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.


Reversibility and Intimacy in and Beyond the Master’s House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript on the Master’s House and Decontextualisation

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


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

[2] Ibid., p. 217.

[3] Emma Chapman, in Sarah Nelson, “The Female Academics Fighting To Make Higher Education A Safe Space For Women”, HuffPost UK (8th June 2019), available online at

[4] Deleuze & Guattari, p. 224.

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., §6.

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

[9] Ibid., p. 283.

[10] Ibid., p. 282.

[11] Ibid., p. 286.

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

[13] Ibid., p. 281.

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

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

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

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

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

Neon Genesis Irangelion: XYZT by Kristen Alvanson review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Pli Volume 30, available to order now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

Figure 2: William Anders, “Earthrise” (NASA: 1968)


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


Hyperstition, The Stack, and theory-fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] TS, p. xviii.

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

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

[5] TS, pp. 5-7.

[6] Ibid., pp. 87-90 (p. 87).

[7] Ibid., pp. 66-9.

[8] Ibid., p. 75.

[9] Ibid., p. 66.

[10] Hillary Clinton, in TS, p. 3.

[11] TS, pp. 3-4 (p. 3).

[12] Ibid., p. 5.

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

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

[15] Reza Negarestani, ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (reading Applied Ballardianism’, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018, available online at [Accessed 2nd January 2019]).

[16] Ibid.

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

[18] TS, p. 254.

[19] Ibid., p. 252.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[28] Ibid, pp. 92-3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[48] Ibid., p. 201.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[55] Ibid., p. 232.

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

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

[58] Negarestani’s term Hidden Writing comes to mind here: ‘Hidden Writing can be described as utilizing every plot hole, all problematics, every suspicious obscurity or repulsive wrongness as a new plot with a tentacled and autonomous mobility. The aftermath of this utilization manifests itself as an act of writing whose effect is to deteriorate the primary unified plot or remobilize the so-called central theme and its authority as a mere armature or primary substance for holding things together’. Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials (Melbourne:, 2008), pp. 60-7 (p. 61). See also my essay ‘A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing’, orbistertius (16th September 2016, available online at

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

[60] TS, p. 320.

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

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

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

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

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

[66] TS, pp. 321-6.

[67] See note 59 above.

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

[69] Ibid., p. 328.

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

[71] Ibid., p. 23.

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

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

[74] Ibid., p. 362.

[75] Ibid., pp. 363-4 (p. 363).

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

[77] Ibid.

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

[79] Ibid., p. 298.

[80] Ibid.

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

[82] Ibid., p. 319.

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

[84] Ibid., p. 337.

[85] Ibid., p. 343.

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

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

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

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

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.

Two Questions Concerning Applied Ballardianism

RM: Immediately in The Drowned World, you have the fictional theory of ‘neuronics’ playing a really important role. You have to buy into that theoretical position to be compelled by the story. This is what theory fiction means to me. It’s not a genre but more a question, or even a problem: in what different ways can the two cross over, and in what ways to they need each other?[1]

Two questions come to mind when discussing the above quote by Robin Mackay, itself a response to Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism (which has dethroned Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as the archetypal “theory-fiction” text). 1) What is Ballard’s role in the development of this “question” of theory-fiction? And 2) What does theory-fiction mean in relation to this text?

First of all, Ballard is responsible (directly and indirectly) for many of the concepts that were incorporated and built upon in the earliest ruminations on theory-fiction. I am here thinking of Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, which places Ballard in a rhizome connecting him to Baudrillard, McLuhan, Freud, William Gibson, “Deleuze-Guattari” and others. Central to both Fisher and Sellars’s understandings of theory-fiction is Ballard’s characterisation of inner space, as a Spinozistic interpretation of bodies as capable of both affecting and being affected. As sites of pure Event, bodies are inseparable from the landscapes they inhabit, and so Ballard’s “inner” is in fact a folding-out onto “outer” ground; a cybernetics, or, more precisely, a geo-traumatics.  In The Drowned World, we see the submerged landscape producing psychological and physiological symptoms within the bodies it contains; in The Atrocity Exhibition, the same kinds of changes are apparent, though this time, they are brought about via immersion within the “media landscape”. Ballard conceives of mediatization as a  generalisation of trauma, evoked through the repetition of violent and unprecedented images, and for which the body experiences schizophrenic breakdown and overspill of affect. Ballard’s T- character(s) in The Atrocity Exhibition attempt a form of “catastrophe management” through repetition and re-enactment of televised events: the Kennedy assassination, the Monroe car crash, and so on. These rituals are simultaneously themselves responses to the traumas brought on through mediatization, attempts (by Ballard and his characters) to represent these events and their associated affects as the only legitimate and rational response, and a continuation of the logic of breakdown – a positive experiencing of the trauma mode as a deterriorialization, leading to inorganic breakthrough.[2]

