Interview conversation with Nina Lykke

Interview conducted on April 26th, 2020 | Utrecht-Odense

“I think that [we need] all the tools related to creative, poetry, arts inspired methodologies, or arts based methodologies, poetry based methodologies, wonder based methodologies […] Wonder can for example also be used vis á vis the sciences, instead of thinking for example in terms of either combating the virus or using the virus for bioscientific purposes (a utilitarian use of the virus as e.g. in bio-sensors). Science is very much pending between these two poles: combating, so called “combating”, for example virus, or thinking in utilitarian ways about it. And the thing is that we would need a lot more wonder in science going beyond these two poles. This would entail thinking for example the virus not either as an enemy or as something useful, but as something else.”


MG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our first interview in the Breathable Futures Today project. I’m Magdalena Górska, and I’m your companion here. And it is my pleasure to have this first interview together with Nina Lykke.

Nina Lykke is a Professor Emerita at the Unit of Gender Studies at Linköping University in Sweden. She specializes in interdisciplinary research with a broad feminist scope of thinking, which I find extremely inspirational and which is definitely constitutive of my own research. Nina’s research is very versatile. But what I would like to highlight right now is her current research, which focuses on the questions of queer widowhood, cancer cultures, dying and mourning – which I think is extremely important right now, well, all of those topics are important, but this one, I think, resonates with many of us now – and autophenomenographic writing and poetic writing, which I personally learn a lot from and get inspired from. Nina and I have also a longstanding relationship, Nina was my supervisor and a mentor. And I’m so grateful to have a chance to learn from you Nina. So, thank you for that.

And I think the last thing I want to say with this introduction is that on your website you say that you think of Feminist Studies as being between cruel optimism and everyday utopia. And I thought this is so fitting for what we are doing in this project right now. Because, of course, in the difficult moment we are in today – when so many people are suffering from the consequences of coronavirus either in their own bodies or in their families, who lose jobs, whose livelihoods are being lost because of this economic shutdown and so on – it almost feels very cruel to be hopeful and to be optimistic. At the same time, I think, without everyday utopias and without trying to imagine worlds otherwise it’s very difficult to keep on going. On top of it, I think, we don’t actually have the option not to develop utopias right now because this moment is a moment of transformation in society and culture. And it will change. It will lead somewhere. And the question is, who is in control, so to speak. And of course, as I said also in the introduction, it is the people who are close to power who have the biggest chances of making the change. And it’s very terrifying for me to think what kind of change it can be in relation to totalitarian tendencies I’m seeing all around the Netherlands, but also globally in the news. So, I think this kind of cruel optimism and everyday utopia could be a really nice moment for us to start this interview.

So once again, thank you for joining me for this interview. And let’s just get started.

NL: Thanks so much, Magda, for inviting me to this fantastic, inspirational project. I think breathable futures today is more important than ever, even if it has been important for a long time. But I think today, it’s even more crucial to really mobilize a lot of alternative forces, ideas and creativity so that we can breathe. So, thank you so much for a very generous introduction and let’s get started.

MG: OK. So, I was thinking we could start from some of the questions I outlined in the introduction, which I posted yesterday on the website. And I was thinking of starting from the space of the portal or portals, as I also tried to point out. Because I think maybe there are more portals than one, according to specific geo-political, economic and social situation that we have in the world. So, I was wondering, does this notion resonate with you or would you be critical to it? Or how do you actually experience the current situation and how do you feel you would like to position yourself in relation to it as a queer feminist, critical, optimistic and hopeful scholar?

NL: I listened to Arundhati Roy and she was, of course, the one bringing up the metaphor of the portal and inviting us all to look at the current crisis or crises – I mean, there’s not only one, there are many crises – as a portal. And I like the invitation. And I also think that to put “portals” in the plural is a very good idea. I mean, obviously, there is a health crisis but this health crisis is also mixed with all the other crises: the environmental crisis, the social justice crisis, the economic crisis, the crisis of the right wing rising, authoritarian systems, etc. I think that the corona crisis is somehow, well, it’s intra-acting, I would say, with all these other crises. And perhaps using the corona crisis as portal, and the fact that, we have some kind of feeling of everybody being hit by the same thing, even though it has tons of different, different, different, different, different consequences, whether or not you live a privileged life where you have a house or a flat where you can protect yourself from the virus, or whether you are in a refugee camp, or whether you are in a slum, or whether you are cramped together with other people. So, of course, it hits so very differently. But perhaps, I hope – and I would follow Arundhati Roy in this, – it can be a portal for thinking differently, acting differently, creating new ideas.

