Reflecting on recent protests outside of Brett Kavanaugh’s home as well as a recent news story where police invaded the home of a 16 year old trans Twitch streamer, Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) notes ways in which conservative narratives around household and parental identity are unstable and contested.
In this special episode of Superstructure, Cohost Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) is joined by Erica Robles-Anderson (@fstflofscholars) and Scott Ferguson (@videotroph) to discuss common interests between the Money on the Left Editorial Collective and the Oikos working group on kinship/economy. Naty, Erica and Scott reflect on households, financial forms, and reproductive politics in our contemporary political economy through the prism of Melinda Cooper’s 2017 text, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism.
Continuing their consideration of pleasure for a world of leftist struggle, co-hosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) turn to a recently published Superstructure article co-authored by Erica Robles-Anderson and Scott Ferguson. Titled “The Visual Cliff: Eleanor Gibson and the Origins of Affordance,” the essay critically locates the hidden history of contemporary user-experience design in a well-known psychological experiment. Conducted by Dr. Eleanor Gibson, the experiment placed babies alone atop a visual precipice in order to test their depth perception. Following the essay, Charlotte and Naty question the notion that we must remain frozen forever between false binaries, like babies staring over an impossible visual cliff. Doing so, their discussion weaves through thinkers as diverse as Lynne Segal, Adrienne Maree Brown, Lisa Duggan, Gayle Rubin, and more.
In this first episode of Projections, Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) reflects on some recent comments from US Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) suggesting Democrats should prioritize inflation over Roe v. Wade in their campaign messaging in the midterms.
Music: “Lilac” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
Co-hosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) discuss conceptualizations of pleasure on the left, looking at a recent article arguing against the radicalism of polyamory in Novara for part 1 of this installment of Medium Femme.
Cohosts Will Beaman (@agoingaccount), Natalie Tabb Smith (@orangeasm) and Maxximilian Seijo (@maxseijo) are back to reflect on some of the many things that have happened since their last episode. Mentioning Elon Musk’s tentative Twitter purchase, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s feud with Disney, and escalating political attacks against LGBT educators and children, the cohosts reflect on how the US Left should account for its capacity in this new moment. Critiquing a recent NYMag article by Sam Adler-Bell from the Know Your Enemy podcast for its uncritical deference to right wing premises, the Superstructure cohosts suggests that the Left’s capacity is hiding in plain sight, on the front lines of the very infrastructures that the far right is contesting. To write off social media, the entertainment industry and critical pedagogy as non-political and nonstrategic is to abandon some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
In this installment of the Modern Movie Theory series, Scott Ferguson explores how a complex aesthetics of omniscience raises important questions about dependence, care, and responsibility in the Netflix show Old Enough!. Recently repackaged by Netflix for streaming audiences across 190 countries, Old Enough! is, in fact, a long-running Japanese reality show titled, “My First Errand,” which began airing on television in Japan during the 1990’s. Each 10 – 15 -minute episode of the series follows the triumphs and tribulations of a small child (and occasionally two), as they venture out for the first time to complete a series of routine tasks without parental chaperones. A flurry of commentary about the show in Western media has worried about televisual claims to realism; the ethics of sending toddlers out into the world; the politics of cultural differences lost in translation; and the dangers of inadequate urban and suburban infrastructure. Shifting our attention to the abstract moving image forms that shape Old Enough!, Scott by contrast teases out how the series routes the collective pleasures, anxieties and responsibilities involved in creating mobile personhood through a subtle aesthetics of omnipresence, which dominant blockbusters and video games repress, and film and media theorists tend to jettison. Irreducible to all-controlling surveillance or to individual embodied action, this omniscient televisuality harbors important lessons about money, mediation, and coordination that we cannot afford to overlook.
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From a non-sovereign perspective
By Andris Šuvajevs
A couple of days ago, the British economics commentator, Grace Blakeley, called people who advocate Modern Monetary Theory “naïve.” This was following a public radio appearance earlier that same day, in which she described tax breaks for the wealthy as taking money directly from those who claim public benefits. An MMT perspective objects to this line of argumentation since the actual or technical monetary process does not at all operate the way Blakeley describes it. Since what MMT calls a monetary sovereign, such as the UK, can issue currency without borrowing (or taxing the rich more), MMT proposes a policy that simply says ‘let’s provide more income to the poor’. The outcome is the same as in Blakeley’s approach, but the journey is different – MMT proposes to get rid of the conditionality that inheres in a policy position which rests on ‘let’s tax the rich in order to fund the poor.’ Importantly, MMT advocates tend to be wholeheartedly in favor of taxing immoral and abnormal levels of wealth – they just treat it as a separate policy issue.
