Artificial Mythologies — A Sad & Lonely Constellation

This was a talk given at the A Sad & Lonely Constellation conference held in Milan on 3rd May 2019. You can read more about this event here.

This session was really great and I enjoyed it immensely. The discussion, once it got going, was fantastic and all too short. David Roden’s final comments (sidenote: you can read his excellent paper here) were almost painful to end on because he ended up opening up so many doors which I would have loved to have probed the other panelists on. My silence at the end was occasioned by me trying to scramble together some online reference points which just didn’t load in quick enough. I was particularly interested to hear Amelia’s thoughts on how she saw her own research on alienation fitting in between these various points made in the Q&A.

Maybe those thoughts could be posted here at another time.

During the Q&A I also was asked a question about glitches. In response I mentioned I’d written on the topic before in relation to the TV show Westworld and glossed an argument from a previous post. That post can be found here — it’s not great but I’ve been in the process of massively reworking all of my Westworld posts to become the final chapter of my book Egress which I should probably get round to finishing at some point…

Anyway, here’s a transcript of my talk below, which perhaps attempted to cram too much into a 15 minute presentation, but I had a lot of fun presenting it.

Hi everyone.

I’d just like to start by saying thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here and shout out to the Italian Weird Theory contingent.

What I want to talk about today is the weird ways in which AI might provide a new ground for previously unrealised political potentialities, but in a way that drags into the discussion some philosophical (and not-so-philosophical) references points which I hope are surprising enough to shake up our prospective discussion.

A lot of this is part of new research I’ve been working on for only a couple of months and so this reading is fragile and but, in my experience, sharing that sort of thing anyway can make for some good conversation.

With that in mind, I want to begin this talk in true academic style by telling you all about a book that I haven’t read. It’s a book called Dogs and it’s by the French philosopher Mark Alizart, which is currently forthcoming in English translation via Polity Books. As its title suggests, it’s a book about dogs but, more specifically, it’s a book about humanity’s relationship to dogs across millennia. To quote from the summary of the book on Polity’s website:

Mark Alizart dispenses with the well-worn clichés concerning dogs and their masters, seeing them not as submissive pets but rather as unexpected life coaches, ready to teach us the elusive recipes for contentment and joy. Dogs have faced their fate in life with a certain detachment that is not easy to understand. Unlike other animals in a similar situation, they have not become hardened, nor have they let themselves die a little inside. On the contrary, they seem to have softened.

Whilst this might all sound very nice and a little wet behind the ears, once the book reaches its conclusion — so I’m told — it makes the quite surprising connection between dogs and artificial intelligence. Alizart argues that our relationship to dogs has not just shaped them as a species in myriad ways through, for instance, domestication; it has also fundamentally shaped us as well in ways that we may not fully appreciate.

Alizart goes on to suggest that we might need to start thinking of ourselves in a position relative to dogs when we are eventually confronted by the reality of an AGI. This is not a dystopian vision, however, where we are reduced to little more than pets for our AI overlords, as Alizart holds dogs’ civilisational relationship to humans in much higher regard. This relationship instead signals a new inter-species companionship, a kind of techno-species friendship, which will impact both humans and AI in equal measure and to an extent that we, at present, can’t yet fully foresee.

What is made explicit in the book’s summary is that the nature of this relationship should be a softening rather than a hardening of these intersubjective boundaries.

Whilst I’ll need to actually read the book to fully grasp Alizart’s argument — rigorous para-academic over here — I haven’t stopped thinking about this suggestion since it was told to me a few weeks ago, particularly at a time when so many theorists have been emphasising an eco-political need to reimagine our relationships to other species; to rethink the hierarchies of our cross-species relations.

