Patchwork Epistemologies (Part 3): The Patchwork Problem

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Our conversation around experiences of education and the importance of challenging your sense of both your world and your self led us to talking about patchwork far more quickly than I’d initially anticipated.

If you have no idea what I’m referring to here, a quick summary:

Patchwork was a topic of fervent debate throughout the blogosphere during 2018. It has primarily had a presence online prior to this as a Moldbuggian theory of neocameralism that was expanded and intermittently built upon by Nick Land on his Xenosystems blog between 2013-2017.

However, the patchwork debate took on a notably different shape in 2018. Whilst it has nonetheless continued to orbit this former debate and its implications for future technologies and modes of governance in a world continually warped by secessionism and a decaying neoliberalism, #CaveTwitter instead took its lead from Gilles Deleuze who wrote on “patchwork” on numerous occasions, but particularly in relation to American frontierism — see: “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (starting on page 68 of Essays Critical and Clinical) — and as a word for the interactions of smooth and striated space in the final plateau of A Thousand Plateaus which he wrote with Felix Guattari.

Taking a much longer run-up to more contemporaneous theories of patchwork, its related areas of interest and relevance are today far more numerous and far-reaching, whether concerning panarchic communisms and climate change politics or time-warps and Riemannian geometries. My own personal interest in this debate has been its usage for the potential rethinking of the subject-state relationship and as a vector through which we might explore the history of this relationship as it has been found in various cultural moments, both past and all too present.

For example, I’ve previously written about how visions of the fragmented self, so common to Gothic literary traditions, reflect (historically) an uneasy and unruly relationship between porous subjectivities and a totalising and imposing state form. Last year this blog regularly asked questions such as: “what’s the relationship of Frankenstein — as the archetypical Patchwork Proletarian — to the state consolidating processes of industrialisation and globalisation that were emerging at the time of the book’s publication, and to what extent is this same unconscious (or not so unconscious) rejection of state consolidation and embrace of unruly subjectivity still visible to us today?”

Patchwork, then, for this blog, is a mode of thinking that lets these warring subjectivities leak out into an administrated social of contemporary geopolitics, in order to wreak havoc on an imposed status quo, providing us with an opportunity to rethink how we structure and model our environments in ways that complement the nature of a bombarded human psyche and its social environment.

This topic was first introduced on this blog with “State Decay” — a post informed by many #CaveTwitter conversations and various related readings which seemed to inadvertently trigger 2018’s patchwork fever. What disappointed me about the trajectory of this debate, however, was that, once it fully took hold of the blogosphere over the following months, this central point of challenging what you take for granted about the world around and within you — and, more specifically, the popular politics that govern our world — began to repeatedly fall by the wayside.

Whilst it could be argued that this remained many people’s intentions with their specific provocations, to me this tendency only led to people “doubling-down” on their own personal whims and ideals — ie. challenging the world through the polemic exacerbation of their individualised political positions, further affirming and inflating a capitalist worldview; conflating self and state rather than interrogating the distance between them on a far deeper level. This tendency saw its peak halfway through the year when patchwork chat became little more than grandstanding about the potential success of various individualist patches.

“My patch will survive!” “No, my patch will survive!”

Reza encapsulated this unfortunate tendency with the question: “how can we experiment with alternatives without becoming the slaves of uncritical differences which might, as a matter of fact, just be the projections of our own identititarian egos?”

Whilst I might concur with this, this is not to suggest that Reza and I found a point of agreement quite so quickly. He confessed: “I see the potentials [of patchwork now] but I’m still very wary (probably, it’s just paranoia) about its political mobilization in the Moldbugian sense.” My response to this, which I think also speaks for many others who have been debating patchwork over the past year, was as follows:

To be honest, Moldbug is a minor footnote for my own thinking. He does represent a utilisation of this kind of thinking but, much like the Seasteading Institute, I feel like [his writings take] genuinely interesting and productive ideas and reduce them to the level of a Neo-Randianism.

