Not one more border / Critical EUtopia

James Butler at the LRB blog:

The passion of Brexit’s devotees isn’t so much hope for a new world as nostalgia for an (imagined) old one: they aren’t dreaming of utopia but pining for Arcadia. YouGov’s finding that more than half of Leave voters would welcome the return of the death penalty alongside blue passports is a reminder that the politics of nostalgia are not merely quixotic. Utopia and dystopia can nestle alongside each other in the same polity; the imagined citizens of Thomas More’s Utopia, with its militant homogeneity and paranoiac mutual surveillance, would have known this. The view from the Irish border or the anxious pharmacy queue is different from the view from the stockbroker belt.


Remainers, too, are nostalgic for a lost European Arcadia. It’s easy to sympathise with their lament for lost freedoms, but harder to square their picture of the EU’s docile benevolence with the reality of Brussels politics – more dirty old town than New Jerusalem – or the steel with which it squashed Greece, or the vast Mediterranean graveyard and archipelago of migrant camps. If there is a role for utopianism in Europe, it is of a critical sort, and its list of desiderata is long: against the petty chauvinisms of nation states, certainly, but also against the EU’s pallid imitation democracy and border guards; against the delusions of autarky, but eyeing the gates of the ECB’s Winter Palace, too.

I’m with Pia Kemp:

Freedom of movement and residence!

If you advocate borders in a burning world, you’ll eventually find yourself on the outside of one you’d rather be on the inside of.

On the rails again: Conference season 2019

I did pretty well at sending out (and landing) abstracts for conference and journal papers during my PhD, but I lost a lot of momentum in 2018, The Year Of The Interminable Corrections. This was partly due to lacking the time and energy and security to really think about it, but I realise with hindsight it was also a lot about a loss of confidence in my work.

However, it looks like postdoctoral employment and a comparatively secure income have done wonders for my paper-pitching mojo. On Monday I filed the first draft of a long paper on the ethics of speculation, co-authored with my PI, for a special issue of the journal Global Discourse; I also got back the edits on a chapter on “smart cities” for a big handbook on social futures that I was invited to write for way back at the start of the year. (For them as aren’t aware, academic publishing moves pretty slowly, not least because most of the writing and editing and admin is done for free as a side-car to everyone’s day-jobs. Which is just one of the reasons we get so pissed off about the publishers gouging so much money out of the system at every opportunity they get… the Swedish university system boycotted Elsevier for that very reason, in fact.)

But it’s conference papers where I’ve really been rocking it — almost too successfully, perhaps, given that I have around one paper (or invited talk, which amounts to the same thing in terms of cognitive workload) per month until the end of the year. And so, mostly for the sake of organising my own thoughts (plus a certain sense of self-congratulation, if I’m honest), here’s the gig dates for my autumn/winter tour:

  • Wednesday August 28th 2019: RGS-IBG International Conference, Kensington, London. Paper title: “Metasystemics: towards an ontological theory of concrete infrastructure”; this is based on the theoretical aspects of my thesis.
  • Wednesday September 25th 2019: Primer, nr. Copenhagen, Denmark. Invited talk, as yet untitled, but it’s part of Primer’s ongoing futures project The Future Hides That It Hides Nothing.)
  • Wednesday October 9th — Friday October 11th 2019: Anticipation 2019, Oslo, Norway. (This is less a paper than a… well, than a sort of LARPy design fiction performance routine masquerading as a panel at a design’n’futures conference? It’s an extension of the Museum of Carbon Ruins, which is in turn a part of the Climaginaries project. And it’s going to be proper good fun, I suspect.)
  • Wednesday October 30th 2019: Constructing the Future symposium, Huddersfield, UK (as part of the Cosmia SFF festival). Paper title: “Climaginaries: putting the critical dystopia to work”; a chance to talk more about the science-fictional aspects of the work I’m doing. And a conference pretty much right on my doorstep, which is always nice.
  • Thursday 14th November — Friday 15th November 2019: Scenarios and the Politics of the Future at the Climate-Security Nexus, a workshop arranged by the Climate, Climatic Change and Society cluster (CLICCS) at the University of Hamburg. Paper title: “Jumping the shark: lessons from media fandoms regarding the coherence of climate imaginaries”. A new angle, but one that I think might provide an interesting and different direction for the work.
  • Thursday 5th December — Saturday 7th December 2019: The Senses of Science Fiction: Visions, Sounds, Spaces, American Studies Centre, University of Warsaw, Poland. Provocation title: “Acting your age: design fiction, Nordic LARP and the embodiment of critical utopia-as-method against the Capitalocene.” Part of a weird and playful stream of stuff shepherded by the inimitable Frances Gene-Rowe of the LSFRG… and a good excuse to hang out with the same crew of scholars and researchers I spent time with in Graz last December.

So, yeah — lots of work to do, what with prepping all of those, and doing the actual academic work that they describe, plus shovelling through the big drift of freelance work that kicked off this month. And there’s another tour date early next month that I’m not going to talk about in detail for fear of jinxing it, but it could be a pretty transformative event, depending on how it goes. I guess we’ll see.

The going got weird, the weird turned pro: I’m leaning into this as hard as I can right now, and so far it seems to be working. But I’d best be getting on with things, hadn’t I?

Alter the biogeochemical organism on the fly

Robinson Meyer on the latest IPCC report; climate change is an existential issue in both senses of the term.

More than 30 years after climate change first became a political issue, it feels like we are still figuring it out. This report gets us closer. It makes clear that climate change isn’t only about coal-fired power plants, or gas-guzzling cars; and it’s definitely not about littering or—God help us—recyclingIt’s about the profound chemical and physical specificity of human life. You and I are not free-floating minds that move around the world through text messages, apologetic emails, and bank deposits. We are carbon-based creatures so pathetic that we need a lot of silent plants to make carbon for us.

Climate change requires us to alter the biogeochemical organism that we call the global economy on the fly, in our lifetimes. Such a task should command most of the time and attention of every economist, agriculturalist, investor, executive, and politician—anyone who fancies themselves a leader in the physical workings of the economy, or whatever we call it. It is our shame, and theirs, that they don’t.

Meyer’s piece here goes some way to explaining why it’s immensely frustrating to hear people arguing that they’re doing their bit for the climate by buying a Tesla. These people are almost invariably well-intentioned, but they’re also making the same argument a junkie makes about their methadone.

(I am far from innocent, to be clear; I may not drive or fly, but there are things I don’t want to change about my comfortable lifestyle, and I can make some damned nimble arguments about why I shouldn’t need to change them. But all those arguments — mine, yours, everyone else’s — melt like a glacier under the blowlamp of actuality. No one is to blame, but everyone’s complicit.)


In related news, one of the projects I work for got a pretty decent write-up at FastCompany, which even quotes a bit of the copy I wrote for the exhibition. How do we get past the inertia discussed above? Well, maybe we try presenting the zero-carbon transition as already having happened — showing that not only is it achievable, but that there will be real social payoffs to balance out the supposed privations. Like, would you rather have a Tesla, or would you rather live in a society where you didn’t need to spend hours every day driving from place to place in order to earn a living?

Admittedly, the Tesla is the easy option, both for you and for capitalists like Elongated Muskrat — but that’s exactly why it can’t make a significant difference.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …