You Say You Want a Revolution?: Patchwork’s Radical Geographies

There was a conversation had on Monday night at the Acid Communism reading group on the left’s historic burden of utopianism. I found it resonating with the recent “Patchwork is Not a Model” debate, bringing it back to what I think are the more implicit benefits of a renewed patchwork thinking, some of which have been somewhat glossed over by the recent debate on the necessity of models.

Louis M. said it all and so what follows is an attempt to reconstruct what he said, as recorded in my hastily written notes, extended with a healthy dose of blogger’s ad lib and further research.

Louis defined utopianism as that impossible project through which the Left has attempted to imagine a set of circumstances that can account for and counteract all the problems capitalism produces: Utopia is conceived of as a model.

We’ve seen this form of thinking proliferate for decades, centuries even, as an imaginative but impotent proliferation of best-case scenarios, but — no doubt as a major symptom of capitalist realism — this predilection for model-creation has usurped the actual problem of revolution in itself.

Revolution, now taken paradoxically to be something that you can’t just rush into, becomes a problem for model-making rather than consciousness-raising. We can see this most clearly, perhaps, in that iconic Beatles song, with its irritatingly impotent Lennonism. Gone is “What is to be done?” In its place, we have the principled umm-ing and arr-ing of “Well, you know…

We’d all like to change the world… We’d all love to see the plan… Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright? 

The song rejects destruction, capitalist imperatives and Maoism, but what does it put forward other than the platitudes of peace-loving hippie complacency?

This isn’t psychedelia. It’s the seed of a modern leftist impotence.

Modelling offers up solutions — so we’re told — but must they do so under the umbrella of an already-existing “realism”? Unfortunately, popularly understood, modelling hides under the impotence of the neoliberal town-planner. As Louis continued, the making of models is an inherently academic exercise — as a way of giving a falsely holistic form to the more implicit functions of an ever-changing system but also as a form of state management and planning. Lest we forget, in Borges’ original short story, that the model of a 1:1 map is framed as a fault of bureaucracy as much as it is of thought itself. No model can last. Everyone is a stopgap. That might be useful for the rigours of systematic philosophical thought, in its own context, but what use is it sociopolitically? Libidinally? It’s a cold shower in an already cold world.

For Louis, the problem with all this impetus that is placed on the “model” is that you are forced to contend with capitalist realism on its own terms; the terms that it sets itself. Louis suggested that, in approaching a speculative problem in this way — for instance, as it was discussed in our Monday night conversation, in the context of a postcapitalist economics — you are likely “wrestling with a neoliberal economist” and the neoliberal economist will always win. They will win because the economic system — their system — is forever on their side. The “model” of capitalist realism — and its implicitly conjoined twin: nationalist realism — is one that is fundamentally based on shadow-boxing the essence of the model itself — a model strengthened inherently by a hegemonic belief in its value irrespective of any credible appeal to its obvious inefficiency.

Capitalism proclaims to give us all that we could ever want but most of us know from lived experience that this is really not the case. Likewise, we are provided the scaffolding of an atomised “mandatory individualism” by the state’s processes of subjection, giving us our “freedom” whilst being incessantly haunted by the spectre of a repressed collective subject.

Under such circumstances, as Mark himself makes clear in his book, Capitalist Realism, you don’t attack the model, you have to attack the collective belief in it, undoing the model’s “realistic” cover-ups of its own lacunae — or, as Louis put it, you have to attack the conditions which give the model its social power. You tap back into the libidinal desires found in that gaps in the model that continue to power many forms of politics which “the model” as a whole has necessarily covered over.

To go back to the source of this debate: Francois Bonnet, in his book The Order of Sounds — preluding the discussions of the “administration of the sensible” which would be the focus on his book The Infra-World — writes about

the asymptotic nature of the model, its tendency to superimpose itself onto the real and to cover it over, without ever being able to complete this process, and at the cost of losing its very status as model and simply disappearing into a new reality, just as hopeless as the first, a new reality which once again calls for models in order to render it legible.

Models are all well and good, but I mourn the way that the debate has fallen back into this very process of recursive modelling. Michael James, of course, refuted this well in his response:

That said, I do think we desperately need pragmatic models of patchwork to even start the process of re-imagining what massively complex ecosystemic social assemblages are, and can be, free (as possible) from existing ideologies of statecraft, community, etc. We also require technical models to go about the work of engineering and administering actually existing patches. Without both of these types of interacting modeling projects how could we possible track patch dynamics in ways required for operational efficacy, or cognitively navigate the patches of which we are enfolded within?

