Category: CoFutures

ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

ST Picard, Republic Day, the values of Starfleet, and those left behind

Today is 26th January. The Indian Republic Day. And I resume my blog in 2020. Before I get to the idea of what it means to be a republic, or indeed, what any of this means to me, I will turn to something that has been a key influence on my life. Star Trek: The Next Generation, and more specifically, Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: Picard is now finally here with its global premiere. Patrick Stewart reprises his role of Jean-Luc Picard, now retired Starfleet Admiral. Picard is very much a show of its time, and the best few moments of an all too rapidly paced first episode are in the FNN interview scene where Picard does what Picard does best. Give a short, yet, strong speech about Starfleet’s core values.

Picard: “The Romulans asked for our help. And I believed we had a profound obligation to give it.”

Interviewer: “Many felt there were better uses for our resources than aiding the Federation’s oldest enemy.”

Picard: “Well fortunately the Federation chose to support the rescue effort.”

Interviewer: “Yes. Initially.”

Picard: “I have been known to be persuasive. But the Federation understood there were millions of lives at stake.”

Interviewer: “Romulan lives.”

Picard: “No. Lives.”

The interview continues. Picard mentions that the rescue effort’s historical analogy is not the Pyramids, but Dunkirk. And Picard tells us the real reason for leaving Starfleet: “Because it was no longer Starfleet! We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue, and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal!” He then brings up Dunkirk again, berating the interviewer for her lack of historical knowledge, before his closure: “You are a stranger to history. You are a stranger to war. You just wave your hand, and, pfft, it all goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind.”

For those of us who happen to be migrants, or darker skinned, Dunkirk is a sour note in what should have been a great speech (and it perhaps is for many).[i] But Dunkirk has been in the news not that long ago, due to a grandiose Christopher Nolan film. Dunkirk in this Nolan imaginary is a moment that England, at the time of Brexit, global far-right and nationalist resurgence, can see as uniquely its own, a moment of its stellar heroism. Nolan was accused of whitewashing, raising “Englishness” and English-heroism when the many heroes of WWII narrative included the larger British Empire, which include the many Asians and Africans who were part of the Allied effort. [ii] Dunkirk the film is anti-Nazi in its historical sentiment, and profoundly English in its emotional landscape at the same time. Yet Dunkirk is not a story of Englishness or national exception. It wasn’t and shouldn’t be. It was the story of many multitudes of nations, other European, Asian, and African nations. But to see this one has to look outside the bubbles of nationalist space-time. As Churchill and his racism dictated policies that led to the devastation of the Bengal famine two years after the events of Dunkirk,[iii] soldiers of the “Empire” shed their blood fighting for the future of the planet, under whatever banner they could have had at the time. That Picard brings up Dunkirk is unsurprising. For those whose reference point is the film however, Picard’s reference to Dunkirk serves the opposite purpose. It recreates English exceptionalism in a narrative about the future. It endorses the English identity that stoked and continues to stoke its virulent anti-European, xenophobic, nationalist, sentiments.

But the reference to Dunkirk to me is not a sour note because of the film – although that contributes to it, but because Picard’s speech does something else – it also somehow sullies the very core of what is the best thing about Star Trek to someone who has been a Trekkie and a fan of Picard forever – the core values of Starfleet. Picard’s speech dismisses one example of human endeavour (one from ancient history and slavery) while using another form of human achievement as exemplary (one from modern history and the era of brutal colonialism). What is left behind in the former is the pyramids and the politics of glorified nostalgia, and Picard is right to dismiss it. What is left behind of the latter is nationalist ethnocentric exceptionalism, which has no place as an admirable time inside or outside the ST universe.

History is always more complicated. Look at who died, and who was left behind. Look at what is left behind.

Thus when Picard brings us to the question of Starfleet values, in what would be the perfect moment for the return of a long admired figure, all I had was the question: did Starfleet ever actually have those values to begin with? Indeed, Starfleet has been notoriously callous to the rights of other species, which has also been at the heart of some of the best Trek episodes. Picard’s speeches – the best of them, have been in defense of principles that Starfleet has mouthed in principle but been indifferent to in practice. The Prime Directive’s Vietnam War roots are well known. But the reason Star Trek has always been my show – and will continue to be – is something that is in spite of Star Trek perhaps. If on the one side there is Dunkirk, on the other there is the defense of an idea that makes Picard say Lives instead of differentiating between Romulan and Human or Federation lives. If Dunkirk is a political statement, so is this. At a time of geopolitical crises, where it seems we are all too quick to dismiss some lives over others, or value some lives over others, it is the sole purpose of this statement to challenge any form of exceptionalism. And rightly so, for this exceptionalism is yet again (as it always has) leading to the new aggressive politics of oppression and violence from one corner of the globe to another. One ethnicity over another, one nation over another, one religion over another, one gender over another. The ostensible core ideals of Starfleet, howsoever they may perform, are an attack on this politics. It is also the one that is at the heart of Picard’s first appearance in the Star Trek universe in TNG, and why Picard remains “my captain” and has served as an inspiration for all my life. It’s a form of possible politics, where we are not perfect but where we must always strive to be better than we are, a quest without an endpoint. A form of politics that is needed more than ever at a time when the planet is burning and these exceptionalisms take increasingly more efficient genocidal forms. And these genocides are based on a politics of nostalgia enmeshed in the logic of technocapitalism. We chain many possible futures with the ghosts of pasts. Because, like the mythos of Dunkirk, the empire never ends. Historical details and history are profoundly important. But we must not elevate a politics of nostalgia and instead look upon history as the record of us that is consistently necessary and shameful, as the artefact whose mistakes we must consciously grow beyond.

And this brings us to the Republic Day, 26th January, to the idea of India. To many, the idea of India is always under attack by outside forces as often as by internal ones. But the events of the recent past, countrywide protests seem to have made our fissures and unities visible around the world yet again. I have grown up with this. With the politics of unities, diversities, hatreds, and reconciliations. All descendants of the partition people – the refugees – in the subcontinent have. The politics of nostalgia for another time, before “we” lost our lands and lives, our homes and livelihoods, before the lines between us and them were clearly drawn for the first time shaping the experience of every one of us in the whole subcontinent. But for the partition people our home is never one we can envision ever returning to. Permanent refugees in the world locked in the traumatic birth of nations. Or one might just as easily call it the xenophobic geno/xeno-cidal moment where we decided that our identity was to be imprisoned in the confines of whatever identity our ancestors imprinted on us as that which would be forever ours, for generations, and many generations, to the end of whatever time we could imagine. The exact politics that shapes us to this day.

Like any such national celebration, the Republic Day also celebrates a foundational moment. It is a moment of pride, of independence, of becoming a nation, it is a moment of celebrating the sacrifices of those who came before us. It is also a profoundly nostalgic moment for the absolute beauty of our constitution and the rules, rights, and duties, to which we are bound. Yet the truth is that the Constitution of India is as much an open document as any, it can be changed, amended, and transformed, as time progresses. It is at the mercy of time, and its values and principles are not absolute, but temporary, and we who are the citizens that are bound by it are also the agents of its change. Our populist politics may determine what changes happen to the constitution, including changes that may be profoundly against any idea of peace and happiness and the healthy coexistence of all people that live on a patch of land. When we thus celebrate the Republic Day, and the constitution of India, we are celebrating an interim document. And perhaps we must defend it again and again, its best values, just as we defend the values of Starfleet, and raise it as a slogan and as mantra, but that’s not where we can stop. Our ideas of coexistence must exist beyond the constitution – we must shape the constitution to accommodate more realms of the possible rather than letting the constitution alone determine our possibles. But before we can imagine or make this future constitution, we must shape our politics towards a future that is not based on nostalgia or purity or nationalism. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Brecht wrote these lines sandwiched between the Nazis and Hiroshima. Unless we can see the need to think beyond heroes and heroism (even if the hero is a Picard), beyond the exceptionals to the everyday, whether pyramids or Dunkirk or republics or independence or nations or soldiers or wars, can we ever get there?

I am not sure all this makes any sense to anyone other than me, and this is a personal blog after all. And it is perhaps an all too simple position. It is the kind of position one sees from Don Quixote when he sees the chained criminals and sets them free. Quixote simply believes that it is his duty is to get rid of oppression. That duty extends to one and all, and it does not matter if the oppressed are criminals. In our troubled times it seems to be a ridiculous perspective. And perhaps the most necessary one.