It strikes me as surprising that people on the left become so heated and genuinely insulting toward each other in discussions regarding fiscal policy. There is often bad faith on both sides. Blakeley calling MMTers naïve is patronizing and quite simply arrogant, discarding the scholarship of many truly admirable thinkers. However, I often find that some MMTers are equally hostile when trying to make the point that taxes do not fund the government. Blakeley is obviously making a rhetorical rather than an academic point. She might (perhaps) agree with the technical analysis of the British monetary system that MMT provides, but her interest lies in formulating effective political arguments that resonate in British society. Thus, much of the online bickering between the British (Corbynist) Left and the global MMT crowd is often pointless as both sides speak on different conceptual levels.
Nevertheless, there is a conceptual disagreement between people who generally believe that public spending is in some way dependent on private savings and people who see it exactly the other way around. This disagreement concerns the issue of power. There is a reason why Blakeley disparages MMTers as naïve – her perspective is that MMT has no idea how the political world operates and that MMT is nothing more than a technical description of the monetary system. It is precisely on this point, however, that Blakeley—and the part of the British Left that she represents—demonstrates their worst short-sightedness and bad faith.
Namely, it cannot imagine a world where the metaphysics of trade-offs is not the basic principle of politics. I am all in favor of making effective political arguments that are not necessarily based on MMT, but arguments such as the one Blakeley is making are indicative of a fundamental world-view based on scarcity and zero-sum relations that unwittingly reinforce the very logics it supposedly tries to overcome.
In a way, MMT has a more advanced theory of power than contemporary British Marxists in breaking with the normative vision of societies that are discursively structured in classes and other forms of hierarchy. The British Left immediately (and in bad faith) accuses MMT of denying that classes or hierarchies exist. MMT, on the other hand, sees such blanket disavowals of monetary authority as entrenching structures of inequality. The worldview of the British Left is structured as a struggle. The MMT worldview tries to re-define the meaning of the struggle itself.
I suspect that one reason the British Left is explicitly antagonizing in its rhetoric has to do with it being continuously sidelined from power for the last, I don’t even know how many decades. The British ruling classes have been so overwhelming in their political victories that the British Left probably thinks it cannot afford to spend time on redesigning its conceptual toolkit. Admittedly, it is not easy to make public policy based on rather abstract ideas of power such as the one MMT professes. However, it has been my own professional experience that political arguments based on MMT can be incredibly empowering. I live in Latvia and this is a country that has adopted the euro and thus has no “monetary sovereignty” as it is commonly defined. Latvia has no formal influence over the interest rate, bond-buying programs and whatever else the ECB is doing. It is a country for whom “MMT does not apply” as critics often suggest. In reality, MMT is the only way forward if Latvia is to achieve any meaningful socio-economic development.
Let me give you some examples of the political utility of MMT. To begin with, the neoliberal doctrine of the financially impotent state whose capability is dependent on the entrepreneurship of the private sector has been a central feature of the post-soviet macroeconomic consensus. It is useful to remember that MMT itself emerges in conditions where political arguments on both sides of the debate assume that the state is a secondary institution in the force-field of capitalism and the fundamental scarcity of money is a fact of life. It is precisely this assumption which enables financialization and privatization of social life and public goods – MMT emerges to challenge that, providing nuanced analyses of the monetary system which then form the basis for the political arguments against the privatization of the state. It is quite remarkable that the British Left fails to acknowledge this making one wonder who actually is naïve here.
In Latvia, as in other Eastern European, post-socialist countries this consensus has imposed heavy social costs. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, the country has lost nearly a quarter of its population and the decreasing population rate is projected to continue well into the next decades. The only public policy response has been nationalist-conservative exhortations about women needing to give more births and moral panics regarding same-sex partnerships. The lack of public policy is rooted in fear that surrounds any economic projects undertaken or supported by the state. The yearly reduction of debt-to-GDP ratio is de facto state policy even in conditions where Latvia enjoys a relatively small debt-to-GDP ratio. Even if Latvia can ‘afford’ to spend more, it will not do so if it increases debt by a few percentage points in the subsequent fiscal year. Meaningful public investment in social infrastructure that includes the wages, salaries or stipends of teachers, students, social workers, etc. is effectively unthinkable. The median wage in society at large after tax is 749 EUR. Latvia’s integration into the global market immediately turned it into a peripheral country that supplies low-to-medium value goods and services, and regularly posts a trade deficit. The austerity of the last decade has decimated its long-term prospects as the absence of social and industrial policy has meant the gradual evaporation of doctors and teachers alongside a discombobulated private sector that is left to its own devices without support or strategic guidance.
