In History and Helplessness, Moishe Postone lays bare what he perceives as the most pressing problem of the zeitgeist of today: the feeling of helplessness. Following Postone, Chris Cutrone suggests that the feeling of helplessness is an accrual of hundreds of years of leftist failures to properly resolve the contradictions of capital and overcome a fear of freedom. Slavoj Zizek proclaims that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism in this “melancholic age.” The failure to define our contemporary situation through repetitive critiques of modernism only shows how nostalgic and helpless we are when faced with a present without historical consciousness, and thus barely deserving of the name “present”. Recent books defining supposedly new variations of “late capitalism,” lacking any commitment to redeeming the dimming project of human freedom only deepen our despair. A blistering realism exists in television shows like HBO’s The Wire, while simultaneously ABC’s Lost is the inverse; an escapist fantasy of capitalism–the fantastical longing for a mystical past that never existed. Even light comedy hinges entirely upon bureaucracy in The Office, and 30 Rock, showing just how infectious administration is. Film and literature are filled with distopic nightmare/fantasies expressing fear of freedom, to the point of imagining technology’s ability to eviscerate humanity all together (whether through the physical destruction of the human race, or a universal rejection of humanism). Meanwhile, social practices argue that the final refuge for humanity is in tending one’s garden. Richard Serra’s early 21st century prediction of a return to existential crisis has proven grist for the mill for capitalism’s perpetual mining of despair. One could go on.
Art is thus relegated to antidote of a helpless society. Aesthetic experience provides a meager taste of what living in a world outside of barbarism might be like. But art plays a crucial role in expressing helplessness as well, as in the abstract picture unable to access the political moment, yearning for an autonomy it can never have, saying the most in what it can’t say at all. Or more resignedly and contemporaneously in relational work that perpetuates ephemerality and the volatilization of subjectivity. It is becoming more and more difficult to distract ourselves from the helplessness of our contemporary situation, and art is condemned to be a corrective to impoverishment.
An ascendant generation inheriting a historical pathology of defeatism further expresses resignation in terms of freedom. The permeation of this failure and the growth of material means which could engender the realization of this project are nevertheless correlated. Evidence of this correlation can be found in the global growth of technological resources that have ironically only rendered society increasingly helpless. An unrestrained and overzealous faith in the idea of technology, void of realistic historical examination, and that a new generation empties subjectivity into desperately, only anxiously expresses unfreedom. The question lies with our ability to recognize the conditions that give rise to this helplessness. Do those caught in a tornado admire the vibrant color patterns of swirling lethal debris? Neima Jahromi addresses the issue of problematic humanism in his review of Never Let Me Go. Artist-in-Residence Ben Carney manipulates human physicality in virtual representations and animations of the de-and-re-formed body-esque. In “Art and Politics After Postmodernism,” Chris Cutrone discusses the inability of postmodern art criticism to address contemporary art’s muddy relationship to the history of the present. Chris Mansour’s combative interview with Sharon Hayes shows our non-identity with a history that yearned for more than we do today. Pac Pobric’s unique view of dialogic art through the filter of Mondrian examines the differing ways in which art’s tangential relationship to extrinsic conditions have been addressed, questioning if they were better tensed a century ago. Ira Murfin’s short story portrays a pervasive, yet undiagnosed consciousness which can only access a declining leftist moment with reverence, even as it decays.
– The Editors