Patchwork Epistemologies (Part 2): Another Lego Brick in the Wall

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Whilst transcribing Reza and Robin’s NYC conversation, I was struck by Reza’s closing remarks, emphasising the role of education in his work as a philosopher.

Robin asked, poignantly, addressing the deep-time scale of much of what Intelligence & Spirit attempts to address:

If the book essentially stands against both nihilistic resignation and the idea of a magical revolutionary emancipation, and configures the task of emancipation as one that extends way beyond our individual life spans, then what part can any of us hope to play in that? And what part do you see yourself, as a philosopher, playing in that emancipation of intelligence from its cage, and from the shortcomings of actually existing human intelligence?

Reza responds:

[F]or me as a philosopher, the most important thing is the idea of education. Education is always and all the time connected to the philosophy of intelligence and the philosophy of mind. And by that I do not mean higher education, I mean the broad spectrum of education, from nurturing to developmental psychology, and so on. If we don’t take this idea of education seriously as the basis of what we can do here and now, then any kind of future emancipation is going to fail.

We get overexcited by our revolutionary paradigms, by what we have achieved, but then we see, two days later, twenty years later, that we are back to square one, if not worse. Education is absolutely, for me, the most concrete contribution I can make. And the idea of education, right now, not only in Western countries but across the globe, is fundamentally pathological. Why are the so-called revolutionaries not talking about education anymore, as something that is deeply, fundamentally tied to the history of intelligence and to concrete political change?

This really resonated with me. I think about education a lot.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have realised I have a neurotic’s obsession with archiving and documentation — this series in itself being a case in point — but rather than this being an anal inability to let anything go, I think instead that documentation is just how I learn. Watching, listening, waiting to find a way in and producing something that is very much my own out of that process, but which can likewise help someone else better understand something. And this is what education should be marked by, surely, rather than the atomism of competitive pissing contests?

It was formally studying photography, from the age of 14 onwards, that made me interested in this understanding of teaching. I was allergic to any kind of timed performance-based testing as an overly anxious student but photography showed me the benefits of a more relaxed education and allowed me to find education everywhere. It became a social experience — social in a way that I’d never previously found in the didactic realm of the classroom.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, particularly related to photography and also to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s book The Undercommons. In my essay “Community Remains“, for instance, which was commissioned by my old undergrad course, I highlight how Moten and Harney “describe a ‘beyond of teaching’: a social praxis of pedagogy that does not simply transmit knowledge to the consumer-student but encourages an acephalic community of independent thinkers; a community of a shared secret that is fugitive to bureaucracy.” What Moten and Harney describe is, in effect, an extracurricular consciousness raising.

(Also, s/o to lēves who turned me onto Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed a while back. That’s a great book that warrants a mention in this context.)

However, in the UK, a lack of interest in the revolutionary power of education becomes entirely understandable when the trips to the pub after class are seen less as an outside to pedagogy and instead just a necessarily shared drowning of sorrows.

This is the effect hidden behind the headlines. Teaching is a profession that has infamously been through the wringer under a Tory government in this country but the form of education that really matters has never been done in those classrooms anyway. Not really. The biggest tragedy of keeping the nation’s educators in a state of perpetual burn-out is precisely that it is an undercommons, a beyond of teaching, that suffers. It is, as Moten and Harney make clear, a bureaucratised capital-T “Teaching” that reduces our very capacity to teach proper.

Having watched this process unfold at a most relentless pace over the last ten years in particular, via friends who teach and who have been taught, I’ve been wholly disillusioned from the idea of teaching at any level for myself. (I applied to be a secondary school trainee teacher thing last year, actually, but didn’t get through the weirdly Apprentice-like selection process, which really didn’t help settle my bubbling disenfranchisement.)

It also doesn’t help that this pathological element that Reza describes only gets worse the higher up the system you climb.

Despite present frustrations, art education remains the context in which I have learnt the most and, most importantly, learnt how to think critically.

