Category Archives: Reading Journal

“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?

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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.)

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.