when I was young, I wanted to go on a road trip real bad. My mom said, “Maybe next
summer”. But I wanted to go that
summer. So she said, “We can’t go
on a road trip, but we can pretend.”
I was six years old, so I was okay with that. My sister was nine years old and she knew
better. But what was she going to
do? And my dad got into it.
They got us
sitting in chairs next to each other.
And Dad started out driving, and he described us driving down Chase
toward Avocado, and then getting on the 94.
We were taking the scenic route.
There were giant metal dinosaurs.
I knew which kind of dinosaurs they were. And then we caught up to the 8 and drove down
the twists into the Imperial Valley.
beautiful there, hot, humid, and beautiful, everything irrigated. There were giant date groves, and fields full
of alfalfa. We stopped in El Centro to
get some ice cream, my Dad pulling over and all of us unbuckling and getting
out and walking over to the refrigerator.
We got back
in the car. Mom was driving. She was the only one who could take over because
me and my sister weren’t old enough to drive.
We wanted to
play music, so Mom pulled over and Dad hopped out of the passenger seat and got
the boombox from the garage and dusted it off and we listened to the radio and
Dad’s old CDs.
It was a pretty
good trip. We went for four hours and
then we got off at our motel room in Tucson.
when I was in college. We lived in the
old house in El Cajon. I walked to the
El Cajon Transit Center to take a trolley to SDSU. It was about a mile or a mile and a quarter
walk. I remember during that time my mom
invited a mother and her son to live with us.
The mother lived in my sister’s room, and the son slept in mine. They were from the Imperial Valley. There used to be a big salt lake in the
Imperial Valley called the Salton Sea, but it dried up for the most part and
there were terrible dust storms from the exposed lake bed, and most people left
around the time I was in college.
the son being a bully, and I remember how finally I couldn’t take it
anymore. I couldn’t get any sleep with
him around. I think he thought that
since he and his mom didn’t have any place to go, and we were good people, that
we would have to help them, but finally we confronted them. He talked his mom into leaving instead of him
changing. I heard she got a job at the
Viejas Solar Farm, and he started school at the community college out
there. I remember one day she came back
to visit and she was talking about her son.
She was really worried because he had a gambling problem. All his money went to the casino.
It’s a sad
story. Some years later they shut down
the casino and remodeled it, and they use it for different things now.
one time there was a big protest.
“No More Ecosocialist Nightmare!” said one sign. Another said “War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Poverty is Wealth.” They were protesting in favor of personal
liberty. They said that climate change
might be bad, but so would an “Orwellian sustainability”.
The political science professors had theories of how to not have Orwellian sustainabilities, but I only had one political science class, so I wasn’t taught them. One of my friends was a poli sci major. He wanted to go into politics. I asked him about it and he said “Basically, it comes down to whether people who end up in power are the kind of people who don’t want there to be Orwellian sustainability. And, whether they’re the kind of people who can carry through that commitment.” I thought there should have been a better answer.
rations. I went to a hardcore concert
with my friend once. The singer was
screaming about rations, complaining because they didn’t think they needed to
be so tight. I also used to go to stand up
comedy back then and everyone talked about rations. I think people still complain about rations.
We used to
have FFDs (“fasting and frugality days”) where we tried to consume as
little as possible. Usually on a day we
all had off. We got out the CD player
and put on some Indian music and we would sit there with our stomachs digesting
themselves (or at least that’s what it felt like). We would groan and make jokes about being
I remember my
sister moving out to get married to her boyfriend. First they moved into the master bedroom of a
house in Rancho Peñasquitos, where the widower moved to the downstairs
bedroom. They had to work some shifts as
caregivers to lower the rent. Then after
he passed on, they moved into a house with another couple they were close to,
and the two couples started to have kids, and the kids grew up in one little
trying to find people to fit in our house.
We needed people we could really trust.
It took a few years, but I finally felt like one of my friends could
share my room. We adopted him into our
family, but not legally. My sister’s
room was free by then so we invited some older people from church to stay
there. They were okay for me and my
friend. But then they had to move to a
nursing home after about five years, and we had to find someone new. Mom and Dad were also getting older, so they
called up some old friends in another state, people they “never got to see
enough these days”. And they agreed
to move in. So my parents and their
friends were having a good time all the time, but it was too much for me and my
friend, so we started going out more.
There were a
lot of people who didn’t work, or didn’t work much. I remember spending whole days walking
through El Cajon, looking at the people walking around. There were some days I got real bored, and
there were two days to get through before my next shift at my job. I remember some people getting into mischief
because they were bored, and that bothered me, so I decided to try to talk to
those people. I would tell them about
imaginary places, and if they were bored enough, they would listen.
one time we did take a road trip through Imperial Valley. There were big signs that said “Dust
storms likely next 45 miles.” We
saw an old house and wondered if anyone lived in it.
I remember rent being low. But water was expensive. A lot of electricity went into the desalination plants.
When I was in college, some friends and I went out trespassing one night and ended up in the salt ponds at the end of San Diego Bay. We walked along the paths at the edges of the pond. Then we saw something lit up a little in the dark, a huge building. “Is that the desalination plant?” we wondered. When we got close enough to read the sign, we were close enough to be seen by the guard who ran us off the property and warned us harshly to never do that again.
when some people set fire to someone’s mansion.
They said it was for crimes against the environment, for hoarding
resources. The conservatives said,
“I don’t know why you would burn down a house to protest resource
I think the people who burned down the house had a point, and the conservatives
had a point. How can you stop someone
without hurting them? And how can you
hurt people without destroying something good?
I can’t think of how to get some people out of their mansions, but maybe
we can prevent people from becoming the kind of people who live in them,
without burning anything down.
never took anyone in. After the son left
it was just the mom and dad. “We’re
fine the way things are”, they said.
They were nice neighbors, always brought us something good at
friend and I started sleeping in tents in the backyard and my parents let a
couple of my cousins have our room. When
it rained, a few times a year, we slept inside in the living room.
I think I’m
okay with my neighbors not taking anyone in.
Some people can do some things, other people other things.
when the last homeless person got a place to stay. It was on the news. I heard that some of them messed up the
places they moved into, because they weren’t used to having their own
property. I guess some of them had
personality issues too. The city of San
Diego had a call for volunteers to be their friends, although they called it
something other than “friends”.
You can’t hire people or force people to be friends, was their thinking.
one night my friend was making too much noise getting into his bed and I said
vicious things. I needed my sleep and I
had been around him too much anyway. So
my parents sent us out to have vacations at separate hotels. We each had our own room in the hotels we
stayed in. We came back and found out
from each other that both the hotels were on the beach and had amazing
views. They were both in Mission Beach. We laughed when we realized that it wouldn’t
have been hard for us to have run into each other by mistake, down there on the
boardwalk. He said “That would be a
terrible mistake, to see someone when you shouldn’t”.
when my father died, and then a few years later, my mother. My sister and I sold the old house in El
Cajon, and I left San Diego County for good.
I left everyone behind. Time to
try something new, I thought. My friend
waved goodbye to me.
I took a
train to Chicago and then one to New York City and then one up to Maine. On the opposite end of the country, I got my
own place to stay. But there didn’t seem
to be enough people inside my house, and I didn’t know anybody to live with
me. My friend had to stay in San Diego. But I met a nice woman and we settled down,
so that’s what kept me up there, for many years.
These are all some things I remember. And what will you be remembering, as you live the life ahead of you?
James Banks lives in San Diego, CA and has written fiction and non-fiction about the sustainable future, being lost, development, trust, and (anti)romance. Website: 10v24.net
one: Calexico New River Committee /
public domain / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nrborderborderentrythreecolorsmay05-1-.JPG
two: by Dave Shearn / CC BY 2.0 /
three: by Pacific Southwest Region USFWS
/ CC BY 2.0 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_aerial_of_completed_Western_Salt_Pond_Restoration_Project!_(6967928908).jpg
What we dream about the future affects how we act today. If utopias
express our desires, dystopias distill our fears. Utopias and dystopias are
images we invoke to think and act in the present, producing futures that often
look very different from either our dreams or our nightmares.
