Category Archives: Infrastructural Theory

neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental

Medium-length essay here by Rob Nixon, whose “slow violence” concept was briefly introduced to me back in early March at a little symposium thing in Utrecht; I’ve acquired the book, obvs, but it’ll likely be a while before I get to it, and I wanted to put up a quick placeholder for it on the digital wall-of-academic-crazy that this blog is slowly becoming. This, I would assume, is the thesis of the book in a nutshell:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

Nixon’s task in this essay is more than a little inside-baseball, as it’s for the USian Chronicle of Higher Ed. He’s talking about the invisibility of slow violence in the humanities, which is just starting to fall away. The argument goes that Environmental Literary Studies / EcoCriticism and Postcolonial Studies developed in parallel, but rarely spoke to one another thanks to assumptions of divergence and incompatibility in subjects and theory alike; this dialogue is starting to emerge, says Nixon, but needs to be deepened. EcoCrit is particularly parochial (at least in the US, by Nixon’s account: “an offshoot of American Studies”; I can’t speak to its breadth or narrowness elsewhere with confidence, as it’s not my beat). To interrogate this parochialism, Nixon takes up the figure of martyred Ogoni author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 by the prevailing regime in Nigeria for a lifetime’s resistance to European and American oli interests and their “attritional ruination” of Ogoni homelands:

One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.

Some of the violence he sought to expose was direct and at gunpoint, but much of it was incremental, oblique, and slow moving.

It was not spectacular, in other words.

Nixon argues that Saro-Wiwa was illegible to EcoCrit in the US because his Africanness made it easy to tag him as a subject more suited to PoCo; at the same time, PoCo critics (in the grand tradition of Said) were dismissing environmentalism as a sort of “green imperialism”. Things have changed since then, with western activists wiser and more willing to learn from the marginalised (though Spivak would object to the use of that descriptor, as it reinforces the otherness that Nixon is seeking to undermine: marginal from what, to whom?); this is in part due to “the writer-activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers who have helped bring news of those struggles to international audiences and, in the process, have underscored the link between social and environmental justice.” The “transnational turn” in American studies, sez Nixon, and a growing engagement with native literatures emerging from American Indian studies, “will help advance a more historically answerable and geographically expansive sense of what constitutes our environment—and which literary works we entrust to voice its parameters. For all the recent progress toward that goal, it remains a continuing, ambitious, and crucial task, not least because, for the foreseeable future, literature departments are likely to remain influential players in the greening of the humanities.”

I’m less interested in the academic politics of this stuff than the distinction in rhetorics that Nixon is driving toward with the “slow violence” concept. He claims that Global-Southern writer-activists:

… are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.

I got quite interested a while back in a spectrum of narrative logics from cinema studies, namely the spectacular and the dramatic, because it seemed to me a good way to start poking holes in the extruded product of the Hot Take Futures Factory. The spectacular logic might reductively described as the James Bay approach to storytelling (make a lot of things explode excitingly on screen, focus on moment-to-moment jeopardies and gun-point confrontations), while the dramatic logic is more driven by relationships, character growth, and a situatedness of events in contextual timespace.

(There may also be some useful cross-over here with the notion of flat and rounded characters, though the flat character is not an inferior form so much as one that does a different sort of work–particularly within the scope of modern sf, e.g. Bruce Sterling, who uses flat characters as avatars for ideas in a sometimes problematic but nonetheless powerful way.)

The spectacular logic is a thing of cinema, and for better or for worse, cinema is Hollywood’s creature, a recrudescence of Manifest Destiny and a perpetual recreation of the expansionist frontier mythology: cowboys’n’indians, heroic gunplay, a background of resource extraction, etc etc. Perhaps no surprise, then, that American studies was more drawn to such stories. I infer that the Global-Southern rhetoric thus draws more on the dramatic logic, which is precisely slower, more intimate and diffuse, less Black-Hat-White-Hat… and while I don’t know the EcoCrit or PoCo literatures that well, I’m getting strong echoes from (of course) Le Guin and Haraway, from carrier-bag stories and stayings-with-troubles, all of which suggests I need to talk more to my enviro-and-energy-humanities colleagues, and start reading more widely in fiction as well as theory. (There’s always more things to read, always more more-things-to-read…)

