Three-day Conference, Lower College Hall / Parliament Hall, University of St Andrews, 14-16 March 2018

Daniel M. Knight (University of St Andrews) dmk3@st-andrews.ac.uk and Rebecca Bryant (Utrecht University) r.e.bryant@uu.nl


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The future has gotten short shrift in anthropology. In her landmark 1992 essay on the anthropology of time, Nancy Munn observed that in the discipline, ‘the future tends to be a displaced temporal topic, absent from its homeland in the past-present-future relation’ (p. 116). She speculates that the reason for this is anthropology’s focus on ‘long-term historical-mythic time’, which lends itself to a focus on the past. Despite a growing anthropological interest in time, often temporality becomes truncated at the relation between past and present, where the future often represents an unknown against which persons struggling to maintain stability cling to particular histories.


The future emerged as a developing field for anthropology in the 2000's, when the ‘war on terror’ and global financial crisis and its aftershocks left many people around the world unable to anticipate the following day. Combined with developing literatures on risk and finance, as well as climate change and alternative energies, it became clear that any return of the past was directly related to the uncertain future. Moreover, the past itself seemed foreshortened by social media, which effectively telescoped the immediate future as an anticipated present. Probability, anticipation, and expectation all acquired new subjects and methods as anthropologists began to examine the frenzy of trading floors and the future of the anthropocene.


In outlining the study of the future as a newly emerging field for anthropology, this conference invites ethnographic interrogation of precarious futures that reshape historical and temporal consciousness; including but not limited to financial crisis, large-scale displacement, climate change, romantic relationships, off-planetary exploration, and scenario planning. What assumptions have previously led to a blindness to the future and what changes about anthropology’s method and scope when we incorporate the future more centrally into the past-present-future relation?


The conference is organised around what we call ‘orientations’. While orientations (potentiality, speculation, destiny, expectation, anticipation, hope and their opposites, apathy, exhaustion, resignation) entail planning for and imagining the future, they also often entail the collapse of those efforts. Contributors will speak to particular orientation(s) to examine both the temporal dynamism and potential temporal stasis of charting new individual and collective futures. 


CENTRE FOR COSMOPOLITAN STUDIES LECTURE (Wednesday 14 March, 5pm, Parliament Hall)

Professor Rebecca Bryant (Utrecht University)

Title: Post-Conflict Futures: Temporal orientations after catastrophe


What does it mean to “move on” after conflict? Why do we wish to “put the past behind” us? And how does moving on relate to our conceptualisation of “peacetime” as opposed to “wartime”? Indeed, many of the words and concepts that we use to speak of war and peace have temporal connotations, suggesting that we experience conflict and its resolution as a shift or alteration in time. Given this, why has so much of the social science literature on conflict focused on history, memory, and the past, rather than on temporality and orientations to the future?


This paper will sketch some of the ways in which an attention to future orientations gives us insight into the experience of conflict. In particular, we will look at forms of anticipation and expectation in relation to violent conflict and its cessation, illustrating why, in Thomas Hobbes’ observation, a time of war is like the weather: something that persists as long as a storm threatens. We will then examine the crises defined by anxiety and uncertainty in relation to the future that accompany and define attempts to transition from a conflict present to a post-conflict future. My ethnography will focus primarily on the unresolved Cyprus conflict, but I will draw on other regional examples to show how, for instance, the everyday geopolitics (Jansen 2009) of conflict resolution may be experienced as a temporal crisis. I will conclude with some suggestions for how greater attention to temporal trajectories can help us also in thinking about unresolved conflict presents.


