While it may be too soon to assess the long-lasting impact that the Covid19 pandemic will have on our societies and ways of life in the future, it is timely to consider how the collective experience of emergency and crisis tends to prompt reflections and critique —sometimes renewed, though not always— on the ways in which we live, as well as tending to inspire new conceptualizations and directions in thought, behavior, policy, and the arts. Many public intellectuals and pundits have speculated, not without a certain degree of opportunism, about the demise of the neoliberal world order and its dependence on the financialization of global markets, and how this will, in theory, significantly alter our social, political, and cultural relationships, as well as our relation to the environment. At the same time, an equal number of voices have expressed doubts about what they consider an excessively optimistic view, and suggest instead that neoliberal globalization will continue to march on into its most aggressive phase yet, emboldened by the enhanced digital surveillance and authoritarian tendencies that the health crisis, understood as a state of exception, has enabled. Leaving aside the wide range of approaches offered, the shared experience of a historic and global crisis has elicited early theoretical responses from cultural critics and philosophers, including Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Judith Butler, Byung-Chul Han, David Harvey, Paul B. Preciado, Raúl Zibechi and Slavoj Žižek (and collected in the anthology Wuhan Soup), to name but a few. Time will tell if the crisis will influence artistic and cultural production during the next decade; at present, early works like Spike Lee’s short film New York, New York (2020) offer some first impressions about the altered urban landscape, as his camera roams the deserted streets of the big city, and the collection of short stories The Decameron Project by The New York Times Magazine (July 2020) gathers a host of fiction writers under the premise that “when reality is surreal, only fiction can make sense of it”.
From a broader perspective, it may well be argued that the pandemic is simply the latest of a series of events that, for quite some time now, have been exposing a deeper unrest that signals a paradigm shift across the Western world, the outcomes of which are still uncertain. The rhetoric of crisis as a permanent state has accompanied the recent surge of right-wing populisms in Europe and the Americas, which can be read as mere indicators —rather than sole instigators— of a broader and slow-burning crisis that shares similar patterns across the world: the sustained precarization of the job market, the stripping back of social protections and public services, increased and systemic inequality, and the rise of a “new style” of doing politics where a lack of trust in science, intellectual thought and the media are actively encouraged. This crisis that predates the pandemic, then, has economic, ecological, and social strands, but it is, fundamentally, political (Fraser, 2019), if we assume that what is in crisis is the very notion of liberal democracy as a shared, post-45 system of values, assumptions and beliefs across the Western hemisphere.
Arguably, then, the real impact of the recent pandemic is the acceleration of prior trends and the addition of a new layer of complexity and urgency to what is already the complicated task of making sense of a paradigm shift as it happens: what Antonio Gramsci referred to as the “interregnum”, the period when, in Nancy Fraser’s recent rephrasing, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Fraser, 2019). The reasons why the new cannot be born are multiple, and sometimes the conditions for its emergence do not yet exist. But more often than not, there is the desire of a majority and of hegemonic power to cling to “things as they used to be”, arguing for a nostalgic sense of lost “normalcy” that has to be regained (e.g. Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, or the post-Covid “new normal”, in current parlance; or, if we look back to the interwar period of the 20th century in Europe, the sense of lost pride among the German polity and that catalyzed as national-socialism), which in many ways prevents an accurate diagnosis of the causes and possible outcomes.
It is at such moments of radical instability when the potentialities of literature to offer nuanced and imaginative readings of both the present and an uncertain future become most evident, a crucial task that Aleksandar Hemon has called “imagining the unimaginable” (Hemon, 2017). Indeed, and as Gramsci reminds us, culture can serve the needs of hegemony in perpetuating the status quo and capital’s political and economic ends, and we are bound to question whether the capacities for reflection and analysis are available at all, especially when literature is so invested in that same sociopolitical culture that is being questioned. And yet, we contend that literature can still be a subversive exercise that can contribute to both imagining and articulating a counter-hegemony more widely.
This CFP invites contributions focused on works of 20th and 21st century literature that examine the dynamics of moments of paradigm shift, regime change or crisis understood more broadly, regardless of whether the perceived crisis eventually materialized or not. We seek articles that reflect on how fiction navigates the interregnum, those moments in history when the very grounds for analysis seem to be shifting and old certainties become blurred. This may include, for example, literary works that emerged in the first half of the 20th century, which, in addition to the devastation, bore witness to paradigmatic changes such as the disintegration of the old nations, the rise of fascism and communism, and technological advances in warfare; transformative and destabilizing forces that can be read in, for instance, Kafka’s perplexing circularities, T.S, Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and the existentialism underpinning the “theater of the absurd” by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet, to list but a few. By focusing on works of fiction that represent the experience of being in the midst of a change of cycle, that is, an “apprehension of historical completion or exhaustion [that] coexists with an experience of a present that is so young, so rapidly growing and changing, that it is difficult even to inhabit it, to hold it still long enough to glean a clear understanding of its features” (Boxall, 2013) —and which can be glimpsed in so much of contemporary fiction—, we seek to reflect on how literature may tap into more complex temporal and referential frameworks that allow us not only to process the affective impact of historical immediacy, but also, and potentially, to imagine and to articulate alternative modes of being.
Suggested areas of analysis include but are not limited to:
– Literatures of the two world wars of the 20th century.
– Trauma literature after the Holocaust.
– Science fiction (in its broadest sense) during the Cold War.
– The HIV crisis in the ‘80s.
– The disintegration of the Balkans in the ‘90s.
– Military dictatorships in Latin America and return to democracy (or vice versa).
– “Novels of precarity” after the 2008 financial crisis.
– 21st-century dystopias and postapocalyptic narratives.
BOXALL, P. (2012): “Late: Fictional Time in the Twenty-First Century”, Contemporary Literature, 53,4, 681-712.
FRASER, N. (2019): The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born, London and New York: Verso.
GRAMSCI, A. (2011): Prison Notebooks, New York: Columbia University Press.
HEMON, A. (2017): “Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump”, The Village Voice, <https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/01/17/stop-making-sense-or-how-to-write-in-the-age-of-trump/>.
About the journal