An oft-repeated criticism against the green movement is that it is dystopian and catastrophist (some call this ‘Malthusian’) when it comes to its diagnosis, and utopian when it comes to its prognosis. On the one hand, greens warn of a scary future of planetary disaster, and on the other, offer a peaceful dreamland where people bike to their artisanal work and live in picturesque houses with well manicured food gardens and small windmills. Nowhere to see is a realistic political plan on how we could ever escape from the current capitalist nightmare, and move to something remotely close to an egalitarian and ecological future.
I won’t deny that some green writings, especially in the 1970s and 80s (but also still today) merit this critique. But in the meantime, there has been a lot of new thought, under the labels of ecosocialism, degrowth, or environmental justice that cannot be caricatured and packaged in this simplistic mold. And yet this is what geographer Matt Huber does in a recent article published at the Socialist Forum, entitled Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific. Huber argues that there are two types of green socialism, one that is utopian and unscientific, and one that is realistic and scientific, his.
Democratic socialism is a project in the making, and it is important to avoid tired dichotomies and divisions of the past, especially between green and not-so-green socialists. I find a lot to agree with in Huber’s socialist climate politics and would fully sign on to his concluding agenda in the Socialist Forum piece, where he defends an ‘inspiring and positive political program that can win the masses of the working classes … built on the decommodification and universal access to [their] needs, but also a more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge’ based on ‘public transport, green public housing … and public ownership of energy’. Yet, before that Huber argues that ‘degrowth oriented ecosocialists’ (his term), like us are too utopian, and not scientific. And here I disagree.
What I want to argue is that, first, being utopian is not a problem as Huber makes it seem it is, and second, we are scientific, at least as scientific as Huber can claim his position is.
To begin with: what does Huber mean by ‘utopian’ and ‘scientific’?
By utopia, Huber, following Engels, understands a social arrangement
that does not and cannot exist (a place that has no place, a u-topos). If such an arrangement cannot
exist, then it is a waste and misdirection of our energies, Huber implies.
Forgive me the heresy, but thinking about utopias has progressed –
fortunately – a lot since Engels’ time. David Harvey, who Huber certainly
reads, wrote a wonderful book on cities and utopias almost 20 years ago (Spaces
of Hope). Harvey says we should oppose utopias that are meant as models or
blueprints – not so much because they are unrealistic, but because the
realization of a perfect ideal tolerates no objection and crushes everything
that stands in its way. Harvey recognizes, however, the value of ‘dialectical utopias’ – contradictory and
incomplete images that express desires about the future, that challenge and
make us reflect, that generate conflict with prevalent visions and open up new
Ernst Bloch famously called utopias the education of desire. As Hug March and I argued, the future prefigured in the degrowth literature is indeed a dialectical utopia that wants to reshape desires. When French activists and intellectuals launched the word ‘degrowth’ in the early 90s, they intentionally meant it as a missile slogan that would generate a conflictual antithesis to the prevalent, and taken for granted, imaginary of growth-based development. The hope was – and is – that this conflict would catalyze a new synthesis – maybe not the bio-region of low-tech eco-communes utopia that Huber sees in degrowth writings, but at least some unpredictable new future other than one which would look exactly like capitalism, only with the workers in command.
Huber claims this vision is ‘unscientific’. A scientific socialism, Huber
tells us, is one ‘grounded in analysis of what kind of socialist society is
possible given historical and material conditions’. So far so good. Only one
problem: who is to judge what is really ‘possible’?
Huber, for example, seems to think that something close to the energy or material consumption of an average American, secured for everyone in the world, is possible (Huber is against wasteful capitalism, and implies that unnecessary production and consumption could be curtailed, but is not clear what he classifies as waste –and in any case, insists on the point of ‘abundant energy’, which one can only think means at least as much energy as it is currently consumed, if not more). Energy should come from renewable energy, or why not 80% renewable and 20% nuclear, which is fine, Huber claims – and food from robotic agriculture. Moreover, we will do all this without exploiting anyone, taking everyone’s concerns democratically into account, somehow minimizing damage, or at least making those on the receiving side of such damage concede to it ‘democratically’.
I am a scientist too, and I think this vision is unrealistic. To use
Huber’s terms, it is ‘materially impossible’. I explain why here
or here in
more detail. The emissions, land use and material extraction involved in a
scenario like Huber’s make impossible a sort of American standard of energy
abundance available for everyone (or more precisely, it can be possible but
just for a few at the expense of many others, as it has been actually till now).
And if we were to take really into account everyone’s concerns (those
who live next to mines where the lithium for the batteries and the uranium for
the reactors will come from, those who will have to be relocated or see their
landscape destroyed to put windmills, etc) and actually compensate them for the
damages our consumption causes, then production would be inevitably much, much
lower than it is today on average. (Not to mention how much the economy would
slow down if we were to devote time to reach decisions on such matters truly
The past is
not proof of the future
Granted, I might be wrong, and Huber right. But who is to judge whose
science about what is possible is right and whose is wrong? And what makes
Huber so sure that he is right and scientific while others are not? Any science—scientific
socialism including—is bound to be incomplete, uncertain and debatable. There
are different, contested views, of what is possible – crucially, these views
cannot be separated easily from our desires about the future.
Huber, for example, thinks it is undesirable to live with less energy. His argument is that since agricultural work is drudgery and no one wants to do it, societies without fossil fuels to power tractors had to and will have to have slaves. First, it is questionable whether the historical and anthropological record supports the claim that all societies without fossil fuels were slave-based.
Second, even if many were, this does not mean that we cannot have a future society without fossil fuels, with more manual work and without slaves. The fact that something did not exist in the past is not proof that it cannot happen in the future – if it were, then we wouldn’t be discussing socialism to begin with.
Third, no one that I know in the ecosocialist, degrowth or other
environmentalist communities that Huber seems to have in mind has argued for a
total substitution of fossil fuels by manual labour. It doesn’t help to take the arguments of others to
their extremes just to prove that they are impossible and unscientific. The
claim of those who support decentralized renewables or peasant agro-ecology for
example is much more nuanced and is based on the recognition that a sustainable
future would involve both cleaner energy and less energy use, as well as less
use of chemicals in agriculture. Agro-ecological, lower-intensity models that
would involve more human labour than is currently the case in countries such as
the U.S., are advocated. But these arrangements are generally envisioned as a
mix of old and new, peasant and industrial experiences, not a total overhaul of
modern techniques or a return to a pre-capitalist mode of living.
Engels was right and it turned out materially possible for capitalism to
produce plenty of goods at a fraction of the time they needed before. But that
doesn’t mean that it is today possible to power ever-growing energy use with
renewable and nuclear energy, with no harm done to others (or with harm done at
levels that can be ‘democratically’ tolerated by others). These are different
times and different arguments, and the fact that siding with a ‘pro-technology’
(so to speak) argument at one moment in time may have proved right, does not
make all similar arguments always and everywhere right or ‘scientific’.
Capitalism produced (more than) enough, quite soon after Engels’s time,
but there is still poverty amidst an overabundance of goods and productive
possibilities. This should make us pause for a moment. The problem may not be that
we are not producing enough, but as Marx and Engels were among the first to
note, that we are not distributing equally what we are producing.
As Jason Hickel argues in ‘Degrowth. A
call for radical abundance’, the continued enclosures and dispossessions
that sustained capitalism have always been justified in the name of growth. The
story we are constantly being told is, as Malthus first put it, in the service
of his argument in defense of capitalist growth (yes, Malthus was a
defender of growth, not of limits to growth), is that ‘there is not enough
for everyone to have a decent share’. The artificial scarcity created in turn
by enclosures makes everyone live in need, and therefore work harder to stay
afloat, which is essential if the engine is to keep going and growing. So the
problem isn’t that we don’t produce enough, but that we can’t share the
abundance that we already have.
