Category Archives: Reading Journal

“The We Time”: two papers on transition design

  • Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Wangel, J., & Broms, L. (2018, June 28). Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design. Design Research Society Conference 2018. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2018.324
  • Wangel, J., Hesselgren, M., Eriksson, E., Broms, L., Kanulf, G., & Ljunggren, A. (2019). Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction. Futures, 112, 102440. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102440

These two papers both deal with Vitiden, a speculative-design futures project whose final output (as a PDF) can be found here. This review, as is often the case on this blog, is more aimed at extracting useful and transferable conceptualisations and methodological frames than digging into the details of method, but if you’re at all interested in design research as applied to energy futures, or any futures-oriented work whatsoever, I recommend getting hold of both of them, along with the final document linked above.


Hesselgren et al. (2018). “Exploring Lost and Found in Future Images of EnergyTransitions: Towards a bridging practice of provoking and affirming design”

I’m going to start with Hesselgren et al., a conference paper whose full title uses the term “bridging practice”, which feels to me like a clear echo of Auger (2013; reviewed here) without Auger, so to speak; it may well be that the term is sufficiently canonical in design research that it can pass without the need for citing a source. But the real merit of this paper in light of my ongoing work is its concretisation of cognitive bridgework in the emergent (sub)discipline of transition design (TD hereafter), which is also defined and positioned herein.

(Note that the publicly accessible version of this paper has no page numbers, and that all page references here presume a count that starts from 1 on the title page thereof.)

Introduction

Here Hesselgren et al. address the gap between emissions reductions pledged and actions actually taken, and refer back to earlier studies re: resistance/avoidance of addressing even locally obvious instances of climatic change; this is interpreted as showing that “it is not lack of information that upended action […] but that people tend to shut down information that makes them uncomfortable. Through avoiding negative emotions and refraining from thinking about the future, climate change is actively (although not consciously) made into a ‘back-of-the-mind’ issue” (p2).

[Supplemental note-to-self: there is presumably a literature concerned with the dynamics and side-effects of such subconscious repression of the immediately and environmentally obvious, which would be worth looking into, particularly if there’s a CC-oriented thread thereof.]

The authors also cite various sources for claims that an excess of “alarmism” depersonalises climate change (CC hereafter) in such a way as to prevent engagement and action; fear of CC consequences is noted as a potential driver of pro-environmental action, but “many people suffer from a perceived lack of agency and alternatives”, such that fear leads instead to “feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and inaction” (p2).

While I have yet to finish and review it, it’s worth noting here that Garforth’s Green Utopias (2018) includes a strong swathe of citations counterarguing that climate dystopias (can) serve to breach the BAU-trap of “adaptation/mitigation” discourses, opening up imaginative space for radically alternative futures through the articulation of necessity. This is dystopia less as a goad, exactly, and more as the hazard whose envisioned presence encourages us to steer away from it—the Scylla across the strait from the Charybdis of technosolutionist ecomodernism, to use a metaphor I’m growing increasingly fond of.

Hesselgren et al. briefly try to thread that needle, marshalling citations whicha) favour of the “concretisation” of CC consequences made “more specific” and more spatio-temporally immediate, b) note the lack of “positive images of […] low-carbon futures”, and c) point out the parallelism of catastrophic dystopias on the one hand and, on the other hand, solutionist futures which are “devoid of loss”, which can also block or distract from efforts to instigate change (p2).

Thus this paper positions futures studies (FS) and TD as “empowering tools” for mitigation efforts, and seeks to “explore ways to identify and articulate what people see as lost and found in the transition to a low-carbon society […] ways to confront the lost, so this seems less threatening, and to mentally and emotionally invest in the found, to make the transition more appealing” (p2, authors’ emphases); in other words, something rather like the critical utopian modality in sf, navigating carefully (and contingently!) through the difficult strait of Messina invoked above.

Framing

The project is framed within the field of transition design, a transdiciplinary branch of design research aimed at “exploring and enabling transitions toward more sustainable futures”. Drawing on Irwin, Kossoff & Tonkinwise (2015), TD positions the designer as a “change agent”, and relies on four main planks of practice: 1) visions for transition, 2) theories of change, 3) posture and mindset, and 4) new ways of designing. Regarding 2) and 3), Hesselgren et al. note that TD advocates for a precautionary mindset/posture, but also a participatory one, and this is linked to both the Geelsean MLP-based transitions literature and the Shovean social-practice (SPT) perspective:

[TD] could be used to mediate between sociotechnical transition theories, with their top-down hierarchical approaches, and social practice theories with their bottom-up focus on everyday life and flat ontology.

p3

(SPT is noted as being particularly useful for TD due to the pre-existing orientation of design to libidinality; I parse this as a claim that the “use case” is always already a sort of speculative ethnography of the practice, albeit one with highly variable motivations and sophistication.)

Also in the frame is the practice of co-design, in which “bridging between pasts, presents and futures is often used” to spark creativity in participants; this, as mentioned before, feels rather like Auger (2013) without Auger, though that may be an artefact of my unfamiliarity with the broader (co-)design research literature. Hesselgren et al. further argue that co-design can help to “explore the connection between the tangible, present and local (such as dinner practices) with the more abstract, future and global (such as climate change impacts)” (p3), but also note the challenge inherent in this aim, and the lack of tools to assist participants in making these temporal and spatial “movements”.

(I note in passing that the medium of that connection, considered concretely, is infrastructure, though it is the conceptual connection and movement with which this paper is concerned; however, I suspect there may be a useful way to collapse that distinction.)

This leads us to a pair of paradigms or approaches to design, namely provocation and affirmation: the former is intended to destabilise/de-familiarise the routine and “taken for granted”, thus clearing the way for re-presentation and re-narration, while the latter “support[s] an exploration of the self [while] providing full preferential right of interpretation to the user” (p4).

Concretisation

I am by necessity skipping over a lot of the detail of the execution of the Vitiden project in this review, so going directly to the papers themselves is highly recommended: it’s a lovely, low-key and subtle work of energy futuring. My aim here is to extract concepts and methodological principles for use in projects with a similar intentionality, so I will simply note for now that Hesselgren et al. observe that the “source scenario” for the project—the ‘Legato’ quadrant from the Swedish Energy Agency’s Fyra Framtider report (2016)—provided descriptions of behavioural shifts, but that these “were quite detached from everyday life […] making it difficult for people who were not energy systems experts to engage in this future and understand how it would affect them” (p4-5); furthermore, some were “focussed on ‘production’ activities, such as how and where to go to work, and […] the rest mainly dealt with transport” (p5). Domestic practices were notable by their absence, and absence explained by the scenario’s mitigation targets being calculated primarily through efficiency measures in production and/or infrastructure (which is an inevitable consequence of the Geelsean perspective, IMHO); this necessitated the introduction of “eating and residing practices”, partly because it is plain that these would be affected by ‘upstream’ effiency measures, but also, crucially, because “previous experiences have shown that it is very difficult to engage people in discussions about everyday life while excluding large parts of it” (p5); this, then, is Haraway’s argument for situated knowledges against the (Geelsean) god-trick, borne out in the experience of design research.

