Category Archives: Politics

How to map nothing: Shannon Mattern on geographies of suspension

Back on 27th January, the UCL faculty of the Built Environment (virtually) hosted a seminar talk by the mighty mighty Shannon Mattern; a little more than a week ago, they uploaded a recording of said talk to A Popular Video-sharing Platform. This is that video, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly; I will not sully you or demean Prof. Mattern by trying to summarise it, because while I certainly took notes, the sheer volume of ideas in this thing—which naturally speaks very much to the concerns of The Ongoing Situation, while also being relevant to the world which preceded it, and the one which will succeed it—is quite astonishing*. (All the more so, given it was apparently conjured up out of little more than a vague thematic idea in the fortnight preceding its delivery.) So, enjoy!

[ * — Also because, frankly, I’m so behind on things I’m meant to be writing, or in some cases meant to already have written, both for other people and for myself, that I can’t presently justify the couple of hours that it would take to rewatch this, return to my notes, and do it justice. So just watch it, y’know? ]

elements of that necessary magic

Well, I sure as shit picked a great week to start using the birdsite again, didn’t I?

I don’t have much to say about it all, really—which isn’t to say I don’t have opinions about it, mind you, but I think the having of opinions is best left to those most directly affected, at least for now. (As a British rat who only recently scrambled off his own sinking ship, I’m in no position to give advice or laugh from the sidelines, either.) But I will reiterate the fairly common consensus that, far from being some shocking breach of USian norms that came out of nowhere, this was being signalled clear as day for months, if not years, and represents exactly the norms of a country that’s done a heckuva job of draping flags over falsehoods from day one*. It’s the naked lunch: suddenly everyone can see what’s on the end of the fork.

But the long game, beyond the borders of that souffle empire, and beyond the foreshortened temporalities of the current crisis, waits for no players. Adrian Ivakhiv knows the score, and also picked the most succinct possible title for his own post:

… the fate of the world rests between contending uses of the same tools employed by those conjurors — the tools of media, imagination, narrative, and passion, as well as reason. If some are using these tools to conjure illusions, the “magic” they are practicing — a magic of fears, lies and half-truths, and outworn but (to many) comforting myths (like QAnon’s “Storm” and the return to the Confederate States of America, depicted above in yesterday’s events) — must be counteracted by another magic, one that conveys the hope, the joy, and the real possibility of building a world of respect, dignity, beauty, social justice, and ecological flourishing.

The latter magic is more challenging to produce. It is also challenging to the halls of power, such as those represented by the U. S. Capitol, and I harbor no illusions that that building will ever be the epicenter of the great changes we need. But the elements of that necessary magic can be found all over the world, and it inspires my continued work.

I’m currently working on—or trying to work on—some of the framing arguments for my current project, which involves me making the case for the co-production of relateable and concrete climate futures with ordinary people. In that framing I am, as I have done for many years, positioning it as a question of a battle of narratives, but it might just as well be thought of as magic—and it’s a comfort to know that there are others out there looking at it the same way, and working up their own spells and cantrips. As Ivakhiv points out, dark magic is easy; fear is a highly combustible fuel, and there’s a lot of it about. Hope is scarcer—but, just like fear, it can be generated, distilled, shared, and used as as a medium for a magic with a different purpose, to make a light against the encroaching darkness.

Mystical hippie bullshit, Paul? Well, maybe. But if you still think that good old-fashioned Enlightenment rationality and liberal norms are all we need to get us out of the downward spiral, then I suggest you revisit the footage from Washington DC last night, and think again. That story had a good run, but its narrators lost control of it. Unless we replace it with something better… well, we’ve now had a pretty clear foreshadowing of how the movie ends.

[a] question of how forgetting is avoided

Interesting aside here from Mark Carrigan, responding to (as he puts it) an “innocuous but in practice […] unsettling” observation in Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow, which is a (surely rather premature?) analysis of the impact of coronavirus(es) on the way we live. Christakis observes that Covid-19 has sparked an awareness of public health challenges in the US in the same way that 9/11 sparked awareness of threats to national security. Cue Carrigan (emphases his own):

It’s certainly preferable that there’s not a post-Covid social amnesia about the risk of pandemics, as the accelerating emergence of infectious diseases means not only won’t this be the last pandemic but the next one might be sooner than we imagine. There has been a tendency for past pandemics to fade into obscurity after they have passed, as can be demonstrated by asking those who lived through the 1957 and 1968 pandemics whether they remember them.

However this leaves us with the question of how forgetting is avoided. This framing by Christakis makes it easy to imagine the war on pandemics as a successor to the war on terror: an ideological and institutional apparatus for hyper-securitisation which transforms everyday life, organisations, the state and the legal frameworks which connect them.

My immediate thought on reading this was “oh, hey—people are starting to find their own way to a position similar to Agamben’s“. The figure of the War on Terror makes the connection particularly clear, given that it was seen by Agamben at the time to be the cresting of the ubiquity of the state of exception, the point at which the Schmittean articulation of politics as a division of the world into friends and enemies has become hegemonic, and the sovereign decision is the only game in town.

Admittedly Agamben’s framing of his position on the pandemic was not well served by his couching it in the most extreme terms possible—as was perhaps inevitable, issuing as it did from a philosopher who has spent a lifetime thinking in very abstracted terms about the horrific teleology of totalising systems. But the twinge Carrigan seems to be feeling here looks to me like a flinch from the very real possibility of a revitalised nationalist biopolitics, which is not just accepted by but actively clamoured for by the middle classes… and that’s a flinch I’ve been having right since this whole business started up.

It is in no way necessary to be a “Covid denier”—an accusation which has been repeatedly levelled at Agamben with, so far as I can tell, no textual justification in anything he’s actually written on the topic, and furthermore levelled at him even by career-contrarian philosophical firebrands such as Žižek, who one would think might know better than to point that particular finger—to suggest that, without some rather clearer thinking about the properly long game of public health and social security—the long game which extends not only past the end of this pandemic, but into and beyond the next ones, and against the background of the even larger and metasystemic contextual hazard of climate change, which is the generative source of this and the subsequent pandemics—the popular demand for, and instigation of, a nationalist biopolitics of “bare life” is likely, if not actually inevitable. It’s genuinely surprising, and in many respects heartening, to see how much quality of life we’re willing to sacrifice to preserve its quantity; the open question is where (and when) that trade-off starts to look like a bad bargain, and whether the arrangements already made can then be adjusted back in the other direction.

Given the genuine threat to life from which it stems, and the fear thereof amplified by forms of media in which the metrics of optimality are instantaneity, sticky-clickworthiness, and alignment with already established partisan positions on the proper response, that demand is completely understandable. But given the prevalence of authoritarian and proto-fascist ideological apparatuses in the world at present, it is very fortunate that the libertarian thread of their ideological tapestry as currently constituted has thus far prevented them from seeing the terrible, powerful opportunity that the pandemic offers as the justification for a popular and permanent state of exception. My fear, and I think Agamben’s also, is that the appeal of a firm grip on authoritarian power will override their ideological objections very quickly indeed; after all, while it was far from the only factor, the socioeconomic impact of the 1918 flu played an important and largely overlooked role in the subsequent rise of fascism. Carrigan’s anxiety above is thus well-founded.

For the sake of absolute clarity: this is not an argument to the effect that “lockdowns will lead to fascism”, which would be as absurd as an argument to the effect that to advance any critique of lockdowns is tantamount to “wanting vulnerable people to die”. It is, however, an argument to the effect that the political polarisation of the discourse around lockdowns (as manifest in the ubiquitous presence of both of those above absurd arguments, and very few in between them), and the associated calculus of financialised risk in globalised systems of capital recirculation, are amplifying the sense of division and alienation that had already given rise to fascist precursors before the pandemic showed up.

(Just a few days of being back on the birdsite has been sufficient to make this very, very obvious. I had thought, naively and from a distance, that four years of Trump and Brexit might have taught us that shrieking and pointing fingers on social media is actively counterproductive, but it seems not.)

Given the ubiquitous popularity of martial metaphors (which, frankly, seems to me indicative of the issue at hand) perhaps I should put it this way: winning the battle at any cost might see you trapped in one more perpetual war against an abstract noun. The only victor in such a war would be Schmitt and those who follow him.

(failed) states of exception

I’ve been an admirer of Christopher Brown’s fiction ever since I bought a two-handed piece for Futurismic that he wrote with Chairman Bruce (“Windsor Executive Solutions”, which is still up and available to read, amazingly enough). I finally got my hands on one of his recent novels back in the spring, and found myself thinking two things, both of which I attributed in some part to the sort of seemingly serendipitous reflections of one’s own ongoing interests that can emerge from a habitual tendency toward overreading—or, to put it more plainly, the tendency for the things that’s you’re reading and thinking about to leak into each other as your forebrain does its work of pattern imposition.

