- The Anthropology of the Future
Arjun Appadurai’s latest collection of essays, The Future as Cultural Fact, begins with a concession. He writes that he has had occasion to learn from critics of his 1996 book, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, “who found it too celebratory, perhaps even breathless, about the new world of open borders, free markets, and young democracies that seemed to have entered world history” (1). When he describes The Future as Cultural Fact as a sequel to Modernity at Large, then, he means “sequel” not as mere addition, but as extension and complication; what we get is not simply more of the same but rather the spinning out of a new story that was hiding unacknowledged in the gaps, shadows, and omissions of the first.
If the first book’s encounter with globalization was seemingly structured by optimism about the new social forms made possible by globalization, the second is especially attentive to violence. After an introductory chapter that predates even Modernity at Large (a modified version of the introduction to Appadurai’s 1986 The Social Life of Things), the subsequent chapters of the book are primarily concerned with what happens not to “objects” or “things” but to human bodies as a result of their encounter with economic forces and with the macroscopic winds of global trade and geopolitical change. The politics of the book emerge out of the question of how scholars might intervene in these forces and mold them to our ends. The theoretical question that ends chapter two—“why universities move less swiftly than, say, AK-47s” (69)—thus turns out not to be randomly or arbitrarily chosen, despite the play of that interrupting “say.” Rather, it is precisely this opposition that structures and energizes the entire book: how cultural form (and especially the space of the progressive but enclaved university) might catch up to the violence that seems to precede us everywhere.
The chapters that conclude Part I of the book all engage with this violence in the form of the AK-47, from a lengthy rumination on Gandhi and the “morality of refusal” in chapter three, to chapter four’s attention to the genocidal movements that have become the nightmarish face of post-Cold War globalization since the publication of Modernity at Large, to the centrality of “blood” (as both kinship, bloodline, and violence, bleeding) in the form of the nation-state itself in chapter five. The last of these is noteworthy in its stylistic shift from detached prose to Appadurai’s biographic remembrance of his father’s political activism in the early days of Indian independence, and his concordant sense that the space of the nation and the space of the family dialectically produce each other. In Part II, the book shifts from direct technologies of blood and murder to structural violence, here instanced in Appadurai’s interest in the slums of Mumbai. Mumbai is a quintessential space of globalization for Appadurai because it makes visible the dialectical tension between the optimism and violence he sees dividing Modernity at Large from The Future as Cultural Fact. In the time of globalization, cities like Mumbai have become spaces of both immense wealth and inconceivable poverty; they both “attract more poor people than they can handle and more capital than they can absorb” (131). In Mumbai, and through his encounters with housing activists in that city, Appadurai begins to construct a counter-vision of globalization from below, from the perspective of “human waste and waste humans” (123). Chapter eight, focused on the work of housing and democracy activists in the city, explicitly turns to the “politics of shit” as a way of concretizing this conjuncture, noting that the lack of hygienic infrastructure in the slums of the city abets not only a spirit of humiliation and degradation but the material spread of disease. “Toilet festivals,” organized by activists for the urban poor, mark a strategy of opposition to this “ecology of fecal odors, piles, and channels.” “The politics of shit … presents a node at which concerns of the...