Reality Capitalism, or, the Cultural Logic of the Upside Down

After human capital, social capital, cultural capital, and algorithmic capital, I would like to propose reality capital as another contemporary object of exchange. Reality capitalism describes the state in which competing visions of reality – or even realities in themselves – are produced, bought and sold on futures markets, displayed through the refractions of multiple Overton windows, and (seemingly) possessing no innate value by which one can be asserted definitively over another. Reality capitalism is both the product of and existential challenge to the 40+ year project of neoliberalism, and a description of the market ecologies of what I have elsewhere identified as theory-fiction: convergences between various forms of text and their environments that are capable of causing a crisis in the confident notion of a singular, objective, and universal “reality”.

Below, I intend to draw out a number of elements and themes that could said to be representative or symptomatic of reality capitalism: a menagerie of theoretical concepts, memes, noteworthy recent events, strands of political or media analysis, and other assorted debris that either have or could find themselves the topics of recent conversations, and perhaps those to come leading into the new decade (though where the circus will travel has yet to be decided – looking forward to the following words’ obsolescence ten years from now). Of course, big concepts require more than flavour text in order to prove their merits. This is something I have not aimed at here, as my thinking regarding this line of inquiry is still wholly in its infancy. No conclusions at this stage either. Neither am I looking to equivocate any of the subjects below, only to suggest possible affiliations in the current climate, from a certain point of view and held together by a certain discontinuous dream logic, and to keep options open as to where this nascent direction in my recent thought might develop next.

As André 3000 once said, “It’s just my interpretation of the situation”…

*

We’re particularly interested in deep experts on TV and digital. We are also interested in people who have worked in movies or on advertising campaigns. There are also some very interesting possibilities in the intersection of technology and story telling – if you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you. […]

We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels[…]

Dominic Cummings, “‘Two hands are a lot’”[1]

The name populism has been associated with the emergence of a renewed political “far right” across the globe. Populism denotes a number of interrelated phenomena which congealed around some of the major political upheavals (and for many, upsets) of the 2010s. Chief in status among these was the 2016 US presidential election, which saw Donald Trump into the White House, but also similarly controversial appointments of hard-right figures in senior governmental roles, including Matteo Salvini (deputy prime minister of Italy from 2018-19) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazilian president, 2019-); as well as the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU (“Brexit”: 2016). The scale of popular support for the sentiments which fueled each of these events – typically characterised by appeals to “forgotten” communities (e.g. the “white working class”), systemic failure of the “elite” establishment class (parliamentary politics, education, the media), fierce national solidarity, redoubled anti-immigration rhetoric, and, above all, promises of re-enfranchisement – would have been regarded by many as inconceivable only a few years prior to their happening. Yet they now feel bitterly comfortable and commonplace, and difficult to prize apart from a more “innocent” time. Regardless of political orientation, what the democratic subject now finds easiest to register is a betrayal of trust, and a familiarity of being lied to (even if the lies and liars aren’t universally agreed upon). There are general understandings of imminent climate disaster, Russian collusion, social media manipulation and hacking of metadata, of potential economic chaos; but for many individuals, who have accrued generations of precarious living, instability, and (perceived) neglect, the responses have been apathetic and desensitised at best, and denialist and auto-destructive at worst.

The post-truth era refers to this thoroughly miserablist social climate, where the traditional lines between truth and falsity are increasingly, sometimes glibly, being breached. Perhaps this era could be understood primarily in terms of a displacement of affect. That is to say, while critics of postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson were content to describe a reduction in overall feeling for the individual, an experience symptomatic of neoliberal economic and social policies[2] (the world becoming more and more like a simulation of reality, or for Jean Baudrillard, “hyperreality”[3]), it is more widely believed today that these feelings (experienced as fear and resentment) were instead pooled, ready for extraction by nightmarish data science apparatuses and redistributed into the electoral machine. As soon as power is seized by these ill-understood data firms, and the targeted puppet-financier-CEO is installed, it is seemingly impossible to use judicial means to intercept or reverse these processes. After all, those who would have the means to delegitimise these populist seizures of sovereignty by (ostensibly) outsider mavericks (“men of the people”, reality TV stars) are themselves (by default) the establishment, and therefore de facto enemies of free expression and “ordinary people”. And so exclamations of “fake news!” and “no collusion!” become the de jure means of reinforcing the Manichean narrative of the establishment versus the commons, the deferral (and equivocating) of conspiracy with conspiracy theory.

Contradicting narratives proliferate the media landscape, and therefore the public at large is more divisive, more factional than ever. Narrative has now become the primary method of interpreting society, politics, and, more widely, “reality”. One could regard this everyday aestheticisation as a textualisation, in which physical and social sciences, once assured of their solidity and perennial status as tools of validation, are betrayed by a loss of the singular real itself. In other words, what was once taken to be generally valuable, applicable to all relevant contexts within “normal proceedings” (anything from voter polling to climate stats to philosophical rationalism and empiricism) now has to face stepping down from a position of total authority or legitimacy, now useful in some realities but not others. There appears to be no going back to a time of realist unity, a time of normal proceedings, as some might want: we find ourselves now flitting in and out of pluralised, weird and polytendrilled realities; another side of the board, the Upside Down.

I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.

Donald J. Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal[4]

Political and cultural commentators sometimes like to point with a sense of bewilderment at the 2016 Superbowl halftime show, in which the wardrobe and choreography of Beyoncé’s performance owed much to the stylings of the Black Panthers, and contrast this with the election of Trump later that same year. Supposedly, this demonstrates a clear division between American culture and politics. It would perhaps be better to say that there is a misalignment between the hegemonies, or dominant ideologies, of mainstream culture and national electoral politics in this example. In any case, Trump and Beyoncé are unusual dialectical axioms for American history: clearly, given his often dismal personal approval ratings, Trump does not “represent” the entirety of American political views any more than Beyoncé’s performance “represents” the pinnacle of American culture at that particular moment. (And any film fan will tell you, the Oscars are a poor measure of the best films released in any given year.) It’s not as though we ought to expect a significant overlap between fans of the Superbowl concert and voters who anointed Trump at the ballot. The Republican nominee’s victory in 2016, as is now well documented, came about through crucial concentrated voting in key states, in which exposure via a combined mainstream and social media played a significant part. Similarly, platforms like Spotify and YouTube often hold the share of responsibility when it comes to algorithmically sorting and distributing today’s and tomorrow’s pop kings and queens. With the advanced techno-logic of viral marketing and the buzz generated by meme magic, there is no longer a pronounced need to cross the streams to achieve the conditions of success. The apparent contradiction, therefore, between the success of the Superbowl performance and Trump’s victory, lies not in the divergence between the discrete registers of American culture and politics, but in the failure of two very different trending topics, or profiles of famous positionalities perpendicular to the plane of the “real world”, to calibrate signals compatible with one another. And, furthermore, the contingency of such a need for them to do so.

Markets are won by taking control rather than by establishing a discipline, by fixing rates rather than by reducing costs, by transforming products rather than by specializing production. […] Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[5]

We are now preoccupied with a cultural logic that is simultaneously a product of neoliberalism and a threat to its very origins. The neoliberal project is, analysed through various post-Gramscian lenses, a liberation of human potentials through the deregulation of economic markets from state control,[6] an apparatus of free-market auto-correction or “self-contradictory form of regulation-in-denial”,[7] or an attempt to control and repurpose the state in an effort to “create and sustain markets at all costs”.[8] What the theorists who define neoliberalism thusly share is an understanding of the project’s very inconsistency, and aptitude in evading concretised meaning. Although neoliberalism describes a unity of varying strands of economic theory that were purposefully composed in the 1920s and 1930s, the principles of such a project, while never making themselves explicit, underwent frequent mutation until their first mainstream applications in the late 1970s, and indeed continued to adapt past this initial moment of implementation throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[9] Neoliberalism has proven to be simultaneously deliberate and obscure, heterogeneous in its scope and reach and unified in its political and theoretical direction – and this mutability has been central to its effectiveness and long-term success.

It is in retrospect that we have come to see neoliberalism as a universal, default, and “natural” ideology and approach to economies and societies. These qualities were not always invoked in regards to the relationship between states and markets, and when they were first drafted faced immense hostility from mainstream Keynesian economic theorists and post-Depression governments. Why would more volatility, and increases in margins for profit losses – and even seemingly unusual social attributes such as the widespread construction of subjectivity as competitive and driven to self-improvement, and the dissolution of the public/private divide – be encouraged? More pertinently, how did these ideas manage to become taken for granted as the sensible (perhaps even the only viable) order of things in hindsight?

None other than Milton Friedman has an answer. Somewhat (in)famously, Friedman described the project of neoliberalism as one that opportunistically seizes a crisis and exploits it for its own gain: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”[10] This “actual or perceived” is more significant than it may initially appear, as – with the Ccru’s term “hyperstition”,[11] or Žižek’s classic conception of ideology[12] – the fostering of political inevitabilities does not require mass consensus or even awareness in order for these narratives to take hold as natural and ahistorical. Indeed, it may be beneficial for the origins of such narratives to remain hidden whenever possible.

