Monday, October 7, 2013

"Borrowing From the Future": Understanding Today By Looking at Tomorrow

            My first post on this new blog was about modernism.  I’m sure I’ll return to that topic more in future posts; but for now I want to make something of an introductory post to explain my new setting and new intention.
            Roadside Picnic is dedicated primarily to science fiction.  I will continue to contribute posts there, although likely not as much since I can’t afford to read as much science fiction during my semesters, especially now; I’m becoming more involved in my seminars, working on academic papers in my spare time, and also teaching American literature to undergraduates.  So my spare time to read science fiction is severely limited.
            However, my time to consider philosophy, critical theory, and literary analysis has become nearly universal.  It’s only natural that from the circumstances of my work I should encounter questions and issues that expand beyond the limits of the classroom.  I’ll be writing about those questions and issues here.
            “Borrowing from the future” is a phrase taken from Slavoj Žižek’s book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.  While I don’t think all of Žižek’s work is particularly illuminating, or applicable to literary studies, I do think he embodies a considerable philosophical force in critical thought today.  On top of that, I think some of his ideas are admittedly very innovative and brilliant.  “Borrowing from the future” is an idea that comprises multiple elements.  At once, it includes Žižek’s paradoxical theory of the objective ontology of the symbolic order; but it also communicates (in my opinion) a certain utopian kernel, which I hope to explore in this blog.  Žižek writes: “The symbolic order is not a cause which intervenes from the outside, violently derailing the human animal and thus setting in motion its becoming-human; it is an effect, but a paradoxical effect which retroactively posits its presupposition, its own cause.”[1]  To put it briefly, the symbolic order appears as an effect of speaking animals, but it also paradoxically inscribes itself as the reason for speaking animals.
            It’s possible to see this as a very narrow, inclusive line of argument.  However, I like to think that Žižek actually opens us to a new speculative brand of thinking the world; one that coincides with the utopian tradition of Ernst Bloch, Karl Mannheim, Fredric Jameson, and (more recently) Alain Badiou.  In this sense, what we “borrow” from the future is the virtual perspective – the perspective that casts our present as the past of an undetermined future, rather than as the future of a historical determined past.  The speculative line of thought isn’t one of blind guesses and whimsical fancies.  By speculative, we mean critical; we mean the ability to envision alternatives to what seems certain, beyond the shadow of a doubt.  We want to think in the shadow of doubt.  In different shades of doubt.
            However, if we borrow from the future, then we must put back what we took (we cannot “live in the future,” so to speak; we have to return to the present).
            A text is never a closed work, and this is where I diverge significantly (and where most contemporary literary critics do) from the New Criticism.  A text, in any forms, is always both part of a network and permeated by a network.  Shakespeare leaps centuries and runs a streak through Ulysses like a flash of paint across a Jackson Pollack canvas.  Ulysses itself runs through Dhalgren, runs through Infinite Jest, runs through House of Leaves.  No critical analysis is ever complete because the network of associations can never be exhausted.
            In order to approximate a more complete analysis, we must look not only as the history of literature and literary forms, but at its future; or, more appropriately, what Philip K. Dick eloquently describes as future history.  If a text expands, absorbs, extends, and continually breaks boundaries, then it makes sense that we have to reorient ourselves away from the closed epistemologies of the past and instead look to the open, virtual (and yes, abstract) archaeologies of the future.  “Archaeologies of the future” is a somewhat paradoxical phrase; archaeology implies beginnings, origins, not futurity.  What, then, can an archaeology of the future be said to be?  It is, in Fredric Jameson’s words, viewing our present not as the future of an ordained, categorized, and historically conditioned past; but instead as the unknown past of an equally unknown and potential future.[2]  Thinking in these terms often appears distanced and abstract, so allow me to offer an example.
            In 2008, the United States (and the world market, by extenuation) suffered one of the worst financial disasters in its entire existence.  In retrospect, people asked why; and many economists, business owners, philosophers, and journalists attempted to provide answers.  These answers took the form of histories of the United States’ financial markets, narratives that observed the behaviors of large financial institutions which issued subprime mortgage-backed securities to homeowners that couldn’t afford the properties they bought.  Observing the causal continuum between homeowners, banks, and insurance companies, these histories traced the origin of financial crisis to risky and, as some (anonymous) individuals suggested, dishonorable behavior of the wolves of Wall Street.  This entire history provides us with an illuminating perspective on how the stock market and financial system works in America, as well as a poignant tale concerning the intertwining of morality, ethics, and legality in the national and global marketplace.
            While such a history might offer some facts about the collapse of financial institutions (and the debt and decay incurred by unsuspecting citizens), it actually does very little to tell us what the 2008 financial crisis is.  “It means corporations are evil,” some say; “It means people were stupid,” others say; “It means that we’re a country based on greed,” yet more will claim; but does any of this truly say what the crisis itself, the evolving financial technologies and the ever-increasing environment of risk, is in the sense of our world’s future?  The vulgar answer, “We have no future,” fails to apprehend the deterministic way in which the future itself reaches back to us, sinks its teeth into the material fabric of our culture, and pulls us (perhaps unwillingly) through the turbulent wake between now and then.
            So, if we reorient ourselves toward the future… what does it tell us about the financial crisis?  What is it?
            First, the financial crisis is more than its causal components.  It is not the epitome of financial mismanagement or bureaucratic waste, but one of the initial signs of a global economy evolving in an unprecedented manner.  What we can borrow from the future, in this regard, is a perspective from which the economic behavior and crisis of 2008 is not the result of human individuals, but is the broader process of a vast virtual network attempting to reconcile its own internal inconsistencies.  Instead of seeing technology as a tool at our disposal, we can see it as an intelligence system of its own, coming to slow awareness and seizing at the aspects that do not compute.  The more we feed algorithms into the network, the more its neurons begin firing on their own, recording nearly instantaneous market crashes occurring faster than a human can blink its eyes.[3]  Some might argue that none of this constitutes autonomy; but autonomy has been known to successfully conceal itself.[4]  And autonomy from the future, it may be said, is even more elusive; here we may look to works of science fiction for a more descriptive expression of potential autonomous entities arriving back to us.
            This is the difficulty of skeptical thought.  To dare the irrational, tempt the illogical.  While I do not claim to avoid contradiction, its existence does trouble me.  I think that where paradox is its strongest, we must fight to consider how our thought is entrenched in logic that precludes us from seeing ulterior modes, virtual paths.  As science has demonstrated over and over, the real is not always logical.  In order to prepare for the future, we must think the present.  And in order to think the present, we must borrow from the future.

[1] See Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, page 562.
[2] This concept is voiced at the conclusion of Jameson’s book, A Singular Modernity, and is also in the title of his book on Science fiction literature, Archaeologies of the Future: the Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.
[4] Consider, for instance, Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of mimicry; or, perhaps a more complex theory, Michael Taussig’s explanation of mimesis in his book, Mimesis and Alterity: a Particular History of the Senses.

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