Signs From The Future

Slavoj Žižek

So where do we stand now, in 2012? 2011 was the year of dreaming dangerously, of the revival of radical emancipatory politics all around the world. Now, a year later, every day brings new proofs of how fragile and inconsistent the awakening was, with all of its many facets displaying the same signs of exhaustion: the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring is mired in compromises and religious fundamentalism; the OWS is losing momentum to such an extent that, in a nice case of the »cunning of reason,« the police cleansing of Zuchotti Park and other sites of the OWS protests cannot but appear as a blessing in disguise, covering up the immanent loss of momentum. And the same story goes on all around the world: the Maoists in Nepal seem outmaneuvered by the reactionary royalist forces; Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” experiment more and more regressing into a caudillo-run populism… What are we to do in such depressive times when dreams seem to fade away? Is the only choice we have the one between nostalgic-narcissistic remembrance of the sublime enthusiastic moments, and the cynically-realist explanation of why the attempts to really change the situation had to fail?


The first thing to state is that the subterranean work of dissatisfaction is going on: rage is accumulating and a new wave of revolts will follow. The weird and unnatural relative calm of the Spring of 2012 is more and more perforated by the growing subterranean tensions announcing new explosions; what makes the situation so ominous is the all-pervasive sense of blockage: there no clear way out, the ruling elite is clearly losing its ability to rule. What makes the situation even more disturbing is the obvious fact that democracy doesn’t work: after elections in Greece and in Spain, the same frustrations remain. How should we read the signs of this rage? In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin quotes the French historian André Monglond: “The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly.”[1] Events like the OWS protests, the Arab Spring, demonstrations in Greece and Spain, etc., have to be read as such signs from the future. In other words, we should turn around the usual historicist perspective of understanding an event out of its context and genesis. Radical emancipatory outburst cannot be understood in this way: instead of analyzing them as a part of the continuum of past/present, we should bring in the perspective of the future, i.e., we should analyze them as limited, distorted (sometimes even perverted) fragments of a utopian future which lies dormant in the present as its hidden potential. According to Deleuze, in Proust, “people and things occupy a place in time which is incommensurable with the one that they have in space”[2]: the notorious madeleine is here in place, but this is not its true time.[3] In a similar way, one should learn the art to recognize, from an engaged subjective position, elements which are here, in our space, but whose time is the emancipated future, the future of the Communist Idea.


However, while one should learn to watch for such signs from the future, we should also be aware that what we are doing now will only become readable once the future will be here, so we should not put too much hopes into the desperate search for the »germs of Communism« in today’s society. One should thus strive for a delicate balance between reading signs from the (hypothetic Communist) future and maintaining the radical openness of the future: openness alone ends up in decisionist nihilism which constrains us to leaps into the void, while full reliance on the signs from the future can succumb to determinist planning (we know what the future should look like and, from a position of meta-language, somehow exempted from history, we just have to enact it). However, the balance one should strive for has nothing to do with some kind of wise “middle road” avoiding both extremes (“we know in a general sense the shape of the future we are moving towards, but we should simultaneously remain open to unpredictable contingencies”). Signs from the future are not constitutive but regulative in the Kantian sense; their status is subjectively mediated, i.e., they are not discernible from any neutral “objective” study of history, but only from an engaged position – following them remains an existential wager in Pascal’s sense. We are dealing here with the circular structure best exemplified by a science-fiction story set a couple of hundred years ahead of our time when time travel was already possible, about an art critic who gets so fascinated by the works of a New York painter from our era that he travels back in time to meet him; he discovers that the painter is a worthless drunk who even steals from him the time machine and escapes to the future; alone in today’s world, the art critic paints all the paintings that fascinated him in the future and made him travel into the past. In a homologous way, the Communist signs from the future are signs from a possible future which will become actual only if we follow these signs – in other words, they are signs which paradoxically precede that of which they are signs. Recall the Pascalean topic of deus absconditus, of a “hidden god” discernible only to those who search for him, who are engaged in the path of this search:

“God has willed to redeem men and to open salvation to those who seek it. But men render themselves so unworthy of it that it is right that God should refuse to some, because of their obduracy, what He grants others from a compassion which is not due to them. If He had willed to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, He could have done so by revealing Himself so manifestly to them that they could not have doubted of the truth of His essence; as it will appear at the last day, with such thunders and such a convulsion of nature that the dead will rise again, and the blindest will see Him. It is not in this manner that He has willed to appear in His advent of mercy, because, as so many make themselves unworthy of His mercy, He has willed to leave them in the loss of the good which they do not want. It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”[4]