For any way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. If successful, this conceptual apparatus becomes so embedded in common sense as to be taken for granted and not open to question.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism[13]

And so in the 1970s, after repeated shocks to existing economic policy in the forms of oil crises, rising stagflation, and the expansion of credit, neoliberalism appeared poised as a half-century theoretical project that could be viably implemented to pick up the pieces and engineer credible solutions to the problems that beset the United States and Britain. This effort was aided considerably by the protean admixture neoliberalism had become by this point, reaching out and lying low in government institutions, universities, public think tanks, and the media.[14] In its most recent iterations, according to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, it “has become parasitical on everyday experience,” its version of reality cocooning the dominant collective worldview by weaving through “the normative fabric of everyday life itself.”[15] But this is not simply an external imposition: neoliberalism also succeeded by building “on the very real desires of the population”,[16] becoming inextricable with notions of personal freedom and sentiments of anti-institutionalism. In conclusion, we can see the project of neoliberalism as not only an exercise in producing a desired reality out of the meshing of private desires and orchestrated ideological projections, but as a model for a kind of deranged logic that privileges the acts of producing realities out of the materials of the given “real world”, quantified through and distributed according to abstract (fictional) capital: events, people, energy, food, air, and water.

[T]he existence of a ‘futures’ market makes it abundantly clear that time itself is now for sale as a commodity.

Mark Fisher, “SF Capital”[17]

Let us not forget that the alien, vampiric, and demonstrable elements of Marx’s critique of capital tend to linger as some of its most credible and resonant. Mark Fisher’s concept of SF capital directly opposes Marx the humanist with “Marx the remorseless abstract cartographer of abstract hypercapital.” Humanist Marx posits capital-as-fiction as a quantification of use value, ready to be exchanged as such. But, for Fisher, use value itself is just as alienated as abstract capital, being that it is positioned along a time axis that ensures its transcendent inaccessibility. Use value’s “retrospeculative fiction” places it impossibly past the horizon of the future, and is unmoored from an imaginary past (of real exchange and real value). Capital itself is speculative, arriving from this futural point (often travelling from a fraction of a second into the future, as in high-frequency trading). What late capitalism trades on, therefore, is not an abstracted form of use value (given its unachievable status), but time itself: “time and money implex into each other.”[18]

The digital language of control is made up of codes indicating whether access to some information should be allowed or denied. We’re no longer dealing with a duality of mass and individual. Individuals become “dividuals,” and masses become samples, data, markets, or “banks.”

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[19]

According to Luciana Parisi, the notion of algorithmic capitalism follows on from the “technocapitalist phase of real subsumption”, in which the “logic of digital automation has entered the spheres of affects and feelings, linguistic competences, modes of cooperation, forms of knowledge, as well as manifestations of desire.”[20] The digital technologies which increasingly exhibit modes of governance over our lives has transformed the “social brain” into a “machine ecology of algorithmic agents”, in a manner directly indebted to the neoliberal apparatuses of data gathering and quantification of affects and value(s). What emerges is a new form of governmentality, which has “given way to a diffused financialization of potentialities through which aesthetic life is constantly quantified and turned into predictable scenarios.”[21]

Alex Williams agrees with Fisher that capitalism is unique amongst all forms of social organisation in that it exists purely as a dehumanising vector, with no regard for human essentialism. According to this diagnosis, capital is at its purest when it is highly virtualised, and abstracted from the sticky world of human relations. Writing at the end of 2008, Williams saw in the financial crisis an opportunity for developing a new social science of xenoeconomics, that could reconceive the dominant economic mode as a “vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form […] of which we know all-too-little.”[22] The call being solicited here is for a new, “radically inhuman subjectivation” – the “unbound” Promethean – who would utilise market and state apparatuses to radically corrupt these macropolitical aggregates from within. This line of thinking later became the basis for the political philosophy of “left” accelerationism.[23]

What we used to call cyberpunk is a convergence: a crossover point not only for fiction and theory, but for everything that either doesn’t know its place or is in the process of escaping it. Whatever is emerging where authority is getting lost and middle men are being made redundant.

Mark Fisher, “Writing Machines”[24]

The term Overton window has steadily increased in usage within media analysis over the last few years, to the point of household familiarity. This term defines the space of public acceptance for news stories and political policies: ideas that fall within public expectation may be received as sensible or rational, whereas unfamiliar or previously discredited suggestions may (or even deserve to) be treated with cynicism, scorn, absurdity, or abject terror. What is important to users of the concept is that the Overton window displays a naturalism without itself being natural: its framing is constructed, according to principles that are historical, economic, and ideological. It is something that exists independently of received opinion, and yet can be influenced heavily by those in the media, government, and academia to suit particular interests and delegitimise alternatives. As Srnicek and Williams note, the neoliberal project did not require active assent in order to materialise in its many forms, and that by using the framework of the Overton window, a “sequence of neoliberal administrations throughout the world, in conjunction with a network of think tanks and a largely right-leaning media, have been able to transform the range of possible options to exclude even the most moderate of socialist measures.”[25]

cbjbosg4hux31

To look at an unusually blatant example of Overton window logics in full effect, we can look back, if we can bear to be reminded, to the tabloid press’s deracinating strategies on display during last year’s general election campaign. One image of many doing the rounds in certain social media circles shows a side-by-side of two headlines published on the Daily Express news site. One was dated shortly before the announcement of the election and outlined the Labour party’s plans to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour: “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”.[26] The other, published following chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech at the Conservative party conference, only a few weeks after the Labour headline, presented a minimum wage boost to £10.50 per hour in much more ameliorative terms: “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”.[27]

Not only does this example highlight clear editorial bias, to the point of shameless self-contradiction and an insult to the intelligence of the Express’s readership, there is a clear subtext here about how rationality can be produced and maintained over time and throughout an extended, relentlessly pro-establishment media landscape. The Tories’ policy is presented as an expression of universal common sense; its recourse to an “expert” selectively pushed up to the banner. By contrast, the language of the headline (and article) of the Labour story is unabashedly emotive, designed to target unconscious fears by suggesting that an (even more) moderate wage increase poses a vertiginous threat to national stability. There is also a reinforcement of the Manichean logic of the media (steadily increasing in the West for decades now), that there is an almost chaotic undercurrent to all non-authorised political narratives (outside of the approved right-centrism and social conservatism by and large traded on by major print and broadcast media alike) – similar messages can spell out very different things; the weighting of belief is crucial.

But most fascinating about this example is that it appears to give an inverse economic value to the width of the Overton window: the space wherein reality is framed and the “unreal” excluded comes at a cost to minimum wage British employees of -50p.

[W]e live in a mythological era, where it is difficult to distinguish between myths and reality – like for the ancient Greeks – politics is not based on political knowledge, but on the myths promoted by the mass media.

Gleb Pavlovsky[28]

Whether the Overton window is employed or not, this placement of trust that the public is expected to participate in acts of faith when presented with policy pledges (especially when abstracted from historical political spectrums in this manner) is clearly something weak and contingent, and constitutive of forms of narration that are liable to co-option, distortion, and gamification from outside bodies and interest groups. As Reza Negarestani has suggested, dominant narratives are vulnerable to taking dark and chaotic turns when assumed to be hegemonic and unshifting: the undercurrents of subplots beyond the human dynamics of anticipation – what Negarestani calls Hidden Writing – are eternally poised to blister out from the surface plot.[29] The most high-profile events of the 21st century so far seem to affirm this hypothesis: Wahhabist atemporality interjecting the present under the guise of modern “terror”, the future’s cancellation through the breakdown of infinite-degree virtual capitalism (and subsequent redrafting of the globally dominant financial fiction), the screaming of the Earth…

Add to this list of examples the well-documented activities of the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA), which from at least 2013 employed hundreds of people (upwards of 400, according to one estimate) to spread misinformation across Russia and internationally, through sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, VKontakte, and the comments sections of several media outlets (CNN, BBC, The Huffington Post, Politico, Fox News…).[30] IRA workers were known to have used multiple accounts to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda on a massive scale, on issues including the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution of 2014 and the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Multiple sources indicate that the IRA was funded in large part by the restauranteur Evgeny Prigozhin, known as “the Kremlin’s chef” for his role in hosting important meetings between Kremlin officials, as well as his campaigns against members of the opposition.[31] The IRA were later identified in relation to the network of social media campaigns used to agitate the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[32]

Robert Mueller’s indictment of 16th February 2018 brought into focus an operation known as the Translator project. Under the direction of Igor Osadchy, Translator “aimed to change the ratio” between pro- and anti-Russian online content, by defending the Kremlin across social media, and sponsorship deals with the perceptibly apolitical online zones of fashion, fitness, and spiritual guidance blogs.[33] These moves strongly echo Putin’s recurrent public opinion of the internet as a “CIA project”, and follow the protests regarding accusations of fraud in 2011’s Parliamentary election and Putin’s reinauguration in 2012 in particular as a concerted effort to restrict open public discourse on the “Runet” (Russian internet).[34]

