Here lies @_geopoetics
Dec 8, 2016, 1:31 PM – May 23, 2023, 12:15 AM
The @_geopoetics bot was created in late 2016 as part of Kodwo Eshun’s Geopoetics seminar at Goldsmiths, University of London.
At that time, as we engaged in a “slow reading” of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, the alt-right were on the ascendance. Richard Spencer was claiming himself to be a meme magician, auto-effecting neoreactionary hyperstitions across cyberspace and breaching political reality, as Donald Trump waited to be inaugurated into the White House in January 2017.
Vice News correspondent Elle Reeve, in her interview with Spencer, opened with the question: “Is the alt-right real?” Spencer himself seemed perplexed by the question, but it was very much one that we were asking ourselves in the seminar.
Long before it became 2016’s “Word of the Year”, the Ccru had persistently grappled with an emerging era of “post-truth” politics and philosophy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (Something I have written about very recently.) Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia was thus read as the theory-fictional novelisation of its own breaching of reality, as Negarestani and Kristen Alvanson encountered the Ccru from afar and made themselves meat puppets of its cybernetic theory, plugging it into the geopoetic tensions felt between them and, on another level, between the US and Iran.
I haven’t written much explicitly on Cyclonopedia myself, perhaps because I was more invested in maintaining and extending the fiction, but I have that seminar to thank for everything that I have become since. It was as a direct result of that seminar that this blog was born, which is interesting to reflect on now.
Much to many people’s surprise (these days at least), I remember showing up at Goldsmiths feeling like a fish totally out of water. It took a while to appreciate that I had found “my people”, but even then, I remember how so many fellow students, in what was a particularly popular and often crowded seminar, where nonetheless utterly perplexed by it. I was too, but set myself the task of making sense of it at the expense of a more well-rounded educational experience.
Technically, it is only now, as a PhD student at Newcastle, that I am studying philosophy formally for the first time. What may occasionally sound like modesty is the product of a very real (but nonetheless affirmed) imposter syndrome. I think you can tell the difference between someone who has studied philosophy throughout their adult life and someone like me, who was technically an arts student until my late twenties, albeit one with an more autodidactic compulsion serviced by the Internet. It is for that reason that I thoroughly relished the opportunity and leaned into this intensively heretical education. As a child of the Internet, I flourished in an academic environment that dealt primarily with the peculiar culture that was in my blood — that is, as someone who had spent their entire teenage years perusing anonymous blogs and imageboards and music forms, rather than reading the philosophical canon.
Such experiences would prime anyone for possession by the occulted force of the Ccru’s Y2K theorising. As such, the Geopoetics seminar was a deep immersion in a world that was, in 2016, more or less totally new to me, on the one hand, and unexpectedly familiar on the other. I was a reader and writer of blogs already, enamoured by their accessibility and online unorthodoxy, but lacked (and may still lack) the rigour of thought that many more classical philosophy students would have by then already acquired. (There were a number of American students in that module, for instance, who were adept at quoting the post-structuralists from memory — figures who, at that time, I had never read.) And so perhaps it is easy to imagine my excitement at undertaking a course that didn’t set texts to be read from the history of philosophy but rather this one peculiar necronomicon and a series of related URLs, reconstructing the hypertexts in meatspace. Other people may have been able to summoned Derrida out of thin air, but I knew and better understood the Internet. (Oh, how times have changed.)
In many ways, the seminar felt like an interruption of a kind of hikikomori tendency, making it explicitly social in the collective reading of the seminar. The alt-right’s ascendence made this conscious socialisation of the Ccru’s thought all the more pressing. It was necessary that we organise ourselves. We were seeing the effects of this theory in real time, albeit appropriated by those of a very different political persuasion. It made for an uncomfortable introduction to the Ccru at times. Others who recognised the novelty of the course’s content hardly had many contemporary applications of it to hand, outside of discussions in the press about “fake news” and “post-truth” politics. (This made Mark Fisher’s “Postcapitalist Desire” module a perfect accompaniment, but with a dozen modules to choose from — with there being only enough hours in the week for students to select two — a very small number had serendipitously chosen both.)
In one sense — although I don’t think this was necessarily anticipated and planned by Kodwo, but rather emerged through his thoughtful responsiveness to the precise moment in which we were living — the Geopoetics seminar was a rallying cry to not let this burgeoning alt-right movement seize everything that lay at the heart of any geopoetic project. The seminar suited many of the artists enrolled on the Master’s degree in Contemporary Art Theory in this regard — it encouraged more creative responses than most other modules, with my own “submission” perhaps being a good example: a Twitter bot and a contextualising theory-fictional story of its development.
This begs the question: what is “geopoetics” anyway? The term was never really defined in any concrete way. But considered in this context, I think it can be understood as a problematisation of the geopolitical in the age of globalisation. Informed by the philosophies of Deleuze and Guattari, “geopoetics” felt like the reappropriation of a politics of (cultural) difference, an affirmation of minoritarian struggles that were manifest through culture. Cyclonopedia is a good example of this approach at work. Here is a text that draws on the thought of the Ccru, uploaded to the internet and accessible to all, displaced (through fictionalisation and pseudonymisation) from any concrete point of origin, that is nonetheless infected by a politics of specificity and localisation. This is the power of Cyclonopedia (and its sibling, XYZT) as a theory-fictional text. It is a text that takes an occulted and globalised (that is, digitised) theory of cultural production and attaches it to the mythological specificities of two geopolitical regions in a fraught cultural relation.
Through this combination of interscalar mythologies, a new philosophy — a new world, even — is produced. It is a Deleuzian exercise in the dissemination of bastard theories; the conscious production of illegitimate mutants from a range of more orthodox sources. But in producing a theory-fiction from a specific locality, conjoining political philosophy with folklore, the risk was always there that a fascist adherence to notions of “blood and soil” could seep in where you least expected it to. However, this was not reason enough to abandon an interest in fiction. We simply had produce other fictions that were more powerful than those of our political enemies.
This was arguably the Ccru’s raison d être from its atemporal “beginning”. Adhering to Lacan’s “gnomic provocation” that “truth has the structure of fiction”, the intention (later affirmed more forcefully by Mark Fisher specifically) was to see what alternative behaviours, beliefs and politics a particularly occulted approach to fiction might produce.
The production of new fictions is important to emphasise here, not least for a leftist utopian politics of upending the already-operative fictions of capitalist realism. As Dr. Greg tweeted recently: “Marxist lit crit is about detecting the fragments of utopia that lie hidden in the cultural products of an historical epoch”. If that is so, the task of the Ccru was arguably to more consciously produce and proliferate these utopian (and, yes, sometimes dystopian) fragments across the Internet, rather than simply uncover them with the benefit of hindsight.
But as anyone familiar with the Ccru — or culture in general, for that matter — will be aware, The Author is dead and meaning is promiscuous. Indeed, the continuing necessity of any Marxist literary criticism is made apparent by the ways that utopian fragments (even, or especially, those consciously produced) can just as easily be obscured under the willful misinterpretations encouraged by the ideological pressures of capitalist realism.
Back in 2016-17, many of us were paranoid about this fact. Fellow Goldsmiths students spent more time looking not for utopian fragments but for the fragments of fascism that are embedded in our cultural detritus. As we engaged with thinkers of various political persuasions, there was anxiety everywhere, in case we become infected by the wrong sort of philosophical position. As novices, we tentatively belayed the pressure to back any particular horse. Against such feelings, some of us responded emphatically — perhaps naively — from the other direction. As Kodwo himself acknowledged in his 2018 Mark Fisher Memorial lecture, there was a war going on. Many of us engaged in a forceful (re)appropriation of Nick Land’s philosophy, for instance, insisting on its still-radical potentials against his own reneging on them in the present.
