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Exercises for the End of the World, part 1

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If you lie awake wondering how the world will end — the world of packaged foods and semiconductors, air conditioning, mRNA vaccines, waking up on a different continent to the one you fell asleep on, people who “write books” “for a living”, clean water on demand, a sense of possibility, a modicum of expressive autonomy — you’re not alone. When it comes to perceived existential threats we are spoiled for choice. Perhaps it’s time we started talking about this — not with a view to formulating an ontology of threats or a set of heuristics for determining the most effective way of addressing them but to get to grips with how it feels to live with an abiding sense of impending, End of the World–grade disaster.

In this seminar we’ll explore this feeling through a series of shared texts. The things we read and watch be chosen not for their value as sources of information or persuasive arguments but for their potential to provoke us to turn away from habits of reading oriented toward information and persuasion and stumble out into an intertidal zone of spongy ground, not-knowing, and disorientation. The things we listen to will be chosen with a view to — well, sometimes there’s no better way to end the day than lying on the floor in the dark listening to sound from a distant place.

One week before the seminar, we’ll post a brief list of proposed preparatory materials and guidance on working with them. You can spend anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours with the proposed materials — the choice is yours. The seminar itself will run 90 minutes, with the first 45 minutes reserved for a discussion of the prep materials and the second 45 minutes for a wider-ranging discussion and Q&A with the facilitators. If you’d like to get a head start, a preliminary syllabus appears below.

Facilitators

Josh Berson is an novelist and anthropologist and co-founder of Refugium. His work explores the history of human niche construction with a view to elucidating the ecology of sentience, our kinship with other presences living and geospheric, and the practical demands of food and shelter. He is the author, inter alia, of The Meat Question (MIT Press, 2019), The Human Scaffold (University of California Press, 2021), and the forthcoming Autologous (The Elephants on the Salish Sea, 2023). With Carla Nappi he directs Time Kitchen.

Ben Wurgaft is a writer and historian. The topics of his essays and criticism range from the history of philosophy to contemporary food culture, with stops along the way for coffee and the history of the cafe, the history of colleges and universities, and laboratory-grown meat and the future of food. He is the author, among many other things, of Meat Planet (University of California Press, 2019) and the forthcoming Ways of Eating (University of California Press, 2023).

Preliminary Syllabus

Joan Didion, “Quiet Days in Malibu” (1976) (background and more background; the best introduction to Didion qua essayist is Caitlyn Flanagan’s essay about watching the Didion mystique take form following the publication of Slouching toward Bethlehem)

Bi Gan, The Poet and the Singer (2012) (background on Bi)

Bong Joon-ho, Influenza (shot 2004, released 2021)

Lawrence English, Viento (recorded 2010, mastered and released 2022)

Bonnie “Prince“ Billy, “This is Far from Over“ (from I Made a Place, 2019)

 

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