The intellectual world is by no means immune to this logic [of the cult of novelty]. A preoccupation with the latest trends drives the global theory industry, which packages and sells what it proclaims to be cutting-edge contributions to thinking. Knowledge that is scientifically anchored in deep, collective traditions—such as the materialist heritage of Marxism and anarchism—is often considered to be vulgar and passé, unless it is spiced up with modish vocabulary, references to the established brands of the star system, and deferential homage to the totems of trendiness. Although these structures and tendencies are more difficult for some to see in the products of high culture than in their low culture equivalents, it is important to recognize that this is due to the very social logic of “high” culture, which brands itself as free from vulgar determinants like class and consumerism. However, aside from this marketing exception—or, rather, this marketing of exceptionalism—the patterns are largely the same.
This pressing and frenetic temporality of consumerism—which in the case of intellectual production consistently peddles “the latest” rather than “the truest”—complements the capitalist urgency of short-term gains. Long-term consequences, like ecocide or the destruction of human life, are of no importance to the imperative of making as much as possible, as quickly as possible. “In every stock-jobbing swindle,” Karl Marx presciently wrote, “everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but everyone hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbor, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in secure hands. Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.”
The temporal economy of the incessant now is by no means confined to consumer society in the limited sense of the term. The logic of the short term, the cult of novelties, and the frenetic urgency of the immediate dominate the governmental world, the mass media, and other sectors of social life. Here again, we find the same opposition between the constant alterations of the now and the stability of the present. The more things change, the more they stay the same: the nunc stans of capitalism is unwaveringly present, and is the unwavering present beneath the ever-changing now.
This article critically examines the historical emergence and predominance of the presentist time economy that has tended to unmoor contemporary consumer society from the past, while simultaneously destroying the possibility of a future that is anything more than the frenetic perpetuation of its own fragmented now. It begins with a philosophical investigation in order to stave off both the subjectivist and the objectivist understandings of time and argue for a radically historicist and sociopolitical approach to temporality. It then turns to the ways in which “time” is differentially constituted in rival historical and political imaginaries, before developing a detailed account of how the temporal economy of the “time of the now” operates in fields such as politics, economics and the mass media. It subsequently relates the fragmentary presentism of the dominant order to one of its reigning rhetorical strategies: crisis discourse. Finally, the article concludes by arguing for the collective construction of an alternative time economy, which recognizes that the urgency of ever-new crises and curios is actually rooted in the unrelenting perpetuation of the capitalist status quo.