Tag Archives: utopia

failure / retrieval

Strange vibes in me at the moment. Part of that is adjusting to the sudden (albeit welcome) structure of a full-time job, and with it the sudden proliferation of deadlines for projects in which a significant number of the moving parts are people, and hence priorities and possibilities shift suddenly in ways you weren’t necessarily planning or preparing for. No tiny violin, to be clear; just noting the novelty of this for someone who spent a real long time operating as a box-room annex to almost every organisation they were involved with. There’s a lot of logistical levelling-up to be learned, here, and it’s taking a lot out of me, despite my efforts to take time off and get good rest.

The ineffectiveness of the latter in particular leads me to suspect I’m under the weather in some physical way. There’s a lot of anxious talk at the moment about Long Covid, which—without meaning to demean that experience for anyone going through it—comes across a lot like heretofore fortunate people facing the prospect that maybe illnesses have a long tail. Post-viral fatigue syndrome never got much press before now, beyond a vague insinuation that its sufferers should maybe get their shit together, or take care of themselves better, or maybe both… and hey, remember the “yuppie flu”, now better known as chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s as if even the stories we tell around illness need some sort of identifiable (and, crucially, nameable) black-hat bad-guy, a clear linear causality, before we’ll start to take them seriously.

I had viral pneumonia back in 2016, and it took me literally months (and a mental breakdown, and an epochal fight with my mother) to realise that maybe it was something more than just a cold that would’t shift. The antibiotics I was given cleared it out, but also napalmed my intestinal biome in a fairly indiscriminate way—perhaps because I’d not taken antibiotics in, I don’t know, probably decades. So the pneumonia went, but for a year or more I was prone to every passing lurgy that I encountered, and would find that for months at a time I was tired in a way that sleeping couldn’t cure, hungry in a way that eating couldn’t sate, low for no concrete reason, fogged in the brain and frustrated by it. It comes back from time to time, too—just as it has at the moment.

Which is to say: I recognise the symptoms of Long Covid, and believe them to be both genuine and (likely) under-reported. But I don’t believe them to be unique to Covid. So perhaps one silver lining to the thunderhead weather-front of the pandemic is the prospect that we’ll start taking seriously the notion that the line between acute and chronic malaise is not so clear-cut as has tended heretofore to be assumed. We still understand so little about viruses—the ones outside of us, and the ones inside of us. Hopefully we still have time to learn. In the meantime, I’m trying to get over the self-accusatory sense of my being a lazy malingerer, and do the best I’m able to do given my current capacities. Comparisons are invidious, of course—but they’re also fundamental to a system in which the calculation of value is the unacknowledged starting point for almost every action we undertake. Something something material relations between people something.

At the same time, remembering that the mental and emotional can affect the physical just as much as the other way around is something I’ve literally made notes-to-self about, because it’s easy to forget that the world has its ways of laying you low. Not without a certain sense of guilt, I’ve largely cut myself off from UK-based media, but still the stories seep through nonetheless—and they in turn unlock echoing chests of memory, both recent and distant, and with them feelings of loss, regret, failure… and of lost opportunity, both individual and collective. So there’s a weird sort of comfort in seeing that someone else is having a similar experience.

Then also there’s the gifts of synchronicity, my watchfulness for which—yes, a form of magical thinking; so sue me—has become something of a lifeline, intellectually and emotionally. After my recent (and hugely gratifying) encounter with Kelly Pendergrast’s writings, I remembered that I’d stashed some earlier pieces of hers away to read when I had more time. And so I made the time this morning on my commute, and found…

Famously, the start-up world lives and dies on its storytelling. Pitch decks paint a picture to potential funders. Product websites disclose and obfuscate in equal measure. Most crucially, start-up founders need to be able to craft a personal narrative and backstory that will win over investors and early hires alike. These story formats tend to follow the contours of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell. In this narrative format, success cannot come easy: a trial by fire — a period staring into the abyss — is required before the hero returns victorious, killer app idea in hand. And so, founders learn to frame their stories in a way that highlights and valorizes their moments of past “failure” (a startup that fizzled, an acquisition that fell through, a co-founder that flounced).

… well, OK, first I found something self-aggrandizing, namely someone making an argument I’ve been making for quite some time—though the originary credit in my case (and perhaps also in Pendergrast’s?) is very much due to Saint Donna and the Starbear. But this piece soon goes off somewhere else, somewhere strange and (strangely) timely:

… a very different kind of “pro failure” theory and rhetoric emerged in the ’90s and 2000s. Queer writers, activists, and artists (often excluded from mainstream institutions and success for reasons listed above) have embraced and reclaimed failure, theorizing a specific modality of “queer failure” as art form and as survival tactic. In opposition to tech failure (narrativized as a painful-but-necessary station of the cross that fosters wisdom and tenacity), queer failure is deviant, risky, and oppositional, shaped by those who’ve found their future always-already nullified by capitalism’s normative demands. Queer failure is also utopian and visionary. Without the option to slot back into the mainstream, failure becomes a point of departure, a rupture, a sideways trajectory into something new. There are futures beyond no future.

I’m no scholar of queer theory, let alone queer failure; nor am I one of Black utopias (to the extent that I may be mislabelling an entire school of thought in my ignorance, here, though with what I believe to be good intentions). But I nonetheless leapt instantly from this riff to Ryan Oakley’s retrospections, which seem to be a lament for the loss of a science fiction informed by (or perhaps just parallel to) the Black utopias of early Detroit techno, and perhaps also by the unruly chaos of what Simon Reynolds and others refer to as the hardcore continuum of 90s (post-)rave music:

I wanted and expected some SF publisher to release a series of cheap-ass pulp paperbacks set in the Deltron universe. Another series for Kool Keith. Like everyone kept talking about science fiction dying and I was like — the fuck? There’s plenty of drugged up kids who love the shit and are listening to sci-fi music all the time. Get in on that.

[…]

Like, I just kind of took it for granted that written sci-fi would be part of that. Took it for granted that sci-fi was some weird counter-cultural drug product. Like, there was the straight and square nerd shit, your hard sci-fi and space operas, which was like exotica or whatever and okay in their own right, but you had your hippie sci-fi, then your glam and punk and goth sci-fi. Sci-fi was dime store surrealism. Just vulgarized high art and I like that.

I just really thought there was just going to be some sort of punky-rave, hip-hop sci-fi. Abrasive and social and shit but with some funk, you know? It just seemed natural. Seemed inevitable. There were even some indications that it might even be incoming. Coyote Kings by Minister Faust, Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. They kinda had the sensibility and perspective. It was about people, outsiders, the city, and it felt modern.

It bears noting that I was way behind this curve in two senses: the closest I came to that sort of sf in the 90s was Jeff Noon, and maybe that’s as close as the publishing world got to it back then, too; furthermore, while I was splashing around enthusiastically in the more downtempo end of breakbeat electronica at the time, I was and still am (and likely always will be) a hoary old rocker at the core. But I nonetheless recognise (by its absence in sf) that sense of outsiderdom Ryan’s talking about; the early cyberpunk stuff had some of that, and even some of the later stuff (like Paul McAuley’s late-Nineties novels, f’rex), but—like any subgeneric style—it soon became reduced to an aesthetic, reproducible, bought from the rack. (And I’m reminded now of perhaps the most scathing book review I’ve ever had published, whose tone I still regret somewhat, but whose take I stand by to this day.)

That said, there are signs that, much as the musical aesthetics of the 90s are being revisited and retooled by younger generations, cyberpunk is being dusted off and re-punked by writers dissatisfied with both its past and the present alternatives; and I know a lot of scholars in the field are going through a process of radically reassessing the established readings of the genre and its canonical texts. Tim Maughan’s work wouldn’t exist without cyberpunk as a problematic precursor, nor M T Hill’s, nor Carl Neville’s, nor Annalee Newitz’s, nor Charlie Jane Anders’s, nor nor nor… and that most or all of these writers wouldn’t self-describe as cyberpunk rather illustrates the point. The aesthetic is brittle enough to be re-decomposed into its constituent tropes once again, which means that the underlying structures can be built in new shapes.

The outsider status of many of these authors—whether in terms of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or some intersectional mix-up thereof—is thus perhaps no mere coincidence. Pendergrast again:

For those stuck outside of the normal, queer failure offers instead to explode the normal and to explore modes of being beyond capitalism, in ecstatic temporalities or alternative kinships or in refusing to work. To embrace failure is a vulnerable act that demonstrates solidarity with other “failed” people — from radical crips to refugees — and builds space to imagine an identity, and a life, outside the structures that would punish you for your transgressions. Maybe, suggests Halberstam, “in losing we will find another way of making meaning,” one in which “no one gets left behind.” Queer failure imagines a future beyond the current regime, and a life where failure can be ecstatic, collective, and radical.

And what is that current regime? Oakley:

I can kind of picture the world where sci-fi went the way I wanted it to go and the way I thought it would go. About now, we’d be getting shows in Deltronverse or at least totally infused with that sensibility instead of more Trek, more Star Wars, George fucking Martin, and the rest of it, sound-tracked by David Bowie’s 1970s musings about Mars. And I’m not even really against these things. But, holy shit, it would be nice to be able to see these people and their works as respected ancestors. We can’t even do that. We have to labor forever under their senile rule. I mean, I feel like Del and others showed us the way. The way was squandered. Just totally fucking squandered.

