Speculative Anthropology

Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology, by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).

Reviewed by Theodoros Kyriakides, The University of Cyprus

The pamphlet and long-essay are arguably not the most popular mediums of scholarship in the humanities nowadays. The University of Minnesota’s Forerunner series, the publisher of the book reviewed, is one of the few remaining platforms for this style of scholarship. Even so, in just a bit over a hundred pages (including notes and references), Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer’s Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology packs a punch and has gained a considerable following ever since its publication in 2019.

The central claim of this book is that anthropologists and, more broadly, societies, have much to learn from speculative fiction—what is often referred to as sci-fi. The legitimization of university-produced and accredited knowledge as the one true way of knowing the world, Wolf-Meyer suggests, “has resulted in social theory seeming to be the property of academics, with speculative fiction being the realm of nonacademics” (p. 6) In his attempt to put social theory and speculative fiction into dialogue, Wolf-Meyer joins the ranks of the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Chad Oliver and, more recently, Donna Haraway.

What separates Wolf-Meyer from his predecessors is that he does not, in this book, engage in the practice of writing speculative fiction himself, but instead explores the social purchase of sci-fi works as tools for orienting thought in uncertain times. Indeed, insofar as the notion of the future implies an imagined, collective social condition, Wolf-Meyer’s book in many ways constitutes the opposite of a sci-fi story: his book does not engage in the imaginative labor of world-making and futurology, but rather engages in social critique. He diagnoses a widespread social malaise in the present that makes the future increasingly hard to imagine.

“We are at a moment where we need to choose our future” (p. 14) Wolf-Meyer writes. The book’s vitality and theoretical ambition are hence driven by the premise that works of speculative fiction are capable of providing a political and moral compass for present-day predicaments—such as climate change, capitalism, and racism. As Wolf-Meyer argues, several of the questions underlying anthropological and social theory are similarly articulated by the likes of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells.

The suggestion that sci-fi works anticipate anthropological concerns neatly conveys the main suggestion of this book: speculative fiction is not detached from reality simply because it attempts to articulate a world different than the one we live in. Moreover, speculative fiction is not the opposite of knowledge, or of rigorous social science research taking place in North Atlantic educational institutions. Rather, the reason that sci-fi often foretells “real world” political questions is that both emerge and are embedded in the same broader milieu, engaging with social predicaments and with a desire to move beyond them. It is hence not accidental that social theory and speculative fiction took shape in the same modern era.

The principal chapters of this book take the form of personal recollections. Regarding his upbringing in a shifting Detroit cityscape, Wolf-Meyer writes: “throughout my teenage and young adult years, the suburban blight of convenience made up a world that I constantly imagined rebelling against” (p. 27). It might strike one as strange that a book which concerns itself with sci-fi is structured by the author’s recollections of the past. Yet, the gesture of speculative fiction is not only achieved by moving forward in the temporal sense of the term —i.e. devising a future—but also by entangling and juxtaposing previously disparate temporalities in order to articulate them otherwise (e.g., through time- travel).

The continuum that Wolf-Meyer identifies, between speculative fiction and social criticism, allows him to use certain sci-fi motifs to examine his positioning in historical trajectories and along various topographies of violence and political repression. For example, Wolf-Meyer compares the process of gentrification in Detroit to Robert Kirkman’s classic comic book series The Walking Dead. As Wolf-Meyer suggests, in both zombie apocalypse and gentrification, “there is seemingly no resistance, no concerted effort to stop the zombie infection” (p. 28). Rather, the semblance of ordered society and social relations dissolve in an infectious panic and urge for individual survival and protection. In another comparison, writing about his move to California in the mid-2000s, Meyer-Wolf compares the property boom of those years to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias trilogy and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Across all these texts and contexts, Meyer-Wolf argues, “capitalism sets the conditions of catastrophe” (p. 57).

“We can’t think ourselves outside of capitalism” (p. 68) Meyer-Wolf declares elsewhere in the book. Capitalism marks the core condition of our time, and even defines the production of scholarship and social theory taking place in North Atlantic universities (theory which, earlier in the book, Wolf-Meyer describes as “deeply suburban” [p. 9]). The book displays an increasing preoccupation with how capitalism transforms society and relatedly, how it is depicted in speculative fiction. Otherwise put, what unifies the objectives of speculative fiction and social theory is the necessity to find a way out of capitalism. Surveying the two fields of intellectual practice together, Wolf-Meyer perhaps gives the lead to speculative fiction. It, he suggests, is better equipped to carry out the revolutionary task of conceptualizing an other-than-capitalist world. In speculative fiction the “way out” (p. 100) is not provided all at once or in advance, but slowly reveals itself. The dystopianism which permeates much of speculative fiction is, in this sense, a political gesture. By pushing capitalist logic to its limit and articulating its potential future extremes, it also generates the conditions for conceptualizing the world otherwise.