declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.

Selah—onwards.

when workshops attack

TFW you make a bunch of off-the-cuff suggestions around lunchtime on Monday about how you might go about doing some institutional futures stuff in a workshoppy character-driven format, and your PI calls your bluff by saying “sounds good, can you run that on Tuesday afternoon?” 😬

failure / retrieval

Strange vibes in me at the moment. Part of that is adjusting to the sudden (albeit welcome) structure of a full-time job, and with it the sudden proliferation of deadlines for projects in which a significant number of the moving parts are people, and hence priorities and possibilities shift suddenly in ways you weren’t necessarily planning or preparing for. No tiny violin, to be clear; just noting the novelty of this for someone who spent a real long time operating as a box-room annex to almost every organisation they were involved with. There’s a lot of logistical levelling-up to be learned, here, and it’s taking a lot out of me, despite my efforts to take time off and get good rest.

The ineffectiveness of the latter in particular leads me to suspect I’m under the weather in some physical way. There’s a lot of anxious talk at the moment about Long Covid, which—without meaning to demean that experience for anyone going through it—comes across a lot like heretofore fortunate people facing the prospect that maybe illnesses have a long tail. Post-viral fatigue syndrome never got much press before now, beyond a vague insinuation that its sufferers should maybe get their shit together, or take care of themselves better, or maybe both… and hey, remember the “yuppie flu”, now better known as chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s as if even the stories we tell around illness need some sort of identifiable (and, crucially, nameable) black-hat bad-guy, a clear linear causality, before we’ll start to take them seriously.

I had viral pneumonia back in 2016, and it took me literally months (and a mental breakdown, and an epochal fight with my mother) to realise that maybe it was something more than just a cold that would’t shift. The antibiotics I was given cleared it out, but also napalmed my intestinal biome in a fairly indiscriminate way—perhaps because I’d not taken antibiotics in, I don’t know, probably decades. So the pneumonia went, but for a year or more I was prone to every passing lurgy that I encountered, and would find that for months at a time I was tired in a way that sleeping couldn’t cure, hungry in a way that eating couldn’t sate, low for no concrete reason, fogged in the brain and frustrated by it. It comes back from time to time, too—just as it has at the moment.

Which is to say: I recognise the symptoms of Long Covid, and believe them to be both genuine and (likely) under-reported. But I don’t believe them to be unique to Covid. So perhaps one silver lining to the thunderhead weather-front of the pandemic is the prospect that we’ll start taking seriously the notion that the line between acute and chronic malaise is not so clear-cut as has tended heretofore to be assumed. We still understand so little about viruses—the ones outside of us, and the ones inside of us. Hopefully we still have time to learn. In the meantime, I’m trying to get over the self-accusatory sense of my being a lazy malingerer, and do the best I’m able to do given my current capacities. Comparisons are invidious, of course—but they’re also fundamental to a system in which the calculation of value is the unacknowledged starting point for almost every action we undertake. Something something material relations between people something.

At the same time, remembering that the mental and emotional can affect the physical just as much as the other way around is something I’ve literally made notes-to-self about, because it’s easy to forget that the world has its ways of laying you low. Not without a certain sense of guilt, I’ve largely cut myself off from UK-based media, but still the stories seep through nonetheless—and they in turn unlock echoing chests of memory, both recent and distant, and with them feelings of loss, regret, failure… and of lost opportunity, both individual and collective. So there’s a weird sort of comfort in seeing that someone else is having a similar experience.

Then also there’s the gifts of synchronicity, my watchfulness for which—yes, a form of magical thinking; so sue me—has become something of a lifeline, intellectually and emotionally. After my recent (and hugely gratifying) encounter with Kelly Pendergrast’s writings, I remembered that I’d stashed some earlier pieces of hers away to read when I had more time. And so I made the time this morning on my commute, and found…

Famously, the start-up world lives and dies on its storytelling. Pitch decks paint a picture to potential funders. Product websites disclose and obfuscate in equal measure. Most crucially, start-up founders need to be able to craft a personal narrative and backstory that will win over investors and early hires alike. These story formats tend to follow the contours of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. In this narrative format, success cannot come easy: a trial by fire — a period staring into the abyss — is required before the hero returns victorious, killer app idea in hand. And so, founders learn to frame their stories in a way that highlights and valorizes their moments of past “failure” (a startup that fizzled, an acquisition that fell through, a co-founder that flounced).

… well, OK, first I found something self-aggrandizing, namely someone making an argument I’ve been making for quite some time—though the originary credit in my case (and perhaps also in Pendergrast’s?) is very much due to Saint Donna and the Starbear. But this piece soon goes off somewhere else, somewhere strange and (strangely) timely:

… a very different kind of “pro failure” theory and rhetoric emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. Queer writers, activists, and artists (often excluded from mainstream institutions and success for reasons listed above) have embraced and reclaimed failure, theorizing a specific modality of “queer failure” as art form and as survival tactic. In opposition to tech failure (narrativized as a painful-but-necessary station of the cross that fosters wisdom and tenacity), queer failure is deviant, risky, and oppositional, shaped by those who’ve found their future always-already nullified by capitalism’s normative demands. Queer failure is also utopian and visionary. Without the option to slot back into the mainstream, failure becomes a point of departure, a rupture, a sideways trajectory into something new. There are futures beyond no future.

