Carpe Futurum

By Katie Kohn

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Thus begins what is perhaps the most obscene poem ever written in the English language.

Robert Herrick’s "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" falls somewhere between an unironic (though not quite sincere) version of Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress" and Sade’s appeal to the young and responsive women of "Justine." Perhaps Sade could have avoided Napoleon’s asylum if he had veiled his pornography with saccharine references to "Time," "the Ages" and mortality, and had conceived his Edenic gardens of poised and blushing pricks with the harmless, pluck-able rosebud. But to be sure, it is not Herrick’s sadism that makes this poem so offensive. Today, sadism is the norm and Napoleon the intolerant, prudish, ridiculous tyrant. No, the pornographic metaphor is the poem’s obscene underside. It’s much touted moral message -- carpe diem, seize the day! -- is its overtly obscene face!

The ideological imperatives of secular, late capitalist, free societies are on the whole, quite positive. They not only tolerate our indulgences, they actively solicit our enjoyment! They encourage peace, happiness, efficiency and ease as well as rally excitement for the noble causes of progressive, capitalist democracies: more (money, benefits, opportunities, choices) for more (people, workers, families, groups, consumers), better and better, richer and richer, more diverse and more diverse, etc. These "soft" commands, "live for the moment," "life’s short so eat dessert first," "buy now pay later," "go with the flow," "smile," "be happy" and "just do it" constitute the secular ideology of late capitalist progressiveness. Today is carnival, but tomorrow comes the reaping.

What resonance does living in the present have for politics? Is this position necessarily fatal for a political imagination that requires some sense of a future present -- something that can be planned for, prevented, anticipated and shaped. The logic of carpe diem forecloses the future present. The future is conceived as a brick wall that always inches forward, forever announcing "the end," the harvest, the reaping. The future is irreparably bleak, so plant yourself in the present and try not to think about it. Carpe diem? Aberre futurum--forget the future!

In a sense, Herrick’s appeal to virgins is but another metaphor veiling the overtly apathetic politics of Horace:

Leuconoe, don’t ask -- its dangerous to know -- what end the gods will give me or you.
Don’t play with Babylonian fortune-telling either. Better just deal with whatever comes your way.

Whether you’ll see several more winters or whether the last one Jupiter gives you is the one even now pelting the rocks on the shore with the waves of the Tyrrhenian sea -- be smart, drink your wine. Scale back your long hopes to a short period. Even as we speak, envious time is running away from us. Seize the day, trusting little in the future.

"Don’t ask," "it’s dangerous to know," "scale back your hopes," "better just deal with whatever comes your way," "drink your wine." This drunken Taoism seems fundamentally at odds with the sober yet hopeful aims of informed (democratic) intervention. And yet, western Taoism is the natural ally for the capitalist agenda in which literally, one can never be too sure of the future or too distrustful of all attempts at predicting the caprices of a turbulent economic force. How fragile our capitalist democracies must be! To think, all that holds it together is philosophy! That is, the philosophy of Horace, Herrick, Lao Tse Tung and countless brands that adopt the banner carpe diem. It is no wonder that today it is easier to make a million off the market or to raise a million in support of a democratic "awareness" campaign than it is to change the mind of person dead set on the political and moral value of The Dead Poet’s Society or Forrest Gump.

Speaking of these films, we can see that the American fascination with "fiftiness" centers around the ideological fissure in which today’s market Taoism was born. Countless films and novels are built on the cultural fault line dividing the future-obsessed fifties and the frenetic "utopia-now!" of the sixties. In a sense, the hyper-democratic intervention of the sixtiess' flower children gave their parents exactly what they had demanded though not exactly as they picture it: a New Age, to be sure, but instead of Disney, Aquarius.

It is easy to forget that despite the era’s undeniably capitalist agenda, the last time Americans spoke like communists was the fifties. The "socialist" rhetoric leans towards the future -- towards breaking new frontiers, forging new societies, envisioning the land of tomorrow, the new man and so on. Ayn Rand elevated this speech to an art and to a philosophy that later, would provide a sober, productive alternative to the trippy, Deleuzian consumer capitalism of the New Age. Rand’s ideology supports the (virtuously) selfish capitalist who works for the good of her/his ego and contingently, serves the common good. Then there is Warhol’s, supporting the (tastefully) selfish consumer who shops with discernment and decorates themself with narcissistic care while contingently, fostering new cultures. Between the capitalist’s one-track-mind progressivism riding the economy’s railroad to an unreachable horizon and the consumer’s status conscious stasis (s/he remains stuck in the labyrinth of the cultural mall), there is no one who would "seize the future", only those who would avoid it in two ways. One never expects to reach the "utopia" it sprints towards and the other ironically or exasperated, denies its existence. It is no wonder nostalgia flourishes like an intractable weed in both post-Soviet culture and Western consumer culture.

Imagine Herrick’s rose garden after the virgins have made good use of their time. After the harvest, this bed lies bare and bud-less. Those like Rand or Stalin, who would invoke the limitless potential of the future in order to get subjects to work, would have us plant roses. Those who like Herrick and Horace, invoke the future as limit (as end, death, etc.) in order to get subjects to play. Here, the future is a ploy used to determine and/or fix the subject’s present situation and experience. Politics necessitates the reverse: how do we make good use of the day in a way that neither sacrifices work nor play in the name of the (apocalyptic or messianic) future but simply, sacrifices the time of the present in the name of understanding or guiding our future situation? In other words, if the future is neither limitless nor a limit itself, but a limina -- a threshold or, a barrier that is always open -- then how do we reorient ourselves to an accessible and vital future?

Perhaps Herrick’s rosebuds smile "today" because they are enjoying their virginity. They never have a chance to die "tomorrow" because someone, fearing that very same fate, comes along and plucks it. Similarly, perhaps that exemplary one-track-mind capitalist, Charles Kane, kept his "rosebud" in a basement all those years because it sustained the fantasy that maybe one day, he would again be able to withstand the unbearable joy of child’s play. That fantasy of carnival keeps Kane charging towards the horizon, and the fantasy of the devastating harvest keeps Herrick and Horace knee deep in wine and virgins. In the meantime, our politics invests so much of its energy "celebrating" heritages, remembering trauma (domestic abuse, the Holocaust) and rediscovering the past (micro-histories, alternative historiographies), that it is actually fueling our political and scholarly future-amnesia by supporting a carpe diem culture riddled with its pockets of nostalgia and historical lip-service. What both political and academic rhetoric needs is some extreme commitment to the present tense -- even if talking about one’s situation and experience while one is still situated within and experiencing it can cause quite a bit of tension. The price of living this dialectically may be the present itself (or at least its simple, undialectical experience of it as pleasurable or unpleasurable, work or play, etc.), but such action yields future returns. If time is running away from us, what do we have that it envies? It could be that Old Time flies in hopes that we won’t harness its power. Trust little to the poets who seize the day; Carpe futurum -- remember the future!

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In this issue:


Cityscape: the Avenues of a Touchable City

Musical Interlude: Love Is Like (mp3)

Biblical Objects


Window into Virtual Worlds

This Island Earth

Dispatch from Rwanda

Astor Place in the Year 2107

A Historical Walking Tour of Astor Place in the 21st century

Dining in the 22nd Century

Carpe Futurum

A Review of "An Overview of Cultural Expression: The Arts"

Previous Editions

August 2007

July 2007

About the Moon

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