by Rafaël Newman
What is the present? When did it begin? Stoics simply consult the calendar for an answer, where they find each new span of 24 hours reassuringly dubbed Today. Archaeologists speak of “Years Before Present” when referring to the time prior to January 1, 1950, the arbitrarily chosen inauguration of the era of radiocarbon dating following the explosion of the first atomic bombs. And the Judeo-Christian West makes of the present age a spatio-temporal chronotope, a narrative rooted in the time and place of birth of a particular figure, whose “presence” as guarantor is inextricable from the dating system, whether the appellations used are the frankly messianic Before Christ and Anno Domini, or the compromise variations on an ecumenical “Common Era”.
In 1977: Eine kurze Geschichte der Gegenwart (Suhrkamp, 2021), Philipp Sarasin deploys a novel methodology to determine the outlines of the present. His is a retrospective, thematic approach: one figured, like the Judeo-Christian narrative, by death and rebirth, but with an ambiguous and polymorphous turn. Sarasin, an intellectual historian who teaches at the University of Zurich, chooses as his foundational moment, and the stark title of his study, a year notorious among connoisseurs of Anglo-American pop culture for its symbolic passing of the baton between generations: the year in which Rock ‘n Roll was declared dead, only to be immediately resuscitated in the form of Punk; when Queen Elizabeth II was fêted throughout the Commonwealth during her Silver Jubilee while the UK languished in economic malaise and the Sex Pistols mocked the monarch from a boat on the Thames. 1977 is thus, viewed from a certain angle, an obvious facile hinge between sociological epochs. The key to Sarasin’s more complex method, however, is in his subtitle: “A Brief History of the Present,” with its echoes of popularizers like Stephen Hawking and Bill Bryson (the latter himself the author of a study devoted to one particular year), is also an insider’s reference to the journal Sarasin publishes with a collective of other historians in Switzerland and Germany.
Geschichte der Gegenwart, or “history of the present”, is “an online magazine featuring articles written from the perspective of the humanities and cultural studies—without technical jargon and footnotes, but in pursuit of the intellectual project.” It is devoted to uncovering the traces of the past in the present, on the premise that
history is inevitably to be found in the present, as a past variously remembered or forgotten, consciously construed, narrated, or mythologized. History deposits in the present ideas, words, and images, ways of thinking and norms from which the present cannot free itself, but which shape it, propel it, and limit it. History, by this token, must be released from the bonds of oblivion, analysed as origin and legacy; but it must also be criticized as myth.
In 1977, true to this credo, Sarasin proceeds from a self-conscious position in the present moment—he speaks, in the final chapter, from his vantage point in the year of publication—to identify the elements that make up our own, current chronotope, and then to trace their genealogies back to the vanishing point from which they extend forward into our world.
Sarasin is aware that his choice of a particular year for his retrospective departure into the present may appear arbitrary, and begins by making a sound case for the 1970s in general as a radical caesura in the history of the West and its various Grand Narratives—among them industrial superiority, democracy, and the colonialist “civilizing mission”, respectively challenged, if not quite defeated, by the Oil Crisis, Watergate, and the débacle of the Vietnam War. Then, in his focus year of 1977, Sarasin identifies the deaths of five figures who may be considered emblematic of the various fluctuations in human endeavor that have given rise to our current zeitgeist, defined and configured as it is by such phenomena as a disenchantment with the revolutionary project (Ernst Bloch), a focus on human rights and the ascendance of identity politics (Fannie Lou Hamer), the privileging of the self over the advancement of a generalized society (Anaïs Nin), the hegemony of information technology (Jacques Prévert), and the spread of neoliberalist forms of thought in politics and beyond (Ludwig Erhard). “Clearly,” writes Sarasin of the “exemplary” lives he has chosen as the figureheads of his various chapters,
there is no complete history of the modern era to be composed of what are after all fragments; and yet they allow stories to be told of that era, and thus to examine and at least partially solve the riddle of the “structural break”, the “postmodern”, or the “end of the modern” in an adequately complicated, and thus compelling fashion.
