Article Review: ‘Uncommon Futures’, Valentine and Hassoun (2019)

Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

A/N: I ‘wrote’ this using speech-to-text software.

These are thoughts about ‘Uncommon Futures’. Now,  I have problem with this paper, and it’s a bit of a sensitive thing to phrase so I’ll just do my best. First, however, I’ll give my attempt at summarising the paper’s arguments.

From what I understand, the foundation of this paper is the argument that the best, most ethical, way of thinking about the future in anthropological theoretical writing is by looking to BIPOC writing, thought and theorising or experiences of time. The authors of this paper are saying that recently (by which they mean post-1989 and also more frequently in recent years), anthropologists have become anxious about the fact that “Oh my God we’ve never considered time”, “Time’s been neglected in anthropology and now the world seems about to end so we really need to think about the future”, “Why have we never written about the future in anthropology?”. The authors of this paper in response are basically saying “Well, look, BIPOC, queer and other marginalised people have already spent decades, centuries, millennia in crisis about their future” and it’s only now that it’s hitting “privileged metropolitan largely white populations in the global north” [direct quote] that anthropology suddenly is concerned about it.

Also, they’re saying anthropology isn’t only concerned with the future but also with its own future, like “Will anthropology continue to be relevant?” So this is like an existential crisis for anthropology on multiple levels. And the authors are saying that to rectify all of that and to go forward with a truly decolonial perspective we need to incorporate the understanding that, as I just described, many people have long existed with precarity – rather than taking purely white western perspective which sees approaching climate collapse and responds with consternation and shock. In other words, they’re critiquing the way in which it took a global climate collapse in order to make privileged people understand what a precarious and uncertain future is. I take issue with none of those points; I find them compelling, exciting and important to heed.

Alt text: Surprised Pikachu meme with the text “You mean the future… isn’t guaranteed???”

My problem with the paper, though, is how it is written. I found it very academically dense and difficult to understand, thick with language that most normal humans can’t get through. For instance:

Solutionist, human-centered worldings intersect with heterodox ontological scholarly interventions and experiments that are united in resisting “correlationism” (Meillassoux 2010)—Enlightenment epistemologies that reduce the world to human intention and interpretation—and that seek to reimbricate human and nonhuman worlds (McLean 2017). 

Now I’m a native speaker of English, I’m white, I’m solidly middle class, very educationally privileged, I have multiple degrees from prestigious universities (one in linguistics and language from Oxford and two further degrees in anthropology from Edinburgh and Manchester) and I’m now doing a PhD in anthropology… and I was struggling to understand what they were saying. That seems counterproductive to me, considering the content of the paper.

That’s not to say that black and indigenous people are less capable of understanding complex texts or indeed less capable of producing complex texts. What I am saying, though, to be matter of fact about it, is that it’s not about capacity so much as access and mobility. So, I think it’s certainly the case that the impenetrability of academic language has long deterred people, and disproportionately BIPOC people, to even enter the world of academia – to engage with it, to recognise themselves within it, and to think that that’s a space which they might meaningfully inhabit.

I struggle with making this critique, because on the one hand I recognise the fact that you don’t have to be white to write impenetrable language and you don’t have to be white to understand it. That particular brand of what might call sophistication and I call complexity is not the sole intellectual reserve of privileged elites. I’m also not trying to take an arrogant stance in the sense of saying “Well I have an Oxford degree so id I can’t understand it, no one can understand it”. However, I am saying that I have benefited from incredible privilege in education and the fact that I’m still really struggling with this does not make me very hopeful that someone who hasn’t had my particular set of privileges would have a chance in hell at being able to enjoy engaging with this.

It’s a concern for me in terms of access. If we want to invite and include a wider and more ‘diverse’ (problematic word I know) range of perspectives, then I don’t think that participating in the dance of academic pretention and impenetrability is the way to go. I feel like you can play the game, or you can change the game. And it seems to me that these authors are playing the game.

True, maybe this was a strategic move on their part, an attempt to make BIPOC perspectives legible within academia by repackaging them into academic lingo. And maybe that’s a valuable and necessary element of changing the game, and I am far from firmly set in my final position on this whole matter. But, the truth is that I am more excited and interested in changing the game in the sense of “Rather than proving that anyone can adhere to the conventions of impenetrable academic writing and posturing, instead of proving that it’s not just white people who can write impenetrable language and that all kinds of people have the requisite brain cells to write page-long sentences and have footnotes towering to the clouds, let’s simply acknowledge that the thing is all of us can’t understand it.”

In other words, I see this paper as a move in the wrong direction. The lack of accessibility of this article that claims to want to de-whiten and de-privilege academic thinking – all while using language that is so deeply, inextricably interwoven with language that most people wouldn’t be able make head or tail of never mind understand the very valuable point behind it – is a sad irony.

It’s a shame that all this great synthesising and theorising work that the authors have done in their minds is just incommunicable to a significant proportion of people trying to read it. Maybe it’s been designed that way to appeal to the types of people who really need to be encouraged to use decolonial thinking – people who are so enmeshed in academic posturing that they wouldn’t read a paper written in a more colloquial or lay register – but I still don’t like that many of the people who are being advocated for here are also being excluded from that advocacy, not to mention that young academics who are the ones who are going to bring the change will also struggle with this kind of text.

I haven’t even gone into the fact that it’s incredibly problematic for people who aren’t native speakers of English but operate in anglophone academic spaces. It feels presumptuous to me to write a paper and not make the extra effort to make it comprehensible to people who have different linguistic backgrounds.

To summarise, I don’t know who this is for and I don’t know who this is meant to benefit… or rather, I do know who it’s meant to benefit but I don’t know who it’s meant to benefit them if they can’t bloody read it. And that sucks.

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