Category Archives: Philosophy

not oppositional, but negatory

An interview with M John Harrison by Jonathan Lethem, done earlier this year at Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires; scroll down for the (original) version in English. (Hat-tip to the man himself for linking to it.)

I recall joking to a colleague a few years back that part of me wished Harrison wrote social theory rather than science fiction. The real joke being upon me, of course, in that he kind of always-already has been writing social theory:

The breaking of forms came later, out of a desire to test the limits and traumatise the reader’s assumptions about what a story is. I deliberately refused plot and closure. I bricolaged one genre or form on to another. I asked questions like: What would happen if I took the horror out of a horror story but left everything else in? I was concerned with doing damage to the foundational structures of fiction (causality, linearity, “character development”, etc), not to game them on behalf of fresh “twists”, or to toy with readerly expectations in the traditionally “experimental” ways. (Experimental Modernism is by now, after all, a genre of its own. It’s as old and over-developed as sci-fi, divided into easily-recognisable subgenres. There are rules to follow, textual markers to be laid down, easter eggs to be hidden for the knowing reader.)

[…]

People talk about science fiction as if it’s an end-product, an aim in itself. (In fact that’s almost a definition of the difference between genre SF and SF written from outside the genre: in the latter, “SFness” is a secondary product.) But for me SF isn’t a kind of content—it’s a vehicle, which on one day might be ideal for my purposes, and on another quite useless for them. I’m a writer: my voice and my concerns are what count, not that I write science fiction (or literary fiction or any other genre). I don’t, these days, make much of a distinction between genres. You choose one or another because it gives you the best chance to manage and present the themes of the story. Or, if one alone won’t do, you pick and mix. Every story an act of bricolage. Soon you find you have a voice of your own, and you want people to read for that, not for the nearest genre it resembles.

[…]

Personal agency is the great obsession of our day: the more you lack control over your life, the more you are likely to believe you’re in charge of it. Advertisers and ideologists are happy with that: they’re happy to mirror back to you to the sense that you are indeed the centre of the universe, the heroine of the story. If my characters come back from the heroic journey at all, they never come back bearing useful gifts–because I don’t believe anyone ever does. If people didn’t have Joseph Campbell’s artful wish-fulfilment fantasy to place them at the centre of events and keep them enchanted with their own reflection, they might dump their wish to be princess of all they survey, and instead channel their dissatisfactions into making a better world for everyone.

Of both academic and artistic interest to me here is the way that Harrison seems to be reaching toward the same rejection of the heroic that interested Le Guin… but rather than taking her path of showing non-heroic routes into futurity, he’s littering the supposedly heroic structures with trapdoors, deadfalls, monsters that turn out to have been mirrors. This is not a dystopian project, exactly, but it’s definitely not a critical utopia either… and this is why I’m not sure that KSR’s Greimas square of utopia is quite right. Because if the critical utopia occupies the bottom leftmost position (which KSR labels anti-anti-utopia), then there’s something useful and under-explored in the bottom rightmost position (which he labels anti-utopia).

I realise it’s more than a bit bold to call out Jameson’s most famous student for not using the Greimas square properly, and I really need to go back top the primary sources myself in order to truly get to grips with it. But if Felluga is not too far wrong in his reading, the Greimas square is exactly about transcending the simple oppositional binary of pro- and anti-; the lower positions are not opposites (not antis) of the upper, but (to quote Felluga quoting Jameson) “are the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, [which] include far more than either: thus ‘nonwhite’ includes more than ‘black,’ ‘nonmale’ more than ‘female'”.

So by that token, KSR’s square should instead read (clockwise from top left) as follows:

  • utopia
  • dystopia
  • not-utopia
  • not-dystopia

Seen this way, the critical utopia stays in position at bottom left (the not-dystopia — including, as suggested above, far more conceptually than the dystopia it negates). It feels to me, then, that Harrison’s writing occupies that bottom-right corner, the not-utopia — because the entire point is that it is conceptually far richer than the utopia it negates. Harrison’s not-utopias undermine the utopian precisely by exceeding it, by showing the tangle of unfinished infrastructures and unfinished buildings behind the fakeries and false promises of its glossy yet flimsy hoarding…

the conditions of credibility

Steven Shapin, with the — OK, with an STS perspective on “post-truth” at LARB:

The problem we confront is better described not as too little science in public culture but as too much. Given the absurdities and errors abroad in the land, it may seem crazy to say this, yet the point can be pressed. Consider, again, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaxxers, and the creationists. They’re wrong-headed of course, but, like the Moon-landing deniers and the Flat-Earthers, their rejection of Right Thinking is not delivered as anti-science. Instead, it comes garnished with the supposed facts, theories, approved methods, and postures of objectivity and disinterestedness associated with genuine science. Wrong-headedness often advertises its embrace of officially cherished scientific values — skepticism, disinterestedness, universalism, the distinction between secure facts and provisional theories — and frequently does so more vigorously than the science rejected. The deniers’ notion of science sometimes seems, so to speak, hyperscientific, more royalist than the king. And, if you want examples of hyperscientific tendencies in so-called pseudoscience, there are now sensitive studies of the biblical astronomy craze instigated in the 1950s by the psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky, or you can consider the meticulous methodological attentiveness of parapsychology, or you can reflect on why it might be that students of the human sciences are deluged with lessons on The Scientific Method while chemists and geologists are typically content with mastering just the various methods of their specialties. The Truth-Deniers find scientific facts and theories shamefully ignored by the elites; they embrace conceptions of a coherent, stable, and effective Scientific Method that the elites are said to violate; they insist on the necessity of radical scientific skepticism, universal replication, and openness to alternative views that the elites contravene. On those criteria, who’s really anti-scientific? Who are the real Truth-Deniers?

[…]

When science becomes so extensively bonded with power and profit, its conditions of credibility look more and more like those of the institutions in which it has been enfolded. Its problems are their problems. Business is not in the business of Truth; it is in the business of business. So why should we expect the science embedded within business to have a straightforward entitlement to the notion of Truth? The same question applies to the science embedded in the State’s exercise of power. Knowledge speaks through institutions; it is embedded in the everyday practices of social life; and if the institutions and the everyday practices are in trouble, so too is their knowledge. Given the relationship between the order of knowledge and the order of society, it’s no surprise that the other Big Thing now widely said to be in Crisis is liberal democracy. The Hobbesian Cui bono? question (Who benefits?) is generally thought pertinent to statecraft and commerce, so why shouldn’t there be dispute over scientific deliverances emerging, and thought to emerge, from government, business, and institutions advertising their relationship to them?

A chewy report from the trenches of epistemology. Go read it all.

An audience with Saint Donna

At Logic Magazine, an interview (by, I think, Moira Weigel?) with none other than Donna Haraway. It’s a good long read, so you should go tuck in to the full thing, but I’mma pull some excerpts here for my own purposes.

On being accused of encouraging “relativism”, and thereby birthing “post-truth”:

Our view was never that truth is just a question of which perspective you see it from. “Truth is perspectival” was never our position. We were against that. Feminist standpoint theory was always anti-perspectival. So was the Cyborg Manifesto, situated knowledges, [the philosopher] Bruno Latour’s notions of actor-network theory, and so on.

“Post-truth” gives up on materialism. It gives up on what I’ve called semiotic materialism: the idea that materialism is always situated meaning-making and never simply representation. These are not questions of perspective. They are questions of worlding and all of the thickness of that. Discourse is not just ideas and language. Discourse is bodily. It’s not embodied, as if it were stuck in a body. It’s bodily and it’s bodying, it’s worlding. This is the opposite of post-truth. This is about getting a grip on how strong knowledge claims are not just possible but necessary — worth living and dying for.

[…]

We were at this conference in Brazil. It was a bunch of primate field biologists, plus me and Bruno [Latour]. And Stephen Glickman, a really cool biologist, a man we both love, who taught at UC Berkeley for years and studied hyenas, took us aside privately. He said, “Now, I don’t want to embarrass you. But do you believe in reality?” 

