Future functions: aspiration, desire and futures

Manuela Zechner September 07, 2010

manuela zechner

By Manuela Zechner and Anja Kanngieser.


In July 2010, we initiated a series of conversations with young workers, students and interns in Shanghai. At that time the city was in the midst of hosting a World Expo. After the event we wrote our collaborative reflections on questions asked about desires, possible futures, labour conditions, bodies, psyches and mobilities. These conversations were always infused by a backdrop of Shanghai's LED dreams of becoming a world city of urban sustainability, a thread that runs through all of what follows.

Some future functions


The future doesn't exist (yet), that much we know. Speaking of the future can never be a matter-of-factly thing, since it always means to posit something that is to come, and thus to make claims on the present. People speak of the future when they want to call something into being: it's not by coincidence that mostly politicians, advertisements, NGOs or activists speak of the future.


Doing the work of the future archive – getting people to speak to their futures – different tendencies of speaking to and of the future become discernible. Three of those could be: progressivist, speculative and desiring. While the future archive methodi focuses primarily on the function of desire, it constantly works through the former two, since they are an important part of most people's understanding of the future. What does it mean to speak of the future as a function? I take the concept of a function from Foucault’s idea of an author-function here. Foucault understands this primarily as a function of the subject, saying we should ask


under what conditions and through what forms can an entity like the subject appear in the order of discourse; what position does it occupy; what functions does it exhibit; and what rules does it follow in each type of discourse?ii


If the future is a function of discourse, it can configure the speaking subject in different ways. To speak of the future is to position oneself in different ways, depending on how one speaks of it: in determinist, speculative or desiring terms (this list may not be exhaustive). What do these mean and how do they function?


The progressivist mode of speaking of the future has been commonplace across what we may call modernity – centring around ideas of technological advancement, linear historical developments. An example of such discourse would be the Futurama at the New York World fair in 1939, showing the future in collective-determinist, techno-scientific images and architecture. The subtext of the futurama – as an architectural as much as filmic, textual and relational entity is that the future is coming, like an unstoppable wave, carried by 'progress', restricted to the capitalist 'west' yet sooner or later to hit the rest of the world too. This type of future function is based in representations, predictions and promises, asserting that populations as much as individuals have to tune up to it. Whether it's a device for governing populations via their expectations and hopes or a literary device that helps produce grand scale science fiction, or a futurism that resonates murkily with fascism, this mode of future is particularly visible in 19th and 20th century industrializing nations.


The second function here is that of speculation, which corresponds to contemporary cultures of speculation and finance, variously called post-modern, post-fordist, liquid, etc. It is a mode of thinking futurity based on a multiplication of scenarios, calculations of profit and risk, both on a macroeconomic scale – the stock exchange being the paradigmatic space where this function is exercised – and on an everyday scale, via the projection of individual opportunities and risks. This future resides in micro-movements rather than large images. Where the picture of the modern future outlines a collective scenery, the speculative mode is an individualizing one based in small calculations, functional to neoliberal governmentality. In this mode, the future is something every individual struggles to gain privileged access to, having to invent and plan for every minute – to tune up to individually, competing with everyone else. This is a more fragmented version (on an ideological level) and vision (on a subjective level) of futurity, based in cultures of projects, credit and debt. There's no big promise here but rather an incentive to speculate and compete.


Thirdly, the desiring function of the future. This is much more slippery. It lies in the bodily and psychic modes of being pulled towards things, being fascinated or attracted by possibilities. When we relate to the future in a desiring way, we don't end up with images but rather with sensations, feelings, maybe ideas. While large scale images, manufactured hopes and dreams are often used to activate and in the same instance capture and channel desire, this does not make desire less of a function since all of the 3 functions outlined here have propensities to blur into eachother - for instance desires can also activate large scale images or speculations. What is of interest here is the question of how to stay with this desiring modality. It's a way of relating to the future through our present bodies and souls, letting ourselves drift to imagine what things may open onto. It's a matter of tuning into rather than tuning up to. Desire carries the vague sensation that often brings forth moments of invention, and as such is the level that the future archive method tries to get to, even if it never entirely 'succeeds'. Unlike success in speech acts, the force of articulations of desire is never just a matter of external conditions being right, but of resonances within the self as much as those between self, others and world.


