13 January 2012

Forget the Future/The Future of Forgetting

Image: Dave Jordano [ # ]

At the Design Observer site Places, "The Forgetting Machine: Notes Towards a History of Detroit," in which contributor Jerry Herron sorts through the aestheticization of dereliction by way of the recent glut of "ruin porn," the Motor City's provisional efforts at urban reclamation, and the fate of Detroit as possible cipher or harbinger of the telos of contemporary economics...

"This is a history created by serial default. Nobody really planned the ends — the ruins — of these buildings, any more than they planned Detroit, or America for that matter, despite our dedication to continental-scale projects, beginning with the Declaration of Independence and moving through Manifest Destiny and continuing with the Urban Renewal programs that destroyed America’s cities. We’ve all had a hand in our collective making, and now we’ll have to live with the consequences, not the least of which is our ignorance about the origin of things, so that we stand stupefied or angry or fascinated — camera at the ready — before the monuments to ruination."

The essay is the first in a new series by Herron. The notion of "forgetting machines" was introduced and explained in the author's earlier serialized essay "Borderland/Borderama/Detroit," which appeared in the 2010 Routledge anthology Distributed Urbanism: Cities After Google Earth.*  In that prior essay, Herron analyzes Detroit's status as a city/not-city via a historical trajectory that circuitously connects Tocqueville's assessment of the American idea of individualism with Rem Koolhaas's observations about American urbanism. Of interest is his discussion of Henry Ford's famous "history is bunk" decree, in which Herron fleshes out something that I long ago recognized as a distinctly American pathology:

"A history reinvented each day is no history at all, of course, at least not in the usual sense, with all it implies about the narrative chain of cause and effect that binds the present inextricably to the past. And that belief in necessary cause and effect is precisely what Henry Ford is calling 'bunk.' We want to live in a kind of perpetually self-renewing now,... That forever present condition of the individual is precisely what Henry Ford depended on to create a modern industrial work force — not people enmeshed in tradition or each other’s affairs, least of all union affairs, but individuals unfettered from the past, whom machine-made prosperity would turn into believers in Ford’s evangel. What he built, then, both the cars and the factories that produced them, might be thought of as forgetting machines — industrial works that became so successful as to make Ford’s point about the 'bunk' of history seem self-evident. [...]

"Where 'nothing' existed before, then, we were free to plan as we saw fit, getting it right this time, in a way that the old world, mired in history and tradition, could never do. Our cities came into being first as designs — as contracts with some higher ideal that entitled us to do whatever it took. Thus liberated from history, these urban idealizations had embedded within them their own inevitable undoing. Nothing real can ever live up to ideal standards of perfection, so that all our cities in a sense have been cities/not — forgetting machines always already sabotaged by history. But that would come later."

The essay was also reprinted at Places in three parts, and can be read here: 1, 2, and 3.

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* Herron's notion having no lack of precendents over recent decades. For starters, much of what rests at the core of Herron's essay touches upon some of the themes explored by Paul Connerton in How Modernity Forgets.

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