Affect and Effect: On Eco-Guilt and Systemic Masochism

Affect and Effect: On Eco-Guilt and Systemic Masochism

A conversation with Florian Cramer

Are computer viruses and biological viruses related? Are the system collapses that we currently experience technological or biological, or both? Are the new belief systems and conspiracy theories that originate in this mess really new? Is it only a collapse of “the West,” or more? Are art and political activism adequately dealing with this situation? And what do speculative thinkers and DIYers, from Johann Joachim Becher in the 17th century to the Black Quantum Futurism collective in the 21st century, have to do with it?

An interview by Johannes Grentzfurthner

Johannes: One big theme of our times is ecology and ecoconsciousness. We’ve seen different phases of ecological activism before, such as addressing the Waldsterben (dying forests) of Central Europe or the destruction of the ozone layer. But the underlying problem never seems to be openly addressed. It’s always a banal critique of excessiveness, but nothing more. Why?

Florian: What I find interesting is that ecology and the notion of “the environment” are historically interconnected with 1960s general system theory, which itself is related to cybernetics. In other words, internet culture and environmentalism are products of systems thinking. This relationship is most intuitively obvious in cyber-hippie culture, such as that of the Whole Earth Catalog. It also concerns terminology and notions, such as open versus closed systems, feedback, and commons.

The problem you mention with Waldsterben and the ozone layer, and with “trolling” or “fake news” in internet culture, is that they all isolate one part of the larger system. They boil down a complex problem with many variables and chaotic dynamics into a single issue that is easy to communicate. I see what you called “banal critique of excessiveness” as a propagandistic recourse to a Christian or other religious morality. The mobilization of feelings of guilt and shame—and vice versa, the mobilization of hedonistic counter-positions—replaces actual social debate on system dynamics. This situation also seems to be happening with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Johannes: Let’s take the approach of rallying against climate change. That isn’t the isolation of a single problem. It’s addressing an assumed totality with an almost masochistic fervor, isn’t it?

Florian: The masochism could be more hardcore! We’re confronted with a fundamental, systemic question. Even activists seem to miss the big picture, sticking instead to aspects and issues that can be isolated. If one thinks of climate as a dynamic system with a complex set of and weird interactions between parameters, why isn’t a political movement pitching future scenarios against each other? Each of them could use different experimental combinatorics of parameter changes, including farming, industrial production, transport, energy, and demographics.

It frustrates me how political activism still depends on simplified agendas that can be broken down into a few demands. Having become involved in political activism myself, here in the Netherlands, in the last couple years, it frustrates me again and again how it remains stuck in rituals and agitprop forms from the 1960s to the 1980s. It addresses a now-imaginary mass-media public through visual and performative spectacles that all fall into the aesthetic category of the sublime. (As a footnote for aesthetic-theory nerds, that is the mathematical and the dynamical sublime, in Kant’s terminology, or overwhelming quantity and overwhelming motion.) In a network society, those protest forms are easy for fascist memers, among others, to outwit.

I’ve witnessed this effect at an anti-racist demonstration of several thousand people in Amsterdam. One person chanted a children’s song with a tongue-in-cheek death threat to the Dutch alt-right politician Thierry Baudet. This “threat” was filmed and spread virally via right-wing YouTubers. It ended up framing the entire public perception of the protest.

Activism needs to learn from other forms of popular culture that have dealt with and found accessible languages for complex systemic issues. Science fiction comes first into mind. I learned this from the political activism of The Afrofuturist Affair in Philadelphia. Instead of Fridays for Future, I’d prefer that people debate stories of Future Fridays—what our life will be, what it could be, and most importantly, which promises can be made for a better life.

One should not shy away from eschatology and political theology here. That liberal technocrats have avoided them has hugely contributed to the current misery, if you ask me. Whether you’re struggling for survival, and your only option is hope, or whether you’re privileged, and your currency is hedonism, there needs to be a promise of a better future. Fascism currently wins because it makes hedonistic promises, even when they just boil down to maintaining our current lives. The medium of these imagined futures, by the way, doesn’t need to be science fiction. It could also be, to get back to your reference to masochism, kinky pornography.

Johannes: So, green activism is less attractive because it asks for restraint?

Florian: Yes! Green activism might learn a historical lesson from all other political activisms, whether socialist, fascist, liberal, or what have you. They were only successful when they promised a better life. They failed whenever they failed to deliver on that promise. That’s even true when that promise is, with Plato and Leo Strauss, a noble lie.

