Category Archives: Sociology

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.

there is no transition

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but seeing arguments for non-solutionist and demand-side approaches to decarbonisation research appearing in a journal from the Nature stable feels like a sign that the idea is getting some traction at long last. That said paper is by Elizabeth Shove, a brilliant and tenacious researcher whose work has been a huge influence on my own—and who has done a huge amount of leg-work over the years in both fighting against behaviourist and managerial models of consumption, and advancing social practice perspectives as an alternative—makes it all the sweeter.

… the timescales across which energy research is defined and framed do not exist in isolation. Seconds are part of minutes, and seasons are part of years. What look like comparably massive ‘turns’, for instance from renewables (wind) to fossil fuels (coal), are made of overlapping trajectories, not all unfolding at the same rate and pace, and made up of different units (seconds, minutes) that are not equivalent but that are part of the historical periods in which they are set.

This is obvious, but research problems are routinely carved out in ways that obscure these interactions and the threading together of past, present and future. Energy efficient building renovation is a good example in which the age of the building, the payback time on investment, the lifespan of the owner/occupier, and the durability of different materials interact.

Interventions in buildings and in energy systems occur within and as part of multiple dynamic processes that defy easy description, but that are crucial for conceptualizing and fostering transitions not only in the types of fuels that are ‘plugged’ in to the supply system, but the timing of demand and thus in the making of a substantially lower carbon society.

Research agendas that focus on ‘the’ energy transition, and debate about how long this transition might take overlook this point. Given that energy systems (supply and demand together) are woven into society and into the constitution of always-changing sociotemporal rhythms there is unlikely to be any one such shift now or in the years ahead.

That last point—very much contra the self-referential definitions of ‘transition’ from the Geelsean MLP literature, still hugely popular in policy circles—was a major plank of the argument of my doctoral thesis. As I put it in my discussion chapter:

… if we are to think of transition at all, it is perhaps better to think of it not as a bounded entity, not as something that somehow happens to entire populations all at once, but rather as a basic condition of existence in human society. Transition is not “there, and then”, but ubiquitous and perpetual, always-already ongoing everywhere, albeit at different rates and in different directions. The transitions of the MLP are stories that only make sense in hindsight, tautological artefacts of their own analysis; in effect, “transition” is a fairytale that we repeat in the hope that repetition will make it come true.

If we wish to truly understand the dynamics of sociotechnical change, rather then merely describe a dynamic which we imagine might be amenable to certain forms of control or management, then we must abandon the hackneyed plot of transition and return our attention to the actual actors on the stage.

Raven, PG (2018), Making Infrastructure Legible, p262

The more distance I get from the process of writing that thesis, the more I understand why it was such a struggle to get the damned thing passed in the context of a civil engineering department…

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.

syndemic

Richard Horton at The Lancet (via Andrew Curry):

Two categories of disease are interacting within specific populations—infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and an array of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). These conditions are clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies. The aggregation of these diseases on a background of social and economic disparity exacerbates the adverse effects of each separate disease. COVID-19 is not a pandemic. It is a syndemic. The syndemic nature of the threat we face means that a more nuanced approach is needed if we are to protect the health of our communities.

[…]

The most important consequence of seeing COVID-19 as a syndemic is to underline its social origins. The vulnerability of older citizens; Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities; and key workers who are commonly poorly paid with fewer welfare protections points to a truth so far barely acknowledged—namely, that no matter how effective a treatment or protective a vaccine, the pursuit of a purely biomedical solution to COVID-19 will fail. Unless governments devise policies and programmes to reverse profound disparities, our societies will never be truly COVID-19 secure.

[…] I would add one further advantage. Our societies need hope. The economic crisis that is advancing towards us will not be solved by a drug or a vaccine. Nothing less than national revival is needed. Approaching COVID-19 as a syndemic will invite a larger vision, one encompassing education, employment, housing, food, and environment. Viewing COVID-19 only as a pandemic excludes such a broader but necessary prospectus.