Our middle world, orbiting a middle star of a middle ring of a middle-sized galaxy, has produced many wondrous creations, even from the bowels of despair. Life first emerged in the deep oceans, and endured through cycles of hot and cold, adapting to each extreme. Eventually, however, the creatures of sea and sky found themselves outcompeted by an upstart race which hailed from the the sub-Saharan savannah, after emerging from the woodland tropics of their primate cousins. Homo sapiens now rule the world, thanks to a combination of economic production and political organisation. But the symbolic forms of our cultural expression are the higher fruits of this gradual development, forms which continue to evolve into new and wondrous forms today.
And yet, there is no disconnect between our poetry and our political economy. The two are intertwined, and share a similar underlying flow of content and structure. Both respond to objective, external pressures that develop our internal powers as thinking subjects. In response to our spacious surroundings, we develop a thought pattern that categorises different eras by the time in which their events occurred. The maps of geographers, like the sketches of Darwin on the HMS Beagle, are tied to the calendars of historians. But maps, sketches, and calendars presuppose a separation between different eras, lineages, and spaces — a separation which does not, in fact, exist.
Let me take an example. Today we are critical of forms of art which adapt to the new situation in which we find ourselves. The trauma of the past seems to have caught up with the present, and time has worn us down. It is getting harder and harder to make sense of a social world out of sync with the middle Earth on which we sow the seeds for future generations to enjoy, but on which we now seem to be equally capable of sowing the seeds of destruction. Agriculture gave way to industry, industry to investment, and investment to overexpansion of production, leading directly to confrontation between corporations and nations seeking control over dwindling resources. In repressing our natural environment in our artificial paradise, we have allowed a new purgatory to dawn, where the promise of transcendence seems so close, and yet the reality of destruction seems perilously immanent. We are lost in the world; a world we made.
In our art, we have expressed this dismay. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we saw the triumphal pop of the ‘90s reach dizzying heights following the financial crash, as people sought a freedom from necessity in the liberty of the party. Then, in the late 2010s, the darkness of reality emerged in the realm of fantasy, too, as Gen Z began to take a hold on pop music which previously answered to more optimistic generations. Now, music is deeply confused, even in the titles of songs — who knew one album could use capitalisation, lower case, and all forms of brilliant mixtures of formal and informal vocabularies? We were presented with the future, and we didn’t like it. Nor can we easily forget it, yet alone let go of the past which preceded it. We are, in the words of the best-selling album of all time, stuck in the middle — and the pain is thunder.
Cinema follows this trajectory, but more clearly showing the seeds of decline. The fall of the financial crash was preceded by the popularisation of tragic movies which mourned the loss of a golden age. Faced with the imminent collapse of capitalism, we were reminded of what collapsed beforehand. In Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, one character remarks, ‘the world used to be a bigger place’, to which the other responds, ‘the world’s the same size — there’s just … less in it.’ Shortly before, the ever-optimistic Star Wars series finished with the deeply pessimistic Revenge of the Sith, just as a new age of pessimism in science fiction dawned with the TV series Battlestar Galactica.
There was optimism, too, such as in the British TV series Doctor Who, whose dark side is often overlooked. But the common complaint against TV and film today is not simply that pessimism has taken over completely, but that even optimistic art is shallow, empty, devoid of content. It feels like criticisms of the 1990s, when history ‘ended’ with the triumph of US-led capitalism at the conclusion of the Cold War. Now a ‘new Cold War’ is errupting between democracies and autocracies, the moment of artistic liberation that was unleashed at the ‘end of history’ is coming to a close. Democratic capitalism is under threat, from all sides. China is rising to challenge American leadership. The hegemony of the investor and owner class is coming under threat from occasional populist uprisings from the beating heart of global capitalism, made by the West but now made in the East. A new power is rising. And our poetry reflects that.
The danger is that, when poetry becomes captured by power, it loses its essence as an art form, informed by a higher philosophy than the science of political economy. House of Cards revealed what happened when a political system became captured by the marriage of money and power. We are about to found out what happens when the artistic lifeworld becomes similarly colonised by capitalistic incentive. Equally, we live in a time when ownership patterns are changing, and old monopolies are replaced by new ones. There may be an opening for something genuinely new, to reclaim the mantle of the lost worlds of artistic expression, from before the dawn of the Third Millennium. Let us hope that we are up to the task. Time is short.