Category Archives: Reading Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(p. 243)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aesthetic & ethical urbanisms”: Dobraszczyk (2019), Future Cities

  • Dobraszczyk, P. (2019). Future Cities: Architecture and the Imagination. Reaktion Books.

Good, passionate arguments here from my friend Dobraszczyk, making a case for future urban imaginaries as a necessary component of our collective coping with an uncertain future. Note his explicit disavowal of the predictive mode, and the arguments in favour of the imagination as not only (ultimately, eventually) productive of more realistically liveable cities, but also as a kind of ideological prophylactic against totalitarian ideologies. (Thus we might see Paul’s proposals here as a defence mechanism to be deployed against the totalising and black-boxing corporate narratives of “smartness” described in Sadowski & Bendor, 2019.)

Cities are always a meld of matter and mind, places that we are rooted in both physically and mentally […] rather than cleave the imagination from reason, should we not explore how the two are entangled – how together they can open up rich possibilities in terms of how we think the future?

(p. 8)

Here Dobraszczyk realises what has become a familiar truism of science fiction criticism: “Images of the future [as in science-fictional cities], no matter how fantastical they may be, are really about the present” (p. 8); I’d go further, and argue that the more fantastical the vision, the closer to the zeitgeist are the deep truths contained within.

… we now experience London as a product of Dickens’s texts [thanks to many years of Dickensian tourism opportunities… a] similar transference of imagined to real is now happening in the Blade Runner tours currently being offered to tourists in Shanghai.

(p. 10)

Against the hoarding render and the maquette: “Architectural visualization – especially in the digital age – relies upon images as tools of persuasion that effectively present something that is essentially a speculation, a fiction” (p. 10); Dobraszczyk notes that there’s often an absence of affect or feeling in these images, as they attempt to paper over “the gap between fantasy and reality”, but that absence “alerts us to the difference between fiction and fact, between the world as we find it and the world as we wish it to be.” (p. 11)

Noting the way in which the Burj Khalifa echoes an old Frank Lloyd Wright proposal for Chicago from the grand era of USian skyscrapers: “Past precedents will always be important because they almost always form the basis for more recent urban plans, no matter how unprecedented they may seem” (p. 11); see also, IMO, the way in which the “smart city” with driverless cars recapitulates the classic Futurama exhibit, in function if not in aesthetic.

“We must recognise that the imagination is key in how we ‘pre-experience’ alternative futures – how we can prepare ourselves for what might be coming. [These efforts] will not be primarily predictive – believable outcomes based on what we know already – but rather a range of stories that allow us to feel what it might be like to live in the future.”

(pp. 13-14)

“… humans need narrative to make sense of a whole range of possible outcomes that can never be predicted with any degree of certainty”; here, Dobraszczyk is advocating a “story-based approach to imagining the future [which] encompasses the metaphorical, the ethical, the aesthetic and the speculative.”

(p. 14)

Linking out to Latour, A-NT and flat-ontology positions more broadly, in the context of ecological crisis: “In thinking of buildings and cities as primarily about connections, we can open our minds to an almost infinite array of possibile futures for them – futures that will be defined by how we connect up all manner of things […] such futures can never be predictive, but they can empower us because they will release us out into worlds beyond ourselves.” (p. 15) That last phrase being perhaps the most concisely poetic argument in favour of object-oriented thinking I’ve encountered in quite some time.

Finally, an argument for the imagination amid the shared contexts of fictions and imaginaries as capable of fostering a radical resilience beyond the banal socioeconomic and/or post-disaster “bounce-backability” that the term tends to devolve to in planning discourses: a shared narrative of futurity, even when contested, “forges a link between how we imagine the future city and how we relate to it as a real place”; promoting and defending an “ecology of the human mind”, which is “vital in resisting the tendency of contemporary capitalism – or any dominating worldview – to constrain the human imagination […] imagination is already politicised because, as a faculty that only flourishes when set free, it inherently resists such subjugation”; the result is a radical conception of urban resilience that extends to a sort of plural political collectivity, akin to an ideological immunisation against totalitarian/authoritarian visions. The shared notion of the very possibility of possibility acts against its pre-emptive foreclosure by fascism, sort of thing… though I should probably note that Dobraszczyk doesn’t actually drop the f-bomb himself, here.

Sadowski & Bendor (2019), Selling smartness: Corporate narratives and the smart city as a sociotechnical imaginary

This one’s a doozy; does exactly what it says on the tin, on the basis of a deep and comparative dive into “smart city” documentation from IBM and Cisco. A useful extension of Jasanoff & Kim’s “sociotechnical imaginary” concept into the corporate mythmaking space, too.

