“Critical utopias are not blueprints for ideal societies, but expressions of aspiration for human fulfillment towards which our political practices should always be directed.” — Ashlie Lancaster, Instantiating Critical Utopia
Introduction. This post considers the cultural work taken up in the animated short A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (2019, dir. Crabapple, Lewis & Feeney). Understood here as creative practices that support dominant structures and ideologies, or which offer alternative ways of seeing, feeling, and acting in the world, “cultural work” operates at the intersection of art and politics (Banks, 2007). Presented by author and activist Naomi Klein, in association with the online news outlet The Intercept, the film illustrates what American society would look like, decades from now, when the Green New Deal has radically transformed not only our habitat but also our entire way of life.
In what follows, I examine the discursive strategies and practices employed by this animated film, with an eye toward evaluating the political value of “critical utopianism” (Ashcroft, 2007) in the face of climate catastrophe. Doing so, I consider how, and to what ends, this “media intervention” (Howley, 2013) into the politics of climate change taps a rich vein in utopian thought. Throughout, I highlight the vital but frequently overlooked role cultural workers play in articulating a radical and relentlessly hopeful vision for a more just, equitable, and sustainable society.
“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”. On February 7, 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and her co-sponsor, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), unveiled legislation for a Green New Deal (Roberts, 2019). Inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era New Deal programs, the Green New Deal would combat climate change through massive public investment in clean energy and transportation infrastructure. Doing so, the initiative aims to create a more prosperous and equitable economy; secure clean air, water, and healthy food for every American; and redress the systemic social, environmental and political injustice that marks the lived experience of historically oppressed communities.
Predictably, reaction to this ambitious policy agenda was polarized. The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist organization that helped popularize the phrase “Green New Deal,” declared: “It’s our fighting chance to actually stop this crisis … the first we’ve seen in our whole lives” (Sunrise Movement). Echoing conservative lawmakers, who derided the nonbinding resolution as a “socialist takeover,” President Trump claimed the legislation undermines Americans’ “airplane rights” (Friedman, 2019).
Thus, the stage was set for a discursive struggle between progressive allies and conservative opponents to shape the Green New Deal narrative. Pegged to the April 2019 launch of a national campaign to promote the legislation, Naomi Klein and her colleagues released their animated film, inspired by Depression-era cultural work that proved essential in winning popular support for FDR’s New Deal, in an effort to “do an end run around this [conservative] misinformation campaign and produce some art and involve some artists in the Green New Deal itself” (Goodman & Shaikh, 2019).
Nonetheless, for Klein and her collaborators, public apathy represents the single greatest obstacle to the sort of decisive climate action envisioned in the Green New Deal. “The biggest problem we are up against, when we think about doing something as transformative as science demands, is the sense of futility that people have, because they’re told all the time that it’s impossible” (Goodman & Shaikh, 2019). In her narration, Ocasio-Cortez identifies the root cause for such indifference: “They couldn’t picture it.” Herein lies the essence of the cultural work taken up by this short film: realizing, through moving prose and stop motion animation, an alternative vision of our near future.
Complementing the evocative script, co-authored by Ocasio-Cortez and Avi Lewis, award-winning artist Molly Crabapple’s illustrations vividly depict a society transformed by the Green New Deal. Harnessing animation’s distinct capacity to construct new worlds, at once strange and recognizable, the filmmakers offer a heterotopic vision of a truly egalitarian United States of America. Coupled with Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring narration, Crabapple’s evocative images harness the “affective charge” of motion pictures (Ivakhiv, 2011). In short, A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presents a radically confident vision of the future driven by hope and desire: animating forces of the utopian imagination (Ashcroft, 2007).
Contrary to Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic imaginary, visual spectacles that cultivate cynicism and reward spectatorship, this short film’s futuristic imagery inspires optimism and underscores the importance of collective agency in constructing a better world. Put differently, Hollywood’s dystopian visions work to limit public imagination and stifle political participation. A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, instead, works to animate popular support for the Green New Deal by tapping into fundamental hopes and desires for a brighter future. In the context of a growing climate movement, it remains to be seen whether or not cultural work informed by utopian sensibilities can mobilize and sustain “this ‘affective charge’ to draw out its utopian or critical potentials” (Ivakhiv, 2011: 187).
Conclusion: A Herstory of the Future. A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, perhaps, best understood in terms of the “emancipatory projection” (Keinhorst, 1987) common to women’s critical utopias. “This improvement becomes clearly discernable, for example, in the motif of the integration of technology within a utopian society, and even more convincingly in the development of human relationships and in philosophical principles” (Keinhorst, 1987: 92). Thus, while energy and transportation infrastructure projects are cornerstones of the Green New Deal, technological innovation is but one aspect of the social change the filmmakers imagine. Theirs is an aspirational vision, predicated upon a structural transformation of American society, for a more just, equitable, and democratic culture. Recalling the Green New Deal’s expansive and inclusive scope, Ocasio-Cortez explains in the film: “We didn’t just change the infrastructure. We changed how we did things. We became a society that was not only modern and wealthy but dignified and humane too”.
In this light, Ashlie Lancaster’s argument regarding utopian literature applies to the cultural work taken up in this short film: “Utopian writers advance political or social ideals and then attempt to embody in a literary form the concrete reality of those ideals” (Lancaster, 2000: 110). Without putting too fine a point on it, through sight, sound, and motion, A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes legible the social, political, and ecological benefits of the Green New Deal. Like all meaningful political art, the critical utopianism articulated through this provocative intervention is not simply a political-economic critique of the recent past, nor is it a dire warning for our precarious present. It is an animating force toward realizing a more sustainable future.
Ashcroft, B. (2007). “Critical Utopias”, Textual Practice, 21(3): 411-431.
Banks, M. (2007). The Politics of Cultural Work. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.
Friedman, L. (2019). “What is the Green New Deal? A Climate Proposal, Explained”, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/21/climate/green-new-deal-questions-answers.html (Accessed May 20, 2020)
Goodman, A. & Shaikh, N. (2019). “A Message from the Future with AOC: New Film Imagines World Transformed by Green New Deal”, Democracy Now!, April 18, https://www.democracynow.org/2019/4/18/a_message_from_the_future_with (Accessed May 20, 2020)
Howley, K. (2013). Media Interventions. New York: Peter Lang.
Ivakhiv, A. (2011). “Cinema of the Not-yet: The Utopian Promise of Film as Heterotopia”, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 5(2): 186-209.
Keinhorst, A. (1987). “Emancipatory Projection: An Introduction to Women’s Critical Utopias”, Women’s Studies, 14: 91-99.
Lancaster, A. (2000). “Instantiating Critical Utopia”, Utopian Studies, 11(1): 109-119.
Roberts, D. (2019). “There’s Now an Official Green New Deal. Here’s What’s in It.” Vox, February 7, https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/2/7/18211709/green-new-deal-resolution-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-markey (Accessed May 20, 2020).
Sunrise Movement. (n.d.). “How We Win a Green New Deal”, https://www.sunrisemovement.org/gnd-strategy (Accessed May 20, 2020).
Kevin Howley is Professor of Media Studies at DePauw University. His work has appeared in the Journal of Radio Studies, Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, Social Movement Studies and Television and New Media. He is author of Community Media: People, Places, and Communication Technologies (2005), and editor of Understanding Community Media (2010) and Media Interventions (2013). His latest book is Drones: Media Discourse & The Public Imagination (2018).