I’d be the first to say that generational theory is, if not utterly useless, then for the most part a marketeer’s way of thinking about demography that causes as many problems (or more) than it solves. But when I catch those stories leaking across the North Sea from the UK, and the ones from the US, and then I read a sentence like “labor forever under their senile rule”, I’m like, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We’re still dreaming those futures beyond The Future, but for so many people there’s so little space for dreaming, so little slack in the capitalist-realist circumstance. Hauntology is thus less a failing or a mode of nostalgia than it is the only game in town. What else can you do with the ruins of The Future than populate them with ghosts of other futures foreclosed upon?

Of course, such a circumstance cannot persist forever, in the truly eternal sense. Demography is destiny, and the Boomer hegemony—in sf, as in the world more broadly—will eventually fade away for the most obvious of reasons (though not without a fight, I fear). In both cases, however—though surely more pressingly in the latter—the question is what will remain to the rest of us once we finally slip the reins.

In search of a dialectical utopianism : Harvey (2000), Spaces of Hope

  • Harvey, D. (2000). Spaces of hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Uni. Press.

Focussing here, for reasons presumably obvious to long-term readers of this site, on Chapters 8 (“The spaces of Utopia”, p133-81) and 9 (“Dialectical utopianism”, p182-95) of what is now a vintage part of the David Harvey canon. Reading these pieces really brought home just how long ago the turn of the century really was, both generally and personally… and that’s particularly sobering in the context of Harvey’s topic, which is the neoliberalisation of civic space. He notes that at time of writing, it had been going on for two decades… and of course it’s gone on another two decades since then.

(Which explains my personal fury at claims that it’s “too soon” to talk about the world we want to build after this unfolding clusterfuck of a pandemic gives way to whatever comes next… people have been talking about it for decades, and have always been told it’s “too soon” to “politicise the issues”. The issues were always political, at least for those on the sharp end. Aaaaanyway.)

#

The front half of Ch. 8 takes a tour through late-Nineties Baltimore that goes a long way to explaining why The Wire was a story waiting to be told, and then pivots gradually into the historical question of the-city-as-figure, of urban imaginaries, as Harvey sets himself up for a proper workout on utopics from his classically Marxist p.o.v.:

When […] we contemplate urban futures we must always do battle with a wide range of emotive and symbolic meanings that both inform and muddle our sense of ‘the nature of our task.’ As we collectively produce our cities, we collectively produce ourselves. […] Critical reflection on our imaginaries entails, however, both confronting the hidden utopianism and resurrecting it in order to act as conscious architects of our fates rather than as ‘helpless puppets’ of the institutional and imaginative worlds we inhabit.

(p159)

Next we get a bit on More’s foundational Utopia, in which “spatial form controls temporality, an imagined geography controls the possibility of spatial change and history”. However, “[n]ot all forms of temporality are erased” by the utopian banishing of historicity. “The time of ‘eternal return’, of recurrent ritual, is preserved. […] It is the dialectic of social process which is repressed. Time’s arrow, ‘the great principle of history,’ is excluded in favour of perpetuating a happy stationary state.” More conjures a nostalgia for a past which never really was, “a hierarchical mode of social relating that is non-conflictual and harmonious. This nostalgic strain is characteristic of much utopian thinking, even that projected into the future and incorporating futuristic technologies” (p160; no kidding, Dave!)

More’s and subsequent utopias can thus “be characterised as ‘Utopias of social form’ since the temporality of the social process, the dialectics of social change—real history—are excluded, while social stability is assured by a fixed spatial form” (p160); via Marin’s reading of More, “the free play of the imagination, ‘utopics as spatial play,’ became, with More’s initiative, a fertile means to explore and express a vast range of competing ideas about social relationships, moral orderings, political-economic systems and the like” (p161). However, ‘imaginative free play’ [IFP] is of course entangled with already-existing systems of authority and restrictive governance, and the dialectic between “[IFP] and authority and control throws up serious problems,” and “[c]onfronting this relationship […] must, therefore, lie at the heart of any regenerative politics that attempts to resurrect utopian ideals” (p163). Harvey illustrates the point with Jane Jacobs, noting that her critique of modernist planning relied on its own nostalgic notion of the diverse neighbourhood, and thus “contained its own authoritarianism” (p164).

Next we discuss Marin’s notion of the ‘degenerate utopia’, of which the canonical example was Disneyland—degenerate “because it offers no critique of the existing state of affairs on the outside” (p167), a call-back to Harvey’s earlier side-eye at the emerging phenomena of gated communities and tent-pole urbanisms in Baltimore. But can utopias of spatial form ever be anything other than ultimately degenerate, he asks rhetorically? “The multiple degenerate utopias that now surround us—the shopping malls and the ‘bourgeois’ commercialised utopias of the suburbs being paradigmatic—do as much to signal the end of history as the collapose of the Berlin Wall ever did. They instantiate rather than critique the idea that ‘there is no alternative,’ save those given by the conjoining of technological fantasies, commodity culture, and endless capital accumulation” (p168).

Then some stuff about the failed idealism of The New Urbanism, which at time of writing was still a fairly new phenomenon: good intentions, and a then-novel focus on a more organic/holistic ideal for the city/region relationship. But “[t]he new urbanism connects to a facile contemporary attempt to transform large and teeming cities, seemingly so out of control, into an interlinked series of ‘urban villages’ where, it is believed, everyone can relate in a civil and urbane fashion to everyone else” (p170); this barb is all the more pointed for coming at a time when dot-com optimism was at its height, and the associated (mis)readings of McLuhan came with their own utopian vibes. Some more material about the pragmatism of New Urbanist architects and developers, and then: “In practice, most realised Utopias of spatial form have been achieved through the agency of either the state or capital accumulation, with both acting in concert being the norm” (p173); attempting to take “the outside path” tended to result in “a meltdown of [their] principles” and the reabsorption of such projects into the prevailing logic of development. (In terms of the “smart city”, that acting-in-concert of capital and the state has become pretty much de facto, as noted elsewhere—the system quickly adjusts to incorporate former lines-of-flight into the striation of space, to get a bit Deleuzian about it.)

Next section switches from the problematics of materialised utopias to the question of utopia-as-(temporal)-process—which, Harvey suggests, are plentiful, but rarely described as utopian. “Idealized versions of social processes […] usually get expressed in purely temporal terms. They are literally bound to no place whatsoever and are typically specified outside of the constraints of spatiality altogether. The qualities of space and place are totally ignored” (p174). One problem with these “placeless teleologies” is that they “have the habit of getting lost in the romanticism of endlessly open projects that never have to come to a point of closure (within space and place)” (ibid.).

Now we’re getting on to ol’ Karl, starting with his deconstruction of Adam Smith’s utopia-of-process as enshrined in The Wealth of Nations, “in which individual desires, avarice, greed, creativity, and the like could be mobilized through the hidden hand of the perfected market to the social benefit of all” (p175); there’s been a fair amount of recuperation of Smith in recent years, re-emphasising what I understand to be the moral-philosophical side of a text which was (regrettably) left to the libertarians to interpret for far too long, but I think Harvey’s point here still stands. Plus it’s all in the text itself, and Harvey provides a valuable reminder here that Marx recognised that an unregulated free-market system could only continue through draining the vitality from not just the worker but the land itself. (Cf. McKenzie Wark’s recent stuff on the metabolic rift in Marx, which comes out in e.g. Haraway and others.) Blah blah blah, twenty years of neoliberalism (at time of writing); Thatcher, Fukuyama, Gingrich as Hegelians, ho-ho-ho; emerging stigmatisation of market fundamentalism as utopianism (by John Gray, apparently, who more recently has become… well, let’s not go there); “[s]o why such tragic outcomes to such a supposedly benevolent process?” (p176-7)

Because the process has to quite literally come to ground, come to place—and “the conditions and manner of this spatial materialization have all manner of consequences” (p178); something something unevenly distributed, intensification of existing spatial inequalities, egalitarianism of free markets revealed to be no such thing in the long run.

The free market, if it is to work, requires a bundle of institutional arrangements and rules that can only be guaranteed only by something akin to state power. The freedom of the market has to be guaranteed by law, authority, force, and, in extremis, violence. Since state power is usually understood in terms of the monopoly of the forces of violence, the free market requires the state or cognate instituitions if it is to work. Free markets, in short, do not just happen. Nor or they antagonistic to state power in general, though they can, of course, be antagonistic to certain ways in which state power might be used to regulate them.

(p178)

Point being, in a mirror image of the failed materializations of the spatial utopias running into temporality, “the utopianism of process runs afoul of the spatial framings and the particularities of place construction necessary to its materialization” (p179).

So we start the final subsection of Ch. 8 by observing that “materialized utopias of the social process have to negotiate with the spatiality and the geography of place, and in so doing they also lose their ideal character, producing results which are in many instances exactly the opposite of those intended” (p180), and return to Smith-influenced free market systems, which don’t render the state hollow as often assumed, but rather deepen its control and influence over some parts of the social process which chasing it out of other more traditional (and populist) functions. All this “explains why so much of the developmental pattern in a city like Baltimore is justified by an appeal to the rhetoric of free-market competition when it in practice relies on state subsidy and monopolization” (p181), as well as why eras of successful globalisation and free trade have tended to occur in symbiosis with the hegemony of a single dominant power such as Britain or the US:

A surface veneer of competitive capitalism therefore depends on a deep substratum of coerced cooperations and collaborations to ensure a framework for the free market and open trade.

(p181)

#

Now, then, Ch. 9—where we explore the challenges of building “a utopianism that is explicitly sociotemporal” (p182) as an attempt to dodge the problematics of place and process when considered in isolation: a “dialectical utopianism”, as Harvey decides to label it.

First we get a bit of jousting with thinkers who were a bit higher on the totem-pole at the time: Lefebvre “refuses to confront the underlying problem” of the spatial-material utopia, namely “that to materialise a space is to engage with closure (however temporary) which is an authoritarian act” (p183), while Foucault’s notion of the heterotopia gets a drubbing which hints at much the same lingering resentment of postmodern theory most often found on the right; the heterotopia was “[e]xtracted by his acolytes as a hidden gem within his extensive oeuvre” (a saucer of milk to the corner table, please, waiter!) and “became one means […] whereby the problem of Utopia could be resurrected and simultaneously evaded” (p183; not a reading of the heterotopia as I recognise it, certainly, but hey, Marxists gonna Marxianise amirite?). It’s not all flicking bogies at the pomos, though, as Harvey concedes that heterotopia “has the virtue of insisting upon a better understanding of the heterogeneity of space”; however (and unsurprisingly), “it gives no clue as to what a more spatiotemporal utopianism might look like” (p185), not least because that was not at all Foucault’s theoretical bag.

Next we turn again to the temporal, and a good few pages engaging with Roberto Unger, who “avoids utopianism by insisting that alternatives should emerge out of critical and practical engagements with the institutions, personal behaviours, and practices that now exist” (p186); Harvey glosses his position as the claim that “[o]nly by changing our institutional world can we change ourselves at the same time, as it is only through the desire to change ourselves that institutional change can occur” (ibid.). Unger’s approach is fundamentally abstracted from the spatial, for which Harvey partly lets him off the hook, but is less forgiving of Unger’s (poststructuralist) hesitation to identify a direction of travel; “like Lefebvre, he wants to keep choices endlessly open” (p188). This is for Harvey a limit and flaw of the anti-authoritarian left:

What the abandonment of all talk of Utopia on the left has done is to leave the question of valid and legitimate authority in abeyance (or, more exactly, to leave it to the moralisms of the conservatives—both of the neoliberal and religious variety). It has left the concept of Utopia […] as a pure signifier without any meaningful referent in the material world.

(p188-9)

Next section, and we get a passing look at utopian fictions (or rather utopias intended as fictions first and foremost): Le Guin (of course), Lessing and Piercy as well as the earlier white-guy canon of the form. No mention here of Moylan or the lineage of sf scholarship, but Harvey clearly identifies the critical utopian modality when he notes that “[s]uch novels typically recognise that societies and spatialities are shaped by continuous processes of struggle”, and that the form “lends itself […] to a much stronger sense of sociotemporal dynamics” (p189). Then a quick (and largely complementary) look at KSR’s Mars trilogy, leavened with a caution (via Levitas, of course) that utopianism cannot be left to art alone, which ends with the claim that KSR’s work “holds out the tantalising prospect of an inner connexion between actual historical-geographical transformations (understood with all the power that a properly constituted historical-geographical materialism can command) and the utopian design of an alternative spatiotemporal dynamics to that which we now experience” (p191). Amen, brother.

The penultimate section sketches Harvey’s program for grounding a utopian project “in both the present and the past”, and it’s not without interest, involving as it does a quick summary of the contradictions inherent to the free-market utopian project that took place under the USian post-ww2 hegemony—but it’s surplus to my requirements for this particular reading and glossing. The very final section contains that sobering reminder I mentioned at the top of the page:

The broad rejection of utopianism over the past two decades or should be understood as a collapse of specific utopian forms, both East and West. Communism has been broadly discredited as a utopian project and now neoliberalism is increasingly seen as a utopian project that cannot succeed.

(p195)

Published twenty years ago. Sheesh.

Should we thus abandon utopianism, asks Harvey to close, or treat it with the same cautious distrust as ol’ Karl? That’s a nope:

Utopian dreams in any case never entirely fade away […] Extracting them from the dark recesses of our minds and turning them into a political force for change may court the danger of the ultimate frustration of those desires. But better that, surely, than giving in to the degenerate utopianism of neoliberalism (and all those interests that give possibility a bad press) and living in craven and supine fear of expressing and pursuing alternative desires at all.

(p195)

To try is to invite failure, but to not try is to ensure it. Twenty years further down the neoliberal mudchute, I think that’s an argument that’s more ready to be heard than ever before.

At least I hope so.

better isn’t best, but

Sean Guynes drops his second of two essays on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. If it’s a book you know, or if it’s a book you simply know of, I recommend this piece wholeheartendly—and on that basis, the rest of Guynes’s Le Guin re-read to come at Tor.com. (And if you haven’t even heard of it, ehrmahgehrd get yourself a copy and fix that right away.)

I’m clipping this bit in particular, though, because it’s such an elegant and eloquent summary of an argument I’ve been pushing for more than half a decade, and intend to push for the rest of my forseeable:

If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Yes, exactly this. And now is a moment in which we need to remember and rehearse that attitude more than ever.

“A revenant hybrid narrative”: Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014), Smart cities as corporate storytelling

  • Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014) “Smart cities as corporate storytelling”. City 18(3), pp307–320

This paper makes a loose grab of Callon and Latour’s early-A-NT notion of translation through “obligatory passage points” for the formation of scientific truths, and uses that lens to look at IBM’s construction of a “smart city” story which positioned it as the go-to actor for the application of technological solutions to certain urban problems. Or, in the authors’ own words, “it looks at who has the power to define the smartness [or otherwise?] of cities and what the discussions around this theme should be concerned with,” (p310) by the means of “[analysing] key episodes in the struggle over the definition of what smart cities are about,” which is “an important element in the competition between private companies over authorship, authority and profit in the smart city business.” (p307)

So it’s an etymological/definitional struggle, in other words. The paper opens by positioning “smart cities” as “a part of contemporary language games around urban management and development” (p307); although not much foregrounded beyond this opening statement, the motif of “smart” as a game to be played by corporate actors is repeated a number of times throughout. “[T]his discursive activity”, they continue, “is performative, because it shapes the imaginaries and practices of a myriad of actors concretely building the city” (ibid., my emphasis); said discourse further “mobilises and recycles two long-standing tropes [of urban planning]: the city conceived of as a system of systems, and a utopian discourse exposing urban pathologies and their cure.” (p308)

The core arguments of the paper are threefold: first, the authors claim that “this story is to a large extent propelled by attempts to create an ‘obligatory passage-point’”, with reference to Callon and Latour; second, that “this discourse promotes a conception of urban management that is a technocratic fiction”; and third, that it “prioritises public investments in IT over other domains of spending and thereby introduces a new ‘economy of worth’”, with reference to Boltanski and Thévenot. (p308)

Reviewing the critical literature, which was still fairly sparse at time of writing, the authors identify a number of ways to frame the “smart city” concept (p308):

  • as a mask for the negative impacts of already-existing technological interventions in urban planning;
  • as a technocratic strategy in the context of a paradigm shift to cognitive-cultural capitalism;
  • as a disciplinary system for the shaping of “smart citizen” subjects [to which I would add an ever-more explicit quantification and making-legible, in the terms of James C Scott];
  • as a reframing of urbanism as an engineering challenge [which may be safely parsed as solutionism avant la lettre];
  • and as a revenant hybrid of Corbusian high-modernist urban planning with the civic cybernetics of the 1970s.

The authors aim to connect “some ‘whys’ and ‘hows’” (p309) of the “smart” discourse by focussing their attention on IBM’s “smarter cities” campaign from the early Twentyteens.

Analysis

To recap briefly: Callon and Latour’s notion of translation has two distinct stages. The first step in the formation of a sociotechnical network is the problematization: an issue must be brought to light in such a way that not only is the problem defined and shown to be in need of a solution, but also that the actors capable of solving it are defined at the same time; this forms the “obligatory passage point” (OPP hereafter), a geographical or institutional location or process whose engagement becomes synonymous with the problem at hand. The authors argue that IBM’s “smart” story “presents their smart technologies as the only solution for various urban problems”, hence forming an OPP. (p310) The second stage is that of translation, a process through which different aspects of the problem are rewritten in the unitary language of the OPP, thus consolidating the network connections around the OPP as a nexus point.

There’s some useful points here about the use of narratives in the translation process which, while drawing upon urban planning in particular, seem to me to be generalisable to a wider range of sociotechnical transitions. The first of these is almost a passing note with reference to Latour’s classic Science in Action: “The use of mediations—from small talk to complex machines—to translate phenomena into a manageable language—is a powerful means of creating OPPs.” (p310) For me, the term mediation has a particular power, as I’m interested in the formation of sociotechnical systems, as well as the role which existing sociotechnical systems play in creating the discursive conditions for new sociotechnical systems: mediation implies media, and media are infrastructures (and vice versa).

The second is a linguistically clunky but nonetheless truthful observation, drawn from the urban planning literature, that “[s]tories are important because they provide actors involved in planning with an understanding of what the problem they have to solve is […] stories are the very stuff of planning, which, fundamentally, is persuasive and constitutive storytelling about the future.” (p310)

The systems metaphor

I’m less interested in the specifics of the IBM case (which is, at this point, rather cold) than the generalised process to be inferred, so I’ll sum up the analysis fairly swiftly. The authors identify a 2008 speech by IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, and the company’s 2009 acquisition of “smarter cities” as a trademark, as constituting the first moment of the process of translation:

With Palmisano’s speech and the trademark, we have a problematization of cities as smart cities, the first step in the creation of an OPP. Cities’ problems are defined as the need to become smarter and the central actors of the process—IBM, municipalities—are identified.

