I have delayed writing anything up on Inventing the Future. This hasn’t stopped me writing a bunch of short responses. These have mostly launched on Facebook but I thought I’d stick a thought on S&W’s leftism, the indigenous, colonialism, and the potential death of the left here.
In discursive deployments of indigenous people we can see the updating of an old trope. They are the new third world. They are those who a subset of white western leftists want to save and also be saved by. The revolution will come, when it comes, from the indigenous people’s self-defence of their traditional lifeworld. For instance Sophie Lewis and Dave Bell write that
so many Indigenous and pre-colonial practices, identities, sexualities and cosmologies with liberatory potential have been destroyed in the name of universalism; and whilst these are acknowledged with the claim that there are non-European forms of ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ (p. 77), we are not convinced that these decidedly European terms are the most suitable labels for them.
We can’t go back. The point of nihilism is that it is an absolute wave of dissolution. The attempts to make simple returns to traditional societies are bound to fail. Despite that there are examples of virulent hybrid modernist traditionalism in existence right now. These are repetitions of traditional societies that attempt to overcome the anomie and evacuations their life worlds have endured at the expense of western modernism whilst allying themselves with that same modernism. A number of commentators have suggested that ISIS is a modernist movement. We could say that it is a modernist attempt to summon a hyperstitional medieval. From this perspective ISIS becomes a hybrid traditionalist modernism.
Critics who suggest that seeing ISIS as either modernist or medieval as resting on simplistic dichotomies rest assured: the point I am making is less that it is one or the other but that it is a social chimera. While I may be expanding the idea of hyperstitional strategies beyond the idea that they must not code for dogma, I think we can see ISIS as hyperstitional through to its core. It is an artificial memetic loop that has brought itself into being through the use of post-spectacular media manipulation as much as by the deployment of real life militants. It’s war has been on the ground in reality but it has always been an augmented reality, and it has been in people’s heads by way of a media augmented reality. Even the actual Islamic State- the Caliphate- exists more as a hyper-real phantasy than it does a functional traditionalist society. It is still being born.
The dichotomous splitting of ISIS as either a phenomena of belief or of reason therefore completely misses the point. Going back to the CCRU writings we find hyperstition explained in relation to cybergoths:
Trent uses the term “hyperstition” for “cybernetic” belief systems such as these. “It’s not a simple matter of true or false with hyperstitious systems. Belief here doesn’t have a simply passive quality. The situation is closer to the modern phenomenon of hype than to religious belief as we’d ordinarily think about it. Hype actually makes things happen, and uses belief as a positive power. Just because it’s not ‘real’ now, doesn’t mean it won’t be real at some point in the future. And once it’s real, in a sense, it’s always been.” One key area of Cybergoth activity is their response to the so-called “Millennium Bug” (the computer glitch caused by the coding convention that renders years as two, rather than four, digits).
Elsewhere hyperstitions are called ‘semiotic productions that make themselves real’. For a post-nihilist praxis that is predicated on our inability to do without phantasy even as nihilism obliterates the effectiveness and the efficacious potencies of our phantasies, hyperstitions appear precisely as the answer to the dream of choosing one’s own hallucinations. ISIS appears as a response to the anomie generated by nihilism with the artificial inducement of a synthetic traditionalism. It doesn’t even hide this fact. It declares it. It advertises it. It hypes: jihad is the cure for depression. For a treatment of how such a synthetic traditionalism could emerge in a western nation see Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission.
What does this have to do with Sophie and Dave’s criticism of S&W’s project? Sophie & Dave write that
A number of S&W’s binary oppositions come together here in a particularly problematic manner. Resistance is opposed to action, leaving us mired in the local (instead of the global); and protecting the past (against the future). The linear temporality at play here would, of course, be challenged by many Indigenous cosmologies; and we suggest as that as a creative, productive act, resistance frequently opens up space for the future. This future, however, should not be positioned as being ‘different from and better than the past’ (p. 72) – but rather as what Jose Esteban Muñoz refers to as a queerly ‘ecstatic’ time in which various temporalities merge. (Indeed, is S&W’s ‘future’ of space travel and automation not itself strangely of the past?) We suspect that works at the intersection of queerness and indigeneity may well be of value in theorizing this further; and at the level of praxis would point to the manner in which Zapatismo draws on Indigenous knowledges in seeking to forge alternative futures, or to the utopianisms of figures such as Sun Ra, Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, which draw heavily on ‘local’, ‘folk’ and Indigenous knowledges in imagining futures. We are not, of course, calling for fetishization of Indigeneity as having all the answers (the ‘noble savage’). We also note that it is important to be mindful of Vanessa Watts’ critique of Euro-Western knowledge production for treating Indigenous histories as ‘as story and process – an abstracted tool of the West’; and call on non-Indigenous people interested in transformative politics (ourselves included) to engage more substantively with Indigenous thought on its own terms.