Living in neoliberal societies, we are used to a predominance of the speculative function, to advertisements and policies inciting us to invest, risk, project. This shapes our subjectivity and life in many ways, making us anxious, precarious, hyper-flexible. How may this translate to China – or to ask more plausibly, based on our future conversations in Shanghai during the transit labour project – how may it translate to young Chinese workers of an industry that epitomizes neoliberalism - the Creative Industries? The working-living experiences we were told of didn't seem too far off from the self-exploiting, nervous tone of what some call post-fordist labour. While places like the Expo still seem to be very determined by the second mode of futurity, the realities of young people that have migrated to the city to work as creatives seem to be filled with speculation, projects, insecurity, unpaid labour, investment into CVs. The 'creatives' (workers and students) we spoke to were not too preoccupied with Chinas future at large, nor with the ideological project that the communist party sets out. Their struggle appeared to be a rather individualized one.


The future is neon?


Shanghai has large stakes invested in her projections of the future – the city she has already become for the millions living and working within her territories, and the futures she encourages in her role as the ‘next great world city’. Since 1 May 2010, millions of people have travelled across China to participate in her grandest scenario, that of the World Exposition, to consume the imaginaries laid out in pavilions by hundreds of nation-states and corporations. Here tourist-citizens fill their Expo passports with the stamps and paraphernalia of their collective constitution of the coming worlds envisioned for and by them; worlds dazzling with new technologies to bring into being sustainable and harmonious urbanism ecologies. This is Shanghai’s vision of becoming. Over the past several years, millions have migrated to Shanghai for the chances they believe she holds for them. One young migrant working at Baoshan Electronics Market told us that he moved to Shanghai from the Anhui province, not for better pay, housing or work opportunities, which were of a higher prevalence in his home town, but because he thought he hoped to find more fun and excitement. The social imaginaries and the experience economies that circulate around and through the city are magnetic. And for the young people coming to Shanghai, their speculations and desires are what collectively calls into being her many possible trajectories.


At the Expo, we found a lingering technodeterminism that takes the form of LEDs and UFO shapes, spectacles of size and color, placing China in a macro image of the future. Yet the Expo also shows an activation of speculative subjectivity – spectacle molded into civil modes of experience economy, discourses of sustainability, investment and globality. As such, and as has been discussed during the transit seminar, the Expo seems to be preparing something not for the world to admire so much as for Chinese people to experience and take on - a pedagogical project of instilling logics of civil society, competitiveness and investment. Everyone gets to take away the desirable Expo packet, a box mixing older futures with newer futures.

The dream of something more


Throughout China, increasing numbers of young people are flocking to the metropolises in search of work in creative and communications based industries. Internal migration is most prevalent, with youths moving from rural or smaller townships to cities such as Shanghai – ‘the city of other peoples dreams’. This movement is configured through desires and aspirations, for escape perhaps, for capital gain and commodities, for a perceived elevation in social and personal value, for love, excitement and pleasure. The dream of something more. Shanghai has done much to encourage these aspirations and the kinds of futures that can be found here. It is projected that creative sectors will generate 10 percent of Shanghai’s GDP by the end of 2010. Whether this figure is accurate or not is less interesting than the particular confidence in continually expanding service economies it articulates and the expectations it gives rise to.


What do you want to be in the future (when you grow up)?


The future Shanghai is reaching towards is one filled with workers of technology and invention. The innovations industry is underpinned by vast networks of often seemingly unrelated occupations and sites of labour. This spans from the unregulated electronic waste collectors to the technicians in circuit board factories, the legions of factory workers assembling machine components to the interns at the photocopier and the marketing executive releasing viral propaganda. The creative supply chain is one productive of, and producing, invisible relations of commodities and services. The public face of this is often epitomised by, and stereotyped as, the in-demand successful creative designer or the corporate head negotiating a vertiginously paced lifestyle. Less fantasised about are the hordes of young assistants and graduates, migrants and casual workers that may struggle to coalesce their hopes in the present. The future is one of deferral. The promises inspired by these images of success drive an incessant searching out for a forward moving progression. This gives rise to a belief in a material concatenation of cause and effect: if I do this...then this...then this...then this...then I will achieve what I aspire to.