It is within this sorry mix of affairs that MMT provides a powerful political alternative. MMT helps articulate the view that public debt is a form of investment and thus does not have to be feared at all. MMTers often criticize the Eurozone for its harsh and nonsensical fiscal framework which countries like Latvia currently fully embrace. Yet, almost paradoxically, Latvia could enjoy more freedom of action if there was the political will to use the financial security afforded by the eurozone to small open economies. Latvia could invest in its social infrastructure without having to rely on its export earnings and without having to impose a heavier tax on its (very small) well-earning segment of the population. Latvia could create financial institutions like a state development bank with the mandate to provide credit to specific industries that carry out the objectives of the green transition if there was a will to do that.
Without an understanding of MMT, these policies are politically impossible. If public investment (in which I include salaries, stipends, and pensions) is made conditional upon tax hikes on the well-off, you may as well just fold and retire. Furthermore, MMT helps to advance the public discussion by suggesting a focus on available resources rather than ‘available money’ – if the gap between necessary and available teachers is recognised as a problem, policy has to be focused on bridging this gap rather than reducing public debt despite everything else collapsing.
At this point, the conventional arguments pop up – ‘Well, what about the interest rate?’, ‘What happens when the debt grows and the servicing costs increase? Won’t we have to sell our national assets to pay it off?’ These are legitimate concerns in a country whose politicians willingly sold its soul to the IMF in 2008. It is precisely because Latvia does not politicize its own monetary agency and reliance on financial markets that these arguments carry the weight that they do. Nevertheless, without MMT one cannot properly address them. It is MMT that points out that the interest rate set by the central banks (the ECB in this case) is a policy, not a market rate. It is this fact which lets one argue that increased debt will not be a burden on future generations because the interest rate set by the financial markets depends on the ECB – and if ECB increases rates in a recessionary environment, well that’s just stupid policy, isn’t it? Whereas if rates increase in a pro growth environment – well, then there’s no problems servicing the debt, is there? Even in the Eurozone there’s room for political decisions and pressures around the ‘super-independent’ ECB as the debates surrounding current inflation demonstrate.
So it can be seen why MMT is politically helpful in such an economic environment. If one can demonstrate to the public that spending can be carried out without extra taxation, and it will likely increase the overall productive capacity of society, they can begin to imagine a new economic model that is otherwise inaccessible. MMT provides the theoretical tools to infuse the public sector with a positive meaning emphasizing the ways it complements rather than contradicts the private sector.
However, an Eastern European setting comes with its own challenges. The society simply does not believe that public debt can be harnessed for good and it sees public money as dangerous and not particularly democratic. The experience of the 1990s and the corruption and theft of state resources has made many of us intuitively suspicious of large (or any) state projects. If direct public spending is proposed, the first thought for many will be that some well-connected individuals are about to be generously enriched.
This is probably where many on the mainstream British Left will triumphantly exclaim “I told you so,” reminding us that it is insufficient to simply ‘learn economics.’ In that sense they are right, and MMTers certainly should be cautious about appearing too arrogant themselves by reducing politics to their academic truths. Public debt and spending is inevitably going to be realized through and alongside the existing structures and hierarchies of society even as it, hopefully, tries to change them. Repeating the mantra that ‘the state cannot go bankrupt,’ even practically in the eurozone, will not get you very far. People have legitimate historical concerns and thus there is still work to do in developing MMT’s insights into an effective political rhetoric.
To briefly conclude, my hope in writing this is centered on the possibility that there will be less quarreling among people who are in broad agreement about their political goals. If more MMTers and non-MMT Marxists inject some good faith in their positions and arguments, that’s a chance for both to practice what they preach. Just because struggle is constitutive of politics does not mean that everything has to be seen as a refraction of one struggle. And just because one is technically correct about something does not mean they are correct in their political rhetoric, dependent as it is on their respective societies.
By Erica Robles Anderson & Scott Ferguson
Originally presented at Hidden Histories: Gender in Design, Design History Society Seminar, April 14, 2022.
Part I: TED Talks and Teapots
In a 2003 TED Talk titled “Three Ways Design Makes You Happy,” Donald Norman announced that “The new me is beauty.” Norman – a professor, design firm principal, and the first Vice President of User Experience at Apple – ranks among the most influential figures in the field of user experience design. Yet above all, he is associated with the concept of “affordance,” an invented term now widely employed to refer to the forms and features of any useful thing.
Norman brokered the term from psychology to design in his 1988 book The Psychology of Everyday Things. Citing J.J. Gibson’s 1979 book The Ecological Theory of Perception as his source, he offered this definition: “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes.” In the 1980s and 1990s, the medium of computing was taking form as a mass “personal” technology. Norman was part of a movement to constrain the material and semantic scope of personal computing through psychological principles of use.
A decade later, at the turn of a new millennium, in the aftershock of the Tech Bubble burst, Norman was now thinking about what feelings afford. He dramatized his thought process on stage:
“I really have the feeling that pleasant things work better, and that never made any sense to me until I finally figured out — look … I’m going to put a plank on the ground. So, imagine I have a plank about two feet wide and thirty feet long and I’m going to walk on it, and you see I can walk on it without looking, I can go back and forth and I can jump up and down. No problem. Now I’m going to put the plank three hundred feet in the air — and I’m not going to go near it, thank you. Intense fear paralyzes you. It actually affects the way the brain works. …
That’s what fear and anxiety does; it causes you to be — what’s called depth-first processing — to focus, not be distracted. And I couldn’t force myself across that. Now some people can — circus workers, steelworkers. But it really changes the way you think.”
The pleasure of well-designed things has something to do with anxiety. In 2003, unease would have been a salient emotion. The United States was waging a so-called “War on Terror” and the national economy was just pulling out of a recession. A plank across an abyss affording safe passage to the skillful and the daring could be an allegory for neoliberal precarity. But Norman’s demonstration also surfaced a different moment and a history underlying affordance that seems, at first glance, to have very little to do with computing or design: Dr. Eleanor Gibson’s visual cliff.
To the best of our knowledge, there are no citations of Eleanor Gibson’s work in design literature. We correct that omission. Eleanor played a foundational role in developing a paradigm that came to shape how we perceive aesthetic, technological, and political-economic possibilities.
We are currently writing a media history of affordance. The first sustained cultural analysis of the concept, we account for the term’s diffusion through networks of social scientists, designers, and technologists during a period marked by discourses about market growth and government constraint. We fundamentally reject zero-sum metaphysics. Our engagement with this history is an effort to revisit late-twentieth-century aesthetics in order to enlarge their critical possibilities toward more capacious ends.
Our analysis of Eleanor Gibson rejects additive models of gender history, with their fatal deferrals to “someday”, or “also”, or “her or they too.” These logics reproduce inclusion as perpetual supplementarity and thus configure the project of history as an asymptotic climb toward completeness. Gibson’s visual cliff was always already a story of affordance. Our task is to critically interpret its world-shifting Gestalt.
Part II: Baby on the Brink
In April 1960 Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk astonished Scientific American readers with photographs featuring a baby boy crawling atop a sheet of glass laid across a checkerboard platform. On one side there appeared to be a drop-off of a few inches. The other seemed to give way to a small chasm several feet below. Although perfectly safe, the juxtaposition of opacity and transparency created the impression of a precipice, as vividly portrayed in filmed recordings of the experiments. The visual cliff staged the problem of affordance, although it was not yet named as such. Images of mothers beckoning infants to traverse the makeshift gorge entered popular culture through New York Times and Life features. They have been canonized in psychology textbooks for more than half a century. We are bringing babies back in order to think about what affordance affords.
Eleanor and J.J. met at women-only Smith College during the Great Depression. She was a student, he was an Assistant Professor. She completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, before finishing a Ph.D. at Yale in 1938. The Gibsons spent decades at Cornell University where J.J. was a professor, but nepotism rules prohibited Eleanor from eligibility as a faculty hire. She worked as a contingent scholar, with no lab of her own nor license to apply for grants as a Principal Investigator. When J.J. retired, Eleanor became the first developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychology as well as Cornell University’s first female endowed chair. She was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977 and she received a National Medal of Science in 1992, which is the highest scientific honor in the United States.
If mid-century psychologists were preoccupied with social attachments, stimulus responses, and mental associations, the Gibsons, together, developed a paradigm they called perceptual ecology and the visual cliff was a crucial experimental foundation. By isolating the child from its mother, they established an ontogenetic basis for “independent locomotion” and “discrimination of depth” untethered from the psychosexual dramas and ambivalent interiorities that riddled midcentury white middle-class prosperity. As unnerving as they are exciting, photographs of babies on the brink raise the question: What does the infant see? In the experiment, almost every toddler refused to venture over the cliff. For Gibson and Walk, this not only proved the babies’ perceptual fitness, but also established that mobile depth perception is a direct ecological “endowment,” not a matter of habits, associations, or institutions.
