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Seminar Keyword: Future

Though stable in its literal meaning for much of its early history in English, future has become a contested site of economic, political, and cultural issues. Though perhaps all politics is fundamentally deliberation about the future, typically the grammar of the future can be invoked without necessitating the use of the word itself. The complex of specific meanings invoked by the phrases the future, his/her/your future, and no future make future itself a complex term. The phrases future generations, foreseeable future, and Afrofuturism also attest to the word’s growing political significance.

In contrast to the Christian expectation of apocalypse which existed at the end of time or the Renaissance future of short-term calculation in which social and technical conditions largely resembled the present, in modernity the future for the first time becomes a distinct epoch perceived as radically different than the present. Prior to the French Revolution, all discourse referencing the future was in actuality merely recycled discourse about the past due to a presumed stability of past and present experience. In modernity this future of radical possibility initially resists all attempts at calculation, as in W. Hazlitt (1822): “The future is like a dead wall or a thick mist hiding all objects from our view.” However, from C19, the other side of this radical historicism appears as the possibility of progress which can be managed or planned as in J. Morley (1878), “The industrial organization of the future.”

The modern future assumes continued advances in science and technology. From lC19, the emerging genre of science fiction enabled narrative speculation about future contingency based upon known or assumed scientific principles. Works such as H.G. Well’s The Time Machine (1895) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) transport a C19 protagonist to the future—for Wells a distant and disturbing 802,701 CE and for Bellamy a utopia in 2000 CE. Throughout mC20, science fiction continued to explore the future as a space of possibility for both utopia and dystopia, to which Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976) adds the heterotopia. This literature often features temporally distant future utopias, differing from earlier works like More’s Utopia (1516) and Bacon’s New Atlantis (1628),which were instead insulated from the implied reader’s society by distance in geographical space. Distinctly modern fears articulated by the genre of dystopia testify to the perceived possibility that social and technological narratives of future progress might in fact reverse into totalitarianism, disaster, and war.

From lC19, the individuated his/her/your future refers to the expectation of personal economic success and prosperity, or the lack thereof, as in Oscar Wilde (1891) “I like men who have a future, and women who have a past.” This individuated economic future evidently coincides with the continued development of capitalism. By eC20, the usage no future appears, signifying a career or occupation offering few prospects for growth or advancement, especially due to changing economic conditions. In Raymond Williams’s Border Country (1960),Morgan Rosser’s wife advises him to focus on his wholesaling business and to abandon his shift work at the railroad, warning “There’s no future, I told him, in that.” By lC20, youths are advised to avoid studies or careers that have no futurein the projected market economy of years to come, presumably tasked instead with taking personal responsibility for identifying and entering growth industries. Rebelling against this formulation, in lC20 the British punk movement adopted no futureas their slogan, taken from the lyrics of “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols (1977): “Don’t be told what you want/Don’t be told what you need/There’s no future, no future/No future for you.” The punks’ appropriation of no futuresuggests that beyond the economists’ projection that there is no future in this or that particular industry, perhaps British society (or even the entire global economy) as a whole has no future. Attesting to this increasing unease about the future, post-apocalyptic or disaster science fiction became increasingly common by mC20, first with post-nuclear fiction such as the novel Alas, Babylon (1959) and the film Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), and later with post-environmental collapse settings such as the film Waterworld (1995).

In C20, socialism and communism competed with capitalism as potential visions of the future, asMarxist historical materialism guaranteed the inevitability of a future revolutionary world order. While in the Soviet Union this faith in the future took the form of five-year plans, in the West left politics retained faith in the mission of organized labor. Williams’s Border Country strikingly depicts how this faith in the future is shaken after the failure of the 1926 General Strike: “You could talk about creating the future, but in practice, look, people ran for shelter, maneuvered for personal convenience, accepted the facts of existing power. To see this happening was a deep loss of faith, a slow and shocking cancellation of the future.”

This cancellation of the future becomes more significant in lC20, after both the fall of the Soviet Union and an influx of ideas from post-structural continental philosophy to the Anglophone world. Differing attitudes toward the futureproduce a rift within leftist politics, with the ‘old left’ retaining a progressive vision of the plannable future, and the ‘identitarian left’ arguing instead for a focus on local and quotidian concerns, often emphasizing respecting past-oriented or traditional forms of minority culture. Responding to the perceived ascendency of the identitarian left, in eC21 the digitally-circulated “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics” by S. Williams and N. Srnicek (2013) called for a return by the political left to a politics of the future: “Towards a time of collective self-mastery, and the properly alien future that entails and enables. Towards a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-criticism and self-mastery, rather than its elimination.”

The phrase future generations,present since C17 but increasing in frequency after 1950, links the future to reproduction, as in the lC20 lyric “I believe the children are our future/Teach them well and let them lead the way” from “The Greatest Love of All,” as recorded by both George Benson (1977) and Whitney Houston (1985). In C21, queer theory discourses problematized the link between reproduction and futurity and its association with social and political order, as in Lee Edelman’s text, No Future (2004).

By lC20, Afrofuturism signifies Afrocentric conceptualizations of the future encompassing aesthetics, music, science, science fiction, and technology. Reacting to the perceived erasure of members of the African diaspora from both past and future, Afrofuturism aims to articulate the futureas more laden with possibility than the lived black experience of the present, as S.W. Thrasher writes for The Guardian (2015): “Afrofuturism allows black people to see our lives more fully than the present allows – emotionally, technologically, temporally and politically.”

Foreseeable future appears increasingly in lC20, attesting to the perceived predictability of the near future through the application of statistical analysis. This usage and the related futurology are often used by venture capital or technology corporations in discourses that seek to manage future risk and maximize profit. The foreseeable futureof normalized and expected rates of return on technological change can be contrasted with the possibility of a radical, unforeseeable, or revolutionary future.