In the future we stood apart
Illustration by Matthew Page and Cyril Babeev
It was between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when western societies developed the idea of historicity, of seeing their present as fundamentally different and separate in time and space from the past. Industrialisation led to vast transformations in the social, economic and even physical landscapes of western society. With mechanisation came the idea which would dominate global culture for the following centuries: the notion that all societies followed a linear line of progression propelled forward by technology. As the Victorians marvelled at their steam engines and great warships, they saw before them a world of infinite possibilities. To them, utopia no longer entailed a mystical past, but was to be found in the yet-to-be-realised future. Articulations of this shift gave rise to the genre of science fiction (SF). And with mechanised arms in hand and a utopian dream in mind, they set off to inflict their ‘civilisation’ upon the ‘less advanced.’ And while the world has since overthrown the military shackles of colonialism, the imperialist faith in progress and civilisation has not only stuck, but become dominant in almost all societies. Perhaps even more so than in two centuries ago, science is equated with ‘truth’, ‘fact’ and ‘universalism’ in the popular psyche. As a genre which posits the ‘science’ as a prefix to ‘fiction’, SF appropriates the implications of ‘science’ to claim a factual quality which other types of fiction could not.
A recent example of wildly popular SF, Blade Runner 2049, was released to widespread critical acclaim. As a much-anticipated sequel to the 1982 original, the film explored a dystopian future where replicants, human-like robots with full consciousness, are exploited as a much-reviled slave labour class. Yet no number of holograms or flying cars could disguise the rampant orientalism prevalent in the 2049 world. At first glance, one might mistake 2049 LA for Tokyo or another East-Asian metropolis. Advertising in intermingled Korean, Japanese and Chinese fill shop display windows and virtual billboards while advertising for Sony (a main sponsor of the film) recurs throughout the narrative. A registry computer which Ryan Gosling – our protagonist – uses, broadcasts in toneless Japanese, yet displays in English for the western audience to read. Thankfully Gosling is spared the embarrassment of having to speak back to the computer in a foreign tongue. The indiscriminate mixing of multiple East Asian languages and cultural symbols is forced into a stark contrast with the alarming absence of Asian people, as if an ethnic cleansing had taken place.
If Blade Runner treated western society’s anxiety over ‘Otherness’ by excluding them from the narrative, then Hollywood’s 'remake' of 1995 Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell went one step further by forcibly inserting themselves into a non-western narrative. The remake’s whitewashing in casting Scarlett Johansson as a protagonist cyborg named Major can be accounted for by a significant plot change. Towards the ending in both versions, Major is offered a choice: to remain as she is, neither fully human nor machine, or to upload her consciousness onto the web to merge with the digital singularity. In the Japanese version, Major chooses to liberate herself from her ‘shell’, opting to exist as part of a collective post-human consciousness. In the remake, however, Scarlet Johansson’s Major rejects the offer, emphasising her desire of being human.
This plot change sheds light on Hollywood’s version of western humanism. It is individuality and independence of thought which define one’s ‘ghost’, and one’s individuality could only be guaranteed by possessing a ‘shell’ to contain one’s ‘ghost’. This individualist humanism has, since its conception, been defined against the presence of an ‘Other’, a role fulfilled at various times by Islam, natives of the Americas and the colonised populations during imperialism. The narrative of a white/Christian/human meeting and overcoming a non-white/non-human ‘other’ is reiterated in the SF's of space exploration and conquest like Star Trek. It is no surprise that Major, as the custodian of western individualist humanism, must be played by a white actress who could lay claim to this western legacy.
But to fixate on the west’s failures in representing a global perspective risks falling into the same toxic mindset which western culture seeks to reinforce – that ‘west is best’ and that all discourses must originate from and focus on the west. In fact, the west is but one part of a much larger world full of societies with varied concerns and problems. Whitewashing in Hollywood, for example, is only an issue within the west. To a Chinese or Japanese audience, Hollywood is the ‘exotic other’, one which plays to their misinformed imaginations of foreigners. White actors are part and parcel of this exoticised import. The claim by Hollywood producers that casting non-white actors in leading roles would limit the size of the audience for the film may well have some truth in the international context, especially with Asia set to take over from the U.S. as Hollywood’s biggest market. Those American actors who claim to represent various Asian societies, simply because of the colour of their skin, fall into the same ethnic essentialism by which they were limited in the first place.
If the west’s cultural ideals are often critiqued for their claims to universalism, then other forms of utopianisms or visions of the future are unduly praised as valid alternatives of a global thought system. Chinese author Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem won the Hugo award and garnered widespread acclaim in the west for its sheer imaginativeness and insights into human civilisation. Indeed, the series is said to present a diverse world free from the binary relationship between the ex-colonial and the ex-colonised. Yet Liu’s works and those of other similar writers are equally rooted within their own cultural contexts. In the series Liu has China take on a leading role in the world, and in each book the Chinese protagonist saves the world while heroes of other nations uniformly fail. Even this alternative system of thought, however, cannot escape that Victorian notion of progress. Facing the threat of alien invasion, it is technological development on which Liu’s protagonists rely in securing their survival. Perhaps this fetishization of technology is a response to the countless horrors people suffered under imperialism and native warlordism over the past century, a period known in China as the ‘century of humiliation.’ Writers of this period, such as Lao She, often lamented their nation’s plight on the one hand, and imagined through SF a strong and united China leading nations across the globe towards a better future. And while Hollywood imagined a futuristic humanism based on individualism and the dualism between soul and body, Liu narrates a collective humanism much in the mould of Confucianism and Chinese Communism, a conception of individuals characterised not by the essentialism of body and soul but by a person’s relations with other members of society.
While we have focused on Hollywood and Chinese literary futurisms, imaginations of the future were by no means the prerogatives of these two cultures. Anthony Appiah charts an Afrofuturism which imagined a posthuman cyborg race free from the legacy of colonialism, while Larissa Sansour’s film In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain explores the notion of constructed national identity in what appeared to be a futuristic version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Careful readers of SF are well aware of the fact that SF does not so much depict the future than represent the present. As Frederic Jameson argues, the most characteristic SFs alienates the present ‘into the determinate past of something yet to come.’1 This is inherent in the very language of science fiction, which describes a future in the past, perfect tense. Yet in summarising the present, SF cannot escape dealing with the past. It is the history of each community which define its present and the context with which a community lays claim to a universalist future tailored to their own needs.
Far from what the Victorians had imagined, technological advances failed to usher in a path of limitless progress. Russia and China responded to the rise of ‘transnational’ social media by setting up their own Facebook (and in China’s case, Twitter, Whatsapp, Google, Youtube and more). Unable to cope with information overload in digital age, voters of the U.S. and the UK look back in history to a mythologised past, where a unified national identity supposedly existed. Across the Atlantic, Xi Jinping looks back to China’s 'century of humiliation' to justify his own ‘self-strengthening’ campaign of ever-increasing state centralisation and economic expansionism. Reports suggest that the white-male dominated tech industry has created AIs which identified black people as apes and women as cooks. Can we still hold the view today that technology could resolve our problems and bring us together? Must we, like all believers of progress have before us, designate with blind faith our tribulations to a future world where they have magically become a thing of the past? Or must we accept, as Nabokov writes, that ‘the future is but the obsolete in reverse'?
This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here: https://issuu.com/thecourtauldian.