Category Archives: Politics

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’

(ibid.)

However:

‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)

UAV god-trick

There is something sublime and hypnotic about seeing the earth from above. Before drones, satellites and helicopters provided such views, but this God-like perspective was never so abundant, nor accompanied by such elegant silence. As I sat there, I fell into a kind of trance, such that the images began to seem removed not only spatially but temporally. At some point, I understood that I was in the future, long after our planet had been obliterated, watching scenes that had taken place many centuries in the past; I was watching the final dramas of a fallen civilization.

What I was experiencing was delusion. It was the kind of hallucination induced by acid trips, madness, and extreme sleep deprivation, in which a person often feels that he is floating above his own body, looking down on it from above. Charles Lindbergh experienced something like this during his flight across the Atlantic, after remaining awake for over thirty hours. At one point, he felt as though his consciousness had become completely untethered. “For immeasurable periods,” he wrote, “I seemed divorced from my body as though I were an awareness, spreading through space, over the earth and into the heavens, unhampered by time and substance, free from the gravitation that binds men to heavy human problems of the world.” This is an account of human consciousness leaving a body, leaving a plane. It is an account of a man becoming a drone.

Meghan O’Gieblyn at The Paris Review.

Cf. this riff from Rebecca Solnit:

… that unconscious bias I’ve often tried to describe as “from their mountaintop they see the playing field is level,” which is by the way a sports metaphor from the era when nearly all sports were male-only, as most televised sports still are. From the abyss, people see that the field is not level; what gets termed “identity politics” is an attempt to identify the inequalities and level them out, because not all inequality is economic and a lot of economic inequality is rooted in racism and sexism.

Competition demands exponentiality

We hold, first, that the “religion of the Singularity” is not new—it must be understood as a symptom of neoliberal rationality in the Information Age. Second, we argue that the same neoliberal logic is exemplified by recent developments in the urban process, its value flows, and its associated forms of governance. Finally, we conclude that to surpass the contradictions of info-capitalism that unfold in the ideology of the Singularity and of tech-infused urban life, we can turn to alternative models of ownership. Only by wresting back control of information and space can we begin to build radical alternatives to Singularitarian reduction.

Claudel & Shafer (2019), “A Rumble in the Taupe Hum of Info-Capital: On Reduction and the Neoliberal City“. Journal of Design and Science.

Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.

Pessimism of the Intellect / Optimism of the Will

KSR’s angry optimism [CCCBLab, Barcelona]:

The way that we create energy and the way that we move around on this planet both have to be de-carbonized. That has to be, if not profitable, affordable. Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. It’s not that it’s technologically difficult (we already have the solar panels, the electric cars, we have the technical problems more or less solved in prototype) but the mass deployment of those is a huge human project, equivalent of everybody gathering together to fight World War II. Everybody agrees that, yes, this is important enough that people’s careers, lives, be devoted to the swapping out of the infrastructure and the creation of a de-carbonized, sustainable, physical plan for the rest of civilization.

Well, this isn’t the way capitalism works, as currently configured; this isn’t profitable. The market doesn’t like it. By the market I mean – what I think everybody means, but doesn’t admit – capital, accumulated capital, and where it wants to put itself next. […] It’s just the way it is and there is no control over that except for nation-state governments, each one looking at its own responsibility and power and feeling in competition with others, not wanting to lose its differential advantage.

Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.

No further comment. BUT —

… I think there is a difference between cruel optimism and angry optimism, where you have the Gramscian pessimism in the intellect but also optimism of the will. Use the optimism as a club, to beat the crap out of people who are saying that we are doomed, who are saying let’s give up now. And this “let’s give up now” can be very elaborated academically. You can say: “Well, I’m just into adaptation rather than mitigation, there’s nothing we can do about climate change, all you can do is adapt to it.” In other words, stick with capitalism, stick with the market, and don’t get freaked out. Just adapt and get your tenure because it is usually academics who say it, and they’re not usually in design or architecture, they aren’t really doing things. They’re usually in philosophy or in theory. They come out of my departments, they’re telling a particular story and I don’t like that story. My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.

Cf. the good work they’re doing at Into the Ruinsclimate change (and concomitant political, economic and sociotechnical change) as inescapable but nonetheless survivable, storyable. Solarpunk is in a similar space, but more over on the utopian side of the spectrum, which is likely why its proponents have produced so little so far: they’re not yet testing their dreams hard enough to generate storyable worlds from them.

(By “storyable” I mean “more than a mere backdrop or set-dressing; a world/context which plays as generative a role in the plot as any of the characters do, if not significantly more so”. None of which is to say that solarpunk is no good; more to observe that it’s a young scene of predominantly young artists, and is still finding its feet in aesthetics and technique alike. Writing science fiction is not uniquely hard, but it is hard in a unique way, and the speculative toolkit has evolved many of its conventions through necessity as much as ideology; it’s a cliche, and I resisted it myself, but you have to learn the rules before you have any chance of challenging them successfully and systematically.)