The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: June, 2017

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.

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