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Living together, somehow
*trying* to distill some key points from the past six months, part two
Last week my spontaneous attempt to give a distilled summary resulted in a glorious failure: over three thousand words, and several discursive footnotes :)
One of the things that’s interesting about the approach I’ve taken with this blog – semi-automatic, hypnagogic-but-caffeinated thinking by writing – is that I’m not in control of what comes out, and *can’t* be, if I’m to allow it.
Like a free jazz ensemble, this is great for the musicians; how is it for the audience?
I spent the rest of the week thinking about readers, and I’ve got something audience-directed, tight and crisp (by my standards) in the pipes that I’ll announce when I’m ready. This has to be something adjacent to this current project; I list my own enjoyment up front as a reason to keep going, and hope you can keep joining me, if you wish to.
So while I’m beginning to also see very clearly a need to produce something concise and clear and written for readers, I’ve redoubled my personal commitment to continuing this strand of the blog in this way: so what you will continue to read on Tuesday mornings, if you do, when you do, will always be whatever occurs and wherever it goes during those few AM hours. This is less ‘take it or leave it’, than ‘take it as you find it’, and, I hope, take it as an inspiration that this process can be a really interesting and therapeutic one to involve oneself in. But you will lose control a bit.
So now… I sit back to complete last week’s task I’m about to resume from March, just a couple of months ago. There, I moved from thinking about some of the societal effects of debounding (un|controllability being key), toward how and why we might cease to understand the complexity of the world now. With my own intersectional perspective as the one on offer, I then wondered what that might mean from this Antipodean corner of the Anglosphere – in the face of the AI hype being foisted on us... mostly by America, once again (of which, more soon).
Before that, to assuage my anxiety in giving everyone ‘too much’ and thus ‘not enough’ that’s navigable, here’s an attempt at the distillation I promised but that the methodology didn’t deliver. If you feel like you don’t need this ‘summary’, scroll to the next bolded section.
A second attempt at a distillation, and proof of Pascal’s dictum ‘I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time’.
DEATH OF A 200-YEAR OLD UTOPIA: In 1988, the industrial modernity’s utopia of progress died, in Marseilles and in Melbourne1. In Australia, at least, the Australian Dream of eventual suburban home ownership after a 20-30 year mortgage, gained in exchange labour – ‘wealth for toil’ – was replaced by the neo-topia of Gain without Labour (GWL). This set up the rentier horizon that has functioned as the most powerful social sorting mechanism here (and the coastal elite urban centres of comparable OECD countries) over the past thirty years. Most notably, GWL has absorbed capital unproductively in inflated urban real estate assets, entrenching a dynamic of galloping inequality. It has also fed the servile service economy of Deliveroo and Deliveree, a de facto class system we now live by (and an engine of circulation more than history), in lieu of the dialectic between capital and labour. One thing to bring into focus a little more here: a service economy dependent on inequality, insofar as relatively equal partners with reasonable work/life balances would neither need to have their stuff delivered (or see the point of it), or accept the terms of labour of the Deliveroo2. Moreover, the servile service economy of Deliveroo/ee is one that pivots around distribution, rather than production – setting up the fulfilment of Marcuse’s idea that capitalism ‘delivers the goods’ and remains legit to the extent it continues to do so. I’ll return to this important point from Marcuse later in this post (a bit), then later in the year in some detail.
