An Anthropologist among Future Seekers

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

For a few years now, I’ve been working in the space of future imagining—seeking out trends and rationales by which to extrapolate them or use them as jumping-off points as provocations to business, taking inspiration from start-up tech’s drive to search out uncommon solutions to common problems, setting sights on far-off horizons, and generally learning to ask “what if” and wish “if I could..” with impunity.

At first, I found all this quite strange. Wasn’t it more important to be grounded in the present, and to tease out the histories that had produced our presents—and, at most, could produce our foreseeable futures? This is what I had trained myself to do all these years anyway, and what I seemed still to be training my students to do. Contextualizing, explaining cultural forms or dynamics, tracking the social lives of things—this was work much more rooted in the present, with a strong sense of the past that informed and birthed it, than in any future-oriented approach. Of course, such approaches weren’t by themselves anything new. In some form or other, they have been mainstays of disciplines like economics, finance, design and planning, or the environmental sciences, not to speak of political, literary, and religious imaginings—but, far as I could tell, not anthropology. We might have looked to such imaginings as great research material, but only insofar as it led us right back into the configurations of the present. I thought back to the responses of a good many of my colleagues to the Future Studies program we’d once had at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, the first of its kind at the time: the future isn’t here, so how on earth could you study it? (For that and other reasons, the program folded eventually and moved in a fashion to UH’s main campus under the charge of Peter Bishop. It exists still as a graduate program in “Foresight”).

Past-ness mattered and was core to the sort of analysis we routinely undertook. It was, it still is, as Appadurai has said, in the closing essay to a collection of already-published papers entitled The future as cultural fact, that “[i]n one way or another, anthropology remains preoccupied with the logic of reproduction, the force of custom, the dynamics of memory, the persistence of habitus, the glacial movement of the everyday, and the cunning of tradition in the social life of even the most modern movements and communities, such as those of scientists, refugees, migrants, evangelists, and movie icons” (285).

And yet, here was “the future” all around me, a veritable font of inspiration and a very real cultural horizon: in trend reports, in business forecasts, in strategic planning, in improbable prototypes, in design thinking, in the new-found faith in what Evgeny Morozov has disparagingly called “technological solutionism,” and in the apparently widespread conviction that science fiction will become science fact.

Although I didn’t read Appadurai’s essay until somewhat later, two sets of questions emerged. The first grappled with perplexity: what was I doing, an anthropologist amongst future-seekers? (Not everyone was a trained futurist, but many had some conception of the future on their horizons, and some compulsion to drive towards it). Okay, we could go ahead and treat futurisms as modernist ideologies, yet more objects subject to routine analytical assessments. But that struck me as insufficient–and already done aplenty. What would it do to my own disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological practice, did I even want to work with (toward?) a techno-modern future populated by humanoid bots and pixelated humans? Or did what Jane Guyer dubs “fantasy futurisms” just not matter as much as closer horizons? [Cultural Anthropology‘s recent Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen offers inspiration for addressing such questions—but that’s a story for later.]

The second set of questions were more reflective of conventional anthropological critique, but no less important: whose futures were these? All I had to do was look out of my window or walk down a Pondicherry street—posh apartments lining one side and a market and government tenements lining the other—to wonder what connections the diverse groups with whom I share this little city would have, if any, with conceptions of trans-humanism or hyperloops or blockchains. Autonomous driving cars when we could barely speak of dignity and human autonomy? How did any of that matter to any of us? Or: how are futures that aren’t ours in any near-term or straightforward sense still making us?

I don’t mean to posit Pondicherry as some little backwater town that exists so far behind, on a developmental continuum, cities like Hong Kong or Frankfurt or our old home base, Houston. But, if the future is already here and only unevenly distributed, as William Gibson so famously observed, then here I was in a place and within a disciplinary framework that made its presences just that much harder to discern. I was quite sure that only a small percentage of my fellow Pondicherry residents would ever have been asked where their future horizons lay or of what they were made. [Although a futurism of a very different sort is core to the Auroville project, and has been transformative.] What would it mean to think of them, of us, as future-makers? How far could our gazes travel?

Appadurai provides something of a roadmap: “We need to construct an understanding of the future by examining the interactions between three notable human preoccupations that shape the future as a cultural fact[:] … imagination, anticipation, and aspiration.” (286). His earlier work, Modernity at Large, dealt with imagination as constitutive of modern subjectivity. An earlier chapter argues that one way to converge with the future-oriented logics of development would be to strengthen the “capacity to aspire,” so that the poor could find their own routes to contest and alter the conditions of their own poverty. Risk, speculation, or what he covers with the term “anticipation,” has received much more attention in the literature on neoliberal capital, market processes, and monetary forms. But what we lack still are ways to triangulate the three, particularly amongst populations which “may be said to function in the condition of ‘bare life'” (298). We need to get much more into the rich cultural spaces at the intersection what he calls the ethics of probability (counting, accounting, quantitative, and measured approaches to risk taking and risk management) and the ethics of possibility: “those ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that increase the horizons of hope, that expand the field of the imagination, that produce greater equity in what I have called the capacity to aspire…” (295).

