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Real And Unconstrained Utopias: On Economic (And Other) Science Fictions
Carl Neville , May 6th, 2018 07:41

Author Carl Neville examines two recent books bringing the Ccru project of hyperstition into the domain of political economy, the Will Davies-edited Economic Science Fictions, from Goldsmiths Press, and Repeater Books' Futures and Fictions

Two essential recent books out of Goldsmiths, Futures and Fictions on Repeater and Economic Science Fictions on Goldsmiths’ Press are dedicated to the late theorist and all round good egg Mark Fisher and feature introductions and further contributions from him in the main bodies of the books. The books address and arise from three central ideas: Fisher’s influential formulation, “Capitalist Realism”, itself a distillation of Fredric Jameson’s much, possibly over-quoted phrase, that “it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism”, Mallarmé’s equally popular, “Everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy” and the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s call for an unleashing of the utopian imagination subsequent to the world-defining debacle of the 2008 financial crisis.

The books therefore are a call to imagine alternatives to or beyonds of Capitalism, or, given the tendency toward hedging in academic discourse, to at least begin to try and attempt a prolegomenon to a future setting of the coordinates by which such an imaging might be approached. Why “Fiction” though? Why not get a set of wonkish Corbynite millennials in a room and let them come up with some plans?

Well, again this partly boils down to the influence of Fisher’s work, the idea that the world is itself a kind of living fiction, a set of social arrangements that takes on the weight of the natural through the constraints it places on thought, repetition congealing into sets of responses in the autonomic system that come to feel natural, codified in all manner of texts, statutes, contracts, files and bureaucratic and administrative bodies; a “hyperstition”, a fiction that becomes real and takes on a certain quality of law-like immutability (we always lose on penalties to Germany).

Srnicek and Williams’ tellingly entitled recent-ish Inventing the Future and the broader project of Accelerationism could be considered an attempt at a Left or anti-hegemonic hyperstition, an early hyperstitional barrage from the emergent Economic Science Fiction canon. The wager is that fictions are to some extent weapons: reality-forming. Those sceptical of such claims might want to pause and consider the eerie metastasis of the CCRU’s ideas, from early 90s Baudrillard reading group for pallid Junglists to its increasing influence in both New Left (Accelerationism/Left as Modernity) and Alt-right cultures (Neoreaction). Indeed, a possible future fiction might be one in which the destiny of the human race hinges on the outcome of the secret enmity formed between Mark Fisher and Nick Land in a room above a pub in Coventry in 1992.

At risk of being reductive, as with the Mallarmé quote above, the books might broadly divide into arguments from Aesthetics (Futures and Fictions) and Political Economy and this relates in some ways to the third of the ideas proposed: Utopianism, a category we might, broadly again, divide into Unconstrained Utopianism and Real Utopianism.

Unconstrained Utopianism will assert something like: we must first of all insist on the necessity of Utopian thinking against its realist detractors and create spaces of defamiliarization in which we can think the possibilities of radical and total transformation; all power to the imagination; realism, with its attendant notions of human nature, the pragmatic, and limits and constraints is always a fetter, precisely what stands in the way of the Utopian, and so on.

Real Utopianism draws on the work of Erik Olin Wright and his engagement with existing examples of cooperatives, digital commons, alternate currencies and democratic planning, all of which point the way to a future reorganization of society along more equitable and democratic or non-market-based lines. Economic Science Fictions’ project would seem to be most closely allied to this strand, with Fisher concluding his introduction by saying “the task is to produce fictions that can be converted into effective virtualities”. While Unconstrained Utopians look to an outside, a beyond the human (or rather “the human”) in certain respects (panpsychism, companion speciesism, technological augmentation, etc.); Real Utopians, perhaps more constrained by liberal admonitions about the crooked timber of humanity, the gulag and the collapse in the intellectual respectability of economic arguments around Keynesian full employment and/or central planning, tend to have a slightly more circumspect approach to their Utopias. For all the talk of the future, the tendency is to spatialize rather than temporalize: the utopia is neither some to-come, unfolding through the iron laws of history or even a more ambiguous post-capitalist stage in which the current order dissolves under its own tendencies toward decommodification. To amend William Gibson, for Real Utopians, Utopia has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Suffice to say the demarcations between these positions are not clear, shift, and are, as they say, contested, even at the most basic level: the esteemed Olin Wright sees Wikipedia’s profit-free volunteer-led ethos as a type of already-existing utopian commons pointing the way to the future, while for the equally-esteemed if somewhat more intense Philip Mirowski, its parasitic relationship to knowledge created and validated elsewhere makes it paradigmatic of the way neoliberalism skims off value while presenting itself as a radical and democratic.

