For a Better Avenir

April 7th, 2010

I know I’ve mentioned this before, maybe in this blog, maybe in another writing, but many things remind me of a quote from the movie Derrida. The subject of the movie, philosopher Jacques Derrida, explains that in French there are two words meaning “future.” He corresponds these words to two ways of thinking: “le futur” represents the future that can be planned, the occurrences that we can say with some certainty–taxes will be due April 15, I don’t have to work next Sunday, in 2013 I’ll turn 40. The other term, “l’avenir” means “the yet-to-come.” Derrida uses “l’avenir” to refer to “the unexpected guest,” the unseen surprises that await us.

Perhaps we don’t see the distinction as clearly as we should. We all want to work for a better future, based on a subjective definition of “better,” but sometimes we try too hard to speak with confidence about the future. Take the health care debate: liberals try to state with authority that in the future, health care reform will reliably work to improve lives. Conservatives try to state with authority that in the future, the proposed health care reform will definitely lead to disaster.

I’ve seen enough changes in the world to know one thing with certainty: that I don’t know. To elaborate, I know that the “avenir” is coming, and that it will realize possibilities that I’d never thought about, positive and negative, as well as outcomes that are simply bizarre, unthinkable, nonsensical.

At the #tweetea meeting last night, we started with a discussion of social media’s impact on Detroit. It seemed hard to pin down an answer to whether social media is leading to a better future in Detroit, and how. Maybe I could only answer that it’s going to lead to a totally different future, and I totally don’t know how. Someone at the meeting gave a hypothetical: imagine that someone in 1900 had asked how electricity would change the future. Sure, we’d think about ways it would make it easier to read books at night, but would we have any clue what would come next?

A shallow thought of “avenir” might lead to fatalism; if we can’t know if anything will have a positive or negative effect, why bother? I can’t buy this. When we think to the future, we can think with as much curiosity as caution. So when I make a plan for the future, I don’t do it by saying, “I know with certainty that this will result in success.” Instead I say, whether talking about health care or social media or karaoke parties, “I want to see what happens.”

2 Responses to “For a Better Avenir”

  1. Very thought-provoking post…just like our discussion at Tweetea last night! Thanks again for joining in on the convo. Hope to see you there again soon.

  2. anna says:

    hey, i just came across this post when i googled ‘derrida quote l’avenir’. As i have recently watched the movie and that same quote stuck with me. It was one of the only things that did actually from the whole movie. I thought it was a rather special documentary. Which depicted him as a person rather than his philosophy of deconstruction – which wasn’t what i was hoping to find out more about.
    Anyway it sounds like you are interested in derrida, and i am trying to find out more about it. If you like you can email me, it could be nice to chat about this topic with a real person virtually?

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