Reviews and reflection on Maddalena Cerrato’s and Peter Baker’s ‘Between Futurology and Extinction: A Transautographic Experiment in Two Turns‘ by Janneke Adema and Gabriela Méndez Cota
When I first started reading this article I was intrigued by its framing as a ‘trans-autographic writing experiment’, something I was in specific asked to provide a response to as part of this open peer review process. Yet next to presenting itself as being such an experiment, the article also asks how we are to conduct such a trans-autographic writing experiment in the wake of a ‘climate emergency’, while ‘haunted by the spectre of extinction’? Throughout the article hints are provided on what this experiment consists or consisted of, but I was struck by two immediate presumptions I made. One, I assumed that the term autographic referred to handwriting, which made me imagine a handwritten epistolary exchange between the two authors which led to or resulted in the writing of this article — which could have been an interesting post-digital approach to conducting scholarship under the current conditions of digital surveillance and control. Two, upon reading the article the reader is presented with two different ‘voices’ — one represented by an italic font, one by a roman font — my presumption being that these two voices represented the two individual authors identified as the authors of this article — who I have also been introduced to as part of this open peer review experiment in the form of an email exchange. Yet on further and deeper reading of this article, focusing in specific on its trans-autographic writing experiment, I started to doubt these presumptions. And perhaps engaging such a critical readerly reflection on the nature of authorship, agency, technology and materiality, as I found myself pursuing, is part of the aim of this experiment, and maybe even becomes part of the experiment itself.
Essential for any understanding or reading of this experiment is the article’s focus on futurology, the study of the future as a calculable extension of the present, foreclosing the alterity of that future and any alternative opening out towards it, which has clear implications for the possibility of any truly political response to change through our writing practices. This made me think how this article is trying to forge a clear connection to our current academic writing practices, and how, as I have argued elsewhere, as scholars, by repeating what are still inherently print-based practices, connected to a metrics-driven system of scholarly communication that is forever based on scholarship’s past achievements, we are similarly not allowing ourselves to open out to different futures for academic writing. And, with that, importantly, we are also not reflecting on what it means to be an academic producing thought in our current predicament, as part of our responsibility to develop a scholarly poethics. However, as the reflections on this trans-autographic experiment in this article make clear (mostly in the form of the second voice in italics), the digital is not necessarily a solution here, where in its current state our digital academic practices are thoroughly embedded in metrified and datafied surveillance economies. For example, what I have identified as the voices of the authors in this article are reduced midway through the article to mere ‘users’ processed through, embedded within, and controlled by a ‘mix of encrypted and unencrypted information’. In this sense there is a certain nihilism that underlies this writing experiment, also reflected on in the article itself, a nihilism that also comes to the fore through the fact that the article does not provide (refuses to provide perhaps?) a clear description of what this experiment is, or what it consisted of. It does not want to become a model in this sense, or programmatic. It is left implicit, perhaps as a haunting on or of the article itself?
Yet there are some very intriguing ways in which this experiment, by remaining open towards what it is, can be, or does, proposes some ways for us to engage differently with the way we perform our thought. The article itself consists of two parts, reflected by two mirroring titles, ‘Global Computation, Futurology, Climate Emergency’ and ‘Climate Emergency, Futurology, Global Computation’, with the concept of futurology as the hinge or pivot. In a similar fashion we can see the article as consisting of two mirroring voices, breaking through any easy linearity in thinking and arguing. And perhaps here the concept of writing itself forms the pivot between these two authorial voices, in their self-reflection on what it means to be an academic writer, to be an academic, and to perform our thought and scholarship. Both voices talk about, propose, and at the same time inherently question, a ‘we’, and their trans-autographic writing seems to want to break through the singularity and individual nature of our academic writing practices, as, what they call it, ‘a praxis of thinking’, a thinking that needs to be provided with the possibility of an opening towards a future to come that isn’t pre-defined by a datafied present.
This is partly what made me reconsider my presumption of the voices or users presenting – neatly – the authors, and the article clearly shows how through our interaction with writing as always already mediated we are inherently entangled as authors with technological agency. This comes to the fore further in this article in its reflection on generative AI and LLMs, which are presented as a spectre haunting the extinction of academics, of academic writing, of what it means to be an academic. Yet the question remains whether technology has not always been haunting what it means to be an academic, and whether our current predicament is truly different to what has come before in other periods of rapid medial change?
