There Is An Alternative: A Tribute to Mark Fisher

It was a great sadness to hear about the passing of Mark Fisher this weekend. As both a cultural critic and theoretician, Mark’s writing was at once highly engaging, original, and accessible to his many audiences. A founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru) during his years studying at the University of Warwick during the mid 1990s, Mark was one of a number of talented individuals who, in blending together Deleuzoguattarian thought and emergent AI theories with cyberpunk and junglist aesthetics, set a precedent for some of the most memorable and vital contributions to twenty-first century intellectual and artistic culture. Mark was instrumental in helping to develop the term “hyperstition”, and later popularised the concepts “capitalist realism” and “hauntology” in two essential volumes for Zero Books. It was his writings in the latter – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014) – as well as posts on his own blog K-Punk, which first attracted me to his subjective and genre-defying writing style, and became a key inspiration for my own ventures out of (and back into) academic writing.

While he may not have been as revolutionary a figure to philosophy as Kant or Heidegger were (although with the traction and prescience Capitalist Realism has proven to have, anything is possible), few writers outside of fiction for me have been able to construct a complete, palpable image of their being-in-the-world – his relationship to the past and projection of the future, through music, film and theory – and in a field of academia which tends towards blandness and the illusion of objectivity, it is this directness and playfulness that will perhaps be missed most. Here are a few quotes from Ghosts of My Life, which express to me precisely the qualities of Mark’s work that made him so unique:

In England, working class escape is always haunted by the possibility that you will be found out, that your roots are showing. (37)

A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s no surprise that it is in hip-hop – a genre that has become increasingly aligned with consumerist pleasure over the last 20-odd years – that this melancholy has registered most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume – they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted – Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. (175)

Darkside jungle projected the very future that capital can only disavow. Capital can never openly admit that it is a system based on inhuman rapacity; the Terminator can never remove its human mask. Jungle not only ripped the mask off, it actively identified with the inorganic circuitry beneath: hence the android/ death’s head that Rufige Kru used as their logo. The paradoxical identification with death, and the equation of death with the inhuman future was more than a cheap nihilist gesture.  At a certain point, the unrelieved negativity of the dystopian drive trips over into a perversely utopian gesture, and annihilation becomes the condition of the radically new. (31)

Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

A memorial fund has been set up to help support Mark’s family. It can be found here.

Doctor Octopus: A Reading of Deleuze’s “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (1993)

This is the edited transcript of a short presentation I gave at the University of Warwick on the 14th November 2016, as part of a series of seminars called “Topics in Philosophy and the Arts”. I gave what I thought to be a highly subjective yet spirited analysis of “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, a chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (1993); itself drawing heavily on Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), as well as the remaining body of Melville’s fiction.

I should preface by saying that I do not intend to cover everything in Deleuze’s essay, not only due to time constraints, but also because there are many passages that are best read in the wider context of Deleuze’s philosophy. So instead I wish to hone in on the points most relevant to our discussion on philosophy and the arts, and construct a particular reading of an essay which is itself a particular reading of a short story.

“Literature is a health.”[1] This is Deleuze’s claim in the Preface to Essays Critical and Clinical, not irrelevantly one of the final works within his oeuvre to be published before his death in 1995, and of which “Bartleby; or, The Formula” is a chapter of. This statement might lead one to begin to engage with what Deleuze has to say here in terms of his own biopolitics. However Daniel W. Smith, one of the translators of the volume (however not of the particular essay we will be looking at) instead interprets this statement in terms of a specific relation between literature and life;[2] one which finds its precedence in earlier works of Deleuze, specifically his study of sadomasochism in Coldness and Cruelty, as well as in select quotations in the Guattari-assisted What Is Philosophy?:

Through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. […] In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess[3] is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death.”[4]

There are obvious parallels with this interpretation of literature as healthcare and the function of the character Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which we will now turn our attentions to.

The thrust of Deleuze’s reading of Melville’s short story hinges, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eponymous character’s now infamous turn of phrase, the statement “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze reads this sentence as the key to the text’s understanding. He begins:

“Bartleby” is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever. It is a violently comical text, and the comical is always literal. It is like the novels of Kleist, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Beckett, with which it forms a subterranean and prestigious lineage. It means only what it says, literally. And what it says and repeats is I would prefer not to. This is the formula of its glory, which every loving reader repeats in turn.[5]

Now, before we proceed with Deleuze’s essay, we need to decide what he means by this word, formula. What immediately came to mind for me was a mathematical formula: an equation that could be used by us as readers as a means to translate the literary architecture of the story, its space, and the characters who inhabit that space. And I still don’t entirely wish to discourage that reading, because I think it still can be a fruitful one. However, I wish to nuance this definition of formula slightly further, and suggest that we instead treat Bartleby’s formula as an incantation or magic spell, a specific set of syllables that transform the rationalities of the attorney narrator, and effect real change on us readers’ textual interpretation.

I think what Deleuze is reaching for with the word formule is a kind of medieval sorcery of words, of which Bartleby, by appointment of Melville, is the witch doctor tasked with healing us of our narratological neuroses. But it is not a soothing treatment. The Formula is “ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake”; it “eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred.”[6] Perhaps most significantly of all, the Formula is responsible for “hollow[ing] out a zone of indiscernibility”.[7]

What does Deleuze mean by this phrase, which he repeats in a variety of guises: zone of indiscernibility, zone of indetermination, zone of indistinction? A clue may be offered by another quick hop over to What Is Philosophy? and a reading of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s many ruminations on what they term the “concept of concept”:

What is distinctive about the concept is that it renders components inseparable within itself. [Each concept] has a zone of neighborhood [zone de voisinage], or a threshold of indiscernibility, with another one. […] Components remain distinct, but something passes from one to the other, something that is undecidable between them. There is an area ab that belongs to both a and b, where a and b “become” indiscernible.[8]

Melville and Deleuze both understand literature, and perhaps we would like to extend this reading to all art, as a necessary complication of the act of interpretation itself. Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly, this is one of its intrinsic functions. Bartleby hexes the attorney and the aesthetician alike with his Formula, and renders the literary work derationalized and uncategorizable: an approximation of the Universe’s boundless chaos staged as absurdist comedy routine. Undercut by a deterritoralized American language, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is surgically lacerated by the Formula, creating vacuous zones on its surface that invite deeper inspection. It is no longer a question of subject or object, author or character, art or nonart; dialecticism is now ineffective and unwanted. Subject and image, in their encounters, cause friction, this friction causes slippage, and they are no longer bound to one another. Their “unnatural alliance” establishes “a “hyperborean”, “arctic” zone”,[9] as smooth as the “arctic sublimities” of Duchamp’s Fountain, if we recall Arthur Danto’s parody of George Dickie’s challenging of the artworld’s narrow criteria.[10] The alien Bartleby exhales ambiguity, barricading the story from the rigorous, institutionalized analytic practices and techniques of Euclidian, earthly minds[11] with an inhuman cloud of unknowing, that perhaps cannot ever be fully penetrated.

From Deleuze’s point of view, the Formula is a transformative utterance. Its purpose is to render the literary environment in which it is heard so weird as to escape from the sovereignty of the interpreters, the literary and aesthetic theorists, and thus evade all attempts of rational codification. In this respect, this essay is no different from Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic against the domestication of the paradigm of desire, encompassed in the figure of the psychoanalyst. Deleuze champions Melville and a handful of other “great novelists” as cultivators of

a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist. […] Once it has reached that sought-after Zone, the hyperborean zone, far from the temperate regions, the novel, like life, needs no justification.[12]

Likewise, our own enjoyment of literature ultimately transcends all notions of art theory, and remains fascinating to us. So perhaps too, there can be no art without our failure to know why it is art, or why we are drawn to it or revere it. Our hermeneutics must account for the human limitations we impose on the artwork when we try to interpret its possible meanings. This is not to say that there is no intellectual worth, or indeed no intellectual pleasure in trying to identify the specific features or phenomena which account for the aesthetic experience; however, in doing so, we can only gain truths about Life as we perceive it. The radiant sights which leave Melville and the great writers short of breath and with bloodshot eyes attest to something less anthropocentric, and many times more complex, and overall healthier: nonhuman things, living within a nonhuman conception of Life. Bartleby’s Formula – I would prefer not to – thus can be read as an essential rejection of all prescribed methods of aesthetic interpretation, and a liberation of the artwork from symbolic or metaphoric necessity. Our future art and future philosophy ought to equip us with a greater vocabulary to describe what we may only be able to envisage now as the “irrational”.

Notes

[1] Deleuze, G. (1997) “Preface to the French Edition”, in Essays Critical and Clinical [Critique et Clinique], trans. Smith, D.W. & Greco, M.A., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: lv.

[2] Smith, ““A Life of Pure Immanence”: Deleuze’s “Critique et Clinique” Project”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: xv.

[3] Smith refers here to the likes of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze himself, who suffered from respiratory ailments throughout his life.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 172.

[5] Deleuze “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: 68.

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

[8] Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy?:19-20.

[9] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 78.

[10] Danto, A. (2005) “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art”, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press: 35.

[11] These are Ivan’s words in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When discussing his scepticism of God with Alyosha, Ivan concludes that if God were truly to exist, he would surely have to exist outside of three-dimensional space, “where two parallel lines meet”; a concept he admits is entirely beyond the comprehension of his “Euclidian earthly mind”.

[12] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 82. Emphasis added.

Mandela Effect, Truth Affect

One increasingly popular internet meme/conspiracy theory doing the rounds is something known as the “Mandela Effect.” Its origins lie in the claims of “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who began to gain popularity shortly after the widely publicised death of South African president Nelson Mandela in 2013. In a series of internet comments, Broome claimed to recall a memory that suggested that Mandela had actually died several years previously, during his incarceration in the 1980s. Soon she had attracted a sizable number of followers and contributors to her website mandelaeffect.com, many of whom also claimed to possess a similar memory. Other examples of alternate collective memories shortly emerged thereafter, ranging from the correct number of US States being 51 or 52, to the name of a popular series of children’s books being titled “The Berenstein Bears”, as opposed to “The Berenstain Bears.” For Broome and her followers, these inconsistencies are not simply a malfunction of group psychology or the result of fallible or unreliable memories, but convincing evidence of a different kind of phenomenon altogether. Multiple theories co-exist, but they all point toward one conclusion: that through one means or another, our reality has experienced some sort of fundamental, if barely perceptible, change, whether it be through some form of time travel,[1] interference from parallel universes,[2] a “glitch in The Matrix” effect,[3] or a result of CERN’s probings into the unknown depths of quantum physics.[4]

Clearly these theories are both premature and immature, not to mention vague and extremely difficult to validate. In every case I’ve encountered, the only shreds of evidence that have manifested are either individual or collective testimonies, or so-called “residue” (pictures of old VHS tapes or other products with misspelled names, that apparently constitute “traces” of the former universe or timeline) – hardly the “absolute proof” many believers suppose it is. I’m not an expert in group psychology by any means, so I couldn’t identify the particular cognitive tricks and lapses at work within those experiencing the Mandela Effect, however David Emery indicates that it may have something to do with “confabulation”, an unconscious technique used by people to bridge gaps and imperfections in memory.[5] Despite being able to validate or explore this idea further, I find this easier to accept than any of the more adventurous explanations, which all seem to require an understanding of memory as picture-perfect and filmic. Many of these alternatives, despite their entertainment value, can be dismissed with a cursory swish of Ockham’s razor.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it’s interesting to compare the scepticism of believers of the Mandela effect to something like pro-Second Amendment lobbyists in the U.S. Whenever a high-profile shooting has taken place in recent times, the typical response of ardent gun owners has not been one in favour of disarmament and the reduction of lethal weapons in circulation; rather that private gun ownership is necessary precisely because of the threat of extremists. Violence is tacitly encouraged under the auspices of defence, in the same way that wars and overseas military campaigns are euphemistically (and cynically) referred to as “peace missions”. Similarly, the more evidence accumulated that, when considered rationally, would weaken the claims made by Mandela effect believers, the more this very same evidence is inverted by these believers into “proof” that, when measured against their and other claimants’ memories, there has genuinely been an alteration of our given reality. That is, contradictory evidence will only strengthen the side who chooses to believe their argument is right, as the very basis of their rationality has shifted out of sync with everyone else’s. One could easily go as far as to say here that at its core, the conspiracy theory phenomenon is deeply and inherently conservative, as it relies on an unquestionable belief in an unorthodox, radically paranoid, and even metaphysical ideological dimension of reality, cutting through the miasma of cognitive dissonance and providing neat answers to complex global problems.

