Tag Archives: metasystemics

“A part of the world’s worlding”: Sofia (2000), Container Technologies

  • Sofia, Z. (2000). Container technologies. Hypatia, 15(2), 181-201.

I first read this back in the heady days of 2016 or so, on the direct recommendation of its author; I don’t get to name-drop very often, but Zoe Sofoulis (writing here as Zo Sofia, as she sometimes does) is a good friend, and served as a much-needed supplementary mentor for a confused science fiction writer turned doctoral student who was busily discovering they were a social theorist while trying to finish a PhD in a civil engineering department. I’m returning to it now partly because I’ve long meant to, but also because there’s a workshoppy-conferency thing coming up based around it, for which I’m intending to write a thing, and I feel like it’s always best to know what you’re riffing on as well as you can.

And what a joy it has been to return to it, with a bunch more years of experience and theory under my belt! A lot of the really good stuff here somewhat passed me by the first time round, but I can see this being a real plank citation going forwards. So, let’s get into it, eh?

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Intro

Sofia’s opening frame is the notion of the re-sourcing of the world, an idea which I believe first surfaces as a couple of asides in Haraway’s justly famed “Situated Knowledges” piece: this is the reduction of the world, through the supposedly objective top-down gaze of the technoscientific “God trick”, to a storehouse of stuff to be extracted and used. Sofia notes here the paradoxical shortages (of land, housing, food, and more) that accompany this perspective of seeming plenitude, and the threat of the exhaustion of the planetary body concealed behind the abundant figure of the “Super Mother” construct so necessary to late-late consumer capitalism.

(It is not a criticism to observe that while Sofia identifies the “want” of “[w]e greedy metropoles” for this “facilitating environment” (p181), the origins or causes of that want—and the distinctions one might make between wants and needs—are not in the frame of this piece; that’s out of scope. But it means that some sort of connective work between the distribution/facilitation focus herein and various strands of libidinal theory could be quite productive.)

So. “Artifacts for containment and supply are not only readily interpreted as metaphorically feminine; they are also historically associated with women’s traditional labours” (p182); they are also largely overlooked by histories and philosophies and tech, much as women themselves have been largely overlooked by history and philosophy more broadly, and Sofia is looking to “unsettle habitual assumptions that space is merely an unintelligent container, or containers dumb spaces” (ibid). To do so, she deploys

  • the ideas of Bateson and Winnicot, in order to think through emergent subjectivities in cybernetic ecologies;
  • Mumford’s thought on the distinction between tools and utensils (which is not quite so purely a gendered issue as he proposed; and
  • Heidegger, for “key insights into the importance of containment and supply in the late modern period”.

I will flag here that the periodicity of this paper is worth keeping in mind: it’s two decades old now, and as such doesn’t quite roll up to the current condition of our global logistical metasystem. This is less a shortcoming than an opportunity to think about those last twenty years as a period of intensified elision, resulting in a configuration that, while not exactly new, nonetheless represents a distinct set of conditions for thinking about containment, facilitation, distribution, infrastructure… but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, here, aren’t I?)

“No environment, no entity”

First up is the polymathic Gregory Bateson, here combining his roles as epistemologist and cybernetics theorist; his “epistemological perspective on the unit of survival […] is a cybernetic one, based around a notion of the immanence of mind and subjectivity” (p182); Sofia summarises this as the belief that “intelligence is not confined to the deliberations of the contending ego or cogito, but can be found in the changing patterns of mutual adaptation and co-adaptation undergone within and by the organism-environment ensemble” (p183). She discusses a (very!) early “smart home” concept (designed by the architect France GaBe) in which drudgeries such as loading and unloading washing machines and dishwashers are engineered away through the use of “specialised cupboards” which do more than merely store things; this adaptiveness between organism and environment is contrasted to the top-down command-and-control concepts that predominate in (male-authored) “smart home” designs.

(Note that this paper pretty much predates the popular apotheosis of the execrable and still-shambling “smart city” concept, but its insights would likely scale up suitably for critical application there as well.)