But sometimes, the forebrain gets it right, as with my instinctive tagging of Rule of Capture as a critical-utopian fiction. Here’s Brown in (machine-transcribed?) conversation with Andrew Liptak in the latter’s newsletter:

I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I’m really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world — from the Enlightenment forward — is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it’s that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitate in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can’t even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that’s sort of the problem it’s trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

“[W]hat would a future you would actually want to live in look like?” is exactly the question that informed the recently-released Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (about which I keep meaning to write in greater detail, now that it’s actually out in the world); to put it another way, I’m trying to port that understanding that Brown describes (and which shows up in le Guin and others, and in utopian thinkers both prior and subsequent to them) into the rhetorics of (social) science communications, in order to get away from the solutionist and information-deficit paradigms of talking about climate adaptation and mitigation and instead describe plausibly flawed futures in which we haven’t fixed everything, but we’ve nonetheless fixed something, even though we’ve likely uncovered more problems along the way. Which we might think of as science fiction with a sense of political economy, as Brown puts it above… which is also by implication science fiction with a sense of history, a discipline with which the genre more broadly has had a rather instrumentalist relationship, in such cases as it has had a relationship with it at all.

The other thing that I thought about Rule of Capture, to the extent of writing it in my margin notes a number of times, was that it was very engaged with the Agembenian state of exception, albeit quite possibly avant la lettre. Elsewhere in this interview Brown talks about the long legacy of the (still ongoing) state of exception instigated as a response to 9/11 in the US, which is the canonical example (and the one which effectively made Agamben’s career, albeit in a way I expect he’d have preferred to have never happened); given his stated interest in political theory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Brown’s at least passing familiar with the same theoretical edifice which, for an assortment of reasons, I was exploring with an online reading group of former colleagues from Sheffield over the summer. Maybe I should just drop him a line and ask him…

Also worth a read is Brown’s recent essay at, a slightly more generalist take on the same themes… which offers a polite rejoinder to the blaming of dystopian fictions for dystopian outcomes.

One reason the real world feels yoked to our dystopian imagination may be the failure of other science fictional futures to deliver the goods. The techno-utopian Tomorrowland 20th century science fiction promised us this century would bring turned out to be something much darker. Real life never lives up to the movie version our popular culture and politics teach us to expect. The “End of History” and the birth of the World Wide Web promised us a cyber-utopia of peace, progress and prosperity just around the corner, but the first two decades of the 21st century delivered a very different story, from 9/11 and its dark aftermath to the financial crisis and the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. Now our response to the pandemic has the world looking at the U.S. as a declining nation with some of the characteristics of a failed state. You can’t blame science fiction dystopias for all that, any more than you can blame the mirror for how you look in the morning

Then there’s the novels themselves, which I can confidently recommend on the basis of Rule of Capture alone. Brown’s newsletter is also well worth the sub; less pessimistic than unflinchingly realistic, but leavened with an attentive eye for the environment, as well as hints of that critical-utopian yearning. It’s one of the few newsletters that reliably gets read on the day it arrives in my inbox.

the pool of potential victims appeared limited

Danny Dorling:

The mortality surge lasted for weeks at the start of 2015. It went up suddenly. In one week in January, as the hospitals became overwhelmed, the number of excess deaths rose from 448 to to 4050, then 3721, 3220, 2408, 1719, 1470, not dipping below 1000 until mid-March. It rose again to 1973 in the worst week in April, and to 1290 in the worst week of June. Had every newspaper been reporting the weekly (never mind daily) figures in 2015, we could even have imagined five waves by the autumn. All those earlier figures were far higher than the autumn of 2015; and – so far – the excess deaths for autumn 2015 are far higher than in autumn 2020. The major difference, of course, is that five years ago there was no talk of the numbers soaring exponentially out of control. The pool of potential victims appeared limited, and didn’t include government ministers, newspaper editors, or most of their voters and readers.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long. Then maybe cycle back and read that thing Ryan Diduck wrote way back in March. Then maybe go read Agamben again, and/or think about bioethics.

The virus is a genuine threat. It’s also been a hugely convenient distraction for those whose careers are entirely based upon having taken advantage of hugely convenient distractions prior to this one. No significant progress will be made on either problem until both are understood to coexist in synthesis.

Meanwhile, the Spectacle continues.