Zygmunt Bauman | A Decade in Audiovisual Culture
When a group of visionary enthusiasts laid the foundations for the National Audiovisual Institute, they probably wanted—as Hegel said of philosophy—to embed their own time in a conceptual framework. And said time, saddled on the charger of history, plowed on. And accelerated. From a trot into a clip, preparing itself for full gallop. In order to attract voter sympathies, politicians (both active and those planning their entry onto the political stage) tried to upstage one another by singing praises of this acceleration and its nascent promises, yet they also collectively fell prey to it—as, invariably, they failed to catch up to their own promises. They were scolded in words once uttered to Alice in Wonderland: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast.” Few succeeded in keeping up, but the NInA found itself among them. The conceptual network weaved by the Institute was large enough that it not only encompassed the galloping time but still had the space to hold at least a fraction of whatever it was that the acceleration was supposed to yield.
600 years ago, Thomas More published his discourse on a land of order, respect for human dignity, benevolence and justice, a land he called “Utopia” (Greek for “a place that can’t be”). However, many of More’s imitators—sprouting up everywhere and in large numbers—and probably even More himself, preceded, overtly or covertly, the impossibility of Utopia’s existence with the adverb “yet” (the justification behind the decision was fairly simple, if not necessarily correct: if one were to ascribe such appealing qualities to a specific place, many will desire to live there and will toil tirelessly until they either find it or create it on their own. Without that particular adverb, the name we’re discussing would inherently contradict itself). In short, the appeal of utopia stemmed from the possibility of its existence. When would it spring into being? Well, in the future, naturally. Until fairly recently, humanity considered the future a repository of hopes, and it definitely did so 600 years ago. One could put one’s trust in it—a rare luxury, even in our day. And many did.
Many signs, above and below, indicate that this is no longer the case. That particular change is fairly recent—and has taken place already after the inception of the NInA. Paul Klee’s Angel of History, still hurtling back first towards the unknown future in Walter Benjamin’s interpretation, repulsed by the atrocities and the senselessness of the past its eyes were fixed on, is now making an about-face. Forwards and backwards, the future and the past are switching places. As before, the Angel of History is still driven by repulsion and a desire to escape what it sees—but this time, what he sees is the horrifying future, replete with unpleasant and rather cruel surprises. As before, the images it sees drive it with its back facing the future; as indicated by David Loewenthal in his classic analysis, its title already a warning: the past, like the future, is a foreign country.
Today, we find ourselves halfway between the era of utopia and the age of retrotopia (do not try to look up the latter in dictionaries; this linguistic neoplasm has not yet reached them). As human beings, we will probably never stop dreaming of a world different from the one we know first hand, neither will we stop conceiving it as different from the one whose terrors we experienced. But today it is the future that drives us to look for alternatives, a future which has mercilessly failed and swindled us time and time again. As Leonid Shebarshin, one of the angry and the disillusioned, put it in his retrospective of his own resentments—democracy dismantled the ruling party’s monopoly on lies.
This is how the world turns. All that is left is to look for solace in the knowledge that it is people who barred all utopias from materializing. It is possible that retrotopias will suffer a similar fate. And maybe it is up to us, humans, to make it so. I am personally saddened by the fact that the NInA will no longer be there to help us in the task.
– Zygmunt Bauman
About the article
The text was written in December, 2016. It was drafted as a response to the invitation to participate in a multimedia essay discussing the development of audiovisual and digital culture over the past decade that Michał Merczyński, Director of the National Audiovisual Institute, extended to Professor Zygmunt Bauman. The essay concludes the efforts of the NInA in its current form. The editorial board decided to present the text in its original form as submitted by the author
Zygmunt Bauman was a world-famous philosopher and sociologist, one of the most influential critics of contemporary culture. He wrote many books, including the ones fundamental for modern humanities: "Modernity and the Holocaust" and "Modernity as a Source of Suffering". In 2011 he wrote a book commissioned by NInA "Culture in Fluid Modernity," which served as a framework for his presence at the European Culture Congress in Wrocław. He worked at the University of Leeds.
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