Back to the Future and the Politics of Potential

“What if they say I’m no good?” Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) asks his girlfriend Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells) during an early scene from Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. “What if they say, ‘Get outta here kid, you’ve got no future’? I just don’t think I can take that kinda rejection.” Frustrated by his band’s failed audition to play at an upcoming high school dance, Marty’s statement about his lack of a future speaks volumes not only about the role that work plays in our ability to imagine futurity but also about the rigid conventionality with which we typically envision our futures under the constraints and expectations of heteronormative capitalism. To put it simply, it is difficult to imagine a future that is not contingent on work.

While we might chalk up Marty’s inability to comprehend a future in which he isn’t a musician to adolescent overreaction and, like adults so often do, criticize him for failing to consider more “pragmatic,” “realistic,” or “reasonable” career options, his anxiety provides us with an insightful glimpse into the ways in which rejection can often feel like an indicator of perpetual failure and the essential role that work — particularly hard work — plays in neoliberal understandings of success.

As Judith Halberstam has recently argued, “success in a heteronormative, capitalist society equates too easily to specific forms of reproductive maturity combined with wealth accumulation.”[i] Thus, we are told that in order to become successful we must follow a particular developmental path: we must go to college so that we can get a good job, and subsequently attract a good mate to marry and raise children with in an economically stable environment that ensures hetero-familial longevity. It is this model, which explains the “how to” of becoming successful that interests me, precisely because it reveals the restrictive conditions of potential as a becoming that insists upon what or who we must become based on normative understandings of what constitutes a successful subject.

Of course, the Great Recession that has ensued since 2008 has forced us to reconsider this developmental narrative. Increasing numbers of college graduates have discovered that their “investment in the future” through education hasn’t yielded the desired outcome of successful post-college careers, while miring them in significant and inescapable debt that they may be burdened by for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, college graduates are returning to live with their parents in record numbers, while the normative futures that college was meant to secure for them seem increasingly out of reach. The housing crisis and high unemployment rates continue to inform the crisis of the American middle class, disrupting people’s ability to achieve the success they were emptily promised and in fact has resulted in what some have called the “discouraged worker effect.” Amidst all of this, the 2012 presidential campaigns utilized the economy and (un)employment as a means of articulating their differing visions of the future.

Scott Sandage writes, “Failure imperils the future even more than it taints the past. What if I never bounce back? An American with no prospects or plans, with nothing to look forward to, almost ceases to exist.”[ii] It is precisely this “what if” that is at work in Marty’s own articulation of his uncertain (or non-existent) future. While Back to the Future‘s narrative seems primarily concerned with a far more obvious crisis of reproductive futurity — wherein the time traveler must literally set time straight by ensuring, if not improving upon, the romantic relationship between his parents in order to prevent his erasure from existence and history — the initial expression of “no future” forces us to consider the ways in which the reproductive and the economic are interlocking systems that constitute and determine what we think of as the normative by pairing obligatory ambition with compulsory heterosexuality.[iii]

And who better to represent a lack of normative ambition than a slacker? Indeed, since the 1980s, the slacker has become the cinematic figure par excellence of underachievement.[iv] As we discover early on in Back to the Future, Marty McFly is a slacker whose artistic ambitions clearly do not line up with conventional understandings of what constitutes an appropriately ambitious subject. This is represented with his tardiness to school (and indeed, we discover that this is his “fourth tardy in a row”), as well as the admonishment he receives from his principal, Mr. Strickland, who tells him:

You’ve got a real attitude problem, McFly. You’re a slacker! You remind me of your father when he went here. He was a slacker, too… You’re too much like your old man. No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.

Although Marty’s response, that “history is gonna change,” serves as the expression of his defiance of the paranoid temporality of inheritance,[v] Back to the Future suggests that an intervention into his familial past is necessary in order for Marty to break the cycle of repetition, and by doing so “make [his future] a good one.” In order to effect change in his 1985 present, Marty must help his father George (Crispin Glover) actualize his potential in 1955, by reminding him, as Marty’s friend and mentor Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) puts it, that “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” a phrase that repeats throughout the film (like so many others), suggesting a break from Oedipal linearity as this bit of advice has been passed down from the “queer” Doc Brown[vi] to Marty (who is reminded of this by his girlfriend Jennifer), from Marty to his father, and finally, from his father back to him.[vii]

The difficulty of realizing one’s potential is represented in Back to the Future in a variety of ways, but the most significant is perhaps the film’s conflation of references to weight and density with regard to the crises that Marty faces. After travelling to 1955, Marty inadvertently alters history, interfering in the events that would eventually lead to his birth. As Doc puts it, Marty has disrupted the space-time continuum, a continuum understood through normative, reproductive logics: “according to my theory, you interfered with your parents’ first meeting: if they don’t meet, they won’t fall in love, they won’t get married, they won’t have kids!” To this, as well as Doc’s later determination that Marty’s teenaged mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is “amorously infatuated” with him, Marty responds, “Whoa, this is heavy.”

