‘Utopia, Dystopia, and Climate Change’, Utopian Studies Society 20th Annual Conference 2019.

1st – 5th July 2019, Prato, Italy.

Twitter Hashtag: #USS2019

As climate change continues to dominate both the news headlines and the popular imagination, it seems entirely appropriate that the 2019 Utopian Studies Society conference ‘Utopia, Dystopia, and Climate Change’ took place under the scorching sun of the first of July’s heatwaves. The relentless heat and the resulting retreat into the building’s air-conditioned interior was a constant reminder of the daily consequences and contradictions of modern living. Climate change has become a staple feature in the genres of dystopian and utopian fiction, and the conference picked up on the need to discuss this environmental turn and its implications for the field. Hosted by Monash University’s Prato Centre, the conference bought together speakers from across the world, including some of the leading scholars in the field, creating a truly international atmosphere.

Monday began with an Academic Skills session hosted by Gregory Claeys, chair of the Utopian Studies Society, who gave advice on academic writing, conference presentations, and publishing. In particular, Claeys emphasised the importance of the revision process and the need for writing to go through several drafts on its way to completion. Claeys’ comments certainly provided food for thought for those of us working on our own projects at the moment, reminding us that even for senior and experienced academics, the revision process remains difficult and necessary. Afterwards, Gareth Johnson gave a talk on journal publishing, beginning with an historical timeline of scholarly publishing before introducing the ‘Exchanges’ journal hosted at Warwick University, an interdisciplinary journal designed as an outlet for early-career research. It was then time for David Holmes to kick off the welcome address with his talk on Climate Literacy and Climate Inertia. Holmes’ talk considered the different understandings of and approaches to climate change held by different interpretative communities across the UK, and across the wider world, and how this informs action. Finally, Claeys rounded-off the welcome address by introducing the Utopian Studies Society and noting that ‘comradery rather than competition is what defines our society’, a phrase certainly borne out by my experience at USS 2019.

After lunch it was time for the first panel session of the conference, in which I was speaking. I took part in a panel entitled ‘Apocalypse, Catastrophe, Crisis I’, where the first speaker was Paola Spinozzi. Spinozzi spoke about the idea of ‘being human’ in contemporary apocalyptic novels, asking how we might use the concepts of preparedness and resilience to explore how authors use representations of apocalypse to raise ontological questions. I then gave my own paper entitled ‘The Post-Apocalyptic Climate Change Dystopian Novel: Genre-Blurring at the End of the World’, which distinguished the important differences between dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, two genres that have grown in popularity in response to environmental anxiety. Drawing partly on elements from my thesis, I discussed how the combination of elements from both genres creates a unique approach for tackling the issue of climate change.

Monday finished with a panel on ‘The Domestication of Utopia’ with Tom Moylan, Darren Webb, Rafaella Baccolini, Laurence Davies, Sian Adiseshiah, and Nathaniel Coleman. The discussion considered how the idea of ‘utopia’ has been tamed, commodified, and emptied of its politics. All speakers instead stressed the idea that engaging with climate change demands a totalising critique. While Baccolini warned against the commercialisation of utopia and dystopia in film and tv, Davies argued that utopianism needed to be both rooted and revolutionary, both process and goal-orientated. It was a really fascinating panel, which insisted on the belief that utopia is an impulse accessible to any individual, providing an uplifting message for the beginning of the conference.

Tuesday kicked off with more panel sessions. I went for a second dose of disaster at the ‘Apocalypse, Catastrophe, Crisis II’ session, where Francisco Martinex Mesa started with his talk on survival and salvation in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature. He was followed by Elena Colombo, who talked on agency and hope in critical dystopian fiction, questioning whether struggle and risk are really a positive point for solidarity. After coffee and many croissants, I then attended the ‘Climate Literature: Indigeneity’ panel, which turned out to be one of my favourites from the whole conference. The majority of my current research has focused on British and American fiction, so I was interested in broadening my knowledge on non-Western texts. Kirsten Bussiere talked on ‘Indigenous Survivance’ in Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow and explored how Rice’s narrative reverses the traditional post-apocalyptic narrative to instead imagine this space as one of possibility and agency. Introducing the audience to Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius, Jacqueline Dutton explored how the body in these texts is represented as a site of violence, while Chiara Xausa also talked on The Swan Book, focusing on the experience of exile. In the questions afterwards, ‘apocalypse’ was highlighted as a specifically western notion, and all speakers noted how for many indigenous communities apocalyptic destruction and dystopian oppression are lived realities rather than fantasies for the future. Three more books to add to my reading list!

