Special Issue: Futurity in Crisis
Editors: Niall Gallen, Josie Lilley-Byrne, Arzu Bali and Benjamin Horn
There is perhaps no bigger concern in the contemporary moment than the future. The late theorist Mark Fisher, referencing autonomist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, declared “the slow cancellation of the future.” This oft-used phrase has in recent years come to encapsulate the feeling that the future has been quietly stolen from us. This idea corresponds to what Fisher termed “capitalist realism,” which names an ideological state of affairs in which it is no longer possible to imagine an alternative to capitalism. For Fisher, capitalist realism marks a pervasive mood of miserablism, an ‘end of history’ which considers the prospect of no future as an inevitability in the face of the increasing crises of mental health, climate change, and lack of technological and cultural innovation. Not only is the prospect of the future stunted by the complex and entangled crises of the present, but the conditions under which such crises have been produced and exacerbated have also thrown the very notion of futurity itself into crisis.
Over a year ago, we launched the Contemporary Theoretical Network (Ctrl N for short) as a response to a moment of crisis during the first pandemic lockdown in the UK. Ctrl N came from our need to connect with and talk to others in an attempt to make sense of what was happening and where we were going during a moment of profound uncertainty and change. Our conversations have repeatedly returned, again and again, to the question of futurity and the feeling that the future itself is in crisis. Having recently completed two online seminar series exploring the work and ideas of Mark Fisher (“K-Punk Quarantined”, and “Postcapitalist Desire”), as well an informal monthly series affectionately called “WTF is going on,” we felt that the theme of futurity in crisis resonated with the concerns and questions expressed not only in Fisher’s work, but also the cultural conditions of the contemporary moment—a world both fundamentally altered but also in many ways unchanged by the effects of a global pandemic.
In this special issue of Alluvium, we invited contributors to think on and apply theory to representations of futurity in crisis. We have been overwhelmed by the level of response to this issue, from both within and beyond the network. Each article reflects an innovative approach to the theme; however, given their shared focus they also demonstrate many interlocking concerns, and in particular a central tension between the conditions of the present and prospects for the future.
Paul Graham Raven’s “From predictive product to polyphonic practices: techniques of futuring beyond business-as-usual” opens our edition with a fantastic outline of the history, development and impact of techniques of futuring. Beginning with the role of scenario planning within corporate, military and governmental techniques of futuring before moving to the rise of technological utopianism, Paul traces how an increased dependency on “computation and economic growth for its own sake, has resulted in a corporatization and commodification of futurity, despite an enduring rhetoric that claims the future as a shared space in which collective desires will be realised.” Paul then outlines the influence of the shifting discourse of environmental politics on established techniques of futuring, highlighting the contradiction at the heart of “the absolute ideological conviction that there is no alternative to growth, which will surely serve to provide the ‘solutions’ to its own consequences.” In exploring the origins of such techniques of futuring一where the power to shape the future has historically been produced一and how we break free of business-as-usual models of futuring, Paul suggests that the conditions for change are already ripe, or on the cusp of becoming so. He emphasises this by mapping the shift from a “singular, monolithic future […] of business-as-usual,” to “polyphonic, social and inductive epistemologies of futuring.” Paul’s overview of the key theories and methodologies of futuring provides an excellent introduction to a central tension within the notion of futurity and at the heart of this edition: between the reproduction of the same and the production of the new. This idea is touched upon by all of our contributing authors; however, a strong analogue is Laura’s article, which exemplifies the cultural pervasiveness of top-down methods of futuring, and an overreliance on the idea of causality between the present and future through her analysis of procedural futurism in video games. Paul’s article also comes to bear when considering the impact of the futures industry in Dan’s analysis of Afrofuturist film Pumzi, as well as in Gary’s analysis of the limitations of technologies for tackling cultural stagnation.
Laura op de Beke in “Procedural Futurism in Climate Change Videogames” critically illustrates how technology, specifically video games, can influence thinking about futurity through an analysis of the Civilisation game series expansions, Fate of the World and Gathering Storm. Drawing on Ian Bogost’s notion of “procedural rhetoric,” Laura coins the term “procedural futurism” to describe both a curious homology of future scenarios, and the ‘if/then thinking’ about the future in the games she analyses. Though video games are often praised as future-oriented media, multiplying potential scenarios, Laura demonstrates, via Richard Grusin’s concept of “premediation,” that this conceals a latent determinism. Premediation names the “anxious desire to familiarize the unknown,” domesticating the unknowability of the future and foreclosing its ability to surprise and change us. In an innovative application of Grusin’s theory to video games, Laura maps premediation onto the logico-temporal dynamics of turn-based strategy games. Laura argues that the ‘if/then’ dynamics of turn-based strategy affects our thinking about the future by evoking a false “mastery of the consequences of player interaction,” which leads to the misleading impression that present decisions will have a directly apprehendable affect on the future. As Laura illustrates, this has a tendency to foreclose both new futures and the possibility of contingency and surprise, and is thus inadequate when applied to phenomena like climate change, which is both continuously unfolding, and often happening faster and in more complex ways than we can knowingly predict. Laura’s work demonstrates that while new technologies produce the future, they also risk restricting it to predefined models. Here Laura’s essay shares a concern with Gary’s, demonstrating the limitations of technological potential for tackling cultural stagnation. Its focus on the drive to engineer the future, as well as the article’s ecological focus, also resonates wonderfully with Dan’s analysis of the impact of the futures industry in the Afrofuturist film Pumzi.
Gary Charles in “Archived Futures: Digging In The Crates Of Always” approaches the topic of futurity in crisis through the lens of music technology, exploring a form of cultural production (and stagnation) close to the heart of Mark Fisher’s work. Gary’s article sets out to examine the impact of technological advancements in artificial intelligence on the music industry, and in particular, how the use of AI may serve to reproduce the “cultural stasis” of music production which Fisher lamented. In Gary’s article, we see yet another example of how technology can limit our perceptions of and power to shape the future. From the creation of music to its consumption, Gary exemplifies how technology has come to flatten the cultural output of the music industry by stifling diversity and innovation, instead merely reproducing the conditions of a “seemingly permanent present.” This inability to produce something new not only limits how we imagine the future, but also, Gary suggests, “entrench[es] power relations and biases,” thus perpetuating the status quo. In spite (or perhaps because) of the limitations of technologies which increasingly seek to flatten and neutralise human artistry and innovation, Gary points us to artists such as the late SOPHIE who proved that it is still possible to create something new within the confines of the present. Gary’s article is one of many in this edition which explores methods of cultural production as a means for imagining and shaping the future, such as Dan’s and Joe’s articles which follow. Readers will also observe an interesting contrast in Nicholas’s piece, which seeks change and innovation beyond the ‘industry’ of education.
Dan Heaven’s “‘The Future Starts with an Image’: Wanuri Kahui’s Pumzi (2009)” explores the genre of Afrofuturism through an analysis of Wanuri Kahui’s short film Pumzi. Dan investigates how Afrofuturism challenges colonial and postcolonial reductions of the African continent’s historical agency, as exemplified by Hegel through his claim of its “Underdeveloped Spirit” and more recently by John S. Mbiti through his assertion “that African languages were grammatically incapable of conveying the future.” Inverting Mbiti’s problematic claim through the work of Kodwo Eshun and Mark Fisher, Dan explains how Africa’s perceived lack of futural agency is not the product of some imagined essential property, but in fact inflicted by the colonial and capitalistic imperatives of the futures industry. Dan explores how Afrofuturism responds to and challenges the futures industry, by explaining how both produce hyperstitions, “which describes a process of positive feedback where the fictional or the imagined is made real.” Coined by the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, ‘hyperstition’ describes a process whereby time becomes cybernetically flattened, with the past, present, and future losing their distinct temporal locality, instead forming “mutually reinforcing feedback loops in a chronopolitical matrix.” Dan argues that Afrofuturist works, such as Pumzi, reappropriate the hyperstitional operations of the futures industry to demonstrate the political and ontological stakes of the future (i.e. who it is presumed to belong to), while also disrupting and reimagining possible futures. In the latter stages of the essay, Dan convincingly puts his thesis to work in his analysis of Kahui’s film, which he approaches as Afrofuturism in practice. The themes Dan explores find resonance with Laura’s readings of the future’s foreclosure through predetermination (through premediation), and also recapitulate Paul’s analysis of the deadlock placed on futurity by highly capitalistic scenario planning within the futures industry.