Arts education here becomes shorthand for a loose, community-oriented, outside (in both a figurative and literal sense) education which happens already within the world rather than being sold as some kind of preparation for it. It is an education that necessitates a collective thinking about the world as it is and how it could be. It may not be, in this respect, quite so rigorous — although proper study is, of course, a very important part of it all the same — but despite being a lot less well read than many of my interlocutors who have formally studied philosophy for longer, it is also evident to me, from just a few years on Twitter, that an ability to “think” and “read philosophy” are not mutually exclusively skills…

What’s important about this kind of informal arts education — if you’ll excuse the brief continuation of this extended reminiscence — is that, for me, communication is (or should be) at its heart. (This is a very important point that we’ll return to later on in this series.) Arts education is a form of education that is predicated on communication. Without it, it fails. You can’t learn about this stuff in a vacuum. Not really. Culture is inherently communal.

Photography education — which is my background and the industry in which I continue to work in (or, more accurately, on the periphery of) — was, for me, an especially wonderful example of this. It is a scientific and technological process; an art form; a ubiquitous media; it’s journalism; it’s surveillance; it’s a fun hobby; it’s whatever. Photography is the most complicated media that we are all, to some extent, familiar with. Unfortunately, we treat it flippantly, but I think to understand its promiscuity is to understand much of the modern world and, particularly, how we might tinker with its image.

Jason Evans, for example, was a former mentor of mine when I was a photography student — who taught me as much in three months from his living room as I learnt in the entirety of my three-year degree — and his most recent project is the perfect example of what this kind of education might look like.

It’s called The Garden Gate Project and involved working with a horticultural charity, using photography as a way to both further engage with and document the gardeners’ own work.

From experience I can tell you that Jason is an incredible teacher. It’s like a magic power he has. He teaches seemingly through intuition. You simply watch him and find yourself learning a bucket load. His openness to play is infectious and he opens up everyone he meets to new worlds.

In this interview with Pylot Magazine, in which he is asked what he thinks his participants have gotten out of this experience, in the sort of way a university might ask its staff to self-evaluate, he poignantly says:

I am not sure how you assess learning; it’s not a straight forward transaction like reciting the alphabet. The workshops were an opportunity to experiment in a supportive, non-competitive environment. When you try something new, neural pathways are being opened, habits are being challenged. If nothing else we had fun, and I think it is useful for everyone to have some time to play.

I am open to being corrected if I am way off the mark here but, to me, this resonates with the processes described in Intelligence & Spirit. How do you assess (or even access) learning?

Education isn’t, as schools perhaps like to think, a rote form of cognitive upload. We might joke about the “uploads” of knowledge shown in The Matrix but, as Jason says, education is the overwriting of neural pathways; the challenging of habits. Neo doesn’t unlearn via red pill and he doesn’t learn by cognitive injection, even if that’s what the narrative tries to imply; he learns by testing out what he thinks he knows about himself on Morpheus and having his self-belief and knowledge challenged by his peers. The technochemical interventions only open up a new stage of possibility. It is the social challenge that shapes the brain, not the learning of the knowledge in and of itself.

Ghostbusters is a Film about Academics Caging Spirit

You may very well be asking yourself what the fuck any of this has to do with anything… Well, here’s your guiding light as you chart the trajectory of Reza Negarestani from 2008 to 2018: education. Not a sort of linear education but an education that puts an electric whisk in your ears and flicks the switch.

In reaching out to Reza, I thought that this conception of a socially emancipatory education might be a good jumping off point for us, allowing us to talk about his work and his own experiences of educating and being education.

This exposition above might be oversimplified and wholly disconnected, in form at least, from Reza’s own position to those who are better versed than me but, whilst I am largely unfamiliar with the philosophers he contends with, I felt there is nonetheless a shared goal towards a sort of (un)consciousness raising of the sort that is largely absent from (or, at best, ineffective within) contemporary politics today.

As such, Reza’s book almost begins to take the form of a genealogy of future morals, as being towards a “good” education in (/ for) itself (in a Kantian moral sense), interrogating the social-to-come from underneath the institutions which we currently allow to give form to our formal intelligences, which nonetheless continues to crumble under their own bureaucratisation.

