The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

“Defamiliarizing the work ethic”: Weeks and Postwork Imaginaries

As stated in Part 1 of this essay, the purpose of Kathi Weeks’s study of Max Weber is to examine the historical development of the work ethic’s rationalising spread, with the intention of gesturing towards a reconfiguration of the status of work beyond the deep-rooted ethical validation presently firmly entrenched in mainstream societal views. Weeks concludes the first chapter of The Problem With Work – her identification of the five antimonies previously discussed – by highlighting the fractured and inconsistent qualities of the rationale behind work, claiming that it can and should be contested (77).[1] In the course of making such a statement, she draws on several other writers and thinkers who can be broadly grasped under the consciously-adopted label of postwork scholarship. Specifically, Weeks quotes from the work of Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, two of the authors of “The Post-Work Manifesto” (with Dawn Esposito and Margaret Yard, orig. 1998), one of the earliest adopters of this label (76-77).[2] This manifesto, first published in Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler’s Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (1998), proposes an “alternative direction” to the culture of downsizing and jobless futures of contemporary postindustrial modernity, with a new shared ambition of shorter working hours, higher wages, and additional free time (Aronowitz, et. al., 31-80; esp. 31-33). The “Post-Work Manifesto” helped to formalise a series of radical ideas concerning the end of a work-based economy, many of which found their way into Weeks’s book. For this section of the essay, we will examine some of the central themes of what Weeks names postwork imaginaries, and further assess the reception of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in relation to the emerging postwork school of sociological thought.

The first common feature of a postwork imaginary is a demand for fewer working hours, or, in the most radical of cases, a reconfiguration of the capitalist economy that would reduce the position of work in people’s lives to a minimum. Social action that rallies around the objective of a reduction of work is not a new phenomenon, however, it has been notably absent for quite a long time. For example, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx documents the struggle in England for a reduction of the working day for factory workers between the years 1833 and 1864 (Marx: 389-411). Partially as a result of protest and strike action, the legal working day was reduced from 15 to 12 hours for women and “young persons” (13 to 18 years), and a series of industry-specific legislation was brought in during this time which reduced (and in some cases eliminated) night-work for children and women (ibid.). The passing of the Factory Act of 1850 and subsequent legislation had a global influence; following the American Civil War, the General Congress of Labour in the US convened in Baltimore in 1866 to support the “eight hours’ agitation”, in an attempt to reduce the “normal working day” to eight hours for all workers (ibid.: 414). It was assumed by figures as significant as John Maynard Keynes that as society became more affluent, there would be an even greater desire to reduce working hours further. In 1931, he predicted that one hundred years hence the ideal amount of time spent working would be three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week.[3] That the critical space for resisting current working hours today appears so closed-off is for Weeks a sign of the continuing grip of the work ethic’s reification of the current standard of time allotted to work: we work for eight hours a day because we must, regardless of our economic standing (3). Only through resisting the work ethic, then, can a general reduction of working hours be achieved, and must be achieved as a response to the ongoing precarity and scarcity of sufficiently-paid and meaningful work.

The other key demand of postwork advocates is that of an increase in the general share of wealth; more specifically, a re-evaluation of the demand for wages in sectors of work that traditionally have not been waged, especially domestic labour. However, there is some reluctance from postwork thinkers, Weeks included, about returning to the approaches of 1970s feminism, and attempts to wage housework (113-118). “One would be hard-pressed to find a political vision within feminism that has less credibility today than wages for housework”, says Weeks, yet, with a number of caveats it is a subject (rather than a project) worth revisiting for the purposes of formulating new responses to the current inequalities of work (114). Weeks rejects these movements’ central demand, because, as demonstrated above in the discussion over the ethic’s simultaneous capacity to include and exclude new demographics into its fold, the approach of waging housework “threatened to resolidify this labor as women’s work performed in the family” (114, 148-149). It is not only the ethics of work, but waged work itself that, in its current incarnation, is a source of division and alienation (137). However, the advantage of such an approach to overcoming labour struggles was the public and political attention given to the movement as a whole, and texts such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (orig. 1973) in particular (148, 119).

Weeks’s real interest, however, is “in remaking wages for housework”, rather than in reviving failed approaches to applying the current wage system to the household (118, emphasis added). Recent interest in the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI or simply “basic income”) have inspired Weeks and other postwork advocates with alternative economic paradigms to those currently normalised by the dominant ethics of work. Weeks proposes that a UBI could offer a more pragmatic solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequality that is a consequence of the work ethic’s undervaluation of “feminised” forms of labour (147, 150). UBI would provide not only a better perspective on the crisis within work than the wages for housework demand, by offering “tangible benefits to a broader constituency”, but would also avoid further entrenching division across lines of gender (ibid.). This is because UBI, in the form Weeks advocates, would not function as a reward for distinct categories of workers, but would be granted to all citizens universally and unconditionally, “regardless of their family or household relationships, regardless of other incomes, and regardless of their past, present, or future employment status” (138). The purpose of UBI would be to provide a “floor” to individuals, a regular amount of money that would ensure a minimum standard of living without a dependence on waged work.[4] It is important to Weeks’s proposal, however, that the terms on which UBI is negotiated ensure that the current rights of individuals be protected: in order for it to pose a sufficient challenge to the problems of waged work, UBI would have to serve as a standalone income and not a means-tested welfare payment or a supplement to existing incomes (138-139). Presented in this way, “basic income not only recognizes but offers a response to the inability of both the wage system and the institution of the family to serve as reliable mechanisms of income distribution” (147).