These ideas are what make Ballard’s key works (The Drowned WorldThe Atrocity Exhibition, and Crash) theory-fiction: the texts cannot be approached without engaging with them on these terms. Sellars would concur. His explanation for the experimental form adopted by Applied Ballardianism is that it is the result of trying to faithfully capture and respond to a particular Ballard quote: “The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume it is a complete fiction conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[3] The book – and perhaps by extension, Ballard himself – also interpret theory-fiction in another way. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind”, says Ballard.[4] Our thoughts and perceptions are always-already pervaded by the fictional “mode”, including any “theory” we might derive from or within it. Given this, the role of effective writing is to invent the reality.”[5] Hence the shift from Ballard’s earliest fictions – the ones that fabulate an extraordinary natural event (The Drowned WorldThe Crystal World, et al) – to the immediate (or im-mediate) traumas of unnatural (sub)urban life (CrashHigh-Rise).

Sellars’s book reads as an account of trying to “invent the reality” of its writer’s psychic life in the most authentic conceivable manner – as a “memoir from a parallel universe”. But it succeeds as theory-fiction in a third sense, not directly related to the two outlined above. The novel’s (?) parallel narrator begins by attempting to render Ballard as a latent philosopher, who uses the shell of fiction in order to disseminate deep-seated “truths” about the real world (Def. 1). Yet – and it’s no spoiler to reveal this, all fiction requires dramatic tension after all – this task does not play out as the narrator expects. The planned exercise quickly becomes a living-out of Ballard’s “extreme metaphors”, an experiencing and intensifying of psychic traumas across the fault lines of the narrator’s entire life. “Why did I always shove aside the positive implications of Ballard’s work, the message of resistance it carried, in favour of the dark desires that had driven his characters to reach that point? I suppose it reflected my own cynical worldview, my own fatal inwardness that ensured I found little joy in anything.”[6] Ballard’s own moralistic framework guaranteed that he himself, when faced with a precarious juncture, would always take the blue pill: “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” Sellars’s doppelganger, without the framework, the grounding of thought and desire, is free to take the path to psychosis. “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.”[7]

It is this exposure of a lack of grounding in the narrator’s interpretation of his deep assignment that,  perversely, re-inverts Applied Ballardianism into a cautionary tale. In every interview, Sellars is adamant: “It’s a mistake to read a political agenda into Ballard – or Applied Ballardianism. I don’t advise it.[8] But the book, and it’s author’s message, Negarestani shows, are hardly apolitical; instead, their engagements with politics demonstrate a

playing precisely [of] the multi-level game with different political resolutions at different levels. […] Depending on the resolution at which the game is played, the book is replete with fundamentally different sociopolitical visions of our world. There is no contradiction here, only competing actual worlds which – and perhaps it is simply a bad habit – we are accustomed to calling the world. It is the conflict between world versions and their respective visions that is, in fact, the very constitutive element of what we name ‘reality’.[9]

Sellars has characterised the book as an exercise in failure, failure of the very idea of applying Ballardianism – at least in the sense his narrator attempts, as an ideal for living. As his life becomes mediatized by the very media warning him against its dangers, the narrator’s journey amounts to an exploration of inner space in the term’s most restricted sense: as a solipsism, or phenomenology. Now the character sees orbs in the sky, ghosts on airfields, Ballardian ley lines, everywhere. Cast adrift from the media Events central to Ballard’s texts, the narrator’s theory-fiction has folded back in on itself, as conspiracy theory. It’s no wonder that he briefly turns to the Mandela Effect as a potential re-grounding agent, for unifying his cognitively dissonant memories.

