As I write in the About section of this blog, I am not an art critic or art historian. My area of interests can be vaguely described as ‘future studies’. I am trained as a psychologist and then a social scientist (sociologist, with a focus on transitory societies), but most of my life I was doing fairly practical things, helping people (i.e., companies, organizations, governments) to work with the ‘possible futures’, to think about them, to explore them and eventually to prepare for them (hopefully, better).
While doing this, I kept encountering a few typical problems, or ‘issues’, that people have when they think about the future. These problems are not about ‘predicting’ these futures accurately, as one may assume. The main difficulty is to understand that the futures will be different from now, and that they won’t be just ‘slightly better’ versions of the now, of the things we see around us today.
The picture below illustrates a typical perception of the ‘future’ by many people, when this future is imagined as a ‘better’ version of the now.
It takes some special tools, and requires some special, and significant efforts, to confront this perception and to imagine the very possibility of different futures. The futures that not just slightly brighter versions of today, but that are radically different from the now, the Futures Complex.
Here is the tricky thing. Many people would say that we already present these ‘futures’ as complex, turbulent, exponentially chaotic etc. However, if we look back and analyze the previous efforts to imagine ‘the futures’, we find numerous examples of what is known as ‘future myopia’.
There is a statement often attributed to Paul Valéry, a French poet, that says that ‘the futures are not what they used to be’. When the ‘futures’ arrive, we (sometimes) see how different they are from our earlier ideas about these futures. What has changed was not even discussed as a subject of the changes! Similar to a notorious fish in a water, we rarely see the very waterness of the water, and can’t articulate what ‘different water’ may mean.
To stop projecting our assumptions and beliefs of any given time into the future, we need to detect these assumptions and beliefs in the first place, to question the context you live in and to ‘estrange’ yourself from it, to somehow transfer yourself into a position of a reflective observer of the things around you (and most difficult, an observer of yourself).
Interestingly, a very similar dynamics is also applicable for the past, too. We tend to be so embedded in the now, so attached to the realities of the today – physical, cultural, societal – that we start assuming that these realities were always present, even immanent (and thus always will be that way).
So, the more accurate representation of the present situation looks like that:
Not only we ‘colonise’ the futures with our ideas about, we do the same with the ‘past’, too. We hold simplistic assumptions about these past times, thinking that they were “like now, just a bit more basic’).
There is no even a ‘starting’ moment here. When we are ‘culturally born’, this attitude is installed into us and enforced by the culture (cultures are always dictatorial).
The last logical step is of course to assume that our past was also radically different from what we think about it now.
Bear in mind that I use the transition from laminar to turbulent dynamics only as a metaphor, of the very possibility of such a radical transformation. In fact, and contrary to the dissipating smoke in this example, I believe that social evolution moves into an opposite direction, of a higher intensity and energy, into a ‘social plasma’ of some sort, if to further use physical metaphors.
Similar to the ‘futures’, the disillusioning about the past also requires a very special position, an observational point that is freed from the pressure of the present.
How to arrive to this meta position? How to achieve such an elevated, reflective state of mind capable to transcend the omnipotent pressure of contemporary comme il faut?
There are few tools and methods, and exploring and trying them – as well as developing the new ones – is what I do professionally. And mirrors – both actual, physical devices and ‘mirrors’ as a metaphor of reflective feedback loops – are just one of such ‘elevating’ and ‘transformative’ meta-tools.
That’s why I am taking my ‘mirror journeys’, both into the past, and occasionally into the futures too. I am exploring how mirrors had been depicted in art – and then how these depictions and ideas have been perceived in different times.
These journeys are often interesting and informative exercises themselves, because of additional light (sic!) they may shed on art and art history, on history of technology and cultural and societal history in general. But I would like to also take them with a double purpose in mind, to capture my own current presumptions, the lenses through which I look at the world, and to confront them with possible alternatives.
Here they are, my Mirrors of the Past, Mirrors of the Future.