For postwork writers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the shift towards an economy predicated on UBI is an increasing necessary solution to problems surrounding the increasing automation of jobs and the shrinking job market, as well as the reduction of workers’ rights and the commodification of labour (Srnicek & Williams: 85-127). In their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015),[5] they make the link between the importance of UBI and the work ethic as a cultural obstacle to its achievability, in a pair of chapters indebted to Weeks’s The Problem With Work (ibid.). As Srnicek and Williams understand it, the work ethic has become ingrained into “our very self-conception”, to the extent that many cannot appreciate a meaningful life outside of work (Srnicek & Williams: 124). Much work is also seen by them to be disempowering, and harmful on both physical and psychological levels (Srnicek & Williams: 121, 124). It is imperative therefore that the concept of work-in-itself as an “ultimate good” be re-evaluated (Srnicek & Williams: 122). The advantage of UBI is that it would have the potential to destabilise the current ethos of work: given a basic income, much “hazardous, boring and unattractive” work would fall out of favour, meaning that the wages for work of this nature would have to increase (ibid.). This would lead to a gradual change from a profitability-based system of value for work to a meritocracy based on the nature of the work itself, loosening the hold of the dominant work ethic through economic necessity (ibid.). Yet it must work both ways: in order for UBI to gain acceptance to a general public,[6] the values surrounding work also need to change (Srnicek & Williams: 125-126). Srnicek and Williams illustrate their hypothesis of a mutual relationship between UBI and the perceived values of work using the image of the positive feedback loop, borrowed from cybernetics, but they admit that in order for this loop to open, the change in work values would need to have happened first (Srnicek & Williams: 122, 125). They suggest that there already exists in the “real desires of people” a dissatisfaction for work that could be tapped into given a “counter-hegemonic” push against the conditions of work, and a widening of the “Overton Window”: the “bandwidth” of cultural acceptability of “realistic” ideas in mainstream public discourse (Srnicek & Williams: 126, 131, 134).

The combative strategies Weeks employs against the ethics of work differs somewhat from those proposed by Srnicek and Williams, in that hers are centred around actions of the refusal of work, rather than primarily on wider cultural reconfiguration (13-14). Refusal as a strategy against the inadequacies of work derives from the tradition of 1970s autonomist Marxism: some of the texts already cited contribute to this body of work, namely those of Baudrillard and Dalla Costa and James.[7] According to the autonomist tradition, it is the actions and insubordinations of collective workers, and not capital or labour power, that have served as the driving force of class history: it is the collective working-class that serves as the “locus of political agency” (93-94). Refusal thus serves the collectives as a vital tactic of regaining and exerting power over the conditions of their work, including the number of hours spent doing labour (96-101). Weeks believes that refusing work provides workers with an opportunity not only to regain control over their lives, but the means of overcoming the work ethic itself. At its core, this can be

a refusal of the ideology of work as highest calling and moral duty, a refusal of work as the necessary center of social life and means of access to the rights and claims of citizenship, and a refusal of the necessity of capitalist control of production. It is a refusal, finally, of the asceticism of those – even those on the Left – who privilege work over all other pursuits, including “carefree consumption.” Its immediate goals are presented as a reduction of work, in terms of both hours and social importance, and a replacement of capitalist forms of organization by new forms of cooperation. It is not only a matter of refusing exploited and alienated labor, but of refusing “work itself as the principle of reality and rationality”.[8]

Although not himself explicitly a postwork thinker, many of the foundational ideas surrounding Weeks’ and the other postwork theorists’ understanding of the necessary stages towards thinking beyond the work ethic align with Weber’s much earlier proposals in the Protestant Ethic. In particular, Weber’s suggestion that the ethic is irrational – “so little a matter of course” – and therefore unnecessary for the worker to try to follow or emulate, leads directly to Weeks’s proposal to defamiliarize the ethic, to “render strange” (Weber: 54; Weeks: 43). Yet there is an important distinction to be made here. Weber was a rationalist: although he appears to denounce the Puritan rationalization project of which the Protestant ethic is an element, he does not seek to supplant the idea of a rational society. Instead, Weber attempts to preserve rational thinking from what he considers to be the irrational ethos of work, by demonstrating the multiple nature of rationality; how it is possible to “rationalize life from fundamentally different basic points of view and in very different directions” (Weber: 78). From the very beginning of the Protestant Ethic, Weeks observes, Weber addresses the readers as “denizens of the rationalized world” (45). Yet, as we have seen, Weeks is interested instead in shoring up the antimonic nature of the work ethic – its complementary rationalist and irrationalist tendencies – stepping back from the necessity of a rationalized society, and providing a more nuanced response to the problem of the perception of work. To be precise, unlike Weber, Weeks does not feel the need to put rationality first in her critique of the work ethic. Her approach to defamiliarization is not to show how historical and current ideas surrounding work are irrational, but to move from a rationalist to a utopian discourse: a mode of discourse enabling “a relativizing of the present, to mark it as a contingent product of human history and, thereby, to open the possibility of a different future” (205).

Conclusion

Weber’s Protestant Ethic has been influential on the formulation of an identifiable concept of a work ethic by contemporary studies of the nature and value of employment. In the book, Weber demonstrates how a Protestant Ethic developed along lines of religious development in the seventeenth century, and the transformative impact this had not only on how work was organised and extracted by employers, but also how work was perceived across the whole of Puritan society. By focusing on the calling as the incentive by which worldly activity came to be arranged, Weber succeeds in his attempt to illustrate the irrational fervour by which work was, and still is, undertaken, accepted as part of the natural order, and allowed to develop under industrial capitalism after the system of belief which had borne it no longer dominated. Weber illustrates that the totalising effect of work on an individual’s life, or a belief in the inherent value of work, were not always common features of the attitudes towards work, and that these ideas emerged from a specific point in history and as the result of a specific religious doctrine that promoted individualism and proposed intangible rewards for those showing themselves to be the worthiest in the eyes of God. Later theorists on the sociological and cultural roles of work have been able to utilise the Protestant Ethic as a starting point for thinking about the new challenges posed by work, and how the (very) old spectres of the Protestant ethic have continued to haunt the current values of work. The ethic today, now a secularised but still religion-derived work ethic, often acts as a blockade to the new problems of work and the means of taking them on. Of the five antimonies Weeks uses to define the “new” work ethic, three are derived from the Protestant Ethic directly, and the other two (subordination and insubordination, exclusion and inclusion) can be found to some (albeit limited) extent in Weber’s later comments in that book about the persistence of asceticism in the industrial and modern work ethics.

Weeks’s responses to the current problems of work – normalisation of inequality, underemployment, the unsustainable necessity of wages for all – are organised around the idea of the refusal of work, as predicated by the autonomous Marxists of the 1970s. The current perceptions of work, which are often taken for granted as natural, need to be denaturalised, to be rendered strange, in order for their inconsistencies and undesirability to be exposed and ultimately rejected. UBI and the need for fewer working hours are some of the main innovations being put forward by Weeks, and postwork academics as a whole; their adoption would, Srnicek and Williams believe, help to invent new ways of perceiving the relationship between workers and employment at the same time as cultural shifts around attitudes to work would help to reconfigure these policies as desirable to the many. Radical changes to the work-based economy, such as full unemployment, do not serve necessarily as goals, but as provocations, part of a utopian way of thinking around which new movements rejecting the dominant conditions of employment can be contested. Weeks is one particular thinker who has analysed the negative formulations of the work ethic as illustrated by Weber, and identified the utopian possibilities for social change dormant within the Protestant Ethic’s historicist thesis.

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography).

[2] Aronowitz and DiFazio wrote in 1994: “the quality and the quantity of paid labor no longer justify – if they ever did – the underlying claim derived from religious sources that has become the basis of contemporary social theory and social policy: the view that paid work should be the core of personal identity”.

[3] In “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (Keynes 1931: 358-374).

[4] Weeks’s model for UBI is based on Phillipe van Parijs’s definition put forward in “Competing Justifications of Basic Income”. See van Parijs (1992: 3-43).

[5] See also my own “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams” (2016).

[6] Srnicek and Williams point to a number of early proposals and trials of various forms of basic income in the recent past, including in the US under Presidents Nixon and Carter, but chalk their failures up to perceived problems in funding by both opposing politicians and the general public (Srnicek & Williams: 118, 123). Regardless, the authors insist that “most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion” (Srnicek & Williams: 123). More recently, a vote in June 2016 on implementing basic income in Switzerland suggested that only 23% of the public actively supported the proposal (BBC News, “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”).

[7] Baudrillard: 141. “It is no longer then a question of an internal, dialectical negativity in the mode of production, but a refusal, pure and simple, of production as the general axiomatic of social relations.” (Emphasis added.) Dalla Costa & James: 10. “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.”

[8] Weeks: 99 (some emphasis added). The quotation in the last sentence is taken from Baudrillard: 141 (emphasis added).

Bibliography

Aronowitz, S. & Cutler, J. (eds.) (1998) Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, New York/London, Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

BBC News (2016) “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36454060.

Dalla Costa, M. & James, S. (1975) The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, third edition, Bristol, Falling Wall Press Ltd.

Keynes, J.M. (1931) Essays in Persuasion, London, Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso.

