In Deep State (2012-2014), Karen Mirza's and Brad Butler's mesmerizing video installation meditating on surveillance and mass protest, the voiceover calmly intones that the law is currently being upheld by hired muscle and corporate bully boys, and has nothing to do with justice. Real power, the film suggests, resides in a "shadowy network of special interests", where fundamental decisions are made. Under such conditions, structural political change – which would include a meaningful response to environmental crisis and substantial dismantling of the global surveillance apparatus – is impossible.
Deep State forms part of Science Fiction: New Death, an exhibition in Liverpool's FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology). The exhibition as a whole is "based on new writing" by novelist China Miéville, author of The City & the City (2010), a book I admire enormously. Science Fiction: New Death offers a compelling and heartening example of how literary fiction finds new ways to insist on its relevance to wider contemporary engagements.
At last month's Keats Foundation conference at Keats House, Hampstead ("John Keats and his Circle", 2-4 May 2014), I gave a paper on Keats and surveillance, "Keats in Three Crowds". In it, I explored how anxieties about face recognition – about being a face in a (protesting) crowd – worried writers in 1819. I suggested that Keats's ode "To Autumn" has a deep interest in Romantic surveillance ("who hath not seen thee ..."), and responds to a day of mass protest in London on 13 September 1819, six days before the poem's composition, when radical politician Henry "Orator" Hunt paraded through the city, watched by throngs of 300,000 people.
Hunt was on his way to stand trial for high treason for speaking at Peterloo the previous month. His demands then included lower bread prices and more just distribution of the country's wealth and resources – a more sustainable set of social relations, in fact. On Thursday, 29 May, I’ll be speaking on sustainability at the Telegraph Hay Festival with Jayne Archer, Jane Davidson, Adeline Putra-Johns and Richard Kerridge. My interest in sustainability derives from a collaborative project on literature and food with literary scholar Jayne Archer and plant scientist Howard “Sid” Thomas. I'm pleased to report our project has just reached a new milestone with the delivery to the publishers of our co-authored book, Food and the Literary Imagination.
The aim of the book is to show how literature of the past connected bodily with the materiality of agricultural process, with food supply, security and contamination. What might look to us now like sentimental portrayals of worked land and water – in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s King Lear, John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” and Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss – actually encode a nexus of economic and social conditions with much to tell us about our own relation to resources and sustainable practice. In other words, a deep, collaborative engagement between the arts and sciences focused on historical literature can help us to (re-)imagine and cultivate precisely those “other forms of living” explored in Science Fiction: A New Death.
In Liverpool yesterday, as I moved through the strange chambers and futuristic corridors constructed for Science Fiction: New Death, I found myself becoming increasingly aware of the synergies between current work on sustainability and surveillance. The connections were perhaps most apparent in Jae Rhim Lee’s astonishing installation Infinity Burial Suit, which imagines future burial suits laced with a new strain of mushroom that decomposes and mediates the toxins found in human tissue. In the context of the presiding role of China Miéville's fiction at the FACT exhibition, Lee's work was further confirmation of how art in conjunction with technology retains its unique capacity to “cultivate other forms of living” through oblique, imaginative interventions. Contemporary literature of all ages has always claimed for itself a shaping, consolidating role in responding to the most pressing, seemingly intractable, challenges of the day. More of this in Hay on Thursday …