I’m no scholar of queer theory, let alone queer failure; nor am I one of Black utopias (to the extent that I may be mislabelling an entire school of thought in my ignorance, here, though with what I believe to be good intentions). But I nonetheless leapt instantly from this riff to Ryan Oakley’s retrospections, which seem to be a lament for the loss of a science fiction informed by (or perhaps just parallel to) the Black utopias of early Detroit techno, and perhaps also by the unruly chaos of what Simon Reynolds and others refer to as the hardcore continuum of 90s (post-)rave music:

I wanted and expected some SF publisher to release a series of cheap-ass pulp paperbacks set in the Deltron universe. Another series for Kool Keith. Like everyone kept talking about science fiction dying and I was like — the fuck? There’s plenty of drugged up kids who love the shit and are listening to sci-fi music all the time. Get in on that.

[…]

Like, I just kind of took it for granted that written sci-fi would be part of that. Took it for granted that sci-fi was some weird counter-cultural drug product. Like, there was the straight and square nerd shit, your hard sci-fi and space operas, which was like exotica or whatever and okay in their own right, but you had your hippie sci-fi, then your glam and punk and goth sci-fi. Sci-fi was dime store surrealism. Just vulgarized high art and I like that.

I just really thought there was just going to be some sort of punky-rave, hip-hop sci-fi. Abrasive and social and shit but with some funk, you know? It just seemed natural. Seemed inevitable. There were even some indications that it might even be incoming. Coyote Kings by Minister Faust, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. They kinda had the sensibility and perspective. It was about people, outsiders, the city, and it felt modern.

It bears noting that I was way behind this curve in two senses: the closest I came to that sort of sf in the 90s was Jeff Noon, and maybe that’s as close as the publishing world got to it back then, too; furthermore, while I was splashing around enthusiastically in the more downtempo end of breakbeat electronica at the time, I was and still am (and likely always will be) a hoary old rocker at the core. But I nonetheless recognise (by its absence in sf) that sense of outsiderdom Ryan’s talking about; the early cyberpunk stuff had some of that, and even some of the later stuff (like Paul McAuley’s late-Nineties novels, f’rex), but—like any subgeneric style—it soon became reduced to an aesthetic, reproducible, bought from the rack. (And I’m reminded now of perhaps the most scathing book review I’ve ever had published, whose tone I still regret somewhat, but whose take I stand by to this day.)

That said, there are signs that, much as the musical aesthetics of the 90s are being revisited and retooled by younger generations, cyberpunk is being dusted off and re-punked by writers dissatisfied with both its past and the present alternatives; and I know a lot of scholars in the field are going through a process of radically reassessing the established readings of the genre and its canonical texts. Tim Maughan’s work wouldn’t exist without cyberpunk as a problematic precursor, nor M T Hill’s, nor Carl Neville’s, nor Annalee Newitz’s, nor Charlie Jane Anders’s, nor nor nor… and that most or all of these writers wouldn’t self-describe as cyberpunk rather illustrates the point. The aesthetic is brittle enough to be re-decomposed into its constituent tropes once again, which means that the underlying structures can be built in new shapes.

The outsider status of many of these authors—whether in terms of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or some intersectional mix-up thereof—is thus perhaps no mere coincidence. Pendergrast again:

For those stuck outside of the normal, queer failure offers instead to explode the normal and to explore modes of being beyond capitalism, in ecstatic temporalities or alternative kinships or in refusing to work. To embrace failure is a vulnerable act that demonstrates solidarity with other “failed” people — from radical crips to refugees — and builds space to imagine an identity, and a life, outside the structures that would punish you for your transgressions. Maybe, suggests Halberstam, “in losing we will find another way of making meaning,” one in which “no one gets left behind.” Queer failure imagines a future beyond the current regime, and a life where failure can be ecstatic, collective, and radical.

And what is that current regime? Oakley:

I can kind of picture the world where sci-fi went the way I wanted it to go and the way I thought it would go. About now, we’d be getting shows in Deltronverse or at least totally infused with that sensibility instead of more Trek, more Star Wars, George fucking Martin, and the rest of it, sound-tracked by David Bowie’s 1970s musings about Mars. And I’m not even really against these things. But, holy shit, it would be nice to be able to see these people and their works as respected ancestors. We can’t even do that. We have to labor forever under their senile rule. I mean, I feel like Del and others showed us the way. The way was squandered. Just totally fucking squandered.

I’d be the first to say that generational theory is, if not utterly useless, then for the most part a marketeer’s way of thinking about demography that causes as many problems (or more) than it solves. But when I catch those stories leaking across the North Sea from the UK, and the ones from the US, and then I read a sentence like “labor forever under their senile rule”, I’m like, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We’re still dreaming those futures beyond The Future, but for so many people there’s so little space for dreaming, so little slack in the capitalist-realist circumstance. Hauntology is thus less a failing or a mode of nostalgia than it is the only game in town. What else can you do with the ruins of The Future than populate them with ghosts of other futures foreclosed upon?

Of course, such a circumstance cannot persist forever, in the truly eternal sense. Demography is destiny, and the Boomer hegemony—in sf, as in the world more broadly—will eventually fade away for the most obvious of reasons (though not without a fight, I fear). In both cases, however—though surely more pressingly in the latter—the question is what will remain to the rest of us once we finally slip the reins.

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology