[I’m reading this book as a codex so my notes are a little more sparse than otherwise. I’ve included notes from my presentation on The Stack in Matt’s speculation seminar below; much of it is on Robinson’s NY2140 but I can cut it down later.]
For an excellent précis of The Stack, check out this review in Computational Culture: http://computationalculture.net/scenario-theory-review-of-benjamin-h-bratton-the-stack-on-software-and-sovereignty/
- The Stack is a design brief, first and foremost: it is a proposed speculative plan for accelerating and operationalizing the “accidental megastructure” of planetary-scale computation. It does not historicize its development as such; rather, its historical project is confined to a brief sketch of developments in political theory that Bratton argues have led to the emergence of trans- or a-national computational configurations that exert a smooth (Deleuzian) power across the planetary skin.
- One of the hardest things to do with The Stack is speak of it clearly and not in abstract awe at its scope. Bratton also writes in a nigh-impenetrable language—a kind of CCRU-tone on speed, tentacles unfolding into the night. But at its core, as I see it, The Stack is a fairly conservative vision of software finally, fully eating the world. It is also about the power of design to both map and transform the technological armature developing now on the planet. Here are some interlocking claims to this argument:
- Computation is not an effect of the social; it is the “armature of the social itself,” the driving force behind social, cultural, and geopolitical formation.
- This massive planetary-scale computational project has hitherto unfolded in punctuated bursts and in irregular fashions; no one has control over it, nor does any one entity have a plan for it. It is an “accidental megastructure.”
- Design, more so than any other current discipline of making or knowing, is uniquely qualified to both map and to intervene into the formation of this structure.
- In the abstract: by articulating a massive infrastructural design plan, we can distribute our energies as a species toward the operationalization and counter-development of this accidental megastructure, such that we can enrich rather than destroy our lives on this planet.
- In the concrete (i.e., what are Bratton’s specific recommendations?): Bratton holds to the accelerationist viewpoint that we have to intensify and make more explicit (design deliberately rather than accidentally) the computational relations and logics that underpin our planetary sociality. However, this accelerationist argument is less “fully automated luxury communism” or the intentional breakdown of the capitalist system and more a (I think???) pursuit of a transcendent efficiency to markets that shares more than a passing resemblance to Hayek’s recommendations. (Must investigate this b/c it seems so shocking that such an esteemed book would fundamentally be a document of neoliberalism!)
Obviously the chapters on the Earth layer are the most immediately relevant to my work. There are highlights and notes scattered throughout my paper copy, but one point I just want to underscore is how Bratton’s project is both descriptive and projective: by describing the world in a certain way (subsumed within the logic of computation), he implies a certain set of futures available to it.
I find his overall characterization of the current state of planetary scale computing persuasive, even as we have to allow that one of its core features is that it’s a cultural logic rather than empirical absolute: hence the capacity of design to change it. The sections on planetarity are the most persuasive; as he progresses up (or down?) the Stack, things get a little more design-y, a little more Californian, a little more accelerationist. The platform stuff is good; Srnicek states it all perhaps a bit more clearly. Parts of the “Stack to Come” and “Black Stack” projects do begin to do the work of naming future possibilities, but as a design brief this book is a little short on cogent plans and long on modalities of mind and being. I’m fine with that! It’s just important to name what the project is really doing.
Again, lots of highlights to sort through, but here’s one paragraph that I think is a good lodestar for what Bratton misses or is uninterested in, and that the current field of PSC folks can stand to hear more of:
“The question of planetary-scale computing addressed by this book is therefore not only a topic for us to understand; it also names our mechanisms of inquiry. I would insist on the inclusion as well of art, design, philosophy, film and literature (especially their science fiction genres) — or at least my own preferred conception of them — which themselves may or may not be computational. These are our key technologies for conceiving the inevitable ambiguities of planetary-scale computational computation and its potential vectors up and out, but they don’t work well when they are asked to resolve ambiguity instead of conspiring with it and cultivating its efficacy” (305). The project of literary study toward planetary-scale computing, in Bratton’s idiosyncratic fashion, is one of multiplying ambiguity rather than resolving it.
Bratton/Robinson Notes from 758D
PRELIMINARY COMMENTS ON THE TOPIC OF “DESIGN AND/AS METAPHOR.”