This is a good point but I think I disagree with its orientation — that is to say, I still think it is backwards: backwards in the sense that, to me, it feels like a cart-before-the-horse approach that has glossed over the original point being made, which the foundation of unmodelled fragmentation is, I think, inherently in tune with.

The point was this: an approach of “structural models first, structures of feeling later” feels, to me, like a premature dampening of the affective momentum of patchwork before its had the chance to free itself from the speed restrictions implemented under neoliberalism’s mechanisms of self-preservation.

To return to Louis: in refuting the wholesale primacy of modelling, he made reference to the movements of “radical” and “critical geography” which grew out of the restless academic discipline of geography in the 1970s, in response to geography’s “quantitative revolution” within the academy.

The radical geographers — more so than the critical geographers — took to analysing the ways that their discipline was (and still is?) inherently structured by the rationalities and biases of other disciplines. Richard Peet, for example, in his book Geography of Power, writes of that ways that academic rationalisation

occurs under a dominant economic imaginary. And that imaginary is made by the academic discipline called ‘economics’. Control over this disciplinary imaginary is a fundamental source of power.

He continues:

My claim is that economic theory is ideological in the sense of being committed to class and national interests. Economic ideas follow logics that are constructed rather than discovered — that is, made up with an interest in mind, rather than discovered innocently, latent in reality. This social construction includes the economic ideas and terminologies employed in policy-making power. The construction of economic ideas, rationalities and imaginaries is important — so we know what we are talking about, thinking about or, rather, what we are thinking with. We have to know where the ideas we think with (employ in analysis) come from. This means starting with ideas that are so accepted they are thought to be normal, natural, inevitable, if they are ever thought at all. Just as language relies on speakers following the intricate codes of language, without stopping to examine them (unless there is a problem with clarity, and then the pause is brief), so economic thought employs the codes of an economic rationality that is assumed rather than critically inspected. The ability to project ideas into the ‘naturally assumed’ is one main source of ideological, hegemonic power.

Peet is criticising the usual post-Enlightenment hegemony of Western power and its long-running processes of globalisation for the ways they have implemented a new dogmatism of thought within a constructed system; within an invented, imperial model of the world from the West.

We know this already, no doubt, but it is nonetheless worth emphasising: power has a geography.

Elsewhere, in his essay “Celebrating Thirty Years of Radical Geography”, Peet chronicles the early developments of radical geography and the political moment in which it was conceived:

During its first stage, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, radical geography tried to transform the scope of a conventional discipline criticized as irrelevant to the great issues of the time — civil rights, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution were missing in geography. Somehow conventional geography’s focus on region and space precluded consideration of topics like these. Replete with tensions, space itself did not exercise an exclusionary power. Rather it was the prevailing system of academic representation, space as regional catalogue of curious facts, or distance deliberately voided of social and political character. These representational styles could be seen as final culminations of a process of narrowing, an almost fatal specialization set in motion by the definition of disciplinary contents in the late 19th century. Such a narrowing occurred as part of a conservative shift in Enlightenment thinking: thus spatial science was progressive and optimistic in the mechanical sense of social engineering rather than the organic sense of social transformation. In response, radical geography focused on diffusing a new set of academic values in the form of a different system of disciplinary topics, such as poverty, social justice, and underdevelopment…

He continues:

The second stage in radical geography, spread across the years of the middle and late 1970s, saw a series of increasingly sophisticated critiques of the positivist basis of the “quantitative revolution in geography“, and a number of proposals for a new theoretical basis in the now more relevant radical geography, fast developing in terms of interest and adherence. It should be remembered that radical geographers considered themselves to be revolutionaries in more than a disciplinary sense. Popular culture has, necessarily, rendered the term “revolution” virtually meaningless in the intervening years. But then for many, and even now for a few, the label carries the connotation of transforming everything that exists — beginning, usually, with the economy. This political ideal was often, but not always, encapsulated within a Marxist frame of thought, derived from the European Enlightenment, but with a lot of differences, like a dialectical version of materialism, and a deeper revolutionary commitment. At its best, Marxism is a democratic form of rationality, one that believes not in the logical purity of eternal Reason but in the logical potential of democratic reasoning. Marxism demands discipline from its followers, all the more so because of its social constructedness. So this stage was marked by a collective process of dedicated exegesis of the Marxists classics, and a series of applications mainly into urban and regional development, a project coordinated by solidarity emanating from commitment rather than orders from centers of command. It was the breakdown of political discipline that marked the transition to the third phase in radical geography in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Radical geography, in this context, becomes an attempt to radically do away with the primacy of the map; of the geographic consistency of subjectifying state apparatuses — or, it at least holds these things aloft with skepticism. It was a movement that revolutionised the discipline of geography and continues to have an impact today. Geography and cartography are no longer mutually exclusive disciplines — which is to say, space and its models are, necessarily, not conflated.