MG: Yeah, I think we really need to. I don’t think we have an option not to engage with the current situation. Of course, it’s a very difficult way of doing it. And that’s, I think, why I also like her idea of the luggage we bring with us. Not to kind of reinvent the wheel anew, or think that this situation is so exceptional right now. But we have a huge tradition of critical feminist, anti-racist and post-colonial thinking, which we can build on in order to imagine this world differently. And imagine also, or not imagine but understand, that difference in our shared situation. It’s like breathing. We all breathe universally, but we also all breathe specifically in different relation to our situatedness in our relations and in our bodies. And this is exactly the same case for me in the way how we can think the portal, and in the way how we can think what kind of luggage we need to bring, because I think we all would bring maybe slightly different luggage. And I think this is exactly what is so important about it. I think we cannot look for approaches which are totalizing or homogenizing in any way. We need this difference of different luggages and different sizes of luggages. And sometimes we can also help each other carry our different luggage. But I like this kind of metaphor because we need this kind of tradition. We need this kind of luggage. We need to learn from each other in the present, but also from the past. And, so, I wonder also what would you think is an important luggage for you to take with you if we are really walking through a portal now?

NL: I was very impressed by the way Arundhati Roy and Imani Perry (2020), the interviewer, used the luggage metaphor. And I like a lot that Arundhati Roy talked about traveling light.

MG: Yes.

NL: Roy and Perry discussed that it’s actually the rich people, the privileged people who always have enormous amounts of luggage, who are traveling around with enormous amount of luggage. They’re not carrying it themselves. They have other people carrying it for them. But, having things and things and things to carry around… also in the sense of the learnedness traditions that we’re in, the whole history of philosophy, Western white philosophy, of course, etc. So, there are so many luggages. Heavy, heavy luggages. The whole capitalism, the whole economic system, the stock market. There are so many heavy, heavy, heavy luggages.

Whereas the poor people do not have that kind of enormous amounts of things to carry on with. And I somehow… I liked that exchange a lot. And I think it might perhaps be an invitation also to really think through what kind of luggages – and in my case as an intellectual – what kind of thinking tools – do we really need. And try to, bring those thinking tools that are really needed with us.

These are not necessarily thinking tools that have been invented today or yesterday. I think there are a lot of thinking tools that have been invented over the years, throughout the years. I think that indigenous cosmology, indigenous philosophies that have been used and used and used over thousands and thousands of years, carry a lot of fantastic thinking tools that we need to acknowledge. I also think that – thinking in a more posthuman vein – that the plants, the animals, even the virus are sort of carrying a lot of useful thinking tools, which – normally in the Western philosophical tradition – are not thought of as thinking tools but called “nature” or something like that. But they actually are thinking tools. So, I think there are so many thinking tools out there. And in that sense, I would like to also follow Donna Haraway talking about making kin amongst vulnerable bodies and asking which kind of thinking tools do we actually need to make kin and to care for each other as vulnerable bodies, human and non-human. These are the kinds of thinking tools I would like to take with me through the portal.

MG: Yes. And I think it’s, of course, a difficult question – to decide what tools would I like to take? Because there are so many – as we talked about it – so many different traditions. And of course, there are some which are more helpful and some which are more toxic. When we think, for example, about colonial foundations of the structures of university and university thinking – which is something which we both are embedded in to some degree – I wonder, if we also have to choose the luggage right now, or if we can keep on changing or exchanging tools as we go. Because I love as well how Roy talked about traveling light. And I think this metaphor makes sense, especially when you have to choose very carefully what you can take with you in order to be able to carry it through. You have to choose what is vital, so to speak. Vital for your survival, for your politics, for the goals you have, or for the pressures you respond to, so to speak. And I wonder, how do we even make this kind of choice? So, on the one hand, there are clear things which we might want to leave behind. As I said, for example, the colonial heritage of academic thinking. And there are also so many things which we can learn from, as you pointed out. But how do you choose what specific tools you would take? Maybe this is too narrow question? Maybe I’m narrowing it down too much? But I wonder… If we wanted to really make some kind of intervention in the long run, what would be the things you would pick up conceptually now?

NL: I really believe in situated knowledges and therefore also in situated tools. And I know that you do too. And therefore, also in terms of going through the portal and what each of us would take with us… there are a lot of different tools we could be taking through the portal because each of us, who would like to go there, is somehow taking different tools. Right now, I think I would… And even that might be different at different times. I mean, having the age that I have, and somehow having been an activist as part of the left and the feminist left since the 1970s, I’ve actually been through a lot of different tools. And at different times I have considered different tools important, – and at different times different tools were really important. And later on, I found out, OK, there were still some problems with these tools, etc. Which does not mean that I believe in some kind of a linear, progressive thinking as I do think that there are a lot of old tools that are useful as well.

