HOTB2020 Panel 7.6: Strange Futures



Panel 7.6: Strange Futures

“Nobody Knows Anything for Sure: Uncertainty as Monstrosity in Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God”

Matthew Morgenstern (Purdue University)

“Quick: Life and Speed in an Era of Extinction”

Jemma Deer (Harvard University)

“2020 Vision: Futurity and Climate Crisis”

Siobhan Angus and Samantha Spady (Yale University (Angus) and University of Alberta (Spady))

“Apocalypse: A Manifesto for the Futureless”

Jessica Hurley (George Mason University)

“‘Kindling Suns’: Decolonial Spaceflight Imaginaries”

Rachel Hill (Independent Scholar)



Q & A

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26 replies
  1. Jemma Deer says:

    Hello, and thanks for watching my video ‘Quick: Life and Speed in an Era of Extinction’, on extinctions and J.G. Ballard. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.

    I’m currently working on a book on extinction, so will also happily take any recommendations for literary texts that you think might be relevant!

    I also hope you enjoyed the wildlife photography. It was provided by my dear friend and conservation biologist Adam Roberts (and if you click through to youtube you can see the species and location for each photo listed in the info section of the video).

    • deryaagis says:

      Thank you, Jemma, for the presentation. I have learned about “The Drowned World” by Ballard. I presented a paper titled “A Cognitive Semiotic Cross-Cultural Climate Change Education through Three Movies: ‘Stromboli’ (1950), ‘The Little Doomsday’ (2006), and ‘Children of Men’ (2006)” last year:; the major topic of the movie titled “Children of Men” was the extinction of human beings. As a movie, you may include it in your work. Besides, you can refer to this book: Talent, John A. “Earth and Life: Global Biodiversity, Extinction Intervals and Biogeographic Perturbations through Time.” Dordrecht: Springer, 2012. Internet resource.

    • Bethany Williams, University of California, Davis says:

      Hi Jemma,

      I am delighted by the final turn in your argument! Along similar lines to what I already mentioned in our previous exchange, I think that nonhuman forms of cognition and expression are definitely alive and well (Eduardo Kohn’s “How Forests Think” offers a wonderful exploration of this perspective, and his articulation of an ecology of selves / an anthropology beyond the human is a real treat.) But I think you’re right in that humans are unique in our ability to place our thoughts/actions into “ethical categories” (Kohn touches on morality as well), and I was compelled by your argument that consciousness as self consciousness serves as a protection to the destructive force of human speed. Wow! This comes across clearly in the calls to action we can think of when considering global climate change: consume and make and waste less. Slow down. Pump the breaks!

      Definitely correct me if I’m wrong (it happens so very often). But I see this as a mapping of consciousness as:

      – the thing that makes us go so fast in the first place (whether we call it creativity or ingenuity or greed or capitalism),
      – even as it is simultaneously the only thing that can incite us to slow down or put a cap on speed (whether call it guilt or ethics
      or becoming-with or care),
      – and, in order to slow down enough, we have to act quickly!

      Of course, this is a sort of delightful conundrum. Can we undo our problems with the same tools (namely speed) that we used to create them? That suggests a sort of doubling-down on belief in progress, technological solution, and the unique capacities of human consciousness in ways that make me squirm a bit.

      I’m also wondering whether your work suggests that the evolutionary idiosyncrasy of self/human/consciousness was somehow prescient, anticipating its own tendencies to self-destruction. Could it be? We’re getting into some juicy stuff here.

      Many thanks!

      • Jemma Deer says:

        My apologies for being slow in getting around to replying! But perhaps apt if there is an injunction to quickly slow down, to use our capacity for quickness to slow things… which is to say I think you’re exactly right in your breaking it into that 3-step contradictory conundrum. I hadn’t thought of it like that, and that’s definitely useful. One needs to be quick enough to see that one is gong too fast, quick enough to apply the brakes.

        Also, thanks for reminding me of Kohn’s book – it had been some years since I read it and was inspired to look over my notes. This line struck me as being resonant with the ideas from Dan Dennett that I give in the talk regarding how language maybe produces consciousness: “Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis” (Kohn, 34).

