Imagining Otherwise: Writing the Future

Dany Celermajer and James Bradley muse on the critical role of writers in imagining futures beyond the climate crisis, beyond the human-centric, and beyond the individual.

Image by Casey Horner, via Unsplash.

Some years ago, Amitav Ghosh suggested that the difficulties we are experiencing in facing the unfolding reality of a climate changing world are not merely the result of deficits in information. We are, he said, experiencing a ‘crisis in imagination’.1 The term’s brilliance lies in part in its multivalence. There are so many aspects of so many worlds that ‘we’, the human beneficiaries of colonialism and capitalism, cannot imagine. And yet, creating the possibility of imagining otherwise is precisely what writers, like other artists, set out to do. What might be written, and in what form or genre, to open the imaginings needed for this moment?

The difficulty of imagining worlds thrown off their axes is in some regards not new. In the mid-20th-century, when she was trying to comprehend a world torn asunder by Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt lamented the impossibility of looking to the past for guidance. In a world where the “pillars of the best-known truths” had been smashed, she argued, we could neither orient nor steady ourselves through reference to the past.

How much truer is this today, when the pillars that are being smashed include the rhythms and forms that constitute the basic conditions of our earthly home? How much truer when we confront evidence demonstrating with the facticity of mathematics, that the lives we have been living are the cause of the destruction of the conditions that have made this planet hospitable to ours and others’ lives? How much truer when we are learning that humans are not the only ones who think and feel and form complex relationships and reach for the future of those who come after? How much truer when we wake up and recognise that the beings we have treated as resource have worlds as marvellous and rich as our own?

“Such creeping realisations feel impossible not only to imagine, but to hold in our bodies. The sheer vastness of what we would see and then feel has us turn away.”

Such creeping realisations feel impossible not only to imagine, but to hold in our bodies. The emotions they stir, and what they would seem to demand of us can exceed our current capacities. The sheer vastness of what we would see and then feel has us turn away. Worlds that came into being over millennia to become the complex forest homes to myriad forms of symbiotic life, stripped away, concreted over and turned into soulless office blocks, production plants and apartments. Oceans whose depths have been teeming over aeons with beings and relationships, flows and forms, now saturated with the plastics that we do not even notice wrap life in late industrial capitalism, and permeated with the intolerable racket of ships that underwrite the passage of ever more stuff. Vast sheds crammed with chickens, cows and pigs, themselves crammed with antibiotics and foodstuffs designed to grow them at the precise time size ratio to maximise profit, before they are transported to factory floors that process their deaths like car parts. And the complex dynamic lifeworlds that Indigenous peoples and their more than human kin wove since time immemorial, superseded in a market transaction by opencut mines to fuel the numbed lives propelled towards a fantasy of endless progress towards the ends of all of these worlds.

All of us who feel these precipices are searching for ways of being present to these unimaginable truths, and thence to transform ourselves and our forms of life so that it might be otherwise. For writers, that search has us revisit the unique power of stories to weave worlds and transport readers beyond the boundaries of their experience. And yet, the standard modalities of storytelling to which we turn are, like Arendt’s past, inadequate to the imaginations required.

How can we story the experience of beings other than humans in ways that convey their texture and complexity, as well as their radical difference, especially when the languages we have at hand were crafted for humans alone? How do we shatter the myth of the individual and the concentration of subjectivity in the mind of the individual within grammars that insist on a clear demarcation between subjects and objects? How do we write the torture and killing of beings other than humans on unfathomable scales without straying into the pornographic, especially in the context of a culture industry that has so thoroughly commodified violence?

“How can we story the experience of beings other than humans in ways that convey their texture and complexity, as well as their radical difference, especially when the languages we have at hand were crafted for humans alone?”

Similar questions shadow the ways we imagine both past and future. Faced with the inhuman scale and what Ghosh describes as the “insistent, inescapable continuities” of the climate crisis, writers and artists are being forced to find new forms and new modalities capable of making its immensity and complexity comprehensible. Often this demands a decentering of human concerns, or new formal strategies capable of representing different or deranged temporalities. But it also requires writing that engages with the violence, both fast and slow, of environmental crisis.

In so doing such writing must make that which is often hidden visible, drawing into the open not just the violence itself, but its deep roots, and the mechanisms that obscure and efface it. As Kathryn Yusoff has observed, “the Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence. The Anthropocene as a politically infused geology and scientific/popular discourse is just now noticing the extinction it has chosen to continually overlook in the making of its modernity and freedom.”

These questions are further exacerbated by our culture’s seeming inability to imagine its way past the crisis that has enveloped it. Or, as Frederic Jameson famously observed, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Yet when capitalism occupies what Mark Fisher once described as the horizons of the thinkable, what is the role of the writer in imagining and articulating alternatives?

On June 24 and July 1, join us for two events: Writing the More-Than-Human and The Invisible Now, where six of Australia’s most significant contemporary writers will explore these issues, and their own experiences writing into and about crisis. In so doing they will offer insights not just into the role of the writer in a moment of escalating catastrophe, but also reflections on navigating a moment of profound grief and trauma, and what that process can reveal for all of us.

1. Amitav Ghosh, 2017. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
2. Hannah Arendt, 1968. “On Humanity in Dark Times: Thoughts about Lessing.” In Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, p. 5.
3. Kathryn. Yusoff, 2019. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. University of Minnesota Press.
4. Fredric Jameson, 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso Books.

James Bradley is an Australian author and critic. His books include the novels Wrack (1997), The Deep Field (1999), The Resurrectionist (2006) and Clade (2015), a book of poetry, Paper Nautilus (1994), and The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His books have won or been shortlisted for many major Australian and international literary awards, and in 2012 he won the Pascall Prize for Australia’s Critic of the Year. His latest novel, Ghost Species (2020), is published by Hamish Hamilton.

Danielle Celermajer is a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, and Deputy Director – Academic of the Sydney Environment Institute. Dany is Director of the Multispecies Justice Project and along with her multispecies community, she has recently lived through the NSW fires, an experience she reflects on in her new book, Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future (2020).