Gil Z. Hochberg, "“Jerusalem, We Have a Problem”: Larissa Sansour’s Sci-fi Trilogy and the Impetus of Dystopic Imagination," Arab Studies Journal XVI, no. 1 (Spring 2018)
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Gil Z. Hochberg (GZH): I have been following Larissa Sansour’s films for years now. I adore her sense of humor. With that being said, her more recent film trilogy (A Space Exodus 2008, Nation Estate 2012 and In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain, 2015) touched me on a whole different level. In addition to being, like her earlier films, smart, ironic, and well-executed, the trilogy is visionary and dystopian. I was already writing about dystopian novels when I saw the trilogy and realized it was not just aesthetically marvelous, it was also politically astute (especially in advancing a dark and realistic, yet somehow also hopeful vision of Palestine). The tension between hope and hopelessness, trauma and recovery, really intrigued me, and I wanted to think with the trilogy about the question of dystopia as an aesthetic form and a political modality for thinking critically about futurity and potentiality, especially when the present provides no substantial grounds for hope.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
GZH: My essay joins the few recent scholarly works on the de-colonial potentiality of third world science-fiction (sci-fi) dystopias. I discuss the globalization of sci-fi and the political potential sci-fi has for developing a postcolonial critical view of the present, as well as the past and the future. My engagement with Sansour’s work has been inspired partially by recent scholarship on African American speculative literature that highlights the radical political potential of black feminist sci-fi writers such as Octavia Butler and Phyllis Alesia Perry. Justin Louis Mann has described such writings as “pessimistic futurism,” suggesting it is a political view that maintains a pessimistic outlook of the present while leaving room to imagine a radically different future. I read Sansour’s trilogy in a similar way. Her work offers ways to move beyond the present and towards an uncertain future imagined in outer space—out of space. I suppose that in addition to the question of hope and hopelessness, my essay engages with the issues of temporality, memory, trauma, and imagination as a mode of recovery, but also with dystopia itself understood as a productive political intervention, not just the delusional home, or utopia.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
GZH: Over the past few years, I have become more interested in visual culture, particularly artistic films. I originally was trained as a comparative literature person, and worked on literary texts. I still love reading, but I find the visual and the cinematic form in particular to have so much power as a mode of representation that I find myself mostly writing about film and essay-films. My last book, Visual Occupations: Vision and Visuality: Violence and Visibility in a Conflict Zone (Duke, 2015), focused on the visual politics of the Israeli occupation and examined the ways vision, visibility, and invisibility function as main aspects of the Israeli military regime as well as the means through which Palestinians are able to partially redistribute political power. My current engagement with Sansour’s work is similarly tuned to questions of vision, visibility, and power, but the framework is different: I am not looking at everyday reality under military occupation, but at the fantastic and dystopian futuristic world such a reality generates.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
GZH: Naturally, I hope that as many readers as possible will read the article and that they will follow by viewing Sansour’s work. I wrote the essay hoping it will touch people. Essays about Palestinian artists and filmmakers tend to be read by a relatively small group of “usual suspects”: Palestinians, other people interested in Middle Eastern art, students of Middle Eastern studies. I really would like a broader readership. It would be great to have people who are interested in sci-fi, for example, read the essay, and also people who are interested in the broad and old question about the relationship between art and politics. It would be nice to be able to bring the discourse about Palestinian art and cinema into wider critical circles. I think Sansour deserves a wide as possible exposure.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
GZH: I am working on a book about memory and futurity. The book engages with art, film, and literature (primarily contemporary Palestinian works), and it and explores the role of archives, of memory, and the retelling of the past in setting a vision for a future that is both “post factual” and “post national” yet modeled on remembering rather than forgetting. Temporarily entitled: Becoming Palestine: Memory and the Politics of Citations, this book suggests (somewhat provocatively) that the future of both Israel and Palestine, which is inevitably the same future, is already here, not so much in the present but in the reworked past that is projected into a futurity found in the art works; One that, far from being nostalgic, does not speak of “coexistence” but of shared potentiality that is an outcome of necessity more than a choice or a right. I am still in early stages of the work and thinking through it as I write. I should really revisit this question later this year; I should have more to say by then.
J: What is your favorite sci-fi film/book?
GZH: The truth is, sci-fi is not my favorite genre. I have read and enjoyed Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Hall, and of course, Mary Shelley. I dislike mainstream sci-fi, especially Hollywood sci-fi films. They tend to be bombastic, simplistic, and overly didactic (bad versus good, us versus them). I get bored very quickly with depictions of hipper-technology or with stores about creators from another planet (all but ET, whom I love dearly!). What I really appreciate about Sansour’s sci-fi trilogy is that it carries on a critical and ironic dialogue with distinctly Hollywood sci-fi conventions; while at the same time it also advances a localized and specifically Palestinian anti-colonial dystopic poetics. I was glad and not quite surprised when I learned (after reading an interview) that Sansour does not like sci-fi herself. What makes her trilogy fascinating in this regard is the fact that it manages to operate within the recognizable world of sci-fi cinema, but at the same time it completely breaks away from conventional sci-fi grammar.
