Pierre Menard, Author of “The Gernsback Continuum”

9 12 2007

4. What is your intended field of study?

I’m interested in retro: the roles of progress and technology in birthing a late 20th century style whose defining trait is technological obsolescence. In steampunk’s Victoriana, in Gernsback’s streamlined utopias, in the fetishized defunct device, in postapocalypse-scapes of industrial leavings screaming the futility of science, retro is the future we left in the dust, the cyborg pastoral we’ve lost, a past of man-and-machine harmony.

One casualty of quickened progress is the failed prediction. When did the “future”, which by definition has not yet happened, become a thing that will never happen, so that we can say of it “What happened to my future?” or “They’ve got our future“, as though it were a thing that could be stolen or left behind. Probably when time travel became banal, and multiple realities commonplace. Today, the utopian or merely hopeful predictions of midcentury—a very recent yet altogether distinct age of scientific enthusiasm, if not triumphalism—seem as much a target for mockery as the forecasts of Nostradamus, and yet, freed from the burden of becoming real, and far from being forgotten, such images as the flying family car and the O’Neill cylinder are instead part of what George Steiner calls “a compost of dreams and longings” informing design, literature, and taste. Thomas Browne called science “a dream and folly of expectation”. Expectations, like all creatures of man, have lives of their own.

Another feature of accelerating development is increased technological obsolescence which, tied with the mass manufacture of objects, gets us junk—the literal persistence of the past in landfill, quantity rather than durability ensuring its survival. This other, more material compost is everywhere to be seen: in storage lockers, Ebay auctions, the Third World. No longer absorbed, as we were, by their instrumentality, we are free to contemplate the form and even beauty, enhanced by the memories of our emotional attachment, of objects whose usefulness has been exceeded. The rise of design’s importance to technology may coincide with our jadedness to the latter’s powers: where mere functionality enthralled, we now demand visual pizzazz. Give the sleek Ibook five years’ superannuation to join the clunky Commodore in the attic of the heart.

Past dreams, freed from ever having to become a future never now to be, past objects freed from function to become objets d’art: these visions of technology, forgotten and rejected by progress, return to us with that alienated majesty Emerson famously ascribed to works of genius—recycled, repurposed, or revived, ironically or nostalgically recontextualized. I propose tracking the half-life of these aborted futures’ ability to enthrall, as they decay in the public imagination, irradiating our dreams.

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