Monday, October 6, 2008

'Nature has the right to exist'

Art. 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms. The application and interpretation of these rights will follow the related principles established in the Constitution.
With the public ratification of its new constitution last week, Ecuador has for the first time anywhere in history granted inalienable rights to nature. The new constitution also includes strict egalitarian provisions about food production, water access, and protection for indigenous peoples and uncontacted tribes.

As the Guardian link makes clear, this unprecedented act stems in part from Ecuador's custodianship of the Galápagos Islands and in part from its long history of abuse at the hands of multinational corporations:
The origins of this apparent legal tidal shift lie in Ecuador's growing disillusionment with foreign multinationals. The country, which contains every South American ecosystem within its borders, which include the Galapagos Islands, has had disastrous collisions with multi-national companies. Many, from banana companies to natural gas extractors, have exploited its natural resources and left little but pollution and poverty in their wake.

Now it is in the grip of a bitter lawsuit against US oil giant Chevron, formerly Texaco, over its alleged dumping of billions of gallons of crude oil and toxic waste waters into the Amazonian jungle over two decades.

It is described as the Amazonian Chernobyl, and 30,000 local people claim that up to 18m tonnes of oil was dumped into unlined pits over two decades, in defiance of international guidelines, and contaminating groundwater over an area of some 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) and leading to a plethora of serious health problems for anyone living in the area. Chevron has denied the allegations. In April, a court-appointed expert announced in a report that, should Chevron lose, it would have to pay up to $16bn (£8.9bn) in damages.

Chevron, which claims its responsibilities were absolved in 1992 when it handed over its operations in Ecuador to the state-owned extraction company, Petroecuador, immediately set about discrediting the report. A verdict on the case is still thought to be a long way off, and Ecuador's government could face US trade sanctions for its refusal to "kill" the case.
It remains somewhat unclear what this law will mean in practice, especially in the context of a country whose economy is so heavily dependent on petroleum extraction. However things shake out, though, this should be a fascinating test case for protection of the environment outside the failed paradigms of property rights on the one hand and "securitization" on the other.

Here's the full text of the relevant articles, including an intriguing bit of commentary that suggests a codified right to civil disobedience in defense of the environment: “Public organisms” in Article 1 means the courts and government agencies, i.e., the people of Ecuador would be able to take action to enforce nature rights if the government did not do so.

There's still more at MeFi. This has received almost no press in the States, but it's an amazing and very important development, definitely worth keeping your eyes on.

(cross-posted at

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Heroes We Deserve

As the critics note, we are currently at what seems to be a peak in the production of high-grossing, critically acclaimed superhero blockbusters -- a saturation point, perhaps, of a longue durée that dates from 1989 with Burton's Batman.*After one notable lapse in major studio backing following the humiliating failure of the first Batman franchise, Hollywood figured out something important: the former objects of camp no longer presuppose the camp sensibility. Scanning the reviews for the Burton/Schumacher series as its latent eccentricities blossomed into a hornier, MTV version of the '60s television show, one finds a rising chorus of demands for something "darker," "edgier," "more adult," a resistance and even revulsion for the franchise's aestheticized distance from its material. Overreacting to complaints from parents over excessive violence, Warner Bros. amped up the camp in spite of agonized critics and fanboys, who at the time were reading a lot of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Even in that first film, the "darkest" of the four, Jack's Joker was "too over the top," Beetlejuice as Batman too "weird" and "wimpy."

Never say Hollywood can't learn from its mistakes. The producers have figured out how to please everyone: maintain earnestness regardless of the inherent absurdity of the genre, be 'topical' by way of empty allegory, be spectacularly violent, never stop moralizing. Meet these requirements, and a great deal of variety is possible: one has free reign to be jokey or serious, bright or gloomy, undisguisedly sexist, racist, homophobic, or none of the above, 'critical,' or 'wish fulfillment.' Or all of the above. These labels are simply not the creator's responsibility. Restore the superhero's propaganda function, in short, and in so doing prove Sontag's thesis that "pure camp" is always so for the future and not the present.** The comic book-loving nerds of my generation are now faced with the dubious realization of our pubescent dreams: the nerds have taken over Hollywood, and the responsibility thus falls to the Figure of the Superhero to 'teach us' something about the "human condition."

Pairing up the summer's two most critically and commercially successful entries: Iron Man and The Dark Knight, is instructive. One or two professional critics noticed the balls-out obvious apologies for the authoritarian, repressive 'excesses' of global capitalism, but the vast majority of the critical and popular response made me feel like I was in a bad parodic update of 1984 -- of the very few who bothered to address the films' unavoidable (or so I thought) pseudopolitics, the smart ones and the dumb ones alike seemed generally pleased.

Neoliberal assumptions (avowed or disavowed) are typical for the output of most mainstream cinematic and critical output these days, and it's usually not even worth mentioning in the individual case. I bring up superhero movies in this context because they're just so open about it. And yet a liberal media that would spend half the day spitting on Bush and the evils of multinational corporations can spend the other half hyperbolically puffing a movie that shares, in exaggerated form, the contorted view of reality demonstrated every day by these institutions, some of which produced the films.

What I suspect underlies the general tolerant attitude towards their content is the comforting but kind of really unlikely and unfounded assumption that corporate mass entertainment expresses collective desires -- even that it does so better than a production financed independently. We are then able to rationalize objectionable content. The curiously archaic gender roles -- the women of IM and TDK essentially spend the entire movie trying to decide who to screw -- are of a kind with the racial politics -- witness IM's moronic (and casually incinerated) Arab barbarians and their helpless Arab victims, TDK's Asian menace, its blacks whose humanity is dependent on their obedience to legitimate authority (the ferryboat prisoner's conscience is portrayed as spiritually profound while all the Joker needs to do to make two gangsters fight to the death, which we see them prepared to do on all fours, is drop a stick and say 'go'): they must be ironic, or 'really' a clever auto-critique. As chabert describes here, the meaning of what we see is deferred to a menu of metaphysical choices provided by the film itself -- positioning ourselves in relation to these ambiguously warring 'philosophies' is what gives the calculatedly shocking imagery its significance for us as individual viewers. But one need not approach the film in anything like an intellectual way, analysis is optional. Should one be unable or unwilling to process an image or line of dialogue, an alibi is always in play for shrugging it off as a completely meaningless special effect: "it's just a comic book movie, man."

Superhero movies are ideal for this sort of operation because they are what we might call post-genre. As A.O. Scott writes in the second linked article at the top of this post, their 'laws' are the abstract ones of the corporate PG-13 'blockbuster.' A hero is born, develops into an ideal self-image, inherits fortune along with an inevitable enemy who must be defeated via increasingly lengthy, bloodless explosions, etc. Given those requirements, all existing genres are fair game. IM is a little bit science fiction, a little bit Top Gun/Iron Eagle, visual borrowings from mecha anime, splash of romcom patter, pinch of Jackass (in a couple faux-amateur handicam shots of Stark hurting himself while testing his military hardware). These elements are not so much blended as they are thrown together, so that the film shifts around spastically in tone and style despite the grinding forward motion of its 3-act machine. TDK labors under a more consistent directorial hand, but its plot structure is similarly incoherent. About the only stabilizing force available for readings of either film comes from its foregrounded ideological formulas, which are both horrendous, but as I said earlier, optional, the films keeping themselves 'open' for more 'complex' interpretations. They're for kids and adults.

The apparent openness of interpretation is more true of TDK than IM, since most of the latter's appeal is predicated on us being charmed by Robert Downey Jr. We watch him progress from bad-boy pop star captain of the military industrial complex to good corporate citizen, with a heart of liquid fusion (or something like that). In the comments of the post above, chabert remarks on the unreconstructed '40s era mores assumed without irony by a number of recent mass entertainments. I would have said '50s, as it seems clear to me that fantasy today is determined by its reaction to crisis; that decade's tropes, the power of technology despite (and even because of) recognized dangers, the insecure overstatement of moral and political superiority over monstrous enemies, the total subordination of women and 'minorities,' have been cropping up all over the place, from the queasy nostalgia of David Lynch to their seamless blend with 'realism' in IM and TDK. As Voyou writes, we seem to be experiencing a "repetition-as-farce of the '50s" in a number of areas, an experience perhaps of the failed realization of an older dream of the future.

IM views the War on Terror and the energy crisis through 1950s-colored glasses, much like the original '60s character did for Vietnam and the rise of multinational corporations; its solution is to take the heroic-yet-faustian scientist figure out of his lab coat and literally meld him with the product of his alienated labor, only conceivable if he is also a capitalist. The film never stops playing up his personal power, making him out to be a hip pop mogul a la Steve Jobs. We see, however, that this flashy, superficial power is predicated on some major blind spots in his consciousness (i.e. his weapons are used to kill people). His path to true power (and moral vindication) is to master his personal limits. He builds his own Iron Man outfit, he completely binds his company to himself by rooting out the Jew-Arab conspiracy initiated by his co-CEO (not kidding, also his name is Obadiah), he shifts his company's business away from weapons (which can be 'misused') to privatized renewable energy (which clearly can't). He ends in a position of absolute control of his much-enlarged personal effects, the power journey going hand-in-hand with the moral journey, a necessary connection demonstrated by Stark scrupulously avoiding 'collateral damage' while blowing up Genghis Khan-quoting Arab terrorists, generating clean energy (the same substance that powers his heart!), and resisting the urge to pull a Mr. B on Gwyneth Paltrow's ingenue secretary. Once all these trials are completed, we get the basic difference between IM and TDK -- Stark can 'come out' as Iron Man. Maximum power=maximum accountability -- though retaining secret paramilitary backup just in case -- in other words, the old Clintonian boom years restored.

Padraig notes in the comments here that Bruce Wayne's buyout of his own company (his repression of finance capital) makes him an old-school conservative, not a neoliberal. Stark does the same thing. So they are both, in a reactionary way, skeptical about capitalism (aren't we all). IM is organized around the fantasy that military power and accountability (and personability, charm) can and indeed must be seamlessly blended through a reassertion of natural and ethical limits, but TDK is structured by a series of interlocking thought experiments, the universalization of predetermined binary 'choices.' The film's much-vaunted 'shades of grey' are an effect of the complex 'moral calculus' needed to function in such a constrained environment, where you can't even blow up one little apartment building without elaborate justification, a challenge which mirrors the intellectual effort necessary to take this movie as seriously as its critics seem to. That it is considered more "serious" than IM -- IM is a "guilty pleasure" or an "entertaining romp," TDK is a "pulp epic" of "boundless imagination" -- is evidence of the stronger cultural cache of deterministic 'pessimism.' We're presented with a bunch of high-powered decision-makers with entertainingly conflicting and destructive worldviews, not necessarily as points of identification (we're shown that Batman, the Joker, and Two-Face are all irresponsible assholes) but as points of departure for our own analysis. I'm reminded of a wikiquote from Slavoj Žižek colonizer of academia for the pop culture machine:
Žižek: Yes, and the age of philosophy in the sense again that we are confronted more and more often with philosophical problems at an everyday level. It is not that you withdraw from daily life into a world of philosophical contemplation. On the contrary, you cannot find your way around daily life itself without answering certain philosophical questions. It is a unique time when everyone is, in a way, forced to be some kind of philosopher.
Beyond the 'entertainment value' of things blowing up on huge IMAX screens, beyond the collector's appeal of the pop cultural references, the only value of these movies is equivalent to their ideological function: that we can use them to think about the world. The Batman film especially gives us the 'tools' to believe that we are 'some kind of philosophers.' We're supplied with easily digestible nuggets pulled from headlines and pop filosofy with which to examine and 'problematize' our lives with the dilemmas and theories of Great Men: the ethics of extralegal power, chance vs. anarchy, the surveillance state, "what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object" (another romcom setup!), all products of the clash of concepts. Any complicating factors which might come from a different engagement with reality are removed. One could say I'm being fussy, as this is all pretty standard convention for the creation of fairytales, but then, "why so serious" if it's assumed we all know better?

As always, the way to understand ideology is not to ask 'what does the film think,' nor 'what can I think through the lens of this film,' but 'what does thinking 'with' the film prevent me from thinking.' They are not interested in making 'arguments' (that's our job), their job is to reinforce premises. Not because their creators have malicious intentions, but because it is important for their financial backers and consequently for them to ensure that those premises remain profitable. For example, the baseline pessimism and dependency that supports big-screen violent fantasies along with the notion that it is "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" is comforting, enabling to all kinds of fantasies, and serves as ground zero for a set of trained assumptions about the world, along with the opinions, laudatory, apologetic, or critical, derived from them. This is one definition of 'popular.'

Movies featuring Batman and Iron Man are art in the same sense that this is art, with the important exception that Jeff Koons really exists. They are carefully planned and promoted media events; the buzz is the art, the actors' personal lives are art, the criticism is art, the advertising is art. The profit is art. Everyone's opinion is potentially valuable. Discussing the 'object itself,' relying on the tools it provides us with, is sort of quixotic in this context, inescapably minor and cliquish no matter if the critical lens is in the high culture modes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and political theory or the sewers of fanboy mythography (not to mention the middle ground, allegorizing with headlines). Doing so just identifies the speaker with their discursive order: nerd, cult studs academic, movie critic, political moralist, etc., and helps establish a system of exchange between these 'fields' and the Hollywood production line. Given the increasing 'popularity' and 'purity' (openness/emptiness) of the object, what more can one reasonably expect?

Corporate cinema has pushed the superhero, a product of a genuinely popular (though not universal) culture, beyond the limits of what it can encompass. As an entirely derivative studio subgenre the superhero movie seems about to commence its very own fake self-deconstruction phase, repeating a cycle that had already run its course in the comics world by the time Batman came out in the late '80s. What it needs is its Don Quixote, what it's getting is its Unforgiven. That's what they're selling: who's buying?

*1978's Superman, aside from its inevitable (and like Phase 1 Batman, increasingly campy) sequels, didn't really start a trend, and so I count it as more pioneer than progenitor. Evidently there were still more than enough non-comic book, but equally homoerotic/phobic superheroes for Hollywood to entertain us with.

** OTT, 300 is going to be amazing in 12 years or so, if any of us are still alive.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Apes, legal personhood and the plight of Nim Chimpsky

Apes, legal personhood and the plight of Nim Chimpsky.

Eberhart Theuer: A legal person would be something like a company or a certain society that in itself, or a fund that has certain rights without being a natural person.

Anita Barraud: This is similar to the US in common law notion of a juristic person that can apply to corporations and organisations that they're artificial persons created by the law.

Eberhart Theuer: Exactly.

Paula Stibbe: It's not talking about the rights for non-human animals to go and vote or be able to go to university, that would clearly be inappropriate and ridiculous. This is about recognising that non-human animals share with us sentience, which means that they have the ability to suffer, and that they have interests which can be damaged.
In sci-fi-philosophic terms, this is the distinction between sapience and sentience; while apes likely cannot "think" in the human sense, they and other animals can certainly feel pain, and that capacity is something we are morally obliged to respect.

I say likely because I am by nature extremely wary of the anthropomorphistic tendency to project human emotions and consciousness into animal behavior that is actually instinctual or learned—in general I'm impressed with Daniel Dennett's theory in Kinds of Minds that our dogs appear to "love" us precisely because we've selected for just that impression over millenia of canine domestication. But as an anecdotal matter I must admit this is really evocative:
Paula Stibbe: I've learned what he likes to do most, what food he likes to eat most, though that would include some games. He likes to use charcoal with paper sometimes to draw, or chalk.

Anita Barraud: What does he draw?

Paula Stibbe: They are kind of abstract angular kind of works and he takes the paper and the chalk and he leans against the wall, he bites his bottom lip and concentrates really hard on what he's doing. He won't let himself be distracted while he's drawing.
(cross-posted at

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

thoughts on zizecology - 2

There are two primary axes of political conflict in Kim Stanley Robinson's incomparable Mars trilogy: first, the expected (almost generically required) question of independence vs. interdependence with regard to the mother planet, Earth, which is really a question about Utopia and enclavism that is concretized in the fierce battles over the space elevator; and second and more relevant for my purposes today is the fierce break between the Red Martians and the Green Martians. The Greens believe the planet should be terraformed so as to inhabitable by humans without mechanical assistance, a technical problem that clumps around issues of surface temperature, atmospheric composition and density, and unpredictable climactic feedback mechanisms; the Reds believe the planet should be left as pristine as possible, whether because this is the only way it can be properly studied or because the otherwise dead rock is seen by some Reds to have a kind of mystical vitality all its own.

Of course, Greenism and Redism both describe ideological spectra, not discrete sets of propositions: some moderate Greens propose to terraform only up to a level of 5 km, leaving Mars's huge mountains relatively untouched, while others believe the planet should be maximally terraformed and still others believe it should be terraformed only to the light-facemask level—while for their part the Reds are divided between those who would only act as a partial brake on unchecked development and radical terrorists who bomb critical life-support equipment in an effort to force humans off the planet.

And Redism is surely doomed, doomed from the moment of its first articulation on the Ares bringing the First Hundred colonists to the Mars—doomed by the decision to colonize the planet in the first place, if not by earlier manned missions, if not by bacteria carried over on the Viking landers. The originary, humanless Mars—the natural Mars—is in this sense a logical impossibility—in order to exist at all, in order to be a real place as opposed to some far-off speck of light in the sky, Mars must exist for us, which is to say Mars must enter into (human) history. It must be changed; it must be ruined.

The Reds have always, necessarily, lost, though their recognition of this fact that doesn't dim their fervor.

I bring this up as in attempt to return to Žižek's critique of ecology, specifically the radical reconsideration of finitude he ignites in the latter half of the essay. Žižek seeks to unmask liberal ecology as simply the latest ideological backing for the biopolitical structures of capitalism as a whole. “Today’s predominant mode of politics is post-political bio-politics,” Žižek writes, and accordingly ecology’s primary locus of action should be understood as an ecology of fear. Žižek does not deny the reality of the potential catastrophe we face but rather opposes the ends to which this potential disaster is rhetorically purposed:

The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude… This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe.
What Žižek reveals, then, at the heart of liberal ecology is a deep-seated, unacknowledged conservatism that weakly opposes the status quo in appearance only to work to preserve it in reality.

The ecology of fear’s recognition of our precariousness, of our absolute contingency, Žižek says, in fact induces us to cling to the devil we know:
With regard to this inherent instability of nature, the most consequent was the proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: Since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth’s ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth’s change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity’s survival. This extreme proposal renders visible the truth of ecology.
And the problem goes still deeper. Given the Malthusian proportions of the current population of the Earth and the extreme, highly energy-dependent requirements for industrial agriculture alone, if the industrial civilization that is currently wrecking the planet were to suddenly stop, this too would be a disaster out of proportion with any ever experienced in human memory. We find ourselves trapped no matter which way we turn. “Nature,” as such, has in this sense already been entirely lost—an observation Žižek draws in part from Timothy Morton, author of Ecology without Nature, who writes that “it is very hard to get used to the idea that the catastrophe, far from being imminent, has already taken place.”

I am reminded here of Norbert Weiner’s memorable depiction of the human race as “shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet” in 1950’s The Human Use of Human Beings. In recognition of the essentially entropic nature of the universe, Weiner asserts, the proper response is not despair or catastrophic fatalism but rather resolve to meet our challenges head-on and keep the final catastrophe as far off as we may. Weiner, despite his scientistic and technocratic positivism, becomes revealed as a proto-ecologist in this Žižekian sense, an ecologist aiming not at preservation but at utilization and manipulation.

Felix Guattari, too, comes to make essentially the same claim in his “The Three Ecologies”:
There is a principle specific to environmental ecology: it states that anything is possible—the worst disasters or the most flexible evolutions. Natural equilibriums will be increasingly reliant upon human intervention, and a time will come when vast programmes will need to be set up in order to regulate the relationship between oxygen, ozone, and carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.
We can add to this a whole host of possible geoengineering projects, including the new proposal to add lime to the oceans to combat climate change that I blogged about just this morning. Guattari’s vision of a “machinic ecology” is positively Weinerian in scope, if not utterly Promethean—he goes on to argue that the telos of humankind is in part “to dare to confront the vertiginous Cosmos so as to make it inhabitable,” not simply to keep equilibrium or stasis but indeed to bend all of nature to our will (if with the proper ecosophic respect for life at all levels).

