Jacob Singer Reviews The Futures Industry Edited by Sherryl Vint

Paradoxa (c) 2017b


The future has become a site of crisis, both materially – in the looming threats of climate change, environmental and species destruction, and imminent collapses of the global financial market—and in our capacity to imagine the future otherwise.

–Sherryl Vint

The unpredictability of the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit vote, and Trump presidency has left many doubting traditional prophetic tools—like exit polls and economic theories. Few experts predicted such turn of events. Political reports and journalists seem no better than the imaginations of our best speculative fiction writers. The journalists, many of whom want to keep working relationships with economic and political players, fail to question the status quo or are simply not given the opportunity to address big questions. Meanwhile, fiction writers are free to gaze into the future in an attempt to predict how science and technology will influence our intellectual understanding of reality and shape the human experience.

Paradoxa’s The Futures Industry offers a range of critical essays that examine topics like the semiotics of trains, the commercial image of financial investors as hyperflâneries, and speculative fiction and cartography. In no way does this review address all of the essays; instead it focuses on the interrelated problem of critical perception, especially the relationship between the meanings of symbols in regards to their context. Each of the essays described helps readers to recognize and understand how hegemony works to define space-time, corporate success, and racism.

Hugh Charles O’Connell explores the semiotics of trains in the works of Christopher Priest, Ian McDonald, and China Miéville. The essay establishes how trains opened frontiers, shifted globalization inland, and created a corporate network of train lines and station. This development necessitated the synchronization of time through the creation of Greenwich Mean Time and time zones. This revolutionized the relationship between space and time. Approximately twenty-five year before the birth of Albert Einstein, the railroad industry locked space and time into place, resulting in a singular picture of the world. This domination over space and time symbolizes the Enlightenment vision of corporate influence.

After the expansion of the railroad system slowed, and the optimism of the empire waned, trains stop representing the will of man’s desire to dominate. Instead, schedules and platforms seem to entrap individuals in a “hyper-regimented corporatocracy based primarily on production” (32). Ian McDonald, author of Ares Express, a text being analyzed by O’Connell, provides an apt metaphor that dramatizes the illusion the train’s motion: “like a speed-dog waiting its turn on the track” (35). Within this rat race, individuals are duped by the illusion of motion without progress. While the individual might suffer, the corporation uses travel as a way of obtaining a greater perspective. Affordable and effective transportation allows for the increased productivity of corporations, and it also allows firms to accumulate information, which in turn elevates them to a superhuman status. The collective power of a global corporation is able to see and hear more than an individual, resulting in greater control and power over others. This persona becomes central to their marketing narrative.

In “Seeing the Present, Grasping the Future,” Josh Pearson breaks down contemporary advertisements from the investment firm Franklin Templeton by providing a close examination of each frame and accompanying script. The commercial offers the image of a team of investment executives collaborating in a way that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. The advertisement—which came out in 2010—celebrates group thinking and collective wisdom, despite their systematic failure to recognize the impact derivative markets would play in the 2008 economic collapse.

This points to a noteworthy approach to how investment firms market their services. Firms celebrate their profitability as a sign of their acumen while justifying their losses as a natural part of market cycles. Why not recognize the firm’s gains as a natural part of the cycle? Because that would indicate a lack of control—a horrible message to potential investors. Pearson provides critical perspective on how the rhetoric of marketing clashes with the corporate reality by recognizing that modern-day investment bankers presents themselves as hyperflâneries with “a posthuman perspective, spatially and temporally unbound” (127). Supposedly, they are better trained, have better access to current and relevant information, and have the means to provided valuable consultation regarding business opportunities. They claim responsibility for gains while explaining losses as a supernatural event that couldn’t be avoided. This essay shatters the manufactured vision of Capitalist Realism, which is created through advertisement campaigns that persist in mainstream culture unchallenged.

Justin Izzo’s “Historical Reversibility as Ethnographic Afrofuturism: Abdourahman Waberi’s Alternative Africa” offers an examination African speculative fiction and cartography. Izzo begins by presenting a map of Africa by Swedish artist Nikolaj Cyon that imagines the continent along physical boarders and linguistic regions. It is an exercise in imagining an Africa as though it was never colonized. From there Izzo begins to examine Waberi’s novel In the United States of Africa. The book presents Africa as the center of political and cultural trends as well as a colonizing force in Western Europe.

As with Cyon’s map, Waberi’s text riffs on the near familiarity of this speculative reversal, nodding ironically to the cultural baggage of contemporary readers that paradoxically serves to anchor the novel even more solidly in the realm of the fantastic. Aux Etats-Unis d’Afrique is a literary experiment in geo-historical cognitive estrangement, that is, an experiment offering a reality that differs markedly from the one we know but which retains enough of an aura of familiarity to allow us to navigate (however haltingly) within it. (Page 184) 

Izzo focuses on how this satirical mode addresses epistemological assumptions regarding race, empathy, and hegemony. He cites David Samuels’ work regarding how these texts translate social issues like economic inequality and racism in a speculative historical context. This creates a sense of near-familiarity. This is explained by imagining all texts existing on a sliding scale that ranges from realism to fantastic. By exploring how and why an author represents features, a reader can explore issues of the “extratextual cultural present” like race, history, and international politics. Samuel claims that many of these speculative texts are primarily realistic in nature, thus foregrounding fantastic elements. This historical defamiliarization provides readers the opportunity to decode the new symbolic system presented by these fictional thought experiments. As with the previous case studies, the result has a similar eye-opening effect. Izzo concludes that speculative texts like this reverses the assumptions and ideology that underpins the Western perception of Africa, just as previous essays addressed critical perceptions of trains and financial services marketing.

In the introduction, I addressed how these texts offer readers an avenue for contributing to a better tomorrow. Such pragmatic readings shouldn’t be ignored at this moment in time. In the wake of economic and political turmoil, writers and teachers need to engage their audience with texts and thought experiments that break the hegemonic spell. The romance of trains blasting through the open expanses can lead to the ennui of the urban rat race. The desire for wealth allows for slick marketing firms to lead us to an economic precipice. Finally, we must disassemble the narratives surrounding superiority of race, willpower, and intelligence in order to recognize racism, exploitation, and deceit. A better tomorrow doesn’t mean a utopian pipedream, but it calls on educators to actively use the tools at hand to break hegemonic spells.

4/5 stars

Paradoxa: The Futures Industry
Edited by Sherryl Vint
Vol. 27
277 pages