Van Parijs, P. (ed.) (1992) Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform, London, Verso.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

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The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The Culture of Work and Its Problems

A work-based economy presents several problems to individuals and collectives, and whilst there is a strong historical precedence for challenges made against the conditions of work, rarely is the notion of work in its entirety contested. For those willing to confront it, such as Kathi Weeks, the problem of work exists on the cultural level, in the social mentality. The dominant ideals of work, put crudely, are as follows: work is an inherent good, regardless of what is being produced; work is a valuable, even honourable way of spending time; work is an economic necessity for all, regardless of personal wealth, whether a minimum-wage employee or investment banker; all should aspire to full-time employment whenever possible; work allows us to be creative and expressive, and is perhaps the primary means of defining ourselves. Yet the realities of work are often very different, often limiting or curtailing worker autonomy and imagination, often highly demanding to the body and mind, often precarious, and a means of disempowerment of the many and empowerment of the few. Many people derive no satisfaction from working; some work only because they feel they have no other choice, and accept the drudgery and suffering as the price for relative stability and security.

The leading beliefs about work, which are perhaps best examined in the United States and Western Europe, culminate in a work ethic, with historical and religious precedence. Max Weber, in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (orig. 1905) set out to identify the conditions under which the prevailing ideals of work were first established, locating a larval forbearer arising from the many Puritan sects of the seventeenth century, and establishing itself most firmly in the United States shortly thereafter through the likes of Benjamin Franklin. This Protestant ethic shares much with the work ethic of today: a focus on individual accumulation over collective responsibility, an inner righteousness to working activity (what Weber calls a “worldly asceticism”), and an implicit mistrust in (sometimes moral condemnation of) the lazy or workshy, to name a few examples. Weber’s task is to demonstrate the irrationality of the current work ethic, stripped of its spiritual qualifications, unable to justify its senseless espousals.

Weeks’s objective is more radical. As a prominent academic in the emergent discussions on postwork politics, her own investment is in the contestation of the value of work in all of its current forms. In her book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), she uses Weber’s analysis to springboard into late twentieth and twenty-first century issues relating to the conceptions about work; her goal being ultimately to expose the work ethic’s inconsistencies and demonstrate measures designed to reject them. In what follows, I will examine Weber’s groundwork on the Protestant Ethic and worldly asceticism, before turning to Weeks’s characterization of it, and its influence on her understanding of the contemporary work ethic. The essay will end with a look at the expanding field of postwork criticism and Weeks’s position in it: how the goals and strategies of postwork sociology contribute towards a defamiliarization and dissolution of the demanding conceptions of work.

Weber, the Protestant Ethic, and “Worldly Asceticism”

Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been firmly established as the primary source for tracing a genealogy of the work ethic, as well as of strong relevance for any study of labour more broadly. Central to its critique of the transformation of the nature of industrialised labour and its domineering position in workers’ lives is Weber’s characterisation and analysis of the ethical relationship between work and the worker; how work began to be valued differently in the United States and Europe following the Reformation, and how the varying influences of the major forms of Protestantism culminated in both a worldly asceticism and a Protestant ethic which continue to haunt us to this day. “Weber’s brilliant study”, Weeks remarks, “introduces the essential components, fundamental dynamics, and key purposes of the new ethic of work that developed in conjunction with capitalism in Western Europe and North America” (Weeks 2011: 39).

Before we investigate the heritage of the work ethic as identified by Weber in Protestant developments following the Reformation, let us briefly identify the ambit of the book; more specifically, the notion of a spirit of capitalism, and its role in generating and maintaining the Protestant ethic. “The most fateful force in our modern life,” capitalism is for Weber “identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” (17).[1] A capitalistic economic action, therefore, is “one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit” (ibid.). With capitalism defined thus, it is the book’s central conceit “to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that [capitalistic] spirit over the world.” (91). However, Weber is persistent with his refutations that the capitalist spirit emerged directly and necessarily out of a Protestant ethos. Firstly, the “impulse to acquisition”, which does not form part of Weber’s definition of capitalism, clearly predates the Reformation; perhaps, Weber suggests, “it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth” (17). Conversely, the thought that “it is possible to deduce the Reformation, as a historically necessary result, from certain economic changes” must also be resisted (90-91). This is because “certain important forms of capitalistic business organization” can be traced throughout all cultures and all times (ibid.). However, Weber’s intention is to show that the global industrialised capitalism of the early twentieth century did in fact emerge out of a series of doctrinal and profit-driven changes within a developing American society.

Weber identifies Benjamin Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” (orig. 1748) as containing the beginnings of the age of the capitalist spirit “in almost classical purity”, and is also the starting point for his chapter in the Protestant Ethic intended to derive this spirit (48). Franklin’s advice is this: “Remember, that time is money”; “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse”; “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded”; “Be aware of thinking all your own that you possess, and of living accordingly”; “For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds”.[2] The tone of these words suggest to Weber not merely an imparting of valuable knowledge, but an ethos, in which “[t]he infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty” (51). Here Weber has identified the Protestant ethic, in which the activities of work are to be undertaken for a higher moral purpose than individual or familial subsistence: the acquisition of capital becomes the end in itself to which the worker ought to submit (53-4).

