Category Archives: Philosophy

a recurring theme in literary and cinematic history

This piece by Megan Marz at Real Life references a lot of (contemporary, literary?) fiction that I’m completely unfamiliar with, but in the context of a phenomenon I am more familiar with, and very interested in, as both a writer and a human being: the slipperiness and perpetual redefinition of the word story. The whole thing is well worth a read, even if you too are woefully under-read in the burgeoning field of autofiction* , as I am. This wonderful sentence is basically a summation of the whole thing, though, and is the bit I’d pullquote and tweet if I was still doing the birdsite:

“Story” is the story that writers tell about what they’re moving toward or away from.

Lovely.

[ * Most of this stuff, I’ll be honest, sounds dull as ditchwater to me in the summaries I encounter, despite my own keen interest in the demolition, subversion or abandonment of plot in written fiction. I also feel uncomfortable about feeling that way, because the demography of the genre suggests it may be a form of internalised misogyny on my part. Maybe I should write an autofictional piece about Some Guy who feels uncomfortable about not wanting to read autofiction because it sounds incredibly tedious? Strictly ironic, of course… but then irony’s as dead as narrative, they tell me. It’s lucky no one much really cares what I think, innit? ]

a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history

I was yesterday years old when I learned (courtesy David Higgins’ Reverse Colonization, which I may write about directly if time allows) that David Harvey—yes, that’s Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey™—can count among his many achievements having been a minor contributor to Mike Moorcock’s run at New Worlds, where he published a piece of fiction and an editorial on (among other topics) entropy.

Higgins’s discussion of Harvey’s NW stuff reminded me of one of Harvey’s better-known academic contributions, namely the notion of “time-space compression” as a function of capitalism, which is implicated in the emergence of the postmodern condition. I’ve been meaning to look that up for a while now, not least because I’ve assumed it’s related to a few underdeveloped squibs that leapt out at me during my (rather tormented and difficult) first attempt at scaling the mountain of Uncle Karl’s Grundrisse; these asides concern what Marx referred to as “the means of communication”, but which we would probably now refer to as (yes, you guessed it) infrastructure.

In lieu of actually getting hold of and reading Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change (because hahahah, OMG, I have waaaaaay too many things to do and read for me to consider adding another one to the queue at this point), I dug out this retrospective piece by Natalie Melas at the Post45 collective, which sets the book alongside the (much better known) Fredric Jameson works on the postmodern. These excerpts, however, are more concerned with Harvey’s distinct notion of time-space compression, because it’s of greater and more immediate relevance to my work. Clip the first:

The signal contribution of Harvey’s argument is the analysis of “time-space compression” in which capitalism, as he puts it, “annihilates space through time.” The way global space shrinks in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it is one basic index of the time-space compression, but the term also points to “processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.”5 Harvey specifies several “rounds” of time-space compression in the history of capitalism. These time-space compressions are prompted by alterations in “the objective qualities of space and time,” but their ramifications are an alteration not only in our experience but also in our representation of the world. Representation is the key vector in Harvey’s analysis that allows for the intersection of visual art, film, architecture, urban planning and other modalities of postmodern culture.

No points to VCTB regulars for guessing that I’m about to make the point that the medium of time-space compression is infrastructure; this is a media-ecological argument, in that it extends the notion of “media” from the lay understanding (i.e. newspapers, radio, TV, internet) into the material distributive systems through/across which those representational media are (re)produced. The equivalence goes the other way, as well, in that we can think about, say, water treatment and distribution systems as a sort of system of representation and communication… and that also means that the use of the term “abstraction” in the civil engineering discourse around infrastructure suddenly has a very interesting (i.e. alarming) doubled meaning.

Again, I need to read the actual book to be sure, but I strongly suspect that there’s support in Harvey’s thinking for my own argument that the metasystem (a.k.a. concrete infrastructure, pun very much intended) is always already the metamedium, which is to say it is the screen upon which the Debordian Spectacle is projected. Clip the second:

For Harvey, as for Jameson, the postmodern time-space compression gave on to a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history at least in its dialectical form. Our own moment, under the pressure of ecological crisis, seems instead preoccupied by a futurity bound to the consciousness of a geological time scale, a scale that utterly dwarfs historical epochality.13 The extinction of homo sapiens, along with other animal and plant life, is persistently knowable but unrepresentable, no less so than the aesthetic problematic of globality in postmodernism that Jameson describes and names the “postmodern sublime” at the end of the eponymous essay in Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism. Is there a distinct rupture between contemporary discourses on environmental catastrophe and the thematics of postmodernism, or is there a hidden continuity, or both?

Meanwhile, the questions of (un)representability that Melas is poking at here seem to me to be the same questions that Latour has been wrestling with in the last few decades, albeit from a very different direction… and that loops me back to the Higgins book, in a way, because it quite rightly defends postmodern critique against the accusation that it is somehow to blame for the soi disant “post-truth” phenomenon, but nonetheless (perhaps unavoidably?) sustains the Foucauldean reification of ideas like “power” and “neoliberalism”, which Latour would argue are black boxes which must be opened and explored as the perpetually renegotiated networks of relations that they are. Indeed, Higgins’s final chapter, on a lesser-known Chip Delany trilogy, kind of makes the same point… but it does so with(in) the paradigm of postmodern critique, and so carries through what Latour (and, increasingly, I) would describe as the (well-intended) limitations thereof.

