Press "Enter" to skip to content

The best thinking is done as storytelling: Speculative storytelling at Sonic Acts

Sunday 26 February 20:42

For Sonic Acts Critical Writing

Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival. Directed by Fabrizio Terranova

by Mayke HaringhuizenArmen Avanessian, Peter Frase, Daniel Rourke, Ytasha Womack, Laurie Penny and, Fabrizio Terranova’s documentary on Donna Haraway frame and reframe our thinking about our possible future by telling different stories. In the present light of fake news and alternative facts, Haraway urges: “Thinking is what we are about, and is a materialistic practice with other thinkers and some of the best thinking is done as story telling.”

Writers and critics of science fiction and fantasy have used the term ‘speculative fiction’, referring to stories that about imaginary futures, since the late 19th century. Its emphasis is less on the ‘science’ in fiction and more on the social changes that result from the advances in science and technology, extrapolated into the future. Speculative fiction is a reflection of the now. It breaks open ideas we have about our current world and how we want it to be.

“Right now, the future happens before the presence”, says Armen Avanessian, philosopher and theorist. We focus on what might happen. Where will the next terrorist attack be? There is a preemptive angst, he says, a fear of the unknown that is not present, or not present yet, that has his grips on us and is prevalent in our news stories.

Fabrizio Terranova portraits the scholar Donna Haraway in the documentary: Donna Haraway, Story Telling For Earthly Survival. In it, Haraway says that the story of the planet is at stake, there is work to be done to bring attention to positive proposals of how things could be different. We need to “make the weak stories stronger and the strong stories weaker,” she says. She is infectiously positive, both in her interview as well as her nuanced writings about possible futures.

Peter Frase has hope for us as well. He sits on the edge of the Sonic Acts couch, next to his fellow lecturers on the topic ‘Decapitating Capitalism’. Himself, Nina Power and Isabell Lorey have each just spoken about their ideas of our possible future. “Will capitalism collapse and how can we speed up that process?” an audience member asks. Frase points out the Black Lives Matter movement and basic income as developments towards change, but does not see a collapse happening. The world will find a way to resolve itself, he says, but it doesn’t have to be good. It is up to us to accept our custodianship of the ecology and ask ourselves: what kind of social fabric do we want to have?

Frase has written a schema for speculative stories in his book Four Futures, (published in October 2016 by Verso). He elaborates on his writing in an interview: “There is a tendency to just fall back into this kind of very pessimistic view of what an automated world looks like…” he says, referring to his talk on automation anxiety – replacement of human labor by machines. Instead he wants people to focus on the reclamation of time automation can bring: “What does it mean to not define our selves by wage labor anymore?” he asks.

“Novels have explored this more,” he explains, “like Cory Doctorow’s books about people forming collective projects in a post-scarcity world.”

Frase says: “You are building different worlds, but in each case you can see those stories play out, you can think ‘Yes, I can see what this world in the background is, how it makes sense and how it related to the world we live in’.”

He explains that the existence of background parameters that set the ground rules for a story are the foundation for speculative storytelling. “You could write another story, set in the same environment with these same parameters,” he says. The parameters define the ‘richness’ of these worlds: “It is that sense that somehow the [fictional] world reaches beyond the text itself.”

Later on in the festival Daniel Rourke asks his fellow panelists, Ytasha Womack and Laurie Penny, how to maintain the richness of these stories, when ideas become part of a new norm, of popular culture. There are no worries about bringing speculative stories into the mainstream, as Penny points out with witty sarcasm: “I get the question a lot: Is it bad now, that Feminisms is popular?” she says, “no, it is not in any way bad”. Womack, who wrote Afrofuturism (2013), adds that being able to change shows resilience: before the term became popular or it was even formally named, people liked Afrofuturism for its shape shifting ability. However, pop culture, she says, is not an end point. “There is such a desire for acceptance that sometimes people forget that you have to continuously create groups, organizations and partnerships to maintain the aesthetics or core values of a certain belief, so it can survive and move forward.”

Rourke zooms in on this shape-shifting ability in his talk on the sci-fi horror movie The Thing, in which an alien monster that takes on the form of its victims. Rourke shows gory gifs of gooey limbs while he speaks.

The monstrously different, the horror of morphing into endless possibilities, the weird and surreal not only is a metaphor for the fears of white males in society, but shows us the power that lies in that in flux, in becoming. Rourke shows photos of Trump, Elon Musk and others as examples of white male figures in power: “Rather than thinking of these guys as The Thing, we need to become Thing-like in our capacity to respond to these ‘strange creatures’ that seem to be in control of most of our world,” he says.

Womack talked to a class of 10-year olds in Chicago, about the power of futurism and creativity. The children imagined a future without violence, and asked her: So fiction lets us create the world around us? This weekend’s panels at Sonic Acts reaffirm her answer to those 10 year olds: yes. Through making weak stories stronger, by building new social parameters, by thinking about their implications, and boldly becoming a shape-shifting monster that eats capitalism for breakfast.