Hope is offered through a reflection on how the experiment, through and despite all of this, was still able to forge different relationalities beyond datafied users. Friendship, as it emerged through the virtual exchanges that made up the trans-autographic experiment (the voice in italics makes clear halfway through the article that a conversation over a distance took place via digital means on a collaborative document, a GoogleDoc), is presented as a very real outcome of this writing experiment, as an inherently different relationality and materiality. This made me think of Tahani Nadim’s beautiful reflections on this topic, on books as affiliative objects through which ties of friendship can be mediated and modulated. And in this sense this autographic writing experiment, beyond a kind of self-writing, or autotheory, is perhaps less interested in writing the self, and more interested in creating new relationalities beyond the self, trans-autographic, opening out and remaining open-ended to what writing and the self is in an open response to an unknown and incalculable future. And it is here that I hope that experiments such as this open peer review process maybe have the potential to forge similar bonds, where my own voice or voices (of those speaking with and through me) again further reflect on and interweave with this text, enacting closures by adding further interpretations, while hopefully keeping it open (enough) to what it can become, to allow new relationalities to form and the text to open out to other readers, authors, and voices.
Gabriela Méndez Cota:
Dear Maddalena and Peter:
I start by declaring my sympathy with the argument and the experimental aspects of your essay, which could be interpreted as this not wanting to be an ‘objective’ peer review. Neither would it want to be ‘subjective’, though, unless we finally dis-identify subjectivity from the phenomenon of subjectivism (which, by the way, includes peer reviewing as quality control, so I could rather be saying that this is not a peer review at all). Let me say, instead, that this attempt at thoughtful feedback wants to ‘take subjectivity into account’, as Lorraine Code once wrote, yet in a slightly different sense, prior to the epistemological/political intent of that feminist formulation. I guess I have in mind the ‘kinetic bucolic’ sense of wonder that your essay invites me, performatively, to attune to, almost against the grain of the somewhat cumbersome rubric ‘trans-autographic writing experiment’. Before delving into how this experiment takes place within the more ready-to-hand theoretical argument about the futurological connection between global computation and climate emergency, let me just think of someone, a reader, who is not already familiar with the question of writing in infrapolitical reflection, and imagine them asking, as soon as they have finished the abstract: what is this trans-autographic writing experiment, and what does it have to do with global computation on the one hand, and with climate emergency on the other hand, once we agree upon understanding that these relate to each other by being both under the sway of positionality/futurology? Of course, this is exactly the question each reader would have to ask themselves, and it is also the question that is gradually not answered (for the sake, perhaps, of being kept open), throughout the essay. A part of me would like to leave each reader just read and figure it out for themselves. Another (perhaps all-too-futurological) part wants to make reading ‘friendlier’ towards newcomers. This is the part that would invite you to provide a brief description/explanation, from the very beginning of your essay, of what ‘trans-autographic writing experiment’ refers to in the context of infrapolitical reflection, and of its role/status in the writing of this essay. I assume that this would not be too much of a burden, since you have written extensively on that subject elsewhere. Unless, of course, you have made a decision, as part of your experimental writing strategy, of not providing any didactic explanations within the body of the text, in which case you could just tweak the abstract a bit or add an end note early in the text, if you agree with me that it might help newcomers to appreciate the experimental/aesthetic dimension of your work.
I notice that for the most part you eschew capitalizing the Anthropocene, often referring to it instead as ‘what is being called the “anthropocene”’, and variations of this. A part of me finds that a bit strange and suggests that you simplify this somehow by, for instance, using ‘the Anthropocene’ throughout after clarifying how the term works in your text (as a name, a discourse, a situation, a predicament, all of these). Another part thinks that the decision to de-capitalize the Anthropocene, and to scare-quote it throughout, might have to do with the critical dimension of argument, and wonders, then, about what criticality (which is something to which, I think, trans-autography cannot be reduced) does for your overall position on the Anthropocene. It seems to me that your essay inhabits a tension between a) ‘the awareness of the material direct impact of our collective human agency on the future habitability of our planet that the term Anthropocene names’ (first trans-autographic fragment, p. 3) on the one hand and on the other b) the Anthropocene as a discourse that ‘provides the horizon for the metaphorization and externalization of these two risks of extinction [AI, climate emergency] and the ground for their implicit symbolic connection’ (p. 7). Yet, while a) suggests that the Anthropocene cannot be reduced to a discourse, or a narrativizing framework to be undone by theory, the most important problem for you seems in the end to be not so much the material direct impact of our collective human agency on the future habitability of our planet, as the existential problem of freedom within positionality/futurology, which is today consummated in planetary computation, climate chaos and university discourse. As much as I share this concern, I keep asking myself about the status of materiality within it. I wonder, in this connection, how exactly your reference to Irigaray’s accusation of Heidegger’s forgetting of air informs your critical take on the Anthropocene. I also wonder how the kinetic-bucolic origins of the trans-autographic writing experiment might help to think about this in terms of writing style, which would perhaps benefit by modulating the use of scare-quotes so as to better allow for the trans-autographic fragments to resonate and balance out the strong criticality of the academic ‘main text’.