LADISLAV HOLY MEMORIAL LECTURE (Thursday 15 March, Lower College Hall)

Professor David Valentine (University of Minnesota)

Title: Futurities: Ethnography in the register of surprise


This paper begins with claims, from the past 25 years, that anthropology has neglected temporal relations, including modern time (Bear 2014), hope (Crapanzano 2003), but most of all, “the future” itself (Appadurai 2013, Munn 1992, Pels 2015, Salazar et al 2017). Drawing on Munn's observation that there can be no account of time without “creating something that takes the form of time” (1992:94) I argue that these claims amount to a “neglect hypothesis” that indexes anxious and urgent ethical demands that anthropology be relevant now. I argue that this spatiotemporal-affective mode has replaced that critiqued by Fabian (1983) but maintains the core problem of asserting white/metropolitan/global-north theoretical and political concerns at the heart of a temporalizing anthropological project that is ultimately concerned with the future of anthropology. I examine how the problems of this present—neoliberalism's increasing stratifications, resurgent white nationalism, global violence, collective political action, climate change/Anthropocene—are interweaving semiotic packages that travel with anthropology's anxious futurity and delimit what “the future” is and could be, but also significantly, where it is and who defines it. I thus ask three critical questions of anthropology's engagement with futurity: (1) For whom, where, and at what scale is “the future” what kind of puzzle, problem, or solution? (2) What semiotic and affective packages travel with “futurity” such that its concerns are limited to the “now” of late capitalism? And (3) What might anthropology (and its subjects) gain and/or lose from a decolonization of futures—through modes of experiment, withdrawal, departure, or refusal—in opening to the possibility of surprise?


Presenters (all in Lower College Hall):

Jan-Jonathan Bock (University of Cambridge)

Title: Urban Utopias between Harmony and Crisis: Visions of the future in interfaith activities


Over the past decades, the field of interfaith has grown significantly in Europe and beyond. In cities marked by the coexistence of variations of secularism, atheism, spirituality, and religiosity, interfaith activities emerge in a range of grassroots and leader-led initiatives. They aspire to tackle the challenges of religious difference and disagreement through conferences, meetings, and community engagement, aimed at the production of conviviality. This paper explores the aspirations of different interfaith initiatives in London and Delhi, and their visions for future togetherness. I explore how interfaith actors in India often seek to position themselves as indispensable brokers for world peace. In their efforts, they oscillate between the rhetoric of crisis, on the one hand, and the promise of harmony – which can only be realised through religious encounter, respect, and tolerance – on the other. In order to demonstrate their relevance for future-making projects and demand recognition as serious social actors, they employ conflicting visions of hope and catastrophe. They claim to combat a perceived crisis, but simultaneously perpetuate a narrative of estrangement. By contrast, interfaith action in London often eschews discussions on politics and theology, and instead focuses on small-scale community work and high-profile faith leader responses to terrorism, emphasising supposed traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism. My paper investigates different imaginations of future urban life and multi-religious conviviality that emerge across interfaith initiatives, and how religious brokers seek to position themselves as crucial agents of hope and harmony.


Stef Jansen (University of Manchester)

Title: Yearnings: On keeping the present and the past at the heart of an anthropology of the future


What can anthropologists contribute to the study of 'the future'? The fact that the future hasn't happened yet makes it a peculiar object of analysis for a discipline that draws its key strengths from a methodology and epistemology that is ultimately presentist and realist: ethnography. From that perspective, the 'anthropology of the future', then, is best understood as the anthropology of human orientations to possible futures. Yet recent theorisations of, for example, 'becoming', 'events' and 'affect' have disputed such anthropocentrism. This is driven in great part by a desire to establish ways of analysis and writing that are considered to be more attuned to the future's futureness, that is, to the fact that any future hasn't happened yet, that it may not happen at all and that a totally different future may come to happen. A key objective in such writing is to foreground indeterminacy and to protect it from being dampened by analytical attempts to capture it in what are considered 'determinist' accounts. Paradoxically, in my research in Bosnia and Herzegovina, my interest in hope and its relation to becoming, events and affect pushed me in the other direction: ultimately, it led me to reinforce a focus on the present and on the past-in-the-present. Moreover, I came to conceptualise my main object of analysis—the 'orientations' I sought to analyse—as 'yearnings' rather than as 'hope'. This presentation will reflect on this experience to consider broader epistemological and methodological challenges for anthropology when studying 'the future'.


