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Speculating Pandemic: About

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“How might speculative fiction become not only a resource for imagining alternative worlds, but also a medium for remaking our presence in this world?”

A question and provocation, this challenge was posed by authors introducing a 2018 series on Speculative Anthropologies. Exploring intersections of anthropology with science fiction, they go on to suggest avenues for thinking in a mode of speculation, in and for “alternative futures, otherwise presents, and counterfactual pasts.” 

Science fiction has a long history of speculating the present and imagining other worlds. Afrofuturisms and indigenous futurisms have long been vital to imagining worlds otherwise than those premised on settler colonialism and anti-blackness, instead insisting on worlds guided by principles of Indigenous sovereignty, and antiracism. Our collaborative project, an international media monitoring of COVID-19 events and responses through May-July 2020, took up this orientation of speculation to think critically about the intersections of pandemic and radical social transformations occurring now, and what future(s) we may hold and imagine. 

Our group included 15 people from across academic disciplines, and heralding from many corners of the globe, including present day Canada, Colombia, Korea, France, Turkey, China, and Italy. Together, we monitored international reporting on COVID-19 and crafted textual and multi-media reflections. Each group member monitored a distinct media source to capture together COVID-19 related events and responses, and to enable us to think through how the pandemic resonates with the particular geo-histories we explore in our regular academic work. Media monitored included Semana, La Repubblica, Chronicles of Higher Education, The Walrus, The New York Times, Jacobin, and Hyperallergic. Every two weeks, we each produced a speculative composition based on our media monitoring of COVID-19 related events and responses, and met together to discuss our reflections and compositions, responding in turn. The perspectives shared were diverse and multiple, and critical to this effort as a collaborative and interdisciplinary one. 

The praxis of speculative composition encourages us to think critically and creatively, to un-learn Eurocentric modes of knowledge production, explore new research directions, and experiment methodologically with form. This curated collection represents a selection of this speculative work, one that we hope can join others in imagining towards new futures. 

We begin with Fanny’s reflection on the oleander plant and the second wave of pandemic in the coastal French town of Sète, “The oleander has penetrated the city so deeply that its colour has dispersed all over its streets, particularly closest to the sea. A giant, homogenous spill of pink.“

Osmond shares a poem that contemplates temporality and self-care during quarantine. He notes how time seems to speed up and slow down, in the uncertainty of day to day life,  “Time is too loud.”

Ian’s quarantine poems which each address a particular aspect of Chinese diasporic queer life. First, the past self is “left behind in time and space as I move across the Pacific Oceans,” second, time collapses while eating an almond and drinking water, and third, being in a crowd during social distancing, “how come we are here?”

Jordan reflects on the emergent tensions of urban natural space and power in Toronto during limited forms of movement, where, “the housed to wait in lines of measured distance to walk the trail” others who are unhoused are evicted from their places of shelter.

Salvatore describes the emergent social function of balconies during shut-down that bridge political divides in his hometown of Bergamo, where impromptu musical ‘flash mobs’ play songs which are associated with musical unity, “revitalizing the architectural function to which Italian balconies have been historically designed since the late Middle-Age onwards.”

Zarin shares a personal description of the art-making process, and its relation to temporality, noting how painting can aid the affective processing of new forms of social isolation: sometimes nostalgia and fear appear, “in big washes of blues and blacks.”

Melinda enters into Jenny’s world, a fictional character who meditates on how the slippages between Coronavirus and Corona beer reflect the surreallness of Toronto’s present urban moment.

Jesook reflects on how scarce commodities and social distancing feel familiar. Tying these types of relations to intergenerational political experiences, she writes, “Fear of war and hatred of communists are passed down between generations. My family and kin members are not exceptions.”

Do-Hyeong contemplates the pandemics edges of optimism and revolution through the unknown future of a friend hoping to get their Canadian student visa approved: “A question that I am not able to answer: how can you tell optimism apart from the moment where you go, “I can’t anymore!” -- and at that moment hope from resignation?”

Celeste wonders about the sounds of quarantine and their social significance. Ruminating on lawn blowers, memories of subway whistles, and the present absence of city noise, she observes, “birds are quieting, with human competition at bay, yet people are perceiving them as louder than before… How to trace the more subtle changes, and our patterns of listening?”

Gloria shares a recent news story of “The Lady in Black” evicting shanty town members with militia during the pandemic, noting how she is not new, but part of a long history of shady figures who collaborate with the Colombian state to enact social cleansing: “Covid-19 is the cover now. Before it was communism, and insurgency.”

Jonathan describes the relationship of virtual “waiting” created by the influx of video-gamers during the pandemic, where servers are crashing, players being queued, and emergent forms of play and gift-giving. He notes that in Animal Crossing, “erotic play was paid through virtual labour,” demonstrating the ways in which social reciprocity is virtualizing in unprecedented ways, as a “substitution for the everyday.”

Jack shares a video, where a robotic AI-like figure in a hybrid virtual-real apartment brushes its teeth and dances, repeatedly telling the viewer, “it takes two to party.”

Sophia shares still from a film, “But Wait,” a series of dream-like scenes  where the domestic realm of quarantine, escapism, consumption and labour, interact with dissociation, and fantasies of new forms of care.

Speculating Pandemic: About