Tag Archives: coronavirus

the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials

Some cheery theory from Brad Evans…

Giorgio Agamben has been disagreeable on so many points. But his autopsy of the present has led us to one distinguishable truth. As the providential machine of liberalism gasps its final cold breath, the new age, the new normal that has already arrived is a global techno-theodicy. An age where humanity itself has now become the sacrificial object, where the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials, where we all come face to face with the terrifying void, where the transcendental is purely virtual, where the future is already present, where technology is presented as the only thing that might save us and where the poetic is only of use if it can be already appropriated. Such a condition is necessarily bound up with a post-political imagination, micro-managing every breath taken, turning the intimate into a dangerous reckoning, augmenting a simulated reality in which the forces of militarism will truly thrive, while enforcing the most micro-specific segregations and prejudicial assumptions that venture deep into the souls of all planetary life in the name of sheer survival. 

[…]

Guilt and shame have already re-entered with their familiar potency. Deployed by shameless leaders who absolved themselves of any guilt while knowing we would be less forgiving when it came to ourselves, especially to our own behaviours and past complicities, the question of shame proved inseparable to our forced witnessing to this tragedy from our own relatively safe distances. And who didn’t feel ashamed about the conditions of life on earth? Ashamed that we didn’t do more to help? That we could not do more to help, apart from isolate. Ashamed as we continued to watch in a horrified submission the continued number counts of daily fatalities? And who wasn’t slightly relieved it wasn’t them being reported upon, thankful to have survived another day? Ashamed that we weren’t the ones being silently killed by an invisible enemy? Might we have even been the contagious? Unwitting carriers in the premature death of others?

And what of our role in society, which appeared so under-prepared and ill-equipped? Should we have been ashamed that our societies are so incapable of slowing things down? That our lives were so caught up in the frenzy of existence, its only in the face of death we learn about the elderly neighbour who was already slowly dying a lonely death? Were we not ashamed of supporting governments whose worthless investments in guns and bombs and other fancy weaponry for destruction proved so irrelevant in this onslaught upon life? Or even ashamed for buying a plant that was apparently an “unnecessary purchase” or walking just a little too far from home? And what of our leaders, who have been shown to be shamefully compromised, dancing with death in their primary insistence upon business as usual, neglectful in their actions, while woefully out of their depth when it came to show the humanity required?

But let us not forget the world was already engaging in forms of lock-down long before this crisis. From building the walls to Brexit, the conscious policy to enclose life was underway and it was perfectly in keeping with the needs of global capitalism and its strategies for controlling human life by getting the masses to desire their own containment. The virus has provided the conditions to accelerate this. So, it’s no coincidence the real winners are the disaster capitalists, the global-tech giants now tasked with administering all aspects of life, and invariably the pharmaceutical industries. As our life was reduced to a motionless existence, slowed down to the point of a horrified inertia, the mechanisms for power have sped up exponentially.

Having spent the last few months in a reading group looking at and around Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, I’ll concede “disagreeable” in the strict sense of a thing with which to agree brings no pleasure… and perhaps with the more alimentary sense of something that is difficult to digest. But not at all hard-to-agree-with in the sense of (once one has finally grasped it) holding the argument up to the actual and looking for discrepancies… and as Evans points out, disaster capitalism, running hotter than ever on an optimised silicon substrate, has not hesitated to take the territory we willingly left on the table.

No conspiracy is needed to explain this turn of events. As a number of people have noted recently with regards to BLM’s critique of policing in the US (and elsewhere), it’s not at all that “our systems” are “broken”. On the contrary, they are working exactly as designed, and with astonishing efficiency (in the strictly economic sense of that term, which is subtly different to the vernacular usage).

unknowable differences populating an imagined horizon

Struggling to write on sociological topics (or indeed on anything that engages significantly with social dimensions, whether academically or otherwise)? David Beer is, too:

… beyond the problems of the speed of change and a lack of focus, there is also a sense that the thing I’d normally be analysing – society – will not be the same. Unknowable differences are currently populating an imagined horizon. Those futures should be examined, but I’m also waiting to see what the social world that emerges will look like. It’s hard to do sociology and social science when you aren’t quite sure what the social is and how it is working. It could be that increased networking, heightened and more visual social media connections, video links, mobile tracking and other features will persist, these will need to be thought through in detail.

The new social formations might well be even more technologically centered than those that went before. The scale of the changes might even mean that we will need to rethink the domain assumptions, ideas and theories that have underpinned social analysis. Maybe, as things settle into their new formations, some new openings will be found. Social research at a distance is proving hard to fathom. Once any new variants of the social can be seen then the possibilities for understanding will need to be widely explored.

This is an issue that is coming up a lot among colleagues and friends at the moment. It thus feels a little odd to find myself in one of my more seemingly productive phases… but that may have something to do with a significant chunk of my last fifteen years having been spent in imitation of the lock-down experience when it comes to patterns of working: as much as I’m not particularly happy to be back there, working in my living-room is actually far more familiar to me than having an office to go to and colleagues to hang out with. It may also be related to my having withdrawn from the attention-barrage of socnets far earlier—though that means I’ve been feeling that detachment-from-the-immediate for far longer, too, and I’m as yet uncertain as to whether that’s a net win with regard to my work. (With regard to my mental health, however, it remains perhaps the smartest move I’ve ever made.)

