One-A-Day: Oona Strathern, A Brief History of the Future

Historians divide themselves by areas and by periods of specialization, but also by the methodological focus of their scholarly work: social history, political history, economic history and so on. This isn’t just an abstract division: it defines the real-world allocation of positions within departments. In many departments today, social historians of some kind or another are the largest plurality, often with cultural history of some kind a close second. Thirty years ago other specializations were more dominant. I tend to think that twenty years ahead, the balance will have shifted again. Partly because I think that knowledge, even historical scholarship, is progressive. Our methodologies do improve over time. Social historians ran into some intractable problems which in turn the “cultural turn” responded to. In African history, social historians renewed an interest in the colonial state and the concept of “indirect rule”, which created an opening for a new kind of political history. I also think the balance will shift because we relentlessly demand originality from junior scholars, and one way to be original is dusting off an old paradigm that was pushed aside largely for reasons of fashion.

Part of believing that knowledge is progressive, however, is also a belief that some older practices of historical writing fell by the wayside because they intrinsically weak in some respect, because they couldn’t hold up to sustained challenges from newer methodologies, couldn’t defend against critical examination. There’s a kind of 19th Century narrative history, for example, that is a lot of fun to read today for its literary qualities and lack of inhibitions about things like evidence and truth, but I don’t think scholarly historians are likely to return to writing fabulistic biographies and stirring if largely invented tales of derring-do.

There is a style of intellectual history that has fallen out of fashion, and I’m hoping it largely stays that way. Intellectual history and cultural history are often very closely related styles of scholarly writing, and in many ways, I think what is emerging out of their intertwining is a new hybrid form of historical study that has the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither, that can study how a particular idea or concept moved in and out of formal thought and expression into wider popular consciousness or practice. Sometimes, though, there’s real value in a narrower focus, in tracing the successive development of a highly particular idea in formal published writing or texts. Say, in an intellectual history of the concept of sovereignty within British political philosophy in the 19th Century.

The variation on that style that I dislike, however, is when a contemporary devotee of some idea or institution writes a triumphalist intellectual history about how the march of time has beat a path to the writer’s very own doorstep. Partly this kind of intellectual history is a scavenger hunt through the past, an attempt to annex notable and famous figures as the glorious forebearers of the contemporary practicioner. Partly it smooths out any bumps or disagreements about the practice itself so that the story is itself entirely about ascendance: anything unseemly in the past history of the idea is something which was reformed or overcome. This kind of history only pretends to be about tracing how a concept or idea changed over time. There is a kind of bad or potted history of science that some contemporary scientists will recite that very much follows this outline, in which today’s practices are the most perfectly perfect of all (until tomorrow), and the past only a record of errors overcome, a history which the present has corrected and absorbed into its own ascendant body.

Which brings me to Oona Strathern’s book A Brief History of the Future. Since I teach a course on the history of the future, I had high hopes for this book. I’m always looking for something that can help the students grasp the overall picture. Web sites like Paleofuture and Retrofuture are pretty much on the right wavelength, but they don’t have the narrative to knit together Enlightenment conceptions of progress, Christian millennialism, high modernist futurism, postwar technosocial optimism, policy-driving futurism, postmodern skepticism, and contemporary talk about the Singularity.

Strathern’s book is definitely not the droid I’m looking for. For one, it’s mistitled. It is not a history of the future as an idea. It is a history of futurism, the intellectual practice of forecasting or predicting the future. That would still be useful to me, as well as interesting, if it had any critical distance at all from futurism. But it doesn’t: the book largely is an attempt to validate Strathern’s own practice as a futurist, both by burnishing her own credentials and by describing futurism in relentlessly whiggish terms, as a practice which has grown more and more professional, credible, useful, precise and focused over time.

So yes, there’s the usual annexation going on here, in which notable individuals and authors in the past are understood not just to be concerned with the future, but to be nascent or founding futurists, the fathers and mothers of a contemporary profession. There is the requisite disavowal of bad futurism, whose errors were not a complex product of how conceptions of “the future” as a concept interacted with a particular moment in time, but were the consequence of an imperfect or unprofessionalized practice of futurism.

When I look at the history of the future as an idea, even just sticking with formal texts written by past intellectuals, policy-makers and so on, I see something vastly more discontinuous and multivalent than Strathern. Apocalyptic and utopian claims colliding and intermingling, both coming out of deep reservoirs of modern Western experience and thought. Ideas about the future becoming the animating spirit of governmental or institutional action, and then falling out of favor. The future as a powerful belief system at one moment and as the target of scorn and cynicism in another.

There’s a history that links Disney with Corbusier very directly, for example, but you’ve got to pay attention to the entirely different registers and institutional worlds that their visions operated within, as well as the alchemical difference between Brasilia and Epcot. You can bring Condorcet into a history that culminates with John Naisbett, but not if you make the former the noble ancestor of the professional latter: the relationship is far more diffuse and complicated than that.

Where I found myself especially irritated is as Strathern approaches the present, and contemporaries whom she wishes to compliment and associate herself with. The book seems largely unaware of something that is palpably obvious to me, which is that the expert-driven, policy-oriented futurism of the 1960s, closely tied to the sort of technological optimism that saw us all as driving flying cars, using jet-packs and living on the Moon by 2001, was pretty much thrown by the wayside in the 1980s and 1990s. Both because its projections and predictions were wildly, amusingly wrong, but also because of some basic shifts in the popular zeitgeist, in the entirety of how progress fit into the self-conception of Western and global society. In the kind of history that Strathern is writing, that wider context doesn’t exist. She knows that past futurism was wrong, but her understanding of that shift is simply that futurists got better at what they do, constrained their predictions more, and can now be trusted not to promise jet packs and a world free of hunger when you hire them to do projections.

