James D. Faubion: Scenarios

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Stories of Things to Come:
Or Not


James D. Faubion


For at least the past two decades, prominent social theorists have been registering a collective shift from an actuarial confidence in our capacity to figure the future on the basis of the past to the increasing conviction that the future is incorrigibly uncertain. The result isn’t uniformly paralytic. In many circles—and by no means least in many of the circles of the most influential of our institutional domains—what is settling into place is a productive engagement with uncertainty in conceiving of, planning for and putting into place provisional infrastructures for coping with a finite plurality of futures that can only be characterized as spectral—ghostly, transcendent of any definitive empirical determination. The construction of scenarios is an integral aspect of this new wave.

I focus here on only one—but an especially important—methodologist of the construction of scenarios, whose precedent now has a signal influence on policy formation in institutional domains far beyond those in which he was intimately involved. Still, he is merely one component of a much larger tide. At this point, however, I will restrict myself to discussing this single and singular figure, who to my mind inaugurates what is now no longer merely a counter-current but instead an ascendant current of our epistemological, methodological, and pragmatic trends of governance across an ever wider array of institutional domains. I cannot redeem this claim fully here, but I will try to make it “plausible”— and there is more on plausibility to come.

The figure in question is Pierre Wack. A French economist and oil executive, he is typically credited with being the originator of corporate scenario planning, exercises in which about 70% of corporations worldwide now regularly engage. His interventions date from the beginning of the 1970s, when the board of Royal Dutch Shell, dissatisfied with its lack of success in anticipatory strategy, hired him to advise their managers on matters of policy formation. Pondering the increasing volatility of political relations among the oil-producing and oil-consuming countries that had erupted in the aftermath of the 1967 Yom Kippur War, he scenarized an impending crisis very close in its basic parameters to the 1973 Arab embargo on the export of petroleum to the West. The managers at Shell heeded his vision, and were far better prepared for the crisis than any of their major competitors. Other managers elsewhere of course took notice—and the snowball began.

Wack is deemed not merely the inaugurator but also the guru of scenario planning, and that’s not at all surprising. Well before his work at Shell, he was known to be a devoted reader of the Russian-born mystic and composer George Gurdieff. He sat in India at the feet of Swami Prajnandpada. The lore has it that he regularly spent his summers at Theravada retreats in Burma. He sprinkled his conversations and writings with easterly apothegms. Zen in the Art of Archery (Herrigel 1953) was one of his favorite points of reference.

Subsequently, Wack’s approach has come to influence decision-making well beyond the corporate sphere. It is now part and parcel of the formulation of governmental policy at micro-level as well as macro-level scales, in Europe and very widely elsewhere. Crucially, this includes the formulation of policy focused on bio-security. Wack’s approach does not yield anything that might strictly be called an “epistemology,” which is inescapably entangled with the theorization of knowledge, of (presumptively) justified true belief. It yields instead a “sophiology,” which I derive from the ancient Greek σοφίa, a term that comprehends what in English can be rendered diversely as skill, cleverness, intelligence, judgment, learning and, not least, wisdom.

The ultimate sources of Wack’s approach may not be novel, but instead may take us back to what are perhaps the very beginnings of a sophiology. I will rely in rendering the sophiology I have in mind here on the precedent of Carlo Ginzburg ’s “Clues” (1989), a genealogical tour de force all the more spectacular for being confined to thirty pages. Ginzburg is interested in locating the roots of the “evidential paradigm” that he thinks to be the generative matrix of modern historiographical research. Ginzburg argues that the evidential paradigm coalesces in the later nineteenth century, and serves as the matrix not merely of historiography and criminology but also of psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology. He finds its roots, however, far before the advent of the archive. His harbinger is instead Homo venatus, man the hunter, who “in the course of countless chases” acquires the skills that allow him to “reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks on the ground, broken branches, excrement, tufts of hair, entangled feathers, stagnating odors” (102). As a prelude of his success, he is of necessity a man of considerable experience, who comes at length to acquire the skill to “sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as trails of spittle” and “to execute complex mental operations with lightning speed, in the depth of a forest or in a prairie with its hidden dangers” (102).

Homo venatus: He is the prototype of the Zen archer, whom Wack is reputed to have been very fond of evoking (see Kasriel 2012: 118) as much as he is the prototype of many other figures of embodied intuition, among whom the divide between the oriental and the occidental is at best superficial. He is a conjectural thinker, and the validation of his conjectures subject more to vindication than verification. Ginzburg visits a substantial army of prototypes and exemplars of the evidential paradigm on his way to the nineteenth century, but after the hunter, he grants special privilege to another venerable figure who, like Wack and his Zen archer, thwarts any temptation to draw a great divide between the east and the west or, for that matter, women and men. It is the figure of the medical clinician. The clinician does not fashion experiment. He or she instead attends to the patient’s “case.” A case is always and only manifest through its symptoms; if exhibiting systematicity, symptoms might always vary from one case to the next, and symptoms typical of one disease might instead be the manifestations of another. Symptomatological diagnosis consequently always falls short of certainty. If successful, treatment is always more of a matter of vindication than verification. Ginzburg is historically free-wheeling in his argument. Michel Foucault offers a more restrained and historically specific argument to the same end (Foucault 1973).

