At the very latest, the future begins now. Most futures began some time ago, as many of the parameters determining the patterns of behaviour that will shape future iterations of our world were laid down decades, if not centuries, before we come to observe them. But if both futures research and literary traditions lay bare ways of thinking and behaving that are rooted in the past, can literature help us answer some of the recurrent imponderables around the future? When is the future, where is the future, and how might creative thinking help us make different futures?
This report presents the preliminary findings from a seminar stream dedicated to the topic of ‘World Authorship and Creative Futures’ at the 2017 meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association [ACLA] in Utrecht, Netherlands. We open up the topic through four interlinked areas, and conclude with three key questions for future(s) research in literary studies.
Our starting premise is that in order to think about specifically literary futures, we need to acknowledge the significance of established trends in and around literature, whether this be the recent rise in literary blogging and self-publishing, or more deeply-rooted habits of self-selecting interaction amongst literary elites. For while we may have a conceptual idea of how literature creates fictional worlds within the bounds of the text, we need a more explicit framework for considering how writers, readers and shared literary practices might also create the real future worlds in which we will shortly find ourselves.
1. Literary communities
At a 2017 focus group in London, writers, reviewers, publishers, translators and academics were asked to share their predictions for the future of literature out to 2050. Participants unanimously stressed the ideal of a literary community that would help foster a sense of self through shared literary practice. But while the participants were imagining a future with enhanced access to literature, facilitated through digital interfaces and writing tools, actual trends in literary blogging do not necessarily support this optimism. Gender, class, and geographical bias in fact point to the formation of self-determined communities that are not so very different to Goethe’s formulation of world literature from two hundred years ago.
When Goethe, the so-called ‘German Shakespeare’, trumpeted the arrival of ‘the epoch of world literature’ in 1827, he characterized it as driven by personal interactions amongst the literary elite: ‘world literature’ was going to emerge from the human relationships actively forged by writers. In its most ideal form, it designated not a canonical set of texts, but a living literary community that existed across national borders, alongside, and partly in opposition to, international trade and politics – in other words, it relied on the activities of what we are calling ‘world authors’. Its value resided in the way literature allows the liberal subject to arrive at and retain a discrete sense of self, whilst still partaking in a broader set of transnational interactions.
Twenty-first-century literary bloggers and authors having recourse to self-publishing are arguably pursuing something similar amongst their own self-defined groupings. Certainly, one of the recurrent aspects that these authors stress is how their writing allows them to explore their everyday experiences. Writing and being read within one’s chosen literary community supports a reflective process of emergent selfhood that cannot be replicated in other forms of interaction. But is this personal world-shaping aspect of literature wholly oriented towards the experiences of exchange and emergence? Or, put another way, do the selves ever actually get made, with new or different writers and readers moving outwards to affect things beyond the immediate purview of their texts?
2. Collective speculation
In fact, the Age of Enlightenment is a recurrent reference point for contemporary creative futures thinking. Goethe’s formulation of world literature is just one example of a foundational belief in the collective power of individual agency for the modern period. It is premised on a teleological approach to historical time, whereby better worlds will be made in sequential fashion, first in literary formulations and through elective literary affinities, and then in society itself. How does such an approach to individual agency map on to contemporary notions of making different and better worlds across space and time?
The nineteenth-century Bildungsroman is the first written Western attempt at casting such socially-oriented narrative futures in time. Prior to this, alternative societies were imagined in purely spatial terms: consider Moore’s Utopia. If individual actions were to be undertaken to shape one’s own destiny, then this took the form of a strong man’s timely intervention with the gods, enforcing his will upon them in the Renaissance manner of Machiavelli’s Prince. The nineteenth-century Bildungsroman, by contrast, traces how the individual finds his (and it almost always is ‘his’) own place in both space and time as part of a common understanding of a shared future. The central protagonist comes to understand how the ways of the world mark out a path of action for him into the near future that foresees full integration into a normative social order. Individual futures are collectively planned and managed along with the inexorable march of human progress.
Much twentieth and twenty-first-century mainstream fiction still adheres to this model, even when the future it describes is markedly dystopian. Contemporary transcultural speculative fiction that plays through possible future wars over environmental resources, whether it is dwindling water or an excess of heat, takes its cue from current scientific data. It re-presents this data in a narrativized form that extrapolates worst-case scenarios from our current parameters, helping us historicize a version of our future. In showing how today’s actions might be woven into a historiography of the end of humanity, the authors of these texts take a linear and teleological approach to both narrative and time. The texts are effectively passive – they project what is already known and unfold it according to its own logical dynamic. Real action, if there is to be any, is intuited in the reader’s response: the shock of reading where such passivity takes us is the only thing that might provoke action to change the assumed course of history.
3. Authors as seers
To use a German term, such texts that deliberately look to the future from our present moment are designed to effect ‘Zukunftsbewältigung’. This twenty-first-century neologism describes a conscious ‘coming to terms with the future’ by riffing off the twentieth-century neologism of ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’, or ‘coming to terms with the (Nazi) past’. In both cases, the moral authority of the author who initiates such a process is writ large. The notion of the author as a public intellectual who functions as a modern-day seer is perhaps the biggest legacy of life and letters in twentieth-century Europe, where the Humanities’ championing of narrative as a key analytical form held particular sway throughout the post-war period.
But does this still pertain when both writers and the work they produce are so obviously part of a neoliberal market, where there is really no way the author can step outside of the system that defines her? As far back as 1997, Michel Foucault diagnosed the author’s own name to be the biggest obstacle in reaching a genuinely broad swathe of society, because it pigeonholes a text and thereby limits the readership. But if his suggestion of the publishing industry doing away with all names for a year is impractical, there are other ways that contemporary literature might be departing from the discrete liberal subject that began in Goethe’s day.