The changes in way the concept of future was represented, imagined, used and described in the U.S. and Western Europe during 1980s weren’t just about a reaction, a realization that older projections were factually wrong. The same goes for other moments in this history. There isn’t an unbroken line between Enlightenment conceptions of progress and high modernist futurism: the players were different, the contexts were different, the applications of the concepts were different. The historical relationship is there, but it is complicated, diffuse, a matter of influence and subtle inheritance rather than familial descent.

I think that’s the kind of intellectual history I accept from someone who wants to explore the roots of their own practices in a self-complimentary way. It’s fine to talk about influences, to look for the ways that the past has shaped your own professional and personal worlds. Influence is not ascension, however. This kind of intellectual history recognizes that any contemporary idea has junk DNA in its genes, has unacknowledged ancestral branches full of bastards and incest, that its evolutionary line is a bush and not a spine, and that what that idea is doing right here and now is as much a matter of its nurture in the bosom of the present as its inheritance of the past.

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6 Responses to One-A-Day: Oona Strathern, A Brief History of the Future

  1. Sisyphus says:

    Speaking of the future, or futurism, or something, I had a lot of fun reading _Children of Ezekiel: Aliens, UFOs, The Crisis of Race, and the Advent of End Time_ for an undergraduate research project. I don’t know if it really does what you’re looking for either, but it does have a great story about Ronald Reagan quoting from the bible and then talking about impending alien invasions when someone brings him a flaming bananas foster dessert. Fun and terrifying!

  2. swiers says:

    Or, to push the future back, the history that links Wagner’s Kunstwerk der zukunft (1850) to Disney. It’s no coincidence that all Triumphalist Futurists seem to exemplify your notion above, that “the march of time has beat a path to the writer’s very own doorstep”. (Instead of ‘writer’, insert anarchist, composer, athlete, software mogul, dictator, you name it.).

    And while I’m no connoisseur of capital-H Histories, it seems to me that anyone who writes one is practically a T-F- by definition. Check out any review of Taruskin’s recent: History of Western Music (OUP), esp. the tone of reviews that describe it as a self-styled epic. It’s a hazard of the genre. And BTW-if the future really was invented in the 19th c., please do us all a favor and keep it there while you’re at it.

    Garden variety futurists, no problem; it’s the futurists with VISIONS that you have to worry about. Not that I’m against political candidatess for their rhetorical or musical skills, if those help create the vision (and vision, here, instead of illusion, deception, or sheer negligence).

    also OK–syncretic futurists, for example, Mel Gibson, who in @Signs, plays off aliens against, as far as I can tell, high Episcopalianism. Whaddaflick. Or Presbyterianism, the differences are subtle.

  3. Brian Ulrich says:

    I had a similar experience earlier this week when I read Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, hoping it would be a good book to use in a course on the history of monotheism. I didn’t bother finishing it, but social contexts were, as far as I could tell, completely irrelevant aside from some obligatory bows toward the nature of Bronze Age Middle Eastern polytheism.

  4. jpool says:

    I like the “junk DNA” phrase. When I think about the cultural history of ideas, I tend to go back to Gramsci’s discussion of the history of what he called “common sense” in terms of the sedimentation of different philosophical movements. Ideas that are long dormant can be brought back to the surface as people find new utility in them for reflecting on their changing material circumstances (among other things), but this is not the same thing as their having been there all along, awaiting their triumphal reemergence. I get particularly annoyed with accounts of Greek philosophy as the basis of Western civilization. Well, yes, but only because we decided retroactively that they should be, after largely forgetting about them for a millenium or more.

    I think that you’re right to point to the History of Science parallel and the general problem with the urge to create histories/mythologies of ascension. I wonder, though, what you think this shows about the larger cultural conflict between disciplinary history and futurism (most historians being futurism skeptics at best). My own thoughts on this are not entirely clear, but I guess I’m asking, do you see a connection, here or more generally, between bad history and bad science.

  5. Cosma says:

    I confess to a morbid curiosity as to how she deals with the objections that predicting future technology is impossible in principle, since it demands predicting what we do not yet know. (This goes back at least to Popper and is, IMHO, completely sound.) I am not quite morbidly curious enough to actually read the book, though…

  6. Tim, maybe there’s a book opportunity for you in her failure. I’ve always found your history of the future stuff fascinating, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m teaching science fiction this semester and I’m using Delany’s “significant distortion of the present” idea to structure the first half of the semester. I’m trying to get the students through the arguing over the author’s choices in the invented future stage and into the what do those choices reveal about his/her perspective on his/her own times–and our own on ours–stages. Teaching Earth Abides this week reminded me of some of our earlier discussions of The Years of Rice and Salt–the plot that gets mapped out (whether near future or alternate history) reveals more about the author’s assumptions/theories of how history works than anything else. So I guess I’m wondering which SF writers you feel have an interesting take on that issue, either for students or scholars or both. and if you have any suggestions on what to assign or recommend to students to get them better informed about the state of the future in the immediate post-W.W. II years, I would owe you more than one.

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