semiotics of utopia

It’s yer man Stan Robinson, trying to (quite literally) square away the reductive dichotomy of [u/dys]topia:

It’s important to remember that utopia and dystopia aren’t the only terms here. You need to use the Greimas rectangle and see that utopia has an opposite, dystopia, and also a contrary, the anti-utopia. For every concept there is both a not-concept and an anti-concept. So utopia is the idea that the political order could be run better. Dystopia is the not, being the idea that the political order could get worse. Anti-utopias are the anti, saying that the idea of utopia itself is wrong and bad, and that any attempt to try to make things better is sure to wind up making things worse, creating an intended or unintended totalitarian state, or some other such political disaster. 1984 and Brave New World are frequently cited examples of these positions. In 1984 the government is actively trying to make citizens miserable; in Brave New World, the government was first trying to make its citizens happy, but this backfired. As Jameson points out, it is important to oppose political attacks on the idea of utopia, as these are usually reactionary statements on the behalf of the currently powerful, those who enjoy a poorly-hidden utopia-for-the-few alongside a dystopia-for-the-many. This observation provides the fourth term of the Greimas rectangle, often mysterious, but in this case perfectly clear: one must be anti-anti-utopian.

One way of being anti-anti-utopian is to be utopian. It’s crucial to keep imagining that things could get better, and furthermore to imagine how they might get better. Here no doubt one has to avoid Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” which is perhaps thinking and saying that things will get better without doing the work of imagining how. In avoiding that, it may be best to recall the Romain Rolland quote so often attributed to Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Or maybe we should just give up entirely on optimism or pessimism—we have to do this work no matter how we feel about it. So by force of will or the sheer default of emergency we make ourselves have utopian thoughts and ideas. This is the necessary next step following the dystopian moment, without which dystopia is stuck at a level of political quietism that can make it just another tool of control and of things-as-they-are. The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not.

I’m not yet sure how anti-anti-utopia maps on to the critical utopia, which is my preferred formulation. (This may be one of those fundamental anarchist/Marxist lines of cleavage, I suppose.) But the theoretical details are secondary to KSR’s point, which is to do the work — and on that point we are in clear agreement.

06DEC19 / accessions

Top one is to review for Extrapolation, the journal of the SFRA – my first assignment for them, in fact. The conceit is remarkably close to that of one of the projects I’m currently working on, which is why I chose it.

The bottom three are the first consignment of a large order made to take advantage of the recent Palgrave sale.

on the contemptuousness of propagandists

Reading this piece about Isaac Levido, the new campaign manager that the Tories have employed this time round, I was struck by this quote from one of the pair of socnet edgelords in charge of their dAnK b0oM3r MeM3Z:

“You can have a quote from an economist. Or you can have a picture of a dog next to it saying ‘tax is bad’. Guess which one had more engagement,” said Guerin, reflecting on the successes of the Australian campaign.

A recurring feature of the Brexit situation, and indeed every election I can recall prior to it, is a riff wherein one is castigated for assuming that a significant chunk of the electorate is susceptible to the lumpen political signalling found in tabloid newspapers; this is to hold the electorate in contempt, you will be told, because it’s almost certainly not true.

I have long begged to differ, having spent many years on both sides of the class divide: it is a demonstrable fact that people parrot what they’re told by sources they trust, and this is as true of readers of the Same Old Statesman and Teh Graun as it is of the Daily Hate and the Torygraph. To observe this fact is not to hold the electorate in contempt*.

But to exploit that fact for the propagation not just of party-line interpretations but outright falsehoods — that, I would say, is a definite demonstration of contempt. That quote above expresses not just utter contempt but a certain gleeful malice, a swindler’s two-facedness made possible by the knowledge that the channels accessed by those you are exploiting will never carry a bad word about you, because you and others like you are in command of the content therein.

By way of analogy, then: which expresses the greater contempt, to observe and lament that smoking causes cancer, or to sell cigarettes?

* — For those more amenable to economic arguments: if propaganda didn’t work, no one would bother expending money and resources on it. See also the long history of state psy-ops, disinformation and so forth — and indeed the violent loathing that repressive states tend to have for even the most obscure writers and artists who dare to counter the dominant narrative; everyone knows that stories are the whole game. So I guess we’re fortunate that the game has yet to be reduced to a science… though that, for me at least, is the true insomniac horror of Farcebork etc., namely the prospect that they might through sheer size-of-n manage to master the art of persuasion.

the conditions of credibility

Steven Shapin, with the — OK, with an STS perspective on “post-truth” at LARB:

The problem we confront is better described not as too little science in public culture but as too much. Given the absurdities and errors abroad in the land, it may seem crazy to say this, yet the point can be pressed. Consider, again, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaxxers, and the creationists. They’re wrong-headed of course, but, like the Moon-landing deniers and the Flat-Earthers, their rejection of Right Thinking is not delivered as anti-science. Instead, it comes garnished with the supposed facts, theories, approved methods, and postures of objectivity and disinterestedness associated with genuine science. Wrong-headedness often advertises its embrace of officially cherished scientific values — skepticism, disinterestedness, universalism, the distinction between secure facts and provisional theories — and frequently does so more vigorously than the science rejected. The deniers’ notion of science sometimes seems, so to speak, hyperscientific, more royalist than the king. And, if you want examples of hyperscientific tendencies in so-called pseudoscience, there are now sensitive studies of the biblical astronomy craze instigated in the 1950s by the psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky, or you can consider the meticulous methodological attentiveness of parapsychology, or you can reflect on why it might be that students of the human sciences are deluged with lessons on The Scientific Method while chemists and geologists are typically content with mastering just the various methods of their specialties. The Truth-Deniers find scientific facts and theories shamefully ignored by the elites; they embrace conceptions of a coherent, stable, and effective Scientific Method that the elites are said to violate; they insist on the necessity of radical scientific skepticism, universal replication, and openness to alternative views that the elites contravene. On those criteria, who’s really anti-scientific? Who are the real Truth-Deniers?


When science becomes so extensively bonded with power and profit, its conditions of credibility look more and more like those of the institutions in which it has been enfolded. Its problems are their problems. Business is not in the business of Truth; it is in the business of business. So why should we expect the science embedded within business to have a straightforward entitlement to the notion of Truth? The same question applies to the science embedded in the State’s exercise of power. Knowledge speaks through institutions; it is embedded in the everyday practices of social life; and if the institutions and the everyday practices are in trouble, so too is their knowledge. Given the relationship between the order of knowledge and the order of society, it’s no surprise that the other Big Thing now widely said to be in Crisis is liberal democracy. The Hobbesian Cui bono? question (Who benefits?) is generally thought pertinent to statecraft and commerce, so why shouldn’t there be dispute over scientific deliverances emerging, and thought to emerge, from government, business, and institutions advertising their relationship to them?

A chewy report from the trenches of epistemology. Go read it all.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …