There have been thousands of essays just like this one, but I never got around to writing my own, so here it is. Guess what, progress is…strange. The very concept of progress now is – as mentioned in my Free Floating Power essay – a signifier without a true object or concept of signification. Let’s look at some definitions:
1. Forward or onward movement towards a destination.
2. Development towards an improved or more advanced condition.
So if we’re to take the first definition here as our starting point, then we first need to question our destination. If we’re progressing then we must be progressing somewhere, right? Well, I can’t say for sure whether we’re going anywhere because it’s relatively difficult to see who or what it is that’s actually pulling our strings. With that said, without any clear destination progress, advancement and improvement are pretty much impossible. If you have no quantifiable metric to go off of (within the socio-industrial framework) then you can be doing practically anything and call it progress. If we tell ourselves that we need to get to a state of X, or we need to invent or build Y, then we have enough data to correctly assess whether or not we’re progressing. But once the entire concept of progressing is understood in relation to a rather loose assemblage of sociological and political tolerances and statements, well then we’re at the whim of conjecture, and whoever can askew the facts in the most innovative way is the winner.
This leads me to the second definition – development towards an improved or more advanced condition – firstly one has to ask, an improved or more advanced condition for whom? And within what context is advancement understood. The first word there, ‘improved’, is the most precarious in this context. Improved means entirely different things for different people, this much is obvious. But another difficulty with ‘improved’ is that for many improvement isn’t synonymous with advancement in technological culture or abstract social freedoms. For some people a return to tradition would be an improvement, for some people the singularity would be an improvement and for others the levelling of all industry would be improvement, and once all these viewpoints are all flattened onto the plane of progress one understands that it’s nothing but impossible to have a unified conception of progress. The same applies for the idea of an ‘advanced condition’, one assumes that this is theorized in relation to an advancement in technology and potential for social freedoms once again, that there is, in the oh-so mystical future, an abstract state of society which we’re lunging towards.
If this is the case, that we’re heading towards a sort of collective subconscious future which we all apparently implicitly understand is the correct thing to head towards, then what we’re venturing into is a fiction, and as such, will be – more or less – extremely alike the past, if not a mirror image with a different aesthetic. For whatever is understood as our future can only be understood in terms relative to what has been, the entire notion of progress rests on a linearity of thought which excludes and actively shuns innovation. Innovation is the greatest enemy of progress, because it could potentially allow us to move away from the notion of progress altogether.
It’s a case of questioning once again, and because progress implies some form of action (advancement, progressing, moving-towards etc.) then further questions arise. Where are we progressing to? What are we progressing towards? Who is progressing? Why do we want to progress? And on and on they go, questions which will never find an answer because the concept of progression is so malleable and plastic that it exists solely as a form to be used by the highest bidder. So, my own definition of progress: Progress means whatever those with power want it to mean; progress means whatever those in control of history want it to mean. The victors write the history books, but they do so in such a way as to define progress, and unfortunately, our history books are rife with unbridled technological and industrial optimism, unquestioned notions of freedom and abhorrence of exit. Which ties one into an unforgiving abstraction, the target of which is whatever is happens to be that day.
How can we call it a myth then? Well, let’s go back to good ol’ definitions:
1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
Now, progress is far from traditional, in fact, it has basically nothing to do with tradition in the sense that it only uses tradition to reach its own aim, as opposed to being tradition itself. It is most definitely a story, perhaps the earliest of stories, the one we’ve always told ourselves. Progress is the story in which the narrator is always correct, and everything the narrator has done is correct, and – most importantly – where the narrator is going is definitely the correct direction. It is the story with regards to one handing over their responsibility and action to an elusive abstraction. Sure, we tell ourselves lots and lots of stories in everyday life “I’ll do it later because X”, “I can’t do that now because Y”, “I always wanted to do Z but…” and on and on they go, but the overarching story which trumps all of these is the story of progress, the unconscious idea that even if individual things don’t get done, it doesn’t matter because we’re chugging along nicely anyway, a few mistakes, lacunae and occlusions don’t matter, because we’re always progressing.
What’s left to say of progress other than nothing, it doesn’t exist, except in extremely limited cases where there’s a clear metric and secure personal or collective context, but even then it can become flimsy quite quickly. Handing over your ideals to progress is giving up all personal sovereignty for the comfort of a controlled abstraction, and it’s not always easy to see who or what is doing the controlling.
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