I’m momentarily at rest in my beloved Brisbane, with the sun blazing down in December and bushfires on the news and Leila Taylor’s book Darkly to read.
Taylor’s book, subtitled Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, blends memoir and criticism to explore the places where African-American history, culture, and experience meet the Gothic – from The Castle of Otranto through Edgar Allan Poe to Marilyn Manson.
I’m back in Australia helping organisations to look at their future and imagine what might await them in years to come, using scenario planning. This is a method by which, instead of trying to predict what’s coming, we co-create plausible visions of the future which challenge our current assumptions. Successful scenarios are not judged by whether they come to pass, but whether they trouble, complicate, and enrich our thinking.
And the dots which I can’t quite join yet became visible when I read this, in Darkly: “Gothic narratives were (and still are) a means of working through the discomfort of a changing world through the safety of fiction.”
Which is so close to what scenarios do as to blur the edges of the two concepts. In scenario planning we talk about avoiding the “brutal audit” of a crisis by rehearsing for the things you can’t, or don’t want to, see coming through your current framing of the world.
As Gothic narratives make latent anxieties manifest, so scenarios do future uncertainties – including the visions which are so bright they trouble us, as well as those which are dark. A lottery winner may find that in the long run, sudden good fortune may not leave them better off; Rebecca discovers that winning Maxim’s hand will force her to reckon with his past; “The Monkey’s Paw” reminds us, too, that you may regret getting what you wished for.
So I got intrigued about scenarios and the Gothic. Given this moment of global reckoning with catastrophic climate change, I wondered about the possibility of an eco-Gothic, and what such a genre might do for expanding our debates about the futures which we might inhabit.
But I also don’t want to shy away from Taylor’s focus on African-American life, or my own whiteness.
Taylor’s book quotes Claudia Rankine and Margo Jefferson:
“because white men can’t
police their imagination
black people are dying”
-Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
“Being an Other in America,
teaches you to imagine what can’t imagine you.”
-Margo Jefferson, Negroland
And this pressed me on something else which I’ve been pondering: the whiteness of foresight.
Who gets to be a scenario planner, a futurist, a foresight consultant? Out of what traditions do their methods emerge? Who gets to decide how we imagine the future differently, and how?
Every human practice is necessarily limited in some way – no one has godlike or comprehensive vision – so in what ways is scenario planning, the approach which helps you to look at the future out of the corner of your eye and see what you’re missing, also blinkered?
I started to wonder how many non-white scenario planners and foresight professionals there were. I wondered about where such professionals were trained, as well. Research suggests that finance and innovation policymakers’ decisions are significantly shaped by their educational backgrounds, so is this true for futurists and foresight professionals too?
I thought, even, about the ways in which timelines are drawn from left to right, past through present to future, arbitrarily, because English and other European languages are written in that direction. (And this made me wonder if other cultures and language groups represented time in different directions – I asked a senior scenario practitioner if there was research into it, and he said not that he knew of: “Might be a PhD in that.”).
I went to see the Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) exhibition “Temporal Deprogramming” at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts earlier this year, showcasing the work of a US organisation which blends community activism, foresight practice, and the arts.
Following Audre Lorde, BQF write of “the master’s clock”, imagining what it would mean to dismantle the means by which colonial masters imposed order on time and space:
Lorde wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, and I wondered what implications this has, when applied to questions of time, for foresight practice.
I bought the BQF workbook and studied it carefully, but I didn’t find it accessible, and couldn’t fully see how the method would deliver useful futures. (Something really important to me is creating foresight approaches with minimal bars to entry, which is why I think public libraries should be used to convene scenario sessions at an open, local level).
But I also recognise that BQF’s work is not aimed at me, nor intended to serve my interests, and so I merely recognise my failure to comprehend. Like the title says, this blog post is about the dots I haven’t fully connected yet, and I will allow myself that luxury, in the same way as I wouldn’t judge a spider for not yet having spun its web.
Brisbane, where I’m writing this, was the place where I first read Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land, an underrated book of essays which examine and criticise whiteness from within.
In a Harper’s interview, Biss describes “the need to acknowledge myself as dangerous.” It’s a slow and inconsistent process of learning how harmful, and how boring, we might be when our identity oppresses others.
Biss has also written elsewhere of the need to blend precision, poetry, veracity, and lyricism, which speaks to the speculative, deliberately challenging business of scenarios.
“The poet Robyn Schiff and I are involved in an ongoing conversation about the relationship between lyricism and veracity. One of the possibilities of the lyric, as Robyn has said, is that it may “sing” its argument. But singing doesn’t excuse you from precision.”
– Eula Biss
Brisbane was also the city, and Queensland the state, which introduced me more deeply to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures. On Thursday Island, I heard the librarian Mavis Bani talk about Titui Gul – “Starship” – a kids’ holiday programme taking Torres Strait Islander culture into a science fiction future. An Aboriginal colleague talked to me about white supremacy over coffee at Brisbane’s South Bank.
I learned to make Acknowledgment of Country part of my practice wherever I go, while also understanding that making such an acknowledgment at the start of an event is the beginning, not the end, of changing the relationship between Indigenous peoples and settlers. And I – these last two paragraphs have been full of “I” – was returned, in my own whiteness, to the question of how complicit I am in perpetuating the inequalities and injustices of a racially divided society.
I’ve been chewing on these things for a while, but is it only rumination if it doesn’t drive change? What change is to be made, and when is the role of someone like me in that change simply to step aside?
When it comes to the futures we are envisioning – not just the ones we want but the ones we are wary of, not just the ones we can imagine or the “known unknowns” but the ones from which we are truly blinkered, the ones which would blindside us – there are questions which must be asked.
Who is invited to write these futures, and how are they written? Where did the tools we use come from, and how does that affect their employment and their products?
As the writer Sharmila Sen put it in an interview to promote her memoir Not Quite Not White, whiteness can be “a kind of Greenwich Mean Time”, a standard against which other identities are described:
“I think whiteness is normative in America. It’s the thing that’s not named, just like being a man is normative, or being straight is normative […]
What’s considered normal is often the thing that’s not named, and everything else that is a deviation from the normal is named. […H]ow much power that normal then holds, it’s this power of being invisible, because that which is invisible, that doesn’t even need to be said, is very, very powerful.
[…] I wanted to take that invisibility cloak off of whiteness, so it could become just another colour, just another race, or just another identity among many other identities.”
How do we explore these challenges in the world of foresight, find responses to them, let them change us, without getting paralysed by introspection and interrogation?
“Total objective distance is bound to be an illusion. And the attempt to achieve it only produces an epistemological straightjacket. My approach is therefore utterly pragmatic. We need to get on with our work, mindful of our positionalities but not trapped by them.”
These are the dots that I haven’t joined yet.