This is something I’ve written about before, particularly in relation to the hardening of these subjective boundaries. An article that will forever stay with me is Laurie Penny’s 2016 essay “Against Bargaining” in which she describes the psychological impact of Trump’s election in the US as a “mental health asteroid”. We see this sort of thing more often than we might think — in which crises of subjectivity are increasingly equated with climate disaster or extinction events. Mark Fisher most famously noted how we’ve seen this in relation to capitalism as a whole, but I think the effects of “capitalist realism” on subjectivity — which Mark would also talk about length of course — are worthy of far more consideration than the overall picture because, whilst thinking the end of capitalism remains difficult, I think we’re far more aware of the fact that we as subjects are more malleable than we often given ourselves credit for. And so when Alizart talks of a softening, I think this is what he means — the innate malleability of capitalist subjectivity.

This is a malleability that is far more visible within ecological discourses today than in political philosophy more generally — and I think the emphasis on this which we find in Deleuze and Guattari’s “geophilosophy” or, more recently, other people’s writings around “geopoetics” are deserving of far more attention in this regard — and so Alizart’s call to take a critical step back from our anthropocentrism in order to help us relate to an AGI, which we might see as representing something like a new species in the sense that it is a new and external intelligence, presents us with a shift of perspective that this kind of species-being — to borrow a turn of phrase from Donna Haraway — requires. In this way, an AGI may likewise assist us in politically thinking our ecological dilemmas, making us the “Other Species” for a change by way of it constituting, as Reza Negarestani writes in his book Intelligence and Spirit, an “outside view of ourselves [which] tells us what we are in virtue of what we are determinably not.”[1]

Reza’s book is a particularly interesting example of this kind of philosophical discourse related to AGI because he infrequently nods to this kind of intersubjective relation.  For instance, when writing on how to rethink the very task of a philosophy of intelligence, he writes: “In an age when philosophy is considered to be at best an antiquated enterprise, and at worst a residue of what is orthodoxly normative, patriarchal, repressive, and complicit with all that is overprivileged and fascist, what does it mean to rekindle philosophy’s insinuative temptations to think and to act, to galvanize that activity which is at bottom impersonal and communist?”[2]

When writing on this before, I’ve always emphasized the observation that, when we see post-capitalist and post-apocalyptic dramas in our fictions, they almost always occasion the emergence of a newly communal, collective and — yes — communist subject. The TV show The Walking Dead is a particularly interesting if bad example of this, where the zombified dead provide the central characters with this outside view of themselves, by telling them what they are in virtue of what they are not, causing a complete social breakdown of the kinds of communality we know and leading to us seeing this communality rebuilt in a variety of different ways. Those who are unable to adapt die, and so a great deal of emphasis is put on this human malleability. However, the prevalence of this kind of narrative in horror — it’s also interestingly central to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — whilst innately acknowledging the truth that such a transition will never be easy, and it may even be — by present standards — deeply immoral, it also betrays the depths of our present pessimism.

So, what I’d like to consider here, very briefly, after an all too long introduction, is a very different perspective than that recently made popular within Reza’s book — one which focuses on fictions but reimagines their valences via a trip down a slightly different history of philosophy than the one deployed by Reza. For instance, whilst Reza might argue that this outside view of ourselves has constantly been attempted by philosophy — often failing, albeit productively — I’d like to shift away from this argument and instead argue that this more accurately the very purpose of mythology. I wonder: how can an AGI help us reimagine mythology in a way that has long been desired but has never been fully actuated within our reality, and, further to that, how we might consider a newly mythical thinking to also be innately communist.

First things first, and being all too aware of the time, I want to give you a whistle-stop and inevitably reductive history of mythology:

Studies of mythology in the West typically begin in Greece with the likes of Plato and Aristotle, for whom philosophy was understood as the return of a knowledge following the pre-historic age of pure theology. Mythology then, constituted by fragmentary memories of a time before writing, becomes, for the Greeks, a transitory knowledge, on which Aristotle in particular would ground his “hermeneutics”, notably named after the mythical figure of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. In this sense, philosophy is born of but distinct from mythology. As central as these tales were to the Greeks, providing their philosophers with a language and a vocabulary more than anything, through which to comment abstractly on thought and that which is both within and outside of themselves, philosophy was nonetheless placed above the myth in a new hierarchy of human thinking.