I’m much more interested at this stage in exploring the role of affect in theories like the Mandela effect, specifically in the wider context of what is frequently being identified as a “post-truth” or “post-facts” media landscape. In such a landscape, traditional sources of information are said to be losing authority, leaving the individual in a complex state of mistrust and unease; left to the mercy of personal emotions which are themselves vulnerable to manipulation and political scavenging. In some ways, this is nothing especially new. Adam Curtis traces one form of this media-induced scepticism back to the era of Richard Nixon, whose career-destroying anti-liberal paranoia was directly reciprocated by the very media engine that brought him down.[6] Yet today’s post-facts condition, wherein big data is eschewed in favour of soundbites, “clickbait” titles, and an almost gladiatorial one-upmanship between competing news sources and prospective political leaders, the results are even wider-reaching.

As has been noted, we live now in a society governed by sentiment much more than raw information. As the market for “facts” has become increasingly oversaturated with loud words and vibrant images, and information’s currency therefore devalued, public opinion counts for much more today than the authoritative register of a media “expert” or leading politician.[7] Actually, the most successful voices in these fields nowadays are those who propose what, on paper at least, appear to be radical alternatives to those espoused by “the establishment”, which has been a recurring source not only of hopeless disappointment and failure, but also irritation. A space for alternative points of view and genuine social, economic, and political change is absolutely necessary, yet genuinely positive (and achievable) modes of transformation are frequently drowned out by populist sentiment, often vigorously nationalistic and retrograde, and whose source is usually depressingly close to those with the relevant economic might in the first place.

In these troubled waters, the validity of a fact is much less important than its impact, and how it chimes with an individual’s inner sense of truth. A good testing site for this idea is in recent public reactions to the scale and impact of immigration. For those wishing to give voice to (in other words, politically exploit) anti-immigration sentiment, no statistic or opinion from leading sociologists suggesting that immigration is actually beneficial to an economy is verifiable: there are always opposing statistics and experts, and despite being on a weaker side of the argument both quantitatively (i.e. number of voices and stats) and qualitatively (i.e. the weight of these voices’ qualifications), the flattening out of intellectual authority means that people place more faith than ever before in what they feel to be the truth, based on sensory perception (e.g. the correlation between the presence of migrants in their neighbourhood and that neighbourhood’s stagnating community and local economy) and the enticing promises of popular, media-friendly anti-establishment figures and parties (Nigel Farage and UKIP, Marine Le Pen and Front national, Donald Trump).

The Mandela effect manages to build on and further proliferate the most dangerous aspects of the inwardly-facing post-facts perspective. This conspiracy is a reaction to and a symptom of a world which is now so untrustworthy that even the sensory perception necessary for post-facts to attach themselves is no longer reliable. “Hard” evidence and “soft” subjective experience and recollection undergo a radical subversion, trading places with one another, so that now only subjectivity can be considered trustworthy, and sensory evidence merely useful in reinforcing the idea of an altered reality.

In my last post I considered the similarly ungrounding and subversive tactics of hyperstition, as a subplot within everyday narratives programmed to burst out and become reality.[8] But the essential difference between hyperstition and the Mandela effect is this: while the former is decidedly inhuman and insensitive to the sway of public opinion, the latter is overconsciously human and reliant on the rejection of prominent realisms in order to take hold. Instead of depending on a stable and fixed image of reality, whilst simultaneously knowing that this is not the case, as hyperstition does, the Mandela effect burns its bridges in regards to finding a concrete place to call home, and therefore falls prey to the mutability of its own slippery truth. Reality may alter around it, yet if it does, there is no credible reason not to suggest that the very memories that it relies on to throne it cannot be simultaneously altered in time. One day too, perhaps on another timeline, the theory may be nothing but residue of an alternate view bloggers and conspiracy theorists once touted to explain the glitches in their personal holey narratives.

The mimetic spread of the Mandela effect ungrounds the very basis of what we consider our historical past, and therefore our identities, to be, but this is not its problem. Its problem is that it appoints the radically unreliable and highly mutable human memory as its sole bearer of truth and conviction. What is needed instead is an economy of voices, reliable facts and empirically rigorous evidence to help us to understand our worlds more fully, including what is in our power and interest to change in them. Not a simplification, but a complexity.

Notes

[1] shane (2016) “CONSPIRACY THEORY – THE MANDELA EFFECT”, video available online at https://youtu.be/_3l8idr9QFE.

[2] ReignBot (2015) “The Mandela Effect | Explained”, video available online at https://youtu.be/y6x0ErYV1tE.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacob Israel (2016) “Huge Shocking Mandela Effect List Absolute Proof”, video available online at https://youtu.be/iw-YiEnHJ4s.

[5] Emery, D. (2016) “The Mandela Effect”, available online at Snopes.com [http://www.snopes.com/2016/07/24/the-mandela-effect/]. Further possible psychological causes and contributors to the Mandela Effect are listed by the website Debunking Mandela Effects (2016), [http://www.debunkingmandelaeffects.com/common-explanations/].

[6] flowelch (2010) “Adam Curtis – A Film about how all of us have become Richard Nixon.” Video available online at https://youtu.be/fxV3_bG1EHA.

[7] Davies, W. (2016) “Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit”, Political Economy Research Centre, available online at http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brexit/.

[8] Carswell, J. (2016) “A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing”, available online at orbistertius [https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/a-note-on-hyperstition-and-hidden-writing/].

A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing

To interact with Hidden Writings, one must persistently continue and contribute to the writing process of the book.[1]

In the landmark Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Reza Negarestani identifies a proposal towards a new method of narratology: that of Hidden Writing. It supposes we read texts not only in light of, but through their plot holes.[2] The reason for doing so is that texts are diagrams that are themselves networks of lines, crosshatching and bifurcating the earth. Earth is perceived as a singularity, terra firma; that is, a solid object: a hegemony, whether technical, capitalist, biological, or otherwise. But what are solids but “particles built up around flux,” “objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked”? Never permanent, always decomposing. Robert Smithson was correct in identifying the process of “de-architecturing”, the decoupling of subject from form, a primal “return to dust or rust” which is characteristic of all elemental singularities, organic or inorganic. And what is effected by this decomposition, when fanged noumena detach and fling off this ill-considered subjectivity? The reduction of mind from matter, the emergence of the Cartesian fissure: a “mine of information”, a hole.[3]

The condition of any ‘solid’ mass (Negarestani uses the earth as an example, in his account of the exiled Iranian archaeologist (refashioned as “paleopetrologist”), Dr. Hamid Parsani) can be interpreted as “( )hole complex” (“with an evaporated W”): a reimagining of Deleuze and Guattari’s “holey space”[4] better equipped to synchronize with Cyclonopedia’s other multi-tentacled concepts. ( )hole complex attests to the meticulous choreography between solid and void, and the void within solid (“void excludes solid but solid must include void to architectonically survive”).[5] Similarly, narrative needs inconsistency, gaps, flaws, derailment and chaos. Narrative operates within limitations, is compressed into a linear trajectory through various forms of time (chronological; the destructive cosmic time identified by Quentin Meillassoux, which pours from schizzes in the hyper-chaotic absolute;[6] the “abysmal” modes of the inner Earth known as Incognitum Hactenus[7]) for which the page, the screen, and the earth serve as milieus, capturing its radiation as chlorophyllous leaves capture light. There is simply more happening inside narratives than they themselves are able to express on their surfaces. A main plot is used as subterfuge, or “hypercamouflage”, to smuggle in a multiplicity of subplots that once exhumed, irrecoverably alter the form of their host.[8] Thus the hegemony of primary interpretation and the illusion of the coherency of plot are savagely torn apart from the Inside.

This is not to say that Hidden Writing only operates on the level of representation.[9] There is an explicitly acknowledged debt in Cyclonopedia to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘machinic thinking’:[10] everywhere there are machines – “real ones, not figurative ones”.[11] Likewise, narratives are actually transformed (“deformed”, “defaced”, or “messed up”) when explored internally (“exhumed”) by outside forces, through the navigation of the complex web of interconnected plot holes effectuated by the reader’s becoming-vermin, as opposed to an external (surface-level) appreciation. Far from upholding an illusionary fidelity and sense of incorruptible representability in its textual analysis, as is the case with “so-called hermeneutic rigor”; Hidden Writing, according to Negarestani, “can be described as utilizing every plot hole, all problematics, every suspicious obscurity or repulsive wrongness as a new plot with a tentacled and autonomous mobility.”[12] Stories that write other stories, machines that produce other machines…

***

Otacon: Raiden? About this Colonel of yours — I found out where he is.

Raiden: Where?

Otacon: Inside Arsenal.

Raiden: What?

Otacon: I’ve checked out all the possibilities, but I keep coming back to Arsenal. It isn’t a relay point, it’s the origin of the signal.

Raiden: …

Otacon: And, the encryption protocol it uses is exactly the same as that of Arsenal’s AI — the so-called GW.

Raiden: …What the hell does this mean?

Otacon: I think it means — you’ve been talking to an AI.

Raiden: That’s impossible!

Otacon: The Colonel probably isn’t GW per se. GW was most likely stimulating cortical activity in the dormant part of your brain through signal manipulation of your own nanomachines. The Colonel is in part your own creation, cobbled together from expectations and experience…

Raiden: That’s crazy…

Otacon: But it’s probably the truth. The virus may be starting to affect GW, which would explain the Colonel’s behavior.

Raiden: It was all — an illusion? Everything I’ve done so far…?

Snake: Raiden!

Raiden: Snake — what’s happening around here?

Snake: I don’t know. What I do know is that you’re standing right here in front of me. Not an illusion — flesh and blood.

Raiden: …

***

The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is full of holes. Ostensibly packaged as a blockbuster videogame for the then-state-of-the-art entertainment system, the PlayStation 2, back in 2001, it is in fact (to the disappointment to many gamers) a hypertextural theory-fiction being continuously interrupted by gameplay and cinematic cut-scenes. MSG2 operates according to its own timescale: principal character/actor/soldier Raiden’s conversations with the CO and other military personnel over the nanos (nanocommunication system: imperceptibly small biotechnical implants which make the relay of vertically-aligned operative commands, not to mention surveillance, all the more efficient[13]) unfold dramatically while the battlefield is held in suspension – ten minutes, thirty minutes, the action can wait. Don’t worry if the enemy can hear you (they can).

In the narrative’s third act, the authoritative voice known simply as the “Colonel” begins to exhibit outward signs of radical schizophrenia. These signs are linked by the nomadic rebel trio (the American-born Solid Snake and Otacon gradually wrench Raiden over to their side, the covert NGO Philanthropy) to a virus they had previously installed onto the onboard AI (called GW) of the H-bomb-carrying Arsenal Gear, done in an attempt to neutralize a terrorist strike directed at Wall Street. Eventually Raiden is convinced by Otacon that his commander was a purely fictional entity, an avatar of GW, and that his schizophrenia was induced by the contagion of the “wormhole cluster” program installed onto its system. But should we be as convinced? After all, schizophrenia is not caused by a virus, it is viral, “the very nature of virulence, empiricism, and hence the true nature of the brain.”[14] The most schizophrenic character is not GW, it is Raiden, who after all, has partially manifested the image and voice of the Colonel (based on his experience of playing the previous game, Metal Gear Solid, another narrative trick). What kind of fiction has Raiden let loose?

***

I would like to examine Hidden Writing’s relationship with another concept partially generated by Negarestani: hyperstition. An early definition for this term can be found in Ccru’s online glossary, which lists hyperstition as an “[e]lement of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials.”[15] Additionally, in Cyclonopedia, hyperstition is interpreted as “a seemingly forgotten website,” a “password-protected laboratory”; itself “a location for exploring a diverse range of subjects from the occult to fictional quantities,” which finds itself “swarming with renegade academics, pyromaniac philosophers and cryptogenic autodidacts”.[16] Indeed, there was a forum called Hyperstition which operated between 2004 and 2008, of which Negarestani certainly contributed towards (many of his posts have since been deleted, presumably as they later developed into published material).[17]

Although hyperstitional entities adopt a variety of guises, frequent tactics deployed involve tactics of subterfuge and a blurring of authorship across malleable boundaries of fictionality. “Fictional quantities” (to adopt the established Deleuze-Guattari term),[18] their causes and effects, fluctuate between states of becoming and Being, ungrounding themselves at each fresh attribution and appearance. An archetype for such an entity can be found in Professor Challenger, whose zoological studies were first widely publicized in works by Arthur Conan Doyle (beginning with The Lost World). Challenger takes on a new dimension in Deleuze and Guattari’s “The Geology of Morals”, which reveals him to be the self-proclaimed originator of schizoanalysis/nomadology, and in which he is observed by the authors “[giving] a lecture after mixing several textbooks on geology and biology”.[19] Hyperstitionally, Challenger’s actuality is a side issue: he remains a valuable tool for the authors not only to dispense their own experimental hypotheses and conclusions, but as Anna Greenspan notes, to “populate thought” and “produce something new”,[20] by generating anti-identity in the gap between subject and appearance. But more than this, the “carrier” or “puppet” (in this case Challenger) benefits by leeching off its diegetic meal, becoming-multiple and achieving something close to real existence. It’s no coincidence that many hyperstitional entities (Challenger, Land, Barker, Parsani, Negarestani, the Old Ones) are reclusive authors, which come pre-packaged with their own weird narratives.

