Chuck Klosterman Goes to the Future, Looks Back
On the author’s new book, and a work of 60s cult film
Sometime in my very early twenties there was a trend in a certain kind of “documentary” show, on channels like Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and (most bizarrely) the History Channel, all premised on predicting a personless future. These shows — The World Without Us, The Future is Wild, Life After People, and Aftermath: Population Zero — particularly delighted in imagining the destruction of everything we currently hold dear (how, exactly, would the Golden Gate Bridge crash into its ocean-bay perimeter, and might it crush any CGI whales along the way?). I’ll confess that I rarely watched any of them, but I did sustain a two-month-long relationship with an art school grad/bakery employee whose conversations, as I recall, almost exclusively consisted of him giving summaries to some of the episodes. I actually enjoyed his episode recaps (more than a few which featured old white scientists seemingly salivating at the thought that their research, on the accelerating rate of corrugated steel decay for instance, might land them on television) — not because of anything in the shows themselves, but for the underlying idea that our planet, once it had gotten rid of us, could come to exist under the control of, say, sentient forest-dwelling squids. There have always been those obsessed with trying to foresee the future, but in those days in particular it seemed as if the culture was experiencing a moment of reckoning. Chalk it up to the image of the Towers falling on September 11th, or a gradually dawning awareness of our global environmental impact. Whatever it was, it appears that the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman is ready for us to experience another time-displacing reckoning.
His new work of non-fiction, But What If We’re Wrong?, approaches predictions of the future from an anthropocentric stance. The book’s subtitle — Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — gives a hint to Klosterman’s wide-ranging analysis, in which he considers how future generations might look at ideas that are in vogue or simply unquestioned in our present. As Klosterman himself observes, while no one would quibble with his premise in the abstract (Do you agree there are things our culture highly esteems today that in two hundred years will barely be remembered? Umm, of course), the trouble really begins when we turn and consider the specific. What if the subject we’re talking about is Philip Roth? Or football? Or the U.S. Constitution?
“I just want people to internalize the core premise: that the history of ideas is the history of people being wrong.”
The idea of changing tides — of delayed appreciation on the one hand, or eventual obsolescence on the other — can be consoling and terrifying in equal parts. It took seventy years and a World War for Moby-Dick to be canonized, much less widely read. There may be ten writers in the present time who are household names (three of whom make a living off of their writing alone). Is it a comfort or a mind-numbingly bleak proposition to consider that in three hundred years there will be exactly one writer — probably even just one book — held up as the crowning example of what our culture in these late stages of the American empire had to offer? “Like all writers,” Klosterman confessed in a recent email interview, “I would like to be remembered after I die. But I know that won’t happen.” Even so, Klosterman acknowledges that it will happen for someone. And in his book, he has a lot of fun guessing who.
“I see this book as a way for someone to think about an abstract cultural problem within the limited window of 288 accessible pages, since most sensible people aren’t in a position to spend eighteen months wondering how yet-to-be born humans in some distant future will perceive the age we happen to be living through,” the author summarized. So how does Klosterman go about positioning himself “in some distant future,” looking back at our present? By consulting with a wide array of authorities — from Junot Diaz to Richard Linklater to Neil deGrasse Tyson (only Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen turned him down) — admitting to his biases, and venturing a few guesses as to what these future consumers of culture might have chosen to keep around (Chuck Berry. Lit mags on the dark web that we don’t yet even know about. No sports, but maybe video games — though it must be said that Pokémon Go had not been launched at the time of the book’s publication).
But he also grounds his arguments with a degree of humility and cautious thinking — as much as one can be cautious about predicting the tastes of people whose great-great-grandparents are one hundred and fifty years from being born. In the end, as he writes, “I just want people to internalize the core premise: that the history of ideas is the history of people being wrong.”
During a talk following a recent screening of Peter Watkins’ dystopic cult British film Privilege (1967) — put on by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of their regular author- and film-paired Print Screen series — I had the chance to hear Klosterman apply his premise to a complementary work not included in his book. “It’s a film which, when it was made, was set in the future,” Klosterman stated, “but that future is now our past.”
He went on to point out that were a film with that title made today we would expect it to cover certain issues or themes, but these are not the concerns of Privilege. Made at and commenting on a specific moment in time, when rock-and-roll and the larger counter-culture movement was still young in Britain (and its longevity uncertain), the film has proven prescient not only about the conformity and control of Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s, but also about the reign of pop celebrity in our present-day.
Steven Shorter, Privilege’s protagonist pop star (played by Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones), is locked in a cage, handcuffed, and beaten by the police — all while managing to warble out a tune. He is used by his dystopian government as a tool of control; the violent frenzy that ensues in the audience functions as a directed release, under the assumption that these energies will be prevented from taking on a political bent. The hysteria, the passionate anguish of his fans, brought to my mind another traumatic Brexit, which sent shock waves across the internet — that of Zayn Malik from the band One Direction. What Watkins’ film failed to predict was that our current investment in celebrity is one we take on voluntarily, rather than being an insidious plot hatched by an oppressive and authoritarian government. And while Steven is given what we assume to be a happy ending (his enforced celebrity, and presumably his physical abuse, end after a particularly un-managed acceptance speech), the film does not explicitly show us this. Instead, a narrated voice-over ominously informs us that after only a short while no one longer remembers Steven’s name, as if this cultural oblivion, rather than the physical beatings he endured, were the real horror.
Something commercially popular and critically panned might one day come to acquire unforeseen significance in the future. Meanings will change.
Klosterman, who has himself written a profile or two on a pop star, reflected during the post-screening Q&A that it was Britney Spears whom he felt most resembled the film’s protagonist, in terms of the lack of agency and control she appears to have had over her own career. Could he see a future in which a fascist government used a figure thusly? If so, he said, his money would be on the sports stars, with their dependence on live audiences, and perhaps also their willingness to become spokespersons for the highest bidder.
In the end, any guess we are educated enough to make is probably wrong simply because we’re able guess it. Just as likely, he argues, something commercially popular and critically panned might one day come to acquire unforeseen significance in the future. Meanings will change. Klosterman points out that The Matrix originally seemed revelatory for its technological and stoner-philosophical ideas. Its relevance now — as the portrayal of an emergent, awakening true identity and casting off of a false reality — comes from a contemporary reading of the film as a metaphor for the transitioning transgender experience. Is there a possible future waiting for us in which the only music from our time that still has currency turns out to be Britney Spears? Of course there is. And for all we know now, those listening in the future might have a very good, totally persuasive reason as to why.
Check out the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s schedule for future Print Screen author-curated screenings.