On American Thanksgiving last week, a number of leading British intellectuals gathered under the aegis of the Tate Britain to discuss a different sort of historical legacy to which contemporary culture is indebted, if ambiguously grateful for. Two months after the Tate Modern’s centenary Futurist exhibition, Terry Eagleton, Simon Critchley, Kate Soper and Eyal Weizman considered postmodernism’s future, in the wake of Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti.
Politely moderated by long-haired Goldsmiths lecturer Alberto Toscano, the panel discussion “Don’t Look Back: Radical thinkers and the arts since 1909,” didn’t aspire to the same riotous tenor as Marinetti’s debut lecture at the Lyceum Club in 1911, when the firecracker frontman sought to “hurl defiance at the stars.” Eagleton began by cautiously repudiating the talk’s title, quoting Trotsky: “We Marxists have always lived in tradition,” as well as Walter Benjamin’s backward-facing Angel of History. He then lamented last summer’s almost-collapse of capitalism as a missed opportunity to stoke revolution in the mire of postmodern status quo.
Without invoking as much of a historical framework, The New School for Social Research’s Simon Critchely denounced “the future” as ideology, and vaguely championed the social and cultural critique sometimes posited by contemporary art, which is today less and less frequently found within academia. While admitting the frequent dismissal of the seriousness of the art world, he maintained that there remains something “interesting” about it. His discussion of the hand-printed handbills handed out during The New School protests earlier this year and the recent occupation of Swiss universities more than hinted at ’68 nostalgia for tangible, material approaches.
Slouching in her chair, London Metropolitan’s Kate Soper warned against the naturalization of the market economy, advocating for the constructive use of leisure time and the “aesthetic of the slow” to counteract hyper-capitalism. Architect Eyal Weizman spoke about integrating radical theory into practice, claiming architecture’s recent rise in popular culture to be on par with that of new wave cinema, at least in terms of political ambitions, and architecture’s investigative-journalistic capabilities for analyzing geopolitical situations (his own work explores Israel’s spatial expansion into the West Bank).
Not until the audience was invited to question the panelists did much conclusive evidence of the diffusion (or at least, abstraction) of radical thought today fully present itself—PhD students lamented the unacknowledged spirit of Bob Dylan (despite the eponymous documentary film), and the sweet insolence of Marinetti’s anti-pasta manifesto (condemning the heaviness of carbohydrates). A former BBC reporter, misinterpreting Weizman’s invocation of journalism, seriously questioned the future of investigative reporting in light of print media’s perilous financial state, while pointing out (somewhat jealously) the relative job security held by each academic panelist. The disjointed call for cultural revolution was fairly feeble; another audience member’s emphasis on urgency was received embarrassingly. In the shadow of Thatcher, what alternatives are left? Where and how does protest become effective, and, as another attendee objected, wasn’t the discussion’s institutional initiation part of the problem of compensatory complicity, anyway?