Progress studies, pt 1

by Suspended Reason

From a Discord near you:

progress studies seems kinda fake. likely to ignore/not engage with existing scholarship if I had to guess. I guess I just mean that it’s kinda weird to me to claim you’ve elucidated a new field of study when it’s about questions of human flourishing and governance and political economy which people have been talking about for thousands od years.

This kind of critique has been leveled against John Nerst’s erisology” as well, so let’s get this out of the way: all fields are fake, and all fields ignore pre-existing literature and literature from outside fields. To what extent has NLP properly reconciled with the millennia of discourse about linguistic meaning? How much overlap is there between sociology, anthropology, ethnomethodology, social psychology, and economics? Let a hundred fields bloom.

Now for progress studies. I think for a while the reigning cultural mood, especially among the intellectual classes, has been pessimistic and nostalgic, both culturally and economically. Moreover, this techno-pessisimism and criticality towards progress’s fruits have been mainstays of arts and humanities for a while now, rivals as they are with engineers and scientists. (And also, being political rivals with capitalism, which defends itself on the basis of material and technological progress. To cede the value of material and technological progress is to provide ammunition for the enemy.)

Progress studies seens at least partly to be aiming for a political and cultural intervention on intellectual and popular mood. The other half of the project is taking the stagnation thesis, the 1972 thesis, the cultural nostalgia diagnoses seriously and trying to figure what went wrong. When you have David Graeber and Peter Thiel—ostensibly as politically opposite one another as possible—coming together in discussions and finding remarkable common ground in their social diagnosis, you should probably pay attention and take that diagnosis seriously, even if it proves to be wrong.

I don’t think any existing field is working on specifically the kinds of problems they are interested in, and just because there are vague fields like economics or history of technology fields that sometimes talk about these problems doesn’t mean it’s a priori silly to try to get a group of people together who focus on these problems for pragmatic reasons. There also aren’t humanities fields whose mood and worldview includes techno-optimism, and that shift alone unlocks possibilities for new theoretical discoveries.

Again, fields are constructs of academic institutions, and the name on the tin isn’t actually what those disciplines study. (7+ fields study language with different emphases and interests and models, and only one of them calls itself linguistics.)

You can look at something like ethnomethodology or strategic interactionism and say they’re just reinventing sociology but sociology never looked at social interaction the way that, or with the frameworks that, EM and SI do.

I definitely agree progress studies has its fair share of LARPing and cringe. But I think any new scene with low barriers for entry and identification will. And also that any strategies or efforts to open up new questions or approaches or outlooks, under a banner, that has energy behind it, is a good thing to be encouraged with academic humanities in the gridlocked position they’re in.

I see Progress Studies as looking at existing media studies, digital humanities, social theory fields in academia and saying fuck that, there’s zero place for how I see technology, I’m gonna sew my own banner and rally people who share my mood because they’re the people I wanna talk to.”

I agree that I would love for them to actually directly rebut the technopessimism, or deal with some of the foundational critiques of the limits of material improvements, rather than cruise off vibes—but in my experience, it’s very very rare that intellectual movements do this—transcend mood-resonance and truly engage with theoretical opponents.

In part because to pull off a new paradigm you have to more or less reinvent your language, and start using a totally different frame for valuing the world, and it’s hard to both do that and also engage with/translate to the existing paradigm.

You’re in the process of figuring out the reasons why your (scorned/ignored) mood is worth defending, and that is a tough ongoing process of verbalization and conceptual refactoring. Turning around and offering a systematic rebuttal is tough and this is true even if your opponents are flat earthers—the existing paradigm had a long time to build an enormous set of plausible sounding arguments that all interconnect, and traversing that graph takes a lot of time. Usually never gets done systematically until long after the dust has settled