Hyperstition is a narrative in flight, and can only be observed in motion. It crawls across narratological conceptions of the world autonomously, non-linearly and non-monotonically, in many directions. And this is where Hidden Writing can be drawn back into the fold, as a provider of a transportation network that fully enables hyperstition’s functioning. Through the interconnected complexes of plothole tunnels, fashioned by sprawling multiplicities of subplots (“Hyperstition is methodically inextricable from a ‘polytics’ or promotion of multiplicity”)[21] bursting out from within their host (main) plot, a hyperstition can navigate the resultant ( )hole complex and achieve its primary objective: becoming-real. This can only occur through a continual process of ungrounding and de-authorizing, delegitimization and a capturing of and experimentation with artificially engineered feedback.

***

Fascinatingly, hyperstition as a deauthorizing, deartificializing process has enjoyed an increasingly prominent life in the field of liberal, utopian politics. Notably, Srnicek and Williams spoke of hyperstitions as “orienting narratives with which to navigate forward”, which “operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence”, in their expansive post-work programme outlined in Inventing the Future.[22] Similarly, a “hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet-strings” as a means towards the reengineering of cultural “memetic parasites” is a contingent tactic within the operations of the “xenofeminist” collective Laboria Cuboniks (themselves a continuously becoming-hyperstition).[23] But in order to understand how this political tactic has been envisaged, and how it could operate on the plane of minor politics, we must turn again to Cyclonopedia.

Without burrowing too far into its terminology and Parsanian demonological agenda, it is claimed that, from the petropolitical standpoint, an accurate understanding of the political functioning of the Middle East can be obtained from its placement atop the flows of oil which circulate the globe: economically, historically, geographically, politically and ideologically. Oil is “supreme narration lube” that upsets the anthropo-Western hegemonies of the operations of globalization: its production and distribution easing works of Middle Eastern minor literature which (literally) unground any other system of global dynamics through plot holes of the earth. As an exhumed primordial soup which infuses the past into the future, oil is autonomous, a “global conspirator”, the flow of which “poisons capital with absolute madness,” usurping it as the dominant deteritorializing machine; while at the same time “bleeding into economies”, parasitically infiltrating and influencing world politics and inscribing oil’s own projections for a successful future. In short, oil is a multitude of political hyperstitions, and in Cyclonopedia, the most alluring and contagious ones.[24] Oil can teach us about an additional quality of the hyperstitional form: that at core earth temperature, its most stable state is that of a viscous liquid (much like the core earth). But oil itself is also a subplot of another hyperstition, the one attributed to “Negarestani”. And Cyclonopedia, when viewed as a main narrative, begets possibilities for further political tactics imbued with the desire to become reality.

Through the politics of Hidden Writing, the aforementioned authors of Inventing the Future and “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, have exponentially built on their dual roles: as hyperstitional parasites of Negarestani’s achievement; and carriers who facilitate the contagion through mutation of their political schemas, and recalibrate the virus into potentialities for their own hypergeneric and hyperspecific ends. In the case of Srnicek and Williams, the hyperstitional form operates as a diagram of progress, installed as a system of expansion and ruthless self-criticism.[25] This system is subsequently auto-reflexive, capable of withstanding any argument and adapting to any unforeseen change in temporal environment: as time moves forward on the chronological scale, the post-work schema will absorb any economic or political shocks – to the extent its limitations will allow – and continue to carve out a tunnel through ( )hole complex to enable a future of its own engineering to germinate. And this will occur through contagion of the idea, spread to other (human) carriers via a multichannel attack on all media fronts.[26] The tactics involved in actualizing the “world without work” will therefore become polyvocal and leprous – original inauthenticity.[27]

Laboria Cuboniks address the inauthenticity already rampant in the textures of a social media which facilitates the “puritanical politics of shame” through its virtual carriers: user profiles. The emergent politics of “moral maintenance” are seen to obstruct debate on issues of gender discrimination and wider issues concerning segregation and oppression, and to uphold a rigorous, victimizing conservatism. The solution is beautifully accelerant: “We want neither clean hands nor beautiful souls, neither virtue nor terror. We want superior forms of corruption.”[28] Persist with the new viral technology and methods of socialization, but adapt. Exhume and take command of the underlying corruptive forces emerging as subplots within this medium, but overcode them with outsider feminist antibodies, watch them explode, and spread the xenofeminist disease across a diverse array of socio-political causes and institutions. Enable and transmit the oily flow of hyperstition, “which brings a time of the aeons, a geological time, through a hole in historical time.”[29]

***

Colonel: Raiden! They’ve got Rose!

Raiden: What!

Colonel: Rose is being held in the holds!

Snake: It’s a trap!

Rose: Help!

Raiden: Rose!

Snake: Raiden, get a grip!

Raiden: But Snake!

Snake: It’s a trap. Since the Colonel doesn’t exist, there’s no way he can take Rose hostage.

Raiden: Yeah — you’re right…

Snake: I am right.

Raiden: …OK. … Does Rose — exist — ?

Snake: Don’t be weird. She’s your —

Raiden: What if I’ve never really met her…

Snake: What?

Raiden: If the Colonel is something that I partly dreamt up, then… everything I remember about her could be…

Snake: Don’t jump to conclusions!

Raiden: You and Otacon are the ones that say the Colonel never existed.

Snake: Raiden!

***

I want to conclude by returning to Raiden’s predicament. An open-ended carrier, or a “sink” for “eccentric agendas”,[30] he performs the superlinear tasks transmitted into his corrupted biosystem via a demonic Colonel-vector partially engineered by his own imaginary. He navigates an extra-diegetic narrative as an extra-diegetic subject: a xeno-subject, resembling the totality of the cyber-military flows which converge and compete within him. The only end to his mission that can be envisaged is an inhumanly engineered one. By allowing his schizophrenic narratives to diverge, and selecting from those unleashed narratives the most effective vectors of progress on which to cling (Snake, Otacon, Arsenal), Raiden performs a feat of Hidden Writing, boring his way out of the virtual battlefield and onto the New York streets, and camouflaging amongst its citizenry pack.

Notes

[1] Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press: p62.

[2] Ibid: pp60-65.

[3] Smithson, R. (1979) “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects”, available online at https://monoskop.org/File:Smithson_Robert_1968_1979_A_Sedimentation_of_the_Mind_Earth_Projects.pdf. For a more thoroughgoing analysis of Smithson’s “abstract geology”, see Shanmugaratnam, A. (no date) “Glimpsing the Cosmos Through Cracks in Our Chrysalis”, available online at https://www.academia.edu/24976491/Glimpsing_the_Cosmos_through_Cracks_in_Our_Chrysalis_A_Research_File_on_Elysia_Cramptons_Music_and_Writing. For another perspective on the fissure within object-quality continuity, see Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”: pp355-7, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic: pp333-64.

[4] Deleuze & Guattari (1987) “1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine”, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Mille plateaux: Capitalisme et schizophrénie]. Trans. Massumi, B., Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press: pp351-423.

[5] Negarestani: p44. This comment is a reference to Nick Land’s The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism.

[6] Meillassoux, Q. (2012) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Brassier, R., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic: p64.

[7] Negarestani: p49.

[8] Ibid: pp61, 241, 62.

[9] The folly of representational thinking with Cyclonopedia is given careful consideration by Melanie Doherty, in “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N., & Thacker, E. (eds.) (2012) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: pp115-29.

[10] For the sake of the example provided below, this is true; however, the authors of Cyclonopedia (an amorphous “hyperstitional” collective of contributors occupying the interstice between the virtual and the actual, or the fictional and the non-fictional, of which Negarestani and the text’s subject Dr. Hamid Parsani are the most easily identifiable) present radical alternatives to the Deleuzo-Guattarian models of war machines elsewhere in the text.

[11] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p1. Cf. Welchman, A., “Machinic Thinking”, in Ansell Pearson, K. (ed.) (1997) Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer, London, Routledge: pp211-229.

[12] Negarestani: p61 [my emphasis]. Cf. Marshall, K. (2012) “Cyclonopedia as Novel: (A Meditation on Complicity as Inauthenticity)”, in Leper Creativity: p148.

[13] During one such transmission, the theme of surveillance is granted full, unambiguous immanence, when Raiden is told that it is no exaggeration to assume that “whoever control[s] the NSA facility could move the world.”

[14] O’Toole, R. “Contagium Vivum Philosophia: Schizophrenic Philosophy, Viral Empiricism and Deleuze”, in Deleuze and Philosophy: p175.

[15] Ccru (no date) “Glossary”, available online at http://www.ccru.net/id(entity)/glossary.htm. Steve Goodman, in his book Sonic Warfare, dates the Ccru journal Digital Hyperstition, in which the glossary appears as its final component, to 1999.

[16] Negarestani: p9.

[17] http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/. The date cited in Cyclonopedia for the “tumultuous discussion” over the uncovered Parsani notes which kickstart the text, 11 March 2004 (p9), is, somewhat pleasingly, inconsistent with any visible entries.

[18] Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: p153.

[19] Ibid, A Thousand Plateaus: pp43, 40.

[20] Greenspan, A. (2004) “Hyperstitional Carriers”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003707.html.

[21] Land, N. (2005) “Hyperstitional Method I.”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004711.html.

[22] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso: p75. Cf. my work “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams”.

[23] Laboria Cuboniks (2015) “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”: 0x0D. Available online at http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

[24] Negarestani: pp13-14, 19, 130, 25-8

[25] Srnicek & Williams: p75

[26] Ibid: pp164-5.

[27] Cf. Negarestani: p191.

[28] Laboria Cuboniks: 0x0C.

[29] Wark, M. (2012) “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces”, in Leper Creativity: p41.

[30] Land. “The term ‘eccentric agenda’ is being coined technically here, to cover an immense terrain, namely: every hypothesis, belief, emotion or commitment that can be evacuated from the principles of hyperstitional activity.”

Five Advantages of Brexit, From a Remainer’s Perspective

On 23rd June 2016 the British public voted for the UK to leave the European Union by a comfortable margin of 51.9%, a decision that is set to transform a 43-year old political and economic relationship. It is not yet known when Article 50, the two-year contingency plan built into the Lisbon Treaty which facilitates withdrawal from the EU will be implemented, however the global impact of this forthcoming decision is still being calculated, and the future consequences are by all measures going to be profound.

As can probably be expected of someone of my age and level of education, I ultimately voted for Remain yesterday. But this was not a foregone conclusion: my pangs of conscience wanted seriously to seek out credible and convincing arguments for both sides. Like all of us I had family members and friends who were gearing up to vote Leave, and whichever way the result was to fall I wanted to be able to see the positives of the decision our country made as a whole. The referendum itself is only the beginning: it is vital that the people in influential positions seize the wild bull unleashed this week and steer it in the least damaging way possible; secure jobs, the pound, the market, and most importantly, do so in a way that complies with the decision of the British public.

I am not an optimist by nature, and I am still gravely concerned about the current version of events, and the turns they are likely to take. Regardless, here are a few benefits of the departure of the UK from the EU.

1. We are closer to the truth

The result of this referendum, that the UK would prefer to leave the EU rather than remain, was unexpected by nearly everyone, on both sides of the debate. Although polls were sketchy and few, with no equivalent previous data for comparison, psephologists and bookmakers alike expected Remain to be ahead by a significant margin at the moment of polling station closure (10pm on the 23rd). Even prominent campaigners such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage were conceding defeat at this time; but of course this forecast was inevitably proven misjudged by the early hours of the following morning.

The message was direct. The deindustrialized North and (my backyard) the Midlands were more strongly in favour of Leave than was expected, as was overall EU beneficiaries Wales, leaving the majority of Remain support centred around inner-city London and SNP Scotland. Some of us may not like what this division is telling us about working class attitudes to immigration, or the willingness of our electorate to use their vote as an anti-Westminster protest in spite of the risks, but any government that recognises this will be stronger than if it were to underestimate or ignore these warnings altogether. This referendum has been fought on both sides using misinformation. This may be inevitable in post-facts politics, but as a Remainer I would much rather have won a debate without the use of deliberate lying and spurious allegations.[1] Now the truth has arrived it should be analysed and used for constructive future debates concerning our collective future.