[i] Some of Picard’s best speeches are defenses of the rights of other beings, including Data (“The Measure of a Man”), and this particular speech echoes the famous one from Star Trek: Insurrection (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cXBy1SbPgk)
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Churchill%27s_Secret_War
Begumpura by Ravidas (aka the first Indian utopia)

Begumpura by Ravidas (aka the first Indian utopia)

This came up during the desert lab project, so I thought it would be a good idea to have a place where the original and the translation could be seen alongside each other. Begumpura by the Bhakti poet Sant Ravidas (c.1450 – c.1520)  is not the first utopia from India (that belongs to the mythological realm), but it can certainly be considered one of the first speculative utopian places from the subcontinental imagination.

रविदास : बेगमपुरा   /  /  Ravidas : Begumpura

बेगम पुरा सहर को नाउ।।
दूखु अंदोहु नहीं तिहि ठाउ।।
नां तसवीस खिराजु न मालु।।
खउफु न खता न तरसु जवालु।।1।।
अब मोहि खूब वतन गह पाई।।
ऊहां खैरि सदा मेरे भाई ।।1।। रहाउ।।
काइमु दाइमु सदा पातिसाही।।
दोम न सेम एक सो आही।।
आबादानु सदा मसहूर।।
ऊहां गनी बसहि मामूर।।2।।
तिउ तिउ सैल करहि जिउ भावै।।
महरम महल न को अटकावै।।
कहि रविदास खलास चमारा।।
जो हम सहरी सु मीतु हमारा।।3।। (पन्ना 345)
The regal realm with the sorrowless name:
they call it Begumpura, a place with no pain,
No taxes or cares, none owns property there,
no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture.
Oh my brother, I’ve come to take it as my own,
my distant home where everything is right.
That imperial kingdom is rich and secure,
where none are third or second – all are one;
They do this or that, they walk where they wish,
they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged.
Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free,
those who walk beside me are my friends.

Source for the original: https://www.punjabkesari.in/dharm/news/sri-guru-ravidas-jis-prakash-utsav-746842

Translation: Songs of the Saints of India, edited by Hawley and Juergensmeyer, page 32, sourced here: http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?p=1968

Doing Things with SF and Speculation

Doing Things with SF and Speculation

There is a perception that SF is about predicting the future. While that may be the case for some SF, far more common is SF that deals with trends, and buried in those trends, possibilities, while other SF is more in the nature of what-ifs and general speculation. SF thus may or may not be technological, although to maintain a semblance of difference from garden-variety fantasy it often has the veneer of the technoscientific as a distinguishing feature. I have discussed SF previously as a composite of technological futurism, epistemological futurism, and conditions of possibility, in other words that takes the future as a starting point for thinking about possible presents, but that description works only for a certain kind of SF, as all descriptions do. More specifically, that description of SF works for the kind of SF that I find interesting as a researcher, as this kind of SF helps me think through certain problems and questions I am dealing with.

This kind of SF has been seen as useful by any number of organizations, including think tanks and governments, who think that SF provides particularly fertile grounds for speculating about future societies and technologies. Both NASA and ESA have had numerous projects drawing upon SF.[1] Just a few months ago, newspapers widely reported the French Government recruiting SF writers for assistance in military strategy (the truth is a little more complex than that, but not by much).[2] There are any number of websites out there which focus on what SF got right and what it didn’t (or hasn’t yet) when it came to predictions about future technologies.[3] Within natural science domains, SF often turns up as a general thinking tool, allowing the kind of gee-whiz excitement about possible technologies and ideas that may or may not be feasible. In many cases, people and organizations also actively work towards making such ideas real, or at least exploring the possibilities of translating some ideas into reality.[4] A whole bunch of innovations literature has used SF to think with possibilities in technoscientific development. University centers such as the Arthur C Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego,[5] and the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University[6] have done an incredible job thinking with the science and science fiction model, dealing with a wide variety of imaginative responses to global problems such as climate change. Such responses have also spawned new tools and methodologies such as prototype fiction, coined by Intel’s Brian David Johnson, which encourage prototyping both ideas and effects of SFnal technologies that are within the realm of possibility.

