The Social Factory

the blog of King's CMCI PostGrad Society


Very Clever Very Conservative. Some thoughts on the Paul Talyor Seminar

It’s not good to shoot from the hip but for Paul Taylor it seems the bad is the good and the good is the bad. So I will take a chance on following his philosophy.

As a first year PhD student I have been aware for a while that it is only a matter of time before I am confronted head on with the bizarre but telling spectacle of a extreme left wing culturalist exposition performed in the heart of the modern neo-liberal environment that is the contemporary elite British university. Telling because for all it cleverness – it clabbering to be ever so much more critical of anything that moves than the next guy – it betrays an awful conservatism, even a reactionary essence, which is fully compatible with its embeddedness in a site of capitalist reproduction.

To give this milieu a taste of its own medicine I could and I would argue that paranoiac and cynical assertions that fascism, instrumentalism, and a host of other bads lie within just about – no lets not be too liberal – lie in absolutely everything that exists in the social field reveals a classic psychological displacement. It allows the subject to feel ever so radical and yet do nothing practical about his or her situation. Its extremity compensates for the timidity of positive action in the face of the contemporary intensification of the neo-liberal project. As the psychological literature has conclusively shown being has little or no impact on doing. And what you do, or don’t do in this case, makes you who you are. The notion that radical thought is subversive without concurrent positive action is hopelessly idealistic as it is empirically unsustainable.

As he slipped into his initial remarks, as if the truth was self evident, the true intellectual has the privilege of being able to question but not to give answers. This is a grotesque formulation violates the more fundamental human responsibility to propose to the extent that we criticize. To have the latter without the former allows one to slide into an infantile idealism which ironically abandons the status quo to the social forces of reaction.

This may seem like just another quaint eccentricity of the academic ivory tower but having spent much of my life as an organiser and trainer variously in the peace, radical green and anarchist movements before moving into social entrepreneurship I can say without a shadow of doubt that this fashion for extreme idealistic negativity has been an absolute disaster for the project of creating viable alternative economic and political institutional formations. Nothing can happen when people don’t turn up on time, leave without notice, accuse anything that gets going as compromised and reactionary, and generally view the practical inevitability of give and take as a betrayal of their principles. What seems like very radical and very clever turns out in practice to be just plain stupid and a complete waste of space.

With no institutionalisation – no culture of imperfect but still radical collective organisation and norms – every bottom up social movement has to re-learn the same basic lessons and structures. To take a classic example, sophisticated consensus decision making has been going on at least since the eighteenth century with the Quakers – and certainly from the radical sixties through to the 1980s peace movement. Fast forward to the Occupy generation and the first general assemblies had no idea that consensus procedures can have stages between agreement and blocking. In amongst the reams on Foucault where are the manuals for deliberative democracy?

Even within the realm of academic political criticism Paul’s points go beyond the ridiculous and become, well – just plain silly. The notion that the film Finding Sergeant Ryan betrays fascist overtones because the main character’s granddaughters have blond hair in first scene of the film is beyond bizarre. In fact I am sure that many of the survivors of the D-Day landing would find the proposition profoundly insulting. The film’s main point of course is that it graphically displays the horror of war and served a useful social function of making a new generation aware of the sacrifices of an older generation that didn’t have the luxury of cynicism in the face of the existential threat of fascism.

As David Graeber argued in his book The Democracy Project, working people do not share this cynical cleverness of the metropolitan intellectual. What they see is a system of privilege which systematically excludes their participation. How many British working class people are doing PhDs at Kings? What people want is secure jobs, a reduction in work stress, and time with their families. Correct deconstructions of soap adverts in not high on their list. The same point was made by George Orwell commenting on an Italian republican volunteer in his ‘Homage to Catalonia’.

And the last irony, if we are to indulge in such things, is that for the second week running the seminar started late and finished without any time for questions. So much for a university creating a space for intellectual dialogue and debate. The speaker made his points and then it was time to go.

There was a facility admin meeting which was supposed to finish at 3.30 so that the seminar could have started on time at 3.45. At 3.43 when I left it was still going on. So let’s forget about the heady heights of critical deconstruction and start by getting things to start on time. Let’s focus on some basics – seminars which are worthy of the name, adequate space for PhD students to work in, and not forgetting that ultimate violation of the lifeworld – charging people to go to a Christmas Party (anyone read any Jesus lately?)

None of this should be read as absolute criticism (an indulgence which is self contradictory as it is unconstructive) and I have no reason to believe that Paul Taylor is not a thoroughly nice guy – and even if he isn’t I am not in the business of judging souls. The point is that whatever the supposedly insightfulness of this analyses, the impact of his philosophy is socially and politically ruinous. The world is becoming a dangerous place in case we hadn’t noticed and academics need to start thinking more seriously about providing a constructive contribution to the anti-hegemonic project. If not our children may well not be deconstructing Sergeant Ryan but re-enacting it.

Roger Hallam.

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Calling all Sweetcorn Club agents…

Okay so this quite possibly should not be going on this blog but then again apparently I am organising it now so maybe this is part of the “new regime”.

After todays seminar, prompted no doubt by the somewhat depressing prospect that the monetary value of our creative labours are going to be sucked up by the ubiquitous neo-liberal beast, we got talking about money and making it. And so here’s a little business plan as promised with the organic veg thing. I have taken the liberty to call ourselves the Sweetcorn Club after the distribution of the arguably very nice sweetcorn I brought in the other week. Please can someone get that picture up on the blog so we can all see it!

So a car arrives outside Kings at 1pm on Wednesdays. There’s about 8 of us new PhD people – so we have 80 bags – 10 for each person/agent. Each of us takes 10 bags and distributes them to people who have ordered through us around Kings.

The maths/money..

Each bag sells for £10 (maybe £12.50 for richer people like the VC?!). The cost is £6 each so each person makes a nice £40 for say 15 minutes work. Well that’s like £160/hr which is.. what ,40 times more than the £4/hour that PhD people get paid for doing teaching, taking into account preparations etc (or is it £5/hr .. whatever – it’s not that great).

Sounds pretty good to me. If you’re interested the inaugural meeting of the Sweetcorn Club will take place – after the seminar next week?

If all this seems a bit tricky let me finish this post with an antidote to all that post-modernist miserablism, from Nelson Mandala

“Things seem impossible till they happen” – and well who would want to argue with Nelson on that score.

Roger


Want Your Kids To Grow Up Thinking Men Are More Important Than Women? Read Them Children’s Books.

Calm Down Dear

This piece was also published on the Huffington Post

It’s amazing how much routine sexism we regularly feed our kids via their reading material. Strange as it may seem, research suggests that a female has a greater chance of securing a seat on the board of a Fortune 500 company, in Congress or in the Senate than she does of appearing as a main character in a children’s book. When they do appear, if they’re not carrying wands or broomsticks, or attempting to marry unelected future heads of state, female characters are usually sidekicks or help-mates.

Take Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men books, childhood favourites of mine. As the series title suggests, their world is as exclusively male as a frat house or a submarine, a science fiction-style dystopia in which all the women appear to have been wiped out. Although in an environment in which each man possesses just one…

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Exclusive: Disney Says Star Wars Toys for Girls Are Coming

News just in…

TIME

Disney told TIME on Wednesday that it would add Princess Leia toys to its existing Star Wars merchandise line soon, following recent criticism from parents and bloggers about the lack of products for girls.

“The current assortment of Star Wars products at the Disney Store launched earlier this year, and is just the beginning of what is to come,” Disney spokeswoman Margita Thompson told TIME. “We’re excited to be rolling out new products in the coming months, including several items that will feature Princess Leia, one of the most iconic characters in the Star Wars galaxy.”

Thompson also pointed out that there are Princess Leia-themed costumes and toys available on Amazon.com.

Parents took to Twitter last week to protest the fact that the Disney Store contains almost no Star Wars themed gear for girls, even though it’s chock full of Jedi playthings for boys. And a new line…

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Why #WeWantLeia Is Another Proof Of Why We Need #YesAllWomen and #YesAllGirls

The latest in a long line of blogs supporting Natalie Wreyford’s campaign to persuade The Disney Store that girls like Star Wars and/or boys like female characters. So far, The Disney Store have been very dismissive, despite a growing campaign for Leia to be included in the first wave of Star Wars merchandise. If you support the cause, or just want to ask Disney to be more gender neutral in it’s toy manufacturing, you can sign the petition here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/hey-disney-wewantleia

Natacha Guyot

LeiaSupportsGunRights-ANH

One could think that tying a “toy issue” to a hashtag created in the aftermath of a misogynist and tragic event is far-fetched. It isn’t. All of this is linked.

#YesAllWomen and #YesAllGirls denounced how misogyny is hurtful in our culture, and is since childhood when wrong and damaging “models” and “behaviors” are learned, if not outright encouraged. A better mindset, a better culture, which encourages equality between all, must be attained, no matter how long and trying this can be.

The fact that Disney Stores don’t plan to include Leia in upcoming Star Wars products is heartbreaking and extremely disappointing. I encourage you to read the article on the Daily Dot, whether you are familiar with the topic or not. Checking the #WeWantLeia hashtag on Twitter is also extremely telling.

