amor mundi

Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Americans Can No Longer Distinguish Optimism from Advertizing

Ever notice how often "positive people" who call you too negative are just trying to sell your something?

Why Our Militant Atheists Are Not Secular Thinkers

Secularity -- from the Latin saecularis, worldly, timely, contingent -- properly so called, is a pluralist not eliminationist impulse. In naming the distinction of worldly affairs from spiritual devotions, it distinguished the good life of the vita contemplativa of philosophy from that of the vita activa of the statesman or aesthete, but later went on to carve out the distinctions of clerical from government, legal, professional authorities. The Separation of Church and State as pillar of secular thinking and practice is the furthest imaginable thing from sectarian or ethnic strife amplified by the eliminationist imagination into genocidal violence -- and yet the identification of today's militant atheists with a "secular worldview" risks precisely such a collapse.

Secularism has never demanded an anti-religiosity but recognized the legitimacy of non-religiosities. Indeed, in diverse multicultures such as our own secularism becomes indispensable to the continuing life of religious minorities against majority or authoritarian formations of belief, and hence is not only not anti-religious but explicitly facilitative of variously religious lifeways as it is of variously non-religious lifeways.

I have been an atheist since 1983 -- over thirty years by now! after a Roman Catholic upbringing. I am quite happy to live a life a-thiest -- "without god(s)" -- myself, but the primary value of secularism to me has always been its entailment of and insistence on a pluralist practice of reason, in which we recognize that there are many domains of belief distinguished in their concerns, in their cares, and in the manner of their convictions. Our scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, professional, political beliefs, and so on, occupy different conceptual and practical domains, incarnate different registers of our lives, are warranted by different criteria. For the pluralist, reason is not properly construed as the monomaniacal reduction of all belief to a single mode, but a matter of recognizing what manner of concern, care, and conviction belief is rightly occasioned for and then applying the right criteria of warrant appropriate to that mode.

Pluralism is not a relativism or nihilism, as threatened bearings of fundamentalist belief would have it, but a rigorous reasonableness equal to the complexity, dynamism, and multifaceted character of existence and of the personalities beset by its demands and possibilities. For one thing, pluralism allows us to grasp and reconcile the aspirational force of the contingent universalism of ethics without which we could not conceive let alone work toward progress or the Beloved Community of the we in which all are reconciled, while at once doing justice to the fierce demands and rewards in dignity and belonging deriving from our (inevitably plural, usually partial) inhabitation of moral communities that build the "we" from exclusions of various construals of the "they." Pluralism allows us to reconcile as well our pursuit of the private perfections of morality and sublimity (my appreciation of the aesthetical forms of which requires my admission of the validity for others, whatever my atheism, of its faithly forms) with the public works of scientific, political, legal, professional progress.

It is crucial to grasp that the refusal of pluralism is reductionism, and that reductionism is an irrationalism. It is a form of insensitivity, a form of unintelligence -- and usually a testimony to and inept compensation for insecurity. In Nietzsche's critique of the fetish (Marx's commodity fetishism and Freud's sexual fetishes are surface scratches in comparison) this reductionism is the ressentimental attutude of the life of fear over the lives of love, the philosophical imposture of deception and self-deception peddled as truth-telling. To impose the criteria of warrant proper to scientific belief to moral belief, say, or to aesthetic judgement, or to legal adjudication is to be irrational not rational. Also, crucially, it is to violate and not celebrate science.

To call the celebrated (or at any rate noisy) militant atheistic boy warriors of today "secular thinkers" is a profound error. To misconstrue as the sins of religious faith as such the moralizing misapplication of faithly norms to political practices is to misunderstand the problem at hand -- and usually in a way that multiplies errors: Hence, our militant atheists become bigots tarring innocent majorities with the crimes of violent minorities, they lose the capacity to recognize differences that make a difference in cultures, societies, individuals all the while crowing about their superior discernment.

