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In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard famously described the coming age of postmodernism as a the dissolution of grand narratives, that is, overarching schemes or horizons of thought that move the unifies social forces. “…it is possible,” he wrote, “that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge.”[1] From then on, postmodernism became a buzzword, bound up in a nebulous array of definition, counter-definition, debate, celebration, and disgust. It found its application rapidly in the worlds of art, literature, and architecture: postmodern allowed the creator to step outside the conditions of progress and time itself, blending effortlessly the old and the new, the high-brow and the low-brow, the abstract with the concrete.

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The Postmodern Condition is name-checked endlessly, yet something that seems to be repeatedly glossed over is that fact that the argument put forward by Lyotard is a discourse grounded in techno-scientific development, or more properly, an analysis of a new mode of organization emerging from within a new techno-economic paradigm[2] – that of the rise of computing power, and the regime of post-industrial capitalism that it empowered. This is clear from the book’s opening paragraph:

Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction. The pace is faster or slower depending on the country, and within countries it varies according to the sector of activity: the general situation is one of temporal disjunction which makes sketching an overview difficult. A portion of the description would necessarily be conjectural. At any rate, we know that it is unwise to put too much faith in futurology.[3]

By pointing to the 1950s as the moments in which postmodernism began its ascendancy, Lyotard is grounding his discourse in the development of the information theory and systems thinking, both interrelated byproducts of World War 2 era scientific research. In the models advanced by these theories, the lines demarcating man and machine – and nature by extension – collapse into an array of feedback loops, distributed flows, and emergent patterns following shifts from equilibria to disequilibria and back again. From one perspective these developments point towards the possibilities of new ethical formations – such was the work, for example, of Gregory Bateson, among others. Yet the sciences were born in the hull of the so-called military-industrial complex, and it was to the twin powers of war and industry and they have largely remained coupled. In elliptical fashion, Lyotard acknowledges this historical composition: coupling “society” to ‘postindustrialization’ and cultural to “postmodernism”, he argues that the “decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of the blossoming of techniques since the Second World War, which has shifted the emphasis from ends of actions to its means; it can also be seen as an effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism…”[4]

Neither of these trajectories, in fact, is capable of being separated from one another. As the history traced in Philip Mirowski’s difficult – yet essential – Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science[5] illustrates, the theories that became neoliberal capitalism were themselves honed in the military’s think-tanks alongside research into cybernetics, game theory, operations research and systems analysis, as well as the correlated evolutions in computer technology necessitated by the war effort and the demands of the rising Cold War. These trajectories broke upon unto the international stage in 1972, when the crisis of the dollar’s imminent devaluation led President Nixon (under the advice of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman) to remove the US currency from its gold standard, thereby undermining the worldwide monetary order and demolishing the international regulatory scheme arranged by the post-war Bretton Woods institutions. The result was the dizzying explosion of finance markets: without gold, global interest rates were no longer fixed, and became instead free-floating and flexible. Computerized marketplaces proliferated, opening spaces where futures contracts could be traded across a variety of international currencies. The rise of finance economies around these trading hubs played directly into the evaporating of industrial bases of the dominant world economies, and aided by dynamic modelizations and enhanced communication techniques made possible by information technologies, vast transnational supply chains cris-crossed the globe. No longer did corporations have to kowtow to the regulatory and taxation demands of the state and the costly worker protections of the unions – they now had the freedom to move anywhere in the world, seeking out the lowest possible costs for production. Under the reorganization of global economic systems through neoliberal governmentality and computerization, the largest narrative of them all – that of the state – was repurposed into something else, awash in the dizzying logistics of electronic flow and uneven planes of development.

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A: Proletkult

Can we be infrapunks, builders of tiny bits of a structure of another life?[1]

I. Living in Shadows

Last month I made the trip from Louisville to Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capitol, to attend an annual rally protesting the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. A coal industry favorite, this process of extraction involves the rapid deforestation of the landscape, followed by the blasting apart of the surface layer rocks, defined as “overburden,” which is then most commonly moved into an adjacent valley. The coal removal can now take place, with excavator digging deep pits into the truncated mountain; when this particular mine is fully emptied out, it becomes the dumping site for the next overburden removal. It continues like this, large paths of ruined forest snaking through the Appalachian mountain country.

