Category Archives: Social Theory

(failed) states of exception

I’ve been an admirer of Christopher Brown’s fiction ever since I bought a two-handed piece for Futurismic that he wrote with Chairman Bruce (“Windsor Executive Solutions”, which is still up and available to read, amazingly enough). I finally got my hands on one of his recent novels back in the spring, and found myself thinking two things, both of which I attributed in some part to the sort of seemingly serendipitous reflections of one’s own ongoing interests that can emerge from a habitual tendency toward overreading—or, to put it more plainly, the tendency for the things that’s you’re reading and thinking about to leak into each other as your forebrain does its work of pattern imposition.

But sometimes, the forebrain gets it right, as with my instinctive tagging of Rule of Capture as a critical-utopian fiction. Here’s Brown in (machine-transcribed?) conversation with Andrew Liptak in the latter’s newsletter:

I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I’m really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world — from the Enlightenment forward — is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it’s that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitate in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can’t even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that’s sort of the problem it’s trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

“[W]hat would a future you would actually want to live in look like?” is exactly the question that informed the recently-released Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (about which I keep meaning to write in greater detail, now that it’s actually out in the world); to put it another way, I’m trying to port that understanding that Brown describes (and which shows up in le Guin and others, and in utopian thinkers both prior and subsequent to them) into the rhetorics of (social) science communications, in order to get away from the solutionist and information-deficit paradigms of talking about climate adaptation and mitigation and instead describe plausibly flawed futures in which we haven’t fixed everything, but we’ve nonetheless fixed something, even though we’ve likely uncovered more problems along the way. Which we might think of as science fiction with a sense of political economy, as Brown puts it above… which is also by implication science fiction with a sense of history, a discipline with which the genre more broadly has had a rather instrumentalist relationship, in such cases as it has had a relationship with it at all.

The other thing that I thought about Rule of Capture, to the extent of writing it in my margin notes a number of times, was that it was very engaged with the Agembenian state of exception, albeit quite possibly avant la lettre. Elsewhere in this interview Brown talks about the long legacy of the (still ongoing) state of exception instigated as a response to 9/11 in the US, which is the canonical example (and the one which effectively made Agamben’s career, albeit in a way I expect he’d have preferred to have never happened); given his stated interest in political theory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Brown’s at least passing familiar with the same theoretical edifice which, for an assortment of reasons, I was exploring with an online reading group of former colleagues from Sheffield over the summer. Maybe I should just drop him a line and ask him…

Also worth a read is Brown’s recent essay at Tor.com, a slightly more generalist take on the same themes… which offers a polite rejoinder to the blaming of dystopian fictions for dystopian outcomes.

One reason the real world feels yoked to our dystopian imagination may be the failure of other science fictional futures to deliver the goods. The techno-utopian Tomorrowland 20th century science fiction promised us this century would bring turned out to be something much darker. Real life never lives up to the movie version our popular culture and politics teach us to expect. The “End of History” and the birth of the World Wide Web promised us a cyber-utopia of peace, progress and prosperity just around the corner, but the first two decades of the 21st century delivered a very different story, from 9/11 and its dark aftermath to the financial crisis and the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. Now our response to the pandemic has the world looking at the U.S. as a declining nation with some of the characteristics of a failed state. You can’t blame science fiction dystopias for all that, any more than you can blame the mirror for how you look in the morning

Then there’s the novels themselves, which I can confidently recommend on the basis of Rule of Capture alone. Brown’s newsletter is also well worth the sub; less pessimistic than unflinchingly realistic, but leavened with an attentive eye for the environment, as well as hints of that critical-utopian yearning. It’s one of the few newsletters that reliably gets read on the day it arrives in my inbox.

cyberpunkish pontifications

Over the weekend I iterated my Extremely Minor Public Intellectual routine once again, at the invitation of Mark Everglade, who interviewed me as part of World Cyberpunk Day (which is, or at least was, apparently A Thing*).

Mark describes me as “a post-doctoral scholar of sociotechnical futures who works with science fiction tools and ideas to render sociological insights”, and sums up with the claim that “we discuss[ed] utopia, dystopia, cyborgs, and the relationship of technology and culture”, which is about right. Perhaps we should also add that, for all my academic advancements, he’s clearly far better at producing a concise abstract than I am!

