Dystopic Futures and Utopian Possibilities
Living in an era of ecological emergency, rising intolerance and worsening global insecurity, it is easy to say that we are living in dystopic times. The lines between reality and fiction appear to blur in a post-truth age where technology, ideologies and forms of social interaction are seen to produce dismal hopes for the future. Dystopian fiction and film is increasingly popular as we try to imagine the scenarios and conditions that are our possible future selves and societies. At the same time, the utopian possibilities that emerge from rethinking capitalism and imagining new futures offers some counterbalance not only to the dystopian imagination but challenges the legacies that have produced it.
In this workshop, Sabina Sestigiani and I wanted to explore the interdisciplinary perspectives on dystopias/utopias. But we also wanted to find ways to think about what possibilities reside in such images of dystopia/utopia, and what the relationship is between fiction/reality. While it is easy enough to see our current age as a reflection of a ‘living dystopia’, what does that actually mean? How do we identify the dystopic moment or event and understand it in temporal, ethical and ideological terms?
Our workshop covered a lot of ground on these points. We opened with an interdisciplinary coverage of technology and its relationship to utopias and dystopias. Son Vivienne discussed ideas about embracing the dystopic in terms of identity and gender. Here, Australia’s marriage equality debates and work on LGBTQI digital story telling through social media spaces raised questions about authoring the self online and being seen/not seen. Alex Edney-Browne explored how technology renders certain bodies invisible under drone vision. The much touted accuracy of drones – an important part of how drones are not only fetishised but seen as ‘the only game in town’ – is flawed. What the drone can and cannot see has significant impact on how we understand modern warfare and the erasure of (certain) bodies. Sabina‘s exploration of Tommaso Landolfi’s 1950 novel Cancroregina also examined how technology, language and space were imagined as both liberating and dystopic. By drawing on Levinas and Blanchot, the implications of leaving place – aspects of uprootedness/enrootedness – contain some utopian possibilities.
Dystopian fiction continued the theme as we explored Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission). Jacqueline Dutton provided a fascinating tour of the political, cultural and social landscape of a France in crisis, which serves as the background to the novel. But Houellebecq’s vision is not the only one that is dystopic. Surveying the state of French literature over the last decade, we find a ‘national depression’ as the theme: France is not France anymore, and optimism for the future comes from outside, rather than from within, where the foreigner saves ‘France’. I also covered Submission, focusing on themes of demographics – or ‘demodystopias‘ – and gender. Reading Houellebecq presents a range of debates on the point of gender – how Houellebecq sees how France sees women, Houellebecq’s own views, and how we should interpret. Ruby Rose Niemann also explored gender and environmental destruction in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction. The connection between ecofeminist ideas and how Atwood writes the feminine in to eco-dystopias is significant in how we imagine not simply singular dystopias but those that rely on different dystopias too.
The problems identified in our ideas about dystopia and utopian possibilities for change were also treated to a wider perspective with Shannon Brincat‘s problematising of imagination and its limits. Brincat argued that we need to reclaim imagination as an intrinsic part of social and political life and current theorising of world politics requires urgent revision. International Relations theorising was identified as particularly limited in this regard, despite the inherent utopian potential: the category of imagination is limited and vilified. Drawing on Vygotsky’s work on ‘creative activity’, we explored questions relating to ideology, economics, culture and education. Stefanie Fishel‘s intervention on ‘humans’ living with ‘nature’ also extended the realms of what we include in our dystopian/utopian imaginaries, and how we can think about heterotopias as mirror or counter sites. Aside from learning new things about bin chickens, coyotes, and human spaces, the deeper questions of environment, extinction and political possibilities drew attention to what is at stake beyond human dystopias. Arran Gare‘s discussion on ideology and ecological civilisation also put utopian possibilities firmly back on the table. Thinking through Ricoeur’s work on ideology and utopia, the challenges to neoliberalism and global capitalism, is necessary in similar ways to arguments about the need for reclaiming imagination.
Moving beyond the workshop
The debates stemming from the workshop will be extended over time. We plan to put together an interdisciplinary reading list on utopian and dystopian literature, extend a call out to future workshops and publish. More on this soon.
Get in touch with us if you want to collaborate!