Dystopias are in vogue, but it’s time to start imagining better outcomes
Image via GIPHY
Before the election, I texted a friend of mine about my plans for Tuesday night. Like many of my other friends, I bought champagne because I believed I would be celebrating the first woman president that night. Because when I tried to predict a future featuring President Donald Trump, all I could see was a blank screen.
These past few years, it feels as if we couldn’t stop predicting the future. Books—both fiction and non-fiction—have been published on possible futures; movies have been made about post-apocalyptic wastelands, both possible and perhaps less so; and TV shows like Black Mirror and The 100 conceived more and more possible dystopias. Often, these stories were recommended to help us “deal with” 2016, a year that felt like a personal affront. But on the Friday after the election (which was also my birthday), I was struggling to comprehend the future at all. I was relieved to have made at least one plan, though: I went to the Smithsonian’s exhibit in New York, “CTRL + ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures,” with a few friends. The CTRL + ALT exhibit is described as a “creative convening of artworks, performances, and dialogues with artists and scholars who insist that knowing what the future holds is not a question of speculation, but instead agency.”
It was surreal, going through the exhibit with new eyes and a sore heart. On the one hand, I wondered how any of these futures could even make sense after that Tuesday. On the other, I was fascinated by how important, how specific, and how fresh each story felt. In comparison, dystopian narratives are disinteresting. The Hunger Games is already outdated, in a way, because dystopias are based on present problems worsening and catalyzing into darker outcomes.
But these stories focused on something outside the mainstream shock and confusion. In contrast to the wobbly news cycle, their art had strong convictions and vision. Video and installation artist Genevieve Erin O’Brien’s charming display of spiced sugars, in connection with a comic called “Sugar Rebels,” was a narrative about laborers—sick of the same bland mush—working to take back actual flavor from the bourgeoisie. REIFY’s art director and fine artist Wiena Lin’s “Disassembly Line” was interactive and focused on breaking down technologies such as MacBooks and Rokus, wearing the masks and eyewear that the workers putting them together would have worn. “Tissue Thin,” by LA illustrator and author Yumi Sakugawa, provided a space for meditation and calm. Yet another turned the aggression and endangerment communities of color experience into science fiction—when patrons encountered D.C.-based painter and National Art Director for the Young and Powerful group Charles Jean-Pierre’s “Black (W)holes” by walking around in circles of darkness.
So many pieces, though prescient to our current social moment, actually depicted stories that have been pulsating under popular culture for the past couple of years. Several displays, such as “La Borinqueña” by Somos Arte art director and graphic novelist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez; “Kung Fu Zombies vs. Shaman Warrior” by playwright Saymoukda Vongsay and artist Matt Huynh; and the Secret Identities Universe’s “The Nerds of Color Reading Lounge,” depicted superheroes of color, protecting their communities from those that would destroy them.
Yet another display, headed by Smithsonian graphics exhibit specialist Evan Keeling, prepared a simple comic-making workshop. Keeling also included minicomics, which were part of the National Museum of American History’s Youth Civic Engagement Program, that told the stories of specific Japanese internment victims, like Fred Korematsu and Yuri Kochiyama. At the time, they reminded me of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s practice of handing out ID cards telling the stories of people who lived during the Holocaust.
My favorite display was Hawaii-based political theorist and teacher Chad Shomura’s “Corner of Heart-to-Hearts,” as illustrated by Yumi Sakugawa. The zine and deck of cards worked together to create a game in raw conversation: Turn over a card and reveal a feeling that you must discuss with the person sitting across from you.
I was with two good friends, though, so we decided to sit together at the “Post-Election Refuge,” which was merely a sign over a couch (Chad told me it was thrown together in the wake of the election), along with Sakugawa’s community cape, which had holes for three people to wear it. The three of us put on the cape and flipped over a card: vulnerability.
The conversation we had was something I heard often in the wake of the election, where it felt as if the membrane that separated other people with small talk and silence had been penetrated. These raw discussions were the moments when I felt most sane in a week that felt like reality had been upended. One thing was clear; our predictions of the future cannot be based on the faulty assumption that things will continue as they are.