        And with regards to your last comment: I’m not quite sure what you mean. In what way do you think my work suggests that consciousness “anticipates its own tendencies to self-destruction”?

    • Judith Wakeman says:

      Hello Jemma. Thankyou for your enthralling presentation. Six months ago billions of animals were killed when the east coast of Australia was besieged with fire for over 4months. Estimates of the numbers of species driven to extinction as a result vary from 100 to many 100s – birds, reptiles, mammals and plants. Animals that survived the fires succumbed to their injuries or died of starvation or exposure to predators. Aquatic species that survived the fires were killed when rains left rivers and lakes filled with silt. Two thirds of forests in east Gippsland were burnt. You might think that people were concerned and many were. But deforestation continued – even while part of the state was on fire, state owned forestry operations continued in the habitat of a number of species listed as critically endangered.
      In response to your request for books on extinction I can recommend Ghost Species by James Bradley and a picture book One Careless Night by Christina Booth.
      Your last comment is so pertinent. I look forward to reading your paper.

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Hi Jemma,
      I really enjoyed your talk! You probably know this already, but Ursula Heise has a recent book out, Imagining Extinction, which looks at what extinction stories tell us about human culture. She doesn’t only look at fiction but the book has a bunch of examples. A couple I remember off the top of my head are Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide and Mayra Montero’s Tu La Oscuridad. I’ve been thinking recently about apocalypse not extinction, but there are certainly interesting overlaps. Especially the idea of bad futures that have already arrived, and arrived unevenly, and what to do about them.

    • Giulia Lepori says:

      Hello Jemma,

      Thank you for your engaging video-talk! My compliments also to the editor and your biologist friend for his photos. I am in the same panel as Bethany Williams ( so I saw your comments about embodied thinking. I slowly reflected on them and joined the conversation as invited. Looking forward to know your thoughts.

      Regarding your question above, (if you don’t know him already) Thom van Dooren’s multispecies approach to extinction could inform your book.

  2. Christy Tidwell, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology says:

    Thanks for your presentation, Matthew. Erdrich’s novel is so fascinating! I do have a couple of suggestions for you to consider and a couple of questions.

    First, suggestions: Bridgitte Barclay has a chapter out in a recent collection about Erdrich’s novel that I think might help deepen your thinking about the book’s treatment of reverse evolution and place it in a larger context that considers both gender and indigeneity more fully (her chapter is called “‘My Heart Slowly Cracks’: Making Kin and Living Through Extinction in Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God” and is in Fiction and the Sixth Mass Extinction, ed. Jonathan Elmore – More broadly, I’d strongly suggest engaging with this book as one written by a Native American woman. Consider, for instance, Grace Dillon’s work on Indigenous Futurism (see Walking the Clouds), Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work on Indigenous resurgence and resistance (see As We Have Always Done), etc. (There are so many thinkers you could turn to here.) Some of the theory you apply echoes what Indigenous thinkers have said for a long time (as in Latour’s comment about subjects not being autonomous but sharing agency) and it would be useful to put it in that context and recognize the Indigenous thinking that is already occurring; some of your theoretical ideas might conflict with those thinkers, though, and the differences between Indigenous thought and Western academic thought should be considered.

    And this leads to a series of questions (sorry if they’re not organized as well as possible – they’re all linked in my head): How might the blurring of human/nonhuman look in an indigenous context that already sees plants and animals as relatives? For instance, in the scene you cite when Tia gives birth, you describe her as both violent and animalistic. This seems to apply some negative connotations to the association with animals – what happens if you consider the animal comparisons more positively? Instead of violent, could this be powerful? And is the animalistic element of this birth new (the result of reverse evolution and changes to humanity) or is it typical of what giving birth entails?

    Finally, who is the “we” you refer to at the end of your presentation when you discuss embracing change to create a better world? Is it all humans? White people? Native Americans? Is it *only* humans? It would help clarify your reading of the text to be clear about who *you* mean here and also to consider who *Erdrich* might mean.

    • Matt Morgenstern says:

      Hi Christy,
      Thanks for your feedback. I do agree that, after finishing the presentation, I regretted what may come off as “generalizations,” so I appreciate those sources, especially to bring the novel into conversation with Erdrich’s other work.