Kristin Loftsdóttir (University of Iceland)

Title: The Future that you Anticipated has been Cancelled, please remain seated:  Crisis and borders of humanity in unpredictable futures


The recent past is characterized by a strong sense of a world in crisis with intersecting ‘crisis talk’ of different kind (Loftsdóttir, Smith and Hipfl forthcoming), including the economic crisis in North America and Europe from 2008, followed by the crisis of refugees and asylum seekers. This presentation focuses on the future as it emerges through concerns with crisis, stressing that crisis tends to revolve around a loss of a particular vision of the future. While predominant visions of the anticipated future – embedded with ideas modernity – have been criticized by many, its disappearance has created a sense of loss for both its admirers and critics (Muehlebach 2013). In my analysis, I try in particular to bring together the future and crisis in terms of anticipated borders of humanity, i.e. how visions of the future that are seen from the prism of crisis, contemplate classification and exclusion of certain groups from both liveable futures and spaces of humanity. In the discussion, I base on diverse material including readings of science fiction depiction of the future set against stories of several undocumented migrant workers from Niger. These men stay in Europe due to that they what they see as ‘future deficit’ in Niger, due to Europe’s continued involvement in West and North Africa. Once in Europe, however, they as black Muslim men become embodied as a threat to Europe’s future.


Morten Nielsen (Aarhus University)

Title: Beyond the Punchline: Transitory truths and recursive speculation among stand-up comedians in New York


Based on recently collected ethnographic data in New York City, this paper explores the non-linear temporalities of comedic narratives and jokes performed by stand-up comedians in front of live audiences. New York City is the epicenter of a massive ‘comedy boom’: Stand-up comedy is again at the heart of American popular culture, which is evidenced by the explosive growth of comedy clubs, ‘open mic’ venues and bars with regular comedy shows in cities throughout the country and especially in New York City. The current comedy boom is driven by a form of comedy that takes its point of departure in the comedians’ reflections about the hardship and challenges of their personal lives: Break-ups, mental problems, social awkwardness, dysfunctional relationships, etc. This widespread form of ‘confessional comedy’ arises from the comedians’ introspective journey towards the most intimate realms of their lives. With inspiration from anthropological analysis of myth, I argue that the comedians’ introspection results in a series of unresolvable and non-linear mythic paradoxes, which is also what creates the surprising and comedic effect. Taking the form of ‘transitory truths’, these paradoxes productively shatter their own legitimacy at the moment of their enunciation. By examining the crafting and performance of jokes and comedic narratives, I show how comedic insights are gained from the retrospective annihilation of the premise of the joke by its punchline. Although these ‘transitory truths’ cease to exist when the audience stops laughing, they do offer a medium for reflecting on the workings of time through an incessant disruption of progressive linearity.


Nigel Rapport (University of St Andrews)

Title: Aspiration as Cultural Fact or Transcendent Human Capacity?


In The Future as Cultural Fact (2013) Arjun Appadurai argues that any ‘politics of hope’ must be cognisant of the way in which human aspiration is culturally inflected, not to say determined. What we hope for, and how and what we aspire to, are thoroughly mediated by a cultural habitus. Appadurai uses a distinction between notions of ‘minimal humanity’ as against ‘full humanity’ to suggest that, après Clifford Geertz (1973), we become fully human only under the dispensation of particular cultures of socialization and identification: by virtue of being enculturated within systems of specific symbolic forms that give rise to the categories of our consciousness and identity. To be ‘human’ is to be Javanese, Jewish or Scottish. In this talk I shall oppose anthropos—an understanding of our singular humanity—to ethnos—an understanding of our belonging to particular groups or peoples—to argue for an appreciation of hope and aspiration as human capacities and individual practices that, like the imagination, transcend the accident of their particular sociocultural and historical situatedness.