God gives these signs in the guise of miracles, and this is why the same mixture of light and obscurity characterizes miracles: miracles are not visible as such to everyone, but only to believers – skeptical non-believers (to whom Pascal refers as “libertins,” in a typical 17th century way, as opposed to the 18th century predominant meaning of debauchery) can easily dismiss them as natural phenomena, and those who believe in them as victims of superstition. Pascal thus openly admits a kind of hermeneutic circle in the guise of the mutual interdependence of miracles and “doctrine” (the church teaching): “Rule: we must judge of doctrine by miracles; we must judge of miracles by doctrine. All this is true, but contains no contradiction.” Perhaps, one can apply here Kant’s formula of the relationship between reason and (sensuous) intuition: doctrine without miracles is sterile and impotent, miracles without doctrine are blind and meaningless. Their mutual independence is thus not symmetrical: “Miracles are for doctrine, and not doctrine for miracles.” In Badiou’s terms, miracle is Pascal’s name for an Event, an intrusion of the impossible-Real into our ordinary reality which momentarily suspends its causal nexus; however, it is only an engaged subjective position, a subject who “desires to see,” which can truly identify a miracle.[5]


Many perspicuous Marxists noted long ago how this Pascal’s topic, far from standing for a regression to obscurantist theology, points forward towards the Marxist notion of a revolutionary theory whose truth is discernible only from an engaged class position. And are we today not in exactly the same situation with regard to Communism? The times of “revealed Communism” are over: we cannot any longer pretend (or act as if) the Communist truth is simply here for everyone to see, accessible to neutral rational historical analysis; there is no Communist “big Other,” no higher historical necessity or teleology to guide and legitimize our acts. In such a situation, today’s libertins (postmodern historicist skeptics) thrive, and the only way to counter them, i.e., to assert the dimension of Event (of eternal Truth) in our epoch of contingency, is to practice a kind of Communism absconditus: what defines today’s Communist is the “doctrine” (theory) which enables him to discern in (the contemporary version of) a “miracle” – say, an unexpected social explosion like the crowd persisting on Tahrir Square – its Communist nature, to read it is a sign from the (Communist) future. (For a libertin, of course, such an event remains a confused outcome of social frustrations and illusions, an outburst which will probably lead to an even worst situation than the one to which it reacted.) And, again, this future is not “objective,” it will come to be only through the subjective engagement which sustains it.


Perhaps, we should turn the usual reproach about what we want and what we don’t want around: it is basically clear what we want (in the long term, at least); but do we really know what we don’t want, i.e., what we are ready to renounce of our present “freedoms”?) Or, to go back to our Ninotchka joke: we want coffee, but do we want it without milk or without cream? (Without state? Without private property? Etc.) It is here that we should remain resolutely Hegelian – Hegel’s opening towards the future is a negative one: it is articulated in his negative/limiting statements like the famous »one cannot jump ahead of one’s time« from his Philosophy of Right. The impossibility to directly borrow from the future is grounded in the very fact of retroactivity which makes future a priori unpredictable: we cannot jump onto our shoulders and see ourselves »objectively,« the way we fit into the texture of history, because this texture is again and again retroactively rearranged. In theology, Kart Barth extended this unpredictability to the Last Judgment itself, emphasizing how the final revelation of God will be totally incommensurable with our expectations:

“God is not hidden to us; He is revealed. But what and how we shall be in Christ, and what and how the World will be in Christ at the end of God’s road, at the breaking in of redemption and completion, that is not revealed to us; that is hidden. Let us be honest: we do not know what we are saying when we speak of Jesús Christ’s coming again in judgment, and of the resurrection of the dead, of eternal life and eternal death. That with all these there will be bound up a piercing revelation – a seeing, compared to which all our present vision will have been blindness – is too often testified in Scripture for us to feel we ought to prepare ourselves for it. For we do not know what will be revealed when the last covering is removed from our eyes, from all eyes: how we shall behold one another and what we shall be to one another – men of today and men of past centurias and millenia, ancestors and descendants, husbands and wives, wise and foolish, oppressors and oppressed, traitors and betrayed, murderers and murdered, West and East, Germans and others, Christians, Jews, and heathen, orthodox and heretics, Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans and Reformed; upon what divisions and unions, what confrontations and cross-connections the seals of all books will be opened; how much will seem small and unimportant to us then, how much will only then appear great and important; for what surprises of all kinds we must prepare ourselves. / We also do not know what Nature, as the cosmos in which we have lived and still live here and now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then.”[6]


From this insight, it becomes clear how false, how “all too human,” the fear is that the guilty will not be properly punished – here, especially, we must abandon our expectations: “Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free on this side, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might some day prove to be empty!”[7] And the same uncertainty holds for the Church itself – it possesses no superior knowledge, it is like a postman who delivers mail with no idea what it says: “The Church can only deliver it the way a postman delivers his mail; the Church is not asked what it thinks it is thereby starting, or what it makes of the message. The less it makes of it and the less it leaves on it its own fingerprints, the more it simple hands it on as it has received it – and so much the better.”[8]


No wonder Hegel formulated this same limitation apropos politics: especially as Communists, we should abstain from any positive imagining of the future Communist society. Recall Christ’s sceptical words against the prophets of doom from Mark 13: »If anyone tells you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘Look, there!’ don’t believe it. For there will arise false Christs and false prophets, and will show signs and wonders, that they may lead astray, if possible, even the chosen ones. But you watch.[9]‘« Watch for the signs of the apocalypse, bearing in mind the open meaning of this term in Greek: apokálypsis (“lifting of the veil” or “revelation”) is a disclosure of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception. On account of this radical heterogeneity of the New, its arrival has to cause terror and confusion – recall Heiner Müller’s famous motto: “the first appearance of the new is the dread.” Or, as Seneca put it almost two thousand years ago: “Et ipse miror vixque iam facto malo / potuisse fieri credo. /Although the evil is already done, we still find it hard to believe it is possible.”(Medea 883-4) This is how we react to radical Evil: it is real, but still perceived as impossible. But does the same not hold for everything that is really New?


So what about apocalyptic tones we often hear, especially after a catastrophe occurs? The ultimate paradox here is that the very excessive catastrophism (»the end of the world is near« mantra) is a defense, a way to obfuscate the true dangers, not to take them really seriously. This is why the only appropriate reply to an ecologist who tries to convince us of the impending threat is that the true target of his desperate arguing is HIS OWN nonbelief – consequently, our answer to him should be something like »Don’t worry, the catastrophe will come for sure!«… And the catastrophe is coming, the impossible is happening all around us – but watch patiently, don’t get caught in precipitous extrapolations, don’t let yourself go to the properly perverse pleasure of: »This is it! The dreaded moment has arrived!« In ecology, such apocalyptic fascination arrives in many diverse forms: global warming will drawn us all in a couple of decades; biogenetics will bring the end of human ethics and responsibility; bees will disappear soon and unimaginable starvation will follow… Take all these treats seriously, but don’t be seduced by them and enjoy too much the false sense of guilt and justice (»We offended Mother Earth, so we are getting what we deserve!«). Instead, keep your head cool and – »but you watch«:


“But you watch, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake —for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning — lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”(Mark 13)


Stay wake and watch for what? As we have already seen, the Left entered a period of profound crisis – the shadow of the XXth century still hangs over it, and the full scope of the defeat is not yet admitted. In the years of prospering capitalism, it was easy for the Left to play a Cassandra, warning that the prosperity is based on illusions and prophesizing catastrophes to come. Now the economic downturn and social disintegration the Left was waiting for is here, protests and revolts are popping up all around the globe – but what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change: “When and if a national economy enters into crisis in the present interlocking global order, what has anyone to say – in any non-laughable detail – about ‘socialism in one country’ or even ‘partly detached pseudo-nation-state non-finance-capital-driven capitalism’?”[10] T.J. Clark sees the reason for this inability to act in the Left’s “futuralism,” in its orientation towards a future of radical emancipation; due to this fixation, the Left is immobilized “by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for the signs of catastrophe and salvation,” i.e., it continues to be premised “on some terracotta multitude waiting to march out of the emperor’s tomb.”[11]


We have to admit the grain of truth in this simplified bleak vision which seems to sap the very possibility of a proper political Event: perhaps, we should effectively renounce the myth of a Great Awakening – the moment when (if not the old working class then) a new alliance of the dispossessed, multitude or whatever, will gather its forces and master a decisive intervention. The entire history of the (radical) Left, up to Hardt and Negri, is colored by this stance of awaiting the Moment. After describing multiple forms of resistance to the Empire, Hardt and Negri’s Multitude ends with a messianic note pointing towards the great Rupture, the moment of Decision when the movement of multitudes will be transubstantiated the sudden birth of a new world: “After this long season of violence and contradictions, global civil war, corruption of imperial biopower, and infinite toil of the biopolitical multitudes, the extraordinary accumulations of grievances and reform proposals must at some point be transformed by a strong event, a radical insurrectional demand.”[12] However, at this point when one expects a minimum theoretical determination of this rupture, what we get is again withdrawal into philosophy: “A philosophical book like this, however, is not the place for us to evaluate whether the time for revolutionary political decision is imminent.”[13] Hardt and Negri perform here an all to quick jump: of course one cannot ask them to provide a detailed empirical description of the Decision, of the passage to the globalized “absolute democracy,” to the multitude that rules itself; however, what if this a justified refusal to engage in pseudo-concrete futuristic predictions masks an inherent notional deadlock/impossibility? That is to say, what one does and should expect is a description of the notional structure of this qualitative jump, of the passage from the multitudes resisting the One of sovereign Power to the multitudes directly ruling themselves.


