Can The Future Haunt Us?

Daina Habdankaitė,

Let’s talk about ghosts. From gruesome moments in history to skeletons in our personal closets – each and every ghost is a trace of something that has already taken place, yet somehow refuses to remain in past. They may haunt us as bad memories, dark history pages, or family secrets, yet there is always a way to deal with ghosts. Seeing a therapist, facing the painful experiences of people in history and rewriting them in a more honest way – these are a few ways to come to terms with the guilt and uneasiness the ghostly past can have on us. But what if I told you there can be ghosts from the future? How can we cope with them?

©Erik Müller

Apocalypse, the end of the world, is one case where ghosts from the future begin calling our names. Humanity has been obsessed with the possibility of self-destruction for centuries, yet only in the so-called capitalist era has stories about it became ordinary. So ordinary, the idea of an apocalypse almost lost its power. Today, the idea of humanity destroying itself is so commonplace it has become a crucial part of the capitalist market. Have you seen the “Geostorm” movie already? Do you remember the plot of iconic “Independence Day”, and its follow-up and many other Hollywood productions with the same keywords: The End? As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek claims, it is easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

This is because our Apocalypse Nightmares are fuelled by the same power source as the American Dream. Every attempt to draw a picture of the desired future follows the ready-made paths of imagination which is suffocating under the pressure of Hollywood imagery, perfect lives of Instagram people, and ready made tales about the world surrounding us. Yes, democracy is probably the least bad of the political regimes but what if it is not the only possible one? Yes, capitalism has proved to be the most resistant of all the economic regimes but what if there is a way to surpass the logic of profit? How can we imagine a society that has never existed before?

This is when the ghosts from the future knock on our door. Shall we open it?

©Anselm Kiefer Sternenfall

Anselm Kiefer is an artist whose works are often haunted by signs which come neither from the past nor the future. Born in 1945, Kiefer had no direct relation to Holokaust or its victims and thus belongs to a generation known as Nachgeborenen (the ones born afterwards). This is the reason why Kiefer’s work deals not with the personal silence of former Holokaust victims but with the collective silence of the nation that perpetrated the atrocities.

“But it’s all about the past” – you may object and you would be absolutely right. Yet facing the past is not as simple as it may look. There are two reasons why mourning Holocaust is complicated. First, the horrifying scope of it. Second, the temporal distance between the event and the mourner. Holocaust is not just another episode in history, at least our moral feeling opposes to such a conclusion. The images in Kiefer’s paintings fall out of the chain of history since they are touching upon an extremely traumatic experience of humanity. Debris of cathedrals, abandoned industrial spaces as well as tombstones of great historical figures – all this imagery constitutes a glimpse at the almost destroyed past, as well as a reminder of a possible destruction of the future.

“My idea of time is that the more you return to the past, the more you advance into the future. It’s a double, contradictory movement that expands time” – said Kiefer to the curator of his retrospective art exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2016. But when will the ghost from the future enter the stage? Soon, I promise.


©Anselm Kiefer Burning Rods

Back in the early days of the twentieth century there was an odd theory of recurring time, developed by Russian futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. He believed that major, pivotal naval and terrestrial battles endlessly repeat every 317 years. If only we could decode the law of time, thought Khlebnikov, matters would finally be settled once and for all. The injustice of war would seem much less depressing if we knew the pattern of the major military fights. The war itself might be prevented as long as it is known when and where it takes time in the future. Moreover, once people acknowledge that everything – power included – is relational and temporary, they will become more peaceful. This foresight inspired Kiefer to reflect on the fugacity and finitude of all human aspirations and the mercilessness of fate in the exhibition “Anselm Kiefer, for Khlebnikov”.

What kind of future haunts both Kiefer and Khlebnikov’s works, and how is it different from the one depicted in Hollywood movies about the end of the world? Here we should make a distinction between two types of future: the future1 that we can tell a story about, and the future2 that is completely unpredictable. A story about a global warming, a weather forecast, any political speech about the bright future of our kids – all these stories deal with the future that is supposed to result from today’s actions and thus can be predicted. Even more, it can be prevented. The same cannot be said about the second type of future: it comes as an event which is supposed to interrupt the present order of things and bring something new. Interestingly enough, this unexpected novelty can be also extremely destructive.

What would our lives be if we accepted the possibility of humanity’s self-destruction as a necessity? How would our history look if we opened the door for the ghost from the future? And most importantly: would the signs of destruction in the future contribute to creating a vision for tomorrow? A vision which would empower us to dream ourselves, instead of being captured in someone else’s dream? These questions are still to be answered.

Daina Habdankaitė – Can The Future Haunt Us?