      To answer your questions:

      1. In my description of Tia as “violent and animalistic,” there is room for the sort of positivity I connote “monstrosity” with, especially as I read that through an animal studies lens more so than an indigenous context, though I’m sure there’s bridges between the two. So, yes, the scene is definitely “powerful,” in light of empowerment in the midst of this dystopia, in light of the dispossession and marginalization of women for their reproductive potential, and in light of their need for bodily autonomy and agency. To answer your other question, it could go either way. Cedar’s description of the situation has a reverent, religious appeal (as does most of her thinking around children and childbirth throughout the novel), and in this she seems to find some subjective renewal in Tia’s experience…it feels to me that, ultimately, Erdrich errs on the side of “defamiliarization” to really isolate this birth (however difficult it is) as something novel in the “emergent dystopia.” At the same time, there is something “ordinary” and/or “typical” about it, but I don’t find that as resonant in a novel where we only see two actual birth scenes (if I recall correctly), the latter of which we only receive impressions of from Cedar.

      2. When I say “we,” I mean everyone who acknowledges the inevitability of climate change and its effects on our lives, and our need to “adapt” and mitigate those effects accordingly. This focus, of course, envelops everyone, especially those (and this may be what Erdrich “means”) who stand to suffer the most. But I think focalizing that, in addition to more engagement with some of the sources you provided, would strengthen the argument, especially in line with Cohen’s ideation of the “monster.”

      • Christy Tidwell, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology says:

        Thanks for the responses, Matt! I’m going to have to re-read the novel, I think, to remind myself of how those scenes read to me. I think it would be useful to consider not only how ordinary or typical giving birth is in the novel but also how giving birth might be described and/or experienced outside of the novel as a way to answer the question I’d raised about its representation. In other words, how does Erdrich build on or work against the language used to describe childbirth in contemporary culture?

      • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

        Hi Matthew,
        Thanks for your talk. I have not read this novel but it sounds very interesting! Like Christy’s comments your talk brought to mind some areas of theory that you don’t engage with and I wanted to know how you are thinking about them. One obvious one seems feminist theory and ecofeminism, which has long contested the equation of women and nature and worked to recuperate women from the status of less-than-human, controllable, exploitable subjects. In one of your scenes you discussed how Cedar is being monitored like an animal – what is your point in drawing attention to these similarities? At the end you say that ‘being monster’ is basically about acknowledging how ‘we’ have been changed; but becoming monster also seems imbricated in inequalities of power, both raced and gendered, so how do those differences that work in this process?

        Also, re: monsters, you might want to check out the collection Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet which is similarly theorizing monsters as both threats to futurity and collaborative, generative adaptations.

  3. Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

    Hi everyone,

    It’s a pleasure to meet you all and be a part of this panel! I have a full transcript of the talk and a list of references available if anyone wants them; just email me at jhurle AT gmu DOT edu if you want either or both.

    This paper is based on a writing prompt I gave myself when developing my book manuscript: to articulate the book’s argument about apocalypse and liberation in the strongest possible form (hence, manifesto). The book is coming out in the fall (you can see the details here for context:, but I’m interested in developing this piece as a stand-alone article. With that in mind, I’d be particularly interested in feedback on the argument as a whole (what worked, what needed refining or expanding?), as well as other texts that might be interesting to talk about in this context. Thank you!

    • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

      Hi Jessica,
      I loved your talk and am totally on board with your argument! I’m familiar with some of this argument since I know you’ve written about it elsewhere, and I have myself recently started to think about apocalypse and what apocalypse does or means for those who have always been deemed futureless or expendable (from a postcolonial lens). The talk I’ve posted at this conference gets to some of that and has a lot of resonances with your argument, especially the idea that ‘saving the future’ is profoundly conservative. I hadn’t heard of Bambara’s novel and was glad to learn about it.

