Category Archives: Sociology

better isn’t best, but

Sean Guynes drops his second of two essays on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. If it’s a book you know, or if it’s a book you simply know of, I recommend this piece wholeheartendly—and on that basis, the rest of Guynes’s Le Guin re-read to come at Tor.com. (And if you haven’t even heard of it, ehrmahgehrd get yourself a copy and fix that right away.)

I’m clipping this bit in particular, though, because it’s such an elegant and eloquent summary of an argument I’ve been pushing for more than half a decade, and intend to push for the rest of my forseeable:

If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Yes, exactly this. And now is a moment in which we need to remember and rehearse that attitude more than ever.

the arcade fire

A long ol’ piece on Walter Benjamin’s magnum opus by Apoorva Tadepalli at Real Life. It’s the sort of epic longread that merits at least a second thorough go-thru (and has as such been stashed away to that end), but this bit leapt out as being Relevant To My Interests, as the old meme used to go:

Benjamin was fundamentally opposed to anything nearing history as a linear presentation, as development or progress: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” he famously wrote in his “Theses on the Concept of History.” That the Paris arcades were long past their heyday when he began writing was no obstacle; perhaps it was even the point. The assembled fragments give us a way of reading history by collapsing time; they create the “dialectical image,” or the meaning that is generated in the sudden moment of insight that makes history recognizable in the present. Fashion, for instance, is one of the central ways Benjamin explores this dialectical image of collapsed time: style, the most transient of all markers, is forced by mass production and exploited labor into an “eternal return,” forever offering modernity.

This immersion in the ruins of history as a way of “telescoping the past through the present,” as Benjamin wrote, has political importance: It is a way of situating oneself under the spell of the enchanting material, and experiencing history in all its contradictions, rather than trying to deny it through the theoretical approach to historicism that Benjamin’s colleagues advocated. Benjamin writes of the need to “rescue” history with a “firm, seemingly brutal grasp,” to physically wrench it through time in order to clearly see the present; readers of his work today would have to do the same.

I was reading Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss back in the autumn (and somehow never quite got round to finishing it, for an assortment of reasons, not all of which were time-related); even therein it’s pretty clear that, for all the intellectual originality of the Frankfurt School crew who survived the war, the loss of Benjamin was a great tragedy. He was something quite singular, even among that gang of highly singular minds.

I’ve had a hardcopy of the Project since buying it for my Masters back in 2011/12, and then being scared off by its bulk; maybe it’s time to make a project of actually reading the thing? After all, it’s no larger than the Fisher collection from Repeater, and probably more amenable to a daily randomised-and-rationed reading approach…

a metrics of labour other than time

Very interesting long paper by Matteo Pasquinelli; going back through Marx’s notion of the general intellect, he shows that none other than yer man Babbage theorised computing systems not only as a concretisation of labour but a crystallisation of preexisting biases in the workforce. Everything old becomes new again.

… the distinction between manual and mental labour disappears in Marxism because, from the abstract point of view of capital, all waged labour, without distinction, produces surplus value; all labour is abstract labour. However, the abstract eye of capital that regulates the labour theory of value employs a specific instrument to measure labour: the clock. In this way, what looks like a universal law has to deal with the metrics of a very mundane technology: clocks are not universal. Machines can impose a metrics of labour other than time, as has recently happened with social data analytics. As much as new instruments define new domains of science, likewise they define new domains of labour after being invented by labour itself. Any new machine is a new configuration of space, time and social relations, and it projects new metrics of such diagrams. In the Victorian age, a metrology of mental labour existed only in an embryonic state. A rudimentary econometrics of knowledge begins to emerge only in the twentieth century with the first theory of information. The thesis of this text is that Marx’s labour theory of value did not resolve the metrics for the domains of knowledge and intelligence, which had to be explored in the articulation of the machine design and in the Babbage principle.

Following Braverman and Schaffer, one could add that Babbage provided not just a labour theory of the machine but a labour theory of machine intelligence. Babbage’s calculating engines (‘intelligent machines’ of the age) were an implementation of the analytical eye of the factory’s master. Cousins of Bentham’s panopticon, they were instruments, simultaneously, of surveillance and measurement of labour. It is this idea that we should consider and apply to the age of artificial intelligence and its political critique, although reversing its polarisation, in order to declare computing infrastructures a concretion of labour in common.

not oppositional, but negatory

An interview with M John Harrison by Jonathan Lethem, done earlier this year at Festival Internacional de Literatura de Buenos Aires; scroll down for the (original) version in English. (Hat-tip to the man himself for linking to it.)

I recall joking to a colleague a few years back that part of me wished Harrison wrote social theory rather than science fiction. The real joke being upon me, of course, in that he kind of always-already has been writing social theory:

The breaking of forms came later, out of a desire to test the limits and traumatise the reader’s assumptions about what a story is. I deliberately refused plot and closure. I bricolaged one genre or form on to another. I asked questions like: What would happen if I took the horror out of a horror story but left everything else in? I was concerned with doing damage to the foundational structures of fiction (causality, linearity, “character development”, etc), not to game them on behalf of fresh “twists”, or to toy with readerly expectations in the traditionally “experimental” ways. (Experimental Modernism is by now, after all, a genre of its own. It’s as old and over-developed as sci-fi, divided into easily-recognisable subgenres. There are rules to follow, textual markers to be laid down, easter eggs to be hidden for the knowing reader.)