Weber’s concern is with the “irrational element” of an ethos in which the injunction to work is identified as a calling; as “an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions (as capital)” (78; 54). There is nothing natural about the worker’s submission to the work ethic, or to the belief in work as an act of moral fortitude, nor is there anything necessary about such beliefs to all denominations of Christianity. Yet they are essential to the productivist demands of the capitalist society, which must overcome the traditionalism of the life lived under religion (63). Furthermore they seem obviously unnecessary to the secular individual, once exposed to Weber’s historicist logic. The dominant position Weber offers is that a worker “does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose” (60). There was, he concludes, a conceited effort to motivate the working class into producing more capital than was necessary for the means to their individual consumption.

The spirit of capitalism, Weber shows, had a number of “traditionalist” obstacles which it had to overcome. Perhaps the most significant of these was the incentivization of the worker to produce more than was in their immediate interests. As an increase in wages would only result in a reduction of hours invested by the individual worker, the replacement of piece-rates by time-rates was a necessary development for capitalism, as identified by Marx (Weber: 59-60, Marx: 686). In addition, a powerful new incentive needed to emerge, one that would resonate on both personal and spiritual levels. The formulation of new Puritan forms of Christianity, and a new country, the United States of America, provided this incentive with a fertile opportunity. Weber argues this incentive takes the form of the calling, which arose out of the development of Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects (54, 95). Their common achievement was the foundation of a worldly asceticism which became the character of the set of morals that industrial labour functioned within, eventually outliving their religious origins.

Weber goes on to detail the changes to the dominant moral worldview brought about by Calvinism in particular. The most influential Calvinistic import brought to the developing ethics of work was in the form of the doctrine of predestination, which also continued to be the case to varying extents for the later Puritanical religious sects immediately following it (98). The belief that an indistinguishable few were for eternity already elected by God for eternal grace may be considered Calvin’s defining innovation to the Christian religion (ibid., 102-103). Weber untangles a series of consequences which the normalisation of predestination had on both religious belief and the world of work. Firstly, the doctrine of predestination was intended to minimalize the influence of the Church on the individual worshipper’s bond with the means of his (possible) salvation; it was not possible for the Church to in any way influence or mediate this divine relationship (104-106). As a result, a worshipper’s only confidant was God: the confession booth was stripped out of the churches, denying the congregation “[t]he means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin” (106). Secondly, the lifting of the emphasis on the burden of sin reduced the significance of inward reflection in the religious life. What was deemed necessary for God was “social achievement of the Christian”, the building of society on the foundations of Christian law (108). “The source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics” lies in the nature of a work directed “in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment”; consequently, this work takes on “a peculiarly objective and impersonal character”, which colours the nature both of fraternal relations and the relations between labour and labourer (108-109).

As a result, Calvinism was able to transform the Christian faith from an emotional commitment to an “intense worldly activity”, in which true belief was shown through righteousness of duty rather than dubious sentiment (112, 114). And this new worldly activity was the concern of all, despite the belief that only the actions of the elect were significant when it came to salvation. Since the predestined are indistinguishable from the rest of humanity and known only to God, it was necessary for society to become a “unified system” of rationalizing activity (117). The religious individual had to believe in their membership of the elect, for “implicit trust in Christ” – a trust which must be shown outwardly – was the only means to certainty of grace (110). The Calvinist therefore aspired to the saintly life. Religious activity evolved under Calvinism from a sole element, represented by the individual good deed, into the entire mode of a worshipper’s life, determined by a distinct ethical conduct rooted in a lifetime of good works (124-5).

The final chapter of the Protestant Ethic is given to the naturalization of the accumulation of wealth within the Puritan purview. Here too it is possible to gain insight into Weber’s genealogy of a Protestant ethics of work adapting into a worldly, modern capitalist sensibility. Using Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory – “the most complete compendium of Puritan ethics” – as a primary source of evidence, Weber charts the changing opinions concerning the moral value of wealth, and the shifting permissibility of spending and accumulation (155-157). This is done by marking a crucial distinction between the dangers of wealth in itself as a source of temptation away from the path towards God’s grace and the acquisition of wealth through the toil of “God’s work”, which was not only seen as acceptable, but morally righteous (156-157, 163, 172). The needless or frivolous spending of money on the distractions given by culture, the arts, sports, or any other “indulgent” recreational pursuits were strongly discouraged by Puritan codes of conduct, as man was believed to be “only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace” (167-168, 170). There was a tendency therefore under Puritanism for “accumulation of capital through [the] ascetic compulsion to save” (172). This, combined with the “psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods” brought about by both the Calvinist reduction of sin and the prominence of bookkeeping as a measurement of the bounty of God’s grace (as a result of labouring in His calling), had a dramatic and profound effect on the transition of the status of wealth from being the property of State and Church to an aspirational object of an individualistic moral pursuit (170-172).

