11 November 2021

Crisis, disaster and endings. These are recurrent themes in literature and art over the centuries. But since the turn of the millennium, something has happened. Apocalyptic books and films are appearing frequently and at an increasing pace, and some of them are taking on new forms. How do they depict a changing planet? Whose anxiety and stories are in focus? And what is going on with the language?

Jenny Ahlgren

Hurricanes and forest fires, floods and droughts, starvation, pandemics and extremism, poisonings and politics. We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and in response to this is a surging output of literature which in some way conveys a changing world.

“We see everything from zombie apocalypses to more delicate descriptions of climate change. In the last few decades, the genre of climate fiction has grown but we also have a lot of literature that, in more low-key or subtle ways, portrays a changed world. Climate change is seeping in everywhere”, says Jesper Olsson, professor of language and culture with a focus on literature. Photo credit Twentieth Century Fox

Many of the more Hollywood-style apocalypse and disaster depictions take the perspective of the white male. It is often his problems, stories and interpretations of humans’ relationship to the world that are at the fore. It’s his anxiety that is expressed, and it’s he who has to put things right on a planet that he destroyed, explains Jesper Olsson.

Literature with a different perspective

But this has changed; more recently Jesper Olsson’s research explores literature that takes a different perspective. For instance, literature that represents another type of person than the one who controls the world, that gives a new image of what is human, what constitutes a person, and how people can inhabit the planet together with other beings.

He focusses on how the literature of the last 50 years depicts the relationship between nature and culture, and especially how it investigates a long-established idea that humans are superior to nature. What happens when the boundaries between nature and culture begin to dissolve? When humans, nature, animals, organisms and machines become interwoven in ecologies, that is, networks of relationships.

“When a civilisation collapses, boundaries are erased; nature and culture melt together. This influences how people live, relate to their surroundings, view the world, speak and communicate.”

The language is affected 

And Jesper Olsson sees in his studies that it affects language in different ways. In some novels, the language becomes a theme and a part of the narrative, and the question of how language is affected by an environmental disaster is thematised. There are examples in literature where language becomes deadly, or where the spoken language is replaced by silence and other means of communication.

“Since antiquity, language has defined humans as cultural beings; our language has distinguished us from the animals. But in many of these novels, which aim to criticise anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are the centre of everything, language becomes somewhat problematic. It becomes a weapon, a threat, something that destroys.” 

In other cases the linguistic form of the novel is affected. Language is used playfully; new words are formed, words from different periods are mixed and a sort of hybrid language is created. Photo credit Hilding Mickelsson/Hälsinglands Museum

“When the world around us changes, our language changes too. This is necessary if we are to be able to understand the new world.”

Alternative ways to live in a changed world

Jesper Olsson’s research is part of a larger project that he manages together with colleagues from Stockholm University and Mid Sweden University. The project investigates how art and literature from different periods challenge the accepted view of humans’ role in the world, and presents alternative ways to live in a changed world.

The fundamental idea is that literature and art can provide us with a type of knowledge that differs from that given by science, numbers and diagrams.

“Today many people are affected by changes in the climate; they feel them on their skin. But for many others, the changes are still very abstract. Literature and art can present these changes in a way that enables us to experience and understand them more concretely and sensually”, says Jesper Olsson.

Translated by Martin Mirko

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