Next we turn to a provocation from “object relations psychoanalyst” D W Winnicott, as expanded upon by Thomas Ogden (another psychoanalyst: “There is no such thing as an infant [apart from the maternal provision]”. In Sofia’s summary, for Winnicott and those after him, “the baby is seen as part of its environment—the maternal provision” (p184); “the infant’s subjectivity is immanent within and emergent from the context of intersubjective containment” (ibid). The “space” of the self/(m)other system is experienced alongside (or rather in negotiation with?) the inner “space” of fantasy and imagination, and the “outer world of sociotechnical reality”, elements of all of which conjoin in Winnicott’s “potential space”; playing safely therein in is (again glossing Winnicott) “the foundation for later creative experiencing and cultural production” (ibid). Therefore:

In the intersubjectivist model of subject formation, the self is understood as an entity given shape through various dynamic relationships of containment that both construct and occur in spaces that are interpersonal, imaginative, real, active, the products of conscious efforts as well as unconscious or automatic labours.

p184-5

Sofia finishes off this section with an “inventory” of ways in which these insights might be applied to container technologies, which I won’t repeat here—though I will note that she basically drops a half-dozen doctoral thesis topics on the table and leaves them there for others to pick up and run with, because she has other fish to fry in this paper.

Technics of the unobtrusive

This section starts by reiterating the overlookedness of technological forms associated or metaphorically identified with the feminine, and turns to good ol’ Lewis Mumford for a look at why that might be the case. Mumford (in Technics and Human Development) contrasts the “tool” (male, out-in-the-world, attack-y) with the “utensil” (female, stay-at-home, protective), but earlier (in Technics and Civilisation) made a distinction between “machines and tools” and (in Sofia’s words) “technologies of containment and supply, categorised as utensils (like baskets or pots), apparatus (such as dye vats, brick kilns), utilities (reservoirs, aqueducts, roads, buildings) and the modern power utility (railroad tracks, electric transmission lines)” (p186); Mumford’s take is that human attention is drawn by the noisy, mobile and active things in the environment, and as such these utensil-forms get overlooked, despite their necessarily underpinning, well, everything.

Sofia notes that the gendering of containment as female (a la Mumford and many more) is commonplace, but far from universally or rigidly applied, and also that “Mumford’s laments” about their being overlooked are just as applicable to STS/phil-of-tech fields. Exceptions to this include Heidegger (to come), and one Don Idhe, whose phenomenological interpretations Sofia rejects because they “finely differentiate amongst tools and machines, but lump all the utensils and space together as background” (p187); she suggests instead that we seek an analysis that emphasises [utensils/containers] over [tools/machines] as a corrective to this enduring bias, and a way of reclaiming (and maybe even queering?) de facto macho technologies (e.g. the skyscraper, whose undeniably dong-like form nonetheless performs a womb-like protection from the outside world).

But if it’s not (just) the simple gendering, why then the overlooking of container technologies? Sofia suggests we might blame a “misogynistic metaphysics”, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks, which represents space as “a passive, neutral vessel”, resulting in “man’s failure to grow up and acknowledge indebtedness to the spatial/maternal environment and the labours of those who sustain this facilitating space” (p188); these labours are “menial” because they are not heroically productive of exciting and admirable things (in something of a pre-echo of Saint Donna’s extension of Le Guin’s “carrier bag” theory).

But that’s “not the full story” either:

The problem is […] the structure of production and reproduction itself. The container is a structurally necessary but frequently unacknowledgeable precondition of becoming. […] To keep utensils, apparatus and utilities in mind is difficult because these kinds of technological objects are designed to be unobtrusive, and, like the environment mother, “make their presence felt, but not noticed”.

p188; emphasis added

Hence Sofia goes on to speculatively (re)interpret Mumford’s taxonomy as such:

The utensil: the generic container, a basket or bowl, perhaps corresponds to the mother as a container into which we dump our excess stuff, and which we come to consider as an extension of ourselves.

Apparatus: the specialized container, like an oven or a vat, in which something may be created or transformed. The apparatus, as well as the specialized space that houses it (the kitchen, the lab, the workshop), could be interpreted as equivalents of the potential space where inner and outer worlds are negotiated in the course of discovery/invention.

