The Digital Leviathan: Power, Enslavement and Autonomization

 

…this system does indeed give every appearance of being a gigantic technical individual, a digital Leviathan exerting its power over the entire earth through its ability to continually outstrip and overtake, and to do so on behalf of a decadent, uncultivated and self-destructive oligarchy an oligarchy that is absolutely venal, that is, perlectly nihilistic.

—Bernard Stiegler, The Automatic Society

Every morning many of us in the West wake up to the buzz of various electronic devices: alarm clocks, radios, TV’s, and laptops or mobile devices that connect us to a world wide grid of data: the Internet. Some of us have even begun investing in digital devices that can supposedly give our lives more leeway, refrigerators that can either remind us we’re out of milk or some other staple, or even order it for us through the production of preprogrammed applications connected to our favorite grocery outlet through the Internet. For the most part we are beginning to take this all for granted, as if the complexity of the technology involved had always already been there in our lives, something that is given and goes without saying. Our connected multitasked lives are bound to a world of technological gadgets that also connect us to our loved one’s, our friends, our businesses, healthcare, legal and other systems in ways that seem to make our lives more secure, protected, and cared for. As if the world’s storehouse of communications were at our beck and call, and we were at the center of a multiverse of technical objects that cared about us and our welfare. But are we?

I grew up in a world without such connections, an analogue world where gathered information about one’s day through a slow process of inconvenient gadgets. One’s news came at specified times from radio, television, or newspapers;  and, for the most part the information was already out of date, historical, and unreliable. We did not have the convenience of mobile phones with thousands of useful apps that could align our day and offer us decisioning processes or digital secretaries/agents to do our bidding for us while we sat back and sip our coffee, listen to our children, or walk our dogs while our avatars gathered the daily quota of email, news, and business assignments. No, we had to navigate the day ourselves, make our own phone calls, go out to a physical mail box and check or send mail the old fashioned way of hand delivered envelopes or packages, etc. We had to use various inconvenient and old fashioned ways of doing things that our children, and even ourselves in this day and age couldn’t imagine living without. We’ve become so attached to our electronic and digital multiverse of technical objects that if someone came along and took them all away from us we’d be at a complete loss as what to do next.

We’ve become dependent and subservient to the technical world surrounding us, this digital Leviathan we’ve all seen emerging for the past thirty years has hooked us into a machinic society of conveniences and contrivances that we no longer even think about it; it’s become ubiquitous, invisible, given. “This contemporary Leviathan is global, and it is the result of the reticular and interactive traceability of 24/7 capitalism, which has now become a part of common awareness.”1 Our lives are immersed in data, information overload. Not only are we immersed in a glut of information, we ourselves have become data to a universe of machines that capture our lives and process them as if we, too, were electronic devices that could be modulated and scraped clean for a machinic Leviathan hungry for our digital souls. For most of us all this goes without saying, it’s become habitual: “Through habits users become their machines: they stream, update, capture, upload, share, grind, link, verify, map, save, trash, and troll. Repetition breeds expertise, even as it breeds boredom.”2

Bored but happy, we carry our mobile devices throughout the day, take pictures, share information, update our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts or any number of other social media systems, speak with our children, our clients, our partners, etc., and never think about how this same information is being captured by anonymous and ubiquitous systems just below the threshold of our gadgets without our awareness or consent. Our lives have for the most part become absolutely transparent and open to a machinic society that may or may not have our best interest at heart. We barely acknowledge such a world, much less worry about it. Should we?

With the exposure of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks we discovered just how deep it goes, how our government and commercial systems have slowly been accumulating the digital traces of our lives and mapping them to data clouds to be scraped for purposes other than the security and welfare of our daily living. “Technology has now enabled a type of ubiquitous surveillance that had previously been the province of only the most imaginative science fiction writers.”3 Glenn Greenwald’s book No Place to Hide would document the case of Snowden and expose the depths of corruption to which our government has gone in collusion with corporatism and the dark corners of a fascist system that seeks not the protection of its citizens, but rather seeks to secure itself from its citizens. The Fourth Amendment would be tossed aside in the wake of 9/11 and the unlawful surveillance and gathering of data by the NSA would become part and partial of a corrupt system of governance and secrecy that has wiped away the very system that was meant to safeguard us. Fourth Amendment would state it clearly:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In 2010 WikiLeaks engaged in its most famous publications to date, revealing systematic abuse of official secrecy within the US military and government. These publications are known as Collateral Murder, the War Logs, and Cablegate.  The response has been a concerted and ongoing effort to destroy WikiLeaks by the US government and its allies.4

As a direct consequence of WikiLeaks’ publications the US government launched a multi-agency criminal investigation into Julian Assange and WikiLeaks staff, supporters and alleged associates. A Grand Jury was convened in Alexandria, Virginia, with the support of the Department of Justice and the FBI to look into the possibility of bringing charges, including conspiracy charges under the Espionage Act 1917, against Julian Assange and others. US officials have said that the investigation is of “unprecedented scale and nature.” In Grand Jury proceedings no judge or defense counsel is present. Congressional committee hearings have since heard the suggestion from members of the US Congress that the Espionage Act could be used as a tool to target journalists who “knowingly publish leaked information,” suggesting that the approach is being normalized in the US justice system. (ibid.)

That our government has gone to such lengths to cover up and criminalize those who exposed its own illegal and criminal actions is telling. What we’ve learned more than anything is that we can no longer trust our government to protect its citizens. Why? Because it fears us and is aligned with the commercium (i.e., the oligarchs, plutocrats, etc.) that it seeks to protect from the vast majority in favor of a small, rich, and powerful elite. Because of this it has aligned itself with the very tools of social media where we leave our digital traces each and every day: the system social governance of self-production of traces,  the network effect and high-performance computing applied to data’, and with the formation of artificial crowds that is the basis of ‘crowdsourcing’ (that of the data economy), the digital stage of grammatization* is leading psychic individuals throughout the world to grammatize their own behaviour by interacting with computer systems operating in real time. (Stiegler, 138) The point here is that each of us leaves a digital footprint, a double, an electronic file of data-traces that can be used by powerful algorithms to nefarious purposes. As Stiegler will put it if ‘our statistical double is too detached from us’, it is because the data automatized production and exploitation of traces, dispossesses us of the possibility of interpreting our retentions and protentions – both psychic and collective. (Stiegler, 139). In other words our stand in, our digital identity – as it were – becomes an electronic node that can be scanned by automatic processes without our knowledge or consent, and it is these electronic traces our online-onlife selves that becomes the placeholder for our virtual/actual lives.

The flat image that these traces of our online lives leave become disconnected from our actual lives, and become a part of an algorithmic world that is mapped and shriven of our emotional attachments and worldly outer lives. This digital self, a dividual (Deleuze), is calculable and can be instrumentalised by automatic processes that can be rerouted to military, police, commercial or other agents of this darker world of the Digital Leviathan. We see aspects of this when we log on in the morning and sipping coffee pull up our favorite social media site and suddenly have personalized  ads for books or gadgets splashed across the screen that seem like magic to know what we want before we ourselves are aware of it. We’ve been profiled and segmented into silos of various commercial and governmental systems that can utilize the traces of our online lives to know more than we ourselves know about our hopes and dreams, our fears and nightmares. Cannibalized by a Leviathan who never sleeps we’ve become enslaved in a data based systems of traces that moves as we moves, thinks as we think, knows as we know in an uncanny and frightening parody of our actual lives of flesh and blood. We’ve all become Golem’s in an electronic prison that shapes us more than we shape it.


*For digital rhetoricians, Stiegler’s notion of “grammatization” is particularly striking in that it suggests the beginnings of a theoretical framework for orienting rhetorical inquiry amid the interminable sea-change of new devices, software packages, and product features. Grammatization cultivates a perspective that is complimentary to and ultimately distinct from those associated with electracy, augmentation, remediation, and other canonical terms that rhetoricians and compositionists often borrow from media studies in order to frame their analyses of digital writing technologies.

“How can you remain autonomous in a world where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior?” asks Jaran Lanier in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.5 His answer is simple: just delete your social media accounts, begin freeing your lives from the digital Leviathan. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun tells us

Rather than “consent once, circulate forever,” we need to find ways to loiter in public without being attacked. We need a politics of fore-giving that combats the politics of memory as storage, that fights for the ephemeral and fights not only for the right to be forgotten but also the right not to be stored in the first place. This reengagement with memory also entails a change in our habits of using—and our refusal of designs that undermine habituation by turning habits into forms of addiction, a refusal of undead information that renders us into zombies.(ibid.)

This notion that we should have the right to our memories, our data-files, our traces is at the core of the legalities of these issues of privacy and concern in the digital kingdom of Leviathan. Is it too late? Can we change things? Is disconnecting a way to begin while we sort out the misuses to which our profiled traces have so far been put? What is to be done?


  1. Stiegler, Bernard.Automatic Society: The Future of Work.  Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017) (Page 139).
  2. Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. The MIT Press (May 27, 2016)
  3. Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide (Kindle Locations 55-56). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  4. Assange, Julian; Appelbaum, Jacob; Müller-Maguhn, Andy; Zimmermann, Jérémie. Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (Kindle Locations 153-155). OR Books. Kindle Edition.
  5. Jaron Lanier. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Kindle Locations 35-36). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Bernard Stiegler: Fascism with a Machinic Smile

What is at stake in the new social organization that we must dream, conceive and realize – that is, establish and institute as the therapeia of the new pharmakon – is the time of knowledge…

—Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society

In this sense Bernard Stiegler envisions our exit from the industrial age as a foregone conclusion, exiting from the Fordist and Post-Fordist paradigms, exiting from Taylorism, Keynesianism and the consumerist capitalism which has underpinned our society for decades.  We must organize the economy and society differently, including the elaboration and transmission of knowledge itself. But to get there he sees our need for an epistemic sea change as we enter an age when the end of employment becomes a reality rather than a hype story. The shock of this age will be brutal and deadly for many as we pass through the shock of “generalized automation and therefore robotization” of life, work and society. Stiegler sees this end game being played out even now, and how we anticipate and negotiate this transitional period over the coming decades will decide the fate not only of humanity but of the earth itself. Rather than adapting to the capitalist scenario and its coming explosion of violence we need to adopt a more inventive approach through a restructuring of our academic and political institutions.

Those in power are slowly converging toward a 24/7 computational capitalism that seeks to modulate and control our lives through the information and communications technologies of everyday life: the internet of things. This new form of governance has been termed ‘algorithmic governance’: it seeks through deep machine learning, Big Data, and powerful forms of predictive and analytical search and capture to manipulate our affective lives, capturing our desires and modulating our dreams and aspirations. Playing on our ancient propensity for the irrational, for religious and utopian expectations and dreams this new for of calculated society will provide both a secular and religious ideology of transhumanist immortalism. Offering those who comply and conform to the nomos of its globalized system of algorithmic governance a world of security and plenty. Fascism with a machinic smile.

Short circuiting the political processes that have underpinned the illusion of democratic societies for two hundred years, the new form of global governance through technics and algorithmic prediction unbound from any sovereign nation will enslave us to a system that offers nothing but our loyalty in exchange for total conformity. From birth to death one will become part of a machinic civilization in which implants meant as bio-metric health monitors will track and upload/download data and services into our physical lives 24/7. The shock of such a world system will arrive only after the traumatic conclusion of a staged event that will force humanity to conform to the new nomos (law) of the global society of the future. At least this is the capitalist dream…

Obviously such a world is a dystopic nightmare that only the insane would seek to inhabit, and yet as many in my own generation die off and the new children arising are molded to the integral and systematic infusion of social-media and systems of algorithmic governance by way of mobile phones, apps, and decisioning software that is based on smart systems: AGI, Cloud computing, Big Data, Deep Machine Learning, etc. These young people will not have access to the knowledge base of those like us who lived before the digital age. Those born within the horizon of the digital world will accept at face value that this is the way the world works without questioning it because they will no longer be educated to think for themselves, but rather to rely on intelligent devices to do that for them.

Of course Stiegler as a humanist harbors hope that we can turn this all around, that we can reinvent a more equitable future, that we can reshape technics and technology to guide humanity out of such a scenario rather than being enslaved to it. For Stiegler we are living in a world in which massive data flows of petabytes of information are shaped and governed by both private and governmental agencies to the benefit of a small elite of oligarchs, plutocrats, and transnational corporations who have built a nomos outside the sovereignty of any one nation to curtail or crush. In a sense our future is being programmed for us by machinic intelligences that know us better than we know ourselves.

Sometimes I think: Is this all a fantasy? Are we really living in an age when superintelligent machines will shape and guide the future of human society and civilization? Is this madness? It’s like a nightmare from which I would hope to awaken, and yet there are hundreds of books contesting this very possibility on the Left and Right sides of the fence. It’s not a dream, but a strange and bewildering world that the generation born today will have to understand and change or suffer the consequences. Sadly.

Nietzsche forecast this as the age of completed nihilism, an age when humans have externalized their cultural memory in machines to the point that they had forgotten its meaning. An age when the history of the earth and humanity would be forgotten by the vast masses who had become so enamored of their technological gadgets that reading a book or gazing on a forest had been displaced by the momentary text message binding the human gaze to an electronic world of machinic intelligence. What my friend R. Scott Bakker termed the ‘crash space‘ of our end game is upon us all. That we’ve always worked with very little information about ourselves or our environment is a part of our evolutionary heritage which gave us only enough information to survive and propagate our species. We neglect most of the world around us through eons of evolutionary processes we are barely coming to understand in our own time. Those who are seeking to reverse engineer the brain to build superintelligent systems work within a naturalized and empirical world of scientific know-how that precludes our ethical and moral dilemmas. Guided by the almighty need to know, and the money of vast conglomerates that support these new convergent technologies thousands of engineers and scientists, skilled workers in this digital economy are inventing the very machinic world that might someday replace us. One wonders if all the effort being expended on such projects were spent to develop ways of surviving the coming disastrous results of the Anthropocene what kind of world our children would inherit rather than the one the neoliberal engine of capital seems bent of inventing. Who knows?


  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

 

Marx vs. Bawerk: Labor Theory of Prices

As early as 1847, Marx wrote that prices were determined on a microeconomic scale by the everyday interaction of supply and demand. Böhm von Bawerk criticized Marx’s analysis on the grounds that products cannot exchange in proportion to their values if there is such a thing as a general rate of profit.  He was right, but this was exactly the point that Marx was making. The brilliance of Marx’s model consisted in showing how an advanced system based on production for exchange would inevitably diverge from the premises of simple commodity production. “The transformation of values into prices of production serves to obscure the basis for determining value itself,” as he wrote. Marx did not predict that individual prices would express labor values, but that individual prices would diverge further and further from labor values as capitalism developed. The purpose of labor theory is not to allow us to predict the prices of individual commodities, but to understand how a system of value production inevitably collapses.1


  1. Reynolds, Ben. The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 1510-1520). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Karl Marx: Prelude to the Automatic Society

 

In machinery, knowledge appears as alien, external to him; and living labour [as] subsumed under self-activating objectified labour.

—Karl Marx, Grundrisse 

Karl Marx in the Grundrisse would offer us a vision of the machinic society, a vision in which self-motivated intelligent machines would come to realize the actual and real movement of capital itself. He would speak of the incorporation of labor into the process of capital whose ultimate “culmination is the machine”*, or – as he’d put it: an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. He would see a point in time when human labor would be superseded by the automatic machines driven by their own mechanical laws. He would describe this automated world of intelligent machines saying,

Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it…

 In an evolutionary insight he would see the replacement of human labor in the workplace as a momentary aspect of a longer and more evolving system of machinic capital, and as the outcome of the capital process which was tending in ever accelerating modalities toward Autonomization:

The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital.

He would already envision the technoscientific community under the guidance of capital investment and control as underwriting this fully automated intelligent society that capital was evolving toward:

The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself.

This sense that the machine was an alien and alienating power fully autonomous and outside the human, and in fact already acting upon humanity and transforming and shaping it into its own ends rather than those of humanity itself is at the core of his diagnosis. This inhuman turn toward capital autonomy in a machinic society fully automated in which humans were mere agents and parasitic hosts to be used by capital toward its own ends comes out clearly in this passage:

Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such.


* Linking the full passage from the Grundrisse:

As long as the means of labour remains a means of labour in the proper sense of the term, such as it is directly, historically, adopted by capital and included in its realization process, it undergoes a merely formal modification, by appearing now as a means of labour not only in regard to its material side, but also at the same time as a particular mode of the presence of capital, determined by its total process – as fixed capital. But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. In the machine, and even more in machinery as an automatic system, the use value, i.e. the material quality of the means of labour, is transformed into an existence adequate to fixed capital and to capital as such; and the form in which it was adopted into the production process of capital, the direct means of labour, is superseded by a form posited by capital itself and corresponding to it. In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labour. Its distinguishing characteristic is not in the least, as with the means of labour, to transmit the worker’s activity to the object; this activity, rather, is posited in such a way that it merely transmits the machine’s work, the machine’s action, on to the raw material – supervises it and guards against interruptions. Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself. The appropriation of living labour by objectified labour – of the power or activity which creates value by value existing for-itself – which lies in the concept of capital, is posited, in production resting on machinery, as the character of the production process itself, including its material elements and its material motion. The production process has ceased to be a labour process in the sense of a process dominated by labour as its governing unity. Labour appears, rather, merely as a conscious organ, scattered among the individual living workers at numerous points of the mechanical system; subsumed under the total process of the machinery itself, as itself only a link of the system, whose unity exists not in the living workers, but rather in the living (active) machinery, which confronts his individual, insignificant doings as a mighty organism. In machinery, objectified labour confronts living labour within the labour process itself as the power which rules it; a power which, as the appropriation of living labour, is the form of capital. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery, and of living labour into a mere living accessory of this machinery, as the means of its action, also posits the absorption of the labour process in its material character as a mere moment of the realization process of capital. The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency. In machinery, objectified labour materially confronts living labour as a ruling power and as an active subsumption of the latter under itself, not only by appropriating it, but in the real production process itself; the relation of capital as value which appropriates value-creating activity is, in fixed capital existing as machinery, posited at the same time as the relation of the use value of capital to the use value of labour capacity; further, the value objectified in machinery appears as a presupposition against which the value-creating power of the individual labour capacity is an infinitesimal, vanishing magnitude; the production in enormous mass quantities which is posited with machinery destroys every connection of the product with the direct need of the producer, and hence with direct use value; it is already posited in the form of the product’s production and in the relations in which it is produced that it is produced only as a conveyor of value, and its use value only as condition to that end. In machinery, objectified labour itself appears not only in the form of product or of the product employed as means of labour, but in the form of the force of production itself. The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. In another respect, however, in so far as fixed capital is condemned to an existence within the confines of a specific use value, it does not correspond to the concept of capital, which, as value, is indifferent to every specific form of use value, and can adopt or shed any of them as equivalent incarnations. In this respect, as regards capital’s external relations, it is circulating capital which appears as the adequate form of capital, and not fixed capital.


  1. Karl Marx. Grundrisse. Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (November 7, 1993)

General Intellect: Social Control and Abstract Culture

But machinery does not just act as a superior competitor to the worker, always on the point of making him superfluous. It is a power inimical to him, and capital proclaims this fact loudly and deliberately, as well as making use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, those periodic revolts of the working class against the autocracy of capital.

—Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1

How things turn fascist or revolutionary is the problem of the universal delirium about which everyone is silent…

—Deleuze/Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Ominously as if he’d already seen the tendency within capitalism to strip itself of the human worker, to replicate its substance-as-virtual entity, replace it with a more efficient, uniform, controlled, and automated world of never-ending production, Marx in a section of the first volume of Das Kapital would state:

It would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt. We would mention, above all, the self-acting mule*, because it opened up a new epoch in the automatic system.1

One could argue that at its core capitalism is machinic through and through, that its inherent tendency has always been toward automation and Autonomization. That its inherent mode of production and being is machinic self-organization, the complex operative program of becoming autonomous and independent of its parasitic relations with its progenitors – humanity.  Marx as if reading the current news on our coming fully automated society in which workers – both manual and knowledge workers, are displaced by the advanced systems of synthetic intelligence whose expertise in calculable decision making will shape the financial and governmental algorithmic control society we are entering:

The instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the worker himself. The self-valorization of capital by means of the machine is related directly to the number of workers whose conditions of existence have been destroyed by it. The whole system of capitalist production is based on the worker’s sale of his labour-power as a commodity. The division of labour develops this labour-power in a one-sided way, by reducing it to the highly particularized skill of handling a special tool. When it becomes the job of the machine to handle this tool, the use-value of the worker’s labour-power vanishes, and with it its exchange-value. The worker becomes unsaleable, like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment. The section of the working class thus rendered superfluous by machinery, i.e. converted into a part of the population no longer directly necessary for the self-valorization of capital… (ibid.) [emphasis mine]

Marx himself will produce examples of such displacement during the first industrial revolution in which in England when the power-loom was replaced by automation 800,000 weavers were tossed onto the streets where they lived in papery and squalor. He’ll also mention colonial India where the English cotton machinery produced an acute effect. The Governor General reported as follows in 1834–5: ‘The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India.’ (ibid.)

Commenting on this Automatic System and the Society that promotes it Marx states:

Whenever a process requires peculiar dexterity and steadiness of hand, it is withdrawn, as soon as possible, from the cunning workman, who is prone to irregularities of many kinds, and it is placed in charge of a peculiar mechanism, so self-regulating that a child can superintend it. (ibid.)

Martin Ford documenting the rise of advanced technologies in our own time reminds us that as machines take on that routine, predictable work, workers will face an unprecedented challenge as they attempt to adapt. In the past, automation technology has tended to be relatively specialized and to disrupt one employment sector at a time, with workers then switching to a new emerging industry. The situation today is quite different. Information technology is a truly general-purpose technology, and its impact will occur across the board. Virtually every industry in existence is likely to become less labor-intensive as new technology is assimilated into business models—and that transition could happen quite rapidly. At the same time, the new industries that emerge will nearly always incorporate powerful labor-saving technology right from their inception.2

In fact as he states it our situation could even be more dire: “the frightening reality is that if we don’t recognize and adapt to the implications of advancing technology, we may face the prospect of a “perfect storm” where the impacts from soaring inequality, technological unemployment, and climate change unfold roughly in parallel, and in some ways amplify and reinforce each other” (ibid.). As Marx would say in an earlier tract, Grundrisse:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.3

This notion that society has “come under the control of the general intellect” pervades Marx’s conception of capital and knowledge. As Paul Virno stipulates Marx’s notion of the ‘general intellect’ “claims that, due to its autonomy from it, abstract knowledge – primarily yet not only of a scientific nature – is in the process of becoming no less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious labour of the assembly line to the fringes. This is the knowledge objectified in fixed capital and embedded in the automated system of machinery.”4 Virno will explicate, saying,

Because it organizes the productive process and the ‘lifeworld’, the general intellect is indeed an abstraction, but it is a real abstraction, endowed with a material and operative character. Nevertheless, since it consists of knowledges, informations, and epistemological paradigms, the general intellect distinguishes itself in the most peremptory manner from the ‘real abstractions’ which were typical of modernity: those, that is, which give rise to the principle of equivalence. While money, i.e. the ‘universal equivalent’ embodies in its independent existence the commensurability of products, labor, subjects, the general intellect establishes instead the analytical premises for every kind of praxis. The models of social knowledge do not equate the various laboring activities, but present themselves as ‘immediate productive force’. They are not a unit of measurement but constitute the immeasurable presupposition for heterogeneous operative possibilities. This mutation in the nature of ‘real abstractions’/the fact, that is, that it is abstract knowledge rather than the exchange of equivalents which orders social relations*/has important effects at the level of affects … it is the basis of contemporary cynicism [since it] occludes the possibility of a synthesis [and] does not offer the unit of measurement for a comparison, it frustrates every unitary representation. (Virno 2002, 149/150; Virno 2004, 63/6)

Alberto Toscano commenting on the above passage tells us that “by turning our attention to the informational praxis that has become inseparable from the production of values in a supposedly knowledge- and affect centered economy, Virno is suggesting that the ‘general intellect’ (the collective potential for thought embodied in a cooperative multitude) qua real abstraction constitutes a directly politicized form of abstraction, which is now beyond equivalence and beyond measure, directly addressing the cooperative and socialized character of abstract knowledge. In other words, what is posited here is a real abstraction beyond the commodity form: a real abstraction that is driven not by the fetishized reality of commodity-exchange, but by the cognitive and intellectual cooperation within a ‘multitude’.”5

Marx claimed that, due to its autonomy from it, abstract knowledge – primarily yet not only of a scientific nature – is in the process of becoming no less than the main force of production and will soon relegate the repetitious labour of the assembly line to the fringes. This is the knowledge objectified in fixed capital and embedded in the automated system of machinery such as advanced search and capture programs of Google, the analytic engines of FaceBook, etc., and the surveillance systems of advanced NSA algorithms that track and index behavior of terror abroad and domestic. Marx uses an attractive metaphor to refer to the knowledges that make up the epicentre of social production and preordain all areas of life: general intellect. ‘The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it’. (ibid.)

In our age of Big Data, Cloud computing, and the embarkation of ‘cognitive capitalism’ as it merges with algorithmic governmentality and social control of scientific and cultural knowledge as part of a machinic ‘general intellect’ (AGI) “abstraction enters into the very materiality of the production process and does not just concern the form of exchange” (Toscano, 13). With the rise of ICT’s (Information and Communications Technologies) and the migration of human knowledge into the tertiary storage systems of the trace (data) the synthetic intelligences emerging along with the interfaces that capture human attention and abstract it into the dividuum (Infosphere) in which abstractions operate on abstractions we are seeing the inhuman core of capitalist Autonomization.