But thinking about tools right now, I think that all the tools related to creative, poetry, arts inspired methodologies, or arts based methodologies, poetry based methodologies, wonder based methodologies are that which actually could be used not only where they are located – through the compartmentalization of the way that a lot of scholarly work is working, implying for example that art should be confined to the compartment of the arts and humanities. – Wonder can for example also be used vis á vis the sciences, instead of thinking for example in terms of either combating the virus or using the virus for bioscientific purposes (a utilitarian use of the virus as e.g. in bio-sensors). Science is very much pending between these two poles: combating, so called “combating”, for example virus, or thinking in utilitarian ways about it. And the thing is that we would need a lot more wonder in science going beyond these two poles. This would entail thinking for example the virus not either as an enemy or as something useful, but as something else.

I’m very fascinated by the novel Dawn by Octavia Butler (1987), the black feminist science fiction writer – the novel is from the nineteen eighties – where Butler is actually, in a sci-fi setting, talking about cancer as a talent. The curator and artist Camila Marambio – and you know Camila and she is also going to be part of the interview series – and I, we’re working on a book called Sandcastles, autophenomenographically portraying our relationship with cancer. Camila had cancer several years ago now, and my beloved life-partner died from cancer. I think, we were both very struck by thinking of cancer as a talent, and that was what Octavia Butler actually presented in this novel. This is a totally, wow!, can you think about cancer as a talent?! Can you think about corona virus as a talent? Can you learn something from the corona virus? Can we learn something from cancer? This is what I would somehow give as example to illustrate what I mean by posing wondering questions and using wonder and also more poetry-based and art-based approaches, also in the sciences.

MG: I so resonate with you about that. And I think, for me personally, using creative writing has been a big tool for understanding a lot of questions I ask myself in my own research. And I think there is so much more, which can be done with those tools which you describe. I wonder, you said that if we think of the virus or cancer as something which we can learn from, what are you learning right now? Or what are the wonders it shows you? What questions does it open up for you?

NL: The virus?

MG: Yeah.

NL: I mean, of course, it’s very difficult to speak about the virus as something hopeful when it actually is right now, in this very moment, killing a lot of people out there, and is producing or making a lot of the social problems – that were there already – even worse. So, in that sense, the fact that the virus is all over the planet right now is actually producing a lot of pain, a lot of injustice, a lot of… Yeah. So, in that sense, it’s, of course, difficult to say anything positive about it, about the corona virus.

However, I do think it’s important also to think about that: it’s not the agency of the virus that caused the mess of the planet.

MG: Yes.

NL: Definitely not. Let me take another example: I’ve also been working on algae and the rhetoric about harmful algal blooms (Lykke 2019). These blooms are, of course, sometimes a big problem for a lot of other animals, plants, seaweed, etc… And then we talk about “harmful algal blooms”, and we somehow blame the algae for what’s happening. And I think it’s so very important to not take the blame off the shoulders of capitalism and colonial power etc. It’s not the agency of the virus that created this mess. So therefore, the corona virus is not responsible for climate change, etc. Capitalist production, ways of capitalist production, has produced this mess. So, in that sense, I still think that it is important to look differently at the virus.

I’m definitely not a virologist. So … well… to think with the virus instead of thinking against the virus would for me require more knowledge than I have at the moment. And I would like to get more knowledge on this… But, for now, I do think that there are strangely positive things coming out of the present situation. Among others, that the earth is getting a breath. I wrote a small story called “The bat, the pangolin, and the virus” – about three creatures who conspired to give this world a breath. And… I do think that it’s very interesting that the CO2 emissions, stemming from flying and from these hyper mobile lifestyles, on which our whole system of production, including intellectual production, are very much based – just stopped.

MG: It was surprisingly easy to stop.

NL: Yeah, activists, environmental activists, have been arguing, arguing, arguing [for decades and to no effect] … And now, after one week in March, nobody was flying at all. I mean, everywhere in the world flying stopped. Airports closed down. And, I think, it is really interesting to see is that it actually could happen in such a fast way.

MG: And so easily. Right?

NL: So easily, just from one day to the next.

MG: And it’s not easy in a sense that it’s not painful, of course. It is hard for people who cannot go to work and so on, and for people whose livelihoods depend on this type of industry. But that’s exactly one of the reasons why this idea of a portal has been so interesting for me. Because things which felt like they were impossible, like they would never happen – especially, you know, for people like you and I who are kind of constantly thinking about how the world can be changed, how it can be transformed, because we see the inequalities which are happening, including the environmental injustice and its consequences – things we’ve been talking about, trying to think about differently and trying to imagine futures otherwise have been completely impossible in our past. And now with one decision of governments, some things which, as you said, were unimaginable are imaginable. And this is exactly the moment of accountability, which I think we also need to ask for. That’s why we cannot let go of this future which is ahead of us. And just follow how things develop or go back to the “business as usual,” so to speak, although I don’t think there will be a “business as usual.” But let’s see, of course. But this is exactly the reason why I think we need to have these difficult conversations where we can also allow ourselves to sometimes also be wrong, or make hypotheses without feeling like we need to have the right solutions or the right tools, which we are bringing with us, because we will need to modify those tools. We will need to change them. We will need to exchange them – in relation to our positionalities different tools can work differently in different contexts. And I think we need all of that precisely in order to be able to also see and act in the situation where things which were impossible are possible.

