Altermodernism: The Age of Stupid
26th August 2009
By Ellie Harrison
“Postmodernism is dead” declares Nicolas Bourriaud in the opening line of his manifesto for our new global cultural era - the ‘altermodern’. As a preface to the latest Tate Triennial exhibition of the same name, the French curator and theorist sets about defining what he sees as the parameters of our contemporary society and offering paradigms for artistic approaches to navigating and negotiating them.
This essay aims to identify what the birth of this new era tells us about our culture’s relationship to time. It will explore how we choose to define the periods in which we live and how our relationships with the past, present and future seem to constantly evolve. As a central focus, it brings together two examples of cultural events from 2009 which have both, in semi-revolutionary ways, attempted to define our current age. The Altermodern exhibition and its accompanying Manifesto (Bourriaud 2009b) launched at the Tate Britain on 4th February provides the first, and the second is provided by The Age of Stupid - a feature film and accompanying environmental campaign launched in UK cinemas on 20th March.
Set in the year 2055, The Age of Stupid focuses on a man living alone in a world which has all but been destroyed by climate change. In an attempt to understand exactly how such a tragedy could have befallen his species and the society and culture which they created over the course of several millennia, he begins to review a series of ‘archive’ documentary clips from 2008. His aim is to discover how his ancestors - the one generation of people who had the power to prevent the impending disaster - could have demonstrated such disregard or contempt for the future.
By focusing on two central texts - Bourriaud’s Altermodern Manifesto and a faux encyclopædia entry from the future which retrospectively defines ‘the Age of Stupid’ released as promotional material for the film (Appendix One) - the essay aims to explore the disturbing continuities between these two perceptions of our current times and the drastic consequences these could have, if left unchecked, for the future of humanity and indeed the future of art.
Back to the Future
Defining the eras in which we live through phrases such as ‘modernity’, ‘postmodernity’ and now ‘altermodernity’, allows us a tangible way of assessing our place within the far less tangible, metaphysical concept of ‘time’. In fact, it could be argued that ‘history’ itself has been invented, documented and perpetuated as a way of helping human beings to get a purchase on their own existence and to define how they should approach their relationships to their past, present and future.
In this sense, the ‘modern’ era could be characterised as encouraging a forward-thinking outlook. According to Jürgen Habermas, its last living prophet:
“modernity expresses the conviction that the future has already begun: it is the epoch that lives for the future, that opens itself up to the novelty of the future.” (Habermas 2004, p.5)
At the very start of the Enlightenment in the mid-17th century the French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal portrayed an inspiring vision of humanity as progressing throughout time, by likening the development of human innovation over the course of history to the learning of one immortal man (Stangroom 2005). Scientific knowledge could be advanced by new generations building on what had been discovered before them. The humanist belief held by philosophers, and others alike, was that ‘man’ was the centre of everything; that man could control nature and could master his own destiny.
This optimistic idea was so new, compelling and widespread that it assisted in propelling the project of modernity as it ploughed relentlessly through the centuries - the French Revolution, American Independence, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid expansion of capitalism and the birth of bourgeois society. It was rational, logical and, as though guided by an ‘invisible hand’, was the way things were meant to happen. At the start of the 19th century, Hegel was still convinced; we were getting somewhere, history was progressing through a dialectical process towards its logical conclusion - towards perfection. People’s relationship with the future was one of hope; as though things could only get better.
Reason, however, appeared to have its downsides and catastrophic human developments of the 20th century, such as the holocaust and the atomic bomb, led to a loss of faith in the humanist approach. Towards the end of the twentieth century, a general consensus developed among cultural theorists (Habermas aside) that modernity was no longer working. Its ‘metanarratives’ had resulted in authoritarianism, totalitarianism and terror; minorities had been victimised or marginalised; the ‘differends’ of society smoothed over (Malpas 2003). And so, ‘postmodernism’ was born and with it began a systematic deconstruction and disownment of what were now considered the somewhat embarrassing ideals of its predecessor. The reaction was severe; inciting a series of symbolic revenge killings: the ‘death of man’ (Foucault 1994), the ‘end of humanism’ the ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama 1992), the ‘death of painting’ and even the ‘end of art’ (Danto 1998). It was as though catharsis could be gained by the ridding of a past which had failed to live up to promise. In the wake of all this destruction, however, came a deep uncertainty of what would come to fill the gaps.