Those who commit crimes and administer tyrannies in the name of faith irrationally and catastrophically misapply the substantiation of aesthetic sublimities and parochial mores connected to some among indefinitely many forms of religiosity to domains of ethical aspiration and political progress to which they are utterly unsuited. Fascism and moralizing are already-available terms for these too familiar irrational misapplications. Meanwhile those who attribute these crimes and tyrannies to the aesthetic and the moral as such, as practiced in variously faithful forms, are inevitably indulging in reductionism. This reductionism in its everyday stupidity is usually a form of ethnocentric subcultural parochialism, but the militant atheists prefer their stupidity in the form of scientism, usually assuming the imaginary vantage of a superior scientificity the terms of which preusmably adjudicate the unethical in moralizing and the tyrannical in progressivity because it subsumes ethical and political domains within its own scientific terms. In this, scientism first distorts science into a morality which it then, flabbergastingly, distorts into a moralism itself, thus mirroring the very fundamentalism it seeks to critique.

Secularism is the theoretical and practical responsiveness to the plurality of a world in which there is always more going on that matters in the present than any of us can know and in which the diversity of stakeholders to the shared present reopens history to struggle. It is bad enough that today's militant atheists get so much of the substance and value of science, taste, and faith wrong in their disordering rage for order, but in calling their reductionist irrationality "secular thinking" we risk losing the sense and significance of the secular altogether, that accomplishment of reason without which we can never be equal to the demands and promises of reality and history in the plurality of their actual presence.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Consolidated A Quarter Century Later

I was listening to this with righteous fury back in Atlanta as a Queer National, vegan hard-ass (these days I'm cheerfully vegetarian and prefer my queerness post-nationalist), and budding socialist feminist green, writing an MA thesis connecting queer theory and technocultural theory (a trace of which survives here). I had not the slightest suggestion of a hope back then that I would be in San Francisco working with my hero Judith Butler in just two years' time. That was wonderful, even a little miraculous. But I did have great hope and conviction then that those songs would no longer be so thoroughly relevant to the America of 2014, a generation away, an America of ongoing unemployment and lowered expectations and still-profiteering banksters, of SillyCon fraudsters, of racist police, of rising Greenhouse storms. That has not been so wonderful, not so miraculous.

Friday, December 19, 2014

So, Now I'm Bingewatching Fringe

Not sure if all this post-teaching marathonization is psychic cleansing or cluttering, but I am still enjoying myself. I need a shave and haircut after all this bunkering, that's for sure. Also, reading up a storm right now: Naguib Mahfouz, Nalo Hopkinson, Margaret Atwood.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Technofixated Escapists

Why pine for escape to extra-terrestrial hellscapes when we can work to keep earth from becoming an alter-terrestrial hellscape instead?

More Futurological Brickbats here.

Robot Cultists Looking for "Conscientious and Discreet" Helpmate for Guru

My friend "JimF" has directed my attention to a rather interesting proposal floated by the Centre for Effective Altruism, which is an arm of the Less Wrong sub-sect of the MIRI sub-sect of the Singularitarian sect of the Transhumanist "movement." Here it is:
If funding were available, the Centre for Effective Altruism would consider hiring someone to work closely with Prof Nick Bostrom to provide anything and everything he needs to be more productive. Bostrom is obviously the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and author of Superintelligence, the best guide yet to the possible risks posed by artificial intelligence.
Nobody has yet confirmed they will fund this role, but we are nevertheless interested in getting expressions of interest from suitable candidates.
The list of required characteristics is hefty, and the position would be a challenging one:
  • Willing to commit to the role for at least a year, and preferably several
  • Able to live and work in Oxford during this time
  • Conscientious and discreet
  • Trustworthy
  • Able to keep flexible hours (some days a lot of work, others not much)
  • Highly competent at almost everything in life (for example, organising travel, media appearances, choosing good products, and so on)
  • Will not screw up and look bad when dealing with external parties (e.g. media, event organisers, the university)
  • Has a good personality 'fit' with Bostrom
  • Willing to do some tasks that are not high-status
  • Willing to help Bostrom with both his professional and personal life (to free up his attention)
  • Can speak English well
  • Knowledge of rationality, philosophy and artificial intelligence would also be helpful, and would allow you to also do more work as a research assistant.
The research Bostrom can do is unique; to my knowledge we don't have anyone who has made such significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity as a whole. As a result, helping increase Bostrom's output by say, 20%, would be a major contribution. This person's work would also help the rest of the Future of Humanity Institute run smoothly.
Pondering the "tasks that are not high status" required of this paid helpmate, Jim commented, "Maybe he needs somebody (as Kurzweil is said to employ someone) to count out his daily doses of life-extending vitamin pills... Or give him nootropic foot massages. God only knows."

