Image Credit: College Park National Archives / Wikimedia Commons
In the first line of her 2021 book on science fiction, Sherryl Vint writes, “It has become axiomatic to say that the world is becoming like science fiction,” and with the rapid advances in science and technology , things once dreamed of have now materialized. . Yet the utopian visions of the 20th century have been abandoned. Today we accept dystopian conditions as the norm.
With our world looking like science fiction, we no longer try to imagine the future. Instead of creative expressions of possibility, shrewd marketing and ambitious visions of hypercapitalism present us with quick fixes to economic, political and ecological catastrophe on earth while selling us neocolonial visions of outer space.
Imagining alternative futures could help break down some of today’s most pressing political and philosophical concerns: for example, the Anthropocene and environmental catastrophe, renewed calls for decolonization against the rise of fascisms around the world, our complicity with imperialist violence abroad and political impotence. at home.
Today, it seems that the Western left has failed, as Wendy Brown puts it, to “grasp the character of the times”, abandoning revolutionary ambition to a bleak future. Where are our revolutionary visions? Do our analyzes not have more to offer beyond the institutionalized critiques of the present?
The futures I imagine call on those interested in revolutionary alternatives to draw on the lessons of cultural, art, and especially science fiction theorists. These futures draw on and revise the course charted by the promise of communism and decolonization, reviving unfinished utopias for the 21st century. As we cling to the promises of past struggles, the future demands not only our attention but also the courage to try something different. Shouldn’t the left revise its narratives for the future?
The question of the revision of the future calls for a natural parallel: the revision of history. The emergence of historical materialism represents a major paradigm shift for analyzes of twentieth-century society, often attacked as revisionist. But revisionist histories also made important corrections to mainstream historical narratives. Stories of slavery and colonialism, the founding of the Americas, the nature and value of scientific discoveries have all been revised to create more accurate narratives.
Indeed, the recurrent interventions in historical narratives have enabled the oppressed to take control of their history as well as their future. They are a form of critical thinking that clarifies and exposes inconsistencies or outright errors that serve the status quo. I want to suggest that in the present day we also need revisionist futures.
For the left in particular, the resuscitation of suppressed and suppressed histories has served as a space to imagine different outcomes. Why not try to replicate this method to develop future revisionists?
In his 1974 essay “The Muse of History”, poet and literary scholar Dereck Walcott describes how the collapse of history into memory comes to dominate the future:
The method by which we are taught the past, the progression from motive to event, is the same by which we read narrative fiction. Over time, each event becomes an effort of memory and is therefore subject to invention. The more the facts are advanced, the more history petrifies into myth.
Walcott reflects on historical method in relation to the colonial conquest of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade. He argues that we should understand the colonial figure who reveres his past, and the revolutionary who seeks to break with a violent and oppressive past, as carrying on the same tradition. This is because those who “reject” the idea of history as time and embrace it as a myth dominate those who are interested in the past without projecting new myths.
The acknowledgment of history as myth – open to revision – allows it to be a ‘livable moment’, through which Walcott imagines a space to think differently. Similarly, Frantz Fanon, addressing the process of decolonization, writes in Les Miserables of the Earth (1963):
You don’t just have to fight for the freedom of your people. You must also re-teach these people, and first re-teach yourself, what is the full stature of a man; and this you must do as long as the fight lasts. We have to go back in history, this story of men damned by other men; and you must provoke and make possible the meeting of your people and other men.
Both argue not only for the possibility of revising the future, but that the adoption of this possibility is a historical necessity.
Likewise, Marx’s vision of historical materialism was forward-looking and mythical in what it promised. This hopeful myth of an egalitarian society was brought to life both by Marx’s analytical method and by the promise that it could produce another world. This was the promise of communism and the source of its magnetism for most of the 20th century. Feminists, anti-racists, and others have built on this view and, in some ways, been validated by new social movements that have expanded our understanding of class, its formation, and its stratification in the present, generating new possibilities for its future. But these ideas do not make it possible to envisage a new society.
History and the future must be imagined in the same revisionist process. At a 2016 memorial lecture for South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, Angela Davis called past struggles not just a legacy, but also “mandates to develop new strategies, new technologies of struggle. . . these legacies, when they are taken up by the new generations, reveal broken promises of the past and thus give rise to new militancy.
Rather than imagining the 21st century as the end of revolutionary aspirations, Davis motivates a vision of the past and the future as essential to each other. She states:
Young activists today stand on our shoulders. And precisely because they stand on our shoulders, they see something of what we have seen, but they also see and understand much more. They start to address the unresolved issues and some of the deletions and seizures I talked about earlier. They rest on our shoulders, but we do not provide a solid foundation, precisely because our questions were questions from another era.
This idea of an unfinished or unfulfilled promise offers hope, and it is an answer to Brown’s question about how we might simultaneously honor past socialist ideals and recognize changing historical conditions.
Future revisionists challenge the narrative arc of a progressive past-present-future, eliminating the disconnect between our past and our present. Instead, the past calls us to go back and locate a different path, a redirection, one with its own promise and a new myth about how we will arrive in the present.
Today even more than before, the crisis of capitalism demands this promise of something else, and transformation demands the courage to imagine something else. A critical engagement with a past that shapes alternative futures and outcomes is already underway. In his essay, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” (2003), cultural theorist Kodwo Eshun writes about the “overdetermined” desire of black intellectuals to respond to their expulsion from history, and thus from the future, with a demonstration of their history. “To establish the historical character of black culture, to bring its subjects into the history denied by Hegel et al. “, writes Eshun, “it was necessary to assemble counter-memoirs that contest the colonial archive, thus situating the collective trauma of slavery. as the founding moment of modernity. This narrative has slowly emerged in recent years to challenge the long-held historical narrative of modernity, and with the introduction of these counter-memoirs, an altered narrative of the past and future has been introduced, reconstructing a deliberately extinguished narrative of the ‘slavery.
Likewise, Adom Getatchew Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2019) redefines anti-colonial nationalism as a ‘global’ event with its own unique promise of ‘internationalism’, particularly on the African continent. To do this, she revisits the promise of decolonization, its unfolding, and recovers another past.
With the preeminence of techno-scientific characteristics, the 21st century no longer encourages us to imagine anything other than the present: the future is here in crisis. The crisis: our captivated imaginations. Science fiction, despite its utopian/dystopian vision, as noted by Eric CH de Bruyn and Sven Lütticken in their introduction to Futurity Report (2017), is not about the future. It is about crisis, change, mutation and reshaping.
As a creative practice, science fiction privileges future revisionists. At its best, this genre is a “world-making technique,” a technique that exposes the possibilities contained within multiple presents. Unlike history, science fiction has not been burdened with the need to produce believable results. Operating through the suspension of disbelief, “science” in science fiction is free to be prophetic, in the sense that it doesn’t have to exist – yet.
Not just stories about future utopias and dystopias, science fiction should be understood as an arena where competing narratives of the present allow us to reimagine the past and future and allow us to imagine alternatives for action. It may not be about predicting the future, but it gives us the space to imagine, speculate, resuscitate and, above all, revise what is lost, obscured and extinguished from history.
Lina Nasr El Hag Ali is a lecturer in literature and philosophy at OCAD University in Toronto, Canada.