[ * Interesting to note that cyberpunk is the genre, or at least the aesthetic, that refuses to die, no matter how much its progenitors might have preferred it to; one could easily be sniffy about what seems to be at least in part a network of self-pub authors and creators keeping the generic ball in the air, but the counterpoint would be to argue that’s exactly what cyberpunk’s musical namesake has managed to do so successfully since the late 70s. Sure, there’s dreadful derivative “punk rock” music still being made, but there’s also plenty of work that draws on the energy, the attitude or the style of that heritage and does something new with it. Seismic echoes, innit? Furthermore the scholarship around cyberpunk is undergoing something of a reconstitution, perhaps because it’s easier to understand it as a historically contingent cultural phenomenon with the benefit of ~35 years of political and sociotechnical hindsight… but also because, gratifyingly for me, there’s a growing sense that what was missed in much of the at-the-time scholarship was an analysis of the infrastructural. While the cyberpunk-as-aesthetic thing is easily dismissed—perhaps a little too easily, given its popular endurance—the ontological and epistemological attitudes that it brought to sf are, I would argue, more relevant than ever. The “speculative turn” in the social sciences, for instance, is as much reliant on cyberpunk’s focus on sociotechnical and/or class relations (a legacy of its inheritance from film noir?) as on, say, the critical utopianisms of the New Wave. The widespread discomfort with cyberpunk’s persistence might thus be tied to the way in which it signals that the neoliberalism in which it was forged is still with us now; to argue that it is somehow to blame for propagating or sustaining said neoliberalism is to displace a complicity that we all carry with us to some extent. Mirrors are always discomforting devices. ]

the pool of potential victims appeared limited

Danny Dorling:

The mortality surge lasted for weeks at the start of 2015. It went up suddenly. In one week in January, as the hospitals became overwhelmed, the number of excess deaths rose from 448 to to 4050, then 3721, 3220, 2408, 1719, 1470, not dipping below 1000 until mid-March. It rose again to 1973 in the worst week in April, and to 1290 in the worst week of June. Had every newspaper been reporting the weekly (never mind daily) figures in 2015, we could even have imagined five waves by the autumn. All those earlier figures were far higher than the autumn of 2015; and – so far – the excess deaths for autumn 2015 are far higher than in autumn 2020. The major difference, of course, is that five years ago there was no talk of the numbers soaring exponentially out of control. The pool of potential victims appeared limited, and didn’t include government ministers, newspaper editors, or most of their voters and readers.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long. Then maybe cycle back and read that thing Ryan Diduck wrote way back in March. Then maybe go read Agamben again, and/or think about bioethics.

The virus is a genuine threat. It’s also been a hugely convenient distraction for those whose careers are entirely based upon having taken advantage of hugely convenient distractions prior to this one. No significant progress will be made on either problem until both are understood to coexist in synthesis.

Meanwhile, the Spectacle continues.

no such thing as nature

A serendipitous find:

Humans have continually altered biodiversity on many scales. We have changed the local mix of species, their ranges, habitats and niches for thousands of years. Long before agriculture, selective human predation of many non-domesticated species shaped their evolutionary course. Even the relatively small hunter-gatherer populations of the late Pleistocene were capable of negatively affecting animal populations – driving many megafauna and island species extinct or to the point of extinction. But there have also been widespread social and ecological adaptations to these changes: human management can even increase biodiversity of landscapes and can sustain these increases for thousands of years. For example, pastoralism might have helped defer climate-driven aridification of the Sahara, maintaining mixed forests and grassland ecosystems in the region for centuries.

This recognition should cause us to rethink what ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ really are. If by ‘nature’ we mean something divorced from or untouched by humans, there’s almost nowhere on Earth where such conditions exist, or have existed for thousands of years. The same can be said of Earth’s climate. If early agricultural land use began warming our climate thousands of years ago, as the early anthropogenic hypothesis suggests, it implies that no ‘natural’ climate has existed for millennia.

A clear-eyed appreciation for the deep entanglement of the human and natural worlds is vital if we are to grapple with the unprecedented ecological challenges of our times. Naively romanticising a pristine Earth, on the other hand, will hold us back. Grasping that nature is inextricably linked with human societies is fundamental to the worldview of many Indigenous cultures – but it remains a novel and often controversial perspective within the natural sciences.

