Provocation: Futurizing Memory

From the Series: The Politics of Memory

Photo by rh2ox, licensed under CC BY SA.

“When I get pessimistic about the status of memory studies,” writes Andreas Huyssen, “I…suggest that there might…be an attack of the past on the rest of time” (2012:228; orig. emphasis). This remarkable image of the memory boom as a temporal takeover, a flood of pastness that threatens to engulf other times, continues the Enlightenment trope of past and future as antagonistic to each other. The struggle between past and future, “traditional” and “modern,” custom and innovation, memory and anticipation, shifts its shapes.

An emerging anthropology of the future often draws upon this trope, seeking to release our understandings of culture and time from anthropology’s preoccupation with memory and the past, thereby making the future more ethnographically thinkable (e.g. Appadurai 2013; Guyer 2007; Piot 2010). Just as the ethnographic present in colonial ethnographies rendered “other” societies ahistorical, might equating time primarily with pastness and memory—however thoroughly reconfigured by the present—render places and people futureless? Of course, anthropologists exploring pastness and memory have sought to counter timeless ethnographic representations by historicizing their subjects and deconstructing tradition (Bunzl 2002). But in deconstructing tradition, there is still a focus on tradition. Instead of a denial of coevalness (Fabian 1983), could a pervasive focus on the past facilitate an unintended denial of co-futurity?

Yet a “future boom” constructed in opposition to the memory boom would be just as problematic. Memories shape the capacity to produce the future (e.g., Werbner 1998), and are themselves shaped by the kind of future we think we’re heading for (e.g., West 2000). This is not to deny that those who adopt new orientations to the future often view memory in negative terms. “[F]utures are replacing the past as cultural reservoir,” writes Piot of those who inhabit the “hustle economy” in Togo (2010:16). In the Deliverance Ministry of Pentecostal churches in many parts of West Africa, both the past and the memories that allow its irruption into the present are personified as demonic forces, from which members are required to “make a complete break” (Meyer 1998). These are profound retemporalizations that open up new hierarchies, identities, and life courses. Yet, as Meyer makes clear, the idea of the future as a clean break from the past, carrying imperatives for change and hopes of redemption, itself requires a great deal of remembering. Even new, future-oriented lives re-member older patterns, despite the appearance of rupture (Cole 2010), and may combine temporalities in ways that do not oppose memory and future orientation (Harms 2011:89-120).

Sometimes memory practices form an explicit part of future making (e.g., Moore 1998). I am currently exploring the ways in which post-conflict reconstruction programs in Sierra Leone—especially transitional justice mechanisms—use memory techniques to establish a trajectory to the future. What kind of politics does this futurization of memory produce? Just as states represent themselves as spatially encompassing (Ferguson and Gupta 2002), the entities involved in national and international interventions represent themselves as having powers of temporal redirection. One concept I find useful here is Elizabeth Freeman’s (2010) notion of synchronization, by which she means the ways in which the family, the state, or specific institutions establish their relationship to time and seek to bind a subject’s daily routines or life course to their own temporality.

In post-conflict Sierra Leone, both Child Protection Agencies (CPAs) and the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) gave a central role to the narration of memories of the war. Through psychosocial trauma therapy in one instance and “truth telling” in the other, the CPAs and the TRC returned participants (and, by extension, the country) to the time of conflict. And by returning to the “zero time” of war, they sought to re-set the timeline, synchronizing person and nation, and thereby redirecting potential cycles of violence into planned linear sequences of progress and redemption.

As techniques of synchronization, then, narrative memories of the war become techniques for post-conflict productions of the future. These futurized memories form the machinery for highly prescriptive “trajectorist” temporalities (Appadurai 2013:233-37) that did not so much replace the past as continually harness and subsume it. They reveal, I think, that memory “belongs” to the future as well as the past, offering new techniques for a politics of future making.


Appadurai, Arjun. 2013. The future as cultural fact: Essays on the human condition. London and New York: Verso.

Bunzl, Matti. 2002. Foreword to Johannes Fabian's Time and the other/ Syntheses of a critical anthropology. Pp. ix-xxxiv. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cole, Jennifer. 2010. Sex and salvation: Imagining the future in Madagascar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fabian, Johannes. 1983. Time and the other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ferguson, James, and Akhil Gupta. 2002. Spatializing states: Toward an ethnography of neoliberal governmentality. American Ethnologist 29:981-1002.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2010. Time binds: Queer temporalities, queer histories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Guyer, Jane. 2007. Prophecy and the near future: Thoughts on macroeconomic, evangelical, and punctuated time. American Ethnologist 34:409-21.

Harms, Erik. 2011. Saigon’s edge: On the margins of Ho Chi Minh City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Huyssen, Andreas. 2012. The crisis of success: What next in memory studies? Memory Studies 5:226-28.

Meyer, Birgit. 1998. “Make a complete break with the past”: memory and post-colonial modernity in Ghanaian pentecostalist discourse. Journal of Religion in Africa 28:316-49.

Moore, Sally Falk. 1998. Systematic judicial and extra-judicial Injustice: Preparations for future accountability. In Richard Werbner (ed.), Memory and the postcolony. Pp. 126-51. London: Zed Books.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Werbner, Richard. 1998. Introduction to Richard Werbner (ed.), Memory and the postcolony. London: Zed Books.

West, Harry. 2000. Girls with guns: Narrating the experience of war of FRELIMO’s “Female Detachment.” Anthropological Quarterly 73:180-94.