Huber’s vision of sharing and public luxury is not as far as he thinks
from a degrowth vision. I would only add that this has to take place in a
context of private sobriety – a sobriety that actually socialist
revolutionaries of all times have espoused and lived in their everyday lives.
It is what Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Euro-communists called ‘revolutionary
austerity’. It is the sort of personal austerity that real revolutionaries of
all times have practiced in their personal lives.
Defending Berlinguer’s revolutionary austerity does not make one accomplice to Thatcherite austerity. On the contrary, what is Thatcherite is the liberal assumption of a God-given right of each and everyone to mobilize all resources possible in their pursuit of their individual (or collective) goals. According to this ingrained liberal view, we cannot tell people that we could perhaps live better with less, because it is people’s god given right to want more and more, as much as those richer have. What is more revolutionary instead than Gandhi’s plea to ‘live simply so that others may simply live’?
Huber agrees that there is so much waste going on within capitalism, and
so much work expended just to goods and services whose purpose is no other than
to pay for rents and profits. Then just ending profits and rents could reduce
resource use significantly. Why insist on robots and nuclear plants if we could
live with less and sustain a decent material standard of living for everyone?
Note also that what counts as ‘decent’ living is always socially
determined and it makes little sense to defend an average, or middle class
standard of living. A poor person today does not die from diseases that royals
died in bygone eras. But if your loved one dies from a curable disease that a
rich person can pay to treat, this creates a real sense of scarcity.
Crucially, this scarcity is relative. If housing was public and cheap, Hickel
argues, then people could live with well with a fraction of their salary –
and produce and consume much less than they do now. To imagine an absolute
scarcity, and use it as a justification for mobilizing ever more work and ever
more resources in the name of making everyone have what the rich persons of
their epoch happen to have, is a fundamental myth that sustains capitalism.
material reality is not scientific
Huber also has a second take on the meaning of ‘scientific’. He writes
that ‘let’s get real, or ‘scientific’ … we are not going to win the masses of
workers with a socialist program based on … ‘drudgery for all’. Science here
seems to refer to realism about how can ‘we’ (sic) win the masses of workers.
There are problems with this formulation too.
First, even if Huber were right and there were a mass of workers that wouldn’t be mobilized to anything that sounds like ‘less’, that still wouldn’t make it materially possible to have ever more stuff. Huber argues that given that the workers will never buy into a degrowth utopia then ‘the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy’.
This actually seems to me a very unscientific, and utopian in the bad
sense – having to ‘find some way’ to make something possible, independently of
whether it is materially possible or not. Rather than consider integrating your
political strategy to what is materially possible, the call here is to bend material
possibility, one way or the other, to what you came to think as the only
possible political strategy.
But, second, like the statement on material possibility, the idea that some of us can know with certainty the limits of political possibility – that is, know what the workers really want – is also problematic. Who is to say that workers everywhere and always would only be attracted to visions of ‘more’?
I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections
with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program
emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau
wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not
have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not
saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber
for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).
Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and
that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no
space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers
come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we
follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the
possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.
Politics has a make-believe quality. Pre-defining what is possible leads
to self-fulfilled prophecies. If we assume that we cannot even utter our dreams
of a different future, because they are unrealistic and impossible, then of
course ‘workers’ will want what they currently want and alternative dreams will
remain unrealistic and impossible.
But fourth, and more importantly, it is not clear why, for Huber, ‘we’
who write these things are not part of the working class, and can’t understand
what ‘they’ want. If the working class is those who have to sell their labour in
order to survive, then it is not only coal miners and Joe the plumbers that make
the working class, not even only nurses and teachers, but also we University
professors and the precarious post-docs and students that read our musings. Those
among us who desire some sort of a degrowth future are not some weird romantic animals,
different from the rest of working people – we are not people who live from
rents, we are workers like anyone else who have to work in order to make it
from month to month.
Of course there are different experiences, and different power positions
within a broadly defined working class, or the 99%. We shouldn’t be blind to
our positionalities, for example, as academic urbanites, with a decent income,
a health insurance, flying regularly and so on. But the desires of education
workers or precarious youngsters are as legitimate as those of factory workers.
And our desires do not necessarily have to be different either (actually
keeping them different is essential for the hegemony of capitalism). And they
are increasingly not different, as the incomes, social protections and
privileges of the professional middle income groups are collapsing.
Chris Carlsson and Fransesca Manning write about a new ‘nowtopian‘ experience of class, shared among parts of the precariat which finds work and meaning outside wage labour, in urban gardens, social centres or pirate programming. Nowtopians formed the backbone of the occupied squares. Waving away dreams like theirs as unscientific (and implicitly, elitist) is not doing the building of a broad movement any service.
Reducing complex debate into outdated binaries
In conclusion, both material and social conditions are much more complex and uncertain than Huber allows for. Huber, I am afraid, is reducing a complex debate into simple binaries of the sort ‘(post)-industrial future’ versus ‘back to slavery’ (if not back to the caves).
The choices ahead are much more nuanced than that and will involve
different hybrids of advanced and simplified techniques and modes of living.
Consumption will have to go down and production will need to be cleaner –
fortunately this can be experienced as an improvement in living if the commons
are reclaimed and shared equally. The discourses and visions that will mobilize
the 99% to an eco-socialist future are bound to be context-specific, but I
firmly believe they can be constructed in a Colau-style fashion around ideas of
sufficiency and sharing the commons equally, while securing a dignified life
If something disappoints me, and motivated me to write this essay, it is
the feeling that no matter how hard some of us work to advance and refine a
certain strain of green-left thought (call it degrowth, ecosocialism or else),
we are bound to be caricatured as a blend of socialist utopians of the 19th
century and neo-Malthusians of the 1970s (never mind the stark differences
between these two sets of ideas).
We owe ourselves and the few people who might read us a more informed
and refined debate than a repetition of tired dichotomies from the 1970s.
Reality is complex, what is possible and what not is hard to know, and the
roads to ecosocialism (or however else you might want to call an egalitarian
and sustainable future) are many.
Vansintjan commented on a previous draft and helped me improve this text.
Kallis is an ICREA professor of political ecology and ecological
economics at ICTA-UAB in Barcelona. He is the author of Degrowth (2018,
Agenda Publishing). A collection of his essays and media articles, ‘In
Defense of Degrowth,’ can be downloaded free
The usual refrains tumble from the pharmacist’s lips all delicate and light. She fills out a prescription for a daily pill. “I really think you have made the right choice”, she says. “It’s so easy. I’ve heard it’s great for improving your credit score”.
Rowan kicks an empty can of Lucozade off the step as she exits the surgery and struggles to breathe in the air all clammy and close. It’s a sullen day: the sun stays stubborn behind July’s haze. She drifts toward home through the corporate smell that thickens around the buildings all imposing and walks by the man who sits daily outside the coffee shop, reluctantly ageing. At the pharmacy there’s that lady in there again, arms up in the air, howling neurasthenia with the full bellow of her exhausted lungs. It should be comforting to medicate a throbbing anxiety, but not for her. She thwacks her hands on the counter rap-rap-rap demanding something new that will hide her sickness better. Rowan turns “hypochondriac” on her tongue and receives her cheerily patented Temperanelle®.
“Seven days”, the pharmacist says as she dispenses, folding the info-leaflet with peculiar precision. “Seven days before full effect, and remember it is not a contraceptive”.
There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days.
There’s no place for erratic ups and downs these days. This pill is meant to remedy a lack of aptitude for emotional control. A well-behaved cycle makes the body verifiable, more investable, at the appropriate points. It’s supposed to be great for improving your credit score.