Some recent texts – dealing, for example, with the fallout of the Arab Spring or India’s orientation towards neoliberal capitalism and employing postmodern techniques – chip away at conventional narrative teleology and the collective self-fulfilment this implies by showing societies held in stasis and people collectively stagnating. Unlike the speculative dystopias that spin out how passivity in the face of current woes will escalate into a bad future, but one that is still very much in human hands, these texts question whether there will be any collective development from the present at all. Furthermore, the sense of community has also been largely replaced by an individual will to power / money / fame that can only ever result in further shoring up the system. These stories are told through forms that constrain selfhood. Multiple-choice tests and telephone bills replace narrative excursus, such that the way characters are portrayed across the text simply slots in to pre-ordained social formats, or the texts trap characters in non-sensational plots that are not resolved.
Texts like these can be read as a warning about the extent to which the disempowered neoliberal subject has become thoroughly entrenched. As we buy them, read them, and make a career out of writing about them, we too may like to reflect that we have been drawn into the miasma. But perhaps the very way in which they invoke the individual’s powerlessness is designed to remind us of the innate power held within the collective? These texts are waiting for change, and the brooding power of that waiting also sends out a message to those inclined to hear it.
4. From the human to the inhuman
While writers of this kind of fiction may have moved away from a heroic intellectual standpoint, they are still predicating the effect of their writing on the power of their own discrete subjecthood. They write from a certain position in the world, and their significance is underpinned by international copyright. If authors want to help bring about different futures, where the value of community is not coded through neoliberal systems, they need to pay more attention to the material forms through which their thoughts are relayed. They need to be alert to the ‘inhuman’ elements of their literary communities.
There are two immediate places we might go to unpick this further. The first is the twenty-first century publishing industry; the second is the nineteenth-century museum. To proceed chronologically, both the nineteenth-century museum and the nineteenth-century novel set out multiple visions of the world in physical and narrative space respectively. Museum Studies investigates how objects tell stories within the context of the conceptual collection and physical space in which they are displayed. When this is done well, it opens an angle onto multiple practices that shape the way we are able to understand the past and learn from it to project into multiple futures. The danger, just as with the nineteenth-century novel, is that the ways of looking developed through these objects quickly become naturalized, hardening into the one way of looking. This would make object-led stories from the past formulaic and foreclose their usefulness for the future – just as has arguably happened with the Bildungsroman.
Much of contemporary publishing is caught within this ossification, precisely because it is still firmly underpinned by our intellectual investment in the discrete author function that limits and controls the text according to the Foucauldian paradigm and is backed up by standard forms of career progression across both the literary and academic sectors. Breaking with this individual-centred mould would entail a bold leap into the future, where we imagine different core drivers to the stories that are told than individual human thoughts and actions. Can literature, that bulwark of individually-led practices of reading and writing in the Humanities, help us make this leap to a new Inhumanities?
While speculative fiction, the form of literature most readily associated with the future, extrapolates forward from what is currently known, the very genesis of the novel can in fact be read as a form of back-casting from the future. Cervantes’s Don Quixote has only come down to us in its epic form because its author was confronted with the material form of an alternative part two to his text that began circulating in 1614. Where personal ambition and authorial intention had not been enough between 1605 and 1614 to make him follow up on the first book of his story, being faced with his story as an adulterated material object was. The second book, published in 1615, not only doubled the size of the tale, but also provided us with the first example of how the novel as a genre might actively intervene in its own inhuman future. In this second part, the literary protagonist Don Quixote is repeatedly confronted with the ‘false book’ that sets out his false future. In response, he takes action to annul that future and fashion his own – just as Cervantes himself writes against the literary dystopia where chivalric romances have won out as the top literary genre, by pillorying the actions of his protagonist throughout and reflecting instead on the relationship between well-made literature, historical truth, and social responsibility. This can be understood as an incipient form of back-casting, a concept now at the centre of futures-focused practices in approaches to managing urban infrastructures and climate change.
At its very inception, then, the novel intervenes in future worlds, but not by extrapolating and forecasting in the teleological manner consciously developed within the Enlightenment period and that has subsequently tended to predominate. Rather, the novel as a genre casts itself back to its present from an imagined future that justifies the need for a certain way of seeing and acting right now if that future is to be avoided (or created). With its focus on style, perspective and characterization developed across the space and time of the text, it is a Humanities response to an Inhumanities conundrum: how can man actively shape a future that is not yet known and might not even involve him? Because it naturally lends itself to holding both future and present worlds in view across multiple levels of time and space, we might go as far as to say that literature more broadly is in fact the most powerful Humanities response to this conundrum.
The idea that literary studies might have a significant contribution to make to futures research is still in its infancy. We are passionate about growing new ways of thinking and acting in this area. Here are the main research questions we believe were thrown up by the ACLA 2017 seminar stream:
- Conceptualising literary futures: where do we make the cut (Karen Barad) – between literary worlds and real future worlds, and between the human and the inhuman?
- The death of the author and the death of a discipline: (how) does the author, as a stabilizing concept central to the Humanities, still have valency in a post-human, post-work world?
- Futures methodologies and literary research: what can literature tell us about the comparative success of forecasting and backcasting for actively bringing about better social futures?
If your academic and/or literary practices intersect either with these questions or anything else you have found in our report, please do get in touch! Emails should carry the subject-line ‘creative futures’ and be addressed to either Rebecca Braun (email@example.com) or Emily Spiers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Contributors to the ACLA seminar stream
Tobias Boes, Univeristy of Notre Dame
Rebecca Braun, Lancaster University
Ingo Cornils, Leeds University
Gary Hall, Coventry University
Sandra Kemp, Victoria & Albert Museum
Kira Rose, Princeton University
Adam Spanos, New York University
Emily Spiers, Lancaster University