I previously talked about gender representation in children and youth media, and I am a firm believer in…

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Caffeinated Capitalism

‘Death is a property, a state conditioned by causes; it is not a quality which determines what a human being is and must be’, Nicolai Fedorov (1906)

Toby Bennett – Some thoughts on three new books for 2014…

Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian (eds.), #accelerate: the accelerationist reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic)

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero)

Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Speed & Capitalism (Winchester, Zero)

 

It’s a 60 second walk from Embankment station to the Strand, a journey I take not infrequently, during which time I encounter three separate Starbucks, a Costa, and an Eat, a situation that is as incredibly, unnecessarily, but joyfully convenient as it is culturally depressing. As I sit here, sipping my mocha, I wonder whether we can map developments in Western intellectual culture through the lens of coffee: from the ‘penny universities’ of English coffee houses to Parisian Left Bank café existentialism; from the caffeine addiction that led Kant to self-imposed abstinence, to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy that must include ‘soothsaying from coffee grounds’. Coffee was the youthful alternative to alcohol through the ‘50s and ‘60s; while the switch of setting from the homely 1980s bar of the sitcom Cheers to the coffee-to-go lifestyle of its ‘90s spin-off Frasier (and, later, the globally influential Friends) signalled something of a generational shift. Coffee cultivated the social life of Enlightenment thought, nourishing its counter-culture into mainstream media, through a marvellously efficient conjuncture of the logic of global imperialism with the micro-physiology of stimulation.

 

Caffeinated capitalism is addictive and energising – but too much of it and the crash is inescapable. This was the gambit of Marx and Engels’ communist manifesto, which argued that capitalism contained within it inherent contradictions which will bring about its dissolution. This notion remains in a new theoretical moment which tries to imagine a different future to the one we currently have, although one which is not quite so ‘inevitable’. Designated ‘accelerationism’, it denotes a diverse bunch of theorists (many of them in the middle of their PhDs) that have begun to associate through their reaction against what they see as the localised defeatism of many left ‘alternatives’.

It is the name given to a line of thought stretching from certain tendencies in Marxism, through post-structuralist dissatisfaction with orthodox communist party politics in the 1970s, and the ‘cyberpunk’ rejection of regressive socialist infighting in the 1990s, to an ever-so-slightly more considered reaction to present day conditions. Though a disparate thread, it was given renewed life in the ‘manifesto for an accelerationist politics’, a text written and published online by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which gained unprecedented traction over the course of a few months, garnering responses from McKenzie Wark and Antonio Negri, amongst others, and which has now been translated into a number of languages.

Accelerationists like their theory like they like their coffee: dark, bitter, and bracing. The development of the espresso is, of course, inextricably tied to the steam-power technology of the industrial revolution and its short sharp shocks are exactly what the contemporary urban future-theorist needs to get through the day. The basic unit of accelerationist communication is the tweet; a collection of tweets is a manifesto; a collection of manifestos is an anthology. Hence #accelerate: the accelerationist reader published this month, which collects together excerpts from Marx, Samuel Butler, and Thorstein Veblen; Lyotard, Deleuze and Lipovetsky; Shulamith Firestone and JG Ballard; Nick Land and Sadie Plant; Benedict Singleton, Tiziana Terranova and Antonio Negri. All of these are gathered together to flesh out the theoretical backdrop to the manifesto and all, with rare exception, perform their message stylistically, using fragments, polemics, and multiple voices. Initial orders of the book come with bottles of hot sauce – but perhaps they should be delivered with shots of thick caffeine. If you’re looking for calm, evidence based plans then you should look elsewhere; the reader is strictly for fans of breathless calls to arms.

But this is entirely in keeping with the accelerationist project. As Deleuze and Guattari commented on their infamous 1972 publication, “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd”. At the anthology’s launch last night, Singleton noted how the dominant model for contemporary technologies (like social media) is not the plan but the platform: a dynamic space which sets up boundaries and presents tools but tries not to dictate how that space should be explored or how those tools should be used by the collective. It is designed not towards a specific end but to generate new orientations. Philosopher Pete Wolfendale, later added that pure mathematics, which has been the most productive technique for innovation in history, is a practice of experimentation for its own sake almost entirely divorced from instrumental motivations.

Which is not to say that accelerationists are only interested in theory – just that the instrumentalities it reaches for are usually those that lie slightly beyond reach. See, for example, asteroid capture: just one of the rocks currently circling this planet contains minerals worth over $100 trillion – significantly more than the current world GDP.  The discovery of relatively small mining resources have previously caused entire markets to crash: the increasingly feasible prospect of asteroid mining (by 2023 at current estimates) has now buoyed mass investment. Accelerationists look to acknowledge the successes of the current system – the ways in which it so efficiently and democratically motivates individual action towards mass structural ends – at the same time as a need to grasp its many failures: the manner in which it encourages competitive dissociation; the reliance of such a system on the economic stability of the few to support the precarity of the many; the short-termism of solutions which satisfy immediate needs and desires but have trouble imagining a future past the next electoral cycle.

Seeking alternatives to the current system by no means implies Luddism or arts and crafts social utopianism – an ethic which, anyway, it will happily recuperate, improve, and serve back to us with a cup of tea and a Mumford and Sons soundtrack. Instead it means ‘re-orientating’ the technological means we have at our disposal towards new ends, ones that do not acquiesce to our current limitations. It means ‘accelerating the process’, going further than has previously been thought possible, exceeding the bounds of the existing sphere of capital. Instead, Accelerationists merely insist, let’s not throw the technological baby out with the anti-capitalist bathwater. ‘Dog on a string’ anarchism, anti-capitalist protests, and the Occupy movement alike seemingly reject capitalism in its entirety, offering only temporary forms of ‘escapism’ as their answer. By contrast, Singleton talks of ‘escapology’, the art of escape through using our restrictive ties against themselves. Let’s emphasise the ‘craft’ in craftiness, the accelerationists say; let’s use the power of our imaginations once again.

Coffee is no longer the symbol of intellectualism, of pretentiousness, elitism, counter-culture, youth, and so on that it used to be – it is the taste of the multitude. Independent coffee-shops are the new sites of resistance, where we pay an extra 20p to pin our insurgent, anti-consumerist colours to the mast. How many business meetings are fuelled with lattes and Americanos? How much networking has been preceded by the phrase ‘shall we go for a coffee?’ This is where free trade meets fair trade: one aspect of a totalised, routinized, global system which collapses the ethics of social responsibility into liberal consumption, and to which There Is No Alternative. As Starbucks insist: it’s “good coffee karma”.

‘If the schizoid children of modernity are alienated, it is not as survivors from a pastoral past, but as explorers of an impeding post-humanity’, Sadie Plant & Nick Land (1994)

If 1968 was the moment of crisis that inaugurated the generalised momentum of counter-culture thinking, then ‘our’ moment of crisis came exactly forty years later, once cultural liberalism had reached its middle age, settled down, and decided to keep calm and carry on. The moments after 2008 may have been initially promising for anyone seeking new economic systems but it was not long before what Mark Fisher (2009) called ‘Capitalist Realism’ – i.e. the cultural impossibility of imagining an alternative – set in (let’s not forget that the most scathing critique levelled at Occupy protesters was that they should fancy a cup of coffee). It around this time that Benjamin Noys (2010) coined the term ‘accelerationism’ in his critical appraisal of a tendency towards ‘affirmation’ in post-structuralist thought after the fact. Both Fisher and Noys were present at the first ‘Accelerationism’ event at Goldsmiths in 2010, held amidst the on-going wave of occupations and protests over the rise in student fees (just a few weeks before the massive London ‘DemoLition’ march that ended in mayhem at Millbank) and a few months before the Arab spring erupted – both events frequently characterised by their ‘revolutionary’ deployment of social media and by a sense of lost opportunity. It is a sense which today, four years on, seems pervasive.

 

Both of these writers have new offerings out in the near future (both for Zero Books): the former’s Ghosts of My Life furthers his thoughts on hauntology, exploring the psychological and affective impact of ‘Retromania’, the nostalgic cultural trend towards seeking futures in the past that Simon Reynolds (2011) depicts as the cultural logic of capitalist realism; the latter (in Malign Velocities) continues his critique of acceleration in more detail, having previously applied it as an identification of forms of misdirected reaction to political failure that conflate the completed capitalist project with communism, displacing the proletarian subject with capital itself. Both writers draw attention to intertwining of psychological and political problems and the problem with basing your alternatives either too far in the past or too far in the future.

Certainly, it is easy to poke fun at the accelerationist project, particularly when it teasingly, dangerously, presents itself as a ‘political heresy’ (how daring! how sexy!). But as Patricia Reed notes in #accelerate’s closing chapter, it ‘has little to do with novelty […] indeed it is practically reformist – and since I’m not French this is not in essence a politically pejorative term’ – a sentiment with which last night’s event explicitly concurred. As a practical handbook for developing a new future, accelerationism is probably dead before it’s even begun (although perhaps it will one day be resurrected, in keeping with Fedorov’s hopes for our ancestors): it’s difficult to see these books being given much time at the IPPR. But as a theoretical toolbox (a platform even) for equipping new imaginations, and making us think harder about the relation to technology in the current era, about what might constitute progress in such conditions, and what kinds of culture befit this future – it certainly gives us something to think about over a coffee.

 

 

Upcoming events:

23 May 2014: Accelerationism: a workshop and a lecture, University of Westminster, Centre for the Study of Democracy, Regent Street

29 May 2014: Ghosts of My Life Book Launch, Café Oto, Dalston

 

Further reading:

Accelerationist Aesthetics, e-Flux #46, 2013

Benjamin Noys, ‘Intoxication and Acceleration

Extract from Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life