Witte de With Contemporary Art
Program—Volcano, Waiting
Sediments — Future | June 2016

Volcano, Waiting
By Evan Calder Williams

August Desperret, Third eruption of the volcano of 1789, to take place before the end of the world, which will shake all thrones, and overturn a horde of monarchies. Lithography published in the magazine "La Caricature" of June 1833. Hand-colored, with watercolor, 34.00 x 24.50 cm., University of Pittsburgh Library.

While theorists theorise, the volcano remains active, smoke and ashes refuse to disappear.

—Reece Auguiste1Reece Auguiste, “Handsworth Songs: Some Background Notes,” in The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–1998, eds. Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 157.

In 1833, French caricaturist Auguste Desperret drew revolution as a mountain blowing its vaguely Etna top, with the word “LIBERTÉ” hanging vertically in the explosion like a hotel sign on fire. That abstract notion aside, though, the context is specific: not generic revolt but a freeze-frame capture of, according to its caption, the “third eruption of the volcano of 1789, to take place before the end of the world, which will shake all thrones, and overturn a horde of monarchies.”2The image and its details can be found here: “Saturday Volcano Art: Auguste Desperret, ‘Troisième éruption du volcan de 1789’ (1833),” The Volcanism Blog, 5 September 2009, https://volcanism.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/saturday-volcano-art-auguste-desperret-troisieme-eruption-du-volcan-de-1789-1833/ (accessed 19 July 2016). But even without that explanatory note, the image gives clues to parse at least two of its three moments of insurgence, as the ruined chateau is labeled 1789 (the first year of the French Revolution) and the mid-air rocks 1830 (the year of the July Revolution), turning its single depicted moment of geological surge into a chance to track backward through a set of past upheavals still littering the ground and filling the sky. But as with most hyper-allegorical images—the kind so nervous about misinterpretation that they make sure to label every part—any attempt to look closer and make sense of just what stands in for what tips the image into weirder territory. For instance, in terms of the source of the revolt, there is both an image of seething social dissent (the volcano itself as an icon of bottled-up antagonism) and actual humans standing on its slopes, waving little flags, and being generically revolutionary. The soaring/burning liberty at stake is, we assume, human, but the drawing at least gives hints that the forces impelling it may not quite be. When that third revolution comes, it is hard to say just who will be surfing the red wave, let alone what kind of control, if any, those cheering it on will have over the process.3For Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, writing his bright shards of thought during the years up to and including the French Revolution (gathered posthumously as the Waste Books), the volcano comes to explicitly mark both the limits of human capacity to organize the world and the dangers of a possible disconnect between the ability to do so and an understanding of how to control it: “We cannot establish volcanoes; we lack the power, and if we had the power, we would still lack the understanding to put it in obedient operation.” From Lichtenberg’s Waste Books, quoted in: Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 425–26.

It is this specific sense of not only a long-awaited eruption but also its uncontrollable, inhuman force that comes to especially shape the volcano as a recurrent figure of insurgence in the past two centuries, whether in framings of decolonization4As in Samira Kawash’s reading of Fanon: “the absolute violence of decolonization is outside agency or representation; rather, it interrupts and erupts into history and wrests history open to the possibility of a justice radically foreclosed by the colonial order of reality.” Samira Kawash, “Terrorists and Vampires: Fanon’s Spectral Violence of Decolonization,” in Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives, ed. Anthony C. Alessandrini (New York: Routledge, 1996), 238. or right-wing and fascist conceptions.5Take Nazi-to-be Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz’s description of the consequences of World War I: “[the war had blown the lid off the volcano of the old, encrusted values. All the peoples of the earth had been thrown into the crucible of a great conflagration.” Quoted in: Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)..Theweleit’s undervalued two-volume study is extremely incisive about the figural hydraulics and thermodynamics of a political imaginary, especially that linked to classical fascism. On the image of eruption, setting, and boiling, he writes, “[it] is the war, the different states of the republic, but above all the civil war, the revolution, that is manifested in the image of a gigantic process of boiling and liquefaction. The times are hanging over the fire (as a pot, a kettle, a massive kettle, a witch’s cauldron, a greasy cauldron, the boilers of the metropolis, the crucible of a great conflagration). With the heat of a thousand blast furnaces, that fire is causing the old order, the old people, the entire world, to bubble, boil, foam, and melt” (Male Fantasies, Volume 1, 238). On a related note, Sigmund Freud called the id “a cauldron full of seething excitations.”] It still circulates today: in the film Pompeii (2011), for instance, the all-CGI consumption of the titular city serves as a breathtakingly literal way to mark the breakdown of social order (and hence provide occasion to pet ripped abs across class lines), while last fall, Ted Cruz vowed that he would be propelled into office by nothing less than the “volcanic rage” of conservative voters. (Obviously, some volcanoes do not blow the way their handlers hope.) But this recurrent sense of untethered dynamic force misses out on a perhaps more compelling element of the volcano trope: its contradictory sense of time, accumulation, and futurity, the last especially present in Desperret’s drawing. Because in its depicted time span, that third eruption—the one happening front and center—lacks a date. Not only is it yet to come at the time of drawing, it is not even specifically predicted, simply arriving “before the end of the world” yet seemingly contributing to that same end, “shaking all thrones” and tearing society apart. In this way, it takes those two historically specific past occasions and links them to the future revolt not through a shared cause but through a messianic sequence whose only explanation is the very same explosion that cannot help but draw our eyes and that, when questioned, simply repeats “LIBERTé” ad infinitum like an NRA chatbot.

It is exactly this kind of focus on the more spectacular moments of revolt that C.L.R. James argues against at the start and heart of one of the most important revolutionary histories we have, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. There, the volcano makes yet another appearance:

In a revolution, when the ceaseless slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came. The writer has sought not only to analyse, but to demonstrate in their movement, the economic forces of the age; their moulding of society and politics, of men in the mass and individual men; the powerful reaction of these on their environment at one of those rare moments when society is at boiling point and therefore fluid.6C.L.R. James, preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), x–xi.

James’s warning, to not mistake a screaming across the sky for the deep forces that punted it up there, remains necessary today, especially in how it urges us to scratch hard at the surface of triumphal images that too easily let explosive moments themselves stand in for any sense of how they came to happen. Yet there is another point lurking here. Namely, that the work of writing history lies both in marking what happens below and in reading across that passage from cause to phenomena to see what and who else is excluded from registering in the tableau—and not because it is hidden deep in that subsoil. A single example: as broad as the scope of James’s history is, we can still note that in its range from “men in the mass” to “individual men,” it is still men, a gendering that cannot be passed off as just a bad lexical choice. No, it designates the scope of the history to be written and its conception of how a revolt unfolds. And it is telling that what James pointedly “demonstrate[s] in their movement” are “economic forces,” because he shares that basic architectural schema of necessary foundation and optional addition at work in the model of base and superstructure that long held sway for Marxist historians. Because if one question is how to explain that moment of eruption through its invisible “ceaseless slow accumulation,” it is joined by a second one that would require letting our gaze hang amid the seeming banalities of the scene interrupted by the boom: What are the ways that the remembered and seen, rather than the deep and structural, can be naturalized to the point that they are no longer visible as factors?7This is a problem that bears on what often gets called “the militant image” and its too-infrequently questioned parameters. See my visual essay: “Seven Gestures of Revolt,” Europe, future past website (2016), http://europafuturoanterior.com/en/interventions/ (accessed 19 July 2016). In other words, what happened to what soared up before? That whole past sight of the future breaking free—where on earth did it come back down to?

These questions mark one of the fundamental doubts I have about future orientation and, more specifically, the way that a futural politics of the event—i.e., the marked encounter that would signify now, now we have made the step—too often excludes necessary attention toward at least two other directions. First, toward asking who and what constitutes the units of history that would signify and demarcate a future, as opposed to a continued present. And second, toward a full grasp of the hidden structures and networks of force that work on us as “individuals” and “in the mass,” that both let us go on and curse us to do so, though never all in the same way. Furio Jesi remarks that:

What really matters about the past is what we cannot remember. The rest, what memory conserves or retrieves, is mere sediment. A part of time has really become part, like a digested nutrient, of the living organism; it continues to be past, but it is only the true living past and it lives in the brain and the blood, ignored by memory.8Furio Jesi, Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt, trans. Alberto Toscano (London and New York: Seagull Books, 2014).

To say that what cannot be remembered is what “really matters about the past” is also to say that it constitutes the restrictions and expanded infrastructure of the present, that it recedes from visibility not by vanishing or becoming an image, but instead by forming part of the essential conditions of what is. It marks both the naturalization of the past—the eventless process where sediment is compacted into ground—and its continual renewal in the present, like the ongoing reactivation through live work of past labor crystallized in productive materials. In this double move, what cannot be remembered annuls the variability of the future, reducing it to a slow drift of that “living past” that moves unnoticed among the brighter flares of imagination, whether insurrections or architectures.

In this sense, I have come to think that the question of the future should itself be reversed. Rather than taking our bearings for critique, in all its forms, from what could be, perhaps a more incisive angle comes from starting with another question: What cannot be? What blocks the future? What prevents it from being any more or less than that ceaseless iteration of the already lived, the cancelled horizon never promised to start? To “imagine the future,” as we are often enjoined to do from all fronts, would in this sense start exactly with the limits of that imagination, neither to castigate for being unable to adequately imagine “another world” nor to envision the proverbial Promethean leap beyond. It would start there, in the impasses of thinking, to detect in them the real forces and strictures to which they correspond. Because too often, future thinking oscillates between rigid poles of destruction or construction that have come to form the terrain of a largely inane opposition. The former is typically dismissive of what lacks the visible verve of what we think looks assuredly ruptural, tending to demand that things look militant, in accord with what has slowly condensed into that given image of militancy and all the blind spots that entails. The latter conversely insists that what does not dream rationally of global planning is either misguided “folk political” localism, as if one could not have an extremely clear understanding of the way that global flows necessarily route through the very particular, very local, and often eminently fragile, or that any focus on the negation of inherited structures is a romanticist dead-end that cannot think beyond its moments of jubilant chaos.

