Category Archives: Reading Journal

“A revenant hybrid narrative”: Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014), Smart cities as corporate storytelling

  • Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014) “Smart cities as corporate storytelling”. City 18(3), pp307–320

This paper makes a loose grab of Callon and Latour’s early-A-NT notion of translation through “obligatory passage points” for the formation of scientific truths, and uses that lens to look at IBM’s construction of a “smart city” story which positioned it as the go-to actor for the application of technological solutions to certain urban problems. Or, in the authors’ own words, “it looks at who has the power to define the smartness [or otherwise?] of cities and what the discussions around this theme should be concerned with,” (p310) by the means of “[analysing] key episodes in the struggle over the definition of what smart cities are about,” which is “an important element in the competition between private companies over authorship, authority and profit in the smart city business.” (p307)

So it’s an etymological/definitional struggle, in other words. The paper opens by positioning “smart cities” as “a part of contemporary language games around urban management and development” (p307); although not much foregrounded beyond this opening statement, the motif of “smart” as a game to be played by corporate actors is repeated a number of times throughout. “[T]his discursive activity”, they continue, “is performative, because it shapes the imaginaries and practices of a myriad of actors concretely building the city” (ibid., my emphasis); said discourse further “mobilises and recycles two long-standing tropes [of urban planning]: the city conceived of as a system of systems, and a utopian discourse exposing urban pathologies and their cure.” (p308)

The core arguments of the paper are threefold: first, the authors claim that “this story is to a large extent propelled by attempts to create an ‘obligatory passage-point’”, with reference to Callon and Latour; second, that “this discourse promotes a conception of urban management that is a technocratic fiction”; and third, that it “prioritises public investments in IT over other domains of spending and thereby introduces a new ‘economy of worth’”, with reference to Boltanski and Thévenot. (p308)

Reviewing the critical literature, which was still fairly sparse at time of writing, the authors identify a number of ways to frame the “smart city” concept (p308):

  • as a mask for the negative impacts of already-existing technological interventions in urban planning;
  • as a technocratic strategy in the context of a paradigm shift to cognitive-cultural capitalism;
  • as a disciplinary system for the shaping of “smart citizen” subjects [to which I would add an ever-more explicit quantification and making-legible, in the terms of James C Scott];
  • as a reframing of urbanism as an engineering challenge [which may be safely parsed as solutionism avant la lettre];
  • and as a revenant hybrid of Corbusian high-modernist urban planning with the civic cybernetics of the 1970s.

The authors aim to connect “some ‘whys’ and ‘hows’” (p309) of the “smart” discourse by focussing their attention on IBM’s “smarter cities” campaign from the early Twentyteens.

Analysis

To recap briefly: Callon and Latour’s notion of translation has two distinct stages. The first step in the formation of a sociotechnical network is the problematization: an issue must be brought to light in such a way that not only is the problem defined and shown to be in need of a solution, but also that the actors capable of solving it are defined at the same time; this forms the “obligatory passage point” (OPP hereafter), a geographical or institutional location or process whose engagement becomes synonymous with the problem at hand. The authors argue that IBM’s “smart” story “presents their smart technologies as the only solution for various urban problems”, hence forming an OPP. (p310) The second stage is that of translation, a process through which different aspects of the problem are rewritten in the unitary language of the OPP, thus consolidating the network connections around the OPP as a nexus point.

There’s some useful points here about the use of narratives in the translation process which, while drawing upon urban planning in particular, seem to me to be generalisable to a wider range of sociotechnical transitions. The first of these is almost a passing note with reference to Latour’s classic Science in Action: “The use of mediations—from small talk to complex machines—to translate phenomena into a manageable language—is a powerful means of creating OPPs.” (p310) For me, the term mediation has a particular power, as I’m interested in the formation of sociotechnical systems, as well as the role which existing sociotechnical systems play in creating the discursive conditions for new sociotechnical systems: mediation implies media, and media are infrastructures (and vice versa).

