The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

New Series: Solarpunk and the Aesthetics of Optimism

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Solarpunk aims to develop images and narratives that inspire hope and optimism. As an aesthetic, it visualizes future human achievement. Moreover, it tries to cultivate a tinkering, democratic, and cooperative attitude towards social matters and a reverent attitude towards ecology in its audiences. Those audiences, formed online and through fiction publications, have also produced a great deal of commentary on the “movement,” its goals, and its advantages and shortcomings. Unabashedly utopian and sunny, solarpunk, in the eyes of its boosters and practitioners, professes optimism as an oppositional virtue, projecting a ray of sunlight through the dim clouds of post-apocalyptic pop media.

Not only is solarpunk supposed to inspire real activism and practical solutions to environmental and social problems, its proponents are also, at this stage, highly activist about this nascent subgenre. There is even a manifesto for it. So although it is a literary and artistic tendency first and foremost, many of the authors we’ll be encountering in this new series inject far loftier ambitions. While this seems appropriate given the defiant can-do-it attitude of solarpunk, it also generates a set of interesting questions:

1. What is the relationship between the literary work and any practical activist or infrastructural work done in the name of solarpunk?

2. Does solarpunk aspire to become more than a literary movement or does it sit content appropriating and recontextualizing works that fit the aesthetic but are not formally affiliated with it?

3. How do the creative workers and critics promoting solarpunk conceptualize their own politics–as uniquely solarpunk, or merely influenced by it?

While I can’t answer all of these questions in full, I want to look more closely at this genre because it represents a rather unique post-ironic and anti-nihilist approach to thinking about ecology and technology, society and the individual, and “the end of the world” vs. the end of the world as we know it. My other reason for investigating solarpunk and some of its many close relatives and affiliates is a profound skepticism. To be brief: I am unconvinced that this lustrous approach to “punk” can be the basis of a radical critique of the status quo, at least not at this point. While sentimental cynicism can be just as noxious as untempered idealism (in the dreamer sense, not the Marxist insult), existing critiques of futurism and visions of earthly harmony cast doubt on the project of “re-brightening” science fiction and our collective visions of the future.

In order to think through these fundamental concerns and approach an answer to the three questions I posed earlier, I will be exploring some of the genealogy of solarpunk, its current manifestations, and looking at specific critical writing and image and literary production associated with solarpunk.

My first post will look at Castle and the Sky, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and Princess Mononoke, which have all been claimed as part of the aesthetic heritage of solarpunk and even recommended as part of a “syllabus” for those getting familiar with the subgenre. I want to explore what Miyazaki’s relationship to the stated goals of solarpunk really are and look at his own evolution, since we can’t assume that every film will have the same relationship.

In the second post, I will look at Adam Flynn’s “Notes toward a manifesto” for solarpunk. By putting this document in dialogue with a few other “manifesto-type” documents related to the subgenre, we can get a sense for what sympathetic critics and academics see in solarpunk and explore some reasons why this might be the case.

Third, we’ll delve into a more explicitly political solarpunk-pusher. Specifically, we’ll look at Solarpunk Anarchist’s blog and Facebook presence and the media and audience that they have curated. This gives us a sense of at least one of the vital audiences that solarpunk has generated. Comparing it to some of the more popular solarpunk tumblr blogs, we can use Solarpunk Anarchist as a way to perceive how explicit political commitment matters as far as audience cultivation and ideology. Though solarpunk is political to its core–at least in a moment where it has not been widely commercialized or appropriated by mainstream media–it’s useful to look at a more directly political wing of the subculture to see how solarpunk’s inherent politics might be contrasted and compared to a solarpunk infused with and infusing an anarchist ideology.

Solarpunk’s defiance of nihilistic or pessimistic appraisals of the future is one of its core tenets. For the fourth post, therefore, I’ll be considering some of the nihilist and some non-nihilist critiques of futurism or of optimism more generally. There are many reasons to be suspicious about the rhetoric of hope and light that solarpunk offers, but that hopeful ethos is also its greatest point of differentiation with other -punk subgenres.

Finally, in the fifth and final post, I will conclude with a critical summary of solarpunk as it currently exists. I’ll hopefully be able to get ahold of some of the more prominent solarpunk literature and investigate how short story writers construct their worlds and characters. At the very end, there may be room for speculation about what solarpunk’s contribution to radical ecology and politics might be.

Optimist aesthetics, especially partisan ones that claim an oppositional, counterculture basis, are a rarity today. That much is certain. And through this series of pieces on solarpunk, I hope we can all acquaint ourselves better with this tendency and all of its twisted tendrils.

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Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

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  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

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Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

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Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.

