Category Archives: Social Theory

ecocultural theory top ten of the Teens

Not sure where I saw this one, but Adrian Ivakhiv has done a round-up of the ten best books on ecocultural theory of the Twentyteens. Fairly pleased to note that I’ve read two of them (both of which are actually in the top three—that’ll be Tsing’s Mushroom and Saint Donna’s Staying With the Trouble, for the record), and have three more of them on the shelves at my office, waiting to be read (Latour, Clark, Morton). The honourable mentions list is also full of gems, one of which I’ve read and two more of which are in the TBR queue.

So it looks like I’ve now got another dozen or so titles to requisition in the new year… and a new (or rather quite old, albeit new-to-me) blog to follow. Lovely!

(Worth noting that Ivakhiv has not mentioned any of his own titles at all, many of which look pretty interesting in the own right.)

Lana Swartz, payment as media

I watched this LCC guest lecture by Lana Swartz as a livestream about a month back, and glad to see it’s finally made its way out to public availability. The basic argument is right there in the title of this post—payment as media—but I wholeheartedly recommend anyone with an interest in the usual theoretical thematics of this blog to take the time to watch it, because the detail is rich and fascinating:

It’s also nice to see a smart and successful scholar who takes the same cram-in-as-much-material-as-possible approach to talks like this as I do myself; here Swartz tears through a huge amount of territory, and I struggled to keep up with my note-taking. Now of course I can rewatch at leisure… but I’ll also be requisitioning the book, which sounds like it will be an utter goldmine for Planritningen research.

stop press: technologist spontaneously (re)invents postmodernism

Matt Webb thinks through the map’s mediation of the territory. I don’t mean to whale on Webb here, to be clear, as he’s by far one of the more enlightened and well-intentioned thinkers in that space. But nonetheless this is a salutory reminder that, sociologically and philosophically speaking, the tech world is lagging the leading edge by around half a century.

the reason for this pilgrimage

Clipping this primarily because I suspect it will make an excellent case for thinking about the mirrorscreen idea I was kicking around earlier this week:

I visited an elaborate recreation of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in a French grotto in 1858. A narrow footpath led through a forest to a candlelit statue of the Virgin in a shallow cave. The scene was illuminated by dozens of telephone screens that floated in the gloom like devotional candles.

Hanging back, I watched a strange ritual unfold among the men attending a weekend Catholic retreat. They formed a line in front of the statue, and when the first man knelt to pray, he handed his telephone to the man behind him, who would photograph him praying. After the man finished his prayer, he retrieved his phone and reviewed the image. The next man repeated this process as he knelt before the statue. The photo had become the meaning, the reason for this pilgrimage to kneel before a simulation of the appearance of a ghost.

I can’t remember when or why I started following James Reeves’ blog, but I’m glad I did. I suspect he’d be the first to point out that it’s not exactly been a torrent of cheer over the past twelve months—but hey, there’s not been much to be cheerful about, has there? Nonetheless, Reeves has the knack of making a sort of imagistic poetry out of the fears and anxieties of the moment, and in a strange way it’s been one of the most comforting windows on the USian experience that I’ve looked through this year… perhaps because it’s a reminder that, beyond the panic and rage and fingerpointing, there are still people quietly thinking and reflecting on things, no matter how tragic or difficult.

So thanks, James, for letting us follow your thoughts this way. It’s made things a little less lonely for me, and I hope it has for you, too.

the ubiquitous fictionality of narratives of futurity

Doing that thing where one quotes a famous and respected person saying things one has been saying for years, in the hope that it’ll be more palatable coming from someone famous and respectable. Once again, it’s yer man KSR, of course:

All attempts to speak of the future are science fiction stories, and thus bound to be wrong. The polling done for the recent election, which turned out once again to be notoriously wrong — that seems weak and unprofessional until you consider that in evaluating the present to suggest what will happen in the future, polls too are science fiction stories, so it shouldn’t be surprising when they get it wrong. The future just can’t be predicted. Anyone who says they can do that is operating some kind of scam, even if they believe it themselves. In finance, for instance, you have futures markets; these and many other financial instruments gamble on predictions, and of course try to hedge their bets, being so uncertain. Once you have to put your money where your science fiction story is, the uncertainty gets very obvious.

I made this claim in one of my earliest papers (co-written with Shrin Elahi), and I still get push-back on its supposed universalism now; most people seem willing to accept that some narratives of futurity are fundamentally fictional, but anything that retains a sheen of quantitative science and/or technological magic—finance being a prime example—has a rhetorical tenacity which is incredibly hard to shake off.

But the advantage of having had the claim accepted for publication (though not without some classic “Reviewer B” vitriol, mind you) is that I’ve been able to refer back to it for re-use in subsequent work. If you’d like to do the same, you’d be very welcome! And if you want a gloss on this particular claim from the author themselves, allow me to state it as succinctly as possible: any description of a chain of events whose timeline extends into time which we have yet to encounter—regardless of medium, authorship, political intentionality or moral position—is a fiction, and can be critiqued and analysed as such.

(Ironically, that paper picks up a fairly regular stream of citations, but rarely for this particular claim, and quite frequently for claims upon which it has no bearing at all. Academia, amirite?)