2. Fringe politics has won

Despite supporting Remain I was always sceptical about the argument that positive and significant improvements to the EU would be possible if the UK had voted to stay (it’s not even certain what changes the country would ask for). But knowing now that the opposite has occurred I find it much more likely that our country’s voice will be heard, at least initially. It is a widely-held view that Prime Minister David Cameron did not want this referendum to go ahead, that it was a General Election manifesto pledge designed to unify a divided (in some cases dissenting) Conservative party. The biggest influencing factor was the rise of the populist, single-issue UK Independence Party (UKIP), who with a mixture of grassroots organisation and media sensationalism made Euroscepticism a mainstream political subject. While the UKIP-affiliated leave.eu was not the official Leave campaign, Nigel Farage’s party must be given credit for scooping up large numbers of voters from parts of the UK that neither the Tory Leavers of Vote Leave (Johnson, Gove, et al) or the Labour party could reach.

This is the first time in decades that fringe, grassroots politics has affected the political structure of the UK. UKIP sensed an appetite for anti-EU legislation amongst the British public, and seized upon it. The Left, both Labour and the smaller parties, would do well to study their example.

3. Neoliberalism has lost

By which I mean, one neoliberal alliance has lost ground in the UK, while another, more manageable one has gained it, while a third has been torn in two. The impact of Brexit on the EU is likely to cause an ontological crisis in Brussels in the near future, if not an existential one, and the rest of Europe will be seriously considering whether the rise of the Right in their country reflect a similar alienation of their people with the forty-year-old project. It is unbecoming of the Left to apologise for the EU, and ignoring its exploitation of the global South and its handling of the migrant crisis. Better that they work towards a common goal: to devolve its power and influence in terms of economic might, and improve its standing as a humanitarian political force. The EU isn’t finished, and perhaps the referendum has taught us that it shouldn’t be, but today has been a defeat for neoliberalism. Whether this equates to a victory for freedom is yet to be determined.

4. The balance of power has shifted

The prime minister will be stepping down in October. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has assured Scotland that their overwhelming support to remain in the EU constitutes a mandate for another Scottish referendum. And the EU are not currently trying to apply the brakes to Article 50. All of these represent a shift in the balance of power in the UK. It will take a considerable amount of time to renegotiate old trade deals, but with the volatility of global markets it would be surprising if their terms would be immediately worse off for Britain. A shrinking EU is a less powerful one, which means good things for the countries most affected by their rampant market deregulation and exploitative Economic Partnership Agreements.[2] Sometimes the best thing to do is to rip up old negotiations and start again. We shall see.

5. An opening has appeared for the Left

It’s no secret that across Europe the political Left have lost considerable ground. After a lacklustre show of Remain support from the historically Eurosceptical Jeremy Corbyn, there have been suggestions that his position as Labour leader hangs in the balance. It will be either him or his successor the Left will look to take advantage of an even more vulnerable Conservative government, presumably led by Boris Johnson. And it will be a more radical Left than we have seen in recent years. Ultimately this is the wrong time for a Left exit (Lexit), I think. If the socioeconomic infrastructure was there to absorb job losses and wage reductions, such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) and worker automated technologies to replace the unskilled labour currently being done by EU migrants, there would be a more reasonable case to be made, but these changes would take several decades to effectively implement.[3] This may be a tad optimistic (the future of the left is far from certain right now, and is notable by its global absence), but perhaps these measures now have a greater chance of being proposed and reaching a stage where they can be trialled. The decision to leave or remain in the EU was one that dismissed party political lines and affiliations, even if both sides were led by Conservatives. As Elliot Murphy argued earlier this month, the “‘choice’ of austerity in Britain is no such thing in the EU, being part of its treaty.”[4] If Labour and the general Left can recover more quickly from Brexit than the Tories, they have a considerable upper hand to reshape British politics for the better, one they would be foolish not to take.

 

[1] To take just one example, my Facebook wall has for weeks covered with pro-Remain propaganda revealing the most derogatory, patronising attitudes towards Leavers; that they are xenophobic, Trump supporters or even Putin sympathisers. Leavers were able to easily dismiss the Remainers as credible or rational, whereas if the strong arguments for staying in the EU were allowed to breathe for themselves I am certain more people would have voted Remain.

[2] Adabunu, K. (2016) “Why African-Caribbeans should vote for a Left Exit from the EU”, Counterfire, published online at http://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/18383-why-african-caribbeans-should-vote-for-a-left-exit-from-the-eu.

[3] Carswell, J. (2016) “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams”, orbistertius, available online at https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/03/14/review-inventing-the-future-postcapitalism-and-a-world-without-work-by-nick-srnicek-and-alex-williams/.

[4] Murphy, E. (2016) “Another Tamriel is Possible: Brexit Proposals vs Solutions”, CounterPunch, published online at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/06/07/another-tamriel-is-possible-brexit-proposals-vs-solutions/.

Epistemic Dam, or What Shadow of the Colossus Tells Us About Public Security and Societies of Control

The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal worlds. Rather it was an affair of vague psychological symbolism and æsthetic association—a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes.[1]

The term gamespace, when used in relation to video games, has been used in the past to denote a seemingly conceptual playground that is then analysed in relation to other social paradigms, including economies and political organisations, across lines of intersection. Less often considered is gamespace as an optical realm, with the illusion of real physicality: an aesthetic playground akin to cyberspace, but with the necessary distinction of being topographically constructed by a team of developers, as opposed to a perpetual, “open-source” project akin to a complex organism. Here I am going to borrow the term magic circle, introduced by Johan Huizinga in his classic study on game theory, Homo Ludens (1949), but used more recently by “new media” and “New Games” journalists to explain the theoretical boundary between the virtuality of the video game as it exists as a set of rules and conventions and the outside space of the gamer, and then subsequently to determine the transparency and porousness of this boundary. What I want to explore is this second definition of gamespace, i.e. the three-dimensional polygonal models of the video game as a physical territory; for the sake of convenience I will employ a new word – gamescape. This will involve a recognition of video games as being qualitatively different from previous forms of play. A gamescape is not simply an imaginary location embedded in a real one, conceived purely from the rules and objectives undertaken by the player, and only ideologically separate from the world it exists within; but a deliberate place that exists independently of such rules and objectives, bound within the magic circle.

Most video games are inherently mimetic: they require a sense of “role play” and the imagination of the player not only to control their actor,[2] but to transport themselves into the gamescape; in short, to believe in the environment they are vicariously exploring. Roger Caillois defined mimicry as one of the four basic categories of play, alongside agon (games of skill and competition), alea (games of chance), and ilinx (games that produce sensations of “vertigo”, or dizziness, such as amusement rides or rollercoasters).[3] “With one exception,” wrote Caillois, “mimicry exhibits all the characteristics of play: liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time. However, the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed—rules for the dissimulation of reality and the substitution of a second reality.”[4] By this he means that although gamespace constitutes a closed-off territory for the purposes of gaming, it can never be confused as primary reality: the player knows this if she is to consider her activity play at all. The gamespace must be considered “a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe.”[5]

This poses a problem for the video game designer: how to create an entertaining recreational experience in a gamescape that allows the player freedom over their actions, to explore, to make mistakes, and so on; but that simultaneously is structured by rules, challenges, and objectives. These two poles roughly correspond to what Caillois called paidia (“uncontrolled fantasy”, or a lawless gamespace) and ludus (a rigid and ultimately “purposely tedious” approach to game design).[6] It seems to me as though the video game designer must compromise between paidia and ludus design for their gamescape to be effective. Too much freedom and the experience actually becomes less liberating and more quotidian, and the illusion of participating in a mimetic, escapist fantasy is diminished (online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft bypass this issue to some degree with the organisation of players into “guilds” who then work together on agreed group objectives). If on the other hand the game design places too much emphasis on completing set tasks dictated by the character’s limitations or environment (if for example certain objectives need to be fulfilled in sequence before new contents, such as levels, items, or vehicles, become available), the game feels too “linear”, or too much like a thankless task.

On bridge of Dam
On top of the “beta dam” in Shadow of the Colossus, an area usually inaccessable in the final game

The balance between paidia and ludus can be ultimately understood as the extent to which the player is able to explore the gamescape freely and the opposite extent, to which the player is denied freedom; their actor instead being directed by the space itself, i.e. the designer’s will for the game’s content to be accessed in a specific way. Video game narrative may be considered as a series of non-interactive video segments (“cut-scenes”), strung together through the player’s actions; but this intermediary play, the bulk of the game, is as essential to the player in understanding the game’s narrative structure. How this narrative is authored may be the player’s choice, but the list of options, broadly speaking, are limited to the range of options offered by the designer. Whereas Marcel Duchamp spoke of the “art coefficient”, or the difference between an artist’s intent and the spectator’s subjective interpretation, as being the process by which art (or narrative) is constructed,[7] in a gamescape the designer can implement all manner of physical obstacles and handicaps to limit player experience, and steer the narrative away from the player’s desires.

Atopian paidia

In spite of this, it can be observed that video games have gradually employed a greater degree of non-monotonicity[8] as their history develops, with the player being trusted more to explore territory and implement their own ludic objectives through increased paidia. Partly this is for technological reasons. The leap from 2D to 3D gamescape design, as a result of greater processing power, was instrumental in this aspect. Earlier 2D games were nearly entirely level-based, i.e. divided into separate, independent stages: the basic objective being to move from one side of the screen to the other (usually left to right) while defeating enemies and avoiding hazards. Early examples of commercial three-dimensional games, such as Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo) heralded the arrival of a form of gamescape not previously technologically possible. Instead of resembling a kind of scrolling, interactive tapestry, as in earlier entries in the Mario series; the Nintendo 64 version begins with a 3D model of the princess’s castle grounds, and immediately feels like a more “realistic” experience. Instead of being littered with enemy monsters to defeat or clear directions, the player is able to navigate this initial model from Mario’s perspective free of penalties or time limitations. The emphasis is on control and fluidity of gameplay, and the sense (if only illusory) that the player is not bound by the invisible, guiding hand of the game’s designers. This castle garden’s structure is deliberately closed, using steep hills and other unnavigable terrain. In this sense game designers can be said to be not only landscape gardeners but cartographers: they dictate the edges of the map and make it virtually impossible to escape.

Another milestone of video game paidia is the Grand Theft Auto series. In these games, the gamescape is a single, fluid model: a whole virtual city, populated with ordinary people, traffic, police force, and of course law-breakers and criminal activity. The vast, interactive area embodies the developers, Rockstar Games’s attitudes towards player control and discovery, and is the primary reason for their massive successes. With little to no restrictions on what the player is able to achieve, no two experiences are alike, and with every (legal and illegal) temptation lurking around the corner, GTA is as close to Caillois’ definition of unrestrained mimicry that a video game is likely to get. McKenzie Wark, in a detailed study of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002, Rockstar Games), described this kind of gamespace as atopia. Built on what Foucault called “heterotopia”, or “other space”, an ideal at a remove from the common dysfunctional space we usually inhabit; atopia can instead be considered a “complete gamespace” – completely ordered and self-sustaining, with no requirement of externality, and existing seemingly everywhere.[9] Vice City is not a parallel universe, it is perfectly assimilated into ours. It is all-pervasive, and as an arena of play, it illustrates our own, “imaginary” gamespace better than any other. Wark goes as far as to label Vice City a “negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow,” which possesses a self-governing system of laws. “It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.)” The game internalises transgression: in this way it is not even necessary to promote it. Law itself is “part of a larger algorithm”; the player manoeuvres their actor over the game’s physical “surfaces” in order to “intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm.”[10]

The player’s behaviour in Vice City is not inherently transgressive: the game itself facilitates violence, theft, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, and so on, and presents them amorally, as methods of acquisition and progression. Video game play cannot be considered transgressive unless it breaks the rules by which it is defined, and manipulates the algorithm in unexpected ways. This requires disrupting the boundaries of the magic circle: to be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by the cartography of gamescape and construct new methods of play. Certain examples in video gaming demonstrate that it is possible to disregard the rules of play within a defined magic circle and still participate in self-sufficient activity that can only be defined as play.

H6-i5 beta lands
“Mountains of madness” floating in the sky over the Forbidden Lands

Sub-liminal palaeontology

Whereas in GTA players were made to actively transgress manifestations of the law to reap reward, Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team Ico) had players follow the law to the letter, and ultimately lose for it (or at least reveal an ending that spelled disaster for the actor). The game’s premise was to defeat sixteen cyclopean, ancient beasts (colossi) in an order set by the immaterial, polyphonous deity Dormin, and thus save the princess from death. All promotional material for Shadow of the Colossus placed the enemy colossi as the game’s unique selling point, but as many players derived enjoyment from devising strategies to take down their immense opponents, others were quickly captivated by the scale of the environment they were able to explore. The GTA series has a similarly massive gamescape, yet in SotC the terrain is almost entirely empty: no smaller challenges or side-quests exist, and only one opponent is generated at a time, at a location disclosed by the authoritarian Dormin, and pinpointed by the player using a compass-like sword. Nor is it possible to complete the challenges out of sequence (if a player arrives at a colossus arena prematurely, no opponent will be waiting for them). As other video games moved towards non-linear design and player choice, SotC deliberately chose one of the most linear schematics imaginable.

