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Histories of the Future

We live in a world saturated by futures. Our lives are constructed around ideas and images about the future that are as full and as flawed as our understandings of the past. This book is a conceptual toolkit for thinking about the forms and functions that the future takes. Exploring links between panic and nostalgia, waiting and utopia, technology and messianism, prophecy and trauma, it brings together critical meditations on the social, cultural, and intellectual forces that create narratives and practices of the future. The prognosticators, speculators, prophets, and visionaries have their say here, but the emphasis is on small narratives and forgotten conjunctures, on the connections between expectation and experience in everyday life.

In tightly linked studies, the contributors excavate forgotten and emergent futures of art, religion, technology, economics, and politics. They trace hidden histories of science fiction, futurism, and millennialism and break down barriers between far-flung cultural spheres. From the boardrooms of Silicon Valley to the forests of Java and from the literary salons of Tokyo to the roadside cafés of the Nevada desert, the authors stitch together the disparate images and stories of futures past and present. Histories of the Future is further punctuated by three interludes: a thought-provoking game that invites players to fashion future narratives of their own, a metafiction by renowned novelist Jonathan Lethem, and a remarkable graphic research tool: a timeline of timelines.

Contributors. Sasha Archibald, Susan Harding, Jamer Hunt, Pamela Jackson, Susan Lepselter, Jonathan Lethem, Joseph Masco, Christopher Newfield, Elizabeth Pollman, Vicente Rafael, Daniel Rosenberg, Miryam Sas, Kathleen Stewart, Anna Tsing

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822334736
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/21/2005
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Daniel Rosenberg is Assistant Professor of History in the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon. He specializes in the intellectual and cultural history of the French Enlightenment.

Susan Harding is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics.

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Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3485-9

Chapter One

Introduction: Histories of the Future

Daniel Rosenberg and Susan Harding

We have been living through boom times for the future. Even before the escalating storms of 2001 and the conflicts that followed, our cultures and industries collaborated in a remarkable proliferation of words and images about the future. And none of this has shown any sign of slowing down. Whether in modes of progress or apocalypse, the media flow over with anticipations of things to come, with utopias, dystopias, stories of time travel and artificial intelligence, with accounts of acceleration and progress, of doom and imminent destruction, with scenarios, predictions, prophecies, and manifestoes. In this swirl of uncertainty, even the benighted "science" of futurology has come back into style.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, representations of the future have cycled wildly through a historical repertoire from the ray-gun gothic of the 1930s to the noir and the endism of the 1940s and 1950s to the plastic op-art modularity of the 1960s and back again. As if following a kind of Moore's Law scaling principle, futures today seem to be reproducing themselves faster and more cheaply than ever. At the same time, their shelf lives appear to be getting shorter. Any child can historicize them foryou, can tell you in a minute which future is up to date and which is already over, which doesn't run fast enough on the current microprocessor and which doesn't run at all.

More and more, our sense of the future is conditioned by a knowledge of, and even a nostalgia for, futures that we have already lost. Indeed, nostalgia for the future has become so pervasive today that it has even developed a distinctive set of commercial uses. As Arjun Appadurai suggests, contemporary mass consumption "is not simply based on the functioning of simulacra in time, but also on the force of the simulacra of time." If, as E. P. Thompson argues, different modes of production imply different forms and experiences of temporality, our current mode of consumption appears to imply a nostalgia for productivity in general and for all the different experiences of temporality that it might be able to produce. Today our futures feel increasingly citational-each is haunted by the "semiotic ghosts" of futures past.

Whether ultimately this phenomenon will turn out to be an expression of the logical limits of the progressive chronotype (what, after all, comes after progress?) or simply another version of the Baudrillardian hyperreal (simulacra in yet another realm), the rise of future-nostalgia has already brought to light phenomena of formal and historical importance. From a formal point of view, future-nostalgia reminds us that the future is not, and has never been, an empty category. Even as we accept a skeptical critique of prophecy, we must acknowledge that for us the future is not so much underdetermined as overdetermined. Our lives are constructed around knowledges of the future that are as full (and flawed) as our knowledges of the past. Often these future knowledges are profoundly freighted, since they involve anticipatory hopes and fears. As one commentator recently put it, our futures are junkyards of memories we have not yet had. They are not merely geometrical extensions of time. They haunt our presents, obeying architectural laws that look more like Gaudí than Euclid. They arise in the most diverse and peculiar ways.

In historical terms, the development of future-nostalgia also points to a kind of crisis in modern futurity. From the beginning, the modern was constituted through a rejection of prophecy. The philosophy of the Enlightenment required that time would be open to human achievement and that events could gain meaning from their interrelation, rather than from their relationship to absolute, biblical beginnings and ends. As Fredric Jameson has argued, by bracketing eschatological questions, the Enlightenment effectively "sealed off" the future from prophetic knowledge. But this development had paradoxical consequences. In no way did it amount to a going out of business for futurological workshops. The Enlightenment proscription against traditional prophetic practices turned out to produce new and intensified imaginative demands on the future and new techniques of narration and prognosis. The very possibility of an open-ended time elicited an outpouring of grand narratives from Condorcet and Kant to Hegel and Comte. This effect was by no means limited to high philosophy. In the arena of fiction, for example, the late eighteenth century saw an efflorescence of future fantasies. And for the first time in literary history, these futures took place not in some vague hereafter but in a chronological expanse freed from the finitude of sacred history, in the profane historical future, in the years 2440, 1850, 1900, and 7308.

