The Revenge of the Real: A letter from the editor
By the first week of April last year, I was still adjusting to what would be called the First Lockdown. I had excavated a part of the house that would become my home office for the next 14 months. I had returned to the office one evening to collect my computer, chair and whatever stationary I felt that I needed and brought them home. I was getting used a new meeting schedule and engaging with my colleagues - many on furlough - through a screen. For the first time, I was ordering my coffee in bulk online and I was just about getting my head around what I needed to do to get through the day. At the same time Benjamin Bratton was rethinking the world from the ground up.
On 4 April, 2020, Bratton published an article 18 Lessons of Quantum Urbanism on the Strelka Magazine website: https://strelkamag.com. It seemed as if he had the complete scenario in his viewfinder and was able to read what was going on on a level that I could not even imagine possible. It started with the question: To what world will we re-emerge after the distress and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic? Within the sum of the rest of the article could be found the architecture of The Revenge of the Real.
Benjamin instantly liked the idea of a quick book that might respond to the pandemic but also looked at the ways in which we can also think deeply about what comes after. It was thrilling to watch him formulate his thoughts, via zoom. His screen backdrop was the inside of a nuclear submarine and I imagined that he might be moving secretly between continents as he gathered together the extraordinary array of data and ideas from which he drew his thoughts.
On one occasion, I watched Benjamin host a trans-continental seminar on these same questions, part of his teaching curriculum at the Strelka Institute in Moscow. While he sat in San Diego, he conducted his students and fellow presenters who were spread around the world. It was only at moments, such as when Jean Luc Nancy, the French philosopher who has written so much on the sense of touch, struggle with the mute button, that I was reminded of where I was: at home, in front of my screen.
Later when talking to Benjamin about the book, he asked himself questions, which would later be turned into print: If the virus does not respect borders, why are we trying to tackle it on the level of the nation state? How are some governments coping with the pandemic better than others? Has any philosopher produced a useful response to the crisis? Will the fear of touching change the way we interact with each other? Come together? Build cities? Despite a general aversion of all forms of surveillance, how do we cope with new levels of monitoring? How might we face the virus, and the other great crisis of our times, Climate, on a global scale?
The Revenge of the Real, is a book that was written in the heat of the pandemic, but with a view of what comes afterwards. It offers a challenge that will last longer than the present moment because it asks one of the big questions of our times: can we rethink biopolitics - the questions of life and death - in the long shadow of COVID and climate change?
Bratton’s brief book does not shirk the task, and opens up a vista of possibilities that I hope will create and inform the debates of the next months and years.
–Leo Hollis, editor