Finally, I would like to comment something on focus and structure. Your abstract says that your paper is about the role that global computation plays in representing, staging and calculating the global risks posed by the climate crisis. After reading the full paper, I am left with the impression that the paper is not mainly about the role of global computation. Rather it is about what freedom could mean in the Anthropocene defined as the consummation of positionality/futurology, of which global computation and climate emergency narratives of risk/extinction stand as the latest instances. If existence/freedom is the true object of the paper the main argument (for me) would be encapsulated in the following questions: ‘Is what is indexed here under the name “anthropocene” not precisely the clearing in which the question of ‘“what makes us human’” stands as a question, one in which the notion of humanity immediately and necessarily opens itself to its other, becomes other?’ & ‘Is it not possible to read as ciphered in this debate the unsettling idea of a finite future that may not simply be about what is ahead of us, but also concern our ancestors, even or especially those we have forgotten, and so involves a certain grief?’ I think these questions –of subjectivity, I insist, versus subjectivism –are best foregrounded in the second part of the paper. I’m not sure why the subtitle of that second part reshuffles the title of the whole paper; it appears to be another version of the same paper, and I just wonder why it is the second part and not the first. I think that if one focuses on the second part of the paper the abstract could be re-written around the trans-autographic writing experiment as a way of addressing the existential problem of the Anthropocene (becoming other) under the sway of positionality/futurology.
There are so many other questions that your essay invites me to think, but for the time being I just hope that this attempt at thoughtful feedback is useful to you, and I welcome any corrections or questions you might have about my partial interpretation. I end, for now, with a quote that came to my mind after reading your paper, hoping that we have a chance to discuss the reference at some point:
Hoy en día, para nosotros, la primera cosa es la que viene al comienzo de una serie, o la que está más a mano. Damos el primero de muchos pasos cuando empezamos un libro o un proyecto de investigación sospechando que nuestro esfuerzo nos llevará, quizá, más allá de nuestro horizonte presente. Pero la idea de un objetivo último de todas las lecturas no tiene sentido para nosotros. Y menos aún existe la idea de que un objetivo tal pudiera motivar o «causar» nuestra acción siempre que abrimos un libro. Estamos inmersos en el espíritu de la ingeniería y pensamos en el gatillo como la causa del proceso. No pensamos en el corazón como la causa de la trayectoria de la bala.(Illich, I. & Borremans, V. (2004 ) En el viñedo del texto. Etología de la lectura: un comentario al «Didascalicon» de Hugo de San Víctor. Trans. M. I. González García. México, Fondo de Cultura Económica: 23)
Reply from the Authors
Thank you, Gabriela and Janneke, for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on our article. Within the time frame we had at our disposal, we have tried to incorporate most of your suggestions that resonated with us on so many levels. Your voices joined those already haunting our text, further multiplying the echoes, reverberations, and dissonances sounding throughout a text which, as increasingly happens in our joint writing, feels less and less our own. And your comments became the markers of a possible friendship to come, a possibility in whose wake our edits took place/shape and which Janneke also evoked:
And it is here that I hope that experiments such as this open peer review process maybe have the potential to forge similar bonds, where my own voice or voices (of those speaking with and through me) again further reflect on and interweave with this text, enacting closures by adding further interpretations, while hopefully keeping it open (enough) to what it can become, to allow new relationalities to form and the text to open out to other readers, authors, and voices.Adema, 2023
We hope that you find the article is all the better for it, we believe it is.
Both of you recognized the value in our transautographic experiment, and yet you helped us realize that some of the premises that we had developed more elsewhere needed to be more explicit and referenced, without renouncing to the performative aspect of the experiment. So, we took to trying to clarify the stakes of this writing experiment going back to where it started and citing the first article we wrote together which is now forthcoming (and also serves as an index to an interested reader where we more extensively theorized this writing praxis). And yet, we hope that we were able to find the right balance and that such explanations will not distract the reader from the experience of slowly recognizing the stakes of the experiment unfolding before their eyes.