Johannes: It seems that Western society stands on a stable form of distrust. Would you agree with this assumption?

Florian: How do you define distrust? What counts as Western society? Distrust could be defined as enlightenment skepticism, from Cartesian doubt to Karl Popper’s position that falsification, not truth claims, is the principle of modern science. It could also be paranoia, thinking in conspiracy theories, tribalism, and social disintegration up to a civil war of everyone against everyone. (“Alle gegen Alle” by Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, 1981.)

I live in a so-called Western country, the Netherlands, whose society has an astonishing degree of trust in its authorities. I attribute that to a lack of historical experience with malicious governance through its own people, as opposed to malicious governance through a foreign occupier such as Spain, France, and Germany in previous centuries. Having said that, I side with Intel’s founding chairman, Andrew Grove, and the title of his autobiography, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Johannes: I’d love to jump in the deep end and ask about your definition of Western society. I’m talking about a liberal or liberal-conservative society that emphasizes the concept of freedom and democracy.

Florian: Of course, the West is an imaginary construct. It is a propagandistic meme, with a legacy in the Cold War and in colonialism, if not the Middle Ages with its flat-earth geography where cardinal directions still made sense. It’s an imaginary pole pulling on people, like the fake-American, West-German cigarette brand West, with its omnipresent ads in 1989 and 1990 in East Germany.

West was the major brand of the Reemtsma tobacco company. Its heir, Jan Philipp Reemtsma, put his fortune among others into the preservation of Arno Schmidt’s literary work and the launch of a Hamburg Institute of Social Research modeled after the Frankfurt School. When the artist and media hacker Sebastian Luetgert offered some of Adorno’s writings as free, downloadable plain-text files on his website textz.com (the de-facto grandmother of aaaaarg), the Reemtsma Foundation filed charges and the police arrested Luetgert. As it turned out, the foundation owned the rights to Adorno’s works, including his critique of commodification.

Maybe this anecdote helps to complicate the matter of what “the West” is and where it is located.

Aside from that, “the West” implies more than the political order and philosophy you describe. It’s also racially and religiously coded, and defined as having a particular economic system—it’s white, Christian, and capitalist.

Johannes: How has the idea of DIY shaped art and technology in the last decades?

Florian: In my perception, as a retrofitted concept. Diverse subcultures and activities such as zine-making, no-budget filmmaking, punk-attitude music and performance, artist-run or squatted spaces, computer hacking—the kind of activities that also characterize your collective monochrom in Vienna—have existed for many decades. They have been called DIY only lately. For example, we have both been involved in Neoism in our lives (I more than you). When, in the 1990s, it got attention outside its in-group, people didn’t have suitable categories for it and shelved it, as the philosopher and critic Oliver Marchart did, under “art.” But that was a discourse where it wasn’t at home and whose contemporary language it didn’t speak. Nowadays, you’d call Neoism DIY culture, and call it a day.

In the field of technology, however, DIY has become a problematic concept. It’s linked to an aging generation that grew up, as both of us did, with 8-bit BASIC computers in the 1980s and the early World Wide Web in the 1990s. These technologies were—by maturity, design, and configuration—as DIY as early-20th-century cars whose drivers needed to know how to repair motors. The internet as a DIY medium is an alien concept to someone born in the new millennium who grew up with mobile apps. Also, the notion of technological DIY has been co-opted and absorbed by so-called maker culture, as a 3D-printer sales pitch.

The question is, in my view, who this “self” is who does something. I see DIY culture, in the ways I described it, as a collective, un-branded, unheroic effort. But the phrase “do it yourself” might be read as meaning the opposite, some Ayn Randian heroism. Even without the latter connotation, DIY remains a First World concept because it assumes industrial production, infrastructures, and professionalism as the norm, and DIY as something different from ordinary life. In other parts of the world, one wouldn’t even need to give it a name.

Johannes: Since the mid-2010s, the hackerspaces or makerspaces movement has been a global phenomenon. Many people, most of them cis and white, started tinkering in spaces where they did something between hobby and vocation. What do you think about these spaces in the context of DIY?

Florian: I haven’t seen anything interesting coming from them yet, except Garnet Hertz’s Critical Making zines. What those zines did, in a nutshell, was to re-insert the more speculative and critically reflected practice of the older Dorkbot events into makerspace culture.

In the neighborhood where I live, Bospolder-Tussendijken in Rotterdam, one of the poorest in the Netherlands, with an 80% immigrant population, I’m witnessing makerspaces as a contemporary form of colonialism or gamified disciplining. We have two makerspaces. One has public funding and the other got several hundred thousand euros from a rich family’s charity fund. Both are meant to stimulate “entrepreneurship” of the local poor, training them to re-enter the labor market.

Historically, this is nothing new, by the way. In the late 17th century, Vienna hired the German polymath and project developer (today you’d say “startup entrepreneur”) Johann Joachim Becher to fix its problem of poverty and unemployment. He developed a “Werkhaus” (“Workhouse”) that integrated fabrication workshops of different crafts and trades, a direct precursor of today’s fab labs. Perhaps not surprisingly, Werkhaus failed to live up to its promise.

In my neighborhood, those colonial makerspaces dwell among Surinamese fast food joints, Turkish bakers, Polish supermarkets, Cape Verdean hairdressers, nail salons, and smartphone repair shops (“aliPhone: U BREAK I FIX”). All these are, in my opinion, much more meaningful as community spaces, DIY venues, hacker- and makerspaces, and local enterprises. But the city, whose largest political party is on the extreme right, and whose other mainstream parties aren’t much better, considers these spaces a problem instead of an asset.

This example scales up to the world, with hardware designed in California, manufactured in Shenzhen, and dumped and recycled in Ghana. In a research project, I am collaborating with the artist Dani Ploeger, whose work addresses these chains of production and consumption. He knows a lot more about Third World tech than I do.

I’m sticking to the old-fashioned terminology of First, Second, and Third World, by the way, based on what I learned in Vienna from political scientist Radhika Desai. She pointed out that the Cold War-era hierarchies are still in place, but they have shifted from politics to concentric rings of production in the globalized economy.

Johannes: Could you say that the cyberpunk world 1980s writers imagined ended up emerging in places like Nigeria rather than Detroit? Places that create wonderful things out of computer waste and the sheer necessity of survival?

Florian: Dani Ploeger would be the person to ask, since I don’t know firsthand. We are now likely at the beginning of the end of global travel, in the age of climate crisis and coronavirus.

Johannes: Speaking of personalities, how do you see tech gurus such as Elon Musk communicating radical new ideas? He has interesting concepts, such as in the debate about ecology and electric cars, but then he jinxes all the good ideas.

Florian: He embodies the Ayn Randian and neoreactionary construction of the contemporary hero. It’s telling that he and his precursor-in-fame Steve Jobs are marketeers and business managers, not developers of the technologies they sell. Not to mention the university scientists who actually invented these technologies in their published research, in most cases with public research money.

Johannes: Do people long for such characters? For example, Tony Stark (Iron Man) is one of the most loved characters in the Marvel movie universe, one of the most successful movie series in cinema history.

Florian: Now you caught me on the wrong foot. I’m completely unfamiliar with Marvel movies! I’m not an expert on the heroic.

Johannes: In the films, Stark is an industrialist, genius inventor, hero, and former playboy who is CEO of Stark Industries. At the start, he’s a weapons manufacturer for the US military. But he has a change of heart and redirects his technical knowledge into the creation of mechanized armor. He uses this armor to defend against those who threaten peace around the world. Hyper-capitalists, such as Musk and Bezos, like to see themselves in this tradition.

Florian: Yes, capitalist messianism. No less eschatological than its historical precursors, only disguised as materialist. I have to think of dumbed-down versions of Sabbatai Zevi and Quirinus Kuhlmann.

To go back to the question of who gets credit for inventions, as technology progresses, the relation between science and technology changes. Science becomes the servant of technology. It’s a symptom of this shift in power that the scientist becomes an employee in the institutes and laboratories of industry. There, the scientist’s knowledge is exploited for technical uses. The disciplines of science become auxiliary disciplines of technology, and they fare the better the more they submit to this role.

Where the emphasis is placed on facts, education strives for handbook knowledge, imparted to students through surveys, profiles, graphs, and statistics of the subject matter. True education is incompatible with this kind of knowledge and with this method of instruction. The crude empiricism into which such training has fallen is purely a mechanical piling up of facts. A university becomes a technical training center and a servant of technical progress.

Still, it’s not idle to ask whether the machine has raised or lowered the amount of work. This is a broad problem that can be related solely to the totality of technical and manual labor. Technical progress has increased the total amount of work, and this is why unemployment spreads so far whenever crises and disturbances upset the organization of machine labor.

Progressive technology can have no interest in stable currencies. On the contrary, it interferes with the organization of finance to undermine the stability of currencies. The fictions on which the money system rests are artificial, and this analysis is not the place to treat them in detail. The decay of currency is neither local nor transitory. It is a symptom of a phase of technical progress. It occurs at the precise moment when the financial needs of the technical organization go beyond limits within which an orderly financial economy can be conducted.

Just as a technically organized economy becomes more and more a war economy, so technology develops more and more into a war technology. It reveals ever more clearly its armament character. In our dynamic age, technology steps up its pillage of world resources. While it devours material for war preparation, it reduces our living standards. It shakes off all fetters of economic laws, and it finances its organization by methods that increase burdens on workers.

The state is reduced to a choice of evils. For the sake of its existence and survival, it must promote and protect the progress of technology. But while the state does so, technology infiltrates and usurps the governing and administrative activities of the state. It transforms the military and civil-service organizations. This mechanization appears to increase the powers of the state. And it does so, indeed, to an extent that seems to render negligible any disadvantages that might be involved. But this colossal increase in power should warn the thoughtful that all this additional power comes to the state not as a gift, but as a loan from which technology expects to gain.

The idea of the state is null and void once the basis the state is built upon collapses. The technical organization of people to the point where no sector of life remains unorganized, in the end, brings the downfall of the state.

Johannes: Did you see this collapse speed up during the 2019-nCoV crisis?

Florian: The standard answer is that pandemics are nothing new. They precede the so-called technological age, and advanced technology helps prevent collapse. But before complicating the matter, I should clarify that my previous reply consisted of nothing but copy-and-pasted paragraphs from Georg Friedrich Jünger’s 1938 book The Failure of Technology, a visionary work, and a great example why right-wing thinkers should be read and taken seriously.

In that book, Jünger observes, correctly in my opinion, that “what appears to be mechanical in nature is most open to imitation” in technology. Conversely, this suggests that what appears most mechanical in nature can be interpreted as technology. The boundaries between nature and technology then get blurred and the dichotomy of “nature” and “culture” questioned. William S. Burroughs’s speculative theory of language as a virus did just that, preceded by General System Theory and early ecologism in the 1950s and 1960s. These also preceded Richard Dawkins’s theory of the meme in the 1970s, and more recently, post-humanist philosophers, who seem to restate the same ideas with a thick pathos of the new.

In the current situation, I learned from an interview with the virologist Marion Koopmans that viruses, including Covid-19, are the perfect example of “what appears to be mechanical in nature.” Here’s my English translation of what she explained in Dutch:

“A virus is a kind of shipping package with a single purpose to protect a piece of genetic material and transport it from a to b. That genetic material is important, because when it enters one of our cells, it has everything it needs for using that cell’s machinery to create new viruses. The only purpose of that genetic material is to make new virus copies. It’s the perfect parasite. Outside a body, a virus can’t do anything but stay intact. It really has to penetrate cells. And its multiplication happens at the expense of what those cells normally do. Body functions go down, and sometimes cells are destroyed. Depending on the scale on which that happens, on the amount of viruses you get, and how fast they multiply, you either don’t notice or you get very sick.”

This explanation taught me that the notions of computer viruses, and of memes as viral information, are much less metaphorical than I had thought. And that, conversely, Covid-19 should be seen as a hybrid biological-computational virus that exploits and weaponizes the weaknesses of present-day capitalism, piggybacking on globalized supply and production chains, business and travel, budget airline-enabled mass tourism, consumer economies, and internet platforms from Airbnb to Tinder. I expect this to be the beginning of a new, most likely worse, world order, not the joyful end of capitalism that the political left has been hoping for. Aside from that, I don’t think the contemporary art system, as it exists today, will survive this collapse.

Johannes: What are your favorite books dealing with the broad systemic change currently happening?

Florian: Aside from Jünger’s Failure of Technology, everything written by Rasheedah Phillips, the Black Quantum Futurism Collective, and the Metropolarity queer science fiction collective from Philadelphia. Outside books, a lot of dystopian b-movies, Lucio Fulci’s Warriors of the Year 2072 (also known as The New Gladiators). Of course, the Mad Max movie genre, where I prefer the Filipino and Italian rip-offs, such as The Exterminators of the Year 3000, in unlicensed lo-fi YouTube uploads, to the Australian originals.

Florian Cramer is a writer, DIY photographer, filmmaker, essayist, and theorist. He is a reader in 21st Century Visual Culture at Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam, an art and design school.

Copyright 2021 TFLC
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