Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Cultural Work and the Human Body: The Sad Death of Kazunori Mizuno

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On March 19th, about two months ago, noted anime series director and animator Kazunori Mizuno died of overwork and chronic sleep deprivation. He took a nap and never woke up. While inhuman hours are common in all creative industries, it’s worth reflecting on what “inhuman” really means in this context. There is an environmental and biological aspect to this tragedy, one that intersects with the social and monetary pressures that drive professionals to accept these working conditions and even normalize them. At this point, unpaid overtime and other forms of anti-body (and blatantly anti-worker) labour practices are the status quo, entrenched over decades of repetition and reinforcement.

Let’s look at another example of a situation where workers were passionate about their work despite its detrimental effects on their health and general wellbeing–the asbestos mine in Asbestos, Québec. As recalled in Jessica Van Horssen’s excellent recent book on the subject, workers’ livelihoods there depended on a single industry for decades, which created a toxic and parasitic bond between workers and the company. Workers, even long after the substance they risked life and limb to get out of the ground was shown to be a risk not just to their health but to those who consumed it as well, often clung to the belief that the company and the substance were not as bad as they were portrayed. It didn’t help that the mining company, and later the Québec government, obscured evidence of the precise cancer risk for even limited long-term exposure to the fibrous mineral.

In both cases there are unusual rates of mortality–with young animators committing suicide or dying of overwork in the anime industry and an entire town afflicted by the very air they breathe and the work they do in the asbestos industry. In both cases there is an anti-body labour practice and certain material and ideological motivations for people to stay in these toxic positions. Even when workers in Asbestos mobilized and struck against the company in the 1950s, their essential dependence on the company as workers and their vulnerability as human bodies did not change. They were well-paid, but it was hazard pay. In the case of anime workers, wages are usually below minimum wage and below the poverty line.

Capitalism as a system, regardless of what is being produced, equivocates all labour as homogeneous and evaluates output in terms of financial return–an abstract indicator completely separate from the quality of the product and the workers’ health–which leads to this kind of destruction. In many ways, we as workers are stuck on the other side of the coin. For those of us who want to pursue jobs in a creative industry or in mining, we will be subjected to hierarchical, profit-driven workplaces where we are replaceable and valued only insofar as we produce more than we are paid.

To make matters more complicated still, in creative fields workers are often trapped between their material needs and the sense that they are not workers but creators who (yes) have more autonomy over their output than auto workers or miners–at least in some cases. Artists often aspire to produce great work, and are encouraged to think that demanding better wages and benefits is ill-befitting artists. Those who work in anime are often passionate fans and want to be doing what they are doing. They are taking the opportunities that the marketplace presents them, and as we can see, even those who are very successful can be driven to excesses where their bodies simply give out.

Only an end to capitalism and its inhumane, purely quantitative evaluation of productivity can ultimately ensure that we all live full and productive lives. I do think, however, that videos and articles like the ones I’ve linked to are important in simply recognizing the problem and honouring the lives of those who have been killed (murdered) by these violent labour practices. Whatever we think of Mizuno’s work, we have to recognize that his was a life early and unjustly taken, and we need to contemplate and create a better world.

Out Like a Lamb: Day 13: Designing for Life

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Today I’d like to do something a bit different than before. Since today’s subject is so visual, I’ve decided to make this entry much more image-centric than usual. That will entail me acting as a guide through a gallery of some of my recent design and artworks. We’ll do a couple of them and see where we end up.

Just a moment before we do, though, I want to spend a paragraph just musing about my general approach to art and design as well as a few words about where I got started.182459_1813035811537_2753526_n

One night, about seven or eight years ago now, I had a strange dream that featured the ominous, indefinable object you see above. I quickly sketched it out in my drawing book to make sure I didn’t forget. Now, most if not all of the time before that, my drawing time was spent on maps of fantasy worlds I wanted to write about–and did in some cases. But here I had a powerful image, and I actually drew it out before using Apple Pages to create the vector graphic above. I am still not sure what that whole dream was about, but it produced something so indelible that I had to preserve it. From there, I learned how to use Pages’ shape tools and other graphic editing and page layout to make more sophisticated images.

