Can Festivals Help Us Imagine a Future Again?

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Can Festivals Help Us Imagine a Future Again?

Monica Sassatelli is a cultural sociologist

Cultural sociologist Monica Sassatelli considers how festivals can help us face up to risk and uncertainty

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Apr 02, 2021

When asked, “What future for festivals?” I would like to shift the attention to the part of the question that we are likely to take for granted. That seems to me to be the very notion of future. The recent crises, the pandemic, and maybe more so the climatic crisis seem to question the possibility of there being a future at all.

Even in the Salzburg Global Seminar program, What Future for Festivals? we say “future,” but we often mean “risk.” Ulrich Beck, the sociologist who proposed the idea of “risk society,” would have found confirmation here: we live in a society of risk and risk management. What qualifies ours as a risk society is not an increased amount of risk but the pervasive quality of risk control. We have lost certainty forever; therefore, we need to learn to co-exist, consciously, with uncertainty. We need a “culture of uncertainty.” Uncertainty and freedom are inextricably linked.

In other words, our world may not be more dangerous than previous eras, but danger and risk are not the same thing: risk is danger plus awareness and future-orientation to measure and control it. Risk is danger to be administered; to control risk, a certain amount of freedom will be sacrificed, more or less willingly.

A society oriented to risk management is, in a sense, future-oriented but past-conditioned and often conservative. This is a necessary and even empowering stance: we are aware of risks today, and to deny them would be irresponsible. There is no going back to innocence.

However, this attitude has its own blind spot and dangers: a major one is that the future becomes just a matter of risk assessment, and freedom is always confined in a zero-sum game with safety.

If you are now asking yourself, “What else could it be?” then you are definitely a child of the risk society. I would like instead to try and shift the perspective a bit, to try and see a (different) future again.

Future conceived as risk to be managed is definitely one notion of future, perhaps the dominant notion of future. This is particularly the case from the standpoint not of those institutions invested with the responsibility of risk management, but instead from the standpoint of institutions invested with producing new meaning – that is, cultural institutions. Within these, festivals may have a prominent role due to their character of exceptionality, rule-breaking, and collective effervescence.

With respect to our specific question: the issue is not just to imagine what future for festivals (how to manage the risks that festivals inevitably face, which of course must be done). But also: how, through festivals, we can imagine a future again, how festivals can create a space to energize their communities enough to imagine a future, to want a future, to celebrate a future we cannot yet even imagine, let alone manage.

That is the function anthropologists attribute to traditional celebrations, a liminal space of social effervescence where society is both unmade and made anew, or where at least we have a representation of that, an aesthetic glimpse, and a release as well.

We can make relevant here what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai recently said about the idea of future: at its core is the capacity to imagine and aspire to a better life. To do so means shifting from a politics of probability – the management of risks – to one of possibility – strengthening imagination and aspiration as a cultural capacity. 

We need to face the current risks. But we also need a new culture of the future. Festivals, as cultural platforms of experimentation and celebration, have a key role to play in expanding this cultural capacity, the capacity to aspire and imagine.

Monica Sassatelli is a cultural sociologist, currently associate professor at the University of Bologna, Department for Life Quality Studies, and senior lecturer at Goldsmiths - University of London, Department of Sociology (both part-time). Her research interests focus on cultural events and institutions, cultural policies and creative industries.

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