Special Issue "Agency, Prophecy and Dystopia: Soylent Green as a Map of the New Imaginary"

A special issue of Humans (ISSN 2673-9461).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 31 December 2023 | Viewed by 234

Special Issue Editor

Department of Anthropology, Université de Montréal, St-Hyacinthe, QC H3C 3J7, Canada
Interests: the imaginary; urban studies; popular culture (suburban, design, branding, irony, recycling); Rome; Italy; the classic world (Mesopotamia, The Mediterranean); northwest Aboriginal peoples; west coast Indigenous peoples; Indigenous peoples of the Plateau; Indigenous peoples of the North American Southwest

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

Some popular films play a powerful role in redefining the imaginary in a way that allows individuals to operationalise alternative forms of agency. Judging by its contribution to the meme pool even 50 years after it was released, one such is Soylent Green.

This year marks the film’s 50th anniversary. Starring Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson in his last role, the film portrayed a dystopian future set in 2022, with the global climate heading toward a massive crisis—overpopulation that can only be nourished by plankton (‘soylent’). The film was eerily prescient as regards looming resource scarcity, the current climate crisis, the devaluing of humanistic ideals, the sexualization of women, and the ever-increasing gulf between rich and poor. This prophetic quality (for us, now) raises important questions. Four are at the core of the Special Issue:

Core questions: 1) What is the role of film in exploring and defining (and mapping) new pathways to agency when, increasingly, individuality has become less and less relevant in a globalised world where responsibility is hidden in a maze of convoluted and cross-cutting relations of power? Is science fiction a privileged means of generating prophecies and of exploring new imaginaries?

2) Are dystopias replacing the idealism and the centuries-long cultural fallout of the Enlightenment?

3) Is the despoliation of the environment a trigger for a dystopian future from which there is no return? What roles do the environment and politics play in defining the imaginary?

4) What is the impact of diminished forms of agency as more and more people are disempowered?

Potential contributions (in no particular order):

As an example, the food Soylent Green famously denounced by Heston at the end of the film (‘Soylent Green is people!’) is produced by chemically dissolving corpses into their constituent organic components. Today, aquamation (currently legal in many countries) is in fact gaining ground as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation. In a somewhat macabre and unintentional irony, the resulting liquid can be used as fertilizer and hence enter the food chain.[1]

Another example: new cuisines are emerging around jellyfish and other marine foods once considered inedible[2], in a somewhat desperate attempt to get new food sources to sustain Western lifestyles of hyper-consumption. Other visions of environmental collapse are today too numerous to mention; parks, reserves, and even settled areas are being destroyed in the quest for resources.

Soylent Green also presents a new form of police state, in which people are allegedly ‘free’ only because governments no longer invest in people’s well-being beyond furnishing the bare necessities to support biological life. Agency is no longer a manifestation of individual free will and imagination, but is reduced to performing only the elemental actions necessary for self-affirmation, no matter how socially irrelevant or unacceptable these actions may be. These reworked definitions of the human and of community present disturbing parallels to current events, and could also be explored as neoliberalism veers towards full-blown fascism in many parts of the world, including places not so far from the homelands of traditional liberal democracies.

The film also presents a scenario in which women are totally disempowered and completely sexualised (they are, to quote the film, ‘furniture’). Again, recent political tendencies in the USA and elsewhere in the so-called developed world seem to be reversing a centuries-long journey of emancipation. Is agency being redefined in different ways for men and women?

Finally, authors could explore emergent film and television genres that present themes of deathly menace and superhuman (literally!) salvation (e.g., the Marvel universe). Can we avoid a dystopian future without superheroes or without alien intervention?

We invite you to submit a proposal inspired by these ideas. Case studies and empirical approaches are especially welcome. 

[1] See Krupar, S. R. 2018. Green death: sustainability and the administration of the dead. Cultural Geographies, 25(2), 267–284; and, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26402640; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkaline_hydrolysis_(body_disposal) ; 21-09-2022.

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CziUjCljJcA

Prof. Dr. Guy Lanoue
Guest Editor

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