PART III: ALL ABOUT THE GIVENS
Cybernetics has long been narrated as the paradigm that shaped human-computer interactions. Perceptual ecology reveals another path, equally foundational but ontologically distinct. Perceptual ecology is not concerned with signals, feedback loops, or uncertainty. It theorizes a sensory-rich, ever-changing world inhabited by animate perceivers. The terrain is a substance. The ground is a surface primordially differentiated from the sky at the horizon. The atmosphere is an immersive, boundless medium. Animate perceivers do not receive bits of information through discrete channels. Instead, they register the constant flux of light on surface as an “ambient optical array.” Persistent sensory information is called “invariance” and it corresponds to the “solid angles” in a shifting world.
Perceptual ecology, like other paradigms that shaped human-computer interaction, addressed the predicament of the soldier moving through the world in machines. During World War II, Eleanor took leave from teaching and research to raise children and J.J. led a U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Psychology Program called the Psychological Test Film Unit. The Unit jettisoned the instrumentation of cockpits and radar screens to make motion pictures. The animated mobile point-of-view shots we associate with first-person shooter games and virtual reality experiences were developed to train pilots and to build a psychological theory of being-in-the-world that is perceptual and ecological at once. In 1947, J.J. wrote that “All spaces in which we can live include at least one surface, the ground or terrain. If there were no surface, there would be no visual world, strictly speaking.”
The visual cliff brought surfaces and animate perceivers into the lab in order to prove that discrimination is a psychological, rather than merely a physiological, problem. Babies of all kinds – human, kitten, goat, rat, lamb, puppy – were placed on the apparatus to the same effect. Surfaces are meaningful in terms of an organisms’ proprioceptive sensory capacities within an ecological niche. Their perceptual thresholds act as optical footholds or levers for immediate responsive action: edge detection. Affordance names the frame-of-reference as organism-environment relationality.
Donald Norman’s version of “affordance” channeled perceptual ecology into design. Norman explains, “Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning…when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is required” (Norman, 1988, 9). “Good design,” he argued, “leads to immediate understanding” (Norman, 1988, 23).
Good, here, means ease, not True or Beautiful. Norman’s “natural design” breaks with Beaux-Arts, Bauhaus, and Arts and Crafts traditions. The aesthetic of “immediate understanding” took hold through the language of “user experience.” In the moment when graphical conventions were being developed, affordances constrained interface functions and forms. Affordance diffused through training programs, professional organizations, and publications. It circulated through engineering, social science, business and marketing, the arts, and the humanities. In the process, terrestrial surfaces became digital media ecologies and affordance became a term for technology, writ large.
At first glance, affordance seems to be a popularized social science term. It is capaciously relational, perhaps almost to the point of banality. Upon critical reflection, however, one begins to perceive how affordance-thinking contracts the view. When ‘what you see is what you get’, social difference, intermediaries, and ethical disturbances disappear from the schema of the given.
If these politics often evade notice, perhaps it has something to do with how elegantly affordance nominalizes the verb to afford. By focusing on “the complementarity of the animal and the environment” it omits political economy, by design. To afford is to provision, to bear the expense of accomplishing something. The Gibsonian neologism replaces the political-economic provocation ‘What is to be done?,” with the perceptual ecological question, ‘What is immediately given?’
Direct experience is a rather narrow and ambivalent mode of ease. It relies upon mediations and hidden labors that must go unseen. A gender history that adds specific figures to the canon can never go far enough. There is trouble with a model that takes what is seen as the limit of what can be given. If we are to reckon with affordance we need to promote the concept to the status of a metaphysical reckoning with being-in-the-world. Like I-Thou relations, a phenomenology for Dasein, a biosemiotic Umwelt, Kantianism, or Cartesianism, there is a big move underway on the visual cliff. But there is also a sensational melodrama of eyeballs on the brink, which Norman’s turn to emotional design brings to the surface.
By queering and expanding the term we could embrace perceptual ecology as political economy as design. We can openly declare that society is not condemned to forever teeter on the cliff, whether narrative, fiscal, or metaphysical. There are many worlds that we can, in fact, afford.
About the Authors
Erica Robles Anderson is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. She is a cultural historian of network society interested in architecture, technology, and religion, as forms of collective life. She is a founding member of the OIKOS working group on kinship and economy, and the Editor of Public Culture.
Scott Ferguson is a professor of film and media in the Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of South Florida, editor for the Money on the Left Editorial Collective, and research scholar at the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. His research focuses on money, media and aesthetics in Western modernity.
Andrés Bernal and Natalie T. Smith critique the recent mainstream econ Twitter shaming of MMT, while vibing on left heterodox anti-racist & feminist economics. The conversation then turns toward Latin American politics and Andrés’ latest paper on inflation for the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity.
Read Andrés paper here: http://www.global-isp.org/working-paper-no-132/
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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.