Category Archives: Social Theory

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.

no ists for this ism

Interesting squib here from Matt “Xenogothic” Colquhoun, highlighting a section of a Reddit of a discussion on accelerationism, and his description of the absurdity of identifying as an accelerationist:

As far as I see it, there’s no such thing as “being an accelerationist” because there’s nothing I can do to impact the process of acceleration. It is something that is happening to us already (and has been for centuries) rather than something I can do. It’s naive to think any of us have our foot on the throttle of global capitalism. In that sense, “accelerationism” is a bad name. “Hauntology” is a better term for the political impact of the process but it’s also just as misunderstood.

This reminds me strongly of arguments I’ve had over the past decade with Old Futures Men who would huff and puff about the damage wrought on the culture (or the academy, or whatever else it was that was annoying them that day) by “postmodernists” (which is the slightly more self-aware and/or intellectual conservative’s synonym for “Cultural Marxists”), which seemed to indicate little other than a complete unfamiliarity with any postmodern theory whatsoever, save its caricatured form (“Moral relativism! They’d have you believe that nothing is true, and that there’s no grounds for comparison between any set of beliefs or actions!”) as encountered in media outlets catering to a demographic unsettled by the increasingly obvious obsolescence of the certainties with which they were raised. (Which was always a pretty piquant irony when dealing with people who defined themselves as futurists.)

The point being: for the most part, though with some notable exceptions, postmodernist thinkers were not advocating for a doctrine of postmodernity so much as they were attempting to describe the contours of a new cultural condition that had been assigned that (unfortunate and contentious) moniker. As such, I’m tempted to see accelerationism as Colquhoun sees it — which, I concede, may not be a universal conception of that term — as being a condition rather than a creed, in the same sense that postmodernity was a condition rather than a creed; in both cases, the conditionality may suggest certain stances in response, but that’s a very different thing to waving a flag that says “postmodernity, yay!”

(I wonder, then, if accelerationism might be the term to replace the awkward placeholder terms of “post-postmodernity”, “altermodernity” etc. Given Colquhoun’s closeness to the thought of Mark Fisher, it might also be seen as the dialectical successor to capitalist realism… which, one might argue, is what the coronavirus pandemic is currently killing off.)

go beyond the injunction of innovation

An interview with the principals of the Design Friction atelier:

When we teach Design Fiction or Speculative Design in schools, as many design educators have certainly heard it before us, there is a common misconception among students about these types of design postures. Since Speculative Design productions aren’t for sale, it would mean there is no practical nor professional application. We disagree.

In fact, without epiloging on the difference between problem-solving – the current dogma in design education and training – and problem-framing, we believe the latter is crucial regarding current emergencies and crises, climate breakdown being the first one of them.

In this sense, we think an applied Speculative Design (or Design Fiction) – with all our sincere apologies to the ones who will faint after reading this oxymoron – is especially well suited for public organisations. This approach might help NGOs and civic movements in their advocacy actions to help in highlighting preferable perspectives or revealing the consequences of the status quo […]

Speculative Design or Design Fiction also might support local or national governments, as well as state departments, to build future-proofed and more-than-human-centred policies. Speculative Design and Design Fiction go beyond the injunction of innovation, as creating and maintaining the public goods and the commons requires long-term thinking and radical alternatives. These forms of design are both a complement to Service Design, growing in public innovation programs, and a counterpoint to the limited and limiting perspective of “user-centric” design, that is inflating in the public realm.

Pulling this out as a quotable riposte to the inevitable “well, it’s just critique masquerading as design, isn’t it?” complaints… SD/DF approaches are going to form an important part of my work in the years ahead, and thus I assume I’ll find myself making that argument about social goods many times over.