The second is a linguistically clunky but nonetheless truthful observation, drawn from the urban planning literature, that “[s]tories are important because they provide actors involved in planning with an understanding of what the problem they have to solve is […] stories are the very stuff of planning, which, fundamentally, is persuasive and constitutive storytelling about the future.” (p310)

The systems metaphor

I’m less interested in the specifics of the IBM case (which is, at this point, rather cold) than the generalised process to be inferred, so I’ll sum up the analysis fairly swiftly. The authors identify a 2008 speech by IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, and the company’s 2009 acquisition of “smarter cities” as a trademark, as constituting the first moment of the process of translation:

With Palmisano’s speech and the trademark, we have a problematization of cities as smart cities, the first step in the creation of an OPP. Cities’ problems are defined as the need to become smarter and the central actors of the process—IBM, municipalities—are identified.

(p311)

The second “moment” is rather longer, with the authors identifying a sustained marketing campaign “designed to provide the company’s strategy with a global visibility” (p312) that followed the initial problematization as the means of translation: “[…] two aspects can be analytically distinguished: the translation of the city into a unitary language and its inscription into a transformative narrative”, the latter of which features “two well-known topoi in urban planning history working as the rhetorical devices of the campaign: the systems metaphor and utopianism.” (ibid.)

This is where things get interestingly chewy.

Using an Enlightenment rhetoric where data and systems theoiry are the means through which municipalities can move ‘from gut-feeling and impessions to knowledge’, the new CEO (probably unconsciously) situates herself in the lineage of the social reformists of the previous turn of the century…

(p312)

The authors position the systems metaphor for cities as a continuation or extension of the earlier organicist paradigm, refracted through the cyberneticism of the 1970s:

The common denominator of organicist approaches in planning is a holisitic view wherecities are approached as composed of functionally related parts. Systems thinking in urban theory is a continuation of the organiscist tradition in that respect but building on a different metaphor. If the body (and then more broadly living organisms) is the model of traditional organicism, systems theory builds on the computer metaphor. The urban totality is a large calculating system rather than a biological entity.

(p313)

(All this is very true, though I would note in passing that systems theory more broadly doesn’t have to draw on the computer as a metaphor—really, the computer is a concretisation of one particular version of the systems metaphor—and that earlier iterations of systems theory, particularly that of Wiener, made explicit allowances for non-hierachical systems-of-systems. Point being: there’s an understandable impulse to blame systems theory for “smart cities” and other such solutionist fairytales, but there’s a significantly large baby in that bathwater—a baby which the closed-system positivists tried their level best to drown at birth.)

Regarding the revenant hybrid of high-modernism and cybernetics, the authors note:

There is something apparently odd in this resurrection, as it gives the audience of the smarter cities campaign a sense of travelling back to the heroic times of post-war cybernetics.

(p313)

Well, not really so odd, if you consider that the 1970s were arguably IBM’s pinnacle of power; given that the paper mentions the “smarter cities” paradigm as IBM’s attempt to revive its flagging fortunes in the late Noughties, a return to the philosophies prominent during the glory days presumably recalled fondly by its top brass is not surprising at all: it’s a flinch back into institutional memory, if you will. But the authors have another reading which I think is complementary rather than nugatory to that:

If we consider urban dynamics as a translation device used for the purpose of storytelling, this choice becomes less enigmatic. What urban systems theory provides, seen from this perspective, is primarily a powerful metaphor creating a surface of equivalence. It translates very different urban phenomena into data that can be related together according to a classical systemic approach which identifies elements, interconnections, feedback loops, delays etc.

(p313)

Which is to say: it allows IBM to go back to a mode of problem solving with which it was once practically synonymous. But the exact interpretation is less germane than the underlying point, which is that the high-modern-cyber hybrid frame is the crux of the translation stage: “The city is made to speak the language of IBM.” (p313, my emphasis)

And therein lies a large part of the problem with “smart cities”: an implicit homogenisation of the urban with a strong bias toward conditions in the Global North (e.g. functioning city-wide infrastructures, as opposed to the archipelagos of jugaad, hacks and kludges which characterise many cities). The homogeneity is the core issue, though, as it means the template is often no more suitable to a Global-Northern city than any other: “cities are no longer made of different—and to a large extent incommensurable—socio-technical worlds (education, business, safety and the like) but as data within systemic processes”; the discourse of smartness “tends to reduce the analysis of the city to a machinic vision of cities. As a result, the analsis of these ‘urban themes’ [as represented by the ‘pillars’ of the systems metaphor] no longer seem [sic] to require thematic experts familiar with the specifics of a ‘field’ but only data mining, data interconnectedness and software-based analysis.” (p314)