If all this is true, why then does contemporary liberal ecology present itself in opposition to technological civilization and progress as such? How does ecology resist the recognition of its own central contradiction? Žižek attributes ecology’s conservative blindness to a kind of childish denial, a refusal to accept emotionally what one knows to be the case intellectually, a psychological inability endemic to the modern age to reconcile cold scientific appraisal with common sense. Žižek—perhaps not unexpectedly—relates this fundamental divide between scientific knowledge and the Wisdom (“the basic trust in the background coordinates of our world”) we need to “unlearn” to Lacan’s notion of the “big Other,” the Symbolic figure whom we believe will “guarantee the harmony between the levels, to guarantee that the overall interactions will be satisfactory.” There is, of course, no big Other—we are flying blind, with no co-pilot—and the first solution to our predicament is the old Lacanian one of recognizing this uncomfortable fact: “And the lesson of ecology is that we should go to the end here and accept the non-existence of the ultimate big Other, nature itself with its pattern of regular rhythms, the ultimate reference of order and stability.”

What Žižek rejects here is any notion of equilibrium (to use the Club of Rome’s preferred term) or sustainability (to use the one currently in vogue). But this, it would seem to me, is in the end a too-wide application of the category of denial that itself amounts to an act of denial in the end. In the end, the fact must be admitted: All this—technological civilization, even one that is ecological in the Žižekian/Guattarian sense—simply cannot go on forever. There is, in the end, a limit point, some point past which it is simply impossible either to grow and expand on the one hand or perfect and regulate on the other. The laws of physics—the laws of Weiner’s entropic universe—are in the end a kind of actually existing big Other, a big Other of a sort that cannot be dispelled through Promethean know-how, or through the infinite adaptability of the market, or through a position of Lacanian self-knowledge. In the end, they are final, including and especially the first and second laws of thermodynamics (You can’t get something for nothing, and Things fall apart.) There is, in the end, reality, such as it is.

Given this, it seems prudent to inculcate some capacity to recognize and respect the limits to growth. In this sense Guattari and especially Žižek seem to get their infinities tangled up—the flexible recombination of the market is of a very particular and limited kind, and should not be confused with the actual ability to do anything. Žižek is wrong, too, to argue that finitude necessarily leads to a hopeless conservatism, because the recognition of our finitude is also the prerequisite for effective ecological knowledge and environmental policy in the first place. There could be no ecology without finitude—what need would there be for it?—and in this sense finitude cannot ever be tossed out; it must rather be acknowledged, and assented to, even as we seek to do what we can for ourselves within that frame. It is only in first studying and understanding nature as “the ultimate reference of order and stability” that ecologists can come to know what they can and cannot do, what is and is not possible—and therefore it is only in first recognizing and respecting natural patterns and regular rhythms that the ecologist can begin to do anything at all.

Finitude, this is to say, is better understood as an immanent principle of existence rather than as some transcendent imposition from above. The finitude imposed by entropic nature is as much the playing field as it is a barrier or limit point.

There is, of course, every reason to think that capitalism is uniquely unprepared to recognize either version of finitude, or to approach its production capacity with anything resembling rational growth—if, that is, we have not in fact already and unknowingly flown past it. Rather, as Foster continually reminds us through his invocations of Marx, capitalism itself is the primary accelerant towards our own immolation. The problem is not merely the ceaseless, unchecked drive towards accumulation—though this of course is crucial—but also the ways in which there is no ability under capitalism to regulate the desires of consumers except by sudden (and in this case likely irreversible) scarcity: a crisis. John Bellamy Foster writes in Ecology Against Capital:
For Marx, the very nature of capitalist society from the very beginning had been built on a metabolic rift between city and country, human beings and the earth—a rift that has now been heightened beyond anything he could have imagined…. There is an irreversible environmental crisis within global capitalist society. But setting aside capitalism, a sustainable relation to the earth is not beyond reach. To get there, we have to change our social relations.
Evoking John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous dependence effect, which reverses the classic economic relationship between commodity and need to understand capitalism as first producing needs for consumers which its products then step in to fulfill, Foster concludes that the relations of production within capitalism will simply never be capable of generating “a society governed not by the search for profit but by people’s genuine needs, and the requirements of socio-ecological sustainability.” In line with his understanding of Marx as a proto-ecological thinker, as elaborated at length in his 2000 book Marx’s Ecology, Foster calls this state of affairs socialism.

First and foremost among the things such a socialism will require, in part, is a ideology—really, an ethos—that would allow us to imagine a future for humanity that is neither radically Utopian or radically dystopian/apocalyptic, but rather in continuity with the present. The language of sustainability that Foster uses is one such paradigm—but I find myself attracted instead to what Kim Stanley Robinson has called permaculture. In a recent interview with the Web site BLDGBLOG, Robinson defined permaculture in this way:
But if you think of yourself as terraforming Earth, and if you think about sustainability, then you can start thinking about permaculture and what permaculture really means. It’s not just sustainable agriculture, but a name for a certain type of history. Because the word sustainability is now code for: let’s make capitalism work over the long haul, without ever getting rid of the hierarchy between rich and poor and without establishing social justice.

Sustainable development, as well: that’s a term that’s been contaminated. It doesn’t even mean sustainable anymore. It means: let us continue to do what we’re doing, but somehow get away with it. By some magic waving of the hands, or some techno silver bullet, suddenly we can make it all right to continue in all our current habits. And yet it’s not just that our habits are destructive, they’re not even satisfying to the people who get to play in them. So there’s a stupidity involved, at the cultural level.

We should take the political and aesthetic baggage out of the term utopia. I’ve been working all my career to try to redefine utopia in more positive terms – in more dynamic terms. People tend to think of utopia as a perfect end-stage, which is, by definition, impossible and maybe even bad for us. And so maybe it’s better to use a word like permaculture, which not only includes permanent but also permutation. Permaculture suggests a certain kind of obvious human goal, which is that future generations will have at least as good a place to live as what we have now.
Permaculture, in this way, weds the techno-optimism of Žižek and Guattari with the eco-pessimism of Foster in a way that accounts for the rightness of both. It rejects the paradigm of sustainable growth in favor of what it is essentially raw futurity, the ethical imperative not only that there should be a future but that the people in it deserve a decent world in which to live. This, Robinson says, is closely tied to his career as a science fiction writer, which he imagines speaking both from and for the future:
And you try to speak for them by envisioning scenarios that show them either doing things better or doing things worse – but you’re also alerting the generations alive right now that these people have a voice in history.

The future needs to be taken into account by the current system, which regularly steals from it in order to pad our ridiculous current lifestyle.
For there is a third, unspoken suggestion in permaculture, too, beyond permanence and permutation, and that of course is permafrost, that permanently frozen tundra of the Arctic and sub-Arctic that is now for the first time in human history beginning to melt as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The future is indeed under genuine threat; the crises are indeed real, and perhaps the catastrophes as well. And as these things happen, and we continue to do nothing, our chances at permaculture, and a livable, better future, slowly melt away.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Extinction level event

Love then screams in my own throat; I am the Jesuve, the filthy parody of the torrid and blinding sun.