… while some definitions identify the smart city with its technical infrastructure, the smart city is not equivalent to any single technology or collection of technologies. The sensors, networks, and algorithms associated with the smart city could be deployed in other settings and contexts. What makes them “smart city technologies,” therefore, is neither strictly technical (pertaining to functionality, instrumental causes, or driven by efficiency) nor entirely social (produced by specific actors, reflecting particular incentives, or embraced by certain institutions). Smart city technologies become smart city technologies only by association with the idea of the smart city and the narratives, logics, practices, and symbolism of which it is constituted. As a consequence, the smart city can be seen as both a container for innovation and a yardstick for evaluating innovation.

(p. 541)

… these documents [from IBM and Cisco] comprise a narrative according to which the smart city appears inevitable, the only reasonable response to an impending urban crisis. At the same time, since the smart city as an “actually existing” sociotechnical assemblage is still nascent, we argue that the smart city is an anticipatory vision—even a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a set of orienting assumptions and operationalizable propositions about urban planning and development.

(p. 542)

… the smart city is a field of struggle over the political imagination. We should think of these corporate discourses as tools for directing and delimiting what we can imagine as possible. As this paper shows, IBM and Cisco do not set out a suite of scenarios that represent radically different visions and politics. There are variations of the services they offer, but rarely do they deviate from reflecting and reinforcing the technocratic and neoliberal precepts that motivate this vision of smart urbanism [… their] aim is to establish their version of smartness as the future—the only one available or possible.

(p. 544)

By seeking to dominate the discursive field and capture the imagination of city leaders, IBM and Cisco aim to ensure that alternative smart city imaginaries remain effectively closed off. It follows that if we are to open the space for alternatives and counter-imaginaries, then we first need to understand the principles and attributes of the dominant imaginary as a way of better knowing what needs to be challenged and how.

(p. 545)

Given this overall crisis-based framing, we can read the smart city as a reactionary story, and not only the ultimate manifestation of techno-utopian thought. To be sure, those utopian elements are still present, especially in the dreamscapes of smart cities that are built from scratch on empty plots, networked and sensored from the outset. Yet, when we consider the smart city as a piecemeal project of securing against an impending catastrophic future, it begins to take shape as a conservative project in which the best course of action is to pragmatically maintain stability and to technically control uncertainty…

(p. 550)

For tech corporations and city leaders, the sociotechnical imaginary of smart urbanism promises control over myriad urban dynamics and then outlines ways to make that dream come true [… ] the city ceases to be a messy, unknowable, and uncontrollable place. Urban elites can imagine themselves possessing a panoptical power…

(p. 552)

It is important to recognize that the language of “solutions”—like that of “smartness”—is more than just an idle label. [refs out to Bogost and Morozov re “solutionsim”; cf. also James Bridle’s “computational thinking”] By recasting everything as a problem waiting for a techno-fix, especially issues that are social in nature, the space for philosophical reflection and political contention shrinks. Furthermore, in effect, the solutionist language works backward: for those in the business of providing solutions, solvable problems are essential. The crises are tailored to justify the solutions, and the latter come in different forms and guises.

(pp. 552-3)

Three main implementation styles of the “smart city”:

By far, the most common “actually existing” smart cities are those that are retrofitted and renovated with upgrades that transition them from “dumb” to “smart.” This usually starts with one or a few initiatives meant to address a specific problem, such as parking or public safety.


Then, there is the “shock therapy” method of implementation—or what we call smart shock—in which a city undergoes a quick, large-scale integration of smart urbanism ideals, technologies, and policies into an existing landscape. In these cases, the smart city transition happens to a greater degree and over a short time period. Smart shocks are much rarer than retrofits because they require much more financial and political capital. [e.g. Rio de Janeiro]


Perhaps the most idealistic models for the smart city are built-from-scratch projects that are being constructed where nothing existed before. A canonical case is New Songdo in South Korea […] These model cities are more like showcases for the technology’s potential: why just tell customers about the smart city with a pamphlet, when you can show them the imaginary in tangible form?

(p. 554-5)

The smart city is a dynamic future-in-the-making. It is an exemplary case of how corporations, not just state actors, actively construct sociotechnical imaginaries to advance their own ends. While it is true that the corporate model is an offshoot of a deeply rooted political economic regime, we must not mistake a contingency for inevitability, despite IBM and Cisco’s efforts. In this vein, reframing and reimagining smart urbanism must involve creating counter-narratives that open up space for alternative values, designs, and models…

(p. 557)

Media archaeology with dirty hands: Mattern (2017), Code and Clay, Data and Dirt

  • Mattern, S. (2017). Code and clay, data and dirt: Five thousand years of urban media. U of Minnesota Press.

