Our Covid Future Narratives project starts with a question: how is coronavirus and the pandemic it has generated influencing the ways we imagine the future? We are collecting narratives produced across a range of genres during the last eighteen months that focus on imagining a post-pandemic future. Here we discuss a selection of those we have found so far, offering a sense of the people and genres engaged in this imagining while considering how narrative forms are shaping post-pandemic futures in this politicised moment.
The seeds of our research were sown with Arundhati Roy’s piece, ‘The pandemic is a portal’, published in the Financial Times on 3rd April 2020. ‘Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew’, explained Roy, as the Western world went into lockdown. ‘This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.’ As Peter Baker put it in the Guardian three days earlier, ‘disasters and emergencies … rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds.’
Many people have since taken up these calls to imagine the world anew. We might think of Naomi Klein writing and producing a short film for the Intercept, Yuval Noah Harari speculating on totalitarian surveillance and citizen-led democracy in the FT, Bruno Latour (a week before Roy’s piece) thinking in Critical Inquiry about the pandemic as ‘a dress rehearsal’ for future social and ecological crises, Slavoj Žižek publishing a book on the subject. For many thinkers, notably those on the political left, the pandemic has offered insights from which to imagine and highlight alternate futures.
But it is not only famous philosophers who have engaged in this exercise of the imagination. In daily conversations, on social media, through tweets, memes, and tiktok videos, many of us have been involved in speculating on what our society, and our world, will look like after the coronavirus pandemic has come to an end. Whether it’s the rhetoric of Covid waves visualised to show crises to come, or the city of tomorrow tweeted into being with lines from Back to the Future and images of an unusually quiet traffic control centre, popular culture and pandemic discourse have come together in surprising and even humorous ways; what are sea shanties if not narratives of loss and longing, imagined futures of safety and celebration – ‘tea and rum’ – from the depths of lockdown?
One distinctive feature of these imagined futures is how they invoke both hopeful and apocalyptic narratives. For some, the pandemic offers a last opportunity to reverse Western society’s exploitative treatment of human life and the natural world, even as it serves as a harbinger of further pain, loss, and destruction to come. In many Covid narratives that imagine changes in the post-pandemic relations between human society and nature, the utopian and apocalyptic appear together, juxtaposed side by side. This is the case in the illustration above by Nathalie Lees, a vision of hope and possibility stark against a dystopian backdrop.
There are also those who deny the transformative potential of imagining the future anew. The CEO of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, has been vocal in describing changes in work patterns brought about by Covid-19 as an ‘aberration’ while calling for his employees to return to the office. This is also a narrative, but one of reversion rather than transformation. Dismissing the last eighteen months as an aberration may seem, in one sense, the antithesis of viewing the pandemic as a portal, yet Roy and Solomon sit together on a spectrum of possible futures being imagined through the lens of coronavirus and the pandemic.
As we are finding out, imagining the future is always political. As of now, there are multiple futures up for grabs.
This is the first in a series of blogs that we will release over the coming weeks and months discussing some of the early findings from the Covid Future Narratives project. Our research examines narratives produced across a range of genres during the coronavirus pandemic that focus on imagining a post-pandemic future. We are asking for people to send us narratives that they have come across over the course of the last eighteen months. If you have a narrative you would like to share with us, please send it to Jim Scown – firstname.lastname@example.org – or follow and share with us on Twitter @CovidNarratives.