Introduction: The Future is There Looking Back at Us

by Jessica Bray and Lindsay Vogt

“The future is there…looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.”
—William Gibson in Pattern Recognition (2005: 59)

The 2016 virtual edition of PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review explores avenues of inquiry surrounding the topic of futures in anthropology. In particular, this edition highlights how the deployment of the future as an analytical tool facilitates particular claims about temporality, possibility, and the ramifications of historical events and imaginaries. The future becomes more than a time yet to come; it is also an indicator about the political and cultural past and present, the day-to-day workings and limitations of political systems, and how time informs political realities and expectations.

After careful review of all PoLAR issues, from its earliest editions in 1973 to its most recent, we have curated a selection of eight articles and solicited authors to provide updated postscripts. We find that these particular articles not only advance social theory in new ways or contribute to better understandings of emerging social phenomena, as is customary of academic literature, but they also productively create new traction for advancing anthropological conceptions of futures and temporality. We, assisted by the featured articles, find the following lines particularly promising for a discussion of futures in anthropology: the political and its perpetual negotiations of future and the diverse temporalities invoked when attempting to respond to, manage, or envision political pasts, presents, and futures. Of course, such territory is necessarily suggestive, rather than precluded or well-defined. After all, what is a future without conditionals or subjunctives? Here, by way of introduction, we reflect on each theme.


Politics can be driven by promises of particular futures and they can create the material and discursive conditions for futures. Thus, political participation includes a constant negotiation with the future. Alice Bellagama’s original article demonstrates this planning, promising, and anticipating in her analysis of the historical memory of a head chief in colonial Gambia. Accounts of his leadership are meandering and conflicting, as they draw from the changing agendas and value registers of different historical eras and sources, including oral histories, newspapers, and colonial archives.


An assortment of globes at different angles. As shown through the digital edition, imaginations and manifestations of political futures emerge through various lenses.

Within these cascading versions of one man’s political tenure and its aftermath, the future emerges as the ultimate contested political resource. In this realm, we see seasoned political subjects lament as they witness a hopeful and anticipated political future sour in the present with a new regime, citizens grant or rescind their political allegiance according to varying future prospects, and scheming colonial administrators attempt to sway political power toward their own vested futures. The Gambia discussed by Bellagamba is undeniably one that has formed in the wake of a colonial past; however, attempts to diminish the significance of colonialism on present political possibilities show that the past may not bind the future as much as it may seem. Bellagamba’s piece further reminds us of the methodological imperative to weigh accounts of the past carefully as they make their way into the future via archival and other representational forms: “The present is not just the future of the past…ultimately it is the future with which memory is entrusted” (2002:38-9).

Amanda Snellinger’s article highlights the general presence of futurity in politics, noting that Nepali student activists rely on an uncompromising orientation toward the future to succeed in their political objectives for the country. In their youth, students are positioned to see and bring about possibilities that were unknown to earlier generations: “the youth are at that liminal place in life where their own hopes are based on the tradition and aspirations of the previous generations, but their flexible perspective allows them to conceive possibilities their parents did not” (Snellinger 2006: 358). Snellinger’s postscript further suggests “how anthropology can grapple with the temporal immediacy of political crisis.”

Throughout the 2016 virtual edition, political and economic crisis stands out as a common moment in which the future becomes a basic demand and potential source of revolt. Mayssoun Sukarieh’s article and postscript discuss public relations (PR) campaigns leveraged by international political organizations and elites in the Middle East, which attempt to gain political and cultural control by reshaping people’s attitudes toward the future as they promote themes of ‘Hope’, ‘Optimism’, and ‘Life.’ Such PR campaigns place responsibility on the individual for disenchanted views toward the future. They occlude discussion of recent political and economic history, failings of political administration to create tenable economic opportunities for citizens, and alternative ideas of hope which actively critique political leaders and economic structures. If a sense of an unacceptable future can motivate people en masse to revoke political allegiance of those who govern them, PR campaigns, which attempt to re-engineer popular orientations toward the future, are but one way political and economic elites attempt to retain power in the face of eroding legitimacy.


Where does the future—in the sense of what will be and what is imagined to come—come from? The articles posit various sources: mythic pasts (Watanabe); selective, skewed, or traumatic memory (Bellagamba, Hermez, Watanabe); a set of political or cultural ideals (Snellinger); technological newness or exploring that which is unknown (Glasberg, Lowrey); intergenerational kin (or kin-like) links (Bellagamba, Snellinger); archives (Bellagamba); the expectations of reciprocal relationships (Watanabe); cycles of rebirth and life stages (Snellinger); DNA samples or, more accurately, biological, industrial, and scientific processes of reproduction (Lowrey); and an often distorted geographic and/or cultural other (Besteman, Glasberg).


A young girl painting an image of her future self.