Excerpt from the article:
This essay engages closely with the sci-fi trilogy of the Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, which is comprised of the films A Space Exodus (2008), Nation Estate (2012), and In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2015). Sansour’s trilogy draws on familiar contemporary sci-fi aesthetics, relying on some distinctly Hollywood sci-fi conventions. Yet it also advances a specifically Palestinian anti-colonial dystopic poetics. Sansour’s experimental trilogy bears on the specific political context of the Question of Palestine (and of Palestine as a question). As such, the trilogy broadens our understandings of sci-fi dystopia as a mode of de-colonial artistic and political imagination. This is an urgent task, since criticism has almost exclusively focused on canonical European and North American works when making universal claims about the nature of sci-fi in general and that of sci-fi dystopias in particular. Sansour’s films help expand our understanding of dystopia and its growing global appeal, as well as the becoming of “world sci-fi” along the lines of “world literature” or “world cinema.” My engagement with Sansour’s sci-fi cinematic trilogy thus joins the few recent scholarly works on the de-colonial potentiality of third world sci-fi dystopias that challenges the genre as singularly Western.
Globalizing Sci-fi Dystopias:
Whether or not it can be said that we live in a dystopian time, dystopic- themed novels, films, art, and aesthetics have reached an all-time high in global saturation. Classical dystopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 4 51 have resurfaced as bestsellers in the United States since the election of Donald Trump, joining some of the most popular TV and film productions today: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-current), Divergent (2014), and The Hunger Games (2012).
Most critics have treated dystopia, especially sci-fi dystopia, as a Western European and North American genre, effectively implicating it in the history of colonialism, Western imperialism, and Western racial paranoia. Yet the current worldwide abundance of literary sci-fi dystopias, including recently published works from international (“third world”) writers such as Boualem Sansal’s 2084 : La Fin Du Monde (Algeria, 2015), Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (Egypt, 2016), Michelle Pretorius’s The Monster’s Daughter (South Africa, 2016), and Yishai Sarid’s The Third (Israel, 2015), to mention but a few, suggests that the genre has been de-westernized, decolonized (if partially), and indeed globalized.
Why the current global fascination with sci-fi dystopias? The ease with which dark futurism and dystopic imagination circulate these days may indicate the genre’s potential for raising awareness of our planetary existence and shared destiny. The globalization of dystopias, especially in their sci-fi variations, could function as “an opportunity to begin to think about who we are becoming as a planet.” Perhaps such a sensitivity would lead to upheaval in the national, ethnic, territorial, or racial agendas that have dominated political thought, identity formation, and living priorities for centuries, and their replacement with globally shared environmental planetary concerns. On the other hand, dystopian imagination, particularly in its sci-fi techno-futuristic aesthetic manifestations, tends to recreate a fixed, fascist visual syntax. Uniforms, weapons, machinery, and militarism replace human psychology and social relationships with coded social roles, sterile environments, and a predetermined set of behavior regulations. Moreover, as Noah Berlatsky suggests, most recent sci-fi dystopian films and fiction center on a traditional opposition: what “they”—an evil, foreign civilization, invaders—are doing to “us”—the good, innocent ones, whose integrity must be maintained by all means. In other words, even in the postcolonial context, the colonial legacy “remains central to science fiction,” shaping its form and logic, and is “more tightly bound with our political life and public culture than we sometimes like to think.” A sci-fi dystopic imagination replaces tired humanism with post-humanism, individualism with mass conformism, and modernism with hyper-technology. It also tends to abandon narratives of recovery and emancipation, which are themselves, as Frederic Jameson reminds us, often narratives of exclusion. Instead, the sci-fi dystopic imagi- nation offers narratives of ongoing colonial, imperial, and violent threat. It is perhaps these less promising formal aesthetic and political aspects that Susan Sontag warns us against when she writes, “there is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films.”
In line with Berlatsky’s argument about the ongoing legacy of colonial- ism’s Manichean and paranoid thinking in sci-fi dystopias, even postcolonial ones, fear of the other and of invasion and contamination is indeed at the heart of the many cinematic dystopias over the last decade. These include Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013), Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson, 2016), Attack the Block (Jo Cornish, 2011), or District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009). Such films are staged as critiques of historical colonialism and racism, and yet, even as such, they are committed to the classical paranoid sci-fi modality. But it is precisely the genre’s undeniable colonial legacy, as well as its familiar and often simplistic symbolisms, that make it available to a practice of ironic citation of the genre’s visually seductive elements. This citation overcomes sci-fi’s political limitations through ironic misquotations and misplaced iconography. In other words, I am suggesting that it is the ironic politics of citation that both critiques the genre and upends it for radical use.
Writing about the use of sci-fi in African American literature, art, and pop culture in his groundbreaking essay from 1993, “Black to the Future,” Mark Dery notes that the future, and specifically “space,” became opportuni- ties through which African Americans asserted themselves artistically. These artists may have been robbed of their past and present, but they neverthe- less “intend to stake their claim in the future.” More recent scholarship on African American speculative literature highlights the radical political potential of black feminist sci-fi writers such as Octavia Butler and Phyllis Alesia Perry. Sami Schalk suggests that for marginalized people, sci-fi can mean imagining a future without racial, gender, and sexual oppression. But this imagination is not always utopian. More often it advances what Justin Louis Mann has called a “pessimistic futurism,” one that maintains a pessimistic view of the present while leaving room to imagine a radically different future. In a similar way, Sansour’s investment in fantasy, space, and high techno-futuristic sites offers ways to move beyond the present and the past, nostalgia, oppression, the state, and perhaps even beyond the ques- tion of return as a legal question about safeguarding the historical rights of refugees. The “beyond” Sansour offers takes us into an uncertain future imagined in outer space—out of space—where the question of Palestine is posed in a futuristic post-factual and post-national time of becoming.