      One question I have is about apocalypse as a form – when you first discuss it, apocalypse itself seems to be a primarily temporal or ideological/social form, definitely not one that is purely aesthetic. Is this the case and if so, is there anything unique about aesthetic treatments of apocalypse that are different from what the more general social/temporal/ideological form as you discuss it? I noticed at the same time that you mentioned a wide range of media and not just, say, novels, in your aesthetic objects. I tend to think about social/ideological forms a lot as well, but like you also recourse to aesthetic objects when I think about how to ‘resist’ or ‘disrupt’ them. Wondering how you approach this; is it a claim implicitly about the capacity of aesthetic forms in particular to resist, say, ‘bad social forms’? Also, congrats on the upcoming book!

      • Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

        Hi Rebecca,

        Thank you for this excellent question! I have struggled a lot with the question of what literature/the aesthetic can do that other things can’t (as have lots of us, I’m sure). In the longer version of this thinking (in the book intro) I ended up theorizing it narratologically through Paul Ricoeur’s work in Time and Narrative. He theorizes mimesis as something that moves across and between reality and narrative representations (and, crucially, back again): we experience the world as temporally ordered (mimesis 1); the narrative text reconfigures that temporality through its own temporal configuration of the world (mimesis 2); and then – and this is the really interesting bit – the reader’s lived sense of temporality is “transfigured” by their encounter with the text (mimesis 3). So reading a text that cuts off the future tense, in this theory, actually changes how we experience time for a bit. In this sense, then, narrative texts can actually give us the experience of inhabiting the world a different way when it comes to time.

        It’s a pretty specific way to answer a more general question, but my feeling is that this is a level of specificity that we need when arguing for literature’s capacity to DO something (anything?). I certainly don’t always live up to this; I’m a firm believer in literature-as-resistance but also aware that lots of literature is actively counter-revolutionary, so this is me trying to balance those two approaches!

        • Rebecca Oh, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign says:

          Hi Jessica,
          Interesting! I asked partially because it’s a question I am wrestling with as well, and one I am still devising my own answer to. Your recourse to Ricoeur reminds me a bit of the way Pheng Cheah discusses Derrida in What is a World – I skimmed this recently and from what I recall Derrida/deconstruction more generally treat narrative as an experience of the opening up of time and thus worldliness, but this structure also precedes and is what enables a world. Cheah theorizes world as a temporal category not a spatial one; might be of interest to you.

    • Kristin George Bagdanov says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Always great to hear your work! I especially love the manifesto form, which feels necessary for the urgency of your topic. I also enjoyed hearing you talk about apocalypse outside of the particular nuclear framework in which I usually encounter your work (and in which I usually think through these days). I resonate with a lot of your argument, especially this “radical futurelessness” that positions disruption as the condition of possibility for care. That the key to future-building by those who have been positioned by the dominant structures as futureless isn’t to recuperate a coherent vision of the future (sort of the equivalent to the liberal inclusion narrative) but to radicalize that futurelessness. And just as it seems impossible to think of the future without progress, as you say, I’m wondering if this vision of radical futurelessness can also do away with the construct of apocalypse altogether—if there’s a way of thinking futurelessness without apocalypse? Or if it is the reconfiguration of apocalypse, such that it can’t be weaponized through the “conservative impulses,” that is your primary concern?

      Your talk made me think through how histories of apocalypse—which by merit of them being historical means they are necessarily non-total and therefore are experienced by some as apocalypse and by others as “natural” consequences of progress—are weaponized by oppressors to galvanize their own continuity (as in, the Vanishing Native narrative), while at the same time producing an aporia or disruption in the coherence of the oppressed, who then must position their relationship to the future in terms of having survived the past—as living post-apocalyptically, sometimes many times over. These histories of apocalypse reveal the false construct of apocalypse as being the total end of a linear / homogenous time, as you say—revealing that apocalypse has always been a heterogeneous, layered experience for the oppressed, as you point out, and an imminent but always deferred fear for the oppressor. And so I’m wondering if one of the tactics by which the futureless disrupt exclusionary narratives of apocalypse and futurity is by not only reconfiguring apocalypse but doing away with it altogether–that by historicizing afuturity without apocalypse as a narrative trope or formal relation, the “futureless” might produce ways of relating past to future to transfigure the present that don’t depend on the weapons used by the oppress to destroy those futures in the first place? In short, what’s at stake in keeping apocalypse as integral to thinking of the future(lessness), whether or not it’s reconfigured?

      • Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

        Hi Kristin,

        This is a great question – thanks so much! I basically just want to say YES to everything you said 🙂 . It struck me when thinking about your question that there’s a kind of hidden genealogy of the project being recapitulated here. I started off doing a project “about” apocalypse as we usually understand it; I was frustrated at all of the accounts of apocalypse post-1945 that only looked at the work of straight white men, so I started with a “what does this look like in a different archive” question. It was that archive that led me towards the redefinition of apocalypse as a kind of formal afuturity that I’m talking about here. So partly even using the word apocalypse is a kind of holdover from that earlier iteration of the project: why, indeed, keep using it?

        I think I would say that what’s at stake is an understanding of the historical emergence of the imposed futurelessness experienced by subaltern populations, which may not BE apocalypse but is certainly produced BY apocalypse (in the sense that the US was founded on a millennial-apocalyptic vision that has shaped its genocidal practices on axes from race and indigeneity to disability, and in practices including and perhaps exemplified by nuclear technology, ever since). So the stakes are at least partly about trying the capture the dialectical relationship between different kinds of futurelessness, one of which is called apocalypse.

        I definitely see examples of what you’re describing here; in my chapter on Almanac of the Dead, for instance, I read Silko as constructing a kind of “deep time” apocalypse (that is both Native and nuclear) that connects Native pasts and futures while reducing the present of the colonial state to basically a blip in the timeline. That’s a book that’s deeply about hybridity, and I think it’s a useful reminder that using/reacting to/building from the situation that you find yourself in is not necessarily the same as depending on the oppressor’s weapons. But I also feel pretty committed to saying that there’s a multitude of weapons and approaches out there, and our job should be to multiply them rather than diminishing their number! Which is one reason why I want to recuperate apocalypse AS a possible weapon (which ecocriticism has dismissed), and also why I would never say that anyone has to use it. I’m super interested in work like Matt’s that is trying to think about “monstrous” futurity that wouldn’t just be a repetition of the same, or Rebekah Sheldon’s argument about mutation and futurity along similar lines, or decolonial futurities that are trying to think about liberated, impossible futures. My hope is that afuturity can be a useful tool for demolishing our colonially-constructed sense of what’s possible or plausible, that can help us to get there.

    • Judith Wakeman says:

      Hi Jessica. I loved your talk also. Hope is something we grab onto as a life raft and it’s universally seen as such so that without hope people think life is meaningless. Your talk resonates on so many points – I fight to save the forest, which seems reasonable to me but not to everyone, and which does seem hopeless in the face of predicted ecosystems collapse. To fight because it it morally wrong not to is far more sustainable.
      Your talk struck me as so relevant at this point in time. Thankyou

      • Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

        Thank you so much for your comment, Judith! The question of how to keep fighting without hope has become ever more personal and present for me, too. I’m so glad you found it useful.

  4. Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

    This is a question for Jemma that resonates with Christy’s question for Matt. Jemma, thank you for your talk! I found the argument very provocative, especially the conclusion that the speed of human consciousness is “for” the perception and addressing of sped-up environmental crisis. My question is about race and the use of Ballard. in The Drowned World, it’s pretty obvious that the humans who have gone backwards are also profoundly racially marked (living in jungles, drumming, the whole nine yards of Western primitivism); the last man with access to meaning is also the last white man. This puts Ballard in a long trajectory of Enlightenment thinkers who use rationality/writing as markers of whiteness and posit an atavistic Blackness or primitivism as true consciousness’s Other. When you start talking about human consciousness as a universal in the second half of the paper, then, what kind of consciousness are you talking about here? Is there a way to get at the (fascinating!) questions you’re asking about consciousness and speed while also taking into account the long histories of cognition as a racialized form (as Siobhan and Sam’s paper would suggest is important)?

