Writing as Work

It’s often been said (not least on this blog) that for many of us, work plays a central role in our lives. Sometimes there is a close relationship between the words “work” and “livelihood”. The idea of engaging in work in order to live is quite common but disarmingly complex. According to the physical laws of motion, any conversion of energy into a productive force can be defined as work. In classical liberalism, political economy, and Marxism, work is loosely defined as some sort of production, although this idea is now formalised as wage labour: the exchange of productive human activity with a monetary dividend – i.e. employment. What then happens to these conceptions of work when we project back onto them the idea of livelihood, of working to live? How do we define work when production is no longer needed as a formal element (because its often only the least fortunate of us that are today engaged in the most dangerous practices we think of as production)? And where does the idea of production go without work? I’d like to draw from my own acts of production in the form of writing, and other experiences of different forms of waged and unwaged work, to offer a few considerations.

At this present moment, my time is split between the long-term ambitions of writing – which I think of as something like a kind of production as a way of life, if not a “livelihood” as such – and the more immediate concerns of precarious living – the pressing need for waged work, consistent streams of revenue, psychological and social groundings, and so on. The difficulty for me, and for many others that I know are struggling to find footing at the edge of capitalism, is to chart a journey that works for both ideas of work-as-survival and work-as-desiring-production (because no one would choose this without believing in the promise of fulfiling a deeply-held desire). The blog provides me with no income; I’ve never been paid for any piece of published work; and I’m not naïve to expect that to suddenly change. Therefore, I can’t expect to combine these two ideas of work, and anticipate writing as a self-sufficient means of livelihood. To negotiate between different types of work takes a huge strain on the time I have, and the frustration and disappointment that results from compromising either is tough to endure. These feelings arise from the nasty balancing act that causes me to be less successful in either of these areas of work than if I were to fully commit to one or the other; further behind than I’d like to be, always engaged in catching up.

You’ll notice that in the last paragraph I did in fact refer to writing as work: an opinion that is not shared by everyone. For several members of my family, I do not work, plain and simple. Writing doesn’t count, and is never discussed or encouraged, because it doesn’t produce an income. Likewise, job searching is not work, unless I returned to the job centre and claimed unemployment benefits, in which case the 35 hours a week of looking for work, training courses and the like that are conditional to receive said benefits would count, as they do for the Department of Work and Pensions. According to this logic, only activity associated with financial reward qualifies as work: it’s what you get out, not what you put in, that counts. Living with this inscrutable, thoroughly pessimistic assuredness, especially coming from my “elders and betters”, continues to be nauseating. But it also underlines the paradox I’m trying to tease out. Taken at face value, this argument states that the only value of work that really matters is as an act of survival, and survival is money. Without a pay packet, work is not work but a waste of time. But you shouldn’t go around saying those things – you’ll never get a job that way.

It took me a good while to find a way through this pessimism. Academia certainly helped, not only for the change in scenery, but also in assuring me that I wasn’t mad, that it’s not hopelessly delusional to expect more from life than submitting to fear and immunising oneself against homelessness and starvation. When I came to one tutor, expressing how hard I was finding it to hold down a part-time job at the same time as full-time education, they told me in unequivocal terms to quit the job the moment I no longer needed the money. (They later said to me that they might have been a tad reckless in suggesting this.) The attitudes I encountered at university couldn’t be more different to those I was used to at home: while not homogenous, and not all pretending to have reached an absolute position on the matter, most were of the opinion that it would be absurd not to consider writing as the primary form of work I was engaging in. As one friend said: “most of us are too afraid to write anything.”

For me, it is important to assert the following deductive logic: work as production, writing as production, and therefore writing as work. This is a defensive gesture for sure. No one else but me needs to think about my writing in this way. But doing so allows me that enclave, that place of sanctity to keep it together against the whirlwind of discouraging opinion, to keep going.

I was drawn to this subject again after coming across an excerpt from Richard Seymour’s new book The Twittering Machine published by The Guardian. Reminding us that, though our interactions with social media, most of us are writers now – less distinct than ever from casualised journalists and authors – someone or something is profiting from this perpetual motion of text production. We find ourselves being treated as gambling or drug addicts: “users” who know ourselves to be the ones being used by abstract machinery, feeding “the machinery of writers, writing and the feedback loop they inhabit” for the “hit” of likes and shares, temporary vainglories.[1] Writing may now be at its most democratic – and it’s most pernicious, which is even more reason to take it seriously as a discipline. The Twittering Machine is expert at abstractifying us, streamlining our lives into “a single visual flow, a set of soluble challenges”, helping us to understand who we are and what we ought to be doing.[2] Precisely then, I would say, why we should be helping ourselves and others to seize the means (memes?) of writing’s production, to reabstractify and restructure our lives towards progressive ends, open-sourcing our futures to share in the profits of writing-as-work.

Compare my earlier argument with sentiments made by (why not?) Mark Fisher, and his grievance against the phrase “contributing to society”, so prevalent in mainstream British discourse and elsewhere:

Like many people I know, I spent my twenties drifting between postgraduate courses and unemployment, encountering many pointless and demoralising “helping you back to work” initiatives along the way. There wasn’t much difference between what I was doing then and what I do now. But now I’m fairly confident that I “make a contribution”; then I wasn’t.[3]

There’s a clear identitarian need here, for both of us. If it is no longer clear in the age of mass casualisation what work is anymore, who’s to say what work is not? In fact, one could argue, writing fulfils the mandate of work as production better than most other kinds of activity today. Furthermore, I dare anyone to challenge the social value of writing, while at the same time defending the “contributions” made by those in service industry jobs, the likely soon-to-be-victims of full automation. It’s not healthy or fair for anyone in my position not to expect to be tired at the end of the working day, or to feel guilty about the lost opportunity for income. The idea of writing as work (and is it really so farfetched?) is about recognition, legitimacy, and security against the agents of a grotesque form of social conscience that it’s expected we all co-opt, one which states that you’re only as commendable as the depths you’re willing to sink in a scrabble for wages, and to believe in or practice anything else is the most vulgar form of sacrilege.

But isn’t being this defensive problematic? Doesn’t it merely serve to legitimise the idea of a concrete discrepancy between work and non-work? Should we not be moving in the opposite direction, towards an abolition of the value of work altogether? And yes, I agree in principle. The erosion of telos – of purpose-driven narratives in all areas of society, including the value of work – is one of many valuable opportunities that it’s imperative we grasp with both hands. As the work economy shrinks, and many of us not knowing how best to use the time we have, we really need to look closely at how we can make substantial, lasting changes to our lives and the lives of others, especially when not being granted reliable capital.

I spoke earlier this year at a “Precarity and Precariousness” event, giving a paper on Kathi Weeks’s book The Problem With Work (a version of this essay). One person replied to it by using a Right to Be Lazy kind of argument – if there is no moral imperative to earning a crust, if we’re in a better position than ever to engineer better modes of survival and adaptation alongside a loosening of the grip waged labour and its narcotic ethical imperatives have over us, then we need to assert our freedom to sleep, to spend time with family, to learn, to masturbate, etc. I responded to this with a reluctant yes. I could see that a return to personal autonomy is what this person meant, which is not really objectionable. But I think the original value of Weeks’s analysis tends further in the direction of what I’ve been describing here as production: to take precarious living itself as a template, to convert loss of earnings into a sustainable position from which to fight back against this very same trend. And to be clear about what it is we’re fighting for: sustainable life, not the macho ideal of honest work.

Yet there are other attitudes to mine on the subject of unrecognised working activity. I was pleasantly surprised reading Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World recently to read about precarious workers of a very different kind – the matsutake pickers of “Open Ticket”,[4] in the forests of Oregon – unified in their opinion of picking as decidedly not work. Here’s an excerpt:

Picking is also not labor [for mushroom foragers] – or even “work.” Sai, a Lao picker, explained that “work” means obeying your boss, doing what he tells you to. In contrast, matsutake picking is “searching.” It is looking for your fortune, not doing your job. […] No pickers I met imagined the money they gained from matsutake as a return on their labor. Even Nai Tong’s time babysitting was more akin to work than mushroom picking.

Tom, a white field agent who had spent years as a picker, was particularly clear about rejecting labor. He had been an employee of a big timber company, but one day put his equipment in his locker, walked out the door, and never looked back. […] Tom tells me how liberals have ruined American society; men no longer know how to be men. The best answer is to reject what liberals think of as “standard employment.”[5]

Without wishing to sound too evangelical or patronising, I confess to finding myself moved by the bravery – intentional or instinctual – these pickers show in so freely demonstrating the needlessness of their livelihood-making activity being categorised as any kind of “work” – even shuddering at the thought. Instead, Tsing links this activity to a shared notion of freedom generated by a shared sense of “mushroom fever”. This freedom, she argues, is the true object of exchange in the “pericapitalist”[6] economy of mushroom foraging. “Sometimes, indeed, it seemed to me that the really important exchange was the freedom, with the mushroom-and-money trophies as extensions – proofs, as it were – of the performance.”[7] Compared with notions of freedom spoken of by economists or libertarians, the mushroomers’ freedom “is irregular and outside rationalization; it is performative, communally varied, and effervescent.”[8] It is rather like the ghosts emerging from the shadows produced by the overhanging edges of capitalism, the cultural memory of postwar Japan, of Lao and Mien struggles, of shrinking, shrieking forests. A freedom that is simultaneously without and within these penumbral psychogeographies and power relations, a “negotiation of ghosts on a haunted landscape; it does not exorcise the haunting but works to survive and negotiate it with flair.”[9]

This description of the context-specific (economic, psychological) precipices inhabited by these modes of precarious living allows us to return to some more general points on which to conclude. In many cases, it seems, those engaged in productive activity (whatever you want to call it) often find themselves in a strange relation to the hegemonic forces from which to negotiate a sustainable way of life. For myself and postwork analysts and advocates, this has the tendency to generate a reactionary, defensive response – the need to abolish, to claw back, to protect the existing rights of the most vulnerable – as well as (even at odds with) advocating a progressive, transformative agenda – which the Open Ticket pickers embody and enact. Being optimistic (but certainly open to interpretation!) is to treat my own gesture – that of writing as work – as exemplifying this two-way movement, holding onto the signifiers of work (i.e. the name) while debasing the signification (the implied sociohistoric value).

I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The irony of course is that even commenting on the value an ethics of work – let alone actively seeking to contribute towards a politics of post-scarcity – takes up a lot of time and energy which we are hoping to release from old mythology and legislature. Which is probably why so few go very far down this path – it’s pretty counterintuitive and unheroic. I for one am tired, not so much of the lack of recognition, but the protestations of outright denial that I have any right to be. It turns what ought to be vitalistic and energising into even more hard work. Writing is work.

Notes

[1] Richard Seymour. “The machine always wins: what drives our addiction to social media”, The Guardian (23rd August 2019), available online at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/aug/23/social-media-addiction-gambling.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Fisher. “Contributing to Society”, k-punk (4th August 2010), available online at https://k-punk.org/contributing-to-society/.

[4] A fictional name used to protect the identities of pickers operating outside of the law.

[5] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[6] Meaning “simultaneously inside and outside capitalism”. Ibid., p. 63.

[7] Ibid., p. 75.

[8] Ibid., p. 76.

[9] Ibid.

Featured image credits: Detail from Paul Klee. Die Zwitscher-Maschine (63.8 cm x 48.1 cm, 1922). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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One Hour Photo (2002) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #7]

Mark Romanek (dir.). One Hour Photo (Killer Films/John Wells production for Fox Searchlight Pictures/Catch 23 Entertainment: 2002).

Sy “The Photo Guy” Parrish (Robin Williams) works in the photo development studio and kiosk located at the back of the local SavMart store. His otherwise solitary life is dedicated to the underappreciated art of developing prints for casual shoppers and regulars alike. Through his work, Sy becomes a minor figure in the lives of his customers. Likewise, Sy becomes invested in the subjects of these prints: he comes to know them in a very particular way, through the moments thought to be the most important or happy by the photographers. As Sy himself is aware, “no one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.”

Conventional narrative cinema is at a disadvantage compared to experimental or documentary film, when it comes to enacting or producing a theory or original engagements with thought. Often, what the film industry takes to be its most cerebral legacies (at its most supposedly laudable, the tired gods Inception and The Matrix) are composed, in essence, as empty vessels, carriers of “philosophy stuff” that imply hasty readings of existentialism and pop science. Rarely do films, mainstream or otherwise, ask us to confront media themselves, to approach the questions of representation and performativity via the processes of capturing images with cameras. One Hour Photo is not a theory-fiction about film, but it does depict textual becomings (or becoming-textualities) through the medium of photography. In this narrative, Sy Parrish is both a conscious and considered author-theorist and a willing participant. Over the course of the film, the stories Sy crafts through the prints he receives gradually become inextricable from his own. In a sense, he lives entirely through the carefully-selected memories of others, like a reverse hyperstition: “element of real culture that makes itself effective.” Or, to take another pop culture example, like the subject of The Cure’s “Pictures of You”: “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/That I almost believed that the pictures were all I could feel.”

Let’s trace Sy’s world-building fiction as it unfolds over the course of the film to explore this idea in depth. Early on, we are introduced to the family that becomes Sy’s object of desire, the neatly-arranged Oedipal triad of father Will, mother Nina, and son Jake Yorkin. The Yorkins have been regular customers for years: Sy commments that he’s watched 9-year-old Jake grow up through photos of birthdays, that he “feels like Uncle Sy”; deliberately letting slip his desire to enter and disrupt the equilibrium of the family unit. When, at the beginning of the film, Nina and Jake arrive at Sy’s kiosk (the absent father is another recurrent theme), and Sy notices that the last shot on their latest reel hasn’t been used, he uses the opportunity to take a picture of himself. This is a critical act of self-portraiture, as it marks the moment where Sy is able to cast himself into the family household, in a continuum of images, happy memories for the photo album, coffee table or refrigerator. As no one but Sy is aware, he possesses extra prints of all of the Yorkins’ photos, in a striking collage on the wall of his apartment; the same images existing in two places at once, Sy’s unattainable desire is to assimilate the two sets of prints into one.