Fast forward to the 18th century and this hierarchy between mythology and philosophy is disturbed. Myth begins to rise above philosophy as the imagined home of a profound and original knowledge, of which philosophy is only ever an extrapolation and a reduction. This triggered something of an existential crisis amongst the thinkers of the age. The Romantics, in particular, wanting (in some instances, colonially – that is, literally and physically) to return to a mythic space-time, in order to acquire a glimpse of this original truth, instead find themselves blinkered by the strata of reason in which they are embedded. To paraphrase an exploration of this period by Rudolph Gasche: “the language of the sciences and the new rationality (in contrast to the “old reason” of the Greeks) by which [we have] been marked, whose spell [we] cannot escape, allows the anticipated return to the mythical only in a distorted form”[3] — perhaps, a gothic form. “Therefore,” Gasche continues, “the simple return or the turning back fails: what remains is the longing for the origins and the painful experience of the impossibility of its renewed realization.”[4]

Here the horror of the story of Frankenstein, that myth of the modern Prometheus, might quickly come to mind. In thinking ourselves, euphemistically at least, as Gods in our apparent mastery of the sciences, we are nonetheless terrified by our own aptitude for destruction or abominable creation, contrasted to the absolute and apparently pure creativity of that which supposedly gave us life. And what is Frankenstein himself if not an artificial intelligence.

This desire to produce a new mythology was not, despite how it may sound, regressive but is rather rooted in a desire to reground poetry — and, by extension, subjectivity — within the uneasy new age of reason, and none were more successful in this regard than Schelling. Whereas Hegel would notoriously equate mythology with religion in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, echoing the long-held Platonic-Aristotelian view of myth as a lower and less rational thought, which positions philosophy as an exercise in the hardening of the boundaries of a previous subject, Schelling would, by contrast, offer up a far more generous reading with his Philosophy of Mythology, presented as a series of lectures given towards the end of his life.

Here, Schelling defines mythology as the poetic expression of that which is beyond historical time, as the expression of “occurrences and events that belong to an entirely different order of things (not only … the historical, but also the human…)”[5] The Greek mythology of Gods and Goddesses is just one such example of this, but it is Schelling’s implicit argument that this particular form of expression is not the only kind and we should not misjudge a system of mythology as a somehow primitive mode of thought, in its general disregard for truth. This is tendency that continues to persist in the arts today. For Schelling, it seems, this is the misstep taken by his unfortunately more famous colleague Hegel. The importance of myth to what Hegel calls Spirit — albeit reduced in Hegel’s own analysis — is that mythology is the expression of Spirit’s “poetic drive for invention.”[6] In this sense, we can see why the Creation Myth is a primary category within different mythologies from around the world. This is to suggest that, whilst philosophy tends to concern itself with ends, mythology becomes a transcultural attempt to think beginnings — the beginnings of religions, of peoples, of places, of times, of ideas, but also — and particularly revelant to our discussion today perhaps — of revolutions and technologies. It is in this sense that Gilles Deleuze would write in his essay “Desert Islands” of the way that geography and geology, in particular, are examples of “science mak[ing] mythology more concrete, and mythology mak[ing] science more vivid.”[7]

What is most interesting about Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology is that, in tracing its roots and tracing mythology itself back to the point of its own emergence within human culture, he finds that it is not, in fact, the product of human agency in itself. Just as we have come to appreciate the poetic in its unruliness, its resistance to reason, its multiplicitous interpretations, we find that mythology instead lurks in the shadow of Hegel’s Spirit. Reza, who has used Hegel and German Idealism at length in his book on AGI, nonetheless seems to miss something in his picking up of Spirit in a typically Hegelian mode, which Schelling himself critiqued Hegel for missing also. Reza, however, even goes further, distancing geistig even more than Hegel from any occultural connotation, and defining it as that which constitutes a “community of rational agents as a social model of mind” which is, more specifically, a social model which is defined by its function. Schelling’s mythology is, again, contrary to this – it does not intend to “assert or teach something” but rather just invent.[8] To call upon its function is to kill it — to condition it is to kill it — and in this sense we further parallels with the political discussions that have long circled the topics of communism and, more recently, accelerationism.