To recapitulate, we see Applied Ballardianism as theory-fiction in a threefold sense. Firstly, it is a theoretical exploration of the ideas of Ballard’s fiction, conveyed in the “truly authentic” form of (quasi-)Ballardian fiction. Secondly, it is an extension and  critique of these Ballardian concepts (his original theory-fiction): specifically, of the traumas brought about by the ungrounding and deterritorializing effects of immersion within the media landscape. Thirdly, and finally, it is an expression of the traumatic effects of Ballard’s theory-fiction on the individual, and a warning against untethered free-falls through inner space. I believe that Sellars is saying, in effect, that dissociation must bottom out somewhere. The ground awaits any such schizoid free-fall, and this ground may resemble any number of things: conspiracist paranoia, hard concrete, hikikomori, windshield glass… Yet, I don’t see all theory-fiction as bad religion. If we can keep our grounding in sight, we might be able to foresee and avoid what lurks behind the cracks in reality, and at the same time, produce the condition for original thought and expression.


[1] Simon Sellars & Robin Mackay, “So Many Unrealities”, Urbanomic (10th December 2018), available online at

[2] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018 [1999]), pp. 84-96.

[3] J.G. Ballard, from the 1995 introduction to Crash. Cf. Sellars & Mackay. The quote appears in Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2018), pp. 39-40.

[4] Ballard, introduction to Crash.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Applied Ballardianism, p. 239.

[7] Ibid, p. 223.

[8] Sellars, “Simon Sellars on Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Tadas Vinokur for Aleatory Books (17th December 2018), available online at

[9] Reza Negarestani, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (Reading Applied Ballardianism)”, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018), available online at

Corridors of Time: Templexity and Entity

In Chrono Trigger, Square’s classic time travel role-playing game from 1995, a band of time-displaced adventurers team up to prevent an apocalypse, by changing the course of events leading up to its happening. As part of an optional subplot, during a respite from the exhaustion of incessant time leaps and bounds, the adventurers rest near a campfire and reflect on the course of evets that has lifted each of them from their respective time locales and brought them together across epochs. In a moment of unprompted philosophical interrogation, the characters contemplate the idea that their reality has been shifted by some unbounded agent, and is dependent on the desires and piecemeal memories of this “Entity”:

Robo: I have come to think that someone, or something wanted us to see all this.
The different events over time, that we have witnessed.
It is almost as if some entity wanted to relive its past.


Magus: …so who is this Entity?

Robo: It is unknown, whose memories these are. It may be something beyond our comprehension.

The game’s time bandits are gathered, and are able to navigate their linear time line, as a result of the sudden appearance of portals, or “Gates”, into their world. Gates are fixed phenomena which link specific spatio-temporal singularities to one another. If a Gate becomes overloaded with travellers during a single attempted leap, they are pushed to “the space-time coordinates of least resistance” – a sort of Art Deco-inspired liminal zone known as The End of Time. Gates therefore, Robo hypothesises, could be deliberate ruptures in the fabric of space-time, caused by a higher-dimensional being unable to transport itself back through time. The characters’ union, in this case, would serve to recreate key historical events as the “memories” of this Entity, or even to replace them with alternatives. These interventions, therefore, would constitute an aesthetic exercise for the Entity, a method of rendering its world legible and scalable through the act of transforming its surroundings into the sensations and materials of art.

I can’t help but think that the narrative component of Chrono Trigger would greatly amuse Nick Land, whose e-book/extended essay Templexity investigates the logical inconsistencies of the time-travel narrative while at the same time detailing a new methodology for critically understanding the ways in which time (as granularised fictional order) has folded our social and cultural histories. From H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, right up to Land’s primary case study, the 2012 science fiction blockbuster Looper, time-travel narratives have been unanimously concerned with the transportation of bodies (or characters) from a present moment to either a (pre-)historical past or imagined future, often at the expense of a study into the mechanics of temporal disorder itself. It is though narratives presented in this way, inflexibly, that we have come to understand “time-travel” as “the dramatization of something else”,[1] and to which the reader is posited as outside spectator. Such conceptions are riddled with paradoxes, however; some of which even have names: the Grandfather Paradox, the Bootstrap Paradox, and so on. Put simply, to transport a body through time would require the body to have always appeared at every point of temporal insertion, which would result in the displacement of genesis, endless duplication, the feeding of time machines and portals into themselves, and all sorts of unimagined bizarre inconsistencies often left unaccounted for in time-travel fiction.

