Tag Archives: hope

declining the unearned luxury of despair

Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber:

Our era is drenched in narrative. From the beguiling flame spiral of neoliberalism’s end of ‘grand narratives’, to Trump’s three and four word (lock her up / maga) ultra-short stories of destruction, to our helpless fascination with the far right’s ability to govern by unverified sound-bite, to the fact that every shitty little marketer on the Internet now calls themselves a ‘storyteller’; story has eaten the world.

Our preferred form of storytelling is so obsessed with endings that we’re convinced we’re ring-side at the biggest, baddest, worst ending ever – that of the centuries of Reason and their faithful but unfortunately carbon-emitting Engines of Progress. We love endings, revere protagonists, and not so secretly long for their mutual culmination in a fiery end of glorious and gorgeously terminal self-actualisation. Our whole mode of future-imagining is a death cult. We literally cannot imagine the world after us.

So, in the medium-term, I’m working on a book-shaped thing about how we use story to actively imagine and build better futures than the nihilistic inevitabilism currently on offer (especially from Big Tech.) It’s currently got a LOT in the mix – from how my abusive convent boarding school revealed the intimate relation between privacy and power, to how the English state’s origin stories that justify state coercion and soften the peasants up for perpetual violence (Leviathan, Lord of the Flies) are historically and culturally contingent cries for help. All that stuff shows how the stories we mindlessly reach for to understand how the world works operate as gate-keepers of possibility and crushers of hope.

The first commenter makes a fair point, albeit in a somewhat uncharitable way, by asking “when was it ever not so?”—I’ve argued before that narrative is the operating system of human culture, perhaps even the ur-technology, and as such it’s perhaps less that “story has eaten the world” and more that “story has been optimised and weaponised (by capital and its death-cult priesthood)”; I signed up a while ago to new journal-paper alerts for a bunch of communication science (read as “marketing voodoo”) journals, just to remind myself of the stakes and what we’re up against. (Also to provide some amount of fuel for the fire: as John Lydon put it, “anger is an energy”). But that observation doesn’t negate Farrell’s point—and I find it interesting that we have the boarding school experience in common as the crucible in which the hypocrisy and gaslighting of power was revealed to us early on.

Farrell goes on to outline her forthcoming book-shaped-project a bit more, and the threads will seem familiar to anyone who’s been reading along here for a while: critical utopianism avant la lettre, basically. It’s nice to know someone else is running on a parallel track… though I’m disappointed that Farrell doesn’t seem to have any other regular outlet for her writings beyond CT, as I’d like to follow along. Maybe she just prefers to develop her ideas in private.

I’ve not been very public myself of late, to be fair. I’ve been pretty quiet here after the outpourings of the summer, which is as much due to the sudden busyness of actual full-time office-hours employment as anything else—though there’s some of my customary season-shift malaise in the mix, also. The autumn equinox always sees this child of the summer go through something of a physical and emotional slump, and while I’m not that much further north than I was before, the seasons seem to turn very fast here in southern Sweden… and the shift in available daylight has been underscored by a shift to dull overcast weather, which compounds the vibes. I’m finding concentration something of a fight, and by using my climbing time as a measure of my physical condition, I’m clearly not running at 100%: it’s like I’ve dropped two or three grades in the space of a week (though a straw poll of other climbers at the same place suggests that part of the problem may be some extremely sandbaggy post-summer route-setting).

I’m a bit all over the shop emotionally as well, though that too seems a reasonable response to the circumstances: I’m reading as little current-events news out of the Anglosphere as I can get away with, but the bleakness and slo-mo-car-crash vibes out of the UK and US is strong enough that it only takes a few drops to bring me down and stoke up the survivor guilt. (I also think that the panicked and reactive tenor of the discourse—a message very much shaped by its medium—is only advantaging the death-cult, but making that point feels increasingly like remonstrating with a junkie who believes that they’ll never OD.) But the way out is through, individually as well as collectively—so I’m doing my best to put the anger and the angst to good use, and use it as fuel for the work.

Which is probably why Farrell’s post resonated with me so much. Here’s her closing shot:

The very least I personally can do as someone who knows a lot about tech and also, increasingly, something about storytelling, is offer ways to resist these bullshit framings and signal the way to spaces and possibilities that people better than me can build.

That’s my life’s work. I’m forty-eight and it’s just in the last year or two taken shape. All endings are beginnings and this is a moment when I feel we each need to figure out what we do in service of those who’ll come after us into this messed up world. I don’t think despair is an option; I think it’s an unearned luxury. But for some of us at this moment the life’s work may be simply to survive, to endure, and that has to be ok, too. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Actually it’s more of a relay race. Actually it’s not a race at all.

I recognise that sense of having found the thing that I need to do—not, to be clear, the sense that I can “save the world”, but the sense that I now know where and how I might push to contribute to the possibility of making a change. I remember something Deb Chachra said to me a while back, about how we people now in our forties should really be preparing to pass our power and authority on to the next generation coming up, but instead we’re stuck with trying to prise that power out of the death-grip of the Boomers… and I recognise Farrell’s identification of despair as an unearned luxury, perhaps because I’m crushingly aware of how I squandered my privileges as an adolescent.

So it’s time to pay it back, or rather pay it forward. It’s very possible that my efforts will amount to little, or even less—and of course the opportunity to make that effort is itself a privilege comprising unearned luck as much as (if not far more than) applied hustle. The only rational utility of privilege is to expend in it trying to make a world where privilege counts for less than it did when you started: just as the critical utopia takes the difficult and contingent path between the Scylla of dystopia and the Charybdis of solutionism, I have to find a path between Farrell’s unearned despair and sense of futility on the one hand, and switching off and fiddling while the world burns on the other. That I even have the bandwidth to do anything more than hang on for dear life is an indication that to do more is, in effect, my duty.

Perhaps that’s just another manifestation of my narcissism, I don’t know. But as an old roommate used to say, you’ve got to be able to get up in the morning and not want to punch the face you see in the mirror.

Selah—onwards.

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.

necessary but not sufficient; on hope and optimism in solarpunk and cyberpunk

Start with a disclaimer: I do not identify as a solarpunk. However, I do know some folk who do—most notably m’good buddy Jay Springett, who is one of that scene’s ideologues-in-chief, in as much as it has such things.

I also know some folk who study solarpunk from the perspective of the environmental humanities (EH), which is a discipline which overlaps somewhat with whatever the hell it is that counts for my own (un)discipline. For me (and I think for some of the EH people), solarpunk represents a predominantly (though, as Jay would point out, not at all exclusively) literary attempt to construct utopian imaginaries of climate-change adaptation achieved predominantly through the deployment of non-fossil energy generation technologies, plus a grab-bag of sociopolitical approaches which range from the full tech-bro-topia, to something that looks a lot like a form of degrowth as forced by an apocalyptic and out-of-frame climate Event. Heretofore, solarpunk has struggled to establish itself as a successful subgenre in commercial terms—though I am given to understand this is not really the point of it for “movement solarpunks”.

Part of the problem is that the development of literary form has rendered the classical utopian mode archaic and uninteresting to anyone not predisposed to its underlying theory: put more simply, classical utopias just don’t do the things that most readers want and expect a novel to do (which, at the risk of being reductive, is to depict characters struggling against obstacles to achieve goals, often in some derivation of the Hero’s Journey or similar metanarratives). The technological utopian mode, which dominated sf for most of the twentieth century, still has a significant (if dwindling and greying) fanbase, but it’s founded on the notion that all challenges are soluble through predominantly technological means without significant reconfiguration of the dominant socioeconomic and political backdrop; to be reductive again, the technological utopia is about depicting the successful human mastery of nature through the dynamics of capitalist production. As I understand it, solarpunk clings to a technological-utopian ideal—it’s very much about depicting desirable futures enabled by technological means. But its tacit admission that climate change is not only caused by the consequences of technocapitalism, but also cannot be fully “solved” by it, means it can’t “fit” into the expectations of the technological utopian modality—which means it won’t sell to the grey fans of what Clute has called “the ‘old’ [or twentieth-century] sf”, in which “the future is the reward for saying ‘yes'”.

Dystopia, as any glance at the bookstore shelves—or Twitter, for that matter—still sells pretty well. There’s a long-running debate as to the ethics and morality of producing dystopic literatures in response to a challenge such as climate change that I don’t want to get into here, except to say that I’m largely in agreement with Ryan Oakley when he says “what the fuck is the point of writing dystopia if not to try to prevent it?”, and that I find Peter Watts’s wallowing in fatalism to be a great disappointment, coming as it does from someone who is both a brilliant writer and far more scientifically clued up than even the average sf author*. To be clear, I’m not in denial about the scale of the challenge—though there are days I wish that I could be, it’s a hazard of my profession, just as it is for Watts. It’s more that I suspect the climate defeatism is in a way almost as pernicious as climate denialism. With apologies for resorting to cliche: to try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it.

All of which brings me to Nader Elhefnawy’s review of a new solarpunk antho at Strange Horizons. Now, to be clear, I’ve not read the book, nor indeed much solarpunk fiction; my interest here is less with the literature itself, and more the professed ideals of the movement which surround it. What first interested me about Elhefnawy’s piece was that we appear to be in agreement on the defeatism issue—Elhefnawy suggests that it’s a function of the manufacture of consent, which I suspect is at least in part true. (Though the case of Watts suggests there’s something in that particular imaginary that appeals even to those who are very aware of the scope of the climate challenge, to the extent that they will reproduce and spread it.)

Where we part ways—and where Elhefnawy, Watts and I perhaps begin to form a triangle of positions, rather than merely a binary—is in the conflation of optimism and hope. This conflation is pretty widespread, as indicated by the backlash and mockery piled upon the notion of hopepunk—which, admittedly, was a terribly corny name (though I suspect it was intended as a deliberately ironic construction, a riff perhaps upon solarpunk itself, which went on to be misparsed in the prevailing cultural vibe of the New Sincerity). But the original hopepunk pitch very clearly abjured optimism. That was the whole point: that optimism is passive (in much the same way that pessimism/defeatism is passive), but that hope is (self-)motivating, an action rather than a position: to hope for a better future is to look for ways in which you might work to bring it into being.

I’m in agreement with Elhefnawy’s insistence that reducing climate change to a singular Event in the distant past of a narrative is counterproductive to solarpunk’s supposed ideals—indeed, it’s a kind of pessimism, as well as a rejection of the fundamentally dynamic notion of ecosystems that does no favours to anyone who really wants to work for that better future. (If you assume that the climate might be “fixed” or returned to some notional idealised earlier state, by technological means or otherwise, then you’re just reproducing the social/natural dichotomy that enables the ongoing externalisation of said climate by propping up the dogma of perpetual growth.)

I also agree that there is a necessity for imaginaries which “[present] the possibility of a positive response to the problem, and acknowledging something of what it calls for—technology, organization, global scale”, as Elhefnawy puts it. But while I see those things as necessary, I do not see them as sufficient—and furthermore, I suspect that those things cannot be achieved without the smaller-scale community reconfigurations which solarpunk stories have heretofore focussed upon. That they haven’t yet done so in a manner that makes for good literature, nor often done so in a manner which recognises the linkage between the local and the global, between the individual and the systemic (which is, of course, the infrastructural metasystem), is a deficiency—but Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that some solarpunk authors are edging in that direction, albeit very gradually.

It seems to me that Elhefnawy is caught in the rubble of “the ‘old’ sf”, the literature of an older technoutopian metaimaginary: he recognises the poisonous legacy of technoutopianism (as seen in his rejection of defeatism as a fossil-sponsored narrative), but is still trapped by the legacy solutionisms of technological change and global governance as the only answer to the problem, and the route toward “the rejection of ‘the inevitability of our doom'”.

In other words, Elhefnawy seems to share at some level that same assumption that the problem can be “fixed”, when in fact the challenge is to adapt to a world in which a significant (but as yet not fully quantified or qualified) amount of environmental change is already a fait accompli. We could turn of every spigot of greenhouse gases today, and we’d still have perhaps a century or more of climate change to come, albeit change of a gradually lessening intensity. And even then, the new state into which the ecosystem settled would no be “how it was before we started with the fossils”—nor indeed would it be “settled”, as this is not how ecosystems work. They are in constant complex motion, even when seemingly in equilibrium as seen from the tiny temporal scale which our mortal monkey brains provide us. To be clear, we can—and should—still work for mitigation, and we should do so through global organisation to whatever extent that is possible. But more pressing for the vast majority of human and non-human beings on this planet is the challenge of adapting to what’s already in the pipe… and on that front, technological solutions (in the commonly-used sense of “novel” “entrepreneurial” “innovations”) and top-down governance aren’t going to do much good.

