All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

contractions / contradictions

From the Salvage Collective’s third Covid State Dispatch. The opening salvo deserves constant repetition:

The hubris of seeing in this moment the inevitability of socialism follows the shattering electoral defeat of the left, and can only end in two ways: with demoralisation; or with the predicate-shifting disavowal that leads one to find a socialist militant in Sir Keir Starmer.

However, there is nonetheless possibility and potential in the current suspension of the accumulative logic:

Shipping, the infrastructural crux of globalisation, responsible for $12 trillion of world trade, was in decline before the pandemic. It was under pressure from Trump’s trade war on China, new regulatory regimes driven by Washington’s desire to crush sanction-busters, and a general sag in world trade. Now it is in crisis. Trade is expected to fall by 13–20 per cent, as ports are closed, cargo is left to rot, and seafarers are stranded in remote countries, on board vessels, or stuck in hotels, without pay.

The fragility of long-range, just-in-time global supply chains having been exposed, the industry trend will probably be toward more digitised surveillance and roboticisation on the one hand, with less reliance on face-to-face contact, and a search for shorter routes and shorter supply chains on the other. Countries that can will have to build up national resilience, so that they can source essential goods quickly in the event that shipping grinds to a halt. Rather than globalising further, trading systems are likely to be regionalised – a long-term trend exacerbated by Covid-19. So, while pandemic management will require more international cooperation, existing trends toward deglobalisation in the economy are likely to be accelerated far beyond anything Trump achieved.

[…]

The oil industry now expects ‘peak demand’ to arrive sooner than expected, while the extraction cost of oil and gas relative to yield, is soaring. If deglobalisation advances, shipping industries contract, and aviation becomes less common – all highly plausible in the near future – then the growth expected by fossil capitalists up to 2040 is unlikely to materialise. If the profit advantage that fossil fuels have over renewables is apt to disappear soon, then the economic advantage of burning as if there is no tomorrow disappears too. This is perhaps why elements of pro-capitalist opinion are pushing for some sort of green interventionism, congruent with wider calls for sustained economic intervention.

[…]

In short, with the two lynchpins of late capitalist growth – globalisation powered by fossil burning – in crisis, this is uncharted territory. As at the start of the 2008 crisis, the popular response has been to rally round existing authorities, and hope – in vain – that their trust is repaid with a minimum of fairness. However, it is clear that global capitalism will need to be drastically restructured, not only to eliminate glaring dysfunctions exposed by the pandemic crisis, but to prevent another from occurring, to cause similar chaos. This comprehensive crisis of capitalist civilisation reaches right into its biophysical limits. With no good options for any government, this will likely be profoundly destabilising for the reactionary forces whose power was in the process of being consolidated.

Buuuut…

The danger is that governing paralysis, soaring unemployment and poverty, and growing state authoritarianism will create fecund ground for forces well to the right of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro…

Right. So if you want that possible better world, then start working for it—because those who want a worse one are not wasting the opportunity.

block, busted: reading Leviathan Wakes

A few weeks ago I finally gave in to the importuning of a friend and acquired the first book of The Expanse sequence, and in doing so managed to break a case of reader’s block that had been running for months. Perhaps there’s something about having a book chosen for you, rather than picking one from the ever-growing TBR stacks (with the accompanying sense that you should pick something worthy, and/or with some sort of professional value), that lets you just have a go, y’know?

I’m mostly glad I did—but there’s that “mostly”, there, which I’m aware is coming from a deep-seated snobbery that I’ve managed to internalise over the years. For better or for worse (and most likely more of the latter in this case) I think of myself as a reader of literature nowadays, and Leviathan Wakes is not literature in that sense— and nor should it be, to be clear. The io9 blurb on the front cover of my copy describes it as being “as close as you’ll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form”, and that’s spot on, and also exactly why I can’t help myself from being equivocal about a book that I finished, and finished quickly. I’m reminded of being taken, not entirely willingly, to see the latest Star Wars movie back in January, and getting exactly the same sense of having all my buttons pushed firmly in a sequence deftly optimised for the attraction of attention and the engendering of emotional response. The authorial amalgam that is Corey has learned this art—and it it is an art—and learned it well.

