What do aesthetics and stories have to do with the future?
In May 2017, the Institute for Social Futures and the Department of Languages and Cultures jointly organized the event ‘Shaping the Story of the Future’, which took place at Lancaster University’s Community Day. The idea came from research I am undertaking into the importance of aesthetics in constructing plausible scenarios of the future. Just what aesthetic aspects are important for creating a good story?
The story-telling event involved members of the public of all ages working with professional story-teller and Artistic Director of Commonword/Cultureword, Peter Kalu, to create their own story of the future in Lancaster in 2071. The younger participants designed future scenes and objects using the play materials available to them, pictured here.
Amongst the futuristic items built were flying cars, a computer-spider that could carry things for you in its pouch, a flying roller coaster, all kinds of robots and cyborgs, an invisible suit, a flying house, and a radio-controlled dream catcher. What was fascinating about these constructions was the way the children often combined their models with a select few words, at times to poetic effect, shaping the narrative that the object might tell on its own.
The workshop ended with a performance by Pete of some of the stories he had developed. He was ably assisted by his daughter, who, as you can see, had her own ideas about what the future will look like. Pete told stories about the future of food, the future of school and the future of robot-human relations.
Apart from being Artistic Director of Commonword/Cultureword, a writer development organisation based in Manchester, Pete is the author of Black Star Rising (1998), a Cybernoir novel set 1,000 years in the future. It is set to be re-released in a new digital edition next year to mark the novel’s twentieth anniversary. Speaking about the book, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah claims that Pete’s was ‘the first imagination to see space and science fiction through afro-centric eyes. Somewhere in the future, earthlings will look back and say Peter Kalu was the first.’ In this clip, Pete reminds us that the ability to imagine futures for different groups of people is highly political as well as creative work. How does one go about writing a future for a black readership who have been historically excluded from the literary genre of science fiction?
After the story-telling workshop, I interviewed Pete to get a better idea of what he thought ‘aesthetic excellence’ might look like, what working with a live audience is like, and what story-tellers might be able to teach foresight analysts and planners. Follow the highlighted links to watch the clips.
For Pete, the contribution that creative writers can make to futures thinking is their ability to build worlds that ring true because of the compellingly drawn human beings at the centre of them. This emphasis on the humans at the centre of futures making chimes with our broader work here at the Institute and suggests that the humanities more broadly, as well as narrative and literary studies, can make a rich contribution to shaping a human-centred story of the future.
After all, futures studies, in all but name, have long been a part of the humanities in the disciplines of philosophy, social theory and Utopian studies (Bloch 1954; Luhmann 1976; Jameson 2005; Adam and Groves 2007; Levitas 2013), the environmental or ecological humanities (Heise 2016), and queer theory (Halberstam 2005; Ahmed 2006; Dinshaw 2012; Edelman 2004; Esteban Muñoz 2009).
The importance of aesthetic and narrative theory to futures studies, however, is only now being explored, especially in the field of design fiction (Eidinow and Ramirez 2016; Raven and Elahi 2015; Palmer 2014; MacDonald 2011). Cornelissen and Werner (2014), as well as Ramirez and Wilkinson (2016), have argued that aesthetic coherence in stories enables scenario planners to better anticipate plausible futures and to communicate these futures to decision makers productively. The aesthetic domain is after all a crucial factor in deeming a narrative to be plausible, or not (Judge 1991; Eidinow and Ramirez 2016), and in formulating future possibilities.
What the thinkers named above often overlook in their discussion of the aesthetic ‘technologies’ (Latour 2002) of shaping a plausible story, however, is the importance of relationality in both narrative construction – a story is both told and heard – and in co-designing possible futures with as broad an array of stakeholders as possible. After all, we make ourselves identifiable both to ourselves and each other by telling stories.
In fact, we are dependent on others for the completion of our ‘narratable selves’ (Cavarero 2000; Butler 2005). This is because there are aspects of our own story that remain opaque to the self, the early unrecollectable years, for example, or aspects of experience that resist attempts to shape them into a coherent narrative. The work of shaping the story of the future thus reveals the intellectual and social importance of applying literary studies methodologies to futures thinking.