The Coles and Woolies Campaign is Bullshit; Let Me Count The Ways

So this is some bullshit right here.

As much as I know we all want this kind of thing to be good it’s really the complete opposite of that. I’ll give you a few reasons, and there’s more I won’t go into now, but the essence is that this is “better than regular capitalism” – which is just a flat-out ideological smokescreen. Remember the McDonald’s video? Similar thing is happening here – the problems posed by capitalism are provisionally addressed by some kind of appeal to capitalism with a human face, or capitalism with a smile. While in the McDonald’s video it was the gesture to transparency that ends up hiding the hideous manipulation in plain sight, here it’s an “offset” ideology. Offset the worst, while using the same (sales; marketing; etc) techniques as everyone else.

Capitalism is still going to ruin the planet, but since we’re inevitably stuck on this path of utter ruin how about we put some smiles on some faces at the same time? That’s their (unstated) position and argument as to why you should ditch “regular” capitalism and instead “do some good” while expressing your consumer capitalist purchasing power. Do I need to add how problematic it is basing one’s capacity to do good on the excess purchasing power of middle class, aspirational young people? Why do you think there’s no one over 30 in this video – why are they all the exact same people who gravitate towards prestigious NGOs?

I’m tempted to see this as yet another extension of what Graeber acknowledges about the way the middle-class Left monopolises any kinds of altrusitic work outside of the church or the military. The way that it keeps these people out is primarily via wealth – if you can’t afford to intern, you’re shit out of luck – and via culture. Look at the homogenous pricks in this video. Do you think a single one of them has ever had a unique thought in their short lives?

As an example of the monopolisation of this kind of work, my mum was a solicitor for 25yrs, has two masters degrees in development studies and international relations and STILL can’t get work at an NGO or similar because she doesn’t fit the cultural/ideological profile of the kind of person they want to hire in order to uncritically keep doing what they’re doing. It’s the blind leading the blind, honestly.

The other thing that’s worth pointing out is the way that the video is totally rife with bullshit semio-capitalist assumptions about work and labour and activism: “If you’re a little bit creative like me” UGH, NO YOU ARE LITERALLY THE LEAST CREATIVE THINKER OF YOUR WHOLE WRETCHED GENERATION. Is this what activism consists of now? Entreating impressionable, aspirational young people into doing little dances and flooding the Facebook pages of our national supermarket duopoly to pressure them into accepting their demands?

Oh, and you know how Woolies and Coles decide what products they stock on shelves? They charge a large shelf-space fee. Remembering that no one, least of all a corporation like ThankYou Water, can be entirely altruistic under capitalism (or else they’d starve/go out of business/etc) do you really think ThankYou Water is trying to do this only out of the goodness and kindness of their hearts? Market share is fucking lucrative, and whether they intend it or not that is a powerful and politically fraught move. They only get away with it because of the ideology of “doing good”.

But lets say they *are* doing it purely out of the kindness of their sweet-little hearts – what kind of market advantage do you think they’ll get by not having to pay the Woolies/Coles shelfspace fee? That’s going to fuck with other business owners business and their ability to operate?

Are you getting the unspoken message yet: BOOOO look at all those selfish yucky business owners who are doing NOTHING for the world except making money for themselves *tisk tisk tisk*. This is some next level shit.

This kind of thing is so insidious. Just looking over the above, it takes fucking pages and pages of explanation to unpack why all this bullshit is so fucking odious, and even my attempt at an explanation will probably fail to convince most people, who will get so hung up on “doing GOOD” and the POSITIVITY of the message. And at the end of the day everyone working at ThankYou Water will still go home and feel good about what they’re doing, safe in the knowledge that they, and only they, are the TRUE spirit of capitalist generosity.

Edit: Cameron Kunzelman reminds me of this Zizek video which, honestly, is probably the precise place I started to think about these ideas.

Eve Sedgwick on Paranoia

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on paranoia, one of the best things I’ve read recently and which I’ll be incorporating into a chapter for sure. If you want to understand much of what goes on, both online and off, and particularly to do with activism, then look to understand paranoia:

The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises, and indeed the aversion to surprise seems to be what cements the intimacy between paranoia and knowledge per se including both epistemophilia and scepticism.

The unidirectionally future-oriented vigilance of paranoia generates, paradoxically, a complex relation to temporality that burrows both backward and forward: because there must be no bad surprises, and because learning of the possibility of a bad surprise would itself constitute a bad surprise, paranoia requires that bad news be always already known. …the temporal progress and regress of paranoia are, in principle, infinite.

…No time could be too early for one’s having-already-known, for its having-already-been-inevitable, that something bad would happen. And no loss could be too far into the future to need to be preemptively discounted.

Paranoia seems to require being imitated to be understood, and it, in turn, seems to understand only by immitation. Paranoia propses both Anything you can do (to me) I can do worse, and Anything you can do (to me) I can do first – to myself.

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. …What may be even more important is how severely the memeticism of paranoia circumscribes its potential as a medium of political or cultural struggle.

Whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practise, an extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se – knowledge in the form of exposure. Maybe that’s why paranoid knowing is so inescapably narrative. Like the deinstitutionalized person on the street who, betrayed and plotted against by everyone else in the city, still urges on you the finger-worn dossier bristling with his precious correspondence, paranoia for all its vaunted suspicion acts as though its work would be accomplished if only it could finally, this time, somehow get its story truly known. That a fully initiated listener could still remain indifferent or inimical, or might have no help to offer, is hardly treated as a possibility.

From Chapter 4 of Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, pp. 130-131, and 138.

Enter the vandalists

Just reminding myself of these two great blog posts: Enter the Vandalists, and Enter The Vandalists Pt II:

A Weekend of Vandalism in New York

The vandalist is recognizable as the most obnoxious brat conjurable in society’s collective imagination. These Bart Simpsons struck once again this past weekend, pranking the Left and their enemies on multiple occasions in a joyous effort to devalorize everything it holds sacrosanct.

They started on Friday night by crashing a party held by the multinational corporation Verso, an enterprise which has made its fortune by cornering the market on socialist-oriented literature. While the paper they sell contains words arguing for revolt against the commodity form, they themselves ruthlessly defend it using lawyers, security guards, Zizekians, and other such police to prevent unauthorized consumption of their product. Such was the case when Verso lawyers sent a cease and desist notice to the beloved AAAARG.org, a website that hosts free PDFs of critical theory, putting Verso in the same category as the MPAA, RIAA, DOJ, and all other litigious enemies of free cultural exchange.

Morozov, Graeber’s “diversity of tactics”, and Technological Justice

So I mentioned on Facebook today viz. Morozov’s somewhat unhinged and vitriolic twitter stream that I’m increasingly unwilling to denounce people for simply taking different tactical approaches to the same (or same enough) issue, specifically referencing (what I mistakenly called) Graeber’s “plurality of tactics”. The phrase was actually “a diversity of tactics” and it comes not directly from Graeber, but he relays it in his work and holds to it as something of an important principle. I thought that I would provide a relevant excerpt from his works that explains what it is and why it’s important in some more detail.

This quite long passage is from his latest The Democracy Project, which is very unconventionally structured, but absolutely worth wading through some of the early stuff that might not interest more philosophically inclined readers. The following passage is from pp.144-146 of The Democracy Project.

In one of the great ironies of history, the invocation of the spirit of Ghandi and Martin Luther King became the prime means of justifying the newfound militarization of American society, in a way that would surely have left either man, had they been alive to witness it, both astounded and horrified. Occupy is an extraordinarily nonviolent movement. It may well be the most nonviolent movement of its size in American history, and this despite the absence of peace codes, marshals, or official peace police. In the fall there were at least five hundred occupations, with participants representing remarkably diverse philosophies, from evangelical Christians to revolutionary anarchists, and thousands of marches and actions – and yet the most “violent” acts attributed to protesters were four or five acts of window-breaking, basically less than one might expect in the wake of one not particularly rowdy Canadian hockey game. Historically this is an extraordinary achievement. Yet has it ever been treated as such? Instead, the handful of windows themselves became a moral crisis. In the immediate wake of evictions, when Americans first had the opportunity to process the full extent of what had happened – the mass arrests, the beatings, the systematic destruction of homes and libraries – the liberal blogosphere was instead almost completely dominated by arguments about a piece called “The Cancer in Occupy,” written by a former New York Times reporter turned OWS supporter named Chris Hedges, who argued that two incidents of window-breaking in Oakland were actually the work of a violent and fanatical anarchist faction called “the Black Bloc,” and that the most important thing the movement could do ws to expose and exclude such elements lest they provide a pretext for police. The fact that almost no statement in the piece was factually accurate (Black Blocs are in fact a formation, not a group, and probably 95 percent of occupations hadn’t even seen one) only seemed to give everyone more excuse to argue about it. Before long, liberal commentators had formed a consensus that the real problem with Occupy was not any act of actual physical violence that had taken place (these had pretty much all been carried out by police) but the fact that some occupations contained elements that, while they had not committed any acts of violence, felt that acts of damage to property could be justified. To give a sense of the disparity: even in new York in March, there was still endless discussion of a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist associated with a Black Bloc in Oakland during a march in November; as a result, there was virtually no discussion of the first OWS-associated window-breaking in New York itself, which occurred on March 17. The window in question – it was a shop window in lower Manhattan – was broken by an NYPD officer using an activist’s head.

