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.” 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.
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 – 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.
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…”
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 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.
Notes towards an emancipatory ecologistics? * What would be required of us cognitively, technically, and practically in our attempts to alter our ways of existing for more adaptive modes?
Bruno Latour, from ‘To modernize or to ecologize? That’s the Question’ (1998):
In the new regime, everything is complicated and every decision demands caution and prudence. One can never go straight or fast. It is impossible to go on without circumspection and without modesty. We now know, for example, that if it is necessary to take account of everything along the length of a river, we will not succeed with a hierarchised system that might give the impression, on paper, of being a wonderful science with wonderful feedback loops but which will not generate new political life. To obtain a stirring up of politics, you have to add uncertainty so that the actors, who until now knew what a river could and could not tolerate, begin to entertain sufficient doubts. The word ‘doubt’ is in fact inadequate, since it gives the impression of scepticism, whereas it is more a case of enquiry, research and experimentation. In short, it is a collective experimentation on the possible associations between things and people without any of these entities being used, from now on, as a simple means by the others.
Political ecology, as we have now understood it, is not defined by taking account of nature, but by the different career now taken by all objects. A planner for the local agricultural authority, an irrigator, a fisherman or a concessionaire for drinking water used to know the needs of water. They could guarantee its form by assuming its limits and being ignorant of all the ins and outs. The big difference between the present and the previous situation does not lie in the fact that, before, we did not know about rivers and now we are concerned about them, but in the fact that we can no longer delimit the ins and outs of this river as an object. Its career as an object no longer has the same form if each stream, each meander, each source and each copse must serve both as an end and a means for those claiming to manage them.
At the risk of doing a little philosophising, we could say that the ontological forms of the river have changed. There are, literally speaking, no more things. This expression has nothing to do with a sentimentalism of Mother Earth, with the merging of the fisherman, kingfisher and fish. It only designates the uncertain, dishevelled character of the entities taken into account by the smallest river contract or the smallest management plan. Nor does the expression refer to the inevitable complexity of natural milieux and human–environment interactions, for the new relationships are no more complex than the old ones (if they were, no science, management or politics could be done on their behalf, as Florian Charvolin  demonstrated so well). It solely refers to the obligation to be prepared to take account of other participants who may appear unforeseen, or disappear as if by magic, and who all aspire to take part in the ‘kingdom of ends’ by suddenly combining the relationships of the local and global. In order to monitor these quasiobjects, it is therefore necessary to invent new procedures capable of managing these arrivals and departures, these ends and these means — procedures that are completely different from those used in the past to manage things.
In fact, to summarise this argument, it would have to be said that ecology has nothing to do with taking account of nature, its own interests or goals, but that it is rather another way of considering everything. ‘Ecologising’ a question, an object or datum, does not mean putting it back into context and giving it an ecosystem. It means setting it in opposition, term for term, to another activity, pursued for three centuries and which is known, for want of a better term, as ‘modernisation.’.
Everywhere we have ‘modernised’ we must now ‘ecologise.’ This slogan obviously remains ambiguous and even false, if we think of ecology as a complete system of relationships, as if it were only a matter of taking everything into account. But it becomes profoundly apposite if we use the term ecology by applying to it the principle of selection defined above and by referring it to the Kantian principle for the justification of the green regime.
‘Ecologising’ means creating the procedures that make it possible to follow a network of quasi-objects whose relations of subordination remain uncertain and which thus require a new form of political activity adapted to following them.
“It’s a speculative accelerated realist bootleg throwdown! This episode features STEVEN SHAVIRO and ALEXANDER GALLOWAY discussing their recently published books THE UNIVERSE OF THINGS: ON SPECULATIVE REALISM and LARUELLE: AGAINST THE DIGITAL. DOMINIC PETTMAN introduces and EUGENE THACKER moderates this conversation that took place AT THE NEW SCHOOL IN NOVEMBER 2014. An additional recording of Shaviro discussing the #Accelerationism movement in JUNE 2014 AT PRO QM IN BERLIN appears at the end of the episode.
The sound quality is a bit buggy from start to finish–difficult to hear on occasion, encoding hiccups, cell phone interference and more–reminders from the Real of objects’ permanent permeability, as well their ineludable availability to disruption and translation”
“Have you heard about the Wisconsin Mining Standoff? The GTac mining proposal? What about the Enbridge pipeline expansion? guest host Rebecca Kemble was joined by Wisconsin’s 29th Senate District Candidate Paul DeMain, Harvard educated economist Winona LaDuke, founding member of the Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative Barbara With, and chairman of the Bad River Ojibwe Mike Wiggins to discuss the creative responses to resource extraction proposals in the Lake Superior Basin.
“Zero-hour contracts, collapsing real wages, multiple jobs, and unpaid internships – most of us are experiencing a crisis in the relationship between ‘work’ and the wage. But is fighting for ‘more work’ the answer to our problems, or must we question the very nature of work? Why does the increasing automation of work currently present a crisis, rather than an opportunity for liberation? What does the future of work look like? Can we organize towards worlds that break the relationship between useful activity and the wage?
‘A Future That Doesn’t Work?’ was a public conversation with Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party) and Nick Srnicek (co-author of the Accelerationist Manifesto).”
Rob’s talk starts around 6:55 if like me you can do without the pipedreamer intro
Transformation Without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet:
Whether you are inspired by alternative visions of the future, or haunted by scenarios of climate chaos, or simply motivated to live with compassion and awareness, we need your help in imagining and creating a saner future. This symposium brought together a diverse, energetic, engaged community to celebrate and create tangible visions of new/old ways to prosper without exhausting the planet.
Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches environmental studies, postcolonial studies, creative nonfiction, African literature, world literature, and twentieth century British literature. He is the author of Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond; Dreambirds: the Natural History of a Fantasy; and Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. http://www.english.wisc.edu/rdnixon/