In attempting to explain all of this to Reza — in a lot less detail — what I found encouraging was that, despite my own melt-brained anxiety about engaging in a conversation with someone who I was intellectually very intimidated by, he later suggested at the start of our email exchange that the difficulty in pinning down his own trajectory of thought is perhaps “mostly due to the fact that I, myself, am trying to wrap my mind around some of these problems” — that is, problems of approach and best practice, and I sensed that his willingness to engage and talk with me was likewise coming from a genuine desire to open up and collectivise such problems outside of formal and overly monitored channels.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it was this shift towards — this desire for — a more dynamically public approach that Reza puts down to his disconnection from his own former mentor (of sorts), Nick Land, who was once seen as the inspiration for much of his earlier work.

Without mincing words, Reza wrote to me:

What I no longer have any sympathy for is the Landian position and the way of thinking.

Land’s way has been quite detrimental to thinking and philosophizing. His thinking requires too much commitment to settled ideas and determinations. This is not essentially a bad thing, but I have seen throughout the years that this form of thinking ultimately becomes stifling and prevents one from branching out to new territories and adopting new methods.

I find it quite oppressive that his fixated hatred for some philosophers (eg, Hegel and Plato) makes one dismiss these philosophers and not actually engage with their thoughts without prior biases which can be way too strong. In that sense, yes, I see my new work as a ‘reaction’ to my former more Landian way of thinking. But reaction is not always Oedipal and/or reactionary, it can actually lead to further experimentations with the self and a more expansive reflection on one’s past and possible futures. 

The irony of this, I suggested, was that this is precisely why I like and continue to have time for Land. His Twitter boomerisms aside, he has been a kind of gateway-intellectual for me, and many others, allowing us to reach an outside of the stifling academic programmes that seem to be wholly unaware of their susceptibility to thinker-fashions and internally reactionary tendencies. Indeed, rather than being a disconnection, in my experience this is something they continue to have in common — such is my present experience of reading (and reading around) Intelligence & Spirit.

The point, perhaps, is this: I don’t mind that Land has his own preferences and bugbears but anyone who reads him would be missing the point, surely, if all they did was stop where many perceive him to have stopped. (This is a trend exemplified, of course, by numerous NRx Twitter accounts refusing the follow anyone that Land himself does not follow on the platform, but I wouldn’t blame him for their cultish neuroses — although perhaps he does secretly enjoy it.)

Many of those who have been under Land’s influence and have moved on nevertheless succeed in retaining this philosophical vigilance for themselves — that’s certainly true of those that I regularly talk to within the #CaveTwitter milieu. This was my impression of Mark Fisher also and various other post-Ccru interlocutors. Whilst Mark and Nick may have had an infamous falling out on the Hyperstition blog, he continued to teach and discuss his ideas with enthusiasm.

Land’s text “Machinic Desire”, for instance, was framed as a central text for the Postcapitalist Desire course Mark was teaching at the time of this death and he said of his experience of Nick:

[I]n the ‘90s … I was closely exposed to the work of Nick Land, who we’ll look at later, a very controversial figure who developed a form of — I don’t want to say right-wing, exactly — capitalistic accelerationism. His idea was that capital was the most intense force ever to exist on Earth — that the whole of terrestrial history had led to the emergence of this effectively planetary artificial intelligence system which therefore can be seen as retrospectively guiding all of history towards its own emergence — a bit like Skynet in the Terminator films.

Land’s work is this intense poeticisation of the power of capital. It’s interesting that that work came out in the ‘90s at that moment of the high triumph of capital after the collapse of the Soviet system at the end of the ‘80s. Land’s work was really a play on; a development of; a kind of remix of earlier, ostensibly left-wing thought — particularly the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard — and they tried to imagine a kind of post-‪capitalism that would try not to retreat out of capitalist modernity but try to go all the way through it.

From this description alone, it is interesting to see that, whilst Reza may have moved on, his project nevertheless seems to follow on from this same trajectory. Cyclonopedia continued such a process of intense poeticisation, telling this same story through the tandem grip of oil (and its industry) and Islamic religions on the Middle East, but I think this influence can still be felt through Intelligence & Spirit — it is just that the nature of this planetary artificial intelligence system has been rethought and reconceptualised.(Indeed, Robin is of the opinion — I’m unsure if Reza agrees with this or not — that the “Robo-Kant” portions of Intelligence & Spirit echo Land’s own project of a Machinic Kantianism quite explicitly.)

