Tag Archives: politics

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.

“The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”: Levitas (2013), Utopia as method

  • Levitas, R. (2013). Utopia as method: The imaginary reconstitution of society. Springer.

(Only annotating the (brief) intro of this one for now; very much want to dig into the detail of the rest, but hahahah OMG scheduling.)

Levitas opens with H G Wells’s claim that “the creation of Utopias – and their exhaustive criticism – is the proper and distinctive method of sociology”, and observes that it seems somewhat counterintuitive in the context of contemporary understandings of both terms, and the latter’s attempts to distance itself from the former — Urry digs into this development in detail in What is the Future?, as I recall. However, sez Levitas, ‘both conventional sociology and critical social theory have unavoidable utopian characteristics, increasingly recognised in recent discussions.’ (p. xi; and even more so since this was published, I think)

‘The core of utopia is the desire for being otherwise, individually and collectively, subjectively and objectively. Its expressions explore and bring to debate the potential contents and contexts of human flourishing. It is thus better understood as a method than a goal – a method elaborated here as the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or IROS.’

(ibid.)

However:

‘… the most culturally prevalent understanding is quite different: utopia is commonly dismissed as an irrelevant fantasy or traduced as a malevolent nightmare leading to totalitarianism. This anti-utopian discourse equates utopia with a blueprint producing violence and teror, and gives rise to a politics of quiescent subordination to the dictates of capitalist markets.’

(p. xii; Levitas refutes this discourse by pushing against John Gray, its most notable peddler; I would note that the blueprint utopia is an extant form, and indeed a very prevalent one… but that it doesn’t think of itself as utopia, precisely because of its rational “deliverability”, which appears to give it a free pass from the standard anti-utopian attacks Levitas describes here)

Another unpopular point that’s well worth noting: ‘it is important to recognise the utopianism of right-wing politics, both at the level of improvised institutions and especially at the level of the state and the global market’ (ibid.); again, I think the aforementioned utopian scenarios (which tend to emerge from the state, or from businesses close to the state) fall into this category. I used to joke that the distinctive thing about conservatism was that its utopias were located in the past rather than the future; I don’t make that joke so much any more, not because I don’t believe it to be true, but because it stopped being funny.

Moving on, Levitas gets back to the matter of IROS, ‘the construction of integrated accounts of possible (or impossible) social systems as a kind of speculative sociology’, which is less an invention from whole cloth than a metalabel which ‘names methods that are already in play with the intention of clarifying and encouraging them’ (p. xiv); IROS ‘intrinsically necessitates thinking about the connections between economic, social and political processes, our ways of life, and what is necessary to human flourishing. It requires a holistic approach fundamental to the distinctive character of sociology [… but some] of the difficulties Wells identified remain pertinent, including the insistence on the scientific character of sociology. Contested ideas of possibility render some overt sympathy for utopia quite anti-utopian, while some overt suspicion of utopia is accompanied by a hopeful, visionary openness to the future.’ (p. xv)

‘The encounter between sociology and utopia implies reconfiguring sociology itself. Sociology must affirm holism and must extend this to include “the environment”, locating our human and social existence within the “natural” or material world. It must embrace the normativity that it has systematically sought to exclude, address the future which it has systematically sought to evade and engage with what it means and might mean to be human. […]

This encounter also implies thinking differently about what constitutes knowledge. It challenges the assumption that sociology constitutes a form of knowledge while utopianism is simply a form of speculation, and seeks to legitimise utopian thought not as a new, but as a repressed, already existing, form of knowledge about possible futures.’

(p. xv; cf. Moylan, though that’s no great surprise given Levitas has worked with Moylan, and utopian studies is not a huge scene)

IROS has three aspects or modes: ‘The first of these is an analytical, archaeological mode; the second an ontological mode; and the third a constructive, architectural mode.’ (p. xvii) Through the archaeological mode we can see that ‘the ideas of meritocracy and groweth that are supported across the range of public discourse imply modes of social organisation that are far from sustainable or equitable’ (p. xviii); meanwhile, the ontological mode is concerned with ‘grace, since imagining ourselves and our social relations otherwise is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of imagining a better society.’ (ibid.) Finally, the architectural mode is ‘concerned with what needs to change, […] with the principles and institutions of a potential alterantive world – yet one which needs to be treated as a hypothesis rather than a plan.’ (ibid.)

‘There are several advantages of utopian thinking as a method. It is holistic. […] It allows … an element of ethical and institutional separation from the present […] it is less constrained by what now seems immediately possible. Importantly, its explicitly hypothetical character enables us to insist on utopia’s provisionality, reflexivity and dialogic mode. […] The utopian method involves both making explicit the kinds of society implied in existing political programmes and constructing alternatives. It entails also considering the kinds of people we want to become and that different forms of society will promote or inhibit.’

(p. xviii)

Social media as trench cyberwarfare

Will Davies at the NYT:

Many of the anxieties surrounding “post-truth” and “fake news” are really symptoms of a public sphere that moves too quickly, with too great a volume of information, to the point where we either trust our instincts or latch on to others’. There’s a reason Twitter invites users to “follow” one another, a metaphor that implies that amid a deluge of data, truth is ultimately determined by leadership.

Everything is War and Nothing is True

The birdsite has been much on my mind in recent weeks, after some meatspace conversations in which my reasons for leaving it were revisited. I remarked last week that it still feels like a sort of self-amputation, and that metaphor holds strong — but any sense of regret is increasingly eclipsed by a sense that it’s become a weird synthesis of warmachine and battleground.

To follow on from Davies’s points about militarisation metaphors: if we’re currently mired in a culture war, then the birdsite is a theatre of trench attrition, a foul morass of embedded positions where neither side can win, but where the left has more to lose simply by merit of the right seeing a state of open conflict as a precondition of its broader dreams of victory.

Leaving aside questions of professional necessity, most of the arguments I’ve been offered in support of staying there have been political: it would be a form of defeat to let the right seize control of the discourse. But the longer I’m away from that front, the more obvious it seems to me that its horrific spectacle (and the sense of moral necessity that stems from that horror) only serves to distract attention from other more concrete theatres of conflict where, unobserved and largely unopposed, the right is clocking up conquest after conquest.

Perhaps my position can and should be treated like that of any other conchie. But I’m starting to think that my silence is a form of complicity in and of itself, and that sits uneasily with me. I recognise the ideological struggle, and the necessity of engaging in it. But this particular manifestation of the conflict seems only to prolong and amplify the problem — and when the opposition treats destructive conflict itself as their victory condition, then strategic withdrawal is the only option that makes any sense.

Dispositionally or structurally retrograde

… typically as designers, and in broader culture, we’re looking for the right answer. As designers we’re still very solutionist in our thinking; just like righteous activism that pretends to have the right answer, dispositionally, this may be a mistake. The chemistry of this kind of solutionist approach produces its own problems. It is very fragile. The idea of producing a ‘master plan’ doesn’t have a temporal dimension, and is not a sturdy form.

Having the right answer in our current political climate only exacerbates the violence of binary oppositions. Our sense of being right escalates this tension. I’ve been trying to think instead of forms which have another temporal dimension that allow for reactivity and a branching set of options—something like a rewiring of urban space. They aren’t vague – they’re extremely explicit – but they allow for responses to a set of changing conditions.

[…]

Regardless of spectacularly intelligent arguments, the bending of narratives towards ultimate, teleological ends – and the shape and disposition of these arguments – doesn’t work for me. Dispositionally or structurally it seems slightly retrograde.

I just don’t see change as singular or ultimate. It doesn’t come back to the one and only answer, or the one and only enemy that must be crushed.

There are many forms of violence, and it almost seems weak to train your gun on one form of it. There isn’t one singular way in which power and authority concentrate, and there’s not one giant enemy. Such thinking leaves you open to a more dangerous situation.

Keller Easterling interview at Failed Architecture, riffing on her latest book, Medium Design (which is apparently only available in print if you get a copy mailed from Moscow). Easterling is among the brightest of lodestars in my personal  theoretical pantheon; her Enduring Innocence not only rewired how I thought about space, but also rewired my conception of how an academic text could be written.

Cyborg dialectics / a perpetual state of transition

Cyborg dialectics with Kimiko Ross

Dresden Codak. Started following his original webcomic way way back in the Noughties, when it was just as much of a one-person labour of love as it is now (though the artwork has gone from good to astonishing over the years).

Back then DC (and I, for my sins) were fellow-travellers of transhumanism; DC is, I suspect (on the basis of my reading of their work, rather than any direct knowledge), still a smidgen closer to that scene than I am these days, but the Dark Science series (go read some) has been steadily developing what feels like a much more posthumanist position — an understanding of the cyborg as a (sociotechnopolitical) metaphor, in other words, rather than the naive concretised misparsings of sf images so fetishized by the transhumanoids. This panel seems to confirm that feeling quite bluntly, at the same time as it resonates with stuff I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks*. Plus I thought maybe it was time I posted something that wasn’t just words.

* Things have been quiet because I’ve been in Sweden for close to three weeks, a “visiting scholar” set-up that is now drawing to a close. It’s been insanely busy and tiring, but very much in the positive sense.