From a digital-distributor Rowan takes a newspaper that she probably won’t read and crumples it under her arm, thinking of the times she’s heard that women are too unpredictable. Like petulant schoolchildren—she’d been told—they brood around with their shoulders slumped and then, without warning, they become garrulous; incessant.
It sounds like rubbish but then she remembers “psycho Sarah” in year five who pretended to be her friend before running at her three weeks later with a pencil in art class, so maybe it’s plausible.
She picks a spider off of her cheap cotton dress, and ambles her way home.
How is it that Rowan ended up here alone, in this quietly miserable place? The paint flakes off the threshold of the front door where she used to sit, picking her mosquito bites. It wasn’t long before the green hills that tumbled down from the cottage had been replaced with a sprawling labyrinth of concrete.
Hestonmere Green had arrived uninvited, and it had unfolded violently quickly as a panicked response to London’s burgeoning finance sector. Now, towers engulf the space; their necks reaching proudly to swallow the sky above, and their staunch figures offset only by the delicate cranes that cradle the whole area. As machines that had borne the structures, the cranes had been left behind to stand as silent witnesses of a tech-savvy financial future.
A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really.
A dazzling prospect, perhaps, but the landscape had become unpalatable. It was never designed to be residential, not really. “Welcome to our town, where people and finance thrive” the sign lies, now mired in grime. Vacuous gestures had been made in attempts to soften the intrusion, with few amenities interrupting the otherwise homogeneous and colourless landscape. A poorly stocked off-licence here. A ropey café there. All serviced by outdated and, for the most part, malfunctioning Tier-1 chatbots.
In truth, the land had been appropriated for the development of new biometrics for assessment, identification, and tracking. Hestonmere Green the Profiling Machine. Transparency in the name of financial inclusion was the championed motto.
Everyone who was able soon fled to Henley, Goring, or further. “Not in my back garden”, they had said. With them they had taken their families, their councils, and their schools.
Now, the town is quiet save for the tannoy that screeches the start of the working day, and the perpetual hum of the I-Droids as they trudge through their meticulous production of wearable techs, microchips, and pharmaceuticals.
Yes, Hestonmere Green has become a sulky little corner of England. Isolated, the town is as much the revered lifeline for the country’s thirst for financial-technologies as it is considered a repellent, noxious space; the kind to threaten small children with when they misbehave. The dark walkways absorb the sunlight. There is an acrid smell after the rain.
“I like my back garden just fine”, Rowan comforts herself, absently fingering a root that pushes aberrantly through a crack in the tarmac.
Rowan; as belligerent and obstinate as the rosacea that has peppered her skin since the earliest she can remember, tormenting her with a hot and angry redness, and winning all the jeers of the playground. She had been staunch in her resolve to stay firmly where she was. We had all grown up in the same meddling world. Leaving wouldn’t change that.
Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls.
The ageing, the infirm, and the insane are her only company now, although she refuses to speak to them. Left behind like tired furniture, they spend their time tracing patterns in the dust on the walls, muttering halcyon days. A reticent army of misfits, not considered worth the bother of the residential Intels, they lurch dolefully along the streets, pausing only to listen to the crackle of the power lines, and to the clickety-click of the ones that mediate their lives, working indefatigably in the towers above them.
The pregnant silence in the room is punctuated by the fan whirring stale heat. Rowan coughs heavily which reminds her that she should have asked for a repeat of Keflex whilst at the pharmacy.
Curling the bud of her Smart-Set into her ear, she watches apathetically as the field of the MixR-Lens unrolls in front of her eyes. Groping around in the middle-distance, she taps thin air to pair the set with her microchip. Ouch! The chip always pinches somewhere near her thumb. It wriggles, she’s sure. She’s had to have it re-adjusted so many times. “A wilful little thing”, the nurse jokes. The same nurse who told her it would be “just like having your ear pierced, sweetie, nothing to worry about”.
The lull of the algorithm throbs ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum. Ignoring the GIF that loops ad nauseum in her newsfeed, Rowan taps again to unfold a calendar where a small circle highlights day twelve of her cycle.
Taking a moment to stand with arms outstretched, she tries to size up the field that is in front of her. How is it that I can’t reach the edges when it seems so close up, she thinks. Despite being almost immersive, and quadruple the pixel density of the now obsolete HoloLens, the veneer of the field is diaphanous. Rowan’s focus oscillates between jiggling interactive memes and the hazy shape of the green velvet sofa that somehow has always smelled of her mother’s old perfume.
It surprises her how detached she feels despite being triangulated, and articulated, by such an invasive system of monitoring. She is adorned with a glittering array of payment chips, identification tools, and health trackers. A heart rate monitor disguised as a lace bra. An oyster-shell effect compact that approves payment when you smile into it. All the data are sent straight to the Fin-Authorities who, “committed to increasing the financial inclusion of women”, use it to oversee her credit account.
Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact.
Possession of these items is, of course, a matter of warped choice. But it’s a choice between being captured within an image of the creditworthy hyper-feminine, and being thrown out into the cold. There’s no such thing as “cash transactions”; not anymore. Without credit, you can’t do anything. And that’s a fact. There was a woman down the road who tried to go it alone, planning to grow her own vegetables and patch together clothes from old curtains and bed linen, until she realized she needed credit just to access the allotment.
The gentle bzzt of Rowan’s memo-watch prompts her to look up at a holographic whose impossibly white teeth, framed by coral pink, is eager to tell her about the latest available accessory: a silicon vaginal rod- appropriate for daily wearing- that sends data to your smart-set regarding the health of your discharge and menstrual blood. It has the added benefit of serving as a pelvic-floor exerciser.
Rowan smiles wanly, cocking her right shoulder forward and dropping her left hip in a copycat stance, and wonders what it would be like to have breasts so irritatingly buoyant.
A moth panics in the corner of the room, catching its wing on a curling piece of wallpaper.
Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.
Rowan enjoys preserving and mounting insects; it’s a cathartic and candid practice. Butterflies aren’t that common here anymore so she catches moths instead.
Peeling the moth from its wallpaper snare, she scoops its flickering wings into a cage of fingers. Death must be produced without disfiguring them, and that’s a skill no question. She did try to learn how to stun them by squeezing the thorax but they would gyrate and she would squeeze too hard. A clumsy end. “I find that they relax quickly with a dreamy dose of ethanol”, she says.
Pausing to place the moth in a net—acquainting the creature with its temporary confinement—Rowan stolidly prepares the killing jar, pushing ethanol-soaked gauze in to the glass mouth. The moth follows, dropping to the bottom with a surprising thud. A struggle ensues as it scours the base of the jar, feelers catching in the gauze, legs pressing pleadingly against the glass. There’s one last protest before it crumples; listless. She places the jar next to the others on a creaking bookshelf, all lined up like prized little coffins.
Sitting at a folding pine table, Rowan looks up at the dusky canvases that tile the wall with her unfortunate little trophies, stuck through with dress pins; wings frigidly splayed. She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical. It is advised to keep the moths framed to prevent the growth of mould, but she doesn’t bother. She says it’s because nothing ever stays the same anyway.
Thoughtfully admiring her work, Rowan wonders where she has hidden her Twin Peaks VHS collection. She’s noticed that there are some tapes missing from the otherwise indulgently full sideboard.
Something happens. The jar—perhaps precariously placed on the edge of the shelf—topples. The glass shatters, releasing the moth on to the floorboards. A moment passes. The tap drips sporadically, and someone outside sneezes loudly. Finally, the small, intoxicated corpse lying before Rowan’s feet begins to twitch. Groping around in an addled haze (with a sense of humiliation, she imagines) the moth stutters to regain composure. Encumbered by shards of glass it jerks fiercely left and right, dragging its sodden wings from sticky fibres of gauze.
Summoning all courage, the moth valiantly collects its legs into an upright position and begins the long lope toward an uncertain freedom. Rowan watches, placidly. One laboured step is made; then two; then three. The wretched thing comes to rest no more than a centimetre from where it began. Exhausted by such a Herculean journey, it collapses; surrendered.
She leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.
Rowan retreats in her chair, suddenly repulsed by this display of hopeless perseverance. Resisting the urge to stamp out its final moments, she leaves the moth to its pitiful deathbed and rises urgently to her feet, summoned by the sound of the telephone ringing.
Vzzt-bzzt vzzt-bzzt the telephone bullies the worktop.
“Can I speak with Mrs. Hatfield?”
“Who? No one by that name lives here. Can I…?”
The monotonous voice continues.
“Hi, Mrs. Hatfield, I am ringing to tell you that you have been successful in your application for finance from LiteStart. At LiteStart there are no gimmicks or deferred interest, so you can get right on and buy those—“
Rowan puts the receiver down gently. Chatbots are still so stupid, even these days.
Returning to the moth with an unexpected level of curiosity, she crouches in a mourning position, gathering her legs underneath her to get a better look. She examines with a strange pleasure the lifeless critter and traces a deliberate finger over its body, pausing at the spiny ridges to enjoy the rather queer, crackly texture. Glass burrows its way into the skin of her knee as she leans closer to the moth, drawing a steady stream of blood that trickles, soothingly warm, down her leg to meet the floor.
Rowan notices her injury, turning her head to identify the source of a dull pain. And that’s when the doorbell rings.
While “July” discusses dystopian possibilities that shiver with a sense of the too-close-for-comfort, it is not limited to imagining a possible future. Principally, I created this little tale in order to bring to life the ontological approach that my research follows. I draw this approach from Gilles Deleuze and his philosophy of difference. For Deleuze, there is a need to move away from thinking in terms of representation and identity in order to distinguish between difference that is defined by the characteristics of two distinct objects (“I know this is a cat because it is not a dog”), and pure difference, that is, affective intensities that escape identification. By working through this, it is possible—tentatively—to approach the idea that bodies are mobile and fluid, and should not be captured within illusions of fixity.
As such, “July” is an attempt to pay attention to moments that might otherwise be unheard, and to the in-between spaces of more easily recognised events, in order to make more visible the seemingly banal and ordinary forces of life. Think of the root that pushes through the tarmac, the tap that drips sporadically, or the moth that is panicking in the corner, and think of how these moments might lend texture and expressivity to the changing landscape of the story.
The stilted end to the story and the slightly jarring beginning are intentional, partly because “July” is one of many fabulation-vignettes that comprise my thesis. It is one fragmented moment in many moments; part of a patchwork of experiments with writing techniques.
Freya Johnson is a third year PhD candidate in Cultural Geography at the University of Bristol. Her research uses the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in order to explore the performativity and expressivity of creative writing, and to employ writing as a method for producing critically oriented, affective knowledges.
This essay is the second in a “mini-series” of two essays on the critical potential of science fiction. The first essay considered how science fiction can function as social critique and discussed different literary techniques and devices. This second one will expand the story in reference to concrete examples—works by Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić, grounding the analysis in the Balkan context. (And if you continue reading to the end, there may be a surprise waiting for you there … )
In an article (“Vreme kao ključna odrednica SF žanra”) written in the midst of the Yugoslav Civil War (1991-1995), the Serbian science fiction (SF) writer Milovan Milovanović stated that most local SF stories seemed disconnected from the everyday situation of most people in the Balkan region at that time. According to him, in order for elements of novelty in SF stories to be accepted by readers, you need a realistic historical background and not just escapism. Even though SF imagines the future and diverges from the present, it always springs from specific places and histories (see also this chart of how historical trends in SF have changed over time):
For example, when the threat of nuclear war hung over the world during the 50s of this [20th] century, what else could the favorite topic for SF writers have been? Later on, at the beginning of the 70s, it was raising ecological awareness, due to the widespread knowledge that the world was mostly disappearing into a vortex of a biological catastrophe. This is not just related to the frequency of specific topics at specific times; it refers to a way of thinking that was totally different at the beginning of the [20th] century, the 40s, 60s, or today. The world today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago and that is strongly mirrored in SF literature.
Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future.
This is where Belgrade (and the Balkans in general) enters the story. Belgrade, as the capital of all versions of the union of South Slavs in the twentieth century, holds a prominent place in representations of state power and as a battleground for diverse imaginings of the future. This text will discuss its images and interpretations through two contemporary comic book authors working in the SF genre—Enki Bilal and Aleksa Gajić. Whilst the former has been based in France for a long time, with Yugoslav heritage, the latter lives in Serbia. Both feature Belgrade in their comics and films, and both work predominantly for the French market. The artworks in question are Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) and Le Sommeil du monstre (The Dormant Beast in English, aka the Hatzfeld tetralogy, 1998-2007), and Gajić’s Technotise (comic, 2001) and Technotise: Edit & I (film, 2009).
The prominence of Belgrade as a setting in the authors’ works has been recognized by Gajić himself. In an interview with Deborah Husić from 2011 (in English), the use of Serbian language in the film Technotise: Edit & I was mentioned as one of the novelties (or what Darko Suvin would call novum), because, as the artist noted, “usually everything happens in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or New York.” Aleksa Gajić responded that he did not want to make compromises for the market:
Usually, authors have this strong need to flatter the audience in order to be accepted. Meaning, they will answer to all ‘expected’ patterns from the public. As a matter of fact, most of the films we are watching today are made having these patterns in mind. I really wanted to run away from these things with Technotise. I wanted Belgrade to be like that, let them talk in Serbian, and let them express local jokes and natural urban expressions in an SF story (emphasis added).
Why are there no UFOs in Lajkovac?
SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture.
Zoran Živković, one of the pioneers of modern SF in Yugoslavia during the second half of the 20th century, famously stated that “leteći tanjiri ne sleću u Lajkovac”, meaning that UFOs do not come to a typical Serbian village. This came to be know among the sci-fi community as “Zoran’s law”. This metaphor indicates both that SF set in a local context was rare (or non existent) and that SF was mostly associated with western geography and popular culture (for a further discussion, check out Milovanović’s guide to SF, in Serbian). This, unfortunately, does not take into account contributions from the former USSR/Russia, or other non-western countries. In this geographical (or geopolitical) discussion the worlds of manga and anime, which originated in Japan but have spread to other parts of Asia, also play an important role today.
The world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.
The lack of grounding in local history and settings—or the lack of UFOs in Lajkovac—pinpoints the escapist nature of many SF works of former Yugoslavia and Serbia. However, this “law” started to change in the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the breakup of the SFR Yugoslavia (which is discussed in “Leteći tanjiri ipak sleću u Lajkovac” by Ivan Đorđević, and “American Science Fiction Literature and Serbian Science Fiction Film: When Worlds Don’t Even Collide” by Aleksandar B. Nedeljković). The example of UFOs in Lajkovac highlights two aspects of SF I consider relevant to this analysis. First, that SF narratives have their own internal structures and logic; and second, that there is a dynamic and productive connection to be made between a narrative and its author—and potentially between a narrative and its local historical and geographical origin as well. That is to say that the world depicted and the context (reality) from which it departs (or reacts to) are tied together.
This is closely related to the discussion in the previous essay, “Science fiction between utopia and critique,” of how authors can employ different perspectives and literary traditions—utopian, dystopian, alternative histories—to both imagine a different society and show a (critical) reflection of our own. With these concepts in mind, we will now look at the oeuvres of the two artists.
The dystopias of Enki Bilal
Enki Bilal’s work in general features darker SF topics and overtones, which could be identified as dystopian, often tackling issues such as totalitarian regimes (theocracy and fascism), colonialism, corruption, identity crisis, schizophrenia, and despair, but often with an ironic tone. A great source (in Serbian) on Bilal’s work is a special issue of the magazine Gradac, edited by Miroslav Marić; in the following, references to critical discussions and quotes from interviews with Bilal, unless specified differently, are derived from this special issue of Gradac.