For “time anomaly” to exist, therefore, it must have always been present, or not at all (§5.4). For Land, his resident city of Shanghai represents, indeed functions as a certain kind of time machine, one that operates through the cultural erasure and nonspecificity of Art Deco. Both “excess code” and “the sign of a vivid yet unspoken modernity” (§5.2), Art Deco architecture and visual motifs impose a stringent narratology on Shanghai’s storied and variegated cultural legacy, connecting it to both everywhere (heterotopia) and nowhere (utopia). A narrative line of linear progression (modernism) decodes what is otherwise a progressive urban development, layered by means of spiral temporal geometry (#7.8).[2]

Could an “Entity” exist inside such temporal spiromorphism, or does templexity’s positive cybernetics necessarily absorb this alien matter back into its own feedback cycles? Does the Entity survive templex entropy? It’s not immediately apparent if Robo’s AI ESP merely reveals the fourth wall of Chrono Trigger’s gamescape or is suggestive of a potential Paradox within Land’s thesis. Taking Templexity’s temporal cybernetics to their logical extension, there could be no demonology, no divinity, within the templex spiral, without acceding that any physical or metaphysical phenomena between dimensions would also be subject to time’s disordered loops; therefore one would also have to acknowledge time anomaly as a genuine entropy.[3] There would also, in effect, be nothing for the Entity to do in a self-regulating system, besides inhabiting the role of audience member.

Perhaps somewhere in Land’s critique of the misconceptions of “time travel” in fiction lies some of the answers as to why Chrono Trigger – for all its technical innovations, exemplary gameplay and soundtrack – always seemed underwhelming as a game organised around the conceit of time travel mechanics. One would begin the game for the first time expecting a break from the linear progression that forms one of the most common criticisms against the role-playing genre, only to discover a frustratingly similar experience.[4] The purity of its main plot is unaffected by the player’s strategic interceptions across its timeline (except for those officially sanctioned by the developers) – there is no possible temporal terrorism that has not already been scripted in advance, and time locales feature as navigable settings rather than opportunities for narrative splintering and splicing.

If, as Land suggests, time travel is the dramatization of something else, Chrono Trigger displays its narratological order through the displacement of characters across a series of causal events, providing the player with an interactive story that is not so much created as revealed. Real templexity, on the other hand, is always a production. Linear causality is self-reinforcing, as the chain of events do not allow for straightforward reversions (§8.4). Could the game’s events be a dramatization by and for an atemporal Entity, that itself still resides within the confines of the narrative it has caused and directed? Such a being would be incapable of transporting bodies through time, and so it rightly comes as no surprise that the Entity dreamed by Robo at the campsite never emerges beyond its unsubstantiated idea.


[1] Nick Land, Templexity – Disordered Loops Through Shanghai Time (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2014), §1.6. All bracketed sections henceforth refer to this text.

[2] “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Mark Twain (misattributed).

[3] This entropy, by which feedback loops appear self-producing, is what connects templexity to Capital: “As it mechanizes, capital approximates ever more closely to an auto-productive circuit in which it appears – on the screen – as something like the ‘father’ of itself (M → C → M’)” (§9.4). Capital, as represented by Looper’s silver and gold bars, can only survive a (linear) time travel narrative (the hyperinflation that accompanies the printing of precious metals) through the elimination of time paradoxes, as achieved through “reintegrat[ing] a singular timeline” (§3.0-§3.4), and imposition of the “cinematic order” (§2.4).

[4] One of the game’s selling points is the option to view multiple endings, a novelty at the time of its original release. However, the vast majority of these endings are essentially out of bounds to the player until their characters have gained enough experience points, by which time the game’s linear main plot is likely to be close to its denouement in any case.

