What follows on from a sudden upheaval or state of shock? And how do we experience and make sense of these and other aftermaths? Brexit and COVID-19 have been compared to a form of national and global trauma: a sudden rupture in the existing social fabric, the earthquake or the tidal wave that was long a possibility but now has become a fact. As the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us there are ongoing legacies of trauma and shock that remain with us as well. Social upheavals tend to leave things in disarray. But the question must always be: “and what comes next?” How do people and societies and cultures react? What emotions do they go through, what experiences must they manage, what opportunities emerge? What comes to an end, in other words, and, as the aftermath of colonialism reminds us, what remains?
Well might we ask. In the aftermath of the fall of communism, 30 years ago, the elation of political freedom was followed by a steadily dawning reality of economic constraint. Perhaps some Brexiteers may soon feel the same. In the aftermath of 9/11, now 20 years ago, it was trauma that bit hardest: a keening personal trauma for some and a national humiliation for others; a wound which supplied – or so the Bush administration insisted – a mandate for striking back. But aftermaths are not merely that which follows on from historical occurrences, or the onset of crises. And their temporal frame may not always be short-lived. Aftermaths can linger, psychologically and in the built fabric of society: “war scorches, war dismembers, war ruins,” as Susan Sontag put it in her memorable depiction of a bombed-out Sarajevo. Aftermaths also take a variety of different forms: cultural, intellectual, political and economic. They can and have been experienced, treated and discussed in many different ways. They are ends, but they are also beginnings.
The Humanities and Social Sciences have a rich, if somewhat unassembled language and intellectual vocabulary for understanding and making sense of the way that aftermaths form a part of the human experience. In a year when the rupture of society imposed by national lockdowns around the globe thrust the language – and politics – of science and medicine centre stage, and awarded them a mandate to manage and control, there is a need to examine more closely what the humanities and social sciences can tell us about the way aftermaths themselves reshape “the plane of reflection” as Sartre put it.
How do aftermaths re-imagine custom, tradition, or legitimacy? What is their own legacy? Why, for example, has race survived so long after its scientific refutation? Thinking about race as an aftermath of colonial order—a trace of history—helps us to think perhaps more clearly than does anything else about the ‘after’ in ‘aftermath’: just like the ‘post’ in postcolonial: a prefix whose temporal implications go beyond simple periodisation. What do aftermaths have to do with the haunting of the past, what power relations assemble within them (including around promises of renewal – be it moral, material or even spiritual), what “strange non-deaths” to they imply?
Well aware of this, a rich seam of literature looks to aftermaths as starting points in their own right (Europe’s “l’année zero” of 1945), as inflection points or openings for survivalist force majeure (between humanitarians, the traumatised and the dispossessed) and as transitions from one status to another (as in much apocalyptic and nihilist literature). But there are also efforts to think around the idea of aftermaths as moral or temporal wastelands, as spaces not just of “dead land” but of “roots that clutch,” as Eliot put it. What then are the productive possibilities of an aftermath: for hope and optimism and renewal, or perhaps simply for starting anew? How do aftermaths shape legal regimes or even paradigms of thought? What does it actually mean to “build back better” What gets remembered and what gets lost as we pass through these suspensive qualities not just of the “after” but of the “math”: literally, the “mowing” – the mud and ashes of the new.
This year, as we live through the most immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as this moment intersects with a host of other legacies and afterlives, the IHSS sets out to explore the aftermath in all its historical and cultural richness. We will be organising a series of events and activity that bring us towards a better understanding of the nature of this moment in which we find ourselves. How will Covid-19 itself be represented and its learning experiences and legacies digested – be it through cinematic or literary output or through the medium of policymaking and public debate. We will be asking about the legacy of political movements and ideas, of visual and discursive frames, and we will be looking into literary and historical parallels to our current moment. COVID-19 has reinforced some economic cleavages and opened up new opportunities. What comes next will depend partly on how we understand where we currently stand. So do join us as we embark on our journey through the aftermath, in the hope that we may emerge a little better informed on the other side.