As a final aside, there’s probably something to say about the pandemic (whose mediatisation is entirely spectacular) using this slow violence lens (which would be a nice distraction from the way in which Agamben, while not exactly looking right about it all, is starting to look less wrong about it in a way that’s more than a little disturbing… see also Gordon White’s chaos-magickal take on the biopolitics of the pandemic). Slow violence (as distinct from spectacular violence) might be a better way to come at Oncle Bruno’s argument that the pandemic won’t necessarily make the climate change struggle more obvious and urgent to western folk, because it’s hard to make climate change spectacular without reverting into the other characteristics of such narrative forms: the spectacle is a more immediately compelling logic by comparison to the dramatic.

(But also because the effacement of extractivism’s consequences is an inevitable feature of the metamedium across which such stories are necessarily circulated–the projection/depiction of said consequences takes place upon the surface of the metasystemic prosthesis through which we collectively perform the extraction, and thus serves to efface its (and thus our) complicity in the extractivist dynamic. The machine through which the disenchantment of the world is shown to us is the same machine through which we do the disenchanting… it’s the tech-magician’s perpetual prestige, the show that never ends.)

Perhaps, because less thoroughly mediated, native and/or Global Southern narratologies are less optimised for the spectacular logic, and thus more capable of portraying the drama of slow violence. The failure, if that’s the right word, is the loss of our ability to parse such forms as familiar; if the environmental humanities can rehabilitate that collective literacy, even just a little bit, that’s surely a good thing.

(To which one might retort that the academic humanities are a pretty small bucket for a boat that’s leaking this fast… but hey, many small buckets have gotta beat arguing about who’s got the biggest one. Everyone grab what you got, and start bailing.)

expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for (‘think about the box’, redux)

The excellent Alexis Lloyd observes that the road to hell has in recent years been paved with “user-centred” design; while well-intended, it’s also pernicious.

… in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.

This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.

Note my emphasis there: user-centred design is part of the prestidigitatory process, the front-of-house flourish of consumption that distracts attention from the concealed systems of extraction, production and distribution. Provision ex nihilo; it’s not a bug, it’s THE feature.

So what’s the alternative?

To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?

Personally I would underline “to begin with” a couple of times. STEEP is a step on from a lot of commonly-used foresight frameworks, but more often than not the ‘S’ component ends up being a gesture or genuflection in the direction of some currently fashionable shibboleth such as “wellbeing” or “resilience”; ditto the use of some rough quantitative estimate of “sustainability” in the environmental column.

These are points that I started trying to make a long time ago, though I was almost laughably bad at making myself understood, in part because I lacked (and indeed still lack, to some extent) a complete language with which to map this way of seeing the world in order that it might make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in my own brain-pan. (A curse that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, etc etc.)

Indeed, it’s what I was grasping toward with my early exhortation to “think about the box”, in my first (and painfully stilted) public presentation of any significance, way back in 2013 at Improving Reality:

Back to Lloyd:

If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

To reference another Douglas Adams idea, where might we find the Total Perspective Vortex? I’ve never believed that I have all the right answers, nor indeed many of them; rather, my whole point is that no one can have all the right answers, and thus matters of design need to be approached from a plurality of subjectivities and transdisciplinarity.

However, I do believe I have (some of) the right questions. I’m just not yet able to articulate them all in a useful way… and that is the labour of theory, at least for me.

archaeology of prestidigitatory production

A short Doug Rushkoff riff that chimes with my extended infrastructure-as-stage-magic metaphor:

The industrialist’s dream was to replace [workers] entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.

Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

Provision ex nihilo. The seemingly magical product or service always sells better. Rushkoff points off in the direction of the metamedium, too:

While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.

