Salvage Redistribution

This will be a brief post because I have to run and attend a meeting this morning. Because of this meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot the last day or so about collaborative projects and what makes them “effective.” A lot of criteria are thrown around that I think are interesting, but coming from an at least quasi-materialist perspective, I’m not sure how relevant they are. Much of it involves changing perspectives – which I think might be great IF the perspectives you’re changing are those of the people who have power, make the decisions, and control the flows of resources. Changing the perspectives of anyone else is meaningless because their actions are far too constrained. Another oft-cited goal is “empowerment” but there is kind of a vague notion of what that actually means. The idea is that decision-making is done by the community, but lacking the material and social resources to implement the decision, I’m not sure how valuable decision-making ability is. So I’ve been thinking that the real measure of a collaborative project – or any project really – is whether or not it redirects flows of resources in a way that benefits communities (broadly defined). That made me think of Anna Tsing’s concept of salvage accumulation – the process whereby non-capitalist resources and values are translated into capitalist goods and then sometimes back into non-capitalist resources and values. It strikes me that maybe in this ruined landscape, we need an approach to salvage redistribution – a way of tapping, hacking, or mining the flow of capitalist value towards non-capitalist ends. It’s not a new idea, just a new term for one that’s been bouncing around for a while… Something to think with though.

Redefining Utopia

For my birthday yesterday, Trish got me an advanced reader’s copy of Pacific Edge signed by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s one of the best presents I could have gotten, since this is the book from which the name and underlying philosophy of this blog – and all of my work – is derived: Struggle Forever!

The quote on the sidebar is only a small part of the section in which Robinson redefines utopia – it’s the culmination of the thought – but the entire section (a brief introduction to one of the chapters, which I believe are Robinson’s own examinations of the process of writing the novel as well as his reflections on politics and utopia) is worth sharing as well. So here it is:

“Light cracks on the black gloss of the canal, and a gondola oar squeaks under us. Standing on the moonlit bridge, laughing together, listening to the campanile strike midnight, I decide to change Kid Death’s hair from black to red – ”

Something like that. Ah yes – the vibrant author’s journal in The Einstein Intersection, young mind speaking to young mind, brilliant flashes of light in the head. No doubt my image of Europe owes much to it. But what I’ve found… could half a century have changed that much? History, change – rate constants, sure. It feels so much as if things are accelerating. A wind blows through the fabric of time, things change faster than we can imagine. Punctuated equilibrium, without the equilibrium. Hey, Mr. Delany, here I am in Europe writing as book too! But yesterday I spent the morning at the Fremdenkontrolle, arguing in my atrocious German which always makes me feel brain-damaged, getting nowhere. They really are going to kick me out. And in the afternoon I did laundry, running around the building in the rain to the laundry room, Liddy howling upstairs at a banged knee. Last load dry and piled in the red basket jogging round the front I caught my toe on a board covering the sidewalk next to some street work, fell and spilled the clothes all over the mud of the torn-up street. I sat on the curb and almost cried. What happened, Mr. Delany? How come instead of wandering the night canals I’m dumping my laundry in the street? How come when I consider revisions it’s not “change kid Death’s hair from black to red” but “throw out the first draft and start the whole thing over”?

And only two weeks before Liddy and I leave.

What a cheat utopias are, no wonder people hate them. Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent, dispossess them give them a new planet sure! So they don’t have to deal with our history. Ever since More they’ve been doing it: rupture, clean cut, fresh start.

So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too. Ahistorical, static, why should we read them? they don’t speak to us trapped in this world as we are, we look a t them in the same way we look at the pretty inside of a paperweight, snow drifting down so what? It may be nice but we’re stuck here and no one’s going to give us a fresh start, we have to deal with history as it stands, no freer than a wedge in a crack.

Stuck in history like a wedge in a crack

with no way out and now way back –

Split the world!

Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.

Compare it to the present course of history. If you can.

Not A Happy Birthday Post

This is the day I turn thirty-five. Thirty-five is also the age my big brother, Tim, was when he died. In fact, he died only 19 days after his 35th birthday. It’s a fact I can’t forget on this day that is supposed to be a celebration.

Whenever someone dies “before their time,” they become frozen in time. We don’t have the benefit of seeing the arc of their life and the many changes they might have gone through. Instead our image of them remains forever frozen on the moment of their death. My brother is forever thirty-five to me. I can remember him as a rambunctious child, a rebellious teen, an energetic and artistic twenty-something, but thirty-five – the time when he was just beginning to figure himself out and settle into a life – is how I will always remember him. Today is the day I turn thirty-five, and from now on I will always be the older (but never the big) brother.