[…]

People talk about science fiction as if it’s an end-product, an aim in itself. (In fact that’s almost a definition of the difference between genre SF and SF written from outside the genre: in the latter, “SFness” is a secondary product.) But for me SF isn’t a kind of content—it’s a vehicle, which on one day might be ideal for my purposes, and on another quite useless for them. I’m a writer: my voice and my concerns are what count, not that I write science fiction (or literary fiction or any other genre). I don’t, these days, make much of a distinction between genres. You choose one or another because it gives you the best chance to manage and present the themes of the story. Or, if one alone won’t do, you pick and mix. Every story an act of bricolage. Soon you find you have a voice of your own, and you want people to read for that, not for the nearest genre it resembles.

[…]

Personal agency is the great obsession of our day: the more you lack control over your life, the more you are likely to believe you’re in charge of it. Advertisers and ideologists are happy with that: they’re happy to mirror back to you to the sense that you are indeed the centre of the universe, the heroine of the story. If my characters come back from the heroic journey at all, they never come back bearing useful gifts–because I don’t believe anyone ever does. If people didn’t have Joseph Campbell’s artful wish-fulfilment fantasy to place them at the centre of events and keep them enchanted with their own reflection, they might dump their wish to be princess of all they survey, and instead channel their dissatisfactions into making a better world for everyone.

Of both academic and artistic interest to me here is the way that Harrison seems to be reaching toward the same rejection of the heroic that interested Le Guin… but rather than taking her path of showing non-heroic routes into futurity, he’s littering the supposedly heroic structures with trapdoors, deadfalls, monsters that turn out to have been mirrors. This is not a dystopian project, exactly, but it’s definitely not a critical utopia either… and this is why I’m not sure that KSR’s Greimas square of utopia is quite right. Because if the critical utopia occupies the bottom leftmost position (which KSR labels anti-anti-utopia), then there’s something useful and under-explored in the bottom rightmost position (which he labels anti-utopia).

I realise it’s more than a bit bold to call out Jameson’s most famous student for not using the Greimas square properly, and I really need to go back top the primary sources myself in order to truly get to grips with it. But if Felluga is not too far wrong in his reading, the Greimas square is exactly about transcending the simple oppositional binary of pro- and anti-; the lower positions are not opposites (not antis) of the upper, but (to quote Felluga quoting Jameson) “are the simple negatives of the two dominant terms, [which] include far more than either: thus ‘nonwhite’ includes more than ‘black,’ ‘nonmale’ more than ‘female'”.

So by that token, KSR’s square should instead read (clockwise from top left) as follows:

  • utopia
  • dystopia
  • not-utopia
  • not-dystopia

Seen this way, the critical utopia stays in position at bottom left (the not-dystopia — including, as suggested above, far more conceptually than the dystopia it negates). It feels to me, then, that Harrison’s writing occupies that bottom-right corner, the not-utopia — because the entire point is that it is conceptually far richer than the utopia it negates. Harrison’s not-utopias undermine the utopian precisely by exceeding it, by showing the tangle of unfinished infrastructures and unfinished buildings behind the fakeries and false promises of its glossy yet flimsy hoarding…

the conditions of credibility

Steven Shapin, with the — OK, with an STS perspective on “post-truth” at LARB:

The problem we confront is better described not as too little science in public culture but as too much. Given the absurdities and errors abroad in the land, it may seem crazy to say this, yet the point can be pressed. Consider, again, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaxxers, and the creationists. They’re wrong-headed of course, but, like the Moon-landing deniers and the Flat-Earthers, their rejection of Right Thinking is not delivered as anti-science. Instead, it comes garnished with the supposed facts, theories, approved methods, and postures of objectivity and disinterestedness associated with genuine science. Wrong-headedness often advertises its embrace of officially cherished scientific values — skepticism, disinterestedness, universalism, the distinction between secure facts and provisional theories — and frequently does so more vigorously than the science rejected. The deniers’ notion of science sometimes seems, so to speak, hyperscientific, more royalist than the king. And, if you want examples of hyperscientific tendencies in so-called pseudoscience, there are now sensitive studies of the biblical astronomy craze instigated in the 1950s by the psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky, or you can consider the meticulous methodological attentiveness of parapsychology, or you can reflect on why it might be that students of the human sciences are deluged with lessons on The Scientific Method while chemists and geologists are typically content with mastering just the various methods of their specialties. The Truth-Deniers find scientific facts and theories shamefully ignored by the elites; they embrace conceptions of a coherent, stable, and effective Scientific Method that the elites are said to violate; they insist on the necessity of radical scientific skepticism, universal replication, and openness to alternative views that the elites contravene. On those criteria, who’s really anti-scientific? Who are the real Truth-Deniers?

[…]

When science becomes so extensively bonded with power and profit, its conditions of credibility look more and more like those of the institutions in which it has been enfolded. Its problems are their problems. Business is not in the business of Truth; it is in the business of business. So why should we expect the science embedded within business to have a straightforward entitlement to the notion of Truth? The same question applies to the science embedded in the State’s exercise of power. Knowledge speaks through institutions; it is embedded in the everyday practices of social life; and if the institutions and the everyday practices are in trouble, so too is their knowledge. Given the relationship between the order of knowledge and the order of society, it’s no surprise that the other Big Thing now widely said to be in Crisis is liberal democracy. The Hobbesian Cui bono? question (Who benefits?) is generally thought pertinent to statecraft and commerce, so why shouldn’t there be dispute over scientific deliverances emerging, and thought to emerge, from government, business, and institutions advertising their relationship to them?

A chewy report from the trenches of epistemology. Go read it all.