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Strange situation: not all that long ago, it seemed to me obvious that dystopian speculative fiction was one of the genres if not the genre best adapted to a left political stance. The drawing out of the inevitable ramifications of all this, the dramatic revelation of the crisis whose traces were already starting to streak the screen of things-as-they-are, the warning that the relatively bearable everyday was already pregnant with something much, much worse – these seemed to be close to the best one could do with narrative art today.

I even started writing some myself, a project that I’m constantly tempted to return to…. But honestly it’s feeling increasingly wrong-footed, if one would be even a mildly political narrative writer, to head in this direction given the way things are now.

Given that the fact is that the world over austerity measures, privatizations and rationalizations, and other efforts to starve out what vestiges of the welfare state remain are being sold to the public under the very brand of inevitable and interminable crisis. People sort of vaguely accept, I think, that things are bad and something needs to be done as it’s only going to get worse. 

Depicted catastrophes tend to blur together into a generalized air of imminent expectation of the worst. We’ve seen two phases of this already, lately. Roughly the first stage with its quiet but persistent stream of “untimely” bleak visions amidst the high water marks of post-Cold War affluence, globalization, and tech bubbling. The second, much less discrete, came amidst the televised events and wild market swings of the first decade of the 21st century. The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism. Even depictions of dystopian situations born of capitalism itself play into, I think, the message that those who administer capitalism need to have distributed right now…

Not a hard and fast position I’m taking here – just an inference, an intuition, that I’m trying to think through a bit. Of course I’m painting with too broad a brush, even if I’m just speculating at this point…

(Perhaps worth mentioning that I’m going to write something soon about Evan Calder Williams’s new book soon, once I’ve finished it….)

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Posted in aesthetics, crisis, dystopia

11 Responses

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  1. “The generalization of this atmosphere of imminent catastrophe – through films and books, news reports and editorials, the web, whatever – has served as a distributed and as if automatic PR machine better than any the right could have paid for in service of its quest to cut away the remainders of soft socialism.”

    Somehow this relates to your post on ‘left sexiness’. ie. How imagery of a ‘sexy’ apocalypse feeds into (youthful?) excitement around the ‘season of protest’ (forgetting how protest was far more ferocious and focussed in the 80s, only to tragically fail in most of its agendas by the time Thatcher resigned). When I worked with teenagers, a lot of them absorbed the urban hell/apocalypse schtick as a matter of course. Although many of them were still surviving on a lot more beauraucracy and welfare than they would care to admit. Living in the same neighbourhood as some of them, I often had to correct their wild perceptions of every man for himself in some ultraviolent videogame. Reality is/was a lot more dull and co-operative than that. Mad Max-as-gangsta rapper has a lot to answer for…


    April 19, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  2. Sorry, but I can’t agree with trying to portray society as rosier as it is because a more apocalyptic vision might support reactionaries as well as revolutionaries. I guess if you view European social democracy as the best we can hope for this makes sense, but from a socialist perspective it just seems like a variant on “shut up and vote Labour/Democrat/whatever or those other guys will get in.”


    April 21, 2011 at 2:08 am

  3. No, I’m not saying paint “rosy” pictures of society, which would be ridiculous at this moment, absolutely not. There’s a difference between realism and catastophism.

    And in response to the second bit, I think the point that I’m trying to make is that this sort of sense of imminent catastrophe urges people to vote for right wing parties, not (even) social democratic ones. I.e. “Labour’s ridiculous spending in the face of disaster has doomed us to inevitable cuts, the likes of which only the Tories are manly and responsible enough to handle… “


    April 21, 2011 at 11:47 am

  4. 1984, the archetypal dystopian political novel, written by a social democrat was appropriated and used by the right far more than it ever was by the left I think. Sure,’newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’ are used as critical references all the time about x thing that government official y said, but I find the world of the book often spoken about by right-wing figures I come across as the logical end of ‘big’ (i.e. left) government.

    Ah well…


    April 21, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    • Yeah, I mean there’s a reason that basically every school kid ever since the Cold War reads it. (Always wanted to look into that fact – the ubiquity of the text in schools – does smell a bit of the sorts of things the CIA liked to get involved with…)


      April 22, 2011 at 10:37 am

  5. Oh, absolutely. People don’t need “waking up”, they are scared enough already. Precisely this fear leads to reactionary outcomes if there are no credible alternatives to hand. What’s needed are possible pointers, some reimagination and reinvention of institutions, that kind of thing – in fictional form, which means: fully fleshed out and lived-in.


    April 22, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    • I wanted to add a well-known example for what I was thinking of – Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed”. It’s a book that opens up a space of alternatives, not necessarily realistic ones maybe, but nevertheless examining different ways of structuring societies. This contrasts with most dystopias, which revel in TINA relentlessness.

      On the other hand, there is a (new?) form of dystopia that I think still manages to carry real urgency: the “docufiction” of Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah”. Here the dystopia is located in the present, it’s already here, and it’s essentially real (going well beyond realism).

      Here’s an interesting related essay (which you may already have read), it’s even got a great quote from DFW:


      April 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm

  6. W.Kasper

    April 26, 2011 at 3:36 pm

  7. I disagree with the idea that writing about dystopia, or the apocalypse, inherently bolsters the right-wing.

    Dystopia is something we all experience every day, and it is a primary motivator for political movements of all stripes. You just need to be careful in writing these kind of scenarios that you don’t leave the problems open to unintended (and politically unfavorable) solutions.

    William Griscom

    April 26, 2011 at 9:22 pm

  8. It’s not inherently right-wing, but assumptions about what catastrophe ‘means’ appear to be utilised (and of course capitlaised) more pervasively by the right. Even the ‘left’ slant of environmentalism is relatively new, and it still has fairly fascistic variations.

    And surely neoliberal capitalism IS ‘normalising’ catastrophe and dystopia? Especially in products aimed at children and teenagers? The worlds created for these scenarios get ever more familiar and ‘everyday’.


    April 27, 2011 at 12:55 am

  9. aelle,

    I think The Dispossessed is a very good text to bring up in this context… Yes, you’re right.

    W. Kaspar,

    Yes indeed, that’s what I was trying to say. Nothing about “inherent” qualities here, just situational pragmatism…


    April 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

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