitalism. The notion that history evolved progressively - from primitive stages of societal organisation such as tribal, to slave-owning, further to theocratic and then finally to democratic-egalitarian - had become inseparable from the modern understanding of history.

There is a painting by Paul Klee that is said to resemble this indisputable, almost violent, faith in the progressiveness of history: Angelus Novus. A painting of significance and ambivalence. It was the thinker Walter Benjamin who in his essay Theses on the Philosophy of History from 1942 made Angelus Novus, or as he calls it The Angel of History, renowned by using it to reflect on the downside of historical progress. The collective amnesia of marginalised people. The picture, in other words, depicts an angel who looks back and sympathises with the losers of history who is left behind while history is being written:

His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”

Trapped between the past and the future, Benjamin’s Angel of History was finding itself suspended. Suspended until the storm of progressiveness propelled it into the future. For Fukuyama, the question that remains is this: Has the storm finally ended? And did Fukuyama foresee the end of history, and the emergence of a (Western liberal) paradise on Earth?

No. The Angel of History reemerged the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, when American Airplanes were hijacked by terrorists and crashed into the World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. An event that made Fukuyama acknowledge how his blind faith in a universal liberal democracy, containing all its values and premises, had led him to neglect a people of a different ideological belief system.

II. 

In the opening shot of the 2016 Netflix series Stranger Things we see what seems to be a warm and homey basement. We hear a group of boys playing a board game. As the camera pans around, we get to see the room they are sitting in: A vinyl. A movie poster - the 80s horror classic The Thing. We cannot see what kind of board game they are playing, but we hear the boys refer to a dangerous creature called a demogorgon. John Milton once wrote about a demogorgon, a demon of hell, in his poem Paradise Lost (1667).

On top of the popularity of the TV show, Netflix shared some of the ingredients behind the commercial success, 1) It was one of Netflix’ first shows to be entirely based on data from their subscribers. From concept to casting to marketing based on their quantified wants and needs, and 2) It was filled with 80s nostalgia bait.

But Stranger Things is far from the only contemporary pop-cultural phenomenon that appeals to nostalgia. Feature films such as Ready Player One, Green Book, and Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood are all wrapped in a nostalgic feeling. The TV-series The Crown and The Dark Crystal likewise. There are endless reboots like Star Wars, Jurassic World and Ghostbusters, and countless remakes of Disney classics. As well as Nintendo’s iconic Super NES relaunch and Nike’s self-lacing Marty-McFly Sneakers. 

The anachronistic representations of current pop-cultural phenomenons in the West seem to suggest a paradigmatic longing for nostalgia. A backward-looking movement that forces Benjamin’s Angel of History to reverse flight. Our experience of history is constituted by and is inseparable from our discourse of it. And today, our experience of history seems to seek refuge in an ideal past. A utopia, or as the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls it retropia, which can be remodelled at will; a time where things were better and less chaotic.

III. 

It is 30 years since the storm of progressiveness tore down the Berlin Wall and opened up the border between East and West. But today, a new storm has brought forth a demogorgon - not of hopeful futures - but of an ideal past that wants to make things great again by drawing new borders. What Fukuyama’s statement revealed was not the end of history. Rather, it was that the notion of ‘stepping outside’ history is profoundly historical in itself. Liberal democracy did not become the common ideological heritage of mankind. And today it is threatened once again. Most presently by Chinese state capitalism, neo-fascist nationalism and eco-socialism.

The question is which way the storm will propel The Angel of History the coming years? Looking backwards while being propelled towards the future by the violent storm of progressiveness? Reminiscing in past events. Or the opposite. Forward-looking but reversing towards the past by the violent storm of regressiveness? Longingly looking for a promised future. 

Definitive for our era is that we are unable to grasp what the times will bring. This state of uncertainty has caused some scholars to define our era as a crisis of temporality. A crisis defined by its unpredictability of things to come.

However, the concept of crisis might benefit from being looked from its original meaning. Crisis stems from the Greek krisis and originally belonged to the field of medicine. Crisis thus means »judgement«, »separation«, and »decision«. And it refers to a moment in a process of uncertainty where a prognosis is about to be made.

Crisis therefore implies a state of temporality. An event which is about to reveal an emergence of something profoundly new. And perhaps this is truly the case about our times: The doors are wide open - which also means our perception of the contemporary determines how the future will emerge itself. 

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