Let's consider Danny Boyle's Sunshine as both a characteristically exaggerated response to environmental crisis and an extended visual pun on the term 'Enlightenment.' The genre is easily the one most in tune with my lizard brain, sci-fi horror, combining an alien menace, cosmic scale, and the latent erotics of the military-industrial complex. The premise is suitably elegant: an elite crew of astronauts have to rejuvenate the dying sun by penetrating it with a huge bomb, thus saving the human race from extinction. There's a jingoism to this film that is no less present for its lack of national identification or corresponding ideological threat. It delivers the jingoism of crisis, its stance resolutely 'post-ideological,' a fantasy wherein the reactionary instincts of the nation-state are subordinated to the non-negotiable reality of impending destruction (though memorialized, aesthetically, by the pretty faces of the globalized cast). Humanity can then be reduced to its more cinema-friendly, individual-universal 'weaknesses,' such as lust for power, envy, moral feeling, and susceptibility to the sublime. All of which prove themselves to be liabilities in the crisis situation, if forgivable as sources of dramatic suspense, bathos, etc. A more 'objective,' classier...right, the UK, post-9/11 version of Armageddon.

So do we then say Sunshine belongs with the recent spate of non-U.S. westerns, the parent genre to a certain dominant mode of science fiction? Naught Thought thinks so, in this piece understanding the already post-national history of the European Enlightenment as one with the history of colonial expansion and imperial violence. The obvious touchstone in contemporary philosophy is with Jean-FrançoisLyotard's essay "Can Thought go on without a Body?" where the extinction of the human body is equated with the death of the sun, the absolute limit of thought. Bodiless thought is not without material conditions, but is also not reducible to preserved remains or combinatoric repetitions, the recorded memories which might manifest in, say, a satellite that outlasts the collapse of the solar system. Artificial intelligence, Lyotard claims, cannot be reducible to a program. It must be able to transgress its own limits, must carry some immanent differend, a complex, a libidinal motor for drives, desires, will. It must suffer. Thought, like the marauding cowboy, must have spurs.

Lyotard's philosophical myth can be read as a gnomic restatement of the question of 'late capitalism' -- how does expansion continue in a post-ontological (post-national) universe? More or less rhetorical, its function is to reinforce the truth of its presuppositions. Post-American westerns and western-infused sci-fi serve as good popular counterparts: anti-heroes slay evildoers in spectacular fashion despite existential ennui. But the intrusion of horror complicates things somewhat. The inversion of the western, horror consists of variations on home invasion rather than the quest. Its villains tend toward the abstract. Like obvious influences 2001, Solaris, and Alien, Sunshine's setting is a 'haunted house in space,' a seemingly familiar structure infected by its vast, unfamiliar outside.

Though the sun's five billion years premature decrepitude is never explained within the film, on the DVD commentary we're informed that an invisible force of matter gets trapped by the mass of the sun and begins to eat its way out. We're also told that because of our sun's relatively middling mass, this could never actually happen. Despite the realism of the hardware and the performances, then, the film is really closer to a thought experiment with set parameters, one of those 'push the fatty or pull the lever' things, than to traditional 'speculative fiction.' And unlike conventional horror there is little mystery even for the characters -- the premise is, not exactly established, but asserted beforehand: "If the sun dies, so do we." Lyotard's question is answered with a simple "no."

Aesthetically Sunshine is wonderful when the sun is front and center -- CGI actually works in space -- and enjoyable in that modern, overbearing way when its not. Though like many movies these days it demands you think it intelligent for quoting the 1970s, and in the end a third-act slide into Event Horizon territory ruins all hope for respectability. After a series of moral dilemmas where the crew makes increasingly irrational blunders deviating from 'the mission' (trying to save the crew of the previous vessel is the first fateful misstep), they find themselves stalked by a crazy speechifying Romantic villain, in the Kurtz/Pinhead vein:

I am Pinbacker, Commander of the Icarus One. We have abandoned our mission. Our star is dying. All our science. All our hopes, our... our dreams, are foolish! In the face of this, we are dust, nothing more. Unto this dust, we return. When he chooses for us to die, it is not our place to challenge God.

Pinbacker's God-given task is to 'enjoy,' once and for all, the limit that the crew is determined to transgress. This limit, the border between the human world tamed by Enlightenment reason and its conditional beyond, is transcendentalized, the products of the former -- organized life, technoscience, the 'modern world' -- understood as a gnostic veneer over the Truth. After all, death, the horizon of experience, makes life itself intrinsically unknowable regardless of what form it takes. "Resembles Life what once was held of Light, / Too ample in itself for human sight?" But the significance of the 'beyond's' effect on the 'here' is reversible: plenitude or negation of meaning. In Lyotard's understanding, if thought dies with the sun, then "everything is dead already." Pinbacker, on the other hand, aims to preserve the dialectic of human and inhuman knowledge by halting its progress, thus sacrificing the human species in exchange for an eternal moment of personal transcendence.

Pinbacker's wish for 'totalitarian' transcendence is countered by the moments of selfless, hopeful transcendence experienced by (some members of) the heroic crew. A moral lesson: being obliterated by the sun while saving people is just as awesome as being obliterated by the sun while exterminating them. Quite apart from the romance of Enlightenment, the film's obscure object of desire, is the persistence of a certain ethical code, staged here as logical responses to objective facts. If the crew had stuck to the mission parameters (if they hadn't been swayed by moral sentiment to try and save the previous crew) they would have all survived. We are reminded over and over again that 'transcendence,' a category which seems to encompass more and more each day, is theft, from man and reason. A delusion, a drug trip, a private spectacle. A luxury. The last shot is the homestead on Earth, saved by what they will never know. In a time of certain crisis, an elect is permitted to live like heroes so that we don't have to. For us the sensible thing is to follow orders. 'They' will never know, but we will, all for the price of a ticket. Certain crisis. Would extinction matter if there were no one there to enjoy it?

Friday, June 6, 2008

thoughts on zizecology 1

Lord Stern, the World Bank's former chief economist, said governments had been slow to accept the awful truth that usable water is running out. Fresh rainfall is not enough to refill the underground water tables.

"Water is not a renewable resource. People have been mining it without restraint because it has not been priced properly," he said.

If Slavoj Žižek is Theory’s official contrarian, it still surprises to find him taking aim at what is surely among the most widely held shibboleths of the contemporary left, environmentalism—and yet this is exactly what Žižek has done in recent lectures published on his Web site,, and popularized on the video site YouTube. His critique of ecology centers around a series of interrelated claims regarding late capitalism and ecology’s functioning within it, central among them what he describes as today’s “Fukuyamaian” consensus: the unacknowledged majority view that history did in fact end with the fall of Soviet communism, that “liberal-democratic capitalism is accepted as the finally-found formula of the best possible society, all one can do is to render it more just, tolerant, etc.” Ecology, then, becomes simply the latest set of technologies and practices through which we can “perfect” capitalism; the possibility that ecology might function as an operative challenge to the market is always already proscribed by the Fukuyamaian assumption that ecology (like anything else) can only operate within and through the market. This is to say that we understand ecological correctives to capitalism as in some sense needing to pay for themselves: we will change our consumptive practices only when the price of oil becomes high enough to so induce us, just as the market will encourage the development of alternative energies and more efficient engines at such a time as they become profitable—and so on and so forth, while the planet burns.

Subsuming ecology to the logic of the market, Žižek says, has a number of pernicious consequences. First, the belief that the market’s “invisible hand” will operate as a kind of Hegelian “Substance” that dominates the individual subject is unsettled by the newfound potential of individual actors to effect world-historical change:

What looms on the horizon today is the unheard-of possibility that a subjective intervention will intervene directly into the historical Substance, catastrophically disturbing its run by way of triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, etc. No longer can we rely on the safeguarding role of the limited scope of our acts: it no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will go on. For the first time in human history, the act of a single socio-political agent effectively can alter and even interrupt the global historical process, so that, ironically, it is only today that we can say that the historical process should effectively be conceived ‘not only as Substance, but also as Subject.’
The market, that is, can no longer be trusted to intervene and “course-correct” the destructive behavior of individual actors, precisely because a single wayward individual can impact, unsettle, or even destroy entirely the market itself. (Notably, even the Catholic Church has suggestively adapted to this new post-Hegelian reality, with its recent announcement of a new set of 7 Deadly Sins for the modern age, including among them pollution, genetic manipulation, participation in morally debatable experiments, and amassing excessive wealth.) To imagine global capitalism standing unchallenged as the end of history, then, is to ignore Substance’s newfound subjectivation at our collective peril—it may well be that we shall all be destroyed before the logic of history is able to right itself, or, indeed, that the logic of history actually now points catastrophically towards our own doom.

Next, Žižek writes that the logic of the market obscures the individual’s role in second sense: thinking and acting ecologically becomes equated with a certain set of consumer practices that in many cases have, at best, only a tangential relationship with what actual ecology would look like. Liberals, even those fancying themselves environmentalists, happily shop at Whole Foods and Starbucks because these corporations “sell products that contain the claim of being politically progressive acts in and of themselves”—obscuring not only the dubiousness of many or all of these claims of “good consumption” but also allowing the anti-union and otherwise exploitative practices of these companies to fade harmlessly into the background in the face of an often-misplaced, self-satisfied sense of “ecological awareness.” (Proclaimed environmentalism becomes in this way a type of free P.R., allowing such companies to effectively buy good-will on the cheap.)

These two points, if anything, actually fail to take us far enough. Žižek writes of “the infinite adaptability of capitalism which, in the case of an acute ecological catastrophe or crisis can easily turn ecology into a new field of capitalist investment and competition”—but such glib if backhanded praise of the market only works to obscure the fact that the efficient functioning of the market system is the ecological catastrophe already in process. Nowhere is this fact made clearer than in John Bellamy Foster’s first book The Vulnerable Planet, which is a grim guided tour of the history of ecological degradation from the start of the industrial age to the present, a process that began with primitive accumulation’s lassoing of the environment and has only accelerated during the period of revolutionary technological expansion following World War II. Such destruction, Foster says, is essential to capitalism’s structure, and thus unchangeable:
[Capitalism] is a system of creative destruction, in which the creative drive is the seemingly infinite ability to produce new commodities by combining materials and labor in new ways, and the destructive drive is the systematic degradation, transformation, and absorption of all elements of existence outside the system’s own orbit.
The so-called “infinite adaptability” of the market therefore should be understood to necessarily require environmental destruction of some form or another for its own creative functioning—and therefore the destruction is not some potential or theoretically correctable side effect of the market’s functioning but its very engine. Contra Žižek, the supposed newfound power of individual actors to affect History by degrading the biosphere only masks the extent to which capitalism has always demanded widespread and irreversible environmental degradation in order to function in the first place.

Later in the same book we find Foster aptly describing the way that nature is figured dialectically as both inside and outside capitalism’s orbit, a position that allows it to be drawn from for capital without ever being allowed to fully become capital itself (and, as capital, therefore be deemed worthy of protection).

Against Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology, Foster offers the four counter-ecological laws of capital:
(1) the only lasting connection between things is the cash nexus; (2) it doesn’t matter where something goes as long as it doesn’t enter the circuit of capital; (3) the self-regulating market knows best; and (4) nature’s bounty is a free gift to the property owner.
Understanding these four counter-ecological laws demonstrates a second way that that Žižek’s backhanded praise for the market’s adaptability is importantly misplaced: the logic of the market violently draws the material for capital from nature but on a structural level cannot respect nature except insofar as nature can be commodified.

We can see now why a method of “environmental accounting” like the one Lord Stern suggests, which takes nature “into the balance sheet” and "prices" resources "properly," would be unlikely to solve the problem of environmental degradation. This is a judgment Foster shares and argues in a number of places, most effectively in an essay on “ecological reductionism” reprinted in his 2002 anthology Ecology Against Capitalism. Though the logic of environmental accounting suggests the incorporation of “externalities” such as pollution and environmental degradation might be brought into the actual costs of commodities, such a process would in actuality have precisely the opposite of the desired effect by bringing nature fully and finally into the logic of capitalism, into “the cash nexus.”

The protections promised by such a scheme can quickly be seen as illusionary. Foster chooses to expose this logic through the example of redwood forests in the Pacific Northwest, which has long managed its forests through a lens that views forests as factories whose production must be optimized, and which views aged trees and biologically diverse forests as “unproductive assets” to be made maximally efficient through their immediate destruction and replacement with an arboreal monoculture that is easier to harvest and sell. That the original, untouched forests might have a value other than cash value is anathema to the four counter-ecological laws, especially the first and the fourth; the “nature” protected under the logic of capital would always be nature-for-capital, not nature-in-itself.

When nature is capital and capital is nature, then, there would at last be nothing outside capitalism at all. We can trust the market even less than Žižek thinks: it is, in fact, completely incapable of even ascertaining the actual gravity of the environmental crisis, much less of recognizing its causes or beginning to offer some solution. There will never and could never be a "market solution" to a crisis caused by the market itself.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


While we were sleeping writing our papers, monkeys executed the first stage of their three-pronged plan to take over the world: learn to control robotic arms with their thoughts.

I don't need to tell you about stage two.

Thanks to Alex Greenberg for the shout-out.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Polygraph 22: Call for Papers

Polygraph 22—Call for Papers

Special Issue: Ecology and Ideology

The contemporary moment abounds with speculation concerning our ecological future. Specialists in a variety of fields forecast immanent catastrophe, stemming from a combination of climate change, fossil-fuel depletion, and consumer waste. The recent bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize on a group of scientists studying climate change indicates the degree to which "peace" has come to signify ecological balance; even the declaration by the Vatican of a new set of "7 Deadly Sins for the modern age" includes pollution in an attempt to grapple with the potential of individuals to inflict ecological damage on a global scale.