So, it seems to me, that even those who have publicly and polemically “moved on” from Land’s work, like Reza himself, surely they cannot deny his influence in this regard, even if they’ve left that initial diversion long behind them? What is most important is being open to the challenge and continuously challenging yourself. Reza replied:

Yes, the real merit of Land is to point out that there can be ways of thinking outside of the academic ambit. And I genuinely respect him for that. I do hate pigeonholed academia and its idiotic bureaucracy as much as him. However, I think […] he let that hatred fester such that he ended up precisely doing some of the academic vices like settling on problems (almost like a tenured professor), recreating a methodological rigidity outside of the academia. But in any case, I still enjoy his work.

Perhaps the problem here is that the Ccru was a perfect sort of flashpoint, holding open an egress between academia and its outside that this amorphous collective of people who fire their mythical thinking through. A particle accelerator, welcoming the university’s infrastructure, all the while threatening to engulf the system with what it produced, reflecting upon the nature of capital’s death drive — it’s tendency to produce that which threatens its own existence. The Ccru swapped capital out for philosophy and tried to give it the same treatment, and it produced a body of “work” that continues to stand the test of time.

Reza’s contemporary project, it seems to me, is not wholly disconnected from this attitude. He too seeks to open up an egress between minds; between conceptions of mind.

On the very first page of Intelligence & Spirit, Reza is emphasises this kind of experience. When he argues in the first sentence that “mind is only what it does“, this seems like a Hegelian swipe at our fixation on what minds do internally and independently, missing the fact that most mental functions exist so that we might let the Outside in, interacting with the world and the other minds that inhabit it — such is the failing of a modern Education system that attempts to atomise students and lecturers alike within an enclosed system of intellectual production.

Understanding this function of mind is integral to any conception of intelligence for Reza. Here he borrows Hegel’s term “geist”, of course, to refer to a form of thought that is “the object of its own consciousness” and which attempts to “comprehend itself in its interpretation of itself to itself.” Spirit, in this sense, might be understood as our attempts to understand our selves. Not the self as a minded subject, but the social as the necessary communication of minds.

Here we might frame Reza’s project as follows: How do minds relate to other forms of mind? This is the problem carried forwards, or perhaps even reverse engineered. The solution is likewise given a few paragraphs later: “The functional picture of geist is essentially a picture of a necessarily deprivatised mind predicated on sociality as its formal condition of possibility.”

From here, the book proceeds by interrogating how our present moment can allow this picture of mind to unfold and take hold, encouraging the sociality that present structures cannot help but diminish.

Rather than this being a wholly different project to Reza’s previous works, as I see it they were wholly intertwined.

Reading Cyclonopedia in excruciating detail with Kodwo Eshun and friends, we would examine each and every “Fuck You” Reza threw at his readers in the introductory chapters of that book. We picked apart every sentence that contradicted the one preceding it and every clue that muddied the waters of the overall picture. Did we find the Reza Negarestani of Cyclonopedia to be some sort of Pepe Silvia? Yes, I think many did, at least in isolation. But read together — as Kodwo argued was the only proper way to read the book — we found the opposite and, as sappy as this might sound, many of us found each other.

Such multiplicitous texts must be read by a multiplicity in turn — like the Ccru before it or even A Thousand Plateaus before them, to take two other examples of formally difficult works that demand a social response to their contents. (It should be of no surprise, then, that Cyclonopedia too began its life as a blog, with much of Reza’s since-deleted content on Hypersttiion becoming fodder for his book.)

In this way, Cyclonopedia is a pretty good crash course in learning how to read philosophy in a way that deconstructs an enclosed sense of self just as proximity to a great teacher, like Land or Evans, seems to do. It is a book that makes you feel both insane (which is fun) and it is a book which makes you feel like you’re having fun (which is insane), and the arguments about what exactly it all means that are to be had amongst your fellow readers and classmates turns the social itself into a blacksmith’s stone for sharpening minds and the various arguments for or against it.

