“Nothing could be worse than a return to normality,” the writer and environmental justice activist Arundhati Roy wrote in her almost immediately famous essay on COVID-19, in which she recognizes the pandemic as a “portal” that “offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves.” The doomsday machine Roy makes reference to includes a rapacious global capitalism, the neoliberal policies which stoke it, the colonial residues of racism, caste, and dispossession of Indigenous lands. Colonial modernity could be another name for this doomsday machine. Roy’s word “portal”—proposed in the early days COVID with the tempered enthusiasm we might understand as critical hope, is a figure of Transition, a figure shot through with complex structures of feeling. Throughout this talk, Stephanie LeMenager uses the term “Transition” to indicate the profound socio-economic shifts that our climate crisis demands. Transition also connotes a psychological or even spiritual atmosphere in the current US and other regions of the North where the hegemonies of liberal modernity and liberal humanism are shattering, where mainstream media channels are overwhelmed by the noise of populist propaganda, where humanities programs are questioning whether “humanities” disciplines can comprehend and adapt, toward decolonial thought, toward the ecological facts of a collapsing climate. Transition aesthetics evident in contemporary literature and art offer possibilities for living on within near, almost unrecognizable futures.
Stephanie LeMenager, Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor in English and American Literature and Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon
Response by Jennifer Wenzel, Professor of English and Comparative Literature and of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University
Chaired by Mingfang Ting, Lamont Research Professor at Columbia University
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