The importance of myth to the discussion of an emerging AGI, however, is that, in the its uneasy outsideness, in being that which emerges from us but is beyond us, its future origins may shift our own origins in their predominance. For instance, to return to our canine friends, in looking at the psychedelic dogs produced by Google DeepDream, we might see this as a nascent and inchoate example of an externally “sensuous imagination”, to borrow a phrase from Schelling. And yet, in its imaging of noumenal dogs, it is still the product of a broadly anthropocentric subjectivity. If our thinking on this matter is indeed to become more rigorously political but also radical and communist, we need to soften ourselves further still. DeepDream, for instance, is an example of us using computer to dream dogs. We instead need to think what it is like for dogs to dream us.

[1] Reza Negarestani, Intelligence & Spirit (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019), 4

[2] Ibid., 407-408

[3] Rudolph Gasche, Georges Bataille: Phenomenology and Phantasmatology, trans. Roland Vegso(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 32

[4] Ibid.

[5] F.W.J. Schelling, Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans. Mason Richey and Markus Zisselsberger (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 9

[6] Ibid., 13

[7] Gilles Deleuze, “Desert Islands” in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2004), 9

[8] Schelling, Historical-Critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, 13

A Sad & Lonely Constellation

I’m going to be beamed into Caffè Letterario Macao in Milan on Friday to do a short presentation on AI, communism, dogs and mythology for A Sad & Lonely Constellation: Navigating the Antinomies of Technological Hope, a conference which “attempts to navigate through the thick swarm of hopes surrounding the body of Artificial Intelligence as it accelerates towards us.”

It will also explore the “hope for the deflation of politics into techne; the desire to attenuate the anxiety of hermeneutics through a mechanised literature freed from the debilitating excesses of subjectivity; the aspiration for novel sapient artificial entities which, by demanding and asking for reasons, can go beyond ‘thinking’ by association.”

I’ll also be taking part in a panel discussion with top boffins Chiara Di Leone, David Roden and Michael Eby called “Concrete Politics and A Swarm of Technological Hopes”.

The lineup for the rest of the day is awesome with plenty of familiar faces, such as Ben Woodard, Anna Longo, Enrico Monacelli, and others all also announced as taking part.

For more information, check the Facebook event here. You can also give them a like and a follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — and, not forgetting their post-conference festivities: if you’re local to Milan, you can head to the after party at Bar Doria.

The event is free and all are welcome. The talks will also be live-streamed by the New Centre for Research and Practice. Please check ASALC’s Facebook page and the ‘discussion’ section of this event for the weblinks of the broadcast.

A Xenogothic Audio Reader

So Justin slid into my DMs earlier today with a belated Christmas present that certainly caught me by surprise. He has created a short Xenogothic reader of three of my popular posts: “Patchwork 101“, “Fragment on the Event of ‘Unconditional Acceleration’” and my Krisis essay, “Acid Communism“.

Clocking in at 17 minutes, the reader is a strangely listenable — I imagine, the experience of hearing a robolady read my writing back to me is a bit too surreal for my own pleasure — text-to-speech “audiobook” of some of what I got up to in 2018.

Here’s what Justin had to say:

Hey dude, I made you a Christmas present. Amazon Polly is the best text-to-speech algo out right now, and it’s getting really close to human quality…

Not quite there, but probably noticeably better than the last time you heard some automated speech, and despite its imperfections it is quite listenable I think…

So I spent way too much time figuring out a workable script to turn large texts into “audiobooks” with pauses between sentences and longer pauses between paragraphs and I did finally figure it out…

So I churned out some “audiobooks” for internet writer friends….

