Circling Back

Martin Herbert

Read a newly developed text by writer and critic Martin Herbert, responding to the future-facing conspiracies of Daniel Cockburn’s recent FVU Commission Ahead of the Curve.

According to Frédéric Gros in 'A Philosophy of Walking' (2014), Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal recurrence owed much to his habit of generating ideas while repeatedly walking circular routes on mountain paths. For many people, the idea that everything repeats ad infinitum might feel unnerving, if not terrifying. For Nietzsche, it was something to be embraced; and this was the philosophical mindset, arguably, of someone who had discovered the pleasures of repetitive action, even if he was only presuming to step in the same alpine stream twice and was likely doing a certain amount of futile deferring of mortality while he walked and thought in circles. Eternal return might otherwise perturb because it also entails a rerun, endlessly, of everything that in retrospect we hadn’t wanted to happen, all the crucial forks in the road glimpsed – or not even glimpsed – and then sped past. One of Peter Cook’s most famous jokes feels apropos: “I have learned from my mistakes, and I’m sure I can repeat them exactly.” Time-travel cinematic comedies, by contrast, typically allow their protagonists to do some reparative tinkering with the past or break cycles of repetition and find true love, but that’s Hollywood for you.  

Meanwhile, going forwards, it’s clear that time’s ostensible onrush and the larger, accumulative concept of progress are not the same. We just habitually synonymise them, assume that we’re smarter than our ancestors, while being suspiciously good at repeating their mistakes, pouring sour old wine out of new bottles. Consider the present: even before the recent pandemic, commentators liked to compare our time with the medieval period, not least because today’s abundant wealth inequalities are suggestive of feudalism. (Except it’s ‘techno-feudalism’ now.) Then, how perfectly retro, we got another plague. How do we stack up, with our technological tools, against our unwashed, god-fearing, irrational ancestors? Imagine you could build a time machine – or let’s say you discovered one, via a kind of ‘code in the world’ composed of motley artefacts (e.g. several cranes, a key, a squished insect, Scrabble letters arranged a certain way) – and were able to transport yourself back to 1347, a year into the Black Death. Amid the grotesquely swollen lymph nodes and gilded crucifixes of the Middle Ages, what else would you discover? Widespread contagious superstitions: belief, for example, in the ‘humours’, bodily fluids (bile, phlegm, blood) that, when imbalanced, made people sick. 

Seven centuries later, we are modern, we killed God, we have the Internet and we’re not about to fall for baseless, unproven viral suppositions like, say, that we should drink cleaning fluids or take animal tranquilisers to cure respiratory diseases. We are an advanced globalised culture whose very connectedness makes it easier to stop sickness in its tracks and certainly wouldn’t become a root cause of contagion. Also, our ability to broadcast using social media elevates public discourse, we’ve ended war, and nobody believes in mystical hocus-pocus anymore. Okay, none of that is true, and even if we can map our genes and extend our lifetimes and use space telescopes to see the past (kind of), we’re not much closer than medieval peasants are to answering life’s biggest mystery. Things might have worked out differently, but they didn’t. Maybe we missed an offramp? Maybe some large influential body had it blocked.

Let’s say you recognised all this, and you wanted to articulate it in artistic terms, and to avoid falling into the rookie trap of claiming, as an objective truth, your own understanding that we can’t know much for sure. How to proceed? Maybe you could start by addressing how hard it is to decide what is true, particularly amid mediation. The story you tell might, itself, begin in autobiography, in a cockeyed moment when enforced isolation scrambled people’s sense of reality, and venture out from there, losing touch with facts at some unknown, perhaps very early, point but then arcing towards what feels like a deeper truth. Perhaps you’d recount the narrative of your time travels within the pseudo-authoritative framework of a lecture-performance, while simultaneously hinting strongly that you’re an unreliable narrator – fudging details, making up flimsy excuses for having shot no video footage of the past. Maybe undercut things we think we can trust, or that might make us proud of our contemporariness. You might present the Internet, for example, as a chaotic hive of randomness and associative babble, offering dubious information that accrues a tentative legitimacy through repetition. Like the “fact” that in the medieval era the Catholic Church banned a musical interval, the tritone, because it was thought to summon the devil – which generations of heavy metal bands seem to have believed, and which you can test out at home on your portable keyboard.

You could, additionally, demonstrate that indexical and archival images can’t necessarily be trusted either, can easily unmoor themselves. A photographic image you might show is contextual, contingent, held momentarily in place by what you put on either side of it. A font from one place, say the serif typeface from the old TV series The Prisoner, can be used to spell out something else, and then that something else – plus what you might know about the show, the inescapable coastal village – comes to spread like an ominous existential mist over the whole. A diagram you draw might represent the map of your supposed wanderings and, later, a model of time and human progress, depending how you talk over it. Circularly, then, we can’t quite trust this narrator, not least because he’s recounting something he ‘did’ in the hallucinatory depths of pandemic isolation, and because he seems sometimes to believe in urban myths. But we might want to pay attention to what he says about linear progress, because it’s almost hopeful, though it’s also wrenching. History as we know it, he states, is just what happened to happen, but it might indeed have gone other ways – might, in other dimensions, be going other ways – and might still.

What if, for example, the Black Death had ended very quickly, not wiped out around half of Europe’s population inside of seven years, because someone (someone, admittedly, who’s seemingly drifted out of the narrative of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”) knew a workaround, saw meaning in violet hazes arising at specific times from the forest floor, and they were not ignored and unheard due to living remotely in a cabin in the woods? What if, against the odds, just because we’ve missed opportunities to take the right path in the past, we somehow don’t in the future, and everything shifts? Also circularly, and perhaps only according to the logic of his own argument, the narrator might be viewed here – may be positioning himself – as just one of these aforesaid wilderness voices. He apparently knows something, while also knowing that there’s so much we don’t know, including whether what he says is accurate or even plausible. Is he a crank, is he ahead of the curve, is he somehow both? Should you, based on the evidence, listen to him? Yes, maybe.


Ahead of the Curve is available for free on FVU Watch HERE.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

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