Ebrahim Bahaa-Eldin


The 'Dialectics' of Culture and Future

   One cannot speak of the dynamics of imaginary futures without addressing the way in which the world one currently lives in is inescapably ingrained within visions from the past. It is by no means a linear progression or a seamless trajectory that gracefully lays itself into the present. Instead, it is convoluted series of contestations among numerous versions of contributions and interventions that shape the reality that lends itself to us in a manner that seems eternal. As if this reality, no matter how precarious and ever-changing it is, has been here forever. This phenomenon that the real is becoming a nexus of contradicting traits, of being precarious and stagnant, ever-changing and untouchable, is becoming soaringly unmistakable day after another. This sense of eternality and rigidity can be attributed, on the one hand, to the ways in which one approaches the future, how it is often a territory that we step into rather than participate in shaping. On the other hand, the exposure to many clamorous versions of the future -those created by corporations and organizations- makes our very own versions seem insignificant and incompatible; hence, one tends to accept whatever the wind brings. One steps into the future with the preconceived idea of how insignificant one's contribution is. Here, of course, I am speaking from the position of the everyday life, of those who were purposefully placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of influence, those who are on the yin side of Le Guin's frontier (Le Guin 2004). Not those who took upon themselves the mission to build a deterministic future of informality and be the logisticians of the future. It is not to say that those are the only two approaches one can take regarding the territories of the future, but these are the only two most common to the observer.

   Having established that a convoluted series of contestation is what shapes our present, thinking of our past or through our past should not mean reverting back to the previously refuted notion of linearity. Acknowledging the impossibility of a linear continuum between the past and the present does not mean that we should discard the past entirely. Conversely, here I argue that the lack of thinking through and forming imaginations of the past is what makes us fall into the trap of assuming linearity. Emphasizing the existence of numerous wombs that simultaneously gave birth to our present is enough to incite us to pay more attention to the particularities of our past and to disentangle the labyrinthine narratives that shaped our present. Because how can one imagine a desired future without reassembling an alternative past? Or, in Bloch's words, "It is not sufficient to speak of dialectical process and then treat history as a series of sequential Fixa or even closed 'totalities'" (Bloch 1995, 197). It is being "interested in the possibility of entanglement than in the hardening of categories" (Anderson et al. 2018).

   A spur of connectedness is one of the characteristics of the world we live in now. Cultural objects, images, commodities, ideas, and fundamentally, versions of the future are vigorously circulating these networks of connectedness that technology has created. Within this process of circulation, we find the present transforming into a field of contestation between eclectic imaginations of the future. This connectedness, mainly thanks to the internet, unambiguously provides access to a variety of speculation about what lies ahead. It gave the possibility for many global corporations to carve their versions of the future boldly on a fabric that became part of the everyday. More inequalities have been formed due to the capacity this connectedness granted to corporations to penetrate and exploit new markets. Le Guin identified this as capitalism's ever-moving frontier (Le Guin 2004).

   When thinking of culture, we tend to associate it with keywords like heritage, habits, traditions, and customs; all terms that are perceived in the light of pastness. But when speaking of the future, it is often within the realm of numbers, statistics, charts, and logistics. The future has been growing to be the territory for financial specialists, economists, and developers to orchestrate a global future built on supply and demand, financialization, and development. Economics and logistics are considered as sciences of the future. This does not mean that the capacity of futurity within culture has been completely undermined. Anthropologists have rarely ignored the aspect of futurity when dealing with culture. However, the lack of elaboration on how aspects of heritage and norms are in play with futurity has tended to give space for the assumption of pastness, making it even harder to associate culture with the future. On the other hand, one of the notable attempts to incorporate elements of strategy and calculations into the process of thinking with and through culture has been Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice (Bourdieu 2013). Nevertheless, it was criticized for being too structuralist and leaning towards the realm of economics. Not to further criticize the work of Bourdieu, still, it is essential to imagine forms of cultural practice that do not necessarily attempt to forge approaches that belong to economics into the process of exploring aspects of futurity within culture. Our attempts should not be directed toward making a place for culture within what Bloch named "the objectively possible," that which is scientifically to be expected, but rather to expand its existence within the realm of "the real possible," that which presents itself as dialectical-material always susceptible to change, not-yet-closedness (Bloch 1995, 196).

   The aforementioned ever-moving frontier of capitalism is heavily exemplified and evident in the brutal evolution of the field of logistics. As Harney and Moten delineated in their exploration of what it means to think of a future in the hold of logistics, they stated that strategy led and logistics followed, until strategy slowly became obsolete and incapable of sustaining itself purely on its principles (Harney and Moten 2013, 88). This is an issue that logistics did not face. The concept of logistics is capable of sustaining what cannot be sustained strategically by constantly pushing the boundaries of what is there to be attained. And this was one of the issues that helped render strategy obsolete. It is because strategy has well-defined boundaries of what it desires to achieve. The thing which did not go very well with capitalism's ever-moving frontier. This is when logistics has grown to take the lead by hyperfixating on expanding the demand and expanding what can be supplied. There is no end to which it can arrive. There is nothing to be fulfilled. It is a never-ending work in progress. To give a form to this idea, we can think through the urban alteration that Cairo has been going through for the past five years. A regime unable to sustain itself strategically resorted to logistics as a way of portraying the city as a continuous work in progress. That way, there is no promised outcome, only the continuous march toward creating never-ending channels of supply.