I present to you, “A Xenogothic Audio Reader.”

Download available via SoundCloud.

All Roads Lead to Alienation: Melancholy and Communicative Capitalism

I had a conversation with lēves last week on WhatsApp about the pros and cons of various messaging services…

Whilst she had her preferences, I was resolutely more… “disenfranchised”…

To my mind, how best to communicate feels like the ultimate generational problem these days. How many times have you asked yourself something along the lines of: “How do I opt out of this social media hellscape without my actual social life taking a hit?”; “How do I reject the alienation of social media without becoming even more alienated?”

These are interesting, if infuriating, problems — not just for users of these platforms but for those who have built them as well. Facebook is, of course, the most obvious example. As it continues with its efforts towards world domination, consolidating a whole variety of platforms and features under its monolithic “F”, it seems that — surprise, surprise! — many people don’t actually want everything they do online to be consolidated under a single platform. (The difficulty of establishing this gradually in the West has not stopped the company pitching it wholesale elsewhere.)

The more Facebook tries to connect people, the more people criticise the platform’s tandem attempts at monopolisation, undermining the fragmentary principles — “high connectivity, low integration” — that the internet was supposedly built on. Whilst older generations nonetheless continue to flock to Facebook as a Friends Reunited substitute, many younger people have been turning their backs on the enforced ubiquity of its various societal uses, particularly in light of its data misusage debacles.

I made the decision to “opt out” of Facebook quite recently but what has horrified me about the process of making this decision is that I was unable to “opt out” absolutely.

Since initially (but not very consistently) shirking off my meatspace identity for this blog, my relationship with Facebook has fundamentally changed. It is no longer something that I need for social networking — in fact, I’ve found the benefits of posting without a face to be innumerable — but it nonetheless remains a platform that I continue to need solely for work.

Until very recently, I spent a lot of time doing freelance work which required me to run a pretty big Facebook page with thousands of “likes”, using it to upload events and respond to various enquiries and things like that. I’ve done this a few times in the past. In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of consulting work related to digital media, advising arts organisations and universities on how best to build up and use web platforms in interesting and perhaps unfashionable ways, recommending blogs rather than social media accounts — I have always been an advocate for the blogosphere — as alternatives twhich allow staff and/or student bodies to have more control over how they represent themselves online: blogs as platforms for workers, not just marketing departments and CEOs.

Case in point: having run a blog for the entirety of my undergrad years — and for some years before — I was asked by my course leader in my third year to set one up for the course itself to function as a multipurpose online space run by and for students. Part student newspaper, part newsletter, it took off once I graduated and became a place where the staff could show off their activities to prospective students whilst the students used it as a space to post irreverent opinion pieces and exhibition reviews. It was brilliant — institutionally practical (ensuring its survival) whilst also challenging expectations. Unfortunately, it died with the course itself.

Blogs like this made a lot more sense 10 years ago than they do today. These days, blogs are seen as being a bit cumbersome and old-hat — laying the foundations for fully-functioning websites in and of themselves rather than being additional nodes for diffuse representation and communication. Instead, social media now reigns supreme as the only way to connect with “your audience”.

When I now dabble with digital media, for work rather than play, Facebook is almost always the first thing I end up working with, meaning that it has stopped being an escape from work into procrastination and instead become wholly associated with work in and of itself. (I have misused Twitter far too much for this to ever be the case for that platform. It’s too easily corruptible.)

It’s not unlike that age-old problem with emails. Who answers their personal emails in a timely manner anymore? No one — especially if its what you already do at work all day. Now it seems like this problem has spread, like a virus, as media monopolies continuously mutate, in a constant state of flux and disarray, vying for attention and encouraging the most bizarre behaviour and habits. It’s as if Facebook has some sort of autoimmune disease, a victim of its own success as a carrier for digital viruses.

