After the Orgy

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In the early decades of the 18th century, artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings titled, A Rake’s Progress, charting the decline and fall of a fictional character named Tom Rakewell. The eight paintings he created were turned into engravings and then published in print in 1735. They have been called an early form of the storyboard and are currently displayed at Sir John Soame’s museum.

The third painting in the series, called The Orgy, shows Rakewell in the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden, surrounded by prostitutes.

I was thinking about this painting when I read something that the philosopher Jean Beaudrillard wrote in an article for Art Forum magazine in 1983,

In the middle of the revelries, a man whispers into a woman’s ear: “What are you doing after the orgy?””

Beaudrillard wasn’t referring to a literal orgy as Hogarth depicted, his was a symbolic one. The orgy was the wild world of the pre-millennial future. There was a time when it seemed that our lives were being shaped by the anticipation of the world to come, 2000 and all that. The promise of the bright future proclaimed everywhere in the latter half of the 20th century, the illusion that things were only going to get better, the belief that we had put the worst of ourselves aside in order to fashion a new world, a new way of being. Driven by consumer capitalism and emerging technologies what could possibly go wrong? And yet somehow it did. The imagined future was never realized and in its place the unimaginable, a world characterized by all the things we thought we had put to bed long ago: financial vulnerability and collapse, insecurity and anxiety, terrorism, fascism, a world with ‘no future,’ at least not any future we might have envisioned. The problems that contemporary societies of consumption face caught up in an endless cycle of frustration and gratification. Beaudrillard wonders whether human desire is being kidnapped and finds itself in a sort of hostage situation but without the possibility of exchange, without the possibility of freedom. He wonders what we are sacrificing of ourselves in our affluent society. And are we now passively looking at ourselves now, and losing our humanity? This is the orgy and the post-orgy situation that Beaudrillard turns his attention towards.

So the question is, “What will we do after the orgy?” What will we do in the wake of our failed futre? The temptation might be to plan another party, to plot another future if you will, to address the failed future of modernity with a new vision of success and prosperity, but perhaps that simply perpetuates a fruitless view of life that keeps us trapped in cycles of false hopes.

In 1976 the Sex Pistols rightly declared that there was No Future, and there still isn’t. But perhaps we don’t actually need one, at least not one of those futures.

I’m going to be putting together a series of talks on the theme of what we might do after the orgy, so stay tuned.