Featured image credits: screenshot from the game Chrono Trigger (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Square: 1995).

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…


[1] Simon Sellars, “One Small Node of Reality: Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Robert Barry for The Quietus (15th September 2018), available online at

[2] Gregory Marks, et al., “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, Twitter (12th July 2018), available online at

[3] Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, The Wasted World (3rd November 2018), available online at

[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 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 Republished in 2018 by Exmilitary Press.

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

What Is Affect? (or, Gestures Towards an Outline for an Ethics of the Encounter)

I wrote this essay a year ago for a writing competition. I present it here in unedited form.


Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. (Deleuze 2014: 183)

Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation; a something both animated and inhabitable. (Stewart: 1)

Something forces us to think. It’s as though, through a crack of circumscribed reality, the Outside seizes upon us, shattering everything we thought it meant to know, to feel, to be. At the centre of every significant (political, cultural, personal) event lies a breakthrough, which is itself the desired object of an encounter. The encounter feeds on us, it eats us, disinterestedly, without ceremony; sometimes immediately; sometimes it merely infects us, grows slowly in the lower intestine, gradually working on us from inside. We know of the encounter, because it affects us. It produces affect.

Affect is the desired harvest of art, of literature, of thought. It is the digestive acid of the encounter. We feel it wash over us. It continues to dissolve us, it tingles, it “shimmers” (Barthes: 101).[1] However we see fit to define our lives, however it is we choose to spend our time (when that choice is indeed available to us), when we are asked a variation on the question “Why is it you do what you do?”, the unnameable answer is “to experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

In H.G. Wells’s short story “The Door in the Wall” (1911), the protagonist Lionel Wallace recounts his first (and only) true affective encounter, experienced when he was too young to comprehend its enchanted strangeness, its weirdness, and the significant impact it was to have on the remainder of his life. A small boy, four years old, brought up “so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say,” finding himself alone in the streets of West Kensington, cutting a wretched figure (Wells: 146-147). “[H]e recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel” (ibid.). A moment of unprecedented emotional distress. The green door forces itself into this most mundane and hostile of moments. Something about this door, in this wall, is electromagnetically charged with affect.

There’s no reason why it should be.

“Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion” (ibid.). The young Wallace opens the door, as the reader expected him to do. He enters a world of elongated elfin figures and placid wild panthers, children playing delightful games, and books, the pages of which “were not pictures, […] but realities” (ibid.: 148-150). A world that ought not to be, in which “as one played one loved…” (ibid.). In less than an hour, Wallace has been transformed irrecoverably.[2]



Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. (Deleuze & Guattari: 164).

“But how does one encounter, or live in pursuit of affect? How may we recognise an encounter?” For Gilles Deleuze, an encounter happens as an elevation of each of the faculties to the limit of their “transcendent exercise” (Deleuze 2014: 187-188). “Each faculty must be borne to the extreme point of its dissolution, at which it falls prey to triple violence: the violence of that which forces it to be exercised, of that which it is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, yet also that of the ungraspable (from the point of view of its empirical exercise)” (ibid.).

It is for this reason that an affective encounter cannot be recognised, only sensed; it prefigures the exercise of the faculties in a “common sense”, one common to us (ibid. 183-184). Hence it appears to us as a Something: we cannot be sure of what. But we can feel its effects upon us. Because affect is intensity (Massumi: 15-16, 27). It exists in-between states of action and being acted upon (Siegworth & Gregg: 1), between movement and rest: it “moves as it feels” (Massumi: 1, 15). The encounter is an event through which nothing is prefigured and, in Gilbert Simondon’s terminology, the encounter is itself preindividual – a continuous field of potential functions “out of phase with formed entities” (ibid.: 27, 34).[3]

Thinking in terms of affect presents us with an opportunity to reconceive the structuration of subjectivity as “an assemblage of body memories and preindividual affective capacities […] a new ontology of bodily matter, beyond the autopoiesis of the human organism” (Clough: 9). There is a missing half-second between receptivity of electrical impulses through the skin and the brain: sensation occurs recursively, the body’s capacity to feel prefigures recognisable traces of thought (Massumi: 28-29). Or rather, conscious thought reduces universal affect in the individual act of recognition, as (posthumous) emotion or cognition, “smooth[ing] over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality” (ibid.: 29-30).

