Call for Papers

conference on FUTURITIES

Leiden University, The Netherlands, June 2014

“The term ‘future perfect’ has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be.” 

Douglas Adams, 
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

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”. This conference 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 that we do not yet have a sufficiently rich and encompassing research vocabulary to empirically discuss how contemporary people engage in social relationships with materializations of the future. Moreover, we feel that even if the so-called digital revolution may force changes, its techno-determinist tendencies also obscure the ways in which such vocabularies and grammars have, and have not, been transformed in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Finally, we think that the vocabularies we employed so far have not “provincialized” the history of European futurities to such an extent that it can be confidently used to study twenty-first-century socio-cultural relationships with the future in large parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania or the Americas.


The first studies of futures as a contemporary and hence partial and contested phenomenon came from sociocultural anthropology (Wallman 1992; Ferguson 1999; Persoon & van Est 2000) and science and technology studies (Brown, Rappert & Webster 2000). They not only contrasted themselves to futurology (the attempt to predict the content and direction of the future, which became an historical phenomenon in its own right: see Van Steenbergen 2000), but also, and more importantly, to a modernist ideology of futurism: the assumption that a temporal break has taken place (or is about to), that makes the epoch in which the knower is situated qualitatively different from “other times”. This epochal consciousness was not only carried over from “modernization” theories into our thinking about “globalization” (Ferguson 1999; Tsing 2000: 328): its popularity among a majority of theorists of postmodernism, post-colonialism, globalization, the ‘new economy’ and (especially digital) technological change was only the most recent expression of an at least 200-year old European cultural tradition (Koselleck 2004).

Different disciplines reacted to this critique of modernism in different ways: in anthropology itself, a focus on the future was long prevented by the tendency to define culture in terms of tradition, but that assumption has now been effectively challenged (Appadurai 2004) and has resulted in path-breaking ethnographic treatments of the future (Ferguson 1999; Guyer 2007; Persoon & van Est 2000; Piot 2010). In sociology and political science, the still dominant grip of epochal thinking is broken by a recognition of the plurality of available temporal registers (Adam 2004; Adam & Groves 2007) and critical studies of modern epistemic regimes (Mitchell 2000, 2002). There is a renewed emphasis in philosophy on the critique of the temporal underpinnings of modern secular culture (Agamben 2007; Lloyd 2008), helped by the rethinking of older studies of time in history (Benjamin 1977; Koselleck 2004; Thompson 1967) and new “histories of the future” (Barbrook 2007; Rosenberg and Harding 2005; Schama 2009). All this is strongly indebted to ongoing revisions of the core categories of secular modernity – nature, history, the human – forced by attempts to understand transformations we associate with (digital) technology by geographers, literary critics, and science studies (Hayles 1999; Latour 1993, 1996; Thrift and May 2001). And such interdisciplinary inspirations feed back into more comparative endeavors, where the hegemony of modern forms of the future is critically juxtaposed to religious registers of prophecy (Guyer 2007; Rosenberg and Harding 2005; Stewart and Harding 1999) or “provincialized” by an area studies focus (Barendregt 2012; Piot 2010; Weiss 2004).

However, this (admittedly sketchy) overview of interdisciplinary engagements should not obscure that answers to the question what kind of forms of the future we currently experience as dominant, and how they have been informed by, interact with, and transform earlier (“religious” or “traditional”) forms, have rarely received systematic treatment. This call for papers proposes four fields of enquiry that require, to us, more insistent contemporary treatment. 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. The second relate to the question how they relate to other forms of the future under conditions of modernity: the ‘temporariness of the present’, and the experience of multi-temporality. They will be set out in turn below.


Open futures have been claimed as a typically modern cultural feature, one that distinguishes “us” from “them”, at least since Robespierre declared that “the time has come to call upon each to realize his own destiny” (quoted in Koselleck 2004: 12). 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. Portrayed, on the one hand, as the peaceful or at least rational alternative to the competing prophecies that led to religious wars, the emergence of the open future, and utopia in particular, has, on the other hand, been interpreted as the “pathogenesis” of modern society, leading to (threats of) mass destruction during Nazism or the Cold War (Koselleck 1988 [1959]: 1). While the open future was fundamental to the conceptions of sovereignty that underpinned both the “dreamworlds” and the “catastrophes” of the modern world (Buck-Morss 2002), it has rarely been systematically studied as a foundation of politics, let alone where those political relationships call for a comparison of prognosis and progress to religious prophecy or conceptions of fate and destiny. Even more, our existing descriptions of the politics of the open future rarely set prognosis and progress (and, conversely, prophecy) in the context of struggles over global maritime and mercantile dominance in the 17th and 18th century, struggles over colonial rule in the 19th and 20th, or over “empire” in the 20th and 21st. 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).


