Fictive Futures - co-incidence festival 2021
what would it mean to desire a future that we can’t even imagine but that we are told couldn’t ever exist?1
We desire a better future.2 We look around and see broken futures, broken dreams, and broken lives, and imagine that the world could (and should) look better than this. When lives are wracked by the consequences of capitalism, we desire tearing down the structures that have made it this way and building something new.
But we’re told that won’t work. We must reform. It’s this way for a reason. People are going to be inherently greedy and self-centered. We can reform. Tragedy of the commons. Let’s build from what we have. Your ideas only work on paper. We need these structures to have modern society. You’re an idealist. What are you going to replace it with? We will reform.
Why can’t we imagine the future we desire? Our imagining is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, and yet we’re left hopeless and downtrodden, told by those who are better at “pragmatism” that our imaginings are “childish” or “unrealistic”. Even when our imaginings are vague desires for something “better”, we’re told time and again that it’s an impossible dream, and could never exist. Humans don’t work that way, they say.
This forced pragmatism hinders our imagination. We ground ourselves. We suppress imaginations because we don’t have all the answers. We desire something, but we can’t even imagine what it could be. Maybe we should be what they call childish - that is, starry-eyed, quixotic, playing out fantasies. Imagining. Fictionalizing. Dreaming.
Creating fiction is one of the most powerful things that a person or group can do. As a person, fictions allow exploration beyond the currently available. As a group, it binds present togetherness into a what-could-be-ness; group fictive storytelling is a process of co-creation. The confines of storytelling are such that even when an individual group member is destructive (“in the next chapter of the story we’re writing together, I am going to kill the character you created”), the end product is still constructive, because the collective story is being built and spawned and coalesced on top of each development of any individual.
Fictive storycreation allows one to speculate on the what-could-be and the why-it-might be. Worldbuilding as a practice and as an art is one of understanding the deep intrinsic links between people, groups of people, and settings, and cultures, and how it might become something important. Fictive storycreation is an exercise in letting the mind run wild with what-could-be without getting bogged down in the what-cannot-be and what-should-have-been. When we allow our minds to run free and unconstrained, we can build and imagine and desire a future regardless of what we’re told is “possible”. Regardless of how people “intrinsically are”. Regardless of how structures “need to be like this”. Storytelling protects imaginative exploration from the need for perfection and actionability to what has been done before.
There are systems and games that well-illustrate this in action. I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing tabletop roleplaying games. Whether as a Game Master (GM) or as a player, you are always at a front seat in piloting a character and the group’s story. As a GM, you have the illusion of power. Typically, you have the institutional power as the one-who-wields-the-rules. But the goal of your gameplay is to minimize your power as much as possible, and to facilitate the players to create the story they want to tell and enact and see grow. The classic D&D game, for example, has a “leader” who has “power”, but the group benefits when structures of play give any player power at any time to take the reins of storytelling. Disparate individuals make individual choices, yet are bonded into a “party” that practices collective decision-making and faces consequences when they stab each other in the back.
Role-playing games are commonly derided as childish. But capturing that imagination, that group sense of creation, that coming-togetherness and that building-togetherness, and that collective sense of solving problems and finding a world together… that’s radical, not immature. Or maybe it is immature, and in that case, maybe a little immaturity is just what we need.
I propose playing a worldbuilding roleplay game together as a group.3 It will be a system I devise myself to maximize conversations about the world and the society that we want to imagine together. Far from romanticizing the Middle Ages as per culturally-dominant fantasy games, we will instead be playing a worldbuilding game to design and imagine a future society, and all participate in what it looks like and how it plays out. We will use an imagining game to imagine a better future. The group will have to make decisions about what to do in certain encounters and situations, and how to act when someone disagrees. It will be an opportunity to not just talk about a better future, a world with no police, no borders, no prisons, no capitalism, or anything else - it will be an opportunity to imagine it, together.
This will be a collaborative and co-creative experience. A group of individuals, with different ideas about societies and stories and the characters in them - we’re going to have to figure out the path of a cohesive story, a cohesive world, together. Whose ideas will get listened to? How will that play out and be decided? Who will contribute the least to the collective story? How will they feel about that? The group will collaboratively create a story, but will (any?) (all?) (some?) individuals feel like they are part of that “collaboration”?
We’ll experiment with whether we can worldbuild something beyond the confines of capital. And in doing so, we’ll see our individually contributed threads woven into a story greater than the sum of its parts. Well, either that, or the story will collapse and disintegrate under our collective pressure, friction, and conflict between individuals. But either way, it will certainly be interesting.
"Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We've Got." Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, by Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, AK Press, 2016. ↩
This piece was written as my application proposal for co-incidence festival 2021, an experimental gathering for art, music, and philosophy. ↩
The festival asked for people to submit proposals for projects to take place during the Festival, described as follows:
"The project is an experimental activity above all else. The label 'activity' re-prioritizes the social, political, and ethical dimensions of a piece, whereas, for us, 'piece' highlights a kind of product or something with a certain expectation."
"An activity can be a score for sound making; it could be a score for listening. It can also be a discussion prompt about a particular topic. It can be an experimental mode of perceiving the flows of group dynamics. It can explicitly deal with race, gender, religion, power writ large. It can derive from a personal experience and directly tackle that. It can be a walk, reading together, listening together. It can be a prompt given to all the attendees which is completed ‘off screen,’ alone, or in little groups. It can be making dinner for some friends. Maybe it is something operating just below the ‘surface’ of things. For us, it investigates how we might experimentally practice 'doing other' or challenging or refusing or critiquing or ignoring the normative modes we exist within, reclaiming from neoliberalism the evacuated (or artificially filled) space of desire; how is it communizing?"↩