When it comes to foreign affairs, the cadre of troll farms that the IRA are said to be constitutive play by a different set of rules, engendering not ideological unity but chaotic dissent. This is evidenced by the microtargeting of their political ads, hashtags, and promotions for events such as organised street protests. For example, the IRA are believed to have organised both pro-Trump and anti-Trump rallies in New York on the same day, and engineer support for causes such as Black Lives Matter while using targeted ads to stoke racial tensions among those susceptible to those views.[35] The methods of Russia’s newer propaganda outlets closely resemble those of the Kremlin’s “political technologists” a few years earlier, as well as top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov’s translation of experimental theatre practices over to the political stage.[36] The combined effect of Russia’s misinformation agents and machines has been to undermine the dominant structures of (Westernised) reality, and there could be no better place than the online world to control and shape desires, fears, and beliefs. As New York Times journalist Adrian Chen noted in 2015: “Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”[37]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.[38]

Much of the information regarding the IRA’s activities were leaked by a collective known as the Anonymous International (not to be confused with the masked hacktivist supergroup Anonymous). Their activities are numerous, and are said to include the publication of hundreds of private emails of both Russian officials and IRA associates.[39] Allegedly co-founded by “black PR” expert Vladimir Anikeyev and another individual, “Alexander”,[40] Anonymous International claimed that their operation resembled an online gamer clan, whose members were paid in cash or bitcoins for their services.[41] With a multitude of rumours to this day as to their origin (their possible connection to the upper echelons of the Russian government a persistent source of debate), the group appears steeped in the fictional: the name of their blog – Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty) – and pseudonyms of their members invite a comparison with the works of Lewis Carroll.[42] In a series of interviews conducted between 2014-5, Anonymous International spokespeople consistently described their aim as “trying to change reality”.[43]

Anonymous International, and others who leak data in the name of freedom of information, see their roles as much the same as those who wield state power: as gatekeepers of alternate realities, of new fictional environments, to make publicly available the materials from which individual and collective stories are written. While the relationship between states and the internet has shifted from the authoritarian to the memetic (comical, inspirational, attention-mediating), such caches of leaked data, from the most utopian viewpoints, also give the public the means to “see like a state”,[44] through the uncovering of the hidden structures by which the fabric of prescribed reality is cut.

As ending on this note would risk seeming celebratory or a desertion of foresight, I’ll instead put forward a different cop out, by invoking the “what is to be done” question. This is perhaps at least a good way of articulating one of the aims of the work I’ve already done, and will continue to animate my research both in the near and distant futures. Do we accept the terms of reality capitalism we already find ourselves negotiating? Do we work with or against the tide of fictional processes, eke out spaces for renewed commitments to rational thought or seize the memes of production? Do we ground and singularise the real as it once appeared to us, or look for opportunities in its entropic expansion and multiplication? Perhaps the only certainties are the need to recognise, to adapt, and to commit to the realisations of the future fictions that suit our needs best. This is the beginnings of a turbulent strategy, whatever ends it wishes to serve, but with measured applications of cunning we may be able to acquire the realities we want and need, outside of the market dynamics through which they are currently being offered to us.

*

Notes

[1] Dominic Cummings. “‘Two hands are a lot’ – we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, Dominic Cummings’s Blog (2nd January 2020), available online at https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/.

[2] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[3] Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death [L’échange symbolique et la mort], revised edition, tr. by Iain Hamilton Grant (London: SAGE Publications, 2017 [1976]).

[4] Donald J. Trump & Toby Schwartz. Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), p. 58. Co-/ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has since publicly disowned Art of the Deal, appealing to its publishers in a tweet for them to reclassify it as fiction. Tony Schwartz, Twitter post (8th May 2019), available online at https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1126233571696492544.

[5] Gilles Deleuze. “Postscript on Control Societies” (1992) [1990], in Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], tr. by Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 177-82 (p. 181).

[6] David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 2.

[7] Jamie Peck. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xiii.

[8] Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London/New York: Verso, 2015), p. 53.

[9] ““Finding neoliberalism” is therefore not about locating some essential center from which all else flows; it is about following flows, backflows, and undercurrents across and between these ideational, ideological, and institutional moments, over time and between places.” Peck, p. xiii.

[10] Milton Friedman. “Preface, 1982”, in Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press: 2002 [1962 & 1982]), pp. xi-xiv (p. xiv).

We may also recall the famous anecdote about Friedman’s most ardent devotee, Margaret Thatcher. During a policy meeting in her time as sitting British prime minister, Thatcher is reported to have slammed down onto the table a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, telling her ministers “This is what we believe.” Peck, p. xv.

[11] Ccru. Writings 1997-2003 (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Time Spiral Press, 2017 [2015]). Cf. this volume, “Origins of the Cthulhu Club” (pp. 59-64); “Appendix 1: Ccru Glossary” (pp. 357-70).

[12] “[I]deology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’ [à la Marxism], an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ – ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence – that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’.” Slavoj Žižek. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London/New York: Verso, 2008 [1989]), pp. 15-6 (emphasis in original).

[13] Harvey, p. 5.

[14] In the UK, the proponents of what became known as the “New Right” emerged symbiotically with the Thatcher government, enabling one another to enact their vision on the national scale. Right-wing academics used column space in The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sun, and the Daily Mail – as well as the Roger Scruton-edited Salisbury Review quarterly – as platforms for broader social ideologies, including anti-immigration politics. Cf. Maya Goodfellow. “Hostile Environment”, Verso (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4461-hostile-environment?fbclid=IwAR1dczI8Dtkr7NusdoWgJPv7S5nDsMAG8sb6dtSp5BTmQdcV1-ypj2A24x4.

[15] Srnicek & Williams, p. 65.

[16] Ibid., p. 64.

[17] Mark Fisher. “SF Capital” (2001), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20050417013207/http://cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/sfcapital.htm.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Deleuze, p. 180.

[20] Luciana Parisi. “Instrumental Reason, Algorithmic Capitalism, and the Incomputable”, in Matteo Pasquinelli (ed.), Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and Its Traumas (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015), pp. 125-37 (p. 127).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alex Williams. “Xenoeconomics and Capital Unbound.” Splintering Bone Ashes (19th October 2008), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20100805021724/http:/splinteringboneashes.blogspot.com/2008/10/xenoeconomics-and-capital-unbound.html.

[23] Ibid. To quote Williams further at length:

Part of what is at stake here is the thinking of capitalism outside of alienation. For if we are to follow Badiou’s stab at an unmitigated inhumanism, a total leap beyond the suffering animal model of godless democratic-materialist bio-linguistic humanism, as surely we must, then a theory of value cannot be predicated upon this original suffering, the voodoo process of soul-theft at the core of the alienation of labour in the commodity form. To build a model of capitalism from a new theory of value is necessary if we are to evade the traps of both democratic materialist commensically corrupt liberalism, and the post modern end of history. The “blind acephalous polymorph” that is capital must be embraced, but not from the point of view of some naïve enthusiasm or sentiment of hope that markets can deliver utopia. Instead, as the way out of the binaries of a leftism which is utterly and irretrievably moribund, and a neo-liberal economics which is ideologically bankrupt, we must bend both together in the face of an inhuman and indefatigable capitalism, to think how we might inculcate a new form of radically inhuman subjectivation. This entails the retrieval of the communist project for a new man, AND the liberation of the neo-liberal quest for a capitalism unbound, from both its subterranean dependence upon the state and the skeletal humanist discursive a priori which animates its ideological forms.

The work of Ray Brassier has been influential on Williams’s development of a “Promethean” subjectivity. Cf. Ray Brassier, “Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism”, in Peter Hallward (ed.), Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 50-8; “Prometheanism and Real Abstraction”, in Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, & James Trafford (eds.), Speculative Aesthetics (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), pp. 73-7.

[24] Mark Fisher. “Writing Machines”, V2_Lab for the Unstable Media (c. 1998-9), available online at https://v2.nl/archive/articles/writing-machines.

[25] Srnicek & Williams, p. 135.

[26] Paul Withers. “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”, Express (28th September 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1183556/labour-party-general-election-policy-jeremy-corbyn-prime-minister-minimum-wage.

[27] Laura O’Callaghan. “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”, Express (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1199992/boris-johnson-conservative-party-general-election-minimum-wage-raise-sajid-javid.

[28] Gleb Pavlovsky, in Andrew Wilson, ““Political technology”: why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?”, openDemocracy (17th June 2011), available online at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/political-technology-why-is-it-alive-and-flourishing-in-former-ussr/.

[29] Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), pp. 60-1.

[30] Cf. Max Seddon, “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America”, BuzzFeed News (2nd June 2014), available online at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/maxseddon/documents-show-how-russias-troll-army-hit-america; Adrian Chen, “The Agency”, The New York Times (2nd June 2015), available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Alexander Panetta. “‘The Translator Project’: Mueller charges 13 Russians, details election conspiracy”, Canada’s National Observer (16th February 2018), available online at https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/02/16/news/translator-project-mueller-charges-13-russians-details-election-conspiracy.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Seddon; Chen.

[35] Maya Kosoff. “How Russia Secretly Orchestrated Dozens of U.S. Protests”, Vanity Fair (30th October 2017), available online at https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/how-russia-secretly-orchestrated-dozens-of-us-protests.

[36] Wilson; Adam Curtis (dir.), HyperNormalization (BBC: 2016).

[37] Chen.

[38] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2015 [1871], p. 111.

[39] Seddon; Chen; Daniil Turovsky, “‘A man who’s seen society’s black underbelly’ Meduza meets ‘Anonymous International’”, Meduza (2nd February 2015), available online at https://meduza.io/en/feature/2015/02/02/a-man-who-s-seen-society-s-black-underbelly.

[40] Shaun Walker. “Russian hacking group’s ‘last member at liberty’ comes out of the shadows”, The Guardian (9th February 2017), available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/09/russian-hacking-groups-last-member-at-liberty-comes-out-of-the-shadows.

[41] Turovsky.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Seddon; Turovsky.

[44] Cf. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven/London: Yale University Press); Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015).

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.

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.

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.

Adam Curtis – The Living Dead (1995) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #2]

Adam Curtis (dir.). The Living Dead (BBC: 1995).

There is no other person using image to disrupt or challenge the dominant historical narratives that make up the present day more successfully, I think, than Adam Curtis; his inclusion in this series was always going to be certain. Curtis’s films and television programmes, for those who are unfamiliar, are largely archival montages: often of news footage (which in his employ in the BBC he has made liberal use of), carefully chosen film clips, and occasional interviews. In regards to the latter, Curtis’s own presence is rarely felt, and he never appears in front of the camera. These films however feel uniquely individualistic, and would still feel individualistic even without his sober narration. (We can observe this in his most recent works: as they have become longer, so have the periods in which the montages on display have been allowed to perform undisturbed in front of our eyes.) Across more than twenty years, inevitably, certain themes have persisted in Curtis’s work: these include the emergence of new, occluded forms of power, as well as the unseen or forgotten individuals who have enabled these forms. But these films and programmes are mostly concerned with the relationship between narratives and the political, as they have (both) been packaged, naturalised and lived by large groups of people in the present day. As such, Curtis’s work performs a double function: it reveals the faultlines stitching together the inchoate, immediatized fabrication we call reality, whilst simultaneously presenting its own patchwork of images, perspectives, and juxtapositions as a work of investigative and illuminating metafiction. The visual and narratological techniques which make up an Adam Curtis documentary may belie a meticulous craft, or a cynical sleight of hand, but these techniques feel eerily appropriate to both the subjects on display and to the experiential world’s own acts of curation and selection.

A particularly revealing example of this double function is the series of three hour-long films broadcast in 1995 under the name The Living Dead: Three films about the power of the past. Each of these films deals with the troubling and deliberately enforced nationalist myths that were revived in Germany, the US, and Britain following the Second World War. In the (re)construction of national identities, Curtis notes, old memories of former greatness were brought back from the past into haunted presents, in order to directly contest the horrors of the twentieth century. Yet the very incompatibility of these anachronistic memories with a rapidly developing postindustrial modernity, and the repression of the least desirable events of the recent past, led to these alternate histories’ slight return.

The archetype of their respective reality managements (and the uneasy equivocations that are later implied, though never stated) was Hermann Göring’s vision for Nazi Germany. The first episode, “On the Desperate Edge of Now”, shows the site of Göring’s former residency, Carin Hall, a monument to the Teutonic glories of old, and of deindividualised nationalist collectivity. This is contrasted with post-war Nuremberg, the site for both Germany’s “Year Zero” and the Allies’ own exorcisms of the past. The obliteration of rational democracy induced through total war (witnessed by those on the front line) required the US to assume leadership in reinstating a new worldview, based on the essentialism of human dignity, and the capacity for individuals to flourish. In the ensuing decades, however, this new narrative begins to fall apart. Forgotten memories rise to the surface in the minds of veterans, whose beliefs in “The Good War” were first shaken in the forests of Europe. The silent shame of the German survivors, now the older generation, incites division with their successors, eventually snowballing into the terroristic acts of the Red Army Faction. Finally, old rivalries in Europe are resurrected in the form of the Bosnian war, and the limits of inhumanity are once again experienced.

The Nuremberg trials become something of a focal point across the three films: it is here that a number of architects for the post-war world converge, two of which are featured prominently in the remaining episodes. “You Have Used Me as a Fish Long Enough” highlights the psychiatric work of Donald Ewen Cameron, whose later work with the CIA worked specifically on the military applications of enforced memory erasure (the invention of replicants). The Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology was one of many CIA-funded research centres during the Cold War era employed to intercept Soviet infiltration. (The Soviets, it was widely believed, were working on psychically-engineered agents, a fear exacerbated by Lee Harvey Oswald’s connections to the USSR.) Cameron’s “psychic driving” – the use of electroconvulsive shock treatments to erase memories, with the intention of subsequently installing implants – was critical to the replacement of traumatised individuals with “rational human beings”. This “depatterning”, or erasure of the past reinforced a mechanistic conception of the mind, and the project was phased out in favour of artificial intelligence programmes, such as those developed by ARPA.

Also at Nuremberg was the British war veteran and Colditz escapee Airey Neave. Neave later became a Conservative MP, a position which culminated in his management of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership campaign. In the third episode, “The Attic”, Curtis depicts Thatcher’s obsession with Churchill’s wartime narrative of “Great Britain” as the main factor in both her success and eventual failure. This mythological Britain was reinforced in the perceived successes of Thatcher’s premiership (The Falklands war, the recovery of the Mary Rose, the foundation of British Heritage), yet collapsed under the weight of repressed counter-narratives (the assassination of Neave by the Irish National Liberation Army, the Black Friday stock market crash). Thatcher’s subsequent downfall, which culminated in her forced resignation in 1990, is shown to be fully consistent with her entrapment within her romantic dream of a virtual British excellence. What each of these films show is that the ideological force of singular, powerful narratives (which, in their naturalising totalitarianism, function as substitutes to reality, and are understood as such) are fully dependent upon the desires and political authorities of a handful of individuals. These interrelated mythologies constitute an apparent wholeness; yet it takes only the eruption of a few dissenting subplots to collapse this seamless whole.

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.

Mark Fisher – Flatline Constructs (1999) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #1]

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a new 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.

 

Mark Fisher. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at  https://web.archive.org/web/20080325013155/http://www.cinestatic.com:80/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm.

How appropriate, that the most important textual resource for examining the genre-concept of theory-fiction – perhaps the only full-length treatise on the subject to date – would relegate its primary definition of the term to a footnote in one of its final chapters? (Doesn’t this always seem to be the way?) “It might be worth a parenthetical note here”, Mark Fisher finally admits, in Chapter 4.4 of Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, “making some attempt to unravel what’s at stake in the emergence of the – new? – mode, theory-fiction”. This unravelling is of a term defined largely by the work of one philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and the many pitfalls and entanglements that have resulted in the variegated readings and misreadings of this work. Taking the most straightforward, “cold” reading of the orders of simulacra which informs Baudrillard’s (often controversial) social analysis – this being theory-fiction as a dialectic of two distinct and straightforward categories, “theory […] on the side of the real and fiction […] on the side of the imaginary” – makes little sense, and is borne out of a presupposition in which “reality” is singular, stable, and objective. Baudrillard’s work, on the other hand, suggests two possible reconfigurations of the conceptual and fictive modes. Fisher:

  1. Fiction as theory. This option further subdivides: (a) Fiction in the form of theory (fiction that uses, or incorporates academic conventions: examples here include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Nabokov’s Pale Fire). (b) Fiction performing as theory. This, potentially, could include any fiction offering theoretical resources of some kind.
  2. Theory as fiction. This is theory presented in the form of fiction. The most well-known exponents of this mode – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – are hardly new. At its most radical, what is at stake here is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself. Two, related, claims, one descriptive, the other prescriptive emerge from this: (1) all theory is already fiction; and, (2) theory should abandon its assumed position of “objective neutrality”, and embrace its fictionality. But something happens to fiction here; it is no longer, simply, on the side of the imaginary.

Moving beyond both the first-order of simulacra (metaphor, resemblance, parody) and the second (representation, equivalence, pastiche), it is Baudrillard’s third-order simulacra which is most clearly associated with the categorical smearing that defines theory-fiction as a question, or “mode”. The feedback between fiction and reality under the third order, Fisher shows, occurs on the same plane of consistency: no transcendence (or psychological projection), only immanent foldings and unfoldings (implexion). Take cyberspace as an example. Beyond, of course, its globally distributed material infrastructure, where is it? Answer: it is not simply in “this world”, nor does it constitute an entirely delocalised “other” world (where it would be incapable of affecting this “first” world). Rather, cyberspace “constitutes a fold in the world that is nevertheless a real production – an addition – to the world as such.” Cyberspace therefore is not a copy of the real world, but a constituent part: it can never step outside of the world to a vantage to conduct its tracing. This is what theory-fictions are, according to the Baudrillard-Fisher definition: implexed hyperobjects which produce hyperreality. (We must be confident, however, in our understanding of hyperreality not as an explicit “death” of objective, singular reality, but rather of the death of the fictional as a discrete mode of ontologisation: “it is fakery – not reality as such – that is impossible now.”)

It is in the hyperreal – the (de)simulation of the world – that enables the memetic (as opposed to mimetic) propagation of the fictional quanta known as hyperstitions (not named as such here). For it is when a particular fiction gains a purchase on the “actual” (but could such a concept be maintained on the plane of immanence?) that it, in the Ccru parlance, makes itself real. There is a parallel here with capitalist realism as neoliberal insurrection: as Fisher later maintained, the genius of such a manoeuvre was to radically invert the collective assertion of reality, such that what was, prior to its realisation, thought to be impossible emerged, a posteriori, as inevitable. Hyperstition assumes both autonomy and agency, but then, so do people assume autonomy and agency in (“undead”) technical machines: “According to Wiener, when confronted with cybernetic machines, human beings found themselves behaving as if the systems possessed agency. Since the systems cybernetics produced behaved at least quasi-autonomously, they naturally gave rise to the belief in non-human (and non-subjective) agencies”. The return of animism and demonism in cybernetic postmodernity is seen by Fisher as an undoing of the psychoanalytic categories of the individual psyche and of an individualistic account of organic life (unsustainable on the single plane of consistency). In their place, Fisher posits Spinozist bodies, defined by their extensions in spacetime and their affects, which fictional quantities are as capable of assuming as “living” organisms.

What, then, is to be made of the twofold definition of theory-fiction outlined above? Clearly, 1a appears ludicrous: “academic conventions” are not what defines theory at all, and a novel is no more philosophical than another simply because it uses footnotes. I would be inclined to support 1b, were it not for the strange emphasis on performance. This is ambiguous, but it seems to indicate a retreat from the third-order back to the first (resemblance). Regardless, the offering of theoretical resources is actually a very helpful descriptor for a broad categorisation of theory-fiction texts that are (ostensibly) conceived in fictive modes. Defined in this way, these kinds of theory-fictions offer more than the concerns of literary theory – themes, perspectives, devices, and the like – and imply a shifting of the contours of the realistic – what the world which “contains” this fiction could possibly be (and indeed, escape from this model of containment in itself).

As for “fiction-theories” (a meaningless inversion of terms, yet equally legitimate to the former alignment), it is again necessary to delegitimise theoretical works using literary conventions as mere resemblances (the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard model indicated above) as sufficient in itself, and to move instead in the direction of the “dissolution of the opposition itself.” It is clear, however, that while for Fisher this move inevitably leads to the “descriptive” claim that theory is already fiction by default, this does not seem to happen in reverse: while hyperreality effaces the grounding for theory to remain objective (therefore always-already inherently fictional), fiction must work hard in order to migrate over to theory. One might argue here that this argument in fact widens the gulf between fiction and theory further, by illustrating that the criteria for each are radically different. There are no ready-to-hand “fictive resources” that theory can simply implement; fiction is instead defined here in terms of subjectivity and the orders of simulation. But perhaps there is a way through this if we consider what is gained as fictions move from one order of simulation to another.

Perhaps there is one more section of Flatline Constructs that could help to clarify the process by which texts become configured as theory-fiction, and this is the difference between metafiction and hyperfiction (in 4.7). For Fisher (via Brian McHale), metafiction operates within the meta-system illustrated by Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop. This is a superstitional device which embeds or disguises authors within the fictions they have written, giving them the status of characters and helping to bury the origins of the work. In this model, Hofstadter maintains, there is always an “inviolable layer” that prevents the loop from fully closing, and the author of the work from fully disappearing: there remains here, however entangled, a hierarchy. The model Fisher appeals to in the case of the hyperfiction is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, the constantly additive structure which repels unity and overcoding, and the ability to leap out of itself. With the rhizome, hierarchy “is radically abolished”, and fictions propagate instead by infection of the collective imaginary – from within. Using this transition from a first or second-order simulation to a third-order – from metafiction to hyperfiction, from mimesis to “memesis” – could we appropriate a set of fictive tools by which to analyse the Real seeping in? Surely, it would seem, this what a speculative fiction-theory would describe, and indeed, possibly enact.

Response to Gregory Marks’s “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”

I don’t use Twitter, and so I sometimes miss out on conversations about subjects that interest me. It was only recently, when I was reading Simon Sellars’s interview with Robert Barry for The Quietus,[1] that I came across a reference to a list of notable works and influences of theory-fiction that “attracted a lot of attention” over the summer. Its author, the PhD student Gregory Marks, compiled suggestions from theory-fiction enthusiasts into a four-page bibliography that begins with Lucretius’s De rerum natura and ends with Sellars’s new book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. That version of the list can be read in full here.[2]

Marks later in the thread gives his definition of theory-fiction broadly as

a theoretical text which blurs the lines between theory and fiction by drawing attention to its artifice. I’ve played loose with the definition to include auto-theory and works of experimental or philosophical fiction important to the development of the genre.

He then lists his general criteria for inclusion as the following:

  1. Communicates theory through fictive devices — not philosophical fiction, but fictive philosophy.
  2. Practices theory outside the confines of the “high” academic style.
  3. Occupies the growing intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy.
  4. I want to read it.

Now, with my understanding of theory-fiction, as built up through multiple engagements with the term, I find both the above criteria and many of the inclusions on the list difficult to fully support. This is a thorny subject, and due to my time being preoccupied with other factors in my life lately, I haven’t managed to respond before now. But a few days ago, Marks posted a slightly revised version of the list on his blog The Wasted World.[3] A key development with this new list is the introduction of sub-categories, making it much easier to navigate, but more importantly, to critique and engage with. I’m therefore going to spell out my concerns, firstly with the above criteria, and secondly with each of the sub-categories, with a view to clarifying my position on what does and doesn’t constitute theory-fiction. Clearly the list is more suggestive than exhaustive, and I’m therefore aware that this may amount to an exercise in extreme pedantry on my part. But it’s never been a consideration of mine that theory-fiction ever needed a canon, and the prospect that this list may be misconstrued as authoritative has prompted me to fashion an (admittedly subjective and equally illegitimate) appendix to the exercise. This is not designed to be an attack on Marks or the list itself, but a rejoinder or alternative perspective to a subject I feel strongly about and wish to engage with on slightly different terms. I’m also not planning on fully redefining theory-fiction here and now, but instead indicate a more nuanced position over a series of blog posts currently in the pipeline.

***

Firstly, let’s return to the criteria above. #4 can be dismissed entirely, as one person’s interest in a particular text clearly does not a theory-fiction make. I also wish to eliminate #2. Theory-fiction may be seen, and I’m disinclined to contend, as a stylistic engagement, and many certified examples of theory-fiction texts do indeed deliberately eschew “academic” formalisms in favour of more poststructuralist or sf-inspired attempts at original expression,[4] but theory-fiction does not appear to be bound to this implied basic opposition between “high” and “low” stylistics. The fact that many of the entries precede the establishment of what is now considered the academic style somewhat discredits this criterion, as does a closer look at some of the more recent examples. “Barker Speaks: The Ccru Interview with Professor D C Barker”,[5] for instance, employs academic style to full effect (an interview for an ostensibly academic journal, complete with a list of publications that lead to a dead end when Googled), and yet is for me perhaps the paradigm for all published theory-fiction of the last twenty years (perhaps though this is a topic of discussion for one of those upcoming blog posts). It’s not its opposition to academic style that makes “Barker Speaks” theory-fiction, but its decidedly extra-academic content and lines of inquiry.

That leaves us with #1 and #3. Let’s start with #3. Although broadly agreeable and somewhat difficult to counter, there nevertheless seems to be something a little nonspecific about “the intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy” that could probably benefit from a fleshing out. Is fake news theory-fiction? What about Socratic dialogues? It’s clear that Marks is trying to lower the price of admission into the canon, but it remains confusing as to how far exactly to take the murky zones between fiction and reality, theory and fantasy as sufficient qualifiers. Yet this is not itself an issue when paired with #1, the communication of “theory through fictive devices”. All in all the strongest qualifier, this criterion does well to prioritise “fictive philosophy” over “philosophical fiction”. It explains why, for example (and despite my personal reservations), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon makes the list, but, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea does not. The latter has a philosophical content, of course, but it does not do philosophy; its content does not constitute a theoretical exercise in itself. There is therefore a connection in theory-fiction between form and content: form must be contingent with the theoretical task undertaken by its writers, and not chosen purely for aesthetic reasons.

***

From this general conclusion, we can begin to scrutinise some of the sub-categories which Marks has divided his theory-fiction canon into. Please note that within each of these there are exceptional and ambiguous inclusions that are difficult to disassociate from the category headings (not all of them are listed below). This may perhaps lead one to suggest that it is the categories themselves, and not the individual books that are questionable (as ever, it is both that must bear scrutiny). In addition, naturally, I am not familiar with every text listed, and therefore my ignorance is bound to play a part in shaping my critique and any counter-critique that might be conceived (which I welcome). The list has at least provided me with a plenitude of good suggestions for future reading material, and so has succeeded in that respect.

First off, we can discredit “sci-phi” as little more than a list of influential sf, the form of which does not itself produce new theoretical orientations (discuss). The tripartite “theoretical fiction” categories, which identify in turn “fiction”, self-writing (this is where Applied Ballardianism has been placed), and poetry/drama as theory, also fall at this hurdle. We do not see in Beckett’s The Unnamable, for example, the novel as a theory, as much as a vessel for ideas surrounding the nature of the novel itself. If we are being generous, we might suggest The Unnamable as a case of form identifying new possibilities for itself, but in this case is this not what art does, not theory? As I understand it, theory denotes rendering aspects of the world legible and sensible (order out of chaos) – even if, through theory-fiction, they take a somewhat mystified and convoluted route – and it is not immediately apparent that these texts do that.[6]

Returning to the basic question, Is this text in itself theory, or is theory merely something it provides?, it becomes doubtful whether to admit poetic theory, or “theory which foregrounds its artifice”: although (as gestured already) not inaccurate to describe theory-fiction as stylistic invention, there is in actuality a greater emphasis on what that style does to advance its theory. There are again, however, some ambiguous inclusions: Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication is placed here, which, according to Jason de Boer’s reasoning, must qualify as one of the first attempts towards the development of theory-fiction.[7] I would also asterisk Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, Derrida’s The Post Card, Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for further consideration,[8] whilst recovering certain valuable sections of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Poetic theory’s prose counterpart, narrative theory, is similar. This time it is the likes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Michel Serres’s Biogea, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World that perhaps make it out the least unharmed. Identifying two of those three as being published in the last decade shows an emerging pattern.

The only remaining category to explore is “cybernetic theory fiction”, or “theory as cultural hype”. In their entirety, these texts undoubtedly make up the core of theory-fiction discussions we are now beginning to see. Many of them are even self-defined as such. The back cover of Arthur Kroker’s Spasm contains the earliest mention of the term I have so far found.[9] Mark Fisher’s influential dissertation Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction was completed in 1999 and remains online to this day (thanks Exmilitary).[10] The extent to which theory-fiction may function as marketing hype is another interesting facet of the whole concept we must return to another time…

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars, “One Small Node of Reality: Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Robert Barry for The Quietus (15th September 2018), available online at http://thequietus.com/articles/25293-applied-ballardianism-simon-sellars-interview.

[2] Gregory Marks, et al., “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, Twitter (12th July 2018), available online at https://twitter.com/thewastedworld/status/1017427669338607616.

[3] Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, The Wasted World (3rd November 2018), available online at https://thewastedworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/a-theory-fiction-reading-list/.

[4] Applied Ballardianism may be the newest archetype of this idea of theory-fiction as xeno-academic theoretical exercise. Sellars developed the book out of a PhD thesis, eventually junking its original form because of a growing dissatisfaction with academia more generally. The finished form of the text is that of a fictionalised memoir of an “insane alterative version” of the writer living in a universe parallel to this one. See “One Small Node of Reality” (note 1 above).

[5] In both CCRU, Writings 1997-2003 (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2015) and Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011), pp. 493-505. Both are listed by Marks under “Cybernetic Theory-Fiction”. For reasons repeated throughout this essay, neither collection can be considered in their entirety as theory-fiction, but the CCRU’s/Land’s total output most definitely qualify as influential to its development and reception.

[6] Aside from the aforementioned Applied Ballardianism, there are two more inclusions in the otherwise discreditable “self-writing as theory” category that can probably, in my opinion, be salvaged. Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory and Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie both caused me to reconsider what I thought it was that theory-fiction could be said to be or do, being that (as far as I am able to verify) they are both very directly truthful accounts that nonetheless seem to simultaneously provide new theoretical scope for their respective subject matters (and the self-writing form seems to aid in this) and somehow bend the limits of the (pre-established, obviously inadequate notions of the) possible around the narratives they present. Theory-fiction? Probably yes. Possibly something else altogether.

[7] Jason DeBoer, “Fierce Language: The Fatal “Theory-Fiction” of Jean Baudrillard”, in The Absinthe Literary Journal (Spring 2000, available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075611/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce4.htm). DeBoer writes of Baudrillard:

Theory, as a series of signs of equal value, is rendered impotent to affect or interact with the real. It is always productive and never destructive, although what it is capable of producing is merely more signs. Baudrillard realizes this, and this futility, once realized, he cannot ignore. Theory must return to the critical, productive enterprise, where it resumes its reproduction, or it must take its own futility as its object and become “fatal”. By abandoning meaning and becoming fascinated with itself, fatal theory must ultimately cease to be theory as such, eventually turning to more literary or fictive strategies. […] A theory self-aware of its own impossibility to transcend signs must forget the real and try to disappear into its own empty form.

In fact, a more interesting reading of poetic theory would be as the foregrounding of the implied artifice of theory itself, and perhaps de Boer’s reading works in this context.

[8] With the former two texts, it’s difficult to ascertain whether their theoretical content really benefits from their forms; whereas with the latter two, one might question to what extent these are “theoretical” texts at all.

[9] Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). The back cover promises “[a] theory-fiction about the crash world of virtual reality[…]”. Kroker is probably best known as the co-editor of the online journal Ctheory.

[10] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/2008032501_3155/http://www.cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm. Republished in 2018 by Exmilitary Press.

Thanks to Gregory Marks for consultation and clarification on an earlier draft of this post.

Common sense as philosophical “misadventure” in Deleuze and Flaubert

I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the Warwick Continental Philosophy Conference (WCPC) 2018, which ran with the theme “Identity and Community: Metaphysics, Politics and Aesthetics”. Thanks to the organisers, other speakers, and attendees, especially those who gave me feedback on that earlier version.

What I propose to investigate is the usage of a quotation in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (orig. published 1968), which is taken from Flaubert’s final novel, unfinished and thus unpublished during his lifetime, Bouvard and Pécuchet (orig. published 1881). The quotation in question is this: “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable.”[1] In a biography of Flaubert, Michael Winock has the following to say on the development of the novel’s two central characters:

Now proverbial, these two names are among the most illustrious figures of stupidity in French literary history. […] But though they acquire an awareness of generalized stupidity, up to the end of the existing manuscript they themselves display a naïveté, gullibility, and lack of common sense that relegates them to the world of stupidity. (Winock: 415)

By the end of this paper, I wish to show that what Bouvard and Pécuchet display is not a lack of common sense as such, but that their stupidities point instead to an awareness and possession of a great deal of common sense, provided that we approach the text with the Deleuzian definition of this concept. Deleuze’s account of common sense emerges from his engagement with and criticism of what he calls in Difference and Repetition the image of thought, in a chapter of the same name, and concerns a specific function of the faculties of thinking as distributed evenly and uncritically. It is for the most part unrelated to other uses of the term, which crop us variously throughout philosophy and elsewhere; however, it is an adequate means to subvert what is being considered as stupidity, or what is specifically called bêtise or the stupidity of the bourgeoisie, in regards to Flaubert’s work.

To understand what is being meant by “common sense” here, we may begin by relating it to another term, what Deleuze variously calls “opinion” and doxa. What philosophical opinion proposes, say Deleuze and Guattari in a later text What is Philosophy?, “is a particular relationship between an external perception as state of a subject and an internal affection supposedly common to several subjects who experience it and who, along with us, grasp that quality.” (144)[2] When something is perceived (Deleuze and Guattari offer the example of a piece of cheese which is brought before us), it is simultaneously recognised by one or more of its external qualities (which of these qualities is chosen may be arbitrary – let us say, in the case of the piece of cheese, its smell), and reflected upon, or evaluated based on what its perceiver feels about the quality extracted (for example, we may dislike the smell, and by extension not only this piece of cheese but our idea of cheese in its entirety). This is a simple model for how opinion is formed. Opinions such as these become doxa – i.e. philosophical – when they are related to other, similarly held beliefs, those of the group or society, and are found to be agreeable and uncontentious (thus establishing an orthodoxy). Thus, statements of opinion can assume the form of statements of truth. Deleuze illustrates this with the phrase “everybody knows.” “Everybody knows, in a pre-philosophical and pre-conceptual manner …”: pre-philosophical, because the formation of opinion is not itself good philosophical practice, but at the same time, deemed necessary in order for philosophy to assume a beginning. Philosophy must be founded on a kind of thought that is not its own, because it exists in the face of and as a differential to the unknown and unknowability – i.e. chaos. To give thought the “consistency”, or grounding it requires not to collapse back into indetermination (Deleuze & Guattari: 42), it must strike out with a concept, which is in turn built around an “implicit presupposition”. In a pure sense, philosophy does not have a beginning without a priori presuppositions, as the opening sentence of the chapter “The Image of Thought” claims: in fact, that all philosophy must enact on presuppositions which threaten to unground it is one of the discipline’s most forthright problematics. The question for us then becomes: How can philosophy account for or combat doxa without collapsing back in on itself, back into undifferentiated thought and unknowability? Or, put another way, where (and indeed how) does philosophical opinion end and philosophical certainty begin?

This problematic of implicit presuppositions is compounded when left unchallenged, and becomes the basis for a dogmatic image of thought by which all future philosophy is modelled after and aspires to imitate. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies the image of thought of modern European philosophy (that which begins with Descartes, but which has earlier precedents in Plato and so on) by eight postulates, the first two of which we have just now begun to encounter in the nascent form of the phrase “everybody knows…”. Let us differentiate them more closely.

The first postulate relates to the virtuous and admirable qualities of thought belonging to good thinkers. Good sense presupposes that recognition is a universal, identical faculty, its operation having no need for philosophy, and that good thought has an undeniable “double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of thought.” (173) Deleuze follows Nietzsche’s critique in regarding with scepticism the claim to universal good will or cogitatio natura universalis implied by the postulate of good sense, which imply an affiliation between thought and the will to truth, between a thinking subject and a desire for knowledge of a “moral” fashion (Nietzsche: §1, §6, §34), because, says Deleuze, it is implied that “only the good can ground the supposed affinity” between them (174). Good sense is will to truth, and truth is by extension virtuous. The thinker of truth is therefore predisposed to exercise an essential goodness expressed by thought’s upright character; a thought which, in itself, “knows what it means to think” (177).

The second postulate describes not the innate character of thought but its distribution. Common sense is the means by which good sense applies universally, to all thinking subjects. We are led to believe by the image of thought that two or more thinkers, provided their capacities for thinking are able enough, will always arrive at the same solutions to philosophical problems, regardless of any differences between their approaches and circumstances. Again, “everybody knows”, because to know is to recognise not only one’s own sense of what is correct, but the general distribution of the correctness of a given thought: it is shared by all good thinkers, hence it is truth. This recognition of universally held ideas is the basis for philosophy conceived under the dogmatic image of thought.

Recognition of good sense, common sense, and opinion functions thusly. In a general sense, firstly, to recognise is for all the faculties to converge upon a “supposed same object” in a “harmonious exercise”, as a process of identification (176). To recognise good sense, therefore, is to identify the noble qualities of truth intrinsic to good thought itself, and by extension, its thinkers: the convergence of the faculties enable the similarities between the perceived qualities of thought and the abstract goodness of truth to be determined. Recognition of common sense requires identifying good will as common to all thinkers: what is identified with the faculties here are the similarities between the good sense of an individual (the self) and its perceived consistency among thinking subjects. Lastly, recognition provides the model of doxa its consistency via the faculties’ convergence upon “an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an “orthodoxy”” (Deleuze & Guattari: 145-6): opinionated truth is established based on the group’s reproduction of the Same. To found truth on the model of recognition, therefore, is to relegate truth to consensus: what is “good”, “right”, and agreeable according to the criteria of what “everybody knows”.

It is a good idea at this point to understand the exact nature of Deleuze’s criticism against the image of thought and its resultant philosophy, the philosophy of good sense, common sense, and opinion. The first consideration is that of the relationship between image and representation. For any definition of common sense, a generality of accepted meaning is required. As Deleuze says, it only takes a “surly interlocutor” to express the opinion that their thoughts are not represented by the consensus to call that consensus into question (173). The treatment of thought as a natural faculty belies what is seen by Deleuze as “a depotentialisation and normalisation of thought”, in the words of Alberto Toscano, and, to continue, “Deleuze promotes the suspicion that such presupposition (or perhaps we should say such imputation) of thought hides an ‘interest’ […] in speaking for others by speaking universally”. (Toscano: 5) Thus, such philosophy is distracted from its purposes of understanding thought, being, and so on, and reduced to a competition for the establishment of the most general or authentic representation. Thought becomes analogical, and not critical: this is problematic, for the myriad components of representation bear upon each of the faculties differently: “identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to the determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgement, resemblance with regard to objects” (181). A distribution of the “unspecified concept” of common sense across multiple faculties opposes this specificity of function.

Another element of Deleuze’s critique of common sense relates to the way in which the image of thought handles necessity. We will recall the problems brought to bear on thinking by the expressions “everybody knows”, and “no one can deny”. François Zourabichvili has reconfigured the central concern of Deleuze’s chapter – the difficulty of establishing a beginning in philosophy – as the problem of necessity, “how to arrive at a necessary thought” (Zourabichvili: 44). Deleuze’s critique then, for Zourabichvili, is that of the position of truth as being necessary under the image of thought. Necessary thought – what is recognised as truth – must be verified not by itself but beyond, by an “exterior”. However, the image of thought suggests that this judgment of truth has been “interiorized”, not as an outward process, or engagement with an outside, but as an innate content, a reproduction of “what must be said or thought” according to naturally endowed pre-philosophical notions. An internalization of the means to recognising truth also provokes the question of the validity of this philosophy’s claim to grounding. The function of a grounding is to differentiate in kind between received opinion and the basis for what is known: it is to objectify knowledge, to make it determinable and workable. This is of course undermined by a doxastic version of ground, which is itself no more than opinion on a more numerous scale (many subjectivities of the same idea). Deleuze’s critique, therefore, questions the necessity of a truth established without external verification, and how thought derived in this would be able to affirm an outside it ignores (ibid: 44-51).

The final aspect of Deleuze’s critique of the image of thought is that it is simply too limited, and produces philosophy that is too unambitious for the tasks of approaching varieties of thought that are beyond itself. To some extent, this ties back to the problem of necessity: what need do philosophers have of a kind of thought that is capable only of recognising itself, especially, as he says, when common sense itself “shows every day – unfortunately – that it is capable of producing philosophy in its own way” (178)? But this problem also concerns the image of thought’s inability to challenge its own grounding or resulting methodology, or even to recognise its embedded dogmatism – what Deleuze calls the image’s “disturbing complacency”, its somewhat terrifying struggle for the “trophy” of the cogitatio natura universalis (179-180). Later in What is Philosophy?, he and Guattari will go on to warn of the “fate of philosophy” being under threat from such a “philosophy of communication” (Deleuze & Guattari: 146), but the sentiment of the earlier work is the same. The concept of recognition is a hammer, and with it, all philosophies are variations on the same nail: “form will never inspire anything but conformities.” (178)

What is needed for philosophy is not a convergence of the faculties but a splitting open of their established formation under the image of thought; an assertion of difference and an “original violence” wherein each separate faculty is brought to the limits of their respective powers. This is what is prevented by common sense, which seeks to stymie original thought by maintaining a baleful harmony of consensus, and a false idea of its own necessity as thought’s primary ground; a necessity relative to its own conditions, as opposed to an absolute necessity of thought asserted through a “fundamental encounter” with the outside (183-186). As Zourabichvili has shown, Deleuze manages to maintain that there is no contradiction between the act of beginning in philosophy and philosophy lacking a primary foundation. What Deleuze calls for is not grounding but an act of universal ungrounding which rejects the model of recognition and affirms the outside from within, as immanence (Zourabichvili: 51-52).

Before we lose sight of this paper’s focus, I will finish this section by applying Deleuze’s critique of common sense and recognition to the philosopher he associates most strongly with those concepts’ expressions, and who I have been ignoring up until this point: Descartes. For it is Descartes who opens his Discourse on the Method by saying “Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world” (Descartes 1985a: 111); who elucidates recognition using the piece of wax in the “Second Meditation”, and who introduces philosophy to the cogito, perhaps the real starting point for the modern image of thought. This last point is especially relevant to the formation of a “philosophy of common sense” for Deleuze. The cogito establishes in philosophy the thinking subject, which binds all the faculties together, and “thereby expresses the possibility that all the faculties will relate to a form of object which reflects the subjective identity” (176). The necessity of the thinking subject is little more than a supposition: Descartes establishes it in relation to outward perception, declaring questionable conclusions such as “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed” in the “Second Meditation”, and justifying them by supposing that whether these perceptions are authentic or illusory is irrelevant, because his indisputable good sense tells him that they do not seem to be false (Descartes 1985b: 17-19). Hence Deleuze’s objection to the cogito as a “false beginning”, and one of the most prominent illustrations of doxastic thought, as well as the pervasiveness of common sense thinking.[3]

***

Now in this second half, I will mount the challenge of common sense to Flaubert’s final novel, and that often-quoted sentence, to argue an alternative reading to that of the critique of stupidity. The theme of stupidity is encountered consistently throughout Flaubert’s works, and has unsurprisingly led to a number of interpretations as to its significance. It is important, therefore, to take this theme seriously, and to better acknowledge its presence within the novel. In his essay “Fantasia of the Library”, Foucault pairs the idea of stupidity in Flaubert’s novels with that of sainthood, arguing that Bouvard and Pécuchet represent but a more comedic expression of sentiments found in earlier characters, such as Charles Bovary and Saint Anthony. Here we have two copyists who, coming into a large inheritance and wanting to escape the tedium of city life, decide to move to the countryside, where they will spend their autumn years undertaking any discipline of the sciences and arts they decide upon. Bouvard and Pécuchet consult books before applying themselves to agriculture, chemistry, archaeology, history, politics, religion, physics, metaphysics, and everything in-between; each time ending with failure or disaster, and each subsequent pursuit beginning with renewed zeal. When, by the end of the published work (which was to compose but the first of two sections) they finally resign themselves to defeat, they agree to take up copying once more: the subject of their copying being the many bodies of knowledge they have accumulated during their renaissance. It is not their faith in learning they have renounced at this moment, argues Foucault, “but the possibility of applying their beliefs. They detach themselves from works to maintain the dazzling reality of their faith in faith.” (Foucault: 107) The “lamentable faculty” sentence occurs right before this moment, between the loss of intellectual territory for their passions to roam free, and their reaffirmation in the activity they have always known and practiced, repetition.