Something evidently happens beyond our capacity to understand it when we are affected by external stimuli. How might we characterise this unknowable Something, when there is “no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect” (ibid.: 27)? We can try grasping at words, concepts, transitory expressions: “an intelligence beyond rational calculation”, an excess, “a faceless love” (Berlant: 2, Siegworth & Gregg: 13, Negarestani: 207). Misanthropic subtraction, the Lovecraftian descriptive technique: the unnameable void around which a thousand apophatic names circulate (Thacker: 177-178). The Outside, its teeming affects, and what it brings to the definition of the body. “Affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters”, but also, at the same time, its “non-belonging” (Siegworth & Gregg: 2).

Because affective experience is not really “for us”, but rather absolutely impassive, emotionless, neutral. It does not “arise in order to be deciphered” (ibid.: 21). It happens in spite of us. Sometimes the door just appears. It does not care for our convenience. We are optimistic; it is cruel. Cruel optimism: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (Berlant: 24). Our subjectivity is shaken in its presence. But we need affect: it enhances us, extends us spatio-temporally, the “us” that we recognise. Affect “is integral to a body’s perpetual becoming […], pulled beyond its seeming surface-boundedness by way of its relation to, indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself – webbed in its relations – until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3) Body becomes assemblage:

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

Affect could also be named “the virtual”: a singular mass of infinite tendencies, a multiplicity of potentialities. Subjectivity and duration are understood as parallel to their actualized, differentiated outcome, or their capture in a present that marks our understanding of being, our self-awareness (Deleuze 1988a: 42-43). The encounter occupies an “impasse” (though not an exclusively temporal one), within which one may “sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic,” and perceive “those processes that have not yet found their genre of event” (Berlant: 4). The emergence of affect is therefore a “two-sided coin”, the transversal[4] cross-communication of the virtual and the actual, “as seen from the side of the actual thing”, at the virtual’s “edge” (Massumi: 35, 31)[5]. The actual thing, the individual body’s access to the virtual (the affective) is possible because of the existence of the past as an “ontological present” (Clough: 13). The future, on the other hand, is never foreseen, and is a limitless source of creativity (Siegworth & Gregg: 21).

The presence of affect reaches the presently-existing individual as a hyperstition: a narrative that makes itself “real” to the subject through travelling from the “future” to recursively re-engineer the conditions of its existence (Ccru: 74), like the Terminator. We are affected through narrative disruption, whether as violent shock, or as an imperceptible “background” effect, the kind of which happens continuously without our conscious awareness: a “perception of [a] self-perception” of an imperceptible happening, a perception of one’s own vitality, which “cannot but be perceived” (Massumi: 36). In order to re-engineer ourselves in terms of affect, we ought to develop and utilise new “experimental writing” techniques, that strive to “capture a shift in thought happening to the writer and which the writer is inviting”; to open ourselves up to new affective futurities (Clough: 14).



No one has yet determined what the Body can do. (Spinoza: III, 2, def.)

Philosophers might think to go to the premier on thinking affects, Baruch Spinoza, in search of a point of origin for an ethics of the encounter. This is a good intuition, but Spinoza’s elaboration on the affections [affectio, affectus] must be grasped precisely. Deleuze proposes three perspectives: 1) affections as the modes of substance in themselves, as “God’s attributes”; 2) affections as images, or that which happens to the mode; 3) affections as durations between the affective images, and inseparable to their existence (Deleuze 1988b: 48-49). Affectio refers to the state of the body affected upon; affectus is the transversal passage from one state to another – the former as “ideas”, the latter as “feeling affects” (ibid.). “By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (Spinoza: III, D3).[6] Both “affections” suppose a certain interaction between a thinking mind and an acting body, but it is only really with affectus that this interaction is complexified (more faithfully represented), and a “correspondence” – between mind and body, internal causes (actions) and external stimuli (passions), the affective body and its potential to be affected – can be understood to be taking place (Hardt: ix-x). And the body’s capacity is unknowable: it requires continuous immersion/feedback from “the field or context of its force-relations”: the unknowable attributes of God, a perpetual “not-yet” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3). God is understood as Nature, “encompassing the human, the artificial, and the invented”, pulling the strings of both the body and the mind (Massumi: 36, Hardt: ix-x).

