Archive for the ‘cultural criticism’ Category


Cities have long been the pivotal sites of political revolutions, where deeper currents of social and political change are fleshed out. Consequently, they have been the subject of much utopian thinking about alternatives. But at the same time, they are also the centres of capital accumulation, and therefore the frontline for struggles over who has the right to the city, and who dictates the quality and organization of daily life. Is it the developers and financiers, or the people? David Harvey’s Rebel Cities places the city at the heart of both capital and class struggles, looking at locations ranging from Johannesburg to Mumbai, and from New York City to Sao Paulo. By exploring how cities might be reorganized in more socially just and ecologically sane ways, Harvey argues that cities can become the focus for anti-capitalist resistance.

Here’s the audio from Harvey’s Festival of Ideas talk in Bristol this evening. It covers issues around cities, capital accumulation, sub-prime mortgages and the financial crash, Occupy, and how a coalition of the urban dispossessed can form a meaningful alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

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Generally I quite like Adam Curtis’s documentaries. I admire the fact that at a time where expository documentaries presenting wide scale socio-cultural arguments are hugely out of fashion he makes films which probe big issues around power, politics and history. I hugely enjoy the aesthetic of his work, the heavy usage of archival material to visually illustrate the points the narration makes. In All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack (it was mainly a collection of Nine Inch Nails material) which combined excellently with the visual material to provide an affectively potent piece of media.

However while I found the argument made in part one of the documentary to be somewhat partial and lacking, I was immensely disappointed by the contents of the second part. The central argument the documentary makes is that from the 1950’s onwards there was a movement which began with cybernetics and sought to reduce humans to mere nodes in complex networks of matter and energy rather than following the enlightenment view that humans were distinct from the rest of the world, and unlike the determinate automatons of nature, that humans and humans alone possessed free will. Curtis appears to regard this idea as a dangerous proposition which de-emphasised the sanctity of individualism, and which undermines analyses of power and politics presenting instead the notion that systems can self-organise without a command and control hierarchy being in place.

Now the first thing which is crucial to point is that the Enlightenment view of humans as being ontologically distinct from the rest of the natural world as championed by Curtis is of course complete nonsense. It is based on on the nature/culture dualism which has roots in monotheistic theology and has no basis in fact. The notion which stemmed from the cyberneticists that humans, other living creatures, and machines could be understood as complex systems governed by circular causality – that is, feedback – is not a dangerous ideological myth, it is factually correct. The utility of the cybernetics movement, and indeed the disciplines which grew out of it such as systems biology, complexity theory, autopoiesis, connectionist AI, cognitive sciences etc all did so because the basic premises that feedback is a crucial process in dynamic systems was correct.

One of the places where Curtis goes hopelessly wrong was his definition of feedback. Curtis explored negative, or self corrective feedback, which was one of the two types of feedback loop discovered by the cyberneticists but completely omits positive feedback from the film. While the majority of the early cybernetics was dominated by issues around reducing noise through negative feedbacks, positive feedback has played a crucial role in contemporary understandings of how change occurs in dynamic systems, particularly within the domains of chaos theory, complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics. Indeed, current understandings of open systems, systems which are dynamically balanced at a point far from equilibrium, and maintain this dynamic balance through taking in flows of energy (such as food for many living systems) are largely predicated on knowledge which can be traced back to cybernetics. Yet Curtis’s film fails to mention anything about this. Probably because it totally undercuts the narrative he portrays.  What makes this ironic is that while claiming that the natural world is too complex for the analyses derived from cybernetics to provide useful models, we see images of swarming creatures to illustrate this argument. Swarming is of course an emergent behaviour which can be simulated and replicated using just three very simple rules; 1) Keep moving in the same direction as your neighbours 2) Keep close to your neighbours 3) Avoid colliding with your neighbours. This is a classic example of the kind of self-organisation which Curtis is trying to argue does not occur.

Similarly Curtis goes on to argue that unlike humans, who have free will and so can make choices, machines are purely determinate automatons, whose every action can be predicted. Which is true of many kinds of simple, linear and closed machines. But which is clearly not true of cellular automata, artificial neural networks or other systems which are based on emergence. Presumably the reason these types of system are not mentioned is that they would undercut the nature/culture dualism Curtis seeks to maintain which imbues humans with special properties not found elsewhere in the universe.

