Thursday, November 9, 2017

''How artists/novelists/film directors can rewrite the climate story with powerful storytelling'' - an interview with Australian literary critic Greg Foyster

I tweeted this the other day at finding Greg Foyster's brilliant and insightful essay at the Eureka Street website. I read it and said THIS IS IT! This is the most important literary analysis of ''cli-fi'' (also known by its longer genre name as ''climate fiction'') that has ever been put out into the ethersphere which we all breathe in now worldwide. This was my tweet at my @do_you_cli_fi_ Twitter feed:

The most important ''cli-fi'' explainer you will ever read, by Greg Foyster Australia via Eureka Street site…/how-artists-can-rewrite-c… 

''How artists/novelists/film directors can rewrite the climate story.''

I tracked Greg down in Australia via a couple of Google searches to find his email address and his own Twitter ID, and I found him very quickly and sent him a note. I asked if he had time for a short email interview to talk about and expland on his very good and brilliant essay about ''How artists/novelists/film directors can rewrite the climate story.''

Greg was actually writing about the arts in general and the visual arts specifically in his essay, but I found the things he was saying fit perfectly with what the global cli-fi community has been trying to say for the past few years in opeds in the New York Times, The Guardian in the UK, Reuters and the Associated Press wire services and literary hundreds of other links online at The Cli-Fi Report.

Here is Greg's Eureka Street essay linked here:

So I took a few of the segments from his piece and asked him a few questions around those excerpts. Greg was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule in Australia and answer my questions the very same day!



NOTE: Greg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

1. DAN BLOOM TO GREG: YOU WROTE IN YOUR ARTICLE: ''Last month, an interesting paper by Dr Samuel Alexander at Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute argued ...— that far from being a petty distraction from the world's problems, aesthetics are a crucial part of the solution. Cultural change may in fact precede macroeconomic or political change, and art is our best tool to reimagine culture.''

WHO IS DR ALEXANDER and what is his background for those who don't know him?

GREG FOYSTER REPLIED: Dr Samuel Alexander is a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs. His work focuses on 'voluntary simplicity', downshifting and 'degrowth' - a movement to envisage an economy that is not based on endless economic growth at the expense of the environment.

He is not just an academic, but also practises what he preaches. See here my profile of him from my book Changing Gears.

"Samuel grew up in New Zealand, played in bands as a teen,
and then earned a Masters of Law at Victoria University in
Wellington. His heart was never in the profession, but after so
many years of study he wanted to put his skills into practice, so
he took a job with a small firm in Christchurch. After a year
there, he decided to exchange his scheduled pay-rise for a day
off work. ‘That’s what I say is kind of my first explicit act of
downshifting – choosing time over money.’
He used his day off to prepare a proposal for a doctoral
thesis, and in the middle of 2006 he moved to Melbourne for
postgraduate study. During his research he stumbled across
Walden by Henry David Thoreau, possibly the most influential
text ever written about simple living. Samuel had read the book
as an 18 year old, but had failed to grasp the life-changing lessons
of the dense 19th-century text. This time Thoreau’s words set off
tremors of insight, triggering a genuine shift in consciousness.
In his introduction to a collection of essays, Samuel refers to
himself as ‘one of Thoreau’s disciples’.
But the book had such a profound effect on Samuel that in
the spring of 2008 he decided to build a rustic hut of his own in
the backyard of a Melbourne share-house. Samuel’s new home
was about 2 metres wide and 3.5 metres long, taking only three
weekends to build and costing a total of $573. The bulk of the
shed was made from reused or recycled materials, including a
wooden bed frame, a pile of abandoned wood found by the
railway tracks and some old blankets. As a finishing touch, the
words ‘Ceci n’est pas une cabane’ were painted above the door,
meaning, ‘This is not a shed.’ Like Thoreau, Samuel stayed
in his simple abode for about two years, and the experience
profoundly changed his worldview."

Dr Samuel Alexander is also the author of a utopian novel, called the book of Entropia:

2. YOU WROTE: " It begins with the premise that the human condition is inherently aesthetic because reality is experienced through the lens of language. We interpret everything through concepts and vocabularies, organised into narratives — the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it. 'Cultures are, and have always been, founded upon stories, myths, and narratives that are always evolving, defining the contours of civilisation,' writes Alexander in the opening essay of Art Against Empire.''

There's more detail in Sam's essay, which I've attached to as a PDF in my essay.

As for my own opinion, I refer to the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose book Metaphors We Live By gives examples of how view our lives through the lens of metaphors.

 3. YOU WROTE: "Creating a new grand narrative of a more sustainable society is an act of imagination. This cultural change will foster systemic and structural changes in other realms of human endeavour. Alexander quotes the critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, who wrote 'art can­not change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world'. Or, as the novellist J. G. Ballard wrote, 'many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic'.



The point he is making here is that cultural change often precedes political or economic change. To use an analogy from activist theory, imagine that there is a balloon tied to a rock. The balloon represents current economic and political policies. The rock represents public opinion. Most activists focus on the short term policies - they're pushing the balloon. But unless you move what the balloon is tied to - the rock of public opinion - you can't get very far. It takes more effort to shift the rock, but it's a permanent shift, unlike policy changes that can happen quickly but then get reversed. Cultural change is a bit like that - it changes the underlying 'story' that affects the political and policies.

4. YOU WROTE: ''But to change the future, we must imagine it into existence. What we need, then, is inspiring visions of a better tomorrow. For this art isn't a trivial indulgence, it's vital work. That's why ....we should encourage novelists and screenwriters to engage with the social and environmental issues, creating new stories for us all.''

CAN YOU EXPAND ON THIS A BIT. How can we encourage them, in what ways? Any ideas? Some ways to encourage them?


I think there are lots of ways to encourage stories that tell a positive vision of the future. One is through awards and prizes - a great book in this genre, Ishmael, was awarded the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991, a year before its formal publication. (See Wikipedia entry here.) There are arts grants for work on climate change, why shouldn't there be more support for stories too?

Some of the research in climate change communication, showing that doomsday framing of the issue can sometimes have a paralysing effect, also needs to be more widely shared. I wonder also if cli-fi will take a turn towards stories that imagine a better world simply because the dystopian aspect of the genre becomes hackneyed and predictable. There are so many dystopian narratives that writers might have a better chance of being original by aiming for something else. Many of the classics of science fiction are not one-sided dystopias but also include descriptions of fantastical worlds with their own legal and political structures.

One of my favourite examples is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, which won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. It's utopian sci fi that invents a new anarchist society but it's also realistic - the society is far from perfect, and there are shades of darkness and menace in there too.
I think it takes more courage and originality to invent a new world than to plot the collapse of the current one.


Greg Foyster
Journalist, Author & Editor, AUSTRALIA


Twitter: @GregFoyster

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