The stupidity of these two characters arises from their attitudes towards forms of knowledge they do not possess, and are likely beyond their understanding, and how these attitudes relate to their views and treatments of the characters which surround them. Bouvard and Pécuchet may be characters of limited intelligence and success, but this is not what makes them stupid. It is instead their reasoning behind their desire to learn, the methodologies they consider appropriate for doing so, and their expectations that an acquisition of specialist knowledge will elevate their stature in their community, even when they themselves have treated this community with scepticism, which defines the bêtise Flaubert attempts to elucidate, and that was the object of the writer’s personal scorn. We see early in the novel, for example, that the two men wish to try their hands at their manor’s garden, so as to become what they consider to be “country gentlemen”. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, A. J. Krailsheimer describes their reasoning in the following way:

they are ignorant; the way to dispel ignorance is by acquiring knowledge from authorities; experts who write books must be more authoritative than peasants who merely do what their fathers had done before them. Book in hand (or at least in head) they plant trees, stack hay, treat animals and so on with sovereign disregard for the experience of those around them, whose whole lives have been spent more or less successfully exercising skills quite unsupported by theory. (Krailsheimer, in Flaubert: 9)

This observation demonstrates the somewhat contradictory relationship the characters, and Flaubert himself, have with received ideas. It was Flaubert’s intention to include within the second half of the novel a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a sottisier comprised of the popular yet unsupported and inaccurate remarks shared amongst the middle classes. Entries for this dictionary would be fashionable topics of conversation that were worthy of ridicule because their dislocation from reality would compound the more they resonated among people who considered themselves superior for fashioning their perspectives on the world on more refined sources. The stupidity for such entries is realised, says Jonathan Culler,

not because the facts on which they rely are false but because the particular meanings offered do not exhaust an object or concept and because they place it in a self-enclosed system of social discourse which comes to serve as a reality for those who allow themselves to be caught up in it. (Culler: 160)

We can see something similar with Bouvard and Pécuchet’s gardening: the appeal to elite opinions, which stand in for the entirety of their thinking on the subject. The two protagonists’ journey from one subject matter to another, moreover, and as Krailsheimer notes, follows a logic of “first principles”: they associate their failures with an unfamiliarity of a more fundamental body of knowledge – in the case of their experiments into agriculture, which end with an explosion, this is decided to be chemistry – and send for new books which will grant them the perspective they currently lack (Krailsheimer: 10). Yet we may observe that they are also trying to avoid another variety of received idea, those that they have identified among the peasantry, and are equally as unchallenged.

It is perhaps testament to their stupidity, therefore, that Bouvard and Pécuchet are capable of avoiding uncritical opinions they witness in various practitioners (farmers, doctors, priests), yet are swayed by alternatives that cater more to their imaginations, which we are probably supposed to accept are written by less experienced authorities. These pretentions, which arise out of stupidity, seem to feature across the spectrum of the society the novel depicts: high and low culture, bourgeoisie and proletariat, each incapable of escaping their own brands of received ideas. Flaubert once said that bêtise was “formidable and universal” (in Culler: 158), and though perhaps most readily espoused by the leisurely middle classes, remained an inescapable feature of the human condition. No doubt there is a wider historical-political dimension to Flaubert’s preoccupation with the emergent forays into knowledgeability attempted clumsily by the middle classes. Hugh Kenner has placed the novel’s beginning at more-or-less precisely fifty years after the Revolution: this being a similar age as Bouvard and Pécuchet, they are therefore “untainted by the least memory of a time when knowledge, which is power, was the preserve of the few”, and the ideal heroes for this uninhibited new world (Kenner: 9). Yet of course, these heroes are not immune to the lamentable faculty they perceive all around them by the novel’s denouement. “The only way to transcend a commonplace is to make it serve your own purposes, to make it an instrument, a means of thought”: these are the words of Sartre, speaking on Flaubert’s life and ambitions (Sartre: 619), and although the philosopher considers the novelist a failure in this regard, we may identify this as the position of his characters when they commission their large double writing-desk and set to work on the task of copying once again.

Stupidity, as encountered in Flaubert’s novel, is an opportunity for hastily and badly drawn conclusions to enjoy similar rights to established facts and certainties; to quote Jonathan Culler once more, it “negates ordinary meaning to replace it with an open and exploratory reverie.” (Culler: 185). Deleuze’s account of stupidity in “The Image of Thought” is not like this. He quotes from the novel in order to illustrate the misattribution of error as the sole negative of thought. Recognition, with its endless procession of the Same, he argues, reduces philosophy to the construction of problems, each with its own pre-packaged solution which can be worked towards using good thinking. In this case stupidity is subsumed by error, which exists externally to the mind endowed with good sense, and stands in for everything philosophy is supposed to overcome:

According to the hypothesis of the Cogitatio natura universalis, error is the “negative” which develops naturally. Nevertheless, the dogmatic image does not ignore the fact that thought has other misadventures besides error: humiliations more difficult to overcome, negatives much more difficult to unravel. It does not overlook the fact that the terrible Trinity of madness, stupidity and malevolence can no more be reduced to error than they can be reduced to any form of the same. Once again, however, these are no more than facts for the dogmatic image. Stupidity, malevolence and madness are regarded as facts occasioned by external causes, which bring into play external forces capable of subverting the honest character of thought from without – all this to the extent that we are not only thinkers. The sole effect of these forces in thought is then assimilated precisely to error, which is supposed in principle to include all the effects of factual external causes. (195-6)

Deleuze wishes here to reinstate what he calls thought’s “misadventures” – of which stupidity is one – as “structures of thought as such.” (198) If a false solution is derived from a philosophical problem, it is not predetermined that an error has arisen out of confused or badly applied thinking. The mistake instead lies in the problem’s relation to sense, and in “making stupidity a transcendental problem” (197). It is instead for Deleuze a problem of individuation, of which the cogito has played its part. Stupidity occurs when individuation “brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form” – in other words, when an answer is provided that bears little or no relation to the question being asked, questions that are derived from undifferentiated contents which resist the form being imposed on them (199). Bouvard and Pécuchet represent for Deleuze the “fractured I” of individuation, their stupidities a ground that exists between them, composed of the unthought itself (ibid.).

Conversely, perhaps we ought to consider Bouvard and Pécuchet’s simultaneous critique and appropriation of received ideas not as examples of bourgeois stupidities in a straightforward sense, but consider the relation between received ideas and common sense. Both are concerned with what is popularly believed to be true, and both derive this truth paradoxically from this very popularity of the sentiment being expressed, allowing the most vocal and forceful opinions to triumph. The problem with aligning received ideas with stupidity is that doing so masks stupidity’s true relation to original thought. A stupid thought is usually a novelty or aberration in relation to the problem it sets out to solve: if examined closely, it displays a process of original thinking gone astray. A received idea, on the other hand, is derived from a source its thinker believes to be reputable: it does not require original thought but borrowed solutions. Therefore, I conclude that an idea derived from common sense is a kind of received idea. Whereas Flaubert’s received ideas have as their source the echo chamber of bourgeois society, Deleuze’s common sense takes the image of thought’s erroneous suggestions of universal distribution of good sense (specifically Descartes’s) as its occasion to turn away from original thought. To rewrite the object sentence of this paper, would be to claim that the lamentable faculty Bouvard and Pécuchet find intolerable is an awareness of received ideas, distributed everywhere, unavoidable, unoriginal, and tending towards the universal.

Notes

[1] Flaubert (1976: 217). Difference and Repetition translator Paul Patton uses a slightly different translation of the quote: “A pitiful faculty then emerges in their minds, that of being able to see stupidity and no longer tolerate it…” (199). I judge the two variations to be of similar meaning in relation to the contexts I apply to them here, and have therefore chosen to maintain A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation throughout this essay for the sake of consistency.

[2] Unlabelled bracketed numbers refer to pages in Difference and Repetition (see Bibliography below).

[3] See also Nietzsche: §16; Toscano.

Bibliography

Culler, J. (1974) Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, London, Elek Books Ltd.

Deleuze, G. (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

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

Descartes, R. (1985a) Discourse and Essays, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D., Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 109-176.

— (1985b) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, 1-62.

Flaubert, G. (1976) Bouvard and Pécuchet [Bouvard et Pécuchet], trans. Krailsheimer, A.J., Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Foucault, M. (1977) “Fantasia of the Library”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Bouchard, D.F., trans. Bouchard, D.F. and Simon, S., Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 87-109.

Kenner, H. (1989) “Gustave Flaubert: Comedian of the Enlightenment”, in Bloom, H. (ed.) Modern Critical Views: Gustave Flaubert, New York/Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 5-22.

Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future [Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft], trans. Kaufmann, W., New York, Vintage Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1981) The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857 [L’Idiot de la famille de 1821 à 1857], trans. Cosman, C., Volume I, Chicago/London, University of Chicago Press.

Toscano, A. (2007) “Everybody Knows: Deleuze’s Descartes”, available online at http://www.academia.edu/709449/Everybody_Knows_Deleuzes_Descartes.

Winock, M. (2016) Flaubert, trans. Elliott, N., Cambridge, MA/London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zourabichvili, F. (2012) Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event, together with The Vocabulary of Deleuze, trans. Aarons, K., Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons.