Tag Archives: culture war

… but will it scale?

Final ‘graph of the most recent missive from Michael Sacasas, which is worth reading in full:

The deeper critique here may be to recognize that the culture wars, while rooted to some important degree in the genuine moral concerns of ordinary citizens, are themselves the product of the longstanding industrialization of politics and the triumph of technique. In both the case of institutionalization and the capture of politics by technique, the operations of the system become the system’s reason for being. Industrialized politics are politics scaled up to a level that precludes the possibility of genuine and ordinary human action and thus becomes increasingly unresponsive to human well-being. The culture wars are in this analysis a symptom of the breakdown of politics as the context within which fellow citizens navigate the challenges of a common life. In the place of such genuine politics, the culture wars offer us the often destructive illusion of politically significant action.

I’m pulling this out largely due to the reference to “scal[ing] up”, which is among the little catalogue of shibboleths that seem to me constitutive of the vacuum at the heart of the neoliberal condition; Sacasas’s mention of it here is an illustration of its problematic, given that (at least in the dominant discourse) “scaling up” is an unalloyed good. (It is, of course, closely related to the uncritical deification of “efficiency”. “Network effects” are a minor member of the same pantheon—though like many minor deities, they manifest as a simplification and sanitisation of an older, richer and more nuanced idea that once gained prominence in a particular situated discourse, before being reduced first to metaphor and thereafter to meme.)

The matter of scale has become of greater and clearer interest to me recently, thanks to some work done of a project report that sought to explore the dynamics of scaling in sociotechnical transitions; regular readers will be unsurprised to hear that, the more closely the concept was examined, the less substantial and coherent it was revealed to be. One of the big points emerging from that examination was that, while “scaling up” is broadly assumed to be the expression of a successful transition, it is quite possible that an “innovative” process or product or policy or business model can “scale” without any substantive transition occurring. (Horizontal scaling is a somewhat different matter, but suffers from being undertheorised, presumably because horizontal scaling, or “scaling out”, reliant as it is on the duplication of smaller organisational units rather than the consolidation of one huge one, is less amenable to profit and asset-stripping, and also runs counter to the top-down instincts of statist models of institutional change.) “Scaling” is thus neither cause or effect when it comes to “innovation”—which is, of course, another suitcase word, and perhaps also the warrior-beloved heroic thunder-god of the hegemonic B-school pantheon.

But the connection I wanted to note here is the one made by Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World. I don’t have my copy to hand, so no quotes, but among the many gems scattered through that book is a pearl-string of critiques of “scaling up” as the peak expression of the modernist/rationalist ideological memeplex; it comes out in capitalism, of course, but also in the epistemologies and ontologies of Big-S Science. Much of Tsing’s book is concerned with practices of forestry (and practices within forests), where both rationalist and reductive over-management and a total withdrawal of disruption (whether by human or more-than-human actors are revealed to be destructive of (bio)diversity, and throws off big echoes of James C Scott—though the unobtrusive citation style (little numbers, references and endnotes collected at the end of the book) means that I have yet to determine if there’s any connection other than the accidental.

As I understand it (based on an as-yet-incomplete reading of the book), Tsing argues that the global supply chain, and the “salvage accumulation” that it enables, is an adaptation of capital to a circumstance in which the consequences of widespread “scalings up” have caused sufficient systemic damage to make “scaling up” impossible, at least in some sectors and/or spaces. I wonder if that point might feed back into Sacasas’s argument about the culture wars: perhaps that condition of total war has rapidly and inevitably given away to partisan 4th-generation forms of combat, due to the battlefield having been so thoroughly and rapidly riven by the effects of industrialised conflict…

scumbags and maggots

Huw Lemmey on the establishment of “Fairytale of New York” as a trench-front in the UK culture wars:

Sometimes I wonder if not engaging is the answer, but I’m rapidly coming to the opinion that these disputes could be about anything, and will be about anything. The point is not necessarily about the etymology of the word faggot, nor about the literary justification of a characters voice. It’s just about exacerbating this divide between contextual and absolute. It’s about cultural force, about never having to think about what you like and why you like it. A week ago I read about Morrisons’ Supermarket renaming Brussels sprouts as ‘Yorkshire Sprouts’ or ‘Lincolnshire Sprouts’, a move celebrated on Brexit twitter. I pointed out that the British used to mock the Americans for renaming french fries as ‘Freedom Fries’, for similarly anti-European reasons. Now that’s the level of weird patriotism our country is at. I was interested to note how many responses I got accusing me of being a snowflake. Strange — it could just as easily have been the other way round. Aren’t they the snowflakes for being unable to bear the word ‘Brussels’, even in their kitchen?

That’s it, I thought — the snowflake discourse is an infinite regression. The right is no less sensitive that the left to cultural signifiers, to insult or slurs. Our faggot is their Brussels. You’re a snowflake for changing a name, but you’re also a snowflake for pointing out a name change is ridiculous. The only answer is to get in your charge of ‘snowflake’ earlier, but then you’re just adding to the momentum of the term, the logic of oversensitivity. The content of the dispute is irrelevant. There is no argument to win — the aim is to beat your opponent into tired submission. Only one side will ever be a snowflake, and the point is to reiterate that until the argument can’t even be heard any more. That’s the culture war, baby. 

And it’s a war of attrition. Time to dig in… and to take some small comfort from the fact that demography (and, more pointedly, senescence and mortality) are not on the right’s side.

The particular gift

It is the particular gift of genre fiction to assume a different background to the mainstream and so delineate character from a different angle. Science fiction carries this change of perspectives to extremes. By changing what counts as figure and what as background, the characters can be seen in ways otherwise impossible – and so, ultimately, we can understand ourselves in ways that would otherwise be impossible. These novels are a gift to the whole of our culture.

From a Graun editorial bit responding to N K Jemisin’s Hugo hat-trick. While I doubt we can say that the culture war has been won, it does at least look like the campaign that has torn the world of genre to shreds over the last decade or so has come to a conclusion: the redoubt has held. As Jemisin said in her acceptance speech, the stars are a little closer for all of us. The genre world, with hindsight, was something of a bellwether for the broader culture conflict that still rages around us; I’m going to cling to the hope that it might be a bellwether for its ending, also.