No future––for who? (post 1 of 2 on Durham’s No Future conference)

Shortly after the Critical Ethnic Studies conference on Settler Colonialism and the Future of Genocide (liveblogs of which are in the posts preceding this one), I headed across the Atlantic for the No Future Conference at the University of Durham in the UK, part of a year-long series the Institute for Advanced Studies is organizing there on futures.

I had a wonderful time and heard many fascinating papers at both conferences, but looking back on them together, what I notice most is how rare it was for the two sets of conversations––no future and future of genocide, two phrases that have the potential to mean more or less the same thing––to overlap.

My experience felt very structured by the old and new world surroundings. I’m originally from Scotland, but five years in California have accustomed me to freeways, wide open spaces, and a certain newness to even buildings that grandly proclaim their history; to an often visibly manufactured landscape that the CESA conference reminded me to see as a product of settler colonialism and its histories of genocide. The No Future Conference was my first visit to the University of Durham, which is a kind of small, ancient university I’ve never attended. The wood-panelled debating chamber decorated with heraldic shields in the shadow of 900-year-old Durham Cathedral couldn’t have been more different from UC Riverside’s division between a campus gym and recently constructed student center.

And the questions about absent futures asked in Durham were often directly connected to the long history of British knowledge production our location (a stone’s throw from the tomb of the Venerable Bede) made tangible. The apocalyptic as a religious category was often addressed, something I was keen to hear about as it’s an area whose relationship to my own work I’m trying to figure out. Papers from Karen Edwards and Christopher Rowland on apocalypse in Milton and Blake served as reminders of the political ferment, the revolutionary hopes and resistant dreams that bubble up from the canon it’s easy to dismiss as dry, the landscape smoothed into ‘heritage’ by generations of well-heeled undergraduates and overawed tourists.

Highlights of the conference for me included Melanie Adley’s paper “There is a Future in Dying: Female Fragility and Passive Defiance,” about fin de siecle German melodramatic suicide fiction as antisocial feminist queer futurity; John Troyer on the cultural construction of death and unevenly distributed technological efforts to change its future; organizer Alastair Renfrew’s discussion of Lenin as a utopian cultural figure (particularly the allusion to “Lenin in a Jimmy hat”) followed by Sean Grattan’s reading of hipster liberalism in the light of this statue in Seattle; and Lucy Sargisson and Lisa Garforth’s explorations of possible futures for environmental politics through fiction. Internet was patchy in the old buildings (one more old world/new world element) and I missed the immediate archive that tweeting and/or liveblogging makes possible; I make far better notes when I am aware they will have an audience, it turns out.

I will make a separate post about my own paper and the panel I was on. I want to close this general one by going back to Critical Ethnic Studies. Comparisons between two conferences so totally different in scope and scale can’t be taken all that far. But, especially in comparison to CESA, it was impossible not to notice that all of the 50 or so attendees at No Future, all that I met from the EU or US, seemed to be white. I don’t want to make an argument based on demographics, but it’s also true that very few of the papers I heard made any mention of the connections between race and futurity, and though the uneven distribution of futures within global capitalism was mentioned often, we heard little from the perspective of those populations whose access to futurity has been most foreclosed.

I would have loved to bring over some of the speakers from CESA to add the perspectives of Black and Native futures and presents; many presentations I heard at CESA would have fit verbatim into the “no future” theme. Perhaps speakers on these areas were among those who had to cancel due to budget constraints, symptoms of the present crisis in higher education’s economic future. But if there are going to be interdisciplinary conversations about futures of institutions, worlds, socialities, and what we mean when we agonize about their apparent absence, they will be incomplete if they do not take into consideration the racializing pasts and presents of what CESA called “the future of genocide.”

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One thought on “No future––for who? (post 1 of 2 on Durham’s No Future conference)

  1. Pingback: Gendered Futures, Katharine Burdekin and Reproductive Queer Negativity: No Future Conference post 2 of 2 « queer geek theory

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