Surgery and Sterile Futures

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Trans surgery in Canada involves years of waiting lists, consultations, and institutional scrutiny. What makes this process especially difficult is that there is currently only one clinic in the country that is able to offer official services, i.e. ones that are covered by first-payer insurance and thus accessible to the vast majority of trans people. This very short essay outlines what I would call the eerie nature of this process, the way in which bodies are rendered uncanny and disjointed by gatekeeping and forced visibility.

For me, the sheer impregnability of the system creates a sense of foreshortened future and bodily dread. Because trans people are a tiny minority of the population, our bodies are the subject of a great deal of state scrutiny, especially because our physicians do not have any direct sympathy with our situation. Despite all of our visibility as oddities or freaks, however, our bodies are not well understood and medical procedures and treatments for us are heavily restricted and, in the case of estrogen-based hormone therapy, administered with tools designed for cis people first.

So surgery for me, despite the fact that I want it and need it for my mental health, is attached to so much baggage and bizarro-world bureaucracy that it takes on a horrific aspect. The abject uncanniness of wading through so many forms, so many appointments, so many opportunities for any spiteful physician to deny me access to care, creates a warped sense of how attainable surgery even is. And because of past trauma around my body and because of depression, my sense of the future has been dramatically compressed. The future is so uncertain that, under the lens of depression and the eerie oracular and suicidal feelings that I have, I am utterly convinced that my body will be destroyed either in surgery or well before. I am tutored by despair, possessed of a sense of grim finality.

Of course, my intellect assures me that many other people have gone through the process and come through happier than they were before. Of course this does not make me change my mind about wanting surgery. This is still my choice and I still dream about it. Even though I’m aware that surgery is not necessary for all trans people and rejecting surgery would not put my lack of gender in doubt, there is a sterility and hopelessness that dogs me throughout, an eerie desert where future possibilities either lie dormant or cannot be trusted because of persistent mirages.

I suppose there is no way through the desert except through it. And with luck I will participate in abolishing the system that creates such dread and unease. For the sake of trans people now, the gates have to fall and the bureaucracy must be abolished, along with all other impediments to real bodily freedom.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

Book Review: Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction

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Elliott Liu’s 2016 book attempts to present a simplified synthesis of recent scholarship on Mao’s China as well as a historically-founded critique of the politics that issued from that period. There are a few provisos to consider when discussing this work, however. The first is that the Maoism Liu engages is not the Maoism of current revolutionary movements nor does it fit in Moufawad-Paul’s recent philosophical definition. Rather, Maoism for Liu means the politics of Mao himself and of the CCP from the mid-1930s to 1976. Insofar as the book criticizes core Maoist concepts like two-line struggle and certain conception of dialectics, it is still a useful intervention in the activist space. However, those who follow a modern form of Maoism will doubtless take the line that the book has nothing to say about their traditions since they are supposed to have transcended the politics of the Chinese Revolution proper. Nevertheless, the book, taken on its own, has quite considerable value to both interested students of the topic and, more importantly, to activists and revolutionaries.

Indeed, the book’s final chapter, which breaks down some of the more important Maoist concepts and evaluates their relevance to today, indicates that leftist activist circles are Liu’s primary audience. Still, in order to mount a critical argument, the author has to delve into history. The history of the Chinese Revolution and the Maoist period has recently been enriched by studies from Joel Andreas’ Red Engineers to Yiching Wu’s monograph about the dynamics of class and marginalized people during the Cultural Revolution. Liu
draws on all of these books as well as more general histories from the likes of Arif Dirlik, Maurice Meisner, and more classic texts like Bettelheim’s 1970s study of industrial organization during the Cultural Revolution. The resulting synthesis, evaluated on its own, draws entirely from secondary sources like those just mentioned but manages to present a coherent narrative about the vacillations of Chinese revolutionary activity from the 1920s up until 1976. Even separated from the “critical” part of its title, the book is an adequate summation of recent China scholarship, which earns it at least some points for those who are not familiar with the field.

Of course, the book is not marketed as a progressively-bent historical pocketbook but as a “Revolutionary Pocketbook,” which has slightly loftier goals than simple summation in mind. Liu draws a few core conclusions from his historical study. The first is that the People’s Republic of China was fundamentally a state-capitalist entity. By that, he means that the state functioned as the primary and dominant agent of capital accumulation during the drive to industrialize the country. As a corollary to this, he argues that the industrialization plan rested on the hyper-exploitation of the peasantry and the imposition of strict control and austerity over industrial workers. Even from the limited swathe of examples he employs to support this argument make a fairly airtight case.

