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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

In which I find Amitav Ghosh's missing monocle, and return it to him that he might see more clearly

5 min read

Poor old Amitav Ghosh is wondering where all the fiction about climate change might be... when in fact it's right under his nose, and he simply chooses to disregard it as being insufficiently deserving of the label "literature".

Right in the first paragraph, he answers his question and immediately discards the answer:

... it could even be said that fiction that deals with climate change is almost by definition not of the kind that is taken seriously: the mere mention of the subject is often enough to relegate a novel or a short story to the genre of science fiction. It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.

If for "literary imagination" we substitute "bourgeois imagination", that last sentence is no surprise at all -- because this is about genre, which is a proxy for class.

And when Ghosh surveys the few examples of supposedly literary fiction that have dealt with climate change, look what happens:

When I try to think of writers whose imaginative work has communicated a more specific sense of the accelerating changes in our environment, I find myself at a loss; of literary novelists writing in English only a handful of names come to mind: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Barbara Kingsolver, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan and T Coraghessan Boyle.

Now, I'll concede that most of them have preferred generic labels other than science fiction for their works at one time or another, but it's very hard to make the case that Atwood, Vonnegut and Lessing haven't written works that slip very easily into the sf folksonomy, while McCarthy has written a very successful dystopia. So that's half of Ghosh's successes demonstrably working in the speculative fiction tradition... but they can't be speculative fiction, because they're too good for that trash. They've won awards and stuff -- awards that aren't rocket-shaped. Ipso facto, no?

To his credit, Ghosh gets pretty close to the technical distinction in narrative strategy that demarks the dichotomy he's observing, via one of Moretti's more interesting theory-nuggets:

This is achieved through the insertion of what Franco Moretti, the literary theorist, calls “fillers”. According to Moretti, “fillers function very much like the good manners so important in Austen: they are both mechanisms designed to keep the ‘narrativity’ of life under control – to give a regularity, a ‘style’ to existence”. It is through this mechanism that worlds are conjured up, through everyday details, which function “as the opposite of narrative”.

It is thus that the novel takes its modern form, through “the relocation of the unheard-of toward the background ... while the everyday moves into the foreground”. As Moretti puts it, “fillers are an attempt at rationalising the novelistic universe: turning it into a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”.

I offer that the absence of Moretti's fillers -- often but not always replaced with anti-fillers designed to re-enchant the novelistic universe, and make of the universe a character in its own right -- is a way to describe one of the more fundamental strategies of speculative fictions, where it is preferable to have a world with more surprises, more adventures, and more than the occasional deus ex machina). Moretti's fillers are basically the opposite of worldbuilding; they remove complexity, rather than adding it.

And here we see the true root of the problem, the reason no one who identifies as a writer of "serious" "literary" fiction can handle climate change in their work -- look at Ghosh's language, here, and tell me he doesn't feel the class pressure of genre (my bold):

To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence; it is to risk banishment to the humbler dwellings that surround the manor house – those generic out-houses that were once known by names such as the gothic, the romance or the melodrama, and have now come to be called fantasy, horror and science fiction.

It's clearly not that "the novel" as a form can't handle climate change: science fiction novels routinely invert the obstacles set out in Ghosh's piece in order to do their work. It's that to upset those particular obstacles is to break the rules of Literature Club, to go slumming it with the plebes of genre fiction: literary fiction can't write about climate change, or about any other topic that requires an understanding of the storyworld as a dynamic and complex system, because -- as a self-consciously bourgeois genre in its own right -- it cannot commit the sin of portraying a world where the bourgeoise certainties no longer pertain, wherein hazard and adventure and unexpected events are revealed to be not merely routine, but to be the New Normal.

Take it from a squatter in the generic out-houses, Amitav old son: there's only one way you'll ever get literary fiction that deals with climate change -- and that's by acknowledging, however grudgingly, that not only was science fiction capable of being literature all along, but that science fiction began by asking the question whose suppression is the truest trope of the literary: what if the world were more important than the actions of individuals?

 

The arena of acceleration

5 min read

Fairly chewy here by Aaron Vantsintjan, in which he does a little comparison of accelerationsim and degrowth. Utopian visions (and the appropriate delimiting thereof) appears to be an important axis of difference... and both introduce the notion of desire into their theories of change, albeit in very different manifestations.

... it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”. However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’; the embracement of ’imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Snricek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Indeed, progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable.

Fast-foward to some concluding remarks:

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.

[...]

Through [Paul] Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point – at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

It strikes me that what both accelerationism and degrowth lack, and what Virilio was implicitly arguing in favour of, is a better theory of infrastructure, given that infrastructure is the medium of metabolism, the arena of acceleration.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I? ;)

 

Your humble servant: UI design, narrative point-of-view and the corporate voice

5 min read

I've been chuntering on about the application of narrative theory to design for long enough that I'm kind of embarassed not to have thought of looking for it in something as everyday as the menu labels in UIs... but better late than never, eh?

This guy is interested in how the labels frame the user's experience:

By using “my” in an interface, it implies that the product is an extension of the user. It’s as if the product is labeling things on behalf of the user. “My” feels personal. It feels like you can customize and control it.

