Category Archives: Politics

La sagesse de l’Oncle Bruno

Bruno Latour [BL] and Nickolaj Schultz [NS], in conversation with Jakob Stein in late 2018, from a transcript (sadly not open-access) at Theory, Culture & Society:

BL: … we are inheriting a history of 200 years of euphemizing and making invisible the material conditions of existence on which we rely. When we see the ecological crisis arriving, we do everything to delay or deny the situation, because we have learned that this was a question outside of our social order. But the fact that the earthly conditions come back and reinsist on being the most important aspect of the social order – which is actually very classical politics, since to have politics you need a land and you need a people – makes us very surprised. So I think it is momentary. It is a transition which is in a way going very fast, since everybody knows now that it is the essential problem. But it is still difficult to fit into the classical definition of politics, because it does not fit with the nation-state, etc. So there are all sorts of characteristics that explain the indifference. There are also theological reasons.

[…]

BL: The place or land where these neo-nationalist countries claim to live has no economic or ecological base. If you see the negotiations between Brussels and Italy, it is clear that the promises made have absolutely no connection with any soil. And the imaginary America of Trump and the imaginary Brazil of Bolsonaro have no land either. It simply has no existence economically or ecologically. And this is why we have to very quickly do the work of reconstituting the land under the feet of people. This is where things can be accelerated and politics can come back. If you ask people ‘What is the territory that allows you to subsist?’, at first, people immediately realize that they have no way of describing this territory and they are completely lost. Afterwards, they feel excited and regrounded. And if they have a ground, a land, a territory, they begin to have interests. And if they have interests, we begin to have politics. So it can and it will shift very quickly. If not, we will all be doomed. Brexit is a good example. What happens in England now is really interesting, because you see how people begin to realize that Brexit is a catastrophe in terms of conditions of existence. You see people who are deeply depoliticized, completely seized by the idea that you need no attachments, suddenly realizing that if you are cut out of Europe then you are nothing much. Because now people are talking concretely: with Brexit, these universities are going to disappear, these jobs are going to disappear, etc., and we have been completely lied to about what it is to be somewhere, in England, in the place of nowhere.

Latour’s latest book, Down to Earth, is literally the work of a lifetime: a distillation of everything he’s done in the past four decades plus into around a hundred short, crackling pages. For most of his career, he has played the distanced sociological role impeccably, but has slowly been shedding it over the last decade or so (or perhaps ever since “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”); Down to Earth sees him shrug it off completely and make these clean, clear connections to a political project. It’s a masterpiece, full of energy and urgency. You could read it in an afternoon, and I thoroughly recommend that you do so.

Also found this bit from Schultz of great interest:

NS: I am still not sure if I understand why we should not be able to theorize power exerted over future generations. Why should power relations not be able to travel through time? That power relations travel through time – is this not what sociology has always showed with concepts such as ‘social heritage’, ‘social reproduction’, etc? I do not think it takes a lot of metaphysical imagination to realize that our generation and previous generations are dominating and have dominated future generations’ possibilities of breathing and living on habitable soils. Unfortunately, it takes more of an imagination to imagine the opposite. As you say, time is colonized. In this perspective we maybe need to understand that we, the Western, modern civilization, was, is and will be a sort of ‘geo-historical elite’, while future generations, rich as well as poor, Western and non-Western, will be living in our ruins of capitalism, as Anna Tsing would say, as a geo-historical proletariat. It is not a nice thought, but …

Cf. this bit from a while back here at VCTB re: the colonising present, riffing on Deb Chachra. I suppose every generation is given to thinking that its challenges are of world-shattering importance and urgency, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

Not one more border / Critical EUtopia

James Butler at the LRB blog:

The passion of Brexit’s devotees isn’t so much hope for a new world as nostalgia for an (imagined) old one: they aren’t dreaming of utopia but pining for Arcadia. YouGov’s finding that more than half of Leave voters would welcome the return of the death penalty alongside blue passports is a reminder that the politics of nostalgia are not merely quixotic. Utopia and dystopia can nestle alongside each other in the same polity; the imagined citizens of Thomas More’s Utopia, with its militant homogeneity and paranoiac mutual surveillance, would have known this. The view from the Irish border or the anxious pharmacy queue is different from the view from the stockbroker belt.

[…]

Remainers, too, are nostalgic for a lost European Arcadia. It’s easy to sympathise with their lament for lost freedoms, but harder to square their picture of the EU’s docile benevolence with the reality of Brussels politics – more dirty old town than New Jerusalem – or the steel with which it squashed Greece, or the vast Mediterranean graveyard and archipelago of migrant camps. If there is a role for utopianism in Europe, it is of a critical sort, and its list of desiderata is long: against the petty chauvinisms of nation states, certainly, but also against the EU’s pallid imitation democracy and border guards; against the delusions of autarky, but eyeing the gates of the ECB’s Winter Palace, too.

I’m with Pia Kemp:

Freedom of movement and residence!

If you advocate borders in a burning world, you’ll eventually find yourself on the outside of one you’d rather be on the inside of.

C̶h̶a̶r̶m̶ offensive

Will Davies on Bozo’s ascent:

Advertising, dating back to the late 19th century, brought a more scientific perspective to a similar challenge: how to produce an affective bond between a mass public and a product. A key difference is that advertising is primarily focused on the future (what will this product be like, what difference will it make to me and my life?) whereas nationalist communication is heavily focused on the past (great victories, sources of identity, origin myths). Nevertheless, the two became synthesised in the twentieth century with wartime efforts to boost ‘morale’, which aimed at increasing solidarity and enthusiasm (things that become increasingly important as warfare engages more non-combatants and involves aerial bombing).

[…]

The neoliberal era that followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary order generated additional types of psychological influence. The neoliberal political system and ideology emphasises that all situations are uncertain and competitive, and it is therefore up to all decision-makers – states, firms, investors, job-seekers, parents, students – to adopt a responsible, enterprising and flexible mentality, in approaching a fundamentally unknowable future. This makes impression management (especially impressions of the future) an essential technique at all scales of decision-making. Intuition and instinct become crucial cognitive tools, and targets for persuasion.

Worth reading the whole thing; not a cheerful piece, but then it’s a piece about the weaponisation of cheerfulness, so, yeah. The point about the futurity of advertising melding with the nostalgia of nationalism feels intuitively relevant to my own work, though I’m not quite sure yet where it fits; possibly as support for my minor-key riff about conservatism being distinguished by its utopias being located in the past rather than the future.

I’m still stunned by that Sun front page. Not that they’ve ever gone much beyond crude nursery-wall-mural appeals to a carefully nurtured demographic of subliterate manchildren… but even so it’s somehow shocking to be reminded of just how literally infantile the political discourse in this country still is.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.