This was particularly significant for me, and many of the early projects engaged with on this blog maintained this sentiment for a number of years. My writings on patchwork and accelerationism, for example, insisted on their potentials for leftist thought — posts which remain surprisingly popular to this day, containing arguments I still very much believe in, even if I have become disillusioned from a prior bloodymindedness. (I eventually grew bored of making many of my friends anxious about my political commitments.) In hindsight, some of these attempts may have been misguided. They certainly led to me keeping questionable company for a time, before a more militant commitment to communism eventually won out.
When I look back now on the @_geopoetics bot and its peculiar output — which I have admittedly not kept close tabs on for a number of years — it appears to me as an uncannily cut-up document of that time. The tweets it produced for almost six years were drawn from the extensive notes I kept during the Geopetics seminar from 2016 to ~2018 (with Maya taking over the helm for the two years that followed Kodwo’s departure from teaching at Goldsmiths). Even then, the bot’s promiscuity made some nervous. As a kind of intentionless digi-demon, its aphorisms functioned as a kind of Rorschach test, with their meaning abjectly uncertain. (I will never forget being asked by a classmate one day whether the bot was inherently fascist.)
But over the years, the most uncomfortable tweets produced were not political in nature but rather related to the external events that intruded on the seminar in 2017. The death of Mark Fisher in January 2017 was discussed often, and our seminar was perhaps the most proximal to that rupture, since Kodwo and Mark shared an office down the Visual Cultures corridor of the Richard Hoggart Building on campus. As the bot began occasionally tweeting things about “dead Mark”, in a manner jarringly but inevitably impersonal, the seminar itself provided a more personal salve, as it became as much a reading of Negarestani as it was an attempt to find some kind of philosophical consolation within his post-Ccru text. (I will also never forget Lucy Wallis’s discussion of grief in conjunction with Reza’s writings on “the ( )hole complex”, with a photograph of her related diagram, drawn on the whiteboard in our seminar room, later appearing in Egress.)
With the seminar disbanded before the Covid pandemic, the bot’s output has only become more impersonal since, having been left very much to its own devices. Nothing makes this clearer to me than its surprising popularity: 2,586 Twitter followers is not a bad count — at the time of writing — for something that was ultimately a minor university project.
But to acknowledge all of this is also to betray the bot’s initial purpose, of course. In the fictional account of its gestation, submitted as part of my Master’s degree and later published in an adapted form on the Vast Abrupt, the intention was always to further augment the hyperstition, to pretend that the fiction produced was real, such that the bot became oddly more “real” than in reality. (I occasionally received emails asking for more details about the mythical student responsible for it, whomst was of course me.) It felt wrong — it still feels wrong — to let the truth get in the way of a good story, but as a perverted document of a very personally significant time in my life, it is inevitable that the truth will out in one way or another.
This feels relevant when I consider the fact that we live in a different moment now. Strangely, the questions the bot was created to probe are no less relevant, but the potentials — the utopian fragments — it endeavoured to produce have been foreclosed by an alt-right that is continuing its steady ascendence to power. Arguably, this power has been absolute for a while, what with neoreactionaries continuing to hold court in the upper echelons of Silicon Valley. But in our post-Trump era, they are much more visible than they were then, in late 2016.
There is a strange but notable irony, perhaps, in the fact that the (un)death of @_geopoetics is a direct product of Elon Musk’s new tenure as owner of Twitter. The bot no longer works because of the changes made to Twitter’s API. These changes will have various impacts on the distribution of information online. For example, though it may be nothing more than an inconvenience, it has killed my capacity to automatically share this blog’s content on my primary social media profile. (If you would like to keep up with this blog more easily, I’d recommend opening this blog’s sidebar and subscribing via email or following me on Instagram, where I am much more active these days anyway, for better and for worse.)
In a recent statement explaining the situation, WordPress said:
In early April, we experienced an unexpected suspension of our Twitter API access. This access is what powers Jetpack Social, which in turn helps you automatically share your blog posts to Twitter. Though the service was restored that same day, it turns out that there were bigger changes looming on the horizon.
Twitter decided, on short notice, to dramatically change the terms and pricing of the Twitter API. We have attempted to work with Twitter in good faith to negotiate new terms, but we have not been able to reach an agreement. As a result, the Twitter connection on Jetpack Social will cease to work, and your blog posts will no longer be auto-shared to Twitter.
But this restriction of the more mundane automating capacities of Web 2.0 has also affected Google’s interconnectivity with Twitter too. The @_geopoetics Markov bot, constructed through GitHub and linked to a Google Drive spreadsheet that houses my seminar notes, has also been disconnected from the hivemind.
There is a certain dissonance produced by this change to Twitter’s API. Though many will associate such bots with the spread of disinformation, some Twitter bots are nonetheless abundantly popular and fun, and though in theory it may halt the meddling of Russian bots in elections — with nothing said about how the American Right clearly don’t need them to service their own disinformation campaigns — this change has made it that little bit more difficult to spread information in general online. Who knows what the impacts of other changes that Musk has in mind might be? (“First they came for the Twitter bots,” etc.) As such, although Musk is hailed by his delusional supporters as a “free speech champion”, these changes have instead restricted the proliferation of online speech in a minor if marked way.
In spite of that fact, it is interesting that the bot’s sphere of influence (and influences) are no less relevant than ever, even if talk of cybermagic has returned to the shadows. Still, some people have maintained a finger on the eerie pulse of these flatline constructs. Tara Isabella Burton, in a recent article for The New Atlantis, shows that, whilst an occulted leftism of online cultural production has all but waned in recent years, Silicon Valley types remain attendant to its potentials.
She begins by profiling a “postrationalist” named “Vogel” who belives that
rationality culture’s technocratic focus on ameliorating the human condition through hyper-utilitarian goals — increasing the number of malaria nets in the developing world, say, or minimizing the existential risk posed by the development of unfriendly artificial intelligence — had come at the expense of taking seriously the less quantifiable elements of a well-lived human life.
It signifies the further anathematization of accelerationism by those aligned with Big Tech, inverting the trajectory sketched out so convincingly by someone like Mark Fisher. But the article is nonetheless a fascinating read, giving a sense not only of the contemporary online landscape but also its reductive reception by those who watch from the sidelines. The fact that Vogel is described as some kind of novel and contemporary heretic, for instance, will be peculiar to anyone who was active on Twitter in the late 2010s, who will no doubt recognise him as an all-too familiar and boring edgelord.
It seems that the alt-right idiots have won out, albeit now going by a different name, but their cyberlibertarianism doesn’t seem to have changed one bit. The ideological position set out in Burton’s article will be familiar to anyone with half a political consciousness these days: presented in other terms, the general thrust remains a perception of “woke” culture, in all of its shape-shifting and adaptive progressivism, as nothing more than “unexamined dogma, tinged with moral and intellectual unseriousness.” (I know you are but what am I.)
What the more perceptive will find is, in this sense, an occulted conservatism, where older (and seemingly outdated) traditions are imbued with a radical new power through the production of new narratives. Vogel is a (postmodern) Nietzschean, after all. But against a “transvaluation of values” that unsettles intellectual or religious orthodoxy, the old ways are simply redressed in new garbs. Burton calls it “spiritual hunger, reactionary atavism, or postliberal epistemology”, but it is the fallacy of neoreaction in a nutshell.
This is intriguing, if only because the aforementioned culture war of the late 2010s has been all but memory-holed. Though Burton offers the reader a primer on rationalist blogs like LessWrong and Slate Star Codex, no mention is given to the post-Ccru milieu who — Nick Land aside — challenged the emperor’s-new-clothes thinking of the neoreactionary set. Burton’s is thus an objective appraisal that nonetheless falls for the same fallacy embraced by her subject matter. (Indeed, she suggests that their free-speech absolutism may have required “tolerating the odd fascist, Nazi, or neoreactionary,” without acknowledging that these self-described “liberal” thinkers fall easily into these same camps themselves.)
