Historians divide themselves by areas and by periods of specialization, but also by the methodological focus of their scholarly work: social history, political history, economic history and so on. This isn’t just an abstract division: it defines the real-world allocation of positions within departments. In many departments today, social historians of some kind or another are the largest plurality, often with cultural history of some kind a close second. Thirty years ago other specializations were more dominant. I tend to think that twenty years ahead, the balance will have shifted again. Partly because I think that knowledge, even historical scholarship, is progressive. Our methodologies do improve over time. Social historians ran into some intractable problems which in turn the “cultural turn” responded to. In African history, social historians renewed an interest in the colonial state and the concept of “indirect rule”, which created an opening for a new kind of political history. I also think the balance will shift because we relentlessly demand originality from junior scholars, and one way to be original is dusting off an old paradigm that was pushed aside largely for reasons of fashion.
Part of believing that knowledge is progressive, however, is also a belief that some older practices of historical writing fell by the wayside because they intrinsically weak in some respect, because they couldn’t hold up to sustained challenges from newer methodologies, couldn’t defend against critical examination. There’s a kind of 19th Century narrative history, for example, that is a lot of fun to read today for its literary qualities and lack of inhibitions about things like evidence and truth, but I don’t think scholarly historians are likely to return to writing fabulistic biographies and stirring if largely invented tales of derring-do.
There is a style of intellectual history that has fallen out of fashion, and I’m hoping it largely stays that way. Intellectual history and cultural history are often very closely related styles of scholarly writing, and in many ways, I think what is emerging out of their intertwining is a new hybrid form of historical study that has the strengths of both and the weaknesses of neither, that can study how a particular idea or concept moved in and out of formal thought and expression into wider popular consciousness or practice. Sometimes, though, there’s real value in a narrower focus, in tracing the successive development of a highly particular idea in formal published writing or texts. Say, in an intellectual history of the concept of sovereignty within British political philosophy in the 19th Century.
The variation on that style that I dislike, however, is when a contemporary devotee of some idea or institution writes a triumphalist intellectual history about how the march of time has beat a path to the writer’s very own doorstep. Partly this kind of intellectual history is a scavenger hunt through the past, an attempt to annex notable and famous figures as the glorious forebearers of the contemporary practicioner. Partly it smooths out any bumps or disagreements about the practice itself so that the story is itself entirely about ascendance: anything unseemly in the past history of the idea is something which was reformed or overcome. This kind of history only pretends to be about tracing how a concept or idea changed over time. There is a kind of bad or potted history of science that some contemporary scientists will recite that very much follows this outline, in which today’s practices are the most perfectly perfect of all (until tomorrow), and the past only a record of errors overcome, a history which the present has corrected and absorbed into its own ascendant body.
Which brings me to Oona Strathern’s book A Brief History of the Future. Since I teach a course on the history of the future, I had high hopes for this book. I’m always looking for something that can help the students grasp the overall picture. Web sites like Paleofuture and Retrofuture are pretty much on the right wavelength, but they don’t have the narrative to knit together Enlightenment conceptions of progress, Christian millennialism, high modernist futurism, postwar technosocial optimism, policy-driving futurism, postmodern skepticism, and contemporary talk about the Singularity.
Strathern’s book is definitely not the droid I’m looking for. For one, it’s mistitled. It is not a history of the future as an idea. It is a history of futurism, the intellectual practice of forecasting or predicting the future. That would still be useful to me, as well as interesting, if it had any critical distance at all from futurism. But it doesn’t: the book largely is an attempt to validate Strathern’s own practice as a futurist, both by burnishing her own credentials and by describing futurism in relentlessly whiggish terms, as a practice which has grown more and more professional, credible, useful, precise and focused over time.
So yes, there’s the usual annexation going on here, in which notable individuals and authors in the past are understood not just to be concerned with the future, but to be nascent or founding futurists, the fathers and mothers of a contemporary profession. There is the requisite disavowal of bad futurism, whose errors were not a complex product of how conceptions of “the future” as a concept interacted with a particular moment in time, but were the consequence of an imperfect or unprofessionalized practice of futurism.
When I look at the history of the future as an idea, even just sticking with formal texts written by past intellectuals, policy-makers and so on, I see something vastly more discontinuous and multivalent than Strathern. Apocalyptic and utopian claims colliding and intermingling, both coming out of deep reservoirs of modern Western experience and thought. Ideas about the future becoming the animating spirit of governmental or institutional action, and then falling out of favor. The future as a powerful belief system at one moment and as the target of scorn and cynicism in another.
There’s a history that links Disney with Corbusier very directly, for example, but you’ve got to pay attention to the entirely different registers and institutional worlds that their visions operated within, as well as the alchemical difference between Brasilia and Epcot. You can bring Cordorcet into a history that culminates with John Naisbett, but not if you make the former the noble ancestor of the professional latter: the relationship is far more diffuse and complicated than that.
Where I found myself especially irritated is as Strathern approaches the present, and contemporaries whom she wishes to compliment and associate herself with. The book seems largely unaware of something that is palpably obvious to me, which is that the expert-driven, policy-oriented futurism of the 1960s, closely tied to the sort of technological optimism that saw us all as driving flying cars, using jet-packs and living on the Moon by 2001, was pretty much thrown by the wayside in the 1980s and 1990s. Both because its projections and predictions were wildly, amusingly wrong, but also because of some basic shifts in the popular zeitgeist, in the entirety of how progress fit into the self-conception of Western and global society. In the kind of history that Strathern is writing, that wider context doesn’t exist. She knows that past futurism was wrong, but her understanding of that shift is simply that futurists got better at what they do, constrained their predictions more, and can now be trusted not to promise jet packs and a world free of hunger when you hire them to do projections.
The changes in way the concept of future was represented, imagined, used and described in the U.S. and Western Europe during 1980s weren’t just about a reaction, a realization that older projections were factually wrong. The same goes for other moments in this history. There isn’t an unbroken line between Enlightenment conceptions of progress and high modernist futurism: the players were different, the contexts were different, the applications of the concepts were different. The historical relationship is there, but it is complicated, diffuse, a matter of influence and subtle inheritance rather than familial descent.
I think that’s the kind of intellectual history I accept from someone who wants to explore the roots of their own practices in a self-complimentary way. It’s fine to talk about influences, to look for the ways that the past has shaped your own professional and personal worlds. Influence is not ascension, however. This kind of intellectual history recognizes that any contemporary idea has junk DNA in its genes, has unacknowledged ancestral branches full of bastards and incest, that its evolutionary line is a bush and not a spine, and that what that idea is doing right here and now is as much a matter of its nurture in the bosom of the present as its inheritance of the past.