Thus, the Puritan ideal became that of a kind of wealthy middle-class, for whom the fruits of their labour were able to be seen without ostentation or frivolity, but with a “sober simplicity” which allowed the “thankfulness for one’s own perfection by the grace of God” to shine through (171, 166). The emphasis Weber places on performance is significant, for reasons already apparent from the Calvinist influence on the elimination of Catholic redemption and confession. Yet in the context the ascetic movement which Baxter belonged to, the signs of spiritual righteousness became calcified into both an accumulation of wealth and, more importantly, “the development of a rational bourgeois economic life” (174). This, for Weber, is the modern work ethic’s primary mode and inheritance from worldly asceticism. For it was only as the centrality of religion began to release its grip over Western civilization that the accumulation of wealth increased its prominence over daily life (176). “Then the intensity for the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness” (ibid., emphasis added). The ideal Puritan was now a worldly figure, rooted in his belief of a good conscience; however this conscience “simply became one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life” (ibid.). With the blessing of God behind his back, he was able to “follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so”, especially when, beneath him, he could be confident of the presence of a force of “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God” (177, emphasis added).

The aim of the Protestant Ethic is to provide a study of the development of a certain mode of thinking about the relation between the individual Christian during the flourishing of the manifold Protestant sects, and their submission to work, and the influence on this mode of thinking on later secularised workers of the modern era. Beginning with an unfolding of the spirit of capitalism, identified in Franklin’s sagely “Advice to a Young Tradesman” as “time is money”, Weber gradually pieces together over the course of the book the precise developments brought on by Calvinism and the later Puritan sects which established a worldly asceticism; in which the compulsion to work, and to exploit the working activity of others, gained a powerful new theological justification (178). Finally, with the transformation in the way in which the acquisition of wealth was perceived, from an unintentional side effect of the moral limitations of spending to an accounting of God’s bounty entrusted to his predestined people, the ethics of industrial labour which have endured to the modern era were set in motion. With the approaching of the secular age, the modern economic order emerged out of a shrinking ascetic one; its sense of mission, of utilitarian rationalisation outliving its distinctly Christian carapace. “Victorious capitalism”, says Weber “rests on mechanical foundations”, the foundations of an objective, emotionless work ethic towards an abstract and indefinable goal; it needs the support of religious asceticism no longer (181-182).

Thus, the story the Protestant Ethic tells is in one sense that of how under Protestantism, working people came to be trapped within these mechanised cycles of labour by their own incentives to work, and how their descendants in the modern era continued to maintain this ethic, despite its contradictions. For the Puritan of the seventeenth century, work was absolutely necessary not only as a means of economic survival, but as a guarantor of Divine blessing and prosperous afterlife; for the modern worker, such prevailing confidence in the Almighty is no longer present. Weber’s book, therefore, is a useful starting point for understanding the paradox of the work ethic in modern capitalist society; however, to be able to account for its peculiar developments since, newer sources need to be introduced.

Weeks Reads Weber: The Antimonies of the Work Ethic

In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Weeks identifies a conundrum central to the social conventions surrounding work. The very worst qualities of a work-based economy include issues surrounding unemployment and precarity, and, to varying extents across sectors, the physical and psychological tolls that come with the monopoly work has and is expected to have on the lives of individuals (1).[3] Why, then, is there not more active resistance to work; why is it rare that the notion of work itself, and not only the conditions of work, is a site of contention? (ibid.). Weeks’s immediate answer relates to the interrelationship of work (waged work in particular) and the individual identities of workers, or what she calls “work’s privatization” (3). The workplace has been reconfigured as a private space, a place where workers often spend a significant portion of their time, and where they “often experience the most immediate, unambiguous, and tangible relations of power that most of [them] will encounter on a daily basis” (2-3). As the relations between workers and their employers has begun to be acknowledged as contractual, so has the “tethering of work to the figure of the individual” become normalized (4). Today, work is often considered a necessity by individual workers to personal economic stability, to the extent that this idea of a necessity of waged labour prevents any suggestion of an alternative to a wage-based economy from taking hold (3-7, 36). Weeks’s ambition with The Problem with Work is to rehabilitate “certain strands of 1970s feminism” and Marxism, and by doing so gesture towards “developing a feminist political theory of work that could pose work itself […] as a political problem of freedom” (21, 23). Beyond even this challenge is lies the horizon of “postwork imaginaries”: novel ideas of trajectories positing future societal possibilities that not only eliminate the current moral dimension of labour, but even more radical suggestions of an economy that does not depend on waged labour as an ideal for all persons (30, 36).

The first stage of the project underlying Weeks’s The Problem with Work is the requirement to identify the emergence and construction of the (perceived) ethics of work. For this endeavour, Weeks enlists the help of Weber’s critique in the Protestant Ethic. The aim of the analysis in Chapter 1 of her book is to show the gradual transformation of the Protestant ethic, as already identified by Weber, into an industrial and postindustrial one, and attempt “to account not only for the ethic’s longevity and power, but also its points of instability and vulnerability” (31). From here, the future of the work ethic can be posited and contested (ibid.). Weeks intends to do this by reviving the notion of the refusal of work from the tradition of autonomous Marxism, rallying behind two demands which would lead in the direction towards postwork: those of a basic income and fewer working hours (13, 32-33). What Weeks explains as her interest in these two demands is in “their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance” (33). Starting with a rereading of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, therefore, Weeks intends to repossess the imaginative space surrounding the ethics of work with a postwork politics, allowing the current domination of the belief in an economy of necessary waged labour for all to subside (227-8).

