Category Archives: Sociology

an appropriately unheroic spirit

Nice chewy essay by John Farrell at LARB, on the long-running philosophical ding-dong between utopianism and what he calls the “literary-heroic worldview”.

… the transition to modernity, with its focus on economic rationality, has only changed the terms upon which status is distributed without assuaging the basic competitive drive that animated the literary culture of the heroic. The humanitarian program of the Enlightenment moderated but could not extinguish that drive, and tellingly, in the mid-20th century, the breakdown of capitalism brought back the protagonists of the ancient quarrel in nightmarishly magnified forms: Soviet communism and its imitators — the disastrous implementation of the classic utopian scheme — and fascism — the delusional resurgence of its heroic enemy.

[…]

The abundance of our current world has by no means deprived literature of its dystopian ingredients, only given them more scope. Ideal world-making, the original utopian flourish, has now been absorbed almost entirely by its dystopian rival. In the terrain of the imagination, dystopia has swallowed utopia whole, and Americans seek refuge from their comfortable lives in spectacles of primitive violence like The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones. The heroic mode has even shed some of its masculine bias, producing female action heroes like Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing in the direction of our current politics casts the outlook for dystopia as anything less than promising.

[…]

The heroic-aristocratic literary mode, along with its economically driven successor, indulges the need for distinction to excess and distributes distinction unfairly, while the rational utopian mode seeks to eliminate this need altogether. One is chronically inhumane while the other verges on the inhuman. Both are still with us.

I have a lot of thoughts in response to this piece, but I lack the time to develop them fully at the moment. The main thing is that Farrell’s take here seems to confirm, or at least support, my own ongoing argument that the classic (and/or technological) modes of utopian thinking are as much a trap as the heroic/hierarchical worldview to which they set themselves in opposition; therefore a path to futurity must be found between those two points, a path that refuses to relinquish the possibility of societal betterment while also refusing to believe that perfection is achievable, while further acknowledging the inevitable failure of any such project without taking that as an excuse not to try. Those of you following along at home will recognise that formulation as my own reading of the critical utopian mode, building from Moylan and Levitas and others.

Also interesting is his observation that dystopia has “swallowed utopia whole”, which, following the implicit mapping of utopianism as a leftist (or at least leftish?) project and the literary-heroic as rightist, approaches the ongoing muddling of political valences from an interesting new angle: as Levitas has observed, while the right ostensibly scorns utopianism, it is in fact engaged in utopian speculation all the time; meanwhile the left struggles to find a utopia it can bring itself to believe in, and increasingly resorts to borrowing the tropes of the technological utopia to patch the holes (cf: Fully Automated Luxury Asteroid-Mining, solarpunk &c — all well-intended and admirable, yet all completely dependent on one or more unexamined externalisations and/or sf-nal moments of pure handwavium). The problem in both cases is the assumption that utopia is a blueprint — a destination, rather than a direction of travel. A noun, rather than a verb.

I’m reminded also of Rebecca Solnit and Donna Haraway’s channeling of Le Guin’s quiet, determined insistence on the rejection of the heroic narrative, which we erroneously assume to be a sort of gold standard in storytelling primarily because a powerful and influential man once told us it was.

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(I would note that I reject any suggestion that the critical utopia is a centrist compromise. Centrism is the doctrine of doubling down on the status quo, doing nothing which has not already been done. In this sense it’s the mildest form of the conservative utopia, which is distinguished by locating its “good place” in the past rather than in the future: centrism locates its utopia last Tuesday, just after lunch. The critical utopia, by contrast, locates utopia as being perpetually beyond the temporal horizon — it will not, cannot be reached. But it can be approached, one step at a time. It can be oriented and re-oriented toward.)

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Finally, and only in passing as a note-to-self: as part of a small reading group, I’m about 3/5ths through Spinoza’s Ethics, and this passage in Farrell’s piece has allowed me to situate that work in the larger philosophical schema.

The philosophical critique of the heroic worldview, in the thinking of Plato and the various Hellenistic schools (Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics), depended essentially upon a rational reassessment of human needs and values which rejected the notion that fame and the violent struggle against other human beings can be the chief source of happiness or the purpose of life. Living according to nature, not to be better than others or to survive as a fantasy in the minds of others, is the keynote of Greek philosophical ethics. Wisdom is seeking tranquility instead of glory, leisure instead of wealth, personal well-being instead of familial status. Social and political ambition are to be replaced by the contemplation of truth, the pleasure of discussion with friends, or the peaceful detachment that comes from accepting the limits of our knowledge. Philosophy’s goal is to overcome the turbulence of the body, with its carnal and competitive urges, and to preserve the health and balance of the psyche. Wisdom looks to the joy of the present, not the glory of past and future. In all of these ways, philosophy offered a pointed alternative to the heroic mode.

Spinoza was, whether he realised it or not, rehabilitating a Hellenic ethics for the early Enlightenment. (This may well be an extremely banal observation to anyone with a formal education in philosophy, but to this bootstrapper, it’s something of a lightbulb moment.)

C̶h̶a̶r̶m̶ offensive

Will Davies on Bozo’s ascent:

Advertising, dating back to the late 19th century, brought a more scientific perspective to a similar challenge: how to produce an affective bond between a mass public and a product. A key difference is that advertising is primarily focused on the future (what will this product be like, what difference will it make to me and my life?) whereas nationalist communication is heavily focused on the past (great victories, sources of identity, origin myths). Nevertheless, the two became synthesised in the twentieth century with wartime efforts to boost ‘morale’, which aimed at increasing solidarity and enthusiasm (things that become increasingly important as warfare engages more non-combatants and involves aerial bombing).

[…]

The neoliberal era that followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary order generated additional types of psychological influence. The neoliberal political system and ideology emphasises that all situations are uncertain and competitive, and it is therefore up to all decision-makers – states, firms, investors, job-seekers, parents, students – to adopt a responsible, enterprising and flexible mentality, in approaching a fundamentally unknowable future. This makes impression management (especially impressions of the future) an essential technique at all scales of decision-making. Intuition and instinct become crucial cognitive tools, and targets for persuasion.

Worth reading the whole thing; not a cheerful piece, but then it’s a piece about the weaponisation of cheerfulness, so, yeah. The point about the futurity of advertising melding with the nostalgia of nationalism feels intuitively relevant to my own work, though I’m not quite sure yet where it fits; possibly as support for my minor-key riff about conservatism being distinguished by its utopias being located in the past rather than the future.

I’m still stunned by that Sun front page. Not that they’ve ever gone much beyond crude nursery-wall-mural appeals to a carefully nurtured demographic of subliterate manchildren… but even so it’s somehow shocking to be reminded of just how literally infantile the political discourse in this country still is.

Nudge, hold, spin

Via Andrew Curry, some sort-of-good news: if you’ve ever suspected, as I certainly have, that the marketing industry is locked into a perpetual arms race with our ability to realise when we’re being marketed at, then the news that “behavioural scientists” (also known as shills) are starting to worry that “nudges” (also known as dark patterns) baked into commercial website design strategies are actually becoming counterproductive. Turns out that cynically treating people as manipulable money-dispensers and/or metricised attention machines makes people cynical about your motives. Who could have foreseen etc etc? *eyeroll*

Bonus points for this closing paragraph, with its disharmonic mixture of aggrieved intellectual nobility and incipient panic:

We should also consider our responsibilities as we use behavioral interventions. Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole. We owe an allegiance to the public, but also to each other.

Translation: guys, tone it the fuck down, you’re blowing our collective cover!

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

[…]

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.