Bunker Palace Hôtel (1989) is the first feature film Bilal directed, co-written with his long time collaborator Pierre Christin. It is set in Belgrade in an alternative reality, or the no-time of uchronia, with a combination of French and Yugoslav actors, but targeting the French market. Some commentators characterize this film as a critique of the socialist regime in Yugoslavia (which Bilal has denied), as well as an announcement of the overall breakup of the Eastern bloc in Europe. Initially, Bilal wanted the film to take place in the USSR, with Belgrade as his second option. In an interview from 1988, he clarifies his choice:
If you insist, the film talks about a [political] system that mostly resembles fascism. I wanted the film, where one cannot see which country or time is in question, to be filmed in a somewhat oriental, extraordinary setting for the French [audience]. To have a bit of exoticism. And I am very happy to film here, because the Yugoslav actors contribute to that exotic impression.
He also incorporates a fictional Slavic language, used by the rebel characters, in this “exotic” feeling. People’s names vary between western and Slavic (Holm, Clara, Nikolai, Zarka, etc) however, there is no explicit naming within the narrative of the film of the rebels, the state, the city, languages, ideologies, nationalities or time. The film follows the SF trend of alternative histories (uchronia), with dystopian elements and an exploration of the question: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (WWII)? (a question echoing in SF since Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). If we accept this line of thinking, using the image of (the then) socialist Yugoslavia as a mirror/reference society becomes more complex and troubled.
Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres.
We need to understand the alternative history setting of the Bunker Palace Hôtel itself. Any reference to the then contemporary society is mostly avoided—cars, technology, architecture, clothing. Everything is retro, or “retro-futuristic”, which is a familiar setting within certain SF subgenres. In the film we can see well-known buildings from the pre-WWII decades, such as eclectic, art nouveau and modernist architecture: mainly the French Embassy, Svetozara Radića street, Savamala’s train system, and the BIGZ and Geozavod buildings. Additionally, one can see anachronistic technological inventions, post-dating the actual society, one of which is humanoid androids. Researcher Jelena Smiljanić calls this vision an “(…) onirist post-socialistic Belgrade, intermingled with Bodriarian (sic) simulacrums (…) creating a simulated hyper-reality” (Onirism was a surrealist literary movement in Romania during the 1960s, while in psychiatry it refers to a mental state in which visual hallucinations occur while fully awake). All of this taken together creates the retro-futuristic and surrealist setting of Bunker Palace Hôtel.
Different visions are present in Le Sommeil du monstre, or The Dormant Beast in English, also known as the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, which is one of Bilal’s latest comic series produced between 1998 and 2007. Set in 2026, it portrays what seems to now be a near future with advanced technologies in a dystopian, global setting. The narrative is revealed through two intertwined processes. Three main protagonists—Nike Hatzfeld, Leyla Mirković-Zohary and Amir Fazlagić, all orphans from the Yugoslav civil war—are trying to reunite with each other. The second narrative is Nike’s recollection of his childhood, taking us from the day of his birth in 1993 to the midst of the siege of Sarajevo. Bilal’s position shifts from one of the insider to a broader cosmopolitan global perspective; but it is his portrayal of the Balkans that I will primarily address here.
Belgrade and Sarajevo are two of the dystopian locations featured in Le Sommeil du monstre, presented (as in Bunker Palace Hôtel) in a retro-futurist mix where the old and the new are messily joined together. All cities in the series have a strong feeling of decay; as comic book author Zoran Penevski said related to Bilal, “it is the world of a narrative apocalypse.” In an interview for Serbian magazine Vreme, Bilal stated that Belgrade had changed little since when he moved to Paris in 1960. When he was asked in another interview why he avoided presenting contemporary times (war scenes in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the NATO bombing of Belgrade), he answered:
It is strange but when I’m portraying a brutal scene, I feel very uncomfortable placing it in the present. While if I position myself 20-30 years [into the future], then I can enjoy the creative process (…) I am visiting the future in order to come back to the past and the present. (emphasis added).
The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh.
The narrative of a painful past and a not so optimistic future unwinds in the series, while the breakup of SFR Yugoslavia is still fresh. Just after the Hatzfeld Tetralogy came out in 1998, Bilal said that his interest in Yugoslavia was triggered by the violent events of the war, the violence that triggered a “monster of remembrance”. The concept of reflective nostalgia coined by Svetlana Boym could be applied here, a nostalgia that does not tend to reconstruct the past but to instead be skeptical or critical of it, since the return to a imagined better past is impossible. In this case, it was the author’s creative way of purging the disturbances caused by the war.
A dystopian mode is prevalent in the Hatzfeld Tetralogy, where the future brings a continuation of conflicts, but there are also some utopian sparks. Among those, Bilal also plants a powerful image of human segregation according to religious affiliation (and nationalism). According to an essay by Aurélie Huz and Irène Langlet, the avoidance of national or religious categorization of the main heroes (storytellers) in this comic pinpoints not only a state of uncertainty about identities after the dissolution of the joint state, but also Bilal’s own critique of segregation. If one accepts the argument that those very divisions contributed to the violent dissolution of multicultural life and shared space in SFR Yugoslavia, embedding similar divisions into a future society, for example in Paris (“Catholics only”, “Salafists only” in the comic), Bilal voices concern and a warning that history may repeat itself. This is why the question “Are you Serb, Croat or Muslim?”, posed several times, remains unanswered in the story.
The utopias of Aleksa Gajić
In contrast to Bilal, Gajić’s work has more humorous and light tones, a trademark of both his comics and animation work. He mostly works in the epic, fantasy, cyberpunk and SF genres, or something he calls “optimistična futuristika” (optimistic futuristic). These aspects of his work are discussed by Pavle Zelić and Anica Tucakov. Gajić’s bachelor degree project was a comic titled Technotise, with Darko Grkinić as a writer, and this later served as a starting point for Technotise: Edit & I (in Serbian: Tehnotajz: Edit i ja), which became known as the first Serbian feature-length animated film. In both works a utopian vision prevails, providing a predominant insider viewpoint of the portrayed societies.
The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out.
The Technotise comic (created in 1998, published in 2001) pays attention to two different time periods, both of which deviate from the present. At the very beginning there is a short episode from 1739, but most of the comic is set in 2074. It traces the adventures of a group of adolescents, led by Edit, in Belgrade. It is mostly set on the Great War Island (Veliko ratno ostrvo), a natural reserve between rivers Sava and Danube which are surrounding the city from two sides, and in Zemun, an old municipality where Gajić lives. The adolescents portrayed lead a hedonistic, middle-class life, centered around sex, drugs, hoverboard competitions and going out. Their names are a combination of foreign (Edit, Broni, Herb, Woo) and local (Sanja, Bojan), their looks and habits are seemingly typical of (western) teenagers but they are also contextualized through Serbian language, backgrounds and references. The film Technotise: Edit & I (2009) kept the main characters and semi-utopian quality with a more developed retro-futuristic, cyberpunk image of Belgrade. Real locations were shot and then futuristic details were added. In an interview (in Serbian) for B92 portal Gajić explains:
Belgrade 2074 is a city where the future came without an urban plan. Yes, the buses are floating above the streets, but also run late, so there are traffic jams. Facades are futuristic but also run down. The locations are altered, but still recognizable, so you cannot mix our capital with some other city. I made an effort to give this SF film a dose of plausibility, because I think that’s the way for the viewers to believe the story (…) That’s why the main hero is a regular girl with common problems that anybody can identify with and understand. At the same time, I haven’t given up my desires—I made a film I would like to see myself.
