Category Archives: Social Theory

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]

the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete

Procrastinating this morning by catching up on a stack of as-yet-unread newsletter emails from L M Sacasas. This bit in particular, from 11th March, chimed with a lot of my recent early-morning thinkings-through of The Ongoing Situation:

… it is curious to note again the recent proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, something I’ve previously attributed to the failure of authoritative public institutions and narratives, or, to put it another way, to the collapse of common sense in Arendt’s use of the phrase, as an experience of the world held in common. But now I want to suggest as well that conspiracy theorizing is something like a mannerist manifestation of the detective story. The detective story genre is often characterized as a characteristically modern production in its insistence that even the most heinous and mysterious aspects of human experience can be neatly and adequately addressed by the persistent application of empirical reasoning. Conspiracy theories are simply detective stories that are quite obviously trying too hard, or, to keep with the literary theme, protesting too much, in the face of their increasing implausibility.

So, where does this leave us. I began by asking why this virus had taken on such an eery, disconcerting quality, why it had unnerved us so profoundly. Curiously, as many have observed, one of the recurring features coronavirus discourse is emergence of two camps: those who are accused of panic and those who are accused of reckless nonchalance. The more some appear to “panic,” the more others double down on their cavalier indifference. These reactions, however, are not necessarily opposites as much as they are two very common modes of coping with the same distressing realization: the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete. The unpredictable, the unknown, the incalculable, the capricious aspects of our experience will always be with us. The conquest upon which we have staked our hope will never be complete. And each phenomenon that makes it impossible for us to ignore this fact will mess with our heads and trouble our hearts.

As Sacasas also did, I will state here for the record that this is not in any way to diminish or dismiss the very real challenge and threat of the pandemic. I will further note that our both feeling the need to point that out is a phenomenon entirely tied up with the dynamic of distress that Sacasas is discussing above.

the caricature of a time that is no longer ours

Oncle Bruno on the radical ecological potential—or perhaps the lack thereof— of the current moment:

The originality of the present situation, it seems to me, is that by remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture. Including the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes – not to mention the migrants who, by definition, cannot be secluded in any home of their own. But this caricature is precisely the caricature of a time that is no longer ours.

There is a huge gulf between the state that is able to say “I protect you from life and death,” that is to say from infection by a virus whose trace is known only to scientists and whose effects can only be understood by collecting statistics, and the state that would dare to say “I protect you from life and death, because I maintain the conditions of habitability of all the living people on whom you depend.”

[…]

… there is another reason why the figure of the “war against the virus” is so unjustified: in the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity! But this does not apply to all humans, just those who make war on us without declaring war on us. For this war, the national state is as ill-prepared, as badly calibrated, as badly designed as possible because the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us. It is in this sense that the “general mobilization” against the virus does not prove in any way that we will be ready for the next one. It is not only the military that is always one war behind.

I keep trying to sit down and write about those extended police powers which, as they’re explained to me by friends and loved ones back in the UK, are scaring me way more than the virus, and to some extent more even than its economic aftermath; from my point of vantage in cautious and (seemingly) hyper-rational Sweden, it’s dizzying stuff. But my mind keeps sliding off the sheer, glassy enormity of it all; I can’t grip it in a way that gives me any analytical purchase. The last time I felt like this was the London riots of 2011. That seems a lifetime ago now.

Maybe Latour is right, and there’s no promise in the pandemic of a better state response to the environmental crisis. But that assumes a continuity of the state as currently constituted, and right now the continuity of any major institutional form seems like a pretty long-odds bet. What’s different now by comparison to 2011 is that the TINA doctrine of neoliberalism has been shown to be the fiction it had always been. I am obliged to believe that’s an opportunity for change, in order that I might work as if it is.

archaeology of prestidigitatory production

A short Doug Rushkoff riff that chimes with my extended infrastructure-as-stage-magic metaphor:

The industrialist’s dream was to replace [workers] entirely — with machines. The consumers of early factory goods loved the idea that no human hands were involved in their creation. They marveled at the seamless machined edges and perfectly spaced stitches of Industrial Age products. There was no trace of humans at all.

Even today, Chinese laborers “finish” smartphones by wiping off any fingerprints with a highly toxic solvent proven to shorten the workers’ lives. That’s how valuable it is for consumers to believe their devices have been assembled by magic rather than by the fingers of underpaid and poisoned children. Creating the illusion of no human involvement actually costs human lives.

Provision ex nihilo. The seemingly magical product or service always sells better. Rushkoff points off in the direction of the metamedium, too:

While people once bought products from the people who made them, mass production separates the consumer from the producer, and replaces this human relationship with the brand. So where people used to purchase oats from the miller down the block, now consumers go to the store and buy a box shipped from a thousand miles away. The brand image — in this case, a smiling Quaker — substitutes for the real human relationship, and is carefully designed to appeal to us more than a living person could.

Infrastructure as a metasystem is complicit in its own effacement. Its purpose is not only to enable our prosthetic consumptions, but further to obscure their consequences by displacing them in timespace. It is the veil that capital draped over Gaia, the entangled cause and effect of the social/natural dichotomy.

an almighty crash in the heart of the form

Lovable Marxist granddad David Harvey, getting in there early on neoliberalism’s final Wile E Coyote moment:

… contemporary capitalist economies are 70 or even 80 percent driven by consumerism. Consumer confidence and sentiment has over the past forty years become the key to the mobilization of effective demand and capital has become increasingly demand- and needs-driven. This source of economic energy has not been subject to wild fluctuations (with a few exceptions such as the Icelandic volcanic eruption that blocked trans-Atlantic flights for a couple of weeks). But COVID-19 is underpinning not a wild fluctuation but an almighty crash in the heart of the form of consumerism that dominates in the most affluent countries. The spiral form of endless capital accumulation is collapsing inward from one part of the world to every other. The only thing that can save it is a government funded and inspired mass consumerism conjured out of nothing. This will require socializing the whole of the economy in the United States, for example, without calling it socialism.

When I’ve mentioned this to other people over the last week or so they’ve pointed out—quite rightly—that “there are still other choices They could make”. Of course there are! But few of them, if any, are unlikely to end in anything short of mass deaths and some sort of violent insurrection. As such, the race is likely already on to find a way to rebadge in an acceptable manner the socialization that Harvey predicts, while building in assorted sunset clauses and escape hatches for capital and its minions.

Which means that, for those of us on the other side of the fence, the race is on to block those bolt-holes. This is the Last International, comrades—because there won’t be another chance like this, if indeed there’s any more chances at all.