Category Archives: Sociology

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’

(ibid.)

However:

‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)

Organ projection

Kapp’s arguments also represent an important forerunner in theories of media and culture. In the 20th century, German sociological discourse was shaped by two canonical arguments about the prosthesis, one posed by Sigmund Freud, the other by Arnold Gehlen. Freud’s definition of man as a prosthetic god appears in his 1930 Civilization and Its Discontents. Gehlen presents his Mängelwesen (literally: a being defined by lack) in the 1940 Man, His Nature and Place in the World. In both cases, the theory of prosthesis argues that human organs can and need to be strengthened in their function, protected or outright substituted by the prosthesis. The prosthesis compensates an inherently under-equipped human. (The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan belongs in this tradition, too, with his notion of media as “extensions of man.”) What unites Freud and Gehlen, however, is the way that their theories drive a hard distinction between nature and culture. The natural body must be superseded in its shortcomings by the assistance of culture in the form of the technical prosthesis. Kapp’s notion of organ projection precedes both Freud and Gehlen and belongs to neither. For Kapp, the prosthesis cannot be cleanly distinguished from the human and its body, to which it always fundamentally relates as an instance of organ projection. If the prosthesis stands in relation to the body like culture stands in relation to nature, then for Kapp the very nature/culture distinction dissolves into the insignificance of a tautology.

From a review by William Stewart at the Los Angeles Review of Books of the newly-translated Elements of a Philosophy of Technology by Ernst Kapp, originally published 1877. That’s another one for the accessions list, then… I seem to be acquiring a lot of U-of-Minnesota Press books lately.

Event horizon

The modern world, cultural theorists tell us, has been characterized by the disenchantment of the natural world. In fact, this disenchantment was accompanied by a Romantic enchantment of the social word. Mimesis gave way to poiesis. We can see this more readily when we recognize, following Charles Taylor for example, that enchantment is a matter of meaning as much as it is a matter of magic.

[…]

Modern technology disenchanted the natural world and enchanted the social world. Meaning was no longer a feature of the world to be merely perceived and inhabited by human beings. It became a subjective reality imposed and fabricated by human beings. We necessarily became artists of the self.

Digital technology disenchants the social world and enchants the technological world. Meaning is no longer subjectively experienced. Claude Shannon’s divorce of meaning from information in digital communication is recapitulated in the human experience of digital technology; it is the founding myth that contains the truth that illuminates the world. Meaning is kicked out of the human realm and displaced onto the technological, from whence it is imposed upon us. We can no longer believe in the romantic project of self-making and self-fulfillment. Poiesis gives way to an inverted mimesis. We no longer imitate, we are the imitated, sculpted in data by algorithmically powered “intelligent” machines. 

L. M. Sacasas

Competition demands exponentiality

We hold, first, that the “religion of the Singularity” is not new—it must be understood as a symptom of neoliberal rationality in the Information Age. Second, we argue that the same neoliberal logic is exemplified by recent developments in the urban process, its value flows, and its associated forms of governance. Finally, we conclude that to surpass the contradictions of info-capitalism that unfold in the ideology of the Singularity and of tech-infused urban life, we can turn to alternative models of ownership. Only by wresting back control of information and space can we begin to build radical alternatives to Singularitarian reduction.

Claudel & Shafer (2019), “A Rumble in the Taupe Hum of Info-Capital: On Reduction and the Neoliberal City“. Journal of Design and Science.

Like asking a giraffe to shorten its neck

Shoshana Zuboff’s back in town, and not a moment too soon:

By now [surveillance capitalism] no longer restricted to individual companies or even to the internet sector. It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy…

“But does it scale?” Of course — indeed, scaling is all it does. “Smart Cities”, anyone?

Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value. This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location.

The evolution did not stop there. Ultimately they understood that the most predictive behavioural data comes from what I call “economies of action”, as systems are designed to intervene in the state of play and actually modify behaviour, shaping it toward desired commercial outcomes.