The Future Perfect

Thursday 10th March, 2016

Greg Goldberg and Robyn Autry

In the second part of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Greg Goldberg and Robyn Autry from Wesleyan University reflect on an innovative course they ran which sought to bridge the methodological gap between the social sciences and the humanities. 

Sociology is typically preoccupied with the present and, to a lesser extent, the past, favoring empirical methods that aim to reveal a variety of truths: for example, the logics underlying social structures and systems, the causes of social inequality, and the mechanisms by which inequality is reproduced. Where does this leave the future? Despite the persistence of patterns of social life, the future remains always and ultimately undetermined. We cannot know it, we can only imagine, speculate, and fantasize. The future, it seems, belongs to the world of fiction: to novels, films, television shows, visual art, and music that offer visions of what it might hold. These visions are sometimes suffused with hope for a changed world and sometimes with anxiety at the prospect of change. What can we learn about the present from images of the future? Might they offer an antidote to suspicions that we are headed toward a future of increased inequality and scarcity and looming environmental catastrophe? What traps might we find ourselves in when we treat the future as a distinct category of time?

With these sorts of issues in mind, we designed our course, “The Future Perfect,” to bridge the methodological gap between the social sciences and the humanities, pairing social theory with works of fiction, primarily novels, stories, and films. For us, building the course around fictional texts was not only a way to wrestle with the indeterminacy of the future, but also to recognize the often disavowed subjectivity of empirical research within sociology and the social sciences. We challenged ourselves and our students to imagine that fiction might be more truthful than much sociological research in foregrounding authors’ animating desires and normative investments. We drew on our specializations in media and technology, queer theory, culture, and memory to explore how fantasies and nightmares about the future are not only the stuff of science fiction, but have much to tell us about the worlds we live in and their varied potentialities or virtualities.

We divided the course into three broad areas: the social construction of time, utopia, and dystopia. Within each area we interrogated the often-unstated underlying assumptions and deep-seated desires that motivate how scholars and artists position themselves in relation to the future. We proceeded with a concern for how specific notions of self and specific forms of sociality are sought, preserved, abandoned, or unmoored in these accounts.  

In the first section on the social construction of time, we tackled readings that questioned the character and boundaries of units of time, with an eye towards understanding how the past, present, and future are understood as distinct, but constitutive periods. Many of the readings we covered in this unit, especially Elizabeth Grosz’s “Thinking the New: Of Futures Yet Unthought,” would be referred to throughout the remainder of the course. The readings in this unit were challenging because they required students to think new and sometimes counter-intuitive thoughts about the constructed nature of time and the related possibility of multiple realities. We paired relatively conventional discussions about social responsibility and the future, such as Wendell Bell’s “Why We Should Care About Future Generations,” with more experimental texts, like David Bordwell’s “Film Futures.” The film Run Lola Run was the perfect accompaniment for these readings, highlighting the tenuous and sometimes dizzying hold we have on our realities and the blurred lines between past, present, and future.           

Although the line between utopia and dystopia is a fine one, and often a matter of perspective as we discussed with John Sargent’s “The Three Faces of Utopia Revisited,” we decided to cover these separately. There was a wealth of utopian literature from which to choose; we narrowed the field somewhat by focusing on urban design, gender, race, and work, anchored by Kathi Week’s “The Future is Now” (from The Problem with Work). We had lively discussions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist novel Herland and “Speech Sounds,” a short story by Octavia Butler. We were especially delighted to teach “The Comet,” a lesser-known short story by W.E.B. DuBois, whose social studies of racial stratification many students were already familiar with. In this case, the students saw another DuBois, one engaged in deeply imaginative thought about the possibility of another world and the (in)viability of racial utopia.

Our unit on utopia also included a series of readings about architecture. To complement these, we arranged to have a practicing architect take the class through a visual history of utopian design from Le Corbusier to Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon. We linked these histories to more familiar conversations about gentrification and new urbanism, raising questions about the relationship between built environments and social engineering with Edward Soja’s observations about Orange County as an ‘exopolis’ or fantastical non-place. Embedded within these discussions were a variety of critical, affective, and instrumental perspectives on technology and technological change, which we complicated with readings about human/nonhuman relations through the lenses of gender, sexuality, and race, such as Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” Drew Daniel’s “All Sound is Queer,” and Alondra Nelson’s writing on Afrofuturism.

Throughout the course, the fiction texts we used to interrogate the future as an imagined space offered a unique vehicle to reconsider the lines we draw and redraw between the self and the social, between the subject and the object other. Lizzie Borden’s film Born in Flames and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Question of Sex” (from The Left Hand of Darkness) provided sophisticated, nuanced analyses of gender, sexuality, and racial identity, imagining the transformation of social relations, forces, and dynamics, while also recognizing the historical inertia that impedes transformation. We used these texts to recast or “queer” familiar sociological debates about identity, social boundaries, inequality, and freedom in ways that aptly demonstrated the extent to which the social is fictive and indeed, other worlds are possible. An excerpt from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition was used to draw out and examine underlying tensions between struggles for equality and struggles for freedom; this text proved especially useful in thinking about Born in Flames, which depicts a heterogeneous, multi-faceted, and variably successful feminist movement in a socialist future that remains heteropatriarchal.

Our final section on dystopia proved equally illuminating as we paired theoretical texts addressing reproductive futurity, most notably Lee Edelman’s “The Future is Kid Stuff” (from No Future) and Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Futures” (from The Promise of Happiness), with two works of fiction that resonated especially strongly with our students. The first was Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Road, with many students commenting on how torn they were reading the novel through the lenses of our previous readings, resisting some of the sentimentality that they might have otherwise been prone to. They similarly wrestled with the film Children of Men, which we viewed in class. The film provoked a lively discussion about the social costs of privilege and conflict in the context of scarcity, whether real or imagined. We continued this line of thinking with readings by Maurizio Lazzarato and Mark Fisher on financialization and student debt, which we coupled with the film In Time. 

This course represented an experiment for us both: how to use fiction as a primary resource in a sociology course. While we are both great fans of the texts we selected, neither of us are formally trained in film studies or literary theory. We had to learn how to facilitate critical and meaningful conversations about these works beyond students’ initial like-or-dislike reactions, though it was sometimes helpful to allow them to air these views as well. We quickly realized that the answer, or rather an answer, was in the design of the course itself. We often structured our conversations about the short stories, films, music, art, and novels in terms of how various theorists would ‘read’ or analyze them. Another issue that arose for us was how to integrate reading/viewing fiction/film into the class period. For example, we opted to assign one film, Run Lola Run, to be viewed outside of class and then used short clips during class discussion. For the other films - Born in Flames, Children of Men, and In Time - we held multiple viewings and incorporated discussion throughout. To keep students engaged, we also assigned a considerable amount of writing, both informal online posts and short essays. Some of these assignments required students to analyze and think-together multiple and sometimes disparate texts from a unit or across units, while other assignments were more explicitly creative, for example asking students to craft their own manifestos.

Much of the success of this pedagogical experiment was a result of the excitement, curiosity, and active participation of our students. We drew students from across the campus, with as many majors from the humanities as from sociology and the social sciences. Like us, they were eager to explore interdisciplinary or, perhaps, anti-disciplinary approaches to studying the social. Indeed, after the course was over, we felt that the course worked well because it didn’t simply tack on fiction to an existing sociology course, but rather used fiction to challenge and innovate conventional sociological methods of knowledge production. While we were likely drawn to the subject matter of the course for precisely this reason, we are now eager to revisit and revamp the other courses we teach, the future of which have been radically opened up by this experiment.

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