Skipping ahead, Peet continues, diagnosing the moment ahead of him at the time of writing, in the late 1990s:

The fourth stage [in the development of radical geography] saw the entry of poststructural and postmodern philosophies, together with a far more deeply theorized feminism, into a radical geography that became increasingly eclectic. In one stream of thought Marxist geographers appropriated and synthesized the new ideas. In another, postmodern notions entered more directly — and more critically. The tragedy of the time, from a personal view, was the antagonism that developed among the different schools of thought. Clearing space for new styles of thinking seems almost automatically to engage intellectual violence. Looking back on this time, it might be recognized that the criticisms were too personal, the remarks too severe, the atmosphere seemingly devoid of respect, and the actions taken in unnecessarily cruel ways. A pity considering that the level of philosophical insight and the quality of empirical work were gaining new presence inside and outside the discipline. At the Boston sessions in 1998 there were signs that this antagonism is now behind radical geography. Can it really be that we stand before a new phase, not in the usual sense of millennial optimism, where a year with a number attached achieves magical significance, but in terms of the optimism that comes when squabbles are finally finished, and issues demand confrontation?

Peet asks: “What might this fifth phase consist of?” He paints a picture of a geography that services processes of consciousness-raising.

It should not be too trendy in the sense of obscure topics dressed in weird philosophical clothing. It should not mainly consist in finding still more French authors to quote. It should not be excessively abstract, so much that papers can only be read to bemused audiences longing for the return of the spoken, meant word coming straight from the still-thinking mind.

In this respect, perhaps, current patchwork discussions have not been very successful — as embedded as they are in French theorists and occulted philosophical clothing — but they have, at the very least, succeeded in getting people (who would perhaps otherwise think they do not have a horse in the race) to start talking about new radical geographies that might serve to address some of the sociopolitical issues neglected by the hegemonic geographies of power. Peet concludes:

Instead there is a need for reconciliation and mutual respect that might be achieved through philosophical hybrids and comparative studies. There is a need for recommitment to a revived set of radical political values. And most importantly, there is an almost desperate need for a new round of social relevancy. We have to get over the blockage to action formed by a reluctance to speak for others. For the questions that radical geography was founded to confront are present still in mutated, far more powerful and dangerous, social and cultural forms — the terrible injuries visited still on the world’s most vulnerable peoples, the formation of global structures far beyond human control, the transformation of material into virtual reality, and the consequence of all these and more in the massive destruction of nature. The theories used to confront such issues have to be both realistic, in the original sense of rooted in the material, and even more radically profound, in the new sense of confronting cultural technologies capable of incorporating almost any resistance, usually as a new consumption frontier. Fifth-stage radical geography, in a simple phrase, should theoretically and practically reengage with the great social and cultural issues of our time. Through such confrontation we earn our right to exist. Not as living remnants of a radicalism long past, but as engaged intellectuals, people who believe that the structures of contemporary existence need transforming, and that satisfaction derives from personal commitment to a collective process of radical social change.

This call to action might be vague and it may not be entirely consistent with the patchwork philosophies being explored here currently. But this essay was written 20 years ago, unaware of the traumas of the first decade of the 21st century — from 9/11 to the vice grip of austerity — which make his call for revolutionary action all the more pertinent and, perhaps, less content with civility.

Nevertheless, drawing on his signalling towards PoMo feminisms, we might see the necessity of a patchworked thinking emerging in the recent histories of philosophies of difference. I’ve pointed towards such things before and this topic remains an area of study I want to clarify further on the blog. Not necessarily in Deleuzian terms — although that’s important but something for another post, I reckon — but rather why I see the production of a subjective difference within a fragmentary geopolitics as something positive rather than negative, particularly in our present moment.

As I’ve said repeatedly here, in ways both diffuse and various, the main thing that interests me in these analyses are the implicit relationships between processes of subjection and a fragmentary geopolitics — particularly in my own immediate context of the UK potentially becoming a disunited kingdom along the fault lines of its historically Gothic ruptures.

This will, most likely, occurred along lines of class politics — taking class politics as the basis for all other forms of oppressive subjection, whether along racial and/or gender lines, et al. This is the attraction of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, written about in one of this blog’s key posts, as well as my interest in Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wyrd Sisters. All of these characters are exemplary Gothic figures who become revolutionary agents in their contexts: anti-statist, often feminised, often proletarian; often immigrant, always Other. They are historically pertinent spectres of our radical geographies, long predating the academisation of a “radical geography” in constituting the prevailing feudal unconscious that capitalism has always carried within itself.