This is an exemplary introduction chapter for many reasons, and one of things I admire most about it is the tone: it’s critical of the “smart cities” memeplex, without a doubt – framing the book’s project as, in part, asking ‘how the quantifiable aspects of urbanity come to delimit our conception of what an “ideal” (productive? liveable? resilient?) city can be’ (p. x) – but it’s not at all strident or hectoring, which is something I’d like to emulate going forward (having realised that a legacy of my early socialisation in toxic masculinity is a tendency to be a bit fighty and prolix in my academic and critical writing).

Also admirable is the deftness with which Mattern scopes out and targets the disciplinary project at hand: the targets, as hinted above, are urbanists, futurists, civic planners and politicians, and their tendency to sell the latest Next Big Thing as a paradigmatic and innovative shift in the very conception of the urban, when in fact for the most part it’s usually a reinvention or iteration of something almost as old as the notion of the city itself.

‘Recognising the “deep time” of urban mediation, urban historians will ideally be incentivised to reevaluate their prevailing theories about the birth of cities, which ten to privilege economic explanations for urbanisation, and to pay greater attention to the central role played by media and communication in urban history.’

(p. xxv)

It is one of the responsibilities of ‘urban and architectural designers and engineers of all stripes […] to make provisions for a layering of communicative infrastructures old and new, made of both ether and ore, data and dirt’.

(p. xxvi)

Most important to my own work, however, is Mattern’s patient delineation of a media archaeology that takes the “archaeology” part seriously. So it’s not an archaeology in the Foucauldian sense, or at least not exclusively so – but nor is it the processual archaeology of yore, obsessed with its own fantasies of scientism, nor the romanticised (and often orientalist or otherwise othering) form that all too easily ends up as fuel for theme parks and/or dubious nationalistic heritage narratives. But it is figuratively and literally about the excavation of media, about digging up and digging around the media of the past:

‘An archaeological sensibility prompts us to shift our focus from ‘real-time’ data-streams and various speculative ‘futures’ […] toward the longue durée within which those presents and futures take shape.’

(p. xxvii)

That particular citation was both a gratifying and frustrating find: gratifying because it describes pretty accurately what I was trying to do with my doctoral research, and frustrating because it shows there to have been a whole discipline already aimed somewhat in that direction, of which I was almost completely ignorant throughout said doctoral research… though in my defence, doing that research in an engineering department made the likelihood of my discovering its existence through peer recommendation pretty slim.

(Indeed, I learned very early on not to mention the McLuhanean notion that infrastructure could be studied in the same way as media. By comparison, even the flat-ontology social theory I ended up wading around in was considered much less heretical. Hell knows how much more of a fight it would have been to say what I wanted to say if I’d come out as a full-bore media-studies type…)

So I find myself thinking that I can adapt Mattern’s arguments for media archaeology in defence of a related (or perhaps subordinate) discipline of infrastructure archaeology, which is pretty much what I’ve always thought I was doing anyway. Now, as previously hinted, Mattern’s thinking is avowedly McLuhanean (see p. xiii) in that “media” and “infrastructure” are considered to be categories with considerable analytical overlap, if not necessarily commensurate; I don’t want to untangle that at all, but I do want to make a case for a very specific approach to what I term the “concrete” infrastructures – the most basic distributive/transformative systems of provision that underpin other civic systems.

(For a first stab at a formal definition of the “concrete infrastructure” concept, see Raven, 2017; this is an analytical/methodological privilege I’m trying to extend, rather than an ontological one, and will get another fresh outing in a paper for this year’s RGS conference..)

This means that a lot of Mattern’s statements can be adapted to my purposes without any need for heavy translation or remapping (though there are some cases where she uses “infrastructure” in a way that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to do). Here’s a real winner:

‘We can be more attuned to the uneven spread of networks and infrastructurally distributed resources, uneven rates of technological development and commitment to maintenance, and diverse systems of ownership and control…’


What a gift of a quote! Particularly for someone who rails repeatedly at foresight types for the misuse of the Bill Gibson unevenly-distributed-future riff. But here’s another:

‘We in media and design studies need to recognise our objects of study as situated, embedded in particular material contexts, and activated by their interactions with people and non-human actants – other media, other infrastructures, other creatures and things – in those environments.’

(p. xxx)

Obviously the use of “situated” links neatly to the well-known Harawayian riff, which has been a constant in my personal literature since encountering it via the Situated Systems project, which was enacted by a group of friends and colleagues whose work has been pretty much as formative upon me as Saint Donna’s.

