You Reading This, Be Ready: Ridding ourselves of “The Future” that we might have a future

READINGS: Matthew 6:33-34

From Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Verso Books, 2017, pp. 2-3)


Possibility

In 1937 Henri Bergson published the article ‘Le possible et le réel’ (The Possible and the Real) in the Swedish magazine Nordisk Tidskrift. In this text, later included in the book La pensée et le mouvant, the French thinker answers the question: what is the meaning of the word ‘possibility’?

We call possible what is not impossible: obviously, this non-impossibility is the condition of its actualisation. But this possibility is not a degree of virtuality, is not ideal pre-existence . . . From this negative sense, we shift unconsciously to the positive sense of the word. In the first definition, possibility means absence of hindrance; but we are shifting now to the meaning: pre-existence in the form of an idea.

‘B is possible’ means that B is inscribed in A and nothing is preventing B from deploying from the present condition of A. Bergson speaks of pre-existence in the form of an idea, but I don’t want to use the word ‘idea’, preferring to say that a future state of being is possible when it is immanent or inscribed in the present constitution of the world. However, we should not forget that the present constitution of the world contains many different (conflicting) possibilities, not only one.
       Extracting and implementing one of the many immanent futurabilities: this is the shift from possible to real. Futurability is a layer of possibility that may or may not develop into actuality.
    Bergson writes:

Why is the Universe ordered? How can the rule impose itself on the irregularity, how can form impose itself on matter? . . . This problem vanishes as soon as we understand that the idea of disorder has sense in the sphere of human industry, in the sphere of fabrication, not in the field of creation. Disorder is simply an order that we do not seek.

We stare at the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows, and seek for a possibility of order, a possible organization of chaotic material. We extract fragments from the magma then try to combine them, in an attempt to reverse entropy: intelligent life is this process of local, provisional reversal of entropy.

You Reading This, Be Ready
William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

—o0o—

You Reading This, Be Ready:
Ridding ourselves of “The Future” that we might have a future

Although it is in fact way more complicated and nuanced than this, Halloween, the night of 31 October on the eve of All Saints Day, was, once upon a time, a night when the ghosts and spirits of the dead were believed to be abroad in our world. By extension, especially in more modern times, it has become an evening upon which people enjoy scaring the wits out of each other through stories, plays and films.

However, although now and then I greatly enjoy hearing or watching a good ghost story — finding in them what M. R. James calls “a pleasing terror” — the possibility of being scared witless by an actual, rather than a fictional, literary or filmic demon, is something I feel is vanishingly unlikely. For me, and I imagine for most of you, these supernatural demons simply don’t exist.

Those of you who know me will know my interest in the ghost story is long-standing and very real but it is driven by purely historical and anthropological concerns. One can learn a great deal about what was going on in the social psyche of different periods and cultures by looking at the kinds of ghost, spirits and demons that were once believed to be abroad in their midst and so I unhesitatingly recommend Roger Clarke’s “A Natural History of Ghosts” and Susan Owens’ “The Ghost: A Cultural History” as introductions to this study. What we find is that every age is haunted by, and fearful of, some spectral something or other and our own age, as you will see, is no different. 

But our age, influenced powerfully by the natural sciences, is a significantly less metaphysical and superstitious one than its predecessors and so it should come as no surprise that we are, today, generally much more frightened by various, this-worldly phenomena and, thanks to many conversations with you and my other friends and colleagues, at the moment I know there are currently two which are quietly scaring us witless.

The first is the that liberal social democracies are now feeling very vulnerable and under threat from the various forms of national populism that are springing up at the moment. It is revealing to us that many illiberal “demons” are now clearly out of their jars and they seem unlikely to be going back into them any time soon. In short, we find we are haunted daily by the loss of the hope that liberal social democracies were inevitably moving us towards an ever more open, just, inclusive, democratic progressive and global, cosmopolitan society.

The second fear is caused by our increasing recognition that we are well and truly on the way towards a global, catastrophic environmental crisis and so we find ourselves haunted, not by actual ghosts and spirits of the past (as were our more metaphysically and superstitiously inclined forebears), but by the imaginary ghosts and spirits from a future we feel the world may well now never have.

All in all, in my book anyway, national populism and climate change are way more frightening phenomena than any Halloween tale told to me about putative supernatural beings.

To reiterate, what I’m suggesting here is that the particular kinds of ghosts and spirits which haunt us today are not of the traditional kind, i.e. the souls of those who have died in our past, but spectres of a more modern, even post-modern kind, namely, the souls of ghosts and spirits of imaginary people and possibilities which we feel will now never have the chance to come into being. We find, to our quiet horror, that we are now living in a world in which we can no longer, with anything like clean heart and full pathos, believe in the progress of humankind onward and upward forever and, consequently, we find ourselves haunted by this loss of “The Future” — spelt, please note, with capital letters and surrounded by scare quotes.

But what to do about this state of affairs?

Well, there might be many things one could do and today I’m only going to offer you one very general way to proceed but, before I do this, please be warned about three things. Firstly, it is a somewhat counterintuitive way to proceed and, on first hearing anyway, it might be something that will frighten you as witless as national populism and climate change; secondly, it’s a way to proceed that requires a person to adopt a really long-term view of history and; thirdly, it doesn’t provide any big, simple answers to what we will actually be doing in the future because it’s a way of proceeding simply designed to give us in the present a reasonable educated hope that positive, alternative ways forward are always-already potentially there to emerge and unfold.