Weeks identifies in Weber’s original analysis a set of five antimonies derivative of the work ethic, which continue to persist across its many incarnations (42). Three of these stem from the ethic’s own prescriptions (ibid.). In the first case, the ethic motivates both rational and irrational behaviours, as Weber repeatedly alludes to (ibid.). “[T]he work ethic is irrational at its origins and to its core,” Weeks says, “and yet it is prescriptive of what is taken to be the most rational forms of practical economic conduct” (ibid.). This is seen in Weber’s invitation to think of the Protestant ethic as a carrier for the belief in work as a response to the calling; it is here for Weber that an “unlikely confluence of the rational and irrational can be found” (ibid.). However, for Weeks, the very irrationality of work-as-calling is clearly “abstract” and an idea that Weber “may have struggled […] to bring into focus” (43). To understand it, the very idea of the rationalization of working values “must first be rendered strange”, or defamiliarized (ibid.). Weber has a twofold approach to defamiliarizing the work ethic: by shoring up its irrational character from both the (historical) traditionalist perspective which predated it, and the (modern) secularist perspective which can no longer qualify it (ibid.). Regarding the latter, in moving the analysis ahead to the industrialist and postindustrialist periods of production, Weeks notes the shift in focus for the work ethic from “the question of mobility in the afterlife”, towards “its achievement in this life” (46; see also Weber: 176). A further development in the twentieth century came in the repurposing of work in the creative imagination, as a means to self-expression and self-satisfaction, as also suggested by Michael Rose (ibid.; Rose: 77-92). Rose draws on a number of studies, including one from the Aspen Institute conducted in 1983 which suggested that approximately one in seven workers listed “expressive work values” as being part of the “core motives” for working; and furthermore, that there is a positive correlation between workers motivated by the expressive potentialities of work and a “strong work ethic” (Rose: 90-91).

The second antimonic pair Weeks derives from Weber’s analysis is the simultaneous productivist and consumerist values promoted by the dominant varieties of the work ethic (42, 47-51). In the Protestant Ethic, this opposition is enunciated in the idea of the worldly asceticism, itself for Weeks a somewhat contrarian phrase that combines the worthiness of methodological production over the gratification of consumption found in the ascetic mentality on the one hand, with the status of individual goods as “rewards” for a lifetime of dedication to labour for the grace of God on the other (47-49). In all iterations of the work ethic, in fact, the phrase “functions not despite, but because of, the pairing of terms” (49). As the notion of a work ethic develops further in a direction away from its Puritan roots, furthermore, the awkward relationship between productivism and consumerism is shown to weaken more still. The Fordist model of mass production brought with it a perceived equivalence between productive work and “leisure time”; workers now “were expected to do double duty as ascetically indulgent consumers” (ibid.). Finally, in post-Fordist production, a mode which places greater emphasis on “immaterial” labour, such as in the services sector, the relationship between employment and income (what is “produced” and its implicit monetary value) becomes more difficult to determine, therefore likely more precarious (50-51). As a result of these developments, the Protestant ethic of Weber’s analysis is reconfigured under the Fordist and post-Fordist models; the “mandate for savings” gives way to “the prescription for the rationalization of mass consumption” (50).

Thirdly, Weeks identifies in Weber the antimony of a drive within the work ethos as a means towards individualistic independence, at odds with an implicit social dependence at the heart of capitalistic work relations (42, 51-55). An analysis of wage relations demonstrates this dichotomy between a subordination of the worker to the source of income, and the status of the accumulation of money as “the sine qua non of self-reliance” – a view developed during the industrial period, once the Puritan stigma surrounding public displays of individual wealth had been shed (51-52). The work ethic provides an “individualizing discourse”: as the Protestant sects reduced the sense of communal responsibility through the doctrine of predestination, individual moral responsibility became rationalized (52). The social permissibility of judging one’s neighbour, and the false equivalence of the impoverished with immorality are therefore borne out of a worldly reconfiguration of moral goodness on the actions and intentions of the individual (rather than the community) (53). Beyond even this, the individualistic paradigm exemplified by the ethos of Fordist labour serves as “a disciplinary mechanism that constructs subjects as productive individuals” (53-54). This is because the effects of a perceived individual autonomy are only internal to the worker: the work ethic constructs “docile subjects” from within, by promoting “the individual’s constitution in relation to and identification with productivist norms” (ibid.). The worker, therefore, finds themselves striving towards individualistic and personal goals available through waged labour, yet must submit to a hierarchical chain of command and give up a degree of autonomy in order to attain this wage (55-57).