THE PROBLEM OF FREE TIME AND THE MEANING OF WORK: According to Gorz’ Critique of Economic Reason, the death of modernity-progress raises up the fundamental problems of free time and the meaning of work, above all in the face of automation and the temporal implications of the highly unequal (and pathological) division of labour just summarised. ‘We’ have created a society dynamized by the purchasing power of a small (shrinking?) elite, who hog the spoils (2-500k/year) and work ridiculously long hours (60-80 hours a week) doing haute/haupt service work, usually with appalling work/life balance, posture, blood pressure, and mental health. In last week’s footnote I intimated this is a cohort whose characterology skews toward careerism, conformity, and an obsessive focus on individual-self actualisation as acquisition and control, on profit and property. These ‘winners’ effectively ‘donate’ their lives and expend their amassed human capital for 40+ years of service to corporations and bureaucracies, in exchange for reaching the horizon of GWL by retirement (itself a horizon now), and to secure their children ‘away from’ the public sphere and its corroded institutions, in the pay-to-play enclaves in the selfsame involuting rentier economy; private schools and exclusive colleges. On the other ‘side’ of this servile service economy, a growing precariat (growing both more numerous and more precarious) buzzes around in trucks, vans, and e bikes, ‘delivering’ an increasingly baroque set of fetishised (and fetish!) commodities. In Gorz’ view, this is simply because the (life)‘time’ of the Deliveroos is worth less than that of the Deliverees: ergo, economic reason (and now smartphone ubiquity) ‘dictates’ that it just makes sense to do it this way. That is: when you are clearing 1-200/hour, and need to clear 60-80 hours a week of computer-based work (is it labour? I had a post on that) to not lose the job you have that retains you and your kids access (or stable escape from corroded public places), ordering lunch or a new vibrator (or perhaps a home-delivered sex worker to wield it, or your lunch, on you) and having it delivered direct to your ding dong in <2 hours simply makes more sense than making your own lunch and making your own love.
HOW WILL WE INTEGRATE AND EVOLVE IF/WHEN THE STATUS QUO STUTTERS OR SEIZES UP? In February, I then turned to one systems-level view, considering how the political economy of ‘all of the above’, taken as a putative totality, might be likely to be able to deal well with its catastrophic involution, as the spatial and temporal debounding of global risks transforms ‘externalities’ (ecological devastation, inequality, a general deskilling or proletarianisation) into a set of cascading, nonlinear, ‘bad strange’ effects coming back at us, as any number, order, or combination, in the coming years. As I wrote,
“how will the servile service economy, still oriented around the utopia of GWL, how will its residents cope with a world in which – very suddenly, very quickly – everything which was smoothly containerised and arrived promptly in its little containers became scarce, unavailable? What happens when the Rube Goldberg Machine can no longer provide dopamine spurts on command? What does a society dependent on cheap fossil fuels, cheap clothing from K Mart and WalMart, and the cheap delivery of take away food: what does it do when such things are no longer cheap, no longer available?
This question does not obviate Gorz’ concerns about how ‘we’ integrate in such conditions of disintegration, or say how we might creatively evolve in the face of these involutions of the last half century of Anglocapitalism... I think it complicates it productively. How will we integrate our lives, how will we evolve, if/when the global supply chain stops working for several years, or ceases to function in its current overcomplicated way, indefinitely? This will be a big, wrenching change for all of us, and it will put the Deliveroos and Deliverees out of work, to varying but probably great extent.
…WHAT OF THE MODEST PROFESSIONS, THE TENUOUS TENURED? Also, Gorz’ analysis doesn’t say what will become of the ordinary bourgeois professions: not just the dentists and doctors, but the nurses, teachers, public servants, and ‘tenured’ care workers whose hold on the modest version of the dominant culture’s good life has become tenuous. The tenured tenuous. As in, the people who have to live in bonkers expensive cities like Sydney, Auckland and Vancouver to teach our kids and nurse our dying parents, but who, absent intergenerational privilege like the Boomer Handshake, can barely afford to do so, or can simply no longer afford to do so.
AND WHAT OF SECURITISATION AND THE ‘HOSTILE’ GLOBAL CITY? What is a ‘global city’ that was already hostile to old people, increasingly hostile to young people, and has also become hostile to its large ‘modest middle class’, in addition to being very hostile-extractive toward its immigrant precariat and criminalising-securitising its margins and homeless? Gorz’ model says little about the modest professions, nothing about the neoliberal securitisations best captured by Mike Davis and Jon Coaffee3, and can’t yet tell us much about whether these coastal cities will still be appealing places to live, once the global supply chain is kaput, and then we throw in, say, a global pandemic, doubling or spiralling fossil fuel costs, inconsistent fuel and food supply, and an earthquake, or volcanic eruption?
...this is where I resume...