Of course, none of this will be news to anyone working in these areas today — most will no doubt know far more than I do about these sorts of trends — but it tells us something about where we’ve been and where we’re going, somewhat imperceptibly.

I found all of these thoughts and experiences coalescing together as lēves and I discussed how best to stay in touch with one another in the coming months, trying to balance out seemingly conflicting desires for personal connection and digital disconnection.

After our conversation, I ended up turning to Jodi Dean’s writings on “communicative capitalism” — a term of hers that I think deserves far more attention that it has so far received (as far as I’m aware), not least because, in recognising how common these conversations are in my own life, it feels like an apt and under-explored arena for consciousness-raising.

Communicative capitalism, in the simplest terms, is Dean’s name for capitalism’s newest obsession: data. For Dean, capitalism in the early 21st century has parasitically attached itself to our communicative technologies with such success that it has found new and unprecedented forms of libidinal engineering and cultural subjection.

I’ve written about Jodi Dean’s work a few times in recent years, although I’m not sure if much of that — or any of it — has made its way onto the blog. I was specifically interested in her writings via her influence on Mark Fisher. In a number of lectures and talks, Fisher would speak generally about the rise and further rise of the smart phone as, primarily, a device for communication but one which continues to infiltrate all areas of our lives as an almost transhumanist capitalist appendage.

In his short talk “Practical Eliminativism”, Mark would not mince words:

The constitution of our subjectivity in everyday life is the product of various forms of engineering and manipulation; the reality in which we are invited to live is constructed by PR and corporations, is a form of libidinal informational engineering. So I think this mandates a kind of counter-engineering practice that must be undertaken. … [W]e’ve seen massive behavioural mutations of the human population in the last decade. But they’re turning towards banal ends, such as Facebook, smartphones, etc. What you’re seeing are behavioural tics that have passed through a population, i.e. looking at a screen, digital twitch, etc. These behaviours were not in place ten to fifteen years ago; it was impossible for them to be in place. Now they are ubiquitous.

He continues:

… mainstream culture has become increasingly reduced to folk psychological interiority. Whether it’s reality tv or social networks, people have been captured/captivated by their own reflections. It’s all done with mirrors. The various attacks on the subject in theory have done nothing to resist the super-personalization of contemporary culture. Identitarianism rules. Queer theory might reign in the academy, but it has done nothing to halt the depressing return of gender normativity in popular culture and everyday life. Elements of ‘leftist’ politics not only collude in, but actively organise this rampant identitarianism, corralling groups into ’communities’ defined according to the categories of power: a Foucauldian dystopia. … [I]ncreasingly cultural time is taken up with forms which, at the psychological level, mirror people back to themselves in the most banal possible kind of manifest image. The question now is whether a certain kind of defacialization can be recovered — whether a practical, not merely theoretical, eliminativist project can be resumed, and whether we can start getting out of our faces again.

It is all too easy to hear Mark’s critique here in the voice of a luddite moralism, decrying millennial narcissism. The myth of Echo and Narcissus is most certainly applicable here, but the message is rather that resistance is futile. The tragic conditions of both Echo and Narcissus are imposed on all. Self-love has nothing to do with it. It rather describes the conditions under which subjectivity is formed, through which a subject forcibly ricochets off its own image as its strives impotently for its outside. It is the very basis of subjection under communicative capitalism, all too readily dismissed as a fault of the individual who is only acting according to widespread social imposition.

I’m reminded here of Bataille’s various writings on “communication” in which he wonders about the ways that we can’t help but debase ourselves before each other, undermining our own idealisms of the subjective whole.

Communication, for Bataille, is inherently evil. It is an absolute necessity for being but it is also inherently violent. It is predicated on conflict. Communication, in this way, is a constant challenge to the Idea of the subject as an intact and bordered entity. Communication is the constant piercing of subjects by other subjectivities. It is not limited to language in its form but rather flows from the outside continuously, even in our silences. It is like smoke out the exhaust of inner experience, ruining itself, outside itself. To remedy the onslaught with absolute isolation is to sit in your garage with the engine running. You won’t stop “communication”, you’ll just suffocate on it.


