Category Archives: Philosophy

Distort some central part of the present condition

Some wisdom from Uncle Warren:

TCJ: I talked to a sci-fi editor at Tor in late 2016 about dystopias and their popularity in eras fraught with political disaster, and he said something that stuck out to me: “I think one of the underrated reasons that people read science fiction in particular is that it’s a great tool for figuring out what you think about how the world works.” Do you think that’s true? And if you do, what, after all these years, have you figured out?

WE: I do think that is largely true. Speculative fiction is an early warning station for heavy weather, that tests what might happen if lightning strikes at a certain place. In that operation, it exposes systems, from different angles, and asks you what you might think about them.

I could refer to [my] previous answer. I learned from fiction and from personal experience that systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are.

The thing about dystopias […] is that they also make more engaging stories than utopia. A utopia, by its nature, is absent conflict, and conflict, as everybody who ever wrote a book about screenwriting will tell you, generates drama. One thing about Transmetropolitan that I never got was that people called it a dystopia, whereas I just considered it the present day writ large, with joys and pains.

The important part of that quote of yours is that [speculative fiction is] a tool. Not the truth. Dystopias distort some central parts of the present condition so that we can see them better, and what they might swell into. But they’re still a distortion. You need to learn, for yourself, how to use the tool and avoid parallax error.

His comment re: Transmet is illuminating: I suspect that the ambivalence of that series is exactly what has made it such an enduring favourite, for me and for others. It’s neither threat nor promise — and that’s a difficult line to walk, in writing as in thinking.

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.)

Fully-automated luxury scale-tipping

… like others I have encountered who share their unconscious technological assumptions, [Srnicek and Williams] throw the phrase [“scaling up”] around without making it at all clear what they mean by it. For example, in an argument with an apologist for industrial agriculture I pointed to the superior productivity of soil-intensive horticulture in terms of output per acre (e.g. Jeavons’s raised bed techniques that can feed one person on one-tenth of an acre); their response was “Yes, but how will you scale it up?” I kept pressing them to explain what that meant: “Why does it need to ‘scale up’ at all? If one person can feed themselves with a tenth of an acre, or a village can feed itself with fifty acres, why does any single operation need to be larger?” I get the impression some advocates of “scaling up” are unable to grasp the possibility of 300 million people brushing their teeth in an uncoordinated effort using their own toothbrushes, unless it is somehow “scaled up” to everybody brushing at one time with a single 10,000 ton toothbrush—coordinated by a central body that formulates tooth-brushing guidelines. If an individual action is already taking place at the optimal scale, the best way to “scale up” is probably to proliferate horizontally.

[…]

Williams and Srnicek are drinking the neoliberal capitalist Kool-Aid in taking at face value the claims of efficiency for global supply and distribution chains. They really do not reflect superior efficiency at all, but rather the irrationalities resulting from perverse incentives under capitalism. […] In short, Srnicek and Williams are at least as guilty as any they criticize of failing to adapt their strategy to changed circumstances; in this case they fail to acknowledge the radical technological advances in cheapening, ephemeralization and reduced scale of production machinery, and to take advantage of their promise for creating a counter-economy outside the existing capitalist economy and leaving the latter to starve for lack of labor-power or demand, instead of taking it over.

From a lengthy and enjoyably punchy review by Kevin Carson of S & W’s  Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

Latour de force

I’m interested in art for the same reason I’m interested in science — it’s a way to handle the fact that we have landed in a completely different world than we thought we were moving toward. We need art now for the same reason that we needed art in the 16th century, when we learned about the discovery of America, which changed everything — music, theater, poetry, literature. We don’t have the mental equipment, the sensory equipment, to handle the ecological mutation going on today. You cannot expect the social sciences to learn how to handle the ecological crisis. How do you cope with telling your grandchildren that you were born in 1947 and had an enormously good time — that you profited from globalization and the process that has led to the sixth extinction. How do you tell this to your grandchildren? If you say, “Well, I had a good life, too bad for you,” you are a moral wreck. So how do you handle this situation? This is fodder for art.

Bruno Latour interviewed at LARB.