Leaving aside the question of whether S&W reliance on (and whether the existence of) binary oppositions is necessarily a bad thing, I can’t help but remark on the bizarreness of the objections. I haven’t read Red Alert! and so I don’t pretend to speak from a position of academic rigour here. It nonetheless seems strange that we would invoke indigenous cosmologies in order to contest the temporality that S&W place at the heart of Inventing The Future. I find it strange for a couple of reasons.
First of all is the question of why any western leftist reading their text should care about indigenous cosmologies. It’s true that indigenous cosmologies are often ecstatic, cyclical or otherwise non-linear, and it is also true that many ancient cosmologies of the west also relied on seasonal and cosmological temporalities of cycles. My favourite is the Stoic concept of the cosmos as a living fire that explodes and consumes itself before being reborn in that very explosion. This is a particularly weird one because everything plays out exactly as it did before with the cycle precisely repeating the former one. Despite this each new cosmos is genuinely novel: the me who exists in that new universe is actually not me, although he looks like me, talks like me, does everything I have or will do, and has and will write this comment. Each is a singular unrepeatable repetition. I love this image. I even think there is a lot to be gained from considering it. I especially like the way it manages to be a cyclical pattern that contains linearity. But I wouldn’t attempt to suggest that people should abandon their concept of time on the basis of it.
Checking Red Alert! on amazon’s preview let’s me see that Wildcat’s concern is that possessors of ‘the Western forward-looking gaze of progress, the linear temporal view of progressive world history’ lose the techniques, technologies and forms of knowledge of ‘tribal peoples’. This is undoubtedly true and I’ll return to whether or not S&W actually hold this world view below. For now all I want to do is note that there is no reason why holding a progressive or linear image of history (the two are not identical) doesn’t mean one is necessarily blind to the values, techniques and knowledge of tribal people.
This is a lesson that many modernist disciplines have learned once they have passed through a period of muscular modernism. I speak of mental health simply because it is the field I know best. Psychiatry has learned the value of transcultural research to assist with trauma among indigenous peoples (ie. after disasters) without necessarily importing Western psychic models; psychopharmacology is undergoing a revival of its modernist program of discovering evidence-based treatments by looking to traditional chemical treatments associated with shamanism; practices like shamanism and a “psychospiritual” dimension have been increasingly integrated into psychiatry since the pioneering weirdness of Laing and others who sought to produce a “science against science”, an alter-modernism rather than a post-modernism. This is an incomplete process but I would say that it is one psychiatry is making progress with (and that might help us to move beyond it).
It is perfectly possible to work with people who have different cosmologies and to respect them. The problem comes when we are asked to accept them as true. The problem also comes down to what we think wins out when it comes to questions of praxis, especially on the scale of species-survival in the face of climate change. Do we base our praxis for survival on a pluri-versal respect for cosmologies or do we place it on the truth? This question- the question of truth- is one that haunts the conjoined twins of modernity and nihilism.
As this is meant to be a brief comment it will have to suffice to say that I am a pessimist of sorts. Given this it should be understood that I have no personal affinity for the idea of progress. Like John Gray I think the idea of ‘human progress is a lie’. I think that it is true that progress is a myth. However I would make the same distinction that John Gray makes when dealing with the idea of progress:
VICE: First of all, could you explain what you mean by the term “progress” and why you think it’s a myth?
John Gray: I define “progress” in my new book as any kind of advance that’s cumulative, so that what’s achieved at one period is the basis for later achievement that then, over time, becomes more and more irreversible. In science and technology, progress isn’t a myth. However, the myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics or, more simply, civilisation. The myth is that the advances made in civilisation can be the basis for a continuing, cumulative improvement.
Mythological progress has to do with an accumulative and necessary linear development in the direction of upward sociopolitical or civilisational improvement. This is the bed-time story that everyday in every way everything is getting better and better. It’s a compelling narrative that most of us live by as an operational guide most of the time. It’s so successful that neoliberalism had no choice but to hijack it and to deform it into the crap vision of a new fridge being a better fridge.
As another accelerationist, Mark Fisher, has pointed out our actual situation is one where technological and social rhythmic acceleration has been met with cultural stagnation: we’ve been living in an amphetamine world of false movement. Finally there is nothing necessary about any progress we might believe our civilisation has made. It is hubris to believe otherwise. We could slide back into barbarism at any moment as socialists hardly stop reminding us with an ever-popular (good?) binary.
In JG Ballard commented our everyday life is a stage set waiting to be torn away at any moment. The latter observation was born out of war and its full impact is probably lost on those of us who have not lived through conflict. We are children of a war that is more insidious and that protects us with drape of domestic peace: this makes us a historical and (largely) geographical anomalous generation. So much for progress.
But S&W don’t seem to believe in this mythological progress either. It’s pretty clear they think technology can improve our lives and push society and civilisation in the direction of improvement. It is also pretty clear that they think it has pushed our lives into better direction. S&W would be morons to pretend otherwise, as would we all. There is absolutely no sense that they subscribe to the necessary linear “progressive” image of progress that Sophie and Dave, Wildcat, John Gray and myself are all agreed is bullshit mythology.
