Image-1-4“In sum, the obsession with the web, its monopolisation of any idea of the new, has served capitalist realism rather than undermined it. Which does not mean, naturally, that we should abandon the web, only that we should find out how to develop a more instrumental relationship with it. Put simply, we should use it – as a means of dissemination, communication and distribution – but not live inside it. The problem is that this goes against the tendencies of handhelds. We all recognise the by now cliched image of a train carriage full of people pecking at their tiny screens, but have we really registered how miserable this really is, and how much it suits capital for these pockets of socialisation to be closed down?” – Mark Fisher, Abandon hope (summer is coming) 

Following on from this post:

I wasn’t enormously impressed by Malign Velocities. I had assumed it was a book about social acceleration but was surprised to find it’s actually about accelerationism. To be fair, it’s quite clear about this in the blurb, it’s just that I failed to read the blurb properly. Its concern was far more with the cultural valorisation of acceleration than it was with the (putative) social process of acceleration, whereas mine is precisely the opposite of this. It’s also written in precisely the kind of continental philosophy speak that I always find mildly irritating. Nonetheless, its review of various iterations of accelerationism was interesting, even if parts of it were familiar: I’d read about the Futurists before but the detail on the communist accelerationists after the Russian revolution was new to me. The most impressive part of his argument was the author’s critique of the direction of French postmodern thought, with the deconstructive impulse – along with intellectual one-upmanship – progressively leading to “a politics of radical immanence, of immersion in capital to the point where any way to distinguish a radical strategy from the strategy of capital seems to disappear completely” because of an unwillingness to theoretically allow for an ‘outside’ to capital. My opinion of Baudrillard and Lyotard has declined even further as a result. The author locates the contemporary impulse towards accelerationism in this theoretical trajectory, seeking escape through the fusion with and overcoming of capital because there’s no longer anything beyond it. We embrace the system to transcend it. It’s basically somewhat silly but the author does an effective job of demonstrating how people who aren’t idiots get taken in by it. Though when he writes of accelerationists working to “continue Land’s project to break with the despotism of Western reason through a parodic hyper-reason, through an acceleration into the iterative” I wonder if we shouldn’t instead point to the possibility that Land simply took too much speed and went slightly mad.

In contrast Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF by Derek Sayer was fantastic. It’s a blistering inditement of the lunacy of REF and persuaded me of a position I’d been slowly, up till now reluctantly, moving towards: metrics are obviously the lesser of two evils. They’re far from perfect (to say the least) but they would be a huge improvement on REF2014. He makes the case convincingly that the ‘peer review’ of the REF falls dramatically short of accepted standards of peer review. Far too few people are asked to review far too much. They also frequently have little to no specialist knowledge about the work they’re ‘reviewing’. He’s particularly interesting on the politics of the ‘internal REFs’ that have been conducted and paints a vivid picture of the vast REF bureaucracy being reduplicated within each university itself. He argues that this is an important tool for the disciplining of academic labour, extends the power of managers and the exercise as a whole (‘modernization’ of higher education) entrenches a small elite within the sector. To use the memorable phrase offered by Will Davies, which I’ve had stuck in my head for ages now, the whole thing is an exercise in heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest.

I’d forgotten how much I like Mark Fisher’s writing until reading Ghost of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. I’m not overly taken with the notion of hauntology which, as I understand it, refers to the latent connections which serve to constitute any seemingly subsistent entity i.e. how the past lives on in the present and things like that. But I loved reading this nonetheless. Much of it is his music journalism and I ended up with 4 new Spotify playlists after reading this book, including the discovery of Burial and the rediscovery of Tricky, who I used to listen to obsessively years ago but had largely forgotten about. It’s a bleak and downcast book, offering a depressive counterpoint to ‘crack capitalism’: it’s not concerned with the spaces of hope that exist within our present circumstances but rather with the potential futures which were latent but have now been lost. He offers an inditement of 21st century culture which, though convincing in its own terms, I can’t help but note was written by someone who clearly used to take a lot of drugs in the 1990s… I’m not saying this to be snide, I have immense respect for Fisher, only to point out that there’s likely a biographical element in this which oddly doesn’t figure into the text in any direct way despite it being such a personal book

