Friday, September 06, 2013

This Future of Yours, When's It Going to Arrive?

(Or, Some More Trains, In an Attempt to Get Somewhere)

In Sally Potter's adaptation of Orlando, the future arrives as a train:

Or rather, in the disjunction between the Romantic hero on a white horse, and the train that blows the steam that mists the shot. It could be a moral painting titled "It's Later than You Think." A few scenes later, Shelmerdine the Romantic hero rides off to take ship for America to foment revolution and create a better future. Evicted, pregnant, abandoned, not to mention legally dead, Orlando asks him wryly, "This future of yours, when's it going to arrive?"

Orlando's question recurs to me frequently when reading anything futurological, whether science fiction or political theory, with its ecstatic promises and equally ecstatic displacements and evasions. In an alternate draft of the screenplay, Potter had Orlando tell Shelmerdine "The future is in my body!" It's literally true in the sense that she is pregnant (and that she is a time traveller), but it's not an essentialist statement. The body is where the future will take place, every second. Whatever the utopia or apocalypse, it will be bodies going through it: labouring, loving, evolving.

Maya Borg's beautiful film Future My Love, which tells the story of the end of the filmmaker's relationship interwoven through a history of the Venus Project and other failed futurological utopias, gets this exactly. It asks what we do with imagined futures - at the end of a relationship, but also at a given point in time looking back at past fantasies of the future moment that is our present - that have not come to pass. When a future is past, what does it have to offer? 

As does Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love series, with its crucial attention to what most science fiction (and indeed, realist fiction) ignores: utilities in the time of revolution. As Paul Graham Raven says, as writers, we need to talk about infrastructure. As he explains in the article, infrastructure fiction is a manifesto for attention to how our lives function in relation and through connection, and the labour that is expended to ensure that. Infrastructure is the great secret, the ultimate conspiracy, both in terms of the invisibility of its labour, and the power that accrues to and flows through it. 

Trains are a powerful symbol of this: prior to the railroad, a network of ships, horse-drawn vehicles and shanks' pony provided transport. These made their way according to a very vague and relative timetable, largely circadian (ie: the coach will be here around sunset). It was only with the advent of the railroad and its precision timetables that clock time was systematised and regularised, whereas previously individual towns set their clocks according to the sun. Jay Griffiths' Pip Pip details industrial capital's delinkage of time from personal/collective experience of the natural world, and its effect on our embodiment and consciousness. National water provision was a plank of industrial development: it has improved living standards (in tandem with better understanding of biological agents of disease), but has created its own problems, including massive wastage from ageing infrastructure that's too embedded to repair, as well as mass exposure to industrial pollution - as well as the more profound transformation of water into a commodity.

Similarly, other aspects of infrastructure gradually remove both our relation to, and any responsibility for, our bodies' place in the world. Quite literally, someone else deals with our shit: both the sanitation and construction workers who build and staff sewage treatment plants (and the vast administrative staff), and those whose water is polluted by sewage leaks or flushed plastic. Infrastructure allows most of us to wash our hands of many of the basic aspects of being alive, what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life. Even if we work in infrastructure or utilities, whether as engineers or helpline operators, Fordism has guaranteed that we can only access the limited amount of information necessary to the task at hand. Outsourcing, privatisation and automation together have fragmented knowledge of infrastructure, while consolidating corporate control over the power it offers (and carries).

Worker-run factories, renationalised utilities (particularly water and minerals), local internets, and other attempts to place hands directly on infrastructure in times of political change. To me, this isn't just a story about control of the means of production, to use Marx' term, but the means of relation - to each other, and to the world. It's a taking of responsibility for the community's wellbeing; and in community, I include all of the living world. Existing infrastructure may be the single greatest problem in engaging people in ecopolitics, although it is also a flashpoint for community organising (particularly around energy and water). It obscures both the power and the responsibilities. 

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit explores what happens when infrastructure is overwhelmed by a natural or man-made disaster, and communities are required to find solutions to maintain bare life. She finds that resilience and inventiveness emerge, that people – while often grief-stricken, and frequently disease-stricken – are not passive victims of circumstance, or nostalgists at a loss without state/corporate provision. Alternate systems spring up, not only providing utility, but shared purpose and a renewed sense of interconnections. New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina has provided (and I suspect will continue to provide) US artists with examples and a backdrop for experimenting with such stories: David Simons' series Treme uses the serial form to explore exactly the connectivity created by rebuilding, with the city's musicians as both a focal point for narrative engagement, and vibrant examples of contingent, collaborative community (and in season 3, about how fast entrenched interests return to take over and, yes, "monetize" this reconstruction).

I wonder if the disintegration of infrastructure, and return of the possibility of relation, is part of the attraction of dystopian, post-apocalyptic fictions? Too frequently, however, post-apocalyptic fiction presents another fantasy, that of totalitarian control, rather than engaging with this less apparently dynamic question. Perhaps a novel about making the trains run – or getting rid of them and finding a replacement – doesn't have the appeal of one about mediagenic young people fighting it out for the amusement of the upper classes. But perhaps the kind of negotiations and relations that might emerge from such an infrastructure fiction offer an intriguing new kind of futurology, along the lines of this new collaborative writing project: one that recognises that all futures are the present for their inhabitants, that bare life is the continuum that does not change, and that the only story we can tell is one we make together.

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