The “difference” inherent to these figures is, of course, two-fold: in part, it’s an imposed difference — each figure is, initially, rejected and oppressed for a perceived difference, from the perspective of a wider society — but, later, there is always a turning point where this imposed difference is consciously embodied to an extent that difference becomes positively charged, having tandem implications for both an always entangled geopolitics and subjectivity.

I was thinking about this recently — who am I kidding: I’m always thinking about this… — whilst sitting in on a seminar about Donna Haraway’s “tentacular thinking” — which made me want to go back in time and eat my previous Twitter cynicism about her more recent work. I’m still not really a fan of her last book, Staying with the Trouble — mostly because of the form it takes, as if Haraway is watering down her own theory for the sake of contemporary art world trends — but instead of discussing this text, as was initially recommended by the convener of our seminar, we instead made our collective way through an older essay of hers, from the Autumn 1988 journal Feminist Studies, called “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” — perhaps one of her most famous older essays.

In it, Haraway is attempting to construct a new sense of “objectivity”, in an explicitly feminist and entangled sense of the term. If we understand objectivity to be a “perspective” that is independent from an individualised subjectivity, then Haraway’s “objectivity” is less an appeal to notably masculine and consolidated “truths” so often associated with science but rather an objectivity that is a collectivised subject, resisting the internal paradox of that phrase.

Haraway goes on to argue for a “splitting”. She writes:

The split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable, the one who can construct and join rational conversations and fantastic imaginings that change history. Splitting, not being, is the privileged image for feminist epistemologies of scientific knowledge. “Splitting” in this context should be about heterogeneous multiplicities that are simultaneously salient and incapable of being squashed into isomorphic slots or lists. This geometry pertains within and among subject. Subjectivity is multidimensional; so, therefore, is vision. The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another.

I think this feminist objectivity is very relevant to the image of the Wyrd Sisters that I invoked in my talk the other week, and it’s a splitting that I’ve written about in relation to photography as well. More than anything, it speaks to an entangled objectivity of State and Subject.

However, I’m reminded here of all the early criticism that this new thinking about patchwork attracted towards the start of this year — the accusations I would backtrack between discussing it as a future and as a fiction. What use is this vague positing of a speculative subject? How is this useful, concretely, for action and thinking?

My position has always been, although perhaps not so eloquently proclaimed, that futures and fictions are one and the same — or, rather, they must be considered as such if we are to truly imagine new “political imaginaries”. Patchwork, discussed with a previously polemic over-confidence, as I initially wrote about it in “State Decay“, might function as a hyperstition.

To return again to Louis’s introduction to radical geography, I want to end here by grounding this new example within the context of the original Monday night discussion.

At the reading group last night we read Mark Fisher’s introduction to the book Economic Science Fictions, published earlier this year via Goldsmiths Press and edited by Will Davies. As Mark writes, specifically talking about capitalism, but perhaps echoing the naysayers of patchwork thinking who all too often dismiss without countering:

As capital’s cheerleaders endlessly crow, anti-capitalists have not yet been able to articulate a coherent alternative. The production of new economic science fictions therefore becomes an urgent political imperative. Capital’s economic science fictions cannot simply be opposed; they need to be countered by economic science fictions that can exert pressure on capital’s current monopolisation of possible realities. The development of economic science fictions would constitute a form of indirect action without which hegemonic struggle cannot hope to be successful. It is easy to be daunted but he seeming scale of this challenge — come up with a fully functioning blueprint for a post-capitalist society, or capitalism will rule forever! But we shouldn’t be forced into silence by this false opposition. It is not a single-total vision that is required but a multiplicity of alternative perspectives, each potentially opening up a crack into another world. The injunction to produce fictions implies an open and experimental spirit, a certain loosening up of the heavy responsibilities associated with the generation of determinate political programmes. Yet fictions can be engines for the development of future policy. They can be machines for designing the future, and fictions about what, say, a new housing, healthcare or transport system might look like inevitably also entail imagining what kind of society could house and facilitate these developments. Fictions, that is to say, can counter capitalist realism by rendering alternatives to capitalism thinkable. Not only this: fictions are also simulations in which we can get some sense of what it would be like to live in a post-capitalist society. The task is to produce fictions that can be converted into effective virtualises — fictions that not only anticipate the future but that can already start to bring it into being.

This does not jettison the use for models absolutely but it surely puts them on the back-burner. Even if a fiction is a model, let’s at least consider it as a fiction for a bit longer, resisting the temptation to fold it into already prevalent bureaucracies.

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