(p311)

The second “moment” is rather longer, with the authors identifying a sustained marketing campaign “designed to provide the company’s strategy with a global visibility” (p312) that followed the initial problematization as the means of translation: “[…] two aspects can be analytically distinguished: the translation of the city into a unitary language and its inscription into a transformative narrative”, the latter of which features “two well-known topoi in urban planning history working as the rhetorical devices of the campaign: the systems metaphor and utopianism.” (ibid.)

This is where things get interestingly chewy.

Using an Enlightenment rhetoric where data and systems theoiry are the means through which municipalities can move ‘from gut-feeling and impessions to knowledge’, the new CEO (probably unconsciously) situates herself in the lineage of the social reformists of the previous turn of the century…

(p312)

The authors position the systems metaphor for cities as a continuation or extension of the earlier organicist paradigm, refracted through the cyberneticism of the 1970s:

The common denominator of organicist approaches in planning is a holisitic view wherecities are approached as composed of functionally related parts. Systems thinking in urban theory is a continuation of the organiscist tradition in that respect but building on a different metaphor. If the body (and then more broadly living organisms) is the model of traditional organicism, systems theory builds on the computer metaphor. The urban totality is a large calculating system rather than a biological entity.

(p313)

(All this is very true, though I would note in passing that systems theory more broadly doesn’t have to draw on the computer as a metaphor—really, the computer is a concretisation of one particular version of the systems metaphor—and that earlier iterations of systems theory, particularly that of Wiener, made explicit allowances for non-hierachical systems-of-systems. Point being: there’s an understandable impulse to blame systems theory for “smart cities” and other such solutionist fairytales, but there’s a significantly large baby in that bathwater—a baby which the closed-system positivists tried their level best to drown at birth.)

Regarding the revenant hybrid of high-modernism and cybernetics, the authors note:

There is something apparently odd in this resurrection, as it gives the audience of the smarter cities campaign a sense of travelling back to the heroic times of post-war cybernetics.

(p313)

Well, not really so odd, if you consider that the 1970s were arguably IBM’s pinnacle of power; given that the paper mentions the “smarter cities” paradigm as IBM’s attempt to revive its flagging fortunes in the late Noughties, a return to the philosophies prominent during the glory days presumably recalled fondly by its top brass is not surprising at all: it’s a flinch back into institutional memory, if you will. But the authors have another reading which I think is complementary rather than nugatory to that:

If we consider urban dynamics as a translation device used for the purpose of storytelling, this choice becomes less enigmatic. What urban systems theory provides, seen from this perspective, is primarily a powerful metaphor creating a surface of equivalence. It translates very different urban phenomena into data that can be related together according to a classical systemic approach which identifies elements, interconnections, feedback loops, delays etc.

(p313)

Which is to say: it allows IBM to go back to a mode of problem solving with which it was once practically synonymous. But the exact interpretation is less germane than the underlying point, which is that the high-modern-cyber hybrid frame is the crux of the translation stage: “The city is made to speak the language of IBM.” (p313, my emphasis)

And therein lies a large part of the problem with “smart cities”: an implicit homogenisation of the urban with a strong bias toward conditions in the Global North (e.g. functioning city-wide infrastructures, as opposed to the archipelagos of jugaad, hacks and kludges which characterise many cities). The homogeneity is the core issue, though, as it means the template is often no more suitable to a Global-Northern city than any other: “cities are no longer made of different—and to a large extent incommensurable—socio-technical worlds (education, business, safety and the like) but as data within systemic processes”; the discourse of smartness “tends to reduce the analysis of the city to a machinic vision of cities. As a result, the analsis of these ‘urban themes’ [as represented by the ‘pillars’ of the systems metaphor] no longer seem [sic] to require thematic experts familiar with the specifics of a ‘field’ but only data mining, data interconnectedness and software-based analysis.” (p314)

(There’s also a paraphrase/cite of Marcuse (2005) that I’m going to pull out here, with the intention of chasing down the original: “… the organic or systems metaphor also creates a fictitious entity ‘the city’ supporting ‘a search for consensus politics, in which the claims of the minority or powerless or disenfranchised or non-mainstream groups are considered disturbing factors in the quest for policies benefitting “the whole”’.”)

Wrapping up the analysis of the translation through the systems metaphor, the authors identify the source of the metaphor’s power as lying in ontological transformation: “in this version of systems thinking this transformation spares us the difficulties of interpretation: translated into data and systems, the city seems to speak by itself, to be self-explanatory” (p314; in the tradition of all derivative science fiction, the city-that-speaks-for-itself is an increasingly recognisable and literal trope in more recent representations of “smartness”). Underlying the discourse is “an engineering epistemology applied to humans and non-humans. Nature and culture reunited by the engineering mind”; the discourse “nurtures an imaginary of urban management reduced to systems engineering.” (ibid.) This is, of course, our old friend solutionism avant la lettre.