Biographical and Literary Contexts
Kim Stanley Robinson
- Like Ray Bradbury, born in Illinois but grew up in Southern California; attributes the particular weirdness of SoCal to shaping his work. Surprisingly, as we learned from the podcast, doesn’t live in NYC, but rather in Davis, CA in a co-housing community, so close to my co-op hippie heart.
- Trained much like us—BA in lit from UC San Diego; MA in English fom BU; PhD under Fred Jameson in English from UC San Diego. Unsurprisingly, it was Jameson who prodded him on the way to writing SF—Robinson’s diss was on the work of Philip K Dick.
Bratton is another Californian; trained in the “Sociology of Technology” at UC Santa Barbara. By a wonderful coincidence that I’m sure we can in fact see as the inexorable draw of the accidental megastructure, he now teaches at UC San Diego as a Prof of Visual Arts and Directory for the Center for Design and Geopolitics. He’s one of those terribly impressive academics who has a resume as long as your arm and crazy appointments across the European continent. Apart from The Stack, I first learned about his work from his book Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution, which Bratton self-describes as “theory-fiction.” From Sternberg P’s description:
The cast of characters in this ensemble drama of righteous desperation and tactical trickery shuttle between fact and speculation, action and script, flesh and symbol, death and philosophy: insect urbanists, seditious masquerades, epistolary ideologues, distant dissimulations, carnivorous installations, forgotten footage, branded revolts, imploding skyscrapers, sentimental memorials, ad-hoc bunkers, sacred hijackings, vampire safe-houses, suburban enclaves, big-time proposals, ambient security protocols, disputed borders-of-convenience, empty research campuses, and robotic surgery.
The Bulk of the Presentation Itself
Focused around key terms, images, or rhetorical figures that I’m also going to use to structure / respond / diffract (lol) our discussion for the remainder of class.
- One of the more powerful metaphoric and rhetorical frames of the novel, “the intertidal” speaks at once to governance/legality, financial capital, the rise of the environmental, and also more generally to liminal statuses, liquid flows, and “dark pools.”
- We can speak also more generally, as we will later on in the conversation, of the metaphoric value of finance capital to this novel as a whole. For now I want to turn to how being-enmeshed or being-in-the-middle structures tactics for being.
- Can turn to the chat on pp. 117–18; Franklin is good for laying out the novel’s technical challenge for the literal intertidal space; we can also think about modes of transporation and movement—aerial, skybridge, surface boating, depth plumbing, each seeming to configure a different relationship to the water.
- We can also talk about the intertidal of history, what Bratton calls the “waves of remaking.” This is a post-apocalypse that is also waking itself back up.
- To the Google images screenshot, we can also take up the intertidal as correlative to the work of interdisciplinary languages or interdisciplinary signification. This is something we can dive back down into closer to the end of the class, but we can use the intertidal to talk about cross-contaminations (remember that Vlade has to bleach himself off after swimming on pp. 96) between disciplines of knowledge and practice.
- We can also continue the conversation we started with Jameson two weeks ago to talk about speculative and science fiction as historical worlding practices.
- It’s not even a claim to say that SF has more to say about the present than the past, and indeed that practice, on a meta level, comes to a head in this novel., e.g. pp. 141.
- I’m interested in engaging NY2140 as a speculative archive. This is made easier by the “citizen” chapters and the quotes between chapters. It also, [play the podcast, queued up to 12:30 to 13:30], asks us to reimagine the disaster or apocalypse novel as an historical novel. There’s a genre play here that’s very interesting.
- And that’s why I wanted to share this imagine of a “speculative history monument”. We can think about this object as similar to the book in that it’s a material genre displaced temporally, and then commenting on or reframing the present in interesting ways. But it’s the material form that really drives its power.
- I want to start to bring in The Stack now as an architectural project. Architecture is a new discipline to our conversations, and given that this class session is titled “The Speculative City” it makes sense to talk about built environments and we can do so. Particularly given how territory shifts to built environments are so important to this novel—I’m reminded of something Ford says in the podcast, that NYC is a compelling place to be for a novel like this b/c the infrastructure is actually quite good. (We can debate this.)