   Debord had put this eloquently in his Society of the Spectacle when he said "The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle, which is the image of the ruling economy, the goal is nothing, development everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself” (Debord 1983, p.15). There is some resemblance between the logistical approach and the process of assembling the future/the assemblage of the past. While the process of actively putting together a future through imagination is indeed eclectic, we can never address it as aimless. One of the main signifiers of logistics is the aimless march toward a future that can make the channels of supply sustainable and ever-expanding. It is rarely noticed how logistics get to determine the future of many individual biographies by the constant feed of bodies and labor it requires. This also adds to the collective manner of helplessness toward the ways our future is assembled. It is factual that the future is "empty, full of dream and promise," but how apparent does this fact become amidst structures of power that seem to brutally drive the entirety of the future?

   We have established that the future is a contested territory. We here get to ask the question of who gets to imagine it. Who has the claim for laying the foundation and imagination of how things would be, could be, or should be? Furthermore, to what extent is our 'voice' elemental in this process? Albert O. Hirschman, in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, drew a comparison between the options available, for example, for corporate shareholders when in dissatisfaction with the management. He argues that there are three options: exit, which means selling shares and buying in a more opportunistic corporate; voice, which is to communicate concerns and ideas for moving forward; loyalty, which is to remain and hope for the best. From his example of Wall Street, the availability of various investment opportunities and the existence of exit as an option make it preferable for stakeholders to redirect their investments elsewhere (Hirschman 2004, 46). A similar dynamic to that is present in the process of imagining a future. Those who have the luxury to exit a particular arrangement of reality tend to do so without voicing an imagination of an otherwise. Moreover, those who do not have the luxury to exit are not granted the capacity to imagine. This denial of this capacity adds to the way we perceive our imagination as insignificant, especially when having to abide by the aforementioned march of logistics. One of the most prominent inequalities in the world today lies in the uneven distribution of the capacity to aspire. This concept of 'voice' can be instrumental, especially when thinking of how it can intersect with the idea of imagination and fantasy, as well as ethnographies and narrating lived facts. It is not to romanticize and idealize giving a voice to the underprivileged. However, it is to truly understand how this act of actively putting together an alternative, either through imagination or through ethnography, is performing within the global dynamics of future-making, and how by insisting on giving form to our versions of the future we are carving more space for "the real possible."
In his book, Ideology and Utopia, Karl Mannheim describes "a state of mind [as] utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs" (Gerteis et al. 2007, 340). There, he makes a relevant distinction between ideologies and utopia. An ideology, for him, becomes utopian once it not only starts to transcend reality but also when it attempts to break the bonds of an existing order. Bearing this distinction in mind helps us navigate the realm of imagination and be able to identify the potentialities in utopian imaginaries. It can also help us think through Le Guin's Frontier, or in Simone Weil's words, "This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through" (Weil 2002, 145). This conceptualization gives us a lot to work with, especially in terms of the literary tradition of ethnography and what it means to imagine otherwise. Using Mannheim's definition, not every product of the imagination can be identified as Utopian. We are becoming more collectively aware, though in some places more than others, that breaking what is already broken can operate as an opening for reforming what is out there. We can see traces of that in works like Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. The resemblance between utopian fiction and the ethnographic literary tradition is quite evident. Both utilize elements from the real world to put together an alternative or to stretch the boundaries of what we think lies ahead. However, there is more for ethnography to learn from fantasy. It has to do with the aforementioned dialectic of the culture and future. The speculative tendencies within fiction are more capable of unleashing many versions of the future, especially when intersecting with the radical empiricism of anthropology. It is an approach that should be encountered in humility, but humility that makes us able to assemble, disassemble, and reassemble multiple futures, and that makes us understand how remiss we have been in giving voice.


Anderson, Ryan, Emma L. Backe, Taylor Nelms, Elizabeth Reddy, and Jeremy Trombley. 2018. “Introduction: Speculative Anthropologies.” Society for Cultural Anthropology. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/introduction-speculative-anthropologies.

Bloch, Ernst. 1995. The Principle of Hope, Volume 1. Edited by Neville Plaice. Translated by Paul Knight, Neville Plaice, and Stephen Plaice. N.p.: MIT Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2013. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. N.p.: Cambridge University Press.

Debord, Guy. 1983. Society of the Spectacle. N.p.: Black & Red.

Gerteis, Joseph, Steven Pfaff, Indermohan Virk, James Moody, and Craig Calhoun, eds. 2007. Classical Sociological Theory. N.p.: Wiley.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. N.p.: Minor Compositions.

Hirschman, Albert O. 2004. Exit, voice, and loyalty. N.p.: Harvard University Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. The Wave in The Mind. N.p.: Shambhala.
Weil, Simone. 2002. Gravity and Grace. Translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr Rah. N.p.: Routledge.

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