The “not-yet-ness” of the affective body, or the assemblage of affective becomings, can be interpreted as a provocation (Siegworth & Gregg: 9), or a “cluster of promises” to be made possible – or sometimes, humiliatingly, not (Berlant: 23-24). The Spinozian body is defined in terms of “relations of movement and rest”, or rather, a capacity to enter into states of these relations (Massumi: 15). These are the movements of a becoming, an actualization taking place not in us, but in the mind of “God” (ibid.: 36). We cannot “think” our way into affective encounters. Affect cannot be contained in the image (of thought), being of a “purely transitive” nature; but we must let the movements of becoming come to us (Deleuze 1988b: 49). As individuals, or “singular essences”, we are defined by our capacity for being affected, beyond which we cease (ibid.: 27). We owe it to ourselves, then, to attempt a fashioning of affections beneficial to ourselves; a transition from (internally-caused) actions to (externally-caused) passions (Hardt: x). From the confused, fluctuating Inside to the necessarily passionate joys of the Outside (ibid., Deleuze 1988b: 51).




An ethics of the encounter, then, would be a gay science, in which the body is reconfigured as an open assemblage of states allowing for a maximum enabling of interference from the Outside, a relinquishing of (conceived) bodily autonomy, a reimagination of the relationship between the individual and the world, and an assertion of one’s vitality: “circuits and flows […] the form of a life” (Stewart: 2). Thinking affectively, we can no longer interpret the body as a “closed system drawing energy from the outside, thus drawing the body back into homeostasis and equilibrium”; in a way that would lead “inevitably to entropic heat death” (Clough: 16). We reside with the Something, the unactualized, that which allows one to live “in and through that which escapes them” (Massumi: 35). An outwards unfolding, an opening of the self, an invitation to the Outside, “becoming an ever more sensitive worldly interface” (Siegworth & Gregg: 12).

However, to attempt a singular, universalizing ethics of affective encounters is impossible, as no comprehensive definition of the preindividual affect can be established. There are factors to be considered, such as how affect approaches the bodily assemblage. Much is to do with the angle of its arrival: for the assemblage during the encounter, “affect is the whole world [the Outside]: from the precise angle of its differential emergence” (Massumi: 43). In other words, the Outside, what we feel, is “already angled” upon its approaching us (Ahmed: 37): we encounter only actualised or selected “eidetic variations”, to borrow a term from phenomenology. Thinking of the angled dynamic thresholds between the interfaces of bodily assemblages and worlds helps us to recognise affect as “an aesthetic or art of dosages” (Siegworth & Gregg: 16). One ethical response to affect may be to appreciate the ordinary: the continual, minimally disruptive affective activities that “pick up density and texture” as they surge through our quotidian lives (Stewart: 3). Or we may choose to be bold and open ourselves up further to the Outside, making of ourselves “a good meal”, offering ourselves to the Sorceress Druj, the Mother of Abominations, as did Dr Hamid Parsani.[7] Of course, we need to be aware of the limitations of all approaches. Like Lionel Wallace, we cannot truly prepare for the door, or the effects of an immersion into the other side. In outlining an ethics of the encounter we are but grasping into the darkness, experiencing the undifferentiated with our ignorance. An affective ethics could also get us in trouble (“I’m sorry, officer, I couldn’t help it, I was motivated by forces beyond my comprehension.”) But, to remain faithful to our vitality, we ought not to be timid.

One common experience of “ordinary affects” is in the aesthetic experience, for example that offered to us through literature. This is common to many readers: whether from the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, six volumes of Akira, an aphorism, a proposition, whatever it may be. Readers occasionally are transformed by books: sentences, passages, chapters leap out; they redefine literature for us, they teach us how to read, and how to conceive and experience life anew. Again, approach to the text is significant, and it benefits us to be open when cultivating affect. It is not the text itself that produces affect for us, just as it is not the body in isolation that is affected, but the text’s immersion into a field of forces and relations, and its position as a gateway for us to encounter them, that briefly exposes us to such affirmative joys. The book is an open system; we ought to read it as a resonating chamber of the Outside.