While the majority of the film presenting a very misleading picture of the legacy of cybernetics, the final section then deals with alleged examples of contemporary self-organising systems and protest movements. Which was so utterly woeful that it actually made the rest of the film appear competent. I was expecting to see the Zapatistas, the alternative globalisation movement, the Peoples Global Assembly, the World Social Forum or a range of other organisations who have organised in non-hierarchical ways to present a political alternative to the discredited radical politics of Leninist vanguardism, whereby a small elite violently seizes power in order to then create an egalitarian democracy. The motivation behind the movements which have used these types of democratic, grassroots organisation to mobilise pro-democracy movements has largely been to organise in a way that reflects the kind of politics a group seeks to achieve, rather than to attempt to create an egalitarian society via dictatorship.

So what did Curtis have to say about this? Sadly the answer was nothing. Instead of focusing on the methods of these types of movement we instead were told that the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine was an example of self-organisation and a leaderless non-hierarchical movment. The Orange movement was in fact a movement heavily funded by groups such as the US State Department, who according to the Guardian had spent $67 million in the Ukraine in the two years before the disputed Presidential run off. It was a ‘leaderless’ ‘self-organising’ movement which was centred around trying to get one particular corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yuchenko, elected over a rival, corrupt political candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. Largely it was a struggle between the western half of the country, aided by western governments who wanted Yuchenko to prevail pitted against the eastern half of the country and Russia who wanted Yanukovich to prevail. In other words it had nothing to do with spontaneous self-organisation, non-hierarchy or systems thinking. It was a great example of corrupt politics as usual.

The only reason I can muster for Curtis to use such a ridiculously awful example to illustrate the point is that using a more relevant example would have undercut the epic narrative he sought to explicate. Which ultimately is a big part of why the kind of grand narrative based expository documentary is so out of fashion, while its easy to make a compelling argument based on affective manipulation through audiovisual means, an hour (or even three one hour parts) just isn’t enough time to really explore complex issues in any amount of depth. Which means that documentary filmmakers end up creating narratives which are hugely misleading, which is exactly what Curtis does here.

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Last week I was in London for the Podium Conference entitled Countdown to the Games. Held at the Excel centre (on the same day as an armoured vehicle expo was in another part of the centre!)  the conference was designed to present information to FE and HE educators about various aspects of the forthcoming 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the plethora of related events which will coincide with the games.

The Olympics of course has undergone a considerable evolution of its ethics since its resuscitation in 1896. Originally the preserve of the amateur, Olympians were strictly forbidden from receiving any kind of monetary reward from their sporting prowess. The concept of the games was that it was about the taking part rather than the competition itself. Indeed Jim Thorpe (link), the US athlete who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympic Games was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball for two seasons before his Olympic successes. Over time however, successful athletes from the West began to earn lucrative sponsorship deals (which were not paid directly to them, but into trust funds) and Eastern bloc nations began fielding athletes who were nominally students or has a profession, but essentially functioned as full time athletes paid for by the State. Given that the amateur ethic of the Olympics had essentially been bypassed anyway the regulations were gradually relaxed until we reach a point today where the only non-professional sport at the Olympics in London will be boxing.

Another Olympic ethic from the past was an anti-commercialism. Until the retirement of IOC president Avery Brundage in 1972 the games had no sponsors and no revenue from exclusive television deals. Brundage believed that the inclusion of corporate actors in the games would unduly impact the IOC’s ability to make independent decisions and would lead to a form of politicisation, something he had strongly resisted. Brundage’s resistance to this revenue stream meant the IOC left organizing committees to negotiate their own sponsorship contracts and use the Olympic symbols. It also meant the Olympics was not the massive money making machine that it has become today.

Fast forward to today and the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the ethics of amateurism, fair play and anti-commercialism that the Olympics used to stand for have all but disappeared. Virtually all of the athletes on show at the Olympics will be full time, professional cyborgs who have the latest in cutting edge sports/science to aid them in every way the rules allow. In fact, there will be a huge amount of mobilisation on the part of the organisers to create anti-doping facilities to try and catch the athletes who use scientific advances to try and alter their bodily composition in ways prohibited by the rules, as famous examples such as Ben Johnson, Dwayne Chambers and Marion Jones have done in the past.

Finally on the commercial front the Olympics will be a massive corporate venture, with NBC and other companies paying insane amounts of money for exclusive television rights within national boundaries. Similarly the games has an immense amount of corporate involvement on seemingly every front. From Glaxo-Smith-Klein setting up the anti-doping facilities, to G4S handling a lot of the security to Coca-Cola, McDonalds and the other multinational corporate sponsors whose logos will be plastered all over London come 2012. Within the Podium conference this was heralded by numerous speakers who have helped organise facets of the games as a wonderful thing which is good for the Olympics and good for London. Over and over again the audience was subjected to rhetoric surrounding corporate social responsibility.

But what exactly does this corporate social responsibility amount to when you examine some of these corporate actors and their ‘socially responsible’ behaviour? The one that really had me seething with anger on the day was the inclusion of G4S. They had a stall promoting their work by where you went for coffee and had something to do with the security and the games session that I didn’t go to. G4S are the private security firm who do things like handle the deportations of failed asylum seekers for the Home Office and run private prisons and immigration removal centres. They have been frequently criticised for handling deportees in an excessively violent way, and on 12th October 2010 three G4S security guards killed Jimmy Mubenga while they were deporting him. On the day of the Podium Conference there was an article published in the Guardian which reported that G4S had been warned that their excessively forceful actions were likely to cause the death of someone in their custody. These warnings were unheeded, and consequently a man died. Apparently this is the kind of behaviour that suited speakers at the Podium Conference were so quick to uncritically praise.

Another example would be Coca-Cola, one of the three main sponsors of the Olympic games in 2012. Coca-Cola are currently subject to a global boycott by human rights and environmental justice campaigners because of the corporations actions over a large number of nation states. Whether it’s their involvement in hiring paramilitaries to murder union leaders in Columbia, other union busting activities to prevent their workforce from collectively organising, or the overexploitation and pollution of groundwater supplies in India, Coca-Cola are embroiled in numerous scandals which clearly show what corporate social responsibility means to them.

What I found really concerning about the Podium conference, was that at an event aimed at FE and HE institutions – places of education which are supposed to promote critical thinking – the majority of those in attendance seemed quite happy to buy into the rhetoric of benevolent corporate social responsibility without engaging any kind of criticality which all to quickly exposes the hypocrisy behind companies such as G4S and Coca-Cola claiming to be socially responsible.

While the Olympics was built on one set of ethics based around amateurism, enjoying sports, taking part and nations coming together in a peaceful and pleasurable way, over time these values have evolved into cut-throat competitiveness and crass commercialism where unethical corporations who market themselves as socially responsible whitewash their poor human rights and environmental justice records by sponsoring the games and raising their brand profile.

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Franco Berardi was a key member of the Italian Autonomist movement, alongside the likes of other authors such as Antonio Negri, Christian Marazzi, Mario Tronti and Paulo Virno, and was a close associate of Felix Guattari, the French philosopher. Berardi’s work has only recent been translated from Italian into English, and Soul at Work was published in 2009 as part of the semiotext(e) foreign agents series.

The central themes of the Soul at Work are that the human faculties which in previous eras would have been considered to be constitutive of the soul, our capacities for language, creativity, emotion, empathy and affect, have now become central to the economy of digital capitalism (Berardi’s term is Semiocapitalism)

Putting the soul to work: this is the new form of alienation. Our desiring energy is trapped in the trick of self-enterprise, our libidinal investments are regulated according to economic rules, our attention is captures in the precariousness of virtual networks: every fragment of mental activity must be transformed into capital. (p24)

This is contrasted with the situation under industrial capitalism, wherein the labour of the working class was largely confined to an eight-hour day in a factory, where for a portion of the day their bodies functioned as cogs rented to maintain the production of gigantic machines. While their bodies laboured their minds or souls were still perceived as free. But as economic production became increasingly based up intellectual rather than physical labour, Berardi argues that a fundamental change has occurred, which requires a reconceptualization of the political field.

Once digital technologies made possible the connection of individual fragments of cognitive labor possible, the parceled intellectual labor was subjected to the value production cycle. The ideological and political forms of the left wing, legacy of the 20th Century, have become inefficient in theis new context. (p29)

After tracing a pathway through some of the Workerist ideas of the 1960’s, and particularly the role of alienation labor within this context, Berardi moves  on to analysis of how the

decisive transformation of the 1980’s was the systematic computerization of the working process. Thanks to digitalization, every concrete event can not only be symbolised, but also simulated, replaced by information. Consequently it becomes possible to progressively reduce the entire production process to the elaboration and exchange of information. (p95)

And how this change to the system of production and consumption accumulates as an ever-increasing torrent of information which he argues is conducive to conditions of mass panic (in the sense that the word stems from the etymological root pan – or everything) and depression.

If in modern society the vastly prevalent pathology was repression induced neurosis, today the most widely spread pathologies assume a psychotic, panic driven character. The hyper-stimulation of attention reduces the capacity for critical sequential interpretation, but also the time available for the emotional elaboration of the other, of his or her body and voice, tries to be understood without ever succeeding. (p183)

Searching for ways to approach these changes in social context, Berardi draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s work in arguing  that

Ethical conciousness cannot be founded on the binomial of Reason and Will – as during the modern period. The roots of rationalism have been forever erased, and rationalism cannot be the major direction of the planetary humanism we must conceive.

