Imagine futures in a time of pandemic
I write this text during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and with my profession as a writer of speculative fiction (or science fiction) as a starting point. Within these times, my work on imagining other possible realities has been chocked and paralysed by an anxious feeling coming from actual reality, from the news and from observing public space. The epicentre of this anxiety is exactly where I normally both worry about the current world while at same time think other possible ways it could be. The world and the world imagined collide the way they always do, but this time possible imaginaries are eaten by the monsters of reality.
Over the years, I have worked with many similar imagined scenarios to the pandemic situation we experience today. When it started changing my life drastically, I at first thought that I would know something from all my time spent on imagining and writing. I don’t feel this way at all, on the contrary. During the last week’s time my imagination has been effectively blocked, in chock. How come? Perhaps because I always worked with thinking the worst as a method for imagining possible alternatives to present normality. But now, somehow the worst has changed its form. Or put in another way: The oppressors of reality has gained another tool. This demands a change in imagining alternatives for us. Because the possible worst now comes through the pandemic.
What if the virus turns out to mutate on a very high level, making vaccines and treatments obsolete before they are manufactured – making those who previously recovered become sick all over again? This would maybe not mean the end of the world. It would mean higher death rates everywhere, which would be bad enough. Further, it would mean that this current situation of government authority, this high rate of corporate bail outs and this level of limitations to civil society would be permanent. This current situation only seems liveable because it is temporary, if permanent our existence will begin to suffer. The politics of emergency have always worked that way: It is only for now (until it is forever). This is about our acceptance of life, form-of-life as Giorgio Agamben would put it, against a sovereign power. This makes me doubt if there will ever actually be an “after the pandemic”. When I see a newspaper headline quoting a young person wishing that there would be military in the streets because “it would be easier to understand then”, I really feel that the state of emergency has won over our bodies without a fight. My habit of thinking possibles is replaced with a feeling that what I perceive as normality will never exist again. But it is hard to see. We are still in the overall normal, it has only distorted itself in terms of exploitation, inequality and precarity. It is a playground for opportunist exploiters.
We know from situations like the financial crisis in 2008 that disasters are speculated on all the time. That gains can be made from the right investments in any type of situation. When it comes to finance, future is speculated upon and speculative actions go right into reality without any such thing as an ethical process. There is no stop-and-think. It is ethically a disastrous system of thinking and acting. Even thinking of high frequency trading where algorithms accelerate the rate of executions into close to the speed of light. Being influential, being a president or a corporate CEO for instance, only makes this speculation possibly more profitable – more opportunities for the opportunists. Colonialism is a history for this type of speculative exploitation. The stock market along with world politics continues that history today. In many places where tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, plagues, volcano eruptions as well as climate related catastrophes are frequent, you often see disaster speculation in the clear: Mass death and loss of livelihoods and homes become a fresh ground for investment. The rate of profit goes up and inhabitants are excluded, “resocialised”, possibly killed. These situations cover the globe as points of intensities where capitalism and fascism give each other a warm hug. There is no reason to think that this is not happening right now even more intensely and even more ruthlessly than we are used to. People everywhere will experience an intensification of exploitation from the level they already experience. In this sense, in my worst case imaginary, the state of COVID-19 will become a new globalised model of exploitation and suppression. Markets make presidents act like serial killers. Every prime minister is a Mussolini in their dreams. Fascism from micro to macro flourish in a world where ethics are put in the background because an imagined profit is being gambled on.
This puts urgency to the way we imagine alternatives. Already people in various countries face conditions, whether relating to labour rights, health care, education etc., that they would normally not accept, streets would be filled with people, with bodies, protesting. But we can’t. It feels like the oppressors are coming awfully close to me while the distance between us is becoming greater. As we are alone, we (those of us with internet devices) dive into social media for at least a representation of being together, of that social valve that normally relieve the pressure from our alienation and anxiety. But alas, the representation is not the real thing. Over time, social media will become more and more empty due to the fall in actual social activity. As feeds will empty, fall into loops before they break down, we need something to fill the void with. We need to invent new imaginative impulses between each other, to be able to share a thought and instantly hear its echoes – to imagine, not alone but directly in conjunction with each other. As we still can’t meet and touch, this will have to happen on other terms; I am not thinking of compromises but of reinventing the way we imagine. I don’t believe in technological fixes, not for pandemics nor for climate change – nor for transversal communication. We will have to do this with our bodies. Let us build our ethics into our membranes so we can short cut our imagination between each other and into reality. Make algorithmic structures for thoughts in a careful system of sharing (what in finance is insider trading will here be affect). Then we might be able to construct narratives, imaginaries to cyborgise and intensify Ursula K. le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. A system where stories are kept, multiplied, mutated over time to form a base of how we act together. Like Samuel R. Delany does in Dahlgren, we can speculate on society’s downfall into individualism and opportunism and still remain lustful for each other, radicalise the longing for other bodies, for other ways of being close. The question is: How will we assemble after months of quarantines and social distancing? How will we love? How will we riot? Before that time comes, it seems most important that we mutate our capabilities to be several bodies on the same skeleton to be able to meet what the world will become.
So I guess I started writing this text as much from the starting point of what to do as what to feel. While I see existence becoming more fragile for all of us, I at the same time see more people seeing their own potential for becoming affective guerrillas within the pattern of social control and uncontrolled exploitation. The algorithmic system of imaginaries cannot be far fetched, as can a deeper sharing of possible narratives, existing situations and contexts. Our inactivity must be active in order not to kill potential. We need to invent. Whether it being codes or new languages, it’s all a matter of writing them.
I leave an open ending to this text, because there is no such thing as a closed ending.
– Kristian Byskov, March 24, 2020