Imagining Futures

A recent article in the Daily Nation begins,

Imagine you are invited to address an international gathering of “young leaders” — those brilliant, world-travelled, multi-lingual twenty-somethings who graduate from top schools with top honors and — having walked away from six-figure salaries — work for almost nothing in NGOs.

One of these “young leaders” is fated to be a future “president.” (It’s not quite clear to me how this formula for predicting presidents works—it’s certainly not how access to presidencies have functioned in the past, but let’s indulge the fantasy for a moment.)

In recently published work, I have tried to meditate on what it means to “imagine futures.” For whom can “futures” be imagined? How might a more nuanced understanding of imagining futures arrest, if only momentarily, the battering ram critiques of repro-futurity that too easily yoke hetero-reproduction to (an imagined) futurity?

Put more simply: some of us have futures imagined for us much more readily. The future is not simply an unfolding of time, the minute that follows this one and that one, but a careful plotting imagined by individuals and institutions, policy documents and private diaries, families and strangers. And while there might be movements through time not imagined as futures, I am wary of some recent queer claims about bending or thwarting temporality. As a good friend insists: people die.

We see this imagination powerfully exhibited in the quote with which I started: “young leaders” are imagined into being, marked, in advance, as a sequence of accomplishments, a series of fluencies, an accumulation of various forms of capital. It is easy to imagine futures for these “young leaders,” as presidents, diplomats, as people occupying what is imagined for them as their “rightful” place in “the order of things.” There are seats at an imaginary table waiting to be filled by these imagined “young leaders.” These “young leaders” are imagined into being, their trajectories mapped, their histories known in advance.

I’m not sure they are allowed to be surprising, but this is another train of thought.

I want to use the framework of “imagining futures” to extend an ongoing conversation about “the poor,” and to think a little more deliberately, if counterintuitively, about poverty. There are, of course, numerous ways of thinking about and constructing “the poor”: in the realms of income, health, food, security, law-keeping, human rights, “the poor” are marked by absence, loss, attenuation, slackness, irresponsibility, laziness, shortsightedness. It is not simply that they live on less than a dollar a day; it is, rather, that given a dollar a day, they would not know how to manage it, extend it, multiply it, create futures from it.

There is, to adapt Foucault, a “speaker’s benefit” to imagining “the poor” in this way: all their deficits read as credits (if not surpluses) in the lives of those who are “not poor.” Here I want to use “not poor” as opposed to middle or upper middle class or obscenely wealthy, because I want to assemble an unwieldy group of people. (It’s not clear to me what middle class means in Kenya, apart from “not poor.”)

“The poor” are marked, as well, by impoverished imaginations. I mean this in at least two ways. One, the “not poor” cannot imagine for “the poor”: cannot imagine their futures as worth imagining. Take a look at the opening quote again: future “leaders” trade success to work with and for “the poor.” (And while I recognize the absurd leap in logic that aligns NGOs with “the poor,” I don’t think it’s totally absurd once one looks at a lot of NGO work in Kenya.) Indeed the “not poor” see it as their task to imagine futures for “the poor” in which the “not poor” play starring roles—there is a swerve, a trick, a refraction of attention that allows such charitable attempts to focus attention on the “young leaders.” Thus it is that future “young leaders” who sacrifice high salaries can be imagined as future “presidents.” (Capital accumulates in diverse ways.)

Second, “the poor” are understood to have stunted imaginations, to insist on clinging to their “way of life,” “habits,” “patterns of living,” to be unable to imagine themselves otherwise. In contrast, the “not poor” are endlessly imaginative and innovative—and, indeed, one can “transfer” from “the poor” to the “not poor” through an act of innovation, even as that act is assimilated into an even more rigid distinction between the two. (One sees this pattern repeatedly in coverage of Kenyan “innovation from the slums,” coverage that, I am suggesting, performs valuable work in policing “the poor”/ “not poor” binary.)

It would be easy, I think, to point to many “up-by-the-bootstraps” figures—the DN recently featured one—as evidence against the claims I am making here. Easy to point to many figures, surely in the thousands if not in the tens of thousands who have, by dint of luck and hard work, moved from “the poor” to the “not poor.” Indeed, my father’s generation provides vast evidence of this “move,” even as their consolidation as the “not poor” was predicated on marking their distance from “the poor.”

I am interested in the strangeness of futures imagined by those deemed to be incapable of imagining futures. I am interested in what it could mean to un-imagine future “leaders” as an accumulation of already-known accomplishments and to re-imagine a space for what might be termed “surprise” or “the unexpected” or that for which we might not yet have language.