I guess the takeaway point here is that, if you’re struggling to concentrate on writing about the world, don’t be too hard on yourself; some of the greatest minds in that business are struggling, too.

(That said, the Hot-Take Futures Factory still seems to be running at full tilt, but I think that serves only to underscore the point Beer is making: any serious engagement with social issues requires the starting admission that prediction is bunk at the best of times, and all the more so under the current state of fluxion. But ThoughtLords gotta ThoughtLord, amirite? Those Teslas won’t pay for themselves.)

the slowdown papers

Those among you with a more futures-y orientation may already have noticed Dan Hill publishing last week a collection of work that he’s calling “The Slowdown Papers”; this is the header post that bundles them and links them all.

I’ve been following Dan’s work for quite some time now. He was always an interesting and erudite feature of the early Twentyteens design fiction scene; if I’m recalling my rather blurry timeline correctly, he started working for Arup around the same time I started my PhD, but at some point pivoted out of that world and wound up working for the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, as well as collecting a bundle of (well-earned) visiting professorships.

One of the double-edged silver linings of the coronavirus situation has been that a) it has resulted in a massive outpouring of interesting writing from all sorts of people, which b) I’m struggling to keep up with as a reader. I made a conscious (and surprisingly painful) decision over the Easter weekend to limit my attempts to keep up with it all—partly because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and partly because I found that I was becoming frustrated by and envious of all these people producing insightful material when I was producing little or none of it myself (a shortfall due in no small part to my spending too much time reading other people’s work). I have the generalist’s (and blogging veteran’s) pathology of feeling like I need to respond to everything that interests me—which I now recognise as an early, slower version of the birdsite pathology that urges you to provide your hot take on all the things. I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reminding myself that there’s no need to feel envious of all these experts writing important things about their fields of specialisation, because I am (at least in theory!) and expert with my own field of specialisation; as such, I should probably read a little less (or possibly a lot less), and write more, while focussing my efforts on the topics and issues which are germane to my work. We’ll see how that goes; drinking from the firehose is an old habit, one from long before I even knew what RSS stood for.

But back to Dan: the Slowdown Papers are perhaps the most substantial answer to a question I’d been asking since this thing kicked off, namely “when are we going to decide it’s acceptable to start looking beyond the lockdown?” It’s far from acceptable everywhere as yet, but some folk are starting to spin up some more considered and thoughtful long views, and these essays are a benchmark for the sort of material I want to see more of.

I have yet to read all of them, but there was one that I went for right away, because it addresses (though doesn’t exactly answer) a question that I’ve been asked dozens of times over the last month or so, namely: “what the hell does the Swedish government think it’s doing?” Dan’s been here long enough, and is sufficiently well-connected to the machineries of government (not to mention well-read and bloody insightful) to have a good idea of how things fit together here; as such, this piece was a real relief for me, because it allowed me to see a bigger picture, of which I had heretofore glimpsed only a few parts. For instance, I understood that the Swedish government is quite literally constitutionally incapable of announcing a lockdown akin to those going on elsewhere; likewise, I was aware of the strict (if fuzzy and contested) demarcations between the “what” (or strategic goals) of policy, which are decided by elected politicians, and the “how” (or tactics for “delivery”, to grudgingly use that most repulsive of shibboleths), which are decided by technocratic agencies such as the gloriously hard-for-me-to-pronounce Folkhälsomyndigheten. But there’s so much more to it, just as there is so much more to the question of why every nation has responded differently, and are experiencing different rates of infection and mortality—a question which, while it’s being asked everywhere pretty much constantly, is rarely being explored properly.

If nothing else, we’ve solid proof for the maxim that disasters tend to make us fall back on exceptionalist narratives of nationality—and not just our own.

On that basis, I recommend Dan’s piece on the Swedish situation in particular to everyone, because it’s a model for thinking about the situation more broadly. I still think that there’s a silver lining of opportunity in this crisis—and hell knows the far right has already seen it, and grabbed for it with both of its tiny, unwashed hands. But if we want to alchemise this collision of statistically inevitable tragedy and systematic ideologically-motivated mismanagement into a civilisational turning-point, we need to get beyond the point of getting angry or resentful at anyone not responding in exactly the same way as us.

defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.

a summer job bagging cadavers

It’s hard not to feel an opportunity was missed by not making Frankie Boyle the new leader of the Labour party instead of the equivocal sub-Blair suit who just got the gig.

… you have to wonder if the virus is so very different from extractive capitalism. It commandeers the manufacturing elements of its hosts, gets them to make stuff for it; kills a fair few, but not enough to stop it spreading. There is no normal for us to go back to. People sleeping in the streets wasn’t normal; children living in poverty wasn’t normal; neither was our taxes helping to bomb the people of Yemen. Using other people’s lives to pile up objects wasn’t normal, the whole thing was absurd. Governments are currently busy pouring money into propping up existing inequalities, and bailing out businesses that have made their shareholders rich. The world’s worst people think that everybody is going to come out of this in a few months and go willingly back into a kind of numbing servitude. Surely it’s time to start imagining something better.

It’s also hard not to feel that, for many of those in the UK whose words I’m reading in recent days, the mere capacity to imagine something better is itself the only something better that they can bring themselves to imagine. Never has there been less pleasure in being proven right regarding your understanding of how the world really works.