Theory for the World to Come is my foray into thinking about life during (and after) the Anthropocene. It draws on speculative fiction (Octavia Butler, Donal Dixon, Stephen Graham Jones, Orson Scott Card, John Wyndham, and more), action movies (Robocop and C.H.U.D.), and a variety of other influences (‘The Twilight Zone,’ George Clinton’s P-Funk). It’s all an attempt to think about the idioms of social theory that attempt to conceptualize the future and the challenges they face in doing so; and it’s an attempt to get people to start thinking about social theory from unlikely or suppressed sources in an effort to build a body of thought that counteracts dominant forms of social theory (which are largely diagnostic and pessimistic).

You can read a sort-of precis here, in response to a series on Speculative Anthropologies: The Necessary Tension between Science Fiction and Anthropology.

You can read an Open Access version of Theory for the World to Come here.

“Theory for the World to Come” started as a way to think about a class I was teaching, entitled “Human Futures.” That class focuses on a set of large scale social problems — overpopulation, industrialization and later deindustrialization, colonization, environmental degradation — and their proposed solutions over the course of the 18th through the early 21st centuries. You can read the most recent version of the syllabus here.

“Theory for the World to Come” might also be the rubric for a book series. If you or someone you know is working on a scholarly project that fits within the framework, please be in touch. Here’s an excerpt from the series proposal:

The books I see attracting to this series fall into the following categories: 1) empirical studies of practices informed by one or more catastrophic conditions, which may include both human-made and natural disasters; 2) “critical engagements” with non-canonical theoretical texts and fiction from the 20th century and earlier, which imagine new relationships or solutions predicated on one or more catastrophic events, and 3) works of outright social theory that attempt to articulate a politics of the world to come. Taken together, I see these approaches as fostering new modes of conceptualizing what counts as social theory, how it can be legitimately produced, and who its audiences are.

In terms of the empirical studies of post-catastrophe societies, I would like to support the publication of social science that engages directly with communities who have experienced catastrophic events and found ways forward or who anticipate particular events and are making specific plans.[1] The encouragement here is to consider how reconfigurations of social forms might produce new models of theorizing the social; that is, with potentially radical breaks from the past, how is the social being reconfigured, and how might these reconfigurations travel as concepts and practices? These projects might focus on areas recovering from emergent epidemic disease (e.g. SARS, Ebola, Zika), or communities recovering from the effects of global climate or human-made catastrophes (e.g. Southeast Asia post-tsunami, Japan post-Fukushima). Additionally, these projects might focus on communities that are particularly concerned about the future, and potential developments that they anticipate and plan for; examples here include cryonics communities, technological futurists, and survivalists (or preppers). In each case, scholars should be presenting the theories that motivate the communities they research, as well as extrapolate to more generalizable social theory. As texts, these should be especially appealing to social scientists focused on the social studies of the environment, science, technology, and medicine.

I see “critical engagements” framing the inclusion of two kinds of texts, first speculative fiction that has fallen out of print and new fictional works by living writers, and secondly, social theory from obscure or underrepresented thinkers. In both cases, the books under this rubric would include a critical introduction to the text written by a relevant scholar, and may also include supplementary material, including archival texts, interviews with living authors, and other otherwise unavailable content. The inclusion of fiction in this series, particularly fiction that addresses questions central to life after catastrophic changes that can be seen as predicated on or employing novel social theory, could serve as a mechanism to attract contributors and readers to the series. There is no shortage of this kind of work, and this would provide a mechanism to attract living authors from minority and indigenous traditions,[2] and, in some cases, to republish long out of print books or unpublished work that fit under the rubric.[3] Similarly, reprints of earlier social theory would appear in these critical editions. These texts should share an interest in the development of a body of theory that helps to inspire thought about new models for conceptualizing human futures outside of normative bodies of theory. This will require looking for thinkers in uncommon genealogies of thought, including indigenous, religious, and lay traditions. These books should appeal to scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds and may also appeal to popular readerships, as the social theory included here is not necessarily disciplinary and the fiction writers come from diverse backgrounds.            

In terms of outright social theory, I would seek to attract scholars working in theoretical idioms that challenge normative approaches to the production of social theory; this may include drawing on authors that pull from non-dominant theoretical approaches.[4] Scholars writing from traditions that stretch back a century or more (Hegel, Weber, Marx, Freud, etc.) have long dominated social theory, and many recent scholars draw heavily from thinkers deeply influenced by these earlier social theorists (Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, etc.); this dominance obscures a potential diversity of approaches that draw from alternative genealogies of thought, pose different sorts of questions, and seek other kinds of answers. Other traditions of thought may perceive different social forms as normative or anticipatory, and building on these genealogies of thought may produce generative texts for scholars across the contemporary academy; they may also serve to introduce obscure thinkers and counter-genealogies as viable bodies of social theory. For example, this rubric might be so expansive as to include scholars working from the collected contributions of the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement, or similar liberation movements as social theory; it might also include scholars who draw on unpopular or largely ignored social theorists, articulating their systems of thought as alternatives to dominant trends in disciplinary research and writing. Readership for books under this rubric may initially be limited, but as they participate in the broader Theory for the World to Come project, they should attract curious readers; due to what might be uncommon questions and research topics, they may also attract unexpected readerships.

[1] I am thinking here of recent books like David McDermott Hughes’ Energy without Conscience (Duke 2017), Roberto Barrios’ Governing Affect (Nebraska, 2017), Elizabeth Marino’s Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground (Alaska, 2015), and Michele Gamburd’s The Golden Wave (Indiana 2013).

[2] I’m thinking here of people like Stephen Graham Jones, Nnedi Okorafor, Archie Weller, and Monica Byrne, all of whom are speculative fiction writers that don’t write straightforward science fiction and come from minority perspectives.

[3] Here I’m thinking of Octavia Butler’s unpublished Parables manuscripts, which are held at the Huntington, and also people like John Wyndham, Russell Hoban, Russell Griffin, Pauline Hopkins, Sutton Griggs, and Frances Harper.

[4] Examples include Karen Pinkus’ Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary, Shiloh Krupar’s Hot Spotter’s Report, Ghassan Hage’s Alter-Politics, Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus, and Hito Steyerl’s Beyond Representation.