Some time ago I was invited to take part in a writing workshop in a beautiful location by the Baltic Sea. One morning, one of the invited guests suggested that we write a short story imagining how our lives would look like in the future. I panicked. How will my life look like in, let’s say, ten years? I didn’t know. So, I decided to focus on the present, on the here and now of the situation I was in. As I was observing the surroundings, scribbling something on the page, contemplating the bizarre circumstances, writing a few more sentences, observing the other people writing, it became clear to me that I was not interested in this question, I am not interested in absurd projections. If at the beginning I thought it was my lack of imagination, I quickly changed my mind. The thing is that the idea of projecting myself into a hypothetical future makes me want to throw up, and to stare at the horizon gives me unbearable headaches.
1.View from the bridge of the ship
What’s the problem with the horizon? When Louis XIV, the Sun King, ordered the construction of Versailles, his architect, Andre La Nôtre, conceived of the palace and the garden to allow the Sun King long, sweeping, and unobstructed vistas. In an exchange with Descartes, Le Nôtre explains that the king’s eyes should be guided through a series of perfectly geometrically shaped gardens with fountains, a series of terraces and woods to a ‘vanishing point’ on the far horizon. The possibility of an unobstructed view was a sign of the King’s immense power.
If you thought that the horizon evoked the image of a perfect alternative to the otherwise vertical, pyramidal order of society, think again. ‘Horizontal’, and ‘horizon’ derive from the Greek horizō which means to separate, to divide; it is a way of establishing boundaries and imagining a world clearly divided into two, into who gets to play a part and who never will. Not everyone gets to choose a future.
Today, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich goes to the Venice Biennale with his 377-ft yacht called Luna. If Louis XIV was the Sun King, Abramovich is charmed by the glow of the moon (in Italian Luna means Moon). From the main bridge of his super-yacht he can see much further beyond the curvature of the earth, surely further than any of Venice’s inhabitants, whose view of the beautiful St. Mark’s canal is occluded by his ‘little’ Luna. And certainly, he can see further beyond the horizon of art professionals (curators, artists, and critics), who, gathered here for the Venice Biennale, can only imagine what extends beyond the limits of their obstructed views and can only dream of what’s happening on Abramovich’s yacht. It might be for this reason that we insist on the desire to reinvent the horizon. And rightfully so. We don’t need more Sun Kings and Moon owners; we don’t want our horizon to be obfuscated by more dicks. Do we? We demand changes. We demand our future1… Alas, the future cannot be demanded, can it? Sure, you can chop off the King’s head or convince the mayor of Venice to forbid the oligarch’s big yacht from mooring by the Grand Canal. But, the future is neither a right to be demanded and then granted by some supreme authority (the King), nor is it a commodity one can buy at a concept-store. The future doesn’t resemble a palace or yacht. And even if it did, if in the future everyone could own a cruise ship, how would the horizon look like from the bridge of your yacht?
If you were the king you would see a world perfectly divided between poor and rich, good and evil, order and confusion, beauty and ugliness, gods and humans, between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between who is in and who must remain outside the palazzo. The horizon separates the King’s properties (included the inhabitants of his kingdom) into those over which he will obsessively exercise control, and the rest which he will consider chaos, an undifferentiated becoming. The King’s horizon unites sky and earth, but more importantly keeps the hell out of his view. This is why the king, like the oligarch, thinks of the horizon with an end in view, and generally the end is to keep order in place at the expenses of those who have been deprived of a horizon.
In the first chapter of the Ethics, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza mocks men who think and do everything with an end in view. He notes how men think that everything, included nature and God, has been created for them, to fulfill their needs and desires, to improve their lives or to punish them for not having been good men. Spinoza writes that:
“All such opinions spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him). […] All men are born ignorant of the causes of things, that all have the desire to seek for what is useful to them, and that they are conscious of such desire”2.
For Spinoza, men confuse ‘imagination’ for what is real and attribute to God-Nature words and deeds that only serve to confirm what men desire, not what God-Nature wants – for, God-Nature asks nothing and wants nothing in exchange. The worst misconception, Spinoza argues, is therefore to relate to God’s creation, and by the same token, the actions of men, in terms of means to an end. He concludes that “nature has set no end before itself, and that all final causes are nothing but human fictions.”3 And since men imagine the world as a place of beauty and harmony, when they don’t see harmony, they imagine catastrophic scenarios and declare the end of everything: the end of history, the end of society, the end of Capitalism, the end of philosophy, the end of painting, the apocalypse. They project onto the horizon their arrogant assumptions and fantasies of full automated control. According to Spinoza those men who live their lives thinking with an end in view, have their eyes wide open, but they cannot see beyond their noses.
Meanwhile, reality unfolds under the king’s eyes, but he does not have to get involved in it. Why would he? He has set his priority, and ends; he knows what’s right and what’s wrong and knows how things work. Thus, he can develop theories about the end of the world from his bunker, his yacht’s main bridge. The horizon, like any projections into the future, are promises, and nothing more than the ultimate expression of patriarchal culture, which divides the world into friends and enemies fuelling imaginary boundaries and keeping life, and its reality, at bay.
2. Future from within
Life is of a Presentness that burns.
(Clarice Lispector, The Passion of G.H.)
Can we imagine a future that does not rely on forward projections? If the king and the oligarch understand the horizon with an end in view, are there other subject positions, other possible examples? In the shadow cast by the Luna it’s Tiresias, the diviner from Thebe. Tiresias is blind and hence cannot see the horizon’s line. Yet, the darkness in which the prophet lives gives Tiresias a greater power than that of kings or oligarchs. Indeed the clairvoyant plays a unique role in the Greek mythology: in the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, Tiresias revealed that Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother; Tiresias warns Creon against punishing Antigone for having buried her brother in Sophocles’ Antigone; and again, in Euripides’ tragic story The Bacchae, Tiresias suggests that Pentheus, the king of Thebes, pay tribute to Dionysus,; but the king refuses and eventually is torn to pieces by a group of Dionysus’ followers.
Tiresias switches genders. Tiresias is a trans-gender; s/he cannot decide whether s/he likes to have the phallus or big boobs. An accident, the wrong sexual opinion, has made the poor diviner blind. In the myth, Hera and Zeus disagreed on which of the sexes experienced more pleasure so they decided to consult Tiresias, who had great experience on sexual matters. The clairvoyant asserted that women had greater pleasures than men. What a mistake! Tiresias’s knowledge of sex does not help him/her to survive the capriciousness of the gods, who had no desire to hear the truth about sex, but only to have their beliefs confirmed. Irritated by the diviner’s truth, the gods unleashed their fury and made him/her blind. As the unwanted witness of uncomfortable truths, Tiresias, the blind trans-gender prophet, wanders from tragic tale to tragic tale traversing the whole of Greek mythology.
Contrary to the king who stares at the horizon from his palace, Tiresias, who lives in the street, is capable of looking far into the future without having to use the eyes. S/he does speculate on what the future might look like, as the future manifests to Tiresias in the form of shivers, whispers, strong smells, itches, and caresses. His/her view is embodied, in the sense that Tiresias sees the future from within, rather than from without. And from within, s/he has no desire to keep everything under control, no need for a palace, a yacht, not even a theory about the future, or the future of future horizons. Why would s/he/it have? Tiresias has no intention to stand on the deck and use the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere. Tiresias does not want to become a god. S/he is neither interested in consolidating nor in subverting the existing power. The clairvoyant is not a preacher and would happily do without kings.
What does Tiresias see? Well, that’s the point. Tiresias does not see, or not in the literal sense of the word. With closed eyes, s/he can perceive and experience the world: touch its texture, feel its consistency, taste its juiciness and bitterness. The world resonates in Tiresias’s body and from the vibrations produced in the diviner by the drumming reality visions grow, and expand like a blob. Tiresias has very specific insights into the world, but never gives general advice on how to live and behave in this world. In the myth, s/he never delivers grand speeches, s/he talks to people directly instead. His/her perceptions and responses to the facts of the world are “particular and specific” and unlike the one of the king who se visions tend toward the horizon, these are not “false visions promising transcendence”4. Tiresias’s embodied visions, however, are no less objective than the vision of those endowed with clear sight. As Tiresias never stops reminding the community, objectivity is rooted in the knowledge of the body, of the material and affective conditions that shape our surroundings, rather than in some grand theory in the service of any ordering power that defines what counts as knowledge.
For Tiresias, knowledge is not an accumulation of notions, but a series of life experiences and experiments that change who we are. S/he is hardly wired to the world, sensing the shame and desperation of the powerful and the poor alike, experiencing anger and frustration, living through the pain and the joy of those who cross his/her path. For this very reason, Tiresias represents a possible thread to the stability of the kingdom, including the authority of the wise. Tiresias is alive, and this is enough of a threat to all those who would like people to be walking dead.
Since s/he does not tell people how to do things, kings and priests do not really know what to make of Tiresias – to their eyes, s/he is obscure, incomprehensible and certainly a highly ambiguous being who, and this is the source of great fear, they cannot master and control. But the real ambiguity is represented by the way gods, kings and priests sometimes worship, yet at other times would be ready to kill, the blind prophet. Compared to them, Tiresias is pretty straightforward.
The blind Tiresias does not perceive the world in binaries: s/he does not make distinctions between inside and outside, private and public, theory and practice. This should not lead anyone to believe that Tiresias’s visions are blurry. They are vivid, clear, and very precise. For Tiresias the world is not a chaotic place, but a series of entangled relationships. The prophet’s aim is not to disentangle these intricate relationships and bring clarity to what appears to be a messy reality. No need to chop heads off! Foresighteeing is a great responsibility, in the sense that it implies the ability to respond and be responsible toward oneself and others, that is, toward the world. However, this ability to respond depends on a willingness to listen, on an openness to the world. And, as proved by the experience with king Pentheus, Tiresias knows that men don’t like to listen; they like to talk. Men excel in the art of the monologue, but have very little understanding of what a dialogue is and the advantages of genuine conversations. Since men are not conversative and seem to show no interests in changing this age-old tradition, Tiresias is bored to death by all the monologues about the future and by the insulting ‘mansplaining’ of the end of the future and the future reborn.
When the short- sighted rule the world, the future looks very much like the past where there is no place for Tiresias, for those who cannot see themselves reflected in the image of the white man-machine-god. What kind of future is this? This is the future of patriarchy, of those who, happy to have gained a better position on the ship’s deck, are only able to see their dreams of power and progress and think of them as real. But these are dreams. The future is somewhere else, on the ground, in the streets, where Tiresias, still in the shadow, continues working to weaken the grasp of ideologies.
The diviner is blind and not short- sighted. S/he does not imagine things, look for the future in strange places, or stare at the horizon line. Tiresias makes the future exist in the present.
1See also the cover of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s new book Inventing the Future. On the cover, it is stated: Demand Full Automation, Demand Universal Basic Income, Demand the Future. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, (London: Verso, 2015).
2Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (Tom Sharpe, 2001) Chapter 1, Appendix. The text is available online at the Gutenberg Project. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/3800.
4Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14 No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), 583-584.