Just to give a sense of how perverse this invocation of Ghandi to justify state violence really is, we might recall the words and actions of Ghandi himself. For most anarchists, Ghandi is an ambivalent figure. On the one hand, his philosophy drew heavily on the anarchism of Tolstoy and Kropotkin. On the other, he embraced a kind of masochism of puritanism and encouraged a cult of personality whose implications can only be profoundly inimical to the creation of a truly free society. But he also insisted that passive acquiescence to an unjust order was even worse. I remember one conference on OWS at the New School in New York in the wake of evictions, where liberal pacifists kept reminding organisers that Ghandi had gone so far as “suspending his Quit India campaign when there was an incidence of violence.” What they didn’t mention was that the incident in question involved Ghandi’s own followers having twenty-two police officers to pieces and setting fire to the remains. It seems a pretty safe guess that if members of, say, Occupy Cleveland or Occupy Denver were discovered to have carved large numbers of police officers limb from limb, our movement would have stopped dead in its tracks as well, even without a charismatic leader to tell us to. In a world where such things were possible, the idea that Ghandi himself would have become worked up over a couple of broken windows is nothing short of insane. In fact, as a politician, Ghandi regularly resisted demands that he condemn those who engaged in more militant forms of anticolonial resistance – that is, even when they were not part of his movement. Even when it was a matter of guerrillas blowing up trains, he would always note that while he believed nonviolence was the correct approach, these were good people trying to do what they believed to be the right thing. While opposing injustice non-violently, he insisted, is always morally superior to opposing it violently, opposing injustice violently is still morally superior to doing nothing to oppose it at all.

So while it might seem to be a bit of a stretch to say that Morozov is resisting injustice in his work, I really do think there’s some element of what he’s doing that is (and doesn’t think help to make sense of why he’s so vitriolic – to see him as someone arguing for technological justice). Our language and thinking is profoundly captured at present by the discourses and entire ways of thinking  (Morozov uses the Foucaultian phrase ‘episteme’) around technology, and there is an element of injustice to this: we’re so far down the rabbit hole that we are doing monumentally terrible acts to both ourselves and the ecosystems that support us, all in the name of technology, progress, economic growth, and a reasonable rate of return. That’s why I’m unwilling to join in the choruses of “Morozov is unhinged,” and “Morozov is mentally ill,” or whatever – at least he’s doing something and not even in a particularly violent way (except in a more abstract, verbally abusive way). He’s still working, I believe, for technological justice and I still think he’s trying to do good.

Incidentally, the phrase “a diversity of tactics” was a call put out by a Direct Democracy group during an action in the year 2000, and I encountered the phrase in Graeber’s ethnography of same on pp.6-7 of Direct Action: An Ethnography.

Matthew Wasteland on the big, deep currents of history in game dev

I missed this at the end of last month (I am hunkered down in hardcore thesis/teaching/marking/paper-writing mode) but Matthew Wasteland distilled something really interesting and important about where “game development” is at right now. The interesting thing is the way that the former “Indies” have gone mainstream, and in their place the “zinesters” (aka Twine gamers, DIY game makers etc) take up what they’ve given up. Here’s Matt talking about the latter group, but go read the whole thing:

This group consciously and deliberately rejects indie’s failed split from the mainstream and its poorly-concealed capitalist underpinnings, and instead upholds personal expression as the highest ideal, the only goal that matters. And in order to do that successfully, they must break off completely, not at a branch somewhere on the tree but at the very root of the established order. This cannot be papered over or explained away; no amount of hemming and hawing over the definition of the word “game” will fix the fact that there are games out there now that willfully abnegate other games.