Although property was theoretically controlled and owned by the entire people and used to benefit the entire people, the reality was more harsh and exclusive since workers and peasants did not have effective political authority over their lives. Resources that were technically nationalized were at the beck and call of central planners and workers’ and peasants’ access to their own produced goods was strictly limited by state regulations. Even during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese army and other armed forces were used to quash workers’ revolts and strikes, and the country essentially revolved entirely around building up the national economy with little regard for quality of life or autonomy of the workers.

Liu’s second argument is about Mao as a theoretician and leader. Mao himself, Liu contends, never broke from a Stalin-derived synthesis that equated simple empirical observation and study with dialectical investigations and movement. Mao, he argues, tended to see dialectics as a series of mutual oppositions that were fairly static and could be resolved from the outside by policy interventions. A more robust and nuanced picture of the dialectic, he contends, would emphasize the processual and dynamic character of the dialectic as well as the way in which dialectical oppositions constitute and support each other.

In other words, Mao misses that there is a spontaneous and energetic play of oppositions that can generate real insights even from unlikely sources. Liu links these problems to the general failures of Mao’s leadership and the CCP’s role in Chinese society more generally. In brief, he notes that the CCP and Mao’s administration were essentially bureaucratic, centralist, and often chose to crush the very popular movements they summoned to attack other, more conservative party actions. Liu is not uniformly negative in the book, especially when crediting Mao’s strategic and political gifts, but he takes a dim view of Mao’s philosophical and ideological contributions to radical politics.

Finally, the book’s most important conclusion or set of conclusions concerns the applicability of Maoist ideas in current organizing projects. He acknowledges that there are a number of live Maoist projects currently claiming to carry on Mao’s legacy in politics today, mentioning the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and revolutionary activity in Peru, Nepal,India, and the Philippines by name. He breaks down a number of core Maoist concepts including mass line, different kinds of contradiction, united fronts, new democracy, two-line struggle, and “putting politics in command.” Though he credits many of these ideas as general principles, he argues that Mao and many other organizations took these rather vague concepts and
took them in anti-people directions.

For example, in his discussion of the mass line concept, he notes that the concept could be used simply to drum up populist consent for central state policies or mobilize authoritarian campaigns. To be valuable, he argues, the concept has to be tied to a political programme that ensures that the revolutionary organization is actually listening to ordinary people and taking input from them rather than just gathering evidence to support preexisting political ideas. Each of his evaluations is fairly nuanced considering the small space in which he is operating. There are certainly much deeper criticisms or supporting arguments to be made for or against these concepts, but his conclusions are useful in that they accurately portray each concept and lay out potential pitfalls and opportunities associated with each one.

I would recommend Liu’s book to all those who have a cursory or even more intense interest in the Chinese Revolution and its politics. That sequence of events, the process of political and economic transformation in the world’s most populous state, was one of the key events of the 1900s. The book is not a deep critique of Maoism as it is currently practiced in organizations from North America to India, but it does serve to outline some of the limitations and potentially powerful ideas that such movements can carry forward. Neither
abjectly hostile to the Chinese Revolutionary project nor an advertisement for Mao and the PRC, the book accomplishes its limited goals with aplomb. I hope that it leads many people into some of the better recent literature on the Revolution and believe that it provides a good basic primer and criticism of an important revolutionary process.

Comic Review: Open Spaces and Closed Places

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Cover art for OSCP 2

Probably the greatest part of enduring the huge milling crowds of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) is the chance to interact with creators one has never met or heard of before. I met the wonderful saicoink/An Nguyen while exploring one of the smaller exhibition rooms. She cuts a striking and fashionable figure, and her art embodies all the nostalgic indulgence and defiance of her clothes. Open Spaces and Closed Places, collected in six volumes, came home with me in a bag I got from the local Japan Foundation, and I read the entire series over about two days. Having just finished it, I felt it was best to commit some of my thoughts to writing so I can look back at this when I am rereading it or just flipping back through the pages someday.

OSCP revolves around a genre-standard shoujo setup: two high school boys, Oscar and Jirou, furtively crushing on each other while dealing with academic problems, rival schools, and other assorted slice-of-life issues. Although the tone of the book is rather flowery and cute most of the time, however, there is a strong undercurrent of occult darkness that runs through it. Oscar and his friend Vivien, in particular, carry with them a sense of sadness and urgency, a sense that all of the places they inhabit are ultimately fleeting and temporary for them. One of the central conflicts, in fact, is Oscar’s attempts to dissuade Jirou from getting attached to him. Oscar, ashamed of his various afflictions and haunted by literal and metaphorical demons, responds to overt affection in a way I find quite familiar as someone who struggles with depression and social anxiety.