The (technological) urban utopia

With the problematization established and the work of translation done, the “smart city” can then be embedded in a narrative of technocratic progress and efficiency, which the authors connect directly to the long heritage of utopianism in urban planning. First you present the mirror image of the ideal city, in effect reproblematizing it all over again; this is then used as the rhetorical springboard for the utopian proposal. The classic (urban) utopia is arguably always univocal, and it has this in common with the “smart city”, which is “not a collective project assembling different worldviews and interests, but a singular ‘emancipatory’ vision” (p315), dreamt up in this case by a single corporate entity rather than a single crank reformer. The authors also identify and label what they call the “weightwatchers” rhetoric of the before/after comparison as being central to the IBM campaign; I’m pretty sure that trope can be found in many other solutionist discourses, too.

(Interestingly, that campaign used a similar seeing-the-present-from-the-vantage-of-a-changed-future narrative strategy to that of certain projects I’m currently involved in; a useful reminder that it’s not an inherently virtuous methodology.)

So, the “smart city” is a utopian form, “depicting a model of a perfectly functioning urban society but, in contrast with classical utopianism, it is governed by code rather than spatial form.” (p315) Regular readers will see where I’m going with this: it seems to me that the authors go on to describe a utopian mode that maps very clearly onto the technological utopian mode first posited in sf and utopian studies, and rolled on a little further by myself:

… the core of smartness lies in the algorithm. ¶ Optimisation through code is therefore the utopia promised by the company. […] This ‘ultimate smart city’ is a transparent one where all flows within the nine systems are quantified, connected and efficiently managed […] ‘smarter cities’ is a mild utopianism: it promises efficiency rather than paradise on earth. It is a utopian rhetoric tempered by market realism: it is easier to sell technologies and services than an ad nihilo urban structure, more convincing to tap on the faith in technology and progress than to promise a brave new city.

(p316)

But recall that, alongside the rejection of the possibility of the perfected society, a core feature of the technological utopia is an active distrust of political approaches to problems, replacing any such dialectics with what we might think of as Whig futurism: “in the perfect future of the classical utopias, historicity is abolished: the arrow of time is bent into a circular repetition”, but in the “smart city”, “historicity is not abolished, because optimisation needs to be constantly renewed: novel technologies need to be constantly introduced for that purpose and codes constantly rewritten. If IBM’s storytelling rests on a utopian rhetoric it constantly makes sure that the future it promotes is a realistic one.” (p316)

Conclusion

The authors, quite fairly I feel, sum up by describing the “smart city” metatrope as “primarily a strategic tool for gaining a dominant position in a huge market” (p316), but note that it “should not be taken at face value [… what] we have proposed is not a description of how smart cities work on the ground but a deconstruction of a communication strategy: what one of our IBM informants calls a market creation strategy.” (p316-7) It is, in short, “a framing device”. (p317)

Two questions/challenges are surfaced here: first, that “the discourse promotes an informational and technocratic conception of urban management where data and software seem to suffice and where, as a consequence, knowledge, interpretation and specific thematic expertise appear as superfluous”, which, the authors note, “is a rather dangerous fiction.” (p317; “had enough of experts”, anyone?) The second issue is that the “smart city” fiction “promotes a mentality where urban affairs are framed as an apolitical matter [… the] rhetorical means of the campaign also aspire to political neutrality.” (p317)

The authors end with a call to action beyond critique:

… an alternative storytelling about smart cities is necessary. Storytelling in planning […] should not only be used as an instrument of critique but also as an instrument to suggest progressive avenues for urban development [… which] requires being explicit about normative and political positioning as smartness only makes sense within a system of values and aims.

(p318)

Amen to that. A good paper, all in all, and a nice addition to the citation quiver.

Cited:

Marcuse, P (2005). “‘The City’ as Perverse Metaphor”. City 9(2), pp247-254

inside among the outsiders

Sean Guynes on Le Guin’s The Dispossessed:

… whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

Cf. Moylan’s canonical paper on the critical utopia, of course.

This was a timely thing to read on my train-travels yesterday, however, coming as it did fairly close upon the heels of a paper discussing (among other things) the specific urban-planning conceptualisation of utopia, which is predominantly a question of the deployment of urban form as a metaphor for a hierarchised systems understanding of the city as body/machine/computer… and hence a top-down perspective by necessity.

As Guynes points out, Le Guin’s intervention into the utopian mode was to totally invert the usual top-down approach, not just at the level of form, but also at the level of narratology… and I retain a belief that this radical breach of Le Guin’s is far from exhausted, whether by fictions qua fictions or any other off-label uses of the same toolkit.