Category Archives: Social Theory

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.

p250

Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

accumulations (three different ones)

So much chewy material in this genuine monster of an Evgeny Morozov essay at New Left Review. Absorbing it fully would likely take a number of re-reads, not to mention a greater familiarity with the literatures and debates he’s navigating here; as such, to the only precis I can offer is Morozov’s own, from near the end of the piece:

The ultimate irony here is that the best evidence that ‘accumulation via innovation’ is—like capitalism itself—still very much alive, can be found in the same technology sector that Durand writes off as feudalist and rentierist. We can see as much when we abandon the overdetermined macro-narratives of these analytical frameworks—be it Harvey’s ‘neoliberalism’ as a political project or Vercellone’s ‘cognitive capitalism’. Thinking of technology firms the way Marx would have likely thought about them—that is, as capitalist producers—surely yields better results.

But the bit I wanted to clip here for my own (and I suppose rather narrower) uses is this:

… if the ‘political’ was so instrumental to the constitution of the ‘economic’, one might as well ask just what is gained by presenting capitalism as a system that keeps the ‘political’ and the ‘economic’ apart? That capitalists and their ideologues talk that way is one thing; the extent to which this is an accurate description of what actually occurs under capitalism—the thesis of Woods’s article—is another. Here one is reminded of Bruno Latour’s quip that modernity speaks with a forked tongue: it says that science and society are poles apart—but this strategic confusion is precisely what allows it to hybridize them so productively. It may be that the story of the political and the economic under capitalism is very similar.

My ears always prick up when someone invokes Oncle Bruno—naturellement!—but that’s an analogy which could come in very handy, even (if not particularly) when working with Latour’s own writings.

In other news, this week I’m waving-not-drowning (or so I hope) in the riptides of Swedish academia’s Eastertide grant application season, and fretting over poor L____’s being holed up in a mid-tier Manchester hotel for the next six days, thanks to her having started to exhibit C19 symptoms on the first day of a conference. She’ll be fine, I’m sure, but of all the places to ride out a nasty virus, that’s pretty low on the list.

haunted by (hopeful) futures

The great pleasure of following Adam Roberts’s blogging—once you’ve gotten past the minor frustration of finding that he’s upped sticks and moved to another domain and/or platform for whatever he’s currently driven to write about—is watching him try out ideas, throw together a hypothesis, then start poking it to see if it holds up.

Latest case in point: do the ghost stories of Dickens mark a shift in the way in which fiction thinks about futurity? It’s quite a chewy idea, and you should read the whole thing if you’re curious, but this is perhaps the crucial part of the argument:

By the end of the [19th] century, most notably with the variegated futuristic fictions of H G Wells, the notion that the future would be in substantive ways different to the present had bedded itself into the emergent genre, such that it is — now — a core aspect of science fiction’s many futures. Nowadays ‘futuristic fiction’ simply comes with the sense, baked-in, that the future will be different to the present, not just in the old utopian writing sense that a notional 1776, or 1789, will usher in a new form of social justice and harmony (according to whichever utopian crotchet or social-reform king-charles-head happens to be yours), but that change will happen across multiple fronts, have intricate and widespread ramifications. That the future will be a different country, they will do things differently there.

[snip]

What I’m trying here is to see, by laying it out, whether there is a argument of some significance that can be established. Does it begin with Dickens? So, to strike the keynote again: in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1765) Scott’s ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ (1824) or Pushkin’s Queen of Spades (1834) the present is haunted by the past, as is the case in most ghost stories. But in Christmas Carol and ‘The Signal-Man’ the present is haunted by the future.

I am not anywhere near sufficiently well-versed in C19th fictions to have an opinion worth hearing on this theory, but it’s interesting nonetheless—particularly as Roberts ties his proposed pivot (in part) to the concretised-modernity of the railways in “The Signal-Man”, and as y’all know well by this point, infrastructure as a cultural and political force is totally my jam.

I will also include this earlier part of the argument, for reasons of resonance which will become clear:

Through the early nineteenth-century plenty of books were set in ‘the future’, many of them utopian works in the Mercerian mode like Vladimir Odoyevsky’s The Year 4338 (1835) and Mary Griffith’s Three Hundred Years Hence (1836). But alongside this ‘new’ version of futuristic fiction was a vogue for a second kind of futuristic fiction, secularised (to some extent) versions of the old religious-apocalyptic future-imagining. […]

We might style these two modes of imagining the future as spinning ‘positive’ (utopian) and ‘negative’ (apocalyptic) valences out of their futurism, but let’s not. That would be clumsily over-simplistic of us. I’m more interested in the way the two modes feed into one another.

Again, no prizes for intuiting my interest in this part of the piece, and it will be interesting to see how (if?) Roberts collides the axes of utopia/apocalypse with haunting-pasts/haunting-futures. But it also chimes nicely with a little bit by Warren Ellis (who I’m very glad to see blogging once again):

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

Nothing theoretically novel in that, perhaps, but it’s a very succinct way of stating one of the major threads of post-Moylan critical utopianism. As someone caught awkwardly between the positions of critic and author—and, some would say, not really covering all the bases on either pole; Roberts is a hard act to follow on that front, and not only because he’s so terrifyingly prolific—it’s satisfying for me to find statements from someone firmly in one camp (in this case, Ellis as author) that map clearly to statements from the other.

Because, contrary to the cliches, this theorist is pretty keen on seeing how theory plays out in practice…

we’re all gnostics now

At tQ, scathing words from Darran Anderson on the ongoing rehabilitation of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber:

… there is no group anywhere on the political spectrum that is not gnostic now. By which I mean, that every single position from furthest left to ‘moderate’ centre to furthest right believes they are the sole possessors of hidden conspiratorial knowledge, and that every other position are dupes. All are anti-establishment now, including the establishment. All are mavericks and rebels, especially those who prop up the status quo. That’s not to say that there is moral equivalence across the board but when every party believes it has uniquely awoken or been [insert colour]-pilled, we have to accept that the Spectacle has absorbed the very idea of escaping the Spectacle. To put it another way, we escape Plato’s Cave and are celebrating our liberation in another cave, perhaps one where we make the shadow puppets but a cave nonetheless. Or to put it another way again, as the sideshow trick goes, the most credulous marks are the ones who think everyone else is a mark.

I find it hard not to agree with Anderson, here, though that troubles me for two reasons. The first is that while I deplore his methods, I can understand Kaczynski’s choice of path, and have some sympathy with Evan Malmgren’s recent piece at Real Life, which I think does a better job of getting at why Kaczynski retains his cultural cachet than does Anderson:

Popular media accounts try to have it both ways, condemning Kaczynski’s terror campaign while elevating his otherwise derivative critique of technology, all while leaning into the bombings as an audience draw. In retreading Kaczynski’s story again and again, they merely underscore his provocative contention that violence was, in fact, an effective means of getting industrial society’s attention.

While Anderson is scathing about the manifesto as well as about the methods, he’s still caught in the cycle Malmgren identifies: deplore his methods as we might, indeed as we must, that we are obliged and driven so to do remakes Kaczynski’s point, which is that violence cuts through the Spectacle in a way that nothing else does.

My second concern is that Anderson seems to be taking aim at specific nihilistic positions from a more generalised nihilism, which is (as I understand it) a contradiction inherent to leftist readings of Nietzsche—which is not to say that Anderson is drawing on Nietzsche here, so much as to say I recognise something of Anderson’s “everyone now claims to be a rebel, and it is by pointing this out that I implicitly become the true rebel and transcend the dialectic” vibe in my own thinking, as well as in ol’ Friedrich. It also feels like the flipside, or at least a phenomenon closely connected to, the paradox of tolerance, which is bugging me in the context of a book I’m reading for review, and the more general issue of epistemology, not so much in the specific Foucauldian sense of the term, but in the more general sense that it’s being used in the literature on teaching and learning in higher education that I’m encountering in an ongoing course.

All of which may amount to little more than the pattern-imposing lobe of what passes for my brain doing a more active job than usual at trying to make connections between things that I just so happen to be encountering at roughly the same time… but there may be something more to it. I guess we’ll see what (if anything) falls out here over the days ahead.

a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history

I was yesterday years old when I learned (courtesy David Higgins’ Reverse Colonization, which I may write about directly if time allows) that David Harvey—yes, that’s Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey™—can count among his many achievements having been a minor contributor to Mike Moorcock’s run at New Worlds, where he published a piece of fiction and an editorial on (among other topics) entropy.

Higgins’s discussion of Harvey’s NW stuff reminded me of one of Harvey’s better-known academic contributions, namely the notion of “time-space compression” as a function of capitalism, which is implicated in the emergence of the postmodern condition. I’ve been meaning to look that up for a while now, not least because I’ve assumed it’s related to a few underdeveloped squibs that leapt out at me during my (rather tormented and difficult) first attempt at scaling the mountain of Uncle Karl’s Grundrisse; these asides concern what Marx referred to as “the means of communication”, but which we would probably now refer to as (yes, you guessed it) infrastructure.

In lieu of actually getting hold of and reading Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change (because hahahah, OMG, I have waaaaaay too many things to do and read for me to consider adding another one to the queue at this point), I dug out this retrospective piece by Natalie Melas at the Post45 collective, which sets the book alongside the (much better known) Fredric Jameson works on the postmodern. These excerpts, however, are more concerned with Harvey’s distinct notion of time-space compression, because it’s of greater and more immediate relevance to my work. Clip the first:

The signal contribution of Harvey’s argument is the analysis of “time-space compression” in which capitalism, as he puts it, “annihilates space through time.” The way global space shrinks in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it is one basic index of the time-space compression, but the term also points to “processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.”5 Harvey specifies several “rounds” of time-space compression in the history of capitalism. These time-space compressions are prompted by alterations in “the objective qualities of space and time,” but their ramifications are an alteration not only in our experience but also in our representation of the world. Representation is the key vector in Harvey’s analysis that allows for the intersection of visual art, film, architecture, urban planning and other modalities of postmodern culture.

No points to VCTB regulars for guessing that I’m about to make the point that the medium of time-space compression is infrastructure; this is a media-ecological argument, in that it extends the notion of “media” from the lay understanding (i.e. newspapers, radio, TV, internet) into the material distributive systems through/across which those representational media are (re)produced. The equivalence goes the other way, as well, in that we can think about, say, water treatment and distribution systems as a sort of system of representation and communication… and that also means that the use of the term “abstraction” in the civil engineering discourse around infrastructure suddenly has a very interesting (i.e. alarming) doubled meaning.

Again, I need to read the actual book to be sure, but I strongly suspect that there’s support in Harvey’s thinking for my own argument that the metasystem (a.k.a. concrete infrastructure, pun very much intended) is always already the metamedium, which is to say it is the screen upon which the Debordian Spectacle is projected. Clip the second:

For Harvey, as for Jameson, the postmodern time-space compression gave on to a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history at least in its dialectical form. Our own moment, under the pressure of ecological crisis, seems instead preoccupied by a futurity bound to the consciousness of a geological time scale, a scale that utterly dwarfs historical epochality.13 The extinction of homo sapiens, along with other animal and plant life, is persistently knowable but unrepresentable, no less so than the aesthetic problematic of globality in postmodernism that Jameson describes and names the “postmodern sublime” at the end of the eponymous essay in Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism. Is there a distinct rupture between contemporary discourses on environmental catastrophe and the thematics of postmodernism, or is there a hidden continuity, or both?

Meanwhile, the questions of (un)representability that Melas is poking at here seem to me to be the same questions that Latour has been wrestling with in the last few decades, albeit from a very different direction… and that loops me back to the Higgins book, in a way, because it quite rightly defends postmodern critique against the accusation that it is somehow to blame for the soi disant “post-truth” phenomenon, but nonetheless (perhaps unavoidably?) sustains the Foucauldean reification of ideas like “power” and “neoliberalism”, which Latour would argue are black boxes which must be opened and explored as the perpetually renegotiated networks of relations that they are. Indeed, Higgins’s final chapter, on a lesser-known Chip Delany trilogy, kind of makes the same point… but it does so with(in) the paradigm of postmodern critique, and so carries through what Latour (and, increasingly, I) would describe as the (well-intended) limitations thereof.

So, yeah—some useful connections here. We’ll see how time allows for me to write more about the Higgins, because it’s an interesting book in its own right, as well as a demonstration of the limits of certain critical apparatuses.