This is a quick and cursory summary, and I cannot claim to take on so large a project as Appadurai formulates in a few short blogging bursts. What I can ask, however, is this: on what pegs might, say, the fishing communities living across from us hang their aspirations or their conceptions of “the good life”? For a culture always so busy differentiating itself from itself, where would I find overlaps and divergences? Perhaps then it would be possible to push through to emergent forms of “indigenous futurism whose temporality lies in the (non)endurant hereish.”  I’m looking for nothing more or less than pinhole vistas—be these bits and pieces of technology or the idea of “SMARTness” or the organization of work itself—everyday practices that open out to future-scapes, however unexpected or mundane. Part of the argument I wish to feel my way through is obliquely a response to Jane Guyer’s argument on macroeconomic and religious discourses having “evacuated” the near future and replaced it with far more ultimate imaginaries. I want to say that, at least for the urban poor, the temporal frame of the near future is anything but evacuated—the percolation of economic ideas and the preponderance of religious discourses notwithstanding. Rather, it is often the only future that really exists.

My next posts focus largely on work, which would appear a sure-fire mechanism to think the future among poorer communities. I’ll examine the case of the Nokia phone manufacturing plant based in Sriperumbudur, not far from me though closer to Chennai, a place known alternatingly for its SEZ (Special Economic Zone) and ‘hi-tec’ hub, and for its memorial to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, assassinated there in 1991. I’ll be using that context to consider how configurations of work via consumption and politics establish parameters for the capacity to aspire.

After that, who can say what the future holds?

Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

4 thoughts on “An Anthropologist among Future Seekers

  1. Hi, great article, found it really useful as food for thought to think about my own thesis research. You say that anthropology is often concerned with drawing on its data to observe the present, but I was thinking, is anthropological research not always rather reactive and/or prospective? Although we use the ethnographic present as a starting point for reflection, the insights that we draw by linking the ethnographic present to wider theoretical trends, or using historical data to better understand the context of the ethnographical present, are always different from the ethnographic present as such. It’s almost like the project of representing the present is in itself a futuristic endeavor, i.e. one that draws on personal aspirations and imaginings to interpret the present we witness.
    Sorry if I am not being really clear but I myself am trying to discern this space in which aspirations/future imaginings are negotiated with present conditions, and finding it hard to discuss. Also, not having done any fieldwork I can only start tackling this topic from an analytical and philosophical perspective, which may be a practice of futurism in and of itself too 🙂

  2. Deepa, this is, indeed, a great post. I hope that it stimulates the discussion it deserves. I offer two thoughts.

    First, the future begins tomorrow. Some futures are near. Others still distant but looming. I think on the one hand of the Japanese advertising creatives whom I study and with whom I have worked. Some of the best at what they do say that where they want to be is “a half step ahead.” A step ahead may be too far, too soon. Half a step is where what people are starting to think about and may not be fully conscious of can be found.

    Second, I am now reading P.W. Springer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. In it we discover military/defense-industry thinkers whose task is to look decades into the future and to turn ideas inspired or borrowed from science fiction into realities. Here the challenge is not only to understand the thinking of people whose horizon for a thinkable future is far more distant than those of the poor who must grapple with day-to-day survival but to think seriously about possibilities that, because they involve the military, anthropologists may be reluctant to consider.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Julian. I suppose much depends on how we bracket off “the present”? We’re sort of always I think looking for the historical (far or near) roots of things; we could think of the work of contextualization itself as an excavation and reassembly of the present in a way that makes analytical or cultural sense. We’re also as you say cognizant of theoretical movements pushing in future directions, but actually also more: I’m thinking of Jim Faubion’s work on millenialism, Miyazaki on hope and capitalist utopias, and Llerena Searle on narratives about the future driving Indian real estate markets–to offer just a few examples. Representations of the present thus always do gather together more than the present.. but I’m not sure I’d call them “futuristic” for that, no. Although your thinking ahead of fieldwork might well be a practice of near-futurism, indeed! I like a lot Elizabeth Povinelli’s observation that “the future is not in the future, but in the myriad contradictions that cannot endure the present intersection and thus open the here to somewhere else” … even if that, too, gestures to “somewhere else” by situating us quite firmly in the here-and-right-now. (Thanks for the excuse to post these links, by the way; they help round off the post!)

  4. Pardon my delayed response, John. Something I haven’t really had a chance to parse in any of what I’m posting is the question of how far off all these futures are–though part of the “clash” of ideas is the overlap of horizons or scales of time: those half a step ahead, those fantastically advanced, those nostalgic for what could be, even those mourning the futures not yet actualized for some–but dying for others. I don’t know Springer’s work, and will look it up now, though I suppose I also resist the idea that day-to-day survival somehow means an eschewal of far future horizons. Perhaps just a very different relationship to far futures, configured paradoxically for the near-term, and through more predictable, concrete, connective arrangements than we might typically account for? A theme I hope I’ll be able to pick up in a subsequent post.

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