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These two are some of my favourites. Throughout my undergraduate years, I actually refused to upgrade to any software, like Illustrator or even a cheaper Photoshop alternative and stuck to the tools I knew how to operate. After all, I was able to do some pretty cool things with the techniques I had learned, and it was only very gradually that I realized how limited they really were, especially in terms of efficiency. 392371_2986425665550_1887808499_n.jpg

I still haven’t acquired a copy of Illustrator or anything truly sophisticated, but I get by using software called Pixelmator to make posters, sometimes employing the help of InDesign for particularly thorny or complicated projects. I’ve focused most of my time on making radical political posters, some of which you might have seen around Toronto if you look carefully. On the other hand, I also have dedicated some time to more casual and selfish projects, like the three below. Now let’s get to that gallery tour!

 

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Now that you’ve had a tour of some of my development, seeing where my computer art has gone and where it might go, I’m pretty happy with the results. I’m still learning and shifting the way I do things as well as the kinds of work I like to do, but with the exception of a few pieces I don’t particularly like (and no longer have, unfortunately), it’s been a positive contribution to my life over the past several years.

Let’s see what the next three days of posts will be:

March 24: This entry will cover my academic interests. I’m going to focus mainly on chaos theory and work around embodiment, since I wouldn’t be able to cover all of my interests in one post. That is subject to change, but either way, it should be fun.

March 25: Another fun one, this time focusing on how I understand friendships and romantic relationships, especially through the frames of relationship anarchy and ethics. A complex topic, to be sure, but one I think I can bring a unique perspective to.

March 26: This one is more basic, just talking about how I’ve adjusted to city life and, previously, how I coped with living in small towns or isolated areas, i.e. not very well.

Zahra’s Paradise

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Up to this point, all of the graphic novels I’ve studied have been written by American authors, depicting the Middle East and Middle Easterners from a Western, metropolitan, and ultimately imperialist perspective. The proliferation of these books after the 9/11 attacks could no doubt be explained by those little surges of fear that leap across American vertebrae when the Middle East comes up, as well as both the savvy, political intent, and guilty consciences of the white male authors. While some books have been more conscious of this than others–for good and ill–all of them have participated in established discourses about the Middle East that could broadly be described as imperialist. Zahra’s Paradise, however, is far more complicated in origin.

Though it emerged from the pens of an Iranian expatriate to America, an Algerian illustrator, and a Jewish artist, all of whom have kept strict anonymity for fear of reprisals, it is an American product published in English. Both it and Persepolis, which I am saving for last, are the work of Iranians who have moved or fled to the West and published there. This has obvious critical importance for any attentive reader attempting to figure out how to place these works in the current culture.

The West hovers mainly around the peripheries of the narrative in Zahra’s Paradise, since the plot that drives the story is a largely domestic affair. Beginning in the dusty clamour of the 2009 Green Revolution protests in Iran, the story follows the titular Zahra and her older son Hassan as they search for Mehdi, the younger child of the family, who has gone missing after marching with the protestors. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was reelected in an election widely believed to be fraudulent–with much cause–triggering mass demonstrations in the capital, Tehran. The authors attempt to use the fictional Mehdi as a figure or symbol representing thousands of lost youth whose fates remain obscure in the aftermath of the protests and subsequent crackdown. Hassan and Zahra, whose name she shares with a large cemetery in Tehran, use every means and connection available to them in a desperate attempt to reconnect to the lost Mehdi, and along the way allowing the authors to issue a blistering attack on the Islamic Republic’s ruling government.

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My analysis of the book will take place in two distinct but overlapping arenas. The first is the book’s relationship to a Western audience as well as the Iranian people themselves. The second is the authors’ clear endorsement of technology (the book was originally a webcomic) as a powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people to bring justice or at least shame on oppressors.

Zahra’s Paradise issued from Western printing presses and was intended for a Western audience, though the original webcomic was also translated into Farsi and Arabic. Though the webcomic was a more cosmopolitan affair, the book was published first in English, and the language of Britain and the United States is the primary vehicle by which Amir, the author, has pursued his political activism. Edward Said writes of the necessity of a contrapuntal reading of cultural works. That is, in his view, a critic must consider both the literary output of the metropole and the response of the formerly occupied or colonized territories–the “distant lands” that are exoticized and oppressed by the Western nations. This book, covered throughout with explanatory notes and including a long glossary of terms and appendix in the back, seems best suited for an American audience with little knowledge about Iranian culture and history.

