The Cyberflâneur #13: Quinn Slobodian

As the World Economic Forum in Davos gets into high gear this week, what better person to take the helm of our cyberflâneur section than Quinn Slobodian (bio; Twitter), the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism? The topics Quinn chose vary from the future of international law via architecture in China to post-surveillance art.

Quinn has not only provided ample and insightful commentary on his favourite pieces from our stacks but also had some nice things to say about The Syllabus:

Richard Seymour writes at the beginning of his new book that “the dreary moral-panic literature excoriating ‘the shallows’ and the ‘post-truth’ society must be missing a vital truth about” the internet. It’s a tribute to Morozov’s generosity that he has created The Syllabus to help us remember and re-inhabit the internet we want instead of the one we are condemned to.

Over the past few months, we have featured quite a few articles and talks by Slobodian. Below is a video of his recent talk at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin:

As always, you can browse the selections by our previous cyberflâneurs here.

~ Evgeny Morozov


Quinn’s Selections

I.

Peripheral Histories of International Law

World order is a mess. Maybe it always has been. All the more reason to search everywhere we can for scraps of insight. I love this article from Liliana Obregón, professor of law at University of Los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, for the broad stroke map it offers for places to look. Her introduction to “peripheral histories of international law” twists the prism of what someone from the Global North might think they know about the origins of ideas of global orders and shows glimpses of other storylines and genealogies. Many of the other selections I made are examples of such peripheral histories so this seemed like an apt one to start off with.


II.

China, India, and International Law: a Justice Based Vision Between the Romantic and Realist Perceptions

Alongside Antony Anghie, one of the most inspiring scholars for me of seeing the law from the Global South is Muthucumaraswamy Sornarajah. In this article cowritten with Jiangyu Wang, he passes some legal history version of the Bechdel Test by putting two Southern nations into conversation with one another without constant reference to the North. Even among progressives in North America and Europe concocting new visions for global order, the actual perspective and contribution of countries that comprise the majority of the world’s population, e.g. China and India, too rarely figure in. This article is wonderful, plumbing what they call the “romantic” version of the China-India relationship but balancing with the “realist” take, simultaneously exhilarating and depressing—the only responsible combination of emotions to evoke these days, in my opinion.


III.

Is There a ‘Populist’ International Law (in Latin America)?

One of my bugbears of the last couple of years has been the reliance of the pundit class on the unhelpful binary of “open versus closed” societies and the simplistic notion that a “liberal order” has been shattered by the “populists.” I’ve long thought that richer countries like the US and UK are actually entering a space of modified sovereignty long familiar to poorer nations. Alejandro Rodiles offers the thick texture of history to my hunch, showing how every government labeled “populist” in the Latin American 20th and 21st centuries have had their own proposals for active engagement with making and remaking international law rather than simply abandoning it. The entire volume from which this piece comes is full of gems, including great pieces by Christina Schwöbel-Patel, Lukasz Gruszczynski, and Jessica Lawrence.


IV.

Seasteads, Land-Grabs and International Law

Perhaps because their discipline is in perpetual crisis, international lawyers see to have been best prepared to begin sifting through the global wreckage since 2016. This is another example—this time from Surabhi Ranganathan—who takes a scalpel to the still-twitching cadaver of the Silicon Valley libertarian Frankenstein’s monster of the seastead. Her conclusion cuts to the bone: “capitalism’s accumulative drive does not dissipate in the face of impending planetary disaster. Instead, it co-opts this disaster, extracting wealth from new commons – the common concerns of climate change, sea-level rise, and biodiversity loss.”


V.

Korean Tigers in Honduras: Urban Economic Zones as Spatial Ideology in International Policy Transfer Networks

Another of the global grifts of the last few decades has been the mystical “zone.” The ripples created by the subnational territorial unit in the international landscape still needs tracking. Rarely are they studied with the combination of deep local knowledge as they are in this piece by a scholar of South Korea and Honduras, respectively. The attempts to create “Latin American pumas” through relief from regulation are both darkly comic and angering—another combination that feels correct entering 2020.


VI.

What Kind of Model? Thinking about the Special Economic Zone and the Socialist City

Along with Aihwa Ong and Keller Easterling, Jonathan Bach was one of the most precocious critical theorists of the zone. Trained as a Germanist, he has reinvented himself as a scholar of contemporary China, co-editing the magnificent volume Learning from Shenzhen from 2016. His training as a scholar of East Germany serves him well because here he performs a startling reversal, asking if the zone, far from being only a capitalist animal, doesn’t have its roots in the traditions of the replicable socialist model as well. The argument is compelling and helps move us away from stagnant stories of diffusion and toward the kind of peripheral histories of law Obregón describes in the first piece linked here.


VII.

Displaying Reform: Exhibitionary Architecture and the Early Reform Era in the People’s Republic of China

More than ever, I think we need scholars who can toggle between scales, bring to bear detailed knowledge of local context acquired through years and decades of study with attention to larger world-historical shifts and transformations. Cole Roskam brings this skill to his study of the hotels, villas, and office buildings of reform-era China. He finds traces of ideology in window treatments and curtain walls, sees what was lost and gained when a skyscraper travels from Atlanta to Shanghai, how buildings are both viruses and vessels.


VIII.

The Data Center as Technological Wilderness

No academia without weirdness. Studies of the present and the past without space for the unsettling and strange are doing it wrong. A.R.E. Taylor’s piece on data centers as wilderness begins with a journey into the techno-organic jungles of Black Panther comic books. We are so united with our devices that any writing which defamiliarizes technology again is welcome. Taylor’s analysis unfurls pleasantly, allowing just enough of the hedonia of tech writing to be surprised by its tail’s barbed tip.


IX.

Suzanne Treister on Black-Hole Space-Time and Post-Surveillance Art

Though I spend my days in the world of footnotes, archival sources, and peer review, I have zero confidence that 20-30 page PDFs of well-structured prose and occasional podium talks are the most sensible way to make sense of our present. In many ways, Suzanne Treister’s watercolors, black holes, and diagram are a much more defensible response. We will be needing new cosmologies very soon to drive out the dark ones already in the ascendance. Ekstasis now.


X.

The Afronaut and Retrofuturism in Africa

The research-based art of the last decades have offered me refuge and inspiration. The Haus der Kulturen der Welt, especially in the curation of Anselm Franke and the frequent contributions of Kodo Eshwun (one half of the Otolith Group), is a well I haven’t found the bottom of yet. Paul Wilson puts together some of the plangent examples of what Eshwun calls Afrofuturism, from recreations of Zambia’s would-be space program to Kiluanji Kia Henda’s reimagining of the monument to Angola’s first postcolonial president, Agostinho Neto, as Icarus 13. These projects capture well where I think we have to be now: both everywhere and here, both then and soon.


More by Quinn Slobodian – from our Stacks

Our archive of high-quality content across text, video and audio – our “Living Syllabus” as we call it – has already reached over 10,000 items and grows larger every week.

Here are some of the pieces by Quinn from those archives:


More About our Cyberflâneur Series

To learn more about how this particularly eclectic edition of our syllabi works, head over here. Note that if you subscribe to any of our weekly syllabi, we’ll keep you posted on our latest cyberflâneurs too.

You can also take a look at the previous versions of the Cyberflâneur: Brian Eno, Hito Steyerl, Adam Tooze, Rana Foroohar, Samuel Moyn, Rem Koolhaas, Paul Mason, Shehla Rashid, Holly Herndon & Matt Dryhurst, Raquel RolinkLaleh Khalili, and Zephyr Teachout.


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