Beyond Good and Evil

Kinga Kiełczyńska, Courtesy of Infinity, 2021-2022, video HD, binaural sound. Courtesy of Exile Gallery | Find out more


Beyond Good and Evil

Elisabeth Strowick on Stories, Scenarios and Climate Change

What is the role of stories in this moment of imminent climate breakdown?

The answer you probably expect would be something like this: Stories make you reflect, they evoke empathy, they can motivate you, they make you act. And this might all be true, but it is not a good enough answer when it comes to literature, the arts, and the humanities.


The humanities analyze things in their complexity and, from there, gain new perspectives. Let’s analyze your question for a moment and ask what assumptions and what temporalities are underlying it. The notion of imminent climate breakdown is very much in line with the apocalyptic narrative which is the predominant metaphor when it comes to ecological discourse and global warming.

What are other temporalities within that context?

We anticipate that the climate breakdown will happen in the future. But things have been happening already or are happening right now. When it comes to the extinction of species and to the destruction of our planet, we must think in the temporality of the after. It has happened already. We are no longer in an apocalyptic mode, I would argue, but already in a post-apocalyptic mode.

Which is not good for drama.

Exactly. With global warming, we don’t have a dramatic event awaiting us. We can barely perceive the changes. That does not make for a suspenseful story. It spans long periods of time, at a different scale, beyond human time, human history. If you think of stories appropriate for addressing the problem of climate change then we would need to think of a different temporality and different narrative structures. It is very difficult to narrate uneventful events. Rob Nixon has coined the phrase “slow violence”—what is happening is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental.

Portrait of Elisabeth Strowick, Photo © Sabine Vielmo

We are no longer in an apocalyptic mode, I would argue, but already in a post-apocalyptic mode.

What kind of narrative structures would fit such a storyline?

Small forms work well or extremely large forms. Poetry is such a small form, and someone like Esther Kinsky can bring together the small and the large scale in a very dense place. There is no hero, no protagonist: that would miss the point. Another interesting example is the epos, extremely large narratives which exceed the history of mankind and go into the planetary, recalibrating the position of the human, who is not at the center of the story. Raoul Schrott’s Erste Erde is such an epos.

Is there a connection between storytelling and catastrophic events?

There is a specific genre linking storytelling and catastrophic events, which is the genre of the novella. Think, for example, of Boccaccio’s Decameron or Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (The Recreations of the German Emigrants). In both cases a group of people escapes a dangerous event, a catastrophe, in the Decameron it is the plague in Florence, in Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten it is the French Revolution. They are in a safe space and tell each other stories—this is the frame story; we have stories within the story and the frame protects the storytellers. This is no longer the case, I would argue, with respect to climate change. There is no safe space or safe frame for storytelling when it comes to global warming.

Do you have an example for that other narrative structure?

Adalbert Stifter is interesting in this regard, the most ecological author of German-language realism. In Stifter’s most famous collection of novellas, Bunte Steine, i.e., colored stones, the stones are included as a perspective; he includes geological time. Also, we don’t find a stable frame. In the first novella, “Granit,” the frame narrative and inner narrative transgress into one another. Stifter doesn’t give us suspenseful stories—he is well-known for the boredom of his texts, yet he opens up other spaces and other times. This could be the role of stories vis-à-vis global warming.

The human is no longer at the center.

How do positive and negative stories connect to the will to change things?

We need to move beyond the opposition of positive vs. negative. We should not conceive of anxiety or despair as negative affects but as analytical concepts which describe the human condition. As Kierkegaard, the “father of existentialism” and a big thinker on anxiety, pointed out: Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, the only way we have access to the world. Kierkegaard would say: Access to the world opens up infinite possibilities—the ethical task is to bring it back to finitude, into the everyday. It is in the everyday where change starts.

Your workshop at THE NEW INSTITUTE was focused on “Eco-Scenarios.” What is the difference between stories and scenarios?

Ecological relations cannot be represented as a narrative plot, or chain of events. The story of a protagonist acting in a certain way toward resolving a problem falls short of the spatial and temporal complexities of the Anthropocene. This is why I prefer to speak of scenarios. Without doubt, the most common notion of scenario in today’s uncertain world is “scenario planning” as a way to identify hypothetical sequences or developments of events. Scenarios are among the most important tools for modeling climate change. In its original sense, however, scenario—from the Latin scenarium—refers to a place where a stage is erected, a setting, or a scenic arrangement. Scenarios are thus always also production sites of visibility, a spatiotemporal arrangement. The workshop “Eco-Scenarios” mobilized the scenic for ecological thought, for exploring other scenes of the ecological with the help of the arts and humanities and, based on this, for developing models for ecological action and thinking about the future. The scenario recalibrates the position of the protagonist. We should rather talk about constellations, collective agencies, different agents, things. The human is no longer at the center.

Fredric Jameson famously said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—but is that still true?

Jameson also said that imagining the end of the world is an attempt to imagine capitalism. What is striking in this rhetoric of the end of the world is the emphasis on the future—I think this is the perfect formula for a denial of the present. Catastrophic scenarios of the future are used to preserve the status quo. I am much more interested in thinking of the after—the damage has been done. How, in acknowledging this, can we change the current form of the state or the current economic system.

We need to move beyond the opposition of positive versus negative.

How does that connect to what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—systems or events too big to see or comprehend? Like climate change? Like capitalism, in a way?

Timothy Morton characterizes “hyperobjects” based on their huge spatiotemporal dimensions. In reference to what I said about eco-scenarios, I would speak of “hyperscenes.” It is a matter of scale—some phenomena cannot be grasped by human perception. We need to think of the present along different scales. Some exceed our perception, human time, history. Some are connected to the everyday. These are incommensurable scales; this is the situation we find ourselves in. It is important to acknowledge the limit. This might be the first step to change the perspective, also to change our self-understanding. Freud talked about the three insults to the self-love of humanity: first Copernicus, then Darwin, then Freud himself and his concept of the unconscious—they all decentered the human. The Limits to Growth (1972) added another insult, an “ecological insult” that comprehends human beings as part of ecosystems whose times and spaces exceed human dimensions.

How can the arts help us understand this process?

Literature and art in general help to change our perspective, opening possible worlds. Literature doesn’t advise you directly in what you do, literature refers to other discourses—intervening in certain logics, temporalities, and ways of acting. The arts open new constellations of knowledge, discourses, institutions, communities, sectors in society, thus effecting ecological and sociopolitical change in an indirect way. Such change can be planned or anticipated only to a limited extent. But, specifically, this comprises change—a change that can only be generated by the arts and the humanities.

Can you complete this sentence: For me this is personal because . . .

. . . because the personal cannot be separated from the political.

Questions by Georg Diez


“Courtesy of Infinity (voices)” Video HD, binaural sound, 10.40 min., 2021-2022

The video takes as its starting point Alan Weisman's book "The World Without Us." It is a non-fiction book published in 2007 that explores what might happen to the natural and built environments if humans suddenly vanished. It is a slow meditation on material durability and the fragile balance of various ecosystems. According to Weisman, radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore would be among the most long-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth.

The video responds to it with a visual record of abandoned funfairs and shopping malls, the entrance to the Biosphere 2, a wrecked motorway, abandoned vehicles and a collection of pictures from a failed art project in the Colombian forest.

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