Category Archives: Futures

The barbarians are within the walls

Naomi Klein on “climate barbarism” (and more) at LARB:

We live in societies, whether they admit it or not, that do rank human life based on race and religion. And climate change forces us to reckon with that, and ask, are we going to live up to the rhetoric of equality and the idea that we actually believe people are of equal value by right of being alive on this planet? If we believe that, we need to radically change our ideas of national borders, and we need to open our arms and talk about how we’re going to share what is left. Or are we going to double down and get monstrous? We are getting monstrous. It’s not a future idea, it is happening. It is the Salvinis, it is the Trumps, it is the Bolsonaros.

We see the response to the Green New Deal — oh, it’s too much, it’s too ambitious. But if anything it’s not enough. If anything, there’s not enough about immigration and borders, still, in the climate discussion. […] I feel like this is a moment when we need a much more expansive discussion of the interlocking crises of our time. If we don’t get out of this idea that these are separate crises, then the truth is that climate will always be pushed out of the way. Because it’s not more urgent than kids being ripped away from their families and dying in the desert — anyone who tries to win that argument is monstrous themselves. We either merge, join forces, or we lose.

This is the task. All the work is merely part of this.

The future is not a static thing

Le Guin’s work is distinctive not only because it is imaginative, or because it is political, but because she thought so deeply about the work of building a future worth living. She did not just believe that a society free of consumerism and incarceration, like Shevek’s homeworld, could exist; she explored how that society could be built and understood the process would be hard work, and probably on some level disappointing. The future is not a static thing; to its architects, it is always in motion, always mid-creation, never realized.

Sarah Jones at Dissent Magazine.

La sagesse de l’Oncle Bruno

Bruno Latour [BL] and Nickolaj Schultz [NS], in conversation with Jakob Stein in late 2018, from a transcript (sadly not open-access) at Theory, Culture & Society:

BL: … we are inheriting a history of 200 years of euphemizing and making invisible the material conditions of existence on which we rely. When we see the ecological crisis arriving, we do everything to delay or deny the situation, because we have learned that this was a question outside of our social order. But the fact that the earthly conditions come back and reinsist on being the most important aspect of the social order – which is actually very classical politics, since to have politics you need a land and you need a people – makes us very surprised. So I think it is momentary. It is a transition which is in a way going very fast, since everybody knows now that it is the essential problem. But it is still difficult to fit into the classical definition of politics, because it does not fit with the nation-state, etc. So there are all sorts of characteristics that explain the indifference. There are also theological reasons.

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BL: The place or land where these neo-nationalist countries claim to live has no economic or ecological base. If you see the negotiations between Brussels and Italy, it is clear that the promises made have absolutely no connection with any soil. And the imaginary America of Trump and the imaginary Brazil of Bolsonaro have no land either. It simply has no existence economically or ecologically. And this is why we have to very quickly do the work of reconstituting the land under the feet of people. This is where things can be accelerated and politics can come back. If you ask people ‘What is the territory that allows you to subsist?’, at first, people immediately realize that they have no way of describing this territory and they are completely lost. Afterwards, they feel excited and regrounded. And if they have a ground, a land, a territory, they begin to have interests. And if they have interests, we begin to have politics. So it can and it will shift very quickly. If not, we will all be doomed. Brexit is a good example. What happens in England now is really interesting, because you see how people begin to realize that Brexit is a catastrophe in terms of conditions of existence. You see people who are deeply depoliticized, completely seized by the idea that you need no attachments, suddenly realizing that if you are cut out of Europe then you are nothing much. Because now people are talking concretely: with Brexit, these universities are going to disappear, these jobs are going to disappear, etc., and we have been completely lied to about what it is to be somewhere, in England, in the place of nowhere.

Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth, is literally the work of a lifetime: a distillation of everything he’s done in the past four decades plus into around a hundred short, crackling pages. For most of his career, he has played the distanced sociological role impeccably, but has slowly been shedding it over the last decade or so (or perhaps ever since “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”); Down to Earth sees him shrug it off completely and make these clean, clear connections to a political project. It’s a masterpiece, full of energy and urgency. You could read it in an afternoon, and I thoroughly recommend that you do so.

Also found this bit from Schultz of great interest:

NS: I am still not sure if I understand why we should not be able to theorize power exerted over future generations. Why should power relations not be able to travel through time? That power relations travel through time – is this not what sociology has always showed with concepts such as ‘social heritage’, ‘social reproduction’, etc? I do not think it takes a lot of metaphysical imagination to realize that our generation and previous generations are dominating and have dominated future generations’ possibilities of breathing and living on habitable soils. Unfortunately, it takes more of an imagination to imagine the opposite. As you say, time is colonized. In this perspective we maybe need to understand that we, the Western, modern civilization, was, is and will be a sort of ‘geo-historical elite’, while future generations, rich as well as poor, Western and non-Western, will be living in our ruins of capitalism, as Anna Tsing would say, as a geo-historical proletariat. It is not a nice thought, but …

Cf. this bit from a while back here at VCTB re: the colonising present, riffing on Deb Chachra. I suppose every generation is given to thinking that its challenges are of world-shattering importance and urgency, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

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.)

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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.

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

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The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

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The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)