simply imagining better things isn’t enough

Team FOAM have started pushing out more of the fragments I sent them a while back. Latest out of the pipe is a bit titled “The unbearable lightness of solarpunk”, which for old hands at VCTB will be recognisably a condensation-rewrite of this post and a few others.

The timing is serendipitous, coinciding closely with a piece by
Rose Eveleth at Wired, which starts off by talking about a psychological study that found that humans tend to imagine positive change as the default*, and moves from there to the “weaponization” (Eveleth’s own term) thereof by marketing:

What does this have to do with the future? Well, we can’t create better tomorrows without first imagining what those are like. And it turns out, we’re doing that all the time, naturally. Humans seemed wired to think about how things could be better. Simply imagining better things isn’t enough. But it’s a start. And that’s a key aspect of hope—the ability to know that things are bad and still, innately, instinctually, always first be thinking about how things could be better. 

At the same time, we cannot let this instinct get the better of us. There is a real danger in sitting back and allowing the desire for hope to get in the way of progress.

Eveleth connects this phenomenon explicitly to solarpunk (and hopepunk) fiction, though in a very drive-by fashion:

Science fiction is full of stories branded as “hopepunk” or “solarpunk,” many of which tell delightful, positive stories, often without engaging in the realities of why we need that hope in the first place. 

I’ve started calling these kinds of calls for positive thinking “hopewashing.” Like greenwashing and pinkwashing, hopewashing offers a way for corporations and people with power to make it seem like they’re making the world a better, more hopeful place, while in reality they’re doing the opposite.

Ruha Benjamin is quoted by Eveleth as saying that the ads which are Eveleth’s main target (but thus also the fiction she mentions in the same context) are “hope as an opiate”. I think we can very safely assume that Benjamin, as a professor of African American studies, is fully aware of the full context of Marx’s oft-quoted line about religion that she’s riffing on here: the point is not that we should look down on people for turning to opiates (figurative or literal), but rather we should look down on the circumstances that make an opiated life preferable to a clean one.

But again—cue eyerolling from regular readers here, no doubt—the nomenclature of distinction is getting lost in this piece, with optimism and hope having a sort of blurry overlap despite the fairly clear articulation of two very different phenomena. The “opiate” of the Wells Fargo ad (and, I would argue, of the majority of solarpunk) is not “hope” at all, despite its being labelled as such; rather, it is optimism, a fundamentally passive position which tracks well with Eveleth’s description of the subtext of the Wells Fargo ad as “asking [us] for obedience. For trust, and complacency. To sit still and wait for the future to arrive on the backs of their lovely, highly produced advertisements and beautiful websites.”

Another of Eveleth’s informants, Liz Neeley, also sees the distinction clearly, while still labelling both sides with the same term: the ad is “hope is a soporific instead of hope as this bright, galvanizing, hard thing”. Prison abolitionist Mariam Kaba, however, nails it perfectly: “Hope isn’t an emotion, you know? Hope is not optimism… Hope is a discipline; we have to practice it every single day” (my emphasis).

Eveleth’s essay is thus simultaneously a validating and a frustrating piece for me, because it gets so close to solving the case: all the evidence is on the table, all the terms are in play, and one witness even outright states the answer. As such, I’m starting to think that I need to let go of this terminological line of enquiry: as the drift in the interpretation of “hopepunk” shows very clearly, even when someone coins a phrase with a pretty clear definition, it will just get picked up and turned into a suitcase word by the dynamics of discourse**.

Of course, this is not so new a problem as we might like to think, obsessed as we (understandably) are with the irrefutable shortcomings of our current media sensorium. Lewis Carroll knew the score:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Through the Looking-Glass by LEWIS CARROLL (Charles L. Dodgson)

The problem for me is working out whether I am—as I would like to think—being Alice in this particular situation, or whether I am actually being the bad egg.

This has drifted away somewhat from the starting topic of solarpunk, but hey, this is a blog; it happens. To return to that point—and to make a claim which, I suspect, Eveleth would also sign up to—there is a clear difference between the optimism of the Wells Fargo ad and the optimism of solarpunk, in that the former is deployed cynically and the latter is deployed sincerely, albeit naively.

(The enduring failure of solarpunk to make much of a dent in the genre publishing landscape, at least with regard to written fiction, means we can very safely assume that no one is writing solarpunk because they think it’s going to make them wealthy or famous; in that sense, the “-punk” suffix is justified, because its adherents really “mean it, maaaaan”, even if whatever it is that they mean is by definition devoid of that knowing Lydon sneer.)

But as I argue in the fragment for FOAM, solarpunk’s inability to transcend optimism and move into the “bright, galvanizing, hard thing” that is hope is solarpunk’s inevitable inheritance from the fractious generic family from which it is descended: sf as we understand it today has its roots in post-ww2 metanarratives of techno-optimism and capital-P progress, and that formative influence is clear to see in solarpunk, along with a more formal problem that is inherent to fiction more generally, namely the difficulty of narrating systemic causality.

That’s not to say solarpunk might never transcend these shortcomings— and as I also note in a footnote to the FOAM fragment, I would really like it to do so (which is why I still find myself taking hours out of my day writing critiques aimed at prompting that change in orientation).

But for as long as its practitioners conceive it only as a cheering antidote to the “grimdark” of cyberpunk—a conception based on a massive misparsing of cyberpunk as being somehow celebratory of the futures it explored***—solarpunk will remain optimistic, rather than hopeful: an opiate, rather than a stimulant.

[ * — Absent the time to do the necessary digging, I’m just going to note in passing the standard concerns I have about all psychology research of this ilk, namely 1) the replication criris, and 2) the extent to which the wording of questions can, intentionally or not, have a vast shaping influence on the replies received. The latter—not at all incidentally—is why all political polling is fundamentally untrustworthy unless you get to see the full survey as it was presented to the respondants, and even then should be treated less as a taking-of-the-public-pulse and more as an attempt to elicit the response the client so desperately wants or needs to receive in order to endorse the decision they’ve probably already made. ]

[ ** — This drift has happened pretty fast, or at least fast enough to have made problems for an academic paper that I started writing almost four years ago, and which is only now edging its way to actual publication: when I drafted the talk on which it was based, Rowland’s long and detailed definitional post on hopepunk was still fairly fresh, but in the years since the term has, it seems, become something of a synonym for a vague subgenre of fiction which is sometimes also labelled torwave or squeecore, as well as a label that Ada Palmer is happy to apply to the Terra Ignota series. One is tempted to make the leap whose possibility is implicit in Eveleth’s piece, and blame it on marketing—not just the marketing that is done by people with “marketer” as their job title, but also the self-marketing that we all do, me included, as a function of taking part in discourses such as this. This drift is an inevitable and even necessary part of linguistic evolution, as I understand it… but the speed with which it occurs now makes it hard to sustain an argument which is based on a particular meaning of a term. Which implies that such strategies of argument have been obsolesced… but how can we argue in good faith when all signifiers are hollow or mutable? What alternate strategies exist? ]

[ *** — Certainly some readers, and perhaps a greater number of consumers of other media where cyberpunk tropes and styles were picked up, have perceived cyberpunk as celebratory; I suppose the canonical example of this would be Nick Land, which says all that needs to be said about the sort of psychopolitical tendency that such an interpretation might be taken to indicate. But while some such texts may indeed have turned out to be to some extent normative futures from the perspective of their writers—I’m thinking particularly of Stephenson’s work, here, but there are surely others—I would say that many, and probably even most, were categorically not, and I would like to see a more thorough rehearsal of the argument to the contrary. ]



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One response to “simply imagining better things isn’t enough”

  1. Paul Watson avatar

    Eveleth’s 3-part piece is indeed a curate’s egg – at points I found myself nodding enthusiastically, and at other times wincing painfully.

    The mention of solarpunk in Part 1 seemed to me just a way to crowbar the term into the article for the purpose of driving a few more clicks. (Like you, I don’t personally identify with the term, but know people who do).

    The section claiming that everyone can imagine a better future is particularly irksome – it’s just people saying that “yes, I can imagine a better future where I have more of something I already have” rather than actually imagining a better future that is radically different. Perhaps this is Capitalist Realism at play, and the ability to imagine a better – and different – future is reduced to just being able to imagine possessing more of something for yourself.

    I’ll probably end up writing a blog post myself over the next few days. Many thanks for leading me to these pieces, however infuriating parts of them are.

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