For regular readers, it will be no surprise that I think that solarpunk has the potential to be a subgenre that operatisonalises the critical-utopian mode—though whether that will necessarily make it commercially viable is another question, and perhaps to some extent beside the point. Elhefnawy’s reading suggests that the authors are not not there yet, but also that the audience isn’t quite ready for it either; while both authors and audience instinctively recognise the necessity of hope, it remains conflated with the legacy of twentieth century sf’s passive and solutionist techno-optimism.

However, I’m starting to think that the precursors of the critical-utopian modality I’m looking for have been hiding in plain sight all along, disguised by a misparsing of anything that isn’t necessarily (techno)utopian as being therefore dystopian. It’s not a fashionable thing to say in this day and age, but the better writers and writings of cyberpunk seem to me to have been grappling with the challenges of adaptation to neoliberal capitalism run amok all along (rather than celebrating it, as seems to be the prevalent critical position, at least in the more fannish ends of the critical junket); that those challenges were not always exclusively ecological-environmental is, if anything, a prop to my assumption. Think of stories like Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei” or “Bicycle Repairman”: I’d say they’re clearly solarpunk, albeit very much avant le lettre. Or at least I see them as being what solarpunk claims it wants to be… and what it might become when it sheds the techno-optimistic legacy and sees more clearly what the challenges really are.

[ * I also find it a bit jarring that someone so very certain that the climate is hosed will still fly around the world to consultancy events to deliver his doomer prophecy… though I guess if you think there’s no chance of changing anything, then you might as well carbon-party like it’s 1999. It’s a shame; he’d be a great ally to the cause of hope, if he could bring himself to have some. ]

Resistance to the colonising present

While I was in Hebden Bridge, I looked out of the window of a coffee shop one Friday at lunchtime, and saw a small crowd of schoolchildren on a climate protest. Sensitized by being in England, it dawned on me that what I was seeing was a rebellion of the natives against the colonizers – the inhabitants of the future marshaling resistance to the colonizing present and to the extraction of the resources that they will need to thrive.

The response of colonizing powers to uprisings has been chillingly consistent. […] It’s hard to stay optimistic when the worst of history is repeating itself, and writing a thousand words about colonial atrocities isn’t exactly helping. I want to be able to say with total confidence that we’re not going to open fire on anyone’s children for standing up against us and demanding a better world, but it’s really, really hard.

Deb Chachra

The notion that the present is colonising — or, in economic terms, externalising — the future is a powerful, if distinctly bleak metaphor. But I think it also contains some cause for hope regarding the ultimate result of this struggle, provided we lean into the metaphor a little further.

If the future stands for the colonised territories, then the past stands for the colonial core, the base of power from which the colonial project is directed and sustained as both project and narrative, through and into the present.

And we are currently seeing a substantive and drastic remapping of the past, a new narrative being pieced together by ever more subaltern voices: the enslaved, the oppressed, the exploited, slowly and painfully dragging into the light the stories of their subjection.

Empires collapse from the center outward. As the hold of capital and whiteness (which are effectively synonyms) over the past is loosened, its ideological supply-lines and recruitment strategies are thus broken and undermined. This would seem a good explanation for the recent surge in overt attempts to reassert this narrative, which previously had relied upon euphemism, effacement, and a veneer of scientism. The old metanarrative is breaking down, and we are living through the ever-more-desperate attempts of its primary benefactors to shore it up.

The hazard of collapse is the absence of a new narrative to take over from the old one. Deb goes on to say that:

… there absolutely is a path through to a better future for everyone, one that’s sustainable and resilient and equitable. But we have to learn to see it, to stay focused on it, and to follow it down. That’s the work.

That IS the work. It is all of our work — not just to tear down, but to replace. This holds true for physical systems as well as social ones — which, as I hope you know by now, are so entangled as to be inseparable.

Network is a verb. A network is a becoming, a thing that happens — a performance taking place upon and across a physical substrate. The engineering of the latter is part of the poetry of the former, and vice versa.

Contact low: reading Mark Fisher

I bought the K-Punk collected works of Mark Fisher late last year, and have slowly been working my way through it, going through phases of reading a few pieces a night before bed when I haven’t been reading fiction. I think I’m maybe ¾ through the thing now, factoring in for the notes and references; it’s a huge breezeblock of a book, the sort of thing that makes a Neal Stephenson novel look like a pamphlet by comparison.