Utilities: these can include buildings (from humble cottages to huge environment-controlled spaces like shopping malls or airport terminals) as well as various channels for dynamic flows (like pipes, cables, reservoirs). These technologies reproduce something like the “environment mother” who works unobtrusively to ensure “smooth functioning” and continued supply to the infant whose bodily states and feelings she regulates.

p189

Foregrounding containers

Next follows a brief “domestic survey” of Sofia’s home, which serves to destabilise Mumford’s distinction between the “dynamic” [tool/machine] and the “static” [utensil/container], by observing that a perfectly average kitchen is replete with objects which partake in both aspects to a greater or lesser degree:

The distinction between tool or machine and utensil and apparatus hangs on the dynamic/static distinction, but it could be debated whether holding or containing is simply to be considered as a passively inhering property of a shared space, or whether containing is rather to be thought of as a form of action in itself. I favour the latter interpretation…

p190

Das Ding

This, for me at least, is the chewiest and most interesting chunk of the whole piece. It starts with a gloss on Heidegger’s Thing (stop sniggering at the back!), in which Sofia observes that for Heidegger the jug’s Thingness comes from its being a vessel of holding. How does the jug’s void hold? “[H]olding is active and ambiguously two-folded, comprising the actions of taking and keeping.” (p191)

(Now, this interests me in particular, because it seems to me that while there is surely a two-foldedness to holding, taking and keeping are only one side thereof; to me, the two aspects are rather holding-in and keeping-out. This is where I suspect my own pending piece in this space is going to go… but for now, back to Sofia and Heidegger.)

Sofia identifies some things of note in Heidegger’s account of holding: that he does not consider it passive, but rather a complex action; that it “celebrate[s] spilling out”, and thus emphasises supply; that the functions of taking and holding are fulfilled through the outpouring/supply function, making the jug “a technology of re-sourcing: it can be filled from a source, then itself becomes a source of what it has kept and preserved” (p192). But she identifies a limitation, too, in that not all containers are designed for impermeability and/or one-shot outpourings: containment may be designed as incomplete, permeable or leaky, as well as permanent, which raises the notion of “incontinences”, failures of containment that may be “deliberate […] catastrophic […] or merely embarrassing” (ibid).

Next we step back to Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which Sofia sees an order of container technologies being thematised, through the complementary notions of “humans as dwellers, and building as a letting-dwell” (ibid); dwelling here has connotations of remaining/staying-in-place, but also cherishing, protecting, preserving, caring-for.

There is a notable resonance between this idea of a safe preserve for humans or other entities to become themselves, and the intersubjectivist account of the maternal function as one of actively containing an emergent subject and letting it play safely in potential space, so it can become who it is. The emphasis in both cases is not on the singular entity (the subject, the thing, the organism), but on belongingness to and interactions in an actively containing and preserving environment shared with entities both human and non-human […] Heidegger’s notion […] of making room for involves both admitting and installing…”

p193

Here we encounter briefly Heidegger’s notion of the four-fold, with whose religious overtones Sofia admits to some discomfort, but she does “appreciate the necessity of a concept something like [it] as a way of thinking about how even everyday objects are condensations of many factors which come together in a specific context or network and have no existence or ‘standing’ outside that context” (p193); drawing on Heidegger’s etymological observation that “Thing” in old German also meant “a gathering” (which, interestingly, is much the same in old Swedish), Sofia connects this gathering to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory. Which brings us back to the theme of emergence from the first section:

… the thing emerges in a ‘nearness’ or rather a process of ‘nearing’ that gathers remote elements into itself; thus a local and specific object is also a manifestation of its macro-context, a part of the world’s worlding…

The thing, the emergent subject, or the sociotechnical actor […] are to be understood in their specificity, characterised not in terms of the entity’s peculiar properties examined in isolation, but rather as spatially and temporally contingent manifestations that are part of a whole environment, field, or network.

p194

And presto, geographical and sociological levels and scales are collapsed, or at least made navigable-between. And we get a geographer-centric remix of the Winnicott riff from earlier: “there is no such thing as a locality [apart from its globality]“.