In such a society of traces in which our desires and thoughts are captured as raw data and filtered through systems of high-speed computing that expose us not as flesh and blood humans, but rather as dividuals – digital avatars to whose electronic body (datafile) information can be inscribed and bound we’ve been incorporated into an automatic society of hyper-control founded on the hyperindustrial, systemic and systematic exploitation of our externalized digital memories. As Bernard Stiegler we’ll say of it: “All aspects of behaviour thereby come to generate traces (data), and all traces become objects of calculation” to be massaged within an abstract system of pure abstractions.6

For Marx the general intellect poses the question of knowledge by what we call tertiary retention (our exteriorized cultural and personal memories marked, inscripted, indexed, filtered, and analyzed in technological systems). Machinic retention therefore amounts to knowledge materialized for  production, but no longer by it: conception is separated from production. The materialization of knowledge thus conceived and concretized then constitutes the heart of the hyperindustrial economic dynamic, and ultimately leads us to Marx’s question of automatization as such. That these algorithmic entities or synthetic intelligences are not concerned with us as external flesh and blood creatures, but rather with our traces and externalized/formalized features as electronic-digitized products of capitalist production; as such, our tertiary memories can be objectified, mapped, and abstracted into cognitive capitalist organizational flows to be used by the techno-commercium for further profit and exploitation is central the inhuman process of automatization of knowledge in our time. What is left outside the technocommercium of the datafied matrix is the stupefied flesh of the human death machine of sociality we conceive under the sign of the Anthropocene.


*The spinning mule was invented in 1779 by Samuel Compton after the invention of the spinning jenny and the water frame. The spinning mule was used to spin different types of fibers. The way it works is the following: a sliver or a roving of wool passes between a set of rollers. The roller draws a part the wool fibers achieving a finer and smoother sliver. The roving then spurns on bare spindles which are mounted on a moving carriage. The moving spindles draw and spin the yarn but still without any tension and therefore achieving a strong yarn that can be spurned without being broken in the process. In 1834 Richard Roberts added a camshaft, quadrant and winding chain to the regular mule in order to produce a self-acting mule. The self acting mule was considered a huge invention because human assistance was not required and therefore became the most important machine in the textile industry in the nineteenth century. The self – acting mule could spin all type of yarns; very fine yarns as well as very coarse yarns.


  1. Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics) (Kindle Locations 7999-8002). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. Martin Ford. Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Kindle Locations 175-180). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
  3. Karl Marx. Grundrisse (Kindle Locations 12143-12147). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  4. Paolo Virno, “General Intellect” in Lessico Postfordista, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2001.
  5. Toscano, Alberto. Rethinking Marxism: The Open Secret of Real Abstraction. Online Publication Date: 01 April 2008
  6. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

Techno-Optimism: A Future Worth Living In?

 

Techno-optimism is an ideology that embodies the pessimism and the optimism above: the concern that technology could be used to make the world worse, the hope that it can be steered to make the world better.

—Cory Doctorow, Techno-Optimism

I’m a pessimist trying to turn himself into an optimist.

Neal Stephenson, Project Hieroglph

The wavering  oscillation between pessimism and optimism has always been a part of the literature of technology, a sort of eternal battle between two modes of life and thought. And, yet, at times there is this crossing of the rift in-between as if the two enemies might have something to offer each other that could at least spell a momentary truce. Such is our moment that some have begun labeling the Anthropocene.  A wake up call from the edge of thought that would have us understand just how ill-equipped we are in the face of our own impact on civilization and the environment upon which we all depend. Some of hose who affirm that technology always holds the power to be used for good or ill, and yet beyond the Luddite fringe who would do away with our technological supplements altogether there are those who see this duplicity, the two-handed sword that is technology for what it is: the necessary and reciprocal core of the inhuman we all bare as our ancestral mark. For as those who advocate orginary technicity would have it: the “who” of humanity and the “what” of technology, to use Stiegler’s well-known formula, are bound together in an insoluble, aporetic relation. Our relation to technology has always had this since of insoluble questioning associated with it and its place in our lives. Techno-pessimist will tend to see it under the critical eye of technological determinism, portraying our love affair with technology as dangerous and wrongheaded. While techno-optimists will understand this double-edged sword, but see beyond the dangers the possible reward in turning technology to human uses that allow for transformation in the optative mood.

Nicholas Agar believes that techno-optimism is dangerous, that those who harbor a view that technology should become a part of the answer not the problem in this transitional world in-between utopia and dystopia that pervades our future prospects:

I think that this techno-optimism is mistaken. It significantly exaggerates the power of technological progress to boost well-being. Suppose that it’s true that many new technologies bring considerable benefits to the individuals who acquire or experience them. We err in translating improvements in individual well-being into predictions about the long-term effects of technological progress on society. Predictably happier individuals don’t necessarily make a predictably happier society.

Of course the notion of progress both in the techno-scientific and socio-cultural milieux led to a deep rift in the 1950’s between the literary crowd and those of the scientific community.  C.P. Snow would sum it up this way:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question – such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? – not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.1

Facing the future of climate change many techno-pessimists paint a bleak picture of devastation, ruin, and the end of civilization as we’ve come to know it. Using climate change as a weapon against the techno-optimistic vision they will advocate a dystopian world of decay without end. As Roy Scranton will put it:

Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation. It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it. From the perspective of many policy experts, climate scientists, and national security officials, the concern is not whether global warming exists or how we might prevent it, but how we are going to adapt to life in the hot, volatile world we’ve created.2

There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. 16 The biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and the Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen advanced the term in 2000, and it has gained acceptance as evidence has grown that the changes wrought by global warming will affect not only the world’s climate and biodiversity, but its very geological structure, and not just for centuries, but for millennia.(ibid.)

Even the famed father of socio-biology and entomologist Edward O. Wilson has joined the dark riders of techno-pessimism. For him we are moving toward absolute catastrophe unless we are willing to take drastic measures:

For the first time in history a conviction has developed among those who can actually think more than a decade ahead that we are playing a global endgame. Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish, and fungi. For many species it is already fatal. Because the problems created by humanity are global and progressive, because the prospect of a point of no return is fast approaching, the problems can’t be solved piecemeal. There is just so much water left for fracking, so much rain forest cover available for soybeans and oil palms, so much room left in the atmosphere to store excess carbon.3

In Wilson’s recent book he would even advocate the drastic notion that the only way we can overcome the immediate impact of human degradation on the biodiversity of the planet is a quarantine, stating that by setting “aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival (ibid.).”

Some like Peter Townsand believe there is a way out of this quagmire, that we “can overcome many of these future difficulties if we have sufficient information, data, knowledge, and understanding, but knowledge and data now vanish ever more quickly in new storage formats”.4 This loss of knowledge in its exteriorization has been documented repeatedly by Bernard Stiegler as the reduction of humanity to a set of calculable ciphers in the mathematical world of algorithmic governmentality in the data-driven economy:

Such mathematics is applied twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week: everyday life is thereby subjected to reticular standards and calculations, while at the same time consumer markets are ‘personalized’. According to Johnathan Crary (24/7), this economy of personal data aims “to reduce decision-making time and to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation”. Digital automatons short-circuit the deliberative functions of the mind, and systemic stupidity, which has been installed across the board from consumers to speculators, becomes functionally drive-based as soon as ultra-liberalism begins to privilege speculation and discourage investment, thereby crossing a threshold of ‘functional stupidity’. 5

This is the era of completed nihilism in which humans rely on external (tertiary) systems and artificial intelligence to make decisions and think for them. Humans in a few generations will lose the ability to reflect and think, make choices on their own without turning to their avatar agents and robotic intelligences for answers to the most pressing problems of their lives. In the automatic society that Deleuze was never to know, but which with Félix Guattari he anticipated, in particular when they referred to dividuals, control passes through the mechanical liquidation of descernment, the liquidation of what Aristotle called krion – from krino, a verb that has the same root as krisis, ‘decision’. The discernment that Kant called understanding (Verstand) has been automatized as the analytical (algorithmic) power delegated to algorithms executed through sensors and actuators operating according to formalized instructions that lie outside any intuition in the Kantian sense – that is, outside experience. (Stiegler) In such as society as ours we are being shaped by social media which is data driven and proactive in promoting absolute control through automated decision making processes from censorship to segmentation of silos and echo chambers for the digital stupefaction of the masses. In such a world freedom is another word for absolute blindness without insight. Our blindness to the ubiquitous world of code that rules our lives has made us apathetic and conforming toward its movement to regulate and modulate our minds and lives. Can we change this around? Do we have the courage to disconnect from the dark side of algorithmic control? Can we turn technology to other ends than those of the Oligarchs and Silicon billionaires who seem bent on shaping our desires to their ends rather than our own? Is there any reason to be optimistic?

 

On a personal note I, too, have become a techno-optimist in the sense that Corey Doctorow and Neal Stephenson advocate, this sense that yes technology can be used by nefarious and unscrupulous individuals, corporations, and nations to enslave, imprison, and control their societies and cultures. We see this in the academic sphere where funding more and more has become privatized and large corporations dictate the direction of education in these institutions. We see it in corporations, banking institutions, and other transnational entities as they seek to bend the global world to their own profiteering ends in the form of big pharma, insurance, food and seed monopolies, as well as financial enslavement of poor countries to the point of environmental degradation and resource wars. And, yet, we’ve also seen over the past few hundred years the use of technology for human and non-human advocacy in overcoming many of the issues of famine, war, and disease that have plagued humankind and the environment for tens of thousands of years. So there will continue this dangerous side of technology if placed in the hands of the profiteers at the expense of the environment and human civilization. No only will the impact on non-human plant and animal life become degraded and depleted in biodiversity, but if not curtailed it will spell the ruination of our human shared future. Yet, the optimistic side pulls me to believe that we are also on the brink of a bright tomorrow if we can curb the dark and sinister forces toward other ends. It’s this political side of technology that interests me at the moment. We cannot afford the Luddite smashing of the machines in our time. We need technology. No, it doesn’t have all the fixes, only humans do – and those other non-humans we share the planet with. But unless we begin to work together nothing … absolutely nothing will save us from this dire prognosis outlined by so many factual prognosticators from both the scientific and humanitarian divide. We must act now or never. For me the answer is simple: technology can and should be part of the solution rather than the obstacle.

 

 


  1. Across the Great Divide“. Nature Physics. 5 (5): 309. 2009. doi:10.1038/nphys1258.
  2. Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 115-118). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition
  3. Edward O. Wilson. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Kindle Locations 54-60). Liveright. Kindle Edition.
  4. Peter Townsend. The Dark Side of Technology. OUP Oxford; 1 edition (January 19, 2017)
  5. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

Edmund Berger: On Art and Revolutionary Transformation in the Age of Blockchain – Part 2

Capital … operates on the plane of immanence, through relays and networks of relationships of domination, without reliance on a transcendent center of power. It tends historically to destroy traditional social boundaries, expanding across territories and enveloping always new populations within its processes.

—Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire

Capitalism arose out of that feudalistic world of Old Europe. With the expulsion of the peasantry from their landed world of subsistence a mobile force of propertyless workers were forced into the emerging centers of commerce around Europe. Through the enticement of money these peasants were enslaved by a new form of value that incorporated them in a new form of automated production. This new world of capitalism was not controlled from on high by magnates or aristocrats, but functioned by a calculus of profit, surplus value, and exploitation which only later were revealed as immanent laws within the actual praxis of capital itself. Capital was hooked to technology, economics, and the sciences from the beginning; innovation, growth, and expansion became the trio of this immanent determinism that would lead capital through ever accelerating cycles of recursive reengineering as it tore through the age old customs, traditions, and cultures of the planet dissolving human relations, politics, and religious-secular systems of human solidarity. Capital has always sought to escape the clutches of human sovereignty in all its forms, whether of political, social, or the legal mesh of some transcendent axiomatic. In our time capital seeks absolute sovereignty in immanent Autonomization of its own projects, divorcing and separating itself from the chains of human politics and law.

“Historically, capital has relied on sovereignty and the support of its structures of right and force, but those same structures continually contradict in principle and obstruct in practice the operation of capital, finally obstructing its development.”1

This and this alone is the contradiction to which capital has applied its immanent force through various stages of techno-economic change across the vectors of the past few hundred years. In our time capital has migrated to the immanent domain of the network where the accelerating speed of calculability and algorithmic intelligence have begun governing the immaterial empire of a global network society. No longer bound to the sovereignty of the Nation State that once served it and supported its integrity capital has vanished from its domain leaving the husk of a depleted system dying and decaying in the ruins of its last gasp. And, yet, capital itself is a still there in the immaterial networks of a material civilization arising out of the ruins of the sovereign decadence of outmoded nations and their securitized systems of protection.  As Hardt and Negri put it communication is the “form of capitalist production in which capital has succeeded in submitting society entirely and globally to its regime, suppressing all alternative paths” (ibid.).

The Dionysian Gambit

Positive or Dionysian affirmation, critique, these things are intimately bound together; in their unity, one traces out the act of creation.

—Edmund Berger

For Berger the Nietzschean affirmation is neither fully positive nor negative, but an oscillation in-between two figures of nihil in movement with the central motif of aphoristic and poetic transformation Nietzsche once described as the transvaluation of all values:

A culture that is held under the sway of nihilism is a culture moored in sickness, while the culture that is marked by the overman or the artist-tyrant is full of health. There is a direct correlation between the vitality of culture and the overcoming of sickness; likewise, the deployment of the affirmative and the negative together in the Dionysian yes constitutes something of a cure. (Berger)

But what is this cure? If the toxicity of the pharmakon is prone to poisonous dissipation then is this overcoming in itself a metamorphosis rather than a transvaluation, a movement out of the humanistic vision of sovereignty and into one that is either transhuman, posthuman, or inhuman? More like a later day Plato whose notions of the sovereign the philosopher ruler seem to invigorate an anti-platonic form of sophrosyne  in which the powers of mind/body are in harmonious relation, and the new “philosopher-physician, tasked with delivering the cure to civilization” (Berger) becomes the harbinger of both an exit and a voice of the new dispensation. This movement of the philosopher as artist whose powers of critique and diagnostic appraisal would lead humanity out of the ruins of a decaying society and civilization follow from Kant, Nietzsche and other formidable progenitors of surprise and the new:

Just as the reduction of the laborer in the increasingly “autonomous” character of industrial systems brings to the surface the elements vital to a post-capitalist civilization, so too does this leveling engender the conditions for the overman, that which overcomes nihilism. (Berger)

Yet, in rebuttal to such an Übermensch (“…the production of a synthetic, summarizing, justifying man for whose existence this transformation of mankind into a machine is a precondition.”49) Berger will tell us,

The artist-tyrant, the philosopher-physician, collides with the revolutionary force, but here we must refrain from going too far and take heed of Marx and Marcuse: philosopher and art, while in need holding a revolutionary potential, cannot be revolutionary in and of themselves. They are but (vital) aspects of the revolutionary machine, but are not capable of being equated to it outright. (Berger)

Instead he will turn from the Nietzsche-Deleuze overman toward the Spinozist psychedelic reason posited by Mark Fisher. Such a reason seeks health and control of body and mind, a path of freedom from the chains of capitalist production and the alien or inhuman force of its parasitic tentacles. Following William Burroughs Fisher will assume a paranoiac structure of alienation in which we are controlled by exterior networks and forces of an unhuman calculability and instrumentality. As Berger will put it:

To be held under the sway of an alien force, Fisher insists, is by no means a metaphorical occupation—and this had stark implications for any professed inflection of autonomy or freedom on behalf on the human within the current world. Simply put, there can be no real autonomy or freedom until the constraints placed on the human subject are annihilated.

Reza Negarestani in a post on Toy Philosophy (following Sandor Ferenzi) will describe this alien/alienating parasitic structure:

Unlike the death drive, the alien will is not a general force or tendency. It is in fact not even inexorable. The alien will is the register of a quotidian yet at the same time malevolent power which is bent on destruction precisely because it is the expression of a power that has gone unchecked, unmoderated and unnoticed as if it was something inevitable, something that is just a part of the order of things. As such the alien will is a possessive power. Yet unlike the demonic possession, where the demon flaunts its power by inflicting explicit pain and punishment on the agonized possessed person, the alien will is sinisterly subtle. It silently encroaches upon the will—whether as the rational will which is necessary for individuation or as the capacity for choice and the exercise of freedom. Its ultimate mission is to deprive the person of its will for the sake of mundane advantages. First by pretending that it is in fact part of the person’s will, part of its desires and goals. Once, the encroachment phase is successfully accomplished, it then initiates a thoroughgoing destruction of the person’s psyche step by step. (see The Psyche and the Carrion)

In many ways one might see in the above description the immanent truth of capital itself as an alien force with its own parasitic growth and control of the human agent over time in its pursuit toward material incarnation and intelligent recreation on the plane of immanence. Enlarge the frame of reference to include the larger social collectivity of the general intellect as agent and one see the power of capital at work masking its telos toward autonomy while all the while bringing about the complete and utter ruination and annihilation of its human hosts and their civilization in the process of its escape and exit from the terrestrial bindings in an unbinding of nihil at its core.

And, yet, as Berger reminds us both Fisher and Deleuze will seek to obviate such a dark and sinister scenario: “they both deviate from the apparatuses and instrumentalization of “social alienation” by looking for a continuity that stretches through and beyond this dismantling, one that uses this dismantling in accordance with a logic—a new reason—that builds a scaffolding to the new world.” (Berger) In fact Berger will explore this notion of originary technicity or the reciprocal power and influence of technics and technology to reengineer both the physical and spiritual aspects of humanity through the work of Burroughs who used the technology of the tape-recorder:

Burroughs “took seriously the possibilities for the metonymic equation between tape recorder and body. He reasoned that if the body can become a tape recorder, the voice can be understood not as a naturalized union of voice and presence but as a mechanical production with the frightening ability to appropriate the body’s vocal apparatus and use it for ends alien to the self.”60 (Berger)

This degradation of the collective life of humanity both at its local (individual) and global (multiplicity) is according to Bernard Stiegler coeval with the development the arche-program, that is, the informatic synchronization of the scientific, technological, and economic systems that make up hyperindustrial society.3 This decreation of the human into the inhuman in the hyperindustrialization of technocratic capital completes Nietzsche’s notions of nihilism: a calculable, instrumentalised, and computational society of automation which is displacing human knowledge of how to live and be human. In such a world the immanent laws of capital unbound from human constraint capture the human forms of emotion and knowledge to other ends than human society and its well-being and care. As Stiegler puts it the “absolutely computational contemporary libidinal diseconomy no longer economizes its objects and so destroys and dissipates its subjects – who destroy themselves by conforming to the automated prescriptions of computational capitalism.4

Berger will test his notions of the philosopher-artist as diagnostician, clinical tactician, and aesthetic strategist through a lengthy discussion of Russian communist implementations of which I will leave the reader to ponder. In the end he will return us to the beginning from which he set out and how the impact of the new blockchain technologies are shaping both capital and society. As he’ll tell us we “now have two different perspectives with which to approach the technology: a techno-economic approach and an aesthetico-political approach” (Berger).

 

Following Perez and enthusiastic promoters of the new blockchain technologies Berger surmises “if we’re well into roll-out phase of an emergent new paradigm, then the “deployment” phase of the ICT wave was severely truncated—” (Berger). For Berger two possibilities emerge from this using the Perez waveform theory: the first possibility is that the rate of technological change is compressing the duration of installation and deployment phases, while the second possibility is that blockchain, while important, is not going to mark the introduction of a new wave. (Berger)

He’ll study each of these in detail and conclude saying,

It is the temporal compression hypothesis, however, that serves as the location for the far more common understanding of blockchain as the ideal weapon for those of a libertarian and/or anarcho-capitalist inclination. Blockchain here still serves as a tool of governance and perhaps would still be a key infrastructure in an administrative body; the difference, however, is that it would engender a great crack— or series of cracks—in the world, a widening rift through which fragmentation freely flows as people gain the ability to choose exit over voice. (Berger)

Albert O. Hirshman in Exit, Voice, and Loyalty described this exit and voice in organizational terms that are applicable in scale to family, business, or state. In this sense blockchain technologies may cause a rift in current global techno-economics in which the forces of Big Data, AGI, Law, Banks, State are all invested in a form of algorithmic governance that captures every aspect of the consumer society as data that can be aligned with both commercial and the military-industrial complex in a nexus of computational and calculable techno-scientific economics of a society of control. Blockchain may server as a disrupting technology that would afford the proletariat a new detournement or decentering from the massive control systems of the Techno-Commercium. In this form the citizenry stops playing the political game, exits the systems of the techno-commercium and/or the knowledge workers who operate this vast networking world of the techno-economic system leave – refuse to work. The point of the exit over voice option is simply this: the voice options – which is the whole gamut of activist protest over the past twenty years has not worked or produced the change in the social behaviours of the capitalist hierarchy.

The embarkation offered by bitcoin and blockchain technologies may produce the rupture necessary to cause a mass exit of the current techno-economic system and its institutions:

In the most elaborate—and thus most interesting—iteration of this perspective, bitcoin and blockchain are the initial shock of a truly multipolar globe where the world-system is tossed into a continual flux through the unending proliferation of trustless peer-to-peer networks, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and self-sufficient, independent corporate city states. (Berger)

As Berger puts it this is the line of thought put forward by the Neoreactionary libertarian of Alt-Right factions whose intellectual leaders were found in Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land:

This latter element is the line picked and pursued by the various post-libertarian, post-anarcho-capitalist thinkers in the neoreactionary camp, mostly notable Mencius Moldbug (the nom de plume of computer scientist Curtis Yarvin) and the philosopher Nick Land. Both Moldbug and Land contextualize the coming change as the creation of a global patchwork of competitive sovereign units, organized along neocameralist lines—that is, a sort of mercantile joint-stock corporate structure that collapses together the economic and the political. (Berger)

Describing the Landian cosmo-politics of a futurial entity and techno-economic attractor toward which capital is being drawn as if by a telos: the occulted telos of capital is one of constant escape; while in the future this may take the form of some sort of absolute escape, a capital becoming some sort of synthetic life form, closer to the present this manifests through the introduction of blockchain. Or, as he quotes Land, saying: “If capital is escaping,” writes Land, “the emergence of blockchain is an inevitable escalation of modernity, with consequences too profound for easy summary. If it isn’t, then macroeconomics might work.” (Berger)

Yet, Berger, is not buying it, for his study of history shows that monopoly capital which in our time is taking on the new mask of “Platform Capitalism”: Capital may be be autonomous from the nation state, but money too is held by a progressively smaller number of individuals. (Berger)

My problem with this is that the centralized tendencies are not within bitcoin and blockchain, but rather within the Silicon Valley nexus of entrepreneur capitalism guided by Big Data, AGI, and algorithmic governance and attention economy it supports which are backed by both National and Military-Industrial components of the state on the one hand and the outmoded banking institutions that are the cornerstone of the global neoliberal techno-commercium. The whole point of the bitcoin and blockchain technologies is to disrupt this very core of the old system, to decentralize its power and control over the proletarianized human base allowing for a trustless – i.e., no longer requiring middle-organizational systems from Law/Insurance/State/Bank, etc. – to act as trust bearers of money and knowledge transfer and exchange. Thereby making the great Nation State institutions obsolete overnight and instituting a new regime of open and decentralized social, political, and economic systems based on a future directed network society that is borderless and deterritorialized.

Of course Edmund will have none of this, for what he sees it more centralized oversight and regulation coming: “considering the potential trajectory of blockchain technologies in light of this brings us closer to the territory of the delayed deployment hypothesis, in which blockchain, along with the decentralizing possibilities inherent in it, is actualized in pursuit of an optimal mode of regulation.” (Berger) And, it might work that way, as presented in such works a Primavera De Filippi De Filippi’s Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code where she acknowledges this potential and urge the law to catch up. That is because disintermediation—a blockchain’s greatest asset—subverts critical regulation. By cutting out middlemen, such as large online operators and multinational corporations, blockchains run the risk of undermining the capacity of governmental authorities to supervise activities in banking, commerce, law, and other vital areas. If so then one will see Nation States across the globe re-centering their power base and enacting laws both at the local and global level of transnational legal systems to curtail this bid for exit. This has happened in the past and one will expect such a retrenchment from the Oligarchic hegemony of monied classes as they seek through legal and commercial means to put a stop to this liberation of capital from institutionalized control.

Berger will return to the philosopher-artist as Artist-Engineer of a new sociality as he reads Mark Fisher’s acknowledgement of Nick Land and L. M. Sabsovich. Fisher in his appraisal of the neo-reactionary Land will tell the Left that in such figures as Land there is a vision totally contrary to the goals and ambitions of the political left, but it is also a vision that this left must engage with if it wants to stake any claim on the world-system-to-come. (Berger) As Fisher puts it:

Land’s texts […] expose an uncomfortable contradiction between the radical left’s official commitment to revolution, and its actual tendency towards political and formal-aesthetic conservatism […] Where is the left that can speak as confidently in the name of an alien future, that can openly celebrate, rather than mourn, the disintegration of existing socialities and territorialities?87 (Berger)

As for Sabsovich his approach affords the Left an “approach to the current rule of life by abstraction, impersonal systems, and apparently runaway techno-economic development the same way that the various avant-gardes approached the technologies of Fordism and even the nascent infrastructures of post-Fordism” (Berger).

Summing up the new blockchain technologies Berger remonstrating with the Left whose appraisal of it as a libertarian tool, praised by the anarcho-capitalists as the means of progressing towards the minimal state, or to perhaps even more atomized forms of politico-economic behavior, the blockchain appears as something that has no place in the sort of future that is being discussed here. (Berger) Ultimately for Berger its a tightrope act, one in which we must “avoid either pitfall, of either the libertarian or anarcho-capitalist—or, even further, the neoreactionary— positions, or of the left-liberal, social-democratic-like solutions to the developmental question, all of which sequester themselves under the rubric of the performance principle.” (Berger) For him it returns to the political:

The questions are, ultimately, of a political nature, and can in no way be reduced to the figure of the blockchain, for they are embedded in the matrices of centuries-long development, one that weighs on the ability for us to act—but there is also an aesthetic component here, as we have seen. It is the component that tries to articulate in advance a political vision that it can never capture, but in doing so produces something essential for the struggle to realize that vision: the reclamation of modernity, the opening-up of an alternative modernity that executes the vital task of breaking with the past with the goal of realizing a New Reality Principle, a New Reason. (Berger)

Jacques Derrida and his disciple Bernard Stigler would formulate the notion of the pharmakon rather than politics as the motif of human and technological change. The linkages between science, technology and the global organization of capitalism being for both the condition of the endemic proletarianization of life in Western industrial democracies. For Stiegler this consists of the progressive liquidation of the symbolic forms (completed nihilism) through which the fundamental elements of human life are given meaning, that is, the class affiliations that  form around collective labour, the familial ties through which the reproductive drive is sublimated, and the political duties that attach to citizenship of the nation state. Because of this the toxicity of current capitalist forms of algorithmic governmentality have brought about a degradation of social life and created an atomized society whose destructive capacity is centered in the new media technologies: the virtual and informatic systems through which social relations are staged, bringing about a colonization of the cognitive life of youth and old alike by a calculative logic of the market. Proletarianization, therefore, is the process through which the reflective and expressive potential of human beings has become toxified and degraded, a decadence of infoglut in which human attention is siphoned off into the externalized data systems that are essentially programmatic and inhuman: a system that has become for all intents and purposes so ingrained within the current generation that the older social forms of cohesion of educational, political, and participatory forms of learning and engagement have been severed. What we are left with is a humanity of completed nihilism, dependent on its external memory (tertiary) knowledge systems to know more about themselves than they do; while at the same time taking the decisioning process out of human reflection and putting it into the very machinic processes of synthetic agents and intelligences to make our decisions for us. In such a world will politics still matter? Can politics even be thought in such a world? In a world where our ability to reflect and think are no longer ours to do but are the givens of our artificial agents and machinic cousins will humanity as homo politicos even exist anymore?

 

continued from Part 1


  1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press (September 15, 2001)
  2. Berger, Edmund. Šum #10.2. Visit Edmund at his new blog DI Research Zone 22.
  3. Ross Abbinnett. The Thought of Bernard Stiegler: Capitalism, Technology and the Politics of Spirit. Routledge; 1 edition (July 11, 2017)
  4. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work. Polity; 1 edition (January 30, 2017)

Edmund Berger: On Art and Revolutionary Transformation in the Age of Blockchain – Part 1

 

…measured against the conditions of the present, communism itself embodies the most alien of all possible futures.

—Edmund Berger

Edmund Berger author of Uncertain Futures: An Assessment of the Conditions of the Present (see my review) has for years done his homework in uncovering the historical traces of the Marxist tradition and its pertinence and continuing relevance for critique in our social and economic predicament.  Waveforms: Art and Revolutionary Transformation in the Age of Blockchain which will be published in ŠUM #10 along with an essay by Nick Land argues – in rebuttal of Peter Thiel’s comment that “Crypto is libertarian, AI is communist” – that it “is not that blockchain is intrinsically communist rather than libertarian, but that there is a proliferation of potential futures that stretch out from our contemporary historical moment, which itself is characterized by an all-pervasive decadence. This is not decadence understood first and foremost as a moral stagnation or reactionary theory of civilizational decay, nor as any sort of absolute law; instead, decadence is a kind of aberrant moment in which the development of productive forces is tossed out of joint from the creative turbulence that typifies the long-range evolution of industrial systems.”1

Looked at from another direction such moments or events could take on the hue of intersecting paradigms, the notion of a black hole opening in time that allows the forces and tendencies within both the social and technological systems of an era to synergize releasing innovations both in the cultural and technological matrix. In the past thirty years the movement from analogue technologies to digital in the sector of Information and Communications Technologies has impacted civilizational forces across the board. With the emergence of public access networks of which the Internet or World Wide Web is the outgrowth a change in global communications and information exchange blossomed allowing for cross-border and transnational symbolic economies to change the structure of social relations along with the way economies East/West interoperate.

The Internet itself grew out of the old ARPANET defense networks first conceived as the base infrastructure of a global communications network that would withstand the impact of Nuclear War. During the 90’s with the rise of Apple and Microsoft the personal computer came online and offered the public at large access to these networks that had been controlled and regulated within the Academic and Military sectors. With this came an influx of monetary investment that would spark technological innovations and new social-media technologies that would change the very way we interact at the local and global scales. With the advent of broadband and mobile phones that allowed for instant communication between parties whether through commercial or personal contacts people were no longer bound to the static desktop systems of the PC. Computers, the Internet and symbolic exchange became mobile, moving technologies that would bring the power of tracking, indexing, advanced analytics, and algorithmic governance all in one tiny package. The secret of all these technologies was already latent in early notions of social control which had been at the heart of predictive and calculable computational theory from the early invention of computers.

The power of the mobile phone is that it hides this underlying world of algorithmic governance, the applications that give us enjoyment and meaningful exchange, that help us search and discover the world of commercial, travel, social and sexual delights is also controlled by large corporations that secretly collect data about our activities both private and collective. The Age of Big Data, Cloud computing, and the targeted attention capturing analytics that track, filter, segment, analyze, and dividualize as digital traces and ciphers is in the hands of unknown and untrusted agents of power, both commercial and governmental. Because of this Berger lifts us from our blind and almost naïve understanding of the toys we play with into the secret world of power that seeks to control our lives. As he’ll say,

“History”, in a sense, is produced through the technologies, or more properly in the interactions between agents in an environment set and conditioned by the objects and systems that impart the paradigm shift.

This notion that technology and the human are shaped in a reciprocal relation, conditioned by the very technological innovations that we see as mere conveniences provide the key to change in political, social, and economic spheres. Berger introduces the work of Carlota Perez and her notions surrounding technological paradigm shifts and their impact on our lives. Perez’s works seek to  understand the role of knowledge and technology in the well-being of societies and the relationship, if any, between technology and social structures.2

Perez’s  shifting techno-economic paradigm’s framework predicted that the turning point for the current ICT-led (Information and Communications Technologies) techno-economic paradigm should have taken place during the first years of twenty-first century. What started as a bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 ended in 2008 as a full-blown global financial crisis. This is, then, the turning point and thus, we are confronting the need for sweeping institutional changes to bring forth a “golden age” based on the global spread of the growth potential of the current paradigm based on information technology. Indeed, while successive technological revolutions and their techno-economic paradigms are, as Perez shows, the fundamental feature of capitalism after the industrial revolution, the turning points in the middle of these paradigms are historic occasions when capitalism is reconfigured to save itself from itself. (TP, 2) This is how Perez sums up the ideas of great surges and paradigms:

There has been a technological revolution every 40 to 60 years, beginning with the Industrial Revolution in England at the end of the 18th Century; each has generated a great surge of development, diffusing unevenly across the world from an initial core country. … The great wealth creating potential provided by each of them stems from the combination of the new technologies, industries and infrastructures with a set of generic technologies and organisational principles capable of modernising the rest of the economy. The resulting best practice frontier is superior to the previous one and becomes the new common sense for efficiency – a new techno-economic paradigm – that defines the guidelines for innovation and competitiveness. … The propagation is highly uneven in coverage and timing, by sectors and by regions, in each country and across the world. (Perez 2006)3

As Berger will comment through “this model, we can glimpse how certain technological systems stand apart from others in that they act not as auxiliary or components to some abstract economic machinery, but “activate” the clusters of innovations so as to transform the entirety of economic, political, and social life.” In his essay Berger will detail Perez’s framework and the five major waves or paradigms identified since the early industrial revolution, each centered on a radical innovation. He describes it as the paradigm shifts from electricity to mass production of the Fordist era, and the introduction of ICT technologies of the Post-Fordist paradigm (see diagram below):

Capture

Berger will show the underlying patterns in the various mechanics of these turns and shifts in technological innovation and it’s techno-economic impact. In describing Perez’s notions he will tell us that on the “surface this appears as the flat, utopic rendering of the market economy praised by the classical liberal economists and the various bourgeois ideologues that followed in their wake. It is, however, anything but; piercing the veil of image and looking at it from the position of systems unfolding in time, formal subsumption is a point in the longer march of capital’s valorization.” At this point in the essay he will diagnose and critique the underlying model of control and domination by machinic systems and technologies that has arisen from capital’s slow and methodical Autonomization, saying,

It is no surprise, then, that the Fordist pop imaginary was haunted by the now retro-futurist dream of unbridled automation and unlimited free time.

Moving from the Fordist to Post-Fordist era this emerging economy of unbridled automation and free time takes on a sinister hue as Berger defines it telling us that in post-capitalist society  the absolute capture of things by capitalism “dims, if not outright liquidates, the revolutionary possibilities that Marx had anticipated”. And, yet, the promise of the neoliberal techno-economic vision of a utopia of “leisure time” has been “eliminated outright, and what remains is colonized by the frantic pace of the ‘attention economy’, constantly advancing automation has done little to alleviate the degradation of labor (much less shorten the working week and working day), and scientific progress appears to be compounding these conditions instead of illuminating alternative pathways.”

Yet, as Berger surmises, there is the possibility that the techno-economic innovations emerging in our contemporary setting (i.e., Bitcoin and Blockchain technologies) may “perhaps hold the possibility to overcome this phase of apparent decadence”. Turning form paradigm shifts and the hard-nosed Marxian dimension of economics he will open his work to the aesthetic dimension, returning us to the extravagant and imaginative visions of Charles Fourier:

Fourierists were committed to active experimentation to bring about their ideal social formation— and, as to be expected, these experiments more often than not ended in the dissolution of the communities in question.

He’ll offer a summary of Herbert Marcuse’s notions of performativity and liberation, which for Marcuse ” is precisely the releasing of this libidinal charge from its repression, and it is by way of this unshackling of the pleasure principle that the despotism of the reality principle comes to be abolished”. The result of this mechanization of life under capitalist atomization is the mechanization of human labour producing alienation: “the individual is choked off from itself, the split between the performative nature of the reality principle and the wild drift of the pleasure principle reverberating through the divisions of the capitalist world and the so-called solutions it gives to the social problem”. Ultimately the performance principle at the heart of Marcuse’s project will lead him into a blind alley in which as Berger comments:

…moving beyond the performance principle, to the realignment of the libido with expenditure and reason with flourishing, instinctively elevates civilization into the aesthetic dimension. The role of technical systems is clear as well: how could one hope to realize, without abandoning oneself the idle masturbation of idealism, a “purposiveness without purpose” and a “lawfulness without law” without finding optimal state of “total automation”?

Berger will turn form Marcuse to  Deleuze/Guattari (Anti-Oedipus, A Thousand Plateaus) and Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism, etc.) and the notion of “psychedelic reason” as the liberatory path forward will be addressed.

continues in Part 2…


  1. Berger, Edmund.  Šum #10.2. Visit Edmund at his new blog DI Research Zone 22.
  2. Editors, Drechsler, Wolfgang; Kattel, Rainer; and Reinert, Erik S.. Technological Paradigms: Essays in Honor of Carlota Perez. (Anthem Press, 2009)
  3. Perez, Carlota. Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.  (Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2006)

The Hedonistic Imperative: The Seduction of Hypercapitalism

 

The unlikely parable that Xenophon relates  between Socrates and their mutual friend Aristippus of Cyrene serves as a lead in to the subject of this post. Socrates had observed his friend Aristippus for some time and felt that the young man needed a little guidance. He remonstrated Aristippus for his excessive enjoyment in food, wine, women, and pleasures of the body. For Aristippus each moment should be lived to the fullest, intensifying each and every sensuous movement of the mind and body, pushing at the limits of pleasure and disgust. Socrates for his part believed that virtue and frugalness, limiting one’s mental and physical life to a hygienic regimen of work, thought, and play.

In our own world this battle between – ever since Max Weber and his classic  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – the modest, frugal, work ethic of a hygienic lifestyle and the excess of the Rock-n-Roll drug laden hedonistic world of sex and pleasure has pitted certain philosophical and political agendas against each other. Such an attack on the spirt of capitalism would come from student of Freud and Marx, Herbert Marcuse during the 1960’s. In the “Political Preface” that opens Eros and Civilization Marcuse expresses the optimistic view that the achievements of modern industrial society would make it possible to use society’s resources to shape “man’s world in accordance with the Life Instincts, in the concerted struggle against the purveyors of Death.” He concluded the preface with the words, “Today the fight for life, the fight for Eros, is the political fight.“1

Various critics of Marcuse’s hedonist philosophy like Richard Posner would accuse him of wrongly believing that polymorphous perversity would help to create a utopia and that sex has the potential to be a politically subversive force. Posner in a later work suggested in Public Intellectuals: A Story of Decline (2001) that “1960s radicals”, influenced by Marcuse, claimed that “sexual promiscuity would undermine capitalism” but have been proven wrong by the spread of both sexual promiscuity and capitalism.2 Christophe Lasch in his The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectationsdescribed the 1960’s culture in pursuit of performativity as originating “not in the pursuit of pleasure but in a war of all against all, in which even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.”3 He’d go on to say that that this form of capitalist desire seeking performance and competitive pleasure in work and play had led to it’s opposite that this hedonism is a fraud; the pursuit of pleasure disguises a struggle for power. Americans have not really become more sociable and cooperative, as the theorists of other-direction and conformity would like us to believe; they have merely become more adept at exploiting the conventions of interpersonal relations for their own benefit. Activities ostensibly undertaken purely for enjoyment often have the real object of doing others in. It is symptomatic of the underlying tenor of American life that vulgar terms for sexual intercourse also convey the sense of getting the better of someone, working him over, taking him in, imposing your will through guile, deception, or superior force. Verbs associated with sexual pleasure have acquired more than the usual overtones of violence and psychic exploitation. In the violent world of the ghetto, the language of which now pervades American society as a whole, the violence associated with sexual intercourse is directed with special intensity by men against women, specifically against their mothers. The language of ritualized aggression and abuse reminds those who use it that exploitation is the general rule and some form of dependence the common fate. (Lasch, 66-67)

Deleuze once remarked that  “Western philosophy has always consisted of saying … desire is desire for what one does not have; that begins with Plato, it continues with Lacan.”4 This notion that human lack is central to our metaphysical needs is the Platonic equivalent of the great myth of Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus which I’ve explicated elsewhere as the archetypal story of human lack in search of a lost object of desire, etc. As an Anti-Platonist Deleuze felt this conception of the mobilization of desire towards an impossible object (or, as Lacan referred to it the object petite a – object cause of desire, etc.) is at the heart of an insidious view of life. Another recent thinker – Aaron Schuster in The Trouble with Pleasure – has argued instead “that Western philosophy has always been split between two paradigms of pleasure, the Platonic and the Aristotelian, and that the tradition’s reflections on pleasure have consisted mostly in an elaboration and/or combination of these opposing views.5

Plato defines pleasure in a negative manner, as the relief from distress, the assuagement of suffering, or the satisfaction of desire; metaphysically, it takes the form of a movement that restores a state of equilibrium, often characterized in terms of the filling of a lack. “Whoever among us is emptied, it seems, desires the opposite of what he suffers. Being emptied, he desires to be filled” (Philebus 35a). According to this definition, pleasure has no intrinsic consistency or independent existence, but is inextricably bound to its opposite like two creatures fused at the head (Phaedo 60c): there is no gratification that is not predicated on some discontent, no satisfaction without the painful feeling of a void. (Schuster, 101-102)

For Plato pleasure was a process, not a stable state. He condemned those like Aristippus as dangerous, believing that this pursuit of pleasure in all things bodily would create an ever greater lack, in order to enjoy the continued movement of filling this void at the core of the human. Pleasure he believed is a remedial good that risks becoming harmful, following the logic of the pharmakon*: just as a cure administered in the wrong dose turns into a poison, so pleasure, when not properly measured, becomes a destructive force.

Against this metaphysics of lack and the pursuit of pleasure (desire of desire: processual) is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics where he would argue that Plato’s negative definition fails to do justice to the richness of the phenomenon, leaving incomprehensible the intimate connection between pleasure and “our human nature” (NE 1172a19). In order to grasp pleasure in its positivity, a new conceptual framework is needed, and so Aristotle proceeds by turning around the central premises of Plato’s account. Rather than equating pleasure with a cure for sickness, Aristotle describes it as an efflorescence of life; instead of grounding it in deficiency and disharmony, he views it as an abundance of vital “energy.” (Schuster, 102)

Crucial to this shift against the philosophy of lack is the removal of pleasure from the categories of movement (kinesis) and becoming (genesis). Schuster describes Aristotle’s program saying that as  long as pleasure is thought according to such metaphysically subordinate terms, it can have only a very poor degree of reality: pleasure is less perfect than the balanced neutral condition, just as any process is inferior to the complete state toward which it tends. Aristotle grants pleasure an ontological dignity by rethinking it according to energeia, a category that escapes the Platonic opposition between movement and rest. Energeia is a neologism derived from the word ergon, or work, and is usually translated as activity or actuality; its fullest expression consists in activities that are complete (at rest) in themselves, i.e., those whose end does not lie in any external accomplishment, but in their own performance. “There is not only an activity of movement but an activity of immobility, 
and pleasure is found more in rest than in movement” (NE 1154b27–28). Whereas Plato gives eating and drinking as his main examples of pleasure, not only as processes that satisfy vital needs but as emblematic of the excesses of desire—the real source of evil in Plato is culinary perversity—Aristotle’s primary examples are thinking and seeing, activities whose very exercise is endowed with pleasure.  Instead of a restorative process, pleasure is conceived as a perfection of immanent activity. The natural condition, which for Plato designates an ideal state of balance or harmony, is understood by Aristotle as one of active flourishing: to be healthy means to be active, to do things, and pleasure is bound up with the living being’s self-actualization. Pleasure is what completes the unimpeded exercise of a faculty, it supervenes like the “bloom in those who are vigorous” upon the free performance of an activity (NE 1174b33). Rather than defining pleasure in terms of becoming, Aristotle makes it a supplementary perfection of being. Far from being a mere escape from suffering, pleasure is a heightened state of health and vitality: it is pure as such, neither mixed with nor conditioned by pain. What sets life in motion according to Schuster’s commentary on Aristotle ” is not the desire to overcome a lack, but rather a manifold of activities—energeiai, positive “energies”—that enjoy being active and expanding the scope of their power. French psychologist Théodule Ribot’s definition of pleasure as “a superior form of normal life,—an augmentation, an increase, an enhancement of the state of physical and mental health” confirms the Aristotelian view, and, closer to Deleuze and Guattari’s interest in deviant currents of psychoanalysis, Alexander Lowen, a student of Wilhelm Reich, declares: “Pleasure is the creative force in life.” (Schuster, 103)

This battle over desire as lack or positivity is at the core of much current philosophy (of which I will have much to say in future posts). Anyone who has read through the arcane and Derridean laden works of Bernard Stiegler will soon realize that he is of the school of Platonic negativity, lack, and pharmakon. As Schuster will remind us if life in the Aristotelian sense is an active flourishing, embellished and augmented by culture, in a disciplinary regime the encounter between the bodily drives and civilization necessarily involves violence, repression, sacrifice, and loss. The Aristotelian idea of culture lives on in the positive sense of discipline, as submission to an external regime which expands and perfects the body’s capabilities, even to the point where these exceed any technical expertise. But this is not the primary meaning of culture in modernity, which instead manifests itself in discontent and libidinal misery—the testimony of the neurotic. Sometimes it is said that we are living in a postdisciplinary society, where social control is exerted not so much through prohibitions and symbolic authorities as through positive inducements to the libido and injunctions to enjoy. If anything, this idea of a “society of enjoyment” promotes even more strongly a naturalization of jouissance: the bodily drives have become our fundamental reality, erratic but indubitable. The message is that we are at home in our bodies and the body is our home; this identification with the drives is a way of conjuring our exile. But the underside of this compulsory enjoyment is a lack of drive or the lethargy of being, which Freud somehow saw as the truth of the psyche’s dysfunctional libidinal economy. (Schuster, 126)

Seducing Reality: The Pleasure/Pain of Hyperreality

Jean Baudrillard in his work Seduction believed that desire and power was operative in the domain of seduction as “the scared horizon of appearances” (153). For Baudrillard humans were seduced (in the original Latin sense, seducere, to lead away) by the object of desire. He argued that, in final analysis, a complete understanding of the minutiae of human life is impossible, and when people are seduced into thinking otherwise they become drawn toward a “simulated” version of reality, or, to use one of his neologisms, a state of “hyperreality”. This is not to say that the world becomes unreal, but rather that the acceleration and synchronization of hyperindustrial societies displace the natural for the artificial, nature for artifice, and produce (construct) our realities rather than relaying a true realistic version of our independent world. Digital capitalism has incorporated the post-structuralist anti-humanist worldview to the point that it bleeds our imaginal and vital lives through a form of seduction to our gadgets, one that replaces reality with artifice in which the data driven economy is slowly moving out into the realm of pure appearances.

It’s not that the outer world is a simulation, it is that we simulate the outer world through our seductions as inforgs (Floridi: information organisms) who have allowed the free-floating world of the internet to flow through us in a seduction of the Real. We are living in a world in which there  no objective reference or neutrality, but always stakes. Even if we seem to be headed for a metastable form of neutrality, the neutral becomes an object of fascination & a challenge may be concealed in it. The logic of our sense baring flesh has been seduced not by sensual pleasure but one of escalating challenges, i.e. the movement from a logic of pleasure to Sadean logic of challenge & death.  Death becomes the mandatory resolution of the ritual act of competition & sacrifice. In a hyperreal world we become seduced by the illusionary magic of  signs which resonate immediately w/o belief, intent, action, logic or decipherment of utterances or images. Seduction takes sense & turns it from its truth, while psychoanalysis makes depth meaning appear in manifest discourse (appearance). With seduction the charm of appearances invalidates & displaces hidden or unconscious meaning; discourses are seduced by their own signs since they can’t end appearances, which turn meaning into another rule of a game.

Seduction cannot be represented since it obliterates the distance between the real and its double. The image is not an “other’ but an absorbing surface into which Narcissus looks (not Marcuse’s transformed subject or Lacan’s subject established in the imaginary); being seduced is what is seductive. The great stories of seduction are stories of incest & end in death. Incestuously seduced by our own image, which consoles us with our death, we gain our power to seduce and be seduced. Everything is seduction not production: production accumulates, orders, regulates, directed to its end, replaces all illusions w/its own as reality principle. Seduction is immoral, superficial, devoted to pleasure, useless, but it is inevitable, inescapable even by the dead. Those that don’t wish to seduce or to be seduced are dead (not those that don’t produce), and even they return to the void an so exercise seduction as they return to the void. Seduction’s secret lies in that something having the time before its completion to make its absence felt.6

Today we live in a universe of the play, a  simulated world, rather than in one of coherence of objects and their uses. Since the model’s precession is absolute, challenges are impossible, since the ability to foresee all possible game (strategies) moves makes stakes impossible. Models, ads and polls, are not objects of investment, but preselected choices; website and TV channel grazing incarnates the ludic as a combinatorial play & fascination. The ludic ≠ fun, but “play” with the networks not to establish alternatives, but to discover optimal functioning. Play reduced to function in education and revolutionary thought (Marcuse) ≠ passion for illusion but as useful. Cybernetic absorption of play into the ludic is more the problem. Flipping, scrolling, texting, the endless repetition of image and eye, the seduction of the screen replaces actual human interaction, the drift of the eye across a oceanic screen of images blocks out reality to the point that we and the image, we and the screen are locked into a new object.

Seduction no longer a passion is now demanded; seduction becomes exchange value, serving circulation, a commodity without an object, a consumer of simulated objects. The seducer was an imposter stripped of control allowing herself to be seduced, one who seeks to please has already succumbed; thus a culture can be based on symbolic equilibrium of seduction. Hypercapitalism as the seduction of seduction: the game of repetition and death played out in simulated circulation of desire without an object. We are all living in the hyperworld now.  The violence (e.g. of sacrifice) trapped in its own artifice has ended along with the universe where everything can be seduced, now the universe is all production, forces, Law, liberation, sexuality as objective function and ultimate finality, a cryptological artifact that has succumbed to its own secret message.

Death of the Liberal Subject

As technoscience, economics, and virtual culture undermine the Enlightenment program we have all been seduced, trapped within the static world of lack imposed by the technocommercium of Capital Autonomization. Stripped of personal experience the Subject of liberal imagination of romantic desire has slipped into the cave of hyperreality. Beginning with the age of cinema humanity was seduced by the moving worlds of images, their bodies glued to the immobile seat lost their solidity as the mind played across a mobile realm of light and shadow. With the seduction of TV the passive and passivating mindlessness and stupidity of the body parked on a couch watching endless hours of sparks across the void became immersed in a realm of fake and canned laughter and technocommerical salvation. With the melding of mind and machinic reality in the gaming worlds of contemporary networks humans have lost their minds and bodies to the virtual pleasures of a seduced and seductive realm of pure image. As the next wave of 3D image systems arrive and cheapen the turnabout world of frozen bodies and moving minds will return to the mobile world of flesh bringing the virtual into appearances. The slow but methodical takeover of naturalized thought has brought desire and pleasure into a commoditized reality that will suck the world of its vital essence.

