Friday, 6 December 2013

Endings: politics, future, world

By Martin.

While Helen has spent much of the last month thinking and writing about democracy, I've been working through a quite random selection of texts as I go about developing some new research projects. These include Amanda Machin's Negotiating Climate Change, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi's After the Future and Timonthy Morton's Hyperobjects. They are all connected with my broad interest in the cultural politics of the future and the mediation of imagined futures through the physical sciences. All of the books either present or challenge particular endings, so I thought it might be interesting to consider them alongside each other, despite them all residing in very different intellectual traditions.

Amanda Machin's important new book engages with Chantal Mouffe's agonistics - a political theory which emphasises the irreducibility of conflict in democratic societies and calls for modes of political engagement suited to the inevitability of disagreement. Rather than seeking forms of consensus which by definition exclude and marginalise dissenting voices, leading to antagonistic eruptions outside of mainstream political processes, Mouffe argues for a politics which recognises disagreement as a precondition of decision. Developing these ideas in relation to climate change, Machin argues that consensus has been positioned as both a starting point and ambition of climate politics at multiple scales. By rendering climate change as a problem of individual behaviour or morality, or as a physical problem requiring a technical solution, the ideological contours of our relationships with the nonhuman and our preferred ways of ordering society are suppressed. Contrary to those who warn of politics getting in the way our heeding the warnings of science, Machin argues that it's only by letting dissensus back in that we can hope to achieve meaningful political decisions. Not everyone will agree with these decisions. But a 'conflictual consensus' on the mode of making such decisions, through agonistic debate, will at least give them a fighting chance of achieving what they are designed to do.

Machin's work is an important contribution to a growing critique of the depoliticisation of climate change. From Mike Hulme's exploration of why we all disagree about climate change to Erik Swyngedouw's pointed critique of the post-political condition, this body of work challenges the dominant ways in which the climate challenge has been framed as an issue which transcends ideological difference and contestation. Machin too bemoans the potential of climate change to put a stop to democratic politics, either through an elitist discourse of techno-managerialism or through more radical calls for the suspension of democracy. Like Gert Goeminne (whose work I've discussed in an earlier post here), Machin sees climate 'scepticism' as an outcome of depoliticisation; a symptom of a bad science-policy translation, rather than a cause of it. A properly agonistic politics of climate change would invite dissenting voices back into the debate about the kind of world we want to live in, potentially relieving the ongoing politicisation of science, while healthily re-politicising climate politics.

'Bifo' Berardi's After the Future is concerned with the broader cultural politics of the future, and particularly with the demise of the Western civilizational faith in the future as the telos of progressive modernity. He paints the 20th century as the century which trusted the future, with early avante-gard movements like the Futurists cementing a dominant discourse of technological optimism and Whiggish history. Bifo, a media activist and Marxist theorist, also traces 20th century futurism through the annals of the labour movement and the faith that existed among capitalism's staunchest opponents in some kind of eventual Hegelian resolution of the contradictions of capital and labour. He identifies the 1970s as the decade when this all started to fall apart. When the punks cried "No Future" in 1977, they were channelling a new alienation from the sense of ever-improving social and political conditions. As neoliberalism subsequently took advantage of the 70s' economic crises, hard-won economic and civil rights began to be eroded and the precariousness of labour re-emerged; apparently its natural state rather than a temporary condition pre-existing progressive amelioration.

With the current crises of financial markets, the new dominance of 'semiocapitalism' where cognitive labour on signs has displaced bodily labour on physical materials, and the growing awareness of ecological crisis, the future has disappeared as an object of hope or activism. Art has, for Bifo, become concerned with ironic commentary on contemporary conditions rather than utopia (or even dystopia). The precariousness of cognitive forms of labour is having profound psychological impacts on workers, and it is unclear what forms resistance should take when processes of selection between alternative futures depend less and less on the exercise of human will. Withdrawal and autonomy seem the most propitious responses. "Our task will be the creation of social zones of human resistance that act like zones of therapeutic contagion" (p154).

In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, literary theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton draws on the object-oriented ontology (OOO) and speculative realism of people like Harman, Meillassoux and Negarestani to argue for the existence of hyperobjects - things like climate change which are inherently nonlocal, viscous, temporally unstable and generative of new forms of space and time. Drawing on the OOO notion that objects are inherently 'withdrawn' from human sensing, he argues that hyperobjects like climate change cannot be known in their entirety but rather only through the traces which they make in their interaction with other objects. The phenomenal traces of hyperobjects will depend on the medium through which they are encountered, much like how the same shoe will leave a different footprint in dry sand or wet mud. Like Atsara's light art installation [M]ondes, recently on show at Durham Cathedral as part of the Lumiere Festival, hyperobjects become sensible interobjectively, in a space of aesthetic interrelationships between the properties of different objects (for a video, see here).

A key element of Morton's argument is the end of the world. Not the world of objective existence, but world as a particular ontology - "a significant, bounded, horizoning aesthetic effect based on a blurriness and aesthetic distance". Knowledge of hyperobjects disturbs dominant cosmologies which assume neat distinctions between foreground and background, 'over here' and 'over there', Nature and Culture, space and time. The world of the romantic artist and of the environmental activist has disappeared as the concept of Nature has been emptied of any ontological significance.