S&W are clear that they do not endorse this image at all. For instance, they explicitly state that their call for full automation ‘relies largely on a normative claim rather than a descriptive one’ (S&W 112). On the pages immediately prior to this is a discussion of the empirical drags on firms adopting automation, and they go on to point out ‘technical, economic and ethical reasons’ (S&W 112) genuinely full automation will not be achieved. S&W also don’t see a necessarily good outcome to automation, giving over space to point out possible mass unemployment, potential swelling of the relative surplus population, and the development of shadow work (88, 94-95, 115). They don’t go into great detail on these negative impacts but given this is a book with authentically utopian aspirations it’s hardly charitable to fault it on that.
S&W are equally explicit in positioning the demand for full automation as a ‘political demand’ (112; emphasis in the original). The book features a lot of discussion of the role S&W see this and other demands play in the formation of a popular agency capable of engaging in political struggle. The centrality of political struggle is reaffirmed at the level of the core of S&W’s program for synthetic freedom: repurposing technology. The meaning of repurposing has been at the centre of discussions linking it to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian technics, the idea of salvagepunk, and revolutionary survivalism, and has been enjoined by speculative realists, anarchists and “bleak” Marxists. In Inventing The Future S&W make absolutely clear why technology is to be repurposed:
[Technical] objects carry a politics within them: they facilitate particular uses and actions, while simultaneously constraining others. For instance, our current infrastructure tends to shape our societies into individualistic, carbon-based, competitive forms, regardless of what individuals or collectives may want. The significance of these politicised infrastructures is only increasing as technology expands into the smallest nano-scale and out to the largest post-planetary formation (145).
There is far too much in this to unpack in a short commentary but I can point to at a couple of examples of what’s going on here. First we know that advertising influences our behaviour and we know that behavioural economics has been used to “nudge” us into making better choices. These are both examples knowledge and technology being utilised to shape our behaviour and decisions in ways which we are not aware and that operate beneath or before the level of rational appeal. Radical theory since the emergence of “the spectacle” or the “culture industry” has been trying to catch up and elucidate the ways this occurs. All that radicals needed to do was turn to behaviourist psychology, design, advertisers, behavioural economists to read how this infrastructural politics was being conducted.
This is a politics that sees technical objects like televisions and mobile phones having direct political agency over us. It is a political that goes further than this to map the distributed infrastructures (ecologistics) of energy production to show how a system of extraction, refinement, packaging, and distribution of fossil fuels reproduces the networks of power that support capitalism. At this level infrastructural politics ceases to be folk politics because it is capable of taking in the often unseen but highly material structures that scaffold and constrain the political and economic possibility spaces of decision making, and the choice architecture presented to individuals and collectives.
As architect Keller Eastman puts it these unseen material networks constitute ‘the rules governing the space of everyday life’. S&W point out that reliance on fossil fuels props up entire political regimes. If Eastman’s infrastructural “extrastatecraft” discusses vastly distributed infrastructural constraints that belie our folk conceptions then Paul Precario does the same on the molecular scale. Testo-Junkie is a text that highlights how our subjectivity (individual and collective) can be hugely affected by the introduction of natural or synthetic molecules. The early history of anti-psychiatry might come down to little more than this same point. Both show how the molecular and the nano can be utilised for means of liberation or control. The distinctly political need to repurpose technology comes from the need to take these technologies so as to be able to make use of their potencies.
The point is that this is a political demand and a political struggle. Whether it is a good or a bad idea it certainly doesn’t come about through the unfolding of a teleological myth of progress, and it doesn’t expect the machines to do it all for us.
Right there in the text in big black bold letters they state that theirs is a ‘Hyperstitional Progress‘ (71). Recalling the brief discussion of hyperstition it is easy to understand that this is not the progress that Sophie and Dave are worried about. S&W even recount the critiques agreeing that the left ‘cannot simply adopt classic images of history headed towards a singular destination’ (72). They also agree that ‘Regression was as likely as progress’ and that there is ‘nothing inherent in the nature of history’ (73). They recount how postmodernity rose in the wake of left defeat and the entire text is predicated on the understanding that folk politics emerges from a sequence of such defeats. For all that S&W cannot tolerate the idea that history has been given up. All that has happened is that capitalists have stepped in and claimed history for themselves, reducing modernity to neoliberal modernisation.
I agree with S&W that the left has fallen into a defeatist folkish state: it has fallen into learned helplessness. The left no longer believes that it can win. It no longer believes that it can engender a postcapitalist world. In this respect there is indeed something old fashioned about S&W’s program: it is just the left coming out of a depression, a left undergoing the therapy of an encounter with its own history. The therapeutic tool is precisely the hyperstitional technique.
As they put it ‘recuperating the idea of progress’ means ‘contesting the dogma of this inevitable endpoint’ (74) that has become the neoliberal stagnation of history. This is not a reactivation of modernity pure and simple as if nothing had happened in between. This is a distinctively post-nihilistic modernity insofar as it takes place after and inside of the death of the future and the strange undeath of the capitalist metanarrative:
Contra the earlier thinkers of modernity, there is no necessity to progress, nor a singular pathway from which to adjudicate the extent of development. Instead, progress must be seen as hyperstitional: as a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth (75).
