Note — Sep 11, 2022

The Slow Cancellation of the Slow Cancellation of the Future

The late great cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote about the “slow cancellation of the future.” The author of the piece, Sam Paterson, explains it like this, quoting Fisher; “while twentieth-century experimental culture ‘was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available,’ the twenty-first century ‘is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion’, dominated by stale pastiche and a dizzying array of modes and flavours of nostalgia.”

Paterson argues, by way of William Gibson (including lots of Peripheral/Agency spoilers, be warned), Fredric Jameson, and Deleuze and Guattari, that the pandemic broke the spell around capitalism and in so doing also broke this feeling of the end of history, of the cancellation of the future. “Shaken free of old narratives, we are now able to imagine new ones. What we do with this collective feeling—and what potential futures we grow to replace the old ones—will in a very real sense determine the future that will come to pass.”

In critical futures studies there’s this idea of past futures and present futures, basically how the future was imagined in the past and how the future is imagined now. Paterson is threading similar territories here, proposing that over the last couple of years “we have been shaken free of various complacencies,” that the moment is ripe for “casting our present as some future’s past.” He goes into some detail on Gibson’s Jackpot and the apocalypse more generally, saying that they are not useful futures, as they are, to a degree, admitting defeat instead of proposing ways forward. He believes that “this strange state of affairs could be the perfect soil in which to plant counterfutures.” We are in such a predicament that rosy futures might also be counterproductive, but he’s definitely right that better options need to be imagined if ‘we’ have any chance of moving towards a future that isn’t just pain and kleptobunkers. (Via nothing here.)

This construction of the now as a past, argues Fredric Jameson, is one of the central purposes of science fiction, which characteristically ‘does not seriously attempt to imagine the “real” future of our social system’. Instead, SF’s ‘multiple mock futures serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.’ […]

It turns out that one side effect of living through history in the making is that it makes us nervous all the time. […]

Imagined futures are only stories, but stories run the world, or at minimum lay the tracks for its passage, without which it would move in a different direction entirely. […]

[A] 2022 in which some of us enjoy the daily use of extremely powerful technologies that emerged as direct products of those upheavals and atrocities, but with an awareness (acknowledged or unacknowledged) of the human and ecological costs at which they come.

Imagining the future is just another form of memory I’d written this up before realising I had already featured it a year ago. Oups. Thought I’d keep it in, since it does fit with the rest of the issue, but link to my note from last year instead.