Another brilliant book was The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer. It’s an attack upon biomorality: the social injunction to enjoy, thrive and be healthy (as well as the corresponding shaming of those who fail in this task). I should blog more extensively about this at a later point in time because I have a lot to say about it. In short, I think they overstate their case but it’s nonetheless a very important case. It’s not entirely clear to me from where this injunction to enjoy is being issued: if it’s a case of attitudinal change then this in itself needs to be explained. My fear is that some quite specific political projects (of the sort I’m looking forward to hearing Imogen Tyler talk about on Friday) are being subsumed into a general claim about social morality. It has its virtues, in that it helps draw together a diverse range of phenomena into one analysis, but we need to be careful about undertaking explanation on this basis. As a descriptive project, I think it’s great and of immense value.

The only graphic novel I’ve read since my last post in this series was The Massive volume 4. This has already become one of my favourite series and generated my current preoccupation with civilisational collapse. However it’s walking a fine line in this volume between exploring the world of the crash & developing the plot of a thriller. Volume 4 is the first time it’s gone too far in the direction of the latter for my liking.

I’m currently reading Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures by Mark Fisher. It’s an interesting book which explores a condition in which “life continues, but time has somehow stopped”. His claim is that this “stasis has been buried, interred behind a superficial frenzy of ‘newness’, of perpetual movement” and he explores it in terms of popular musical culture:

Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next 17 years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be. While 20th-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. (loc 183)

Can we see a similar process in higher education? The way Fisher describe the hyperactively inert quality of contemporary music immediately resonated with me: “the rates of innovation in both these areas had enormously slackened”. This is precisely the terminology Filip Vostal and I have been using to discuss the acceleration of higher education: we’re interested in how the rate of innovation relates to the rate of publication. Our hunch is that the former declines as the latter increases. We’d like to substantiate this. But perhaps more importantly, we’d like to explain it.

What would this hyperactive inertia look like in higher education? We’d see the same underlying ideas being expressed in news ways. We’d see the same underlying debates – conflicts between ideas – being pursued in new forms with no reference to previous skirmishes which largely or entirely addressed the same issue. We’d see reiteration that understood itself as novelty – making no reference to what has come before because the temporal horizons are sufficiently circumscribed that this novelty appears to unfold within a perpetual present. We’d see a perpetual forgetting coupled with perpetual innovation: nothing moves forward because the foundations upon which innovation might be built would be constantly discarded.

I’d argue we can see this. It’s a process that seems pretty obvious to anyone who’s kept up with academic literature over a sufficient number of decades (or maybe it’s just the people in this category whom I happen to talk to a lot). Part of the project we’re planning would intend to actually map this empirically. But the indicators are pretty clear: conceptual commonalities between referentially disconnected literatures, shrinking time horizons of citations, constant invocation of ‘turns’ in the name of innovation. Constant movement without anything ever progressing.

What makes this odd is how unnecessary it is. Since I started working at the Sociological Review, I’ve been slightly obsessed by the fact that the archive extends to 1908 and is fully digitised. It’s as easy to access a paper from 1915 as it is to access a paper from 2015. I’ve gone around telling anyone who might care about this in a way that extends far beyond any remit arising from the fact I’m employed by the journal. This fetishisation of the past is exactly what I take Mark Fisher to be concerned with – I’ve been hugely enthusiastic about these archives without ever seriously engaging with them. Crudely: I think it’s really cool that they are accessible but I’m not really sure why I think this. As Fisher observes, “it seemed that practically everything was available for re-watching. In conditions of digital recall, loss is itself lost” (loc 105). There’s no technical reason for this loss of the sociological past but this seems to make little practical different, suggesting that the reasons for this loss have very little to do with technological capacity. This recent post by Graham Scambler identified one of the core reasons for this forgetting:

There is now a premium on roller-coaster productivity pertinent to crass metrics like the REF. To (appear to) stand still is to attract opprobrium, too often from line-managers as crass(ly ambitious) as the metrics they bend the knee to. We are fast accelerating away from the concept of education as intrinsically worthwhile. Education in its entirely needs defending against the bureaucratic instrumentalism characteristic of this vicious neo-liberal interlude.