Thus it is a constructive vision of progres; a phantasy of a modernity that attempts to make itself real; a confabulatory narrative that we believe despite it not being true because the criteria of true or false are no longer operative; it is a narrative that operates as true despite not being true. S&W have set out a politics in which progress reappears despite having died. It is also a politics that refuses to engage in the imminence and immanence of the eco-catastrophic because it believes in a future that has also died. It is politics as Pascal’s wager. It is make believe that knows it is make believe.
I also simply don’t know why a leftist politics wouldn’t position itself this way: offering a better future than the present. Why wouldn’t it? How else will it appeal to me? How else will it appeal to anyone? Despite what others have claimed it cannot offer me a better present. This is precisely what it has failed to do despite all the promises in the world.
I am coming back to the beginning so as to end. I opened with a quote about the liberatory potential of indigenous practices, knowledges, identities and so on. This resembled third worldism where the other is both the saved and the saviour. I position this next to ISIS and forms of neotraditionalism. What I didn’t say then is that it neotraditionalism is usually seen as fascist or reactionary. It is seen as a distasteful and regressive response to the dissolutions unleashed by capitalism. But when we move to indigenous traditionalism we find that everything has changed so that we find only liberatory practices. The fascist’s repetition of pagan mysticism is discounted, as the experiences of mysticism and madness are in general. ISIS’s form of Islam is seen as regressive and barbarian but the indigenous is seen as liberatory and ecstatic.
The dreams of indigenous liberations- do these constitute visions of an indigenous traditionalist modernism? Might we be witnessing the final breaking up of the visage of modernism into a “pluri-versal” world of such reactivated modernisms with this synthetic leftism just one among the others? When we move towards hyperstitions we are at a level of formalism that is open to use on all sides.
At stake in this rambling post is the sense of S&W’s project as a post-nihilistic repetition of leftism. As a Pascal’s wager it constitutes a pessimistic optimism that acknowledges how fucked we are but has decided a hyperstitional modernism is preferable to the passivism of resignation. The debate surrounding this text- and XFM- might constitute the rebirth of the left beyond a moral tribal community or it might signal a failed last ditch attempt. I genuinely can’t tell the difference. I genuinely can’t tell what the left wants it to be.
I am undoubtedly too psychopolitical in my reading but I suspect that S&W program is the left’s attempt to declare that jihad is the cure for depression.
This is of course a mere blog post. It resembles the thought process of its author: too long, unfocussed, and rambling. I only write it because I lack anyone to talk to about these subjects beyond the internet. Let me say then that these posts often constitute what would go into a conversation with a friend. There is no superiority intended and no desire to rubbish anyone. It certainly isn’t a criticism of Sophie and Dave’s article which was taken more as a jump off point and has much to recommend it.
Setting aside the question of what S&W are after – and I have no issues with how you characterize their interests here – the conflation of ISIS and indigenous struggles against colonialism is simplistic and problematic. There is far more to both fights than simply trying to bring back the “old ways” and it’s perfectly reasonable to reject ISIS in both their ideology and their methods while approving of indigenous struggles despite whatever marginal similarity you might draw. If the Lakota people suddenly started lopping off people’s heads in an effort to impose their beliefs on the rest of us, we’d be justified in thinking them barbaric too.
Of course. That isn’t really the point. Yes. There is a universal standard of judgement. See how I’m being a tricky bastard with the whole old universalism versus cultural relativism thing? Where is the line that decides?
I think Jeremy makes a crucial distinction here. Indigenous struggles are about maintaining existence not domination (a first wave of survivalism, of the many to come), and therefore fall under different considerations, such as issues I describe below re: diversity and ethics.
Its not about patronizing the Other, or getting back to traditional ways (which is impossible for non-euros as well) but about installing ethical/empathetic regard when contesting the future and developing social infrastructure.
“Popular anxieties about the uncertainties of the future procured by rapid change are not merely the issue of ignorance. Rather they are symptoms of a world in the grip of ‘future shock’” – Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
ISIS can be destroyed IMO because it is mostly a hyperstitial virus devoid of developed ethical regard, and driven by pernicious fictions and self-images. But this is not the case with all local populations and altern modes of existence. They are non-virulent pockets of diversity trying to self-determine.
Indigenous good. ISIS bad. They’re both forms of survivalism aren’t they?
Its not about good or bad Arran, but about what is more conducive to flourishing and mutual beneficial relations within and among species. Socio-biological relations and diversity that does not seek to dominate and eliminate indigenous survivalism may be preferred in this case because it would be oriented towards retaining capacity not reducing it. The Islamic State is not a form of survivalism because it is expansionist, with demonstrable detrimental effects (murder, fear-based control, theological phantasies, etc) which block creativity and autonomous functioning, and having metastasized into a pathological social assemblage. Much like American capitalism, but in a different manner.
I’m wondering if you sometimes want to suggest that there is absolutely no way to distinguish between healthy or adaptive social forms and malignant forms of life?
an absolute wave of dissolution?
Excellent post once again Arran. I do find a few things you write here problematic however. But instead of trying a standard refutation of specific points that would take me days to compose I’m going to just express two strains of thinking I feel can enrich the discussion:
For starters, you seem to be attempting a meta-critique seeking to trump the call for sensitivity towards non-Eurocentric modes of existing, and, to be quite frank, it simply comes off as gamey and distracts from what I think are more the interesting questions and practical concerns involved in a) a reflexive negotiation of human diversity and b) cultivating and instantiating ethical regard.
Outside of (and perhaps in the face of) any theorization, referencing historical and ongoing struggles of specific indigenous groups – or any unintegrated population – prompts attention to the very real existence of actual humans who are experiencing and coping-with an extended colonialist, or imperialist, or corporatist, or whatever sorts of incursions. These incursions are real and certainly impact those referenced in ways that limit their abilities to cope and make a life in the world. As you quoted S&W, “[technical] objects carry a politics within them: they facilitate particular uses and actions, while simultaneously constraining others.” This goes for accelerationist automations and universal income systems as well. Non-euros seek self-determining fields of operation that have legitimate consistency with the past while resonating with the present and speculating about the future. And in order to include the possibilities inherent within these altern fields we must demarcate them and reference them and provide some political-semiotic space to engage them.
Which, incidentally, is why I also think it is insensitive to both those referenced and your more praxis-oriented interlocutors to try and shift the register of consideration to suggest they/we are focused on indexing particular bodies, local knowledges, potentially adaptive lines of thought, hardships and subjection to systemic structural violence as mere “discursive deployments of indigenous people”. I certainly don’t need speak for anyone but myself, nor do I seek to “deploy” anyone’s situation for rhetorical purposes. What interests me is in the actual existence of different kinds of humans, and what engaging and speculating *with* those humans can teach me about myself and about the species. I will never stop considering such people and their struggles in my analysis of human affairs. Non-euros are not nostalgia, nor are they cute little remnants of the past that Left intellectuals can use for their own purposes. They are living examples of alternative modes (variations of the human theme), and for us (neo)euros to ignore their alterity and not learn from it would be to adopt a will to ignorance that desensitizes and anesthetizes us to a diversity and difference that reaches far beyond our ability to capture it in language, with tropes or any other schema.
My point here being that indexing indigenous struggles and modes of existence is not a just theoretical issue, nor is it a call to return to tradition and superstition (nor simply ego and affect as S&W characterize it), but an authentic attempt to understand the material, ecological and ethical issues of co-creating worlds. I believe it is very much irrelevant what we think or want to debate about the supposed universality of reason, or the categorical purity of any of our folk concepts, because these people actually exist as beings-in-the–world and offer a living example of non-euro modes of existence (unique ways of knowing, relating, and becoming). We must acknowledge, engage, learn and dialogue with all peoples effected by our ‘futural inventions’. And this is what animates my strictly intellectual concern for inclusion and consideration of altern groups.
In terms of ethics, if we talk about “inventing the future” then we have to talk about contesting it. And so we have to talk about those who are already and still contesting it – whether it be via a rejection of modernity or attempts to forge hybrid yet culturally continuous futures. Again, the issue of sensitivity to diversity here is not about conservation or “protectionism” (although there is certainly room for allying with people to help them protect themselves), but about considering the options available to being and becoming human within an infrastructure that privileges *both* technical efficacy and empathetic regard for living-cognizing bodies. And no amount of meta-critical justification will compel me to sublimate my empathy and consciousness of such people (bodies, flows and assemblages) and their situations just to exult the virtues of some supposedly absolute logic – rational, nihilistic or otherwise.
Moreover, nihilistic thought cannot be a habituated denial of difference and relativity. I think we often mistake the loss of symbolic efficacy as a complete obliteration of cognitive content. But nihilism killed the God’s not the humans. What was lost and is to be obliterated is the doxic arrogance with which we wield our concepts, decisions, and discourses not the ability of living bodies to synthetically adapt their experience in a manner that resonates most with them. All doxa is to be committed to the flames, including the metaphysical gerrymanderings of indigenous worldviews, yet this does not necessarily entail a scorched earth policy that would prevent altern groups from salvaging and rebuilding their own post-nihilistic praxis from the ruins of their own cultural milieu. The nuance here is that even though deflationary ‘nihilistic’ cognition (contaminated as it is by an axiomatic negation) offers no refuge for “tradition” it is none-the-less that case that from an ethical standpoint – a position of empathy for the experience and life-conditionality of other sapient beings – it would be advantageous not to perpetuate the abuses and mentalities of colonizers by imposing our salvaged local euro-centric concepts and concerns (our synthetic hyperstitions and useful fictions) on the general field.
