In this article, Dai Jinhua problematizes the notion of the future in our current age of global capitalism. Her central question is “do we still have a future?” She connects the proliferation of end-of-the-world imagination in world cinema with an underlying sense of crisis that has spread across the world since the end of the Cold War. The end of the world in filmic representations, she observes, has evolved from being caused by manmade disasters to being the result of natural events, reflecting a shared inability to deal with the crisis of capitalism. Another prominent global issue that is manifested in recent science-fiction movies is the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Dai pays particular attention to the role of technology, which increases the polarization rather than promising a better future for all. Recognizing that a solution cannot be found within the current system, Dai calls for a renewed utopian imagination to bring humankind into the future.
What does the Future Mean?
As we walk deeper into the twenty-first century, the future—as a destination that has been set aside and that has almost entirely evaporated—has suddenly become real and urgent to me as a point of reference and a matter of debate.
However, speaking of the future is not speaking about time: although time appears as a natural, physical dimension, it is more of a conceptual “fact” of the human intelligence. Time in the “Chinese temporality” with which we are becoming gradually unfamiliar concerns natural cycles: the sun rises and sets; one sows in the spring and then harvests in the autumn. It is a monistic cycle, with dynasties succeeding one another and sea changing into mulberry field. Buddhism arrived later and introduced the notion of reincarnation, the coming and going of life and world. Of course, what we are more familiar with and what we have internalized is the Christian time: a directional time that has a beginning and an end. Paradise, paradise lost, and paradise regained. It gave rise to the so-called modern time—capitalist or modernist—that emphasizes progress, developmentalism, the self-improvement of humanity, and the infinite rise of human society. It is also known as linear time, in which the future is imminent and inevitable.
Speaking of the future is also not an attempt to revisit utopia by another name. Utopia, by definition, is distinct from the present reality. But as imaginative constructions of the systems of ideal worlds, utopias are the not the exclusive domain of the future. As Paul Ricoeur suggests, locating utopia in yesterday and tomorrow constitutes two basic intellectual trends.11 Paul Ricouer, “The Creativity of Language” in The Ricouer Reader: Reflection and Imagination, edited by Mario J. Valdés (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 475.View all notes
Similarly, evoking the future is not to renew or highlight the coordinates of history, even though, in my opinion, history is not about the past, but about the future. Visions of the future determine the depth, location, and value of history. In the 70s and 80s of the twentieth century, it was precisely the revision of historical purposes and imaginations of the future that made us lose a sense of history in the alleged “ultra-stable structure” of China. History was spatialized: the geophysical images of “the iron house” and “yellow earth” became the most prominent and most potent cultural figures of the 1980s. However, to speak of the future is not to discuss “China’s century” at a moment when the “rise of China” (in terms of economy/GDP) is winning back the depth and meaning of history, nor to revisit and critique “the end of history” in the post-Cold War geopolitics.
For me, the prominence of the future as an issue lies in a set of paradoxical socio-cultural and psychological facts. On the one hand, there is a peculiar, charming, and ephemeral reality that seems to be announcing the arrival of the future: every day the most outrageous imaginations of the future that used to be found in science fiction and sci-fi movies are becoming the realities of our lives. The social transformation driven by revolutions in biology and digital technologies is creating anew the entire world order and human ecology. Moreover, not in a merely speculative sense, human kind is championing death for the first time in history with new bio-technologies such as gene modification, organ transplant, and stem cell therapy. On the other hand, future as a point of reference for the present reality has almost all evaporated or is at least shrouded in thick cultural fog. After narratives of dystopia (anti-utopia) replaced utopian visions, at the beginning of the new century, end-of-the-world visions of the world—represented and initiated by Hollywood—are suddenly rising on the global horizon. The obfuscated or severed horizon of the future seems to have abruptly changed the question into: do we have a future? Or in more sensational terms, should we prepare for the end of the world? On a global scale, the future has emerged as an enormous field of dim, impenetrable fog. Coinciding with the proliferation of end-of-the-world films as a subgenre is that the end of the world, which used to be an ominous subject full of religious (particularly Christian) connotations, has entered the field of theory. Slavoj Žižek describes our present global reality simply as “living in the end times.”22 Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London and New York: Verso, 2011).View all notes In his view, what has replaced the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation are “four riders of apocalypse”: “the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food, and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.”33 Ibid., x.View all notes Even if we set aside efforts to delineate, summarize, and debate the nature of today’s global crisis, the almost incessant eruption of violence worldwide—from the 9/11 terrorist attack, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, worldwide financial crisis, Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the series of terrorist attacks in Europe to the rise of ISIS, Syrian refugee crisis, Occupy Wall Street, and the Nuit debout movement in France—is having a global impact beyond any local setting, revealing the crisis of capitalism and capitalism in crisis. However, a key observation of Žižek is that although any one of the four (or many) crises have the possibility to end capitalism, “we live in a state of collective fetishistic disavowal.”44 Ibid., x.View all notes Blindly refusing to face, let alone reflect on, the crisis of global capitalism and modern civilization is an especially prominent post-Cold War syndrome of world cultures and social psychology, of which the “collective fetishistic disavowal” of the pressing crisis and the domination of visions of future by end-of-the-world imaginations constitute two pronounced symptoms.
Questioning the Future and End-of-the-World Fantasies
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