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The History of the Future: A Q&A with Matthew O’Hara

Does time flow from the past or the future?

January 16, 2018 • By Matt O'Hara Does time flow from the past or the future?

Historians often describe time flowing “downstream,” like a river whose source is somewhere in the past. We living beings sit along the banks of the midstream present, with the future as an imagined downstream.

This seems to fit our common-sense notion of how time operates. It also shapes how we approach our work. We tell historians-in-training to be cautious about “upstreaming.” That is, “don't swim against the flow of time.” We tend to avoid using evidence from a later moment in time to explain some earlier event or process. Water from downstream (let’s call it Point B) isn’t necessarily good evidence of water quality upstream (Point A)—some runoff might have entered between points A and B and influenced our sample. So too could historical evidence from a later period distort our picture of an earlier moment in time.

All of this is perfectly logical. And, at times, it supports good historical practice.

But it is also wrong. Sometimes history flows from the future. Sometimes time flows backwards.

Examples from my own field are the "primordial titles,” documents authored by Indigenous communities during Mexico's colonial period. They typically described the founding of towns and affirmed control over local land and other resources, sometimes including accounts of sixteenth-century conquests or religious conversion efforts. Many were crafted in a voice and style that gave the impression that they were produced around the time of the events in question. They often provided surprisingly positive descriptions of these moments—glossing over the violence that accompanied the Spanish invasion, or describing a warm embrace of Christianity.

How should we square these records with other accounts from the sixteenth century that describe such events in the language of trauma and loss? Clues can be found in the context of the titles' creation and in their relationship to time.

It turns out that many of the titles were actually written in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, many generations after the events they described. The titles' perspectives on these events were shaped by the relationship to the future of the authors who produced them. The result was a different rendering of the past than we might expect. No longer trauma, the conquest wasn't really a conquest at all, but an origin point to be celebrated.

The authors of the titles thus situated themselves in time in the most creative of ways: by responding to the demands of the future as they assembled their past into the form of text and image.

Quite to my surprise, I encountered such flows of time repeatedly in bureaucratic and archival documents in a recent project on The History of the Future in Mexico (then called New Spain). The historical subjects in New Spain shaped both their present and their past largely through the tools, techniques, and ideas of futuremaking.

They posed many questions: Could the future be predicted, or did that knowledge belong solely to the domain of God? Did lending at interest amount to the theft of (future) time? What were acceptable business practices? Where would the chaotic politics of the present lead? How could one most effectively secure a (forever) future of salvation?

To answer these questions, individuals used the resources at their disposal—including their future imaginaries—as they evaluated scenarios, anticipated future events, and prepared for imagined outcomes. When they engaged the future, they shaped their present—and, sometimes, as in the títulos primordiales (and in many other examples of history making), they even shaped the past. In concrete ways, time and history moved from the future into the present and the past.

This is not to say that the past didn't influence the present and the future. Time could flow in that direction as well. The past provided resources, imaginaries, and techniques that individuals drew upon as they engaged the future.

The futures imaginable by the people who lived in early modern New Spain were not the same as those of the twenty-first century—futures have histories, too. This project has revealed a need for a different model of history, a way of analyzing human experience where futuremaking (and the backwards movement of time) takes a prominent seat alongside a more traditional model of time history that moves unidirectionally from the past into the present.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists are finding that similar operations occur in our mental processing. The future dominates much of our engagement with the world—it seems the river of time can flow backwards after all.


The banner image is "Primordial Title” from eighteenth-century New Spain. Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscripts, no. 21. Princeton University.

The thumbnail image is Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco, a "primordial title" from seventeenth-century New Spain. Manuscripts Collections, the Latin American Library at Tulane University.