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Italian philosopher & activist Lorenzo Marsili exposes what we can learn from Chinese sci-fi renaissance

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Author : Lorenzo Marsili

Lorenzo Marsili is a philosopher and activist. He is the author of “Il terzio spazio. Oltre establishment e populismo” (Laterza, 2017, with Yanis Varoufakis) and “Citizens of Nowhere. How Europe Can Be Saved from Itself” (Zed Books, forthcoming, with Niccolo Milanese). He is the founder of the European Alternatives NGO and of the Transeuropa festival, and one of the original members of DiEM 25.

Chinese literature has been taken by storm by an expected science fiction boom, as the country becomes one of the most inspiring literary factories of imaginary futures. This should perhaps come as little surprise: no country is experiencing a historical acceleration as powerful as China’s. In the span of a few decades the country has moved from rags to riches, from peripheral status to the one true challenger to US hegemony, and from producer of cheap goods to leader in artificial intelligence and automation. Such a powerful inclination forwards translates into a strong presence of the future in everyday perception. And as social norms and customs morph as rapidly as the skyline of Chinese cities, the cultural world embarks on a space odyssey of speculative imagination.

Europe has long experienced the close interrelation between cultural, political and economic reality. Indeed, the very first cultural “crisis” of the continent was informed by a dynamic at once identical and yet opposite in direction to that driving contemporary Chinese obsessions with sci-fi. The memorable words pronounced by Paul Valery following the butchery of World War One “we have discovered that civilisations, too, are mortal” remain as the strongest testament to what would be called “the crisis of European civilisation” or “the crisis of the spirit“: a period of mourning, disorientation and spasmodic search for new directions that informed much of the cultural production of the 1920s.

As we now know, the cultural crisis of that age was but the mirror image of the crisis of European sovereignty. As Europe emerged with broken bones from WWI it found itself suddenly provincialised, with its world mastery challenged by American capitalism and by a new spirit of independence spreading in the colonial world. And just like China’s sci-fi renaissance is today the other side of the coin of the country’s global projection, so was the crisis of European culture but the other side of the political decay of the old continent.

Where are we today? Somewhere between Valery’s depression and Beijing’s spaceships. On the one hand, a decade of never-ending European crises and a rapid decline and provincialisation of the West are leading to a resurgence of apocalyptic thinking. From cinema to literature, from Netflix to philosophy departments, a new, dystopian discourse of the end takes its place in the mainstream.

Paraphrasing a famous line from Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Western supremacy.

And yet, beyond the global gloom enshrined by the rise of new, petty, impotent nationalisms everywhere, never has the future been as present in our lives as it is today. We know that we are thrown into a furious technological transformation that is reshaping our lives and common sense. We know, above all, that our political, economic and cultural model is tragically obsolete, and we see it melting in front of our very eyes. We know that the only unreal utopia is to imagine that everything will remain as it is.

History has suddenly returned, with a vengeance.

Torn between past and the future, between gloom and boom, there are at least two reasons why a new cultural renaissance is our generation’s best hope for taking back control of the future.The first has to do with Europe. As I am writing these lines a lukewarm European election campaign is about to end. Not only has culture, understood as cultural policy, been mostly absent from the debate, bar a few important proposals such as those of Charta2020. But culture understood as a continent’s projection towards a possible future has been absent. There is a dramatic gap between a world in impetuous transformation and the timid, uninspiring vision offered by evening talk shows. It is as if our debates were stuck on present time, unable or unwilling to think the long-term, the visionary and the utopian. And yet we know full well that Europe will only survive – indeed, that Europe will only be worth saving – if it manages to become an instrument for the transformation of our world. And so, we dramatically need a kind of new European sci-fi: the full engagement of our cultural energies in providing a compelling vision of the future possibilities of the continent. With a politics flattened out on the short-term and the immediately achievable, on the uninspiring and on the ultimately meaningless, this is the right time for a continent-wide cultural conversation on future Europe.

The second has to do with the world. Western universalism, chained to the economic vision of neoliberal globalisation, is falling apart before our very eyes. This is the moment to open a genuine world conversation about our common future. Yet, if we look at the organisation of discourse we are confronted with a system left years behind: groups of Western think tanks that perpetuate the ideas of yesterday; a press prey to a national logic that transforms even the most prestigious newspapers in petty regional press; a very limited cultural engagement between the West and the rest. The future of humanity will depend in no small measure on the conversations that are taking place in the bars, universities, art galleries and factories of China, India, Indonesia and beyond. And yet all this remains resolutely at the corner of our public debates. It is high time to change that. And precisely Europe, the birthplace of nationalism, could be best suited to invest its resources in opening up such a global cultural conversation.

Liu Cixin‘s Wandering Earth tells the story of a collective effort by humanity to move planet earth away from a dying solar system and into another galaxy. Differently from Western capitalist-dystopian narrations of a privileged few escaping the planet, this is a story of a common humanity reacting to a common challenge. As we face very immediate, and entirely non-fictional, planetary challenges today, the time is ripe to open up a powerful transnational cultural conversation on our common future

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