Propulsiveness and the escalation of spectacular conflict is popular for a reason, and it takes genuine skill to do it well. I was impressed by the way Corey manages to conjure a system-wide wind-up-to-war while limiting themselves to a tick-tock swap between just two limited-third narrative POVs, and some of the pivots between those POVs across a change of chapter are so smooth that you only notice them if you’re forcing yourself to pay attention to the technique rather than the tale. If you want to study pace, then this is a fine text to take as an exemplar.

I guess my literary pretensions really start to show when we come to the matter of character. I have no principled objection to the use of (arche)types—in fact, some of my favourite writers lean in hard to that approach. But the central-casting feel of the character roster here underlined that Hollywood-blockbusterness in a way I didn’t find pleasing: Holden’s crew, in particular, could be transplanted from (or into) almost any space-opera or mil-sf story; meanwhile Miller, while a bit too mild to be a proper noir protagonist, felt all the more sui generis for that). This is, of course, part of the appeal of the generic form—and Corey’s project is definitely not the subversion of genre, even as there’s some degree of cross-pollination going on.

(Though the horror-ish material, i.e. the stuff about the protovirus’s corruption of the people and environments it infects, seemed a little mild, a little too left-to-the-audience… or maybe not left to the audience enough? Or maybe I’ve just become inured to that sort of intergalactic bodyhorror, which someone like Al Reynolds or Paul MacAuley can make much more disturbing and compelling? I dunno… I recall saying to the friend that recommended it that Leviathan Wakes reminded me of early Peter F Hamilton, if early Hamilton had been less bloated in page-count and POVs, populated by more believable characters, and written by someone with a better grasp of the entangled dynamics of privilege and poverty.)

Credit where it’s due, though—central casting they may be, but I developed a relationship with the POV characters Miller and Holden very quickly. As I presume I was meant to, I found myself identifying with Miller’s cynicism and guilty-crusader schtick, and considering Holden to be a (self-)righteous dickhead; about 3/4 of the way through, it’s made very plain that Miller and Holden are of course mirror images of one another, and the bits I’d admired in Miller were effectively the same things I’d found contemptible in Holden. Of course, this is perhaps more revealing about me than it is about the book…

I think I’m no more likely to make the time to see any of the TV series as a result of having read Leviathan Wakes than I was before; much as I can respect the art and technique of this stuff on the page, I know I’m going to get pissed off very quickly by the lack of subtlety that television invariably brings to anything that needs a lot of exposition. (I’m told that the TV is fine spectacle, and I don’t doubt it—but that’s exactly what I don’t enjoy.) As to reading more of the books, I’m of two minds—and this is definitely that snobbery thing in action: because on the one hand, I rattled through this novel in little over a week, and admired both its technical deftness and its ability to transport me out of my reality (even as the themes of infection, quarantine and nationalism constantly reminded me of it); while on the other hand, I’m left feeling the literary equivalent of a sugar-crash. I find it very telling that immediately after finishing it I found myself with the urge to re-read Schismatrix—because that is a book which pioneered the small-stage space-opera genre that The Expanse has taken up, and raises far more interesting questions about the human condition in a far shorter number of pages. Which, to forestall any accusations of elitism, doesn’t make Schismatrix the “better” book; it’s just the better book for me, the one that does more of what I want a book dealing with such a setting to do.

But as empty as I feel its calories to be, I think I might well read at least the next two volumes of The Expanse; I suspect something about my pretensions to literariness makes it possible for me to just get on and read it without much attempt at analysis—and that’s a capacity that both academic reading and the practice of criticism have a tendency to ablate. Or, more plainly, it can be hard for me to just read the fuck out of something in the way I used to as a younger person, seeking little more from sf than an imaginative transportation out of difficult and straitened circumstances. I think there’s lessons in technique to be taken from it, too—but mostly it’s a credit to Corey’s skills at a form of storytelling which is very hard to resist, and harder still to dismiss as mere pablum. It may not be at all my usual bag, but it’s very, very good at what it does. I guess that even I am not immune to the thrill of being taken for a ride every once in a while.

technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position: regardless power, regardless freedom and the desire for excession

More newsletter cribbing, this time from the redoubtable L M Sacasas. Like so much material being produced at the moment, this piece is mostly about the pandemic, and specifically the USian response (or lack thereof); but there’s stuff in here that has broader application, and some themes which VCTB veterans will recognise as favourites of mine. After an opening bit about some inadvertently ironic scare-quotes around the word “freedom” in a store-door chest-thumping sign, we get to this:

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Sacasas has mentioned Borgmann a fair bit since I first started reading him, to the extent that I sought out Borgmann’s best-known book (which, of course, I have yet to read). But Sacasas’s use of these terms is enough for now, particularly the notion of “regardless power”. I often talk about the self-effacement of infrastructure, by which I mean the way in which disguising or obscuring or displacing the consequences of its own extractive and distributive function is a fundamental part of what the infrastructural metasystem does. That last sentence of Sacasas’s in the blockquote above is a gloriously poetic way of making the same point.

That would have been enough to be worthy of note, but Sacasas next takes a detour through magic, with Mumford and C S Lewis as his guides. The former describes magic as “the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfilment” [my emphasis]; the latter noted that:

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.

The solution is a technique! Until, eventually, technique more broadly is the solution. Well, yes. Both of these riffs combined can clearly walk alongside my own arguments about infrastructure as a magic trick, in the Clarke’s-Third-Law sense of the term—magic as in illusion, prestidigitation, magic as apparent provision ex nihilo. Magic as in rabbits from hats.

Sacasas returns to the pandemic, and in so doing makes another point which I think is more generally applicable:

… there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that!

[…]

The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I part ways with Sacasas a bit in this last paragraph, because I tend to believe that there is a shared moral framework, just one that was always-already riven with a fundamental contradiction that the pandemic has made it impossible to unsee. (Though the extent to which we’re performatively poking our own eyes out to justify our blindness would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic; this is the point I was trying to make a while back in that piece about bioethics.) And also because he’s now framing it as a simple opposition between two poles, rather than the dialectic that he earlier suggested it might be: I’m more in sympathy with that dialectical framing, because it fits with my sense that the current vibe of of epistemic collapse is caused by the struggle of powerful networks to find a workable synthesis that retains a maximal amount of their own privilege, and to impose it on everyone else.

But lurking behind the pandemic-focussed point here is the underlying argument that “regardless freedom” is intimately related to “regardless power”, accompanied by a clear connection between that dyad and the seemingly magical affordances of infrastructural systems. “The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power.” That’s the the libidinal urge for excession in the fufilment of practices, there, being engendered by the very systems which make excession conceivable in the first place… for once you’ve been shown that you can (seemingly) get something to appear as if from nowhere, with (seemingly) minimal costs or consequences, then you will start to wonder what else might be made more magical in much the same way.

no choice but to be aggregated: enclosure and augmented reality

I’m going to assume that people have spent the last few days pointing poor old Bill Gibson at this story by way of draping the (oft-refused) garland of prophecy around his neck. The short version is that people bored of the tedious affordances of that suddenly ubiquitous video-conferencing platform (and/or possibly seeing an opportunity for a bit of self-promo?) started holding business meetings within the multiplayer version of the last-days-of-the-frontier cowboy RPG Red Dead Redemption 2; this of course echoes (and also mirror-flips) the appropriation by the character Zona (in Idoru) of a former corporate meeting space as a hang-out for her and her fellow Lo/Rez fans.

I’m no longer in the business of gleefully reporting sf tropes made manifest in the actual, or at least not just for their own sake; this story says something important about space, and the collision between the actual and the virtual versions thereof (which was, of course, an enduring theme of the Bigend trilogy, too). One imagines that for most folk who don’t read sf or social theory, this issue has seemed to just kind of erupt out of nowhere as a result of the pandemic. But it’s been going on ever since the arrival of cheap GPS chips in smartphones resulted in what another Gibson character (whose name escapes me at the moment) referred to as the “everting of cyberspace”: no longer a literal (as in placeless) utopia, cyberspace was suddenly another dimension of the actual; cyberspace had coordinates, correlations to meatspace. (Sterling got this, too; he was in pretty early on the augmented reality beat, and out just as fast once it had become part of the furniture.)

It’s not a trendy term any more; G**gle’s NGRAM suggests it peaked around 2004, and had all but disappeared by 2012, when the data set ends; I’d be very interested to see how it went after that date. But augmented reality itself didn’t go away: as so often happens, the concept just got rebadged in the process of its normalisation and commodification into the functionality of the interface layer.

Rob Horning wrote last week about what he calls augmented reality “land grabs”, a pattern established by Pokemon Go’s breezy appropriation of the whole world as its game board, and now iterated to the point that the likes of GrubHub can interpose their own food-ordering platform between potential diners and restaurants without either of the two transacting parties agreeing to let them play middle-man. He takes some time to take apart the argument for this as a viable or sensible business proposition for anyone other than vencap investors (and the huckster consultants that ride on them like remoras):

I find this version of how “innovation” now works much more plausible than the one that begins with entrepreneurs solving clients’ problems or meeting the pre-existing needs of sovereign consumers. Rich investors have so much money, so little immediate risk to their well-being, and so few conventionally viable investment vehicles that they now pursue this long-game approach. The rampant inequality that has created their dilemma has also created a new degree of leverage not only over a “broken workforce,” but also consumers, who are sometimes the same workers but in a different frame of mind. The strategy is to pit the induced “consumer expectations” against the workers’ expectation of humane treatment, as if to convince them that you can’t have one without the other. (Give me convenience and give me death!) If that means pitting workers against themselves, so much the better. It’s hard to organize resistance if you are at war with yourself, if your own compromises and contradictions make you feel always already defeated.

It’s good stuff, but it’s not the bit that’s of most immediate interest to me. That bit is a little further down, after some discussion of augmented reality as “a way to check out of the negotiations of what a space is for” that builds on Jodi Dean’s claim that late neoliberalism is giving way to neofeudalism; sez Horning, this

expands the pervasive critique that online platforms operate as feudal lords to user-serfs who have to provide their labor, and not for wages so much as for social existence. Work is no longer delineated by hours of worktime set against leisure; instead work is simply the capture of life lived within enclosed, richly surveilled (maybe call them “augmented”) spaces. The economic power elite are no longer primarily producers but rentiers, extracting fees and labor from the populations trapped on their demesnes.

Not an unfamiliar riff, at least to me. But Horning goes somewhere else with it, somewhere that chimes with thoughts that are starting to accrete around my long-deferred (but slowly spinning-up-again) project of writing a book of infrastructure theory. I’m going to quote at length, not least because I fear that the same digital rot that has done for so many blogs will almost certainly take the newsletters too, given time, and I want to have this material somewhere I can keep it safe:

Tech companies have seized the ground on which economic activity can take place: “Positioning themselves as intermediaries, platforms constitute grounds for user activities, conditions of possibility for interactions to occur,” Dean notes. This allows them to establish immiserating conditions on all parties, including datafication that reinforces the situation: “Users not only pay for the service but the platform collects the data generated by the use of the service. The cloud platform extracts rents and data, like land squared.”
 
“Land squared” is also a good way of understanding augmented reality: Where there was once just a space, not there is a data-producing enclosure, operating beyond the reach of the space’s legacy owners and amenable to scaling up to tech’s preferred monopolistic levels. Augment spaces with search until the search engines control them all; augment retail or delivery service with Amazon until Amazon dictates terms for them all. The “aggregators” (as business analyst Ben Thompson calls them) will eventually become feudal lords over those who have no choice but to be aggregated and have no means to mount a resistance to the layers being added over them.

It was the use of enclosure that caught my attention, as that’s one of the fundamental principles of infrastructural capture—the making-legible of the world, in James C Scott’s terminology, the swapping of the map for the territory, a story that’s at least as old as the navigations-and-turnpike booms in Great Britain, and (qua Scott again) perhaps as old as infrastructure itself, which is to say as old as the monocultural grain state (which is literally older than history).

There’s a whole thing to be done here about the logic of monopoly as it inheres to spatially-bound networks, and the way in which the functional infrastructural layer of the global communications network (which is to say the actual fibre and cell-towers and backbones and routers and what have you) is effectively inaccessible to most people without going through the (privately-owned and dark-patterned) interface layer of the software that we still, however increasingly inaccurately, think of as “the internet”… but working all that out in a coherent and easily-explained way is why I need to spend time roughing out this book idea, which will be a project for the summer holidays (given that I find myself in the enviably weird position of actually having a significant chunk of paid holiday for the first time in my life). So if that sounds of interest, hold that thought (and/or drop me a line)!

What I want to say now, in a somewhat peripheral argument, is that Horning’s use of the term enclosure is interesting in the context of an argument about neofeudalism, because (as ol’ Karl explained), enclosure was the nail in the original feudalism’s coffin, hammered in by capital itself. I don’t yet consider myself sufficiently adept with dialectical thinking to say this with confidence, but it seems like a very big-circle sort of synthesis for a new form of quantificatory enclosure to emerge as a function of late-late capitalism in such a way that the dynamics of feudalism make a return to the picture, rather than being pushed further away… maybe Dean and Horning are using “neofeudal” in a lighter sense than I’m parsing it, or (far more likely) I’m misparsing both their arguments and the fragments of Marx that I actually feel I understand? Or then again, maybe this is the ultimate internal contradiction of capital—to turn into a system of spatiality remarkably like that which it initially demolished to use as fuel for its transformation and disenchantment of the world?

(I dunno—like I say, more reading of Marx is definitely among the things I need to do to get this book moving, as well as a return to a lot of the material I read during my doctoral research, and far more besides. But I consider it a good omen that, mere days after sitting down and setting out what I want this project to do, little bits of relevant material have started to wing their way over the transom. The thing has a gravity well already… which is good news, but also suggests that it has the potential to eat my life for a good long while. Well, selah—I know what I’m good for now, so I might as well get on and do it.)

the feared disseminators of complexity

A new discovery, made within Simon Reynolds’ response to the shuttering of Beyond the Beyond: Matti Swiedmann’s Red Velvet Corridor.

Top of the stack of posts at present is this thing, rambling around in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, Baudrillard… all the intervals in that haunting earworm of a scale that I’m still teaching myself to play. I got as far as this passage before knowing I was on board:

… all this and more runs the serious risk of a common accusation, perhaps an accurate one, of pseudo-intellectualism. I’m not about to mount a defence of every pseud and poseur on the planet or pull off some kind of reversal here, but the way this accusation is levelled all too often amounts to little more than a crude, general anti-intellectualism. It’s the kind of attitude that insists you don’t use too many complicated ideas or terms lest the poor audience are left in the dark, that you must, above all, communicate with the utmost simplicity and clarity, spell it out in terms a child could understand, assume your audience might as well be children in fact. It harks back to a kind of notion of “appealing to the common man” that practically infantilizes the public, and thereby assumes that the priority, rather than perhaps surprising challenging, educating or confronting the mythical reader, is to offer them something familiar, if not comforting then firmly within known coordinates of discomfort. The anti-intellectualism contained often within the criticism for instance of “over-intellectualising” a subject like music flags us down and demands that we cease our attempts to surprise and confront; those who will not lay down arms become the pseuds of popular imagination, the feared disseminators of complexity, those who won’t respect the traditional boundary between “normal people” and worlds beyond their ken.

I guess one upside of the demise of the blog as a popular medium is that there’s space for people to write like this and leave the comments open without having to spend hours of every day wading through the moronic vitriol of replyguy chumps. Blogs may be dead media, but old infrastructures have a tendency of hanging around and being put to new uses once they become unprofitable… Reynolds’s beloved Hardcore Continuum relied upon the graveyards of British industry to be its seeding-bed, after all. It’s nice to know there’s still some of us out here, dancing in the ruins.