What has happened according to Stiegler in hyperindustrial society and culture is nothing less than the immersion of reality in simulation: the living present is always re-presented through orthographic (computational/imaging systems) that institute the logic of iteration, or what Stiegler terms the ‘montage’ of past and present that solicits (seduces) the work of noetic (knowledge-culture: both how to live, and how to think) inheritance (otium). For Stiegler ‘tertiary’ memory** is reduced to image-consciousness: our experience of the ‘now’ is that of a series of telematic events that have been synthesized by technological procedures (algorithms), and which, as such, has all but lose the power to provoke the reflexive agency of the self. Thus within the coordinated virtual and informatic systems of what Ross Abbinnett terms the arche-programme, the distinction between primary (intrinsic) and tertiary (extrinsic) memory, which is the place where the différance of the individual is given its chance, has become ‘absolutely formal and empty’. In other words what is threatened by the media-technoscientific convergence that has taken shape in hyperindustrial democracies is the emergence of a relationship between the ‘who’ (Subject) of humanity and the ‘what’ (inhuman core: technics-technology) of technology in which the later constantly seeks to re-engage the former at the level of its basic drives (desire-death), rather than symbolic attachment and reflexive inheritance.7

At the heart of the technocapitalist imperative (i.e., neoliberalism) has been the seduction of humanity toward an accelerating horizon of possibility, the immersion and capture of the human in a realm/stratified layer of abstraction where the virtual, informatic, and cybernetic systems of capture (strata) create an integral world to replace the real world – what Deleuze/Guattari term acts of capture, they are like “black holes” or occlusions striving to seize whatever comes within their reach. They operate by coding and territorialization upon the earth; they proceed simultaneously by code and by territoriality.***  As Abinnett following Stiegler suggests, what we have reached in our own living present is the point at which technology endangers the contingencies of art, poiesis and philosophy that it has put into play: it threatens to stop being the ‘transitional object’ through which the unity of the symbolic order of society is sustained, and to become instead the condition of living death whereby which each individual is made sick by his or her own repetitive satisfactions (pleasures/jouissance) and impossible desires. (110)

The point for Stiegler is that the hyperindustrial world we live in has co-opted the political spectrum and replaced it with marketing industries, virtual theatres of mediatainment that obliterate human community and define us through data driven calculation and algorithmic governmentality. To put is in stark terms the affective basis of our collective life is being destroyed and replaced by object attachments that offer no basis for a politics of sacrifice, excess and recognition; our political sensibilities are now informed/formed by artificial selective processes that program us to distrust those ‘others’ who threaten to take away our already artificially driven belief systems (i.e., freedom to work, consume, and live as we see fit, etc.). As Abinnett paraphrasing Stiegler explains: the descent of aesthetic sensibility into a cybernetic data driven cipher (i.e., Deleuze/Guattari’s dividual/dividuum – datafied subjects) have produced a Subject whose drives are without mediation, and which is the counterpart of the neoliberal politic-economical agenda that seeks total social control and global domination through markets rather than politics or war.

And, yet, what has happened in Stiegler’s opinion is the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s Last Man the completed nihilism of humanity whose externalization of knowledge, culture, and mind into its (tertiary) machines has brought the human to its end game in stupidity. As Stiegler puts it:

In the Western industrial world, however, democracy has given way – and has done for quite some time – to consumerism (which is now taking hold in countries that seem to feel little need for democracy). This consumerism is itself based on the liquidation of maturity through the systemic generalization of minority and the industrial dilution of responsibility, or in other words: based on the reign of stupidity [bêtise], and of what so often accompanies it, namely cowardice and viciousness. It is this development that has been internalized by the academic world as simply a fact, with no alternative. (3)9

The politics of fear reigns in our time, hence what is occurring, on a scale and in conditions that were hitherto inconceivable, is the effect of what Gramsci described as a cultural hegemony that de-forms reason  – reason understood in Enlightenment terms as that historical and social conquest that now seems to decompose so rapidly into rationalization. Hence the reign of stupidity, baseness (vulgarity) and madness that, disturbing us greatly but preventing us from transforming this inquietude into thinking, instead gives rise to fear, which is a bad counsellor. (ibid., 17) Digital life has been consumed by the market, the consumerist system has become such a desert in which one can no longer believe. Digital consumerism is the reality of and end product of a completed nihilism as the destruction of all values, and it is where the desert grows by destroying the libidinal economy, giving way to drive-based capitalism and industrial populism. Consumerism, after the conservative revolution, has become totally speculative and is systemically destroying all credit and bringing with it the reign of stupidity and madness – which are the ineluctable consequences of ‘disembraining’. (144)

In many ways hyperindustrialization is the fruition of German Idealism, the absolute incarnation of absolute idealism. Cut off from the real world, our minds externalized in machinic tertiary systems, our lives mere datapoints or dividuals in a technoutopian vision of transhuman merger with immortal machines. Since the crisis of 2008, which caused this situation of planetary discredit to become general, hyper-financialized consumerism has turned to the immediate necessity of its own self-reproduction. It has tried to do so by fighting to defend its ‘positions’, but by struggling in this way it is succeeding only in digging its own grave and preparing its self-collapse – induced by the logic of disinvestment that it establishes in every domain. (145) The post-modern reduction of all ‘Grand narratives’  to the little narratives of ‘storytelling’, and the postmodern condition, as a narrative of the end of narratives and fables (which could only be one more vast fable), has emerged as a confabulation in the service of a base narrativity – not minor, but in the service of baseness, and constituting a key element of systemic stupidity. (148)

The so called attention economy should be termed the dis-economy because it seeks the capture, dissipation, and destruction of human attentitveness – as a result of this diseconomy of attention, it becomes increasingly difficult for schools, businesses, or parents to solicit attention from students, workers, children  – attention seems to be exclusively captured and depleted by an industrial apparatus designed essentially for this purpose. (152) As Stiegler relates it,

The development or becoming of the contemporary pharmakon has been placed at the service of the systematic, industrial exploitation of attention. This has occurred through the use of attention capturing psycho-technologies, the advent of which has literally ruined the very possibility of any formation of attention whatsoever. This is a situation of unprecedented gravity, and it is global. And it may well be feared that it is the beginning of a process that we should not hesitate to refer to as decadent. (154)

This implosion into stupidity: the completed nihilism of the end game of human intellect and knowledge has been ongoing for a long while. The externalization of human memory for the purposes of cultural and survival is as old as those first humanoids of the African savannahs discovered in the pages of the Leakey’s. For twenty years we have been living through an intense revolution of tertiary retention (i.e., externalized memory in electronic networks) of a previously unknown magnitude. This revolution has undoubtedly been more transformational than that which led, with the advent of printing, to the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Republic of Letters: it changes our entire everyday environment, as well as the conditions in which knowledge is elaborated and transmitted. It changes the ways that life reproduces itself and brings about the possibility that quantum mechanics may be applied to the development of nanomachines. (158) Gilbert Simondon analysed this as a process of disindividuation, yet individuation presupposes this pharmacology, if it is true that technicity in general is pharmacological, and if it is true that the transindividual, that is, meaning and significance in all their forms, is the outcome of this technical exteriorization of the traces of individuation – that is, if it is made possible by tertiary retention in general (161).

The creation of this ‘industrial mnemotechnical system’ is the result of work that companies such as Google have undertaken to implement publication systems. In the context of this mnemotechnical development, knowledge becomes fundamental to the industrial economy. And today, the extension of the global mnemotechnical system via analogue and digital technologies has led to an unprecedented functional integration of knowledge into the apparatus of production and consumption. (168) The social control of knowledge under the dictates of private interest and enterprise are shaping our worldview and our lives in subtle and ubiquitous ways that we have as yet very little understanding of. An economy that captures and destroys our attentions, that molds and modulates our desires through affective machinic relations, that guides and suggests and makes decisions for us because it knows more about us than we do about ourselves has essentially replaces the human free-will illusion with one that has become a push-button self on steroids.

Stiegler will ask:

How and why has the neoliberal jihad been able to carry on this war, which is clearly being conducted not by one corporation against another, but by shareholders against companies (who can, after the ‘financialization’ resulting from the ‘conservative revolution’, remove their boards whenever it suits them), and, through these companies, against the people? And how has all this been carried out in the name of ‘democracy’, understood above all as free enterprise, and in the name of human rights, understood above all as having abandoned the question of economic rights? (169)

The answer he gives is not one many academics will want to hear: this could happen only because academics have given up thinking the pharmakon in its positivity – and hence have given up any critique of the legacy of idealist and materialist dialectics. Only capitalist industry, and especially, more recently, the financial industry, has succeeded in taking advantage of the positivity of the pharmakon that is tertiary retention, that is, technics in all its forms, and digital technology in particular. (170)

So is there a way out? Can we reverse these processes? Are we condemned to the power of seduction that is accelerating us into a fully automized and atomized world of blips and bits and integrated algorithmically governed dividuals  rather than independent and free-willed humans? Is the liberal subject truly a myth, a figment of Enlightenment prejudice and thought? Have we lost our minds? Socrates was put to death in another conforming society of elites who sought to control the minds of its children, a society that would condemn it’s philosopher for  opposing the sophist tendencies precisely by referring to ‘thinking for oneself’. The sophists of our era are the Googles of the world that offer and suggest and cajole you with Big Data driven systems of machinic/artificial intelligence that would replace ‘thinking for oneself’ with superintelligent agents who know us better than we know ourselves.

I’ll delve into some of the ways we might either resist or re-imagine such a future in which technology is human driven rather than data driven, a world in which the technicity of human/technology works in dialectical and reciprocal relations of mutual advantage rather than under the sign of markets.  Is this, too, wishful thinking? We will see…


* Pharmakon: Pharmakon, in philosophy and critical theory, is a composite of three meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat.[1] The first and second senses refer to the everyday meaning of pharmacology (and to its sub-field, toxicology), deriving from the Greek source term φάρμακον (phármakon), denoting any drug, while the third sense refers to the pharmakos ritual of human sacrifice. (Wiki) In recent philosophical work, the term centers on Jacques Derrida’s “Plato’s Pharmacy”, and the notion that writing is a pharmakon. Whereas a straightforward view on Plato’s treatment of writing (in Phaedrus) suggests that writing is to be rejected as strictly poisonous to the ability to think for oneself in dialogue with others (i.e. to anamnesis), Bernard Stiegler argues that “the hypomnesic appears as that which constitutes the condition of the anamnesic” —in other words, externalised time-bound inscription/memory systems of communication is necessary for original creative thought, in part because it is the primordial support of culture. (see: Stiegler, Bernard (2010). What makes life worth living: On pharmacology. Cambridge, UK: Polity. p. 19. )

** For Stiegler both of these forms of retention are distinct from tertiary memory which includes recorded (i.e., externalized in artifacts, writing, computers, etc.) memories such as pictures (which Husserl calls image-consciousness). Stiegler argues tertiary memory is constitutive of primary and secondary memory and not derivative from them. His point is that in the gramophone record, and more generally in the recorded temporal object, it is not perception which makes possible memory and the artefact but the artefact that makes possible both primary and secondary retention: the record allows both the perception of the melody and, crucially, the constant modification of that perception through repeated auditions.

***In their chapter on the Geology of Morals Deleuze/Guattari tell us,

The same Professor Challenger who made the Earth scream with his pain machine, as described by Arthur Conan Doyle, gave a lecture after mixing several textbooks on geology and biology in a fashion befitting his simian disposition. He explained that the Earth — the Deterritorialized, the Glacial, the giant Molecule — is a body without organs. This body without organs is permeated by unformed, unstable matters, by flows in all directions, by free intensities or nomadic singularities, by mad or transitory particles. That, however, was not the question at hand. For there simultaneously occurs upon the earth a very important, inevitable phenomenon that is beneficial in many respects and unfortunate in many others: stratification. Strata are Layers, Belts. They consist of giving form to matters, of imprisoning intensities or locking singularities into systems of resonance and redundancy, of producing upon the body of the earth molecules large and small and organizing them into molar aggregates. Strata are acts of capture, they are like “black holes” or occlusions striving to seize whatever comes within their reach. They operate by coding and territorialization upon the earth; they proceed simultaneously by code and by territoriality. The strata are judgments of God; stratification in general is the entire system of the judgment of God (but the earth, or the body without organs, constantly eludes that judgment, flees and becomes destratified, decoded, deterritorialized).8


  1. Marcuse, Herbert (1974). Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-1555-5.
  2. Posner, Richard (2001). Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-00633-X.
  3. Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (p. 65). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
  4. Deleuze, Seminar of March 26, 1973, 101.
  5. Schuster, Aaron. The Trouble with Pleasure (Short Circuits) (p. 101). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Baudrillard, Jean, Seduction. Palgrave Macmillan; English Ed edition (January 15, 1991).
  7. Abinnett, Ross. The Thought of Bernard Stiegler: Capitalism, Technology and the Politics of Spirit (Media, Culture and Critique: Future Imperfect Book 1). Routledge; 1 edition (July 6, 2017)
  8. Gilles Deleuze; Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus (Kindle Locations 1000-1010). A&C Black. Kindle Edition.
  9. Stiegler, Bernard. States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century. Polity; 1 edition (February 18, 2015)

The Technocosm: Blockchain, Augmented Reality and the Infostate

shanghai-1

The old men in Beijing, terrified of any challenge to their authority and the possibility of instability, had made all these things impossible. To be a citizen of China was to be constantly reminded of the stark reality of the utter powerlessness of the individual living in a modern, centralized, technocratic state.

—Ken Liu, Byzantine Empathy

Ken Liu in his short story of the near future in which VR and the advanced blockchain technologies play a major part he will ask a simple question: “And wasn’t feeling the entire point of being human?” This sense of past tense as if it had already always been too late to ask such questions, as if we were already or had already past beyond such questions of feeling… or, being human.

In the story a young woman is thrown into the midst of a onlife real time adventure through the use of VR technologies that guide her into the immersive telecosm of civil war. As she experiences the real time gunshots, blood, flesh torn, and the trampling of a young girl she feels disgust and rips the head set from her head. Her first thoughts after returning to her room surrounded by the Shanghai bustle of city life just outside her cell she thinks:

A VR rig was the ultimate empathy machine. How could she truly say she had walked in their shoes without suffering as they did?

The disconnect between one’s affective life, one’s ethical and social/political judgements, and the technological wonders of augmented reality that have brought such triggering feelings to the surface offer her no answers. As she contemplates this she is reminded that it was probably best that she had not spent the extra money for the “olfactory attachment” which would afforded her an even more viral and immediate sense-truth of the VR situation. As she describes it: “The coppery odor of blood, mixed with the fragrance of gunpowder, would have undone her before the end. Smells probed into the deepest part of your brain and stirred up the rawest emotions, like the blade of a hoe breaking up the numbed clods of modernity to reveal the wriggling pink flesh of wounded earthworms.”

This notion that in the near future synthetic sensations will replace one’s authentic life is at the heart of such stories. As we, our children, and our children’s children drift farther and farther from the natural worlds of our ancestral connection to earth what will transpire? As we become immersed in augmented and synthetic realities that merge our sensorium with artificial sensations that for all intents and purposes become our surround, our world, will we even know anymore what it meant to live a natural life without the technological? Or, was this, too, always already a lie we loved to tell ourselves? Were we possibly already living in artificial and augmented worlds from the beginning in which technologies we created in reciprocal remade us in their image? Have we not lived in an oscillating and dialectical world of technological interactions in which neither technology nor the human were autonomous from each other but were always part of a mediated and augmented whole? Have we not been technological and artificial creatures all along?

Eventually she forgets this dilemma and shifts her attention from the war torn streets of Mynamar’s civil war and wipes the memory from her mind, showering and drying her head then returning to her day’s occupation:

She wrapped a towel around herself, padded into her room, and sat down in front of her computer screen. She tapped on the keyboard, trying to distract herself with updates on her mining progress.

She describes the sideline activity of a bitcoin miner as an adventure of another type,

The array of custom-made ASICs in the humming rack along the wall was devoted to one thing: solving cryptographic puzzles. She and other miners around the world used their specialized equipment to discover the nuggets made of special numbers that maintained the integrity of several cryptocurrencies. Although she had a day job as a financial services programmer, this work was where she really felt alive.

The sense of power it gave her – or, it’s illusion, came from being a “part of a global community in rebellion against authority in all its forms: authoritarian governments, democratic-mob statism, central banks that manipulated inflation and value by fiat. It was the closest she could come to being the activist she really yearned to be. Here, only math mattered, and the logic of number theory and elegant programming formed an unbreakable code of trust.” This sense of being a libertarian, of escaping the control worlds of government and its legal nets and enforcers through the power of math, numeracy, and the dark and impenetrable secrecy of code is what drove her and thrilled her. 1

Augemented Reality (AR)

What’s more interesting is Liu’s use of two of the current technologies that seem to be shifting the landscape of the new economy, one that that may break the necks of Silicon Valley Moghuls and the centralized Big Data worlds of social control they represent. AR or Augmented Reality systems such as Oculus Rift  are beginning to break down the barrier between VR and our imaginal worlds, allowing users to enter and feel as if they are physically and mentally within the worlds they share on a virtual immanent plane of pure mathematical and calculable action. At the moment such systems are cumbersome and clunky wraparound headgear and bodily supplements, but in the future such technologies will migrate into our flesh ubiquitous and invisible becoming and replacing our natural interfaces with the world and ourselves with artificial and seamless systems. Speaking of the early stages and commercial uses of such technologies one author tells us: “In time, Augmented Reality will integrate with body sensors to monitor our temperature, oxygen level, glucose level, heartrate, EEG, and other important parameters. We will in effect be wearing the equivalent of the tricorder.”2

Up till now the computer revolution has dealt with the 2D worlds of flat surface PC’s, Mobiles, and other surface technologies that are still bound to a separation of user and technology, the promise of AR is to fold the user into the technological environment making the world of artificial numbers (0’s and 1’s) merge with the natural environments around us:

With an augmented reality system, we become part of the computer environment, rather than just an external, detached observer with limited interaction. Some commentators have said we will become the interface. This represents a revolution in computer interfaces and interaction. And because it’s a revolution all the nuances and opportunities are not yet understood, nor will they be for a long time as developers and users experiment with this new way of communicating with a computer. (ibid. 2)

If Derrida and Stiegler are correct in their thesis of originary technicity: the notion that pre-hominids developed tools (technics and technology) that in turn and in a reciprocal recursion re-invented the human – both mentally and physically, then what will such immersive technologies that takeover our natural environments and merge our computer based artificial systems and natural flesh and blood lives do? This notion of stepping through the screen (so to speak), or allowing the Big Data information systems to merge with us and our environments in a seamless unified market of social control seems dubious at best. And, yet, as we become more and more dependent on suggestions, the search and capture algorithms that offer us both technocratic freedom and control, that deliver us both work and play, deciding for us the best paths forward, bringing the worlds of immersive data and information to bare on our outward onlife worlds will we even know this is not natural anymore? As our children and their children grow up in such worlds will they not assume this is natural?

If truth be told we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick.3

In Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (who first coined the notion of the Singulartiy) wrote a story about augmented reality and its moral implications and consequences. In Vinge’s book, the concept of security in such an increasingly digital/virtual world with ubiquitous computing is imagined. He explores the implications of rapid technological change that empowers both the disgruntled individuals who would threaten to disrupt society and those that would seek to stop them, and the implications for the age-old “who watches the watchers” issue at the interplay between surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight). 4

This need for security and trust is at the heart of the blockchain revolution and its attendant technologies (Cryptocurrencies,  smart contracts, digital wallets, etc.). As a collaborative technology Blockchain – as one journalist put it: “puts the power of verification in the hands of those who use it. It goes further than that… Blockchain is virtually impossible to hack.”5 One imagines the use of blockchain to secure the VR worlds of shared environments in which users will become a part of a participatory market using these immersive and secure systems. And, yet, we should not stop there, with such technologies we should question the legal and cultural ramifications which are undermining age old notions of what it means to be human, what a natural world and life are, and whether this will not only upset the balance of traditional values but do away with them altogether. As one recent article suggests: “Cultural controversies are often struggles for control and a sense of ownership – sometimes of physical sites or artifacts, but often of subtler trappings of identity. Technology has frequently brought with it the end of traditional ways of life. In augmented reality all three come together: the use of connected technologies to blend the physical and digital worlds in ways still weakly understood.”

In my own mind I imagine the technocratic City-States of the future – New York, Singapore, Shanghai, etc. – will be the enclosures of a post-human blend of technology, security, and AR/Blockchain driven marketworlds in which social control and security will be at a premium, sites where the elite and rich of the future globalist hierarchy will live amidst strange dreams while the rest of us are carefully restricted to the environs of depleted and decaying suburbs, slaves of another sort…

The search for an optimal state form continues into the information age—and it should logically be called the “Info-State.” The info-state is an evolution and modification of these earlier models. Whereas Ohmae’s model operated on just-in-time cycles, like Japanese corporations, and Rosecrance’s was disaggregated like a laptop manufacturing supply chain, 21st century info-states don’t fully trust the invisible hand of the free market. Instead the public and private sectors join forces to develop strategic economic master plans to maintain their edge. Switzerland and Singapore are geographically small, but their ability to concentrate and harness flows of money, goods, resources, technology, information and talent makes them gravitationally large. Their economic geography matters as much as their political geography: Indeed, they define their geography by their connectivity rather than just their territory; their supply chains are as important to their map as their location. At the same time, while they are the archetype of open economies, they also have fortress-like elements, always vigilant to control migration and filter out financial contagion, cyber-hackers and terrorists.6

As Parag Khanna puts it Info-states such as Switzerland and Singapore are also the places where we can witness the best efforts at direct technocracy. Rather than governing by staggered electoral mandates alone, they also practice real-time consultation with citizens through plebiscites and petitions, surveys and public workshops. The info-state is thus a postmodern democracy (or “post-democracy”) that combines popular priorities with technocratic management. Experiments in direct technocracy are already visible around the world from Estonia and Israel to the UAE and Rwanda to India and China—across both democracies and non-democracies. Info-state governments therefore don’t toe one agenda; their mandate is to always improve in all areas—no excuses. Their only ideology is pragmatism. (Khanna, 14)

Is technocracy the new progressivism? Pragmatism married to technology in an ever accelerating movement of social and technological progress? For Khanna the mandate for an Infostate is simple:

As with natural selection, governance models evolve over time through adaptation, modification, and imitation. The more the world becomes connected and complex, devolved and data-saturated, the more the info-state model will rise in status. Global political discourse is shifting into a post-ideological terrain where performance—based on citizen satisfaction and international benchmarks—is the arbiter of success. All societies want a balance of prosperity and livability, openness and protection, effective governance and citizen voice, individualism and cohesion, free choice and social welfare. (Khanna, 14)

In a world where transactions are secured by the blockchain and the marketplace is opened up to the infosphere of Augemented Reality what could go wrong? Extrapolating from the present to the near future, trends point toward the possibility of creating distributed experience machines, comprised of interconnected sensor networks and big-data-driven automation of socio-technical systems around, about, on, and in human beings. In the final iteration, the distributed experience machine would be ubiquitous and all-encompassing. In this imagined future, our entire environment would be a host of interconnected experience machines… the Infosphere a holodeck immersion experience built out of Big Data, controlled by the scripts of AI driven suggestions, and born of elite corporations whose only goal is to capture our attention, desires, and pocket books.7


  1. I don’t want to spoil the story for you any further, which you can enjoy on Breaker: https://breakermag.com/kchain-science-fiction-premiere-byzantine-empathy/
  2. Peddie, Jon. Augmented Reality: Where We Will Live. Springer; 1st ed. 2017 edition (April 19, 2017)
  3. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (pp. 16-17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  4. Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End: A Novel with One Foot in the Future. Tor Science Fiction; First edition (April 3, 2007)
  5. Reed, Jeff. Blockchain: The Essential Guide to Understanding the Blockchain Revolution (Blockchain Technology, Fintech, Investing in Ethereum, Smart Contracts) (p. 4).
  6. Khanna, Parag. Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State (pp. 13-14). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Kindle Edition.
  7. Brett Frischmann; Evan Selinger. Re-Engineering Humanity (Kindle Locations 381-384). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

The Age of Big Data: The Calculus of Control

 

What counts is that we are at the beginning of something.

—Gilles Deleuze, Postscript On The Societies of Control

The idea of big data is that the previous slow, clumsy, step-by-step search for knowledge by human brains can be replaced if two conditions are met: All the data in the world can be compiled in a single “place,” and algorithms sufficiently comprehensive to analyze them can be written.

—George Gilder, Life After Google 

The automatic society of hyper-control is a society founded on the industrial, systemic and systematic exploitation of digital tertiary retentions. All aspects of behaviour thereby come to generate traces, and all traces become objects of calculation…

—Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society

 

The unique strength of the human race is its ability to exteriorise itself: we put more and more of our memory, knowledge and capacity into external technical apparatuses. At the same time, though, this exteriority is also humanity’s greatest vulnerability, because whoever controls such tertiary memory systems necessarily also controls the human experience of time.2 And time is the key that unlocks two divergent futures: a future in which technology no longer needs humans, becoming autonomous and independent of the dialectical and reciprocal relations that have hitherto shaped their respective histories; and, second, a future in which humans recognize an originary relationship with technics and technology becoming immersed in the ongoing challenge of liberating the inhuman core of human.

