Apocalypse Always: On Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s “Theory for the World to Come”
By Sean GuynesNovember 7, 2020
Theory for the World to Come by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer
Just this February, I was sitting in the tropical sun of a Miami winter, attending the poshest wedding I’ll ever go to, complete with a live band, cigar station, and fireworks display. I sat poolside reading Matthew Wolf-Meyer’s Theory for the World to Come, never dreaming that I’d soon be “sheltering in place” in Michigan, working at home while homeschooling an eight-year-old, debating with my partner which pandemic projection (six months, 18 months) to put faith in. We seemed in those early days of the pandemic to be living an apocalypse we were not prepared for.
Many of my colleagues, scholars of media and literature, turned to science fiction to understand the moment. Folks called for putting together “pandemic lit” and “post-apocalypse” syllabuses, Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) were launched to the top of movie streaming charts, and mentions of novels like Ling Ma’s Severance and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven skyrocketed on Twitter and Facebook throughout March and April. It seems apt then to return after all this apocalyptic angst to Wolf-Meyer’s book — to finally write the review I’ve put off in order to deal with this would-be apocalypse.
Wolf-Meyer’s Theory for the World to Come debuted in the University of Minnesota Press’s Forerunners series of mini-monographs last year. The series’s purview is short books of approximately 25,000–30,000 words that push critical-theoretical interventions in the humanities and allow authors to get creative in how they explore topics like racist restaurants, “global village” neocolonialism, anti-homeless designs, or the reactionary politics of ecurrency. The books are meant to be conversation starters. With several out each year and occasionally vague titles (e.g. Dark Deleuze), it’s easy to miss new Forerunners volumes, but Wolf-Meyer’s book will come as a pleasant surprise to scholars and readers of science fiction for its savvy cross-reading of novels and films with anthropological theory — a welcome interposition in the field that is written in the form of a partial auto-ethnography of the unfolding end times. The book is organized in thematic sections based on periods in Wolf-Meyer’s life, where he lived, and what the context of time and space suggest about the intersection of SF and anthropology: Detroit, 1992–1999 (Rust Belt deindustrialization); California, 2008–2015 (West Coast neoliberalism); New York City, 2015–2018 (East Coast globalization).
Theory for the World to Come offers short, personal readings of a handful of familiar SF texts, including blockbuster films like RoboCop and novels by Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Stephen Graham Jones, and Kurt Vonnegut. To these quintessentially SF texts he adds more loosely speculative ones, including funk music and Dougal Dixon’s speculative nonfiction book Man After Man. Wolf-Meyer identifies in each text an attempt to deal with a singular apocalypse and argues that in reading them collectively, in imagining their futurities together, we can better respond to the multiplicity inherent in all apocalypse. For Wolf-Meyer, apocalyptic imaginaries “produce models to think about society and how it might recover from devastating — if not ontology shattering — events.” Nothing new to scholars of SF, but Wolf-Meyer contends that these collective imaginings of devastating events offer a titular “theory for the world to come.” Indeed, in the time of ongoing apocalypse, we are already living in need of such theory and have only to produce it through engaging, praxis-oriented readings of speculative fiction.
SF reading (and production) as theoretical praxis highlights Wolf-Meyer’s training as an anthropologist. He points out that the speculative qualities that make SF what it is, namely the cognitive practices of “intensification, extrapolation, and mutation,” are core to many social theories. There is, in essence, no anthropology or sociology as such without speculation. Wolf-Meyer demonstrates the need to integrate these two modes of thinking, all the more important since SF studies has long recognized (though rarely acted upon) the imbricated emergence of science fiction and anthropology in the late 19th century. Yet social theory, like the singular apocalypses of many SF stories, is generally insufficient to the demanding project of understanding the nefarious complexity of the always-already-ongoing apocalypse. Wolf-Meyer comes full circle, then, in suggesting that social theories and speculative fictions feed one another, that theory for the world to come — the reflexive practice of speculation, of how narratives and methodologies can teach us to survive — is one way through the muck of the present.
To scholars of SF and utopia, much of what Wolf-Meyer has to say will be familiar, though rarely has it been said so well. Wolf-Meyer’s chapter on RoboCop, for example, highlights the usual 1980s corporate, deindustrial, neoliberal dystopianism that just about everybody who has written on Verhoeven’s film reiterates. But central to Wolf-Meyer’s argument is how the dystopia is raced, how whiteness controls the future, drives deindustrialization, and catalyzes corporatism through the deconstruction of white masculinity and domesticity, targeting two key historical vectors of urban life after the 1970s: the suburbs and the police. Wolf-Meyer integrates this novel reading of whiteness with his own memory of Detroit in the 1990s, with social science work on urban decay and whiteness, and with histories specific to Detroit. What results is, yes, familiar but at the same time uniquely interdisciplinary, creative, and compelling.
Perhaps the best contribution of Wolf-Meyer’s exceptional little book is his attention to speculative nonfiction, to that weird interzone where scholars of, say, geology and evolution in the case of Dougal Dixon, utilize the speculative mode of thinking to create a hybrid form of writing that is neither wholly nonfiction nor wholly fiction. Already, scholars of speculative fiction have turned to the “counterfactual” and extrapolative work of some historians to discuss how professional scholars make use of and produce alternate history. But in general attention to speculative nonfiction has been scant. Wolf-Meyer looks specifically at Dixon’s Man After Man, an eccentric book that tries to imagine humanity’s evolution through “deep time” into the future in the face of changing environmental circumstances. Wolf-Meyer’s reading of Man After Man is the most compelling in the book as he complicates the ways that Dixon’s professional training creates failures of imagination about human “destiny,” the linearity of history, and the predictability of evolutionary change. What results is a fascinating study of scientific epistemes, speculation, and social theory that demonstrates the value of thinking across genres of thought and knowledge production.
In the end, Wolf-Meyer’s Theory for the World to Come does just what Forerunners are supposed to do: it summarizes concepts, posits some news ways forward, tentatively tests out those ways, and does all this in a brief, incisive package. Theory for the World to Come is a breath of fresh air, an example for SF scholars and social scientists alike, and an exciting text that demonstrates just how fresh the study of speculative fiction can be in the stifling world of academia. Wolf-Meyer finishes by noting that social theory and speculative fiction are “not just a game of ‘what if?’” — as the latter is so often framed in marketing schemes, e.g., Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone — “but a challenge to complacency and resignation.” If nothing else, here is a book that challenges our complacency as scholars, our resignation about how we produce scholarship and what its impact can be. Wolf-Meyer ends hopefully by suggesting that “[t]here must be a way out,” and while the apocalypses proliferating with pandemic abandon insist otherwise, speculative fiction can become a tool for envisioning, if not practicing, a less apocalyptic future. Whether we can implement the lessons and futurities of speculative fiction is another story.
Sean Guynes is a writer, critic, and editor who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is co-editor of the Palgrave SFF: A New Canon book series, two journal special issues, and several books, including Uneven Futures: Lessons for Community Survival from Speculative Fiction (The MIT Press, forthcoming); and editor of SFRA Review.
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