Saturday, March 31, 2012

Futurology as bourgeois ideology: from the Cold War to now (2)

In my previous post, I mentioned this book:

The Future of Society: A Critique of Modern Bourgeois Philosophical and Socio-political Conceptions, edited by Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973.

Completing my quick scan of the book, I concluded that it was even more bankrupt than I had imagined. The book is saturated with such grandiose propaganda, the ideological content of western futurism pales in comparison to such bombast. It is also remarkable how poor a critique of bourgeois futurology this is.

Bourgeois futurology conceals any systematic understanding of society, renders the underlying properties of capitalism invisible so that it is not even raised as a question, and projects technocratic solutions as triumphing over whatever laundry list of questions it addresses. The occlusion of social critique by the techniques of forecasting is perhaps comparable to the pseudo-scientific basis of bourgeois economics.

Yet the Soviet approach delineated in this book is concerned primarily with defending its side of the Cold War, demonstrating the superiority of its system and the inevitable victory of communism. Otherwise the Soviet vision is equally as technocratic. As the Soviet system is competing with the capitalist system almost on its own terms while disguising its own nature, its critique of bourgeois futurology must itself be truncated.

The missing prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union itself is itself a commentary on the validity of this perspective.

How different the presuppositions of an unlimited future seemed back in 1973 (though it must be noted that the energy crisis threw serious doubt into the viability of such a prospect). Here is one futuristic vision from the Soviet Union of 1973 that parallels even the current fantasies of the West. This is a section on the future colonization of outer space:

Future problems of the exploration of the Earth and outer space

Best laid plans of mice and men . . . then, and now?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Futurology as bourgeois ideology: from the Cold War to now

Imaginings about the future, whether driven by technological projection, science fiction, or questions of political and social organization, don't have a specific starting point in time. Obviously, with the massive political and scientific-technological change in the 19th century, avant-garde projections about the future became the order of the day, coinciding with the birth of real science fiction. But the century of futuristic imagination is the 20th century.

I can only speak about it personally from the standpoint of the United States. Outside of the genre of utopian/dystopian fiction, the prototypes of which mostly originated in Europe, most imaginative projections of the future I encountered growing up were technological in nature. The prospect of space exploration was part of this scenario. Naturally science fiction ran ahead of reality, but science fiction authors were also advocates of space exploration, and the prospect of eventual colonization of other planets was one futuristic scenario.

Of course the 1950s and '60s were an era in which, the dangers notwithstanding, there seemed to be unlimited vistas for the future. The Club of Rome's report on the limits of growth and the first Earth Day in 1970 rained on this parade somewhat, but could not wash it out.  We live in a very different time now: we know we're doomed, but deny it.

In the '70s I became wary of futurology as a quasi-scientific endeavor. I endured a few three-hour lectures by Buckminster Fuller, then all the rage, and I got disgusted with him. I checked out some of the literature. I remember The Futurist magazine. It became clearer to me that this intellectual discipline was highly selective in its methodology, interests, and purposes, and that it was fundamentally ideological in nature. Here is one "in" to the field:

Futures studies - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

One place to get a contrary perspective, with a mixture of critique and mystification, was the Soviet Union, the USA's arch-enemy. I vaguely recall seeing a title or two critical of the futurology racket. The web site aims to list and digitize Soviet publications in English translation. Two or three titles here are relevant.

Probably the most important, as it is cited elsewhere, is not available online, but here is the reference:

Shakhnazarov, G. K. [Georgi Khosroevich] Futurology Fiasco: A Critical Study of Non-Marxist Concepts of How Society Develops. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.

This book is available online:

The Future of Society: A Critique of Modern Bourgeois Philosophical and Socio-political Conceptions, edited by Murad Saifulin. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973.

