History in the future tense sounds like an oxymoron. Everyone knows that history lives in the past tense. The colloquial or journalistic use of the present tense to narrate past events is known as the historical present. To be recognizable as such, history writing must occupy one of these two grammatical modalities.

It was not always so. In the British Isles from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, readers often consumed “history written in the future tense.” In the wildly popular genre of political prophecy, recent and distant historical events became estranged from the past and appeared as imagined futures. Prophecy expressed historical experience as apprehension, refracted through political partisanship and historiographical tradition. The unmodern affective textures of British political prophecy account for its post-Enlightenment occlusion, in scholarship no less than literary culture. The genre is now rarely read and scarcely remembered. In the eighteenth century, history in the future tense devolved from a vital mode of processing and intervening in political events to a self-congratulatory punchline about the superstitions of an ignorant age. Prophecy was subsumed in a hermeneutics of suspicion, which diagnosed the (often transparent) ulterior motives of prophetic writing, but in doing so displaced the actual experiences of its earlier readers. Returning to the archive of political prophecy throws into relief this digression in intellectual history, revealing what “everyone knows” about history to be a symptom of the division of the past, since the Enlightenment, into medieval and modern segments. Confronting history in the future tense in 2017 means acknowledging the ideological work that futures still perform in political discourse. Political prophecy is alive and well today. Our politicians and public figures foretell a brighter future, but their comments are rarely recognized to be historical in nature. [read more]

The Account 1 May 2017