One of the tasks currently on my desk is to put together a lecture on Climate, Culture & Narrative for a Masters module on Climate Change & Society, and I remember clearly how much I was asked to read as a Masters student, and how rarely I had the time (or access) to the full books that were sometimes recommended. So I’ve been looking for decent yet short articles that can fill in some background on the stuff I’ll be talking about… and this piece does a good job of rolling up on the natural/social dichotomy without actually deploying that term (nor the long-running theoretical disputes for which it stands as a synecdoche), so I think I’ll be including it in my list of recommended reads.

(It also adds some dimensionality to James C Scott’s Against The Grain, which I’ve been meaning all summer to re-read, but hahahahaaah, OMG, my personal reading list… it’s the closest thing to imagining Sisyphus happy, I suppose).

In combination these things will all feed into my infrastructural theory work, which might also be thought as as a way of coming at the Anthropocene from a different direction to the usual… though I’m starting to think that I need to put up or shut up on that front, because there’s only so many times you can write on your blog “hey, here’s a thing related to that thing I keep meaning to do” before wanting to give yourself a bit of a slap. It’s like those people who are always writing about the novel they’re going to write, but who never actually write the damned novel… and I was one of those people for over a decade, too.

(On the flipside, that process somehow ended me up where I am now, doing something rather different, so it can’t be all bad, right? But the point stands: if I can’t get this thing out of my head, despite having a whole raft of other equally challenging work that I’m actually paid to do, then the only way to exorcise the ghost is to write the sucker out. Selah—do the work, Raven.)

hauntological metasystemics

I’m cited* in this piece by Kelly Pendergrast at Real Life, but that’s not the (only) reason I’m clipping from it; I’m citing from it because it’s really good, and because it takes ideas from my heretofore most completely ignored journal paper and takes them exactly in the direction I hoped people would take them. So yeah, self-aggrandizement, sure; guilty as charged. But Pendergrast’s point, and mine, is that we’re all in this together—not because some ham-faced PPE graduate thinks saying so might make it so, but because we sprung the trap of cyborg collectivity on ourselves long ago, and are only now really starting to realise it. Therefore, anyone advancing that same understanding should get some signal boost. (Not that I’m much of an amplifier these days, but hey; I had my time.)

And if they come at that understanding through a haunted-house metaphor, well, so much the better:

In the real world of the cyborg collective and its composite parts, the horrors of the house are entirely non-metaphoric. Turn a tap in some parts of Flint, Michigan, and poisoned water still flows out, years after the city’s water crisis became a national disgrace. Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes: black lung, denuded environments, death. Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it.

I love haunted house stories. Their capaciousness holds whole histories of private trauma and Freudian neurosis, and reflects myriad social concerns about the function of the nuclear family and the horrors at its heart. But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private. It may be purchased, and thus legally private property, but it doesn’t stand alone. Through its extending wires, pipes, inputs and outputs, the house (with few off-grid exceptions) is tied up in the cyborg systems of the city and the supply chains and logistical inputs that extend around the globe. Inside the house, the comfort and nurturing care I feel is a product of the infrastructural and sociotechnical systems that rely on the work of many others.

That riff about house-as-property is one that I’ve wanted to follow for a while, but theory work has necessarily taken a backburner while I concentrate on the work I’m actually funded to do… but there’s an interesting counterconceptualisation via the Haraway/LeGuin complex (in that LeGuin suggested the house might be seen as another of her “carrier bags”), and from my mentor and friend Zoe Sofoulis, who has written on container technologies from a feminist standpoint.

Containers and other infrastructures of storage are an interesting wrinkle for my theory, because they seem to break the rule that infrastructures either transport or transmute–but if we consider transportation as a four-dimensional phenomenon, then the container (and particularly reefers, and other forms of storage which preserve as well as protect) does indeed enact a transportation, albeit one with a velocity of zero: storage moves things through time without moving them through space.

(Preserving forms of storage are thus actually decelerative: they slow down the effects of time on that which is stored. When the container itself is then accelerated through timespace, you get an extension of the distance that the stored thing can travel before decaying. This all plugs in nicely to that Marx-via-Harvey thing about infrastructure warping timespace… and, now I think about it, will come in handy as part of a paper I’m currently co-writing on packaging and plastics. Turns out there’s a use to this thinking-out-loud business after all!)

Anyway, enough of my waffle—back to Pendergrast, who is more interested in the increasingly concrete (pun not entirely unintended) political ramifications of that dawning realisation of cyborg collectivity, and also shares some concerns about what Tim Carmody neatly popularised as the systemic sublime:

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” But I get it. And I’ve felt it: the uncanny mystique of larger-than-life steel and concrete power plants, or the gut-drop of standing on the edge of a dam spillway, imagining yourself slipping over and sluicing into the deep canyon of water below. In part, these fantasies of the sublime are a symptom of our alienation from infrastructural systems and the powers that animate them. If it’s not clear whose interests infrastructure serves, and how our own lives and housebodies are enmeshed in the macro systems, the only thing left to do is spectacularize, fetishize, or destroy.

That passage really resonated, perhaps because I’d only yesterday seen the press blurb for a new book by Michael Truscello, in which…

… he calls for “brisantic politics,” a culture of unmaking that is capable of slowing the advance of capitalist suicide. “Brisance” refers to the shattering effect of an explosive, but Truscello uses the term to signal a variety of practices for defeating infrastructural power. Brisantic politics, he warns, would require a reorientation of radical politics toward infrastructure, sabotage, and cascading destruction in an interconnected world.

And part of me is all like “yay, someone’s taking this stuff seriously!”, but the other part is like “uh, I’m really not sure advocating sabotage and destruction of the metasystem is a good move”; I’ll wait until I’ve read the thing before calling it either way, but given the very clear illegibility of infrastructure to the majority of citizens, this is a bit like telling an astronaut to stick it to his boss by poking holes in his spacesuit.

Pendergrast, however, is taking a rather more nuanced look at the same issue:

I want more for us than to spend every precious moment scrambling to arrange childcare or make sure our friends don’t get evicted. Collective care without the collective assemblage of infrastructure is near impossible, so we need to figure out how to maintain the systems that still function, and how to fix the ones that are broken or working against us.

In some cases, pieces of the existing collective cyborg will need to be dismantled. The pipelines that cut across Native land and spill oil onto the prairie: those can go. The highways that slice through neighborhoods, benefiting those on one side of the divide while immiserating those on the other: those can go too, ripped up for barricades and projectiles, “the use of the city against the city, in the name of the city.” Other parts can stay but must be redistributed, brought into collective ownership so the waters and warmth and phone lines are shared equitably and wrested away from the profit motive. Infrastructure is a massive investment, and much of that investment has already been made. To maintain it, to take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day, is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined.

Far from the spirit world of the haunted family house, the housebody and its appendages are earthed and rooted in material space. If the house must be imagined as a womb, perhaps that’s OK: the parent/fetus relationship was never a private relationship either. The parent eats, drinks, connects to the appendages of the collective cyborg, in order to nourish and nurture the creature within.

No surprises with the shout-outs to maintenance; Shannon Mattern has a posse. (And there might be something that could be done with Clute’s notion of Bondage, which is of course a concept from his critical theory of horror… ) But that haunted-house/parent-fetus figuration in Pendergrast’s piece, damn, that’s a work of art. It’s an amazing and humbling thing to see your ideas reflected back at you, but made better.

( Disclaimer: yeah, I know I’m being very loose by putting “hauntology” in the title of this post, even if we think about the post-Fisher understanding of the term… but nonetheless, I think there’s a sense in which the now-betrayed promise of infrastructures as utilities—available to everyone, well-maintained and fairly priced, etc etc—could be argued to be the unacknowledged base layer of all those foreclosed-upon futures. Or, more simply: I can probably make a case for it if pressed, and no one is likely to press for me to do so anyway, so, yeah, it’s staying. )

[ * – I owe not just my awareness of that citation, but the citation itself, to Deb Chachra, whose fastidiousness at attributing her sources is exemplary–particularly in the context of an academia in which, as one has slowly come to realise, such fastidiousness is often the first thing to go overboard in the race for recognition. So thanks, Deb, and thanks, Kelly Pendergrast. You’ve made a marginal theorist feel momentarily good about his work. Thanks also to Jay Springett for sending me the link as well. Something something power of networks something. ]