"Likewise, as soon as humans know about climate, weather becomes a flimsy, superficial appearance that is a mere local representation of some much larger phenomenon that is strictly invisible. You can't see or smell climate. Given our brains' processing power, we can't even really think about it all that concretely. At the very least, world means significantly less than it used to - it doesn't mean 'significant for humans' or even 'significant for conscious entities'" (p104).

Essentially, the Heideggerian concept of world and its ontotheological positioning of humans as the most important entity is now untenable. Hyperobjects reveal the fragility of existence, the impossibility of a metalanguage which can stand outside and above hyperobjects, and the 'weakness' in the visible gap between thing and phenomenon.

Morton's work was my first exposure to OOO and I'm still processing the implications for such styles of thought for my own work, which is informed by constructivist epistemologies and a more relational ontology. There are some interesting linkages with Bifo's work, which deals with what we might call the hyperobjects of capitalism and ecology, and specifically their appearance in the aesthetic realms of art, media and political activism. Bifo is similarly concerned with the warping of senses of time and the future. Both authors recognise the disappearance of a singular Future, to be replaced with a more ambiguous stretching out of the present and all its inherent uncertainties and contradictions. For Bifo, the Future is no longer a guiding force. For Morton, neither is Nature. We might say that both understand the Future, as a cultural imagination in the present, as an aesthetic effect of hyperobjects.

Machin's work too deals with the disappearance of a guiding force, namely consensus. Or rather, she argues for the desirability of such a disappearance. Like the Future, consensus offers false promises of unity, coherence and inevitability. The 20th century faith in the Future painted everyone as a participant and beneficiary of the inexorable march towards a better world, even as capitalism perpetuated the structural violence of inequality. Machin's point is that a politics of consensus is similarly illusory, offering itself as rational and inclusive while at the same time fostering inequalities of voice and opportunity. Machin's radical democracy is, I think, an appropriate response not just to the current political impasse around climate change, but also to the ontological conditions described by Morton. We need a politics which can deal with the fact that climate is deceptively complex and pervasive, and reveals itself to people in different ways and through different material and ideological lenses. Climate change can't be dealt with through meta-languages of technical management. Morton argues that we have woken up inside the belly of a beast - a metaphor which aptly captures his decentering of the human and the impossibility of an outside-looking-in. Machin's prescription would also claim to be an antidote to the alienation and disenchantment diagnosed by Bifo - a form of politics amenable to the development of new subjectivities in contrast to the deadening hand of political and cultural consensus.

Although these three books all coming from very distinct philosophical positions, I'd suggest that they're all relevant for the re-thinking of climate politics. Throwing them together like this was more of an experiment in textual montage than an argument for any fundamental coherence across the three pieces, and there are certainly huge tensions. But they all contribute to how we make sense of the cultural politics of the future, and to how we can render the future a space of contestable alternatives.

"We sing to the infinity of the present and abandon the illusion of a future."
          - Bifo, Manifesto of Post-Futurism


  1. Hi Martin,

    Very good piece, thanks for posting. Of these three books I've only read Machin so far, but I got some interesting responses to her arguments in a blog post, which I think link to Morton's OOO. The idea of (Mother) Nature as an object is still very strong in some arguments:

    "Mother Nature is not the least interested in social concerns..."

    "The atmosphere doesn't give a hoot about 'local levels' and 'global networks'"

    Interestingly, it seems that 'climate change' as an object is actually being backgrounded in these arguments, perhaps implicitly accepting that climate change has become too complex a social/physical scientific hybrid to discuss. This brings about a reductionist move to 'Nature' and 'the atmosphere', which in turn leads to a reliance on scientific knowledge (in reality, the pronouncements of scientific organisations which provide very simplified versions of this knowledge) to tell us what to do. So here there is maybe a link between Morton's OOO and Machin's methodology; namely, that by concerning one's self with hyperobjects necessarily leads to undecidability?

    1. Hi Warren,

      Thanks for your comment. The comments you quote are very interesting responses to Machin on an ontological level, even as they ignore the functionalism of her argument (i.e. that a pluralistic approach will have a better chance of achieving the outcomes these commentators presumably want).
      There are some parallels with Morton's argument: "what has happened so far during the epoch of the Anthropocene has been the gradual realization by humans that they are not running the show, at the very moment of their most powerful technical mastery on a planetary scale. Humans are not the conductors of meaning, not the pianists of the real: a truth that is common both to poststructuralist and to speculative realist thought".
      Morton doesn't have much to say about politics. Collective pronouns dominate. Morton would certainly challenge the reduction of complex hyperobjects to 'Mother Nature' and the atmosphere, but I think you're right that hyperobjects and undecidability might be related. However, I think Morton would paint hyperobjects as more insistent - crowding into representational spaces like the figures of an expressionist painting or rearing up in our wing mirrors where 'objects are closer than they appear'. So the concerning of one's self becomes less a political project than a process of attunement to the other that is already here. Hyperobjects crowd in on the process of establishing antagonistic and agonistic social relations.