I think Matt has got the historical narrative just right in this piece, even if I missed attending GDC in person I definitely got a similar sense.

Well this is weird: twitter account swapping

So Sam Crisp tweeted the following a day ago, and I only just saw it:

Who wants to run my twitter account for a week? See what happens lol

I thought it was a good idea, and something I’ve been interested in ever since discovering semi-public account @crashtxt, but I thought we could do one better – what about if we swapped twitter accounts? What the hell would that do? Would we both lose followers in the confusion? Or would we gain interested new fans and observers? How do I navigate the fact that Sam’s account is protected? Who will show up in Sam’s stream that I don’t follow, or worse, who is protected that I would not normally get to see?!

And what about the threat of “missing” important things (insofar as anything at all ‘important’ happens on twitter) that happen on my timeline? How will I cope with the more relaxed pace of Sam’s quite minimal 158 following count?! If I tweet at my normal rate, am I going to box all Sam’s followers out? Likewise, what will Sam think of my very disrespectful 666 following stream, one that I long ago gave up following with any particular attentiveness?

I’m writing a big thesis chunk this week (I wrote about 2-3k words yesterday, which felt great and was an important boost) so will I appreciate the lessened distraction of twitter, spend more time lurking the profiles of the people I most interact with, or just spend it on Facebook instead?

This comes off the back of a week on Facebook in which my 2x housemates and their circle of friends all “stole” my identity on Facebook (a pic of Tony Abbott sipping out of a pink child’s teacup) and assumed some form of variation on my name. It was all very confusing and chaotic and excellent for a while there. I should post about that exercise but it requires a bit more detail.

Is this review of David Graeber’s new book a performative demonstration of his correctness?

Well, I wish it were, but there’s one good reason why I don’t think it is. But let me back up: I read this extract from Graeber’s new book (I’m guessing it’s probably from the introduction?) which is just fantastic. There’s something about Graeber’s perspective that just evinces the totally real reasons for having a hope for the future, today. It’s not a deferred or speculative hope-for-hope (aka “hoping for hope”), but one grounded in a particular perspective the presente (heavily informed by the past, naturally). The key part relevant to the Guardian review is this:

Normally, when you challenge the conventional wisdom—that the current economic and political system is the only possible one—the first reaction you are likely to get is a demand for a detailed architectural blueprint of how an alternative system would work, down to the nature of its financial instruments, energy supplies, and policies of sewer maintenance. Next, you are likely to be asked for a detailed program of how this system will be brought into existence. Historically, this is ridiculous. When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism,” figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality. In fact, the idea is so absurd we might well ask ourselves how it ever occurred to us to imagine this is how change happens to begin.

Now, cut to this silly review of the book it is extracted from:

…the weakness at the heart of The Democracy Project, both the book and the movement it reflects, is that while it may know what’s wrong with the world, it seems to have little concrete grasp of how to put it right. The author discusses the disappointments that have accompanied President Obama’s terms in office. The relationship between power, money and influence in Washington DC is as before. Obama’s record on domestic civil liberties is no better than Bush’s. Yet it is too easy to cavil. A glass a third or a fifth full is better than no glass at all, particularly when the alternative was Mitt Romney.

Graeber’s unwillingness to set out credible economic and political alternatives is curious.

Graeberfacepalm.gif

I wish it were a case of trying to perform Graeber’s point for him, except that there is no shortage of examples of this tendency. Why add to it? It doesn’t make sense to do so, so sadly The Guardian’s reviewer has just missed the point. Oh well. At least the extract in The Baffler is fantastic.

The differential gear, explained

Watch the following video, there’s a lot to unpack beyond the sheer impressiveness of explaining complex engineering:

The most amazing thing to me is its tacit expectation about the audience’s ability to comprehend. This is seriously complicated engineering and it shows. Particularly worth noting, as Michael pointed out on the Facebook post about it I made, is the moment when the narrator speaks the name of the gear at 1:18 – you can hear the pride in his voice, and it is appropriate pride. This is an incredible achievement and to the uninitiated feels something like breaking the fundamental rules of space and geometry once comprehension sets in. Completely understandable, yet also inspiring of awe and wonder… is this video an act of carpentry? (The fact that this is an edit of a longer video that cuts out some irrelevant introductory material suggests that it might be.)

In spite of its obvious complexity the producers have enough faith in the ability of their audience to comprehend it, so long as it is explained sufficiently well. This is truly mind blowing to the modern viewer, and I couldn’t help seeing it as something of an indictment of the contemporary lack of faith in audiences that many (even most?) producers have (with the HBO-types the exception). Granted, the 1950s had their own share of stultifuyingly cut-rate explanations, but even these completely boneheaded simplifications had their own child-like naiveté or innocence about them. See the bewilderingly horrible/laughable 1950s “educational” video on homosexuality for an example which, while remaining utterly, contemptibly wrong in its understanding and explanation of the causes of paedophilia (wrongly attributing it to homosexual deviance), still comes at it from a place of unacknowledged ignorance instead of from a position of condescension and low-regard for its audience.

Consider: what contemporary producer would dare to show minutes at a stretch of nothing but moving mechanical parts, along with the clear, methodical narrated precision of an engineering textbook? No one would take the risk, perpetually terrified as they are that their audience would switch over to MTV or something with more flashing lights, more naked flesh – less challenging fare. Almost no one has the same faith in their material, either.

And why should they? The technical feats most richly rewarded in the 21st century are not those that overcome tricky engineering problems in ingenious ways, but instead those that overcome tricky economic problems. The kind (and amount) of mental work that goes into being able to imagine the solution to the problem presented by car wheels moving at different rates is certainly more impressive than the work involved with structuring debts and investments; the kind of actuarial acumen involved with making stacks of cash. And the trouble is, outside of the small class of economically literate people, no one even cares that you made a hundred million dollars in collateralized debt obligations last month. No one cares in the slightest, because it’s just not that impressive. There’s no pride in being a part of the grifter class (as Matt Taibbi has labelled it) that hoovers up cash like it’s going out of fashion.

So it is a complicated kind of takeaway – the way impressive mental feats of creativity involved in science and engineering (after all, what is engineering but imagining-into-being something never before envisaged) have few contemporary friends. Along with the desuetude from taking pride in suitable feats (like the differential gear) a kind of ‘boosterism’ has arisen to take its place. Think of the obsessive elevation of science and engineering (the raising of the LHC to the status of icon or idol is typical) as an attempt to recapture some of this lost pride, but instead it falls completely flat by virtue of overreaching. Carl Sagan’s studious and sober appraisals are far more compelling than the obsessive hype of contemporary emulators like Brian Cox.

Jacques Ellul has a thesis that whatever force destroys the power of the sacred takes on that mantle of being sacred itself, for obviously this foce of desecration is more powerful. Ellul argued that technology took the place of religion, which it demystified and deserated, but perhaps that image is incomplete. Perhaps it was engineering technology that did so. Presently, it seems that financial technology (‘financial instruments‘) might be following the same dynamic.

Sorry clever engineering, you’re just not making enough cash to be impressive…

Garden as Subtweet

In this episode of Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian Gardens he travels around looking at grand, opulent gardens built by wealthy, powerful cardinals to impress (naturally) the other wealthy cardinals vying for the papacy around the turn of the 16th Century. But the garden at the Villa d’Este, says Monty, gained a number of additions each time it’s owner Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, failed to ascend to the papacy. From about 4minutes 40seconds and onwards, Monty talks about the meaning, which would have been quite plain, though still in a coded kind of way, to his contemporaries:

“Behind this beauty is a nagging pain for him because the three layers of water represent the three rivers leading to Rome, and that’s of course where d’Este most of all wanted to be. In the two decades it took to construct his garden, Cardinal d’Este made five failed bids for the papal throne. And every setback, his garden got grander and grander, and the coded messages it sent out became ever more pointed.”

The picture Monty Don paints is of a member of the wealthy aristocratic class sending messages to a member of the same class through the medium of garden. I say that it’s kind of coded (even though it’s in plain sight) because his contemporaries and rivals would only ever have been able to receive the message if they ever attending, or heard about it’s construction through rumour (or boasting). Much like a subtweet, one would have to actually go to d’Este’s actual garden to receive the full message. There are obviously important differences – a garden can’t be re-tweeted, for instance – but the similarity in terms of the dynamic of communication between sender and receiver is similar, and that’s probably important.