So, yeah—some useful connections here. We’ll see how time allows for me to write more about the Higgins, because it’s an interesting book in its own right, as well as a demonstration of the limits of certain critical apparatuses.

an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism

Interesting (old?) idea from Venkatesh Rao:

Divergentism is both an idea you can believe or disbelieve, and a basis for an ideological doctrine (hence the –ism) that you can subscribe to or reject. You could capture both aspects with this simple statement: Humans diverge at all levels of thought-space, from the sub-individual to species, and this is a good thing. The doctrine part is the last clause.

If you are a divergentist, you hold that the social-cognitive universe is expanding towards an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism, and you are at peace with this thought. You explain contemporary social phenomena in light of this thought. For example, political polarization is just an anxious resistance to divergence forces. Subculturalization and atomization are a natural consequence of it.

I think I’m a cautious believer in divergentism, but not a doctrinal subscriber to it.

There’s a sense of something-in-the-airness I’m getting at the moment, too, in that the above idea seems of a piece with the retromania/cultural fracking thing I rambled about the other day, and that they’re both linked by the ideas of the Ccru as summed up by Robin Mackay on the Buddies Without Organs podcast earlier this week—which is to say, by the utility in cybernetics as a useful, nay necessary model for thinking about cultural production (and for doing thinking as cultural production), and the particular value in the cybernetic road less travelled, namely positive feedback (rather than the hegemonic negative feedback models of the RANDy cyberfuture people, which always did and still do rely on the useful but dangerously limited hypothetical positing of the closed system, in a universe where there is no such thing as a closed system).

Of course, that sense of something-in-the-airness may just be the result of my brain clearing after a hectic couple of months, and of my getting back to some sort of sporadic rhythm of thinking about stuff beyond what’s necessary for the day-job… but whatever. For what is synchronicity if it is not a positive feedback, deliberately sought out and encouraged? Maybe it’s time to stand a bit closer to the amplifier, so to speak.

more futures than people

TFW a webcomic, which you’ve been reading for what is probably fifteen years or so by this point, unexpectedly recapitulates one of the major planks of your own academic theoretical framework, and does so via the staggeringly economical medium of a few panels of dinosaur clip-art:

Of course, the observation that all futures—from the most banal to the most economically and/or politically influential—are stories is merely the starting point of said theoretical framework*; it’s the implications of that observation (namely that they can be analysed and constructed using the same toolkit that is routinely applied to more ‘literary’ manifestations of narrative) that are important, at least to me. But that the observation makes sense to others (to whom I have not yet expounded it at manic length) is somehow comforting.

BRB, just gotta check whether the APA has defined style rules for citing webcomics…

[ * This is exactly the sort of thing that I like to imagine better-known and more secure academics also tell themselves at 3am in the hope of battening down the imposter syndrome long enough to get some sleep. Which probably indicates that my own imposter syndrome is rather less ‘battened down’ than it is, metaphorically speaking, left sat alone in the living room all night with a fresh box of snus and a four-pack of Mariestad, talking loudly to itself with the lights off. ]

this addiction can be overcome

On the one hand, it’s nice to see the theory’n’philosophy crowd come out swinging for “disruption”:

In order to resist disruption it is not enough to demonstrate that its benefits are based on shaky evidence. […] While these analyses are useful to debunk the illusion that innovation is always an improvement, they do not modify the widespread enthusiasm for it. “Exaggerated claims for disruption,” as Mark C. Taylor points out, “usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of a preoccupation with the present in a culture addicted to speed.”

This addiction can be overcome by thinking through longer stretches of time. It requires practices that reexamine our existential narratives, such as politics, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, though each of these contemplative fields faces disruptive forces of its own in, respectively, populist pronouncements delivered through Twitter, over-prescription of drugs, and scientistic analytic thought that displaces existential questions […]

It should not come as a surprise, as Stiegler points out, that disruption was “announced and foreshadowed not just by Adorno and Horkheimer as the ‘new kind of barbarism’, but by Martin Heidegger as the ‘end of philosophy’, by Maurice Blanchot as the advent of ‘impersonal forces’, by Jacques Derrida as ‘monstrosity’, and, before all of these, by Nietzsche as nihilism.” If disruption is the culmination of these events we must pursue these authors’ experimental responses, which called for different conceptual platforms where existence can continue to strive.

On the other hand, where were y’all five, ten, twenty years ago? Hell, forty years ago—he may have used a different conceptual language, and have come from a fairly liberal standpoint, but even Langdon Winner was making this point while I was still at primary school. And then there’s the OG media ecology mob, of a similar vintage, whose best work is only now being returned to, like long-forgotten letters from Cassandra stashed away for years under the bed in an old cigar-box… though there we can perhaps blame the utopian (mis)readings of McLuhan that accompanied the early internet, I dunno.

Ah well—better late than never. Not like my own apostasy isn’t a form of atonement, eh?