Hype(rstition) and Unbelief:
On GameStop and Coronavirus

In an old post on the Hyperstition blog, Anna Greenpan writes:

Hyperstition aims to flatten the transcendence of superstition. Nowhere is this immanence more obvious than in the role hype plays in the market. Here hype acts concretely as an ‘element of effective culture that makes itself real’, where reality is precisely measured in $.

This connects hyperstition directly to the plane of unbelief. There is no need to believe in cyberhype, Chinahype etc… to make a fortune. All that is required is the ability (or luck) to cash in and out at the right point of the hype cycle. As ‘trade guru’ Jack Schwarz says, ‘it is no longer a matter of what is believed, but of what can be treated as real.’

Let’s unpick this a bit:

First of all, what is “the transcendence of superstition”? To be superstitious is to have a false sense of causation, and to attribute that causation to an unknown force.

Some superstitions make more sense than others. You shouldn’t walk under a ladder because, chances are, if something is going to fall on or collapse above you, that’s the spot where you’re going to get rekt. But there’s an inverted sense of causation here too, as if to walk under a ladder will actually empower and will inanimate objects, suddenly drawn to your center of gravity. It is, as they say, to “tempt fate” — which is both to do something despite the risk of negative outcome, and “to invite bad luck” by showing undue confidence in something.

Causation, then, even if tangentially based on scientific understanding or a somewhat rational assessment of probabilities and statistics, is ultimately jettisoned into some beyond. No matter the extent to which statistics might back up your decisions, your actions are driven more by folkloric belief than hard data. In this sense, superstition is a form of layman’s belief that transcends the will of the individual and taps into the otherwise mystical laws of the universe (or, as will become important shortly, we might also say the market). Jung called it “sychronicitity” — it is a kind of animus inflation, an “exaggerated rationalism”.

Hyperstition short-circuits that notion of transcendence through unbelief. It understands that belief is a powerful force, but especially belief that is affirmed second-hand. As Mark Fisher writes in a comment on Greenspan’s post: “do the voodoo death sorcerers ‘believe’ in the [same] way that their victims do?” “Someone has to believe”, he argues — but that someone doesn’t necessarily have to be you. In fact, it is precisely the voodoo death sorcerer who opens up the plane of unbelief. As with mediums and evangelicals, their own belief is a lot less important than how their actions can stoke and exaggerate the belief of others. In channeling collective belief, they have all the power to make that which they themselves don’t believe in become real (or actual) regardless.

This is far less conspiratorial when we consider market dynamics. You can more or less guarantee that most PR firms and marketers don’t actually believe in the product or business or institution they’re advertising. But it’s not their job to believe, they just have to convince others that it is worth believing in. That’s the hype machine.

The gall of r/WallStreetBets in this regard has captivated the internet for the last few days. They have shone a giant light on economic superstition and, in the process, lifted the lid on hyperstition. But they have done so without hiding their hand. They have humiliated the game by bending its rules in plain sight. The problem — for hedge funders, if no-one else — is that they risk both the system and their own investments in the process.

The rest of the internet has cottoned on. What do you mean you can just collectively will stocks to increase? Like chanting for capital actually works? The unbelief of economists in market dynamics has been revealed to be precisely that — not so much belief as such, but a cynical form of occulted belief that nonetheless produces measurable effects.

When the alt-right did this with Trump, the mechanisms were less clear. It was cloaked in mutterings around “meme magick” and no-one took it all that seriously. Vice journalists were asking Richard Spencer “you don’t actually believe that, do you?” but they misunderstood the most important fact: it doesn’t matter. Spencer and co. knew that, as soon as they answered that question, they lost. All that mattered was their militancy. It was their commitment to the bit that made the bit real.

The way that the Redditors of WallStreetBets have inflated the stock market value of GameStop, however, demonstrates this process far more clearly, but it has also been denounced as risky precisely because of its clarity. Their unbelief has given way to non-belief. They showed, in that instant, how unbelief works. But by illuminating the fraud — the necessarily unspoken core — their efforts could collapse in on themselves at any moment. They do the magic trick and simultaneously explain how they’ve done it. It can still produce the same effect, but in so doing it risks the entire magician’s economy.

