In the future food will be 3D-printed, or there won’t be any food. In the future there will be no borders, or your passport will be embedded in your iris. In the future gender will be flexible, or nonexistent, or just like it is now but better. In the future there will be no cops, or cops will stop killing black people, or cops will be tiny drones the size of flies. In the future you will be happy, or you will be unhappy, or you will be dead. But the future never comes, because it’s not habitable by any part of the human body apart from language, and so the future is only ever a way to talk about the present and the past.
In the past, the future was over. The punks and artists in industrialized countries who first sloganeered no future in the late 70s were resisting reactionary free-market narratives of so-called progress. But perhaps all along it was capitalists who wanted to abolish the future. Now we’re in the seventh year of global economic crisis, and ecological disaster is becoming ever more generalized. Governments careen from one crisis to the next, while work and life are more intertwined and enmeshed in technological orders of control and surveillance at the same time that reproduction has become increasingly precarious and unreliable. The future of the no-future seems as apt as it is convenient.
For the European Futurists of the early 20th century, the future was the expansion and acceleration of the technological present. Subjectivity would be wiped out in the increasing speed and violence of motorbikes and warfare until everything was one great mass of energy. This fascist dream seems mirrored in the Silicon Valley fantasies of the Internet of Things, the Quantified Self and the Singularity. But technological innovation turns out not to secure social transformation, at least not in its own right: many of us live in an actualized sci-fi of globalized communication and multiple interfaces, but we are still also living in the long time of colonialism, slavery, and patriarchy.
Fascists and eco-liberals alike use the first person plural when they talk about time to come: “tomorrow belongs to us” or “we are killing the planet.” They assume that we are moving through the same present together, as a unified population, a mass. But our futures are as fragmented as our presents, and just as fissured by race, gender, class, and ability. Who has no future, and whose future is guaranteed by the present? Who even has access to the present by virtue of their past? In rejecting dominant temporalities, we can also trace the shattered thought of the now. Tentatively, we want to believe in a proliferation of futures: black, brown, queer, femme… Rather than evangelizing a singular vision of the future, as liberals have always demanded of revolutionaries, might we instead be able to say “let a thousand futures bloom”?
This issue of the New Inquiry assembles a variety of temporal perspectives, bringing to light what is said to be unknowable about what is to come. Leonard Horne reviews a collection of writing by and on the Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter, whose project excavates the global apparatus of death and exclusion that uphold the conception of Man in European colonial thought. Wynter writes in anticipation of a different future, one which extricates the full horizon of humanity from its incarceration in Man. “We must declare that there is no such thing as a subhuman, and we must treat each other as if this is so,” Horne writes.
Jack Kahn writes of an emerging panic about a new type of purported subhuman, the autistic, and of the ways talk of neurodiversity dovetails with neuro-nationalism. The purview of national security extends to the surface of the brain to secure “hierarchies already structured by state violence,” he writes, and goes on to explore artistic practices which challenge it.
Amelia Abreu queries the futures that the cloud holds for our pasts, bringing her experiences as an archivist to bear on the necessary absences of any internet archive. As more and more of our lives are lived on media that is said to be all-remembering, the difference between “searchable” and “findable” will take on new importance. Proprietary databases of all we thought were personal experiences might prove to be a problematic test of who can own our pasts.
The question of ownership and historical memory is especially urgent for displaced peoples, whose diasporic cohesion can rest uncomfortably on a shared archive of loss. Nadia Awad takes a look at the history of Palestinian cinema. Its a particularly rich tradition, by virtue of the fact that, as a Cuban documentarian put it, theirs was the first among all revolutions to have cinema during the struggle.” For Palestinians, the images of their dispersal are allowed to circulate the globe freely, as long as they don’t picture Palestinian return.
Beverly Ochieng’ writes of the Jalada Afrofuture(s) anthology as a collection of monuments to memory and forgetting, rich but well-tilled soil. “What landscapes will exist in Africa’s future, and where will that put us, as Africans or people from the African continent,” she asks, and the anthology ventures multiple guesses. In all, time is a sort of relief from the present, which takes so long to become the past. But for all the dystopic or eco-critical projections the anthology provides, it bets on the survival of our stories. Ochieng’ is heartened that “we are, after all, optimistic beings who are determined to leave a mark on the landscape of our time.”
In “Fear of a Muslim Planet,” Grayson Clary sketches the outline of a burgeoning microgenre in Western fiction, Islamophobic futurism. Michel Hoellebecq may have published the most recent entry, but Robert Ferrigno set the standard with his futurist novel Prayers for the Assassin, which imagined an American caliphate replete with Mullahs Jenkins. This genre unites left and right commentators in their fear of a US-inclusive Ummah, and gives away their own crusading universalism. But for billions of believers, Islam is a past and present which still has a bright future.
Peter Frase’s “The Time Bubble” takes a look at a different kind of secular challenge to temporality, that of capitalism’s reliance on future growth for the maintenance of the present while simultaneously eroding the possibility of fictitious capital to find material expression. The future as a lucrative IPO isn’t very appealing to most people, not only because barely anyone makes enough to think of investing, but capital maintains its hold on the present to secure its future expansion at our expense.
In all of this, the future appears as something prismatic and internally dissident. And that’s as it should be — after all, nothing about its past suggested it would be very evenly distributed. But the collected essays in this volume should provide some opportunity to reflect on what could be. Speculation of an extended present is worth less than criticism of the modes of producing temporality, at least we think so. The answer is still to come.
Editors' Note, Vol. 38: Futures
Nostalgia for the Future
Memory and Preservation
The Precarious Minimum
The Future Bubble
On Neuronationalism: Autism, Immunity, Security
Real Human Being
Dear Marooned Alien Princess