Monday, October 15, 2012
The time of risk
Ulrich's reformulation of society as propelled not by wealth but negatively by risk fuels the discussion of time in network culture. He writes that "...the center of risk consciousness lies not in the present, but in the future. In the risk society, the past loses the power to determine the present." (34) I would argue that it's not so much the future per se as a possibility space of the implications of the present state, eg, we may be causing global warming right now or we may not be. So once again we have a collapse of graspable axes into an anxious simultaneity. The shift from "I am hungry" to "I am afraid" starkly reflects that temporality (and highlights the politically expedient invocation of nebulous threats like terrorism).
The primary difficulty is then how to think probabilistically about the total system in a way that engenders meaningful action, and Ulrich demonstrates certain failures to develop adequate strategies for what Jameson would identify as cognitive mapping, such as when pine beetles are vilified rather than politics activated to mitigate the consequences of modernization (btw I'm from Colorado, and the pine beetle thing really does suck). We might also apply Berlant's cruel optimism to the hope that finding solutions to local issues are possible and will increase safety rather than proving intractable such that they point to larger systemic issues less readily approachable.
Ulrich, with some passion, points to "the failure of techno-scientific rationality in the face of growing risks and threats from civilization." (59) I have a hard time accepting this as an indictment of scientific process itself -- scientific literature studiously and necessarily avoids unqualified statements, and deals solely in the realm of likelihood within constrained domains, and it would not be effective if it did otherwise. It seems to me that when we are talking about "the fissures and gaps between scientific and social rationality," (30) we are talking about a gap of affect. It might be not so much a failure of scientific rationality, which is comfortable with probability, but of society's unreasonable and cruelly optimistic desire for a reductive and linear narrative, ie, an attachment to an outmoded sense of comprehensible time, that is mistakenly demanded of it. Science might be the only recourse for a society with a materialistic metaphysics if religious conservatism has been rejected. But the quotation of statistics in a political campaign that have a limited relationship to scientific or social realties calls for greater scientific fluency on the one hand and a shift away from a binding between affect and "rationality" on the other.