After lunch, we had our first keynote speaker: Lisa Garforth. Garforth’s talk, ‘Green Utopias: Inhabiting the Anthropocene’. Garforth’s approach is informed by her work within sociology and her talk considered how ideas around green utopianism have been affected by the fact that, due to climate change, nature is no longer straightforward or uncontaminated. This troubled representation of nature is evident in novels by Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula Le Guin, and Marge Piercy. As a result, argued Garforth, ‘nature’ as a concept is no longer a useful way of thinking about ecology and the utopias of the future are going to have to address hybridity as a founding concept. I found Garforth’s talk really informative, and particularly appreciated how it drew on and made links to the work of Haraway (‘Making Kin in the Chthulucene’, 2016) and Tsing (‘The Mushroom at the End of the World’, 2015 – currently sat on my to-read pile).

The last panel of the day was ‘Beyond the Human’. Marcus Vinicius Matias’s presentation on ‘Nanotechnotopia’ focused on artificial intelligence, arguing that machine intelligence fails when it strives to achieve the perfection of the system to the detriment of its creator. Continuing the theme, Rhiannon Firth gave a detailed exploration of the different kinds of relationships between humanity and technology, presenting a humanist model which sees humans and technology as distinct as opposed to an assemblage model which sees humans as already enmeshed with technology. Delilah Bermudez Brataas rounded off the panel through her analysis of Marge Piercy’s He, She and It informed by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. The day finished with a showcase of the different utopian studies research centres and projects.

Day three of the conference started with a panel on ‘Philosophy and the Environment’. Sorin Antohi began by reminding us that the nature/culture debates is centuries old, tracing its history across Europe, before Nikolay Litvak talked on the modern problems of ecology, considering the ethics of forced compliance with environmental measures and programmes of sustainability. Afterwards, I admit to a cheeky panel switch so I could listen to Gabrielle Bunn’s presentation on transformational catastrophe in J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. Bunn argued for the importance of ambiguity in this narrative, and cautioned against treating it as a straightforward climate change novel. A quick caffeine top-up, and then off to the next panel: ‘Dystopia as Ecological Discourse: Environmental Tropes in Contemporary Fiction in English’. This was a group panel consisting of several, shorter presentations from Paolo Bugliani, Roberta Ferrari, Camilla Del Grazia, Laura Giovannelli, and Linda Fiasconi. I particularly enjoyed Ferrari’s talk on Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers, a fourth novel to add to my reading list, and Del Grazia’s analysis of the world of China Mielville’s Unlunden. What was great about this panel was how each speaker considered a different way that environmental precarity has been represented in modern fiction, demonstrating the variety with which this theme has been handled (I maintain that ‘climate change’ is a theme, and not a genre).

After lunch it was time for the much-anticipated keynote talk from Darko Suvin: ‘Utopia or Bust: Capitalocene, Methods and Anti-Utopia’ – perhaps a reference to Benjamin Kunkel’s Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis? Suvin reframed the divisions between utopia/dystopia/anti-utopia in the context of climate change and, echoing arguments from Monday’s panel, argued that utopia can only be imagined as a totality, albeit an open-ended one.  I was particularly interested to hear Suvin reject the concept of the Anthropocene in favour of the Capitalocene as a more productive and accurate term, as I make the same argument in my own research, drawing on the work of Jason W. Moore. There is no capitalist utopia, argued Suvin, and the pursuit of profit is not the pursuit of happiness. Suvin has provided a handout covering the content of his talk on the conference website (link at the bottom of the page).