Macrocontainment

Now we start getting into that moment of interesting temporality that I flagged up at the start of this reading, as Sofia calls up one more bit of Heidegger, namely “The Question Concerning Technology”, and contrasts the bringing-forth of techne (e.g. making, crafting a chalice or a jug “thing”) with what we might call the “re-source gaze” of late capitalism, which:

“… draws connections between the exploitation of the earth as a calculable resource, the demands of profit-driven development, the character of modern research, apparatus-dependent science, and the mathematization or ‘informatizination’ of the world. ‘Bringing forth’ has been reduced to somethign like imposing upon and ripping out, via an agressive technoscientific ‘challenging-forth’ of the world to reveal itself in the form of resources and information for consumption…”

p195

Heidegger calls the macro-technology (or, in my own terms, metasystem) of re-sourcing the Bestand, which Sofia translates as “standing-reserve”, a “mobilizable stockpile of resources available for instant supply” (p195); Heidegger offers the plane waiting on the airstrip as an example of this systemicity, and Sofia adds the image of “rows of stacked large containers ready equally for transport by road, rail or sea” (ibid); now “[t]he object loses its qualities as the Gegenstand—that which resists and stands against—and the machine loses its standing as an autonomous tool, dissolved into the Bestand, where it is just another ‘completely unautonomous’ element in the abstract and global grid of the resourced world” (ibid). Hence another Winnicottism: “there’s no such thing as a technology [apart from the standing-reserve]”.

(Or, in my own terminology: there is no such thing as an interface [apart from the infrastructural metasystem].)

Now, temporality: just-in-time logistics is quite an old idea, but it has arguably only achieved something close to ubiquity in the last two decades, i.e. since this paper was written. The figure of the waiting plane was probably outdated even then, if not when Heidegger first came up with it: planes don’t wait to be called upon, as that would be inefficient and costly; rather, the plane is in a tightly scheduled pattern of nigh-perpetual motion, so as to avoid being a wasted asset, and the capacity it represents, rather than waiting to be filled up by a shipment or a passenger manifest, is arbitraged out across a complex system of algorithmic markets. In other words, the reserve no longer stands: warehousing represents inventory that isn’t making anyone any money, and empty logistical capacity represents bandwidth going unused, which is why both have been eradicated from as many parts of the supply chain as possible. Sofia’s example of the containers is likewise telling: there is usually a reserve of these, but the size and location of those reserve(s) is an important part of the overall logistical metasystem, to the extent that when the models break (because, say, a global pandemic drops a Chicxulub on your optimally quantified scenarios), a lack of containers (or containers in the wrong place) means that the goods cannot move as they should. Which, when you’re talking about commodities in a globalised economy of foodstuffs, is pretty bad news all round.

Again, for emphasis: the standing-reserve no longer stands; rather, it is in constant motion. A metaphor (not without flaws) that keeps coming to mind here is the difference between a short-order kitchen and the carousel at a sushi joint. (Which, given the role of the zaibatsu in the formation of global supply chains as currently constituted, as described by Anna Tsing, is an interesting figuration; the Toyota Production System, and its countless imitations and evolutions, also emerged from Japan, and it seems interesting that a similar phenomenon emerged in its food culture.)

“One danger of this framework,” Sofia notes, “is that it turns everything, even ourselves, into the same: neither thing, object or subject, but raw material, standing reserve, human resource” (p196); o hai capitalist-realist business-ontology, amirite? (At this point I would want to gesture toward the McLuhan-descended media-archaeological tradition and note that if the medium is the message, then the message of the metasystem—which is also the metamedium—is that everything is reduced to that which must be mobilised and/or arbitraged; the message is exactly re-sourcing, availability, commodification, quantification, standardisation…)

This process was already underway around the turn of the millennium, of course; maybe there were people sounding the alarm on it, too. (I’d be surprised if not.) But the current situation, wherein almost everything is operates on the sushi-carousel logistics model, arguably represents an intensification from the date of this paper, and pretty clearly a step-change from the situation in Heidegger’s time. Heidegger was talking about coal-powered generation plants on the Rhine, but Sofia notes that the same analysis might apply to “the decoding, recoding, storage and distribution of information over computer networks”, and to more concrete/mundane technologies of material supply-chains, too; it is perhaps to be thankful for that this linkage seems so obvious now, though of course that obviousness is the result of the aforementioned intensification (and the knowledge-work of exposing it, which is always, perhaps by necessity, playing catch-up). Nonetheless, this paragraph still stands clear and true, and is worth citing in full:

The Bestand might be created through the process of mathematically efficient calculation and ordering of unlocked resources, but what it also and importantly achieves is the objective of securing abundant supply. As much as this objective answers our primal demands for an environment-mother smoothly and unobtrusively to supply our every need, it also fits neatly with consumer society and profit-driven development. Processes of containment and supply, and the utensils, apparatus, and utilities that help extract, store and distribute resources from the standing-reserve, are not relics of pre-modernity but continue to define a fundamental aspect of what technology is in the late modern epoch: it is about supply, securing access, rapidly making resources available for distribution and consumption.

p196

Quite… though I would argue that the intensification has resulted in the securing-of-supply goal falling way behind the rapidly-making-available goal, because security is slack, security is sub-optimal, and securoity is therefore an intrusion into shareholder value in the short-term. Again, the reserve no longer stands; that which is already moving within the system only stays still when it is more profitable for it to do so, which for most goods—particularly those that decay—is basically never. Inventory is wastage: that’s the basic principle behind just-in-time systems.

And so this intensification I’m trying to get at is a stage in which the idea of the warehouse becomes anathema, because with sufficient arbitraged distributive bandwidth, the world itself is reduced to the role of containment: it is both source and store, and the “gushing forth” of supply starts right at the geological base layer. This process is not complete, of course—and the pandemic, like smaller disruptions previous to it, have highlighted the risks of what I think I might call the mobilised-reserve. But the response to those lurches, and to the pandemic’s spanner in the economic works, suggests that we’re still really not prepared as a civilisation to think seriously about the way this stuff happens.

Drawing to a close, Sofia notes that in Heidegger’s discussion of the bringing-forth that is proper to techne, he effaces the distributive: “the appearance of materials within the smithy’s workshop—the ore, the coal for heating and smelting it, the apparatus and tools used for refining and working it—is only possible though a prior set of techniques and technologies for extracting, moving and storing resources, for securing or coercing human labour power (for example, the slave miners of antiquity), and for tunnelling, digging, gathering, carrying, storing, trading, shipping, and delivering.” (p197)

Sofia raises Heidegger’s elision of his own Bestand, in other words, and thus illustrates a point that I’ve made repeatedly using a rather different metaphor, namely infrastructure as a magic trick, as prestidigitation. The craftsman’s chalice is the rabbit drawn forth from the hat, but for the chalice’s buyer, the magical appearance of the chalice is subsumed into the magic of the craftsman/magician himself. We don’t want to know how the rabbit got into the hat—or rather we would do, if the flourish of the prestige was not amplified precisely in order to catch our attention, and to draw it away from the other hand, from the infrastructure whose elided functions of provision and supply make the trick possible. If we understood that the rabbit appeared by such means, some of the magic we ascribe to the craftsman might be turned instead to the more lowly labourers who make his enterprise possible. Sofia contrasts the artisanal craft of Heidegger’s chalice with “the modern intensities of macro-containment and mega-supply”, but notes—of course—“the dependence of both modes on resource supply, a dependence that becomes elevated to a governing principle in the modern age” (ibid). Given the semiotic premium associated with “authentic” and the “artisanal” production in recent years, it’s hard not to side with Sofia’s observation, and conclude that the optimal reconfiguration of the mobilised-reserve has reduced such distinctions almost to the point of vanishing.

Closing thoughts

Yeah, so: big, chewy paper, lots of things to think with/through. I will note that, though they do get a mention, the form of container which most nakedly bears that name only gets a passing mention as a component of the standing-reserve—I think my own piece will be heading in the direction of the shipping-container. But perhaps the even more telling absence is the most ubiquitous form of container in modern capitalism, namely packaging: the disposable container, invisible precisely due to its ubiquity, disguised by its role as a surface onto which the spectacle might be projected; the waste product (which is often made from a waste product) which is ejected into the externality of the environment once its role of protection, homogenisation and commodification is fulfilled. This is of course less an elision than an oversight we’re supposed to make, the most basic of all prestidigitatory flourishes: the package is the hat from which the rabbit appears to appear.

But even a stage magician tends to use the hat more than once…

hauntological metasystemics

I’m cited* in this piece by Kelly Pendergrast at Real Life, but that’s not the (only) reason I’m clipping from it; I’m citing from it because it’s really good, and because it takes ideas from my heretofore most completely ignored journal paper and takes them exactly in the direction I hoped people would take them. So yeah, self-aggrandizement, sure; guilty as charged. But Pendergrast’s point, and mine, is that we’re all in this together—not because some ham-faced PPE graduate thinks saying so might make it so, but because we sprung the trap of cyborg collectivity on ourselves long ago, and are only now really starting to realise it. Therefore, anyone advancing that same understanding should get some signal boost. (Not that I’m much of an amplifier these days, but hey; I had my time.)

And if they come at that understanding through a haunted-house metaphor, well, so much the better:

In the real world of the cyborg collective and its composite parts, the horrors of the house are entirely non-metaphoric. Turn a tap in some parts of Flint, Michigan, and poisoned water still flows out, years after the city’s water crisis became a national disgrace. Plug in a power cord anywhere, and the electricity that flows your way might be fed by atrocities carried out in your name at the other end of the tubes: black lung, denuded environments, death. Unlike the privatized horrors of storybook hauntings, the spirits that animate my house exist on the same timeline, as part of the same networked system as I do (hello sanitation engineer, hello bird flying splat into the wind turbine, hello coal miner), at the other end of the tubes, feeding my housebody or failing it.

I love haunted house stories. Their capaciousness holds whole histories of private trauma and Freudian neurosis, and reflects myriad social concerns about the function of the nuclear family and the horrors at its heart. But the ghost story has limited utility in reconnecting the animate house to its material grounding and political economy. No house is private. It may be purchased, and thus legally private property, but it doesn’t stand alone. Through its extending wires, pipes, inputs and outputs, the house (with few off-grid exceptions) is tied up in the cyborg systems of the city and the supply chains and logistical inputs that extend around the globe. Inside the house, the comfort and nurturing care I feel is a product of the infrastructural and sociotechnical systems that rely on the work of many others.

That riff about house-as-property is one that I’ve wanted to follow for a while, but theory work has necessarily taken a backburner while I concentrate on the work I’m actually funded to do… but there’s an interesting counterconceptualisation via the Haraway/LeGuin complex (in that LeGuin suggested the house might be seen as another of her “carrier bags”), and from my mentor and friend Zoe Sofoulis, who has written on container technologies from a feminist standpoint.

Containers and other infrastructures of storage are an interesting wrinkle for my theory, because they seem to break the rule that infrastructures either transport or transmute–but if we consider transportation as a four-dimensional phenomenon, then the container (and particularly reefers, and other forms of storage which preserve as well as protect) does indeed enact a transportation, albeit one with a velocity of zero: storage moves things through time without moving them through space.

(Preserving forms of storage are thus actually decelerative: they slow down the effects of time on that which is stored. When the container itself is then accelerated through timespace, you get an extension of the distance that the stored thing can travel before decaying. This all plugs in nicely to that Marx-via-Harvey thing about infrastructure warping timespace… and, now I think about it, will come in handy as part of a paper I’m currently co-writing on packaging and plastics. Turns out there’s a use to this thinking-out-loud business after all!)

Anyway, enough of my waffle—back to Pendergrast, who is more interested in the increasingly concrete (pun not entirely unintended) political ramifications of that dawning realisation of cyborg collectivity, and also shares some concerns about what Tim Carmody neatly popularised as the systemic sublime:

Wallowing in the logistical sublime can lead to what Matthew Gandy describes as “epistemological myopia that privileges issues of quantification and scale over the everyday practices that actually enable these networks to function.” But I get it. And I’ve felt it: the uncanny mystique of larger-than-life steel and concrete power plants, or the gut-drop of standing on the edge of a dam spillway, imagining yourself slipping over and sluicing into the deep canyon of water below. In part, these fantasies of the sublime are a symptom of our alienation from infrastructural systems and the powers that animate them. If it’s not clear whose interests infrastructure serves, and how our own lives and housebodies are enmeshed in the macro systems, the only thing left to do is spectacularize, fetishize, or destroy.

That passage really resonated, perhaps because I’d only yesterday seen the press blurb for a new book by Michael Truscello, in which…

… he calls for “brisantic politics,” a culture of unmaking that is capable of slowing the advance of capitalist suicide. “Brisance” refers to the shattering effect of an explosive, but Truscello uses the term to signal a variety of practices for defeating infrastructural power. Brisantic politics, he warns, would require a reorientation of radical politics toward infrastructure, sabotage, and cascading destruction in an interconnected world.

And part of me is all like “yay, someone’s taking this stuff seriously!”, but the other part is like “uh, I’m really not sure advocating sabotage and destruction of the metasystem is a good move”; I’ll wait until I’ve read the thing before calling it either way, but given the very clear illegibility of infrastructure to the majority of citizens, this is a bit like telling an astronaut to stick it to his boss by poking holes in his spacesuit.

Pendergrast, however, is taking a rather more nuanced look at the same issue:

I want more for us than to spend every precious moment scrambling to arrange childcare or make sure our friends don’t get evicted. Collective care without the collective assemblage of infrastructure is near impossible, so we need to figure out how to maintain the systems that still function, and how to fix the ones that are broken or working against us.

In some cases, pieces of the existing collective cyborg will need to be dismantled. The pipelines that cut across Native land and spill oil onto the prairie: those can go. The highways that slice through neighborhoods, benefiting those on one side of the divide while immiserating those on the other: those can go too, ripped up for barricades and projectiles, “the use of the city against the city, in the name of the city.” Other parts can stay but must be redistributed, brought into collective ownership so the waters and warmth and phone lines are shared equitably and wrested away from the profit motive. Infrastructure is a massive investment, and much of that investment has already been made. To maintain it, to take care of the far-reaching tendrils of the homes that sustain every day, is the best way to respect what we’ve already created, already ruined.

Far from the spirit world of the haunted family house, the housebody and its appendages are earthed and rooted in material space. If the house must be imagined as a womb, perhaps that’s OK: the parent/fetus relationship was never a private relationship either. The parent eats, drinks, connects to the appendages of the collective cyborg, in order to nourish and nurture the creature within.

No surprises with the shout-outs to maintenance; Shannon Mattern has a posse. (And there might be something that could be done with Clute’s notion of Bondage, which is of course a concept from his critical theory of horror… ) But that haunted-house/parent-fetus figuration in Pendergrast’s piece, damn, that’s a work of art. It’s an amazing and humbling thing to see your ideas reflected back at you, but made better.

( Disclaimer: yeah, I know I’m being very loose by putting “hauntology” in the title of this post, even if we think about the post-Fisher understanding of the term… but nonetheless, I think there’s a sense in which the now-betrayed promise of infrastructures as utilities—available to everyone, well-maintained and fairly priced, etc etc—could be argued to be the unacknowledged base layer of all those foreclosed-upon futures. Or, more simply: I can probably make a case for it if pressed, and no one is likely to press for me to do so anyway, so, yeah, it’s staying. )

[ * – I owe not just my awareness of that citation, but the citation itself, to Deb Chachra, whose fastidiousness at attributing her sources is exemplary–particularly in the context of an academia in which, as one has slowly come to realise, such fastidiousness is often the first thing to go overboard in the race for recognition. So thanks, Deb, and thanks, Kelly Pendergrast. You’ve made a marginal theorist feel momentarily good about his work. Thanks also to Jay Springett for sending me the link as well. Something something power of networks something. ]

Indistinguishable from magic? Extractivism, the infrastructural metasystem, and the obfuscation of consequences

This is a video-paper I prepared for a virtual conference called Extraction: Tracing the Veins, running this week under the aegis of the Political Ecology Research Center at Massey University, NZ and Wageningen Univeristy, NL.

My paper is a part of the Technology & Infrastructure panel, and if you think mine sounds of any interest at all, then I’d ask that you go and give my co-panellists the same attention you would grant to me.

You can leave feedback and questions on the panel’s webpage if you want to, or drop a comment here, or even leave one on the Y*uT*be page for the video if you prefer.

It was an unusual experience, producing a video for a conference paper—not really so different a process in terms of writing the piece and developing the slides, but recording and editing the script and compiling the video was an interesting new challenge. It feels a little amateur, but I suspect that’s a legacy of having been a sound engineer in a former life: all I can hear are the cheap production values, and the hurriedness of a project completed in the run-up to a relocation. BUT: it’ll be easier and faster next time, and hopefully I’ll have more time to plan and integrate the production into the drafting of the actual paper itself. I have a feeling that there’ll be a lot more of this sort of work in academia in the near- to medium-term future…

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.