Tag Archives: sociology

“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)

One discipline seeps into another

Rejecting the traditional Marxist idea that the working classes were the seedbed of change, [Deleuze and Guattari] wanted a broader umbrella under which to unite all marginalised groups. They claimed that those oppressed by patriarchy (women), racism (people of colour) and heteronormativity (what we’d now call the LGBT community) were all suffering thanks to the same machinery of despotic and imperial capitalism. It’s only by bringing together these ‘minoritarians’ that an anti-capitalist revolution could succeed. Because the philosophical image of the individual is based on the apparently autonomous figure of the white male subject, it is through a process of ‘becoming-woman’, and of ‘becoming-minoritarian’, that the spectre of individuality can finally be banished.

[…]

Instead of treating different fields of enquiry as cut off from one another, Deleuze and Guattari tried to show where one discipline seeps into another, challenging the centrality of any one of them. Ultimately, they aimed to open thought onto its outside, pushing against the tendency for theoretical work to close in on itself.

Short-ish essay at Aeon. For all the word-salad spilled in the name of “interdisciplinarity”, the academy — or rather, more fairly, the bodies which govern the academy through the distribution of funding — are still pretty determined to prevent that seepage between silos; D&G’s work makes it easy to understand why that might be the case.

(Well, OK, not easy, because reading D&G isn’t easy… but nothing worth doing ever is.)

Gig alert: “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”, Sheffield Hallam, 1 March 2018

Attention, urbanists and infrastructure-heads who are geographically proximate to Sheffield, UK (or who just really like travelling a long way for seminars): Luke “Bunkerology” Bennett is chairing a panel discussion on 1st March 2018 at Sheffield Hallam University under the title “Beneath the city streets: urban infrastructure and its invisibility”. It’s free to attend, but you’ll need to book via Eventbrite. Here’s the promo blurb:

Sewers, cables, roads and myriad other infrastructural networks are the enabling frameworks of modern life, and yet we so rarely notice them. This free, open-to-all, evening event will present a panel of four researchers who are each exploring urban infrastructure with the aim of making it better known. The presenters will each give an account of their practical and/or conceptual explorations and in doing so also offer up thoughts on how their work seeks to render infrastructure’s existence and operation better known. They will also reveal why this unmasking is of concern to them.

This event is jointly organised by the SHU Space & Place Group, a network of academics keen to sustain interdisciplinary conversations about the researching of places and spaces, and C3Ri, SHU’s Cultural, Communicaton and Computing Research Centre.

Chair

  • Dr Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place and Law, Department of the Natural and Built Environment, SHU.

Presenters

  • Dr Paul Dobraszczyk, author and Teaching Fellow, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College, London.

In his recently published book, The Dead City: Urban Ruins and the Spectacle of Decay (IB Taurus, 2017), Paul explores Manchester’s Irk Culvert as a way of excavating lesser known features of that city’s urban history. Paul will present an account of that unmasking and also discuss the way in which he uses urban exploration as a research methodology.

  • Dr Becky Shaw, Reader in Fine Art, C3Ri, SHU

Becky will discuss her participation in the ‘Watershed Plus’ Dynamic Environment lab (http://www.watershedplus.com/) which saw five artists following the City of Calgary’s water supply from its glacial source through rivers, treatment plants, maintenance yards, pipes, meters and households. Her ongoing project, ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’ uses ‘dirty’ pop music to travel through the necessarily inaccessible, hygienic industrial, economic and romantic water infrastructure. The project follows the movement, actions and technologies of Calgary’s leak locators, exploring the role of public art in relationship to the water infrastructure as a material negotiation of publicness.

  • Dr Chris Bailey, Lecturer, Sheffield Institute of Education, SHU

Chris will juxtapose examples from his doctoral study of children’s virtual-world-creation within a Minecraft club with experiences of physical investigation of urban spaces. Within the after-school club children made worlds, and in doing so made assumptions about the layout and provisioning of built forms and of their infrastructural interconnections. Here children, in their play, tested out and reinforced adult assumptions about what is foregrounded in the experience of the built environment and what falls conventionally to be unseen or unexplored.

  • Paul Graham Raven, PhD candidate at Sheffield Water Centre, University of Sheffield

Paul is a science fiction writer, critic and essayist who recently completed his doctoral studies in infrastructure futures and theory at the University of Sheffield. He is also affiliated to the Institute for Atemporal Studies. Paul’s research is rooted in a novel relational model of sociotechnical change, and is aimed at developing and deploying narrative prototyping methodologies for the critical assessment of speculative future infrastructures. In his contribution to this event Paul will explore the illegibility of the hidden city by theorising the metasystemic self-effacement of infrastructure: asking, in other words, how the hidden city came to hide itself.

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It’s quite the honour to be invited, as my interaction with the good Doctor Bennett to date has largely consisted of me asking him a few rambling questions after he spoke at seminars; they must have been interesting questions, I guess? I’ve something of a quibble with the use of the word invisible — infrastructure isn’t invisible so much as it’s illegible, or so my own research would have it — but I suspect it’s exactly those sorts of theoretical semantics we’re going to get into on the day, so I’mma keep my powder dry for now. If you’ve got opinions about cities, infrastructure and urban exploration, and you’re in the area, you should come along.

(Postscript: the whole not-yet-being-an-actual-Doctor thing becomes much more painful when you see yourself on a roster like that. I guess I should be proud I get asked to speak with researchers far more experienced than myself — and I really am! — but it still kinda sucks to be the one person who has yet to officially pass the bar.)

The unexamined sociology of transhumanism

One of the reliable bright lights in the gloom of my January is the annual Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky show, a.k.a. their State of the World conflab at The Well. All sorts of chewy futurism and near-field hindsight going on, as always, but sometimes it’s a minor aside that snags my mind, like this little zap at transhumanism:

“… you’re never going to put some magic cyberdevice inside your human body that has no human political and economic interests within its hardware and software. All human artifacts, below the skin or above them, are frozen social relationships. If you’re somehow burningly keen to consume a thing like that, you’d better, as William Burroughs liked to put it, have a look at the end of the fork.”

The great joy of my first semester of my PhD has been being formally introduced to the basics of sociological theory, and thus discovering that a lot of the woolly notions I’d come to independently have been thought far more thoroughly and comprehensively before, by smart people who gave those ideas proper names. Through this lens it’s even more apparent than before that the echoing lacuna at the heart of Movement Transhumanism — the canonical ‘philosophy’ expounded by Dr Max Biggerbetterfastermore and friends, rather than the more personal morphological meddlings of the grinders and back-alley self-modders — is the notion of any system of social relations beyond the mechanisms of soi-disant anarchocapitalist “free market” economics.

If nothing else, it goes some way to explaining the overlap between MT and the Neoreactionaries: both seem to assume that inconvenient truths might be moved aside by merit of resetting the sociopolitical clock to a time before anyone had formulated them. Not just a river in Egypt, eh?