Recalling the different “gaze” positions I developed in the previous essay in this mini-series, the worldbuilding technique used in the film can be seen as an example of the present projecting itself directly into the future. A not-so-perfect setting reveals the social awareness of the film, pushed to another plane. Whilst it triggers humor, it can also remind viewers of the unresolved issues present in the Serbian and Belgrade society of 2009: Roma people collecting garbage in the city (here competing with robots), robots begging for new graphic cards, “eternal students” using tricks to pass exams (“bubice”), adolescents living with parents, telenovelas, old buses and police cars (Zastava 101 models), a rural grandfather yelling that children need to go back to the countryside and so on. Gajić draws attention to these references to the present in interviews by Sonja Ćirić and Ivana Matijević. Through its projection of present issues into the future, the film turns these present issues into a heritage that weighs down on the future and shows that the future does not automatically free itself from the problems of the present. However, optimistic tones are still prevalent, echoing a tendency in feature films of the New Belgrade School in post-2000 Serbian society, where authors are grasping the “(…) opportunity of this new start, constructing a virtual city made up of cultural and genre idioms”, as Nevena Daković shows in “Imagining Belgrade: The Cultural/Cinematic Identity of a City on European Fringes”.
Belgrade’s transformations triggered by the social upheavals of the 1990s and a feeling of a new start in the 2000s are most visible through film. Daković states that this cinematic cityscape is closely linked to space, time and matters of (transcultural) identity:
The cinematic cityscape is thus a complex identity performance. In the case of Belgrade, it presents a rich succession of identity conflicts and shifts, encompassing identities spanning from exotic Orientalism to virtual cosmopolitanism, with a nodal contrast articulated as Orient-rural-Balkan vs. Occident-urban-Europe. Belgrade’s city identity constantly vacillates between these poles, spilling over borders, moving between and among the times and spaces of the various identity constituents (emphasis added).
The cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s.
In the context of post WWII Yugoslavia, and then Serbia, the cityscape changed from a socialist idyll, through the ghetto of the 1990s, to a “pure locus of the possible”—a cosmopolitan identity after the democratic elections in the 2000s. SF imaginings of Belgrade can therefore provide an understanding of contemporary positions and identities when the author’s projection is deeply grounded in the local context of Belgrade and Serbia, but also provide a means for temporary escape from the reader’s (or viewer’s) own body and society.
One of the major criticisms of Technotise in Serbia was that the film treated SF in a more humorous way, which was also a creative break with the majority of SF productions. Another critique was that it used youth slang and references to contemporary Serbian society. This situating of the film’s narrative, according to the author, was both a personal choice and a break from acknowledged patterns and habits of the genre, especially SF that is mostly set in highly developed technological societies in the West or Japan. A Serbian film critic, Dimitrije Vojnov, said in an interview that “in a (Serbian) cinematography so loaded with the past, the future rarely manages to reach the screen, and when it does, it is an ironic reflection of the present or past”, thus noting how Gajić diverged from a mainstream.
In preparation for his next film, Prophet 1.0 (Prorok 1.0), Gajić said that he wanted to present “the future in a Serbian, not American or Japanese, way.” And in explaining what is “Serbian” about Edit & I, he referred to the collaborators, financing, language, and topics. To this list, I would also add the Serbian locations. Curiously enough, this seemingly patriotic declaration does not include any loaded traditional or nationalist topics or statements within the artworks’ narratives. This mix between an international outlook and national (or local) grounding is connected to the affinity between SF and both “escapist” and critical situated knowledge, as I discussed in “Science fiction between utopia and critique.”
The identity of the (future) city—the identity of its ma(r)kers
These two dimensions of SF—the escapist and the critical—are present in the works of both Bilal and Gajić. Around two decades have passed between the UFOs that do not land in Lajkovac and the emergence of locally grounded SF in a Serbian context. In the cases of Bilal and Gajić, it is important to understand why they decided to contextualize their narratives in locations that they are physically and/or emotionally attached to. In both cases the topics were mostly a matter of personal preferences, which led to works that differ from the ones that the two artists do for the (mostly) French market. Bilal had already made a name for himself in the 1970s and 1980s, allowing him to treat contemporary, more politically engaged and personal topics with greater ease. But Gajić’s work for the French market differs from Technotise, which departs from and clashes with the market’s popular tropes, and this made him pause his international work during the film’s production. In facing many challenges while making the film, he said: “If the film doesn’t succeed, the repentant son will go back to France. After all, swords, magic, slaughter and the rest… it’s not so bad at all!” and “If I wanted money, I would have probably made a movie about little animals and wizards” (interviews with Peđa Popović and for Domino magazine, in Serbian).
Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics.
I would argue that both Bilal and Gajić, in the narratives and messages of their artworks, have found ways to resist the official nationalist rhetoric that is so prominent in Serbian politics. They are not, however, hiding their national identities in their work about Belgrade and the Balkans, into which they bring a strong sense of engagement and lack of concern for market pressure. The question then becomes: whose eyes are we looking through? What differentiates people from one another? The contextualization of stories takes place through specific characters, names, settings, cities, histories, and references, but at the same time avoids demonstrative national images, such as flags and other national symbols, religious affiliation of heroes and so on. In Bilal’s case, as already mentioned, characters refuse to identify with the causes of war, in protest, whilst Gajić finds politics overwhelming in Serbian society and prefers to find ways to create artworks that entertain and make people laugh. He views this as a more noble and honorable cause than being serious and scared.
Could this escapism embed in itself any Balkanism, as defined by Maria Todorova? In academia, the concept is defined as a discourse where the Balkans were (and sometimes still are) presented and constructed as the“other” of Europe, a negative stereotype, inverted mirror. In her book Imagining the Balkans, she states that creators of Balkan images from the Balkans itself are very self-conscious of the imposed discourse:
Unlike Western observers who, in constructing and replicating the Balkanist discourse, were (and are) little aware and even less interested in the thoughts and sensibilities of their objects, the Balkan architects of different self-images have been involved from the very outset in a complex and creative dynamic relationship with this discourse (…).
Another researcher, Maria Palacios Cruz states that “the Balkans seen from the Balkans” in film seem more concerned with being accepted than subverting the West’s images of the Balkans itself, thus reproducing criteria, stereotypes and divisions. Gajić’s escapism in the futuristic Technotise does not eliminate reality bites of SF Belgrade, nor does it avoid a sense of cosmopolitanism; after all, it provides a sort of hope. Bilal made a somewhat exotic Belgrade setting in Bunker Palace Hôtel, whilst in the comic series it is clear that the main characters are resisting nationalist narratives and paving an unstable road of their own, avoiding stereotypical media discourses. In Bilal’s own words:
I am not rejecting my own roots. When I say that it is dangerous to look inside oneself too much, in your own past, memories, remembrances, nation, religion, your territory, it is. That gaze is dangerous but I find it necessary. It is crucial to carry it with oneself and move with one’s own roots.
Conclusions: SF as cosmopolitanism?
Daković characterizes new film directors in post-2000 Serbia as employing escapism, cosmopolitanism and postmodernism. The cinematic cityscape of Belgrade is based on a “‘glocal’ identity [which] is made up of local elements with global appeal, local themes in a global expression and local events of inevitable global consequences”, quoting the definition by Paul Virilio. Or, as a beer ad in Serbia says: “global, but ours”.
Binarisms (local – global, national – international, patriot – cosmopolitan) come with a whole set of contextualized inclusions and exclusions. One’s attachment to a local stance might be seen as conforming to nationalism, even xenophobia, or as a resistance to the processes of globalization – or simply as staying faithful to the politics of location, as outlined by Donna Haraway in her theory of situated knowledge. Thus, one’s identification with a city might even be a means of resisting national identity (for more on this topic, see this study by Ivana Spasić in English). On the other side of an imagined pole stands cosmopolitanism, which is grounded in openness and universalism, criticized for being an elite stance associated with pro-Western and pro-European political ideologies in the Balkans.