So, the alternative positive way to go on can be summed up with one word “futurability”, and here’s the potentially scary bit because, in order to get to this “futurability” we need firstly consciously to rid ourselves of any residual belief in “The Future”. (I mean who wants to be told in the midst of all the aforementioned fears that there’s no “Future”! But those of us — like me — who grew up through the age of punk-rock were already primed to think this thought in 1977 when Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols sang to us the utterly startling and unforgetable lines, “No, future, no future, no future for you.”)

Now what do I mean by “The Future”? Well, “The Future” is a short-hand term that has long been used to evoke the widespread utopian idea which has lain at the heart of our platonic inspired Judaeo-Christian culture for over two-millennia, namely the thought that, despite the occasional setback, somehow we really were on an ongoing and ever upward march towards a future in which all people were, across the board and according to all measures, better off.

Of course, I realise that all talk about being “better off” or “worse off” than previous generations always needs to be taken with extreme caution because these are a highly slippery and problematic terms that  depend on just what and how one choses to measure this or that aspect of the world. It’s important to be clear that, using certain reasonable metrics, it seems many things have got better and have remained so. I’m not disputing this but what I am saying is that “The Future”, the utopian ideal place — the Golden City on a hill — where everything is always guaranteed to be better and more secure for everyone, is simply something in which, like supernatural ghosts and spirits, many of us can no longer even vaguely believe.

And where the “The Future” once was there is now the highly contested open space where our new breed of demons are being offered the opportunity to proliferate like rabbits.

But, according to my own understanding — and to Berardi’s — this contested open space has, in fact, always been there and in operation and that “The Future” has never existed, just as ghosts and spirits and all kinds of other supernatural beings — including god/gods — have never existed. 

Belief in “The Future” has played a dangerous and damaging rôle in making us — and by us I now mean those of a general liberal Enlightenment, social democratic, progressivist bent — forget that the real future (lower case “t” and “f” and no scare quotes) was never a fixed and foregone conclusion upon which we were closing and that, therefore, we always — without ceasing — had to keep working and working hard at bringing our preferred possible future into being. But we believed “The Future” was assured and this encouraged us to take our eyes off the ball and, in so doing, we failed to see that as a whole the liberal Enlightenment, idealist social democratic project was leaving too many people behind by enabling and encouraging, amongst other things, increasing massive disparities in education, wealth and security and, through a wildly unchecked capitalism, was also seriously degrading the very planet up which everything depends.

Faced with this more and more people who felt left behind by liberal social democracy and it’s unchecked version of capitalism have come to see quicker than “us” something much more primordial and certainly more real than “The Future”. What they have seen is futurability.

As Berardi notes “[f]uturability is a layer of possibility that may or may not develop into actuality” and it’s important to see that this layer of possibility is and always has been present in our world. It helps us see that the real future (lower case “t” and “f” and no scare quotes) is never closed and so at absolutely no point were we, or are we, inevitably heading to this or that exact iteration of “The Future”.

Berardi also notes, however, that “we should never forget that the present constitution of the world contains many different (conflicting) possibilities, not only one”. Given this, in shifting from the possible to the real, our task is always-already to be finding ways to extract and implement one of the many immanent futurabilities inscribed in the present.

This is yet another reminder that the real future (lower case “t” and “f” and no scare quotes) is never fixed. But, but, but . . . keep to the forefront of your mind the truth that there are always going to be people in the world who see their task as being that of extracting and implementing an immanent futurability that we ourselves may loath and detest, for example making real a national populism and/or a way of being that continues to degrade the environment in utterly catastrophic ways. We may be tempted to get on our high horses and say that, in doing this, “they” merely want to bring disorder but that’s not true. We need to see clearly that what they are doing is attempting to bring an order that we do not seek.

As Berardi realises, all of us — including national populists and climate change deniers — are always forced to “stare at the chaotic intricacy of matter, of events, of flows, and seek for a possibility of order, a possible organization of chaotic material.” All of us — including national populists and climate change deniers — are forced to do the same long-term hard work of trying to “extract fragments from the magma [and] then try to combine them, in an attempt to reverse entropy: intelligent life is this process of local, provisional reversal of entropy.”

The local, provisional reversal of entropy is a task never finished and, no matter who might claim otherwise, the real future is never sealed and fixed no matter whether “we” or “they” are in the ascendent or in decline and whoever “we” or “they” are.

It’s yet another reminder that the possibility for different, real futures is always to be found inscribed in the here and now — indeed there is nowhere else it could be and it is in the way we choose to behave in the here and now — whether we perceive we are “winning” or “losing” — that we can find genuine hope and engage in real, meaningful action.

Which brings me back to William Stafford’s poem, “You Reading This, Be Ready” in which he boldly states that there is no greater gift than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around and get to work once again in the never-ending process of local, provisional reversal of entropy.

The future is not fixed no matter how it may seem right at the moment and there is clearly a great deal of work to be done, right here, right now . . .

You Reading This, Be Ready
William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

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