Sarasin’s choice of particular individuals to render an account of the dissolution of generalities is by necessity to some degree aleatory, their selection dictated in crucial part by the chance occurrence of their death in the year of his study’s scope; and the relation of each figure to the particular facets of our present paradigm discussed in that chapter can on occasion feel forced. This is the case with the poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert, whose early association with the Surrealists and their mechanistic post-humanism avant la lettre makes of him an ever so slightly tendentious bridge to the advent of the computer, Hip Hop, and PoMo architecture. Anaïs Nin, meanwhile, with her exhaustive, indeed obsessive focus on the sexual self as the site of revelation, makes a more natural hinge between the era of classical psychoanalysis and the “psychoboom” of the 1970s; but it is a stretch to have her preside over the rise of intersectional feminism and identity politics. For their part, Ernst Bloch and Ludwig Erhard are ideal Janus figures, each seeming to mark, with his death, the resolute conclusion of an epoch—that of revolutionary utopias and of economic liberalism, respectively—that would subsequently enjoy a surprising revival (albeit ironically denatured, in the case of the former).
Perhaps the most valuable, and disturbing, chapter is that devoted to “human rights, minorities, and the politics of difference,” anchored by a tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, who died on March 14, 1977, and is the lone non-European among Sarasin’s honorees. The Black activist from Mississippi, who suffered a variety of humiliations and survived near-fatal beatings in her quest for political subjecthood, ultimately declared her desire for human rights rather than the era’s unevenly delivered promise of civil rights, and thus positioned her project outside the framework of a law crafted begrudgingly by particular American legislators, to locate it instead under the sign of The Law, construed as a universal. Hamer’s struggle for recognition within the Democratic Party, which would seem from our current vantage point to have been her “natural” home, has today been largely forgotten, no doubt in part because, as Sarasin explains, Jimmy Carter took up in his inaugural address in 1977 (implicitly, without acknowledgment) Hamer’s call for a new focus on human rights: “Our moral sense,” affirmed the newly sworn-in US President, “dictates a clearcut preference for these societies which share with us an abiding respect for individual human rights.” Carter’s address, according to Sarasin, was intended to bring about a healing in American politics, following the rifts and ruptures of Watergate and Vietnam; but it also signaled a turn away from the great “modern” ideologies of common cause and public endeavor, and towards a new commitment to the private individual, and to the deceptively harmless sounding guarantee of “human rights”. As Sarasin explains, those rights, rooted in the early modern universalizing promises of the French Revolution, had lain dormant as a platform for political activism for much of the preceding two centuries, obscured under the hypocritical weight of continuing patriarchal domination, colonialist exploitation, and eugenicist pseudo-science, or subsumed under various forms of class struggle; their “comeback” now, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, was part of the American establishment’s effort to deliver the final blow to the Soviet Union, and thus to any hope of reviving the utopian, revolutionary energies its politics had, however imperfectly, represented.
Pankaj Mishra, in “The Mask It Wears,” a review of some of the same historical material considered by Sarasin, describes the situation succinctly:
The discourse of human rights became popular only in the 1970s. Intellectuals, particularly in France, used it to replace their faith in socialism and Third Worldism, and to consecrate an anti-totalitarian liberalism. Politicians such as Jimmy Carter weaponised it in a new ideological and moral offensive against the Soviet Union.
And Mishra goes on to make a disheartening case for the counterintuitive role of the human rights discourse in the actual suppression of other foundations for legal advocacy:
What differentiated the Western model [of human rights] from many Asian, African and Latin American networks of women’s groups and indigenous peoples, or alternative development and environmental organisations, was its indifference to ‘economic and social rights’… ‘entitlements to work, education, social assistance, health, housing, food and water’.
Sarasin’s excellent point, underpinned by an illuminating juxtaposition of Punk aesthetics and post-structuralist thought, is that the American establishment’s turn to human rights in the 1970s and 1980s, intended to shore up the project of “social-market” democracy with a narrow focus on the body of the citizen as the limits of that subject’s potential for action, ultimately set loose the energies of our present era’s obsessive focus on the unique private individual—
a movement of multiple individuals…beginning to turn away from the great projects of modernity and a faith in a “law” applicable to all, and towards a journey to the self, an investigation of their “interior” and a quest for their “identity”.