March: from glimpses of and glances at how the debounded way the world might be now to how and why we might cease to understand it, what that might mean in the face of AI hype
Like many people in the online spaces I’m in, March ’23 was the month when the AI hype hit in a way I felt compelled to respond to. In no small measure it was because of Ezra Klein’s short ‘take’ on it, which I initially took seriously, then upset me the more I thought about it. However, the balance of it was chat conversations between Chris and I on Signal, responding to a lot of the meta-meta-commentary bubbling up. This was less about GPT 3, which I was then grappling with as I used it in the classroom, and more to do with the geopolitical and polycrisis implications of the un-regulated, runaway AI development that is on foot, and the presence of groups of bad actors in this scene who have no hesitation and no compunction about embracing the non-trivial, imminent possibilities of catastrophic consequences – if it also has a chance they could be the next Google/Amazon/Apple/Microsoft. ‘If we could whoop China and I could be the next Bezos, it would be worth risking human civilisation’… this appears to be the gambit… I’ll come back to this in a sec, but first…
Risk analysis forces us to think: how likely, how catastrophic?
To be honest, the immediate/selfish ‘worry’ for me is still ther more likely, less immediately catastrophic chance of ‘death by Clippy’: not ‘paperclip maximiser’ dystopia Clippy, just the janky, banal reality of domination by Microsoft’s fairly crappy and totally mandatory software.
In the context of neoliberalised, managerialised higher ed (my selfish context of eroding privilege), this is about the normalisation of the kind of banal shittiness which adds clunky obstacles to already headspace-destroying administrative workflows, while lending itself to exploitation by bad actors big and small at the organisational level (who will escape accountability, while raiding people further down the hierarchy), and not adding any appreciable value, let alone ‘sparking joy’.
To concretise this, I am currently in a reply all email with two colleagues to ascertain if a student of ours is using the GPT3 plugin that allows anyone to cheat on quizzes (yes, it exists, of course it does), as I suspect they may be4. All of this correspondence, and any ‘formal action’ taken by the insitution I work in, is mediated by proprietary platforms and the norms and forms of early 21C office life... you get the picture.
If there’s really something bigger to take from March’s posts in light of April and May (and where my thoughts are heading, and how they’re developing), it’s two things. First of all, a feel.
Firstly, I feel a lot of post-covid, post-Trump, post Sandy Hook, post Black Lives Matter, post Alt Right (&c &c) animus toward the United States now. The whole AI thing has really stirred this up: yes, fuck AI, but also fuck US (not least of all because AI will fuck US). ‘America’ seems more trapped in its own bullshit than I’ve ever seen it before, still not yet willing to deal with the causal chains of fuel and materials and their limits (preferring to platformise and financialise all instances of conflict, regardless of whether this is ‘making it worse’), still fucking around with another Trump presidency, and the chance of civil war.
In the context of American AI ‘leadership’ here (which, of course, is being platformised, financialised, and geopoliticised to the nth degree) I profess that I intensely dislike the combination of doomy, attention-absorbing alarmism and ‘let’s obsessively pursue this topic – and AI – anyway’ in most of the US-led discussions on podcasts. I say this as a citizen of a country who has just signed on to spend more than half a trillion dollars on nuclear submarines5, because it has no better-more creative-effective way of dealing with Xina6.
As for the US and Xina, a pox on both their houses: each side is risking the planet and the precarious welfare of its huge and unequal populations in pursuit of a redundant, 19-20C model of aggressive expansion.
As for the US.... having eaten the structural effects of the Cold War and ICBMs7, America’s CO2, containerisation, structural adjustment policies, offshoring (banking, detention, and torture), financialisation, the GWOT, the GFC, quantitative easing, disruption, platformisation, Trumpism, and now destabilising aggression fuelling a proxy war in Ukraine, and soon/ perhaps in Taiwan, America’s Randian titans are now expecting the rest of the world to eat up the ‘whatever happens’ as they play around with some stupidly dangerous AIs. Truly; fuck this. I’m really tired of America’s prevalent8 shit, and wish there could be a societal reckoning ending in a realisation that not everything can be solved by expansion and escalation using dollars and high-powered weaponry, blessed by Jesus/the Constitution9.
