“Futurologists Look Back”

Sassaman, Kenneth E. 2012. Archaeologies, 8, pp. 250-268.
The gulf between indigenous and western experiences in the Americas may appear so vast as to obscure the relevance of knowledge about the ancient past to challenges of today. Yet, in imaging alternative futures, people of varied cultural dispositions find experiential accord. As both product of and precedent for social action, materiality provides archaeologists some purchase on interventions of change. In the recursive relationships between place and being, between thing and entanglement, we observe temporalities that privilege historical practice as the locus of social action. Examples from the ancient American Southeast illustrate what form an archaeology of alternative futures might take.

Much is unsettled in the Anthropocene. Seemingly every day we are confronted with planetary phenomena outside the bounds of collective human experience. As an example, NOAA and NASA just determined that 2014 was the hottest year on record. Such records, or Anthropocene Signs, are disquieting for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the uncertainty of the immediate and feedback effects of increased temperatures on habitability.  Yet at a more fundamental level, what is troubling is the apparent collision of agencies working at different time scales (see Stephen’s post on Big/Deep histories) As Dibley has stated it, “The Anthropocene is the crease of time. The Anthropocene is the appellation for the folding of radically different temporal scales: the deep time of geology and a rather shorter history of capital” (Dibley 2012, p. 140). Forces or processes traditionally thought to occur outside the bounds of either human experience or control are impacting global habitability now and in the immediate future. In coming together, these combined time scales call into question both the separation of the past from the present, and a future of sustainable progress (indeed, perhaps any future). How we envision the future, and our capacity to alter or inhabit it, influences decisions in social, political, and economic spheres today.

In making futures uncertain, the Anthropocene frustrates our relationship to human history. What good is the past in an age of change? Are modern times so distinct that we have no need for the experiences of past communities? Certainly, knowing how people in the past interacted with each other and the planetary system provides a baseline for calibrating current and future practices: the archaeological record is often mined for proxy indicators. In these cases, past human action is reduced to a geological or ahuman process itself.  Indeed, attempts at dating the onset of the Anthropocene rest on the notion that there was a time or place before which human experience in the world is largely irrelevant to contemporary concerns. Although the planetary scale of the Anthropocene may be unique, the current moment is not the first time that temporalities have collided in humanity’s history. The archaeological record attests to the intersection of all manner of processes (earth system, social, or cultural) occurring at different time scales (see Bailey, 2007). Past climate change, cataclysmic events, and intercultural encounters have all challenged humans in the past.

In this paper, Ken Sassaman challenges the notion that the past—materialized as the archaeological record—is relevant only as a testament to what happened, or that the modern world is fundamentally distinct from the so-called pre-modern (disclaimer: Ken Sassaman was my dissertation committee chair and is a research collaborator of mine). He offers instead that the archaeological record is more profitably envisioned as a series of past possibilities or anticipated futures. These so called “futures past” (Koselleck 2004) structured how ancient communities (and modern as well) made their worlds habitable. Sassaman suggests that history is made through the enchainment of pasts, lived presents, and anticipated futures. Human experience in the world is informed by different temporalities. Some of these temporalities involve processes such as cycles of weather or astronomical events, but can also include the persistence of places or objects from the past into the present. How the past was arranged with respect to possible futures was central to the historical experiences, and decisions, of ancient communities. Indeed, because human experience is entangled with any number places and things the archaeological record is, according to Sassaman, “an accumulated set of historical resources for animating the future.”  We may imagine that in times of relative stability, for example, communities invoked relatively long time horizons, such that both past and future were extended and memorialized in place.  In times of rupture, say due to rapid climate change or unanticipated cultural encounter, we should expect reconfiguration of the relationships between pasts and anticipated futures. Sassaman suggests that in times of such change, some communities actively intervened in the flow of time and redirected their possible futures. In his case material from hunter-gatherer landscapes of northeast Florida, Sassaman highlights how past settlements which were threatened by climate change were reworked into social memories through ritual practice that acknowledged change but enabled future habitability elsewhere. Importantly, it is time that was purposefully mobilized in the service of habitability.

So, what do “futures past” offer us in the context of the Anthropocene? Certainly, a focus on past possibilities requires that we rethink the relations that inhere between prior and current human habitability. As much as the Anthropocene appears to be a rupture (and by all measures the planetary system is experiencing unprecedented assaults), the past is not something that is behind us.  Indeed, we are surrounded by both objects and places made in prior times (even our bodies are legacies of other times). The future will contend with what we do today. In this sense, past human experiences of rupture and resilience, and interventions in history, would seem to be more important than simply narrative prologue.  As Sassaman suggests: “If we shift our gaze from the content of these various revolutions—pre-modern and modern alike—and instead examine how changes in experience were represented as pasts and imagined futures, I believe we can forge greater connection between our study of the ancient past and the anticipation of our own fate.” More to the point, past interventions provide grist for planning futures. At the same time, the diversity of futures past should also remind us that there are numerous, often conflicting futures that persist today. Indeed, the great challenge of habitability in the Anthropocene will be navigating current futures, many of which cannot come to be given current knowledge of the earth system, in an ethical, socially just, but also timely manner.

Bailey, G. N. 2007. Time perspectives, palimpsests and the archaeology of time. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 26, pp. 198–223. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278416506000481  In this article Bailey provides a detailed discussion of the archaeological record, methods for analyzing phenomena at different time scales, and impediments to understanding temporality and human experience.

Dibley, B. 2012. ‘The Shape of Things to Come’: Seven Theses on the Anthropocene and Attachment. Australian Humanities Review, 52, pp. 139-153. http://press.anu.edu.au/?p=196961 Dibley discusses the entanglements, and contradictions, of different time scales and agents in the Anthropocene.

Koselleck, R. 2004. Futures past: on the semantics of historical time, New York, Columbia University Press. Koselleck reflects on how the experience of time in modernity is based on a supposed rejection or elapsing of tradition. He provides a very useful theoretical discussion of alternative futures in history.


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