MAPH Week 10: Future Perfect Comfort and Curse

As it is an incontrovertible truth that regular reader of this blog are considerably more intelligent than their peers in the general populace, I am sure that all of you are inferred from the scant number of posts this last week–one of them even being from a guest –that I have had considerably less time to write than is usual–and you would be quite correct.  University of Chicago functions on a quarter system with the Fall quarter running from August to December, the Winter quarter from January to the middle of March, and the Spring quarter from late March to June.  The MAPH program is one year-long or extending from August till early June–thirty-three weeks split into three sections of eleven weeks.  For those more skilled in math than the average philosophy grad student–or myself–it should already be obvious with that calender in mind that, since these posts are of a “week in review” character, this means that I have just one week–exam week–left in the Fall quarter.

However, no one wants to read about my struggle to write my final semester papers, the malfunction of my trusty laptop that necessitated a hasty trip to the Mac Store, or the overwhelming sense of dread that accompanies this time of the year.  While I am excited about a pair of posts guest blogger Bill Hutchison and I plan to write this week–which will function as an overview and afterward for the one of the MAPH program’s signature features: the “Foundations of Interpretive Thought” Core course–I’m going to use this post to turn away from MAPH’s specifics toward something more abstract.  I’d like to discuss the thing behind all that stress, all those sleepless nights, and frayed nerves: the future.

By the eleventh week of next quarter I will have crafted an annotated bibliography of ten sources, a finalized thesis proposal signed–hopefully –by some fantastic adviser, and fifteen pages of a draft for my thesis.  Am I going to have a better sense of my future prospects by that far away date?  I might, but will what I have learned cheer me up if I were to know it now?

The sentences of the previous paragraph have something in common: they are written in the future perfect tense.  If your memory with regard to your high school–or perhaps undergrad–English classes isn’t that great, the future perfect expresses the idea that some event will occur before another in the future.  What distinguishes the future perfect–will have or going to have–from the simple future–will or going to–is that the future perfect can only mean that the action will have been completed.  The simple future can mean that the action will have been completed, but does not necessitate that it will be completed.

It is funny and a little sad how–if I stop to review my thoughts, the things I’ve said, the things that I’ve written over the past three months how often I find myself captivated or even enslaved by the future perfect tense.  When I was younger–very much younger–I was perfectly happy for all my plans to be in the simple perfect: I will study photojournalism, I will marry my high school sweetheart, and I am going to be happy.  Now, I might just as well have said at age sixteen “by the time that I have completed my education in photojournalism I will have begun looking for work.”  However, I didn’t tend to think in the stair-step, this-before-that, first a child and then a minivan mode.

Now, my world is full of such “great chains of being stressed.”  For the past few days I have been saying things like “If I work my butt off, then by this time tomorrow I will have finished my paper” and “I will have committed suicide by tomorrow evening if I don’t have that paper finished.”  However, more regularly I think things like “I will have to have crafted a truly great thesis if I’m going to have any chance of being employed.”  The funny thing about reliance on endless strings of such posits is that the future perfect is both comfort and curse.  Martin Heidegger wrote in Being in Time of the necessity of life as a state of constant struggle between two extremes.  The translator of his German did their dead-level best to render his German in the appropriately verbose style and so translated the falling backwards from the immediate “givenness” of life as relucence–that is a basking in the reflected glow of the world without actually living in it–and prestruction–the attempt to avoid the insecurity, danger, and uncertainty through careful planning.

Early in my life the simple future was often a cover for a certain relucence on my part.  If tomorrow I will do something then I am not required to begin on it today.  In contrast, I would argue that my current  fixation on the future perfect equally betrays a tendency to prestructuring.  The trick to authentically living life–to embrace its facticity as Heidegger would say–is, rather than falling backward in relucence or falling forward in prestruction, to live fully in the present struggle.  While I can certainly feel better about my life by structuring it as a series of stair-stepping accomplishments, it is a false comfort–a curse really.  So, if all of us MAPHers seem harried and ready to snap at a moment’s notice it is only because we are the one’s who have escaped the trap of the “future perfect” for the struggle of the “present.”

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