This is the only way of approaching any philosophy, you might say, but not all philosophy is sculpted in such a way as to force your hand to reach out to others in quite the same way. Too much philosophy, in fact, presents itself as the product of a singular mind devoid of social contamination, seemingly priding itself on necessitating a reading group to unlock its secrets — multiple minds being required to get inside one.

This is not the case with Reza. Since he is already several, his readers make for quite a crowd.

I think Intelligence & Spirit — believe it or not — functions in much the same way as Reza’s previous work in this regard. However, rather than whisking up fact and fiction we have instead continental and analytic philosophies, and this playful de- and reconstruction is an education in itself. The vigorous blurring of these lines, however, is not just a novel play with form but a necessary play with mind in itself, arguably combatting the oversimplified divides that are so present beyond the book’s boundaries.

To return to Reza and Robin’s NYC conversation, Reza continues on the topic of education and seems to infer that this splitting, this “bipolarisation” of thought, is today insidiously pervasive. He argues:

Education is market-driven everywhere today. But here we see something far more insidious than the marketization of education. I talk about this a little bit in [Intelligence & Spirit], but not directly in relation to education. We are witnessing a kind of historical bipolarisation as to what education consists of, between the Left and the Right. On the left, we see education as being about the virtues of intersubjectivity, with minimal regard to the purview of scientific facts. But when you go too deep into your subjectivity without the scientific facts, it becomes something akin to methodological individualism where different individual preferences and choices — even though they might be purely psychological — are taken as facts. Whereas on the right we see a different kind of pathology: the minimisation of intersubjectivity and the hyperinflation of facts. But as early as Hume, and in fact even from Plato, there is such a thing as a fact-value distinction. You just cannot conflate them with one another. You always need to triangulate them with regard to one another, and that is a labour of intelligibility. You cannot just have intersubjectivity without scientific facts, nor can you think you can simply derive social values, political values, political paradigms, from mere scientific fact accumulation. These are both pathological.

For me, all of this is just a first step, and I’m just trying to actually work on the details of what would be a system of education, an education in which we can determine the good life of an intelligence which has not yet fully determined what it is, where it is in the world and what it should do; an intelligence which is still in the process of developing its methods of inquiry with regard to its position in the world, so as to cultivate itself by enriching the universe it inhabits.

I agree with this wholeheartedly and here, the importance of photography being a technological and social tool comes back to my mind. Does it count as the most simplistic version of such an education? Because the best photography does triangulate approaches — scientific, aesthetic and social knowledges; intersecting knowledges which are, by the standards of formal Education today, deemed to be disparate and unequal — in order to produce something that is promiscuous in its interactions with the world at large.

No doubt Reza’s conception of education is far broader than this but perhaps this suggests a way into his conception of intelligence that hints at the sort of tasks that we are require to undertake so that we might instantiate it — whatever it is.

The “it”, for me, is similar to that which Mark Fisher refers to in Capitalist Realim as a “collective subject” — that multiplicitous and socialised being or spirit that has continually haunted the background of this blog and the leftwing politics it generally contends with. It is that which is forever demanded but always resists being materialised by the rigid machine of an administrated social and its institutionalised sense of respectability. It is a product of an education — as a relation (which is not, in itself, limited to subjects) — that ruptures a formalised, bureaucratised and obstructive Education.

This formalised Education thrives off of competition. It thrives off of the atomisation of individuals. These things, in and of themselves, might not be evil by default but, as Mark explains in Capitalist Realism, they become nefarious when a hierarchical structure such as that found within systems of Higher Educations passes down a message of “individual ethical responsibility” to the level of the student, lecturer, worker, employee, citizen, whatever, as a way to diffuse any notion of collective responsibility having any purchase the other way.

Individuals are disposable, at both ends of society. Individuals can die or lose their jobs or get “cancelled” without the wider structure in itself taking a hit. And so it is here, in re-cognising a “Geistig” — a functional and deprivatised — model of mind, that we see an avenue of emancipation emerging on the horizon.

To be continued…


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