Felix Ringel (Durham University)


Title: Maintaining the Future (of the Future): The production of urban sustainability in a postindustrial city


Cities worldwide aspire to new urban futures. Particularly postindustrial cities see urban sustainability as a way to sidestep circles of growth and decline. This particular idea of the future, people hope, can make cities bulletproof for any crises yet to come. However, the transition to urban sustainability is often more complex and difficult than expected. It can also quickly be sidelined by more pressing economic and social concerns. I present advances and setbacks of attempts at re-orientating the future of my fieldsite, the North German harbour city of Bremerhaven. Despite being one of Germany’s poorest cities, Bremerhaven embraced urban sustainability from the very beginning of its postindustrial revitalisation. However, what kind of futures does sustainability allow them to imagine, and how successful are local actors in manifesting these futures? I claim that sustainability allows two different takes on the future. First, it radically breaks with previous expectations of the future. New ideas about urban life abound; novel lifestyles are re-envisioned; new forms of political and economic practice emerge. In this understanding sustainability functions as a force for change. However, there is a second logic of sustainability. It does not only break with the present by aspiring to a different future; it also invests thought in the future of the future. To put it bluntly: it already considers the maintenance of the future in the future. This, however, might not be what my informants initially expected – but it is a dimension of future relations fully to be reckoned with.


Raluca Roman (University of St Andrews)

Title: Destiny: Religious humanitarianism, developmentalism and fateful-orientations among Pentecostal Kaale


Thus far, anthropological analyses of time and temporality among Roma/Gypsies have emphasised the importance placed among members of these communities on a so-called Roma ‘presentism’ (most clearly evoked in Stewart 1997). In other words, Roma have recurrently been portrayed as people who ‘live for the moment’ (Day et al 1999) wherein the ‘present’ constitutes the main temporal domain of experience among Roma/Gypsies.


Drawing on more than two years of fieldwork with Pentecostal Kaale (a Roma population living in Finland and Sweden), this paper calls for a re-consideration of Roma temporalities and an analysis of distinctive future-orientations among Roma/Gypsies, through a focus placed on the narrative of fate and destiny in the practice of religious humanitarianism. I do so by exploring the transnational missionary work conducted by Pentecostal Kaale among impoverished Roma communities in Eastern Europe. Through this, my aim is to highlight the ways in which the development of an ‘economy of the good’ among Pentecostal Roma is grounded in specific visions of the future (tulevaisuus) and embedded within a broader project of Evangelical ‘developmentalism’: through the popularisation of transnational missionary work by Roma for Roma, the establishment of local developmental projects, the enabling of a missionary infrastructure (i.e. missionary networks, religious NGOs, etc.) and the focus placed on children as ‘the future’ of Roma communities. In other words, at the intersected study of humanitarianism, development and Charismatic Christianity, my paper will consider the ways in which Pentecostal belonging shapes distinct understandings of future-as-destiny, through engagement within emerging Evangelical economies.


Huon Wardle (University of St Andrews)

Title: Magic and the Future: Adventure and the migrant orientation to elsewhere


‘If the magician were to stop his solitary mumbling a complete disorganization of the whole community would follow’ (Malinowski)

Malinowski’s views on magic push in two different directions. Magic includes the fraudulent rhetoric of the demagogues who make big things (happen) with words. But it is also a profoundly valuable human tool. ‘Magic in its essence… is an expression of human hope and confidence, of a morally integrated attitude toward the future’. As he discusses, whether in the form of garden spells or via the advertising techniques of Elizabeth Arden, the use of magic is definitively human. Indeed, magic is inextricable from being human because human orientations always take shape in tacit acknowledgement of fundamental uncertainty; of the potential for chaos, or the underlying possibility that the universe has no order at all, or that intentions will alter nothing.


This paper reexamines the ‘adventure’ stories of Caribbean migrants (Wardle 1999) this time considering the ‘magic’ of ‘adventure’. The adventure genre, which plays such a central part in Jamaican migration talk, is crucially a matter of organizing the experience of migrant uncertainty and extraterritoriality and offering it as a future for others. As the literature on migration has grown it transpires that the ‘adventure’ has very widespread valence as a mode of orientation toward the ‘significant elsewheres’ of global migration. From a hyper-individualistic and hyper-diverse fieldsite it is worth rethinking connections between ‘magic’ and ‘adventure’ as tools for encircling existential uncertainty and giving order to (outlying) space and (future) time.






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