This is also the day – the date, really – that marks the mid-point between the anniversary of his birth (Feb 4) and that of his death (Feb 23). I don’t know if someday my feelings about it will change – if the impact of his loss will grow softer over the years – but it’s something I can’t help but remember today. It’s a period of mourning for me, but in the midst of mourning there is this celebration of my own life and existence. I don’t know how to feel about it, and so my feelings are a little confused and mixed.

I don’t mean for this to be a sad day, and it won’t! But these are the things I grapple with in the wake of the loss of one of the most important people in my life. It’s these things that make me continually undone – to borrow Judith Butler’s idea – by his loss, but only, as Butler points out, because I was – we all were – completely undone by his presence.

The Moral Repugnance of Wage Labor

There are a lot of discussions to be had about the value and purpose of moral standards, and I could go on and on about the problems inherent in most moral systems. However, even starting from a baseline Western, Judeo-Christian morality, there is something repugnant about wage labor.

It suggests that people are worthless unless they do some kind of work – and specifically, some kind of work that someone else deems valuable enough to pay for. In essence, it suggests that those who do not or cannot work – or, more likely, who can’t find someone to pay them for their work – do not even deserve to live, since money is needed to buy food, health care, shelter, etc. In other words, people who don’t work for a wage deserve to die.

I could see a case for wage labor if all of the necessities of life were provided outright – if food, shelter, health care, maybe education, etc. were free. “You get the basics, but then anything else you have to work for anything extra.” That I could understand within a classical moral framework. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s specifically those things that many conservatives reject when we discuss welfare or social programs to help the poor. I cannot understand how, within a classical moral framework, anyone could suggest that those who do not work deserve to die.

I don’t think anyone deserves to die… I think that’s a simple moral assumption that most people can accept, and I think it’s one we need to start using to interrogate our social systems.

Contact, Friction, Work

I’ve kind of written about this in the past, but since I’ve been writing my early dissertation chapters it’s come up again and I want to re-explore some of those ideas. This will be done much more in-depth in the dissertation itself, but here I want to offer a general outline of the framework I’ve been thinking with.

The overarching theme of my dissertation is continuity – there is a continuity of time, space, and processes that shape the production of the world in which we live. It’s not that everything is the same – one homogeneous thing undergoing the same homogeneous processes – but that understanding the continuities, we can begin to imagine a way out of the messes we’ve made and alternative pathways along which things could develop. We can not only imagine these alternatives, but know what it will take to produce them, even if their production is never guaranteed. In other words, it’s a kind of uniformitarianism for natural and social processes.

The problem, of course, is that such continuities have been attempted before (cf. E.O. Wilson’s consilience) with less than compelling results. What I’m suggesting is not that everything operates by the same set of rules, but that, through a process of detournement (drawing from McKenzie Wark’s discussion of Bogdanov’s tectology), we can understand continuity metaphorically. That is, it’s not the same processes at work in every domain, but by looking metaphorically at disparate processes, we might find some similarities that help us frame our understanding in a more effective way.

In my research – and drawing from other scholarship – I’m following three key processes of production: Contact, friction, and work. It’s these three processes – metaphorically applied – that can help us understand the production of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it exists today.

Contact

I’m drawing for this on Samuel Delany’s analysis of the infrastructural changes that took place in Times Square in the 1990s. In the second part of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany explores the concept of “contact” and argues that life is easier, better, etc. when there is a greater amount of “cross-class contact.” Contact, for Delany, is any non-institutionally organized interaction between people. He contrasts it with “networking” which is the institutionally-mediated interaction with which we are all familiar (the conference, the workshop, the university meeting, etc.). Delany describes contact:

Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash regis- ter. It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop. It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar. It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semi-officials or service persons—mailman, policeman, librarian, store clerk or counter person (p. 123).

In a queering move, he goes on to add that contact also includes instances of “casual” sexual relationships at bars, nightclubs, adult theaters, etc. It’s this kind of contact, he argues, that has been diminished by the infrastructural changes to Times Square (intended to make the area more “safe” and welcoming to tourists and families).

I’m using the concept similarly, except that I want to extend it beyond social interactions. My understanding of contact is any kind of interaction across difference. Importantly, Delany suggests that contact can be of two types – inter-class and intra-class. He advocates for more inter-class conflict, but I would argue that the difference is one of degree rather than kind. There is always difference involved in contact (otherwise there would be no need for contact), it’s just a question of how much contact. I certainly agree that more contact across greater degrees of difference is being diminished in our society (as people isolate themselves more and more, and seek out like-minded others with whom to interact and engage), and that a purposeful attempt to increase it would be potentially beneficial (also potentially disastrous depending on the circumstances… something to keep in mind – Delany does discuss safety in the book).

So contact could mean unstructured encounters between people or it could mean encounters between people and other organisms, people and the landscape, or it could mean encounters between things other than people entirely – the predator-prey relationship, for example. In order for something to be produced, whether it’s a relationship, an object, a place, an organism, etc., there has to be contact across some difference. Delany essentially stops there – and in the case of his analysis, nothing more is necessarily needed. Contact – and inter-class contact in particular – is a good thing and we should make efforts to increase it. But if we want to understand how the world is produced and how we can develop alternative futures, I think we need more than contact. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

 

Friction

That’s where friction comes in. Here I’m drawing mainly on Anna Tsing’s work in her book Friction and her latest book The Mushroom at the End of the World, but also from the notion of computational friction that Paul Edwards discusses in A Vast Machine. Conveniently, these two have already done the metaphorical extension of the concept for me, so there’s not much more for me to add. Friction, for Tsing (I won’t go into Edwards’s notion here, but I suggest you read his book), is “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (p. 4). Notice we are already starting from difference – contact. For me, then, friction is the difference between any beings making contact.

According to Tsing, Friction is productive – the wheel cannot move without the friction between it and the road. Similarly, the frictions between people can be productive as well. She shows how by describing a scenario where it was as a result of their differences that three groups of people – indigenous people inhabiting a forest region, national environmental activist groups in Bali, and environmental management agencies – were able to protect an important region of forest from logging. I think, generally, that there will always be differences to work through in any given contact scenario, but some differences will be greater than others, and the particular quality of those differences influences and informs the process of working through them as well as the products that could emerge. A rubber tire against asphalt will produce something different from a metal wheel against ice. A good example of this can be seen in Sarah Whatmore’s examination of different modeling “performances” and how they are shaped by the “obstacles and affordances” in every different scenario. Attempts to erase or eradicate friction could be seen to be either apolitical or harmful.

But Friction is not productive in itself. In fact, friction can often be counterproductive. A tire against asphalt doesn’t move itself, and, similarly, people encountering one another may simply ignore  or interact in a way that doesn’t affect either of them significantly. So, again, something else is needed to explain what’s going on.

 

Work

That’s why I’ve always talked about the concept of work. It’s arguable that I’m drawing from Pickering’s notion of the mangle here, but not directly or specifically. Work, for me, is the process of interacting and engaging across difference. It’s through this process that change takes place, and new things, relationships, or ways of living are produced.

Work is not necessarily intentional, but can be (in fact, I’ve argued that the “struggle” in struggle forever is a subset of work that involves intentionally engaging with difference). This process takes different forms depending on the circumstances, but essentially some energy must be applied in order to overcome the differences inherent in friction. The engine drives the wheel, or people negotiate to come up with a solution to whatever problems they face. This isn’t to say that the difference is eliminated – the tire doesn’t become asphalt or vice versa – but that some change takes place and the difference is used to make something new. In addition, all of the entities involved are changed in the process. Not entirely, but in some small way – the asphalt and tire are worn down, for example – and occasionally in significant ways as well.

 

These three concepts – contact, friction, and work – help us to understand the processes that shape our world both socially and naturally. Applying them metaphorically, it’s possible to see continuity across these different domains and to think through the possible alternative paths along which things could develop. There’s a lot more to the overall framework than this. For example, contact-friction-work is always productive, but not always in ways that benefit anyone involved. An ungreased axel allows contact between the axel and the frame, which causes friction, and as the engine works to resolve the friction, the car flips and harms the people inside. This is an aspect that we have to think through – simply because they are productive does not mean that they are good, valuable, or beneficial. Also, there are times when the encounter is uneven – the burden of work falls on one side or the other, or one being is more affected by the process than another. This is where notions of power, vulnerability, and precarity come in. It may not matter in the case of natural phenomena like the collision of tectonic plates, but it becomes an important consideration in social encounters. As I said, all of this will be developed further in my dissertation, but hopefully this general outline provides some insight into where I might be going. I think in the case of modeling, we can see the construction of models as opportunities for contact that produce frictions and require various kinds of work to overcome. This kind of analysis can help us understand how the watershed came to be the way it is now, and might help us think of alternative ways that we can produce models or use them to produce different kinds of outcomes.

*As I wrote this, Levi Bryant published this blog post, which offers another way of framing similar processes.