As well as the more obvious limits to social acceptability (the unmistakably Walmart-esque non-place that is the setting for much of the film illustrates the corporate code of conduct repeatedly), there’s an economic barrier to the fulfilment of this desire too. The Yorkins’ light and spacious minimalist house (more like a suburban mansion, paid for by Will’s profession as the director of a design company) sharply contrasts Sy’s out-of-town, dingy flat. This is especially apparent during a fantasy sequence in which Sy breaks into that house, and sees that self-portrait on the fridge door alongside the (very) familiar snaps of the family. The differences between the two households are clear to Sy: the Yorkins’ lives are abundant, joyful, idyllic, and literally picturesque; his life, on the other hand, is lonely, cold, and a perpetual economic and emotional struggle. Where the Yorkins are extrovert and public, willing to perform their fantasy of a perfect life to the eye of the camera, Sy is an introvert, a scavenger for images that would imbue his life with significance.

Yet as carefree as the Yorkins’ photographic story appears, it fails to illustrate the family’s much more turbulent domestic situation. At the core of this is husband-father Will’s “neglect”, the source of which is revealed to Sy to be his affair with another woman, Maya Burson. Sy is wounded by this discovery, to an almost personal degree. These two people, Will and Maya, stand to jeopardise the photo-narrative he has invested so much into, and so the remainder of the film sees him planning and enacting his revenge on them both. Perhaps here we can sense a degree of self-loathing in this reaction: their desires not especially different, Maya is merely a more successful interloper than Sy, so it seems Sy is weighed down by a refusal to face his own hypocrisy. Instead, he assumes control of a narrative he takes to be his (and in a sense, he is right), to cut off the flows of desire that have disturbed the harmony he needed to believe in.

At the centre of One Hour Photo are the photos themselves; it is a story about static images, told through moving images. At the time of the film’s release, digital photography was set to replace film photography, rendering Sy’s lab work antiquarian for the general consumer. If the twentieth century was dominated by the presence of photographic images, the beginning of the twenty-first has put this process into hyperacceleration, with the infusion of the digital photo, all-in-one portable devices (mobile smartphones), Wi-Fi and 4/5G, and image-centric social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook). It may not even be possible at this stage to measure the full impact of these technologies on social behaviour, but it ought to be evident that this revolution of images gifts all of us photo producer-consumers a great source of power. This power of the image (some might say glamour) produces in us a cocktail of thoughts and emotions which is often overbearing for individual human users, and can (and indeed does) manifest in sociopathic expressions: shame, terror, self-harm, suicide. We are (implicitly or not) keenly aware that without online presence, especially for the otherwise isolated, we risk not existing at all, and our photographic identity is a key component in this. We are all encouraged to shape our own photographic narratives, driven by an almost cultish sentiment of keeping alive. Sy’s observation – that we don’t have photos of things and times we want to forget – is more resonant now than ever: the surgical tools granted to us ensure that the deletion of an image no longer leaves behind even a physical residue.

The image One Hour Photo forces us to confront is that of Robin Williams, whose widely-publicised suicide in 2014 consecrates the actor’s visage as a Yorick-like memento mori. It’s too easy to grant hindsight the agency for subsequent interpretations of Williams and his work, of which much of the best has often been able to suggest a melancholic aspect. Georg Rockall-Schmidt says that while many remember Williams’s talent for being funny, he remembers more sharply Williams’s talent for being sad, and I think this comment is very astute. Regardless of this ability during life, the impact of Williams’s death surely does affect the watching of One Hour Photo. The film does more than portray a dead film star; our cultural memory coerces us into seeing a dying one. If Sy’s narrative is one of pornographic voyeurism (however platonic in its expression), that is at times uncomfortably close to our own photographic lives, then the position of One Hour Photo in the narrative of Robin Williams invites a voyeurism of a different kind: proto-snuff. And as Paul B. Preciado notes, “the notion of snuff is opposed to the dramatic or simulated and mimetic quality of all representation.” As bodily and somatic theory-fiction, snuff “affirms the performative power of representation to modify reality, or a desire for the real to exist in and by representation.” The danse macabre of Williams on screen is fully actualised in his portrayal of the desperately lonely Sy Parrish, speaking to the daily whirlwind of images we produce and consume, the legitimacy they promise but which we can never possess or embody, the dualistic celebrity/nobody of our spectral subjectivity. Sy’s thanatropic desire for the illustrious, elusive real is ours too: a mortification that is already under way.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #6]

Aphex Twin. Richard D. James Album (1996: Warp Records).

When I was a teenager, I suddenly developed skin allergies which still persist in a milder form to this day. I therefore needed 2 or 3 prescribed medications (nowadays down to 1) to deal with these sudden reactions, and found that I couldn’t use heavily perfumed products – including most common soaps – without causing irritations to my fair skin. I decided, following medical advice, to replace as many hygiene products as possible with milder, alternatives, with fewer potentially harmful ingredients, but this meant going through a period of experimentation, with not every result being kind or favourable. I’d opted for a new moisturiser – it had an image of a globe on the bottle and boasted quite loudly of its “natural ingredients” – which, after a couple of days had completely dried out the skin on my face, making it wrinkled, broken, and hideous. I had just discovered the music of Aphex Twin, and found a strange caveat to my experience: that I could now look in the mirror and see a ghoulish visage not unlike that on the cover of the Richard D. James Album.

My first exposure to this record probably came in the form of (Salad Fingers creator) David Firth’s wonderful unofficial video for “4”. I can say with reasonable confidence that this track, with a handful of others, had an effect on me that felt like nothing less than a reprogramming of my brain. In the last “Origins of Theory-Fiction”, I considered DJ Screw and his legacy as a paradigm of musical breakthrough made through slowness, and much of the Richard D. James Album and other AFX releases during this time (Girl/Boy EPCome to Daddy, Windowlicker, and Drukqs) take the opposite direction with results that are no less startling. James presents compositions with elements pitched at different yet complimentary speeds, but what immediately grabs the attention are his breakneck and hyper-detailed drums, producing ever-mutating rhythms, patterns, and textures. Strings, bass, and other electronic elements layer over these drums, contrasting them sharply with their laconic paces. These latter features have a more immediate beauty, but on repeated listens fall back slightly in order to accentuate a more complex and substantial sublimity provided by the percussion. These are drums capable of endless variation and interpretation, which strive to capture what art rarely manages to process: the speed of life. Or rather, a life, which connects to many.

In a career defined by unpredicted slippages and left turns, AFX’s Richard D. James Album stands as a remarkable piece of self-portraiture (might we say autotheory?). Or perhaps not, as James has always been interpreted through a haze of rumours: one exists that he had a stillborn older brother, also named Richard, and so the album could also be an obituary to a lost “twin”. (See also the cover of Girl/Boy EP.)  It’s an achingly nostalgic 33 minutes at any rate, even as it has one foot firmly in the present-future. James had left his native Cornwall for London in the early 1990s, and much of the panoramic and liberating sentiment one might expect comes across in moments of his debut album, Selected Ambient Works 85-92. But this feeling dampens somewhat on the releases following this, and a darker introspection creeps in, taking over completely on the feverish, synesthesia-induced Selected Ambient Works Volume IIRichard D. James, by comparison, feels like an exorcism, a driving out of demonic influences through reconfiguring these self-representations, like the head sculptures of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

Which brings us full circle to that face again. A grotesque contortion with a deep gaze and plastered, immobile smile, made by James himself using early photo editing software. The associations we could derive are many: kinships with the mythical figures of Cornwall’s past (coastal giants, witches, pirates, and other cliffside dwellers), and the vulnerable figures of the immediate past of techno-modernity (the weakling children and Oompa-Loompas evoked through the record’s tracklisting). Ultimately, what James provides is a self-assertion, a key to determining the nature of what is being presented that doesn’t resort to prescription. A starting point which, through its apparent transparency, reveals an inscrutable enigma. A method of fixing an image of a cross-section of the forever-alien web of life. Richard.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Baby Voice, Deterritorialization, Masculinity

[O]nly through their encounter in a place, and their conjunction in a space that takes time, do decoded flows constitute a desire – a desire that, instead of just dreaming or lacking it, actually produces a desiring-machine that is at the same time social and technical. (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus)

Last month, Genius uploaded a video titled “A Linguist Breaks Down Playboi Carti’s Baby Voice”, in reference to a popular vocal technique used by the rapper in a string of recent hits. Highlights include guest appearances on Solange’s “Almeda” and Tyler, the Creator’s “EARFQUAKE”, as well as Carti’s own “Flatbed Freestyle” from last year’s Die Lit album. (Complex also have a more detailed timeline here.) For a musical genre where the performer’s voice is their main tool of distinction, innovation is not uncommon – nor, for that matter, is novelty, especially in saturated, memetic, and personality-driven times such as these. But the baby voice has perhaps caught the imagination more than anything in the genre in recent memory, and has spun off into a meme culture or order of signs all of its own (Cartinese).

In the video, Dr. Sharese King (University of Chicago) identifies one or two components of the baby voice: the reduction of consonant clusters and the adoption of different personas. These aren’t Carti’s unique innovations, however. The baby voice, as a “semiotic resource”, is a fully realised example of a new kind of toughness or aggression, based on a confidence in pulling away from obvious and overused signifiers. King: “If I’m a tough rapper, I’m not using a deep voice anymore to do it. I’m gonna use this kind of voice – this baby voice, it totally redefines the landscape for what hip hop looks like”.

In some ways that aren’t immediately obvious, rap in 2019 is in an even more aggressive place than 10 years ago. The cartoonish exuberance of a hit like Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint” has somewhat fallen away in favour of a mellower, less pronounced, and melodic style of cloud rap reflective of an ever more interconnected digital age. I say “somewhat”, because it’s interesting to note what has changed, and what has stayed the same. Atlanta-born trap has for some time become the dominant rap style – productions that are all bass and hi-hat trills – and also has influenced mainstream pop in a big way. But the subjectivities enshrouded by these musical elements has been allowed to mutate. The progression, and even the name “baby voice” are inspired moves, because although they appear to deviate from the heaviest features of an overtly masculine culture, where they re-emerge is not exactly “feminine” either. Socially speaking, babies are largely gender neutral – they’re not thought of as men or women in most contexts, but unformed social entities that will accumulate and enact gender signifiers as part of their growing up. In “reverting” to a baby voice, Carti performs a bloom or Body without Organs kind of a move – returning to a primal state, opening up the virtual channels to enable the culture to reactualise itself in more creative, original, and unseen ways.

Of course, this implies that the baby voice doesn’t, in fact, really challenge the misogynist narratives and patriarchal flexes weighing down the genre in any substantial way. The innovation is therefore largely aesthetic, not political, which is probably what insatiable rap fans are really after in the first place. It feels as though the baby voice has been coming for some time, and at least in the instances we’ve heard it so far, is able to provide something that some fans have been craving. And the baby voice itself expresses this desire for the new: the feeding of desiring machines by production machines, the cybernetics of control, profit, connection through social media and celebrity/meme culture, alienation, fear of erasure.

Does this mean that Carti’s recent tracks, features, and leaks will form the basis of a new turning point in rap? Hard to say, but it’s important to note that these artistic decisions aren’t happening in a vacuum. Following distinctive trailblazers in both the mainstream and the underground (particularly Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Lil B, and especially Young Thug – note all the diminutive signifiers), the last few years have seen the breakout success of similarly creative rap vocalists (Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion) and producers (Metro Boomin, Pi’erre Bourne, and far too many others to name). Each occupy their own interesting distances from the all-too-entrenched paradigm: the DMX/50 Cent figure – tough as nails, raised on the streets, dedicated to the thug life. The new wave aren’t< the polar opposite to this, but are distinguished by a more introspective sound and subject matter. Rap sometimes has a little brother syndrome when comparing itself to older, traditionally better received genres – especially rock. So maybe, as others sometimes say, this is rap’s emo phase. Occasionally this music carries the “sadboys” tag, named after the crew of Swedish rapper Yung Lean. I want to cover this in more detail in a later post, as there are clearly a lot more factors feeding this trend. But I will end on saying that I think two tracks stand above the others as nascent sadboy/emo rap anthems, these being Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” and the leaked “Pissy Pamper / Kid Cudi”, a Young Nudy track featuring Playboi Carti giving one of the best baby voice choruses heard yet.

Featured image credits: Complex.

Reversibility and Intimacy in and Beyond the Master’s House

I presented an abridged version of this paper as part of The Reverse Side: Guattari, Deleuze and Institutional Thought, a series of events which ran from 8th-10th July 2019 at Royal Holloway, University of London. In part a response to the concurrent, much larger International Deleuze and Guattari Conference 2019, The Reverse Side sought “to examine the institutional politics of contemporary academia and to explore the positive alternatives to university life suggested by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.” Huge thanks go to Edward Thornton for allowing me to participate in such a diverse and stimulating gathering; the usual whetstones who were helpful in consolidating my initial thoughts; and all the other speakers and attendees – each attest to the appetite for critical intervention into the stagnant, asphyxiating forms of contemporary academic conferencing, and the worthiness of the continued search for alternative paradigms.

This paper is an excuse for me to ask questions, so let me start with an obvious one: What are we doing here? The template of this academic conference, as well as many others we will each attend over the course of our careers, is familiar. It is predictable, and for some even comfortable. But regardless of whether this is your first conference or your hundredth, I want to know: Is this the best use of our time? What, ultimately, can we agree on to have realistically gained as a result of our gathering? Are we helped by the conference’s informality, its provision of soapboxes from which we can each share our research endeavours in the safety of similar minds and sympathetic ears? Do we develop relationships with these sympathetic characters that go beyond our formal exposures, or do we simply accept that these presentations of different bodies of knowledge and thinking can only be the end of a process to which we as spectators provide no real function in developing? Do we learn much at all by doing any of this; and more cynically, do we even care if we do or not?

It seems that whenever we go through the processes of organising, scheduling, and delivering these kinds of events we are borrowing from inherited modes and behaviours, and not developing from the ground up the most optimal and effective forms of collective education. That is to say, while there may be in some instances the opportunity to experiment with styles and materials – the use of visuals, electronic resources, performative elements – the free space which engenders these divergences is itself extremely restrictive. We might here elect two possible barriers, although there are more, as time and interactivity. By time I’m not referring to the idea that a conference takes place on a scheduled date, or that it lasts for a predetermined length of one or two days, or a week, or whatever. Instead, I’m suggesting that the conference produces various modes of time, which themselves bring about certain behaviours and expectations. We have time for speakers, which resembles classroom time (or an ideal classroom time at any rate): the audience is silent, attentive, respectful of the speaker’s use of their platform. Then we have time for questions and answers, panels and so on. Then there is corridor time, in the breaks, which – with its lack of discernible boundaries – is oftentimes an even more oppressive nest of social interactions and conducts. We turn sheepishly to the strangers we’ve found ourselves marooned with – the people we think of as our peers, though it’s not likely we’ll see them much beyond these moments – and resign ourselves to exchanging our thoughts on what was listened to just a few minutes ago. Or else we try to convey our enthusiasm of our current research topic through a rehearsed monologue. (Usually the two subjects in combination.) What is advertised as a break is far from an excuse to diffuse or take stock of the thoughts and emotions of the last couple of hours, and instead gels the sessions together into six-, eight-, or ten-hour marathons, potentially for multiple days at a time. I understand that I’m making the next break even more difficult for us to endure by drawing so much attention to it: I hope that instead of staring into our phones for twenty minutes we can find common ground for understanding the problematic nature of our mutual encounter.

This leads me on to the second of these possible barriers, which I’ve chosen to call interactivity. As much as we would like to think that the conference represents a coming together of like-minded people with similar research interests and experience, we do not escape the fact that, in the majority of cases, what is actually being presented is a loose collection of strictly separate responses to a proposed theme or question. It is typical behaviour for both speaking and non-speaking participants not to interact with speakers prior to the event, and so the talk given is largely a solo venture which emerges in its most nascent form. While it may be true that the paper will benefit from the collective wisdom once exposed and brought subject to questioning, it is more likely that, should the speaker choose to develop the ideas they have presented further, they will return to these ideas as individuals once again, making a few amendments based on group feedback here and there, but nearly always as the sole tillers of their field. It’s undeniable that academia more generally has a problem with the “myth of the individual”, which asserts itself through exclusive, highly competitive behaviour and rhetoric; and ultimately the conference does little to challenge this.

Before going any further, it is imperative to ask: What is academia, how is it being defined here? From the conversations I’ve had with various academics and non-academics, there appear to be two broad definitions we could consider. The first one – the one I usually tend towards, admittedly, although it’s far from adequate on its own – refers to the institution itself: the academy and related infrastructure. From this, it follows that one is an academic if they belong in some way to the right kind of institution; the obverse to this would be to suggest that a person not currently attached to the academy is not, at that moment, an academic. Of course, this dichotomy breaks down somewhat when we consider all those exceptions and anomalies to this quite stringent rule: graduates, visiting lecturers, retired and emeritus professors, dropouts. These exceptions surmount a large enough challenge to the rule’s dominance as to require bolstering through alternative conceptions of academia. And so we move on.

The second definition to which the people I’ve spoken to gravitate is towards a kind of interpellation as an academic subject, akin to a quality or internalised state that said subject carries about with them forever like a halo – once an academic, always an academic. I take issue with this for a couple of reasons. One, what is the significance of being able to tout oneself as a member of the club? This idea of academic immanence (if you like) entirely fails to provide a sense of value vis-a-vis the label; the belief that it’s better to find oneself inside the proverbial tent remains unchecked without further levels of qualification. Two, in many legal, economic, and social contexts, the thought that one is respected as an academic beyond university life is clearly a huge fallacy. It’s blindingly obvious, for example, that non-students can’t apply for a student loan, or council tax exemption; they may not even be entitled to the same discounts as academics when it comes to conference registration. The ease of access to information when it comes to such events may also be beyond reach, given that they are frequently advertised within particular closed networks and social circles which the non-academic might not be aware of or find easy to enter. Now, there might be an economic argument when it comes to conference promotion, but there is also undoubtedly a cultural one. As a non-academic, I invariably manage to astound at least one person as to my being at an event which is, implicitly, probably not meant for me. A confession, perhaps, that the value of academic conferencing is minimal to none when it comes to those beyond institutional investment?

I don’t say these things to imply that it’s infinitely more difficult to cut it as a non-academic. I don’t believe that for a moment; academics have their own sets of unique challenges to negotiate, they take on huge levels of responsibility for the most meagre reparations, all without the safety nets traditionally granted to workers in other sectors. These are all factors I do not have to face, yet I am acutely aware of them; they form a large part of the reasoning by which I ultimately decided against continued postgraduate study. I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who is capable of managing these intense struggles. All I’m wishing to achieve with my critique at this stage is the identification of an important difference that currently exists between these discrete groups – the academic and the non-academic or post-academic: a difference which neither of the definitions we have to hand are singularly capable of recognising.

Perhaps we could attempt to map these two ideas onto the macro/micropolitical dynamic found in A Thousand Plateaus. We are told by Deleuze and Guattari that “everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously a macropolitics and a micropolitics.[1] Whether it is appropriate to adopt the lens of one or the other is not a question of scale, furthermore, but of context, or “the nature of the system of reference envisioned.”[2] To grasp the politics of academia would therefore require an understanding of its structural forms – the university, the conference, the organisation of bodies, and so on – as well as the covert management of codes, relationships, and behaviours characteristic of the present, experiential level of subjectivity: the vaunted molar-molecular dialectic. One of Deleuze and Guattari’s most penetrating political contributions is their documentation of the role of desire within these structural aggregates: the question underpinning Anti-OedipusHow did the masses under fascism come to desire their own servitude? – can begin to be unpicked through an understanding of the nature of these flows of desire in themselves.

Without wishing to draw an unfair and ill-conceived equivalence between fascism and the kinds of desires that coalesce into the academic conference, we are still left with the task of critiquing these desires as they are formed on the micropolitical level. If we want to rethink the scale of possibilities for collective education and production, we need to be asking ourselves the following kinds of questions: Whose desire is responsible for the event I am participating in? How (and why) am I identified with (perhaps self-identified with) these large-scale aggregates of desire? And how can our desires – both individual and collective – help to push the envelope of possibilities to come? I don’t suppose that there are many of us who think that the purpose of the conference is to fulfill particular quotas, or to boost the profile of the university, which is what we are doing, and wouldn’t be a problem if it served us as educators and students to do so. While I don’t think conferences are prescriptive (in that they don’t carry about with them overt aims, besides responding to a particular problem or theme), I do propose that there are further important questions to consider regarding their effectiveness in terms of learning, and as sites of coalitional production. These ambitions seem to me to be assumed inheritances from former ideals, internaliised and propagated in the name of making both macro- and micropolitical gains: macro on behalf of the institutions, the funding bodies, the archaic forms in themselves; and micro on the level of individual desires – desires for security, progression, recognition, and so forth. So I would ask, therefore, if we are to continue with academic conferences, which of these desires are legitimate, and is the conference the optimal form for achieving them?

This brings me onto a word I’ve recently been thinking about, prompted by discussions with friends across long distances, and that word is “intimacy”, something which seems underdeveloped in philosophy. In the context of collaborative research and political solidarity, I take intimacy to be a becoming-multiple with other bodies, and an opening-outwards into deindividuated cohabitation below or beyond representation by the apparatus. Therefore, intimacy might be defined not as a relationship based on proximity to other ideas and beings – though there’s nothing to prevent it from including these – rather, as the navigation of systemic barriers, with the possible aim to abolish them where they arise. Now, academia is precisely full of these barriers – economic factors, limits to behavioural codes, assessment, solitary working patterns – which is why not every close relationship in academic environments can be classified as intimate. The relationship between student and supervisor, for example, is clearly based on a dynamic of power: one is expected to perform duties for the other, in order to further themselves in some way. And this of course can and often does lead to all kinds of exploitative behaviours.

Here in the UK, we are constantly met with reports and allegations of sexual misconduct within campus and conference environments. Some of you may have seen last month an article written for HuffPost UK titled “The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women”. This is just one of the most recent public documents acknowledging the massive structural problems of the academic community in regards to sexual misconduct, and of course, and as the last few years have made explicit, these problems aren’t limited to academia. But it’s of utmost importance that in proposing a politics of intimacy that we’re not in fact tacitly making these occurrences a lot more probable; that would of course be a disaster. I’d like to read a quote from that previously mentioned article; specifically, a comment made by Dr Emma Chapman of the 1752 Group, a cross-institutional organisation which works to end sexual misconduct in higher education:

“People seem to think that because academia is supposed to be full of very intelligent people that they’re intelligent enough not to harass people and actually that’s not true at all. What academia is full of is power imbalances and those power imbalances are exploited all the time in every form.

“You’ve got all of these little steps and at each stage that person is basically in charge of your career.[3]

Here, I would argue, in favour of my own definition of intimacy, that these power imbalances precisely are the obstacles of delimiting power – or what Deleuze and Guattari call power centers[4] – which keep their participants frozen in potentially dangerous configurations. Therefore, I wish to underline that these examples would not be cases of intimacy as I am trying to understand it. I know I say this as someone who is statistically unlikely to ever experience sexual harassment at first hand, which is why I’m trying to be so careful in my approach here. But it is important to acknowledge these very real dangers right from the outset, as precisely the antithesis of my proposal. I know that if I were not to do so, someone else in this room would.

To pull away from this slightly, I want to clarify at this point that I don’t mean to think of professional working relationships as necessarily toxic in all instances, or without value, but only at this stage to discount them from this line of research. I do of course recognise the importance of robust, goal-oriented communications between peers along routes of currently normative professional practice, but wish to critique the macropolitical functions of such interactions. How can we begin to develop enclaves of resistance if we are content to reproduce a production-line model of research methodology, based on the re-practicing of well-worn and predictable codes of postgraduate collaboration?

One might argue that we don’t necessarily want to do this at all, given the precarious balance of this current model. Maybe for some individuals and instances, this model works just fine, as it enables them to develop their chosen project in relative safety. But the range of such viable projects in philosophy, and across higher education, is diminishing, and the opportunities for research of both original content and method are directly at risk from this kind of bunker mentality. It is hard to imagine the next Anti-Oedipus might be produced along such lines of encroachment, and without both systemic reform and strong alternatives to current academic paradigms this surely puts the future of the whole discipline at risk.

So, let’s return to intimacy, and as I’ve said before, there doesn’t appear to be a huge quantity of relevant philosophical research, but I’m very keen to hear of anything valuable that we could use to further develop this conversation. I’ll talk briefly about two explorations – one ancient, and one modern – highlight what’s good about them and where I feel they fall short of what I’m trying to get across. Let’s first go to Aristotle, as it seems many seem to do when they’re looking to explain the value of personal relationships; specifically, his account of friendship in Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics. For Aristotle there are three main categories of friendship, which form a hierarchy: in order, these are what he calls friendships of utility, of pleasure, and of goodness, the best of all. For this last kind, the object of goodness embodied is the friend themselves, and only happens as the result of “a certain resemblance” between the two parties.[5] Furthermore, it must be mutual. Aristotle admits that this is rare, as it requires “time and familiarity”;[6] and so the next best kind for him is a friendship based on pleasure, between people who enjoy the same things. But it is the friendship of utility, the least valuable for Aristotle, which may most resemble a functional version of an ideal working relationship. The reason Aristotle regards the friendship “for the commercially minded”[7] as inferior is because it is the most contingent, and exists only for as long as there is a common goal over which the two parties can work together. Yet this may be sufficient for our needs, potentially allowing us to band in a multitude of configurations without requiring us to give up our differences.

This is one possible basis for a new intimate praxis. Another, more recent source to consider is the work of Lauren Berlant, and here I am thinking about her introduction to a special issue of the journal Critical Inquiry called “Intimacy”, published in 1998.[8] Berlant makes several provocative contributions to this discussion. For her, intimacy “poses a question of scale that links the instability of individual lives to the trajectories of the collective.” [9] Furthermore it “builds worlds; it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation.”[10] Intimacy is therefore a very dangerous thing for Berlant: a chaotic, ambivalent thing that through its very promises to stabilise individuals within the contexts it newly creates can leave them unprepared for unforeseen difficulties and struggles that result from the relationship itself. Unlike my own, utopian version of intimacy, which would function beyond the level of institution, Berlant’s is inseparable from institutional trappings, and even necessitates the emergence of new institutions. She writes: “In its instantiation as desire, it destabilizes the very things that institutions of intimacy are created to stabilize”.[11] While there is some acknowledgment that it could go beyond this, reconfigured as “much more mobile processes of attachment”, intimacy is often more of a problem than a solution, rarely making sense of things: “a relation associated with tacit fantasies, tacit rules, and tacit obligation to remain unproblematic.”[12]

Berlant makes another, highly useful contribution to the discussion around intimacy by correlating the term with its verb: to intimate, she reminds us “is to communicate with the sparest of signs and gestures”.[13] Intimation clearly involves demarcating something, and this minimalism of enunciation is where the ambiguity begins: mutual understanding or confusion? Still, there are advantages to this sparsity, namely the qualities of adaptability, maximalisation of difference, and potential for experimentation, as already alluded to. So, the question now becomes: Can we, as kindred academics and non-academics, and despite our many valuable differences, intimate across and beyond the institutional barriers of time, money, individualist myths, and so on, and produce original working relationships, practices, and thought? Or are the looming dangers – predatory behaviour, lack of structure, the snowblindness of competing desires running wild – inevitabilities of all intimate groups, that – as much as we would like it to be the case – cannot be easily removed from our ideal conceptions of them?

