Category Archives: Reading Journal

Thirst, fear, faith : Butler (1993), Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is another canonical work of sf / dystopia / climate fiction which I’d never got round to reading. It was interesting to go through it with the LUCSUS Masters students, because they picked out things I might not have noticed, or would otherwise have passed over as a given thanks to my specialist knowledges.

For example, the cause of the escalating price and scarcity of water is (as far as I can recall) never remarked upon in the text. And of course there’s no reason the characters would think to discuss it: even for those of them who might have known the cause of Californian drought (i.e. basically decades and decades of over-abstraction), by the point they’ve reached in the process of collapse, there’d be little point (other than making yourself more angry, scared or frustrated) that you’d mention it; better to focus on where the next drink is coming from than why it’s hard to find. It’s not entirely clear from the text itself whether Butler was thinking of a drought specifically caused by agricultural practices, rather than one caused simply by a more general environmental decline due to increased temperatures; one might argue this is a missed opportunity for making a didactic point, but given the overwhelming moral content of Sower, even were you to add such material I doubt anyone would come away from the book thinking “well, we’d best get busy on water rights and agricultural reform!” It’s not that sort of sf, and Butler not that sort of writer.

Still, it was notable that the students questioned the cause of the high water prices, not as something that spoiled the story, but as something that nagged at them throughout—and perhaps, if we’re dabbling with the intentional fallacy, we might imagine that may have been one of the results Butler was hoping for. (Given the premium she places on self-directed curiosity and learning in the book, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable guess.) The cause was obvious to me, in part because I spent six years surrounded by people who live and breath water infrastructure, in part because some good friends have explored and discussed California’s water infrastructures in detail for exactly this reason, and also because I’d read and reviewed Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (Interzone #260) when it was published. TWK was another of the books in the “club”, and they make an interesting pairing in the context of climate change pedagogy for exactly this reason; they’d also make an interesting pairing for sf-literary reasons, too. (Another essay to add to the ideas list, I guess.)

The students were also curious about the broader causes of the “boiled frog” collapse that forms the setting for Sower; they couldn’t understand how things could have gotten so bad without something having been done about it. With no criticism or malice intended, I think this can be put down in part to their comparative youth and European perspective: not to put too fine a point on it, but the actual USA right now is providing a grim demonstration of exactly how things could be allowed to get so bad, which is less a case of everyone ignoring the problem, and more a case of a slight majority being susceptible to the message that the problem is Someone Else’s Problem, and/or a market opportunity for good ol’ fashioned American entrepreneurship. These are also students for whom climate change is more than just a given, it’s the thing that’s driven them to do the course they’re on—and as such I’m going to infer that they’ve probably been raised in households where “doing something” is a daily occurrence. However, they’re also young enough to perhaps not fully understand that sorting the recycling and turning off the tap while you brush your teeth is not really enough to make a dent in the systemic extractive/emissive paradigm; hell, it’s really only in the last ~10 years that I’ve come to understand that myself. The problem is still addressable for them, in a way that gives me hope even as it makes me sad; if anything is going to “be done about it”, it’s their generation that’ll (have to) do it.

(And as such, us X-ers and Millennials had best make a good show of trying to get the Boomers out of the driver’s seat before it’s too late, because the kids have got more than enough reason to lament our generational futzings already.)

What was exciting for me was how easily they latched onto the characterisation and POV. I had primed them a little on this narratological stuff in a lecture the week before we discussed it, but they weren’t just parroting ideas back at me, they’d actually thought it through. They observed that Lauren is cagey and judgmental, even a bit conceited at times (which is all implication, given the first-person modality), and they also identified the paradox of her hyperempathy: yes, she feels the pain of others, and that encourages her to be cautious about surrounding herself with pain and conflict, but it also makes her cold and distant, an outsider even within the group she ends up leading. Perhaps that would change in a context where hyperempaths were in the majority, but then again, perhaps not… and reading Sower has reinforced the feeling I had when reviewing the Ecotopian Lexicon (for the SFRA, due out summer 2021) that Rebecca Evans had taken a rather too optimistic read on hyperempathy, partly because she treated it more as a phenomenon whose existence might make the world a better place than as a concept whose introduction into the lexicon would help advance the climate discourse (though, to be fair, this conflation of concept and term kind of haunts that whole book, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness); all the evidence in Sower, to me at least, suggests that quite the opposite. Sure, a a culture in which empathy was not considered as correlative with (female-coded) weakness would be a fine thing… but unless hyperempathy were effectively universalised instantly, it would make community clusters of hyperempaths incredibly vulnerable to explotation by the less- (or indeed non-)empathic majority, just as hyperempathic individuals already are in the story.

From my own perspective as a writer/reader, I was struck most forcefully by the incredibly direct and simple style of Butler’s prose—there’s a staggering mastery of the epistolary/diaristic first person mode on display here, which goes a long way to explaining how easily the students parsed Lauren’s complexities. But it’s also Lauren’s nigh-clinical detachment that strips the story of any sense of spectacle, with the arguable exception of the fire-by-the-highway scene that acts as the transition into the final stage of the book, which is all the more striking for its vividness on the page after so many pages of seemingly normalised and dispassionately-described dystopian events and scenery. As with Oryx & Crake, there’s a hint of the biblical about the last part of Sower, but it’s dome very differently to Atwood’s structural satire. Of course, Butler is herein playing a much straighter game with the question of faith than Atwood—straighter, and more subtle. Butler has more compassion for the necessity/inevitability of faith, particularly among oppressed communities, as well as a more nuanced eye on the way it eventually twists into dogma (and makes dogmatists of its adherents); I’m given to believe this comes out a lot more clearly in the sequel Talents.

But damn, the bleakness of this book—more than once I found myself wondering how a book so grim in its inevitabilities could be so readable, even compulsive. (It’s not quite up to the same level as, say, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, but it’s in a comparable league.) This can’t be put down to any thriller/horror dynamic, either: there’s no titillation, no spectacle. You also know immediately that Lauren is going to survive. As Clute has noted, the first person mode implies that the narrator survives the plot in order to tell the tale (though the epistolary/diaristic form can break that rubric easily enough), but even that aside, you just know: right from the get-go, her status as a stubborn, capable survivor is never in doubt, and presents an interesting blackening and feminising of the Competent Man trope so common to sf and dystopian thrillers alike. But it’s made more complex by her categorical inability to play the “kick-ass heroine” archetype: she can’t just Mad-Max it out due to her hyperempathy, so she has to be survivor, strategist, orator, leader. She quite literally inherits the loquacity of her preacher/teacher father, the skill for framing familiar stories and ideas as homilies, parables… and so it’s ironic that her anti-religion is destined (in Talents) to become a religion much like all the others, but that dynamic is dealt with far more carefully and insightfully by Butler than it might have been by someone from a more secular or outright atheistic background (viz. Atwood).

Also notable for me was the paucity of white characters—not, to be clear, in a “hey, what’s up with all these minorities?” way, but rather in the way that the very unshowy but direct foregrounding of the ethnicities of the cast made me realise (much to my discredit) how rarely I read anything in which the whiteness of a white character is remarkable from the purview of the others. The (almost-all-white, almost-all-Euro) students didn’t remark on this, though they literally cannot have missed it—and they definitely picked up on the slavery theme, and understood where that concern came from for the characters and the author alike. They’ve grow up with a somewhat more diverse media landscape than I did; I’m tempted to take this as en encouraging sign that such things really can make a difference, but again I probably need to correct for the intersectional aspects of the group. (If you wanted a caricature of trainee SJWs, these kids are probably it—and amen to that.) For me, it was probably that threat of (corporatised/company-town) slavery that made the thing feel most relevant to present events, quite beyond the eerie alignment of the dates in the storyline.

It’s a sad thing that this book should (still) be so timely, but that’s where we are. In a telling and somewhat tragic synchronicity, it was announced while I was halfway through the book that Sower had just given Butler her first appearance on the NYT Bestseller list. I strongly suspect that’s down to it having been placed on a very large number of college and university reading lists for the fall semester, by teachers who figured that—under circumstances featuring water shortages, massive fires, vigilantism, mob violence, and the seeming evacuation of even the pretense of democracy from the USian experiment in favour of naked commerce and white supremacy—forewarned might be somewhat forearmed. It’s hard to conclude that they weren’t right to do so.