This is, of course, the very tendency that globalizing capitalism, with its algorithms, user IDs, and targeted information, is currently attempting to harness and monetize for its own ends. And thus the energy of the Particular, released by the General with an eye to its own fusion, sees its fissile potential recontained, in a movement that confirms the paradoxical dependence of the whole on the very part it excludes.
There is, in the elaboration of this argument, which runs the length of Sarasin’s book, one jarring note in an otherwise elegantly and meticulously crafted work: his straightforward deployment of the term “deconstruction”, itself widely disseminated in the 1970s and implicitly at work in Sarasin’s argument, in a distinctly one-dimensional fashion, apparently stripped of the epistemic significance lent it by its proponent, Jacques Derrida, and used by Sarasin instead, even in explicit discussions of Derrida’s thought, more or less as a synonym for demythologization à la Barthes, or simply to denote semantic destabilization. This turns out, however, to be a strategic move on the historian’s part, a deliberate demystification of what had seemed at the time to be a radical departure from the twentieth century’s spectacularly failed attachment to rationalism, the discovery of a schism built into the ostensibly totalizing logic of Western metaphysics that was itself a break with that logic. Instead, in his final chapter, and with a rhetorical flourish, Sarasin assigns Derrida and his cohort, especially among the builders of the late-twentieth-century urban environment, to what he calls the “postmodern”, a tendency whose revolutionary impulses are nevertheless still rooted in the Age of Enlightenment they critique—as opposed to the “postmodern”, our present age, that of the epigone and the effete, of fake news and “anything goes,” of algorithm-driven identities. By these lights, ours is an era marked by a prolonged farewell to rationalism, democracy, and progress, as well as to humanist, non-exclusive individualism—all of these the markers of modernity—and riven by an irreparable breach in the fabric of the Common and the True.
Sarasin’s coda to his book of obituaries balances the five death notices with a birth, one which falls tellingly outside his titular year’s confines. On July 25, 1978, near Manchester, Louise Joy Brown was born, the first human conceived outside the womb by means of in vitro fertilization. Sarasin shows convincingly how this new “technology” of reproduction has since led both to a welcome liberation from the constraints of biologically determined, heteronormative sex roles, and to the rise of a potential threat to the “human” project in the form of eugenics and profit-driven interventions into the individual at the hormonal, indeed chromosomal level. Brown’s birth, by these lights, can thus also be read as a death, the demise of the very “individualist” revolution Sarasin sketches out in his chapter on the “psychoboom” and self-actualization, and which had seemed to culminate in this scientific triumph, only to present the corporate regime thus with a new potential for hegemony.
Our present moment’s combination of neoliberal market forces with the will to revolution inverted into a development of the self, as elaborated by Sarasin, is strikingly exemplified by a recent Swiss vote on two issues—the increased weighting of taxes on capital gains, which two thirds of the electorate rejected, and the legalization of same-sex marriage, and with it the opening of sperm banks to lesbian couples, which was approved by almost precisely the same proportion. Voters thus exhibited an apparently paradoxical but utterly contemporary tendency to “fiscal conservatism and social liberalism,” an unholy alliance that challenges the meaning of the two political poles: since what is conservative in Europe is considered liberal in the US, and vice versa; and, at least according to some social critics, the drive by previously marginalized groups for inclusion in such pillars of established culture as marriage may in fact represent a regressive trend. It also proves Sarasin’s reading of our present era as one of fragmented and arbitrarily remixed forces, while underscoring his dire warning: that we underestimate at our peril the price of our own current commitment to “freedom, diversity, and inclusion” when it is paired with faith in a digital “revolution,” one that threatens to use for its own ends the very “plurality of voices” it has set free.
Sarasin’s engrossing book, a handsome object with its orange wrapper and matching bound bookmark, is marred only by rather more typos than might be expected in a product of such prestigious German craft—perhaps itself a reminder of the material and market forces to which even a renowned press like Suhrkamp is subject. 1977 is a dense and idiosyncratic study of the roots of our present moment. It reminds us to remain alert to the signs of the history surrounding us, and to observe critically the random onslaught of deaths and births currently staking out our next “present”, which will reveal their significance only in retrospect.