dystopian fiction comes true; punk rules the courtrooms
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to remember when nobody talked about the fossil fuel industry in polite conversation.
Or, for that matter, in mainstream media; or named Big Oil as a bad actor in political arenas; or tossed around the phrase “make the industry pay.”
The biggest US climate investment in history just passed. It’s a huge deal, and also nowhere sufficient given the scale of this crisis and the degree of harm that’s been done. But we have to celebrate our wins, or we’ll lose. (In fact, I think the climate movement’s failure to celebrate, account for, and learn from its wins is part of why we, for the most part, are losing—but that’s a different matter.)
Meanwhile, public awareness of and concern about the fossil fuel industry’s influence is growing. There’s a robust effort to keep oil money out of research, something a majority of Americans support. Banks are targeted and boycotted for their funding of new fossil fuel infrastructure. Even, and perhaps most importantly, the ad agencies behind big oil’s decades of deception are under fire, with hundreds signing onto a Clean Creatives pledge to not work for this dirty industry. These are the people who made it culturally acceptable to defend the fossil fuel industry, and viable to present ~alternate~ science that sowed doubt about the climate impacts of extraction.
We are up against a lot. These movements targeting particular industries and sectors that enable fossil fuel extraction are gaining momentum, but we are still at the Sisyphean stage of this effort.
One of the things I’ve been doing with my attention these last few months is continuing to read lots of dystopian fiction, and mostly not read the news as much. Today, I tuned back into the news and what did I find but a freaking Twitter trend that is literally, no exaggeration, right out of Ministry for the Future.
***content warning: discussion of state violence, and spoilers, ahead***
Ministry is a cli-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, a guy who has written at least a few books recently that are structured around the question of “what if (insert place) experienced devastating climate impacts alongside no meaningful changes to capitalism?” Ministry’s (insert place) is the whole planet, and the story is told through a series of disconnected vignettes, some of which are more charming and useful than others.
My favorite one, actually, is about a young person who finds themself well-equipped to support neighbors during a megaflood in Los Angeles, because they have a kayak. The streets are filled with water and the whole city is aflood, under the same conditions as suggested by this Twitter trend.
The end of Ministry is/was my least favorite part; I found it most disappointing at the time, and now, I find that it’s stuck with me. After the adoption of carbon coins and a few decades of ecoterrorism, the thing that actually pushes the struggle against global catastrophe over the edge is universal adoption of a very kumbaya world religion in which the earth is worshiped and therefore everything will be okay, because now people respect the earth again.
Beyond the assumption of blanket assimilation of generalized Indigenous belief, what strikes me most about this is that religion, not a new economic system, not the unification that comes with crisis, is what provides the most complete solution to the climate crisis.
Two other media I recently consumed nod to the power of religious fervor as well:
Mother Country Radicals, a new podcast out from the children of the Weather Underground, a radical group active in the 1960s-80s. The Underground mostly aligned around anti-racist, anti-war efforts, and was both deeply intertwined and at odd with the Black Panthers and Black Power movements of that time.
This show was great—movement history plus critical hindsight with questions about the future of struggles for social change. Again, what stuck out to me was this: the Black Panthers, and particularly Fred Hampton, tapped into a kind of religious, preacher-esque cadence that mobilized people from the ground up. Fred Hampton was also the charismatic leader that the US Government surveilled and assassinated—they saw him as too powerful, too much of a threat to hegemony.
So as dystopian fiction comes true, and movement history casts a clear shadow over the future, and the struggle against extractive capitalism continues, what will mobilize us past the tipping point of tuning in and out of this work?
At the end of a recent interview, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and climate person, appreciates the importance of folk heroes and charismatic leaders, but suggests that the time for this kind of hierarchy in our movements has passed. Rather, she says, we need everyone, doing decentralized, leader-ful organizing to meet the scale of the crisis ahead.
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I recently read Janelle Monáe’s book The Memory Librarian. It’s a collection of short stories building upon the dystopian society the self described singer/songwriter, actress, producer, fashion icon, and futurist built through their album Dirty Computer and its accompanying “emotion picture.” I’ve been a fandroid since 89.3 The Current broadcast Tightrope into the truck’s stereo on my drive to high school. Every time they come out with a new project I fall in love all over again with Janelle’s vision, artistic chops, and intellect. But the skill The Memory Librarian especially showcases is their incredible capacity as a collaborator and creative partner.
The Memory Librarian is a team effort, each of the novel’s five stories is co-authored with a different BIPOC and queer speculative fiction writers. Each of the stories stand alone but function as an ensemble to give profound depth to the world of Dirty Computer. The novel perfectly strikes the balancing act of a collaborative anthology: each story has a particular voice and style but their differences seem to grow naturally from the characters they focus on rather than seeming like fan-fiction, spin-off, or franchise. You can’t disentangle Monáe’s voice, style, or story from their collaborators and you wouldn’t want to. There is so much vision and depth to the text, and it grows so easily from the songs and videos of Dirty Computer, that it's like these stories were there from the beginning: they just needed these writing partnerships to spring forth.
These deep partnerships are everywhere in Janelle Monáe’s work, from the loving chorus on Big Boi’s Be Still, and the iconic Erykah Badu verse in Q.U.E.E.N., to the shout of KELLINDOOO— in Cold War, announcing their consistent collaborator’s guitar solo. Janelle’s practiced and flexible voice has a way of blending seamlessly with their collaborators, creating songs that don’t sound exactly like either artist but something completely different and greater than the sum of its parts. My favorite example of this is their collaboration with Of Montreal on the track Make The Bus, where you can barely tell when Monáe and Barnes trade lines because their voices are so indistinguishable. You can hear their style and voice shift again on the Prince feature Give ‘Em What They Love, and again on the Solange collab Electric Lady, where the two are so fully incorporated that all you can really pick out of Solange is her occasional punctuated “woo ooh”s.
Just from listening, you can see that Janelle Monáe’s collaborations go beyond asking someone to contribute a verse, they involve building an entire song together and in doing so building a comfortable, collaborative space and a loving relationship. One of my favorite moments where you can see this happening is in the promo video for Monáe and Kimbra’s tragically canceled Golden Electric tour. As the two artists, decked in black and white houndstooth, jam out to a medley of Rock Steady and and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Janelle tells Kimbra “you’re the star of the song,” which is just the kind of warm loving energy you want to hear from a collaborator you may just be getting to know. Kimbra is, of course, later immortalized as an “Electro Phi Betas Emeritus,” with other collaborators in the Electric Lady video.
There’s a scene in The Memory Librarian’s second story, a collaboration with Danny Lore, when Monáe’s avatar Jane 57821 aka Alice aka Cindi Mayweather is led to a cool cave filled with moist soil, soil that serves to ground them and restore erased memories. Reading The Memory Librarian showed me that Janelle’s collaborations aren’t just a part of their practice, they are the point. When Janelle started Wondaland Records it wasn’t to build an empire, but rather to uncover fertile ground for other artists to grow their work. Janelle Monáe is a true visionary, and as The Memory Librarian shows us, the more their community grows the clearer that vision becomes. I’ll close off with a quote from the Wondaland Arts Society wordpress, last updated in 2012 but speaks just as clearly today:
We have created our own state, our own republic. There is grass here. Grass sprouts from toilet seats, bookshelves, ceilings and floors. Grass makes us feel good. In this state, there are no laws, there is only music. Funk rules the spirit. And punk rules the courtrooms and marketplace. Period.