(There’s also a paraphrase/cite of Marcuse (2005) that I’m going to pull out here, with the intention of chasing down the original: “… the organic or systems metaphor also creates a fictitious entity ‘the city’ supporting ‘a search for consensus politics, in which the claims of the minority or powerless or disenfranchised or non-mainstream groups are considered disturbing factors in the quest for policies benefitting “the whole”’.”)

Wrapping up the analysis of the translation through the systems metaphor, the authors identify the source of the metaphor’s power as lying in ontological transformation: “in this version of systems thinking this transformation spares us the difficulties of interpretation: translated into data and systems, the city seems to speak by itself, to be self-explanatory” (p314; in the tradition of all derivative science fiction, the city-that-speaks-for-itself is an increasingly recognisable and literal trope in more recent representations of “smartness”). Underlying the discourse is “an engineering epistemology applied to humans and non-humans. Nature and culture reunited by the engineering mind”; the discourse “nurtures an imaginary of urban management reduced to systems engineering.” (ibid.) This is, of course, our old friend solutionism avant la lettre.

The (technological) urban utopia

With the problematization established and the work of translation done, the “smart city” can then be embedded in a narrative of technocratic progress and efficiency, which the authors connect directly to the long heritage of utopianism in urban planning. First you present the mirror image of the ideal city, in effect reproblematizing it all over again; this is then used as the rhetorical springboard for the utopian proposal. The classic (urban) utopia is arguably always univocal, and it has this in common with the “smart city”, which is “not a collective project assembling different worldviews and interests, but a singular ‘emancipatory’ vision” (p315), dreamt up in this case by a single corporate entity rather than a single crank reformer. The authors also identify and label what they call the “weightwatchers” rhetoric of the before/after comparison as being central to the IBM campaign; I’m pretty sure that trope can be found in many other solutionist discourses, too.

(Interestingly, that campaign used a similar seeing-the-present-from-the-vantage-of-a-changed-future narrative strategy to that of certain projects I’m currently involved in; a useful reminder that it’s not an inherently virtuous methodology.)

So, the “smart city” is a utopian form, “depicting a model of a perfectly functioning urban society but, in contrast with classical utopianism, it is governed by code rather than spatial form.” (p315) Regular readers will see where I’m going with this: it seems to me that the authors go on to describe a utopian mode that maps very clearly onto the technological utopian mode first posited in sf and utopian studies, and rolled on a little further by myself:

… the core of smartness lies in the algorithm. ¶ Optimisation through code is therefore the utopia promised by the company. […] This ‘ultimate smart city’ is a transparent one where all flows within the nine systems are quantified, connected and efficiently managed […] ‘smarter cities’ is a mild utopianism: it promises efficiency rather than paradise on earth. It is a utopian rhetoric tempered by market realism: it is easier to sell technologies and services than an ad nihilo urban structure, more convincing to tap on the faith in technology and progress than to promise a brave new city.

(p316)

But recall that, alongside the rejection of the possibility of the perfected society, a core feature of the technological utopia is an active distrust of political approaches to problems, replacing any such dialectics with what we might think of as Whig futurism: “in the perfect future of the classical utopias, historicity is abolished: the arrow of time is bent into a circular repetition”, but in the “smart city”, “historicity is not abolished, because optimisation needs to be constantly renewed: novel technologies need to be constantly introduced for that purpose and codes constantly rewritten. If IBM’s storytelling rests on a utopian rhetoric it constantly makes sure that the future it promotes is a realistic one.” (p316)

Conclusion

The authors, quite fairly I feel, sum up by describing the “smart city” metatrope as “primarily a strategic tool for gaining a dominant position in a huge market” (p316), but note that it “should not be taken at face value [… what] we have proposed is not a description of how smart cities work on the ground but a deconstruction of a communication strategy: what one of our IBM informants calls a market creation strategy.” (p316-7) It is, in short, “a framing device”. (p317)

Two questions/challenges are surfaced here: first, that “the discourse promotes an informational and technocratic conception of urban management where data and software seem to suffice and where, as a consequence, knowledge, interpretation and specific thematic expertise appear as superfluous”, which, the authors note, “is a rather dangerous fiction.” (p317; “had enough of experts”, anyone?) The second issue is that the “smart city” fiction “promotes a mentality where urban affairs are framed as an apolitical matter [… the] rhetorical means of the campaign also aspire to political neutrality.” (p317)

The authors end with a call to action beyond critique:

… an alternative storytelling about smart cities is necessary. Storytelling in planning […] should not only be used as an instrument of critique but also as an instrument to suggest progressive avenues for urban development [… which] requires being explicit about normative and political positioning as smartness only makes sense within a system of values and aims.

(p318)

Amen to that. A good paper, all in all, and a nice addition to the citation quiver.

Cited:

Marcuse, P (2005). “‘The City’ as Perverse Metaphor”. City 9(2), pp247-254

Contact low: reading Mark Fisher

I bought the K-Punk collected works of Mark Fisher late last year, and have slowly been working my way through it, going through phases of reading a few pieces a night before bed when I haven’t been reading fiction. I think I’m maybe ¾ through the thing now, factoring in for the notes and references; it’s a huge breezeblock of a book, the sort of thing that makes a Neal Stephenson novel look like a pamphlet by comparison.

Aside from the actual content of the pieces themselves, which are almost invariably stimulating, the book as a whole has a vibe to it, which one must assume is driven in some part by my knowing its provenance. One aspect of the vibe is a sense in which it shames me: Fisher was an incisive thinker and an astonishingly productive writer, and this book represents merely a selection of his non-professional extra-curricular writings, much of it produced while he was struggling to support a young family as a casualised lecturer in a minor FE college. I look at the quantity and the quality and the continuity of it, and I look at my own output in recent years, and I wonder what the hell my excuse is, when this guy was cranking it out relentlessly, building up a body of thought, an edifice of theory and observation and insight. His elevation to a sort of secular sainthood since his suicide is thus as understandable as it’s unsettling. I find the constellation-face image that they used for the cover tasteless and mawkish, almost exploitative. I wonder if he wouldn’t have found it contemptible himself, even as I wish he were still around to have an opinion on it.

(I should note here that although I know that I read a few K-Punk pieces on the blog circuit “back in the day”, having recognised a few of them in the course of reading this book, I was not a regular reader of Fisher, and had only become aware of him as a significant figure around 2014 or so, probably due to his reinvigoration of the notion of hauntology, which was – and still is – very influential among a lot of people I still follow and read today.)

The other aspect of the vibe of the book is what I’m calling a “contact low”. It’s probably exacerbated by the curation of the collection, and also by the fact that I’m deep into the specifically political-theoretical section of the book at this point, but the exhaustion and enervation of the man just pours off the page, like writing had become a habitual method of exorcism for channeling away some of his fury and frustration at the circumstances. He looked deeply and critically into the abyss, but he was always looking for lights in its darkness, and I think that’s where my contact low is coming from at the moment: reading his posts about the student uprisings of 2010, the riots of 2011, reading his hopes that they marked a turning point, or at least the first hints of a turn, away from the relentlessly festering mulch of capitalist realism – hopes I shared at the time, though I couldn’t have expressed them in the same terms, or with the same incisive clarity. And I think of all that’s happened since, and how I struggled with it, likewise looking for any light in the darkness… and rather than a turn to the left, we ended up with fucking Brexit. In the absence of any personal connection to him, it would be reductive and crass to assume that it was some sort of final straw for Fisher, but I remember clearly my own experience of the first few months after the referendum, and to call it a massive psychic trauma would not be to understate things at all. I was all out of hope; I guess that maybe he was, too.