Infrastructure as a metasystem is complicit in its own effacement. Its purpose is not only to enable our prosthetic consumptions, but further to obscure their consequences by displacing them in timespace. It is the veil that capital draped over Gaia, the entangled cause and effect of the social/natural dichotomy.

a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow

Insightful piece on superhero narratives, magic and transhumanism by Iwan Rhys Morus over at Aeon a few weeks back; collides a bunch of my own long-running obsessions in exciting ways. For instance, technology’s deliberate appropriation of the mask of (stage) magic:

During the 19th century, the relationship between technology and divinity took a new turn. In his Letters on Natural Magic (1832), the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster suggested that technological know-how was an integral aspect of ancient (and less ancient) priestcraft. This was how idolaters had fooled their congregations into believing in false gods. He reminded his readers that the Roman writer Pliny, when describing the temple of Hercules at Tyre, had mentioned a sacred seat ‘from which the gods easily rose’. There were other classical descriptions of gods and goddesses who ‘exhibited themselves to mortals’, and ‘ancient magicians’ who ‘caused the gods to appear among the vapours disengaged from fire’. These were all products of a duplicitous priesthood’s superior knowledge of the technology of light and shadow. Yet they could just as easily be recast as a charlatan’s game. Thus, the staunch Presbyterian Brewster could insist that Catholic ‘bishops and pontiffs themselves wielded the magician’s wand over the diadem of kings and emperors’. Technology could confer divinity, but only by deception.

Brewster wasn’t the only Victorian with a stake in putting modern technology into a history of deceptive magic. Inventor-entrepreneurs of the 19th-century were often cast (and often by themselves) as latter-day Prosperos, with the important qualification that they really could do what they claimed. Discussions of the newly invented electric telegraph were often couched this way, for example. Upon seeing Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke – the telegraph’s inventors – put their instrument to work, Edward Copleston, bishop of Llandaff, rhapsodised how it ‘exceeds even the feats of pretended magic and the wildest fictions of the East’. This was a technology that promised ‘a thousand times more than what all the preternatural powers which men have dreamt of and wished to obtain were ever imagined capable of doing’. Telegraphy, telephony and wireless telegraphy (radio) were touted as extending the reach of human sensation, offering individuals the power to manipulate invisible forces and act instantaneously at a distance.

Yeah, yeah—infrastructure as the underpinnings of the prestige, in other words. Seen from this POV, McLuhan’s move was to concretise the magic metaphor and run with it… which explains both the power and the limits of that strategy, perhaps. (While Clarke’s Third Law indicates that, even if you try to collapse the metaphor, people will choose by preference to misparse you and assume that you’re conflating technology and magic, rather than making a point about the way in which techniques of provision and display are inevitably concealed by those who master them, as a way of retaining their mastery. We like illusions; indeed, we prefer them to truth, as they are more comforting, and require less thought rather than more.)

There’s some bits on Wells and Tesla, of course—the latter being the better-read transhumanoid’s antecedent crank-prophet of preference (and, of course, being a character in Priest’s The Prestige). But it’s well worth noting that he was cranking out pretty much the same unlimited offers of technotranscendence that the likes of Kurzweil still peddle today:

Newspapers loved this kind of speculation, and Tesla was particularly adept at exploiting its appeal. ‘Nikola Tesla Shows How Men of the Future May Become as Gods,’ screamed a headline in The New York Herald on 30 December 1900. The article featured Tesla musing how his inventions would transform the future of humanity: starting with an image of a newborn child as an animated machine, and concluding with humans harnessing the Sun’s energy and building machines that were self-acting.

Same as it ever was… the Engineer’s Disease in action, as so expertly skewered by Vonnegut in Player Piano.

Another alarming connection that persists in the contemporary version of transhumanism is eugenics and “race science”, and that’s how we can draw a line from Wells and Tesla through Campbell and Heinlein, and on to assorted creeps in transhumanism’s theoretical wing, who I’m not going to dignify with a naming at this juncture.