Dark Suvin's Keynote
A full-house for Darko Suvin’s keynote talk.

I finished Wednesday with the ‘Bodies and Technology’ panel. Up first was Franziska Bork Peterson whose talk focused on the physical, material, situated body as a possible site for utopia and explored the ‘makeover culture’ where becoming is more desirable than being. Afterwards, Elif Tekcan presented on cyborg identity in Gibson’s Neuromancer, contrasting the limited physical body with the transcendent possibilities of the virtual body. Rounding off the session, Elizabeth Russell explored the legacy of Frankenstein and his monster, focusing on the representation of organ transplant and its effect on identity in the film ‘Deham’ (translated as ‘Body’).

My Thursday morning panel of choice was ‘Climate Literature: Gender’, beginning with Carmen Gonzalez-Varela’s presentation of Hall’s The Carhullan Army. Gonzalez-Varela explored how the novel portrays multiple female subjectivities in dialogue and emphasised the importance of corporeal awareness to the formation of identity. Alumudena Machao Jimenez followed with her analysis of Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife and argued that the narrative challenges gender essentialism through its varied explorations of gendered violence. Finishing up the panel, Trevor Westmoreland explored the genre-blurring in Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold, Fame, Citrus and its representation of a slowly unfolding disaster in which the desert offers a possible utopian space. Next on the programme, after more coffee and more croissants, was Chelsea Haith, the first speaker on the ‘Climate Literature: Development and Ruin’ panel. Haith suggests the concepts of ‘cynical reasoning’ and ‘disavowl’ for describing the gap between knowledge of the climate crisis and behaviour, highlighting the presence of repressed ignorance in novels such as Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. At this point, three nights of trying and failing to sleep in a stuffy room without air-conditioning were finally catching up with me and I headed out to find somewhere cool to recover.

I began Friday morning with a stroll around Prato’s city walls with Gabby. It was another baking hot day in Italy, but it seemed a shame to come all this way and not see some of the town. After stretching the legs, it was back to base for the ‘Dystopic Futures: women writing ecological disaster from margin to center’ panel session with Katie Stone, Chelsea Haith, and Rachel Hill. As Katie (a.k.a. cyborg feminist) was presenting, I did my best to provide live-twitter coverage on her behalf. The panellists gave us a fascinating discussion of women’s science fiction, warning against homogenising a field that is diverse and varied: ‘there will be no unity for the sake of the apocalypse’! Stone used Disney’s Moana to explore the concept of indigenous utopianism, while Haith asked how non-mainstream representations of disaster might reshape what we think disaster is. Finally, Hill returned to Terra Nullius to look at how the novel plays with temporality to represent apocalypse as already present. It was an engaging session, and well-worth following up on Twitter for more detailed coverage.

After lunch, we began the fifth and final afternoon of the conference. Kicking off the ‘Climate Literature: Ecocriticism’ panel, Eva Antal talked on the masculine sublime and the womanly picturesque in Shelley’s The Last Man, using these concepts to explore the different male characters in the novel. Next was Salvatore Proietti’s presentation on Stephen King’s The Stand, which is not a novel about climate change as such, but does focus on the need to learn in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Concluding the panel, Sheryl M. Medlicott gave an analysis of Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and Always Coming Home, arguing that for Le Guin utopia is something made in the present. Unfortunately, I had to leave half-way through the final panel of the conference to catch my train back to Florence, but the papers on the ‘Eco-Dictatorship raised interesting questions about ethics and sustainability that certainly bear further thought.

Nearly every paper given at this event acknowledged the necessity of confronting the reality of climate change. There were discussions around activism and politics, and a constant pressure to consider the unique challenge these environmental issues set for utopian thinking. We were all reminded that hope and optimism are not the same thing, and that utopian thinking is needed most when the future looks most dire. The Utopian Studies Society’s 20th annual conference was an incredibly enjoyable and educational event, and I am so grateful I got to be a part of it. Thank you to the organising committee for putting on such a great event and thank you to everyone who presented.

Prato, Italy
Team Nottingham represent!

Conference Website: https://sites.google.com/monash.edu/uss2019/home