In effect, the game is divided into sixteen levels, which consist of the following: navigating the expansive Forbidden Lands in the direction indicated by the sword, discovering the beast, and calculating and executing an offensive strategy, at which point the player is teleported back to the central compound (the Shrine of Worship) to pursue the next enemy. What elevates this monotonous exercise is doing exactly what is “forbidden”: exploring this infinitely empty, Edenic landscape. Unlike other games which often award desertion from the primary objective with unlockable content or upgraded skills, there is absolutely no gamic advantage for going AWOL in SotC (if anything, the likelihood of getting lost constitutes a noticeable disadvantage). The player and the actor are most bonded here, in flouting protocol to investigate the knowingly sublime and excessive, not for profit but for the sheer decadence of it all.

Bridge behind entrance
Hacking the game can reveal some unusual and memorable computer-generated visual effects

Of course the game has been constructed precisely so that players can find metaphysical rewards within its gamescape; interestingly, it is precisely because of taut ludic conventions that paidia is able to creep in. But it can only be expected that from this point paidia would be converted by the players back into ludus, that a small group of fanatical players would create their own games using the available tools of the gamescape and often considerable skills of using external software to navigate the underlying properties which make up the game: the game code itself, a kind of sub-gamescape. Like DNA, the “code” which determines the direction and rate of protein growth in living organisms, video games are composed of a single extensive program, an ur-text which is responsible for everything from facilitating the narrative, deciding which sound files play as a result of certain actions, and, perhaps in this case most significantly, the game’s graphics: i.e. the gamescape and all its contents. If the hacker is lucky, he (in virtually all cases it seems to be a “he”) will find certain leftover content not implemented into the final version of the “game”, and not intended to be accessible to the player. For many, this is the goal of their investigation. Seeking out this hidden data is a kind of palaeontology: it can be studied and used to reveal the various stages of the game’s evolution, akin to carbon dating, and thus further speculations can be made over the design of the finished gamescape and its previous incarnations.

There are several reasons why SotC should prove attractive to these kinds of players; all of them relate in some way or another to conventional or recent views on aesthetics. In the conceptual sense, SotC is quite clearly sublime: the diminutive hero must battle with monsters of such immensity that the screen can often only capture them in part. Likewise, the Forbidden Lands are sublime: containing vast mountains, forests, deserts, ruined temples and forts; but more importantly, they are empty (or at least seem to be) – free from human presence, and inhabited only by the occasional bird or lizard. Between fights, the atmosphere is existential, alien, even Lovecraftian: the game’s orchestrated soundtrack is not present (It creeps in only as the player approaches a colossus), reducing audible sound to howling winds and the actor’s footsteps. As a result, anything visible or audible to the player may become a source of intrigue, particularly if it resembles a human construction (such as a ruined pillar or the strange stone rings which populate the desert), or potentially the hand of an even elder race (the scale of the Shrine of Worship and the bindings on some of the colossi suggest an inhuman precedence).[11] Such accents in an otherwise barren landscape actually enhance the player’s alienation, awe, and fascination, as well as the scale of his surroundings. One is reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of another formally crafted gamescape, the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”[12]

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

The emptiness of the mystical Forbidden Lands entices players to project any kind of meaning on what is not there, based on what is, and what should be or ought to have been. The results of expert hackers and compilers of unused SotC content, such as Michael Lambert, who goes by the YouTube username Nomad Colossus, have revealed to more casual players the scope of Team Ico’s initial project. The most significant discoveries made are the remnants of “test areas”, used by the game developers to try out battles with colossi before their designs were finalised – and there is a high probability that unused, deleted colossi designs once occupied them.[13] Even more startling is a complete model of a dam that seemingly had no other but decorative purposes. Lambert’s current conclusions are that, despite official indications from Team Ico that the finished model of the Forbidden Lands is entirely based on the placement of the finished 16 colossi arenas, and would be “completely different” if more were incorporated; that “there never was a different map”; and the “beta” content is evidence of a shrunken final design “planned at the outset”, rather than a complete rebuild.

Map_all extra lands
A version of the in-game map restored by Lambert to include the “inaccessible” locations – the territory floods over the map
Beta + retail colossi locations
Locations of the game’s sixteen colossi (red) and speculated territories for the discarded eight (blue)
B2 model_cut
Section of a probable colossus test area partially remaining in the finished game

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

Eddo Stern uses the term artifact as an explainer for unintended phenomena within video game gameplay. In computer science, the term is more familiar, used to refer to “undesired cosmetic disturbances” which result from compression of jpeg or mp3 files, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file; all of which pre-empt an “unperfected aesthetic disturbance”. In gamescapes, artifacts can reveal themselves unexpectedly, but more commonly are prompted by erratic or methodological player actions. Regardless, all artifacts are extra-diegetic: they disturb the narrative flow orchestrated by the game designer, and often the senses.[14] In turn, they invert old and invent new diegetic and aesthetic forms.

SotC’s hidden artifacts certainly make for compelling viewing to players who would otherwise be unaware of the presence of large, physical manifestations of data beyond unattainable horizons: objects that to borrow Robin Mackay’s term can be regarded as aesthemes. These mountains, this dam; their “deep resonance and transcendent qualities […] make appeal to a transcendent self which, through sensory experience, is innately touched by ideas that are equally transcendent.”[15] Aesthemes convey the transformative properties of the artistic phenomenon without relying on falling back on Kantian sublimity or Duchampian co-authorship; they exist independently of the subject’s relation to the ideas that subject conceives, and furthermore in this instance amount to a reconceptualization of both subject (the player) and aesthetic content (the fractured gamescape and implied gamespace).[16] The search for beta content in SotC, of which the dam is the end result, demonstrates the emergence of new guerrilla modes of play outside of the game’s physical boundaries, which in turn defies the designers’ understanding of players’ capabilities.  To its core, hacking is an ontological activity. Practitioners transform gamespaces, and themselves become transformed subjects, free of the autistic behavioural algorithms[17] which they were ultimately expected to endure to be considered players at all. When these subjects are able to navigate the hero Wander – to allow him to “wander” from his omnisciently scrutinised assignment, which is to rescue the damsel Mono (a name implying singularity and restriction), they simultaneously stretch the magic circle from within and play outside of Team Ico’s jurisdiction. They cross over an epistemic gap: in real terms, they gain knowledge of the game’s construction, as an archaeological discovery, a gnostic journey, a technophilic qabbala.

It is disheartening, therefore, that this new ontology of gaming has met with such unambiguous resistance. Previous attempts to acquire accurate information about SotC’s development from Team Ico have caused communications to cease, and this policy is unlikely to change.[18] Much has been made of the game’s “artistic” qualities, which the developers evidently worked hard at to achieve, not only by promoting a minimalist, creative and beautiful experience, but also by the scope of the player’s possible actions and concealing ugliness. Director of the project Fumito Ueda has stressed clearly his preferred interpretation: in an interview he stated “I think [the game] holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.”[19] But by doing so he revealed himself to be less of an artist and more of a manipulative auteur. There have certainly been artists working in more traditional media that have objected to a spectator or a critic’s evaluation of their work, but here is a case where the artists involved have actually been able to impose an interpretation of their own choice – romanticism – and have insinuated that any actions taken to reject the suggested readings and facilitate reinterpretations are akin to criminality. This seems especially confusing as the whole objective of the game is to search for the colossi to fight, and to explore the Forbidden Lands in order to do so.

The player’s impulse to flaut the rules imposed by gamespace relates to Heather Alexandra’s concept of ludic tension, or the tension exerted on the player to uphold ludic and diegetic elements of a game at the expense of forming an individual game narrative. Alexandra conceives this tension as an active, affective, “emotional” force which indirectly forces a singular interpretation or gaming experience. The game “transubstantiates into a noumenon, a platonic idea in the mind of the player.”[20] It becomes little more than interactive film, antithetical to paidia, bland and unadventurous. This is not to suggest that a noumenal, monotonic vision of the game is Team Ico’s, but when there are so few other “legitimate” forms of play within SotC, there seems to be a lack of foresight concerning the degree to which ludic tension would be resisted and lose out to the persuasiveness and intrigue of the game’s huge, mysterious territory.

Dam_Devil image
The dam may have been a backdrop to a fight against a deleted colossus, Lambert speculates

Controlling gamespace

One is tempted to think of the Forbidden Lands as a self-contained disciplinary society, akin to the juridical and prison systems described by Foucault; a fixed space overseen by its creators from the Panopticon, poised to reproach deserters and troublemakers. But it would be more accurate to observe Team Ico’s microcosm as a Deleuzian control society instead. “Enclosures are molds,” said Deleuze, “distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other”.[21] As we have seen, the gamescape of the Forbidden Lands may be fixed, if ultimately inconceivable; yet the gamespace fluctuates with every new discovery. As a result, Team Ico fail to enclose their version of SotC: its grand yet imperfect programming is penetrable, therefore its designers can only modulate its image and dissuade multiplicity of that image; disguising its atopia as heterotopia. This method of control is harder to diagnose than disciplinary instruction, which can easily be challenged or rejected outright, which is often exactly what happens when, for example, artistic institutions announce compromising plans for the sake of further monetization. But that it has managed to creep its way into artistic content, into the magic circle is insipid, and should not go unnoticed.

The greatest issue with Team Ico’s univocal control is that it is undemocratic. We can define democracy as the citizenry (demos) having control over that which has control over them (i.e. the instruments of control in that society: government, economic institutions, etc.). While it should never be a goal in itself, free democratic movement should be able to operate independently of and exist as a challenge to law and modular tension. Renegade action demonstrates effective methods of undermining state control and revealing artifacts blocked by intelligence agencies. Yet how we interpret this information and the measures which were implemented to disguise it from us are more important than the mere acquisition of anti-democratic secrets. Consider the news stories back in April 2016 regarding the leaking of over 11.5 million files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which unveiled extensive levels of tax evasion from wealthy elite figures from global finance and politics.[22] One name leapt upon by the British media was prime minister David Cameron, whom it had been revealed received £200,000 as a tax evasive measure in 2011. To contain further scandal, Cameron took the unprecedented step of publishing his personal tax records for each year of his premiership up to 2014-15. However, this seemingly reconciliatory measure quickly spread into a witch hunt, wherein every senior UK politician was so mistrusted by the public that by failing to follow Cameron’s lead they could be interpreted as suspicious or underhanded.[23] Others went further, implying perhaps rightfully that the distinction between politician and non-politician was misleading, pointing instead to overseas multinationals’ abuse of the global tax system as more significant; yet this measure escalated further into a weak admission that no-one should be exempt from publicising their tax returns.[24] Thankfully the demand for further transparency was quickly curtailed, before the emphasis shifted from naming and shaming public individuals to the “nothing to hide” mentality that apologises for any private security breach nominally covered by the Data Protection Act.

The obvious message here is that revealing information regarding others may escalate into revealing information regarding ourselves (something Julian Assange would know all about). “Tension” over our behaviour is not only a coercive force used by figures of governmentality to incite particular responses, it is also something we project onto ourselves, our peers, and our communities. We ourselves present a large risk to our own security and privacy:  the social media profiles, image feed, and string of security passwords we’ve been encouraged to litter throughout the internet are just a fraction of the evidence that we are as much participants of a control society as we are its victims.[25] We too possess our fair share of artifacts and aesthemes; sometimes we even leave them in plain sight.

Nevertheless, democratic self-control is important; this includes the right to decide our own paths free of tension, observation or persecution. It is even necessary and expected to some degree for cartographies to leak outwards: control societies “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[26] Data leaks that remap socio-political ontologies, as a result of unsolicited action, can be internalised, like any predictable behaviour. Freedoms of thought and expression run like viruses through our algorithmic megastructure, creating ruptures that heal themselves, allowing the host to grow stronger. New rules are made by allowing old ones to be broken. Yet the size and shape of the rupture dictate the nature of reconstruction; in atopias, individuality can mean the difference between meaningless propagation and practical, ontological influence.