As an academic I am quite familiar with the phenomenon of graduate students with research positions for professorial muckety-mucks who sift through their e-fanmail, walk their dogs, proofread their scrawls, get their coffee orders just so and so on, and as somebody who lives in a California metropolitan area I am no less familiar with PAs following celebrity-CEOs around like serfs on speed-dial, permanently at-the-ready for ego (to say the least) fluffing, so I guess I don't find that part of the proposal utterly illegible -- although the phenomenon rather grosses me out as a general matter.

Of course, there is a rich vein of humor to be mined in the baldly repetitious pleas for cash here, the corn-ball con-job of declaring Bostrom's "significant strides clarifying the biggest risks facing humanity" by which is meant Bostrom's distraction of attention from real problems of anthropogenic climate change, human trafficking and precarization, neglected treatable diseases and basic infrastructure and social support failures in overexploited regions and populations, weapons proliferation, and so on to focus instead of futurological fancies like robot armies, nanobotic plagues, and devilish superintelligent post-biological Robot Gods (Bostrom's, er, "specialty" these days).

I've been reading and engaging with Robot Cultists for over a quarter of a century at this point and I still gasp at the flabbergasting self-congratulatory assignment of terms like "rationality" to describe such recklessly unwarranted wish-fulfillment fantasizing, of terms like "philosophy" to describe fanboy flamewars over stipulated properties of imaginary objects unmoored from reality (except as symptoms for their psychotherapists to puzzle over), and of phrases like "effective altruism" to describe the fleecing of technoscientific illiterates by guru-wannabes who never actually make anything but pitches for more dough.

But above all I guess what I find most puzzling about this proposal is that Bostrom is supposed to be one of the Robot Cult's most legitimate, high-profile academics. He is widely published and comparatively widely-read. He is affiliated with Oxford University, and so on. Doesn't he already have research assistants getting his dry-cleaning and organizing his mail? Bostrom hob-nobs with big wigs in the corporate-military think-tank archipelago these days. Surely he's got billionaires like those Koch Brothers of reactionary futurology Peter Thiel and Elon Musk on his rolodex. Kurzweil's cooling his heels over at Google. Doesn't Bostrom have sugar daddies who can get somebody to put sugar in his coffee already? Heck, Martine Rothblatt is another one of the fellow-faithful, although her money bags are more at the disposal of a different sect of the Robot Cult, the cyberangel avatar in Holodeck Heaven sub-sect of the techno-immortalist sub-sect of the transhumanist "movement."

Is this plea to get Bostrom a gofer just an embarrassing crass scam for cash on the part of the Centre for Effective [sic] Altruism and the Less Wrong throng? Is the robocultic mad scientist masters of the universe schtick these futurological eminences like to play out actually as marginal an enterprise as it deserves to be, leaving Bostrom's Believers to work on a shoestring despite all those corporate logos and well-heeled institutional contacts they flog? Are Eliezer Yudkowsky's man minions worried that they are falling out of the futurological fraud loop and looking to get a sect-friendly libertechbrotarian inside man into Bostrom's lofty perch? As I said, Kurzweil is peddling his vaporware for Google now, the Singularity has terminologically transferred from Eliezer's fanboy circle-jerk to the venture-capitalists of Singularity University, and Bostrom's record of distancing himself from the futurological faithful by founding first the conspicuously cultic World Transhumanist Association and then next the stealth transhumanist cultic Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and now the thoroughly mainstreamed and fumigated Oxford Future of Humanity Institute (never changing his assumptions, aspirations, methods, or canon very much along the way) can't be inspiring confidence. Perhaps this is just a clumsy dash for an open seat before the music stops: perhaps the Singularity isn't the black hole some Robot Cultists are contemplating at the moment.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Snap Out of It! They Don't Care When We Debunk Them

