CfP: Planetary Magic – Elemental Engagements with (Chinese) Digital Infrastructures in an Age of Loss

What a fascinating theme for an event:

Not Hope… but Planetary Magic

Elemental Engagements with (Chinese) Digital Infrastructures in an Age of Loss

Institute for Social Futures, Lancaster University

Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th July 2019

Keynote speakers:

Professor Mingming Wang (Peking) – leading anthropologist of China and civilization, author of ‘Some turns in a “journey to the West”: Cosmological proliferation in an anthropology of Eurasia’, the Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology 2017

Dr Yuk Hui (Centre International des Etudes Simondoniennes) – leading philosopher of technology and of the digital condition, author of ‘The Question concerning Technology in China – an essay in Cosmotechnics’, ‘On the Existence of Digital Objects’ and ‘Recursivity and Contingency

Brexit is the least of our worries…

The world is confronted by a deepening conjunction of unprecedented planetary harm and loss alongside continuing socio-political paralysis.  As such, it is clearly – and arguably primarily – a moment of profound cultural crisis, in which the twinned practicalconsequences and ideational entailments of dominant common-sense understandings – i.e. those of ‘scientific’ Western modernity and human ‘progress’ – appear to be implacably opposed.  In such circumstances, to remain practically and actively ‘hopeful’ about the future while also remaining ‘honest’ will demand some radical transformations of the myths we live by.  Indeed, what seems to be needed is ‘magical’ emergence of futures that appear all-but-unimaginable at present – itself seemingly a statement of forlorn, arbitrary wishing.  But what if, in seeking new myths and new understanding, we really take ‘magic’ seriously?

This workshop invites explorations of serious engagement with ‘practical magic’ regarding the planet, because there seems to be increasingly compelling reason for doing so.  In particular, while generally treated as distinct issues, it is increasingly clear that two of the most significant challenges for the 21st Century (and beyond) are likely to become increasingly inter-connected and inseparable: the emergence of a new ‘planetary condition’, most obviously in the multiple wicked environmental problems of the Anthropocene; and the ‘disruptive’ transformation of material life through the progressive insinuation of digital technologies.  Together, these two combine in an increasingly evident ‘technosphere’ – a planet woven together, covered and sensed by (fast-evolving and energy-hungry) technologies and infrastructures. In itself, this is evident cause for further concern regarding unchecked, worsening environmental footprints or risky experiments with geoengineering.  Yet the ongoing emergence of the digital innovations in ‘uncanny’ and AI innovations, in all their complexity and unfamiliarity, is increasingly suggesting that their exploration in terms of a new practical, ‘trans-scientific’ ‘magic’ may be particularly useful and insightful; and as a matter of pragmatic engagement with the challenges of human-computer systems, not just speculative theorizing.  It does not seem far-fetched then to expect – or at least to explore the possibility – that their unprecedented adoption, and possibly planetary scaling, would generate even more surprising ‘magical’ emergent properties.

Moreover, such a move also resonates with developments at the cutting-edge of (STS-inspired) social theory, regarding an ‘elemental’ turn.  Thinking ‘magically’ is in many ways simply the logical extrapolation of thinking ‘elementally’, according sui generis agency to non-human things across the range of scales from ‘micro’ material, ‘elemental’ things to ‘macro’ or ‘hyper’ objects massively larger than humans.  Such thinking also goes beyond the materialist binaries of matter/mind to other ‘lenses’ on the world and to less familiar ontologies: e.g. of ‘fiery’, ‘watery’, ‘airy’ or ‘earthy’ things, and their heterogeneous assemblages.  Like elemental thinking, taking magic seriously is necessarily to evoke a perspectival and pragmatic approach – and where this, in turn, reflects the new-found acknowledgement of inescapable situatedness within complex and unmasterable systems, resonating with both planetary and digital conditions.

In short, combining the planetary, digital and elemental thinking into an emerging ‘magical turn’, the workshop invites papers that explore aspects of an emerging age of ‘Planetary Magic’ – and as a strategic and/or descriptive, and not merely normative, boosterish and/or Sci-Fi fantastical, prospect.

