Seeing like Cassandra: a New Role for Literature in Political Risk Analysis?

Political conflicts and situations of crises in a multitude of forms continue to mark our present. Indeed, early crisis prevention is a question so pertinent to our times that it has prompted researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany to explore an unusual  method of conflict prediction: studying fictional literature of specific regions prone to crises  to examine if it is possible to identify potential future threats through literary texts. The project is entitled “Projekt Cassandra”, alluding to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, who was famously able to predict the future, although cursed so that nobody would believe her prophecies. 

The study led by Tübingen  appears to have demonstrated potential  as an alternative method of strategic analysis  and is being partially being funded by the German Ministry of Defence. The “Projekt Cassandra” has so far investigated three centres of conflict for model analyses, notably the Serbo-Kosovan conflict (1998-1999), the Nigerian terror epidemic caused by the group Boko Haram, and the tensions in Algeria preceding the election in 2019. While the study is still underway, it poses an essential question: can literature truly function as a tool for the early detection of crises?

Tens of thousands of Algerians protesting Algeria’s presidential vote, Algiers, December 12, 2019. (Credit: Ramzi Boudina, via Reuters)

Conflict and crisis prediction are an essential part in the field of risk analysis. With regard to the hypothesis of “Projekt Cassandra”, we can draw parallels with the idea that “history repeats itself”. While the extent to which the past really “repeats” itself is debatable, this argument  rests on the assumption that history provides us with patterns which allow for a certain degree of “prediction”. A similar concept could be applied in the case of literature through the ages, where the identification of patterns relating to past crises could help identify future potential conflicts. 

In considering concrete examples, the picture becomes more complex. By association, we might immediately consider literature as actively imagining the future, such as the famous 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian classic from 1949 is set in a distorted future of censorship and surveillance, which could be interpreted as a prediction of certain elements that we now  find in our present. However, it must be noted that  science fiction and dystopian literature often provides less a prediction of the future,  than a reflection of respective historical circumstances. 1984 for instance stems from the context of the beginning Cold War, in which surveillance and espionage were considered primary threats. This however does not mean that there is a necessary correlation between the content of a novel like 1984 and the  realities of the future. 

The ‘Projekt Cassandra’ logo. (Credit: Project Cassandra, via Twitter)

 So how can early crisis detection through literature function? Predicting crises is a lot about the identification of patterns. This is why it also matters what type of crisis is being investigated. For instance, a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic can hardly be said to have been predicted by Camus, merely because his novel The Plague (1947) describes a situation that is eerily similar to current events. 

We do however find a poignant example favouring this hypothesis relating to military conflict in British literature. Starting in the 1870s, literature imagining a new European war, at various instances between Britain and France or Britain and Germany, was increasingly popularized, so much so that “invasion literature” became an entirely new genre in British literature. The most famous example is the novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which propagated Germanophobia in Britain, through its imagined German invasion of Britain.  This can in hindsight, be considered a near-prescient account of elements of the First World War. Invasion literature even influenced politics:popularised concerns  of a new European conflict accelerated the arms race of the 1900s,which ultimately played  a role in the eruption of the First World War. 

Literature, it must be reiterated, is not an accurate tool of strategic prediction. It does however frequently capture underlying social currents that can later become problematic, such as ethnic tensions or larger societal unrest. These currents are often subtle, yet can function as inspiration for authors. To the extent that these societal undercurrents can effectively alert us to the potential of future crises and conflict, only Cassandra knows.

Cristina Coellen

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