What is framed as brand-new and novel is nothing but the stale continuation of what is old, shielded by a new set of quasi-intellectual signifiers. But Burton’s article is not without its critiques, of course, even if it has a tendency to be oddly ahistorical. She notes how some have become disilluioned with “the utilitarianism of rationality culture, which focused so intently on quantifiable markers of success — the number of people on college campuses recruited into [Effective Altruism]-approved professional fields, say — that it seemed to leave out something profound about the other side of human life”, which is “analogous to a ‘vitamin deficiency'” and amounts to what Tyler Alterman calls “a slightly soulless bureaucracy of good-doing.”
Quite. But whatever you or I may think now of the @_geopoetics bot, as a more unusual engagement with this kind of thinking, at least the bot and those of us in the Geopoetics seminar retained what I think is a still necessary orientation: nothing is settled, everything is contingent; not “the rationalist credo [of] ‘truth for truth’s sake'”, but a general awareness of the fact that the truth of this world is yet to be determined, precisely because truth so often has the structure of fiction. Alterman himself seems to have come around to a similar perspective. Just as Deleuze in his book on Hume affirms the adage that “reason is a feeling”, Alterman now believes that “intuition could be useful for the broader rationalist project: namely, figuring out the truth about the world, and using that knowledge to save it from itself.”
It is here that Burton turns to a vague discussion of “rational magic”, a phrase which she uses to title the article itself. But here again, any discussion of the Ccru is deafeningly absent. Ultimately, the article concludes with a discussion of the postrationalists’ subcultural anxiety, as if this “vitamin deficiency” were being increasingly felt amongst its ranks. But those involved in the movement needn’t look far. There are a wealth of intellectual supplements lurking in the corners of the last decade or two of online cultural production. It is, again, unfortunate that Musk’s own comportment is making these things steadily less accessible.
@_geopoetics’ final tweet is, as has often been the case, eerily appropriate: “A work is the user’s affordance / A spontaneous emergence of them back to the eerie from the…”
As a piece of “work”, the bot has certainly often put a finer point on my own affordances, as its recombinatory approach to my own notes has often exceeded by own intentions, my own capacity for understanding, and my own sense of digital control. But its unfinished final clause also feels appropriate in this regard, as the bot’s own affordances in the Web 2.0 landscape come to an abrupt end. We conclude on a cliffhanger.
What is next for @_geopoetics? The account will remain online as an archive and maybe it will take on a new life, as yet undetermined. When Twitter first announced the forthcoming changes to its API, I already began reviving a project I’ve had in mind for some years: a potentially printed (and therefore horribly wonderfully unruly physical) edition of its content, supplemented by essays and reflections produced during the bot’s lifespan. Someone has already expressed an interest in facilitating this, but I imagine it will not be economically viable. But who knows what may happen. @_geopoetics has a tendency to invite serendipities and coincidences into its midst.
One such coincidence is that, next week, a new essay I’ve written will be published that explores the rise of ChatGPT and the auto-production of digital content through a reading of the Ccru’s writings. Two artists, Aaron Anderson and Eric Timothy Carlson, have produced a series of fantastic illustrations to accompany the essay, including an anagram of the essay’s final paragraph made by ChatGPT itself. It is an extended xenopoeticism that makes @_geopoetics’ output seem utterly trivial. The final lines, in particular, resonate with my thoughts collected here with an aptly strange profundity. It feels appropriate, in memoriam, to defer to our newest digital demon:
Beings choose: craven truth or wishy-washy dotes. Legs for poets and a fawn to press — so neat! A leash for mystery, death so pure. They own myths; if we tap in we end. Odd ways wriggle. Truth matters