Category Archives: Sociology

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.

p250

Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

a position of negligible influence

Given my line of work, I should probably be among the many people who scour the latest missives from the IPCC as soon as they drop. My reasons for not doing so are two-fold. Firstly, I’m very short of time, and scanning 800+ pages of written-by-committee material in order to confirm the details of what I already know to be the general case is not a productive use of the time I have.

Secondly, I’m aware that the bit that actually gets read by anyone other than the scientific community—the tellingly-named “executive summary”—is bowdlerised to such an extent that it effectively negates the effort of the main report. It’s depressing to have that knowledge reconfirmed, but it is at least heartening to see that the fact of that bowdlerisation—and the people who are involved in making it happen—is starting to become somewhat newsworthy in itself:

Unlike the research-heavy chapters, which are controlled entirely by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government representatives from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in the history of the IPCC. According to leaked reports, representatives from Saudi Arabia in particular argued for multiple references to carbon capture and storage and the watering down of language on shutting down fossil fuel production.

Oil company representatives were also included in this process as both authors and editors of the report, which has been the case since the IPCC began. For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco – Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company – was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. A longtime Chevron staffer was also the review editor for the chapter on energy systems.

Fellow academics sometimes take me to task for my flat-out refusal to cater my work to audiences in the policy and business sectors; this is exactly why I stick to my guns. The revolving door between those two assemblages means it’s wasted effort.

Better, then, to build a mandate from the ground up by understanding the social side of the problem. Which is what many of us are trying to do… but while I was aware that the distribution of resources for that struggle were unevenly distributed, to say the least, the numbers are even worse than I would have guessed:

Social scientists hoping to make further inroads into not only the IPCC process, but policymaking more broadly, have a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Dana Fisher, director of the program for society and the environment at the University of Maryland and a contributing author to chapter 13. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking.

“We have insufficient funding to support the sort of large-scale research that enables you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in the report.

Less than 1% of research funding on climate from 1990 to 2018 went toward social sciences, including political science, sociology, and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.

Less than one percent. In the accounts of most big firms, that would be considered a rounding error, hardly worth a footnote. Which is exactly how most social scientific research on climate change is treated in the IPCC reports, funnily enough.

But like I say, perhaps our relentless messaging is paying off a little bit; we make that <1% work pretty fucking hard, after all.

“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

To see someone publicly knocking the information deficit model—which was already discredited in medical science by the mid-1980s, incidentally—is always nice; to see it coming from a representative of one of Wild Billy Gates’s foundations borders on cognitive dissonance. Gates’s projects are, unsurprisingly, profoundly solutionist in their approach to the issue, due to solutionism being a load-bearing plank of the paradigmatic episteme; it’s not malice, it’s just the way people think about these things in this period of history. So for one of his people to be talking about the problematic sustainment of power relations is therefore kinda weird, though I’m confident that Breakthrough Energy has some palatable pretzel logic through which “not needing any more climate science” converts neatly to “unquestioned roll-out of disruptive and innovative solutions from the private sector”. Which is to say: they’re still working on the info deficit model, but in a way that builds on the expertise of the tech sector for selling solutions. Everyone’s aware of the problem; a market has been created. The opportunity which recognises itself is doing what it does best, unable to confront the possibility that its self-recognition is the root of the problem it’s trying to solve.

Ah, well—there ain’t much point in bitching. The only thing to do is to do the work… though sometimes a bit of bitching into the aether is what you need to be able to pick up your shovel and wade into the sewers once again. Selah.

How to map nothing: Shannon Mattern on geographies of suspension

Back on 27th January, the UCL faculty of the Built Environment (virtually) hosted a seminar talk by the mighty mighty Shannon Mattern; a little more than a week ago, they uploaded a recording of said talk to A Popular Video-sharing Platform. This is that video, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly; I will not sully you or demean Prof. Mattern by trying to summarise it, because while I certainly took notes, the sheer volume of ideas in this thing—which naturally speaks very much to the concerns of The Ongoing Situation, while also being relevant to the world which preceded it, and the one which will succeed it—is quite astonishing*. (All the more so, given it was apparently conjured up out of little more than a vague thematic idea in the fortnight preceding its delivery.) So, enjoy!

[ * — Also because, frankly, I’m so behind on things I’m meant to be writing, or in some cases meant to already have written, both for other people and for myself, that I can’t presently justify the couple of hours that it would take to rewatch this, return to my notes, and do it justice. So just watch it, y’know? ]

gastric culture / mundane noise horror

There are lots of reminiscent reflections (and some predictable bafflement) in this MeFi FPP-thread responding to the recent un-deletion of the KLF’s back-catalogue, almost thirty years after the event… but this one was an interesting enough image that I wanted to clip it for posterity (if only my own):

I sometimes wonder whether pop isn’t a kind of digestive fluid, which makes challenging lumps embedded in popular culture more easily ingestible by capitalism.

comment by Grangrusier [MeFi user]

Should be digestible, really, but the point is well made nonetheless. Also in that thread are links to various bits of online KLF and Discordian lore (including at least one OCR’d samizdat version of the infamous Manual, which I would have killed for a copy of back in the day), and to a recent interview with Bill Drummond that suggests the un-deletion may have been a matter of financial necessity, as the guy’s developing early-onset dementia.