Yet, when talking about SF, three main problems remain. First, how does one create a process for such speculative thinking that can be used by people with SF or non-SF interests, such that speculation itself is seen generally as a positive activity: an essential part of rather than dissociated from reality. This is not a problem unique to SF, it is a problem for other speculative genres such as fantasy or fairytale and folklore. But the problem is particularly acute when discussing SF, since folklore and fairytale at least have a certain cultural claim which SF lacks in most parts of the world. Second, how do we encourage speculation that is geared towards more positive possibilities. Much speculation today is dystopic, which is unsurprising given the state of the world, where climate change, demographic change, and technological change cause numerous anxieties about the future. but one of the advantages of speculation is that it can help us think past those mental and social blocks. As Samuel Delany put it in his Paris Review interview, “Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”[7] Third, how do we ensure that those who most need it to think of possibilities use such tools and strategies effectively: the marginalized, the oppressed, and the suffering. By effective, I mean to say that these speculations are seen, heard, and taken seriously, and such speculations are not co-opted into technocratic or technofascistic views or co-opted into top-down managerial visions.

There are no easy answers to these, but luckily I can at least work on some of these problems in the next years. I also intend to investigate strategies used by others to address these same problems, and explore if some of these strategies can be scaled up or distributed when talking about the globe.

 


 

[1] For instance, check out this cool project Innovative Technologies from Science Fiction for Space Applications, edited by David Raitt (https://www.esa.int/esapub/br/br176/br176.pdf)

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49044892

[3] Perhaps the most comprehensive source of such hits and misses is the technovelgy database: http://technovelgy.com/

[4] NANORA, the EU Nano Regions Alliance that focuses on nanotechnology, has done cool things with nanotech ideas in science fiction literature. http://www.nanora.eu/nano-dimension-science-fiction

[5] http://imagination.ucsd.edu/index.html

[6] https://csi.asu.edu/

[7] Delany, Samuel R. “The Art of Fiction No. 210.” Interview by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. The Paris Review, Issue 197, Summer 2011. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6088/samuel-r-delany-the-art-of-fiction-no-210-samuel-r-delany.

The “Origins” of the CoFutures project

The “Origins” of the CoFutures project

CoFutures originates in the different strands of engagement with future fictions and science fiction that have emerged in the last couple of decades. These new future fictions are a response to the predominantly Anglophone, predominantly ethnic white, imaginaries of the future that have been common in future oriented fictions and science fiction. This limitation in the availability of possible futures can be seen in the works that are available internationally, in the more prominently highlighted non-fiction narratives about the future (including scenario, policy, and strategy documents), the theorizations of the future, and theories and criticism of future fictions more broadly. If postcolonial studies eroded the general sense of certainty about the qualities of canonical Euro-American literature, then it failed to go past its implicit valorizations of alternate canons based on the works produced in these formerly colonized locations. Genres such as science fiction, or fantasy, broadly, had to fight out their own battle on a pop cultural battlefield, on separate terms from the postcolonial battlefield. The postcolonial struggle was the academe reasserting its rights to determine what was to be studied and what qualified as high literature; the pop-cultural struggle was about the everyday, the fandoms, the communities: it was about the people who had grown up reading other people’s visions of the future over and again and wanted to see themselves in the futures they read.

 

One such battle was the Racefail ’091 which among other things highlighted the poor representation of POC voices in fandom communities, including producers, consumers, and critics. For me, sitting in India far from these debates, trying to write up a PhD proposal on studying Bangla science fiction or kalpavigyan written in the colonial period, postcolonial theory was one of the key entry points in the discussion, as it is for most Indians studying EngLit. While I had been planning my PhD project since 2006 on the same subject, it was really John Rieder’s already classic study Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction2 that gave me the perspective I was looking for. Rieder’s fantastic work did not include the colonized parts of the world, certainly not India, but it did make me wonder why that was so, given that the Indian history of future histories begins in the colonial period as well, and for much of the same reasons as highlighted by Rieder, only sometimes in the reverse. I learnt about Racefail in 2010, after I moved to Norway for my PhD, but I spent the next few years buried in archives and lit-crit. But fandom environments, including in Norway. were rapidly transforming in those years. By 2013-14, there were full blown crises, with Gamergate3 and Puppygate4 in the gaming industry and the SFF fandom communities respectively. What I call my first CoFutures essay (“Recentering Science Fiction And The Fantastic: What Would a Non-Anglocentric Understanding of Science Fiction and Fantasy Look Like?”, published in Strange Horizons in September 2013)5 came at the end of my PhD, just when these crises were completely taking over fandom discussions.

 

With the crises we have clarity, new assertions, and strength. Cixin Liu’s Hugo for The Three Body Problem in 2015, and N. K. Jemisin’s consecutive victories are the most easily visible signs of this strength. The process of naming that marks the edges of a new aesthetic formation has also already begun. New histories and new excavations of the past show the global origins of future fictions, while new strategies are being carved for the future from the crises of the present. This trend began with Afrofuturism to a large extent, but the work of a whole generation of scholars has highlighted the scope of the phenomena from one corner of the globe to the other, but especially in the context of the global South from South America to South East Asia. Creators have brought forth new strategies and coined new terms to represent different experiences of the future, such as in the Middle East with Fatima Al Qadiri and Sophia Al-Maria’s chrome-pastiche Gulf-futurism,6 or the possibilities for the future offered in Grace Dillon’s Indigenous futurism.7 There are other labels floating about in the recent years. Some of these are geographically inflected while others thematically oriented, such as Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism8 and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s Ricepunk.9 These changes also highlighted the strong Anglocentric (and to a certain extent Francocentric) biases of the producers and consumers when it came to recognizing future fictions in other languages and other geographical regions, for instance even within Europe, such as Eastern and Northern Europe. Rachel S. Cordasco’s brilliant project Speculative Fiction in Translation has done much to raise general awareness of these fictions from everywhere around the world, in many different languages.10

 

Not all developments have been positive, and I plan to discuss some of these in more detail at a later time.

 

CoFutures is the result of all these discussions. It is as much about the personal journey as an Indian working on things far away from home and about the different experiences that have shaped my own work, as it is about global fandom and academic debates on gender, ethnicity, Anglocentrism, translation, and other related topics. In the next few years, the project hopes to bring in numerous academics and creators, from writers to artists to games designers, to discuss better ways for envisioning the future. CoFutures is not a solo project. It is a community project: community is where it comes from, to which it contributes, to which it seeks to give back. This was the reason I wore my shiny Star Trek TNG combadge even to the ERC interview in Brussels, taking the risk that they wouldn’t fund me because of my refusal to dress “properly” for the interview. But perhaps they saw it for what it is: that CoFutures is about the community, the fandom, many possible futures, and more than anything else, hope. LLAP! 🖖


http://annsomerville.net/a-themed-summary-of-racefail-09-in-large-friendly-letters-for-those-who-think-race-discussions-are-hard/
2 Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2008.
https://www.vox.com/2014/9/6/6111065/gamergate-explained-everybody-fighting
https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/the-culture-wars-come-to-sci-fi/390012/
http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/articles/recentering-science-fiction-and-the-fantastic-what-would-a-non-anglocentric-understanding-of-science-fiction-and-fantasy-look-like/
https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/15037/1/al-qadiri-al-maria-on-gulf-futurism
7 Dillon, Grace. Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction.  Arizona UP, 2012
https://vimeo.com/179509486
http://yudhanjaya.com/2019/05/the-ricepunk-manifesto/
10 https://www.sfintranslation.com/
Global Future Fictions and the CoFutures Project

Global Future Fictions and the CoFutures Project

I’m giving a talk at the University of Bergen on 24th October, which is the first post-ERC talk on the CoFutures idea. I have presented on the general theme of CoFutures several times before already, including in January at the Center for Advanced Study Oslo, and in Paris in February this year (CoFutures Comment #3). The difference here is that I am focusing on a part of the project I haven’t presented on before (WP2 Subproject 5).

“In this talk, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay will present his ERC Starting Grant project “CoFutures: Pathways to Possible Presents” and its core ideas related to global future fictions, and how these fictions offer us ways of speculating, imagining, and in some cases even anticipating multiple possible futures by opening up the multiplicity of presents. He presents some of the broader discussions within the field of global future fictions and how these are distributed in the different parts of the CoFutures project, and how some of the fundamental steps of the CoFutures project invoke and combine ideas from different digital storytelling technologies and speculative design practices.”

More details here at the UiB website

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa