Category Archives: Philosophy

wreckage upon wreckage

Eagleton on (Jameson on) Benjamin, and specifically on his Angelus Novus:

The angel can’t move because his wings have become entangled in a storm, and Jameson seems uncertain about what this storm represents. Benjamin actually tells us: it is the myth of perpetual progress. What stops the angel from waking the dead here and now, calling time on history and ushering in redemption, is the assurance that history needs no such transformation, since it will carry us into a glorious future through its own momentum. It is the colossal complacency known as historical determinism that betrays the need for change.

This is the perfect opportunity to re-post this gem from those fine 65daysofstatic lads:

the reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea

Sara Hendren, ladies and gentlemen:

The opposite of jargon is not “plain language.” It is sparkling lucidity. Too many academics translate from theory to the everyday by employing a kind of verbal shrug — they say, Don’t be afraid of this fancy term here. It just means… [insert mealy-mouthed generalities]. The shrug is an attempt at intellectual democratization, I’m sure, but there’s no “just” about it. A thinker must actually go much more deeply toward the theoretical, turn its ideas like a jewel in her palm, slowly, with great understanding, to then lay out its provocations for the non-specialist reader. The reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea, no matter how abstract. Academics flatter themselves that they can speak “plainly,” but plainness is not the project.

I’m not going to claim I (yet) live up to the lucidity that Hendren is advocating, here, but I definitely recognise not only that “verbal shrugging” / “plain speaking”, but the incredible tacit pressure to conform with it.

(This is not a phenomenon unique to the academy, to be clear: the TEDification of complex topics is more widespread than that, and it most likely invaded academia from outside, along with all the other neoliberal guff.)

The challenge is compounded by the necessity of slowness to lucidity, as Hendren recommends. I’m currently working on a chapter for an edited volume in which I’ll (finally) get to formally publish some of my infrastructural theory, and even a generous wordcount (8000 words!) disappears quickly when you’re trying to talk at the theoretical level. But, as I have been advised by others: no one will fund you to be a theorist until you’ve already demonstrated that you are one (and even then it’s an uphill fight)… and so your early efforts are perforce a matter of hustling any opportunity to publish you can find, and making the best use of it you can.

On which note, I should probably get on with the work…

climate change aesthetics and the logic of the spectacle

Via Andrew Curry’s reliably interesting Just Two Things newsletter, here’s a piece by the Magnum photography collective about the portrayal of climate change in contemporary photography, and in particular the work of a non-profit called Climate Visuals, which is…

… founded in research in social science; they use evidence gathered from focus groups in Europe and the USA to examine the emotional responses to different photographic depictions of the climate crisis. Smith says they want to see a more compelling and diverse visual language around climate change: less “polar bears, factories and glaciers… all of which have the really neat trick of signifying climate change, but still producing a large amount of cynicism and inactivity”. It’s this cynicism that they hope photography can help overcome in order to build our collective investment in reducing environmental harm.

Now, for the sake of the avoidance of doubt, what I’m going to discuss here is not intended as an attack on the integrity or intentions of these photographers. Quite to the contrary: what interests me about this piece is the way it shows them wrestling with a problem which manifests in my own theoretical work, and which I believe to be inescapable. This problem affects all of us who are working for change in the collective human relation to the environment, but it is maybe most easily (and rather ironically) illustrated with the issues that these shutterbugs find themselves faced with.

“I think it depends on what you expect photography to do or what you expect of the photographer,” says Sim Chi Yin in reference to the challenges posed by photographing the climate crisis. “I think this is a deeper question about whether photography and photographers are expected to be advocates and activists as well,” she continues. “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. Sim has been working on her project Shifting Sands, documenting the social and environmental cost of the land reclamation industry in East and Southeast Asia. Previously taking an ‘infrastructural gaze’, shot at ground level, capturing the people and places affected, she has since adopted a birds-eye view, producing strikingly beautiful other-wordly landscape photography. It’s not uncommon to hear criticism of photography, particularly in the realm of editorial, for making terrible things look too beautiful. This is an all too familiar conundrum for Smith in his work at Climate Visuals: “I spend a lot of my time arguing with the media about social science but the other side is that I spend a lot of time arguing with social scientists about the subjective qualities of photography,” he says.

The phrase “infrastructural gaze” there is an interesting choice, not least because I would probably find myself arguing that it was the bird’s-eye view that was the infrastructural (because systemic/managerial) gaze rather than the ground-level shots (which would provide a more situated perspective). However, the point is not to abolish the systemic perspective entirely, so much as to dethrone it: the systemic perspective is valuable precisely for its ability to portray the complexity and metasystemicity of that which to individuals on the ground appears either as technologies of interface, or as conduits regulated in such a way as to prevent local access to their capacities.

But the seductiveness of the managerial/systemic perspective—the aesthetic snap and thrill of what Haraway referred to as the “god trick”—is plain to see, as well. Put simply, infrastructures which are ugly up close (in both the aesthetic and functional senses) display an elegant, mathematical beauty when seen from above and at scale:

Sim Chi Yin, Singapore. Tuas. 2017. From “Shifting Sands”, 2017

Artists are interested in beauty (or perhaps more accurately in aesthetics), but that is not unique to artists; it is surely also true of the planners and architects and “transition managers” who develop infrastructural projects like the above, just as it is true of the rest of us. And it’s probably fair to say that a majority of people are more attracted to beautiful and orderly aesthetics, rather than an aesthetics of of chaos and destruction. At least this is the dominant assumption among the people who make editorial decisions around which photographs to publish, which naturally effects the choices that photographers make about their shots:

… though accurate and impactful depictions of the climate crisis are the goal, the photos need to be published if you’re going to achieve that, and the pictures have to be good or that’s not going to happen. For Sim Chi Yin, the beauty of her Shifting Sands images were an entirely deliberate move away from the more ‘ditactic heavy-handed approach’ she once took; here, the aestheticization of a challenging topic is a strategy to encourage on-going engagement in a difficult conversation.

I want to zoom in on the use of the phrase “the pictures have to be good”, and so I’m going to re-emphasise my earlier point about not impugning the photographers in this analysis. These are artists trying to communicate toward a particular goal within an industrial structure where the decisions on what messages are fit to be commissioned and passed on are not under their control: in order to reach a wide audience (and to be paid enough to do the work), they are obliged to make these compromises with editorial requirements. Not to belabour the point, but the same constraints apply to most academics, though in different ways and to different degrees; in both cases, a large part of the job is finding a just way to do what you feel needs to be done that is compatible with the requirements (and the rhetorical framings) of your funders.

My interest in the use of the word “good” is due to its centrality to Guy Debord’s theory of the Society of the Spectacle, whose fundamental rhetoric he summarised as “that which appears is good; that which is good appears”. The point being is that “goodness” in the context of the Spectacle, while retaining its own surface appearance of being a moral valuation, is in fact evacuated of any moral and ethical content by the circularity of the spectacular premise: the “goodness” of a thing is merely a measure of its fitness to take a place in the semiotic torrent.

Furthermore, the Spectacle is the field in which capital’s recuperation of its most savage critiques is enacted. So Sim’s bird’s-eye images, as seen above, are good to certain audiences—to certain markets-for-imagery which are constructed and maintained by systems that end in editorial teams, but which of course extend back to profit-oriented corporations working on a global publishing platform whose incentives and imperatives are entirely predicated on clickworthiness. But there are other audiences, audiences for whom the aesthetic of chaos and despoilment is a better fit with their preconception of the state of the world—and for those audiences, the Spectacle provides “good” images as well, reaffirming the narrative assumptions and thus the identity of the audience/consumer. Critiques of capitalism are easily made into products; we might argue in fact that this has been one of the great growth industries of the neoliberal period.

Riffing very deliberately on Marx, Debord also noted of the Spectacle that its basic operational premise is that of separation: “The Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Thesis 4). This point is echoed in the Magnum piece:

Many people don’t relate to these images beyond the shock and awe of the moment, because it doesn’t resonate with their own demographic construct. This in turn, has resulted in the othering of communities in the Global South as they are continually represented as victims, often by foreign Western photographers, as a way to capture the climate crisis in a way that’s seen as visually appealing. Rarely do we see the photography of practitioners with lived experience of climate disasters in the Global South, and rarely do Western photographers’ cameras turn to document the effect of climate change closer to home.

But the crucial point here is that—unless you decide to go with Debord’s closing exhortation, and aim for self-liberation from the Spectacle as a precursor to bottom-up communist organisation against it—the Spectacle is the only game in town. Debord and the Situationists used this insight to inform the practice of détournement, which was the forerunner of the techniques used by groups like the AdBusters, and arguably also a precursor to contemporary meme culture. The basic premise is that, if you can’t get outside the Spectacle, outside of the metamedium, then you need to learn the logics of the media embedded within that ecosystem of media, and find ways to turn them against the Spectacular flow. Which is what these photographers (and perhaps all artists) are each trying to do, in their own individual ways… but the prevailing currents of the Spectacle are far harder to fight against now than they were in Debord’s day:

Jonas Bendiksen […] says that “photography has a tendency to oversimplify; it’s not the easiest medium to formulate a complex thought process; it tends to rely on ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ and be less focused on the complexities of things”. He’s increasingly interested in the ‘grey zones’, for instance how photography of Western consumerism also provides an important perspective on the climate crisis, but is frustrated by limitations of the platforms that are available. There’s an increasing pressure, driven by social media, for single images or a couple of slides to have an impact, to be easily-digestible. Climate change, particularly its effect on the Global North, will not reveal itself so it can be fitted neatly onto social media feeds.

So what’s my point? To put it very simply indeed, my point is that the despoilments with which these photographers and I are concerned—a category that includes sand-dredging and pipelines, but also the frantic commerce of surplus in the Global North which relies upon those extractions—are performed through infrastructural systems. Without the global logistical network that distributes resources and the commodities into which they are formed, the scars on the planet which are the markers of the thing that many of us refer to as the Anthropocene would be almost impossible to make at their current scale; but those systems are also by this point crucial to the most basic parts of human existence in the most “advanced” economies (as it appears the UK is about to find out the hard way).

Furthermore, those logistical systems have long been inseparably entangled with the systems of information distribution and control whose many functions also include being the medium of the Spectacle itself; information and images are, at this level of analysis, simply another category of resources and commodities to be distributed.

This is why I have argued many times before now that infrastructure colludes in the effacement of its own consequences—an effect analogous to the prestidigitation at the heart of any good stage-magic trick, which is achieved through a combination of physical displacement (i.e. stuff being moved around behind or beneath the stage) and the misdirection of attention. Infrastructure puts the rabbit in the hat.

But as Susan Leigh Star took pains to remind us, infrastructure is made of people as well as technological objects. And sure, those systems (as Langdon Winner first pointed it out) have political biases and assumptions baked into them (though Winner might not agree with me that the greatest and most fundamental bias embedded in infrastructure is the logic of capitalism itself). Infrastructure is hard to change, slow and expensive; people can also be pretty rigid (as we’ve been shown very clearly over the last eighteen month), but their rigidity is ideological, narratological, and might yet be won over, or at least shifted slightly.

How is that to be achieved?

Smith makes it clear that it’s not just the photographers and content generators, who sit at the wide bottom of the ‘pyramid’ of the photography industry, who can play a role in shifting public perceptions of the climate crisis. It’s also the agency, distribution, and media companies who occupy the top of the pyramid and choose what is and isn’t seen by a wider audience. There needs to be the funding and interest to commission work that can take on the long story-arc of the climate crisis in all its complexity.

Now that’s a hopeful position (as distinct from an optimistic one). I don’t think that changing attitudes at the top of that pyramid will be an easy job—and I doubt Smith and his fellow photographers do either. But the only other options would seem to be Kevin Kelly’s cozy accommodation to the status quo (and yeah, fuck that noise), or a pessimistic refusal to stand in the path of one of countless metaphorical (but also often actual) bulldozers.

I can understand both of those choices—though I find the former increasingly hard to forgive, because it is predicated on a sort of wilful blindness. But I have to believe that it’s worth trying to détour the stories that we tell one another through the Spectacle, even as I’m aware that the most likely outcome is their recuperation and commodification—as Debord noted, contradiction and narrative conflict is not a bug in the Spectacular system (as Marx believed contradiction was the bug in the system of capital), but rather a central feature of it. The recuperation and monetisation of counternarratives is depressingly plain to see; five minutes on the birdsite should be more than enough to make it obvious.

But I’m not ready to give up just yet. As is increasingly the case for me, the words of the Starbear still provide a light in the gloom:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursula K Le Guin


bold as (nostalgic) love: Gwyneth Jones and hauntology

A Metafilter thread on the new St Ettienne album (haven’t heard it yet) gave up this comment:

It’s interesting to see the 90s End Of History era displace the Swinging 60s as a lost golden age just out of clear memory.

I’m sharing this here due to its synchronicity with a point I made in a just-filed review of the Gollancz Masterworks reissue of Gwyneth Jones’s Castles Made of Sand.

In the introduction to said book, Adam Roberts draws a connection between the utopian idealism of the 1960s and the original British Romanticism movement of the early C19th, and in my review I leap from there to observe that, while Jones doesn’t only put the Sixties influence front and centre in the Bold as Love cycle, but also leans on the Arthurian mythos of Olde Albion (which was largely constructed by the long wave of Romanticism), the actual texture of the near-future Britain of the first few volumes is very much a Nineties vibe.

This was a great opportunity to wax shamelessly lyrical from the core of my own nostalgia for my formative years, but there was—or so I tell myself—a point to doing so, which is to underscore the way in which the Nineties, however unknowingly to many of us in the countercultural trenches at the time, was an attempt to re-run the Sixties, albeit absent the political theoretics whose influence on the Sixties we have been carefully encouraged to forget, as the cultural artefacts of that period have been pruned and bowdlerised in order to reduce a time of genuine (if misguided and largely failed) revolutionary fervour to an aesthetic: kaftans, badly-rolled joints, twelve-string guitars etc etc.

This has further relevance in light of the recently published last lectures of Mark Fisher, in which he was clearly trying to go back to that period and unearth all the dangerous stuff in order to determine what went wrong, and how that atmosphere of revolutionary change might be rekindled against the backdrop of the neoliberal settlement that has so successfully encased it it in the amber of the Spectacle. There’s an extent to which Fisher and some of his contemporaries were, for all their repudiation of nostalgia, somewhat fixated on the early Nineties as the Last Great Moment of Modernism (with e.g. the music of the “hardcore continuum” representing the last time anything felt to them genuinely new and futuristic), even as the reactionary revivalism of baggy, Britpop and what would become landfill indie rose like a tide to drown it all.

Matt Colquhoun has written a great deal about what we might think of as (post-)Fisherean hauntology, in an attempt to rescue the term from the trackless desert of semantic drift into which it (and so much else) seems to be receding, and I could really do with making the time to dig back into it all properly. But one chunk I recall passing clear is this bit on Boards of Canada, whose work:

… speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

So often the discourse seems split between a kind of manic future-affirmatism (think of Teflon Mask’s hypercapitalist boner for Mars colonies on the right, or Bastani’s FALC solutionist-accelerationism on the left) or a hopelessly Romantic fixation on a largely imaginary and retconned past as the location of the utopian horizon (which has typically been a rightist and reactionary position, but in recent years manifests in a lot of soft-leftish thought as well). The denial of the past (and/or its strip-mining for the raw materials of a futurity intended to bury it), or the fetishisation of the past… neither are genuinely productive, if I understand Colquhoun correctly. But that temporal tightrope he describes above, now that’s interesting—not least because it doesn’t merely attempt to bring together the best of past and future. Rather, in drawing taut that rope between them, it affirms the continuity not of culture itself, but of the recombinative processes by which culture is produced.

