Tag Archives: metasystemics

neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental

Medium-length essay here by Rob Nixon, whose “slow violence” concept was briefly introduced to me back in early March at a little symposium thing in Utrecht; I’ve acquired the book, obvs, but it’ll likely be a while before I get to it, and I wanted to put up a quick placeholder for it on the digital wall-of-academic-crazy that this blog is slowly becoming. This, I would assume, is the thesis of the book in a nutshell:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

Nixon’s task in this essay is more than a little inside-baseball, as it’s for the USian Chronicle of Higher Ed. He’s talking about the invisibility of slow violence in the humanities, which is just starting to fall away. The argument goes that Environmental Literary Studies / EcoCriticism and Postcolonial Studies developed in parallel, but rarely spoke to one another thanks to assumptions of divergence and incompatibility in subjects and theory alike; this dialogue is starting to emerge, says Nixon, but needs to be deepened. EcoCrit is particularly parochial (at least in the US, by Nixon’s account: “an offshoot of American Studies”; I can’t speak to its breadth or narrowness elsewhere with confidence, as it’s not my beat). To interrogate this parochialism, Nixon takes up the figure of martyred Ogoni author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 by the prevailing regime in Nigeria for a lifetime’s resistance to European and American oli interests and their “attritional ruination” of Ogoni homelands:

One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.

Some of the violence he sought to expose was direct and at gunpoint, but much of it was incremental, oblique, and slow moving.

It was not spectacular, in other words.

Nixon argues that Saro-Wiwa was illegible to EcoCrit in the US because his Africanness made it easy to tag him as a subject more suited to PoCo; at the same time, PoCo critics (in the grand tradition of Said) were dismissing environmentalism as a sort of “green imperialism”. Things have changed since then, with western activists wiser and more willing to learn from the marginalised (though Spivak would object to the use of that descriptor, as it reinforces the otherness that Nixon is seeking to undermine: marginal from what, to whom?); this is in part due to “the writer-activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers who have helped bring news of those struggles to international audiences and, in the process, have underscored the link between social and environmental justice.” The “transnational turn” in American studies, sez Nixon, and a growing engagement with native literatures emerging from American Indian studies, “will help advance a more historically answerable and geographically expansive sense of what constitutes our environment—and which literary works we entrust to voice its parameters. For all the recent progress toward that goal, it remains a continuing, ambitious, and crucial task, not least because, for the foreseeable future, literature departments are likely to remain influential players in the greening of the humanities.”

I’m less interested in the academic politics of this stuff than the distinction in rhetorics that Nixon is driving toward with the “slow violence” concept. He claims that Global-Southern writer-activists:

… are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.

I got quite interested a while back in a spectrum of narrative logics from cinema studies, namely the spectacular and the dramatic, because it seemed to me a good way to start poking holes in the extruded product of the Hot Take Futures Factory. The spectacular logic might reductively described as the James Bay approach to storytelling (make a lot of things explode excitingly on screen, focus on moment-to-moment jeopardies and gun-point confrontations), while the dramatic logic is more driven by relationships, character growth, and a situatedness of events in contextual timespace.

(There may also be some useful cross-over here with the notion of flat and rounded characters, though the flat character is not an inferior form so much as one that does a different sort of work–particularly within the scope of modern sf, e.g. Bruce Sterling, who uses flat characters as avatars for ideas in a sometimes problematic but nonetheless powerful way.)

The spectacular logic is a thing of cinema, and for better or for worse, cinema is Hollywood’s creature, a recrudescence of Manifest Destiny and a perpetual recreation of the expansionist frontier mythology: cowboys’n’indians, heroic gunplay, a background of resource extraction, etc etc. Perhaps no surprise, then, that American studies was more drawn to such stories. I infer that the Global-Southern rhetoric thus draws more on the dramatic logic, which is precisely slower, more intimate and diffuse, less Black-Hat-White-Hat… and while I don’t know the EcoCrit or PoCo literatures that well, I’m getting strong echoes from (of course) Le Guin and Haraway, from carrier-bag stories and stayings-with-troubles, all of which suggests I need to talk more to my enviro-and-energy-humanities colleagues, and start reading more widely in fiction as well as theory. (There’s always more things to read, always more more-things-to-read…)

As a final aside, there’s probably something to say about the pandemic (whose mediatisation is entirely spectacular) using this slow violence lens (which would be a nice distraction from the way in which Agamben, while not exactly looking right about it all, is starting to look less wrong about it in a way that’s more than a little disturbing… see also Gordon White’s chaos-magickal take on the biopolitics of the pandemic). Slow violence (as distinct from spectacular violence) might be a better way to come at Oncle Bruno’s argument that the pandemic won’t necessarily make the climate change struggle more obvious and urgent to western folk, because it’s hard to make climate change spectacular without reverting into the other characteristics of such narrative forms: the spectacle is a more immediately compelling logic by comparison to the dramatic.

(But also because the effacement of extractivism’s consequences is an inevitable feature of the metamedium across which such stories are necessarily circulated–the projection/depiction of said consequences takes place upon the surface of the metasystemic prosthesis through which we collectively perform the extraction, and thus serves to efface its (and thus our) complicity in the extractivist dynamic. The machine through which the disenchantment of the world is shown to us is the same machine through which we do the disenchanting… it’s the tech-magician’s perpetual prestige, the show that never ends.)

Perhaps, because less thoroughly mediated, native and/or Global Southern narratologies are less optimised for the spectacular logic, and thus more capable of portraying the drama of slow violence. The failure, if that’s the right word, is the loss of our ability to parse such forms as familiar; if the environmental humanities can rehabilitate that collective literacy, even just a little bit, that’s surely a good thing.

(To which one might retort that the academic humanities are a pretty small bucket for a boat that’s leaking this fast… but hey, many small buckets have gotta beat arguing about who’s got the biggest one. Everyone grab what you got, and start bailing.)

expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for (‘think about the box’, redux)

The excellent Alexis Lloyd observes that the road to hell has in recent years been paved with “user-centred” design; while well-intended, it’s also pernicious.

… in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.

This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.

Note my emphasis there: user-centred design is part of the prestidigitatory process, the front-of-house flourish of consumption that distracts attention from the concealed systems of extraction, production and distribution. Provision ex nihilo; it’s not a bug, it’s THE feature.

So what’s the alternative?

To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?

Personally I would underline “to begin with” a couple of times. STEEP is a step on from a lot of commonly-used foresight frameworks, but more often than not the ‘S’ component ends up being a gesture or genuflection in the direction of some currently fashionable shibboleth such as “wellbeing” or “resilience”; ditto the use of some rough quantitative estimate of “sustainability” in the environmental column.

These are points that I started trying to make a long time ago, though I was almost laughably bad at making myself understood, in part because I lacked (and indeed still lack, to some extent) a complete language with which to map this way of seeing the world in order that it might make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in my own brain-pan. (A curse that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, etc etc.)

Indeed, it’s what I was grasping toward with my early exhortation to “think about the box”, in my first (and painfully stilted) public presentation of any significance, way back in 2013 at Improving Reality:

Back to Lloyd:

If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

To reference another Douglas Adams idea, where might we find the Total Perspective Vortex? I’ve never believed that I have all the right answers, nor indeed many of them; rather, my whole point is that no one can have all the right answers, and thus matters of design need to be approached from a plurality of subjectivities and transdisciplinarity.

However, I do believe I have (some of) the right questions. I’m just not yet able to articulate them all in a useful way… and that is the labour of theory, at least for me.

Murketing / Agency

Ryan Alexander Diduck at tQ on the demise of R*d B*ll Music Academy:

We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.

This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.

It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.

In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:

[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”

The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.

I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.

Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.

To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.

A more humane and generous account

Eugene McCarraher at Aeon:

If it’s long past time to deny that ‘there is no alternative’ to capitalism, the time has come to renounce the parochial secular dogma of ‘the disenchantment of the world’. The pre-modern belief in the enchantment of the world – modernised in Romanticism, blending scientific rationality with Hopkins’s conviction of God’s worldly grandeur – offers a more humane and generous account of our place in creation, and it provides the most compelling foundation for opposition to capitalism.

Cf. my talk from a few years back: “How does the rabbit end up in the hat? (Or: what transhumanism doesn’t want you to know about infrastructure.)”

The technology/magic overlap is in desperate need of more thorough exploration. Assorted friends’n’colleagues have been doing great work with Haunted Machines, but that’s not quite the same thing that interests me; for me, technology isn’t merely analogous to stage magic, it IS stage magic. Which is fine, so long as everyone understands that the trick is a trick, and that the magic that powers the trick is a function of the plenitude of the world. But the disenchantment of capitalism is reified through infrastructure’s seeming provision ex nihilo: we mistake the plenitude of the world for the beneficence of the metasystem, while the latter is actually engaged in the effacement of the consequences of our consumption.

(Yes, this is just my own particular beachhead in the massed last-ditch assault upon the social/natural dichotomy. Because if you’re going to choose a hill to die on, why choose a crowded one?)