Indeed, a ‘magical’ turn is no licence for new teleological and technofetishist narratives of inevitable (trans?-)human progress.  To the very contrary, discussion of such issues in terms of magic is precisely to foreground and reckon with the inescapable dangers, uncontrollable consequences and existential fears of generating new, emergent forces – as the whole genre of (so-called) children’s stories, both traditional (e.g. King Midas, Aladin’s genie and the evil vizier, Baba Yaga and countless other witches, or Rumpelstiltskin’s gold weaving powers) and modern (e.g. Harry Potter), specifically continues to remind us.  Indeed, taking magic seriously invites anthropological investigation and reassessment of ‘modern’ technoscientific civilisation with a newly sincere respect for other, supposedly more ‘superstitious’, cultures in other times and places; itself a move that also resonates with the need to decolonize thinking if a new planetary age is genuinely to be ‘global’.

In these respects, two key sub-themes also seem particularly important regarding both the substantive form of and ways of engaging with C21st futures, while being comparatively neglected, namely: loss; and (the resurgence of) China.

Loss

Grievous and unprecedented problems of ‘loss & damage’ that must still yet be looked in the eye attend the emergence of both planetary and digital conditions.  By breaking with foundational myths of Western (now global) modernity regarding endless materialist progress of humanity’s mastery of the universe and instead taking situatedness within complex and ‘elemental’ systems as given, magical thinking may be less beholden to forms of knowledge that seem foundationally unable to confront and think with loss – and are simply driving us ever further into catastrophic paralysis and denial.  The corollary, then, is that this raises the prospect that a magical turn may also promise not only novel, candid understanding of what is currently happening, but also strategic insights regarding how actually to build, shape and direct a Technosphere in normatively valued forms, taking ‘magical’ powers – human and non-human – seriously.

China

Moreover, as a paradigm shift that only makes sense from an expressly pragmatic and situated perspective (not the default abstract, universalistic perspective of Western modernity), magical thinking also resonates with both: the resurgence of non-Western perspectives and projects (and, conversely, the urgent need, as above, to transcend the paradigm of Western modernity, and at global scale); and, their increasing influence specifically regarding the actual building of the Technosphere over the 21stcentury and beyond.   China, in particular, appears crucial in this regard, as both a re-ascendant civilization with a fundamentally pragmatic worldview, and a nascent contender for greatest global influence in digital innovation and infrastructure – with ambitions to be the rising ‘cyber-superpower’, according to President Xi Jinping, combined with its ‘Belt Road Initiative’ in a new ‘digital Silk Road’ that also resonates (albeit in as-yet-unclear ways) with its grand projet of ‘Ecological Civilization’.

In short, can thinking in terms of ‘planetary magic’, as a new ‘mythology’, actually deliver a ‘good’ (or at least a better, optimal) Anthropocene, working with and through loss, not just ‘hope’ that everything will be all right?

For this 2 day international workshop, hosted by Lancaster’s Institute for Social Futures (ISF), we are delighted to be hosting two leading Chinese scholars of civilisation and the digital condition respectively, Wang Mingming and Yuk Hui, as our keynote speakers.  The workshop aims to advance the ISF theme of ‘Planetary Futures’ and follow on and develop discussions from both the ISF Workshops on Multiplanetary (Summer 2018) and the ‘Technosphere’ (Michaelmas 2018) and the exploration of a ‘Chinese Anthropocene’ in ‘Ecological Civilization’ (Lent 2018).  Contributing also to the ISF theme (2018/19) of ‘hope’, it will explore emergent ‘civilizational’ futures for the coming century (and beyond) regarding the Technosphere-Anthropocene.  Specifically, papers are invited that engage with any or all of three questions:

  1. “How can ‘trans-scientific’ thinking with ‘(practical) magic’ and ‘elements’ assist with novel, insightful ways of thinking and doing digital, planetary (i.e. ‘technosphere’) futures?”
  2. “How can Chinese thought and/or examples (e.g. of infrastructure and/or digital technology) from contemporaryChina assist with novel, insightful way of thinking and doing digital, planetary futures?”, and
  3. “How can these two strands come together to illuminate ways of thinking creatively and constructively with and through loss – not (just) ‘hope’ – regarding the emerging digital, planetary future?”

Please submit abstracts of max. 300 words to David Tyfield (d.tyfield@lancaster.ac.uk) by Friday 3rd May.

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