By Ton Salman.
On Friday June 7th 2019 ABv once again organized the annual “Anthropology Day”. This time the overarching theme was “The anthropology of the future and the future of anthropology”, and the event took place at the “Volkenkundig Museum” in Leiden. Once again it was a huge success, with nearly 100 participants in the panels, seminars and workshops, with different papers, and a wonderful keynote by Professor Rebecca Bryant. As on earlier occasions, Ton Salman was asked to do a sort of epilogue, to pronounce some light “closing words”. Below is his brief speech.
This time, it was of course a somewhat puzzling request: being asked to speak “closing words” after a day that had as its theme the future – by definition the thing that will never close. To provide this future with all the opportunity it deserves to evolve in all liberty, one should therefore best close the closing as soon as possible.
About “the future” many wise men and women have already said a lot of wise things, mostly being proven wrong, eventually. I’ll do my best to follow suit but at the same time cannot help remarking that the good thing about today talking about the future is that you can say pretty much anything about it. As long as you say it now, about the tomorrows out there, you cannot really be contradicted or refuted. At least not today. Because it remains to be seen. One might end up right.
Today, we’ve heard worthwhile and wise reflections on climate change, on the energy transition, and on how such warnings and analyses might land in different sociocultural environments across the globe. We’ve also heard of the catch22 of people attempting to anticipate the adequate moment to decide they don’t want to live the progress of their dementia. We have heard cautious words about the need for anthropology to step in in the nonsensical but nevertheless reviving debate on the distinctions between “races”. We have heard reflections on the shape the profession of anthropologists might take in the future – to be able to really take on the future awaiting us. We should expect that today’s skills and wisdoms might be less adequate once the core puzzles shift.
The topic of the day was wonderfully introduced by Prof. Dr. Rebecca Bryant (Utrecht University) with a keynote lecture on what an anthropology, systematically reflecting on the way people envision futures and ends, might entail. She gave us the phrase about “the future awakening the present” – to allude to the ways people’s ends trigger them to do what makes sense to them today. And the plenary panel discussion on anthropologists’ role in shaping the future, amidst climate change, new and vociferous far right movements, and ongoing ruthless exploitations of people and resources, ended up in doubts about the possibility to remain optimist – giving us a lot to ruminate on. I cannot and will not even try to do justice to all of today’s contributions, taking us to the future – and back.
Conspicuous in observing attitudes towards, in general, the future, is a vacillation and irresolution, or should we say opposition, between two tendencies:
- The optimist view, advising and inciting and spurring you, and anyone, to work on the future. To design, to prepare, to dream, to make and to change the future. Here you hear lemmas like “the future is made by the decisions we make today”. The “do-er”, the creator, the politically committed, the builder, are all prominent figures here.
- The other position is that of the resigned. They are the ones that accept the openness of the future. They submit, often stoically, to this unpredictability that we call future. The lemmas here are: don’t have too much illusions; the future is uncertain and fickle.
What can anthropology say about this contradiction? It seems to invite us to do research into the arguably human hubris characteristic of the optimist cultures – and on the human humbleness that is characteristic of the more resigned cultures? Religions and cosmovision, ways of standing in life and in the world, undoubtedly shape the determination, or the submission, with which we approach our futures. But cultural worlds obviously will not unequivocally fall into one or the other category. As usual, what anthropology finds is disorderliness, scruffiness and jumble.
Ironically enough, taking up such research is, in itself, a demonstration of the will to act, of agency, the will to shape the future. It is the optimist talking. The more resigned colleagues would probably say: future tasks for anthropology will be defined by future anthropologists. These future anthropologists will not carry out what we today picture to be their responsibility in their times.
Aging anthropologists (human being in general as well) might easily develop a soft spot for this stand of the resigned. They have often seen their expectations belied. And they found out there is little comfort in the “wisdom” one acquires with growing older. A guy called Koyenikan said something like: By the time you are old enough to start making decisions for yourself, a lot of things in your life are already in place. Which basically means that one gets better equipped to think of, and cleverly work on one’s future, when one hasn’t much future left to think of.
Fortunately, even then, the future remains unpredictable and capricious. So, even enjoying the uplifting wisdom that (thank heaven) the future will come only one day at the time, this future can and will still disappoint us, or pleasantly surprise us, and surely amaze and unsettle us. In Latin America, the proverb goes that whenever people make future plans, all the devils laugh.
That means that basically all we know for sure about the future is that it will be…. different. And to make that realization even worse: the future being constructed today by us and all those hardworking contemporaries of us, will be cancelled and undone again, by the futures of this future that we are assembling. The futures we design for those that, in the future, will be living in it, face that fate. All futures have expiration dates. In other words: the inhabitants of our future (out there) are in actual fact quite ungrateful.
But we can add an additional and in a way reassuring, albeit cynical consideration: given the gloomy diagnosis of some, about the present state of the globe, about climate change, about exhaustion and depletion of nature’s supplies, and about ever bitterer clashes for access to natural resources, we might in actual fact be past and beyond half of the time of human existence on earth. The good thing about that is that, for social scientists and anthropologists, more than half of the work has already been done. So, less need to be so stressed about all the work that lies ahead of us; we are more than halfway through.
But, Albert Camus once said that “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present”. So, let’s take back the cynicism. Our discipline of anthropology is too beautiful to be cynical. Marshall Sahlins once said: “We (as anthropologist) can reproduce within our own minds the way that the world is put together for other people. This is the extraordinary privilege and adventure of anthropology”.
Let the optimist return, and let her confirm that: yes, we do make our future, we don’t have to live as in Greek tragedies, awaiting what the gods have in store for us, being subjected to the whims of fate and uninfluenceable destinies. The resignation can exist alongside the optimism and it even should, because the thing is that we make these (our own) futures in dissent. Disagreement on pretty much everything shapes our shaping of the future. We, as human beings, often do not collaborate, do not strengthen one another’s efforts. Instead, we contradict one another and work against one another. Plausibly, the best guess is that we will continue doing that, for the foreseeable future (it being unsure when that will change into the unforeseeable part).
So, we won’t have the future we’re striving for. None of us will. In that sense, let’s stay close to being resigned people. But work on what we believe in nevertheless. As anthropologists, it may well be our task and duty, but also our privilege and pleasure, to try and understand the pandemonium of opinions, values, and ideals, and their embeddedness in histories, cultures and memories, that, in discord, strive for all these futures. And next to this attempt to understand, let us be part of today’s disorderly struggles for a neat disorderly future.
This article was first published on ABv – Antropologen Beroepsvereniging.
Ton Salman was Head of VU’s Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.