Fear of a blank planet: Atwood (2003), Oryx & Crake

I ended up running a hybrid book-club-seminar thing with the students on the LUCSUS Masters course earlier this semester, for which I was asked to suggest a list of “cli-fi” books that the students could choose from. (Yes, I know, “cli-fi”; I’ll return to that bone of contention some other time.) Long story short: the list went out, the students selected their titles, and I was confronted with the necessity of reading three canonical works of climate-related sf which I’d never gotten round to reading before. The first of these was Atwood’s Oryx & Crake.

“How had you never read that before?” asked a friend, which was a reasonable question. I suspect it had to do with my identifying with a much more limited notion of what science fiction was about back then—and, relatedly, to do with the rather sniffy reception that O&C, and indeed Atwood in general, received from the sf critical establishment at the time. Part of that stems from a chauvinism that has been beaten back somewhat in the wake of the Blog Wars of the Noughties and Teens, but which is far from dead; Atwood has long delighted in twitting sf’s generic parochialism, not least through her staunch insistence that what she writes isn’t science fiction but rather speculative fiction. (Hence the notorious “talking squids in outer space” beef, which is indicative of just how successful an act of trolling that statement was on her part—and, more positively, of the extent to which things have changed; Stephen Baxter’s “get a life, woman” riposte at the time would likely not be reported in implicit approval today, f’rex). To put it another way, sf culture had yet to forgive Atwood for playing with the toys without asking to be allowed into the clubhouse; some parts of it probably still haven’t. That she doesn’t seem to care—and that she not only rags on sf for its perceived limitations, but (perhaps more importantly) gets the opportunity to do so in publications that rarely ask sf writers for their opinion on anything other than their own latest book, if that—serves only to amplify the resentment.

But reading O&C, a lot of other reasons for its rejection from the sf canon at the time become apparent. The foremost of these is its relentless mockery and exposure of an escapist technofetishism which was still pretty prevalent at the time: sf still saw itself as a serious literature concerned with the merits of technological progress, which might well be critical of the particulars, but certainly wasn’t going to throw out the Enlightenment-humanist baby with the unevenly-distributed bathwater. O&C is many things, but one of those things is a scathing indictment of better-living-through-technology scientism—and whether consciously or not, sf is (or at least still was in the early Noughties) a colleague of scientism, when it wasn’t its unashamed cheerleader.

(Yes, this is a massive recent-historical generalisation of sf, but hey, this is a blog post; fund me to write a book on it and I’ll gladly dig into the nuance.)

I also recall O&C being criticised for its over-the-top style, which was perceived as unserious; I particularly remember dismissals that focussed on the names Atwood gave to technologies and products and companies, which were supposedly absurd and sophomoric. Which they are, of course; that’s the point. There was probably more than a bit of projection here, given that the clunky punning neologism was a staple of the technological-utopian texts of the so-called “golden age”, but mostly it strikes me as a huge misparsing of what the book is trying to do. I mean, it’s so obviously a work of satire, with a lineage that stretches through Vonnegut and back to Swift, and perhaps even as far as Voltaire; it’s thus no surprise that attempting to read it as a serious “consequences of technology” novel in the limited sense that sf has tended to deal with such questions would result in bouncing off it pretty hard. Plus it’s not as if it wasn’t obvious that Atwood was capable of writing in a much more serious and realistic register, even if you’d only read The Handmaid’s Tale. The style was not a limitation, it was a very deliberate strategic choice—and I wonder if it wasn’t calculated, at least in part, as an extension of the talking squids critique, a very pointed thumbing of the nose at the generic self-conception.

What was somewhat alarming to me was how relevant it still seems—even setting aside the grim recognition of reading that final section during an actual global pandemic (and the arguable irresponsibility of positing a pandemic that is released deliberately by an (anti)humanist megalomaniac). Some of the social trajectories in O&C‘s USA—particularly the whole gated-communities and educational-elites set-up—are very on-point.

But the thing that really stuck me most powerfully was the characterisation. For me, O&C is as much about the hubris of a narrow and positivist/quantitative intellectualism and toxic masculinity as it is about climate change or genetic engineering in particular. I found myself remembering that when it was published, the New Atheists were still very much in the ascendant, and that they were a precursor to the whole men’s-rights-G*mer*Gte-Pepe-NeoReo-LessWrong cult of rationality which… well, yeah.

That said, Atwood doesn’t spare the lash on the left or the arts, either; the story’s few feminists, refuseniks and avatars for the arts and humanities are depicted at least as monstrously as their notional opponents. That’s in no small part due to Atwood’s unwavering fidelity to Jimmy/Snowman as the narrative focaliser: the cynicism he was raised with—that he was raised in—is relentless and cruel, and he has internalised it almost completely. Everything we see is filtered through that nihilism and privilege… and that, I think, is what makes it feel oddly contemporary, because that perspective (and its consequences) are writ very large in the world as it is right now.

But perhaps the most incredible trick is that, despite Jimmy’s clear monstrosity, he somehow remains a sympathetic character: as warped and broken as he is, the making of him is shown sufficiently clearly that even through his own eyes—even filtering for the self-pity that is fundamental to his identity—the horror of being Jimmy, of being Snowman, is always apparent. Atwood frames this as an isolation from “nature”, and an immersion in an extrapolation of the early internet which is, again, alarmingly proleptic with hindsight: Jimmy and his peers are immersed in system that is always ready to gratify their worst hungers and impulses. It’s our familiar friend the Dopamine Machine, but notably not as a tech-determinist intrusion: the impulses were there long before the positive-feedback loop of gratification served to amplify it into a howling screech of nihilism.

(I’m reminded also of Porcupine Tree’s “Fear of a Blank Planet”, which I believe was influenced by Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park; there’s an interesting essay to be written there, perhaps, given the vast gulf of positionality between those two authors.)

What hasn’t aged well is Atwood’s portrayal of the East/West binary, as manifest through Oryx and her backstory; this is uncomfortably Orientalist, or so it feels to me, and while you can argue that Oryx’s passivity and acceptance of her lot acts as an avatar of the female As Jimmy perceives it, it nonetheless results in a rather essentialist ying-yang look at the world. I strongly suspect it was well-intentioned, to be clear, with Atwood looking to present the East as the counterpoint to the privileges and of the Western male elite, and as the externality upon which that privilege draws for its sustained advantages. But even as an avatar for the acceptance of a systemic and inevitable suffering, Oryx feels a little too much a stereotype for comfort, and Jimmy’s POV doesn’t really provide a get-out for that.

Discussing O&C with the Masters students, I was somewhat surprised to find that none of them had picked up on the biblical allusions, particularly in the final phase of the book; this may have something to do with the secularism of predominantly European middle-class Zoomers, and likewise something to do with the rarity of reading as an entertainment medium. (Maybe half of the students claimed to be regular readers, but none of them had ever read anything that they had identified as science fiction before.) Perhaps because I did have quite a bit of exposure to biblical themes and story-forms in my youth—and perhaps because I’ve long been extremely bookish in general—the grotesquely twisted new-creation-story vibe of the book’s final stages were almost telegraphic for me: the hubris of the (new-)atheistic scientist-genius Crake mutating into a sort of secular self-apotheosis, the fall from grace, the exit from Eden (or Paradice, rather)… and a bit of Old Testament Cain and Abel, as well. (Worth noting, perhaps, that O&C came out not long after Negotiating With the Dead, whose Cain-and-Abel theme left something of a mark on me when I read it in 2011.)

With all that said, I feel that despite its frequent inclusion in the canon of climate fiction, O&C is less a serious look at climate change as a scientific phenomenon (though perhaps less unserious than we might like it to be) than a look at the culture of technocratic hubris and arrogance that sustains the extractive/emissive externalisation of consequences that is the causal root of climate change. It is dark, relentless and very, very sad—and as such, perhaps the OTT satirical style is the only way that Atwood, or anyone else, could pull it off.

In search of a dialectical utopianism : Harvey (2000), Spaces of Hope

  • Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni. Press.

Focussing here, for reasons presumably obvious to long-term readers of this site, on Chapters 8 (“The spaces of Utopia”, p133-81) and 9 (“Dialectical utopianism”, p182-95) of what is now a vintage part of the David Harvey canon. Reading these pieces really brought home just how long ago the turn of the century really was, both generally and personally… and that’s particularly sobering in the context of Harvey’s topic, which is the neoliberalisation of civic space. He notes that at time of writing, it had been going on for two decades… and of course it’s gone on another two decades since then.

(Which explains my personal fury at claims that it’s “too soon” to talk about the world we want to build after this unfolding clusterfuck of a pandemic gives way to whatever comes next… people have been talking about it for decades, and have always been told it’s “too soon” to “politicise the issues”. The issues were always political, at least for those on the sharp end. Aaaaanyway.)

#

The front half of Ch. 8 takes a tour through late-Nineties Baltimore that goes a long way to explaining why The Wire was a story waiting to be told, and then pivots gradually into the historical question of the-city-as-figure, of urban imaginaries, as Harvey sets himself up for a proper workout on utopics from his classically Marxist p.o.v.:

When […] we contemplate urban futures we must always do battle with a wide range of emotive and symbolic meanings that both inform and muddle our sense of ‘the nature of our task.’ As we collectively produce our cities, we collectively produce ourselves. […] Critical reflection on our imaginaries entails, however, both confronting the hidden utopianism and resurrecting it in order to act as conscious architects of our fates rather than as ‘helpless puppets’ of the institutional and imaginative worlds we inhabit.

(p159)

Next we get a bit on More’s foundational Utopia, in which “spatial form controls temporality, an imagined geography controls the possibility of spatial change and history”. However, “[n]ot all forms of temporality are erased” by the utopian banishing of historicity. “The time of ‘eternal return’, of recurrent ritual, is preserved. […] It is the dialectic of social process which is repressed. Time’s arrow, ‘the great principle of history,’ is excluded in favour of perpetuating a happy stationary state.” More conjures a nostalgia for a past which never really was, “a hierarchical mode of social relating that is non-conflictual and harmonious. This nostalgic strain is characteristic of much utopian thinking, even that projected into the future and incorporating futuristic technologies” (p160; no kidding, Dave!)

More’s and subsequent utopias can thus “be characterised as ‘Utopias of social form’ since the temporality of the social process, the dialectics of social change—real history—are excluded, while social stability is assured by a fixed spatial form” (p160); via Marin’s reading of More, “the free play of the imagination, ‘utopics as spatial play,’ became, with More’s initiative, a fertile means to explore and express a vast range of competing ideas about social relationships, moral orderings, political-economic systems and the like” (p161). However, ‘imaginative free play’ [IFP] is of course entangled with already-existing systems of authority and restrictive governance, and the dialectic between “[IFP] and authority and control throws up serious problems,” and “[c]onfronting this relationship […] must, therefore, lie at the heart of any regenerative politics that attempts to resurrect utopian ideals” (p163). Harvey illustrates the point with Jane Jacobs, noting that her critique of modernist planning relied on its own nostalgic notion of the diverse neighbourhood, and thus “contained its own authoritarianism” (p164).

Next we discuss Marin’s notion of the ‘degenerate utopia’, of which the canonical example was Disneyland—degenerate “because it offers no critique of the existing state of affairs on the outside” (p167), a call-back to Harvey’s earlier side-eye at the emerging phenomena of gated communities and tent-pole urbanisms in Baltimore. But can utopias of spatial form ever be anything other than ultimately degenerate, he asks rhetorically? “The multiple degenerate utopias that now surround us—the shopping malls and the ‘bourgeois’ commercialised utopias of the suburbs being paradigmatic—do as much to signal the end of history as the collapose of the Berlin Wall ever did. They instantiate rather than critique the idea that ‘there is no alternative,’ save those given by the conjoining of technological fantasies, commodity culture, and endless capital accumulation” (p168).

Then some stuff about the failed idealism of The New Urbanism, which at time of writing was still a fairly new phenomenon: good intentions, and a then-novel focus on a more organic/holistic ideal for the city/region relationship. But “[t]he new urbanism connects to a facile contemporary attempt to transform large and teeming cities, seemingly so out of control, into an interlinked series of ‘urban villages’ where, it is believed, everyone can relate in a civil and urbane fashion to everyone else” (p170); this barb is all the more pointed for coming at a time when dot-com optimism was at its height, and the associated (mis)readings of McLuhan came with their own utopian vibes. Some more material about the pragmatism of New Urbanist architects and developers, and then: “In practice, most realised Utopias of spatial form have been achieved through the agency of either the state or capital accumulation, with both acting in concert being the norm” (p173); attempting to take “the outside path” tended to result in “a meltdown of [their] principles” and the reabsorption of such projects into the prevailing logic of development. (In terms of the “smart city”, that acting-in-concert of capital and the state has become pretty much de facto, as noted elsewhere—the system quickly adjusts to incorporate former lines-of-flight into the striation of space, to get a bit Deleuzian about it.)

Next section switches from the problematics of materialised utopias to the question of utopia-as-(temporal)-process—which, Harvey suggests, are plentiful, but rarely described as utopian. “Idealized versions of social processes […] usually get expressed in purely temporal terms. They are literally bound to no place whatsoever and are typically specified outside of the constraints of spatiality altogether. The qualities of space and place are totally ignored” (p174). One problem with these “placeless teleologies” is that they “have the habit of getting lost in the romanticism of endlessly open projects that never have to come to a point of closure (within space and place)” (ibid.).

Now we’re getting on to ol’ Karl, starting with his deconstruction of Adam Smith’s utopia-of-process as enshrined in The Wealth of Nations, “in which individual desires, avarice, greed, creativity, and the like could be mobilized through the hidden hand of the perfected market to the social benefit of all” (p175); there’s been a fair amount of recuperation of Smith in recent years, re-emphasising what I understand to be the moral-philosophical side of a text which was (regrettably) left to the libertarians to interpret for far too long, but I think Harvey’s point here still stands. Plus it’s all in the text itself, and Harvey provides a valuable reminder here that Marx recognised that an unregulated free-market system could only continue through draining the vitality from not just the worker but the land itself. (Cf. McKenzie Wark’s recent stuff on the metabolic rift in Marx, which comes out in e.g. Haraway and others.) Blah blah blah, twenty years of neoliberalism (at time of writing); Thatcher, Fukuyama, Gingrich as Hegelians, ho-ho-ho; emerging stigmatisation of market fundamentalism as utopianism (by John Gray, apparently, who more recently has become… well, let’s not go there); “[s]o why such tragic outcomes to such a supposedly benevolent process?” (p176-7)

Because the process has to quite literally come to ground, come to place—and “the conditions and manner of this spatial materialization have all manner of consequences” (p178); something something unevenly distributed, intensification of existing spatial inequalities, egalitarianism of free markets revealed to be no such thing in the long run.

The free market, if it is to work, requires a bundle of institutional arrangements and rules that can only be guaranteed only by something akin to state power. The freedom of the market has to be guaranteed by law, authority, force, and, in extremis, violence. Since state power is usually understood in terms of the monopoly of the forces of violence, the free market requires the state or cognate instituitions if it is to work. Free markets, in short, do not just happen. Nor or they antagonistic to state power in general, though they can, of course, be antagonistic to certain ways in which state power might be used to regulate them.

(p178)

Point being, in a mirror image of the failed materializations of the spatial utopias running into temporality, “the utopianism of process runs afoul of the spatial framings and the particularities of place construction necessary to its materialization” (p179).

So we start the final subsection of Ch. 8 by observing that “materialized utopias of the social process have to negotiate with the spatiality and the geography of place, and in so doing they also lose their ideal character, producing results which are in many instances exactly the opposite of those intended” (p180), and return to Smith-influenced free market systems, which don’t render the state hollow as often assumed, but rather deepen its control and influence over some parts of the social process which chasing it out of other more traditional (and populist) functions. All this “explains why so much of the developmental pattern in a city like Baltimore is justified by an appeal to the rhetoric of free-market competition when it in practice relies on state subsidy and monopolization” (p181), as well as why eras of successful globalisation and free trade have tended to occur in symbiosis with the hegemony of a single dominant power such as Britain or the US:

A surface veneer of competitive capitalism therefore depends on a deep substratum of coerced cooperations and collaborations to ensure a framework for the free market and open trade.

(p181)

#

Now, then, Ch. 9—where we explore the challenges of building “a utopianism that is explicitly sociotemporal” (p182) as an attempt to dodge the problematics of place and process when considered in isolation: a “dialectical utopianism”, as Harvey decides to label it.

First we get a bit of jousting with thinkers who were a bit higher on the totem-pole at the time: Lefebvre “refuses to confront the underlying problem” of the spatial-material utopia, namely “that to materialise a space is to engage with closure (however temporary) which is an authoritarian act” (p183), while Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia gets a drubbing which hints at much the same lingering resentment of postmodern theory most often found on the right; the heterotopia was “[e]xtracted by his acolytes as a hidden gem within his extensive oeuvre” (a saucer of milk to the corner table, please, waiter!) and “became one means […] whereby the problem of Utopia could be resurrected and simultaneously evaded” (p183; not a reading of the heterotopia as I recognise it, certainly, but hey, Marxists gonna Marxianise amirite?). It’s not all flicking bogies at the pomos, though, as Harvey concedes that heterotopia “has the virtue of insisting upon a better understanding of the heterogeneity of space”; however (and unsurprisingly), “it gives no clue as to what a more spatiotemporal utopianism might look like” (p185), not least because that was not at all Foucault’s theoretical bag.

Next we turn again to the temporal, and a good few pages engaging with Roberto Unger, who “avoids utopianism by insisting that alternatives should emerge out of critical and practical engagements with the institutions, personal behaviours, and practices that now exist” (p186); Harvey glosses his position as the claim that “[o]nly by changing our institutional world can we change ourselves at the same time, as it is only through the desire to change ourselves that institutional change can occur” (ibid.). Unger’s approach is fundamentally abstracted from the spatial, for which Harvey partly lets him off the hook, but is less forgiving of Unger’s (poststructuralist) hesitation to identify a direction of travel; “like Lefebvre, he wants to keep choices endlessly open” (p188). This is for Harvey a limit and flaw of the anti-authoritarian left:

What the abandonment of all talk of Utopia on the left has done is to leave the question of valid and legitimate authority in abeyance (or, more exactly, to leave it to the moralisms of the conservatives—both of the neoliberal and religious variety). It has left the concept of Utopia […] as a pure signifier without any meaningful referent in the material world.

(p188-9)

Next section, and we get a passing look at utopian fictions (or rather utopias intended as fictions first and foremost): Le Guin (of course), Lessing and Piercy as well as the earlier white-guy canon of the form. No mention here of Moylan or the lineage of sf scholarship, but Harvey clearly identifies the critical utopian modality when he notes that “[s]uch novels typically recognise that societies and spatialities are shaped by continuous processes of struggle”, and that the form “lends itself […] to a much stronger sense of sociotemporal dynamics” (p189). Then a quick (and largely complementary) look at KSR’s Mars trilogy, leavened with a caution (via Levitas, of course) that utopianism cannot be left to art alone, which ends with the claim that KSR’s work “holds out the tantalising prospect of an inner connexion between actual historical-geographical transformations (understood with all the power that a properly constituted historical-geographical materialism can command) and the utopian design of an alternative spatiotemporal dynamics to that which we now experience” (p191). Amen, brother.

The penultimate section sketches Harvey’s program for grounding a utopian project “in both the present and the past”, and it’s not without interest, involving as it does a quick summary of the contradictions inherent to the free-market utopian project that took place under the USian post-ww2 hegemony—but it’s surplus to my requirements for this particular reading and glossing. The very final section contains that sobering reminder I mentioned at the top of the page:

The broad rejection of utopianism over the past two decades or should be understood as a collapse of specific utopian forms, both East and West. Communism has been broadly discredited as a utopian project and now neoliberalism is increasingly seen as a utopian project that cannot succeed.

(p195)

Published twenty years ago. Sheesh.

Should we thus abandon utopianism, asks Harvey to close, or treat it with the same cautious distrust as ol’ Karl? That’s a nope:

Utopian dreams in any case never entirely fade away […] Extracting them from the dark recesses of our minds and turning them into a political force for change may court the danger of the ultimate frustration of those desires. But better that, surely, than giving in to the degenerate utopianism of neoliberalism (and all those interests that give possibility a bad press) and living in craven and supine fear of expressing and pursuing alternative desires at all.

(p195)

To try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it. Twenty years further down the neoliberal mudchute, I think that’s an argument that’s more ready to be heard than ever before.

At least I hope so.

“A sterile and decontextualised narrative”: Grossi & Pianezzi (2017), Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?

  • Grossi, G., & Pianezzi, D. (2017). “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?”. Cities, 69, 79-85.

Pretty simple paper, this one, in the sense that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the specific case (Genoa, Italy) is not of great relevance to me right now, but I want to drag some quotes out of it and into the reading journal here in order to make citing and glossing it easier in future. This is made easy by its clear restatement(s) of the basic point… there’s also a pretty comprehensive lit review in there, though, so a good jump-off point if you wanted to dig deeper into the bloated floating signifier that is the “smart city”. (Insert old joke about wrestling a pig here.)

So, yeah: the top-line gloss would be that “there is a high level of agreement in the literature that there is as yet no common definition of a smart city”, and further that “despite private corporations and cities promoting the smart city as a revolutionary utopia, this paradigm is an expression of the neoliberal ideology” (p79).

After a (very) quick historical tour of the utopian concept, the authors arrive at Bloch’s notion of the “concrete utopia”, as distinct from the “abstract utopia”, and gloss the former as “a project connected with reality that leads citizens forward into historical transformation and social revolution” (p80). They then argue that a bunch of authors have identified the “smart city” as being a Blochean concrete utopia—though I know at least two of the papers that they cite as evidence for this claim (one of which I have already annotated here), and they do no such thing. I wonder if some subtlety of argument has been lost in translation, though, because it would be fair to say that the “smart city” trope self-identifies as a concrete utopia… and if we carry that reading forward, the rest of the paper still makes perfect sense, as the authors go on to note that “when translated into practice, the smart city utopia often conflicts with its aspirations” (p80), which is (in my own reading, at least) a significant part of the point that Söderström, Paache & Klauser were making.

There follows some referencing of Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey (one of whose works will be annotated here imminently, and not at all coincidentally) in order to delineate a dialectic between utopia and ideology. This leads up to a restatement of the paper’s main point, namely that “the smart city utopia is a fundamental facet of the neoliberal contemporary ideology” (p80), which az eny fule kno is about the penetration of market-fundamentalist logics into every aspect of life; e.g., “the diffusion of city rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities is an example of the disciplinary and normalising power of neoliberalism to generate competition among cities by transforming their difference in deviances from a norm of smartness assumed to be best practices” (ibid.)—is a long-winded way of saying that the “smart city” trope sets up a nebulous and techno-utopian standard against which all cities are implicitly measured and, inevitably, found wanting. The paradigm is heavily focussed on the handing-over of the “management” of cities to privately-owned tech firms, which (no surprises for those of you following along at home) “results in the adoption of a profit-oriented approach and in an increasing involvement of private actors, holders of innovation and technological knowledge” (ibid.). Leaning on a classic Swyngedouw paper (2005), the authors note that enacting the “smart city” trope as (re)produced by its manifold advocates “may lead to a privatization of decision making and an exercise of power insulated from democratic accountability” (p81); an unbolted stable door through which numerous horses would appear to have already escaped. There’s another quotable riff later on, where they note that “the smart city discourse describes citizens as consumers rather than as political actors” (p84).

Middle section sets out a methodology based on Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics” (which I don’t know much about—but given it seems to involve Bakhtinian ideas about languages as structures of/for social philosophies, I probably should do), and looks at the case of flooding crises in Genoa, and the ways in which “smart city” rhetorics there have both devolved responsibility for amok urbanisation (manifest in part via the enthusiastic covering of historical floodplains with fancy new building projects), and explicitly called for predictive modelling and measurement to enable competitive development practices to continue apace. To label this as a neoliberal project is about as non-controversial as it gets—unless of course your audience is of the sort that objects to the existence of the term in and of itself (which is to say, unless your audience is itself ideologically oriented to neoliberalism).

A good clear summary in the conclusions section (which kinda confirms my feeling that they’ve misread Söderström and friends, who were making pretty much the same points, absent the particular focus on the N-word):

The smart city utopia serves the interests of of big multinational ICT companies, while neglecting the need of political (not only technological) answers to public and common interests. It conveys neoliberal values and shapes urban problems by making visible some aspects while at the same time obscuring others. Thus, the emphasis on fancy technological solutions risks diverting attention away from issues, such as the broad impact of urbanization, that require a long-term “urban-planning based” approach driven by the political willingness of municipalities. […] What the promoters of smart city [sic] claim to be a concrete utopia proves to be on the contrary an abstract utopia, a sterile and decontextualised narrative that preserves existing relations of power, rather than challenging them.”

(p84)

Pretty simple; not the most original paper in theoretical terms, but then they do note that part of their aim is to take a predominantly theoretical critique into a more empirical territory via the Genoan case-study, which I guess they achieve.

But it’s got some useful quotes for an ongoing project, though, which I dare say will come in handy again if the zombie meme that is the “smart city” stumbles on into the post C19 world… which seems all too likely, given the enthusiastic embrace of privately-provided technological surveillance measures for infection control. What could possibly go wrong?

“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