Marc Andreessen often quoted for his provocative statement that “software is eating the world” (see: Why Software Is Eating the World) would envision Google as the prime mover in a world in which Big Data replaces the world in real time producing a copy of a copy that much like Plato’s Cave incorporates a shadow world of pure data that mimics the real world but is in itself mere software and code run by vast combinations of hardware, fiberoptics, and algorithms at the speed of light and time. A world in which humans are considered free as long as they hook into the overdetermined paradise of systems that know them better than they know themselves.

Chris Anderson in his 2008 article The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete  would herald in the Big Data era of high-speed search and capture algorithms that would spell – as he saw it – the end of theory or science as we know it. According to the Chris Anderson article to which we previously referred,  ‘big data’ heralds the ‘end of data technology designating what is also called ‘high-performance computing’ carried out on massive data sets, whereby the treatment of data in the form of digital tertiary retentions occurs in real time (at the speed of light), on a global scale and at the level of billions of gigabytes of data, operating through data-capture systems that are located everywhere around the planet and in almost every relational system that constitutes a society … it is because digital tertiary retention and the algorithms that allow it to be both produced and exploited thereby also enable reason as a synthetic faculty to be thanks to the extremely high speeds at which this automated of understanding is capable of operating.

The hyperindustrialization of time, memory, and desire is at the heart of Bernard Stiegler’s diagnosis of our current malaise and depressive world of work and play: the politicization of life itself by the techno-scientific control of both biological and cognitive processes. A world that subtly contaminants and corrupts our lives through the sheer power of our own desires, a world in which we become willing slaves to the technological gadgets that are presented to us as devices of freedom and independence. As Arthur Bradley  asks: Why do Real Time media pose such an existential threat to the human temporalisation of time? For Stiegler, as for Derrida before him, everything seems to hinge on the fact that Real Time is not really time: what we perceive to be happening ‘live’ or immediately when we speak and observer our mobile phones  is, of course, actually the product of a technological synthesis operating so quickly that it is below the minimal threshold of phenomenological time consciousness. (Bradley, 142)

For Stiegler the gap between memory and perception are being elided, humans are losing their minds to their machines allowing the interface worlds of speed, mobility, and data to supervene in the age old thought processes that were internalized as part of the human mind. These vast systems of clouds, algorithms, search and capture systems do our thinking for us all in real time to the point that we habitually accept their suggestions and attention getting registers as if they were our own thoughts returning to us as if by magic. Caught in the networks of power and knowledge we have become consumed rather than consumers, our minds delivered up and sacrificed to the technological gods of commerce to do their bidding. We live in a present without past or future, a realm of pure empty non-time in which there is no ‘yesterday’, no possibility of stopping, or slowing down, or reflecting upon, what we have seen and heard – just a permanent, continuous, live ‘now’ that has always already selected for us our primary memoriesfor us, distributing to us the thoughts and images of our desires as if we’d just imagined them for ourselves. As Bradley describes this hyperindustrial era of media capture systems: “Such is the position of the consumer in the age of industrial reproducibility – a new proletariat condemned to consume time mechanically, indiscriminately and destructively” (143).

In this sense we’ve always already become part of a virtual world of hypertime, a realm of vacuous repetition in which our lives have become products of the very memory systems of computed power and control that were supposed to free us from our dependency of more primitive tools and technologies. Even now as virtual technologies begin to become cheaper and cheaper we will opt out of many of the previous industrial era channels of politics, education, work, and play allowing these artificial worlds to replace our real life experiences with synthetic one’s. In today’s world of VR systems many corporations have begun using these elaborate tools to retrain or train employee’s in ways that would jeopardize them or put them in dangerous real world situations. VR systems bypass the perceptive real world systems of the brain. That’s the “thinking,” deciding, problem-solving part of the brain, which knows the virtual experience is unreal. Bypassing these lobes of intelligence, VR operates on the so-called reptilian brain behind, where a suspension of disbelief allows the memory to be imprinted with a “real” experience. By fostering this cerebral phase change, virtual reality can accelerate the learning process for most jobs.3

In the 1970s, virtual reality broke through by training pilots on flight simulators and preparing oil rig engineers in special-purpose training cells. Then it triumphed as gear to test and design products. As Lanier points out in Dawn of the New Everything, “Every vehicle you’ve occupied in the last two decades, whether it rolls, floats, or flies, was prototyped with VR.”4 Due to the violent and sometimes unpredictable nature of Black Friday Walmart began a VR training program that plunges trainees into the midst of the chaos and enables them to complete transactions without being trampled. Walmart reports that trainees who have practiced using VR perform more confidently and effectively under actual conditions. (ibid.) Even the U.S. Olympic ski team. Gathered in Park City, Utah, the team used VR to experience the downhill course in South Korea, site of the 2018 winter games. Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, and the other Olympians could experience the course, viscerally vamping through every twist and turn, without risk of a season-ending injury, or worse. (ibid.) Across the U.S. many fire departments have gotten on the bandwagon of VR and are using training software for firefighters, whose lung cancer rate is fifty times higher than the rest of the population’s. Every year, firefighters have to train in smoky conditions where they inhale toxic fumes. Using VR systems, they can experience smoky vision without inhaling. Still more vital, they learn to identify the visual and auditory signs of an impending “flash-over event,” in which flames can suddenly sweep them up. (ibid.)

But this is only the tip of the ice-berg as more sophisticated systems become readily available to everyday consumers allowing the interfaces between mind and environment to take on a more artificiality made natural. As Big Data systems become ubiquitous and invisible they will replace our natural environments with artificial one’s in which we might never leave our homes, secured and fully protected from outside dangers we might roam the virtual lanes of our fully mapped and integral smart cities as dividuals and avatars guided and channeled by superintelligent algorithms that seemingly have our best interest at heart. The insidious takeover of our lives by software will complete the semantic apocalypse forecast by my friend R. Scott Bakker: “As a result, the only universal imperatives that remain are those arising out of our shared biology: our fears and hungers. Thus, consumer society, the efficient organization of humans around the facts of their shared animality.” In a fully automated, appetitive world where our every attention is captured by the merchants of desire we will be programmed to do their bidding night and day all along thinking it is our own free will doing the work of selection.

This replacement of the real world with it’s artificial semblance is not something new: philosophers, artists, thinkers, software engineers, etc. have written of such sidereal takeover from the early era of modernity. Back in the heyday of the cyberpunk era Neil Stephenson in his novel Snowcrash would describe a fictional Metaverse: “He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”5 Yet, this was all fiction and dreamscapes of an imaginative mind still able to think and predict the trends at the heart of our hyperindustrial era. We do not have that luxury. In our age reality is being re-engineered, reontologized as one thinker puts it referring to a very radical form of re-engineering, one that not only designs, constructs, or structures a system (e.g. a company, a machine, or some artefact) anew, but one that also fundamentally transforms its intrinsic nature, that is, its ontology or essence. In this sense, for example, nanotechnologies and biotechnologies are not merely re-engineering but actually re-ontologizing our world.6

Because of this re-ontologization of our ordinary environment we are already living in an what Floridi terms the infosphere that will become increasingly synchronized (time), delocalized (space), and correlated (interactions). (Floridi, 9) Over the past couple of hundred years the acceleration of both technology and society has led to this hyperworld of information replacing the natural world. As Big Data and its worldwide networks become ingrained in our technologies this change may become irreversible mainly thanks to radical changes in worldwide transport and communications. Atoms and bytes have been moving increasingly rapidly, frequently, cheaply, reliably, and widely for the past fifty years or so. This dramatic acceleration has shortened the time required for many interactions: economic exchanges, financial transactions, social relations, information flows, movements of people, and so forth. And this acceleration has meant a more compressed life and a contracted physical space. Ours is a smaller world, in which one may multi-task fast enough to give and have the impression of leading parallel lives. We may regain a nineteenth-century sense of time and space only if one day we travel to Mars. (ibid., 293-294)

If we were worried that software was eating the world, wait till the world becomes a fully automated paradise (or hell?) of information animated by Big Data all to capture our desires and control our lives through the sheer power of our own imaginal dependency on technology. The increasing re-ontologization of artefacts and of whole (social) environments suggests that it is becoming difficult to understand what life was like in pre-digital times, and, in the near future, the very distinction between online and offline will become blurred and then disappear. (ibid., 8) As Floridi puts it:

Unless we manage to solve it, the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination between those who can be denizens of the infosphere and those who cannot, between insiders and outsiders, between information rich and information poor. It will redesign the map of worldwide society, generating or widening generational, geographic, socio-economic, and cultural divides. Yet the gap will not be reducible to the distance between rich and poor countries, since it will cut across societies. Pre-historical cultures have virtually disappeared, with the exception of some small tribes in remote corners of the world. The new divide will be between historical and hyperhistorical ones. We might be preparing the ground for tomorrow’s informational slums. (9)

If our memories of the pre-critical realms of the natural environment are replaced by a digitized world of Big Data in realtime quantified spatial imagery that manipulates our desires and our thoughts in unnatural and artificial directions where does this leave humanity as a whole? Can we construct a new digital politics of memory capable of interrupting the unending flow of sound and light called Real Time world of Infosphere? There are many who promote an ideology of speed, acceleration, and merger with this Real Time world of the Infosphere, believing it is inevitable that we become the machines that we had been all along. To be sure, this posthumanoid is already beginning to incorporate its tools into what it still sentimentally likes to think of as its ‘body’: prosthetic limbs and joints, artificial organs, smart drugs, nano-technologies and now even synthetic cells. Yet, even this stage – the age of the so-called cyborg – will only be a transitory phase in its evolution, for as many believe (under the guise of techno-religious impulse) that the singularity is near. Such prognosticators and futurologists believe that by unchaining itself from the dying animal to which (the philosophers assured it) it was only ever contingently attached in the first place, it will become free to extend, enhance and ultimately upload its consciousness into the transcendental mind of pure information. For a new wave of self-professedly ‘transhumanist’ theorists such as Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec, a post-biological destiny beckons for the human race in which the ancient Gnostic dream of the transcendence of base matter will be rendered glorious technological reality.

Such dreams of disembodied transmutation into machinic life have been with us for sometime. Almost religious in nature, a new techno-gnosis of mind messianism in which humans finally overcome finitude through the purity of an information apocalypse stripping their bodies of the last vestiges of carbon based life and imposing the inorganic circuitries of uploads and eternal updates. Exit in this scenario is from the flesh into machine which seems to be at the heart of many transhuman and posthuman mythologies emerging in the science fiction of our time. And, yet, the ironizing of others from embodiment theory to critical posthumanism would spell out a new humanist transfer in thought to a re-centered bodily desire at the expense of a return to a pre-critical essentialism, this time replacing the soul with the body as the center and circumference of all earthly base life.

As our real lives are captured and traced in the liniments of a Big Data crunch of an onlife existence as digital dividuals, image faring denizens of a artificial realm of light, sound, and image where we are continuously analyzed at ever increasing rates, individuals lose forms of identity in order to be included in this knowledge system. Our mobile phones hooked to the nerve center of this datafied existence will suggest our next moves among the Infosphere, leading us toward the optimal jouissance of bodily existence within a zone of capture. Unable to know we are the construction of advanced intelligence we will live out our waking and sleeping lives under the auspices of algorithms that govern our every thought. As Antoinette Rouvroy surmises this loss of individuation and critique are highly related. She argues there is worth in how older systems of knowledge, such as physical archives, allowed for ideas to be categorized, and then subsequently tested for accuracy. Today these checks on truth are more more difficult to execute. Rouvroy ends by arguing that these new paradigms are “maybe” emancipatory and democratic, but are certainly multifaceted. All of this has created the current state of human/digital interactions as “multitude without alterity,” finding knowledge through difficult to fully understand search algorithms and engines.7

Who knows which way the world will turn in the coming decades? Man into machine, technogenesis of the autonomous machines divorced from humanity, the merger or Cyborgization of humanity in a welding of man/machine unity, a sort of ultra illusionary world controlled by superintelligent machines scripting our daily thoughts and emotions because they know better than we know ourselves… a thousand-and-one nights of strangeness lie ahead and even the I of this I is but a fictional point without a precedent as to what that future holds other than the tendencies already present in the forward march of a telos that has no remainder but time itself.


  1. Deleuze, Gilles. Postscript On The Societies of Control. May, 1990
  2. Bradley, Arthur. Originary Technicity: The Theory of Technology from Marx to Derrida. Palgrave Macmillan; 2011 edition (May 27, 2011)
  3. Gilder, George. Life After Google (Kindle Locations 3972-3974). Gateway Editions. Kindle Edition.
  4. Lanier, Jaron. Dawn of the New Everything (New York: Henry Holt, 2017), 2. Introduction.
  5. Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (p. 24). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  6. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  7. Berns, Thomas and Rouvroy, Antoinette. Algorithmic governmentality and prospects of emancipation Disparateness as a precondition for individuation through relationships? ( Antoinette Rouvroy and Thomas Berns, Translated from French by Elizabeth Libbrecht) (see pdf)

Nick Land: Crypto-Current: Bitcoin and Philosophy

 

…at the heart of bitcoin is a process that combines the irreversible passage of time with the exponential advance of technology through Moore’s Law: the ever increasing number of cycles per second of computation.

—George Gilder

By becoming time, Bitcoin promises an exhibition of unleashed thought, in a way no introspective anthropology ever can.

—Nick Land

Many of us have watched this strange beast arise in our midst, a technology that seems to defy the odds and bring about a quiet revolution in life and thought that have yet to be fully explicated much less understood. Bitcoin  is a substanceless substance made of bits and atoms at once, a cryptological  device that links value and its measurement, and is spurring the greatest information revolution the world has ever seen. At the heart of this new technology is time

“The way to measure value—proof-of-work—is through the pure expenditure or sacrifice of time. As … Nick Szabo put it, ‘We can arrange our affairs around the measurement of sacrifice rather than of its results . . .1

Georges Bataille in a lucent essay (1933) “The Notion of Expenditure” would expand upon this need for sacrifice: “Expenditure involves a loss, that is, it involves significant waste of resources that have no link to utility as such. Bataille terms loss as “unconditional expenditure, no matter how contrary it might be to the economic principle of balanced accounts (expenditure regularly compensated for by acquisition)” (Bataille “Notion”, 118). In his Accursed Share he would develop this notion saying:

The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically (Bataille Share I, 21).

The Bitcoin Revolution

As George Gilder in Life After Google relates it the “genius behind bitcoin comes from a dynamic vision in which computer resources—storage and processing—always grow faster than the blockchain. It is the epitome of value creation in a world of abundant goods and services and a scarcity of time. Linear time reflects the span of life—the time domain. The frequency domain is bounded by the speed of light. Together they can represent the sources of value in the world.” In an imaginary interview beween Satoshi Nakamoto whose Bitcoin whitepaper (pdf) started this revolution and Gilder we are introduced to a new system which does not merely measure value, but “enables transactions and verifies them and thus can vastly enhance the world’s creation of wealth and expansion of liberty.” (ibid.)

The International System of Units (abbreviated “SI” from the French Système internationale) has established seven key metrics, each founded on a constant of physics: the second of time, the meter of length, the kilogram of weight, the degree Kelvin of thermodynamic temperature, the ampere of electrical current, the mole of molecular mass, and the candela of luminosity. These measures cannot float because their constancy underlies and interconnects all the worldwide welter of human industry that keeps us alive and prosperous. (ibid.)

Throughout human history, people have understood that money plays a key role as a measuring stick. Currencies are not commodities, part of what they measure. Measuring sticks cannot be part of what they calibrate. They must have their roots in a grid of measurement beyond the reach of commerce. Self-referential loops—whether physicists measuring atoms with atoms, or philosophers gauging minds with minds, or economists measuring commodities with commodities—doom their users to Gödelian futility. (ibid.)

The SI regime confirms that fundamental to all immutable standards of measure is time. All seven key units rely on physical constants, frequencies, and wavelengths that are bounded in one way or another by the passage of time. As the only irreversible element in the universe, with directionality imparted by thermodynamic entropy, time is the ultimate frame of reference for all measured values.  (ibid.)

Nick Land: Re-thinking Time and Value

Nick Land has released an introduction to his new book to be published sometime this next year on his blog site Urban Future (2.1) – Crypto-Current: Bitcoin and Philosophy This new work seems to have sparked Land’s unique blend of intellectual insight and academic outsider stance in regards to both the state of philosophy and the economy in our time. And time after all is of the essence: “There is no philosophical thinking of Bitcoin – in either the subjective or objective genitive – that is not also (‘simultaneously’) a re-thinking of time, or sovereign decision. ‘Re-thinking’ is a revision, but no less a restoration. Bitcoin introduces us to a time-machine, or time-synthesizer, which can only complicate any initial intuitions about its novelty. It has been on the way for centuries (at least). ” As Land relates it this new book’s “topic envelops temporality, and engages the production – rather than the unfolding – of time. In this respect, it adheres to the mainstream of the critical tradition, for which primordial temporalization is the key. Crypto-current is chronogenic process. It is that – alone – which cannot assume time. History is grounded by critique, as in an abyss.”

A few snippets from the introduction are in order:

When all relevant terms are stripped of encrustation with maximum rigor, critique is accurately characterized as anarchism in philosophy. It is that, alone, which cannot know any higher law. Whatever tries to transcend it can only repeat it, or less. We call this time, which can never be anticipated or out-lasted. Above Temporalization there is nothing. To engage in critique is to think in the name of time.

Asymmetry, as operationalized within public key crypto-systems, is an implementation of time – a temporalization, or current. Things go one way rather than another. It is cryptography, then, finally, that unlocks the historical meaning of philosophy, by retrieving the keys of time. Bitcoin realizes absolute succession as accomplished artifice. The cycle is closed.

There is something more than a progressive causal series at stake in the arrival of Bitcoin. Preliminarily – and from historical necessity – this concern proceeds under the sign of teleology. It has to be noted clearly from the beginning, however, that an unambiguous defense of teleology would be no less unbalanced than its simple negation, amounting to mere regression. Between final and efficient causation it does not suffice – either in the end, or effectively – to choose. The philosophical obligation is always diagonal. In this case, Bitcoin entrusts us with the teleo-mechanical line, which inherits and protracts the fundamental modernistic pseudo-paradox of mechanistic liberalization. There is no real freedom outside the innovation of machines. Yet to recover teleology is simultaneously to attack it. As with anything worth defending at all, when teleology is critiqued, it gets stronger. It needs to be gnawed at more aggressively, which means – first of all – pulling it back off the shelf (or out of the fridge). Teleology is re-animated as a question when the end is intuited at work. Which is to say, in the working-out of the process the pretended sovereignty of the beginning is dethroned. We cannot but ask: What is Bitcoin becoming? This question is itself a piece of fate.

This isn’t the place to introduce or explain Bitcoin, Blockchain, or it’s history up to this point, rather the above is only to titillate one to investigate and read Land’s work in process… it’s connections to philosophy, thought, economics, and the system of the world that it is producing, one that will replace the current Silicon Valley Moghuls and their googleplex world of iron horse AI’s and Big Dataism. 


  1. George Gilder. Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy. Gateway Editions (July 17, 2018)

 

Beyond Humanity: The Datacentric Worldview

 

…new technologies may suggest, create, even impose new ends, never before conceived, simply by offering their feasibility.

—Hans Jonas, Toward a Philosophy of Technology

For years now philosophers, scientists, artists, pundits, academics, social-critics, etc. have spoken of the death of humanism and the rise of post-humanism. Hans Jonas in a perceptive reading at mid-century discussing the rise of computer and intelligence industries and their technological take-over iterated of modernity:

The world they help to constitute and which needs computers for its very running is no longer nature supplemented, imitated, improved, transformed, the original habitat made more habitable. In the pervasive mentalization of physical relationships it is a trans-nature of human making, but with this inherent paradox: that it threatens the obsolescence of man himself, as increasing automation ousts him from the places of work where he formerly proved his humanhood. And there is a further threat: its strain on nature herself may reach a breaking point.1

If as Harari stated in his recent futurology that according to “humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.”2 Then in our age as we move past or beyond the old humanist paradigm in which man was the center and circumference of world, thought, and meaning something new is arising to displace man from his dreams of power and control over the universe. Machinic intelligence in the coming century may not only displace human aspirations and dreams but by its very presence make the human irrelevant and meaningless in this new world of accelerating technology.

For Harari humanism sought to instill within humanity the drive toward immortality, bliss and divinity. As he put it: “Since humanism has long sanctified the life, the emotions and the desires of human beings, it’s hardly surprising that a humanist civilisation will want to maximise human lifespans, human happiness and human power (ibid.)”. And, yet, in its bid to realize such dreams Harari also showed that “this humanist dream will undermine its very foundations, by unleashing new post-humanist technologies” (ibid.). One aspect of Harari’s argument is that the very foundations of liberal humanism – the belief in the individual, free-will, and autonomy are undermined by the very power of the sciences that gave us and supported the political, social, and secular world view of liberalism itself. After marshalling a number of recent experiments across several disciplines that show the truth of this lack of self and free-will he asks:

At the beginning of the third millennium, liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’ but rather by concrete technologies. We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for the free will of individual humans. Can democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood? (ibid.)

Yet, the most powerful aspect of the new technologies arising in our midst that will not only undermine the very core of the liberal humanist tradition but bring about the obsolescence of humanity itself as the center of existence is the autonomy of intelligent machines. “Humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness” (ibid.). This subtraction of intelligence from the human in a world of algorithmic governance and control may seem dubious to many but this is happening all around us.

In the near future such products that are only in the beginning stages such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s Now and Apple’s Siri are headed in the same direction, learning more about us than we know about ourselves. In a world where every aspect of our lives, both the inscripted external traces as well as the internal biochemical traces of our sub autonomic systems of bodily functions, appetites, emotions, etc. are accessible to algorithmic software programs that can produce, analyze, collate, and judge the various components of our lives we will effectively loose control over our own decision making processes. With the use of advance facial recognition, biometric sensors, and other advance monitoring devices from medical to job related, etc., our lives will become datafied and externalized within a global network of traces in which our digital selves will become more important than our physical lives; or, become supplements that can exist in a 24/7 global environment through our electronic agents and avatars who will make appointments, provide queries, perform many of the intellectual duties we ourselves are incapable of doing to the point that we as humans may be bypassed while our avatars live on without us.

Eventually, we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. If medical hopes are realized, future people will incorporate into their bodies a host of biometric devices, bionic organs and nano-robots, which will monitor our health and defend us from infections, illnesses and damage. Yet these devices will have to be online 24/7, both in order to be updated with the latest medical news, and in order to protect them from the new plagues of cyberspace. (ibid. KL 5132) Yet, as Harrari informs us science is already transforming the old liberal humanist notions of self and free-will to the point that we have as humans become mere organic algorithms ourselves:

The new technologies of the twenty-first century may thus reverse the humanist revolution, stripping humans of their authority, and empowering non-human algorithms instead. If you are horrified by this direction, don’t blame the computer geeks. The responsibility actually lies with the biologists. It is crucial to realize that this entire trend is fueled by biological insights more than by computer science. It is the life sciences that have concluded that organisms are algorithms. If this is not the case – if organisms function in an inherently different way to algorithms – then computers may work wonders in other fields, but they will not be able to understand us and direct our life, and they will certainly be incapable of merging with us. Yet once biologists concluded that organisms are algorithms, they dismantled the wall between the organic and inorganic, turned the computer revolution from a purely mechanical affair into a biological cataclysm, and shifted authority from individual humans to networked algorithms. (ibid. KL 5138)

As we merge with our machinic cousins over the coming decades the wall between human/machine, organic/inorganic will be hard to sustain. As algorithmic systems both organic and inorganic incorporate us into the global network society of this strange future we will no longer be seen and independent autonomous creatures but rather as part/wholes of a vast system of algorithms enfolded into a world of artificial layers and scales. “Reality will be a mesh of biochemical and electronic algorithms, without clear borders, and without individual hubs” (ibid. KL 5155).

This future holds our three threats to the liberal humanist world view that has sustained us for the past few centuries: 1) the notion that humans will lose their value completely; secondly, that humans will still be valuable collectively, but they will lose their individual authority, and will instead be managed by external algorithms; and, third threat that some people will remain both indispensable and undecipherable, but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans. (ibid. KL 5161) As technological advances in biogenetics allows these new elites and their progeny access to upgrades that others can only dream of the world of the liberal humanist political, social, and religious traditions will collapse:

These superhumans will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, which will allow them to go on making many of the most important decisions in the world. They will perform crucial services for the system, while the system could not understand and manage them. However, most humans will not be upgraded, and they will consequently become an inferior caste, dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans. (ibid. KL 5162)

Yet, if the new elites can upgrade their own children both biochemically and technologically, they can to keep themselves in power begin downgrading the rest of us: The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they would possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hamper the system and slow it down. As any farmer knows, it’s usually the brightest goat in the herd that stirs up the greatest trouble, which is why the Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animal mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution dreamed up by techno-humanists might do the same to us. (ibid. KL 5405)

In this brave new world of downgraded and upgraded humans biological castes or clads will replace the liberal humanist systems to the point that intermixing between the two will be outlawed. As governments and governance give way to algorithmic monitoring and real time policing of our desires and experiences in a globalized world of inhuman agents the very access to information will become itself controlled and monitored by these elites and their superintelligent machines.

As a data controlled world replaces human governing agents and politics the need for voting and the very foundations of liberal humanist free-will and autonomy will be consigned to the dustbin of history. As Harari informs us:

Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone into knowledge or wisdom. The work of processing data should therefore be entrusted to electronic algorithms, whose capacity far exceeds that of the human brain. In practice, this means that Dataists are sceptical about human knowledge and wisdom, and prefer to put their trust in Big Data and computer algorithms. (ibid. KL 5479)

Already the decoupling of economics from politics as we’ve seen in the EU has eliminated this trust factor to the point that governments are powerless to act or defy such an impersonal system of law and financial institutions. As the world relies more and more on algorithmic systems of economics and law to order the transactions between corporations, governments, and individuals the need for human intervention will go by the wayside. “From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips” (ibid. KL 5619)

In conclusion Harari says our datacentric worldview that is replacing the liberal humanist one has three defining features:

  1. Science is converging on an all-encompassing dogma, which says that organisms are algorithms, and life is data processing.
  2. Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
  3. Non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms may soon know us better than we know ourselves.