Of course, these future narratives were also morality tales for the present, but in them the present is materialized through striking new kinds of proleptic imagining. The new futurisms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed-and even required-the thinking of alternative timelines: in them, the present was not just the past of the future but the "the past of future, contingent presents." It is difficult to overestimate the implications of this new possibility. But it is equally crucial to note that its victory was only ever partial. Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the contingent futures that emerged during the Enlightenment never fully displaced the necessary futures of prophecy. In some instances, such as the case of Auguste Comte (and, arguably, much of American public culture), modern visions of progress themselves took on a providential character. In others, such as the nineteenth-century Uchronie of Charles Renouvier, contingencies piled on contingencies seemingly without end. Moreover, the religious prophets did not oblige anyone by going away. As it turns out, what most characterizes the modern problem of the future is not its historical distance from the mode of prophecy but rather its hybrid and contradictory relationship to it.

The modern period saw a proliferation of techniques for imagining, predicting, and narrating futures-many in an importantly ambiguous terrain "between science and fiction"-and a developing cultural consciousness of the instability of this new temporal landscape. By the end of the nineteenth century, according to contemporary observers, time itself appeared to be accelerating, and futures-big and small alike-seemed to be coming and going with breathtaking speed. In the memorable words of Henry Adams, thinking historically in 1900 evoked the feeling of having one's neck broken. And this sense of acceleration did not go away. Instead it became something like second nature, so that by the late twentieth century, the problem was no longer how to account for historical acceleration, but how to account for the acceleration of acceleration itself.

In recent years, futurological upheavals have continued to take place with much ado, as in our recent and paradigmatic turn of the millennium. Although the coming of the new millennium did not occasion the level of crazy cult activity or terrorism anticipated by many observers and political leaders, it did provoke a remarkable outpouring of speculation. Prophets, prognosticators, predictors, fortunetellers, astrologers, millennialists, apocalyptics, visionaries, seers, and their journalistic and academic fellow travelers clogged the airwaves, magazines, newspapers, bookstores, and pews with their wares. As we approached 2000, the clock of discourse ticked louder and louder. The future itself seemed to shrink to fit the narrowing frame of time left until the calendar turned over. As one observer put it, "When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life." When all was said and done, though, 2000 could not have been anything but an anticlimax to the countless stories in which it played an anticipatory role. There was something vampiric about it: a thousand flashbulbs popped, but nothing showed up in the picture. Still, it was everywhere. There was no escaping it. It haunted us.

In the months leading up to the turn of the millennium, anticipations of the year 2000 transformed into anticipations of the "Year 2000 Problem," or the "Y2K bug," or simply "Y2K," and for a while the future was now. As Y2K, it had a technical and a rational and, especially, an economic content. Its importance was to be measured in the amount of money that was spent on preventing it, or cleaning up the mess that it created. It gave us something to believe in and to anticipate when we were barred from hoping for something mysterious. It also had the effect of spectacularizing a new world order, as, according to the experts, only the hypertechnologized and the primitive would be spared.

As some skeptics had predicted, at Y2K, the big story turned out to be the nonstory. Early on there were reports of problems here and there released from the bunker-style headquarters of our own federal "Y2K Preparedness Center," but none of these turned out to be serious. Yet the failure of the Y2K apocalypse to materialize did not lessen its historical importance. Like the nuclear tests of the 1950s, Y2K, in all its dimensions-cultural, commercial, and political, as well as technological-energized an entire economy of anticipation and produced a powerful expressive performance of a still-unstable global culture business vying for metanarrative control over the future. Not surprisingly, this moment also saw a prose explosion: ten years after the declared "end of history," we were still "zeroing in on the millennium" and having "conversations about the end of time."

Shortly after the turn of the millennium, the same dynamic was repeated with greater and graver intensity in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The attacks utterly suspended our futures, big and small, public and private, local and global. For Americans on 9/11, it was as if time had stopped, or at least stood terribly still. The sensation was strikingly evoked by a graphic artist's drawing for the New York Times. Shortly after the attacks a full-page image of the the terrible smoke cloud rising from the burning World Trade Center declared us "Peering into the Abyss of the Future." Two years later a calendar image still finds us stuck on 9/11. An event as big as 9/11, calling on such resources of collective imagination, virtually commands us to consider "The Future" as a singular story and as a singular presence in national and international life. But at the same time, it reminds us how decisively our imagination of futures can change in response to changing times. And it leads us to ask what sorts of cultural work are necessary to make new futures cohere. The problem of futures after 9/11 is not just the problem of deciphering big narratives; it is also the problem of mapping networks of small stories and practices changing with place and time.