Weeks supplants the three antimonies drawn out of Weber’s Protestant Ethic with a further two, that can be evidenced by the work ethic’s historical development and application beyond the period that concerns Weber’s study; in particular, with reference to “the dynamics of class struggle, antiracism, and feminism” that gained momentum in the industrial era onwards (42, 57). This section of Weeks’s study also marks a transition from a Weberian to a Marxist focus, from a religious and doctrinal mediation to one centred around the historical role of state violence (57). Weeks finds Weber lacking a certain recognition: that while the Protestant Ethic frequently demonstrates the work ethic’s deployment as a means of workers’ subordination, it does not examine this movement’s antimony, that workers have also been able to exploit the capacity for insubordination offered by the concreteness of normalising employment legislation (57-61). The unwitting effect of the work ethic’s disciplinary force is that the goals of higher wages and greater social mobility can “serve as ideals around which workers can struggle for reforms”, in the form of union action and demands, for example (59). Weeks posits an “alternative work ethic from below” emerging, based on similar principles to that derived from institutionalized Protestantism, however taking the “idle rich”, and not the “shiftless poor”, as its object of scorn (59). Weeks cites Jean Baudrillard, whose book The Mirror of Production (orig. 1973) demonstrates the emergence of a “working class” as a direct result of insubordination to the dominant work ethic and “appealing as a collective identity” (ibid.).[4]

One last antimonic pair Weeks identifies in her definition of the work ethic concerns its dualistic tendencies towards systematic inclusion and exclusion, as has been charted by the multiple drives towards gender and racial equality within the employment sector (42, 61-69). Weber’s Protestant Ethic has no such focus; however Weeks believes that a careful study of each of these liberatory movements, and the successful changes that have been implemented as a result of their influence, can provide strong models for postwork imaginaries (68). Of particular importance to Weeks is how the work ethic extended its reach towards women and people of colour, and at the same time denied them identification with the bourgeois class for whom the ethic was primarily (in both senses) intended (61). She notes how in the early industrial period, some white men in the United States could identify their status as waged industrial workers with qualities of personal freedom, wielding an influence partially through “the energies of racism, ethnicity, and nationalism” (61-62). Thus, “the norm’s exclusions based on race, nation, and ethnicity fueled its inclusiveness in terms of class” (62). The moral righteousness of work continues to haunt the industrialist and postindustrialist eras, and the lingering questionability of the working commitments and habits of non-US nationalists served as an opportunity to “legitimate one’s economic privilege” over these groups (ibid.). A similar effect can be seen through the treatment of women based on the wagelessness of domestic labor being “reconceived as nonproductive women’s work” (63). As illustrative as attempts to gain recognition for female and non-white workers can be in imagining a postwork future, these struggles have also demonstrated a strange counter-effect; in that they have unintentionally provided the work ethic the opportunity to further mutate and spread its influence onto these additional demographics, to access “new forms of labor, and to reaffirm its power” (68).

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weber (see Bibliography). This rule applies to the current section of the essay only.

[2] Franklin (48-50). The last of these quotations is taken from “Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich” (orig. 1736). Some italics from the original have been removed.

[3] All bracketed numbers in this and the immediately following sections of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography). This rule applies to these sections of the essay only.

[4] Baudrillard 1975: 155. “The ethic of rational labor, which is of bourgeois origin and which served historically to define the bourgeoisie as a class, is found renewed with fantastic amplitude at the level of the working class, also contributing to define it as a class, that is to circumscribe it in a status of historical representability.”

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Rose, M. (1985) Re-working the Work Ethic, London, Batsford Academic and Educational.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

There Is An Alternative: A Tribute to Mark Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

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

Mandela Effect, Truth Affect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

[3] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing

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

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

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

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

***

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

Raiden: Where?

Otacon: Inside Arsenal.

Raiden: What?

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

Raiden: …

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

Raiden: …What the hell does this mean?

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

Raiden: That’s impossible!

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

Raiden: That’s crazy…

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

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

Snake: Raiden!

Raiden: Snake — what’s happening around here?

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

Raiden: …

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

Colonel: Raiden! They’ve got Rose!

Raiden: What!

Colonel: Rose is being held in the holds!

Snake: It’s a trap!

Rose: Help!

Raiden: Rose!

Snake: Raiden, get a grip!

Raiden: But Snake!

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

Raiden: Yeah — you’re right…

Snake: I am right.

Raiden: …OK. … Does Rose — exist — ?

Snake: Don’t be weird. She’s your —

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

Snake: What?

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

Snake: Don’t jump to conclusions!

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

Snake: Raiden!

***

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

Notes

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

[2] Ibid: pp60-65.

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

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

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

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

[7] Negarestani: p49.

[8] Ibid: pp61, 241, 62.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Negarestani: p9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[25] Srnicek & Williams: p75

[26] Ibid: pp164-5.

[27] Cf. Negarestani: p191.

[28] Laboria Cuboniks: 0x0C.

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

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

Five Advantages of Brexit, From a Remainer’s Perspective

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

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

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

1. We are closer to the truth

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

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

2. Fringe politics has won

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

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

3. Neoliberalism has lost

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

4. The balance of power has shifted

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

5. An opening has appeared for the Left

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atopian paidia

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

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

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

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

Sub-liminal palaeontology

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

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

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

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

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

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

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

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

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

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

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

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

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

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

Controlling gamespace

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

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

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

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

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

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

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

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

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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