Three Things Thursday: Fragments of the Future

An old friend of mine once told me that he wasn’t writing so much any more because writing with an act that assumed a future and he no long assumed that there was a future. At around the time he said this, he left academia and he and his partner left town. The entire sequence of events was not only depressing, but also convinced me that he was much smarter than I and academia (and our community) was going to be much the poorer for his and his partner’s departure. I really don’t know whether he writes any more and I’ve been a bit too nervous to ask.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the future. This summer, for example, I read (well, ok, I listened to) Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (2020) and wrote about it here. I’ve been thinking a bit, on and off, about Afrofuturism and about how archaeology of the present exists in the space between a recognizable past and an anticipated future.

In the spirit of this musing, I offer three little fragments of the archaeology of the future here:

Fragment the First

One of the most interesting things about Sun Ra is his willingness to conflate the past and the future. For Ra this was a response to the excitement of the post-War moment when the potential of new forms of social and economic mobility met the dawning of the Space Age. At the same time, Ra understood that traditional forces in American society would continuously undermine and challenge whether Black people would have access to this new future.

This ambivalent attitude toward the future required Ra to both break with the traditional view of the Black past anchored as it was in their experiences of enslavement and legal, social, political, and economic marginalization. In the place of these experiences Ra imagined new pasts for Black people. He embrace of a wide range of Afrocentrist perspectives on the past allowed him to imagine Africa, and Egypt in particular, as the new foundation for both contemporary and future Black unity and power. His willingness to construct a new past that would allow Black people full access to a Space Age future may well represent an early and significant example of Laurent Olivier’s notion of presentism. For Olivier, presentism represents a view of the present that is no longer linear and is, therefore, no longer the product of the past. The break between the present and the past likewise allowed for the future to drift untethered from current existence. For Sun Ra this makes the future the domain of the impossible. Rationality, progress, and modes of change anchored in evolutionary or developmental ways of thinking no longer point toward a better reality in the future. This required a rewriting of the past and a reimagining of the present in ways that would support a future that could operate either outside the conventional limits of historical causality or despite these limits. The future because the space of the impossible.

Fragment the Second  

This week, while waiting for an evening meeting to start, I read a bit of Rebecca Bryant’s and Daniel M. Knight’s The Anthropology of the Future (2019) which has one fo the most accessible and compelling introductions to the growing interest in the future in the humanities and social sciences. Plus, both scholars have done work in the Mediterranean (Bryant on Cyprus and in Turkey and Knight in Greece). 

The motivation to explore an anthropology (history, archaeology, or sociology) of the future stems largely from the tensions between two attitudes toward the future. On the one hand, we hope that we are in a “late stage” of capitalism, nationalism, or modernism and that the next stage will somehow redeem the horrors that the main stage wrought (massive, global inequality, wars, and technologies with almost infinite capacity to destroy). On the other hand, we are increasingly come to realize that the paradigms established to take care of the future have made it difficult to imagine our way out of the looming existential crises fired by climate change, catastrophic inequality, and a limitless capacity for apocalyptic violence. In this context, there is a growing feeling that the future is foreclosed and that humanity or at least human society will invariably continue to amble toward its ultimate demise. 

It is hard to know what this means for disciplines like history and archaeology which perhaps emphasize the present as a lens through which to view the past more than the future. The 2019 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology offers a few visions of what an archaeology of the future could be, and as much as I like the articles there, I wonder whether we are open enough to new intellectual or discursive tools necessary to imagine a future that is increasingly impossible?

Fragment the Third

Yesterday on a boring treadmill run, I started the read Joy Williams’ latest novel, Harrow (2021). I’ve made it through the first chapter and it’s beautiful and haunting. I will resist the temptation to try to talk about the book already (especially since Williams has a seemingly limitless capacity to surprise), but I will say that there is something profoundly archaeological about the book. Williams interest in things, places, and landscapes, her attention to entropy and site formation, and her ability to think about how the present will appear from the vantage point of a dystopian, but more or less banal near future. 

At this point, I’m not sure whether the richly drawn setting for the story is merely a backdrop or whether it will serve as a character, but I’m intrigued and excited enough to move this book, delicately, from the “read for fun” to the “read for work” list. 

In short, stay tuned and I look forward to blogging about this book (and others) in the future.