During conversation with a few of the young ‘creatives’ that had migrated to Shanghai we found that none were satisfied with their current conditions, but all expressed that they felt they were on the path necessary for the eventual fulfilment of their potential. There seemed to be a common perspective that (self) exploitation, low or unwaged labour, competition and intermittent projects were a rite of passage that would culminate in capital security alongside socio-cultural and familial prestige. At the same time we found conflicting longings for freedom, time for individual creative praxis and enjoyment. These were quite active and positive in some people, as possibilities rather than as sacrifices or losses. One young woman who had been working for an advertising agency saw for herself a future as a painter, another young student wanted to make comics. These seemingly contradictory desires jostle together to create narratives of what may come, which overlap and grate against one another and are complicated by external and internal pressures and prospects. For the young Chinese workers we spoke with, their coming of age in Chinese capitalist systems and ideologies is steeped in contradictory forces that both elevate individualist achievement and commodity accumulation on the one hand, and a communitarian ethos of social reproduction and kin responsibility on the other.


One method that we used to open dialogue about desirable futures was a series of mappings: scaling work/life balances, time budgets, social and work relations, zones of passage through Shanghai and bodily sites affected by labour. These mappings, while recalling social science techniques of data collection, are oriented towards the facilitation of exchange rather than the collation of quantitative information. The stimulus provided by the various maps and graphs affords a point of reference that helps to invigorate conversation through questioning and seeking clarification. This allows for a mode of interaction that is not founded on assumed premises but rather on a dialogic and naive relation, which may shift depending on the particular conversational constituencies. The maps themselves concentrated on the intertwining of psychosomatic, labour and social conditions. For some of the young people we engaged they served a quasi-therapeutic function, giving space for reflection on their own past and future processes of subjectivation as students, interns, workers, creatives and as civil and socio-cultural subjects.


The aspiring class


There have been critiques that the demographic of workers and interns classified under the rubric of the young creative class are a-political and wholly imbued with egocentric concerns of economic wealth, fame and social prestige. Indeed the comment has been made that


The rising ‘creative class’...have deep pockets, networking capital with the state, and a lifestyle characteristic of the nouveau riche. Totally indifferent to public issues concerning the truly socially dislocated (i.e. rural migrants) those twenty- and thirty- somethings are a species that even the most enthusiastic advocates of creative industries would find difficult to romanticize.iii


A number of the young Chinese creatives we spoke with described their background as working or middle class, often migrating from rural territories either with their families or alone for the pursuance of higher education. This is not to suggest that all of those within the creative sectors come from such heritages, but simply to note that each industry contains diversities that cannot be easily homogenised. At the same time, the broad sweep of the cultural revolution and the attempted rehabilitation of the bourgeoise meant that class composition was fundamentally altered, thus making the tracing out of class history one that needs to refer back to serial generations rather than only to the most recent. The effects that this seems to have had on the younger generations may contribute to the searching out for a different kind of relationship to social and familial reproduction, and capitalist accumulation. The composition of this labour force must be seen from within this history, but without negating present labour conditions that inherently challenge conventional Marxist conceptions of class constitution. The determined aspiration and idealism – along with cultural narratives around knowledge, experience and work – that underpins young worker’s acceptance of unsatisfactory labour situations must not be necessarily dismissed as a de-politicisation. This is not to undermine the recognition of a rising elite in such creative and innovative sectors, or to deny the commercial potential in these industries, but rather it is to acknowledge the wide disparities of material conditions and wages within the sector that problematise meta-readings of class formation. In this context, the challenge seems to be about finding different ways of looking at narratives around knowledge, experience and work. The challenge of negotiating a sustainable desiring access to futurity is a huge one no matter where and when, and needs to be worked out on a collective level - in sync with the singular instances it is made of - if it is to avoid going towards the impasse the speculative subjectivity is facing elsewhere.




i For info on the future archive project and method, see

ii Foucault, Michel. 1977. "What is an Author?" Trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 124-127.

iii Jing Wang. 2004. ‘The global reach of a new discourse: How far can ‘creative industries’ travel?’, International Journal of Cultural Studies 7(1): 17