David Wants to Fly: The “Mad Fantasies” of David Graeber

jet pack 2In the second essay of his recently released book, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber writes that “[t]here is a secret shame hovering over all us in the twenty-first century” and that “the feeling is rooted in a profound sense of disappointment about the nature of the world we live in” (105). The shame and disappointment that Graeber is referring to is not tied to ongoing mass extinction, climate change, famine, or warfare; it is not prompted by the degraded world we inherited or the degradation that we continue to be complicit in.

Instead, David Graeber is disappointed by the fact that contemporary society doesn’t align very well with what was portrayed by the science fiction of his youth.

The essay in question is titled “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”. And while Graeber says “I don’t really care about flying cars”, he is seemingly upset about the lack of force fields, teleportation, antigravity fields, tractor beams, jet packs, immortality drugs, and the like. There are as of yet no colonies on Mars and Graeber feels cheated:

“we’re not nearly where people in the fifties imagined we’d have been by now. We still don’t have computers you can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk the dog or fold your laundry” (106)

Graeber identifies as an anarchist but, if he is at all, he is clearly of an antiquated, Leftist variety and is fixated on capitalism as root problem. Capitalism is a disappointment, at least in part, because it has not delivered on these technological promises. Capitalism, according to Graeber, has both impeded the rate of progress and steered the direction of progress toward less and less exciting projects.

“the one thing I think we can be fairly confident about…is that invention and true innovation will not happen within the context of corporate capitalism–or, most likely, any form of capitialism at all. It’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to really start setting up domes on Mars…we’re going to have to figure out a different economic system entirely.” (146)

There are hints as to the economic system that Graeber is seeking but at a minimum we can conclude that it must include jet packs and must exclude hierarchy. Should those things come into conflict, my suspicion is that he’ll opt for the jet pack.

Poetic Technologies

Instead of jet packs, capitalism has brought us even more paperwork and growing bureaucracy; forms to fill out and facebook statuses to update. Technological progress is now largely oriented toward capturing data and manipulating images. Graeber explains that “in this final, stultifying stage of capitalism, we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies.” (141)

This dichotomy clearly strikes the reader as good technologies versus bad technologies. The poetic ones sound like what we might want and the trend toward the bureaucratic is presented as the problem to be addressed. But it’s not so simple when Graeber defines these terms:

“By poetic technologies, I refer to the use of rational, technical, bureaucratic means to bring wild, impossible fantasies to life. Poetic technologies in this sense are as old as civilization.” (141).

The key is that the technical ability serves a grandiose end. There is an incredible amount of technical knowledge necessary to send a human being to the moon but the technical knowledge is conceived of as a means to a “wild, impossible” end rather than an end in itself.

Graeber warns that “poetic technologies almost invariably have something terrible about them” (142). How terrible? Graeber cites Lewis Mumford and makes the point that the components of the earliest complex machines were slaves and that such machines were essential for building the Egyptian pyramids. “Bureaucratic oversight turned armies of peasants into the cogs of a vast machine” (141). But whether composed of slaves or inanimate cogs, the defining feature of poetic technologies is that their “rational, bureaucratic techniques are always in service to some fantastic end” (142). Building the pyramids relied on slave labor but the pyramids themselves are pretty fantastic and probably even seemed impossible when first being conceived…and so the machines that built them–with their human components–are poetic rather than bureaucratic.

In contrast bureaucratic technologies, according to Graeber, reverse means and ends. We may still have our “mad fantasies” but such fantasies are “free-floating; there’s no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh” (142). Bureaucratic technologies exist to make adminstration more efficient. In other words, we no longer aspire toward jet packs or something wholly different but rather a faster internet or a slimmer phone with a slightly altered screen size. Instead of a “world of wonders” we settle for “modest improvements” (145).

The Fate of the Earth

Perfunctory caveats aside, one cannot help but conclude that for Graeber the poetic technologies really are the good technologies. Indeed, he explains that poetic technologies may be our only hope of survival:

“[the United States] has spent the last decades telling its citizens that we simply can no longer contemplate grandiose enterprises, even if–as the current environmental crisis suggests–the fate of the earth depends on it.” (142)

We need poetic technologies to pursue grandiose enterprises to save the earth. It makes one wonder how poetic Graeber finds wind farms, nuclear power, or any of the schemes that are collectively referred to as geoengineering.

As an aside, it shouldn’t be overlooked that for so-called anarchist David Graeber:

“all those mad Soviet plans–even if never realized–marked the high-water mark of such poetic technologies” (142)

If only we anarchists could be more like the Soviet Union.

Conclusion: A Distinction Without a Difference

The distinction between poetic technologies and bureaucratic technologies is highly abstract and perhaps ultimately meaningless. Very often the same machine could fall under either definition depending on the intent of those making use of it. Are you developing a technology to realize a “wild, impossible” plan or a “mad fantasy” such as space colonies? Then it is most certainly poetic. Or are you developing a technology to more effectively capture and manipulate a vast amount of date and therby make a given bureaucracy more effecient? Then you are dealing with a bureaucratic technology.

Many technologies are introduced as the means to a “wild, impossible” goal but lose their luster with time. How would one categorize the printing press? the telegram? the airplane?

Ultimately, it is not the purity of our intentions or how “mad” our schemes are that will determine whether or not there is clean water to drink and fresh air to breathe. The fate of the earth doesn’t depend on more technologically grandiose projects. The poetic technologies of the Soviet Union were every bit as toxic–often moreso–than the current technologies that Graeber finds boring and bureaucratic. They wouldn’t be any less toxic if somehow implemented by anarchists.

Graeber offers no grounds for believing that such grandiose projects are even consistent with his espoused anarchism. He can say nothing more than that the future is unknown and undetermined and that maybe one day anarchists will run the zoo.

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