Tripping Over the Future

Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century

by O.B. Hardison Jr.
Viking, 389 pp., $22.95

Are we drifting anywhere in particular? How can we know where we’re going when we aren’t even sure where we are? Where, for that matter, are we coming from? And, to pay our respects to the ultimate question—who the devil is we? These are large and busy questions, much mooted at the present time, though by no means new. When the bomb blew up the idea of scientific progress, when Auschwitz revealed the pit of savagery smoldering just under so-called civilization, when (most recently) the dialectic of history went gurgling down the drain with the demise of scientific socialism—then finding new bearings became a matter of urgent general concern.

Not surprisingly, voices from the academy have been quick to offer explanations, speculations, and prognostications—sometimes practical, more often inviting us to consider in a large way the future of “the culture.” This is, after all, the business of the academies, or at least it has become so. By vocation they take the long view and the wide perspective. Yet they are constitutionally a closed society, a near equivalent to the old ecclesiastical establishment of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels; and that setting influences, the more powerfully the less consciously, their judgment of things. Academic theorists are not unimportant, but they are under a strong influence to overestimate their own importance and that of people like them.

From where I live in Santa Fe, a hundred miles in every direction most people carry on their lives in a variety of cultural settings, hardly any of which have to do with “the culture” in the academic sense. The sheepherder, the child farmer, the apple grower, and the wood cutter can stand for the broad substructure of the society; revolutions in taste occurring at the Museum of Contemporary Art are as remote from them as new developments in big bang theory emanating from the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. And when one thinks of existence in the slums of South America, on the streets of Bombay, or in a village at the heart of Uganda, how limited and uniform appears our vision of what culture is—at least, as defined by academic futurists.

Where are we going? Probably, for most people on the earth, nowhere at all. Tomorrow will be exactly like today, or so little different that in a few days or hours the variations will have faded from memory and been lost in the blue haze of the ever-receding past:

Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all, that’s all, that’s all, that’s all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.

I’d be bored,” says Doris in “Sweeney Agonistes,” and she would be, she is. Meanwhile, for diversion we have the meditations of the futurists.

Two books by professors of English, actual and ex, contribute to recent annals of the anticipating-tomorrow game. Don Gifford of Williams College is the less adventurous of the two explorers. His approach is to compare the conceptual world recorded by Gilbert …

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Letters

Tripping June 28, 1990