IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Alejandra Bottinelli
What were your first thoughts, when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?
The first thing I thought of was the process that my country, Chile, was going through, which has unravelled an impressive social revolt since October 2019, a time that occurred as a single event, and in which all the parameters with which we were used to observing the world became, from one moment to the next, outdated; incapable of naming what we were living and also starring in as a people. That was an apocalypse, I thought. A turning of the world, a "Pachakutik", as the Andean cultures say. And I thought just prior to that, that I had been thinking recurrently about the future: where was the future? Because before 18 October, which was when that Chilean insurrection began, we were waiting for Greta Thunberg to arrive, who was another guest at the climate summit in Santiago that same October. Greta was spreading the message that maybe we could have a future if we did something together, while, in antithesis, the extractive industries were eating up the villages often called “sacrifice zones” and the people in my country were mute. Until one day the people, first young students, then subsequently older people with poverty pensions, took to the streets and everything was "turned upside down".
And before that I had been thinking about whether or not we would have a future and what that future would be like. But I was thinking, or rather hoping, that this future would open up, because any future required a special crisis of the present...and it happened. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic. But for me the future was already open again as a collective project. So, when I saw the call for CAPAS, not only did I relive all those collective experiences of the Chilean revolt, but I also thought about how important it is to give ourselves the space to think about how we imagine our time and its transformation. And how prolific the figure of the apocalypse is in opening up this self-reflection.
What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you?
The apocalypse is, for me, above all, a figurative resource for thinking about the transformation of our world, and is therefore, at the same time, a call to think about our limits: the limits of our space/time, how we consider the present (and our genealogy, as we have discursively configured it, and how we have affectively experienced it), and how we project the future as a transformation of this state of affairs. Apocalypses presuppose an imagination about the time to come, about how human beings will arrive at the culminating moment of the upheaval of our world, and what it will be like in the aftermath. For my disciplinary field, the study of literary art and intellectual ideas and manifestations, both apocalypse and post-apocalypse are very strongly linked, in the first place, to the great eschatological discursivities consigned above all in religious thought, because they have very strongly shaped the symbolic dimension associated with the end of time. However, since we are dealing with writing in its aesthetic form, which involves the art of imagining other worlds and probing beneath the surface of the world (this "speleological" form of literature, we might say, of probing into the depths, into the "caves", into the unspeakable questions of our psyche), it happens that literature is increasingly playing with, subverting, and dislocating these grand narratives of the end. The study of literature can thus allow us to think about this beyond, this scene of the end and of crisis, and to imagine and discuss our own epistemological and cultural limits in order to think about this end. Recent, twenty-first century writings, in my opinion, are especially prolific for the/an end since they are playing on the paradox of a future that is happening today, just as we have begun to develop apocalyptic thinking in the current century.
Which questions is your fellowship addressing?
The questions I intend to address at this stage in the fellowship have to do with how the end appears in Latin American fiction. Particularly, I intend to look at the eschatological perspectives that emerge in contemporary writings related to the crisis of the present as a crisis of our environment (the discussion on the Anthropocene; on the pollution of our environments; on global warming), as a crisis of the spaces of development of human beings, especially in those places affected by dynamics of exception: the so-called zones of sacrifice, the borders and "non-places" (as Marc Augé says) of immigration; and in the margins impoverished and "discarded" by the territorial order of the states. I aim to explore how the crisis of the body is also expressed today, in pandemic form, as a crisis of our ways of relating to others in contexts of isolation, of confinement, of suspense and uncertainty about what is to come, in which the sense of loss of control over existence and the individual and common future is strengthened is also a crucial area of study. In particular, this situation in which we live constitutes the body itself as the first scene where the socio-health emergency is fought, with consequences not yet observed on a subjective and psychosocial level.
I am interested in the question of how this imagination of the end constitutes another way of imagining the body and affects in contemporaneity and how this occurs in a special scene which I call "the confines", on the periphery of our imaginary order, in spaces that we think of as borderline and marginalised. My main question then is how contemporary fictions of the last decade, staged in the confines and the periphery of the territory, imagine the end of the known world and its aftermath, from the body and the affects.
