The 21st century took a long time to get going. The first seven years of the new century felt like a continuation of the dog days of the last century, an intensification of all the late 20th century’s intertia and involuted temporality. Long ago, Fredric Jameson wrote of the flattened sense of time that he thought was characteristic of postmodernism: its inability to muster a sense of the present; the disappearance of a linear historical narrative; the eclipse of the new by pastiche. These tendencies intensified in the 00s, a nondescript decade that lacked many temporal landmarks: as formal nostalgia became increasingly normalised, it felt as if we could have been anywhen. The anthropologist Marc Auge has famously written of non-places — all global capitalism’s interchangeable retail parks and airport lounges — and the last decade was the temporal equivalent of these featureless spaces: a non-time. Technology was continually upgraded, but culture was locked and looped in old forms, producing a generalised anachronism. Refurbished with the pseudo-participatory circuits of web 2.0, antediluvian formats such as the talent show came to dominate the collapsing but still resilient spectacle of old media. It felt like we were in some Philip K Dick alternative 21st century, in which fifties’ deference co-existed with a digitally-glossed sub-pornographic sexual cabaret.
Where was the real 21st century? Where were the futures that we thought lay beyond 2000 AD? Imperceptibly but implacably, expectations lowered. I gave the name ‘capitalist realism’ to these reduced expectations and the conditions which engendered them. ‘Realism’ here connotes an attitude of acceptance and resignation (all we can do is adjust to the dominant reality, as programmed by capital), but it also refers to an aesthetic (or, better, anti-aesthetic) orientation: the replacement of art’s critical-utopian counter-environment with a shopping mall of mirrors that offers only endless variations of capital’s images of us.
Faced with all this, the most powerful art of the last decade was saturated with a sense of mourning for all the lost futures that failed to happen. Some of us called this sensibility hauntological – and one can detect a hauntological current in electronic music (Burial, the Ghost Box label, The Caretaker), film (Chris Petit, Patrick Keiller, Grant Gee), in fiction (in the novels of David Peace) and in visual art (in Michael Wilkinson’s postpunk reliquary; in Laura Oldfield Ford’s uncovering of old militancies beneath capital’s dreary-bright consumer arcades). A second city intermittently flares into focus in this work, a city that capitalist development has failed to photoshop away, a city of derelict and dilapidated spaces, a city of the disappointed, the jaded, the cheated and the condemned.
Everything changed with the bank crises of 2008, which signalled the spectacular defeat of the neoliberal project. Overnight, the 00s’ conspicuous consumption and compulsory triviality looked embarrassingly out of date, and a new militancy started brewing. In the western metropolis, just as in North Africa and the Middle East, history has started again: the condemned are on the streets, shouting down their former masters. The 21st century has begun, at last – and we await the art and culture that can grasp the possibilities of this new era.
Mark Fisher is highly respected both as a music writer and a theorist. He writes regularly for frieze, New Statesman, Sight & Sound and The Wire, where he was acting deputy editor for a year. He is a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths, University Of London, and maintains one of the most successful weblogs on cultural theory, k-punk (http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org).