Obviously we must use our phantasies and natural hallucinations to adapt and cope, and maybe even get around to cultivating in the wilderness, but why must all peoples everywhere use the same illusions? Maybe there are local folk semiotic materials to be salvaged and deployed by alterns that could provide a sense of self-determined orientation, but which may also be of some use to other humans? Not working with and against hegemonic and potentially domineering phantasies and coping-stories in an open surveying kind of manner, and with ethical consideration for other human’s coping-styles, is counterproductive (pragmatically speaking), methodologically unsound, and ecologically unsustainable (in very political sense).
So, again, this isn’t about fetishizing indigeneity. It’s about human diversity and negotiated futures too complex to fit into a neo-Marxist accelerationist program. The issue of choosing one’s illusions is seen, here, as a practico-ethical problematic situated in particular ecologies of power. It’s about engaging people on their own terms, giving space for local mutations, and actually valuing the inherent possibilities.
Also, as Sophie and Dave point out:
Indigenous lifeways and resistance (whether we deem them “true or not) can hold in withdrawal worldspaces pregnant with the possibility of altern futures, which in no way limits a priori their participation in scalable global systems.
I wrote the following response on Joseph Kay’s “Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future”:
It might be interesting to think-through the points in which cutting-edge technology validates the ‘folk political’, particularly those found in indigenous practices relating to the land. Among these would be Elinor Ostrom’s work on common pool resources (and forgive me if this is given treatment in S+W, as their book isn’t available in the states yet), which illustrates clearly that relying on the market’s price signals as well out outmoded central planning systems cannot measure up to indigenous knowledge and governance over finite resources. What I found particularly interesting about Ostrom’s methodology is that it draws heavily on the agent-based modelizations of self-organizing systems developed at the Santa Fe Institute – and by John Holland in particular. This place, of course, is more commonly associated with developing the theories of the “new economy” that became prevalent in the rise of the finance and tech sectors across the 1990s, so I find this sort of critical re-purposing immensely fascinating.
A second example would the case of the Green Revolution’s efforts in Bali, which despite all attempts to ‘modernize’ the agricultural systems of the country, continually generated problems that often veered into the catastrophic. It wasn’t until anthropologist J. Stephen Lansing and systems ecologist James Kremer developed a series of modelizations of the activities surrounding Balinese water temples (the focal point of sociality in that culture) that it became apparent that indigenous knowledge had built up a complex system that optimized water usage and governed irrigation schedules in order to produce maximum crop yields. Using these agent-based modelizations,Lansing and Kremer were able to show how the Green Revolution (which, despite its successes elsewhere, was consistently in line with white, patriarchal, capitalist notions surrounding progress and development) had actually disrupted the superior ‘folk knowledge’ that was intimately tied to the land. This is fairly consistent with a long lineage of ‘progressive disruption’, going all the way back to European colonizer’s disrupting polycropping systems with monocropping techniques and before.
Insofar that the water temples act as the “focal point of sociality” in Bali’s indigenous culture, the complexity of how this unfolds must be stressed. This is something that stems from an extremely intimate understanding of the lands – its habits, its patterns, the things that occur in that would go unnoticed by even the most observant eye; it powers an incredibly sophisticated agricultural system that sustains the livelihoods of the people who live there. The rituals that are dictated by the priests in the temples mediate the relationship between these systems and the environment itself, and produce by extension the cohesiveness of the social life that orbits the system as a whole. Under colonial rule, the system was left relatively unmolested, but it collapsed under the top-down planning, ‘rational management’, and scientific knowledge of the West’s Green Revolution. When complexity theory and advanced computer simulation revealed exactly what was going on in the water temple system, it wasn’t because of the possibilities latent in the technological artifacts: it was because of a wealth of knowledge shrouded in what appeared to be superstitious folklore. This is the same point that Elinor Ostrom argues – nobody knows how to deal with these site-specific environs more than the people who have built themselves up around it, and developed cosmologies that harmonize the relationships between “nature”, the “social”, and “culture”. Even when we have agent-based systems and highly adaptive algorithmic processes that allow us to understand, at the very least, this still isn’t cause for us to resume management and planning with out new tools. It’s confirmation of quite the opposite.
James C. Scott defines “metis” in terms of intimate local knowledge combined with practical skill. This is precisely what the water temples, or Ostrom’s indigenous commoning, entails. While her calls for returning management of common pool resources over to the indigenous who know it best have not been met, the international institutions and aid agencies pushing the Green Revolution allowed the water temples to return to their previous status – with positive results! There was no call for universal measures of truth here, only a mutually-beneficial relationship between the indigenous people and their right to self-determination and the international agencies’ work on poverty reduction. With that in mind, I’m reminded of McKenzie Wark’s suggestion that politics in the Anthropocene needs to concern itself less with master theories or overarching, singularized praxes, and more with developing “comradely alliances” between forces, actors, organizations, and groups. I’m also reminded of Anna Tsing’s work on friction, which shows that the difference between actors working towards a goal (an environmentalist group and an indigenous rights organization concerned with the same forest, for example) and the disjunctions this difference generates are quite often the most productive in both praxis and the emergence of new knowledge formations. And let’s face it – when push comes to shove, what will be the most effective way to deal with fall out from climate change as it impacts local and regional scales: the planners, abstracted from the territory but wielding the might of technical knowledge? The local people who have an intimate understanding of the land, having built their lives around it? Or a flexible structure that mediates knowledge and skill-sets between the two without forcing a homogenization or universal standard?
