Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Futurological Mad Men

Terry Eagleton's new book is full of surprises. For one thing, for a book entitled Why Marx Was Right, Eagleton spends quite a lot of time describing the ways in which Marx was wrong, or at any rate arguing with himself in ways that often placed him in the wrong (familiar criticisms that his viewpoint was reductionist, determinist, triumphalist, and so on are not so much dispatched as demonstrated to be more ambivalent for Marx than detractors would have them be).

But the real treat for me is Eagleton's unexpected occasional skewering of futurological conceits. "Capitalism is incapable of inventing a future which does not ritually reproduce its present," writes Eagleton at one point, a sentiment with which I would concur (indeed, I wish I had written it and could include it among my Futurological Brickbats). Like it though I do, I must say it is hard to see how a Marxist like Eagleton could believe such a thing himself, inasmuch as communism is presumably indispensably indebted to capitalism for its own emergence and so at least one possibility other than the ritual reproduction of its present really must be possible on his terms. (Although my own democratic socialism -- if that's what it is -- is not by any stretch virulently anti-marxist, neither am I anything like a proper Marxist, so I can agree with Eagleton's one-liner here quite comfortably myself, even if I'm not sure how he can.)

And the book's anti-futurological hits surprisingly keep coming, much to my own delight. Here is my favorite so far:
Foretelling the future, however, is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a way of shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish…. The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years…. It is a mistake to believe that the biblical prophets sought to predict the future. Rather, the prophet denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we might well have no future at all…

It is an incredibly rich passage, touching all at once on many topics that preoccupy my own attention (for instance here and here). Needless to say, Eagleton's conjuration of "experts hired by transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe" describes all too well The Futurological Congress of so-called professional futurists against whom I rail so regularly here.

What I would emphasize in my own supplement to Eagleton's jeremiad, is that the reassurance provided by professional futurists to corporate-military incumbent elites is not essentially a matter of complimentary sycophancy (though there is usually revoltingly plenty of that) but literally of promotional enablement:

When the futurists offer up their PowerPoint "scenarios" and growth-graphs arrowing upward to Infinity and Beyond and their neologistic jazz-riffs in air conditioned board rooms and in online tube-talks what they are doing is essentially of a piece with what mainstream advertising discourse is also doing when it reassures consumers that the endless re-cycling of trashed fashions and re-packaging of crap products and re-branding of the stasis is new! and improved! that we are all of us not mired in present distress so much as we are lucky passengers on a rocket-ship to The Future!

The futurological pre-occupations with promises of longevity are precisely mirrored in the models in labcoats around whom CGI-molecular models swirl in mainstream commercials for skin creams, the futurological pre-occupations with nanotechnology and robots suffuse the brand-names and advertizing for everything from phones to chewing gum to sweat pants, the futurological pre-occupations with fields of windmills and solar panels and sunflowers are precisely mirrored in the promotional imagery through which petroleum company brochures and commercials declare their solemn responsibilities even as their actual budgets and profits reflect very different priorities indeed, and in an epoch when the shuttle is bidding us farewell, when the Concorde is a distant memory, and our commercial air fleet is shaking itself to pieces before our eyes the copy of the futurologists and ad men still throngs with chrome spaceships disgorging gorgeous orange plumes and vast elaborate space-stations floating above the planet like pale lily-pads sparkling with Christmas-tree lights, the windows revealing glimpses of slim jet-setters with cocktails and square-jawed Republicans in uniforms.

The disavowal of the present parochially served through the futurological is rightly monikered by Eagleton "a kind of fetish" -- and for any serious reader of Marx, let alone Freud, one can only add, "and how!" (about which I have more to say here).

Annalee Newitz once proclaimed that science fiction was the entertainment wing of futurology. Pointing out the relation really was a crucial insight, even if, not to put too fine a point on it, she got the terms of the relation itself exactly backwards. Of course, what futurology actually happens to be is the promotional and marketing subgenre of science fiction literature.

That futurology peddles itself as a kind of policy discourse rather than the hyperbolic mobilization of greedy and anxious consumer affect onto perversely techno-stylized crap has no small whiff of the fraudulent about it, as does its disavowal of its inevitable beneficiaries, incumbent-elite corporate-military interests. But, of course, futurology shares precisely these traits with the advertising discourse under which it is properly subsumed more generally.

The present is a contingent accomplishment, always resonating in its vital substance to the ineradicable diversity of the stakeholders who contest over its terms. Futurity, in my own account, names the radical openness inhering in presence attesting to this threatening promising contestation substantiating the present.

"The Future" is always a surrogate commentary on the present, drawing its energy from the passions and anxieties of that present the disavowal of whose terms only unmoors and amplifies their potency, or it is a way to peddle crap in the present through a kind of transubstantiation of that crap, by much the same means, for as long as it takes to make the sale, into magic.

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