But the uppermost of the two quotes above is the culmination of a few short paragraphs which effectively demolish the entire determinist strand of the (Sustainability) Transitions (Management) literature (pp. xxviii-xxix); if I’d had this book two years ago, the lit review in my thesis would be at least two whole pages shorter, if not far shorter still. Combine it with the other quote above, and you get a neat sketch of a radical and critical paradigm for thinking sociotechnical change as embedded in timespace. (One might argue that Mattern’s framing makes it more specifically an urban thing, but I’d counter that “the urban” is just a label we have for a poorly-defined but nonetheless tacitly specific density of infrastructural development.)


A few quotes pulled for a specific piece of writing that I’m working on at the moment, in which the “smart city” is in the crosshairs:

‘This datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city: those data are harvested, cleaned, flitered, analyzed, rendered visible and intelligible and actionable via an assemblage of media, from sensor to screens, smartphone apps to building management systems.’

(p. ix)

‘Are we to believe that urban designers, administrators, and advocates were not attending to such communicative and quality-of-life concerns before they had the quantitative means to do so – and that such data-driven formalist or behaviourist approaches are better than old-fashioned formalism and behaviourism? Are we to presume that Big Data and the “science” of urbanism make everything better, that citizens are better served when their agency is tethered in part to their functions as data points?’

(p. x)

[claims for evidence of “smartness” in] ‘the urban genome […] all the way back to ancient Rome, Uruk, and Çatalhöyük’ (p. xi); ‘our cities have been smart and mediated, and they’ve been providing spaces for intelligent mediation, for millennia. That intelligence is simultaneously epistemological, technological and physical: it’s codified into our cities’ laws and civic knowledges and institutions, hard wired into their cables and protocols, framed in their architectures and patterns of development.’

(p. xii)

‘Evangelists of our always-already-new media have long promised that new technologies would alternatively allow cities to sprawl luxuriously into disparate wire-linked nodes, or concentrate intensively into clusters of crystalline towers or close-knit communities united by the audible voice. Those media technologies would either render cities obsolete or, alternatively, drive them to their utopian apotheosis.’


‘We can assert that the means of communication – whether the voice, the printed page, or cellular networks – have also shaped cities throughout history, and that those cities have in turn given form and vitality to their media. Cities and media have historically served as one another’s “infrastructures”.’

(p. xxv)


That sure is a lot of pull-quotes, given that I’ve only taken them from the introduction! But damn, it’s a fine piece of work: well-written, timely (both for my personal context and more broadly), and calmly assertive. Mattern joins my personal pantheon of thinkers – a dubious honour, perhaps, but nonetheless she’s in good company there.

Ballard (1962), The Drowned World

I thought I’d read this before, many years ago, and perhaps I did – the handful of dog-eared pages in my paperback copy suggest someone read it, though perhaps I acquired it second-hand. Or perhaps I buried my memories of reading it, whether deliberately or unintentionally? That would certainly be a Ballardian response to a Ballardian text. But usually when I reread a book I first read long before, chunks of it will produce a sense of deja vu-esque familiarity, and I got none of that from The Drowned World – which is surprising given how often I’ve read critical or theoretical work which references it. Selah.

The story is less about Kerans and his self-thwarted urges to head south than it is about the attempts by Riggs (representing Continuity Civilisation’s last attempt to shore up its militaristic and hierarchical order in its Arctic redoubt and somehow BAU itself into a future which has now been foreclosed upon) to keep control of any viable space and/or knowledge left free of the encroaching waters, and the attempts by Strangman to roll back the clock just far enough to reclaim the ruins as a playground in which to re-enact the barbarisms that Continuity Civilisation had long suppressed. I’m by no means a scholar of Freud, but I wonder if one might see Riggs as the superego and Strangman as the id, leaving Kerans to stand for the ego retreating into a state of redundancy and collapse… eh, probably not. Indeed, trying to map any particular theory onto this book is probably a mistake, as it’s as much a map of Ballard’s own theory (and his own unconscious) as anything else, by the author’s own admission.

But then again, that may be too easy an escape route – for how unconscious was it really? Ballard’s obsession with the themes of the reversion to barbarism, solitude, and solipsism amid the collapse of a previously rigid hierarchy is perhaps too consistent and well-established (not to mention clearly signposted time and time again outwith the texts in question by the author himself) to be as unconscious as he claimed them to be. That’s not to negate the power of their insight, to be clear; rather, it serves to highlight the fascination and loathing that the spectacle and experience of social collapse held for Ballard, manifest as a longing to escape into a solitary and self-sufficient annihilation while the world wound itself down around him… a longing perhaps less held in abeyance by the act of writing than it was manifested through it.