In describing the workshop methods deployed, Hesselgren et al. discuss the use of pre-prepared props or “trigger materials”, which were intended to “[help] the participants to bridge the tangible-present-local to the abstract-future-global, and with particular emphasis on finding ways to balance the provocative with the affirmative” (p6); this is the clearest connection to Auger (2013) on the SD prototype, the notion of the “cognitive bridge”—and in particular, the strategies of adaptation, provocation and versimilitude.

Discussion

In the closing sections of the paper, Hesselgren et al. note that the balance between provocation (i.e. estrangement of the mundane) and affirmation (i.e. refusing to frame the mundane of the participants as “wrong”) is tested through the production of the trigger materials. One example is a self-administered carbon-footprint assessment, as “sensitizing device” that “create[d] space for reflection” and provocation, thus linking the necessity and possibility of change to lived practices (p11); they cautiously conclude that the materials produced to this end “managed to, if not bridge, at least allow for a coexistence of provocative and affirmative approaches” (p12).


Wangel et al. (2019). “Vitiden: Transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practice-oriented energy fiction”

Now to Wangel et al., which also deals with the Vitiden project, but approaches it instead through the process of converting—or “translating”—a top-down corporate scenario into a practice based “energy fiction”. Both the concept and methodology of this “translation” are of interest and utility, and as with the paper discussed above, I’ll be sticking here to the parts which are most useful to that end; do check out the actual paper, it’s well worth the time.

After noting the visual rhetorics of the original report containing the “source scenario”—heavy on stock photography, and the inevitable crude signifiers of “the natural” juxtaposed with technological innovation tropes and intimations of abstract velocity, and invariably portraying humans as solitary, distanced and faceless—Wangel et al. describe their ambition to take the Director General’s preface at its word, and to develop the abstracted visions therein into something more concrete:

We decided to […] develop what we felt was missing—a re-presentation of the future that takes its starting point in the activities of everyday life, and that invites to reflections and debate also for those [sic] who are not used to (or interested in) reading and interpreting reports.

p3

Wangel et al. chose to describe these bottom-up futures as “practice-oriented scenarios (pos)” as a deliberate (and minor, in the Deleuzian sense of the term?) counterpoint to the design-oriented scenario (DOS), which is intended to support “innovations in and by design” (p3). Stated more broadly, then, the aim of the project, “to create more accessible re-presentations of energy scenarios, is accompanied by initiating an inquiry into the possibilities and limitations of shifting from the more general scenario perspective to a practice-oriented design fiction” (ibid).

Theoretical frame, sustainability/practices

As mentioned in Hesselgren et al. above, the Vitiden project was built upon the foundation of the Shovean strand of applied social practice theory, which “changes the focus from seeing (and treating) people as individual decision-makers, driven by a (bounded) rationality, to addressing them as skillful social negotiators” (p3); in the process, research methodologies need “to appreciate what people perceive as the (their) normal ways of doing things, and how these ‘normal’ and ordinary routines are maintained, evolve and/or change over time” (ibid).

Also mobilised here (by drawing on work by the excellent Lenneke Kuijer, among others is the notion of the proto-practice, the nascent forms of of what Shove has called “innovations-in-waiting”; these are suggested as prime sources for prototyping probes, as through their experimental realisation, “these future practices can be made present (in the dual sense of the word), and experienced, examined and rehearsed” (p3); they are also related here to Levitas’s notion of the interstitial utopia, such that Wangel et al. here define interstitial practices (which are proto-practices with a sustainability orientation, in this case) as “practices that are based in and contribute to the production of alternative economies and counter-narratives” (p4, emphasis in original).

Theoretical frame, futures/speculative design

Much familiar material here, drawing on the FS tradition of the future as open and thus imaginable, and “a critical social-constructivist perspective on what futures are seen as probable, possible and preferable” (p4); likewsie the Twentyteens thread of ‘alternative futures’ with a focus on social practice perspectives and the “re-presentation” of scenarios through the use of creative/artistic methods, which the authors see as a democratising trend, “increasing the availability of alternative futures across societal groups” (ibid). Of particular interest and influence here are the “speculative ethonography” approaches of speculative design and architecture, wherein the speculation is fundamentally (though not exclusively) material in orientation.

Method, results, conclusion

The process of re-presentation used for Vitiden is explored in rich specific detail in the methods section; while not pertinent to this review, it is strongly recommended to anyone engaging with this sort of work, whether directly or indirectly. The results section, meanwhile, presents a simplified overview of “the process of transforming a policy-orienting scenario to a practiced-oriented design speculation” as a three-stage schema of translation (p14) with the following steps:

  1. setting the scope of the transitions
  2. exploring practices and contexts
  3. re-presenting the future

This is unpacked as two parallel and interlinked translations: one focussed on the translation of content (i.e. from policy-orienting -> practice-oriented: the concretisation of god-trick abstractions), and the other focussed on form (i.e. policy/PR report -> design speculation: this might be thought of as a switching of narrative modality from the passive/corporate voice, which might be thought of as a sort of omniscient and disinterested third-person perspective, to first- or limited-third-person; also could be seen as analogous to the problematic but nonetheless useful distinction in practical narratology between “telling” and “showing”). This doubleness of the translation process is seen as crucial: doing the translation of content without also translating the form would forfeit the opportunity to reach wider audiences and thus provoke a more affective engagement with futurity (p14). The three stages are summarized neatly, along with some considerations and hazards to be kept in view throughout any attempt at implementation.


In the context of work done (and yet to be done) at LU, the paper by Hesselgren et al. is the next link in a methodological/conceptual chain from Auger, picking up the strategic concepts of provocation and affirmation and articulating them as a (sensitive and challenging) balancing act in execution, and orienting them toward the exploration of a pre-constructed (or pre-bounded) context or world in collaboration with (as opposed to for an audience of) publics. With reference to the Museum of Carbon Ruins (MCR hereafter), for example, it should be noted that the “future” it presents is much more weighted to the provocative, which explains some of the audience responses to the ‘standard’ version of the intervention; however, the version of MCR performed at the Anticipation conference in Oslo in 2019, with its Brechtian breachings of the temporal frame, flip-flopped between provocation and affirmation rather than attempting to hold them in balance, thus sustaining and troubling the cognitive bridgework of the performance as a whole. Whether this approach would have been viable with an audience that was not predominantly academic (and thus already more accepting of both CC complicity and the necessity for action, not to mention already familiar with the abstract practice of thinking about and re-narrating futures) is an open question, but one that can be cautiously answered in the negative; the Oslo performance was as much a meta-methodological demonstration as an intervention, and thus took the theatrical form to an extreme that might not be viable elsewhere. That said, as an edge case and proof-of-concept, it still stands as a useful case for thinking about the deployment of similar interventions aimed at a broader and less specialised audience.

Meanwhile, Wangel et al’s specification of the double-translation is particularly valuable, as it not only offers the possibility of wider engagement, but also frames that broadening as a necessity in practical terms: it’s not an advantageous extra step, but rather an extension of established techniques of futuring in such a way as to improve on them in substantive terms. The narratological equivalences applied above are my own, but—if you will excuse the shameless meta-movement of this claim—they act as a translation of the translation, enabling the movement of this double-articulation from design research into other futurity-oriented fields, e.g. sociotechnical and/or climate imaginaries, where thinking in terms of story is more established and flexible; the accessibility, relateability and immersive capacity of different media stand as affordances for futuring, and further research and experimentation will serve to identify their various strengths and weaknesses. Seen another way, the argument positions the corporate report as a particular medium with its own rhetorical affordances which, albeit unintentionally, exclude and alienate non-expert publics from engagement with the energy futures depicted therein; using the tools of design—or of literature, or cinema, or theatre, or comics, or music, or, or, or—not only opens up futurity itself, but also the possibility of participation in re-presentation thereof.

contract/bridge: Auger (2013), Speculative design: crafting the speculation

  • Auger, J. (2013). Speculative design: crafting the speculation. Digital Creativity, 24(1), 11-35.

This justly well-cited paper is in some respects a tour through the work of Auger and others (mostly RCA-aligned, I think?) in the decade prior to its publication in 2013. My purpose in writing it up is to extract and summarise the methodological concept at its heart, which has utility in other forms of speculative work that have mutated from these design-specific practices, including recent work by my colleagues and myself here at Lund. As such, I’ll for the most part be skimming over the actual examples presented in this paper, but it’s really worth your time to read the whole thing if you want to get a good eye on where speculative design / design fiction was at before it properly metastasized throughout the late Teens.

Core claims and definitions

Auger’s main claim here is effectively teleological (though not in the Hegelian sense of that term):

Speculative design serves two distinct purposes: first, to enable us to think about the future; second, to critique current practice.

p11

(I think the “us” being used in the first purpose is what I think of as the “social first-person plural”, which is to say it extends beyond the narrower “practitioner-us” which is implicit in the second purpose—not that it makes much difference to this analysis, mind you! I’m just interested in the narratology of academic writing.)

The paper’s “key concept is the ‘perceptual bridge’—the means by which designs engage their audience” (p11), and it’s these mechanics of engagement which I want to extract and summarise in order to deploy the concept outside of the design domain; I also see a bunch of crossover with the implicit bargain or contract of suspension-of-disbelief inherent to speculative literature.

Auger begins by listing the many practices—already proliferating and contested, back in 2013!—overlapping with the one he sees as his own, namely speculative design. What they all share is a strategy of “remov[ing] the constraints of the commercial sector that define normative design processes; use [of] models and prototypes at the heart of the enquiry; and [using] fiction to present alternative products, systems or worlds” (p11). Auger chose speculative design [SD hereafter] over e.g. ‘design fiction’ due to concerns about the latter’s foregrounding of the fictive nature of the work in a manner which might undermine its intended effects: “the choice of ‘speculative’ is preferable as it suggests a direct correlation between ‘here and now’ and existence of the design concept” (p12), thus advancing Augers project “to shift the discussion on technology beyond the fields of experts to a broad popular audience” (ibid).

However, Auger acknowledges that the term is not without “etymological baggage”; the first example he provides is that of “a strong leaning toward conjecture”, as manifest in the OMG JETPACKS!!!1 genre of future-vision, which end up “playing to spectacle and technocentric dreams” rather than producing more grounded extrapolations (p12); avoiding these excesses makes it “possible to to craft the speculation into something more poignant […] tailored to the complex and subtle requirements of an identified audience” (ibid, emphases added).

Auger continues, defining the second bit of baggage in the negative: “[SD] is not only to encourage contemplation on the technological future, but can also provide a system for analysing, critiquing and re-thinking contemporary technology”; as such, the imagining of “near-future products and services” can “act as a form of cultural litmus paper” for sandboxing potential business propositions (p12). In addition, however—and of more interest to non-designers, perhaps—“alternate presents are design proposals that utilise contemporary technology but apply different ideologies or configurations to those currently directing product development” (ibid); this is related to alternate historical literature and the counterfactual, “but rather than focussing on asking ‘what if’ of historical events and imagining the effect on the here and now, it shifts the emphasis onto artefacts” (ibid; cf. that old Bruce Sterling riff about how design fiction “tells worlds rather than stories”.)

A methodology of speculative design

The rest of the paper is a sort of exploartory taxonomy of methodological strategies in SD, which Auger overviews with the governing principle of careful constraint of the speculation:

… if it strays too far into the future to present implausible concepts or alien technological habitats, the audience will not relate to the proposal, resulting in a lack of engagement or connection. In effect, a design speculation requires a bridge to exist between the audience’s perception of their world and the fictional element of the concept.

p12; emphasis added

Six such “bridging techniques” are explored; I’ve (Roman) numbered them for my convenience, and provided my own one-word labels (in parenthesis) to supplement Auger’s originals (in double-quotes), again for my own convenience in subsequent (re)use.

I—“the ecological approach” (Adaptation)

The designer must consider the environment and context in which speculative future products or services would exist; this could be a specific space such as the home or the office or a cultural or political situation based on current developments or trends.

p13

Auger uses the novel The War of the Worlds and the 2005 Spielberg movie thereof to discuss which presentation of the Martians seems “most likely”, concluding that Wells’s original depiction of them suffering from maladaption to the Earth’s environment is the more grounded speculation; he also discusses some classic Dunne & Raby works.

The concept of adaptation here informs the design process, delivering objects that display an existential logic (or not, in Wells’s case) in their intended environment. Any experience that challenges a preconception will at first appear odd, but here the detail and the finish of the [Dunne & Raby] artefacts, combined with the short explanations describing their functions and modes of interaction, entices the audience into exploring the concept further […] we could imagine living with these robots due to their compatibility with the domestic habitat.

p14

II—“the uncanny” (Provocation)

If a design proposal is too familiar it is easily assimilated into the normative progression of products and would pass unnoticed. However, proposals dealing with sensitive subjects such as sex or death can quite easily stray too far into provocative territory, resulting in revulsion or outright shock.

p14

Auger here mobilises the Freudian uncanny, the “paradoxical reaction humans have that invoke[s] a sense of familiarity whilst at the same time being foreign” (p14), and connects this to the social-psychology concept of cognitive dissonance; I would extend that connection to Suvin’s classic description of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement.

Provocation is a tricky strategy to get right, however, as it is a direct tap on the emotions: horror books and movies can crank up the dial “to elicit maximum psychological effect; however, for a speculative design project a more careful approach is required.” (p15) Examples are provided.

III—“verisimilitude” (Deception/Hoaxiness)

… the term speculation can take the viewer too far away from the here and now, making the proposed design concept seem unreal or far-fetched. The problem lies in the range of possibility for a fiction—from simply impossible to bordering on reality.

[…]

But in the domains where [design] fictions ply their wares and meet their audiences, it is preferable for the concept to pass as real, described better perhaps as design factions; a form of verisimilitude where truths are blurred and disbelief is suspended.

p19-20; emphases in original

Here Auger mentions the Orson Welles radio play of The war of the Worlds, which adjusted the story to better fit with the cultural context of the time, to (famously, if somewhat overstated and in itself fictional) spectacular effect: “taking advantage of contemporary media, familiar settings and complex human desires or fears” (p20). Auger then compares SD to the usual delivery systems of science fictional material, whereby the contract with the audience is deliberately (if only implicitly) entered into.

Speculative designs, however, are played out in real life. the presence of the designed artefact in popular culture allows for the viewer to project its presence into his or her own life. Then they effectively become the protagonist in the story, playing out individual and informative roles. Their reactions become the true products of this form of design research.

p20; emphasis added

This section ends with an extended discussion of the highly-successful pioneering SD project, the Audio Tooth, which—despite being entirely speculative—blazed a trail through print and digital media reports in 2001 and 2002. This was achieved in part through the adoption of familiar product design and marketing language in the presentation materials: the narrative compensated for its implausibility my dressing itself up as plausibly as possible in every other regard. But Auger does not the hazards of the successfully hoaxy design: “A possible problem with this approach is that it allows for little control once a project is in the public domain and concepts can quickly mutate as facts become embellished.” (p21)

IV—“observational comedy” (Familiarity)

Auger here notes the stand-up comedy strategy of starting from a recognisable and relateable scenario (e.g. the grotty back seat of a family car)and building upon it to enable the introduction of an idea which would be preposterous if introduced immediately (e.g. seagulls following the car as it passes a landfill site).

By utilising the mundane, the familiar and the small, unnoticed details the designer can provide spectacular, even preposterous proposals with a tangible link to our contemporary sensibilities and understanding. It roots them in known contexts, limiting the need for complex explanations. The spectacular narratives that stem from the comedian’s effectively represent the designer’s technological future, made palatable through familiar elements.

p24

A related technique is to rely upon “stereotypical or commonly-held assumptions about a specific subject” to effectively skip over the need to explain the complex technological aspects, but this obviously requires a knowledge of the target audience and its understanding of the field in which the intervention is being made. (p26)

V—“alternate presents” (Alterity/Historicity)

Alternative presents are intended to question and critique contemporary use of technology in domestic and everyday habitats, so some conflict is helpful for attracting attention. However, for the proposal to have a less visceral impact, it is necessary for the audience to see beyond its conceptual oddness and understand the logic behind it.

p27

This can be achieved by leveraging a suitably poignant counterfactual history as a frame for the intervention:

… by choosing a topical and well-understood issue or theme in contemporary everyday life and finding a relevant or connected historical moment that could have a perceptible connection, the designer can develop a series of imaginary outcomes that instigate reflection on our current situation.

p28

The key here is the careful and considered selection of what sf theorists sometimes refer to as the “jonbar hinge“. While the themes of the counterfactual may be very broad, the successful engagement of such concepts lies in the fine details thereof (p29). The background, in other words, should be implied by the foreground as much as possible; this is a bit like the well-used (and not always useful) creative writing dictum “show, don’t tell”.

VI—“domestication”

The final strategy is based on the practice of selective breeding in horticulture and animal husbandry: forced evolution, in other words. It’s quite a specific technique, limited as it is to a narrow range of possible (organic) subjects, and it’s skipped over rather quickly here at the end of the paper (perhaps due to space restraints).

Conclusion

Auger’s project has been to explore, through these techniques and examples, “a more general attitude or approach towards the subject of speculation, specifically, how it must be managed and crafted to conect to a specific audience’s perception of the temporal world around them. Once established these perceptions can be stretched or manipulated in precise and informed ways.” (p31-2) The point about knowing the audience is particularly relevant, I think, and connects back to the hazards or the hoax gone rogue; speculative designs and other such fictions can escape their intended context quite easily, particularly if they’re made very well. This might be something to consider taking advantage of, though it comes with the hazard of blowback (and of a phenomenon of worldbuilding that I was discussing with Jay Springett earlier today, and I want to name here now in order to lay claim to it: “dark forks”).

Auger ends with a point about the (am)bivalence of the method which I think worth quoting in full:

[Speculative designs] can inspire an audience to think not only about what they do want for their future selves but also what they do not want.

p32

Amen to that. A good chewy paper, if a little hurried toward the end. Canonical, and well worth your time.

2020 in books

This year, as many years before, I had hoped to both increase the amount of books I read and write about what I read here on the blog. The latter has been rather less successful than the former, though not without good reason; after two months of preparing to relocate and near-as-dammit ten months of settling in, I’m starting to feel like I have something close to a routine, but the backlog of notebook scribbles on stuff I’ve read is just too big to handle. So I’m doing a list post, less as a way of performing my readerly habits for public approval (though, OK, there’s a bit of that), and more as a way of declaring bankruptcy on the backlog and starting afresh on writing stuff up as I finish it.

So, yeah: as far as I can tell from my notes, these are the complete books I read this year. Not included: part-reads (so Uncle Karl’s Capital Volume I doesn’t count, despite my having read enough of it to count as a normal book, and nor do isolated chapters of academic and/or theoretical texts read for reading groups), academic papers (which I try to write up in detail when I think they’re particularly useful to my work), or the frankly ridiculous amount of online essays and articles I manage to get through. (Cutting down on the latter might significantly improve on throughput for the former categories, not to mention throughput on work more broadly.)

Re-reads are marked with a *. Publicly-available reviews or write-ups are linked.

fiction:

  • Allen, Nina / The Race
  • Atwood, Margaret / Oryx & Crake [reflections]
  • Brown, Christopher / Rule of Capture
  • Butler, Octavia / Parable of the Sower [reflections]
  • Corey, James S A / Leviathan Wakes
  • Gibson, William / Agency
  • Harrison, M John / The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again
  • Harrison, M John / Settling the World [collection]
  • Hill, M T / The Breach
  • Jemisin, N K / The Fifth Season [reflections]
  • Lessing, Doris / The Story of a Non-Marrying Man & Other Stories [collection]
  • Mankowski, Guy / How I Left the National Grid
  • Mitchell, David / Utopia Avenue
  • Moreno-Garcia, Silvia / Mexican Gothic [review in BSFA Review #12]
  • Neville, Carl / Eminent Domain [review at The Quietus]
  • Okorafor, Nnedi / Binti, the Complete Trilogy
  • Sterling, Bruce / Schismatrix Plus *
  • Tolabi, Wole / Incomplete Solutions [collection]
  • Wolfe, Gene / Starwater Strains [collection] *
  • Womack, Jack / Elvissey

comics / graphics:

  • Carey, Mike (et al.) / Lucifer, Books I—V
  • Ellis, Warren & Howard, Jason / Trees, Book III
  • Delano, Jamie (et al.) / Hellblazer, Books IV—V
  • Liu, Marjory & Takeda, Sana / Monstress, Books I—V
  • Lutes, Jason / Berlin
  • Pomery, Owen D / British Ice
  • Vaughan, Brian K & Staples, Fiona / Saga, Books V—IX

non-fiction:

  • Agamben, Giorgio / State of Exception
  • Berger, John / Hold Everything Dear
  • Berger, John / Landscapes [edited collection]
  • Fisher, Mark / Capitalist Realism *
  • Leeson, Loraine / Art, Process, Change
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich / The Genealogy of Morals *
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich / Twilight of the Idols *
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich / The Antichrist *
  • Rae, Casey / William S Burroughs & the Cult of Rock and Roll
  • Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew & Bellamy, Brent Ryan (eds.) / An Ecotopian Lexicon [review pending in SFRA Review]
  • Tsing, Anna L / The Mushroom at the End of the World

(auto)biography:

  • Lanegan, Mark / Sing Backwards and Weep
  • Salmon, Peter / An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida [reflections]

Not too shabby, I guess. My PhD kinda broke me for reading for a little while; during the year of writing the thesis, I just couldn’t really concentrate on anything longer than a few thousand words that had a plot or a serious through-line, and while I had something of a binge on fiction in the aftermath of submission, it was mostly comfort re-reads, and soon gave way to the fidgety anxiety of the precariously employed, which was not conducive to reading for fun, either. It looks like relative security and comfort are good for me… who knew? (Though quite what the minor Nietzsche re-read binge says about me, I do not know, but the thing with ol’ Freddy is that aphoristic style lends itself ably to reading on public transport. Make your own judgement, I guess?)

Going forward, I intend to write up books here as I finish them. We’ll see how that goes, of course, given that the ol’ TBR pile is already growing apace…

… and that’s not including readings requisitioned for work, which live at the office! But I already feel like I’ve unburdened myself of the backlog by doing this list, which was the entire point of the exercise. Reboot time; new years, new habits, etc etc.

“A part of the world’s worlding”: Sofia (2000), Container Technologies

  • Sofia, Z. (2000). Container technologies. Hypatia, 15(2), 181-201.

I first read this back in the heady days of 2016 or so, on the direct recommendation of its author; I don’t get to name-drop very often, but Zoe Sofoulis (writing here as Zo Sofia, as she sometimes does) is a good friend, and served as a much-needed supplementary mentor for a confused science fiction writer turned doctoral student who was busily discovering they were a social theorist while trying to finish a PhD in a civil engineering department. I’m returning to it now partly because I’ve long meant to, but also because there’s a workshoppy-conferency thing coming up based around it, for which I’m intending to write a thing, and I feel like it’s always best to know what you’re riffing on as well as you can.

And what a joy it has been to return to it, with a bunch more years of experience and theory under my belt! A lot of the really good stuff here somewhat passed me by the first time round, but I can see this being a real plank citation going forwards. So, let’s get into it, eh?

#

Intro

Sofia’s opening frame is the notion of the re-sourcing of the world, an idea which I believe first surfaces as a couple of asides in Haraway’s justly famed “Situated Knowledges” piece: this is the reduction of the world, through the supposedly objective top-down gaze of the technoscientific “God trick”, to a storehouse of stuff to be extracted and used. Sofia notes here the paradoxical shortages (of land, housing, food, and more) that accompany this perspective of seeming plenitude, and the threat of the exhaustion of the planetary body concealed behind the abundant figure of the “Super Mother” construct so necessary to late-late consumer capitalism.

(It is not a criticism to observe that while Sofia identifies the “want” of “[w]e greedy metropoles” for this “facilitating environment” (p181), the origins or causes of that want—and the distinctions one might make between wants and needs—are not in the frame of this piece; that’s out of scope. But it means that some sort of connective work between the distribution/facilitation focus herein and various strands of libidinal theory could be quite productive.)

So. “Artifacts for containment and supply are not only readily interpreted as metaphorically feminine; they are also historically associated with women’s traditional labours” (p182); they are also largely overlooked by histories and philosophies and tech, much as women themselves have been largely overlooked by history and philosophy more broadly, and Sofia is looking to “unsettle habitual assumptions that space is merely an unintelligent container, or containers dumb spaces” (ibid). To do so, she deploys

  • the ideas of Bateson and Winnicot, in order to think through emergent subjectivities in cybernetic ecologies;
  • Mumford’s thought on the distinction between tools and utensils (which is not quite so purely a gendered issue as he proposed; and
  • Heidegger, for “key insights into the importance of containment and supply in the late modern period”.

I will flag here that the periodicity of this paper is worth keeping in mind: it’s two decades old now, and as such doesn’t quite roll up to the current condition of our global logistical metasystem. This is less a shortcoming than an opportunity to think about those last twenty years as a period of intensified elision, resulting in a configuration that, while not exactly new, nonetheless represents a distinct set of conditions for thinking about containment, facilitation, distribution, infrastructure… but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, here, aren’t I?)

“No environment, no entity”

First up is the polymathic Gregory Bateson, here combining his roles as epistemologist and cybernetics theorist; his “epistemological perspective on the unit of survival […] is a cybernetic one, based around a notion of the immanence of mind and subjectivity” (p182); Sofia summarises this as the belief that “intelligence is not confined to the deliberations of the contending ego or cogito, but can be found in the changing patterns of mutual adaptation and co-adaptation undergone within and by the organism-environment ensemble” (p183). She discusses a (very!) early “smart home” concept (designed by the architect France GaBe) in which drudgeries such as loading and unloading washing machines and dishwashers are engineered away through the use of “specialised cupboards” which do more than merely store things; this adaptiveness between organism and environment is contrasted to the top-down command-and-control concepts that predominate in (male-authored) “smart home” designs.

(Note that this paper pretty much predates the popular apotheosis of the execrable and still-shambling “smart city” concept, but its insights would likely scale up suitably for critical application there as well.)

Next we turn to a provocation from “object relations psychoanalyst” D W Winnicott, as expanded upon by Thomas Ogden (another psychoanalyst: “There is no such thing as an infant [apart from the maternal provision]”. In Sofia’s summary, for Winnicott and those after him, “the baby is seen as part of its environment—the maternal provision” (p184); “the infant’s subjectivity is immanent within and emergent from the context of intersubjective containment” (ibid). The “space” of the self/(m)other system is experienced alongside (or rather in negotiation with?) the inner “space” of fantasy and imagination, and the “outer world of sociotechnical reality”, elements of all of which conjoin in Winnicott’s “potential space”; playing safely therein in is (again glossing Winnicott) “the foundation for later creative experiencing and cultural production” (ibid). Therefore:

In the intersubjectivist model of subject formation, the self is understood as an entity given shape through various dynamic relationships of containment that both construct and occur in spaces that are interpersonal, imaginative, real, active, the products of conscious efforts as well as unconscious or automatic labours.

p184-5

Sofia finishes off this section with an “inventory” of ways in which these insights might be applied to container technologies, which I won’t repeat here—though I will note that she basically drops a half-dozen doctoral thesis topics on the table and leaves them there for others to pick up and run with, because she has other fish to fry in this paper.

Technics of the unobtrusive

This section starts by reiterating the overlookedness of technological forms associated or metaphorically identified with the feminine, and turns to good ol’ Lewis Mumford for a look at why that might be the case. Mumford (in Technics and Human Development) contrasts the “tool” (male, out-in-the-world, attack-y) with the “utensil” (female, stay-at-home, protective), but earlier (in Technics and Civilisation) made a distinction between “machines and tools” and (in Sofia’s words) “technologies of containment and supply, categorised as utensils (like baskets or pots), apparatus (such as dye vats, brick kilns), utilities (reservoirs, aqueducts, roads, buildings) and the modern power utility (railroad tracks, electric transmission lines)” (p186); Mumford’s take is that human attention is drawn by the noisy, mobile and active things in the environment, and as such these utensil-forms get overlooked, despite their necessarily underpinning, well, everything.

Sofia notes that the gendering of containment as female (a la Mumford and many more) is commonplace, but far from universally or rigidly applied, and also that “Mumford’s laments” about their being overlooked are just as applicable to STS/phil-of-tech fields. Exceptions to this include Heidegger (to come), and one Don Idhe, whose phenomenological interpretations Sofia rejects because they “finely differentiate amongst tools and machines, but lump all the utensils and space together as background” (p187); she suggests instead that we seek an analysis that emphasises [utensils/containers] over [tools/machines] as a corrective to this enduring bias, and a way of reclaiming (and maybe even queering?) de facto macho technologies (e.g. the skyscraper, whose undeniably dong-like form nonetheless performs a womb-like protection from the outside world).

But if it’s not (just) the simple gendering, why then the overlooking of container technologies? Sofia suggests we might blame a “misogynistic metaphysics”, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, which represents space as “a passive, neutral vessel”, resulting in “man’s failure to grow up and acknowledge indebtedness to the spatial/maternal environment and the labours of those who sustain this facilitating space” (p188); these labours are “menial” because they are not heroically productive of exciting and admirable things (in something of a pre-echo of Saint Donna’s extension of Le Guin’s “carrier bag” theory).

But that’s “not the full story” either:

The problem is […] the structure of production and reproduction itself. The container is a structurally necessary but frequently unacknowledgeable precondition of becoming. […] To keep utensils, apparatus and utilities in mind is difficult because these kinds of technological objects are designed to be unobtrusive, and, like the environment mother, “make their presence felt, but not noticed”.

p188; emphasis added

Hence Sofia goes on to speculatively (re)interpret Mumford’s taxonomy as such:

The utensil: the generic container, a basket or bowl, perhaps corresponds to the mother as a container into which we dump our excess stuff, and which we come to consider as an extension of ourselves.

Apparatus: the specialized container, like an oven or a vat, in which something may be created or transformed. The apparatus, as well as the specialized space that houses it (the kitchen, the lab, the workshop), could be interpreted as equivalents of the potential space where inner and outer worlds are negotiated in the course of discovery/invention.

Utilities: these can include buildings (from humble cottages to huge environment-controlled spaces like shopping malls or airport terminals) as well as various channels for dynamic flows (like pipes, cables, reservoirs). These technologies reproduce something like the “environment mother” who works unobtrusively to ensure “smooth functioning” and continued supply to the infant whose bodily states and feelings she regulates.

p189

Foregrounding containers

Next follows a brief “domestic survey” of Sofia’s home, which serves to destabilise Mumford’s distinction between the “dynamic” [tool/machine] and the “static” [utensil/container], by observing that a perfectly average kitchen is replete with objects which partake in both aspects to a greater or lesser degree:

The distinction between tool or machine and utensil and apparatus hangs on the dynamic/static distinction, but it could be debated whether holding or containing is simply to be considered as a passively inhering property of a shared space, or whether containing is rather to be thought of as a form of action in itself. I favour the latter interpretation…

p190

Das Ding

This, for me at least, is the chewiest and most interesting chunk of the whole piece. It starts with a gloss on Heidegger’s Thing (stop sniggering at the back!), in which Sofia observes that for Heidegger the jug’s Thingness comes from its being a vessel of holding. How does the jug’s void hold? “[H]olding is active and ambiguously two-folded, comprising the actions of taking and keeping.” (p191)

(Now, this interests me in particular, because it seems to me that while there is surely a two-foldedness to holding, taking and keeping are only one side thereof; to me, the two aspects are rather holding-in and keeping-out. This is where I suspect my own pending piece in this space is going to go… but for now, back to Sofia and Heidegger.)

Sofia identifies some things of note in Heidegger’s account of holding: that he does not consider it passive, but rather a complex action; that it “celebrate[s] spilling out”, and thus emphasises supply; that the functions of taking and holding are fulfilled through the outpouring/supply function, making the jug “a technology of re-sourcing: it can be filled from a source, then itself becomes a source of what it has kept and preserved” (p192). But she identifies a limitation, too, in that not all containers are designed for impermeability and/or one-shot outpourings: containment may be designed as incomplete, permeable or leaky, as well as permanent, which raises the notion of “incontinences”, failures of containment that may be “deliberate […] catastrophic […] or merely embarrassing” (ibid).

Next we step back to Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which Sofia sees an order of container technologies being thematised, through the complementary notions of “humans as dwellers, and building as a letting-dwell” (ibid); dwelling here has connotations of remaining/staying-in-place, but also cherishing, protecting, preserving, caring-for.

There is a notable resonance between this idea of a safe preserve for humans or other entities to become themselves, and the intersubjectivist account of the maternal function as one of actively containing an emergent subject and letting it play safely in potential space, so it can become who it is. The emphasis in both cases is not on the singular entity (the subject, the thing, the organism), but on belongingness to and interactions in an actively containing and preserving environment shared with entities both human and non-human […] Heidegger’s notion […] of making room for involves both admitting and installing…”

p193

Here we encounter briefly Heidegger’s notion of the four-fold, with whose religious overtones Sofia admits to some discomfort, but she does “appreciate the necessity of a concept something like [it] as a way of thinking about how even everyday objects are condensations of many factors which come together in a specific context or network and have no existence or ‘standing’ outside that context” (p193); drawing on Heidegger’s etymological observation that “Thing” in old German also meant “a gathering” (which, interestingly, is much the same in old Swedish), Sofia connects this gathering to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. Which brings us back to the theme of emergence from the first section:

… the thing emerges in a ‘nearness’ or rather a process of ‘nearing’ that gathers remote elements into itself; thus a local and specific object is also a manifestation of its macro-context, a part of the world’s worlding…

The thing, the emergent subject, or the sociotechnical actor […] are to be understood in their specificity, characterised not in terms of the entity’s peculiar properties examined in isolation, but rather as spatially and temporally contingent manifestations that are part of a whole environment, field, or network.

p194

And presto, geographical and sociological levels and scales are collapsed, or at least made navigable-between. And we get a geographer-centric remix of the Winnicott riff from earlier: “there is no such thing as a locality [apart from its globality]“.

Macrocontainment

Now we start getting into that moment of interesting temporality that I flagged up at the start of this reading, as Sofia calls up one more bit of Heidegger, namely “The Question Concerning Technology”, and contrasts the bringing-forth of techne (e.g. making, crafting a chalice or a jug “thing”) with what we might call the “re-source gaze” of late capitalism, which:

“… draws connections between the exploitation of the earth as a calculable resource, the demands of profit-driven development, the character of modern research, apparatus-dependent science, and the mathematization or ‘informatizination’ of the world. ‘Bringing forth’ has been reduced to somethign like imposing upon and ripping out, via an agressive technoscientific ‘challenging-forth’ of the world to reveal itself in the form of resources and information for consumption…”

p195

Heidegger calls the macro-technology (or, in my own terms, metasystem) of re-sourcing the Bestand, which Sofia translates as “standing-reserve”, a “mobilizable stockpile of resources available for instant supply” (p195); Heidegger offers the plane waiting on the airstrip as an example of this systemicity, and Sofia adds the image of “rows of stacked large containers ready equally for transport by road, rail or sea” (ibid); now “[t]he object loses its qualities as the Gegenstand—that which resists and stands against—and the machine loses its standing as an autonomous tool, dissolved into the Bestand, where it is just another ‘completely unautonomous’ element in the abstract and global grid of the resourced world” (ibid). Hence another Winnicottism: “there’s no such thing as a technology [apart from the standing-reserve]”.

(Or, in my own terminology: there is no such thing as an interface [apart from the infrastructural metasystem].)

Now, temporality: just-in-time logistics is quite an old idea, but it has arguably only achieved something close to ubiquity in the last two decades, i.e. since this paper was written. The figure of the waiting plane was probably outdated even then, if not when Heidegger first came up with it: planes don’t wait to be called upon, as that would be inefficient and costly; rather, the plane is in a tightly scheduled pattern of nigh-perpetual motion, so as to avoid being a wasted asset, and the capacity it represents, rather than waiting to be filled up by a shipment or a passenger manifest, is arbitraged out across a complex system of algorithmic markets. In other words, the reserve no longer stands: warehousing represents inventory that isn’t making anyone any money, and empty logistical capacity represents bandwidth going unused, which is why both have been eradicated from as many parts of the supply chain as possible. Sofia’s example of the containers is likewise telling: there is usually a reserve of these, but the size and location of those reserve(s) is an important part of the overall logistical metasystem, to the extent that when the models break (because, say, a global pandemic drops a Chicxulub on your optimally quantified scenarios), a lack of containers (or containers in the wrong place) means that the goods cannot move as they should. Which, when you’re talking about commodities in a globalised economy of foodstuffs, is pretty bad news all round.

Again, for emphasis: the standing-reserve no longer stands; rather, it is in constant motion. A metaphor (not without flaws) that keeps coming to mind here is the difference between a short-order kitchen and the carousel at a sushi joint. (Which, given the role of the zaibatsu in the formation of global supply chains as currently constituted, as described by Anna Tsing, is an interesting figuration; the Toyota Production System, and its countless imitations and evolutions, also emerged from Japan, and it seems interesting that a similar phenomenon emerged in its food culture.)

“One danger of this framework,” Sofia notes, “is that it turns everything, even ourselves, into the same: neither thing, object or subject, but raw material, standing reserve, human resource” (p196); o hai capitalist-realist business-ontology, amirite? (At this point I would want to gesture toward the McLuhan-descended media-archaeological tradition and note that if the medium is the message, then the message of the metasystem—which is also the metamedium—is that everything is reduced to that which must be mobilised and/or arbitraged; the message is exactly re-sourcing, availability, commodification, quantification, standardisation…)

This process was already underway around the turn of the millennium, of course; maybe there were people sounding the alarm on it, too. (I’d be surprised if not.) But the current situation, wherein almost everything is operates on the sushi-carousel logistics model, arguably represents an intensification from the date of this paper, and pretty clearly a step-change from the situation in Heidegger’s time. Heidegger was talking about coal-powered generation plants on the Rhine, but Sofia notes that the same analysis might apply to “the decoding, recoding, storage and distribution of information over computer networks”, and to more concrete/mundane technologies of material supply-chains, too; it is perhaps to be thankful for that this linkage seems so obvious now, though of course that obviousness is the result of the aforementioned intensification (and the knowledge-work of exposing it, which is always, perhaps by necessity, playing catch-up). Nonetheless, this paragraph still stands clear and true, and is worth citing in full:

The Bestand might be created through the process of mathematically efficient calculation and ordering of unlocked resources, but what it also and importantly achieves is the objective of securing abundant supply. As much as this objective answers our primal demands for an environment-mother smoothly and unobtrusively to supply our every need, it also fits neatly with consumer society and profit-driven development. Processes of containment and supply, and the utensils, apparatus, and utilities that help extract, store and distribute resources from the standing-reserve, are not relics of pre-modernity but continue to define a fundamental aspect of what technology is in the late modern epoch: it is about supply, securing access, rapidly making resources available for distribution and consumption.

p196

Quite… though I would argue that the intensification has resulted in the securing-of-supply goal falling way behind the rapidly-making-available goal, because security is slack, security is sub-optimal, and securoity is therefore an intrusion into shareholder value in the short-term. Again, the reserve no longer stands; that which is already moving within the system only stays still when it is more profitable for it to do so, which for most goods—particularly those that decay—is basically never. Inventory is wastage: that’s the basic principle behind just-in-time systems.

And so this intensification I’m trying to get at is a stage in which the idea of the warehouse becomes anathema, because with sufficient arbitraged distributive bandwidth, the world itself is reduced to the role of containment: it is both source and store, and the “gushing forth” of supply starts right at the geological base layer. This process is not complete, of course—and the pandemic, like smaller disruptions previous to it, have highlighted the risks of what I think I might call the mobilised-reserve. But the response to those lurches, and to the pandemic’s spanner in the economic works, suggests that we’re still really not prepared as a civilisation to think seriously about the way this stuff happens.

Drawing to a close, Sofia notes that in Heidegger’s discussion of the bringing-forth that is proper to techne, he effaces the distributive: “the appearance of materials within the smithy’s workshop—the ore, the coal for heating and smelting it, the apparatus and tools used for refining and working it—is only possible though a prior set of techniques and technologies for extracting, moving and storing resources, for securing or coercing human labour power (for example, the slave miners of antiquity), and for tunnelling, digging, gathering, carrying, storing, trading, shipping, and delivering.” (p197)

Sofia raises Heidegger’s elision of his own Bestand, in other words, and thus illustrates a point that I’ve made repeatedly using a rather different metaphor, namely infrastructure as a magic trick, as prestidigitation. The craftsman’s chalice is the rabbit drawn forth from the hat, but for the chalice’s buyer, the magical appearance of the chalice is subsumed into the magic of the craftsman/magician himself. We don’t want to know how the rabbit got into the hat—or rather we would do, if the flourish of the prestige was not amplified precisely in order to catch our attention, and to draw it away from the other hand, from the infrastructure whose elided functions of provision and supply make the trick possible. If we understood that the rabbit appeared by such means, some of the magic we ascribe to the craftsman might be turned instead to the more lowly labourers who make his enterprise possible. Sofia contrasts the artisanal craft of Heidegger’s chalice with “the modern intensities of macro-containment and mega-supply”, but notes—of course—“the dependence of both modes on resource supply, a dependence that becomes elevated to a governing principle in the modern age” (ibid). Given the semiotic premium associated with “authentic” and the “artisanal” production in recent years, it’s hard not to side with Sofia’s observation, and conclude that the optimal reconfiguration of the mobilised-reserve has reduced such distinctions almost to the point of vanishing.

Closing thoughts

Yeah, so: big, chewy paper, lots of things to think with/through. I will note that, though they do get a mention, the form of container which most nakedly bears that name only gets a passing mention as a component of the standing-reserve—I think my own piece will be heading in the direction of the shipping-container. But perhaps the even more telling absence is the most ubiquitous form of container in modern capitalism, namely packaging: the disposable container, invisible precisely due to its ubiquity, disguised by its role as a surface onto which the spectacle might be projected; the waste product (which is often made from a waste product) which is ejected into the externality of the environment once its role of protection, homogenisation and commodification is fulfilled. This is of course less an elision than an oversight we’re supposed to make, the most basic of all prestidigitatory flourishes: the package is the hat from which the rabbit appears to appear.

But even a stage magician tends to use the hat more than once…

Fables of the deconstruction: Salmon (2020), An Event, Perhaps

Nice little biography of Derrida, this. A more manageable size than many of the man’s own books, it does a neat job of relating the philosopher and the philosophy, without being a hagiography in the case of the former, nor a full-bore “reading” in the case of the latter. Which makes it perhaps the ideal introduction to Derrida’s thought for someone (such as myself) who has read fragments here and there, and has a vague idea of where ideas like deconstruction sit (both philosophically and pop-culturally), but who has yet to actually tuck in to the texts themselves. Core ideas and themes are situated in the context of Derrida’s life and times, and of twentieth century philosophy in general; that these are simplifications is inevitable, particularly with a thinker as gordian and self-referential as Derrida. But that seems a fair price for what might stand as a rough map to prepare oneself for the exploration of a vast continent of ideas whose originality (and threat) are still manifest in the fear and loathing associated with his name—despite, as Salmon patiently explains, the complete absence of the relativist nihilism which is supposedly sourced in his work. This particular passage provides a succinct rebuttal to such accusations:

Of all the accusations, what seemed to sting most of all was the notion that his thinking was relativist, anything goes, and thus nihilistic. ‘Deconstruction’, he had reiterated in Memoires: For Paul de Man, ‘is anything but a nihilism or a scepticism. Why can one still read this claim despite so many texts that, explicitly, thematically and for more than twenty years have been demonstrating the opposite?’ Nihilism is an ontological claim that there is no truth. Deconstruction has no opinion on this. Nor does it on, say, pink elephants. What it does say is that we cannot know whether there is truth or not, which is an epistemological claim. So any assertion that there is truth is unprovable, and therefore whatever truth is offered should be analysed for the reasons why it is being offered.

Chapter 9, “Before the Law”

That these accusations were established by small groups of conservative academics in rival schools of philosophy and scholarship is a reminder that, for all their arguably increased intensity, the monstering of challenging ideas so prevalent in the present is not new, and nor are the methods thereof. One is tempted to suggest that the hazard to rationalist and analytical hegemony presented by Derrida’s ideas offers an explanation for their repeated misrepresentation—though as Salmon notes, and as my limited experience in the academy also suggests, misparsings based upon shallow readings, or indeed upon no readings at all, may be a significant part of the problem, too: to paraphrase Salmon, dismissing Derrida as a prolix relativist charlatan saves one the challenge of actually trying to read him.

I was particularly intrigued by the thread of Derrida’s work which aimed to demonstrate that “philosophy” is to some extent a generic form of writing—which is not at all to dismiss or denigrate it, nor to elevate, say, literature to a higher plane, but rather to argue that style and rhetoric are inextricable, and that metaphor is the root of all discourse. The parallels between analytical philosophy’s insistence on a very limited notion of truth in language and the “academic style” of writing (which, to belabour a point, is not a style which is taught, but rather a culture that is inculcated through osmosis, and just as opaque and frustrating as Derrida’s to anyone who has not normalised and internalised it) are notable; a doctrinaire positivism masquerading as a principled refusal to dirty one’s hands with “theory” or epistemology. While I plan to go to the source for the full experience, Salmon’s exploration of this theme has served to validate my prior attempts to push against (if not actually avoid) the “academic style”, and encourage me to bring more literary techniques to bear in my work to come. That’s unlikely to make things easy for me, of course… but hey, nothing worth doing is ever easy. Salmon’s story of Derrida—which, as he points out in Derrida’s own terms, is partial, in both senses of that term—doesn’t gloss over the difficulties and missteps (such as the De Man defence), but that serves to underline a consistency and fidelity which I find admirable, and worthy of some effort to emulate.

(I’d like to imagine I could emulate his terrifying levels of productivity, too, but, well, yeah, no. I wonder if that would even be possible now, to develop that sort of utter immersion in one’s work while being caught between on the one hand the relentlessness of the attention economy, and on the other the neoliberalisation of the academy? The sheer privilege of having the time to study deeply, without interruption from the demands of self-documentation and bureaucratic hoop-jumping, from the ubiquitous business ontology of modern scholarship… well, things are what they are, and one ends up where—and when—one is, and I’d do well to remember that in many respects I’ve rocked up to the plate with plenty more privilege than Derrida had when he started. The attitude is the thing to emulate, I guess, rather than the results.)