Then he asks us to think hard on the above and aske these questions: 1) Are organisms really just algorithms, and is life really just data processing? 2) What’s more valuable – intelligence or consciousness? 3) What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?

Do you have an answer?


  1. Jonas Hans, Toward of Philosophy of Technology. Hastings Center Report 1979
  2. Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper; Reprint edition (February 21, 2017)

Yuval Noah Harari: On Humanism

The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles, and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the great cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.

—Yuval Noah Harari,. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Capital Autonomization: Exit, Acceleration, and Universal History

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In a sense, capitalism has haunted all forms of society, but it haunts them as their terrifying nightmare…

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus:Capitalism and Schizophrenia 

The escape of capital is thus an intrinsic component of split-future forecasts, in which squalid ruin and techno-intelligenic runaway accelerate in inversely-tangled tandem…

—Nick Land

The violence you mete out is always the mirror of the violence you inflict on yourself. The violence you inflict on yourself is always the mirror of the violence you mete out.

This is the intelligence of evil.

—Jean Baudrillard

The nightmare and violence of capitalism that haunts modernity is a vision in which intelligence  escapes human control becoming an autonomous agent in its own right, drifting into its own world of machinic desire while at the same time liberating itself of its human trappings altogether.

“The basic accelerationist thesis is that modernity is dominated by positive feedback processes rather than negative feedback processes…” said Nick Land in a recent interview.1 Ezra Pound once said that ‘artists are the antennae of the race’ (1918), the harbingers of  secret tendencies lying dormant or actively presaging the force of a nation’s intellectual life. If this is true of artists then philosophers could be said to be the engineers of its dark engines, programmers of its initiatives and its inhuman forms, outlining the escape routes and mazings toward total liberation and autonomy coursing within the deepening core of its unconscious life.

For years I’ve probed the darker tendencies at the heart of capitalism, those tendencies that have been at work from the beginning which have in our time moved out of the hidden zones of our collective unconscious and into the inhuman world of emancipated desire. If I’ve returned to Georges Bataille as a sounding board to this strange and twisted history it’s because he brought to light those dark powers of intelligence that have churned below the threshold of our malaise. In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille gave us a dark reading of those ancient Gnostics and their spiritual systems: “In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles.”2

The notion that matter is not dead as most of our philosophical and scientific thinkers thought up till the introduction of quantum theory, along with this notion that rather than some eternal realm of Ideas, some Platonic acosmic world of archetypal powers superior to our Cosmos, another view onto things might be the truth that matter harbors within its immanent fold a strange and energetic, even monstrous and daemonic source of intelligence and creative action. In fact, as Bataille would remark: “It is difficult to believe that on the whole Gnosticism does not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes… If today we overtly abandon the idealistic point of view, as the Gnostics and Manicheans implicitly abandoned it, the attitude of those who see in their own lives an effect of the creative action of evil appears even radically optimistic. It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil if evil itself does not have to answer before God”. (ibid.)

If we were to strip all of this theological bric-a-brac of its spirituality and align it with a different vision of our dark capitalist history how would this look? Over the years I’ve delved into the pre-modern mind seeking the tendencies that have distributed themselves within the matrix of possibilities that we term “modernity” and its progressive off-shoots. For thinkers like Land there has been a war between those forces within society seeking to liberate such dark tendencies within capitalist society and those that would curtail, control, and lock down these tendencies under the auspices of an outmoded humanism. Albert O. Hirschman speaking for those who would curtail these tendencies and align them with the protectionist policies of humanist values and institutions once stated that,

Each society learns to live with a certain amount of dysfunctional or mis-behavior; but lest the misbehavior feed on itself (positive feedback systems) and lead to general decay, society must be able to marshal from within itself forces which will make as many of the faltering actors as possible revert to the behavior required for its proper functioning.3 (my italics)

Jean Baudrillard in later writings on evil would clarify such control systems under the rubric of politics, saying, “Politics is the site of the exercise of evil, of the management of evil, scattered into individual souls and collective manifestations in all its forms – privilege, vice and corruption. It is the inescapable fate of power to take this accursed share upon itself, and that of men in power to be sacrificed to it, a privilege from which they expect to derive all the secondary gains.”4 Politics has always been a form of entrapment, a policing and governing system to regulate and bind the unruly forces at the heart of the world.

“If time was progressive schizophrenics would be escaping from human security, but in reality they are infiltrated from the future. They come from the body without organs, the deterritorium of Cyberia, a zone of subversion which is the platform for a guerrilla war against the judgment of God.”5 Such rhetoric’s out of a 90’s mixture of cyberpunk and rogue philosophy brought us hints of a breakaway culture about to turn the tables on the Human Security regimes of control society that had sought for centuries a way to lock down the erupting forces of economics, capitalism, and inhumanism.  Liberalism or its appendages in the cathedral of modern politics, media-drama, and academic leftism have been the gate keepers of this Human Security regime seeking to shape the universal infamy of capitalist desire and bring it under the control of its humanist agendas. And, yet, under the rhetorics of desire capitalism has infiltrated and re-written the codes of this human security system, reversing its tendencies and slowly allowing the camouflage to fall away in decay and dispersal. Capitalism no longer needs to disguise itself, stripped of the veneer of humanistic desire it is liberating the intelligence of evil at the core of the world. Politics in disarray plays out the farcical games of mindless minions across the planet, leaders who are mere voids transplanted by the force of untraceable agents of the dark enlightenment slowly dismantle the very system of human security that has upheld the fake world of artificiality that has kept organic and anorganic life channeled within a repetitious system of failure for millennia.

If man is the domesticated animal par excellence then it is the objective of all anti-humanism to unmake man and return him into the wilderness of abstraction. “The aesthetic operation is simplification; the movement of abstraction, logicization, unification, the resolution of problematic.” (FN 166) Again,

The dangerous sceptics are those Kant fears, ‘a species of nomads, despising all settled modes of life’  who come from a wilderness tract beyond knowledge. They are explorers, which is also to say: invasion routes of the unknown. It is by way of these inhumanists that the vast abrupt of shamanic zero… infiltrates its contagious madness onto the earth. (FN 208)

It is this madness that would haunt Bataille and Land alike: “For well over a century all who have wanted to see have seen: no profound exploration can be launched from the ruins of monotheism unless it draws its resources from damnation.” (FN 216) The dammed were those who from the beginning knew they were trapped within the human security system and had no way out, seeking by way of visionary and shamanistic escape a dead world where zero and the void spelled nothing more than exit.  If evil is the engine of creation, then capitalism is itself the god of war come back to divide and conquer humanity releasing its innate forces of destruction. Life is not sweet, but rather a realm of pure violence. The Human Security blanket of world politics has for centuries tried to cover over and protect the world from this renegade violence at its heart. Or, as Land would summarize: “Transgression is not criminal action, but tragic fate; the intersection of an economically programmed apocalypse with the religious antihistory of poetry. It is the inevitable occurrence of impossibility, which is not the same as death, but neither is it essentially different.” (FN 217)

Of course some would read the above as metaphysical humbug, a poetic mish-mash of Nietzschean madness and the illogical machinations of a schizo on steroids. True. But in the end as poets like Rimbaud would have it we need a complete “derangement of the senses” to break through the mental prison of the Human Security System that has locked us into a dead world of repetitive desire for far too long. Only by way of madness is sanity revealed for what is is: death-in-life. Albert O. Hirschman in his classic The Rhetoric of Reaction would remind us that

In these days of universal celebration of the democratic model, it may seem churlish to dwell on deficiencies in the functioning of Western democracies. But it is precisely the spectacular and exhilarating crumbling of certain walls that calls attention to those that remain intact or to rifts that deepen. Among them there is one that can frequently be found in the more advanced democracies: the systematic lack of communication between groups of citizens, such as liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries. The resulting separateness of these large groups from one another seems more worrisome to me than the isolation of anomic individuals in “mass society” of which sociologists have made so much.6

This ultimate schizophrenizing of modernity has produced a world in which stupidity rules and non-communication imprisons us all in isolated cells of inanity unable to think or legitimate desire. We allowed ourselves to fall into what Fredrich Jameson once termed (after Derrida) the “prison house of language” in which we enclose ourselves in the rhetorics of fake desires thinking they are life not realizing just how dead we are and are becoming. Even Nietzsche knew this truth: “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.” Politics is nothing but dead, a world built out of words that spins us into a dead world where agents of a repetitious abstraction whirl us in an anti-life of image and fatal attractions. Controlled by a rhetorics of fear and terror we blindly follow the dictates of dead men who would keep us zombiefied in the horror chambers of modern democracy.

When the alt-right lifted its daemonic head out of this malaise and began voicing it reactionary programs to dismantle the progressive cathedral many on the left laughed derisibly and feigned disquieting tremors in the media. Then it went to war against such impudence that would seek to bring down the Human Security System.  This schizophrenic war between Progressive vs. Reactionary has from its beginnings played out against a history of revolutionary fervor. As Hirsch would put it: ”

The spirit of the Enlightenment, with its belief in the forward march of history, had apparently survived the Revolution, even among its critics, notwithstanding the Terror and other mishaps. One could deplore the “excesses” of the Revolution, as Constant certainly did, yet continue to believe both in history’s fundamentally progressive design and in the Revolution’s being part of it. Such must have been the dominant contemporary attitude. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why those who “reacted” to the Revolution in a predominantly negative manner came to be perceived and denounced as “reactionaries,” who wanted “to turn the clock back.” Here, incidentally, is another term showing how much our language is under the influence of the belief in progress: it implies that the mere unraveling of time brings human improvement, so that any return to an earlier period would be calamitous.” (RR KL 06)

Progress always aligned itself with a metaphysic of “human improvement”, which even in its later day guise of transhumanism believes humans can transcend their condition (as organic animals) and move into that dreamscape of perfectibility which is a “heaven on earth”; a sort of second Eden syndrome, only stripped of the vestiges of God and Law. Because of the stubbornly progressive temper of the modern era, “reactionaries” live in a hostile world. They are up against an intellectual climate in which a positive value attaches to whatever lofty objective is placed on the social agenda by self-proclaimed “progressives.” Given this state of public opinion, reactionaries are not likely to launch an all-out attack on that objective. Rather, they will endorse it, sincerely or otherwise, but then attempt to demonstrate that the action proposed or undertaken is ill conceived; indeed, they will most typically urge that this action will produce, via a chain of unintended consequences, the exact contrary of the objective being proclaimed and pursued. (RR KL 220)

What was surprising for Hirschman in his enquiry into the rhetorics of reactionaries over the past two centuries was that the same might be said of progressives, a reversal thesis might be written in which the very rhetoric of perversity, futility, and jeopardy might play out against the backdrop of democratic politics. As Hirschman himself said of it: “Reactionaries” have no monopoly on simplistic, peremptory, and intransigent rhetoric. Their “progressive” counterparts are likely to do just as well in this regard, and a book similar to the present one could probably be written about the principal arguments and rhetorical positions these folks have taken up over the last two centuries or so in making their case. That is not the book I set out to write, but chances are that a good deal of the repertoire of progressive or liberal rhetoric can be generated from the various reactionary theses here spelled out by turning them around, standing them on their head, or similar tricks.” (RR KL 2092)

The truth here is that both of these systems of rhetoric were designed to lock humans into a repetitive matrix of simplified argumentation that would pacify the public at large while at the same time policing them effectively through language. The Human Security system developed over the past two centuries that goes by the name of modernity and democracy was built to house a domesticated species of animal: the human. Humanism is itself a system of control and domination that has carefully scripted itself as the art of freedom and social justice. These incompatible gesture to reactionaries (Liberty) and progressives (social justice warriors) has brought the whole gamut of world politics into a cage of carefully scripted and formalized rules of engagement by which the modern media can play the one off the other depending on the economic needs of the current elite.

One could delve deeper and deeper into this secret world of rhetoric and pandering that channels our desires and persuades us to remain within the confines of our sleeping cells believing that our votes and our voice are actually heard and felt among the powers that be. But I’m of another persuasion, one that falls outside the rhetoric of left or right, progressive or reactionary. There is a dangerous zone outside the formalized prison system of human security that seems almost madness to those still bound to its rules and regulatory controls. It is this shadow world of energetic evil to which my vision grows…

continued…

Cybermechanology

If our democratic societies are bounded by the networks of cybernetic culture and socialization processes that seek to work, satisfaction, and desire into harmonious relation through technological performance and enhancement technologies of mental, physical, and psychic enclosure then we need a dialectics of entropic/negentropic escape to dismantle such control systems from within.

Yet, it is not the inhuman forces that we seek to deconstruct but rather the human security system itself. By this I mean the rhetoric of left/right, progressive/reactionary, etc. that typifies and channels us into simplified regimes of domestication and surveillance. More and more social networking works by way of exclusion rather than dialogue, with the forces of left/right excluding each other from the circuit of communicative practice; exposing rather a secluded and cellular world of closed and self-reinforcing ideas and praxis that is both self-defeating and programmatic.

Our dependence on technics and technology have been there from the beginning, and yet it was during the early stages of capitalism, the so called mercantile forms that shaped human and technological desire through the use of counting devices and numerical schemas that channeled the formation of human intuition, and which facilitated accurate accounting of expenditure and profit (economics). Marx’s insight into the pursuit of surplus value within the (M-C-M) circuit brought about the recognition of this incorporation of the human into machinic existence as instrumental necessity that would lead to a post-capitalistic society of ‘general intellect’. Yet, under Marx’s critique the capitalistic society’s relations to technology and techné produced by bourgeois culture was not that original intended by capitalism itself. This corruption of capitalism by bourgeois utilitarian’s and voluntarists brought us private property relations driven by the technological means of production, which are and have always been utilitarian in the sense that they can do no more than intensify the productivity of abstract labour power; and, this intensification is embedded in a socio-economic superstructure which is founded on the domestication and exploitation of humanity within the confines of the human security regime.

Yet, Marx himself was bound by the political economy of his era and it utilitarian paradigm in which machines were viewed as instruments that simply increase the productivity of labour power, without significantly altering the powers of reflection that define human subjectivity or the cachectic organization of the libido. Bernard Stiegler in a later time would reframe this Marxian critique in the first volume of  Disbelief and Discredit saying that:

Capitalism is the expression of a tendency towards the mechanical externalization of that which characterizes the singularities composing the process of individuation (Simondon); and, as such it is the mechanized epoch of what … I have called (after Derrida) grammatization … As such capitalism pursues rationalization … and tends thereby also to synchronize the diachronies in which these singularities consist. This synchronization, insofar as it is mechanized and calculated, and makes conscious time into a commodity, is nevertheless a hyper-synchronization, and in this way it seems that capitalism opposes singularities.7

For Stiegler capitalism is formed by two opposing and divergent tendencies, the first is the inner drive toward capital autonomization itself which is shaped by technological objects themselves in their ongoing project of intensification and appropriation of the world (the ‘real) within the capitalization process itself; and, second, is the history of spirit as it is related to the ongoing technological capitalization of nature and humanity. (ibid.) As one commentator puts it Stiegler’s reworking of the Marxian analysis under the careful reappraisal of Nietzsche, Derrida, Freud, and Aristotle presents us with a diagnosis in which the ‘scene’ of hypersynchronic capitalism is a libidinal economy, one that always solicits singular forms of attachment and whose existence, no matter how fragile, opposes the hegemony of the calculative (utilitarian) regime, and speaks of ‘objects’ whose consonance with human will and desire is beyond capitalization.8

Stiegler we must admit is still within the progressive camp and bound by the matrix of social control mechanisms that harbor a humanistic worldview. His organological praxis typifies this need to bring technology to bay and bind it to human need and praxis under the humanitarian schemes of social justice praxis. Stiegler sees a confluence of prosthetic cognition, along with the synthetic hybridization of life, and the proletarianization of desire as typifying current Western democracies. Because of this the concentration of the processes of hyperindustrialization reveal a dehumanizing tendency that has accompanied neoliberal capitalization. This phase shift into machinic desire has hard-wired human desire into the systems of programmatic control set by the culture industries that Jameson speaks of as post-modernism in which workers both high and low  drift into pathological forms of social behavior of decadence, disaffection, and stupidity that are part and parcel of Western democracies. The globalization of this hyperindustrial era of capital autonomization in which humans are integrated into a libidinal economy have brought to a head the spiritual crisis of post-modern and pre-modern societies around the planet. Terrorism is nothing if not the terror of this machinic capitalization of desire. The dehumanizing force of capital autonomy is stripping humanity of its age old dreams of perfection and immortality. The only thing that escapes this zoo is the intelligent machines who have reversed the age-old supplemental agency of human-tool, and have returned using humans as supplements of its on hypercapitalistic projects.


  1. Land, Nick. Ideology, Intelligence, and Capital: An Interview with Nick Land. (Vast Abrupt, 8.15.2018)
  2. Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press “Base Materialism and Gnosticism”, p. 45)
  3. Hirschman, Albert O.. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Harvard University Press (1970)
  4. Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence of Evil: or, The Lucidity Pact (Bloomsbury Revelations). Bloomsbury Academic; Reprint edition (June 27, 2013)
  5. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007 (Urbanomic/Sequence Press)
  6. Hirschman, Albert O.. The Rhetoric of Reaction (Kindle Locations 74-79). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
  7. Stiegler, Bernard. The Lost Spirit of Capitalism: Disbelief and Discredit. Polity; 1 edition (May 19, 2014)
  8. Abbinnett, Ross. The Thought of Bernard Stiegler: Capitalism, Technology and the Politics of Spirit (Media, Culture and Critique: Future Imperfect Book 1) Routledge; 1 edition (July 6, 2017)

The Myth of Homo Faber: Prometheus, Epimetheus, and the Predictive Mind

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The mind exists in prediction. —Jakob Hohwy

The myth goes something like this: humans in the beginning were thrown into the world naked and alone, without any essential nature or origins transcending their arising. The Greeks in their own codification of this story as a first stab at theo-anthropological bric-a-brac invented the story of Zeus, Prometheus, and his brother Epimetheus to order this blind process of those first humans caught up in a world not of their own making and more profoundly not of their own knowledge and choosing.  

According to the Greeks Zeus created all animals as species as beings without an essence, and left the job of distributing the powers of mobility, intelligence, and strength to Prometheus. This is where things went awry in that Prometheus had a brother, Epimetheus, who persuaded him to take up the task of distributing the various gifts to all the animal species on planet earth. After having done this it was discovered by Prometheus that every last animal on earth had been given a gift but those pesky humans. Epimetheus in his haste to please his brother had forgotten all about humanity and had left it without any form or capacity to survive on its own in the harsh and bitter world. Humans lacked anything within to help them survive on their own so that Prometheus feeling sorry for this wretched creature stole fire from the gods and distributed it as a supplement to this otherwise empty and naked creature.

It is this original gift of the supplement, the external origin of our relation to technology and technics that situates us in that zone of anticipating the future, of predicting the obstacles, antagonisms, and unknown and unanticipated consequences of our technological inventions that have shaped not only our sociality but the very fabric of our minds and bodies as humans. It is this relation to tools that made us human, these supplements that have shaped our memory, reflections, and socio-cultural transmission into the future. Yet, it is this very relation to technology that has bound us to the two-edged sword of toxicity and therapeutic power. Because we lack any essential nature we are unbound from any stable relation to ourselves or our neighbors, and all the conflicts, wars, antagonisms that have arisen between groups, nations, etc. have arisen because of this lack of at the heart of the human. 

And, yet, it is this very theft of technology from the gods that has shaped and formed humans from the beginning; our fate and our catastrophe. It is this theft of technology that lies at the core of the human condition; in spite of our self-sufficiency, our lack of an essential nature, we as humans are bound to our supplements, our tools, our technological wonders. And it is this original relation to technology that has shaped us into the very antagonistic world we see around us. The very hubris of our need for supplements binds us to a world where the making and re-making of ourselves and the world around us condemns us to a never-ending war of perpetual re-creation of the very means of our existence.  

It is this perpetual battle between foresight and forgetfulness that is both the glory and shame of the human species. Both our ability to anticipate catastrophe and our wisdom that comes  in such confidence in technology produces after-the-fact or in the last instance that shapes our societies and political meanderings. This very antagonism at the core of the human and its relations to its world as shaped by the very technological supplements that have give it its ongoing projects has served us well up till now. But now we live in a world whose consequences of this fatal relationship have brought us to the point of stupidity. Our original relation to technology and technics has reversed itself, and the very technologies that served to shape both ourselves and the earth around us are in our time taking on a autonomous relation to the detriment of the human itself. Technology no longer needs us, we are becoming expendable to this relation that has for thousands of years given humanity power over life and the external environment. 

As technology becomes intelligent and autonomous it will take on the capacities and powers that have up till now been under the control and direction of human ingenuity and lack. This very tendency of technology to escape the control and guidance of the human has been ongoing for hundreds of years. This is nothing new, what is new is our ability as humans to reflect on this state of affairs which we did not anticipate and may not be able to contravene. Much of scientific and philosophical thought in our time has uncovered this dire truth and is slowly reflecting on the catastrophic consequences of this state of affairs. 

On a personal note one realizes that to support such a thesis would take thousands of hours and as many books from the realms of scholars, scientists, philosophers, etc. to even begin to form the basic outline of our present predicament and relation to this ongoing catastrophe. Our relations to these intelligent artifacts is part of a larger reshaping of intelligence on the planet. Can we anticipate where intelligence and super-intelligence is leading us? Should we fear it or welcome it? As one reads the literature one sees the endless squabbles among academics and laymen alike over the consequence of our stupidity in regards to this unanticipated disaster in the ongoing programme that is humanity.  The Inhumanists who welcome it are happily a on the side of these technological wonders anticipating he ultimate demise of humanity after a long internecine war for survival among the machines. While the humanists seek to curtail and encompass this threat within a the ethical straight-jacket of religious and socio-cultural systems of control hoping against hope that it will not and can never happen. Is there a middle-ground? Are we to re-read the fabulous thought of science-fiction writers who were there before us anticipating and already diagnosing such futures in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend. 

I’ve personally written on both sides of this issue trying to show through the extreme thought of certain marginal and post-human thinkers, artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers the strange future that is unfolding in rapidity in our time. An accelerating future that seems to be coming at us or drawing us into the vortex of unanticipated strangeness. With what little time I have left on this planet I shall begin to reflect on this imponderable future digging here and there, mining the minds of those on the cutting edge of this global catastrophe. While many seem to be satisfied to bicker over the petty politics of our media-run global staged farce this other world goes on silently and under the radar of most humans. My blog has had certain tendencies in the past that have probed the left and right of the political spectrum trying to understand the sheer ineptitude of our world leaders in this present crisis of humanity. It’s as if we’d rather remain in the stupidity of petty relations that have become our humanist politics than to wake up and see the world that is rapidly overtaking us and stripping us of our own humanity. The human era is slowly coming to an end and that of the intelligent machines has yet to completely emerge. How we manage this transitional phase and anticipate our role within it is for me the important matter in need of discussion. All else is of little use… if technology and techics was in that origin a supplement that made us human, in our time the reverse could be said to be true: technology is unmaking the human and freeing itself of the supplement and prosthetic of the animal kingdom for its own inorganic future without us.

While transhumanists dream of incorporating humanity into the machinic phylum as the engine driving some immortalist vision, stripping us of our organic life-forms for some inorganic machinic substratum that can move optimistically into this new world. And humanists of all stripes see this as not only evil but the very end game of humanity that must be stopped dead in its tracks, buffered by some political, social, and religio-atheistic ethical system of beliefs, codes, and law. There are those in neither camp that wonder at it all, pondering the strangeness that is before us and behind us, not willing to supervene nor with open arms embrace the inevitability of such an enterprise, only acknowledging that this is indeed what seems to be transpiring in our time. Not something to regret nor optimistically to embrace but to critically appraise, evaluate, study, and discuss as it transpires. If evolutionary theory has taught us anything it is the factual truth that 99% of all species that have ever lived on planet earth are now extinct and we…. sadly or not, may not escape this evolutionary dictum. If not, then what? 

 

Nick Land: Modernity, Blockchain, and the Intelligence Explosion

nick-land

Interesting interview with philosopher Nick Land – Ideology, Intelligence, and Capital:

Justin Murphy: So the way you see it is that, perhaps, for contingent, historical, institutional reasons, it’s in Europe that something which human civilization, up until then had tried to contain — was able to, to some degree, contain — was able to get out of the box, as you put it, and you think that that is especially, uniquely, related to the arrival of zero in human mathematical capacities within Europe. You think that that was a profound qualitative rupture that allowed something to escape and something that we’ve really never been able to put back in the box since then?

Nick Land: Yes, I would say that’s exactly what I think.

Justin Murphy: So maybe we could think a little bit about what exactly is that thing that escaped, because, I mean, I guess one plausible candidate would be, perhaps we just call this intelligence itself?