In the name of an impending crisis felt to be collectively shared, new political, cultural, and intellectual alignments are being forged, just as seismic shifts in the flow of global capital once again threaten to "redistribute" the world's resources and people. Ecological crisis has become a 24/7 media event, canvassing the planet in the imagery and rhetoric of disaster. From the halls of research and policy to activist documentary and apocalyptic fantasy, at the news desk, podium, pulpit, classroom, and computer monitor alike, all channels are united by a single underlying conviction: the present ecological catastrophe has humanity as its cause.

Precisely because the answer seems so obvious, we want to know: why now? Where are the points of antagonism in the midst of such apparent consensus, and what is at stake in their difference?

The Polygraph Editorial Collective invites papers concerning any aspect of ecology's relationship to ideology, both interrogating ecology as a location for critique of global capitalism and analyzing the ways in which ecology functions as an ideology in its own right.

Potential areas of interest include:

Political Ecology
Globalization and ecology
Marxism and ecology
"Environmental accounting" as a challenge to the free market
Ecology and capital / consumerism
Ecology as growth market

Peak oil and climate change
Biofuels and the food crisis
Overpopulation and Neo-Malthusianism
Ecology as a rhetoric of control
Figurations of eco-disaster in popular culture

Religion and Ecology
Green apocalypticism and green evangelism
Ecology and world religion

Ecology and gender
Recent articulations of eco-feminism
Eco- & transnational feminisms
Women's work and the global chain of production
Agricultural work and reproduction

Ecologies against ecologies
"Light" vs. "dark green" environmentalism (i.e. deep ecology)
Primitivism and technofuturism
The status of international Green movements

Polygraph welcomes work from a variety of different disciplines, including critical geography, cultural anthropology, political economy, political theology, science studies, and systems theory. We also encourage the submission of a variety of formats and genres: i.e. field reports, surveys, interviews, photography, essays, etc.

December 31, 2008

Gerry Canavan
Lisa Klarr
Ryan Vu


Thursday, May 8, 2008

heterotopia and the myth-science of sf, pt.2

Sorry for the intense lag time -- like Gerry said we should be back on regular schedule shortly (ha!).

part one can be found here

Like the rest of the world, science fiction went through some major changes leading up to and following '68. I'm talking about what is now known as 'New Wave SF,' a loosely defined subgenre of science fiction which had the British magazine New Worlds as its flagship journal, under the editorship of Michael Moorcock from '64 to '71 (and again, though with less concentrated success, from '76 to '96). The 'experimental' work that came out of this period can perhaps best be defined by its deconstruction of the idea of outer space. This was carried out by a concerted attack on the older sf's representation of science and technology (its 'mode of production' so to speak), which tended either to the Gernsbackian -- technoscience as source of readerly edification enabling and regulating the pure entertainment of the hackneyed romance plots -- or the Campbellian, where science served as a medium for cosmic speculation. After Moorcock, Dick, Ballard, Pynchon, Ellison, LeGuin, Delany, Russ, Disch, Aldliss, and others, science fiction underwent a twin revolution of both form and content: it could violate all semblance of verisimilitude (always a contentious issue for the genre) and approach the terrain of pure fantasy, it could appropriate the stylistic techniques of literary modernism, and it could openly address 'social issues': radical politics, the war, feminism, sex, drugs, 'culture,' etc. People who were neither white nor male could write it. In short, it could find acceptance as 'serious literature.'

Fascinatingly, in the midst of worldwide opposition to imperialism, Man finally realized the oldest science fiction fantasy of all time by landing on the Moon.

(A more complete narrative of the New Wave's rise and fall can be found here.)

In an amusing historical convergence, there are at least two points where the post-'68 tradition of French philosophy intersected with Anglo-American New Wave sf. The first is Jean Baudrillard's treatment of J.G. Ballard in Simulacra and Simulation. The other is Samuel Delany's 1976 novel Triton, which also quotes liberally from renegade figures in the analytic and ordinary language schools, Quine, Spencer Brown, and Wittgenstein. It's a brief mention, probably too much made of, of Michel Foucault's cryptic remarks on 'heterotopia' (themselves probably too much made of). Heterotopia refers to the places with the power of "juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible," space here indicating an order or governing logic, of which there are always many. A heterotopia is a place where deviance flourishes in the midst of an external norm, potentially working to counter that norm. The examples he gives -- brothel, cemetary, ship -- are not archetypes, but singular instances. The existence of any particular heterotopia suggests a heterotopian analytic, a critical praxis: "As a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live, this description could be called heterotopology."

This is what ultimately differentiates heterotopia from utopia. Utopia is a projection. If it isn't pure fantasy it has to be speculative, why it lends itself so well to 'speculative fiction,' the mainstream's pseudo-respectable title for sf. What I tried to argue last time was that speculation advances the will to a single, coherent universe, beginning from a given situation. Possibilities are considered to the extent that they are probable, and pursued to the extent that they are desirable. Within the realm of speculation we are talking about the relations between past, future, and an incomplete present.

Heterotopia has nothing to do with such things. Heterotopology recognizes heterotopias as sites that can be noticed, built, or brought forth from what already exists. They do not not judge, compile, or evaluate existing possibilities, but prepare new ones. Triton takes place across multiple worlds, amongst the moon-based libertarian-socialist societies against a post-apocalyptic Earth and the capitalist dystopia of Mars. On the moon Triton, there is a representative government that allows a high degree of individual freedom. During elections, everyone wins (each governing those who voted for them). Work is optional. People live in communes according to their preference of gender and sexual orientation. 'Preference' is the key term here; the society is organized around satisfying individual needs and desires, which tends to select out antisocial needs and desires (the enforcers, "e-girls," take care of the violently antisocial). Through advanced genetic and neurosurgery, even one's preferences can be tweaked. But the twist: there are "unlicensed sectors" in every city, where no laws apply. Ironically, violent criminals stay away, since the enforcers are also permitted in the unlicensed sectors, where they have carte blanche. Otherwise the "u-ls" serve as the exception to the regime of preference, though for this very reason some prefer to live there. There, where 'anything can happen:' religious cults, deviant sex acts, heavy drug use, non-consensual hallucinations, and general unhealthiness.

And yet for Bron, the protagonist, this is not a paradise. He's from Mars, where sex (along with all other relationships) is mediated by credit, which has made him into an immature misogynist with no self-awareness. His innocent bumpkin act fails again and again with the independent, annoyingly self-actualized people of Triton. This basic antagonism inserted between foreground and background grants the novel freedom from its own ideals (and their shortcomings); without it Triton would risk appearing simply as a fantasy, or at least an improvement, but not a problem. The frisson of multiple active fantasies serves as the terrain through which the story navigates while Bron's antipathetic perspective serves as its vehicle. The novel thus includes its own interpretative topoi, positions from which various interpretations, criticisms, and distortions can be tested.

In a revealing interview, Delany argues that there is an antinomy of sorts between an interpretation that takes the 'bad things' in a given situation to be justified or not by 'good things' (or more precisely, The Good Thing), and one that doesn't. My take on Star-Maker was in terms of option A. Most science fiction authors assumed option B, taking a moment or image from the novel and blowing it up into a novel of its own, or breaking down its formal rules of invention and closure and reconfiguring them to create new aliens, new worlds, etc. Option B leads us out of assumed conventions into something like a logic of genre, opening up a field for 'heterotopology' as well as a certain way of thinking about modal logic (see the philosopher David Lewis for the most extreme form this can take, a logical defense of many-worlds theory), where many possibilities are always criss-crossing one another, denying the possibility of closure. B's critique of option A, the utopian/dystopian mode of interpretation (and it should be clear by now that I'm not only talking about reading literature), is that it begins from a position that doesn't exist, that of completion, to judge what does exist, which is always incomplete.

Before going on I want to mention that Fredric Jameson, whose recent work we keep coming back to on the question of science fiction and utopia, is not a utopian, option A-style reader in the sense I've been sketching out. He is not interested in figuring out which utopias are 'correct,' or in compiling the elements necessary to any fully realized ideal socialism. Jameson's utopian hermeneutic can be best understood as roughly analogous to heterotopology but with one major difference: it treats utopian projections as themselves critical sites or 'free zones,' but while reading them in the service of a deferred judgment. As with Marx, a formally messianic temporality (open not to the grace of God but to collective social desire and action -- provided my readers can still see the difference), gives Jameson's writing its urgency while in his case permitting criticism of the present to take place within and/or from the realm of literature and culture. The utopian critic writes for a reader in need of a location, something it is argued present reality and its discourses of power are able only to provoke without ever truly satisfying. In something of a minor masterpiece of deceitful self-aggrandizement reversing itself into self-refutation, Bron inadvertently demonstrates the circuity of legal ontology:

"'The fantasy/reality's just marvelous in her work. I mean, there, it's practically like what we do, the fantasy working as a sort of metalogic, with which she can solve real, aesthetic problems in the most incredible ways -- I was actually in a few of her productions last year, a sort of ersatz member of the company. But finally I just had to get out. Because when that fantasy seeps into the reality, she just becomes an incredibly ugly person. She feels she can distort anything that occurs for whatever purpose she wants. Whatever she feels, that's what is, as far as she's concerned. But then, I suppose...' Bron laughed at the ground, then looked up: they'd just left the Plaza -- 'that's the right we just fought a war to defend. But Audri, when someone abuses that right, it can make it pretty awful for the rest of us.'" (Triton)

'She' is the Spike, his ex-girlfriend, a performance artist who earlier on dumps him after realizing that he is, in our Earth terms, a typical heterosexual male. Throughout the novel, Bron encounters the liberated desires of others first with fascination, then with a desire to contain them in a hierarchy, to organize them in terms of classical, ordinal logic rather than modal (Delany's 'metalogics'). Bron's anxieties are triggered when fantasy moves from possibility to actuality. Once those fantasies move beyond logic into aesthetic expression, they become more fascinating, but more alienating to him once their motivating desires are more concretely actualized, when he can no longer pretend they exist for his pleasure. For Bron, "Whatever she feels, that's what is" is the ultimate affront. In the language of rights, he expresses his desire to meet the other on terms of abstract equality only, which in his mind includes the right not to have his deficiencies pointed out. Elsewhere he cries out for legal recognition of his own repression: "What happens to those of us who have problems and don't know why we have the problems we do?" Here the political logic of the archetypal capitalist state is folded into traditional ontology: both are exposed as attempts to define (and therefore justify) one's lack. Against the algebraic openness of the right to x, Bron yearns for the negative freedom promised by rights in defense of the other. The right not to know, not to struggle, not to think, not to feel, not to love, finally not to be bothered.

Aesthetics and imaginative storytelling appear in Triton not only as counterfactuals, methods for 'solving problems' (as Bron would have it), but as restaging the situation that produced the abstract problem in the sensory 'language' of art. Triton claims 'heterotopology' for art -- and especially imaginative, extra-mimetic, theatrical art -- over critique, precisely by having most of the novel progress through a series of philosophical dialogues which float Platonic speculation over a stage teeming with Aristophanic grotesquerie.

New Wave sf characteristically refuses the realist conventions accepted by earlier writing either for reasons of professional necessity or a simple lack of interest in form. In doing so it opened up the present for the same kind of speculation traditional science fiction reserved for the future, as well as the sort of quasi-future one finds in Triton and the earlier Dhalgren, more interested in merging aesthetic with social experimentation than technical details or high adventure. Doing so brought it dangerously close to sf's major antagonists, self-consciously 'literary' fiction and fantasy, and further away from the future as a space for either rational speculation or irrational hope. The idea of the future was imaginatively employed (or not) as just another space for experimentation, along with genre, gender, race, and politics, to exploit the possibilities immanent in human relationships now. Its constitutive wager was to deliberately treat imaginative writing as a material practice with which to examine (and intervene in) the present.

Like its distant counterparts in film, this 'New Wave' would be aestheticized into oblivion, but one can't say it never had its moment.

The negative theology of Star-Maker can now be read as the last gasp of traditional utopianism projected in advance, accomplished by meticulously running out all the genre's possible outcomes and representing them, from the POV of cosmic time, as just so many returns of the same. The Star Maker then exists to satisfy a lack that should not be, the irrational hope it spurs in the narrator experienced as a reassuring, even invigorating feeling of emptiness, overlaid with anticipation.
"One antagonist appeared as the will to dare for the sake of the new, the longed for, the reasonable and joyful, world, in which every man and woman may have scope to live fully, and live in service of mankind. The other seemed essentially the myopic fear of the unknown; or was it more sinister? Was the cunning will for private mastery, which fomented for its own ends the archaic, reason-hating, and vindictive passion of the tribe.

It seemed that in the coming storm all the dearest things must be destroyed. All private happiness, all loving, all creative work in art, science, and philosophy, all intellectual scrutiny and speculative imagination, and all creative social building; all, indeed, that man should normally live for, seemed folly and mockery and mere self-indulgence in the presence of public calamity. But if we failed to preserve them, when would they live again?"
This is the nihilism from which Nietzsche extracted the promise of the overman, framing the future in terms of a binary choice: fear or praise. Of what? What could there be after we've seen the pitiless destruction of every hope, by a being totally indifferent to suffering? 'After' is inconceivable: we're confronted with inevitable dispossession, of something much more abstract than material objects or territories -- the future's promise. We're asked to believe that even this constant anticipation of dispossession can be revalued, through "yes-saying" (in Nietzsche's words), to become the 'preservation' of a daring without purpose or meaning beyond itself.

Combine these two impulses -- aestheticization of the present as its critique + affirmation of our doomed future as its preservation -- and you get cyberpunk, the sci-fi appropriate to Reaganism, the simulacra, and the golden age of finance capital.

Next, maybe something on cyberpunk and Afrofuturism. Maybe.