The response has been entertainingly mixed. As Ryan Broderick writes in his latest newsletter (h/t @thejaymo):

There’s something almost reassuring about the pretense-less acceptance that corporate social media platforms and the stock market run on the same basic machinery and if you can create enough hype around something, through memes, conspiracy theories, and harassment campaigns, you can manifest it into reality via capital. It is both terrifying and liberating to look clear-eyed into the meaningless void at the heart of modern life and accept it for what it is.

But this isn’t how hyperstition functions. It can only persist if it produces belief and unbelief — not non-belief. It is in this way that hyperstition is occulted, and in multiple senses at once — it is always-already superstitiously occulted, in that it speaks to the supernatural and supernormal, but also hyperstitiously, in that it knowingly obscures any discernable signs of causality to exacerbate its affects.

When you make those signs discernible, you no longer have hyperstition but just hypostition — the process does not “stand above” (super-stition) nor does our intervention “stand above” that process in itself (hyper-stition), but it is simply and utterly under-stood.

What’s most distressing, I think, is that it similarly shines a light on how governments have handled the pandemic. As the UK passes 100,000 Covid deaths, the point is made again and again — this Conservative government (much like Trump when he was in office) has cared more about profits than human lives. But of course they have. Are they going to admit it? Absolutely not.

Trump did this more blatantly, of course. When he was asked about the coronavirus, he rambled on about the economy. Even going so far as to position his belief in the economy above his belief in the virus. Does that mean he doesn’t believe the virus is real? Not necessarily. Personally, I think that, on some level, he knows that economic unbelief is more important to his own interests than epidemiological unbelief. If the US economy was really the strongest it has ever been, that is perhaps because he willed it to be. He expressed nothing but belief in the United States’ economic vitality whilst — and this is just as important, I think — seeding doubt within just about every other topic he was presented with. Donald Trump was a president of hype and, depending on how you look at the numbers, it worked, in part, for the economy.

The problem, of course, is that coronavirus is not a virus in the same way that capital is a virus. Covid and capital do share many of the same characteristics, however. Covid has a ‘hype machine’, for instance, and we are likewise hosts for that hype. But it isn’t built on belief like the economy is. You can’t deflate consciousness around it to make it go away. This was nonetheless how Trump thought about it. Trump was less cunningly aware of his own actions than perhaps just a peak businessman, incapable of thinking about anything outside the terms of capital. His is an utter business ontology. [1]

Consider that favourite line of his, repeatedly trotted out in interviews. “We have more infections because we do more tests”, he said, perhaps insinuating that the US medical-industrial complex is hyping up the virus to sell prospective vaccines. But, again, as much as capital is a virus, not all viruses are like capital.

I think this goes a long way to explaining how the right has encouraged others to respond to the crisis. In privileging belief in the economy over belief in the virus, more and more people respond to Covid-19 superstitiously, unaware of the hyperstitious dynamics at play. This video, for instance, which has been doing the rounds today, shows a couple trying to discharge a man from an ICU ward in Surrey because they simply don’t believe that Covid is real.

Their reasoning is utterly superstitious, in that they display an exaggerated rationalism, citing the law and alluding to the patient’s human rights. They suggest he cannot be forcibly detained and that he has the right to leave if he wants to. The doctors say he doesn’t, audibly uncomfortable that they are feeding the cameraman’s insinuations that they are restricting his human rights, but their conspiratorial thinking is infected by the sort of logic Hari Kunzru discussed the other night: they are utterly incapable of thinking in terms of the collective, paying no mind to the distress they are causing other sick people on the ward or with any consideration for how the man is not just ill as an individual but poses a public health risk if he’s allowed to wander free.

This isn’t just Covid libertarianism but the logic of late capitalism — the violent assertion of what was previously a “mandatory individualism”, which has now been internalised. To take it away is an assault on the unfreedom of capitalism itself. It is, in this sense, Thatcherism internalised and turned into a public health crisis. Care in the community, under a pandemic, becomes death in the community.

But you can’t say that. If you do, you must repent. Go stand in the corner and clap your hands, and repeat after me: I do believe in capital, I do believe in capital, I do believe in capital…



[1] And not only that, but bad business ontology — if all that is “required is the ability (or luck) to cash in and out at the right point of the hype cycle”, Boris and company have utterly failed to cash out at the right times. The data suggests that the catastrophic death toll in the UK can be traced back to ill-timed and delayed lockdowns — lockdowns that were delayed for the sake of the economy alone.



Update #1: As @thejaymo rightly pointed out, bitcoin is far more hyperstitional than the WSB Redditors, precisely because cryptocurrency finds a way to hide its hand by exploiting economic trust. See also:

Bitcoin is that scene from Hook where the lost boys imagine a feast so hard that it becomes it real

Originally tweeted by Neeraj K. Agrawal (@NeerajKA) on January 7, 2021.



Update #2: Ed has some tips for the Redditors on channeling xenobuddhist practices into their stock trading.

2 Comments

  1. Agamben has written about how in Deleuze’s book on masochism, a central idea is that the masochist undermines law’s respectability, effectively humiliates the legal order, by demanding its full and proper application. For Deleuze (according to Agamben, at least, I’m sure there are alternate readings of the text) this is a significant form of resistance, but Agamben’s response is that such resistance is only ever ephemeral. We can humiliate and laugh at the system all we want, but in the long run our laughter only solidifies our submission. I think I’d take Agamben’s side regarding the Reddit debacle: we’ve known for a long time that the system of finance capital is absurd, having a laugh at it now does little other than make us feel better as we continue to submit to it

    1. There’s a crucial distinction to be delineated here between the perverse subject of the Law (the sadist who is an object-instrument of ideology, who fully enjoys doing his duty – Kantian sadist) and the subverting subject (“masochist”) who over-identifies with the symbolic law in order to undermine it. Actually, this has been one of Zizek’s core arguments for the past 30 years, though it’s a Lacanian insight rather than attributable to Agamben:

      “One can see now, how the logic of the formulas of sexuation ultimately coincides with that of public power and its inherent transgression: in both cases, the crucial feature is that the subject is effectively ‘in’ (caught in the phallic function, in the web of power) only and precisely insofar as he does not fully identify with it but maintains a kind of distance towards it (posits an exception to the universal phallic function; indulges in the inherent transgression of the public Law), and, on the other side, the system (of public Law, of phallic economy) is effectively undermined by the very unreserved identification with it.”

      Recall Michael Moore successfully having a ficus plant elected to the US Congress by following strictly the ‘letter of the law’ (a candidate in an election didn’t have to be a human as the electoral rules made no mention of that ) but the rules were then quickly changed and the ficus plant never had the opportunity to assume elected office. This is a humourous example of Agemben’s ephemeral mode of temporarily humiliating the legal order. It is very common (student rag weeks everywhere indulge in these kinds of amusing pranks) but it is rapidly foreclosed by the system.

      Mass short selling by hedgefunds is of course ruthless market manipulation and monopolization that has nothing to do with ‘efficient markets’, of responding to price signals. Rather it only has the appearance of this: hedgefunds claim to ‘predict’, based on their asset pricing models, that some stock is ‘overvalued’ and so then short sell it to ‘restore’ it to its ‘proper’ price. Except it is clearly the reverse of this: it isn’t the prediction that brings about the predicted event, but the RESPONSE that engineers the desired result: mass short selling of any stock – ie cornering the market – will of course depress its price, which is what hedgefunds are frequently doing, as in the case of these ‘penny stocks’ like GameStop. So the mass buying of one of those shorted stocks, following the ‘letter of the law’, exposes the ‘hidden transgression’ underlying how these hedgefunds operate, preventing it. The GameStop share supporter can just say “But I’m just buying shares, it’s perfectly legit. What’s your problem with that?”

      IT’s still indeterminate how the Law here (capital’s structure of finance and bourgeois rules) will react to this, whether it will treat the share supporters as mere pranksters and foreclose on certain kinds of mass stock buying that undermines hedgefunds (this is very possible given that, for instance, the new Treasury Secretary, Yellen, has received millions in speaking fees from many of the financial firms involved eg Robinhood is OWNED by a company that paid Yellen nearly a million in speech fees over the last year). And short squeezes are hardly new; there was another just a few years ago. They could easily just settle to split the difference, shut the dealing down and let both sides suffer the resulting losses. Markets are still controlled by these blind puppet-agents of capital – it is the interests of capital, not those of any humans, that they ultimately serve.

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