These are both large, dense and smart books written mostly by academics covering a wide – a less charitable reviewer might say disparate – set of concerns: for instance, one of the best essays in Futures and Fictions is Robin Mackay’s essay on detective movies which bears little relationship to the astronaut gracing the book’s cover. Let’s settle then on eclectic. Both books explore a range of themes and genres from relatively conventional stories through to all kinds of interesting hybridizations of theory and fiction across a number of disciplines, and there is a gratifying experimentalism to many of the texts, a desire for formal as well as thematic innovation, the ineradicable trace of Modernism, new thoughts requiring new forms and all that.

That said, the question of how new some of the new thoughts are does rise to the surface of even the most well-disposed reader’s mind: Burroughs, cut-ups, Deleuze, Donna Haraway, Jungle and Afrofuturism, appealing as they all are, have been hanging around for quite a while now, Burroughs since the 50s at least. All of them will be intimately familiar as touchstones for anyone of around my age (48) who has been paying attention to left-field thought from the mid-80s onward, and here they still are, representing something perhaps of a fetter themselves. It is entirely possible that this is a structural, even a demographic problem: hyper-educated baby-boomers in academia refusing to retire and continue instead just banging on with undiminished gawky enthusiasm about the stuff that inflamed them in the suburban bedrooms of their youth. The “hyperstasis” that Simon Reynolds identifies in music may also be there in theory, though the question may well be the extent to which those revered elders who identify the problem are to some extent also its cause.

In terms of content, left-field luminaries abound across both books, Le Guin's canonical ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is included as is ‘The Xenofeminist Manifesto’, Kodwo Eshun on John Akomfrah, Fisher on Luxury Communism, while Economic Science Fictions offers us Ha-Joon Chang, Owen Hatherley, Tim Jackson, with editor Will Davis, whose exceptionally lucid introductory essay is worth the price of entry alone, acting as a guide. An embarrassment of riches for anyone even remotely interested in thinking about the possibilities that inhere in the times they live then. Singling out a particular piece will be a necessarily highly subjective and partial affair, but nonetheless I’ll do so.

Perhaps the most interesting of all the texts is Judy Thorne’s ‘Speculative Hyperstition at a Northern Further Education College’ which blends what appear to be real-life interviews with students about their desires for a better world with a temporally and geographically ambiguous UK; corporations, places, and events are alluded to whose relationship to the Britain of 2018 is phantasmal; whether from a parallel world, the remnants of an alternate history or the backwash of a future yet to come is unclear, they intrude into the story’s present, suggesting a plasticity to the seemingly settled order of things, creating a subtle disquiet on the reader’s part. This it seems to me is appropriate fiction of our current interregnum, the moment when both the past and the future hove into view, and the present is overlain with all manner of possible directions to be taken and spectral linkages back across the generations. This is what I think fiction that aspires to be of-the-moment should be doing, scrambling temporal and generic orders together, mixing realism, the documentarian and the speculative in open-ended texts that necessarily have a relationship with the uncanny.

I’ll return to Fisher again here and his oft-repeated observation that if you were to send, say, a dubstep tune from 2007 back in time to the height of Jungle it would be impossible to imagine that music has progressed so little in the intervening years. I was struck by the opposite phenomena recently at an event on Acid Corbynism: if you had managed to send the hashtag #grimeforcorbyn back in time to the mid-period Miliband years it would have seemed ludicrous, laughable, pure audacious fantasy, beyond any possible projection from the then-current state of affairs.

Right now, something is happening and no one knows what it is, the immediate future is largely inaccessible to thought and reasonable projection is constantly undermined, creating a truncated, vertiginous, haunted present that is both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing, oscillating in the imagination (and partially in practice) between real and unconstrained Utopias and numerous looming dystopias.

These two books are, well, I’ll do a little hedging myself, a vital attempt to start thinking about how we think about the future and how we might collectively write it into being.

Economic Science Fictions is available now from Goldsmiths Press. Futures and Fictions is published by Repeater Books