In different ways, your reviews have both guided us toward furthering the awareness that the stakes of the experiment itself concern primarily the potential of friendship – as it takes place in as a praxis of thinking and writing – as a way to open a space of existential freedom escaping futurology and university discourse.
the most important problem for you seems in the end to be not so much the material direct impact of our collective human agency on the future habitability of our planet, as the existential problem of freedom within positionality/futurology, which is today consummated in planetary computation, climate chaos and university discourseGabriela
Hope is offered through a reflection on how the experiment, through and despite all of this, was still able to forge different relationalities beyond datafied users. Friendship, as it emerged through the virtual exchanges that made up the trans-autographic experiment (the voice in italics makes clear halfway through the article that a conversation over a distance took place via digital means on a collaborative document, a GoogleDoc), is presented as a very real outcome of this writing experiment, as an inherently different relationality and materiality.Janneke
Janneke Invited us to think more about whether the problem of academic writing being captured by technological agency was a new one: “Yet the question remains whether technology has not always been haunting what it means to be an academic, and whether our current predicament is truly different to what has come before in other periods of rapid medial change?” This further turning of the screw encouraged us to go back and to try to outline more explicitly how the possibility of a trans-autographic praxis was grounded in a certain excess found in writing itself; an excess of originary technicity which brought us close to some of the stakes outlined so clearly in Gabriela’s paper in this volume. The question would be, therefore, to restore as part of this writing experiment the originary excess of writing which the flattening of technological mastery would seek to erase.
Janneke also invited us to engage with her own insights on the technologies of academic writing, and specifically how the forms and formats in which we write (and we are impelled to write) shape its futures, what may or may not be said in the name, for example, of ‘research.’ The kindred spirit in this line of questioning was a welcome push beyond the current reach of our writing experiment. It is a matter for thinking as this writing experiment develops, no doubt, and yet we hope that the inclusion of this in the new iteration of our article offers more than a wink to a ‘peer reviewers’ comments, but rather deepens the layers in collectively thinking about what it would mean to allow a space for the kind of writing praxis we espouse.
Gabriela rightly pointed out our unease with the term “Anthropocene” in our original formulation, no doubt in part a symptom of our own grappling with the literature, but also a response to what what remained unthought in the naming of this event-like (indeed, we could justifiably say epochal) phenomenon. Do we oscillate in our article between reducing the Anthropocene to a discourse, on the one hand, and recognising its materiality, on the other, particularly insofar as it insists in our existential inscriptions of the autographic passages? This is the question Gabriela posed to us. What we would say in response is that such a tension is precisely what our writing experiment works out and yet leaves unresolved. For indeed what appears as a critical distance in the use of square quotes (‘Anthropocene’) is not merely the employment of a critical apparatus with respect to the discourses that Anthropocene science engenders, but also with respect to an existential angst that the ‘Anthropocene’ comes to name. In this configuration, ‘Anthropocene’ becomes a name for a shift in our thinking responding to the unbreathable air and unpredictable weather patterns, but also for a deeper sense of the colliding of human and geological time which is still (for the moment) not captured by how we experience our material reality. We thus sought to clarify this wherever possible in our edits, by at least making our own approach to the discourse of the Anthropocene more explicit.
Finally, Gabriela’s response is framed by the question of subjectivity versus subjectivism, a question that haunts our writing experiment from its very beginning. In a forthcoming paper on the question of autography, we distinguish it clearly from such practices of the “narratological closure of the subject” (i.e., autobiography, autofiction, life writing, etc.) clearly relying on a subjectivist perspective. No subject, no work of anamnesis, we like to think, would be possible in an autographic praxis. It is instead a form of writing that inscribes a bit of ourselves, a kind of ex-posure of that limit point in which we are undone as subjects, denarrativised, we open ourselves onto the abyss of that nothing which moves in us and which suspends all possible mastery of that being which we are and which does not belong to us, which emanates from elsewhere. Those bits of ourselves are never strictly us, never of the one or the other, never integrated, never integrateable. And yet, as Žižek would say, paraphrasing Galileo and interpreting Lacan via Hegel, eppur si muove. The question of what moves, and whether even the language of subjectivity suffices, is a question which we can only hope to work out, to work through, in our writing experiment as it develops. We have our inclinations as to a response to such a question, of course, but to make them explicit here in so few words would lead to (un)neccesary misunderstandings, when these torn and tattered words of our tired tradition mean so much and at the same time so little.
Let us keep the conversation going.
Maddalena and Pete