And I think that also relates to what you said about the role of the virus. Because the mentality and the discourse in the media and, I think, in society – although I can speak only to the Dutch context, of course, where I am situated right now – is a war on the virus, a war on something which attacked us, our bodies, our loved ones, our livelihoods, and we need to protect ourselves from it. This whole discourse of warfare is so extremely problematic. And as you said about not blaming the virus, but actually blaming the social structures that actually enabled those inequalities in the first place – it’s not like those inequalities weren’t there. Certain populations are hit by the virus stronger than others, some jobs are more volatile than others, there are so many people working temporary jobs or low wage jobs. All of this has been there before. As you said as well, it has been heightened now through the virus. So, actually, the accountability shouldn’t be with the virus. That accountability should be with the social structures within which we were embedded already before.

So, if we want to change something, we need to change those structures. And of course, it’s kind of like a “butterfly effect” in the sense that, you know, it’s very easy to say, well, we need to stop, you know, mass production based on cheap labor. But if we stop it completely then of course, a lot of people lose jobs and livelihoods. So, I think we need to ask the bigger questions about kind of global restructuration… Because if we like it or not, globalization happened and it made all of us connected [even though we have been connected also before globalization, in a different manner, e.g. planetary breathing]. So, we can really think very carefully through this butterfly effect, that we don’t try to only start to develop some kind of politics of focusing on one’s own needs without realizing that our needs have consequences for livelihoods of other people. And this is this moment of accountability which virus actually teaches us about. Right?

NL: And an interesting thing, in relation to this discussion about the “blame it on the virus,” and this whole war metaphoric, which has also been very harmful is, the parallel to the rhetorics and understanding of cancer. The “war on cancer” is somehow the classic “war” on a disease. And I think that this whole war metaphoric is very harmful in many ways. 

But what I actually wanted to say is that I have also been thinking about the ways in which the current situation illustrates potentials of collective action – true collective action with somehow well thought through social justice perspectives – what such collective action could make possible, also in a situation of pandemic like this. There are countries, and I happen to live in a country that is… – I mean, not that it’s perfect in any way, but still… everything was closed down very quickly here in Denmark – and we have pretty few Covid-19-deaths, and now Denmark is starting to open up again. I do think the process is somehow illustrating the potentials of a collective action – because it is not only experts but also all parties from right to left that were behind it, as well as the really huge majority of the population, from right to left, from young to old etc., has actually been behind what has been going on and taken it very seriously. And I think it’s also some kind of a learning process. And I think, also a lot of the leftist parties – that are somehow up my alley, – also people in these parties have been very surprised about what was actually possible in terms of actually through a collective action, make a change. Of course, this is an enormously small change when seen in the big picture of the world’s problems, and Denmark is still a capitalist and very unequal society. So that hasn’t changed.

But still… The response to the pandemic here showed that it is possible to do something collectively about a problem. In that sense, I also think that the situation demonstrates not only the possibility of closing down of the airports and stopping flying globally but it also shows that through a collective action – I mean, if we consider this small Danish example as some kind of prism for what could be possible socially if there actually were a collective effort, a collective action – a lot of things could actually be done. And I think that the pandemic is also somehow showing that in some countries… also New Zealand, for example, has managed the virus situation well… and of course, both Denmark and New Zealand are countries that are pretty well-off countries etc., having a big white middle class etc… Still, I think it’s interesting to look at what is potentially possible through collective action.

MG: And I really like how you say that it’s about collective planetary action. And I have kind of ambivalent feeling about it. Because on the one hand, I agree with you in a sense that I think we need a collective planetary action in order to be able to change anything. But I also worry about who is in power. And I also worry about… I think we need our critical tool box in order not to also easily buy into ideologies which could actually lead to more homogenization, more totalitarian ways of thinking. And on the one hand, I have hope in this collectivity as a way of doing things differently. I think that’s something which we have been working on for decades within a critical feminist, queer thinking. But on yet another hand, there’s always this kind of… when I see kind of mass mobilization, – maybe it’s my also, you know, Polish and Czech upbringing in that sense – when I see mass mobilization of a population, it always makes me wonder what kind of ideologies people see as justifiable in order to follow them if they come from the top down. It makes me very scared to think about how this could also lead to very clear policing, very clear ways of, you know, discriminating people all over again on the basis of the old structures, but also on the basis of new structures. For example, I’ve been reading the article this morning which was talking about how racism in China against people from the African continent has been not necessarily spiking, but made again much more visible. It’s about this… almost… “virus as a microscope” itself, which is kind of showing us the structures which we’ve been trying to hide or ignore for so long. And so. On the one hand, I want to believe in this planetary collective action and collaboration and at the same there is something in me which really worries about that. How do you deal with this question?

NL: I definitely, definitely, definitely agree with you. But there are so many dangers in terms of having a collective action. It can so very easily be hijacked by powerful ideologies, powerful business interests, powerful religious interests, etc., and that has been happening so many times throughout history. I think of all the histories of revolutions which have actually sparked a lot of hope, in a lot of people, in collective action. You’re mentioning your Polish-Czech upbringing and connection, which, of course, brings the whole issue about Stalinism and communist dictatorship back. And you’re mentioning China, which brings up the whole issue of Maoism. So, I think that collective action, and revolution is somehow very tricky – the history of revolutions since the start of modernity is a very sad history about collective action being hijacked by people representing different kinds of economic, political, religious, fundamentalist thinking (I’m also thinking about nazism here, etc.). I mean, collective action is really very easily being highjacked. And it’s so very, so very, very, very sad to see how collective action has more or less always been highjacked. I was a socialist in the 1970s. And somehow, I still am. And I think it’s interesting that in the wake of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the US, that some kind of socialist revival has actually been happening. But I have a lot of doubts about socialism because it actually has… well, obviously had the problems of being hijacked – I mean, look at Stalin, Mao, and the government in China today, etc. So, I think that there are so many problems.

So, in that sense, I do not really believe in this kind of overall systems. I much more hope that change can happen in diverse kinds of ways and that there would be a situation where no one is able to actually hijack the change and the collectivities that are going on. I think that this problem is really, really one of the difficult things in terms of thinking about how to go through the portal – to think about: how do we actually avoid that collective action is being hijacked? Because on the other hand, I do think that collective action is somehow needed.

MG: It’s needed.

NL: Yeah, collective action is needed, it’s necessary. I cannot sit here in my little town Odense and… I can change something and I can contribute to the changing of the world. But I think change must happen through a lot of diverse support for tons of small actions, that somehow ends up in something that amounts to a more overall change. So, I think the only hope – well, not the only hope but one of the hopes I have – is that I do actually believe in everyday utopianism. And I do believe in a diverse, a multiple collective action coming out of everyday utopianism.

And I do also believe that actually those in power who are in one way or another trying to hijack collective actions are – seen from a bigger planetary perspective – in a way pretty powerless. They can of course do a lot of destruction… I mean Donald Trump in the U.S., Bolsenaro in Brazil… of course, these people with a lot of power can actually inflict a lot of destruction while hijacking different kinds of collective actions. But still, they do not really have any solutions. I mean, I really think that… and again, I think Donald Trump is an enormous good example because he’s laying bare this zig-zagging. Most other leaders are a bit trying to hide behind experts, etc. Trump is using this reality TV style – just going out there and saying all the most stupid things you could imagine.

And on the one hand, it’s, of course, very scary. But I think it also, perhaps, shows that – to look at it from this “the glass half empty or half full” point of view – it somehow is also giving a bit of hope that, at some point, collective action of human and non-human agencies will somehow make a change. And let’s hope that is for the better for all of us. But I think climate change is also an example of this fact that all these intra-acting forces cannot be controlled and leaders believing they can try to control them are in a way exposing their powerlessness very clearly.

MG: Well, you know, this is exactly the difficult question about the powerfulness or powerlessness in that sense. Because on the one hand, I do see your argument. On the other hand, I really constantly worry about the hijacking, which we were talking about. Because they do have certain forms of power. And, you know, what worries me is that holding knowledge and access to the infrastructure of the world – because there are people who have more access to the way how infrastructure war of the world is laid out – allows you to have, even let’s say a certain, advantage in designing where this next world will go. And so, what worries me is not only that the fight can get to hijack, but that we are already kind of behind the starting line, so to speak, because we don’t have that kind of access to power. So, this is one thing – that access to power. 

Another thing is also the question of affinities. And a kind of building futures together. Because another thing which worries me is the way how some of our leftist criticism unfortunately resonates with some criticism coming from the right-wing politics. We, of course, have very different solutions to those questions. But that resonance, the proximity of that, is very worrying for me. 

So, on the one hand, those are the two worries which are in my head right now, plus maybe also the worry of totalitarianism in general and a worry of finding homogenic solutions because I agree with you that the point is not to have homogeneous solutions. And then on the other hand, I do share this kind of hope, which is about learning how to build collectivities and affinities that are somehow based on, you know, a social justice approach, while at the same time we learn how to work through difference. Because I think if we don’t learn to work with difference, if we don’t learn how to cherish difference, if we don’t learn how to appreciate also disagreements, discontents, if we don’t have these tools, then we easily can slide again to this homogenizing, totalizing approach. 

It’s both this kind of collective action and the micro actions you were talking about. It’s affinity, but also difference. And, also resistance at the same time towards the hegemonic power, but also alt-right, which is very much connected with hegemonic power in specific countries, like, for example, Poland or U.S. or Brazil. To name just a few… And I feel like this is kind of a network of thinking, which emerges for me from the conversation with you. And I just wonder how to do it. [Laughing together] That’s the million-dollar question, right? [Laughing together]

NL: Yes.

MG: But, you know, this is the moment where I get sometimes impatient with myself because I’m like, OK, let’s do it. How to do it? How to change the world? For me this is exactly why this project began. Because I was like: the only way I can imagine doing something is being in conversation with others and learning from each other and growing with each other and also disagreeing with each other probably many times. And for me, this is the moment where some kind of change happens. But I still wonder, how does this lead to some kind of structural change? This is this always a question which academics like you and I keep asking ourselves; we do our work, we do our thinking, we believe in the power of knowledge and we believe in the power of utopian thinking, because without imagination, how can we change the world? So, there is a value to what we are doing. And I kind of wonder… but what can we do now to make changes?

NL: But I really, really think that what you said about overcoming internal difference, and not doing it in a homogenizing way – because the homogenizing way will always be oppressive and end up in a situation where those who are able to homogenize, are also the ones who are hijacking the action, so to speak. I have been writing about the Russian Revolution (Lykke 2020) and I do think that a lot of the history of the revolutions is about actually homogenizing – I mean, homogenizing difference within the frame of collective action and then seizing the power, sometimes also failing, but sometimes also succeeding with that, and while doing this w hijacking the collective action. So, I do think that’s one important thing to think about for people who, like you and me, somehow want some kind of a radical change.

And there’s a lot of people who want this kind of radical change. Not the same kind of change, but still change, that somehow goes in a direction of more social justice, more environmental justice; a democracy that actually acknowledges diversity without somehow imposing homogenizing ways of acting on each other; going for a really, truly caring ethics – which is caring both for the human and the non-human, for the planet, for the cosmos, etc. I do believe that there actually is a lot of people wanting this… I actually sometimes meet them in political settings. For example, I think that 99 percent of the 4000 people listening to the conversations with Arundhati Roy a few days ago were people who somehow have this kind of visions. 

But I do think that one of the problems is to somehow overcome also internal differences. Which does not mean that I think we should not criticize each other. Because I think it is, of course, very important. For example, black feminist critique of the ways in which white feminism has somehow hijacked the feminist movement is, of course, very important. I really spent a lot of time and writing, actually trying in different ways to come to terms with that critique (Lykke 2020). So, it’s not to somehow just say, OK, we’re all in the same boat. Nothing, like that. But still: it is important to overcome internal differences in terms of avoiding such differences somehow congealing into different ontologies, which are really becoming very affectively invested, where you somehow end up in a gridlock instead of in a situation where you can have a transversal dialogue (Lykke, in prep.). I think that’s happening a lot. And I think that this is one of the problems that it’s important to work on.

And again, I do think that a lot of activism, poetry- and arts-borne activism and also methodologies that are coming out of that kind of work are somehow pointing in other directions than leading into gridlocks and stalemates. Perhaps generating feelings of some kind of bodily unease, but still making people more prone to commit to transversal dialoging. I do see that happening. I see both things happening in these broad, diverse movements that are operating all over the world. I see both really identity-political congealings of different ontologies that really clash. And on the other hand, also this way of trying to recognize internal difference and hierarchies, but still open up. And where I, for example, see a lot of positive things happening is in art-based, poetry-based kinds of activism. And I do also think that what we’re doing here with this conversation is also somehow part of that … yeah, well, creative movement of different kinds of small acts. The conversation with Arundhati Roy doesn’t change the world either from one day to the next. Trump is still in power after that conversation, the people in India that have been locked down, which Arundhati Roy talked about, are still starving outside of their villages. All these things are still happening. But I do think that what is possible – what we should do instead of just feeling immobilized, or [saying] “it’s just too bad, I can’t do anything about it,” – we need to actually establish these kinds of criss-crossing conversations, trying to overcome internal difference and trying to unfold and develop new ideas.