- The Stack also asks us to think about architecture and design more broadly, as built environment but also ideology, governance structures, and metaphor. As I see it, the key idea from Bratton’s book is that it’s impossible to extricate ideology from design, governance from the built environment.
- So I want to clarify, for those who are unfamiliar with Bratton’s project in The Stack, what he’s doing here—a design brief that both describes this present moment but also projects it into a future. [Read some stuff from the opening pages, e.g. 3–5.]
- The figure I want to close on is that of the “accident.” The accident is a funny and terrifying thing. To say “accident” disavows agentiality and causality: we didn’t do the thing, it happened by accident. When Bratton talks about the Stack as an “accidental megastructure,” he’s making a claim about the ways that architectures and governances get built over time in ways that are difficult or impossible to see from the vantage point of now, but only become visible as congealing retrospectively.
- But we can also talk about the language of “accidents” in disasters like the First and Second Pulses. One of the darkest and bleakest parts of the novel for me was how much finance capital survived “end times.” How we emerge on the other side of planetary crisis with the basic superstructures of finance intact. I begin to speculate, as the novel invites us to do, on the idea of punishment and causality. Who gets blamed for something that a civilization does? How can you prosecute a species? But is it fair to lump the entirety of the human race into the project of rapacious capitalism? Who survives and who dies in “accidents” like this?
- I think about how the languages of accidents are often also hidden. Take, for example, “natural causes.” Now we know some facts about what has happened and is still happening in Puerto Rico. We know, on the most basic level, that a massive hurricane hit the island square on and wiped out its most fundamental infrastructure. But then we can telescope back and think about 1) what caused that hurricane in the first place; 2) who neglected the infrastructure over decades and yoked PR within a colonizing financial debt crisis; 3) who has failed to adequately rebuild in the wake of catastrophe. “Natural causes” and “accidental deaths” become harder to qualify in this frame. In the classic Utah Phillips line: “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”
Design Strategies for Living in Ruins
If Parable of the Sower is mid-apocalypse, then New York 2140 might be said to be post-apocalypse—or at least at an inflection point. Explore Robinson’s strategies for living in the world’s ruins, both on the level of technologies and practices. What technical devices mediate this world? Or cultural practices? How might we think with remnants and remains—particularly those of capitalism-as-a-system?
CONSIDER: pp. 47–53 on Charlotte and the Met building’s org structure; pp. 91–96 on Vlade patching leaks; the IPPI index (pp. 118–23); the Assisted Migration; Stephan and Roberto vs. Franklin and Jojo.
Temporality of Speculation: Archives of Not-Yet-History
How does speculation reconfigure time? Consider New York 2140 as an historical archive, e.g., the quotes between chapters, the “citizen” chapters narrating histories that have not yet happened (but curiously from what seems to be a 2017 position). What are the new stakes of the project of writing history when engaging the speculative mode? Corollary: what is the value of research or the detail in speculative history?
CONSIDER: Any “citizen” chapter, but particularly pp. 205–10 and the passage on Madison Square on pp. 77-81; the interstitial quotes, particularly lists like on pp. 138; Mr. Hexter as “old New York”; KSR research process as fiction author.
Metaphor as a Language of Design
What is the work of metaphor as a tool of designing new and speculative worlds? Consider both the recurring metaphors in New York 2140 and The Stack as literary/philosophical “design”; and also how we use metaphor to create / challenge / order our own world.
CONSIDER: liquidity, depth, the aqueous, the aerial, the specialized language of finance, NYC-as-metaphor, the planetary skin, the accidental megastructure, computation, the “grid,” ouroboros, mapping and territoriality.
Speculative Fiction &/as Critical Theory
Following our conversations from last week: how do these texts challenge the relationship between speculative fiction and critical theory? What kinds of investments do both have in the techniques of each genre? In the knowledges produced by each? How do each engage the languages and tactics of design and experimentation?
CONSIDER: Bratton’s position towards his material and “authorial presence,“ particularly on pp. 80-81, pp. 90, sections 22 and 23 on “design”; Robinson’s investment in critical theory (bonus points for those who can point out shoutouts to The Stack in his novel [great one on pp. 40–41 we should talk about]); early passages from the IMF in NY2140 as a kind of critical theory; bringing back Aristarkhova and Kraus on the design of and lives lived with objects.