Thursday, May 19, 2011

Life in the Bubble

In 2008, the JWTC series opened with a Symposium on Ernst Bloch. Here, Josh Comaroff from UCLA writes the second of three pieces from that conversation.

In a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, and in the wake of the widening sub-prime crisis, Eric Janszen made a disturbing assertion:

“There will and must be many more such booms, for without them the economy of the United States can no longer function. The bubble cycle has replaced the business cycle.”

With striking clarity, Janszen identifies three moments of hyperinflation, two of which have already imploded. The first was the famous Internet Economy of the late 1990s. The second was the sale of suspect mortgages to buyers who could not afford them. The third, currently in the first blush of youth, is already being termed the “NewNew New Economy”: alternative energy.

Each of these bubbles, it should be noted, involves a “predatory present” and a complexly calculated future. But they also rely upon a powerful “instinct for utopia.” The Internet Economy was, we will remember, to democratize the world through common access to information. Risky mortgages—and, more importantly, the financial instruments that made them possible—were realizing the dream of universal home-ownership. And renewable energy, even in the dubious form of Ethanol fuels, is perhaps the most utopian of the trio. It promises to deliver the clean, green future. It is perverse, indeed, to observe the language of 1968, of utopias connecting Ernst Bloch to Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord to Ian McHarg, smuggled under the mantle of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.

It is interesting to note, moreover, the way in which utopian expectations occupy the very heart of this most crepuscular neo-liberal phenomenon, the speculative cycle. While it is now clearly understood that peripatetic capital enters and (rather dramatically) evacuates, the expectations of the bubble are quite the opposite. Seemingly out of step with their post-Modern moment, these hearken back to older myths of continual economic expansion. The Internet is not an economic boom, we are told, but “a new paradigm,” one to reset all the rules. A week before the big sell-off, an article appeared on CNN’s website asserting “Dow at 30,000? It’s looking more and more real!” The bubble is ever dependent upon claims that the current moment is utterly revolutionary, resistant to history. The “new thing” is so sui generis, and so fecund, that there is no reason to expect an end. The outputs dwarf the inputs; normative rules of capital (or nature) no longer apply.

But this is not only the story of three bubbles at global scale; rather, there is an illogic at work here that extends to more humble circumstances. Pyramid schemes, 419 scams, and the promises of Prosperity Gospels likewise offer means without end, rewards in striking disproportion to investments. These involve mysterious factors of multiplication (genius, faith, or courage). Their influence is limited neither to the so-called “First World” or to the “Global South.”

Rather than rehearse the threadbare utopias of political theory, then, we might wish to engage the possibility of utopia as a negative impulse: that which makes us rubes for old wine in newbottles. As always, the future provides the pretext for the present, and projected outcomes and anxieties perform elaborate work in the now. Is it possible that two complimentary poles—crisis and utopian rupture, disaster and the better tomorrow—are the operative ideologies for an emergent economic order, and specifically for that which trades at the intersection of volatility and confidence? That is, we may wish to ask: what exactly is utopia up to, out there?

Josh Comaroff (University of California-Los Angeles)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Different Place is Not Necessarily a Better One

In 2008, the JWTC series opened with a Symposium on Ernst Bloch. Here is the first of three pieces from that conversation, written by Adi Ophir.

There is one thing history can teach us about the future with certainty: the future will be different. It will differ not only from the present but also from most of our predictions that supposedly help us prepare for it. The history of the future that teaches us this lesson should be made a mandatory class for future politicians and economists, businessmen and city planners, military officers and ordinary teachers. Only bureaucrats might be exempted, for they are meant to live and act in an eternal present.

Utopia is not about the future. Utopia is not a plan for the future, but an attempt to imagine a different present. It is not by chance that the term 'utopia' designates a different place, not a different time. Marx misunderstood utopia because he placed it in the future and blamed the utopists for failing to secure the path leading there from the present. But as Louis Marin understood well, utopia is first and foremost "jeux d'espaces," and its playfulness is no less important than its spatiality.

Utopian thinking is about imagining the (im)possible. The narrowing of the political imagination by neoliberal ideology, religious fundamentalism or the new orthodoxy of security is directed against the horizons of the possible. There is no such place, they say about utopia, lose no time on it. When everyone sticks to the faith that "what is, is all there is," that time should only be spent on what may come into being, and that one does "the lesser evil" because one has chosen what seems to be the best option out of a limited, pre-given spectrum of alternatives, then the accumulative result is quite predictably unpredictable.

The accumulative effect of the choices people make when they prepare for the future according to the givens of a dominant ideology and the instructions of a triumphant technology is not simply the reproduction of that ideology and of the social order it articulates, or the proliferation of that technology, but their reproduction and proliferation within changing conditions of production. The awareness of these conditions always comes too late, when new conditions already constrain the scope of the possible.

The future cannot teach us anything. Whatever we learn, know, and understand comes from the past. Our directedness toward the future, in fear, hope, desire or anxiety, our more or less playful, more or less professionalized concerns with the future, our attempts to control, avert, or escape it, these modes of intentionality are steeped in knowledge(s) about how things are, how they work, what is the probability for their failure; none of them, however, belongs to the plane of thinking. Thinking moves like Benjamin's angel of history: facing the past and while being pushed by a great wind into the future. The future is revealed to it once it has already arrived. And yet thinking is not stuck like this angel in uni-directional drift. Thinking is always on the move and its directions are not predetermined. While it moves unwillingly to the future it also moves willingly, urgently or playfully, to different places.

The different place is neither a non-place nor necessarily a better one. In the imagined good places of the classic utopian literature, the future has been arrested and meanings have been fixed and enclosed. In the different places where thought lands and spends sometime before moving elsewhere, the future is unpredictable as always and the disclosure of its meaning (as it comes into being) is of the essence. We cannot change the world let alone amend it according to our dreams but we can teach people how to think differently about the present and welcome the arrival of a different one.

Writing utopias or drafting future constitutions or strategic plans for action may be as useful for this purpose as writing genealogies and histories of the present: everything that works to liberate people from their enslavement to a dominant image of the present and to demonstrate its contingent element should be welcome, but only as a necessary condition for opening the present to a fuller view of its hidden or unknown possibilities. Yet this opening only re-defines the battle ground where better possibilities are discerned from bad ones according to what one knows about different places, both real and imaginary, and about past times.

Adi Ophir

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

At the Origins of The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism - Personal Recollections (2)

We decided to set up The Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC) during the Fall of 2008, in the aftermath of the July Workshop on “Future Tense”.

The Working Group out of which the JWTC sprung having operated under the auspices of WISER, some of us had thought that the new initiative would also operate under the auspices of the same institution, but in an extended inter- or across-Faculty collaborative framework.

This scenario did not materialize. We then examined (and rejected) the possibility of creating an entirely independent entity associated with the University, but with its own legal identity. At the end, after securing the support of the Dean of the Humanities and the VC’s Office, we opted for an interdisciplinary, collaborative Platform within the Faculty of the Humanities.

We wanted the JWTC to be an “intervention”, a mobilizing network rather than a conventional “institution” in the manner of a “Center” or an “Institute”.

We saw the JWTC as a loosely structured “Platform” where thematically-oriented collaborative work would bring together, beyond any particular discipline, a group of young and established scholars to initiate Southern-based, international projects greater in form, scope, depth, or complexity than any individual could undertake himself or herself.

A lot of thinking and consultations with international colleagues had gone into crafting the “intervention”. We set the JWTC up in response to a set of local and global trends and challenges we thought were emerging in the field of the humanities in general, and in terms of the relationship between “critique” and “institutions” in particular.

The global intellectual map was being redrawn. Besides traditional Northern Atlantic institutions, new centers of learning were being established in places such as the Persian Gulf, China, India or Latin America. Symposia, independent media, art shows, book fairs, film festivals and other hallmarks of intellectual life were gradually transforming entire regions of the planet.

The scholarly community was becoming more internationalized. Western-born academics were moving to other parts of the world in growing numbers while Southern born ones were filling many faculties and departments in Northern universities. In the social sciences and the humanities, the worldwide dissemination of thought had been buttressed by a worldwide circulation and translation of texts, a highly productive invention and re-appropriation of concepts and the de-nationalization of the great academic debates.

Yet, a fragmented and uneven distribution of the resources for learning, teaching and cultural criticism persisted. Huge disparities in research and funding capacities and in institutional and pedagogical innovations still pervaded North-South relations, derailing in the process the project of genuine “global humanities”. Marginal regions of the world were still producers of data and test sites for the theory mills of the North. Although it had been for the most part de-territorialized and many of its key concepts had been de-nationalized, displaced and reconstructed sometimes with surprising effects, theory itself was still seen as naturally metropolitan and Western.

In South Africa, the end of Apartheid had seen major shifts in the demand, production, supply and dissemination of knowledge. We had witnessed a surge in problem-oriented, context-specific research that relied on a thin notion of relevance”. Among donor agencies, there was a strong drive to shift funds away from scholarly endeavour towards organizations oriented to direct, practical action. Yet, the popularization of problem-oriented research had not resulted in as big an improvement of knowledge as might have been expected. Because of a profound disregard for theory and conceptualization, this kind of research was leading to the generation and repetition of ill-formed ideas, very poorly theorized and often with substantial negative implications for policy and practice. This translated into an implicit view of our region as a residual entity, the study of which did not contribute anything to the knowledge of the world or of the human condition in general.

It appeared to us that these challenges could no longer be confronted from within the traditional paradigms that relied on a strict North-South dichotomy. More often than not, the effect of such dichotomy had been to police thought by rendering it subservient to identity politics rather than to create the conditions for actually thinking.

Instead of endlessly re-enacting the ideological battles of the past, what was needed was to take full advantage of the new age of academic mobility and the renewed convergence of theory and civic activism worldwide to give expression to the variety of human forms in which argumentation occurs, contributing therefore to the global movement towards genuine global intellectual citizenship. The fractures within the world of global scholarship could not be vainquished through the re-enactment of old ghettos. We needed to create new nodes, facilitate the emergence of new connections and linkages, exercise our own intellectual power confidently, bring scholars together around intellectual propositions we would define in full autonomy.

Achille Mbembe