And I do think that a lot of new ideas, for example, in terms of how to use digital technologies are actually happening due to the lock down. Together with Camila Marambio I’m collaborating with an indigenous scholar, Hema’ny Molina Vargas, of the Selk’nam people who are fighting for indigenous rights in the island of Tierra del Fuego in Chile – and we have published an article together the three of us (Vargas, Marambio, Lykke, Forthcoming), and now we are writing another joint article where we reflect on our methodology, and how the ways in which we have communicated via Internet, and used digital technologies, can create alliances very passionate solidarity across great distances – in our case with people working 12000 kilometers from each other. I do think that there is a lot of potentials in that. And I do think that the PussyHat demonstrations right after Trump’s inauguration as US president in 2017 were an example of some kind of momentum just coming from a lot of different places. Of course, a lot in the U.S. But also, in Chile, in Kenya, South Africa, in Australia, in Europe, in really many places.

MG: Yeah. I think you’re right that we need to build that kind of connections. At the same time, I always wonder: in that kind of moments who is included and who is excluded, who had access to different tools. And so. I think that should be also another question, which we consider in terms of who, for example, felt included or excluded by the PussyHat movement. Or who has access to all those digital tools or who has time to be able to do that kind of work? And I know that you think about these things as well, so I’m not saying anything new in that sense. But I think that’s also something which we need to add to this kind of repertoire of constant work with affinities and differences, situatedness and some kind of political dispersal. And the question, a constant question, of what is excluded? Who are excluded? What kind of conditions are not taking into consideration? And so on. So, I think, yes, it’s a complex map of relations, which we also need to pay attention to when we are trying to think about the future.

You know, we’ve been talking about the question of the portal, question of possibility of change, but also dangers of the current situation, how it can be hijacked, and how it can be also sedimented into something which is harder and harder to breathe, harder to live through for vulnerable and discriminated groups of people, for example. 

And this question is about what kind of world you think this “next world” could be and how it could be breathable. I know it’s, again, one of the big questions, but I think we sometimes need to ask these questions to allow our imagination, informed by our thinking and research, also run a little bit more freely, to take a breath and see where it takes us. So, what would be this breathable world that you would like to see?

NL: I guess… One thing came to my mind, which I actually wanted to say to the to the discussion on the digital divide and the digital injustices and the issue of access, etc… And I’m a bit afraid of forgetting that because, you know, I have an old brain; I am 71! …, I cannot keep a lot of things in my mind without forgetting… So, could I take that first, and then answer the breathable worlds questions afterwards?

MG: Yes.

NL: Ok. Thank you. I just wanted to say that I’m not only optimistic and I certainly know that access to digital technologies (or lack thereof) is a big issue. And that the digital divide also reproduces the injustices of societies. And to insert one more, sad note here on the issue of digitality… [But first,] I do think that it is interesting that a lot of new digital formats are being developed, and I think that the new digital formats have made a lot of a difference. I think that a lot of the big social movements happening around the world have been very much also carried by the digital infrastructures. I think a lot of these things would not have happened or would have happened in very different formats if it hadn’t been for these digital infrastructures. And I actually do think that the history, the longer history of revolutions would have looked differently also, had these infrastructures been available earlier. So, that’s one thing. That was on the positive side.

But on the sad side is also that digital technologies are so very polluting. And there is so much extraction, capitalist extraction going on, extraction of all the different kinds of metals, going into the production of digital technologies.

MG: And people who have to work under unworkable conditions…

NL: Precisely. So, there’s a lot of exploitation and extractivism that is actually carrying digital technologies along. And I think that it is important to think of this sad side, as well. Well, that was just to prove that I’m also paying attention into this sad part, more dark side of things. Well. But with Rosi Braidotti I do believe in the critical affirmativity and vitality. So, I think that is what I’m also trying to bring up into this discussion.

But in terms of what a breathable future would look like… is that the question?

MG: Yes. For you.

NL: Yeah. For me. I mean, how it would look for me? [Exhales deeply] Coming from all these big issues that we have been discussing, it is a bit difficult not to get somehow depressed. [We both laugh] Or get into the somehow gloomy part of this discussion. 

But I think a breathable future would be a future where – going back to everyday utopianism versus cruel optimism – a breathable future would actually be a future where the everyday utopianism actually was spreading from a lot of diverse sources. Where it was spreading and showing the powerlessness of the cruel optimism, the long-term powerlessness of the cruel optimism. So, I think that would be my breathable future.

And I do think that that kind of breathable future should be thought about from micro perspectives. Or from processes where micro perspectives are somehow adding up to macro perspectives. That’s what I’m talking about. So, I think that would be a breathable future.

MG: Thank you Nina. I think our conversation gave us several different things to think about. This micro and macro perspective, the way how they’re relating, how we can think about the possibilities of our collective and situated protest as a way of not totalizing change and the “next world;” as well as about the danger of hijacking of change. 