http://www.grahamscambler.com/meta-reflection-in-sociology/

The broader perspective of social acceleration helps situation this institutionally specific trend in terms of broader macro-social processes. But it’s important not to lose sight of the institutional specificity of higher education. I like how Graham describes the dilemma for scholarship posed by what I’m suggesting is the acceleration of higher education:

we already possess a considerable and under-utilized body of work, both theoretical and empirical (and yes, empiricist too). While the need for innovative theorizing and for up-to-date or novel data and analyses remains, there are published warehouses of the stuff that we neglect. It would pay us to tap and reflect on these. It really is okay to relearn lessons from dead social theorists, sociologists and researchers!

Much of my own recent output – mainly publications, but a few blogs too – comes within the orbit of meta-reflection. This is especially true of my work on health inequalities, but it applies also to my discourses on stigma. I have attempted to draw on and occasionally to develop extant theory as well as quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods investigations to explore optimal ways of determining the extent and nature of, and ultimately explanations for, enduring health inequalities and stigmatization. I have staked claims for theory that is in my view consonant with available evidence bases. I am of course deeply indebted to innumerable predecessors and contemporaries!

http://www.grahamscambler.com/meta-reflection-in-sociology/

It’s for this reason that I think questions of scholarly communication are integral to the future of the social sciences. But my reasons for believing this to the case are somewhat idiosyncratic. This is another theme which we’re hoping to explore in our project (and at the conference we’re organising in Prague in December). There’s a big picture here that is getting lost because of the very academic specialisation it has some important consequences for.

Prior to christmas I found myself installing Candy Crush on my iPad. Less than a week later I forced myself to delete it, not least of all because of the dawning realisation that I was going to do something which I’d previously found absurd and pay for extra lives. Since then I’ve been thinking about compulsiveness in games and how, if at all, it should be seen as something sinister. I came across an article in Time which discusses how Candy Crush can be so compulsive:

1. It Makes You Wait
2. We’re All Suckers for Sweet Talk
3. You Can Play With One Hand
4. There’s Always More
5. You Don’t Have to Pay – but if You Want to, It’s Easy
6. It Taps Into Our Inner Child
7. It’s Social
8. It’s an Escape
9.  It Grows on You

http://business.time.com/2013/11/15/candy-crush-saga-the-science-behind-our-addiction/

To be clear, I’m not attacking games per se. I love games. I don’t play as much as I used to, partly due to demands on my time and partly due to the fact I’m one of those people who never upgraded from the ones I was playing in my early 20s (things like Civ 2, Red Alert and Age of Empires on PC & the Nintendo Gamecube). But why are things like fixed odds betting terminals widely seen as sinister but compulsive video games not? Am I projecting my views about how these are regarded? Or is it the money involved in the former which poses the problem?

There’s a term I took from a Mark Fisher talk a few years ago, perhaps entirely out of context, which always comes to mind when I think about these sorts of issues: electro-libidinal parasites. I’m grimly fascinated by the fact there are people who, in a manner of speaking, seek to engineer ever more virulent electro-libidinal parasites. I’d love to know more about how, if at all, the designers of games like Candy Crush talk about ‘compulsiveness’ as a goal. Is this an express intention in the design of games? How is it understood in moral terms? Is this a specialism for which particular designers are known? Could this develop into a specialism if not? There’s the plot of a social science fiction novel brewing in the back of my mind about a 21st century game design equivalent to Disney’s ‘imagineering’. Perhaps next year I should finally get round to doing nanowrimo.