Certainly, “heavy” could be read simply as an expression of Marty’s concerns regarding the challenges he now faces (returning to 1985, escaping the Oedipal entanglement with his mother and ensuring his parents’ romance, preventing Doc’s death), but it can also be read as the articulation of the pressures associated with potential. Potential exerts pressure on us in the present because of the ways in which it predetermines our future based on normative expectations. If we succeed, we have realized our potential. If we fail, we have no one to blame but ourselves for squandering it. In this case, the restoration of the space-time continuum to its “natural” state is dependent upon Marty’s ability to actualize Lorraine’s and George’s reproductive potential, which is framed as destiny and thus inevitability, since Marty himself is proof that they have a future together. But this is no easy task. No longer able to rely upon what Doc Brown calls “the Florence Nightingale effect” — we are told that Lorraine originally fell in love with George after her father hit him with a car — Marty is faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of helping George, a cowardly pushover, attain his romantic and masculine potential. Encouraged by Marty to ask Lorraine to the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance, George approaches Lorraine only to botch his attempt to ask her out, saying, “Lorraine, my density has brought me to you… I’m George, George McFly, I’m your density. I mean, your destiny.” While George is without a doubt dense, the pairing of density with destiny here, along with his profuse, nervous sweating, once again speaks to the pressures exerted upon us to meet particular expectations based on restrictive and limiting notions of potential. Ultimately, George actualizes his potential, which involves his ascension to a standard model of romantic and heroic masculinity, and transforms his family’s future for the better.

But rather than linger on the film’s ultimately disappointing and normative “happily ever after” conclusion, it is important to note these moments and the commentary they provide regarding the seemingly ugly feelings potential produces in order to think about alternatives precisely because “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” is a myth that relies upon neoliberal logics emphasizing personal responsibility and hard work as guarantors of success rather than acknowledging the reality of structural inequalities that bar access to the good life. As Giorgio Agamben reminds us, “To believe that will has power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality — this is the perpetual illusion of morality.”[viii] Back to the Future gestures towards this with its iconic “clock tower,” which is not a clock tower at all but actually the Hill Valley Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for the distribution of welfare in California and the setting for Marty’s lament regarding his future with which this essay began. Ronald Reagan himself identified the welfare state as the cause of the squandering of human potential in his 1986 State of the Union (in which he also quotes the line from Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”), stating that “In the welfare culture, the breakdown of family, the most basic support system has reached crisis proportions… After hundreds of billions of dollars in poverty programs, the plight of the poor grows more painful. But the waste in dollars and cents pales before the most tragic loss: the sinful waste of human spirit and potential.”[ix]


In his introduction to Cruising Utopia, José Muñoz takes up Agamben’s insistence upon the ambiguity of potentiality in his reading of Ernst Bloch’s articulation of “educated hope,” a hope that is “marked by an enduring indeterminacy.”[x] Muñoz refuses a pragmatic politics and insists upon a queer utopianism precisely because the “do-able” suggested by pragmatism often leads to conventionality (for Muñoz in the form of a homonormative politics) which restricts possibilities rather than opening them up. The conservative, normative, utopian optimism of the Reagan era looked to the past as a model for the future precisely because the past-as-model offered seemingly pragmatic solutions to the problems of the present: if it happened before, we can make it happen again. This optimism was, of course, utopian only insofar as the unconflicted past that the Reaganite right imagined and longed to return to was, to recall Foucault, a “fundamentally unreal space,” which is to say that it was no place at all.[xi] The trailer mash-up “Brokeback to the Future” reflects, to a certain extent, Muñoz’s utopianism by engaging the “ephemeral traces, flickering illuminations” of queer potentiality in Back to the Future.

At the conclusion of the Back to the Future trilogy, Doc Brown tells Marty, prior to taking off in his time-travelling locomotive, that “The future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.” The idea that one can “make” their future, let alone “make it a good one” certainly serves to reify the neoliberal logics that inform the trilogy’s articulation of potential. Yet if we understand the neoliberal formulation of potential as grounded in normative ideals of aspiration — through family, work, and so on — we can begin to understand that this particular form of potential is no longer adequate, if it ever was, in light of the limitations to achievement that have been made all too clear by the Great Recession. Rather than fear uncertainty, we might embrace it, taking up the “whatever” in Doc’s parting words and all of the ambiguity it signals (rather than the dismissal with which we might often associate it) and consider “other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (Munoz 1); worlds opened up when we stop relying on outdated and outmoded understandings of success, and the limited formulations of work as, (in Reagan’s words) “good in and of itself.” Perhaps then we might be able to embrace, even insist upon, what Paul Lafargue called “the Right to Laziness.”[xii]

alex wescott