In a piece for The New York Review of Books, the Russian-American dissident writer and journalist Masha Gessen wrote about journalists not taking Trump’s campaign seriously:
I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.
Now that Trump has become the Republican nominee—and has pulled even or even slightly ahead of Clinton in the most recent polls—it is time to force ourselves to imagine the unimaginable. Forget Putin. Let us try to imagine Donald Trump being elected president of the United States.
Gessen reiterated this point about the “failure of imagination” in her recent appearance on the ProPublica podcast after the election, in an episode called “How Journalists Need to Begin Imagining the Unimaginable.” “Well, if you can’t imagine it happening, that’s your problem,” she said, laughing. “So we have to start actually by discrediting the phrase. Like, when somebody says I can’t imagine it happening, that’s a problem.”
(She then talks about how the idea that Russians rigged the election is, beyond a smattering of evidence, a “classic conspiracy theory.” Perhaps she simply couldn’t imagine it.)
While that kind of open-hearted discussion was not sustainable across strangers, I kept it up with my friends. We spoke of our paranoia morphing into reality, of our struggle to understand our friends and family who disagreed with us, and of realities that we had let grow fuzzy with our rose-colored glasses in recent years. And we spoke of preparation. Sometimes, the only way you can imagine something happening is for it to happen.
While Gessen provides a thought experiment in how President Donald Trump would barrel through democratic institutions in her aforementioned piece, there’s a reason her post-election piece “Autocracy: Rules For Survival” was passed around the internet after his election victory. While we can’t predict the future, we can prepare for the worst.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We have to reconfigure our bodies so our guts can ring the alarms, reconfigure our minds so our imaginations can believe the worst even before we see it. [/quote]
One of Gessen’s rules is: “Be Outraged … it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.” She says this is essential, even in the face of—perhaps especially in the face of—people who would judge your reaction to be overstating things. “Prepare yourself,” she tells the reader.
Is it any wonder that guides and rules and preparation have become vital in this time? Preparing ourselves means informing ourselves, it means not being surprised when bad things happen. That means packing your makeup bag for fighting fascism. That means remembering a time when death was par for the course for LGBTQ communities and how, in fact, the community formed and strengthened as a reaction to deaths. That means discussing preparation openly, it means remembering the past, it means never ignoring or brushing aside or isolating a story of a continued problem.
We have to reconfigure our bodies so our guts can ring the alarms, reconfigure our minds so our imaginations can believe the worst even before we see it. Beyond all, it means preparing ourselves for a new world order, because we will be fighting for what we’ve gotten used to and getting used to the fight.
“It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room,” says Gessen. The statement made me think of my teenage self, an angrier, harsher version of myself—the girl who couldn’t relax when talking about the politics and social issues, even when people weren’t interested in listening.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The worst thing we can do is believe we’re above it all, that we’d never fall.[/quote]
Maybe it’s time to revisit this past, of remembering what drove that version of myself. Because if we look at other pasts, we see a lot of that: yelling and talking and walking when no one was really listening, until they could no longer afford not to. While we take rights for granted now—civil rights, women’s rights, the right to be a person—those rights came from, often, the only hysterical person in the room not sacrificing their values.
One more Masha Gessen piece for you: her latest piece, is about how, as an editor of a Russian publication, she had to twist and turn her convictions in certain ways under Putin. At one point she reached a limit, but even then she admits she only knew what to do exactly when a friend asked her, “Have you lost your mind?”
Right now, the only thing we can really take as certain is how essential our values are, especially since we’ve seen others waver in the face of “normalization.” We should keep our capacity for compassion, rather than running ourselves ragged with the false idea that simple empathy will save us. But we must be prepared to not only keep our convictions, but defend them, over and over and over again. The worst thing we can do is believe we’re above it all, that we’d never fall. We must remind ourselves and each other of this fallacy constantly.
One way is to keep imagining a future where we keep these values. The Smithsonian exhibit is revolutionary, not just because the values it illustrates are more important than ever, but because it’s about creating something new, about thriving in the space between what we hope for the future and what we dread happening. Dystopias might feel as if they’re in vogue, but they are only inevitable if we remain passive. We’ve seen what happens when we expect things to go on as they have been. Now we have to imagine what happens when we won’t let our values waver.