Of special relevance to the even more proximate genealogy of scenario planning is Herman Kahn, one of the original operatives at the Rand Institute and later the founder of the relentlessly and proudly conservative Hudson Institute. His most famous (or notorious) work is On Thermonuclear War (1960), in which he confidently predicted that the U.S. could and would defeat its Soviet adversary (with quite a lot of destruction along the way, to be sure).

Kahn famously wrote of “thinking about the unthinkable” (1984)—a maxim that Wack is reported to have embraced “gleefully” (https://www.strategy-business.com/article/8220?gko=0d07f). It is very tempting as a consequence to read Wack as a disciple of Kahn. It would nevertheless be very misleading to do so. Kahn remained loyal throughout his career to a strategic vision founded in the principles of cybernetics, game theory and systems theory, a fundamentally recurcivist vision that pressed toward determinate outcomes, often bordering on and sometimes crossing over to prediction. On Thermonuclear War inaugurates such ambitions (1960). The Year 2000, which Kahn co-authored with Anthony Wiener in 1967, continues them. Scenarios are fundamental to both works, but their predictive dimensions ally them more with the general current of futurology and with such futurists and forecasters as Bertrand de Jouvenel (1963-1965), Dennis Gabor (1963, 1972) and Alvin Toffler (1970, 1980) than with scenario planning in its Wackean incarnation.

In contrast to his recursivist predecessors and contemporaries, Wack affirms the principle of non-linearity as his analytical entrée into and justification for a scenaristic design of research. Just this principle serves as the first of the axioms that govern his sophiology as a whole. In two brief papers appearing in sequence in The Harvard Business Review (1985a; 1985b), Wack opens with a skeptical glance at forecasting:

“Forecasts are not always wrong; more often than not, they can be reasonably accurate. And that is what makes them dangerous. They are usually constructed on the assumption that tomorrow’s world will be much like today’s. They often work because the world does not always change. But sooner or later forecasts will fail when they are needed most: in anticipating major shifts in the  . . . environment that make whole strategies obsolete” (1985b: 73).

This is modest in tone, but its implications are bold. All statistical projections hinge precisely on the presumption that the future will largely repeat the past. Should the future instead prove to drift into what two of Wack’s followers call “the feral” (Ramirez and Ravetz 2010), it can only afoul of the prerequisites of statistical representation (see Ramirez and Selin 2014: 59). Any coming to terms with the feral future will thus demand a different representational apparatus, an apparatus sensitive to its recalcitrance, its vagaries and sauvagerie.

One might simply throw up one’s hands at this point, but Wack adopts a more pragmatic response. Rather than looking to perfect the extant techniques of forecasting or hiring “more or better forecasters,” he advises that we should “accept uncertainty, try to understand it, and make it part of our reasoning” (1985b: 73). He credits a personified Royal Dutch/Shell corporation with “believing” that “decision scenarios” legitimately constitute such a method, though he played a pivotal role in converting it to his point of view.

The chief difficulty that Wack faced in his engagement with his managers was persuading them that the scenarios that his team and he were in fact sufficiently compelling to warrant taking anticipatory action. In the end, he appealed to the model of his Sufi and Buddhist masters at once to undo the managers’ recalcitrance and to illuminate a path forward. He came to recognize that in every effort to engage the managers actively in scenario planning, he had to confront the “mental maps,” the “interior microcosms” (1985a: 140 and passim) that they brought to the table. He followed the way of his masters to the orchestration of a “clearing,” a lifting of the clouds of the cognitively doxic and all of the passions invested in the future repeating the past. Its intellectual contribution is “insight” (Wack 1984b: 78, 84) and its standard rests in arriving at the scenaristically “plausible” and at scenaristic alternatives that are “equally plausible”  (1984a: 139).  Call it decolonizing. Call it recolonizing. I have come to find it very difficult to distinguish between processes that are more one than the other.

Plausibility functions in Wack’s work first and foremost in the negative. Whatever the plausible might or might not be, it is certainly not the same as the factual. Nor is it the same as the statistically probable, precisely because it stands in contrast to the linear, the recursive, the abstractable.

Ginzburg’s conjectural paradigm thus remains very relevant. An issue nevertheless lingers: whether we can provide any further elaboration of or supplement to Wackean sophiology. One temptation in dealing with the former issue on the part of many of Wack’s admirers (Schwartz 1991; see also Vickers 1983; Wade 2012; Ramirez and Ravets 2010) is to resort to narratology. Prima facie, it is a reasonable move. Scenarios are indeed narratives, novelistic in their way. A modulation must nevertheless be noted. Scenarists such as Wack aspire to a realism that distinguishes their work from works of fiction—as fiction—and it is a realism that is distinctly different from that of the realist novel. I follow Ian Watt (1957) in identifying the chief characteristic of the latter as “verisimilitude,” a quality achieved in “bringing home to the reader” an object or scene “in all its concrete particularity, whatever the cost in repetition or parenthesis or verbosity” (29: my emphasis). Verisimilitude comes, in short, with excess, a hyperbole of detail that is independent of the essentials of plot.

