- In the Present of No Future
Questions about the relation between present and past have become increasingly urgent as we reach new levels of existential despair in the face of political impasse, neoliberal rationalization, and environmental catastrophe. There is an overriding sense—discernible across high theory and public discourse alike—that we are living in the present of no future.1 How can strategic presentism help us with our sense of being out of time, no longer able to imagine a viable collective (or even reproductive) future and stymied by visions of the world without us?
A short history of presentism might begin not with the V21 manifesto, but with work in postcolonial criticism and the new imperial history. In the introduction to her recently published collection Empire in Question (2013), for example, Antoinette Burton argues for a historical practice that takes into account “the impact of the present on the project of writing about the past” (2) and the “perennial present-ness . . . of empire” (22). Similarly, Lisa Lowe’s ambitious The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015) calls for an interrogation of liberal history and its progressive narratives which, she argues, continue to obfuscate the connections she painstakingly reconstructs between liberal ideals and the slavery and colonialism that underwrote them, and between the various forms of exploitation that crisscrossed the globe as capitalism took shape in the nineteenth century.
If these critics offer new ways of doing history, David Scott, in Conscripts of Modernity (2004), argues for new ways of seeing history in order to ask new questions of it: “Today nation and socialism do not name visionary horizons of new beginnings any of us can look toward as though they were fresh thresholds of aspiration and achievement . . . to the contrary, they name forms of existing [End Page 90] social and political reality whose normative limits we now live as the tangible ruins of our present” (29). His work demonstrates how we might “understand the stories we’ve been telling ourselves” to determine stories better suited to our disenchanted moment (57).
I want to suggest that we think not only about what kinds of futures the past imagined but also about the latent potential of past work that refused to imagine a future. Anti-Caste, the first British-based anti-racist journal, was published between 1888 and 1895. Its strategic use of the word “caste” was designed to avoid the biological assumptions connoted by “race” and to connect anti-racist struggles in the United States with anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. The journal established international ties between anti-colonial and civil rights activists (such as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass), while its prescient critique of inequity addressed
the need for a greater understanding of Islam, our role as consumers in networks of consumption and exploitation, the opaque links between British military foreign interventions and capitalism, the importance of giving voice to the oppressed . . . and how to create a language of antiracism that encapsulates the theoretical folly and real violence of race thinking.(Bressey 13)
This very prescience, Caroline Bressey suggests in her indispensible book on the journal, might account for Anti-Caste’s eventual failure, for it chose to “engage people in debates that too few were willing to face” (13).
While the journal is fascinating and noteworthy for many reasons, I am interested here in the ambiguous temporality of its utopianism. While utopian thinking is typically oriented toward the future, Anti-Caste avoided a specific vision of futurity. Its idealism was incarnated in the collectivity it established in its present, and its grasp of that present was too devastating to accommodate the narratives of progress that underwrote most Victorian utopias. The mast-head of Anti-Caste is one site where the ambivalent register of its utopianism is made visible. The word Anti-Caste at the top of the paper always featured a double-hyphen: an idiosyncratic typographical move that made the title appear to read “Anti=Caste” (fig. 1). In this way, the masthead makes “caste” equivalent to “anti,” that which is against, always in a state of antagonism. The journal is against caste, but caste is just “against,” for the equal sign defines...