From the Apocalypse to the “New Normal” (and back). On the Imagination in the Pandemic through Contemporary Iberian Culture.

Tuesday, Mar 30, 2021

By Michelle Tong

It is without a doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has touched so many aspects of daily life within society. This semester, Assistant Professor Natalia Castro Picón’s students in the course SPA 416 “From the Apocalypse to the “New Normal” (and back). On the Imagination in the Pandemic through Contemporary Iberian Culture”, explored in-depth questions regarding how the pandemic has affected different facets of humanity and culture while providing students with the opportunity to reflect and speak on their own experiences during the past year.

“I decided to take SPA 416 because I was and still am very interested in learning a lot more about the ongoing pandemic's impact on societal and political structures,” said Millie Hernandez, a member of the Class of 2022. “Having been at home over the summer and watching Telemundo/Univision news just about every day with my parents, I was glad to see that I could learn more about the pandemic in other contexts through this class.”

Class in session on Zoom for SPA 416.

Professor Natalia Castro Picón with students in SPA 416.

The course incorporated a wide range of topics in relation to the pandemic response including the use of apocalyptic imagery to represent the crisis, the recurrence of technocratic considerations around the “government of the experts”, conspiracy discourses that reproduce dystopic readings of the world, and diverse creative paths to contest deterministic interpretation of the post-pandemic future.

As described by sophomore Liam Seeley, “We move from reading extensive novels and cultural artifacts, to critical theorists, to modern intellectuals, to avant-garde intellectual publications, to virtual art museums— COVID truly has touched every corner of how culture is produced and understood.”

Some of the course materials that were showcased included a Covid Art Museum on Instagram which was created by three young Spanish publicists and features artwork from different people around the world, a collection of homemade neighborhood maps that illustrate people’s lives during the pandemic, and excerpts from "Especial: diario de la pandemia", an anthology of literary testimonies from different authors around the world about their experiences during confinement.

“My goal with this course was to put culture and collective imagination in the spotlight, as forces that shape our experience of the pandemic,” said Professor Castro Picón. “Also, imagination as the power of the subject to intervene creatively in the world and culture as a democratic space from which to shape it during and after the crisis."

Professor Castro Picón was recently featured in an article that highlights five Princeton professors as they share how they are teaching about the pandemic this semester.

Through their examination of various materials that stemmed from the pandemic within the fields of academia, film, news, and art, students were encouraged to draw upon their own research backgrounds and interests resulting in engaging interdisciplinary discussions with their peers.

“As someone looking to pursue the Spanish certificate, this course presented the opportunity to further improve my Spanish while also learning about a super current topic,” noted Hernandez “At the same time, as a Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) concentrator, this class has allowed me to engage with a variety of texts that present nuanced arguments about current political and economic systems, which is knowledge I can apply to my specific departmental coursework.”

“Since my area of interest is rooted more on Early Modern Spanish literature and culture, at first, I rather had a vague idea how to connect this very timely topic of the pandemic with the distant period that is more than three centuries ago, while on the other hand, I was expecting to get to know the essential features of the narratives of apocalypses,” said Spanish and Portuguese graduate student, You Jin Kim. “I find myself so much intrigued by the topic of apocalyptic imaginations, especially in relation with capitalism.”

While looking at what has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects that it has brought with it, the course provided students with a space to also voice how their own experiences has shaped their views on society as it moves forward.

“I've been most surprised by the sheer amount of academic as well as creative work that has been published and made since the start of the pandemic, which I think attests to the perseverance of creativity despite difficult global circumstances,” Hernandez said.

Seeley said, “The class has also made me hopeful not simply for an ‘end’ of crisis, or for the vaccine, or a ‘normal’ existence, but for the social point at which our cultural-political discourse moves towards a reclamation of power and solidarity.”