How bad will things get? The role of social theory when civilisation is collapsing

In the early pages of Surveillance Capitalism there is an evocative description of personal loss. Shoshana Zuboff recounts the experience of watching her house burn down, struggling to recognise the reality of what she was saying. The point she is making is that the unprecedented character of this event left her unable to fully comprehend what was taking place:

On a stormy night some years ago, our home was struck by lightning, and I learned a powerful lesson in the comprehension-defying power of the unprecedented. Within moments of the strike, thick black smoke drifted up the staircase from the lower level of the house and toward the living room. As we mobilized and called the fire department, I believed that I had just a minute or two to do something useful before rushing out to join my family. First, I ran upstairs and closed all the bedroom doors to protect them from smoke damage. Next, I tore back downstairs to the living room, where I gathered up as many of our family photo albums as I could carry and set them outside on a covered porch for safety. The smoke was just about to reach me when the fire marshal arrived to grab me by the shoulder and yank me out the door. We stood in the driving rain, where, to our astonishment, we watched the house explode in flames.

Loc 262-279

It was interesting to reread this in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Zuboff’s observation concerns how past experience can blind us to present realities, as we filter our sense of what is happening through our experience of what has happened. This inductive bias will often prove justifiable because the future frequently does resemble the past. However in those cases where it doesn’t, it renders us ill-equipped to respond to the enormity of what is taking place, even inclining us to act in self-destructive ways which make things even worse.

What’s interesting is how the unprecedented becomes precedented. Once we experience a house burning down it comes to seem obvious that this might happen. Once we experience an infectious disease spreading with sufficient alacrity to constitute a pandemic, it comes to seem obvious that this might happen to us. Obviously we knew that house do burn down and that pandemics do happen. But the bias of the unprecedented leaves us silently imagining that these events happen to other people at other points in history.

It’s much easier to apply this analysis to our recent experience than it is to imagine how it might shape future experience. In a recent essay by Richard Seymour, cheerfully titled ‘It’s all downhill from here’, he suggests the current disruptions to fuel and supplies experienced in the UK prefigure the coming breakdown of the reliable infrastructure and stable resourcing which have constituted middle class existence in advanced economies. The pandemic and climate crisis are intersecting to make supply shocks (“an unexpected event that suddenly changes the supply of a product or commodity, resulting in an unforeseen change in price”) ubiquitous and there’s little reason to expect this might change. As he writes towards the end of the essay:

In the short-term, there are potential optimistic scenarios in which Covid cases continue to decline and the supply-chain begins to loosen again. That can’t be taken for granted, for a variety of reasons. Declining vaccine efficacy, the emergence of new strains, and resurgences of infections, are likely to make labour, materials, food and artefacts –– ’embodied energy’ –– systematically more expensive to obtain. Even if it does bear out in the short-term, however, what we will have just gone through is a glimpse of the future. We should expect shortages and disruptions.

The argument developed by Zuboff suggests we need new concepts and terms to grapple with the unprecedented. As she puts it on loc 369, we needs concepts which “illuminate the unprecedented and empower us with a more cogent and comprehensive understanding of the rapid flow of events that boil around us”. The risk I think is that this invites an avant-garde theorising which imagines that conceptual creativity is sufficient to get us closer to novel realities. It is certainly necessary but in and of itself the generation of new concepts gets us no closer to changing realities, in fact it might actually impede this process as Burrows memorably suggested in this prescient 1997 chapter:

It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world. The speed at which new theoretical discourses emerge, are disseminated and then become passé is now absurd. It is almost as if the second that one begins to engage with some new conceptual development it becomes unfashionable. The recent literature on things ‘cyber’ is a case in point. Reading it makes the latest pile of books on the postmodern, globalisation, reflexive modernisation (last year’s model?) and the like appear mellow and quaint. Never mind who now reads Marx? or even Foucault? Who now reads Baudrillard?

This process of sociological passéification is, of course, not unconnected with ‘fin-demillennium’ pessimism and our general loss of visions of utopian transcendence and hope in a better future. Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target. In the recent conceptual scramble some analysts have begun to turn to sources of inspiration beyond traditional social scientific and political discourses in order to try and make some sort of sense of our contemporary condition. In particular the fictional world of cyberpunk has been seized on by some as a resource of analytic insights into the new dimensions of human, or even post-human existence, which are supposedly now upon us.

What’s the role of social theory under these circumstances? It is immensely important as a source of new descriptions which can help us make sense of the flux. However this relationship to novelty, the thrill of working at the cutting edge of social change and the professional rewards which accrue to those who stake out novel areas, itself creates problems: it creates professional incentives which can be counter-productive, leads to an under-sensitivity towards continuity and often fails to take advantage of existing resources to make sense of emerging events. It’s here that the absence of meta-theory, the relatively peripheral character of methodological debates about what theorists are doing and why, becomes so problematic.

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