Exploring Futurities

In the past decades, social science and the humanities have become increasingly conscious that the forms of the future cultivated by modernism – progress, utopia, rational calculation; the “future perfect” – have ceased to fit the present of the twenty-first century.  One response to this situation has been to adopt a typically modern epochal consciousness and to argue that “the future” has come to end (Lowenthal 1992) – often supported by the positivist conclusion that “it was discovered not to be”.

Futurities conference, to be held in Leiden, June 26-27 proposes to investigate a different, more anthropological approach that asks which different forms of the future, in fact, affect our global present. This approach recognizes that the “future perfect” may be part of different cultural grammars, and that a wide array of modern and non-modern “futurities” – or forms of the future – are available to us. (Combinations of) Futurities generate possibilities or choices, optimisms and pessimisms, moral or political imperatives, inescapabilities of nature, destiny or fate, and value(s) of who, what or where we want to be, that take shape in more or less compulsory, coercive or dominant material forms.

We propose four fields of enquiry. The first two relate to the nature and influence of two forms of the future that appear “typically modern” – the open future of planning, and the empty future of investment; while the other two deal with the question of how these relate to other forms of the future under conditions of modernity: the “temporariness of the present‟, and the experience of multi-temporality.

Open Futures

The Open future is a malleable future. The assumption of the malleability of the future seems indispensable to the emergence of rational political prognosis and the philosophy of progress in the 17th century (Koselleck 2004: 18), and the elaboration of the “governmentality” of the developmentalist state and its policies.

If we are correct in suggesting that neither nation-states nor (utopian) notions of “development” can classify humans as citizens or subjects without the assumption of the malleability of the future, then politics world-wide might have to be reinterpreted in terms of the futurities it employs (as some, indeed, have already demonstrated: Barbrook 2007; Schama 2009). One such reinterpretation might be the current political consciousness of “prefiguration”, if that is read as a refusal to belittle political means by subordinating them to political ends placed, in a linear, epochal fashion, in a future yet to come (see Maeckelbergh 2011). What other interpretations may help us understand the politics of the open future?

Empty Futures

Empty futures emerged when it became possible to think that “time is money”, and the investment of money (or an equally abstract equivalent such as labor time) could be calculated for future returns regardless of the content or use-values of the latter.

The emergence of the empty future can be associated with economic developments, the gradual lifting of the taboo on usury in the late Middle Ages (Adam & Groves 2007: 10) or the increasing importance of clock time and work discipline in cities and factories (LeGoff 1980; Thompson 1967). These processes have all “emptied” (labor) time of its use-values or have “subsumed” labor under exchange value.

How may ethnographic accounts of financial regimes, current notions of investment, branding  or even open-source forms of production enable us to describe those futurities involved the politics of value?

Temporariness of the Present

If modern societies are, indeed, addicted to the future, then a typically modern form of relating to the future seems to be turning the present into a temporary situation – a subordinate means to reach utopia, equilibrium, or salvation.

For example, to Mozambican villagers it may seem as if, so-called temporary, “disaster relief‟ NGOs have been resources one can draw on forever, just as other parts of Africa remind us that refugee camps, famine relief organizations, or peacekeeping missions may have become a permanent “future” fixture in the landscape.  And what sort of temporariness makes debt regimes in neoliberal economies (im)possible ? However, the nature of such temporariness –  in South American, South East Asia, Europe, Africa- has not been discussed in a sufficiently comparative fashion.  Therefore this sections invites to ask historical and ethnographic questions about for instance the cultural differences between the “five-year-plans” of mid-20th century high modernism and the “punctuated” near future (dates and all) of the Millenium Development Goals (see Guyer 2007); or about the changes in futurities that accompany a shift from African “tradition” (often conceived as ritual) to African “heritage” (often conceived as property: see Strother 2012: 4).

Experience of Multi-temporality

If the above sketched observations are partially correct, then we need to recognize that both modern and non-modern societies are enmeshed in multi-temporal relations. Moreover, if we further accept Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion that no “new culture” is possible without an alteration in the experience of time, we still need to account for universal discrepancies between the experience and the representation of time (Agamben 2007: 100), especially if a characteristic of modernity seems to be that the space of temporal experience and the “horizons of expectation” increasingly diverge (Koselleck 2004: 256).

The multi-temporality of forms of the future, however, goes beyond this universal friction between ineffable experience and articulate representation. If the epochal thinking of high modernism was, in Western societies, underpinned by a hegemonic definition of the public sphere as secular, the neoliberal public sphere seems to have fractured into mutually antagonistic futurities.

In a more ethnographic register, the anthropology of the future has argued from the outset that “expectations of modernity” can only be studied when we remain conscious of a simultaneously existing, yet divergent “bush of variations” (Ferguson 1999). These variations will have to include a more elaborate understanding of the “space of experience” – the intimations of birth, maturation, desire and death that anthropologists have studied in non-modern forms of life – and their simultaneous relations to the expectations that “modernity”, whatever it is, is said to have radically changed.

About the Conference 

An international conference that addresses the topics outlined above will be organized by the research project “The Future is Elsewhere: Towards a Comparative History of Digital Futurities”, financed by the Dutch National Research Foundation (NWO) on 26-27 June 2014 at Leiden University, The Netherlands. It will consist of a two-day intensive seminar, in which pre-circulated papers will be subjected to prolonged critical discussions, with the aim of producing a coherent volume of essays.


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