Jones’s Bold as Love cycle, then, might be seen as culture that not only enacts that recombination, but actively foregrounds (even as it sort of cartoonises) the theatricality of cultural politics through which it is enacted: she is showing and telling, not just at the narratological level, but the historical as well.

Longtermism is merely a more acceptable mask for transhumanism

This longread by Phil Torres at Current Affairs on the Longtermism/x-risk/Effective-Altruism mob does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.

Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.

This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)

The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.

I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire.

Posthumanism would perhaps be a little more intuitive a label were it hyphenated (e.g. post-humanism): it is not about transcending one’s human-ness (that’s transhumanism’s bag), but rather about finding ways to think that move beyond the deep biases of Enlightenment humanism—whiteness, maleness, Europeanness, heterosexualness, all of those things, but also (and most fundamentally) the notion that the human being (however diversely conceptualised) is both the measure and the central pole of the universe.

As Torres’s article makes very clear (though it’s not really disguised), Longtermism and its associated ideological systems (transhumanism very much included) are profoundly anthropocentric, and as such are not at all post-humanist; rather, they are a sort of ultra-humanism, in which the potential value (always estimable in quantitative terms, yet always based on on spurious statistical handwaves and estimates whose mathematical scale serves the purpose of distracting via sensawunda the minds of the statistically untrained) of a human species that is supposedly capable of (and thus morally justified in its attempt to) colonise entire galaxies outweighs anything and everything that might be seen as collateral damage en route to that goal.

Torres quotes Simon Knutsson’s conclusion that the Longtermists are “super-strategic”, and that their philosophies are less sincere belief systems than they are elaborate intellectual smokescreens for an otherwise shallow fundamentally self-interested libertarianism; I have repeatedly made a similar argument about what I think of as “core” transhumanism. But I am beginning to wonder whether it is possible that both of those possibilities may coexist, and that the philosophical superstructure here—while developed and emergent from the need to provide a priori justifications for courses of action already decided upon for a posteriori economical reasons—is also, or eventually comes to be, completely sincerely believed by its architects. I will recall once again that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”, and that the first rule of sales is that the successful salesman’s first mark must necessarily be himself: particularly in the realm of politics and philosophy, one will never successfully convince another person of a position that one does not personally hold to. (Of course, that belief is necessary to making the sale, but not necessarily sufficient.) Good salespersons therefore develop a particular version of cognitive dissonance, namely the ability to create a sort of mental partition in which the product (or philosophy) is believed to be exactly the efficacious wonder it is claimed to be.

But, to quote Jerry Cantrell, “slowly all the roles we act out / become our identities / and in the end we are / what we pretend to be“. It’s very tempting to assume that pointing out the inconsistencies of a belief system will oblige its adherents to abandon it—despite the last year and half (or the last century and a half) of solid and disheartening evidence to the contrary. The point is that, while there is value to critique, the critical mode of modern philosophy (as Foucault pointed out long ago) stands on exactly the same epistemological foundations as the hyper-rationalist mode; they can only ever struggle over control of the same fundamental field of thought. As I understand it, posthumanist theory (at its best) is an attempt to go beyond that field of thought to something new—though whether it is or will ever be successful at doing so is a question that we, caught in that very same epistemic paradigm, are unable to answer.

Nonetheless, posthumanism retains my own philosophical loyalties, because of its suggestion of an alternative (rather than a mere opposition) to the ultrahumanism of the Longtermists, whose implications Torres so clearly spells out. For the transhumanoids, the planet on which we live, and the majority of those currently living on it, are merely the shell and albumen of the egg from which homo galacticus are destined to hatch; it is a Manichean religio-philosophical structure which, in its making-transcendant of the category of the human, jettisons even the more noble and well-intended elements of humanism itself.

Posthumanism, by contrast, suggests that we humble the human as one actor among many, and take a place in the universe that recognises both its limits and our own. The revulsion and panic that this idea instills in so many people is perhaps the best indicator of its potential to contribute to a new epistemic paradigm, and with it a way of life for humanity that is something other than an endless succession of roadside picnics.