Critical reception to the book by its American and British audiences has been almost uniformly positive. One finds nary a criticism of the book in the numerous published reviews and news reports, which probably arises from both the book’s actual quality–to which I can attest–and the context of its publication. Zahra’s Paradise is simply too important, too essential to criticize, one suspects. The notice in the New York Review of Books has this as its penultimate paragraph:

Zahra’s despair is well-founded. According to a United Nations report on Iran that was released in late September, over 300 secret executions reportedly took place at Vakilabad Prison in 2010, and a further 146 secret executions have taken place in 2011. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 34 journalists had been detained by the end of 2010. One of them, Mohammad Davari, was sentenced to five years for making a series of videotaped statements by prisoners at the Kahrizak detention center who said they had been abused, tortured and raped.

This review, penned by Haleh Esfandiari, who, according to his bio, was detained in solitary confinement at Evin Prison for 105 days, understandably sees the book as more of a political act than an aesthetic object. No doubt his own experiences played an invaluable role in his essay, though most of it is taken up with synopsis rather than evaluation. Esfandiari’s writing is exemplary of the Western response to the book, which seems to me overly reverent. I am grateful that the book has given more attention to Iranians, who are often melted into a black-clad, menacing grin in the minds of Americans. Like Persepolis, the book draws on ancient Persian poetry and tradition as an indictment of present conditions and the hypocrisy of the authorities. It also reveals its namesake, Zahra, to be a pious Muslim whose faith is a source of empowerment as well as protest, and the final pages of the book proper are covered with her fervent lament. As this is a work of fiction, the author and artist are free to cast their characters as specific types, which they manage to do without effacing the presence of moral ambiguity.

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The reception of the book in the West is also indicative of a popular appetite for stories condemning the regime in Iran. While the book itself takes proper care to emphasize that this is an Iranian struggle and one where the West is unwelcome, Zahra’s Paradise is also catering to a market whose size and flexibility was already established when it made a bestseller of Persepolis and established Joe Sacco’s reputation. Its reverent critical reception and wide media coverage indicates not a fault in the book but a continuing American hunger for images of oppressed Iranians suffering under a totalitarian regime. This in a country where the Iranian ruling class has already been thoroughly demonized by the press, government propaganda, and popular discourse. Zahra’s Paradise furthers this discourse, and also adds another twist to the proceedings, namely that of techno-activism.

Both the Green Revolution and Arab Spring revolts were widely covered in the American news, and one tool of the protestors in particular seemed to hog much of the attention: social media. This article, while it toes the standard line of the West as bringer of democracy and assumes capitalism and liberal values as standard, is a decent introduction to this issue. Unfortunately, many in the West act as though these technologies, often developed in the United States, are more important to the work of protest movements than the people participating in them!

Through the webcomic and various other campaigns, the collaborators behind this project have fully embraced what I call techno-activism, even putting Zahra up for Iran’s presidential election. Though the narrative of the novel itself designates normal Iranians as the heroic ones, its creators have, by targeting the work at a Western audience and using the Web as a publishing vehicle, given a hearty endorsement to techno-activism.

Within the story itself, major plot points revolve around gadgets and devices: Hassan’s computer, the copy machine at a local Internet café, secret discs, hacked files, an online community supporting Mehdi, and more are all crucial or at least play prominent roles in the plot. The destruction of said copy machine is a critical moment for a supporting character, who later exacts violent revenge on those who would dare assail his Japanese Canon machine. Technology, in Zahra’s Paradise, is functions overwhelmingly in support of the people, though space is given over to looking at how the regime itself tightens its grip using those same sophisticated devices. Given that the Web has been the primary means of publicizing and distributing the novel, it should come as no surprise that I believe that this text is surrounded and spilling over with enthusiasm for technology, within the text and in a larger digital culture.

Both the book’s Western reception and its nature as a hub of techno-activism within and surrounding the text show that Zahra’s Paradise cannot be considered a national response to imperial oppression in Said’s sense, at least not without significant complication. Because it was produced in the West and largely for the West and keeps such a cheery view of technological tools for organization, its political importance can be contested. While the images and text themselves make an impassioned plea for Western recognition of Iranian agency, its location in the Western media landscape have compromised this intent somewhat.

This is not to suggest that just because technological tools are of a Western origin that advocating their use constitutes imperialism. Far from it, since ideals of democracy and freedom that originated in the metropolitan states have borne much fruit in national resistance movements throughout the former colonized world. There is no reason technology cannot be the same way. At the same time, however, the extent to which these activists have leaned on the Web and social media in their story and in their promotion thereof should be subject to scrutiny. More analysis needs to be done on the ways that social media often unmasks anonymous users and can play into the hands of authoritarian governments (as well as “democratic” ones) and actually weaken radical political movements.