José Esteban Muñoz: Foresight and Cruising Utopia

“Queerness is primarily about futurity and hope. That is to say that queerness is always in the horizon.” – José Esteban Muñoz

1: Future blindspots in gender, identity, and sexuality

I’ve been spending most of my time on foresight and strategy for several years now. It’s challenging, lively work, helping people and organisations to look at the future and seek out their blindspots to support better decisionmaking. Often we construct scenarios, imagined future contexts, to inform that work, creating plausible futures which challenge current assumptions and provide a unique vantage point on the present.

Late last year, I wrote about the whiteness of foresight and the ways in which this kind of work, and its practitioners, might be blinkered by lack of diversity.  But those aren’t the only kind of blinkers we encounter when we turn our gaze towards the future.

Before lockdown, I attended a scenarios workshop constructing big global futures, intended to explore fundamental questions about the ways our societies will be organised in decades to come.

The project generated a number of visions of the world in 2050, with huge changes not only to how we live and work together, but even the ways in which technology might be integrated into our own bodies. Yet despite all this radical transformation, people shied away from reimagining the personal relationships which underpinned this world. In the finished scenarios, featuring a number of personas from each imagined future, there was little sense of the ways in which family life and its related intimacies might have changed or been changed by the forces at work in each version of 2050.

Looking around the room at the workshop participants – largely white, European, degree-educated, mostly presenting as straight – I wondered what questions we had refused to ask ourselves, or address, as a result of our own identities and points of view, the life experiences and perspectives we had brought to the workshop by mere virtue of who we were.

I had a similar experience working on the future of Norwegian schools in the months leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak. Inevitably, questions about the future of schooling also demand that we examine the future of family life, changing definitions of childhood, and the relationship between the adult world of work and the child’s world of school.

One of our Norwegian scenarios suggested a strongly corporatised, materially comfortable but heavily surveilled future. Small touches like choosing to look at a same-sex couple’s life in this future and giving our protagonist an Arabic name helped us, in the mildest way, to shake off some of the assumptions which tend to locate white, cisgender, heterosexual people as the norm.

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In another scenario, we asked how teens with a non-binary identity might navigate their sense of gender and sexual identity in a world where self-directed online learning using telepresence technology was the norm. In this future, where the fight against climate change was a global priority and the human race sought new, more sustainable ways of living, adolescents were given greater responsibility and independence than they would be today, living lives which more resembled those of college students than high schoolers. We wondered how that might affect the ways they developed an independent private life both on and offline.

This question, of how 2050’s young people might explore their sexual identities and relationships in such a changed world, proved one of the hardest things for the project participants to address. They wished to project themselves forward into a future where such fundamentals remained as they seem in the mainstream today. This was despite the fact that battles over new forms of gender identity and their legitimacy already rage in both mainstream and social media. Which bathroom you choose to use and which pronouns you are called by have already become part of a significant “culture war”; we don’t need to wait for the future to consider this territory important.

These two experiences stayed with me, and I wanted to reflect on how we could stretch ourselves when looking at the future, to ensure that, in addition to all the other strategic assumptions we need to challenge, we were not blindly reproducing the notions of gender and sexuality we take for granted today.

And, as is often the way, when I spent time pondering these questions, exactly the right book drifted into my life: José Esteban Muñoz’s 2009 book Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity.

2: Aesthetics and queer futurity

Muñoz, who died in 2013, was a queer theorist and scholar who was based for many years at the Performance Studies Department of New York University. In Cruising Utopia, he presented a series of essays which challenged contemporary mainstream gay and lesbian politics. In them, Muñoz pushed beyond assimilationist goals such as gay rights, same-sex marriage, and the admission of gay and lesbian people to the military, to imagine a vision of queerness which more deeply challenges the norms of sexual and gender identity.

Munoz1

Muñoz sought queer identities which did not merely acquire the same respectabilities, privileges, rights, and responsibilities as those enjoyed by heterosexual people in the present, but which transcended them. You could read Muñoz’s queerness as a kind of universal solvent of gender and sexual norms, which resists and transcends categorisation every time a society seeks to define and confine it.

“Queerness is not yet here,” he writes in the opening paragraph of the book. “[…] The future is queerness’s domain. Queerness is a structured and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”

For me, this resonates perfectly with the work of foresight, the business of training one’s attention on the neglected, disdained, or dismissed aspects of the futures which may await, the discomfort of laying aside the usual models and assumptions when we try to imagine the uncertainties of what is yet to happen.

“Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity,” Muñoz writes.

The Silverlake Lounge, a Los Angeles music venue historically noted for its drag and burlesque shows – Image by Wikipedia user Josh Loney CC BY-SA 4.0

In poetry, photography, fashion, dance, biography, club culture, he detects moments which suggest imagined queer futures, times when the imposed sexual and gender norms of the present could be negated. Such moments at the historic fringes show us the limits of past and present sexual norms. Muñoz suggests understanding queerness as a historic resistance to those norms, an alternative which pre-existed contemporary lesbian and gay identities. He advocates for engagement with historic moments in queer culture to inform where we go next: “a critical looking back that may be a step forward”.

This business of looking back in order to step forward is also the work of foresight. Scenario planners and other foresight practitioners speak of identifying moments from the past and emerging forces which suggest possibilities of the future – what Pierre Wack called looking at rain on the mountain and understanding that could mean future floods in the valley below. We encourage the use of imagination and creativity to elaborate on the significance of those moments from the past; together, people working on foresight projects use their aesthetic sense, as much as their reasoning, to consider how inhabiting the futures which most challenge us might feel, using them as a vantage point to reflect on our choices in the present.

In their 2011 article “Feral futures: Zen and aesthetics“, Rafael Ramírez and Jerome Ravetz write of the ways in which traditional approaches to the future, focussing on predictability versus unpredictability, may fail us, especially when increasingly complex human-made systems become “feral” and spiral out of control.

They suggest the Western tradition of aesthetics – “the part of Western philosophy that deals with the forms of understanding, perception, conception, and experience which we qualify (often after the fact) with adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘elegant’, or ‘repulsive’” – as one set of intellectual tools with which to attend to the future in new ways.

They point to growing evidence that aesthetic ways of knowing the world, which “depend […] largely on sensing and feeling, on empathy and intuition, and on relating conception to perception”, precede others. Human beings apprehend and respond to the world through its beauty, or ugliness, before we understand and structure it in other ways.

Given this, Ramírez and Ravetz argue, attending to aesthetics “invites us to reacquaint ourselves with deeper insights into unspoken assumptions – the very ones we use to make important decisions such as whom to marry or whether we ought to move into a new house.” Appreciation for the aesthetic is more nuanced and complex than “gut feeling”, but it also goes beyond what we can understand when we cleave tightly to the expectations and rules which guide our usual reasoning.

Muñoz, Ramírez, and Ravetz all share this interest in aesthetics as a way of exploring and understanding the futures which await us differently. For Muñoz, appreciating queer aesthetics means glimpsing the possibility of a world which might never fully arrive, which might always be over the horizon, but in which normative gender and sexual identity would be dethroned, and new ways of living and desiring might be possible.

Bringing Muñoz’s work into conversation with the practice of strategic foresight would not be about taming his insights for the benefit of strategy consultants and their clients – the intellectual equivalent of a token “diversity hire” – but, more radically, about queering the practice of foresight, in order that it more truly lives up to its goal of forcing us to usefully question our assumptions about the present. As Muñoz argues, “Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.”

Muñoz draws on the work of the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch to make his case. Bloch described utopia as an imagined place and a time which negates the present, expressing hope and combating “the devastating logic of the world of the here and now” by acknowledging that something is missing in what we currently see, know, and experience.

Muñoz asks, “How do we stage utopia?”,

“suggesting that utopia is […] not merely a temporal stage, like a phase, but also a spatial one. Sir Thomas More initially positioned Utopia as a place, an island, and later that formulation was amended to become a temporal coordinate. Utopia became a time that is not here yet, a certain futurity, a could be, a should be. Utopia, according to Bloch, is a time and a place that is not here yet.”

Not only can utopia, the imagined non-existent place and time which highlights the limits and gaps of the present, be staged, Muñoz argues; it can be found in various already-existing products of our culture. He detects such utopian elements in the performance art of Dynasty Handbag, photographs of queer venues by Kevin McCarty, and even his childhood readings of Marvel’s Silver Surfer comic:

“The Surfer was an alien exiled to Earth, always longing to return to his homeland.

For me, a Cuban who grew up in Miami, where I was always told i was living in exile […] the Surfer’s mythology resonated. […] The Surfer is sexy too, but not in the explicit way that Superman is. His form is perfect, but his skin is pure reflective silver. […] My childhood desire for him […] is the desire for an alien who looks like an alien, who is odd and freakish, and reflects my own freakishness back at me.”

Such moments of contact with queer art shake us from the aesthetics endorsed by the mainstream, having the potential to astonish us with new visions of beauty and repulsion, new ways of both knowing and desiring.

“Astonishment helps one surpass the limitations of an alienating presentness and allows one to see a different time and place,” Muñoz writes, connecting Ernst Bloch’s notion of a reprieve from the “darkness of the lived instant” to the “campy fascination” which queer artists like Andy Warhol and Frank O’Hara had for starlets like Liz Taylor or Lana Turner: glamorous aesthetics as a signpost to a world beyond the limits of the present.

3: Queering foresight – dismantling deeper assumptions to see more clearly

It might seem bathetic to link such visions to the institutional work of foresight; the “a-ha!” moment of helping someone recognise a future to which they had previously been blind is perhaps only the faintest echo of Muñoz’s examples of transformed identity and desire.

Still, it shows us what we might gain from shaking up foresight and thinking more queerly about what lies ahead. The goal is not merely to diversify the cast of fictional characters with which we populate the futures we imagine – ensuring that not everyone is straight, white, and cisgender in the scenarios we present – but to push ourselves harder when we claim to be dismantling or discarding our assumptions.

In a recent article, “Rigidities of imagination in scenario planning: Strategic foresight through ‘Unlearning’“, George Burt and Anup Karath Nair reflect on

‘unlearning’ rather than ‘learning’ as a key mechanism that leads to the emergence of strategic foresight within the scenario planning process. Drawing on empirical evidence from scenario planning workshops, we […] argue that strategic foresight from scenarios stems from ‘unlearning’. By exploring the etymological German roots of the word ‘learn’ which originally meant ‘to furrow’, unlearning, we argue, implies eradicating furrows and returning to the unfurrowed flux of organisational experience […] Unlearning requires letting go or relaxing the rigidities of previously held assumptions and beliefs, rather than forgetting them, as part of the general approach to creating strategic foresight.

Muñoz’s utopias, the queer futurities he describes, are also opportunities for us to unlearn, to eradicate the deep furrows through which we conventionally understand gender, sexuality, and desire.

That might seem superfluous to some of the work which foresight practitioners are expected to do. Helping an institution to make long-term strategic decisions might not always require us to wrestle with such profound and intimate notions. Yet it is in those aspects of the present which we don’t see as necessary or important to address, that our strategic blind spots will form.

Our notions of family, gender, sexuality, and identity have shifted significantly between, say, 1980 and 2020; there is no reason to assume that they will now remain fixed, and that no further changes will occur if we look to the future of forty years hence. Feminism and gay pride redefined sexual expression for many in the mid-to-late 20th century, as psychotherapist Esther Perel points out, by fighting “to define sexual expression as an inalienable right.”

Following Anthony Giddens, Perel writes in her book Mating in Captivity that “[t]oday, our sexuality is an open-ended personal project; it is part of who we are, an identity, and no longer merely something we do. It has become a central feature of intimate relationships”. This victory for the sexual liberation movements of the last century changed intimacy for us all; who is to say how questions of sexuality and identity will continue to transform in years and decades to come, or who will drive those transformations? It certainly seems unlikely that our notions of intimacy, sex, and gender will never change again.

Attending more closely and curiously to intimacy in a wider sense will also help us to understand other issues, such as our relationship to technology. Professor Sonia Livingstone, a British professor who studies children’s digital experiences and rights, recently gave a talk for the British Academy which highlighted the ways in which debates over how much screen time children should be allowed on digital devices are entwined with other issues:

“We focus on technological differences between our childhoods and those of our children, rather than social changes. Technology has come to symbolise the difference between then and now, though many other kinds of social change have taken place. […] The labour market is changing, the demographic makeup of our societies is changing, family structures, rising inequality…but all of those changes are less easy to discuss or control than our children’s screen time.”

When we face such futures, we may feel more comfortable thinking about gadgets and their use, playing it safe and focussing on technological novelty. Yet the truth is, we must also think about the questions of who we will love and desire, how we will forge intimate bonds, what form the families and other groups in which we live and grow together will take. We must unfurrow some of our assumptions about how people relate, or are allowed and expected to relate, and unlearn what we think gender, sexuality, and identity will look like in the future.

Doing so will not just change the characters with whom we populate our future scenarios, but create the space for us to think differently about the world that awaits. This is, I believe, a fundamentally hopeful endeavour, even and perhaps especially when we work with institutions and in spaces which seem to have no time or desire to engage with such notions as queer liberation.

The strategic consultancy Normann Partners’ work with sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) reminds us that even for institutions which might not be inclined to an activist position on issues like environmental or social justice, foresight work can highlight emerging issues and the possibility of addressing them.

A Normann white paper on scenario use from 2017 cited an SWF representative who said, “I agree that in 50 years the climate will be warmer, but if I do anything about it and it’s not a pricing issue in the next 12 months, chances are my boss is going to give me a hard time.” Naming both the emerging issue (climate change) and the obstacles to responding (the short timelines forced on the representative by their boss) at least brings recognition and the possibility of subsequent action.

In the same way, understanding that our notions of gender, sexuality, and identity represent a furrow of assumptions can allow us to address those assumptions, and challenge them, when doing so sharpens and clarifies our view of the uncertain futures which await.

It may not be possible or desirable for foresight practitioners to shape or shift the morality of the organisations they work with, but practitioners do have the duty to help their client institutions or communities see more clearly into the places where their strategic blindspots lie.

Clear, honest visions of how ideas of identity, sexuality, and intimacy might transform – including even the most fleeting encounters with the kind of utopias which Muñoz describes – can create the space for future change. That is why, for all of us looking towards the future, it is vital that we learn to see more queerly.

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