How does the fellowship project build on or connect to your previous career or biography?
A good part of my intellectual work has been done thinking about the question of crises, the crisis of early modernity, in the case of the end of the nineteenth century, and then the contemporary crisis; in the fictions of recent decades. But, above all, I have done this by trying to investigate the power of Latin American writing to illuminate the contradictions of the world, something like that "between-place" of which the Brazilian thinker Silviano Santiago spoke, in which peripheral literatures could be inscribed to illuminate the totality, and the metropolitan centre itself as such a centre, that is, to also place it in front of its colonial mirror. I have always been interested in thinking about and discussing the dynamics of cultural exchange which, from a Eurocentric and ethnocentric perspective, has disregarded Latin American creations as "second-degree" or residual, echoes or mimesis of the "original" source, which would always be displaced in Europe. Latin America has a polyphonic, and very broad, tradition of critical and transformative thought that can help to rethink our present, the crisis of our present, which is what has always interested me. That is why I study Latin American literary forms and how they represent the end.
What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?
Above all, I would like to listen to and exchange with other researchers, to learn about the research and reflections that colleagues from other areas of knowledge and from other countries are carrying out on this common theme of apocalypse and the end. I think that this is the most valuable thing in an experience like this, to get to know these perspectives and to be able to exchange views, theoretical and methodological approaches on the common theme that can modify our ways of seeing the problems. And, beyond that, to be able to constitute critical communities based on listening and empathy, and even, as Jacques Derrida said, on friendship and hospitality. Because I believe that knowledge is something that is produced in common, that is woven together, and that each person contributes his or her part, but which requires the meeting of many.
Regarding my project in particular, I would like to receive (and have already received!) the opinions and theoretical and methodological suggestions of my fellow students and colleagues at CAPAS. I am interested, for example, in how the social sciences and philosophy and the history of religions have constructed special perspectives on apocalypse and the end. What theoretical tools are informing these perspectives and how they interact with literary theory and Latin American critical thought.
Can you name the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?
First of all: paper and pencil, because it is necessary to document, produce, and safeguard the memory of the borderline experience and what it means for us, insignificant human beings, to have gone through the most terrible situations and then to be able to tell others about it; to tell, for example, what it is like to continue walking after the catastrophe. The second thing, of course, is a little bag with a variety of seeds from the world that was left behind, to help us to start again, but also to contain the memory of what helped us to live in that world, what nature itself created and provided us with for our life on earth. The third thing I suggest is to take souvenirs, small pieces of that world: canvases and photographs, and, of course, a book of poetry. Personally, I would choose the complete works of César Vallejo, a great Peruvian poet and one of the greatest in Latin America who also thought about the end, in connection to the great societal transformations but also to the "changes of the world" in personal experience.
Do you have recommendations for pop cultural items on (post-)apocalypses – whether it’s a book, a movie, a YouTube channel, a podcast or something else – one should definitely look at?
Of the recent series, I dare to recommend two that I liked a lot. The first is the South Korean "Kingdom" (2019), which is about zombies (a plague that turns people into zombies has hit the country) and is based on a comic book, but the plot is set in a vague ancient time of the Joseon dynasty, where the war between two dynasties unfolds, and I really liked it because apart from being highly entertaining, it brings up interesting discussions about ways of exercising power and conceptions of the collective. It is directed by Kim Seong-hun and Park In-je, who do a very good job of mixing the period setting with the end of the world and the zombie plot. Another one I recommend is a Brazilian post-apocalyptic series created by Pedro Aguilera for the web and premiered as a pilot on YouTube in 2011, and then jumped to streaming platforms and had its last broadcast in 2020, it's called "3%" and its plot is set in an uncertain future in which the environment has been devastated and society has been divided in two; on one side, the most massive, live those who are condemned to misery and pollution, and on the other, on an island in the sea, live those who can save themselves thanks to various tests they must pass to prove their worthiness to be one of those chosen to live in an idyllic paradise where only the best get to live. Both are very entertaining series; I can totally recommend these two series to approach the ideas about the end that circulate in and around our popular culture.