Just as modernism had done before, postmodernism “alluded to something that had not let itself be made present” (Lyotard 1993, p.13), only this time that ‘something’ felt more menacing. The decentralisation of ‘man’ from the story of history may have unearthed a hidden fear of the future. If we were no longer in control of nature or masters of our own destinies, then we could be less optimistic about what the future had in store and far more uncertain of the potential consequences of 350 years of rampant ‘progress’ that we may have to face.
The rejection of the past coupled with this uncertainty about the future gave the postmodern era a feeling of limbo within which time itself was “cancelled” (Jameson 1998, p.xii). In his critique of the historical momentum of the 1980s, Jan Verwoert refers to the “suspension of historical continuity” which resulted from the overbearing stalemate politics of the Cold War. Only when it finally ended could “history spring to life again” (Verwoert 2007) and begin accelerating away from postmodernism and into the new cultural era.
In terms of assessing the birth of altermodernism, this specific point in history appears pivotal. Firstly, the end of the Cold War meant that:
“the rigid bipolar order that had held history in a deadlock dissolved to release a multitude of subjects with visa to travel across formerly closed borders and unheard histories to tell.” (Verwoert 2007)
And, according to CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), not only did 1990 see the reunification of Germany, but it also witnessed “a revolution that changed the way we live today” - the birth of the World Wide Web (info.cern.ch). These were the nascent beginnings of an a priori globalised society in which, as Bourriaud describes, “increased communication, travel and migration affect the way we live.”
What is most interesting about this point in time, however, are discoveries referred to in the definition of ‘the Age of Stupid’. As argued in the final paragraph of the encyclopædic entry, 1988 also marked the point at which humanity had amassed sufficient scientific evidence to “become aware of the likely consequences of continuing to increase greenhouse gas emissions”. The uncertainty about the future which had characterised the postmodern era was suddenly replaced by a real-life certainty, but it was not one which we were prepared to face up to.
The Culture of Denial
Rather than taking heed of these warnings when we still had plenty of time - slowing down and reassessing our lives; curbing our consumption and production - throughout the 1990s we actually did the opposite. As Verwoert suggests, the pace quickened - the population grew, we travelled more, consumed more and wanted more. Life in the new globalised world was more chaotic and less controllable. Before we knew it twenty years had passed and we had still failed to accept the facts and to act in order to avert the course of history and “prevent the deaths of hundreds of millions of people” (Armstrong 2009a) in the future.
As we stand, in the present day, we are still firmly on course to see the devastation envisaged in the film The Age of Stupid, become a reality. At the end of March 2009, a conference on ‘sustainable populations’ organised by the Optimum Population Trust took place in London. In its coverage of the issues raised, The Observer described the future which the overwhelming scientific evidence claims awaits us:
“by then (2050) life on the planet will already have become dangerously unpleasant. Temperature rises will have started to have devastating impacts on farmland, water supplies and sea levels. Humans - increasing both in numbers and dependence on food from devastated landscapes - will then come under increased pressure. The end result will be apocalyptic, said Lovelock. By the end of the century, the world’s population will suffer calamitous declines until numbers are reduced to around 1 billion or less. “By 2100, pestilence, war and famine will have dealt with the majority of humans,” he said.” (McKie 2009, p.9)
As depressing as it sounds, the message of the film The Age of Stupid is one of hope - that it is not quite too late. According to their predictions, we still have until 2015 to make the changes required in order to prevent us reaching the tipping point which would trigger ‘runaway’, irreversible climate change. These corrective measures are huge, they are global and they need to start being implemented now.
What is most terrifying about Bourriaud’s Manifesto therefore, is its absolute lack of acknowledgement of the real and dangerous future that we face. Rather than speaking out and demanding the dramatic changes that are necessary, it seems to support a continuation of the status quo of the last twenty years. In his video interview on the Tate website, Bourriaud describes the purpose of the altermodern as the “cultural answer to alterglobalisation” (Bourriaud 2009a). However, rather than questioning the carbon-heavy lifestyles that a globalised world promotes he seems to complicity buy into them, insisting that “our daily lives consist of journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe”.
In the film The Age of Stupid ‘archive’ footage from 2007 presents the Indian entrepreneur Jeh Wadia as the ignorant villain, as he goes about launching India’s first low-cost airline GoAir. His mission is to get India’s 1 billion plus population airborne. Although an extreme example, Bourriaud’s fervent support of internationalism is not dissimilar to Wadia’s in its level of denial. He continues to encourage the movement of artists and curators around the world (clocking up substantial air miles bringing in speakers for his four Altermodern ‘prologue’ conference events alone).
What makes Bourriaud’s case worse however is his apparent betrayal of the purpose of cultural theory in providing counter-hegemonic ideas and alternatives. The theorists of postmodernism overthrew the project of modernity in an attempt to save humanity from further nuclear extermination or genocide which had proved the ultimate conclusions of reason. Their cultural vision for postmodernism was also to provide an alternative or an antidote to the new ways of life dictated by post-industrial society. Not only does the vision for altermodernism fail to provide an alternative to the devastating path to future down which ‘alterglobalisation’ is dragging us, but it also remarkably promotes the idea that we turn our backs on and ignore this future altogether. One of the paradigms for artistic approaches Bourriaud suggests is that artists look back in time rather than forward claiming that “history is the last uncharted continent” and therefore should be the focus of artistic attention.
Jeh Wadia’s excuse is easy to fathom - he is in it for the money, but Bourriaud’s seems harder to discern. He is driven by a burgeoning ego no doubt, but alongside this there seems to be a wider problem. A nostalgia for the good times and a refusal to give up privileges and luxuries appear to be endemic in the art world’s attitude to facing up to the realities of climate change. At Frieze Art Fair last year, cultural theorist Judith Williamson delivered a keynote lecture on what she called ‘the Culture of Denial’. She outlined a view of the world not dissimilar to the definition of ‘the Age of Stupid’ (and indeed altermodernism) that this essay has been discussing, in which a denial of the impending future or perhaps an impossibility to comprehend its severity, prevents us from acting.
What was most interesting about her introduction, however, was the discussion of her deliberate decision not to mention ‘climate change’ in the material promoting the talk, but instead to refer to it more ambiguously as an exploration of “the skewed relationship between what we know and what we do” (Williamson 2008). She identifies the persistent ‘stigma’ attached to directly addressing this issue, describing the common perception of it being “annoying, gauche or over the top to bang on about climate change”. So she was forced to revert to covert tactics in order to sneak this pressing discussion onto the Frieze agenda - in the hope of inciting the beginning of a widespread realisation that the art world is walking the path towards its own destruction.
The Real End of Art
There seems no doubt that Bourriaud’s altermodernism is the cultural side-kick of ‘the Age of Stupid’. To write a Manifesto of our times at such a crucial make-or-break point in the history of humanity and not to mention the possibility of an impending disaster or offer any suggestions as to what artists and society in general can do to combat it, is not just denial - it’s stupidity.
The truth is that all the ‘ends’ and ‘deaths’ that postmodernism faced on hypothetical grounds are now fast approaching our generation as a reality. Foucault’s famous conclusion to the seminal postmodern text ‘The Order of Things’, now seems all the more poignant:
“If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility... were to cause them to crumble... then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Foucault 1994, p.422)
The main character in the The Age of Stupid is an archivist. In 2055, he sits alone in an expansive tower known as the ‘the World Archive’, which houses all the works of art, books, images, film etc ever produced by the human race. It is at this point that you realise this preservation is futile. Art is, after all, a human creation - it relies on humanity to provide its meaning. Without this crucial element it may as well cease to exist. Should it not, therefore, be art and culture that lead the way for the rest of society? To be the first to snap out of this ‘culture of denial’; to overcome the ‘stigma’; to do everything in its power to save humanity, and itself in the process.
Future Encyclopædia Entry: The Age of Stupid
The Age of Stupid constitutes the period between the ascent of the internal combustion engine in the late-19th century and the crossing of the 2°C threshold to runaway global warming in the mid-21st.
This era was characterised by near-total dependence on energy from fossil hydrocarbons, together with exponentially increasing consumption based on the destruction of finite natural resources.
The institutionalised lack of foresight regarding future human welfare that held sway during this time earned the period its popular name, but scientists know this era as the Anthropocene: the period during which human activities came to be the dominant influence on the Earth’s biosphere and climate. The end of the Age of Stupid is marked by the sixth major mass extinction event, with the fifth being the K-T asteroid impact which ended the Age of the Dinosaurs. The abrupt loss of the majority of plant and animal species between 2020 and 2090 was followed by a crash in the human population, to just 7.4% of the 9 billion people alive at its peak.
Some historians argue that the Age of Stupid more properly refers to the narrower period between 1988 and 2015, during which humanity had become aware of the likely consequences of continuing to increase greenhouse gas emissions and still had time to avert catastrophe, but largely chose to ignore the warnings.
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