As for ISIS, I’m tempted to agree with Hardt and Negri when they argue that “postmodern discourses” appeal to those who ‘win’ at the process of globalization, while “fundamentalist discourses” appeal to those who lose. Global development, particularly from the 1970s onward, is combined yet uneven and thus necessitates people who ‘lose’. Their lives, traditions, culture, metis, are dissolved while being denied the orgiastic benefits granted to those who receive the fruits from their toil. The spectacle that is ISIS (which is, in all honestly, the West revealed for what it truly is, without the spectacle) is what we get when we seek to impose universals at the expense of what to us is alterity, but to what others is life.
I’m going to give what might be a very poor reply to a very thought out comment. It might be that my reply isn’t so much poor as it is getting to the nub of things. Excepting left accelerationists and xenofeminists today’s radical left and radical right are in agreement on the question of universality: there is none. There is no world but many worlds, and any attempt to create a world is totalitarianism.
You repeat the same question Michael asks about localities and their relation to knowledge. As I’ve said I don’t think Alex and nick are suggesting that the global trumps the local. The universal isn’t local or global, and in fact the global tends to displace the universal.
The desire for a flexible and negotiated adaptive approach to problems of scale aren’t ruled out by Inventing The Future. The stress is on remaining at the local. The local is where we begin, necessarily. To think we can begin from some abstract panopticon’s view is a dream.
In your Green Revolution example aren’t you really talking about the application of technologies combined with the insight of the (indigenous) people? We can dispense with the term indigenous here. The people in the locality plugged into the infrastructural systems to respond and this information was integrated, evaluated and the outcome was the plan’s being updated and applied with modification. This sounds exactly like the accelerationist program set out in the book.
You can do all this without reference to indigenousness and without reference to local cosmologies and so on. I thought the point was praxis?
this is part of the problem i often run partnering into with native-american folks here in the plains that they have very Romantic (almost heideggerian) ideas about languages and the remnants of their folk-lore/rituals without much understanding of how much the meanings of such things/acts depend on day to day living/praxis and not the other way around.
reminds me i need to find time (ha!) to read some of:http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/issue/view/NWR%20Special%20Issue%202015
“Wittgenstein and Forms of Life”
I don’t think its a poor reply at all! Like I’ve said before, I’m avoiding commenting directly on S + W’s book since it isn’t even out yet over here… a few more days though! You write
–In your Green Revolution example aren’t you really talking about the application of technologies combined with the insight of the (indigenous) people? We can dispense with the term indigenous here. The people in the locality plugged into the infrastructural systems to respond and this information was integrated, evaluated and the outcome was the plan’s being updated and applied with modification. This sounds exactly like the accelerationist program set out in the book.
If this is the case, I’m definitely onboard! The point I was trying to stress was that the only reason that the water temple system was returned was because of the Green Revolution’s failures (which worsened the conditions on the ground), and after the data became clear the people were left relatively autonomous in terms of agriculture. But you’re right: it is this adaptation and modification that establishes it as a truly progressive political formula, and as I said above, it fits perfectly into Tsing’s understanding of productive friction. She would argue it as a case of “engaged universals”, in which neither side must capitulate (or make reference to) the cosmological schemas of either/or.
In my understanding, an accelerationist praxis is as much a design (or more properly, redesign, as there are no blank slates) problem as it is a strictly political one, and it is navigating the political and design zone that things get tricky (even if what we’re dealing with is a politicized design or vice versa). Design practice, for as far as it has come, still positions itself with relative autonomy to the systems that the designed object and artifact are inserted into. But as Ed Keller argues, design in our age – like politics – must begin from the perspective of existential risk, most notably of which is the effects of climate change. When we’re talking design at the level meta-modelizations and complex adaptive structures operating across scales and spatial boundaries, these existential risks not only multiply in terms of ecology and sustainability, but with regards to the agency of the cultures and forms of social polity contained therein. This is what motivates my concern for the indigenous (which is indeed a problematic terms that leads us so often to fetishization).
“The people in the locality plugged into the infrastructural systems to respond and this information was integrated, evaluated and the outcome was the plan’s being updated and applied with modification” to do this as an intentional/reflexive/systematic thing seems to me to be more like John Dewey than any traditional folk forms that I know of, if we are just talking that kind of pragmatism (modest cybernetics) than count me in but to say that this is a minority interest/position doesn’t begin to really get at scale of the odds against us (which is what it is but what it isn’t is a plan/ethos for large-scale engineering).
Yeh. I guess I am vacillating. I loved S&W’s book and would like it to be the kind of future we can aspire to. But the “we” who would be doing the aspiring wouldn’t have the time to pull off what’s necessary. That said there book does something very important: it manages to return to pragmatics what has been slumped in spectacle and withdrawal.
What purpose does dropping references to indigeneity serve for praxis? There are identity-level psycho-organizational concerns that need to be negotiated. That is a practical problem of self-organization and cognitive regard.
In Bali it was the local who modified the universalist’s program via the inherent functional efficacy of the water temple system, without needing to be plugged in or evaluated at all.
Very well articulated Edmund, and I can’t agree more. Negotiating the future is a much more complex set of problems and concerns than we have been imagining. Marx talked about ‘the idiocy of the peasant’, and championed modernity as a part of the march of progress thru capitalism to socialism, but both of those assumptions have been thoroughly deconstructed and shown to hide a host of biases and other assumptions that would exclude the types of hybridity that might make the future one worth living for the most amount of people.
The point of Inventing The Future is to wrestle with complexity. Do we imagine one can do that by unilateral decisions?
Depends Arran. Certain infrastructural imperatives may require strong unilateral actions, but we have to look at the benefits as related to the risks and damages done in each and every specific case. This requires sophisticated and reflexive evaluations, as well as “slow” deliberation processes that cannot be eliminated in the rush to efficiency if we are to balance nonhumanity with inhumanity and humanity.
I’m not strictly against what seems to be going on in ITF, if they offer the nuances required, which you seem to argue they do. But I am against inflated Rationalities that don’t code for inherent biases and limits. Western Reason is not the only way to negotiate complexity.
Also, the Left is dead – long live infrastructural reflexivity.
The reason you point out above on the Balinese case – that it was it was a movement away from the imposition of the West’ universals – is precisely what interests me so much about the case. Have you read Lansing’s “Priests and Programmers”? Fascinating book… I’m curious to know of other cases such as this one out there.
At the same time, Arran’s point of it serving as a ‘calibration’ of technoscientifically-minded stabilization programs is very pertinent. For me, the intriguing point in this is how agent-based simulation programs and modeling techniques collided with the indigenous knowledge set, which in turn feedbacked into our own knowledge sets and shifted them accordingly. It corresponds directly to Tsing’s friction, where the disjunction leads to a difference that cannot help but shift the dominant universality.
As a whole, the Green Revolution could very well be a wonderful case study (or case studies) when discussing an accelerationist praxis. It was the intra-action of things happening across a variety of scales: Promethean feats of engineering ranging from the physical infrastructure to the molecular, the entanglement of the “developed world” and “underdeveloped world”, bringing into play the questions of class power, technological development, institutional organization, global coordination, and the boundary line between humanitarianism and neo-colonialism. It raised (and continues to raise) the problems of property, ownership, sovereignty, and self-determination in a transnational era. These problems in turn are intimately bound to the competing universals of Western enlightenment values, capitalist rule sets, Third World liberation politics, and indigenous knowledge and practice. And this isn’t to bring up even the most basic of questions, which is the success of the Green Revolution itself. Did it make significant advances towards alleviating poverty? Was it a failure? If it was a success, was it a success for everyone, and if not, who then? If it was a failure, why? What were the costs?
When talking about designing the future, or even just praxis in the Anthropocenic present, we run quickly into organizational problems. Before even being able to address the question of the universal, attention needs to be paid towards the development of new ways of organizing knowledge and the ways in which it is produced. This would be something like the sociotechnical literacy that Arran took into the streets with his essay on the Black Panther’s medical programs, and with its references to Greece’s grassroots clinic networks. All programs are survival programs, so why let the Silicon Valley app economy and the increasingly corporatized makers movement continually enclose so much technical knowledge and practice into obsolete property forms? In navigating inter-scalar frictions, what could a generalized increase in knowledge systems and its applications do?
Certainly feedback, calibration and adjustment are key features of what I want to call negotiated empowerment among different systems/modes of existence. And exactly how those play out depends upon how we mobilize the energy generated from the friction locally and globally. Understanding that the issue of ‘how’ is much broader than technological issues is important here.
This I see as the main goal of any ecologistics – as the consilient, systematic and flexible coordination of materials, flows, bodies and knowledge ecologies for enacting non-zero sums, exploring capacities and generating mutual flourishing. Its not about slow v. fast, nor local v. global, but about meshing each of these in appropriate proportion to what we are trying to enact, and in the context of multiple ‘imperatives’ (from strictly functional to interpersonal and ethical) interacting at various scales within a particular biosoical matrix. But all this is too abstract without specific cases to reflect upon.
Incidentally, the Green Revolution is a great case study to collect lessons re: negotiating the future. Lansing’s book was mind-blowing for me when I first read it, and an important reminder that our cultural logic and Reason is a mere iteration of cognition with specific effects. Socio-ecological development has to be viewed ‘ecologically’ (relationally, with causal effects, functions, and limits) from a reflexive and critical perspective.
This was a gooder I learned a lot from, now filed away, on this topic:
Miller, Frank C. (1977) ‘Knowledge and Power: Anthropology, Policy Research, and the Green Revolution’. American Ethnologist, Vol. 4, No. 1, Human Ecology, pp. 190-198
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wrong–hypostition is the cure