Scenarist narratives may be lively and substantively rich, but their master trope is not hyperbole. Their master trope is instead the trope that Kenneth Burke argues dominates all scientific rhetoric—metonymy, a device of the reduction of complexity, distilling a whole into one of its parts (Burke xx). Scenarists, however, exercise a hazy sort of metonymization, for two reasons. They work in the face of the unforeseen consequences of what has occurred or is occurring. They work with a whole that is not itself graspable, because certain of its variables–above all those belonging to the future–do not yet exist. The logic of their enterprise, moreover, is not assertoric—the logic of “is” and “will.” It is modal—the logic of “could,” would,” sometimes “should.” Their mode is subjunctive—the mode of “may” and “might.”

Wack’s approach limits itself to “the near past “ (1985a: 142), the present, and the “medium range” of projection, which is in fact a range of very modest scope. It extends only to roughly a decade or two in advance of the present—and establishes a temporal benchmark for all that I know of professional scenarists’ projective or prognostic treatment of what might, in one or another alternative, lie ahead. It is completely in accord with the exemplar of case-based medical diagnostics that Ginzburg has put at the fore of his articulation of the evidential—which is thus also a conjectural—paradigm. The case-based physician attends to the inevitably recent past of the patient he or she treats. It is the present illness that counts. It is always medium-range—or short-range, depending on the metrics of proximity one adopts—prognostications that justify the clinician’s interventions (or lack of them).

There is no moral to this story. Or better, and more accurately—that there is no moral to this story is precisely the moral of this story. The punchline isn’t nihilist. The punchline is instead that, in the end, we now have little else to call on but our capacity to imagine the steps we might or might not take toward the realization of one or another future that we might or might not want to be our own. In any case, this is the wisdom that we can take from Wack’s precedent—and wisdom that (even if we reject it in the end) we would do well to take seriously.


Burke, Kenneth. 1945. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
de Jouvenel, Bertrand.  1963-1965. Futuribles. Geneva: Droz.
Foucault, Michel. Birth of the Clinic. 1973. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock.
Gabor, Dennis. 1963. Inventing the Future. London: Secker & Warburg.
Gabor, Dennis. 1972. A Mature Society: A View from the Future. London: Secker & Warburg.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1989. “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm.” In: Ginzburg, Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, pp. 96-125. Translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi. Baltimore: Johns, Hopkins.
Herrigel, Ernst. 1953. Zen in the Art of Archery. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. New York: Pantheon.
Kahn, Herman. 1960. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kahn, Herman. 1984. Thinking about the Unthinkable in the 1980s. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kahn, Herman, and Anthony J. Weiner. 1967. The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-three Years.  New York: Macmillan.
Kasriel, Tamar. 2012. Futurescaping: Using Business Insight to Plan your Life. London: A and C Black.
Ramirez, Rafael, and Cynthia Selin. 2014. “Plausibility and Probability in Scenario Planning.” Foresight 16 (10): 54-74.
Ramirez, Rafael, and Jerome Ravetz. 2010. “Fersal Futures: Zen and Aesthetics.” Futures 43 (4): 478-87.
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Vickers, Geoffrey. 1983. Human Systems are Different. London: Harper & Rowe.
Wack, Pierre. 1985a. “Scenarios: Shooting the Rapids.” Harvard Business Review, November-December, 131-42.
Wack, Pierre. 1985b. “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead.” Harvard Business Review, September-October, 73-89.
Wade, Woody. 2012. Scenario Planning: A Field Guide to the Future. Hoboken, NJ.: Wiley.
Watt, Ian. 1957. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Faubion_James_D - portraitJames D. Faubion is Radoslav Tsanoff Chair of Public Affairs and Professor of Anthropology at Rice University. Publications representative of his interests include Modern Greek Lessons: A Primer in Historical Constructivism (Princeton, 1993); Rethinking the Subject: An Anthology of Contemporary European Social Thought (Westview, 1995, ed.); Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume 2: Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology and Volume 3: Power (The New Press, 1998, 2000, ed.); The Ethics of Kinship (Westview, 2001, ed.); The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millenarianism Today (Princeton, 2001); Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary (with George Marcus, Paul Rabinow and Tobias Rees, Duke, 2008); Fieldwork Is Not What It Used to Be (with George Marcus, Cornell, 2009, ed.); An Anthropology of Ethics (Cambridge, 2011); Foucault Now (Polity, 2014, ed.); and Theory Can Be More than It Used to Be (with Dominic Boyer and George Marcus, Cornell 2015, ed.).



Banner Image:  Flowchart in Scenario Planning (Editor).


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