Quotable (#186)

Ed Yong’s microbe book, I Contain Multitudes, is stunningly good. Among hundreds of quotable passages, this (p.84) seems of exceptionally general relevance:

We like our black-and-white narratives, with clear heroes and villains. In the last few years, I’ve seen the viewpoint that “all bacteria must be killed” slowly give ground to “bacteria are our friends and want to help us”, even though the latter is just as wrong as the former. We cannot simply assume that a particular microbe is “good” just because it lives inside us. Even scientists forget this. The very term symbiosis has been twisted so that its original neutral meaning — “living together” — has been infused with positive spin, and almost flaky connotations of cooperation and harmony. But evolution doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t necessarily favor cooperation, even if that’s in everyone’s interests. And it saddles even the most harmonious relationships with conflict.

Quotable (#123)

The moralization of ecology is a strange modern phenomenon, leading to something like this:

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status. Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Limits can take care of themselves, can’t they? Hitting a harsh boundary and undergoing selection there is the way it works. (Mother Nature and Capitalism share some very basic assumptions in this respect.)

Quotable (#92)

From an engaging discussion of metabolic rift — a link-concept connecting ecological topics into political economy — arises a crucial moment of recognition, pointing here:

With abstract time, in other words, would come abstract space (Lefebvre, 1991). Together, they were the indispensable corollaries to the weird crystallization of human and extra-human natures in the form of abstract social labor. It was this ascendant law of value — operating as gravitational field rather than mechanism—that underpinned the extraordinary landscape and biological revolutions of early modernity. Notwithstanding the fanciful historical interpretations of the Anthropocene argument and its idealized model of a two-century modernity (Steffen et al., 2011), the origins of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy and today’s biospheric turbulence are to be found in the long sixteenth century. The issue is not one of anthropogenic-drivers — presuming a fictitious human unity — but of the relations of capital and capitalist power. The issue is not the Anthropocene, but the Capitalocene.

Quotable (#85)


… a strong case can be made that the internet … doesn’t actually make economic sense; it’s being propped up by a set of financial gimmickry with a distinct resemblance to smoke and mirrors; and when those go away — and they will — much of what makes the internet so central a part of pop culture will go away as well. […] It’s probably necessary to repeat here that the reasons for this are economic, not technical. Every time I’ve discussed the hard economic realities that make the internet’s lifespan in the deindustrial age roughly that of a snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard, I’ve gotten a flurry of responses fixating on purely technical issues. Those issues are beside the point. No doubt it would be possible to make something like the internet technically feasible in a society on the far side of the Long Descent, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that the internet has to cover its operating costs, and it also has to compete with other ways of doing the things that the internet currently does.

It’s a source of wry amusement to me that so many people seem to have forgotten that the internet doesn’t actually do very much that’s new. Long before the internet, people were reading the news, publishing essays and stories, navigating through unfamiliar neighborhoods, sharing photos of kittens with their friends, ordering products from faraway stores for home delivery, looking at pictures of people with their clothes off, sending anonymous hate-filled messages to unsuspecting recipients, and doing pretty much everything else that they do on the internet today. For the moment, doing these things on the internet is cheaper and more convenient than the alternatives, and that’s what makes the internet so popular. If that changes — if the internet becomes more costly and less convenient than other options — its current popularity is unlikely to last.

With the follow up:

Last week’s post on the impending decline and fall of the internet fielded a great many responses. That was no surprise, to be sure; nor was I startled in the least to find that many of them rejected the thesis of the post with some heat. Contemporary pop culture’s strident insistence that technological progress is a clock that never runs backwards made such counterclaims inevitable. …

(This blog is certainly in the ‘counterclaim’ camp, and provocation of this radicality is a huge stimulus to get on with it …)

Please Make it Stop

There’s Left Accelerationism, and then there are these guys:

Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.

(Not exactly ‘Common Dreams’ one might cynically think.)

Gibson’s Nightmare

At the most superficial level, there’s probably some sleeplessness accompanying the anxiety that the whole of The Peripheral — once people have processed it — begins to look like a piece of fabulously ornate, maze-patterned wrapping paper for the four pages that really matter. There’s the Great Pacific Garbage Patch elsewhere, along with ubiquitous near-future drones, and – further down the time-line — some exotic neo-primitivist adornments — but basically, if you’ve read Chapter 79, you’ve got the thing. Yes, that’s to miss out on some of the time-travel structure, but Gibson takes such a lazy approach to that (deliberately suppressing all paradox circuitry) it’s no great loss.

On the positive side, those four pages are really something. Chapter 79 is helpfully entitled The Jackpot, and contains what might well be the most profound reworking of apocalypticism of modern times. There are some (fairly weak) remarks here. Perhaps somebody has already contributed some better commentary, that I’ve missed.

The Jackpot is a catastrophe with a fruit-machine model — all the reels have to click together ‘right’ for it to amount to disaster. It’s therefore poly-causal, cross-lashed, or “multiplex” — eluding narrative apprehension through multiplicity.

… it was no one thing. … it was multicausal, with no particular beginning and no end. More a climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to have a big event, after which everybody ran around with guns … or else were eaten alive by something caused by the big event. Not like that.

It was androgenic … Not that they’d known what they were doing, had meant to make problems, but they’s caused it anyway. And in fact the climate, the weather, caused by there being too much carbon, had been the driver for a lot of other things.How that got worse and never better, and was just expected to, ongoing. Because people in the past, clueless as to how that worked, had fucked it all up, then not been able to get it together to do anything about it, even after they knew, and now it was too late.

It kills 80% of the world’s human population in the end.

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Edited Life

Leonard Eisenberg has created a striking new visualization of the tree of life.


It’s open about the skew: “All the major and many of the minor living branches of life are shown on this diagram, but only a few of those that have gone extinct are shown.”

Extinction is overwhelmingly the deep reality, compared to which the survival of species — the selected phenomenon — is scarcely more than a rounding error. Through a reflexive, lucid, secondary selection the culled, blasted, and gnawed tree of terrestrial life is edited into the attractive flowering shrub we see in the diagram. It shows us what our illusion looks like in detail.

Survivor or selection bias is a hugely important frame. It absorbs the whole of anthropic reasoning in principle. To produce a display of life on earth that realistically incorporated it would require overcoming a range of psychological and epistemological obstacles so profound they reach the very root of the biological enterprise and even human intelligence as such, but only then would we truly see where we come from.

Blow Ups

Shanghai’s the Power Station of Art is hosting The Ninth Wave, a solo exhibition of work by Cai Guo-Qiang (1957-), through to October 26. It’s … explosive.

The name of the show, and its central exhibit, is taken from a painting (1850) by Russian artist Ivan Aivazavosky (1817-1900). This image of inundating disaster is of clear relevance to the show, but it also serves as a pretext and screen for an adoption of signs that Cai Guo-Qiang invests with singular (and cryptic) evocations. Deep rhythms of time, power, and number are a consistent theme flowing through the exhibition.

The Ninth Wave (2014) is a re-purposed boat, crowded with (99) stuffed animals. It was floated down the Huangpu to be installed in the show, making it the memorial of an event — a signature of Cai’s work. Superficially, it’s a Noah’s Ark, and an icon of ecological calamity, but this barnacled hulk, with its crew of traumatized inhuman survivors, also satirizes the dramatic narratives — whether comic or tragic — that are employed to frame the profound, ruinous tides of cosmic transition.

Cai Guo-Qiang has seared his name on the cultural imagination in fireworks, pursuing an incendiary path to neotraditonalist aesthetic restoration. Working with gunpowder is the revival of a traditional Chinese artistic medium. Cai modernizes its potential for public spectacle, in ‘Explosive Events’ or ‘Pyrotechnic Explosion Projects’ which are stunningly documented in the show. Yet, among the things Cai explodes is media compartmentalization. The fallout from his work includes char-marked images, production diagrams, and video recordings. His detonations spread across the entire multidimensional domain of visual aesthetics. Time itself is envisaged as a system of explosions, burns, and debris.

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