In sum: AI now feels like yet another decade-long episode in American bullshit that will squander the 2020s making the world a meaner, nastier, shittier, less safe place, and that won’t ‘save’ America, or make its people nicer and more happy. I’m not the first to say this; this was already clearly noticed by Norbert Weiner in 1950. More Weiner soon.
The second thing I take from March is that, on reflection, I don’t quite buy James Bridle’s theory of our diminished understanding (as the world grows more complex… ), nor William Gibson’s (shadows of transparency argument… both here).
I think that Smil is in the ballpark: we know so little, mostly, due to the pathologies of a division of labour of an urban service economy in which the 99% majority are fundamentally disconnected from the material, energy-dependent processes ‘delivering’ their lives.
The problem of problems now (and this fits with the points from Gorz):
we don’t know how stuff is grown or how to grow stuff (and don’t care to know), and we don’t know how to make stuff or look after ourselves (and continue to underfunction knowing that the global supply chain will overfunction for us, until we hit ‘insufficient funds’).
Wallowing in this non-knowing (a corner we’ve painted ourselves into because the division of labour rewards specialisation and becoming a Deliveree and looking forward to GWL), we also hog a huge amount of energy and materials – again, without knowing the constraints or limits of those system (or caring to know), where it all came from, where it all goes, and what this fundamentally means, and why (my hunch) this meaning is different now, given we’ve really, really overshot a lot of the limits, and are living on a scale of borrowed money, borrowed time, and squandered resources which, the debt ceiling shows us, even the US struggles to imagine.
So then: by the end of March, having thought through the global using the example of the current reckless AI race (after traversing the servile service economy of a ‘winner’ country’s utopia-dystopia of Gain without Labour), I really feel like we really need to overcome what Latour calls our ‘closet Gnosticism’10, and get to grips with – and stubbornly keep returning our attention to – the worlds of energy and materials, which, as Weiner also insists, are subject to fundamentally different dynamics to that of information.
The postscript here, which I’ll boomerang back to by the end of this post in <1000 words, is how this is overlaid by the two psychological predicates of the ‘Adam Smith Handjob’11: the double idea that unlimited hedonism (I want, more, I’m entitled) and egotistic selfishness (me first, gimme gimme), ‘empowered’ through the actions of individuals, is going to produce happiness for everyone in the aggregate.
We do not dwell enough on what a weird belief this is to uphold: then again, these are the cultures that brought us the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and Elf of the Shelf.
April: Noticing VaporSpace as/alongside What Wotan Wants.... conspicuous urban surfaces of the present dynamic, and an opening into some depth-psychological speculations about what might also be driving this, ‘beneath the surface’
In the first third of April I had a real encounter with the true post-covid CBD dynamic in Melbourne. With culturally-patterned specificities, this is the generic surface dynamic of global cities the world over. It is comprised of shiny, hard surfaces and the ‘delivery’ of food and nicotine – dopamine spurts – using electric motors, batteries, and single-use plastic, manufactured in China and Vietnam, and its urban phenomenology is either the iteration or replacement of Davis and Monk’s Evil Paradises, those dreamworlds of neoliberalism.
The aesthetic of VaporSpace is exoskeletal, captured by cameras, scrolled by GorillaGlass12, dressed by Demna’s knock off admirers, assembled by young Chinese and Vietnamese women in sweatshops in Shenzhen and Dong Nai, and delivered flat placked in single-use plastic (for landfill) by the containerload. In the shadows, you might see people sleeping rough, scrolling on their phones; you might see people dumpster diving in the laneways behind the restaurants where people queue like it’s Chisomen Mamiana in Ikebukuro... in fact, the whole vibe seems to be a South Korean and coastal Chinese overlay of 2000s Tokyo (Ike, Shin, ‘buya… western side of Yamanote), from food, to fashion, to the way the chaosmosis of aesthetic and sexual imaginaries is driven by manga and anime, as it’s reappeared in gaming – but everyone prefers K pop to J pop (it’s shinier.... the preference for gloss is consistent).
The following, machine translated from google, captures the skilted poetry of this exoskeleton:
‘(Translated by Google) There is a queue. Takinogawa Taishoken next door is not lined up. Expectations rise. Buy tickets in advance. Large special thick seafood tsukemen. I bought an average ticket, but the clerk who came to collect the ticket at the time of the line changed it greatly. Smooth from sitting to bowl. You can choose between disposable chopsticks and regular plastic chopsticks. The noodles are medium thick and the dipping sauce is rich and salty. The concentration is relatively high and the noodles are entwined well, but if it is large, the amount is just barely. Is char siu white chicken? and 2 types of red and thin pigs. As for the taste... I honestly don't have a strong impression of it. I also feel that it is close to Enji at the north exit of Ikebukuro Station. Wari soup is served in a pot on the table’.
‘Beneath’ or ‘behind’ or ‘inside’ VaporSpace’s hard gloss surface, In April I was also noticing a kind of death-driven demi urge (both the pigs and their bones being boiled to make this soup, and the ‘desire’ to keep slashing their throats so we can drink their bones).
I cashed this out as ‘What Wotan Wants’, to try to get at the idea that there is some kind of Other to whom we are attributing our desire-for-this, and our alignment with it as ‘fate’, alone together, in groups.
By the end of the month, however, I found myself returning to the heavy materiality of containerised shipping.
Actually, as the circles shorten and tighten, this is my key tension:
what is the relation betwen the chaosmosis of sociocultural spaces like VaporSpace, the urges, fates and ‘Gods’ that drive them, the implacable heavy materiality of containerised shipping, in all its mass and momentum, and the intransigent commitment to GWL, lazy overconsumption, and over-valued real estate, in spite of very good evidence that it produces profound unhappiness, is unsustainable, and unstable in the short term?
Riddle me that.
One of the ways of opening ‘the box’ here is by observing the paradox that containerisation was and is about decontainment. In removing the distributional bottleneck of breakbulk shipping, Anglocapitalism loosed its desire upon the world. Its avatar-designers did so by creating an alignment between its desire13 and our desire (for whatever we want, on a whim).
In the absence of distribution as a cost, distribution became capable of delivering the goods precisely (and became capable of becoming global logistics, ‘just in time’), from anywhere to anywhere, from anyone to anyone, (m)any to (m)any. This is one sense in which global logistics *is* the fulfilment of the ordering desire to ‘deliver the goods’ that Marcuse perceptively noticed by the mid 60s. For the time in which we have ‘sufficient funds’, ‘we’ really can have our heart’s desire, delivered to our ding dong.
Right, well, I’ve hit my limit again here. I’m not sure I need to recap May again, that was just a few weeks ago, and we can boil it down.
Desire is no coincidence.
If so, and we desire *this*, (why) do we desire *this*; why do we want it *that* way?
post pig post….
In the next post, I’ll bridge to a conversation where I’ll examine the two psychological predicates of the Adam Smith Handjob: hedonism, and selfishnesss.
If you want to keep reading, here’s the quote from Fromm I’m intending to use to think it through:
“The failure of the Great Promise, aside from industrialism's essential economic contradictions, was built into the industrial system by its two main psychological premises: (1) that the aim of life is happiness, that is, maximum pleasure, defined as the satisfaction of any desire or subjective need a person may feel (radical hedonism); (2) that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace (Fromm, To Have or To Be, 2-3)...
….Yet the present era, by and large since the end of the First World War, has returned to the practice and theory of radical hedonism. The concept of unlimited pleasure forms a strange contradiction to the ideal of disciplined work, similar to the contradiction between the acceptance of an obsessional work ethic and the ideal of complete laziness during the rest of the day and during vacations. The endless assembly line belt and the bureaucratic routine on the one hand, and television, the automobile, and sex on the other, make the contradictory combination possible. Obsessional work alone would drive people just as crazy as would complete laziness. With the combination, they can live. Besides, both contradictory attitudes correspond to an economic necessity: twentieth-century capitalism is based on maximal consumption of the goods and services produced as well as on routinized teamwork.
Theoretical considerations demonstrate that radical hedonism cannot lead to happiness as well as why it cannot do so, given human nature. But even without theoretical analysis the observable data show most clearly that our kind of “pursuit of happiness” does not produce well-being. We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.