Three years later, here we are, staggering into what we must presume is the third and final act of this surreal piece of political theatre, with all the themes and major characters having clarified themselves down to caricatures of the grotesques that they began as, but still no sense of how the thing might end, or if indeed there will ever be any resolution to this seemingly hopeless shit-show of a situation. I’ve been struggling psychologically this last couple of weeks, after a nine-month period of mental stability and relative contentment that’s almost without precedent in my life to date, and which presumably has a very great deal to do with finally having a decent income that results from doing work I actually believe in, among other factors. Indeed, my life is better than it ever has been, in almost every respect; I am both privileged and fortunate, though I decline to downplay the role of hustle and effort on my part in getting me here. We’re all running hard in this Red Queen’s Race; I was lucky to have people around who picked me up when I tripped and fell. Would that everyone was so fortunate.

I’m not blaming Fisher’s writing for my little turn to the bleak, to be clear – but I think it’s surely in the mix, alongside a weird viral lurgy I picked up a few weeks back, the dismal dynamics of this week’s weather, and the reactionary carnival freak-show of the Tory party trying to determine who among them can best rally their dementia-adjacent membership of 1950s cosplayers and authority-fetishists. It’s OK to be low from time to time, particularly when there’s so many things to feel low about. We are victims of the privatisation of stress; the tragic gift of Fisher’s work was to identify, describe and give a name to the thing that destroyed him, in order that we might eventually destroy it in return.

There are reasons to be hopeful, if not optimistic, about the bigger picture; you just have to look away from the big-top clown-show to see them, and then you have to write and talk about them, because hope is a flame, and if you blow on it enough, it might start to catch. I’m wary of making promises to myself, or to the imagined public that is whatever audience remains for this here blog – but I also want to try to alchemise my experience of the times we’re living through in the way that Fisher did, to turn the shit into gold. I think it will help me to stay upright if I document my hopes and fears, and I hope it might be helpful to others as well.

There IS an alternative. There are many alternatives, and we can explore them.

But I think one of Fisher’s most crucial, if under-discussed points, was that we can’t explore them alone.

So it’s time to step outside again and find the others, and to begin the work, despite the terrible weather.

It can’t rain forever.

“The very parameters of global urbanism”: Easterling (2014), Extrastatecraft

  • Easterling, K. (2014). Extrastatecraft: The power of infrastructure space. Verso Books.

This book is basically a condensation of all Easterling’s work preceding it – which isn’t entirely surprising, but worth noting nonetheless. In the context of the task at hand at time of taking these notes, the main point to be made is that the “smart city” is basically just a rebadging of what Easterling identifies as “the zone” (note that her list of examples are all cities which have been described as being “smart”: KAEC in Saudi, Songdo, Cyberjaya, HITEC Hyderabad – p. 15); this means that we can get away from the notion that “smartness” is anything to do with any specific technology or policy (or suite thereof), and think of it instead as an iteration of the “spatial softwares” designed to produce a space in which extrastatectraft might be performed. In this way, we can see data as both the means and the end of control: urban space as an economic and ideological Taylorist panopticon.

The shared standards and ideas that control everything from technical objects to management styles also constitute an infrastructure. Far from hidden, infrastructure is now the overt point contact and access between us all – the rules governing the space of everyday life.

(p. 11; note that Easterling kinda undermines that “far from hidden” point later, modifying it to something closer to “hidden in plain sight” – its ubiquity makes it invisible, in other words. This is a continuation of Easterling’s multi-book riff on “spatial products”, which is a dominant feature of her magisterial Enduring Innocence (2005), but which in turn has its origins in Organisation Space (1999), both from MIT Press.)

Now not only buildings and business parks but also entire world cities are constructed according to a formula – and infrastructural technology […] Manifest in these stock specifications, infrastructure is then not the urban substructure but the urban structure itself – the very parameters of global urbanism.

(p. 12; “technology” being used here in the broader original sense of practices, rather than the more recent false specificity of devices)

Infrastructure space has become a medium of information. The information resides in invisible, powerful activities that determine how objects and content are organised and circulated. Infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.

(p. 13)

[Riffing on McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, and his observation that content is mere meat to distract “the watchdog of the mind”]: … the activity of the medium or infrastructural matrix – what it is doing rather than what it is saying – is sometimes difficult to detect.