This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a meeting of other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything … is reading with love. (Deleuze 1995: 8-9)

As though the right book possesses the right combination of figures, words, and sentences to open oneself out into infinity, like a Borgesian library, but only when approached in the right way, under fortunate circumstances. It is important to acknowledge that we do not know what to expect from art: what is likely to affect us, and how. Nothing is prefigured, therefore we are in no position to make demands from books, genres, writers, etc. Crime and Punishment may do nothing for us, even if we want it to, and Watership Down might reduce us to tears. Of course, there is a certain predictability, an emergence of self-knowledge as we experiment with styles and genres, and we learn to recognise the subtractions of affect we most frequently enable, through its capture as emotion. But preconceptions do not get readers far. Immersion in worldly knowledge, abolition of images and blocks, dissolution of the threshold of the Self and the Other.

As alluded to above, the affective forms a field of forces and relations around the differentiated subject, the dynamic bodily assemblage. Reading and writing are forms of wrestling with these forces of our perpetual becoming, our self-flourishing. Reading can be considered a form of experimental writing: an autoethnography, a self-flourishing. Through reading, we may grasp “the materialities and temporalities of bodies” and reassemble them, extend them outwards, and resonate with affirmative vitality (Clough: 4). Return to the preindividual, the pre-emotive, the unformed, the unthought. Our enablers: texts, bodies, images, sounds, languages: extended infinitely, the Library of Babel. Literature as lines of flight, hyperstitions, orientations of the future. Affect enables us to rethink thought, from cogito to immanence. A rewriting of the self, and of the potentialities of future becomings.


“Why is it you do what you do?”

“To experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”



[1] See also Siegworth & Gregg.: 10-17.

[2] See also Fisher: 26-31.

[3] Some punctuation from the original has been removed.

[4] “Transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizontality: it tends to be achieved when there is maximum communication among different levels and, above all, in different meanings” (emphasis added). Guattari: 113. From Félix Guattari’s concept of “transversality”, Brian Massumi defines “transduction” as “the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another and across them all” (emphasis added). Massumi: 42.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Emphasis added

[7] See Negarestani.



Acker, K. (1988) Empire of the Senseless, New York, Grove Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010) “Happy Objects”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 29-51.

Barthes, R. (2005) The Neutral [Neutre], trans. Krauss, R.E. & Hollier, D., New York, Columbia University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Borges, J.L. (2000) “The Library of Babel” [“La biblioteca de Babel”], in Fictions [Ficciones], trans. Hurley, A., London, Penguin Books: 65-74.

Ccru (1999) “Ccru Glossary”, in Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition, London, Ccru, 69-79.

Clough, P.T. (2007) “Introduction”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-33.

Deleuze, G. (1988a) Bergsonism [Le Bergsonisme], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., New York, Zone Books.

— (1988b) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [Spinoza: Philosophie pratique], trans. Hurley, R., San Francisco, City Lights Books.

— (1995) Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], trans. Joughin, M., New York, Columbia University Press.

— (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: 164.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (2007) Dialogues II [Dialogues], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., revised edition, New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, London, Repeater Books.

Guattari, F. (2015) “Transversality”, trans. Sheed, R., in Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971 [Psychanalyse et transversalité], trans. Sheed, R. & Hodges, A., Los Angeles, Semiotext(e): 102-120.

Hardt, M. (2007) “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: ix-xiii

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne,

Siegworth, G. & Gregg, M. (2010) “An Inventory of Shimmers”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-25.

Spinoza, B. (1985) Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed./trans. Curley, E., Princeton, Princeton University Press: 408-617.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Thacker, E. (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 173-180.

Wells, H.G. (1974) “The Door in the Wall”, in The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells, Twenty-second Impression, London, Ernest Benn Limited; New York, St Martin’s Press, Inc.

Featured image credits: Pixabay.

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.


[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.


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

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.