Ours is the greatest social experiment ever made to solve the question whether pleasure (as a passive affect in contrast to the active affect, well-being and joy) can be a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence. For the first time in history the satisfaction of the pleasure drive is not only the privilege of a minority but is possible for more than half the population. The experiment has already answered the question in the negative.
The second psychological premise of the industrial age, that the pursuit of individual egoism leads to harmony and peace, growth in everyone's welfare, is equally erroneous on theoretical grounds, and again its fallacy is proven by the observable data. Why should this principle, which only one of the great classical economists, David Ricardo, rejected, be true? To be an egoist refers not only to my behavior but to my character. It means: that I want everything for myself; that possessing, not sharing, gives me pleasure; that I must become greedy because if my aim is having, I am more the more I have; that I must feel antagonistic toward all others: my customers whom I want to deceive, my competitors whom I want to destroy, my workers whom I want to exploit. I can never be satisfied, because there is no end to my wishes; I must be envious of those who have more and afraid of those who have less. But I have to repress all these feelings in order to represent myself (to others as well as to myself) as the smiling, rational, sincere, kind human being everybody pretends to be (Fromm, To Have or To Be, 4-5).
Comparison not only alliterative while joining the comparison of France and Australia… Marseilles and Melbourne have also historically been globally significant port cities for the handling of breakbulk…. Melbourne is still Australia’s biggest in the age of the container, Marseilles has been eclipsed by Le Havre (Le Havre or To Be, to riff on the Fromm above).
It’s also interesting that if you’re holding an average Australian mortgage of 601k, then you need to be earning wages above what a Deliveroo can (even if she can work 80 hours a week consistently). Put the other way around, if you’re a Deliveroo, you’re very likely to be a tenant and resident and young person, rather than a home owner, mortgagee, citizen, and older person. These class relations are implicit in the whole ‘deal’, but never rendered bare (cos of the whole ideology of striving, hustling and meritocracy [if the Deliveroo scrimps and saves, once day she’ll be a Deliveree, then GWL).
but not Stephen Graham, his work skews toward alarmist rhetoric + Foucault.
In turn, I added quizzes to the assessment regime of one of my courses – although I hate the way they trivialise learning – because of blown staff:student ratios, top-down pressure to cut costs on sessional labour, and the ensuing removal of a tutor to support with marking ...
The current-stated figure is something of the order of 350 billion, but tell me it won’t double by the time of delivery… moreover, look at F35s and the 737 Max… old grey mare she ain’t what she used to be, but is still unafraid to charge…
This is my shorthand for China qua Xi and the Party, as distinct from the civilisational and demographic reality of a continent-sized regionally/culturally/linguistically diverse ‘country’ (not really a nation-state, as Tilly notices) consisting of 1.4 billion people.
which includes suburban sprawl and also the normalisation of V8 engines… this is not flaky talk, but another post for another time.
I’m not dismissing that the US, like China, is a huge and varied place, and that there’s as much antipathy to this prevalent US in the US as there is being expressed here.
As well as weird 17C English ideas about God/belief/religious practice (Puritanism), weird 17C English ideas about negative liberty and property from the 17C (Hobbes and Locke and plantation economies and chattel slavery), overlaid by weird English ideas about hierarchy and race from the 19C (Darwin and Spencer and Galton). It’s weird how the US thinks of itself as ‘American’, but has taken a lot of the most cooked ideas from England to heart, then added two cylinders and two barrels, then pretended it’s France from 1780s when it suits it (when it’s white people who have rights, not black people who want them).
He just means: our hatred of the flesh and the material world… it’s interesting how this chimes with Smil’s grumpy scientist’s materialism (it’s more energy dense, you idiots!) as well as the whole late direction of Gorz’ critical reflections, The Immaterial.
Like: the idea we’re going to have a ‘happy ending’ by letting/encouraging everyone to selfishly ‘stick to their last’.
I feel like if you’re racking cocaine off a Jewel case copy of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, and you listen to the sound of a plastic bank note and credit card crushing the coke, this is also an early 00s harbinger of VaporSpace.
(for the maximally efficient capture of the greatest possible percentage of market share, leading to the most possible profit-property-domination [Bezos, Bezos-ism])