The more surreal and occult elements of the story were the most appealing for me. Much like in the recent game Night in the Woods, supernatural terror haunts all of the most mundane social interactions, and the author is able to bring many of the characters’ anxieties to the surface with a heavy use of black, grotesque shapes. Curling, cackling demons remind me of all the spectres that stalked me in my sleep as a child and during the first months of university. Despite the characters often behaving in frustrating ways, their grounding in both real-world problems and more fantastical situations makes them mostly understandable as human beings. While Oscar is something of an enigma and I never quite grasped him, I still found him compelling, reminding me of myself while also not feeling like a simple self-insert or a mirror that the reader can simply project onto.

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Although saicoink’s drawing style is fairly simple, especially for the human figures, layouts, stylistic flourishes, and a strong grasp of facial expressions make it more evocative than it otherwise might be. Simple  figures, after all, are often more emotionally resonant and easy to understand. Some of the action scenes are more stiff than I prefer, and certain aspects of the style are not to my taste–to me a few of the characters are difficult to tell apart because they have very similar head shapes–but I find the entire presentation of the story to enhance rather than detract from the basic drama of it. The story inhabits the style very well, and I can’t imagine it looking any other way. It’s nostalgic and soft, yes, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

I appreciated OSCP as a diversion and as a narrative about the difficulty we have in relating to each other and our positive and more self-destructive reactions to those problems. I would certainly recommend the book to those who are fans of shoujo or just to those who appreciate a cute love story with some darker and more esoteric aspects to it. It’s an understated, lovely bit of work from an artist I am certainly going to follow from now on. Here’s to chance meetings and little glances.

Cultural Work and the Human Body: The Sad Death of Kazunori Mizuno

Script for the above video.

On March 19th, about two months ago, noted anime series director and animator Kazunori Mizuno died of overwork and chronic sleep deprivation. He took a nap and never woke up. While inhuman hours are common in all creative industries, it’s worth reflecting on what “inhuman” really means in this context. There is an environmental and biological aspect to this tragedy, one that intersects with the social and monetary pressures that drive professionals to accept these working conditions and even normalize them. At this point, unpaid overtime and other forms of anti-body (and blatantly anti-worker) labour practices are the status quo, entrenched over decades of repetition and reinforcement.

Let’s look at another example of a situation where workers were passionate about their work despite its detrimental effects on their health and general wellbeing–the asbestos mine in Asbestos, Québec. As recalled in Jessica Van Horssen’s excellent recent book on the subject, workers’ livelihoods there depended on a single industry for decades, which created a toxic and parasitic bond between workers and the company. Workers, even long after the substance they risked life and limb to get out of the ground was shown to be a risk not just to their health but to those who consumed it as well, often clung to the belief that the company and the substance were not as bad as they were portrayed. It didn’t help that the mining company, and later the Québec government, obscured evidence of the precise cancer risk for even limited long-term exposure to the fibrous mineral.

In both cases there are unusual rates of mortality–with young animators committing suicide or dying of overwork in the anime industry and an entire town afflicted by the very air they breathe and the work they do in the asbestos industry. In both cases there is an anti-body labour practice and certain material and ideological motivations for people to stay in these toxic positions. Even when workers in Asbestos mobilized and struck against the company in the 1950s, their essential dependence on the company as workers and their vulnerability as human bodies did not change. They were well-paid, but it was hazard pay. In the case of anime workers, wages are usually below minimum wage and below the poverty line.

Capitalism as a system, regardless of what is being produced, equivocates all labour as homogeneous and evaluates output in terms of financial return–an abstract indicator completely separate from the quality of the product and the workers’ health–which leads to this kind of destruction. In many ways, we as workers are stuck on the other side of the coin. For those of us who want to pursue jobs in a creative industry or in mining, we will be subjected to hierarchical, profit-driven workplaces where we are replaceable and valued only insofar as we produce more than we are paid.

To make matters more complicated still, in creative fields workers are often trapped between their material needs and the sense that they are not workers but creators who (yes) have more autonomy over their output than auto workers or miners–at least in some cases. Artists often aspire to produce great work, and are encouraged to think that demanding better wages and benefits is ill-befitting artists. Those who work in anime are often passionate fans and want to be doing what they are doing. They are taking the opportunities that the marketplace presents them, and as we can see, even those who are very successful can be driven to excesses where their bodies simply give out.

Only an end to capitalism and its inhumane, purely quantitative evaluation of productivity can ultimately ensure that we all live full and productive lives. I do think, however, that videos and articles like the ones I’ve linked to are important in simply recognizing the problem and honouring the lives of those who have been killed (murdered) by these violent labour practices. Whatever we think of Mizuno’s work, we have to recognize that his was a life early and unjustly taken, and we need to contemplate and create a better world.

Flourishing in an Impure World

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“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”

–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.

Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation  into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.

And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.

On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.

Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.

And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.

To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*

Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.

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