Assuming I haven’t completely misunderstood Mark Fisher’s point then I’d argue this is one of the most striking examples of capitalist realism I’ve ever encountered. It was posted as a comment on this Glenn Greenwald article. Note how an assertion of the obviousness of this state of affairs goes hand-in-hand with a dismissal of the ‘rubes’ who are assumed to have uncritically assented to the enormously powerful ideological forces from which the commentator has long been immune. Self-congratulation at being ‘smart enough’ to see through manufactured illusion and contempt for those who failed to do this substitute for moral condemnation of something which is nonetheless regarded as a social problem. The post-ideological stance of ‘seeing through’ the lies in fact engenders objective passivity coupled with a reactionary orientation to those who seek to engage in proactive opposition:

I just don’t understand why people hadn’t assumed this kind of surveillance was going on already. Has no one seen the Enemy of the State? In all seriousness, I wondered about it after figuring out how communications satellites work and realizing that all of those satellites are launched by the government.

Is it such revelation that a country on a planet as nationalistic as Earth had the opportunity to spy on most of the world and took that opportunity? If you are a student of history you would know that spying on other nations/groups is human reality.

I don’t necessarily think its a great idea to have one country doing a lot of this under the guise of “the greater good” because they will end up using it to benefit themselves in any way they feel they can. I just don’t think any of the Snowden revelations should have been so inflammatory. How could you not see the writing on the wall? How could you assume this wasn’t happening?

I just don’t like the Greenwald tone of “I can’t believe this, can you? We don’t live in a perfect world as our politicians had told us!!” He comes across as a rube if he is truly shocked by all of these spying “revelations.”

And I defy you to find a country on this planet who doesn’t conduct all of the surveillance that they possibly can. Its an aspect of national defense and economic survival that causes this espionage all over the planet. The US just possess a crazy ability to spy on mostly everyone because of the system of communications the US gov’t help set up for the world.

All I’m saying is, you missed the window to complain about this by about 15-20 years. The groundwork for this type of communications monitoring has been in front of your face since the 80’s & 90s and you weren’t smart enough to see it. There is no going back.

In this keynote from Virtual Futures, Mark Fisher, author of the stunning Capitalist Realism, talks about the role which innovations in communicative technology play in the unfolding of late capitalism.

He talks about the growing ‘digital communicative malaise’ which can be observed in contemporary society while suggesting that there’s still to much reluctance to address this issue on the left. Yet why should attacking a technological development be seen as reactionary? He suggests that digital technologies can be seen as communicative parasite that destroy other enjoyments: it destroys our capacity to attend to the pleasurable (described by others as Continuous Partial Attention) and tightens the grip of disciplinary power on our everyday lives. As he observes, “as soon as you have e-mail you no longer have working hours”

As I’m sure many others can, this point is an intimately familiar one from everyday experience. For instance not being able to focus on a film or book because of the urge to check e-mail or twitter. Nonetheless does he overstate the technological aspect to this? My e-mail checking got horribly obsessive for much of 2010 and, although I didn’t put it as articulately as Fisher does, the idea he’s suggesting what on my mind a lot during that time. Phenomenologically it was a loss of agency, as a basically unsatisfying habit (scratching an itch) frequently undermined the decision to switch off and relax. Yet in 2011, as my life circumstances have changed and my life has gone back to being fun, the compulsion has waned massively. E-mail’s gone from something that actively draws me in to being a much reviled chore. While experientially it feels like a reclamation of agency, the change is only contingently related to the technology itself.

When we’re unhappy, bored and/or dissatisfied we often choose to absent ourselves from the situation we’re in using whatever means are available to us.  A retreat into internal dialogue is a universally available form of self-absenting (with ‘daydreaming’ etc being its most obvious social label) with our digital communicative parasites (be they e-mail, twitter, mobile phones, mindless web browsing, facebook or whatever else) being a recent and rapidly growing addition to our escapist arsenal. Yet could the technology be said to be meaningfully causing this? In a way, yes, in that it is the necessary condition for the expansion of this process which Fisher highlights. But in another more important way no because the technology is merely one pervasive means of meeting a need which it does not itself generate – athough frequent self-absenting, as a product of situational dissatisfaction, may breed more escapism because of its capacity to erode prolonged enjoyment and experiential immersion. So we shouldn’t decry communicative technology for finding itself implicated in everyday practices which lead to effects like this – instead we should be looking to explore how this technology can be used to enhance rather than debase human sociality.

Longer version of a post on Sociological Imagination