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. Largely neglected by political historians such as Koselleck, the emergence of the empty future can be associated with economic developments, and especially the gradual lifting of the taboo on usury in the late Middle Ages (Adam & Groves 2007: 10) that was accompanied by the increasing importance of clock time and work discipline in cities and factories (LeGoff 1980; Thompson 1967), processes that both “emptied” (labor) time of its use-values. Karl Marx saw another transformational phase in terms of the “real subsumption” of labor under exchange-value, perhaps best illustrated by the assembly-line production that emerged after his time (see Nye 2013). Attempts to understand such transformations in terms of an overall epochal shift in capitalism (e.g. Hardt & Negri 2000), however, run into the difficulty that (like the emergence of the “open future”) such transformations cannot be seen as linear developments. Where global financial regimes may show an increasing dominance of “futures” in terms of derivatives and risks (Miyazaki 2003; Zaloom 2004), they also carry older, “theological” assumptions with them (Maurer 2002), while notions of investment and audit carry assumptions about quantification into other, more qualitative realms (see Strathern 2000). In the sphere of consumption, the presumed dominance of exchange-values in commodification has, in some cases, made room for alternative, “gift-like” exchanges (Foster 2005; Miller 1998). One might even suggest that the widespread emergence of “branding” has generated a new, qualitative form of exchange-value, resisted by new attitudes to consumption (Klein 2010). Finally, one might argue that “open source” forms of production are partially replacing a former, property-based form of the future by a far more indeterminate practice.


If modern societies are, indeed, addicted to the future, then a typically modern form of relating to the future seems to be to turn the present into a temporary situation – a subordinate means to reach utopia, equilibrium, or salvation. However, the nature of such temporariness has not been discussed in a sufficiently comparative fashion. In seminal essay, Jane Guyer has argued that, strangely enough, the differences between secular macroeconomics and Christian evangelicalism may be bridged by their shared tendency to “evacuate” the “near future” and inhabit an imagined “end-time” of either perfect market equilibrium or salvational rapture (Guyer 2007). It is not difficult to see that a digital techno-fantasy like the “singularity” (Kurzweil 2005) can provide a similar, ever-postponable future that nevertheless decisively de-values the present (cf. Crapanzano 2007). And yet, such forms of the future may only appear temporary when seen from a specific global locality: to Mozambican villagers, for example, 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. Not only do such observations on the forms taken by temporariness invite comparisons across the boundaries of (secular or religious) worldviews, or standpoints possible from specific global locations, they also suggest that it is profitable to further unpack the forms of the future implicit in present practices or conceptions of the past. Thus, we might ask historical and ethnographic questions about the cultural differences between the “five-year-plans” of mid-20th century high modernism and the “punctuated” near future (dates and all) of, for example, 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).


Finally, if the above observations are at least partially correct, we are forced to recognize that both modern and non-modern societies practice multi-temporal relations. Even if we accept Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion that no “new culture” is possible without an alteration in the experience of time (2007: 99) – a definition of cultural boundaries that has not yet been thought through by the social sciences and humanities – 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. Contemporary expectations of  “end-times”, for example, may not bridge religious or technological divides, but they are quite similar in their conspiracy thinking and paranoid sense of emergency (Stewart and Harding 1999: 293-300). Such paranoia is recognizably gnostic, yet Gnosticism has also been portrayed, following Benjamin and Heidegger, as the only radical alternative to the Greek and Christian origins of epochal and linear thinking (Agamben 2007: 110). 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.

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.

Peter Pels, 16/10/2013


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Adam, Barbara and Chris Groves (2007) Future Matters. Action, Knowledge, Ethics. Leiden: Brill.
Agamben, Giorgio (2007 [1978]) Time and History, in Infancy and History. On the Destruction of Experience, 97-116. London/New York: Verso.
Appadurai, Arjun (2004) The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition, in V. Rao, M. Walton (eds.), Culture and Public Action, 59-84. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Barbrook, Richard (2007) Imaginary Futures. From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. London: Pluto Press.
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Guyer, Jane (2007) Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical and punctuated time, American Ethnologist 34(3): 409-421.
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