This book traces ideas about the future from far back in the past. As for critique of bourgeois futurology, the entire argument is predicated on the premises of the Cold War, obsessed with the role of anti-communism in bourgeois thought. Whatever criticism of western conceptions might be fruitful is drowned in ideological propaganda for the Soviet system. Even by reasonable standards of the time this aspect of the argument is a botched batch of verbiage. But now that the Soviet Union has been extinct for two decades, the argument looks even more ridiculous. This is a shame, because there was really a critique to be had, irrespective of any apologia for the USSR.

Another book is included in this web site. The first 99 pages are supposed to be available, but the link to the PDF is not working now:

Streltsova, N[inel]. Looking into the Future. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1987.

Whether there is anything of a methodological nature beyond specific forecasting for the 21st century I do not know.

While I have not researched the matter, obviously one need not be dependent on anything the Soviets produced to construct a critique. And of course now neoliberalism has conquered the world, which changes the priorities of the ideological struggle over the future. While there is no effective institutional competition for the neoliberal technocratic vision for the future, the ideological delusion of the glories of a technological future is more self-deceiving than ever.

While technologies can be imagined which well could be developed over the coming half-century, the gap between reality and the frontiers of imagination has narrowed. A telling symptom is the banality and lack of imagination in the premises of the science fiction and fantasy television and film entertainment presented to us. Thanks to the advanced technology of real life and visual production, the special effects that can now be produced are more spectacular than ever, effectively distracting from the thematic poverty and uncritical nature of what is being produced and consumed. Surface sophistication effectively occludes underlying philosophical insipidity.

The elephant in the room was always the capitalist system, a critique of which was always tacitly censored, and now globalized capitalism, even without an imminent threat of thermonuclear war, which once loomed so large (and perhaps will again), is on the verge of destroying the whole world. Of course our popular culture is full of disaster scenarios, and the environmental crisis is no secret. Still, glorious fantasies about the technological future are promulgated and eagerly lapped up by devotees of science and technology, oblivious to the inconvenient truth that bourgeois reason is at the end of its rope.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Death-of-God theology meets jazz

I vaguely heard of Death-of-God theology back in the '60s when it was briefly in vogue, but didn't know anything about it. My first contact with the writings of Thomas J.J. Altizer was some time between 1970s and '90s, via his treatment of William Blake.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said (see this blog) that music was the one thing that could make him believe in God. I understand the sentiment. Nevertheless, I can't feel the same way I once did about many things as I reexamine the past. Here is how I dealt with the mysticism associated with avant-garde jazz:

The Jazz Avant-Garde, Mysticism & Society: Meaning, Method & the Young Hegelians

Now make of this statement by Altizer what you will:
"The power embodied in jazz violently shatters our interior, as its pure rhythm both returns us to an archaic identity and hurls us into a new and posthistoric universality. Most startling of all, the “noise” of jazz releases a new silence, a silence marked by the absence of every center of selfhood, the disappearance of the solitude of the “I.” That silence is the silence of a new solitude, an absolute solitude which has finally negated and reversed every unique and interior ground of consciousness, thereby releasing the totality of consciousness in a total and immediate presence And we rejoice when confronted with this solitude, just as we rejoice in hearing jazz, for the only true joy is the joy of loss, the joy of having been wholly lost and thereby wholly found again."

— Thomas J.J. Altizer, Total Presence: The Language of Jesus and the Language of Today, 1980, pp. 107-108.
 SOURCE: "Thomas J. J. Altizer (1927-)," edited by Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Wilfredo H. Tangunan and Andrew Irvine, Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 12: on the passion of the intellectual life