(p. 13; triumph of surface over substance, marketing rhetorics, the prestidigitation of infrastructural magic – the latter being a riff from a talk I gave in Munich back in 2017, the video of which I’m trying to get the conference organisers to reinstate to Y*ut*be)

… dynamic systems of space, information, and power generate de facto forms of polity faster than even quasi-official forms of governance can legislate them […] As a site of multiple, overlapping, or nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide, infrastructure space becomes a medium of what might be called extrastatecraft – a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes in partnership with statecraft.

(p. 15)

[The] dominant software for making urban space: the free zone […] typically provides premium utilities and a set of incentives – tax exemptions, foreign ownership of property, streamlined customs, cheap labour, and deregulation of labour or environmental laws – to entice business.

(p. 15)

Both urban space and telecommunications are technologies and mediums of information.

(p. 17; cf. Mattern, 2018, on the always-already “smart” city)

If law is the currency of governments, standards are the currency of international organisations and multinational enterprises. ISO (the International Organisation for Standardisation) is an extra-state parliament of this global standard-making activity [and] standards create a “soft law” of global exchanges.

(p. 18)

[ISO9000] promotes the ritualised incantations of something called “quality” […] management guidelines for a process or quality system that addresses everything from the environment to government itself […] that often resembles the hilarious, upbeat argot of self-help gurus. [It is] a perfect conduit of undeclared activities and intentions with potentially dangerous consequences.

(p. 19; consequences come from the “pre-cleared” status of anyone who has hustled their way to being accredited by ISO, after which point they’re assumed to be the proverbial safe pair of hands; bonus points for the scare-quoting of “quality”, which is one of the great enduring suitcase words, as poignantly illustrated by Pirsig’s Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

Political and economic data come cloaked in the rationality of science even though they may really present false logics or systems of belief.

(p. 20; against econometrics, and Easterling’s signature bugbear, the McKinsey consultant – a loathing which makes more sense as the years pass by)

Disposition is the character or propensity of an organisation that results from all its activity. It is the medium, not the message […] It is not the shape of the game piece but the way the game piece plays. It is not the text but the constantly updating software that manages the text. Npt the object form, but the active form […] Detecting and developing the active forms that shape disposition is an essential skill of the urbanist in infrastructure space…

(p. 21)

Examining the power of the stories, persuasions, or ideologies that accompany a technology also helps in detecting disposition […] Well-rehearsed theories, like those related to Capital or neoliberalism continue to send us to the same places to search for dangers while other concentrations of authoritarian power escape scrutiny […] shaping and managing the story is then also a crucial skill in infrastructure space.

(pp. 21-2; note that the skill with story that Easterling describes here is already well developed in the organisations that peddle the spatial products with which she is concerned; e.g. McKinsey give great story, and therein lies the problem, in that we have to learn to subvert and rewrite those stories)

“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)

“This opposition imagination”: Moylan (1980), Beyond Negation

  • Moylan, T. (1980). Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. Extrapolation, 21(3), 236-253.

This is the canonical paper defining the notion of the “critical utopia” in sf; Moylan went on to elaborate the idea in numerous articles and books further down the line, and I hope to get to those eventually. But when it comes to concepts on which I lean heavily in my own work, I like to go back to the earliest sources — not least because conceptual drift can occur as things get picked up and reused, in an intellectual version of the telephone game. To be clear, that’s a totally legitimate process, too, and hell knows I myself have been known to twist things when I pick them up and use them – but I like to think that I’m honest about the ways in which I do so, and I also like to know what the original shape was before I got to warping it.

So, yes, the critical utopia — no big surprises here, as sf scholarship is a fairly small and sedate scene, and its ideas don’t often get picked up and mutated by folk from outside of it. But as is often the case, there’s some interesting (and useful) nuance and detail to be had from the primary source.

Moylan’s basic argument here is that 1970s sf was ‘the source of a renewal of utopian writing [which] used and transcended both the optimistic utopia of the late nineteenth century (for example, Bellamy, Morris) and the pessimistic dystopia of this century (for example, Huxley, Orwell) […] these new utopias possess a duality both in content and form which allows consideration of the repressive reality as well as the utopian dream.’ (p. 236)

What’s particularly interesting (and poignant, particularly for someone who is as not quite but very nearly as old as the very books that Moylan is talking about) is that so much of Moylan’s claim for the cultural relevance and response that these novels represent could so easily be applied to the present moment — which, if nothing else, goes a long way to explain why utopia more generally is back on the agenda. (On this point see also Levitas, 2013, which I should be posting notes about fairly soon after this piece.) By way of illustration, Moylan argues that the critical utopia suggests a new direction in sf and ‘a possible shift in the imaginative direction of United States culture: a shift from simple negation to a negation with alternatives’ (pp. 236-7); while they are in the utopian tradition, these works ‘do not imitate that form; rather, [they] have transformed (aufgehoben) the traditional utopia in the triple sense of that term: that is they have negated, preserved and transformed it.’ (p. 237) The new utopian narrative is a response to ‘[the] contradictions in postwar capitalist existence as well as the many forms of resistance and alternatives to it have stimulated moves beyond the cynicism and fear — not to mention anti-communism — that inhibited the artistic and social imagination after World War II’ (ibid.); so far, so Twentyteens, amirite? Point being: ‘the critical utopia is both an artifact of contemporary capitalism and an artistic action against it.’ (p. 238)

[Casual readers and anyone stumbling across this post from search may wish to know that most of my notes here are concerned specifically and instrumentally with identifying the rhetorics and functions that define the critical utopian mode, though in some cases I will just be pulling out quotes that I like or think may be generally useful at a later date. Or, more succinctly: the following should not be taken to be a full, complete or impartial summary of Moylan’s paper!]

Moylan’s first source text is Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which (as its readers will know) ‘identifies itself as an ambiguous utopia’ (p. 238).

Through the symbolism and actual function of the wall around its spaceport, ‘the society of Annares is not presented in “utopian” isolation but rather in conflict with its place of origin: the good place is seenm by the reader in the context of its relationship with the bad place.’ (p. 238)

‘In [its] centralised administration, however, lies one of the counter-revolutionary dangers facing Anarres; for at such a center privilege, prerogative, and decision-making accrues to a few within the administrative bureaucracy that remains and, in effect, rules throughout the changes of representation.’

(p. 240; something something impartial technocratic civil service something)

‘The complexity of The Dispossessed that preserves, negates and transforms the utopian mode arises not only out of this context but also out of Le Guin’s narratiuve strategy of revealing both the dystopian elements within the utopia and the problems inherent in the conflict between the concrete utopia of Anarres and the world of Urras’; by structuring the book around two alternating threads of chapters — a ‘double plot’ — ‘Le Guin constructs a narrative that goes beyond dystopian and utopian exposition’. In the chapters set on Urras, ‘the reader does not encounter the utopian narrative but rather the narrative of speculation and criticism common to science fiction: that is, aspects of present-day society are extrapolated, and the resulting social vision providers a critical perspective on the present historical situation’ (p. 242) – again, another way of pointing out that sf is not about the time in which its narrative is ostensibly set, but rather about the time in which it is written. By contrast, the Anarres chapters are in the utopian mode, but ‘contrary to the typical Bildungsroman, Shevek does not simply adjust to his world; rather, both he and his world undergo radical change.’ (pp. 242-3)

‘By means of the device of alternating chapters, Le Guin combines the science-fiction mode, the quest plot, and images of Urras as contemporary society with the utopian mode, the development plot and the alternative images of Anarres. Hence, she taps the richness of two genres – science fiction and the bourgeois novel – to renovate a third, the utopia. […] But The Dispossessed as a critical utopia does not negate or transform the utopian mode as much as it preserves or revitalises it.’

(p. 243)

Second source text is Samuel Delany’s Triton, which (per Moylan) by comparison to Le Guin’s ‘utopia of the intellect’ is a distinctly urban ‘utopia of the streets’ in which ‘the gap between utopian and non-utopian is less evident, the borders less defined’ (p. 243). Riffing on Le Guin’s subtitle, Delany tagged Triton as an “ambiguous heterotopia”, deploying a (now) well-known Foucauldian term that Moylan glosses thusly: ‘Utopia affords consolation, but the heterotopia is disturbing and challenging. The heterotopia breaks up, deconstructs, speech and myth in order to open our perception of reality to perspectives and dimensions beyond the common, the apparent, the lyrical.’ (p. 244; it’s been a long time since I read Triton, and I don’t recall that I read Delany’s afterword when I did, but this understanding of the heterotopia jars somewhat with the notion of it I picked up from Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” article of 1986; Moylan points out that Delany refers to The Order of Things, which I have yet to read.) Anyway, ‘Triton does not express utopia directly as in the traditional works or negatively as in the dystopia; rather it expresses the utopia in the interconnections within the social system from which it is developed and with which it is still in conflict.’ (ibid.)

Moylan is at pains to distinguish between the Le Guinean and Delanean critical utopia, arguing that the latter ‘approaches utopia from the underside, from urban streets rather than university towers, and treats the apparently negative elements as possible dysfunctions or, at times, creative aberrations in the society rather than as dystopian negations of it’ (p. 247) — this is reflective of a more individualist / libertarian perspective on the social as held by Delany, Moylan implies. There are similarities, of course: ‘Like Le Guin, [Delany] opposes utopia and home world […] he takes care to reveal the dystopian and dysfunctional aspects of the utopian society itself.’ (p. 248) But in contrast to Le Guin’s orderly double thread set-up, at the level of structure Delany kinda throws all the elements together into something of a hodge-podge which echoes the theme, ‘effectively highlighting the ambiguity and struggle inherent in any “actual utopia”’ (ibid.) — and, as I recall it, making for a much more challenging read, which I suppose is part of the point Moylan is making here.

But the result produces a different generic discourse, also: ‘Delany’s heterotopia negates and transforms the generic utopia – producing a form which has its roots in the utopia, the science-fiction narrative, and the psychological novel [but which] emphasises the total image of a complex alternate society (utopian but with all its historical ambiguities and problems) more centrally than previous narratives have.’ (ibid.)

In summary, then: ‘The negation of the traditional utopia — rather than the simple reversal or opposition that leads to dystopia — and the transformation of utopian narrative by means of the complex blending of utopian and critical modes; the emphasis on iconic presentation of a social vision; and the refusal to idealise, console or present neat “utopian” conflicts, result in the qualitatively different form of the heterotopia’ (pp. 248-9); ‘Delany prefers urban streets where the interface between ideas and material being is more immediate and complex [and] makes the experience of utopian life available to the reader in style and structure as well as content.’ (p. 249; whether that stylistic and structural rhetoric would have much utility for readers without a great level of narrative sophistication is an open question, at least in literature, but this is a nice defence of totality-of-theme from a political perspective nonetheless.)

Closing up, Moylan turns to the broader category of critical utopias, (including e.g. Russ, Piercy, Callenbach) which have ‘in common their critical utopian strategy of dealing with the home worlds as well as the utopian and dystopian elements of the alternative society [and] an opposition to the present state of advanced capitalist society: each of these works negates that present and offers emancipating visions of a better existence.’ (p. 250) Here Moylan riffs on Marcuse, and makes an interesting point that echoes more recent comments by Dobraszczyk regarding the radical resistance of the imagination:

‘The mental forces opposed to the current reality (performance) principle are located chiefly in the unconscious. Fantasy (imagination), however, is the exception, located as it is in consciousness and able to operate with a high degree of freedom from the reality principle – although contained within the realm of art […] Of course, it is in the interest of the dominant culture to deny the utopian visions of fantasy any connection with a possible future for humankind and to relegate those visions to the status of sublimated desires of an unrealisable Golden Age.’

(p. 250; another passage that could easily be transplanted into a paper written today)

Finally, then, the critical utopias are (or rather were) ‘a part of this opposition imagination, this negative/transcendent force’ (p. 251) – a cluster of counter-imaginaries, then? ‘Where Le Guin emphasises the economic and the social, Delany emphasises the sexual and personal […] Both attempt to work with the social totality; both see that totality as fundamentally political.’ (ibid., my emphasis; and that’s why we need to take up critical utopian tools to defeat hegemonising and hyperquantitative techno-utopian narratives such as that of the “smart city”, innit?)