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The environmental and social impact is immense and negative. The process of blasting dumps pulverized rock, dirt, and chemicals into the air, blanketing any towns or property that happen to be near the mining site. The processes of deforestation and the dumping of overburden in the valleys, where streams and rivers make their way through the landscape, obstructs the functioning of the regional ecosystems. The streams that aren’t cut off fill with minerals and chemical run-offs; aquatic biodiversity collapses and the toxins find their ways into the water table. The rates of pulmonary disease, physical deformities and birth defects, cancer, and heart disease are skyrocketing amongst the local populations. The purpose of this entire process, coal, is shipped across the country and burned for energy; as the third most common energy source – and perhaps the dirtiest – it accounts for the majority of America’s c02 emissions. The machine eating away at the Appalachian Mountains, and the eco and social systems that inhabit these spaces, is plugged directly into what we call the Anthropocene.

Shivering the winter weather, the rally moved through downtown Frankfort, ending on the steps of the Capitol building where speakers, many from the devastated regions, analyzed the multilayered crisis this paradigm has ushered in. Their talks were militant: one speaker spoke in the plain, familiar language of the everyday about dismantling the state’s current power structure, embodied by a senator with a thirty year tenure in office and enough dark money paths to keep investigative journalists spinning in circles for ages.[2] She linked the reality of this dysfunctional representation to the environmental degradation triggered by strip mining, and connected this further to her own experiences and those of others in Kentucky’s Harlan Country, where the coal industry sucks up not only natural resources but regional job markets. Like so many other places across America, Harlan County – once the site of the legendary 1973 “Brookside Strike”[3] – is an experimental neoliberal laboratory for living suspended between a dying ecosystem and a collapsing economy. Another speaker followed a similar route, emphasizing the need in movement building to connect the disparate strands between a varieties of struggles: no isolation between the fights for racial justice and economic equality, between environmentalism and the crisis of governance. This is the truth of being on the left in age of the Anthropocene: there can be no radical struggle that doesn’t hold the ecological as the foundation of its horizon.

As the Situationists once said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s minds.”

How could such a required transformation take place? The career politicians have posed vague solutions such as carbon capture storage; attempts to legislate plans such of these, perversely, have produced incentives and tax breaks for coal extraction to continue.[4] Going wide view, the efforts of cap-and-trade, originally the brainchild of conservative bureaucrat C. Boyden Gray, have done little to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; other environmental regulations have amounted to little more than reshuffling the deck of cards without any long-term impact. For all intents and purposes there is no compatibility between the current global economic paradigm and living conscious of the Anthropocene.

Mike Davis, best known for his outstanding work on global poverty in The Planet of the Slums,[5] attempts to unify the questions of labor and ecology in a vision of the urban environment as the place to prototype sustainable futures. He draws our attention to the development of the postmodern metropolis through the anti-democratic regimes and investment luring, resulting not only in our ecologically unsustainable infrastructure, but also a rampant “growth of peripheral slums and informal employment, the privatization of public space, low-intensity warfare between police and subsistence criminals, and bunkering of the wealthy in sterilized historical centers or walled suburbs.”[6] The point he is stressing is that today, more than ever, the spatial is the political (or, as Metahaven would have it, the ‘personal is geopolitical’). In my home state this is illustrated by the fact that the parceling out of public infrastructure is part of the same machine as the crisis of representation in the capital, along with the corporations that profit, the coal they extract, they carbon they dump into the atmosphere, the think-tanks that whitewash the effects, the money spent lobbying to carve up more public space…

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Public Feelings Salon with Lauren Berlant

Just as feminism has sought to identify the ways in which the personal and the political are linked, the study of “public feelings” draws our attention to how and why feelings and emotion (assumed to be a private, personal experience) influence politics and notions of social belonging and intimacy.

This interactive conversation, moderated by Janet Jakobsen, features Lauren Berlant, José Muñoz, Ann Pellegrini and Tavia Nyong’o, and took place on April 12, 2011 at Barnard College in New York City. The discussion was so lively and rich, the organizers decided to invite more scholars and activists to comment and discuss. You can read their responses, plus a reply by Berlant: Here

Lauren Berlant (b.1957) is the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, where she has been teaching since 1984. Berlant received her Ph.D. from Cornell University. She writes and teaches on issues of intimacy and belonging in popular culture, in relation to the history and fantasy of citizenship.

Her most recent book Cruel Optimism (2011), is about the wearing out of the fantasy of the good life that has bound people to various kinds of intimate and political normativity despite their constant inadequacy to the fantasies that bring people to them. Berlant attempts to conceptualize affect historically, and then address the neoliberal sensorium insofar as it is shaped by the recognition that the social democratic/liberal fantasy of mass upward mobility, meritocracy, and durable intimacy has less and less traction in the world.

Here “optimism” does not mean the emotion of optimism but the affective structure of attachment that enables people to survive and even flourish amidst the ordinariness of life-in-crisis, life without foundations, anchors, or footing (Berlant 2011).