The idea of a sovcorp, for instance, is, I think, worth holding onto if only for the sake of a philosophical vigilance. However, it is, in essence, a combination of state consolidation and capitalist monopolisation and his folding together of those two things isn’t all that compatible with patchwork as most of us see it.

The generous view of Moldbug’s position — more generous than I’m personally willing to seriously entertain — is perhaps that this intensified (accelerated?) tandem process of consolidation and monopolisation appears to be a recipe for geopolitical singularity, but this requires, even more urgently, a sketching out of the possibilities that exist beyond the horizon of his own myopic and short-term worldview which Moldbug himself seems to make no real attempts to do.

Reza replied:

Moldbug is a peculiarly bland (cognitively rather than emotionally) thinker. The guy is like the Hans-Ulrich Obrist of the neoreaction (but maybe that’s what the future AGI looks like? :)).

I’m actually more interested in rabid libertarians like, for example, Robert Heinlein whose work I very much admire. People like Heinlein (a former communist and then an anti-communist) can be seen as bridges between incongruent ideas, whereas Moldbug is a symptom of the political autism of today’s world which is too sterile to actually make any difference for better or worse.

So yes, I’m in general agreement with your point.

That’s all well and good but what is the solution here — for us? What is the best foot forward for this conversation? What is the best way of approaching a world of growing geopolitical schism through philosophy?

Many contemporary exit pains, in my view, express an oft-misguided rejection of international neoliberalism in favour of local neoliberalism with few formerly dominant cultures sure how to address a world that is post-imperialism and post-colonisation; post-them (eg. the “reflective impotence” of Brexit). Elsewhere, few colonies are sure how to shirk off what is often centuries of influence and effectively combat the entrenched mess that imperialist and colonialist projects have left behind.

An example of patchwork thinking which avoided much of these pitfalls and which has not yet been reduced to such a pissing content is Nyx Land’s Gender Accelerationist Black Paper — supposedly due a sequel with a patchwork-specific extension (#LesbiaNRx) some time in the future. It may be rooted in a personal experience but this experience is as one instance of a widely discussed minoritarian position that supposedly threatens various contemporary norms. Nyx’s continual weaponising of this experience makes it a challenge to a patriarchal world order that pushes a lot of buttons and it is also notably built memetically on the back of an inherently fragmentary dissection of the (gendered) self as such. (We’ll refer back to this gendered example shortly.)

Nyx aside, however, there is little talk in our current political climate of a (broadly speaking) “progressive” (ie. future-oriented and pro-change) and politically rigorous form of exit which is capable of perforating the social institutions which persistently arrest processes of fragmentation and continue to repress the new forms of social subjectivity that are trying to emerge from underneath the corpses of these once world-shaping institutions and their endeavours.

From here, I decided to go back to the “Patchwork is Not a Model” debate, in which I tried to express the very challenge of a “patchwork thought” to our current world order via a reading of Francois J. Bonnet and Jorge Luis Borges. This post received a number of responses and eventually led to a number of long debates on Reza’s Facebook wall which I tried to keep up with on the blog. This debate was, essentially, where our conversation first began.

My initial post started with a glib reading of Borges who, in one of his (very) short stories, writes a parable about the drawing and condensing of maps in relation to their territory, which Bonnet then interprets, in his book The Order of Sounds, as a comment on “the asymptotic nature of the model, its tendency to superimpose itself onto the real and to cover it over, without ever being able to complete this process, and at the cost of losing its very status as model and simply disappearing into a new reality, just as hopeless as the first, a new reality which once again calls for models in order to render it legible.”

Perhaps this says more about the inherent problem of human thinking and philosophy but, having had so many people comment flippantly on the various patchwork posts in the blogosphere with “I just don’t have faith in patchwork as a model”, I decided to write a pithy post rejecting the word ‘model’ as something that has come to symbolise a short-circuiting of the speculative process, reducing it to warring identitarian egos and not following it through as a machine for the genuine production of sociopolitical alternatives.

As such, it was my view that we should not treat patchwork as something that can be superficially imposed upon the world we know and already “have”. Patchwork is not a redrawing of the map but a fundamental shift in how we think about the “territory” which resists the sublimation of the map itself into our reality — that is, accounting for our tendency to forget that the model is a contingent and man-made perspective on the Real. It is likewise a thinking that does not allow the problem of the map to be subsumed into the map itself.

As a result, patchwork, for me, today, is best thought of as an interscalar system for thinking through a number of contemporary problems at the level of both state and subject — those things which geography has long since known it cannot quantify cartographically.

Rather than arriving at these disparate scales from an assumptive space of consolidation, the intention is instead to give onus to the differences first — both internal and external — and, rather than shaving off discrepancies in bad faith, forcing people to think through — to borrow some of Reza’s own language — “a non-arbitrary list of conditions of possibility” for new conceptions of subject and state (and, perhaps, by proxy, “mind” or “intelligence”, in Reza’s explicitly socialised formulations that are found throughout Intelligence & Spirit).

So, how do we make plans for such a future? Do we need, perhaps, a new form of modelling — or, in Reza terms it, a toy modelling?

Engaging in this debate prior to the publication of Intelligence & Spirit, I am willing to concede that I was far too hasty in adopting Bonnet’s criticism uncritically. Now, having familiarised myself with Reza’s conception of “toy models” — which I should clarify I really like and enjoy (despite the playful facetiousness of my recent unboxing video) — Urbanomic’s Toy Model AGI Playset is genuinely helpful for visualising these ideas and the book’s overall structure — I suggested that perhaps patchwork can be understood as a kind of toy model in itself.

Reza seemed to confirm this relationship in his responses whilst nonetheless adding a number of illuminating conditions to this proposal. He wrote:

The way I have understood patchwork, it is very much like a toy model. However, my only complaint at this point is this: a toy model is like a theoretical self-consciousness where you admit that all models have hidden or biased theoretical assumptions. Instead of abiding by the implicit theoretical assumptions which seem innocuous and make up the core structure of the model, you begin to see them as implicit meta-theoretical assumptions which are neither innocuous nor fully warranted.

The ascent to the realm of meta-theory is where you begin to tinker with various supposedly theoretical fixities, by incorporating rival theories, different models and methods in a control environment where you see how theories and models fair. In this sense, toy models are like hypothetical or counterfactual worlds where many things you couldn’t do in a specific theoretical worlds are now permitted. Construction or world building becomes a way of understanding the existing world(s).

Now, I said complaint because I think these relations between theory and meta-theory, implicit assumptions and the process of explication, are not yet adequately developed in patchwork’s paradigm. Or maybe I’m wrong? It would be great to elaborate, with regards to patchwork, why this new methodological paradigm works and how exactly it works rather than simply favouring it on the basis of the failure of other (canonical) models. This is why I was suggesting that we should look into the epistemic dimensions of patchwork, and to gauge them from the perspective of the methodological adequacy, robustness, scale, etc. 

My way of thinking about patchwork may have been — and may remain — far looser and less engineered than Reza’s own but this call for a world-building approach is something I have tried explicitly to construct on numerous occasions last year — a “world-building” particular to the UK, I might add, through which I have begun to carve out an alternative history of this country’s fragmentary Gothic aestheticism, most successfully in what I see as my key patchwork posts “Lovers’ Flight” and “The Wyrd Sisters Bring Death to Leviathan“. This is, notably, not a focus on failed visions — lost futures — but rather the tracking of persistent visions of difference which capitalism and the state have failed to resolutely quash and repress.

As such, whether Reza and I agree about the theoretical minutiae or not, I nevertheless feel like our intentions are the same — a reconstruction of the human which is, for me, by extension, coupled to a reconstruction of the state. The question almost becomes: “what does Reza’s call to reconstruct the human (Lego) brickwise mean for the infrastructures which currently shape our thinking — ie. the state?” (Further reading of Intelligence & Spirit is undoubtedly required before I ponder this question any further.) Our arguments come from very different fields, perhaps, but the potentials of each are familiar enough — in my readings so far anyway — to warrant further conversation.

To be continued…


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