Sci-Fi & Transgressive glossaries for t-learning

By Dylan McGarry,

Science fiction has always been an outlet for our greatest anxieties, and in many ways prepares us subconsciously for the unknown. Recently I came across the brilliant podcast by ON THE MEDIA , entitled “Apocalypse, Now” (Listen to it here). In this podcast award winning journalist Brooke Gladstone explores how the genre of science fiction (or ‘cli fi’, as some call it) is exploring the reality of climate change, and interviews four authors who used their narrative gifts as a powerful medium of protest and counter-hegemonic transgression.

Discovering this podcast only days after speaking with Lena Weber about the power of science fiction in our work felt like an uncanny coincidence, more so in her recent reflection of participating in our t-learning Swedish summer school. In her reflection she uses science fiction to situate her experiences of t-learning and ACKNOWL-EJ, and the common methodological approaches we employ that open the space for creative imaginaries to help us theorize and prepare for new transformative possibilities.

Science Fiction is not just on our radar, but seeping into the peripheral vision of other ‘rock-star’ transgressive academic researchers, particularly Donna Haraway (2016) who tries her hand at fictional science in the last chapter of her new book “Staying with the Trouble”. She proposes the conceptual instrument or signifier of “SF” to carry the meaning of Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, Science Fact, Speculative Feminism, Soin de Ficelle, String Figures and So Far…). She is not alone, recently the Uneven Earth

[1] project announced a call for submissions for a special edition for science fiction and utopian imaginaries in the era of climate change. With loose guidelines they are inviting contributions from researchers and writers of fiction alike to explore areas of climate, social and environmental justice; feminist and queer theory; critical race studies de-colonialism, anti-capitalist politics (socialist, anarchist, etc.) and post-capitalist ecologies.

Employing SF in our transgressive, transformative and transdiscplinary learning (t-learning) practice and research and across theTransformations to Sustainability (T2S) Knowledge Action Networks (TKN)[2] is something our researchers are exploring in the scenario building methodology that different researchers across the networks are using in different ways. As I move and work between these networks there has been consensus for a new language for our times.

In June this year (2017) the gathering of Environmental and Social Justice activists at the ACKNOWL-EJ[3] meeting in Beirut,where I met Lena who helps coordinate ACKNOWL-EJ, there was an general expression of the urgent need to open up the language to speak to the nuances, ambiguities and cracks in the social-ecological-political-economic connective tissues they are massaging (and sometimes surgically operating on) in the Arab region. A similar need was expressed a few weeks later in Barcelona with an informal gathering of Colombian and South African scholar activists from the t-learning and Indian, Spanish, Canadian and Turkish collaborators from the ACKNOWL-EJ network. In addition to this Heila Lotz-Sisitka (the team leader and coordinator of the t-learning network) introduced the concept of indicative descriptions and the use of story-telling in describing more than just indicators of transgressive, transformative and trans-disciplinary learning. She quoted Nigerian author Ben Okri, who describes storytelling as a doubled headed axe, that which points forward and slices through the world, also points back and challenges the story teller. It is this reflexive alchemical transformation of the world that we tell stories and learn about, and the way these transform us. This is at the heart of the T2S networks.

Employing a narrative descriptive approach has in the past transformed very conservative and positivist fields of study, none more so poignantly than in neuroscience. In the 1970s Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book “Awakenings” shifted the medical field of neuroscience profoundly, through thickly described, complexly rendered descriptions of the symptoms of different neurological conditions. The New York Times refers to Dr. Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine.” Before Dr. Sacks’s ‘indicative descriptions’, neurological illnesses were diagnosed with mostly hard science, dominated by quantitative measurements, which hardly captured the real world realities and experiences of Parkinson’s patients for example. His phenomenological approach, that expanded language and used immersive story telling opened up the field of neuroscience and transformed and transgressed the normative research standards inherent in the orthodoxies of medicine.

Figure 1: Artwork by Dylan McGarry entitled “Extractive dichotomies” he painted during his story-telling and theatre work with residents on the border of the Umfolozi Park in South Africa, responding to the anti coal mine struggles in the region


[1] Uneven Earth is a online network that collects, digests, and distributes crucial information on environmental and social justice conflicts around the world. It takes an explicitly political stance on today’s crises.

[2] The Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme is funded by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) which supports research to help advance transformations to more sustainable and equitable societies around the globe. By generating knowledge that produces a broader and deeper understanding of the conditions, processes, outcomes and impacts of transformative social change in the context of global environmental change, the programme is intended to: 1) Help craft more effective, durable and equitable solutions to the problems of environmental change and sustainability, in a context of social and cultural diversity; and 2) Promote the habitual use of the best knowledge about social transformations by researchers, educators, policy makers, practitioners, the private sector and citizens.

[3] ACKNOWL-EJ (Academic-Activist Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice) is a network of scholars and activists engaged in action and collaborative research, that aims to analyze the transformative potential of community responses to extractivism and alternatives born from resistance. We aim to co-produce knowledge that can empower communities to push for change and geared towards the needs of social groups, advocates, citizens and social movements.

[4] Orr, D. (2004). Earth Mind: On education, environment and the human prospect. First Island Press. USA (first published 1994).

[5] Lepore, J. (2017) A Age for Dystopian Fiction ] What to make of our new literature of radical pessimism. New Yorker magazine. June 5 & 12, 2017 Issue.

[6] Macfarlene is a transgressive eco-anthro-linguistics scholar, who is helping us remember what we have forgotten, and opening up our language to what we are experiencing today and will experience in the future. Check out his incredible book “Landmarks”. a book that explores what he calls the “literacy of the land: language both evocative and precise, to portray the earth even as it changes.”

[7] McGarry, D. (2013). Empathy in the time of ecological apartheid a social sculpture practice-led inquiry into developing pedagogies for ecological citizenship. Doctoral thesis for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Education, Rhodes University supervised by Prof. Heila Lotz-sisitka.

[8] Bhaskar, R. (2008). Dialectic: The pulse of freedom. Routledge.

[9] Gablik, S. (1992). Connective Aesthetics. American Art6(2), 2-7.

[10] This concept is attributable to Sacks (2007) in her work “University of the Trees” in which she developed it to explain the difference between aesthetics in social sculpture and conventional perceptions of art. Sacks, S. (2007c). Instruments of consciousness. University of the Trees. Retrieved October 25, 2012 from consciousness.html

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