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As I complete this essay, the quarantine imposed on Baltimore stretches into its second month, and I continue teaching online amid terror and despair. Blog posts and newspaper articles forecast a new era of education in the age of social distancing, a new kind of virtual conference in the absence of travel, and new research without the face-to-face interactions that have heretofore been the bread-and-butter of ethnographic fieldwork. All of these may be prognostications, but they are not, I would submit, really about the future. Instead, each “future” describes a present--online education, virtual meetings, digital anthropology. None of them are really “new” at all. Just the opposite, they are part of a process of what Escobar (echoing Tony Fry) describes as “the systematic destruction of possible futures by the structured unsustainability of modernity” (Escobar 2018: 117). Here, the COVID pandemic ushers in a future, but it is not a real future. Instead, a “de-future,” a truncated present where face-to-face relationships disappear and only online connections remain. As Deleuze wrote in his essay on Bergson's duration, “The possible passes into the real through limitation, the culling of other possibilities” (Deleuze 1991: 187). Shorn of alternatives, the COVID future ushers forth an impoverished dystopia of distant relations, multiplied inequalities, Mad-Max guerilla capitalism. Prognostication in the age of the pandemic has been about the way our future will be an attenuated present: less social interaction, less economic well-being, less life. It it was a tv miniseries, I don’t think I would want to see this future.
Of course, it’s worth asking why it would matter if I would watch such a dystopia. Isn’t this the way it is? Yes, and no. Yes-the disruption and loss of life have an undeniable, terrifying reality. But at the same time, no: we can look to alternatives that acknowledge pandemic realities but also sketch alternatives to capitalism, to the bourgeois rentier class, to precarious employment (Wolff 2020). We can sketch alternatives to a digital divide education where people with a fast broadband and the latest laptop get access, and everyone else survives on asynchronous, canned powerpoints (Aschoff 2020). Finally, COVID underlines the failures of neoliberalism at almost every level. And, in that failure, raises alternatives that are already implicit in the practices and institutions of people in many of the places where anthropologists have worked: all kinds of cooperatives, land trusts, community health centers. As anthropologists, we need to elaborate those alternative futures, to engage in a “futuring” that will spell the end of a fait accompli modernity.
Deleuze, Gilles (1991). Bergsonism. NY: Zone Books.
Escobar, Arturo (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.