In the end, the events of Y2K and 9/11 lavishly demonstrate that the future in the modern West is not the empty category that it is supposed to be-that the conflict of futures present and past is as central an element of modern temporality as was the adaptation and confirmation of futures before the eighteenth century-that our uncertainties are at every moment themselves positive cultural expressions. This is the paradox of modern futurity: while we are taught to believe in the emptiness of the future, we live in a world saturated by future-consciousness as rich and as full as our consciousness of the past. There is abundance everywhere, in big narratives and in small acts, and in every place where hopes and doubts are mobilized, in everything that we know and are not supposed to know. "The future" is a placeholder, a placebo, a no-place, but it is also a commonplace that we need to investigate in all its cultural and historical density.

This is what Histories of the Future sets out to do. Through a selection of essays and artifacts, the book maps sites where big futures-metanarratives that foresee, predict, imagine, divine, prognosticate, promise, and reveal the future-make contact with everyday lives. It traces a variety of small futures, some pervasive and some fugitive, all haunting their presents. It examines the densities and overdetermination of our futurizing imaginations. It tries to understand what "the future" is by looking at what "the future" does when it is called upon in practical situations in art and politics and in everyday life. The essays that make up this volume are themselves densely interlinked, and the volume is intended to operate as a hypertext, opening up analytic paths among disparate temporal experiences of modernity, links between technology and messianism, life and half-life, panic and nostalgia, waiting and utopia, conspiracy and linearity, prophecy and trauma.

Each of the essays presented here was written in relation to the others and grew out of a series of seminars, conferences, and collaborative research experiences. The authors first convened during a six-month residency at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine, in 1997. This turned out to be consequential in itself. From our arrival, Irvine appeared to us a remarkable example of American corporate futurism in all its complexity and self-contradiction, and our collective experience of the place served as a jumping-off point for many of our reflections.

At the time of our arrival, Irvine was still the largest entirely planned community ever built in the United States. Like many planned communities, it depended from the start on its own industry, in this case, an especially clean industry, well suited to the developing information and service economies of the late twentieth century. Before the chartering of the city, the land on which it would be built was held by a private corporation that had obtained ownership of much of the large rancho that had formerly extended through Orange County and beyond. In the 1960s, as farming in the area declined, the Irvine Corporation donated a substantial property to the University of California system to establish a new university which would become the "economic engine" at the heart of this clean city. The local signage pays homage to the division of industry and residence and to the protection of local residents from the possible harms of both industrial and urban life. The seal of the City of Irvine, visible from the roads that lead in and out, does not proclaim a future in so many words, but the future is called up in other ways, through the figures of a child on the left and a cultivated tree on the right. In its shield, Irvine defines itself as a project of control, protection, and culture that is echoed in the layout of every subdivision and the architecture of the campus. In Irvine, geographic, economic, and social futures were mapped in every possible detail. But, as Anna Tsing argues in her essay here, grand futurizing schemes "never fully colonize the territories on which they are imposed." Even in Irvine, where wealth has grown unabated since the earliest days, futures have not been fully controlled. There are little signs of this everywhere, found inside closets and tucked under tables. As you drive south from Irvine toward San Diego, the child of the future changes shape. No longer firmly protected by a paternal corporate arm, this immigrant child figured on a Caution sign on the highway is clinging for dear life to the hand of her mother and father who are sprinting across the freeway, hoping not to get hit as they race into an uncertain and perilous future. Even in its earliest days in the 1960s and 1970s, the fantasy landscape of Irvine was colored by a lingering dystopian haze. It is strange to look back on the production stills from the Planet of the Apes film shot on the campus of UCI. Actors in sci-fi ape costumes are off to lunch with humans of the everyday variety. And nothing really looks so wrong with this scene.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1. Introduction: Histories of the Future / Daniel Rosenberg and Susan Harding 1

2. A Notebook on Desert Modernism: From the Nevada Test Site to Liberace's Two-Hundred-Pound Suit / Joseph Masco 19

3. How to Make Resources in Order to Destroy Them (and Then Save Them?) on the Salvage Frontier / Anna Tsing 51

4. The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines / Vicente L. Rafael 75

Interlude I. Global Futures: The Game / Anna Tsing and Elizabeth Pollman 105

5. Electronic Memory / Daniel Rosenberg 123

6. All That Is Solid Melts into Sauce: Futurists, Surrealists, and Molded Food / Jamar Hunt 153

7. Sing Out Ubik / Pamela Jackson 171

Interlude II. Access Fantasy: A Story / Jonathan Lethem 185

8. Subject, City, Machine / Miryam Sas 202

Interlude III. Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Movement / Hirato Renkichi (Translated by Miryam Sas) 225

9. The Future of the Old Economy: New Deal Motives in New Economy Investors / Christopher Newfield 231

10. Why Rachel Isn't Buried at Her Grave: Ghosts, UFOs, and a Place in the West / Susan Lepselter 255

Interlude IV. The Trouble with Timelines and a Timeline of Timelines / Daniel Rosenberg and Sasha Archibald 281

11. Living Prophecy at Heaven's Gate / Susan Harding 297

12. Trauma Time: A Still Life / Kathleen Stewart 321

Bibliography 341

Notes on Contributors 355

Index 357

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