Joe P. L. Davidson’s “Aristocratic realism: Within and against feudalism in English future fiction” interrogates the comparative newness of Mark Fisher’s theorisation of capitalist realism by examining the persistence of feudal remnants within an English context. Joe draws on three novels which feature the persistence or re-emergence of feudal social structures in English society to expand his own concept of ‘aristocratic realism’: Carl Neville’s alternate history Eminent Domain (2020), Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future (2016), and Claire North’s 84K (2018). For Joe, ‘aristocratic realism’, describes the feeling that the English aristocracy can never be entirely overcome; “something deep in the nation’s past moves through the present and into the future.” Drawing on Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, Joe notes that capitalism in England developed falteringly, with the rising bourgeoisie accommodating itself to the aristocracy. Joe’s thesis challenges Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’ by situating it within the context of these social archaisms. If England has never experienced a successful bourgeois revolution, let alone a proletarian one, what hope can there be? Joe’s analysis of the persistence of the aristocracy, within, alongside and beneath, takes seriously Deleuze’s claim that what capitalism deterretorializes with one hand, it reterritorializes with the other, with social formations being ‘artificial, residual, archaic’ (Deleuze and Guattari 257). These archaisms, however, are fully integrated into capitalism, as Joe shows in his analysis of the media spectacle surrounding Royal Weddings, and the domestic affairs of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. What is innovative in Joe’s analyses is his demonstration that these feudal archaisms are not inventions of capitalism, but the remnants of a feudal order the English bourgeoisie never displaced, but instead accomodated. Like Nicholas’s analysis of education, Joe illustrates that capitalism is able to collaborate with old monsters; though like Fisher, he also outlines how these archaic social structures are immanent to capitalism, the burden of dead traditions weighing on the brains of the living like a nightmare. The question over such dystopian visions is thus; even if we escape capitalism, will our dreaming life remain haunted by much older spectres?
Nicholas Stock’s “Education, a monstrous thief of the future” explores the ontological implications of education itself, which he suggests has the agency to steal time and thus futurity through schooling. In this theory-fictional essay, Nicholas challenges conventional interpretations of education as a great equaliser by painting it as a monstrous being “we […] exist within.” Through its polemic form, Nicholas’s essay reveals the inherent difficulty of thinking outside of education, while challenging the acceptability of educational modes of thinking. This allows Nicholas to open lines of enquiry about how much education itself needs to alter, in order for perceptions of time (and by extension, the future) to change. Nicholas goes on to explain how “education teaches a slavish protestant work ethic to learn to let capitalism ruin us.” By dividing time into units, both discrete and disciplinary (as with school education) and continuous and flexible (as with lifelong learning), education thus suppresses a truly autonomous sense of futurity. The article illuminates education’s destructive capacity which is typically masked behind otherwise ever-deferred utopic promises for a better future. In this sense, education is revealed to both be the means to an end (to secure a better future), and an end in itself (a permanent measure of one’s ability to function to the standards of hegemonic society). Finally, Nicholas conjectures that in order to begin to imagine a future without education, we must turn to those who remain completely outside of the educational system. Although, as readers will see, this latter concern is slightly problematised by Emily and Henry’s piece, the article’s call to look for answers outside of the beast we live within resonates with many of the essays in this edition, including Laura’s attempts to conceptualise game mechanics that operate outside of “premediation,” and Gary’s focus on musical forms that innovate beyond the purview of the “Western classical harmony.”
Emily Pratten & Henry Price in “Lay Down and Rot: Incels and Lost Futures” finish our edition with a highly innovative reading of the contemporary crisis of futurity within masculinity, through a nuanced analysis of the Incel community. Describing an antifeminist and misogynistic community of ‘involuntarilary celibate’ men, Incels form part of what is now increasingly referred to as the online manopshere. Many explorations of Incels have, quite reasonably, reflected on the toxic masculinity that is pervasive within the community as “ugly or uninhibited,” or, more questionably, interpreted the community as a “cry for help from young men who have been demonised as privileged and dangerous.” Emily and Henry challenge these interpretations by taking aim at their tendency to overemphasise “sexlessness,” eliding more nuanced analyses of the Incel worldview as ideologically inflected. Instead, by regarding Incels as a particularly reactionary cultural response to neoliberalism (and its pervasive caricatures of feminist identity politics), Emily and Henry examine the Incel adherence to a set of beliefs known as “The Black Pill.” These beliefs see the position of women in society as being “elevated, via a variety of state-financed capital transfers, legally enforced privileges and a cultural fixation on ‘empowerment’ and sexual autonomy, to the position of elites.” Through an analysis of two significant Incel texts, Emily and Henry demonstrate how adherence to “The Black Pill” informs a tendency among Incels to see their futures as foreclosed, and any possibility of change replaced by the imperative to “lay down and rot.” Here, the authors demonstrate the extent to which Fisher’s understanding of the capitalist realist cancellation of the future has permeated culture to an individual level, revealing the unsustainability of neoliberalism as an ideology which “promises” future fulfillment and security through things like “a nice job, [… a] nice girl, [… a] nice white picket fence[, a] dog[,] and […] kids.” As with Laura, Paul, and Dan, predetermination is an evident theme throughout. However, Emily’s and Henry’s essay problematises Nicholas’s call to turn to “those who are outside” of education, and by doing so perhaps demonstrate the inefficacy of the perceived viability of turning to exterior temporalities (or events) for challenging hegemonic futures. The Incel rejection of any equaliser of “self-improvement” in favour of the hard determinism of belief in a “genetic lottery,” is, after all, a rejection of education, yet without it, the Incels are bereft of any ability to self-determine a future at all. If the depressive affirmation of ‘no future’ common to Incels highlights anything, it is precisely the continued importance of rethinking the futurity of hegemony from within its bounds. On these grounds, Emily’s and Henry’s essay is a testament to the challenging sociological work required to be able to know we are doing exactly that.
The papers that form this special issue demonstrate not only innovative approaches to the theme of futurity in crisis but also highlight the sheer breadth of the possible applications of theory. Throughout, theory features as a means for analytically approaching texts, film, and video games, as a tool for synthesising debates within a field, as a method for conducting and re-evaluating sociological research, and for enhancing a polemic, as within theory-fiction. The diversity of theory’s application in this issue demonstrates its continued importance for cultivating and undergirding interdisciplinary research, and for providing frameworks designed to both widen a given field as well as expand the horizons of theory itself. We hope that readers contribute to this process by making their thoughts known below, and that we may be able to continue discussions of theory and its applications to the theme of futurity in crisis with you all through the network.
See you on the Net,
Niall Gallen, Josie Lilley-Byrne, Benjamin Horn and Arzu Bali, “Alluvium Editorial 9.3: Futurity in Crisis,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2021): n. pag. Web 4 June 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.3.01
About the Network and the Authors
Ctrl Network is an international network that aims to promote theorisation on the conditions of the present, as well as ideas that foster a sense of change. This edition of Alluvium is guest edited by its founding members, Niall Gallen, Josie Lilley-Byrne, Benjamin Horn and Arzu Bali.
Niall Gallen is an AHRC funded doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham. Niall’s interdisciplinary research focuses on the work and legacy of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru, 1994-2003) by considering their relation to the development of accelerationism, which is a controversial insistence that the best answer to capitalism is accelerating its “radical” tendencies. Niall traces a cultural genealogy of accelerationism by relating the Ccru’s methodologies to earlier works, such as: the writings of J.G. Ballard, the art of Eduardo Paolozzi, and the speculative discussions and exhibitions of the Independent Group (1952-1955). The aim of Niall’s project is to better understand what makes a work accelerationist, and what is/isn’t unique about it as a contemporary “political heresy.”
Josie Lilley-Byrne is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Birmingham. Her research explores the entanglements of queer kinship, slow violence and climate crisis in contemporary American fiction. She is interested in how our relationship to time, narrative, and traumatic rupture shapes our perceptions of and responses to climate crisis. By focusing on texts which resist violent spectacle or explicit fantasies of ecological destruction, her research aims to illuminate the quiet and complex power of the slow moving in an age of everything now.
Benjamin Horn is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Birmingham. His research explores the relationship between speculative realist, post-Kantian philosophy, contemporary critical theory and the science fiction of Philip K. Dick. His research examines how fiction can help us overcome both correlationist and anthropocentric modes of thinking and being, through figural language and the production of new forms of sensation. He seeks to examine how science fiction narrative operates through metaphor and metalepsis, and how such practices in narrative can gain non-empirical traction on the real. He draws on object-oriented and neo-rationalist philosophers, such as Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani, to examine how Dick’s fiction fashions an ‘abstract outside’; both to our anthropocentric experience and to capitalism. Ben argues that Dick’s fiction provides a form of ‘conceptual navigation’ for how we relate to the anthropocene and the climate crisis. He has been published in Fantastika, Foundation, and the SFRA Review.
Arzu Bali is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Birmingham. Arzu’s research delves into the political implication of the nonhuman turn. Focusing on the novels of China Miéville, Arzu is exploring how weirdness is present within both contemporary philosophy and political projects coordinated around human relationship with nonhuman subjects. H.P. Lovecraft, often noted as a master of the weird, has increasingly been deployed in contemporary philosophical discussions; however, Arzu makes a case for Miéville’s work as a weirder, more significant, and more powerful as a tool for supporting the findings of contemporary philosophy interested in the decline of the modern and the rise of the nonhuman.
Berardi, Franco “Bifo”, and Fisher, Mark. “Give Me Shelter”, Frieze Magazine, 152, 2013. https://www.frieze.com/article/give-me-shelter-mark-fisher [accessed 1 April 2021].
Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, 1983.