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close

Conclusion

The aesthetic case for Team Ico’s control paradigm is a valid, and not ineffective one. The linear gameplay of SotC helps to develop the intensity of the player’s action and sense of challenge to a crescendo, in an otherwise permeable gamespace. Yet the implications of the actions of play in within a defined territory inevitably permeate outwards, into a larger but less defined space. Consider Huizinga’s comments made immediately following his use of the phrase “magic circle”:

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.[27]

While it is preferable to play a game that is aesthetically appealing than one that is not, disruption of a game’s order is an equally valid method of play: educational, creative, skilful, vertiginous. Caillois dedicated a whole chapter of his study to the “corruption of games”, and spoke positively of the “desire for disorder and destruction” associated with ilinx.[28] The magic circle can be thought of as a positive barrier, a shield from the outside world where ordinary laws  are suspended; but more often we see this barrier being pushed both inwards and outwards. Refusing to accept any boundary as immobile and opaque not only leads to new forms of play, but also fluid ways of self-conception and effective relationships with control societies that lie outside its territory. Once atopia is fractured, and gamespace changes from an ideological subsistency to a fragile ecology, we affirm play as the means of collective social and cognitive development once more.

All images taken from Nomad’s Blog and used with permission.

Notes

[1] Lovecraft, H.P., At the Mountains of Madness. In Klinger, L. (2015) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, pp457-572.

[2] The tem “actor”, proposed by James Clinton Howell, is given to the game’s playable character(s). Howell, J.C. (2007) “Driving Off the Map”, Deltahead Translation Group, available online at http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/DOTM2.htm.

[3] Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games [Les jeux et les hommes]. Trans. Barash, M., Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, p12.

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

[7] Duchamp, M. (1957) “The Creative Act”, transcript from Session of the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Available online at Radical Art [http://radicalart.info/things/readymade/duchamp/text.html].

[8] Reza Negarestani defines non-monotonicity as “a synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In: Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (eds.) #Accelerate, Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp425-466.

[9] Wark, M. (2006-7) “ATOPIA: on Vice City”, in GAM3R 7H30RY, version 1.1, published online by Institute for the Future of the Book [http://www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory/], pp101-25 (my italics).

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

[11] My own constraints here prevent me from exploring the full potential of the similarities between the Forbidden Lands and the work of Lovecraft; needless to say they are extensive.

[12] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London, Pan Books, p135.

[13] Lambert and others have collaborated in the past to gather as much information as possible about all the colossi, including those that were scrapped during various stages of the game’s development. SotC’s director, Fumito Ueda, is reported to have initially conceived of the game having 48 colossi; at an early stage this number was reduced to a more realistic 24, and “halfway through production” this number thinned out again to 16. A few screenshots of the 8 discarded at this point exist, and using these images and the few sections of mountains hiding beyond the game’s natural borders, this group of dedicated fans have collectively made some detailed yet sound hypotheses. See more at Nomad Colossus (2011) “Unused/Beta Colossi”, available online at Nomad’s blog [http://nomads-sotc-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/unusedbeta-colossi.html]; Nomad Colossus (2015) “Shadow of the Colossus – Beta colossi recap & update”, video uploaded at https://youtu.be/5Do_0aWpYeo.

[14] Stern, E. (2002) “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, available online at http://eddostern.com/texts/Stern_TOME.html.

[15] Mackay, R. (2014) “Neo-Thalassa: A Fantasia on a Fantasia”. In Mackay, R., Pendrell, L. & Trafford, J. (eds.) (2014) Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp97-105 (my italics).

[16] Mackay, comments in “Discussion”, Speculative Aesthetics, pp113-4.

[17] Corruption of the phrase “autistic conversational algorithms”, in Stern, “A Touch of Medieval”.

[18] Nor is this policy unique to Team Ico. Lambert and his associates have been turned away multiple times, and have reached the conclusion that “it’s extremely difficult to get Japanese developers on the record about anything regarding unused [content] in their games or even the specifics of the game’s development.” According to a journalist at Gametrailers, some of video gaming’s biggest development teams, including Nintendo and Square Enix, are extremely sceptical about disclosing any production secrets to the public. Nomad Colossus, “Unused/Beta Colossi”.

[19] In an interview with Daniel Robson (Edge #261, November 2013). Ibid.

[20] Alexandra, H. (date uncertain) “Ludic Fuckery, Dynamics, and Emotional Response”, TransGamer Thoughts, available online at http://transgamerthoughts.com/post/109631171387/ludic-fuckery-dynamics-and-emotional-response.

[21] Deleuze, G. (1992) “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), pp3-7. Available online at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T.

[22] E.g. Harding, L. (2016) “What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-panama-papers.

[23] Boffey, D. (2016) “Cameron faces questions over £200,000 gift from mother”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/09/david-cameron-questions-gift-mother; Riley-Smith, B. (2016) “Every MP under pressure to publish tax return [sic] after David Cameron reveals income”, The Telegraph, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/10/every-mp-under-pressure-to-publish-tax-return-after-david-camero/.

[24] Murphy, R., (2016) “What Can MPs’ Tax Returns Actually Tell Us About Dodgy Dealings?” Interview by Sam Wolfson for Vice [http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-do-mps-publishing-their-tax-returns-actually-tell-us-about-tax].

[25] Cascio, J. (2005) “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon”, available online at http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/05/the_rise_of_the_participatory.html.

[26] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénic]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p8.

[27] Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, London/Boston/Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p10. PDF available at http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf.

[28] Caillois, p24. For more regarding the concept of ilinx within video games, see Bateman, C. (2006) “The Joy of Ilinx”, Only a Game, available online at http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2006/05/the_joy_of_ilin.html.

Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Failure

For my commentary on the recent book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (hereafter S&W), Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF), I have decided to build upon the discussion hosted by the blog The Disorder of Things (hereafter TDoT) in which seven writers shared their responses to the book in five essays.[1] Representing a diversity of critical disciplines and viewpoints, from climate change and libertarian communism to “cyborg” geography to international politics, these commentators drew on their own knowledge and experience to identify a number of criticisms of the book, which were then rejoined by its authors in a subsequent post. Taken as a whole, the exercise has cast helpful light on what by all accounts is an often forceful and persuasive text about the writers’ vision of a transformation of the global political Left.

Speaking as a typically liberal British graduate, the need for such a transformation in this country has, in my (limited) memory, never seemed more imminent: the overall majority Conservative victory in 2015’s General Election sent the Labour Party into disarray, and combined with its near-total eradication in Scotland (the Scottish National Party won an unprecedented 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, overturning a typically Labour stronghold overnight) constituted a defeat that may take decades to recover from. Recently, public infighting amongst senior Shadow Cabinet members has become an increasingly regular fixture of the newspapers and the evening news. At times, the idea of any kind of new radical strategy being employed on a national level seems distant at best.

Undoubtedly, this is the kind of crisis of the Left Srnicek and Williams begin their latest manifesto, Inventing the Future, from. “The recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure”, they claim.[2] Speaking more directly of struggles from Occupy to the Arab Spring uprisings, which have often been conveyed by liberal commentators as successes, at least initially, they go on to suggest that “[t]he recent weakness of the left cannot simply be chalked up to increased state and capitalist repression: an honest reckoning must also accept that problems lie within the left.” (p9) The most central (at least, the most quotable) method of complaint Srnicek and Williams express is to reinterpret the horizontalist, localised attitude towards enacting social progress from the left as a pervasive, short-sighted form of political common sense, which the authors brand as “folk politics”. An important qualification here is that the authors do not reject the entirety of this folk politics out of hand, but in terms of an ambitious, large-scale political project it is a perspective best reserved for a “starting point” only, ready to be jettisoned at the point which the project gains sufficient traction (p12).

Folk politics envisage a resistance of the global capitalist megastructure in terms of small, local, “horizontalist”[3] groups, often with a disdain for leadership or higher forms of collectivisation. For S&W, this is the wrong approach for the left to take if its biggest demands are to be met.[4] In fact, the dismal nature of vast swathes of the global Left can be explained by examining their trends towards privileging “the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular” as “sufficient rather than simply necessary moments”[5] An early chapter of ItF lists a plethora of consequences of making this mistake; making an attempt at an “honest reckoning” of the left’s recent political failures. One familiar case study cited once again is the Occupy movement, which took place in several cities throughout the world simultaneously in 2011. The protest camps set up in Occupy Wall Street, for example, were conceived of and functioned as insulated, autonomous, temporary spaces; this meant that they were inherently unable to implement a sustained period of change. Moreover, the occupants themselves were not, despite appearances, a unified group; instead they were made up of a plethora of differing political ideologists (“reformist liberals, anti-capitalists, insurrectionist anarchists, anti-state communists…”). Resultantly therefore their common goals were few, and their general goals diverse. Moreover, Occupy’s adoption (“fetishisation”) of direct (face-to-face) democracy, in the form of the general assembly, quickly became more laborious than liberating, owing to the multitude of micro-decisions considered necessary, wasting precious time and leaving the protesters in stasis (pp29-37).

The left’s shift towards localism is seen by S&W as a “defensive gesture”, a retreat from the battlefield of global commerce and political hegemony, and of rationalising and humanising challenging ideas (pp3, 40). “The problem with localism”, they write,

is that, in attempting to reduce large-scale systemic problems to the more manageable sphere of the local community, it effectively denies the systematically interconnected nature of today’s world. Problems such as global exploitation, planetary climate change, rising surplus populations, and the repeated crises of capitalism are abstract in appearance, complex in structure, and non-localised. […] Fundamentally, these are systemic abstract problems, requiring systemic and abstract responses. (p40)

Localist solutions, whether nostalgic[6] or resistant,[7] are clearly inadequate measures to combat these problems, as both rely on distorting the image of past victories in the vain hopes of recreating them in the present. Instead, S&W suggest that it is possible to learn from the recent and current neoliberalist successes whilst still self-identifying as being in opposition to them. This begins by recognising that

[n]eoliberalism was never a given, never a necessary endpoint of capitalist accumulation. Rather, it was a political project from the beginning, and a massively successful one in the end. It succeeded by skilfully constructing an ideology and the infrastructure to support it, and by operating in a non-folk-political manner. (p52)

In this way, neoliberalism “functioned as an expansive universal ideology” (ibid.), i.e. a hegemony.[8] A brief historical tour, beginning with Hayek’s establishment of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS)[9] in the 1940s and finishing with its total ubiquity in New Labour and the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s, examines the scale of neoliberalism’s unlikely achievement. Neoliberalism did not succeed through protest or head-on collision, rather though parasitical infiltration, taking its time over decades rather than announcing itself as an abrupt change. It simultaneously “builds on the very real desires of the population”, and reduces the desire to resist the worldview it creates by making it appear natural, appealing and a “common sense” approach, despite in reality being anything but.[10]

The Future

Neoliberalism has repurposed the idea of “modernity” for its own ends;[11] but now is the time, say S&W, for the left to reclaim it, by devising a “future-oriented politics capable of challenging capitalism at the largest scales.” Change will not come about as a result of wishful thinking, or by turning our backs on the future altogether. The left must approach the concept of the future as a contestable, hyperstitional field.[12] Likewise the concept of freedom ought to be revised as mutable and synthetic rather than fixed and natural. “Whereas negative freedom is concerned with assuring the formal right to avoid interference, ‘synthetic freedom’ recognises that a formal right without a material capacity is meaningless.”[13] Rather than an emancipatory action, freedom cannot be considered as separate from power.[14] The power to act independently allows us to achieve what is beyond our current capabilities, and is the basic requirement for postcapitalism:

One of the biggest indictments of capitalism is that it enables the freedom to act for only a vanishingly small few. A primary aim of a postcapitalist world would therefore be to maximise synthetic freedom, or in other words, to enable the flourishing of all humanity and the expansion of our collective horizons. Achieving this involves at least three different elements: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources, and the development of technological capacities. Taken together, these form a synthetic freedom that is constructed rather than natural. (p80)

Freedom, in the form of free time, ought to be the basis of any emancipatory movement, particularly a postcapitalist one; not the negative freedoms for further employment or greater consumer choice. It is necessary therefore to “reject the centrality of work” in ordinary people’s lives.[15] Likewise, humanity itself must be freed from the cultural and social definitions of the humanist mould, as “[i]t is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself. This means revising the human both theoretically and practically, engaging in new modes of being and new forms of sociality as practical ramifications of making ‘the human’ explicit.” (pp82-83)

Such proposals for a re-imagining of our future are routinely dismissed as “utopian”, a word often brandished as a synonym for “unreasonable” or “wishful thinking”, but the authors of ItF take on the meaning of this word much more optimistically, announcing their project as openly and necessarily utopian.[16] With the flavour of Ballardian science fiction, they conceive of utopian thought as “[generating] a viewpoint from which the present becomes open to critique” (p139), and subsequently provides the instruments of change. It is this flavour that overspills into the latter chapters of the book, influencing their wider views of the role of politics and their proposed reformist demands.

Demand!

S&W set out their “demands” clearly and articulately over the second half of the book (indeed, also on the cover). Here they are in outline:

– The first is for “full automation”, i.e. to incorporate existing and new technologies into the workplace as seamlessly as possible. A fully automated economy “would aim to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth”, and therefore the tendency towards automation is one that should be “enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left.” As the demand for skilled labour is set to reduce drastically in the years ahead, whether we like it or not, it is better to embrace and prepare for this change than to try to resist it (pp109-114). Furthermore, as the most significant new technologies, from the Internet to the iPhone, have been the result chiefly of governmental funding and not, as popular myth may suggest, solely the efforts of Silicon Valley mavericks and entrepreneurs, the transition towards full automation must be conceived of as  a political and not merely an economic project.[17]

– A reduction of the working week. This is endorsed not only as “reducing the working week constitutes a key response to rising automation”, but it also benefits the environment, and enables a consolidation of class power; all things for which work is more often a problem than a solution (p116). It also gives body to the reasons for which we work in the first place.

– The demand for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A weekly income, which would be a sufficient amount of money for a citizen to live on, given to everyone, would finally separate people from the economic necessity of work, and therefore “[transform] the political relationship between labour and capital.” Precarity, the condition of part-time, flexible hours or zero-hours work would also be transformed, into “voluntary flexibility”. “[T]here are a vast number of reasons to support a UBI”, say the authors: “reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy.” (p118-122)

– A diminishment of the work ethic. The authors see their biggest obstacles as “not economic, but political and cultural: political, because the forces that will mobilise against it are immense; and cultural, because work is so deeply ingrained into our very identity.” Therefore part of their project would involve a seismic shift around the ideology of work, even a secularisation, as the origins of the work ethic are entangled with religious beliefs, institutions and practices.[18]

But of course it’s not as simple as replacing workers in the current economy, or producing funds for UBI out of thin air, which is why, S&W argue, these demands are better taken multilaterally and simultaneously, as part of an “integrated programme”. They even provide an interesting example whereby the implementation of both demands enhances one another in a positive-feedback loop:

Low-paid work is often crass and disempowering, and under a programme of UBI it is unlikely that many would want to undertake it. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid. In other words, the nature of work would become a measure of its value, not its profitability. The outcome of this revelation would also mean that, as wages for the worst jobs rose, there would be new incentives to automate them. UBI therefore forms a positive-feedback loop with the demand for full automation. (pp121-2)

Only when these proposals are fought for can the left stand a chance at replacing the current hegemony with a counter-hegemony of its own. It should be based on these goals in particular, say the writers, because they are based on “the real desires of people” and “grounded in real tendencies in the world today, giving them a viability that revolutionary dreams lack” (pp126, 108). Instead of taking the approach of deciding what is necessary, it is better to begin from a position of achieving what is possible. S&W decide that we ought to learn from the ideological successes of the twentieth century and aim to create a “Mont Pelerin of the left” (pp65-7). A new common sense is to be constructed and for this, both emerging online as well as traditional forms of media are necessary, as they influence to a large degree the boundaries of what is considered “realistic” in the public purview.[19] A “sociotechnical hegemony” will enable the drawing together of the disparate and fragmented left under the heading of a “new collective ‘we’” (pp136, 158). This “we” will constitute a decentralised “ecology of organisations”: a combined vast pool of resources and talent from across multiple fields and both open and closed groups (p163). That such an ecology would be a populist movement is taken to be self-evident, the authors defining that term positively as “a kind of political logic by which a collection of different identities are knitted together against a common opponent and in search of a new world” (p159).

Contesting the future

The essayists at TDoT find much to admire and recommend in ItF, but whether singularly or collectively, they each express serious doubts about the book in its entirety. Perhaps unexpectedly, the biggest issue here is over the term “folk politics” and its application within the book’s first half. Interpreted as a cynical, condescending attack on the very same liberal-minded footsoldiers S&W wish to employ for their own project by most of the critics, Steven Shaviro makes an additional comment on the term’s synonymity with that of “folk psychology”, “the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves.” Joe Hoover finds that, instead of a practical guide on the upscaling of localised tactics, readers “get little practical advice for how abstraction and new cognitive maps and subversive universalism enable this work and [instead] plenty of indictment backed with limited evidence. Perhaps, there is scant advice on offer because there is such minimal engagement with what local struggles actually do beyond marching and occupying.” There is also, he says, insufficient evidence of “a powerful common sense that is impeding alternative projects”, despite what the authors propose. Redefining the authors’ universalism as a “pluri-versalism”, Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell find that S&W’s proposals are not easy to disentangle from the folk politics rubric; using the example of Indigenous struggle, Lewis and Bell highlight the term’s inherent complications:

Indigenous people have frequently been equated with the natural; whilst Indigenous politics is necessarily ‘local’ in focus (even if it is often all-too-aware of the global dimensions of power) and frequently entails resistance against enclosure. Do S&W see Indigeneity as a ‘folk political’ drag on the future? The consequences of their claims for Indigenous politics are – seemingly – that it should get on board with a ‘universal’ left-modernity in return for the promise that it be allowed to develop autonomous ways of living once capitalism is overthrown. (Lewis & Bell)

This last comment leads into the next most frequent criticism: the particularly Eurocentric, colonial (white, male) topography of S&W’s plan. It would be nearly impossible, say Lewis and Bell, to implement a programme of full automation without the continuing, in fact intensifying of racialised labour, in the form of mining for raw materials (such as precious metals used in electronic components) and low-cost prison labour. Such an oversight constitutes for Lewis and Bell “a privileging of (ending) predominantly white, male work”, but not a global response to rising surplus populations or a solid foundation for full automation. In Joseph Kay’s comment the author tackles the consistency of ItF’s “postcapitalist ecology” more directly. Reading the book alongside Neil Smith’s “ideology of nature”,[20] the opposing poles of folk politics and S&W’s own radical proposals can be read in tandem with Smith’s dialectic of “back-to-nature romanticism” versus a “politico-theological modernism”. In his own work, Smith retraces the origins of this opposition back to the colonialism of emerging European capitalism, repositioning “nature” as an occidental conception: codifiable and conquerable, the “inverted reflection of capitalist modernity” (Kay). Kay’s own examples of the disposal of toxic waste (again linked to the mining of rare earth minerals) and SRM (solar radiation management) as a proposed solution to climate change (although not in ItF)[21] call into question the ethical considerations along racial faultlines not addressed sufficiently in the book. While S&W clearly attempt to reposition their demands as incompatible with the horror stories of racialised labour, they do not go far enough, at least in the respects mentioned by their critics.

Of the responses to ItF posted at TDoT, the most critical (and one of the most interesting) is Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman’s “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”. Its authors waste no time in expanding their critique of S&W’s Eurocentricity into a fully-fleshed Neoliberal apologeticism:

Given enduring conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, and a host of associated structural inequalities with which we in the West are complicit, it is difficult not to mistrust the (white, Western, male) authors’ deliberately provocative claim to strategic leadership of the entire Left.. Read in this way, Inventing the Future amounts to an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices. While the book plays lip service to the importance of a respect for a diversity of tactics and socio-political multiplcity, it consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus. Indeed, such practices are precisely those indicated for getting in the way of the business of acquiring and wielding power. In its romanticisation of past forms of Leftist (not to mention Neoliberal) organising and the modernism of the Second International the book offers precious little in the way of safeguards against the potential tyrannies of hegemony, vanguardism and Leninism. (Hirst & Houseman)

Predictably, therefore, S&W’s goals “do precious little to disrupt, and are entirely compatible with, neoliberal thought and subjecthood.” Furthermore their insistence on focusing on the implementation of their demands on a national level, “geared towards achieving parliamentary dominance in North/Western democratic states”, belie a lack of forethought of the global consequences, particularly in regards to the outsourcing of dangerous and poorly-paid (and unpaid) labour to the struggling developing world.[22] S&W’s privileging of hegemony over horizontalist discourse even extends to their “folk politics” terminology, codifying all localist social movements and hypocritically subtly denying their protesters ability to challenge their viewpoint in advance.[23] Taking all of these observations of ItF into account, Hirst and Houseman conclude: “it is difficult not to feel somewhat bewildered and apprehensive that a project claiming to promote human emancipation and freedom would argue for a form of political organisation which employs deceptive, repressive, and violent means in the service of its ends.”

This is an atypical reaction to the book, yet elucidates a latent agreement, which in hindsight can be detected in the articles of all the other DoT critics. The exercise as a whole illustrates the strengths of outsider knowledge and expertise advocated by S&W’s programme; it is unsurprising therefore, on reading ItF, that the authors would agree to subject their work to this method of observation. Yet it is also clear that, despite rigorous research beforehand, there are a number of amendments that can and should be made to future editions. Two authors in particular suggested by the commentators are valuable starting places. Donna Haraway’s work on cybernetic ideology is advocated separately by both Kay and Lewis and Bell as a useful resource when grappling with the complexity of the human/machine binary, which does not, in truth, really exist and is much of a colonial-capitalist invention as “nature”. The latter authors pick out an especially valuable quote from Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” which they argue can be applied to ItF: “the acid tools of postmodernist theory and the constructive tools of ontological discourse about revolutionary subjects might be seen as ironic allies in dissolving Western selves in the interests of survival.”[24] Instead, Haraway’s own line of disseminating the ontology of man over machine, a distinction which “organises ItF’s politics of liberatory automation”, is preferable. Instead of fabricating further topographies, it is better to acknowledge a change in perception. “We have always been cyborgs with no clear place to go; and are (probably unendingly) stuck with the mess and trouble of making ourselves comrades – making ourselves, as S&W put it, a ‘people’” (Lewis & Bell).

A synthetic subjectivity for a synthetic freedom is not to be reached as a “destination”, as Lewis and Bell put it (in other words, in a time marked “the future”); rather the cyborg perspective emerges atemporally, perpendicular to history. A further comment on S&W’s synthetic freedom is provided by Hannah Arendt, annexed by Hoover. His paraphrase: “what is the meaning of freedom in a world less and less of our making?” In a fully implemented programme of “full” automation, what is it that is to be automated, or rather, what isn’t? This raises a final point, namely that in ItF’s overzealousness (fetishisation) of machinic efficiency key questions on human and societal value in a work without work are all too quickly sidelined.

Personal reflections

S&W themselves posted a detailed response to the criticisms made by the TDoT commentators.[25] As this blog post is already lengthy I won’t really go into unnecessary details here, but instead will conclude by offering some light on my own perspective of ItF. Being all too familiar with S&W’s previous manifesto, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013, hereafter MAP), and the authors’ roles in establishing the critical term “accelerationism” in its current usage,[26] I was interested to see the impact of that previous work on this. But an early footnote in the book discourages further comparison with their earlier thought, or that word in any rate:

This work builds upon and expands our earlier proposals set out in the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’. We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has arisen around the concept, rather than from any abdication from its tenets as we understand them. (p189, en 1.55)

I largely agree with Steven Shaviro, who has for a while now been a significant critic against the concept of accelerationism as a political programme,[27] when he notes that, “[t]hough the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference.” The only sense overthrowing this term seems to make is to simplify the rhetoric for newcomers, this being the authors’ first book for a major publisher (Verso). Yet that term, for all its faults, suggested a slightly more coherent and integrated argument, making connotations towards further interesting texts by a group which potentially includes the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, to name a few. Although S&W try to inject the word into later strands of the book (“tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated”, “we must build a world in which we can accelerate out of our stasis.” (pp109, 181, emphasis added)), it feels as though it has already been defanged and disregarded. Similarly references to previous arguments made in MAP are hardly any more advanced than they initially appeared in that text.[28] The authors “do indeed make accelerationist proposals,” Shaviro observes, but significantly they do so “while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years.” Maybe if S&W weren’t so afraid of the Pandora’s Box they helped to pry open a few years ago ItF could have been even more radical with its proposals; instead its feels like a concession to critics (Shaviro included) who reduced accelarationism to a one-dimensional, petrolheaded, infantile, phallocentric solution to already  volatile political issues.[29]

It is true that ItF only functions as a manifesto by codifying with the labels “folk politics”, “neoliberalism”, “human”, “machine”, and so on. But it’s also true that there is enough flexibility within these terms for an ecology of organisations to come to agreement over specific issues involving human rights, environmental concerns, and so on. ItF is structured in such a way that, as many critics have expressed, it is difficult to be entirely opposed to (after all, who would be opposed to a reduction in the working week with no loss in pay?). S&W have been so accommodating to revision and intellectual sparring that their prescriptions appear more moderate and less revolutionary than the book’s dramatic cover implies. It is a book of good ideas, but better intentions. This means that the authors sometimes stray into territory they probably don’t know enough about to comment on, but in any case by doing so they facilitate the debate you feel is more important to them anyway.