It’s a feeling I recognise quite clearly – not just the supposed (and, realistically, false) liberation of running away into the lawless and abandoned ruins, but the longing for the contextual excuses for doing so, for the moment at which one can give up on the perpetual struggle between order and chaos that is human affairs and eke out your last days in the punctuated quietude of the interstices, knowing yourself to have been fooled or seduced by neither side in the struggle, dependent on no one but yourself. Of course, I may very well just be projecting myself into an equally fictional authorial-intention-space, here, over-identifying with the author because I’m too cynical and trained at over-reading to identify with the text itself… but then again, maybe not? Ballard’s endless and relentless return to those formative images and experiences may preclude his own claims of their unconscious origins, but it in now way precludes their being the engine of his art. And while my own experiences were never so drastic or violent as his, I have in common with Ballard the experience of an “expatriate” childhood, the gradual dethroning of parental authority, competence and power, and an exposure to the arbitrary and contradictory whims of hierarchical authority. We both saw just how thin the veneer of civilisation really is, and the hypocrisies which prop it up; perhaps then it’s no surprise that we share the urge to leave it all behind, to enact a refusal of both stasis and entropy, despite the knowledge that our knowing is a function of the privileges afforded us by the very system that so revolts and fascinates us.

(And perhaps that urge to walk away is more widespread than we would like to admit, too, even if the moderating awareness of privilege is not. As has been remarked many times before now, there’s something deeply Ballardian about Brexit in general, and in particular the almost rabid fixation on the no-deal exit option that currently reigns among its most fervent disciples… perhaps to them the EU is Riggs and the Arctic settlements struggling to manage their own decline, and Strangman the depredations of a more nimble and rapacious form of capitalism that doesn’t square with the old (“noble”, imperial/paternal) form? Perhaps then walking southward into the floodlands beneath the blazing sun, cognizant and fully accepting of one’s inevitable doom, is the only dignified way to refuse either option… there’s something very Captain Oates about it, and indeed about this whole sorry shit-show of imperial nostalgia. As such it worries me that I identify with that solipsist-annihilation urge in Ballard’s characters, because they are more often than not distillations of anxieties that, while not particular to the British middle classes, are nonetheless endemic to them; I was raised in Brexitland, and despite all my conscious efforts, that deep architecture may never be fully expunged.)

The Drowned World doesn’t so much reach a climax as it finally permits the possibility of the ending that’s signposted clearly from the very start, and then repeatedly deferred. (Another Brexit parallel, amirite?) The obstacles that prevent Kerans from following through on the urge to head south into the sun are not external so much as they’re his internalisations of the external: he’s clinging to a vestigial sense of the appropriate, and perhaps to the last shreds of fear that prevent him from embracing a fate that is finally made concrete when he discovers the necrotic Hardman on his journey southward. The implication is that he will continue southward, in the hope (if not the expectation) that other may follow, as indicated by his scratching out a message with his pistol-butt. This is traditionally read as being a pessimistic and dystopian conclusion, but does it have to be? Perhaps we can imagine the inevitable Hollywood coda wherein Kerans limps into some enclave of sun-baked refuseniks eking out an existence on berries and iguana meat, reproducing just fast enough to beat the mortality rates and allow the inevitable mutations to ensure that some of the next generation make it through to repopulate the new, hot, wet world… but that’s not just scientifically unfeasible, it’s also a betrayal of Ballard’s entire literary project, I think. His refusenik characters are proxies for himself, to some extent, but they’re also necessities of narrative mechanics: the irrationalities of both “civilisation” and “barbarism” can only be exposed as such from the alienated perspective of the outsider, the character given the privilege of choosing either side who nonetheless chooses neither.

It bears noting at this point that Ballard’s portrayals of Strangman’s piratical crew are seriously racist, using hackneyed stereotypes of blackness and mixedness as a shorthand for a form of barbarism characterised by the ease with which it might be directed by a more “civilised” captain. (While it provides no excuse whatsoever, it’s interesting to note that Strangman is portrayed as an avatar of extreme whiteness not merely in contrast to his crew, but also to Riggs, Kerans and the others, albeit to a lesser degree.) This aside, the consistent othering of blackness all through the book makes it very hard to like or praise, even as I can recognise its historical importance and influence… indeed, its largely unquestioned position as a foundational element in the proto-canon of “cli-fi” probably needs a sustained and critical examination on that basis alone. Many have made comparisons between The Drowned World and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but that comparison cuts two ways: much like Conrad’s novel, this one is badly tainted by the institutionalised viewpoints of its author.