So what happens if we radically renounce this stance of eschatological expectation? Clark concludes that one has to admit the tragic vision of (social) life: there is no (great bright) future, the “tiger” of suffering, evil, and violence is here to stay, and, in such circumstances, the only reasonable politics is the politics of moderation which tries to contain the monster: “a politics actually directed, step by step, failure by failure, to preventing the tiger from charging out would be the most moderate and revolutionary there has ever been.”[14] Practicing such a politics would provoke a brutal reply of those in power and dissolve the “boundaries between political organizing and armed resistance.”[15] Again, the grain of truth in this proposal is that, often, a strategically well-placed precise “moderate” demand can trigger a global transformation – recall Gorbachov’s “moderate” attempt to reform the Soviet Union which resulted in its disintegration. But is this all one should say (and do)?


There are in French two words for “future” which cannot be adequately rendered in English: futur and avenir. Futur stands for future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of the tendencies which are already here, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present – avenir is what is to come /a venir/, not just what will be. Say, in today’s apocalyptic global situation, the ultimate horizon of the “future” is what Jean-Pierre Dupuy calls the dystopian “fixed point,” the zero-point of the ecological breakdown, of global economic and social chaos – even if it is indefinitely postponed, this zero-point is the virtual “attractor” towards which our reality, left to itself, tends. The way to combat the catastrophy is through acts which interrupt this drifting towards the catastrophic “fixed point” and take upon themselves the risk of giving birth to some radical Otherness “to come.” We can see here how ambiguous the slogan “no future” is: at a deeper level, it does not designate the closure, the impossibility of change, but what we should be striving for – to break the hold of the catastrophic “future” over up and thereby open up the space for something New “to come.”


Based on this distinction, we can see what was the problem with Marx (as well as with the XXth century Left): it was not that Marx was too utopian in his Communist dreams, but that his Communism was too “futural.” What Marx wrote about Plato (Plato’s Republic was not a utopia, but an idealized image of the existing Ancient Greek society), holds for Marx himself: what Marx conceived as Communism remained an idealized image of capitalism, capitalism without capitalism, i.e., expanded self-reproduction without profit and exploitation. This is why we should return from Marx to Hegel, to Hegel’s “tragic” vision of the social process where no hidden teleology is guiding us, where every intervention is a jump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectations. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely: whatever will come after will not be “our future.” A new Middle East war or an economic chaos or an unheard-of environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully assume this openness, guiding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999.p. 482.
[2] Gilles Deleuze: Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press 1989, p. 39.
[3] With all respect for Marcel Proust’s genius, when one reads about his way of life – spending most of the day in half-darkened room, sleeping long, depending on his servant – it is difficult to resist the pleasure of imagining him being condemned by a workers’ regime to a years or so of re-education camp, where he would be forced to get up at 5 AM, wash in cold water, and then, after a meager breakfast, work most of the day digging up and transporting earth, with the evenings filled up with singing political sings and writing confessions…
[4] All quotes from Pascal are from the online version of Pensees.
[5] As to the relevance of Pascal’s deus absconditus for the notion of transference in psychoanalysis, see Guy Le Gaufey, L’objet a, Paris: EPEL 2012.
[6] Karl Barth, God Here and Now, New York: Routledge 2003, p. 45-46.
[7] Op.cit., p. 42.
[8] Op.cit., p. 49.
[9] Also translated as: “/But/ be on your guard!”
[10] T.J.Clark, “For a Left with No Future,” New Left Review 74 (March/April 2012), p. 55.
[11] Op.cit., p. 54.
[12] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude, New York: The Penguin Press 2004, p. 358.
[13] Op.cit., p. 357.
[14] Clark, op.cit., p. 67.
[15] Op.cit., p. 74.


Exclusive final chapter from Žižek’s new book, The years of dreaming dangerously (Verso) coming-out this fall