And I think one of the important things, which you also said, was how we can think about the virus differently. So how we can step away from the war discourse, which is being mobilized, and think about the way how we can also learn from the virus. At the same time, of course, keeping in mind how deadly and painful and difficult realities it creates. But at the same time, how we can learn from it in articulating already existing social structures of discrimination and inequality, and how to maybe hijack the virus into something which we could use to maybe mobilize for change, mobilize for solidarity, mobilize for collectivity. Because what the virus shows us is something which maybe a lot of people wouldn’t have seen before. They wouldn’t have seen the levels of discrimination and impact of contemporary structures and infrastructures of society if they haven’t been exposed to the way the virus exposed it. So, it’s a very ambivalent relation to the virus. 

And I think this ambivalence is very important in a sense that, again, we cannot collapse this relation. We have to keep it ambivalent. We have to keep it difficult. We have to keep the difference of that, you know, potentiality, but also of the deadly reality of it. And we have to work with precisely with this ambivalence. So now I’m reading it from my own way of thinking, of course. But we need to work with this ambivalence to be able to keep on learning and thinking together. That was also another aspect which I think was very important in the things you were saying in relation to a possible change, which was such a difficult part of our conversation. How do we imagine this change? What kind of tools we really want to take? What would be these concrete tools? And I think one of the things which came to me was this kind of learning, learning through ambivalence, learning through difference, learning from strategic utopian affinities, which are not about homogenization, which are not about agreements, but it is about trying to make the world more just.

NL: Yes. And, I mean, about the virus… I just want to add also, the non-human agencies, which I think, again, Donna Haraway has beautifully described in the Staying with the Trouble (2016) book. I mean, the ways in which non-human agencies are out there and doing a lot of things. And on that note, I’m actually reading a book called Epidemic and Society (Snowden 2019), which is a historic book on how different kinds of pandemics have changed societies. So… it’s written from a pretty traditional historian perspective, but the author still takes into account a lot of cultural, social, scientific agencies and also the agencies of bacteria and viruses. 

Among other things, there is a story of the Haitian revolution. The Haitian revolution, among others, was helped by a virus. Yes.

MG: Oh, wow. OK, this is going on my To Read list.

NL: It was helped by yellow fever. Because the soldiers of the French army were killed en masse by the yellow fever. While the black population, many of them slaves or former slaves, had immunity due to their African ancestry. It was so close to the time where they had been brought in as slaves, so they still had this immunity to the yellow fever. And the Napoleon Army was actually really…

MG: Decimated.

NL: Precisely. So. Napoleon and the French government gave up the struggle in Haiti, which somehow created a power vacuum. So that the revolutionary movement, which was very strong already there, took over. So, again, these human and non-human actors, of course, the revolutionary movement, and the virus – they acted together.

MG: And I think, of course, both of us are interested in posthumanist thinking, and we shouldn’t be forgetting this aspect also in relation to how we think social justice, social change and so on. And also, in relation to decolonial criticism of what constitutes the human, right? I think there are so many important conversations which should happen between post-colonial, decolonial and posthuman ways of thinking…

NL: Precisely.

MG: … and I think they can also inform the way how we think about change, about breathable worlds and so on. There is so much work to be done.

NL: Precisely. But I think, even though it’s a traditional historian, you can take out interesting things. And I think that this sort of coalition of the human and non-human actors is actually making this a very unique revolution.

MG: Yes.

OK Nina, should we finish the interview?

NL: Yeah, yes.

References to the works mentioned in the interview and to Nina Lykke’s publications that can further expand on the topics addressed in the interview:

Butler, Octavia. 1987. Dawn. Xenogenesis 1. London: Gollancz.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Lykke, Nina (2019): Co-Becoming with Algae. Between Posthuman Mourning and Wonder in Algae Research. Catalyst. Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. 5 (2)

Lykke, Nina (2020). Transversal Dialogues on Intersectionality, Socialist Feminism, and Epistemologies of Ignorance. NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.

Lykke, Nina (In prep.): Can Middling Foster New Feminist Coalitions? On Race and Transgender Frictions, and Ethics of Unease, In preparation for: Katve-Kaisa Kontturi, Taru Leppänen, Tara Mehrabi, and Milla Tiainen (eds.). Feminist Methodologies in-between New Materialisms and Intersectionality. In prep. 

Roy, Arundhati. 2020. The Pandemic is A Portal: A conversation with Arundhati Roy Interview by Imani Perry. Heymarket Books Live event.

Snowden, Frank. 2019. Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Vargas, Hema’ny Molina, Marambio, Camila and Lykke, Nina (forthcoming). Decolonising Mourning. World-Making With the Selk’nam People of Karokynka/Tierra del Fuego. Australian Feminist Studies, 2020.