Today the ethical question is posed as a question of the soul, that is to say of the sensibility animating the body, making it capable of opening sympathetically towards the other…A new conceptualization of humanism must be founded on an aesthetic paradigm, since it has to take root in sensibility. The collapse of modern ethics needs to be interpreted as a generalized cognitive disturbance, as the paralysis of empathy in the social psychosphere. (p133).

It is interesting to contrast and compare Berardi’s vision of a revised humanism here with the various schemas of posthumanism proposed by the likes of Katherine Hayles, Donna Harraway and Robert Pepperell. The logic of basing ethics on feeling and connectivity with other(s) certainly has resonance between these authors despite their respective stances on whether humanism is a project in need of reconceptualization or a patriarchal, bourgeois, historical phenomenon which has led to the epistemological errors and artificial separation of nature and culture, humans and other living creatures and body and soul – many of the problems which Berardi examines.

Beradi goes to to present an interesting analysis of Baudrillard’s work around simulation, and contrasts this with the desire-based radical analyses of Deleuze and Guattari. Berardi argues that

The semiotic acceleration and the proliferation of simulacra within the mediatized experience of society produce an effect of exhaustion in the collective libidinal energy, opening the way to a panic-depressive cycle… Baudrillard sees simulation as the infinite replication of a virus that absorbs energy to the point of exhaustion. A sort of semiotic inflation explodes in the circuits of our collective sensibility, producing effects of mutation that run a pathological course: too many signs, too fast and too chaotic. The sensible body is subjected to an acceleration that destroys every possibility of conscious decodification and sensible perception. (158/159)

The problem, according to Beradi, is that the explosion of information leads to a paralysis and subsequent depression as the pace and scale of information flows expands far beyond what the human brain is capable of processing. The field of desire, which for Deleuze and Guattari possesses liberating potential, collapses in on itself and is confined to desiring the ever-increasing number of consumer fetishes that permeate upgrade culture. This leads to a contemporary scenario Beradi describes as the poisoning of the soul, as desire no longer reaches out for connectivity with the other, but instead is restricted to focusing on the self and personal accumulation. Looking for potential ways out of this situation, Beradi contends that

Perhaps the answer is that it is necessary to slow down, finally giving up on economistic fanaticism and collectively rethink the true meaning of the word “wealth.” Wealth does not mean a person who owns a lot, but refers to someone who has enough time to enjoy what nature and human collaboration place within everyone’s reach. If the great majority of people could understand this basic notion, if they could be liberated from the competitive illusion that is impoverishing everyone’s life, the very foundations of capitalism, would start to crumble. (p169)

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Recently George Monbiot has been in the blogosphere for his exchange with Iam Plimer in which he joined the bastion of scientists, bloggers and journalists condemning Plimer’s recent book. Personally I found his debate with Paul Kingsnorth far more interesting,

Kingsnorth criticises Monbiot for seeking to create ‘Liberal Democracy 2.0’ arguing that

‘What we face is what John Michael Greer, in his book of the same name, calls a ‘long descent’ – a series of ongoing crises brought about by the factors I talked of in my first letter, which will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. I’m sure ’some good will come’ from this, for that culture is a weapon of planetary mass destruction.’

Monbiot’s retort is that a series of crises would mean billions deaths and an immense amount of suffering, and that this scenario would likely see

‘instead of gathering as free collectives of happy householders, the survivors of this collapse will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. Thiswill is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are approximately zero.’

Consequently Monbiot argues that

‘Strange as it seems, a de-fanged, steady-state version of the current settlement might offer the best prospect humankind has ever had of avoiding collapse. For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them.’

Of the two perspectives pertaining to the probable and possible outcomes for humanity in the medium term future I would say that I more closely associate with Monbiot’s position of remaining hopefull despite mounting evidence that climate change will create massive detrimental impacts to civilisation as we know it.

Similarly I consur with Monbiot that the likely consequences of inaction are widening global inequalities, which under the current geopolitical climate of nationalism and antagonism fuelled by a neo-liberal drive for competition and self-interest will likely translate into war between nation states for resources, the collapse of social welfare where it does currently exist and a vast amount of suffering for billions. I also agree that this kind of scenario would not represent a positive development.

Where I feel that I differ from both authors however is in the framing of the debate itself. Civilisations are not static objects which can be saved (preserved intact) or destroyed (completely) as some kind of binary pair, they evolve as dynamic processes dependent on a multitude of factors. This means that the actions we take now are relevant as these actions will have an effect on which of the many potential futures we realise. The more sustainable technologies are developed and implemented, the more ghg emissions are cut, the more social solidarity and a sense of community, both locally and globally are constructed in the here and now, the better the prospects for the future will be. The difference may only be a small one, but that will largely depend on how many people decide to actively engage with the problem – larger actions now mean better conditions for the future.