The notion that technological progress and its impact on the body might deliver something like divine power was becoming a staple of popular science fiction. Not only could technology mimic the supernatural – technology was supernatural. The American author Robert Heinlein played with this idea in his deeply racist novel Sixth Column, originally serialised in 1941 in the science fiction publisher John W Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine, just as comic strip superheroes were gaining popularity…

Of course, we can’t reduce any of these people to their eugenics fascination alone. The case of Wells (and Huxley, for that matter) is a reminder that eugenics was popular on both sides of the political spectrum—but this fact is often twisted by the new clade of apologists as an argument for its rehabilitation, which even the most generous interpretation would describe as a creative use of the historical record.

But back to Cap’n Bob again:

Heinlein’s example [in e.g. Time Enough for Love] is pertinent here for revealing something important about the political culture of contemporary superism. By the 1970s, Heinlein’s politics were explicitly libertarian, and much of the underlying culture of superheroes shared a libertarian commitment to varying degrees. Superman or Batman might have put their superpowers at the service of civic authorities in Metropolis or Gotham City, but they themselves were not part of those authorities. Their power came from their capacity to work outside the state. Heinlein’s later novels increasingly celebrated the independent agency of the individual. The collective was a hinderance, rather than a help. This is the ethos of contemporary superhero culture as well. In some respects – and this is a key difference between the original generation of superheroes and their contemporary successors – collectives are part of the problem to which superheroes are the answer. [PGR: this is also a dynamic identified as central to the technological utopia, both the sf-nal and urban-planning versions thereof.] State agencies are helpless, incompetent or blinkered at best; corrupt and malign at their worst. Superheroes bring salvation precisely because they work outside such structures. And they can act like that precisely because their technologically enhanced bodies give them the freedom of exemption.

Looking at it this way, the popularity of superhero culture among aficionados of new technological entrepreneurship seems obvious. It’s a culture that celebrates individual agency at the expense of the collective. Things get done by charismatic individuals rather than by the state.

I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Morus is seeing literature as primarily reflective of the prevailing culture—which of course it is, but I’m interested in the extent to which the prevalence of such literary-cultural (and more generally media-cultural) narratives act as a reinforcing feedback loop for those same beliefs. Do underwear perverts and transhumanist captains of industry normalise the techno-hero’s journey and the myth of the Competent Man, rather than simply illustrating their popularity?

(Spoilers: I believe that yes, they definitely do, and that the world right now is a really good illustration of that dynamic in action.)

Good piece; go read the whole thing, why don’t you?

charismatic megaprojects / Infrastructure fictions elsewhere

I recently republished the text and slides of my 2013 talk “An introduction to Infrastructure Fiction” here on VCTB (under the Essays heading, which isn’t entirely accurate, but better than nothing for now).

I was reminded of this (and thus prompted to remind you) by yesterday encountering a post at good ol’ Metafilter which mentioned a couple of what are definitely infrastructure fictions: one is a recent Dutch proposal to enclose the North Sea using two massive dams, one between Scotland and Norway, another between Cornwall and France; the other was an earlier proposal to raise an island out in Doggerland and populate it with wind turbines and so forth.

While the Doggerland notion may well have been at least in part serious — it bears some relation to similar projects I’ve seen doing the rounds on the continent in recent years — the Dutch proposal, from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, is quite upfront about its rhetorical purpose. It’s trying to say “OK, look, we could take a gamble and spend all this money and effort and skill on a batshit engineering project like this in the hope of making things more environmentally stable over the next however-many years… or we could, like, reduce our carbon emissions, which is comparatively cheap and really bloody easy?”

I still think there’s a value and utility to the infrastructure fiction approach. But much like BoZo’s many bridges, the risk of proposals like this is they attract the excitement of people who want to have their concretised metaphor and eat it, so to speak. Charismatic megaprojects are an easy sell (and very science-fictional), whereas the sociotechnical project of reconfiguring consumptive practices, while arguably even bigger in true scale, lacks the glamour of building a big exciting thing, and worse still smacks of effort and/or privation on the part of the audience, rather than some imagined engineer.

Forestalling that misinterpretation, insofar as it’s even possible, is one of the challenges of the form — one that it has, of course, inherited from design fiction itself.