Two years ago I published an essay in The Hedgehog Review called “Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future.” It was my attempt to answer, in a limited way and for one element of our common culture (the Internet), a question posed many years ago by the German philosopher Hans Jonas: “What force shall represent the future in the present?” It’s a question that has renewed urgency for those of us living through Covidtide.
At the end of the piece, I cite a 1980 essay by Wendell Berry called “Standing by Words.” There Berry reminds us of a passage from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in which Gulliver encounters the continent of Balnibarbi and its capital city, Lagado. Gulliver’s guide tells him about some curious activities going on there:
That about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion, and, after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematics, but full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region: that these persons, upon their return, began to dislike the management of everything below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado; and the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom without such an academy. In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last forever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair.
Our moment is dominated by such Projectors. In my own field of higher education, I find every morning in my RSS reader essays, articles, and blog posts appearing prophesying the dismantling of universities—this is sometimes called “unbundling,” as though a university is a cable TV service—or at the very least the elimination of academic departments, indeed whole fields of inquiry, that don’t rake in sufficient cash. The authors of these posts often glory in the title of “enrollment management consultant,” and they have at least one college president very much on their side: Jerry Falwell, Jr.
Such projection is easy and cost-free: No one will remember if you’re wrong, and whenever you turn out to be right you can crow about it on Twitter. This is why Berry says of the language of Projection, “It is not language that the user will very likely be required to stand by or to act on, for it does not define any personal ground for standing or acting. Its only practical utility is to support with ‘expert opinion’ a vast, impersonal technological action already begun.”
To the cheap talk of the Projectors Berry contrasts the more solemn and more responsible language of Promise: “The ‘projecting’ of ‘futurologists’ uses the future as the safest possible context for whatever is desired; it binds one only to selfish interest. But making a promise binds one to someone else’s future.” To make a promise is to utter words that you pledge to stand by.
Here’s my suggestion for, my plea to, our habitual Projectors: For every projection you make—I know it would be fruitless to ask you to forswear the projective temptation altogether—make a promise. Tell us not just what will happen but what you plan to do to bring about a better world, or a better university, or just a better neighborhood. Utter some words you will need to stand by. Because only then will you be answerable to the future that you so confidently predict.
It’s a lot to ask. In his great early essay “Art and Answerability,” Mikhail Bakhtin wrote,
But what guarantees the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person? Only the unity of answerability. I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life. But answerability entails guilt, or liability to blame. It is not only mutual answerability that art and life must assume, but also mutual liability to blame.
To make promises, to stand by one's words, to be answerable for them, is to open oneself to blame. That’s legitimately frightening. But if the cost is high, so is the benefit: To be answerable for one’s words is to escape the ineffectual, and to find “the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person.” To move from the linguistically and morally empty world of Projection—in which you can blithely forecast the destruction of whole fields of human activity and the hopes they hold—to the meaning-saturated world of Promise is to risk much. But if Bakhtin is right, you’re betting on the integrity of your own personhood; and if Berry is right, you’re binding yourself to someone else’s future. The promise for which you are truly answerable is a bet on mutuality.