I need to source this quote from Feuerbach:
Is it at all possible for the feeling man to resist feeling, for the loving man to resist love, for the rational man to resist reason? Who has not experienced the irresistible power of musical sounds? And what else is this power if not the power of feeling? Music is the language of feeling—a musical note is sonorous feeling or feeling communicating itself. Who has not experienced the power of love, or at least not heard of it? Which is the stronger—love or the individual man? Does man possess love, or is it rather love that possesses man? When, impelled by love, a man gladly sacrifices his life for his beloved, is this his own strength that makes him overcome death, or is it rather the power of love? And who has not experienced the power of thought, given that he has truly experienced the activity of thinking? When, submerged in deep reflection, you forget both yourself and your surroundings, is it you who controls reason, or is it rather reason that controls and absorbs you? Does not reason celebrate its greatest triumph over you in your enthusiasm for science? Is not the drive for knowledge simply an irresistible and all-conquering power? And when you suppress a passion, give up a habit, in short, when you win a victory over yourself, is this victorious power your own personal power existing, so to speak, in isolation, or is it rather the energy of will, the power of morality which imposes its rule over you and fills you with indignation of yourself and your individual weaknesses?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ludwig Feuerbach 11: culture vs. religion

Christianity came into the world long after the invention of bread, wine, and other elements of civilization, at a time when it was too late to deify their inventors, when these inventions had long since lost their religious significance. Christianity introduced another element of civilization: morality. Christianity wished to provide a cure not for physical or political evils, but for moral evils, for sin. Let us go back to our example of wine in order to clarify the difference between Christianity and paganism, that is, common popular paganism. How, said the Christians to the heathen, can you deify wine? What sort of benefit is it? Consumed immoderately, it brings death and ruin. It is a benefit only when consumed in moderation, with wisdom, that is, when drunk in a moral way; thus the utility or harmfulness of a thing depends not on the thing itself, but on the moral use that is made of it. In this the Christians were right. But Christianity made morality into a religion, it made the moral law into a divine commandment; it transformed a matter of autonomous human activity into a matter of faith.

In Christianity faith is the principle, the foundation of the moral law: "From faith come good works." Christianity has no wine god, no goddess of bread or grain, no Ceres, no Poseidon, god of the sea and of navigation; it knows no god of the smithy, no Vulcan; yet it has a general God, or rather, a moral God, a God of the art of becoming moral and attaining beatitude. And with this God the Christians to this day oppose all radical, all thoroughgoing civilization, for a Christian can conceive of no morality, no ethical human life, without God; he therefore derives morality from God, just as the pagan poet derived the laws and types of poetry from the gods and goddesses of poetry, just as the pagan smith derived the tricks of his trade from the god Vulcan. But just as today smiths and metalworkers in general know their trade without having any particular god as their patron, so men will some day master the art of leading moral and happy lives without a God. Indeed, they will be truly moral and happy only when they no longer have a God, when they no longer need religion; for as long as an art is still imperfect, as long as it is in its swaddling clothes, it requires the protection of religion. For through religion man compensates for the deficiencies in his culture; and it is only from lack of culture that, like the Egyptian priest who makes sacraments of his rudimentary medicines, he makes sacraments of his moral remedies, makes sacred dogmas of his rudimentary ideas, and makes divine commandments and revelations of his own thoughts and emotions.

In short, religion and culture are incompatible, although culture, insofar as religion is the first and oldest form of it, can be termed the true and perfect religion, so that only a truly cultivated man is truly religious. This statement, however, is an abuse of words, for superstitious and inhuman notions are always bound up with the word “religious”; by its very nature religion comprises anticultural elements; for it strives to perpetuate ideas, customs, inventions that man made in his childhood, and to impose them as the laws of his adult age. Where man needs a God to tell him how to behave—as He commanded the Israelites to relieve themselves in a place apart—man is at the religious stage, but also at a profoundly uncivilized stage. Where man behaves properly of his own accord, because his own nature, his own reason and inclination tell him to, the need for religion ceases and culture takes its place. And just as it now seems ridiculous and incredible that the most natural rule of decency should once have been a religious commandment, so one day, when man has progressed beyond our present pseudo culture, beyond the age of religious barbarism, he will find it hard to believe that, in order to practice the laws of morality and brotherly love, he once had to regard them as the commandments of a God who rewarded observance and punished nonobservance. 

— Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, translated by Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 23rd Lecture, pp. 212-213