Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Thinking about pasts and futures

By Rosemary Joyce

image of cover of book "The Future of Nuclear Waste"

A year ago, I canceled a trip to Indiana.

Normally, I wouldn't remember so vividly something like this. But March 11, 2020 is underlined in my memory like few other days in my life.

I had a newly published book to promote, and the trip was supposed to be part of launching it. With a broad scope ranging from cultural heritage to indigenous studies, from science fiction to poetry, from materials science to the vision of 20th century practitioners of Land Art, my exploration of the way archaeology served in US planning for marking nuclear waste repositories was a book I expected to do well.

image of cover of book "The Future of Nuclear Waste"

I had already given a couple of talks, in Washington state and the south bay, and found that audiences including participants in the science and technology of the US nuclear industry appreciated the book as much as the archaeologists in attendance. I had managed one of my goals: to communicate across divisions within academia.

The trip to Indiana was a chance to present the book as a campus-wide "distinguished lecture" at another public university. It would be the first opportunity to see what a mixed audience, including non-academics, thought about my fascination with how granite came to be seen as the most durable stone in existence, and how that was related to a very particular American history that intertwined Egyptology, memorialization of the founding generation of the US democracy in the early 19th century, and new ideas about bringing nature close to cities in the form of burying grounds reconceived as parks that followed.

But as the week leading up to my departure neared, the news about the spread of coronavirus had me on edge. I worried about being in another state if travel were to suddenly be restricted. I was concerned about the possibility of unknowingly carrying an infection from the West Coast to the midwest. And, I realized late on that Wednesday, I was worried that the US might not actually know how widely the virus had spread. I could not know how safe I would actually be en route.

So, with my bag already packed, my flight checked in, my boarding pass printed-- I canceled my trip. The administrative host for my visit was kind about my late decision, awkward for his campus, but I could tell he didn't really see why I was doing it. I really didn't know myself.

Then things began to happen.

The following Monday I had my last visit to campus, for a doctoral oral exam, with one participant via teleconference and the rest of us practicing this new, awkward thing called "social distancing". The same day the co-instructor I was teaching with and I used what in the months since has become my second home, Zoom, to meet virtually and plan how we would pivot to all-remote instruction in our 150 student lecture course. By Thursday I was conducting all work via digital connections. I have visited campus three times since then, my own office only once.

Everyone who has lived through this year has an account of what it has taken from us. For far too many, this is family members and close friends lost. For even more people in the US, where confirmed cases are approaching 30 million, the coronavirus brought loved ones close to the edge where life meets eternity. But even for those lucky enough not to be connected to the trauma of illness, recovery, survival, and loss, the past twelve months are marked by appointments on a calendar, plans for holidays and vacations and gatherings with others, expectations of futures that never came to pass.

This year has marked our relationships to time in ways that range from the idiosyncratic and personal-- my indelible memory of how I felt on March 11, 2020-- to the communal and even global. There is the time before, and the ceaseless now in which we are living, with its carefully modulated steps towards something we can barely imagine, a future radically unlike the past, no matter how much we might want to imagine stitching time back together.

That kind of interplay of tempos of time, of the relationships between past, present, and imagined futures, was one of the axes of my book project. I offered a critical examination of how certain people in the late 20th century-- experts, mainly labeled "futurists"-- imagined people thousands of years in the past thinking about their future as they constructed projects today recognized as World Heritage sites. I questioned how the government experts projected their understanding of this futurity-in-the-past, to justify a design for a message to their own future. The project convinced me that humans resist thinking about the long term, that for us, futurity is most real when it is most personal-- our own life, the lives of the next generation, perhaps a glimpse of one or two generations beyond that.

That reluctance to think far from the now, I argue in my book, impedes our capacity to truly imagine radically different futures, futures in which our best efforts at controlling the understanding and knowledge of our distant successors might not be effective. We are, I suggest, like the ancient Persian ruler who inscribed stone monuments with fierce demands that his memory be honored into a future "as long as your line endures", but who placed a measure on the length of his imagined future, by describing the eight generations of his own ancestors as stretching to "antiquity". As I wrote, "the imagined future is one in which the families of the men who supported Darius in battle would still be identifiable. It is a future in which Ahuramazda is still a name to conjure with". Darius couldn't conceive of the future 2500 years from his present in which he and his works were transformed into "heritage" disconnected from his own line, the generations he counted before and imagined would follow.

My imagined future on February 21, 2020, when my book was officially published, was really not much different, its horizon measured by events I could project into the future because I assumed the future would recapitulate the structure of the past. I looked forward to the seasonal tempo of the coming year that would be marked by classes, semesters, scholarly meetings, and their regular, predictable, time-honored forms: to the lectures scheduled to present the book, to the conferences where other scholars might decide to buy it.

Before a month had passed I entered a different, unimagined, almost unimaginable future. We are there now.

Newspaper articles may anxiously forecast ever-changing dates when we can "go back to normal", to treating the future as a predictable replica of the past. Like everyone, I am waiting impatiently for a different future, to be able to travel to see my far-flung family. I will embrace the opportunity when it comes. But it won't be a return to the past. It will be a turn to yet another future unlike any past we have lived, unlike any future we imagined just a year ago.

And that in the end makes me glad that the tempo of publishing my book ran headlong into the upended now that became our future. Today, I think I understand better how difficult it is for us to live in an unimagined future. I am grateful that when that unimagined future became now, that I arrived there ready to confront my own incapacity to do better than Darius, better than the futurists who claimed the Persian king as evidence of effective futurism in our past. A capacity to live in the unthinkable now will be critical to our ability to live into any future, imagined or unthinkable. We can't go back, we can only go forward, but we can choose to look farther ahead.