Even if the future looks decidely gloomy, and both Monbiot and Kingsnorth argue that they are, the actions of people today still has some agency (not the myth of unilateral control Kingsnorth critiques, but an active factor in a dynamic causal network) in deciding what the future will be like. While individually our actions are only minutely consequential, collectively they can be massive. That is why I believe in building networks of change from the grassroots up.

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Breaking News right now on the BBC…

A new post mortem says Ian Tomlinson died from an abdominal haemorrhage not a heart attack after contact with police during the G20 protests.

The statement from the City of London Coroners Court overturns the initial assessment that the newspaper seller died of natural causes.

This stunning news now appears to suggest that Tomlinson was murdrered by police on April 1st. Furthermore, following his murder the police lied to press and public claiming that there was no contact between Tomlinson and the police prior to his death which they initally claimed was from ‘atural causes.

Had a member of the public not filmed the police carrying out a brutal and unprovoked assault on Tomlinson moments before his death the original police story would have been the only one the public ever heard. This makes this a watershed in some ways for the use of citizen journalism to expose police lies and create the necessary public outcry for the matter to be properly investigated, and the results of this investigation now appear to show that virtually every facet of the police’s inital statement was untrue and that they murdered an innocent man on his way home for work.

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Breaking news today is that the Pirate Bay, the world’s largest bittorent portal has been found guilty of ‘assisting making available copyrighted content’ after the more serious charge brought against them of ‘assisting copyright infringement’ had been thrown out by the judge on the second day of the trial. While the e International Federation of the Phonographic Industries and the Motion Picture Association of America,had been seeking over 100 million dollars in compensation from TPB, the award was $3.6 million. The PirateBay are set to appeal the verdict, and there is expected to be no disruption to the site, who are advertising a press conference at 1pm Swedish time today.

It is important to remeber among the media coverage of the trial which has rarely portrayed TPB in anything but a grossly negative light, that firstly the Pirate Bay does not host any copyrighted material whatsoever. It merely provides search results and links to material hosted by various users. Google of course does exactly the same thing. However it’s hard to see the IFPI and MPAA trying to sue Google for doing the same thing.

Furthermore while the MPAA and IFPI may wish that torrents as a technology were made illegal it has to be remembered that they provide a vast number of legitimate uses, as torrents decentralised system of sharing files meaning that LInux distributions, independent films (systems such as the Catbot project do this) and other large files which are free to download can be shared by a large community without the problem of bottlenecking downloads at a centralised server. Indeed the  more popular a torrent the faster it can be shared by the community, making it a tremendously useful technology for creating a readily available creative commons.

The BBC’s rather poor coverage of the trial concluded today with a story and blog comment in which Darren Waters claims

The professional creative industries know too well that file-sharing copyright files without permission is not something they will ever completely eradicate.

Instead, they want to drive it to the margins of society – and to do that they have to educate the file-sharers and attempt to eradicate the abuse of file-sharing technologies.

However what exactly they seek to educate people about is totally unexplained. Perhaps they seek to educate file sharers as to how little money the poor record and film companies are making and how they are collectively on the verge of bankruptcy… Perhaps they seek to educate people that the cost of creating a digital copy of a dvd or cd is just a few pence, but will retail for somewhere between 15 and  20 pounds… Perhaps they seek to educate people that the notion that should be able to sample a product to see if they like it before making a purchase is enitrely unreasonable and that one must part with thir money to discover that a cd is rubbish.

Most people I know download music and films. If they like them they will often buy the album, go to see the band live, or go to watch the film in the cinema as it will be better quality and on a larger screen. However asking people to part with money without any knowledge of the product as happened in the old days is no longer a viable option, and no amount of ‘education’ from enormous corporations with multi-billion dollar annual turnovers will convince people otherwise.

The BBC finish their coverage of the trial with the statement that

The creative industries want ISPs to become the guardian of those gateways and take more responsibility over the way their customers use the internet.

Which essentially says that having failed in their attempts to ‘educate’ consumers that the outdated models which the MPAA and IFPI climg to are the best way to preserve corporate profits… i mean help struggling artists… They are now trying to get internet service providers to spy on their users and give these enormous corporations the details of any individual who shares stuff. So it turns out that they are fairly wise to the fact that education is not a viable option for them after all, but that trying going after individuals and trying to scare people into doing what they want is a better long term strategy to help the massively rich to stay massively rich.

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