All posts by Paul Raven

Six foot of unkempt postgraduate researcher.

The liturgy of business

Sarah Constantin has been talking to a marketing advisor; the advice she’s been getting confirms pretty much every assumption I’ve accumulated about the cultish dynamics of business culture.

So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests? A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc). Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.

I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.

Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning. But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses. People respond really well to fluency. Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next. Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.

As I’m sure you’re probably aware, but it bears repeating: the “con” in “con-artist” is short for “confidence”. The “unfairly maligned” jargon Constantin refers to are the shibboleths by which predators might identify and make (cautious, contingent) alliances with one another.

Of course, as Constantin observes, all cultures have their jargons and shibboleths, not least academia. Liturgies propagate beliefs. The terrifying thing about the cult of business is that the belief it propagates is utterly empty of anything but its own self-replication. As the old riff goes, growth for growth’s own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.

On the choosing of sides

The present period of history is one of the Wall. When the Berlin one fell, the prepared plans to build walls everywhere were unrolled. Concrete, bureaucratic, surveillance, security, racist walls. Everywhere the walls separate the desperate poor from those who hope against hope to stay relatively rich. The walls cross every sphere, from crop cultivation to healthcare. They exist too in the richest metropolises of the world. The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.

On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamour. On the other: stones, short supplies, fueds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night — or perhaps one more week — together.

The choice of meaning in the world today is here between the two sides of the wall. The wall is also inside each one of us. Whatever our circumstances, we can choose within ourselves which side of the wall we are attuned to. It is not a wall between good and evil. Both exist on both sides. The choice is between self-respect and self-chaos.

On the side of the powerful there is a conformism of fear — they never forget the Wall — and the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything. Such muteness is what Bacon painted.

On the other side there are multitudinous, disparate, sometimes disappearing, languages, with whose vocabularies a sense can be made of life, even if, particularly if, that sense is tragic.

John Berger, 2004. Excerpted from “A Master of Pitilessness”, collected in Hold Everything Dear (2008), Verso.

Head like a holist

From a Timothy Morton interview at Orion Magazine:

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

The holism that Morton describes here is far from being limited to our thinking about ecology; the sciences, and indeed the social sciences, are riddled with it. (The inverse of Thatcher’s nihilism, in which “the social” becomes both the source of and answer to every challenge, a sort of sociological alpha-and-omega, is still very prevalent — though I’d argue it’s slightly preferable.) As Morton points out, the problem is rooted in language, but perhaps more particularly in narrative; the systemic is difficult to narrate, because narrative — at least in its most popular and prevalent forms — needs heroes and villains, black hats and white hats, causes and effects. Climate change is particularly sticky in this regard. As I like to put it: no one’s to blame, but everyone’s complicit.

(Cf. Bruno Latour’s re-reading of Lovelock’s Gaia theory against the greater-than-the-parts holism of Earth Systems Science. As I understand it, a lot of the OOO philosophers regard Latour’s work as being quite close to their own thought; Harman in particular refers to Latour frequently, and has even written a book on him (which is still somewhere in my TBR pile). I’ve found what OOO I’ve read (which still isn’t much) to be interesting, but it lacks utility, a sense that I might use it to think with purpose beyond simply thinking; that utility is exactly what I get from Latour, and is presumably also the aspect of Latour’s work that makes him “close, but not close enough” for Harman. When discussing this with an academic philosopher, he suggested to me that “social theory” was “a category created to contain would-be philosophers who in some way ascribed to Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it”; I was quite delighted by that, even after it was made very clear that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.)

Justifications for critical utopianism

A strident argument for critical utopian discourse  (and against  technotopian solutionism) from David F Ruccio at Real-World Economics Review [via SyntheticZero]:

[This] doesn’t mean utopia is irrelevant to the problem of climate change. On the contrary. The dystopian consequences of current trends clearly invite a utopian response. But it needs to be of a different nature from the various forms of technological utopianism that are currently circulating.

It starts with a critique of the discourses, activities, and institutions that together, within the Capitalocene, have led to concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that have reached (and, by some accounts, will soon surpass) the ceiling with regards to acceptable climate risk. What I’m referring to are theories that have normalized and naturalized the current set of economic and social structures based on private property, individual decision-making in markets, and class appropriation and distribution of the surplus; activities that have accelerated changes in the Earth system, such as greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity deterioration; and institutions, such as private corporations and commercial control over land and water sources, that have had the effect of increasing surface ocean acidity, expanding fertilizer production and application, and converted forests, wetlands, and other vegetation types into agricultural land.

Such a ruthless criticism brings together ideas and activists focused on the consequences of a specific way of organizing economic and social life with respect to the global climate as well as the situations of the vast majority of people who are forced to have the freedom to try to eke out a living and maintain themselves and their communities under present circumstances.

Broadening participation in that critique, instead of directing hope toward a technological miracle, serves to create both a shared understanding of the problem and the political basis for real solution: a radically transformed economic and social landscape.

And that is why, after five years of feeling like I was beating my head against a brick wall, I’m nonetheless bandaging my metaphorical head and carrying on. For the most part, infrastructural research in the UK academy has been thoroughly colonised by solutionist paradigms, to the extent that it feels like being caught in an warped loop of the Marge vs. the Monorail! episode of The Simpsons that never reaches the denouement. It’s frustrating — and has frequently felt futile — to do battle with the unholy alliance of perverse economic incentives and semantically ambiguous suitcase words… but as the old cliche goes: to try is to invite failure, but to give up is to ensure it.

Red Planet Blues

A fine piece of speculative journalism from the redoubtable Geoff Manaugh: crime and policing on the off-world colonies. Full of chewy gems and story-starters, alongside the existential stuff that proponents of such neocolonial projects either ignore or lack the imagination to consider:

In the precarious Martian environment, where so much depends on the efficient, seamless operation of life-support systems, sabotage becomes an existential threat. A saboteur might tamper with the oxygen generators or fatally disable a settlement’s most crucial airlock. When human life is so thoroughly entwined with its technical environment, we should not consider these sorts of acts mere petty crimes, he explained to me. In a literal sense, they would be crimes against humanity—even, on a large enough scale, attempted genocide.

“I think the fact that tyranny is easier in space is a foregone conclusion,” he explained to me, precisely because there is nowhere to escape without risking instant death from extreme cold or asphyxiation. In other words, the constant presence of nearly instant environmental lethality will encourage systems of strong social control with little tolerance for error. Orders and procedures will need to be followed exactly as designed, because the consequences of a single misstep could be catastrophic.

This is, I’ve always felt, the point that Chairman Bruce was trying to make in Schismatrix: once human beings start living in habitats other than the one they evolved in, they effectively stop being “human” and become something else — a difference marked not only by the technological/biological adaptations to said environment, but also (and perhaps more so) by the social adaptations. As such, the notion of “crimes against humanity” might look like a useful precedent for Martian policing from an Earther’s perspective, but Martians would likely consider themselves to be beyond that jurisdiction, if only implicitly.