Aside from the actual content of the pieces themselves, which are almost invariably stimulating, the book as a whole has a vibe to it, which one must assume is driven in some part by my knowing its provenance. One aspect of the vibe is a sense in which it shames me: Fisher was an incisive thinker and an astonishingly productive writer, and this book represents merely a selection of his non-professional extra-curricular writings, much of it produced while he was struggling to support a young family as a casualised lecturer in a minor FE college. I look at the quantity and the quality and the continuity of it, and I look at my own output in recent years, and I wonder what the hell my excuse is, when this guy was cranking it out relentlessly, building up a body of thought, an edifice of theory and observation and insight. His elevation to a sort of secular sainthood since his suicide is thus as understandable as it’s unsettling. I find the constellation-face image that they used for the cover tasteless and mawkish, almost exploitative. I wonder if he wouldn’t have found it contemptible himself, even as I wish he were still around to have an opinion on it.

(I should note here that although I know that I read a few K-Punk pieces on the blog circuit “back in the day”, having recognised a few of them in the course of reading this book, I was not a regular reader of Fisher, and had only become aware of him as a significant figure around 2014 or so, probably due to his reinvigoration of the notion of hauntology, which was – and still is – very influential among a lot of people I still follow and read today.)

The other aspect of the vibe of the book is what I’m calling a “contact low”. It’s probably exacerbated by the curation of the collection, and also by the fact that I’m deep into the specifically political-theoretical section of the book at this point, but the exhaustion and enervation of the man just pours off the page, like writing had become a habitual method of exorcism for channeling away some of his fury and frustration at the circumstances. He looked deeply and critically into the abyss, but he was always looking for lights in its darkness, and I think that’s where my contact low is coming from at the moment: reading his posts about the student uprisings of 2010, the riots of 2011, reading his hopes that they marked a turning point, or at least the first hints of a turn, away from the relentlessly festering mulch of capitalist realism – hopes I shared at the time, though I couldn’t have expressed them in the same terms, or with the same incisive clarity. And I think of all that’s happened since, and how I struggled with it, likewise looking for any light in the darkness… and rather than a turn to the left, we ended up with fucking Brexit. In the absence of any personal connection to him, it would be reductive and crass to assume that it was some sort of final straw for Fisher, but I remember clearly my own experience of the first few months after the referendum, and to call it a massive psychic trauma would not be to understate things at all. I was all out of hope; I guess that maybe he was, too.

Three years later, here we are, staggering into what we must presume is the third and final act of this surreal piece of political theatre, with all the themes and major characters having clarified themselves down to caricatures of the grotesques that they began as, but still no sense of how the thing might end, or if indeed there will ever be any resolution to this seemingly hopeless shit-show of a situation. I’ve been struggling psychologically this last couple of weeks, after a nine-month period of mental stability and relative contentment that’s almost without precedent in my life to date, and which presumably has a very great deal to do with finally having a decent income that results from doing work I actually believe in, among other factors. Indeed, my life is better than it ever has been, in almost every respect; I am both privileged and fortunate, though I decline to downplay the role of hustle and effort on my part in getting me here. We’re all running hard in this Red Queen’s Race; I was lucky to have people around who picked me up when I tripped and fell. Would that everyone was so fortunate.

I’m not blaming Fisher’s writing for my little turn to the bleak, to be clear – but I think it’s surely in the mix, alongside a weird viral lurgy I picked up a few weeks back, the dismal dynamics of this week’s weather, and the reactionary carnival freak-show of the Tory party trying to determine who among them can best rally their dementia-adjacent membership of 1950s cosplayers and authority-fetishists. It’s OK to be low from time to time, particularly when there’s so many things to feel low about. We are victims of the privatisation of stress; the tragic gift of Fisher’s work was to identify, describe and give a name to the thing that destroyed him, in order that we might eventually destroy it in return.

There are reasons to be hopeful, if not optimistic, about the bigger picture; you just have to look away from the big-top clown-show to see them, and then you have to write and talk about them, because hope is a flame, and if you blow on it enough, it might start to catch. I’m wary of making promises to myself, or to the imagined public that is whatever audience remains for this here blog – but I also want to try to alchemise my experience of the times we’re living through in the way that Fisher did, to turn the shit into gold. I think it will help me to stay upright if I document my hopes and fears, and I hope it might be helpful to others as well.

There IS an alternative. There are many alternatives, and we can explore them.

But I think one of Fisher’s most crucial, if under-discussed points, was that we can’t explore them alone.

So it’s time to step outside again and find the others, and to begin the work, despite the terrible weather.

It can’t rain forever.