We have become too accustomed to living with Walter Benjamin’s angel of history.
In the Paul Klee painting of 1920 that inspired Benjamin, the angel was new (Angelus Novus). Now it is old, and common. We are now used to history as the “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” (392). The angel of history has become a cartoon, a caricature of horror. Yet this cartoon is also the catastrophe of the present and the future. Endlessly confronting and trying to fix the mess of history, we no longer really know what to say to the future. We seem to be entering into a collective nightmare in which we must speak to save the world yet cannot, physically, get our mouths or tongues to work.
The past we try to fix is increasingly incompatible with either present or future. How have we got around all this? A practical answer, both the right and wrong answer, is that we have done so by modeling. Models, right or wrong, and they are never completely right, are always power, for us, over us. We allow ourselves to be taken up by models. We model everything, obsessively. We do so to simply keep going, so we to know what to do next. This is perhaps the most insistent question we face—what to do next, not the questions of life or death or who we really are?
If I look with the angel of history backwards, I see a remarkable tangle of powerful but mistaken and failed models. We live in this tangle, in the general confusion of models with shared if faulty and never quite compatible assumptions. The tangle is found in economics and business; media, communications and computing; psychology, management, education, and cognitive and neuroscience, etc (Edwards). At the heart of all this is something like a neat model of symbol processing with clear inputs and outputs, compatible neither with history nor an unpredictable future, and certain not with the actual events of either everyday life or the micro-activity of the brain. We can’t just step outside of this tangle. Most of our lives is modeling. Even our moment to moment perception and action involves a folding forth and sometimes micro-correcting of ongoing modeling. Much of this in turn draws on this tangle of big models. We model “performance” and “productivity” in the workplace. We model climate and responsibility in the Kyoto treaty. We model national happiness. Yet as Villem Flusser noted long ago in “On the crisis in our models”, if we “lose confidence” in our “objective models”, as we now have, “it becomes difficult to find our way in the world” (76). What to do?
First, realise that the old models have often failed. To do that, we need to see them for what they are, allow ourselves to feel their dead weight in our living. We especially need to understand what habits they form in us. Second, in becoming more aware of our models, we do need to give many of them up. We need to subtract. Subtraction actually frees things up, gives back the potential for the new (Deleuze). Third, we need to allow for more flexible models. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might say, we need to become “equal to the event… or the offspring of one’s own events” (159). Crudely put, we need, again and again, and this is the real work of serious modeling, to adjust our models to what is really happening. And by “adjust our models,” I don’t just mean adjust the content but still allow ourselves to keep the fundamentals. It’s often the fundamentals that are the problem. In media, political and social life we need something like what I’ve called elsewhere “ghosted publics” and “unacknowledged collectives”—ways of living that step outside of recognised, big modeled existence.
Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, 4: 1938-1940. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Un manifeste de moins.” Superpositions. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Print.
Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996. Print.
Flusser, Vilém. Writings. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.
Murphie, Andrew ) “On Not Performing: the Third Enclosure and Neofeudal Fantasies.” Scan 8.1. (2011). Web. 19 Dec. <http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=156>