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

January 16, 2018 • The History of the Future: A Q&A with Matthew O’Hara

What was the topic of your research for The Enhancing Life Project?

I’m a historian, and my project focused primarily on how futures were made in colonial Mexico. As part of The Enhancing Life Project, I took the general problem of “time” and I focused it on future imaginaries, as well as practical techniques that people use in their everyday life to make sense of, or to prepare for, the future. I tried to put those issues front and center in the historical analysis.

 I found a lot of support intellectually from some of my fellow ELP scholars working on similar themes from different disciplinary vantage points—from religious studies, from ethics, from cognitive science. That gave me a feeling of confidence as I was in the middle of the project, but it also, in the end, gave me interesting insights that I was able to bring into the final product, the book that I was writing.

Within the vernacular of The Enhancing Life Project, did you find that any specific terms, like Günter Thomas’s concept of "counter-worlds" or the cross-disciplinary bent of the project in general, illuminated your historical perspective?

I use a different term--"imaginaries"--in my book but one of the things that I liked about Günter's phrase “counter-worlds” is that it puts the notion of what's going on in people's heads on a bit of a more solid ontological footing. It makes those ways of thinking more real, in a sense. There's been a lot of discussion about this question in different academic fields, in anthropology, for example. Historians have been talking about this a lot lately, too. Sometimes historians come late to theoretical debates, but there's been discussion recently about the need to pay more attention to the ontological commitments of our subjects: the way that the people we're studying understand the world to work. 

On the one hand, historians talk a lot about avoiding anachronism—that is, not imposing our own views, or a modern view of the world, onto past times and places. But what some of us are finding is that while we will say those things, pay lip service to that notion, when we get down to the real nitty gritty, we do the heavy lifting of analysis using categories that are not those of people that we're studying. So one of the things that I try to do in my project—which I think was bolstered by the perspectives of people coming from religious studies, ethics, and anthropology—was to really pay attention to the way that the people I was studying understood the world to work, as a way to answer the historical questions I was investigating.

People have been talking a lot about the 24-hour news cycle and how it affects our perceptions of how we experience time. Is there anything in particular, in either the media landscape or prevalent discourse, that relates to your research?

The people of colonial Mexico saw no conflict between tradition and innovation. Everything that's been going on in the last year or so has really brought to the fore two visions of the future. One vision is a kind of techno-oriented vision that’s all about progress, all about the notion that the modern world is leaving behind traditions and customs in a radical break. Then, on the other hand, some are calling for a supposed return to an earlier moment, a kind of revival of tradition—at least that's what the rhetoric is offering us. I think that's too stark of a binary. In some historical cases, there is the possibility of newness and innovation emerging from tradition. I think that still happens today, but the gloss that most of us are getting is very different: you choose the past or the present. You either revive a golden age that was lost or you commit fully to a techno future that breaks radically with the present that we're in now.

Were there ways that the interdisciplinary structure of this project was especially helpful in confronting this and other problems of broad humanistic import?

Precisely because it was so interdisciplinary, the conversations didn't evolve (or devolve) into academic shop talk. We couldn't fall back on insider jargon, so the conversation then flowed towards bigger issues that were of concern to all of us. We constantly had to consider, "Why would my project matter to people outside my field?" I found that a very healthy way to think about scholarship.

How did having that question embedded into the structure and process of the ELP affect the work that you ended up creating?

I was already into the research when I started The Enhancing Life Project, so it certainly didn't shape the empirical findings themselves in any way, but it made me think about those findings in a broader context. Especially with respect to the "wrapper" that I put around the historical analysis, I was able to draw out the significance of my work in a much richer way than if I hadn't been a part of this project.

What was the topic of your book?

It's called "The History of the Future," and it's based in my field of study in colonial Mexico, but I'm trying to think about how you can shift between past, present, and future—between tradition and innovation—in a way that's a little different than historians have done so in the past.

Have you taught an Enhancing Life Studies course about some of these topics or insights?

I've put together a course related to my research. It's an undergraduate research seminar on the history of time. Students are generally familiar with some of the main categories of analysis that we use in the social sciences and the humanities: race, gender, and class would be the big three. I asked them to take the concept of time another category of historical analysis. It is a concept that most of them—most all of us—take as something given and natural, in the way that scholars might have approached race and gender in a previous generation. So what happens if we de-naturalize time a little bit and think about the ways that it might have a history too? The main assignment asks students to put together a project around that topic and style of analysis. Beyond that, the students are free to bring in their own interests: the places, times, and topics that they're interested in studying.

What age level and from what disciplines were your students generally coming?

I taught the course a couple of times as part of a freshman honors program. That can be tricky, because on the one hand the students are just getting started. On the other hand, it can be really rewarding, because the students were not necessarily historians and they brought diverse interests and skillsets to the course. They could be computer science majors, biology majors, anthropology, you name it. I found that putting that topical thematic spin on the class, and then allowing students to pursue their own interests, worked really well because it was a little bit more roomy than a standard history course might be.

What were some of the some of the topics that you used to help students develop a methodology for tackling these questions? How did you emphasize those pedagogical goals?

Some of it was teaching them the “nuts and bolts” of historical research: finding sources, evaluating their content, doing close readings of texts or visual material, thinking about how to ask an interesting question, why an audience should care, and how you should help them understand that they should care.

But then it was also—as I was mentioning—taking that thematic, humanistic question, How do people experience time and how has that changed over time? and allowing the students to take it in many different directions. So I had students with a more technical background analyzing the number of hits on YouTube videos as a way of understanding the perception of aging, others analyzed portraiture of Native Americans in the early 20th century, one examined how the threat of nuclear warfare changes our perceptions of time—I could give you many examples, but the idea was to give them a set of humanistic questions and tools and then allow them to apply them to different topics.

Do you think that doing this gives you an opportunity to challenge some of the preexisting notions that students have about what history is and what historians do?

I try to do that in a lot of my classes, but I felt like I had a lot of freedom to do so in this one especially. The task is to impress upon the students that history isn't really—or isn't just—a body of knowledge. It's actually a way of thinking or analyzing all sorts of things. It's a way of understanding our world, rather than specific content.

How do you imagine using the insights from this course in the development of future courses? Will anything in the course change if you teach it again?

One of the challenges in early iterations of the class was finding appropriate readings, especially ones that were interdisciplinary and that also served as examples of how to take very particular research and draw out its broader significance. As instructors, we're always looking for those sorts of models to share with our students. The Enhancing Life Project blog posts are a pretty good example. I could imagine sharing some of them with students in a future offering of the course.