Memory and the past, however selective or mythic, is a common reserve for the future, as Chika Watanabe’s article suggests. Watanabe focuses on how selective and even mythic notions of the past serve as an alternative for futures sought in Pacific-Asia by a Japanese nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Organization for Industrial, Spiritual, and Cultural Advancement (OISCA). In the case of OISCA, international development is tuned by a mixture of disappointment (with the trajectory that modernity has taken in Japan) and loss (of a particular imperial and moral past). The past thereby is used as “a resource for the future” (Watanabe 2013: 75) in a longer anticipation of returned reciprocity and rescue for those who comprise the NGO. Watanabe’s postscript further examines the “contours of the temporal logics” and how these play out in her interlocutors’ “imaginations and enactments of the future.”

Conversely, the future can present itself suddenly through unknown or unprecedented geographies and technologies. Elena Glasberg’s article posits the suggestion that Antarctica offers the most value to environmentalists and transnational corporations alike not through the possibilities it offers for human occupation but through the opportunities its pristine but treacherous wilderness offers for virtual representation. Aligning with otherworldly places such as the Moon or the very deep sea, time and progression in Antarctica, where material and imprints are preserved over millennia, are contradictory to senses of human-infused time, which often selects, distorts, reorders, and erases. Any human future—and thus any possibility of human politics—of the icy continental mass has always depended upon the instruments by which it has been measured, seen, and represented. Glasberg calls attention to the challenges of creating a governing body and system of territorial rights for a geography with scant human past. If political bodies are entrusted with bringing about acceptable futures for those they govern, whose future, what future is devised for a territory in which only scientists and tourists temporarily reside?

Kathryn Lowrey highlights new and unforeseen developments in science and technology and their political ramifications. She examines sequential-temporal process and the unprecedented nature of legal contestations in the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), which effectively treats select living indigenous populations as historical and endangered remnants of human biology. In this sense, Lowrey suggests a present-as-future that is distinctly new and demarcated from the past with several ingredients: “a politics that transcends the terms of its own initial engagement, that enacts a transformation from the politics of response to the politics of anticipation, one that may use but is not limited to the reversal of terms as its proper means of proaction, is the making of a new politics altogether” (1998: 42).


Several authors devote significant space in their work to explaining various temporal formulas for futurity. Lowrey discusses a politics of reproduction and suggests that the basic components of reality are broken down and dismembered into forms that lose semantic reference as the HGDP progresses in time and sequence. Watanabe shows how assumptions of linear progression combine with cyclical time to create a formula for the desired end goals of international development as pursued by one organization. Snellinger discusses democratic politics as an institution based on ongoing cycles of intergenerational sharing where democracy is pursued much like life, which is subject to continuous cycles of rebirth in Asian religious epistemology. That is, democracy can be continually revised but never in line with a perfect end point.


Theater seats where viewers wait in anticipation of things yet to come on the screen.

Sami Hermez’s article on everyday politics in Lebanon offers an extended discussion of temporality through his analysis of anticipation. Hermez states, “One of the determinations of people who anticipate violence is to seek meaning and fixity in the world by attempting to predict and know the future; they are not always successful” (2012: 333). Rather, past awareness or first-hand experience of war and violence in Lebanon create the terms by which any plan, however short-term, is assessed: by the anticipation of checkpoints, shortages, price fluctuations, or violence—basically, the byproducts of a war imagined to erupt at any time. Hermez shows that anticipation of violence does not just reveal itself through disruption or rupture, as others have found, but as extensions of everyday life. In Hermez’s postscript, he elaborates on his 2012 article, writing, “The future was haunting the present and folding back to impress on the present what had yet to be. Yet, the future never stands all alone ahead of us, untouched and pure. It is constantly being informed and shaped by our past. It is an imagined time—what would or could be, never what really will be.”

Catherine Besteman’s article and postscript offer befitting material to conclude our introduction, for they clearly outline the stakes of popular narratives of the future and how responses from anthropologists can spark more ethical and accurate depictions of it. In her article, Besteman critically engages with crypto-racist imaginaries of the future that circulate in popular culture using an example of what can be called “Afro-pessimism” wherein Africa is cast as eternally ungovernable, impoverished, and thus a warning sign for what the rest of the world could become. In her postscript, Besteman engages with current events, referencing the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign and the movement of undocumented migrants across the Mediterranean, pushing readers to imagine a future comprised of the “final days of white supremacy and apartheid practices of ethno-national-racial exclusions in the global North.” Besteman’s work shows how narratives of the future can, through everyday circulation, mobilize nefarious, ignorant, or unjust political actions. Moreover, she points to how anthropologists can intervene in the development of such corrosive politics.

As Alice Bellagamba begins her postscript, “This age of economic, political and environmental crises has pushed the future on top of the anthropological agenda,” we, too, suggest that the timing of this edition is particularly important. Our discussion of futures comes at a time when the world faces challenges of unprecedented scale and complexity and when uncertain—or all-too-certain—futures are continually found at the center of political unrest and legal negotiations globally. We hope that this virtual edition creates productive avenues for thinking about futurity and the political. By highlighting the ways that various claims or orientations about the future are deployed, we can better understand how such claims alter our understandings and experiences of political life and legal systems, past and present.

Recommended Citation

Bray, Jessica and Lindsay Vogt. Introduction: The Future is There Looking Back at Us. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, September 2016,