But the fact remains that the predominant social forms that work both on and through us are not just the ones that any substantively different future must undo. They are themselves also forms of structuring a mode of futurity such that it remains endlessly entangled with, and in thrall to, a past that vanishes into present functionality and disorder alike. Consider the daily renewed legacy of racism, which in the United States so constitutes the base parameters of American society that for those who are not constantly reminded of its surveillance, imposed shame, and lethality, it can be envisioned as simply part of the country’s checkered past, a “mere sediment,” however tragic. Or the absolute centrality of debt to the contemporary world system, which is, for Maurizio Lazzarato, the “principal explanation for the strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without foreseeable rupture.”9Maurizzio Lazzarato, Making of Indebted Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 47 Or the binding of the very notion of a future promise to model of heteronormative reproduction and the enormous biotechnical circuits supporting it. Or the dual structure of the refugee camp and the prison, two forms of locating those who societies refuse to secure a place in a future it would deem adequately productive. Or the normalized fact of permanent pollution, which marks the quite literal inexorability of past waste within trend lines of coming years. Or the structure of ongoing colonial enterprises, which still follow the model of temporality Ranajit Guha detected, wherein the brute fact of conquest is subtended by a project of narrativization, the “ruse of a colonialist writing” installing “the datability of a relatively minor conflict to foretell the conquest of an entire subcontinent.”10Ranajit Guha, “A Conquest Foretold,” Social Text 54 (Spring, 1998): 89.

All of which is to say: to envision the future in a way that is not ultimately complicit with the conditions that constitute the present, and make it so necessary to severely alter, may involve far less of the future than we have tended to think, no matter the quantity of hoverboards. I do not consider this a miserabilism or failure to dream big. It is a recognition that nothing clearly marks a passage into the future without undoing the forms that bind lives, materials, and systems, in variably punitive ways, to a mode of time designed around the continuity of the present. In this way, by future, we may well mean just that sensation of coming unstuck in and from the present.

Writing the final work of his life, Viktor Shklovsky—arguably the most committed thinker about defamiliarization as a cultural technique—returned to his favorite theme one last time: “Ostranenie is the sensation of surprise felt toward the world, a perception of the world with a strained sensitivity. The term can be established only by including the notion of ‘the world’ in its meaning. This term simultaneously assumes the existence of a so-called content, supposing that content as the delayed, close examination of the world.”11Viktor Shklovsky, Bowstring: On the Similarity of the Similar, trans. Shushan Avagayan (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011), 283.

Returning to our volcano, if it was ever ours to start with, I think we can see in it not only a picture of excessive, vague focus on the visibly insurgent—a cautionary tale of how not to look, according to James—but also this sense of surprise that Shklovsky notes, that quiet shock of the present having turned before, with, or against us. It is that felt distance, this sense of being both in the scene and not, of surging with yet standing on the volcano, that requires a strange split where the meaning of a world has to be held alongside a notion of the world, both the substance and the picture.12A longer argument than can be made here, but I think it important to note how this idea of defamiliarization might appear far from Shklovsky’s readings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and might open up very different historical legacies. For instance, in situating the particular method of her research into American slavery and its endlessly renewed aftermath, Saidiya V. Hartman notes her refusal to focus on instances of the most visible violence and subjection that normally constitute the bulk of even critical accounts of slavery: “[by defamiliarizing the familiar, I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.” If the process of articulating a future means to confront and negate not just the aftermath of those modes of social control and humiliation that Hartman attends to but also their perpetual renewal, then both this process of defamiliarization and the attention to what seems mundane and quotidian—to what does not register as event, as political—seems as crucial today as it ever was. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1997), 4.] In that way, perhaps what is ultimately better meant by the future is a distinct mode of visibility, one that concerns our relation to the long given and the continually naturalized. The future does not mark the discrete moment of change itself, that sharp breath’s pull of sudden transformation or novelty, but that point of disjuncture where the present begins to appear as past—and where lines can be drawn to imagine what it would take to make such a moment stick, to undo the structures that keep the present alive and unwell.

This is the other timescale of the volcano, which, after all, never just signifies the event of eruption. It also marks the process by which the ground is transformed, where we come to stand and walk and picnic and fight on rock that once dropped from the sky. Because every attempt at engineering the future, whether riotous or rational, contributes to the sedimentation of the present, laying the lines of our maps and forming the crust to get broken and accumulated anew, over and over again. That is neither a reason for or against such attempts. But it is the condition of how they both derive from and remake the terms of daily experience. On such a terrain, the future is felt as time’s sick sway, the sky both is and is not full of ground, and we swerve in place, ready to rumble.

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