We were both kind of shocked by the question. First, we were shocked that it was a question of belief, which is a Protestant question. A confessional question. The idea that reality is a question of belief is a barely secularized legacy of the religious wars. In fact, reality is a matter of worlding and inhabiting. It is a matter of testing the holding-ness of things. Do things hold or not? 

Take evolution. The notion that you would or would not “believe” in evolution already gives away the game. If you say, “Of course I believe in evolution,” you have lost, because you have entered the semiotics of representationalism — and post-truth, frankly. You have entered an arena where these are all just matters of internal conviction and have nothing to do with the world. You have left the domain of worlding. 

On socialist solutionisms, and/or Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining:

I’m very pro-technology, but I belong to a crowd that is quite skeptical of the projects of what we might call the “techno-fix,” in part because of their profound immersion in technocapitalism and their disengagement from communities of practice.

Those communities may need other kinds of technologies than those promised by the techno-fix: different kinds of mortgage instruments, say, or re-engineered water systems. I’m against the kind of techno-fixes that are abstracted from place and tied up with huge amounts of technocapital. This seems to include most geoengineering projects and imaginations.

So when I see massive solar fields and wind farms I feel conflicted, because on the one hand they may be better than fracking in Monterey County — but only maybe. Because I also know where the rare earth minerals required for renewable energy technologies come from and under what conditions. We still aren’t doing the whole supply-chain analysis of our technologies. So I think we have a long way to go in socialist understanding of these matters.

On the Stewart-Brandean techno-utopians:

They remain remarkably humanist in their orientation, in their cognitive apparatus, and in their vision of the world. They also have an almost Peter Pan quality. They never quite grew up. They say, “If it’s broken, fix it.” 

This comes from an incapacity to mourn and an incapacity to be finite. I mean that psychoanalytically: an incapacity to understand that there is no status quo ante, to understand that death and loss are real. Only within that understanding is it possible to open up to a kind of vitality that isn’t double death, that isn’t extermination, and which doesn’t yearn for transcendence, yearn for the fix.

There’s not much mourning with the Stewart Brand types. There’s not much felt loss of the already disappeared, the already dead — the disappeared of Argentina, the disappeared of the caravans, the disappeared of the species that will not come back. You can try to do as much resurrection biology as you want to. But any of the biologists who are actually involved in the work are very clear that there is no resurrection

So much to chew over. I now want to go back and re-read everything of hers I’ve ever read, and all the stuff I’ve yet to get round to… though I think I might start by watching Fabrizio Terranova’s recent documentary, of which I was heretofore not aware.

Murketing / Agency

Ryan Alexander Diduck at tQ on the demise of R*d B*ll Music Academy:

We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.

This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.

It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.

In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:

[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”

The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.

I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.

Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.

A more humane and generous account

Eugene McCarraher at Aeon:

If it’s long past time to deny that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the time has come to renounce the parochial secular dogma of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. The pre-modern belief in the enchantment of the world – modernised in Romanticism, blending scientific rationality with Hopkins’s conviction of God’s worldly grandeur – offers a more humane and generous account of our place in creation, and it provides the most compelling foundation for opposition to capitalism.

Cf. my talk from a few years back: “How does the rabbit end up in the hat? (Or: what transhumanism doesn’t want you to know about infrastructure.)”

The technology/magic overlap is in desperate need of more thorough exploration. Assorted friends’n’colleagues have been doing great work with Haunted Machines, but that’s not quite the same thing that interests me; for me, technology isn’t merely analogous to stage magic, it IS stage magic. Which is fine, so long as everyone understands that the trick is a trick, and that the magic that powers the trick is a function of the plenitude of the world. But the disenchantment of capitalism is reified through infrastructure’s seeming provision ex nihilo: we mistake the plenitude of the world for the beneficence of the metasystem, while the latter is actually engaged in the effacement of the consequences of our consumption.

(Yes, this is just my own particular beachhead in the massed last-ditch assault upon the social/natural dichotomy. Because if you’re going to choose a hill to die on, why choose a crowded one?)