S&W quite rightly address the claims that their work has a too dominant “Western male” feel, and somehow manage to win back footing by acknowledging their situation as a limitation:

[O]ur knowledge is primarily of conditions in the spaces within which we live and breathe. […] [O]ur intention was instead to circumscribe the limits of our analysis and highlight our own situatedness. The alternative, it seems to us, would have been a hubristic claim that we know best how the rest of the world can and should build a post-work society – that two white men should lead the way. (Srnicek & Williams, “Reinventing the Future”)

This statement might illustrate a sensible decision made by the authors, but it can’t plug the holes made by the TDoT critics concerning the racialised, gendered and environmental implications of some of the book’s proposals. Neither can statements like “a post-work world must be seen as a response to existing and emerging neocolonial, racist, sexist and exploitative conditions” – not by themselves, at least. Not that I’m saying that the authors need to go back to the drawing board – they are certainly on the right track. But a reconsolidation of the four demands might be in order. S&W state that “[w]hile each of these proposals can be taken as an individual goal in itself, their real power is expressed when they are advanced as an integrated programme”, in other words, their counter-hegemony. And it is here, above all other points where I must most strongly disagree: these goals can only be achieved as part of an integrated programme. The four central demands are like leaky buckets that must be stacked together if they are to hold water. Taken individually, not one of them is capable of successful implementation in the current socioeconomic climate without exacerbating the problems the others are (potentially) capable of solving. The other critics have already illustrated this clearly, whether stressing the undesirable environmental turmoil and increase in exploitative labour required to kickstart full automation (Kay, Lewis and Bell), or the financial resources needed to instigate a unilateral UBI programme (Shaviro).

If, however, these four targets (in revised form, with necessary additional sub-targets addressing specific social, financial and ecological issues) were indeed presented in a coherent, flexible manner, as S&W ideally envisage, there is a lot of evidence provided in the book that suggests that over a medium-long time period (20 to 50 years, perhaps) there may easily be enough public support for a populist political project to see these desirable goals mounting a successful challenge to the current projected sequence of events.[30] What climate change has taught us is that intervention can indeed sustain a reversal against the deeply embedded odds, but only provided that we act now, quickly, decisively. Likewise ItF illustrates some of the shortest routes towards postcapitalism: the sooner their simplicity and desirability reach a level of mainstream promotion, the easier a broad restructuring of labour, money and technology able to defend against the “global crises” first identified by S&W in MAP[31] will seem to a general audience. And if to propose that a challenge to the “common sense” espoused by the corporate media is indeed their objective, they lack only the publicity this media manages.

Endnotes

[1] The essays are as follows: Shaviro, S. “Accelerationism Without Accelerationism”, Kay, J. “Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future”, Lewis, S. & Bell, D.M. “(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It”: A Response to Inventing the Future”, Hirst, A. & Houseman, T. “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”, Hoover, J. “Myths of Invention”. (2015) Published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/tag/inventing-the-future/].

[2] Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, London/New York, Verso, p7. [All subsequent citations refer to this text unless otherwise stated.]

[3] “Horizontalism rejects the project of hegemony as intrinsically domineering, putting forth an affinity-based politics in its stead. Rather than advocating an appeal to or takeover of the vertical power of the state, horizontalism argues for freely associating individuals to come together, create their own autonomous communities and govern their own lives.” p26.

[4] Although, for small, localised issues, for example campaigning to keep a hospital open, folk political strategies such as street protests and petitions are perfectly adequate methods of public engagement. S&W do not call for an outright rejection of folk politics, they merely identify its inadequacies when addressing non-local, multi-faceted political issues; folk politics cannot be the only, or even the default way of inciting change. p12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “For centre-left political parties, nostalgia for a lost past is the best that can be hoped for. The most radical content to be found here consists of dreams of social democracy and the so-called ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Yet the very conditions which once made social democracy possible no longer exist. The capitalist ‘golden age’ was predicated on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (white, male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system depended on an international hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. Moreover, social democracy relied on a particular balance of forces between classes (and a willingness for compromise between them), and even this was only possible in the wake of the unprecedented destruction caused by the Great Depression and World War II, and in the face of external threats from communism and fascism. For all the nostalgia many may feel, this regime is both undesirable and impossible to recover. But the more pertinent point is that even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and the social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people.” pp46-7.

[7] “While nostalgia for a lost past is clearly not an adequate response, neither is today’s widespread glorification of resistance. Resistance always means resistance against another active force. In other words, it is a reactive and defensive gesture, rather than an active movement. We do not resist a new world into being, we resist in the name of an old world. The contemporary emphasis on resistance therefore belies a defensive stance towards the encroachments of expansionary capitalism. Trade unions, for instance, position themselves as resisting neoliberalism with demands to ‘save our health system’ or ‘stop austerity’; but these demands simply reveal a conservative disposition at the heart of the movement.” p47.

[8] Neoiberalism itself “differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state. A major task of neoliberalism has therefore been to take control of the state and repurpose it. […] [N]eoliberals understand that markets are not ‘natural’. [They] must be consciously constructed […] Under neoliberalism, the state therefore takes on a significant role in creating ‘natural’ markets.” p53.

[9] A “neoliberalist thought collective”, which (successfully) tried to introduce an anti-Keynesian counter-hegemony into Western governments. pp54-56.

[10] Although able to recognise the magnitude of neoliberalism’s success, the writers are far from enthusiastic about the negative effects of its pervasiveness: “It is […] not just politicians, business leaders, the media elite and academics who have been enrolled into this [neoliberalist] vision of the world, but also workers, students, migrants – and everyone else. In other words, neoliberalism creates subjects. Paradigmatically, we are constructed as competitive subjects – a role that encompasses and surpasses industrial capitalism’s productive subject. The imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. Perpetual education, the omnipresent requirement to be employable, and the constant need for self-reinvention are all of a piece with this neoliberal subjectivity. The competitive subject, moreover, straddles the line between the public and the private. One’s personal life is as bound to competition as one’s work life. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that anxiety proliferates in contemporary societies. Indeed, an entire battery of psychopathologies has been exacerbated under neoliberalism: stress, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders are increasingly common psychological responses to the world around us. Crucially, the construction of everyday neoliberalism has also been a primary source of political passivity. Even if you do not buy into the ideology, its effects nevertheless force you into increasingly precarious situations and increasingly entrepreneurial inclinations. We need money to survive, so we market ourselves, do multiple jobs, stress and worry about how to pay rent, pinch pennies at the grocery store, and turn socialising into networking. Given these effects, political mobilisation becomes a dream that is perpetually postponed, driven away by the anxieties and pressures of everyday life.” pp63-67.

[11] We all know today that ‘modernisation’ translates into job cuts, the slashing of welfare and the privatisation of government services. To modernise, today, simply means to neoliberalise.” p63.

[12] The authors definition of a hyperstition is “a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth. Hyperstitions operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence. They have the temporal form of ‘will have been’. Such hyperstitions of progress form orienting narratives with which to navigate forward, rather than being an established or necessary property of the world.” pp70-75.

[13] “Under a democracy, for example, we are all formally free to run for political leadership. But without the financial and social resources to run a campaign, this is a meaningless freedom. Equally, we are all formally free not to take a job, but most of us are nevertheless practically forced into accepting whatever is on offer. In either case, various options may be theoretically available, but for all practical purposes are off the table.” p79.

[14] “As Marx and Engels wrote, ‘it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means’. Understood in this way, freedom and power become intertwined. If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something else, then an increase in the ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom. The more capacity we have to act, the freer we are.” Ibid.

[15] S&W posit themselves in a continuum of post-work thinkers from across a spectrum of political idealists: “Marxists, Keynesians, feminists, black nationalists and anarchists”. p86.

[16] “Utopias are the embodiment of hyperstitions of progress. They demand that the future be realised, they form an impossible but necessary object of desire, and they give us a language of hope and aspiration for a better world.” p138.

[17] “The fact of the matter is that capitalist markets tend towards short-term views and low-risk investments. […] It is governments that make investments in high-risk developments that are likely to fail – but for that reason are also likely to lead to major changes. […] The challenge is to develop institutional mechanisms that will enable popular control over the direction of technological creation.” pp146-7.

[18] “[F]or our societies, remuneration requires work and suffering. […] This thinking has an obvious theological basis – where suffering is thought to be not only meaningful, but in fact the very condition of meaning. […] But we should reject this logic today and recognise that we have moved beyond the need to ground meaning in suffering. Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified.” pp123-6.

[19] Here the writers utilise the concept of the Overton Window, “the bandwidth of ideas and options that can be ‘realistically’ discussed by politicians, public intellectuals and news media, and thus be accepted by the public.” p134. Also they observe: “[T]he left has typically focused on creating media spaces outside the mainstream, rather than trying to co-opt existing institutions and leaking more radical ideas into the mainstream”, a trend which they would like to overturn. p165.

[20] See Smith, N. (2008) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Athens, University of Georgia Press.

[21] “The principle behind SRM is simple. The warming aspect of climate change is proximally caused by outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation becoming trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature. To counter this, it is proposed to use atmospheric aerosols (or orbital reflectors) to intercept a portion of the sun’s incoming shortwave radiation (‘insolation’), thus reducing the total energy input to the Earth system and offsetting the surface warming caused by greenhouse gases. This seems like a textbook case of technologically-augmented human control over complex systems.
“However, the Earth’s atmosphere being the prototypical chaotic system – i.e. deterministic but with sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the localised consequences are not easily modelled (SRM alters the atmosphere’s temperature gradient, known as the lapse rate, which is critical to meteorology). Some models suggest that the main adverse consequence of SRM would be severe droughts in regions dependent on seasonal rains, principally sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.” Kay.

[22] “The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation.” Hirst & Houseman.

[23] “The authors are clearly aware of the diversity in both character and tactics of the new and newest social movements the world over, and the huge variation in their respective goals and capacities to realise their widely divergent aims. Despite this variety, however, they choose to subsume this plethora of groups under the signifier ‘folk’ by means to which to develop a blanket challenge, enacting a hegemonic move at the level of language. Such a signifier serves to construct its various objects in such a manner as to homogenise and delegitimise them from the outset; to frame political actors or groups as ‘folk’ is not simply to offer a description but rather to render them provincial, backward, quaint or parochial. By dint of their subsumption under a common signifier, highly refined and reflexive political practices are rendered equivalent to hipster faux-authenticity and ecological mysticism. The reader is thereby invited to disregard, dismiss and even parody contemporary activism the world over in toto, while the accelerationist project claims for itself a unique and privileged position.” Hirst & Houseman.

[24] Haraway, D. (2000) “A Cyborg Manifesto”, London, Routledge, p297. Available at: https://libcom.org/cyborg-manifesto. PDF available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Haraway-CyborgManifesto-1.pdf.

[25] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) “Reinventing the Future”, published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/2015/11/11/reinventing-the-future/].

[26] See Carswell, J. (2015) “Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjctivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 1: Accelerationism and the Ideology Without Subject”, orbistertius, available at https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/red-adam-accelerationist-subjectivisation-and-borgess-the-circular-ruinspart-1-accelerationism-and-the-ideology-without-subject/.

[27] See, for example, Shaviro, S. (2013) “”Accelerationism: An Introduction”, Lecture by Steven Shaviro @Grand Valley State University”. Video published online by Jason Adams at youtube.com [https://youtu.be/gi6I0K2PJrw].

[28] For example, Negarestani’s idea of “a humanism that is not defined in advance […] without a pre-established endpoint” is merely referenced by S&W (p82), not really grappled with or integrated well into the outline of their project. This is the kind of confusing avoidance that could have been eliminated if the authors were seen to be more comfortable with their previous output.

[29] One of the best anti-accelerationist texts is Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (2014, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books). Yet this book is also an example of mistreating its central subject as something else from what its advocators use it for. Noys (who earlier coined the term “accelerationism” in The Persistence of the Negative) argues at the end of Malign Velocities for “a restoration of the sense of friction that interrupts and disrupts the fundamental accelerationist fantasy of smooth integration.” (p103)  However he has failed to take into account the internal conflicts within accelerationist thought as to the nature and extent of Deleuzoguattarian deterritorialization, for example between the views of S&W and Land set out in MAP.

[30] S&W themselves make use of and praise the populist form of the Kickstarter-funded Podemos party in the book: “Podemos, […] has aimed to build mechanisms for popular governance while also seeking a way into established institutions. It is a multi-pronged approach to social change and offers greater potential for real transformation than either option on its own.” p169.

[31] These crises are as follows: “the breakdown of the planetary climactic system […]; [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves, [which offer] the prospect of mass starvation, collapsing economic paradigms, and new hot and cold wars […]; [c]ontinued financial crisis [which] has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatisation of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages.” Williams, A. & Srnicek, N. (2013) “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, first published online by Critical Legal Thinking at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/, 1.2. [Also available in PDF format at https://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf].