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Book review: “The Future as Cultural Fact”, by Arjun Appadorai

Book review: “The Future as Cultural Fact”, by Arjun Appadorai
Arjun Appadorai is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. I made these remarks at the Asia Society, Bombay, on July 25th 2013


When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, says Arjun Appadorai, he, like many of us, was breathless in anticipation of “a new world of open borders, free markets and young democracies”. He was so enthusiastic about “globalization”, as this came to be known, that he even wrote a book about this new world. But then he says he watched in despair as all that the 1990’s brought was ethnocidal wars in the Balkans, the war against terrorism, the East Asian Financial Crisis and, the grand finale, the World Financial Crisis of 2008. It was as if the  contending parties in each of these conflicts were each pursuing their own visions of what they wanted this globalized future to be.

Arjun’s new book is an attempt to understand what these contending visions of the future each of these parties carry in their heads.. Evangelical Christianity in the United States, for example, he says, emphasizes self-help, commercial enterprise and a view of the family as a moral oasis against the threats of divorce and sexual freedom. This is their concept of “the good life”. The Muslim view of the “good life”, on the other hand, he says, has a different view of the relationship of authority to society, and a different view of the relationship that commerce and profit have to social values.

I first met Arjun in Madras in 1975, when we were both in our twenties. I was busy trying to set up Rediffusion’s first branch outside Bombay, Arjun was there pursuing  his doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago.  I was much intrigued when he told me that, as part of his dissertation, he was studying South Indian temples such as the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. I was intrigued because such temples  for me were just  places to which  your parents dragged you off to once every few years, where you had to stand in line for hours to get a fleeting glimpse of the deity. In other words, these grand South Indian temples or me were at best, a focus of people’s religious sentiment and at worst a repository of antiquated beliefs.  But no, said Arjun. The religious function of these grand temples was a minor aspect. Their core function in early-modern South Indian society was  as “re-distributive networks” of tangible and in-tangible resources and thus were key sites for the constitution and legitimization of political authority in early modern South India.  In plain English , if you were an enterprising war-maker and brought vast areas under your control by force you could legitimize your authority by making suitable donations to these temples.

 When Arjun moved to New York in 2009, first to the New School and then to NYU  I expected something like the book we have before us to happen. How could he, an anthropologist, live and work in lower Manhattan at NYU without casting his anthropological gaze at that other dominant institution in lower Manhattan, Wall Street and the Financial Establishment. This book in one sense is the result of that gaze. The rest of us, including me,  look  at Wall Street as a place you bought and sold shares and other financial instruments just as people like me  view South Indian temples as mere places of worship.  But in his new book, Arjun   tries to extract meaning from the  rituals and artefacts,   political and economic actions of these financial actors.. His discussion about the culture of risk there follows the same thread of inquisitiveness as he did in his study of South Indian temples. He  tries to illuminate for us the meaning of such risk-taking activity.

He joins Naomi Klein, the Canadian social activist and author, in characterizing as “disaster capitalism”, actions such as the  “shock therapy” administered to some countries ( Pinochet’s Chile, Iraq, Poland, Russia…) where the winners in these countries end up living  in a world of  guarded suburbs in an arrangement that allows them to escape all tax responsibilities for their poorer fellow citizens who have lost out in the shock therapy. He also joins the American financial journalist and the author of “Casino Capitalism”, Michael Lewis, in casting a sceptical eye at modern inventions such as the “catastrophe bond”, financial instruments the buyers of which will lose all their money if a certain disaster event occurs within a certain number of years and the sellers of these “cat bonds”, usually an insurance company seeking to insure itself against extreme losses, pays the buyer a high rate of interest.  Such a system, he says,  is dependent for its prosperity on a steady stream of disasters ecological, military or financial. Unfortunately,  many, many bright and well-educated people are attracted to such businesses  and the practice of what Arjun calls “the ethics of probability”- the practice of making their futures betting on natural or man-made disasters. All very well except that 50% or more of the world suffer terminally when such catastrophes happen and no thought is given to such suffering.
 
He then  presents an alternative view  about our future- one which is based on a description of what combinations of norms, dispositions, practices and histories that lead to  and paths that lead to desired discernible ends.. If such as future can be imagined it becomes possible for us to aspire to this future good life. This is what he calls “the ethics of possibility” as opposed to the ethics of probability.

He says that our generation has abdicated the construction of a vision of our future to econometricians and mathematicians who construct a future which is a mere extrapolation of the present. The alternative he proposes is the construction of a future which factors in our aspirations, our anticipations and our imagination. In using our imagination in this way we are able create a vision of our common future.  Our future then becomes not a blank space filled with possible catastrophes but a space which people can democratically design, it becomes “a Cultural Fact”.
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