By that logic, “my” might be more appropriate when you want to emphasize privacy, personalization, or ownership.

[...]

By using “your” in an interface, it implies that the product is talking with you. It’s almost as if the product is your personal assistant, helping you get something done. “Here’s your music. Here are your orders.”

By that logic, “your” might be more appropriate when you want your product to sound conversational—like it’s walking you through some task. 

As well as personifying the device or app, the second-person POV (where the labels say "your") normalises the presence within the relationship of a narrator who is not the user: it's not just you and your files any more, but you and your files and the implied agency of the personified app. Much has been written already about the way in which the more advanced versions of these personae (Siri, Alexa and friends) have defaults that problematically frame that agency as female, but there's a broader implication as well, in that this personification encourages the conceptualisation of the app not as a tool (which you use to achieve a thing), but as a servant (which you command to achieve a thing on your behalf).

This fits well with the emergent program among tech companies to instrumentalise Clarke's Third Law as a marketing strategy: even a well-made tool lacks the gosh-wow magic of a silicon servant at one's verbal beck and call. And that's a subtly aspirational reframing, a gesture -- largely illusory, but still very powerful -- toward the same distinction to be found between having a well-appointed kitchen and having a chef on retainer, or between having one's own library and having one's own librarian.

By using “we,” “our,” or “us,” they’re actually adding a third participant into the mix — the people behind the product. It suggests that there are real human beings doing the work, not just some mindless machine.

[...]

On the other hand, if your product is an automated tool like Google’s search engine, “we” can feel misleading because there aren’t human beings processing your search. In fact, Google’s UI writing guidelines recommend not saying “we” for most things in their interface.

This is where things start getting a bit weird, because outside of hardcore postmodernist work, you don't often get this sort of corporate third-person narrator cropping up in literature. But we're in a weird period regarding corporate identities in general: in some legal and political senses, corporations really are people -- or at least they are acquiring suites of permissible agency that enable them to act and speak on the same level as people. But the corporate voice is inherently problematic: in its implication of unity (or at least consensus), and in its obfuscation of responsibility. The corporate voice isn't quite the passive voice -- y'know, our old friend "mistakes were made" -- but it gets close enough to do useful work of a similar nature.

By way of example, consider the ways in which some religious organisations narrate their culpability (or lack thereof) in abuse scandals: the refusal to name names or deal in specifics, the diffusion of responsibility, the insistence on the organisation's right to manage its internal affairs privately. The corporate voice is not necessarily duplicitous, but through its conflation of an unknown number of voices into a single authoritative narrator, it retains great scope for rhetorical trickery. That said, repeated and high-profile misuses appear to be encouraging a sort of cultural immunity response -- which, I'd argue, is one reason for the ongoing decline of trust in party political organisations, for whom the corporate voice has always been a crucial rhetorical device: who is this "we", exactly? And would that be the same "we" that lied the last time round? The corporate voice relies on a sense of continuity for its authority, but continuity in a networked world means an ever-growing snail-trail of screw-ups and deceits that are harder to hide away or gloss over; the corporate voice may be powerful, but it comes with risks.

As such, I find it noteworthy that Google's style guide seems to want to make a strict delineation between Google-the-org and Google-the-products. To use an industry-appropriate metaphor, that's a narrative firewall designed to prevent bad opinion of the products being reflected directly onto the org, a deniability mechanism: to criticise the algorithm is not to criticise the company.

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In the golden era of British railways, the rail companies -- old masters of the corporate voice -- insisted on distinctive pseudo-military uniforms for their employees, who were never referred to as employees, but as servants. This distinction served largely to defray responsibility for accidents away from the organisation and onto the individual or individuals directly involved: one could no more blame the board of directors for an accident caused by one of their shunters, so the argument went, than one could blame the lord of the manor for a murder commited by his groundskeeper. 

 

The end of the codex and the death of Literature

2 min read

Interesting (and appropriately rambling) talk by Will Self, expanding on his recent thesis that a) the technology of the codex is on the way out, and thusly b) so is capital-L literature. I'm not sure I buy it completely, but his argument goes to lots of interesting places, and I recognise a lot in his description of the academy as a sort of care-home for obsolescing art-mediums such as the modernist novel.

(The audience, on the other hand, replete with writers and teachers of writing -- two categories that overlap a great deal, as Self points out -- fails to recognise his description with such venom that it's hard not to characterise their response as classic denial. That said, these are anxious times in the academy, and particularly at the arts and humanities end of it, and being lectured about the demise of your field of expertise by a man still managing to make a living producing that which you study must be a bit galling; in essence, Self does here to literary scholars what Bruce Sterling repeatedly does for technologists and futures types. The difference appears to be that literary scholars know a Cassandra when they hear one.)

Also of interest is Self's characterisation of the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction, perhaps because it is both vaguely canonical and seemingly unexamined: that old tautologous chestnut about literary fiction not being a genre because it doesn't obsess over reader fulfilment and boundary-work. That may be true of literary writers, perhaps (though Barthes is giving me some side-eye for saying so), but it is to ignore the way the publishing industry deals with the category, which is almost entirely generic... and that's a curious oversight for someone who predicates their argument about literature's decline on explicitly technological dynamics. Nonetheless, well worth a watch/listen.