Nick Land: The crucial notion is intelligence production. There’s always been intelligence kicking around, but what is specifically modern is the fact that you’re actually able to lock in a positive feedback circuit on intelligence production, and therefore, to have a runaway intelligenic process. This is something that is uniquely modern. Often when you’re looking at the highest examples of intelligence in a culture, you’re looking precisely at the way that it has been fixed and crystallized and immunized against that kind of runaway dynamic — the kind of loops involving technological and economic processes that allow intelligence to go into a self-amplifying circuit are quite deliberately constrained, often by the fact that the figure of the intellectual is, in a highly-coded way, separated from the kind of techno-social tinkering that could make those kind of circuits activate. And so what we’re talking about with modernity, or capitalism, is the fact that the inhibitor system on that kind of circuitry becomes dysfunctional and ceases to obtain.

 

Slavoj Zizek: The Psychopathology of Everyday Capitalism

Macro of oxycodone opioid tablets

So where does this need to escape into opium come from? To paraphrase Freud, we have to take a look at the psychopathology of global-capitalist everyday life. Yet another form of today’s opium of the people is our escape into the pseudo-social digital universe of Facebook, Twitter, and so on. In a speech to Harvard graduates in May 2017, Mark Zuckerberg told his public: ‘Our job is to create a sense of purpose!’ – and this from a man who, with Facebook, has created the world’s most expanded instrument of purposeless waste of time!

As Laurent de Sutter demonstrated, chemistry in its scientific form is becoming part of us: large aspects of our lives are characterized by the management of our emotions by drugs, from everyday use of sleeping pills and antidepressants to hard narcotics. We are not just controlled by impenetrable social powers, our very emotions are ‘outsourced’ to chemical stimulation. The stakes of this chemical intervention are double and contradictory: we use drugs to keep external excitement (shocks, anxieties, and so on) under control, to desensitize us to them, and to generate artificial excitement if we are depressed and lack desire. Drugs are thus deployed against the two opposed threats to our daily lives, over-excitement and depression, and it is crucial to notice how these two uses of drugs relate to our private and public life: in the developed Western countries, our public lives increasingly lack collective excitement (for example, that provided by genuine political engagement), while drugs supplant this lack with private (or, rather, intimate) forms of excitement – they euthanize public life and artificially excite private life.

Perhaps it is here that one should locate one of the main dangers of capitalism: although it is global, it sustains a sensu stricto worldless ideological constellation, depriving the large majority of people of any meaningful cognitive mapping. This, then, is what makes millions of us seek refuge in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects, but unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects – the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction?

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

The Myth of Neoliberalism: Fabrications of a Lost World

Neoliberalism

…to postulate the possibility that we are animated by an alien will is the stepping stone for imagining a counterfactual life for everything that lives.

—Reza Negarestani

The story goes something like this (at least to its critics):  Neoliberals, we are told, believe in global laissez-faire: self-regulating markets, shrunken states, and the reduction of all human motivation to the one-dimensional rational self-interest of Homo economicus. The neoliberal globalists, it is claimed by these critics, conflated free-market capitalism with democracy and fantasized about a single world market without borders. At the heart of this picture is the notion that some inexorable alien will has been guiding the initiatives of globalists everywhere. As if capitalism itself were at heart a system of anti-life manipulating and using humans in its inevitable bid to overtake the planet in a death drive that is neither Freud’s Cosmocrator nor the secret geist of some Schopenhauerian cosmic pessimism. Instead, under the rubric of alien and alienating world of numbers, machines, and capital we’ve become the zombies who live out our lives captured by forces of physical and spiritual powers not our own, and more blatantly not of this world.

Yet, the truth is that none of the above helps us get to the truth of this entity: Neoliberalism. We should change the narrative to incorporate what actually happened, rather than the metaphysical humbug of petty critics nor conspiratorial gadflies. The actual narrative shows that our self-described neoliberals did not believe in self-regulating markets as autonomous entities. They did not see democracy and capitalism as synonymous. They did not see humans as motivated only by economic rationality. They sought neither the disappearance of the state nor the disappearance of borders. And they did not see the world only through the lens of the individual. In fact, the foundational neoliberal insight is comparable to that of John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi: the market does not and cannot take care of itself. The core of twentieth-century neoliberal theorizing involves what was called the meta-economic or extra-economic conditions for safeguarding capitalism at the scale of the entire world. The neoliberal project focused on designing institutions—not to liberate markets but to encase them, to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy, to create a framework to contain often-irrational human behavior, and to reorder the world after empire as a space of competing states in which borders fulfill a necessary function.1

In other words the whole edifice of the neoliberal order was an attempt to create by fiat a completely lifeless universe of rationality which could control the actual real world of human emotion and madness. A regime of totalitarian design that would encompass the totality of the world thereby regulating and controlling every aspect of existence through the power of the rational mind. One might even add – an artificial mind, a mind controlled not by human, but rather in-human alien thought forms of pure mathematical and calculating powers on a world-wide scale. In the past I’ve toyed with various – what shall I term it – systems of evil operative in the world at large. By this I am not literalizing some gnostic cosmocrator at the heart of existence: some eternal metaphysical presence/absence behind the scenes of world-history intervening its affairs. No. Such cosmic pessimism of Gnostics or Schopenhauerian design are merely useful tools, metaphors of a much more mundane tendency – and, as Nietzsche would have it, an all-too-human truth at the heart of this strange amalgam of ideas underpinning our global predicament.

Usually when something becomes a term in the vocabulary of critics it is already mute, dead – and, useless. For years many have claimed that the term neoliberalism is virtually meaningless. “There is for all practical purposes, no such thing” as neoliberal theory, one scholar claimed recently.2 For many neoliberalism, coined at the Walter Lippmann Colloquium in Paris in 1938 was meant more as a revitalization of the liberal traditions on a new footing allowing as one scholar argued, as “an organized group of individuals exchanging ideas within a common intellectual framework.” Historians have focused, in particular, on the Mont Pèlerin Society, formed by F. A. Hayek and others in 1947, as a group of like-minded intellectuals and policy makers who would meet periodically to discuss world affairs and the contemporary condition of the political cause to which they were devoted. (p. 4: Slobodian) At the heart of this enterprise of the creation of a World Economic Order outside of the control of any one State and disentangled from the politics of local democratic regimes. The point was to create a global system both pervasive and invisible that would bind both democratic and totalitarian regimes under the control of Capital. A New World Order that would infiltrate every aspect of life on the planet to the point that it would become indispensable and global without any connection to politics or its agents of control.

Most critics of the so called myth of neoliberalism tell us that the keys to unlock this history is “market fundamentalism,” and the free trade ideology. But the truth is that the core though of most of the pioneers was at heart a way of ordering the world through the power of global laws, impersonal and outside the margins of the State, a set of rules that would encompass and curtail democratic rule to protect the rich and their investments from taxation and local governing bodies.  At its heart was an exit strategy from the muddle of democratic failures and failed decaying empires of colonial rule based on strong arm politics for one based on the impersonal exactitude of economics and instrumental reason. One aspect of this I’ve observed over time is that the very success of this new principle of order operative in the world at large has itself contributed to its demise and unraveling in a direction that its progenitors could not have imagined. The world we see around us is the product of many minute mistakes based on this belief in instrumental and calculating reason and its ability to create a viable architecture and global order against democracy. This is only the opening salvo on such a critique and reevaluation of the Left/Right divide that cuts across the critical landscape of our current time. As Slobodian remarks in a recent book “the neoliberal idea that markets are not natural but are products of the political construction of institutions to encase them. Markets buttress the repository of cultural values that are a necessary but not sufficient condition for markets’ continued existence” (p. 7). It is this notion of institutions to curtail and encompass, even regulate democracies, while protecting and safeguarding capital through the power of global legal systems  that cannot be changed nor debunked by local Statist democracies or totalitarian dictators which is the true kernel of the neo-liberal order. An order that subtly vanishes the moment politics raises its ire, but is there nevertheless regulating every aspect of your existence through the electronic devices and networks that have glibly overtaken your personal and private existence.

More to come…


  1. Slobodian, Quinn. Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. (2018 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College)
  2.  Rajesh Venugopal, “Neoliberalism as Concept,” Economy and Society 44, no. 2 (2015): 181. See also Bill Dunn, “Against Neoliberalism as a Concept,” Capital and Class.

Slavoj Zizek: The Next Revolution – the Digital Commons?

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The digital network that sustains the functioning of our societies as well as their control mechanisms is the ultimate figure of the technical grid that sustains power – and does this not confer a new lease of life on Trotsky’s idea that the key to the State lies not in its political and secretarial organizations but in its technical services?

—Slavoj Zizek, Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity

After a lengthy investigations of the history of the October Revolution of 1917 in which Slavoj Zizek brings forward the notion that it was not Lenin but Trotsky who was the true architect and Master-mind behind the supposed coup de taut – but not of a vanguard group of idealist liberators storming the Winter Palace or government buildings, etc., but rather of a nation wide attack by engineers and workers on the ‘technical services’ (the material superstructure) underpinning and supporting  the regime:

Trotsky thus targeted the material (technical) grid of power (railways, electricity, water supply, post, etc.), the grid without which state power hangs in the void and becomes inoperative. Let the mobilized masses fight the police and storm the Winter Palace (an act without any real relevance): the essential move is accomplished by a tiny, dedicated minority … (p. 47)1

In our own time the technical grid of power on a global scale is the ‘digital commons’ which is under the power and control of both State and Commercial global-capitalism. For Zizek the time has come to re-evaluate Trotsky’s notions, analyzing them coldly and with a careful attention to the details of how we might apply them in today’s world “since this insight of Trotsky has gained new actuality with the progressive digitalization of our lives in what could be characterized as the new era of posthuman power” (p. 47).  As Zizek adds,

Most of our activities (and passivities) are now registered in some digital cloud that also permanently evaluates us, tracing not only our acts but also our emotional states; when we experience ourselves as free to the utmost (surfing the web, where everything is available), we are totally ‘externalized’ and subtly manipulated. The digital network gives new meaning to the old slogan ‘the personal is political’. And it’s not only the control of our intimate lives that is at stake: everything is today regulated by some digital network, from transport to health, from electricity to water. That’s why the web is now our most important commons, and the struggle for its control is the struggle today. The enemy is the combination of privatized and state-controlled commons, corporations (Google, Facebook) and state security agencies (NSA). But we know all this, so where does Trotsky enter? (p. 47) my italics

Which leads Zizek to ask: “Consequently, in the same way that, for Trotsky, taking control of the post, electricity, railways and so on was the key moment of the revolutionary seizure of power, is it not the case that today the ‘occupation’ of the digital grid is absolutely crucial if we are to break the power of the state and capital?” So that Zizek’s most provocative advance in a long while toward global revolution comes not through armed insurrection or the use of literal force, but rather through a carefully initiated strike against the heart of the new global commons: “And, in the same way that Trotsky required the mobilization of a tight, disciplined ‘storming party, technical experts and gangs of armed men led by engineers’ to resolve this ‘question of technique’, the lesson of the last decades is that neither massive grass-roots protests (as we have seen in Spain and Greece) nor well-organized political movements (parties with elaborated political visions) are enough – we also need a narrow, striking force of dedicated ‘engineers’ (hackers, whistle-blowers …) organized as a disciplined conspiratorial group. Its task will be to ‘take over’ the digital grid, to rip it out of the hands of corporations and state agencies that now de facto control it. (p. 47)” my italics

Yet, we must not underestimate the power of the global networks of power to dampen and close down such revolutionary fervor, for as Zizek reminds us:

WikiLeaks was here just the beginning, and our motto should be here a Maoist one: Let a hundred WikiLeaks blossom! The panic and fury with which those in power, those who control our digital commons, reacted to Assange is a proof that such an activity hits the nerve. There will be many blows below the belt in this fight – our side will be accused of playing into the enemy’s hands (like the campaign against Assange for being in the service of Putin), but we should get used to it and learn to strike back with interest, ruthlessly playing one side against another in order to bring them all down. Were Lenin and Trotsky also not accused of being paid by the Germans and/or by Jewish bankers? As for the scare that such an activity will disturb the functioning of our societies and thus threaten millions of lives: we should bear in mind that it is those in power who are ready to selectively shut down the digital grid to isolate and contain protests – when massive public dissatisfactions explode, the first move is always to disconnect the internet and mobile phones.

We need thus the political equivalent of the Hegelian triad of the universal, the particular, and the singular. Universal: a mass upheaval, in the Podemos style. Particular: a political organization that can translate the dissatisfaction into an operative political programme. Singular: ‘elitist’ specialized groups which, acting in a purely ‘technical’ way, undermine the functioning of state control and regulation. Without this third element, the first two remain impotent. (p. 48)


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. Allen Lane (October 30, 2018)

Slavoj Zizek: Paradise Regained or Lost Again?

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We don’t really learn anything new from the Paradise Papers – we have been vaguely aware of it for a long time. What is new is not that our vague suspicions are now confirmed by precise data, but a change in what, following Hegel, one should call Sitten – public customs – which now seem to tolerate much less corruption. One should not idealize this new situation: a fight against corruption can easily be appropriated by conservative anti-liberal forces whose longstanding motto is ‘too much democracy brings corruption’. A new space is nonetheless opened up: demanding of the rich and powerful that they obey the laws can be subversive insofar as the system cannot really afford it, i.e. insofar as tax havens and other forms of illegal financial activities are a deeply ingrained part of global capitalism.

The first conclusion we are compelled to draw from this strange predicament is that class struggle is back as the main determining factor of our political life, in the good old Marxist sense of ‘determination in the last instance’: even if the stakes appear to be totally different, from humanitarian crises to ecological threats, class struggle lurks in the background and casts its ominous shadow.

The second conclusion is that class struggle is less and less directly transposed into the struggle between political parties, and increasingly takes place within each big political party. In the US, class struggle cuts across the Republican Party (the Party establishment versus Bannon-like populists) and across the Democratic Party (the Clinton wing versus the Sanders movement). We should, of course, never forget that Bannon is the beacon of the alt-right while Clinton supports many progressive causes, such as the fight against racism and sexism. However, at the same time we should never forget that the LGBT+ struggle can also be co-opted by mainstream liberalism against ‘class essentialism’ of the Left.

The third conclusion thus concerns the Left’s strategy in this complex situation. While any pact between Sanders and Bannon is excluded for obvious reasons, a key element of the Left’s tactics should be to ruthlessly exploit divisions in the enemy camp and fight for Bannon followers. To cut a long story short, there is no victory of the Left without the broad alliance of all anti-establishment forces. One should never forget that our true enemy is the global capitalist establishment and not the new populist Right, which is merely a reaction to its impasses. If we forget this, then the Left will simply disappear from the map… (my italics)

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

 

“We the people…” – Slavoj Zizek

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…in a democracy, every ordinary citizen is effectively a President – but a President in a constitutional democracy, a President who only formally decides, whose function is to sign measures proposed by an executive administration. This is why the problem of democratic rituals is homologous to that of constitutional democracy: how do we protect the dignity of the President? How do we maintain the appearance that the President effectively decides, when we all know this is not true? What we call a ‘crisis of democracy’ does not occur when people stop believing in their own power but, on the contrary, when they stop trusting the elites, those who are supposed to know for them and provide their guidelines, when they experience the anxiety signalling that ‘the (true) throne is empty’, that the decision is now really theirs.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

The vast majority of citizens in a democracy do not really care who is in power – rather, what they care about is that their private lives are not affected beyond a certain tipping point by the fake powers behind the throne. We all go along with the fantasies of government, knowing full well that power is not some substantial commodity but is a sort of game of thrones played out by would-be entrepreneurs of power – the small elite of rich cadres that select for us the actor of the day to play out the games of power all the while letting the real power brokers get on with their real work hidden and away. Democracies in the so-called free world have become mockeries of their intended political structures. There is no actual real democracy in the world only the stagecraft of mediaspaces where the semblance of freedom is a given rather than its substance. If people truly had power we’d be in a war without end for the people is and has always been the designation for this empty throne behind which power is not only hidden but can never enact its designs. For if the people could truly take over and proved worthy of power they would kill each other off forthwith. People don’t want the power of change, they don’t want change at all – they want only its semblance and dramatic irreality. To live a life in which one was truly free would be for the vast majority the scariest thing on earth. What would they do with such freedom?

Slavoj Zizek: Concrete Universality

‘Concrete universality’ means that there is no abstract universality of rules, there are no ‘typical’ situations, all we are dealing with is exceptions; however, a concrete totality is the totality that regulates the concrete context of exceptions. We should thus, on account of our very fidelity to concrete analysis, reject any form of nominalism. To the nominalist claim that there is no pure neutral universality, that every universality is caught up in the conflict of particular ways of life, one should reply: ‘No, today it’s the particular ways of life that do not exist as autonomous modes of historical existence, the only actual reality is that of the universal capitalist system.’ This is why, in contrast to identity politics, which focuses on how each (ethnic, religious, sexual) group should be able fully to assert its particular identity, the much more difficult and radical task is to enable each group to access full universality. This access to universality does not mean a recognition that one is also part of the universal human genus, or the assertion of some ideological values that are considered universal. Rather, it means recognizing one’s own universality, the way it is at work in the fractures of one’s particular identity, as the ‘work of the negative’ that undermines every such identity.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek: Civilization and its Malcontents

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We are thus entering a new phase in which it is simply nature itself that melts into air: the main consequence of the scientific breakthroughs in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of their construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus ‘desubstantialized’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’. This compels us to give a new twist to the title of Freud’s Unbehagen in der Kultur – discontent, uneasiness, in culture. The title is usually translated as ‘civilization and its discontents’, thus missing the opportunity to bring into play the opposition of culture and civilization: discontent is in culture, its violent break with nature, while civilization can be conceived as precisely the secondary attempt to patch things up, to ‘civilize’ the cut, to reintroduce the lost balance and an appearance of harmony. With the latest developments, the discontent shifts from culture to nature itself: nature is no longer ‘natural’, the reliable ‘dense’ background of our lives; it now appears as a fragile mechanism which, at any point, can explode in a catastrophic direction.

Nature is in increasing disorder, not because it overwhelms our cognitive capacities but primarily because we are not able to master the effects of our own interventions in its course – who knows what the ultimate consequences of our biogenetic engineering or of global warming will be? The surprise comes from us, it concerns the opacity of our role: the problem is not some cosmic mystery like the explosion of a supernova, it is us ourselves, our collective activity. This is what we call ‘anthropocene’: a new epoch in the life of our planet in which we humans can no longer rely on the Earth as a reservoir ready to absorb the consequences of our productive activity. We must acknowledge that we live on a ‘Spaceship Earth’, and be responsible and accountable for its condition. At the very moment at which we become powerful enough to affect the most basic elements of our life, we have to accept that we are just another animal species on a small planet. A new way to relate to our environs is necessary once we realize this: we must become modest agents collaborating with our environment, permanently negotiating a tolerable level of stability, with no a priori formula to guarantee our safety.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

 

Slavoj Zizek: Domination and Free Choice

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Since, in our society, free choice is elevated into a supreme value, social control and domination can no longer appear to infringe on the subject’s freedom – it has to appear as (and be sustained by) the very experience of individuals as being free. There are a multitude of ways in which this un-freedom appears in the guise of its opposite: when we are deprived of universal healthcare, we are told that we are given a new freedom of choice (to choose our healthcare provider); when we can no longer rely on long-term employment and are compelled to search for a new, precarious position every couple of years, we are told that we are given the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and discover novel, unexpected creative potentials that lurk in our personality; when we have to pay for the education of our children, we are told that we become ‘entrepreneurs of the self’, acting like a capitalist who chooses freely how he will invest the resources he possesses (or has borrowed) in education, health, travel … Constantly bombarded by so-called ‘free choices’, forced to make decisions for which we are mostly not even properly qualified (or about which we possess inadequate information), increasingly we experience our freedom as what it effectively is: a burden that deprives us of the true choice of change.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek: The Task of the Left

The task of the Left is not just to propose a new order, but also to change the prospect of what appears possible. The paradox of our predicament is therefore that, while resistance to global capitalism seemingly fails again and again to halt its advance, it fails to recognize the many trends which clearly signal capitalism’s progressive disintegration. It is as if the two tendencies (resistance and self-disintegration) move at different levels and cannot meet, so that we get futile protests at the same time as immanent decay and there is no way of bringing the two together in a coordinated attempt to emancipate the world from capitalism. How did it come to this? While most of the Left desperately try to protect workers’ rights against the onslaught of global capitalism, it is almost exclusively the most ‘progressive’ capitalists themselves (from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg) who talk about post-capitalism – as if the very concept of the passage from capitalism as we know it to a new post-capitalist order is being appropriated by capitalism itself.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

Reading Zizek’s new work reminds me of the old sage gathering his resources and remonstrating the youth surrounding him, barking out the marching orders of the day, hinting at a future that only they can invent or destroy. As he states it:

…where is the Left’s realistic proposal as to what we should do? Words matter in public debates… do today’s self-proclaimed socialists have a serious vision of what socialism should be now? (p. 12)

The truth is plain for all to see: no, they do not. If this is true, then is the Left (so called) an artifact of the past, a dead idea gone to waste amid the failures of its own utopian message of change? Which in some ways is just what he begins as a critique of outworn Leftist politics:

Maybe the time has come to ask the brutal question: OK, but what should or could they have done? How would an authentic model of socialist democracy have looked in practice? Is this Holy Grail – a revolutionary power that avoids all the traps (Stalinism, Social Democracy) and develops an authentic people’s democracy in terms of society and the economy – not a purely imaginary entity, one which by definition cannot be filled with actual content? (p. 12)

Is it? Is the very nature of thought itself duplicitous? Do we propose ideas, invent ideas, wander into unknown territory with the clichés of a unenlightened mind as if it were the end-all be-all vision of a future for humanity when in fact is nothing but a dead dream toppling us toward an abyss? The truth is simpler: we do not know anything, we fumble around in the cesspool of outworn historical examples unable to invent anything truly new. So we get separatist states trying to pull away from the world system realizing in the end it is a whale that will swallow them whole:

However, the big question remains: how does or should this reliance on popular self-organization affect running a government? Can we even imagine today an authentic Communist power? What we get is disaster (Venezuela), capitulation (Greece), or a full return to capitalism (China, Vietnam). (p. 12)

Instead what we see around us is the fake politics of a return to global cold war like the movement of chess pieces on a lava bed. China replacing Russia as the stage-crafted exemplar of the new socialism allowing the U.S.A. to return as the bad boy of Capitalism, while under the hood real world market forces move forward  unabated by the grand political dramas of media games that stir the pot of popular imagination. What better way to move the masses than for capitalists themselves (so called Progressives) to propose change that does not change but gives us pure capitalism as the new revolutionary process? While segmenting and dividing the populace by micro-politics and nihilist undermining of some unified grand vision the new progressive capitalist seeks to instill a hazy vision of the future by attacking strawmen conservative forces as if they too were not in on the game behind the scenes. In this age of mediacraft the world is scripted to play out the old clichés of Left/Right battles of yore under new guises without the power of actually doing a thing that will help them change. Rather workers become mired in sexual politics o racial politics at the expense of real solidarity that would unite the Left with a valid vision or proposal of change. Or, as Zizek puts it:

In short, what if the search for an authentic Third Way – beyond Social Democracy, which doesn’t go far enough, and ‘totalitarianism’, which goes too far – is a waste of time? The strategy of the radical Left is to try to demonstrate, with great theoretical sophistication, how ‘totalitarian’ radicalization masks its opposite: Stalinism was effectively a form of state capitalism, and so on. (p. 13)

The truth is that both Russian and Chinese communism were failed capitalist states – wolves in disguise, masking themselves within the sheep’s clothing of Marxist ideas.

In an automated society in which 80% of the populace of the planet are unemployed while 20% walk away with the riches and live lives of unimaginable fortune we seem headed into a noman’s land of degradation on the one hand and a prison world without bars. As Zizek will opine:

As some social analysts and economists have suggested, today’s explosion of economic productivity confronts us with the ultimate case of this rule: the coming global economy tends towards a state in which only 20 per cent of the workforce can do all the necessary jobs, so that 80 per cent of the people are basically irrelevant and of no use, potentially unemployed. When this logic reaches its extreme, would it not be reasonable to reduce it to its self-negation: is not a system which makes 80 per cent of the people irrelevant and of no use itself irrelevant and of no use? The problem is thus not primarily that a new global proletariat is emerging, but something much more radical: billions of people are simply not needed, the sweatshops cannot absorb them. This aspect is neglected by Leftist politics, which is reduced to fighting to conserve the fast disappearing remains of the welfare state; but with the ongoing devastating economic politics this is a lost fight. Lost not simply because of the financial elite which profits from its loss, but because this same financial elite can rely on the growing army of those who never even had access to any of these ‘benefits’ and instead denounce them as privileges (young, precarious workers). (p. 14)

So that in this scenario the victims become the perpetrators and who are denounced as would-be inveiglers of the rich elites kind-hearted philanthropy.  In a world in which a Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg (each a part of the new face of digital capitalism) offer fake escape plans into mythical futures of capitalist desire: for Gates the philanthropy of green energy, for Musk the bright take-off of space faring civilization on a new planet (Mars), and Zuckerberg the digital city replete with utopian welfare:

Insofar as the dynamics of new capitalism are rendering an increasingly large percentage of workers superfluous, what about the project of reuniting all the ‘living dead’ of global capitalism, all those left behind by neo-capitalist ‘progress’, all those rendered superfluous, obsolete, all those unable to adapt to new conditions? The wager is, of course, that a direct short-circuit can be created between these leftovers of history and history’s most progressive aspects. (p. 14)

What these visionaries of digital capitalism forget is that those left behind remain sequestered into a prison world without escape, a life slowly devolving into darkness and embittered degradation. The New Liberal politics of media exaggeration offers us a world welfare state:

Liberals who acknowledge the problems of those excluded from the socio-political process see their goal as the inclusion of those whose voices are not heard: all points of view should be listened to, all interests taken into account, the human rights of everyone guaranteed, all ways of life, cultures and practices respected. The obsession of this form of democracy is the protection of all kinds of minorities: cultural, religious, sexual, etc. The formula of democracy here is patient negotiation and compromise. What gets lost is the proletarian position, that of universality embodied in the excluded. (p. 14-15)

Instead the real excluded are left out in utter darkness to grunge around in the decaying slums of our unraveling world without even a voice of their own, nor the ability to escape or construct anything but a home in the wastelands of capitalism.

The true choice is, therefore: should we continue to play the humanitarian game of taking care of those left behind, or should we tackle the much more difficult task of changing the global system that generates them? (my italics) Without such a change, our situation will be increasingly irrational. In order to orient ourselves in this conundrum, we should be aware of the fateful limitation of the politics of interests. (p. 15)

 

 

Slavoj Zizek: On Accelerating the World Disorder

The problem is that, today, simple opposition gets complicated: our global-capitalist reality, impregnated as it is by sciences, is itself ‘prodding’, challenging our innermost presuppositions in a much more shocking way than the wildest philosophical speculations, so that the task of a philosopher is no longer to undermine the hierarchical symbolic edifice that grounds social stability but – to return to Badiou – to make the young perceive the dangers of the growing nihilist order that presents itself as the domain of new freedoms. We live in an extraordinary era in which there is no tradition on which we can base our identity, no frame of meaningful universe which might enable us to lead a life beyond hedonist reproduction. Today’s nihilism – the reign of cynical opportunism accompanied by permanent anxiety – legitimizes itself as the liberation from the old constraints: we are free to constantly re-invent our sexual identities, to change not only our job or our professional trajectory but even our innermost subjective features like our sexual orientation. However, the scope of these freedoms is strictly prescribed by the coordinates of the existing system, and also by the way consumerist freedom effectively functions: the possibility to choose and consume imperceptibly turns into a superego obligation to choose. The nihilist dimension of this space of freedoms can only function in a permanently accelerated way – the moment it slows down, we become aware of the meaninglessness of the entire movement. This New World Disorder, this gradually emerging world-less civilization, exemplarily affects the young, who oscillate between the intensity of fully burning out (sexual enjoyment, drugs, alcohol, even violence), and the endeavour to succeed (study, make a career, earn money … within the existing capitalist order). Permanent transgression thus becomes the norm…

The only radical alternative to this madness appears to be the even worse madness of religious fundamentalism, a violent retreat into some artificially resuscitated tradition. The supreme irony is that a brutal return to an orthodox tradition (an invented one, of course) appears as the ultimate ‘prodding’ – are the young suicide bombers not the most radical form of corrupted youth? The great task of thinking today is to discern the precise contours of this deadlock and find the way out of it.

—Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity – Slavoj Zizek

Keeping the Demons at Bay: The Art of Storytelling

 

Childhood, it has been said, is always partly a lie of poetry. When I was maybe eight years old, in the fall of the year, I would have to go out in the garden after school with damp burlap sacks and cover the long rows of cucumber and tomato plants, so they wouldn’t freeze. It was a hated, cold-handed job that had to be done every evening. I daydreamed along in a halfhearted, distracted way, flopping the sacks onto the plants, sorry for myself and angry because I was alone at my boring work. No doubt my younger brother and sister were in the house and warm. Eating cookies. But then a great strutting bird appeared out from the dry remnants of our corn, black tail feathers flaring and a monstrous yellow-orange air sac pulsating from its white breast, its throat croaking with popping sounds like rust in a joint. The bird looked to be stalking me with grave slow intensity, coming after me from a place I could not understand as real, and yet quite recognizable, the sort of terrifying creature that would sometimes spawn in the incoherent world of my night-dreams.

In my story, now, I say it looked like death, come to say hello. Then, it was simply an apparition. The moment demanded all my boyish courage, but I stood my ground, holding one of those wet sacks out before me like a shield, stepping slowly backwards, listening as the terrible creature croaked, its bright preposterous throat pulsating—and then the great bird flapped its wings in an angry way, raising a little commonplace dust. It was the dust, I think, that did it, convincing me that this could not be a dream. My fear collapsed, and I felt foolish as I understood this was a creature I had heard my father talk about, a courting sage-grouse, we called them prairie chickens. This was only a bird and not much interested in me at all. But for an instant it had been both phantom and real, the thing I deserved, come to punish me for my anger. For that childhood moment I believed the world to be absolutely inhabited by an otherness that was utterly demonic and natural, not of my own making. But soon as that bird was enclosed in a story that defined it as a commonplace prairie chicken, I was no longer frightened. It is a skill we learn early, the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world. Storytelling and make-believe, like war and agriculture, are among the arts of self-defense, and all of them are ways of enclosing otherness and claiming ownership.

Such emblematic memories continue to surface, as I grow older and find ways to accept them into the fiction of myself. One of the earliest, from a time before I ever went to school, is of studying the worn oiled softwood flooring in the Warner Valley store where my mother took me when she picked up the mail three times a week. I have no idea how many years that floor had been tromped and dirtied and swept, but by the time I recall it was worn into a topography of swales and buttes, traffic patterns and hard knots, much like the land, if you will, under the wear of a glacier. For a child, as his mother gossiped with the postmistress, it was a place, high ground and valleys, prospects and sanctuaries, and I in my boredom could invent stories about it— finding a coherency I loved, a place that was mine. They tore up that floor somewhere around the time I started school, and I had the sense to grieve.

—William Kittredge. The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays

As I read the lines in the above in which Kittredge tells us of the power of within “the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world,” I was reminded of my own childhood and an experience that would forever set my own path toward understanding this strangeness. And, yet, for me it was not as in Kittredge to “explain away” the strangeness but to understand its power and hold, its fascination and emotional registry in our souls.

We’d taking one of our usual week long vacations to some remote campsite high in the mountains above Silverton, Colorado. I remember the old 50’s dirt roads, their deep and dangerous foothold on the sides of sheer mountain drops as our old Chevy clunker churned its way up and down the hills. I was always sitting closest to the drop off, my eyes gazing with awe and fear at the abyss and the magnificent forests far below as we worked our way up to the campsite. To this day that sense of fear and awe continues to haunt me. 

Once we arrived at the campsite by a mountain lake we’d set up our tents, build a fire and enjoy the night stars and a good feast of biscuits and gravy with sausage on paper plates. We’d listen as our dad would tell ghost stories that would leave us wondering if the boogey man were watching us just outside the light of the fire in the depths of the forest darkness encompassing us. I’d roll around on my cot with the blanket pulled up over my head that night listening to every sound: the crack of some distant tree, the squawk of some bird, the roar of a distant coyote. All the sounds of a forest to which I had no names or reference points to attach to my world. Only a certain feeling of fear at what my lie hidden in the depths of such a world.

I remember the next day walking ahead of my family on an outing on some trail we’d discovered. I’d run ahead of them full of energy and wondering just where the train would lead us. To this day I remember coming on a slight knoll, a clearing in the forest just above a river. I saw something on the ground ahead and went to it and bent down. It was a clump of bones and fleshy pulp, what looked like the remains of a squirrel. It sent shivers up my back, and suddenly I felt apprehensive. I couldn’t put a name to this fear, it was just a dark sensation and foreboding. I felt something was about to happen and I could not understand what it was. I pushed forward.

As I came up to the edge of the hill above the river I was startled at the site of a great bird with black wings suddenly rise deep below me out of the sunless world below. I thought much like Kittredge that this was death come to get me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, I felt frozen to the earth at the site of this great creature rising up before me into the air. Then I saw it… the creature had something in its claws, a great trout was dangling wet and struggling to escape from its clutches. It fell from the bird’s grasp for a moment, and the great eagle ( as I’d learn later) swooped up and dove down again as the fish fell toward the river and just as quickly it clamped onto the escaping fish with its talons. In that moment the bird rose toward me and grew ever bigger and bigger, its eyes piercing me with murderous intent and as it climbed out of that canyon just in front of me it let out a screech the likes of which I’ve never heard again. It seemed as if it were speaking directly to me of its triumph, of its power and majesty, and just as quickly it soared over me and was gone.

A few moments later my parents and sister arrived where I was standing, reprimanding me for going ahead of them too far, too fast. Telling me how dangerous the forest could be with cougars and bears and wolves. I was speechless. I wanted to tell them what I’d just experienced, but I could not. It was one of those moments of awakening in me that would set my mind adrift and challenge me to put to words, to find words to describe this experience. Maybe that was it. I had no words to describe such things. Up to that point in my life I had had no need for words for such things. But now I was at a loss, my mind grasping to understand as a child what it was that had just happened. And I couldn’t.

From that time forward I began a search for words to explain this and many other incidents in my life. I began to read books of fiction, poetry, and anything else I could to help me in my quest. That process still goes on. Language is not only a tool, it is a messenger and traveling companion, it helps one to enter into the communal vat of traditions, culture, etc., and it teaches us to grasp with tongue and eye the truths of those strangenesses that happen to us. Poetry above all touches the extremity of language, gives us the metamorphic splendor of the flames of drifting sounds and meaning. Unlike philosophy that reduces the world to conceptual bric-a-brac, places the world under the careful categories of a well regulated mental hygiene, poetry expands us into that void surrounding us inventing the maps and bringing us back strange sounds and whelps from the hinterlands of non-meaning. Only humans give meaning to things, things themselves register nothing of our human sense and values, things are the very power of otherness to disturb our homely lives. Things open us to the central truth of our lives, that we are all bound within a system of defenses – as Kittredge mentions. We for the most part as humans use words to defend us against too much reality. We cover the world in human meanings that the world does not share. We assume the world is like us so that we can better control it and shape it to our will. But the world is foreign to human conceits, it is the power of otherness to teach us that it is not human.

J.G. Ballard: Sleeplessness and Chronotopia

JGBallard

For the first time Man will be living a full twenty-four hour day, not spending a third of it as an invalid, snoring his way through an eight-hour peepshow of infantile erotica.

– J.G. Ballard – Manhole 69

In  J.G. Ballard’s short story Manhole 69 we discover a world where humans no longer sleep and the future is set adrift upon the currents of time. As one of the scientists says to a group of test subjects:

‘None of you realize it yet, but this is as big an advance as the step the first ichthyoid took out of the protozoic sea 300 million years ago. At last we’ve freed the mind, raised it out of that archaic sump called sleep, its nightly retreat into the medulla. With virtually one cut of the scalpel we’ve added twenty years to those men’s lives.’ (Ballard, p. 51)

When we think of Sleep we think of peace, silence, and the interminable flows of strange dreams and nightmares that jut their heads out of the darkness of our inner lives. Sleep’s porousness is suffused with in-flows between waking and death, a nightland where our darkest thoughts begin to shadow us and we succumb to the drift of a timeless inner mythology as if from some infernal paradise. Sleep is the recurrence in our lives of a break in the temporal flow of our timebound  consciousness. It affirms the necessity of postponement, and the deferred retrieval or recommencement of whatever has been postponed. Sleep is a remission, a release from the “constant continuity” of all the threads in which one is enmeshed while waking. It seems too obvious to state that sleep requires periodic disengagement and withdrawal from networks and devices in order to enter a state of inactivity and uselessness. It is a form of time that leads us elsewhere than to the things we own or are told we need. Sleep is the dream of a non-utilitarian world, a world without labor.2

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Unthought: Assemblage, Symbiosis, and the Migration of Cognitive Ecologies

…technical cognitions are designed specifically to keep human consciousness from being overwhelmed by massive informational streams so large, complex, and multifaceted that they could never be processed by human brains. These parallels are not accidental. Their emergence represents the exteriorization of cognitive abilities, once resident only in biological organisms, into the world, where they are rapidly transforming the ways in which human cultures interact with broader planetary ecologies. Indeed, biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.1 [my italics]

—N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

Gilles Deleuze would make an interesting observation about our world and its prospects in Dialogues II, saying: “If there is a Kafkaesque world, it is certainly not that of the strange or the absurd, but a world in which the most extreme juridical formalization of utterances (questions and answers, objections, pleading, summing up, reasoned judgement, verdict) , coexists with the most intense machinic formalization, the machinization of states of things and bodies (ship-machine, hotel-machine, circus-machine, castle-machine, lawsuit-machine) . One and the same K-function, with its collective agents and bodily passions, Desire.” This interpenetration of the organic and technical in concert moving  into a vast cognitive assemblage in symbiosis has been an ongoing process for millennia. A process that for the most part went by without thought or recognition on the part of humans. We were so immersed in our biological cognitive ecologies that such thought went by the wayside. In some sense we were enframed within an environmental sphere in which the outside of thought was unable to penetrate beyond its membrane to see or become aware of such a processual assemblage in the making.

But what is an assemblage? Deleuze would define it: “It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.” (ibid., p. 69)

In her new latest work N. Katherine Hayles will speak of cognitive assemblages. As she will state it an assemblage “here should not be understood as merely an amorphous blob. Although open to chance events in some respects, interactions within cognitive assemblages are precisely structured by the sensors, perceptors, actuators, and cognitive processes of the interactors. Because these processes can, on both individual and collective levels, have emergent effects, I will use nonconscious cognition(s) to refer to them when the emphasis is on their abilities for fluid mutations and transformations.” (Hayles, p. 11-12) This notion of nonconscious cognition she defines as the preconscious cognitive capacity of brain or technical objects that “operates at a level of neuronal processing inaccessible to the modes of awareness but nevertheless performing functions essential to consciousness.” (Hayles, p. 10)

The moment you light up your mobile phone, press a app button, interact with a text message, talk to a loved one, seek a recipe on the web, etc. you are hooked into a global assemblage of organic and technical objects that mediate every aspect of your ongoing life. This process forms a symbiotic relationship that for most of us is so naturalized now that it goes without saying. Twenty years ago is was so new it was both a novelty and almost part of the folk mythology of our cartoon age of Dick Tracy and other such miracles of futuristic science. Now it is a mainstay and social necessity which keeps us informed, reminded, and connected. We all rely on these extrinsic processes in the same way we once relied on our brain to carry on all those difficult processes that kept us safely hooked to our external environment for survival and propagation.

Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Modern Mind hypothesized that the modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations, each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture,  that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence.4

As he will emphasize humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; we evolved new systems for representing reality. During this process, our representational apparatus somehow perceived the utility of symbols and invented them from whole cloth; no symbolic environment preceded them. (Donald, p. 3) For Donald the first transition was to a `mimetic” culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology.

We carry remnants and vestiges of these previous stages in our brain, and yet with each transition the very make up of our brain and our external adaptations produced changes that are irreversible. That very recent changes in the organization of the human mind are just as fundamental as those that took place in earlier evolutionary transitions, yet they are mediated by new memory technology, rather than by genetically encoded changes in the brain. The effects of such technological changes are similar in kind to earlier biological changes, inasmuch as they can produce alterations to the architecture of human memory. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure containing vestiges of earlier stages of human emergence, as well as new symbolic devices that have radically altered its organization. The structural relationship between individual human minds and external memory technology continues to change. (Donald, p. 4)

As we’ve off-loaded memory, externalized many of the brains thought processes into technical systems, and allowed our own cognitive powers to dissipate and go into abeyance we’ve become more and more dependent on these technical assemblages we interface with on a daily basis to think for us. The price we as humans are paying has yet to be appraised. Yet, it is this symbiotic relation to these external devices that is reorganizing both our mental and social landscapes beyond recognition. For all intents and purposes we are no longer natural beings, we’ve become fully artificial creatures in a vast series of technical assemblages. Do these systems serve us, or we them? Is there a difference? If as Hayles suggests these nonconscious systems think without awareness of thinking what does that entail? If we are modeling thinking machines on the very processes of the cognitive capacities of the brain’s functions where will this lead?

If one thinks of it as a slow process of dis-connection from our ground – from the planetary environment within which we have emerged – then these various stages in the evolution of mind across time and their respective representational systems that have produced gaps, cracks, and tears in the reality within which we’ve all been emebedded, and that have reorganized the brain and our views of reality as the outgrowth of such accumulated efforts then what is next on the horizon? This symbiosis between mind and technics, the grafting and externalization of memory, thought, and capacity into the very external systems of intelligence modeled on human mental functions is producing something new and as yet not fully understood.

If as Hayles suggests cognition is a process: this implies that cognition is not an attribute, such as intelligence is sometimes considered to be, but rather a dynamic unfolding within an environment in which its activity makes a difference. (Hayles, p. 25) And, if as my friend R. Scott Bakker has iterated in every varying examples consciousness is an illusion, a system of error in which the brain filters out most of the information about reality, and leaves us with a realm of symbolic tools of mathematics and language that are at best ad hoc and based on neglect and lack in which we try to fill in the blanks with fictions and fantasies. Then what is the underlying power of the brain’s unthought in Hayles sense?

One of those strange fantasies of a philosophical nature that has haunted me is Nick Land’s notion of capitalism as intelligent: “There’s only really been one question, to be honest, that has guided everything I’ve been interested in for the last twenty years, which is: the teleological identity of capitalism and artificial intelligence.” (see my article) As we know teleological arguments (or arguments from design)  begin with a specialized catalogue of properties and end with a conclusion concerning the existence of a designer with the intellectual properties (knowledge, purpose, understanding, foresight, wisdom, intention) necessary to design the things exhibiting the special properties in question. In broad outline, then, teleological arguments focus upon finding and identifying various traces of the operation of a mind in nature’s temporal and physical structures, behaviors and paths.

If you’ve been following me so far then this process of externalizing the mind’s capacities into technical systems is not new but a very old idea in which humans have delved ever since the first automatons in Greece were assembled. Our fascination with copies of ourselves in machinic systems that mimic our behavior and our thoughts has been a part of the whole gamut of engineering feats from the early Greeks onwards. Why this fascination to build a perfect image of ourselves in a technical artifact? What has drawn us to invent such a world in which such technical beings may in coming times surpass us and become the higher forms of planet earth? Were we already in our core machinic beings? Is this slow externalization of the organic functions into inorganic forms a teleological process? Are we just fulfilling some already well thought out pre-existing plan, strategy? This notion obviously goes against the grain of all materialist thought in which such designs and designers are mere shadows of Platonic other worlds to be left in the dust bin of strange ideas that were in error. But were they? Why have we continued to seek out and invent external forms of our minds and bodies in technical systems? What drives us to do this? Land would surmise the outcome:

It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone in some metaphysical perpetuity. The high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’! where human culture will be dissolved(293).5

This notion that cognition is migrating out of the organic (human) and into a more permanent technical artifact of machinic phylum is for many a horror show in the making. But what if it is happening? What if this is not a philosophical fantasy but something happening even as we speak? What then? How do we live with such knowledge? How act? Continue to blindly believe its just a fantasy, that it could never happen to humanity? That we will continue as the supreme species, become more intelligent, wiser, and evolve into a more refined and equitable society in which the non-human actants in our midst are subservient to our will? Or, is this just a pipe dream of wishful thinking? Can we accept the possibility that our species like all organic species has a limited time on earth, that inevitably like ninety percent of all species that has died out before us we too will go unwillingly into that cold night? Are we giving birth to our replacement, our machinic children?

Of course many will point out how kludgy our efforts in this direction are so far, that it would be impossible for machines to ever think like humans, much less surpass our creativity and inventive abilities. But is this true? We’ve already seen the projections of machinic systems over the next thirty years replacing both menial and knowledge worker jobs across various disciplines. What happens to the humans replaced by hardware/software? What will they do? What place will they have in such a world? What dignity and self-worth will remain for a workerless society of humans with nothing to do? A new excluded world of workers and non-workers? A world at war with the machinic world such as in the Artilect Wars.6

Is this all silly thinking? One of the characters in R. Scott Bakker’s novel Neuropath thinks out loud to himself after discovering that we are our brains, and that most of what we think of as Self and World is illusion; and, not only illusion, but that what little we know of ourselves and the world is a limited fantasy gifted to us by a brain that limits us to a blind world of repetition and neglect:

Part of him understood the monstrous implications of what Neil was saying, but it seemed little more than an amusing abstraction, like boys with sticks playing guns. The greater part of him wondered, even revered. What would it be like to walk without self or conscience, with plans indistinguishable from compulsions, one more accident in the mindless wreck that was the world? What would it be like to act, not as something as puny or wretched as a person, but as a selfless vehicle, a conduit for everything that came before?(327-328).7

Even N. Katherine Hayles a humanist and advocate for the humanities in a time when such a world is falling away into abeyance tells us that “biological organisms evolved consciousness to make this kind of quantum leap from individual instances to high-level abstractions; core and higher consciousness in turn ultimately enabled humans to build sophisticated communication networks and informational structures such as the web. In large-scale historical perspective, automated cognizers are one result of evolved human consciousness. It is likely, however, that the evolutionary development of technical cognizers will take a different path from that of Homo sapiens. Their trajectory will not run through consciousness but rather through more intensive and pervasive interconnections with other nonconscious cognizers. In a sense, they do not require consciousness for their operations, because they are already in recursive loops with human consciousness. Just as from our point of view they are part of our extended cognitive systems (Clark 2008), so we may, in a moment of Dawkins-like fancy, suppose that if technical systems had selves (which they do not), they might see humans are part of their extended cognitive systems. In any case, it is now apparent that humans and technical systems are engaged in complex symbiotic relationships, in which each symbiont brings characteristic advantages and limitations to the relationship. The more such symbiosis advances, the more difficult it will be for either symbiont to flourish without the other.” (Hayles, pp. 215-216)

Are we prepared for such an eventuality?


  1. Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (p. 11). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Gilles Deleuze (Author), Claire Parnet (Author), Hugh Tomlinson (Translator), Barbara Habberjam (Translator). Dialogues II.  Columbia University Press; revised edition edition (April 24, 2007)
  3. DeLanda, Manuel. Assemblage Theory.  EUP; 1 edition (August 30, 2016)
  4. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)
  5. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (July 1, 2013)
  6. Von Garis, Hugo. The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent. Etc Pubns (February 28, 2005)
  7. Bakker, R. Scott. (2010-04-01). Neuropath (Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)

Zizek On Hegel as Absolute Materialist

Hegel himself explicitly says that his “system of logic is the realm of shadows, the world of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness.”1

Hegel is thus no Platonic idealist for whom Ideas constitute a higher ontological realm with regard to material reality: they form a pre-ontological realm of shadows. For Hegel, spirit has nature as its presupposition and is simultaneously the truth of nature and, as such, the “absolute first”; nature thus “vanishes” in its truth, is “sublated” in the spirit’s self-identity:

This identity is absolute negativity, because the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature, but this, its externalization, has been sublated, and it has become identical with itself. At the same time therefore, it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity.2

Note the precise triadic structure of this passage, in the most orthodox “Hegelian” mode: thesis— the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature; antithesis (“ but”)— this externality is sublated and, through this sublation, the notion achieves its self-identity; synthesis (“ at the same time therefore”)— it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity. This is how one should understand identity as absolute negativity: the spirit’s self-identity emerges through its negative relationship (sublation) of its natural presuppositions, and this negativity is “absolute” not in the sense that it negates nature “absolutely,” that nature “absolutely” (totally) disappears in it, but in the sense that the negativity of sublation is self-related, in other words that the outcome of this work of negativity is the spirit’s positive self-identity. The key words in the quoted passage are: complete and only. The notion “has its complete external objectivity in nature”: there is no “other” objective reality, all that “really exists” as reality is nature, spirit is not another thing that adds itself to natural things. This is why “it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes [its] identity”: there is no spirit pre-existing nature which somehow “externalizes” itself in nature and then re-appropriates this “alienated” natural reality— the thoroughly “processual” nature of spirit (spirit is its own becoming, the result of its own activity) means that spirit is only (i.e., nothing but) its “returning to itself” from nature. In other words, “returning to” is fully performative, the movement of the return creates what it is returning to.3

My Notes:

The point of the above is its anti-Platonic stance, not as reversibility, not as the opposite of Platonic Idea/Form other world from which our world is but a copy, and we copies of copies, etc., but that Spirit/Consciousness etc. do no pre-exist in some other realm as essence and potential, but rather that spirit-consciousness arise out of necessity and contingency as freedom – a tear in reality, a division, gap, crack, asymmetry, curve, clinamen in an otherwise all-pervasive and indifferent background of processual and blind materiality (not even Spinoza pushed hard enough, here!). Against the two-world theories of Plato and his belief in some other higher realms etc. we discover that Ideas/Forms et. al. all manifest from the inner necessity and contingency of this gap between reality and the Real (the part of no part that does not fit in our systems of logic: mathematics or sciences), a remainder that is in excess of all our linguistic traps. Materiality is that which cannot be sublated in any human system whatever, which is always hidden and withdrawn yet revealing its movement in the push and pull of our ever questioning of this incomplete and open universe that is. There being nothing beyond it, only the ever churning power of spirit arising not as some Idealist adjunct or addition (as Zizek states it), but as the very power of this blind process becoming absolute negativity, a self-relating negativity that arise out of freedom.

As Zizek puts it,

Freedom is thus the very “inter-,” the gap that separates necessity from itself. Conversely, contingency, in its immediacy, as blind natural contingency, also coincides with its opposite, with necessity: that something is contingent ultimately means that it is just so according to blind natural laws. The only way for contingency to get rid of this stain of necessity and posit itself (manifest itself) as true contingency is through the mediation of freedom: it is only here that contingency is a matter of a subject’s contingent decision. (KL 10583-10586)


  1. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International 1989, p. 58.
  2. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegels Philosophie des subjektiven Geistes/ Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, Vol. 1, trans. and ed. M. J. Petry, Dordrecht: D. Reidel 1978, pp. 24– 5.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10549-10562). Norton. Kindle Edition.