Hard to start again

I’m not sure how many times I’ve tried (more or less performatively, depending on my prevailing level of insecurity) to restart the habit of regular blogging, and I don’t think counting them will make it any easier. Nonetheless I’m left with a lingering sense that it should be easy — because hey, there was a good five years or so during which I spent four or five hours knocking out two to four posts every weekday! (Let’s leave the issue of the quantity/quality ratio for another day, eh?)

But I fell out of the routine… and my life (like everyone else’s) was a very different shape back then. Indeed, perhaps habit would be a better word than routine, for while those were productive times, they were not healthy times, and hindsight suggests that blogging was filling a space where reliably remunerative employment and unmediated social interaction should have been.

But it’s not that simple, because blogging was never quite the flagpole-sitter routine it gets portrayed as these days. Sure, there was a big component of I’ve Built A Soapbox And I’m Gonna Use It, but I think the reason I was able to let it stand in for a more diverse and immediate social life was that there was a palpable sense of collectivity and community about it: this huge, roiling and multivalent discourse going on, countless conversations rolling perpetually around the planet like the reality-warping mobile city in Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, always hot on the heels of the solar terminator*. I used to wake up some mornings anxious to know how some narrative or another had developed overnight, compelled to add my own voice to discussions which seemed utterly vital at the time, but many of which, with hindsight (and contrasted with the concerns of the present), seem banal and masturbatory at best. And so it goes.

(* I should maybe  re-read Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe, because I suspect it will stand very much as an artefact of its time of writing, as all the better bits of science fiction tend to do.)

Of course, that rolling discourse hasn’t vanished; it just migrated onto faster, more accessible and more populous platforms, and in doing so became far faster, far thinner, and far more clamorous. Sure, there’s still blogging going on, too, but it’s changed a lot, and in some places died back almost entirely: the Genre Fiction Blog Wars in which I was once a footsoldier appear to have gone full scorched-earth in the years since I went AWOL from the front lines, with many once-vital sites vanished, shuttered or abandoned; my RSS reader is full of URLs I still can’t quite bear to cull, in case they should suddenly start up again like a much-loved numbers station in the night. I’m looking for new sources more relevant to my current incarnation as an academic, but the process is slow, not least because the old tradition of cross-linking and inter-site commentary (and, yes, argument) has been replaced by something more decontextualised, more lone(ly)-voices-in-the-wilderness. I dunno, maybe it’s just me overinterpreting five years of change through a very personal lens, but it’s definitely not the same any more; you can make your own value-judgement on that qualitative shift.

But I’m pretty confident in saying that the longer, slower and more nuanced style of discourse has been superseded by the rapid-fire fracas of social media, which I have made a very clear decision to stay away from for the forseeable future, and very likely in perpetuity. It clearly has value for a great many people, but it now reminds me of nothing more than the baffling and triggery politics of the schoolyard, all cliques and shouting and posture… and I can’t operate under those conditions, for an assortment of reasons rooted in both my mental health and my philosophical positionality. (Yes, that probably does sound whiney, pompous and over-intellectualised; and therein lies the problem.)

But I suspect that the metadifficulty in reestablishing a blogging practice is that I no longer have the very certain conception of my audience that I used to have… and as any writer worth their salt will tell you, you have to have a vision of your readership in order to write well, even if that envisioned readership (as it often is for fiction writers, and possibly always should be) is simply the reader one sees in the mirror. So I’m going to start posting whatever the hell I feel like writing about, in a return to to the old blogging-as-self-discipline-and-public-outboard-memory model. If an audience appears, perhaps that’ll show me some directions worth turning toward, but I’m done counting on it: I have enough inscrutable audiences to perform for here in the ivory tower, and I don’t really need another one. As such, VCTB is henceforth a digital notebook that just happens to be public, rather than a platform for the projection of a personality that was never entirely mine (let alone entirely authentic) in the first place. It was fun and goal-oriented, until it wasn’t.

A lot of my old blogging momentum came from the assumption that I could somehow write myself into a career through sheer relentless productivity — literally by just turning up and churning it out — which with the benefit of hindsight was an unfortunate internalisation of exactly the sort of Content Provider role that The Stacks wanted us all to adopt, the better to farm us for profit. I think there’s maybe a reasonable argument to be made that it sort of worked, in that I wouldn’t have ended up making my odd, unexpected and distinctly crab-wise segue into the academy if I hadn’t done all that work, hadn’t learned to write (and write for an audience), hadn’t learned to argue effectively (or at least persistently), hadn’t interposed myself into worlds to which I’d previously had no access, hadn’t learned that the only thing that gets you anywhere in a no-alternatives capitalist world is hustle of one form or another…

But the me who started blogging here and at Futurismic did so in the naive expectation — and it really was an expectation, not just a hope — that it’d eventually parlay into some sort of real salaried job focussed on the wrangling of words. (The late Noughties, amirite?) And while I probably do a more intense form of word-wrangling than I ever really knew existed here in the precarious margins of the drought-stricken left-most groves of academe, I’m not much closer to stable employment than I’ve ever been (though my current perch of precarity is at least paying much better than I’ve ever been paid before). It’s a brand new scene, but it’s the same old hustle… and I feel old and tired in a way that was unimaginable to that optimistic and energetic keyboard [warrior/worrier] of 2008.

And it seems that — now as before, here as everywhere — hustle’s the only game in town. But nonetheless I find myself in need of a space for a weird non-hustle category of brain-dump material and hey-here’s-a-thing-I-saw that isn’t exactly intended for an audience, but nonetheless somehow feels like stuff that should flow into the boulevard, as Uncle Warren would have it.

Selah; we’ll see how it goes.

Recognise the firm beyond the corporation

Firms are best understood as political entities, rather than merely economic organizations. Of course they have economic dimensions. But saying that they are merely economic organisations would be as reductive as to say that states are merely economic organizations. A firm certainly contains the legal structures of capital investment – this is what the legal structures of the corporate charter are for. But a firm is much more than a corporation in the legal sense: it requires the contributions of those who invest their labour in the joint endeavour (the employees, but sometimes also independent contractors or suppliers or users). That whole institutional reality has been missed by economic and legal theories. My suggestion is that it is time to enter into a reconstructive and institutionalist perspective that makes it possible to recognize the firm beyond the corporation: as a political entity where labour investors, crucial actors in the common endeavour of the firm, have not yet been granted the same political rights (i.e. the rights to participate in governing the joint endeavour) as those granted to capital investors. In other words, it is a political entity owned by no one (shareholders only own their shares, as legal scholar Robé has so aptly kept reminding us) in need of being democratized.

Isabelle Ferreras interviewed at Justice Everywhere.

Latour de force

I’m interested in art for the same reason I’m interested in science — it’s a way to handle the fact that we have landed in a completely different world than we thought we were moving toward. We need art now for the same reason that we needed art in the 16th century, when we learned about the discovery of America, which changed everything — music, theater, poetry, literature. We don’t have the mental equipment, the sensory equipment, to handle the ecological mutation going on today. You cannot expect the social sciences to learn how to handle the ecological crisis. How do you cope with telling your grandchildren that you were born in 1947 and had an enormously good time — that you profited from globalization and the process that has led to the sixth extinction. How do you tell this to your grandchildren? If you say, “Well, I had a good life, too bad for you,” you are a moral wreck. So how do you handle this situation? This is fodder for art.

Bruno Latour interviewed at LARB.

The language of Smart City is always Global Business English

… the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.

Chairman Bruce at The Atlantic.

Ersatz moralities

It’s no coincidence that good guy/bad guy movies, comic books and games have large, impassioned and volatile fandoms – even the word ‘fandom’ suggests the idea of a nation, or kingdom. What’s more, the moral physics of these stories about superheroes fighting the good fight, or battling to save the world, does not commend genuine empowerment. The one thing the good guys teach us is that people on the other team aren’t like us. In fact, they’re so bad, and the stakes are so high, that we have to forgive every transgression by our own team in order to win.

Catherine Nichols on the false moral dichotomy of modern narrative at Aeon.

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology