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.