Of course, I am going to argue that it could be possible to design intimate groups and behaviours that would be able to minimize these risks, while at the same time promoting the need to be vigilant of insurgent dangers. Where I feel it is important to depart from Aristotle’s utility friendships and the institutional ideas around intimacy developed by Berlant is in acknowledging that the kinds of relations they are describing are simultaneously too broad in their scope and too targeted in their generalisations. That is to say, what they each indicate are preoccupations with qualities that are irrelevant to our needs as cognitive workers – including intimacy as existing primarily between two people, largely friendly or sexual in nature – while at the same time attempting to extend from these central preoccupations into other, very different kinds of relationship – for example, between the individual and the state, or the analyst and the group. To adopt a concept of intimacy that could be used for collective production requires us to be selective, to build from the ground up taking only the most essential points from which to make our departure.

Fortunately, and this is where I think we can be hopeful, we are in a very good position to do so, as we have the academy, and all the resources this affords us. Most notably the people, and the combined research and experience of both typical and atypical interactions. It has become quite fashionable in recent years – especially by certain groups within the political left – to say that the master’s tools can never hope to dismantle the master’s house. But this is not at all a universal slogan that can be conveniently carted out, irrespective of the very particular context in which it was formulated and sought to address. It does us no service at all to suppose that we are unable to use the tools at hand to begin to reform the institutions we populate to work for us better. I took inspiration for this talk by an interview with the artificial intelligence and computation theorist Lucca Fraser where she was asked this question. This was her response:

Yes. Both literally and figuratively yes. That’s what tools are – they’ve got uses that go beyond their master’s intentions. And they’ve got weaknesses that can be exploited to make them do things they weren’t intended to do. Which is basically what hacking means. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invent new tools. The more the better. But yes, absolutely, the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. How could they not?[14]

It seems that, for Fraser, it is possible and indeed necessary to start with the tools available at our disposal if we are to take on the challenges brought about by the institutions we inhabit, and which decide for us the limits of our behaviour and the power we have to respond. Part of my own recent work has been to analyse the roles and jurisdictions of traditional nation states in the face of emergent monolithic platform sovereignties, informed by the work of Benjamin Bratton. I feel compelled to include here Bratton’s ideas around reversible design<, which he describes at length in his book The Stack, using the example of the camp and the bunker, following Agamben and in turn Carl Schmitt. The bunker (which is designed to protect its quarry from the outside) and the detention camp (which is used to prevent its inhabitants from leaving) “share the same material profile. […] The line may be drawn on the ground as clear as clear can be, but the quality of the space that it draws—what is inside and what is outside, and who or what governs either side—is always in question”.[15] The same walls provide a dual function, keeping the detainees safe from infiltrators at the same time as denying them the legal right to free movement.

Perhaps our thinking is too limited, then, if we are to conceive of the academy as only a kind of master’s house, and ourselves as the saboteurs primed to tear it down, brick by brick, using our collective might and strategic alliances. This is not to fall on the side of “reform from within” either – and it is probably too soon to draw such a line. And again, we might add, we don’t need to be complacent in assuming that academia’s current provisions are sufficient to get the task done. But it is to say that, as well as being the master’s house, academia might also be for us the master’s tools, the tools we need in our attempts to think beyond its present, transient limitations. The alien, the intimate, the church, the steeple, the people, the classes, the masses: if we can exploit the reversible qualities of these designed and spontaneous things, this might be an achievable and promising place to start.

I’ll finish speaking in a moment or two, but I want to return briefly to micropolitics, and how rethinking intimacy and reversible design can help us to overcome what we might call, following Bratton again, a “crisis of ongoingness”[16] within our academic subjectivities. By borrowing this expression, I mean to refocus our attentions on the politics of the here and now; something which, debatably, falls through the cracks when looking at macro- and micropolitics as an all-encompassing binary. Part of the problem, of course, in trying to come up with any strategic deployment of micropolitics is that, with sufficient traction, it can quickly morph into a new macropolitics that doesn’t necessarily pose fewer problems than the one it is trying to usurp. Or otherwise, it remains too local, too unorganised, and therefore too ineffective at delivering non-defensive counter-strategies. This is difficult, but we ought to acknowledge that sometimes we will need abstraction, and at other times we will need concreteness. We might be able to look at, for example, how one particular university or department allocates funding, or the ways in which entrenched divisions of time and people affect the research being produced – and not to discourage that, but this is a problem bigger than any of us, it’s systemic, and treating it as unapproachable while catering for the small and manageable isn’t going to make it any less so.

We need more strategic deployments, hyperspecific (not hyperlocal) interventions, to be able to take on a task at hand without getting lost in more aggrandising utopias or, at the other end, scalable enclaves. We need both the quick fixes and the bigger pictures, and negotiation between these extremes is really the nature of these challenges. In short, an adaptable, improvisational form of communication between levels, which is what I hope my idea of temporary, malleable intimate assemblages suggests. Following her responses to this question of scale, I am liable to follow Helen Hester’s example in looking for an intermediary mesopolitics, that would in her words, operate “between atomized, hyper-local interventions at the level of, for example, individual embodiment (micropolitics), on the one hand, and big-picture, speculative projects premised on the wholesale overthrowal of power at the level of the state or beyond (macropolitics), on the other.”[17]

There’s a synergy here between the mesopolitical and the intimate. Both involve interacting with the Other in a big way – that which extends beyond the bodily or the individual. They’re also both elusive things that escape being talked about, resting largely on the level of experience; experiences which can’t be fully abstracted, nor handily contained or summed up. Lastly, in their most useful forms, they are processual, capable of cycling through distinct stages, making adjustments along the way. Such indeterminate and speculative tactics do not make themselves easy for us to imagine or mobilise, and fraught with potential dangers, yet if we can put them to some sort of working order may provide us with solutions hitherto unrealised.

Postscript on the Master’s House and Decontextualisation

It has been pointed out, rightly, that my criticism of the decontextualisation of Audre Lorde’s statement, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”,[18] and my subsequent repurposing is itself an erasure of context, and does not restore the quotation’s original meaning. Which amounts to an admittedly strange methodology. My formal response would be that I found Lucca Fraser’s interview answer to be a compelling antidote to the near-endless sloganeering which, especially since 2011, has unconsciously sought to enlist these words within the service of a catch-all defeatism: an illustration of any failed uprising or fulfilment of demands. Fraser’s perspective is of the reversible design of such words; words being some of the most versatile tools we have, and for which it is paramount that we use responsibly. I would argue that my and (I assume) Fraser’s position is not one of (re-)legitimacy, but of positive deviance and maximal utility. There is nothing righteous or restorative being implied here: our uses are no “better” than those that have come before. My objections are not aimed at decontextualisation itself, but this decontextualisation, that would lock these words into a suffocating repetition and suppress their beauty and usefulness. Nor are my objections directed towards any kind of moral floundering: “the master’s house” can illustrate a great many things, but I propose that we can think about and use these words more creatively, and perhaps should.

Notes

[1] Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Capitalisme et schizophrénie: Mille plateaux], trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [1980]), p. 213.

[2] Ibid., p. 217.

[3] Emma Chapman, in Sarah Nelson, “The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women”, HuffPost UK (8th June 2019), available online at https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/the-female-academics-fighting-to-make-higher-education-a-safe-space-for-women_uk_5ce7a016e4b0cce67c888dbd?utm_hp_ref=uk-news.

[4] Deleuze & Guattari, p. 224.

[5] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, Volume 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), §3.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., §6.

[8] Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue”, Critical Inquiry 24, no. 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 281-88, available online at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1344169.

[9] Ibid., p. 283.

[10] Ibid., p. 282.

[11] Ibid., p. 286.

[12] Ibid., pp. 284, 287.

[13] Ibid., p. 281.

[14] Lucca Fraser. “Xenofeminism and New Tactics for the Left”, interviewed by Merray Gerges for Canadian Art (6th February 2017), available online at https://canadianart.ca/interviews/xenofeminism/.

[15] Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press: 2015), p. 23.

[16] Ibid., p. 304: “The crisis of ongoingness may […] demand that options may have that once seemed fantastic are now imperative, and what is most normal now is also the most unlikely path forward.”

[17] Helen Hester. Xenofeminism (Cambridge/Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), p. 114. “In the abstract,” says Hester, “[the mesopolitical] can perhaps be characterized by a handful of rather broad principles – capacity building and outward-looking praxis; an appreciation of the transversality of oppression; solidarity with the emancipatory self-directed organizing of others; and a willingness to engage with ‘rhizomatic connections among […] resistances and insubordinations’.” (The last quotation is taken from Antonella Corsani.)

[18] Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” [1979], in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2007 [1984]), pp. 110-113. “Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” (Emphases in original.)

Neon Genesis Irangelion: XYZT by Kristen Alvanson review

Kristen Alvanson. XYZT (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019).

I already knew that Iran was separated off from the world. Most Americans don’t go there – I’m not sure who does go there. And of course, I hadn’t really believed that it would work.

But as soon as the bracelet tightens, I know what will happen. It all comes back to me as if it’s a distant memory – not my own, but more like a scene that’s been waiting for me to step into it. (p. 301)

The second publication to come from Urbanomic’s K-Pulp imprint, Kristen Alvanson’s XYZT is a novelistic account of a series of bilateral cultural exchanges between the USA and Iran. Compositionally, it’s similar to something like (appropriately) Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, a series of vignettes detailing the displacement of figures (volunteer test subjects) from one locale to the other. The text has an autobiographical element to it: Alvanson, an American, has spent several years in Iran, and no doubt has accumulated a number of anecdotes both first and second hand concerning social and geographical dislocations along this particular line. Subjects of the experimental XYZT programme are given just three hours in which to make contact with their “hosts”, waiting for them on the other side – and the results vary from the mundane to the utterly fantastical. There are straightforward plots, which go according to plan, and others which, due to “interference”, splinter off at strange tangents, and no two experiences are similar. In this sense, the bundle offered up by XYZT functions as a microcosm of an embodied reality for everyday Iranian-American encounters, like an animation developed from many unique cels. Yet it is a reality, or rather several overlapping structures of the real, that is narrated through an oneiric, alien haze; the specific dynamics of each chapter producing a combined methodology for interrogating the variegated conceptions of worldly composition – the literary equivalent of a nest of vipers or a rat king.

I’ll try not to reveal the specifics of each of XYZT’s entanglements (needless to say, it’s a vertiginous and innovative archipelago, disabling overworn faculties of prediction), but I will instead disclose a few of its more overt influences and points of reference. Firstly, Stewart Gardiner is right to identify David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ as a touchstone, as anyone who has seen the film will no doubt pick up on from the book’s very first encounter; but more prominently in both texts’ usage of transportation devices, and their resultant questionings of the nature of their perceived destinations. (XYZT = exist = eXistenZ?) The weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft also pervades an especially memorable chapter (specifically, his “Dreams in the Witch House”). Thirdly, we may consider Ambroise Paré’s sixteenth century anti-taxological work of cryptozoology, Des monstres et des prodiges (On Monsters and Marvels, or Monsters and Prodigies), as a recurrent template for inhuman and nonhuman modes of filiation. (See also Alvanson’s diagrammatic “Arbor Deformia”, in Collapse IV, from several years earlier.) Finally, a fleeting reference to the Miguel Abreu Gallery may suggest further visual cues as to the design of XYZT’s transcultural and transmaterial schemas. Each of these influences become analytics in the book for comprehending the vague and shadowy mechanics of the XYZT programme. Whether its architects – two MIT students – are fully aware of these mechanics themselves is questionable, and the thought that other beings and eras were or are more cognizant of non-Euclidian spatial dynamics, temporal and spatial dislocation, or the hyperstitional effects of lucid dreaming, presents a trove of tantalising and unresolvable possibilities.

XYZT also provides a cogent object-oriented ontology, or inorganic demonology, with its inclusion of the device known as “the black box”, a hard drive acquired by the protagonist containing untold mysteries and secret potentials. Initially identified by its “presence […], emanating waves of anticipative anxiety” (p. 91), the black box becomes for Estella a compact set of portals that, once opened, enable all new modes of plot composition and worldly navigation. “Composition, line, structure, time. Even though she could barely articulate to herself what she was trying to achieve, the entire fabric of the box now seemed to be coming loose, as if a knot had been undone somewhere.” (p. 123) XYZT’s black box is reminiscent of similar technologies found in avant-garde horror cinema (notably Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), as well as the Cross of Akht detailed in Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia. And all provide their host plots with the transversal capacities for Hidden Writing, the flowing undercurrents of subplots which threaten to unground the structural integrity of the cathedral-like dominant narrative. As we are told directly: “Plot doesn’t matter.” And as the tetratological taxonomy of the Arbor Deformia “must include all monsters and all deformities” (p. 181), every one of XYZT’s contingencies on offer – Jinns, deavs, pirates, witches, Vice Cities – offer specific cultural myths that must jostle for their inclusion in the book’s patchwork project. Of course, it is impossible to fully document every reality glimpsed through the prism of the book – and everything not included belongs to an “outside”: a remainder locale between the folds of the real. In a possible metanarratological turn, some of the book’s characters acknowledge this, and the tensions this outside plays on their origami-construct world: “however much control there is, the outside calls to us too, and it causes disturbances, fevers…”. (p. 309)

There are plenty of uncovered areas for fruitful analysis (the ongoing relevance of escalators?), but as already stated, I will avoid exposing all of XYZT’s treasures. The book reads as an intimate and loving series of memories, flickers of episodic encounters, and possible worlds. It may be self-deprecatingly described as an “airport novel”, but its greatest strengths lie exactly in its awareness, legibility, and lack of pretension. Importantly, Alvanson’s book suggests to us a parallel universe where such literary qualities are not incompatible with thoughtful and challenging non- or extra-literary diversions, and this is not to be underappreciated.

DJ Screw [Origins of Theory-Fiction #5]

In the 1990s and 2000s, the mythic depths of Southside Houston, Texas became the fertile grounds for an astonishing and totalising sonic fiction. Its originator, DJ Screw, gave his name to a genre-technique, and with it the soundtrack to an entire culture. “I started messing with the pitch adjusters on the turntables and slowed it all the way down. I thought the music sounded better like that.”[1] All the best music is hyperspecific (to borrow Terre Thaemlitz’s term), and the bass-heavy, syrup-slow screw style has become inextricable from the cultural legacy of Houston. Screw was prolific, releasing around a thousand or more “screw tapes” during his lifetime (before passing away in 2000 from a codeine overdose). The bulk of any given tape is made up of slowed-down Southern and West Coast hip-hop productions, featuring either the original vocalists (including future venerated artists like Houston’s UGK and Memphis’s Three 6 Mafia) or freestyles from the Screwed Up Click (S.U.C.). The languid, druggy feel marked out both Screw and Houston as distinct from the East/West Coast dialectic which characterised mainstream hip-hop during the 90s. (Today, however, it is hard to deny Atlanta as the most influential musical centre for the genre as a whole.) The scene which developed around Screw and his innovation (tales of queues stretching around the block from his house waiting for his latest tape) has had a steady impact on the music of today, both in the mainstream and underground, and has also spawned a whole host of imitators and successors to the “chopped ’n screwed” aesthetic.

Screw’s world is pure Southern Gothic, the demonic vocal manipulations and skeletal imagery exhibiting itself as alienating and alienated. Not only was Texas rap a long way from mainstream representation, the state itself is humid, diffuse, and spacious, as opposed to, say, the densely-packed boroughs of New York. This world also encloses and reinforces itself through the promotion of local names and references, made timeless and spectral via their recording to tape.[2] The lyrical themes to many S.U.C. freestyles border on parody (sippin’ lean, wood grain steering wheels), but the relative breeziness of this content belies an implicit fixation with death and finitude. Given the well-entrenched racial history of the area (the Confederacy, the Klan, lynchings) this is not surprising, but since his death the ghost of Screw himself stalks through the haze of his mixes, a haze thickened inexorably by the purple drank which accompanies any understanding of the scene (and which itself eventually claimed Screw’s life). Each of these factors combine in screw music as a pathological, interiorised state: alienation, paranoia, depression, and ultimately hedonism. But also the more positive experiences of empathy and solidarity, a recognition and desubjectification with other occupants of the purple haze, and the possibility of ascension into material and spiritual success (both individually and for the whole Dirty South).

While Screw’s tapes and CDs present his fiction at its most complete, its posthumous percolations have enabled it to survive and adapt to present day contexts and accelerate its influence. As I and others have said before, there would likely be no vaporwave without DJ Screw, but we can also credit his impacting musicians as diverse as Lil Ugly Mane, Beyoncé, A$AP Rocky, and Rabit. In the cases of all but the latter, the risk of reducing screw to a musical gimmick is always something that has to be negotiated, but Rabit’s recent screw tapes such as CRY ALONE DIE ALONE arguably expose an understanding of the pathways for further extension of the original idea behind screw as both a passive noun (screw tape, screw track), and an active process of distorting and expressing the interior/exterior psychic terrain that has led to its production, and within which one is immiserated (or screwed). From a recent feature for Resident Advisor, in which Rabit describes his early experiences after moving to Houston:

“You would go into the gas station and see Mariah Carey chopped-and-screwed CDs, stuff like that,” he said. “It was the only music that I would hear coming out of cars. It sounds like alien music, especially when it’s something like Mariah Carey. DJ Screw played a lot of Southern and West Coast rap music, but he was [sic] chopped a lot of, like, Sting, or whatever was popular at the time. Soul or rock. He was selling hundreds of tapes a day.”

“That a single person could have such an impact on the way music is heard or transmitted is pretty rare,” he added. “That’s a huge influence and it’s crazy to think about. People aren’t doing that anymore. Like, “I’m gonna play what everyone wants to hear but I’m gonna play it half-speed’ – normal people don’t think of something like that out of the blue.”[3][4]

Notes

[1] DJ Screw. “Givin’ It to Ya Slow”, interviewed by Bilal Allah for RapPages (November 1995), available online at https://ifihavent.wordpress.com/2006/12/05/givin-it-to-ya-slow-dj-screw-interview-from-rappages-1995/.

[2] ““You could get a tape for like $10,” remembers Bun B. “Then, for $15, you could give him a list [of songs] you wanted and he’d shout you out on the tape. For a little more, you could actually come to Screw’s house and shout out people yourself.”” In Joseph Patel. “Chopped & Screwed: A History”, MTVNews.com (2006), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20061125191537/http://www.mtv.com/bands/h/hip_hop_week/chopped_screwed/index.jhtml.

[3] In Andrew Ryce. “Label of the month: Halcyon Veil”, Resident Advisor (29th January 2019), available online at https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3391.

[4] This post was hugely informed by Roni Sarig’s book Third Coast: OutKast, Timbaland, & How Hip-Hop Became a Southern Thing (Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007); specifically, the chapter “Houston Reprise – The Turn of the Screw” (pp. 313-36).

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #4]

Godfrey Reggio (dir.). Koyaanisqatsi (Institute for Regional Education/American Zoetrope: 1982).

Koyaanisqatsi is a film you’re probably familiar with, even if you haven’t seen it, as since its release it’s been cited, imitated, and parodied on many occasions. Watching it again today (especially for the first time) it may even seem unspectacular or passé, compared with any number of extraordinary footage and experimental filming techniques developed since (try YouTube for a quick example). Ostensibly a documentary forewarning the environmental impacts of urbanised humanity on a quickly destabilising planet (Koyaanisqatsi – the Hopi word translated as “life out of balance” in the film’s subtitle), the film demonstrates director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer/editor Ron Fricke’s commitment to “pure cinema”: that is, film without dialogue, acting, or diegetic sound. What is presented in Koyaanisqatsi is 86 minutes of footage, filmed across various locations throughout the United States – and a marked transition, from the “natural” environments of the Canyonlands National Park, Utah, to the encroaching industrial developments of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Glen Canyon Dam, and eventually to the urban sprawls of St. Louis, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

It is both this narrative structure and the pacing of its shots that is key to Koyaanisqatsi as a work of art that enables its audiences to break away from pre-structured configurations of “reality” and see the world in new, previously inaccessible ways. Certainly, the film has its predecessors – for one, Dziga Vertov and Elizaveta Svilova’s celebrated 1929 Soviet experiment Man with a Movie Camera – and Reggio and Fricke’s previous collaborations in public service announcement advertising at the IRE (Institute for Regional Education) clearly played a part in Koyaanisqatsi’s production and eventual direction. But the film was very successful on its release (perhaps owing, in part, to the attachment of Francis Ford Coppola’s name to the opening credits), helping to disseminate its ecological prophecies to large audiences, and enter the canon of popular culture thereafter. The experience of watching Koyaanisqatsi is that of a kind of alien voyeurism, in which Earth is brought into focus through the adoption of various lenses and speeds of visual processing. The early scenes – featuring barren landscapes, meteorological phenomena, and the like – are frequently comprehended via a glacial slowness, lending otherwise ephemeral cloud and wave formations, for example, a taut, physical presence. This is carried over to the first scenes featuring human populations and synthetic infrastructures (one of the most mesmerising shots is that of jet engines gliding like corpulent swans across a heat-hazed runway – and Georg Rockall-Schmidt has made an excellent short video on the “moving portrait” of the pilot). Later in the film, as we move into the jostling metropolises, the main difference in pacing becomes that of a transition from slow motion to time-lapse: the speed of people, vehicles, and light take on strange new rhythms and metres when presented at breakneck paces, resembling swarms of like-minded parasitical creatures all too clearly.

If it’s Koyaanisqatsi’s approach to the multiple speeds of worldly apprehension that makes it a valuable subject of this discussion, one final factor to consider as a theory-fiction acceleration device is the film’s score, provided by Philip Glass. Glass wrote the soundtrack in advance of the final composition of the film’s images, which were then set to his music retrospectively, a very unusual practice in this medium. And it is the wedding of the music’s pacing, its speeds and slownesses, and its crescendos and diminuendos, with Reggio and Fricke’s imagery, that amplifies the film’s narrative potencies in the exceptional manner that it does. As with the visual footage, the score evolves gradually and organically; its main instruments – synthesizers and human voices – swelling from a fractured and stoic minimalism to a punchy and efflorescent maximalism, before coming down again in the epilogue to the image of a rocket fuselage spinning uncontrollably back to Earth, following a failed launch. The dynamics of music are perhaps the greatest untapped resource for the potentials of theory-fiction investigation, something that will be addressed specifically in the next few posts.

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

Monoliths & Dimensions: Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack as Theory-Fiction

From Pli Volume 30, available to order now

This is an article I wrote for the latest volume of Pli The Warwick Journal of Philosophy. The title of volume 30 is “Restoration and Resistance: Philosophy, Politics and Identity”, and includes a dedication to the late Mark Fisher. Individual copies of this volume are now available to purchase from the Pli website, as well as a number of previous editions. Pli are also looking for submissions for their next volume, “Hegel and the Sciences: Philosophy of Nature in the 21st Century”. See plijournal.com for ordering and more information. Special thanks go to Alex Underwood and everyone at Pli, Terence Blake for providing me with his translation of Lyotard’s Le Mur du pacifique, and everyone who read earlier versions of this essay and provided feedback.

Joshua Carswell. “Monoliths & Dimensions: Benjamin H. Bratton’s The Stack as Theory-Fiction”, in Pli The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 30 (2019), pp. 191-215.

In the shadows of the behemothic, overbearing, and totalizing regimes of highly-tuned, postindustrial technocapitalism, Benjamin H. Bratton’s appropriately lofty opus The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty[1] proposes a new means of assessing the architecture of contemporary geopolitics, identity, autonomy, and subjectivity. The democratising potential of new technologies promised to us around the turn of the new millennium, we learn early on, has proven itself post-2008 to be no more sustainable than the global economy,[2] and yet such fallacious utopian sentiments continue to reign down heavy fire upon us, like the antiquated drones of Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘Autofac’, built for a harmonious world which no longer seems achievable or even desirable.[3] The new geopolitics is inextricably also a technopolitics; its sovereignty is not singular but universal, coming from above, below, without and within.

The central actors of Bratton’s book are the platforms[4] of technocapitalist power: the states and corporate entities – as well as their clouds, cities, and interfaces – wedded in a deadly assault upon the Earth. The previous design of nation-state federalism, that inherited from the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, struggles to account for and respond to accelerated technological expansion, and the full repercussions of software for sovereignty will continue, it seems, to spiral outwards.[5] Planetary-scale computation is the name given to these new logics, which enclose the Earth in many layers, both independent and interdependent. We are invited to consider Planetary Skin – the NASA-Cisco joint project launched in 2009, intended as a seamlessly-integrated global carbon-monitoring panopticon – as both a case study and a metaphor for this computation’s omnidirectional sprawling out, its ‘redefining [of] the surface of the Earth as a living and governable epidermis’.[6] As a metaphor, Bratton intends The Stack (sic) to be comprehended as a massive, multitiered platforming architecture, encompassing the totality of online and offline information flows, jurisdictions, and social orders, operating on six discrete levels: Earth, Cloud, City, Address,Interface, and User. How each of these levels interpret and absorb data is varied and scalar; striated communication between them occurs both vertically (passing up and down The Stack, translating along the way) and transversally, leaping across vast distances, often leading to unanticipated results. It is more usual, in any given location in The Stack, for multiple operations to be occurring simultaneously: what happens in cities has great consequences for the Earth, how users are quantified through addressing systems affects said users’ relation to interfacial structures, and so on.[7] ‘Computation’, in this sense, ‘is not only what The Stack is made from; it is also how the megastructure composes, measures, and governs itself.’[8] This would perhaps make it the most complete and autonomous model of governmentality so far established.

the-stack-diagram-by-metahaven
Figure 1: ‘Diagram by Metahaven of the six layers of The Stack’ (2015)[9]

The cause and effect of Stack computational logics is unfathomably complicated and unpredictable, and it is to this problem that Bratton’s book offers some clarity. In this regard, The Stack also fulfils an all-too-apparent need; it is a response of sorts to a remark made by Hillary Clinton to the Council on Foreign Relations in early 2013, highlighted by Bratton in the book’s opening: a call for ‘a new architecture for this new world, more Frank Gehry than formal Greek. […] Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures.’[10] The Stack is not only the deliberate and accidental consequence of the manifold entanglements of old forms of sovereignty and new forms of technology, it also functions as a blueprint for the world-to-come, a mapping out of the trajectories of computation’s planetary-scale future outreach. As new sovereignties – new forms of inscription – encounter one another, they often clash, but can also mesh to create neat arrangements and even distributions, overwriting old codes and orders. From this perspective, Bratton can make the initially doubtful leap from architecture to fiction. The Stack, as simultaneous design consequence and all-encompassing ‘accidental megastructure’, emerges as the schematic for that which ‘we struggle to describe and design for’.[11]

Bratton presents The Stack as being all at once a geopolitical tract, a design brief, and a work of science fiction – and it is the last of these I am most interested in pursuing. In order to do so, it is important to take Bratton and Clinton’s claim seriously: that the geopolitical world system of today is so colossal and unscalable that any attempt to codify or recognize its totality in both the present and the future unavoidably means distorting, misrepresenting and reformulating it as its creators/Users perceive or desire it to be. It is not so much the case that the more fantastic claims made in The Stack are illegitimate, rather the opposite: the narratological toolkit, when implemented in conjunction with the language of software studies, geopolitics, and architecture, has a role to play in forming the patchwork composition of Bratton’s project. Fiction is used here to elucidate the countless operations on micro- and macro- scales, often working with logics that are impossible for humans to comprehend: whether involving algorithms (such as those which feed the data on Google’s users back to them), or large numbers (such as keeping track of the endless addressable ‘things’ in a complex, multi-modular logistical operation). The Stack stands in for the totality of these communications, and the book serves as a prism for re-scaling several of the most prolific and pertinent of these. ‘To be clear’, says Bratton, ‘this figure of The Stack both does and does not exist as such; it is both an idea and a thing; it is a machine that serves as a schema as much as it is a schema of machines’.[12]

***

Perhaps the only mature response to the staggering number and complexity of the processes that sustain today’s Shoggothic techno-modernity is that of theory-fiction. This term – used as early as 1979, where it appeared on the back cover of Lyotard’s Le Mur du pacifique,[13] and also in relation to Baudrillard’s concept of third-order simulacra[14] – is most commonly associated with recent books which try to evoke literary styles and conventions within broadly theoretical contexts: examples include Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (2008), Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe (2018), and Bratton’s own Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution (2015, more on this text below). Reviewing the Sellars book on his blog, Negarestani provides the following insight into the functions and purposes of this hybrid genre:

Facts and Fictions are conjoined, and not just today but since the game began. They are all fabricated elements, but not just any random fabrication. Rather, they are systematic fabrications in which the canonical concepts of truth, consistency, and coherency are never sufficient for telling apart fact from fiction, that which is found from that which is made. Such a distinction requires many more elements which make up the critique of world-building, in which fictions are not prima facie opposed to facts. Both are building blocks of reality. The only way we can differentiate them is by accepting the thesis that we exist simultaneously in many actual—not merely possible—worlds, and that what may be fiction in one world is fact in another, and vice versa.[15]

Negarestani’s definition of fiction is not one that is distinguished from or opposed to fact; rather, the two inhabit a fluid relationship contextually dependent on the conception of world. Fiction, particularly science fiction’s world-building methodologies, have much to offer in the service of understanding and fabricating a multitude of competing realities, which are always-already ‘theorized’ at the point of conception/discovery.[16] This is much the same as how the thing-idea Stack’s processes of communication enable capture and regurgitation of data across multiple layers, scales, and overlapping jurisdictions. Stack-as-world-making-machine is its own gargantuan brand of theory-fiction.[17]

***

User

So then, who or what populates The Stack-fiction; who are its central characters, and in what new configurations are they arranged? That would be its Users: its quantified human and non-human agents which pride themselves on their unique status but are really only cogs in the machine, of which some have learned to exceptionalise themselves and bask in this illusion of privilege. Like The Stack in its totality, the User is both more real and more fictional than it appears on the surface. It exists primarily not as egoistic, psychological conception but as ‘a privileged and practical subject position’[18] atop a Stack that grants it this identity. This is a post-Enlightenment conception of Self as bearing no ‘essential dignity’;[19] not a ‘person’, but a one-dimensional figure identified by a strict minimum of characteristics that can be organized, modified, or influenced according to the requirements of the programs it interacts with. The Stack is indifferent to personhood: its Users can be human, animal, vegetable, mineral, AI, machine, part, whole, whatever. What it sees is ‘a category of agents, […] a position within a system without which [the User] has no role or essential identity. […] We, the actual consumers, are the shadows of the personified simulations of ourselves’.[20]

What ensues is a profoundly anti-humanist plane populated by holographic us-not-us Users of both the now and the to-come, whose hive of activity is constantly being absorbed, quantified, re-attuned, and sold back to us at a higher price. Whereas industrial capitalism required the creation of identikit consumers (developed through the use of market research, advertising, and so on) in order to continue the process of commodifying and marketing desire smoothly and predictably, today’s users of Facebook and Amazon are encouraged to be as endlessly individual as suits them: their constant relay of ‘preferences’ (browser history, search terms) and other aspects of profiling (geographic location, age, gender) removes the need for guesswork. The barrage of (mostly) freely offered data provided by Users ensure The Stack’s long-term successes in predicting the content and services that generate its continued growth. The User is a Quantified Self,[21] an auto-mythologising dream factory through which to achieve an always-predetermined self-actualization. As a result, what initially appears as The Stack’s employment of data profiling processes of clearly (if superficially) individuated subjects itself becomes a technology of identity prescription and reassignment: User-generation as new normativity. This leads to all kinds of new problematics vis-à-vis the political autonomy of the user, profile-hacking, over- and undervaluing of discrete User positioning, and, most traumatic of all, the liquefaction of Self.[22]

297755main_GPN-2001-000009_full
Figure 2: William Anders, “Earthrise” (NASA: 1968)

Earth

If even the User which enjoys the privileges of being at the top of The Stack is overcoded and misappropriated by the structural whole’s atomising computational logics, there are much more troubling occurrences further below. Just as the User stands in for the sum of quantifiable activity of an addressed person or thing, the Earth layer of The Stack functions as a representation of the terrestrial body as understood by planetary-scale computation. There are two primary functions the Earth layer provides for The Stack. Firstly, it defines and frames the Earth’s limits physically, topographically, and aesthetically.[23] Secondly, it currently delivers almost all The Stack’s energy needs, both to its advantage and its detriment. The relation between the planet and its technological “skin” is mutually reinforcing, as The Stack is curtailed by both the space available for expansion and the resources for extraction; similarly, the planet itself is reconfigured by the implementation of energy-depleting infrastructures and their putrefying consequences. Bratton identifies the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, taken from the orbit of the moon during the Apollo 8 mission of 1968, as a turning point in comprehending the total Earth as a finite, conquerable territory and resource that would from then onwards ‘invite projects of total design’.[24] The expansion-contraction through the digitalization of geographical space results in the creation of new geophysical territories and the erasure of others.[25] Satellite photography and grids of smart sensors become the normative optical devices for cartographising the Earth, and over time teach computation to “see as a state”, meaning that the surface of the planet resembles Google Earth more and more, with its geopolitical quirks and blind spots.[26] As with the User, what once was representation eventually becomes for The Stack a methodology for real-world transformation.[27]

In addition to its topographical and geoaesthetic qualities, the Earth layer highlights the real material basis for Stack computation, whether this material be oil, metal, or flesh. Not only does the Cloud layer directly above it require a massive quantity of energy to run its usually unseen data centres (not to mention physical space), the very components farmed in order to synthesise the public infrastructure, cars, phones, and computers that act as the User’s gateway into The Stack have to come from very real places also.[28] To take one of the many ‘generative accidents’ of design inadequacy as an example, rare earth metals such as coltan – used in electronic components for devices such as phones – are mined largely in central African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is clear from this how the material needs for planetary-scale computational governance, the economic supply chain, and neocolonialism produce a combined effect upon human labour, local politics (the millions dead from civil war, the role of competing militias), and the Earth itself. Bratton makes stark juxtapositions between the fluidity and ambience of Stack interfaces and their unavoidably visceral cost: ‘the smooth skin of the device demands gore to feed its gloss’. ‘The Stack terraforms the host planet by drinking and vomiting its elemental juices and spitting up mobile phones’.[29] His interpretation of The Stack is that of an autophagic, a cannibalistic Earth-based structure, an Ouroboros (the ancient Greek image of a serpent eating its own tail): truly terrifying in scale, and almost beyond any practical means of stopping at this late hour. His prediction is that the uneven distribution of ecopolitical supply and effect may in the future produce new sovereignties – ‘ecojurisdictions’ – to augment or perhaps compete with existing nationalistic federalisms, including the use of depleting energy resources as forms of currency or leverage.[30] Whether humanity would survive such drastic ecopolitical reform is a consideration even more speculative.

Cloud

Through the sprawling out of platform infrastructure – the integrated networks of cables, satellites, data centres, User devices – and the resultant generation of jurisdictional ‘accidents’, we can see Earth morph into Cloud. At the heart of Cloud Polis are the questions concerning the hermeneutics of technological sovereignty and technological ideology: the old order of Westphalian-derived nation-states and the new platform ‘superpowers’ are, (perhaps understandably) prone to seeing things very differently. Most characteristic of these new struggles is the dispute between China and Google, viewed by Bratton as a conflict of two similarly large ‘empires’ or ‘megastate actors’. More so than this, however, do we see in this case a struggle over ‘the predominance of two different modes of sovereignty’ and qualitative judgments of the Internet’s role in relation to state citizenship.[31] The Chinese government’s desire to subsume the Cloud, to filter its content, services, and processes, is irreconcilable with Google’s endlessly malleable socioeconomic outreach and democratizing mission statement: ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.[32] In fact, platform sovereignty, with its quantitative assessments of Earth and User metrics and algorithmically-driven pursuit of maximum economic efficiency, looks to be a significant agent of transformation for states themselves, though perhaps this too will be achieved through innovations of business procedure in circumventing red tape rather than as a deliberate attempt to seize the reins of power.[33] Not only can the major Cloud-based platforms see as a state, they also have influence over what states can do, often turning said states’ jurisdictional techniques and concepts to their advantage. We can think of Facebook’s production of self-identifying subjectivity (through the symbolic logic of ‘profiling’),[34] or Apple’s curation of an entire brand ‘culture’ (one which evolved out of 70s Californian counterculture and came complete with a cinematic ‘origin story’, becoming an aesthetics of superlative consumerist utopianism),[35] as fairly mundane expressions of the new challenges facing state sovereignty. Yet these new challenges are themselves predicated on established and consistent ideas and practices of ‘open-plan’ democracy, the implicit desire to uphold humanist values, and, perhaps most significantly of all, the production of ’proto-citizenships’.[36]

City

Users must reconcile their presence in The Stack and their experiences with Cloud-based computing with their adjacent position on the socio-technological plane designated by Bratton as the City layer. With their being profiled, recorded, defined, and influenced by their national place of residence and their statuses as registered users of multiple platforms (as well as using their services themselves), Users currently take on multiple overlapping citizenships at once. This shared multi-citizenship between all creates a ‘commonality’, a register by which all Users can be quantified in relation to a universal City layer composed of clashing and meshing sovereignties, and of which individual cities, states, energy grids, networks, and platforms are but localised expressions.[37] Geodesign has softened urban spaces through the use of algorithms into a series of hyperlinked User functions – the paradigm for today’s interlinked global cities is the airport, with its cohabiting antiterror security features (cameras, sensors, checkpoints, etc.) and entertainment multiplexes.[38] Of course, over time, and as cities become modular zones of integrated technologies, resource farms, and nodes for investment, their function as habitable spaces becomes compromised (they become ‘media for rot’, or ‘dumping grounds’ for successive failed urban compositional schemas and their infrastrutures.[39] This is also true for platform ’cities’, online worlds driven by the design logics of data procurement, at the cost of User subjectivity.[40] But the City layer’s position at the crossroads of architectural design and computation instils its surfaces with plastic qualities: its lines and borders are continually being redrawn by the hive of User interactions; their clicks and swipes furrow new pathways and new possibilities for Stack communications.[41] The City layer therefore demonstrates an engagement with utopia: on the one hand, its attempts to delimit spaces through frames or ‘envelopes’ (the maximum facilitating as represented by the app or the shopping complex) produces a centralising, ‘walled garden’ effect; and on the other, the expansion of industrialised urbanity (and urbanisms) signals a decentralising aestheticism of capitalism’s endgame.[42]

Address

If the City layer defines urban jurisdictional zones through limitation and enclosure, the Address layer employs similar techniques for quantifying users and their activity. By assigning hyperlinks, IPs, and post/zip codes to people and things, using the same Cloud infrastructure that enables the most financially successful platforms to rival superpowers’ proficiency in communication and control,[43] The Stack can map out every state of an addressed thing’s being: its material composition and decomposition, its progression through cyber- and geographical space, and even its residue after its departure.[44] In the ‘Address Layer’ chapter, Bratton alludes to the concept of the ‘spime’, theorised in notable science fiction author Bruce Sterling’s ‘influential’ non-fiction work Shaping Things (2005), as a precursor to the emerging concept of the Internet of Things: the mélange of sensors in every household object and public infrastructure, that continued production of which remains underway. The spime (a contraction of ’space’ and ‘time’) is the addressed object as virtual blueprint, waiting to be actualised and downloaded in the form of Amazon’s delivery service, but otherwise incorporating a life cycle of material extraction, assembly, consumption, disposal, and disassembly. Spimes show us that the identity of an addressed thing is to the Stack indistinguishable from the processes of its existence and non-existence.[45] But the Address layer can go further than the tracking of physical components across a socio-economic plane, to incorporate the multidirectional symbolic exchanges between points and fields even in virtual states. Thus, Bratton proposes that the Address layer’s full scope might incorporate an ‘Internet of Haecceities’[46] capable of knitting together not only material things ‘but also concepts, events, procedures, and memes’ into a dynamic network of universal exchange.[47]

This commonality of identifiers assigned to objects and things is central to the functioning of the Address layer, which can then enable The Stack to interpret User metrics in terms of a generalised set of operations. Hence for planetary-scale computation, not only are all things equally measurable (whether they be fuel cells or page views), but communicable to one another in a virtually endless number of permutations, each of which leaves traces and breeds more data (‘metadata’), compounding the process.[48] Bratton refers to this systemic logic of equivocated interactions as deep address, a term that describes the ’telescoping from a global grid of locations to the specific local instance of the addressed and back again’.[49] The Stack’s method of designating and arranging individuated units needs only to make sense to itself, hence the possible new recipients of addresses (and the new tribalisms and pathways of communication engendered between these depersonalised sender-receivers) can be very counter-intuitive to human societies, in the worst cases capable of producing crisis and breakdown. One such example might be the financial crisis of 2008, wherein highly abstracted currencies (referents of exchange value, of commodities, of human activity) became destabilised to the point of global economic collapse.[50] The crises of addressability are also crises of textuality: how texts are cited and related, or how the written word functions through grammar and syntax, or how symbols or metaphors codify and infer deeper messages, are instrumental examples of the logics and pitfalls of deep address, and therein may point towards further understanding of potential future computational accidents.[51]

Interface

At any given time, a User interacts with The Stack (and vice versa) through several channels, apps, and regimes: these are the Interfaces, which mediate individuals and their Addressed selves, their citizenships, and their data. For Users to be able to actually perform what are in actuality immeasurably complex transactions with and modifications to The Stack (and, in essence, for The Stack to exist at all), a translation of incomprehensible functions is needed, and so interfacial design must prioritise simplicity, legibility, and tangibility. But more than this, Interfacial technologies must embody a certain ideological neatness: an ability to coerce Users into perceiving the limited options given by, for example, a GUI (Graphical User Interface), as not only sensible but rational.[52] Their User-friendliness extends to the biological, in that their designs are based around the dexterities of the human hand, treated here as a ’despecialized’ appendage, ready to adapt to any technological prosthesis – interfaces which expand the possibilities of human achievement.[53] Thus, the interactions through the medium of icons and symbols are also interactions with those icons and symbols themselves: Interfacial exchange transcends semiotics to become a teleology and a praxis with User-oriented design technologies themselves. Interfaces do more than relay complex interactions as simplified clicks and presses; they are themselves sites of modification of human behaviour, orienting Users towards predetermined goals and actions.[54]

In this sense, the Interface layer may be the section of The Stack that produces the most in-real-time changes to the sovereignty of planetary-scale computation as a whole, as well as the most ideological heft. One can observe an acceleration in the quantity and ubiquity of interfacial nodes over time: menus opening to sub-menus, hardware linking to cloud storage, etc.[55] In turn, the stage is set for beliefs and values to be ‘outsourced to cognitive prostheses’; a ’subcontracting’ of the self, by which knowledge and reason can be accessed through databases and memes, and therefore manipulated for monetary, political, and even theological leverage.[56] The imaginarium of competing and colliding Interfacial regimes has a name: geoscape, a multiplicity of conceptual spaces through which the User navigates and the images in which these spaces are embodied and accessed.[57] As ideas and visions are condensed into the navigation of urban, domestic, and portable Interfacial technologies and their prescribed outcomes, that allow the User to modify The Stack and their position relative to it and other Users, geoscapes melt into an everyday lived reality coloured by the hallucinogenic, gnostic qualities of software.

***

Hyperstition, The Stack, and theory-fiction

As we have seen, the reality of The Stack is somewhat immaterial. It is a conception or viewpoint of utterly real events, taken as a totality: in essence, The Stack is itself an Interface that links readers to several aspects of the transformation of global politics and power in the face of emergent computational regimes, a condensation of software studies, sociology, computational design, political theory, and more. The ways in which The Stack renders the world as textual for Users is mirrored in Bratton’s proposal to approach the book as science fiction: the techniques of mythologisation of both The Stack and The Stack can be regarded in this sense as attempts to render geopolitical and technological systems humanly legible, rather than as an affront to their authenticity. Interpreting the text in this way is possible because of an underlying crossover from one form of writing to another: theoretical writing has undergone a transmutation into imaginative storytelling, and in parallel to this, a tectonic shift has enabled a multitude of subplots (agonistic sovereignties, legalities, citizenships) to emerge as the real.[58] This process has been named hyperstition by prominent authors and researchers of theory-fiction. Put simply, hyperstition is a process by which ‘elements of effective culture’ traverse from fictional milieus and enter some semblance of the real world.[59] Hyperstition as a process of linking embedded zones or separate realities (or fictions, as by this logic, neither term has clear definitions) is echoed in Bratton’s conception of The Stack as that which ‘does and does not exist’ or, put another way, is tinted by the fictional in its existence as theoretical model.

It is towards the end of the book that Bratton turns most clearly to the idea of Stack-as-fictional quantity. By defining fiction as ‘an alternative [imagination] that is not exactly true or false but is, like all other models, a simulation of logical intentions’,[60] there is an understanding of the term as a plastic art of fabulation, modelled on but not limited to current conceptions of the world as it is. We can look across the book as a whole and find three compelling reasons for interpreting The Stack as theory-fiction: its use of narratological and linguistic structures and techniques; its relation to the mythical; and its engagements with utopia and the speculative. It has so far been difficult to disentangle my reading of the book from each of these terms, and I have not tried to exclude them up to this point; regardless I now will explain what is meant by each of these, by relating them specifically to ‘projects’ the book gestures towards at both the end of each of the major sections and the conclusion of the entirety.

Firstly, although the structure of The Stack would never be mistaken for that of a novel, Bratton does provide the reader with a narrative: one that flows from the bottom to the top, revealing itself across fabricated layers that also function as steps towards a predetermined outcome. The book’s characters range from powerful and powerless individuals (Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, the overexhausted Foxconn employee); its settings are both local (Silicon Valley, the Pakistan-India border, an individual Walmart outlet or Apple ID) and global (Europe, China, the Earth, Google Earth); and the themes of its expectant futures encompass both a sense of dread or imminent catastrophe (our ecological and economic autophagy), and utter banality and cultural myopia (‘8K LOLcat videos from 10 angles at once’[61]). All of this results in a Pynchonesque telling of our geopolitical present and its technological agents of change. Similarly, we find the bolstering of science fiction plots and outcomes, and the speculations of some of its more prominent writers, throughout The Stack: Sterling, Ballard, Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc. What the book does as science fiction is situate these reflections of our technology-driven presents into specific contexts and instances, and rendering the result as a fictional device, or a portal through which emergent futures can be glimpsed. We have already seen the example of Sterling’s spimes as a conception of a blueprinted thing possessing a multiplicity of material states and use-values; today it is not difficult for us to imagine a future of endlessly downloadable, trackable, and recyclable things, and the resultant changes to our perception of objecthood this might signify.

This leads into the idea of The Stack as an auto-mythologising text, that seeks to blur the distinctions between real events and their fictional counterparts through the uses of linguistic inflation and invention, such as we can see in some of the chapter headings (‘The First Sino-Google War of 2009’, ‘Zombie Jurisdictions’, ‘Theo-Interfaciailty’). This is a preoccupation shared with his previous work, Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution,[62] which deliberately crafts specific essay titles, discontinuous and linked only in themes that reveal themselves through reading (‘The Orchid Mantis of Sanzhi’, ‘After the Chromopolitical Revolutions of 2005’). It is impossible to validate every one of these instances in advance; to do so requires the reader to conduct their own external research during or after reading. Granted, with The Stack one isn’t expected to be sceptical of every claim being made, or the authenticity of every citation as with Dispute Plan (who are OMA? Who was John Frum? Does any of this add up?). Regardless, it is a technique that carries over into the former text, which uses the fictional mode of the mythic to its advantage, particularly when it comes to extrapolating from current tendencies into the future.

More revolutionary, however, is the suggestion of alternate mythic conceptions of time, which differ from the Copernican, Anthropocentric, or Earthly scales;[63] a gesture prefigured somewhat by Quentin Meillassoux’s evocations of non-Heraclitean absolute timeframes[64] and Nick Land’s concept of ‘templexity’.[65] For example, we see in contemporary urban design the reactionary aesthetics of anti-terror, -ecopalypse, and -financial crisis implementations: strangulations of the City layer as a means to defend against these pre-doomed futures.[66] These ideas can be related back to hyperstition, which conceives of fictional becomings as occurring across and through time, usually recursively.[67] Alongside these processes of mystification, we can also intuit simultaneous processes of demystification: a dismantling of the opposing counterarguments surrounding human essentialism, the extent of climate change’s inevitable impact, and the outdatedness of Westphalian state sovereignty, and all other ‘political-theological projections’ that inhibit the new necessary transformative politics.[68] The objective of Stack-oriented design therefore is not merely to obfuscate or distract from the invention of practical solutions, but to posit the most effective, the most vital design narratives (or ‘durable alter-totalities’[69]) as the means of overcoming the fundamental crises of geopolitics and governmentality today and to-come.

Finally, and as already suggested, we may wish to consider the relationship between The Stack, science fiction, and the utopian. The latter term of course bears a unique relation with the dystopian, including and especially in Bratton’s determination of both in relation to Stack geodesign. It is clear in the book that utopias are everywhere in The Stack’s conception, and we have already charted many of these: in technology’s potential, in the origins of platform capitalism, in urban planning, in interfacial imagery, etc.[70] In fact, these are all utopian projections that Stack geodesign must dismantle. Bound up with every utopia is its dystopian inversion: each of these schematics are formally reversible when approached from alternative perspectives. That is, to some individuals a nation state or social media group is a bunker protecting the inside from the outside; to others that same assemblage is a camp preventing the inside from getting out – and always, it is both of these things at once.[71] Geoscapes and cities belie alternative relations to the multiplicity of jurisdictions that map onto the utopia/dystopia binary: modernist design (for example, of open spaces) can easily prefigure totalitarian futures (surveillance states), something which design itself may not be able to legislate.[72] This remains the challenge for future Stack design: to be responsive to the spontaneous fluctuations of border lines even as Users themselves remain static; to have the necessary countermeasures in place in preparation for volatile futures.

Bratton’s intriguing gestures towards designing these essential fictional futurities are developed in the closing sections of the book into something he calls ‘The Stack-to-come’ or ‘The Black Stack’.[73] As a way of scaling the unmanageable functions and metafunctions of Stack activity, data, and metadata, which occur in post-Anthropocentric, nonlinear lurches, The Black Stack is a host vessel containing many alter-Stacks: virtual and actual narrative flows which, like The Stack-we-have’s six operational layers, intersect, converge, and communicate in exponential and invisible configurations.[74] The rationale for The Black Stack is surprisingly straightforward. If it is possible (and it does appear to be) to map out the entirety of network interactions as a field of combined User activity of the last decade or so – a ‘digital simulation of the world’ – then the design plane is already full.[75] On this plane, utopian ideals of tabula rasa social construction inevitably buckle as dystopian failures: open becomes closed, exceptions become norms, etc. The opacity of The Black Stack allows for neither interpretation or design as addition: rather, it is a tabula plenus that takes the problematics of futures design as negative process, as subtraction, and as planning from its arrival backwards.[76] ‘The Black Stack may be black because we [humans] cannot see our own reflection in it’, says Bratton; but this in turn may be beneficial in ‘making way for genuinely posthuman and nonhuman positions’.[77] Perhaps our future narratives will be less architectural than archaeological: a rendering of the opaqueness of geopolitical relations and content into transparent regimes and processes. We might look at, for example, what is happening with blockchain and cryptocurrency as the transformation of money into ‘a general design problem’, one that uncovers the methodologies of capital’s alchemical inception as ‘abstractions of time, debt, work, and prestige’.[78]

The specific design problems for The Black Stack are, then, the following. Users must be able to adjust The Stack in several ways and for several purposes.[79] For this, The Black Stack must be designed not for Users themselves (which occupy multiple contradictory positions impossible to cohere), but for their configurations and their contexts.[80] Our current environmental crisis must be conceived as a ‘crisis of ongoingness’, and so new worldly diagrams must be drawn that are able to (best) represent this.[81] Our new Cloud polities must incorporate reversibility into their design briefs, as accidents generated from one virtual future will derail what actually comes to pass; and, in addition, may provide solutions in themselves.[82] Our cities must overcome the ‘glass fort’ (securitised) paradigm which currently characterises urban architecture, and become hospitable again, encouraging openness and transparency as the ultimate horizons.[83] Similarly, addressing must be pushed towards maximalisation, into an ‘absolute accounting of everything’, that would allow for greater culpability and democratisation.[84] The new interfacial regimes must be fully reciprocal, with Users as capable of influencing The Stack as The Stack is of them.[85] Interfaces must become ‘ambient’: i.e. more seamless, more algorithmic, less human.[86] And of course, the User herself must become more comfortable with becoming less human, with the idea that The Stack exists not merely for herself but for global ecosystems, the forgotten and dispossessed, the artificial, and the all-too-real[87]. For this the human User must allow herself to become abstract, and for the individuation of Users to give way to pluralised conglomerations of accountable data.[88]

These are The Stack’s speculative endings: its new myths, new utopias, and emergent subplots. It is also where The Stack/The Stack as theory-fiction becomes most apparent, where facts and fictions are conjoined into a series of geopolitical projects designed to both map and steer the future. This theory-fiction traces and overlays the political text to propose speculative, alternative solutions to problems, that otherwise could not be conceived. This resultant metatext’s hyperstitional entity, The Black Stack, is a mythical monolith designed by Bratton to be carved away at, and we as readers are encouraged to encode our own spaces, our own problematics, and to engage in the necessary processes of writing alternate futures. As theory-fiction, The Stack/The Stack frames the creation of fictional paradigms political in itself. Perhaps this is not profound, perhaps this changes nothing, but theory-fiction does in this example cast light onto the potentials of fiction on the futures we want, and for this alone, I believe it warrants the response it has begun to invite.

Notes

[1] Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), hereafter TS.

[2] TS, p. xviii.

[3] See Philip K. Dick, ‘Autofac’ [1955], in Minority Report: Volume Four of the Collected Stories (London: Gollancz, 2017), pp. 1-20.

[4] For the uninitiated, the term platform may need qualification, being that its usage has expanded somewhat beyond describing plateaus for software execution to incorporate the economic models which result from the exchanges software platforms have engendered. A platform as defined in The Stack (p. 374) is ‘a standards-based technical-economic system that may simultaneously distribute interfaces into that system through their remote coordination and centralizes their integrated control through that same coordination.’ See also TS: pp. 41-51, for a more thorough synopsis of this particular definition. Although not cited further, one may choose to read Bratton’s book alongside another recent publication, Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism (Cambridge, UK/Malden, MA: The Polity Press, 2017). ‘At the most general level’, Srnicek writes, ‘platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact’ (p. 43), and it’s perhaps in this more general guise that I employ the term throughout this essay.

[5] TS, pp. 5-7.

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-90 (p. 87).

[7] Ibid., pp. 66-9.

[8] Ibid., p. 75.

[9] Ibid., p. 66.

[10] Hillary Clinton, in TS, p. 3.

[11] TS, pp. 3-4 (p. 3).

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

[13] Jean-François Lyotard, Le Mur du pacifique (Paris: Galilée, 1979). Terence Blake has kindly allowed me to cite his translation of the back cover to the original 1979 French edition of the book, which was written by Lyotard himself: ‘This is a French manuscript found several years ago in a Californian university’s library. The author sketches out a sort of political « theory-fiction » […]’. This quotation does not appear on the cover of the English edition of the book, published by Lapis Press in 1989 as Pacific Wall (trans. by Bruce Boone). See Terence Blake, ‘LYOTARD’S THEORY-FICTION: le mur du pacifique’, AGENT SWARM, emphasis Blake’s. (1st January 2019, available online at https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/lyotards-theory-fiction-le-mur-du-pacifique/ [Accessed 2nd January 2019]).

[14] See Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018 [1999]). ‘It is Baudrillard’, writes Fisher (p. 5), ‘who is most associated with the emergence of theory-fiction as a mode. And it is the role of “third-order simulacra” – associated, by Baudrillard, very closely with cybernetics, that, Baudrillard says, “puts an end” to theory and fiction as separate genres.’ In Baudrillard’s words, third-order simulacra correspond to cybernetic models which are ‘themselves an anticipation of the real, and thus leave no room for any kind of fictional anticipation’ (in Fisher, p. 25). Fisher expands on this last quotation of Baudrillard: ‘If Baudrillard’s theory-fictions of the three orders of simulacra must be taken seriously, which means: as realism about the hyperreal, or cybernetic realism [sic], it is because they have realised that, in capitalism, fiction is no longer merely representational but has invaded the Real to the point of constituting it’ (pp. 25-6, emphasis in original).

[15] Reza Negarestani, ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (reading Applied Ballardianism’, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018, available online at https://toyphilosophy.com/2018/08/09/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin-reading-applied-ballardianism/ [Accessed 2nd January 2019]).

[16] Ibid.

[17] What follows therefore is a mere surface-scratching, quasi-mythologising account of a dense and intricate work. Although some of the implications of Bratton’s research are alluded to, as well as some of the more helpful or interesting examples he provides, the real aim of the next few sections is to outline the book’s principal contents, as opposed to its shading or suggested ethical imperatives.

[18] TS, p. 254.

[19] Ibid., p. 252.

[20] Ibid., pp. 251, 255.

[21] Bratton borrows this term from ‘an extremely Califiornian subculture that seeks “self knowledge through numbers.” It champions the use of data capture technologies to track an individual User’s “inputs” (i.e., food and air), “states” (mood, energy level), and “performance” (mental and physical metrics’. TS, pp. 260-4 (p. 261).

[22] See TS, pp. 271-4 for Bratton’s account of the ‘Death of the User’, incorporating and building on Giorgio Agamben’s reading of dispositif.

[23] This whole section in The Stack is informed by Elizabeth Grosz’s book Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). In particular, Bratton discusses the concept of framing, and quotes from p. 17: ‘The earth can be infinitely divided, territorialized, framed. … Framing is how chaos becomes territory. Framing is the means by which objects are delimited, qualities unleashed and art is made possible’. Grosz, in TS, pp. 83-7 (p. 84), emphasis in original.

[24] TS, p. 86. See Figure 2 above.

[25] Ibid. pp. 89-92. See also Raymond Depardon & Paul Virilio, Native Land: Stop Eject [Terre natale: Ailleurs commence ici] (Paris: Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2008).

[26] Ibid., pp. 90-6.

[27] Ibid. p. 90: ‘Computation is training governance to see the world as it does and to be blind like it is. If, over time, something sees for the state, or by seeing something the state has not yet become but would become once it’s trained by these same new tools of perception and blindness. As the state involves new techniques into itself, those techniques also absorb, displace, and diminish the state by controlling access to unique jurisdictions that the state cannot otherwise possibly comprehend without their help’.

[28] Ibid, pp. 92-3.

[29] Ibid., pp. 81-3 (emphasis in original).

[30] Ibid., pp. 97-101.

[31] Ibid., pp. 112-5. From pp. 112-3: ‘The First Sino-Google War of 2009 may well be the opening crack in a very different kind of war over who or what governs global society, one less between two superpowers than between two logics of terminal control. One of these sees the Internet as an extension of the body of the state, or at least beneath the state in the priorities of sovereignty, and the other sees the Internet as a living, quasi-autonomous, if privately controlled and capitalized, transterritorial civil society that produces, defends, and demands rights on its own and which can even assume traditional functions of the state for itself’. For a lengthier exploration of China’s current relations with Westphalian principles and values, see Ankit Panda, ‘China’s Westphalian Attachment’, The Diplomat (22nd May 2014, available online at https://thediplomat.com/2014/05/chinas-westphalian-attachment/ [Accessed 2nd January 2019]).

[32] Ibid., pp. 87, 114, and esp. 134-41. See also ‘About Us | Google’ (no date, available online at https://www.google.com/about/). A further exegesis of Google’s current ideology can be found in the form of Eric Schmidt and Jarred Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future (New York/Toronto: Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2013), which Bratton dissects confidently (see TS, pp. 134-6).

[33] Ibid., pp. 114-6. Bratton uses Google’s subsidiary Google Energy, which is capable of purchasing wholesale electricity to sell to grids without intervention, as an example of how the platform may precisely wield political leverage in the future, as well as the manifold risks acquisitions such as this engender as regards to regulation, cybersecurity, and energy’s own political autonomy. See TS, pp. 140-1.

[34] Ibid., pp. 125-8.

[35] Ibid., pp. 128-31.

[36] Ibid., pp. 122, 134, 136.

[37] Ibid., pp. 151-3. From p. 152: ‘The road makes us all drivers, the fiber cable line makes us all callers, and the City layer makes us all inhabitants of a composite urban territory’.

[38] Ibid., pp. 155-7. Bratton’s analysis here and throughout the City chapter of The Stack owes much to his reading of Paul Virilio’s ‘The Overexposed City’ [‘La ville surexposée’: 1984], trans. by Astrid Hustvedt, in Zone 1/2, eds. Michel Feher & Sanford Kwinter New York: Urzone Inc., 1986), pp. 14-31.

[39] Ibid., pp. 160-3 (pp. 160-1).

[40] Ibid., pp. 172-6. On this last point, Agamben’s description of the ‘process of de-subjectification’ enacted by state/platform apparatuses on discrete subject positions is cited. See Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? and Other Essays, trans. by David Kishik & Stefan Pedatella (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), pp. 19-21.

[41] Ibid., pp. 165-72.

[42] Ibid., pp. 177-80.

[43] Ibid., pp. 115-9.

[44] Ibid., pp. 191-2.

[45] Ibid., pp. 200-4, 231. See also Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge, MA/London: The MIT Press, 2005), esp. pp. 76-111. From p. 77: ‘A SPIME [sic] is, by definition, the protagonist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time’.

[46] Bratton’s usage of ‘haecceity’ here is derived from that of Charles Sanders Peirce, who uses it to describe a particular thing’s individuating quality or ‘thisness’ (TS, p. 417n39), or its ‘hereness and nowness’. See The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, eds. Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss & Arthur W. Burks (in eight volumes, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-58), section 1.405.

[47] TS, pp. 209-12 (p. 209).

[48] Ibid., p. 201.

[49] Ibid., pp. 197-200 (p. 197).

[50] Ibid., p. 199: ‘Among other things, the financial crisis is a crisis of addressability, a de-addressing of things […]’.

[51] Ibid., pp. 199-200, 210-1.

[52] Ibid., pp. 219-21.

[53] Ibid., pp. 222-7, 240. Note that Bratton deliberately borrows (and keeps in quotation marks) the idea of the ‘despecialization’ of the human hand from Michel Serres, admitting its shortcomings in terms of mainstream evolutionary biological theory: ‘Evolutionary biologists may differ […]’ (p. 222). See also Michel Serres, ‘The Science of Relations: An Interview’ (interview with Peter Hallward), trans. by Alberto Toscano. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 8: 2 (Abingdon, Routledge, 2003), pp. 227-38, available online at https://doi.org/10.1080/0969725032000162675 [Accessed 2nd January 2019].

[54] Ibid., pp. 222-35.

[55] Ibid., p. 232.

[56] Ibid., pp. 239-4 (p. 240).

[57] Ibid., pp.243-50.

[58] Negarestani’s term Hidden Writing comes to mind here: ‘Hidden Writing 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. The aftermath of this utilization manifests itself as an act of writing whose effect is to deteriorate the primary unified plot or remobilize the so-called central theme and its authority as a mere armature or primary substance for holding things together’. Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), pp. 60-7 (p. 61). See also my essay ‘A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing’, orbistertius (16th September 2016, available online at https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/a-note-on-hyperstition-and-hidden-writing/).

[59] The Ccru (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit), originators of the term, define hyperstition as an ‘[e]lement of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials. Hyperstition operates as a coincidence intensifier, effecting a call to the Old Ones’. ‘Ccru Glossary’, in Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition (London: self-published, 1999), pp. 69-79 (p. 74).

[60] TS, p. 320.

[61] Ibid., pp. 117-8.

[62] Benjamin H. Bratton, Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015). This is a work that carries the ‘theory-fiction’ tag much more openly, as can be gleamed from the (somewhat overzealous) back cover: ‘Equal parts Borges, Burroughs, Baudrillard, and Black Ops, Dispute Plan to Prevent Future Luxury Constitution charts a treacherous landscape filled with paranoid master plans, failed schemes, and dubious histories. […] Benjamin H. Bratton’s kaleidoscopic theory-fiction links the utopian fantasies of political violence with the equally utopian programs of security and control. […] The cast of characters in this ensemble drama of righteous desperation and tactical trickery, shuttle between fact and speculation, action and script, flesh and symbol, [etc.]’ (emphasis added).

[63] TS, p. 359: ‘[Future Stack] design needs […] a better, more primordial sense of time […]. Functional requirements research may or may not find for acceleration beyond Earth and Earthiness (including to Mars, beyond the moon, that dumb homunculus, that planetoid teratoma, broken off dead twin hanging in space)’.

[64] See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency [Après la finitude], trans. by Ray Brassier (London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012 [2006]), p. 64: ‘If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, […] [w]e see something akin to Time […]. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law’.

[65] See Nick Land, Templexity: Disordered Loops Through Shanghai Time (e-book: Urbanatomy Electronic, 2014). Land’s work is dense and difficult to quote, and so, being resignedly reductive, we might call templexity the time scale produced by the entropic forces of capital, but also any self-organising biological or social entity or system (see §8.5).

[66] TS, pp. 321-6.

[67] See note 59 above.

[68] TS, pp. 288-9, 305, 320-1, 343, 355.

[69] Ibid., p. 328.

[70] Ibid., pp. viii, 46, 177, 245-9.

[71] Ibid., p. 23.

[72] Ibid., pp. 319, 446-8n45.

[73] Ibid., 351-65, esp. 359-65.

[74] Ibid., p. 362.

[75] Ibid., pp. 363-4 (p. 363).

[76] Ibid., pp. 364-5.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., pp. 333-7 (p. 337).

[79] Ibid., p. 298.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid., pp. 304-6.

[82] Ibid., p. 319.

[83] Ibid., pp. 320-6 (p. 323).

[84] Ibid., p. 337.

[85] Ibid., p. 343.

[86] Ibid., pp. 338-41.

[87] Ibid., pp. 343-5.

[88] Ibid., pp. 345-8.

Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #3]

Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation (2014), in Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (London: 4th Estate, 2018), pp. 1-197. 

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (110) 

In addition to a work of speculative fiction (or New Weird), a treatise on imminent (/immanent) ecological horror and post-Anthropocentric survival, and (as the 2018 film adaptation makes painfully clear) an extended allegory for cancerous pathologies and the deindividuated self-destruction of cell programming, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation is also a work of fiction that takes the power of the written word very seriously. The novel’s central objective discovery (absent entirely from the film, which I will now abstain from referring to) is of a passage of writing: a sort of fungal flora growing out of the wall deep inside the subterranean vertical tunnel named by the narrator as “the tower”. The content of this passage is obscure, and ultimately, it is decided by the narrator, unimportant: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner […]”. This text, however, has an agency all of its own: its message is not disseminated through interpretation and relay, but inhalation. “I was unlucky – or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey.” (27) 

Before noting the effects of this textual contagion, it is worth considering one or two things about the hosts. The “characters” of Annihilation are anything but “rounded”, or psychologically multilayered; instead going by their ascribed job titles – the protagonist is “the biologist”, for example, joined on her expedition by “the surveyor” and “the psychologist”, married to “the husband”, etc. (From page 11: “we were always strongly discouraged from using names […]. Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while we were embedded in Area X.”) These figures assert their processes over their personalities (see also Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Plateaus 4 and 5 of A Thousand Plateaus). Consequently, they function as bundles of collective affects (or elements of effective culture), ready for any potential becomings. This is seen in the biologist’s modulation into Ghost Bird: a xeroxed tulpa identified by what she calls a “brightness” emanating from within. She even identifies herself as a “demon” during her gunfire exchange with the alienated surveyor. (The significance of the demonolgical to theory-fiction is explored in Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, and several posts on this blog.) 

But while the reader may be inclined to see these effected changes to the narrator’s subjective being (as well as those effected on the topography of the environment which has become known as Area X) as harmful, they are instead described in more ambivalent terms. While the destruction of said subjectivity is acknowledged as a loss of rational certainties and adequate means of expression (something Eugene Thacker calls misanthropic subtraction), the encounter with the script is more positively affirmed as an opportunity for escape from individuation and passage to the becoming-multiple. The meeting with the Crawler, late in the novel – a being which can barely be perceived, let alone apprehended – is the pivot for said deindividuation. While weird fiction is known for having a penchant towards authoritarian scientists becoming subjected to unnameable cosmic horror (a trend perfected by Lovecraft), VanderMeer’s protagonist is willing to embrace the transformative potentials of the loss of certainties gathered from her encounters, in a way that these predecessors found themselves unwilling or incapable of. The author’s intention was to provocatively suggest Area X and its inhabitants as a “best case scenario” of ecological mutation – the cancerous expansion of alien becomings effectively shielding the Earth from the mass extinctions it inevitably faces. As current occupants of the planet (“ghosts roaming a haunted landscape”, as the husband poignantly acknowledges), it might indeed be the case that intense organic modifications may be the only means of preserving life on an uninhabitable Earth. (This, of course, is not a get-out clause for avoiding collective environmental action – it is obviously vital that we do everything in our capacity to save life on Earth while the opportunity for doing so is still open to us.) The ending of the novel – Ghost Bird preparing for a deeper descent into Area X, without any suggestion of ever returning – may constitute the first steps into this experimental new form of becoming; a sort of de-colonialist subversion of Colonel Kurtz. “I’m well beyond you now, and travelling very fast. […] I am not returning home.” (196)

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.