Eekbola is Politifact's Lie of the Year: Democrats do another round of our vindication dance, Republicans prepare another round of dancing on our graves. Republicans don't give a shit about being debunked. Debunking isn't dismantling. Movement Republicanism mobilizes fears and greed to peddle policies that benefit a minority to a majority harmed by them. Deception is built into the worldview. "Noble lie" rationalizations and cynical "buyer beware" injunctions suffuse the plutocratic and promotional Republican political culture through and through (and no small amount of the corporate-militarist wing of the DNC). It isn't enough for us to be "correct" or them "corrected." To be correct but politically disorganized is just another way of being incorrect. Anybody taking the least measure of satisfaction from some belated vindication that they were right about something they already knew they were right about but which was defeated by well-organized lies is not celebrating truth but celebrating their defeat by lies so long as they have not learned the lesson of the defeat that being correct isn't enough make progress.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


"Future Shock" is what happens when advertizing hyping stasis as novelty, progress, and disruption makes you yawn so hard your head splits in half.

More Futurological Brickbats here.


Money talks, but it has little to say.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rain is the New Eekbola

I wonder who benefits from the translation of a shitty infrastructure story into a shitty storm story...?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

End of Cerebration Celebration

Final grades submitted, recommendation letters are done. What is equal to this moment? Always only one thing... Xanadu! Xanadu! Xanadu!

Grading Is Done...

...recommendation letters still loom, half-done, forget the sun.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Grading for One Course Done

Grading for another course ongoing. Recommendation letters ongoing. My exciting life.

Tech Company Taxonomy

There are basically two kinds of tech company: the ones that should be prosecuted for fraud and the ones that should be nationalized as public utilities.

More Futurological Brickbats here.

New Design Problem

Ever notice how everything looks like a design problem to self-designated designers?

Politics of Design

Design is what politics looks like when elite minorities make decisions for majorities and pretend it's okay because design isn't politics.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

An Occupy of Their Own: The Neo-Confederate Movement Republican Threat Is Alter-Federal Not Anti-Federal

In the last quarter century the Republicans have won the popular vote for the Presidency only once, and the racist sexist Christianist voices in the GOP heard loud and clear by a rapidly diversifying secularizing population make national viability seem ever more remote while consolidating the Republicans as a permanent marginal reactionary neo-confederate rump. But in states with substantial Democratic-leaning populations that happen to be under the control of Republicans at present proposals are being seriously floated to apportion electoral college votes for the Presidency proportionally, with the proviso that in solidly Republican states the assignment of votes to the Electoral College would remain winner-take-all. This would make it possible for Republicans to acquire a lock on the White House whatever the unpopularity of their positions, just as gerrymandering, disenfranchisement schemes, and the structural asymmetry of rural over urban voters give the Republicans a lock on the House of Representatives even as Democrats vote in far greater numbers.

The exposure today of a cabal of Republican-controlled State attorneys-general in a once-secret alliance with energy companies to derail environmental regulations and oversight is obviously continuous with the recent phenomenon of Republican state legislatures becoming rubber stamps passing corporate privatizing and deregulatory schemes and enabling private-arsenals for vigilante-fantasists authored by the reactionary American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

But I think it is just as important to understand the connection between today's revelations and the revelations from earlier this week about proposals to rig the Electoral College. Everybody knows that arguments for "States Rights" have functioned since the civil rights era as scarcely stealthed reactionary resistance to federal statutes seeking to dismantle institutionalized white-supremacy in the United States. Republicans enacting agendas for corporate profiteering at the expense of public health and equal rights are also scarcely stealthed reactionary resistance to federal statutes seeking to dismantle unsustainable extractive-industrial practices in the United States. (Leave to the side, if you can, your knowledge that these statutes were and remain radically unequal to the structural promotion of both white-supremacy and unsustainable industry in the United States -- my focus here is on the reactionary resistance to even inadequate legislative efforts.)

We make a great mistake if we view these reactionary movements as anti-federalist rather than alter-federalist programs. Although Republicans prefer to frame their program as a matter of resistance to Big Government meddling -- and this elicits their preferred political imaginary as a retreat into more modestly-scaled homogenous rural/suburban communities, heteronormative nuclear families, and ruggedized maker/consumer individuals -- the result they seek to facilitate is the plutocratic hegemony of Big Corporations (many of them profitably contracting for Big Militarism). The state politics of Movement Republicanism has never been a matter of retreats into the several states but efforts to create multi-state leagues that would function as intimations of a shadow Federal Government resisting the proper Federal Government represented by the New Deal and Great Society programs to install equity-in-diversity.

Although left intellectuals like to laugh at the transparent authoritarian buffoonery of Texas Republicans howling for secession or Tea Party "patriots" advocating anti-constitutionalist nullification strategies supposedly in the name of the Constitution they would shred, it is crucial to grasp that these gestures are embedded in both a national cultural movement (highly organized precisely because it is so defensive) and national institutions funded by corporations that stand to profit enormously from comparatively small investments in this organizing.

The secessionist gesture isn't a separatism from national politics but an embrace of national politics otherwise. Because its base is located in the Solid South and given the reactionary racism that fuels so much of the culture of Movement Republicanism it is easy to mis-identify the neo-confederate threat of red-state organizing as a continuation of the Civil War, another rise of the feudal Southern Confederacy -- but it is no less crucial to grasp the linkage of these politics with the anarchic ideology of the failed pre-constitutional order of America's Articles of Confederation. The cultural politics of white-racism and patriarchal sex panic would re-direct the anxiety, grievance, and rage of plutocratic precarization into a motor driving the organization of plutocratic prevalence itself.

The Movement Republican proposal to rig the electoral college is a recipe for the permanent occupation of a diverse American majority by the plutocratic minority -- the Movement Republican example of legislators captured by ALEC and attorney's general captured by energy companies is not just anti-federal plutocratic resistance but the practice of the alter-federal plutocratic occupation.

It is not clear to me that the Democratic left -- still profoundly undermined by the living (at any rate zombie) legacy of Clinton-epoch corporatist-capture represented by the DLC and Blue Dogs -- is equal to the anti-democratizing threat of corporate-military organizational resources riding on a cultural wave of class-resentment orchestrated as a force for reaction rather than progress by the masterly manipulation of racist and sexist fears. There are parallels between Occupy and the Tea Party movement, but glib identifications of the two miss the crucial substantive difference of diverse spontaneous grassroots agitation that failed to connect in a direct or sustainable way to electoral and legislative campaigns as against the mass mobilization of racist subcultures organized and funded by plutocratic elites functioning more or less as a consumer fandom (consuming hate-talk ideology, Fox celebrities, and de-contextualized patriotic fetishes) in the service of stealthy plutocratic ends.

Countervailing democratizing cultural movements from Wisconsin to Occupy to the Dreamers to Black Lives Matter have yet to connect to either electoral or legislative results. Since there is far more to political progress than electioneering and legislation this failure to connect does not render these movement for democratic equity-in-diversity failures by any means -- far from it -- however until they do connect to electoral coalition-building and sustainable legislative accomplishments they will remain unequal to the ultimate vision and task that drives them. A resurgence of union organizing for fast-food and retail workers and adjunct instructors is a resource for hope -- especially to the extent that this labor organizing connects to the democratizing movements in the streets while at once fighting to jettison residual corporatism in the Democratic Party (fights against charter school scams, betrayals of public pensioners, and selling off public assets and contracting out public services to profiteers).

The Republican Right likes to daydream about "Starving the Beast," depriving federal government construed as a democratic force implementing equity-in-diversity of the resources to do its work by dividing the majority of people who work for a living from their shared economic interests and all people who live on earth from their shared ecologic dependencies in the service of the profits of a plutocratic minority. Of course, the Republican Revolution is an inverted echo of real revolution, Movement Republicanism is a reaction against the New Deal and Great Society as imperfect democratizing movements against Economic Royalists (FDR's term for the plutocrats against democracy he betrayed) and white-supremacy (which a white-racist LBJ understood well enough to be ambivalent about it to say the least).

Democrats who understand who they are and stand up for what they stand for should understand well enough that we are the ones who want to Starve the Beast. The real Beast is anti-democratic white-racist patriarchal extractive-industrial corporate-militarism. Democrats want to Starve the Beast with progressive taxes and the regulation of profits that derive either from skim/scam operations or cost/risk externalization. To Starve the Beast as a Movement Democrat would mean to divert resources from plutocratic Movement Republican organizing through taxes and regultions that at once funded and implemented programs to facilitate sustainable equity-in-diversity that also build solidarity and so undermine Movement Republican dependence on the divisive politics of racist and sexist grievance. Democrats will never succeed in this work until we name the Beast for what it is, and name the democratizing work of progressive taxation and regulation for the public good as what it is as well. We need to think what we are doing, then say what we are doing, and then repeat it until everybody understands the battle at hand and nobody forgets the interminable work to be done and nobody is allowed to get away with betraying the work in its name.

I daresay immigrants and people of color and long-term unemployed people and youth all of whom know too well where the guns are pointed as well as women denied healthcare by forced-pregnancy zealots will be less likely to get demoralized and apathetic as their fight for democratic equity-in-diversity is a fight for their lives, an important shift from the privileged white male voices that have long dominated democratic politics. Too many Democratic voices have seemed willing to expose reactionary hypocrisy, fraud, corruption, bigotry, or ignorance and then either shake their heads at how unsurprising all this is or enjoy rueful belly-laughs at how ridiculous all this is. The acquiescence and cynicism of this mode of critique ultimately testifies to a real or imagined insulation from the worst consequences of plutocratic politics that white guys are best positioned to believe -- though no one will escape for long the catastrophic reality of greenhouse storms and pandemics and unrest. Not that anybody ever listened to me anyway, but come what may this all too privileged (my queerness and precarious adjunctcy notwithstanding) white male for environmental justice and democratic socialist-feminism would be more than thrilled for the trade-off of getting more progress for getting less attention.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Proselytizing Patriarchs

For me, the worst thing in the worst religions is their patriarchy. How disappointing to find the worst thing in the worst atheisms is their patriarchy, too.

Friday, December 05, 2014

A New WFS Post Is Up

An edited and slightly expanded version of a post here from a couple days back, Eric Garner and the Cop Cam Sham is now up at the World Future Society.

Billmon Has Storified His Righteous TNR Critique Tweets

The New Democrats at The New Republic Enter the New Economy: They don't like it any better than U.S. steelworkers did.

End of Term

Grading, grading, missing papers, grading, grading, family emergency, grading, grading, no name on the notebook, grading, grading, author's name spelled wrong every time, grading, grading, thin column, huge margins, grading, grading, this must be a rough draft, grading, grading, thanks in advance for your understanding, grading, grading, I tried to say too much so I didn't say anything, grading, grading, too late for an incomplete, grading, grading, can I bring it to your house, here's my number, grading, grading, can you write me a letter, the deadline's tomorrow, grading, grading, my god, oh the horror, grading, grading, get me out of here!

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Cop-Cam Sham: Political Problems Demand Political Solutions

Once again we are confronted with another miscarriage of justice as another police officer kills another unarmed black citizen the police are supposed to serve and protect. And once again calls are ringing out on all sides to install more cameras, cameras on police cars, cameras on the street, cameras on the bodies of cops on the beat.

Cop-cam techno-fixers really need to pause and take note: Eric Garner's death by a clearly illegal choke hold was on video and was seen by millions.

Solutions from scholars and activists and experts have been reiterated and mostly ignored for over a generation by now: setting up independent special prosecutors to address charges of police misconduct rather than grand juries composed of colleagues inthe criminal justice system with inherent conflicts of interest; extensive training for police in violence de-escalation strategies and to provide sensitivity to racial and other empirically well-established forms of bias, unconscious and conscious; hiring and promotion policies to reflect the composition of the communities they are meant to serve and protect; community policing, oversight and accountability; ending the harsh sentencing rules installed by the failed racist war on (some) drugs; commonsense gun safety regulations -- all of these and more are indispensable to address ongoing terrorization of vulnerable communities by police in all our names. If I point out that procedures are techniques and regulations are legal artifacts can technofixated futurists get behind these or similar proposals, even if they are not polished chrome and shaped like dildoes?

Of course, more body cameras for police on the street can and probably should be part of the story of better policing practices in our communities. I have nothing against that proposal except the pretense that cameras are "the solution."

It is crucial to grasp that the interpretation of camera footage is stratified and shaped by the same racism that shapes and stratifies the racist policing so many are talking about here, the footage is taken up in the context of the very institutional practices and procedures that are otherwise failing so conspicuously before our eyes. The same collegial incentives to protect police from accountability now would pressure those who presumably guard the footage. Think of "lost" e-mails, selective leaks of secret testimony, orchestrated press releases shaping public perceptions: more video surveillance footage is more mountain to mold. 

It is a strange thing, to say the least, to propose more surveillance as the ready-made solution to the unjust policing of people of color who have lived for generations under a regime of relentless onerous arbitrary surveillance as the substance of much of that unjust policing. Stop and frisk is a surveillance technique, you know. That policing has not been reformed even in the face of generations of obvious, ongoing failures should sound a warning that justice does not flow automatically from the visibility of injustice alone.

State sanctioned violence against black people from slavery, to Jim Crow, to inequitable incarceration and policing, is centuries old: it is not incidental to but an abiding historical constituent element of the justice system. Political problems demand political solutions. In this context, technofixated dreams of circumventions of the political with handy gizmos amount to affirmations of the politics of the reactionary racist status quo. My point in saying so is not to call the techno-fixated racist, but to appeal to their anti-racism to impel them to dig deeper than their usual techno-fixation to take on this long ongoing crisis on the educational, agitational, organizational terms it actually demands.

Crying Wolf

The GOP cried wolf over death panels, Benghazi, ebola, so much crap at this point. How can they still get so freaked out? Republicans must think most wolves are black.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Last Class

Delivering my last lecture of the term in the City today. Cold rain is pouring down, and the slog to the train will not dampen my celebratory mood. That gathering mountain of final papers and recommendation letters might, tho'.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Michael Jackson Was Not A Transhumanist

RU Sirius asks the question Was Michael Jackson A Transhumanist? in h+ magazine.

Now, it seems to me that you should actually identify as a transhumanist to be called one, perhaps belong to one of the many membership organizations in the robocultic archipelago,  participate collegially in their discursive spaces (or, say, edit one of their rags). One of the ways transhumanists try to court mainstream respectability is to appropriate concerns and associations with science or science fiction or the futuristic none of which they originated or to which they have particularly contributed anything of substance as somehow their own and then to declare people with actual accomplishments or high profiles as early or even closeted transhumanists through such associations. And if an interest in cosmetic surgery and cheesy science fiction is all it takes to be a transhumanist, then Los Angeles has a million of 'em -- but there are possibly far better words than "transhumanist" to describe these infantile commonalities, shall we say?

While I regard it as rather a silly stretch to attribute transhumanism to Michael Jackson, I do think afro-futural elements in his work are quite interesting and remain under-appreciated. Far from representing an aspiration to techno-transcendence it has always seemed to me that the famous choreography from the variations of the robot the Jackson 5 mastered to his signature moonwalk were stunning comments on and aestheticizations of the precarization of African-American youth in post-industrial landscapes like Jackson's Gary, Indiana. These highly stylized and ironic re-directions of infra-humanizing structural racism clearly seem of a piece with the popping and locking isolations in break-dancing styles and cultures emerging at roughly the same time. Michael Jackson's dance artistry is Brownian Motion: elaborating iconic moves of his idol James Brown, a subversive citation of a Motown archive Jackson was already an important part of himself. (These gestures are reframed again, you know, in the insistently afro-futural vocabularies of the stunning Janelle Monae, palpable especially in the videos from "Many Moons" to "Tightrope" to "Dance Apocalyptic," mulching her citations of musical archives -- including her repeated covers of and homages to the Jacksons, naturally, or I should say unnaturally -- and sf-tropes in her raced/gendered/classed archandroid critique.)

Jackson's beat-boxing and the very studied introduction of his signature bleeps and hees in which his voice mimics synthesized sounds or takes on an ironically performed coloration of auto-tuned smoothness (again, very intriguingly against the grain of the humanity and humanism in Brown's Fanonian outcries) seem to me of a piece with the afro-futural program of his choreography, a register of the impingement of marginalizing automation onto the body and the promise of an African-American youth, very much in conversation with some of the most interesting cultural critique in music of his time out of which hip-hop was then being articulated.

I mention this not only because it seems to me interesting on its own terms, but because I think it is necessary to complicate RU Sirius's rather facile characterization in that particular piece of Jackson's music as "reactionary" -- based on a pet progressive narrative trajectory in which, "It was a step backwards from the musical innovations popularized by The Beatles and others (including others like George Clinton and Sly Stone, in the funk genre)." Even if I happen to agree with the tastes being signaled here -- I love "Wanna Be Startin Somethin" as a groove but prefer the volcanic "I Want to Take You Higher," too -- I still think it is rather hilarious to pretend music takes such steps at all.

Where on earth are these steps presumably leading us to? Jackson's contemporary Prince actually does take up tropes and forms from the Beatles -- think of the conversational relation of Around the World in a Day and Rubber Soul, or the White Album with the Black, for example -- but it is strange to propose Prince stands in a more sophisticated citational relation to the canon; again, notice how indispensable both are to Monae's freedom songs today! Music, to say the obvious, resonates with the culture of which it is vitally a part, sometimes living on in our memories of its moment, sometime, rarely, taking on a new significance in being taken up in new places and times.

But even when music takes us there -- it is not taking us to "The Future." Not even Sun Ra or New Wave did that: they assembled and mobilized the future anterior in the present audience. Bowie's Space Oddity looked back not forward: else the pun wouldn't work, you know. In their PR stunt "Scream," it matters less that the siblings are in a spaceship than that the futuristic scene is in retro-futural black and white, they play blobjective "pong," that their cultural archive is confined to mid-century modern (Warhol, Eames, Pollock) and that they are "in orbit" above a present of which they are still a part, one that still pressures them to, you know, Scream. There is no "progress" in music, only accumulating densities and citations in presence.

Another underappreciated quality of Michael Jackson's ethos -- and, again, the theme is playing out today in Monae's afro-futurism as well -- is his playing up of the figure of the weirdo, the oddball, the nerd. From "Off the Wall" to his goosing of tabloids with catalogues of personal oddities, Jackson was always playing around with the isolated individual imaginatively invested in marginal enthusiasms -- a discordant, melancholy, but highly humanizing note in America's fever-dream of rugged indivudalism, and a precursor to the fragmenting ramifications of our present geek mass-culture. RU Sirius seems in his discussion of Jackson to take quite a lot of the tabloid attributions literally, rather than reading them Jackson's intriguing incorporation of these fictions and hyperboles into his paradoxical narrative gravity well.

As I said, I think it is inappropriate to call someone a "transhumanist" who doesn't declare themselves to be one, at least by their explicit participation in actually real transhumanist sub(cult)ure -- membership organizations, discursive spaces, ritual scenes, and so on. Transhumanism isn't original enough or long-lasting enough to claim a conceptual membership -- scientistic reductionism, techno-utopianism, consumer fetishism, eugenicism, immortalism all have deeper pedigrees than does the contemporary Robot Cult that happens to partake in them all.

That aside, though, there is definitely something interesting in RU Sirius's thought experiment. I have to say that if I were personally to pick a Jackson who seemed to speak to the transhumanoidal it would have to be Janet more than Michael Jackson, with her contrivance of a superannuated youthfulness and eerily smooth artifactual "naturalness." Michael's plastic spacesuits and shoulder pads are sites of camp humor and cultural trouble, compared with the body loathing and anaesthetized anti-intellectualism of Janet's permanent shy/wild suburban teen.

Monday, December 01, 2014


To say the personal is political is to notice that in becoming the personal some politics is de-politicized, with political consequences.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Futurology Defined

The futurological in my sense of the term is an ideological formation; it is essentially a marketing discourse amplifying the profits and authority of incumbent elites by mobilizing seductive and reassuring techno-transcendental wish-fulfillment fantasies in the form of unaccountable, apparently predictive, promissory, or even prophetic utterances in which the deceptive, hyperbolic norms and forms of promotion and advertising already suffusing our public life take on the coloration and intensity of outright organized religiosity: for example, in the guiding narratives of mainstream corporate-military think-tanks, in popular consumer fandoms for Apple products or celebrity CEOs, or in marginal futurist subcultures like transhumanism.

Those Who Forget History...

Those who forget the crappy commodities of the past are doomed to buy the same crap marketed as something new over and over again.

More Futurological Brickbats here.