In the Serbian context, after a global phase during socialist (or Tito’s) Yugoslavia, SF entered a (re-)traditionalist period grounded in nationalist political projects and imaginarium from the mid-1980s. This more traditional aspect of the genre contains many elements previously mentioned as characteristic of fantasy. Anthropologist Ivan Đorđević in his “Antropologija naučne fantastike: tradicija žanrovskoj književnosti” (Anthropology of Science Fiction: a Tradition in Genre Literature) says this production is in essence local, where certain traditional elements, taken selectively and strategically, create an image of how a culture sees itself at certain times (This perspective could be compared to Andrew Liptak’s article about nationalism in militaristic SF). Đorđević notes that a crucial distinction is made between Us and Them (Europe, the West, or the world in general), revealing the central gaze of traditional narratives as being nationally tailored. In this way, SF visions carry fears of losing one’s “roots”, or allowing cultural assimilation; that is, if the future is generally understood as cosmopolitan, with universal (most likely western) tendencies for humankind. This view of the imaginative role of SF echoes antiglobalization discourses.
The imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites.
Overall, the imagining of science-fiction Belgrade operates between tensions and opposites. Just as in general SF, it provides universal knowledge claims about the future (and our global present), while at the same time situating the narratives in local history, social issues and geography. On a geopolitical level, it it susceptible both to Balkanism—accepting the Balkans as the “other” of Europe—and to Europeanism or Westernism—the construction of universalist global imaginaries. However, it is also a space for personal narratives and alternative visions, offering locally grounded stories, enriching the SF field. As such, it offers utopian and dystopian settings, escapism and social critique.
As Nevena Daković writes, “The transcultural identity and imaging of Belgrade is the result of a fusion of Balkanism and Europeanism, of local and global aspects in a city that is multi-layered and multi-faceted”. Which identity of the city will be used, in which setting and time (dystopian or utopian), heavily depends on the need to escape or construct alternatives in the present moment.
Technotise and Technotise: Edit & I courtesy of Aleksa Gajić.
Bunker Palace Hôtel from Pinterest.com and WorldCinema.org.
The Hatzfeld Tetralogy from TapaTalk.com, JogLikesComics.blogspot.com, Passion-Estampes.com, and Pinterest.com.
For more info on SF in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) available online:
Project Rastko’s database on contemporary Serbian and South Slav fantasy literature (in Serbian).
Texts on SF by Zoran Živković (in Serbian and English).
Belgrade Cooperative building—the center and mirror of city visions
Hey! (waving) Are you here for… HELLO! Are you guys here for the time travel tour?! Glad I found you so quickly, this place is crowded, follow me. Is it just you or are we expecting others to join us as well? Okay, good, we’ll have some extra space for us then, c’mon. Dobar dan – welcome to Experience Belgrade Through Time, the most popular time travel tour you can find in Serbia. As a promotional tour, we offer taking you to a selected point in the city and watch it how it changed during time. Once you book one of our full tours, you will be able to choose among other exciting programs going all the way back to the Roman times. Now please give me the vouchers, take a seat and put on the security bells. You learned a bit of Serbian already? Ah, rakija, of course. This tour will last for two hours and this time I’ll take you to a wonderful building you could find at Savamala district. Been there? Oh, it’s a must! Let’s go!
Stop 1: 1907
This is one of the city’s pearls, look at the beauty of it—decoration, monumentality, how it voluptuously imposes itself to the area, charming everyone. Let us have a glimpse inside… This building we usually call Geozavod, was actually made for the Belgrade Cooperative bank, by our famous architects Andra Stevanović and Nikola Nestorović, whose other works you could see in the area. It is one of the prime works of architecture in this period, mixing academic and Art Nouveau styles, Renaissance and Baroque decoration, and the first one using reinforced concrete in Serbia. Just move aside, izvinite… Saw these workers? The area was surrounded with new buildings, ponds and beaches, as one of the entry points where both merchandise and people arrived in Belgrade. Alas, after World War II, the cooperative bank was no more, the building had different and changing tenants, and underwent architectural changes. Luckily, it was never bombed! Speaking of bombs, let us go the our next stop
Stop 2: 1989
Čoveče, do you recognize this one? How could it be? The building really underwent a bit of a deterioration, like the whole Savamala district, becoming a place filled with old glory, noise, shady characters and almost forgotten. Or simply unpopular to hang out to. But this one is actually from a surreal movie by a French artist born in Belgrade, do you know who he is? I’ll give you a tip, he made comics… Nikopol? Immortel? (beep beep) What’s this? Nevermind, the movie Bunker Palace Hotel took place in an alternative reality, at the very end of socialism of Yugoslavia, Belgrade being its capital. In the movie, it’s a hotel, but actually a bunker for members of a ruling regime, hiding from a mysterious threat… I won’t tell you more, please do see the movie, and if you like film history, check out Kinoteka’s tours as well!
Stop 3: 2012
Look at the old lady, all run down, but still standing proudly. Nostalgic gem, memory of times passed, but not too long so nobody would remember its past glory. Ah, the building was used for rave and techno parties from the 1990s, imagine that – marble and electronic music, glass paintings and stroboscope. Somewhere from late 2000s, artists started coming to the area, making it present and interesting for Belgraders again. Do you hear the music? That’s one of the festivals, happening just behind the corner, do you see all the young people? Is the area coming back to life? I remember those times when I was young, thankfully nowadays we could live longer to testify about it. We were a bit afraid back then, afraid of the specter of gentrification, an army of yellow machines tearing down the area we we trying so much to nurture… Let us not interfere here, we need to follow the laws of time travel—stay unspotted, do not change anything.
Stop 4: 2016
After years of being neglected, finally rise and shine! In 2014 the building underwent a major redevelopment as part of Belgrade Waterfront project, which has its seat there. What do you think, do you like the neglected charm or new life? During these years the area started changing drastically—many buildings were torn down and streets disappeared, while others, like Belgrade Cooperative gain a new chance, as part of the investment plan. These skyscrapers behind it are blocking the view towards the river, and many inhabitants found it very controversial—who would live here, when gentrification made it so expensive for all the local people? We… who? Security guard? Oh, do not pay much attention to that guy at the corner, there’s always a busybody at the corner… but we may still go further up the street a bit.
(beep beep) Why is this beeping again? Sranje, look at that mass of people, full trust upward… Huh, I’m sorry, I haven’t paid attention to what lies ahead. It seems I took us right in the middle of the protest against Belgrade Waterfront! These people are supporters of Don’t Drown Belgrade initiative. Yes, we’re safe on this altitude. And this was not a violent protest. You can find some data about it in the hand-outs. And that big yellow duck over there – that’s their symbol! “Duck” in Serbian could mean a joke, a scam. Let us move away from here, I can hear the helicopters approaching, and I need some space to maneuver to the next station.
Stop 5: 2074
Huh, peaceful again. Watch out for the tram. You see, we’re in animated setting! Another artist, comic book author Aleksa Gajić, made a vision of Belgrade which is both old and new, with old-fashion, socialist trams, early 20th century architecture and futurist inventions. The trains are levitating, Belgrade Cooperative has a virtual reality dome, and the Belgrade looks… what do you think, familiar, nostalgic? Nicer than it really is? This was made in 2009, it is interesting to see how people back then imagined our times. (beep beep beep beep) Ok, this is it, the promo tour is ending, I wish to have spend more time with you, for that please do check our full tours, we’ll be able to travel for a whole day, there’s so much to tell about this city… If you have a half of minute of your time, check out the evaluation form and rate me as your guide… thank you, you too, vidimo se neki drugi put!
I would like to thank professor Nevena Daković at the University of Arts in Belgrade for her help in writing the original paper, Charlotte E. Whelan for proofreading and Rut Elliot Blomqvist for excellent editing.
Srđan Tunić is an art historian, freelance curator and cultural manager based in Belgrade, Serbia. A fan of science fiction, this is his first text about it. Contact: srdjan.tunic[at]gmail.com