All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

Solargoth

I keep telling myself I shouldn’t pass public comment on solarpunk, firstly because I haven’t done the reading and legwork, and secondly because I know a few people who really have done the reading and legwork (hi, Jay!), and as a good, responsible academic (cough, cough) I know better than to traipse across someone else’s disciplinary patch.

Buuuut… there’s an extent to which solarpunk abuts my own undisciplined domain of sociotechnical imaginaries, and as such I can’t entirely ignore it. Which is why I was intrigued by this piece from Lidia Zuin, in which, by riffing off the recent Multispecies Cities anthology, she seems to be seeking a way past the common critique (of which I have partaken in passing) of solarpunk-as-technological-utopia:

… in Multispecies Cities, we are able to discover that an ecological future is much more than that and it doesn’t need to assume a posture of naïve optimism and pure fantasy. In stories such as “Becoming Mars,” by Taiyo Fujii, or “In Two Minds” by Joel R. Hurt, it is possible to identify several references and tropes of a more pessimistic subgenre such as it is the case of cyberpunk. Still, the ideas discussed are innovative and they bring up technologies that have grown more popular recently, both among scholars and laymen. Bioengineering, for instance, is used in the anthology both as a means to adapt human beings to inhospitable places such as Mars, where a terraforming trial didn’t work as intended, or when people want to connect and communicate to animals and artificial intelligences.

This, Zuin seems to suggest, is an advance on the more purely aesthetic origins of solarpunk: a reintroduction of instructive failure to the deployment of technological solutions, which Zuin identifies as the legacy of solarpunk’s estranged parent genre, cyberpunk. The extent to which social and political change features in this tales is not apparent from this essay (and so, yes, I should really do the reading, given that tends to be my angle on the issue), but Zuin is heading in a different direction, or rather along a different axis, for her own critique:

The book Radical Botany analyzes how plants are used as political metaphors in fiction — from “The Yellow Wallpaper” to “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” and, more recently, the book and the movie “Annihilation” (2018). It was this last title that made me consider how solarpunk could have a more bizarre, mysterious approach that would be closer to the new weird rather than an optimistic narrative with some shades of “greenwashing.”

Zuin also mentions the musical act Botanist, ‘a black metal band that doesn’t have guitars’ whose ‘visual identity is all about this “botanic supremacy,” with artworks that reveal corpses being consumed by plants, fungi and maggots, as if nature was charging back what was originally hers’; this, plus recent music and performance from Björk, points toward a darker direction for Zuin’s solarpunk. Most interestingly for me (as a sociotechnical imaginaries scholar, and a marginal scholar of Bruce Sterling’s work), she also connects the technological-utopian iteration of solarpunk to Sterling’s Viridian Green campaign during the Noughties—which only a few weeks back I myself connected to the market-oriented ecomodernist side of the ongoing dialectic of green hope, in a review of Garforth’s Green Utopias.

Which is not (only) to note that someone else has spotted a (fairly obvious) genealogy in this particular discourse, but rather to note that Zuin is interested in pushing the generic dialectic in the other direction somewhat: in literary terms, that’s the more Vandermeerean New-Weird direction, which in academic-theoretical terms is the (more posthuman) there-never-was-a-Nature antithesis to the (more transhuman) thrust of the Viridian/ecomodernist/tech-utopian thesis.

Zuin concludes:

Solarpunk could be a genre that is attractive even to the most pessimistic and grim fans of cyberpunk, because it doesn’t need to tell only naive stories of a post-apocalyptic optimism that aims to heal our current anxiety. In fact, solarpunk can also recover other tropes that address the transformation of humanity and its displacement from the center of everything to actually become part of the whole. So this is me venting to myself and to other authors who wish to approach this more “gothic” side of solarpunk — because nature could be as frightening as in the movies by Lars Von Trier.

I don’t want to assume Zuin’s concern here is merely about broadening the market for solarpunk in a world where grimdark is an enduringly popular aesthetic—though there’d be nothing wrong with an author taking that position. (Writers, after all, want to be read, and perhaps also to pay the bills.) But it seems to me that there’s an aesthetic rebellion implicit in Zuin’s position, here, that reads fairly well as a figuration of a more theoretical/philosophical rebellion against solarpunk’s well-intended (but, IMHO, politically naive) techno-optimism. That Zuin mentions Le Guin and Delany as possible inspirations to be drawn upon underscores my point: that this reaching toward a more gothic iteration of solarpunk is—or at least could be—a reaching toward a more critical-utopian mode for the genre.

And that, as regular readers here will be very aware, is of much greater interest to me, in both the literary-aesthetic and critical-theoretical senses.

to be always asking questions

In a nicely serendipitous coda to yesterday’s post, here’s the mighty Sherryl Vint talking about the equally (if not more) mighty Ursula le Guin at FiveBooks.com, taking a little aside into the theory of critical utopia, and summing it up in a manner so succinct that it’s obvious why she’s a serious boss in the field, and I just a minor spear-carrier:

This emphasis on questioning utopia as a model of perfection is not an idea that’s original to me. This comes from Tom Moylan’s work, which gave us a new and more complicated vocabulary for thinking about the utopian tradition in science fiction. Le Guin is one of the writers he talks about as what he called ‘the critical utopia,’ a utopia that still has its problems as this one clearly does. What you actually learn is that utopianism is not the model of how the society should work, but rather a commitment to the values a society should uphold, even though you are always in progress in trying to manifest this in a concrete way. But it’s what Le Guin refers to in this novel as ‘permanent revolution.’ That what is utopian is always asking questions, never letting society sediment into these rigid roles.

Precisely what goes wrong with the anarchists [on Annares] is that the bureaucracy they need to manage distribution and scarcity solidifies into a power structure, and then they’re not as anarchist anymore, as their ideals would have it. The sense is that utopia is never a place you arrive at, but it’s a journey you’re on.

Amen.

(A sudden thought, riffing off that “always asking questions” line: do we associate utopianism with immaturity because children are so endlessly curious about why things are the way they are? And have we perhaps got that entirely the wrong way round?)

terrible stories, told beautifully

A shameless wholesale reblog from Nicolas Nova, here, as he’s done the service of transcribing a bit from a podcast interview with Anna Tsing which I have yet to listen to, but which chimed so damn loud with a conference paper abstract I’ve been writing this afternoon (as well as with, well, everything I’ve been thinking and writing about for the last couple of years, but the last year in particular) that I couldn’t let it pass unblogged. Plus, y’know, it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Anyway—quoth Tsing:

As I continue to read about the challenges around us, I have decided that’s not enough, we also gonna have to tell stories where we’re not winning, where there’s just terrible things happening and we might not win, and I know anthropologists have been very critical of those kind of stories, particularly as paralyzing, as leaving one dead-end. Then it’s gonna be a challenge, how do write those stories in a way that they’re not paralyzing, that they bring us to life, that we notice the details, all that art of noticing is in there, that we ‘stay in the trouble’ as Donna Haraway puts it, that we get involved, so that’s our challenge. So that rather than saying don’t do it, I think the challenge of our time is: ‘how do we tell terrible stories beautifully.’

At the risk of coming across as a shameless fan, I could argue that Tsing has already found at least one answer to her own challenge, as illustrated by her magisterial and beautiful book The Mushroom at the End of the World. But it remains a hard case to make, whether in academia (where, while you may have a solid theoretical justification for futures that contain the grit of failure and unevenness, actually getting that past the tacit and largely unexamined institutional bias toward optimistic futures over hopeful ones can be an uphill struggle) or beyond (where attempting to end-run accusations of “being a downer” by means of theory is, nine times out of ten, merely to dig one’s own hole a few feet deeper).

But nonetheless: terrible stories are a prerequisite for hope, because hope, being active, requires some undesirable future (e.g. what Lisa Garforth describes in her excellent book Green Utopias as the “apocalyptic horizon” of climate change”) to be deployed against. Optimism is not enough; optimism is Business As Usual; optimism is centrism’s implicit endorsement of the status quo. Optimism is another operationalisation of the Someone Else’s Problem field.

Hope is a harder thing to sustain—and I don’t for a moment claim to be much good at sustaining it myself. As Garforth also points out, the “end of nature” and the sense of foreclosure upon the future are closely related, and have changed the shape of hope’s expression over the last six or seven decades: they’re exactly why we’re distrustful of blueprint utopias, as futurity (quite accurately) does not appear to have the space for such blank-slate thinking.

But hope persists—and the persistence of hope is itself utopian. I have often argued here that utopia should be thought of less as a destination and more as a direction of travel, and I hold to that now—but thanks to Garforth, and to Phillip Wegner’s Invoking Hope (the proper reviewing of which is one among many tasks against which this blog post is a procrastinatory displacement activity), I understand that utopia also resides in the very attempt to travel at all, in the acted-upon belief that change is both still possible and worth attempting.

Which is why even though I feel I suck at sustaining hope, I also feel it gets a little easier the longer I try. The point of the work is the work.