Category Archives: Futures

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’

(ibid.)

However:

‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)

Sadowski & Bendor (2019), Selling smartness: Corporate narratives and the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary

This one’s a doozy; does exactly what it says on the tin, on the basis of a deep and comparative dive into “smart city” documentation from IBM and Cisco. A useful extension of Jasanoff & Kim’s “sociotechnical imaginary” concept into the corporate mythmaking space, too.

… while some definitions identify the smart city with its technical infrastructure, the smart city is not equivalent to any single technology or collection of technologies. The sensors, networks, and algorithms associated with the smart city could be deployed in other settings and contexts. What makes them “smart city technologies,” therefore, is neither strictly technical (pertaining to functionality, instrumental causes, or driven by efficiency) nor entirely social (produced by specific actors, reflecting particular incentives, or embraced by certain institutions). Smart city technologies become smart city technologies only by association with the idea of the smart city and the narratives, logics, practices, and symbolism of which it is constituted. As a consequence, the smart city can be seen as both a container for innovation and a yardstick for evaluating innovation.

(p. 541)

… these documents [from IBM and Cisco] comprise a narrative according to which the smart city appears inevitable, the only reasonable response to an impending urban crisis. At the same time, since the smart city as an “actually existing” sociotechnical assemblage is still nascent, we argue that the smart city is an anticipatory vision—even a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a set of orienting assumptions and operationalizable propositions about urban planning and development.

(p. 542)

… the smart city is a field of struggle over the political imagination. We should think of these corporate discourses as tools for directing and delimiting what we can imagine as possible. As this paper shows, IBM and Cisco do not set out a suite of scenarios that represent radically different visions and politics. There are variations of the services they offer, but rarely do they deviate from reflecting and reinforcing the technocratic and neoliberal precepts that motivate this vision of smart urbanism [… their] aim is to establish their version of smartness as the future—the only one available or possible.

(p. 544)

By seeking to dominate the discursive field and capture the imagination of city leaders, IBM and Cisco aim to ensure that alternative smart city imaginaries remain effectively closed off. It follows that if we are to open the space for alternatives and counter-imaginaries, then we first need to understand the principles and attributes of the dominant imaginary as a way of better knowing what needs to be challenged and how.

(p. 545)

Given this overall crisis-based framing, we can read the smart city as a reactionary story, and not only the ultimate manifestation of techno-utopian thought. To be sure, those utopian elements are still present, especially in the dreamscapes of smart cities that are built from scratch on empty plots, networked and sensored from the outset. Yet, when we consider the smart city as a piecemeal project of securing against an impending catastrophic future, it begins to take shape as a conservative project in which the best course of action is to pragmatically maintain stability and to technically control uncertainty…

(p. 550)

For tech corporations and city leaders, the sociotechnical imaginary of smart urbanism promises control over myriad urban dynamics and then outlines ways to make that dream come true [… ] the city ceases to be a messy, unknowable, and uncontrollable place. Urban elites can imagine themselves possessing a panoptical power…

(p. 552)

It is important to recognize that the language of “solutions”—like that of “smartness”—is more than just an idle label. [refs out to Bogost and Morozov re “solutionsim”; cf. also James Bridle’s “computational thinking”] By recasting everything as a problem waiting for a techno-fix, especially issues that are social in nature, the space for philosophical reflection and political contention shrinks. Furthermore, in effect, the solutionist language works backward: for those in the business of providing solutions, solvable problems are essential. The crises are tailored to justify the solutions, and the latter come in different forms and guises.

(pp. 552-3)

Three main implementation styles of the “smart city”:

By far, the most common “actually existing” smart cities are those that are retrofitted and renovated with upgrades that transition them from “dumb” to “smart.” This usually starts with one or a few initiatives meant to address a specific problem, such as parking or public safety.

[…]

Then, there is the “shock therapy” method of implementation—or what we call smart shock—in which a city undergoes a quick, large-scale integration of smart urbanism ideals, technologies, and policies into an existing landscape. In these cases, the smart city transition happens to a greater degree and over a short time period. Smart shocks are much rarer than retrofits because they require much more financial and political capital. [e.g. Rio de Janeiro]

[…]

Perhaps the most idealistic models for the smart city are built-from-scratch projects that are being constructed where nothing existed before. A canonical case is New Songdo in South Korea […] These model cities are more like showcases for the technology’s potential: why just tell customers about the smart city with a pamphlet, when you can show them the imaginary in tangible form?

(p. 554-5)

The smart city is a dynamic future-in-the-making. It is an exemplary case of how corporations, not just state actors, actively construct sociotechnical imaginaries to advance their own ends. While it is true that the corporate model is an offshoot of a deeply rooted political economic regime, we must not mistake a contingency for inevitability, despite IBM and Cisco’s efforts. In this vein, reframing and reimagining smart urbanism must involve creating counter-narratives that open up space for alternative values, designs, and models…

(p. 557)

The glamour of futurity

… there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.

Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there… As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.

[…]

Glamour is always driven by some form of dissatisfaction. In order to imagine your life as different and better you have to be willing to acknowledge that it’s not perfect. You have to have some sense of discontent. And you also have to have the imaginative space — the permission to feel that actually could be different. Now, that may be kind of a true fantasy, something that couldn’t really happen. But a lot of times it’s just something that’s improbable or distant.

One form of dissatisfaction is boredom. Another form is hardship, and those things can go together because people who have difficult lives often have an element of that as a kind of drudgery at work…

[…]

… from the ‘20s through the mid-60s, in the general popular culture the idea of the future was glamorous. There are still parts of the popular culture where you will find futurism being glamorous today. But they tend to be niches and subcultures. You have the the extropian radical life extension kind of people, and they have a sort of glamorous notion of the future. But I think even in mainstream science fiction, what interests people about the future is less that it’s glamorous and ideal and more that it’s different. So they’re exploring different settings, but not necessarily ones that have an element of utopianism or idealism to them.

Some big excerpts from an interview with Virginia Postrel at Paleofuture

The mainstreaming of worldbuilding

Looks like some ideation-futures concepts and methodologies are leaking out of the Valley and into the entertainment industry:

[The artist formerly known as Grimes] plans to eventually take up the name of the main character in her book series, an elaborate mythology comparable to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. It sounds like the books will have a soundtrack, too: “Only, the songs will come first. It’ll be like Sailor Moon and Game Of Thrones, and yeah, it’s super, super pretentious….” Relatedly, “I call branding that is art, lore. Prince has lore. Rihanna has great lore. It’s essentially world building. It’s my favorite art form.”

TafkaG has been in some sort of relationship with Elongated Muskrat, which is probably the infection vector in this case — both of the worldbuilding stuff, and also the gravitation toward some sort of meme-ready edgelordism. I think we can expect to see the notion of “lore” get some rapid traction in the cultural world, even if only for a season or so… but “worldbuilding”, as a label for a hard-to-define bundle of practices, is going mainstream faster than I expected, which presents both opportunities and difficulties. It’s an interesting moment for science fiction (and the scholarship and criticism thereof), too, because there’s no escaping where that concept originated.