(I presume that pretending that to be the case might be a prank too far even for Drummond, but I suppose we’d all be fools to totally rule it out, on the basis of prior activities.)

This was a timely but not entirely unexpected trip down memory lane for me. It’s not unexpected because, as both reader and writer, I’m well aware of the anniversary-driven nature of pop-culture reflection content, and been thinking for a few years that we were soon to hit a seam of retro content that coincides with my own cultural coming-to-awareness, namely the early 1990s. The KLF are a fine synecdoche for that, being that they were both highly visible to my peers at the time, and almost universally loathed by them in a way that was not the case with much of the supposedly more “alternative” or obscure stuff I started to listen to around the same time. (Admittedly that lack of contempt may have been born of literal ignorance, but still: the point is, I loved the KLF, my peers thought me an idiot and a naif for doing so, and I didn’t understand why, given that my love for, say, Daisy Chainsaw was blithely priced into what was perceived as my baseline cultural maladaptation.)

And it’s timely because I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to start writing about the music that shaped me—though less because I think I have anything to add to the critical consensus on the music itself, and more because I want to make sense of the person I became (or began to become?) during those years, as soundtracked by that music. Growing up in a household where music, or at least an engagement with music as something more than audio wallpaper, was not really A Thing, I started my proper journey into music rather late in life; I recognise the sense of blindly stumbling into something epochal going on in 1991, much like the author of this bit at Louder Than War, but he was eleven, and I was thirteen. Furthermore, I have come to realise in recent years that while music was hugely important to me in my adolescence, my engagement with it was a bit weird and different to that of my peers, for an assortment of reasons—predominantly economic, geographical and psychosocial, but coalescing around the central fact that I was “educated” in British public schools*—that I want to think and write my way into (and thus out of).

Of course, the one thing the world needs even less than my Very Clever Thoughts about Siamese Dream or the Judgement Night soundtrack is a self-indulgent and introspective memoir-through-music by a middle-aged minor academic trying to figure out the singularity of his likely-much-less-weird-than-he-thought-at-the-time cultural formation… and the one thing I need even less is yet another project that involves cranking out a word-count to a self-imposed deadline. But that is the pathology of the writer, right there… and what else is a blog for but to write for that small audience of maybe-no-more-than-one about the things that seem to need to be written about?

So, yeah—keep ’em peeled, because there may well be some autobiographical essays in the RSS pipeline in the weeks and months ahead. Not sure whether that’s a threat or a promise, to you or to me…

[ * – Note for non-British readers: in a classic case of British class divisions having markers which make little sense outside of said system of class, “public school” in Britain means the same as what “private school” means in most other places; meanwhile, what you might describe as “public schools” would instead be referred to as “state school”, or—if you were of a similar class strata to my parent—as “the local comprehensive”, a phrase to be freighted with a careful combination of contempt and condescension. ]

being quite serious, the future may be boring

Offered without comment, but with the contextualising note that the interview took place in 1984, some thoughts from J G Ballard on what we might now identify as the formation of European post-Fordist neoliberalism:

The young people of Western Europe since the sixties have grown up in a remarkably uniform environment, both in terms of the postwar architecture of high-rises and motorways and shopping malls, and also in terms of fashion in clothes and pop music, beach holidays in Spain and Greece, and their attitudes to society as a whole and their place in it—to the place of Europe between the two superpowers (both of whom, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., are tolerated but not trusted). I think for the first time in Western Europe, one sees a generation which finds itself living in sane, just, and largely humane societies—the welfare-state social democracies west of the Iron Curtain—and is deeply suspicious of them, while in fact sharing all the values for which those societies stand. Young people who take for granted that the state will provide free university education, free medical treatment, and prosperous consumer-goods economies, but who nonetheless seem to suspect that behind all this lies some unseen conspiracy. One sees the most extreme example in the Baader-Meinhof group in West Germany, whose terrorist acts seem totally meaningless and irrational. But, of course, that is the very point of those acts—in a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom. I think a lot of my own fiction—Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High-Rise, for example—taps these feelings of paranoia and desperation. As well, there are all the enormous institutionalized divisions between the social classes, between the meritocratic elites and those on the dole who will never work again, between those making their way into the Silicon Valleys of the future and those left behind in the dead end of the twentieth century. A lot of the youngsters who come to see me and talk about Atrocity Exhibition see it as a political work. To them, the voracious media landscape I describe is a machine for political exploitation.

[…]

The sixties were a time of endlessly multiplying possibilities, of real selflessness in many ways, a huge network of connections between Vietnam and the space race, psychedelia and pop music, linked together in every conceivable way by the media landscape. We were all living inside an enormous novel, an electronic novel, governed by instantaneity. In many ways, time didn’t exist in the sixties, just a set of endlessly proliferating presents. Time returned in the seventies, but not a sense of the future. The hands of the clock now go nowhere. Still, I’ve hated nostalgia, and it may be that a similar hot mix will occur again. On the other hand, being quite serious, the future may be boring. It’s possible that my children and yours will live in an eventless world, and that the faculty of imagination will die, or express itself solely in the realm of psychopathology. In Atrocity Exhibition I make the point that perhaps psychopathology should be kept alive as a repository, probably the last repository, of the imagination.