    • Jemma Deer says:

      Thanks for your comments Jessica, and apologies for the slow reply. You’re right there are certainly some primitivist tones in the Ballard which warrant our attention. But I’m not sure that this primitivism is posited as as true consciousness’s other: Beatrice’s, Kerans’s and Hardman’s backwards journeys are not towards some form of primitive human: they are travelling back to pre-human, pre-mammalian/ reptilian pasts. And I think that there is a difference between human consciousness (as a universal capacity), and forms of knowledge (which are of course bound up with cultural, ethnic and racial traditions). I do think that the novel is more concerned with the former, with the loss of the capacity for consciousness per se, not necessarily with the capacity for westernised knowledge. I wonder if we might even see a critique of Enlightenment thinkers and the Eurocentric traditions through the character of Strangman, who hoards relics of these cultures, and yet is the most depraved character in the novel?

  5. Jessica Hurley, George Mason University says:

    Rachel, I loved your talk! Your analysis of the discourse around space colonialism is so incisive and your readings of the two novels are really brilliant. As a suggestion, have you ever looked into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)? The G77 was making exactly the same arguments (to the word!) about the importance of global distribution of the benefits of resources extracted in international waters, and in that instance they actually did get a version of it signed into law (although again, the US has not ratified UNCLOS III – after ten years of active negotiation the Reagan administration was voted in and almost immediately retracted all of the US’s commitments). It might be interesting for your work to look at this as a kind of alternate timeline for how the same agreement has in fact played out in a similar-but-different setting.

  6. Anne Pasek says:

    This is a question for Siobhan and Samantha. Thanks for your presentation! I appreciated your analysis of settler futurity (would a later version of this paper perhaps define and analyze this term as such? If so, I’d be a very happy reader indeed!). I did want to gently push on your characterization of the Green New Deal, however. Reading its core articulations (Cohen et al.’s book, AOC’s resolution) there are indeed multiple references to care work economies, more localized and environmentally sustainable articulations of mining supply chains, and indeed degrowth by other names. Additionally, folks like Nick Estes have even defined their own Indigenous mandates for a Green New Deal. So I suppose I’m wondering where you locate these economic and political proposals in relation to settler futurities (and indeed, if this is maybe one with a lot to recommend for it, or better still one that can accommodate more than one mode of envisioning the future)?

  7. Lawrence Coates says:

    Thanks for all these presentations. I’m interested in the consideration of time that is common to several of them … the backward time in Jemma’s discussion of The Drowned World (and the notion of the “proleptic nostalgia”), the notion that much of futurity depends upon a settler colonial perspective in Siobahn and Samantha’s paper, and Jessica’s complementary notion of temporal white superiority.
    Fwiw, I wandered over from session 7.4, in which a couple of presentations treated Ursula Le Guin’s book “Always Coming Home.” The book is structured around an anthropologist’s visit to the people of the Kesh in some future in which much of California is underwater and the Great Central Valley is now an Inland Sea. The anthropologist is very frustrated by the notions of time kept by the Kesh.
    Time’s arrow … difficult to replace in the quiver.

  8. Nathan Schmidt says:

    Hello Rachel,
    What a fantastic presentation! Thank you so much. My six-year-old who is home with me and therefore has to do whatever I am doing says, “We learned about the moon. We learned about people. Now we know what is the wrong thing to do. And they should have Chewbacca.” So, there’s one suggestion, although in his case I suppose it’s “really more of a comment.”

    I loved the way you placed various forms of speculation next to each other: the legislative, the venture capitalist, and speculative fiction. I guess, most simply put, my question would be: how do you see these forms of speculation working together? In what ways do they do similar work in effecting change on consensus reality, and how might they operate in different registers with and against each other? It was pretty clear that venture capitalist speculation is firmly on the colonial side of things, while the examples from speculative fiction in this case were clearly decolonial narratives, and I thought it was so cool that you had examples of legislative speculation from both directions. But would you argue that these different forms of speculation all have the same kind of power or potential to change what the future will actually look like, or do you see them as fundamentally disparate registers of engaging and altering futurity?

  9. Stacey Balkun says:

    Matthew, I just wanted to say thank you for these thoughts on Erdrich’s novel! I must admit that I struggled a bit reading it (a few years back) but your insights have given me some clarity and I hope to revisit the book. Thanks for this presentation.

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