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Review: Isiah Medina's "Inventing the Future" Charts the Origins of the 21st Century

Isiah Medina's follow-up to his debut "88:88" delves into the failures of neoliberalism and then finds hope for a post-capitalist society.
James Slaymaker
Last week, Isiah Medina made Inventing The Future, the follow-up to his debut feature 88:88, available to stream through his personal website, free of charge. It’s a towering film: a radical piece of intellectual montage, a utopian political tract, and an exploration of the ontology of digital image-making. Using the book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams as its basis, Inventing The Future outlines a vision of a “post-capitalist” society in which most labor is automated, a universal basic income is established, industry is nationalized and the economy is decarbonized. These societal transformations, Medina argues, will reduce tedious labor, eliminate financial pressures, and provide citizens with an increased amount of free time which may be devoted to leisure activities, pursuing creative endeavors, and engaging in other rewarding ventures.
Before delving into these ideas for the future of Leftist politics, Medina reflects on the failures of the past. Inventing the Future argues that neoliberalism was able to conquer the global imagination from the 1980s through to the present day in large part due to its association with futurity. While Leftist activists were paralyzed by a regressive nostalgia for a type of Keynesian social democracy associated with mid-century industrial and political practices, neoliberal politicians engaged in a long-term plan to establish technocratic control over the world economy. Although the digital technologies that have ushered in the post-industrial era hold the potential to bring positive social change, under a neoliberal system they have resulted in the centralization of a huge amount of power and wealth into the hands of a privileged few while poverty and unemployment skyrockets. With economic inequality at an all-time high and the automation of labor accelerating at an alarming rate, the majority of population is left to feel impotent and disenfranchised.
Why then, Medina’s film asks, have the Left failed to form a substantial opposition to combat these developments? Part of the reason is that the proponents of neoliberalism have systematically worked to dismantle resistance through a vast infrastructure of ideological diffusion. One of the most pernicious aspects of neoliberalism is that it is—with a considerable degree of success—able to position itself as the only viable economic system within a heavily digitized network society, thus circumscribing the political imagination of a large percentage of the populace. Some of the blame, however, is placed on the failure of the Left to fully embrace the future. The acts of resistance which dominate much of the Left’s recent political action are described as “folk politics”: localized practices such as strikes, rallies, and petitions that, although they express a necessary opposition to the injustices of modern capitalism, do not pose any substantial threat to the system as they fail to articulate a viable alternative to it. It is the aim of Inventing the Future to establish such a vision.
While watching Medina’s latest work, I couldn’t help but think back to Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme. Godard’s 2010 feature begins with a quote from the French economist Bernard Maris, narrated over a shot of the lightly undulating ocean surface captured by a consumer-grade digital camera. A female voice asks, “Like water, then?” This opening establishes a conceptual relationship between several ideas that are central to Godard’s film: the ontological nature of currency; the question of what should be considered public and private property; the connection between capitalism, technology, and the environment. Made in response to the 2008 financial crisis, Godard’s feature launches a vicious attack on neoliberalism and the failure of the Left to form a sufficient opposition to its rise, before envisioning the establishment of a viable global socialist system based on the liberatory potential of state-of-the-art technologies To articulate these arguments, Godard looks to the origins of radical political cinematic discourse in the works of Eisenstein and Vertov, while crucially expanding upon their ideas to reflect recent transformations in the nature of both capitalism and cinematic production. The Soviet montage artists believed that cinema was the optimal tool for communicating their political ideals as it was an art form rooted in the very industrial technologies they desired to use to reshape society. They realized that by placing together visual phenomena through dialectical clashes in the form of montage, they could articulate revolutionary political thought through a medium that was itself revolutionary—in no small part because it appealed to the intellect while also embodying the very perceptual shocks that characterized modernity. Reimaging these techniques to tackle the specific epoch of 21st century technocratic capitalism, Godard constructs a deeply layered intellectual montage that pushes the formal boundaries of the computerized image while self-reflexively theorizing the role that digital filmmaking may play in the contemporary class struggle.
Like Film Socialisme, Inventing the Future looks to the pioneering experiments of the Soviet montage filmmakers to craft a revolutionary avant-garde form capable of sufficiently tackling the new political reality engendered by digital technologies. An alignment between Leftist emancipatory ambitions and technological innovation is, by no means, a new proposition. The Left was once the party of the future but this mentality has waned since the post-war years. Inventing the Future seeks to revive this element of Leftist thought by considering how computerized machines, when removed from the control of the corporations who perceive of these machines as mere instruments to aid the accumulation of capital, may be employed to improve the quality of life for the entire population. This philosophy is expressed through Medina’s inventive use of digital imagery. Low-res shots taken with iPhone cameras are intermingled with CGI models, synthetic composites, and found footage culled from the digital archive. Much of this imagery has been manipulated through computerized editing programs—sped up or slowed down, dimensions stretched or shrunken, colors blown-out or de-saturated. The opacity of the varied visual phenomena—compiled into a deeply layered palimpsest—foregrounds the de-materialized and infinitely malleable nature of the digital image. Just as the feature envisions a harmony between human and machine in the field of labor, so does its visual demonstrate the potential of combining the manmade and the synthetic, the actual and the artificial. When an image is digitized, its indexical connection to reality is removed; no longer existing as a direct material trace of an actual event or object, the image becomes a grid of pixels that are open to be perpetually reworked and remixed. Every image in Inventing the Future has been heavily altered through post-production programs, combining photographic and computer generated imagery to the point that the two become blurred and the issue of what is man-made and what is inorganic becomes irrelevant. Inventing the Future, then, creatively investigates the changes that the information age has brought to filmmaking as it interrogates the symbiotic transformations that have occurred on the level of industry, economics, and social relations.
A significant factor in the disempowerment of the labor movement over the latter portion of the 20th century was the extreme fragmentation of social experience produced by a post-industrial economy. As there is no unified experience of work amongst the working class, unified political action becomes difficult to orchestrate. Inventing the Future addresses this new social reality by adopting a form that is itself wildly fragmented. Medina’s cutting is disjunctive, as he chooses not to telegraph simple associations between spaces, motifs, and objects. Shots tend to be short in duration, sometimes to the point that we are not given enough time to consciously discern what we are looking at before it is displaced by the next image. The rapid-fire aesthetic of Inventing the Future mirrors the increased acceleration, the material abstraction, and the sense of over-abundance that characterizes the affective experience of life in the post-industrial economy. But Medina is not content to simply reflect this experience, he also offers a way to overcome this atomization. Though the dissociative method of Inventing the Future does not provide obvious connections between its images, it does encourage the viewer to engage with its montage to make sense of these seemingly irrational cuts and form mental relinkages that will enable us to work through these apparent disjunctions. In his new feature, Medina trains us to be active viewers and active political subjects.


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