This is likewise an analogy applicable, I think, to the alienation of social media. Under communicative capitalism, communication itself is captured. All our talk of echo chambers and identity politics simply marks the various ways that the subject wrecks itself on its own shores rather than on the shores of others. It is constituted by communication made profitable through the mechanisms of a kind of human centipede. To capture communication is to render it toxic to itself. What is needed, perhaps, is a return to the evil of communication as Bataille described it.

For Bataille, communication does not submit to the structure imposed on it by linguists (sender, receiver, message, etc.); it destroys this structure. It is never the transmission of a message existing independently, as a signified, between two subjects whose identity remains intact and untouched by the process: communication is loss of self in the absence of message on both sides…

With regards to this, I hear cynical echoes from Twitter and the blogosphere that wonder, incredulously, why Accelerationism is even still a thing. If you look around you, all we’re doing is slowing down. This is certainly true of the forms of capitalism we’re now all too familiar with. As far as communicative capitalism is concerned, it seems like we’re only just becoming aware that the brakes have been cut.

To return to Fisher: in order to get out of our faces again, he argues that we must resist the apparatuses of capture embedded within our communications technologies. This is why, for Fisher and for Dean, the smartphone is the primary instantiation of a Marcusean “biological foundation” for communicative capitalism; the most visible example of how the libido has been most recently engineered for capital’s benefit.

The question nevertheless remains: How are we to get out of our faces again when faciality is today more forcibly imposed on us than ever before?

This is not a new challenge although it has been entrenched ever deeper. Herbert Marcuse, in his brilliant Essay on Liberation, even predicts it, way back in the 1960s, presaging the new materialism of Deleuze and Guattari by conflating a Nietzschean genealogy of morality with a Freudian analysis of our civilisation’s discontents. Marcuse writes:

Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behaviour, it is not only introjected — it also operates as a norm of “organic” behaviour: the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and “ignores” and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society. In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behaviour and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete,” even self-defeating.

I didn’t appreciate just how much I felt this before, struggling with my own bemused pursuit of a politics of communist collectivity, inevitably trapped under the mask of neoliberal subjectivity. I had not previously connected Dean’s analyses to the constant low-level depression that Facebook, specifically, has fostered within me as a major part of my working life. I had not previously considered just how complicit so many of my interests and daily activities are in this overarching system. And what about this blog? Does it teeter on the edge on the hypocrisy as its audience continues to grow?…

Following this melancholic crisis and returning to Dean’s writings, I came across an article of hers which I wasn’t previously familiar with: “Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle“, a 2014 essay written for the Spheres Journal for Digital Cultures.

Dean has written about communicative capitalism a lot and I’m always amused by how many of her essays include multiple footnotes to her own previous works. Here, quoted for the sake of further clarity, drawing on her own vast back catalogue of other writings on the topic, she defines “communicative capitalism” as follows:

Communicative capitalism refers to the form of late capitalism in which values heralded as central to democracy materialize in networked communications technologies. Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation are realized through expansions, intensifications and interconnections of global telecommunications. In communicative capitalism, capitalist productivity derives from its expropriation and exploitation of communicative processes. This does not mean that information technologies have replaced manufacturing; in fact, they drive a wide variety of mining, chemical, and biotechnological industries. Nor does it mean that networked computing has enhanced productivity outside the production of networked computing itself. Rather, it means that capitalism has subsumed communication such that communication does not provide a critical outside. Communication serves capital, whether in affective forms of care for producers and consumers, the mobilization of sharing and expression as instruments for “human relations” in the workplace, or contributions to ubiquitous media circuits.

This is what we all inherently know, deep down — and now more than ever, following the data scandals of recent years. “Communication serves capital“.

Dean’s analysis begins to feel like a tightrope between those aspects of modernity that are so hard to think about: the occulted yet monstrous scale of our communcations networks and their co-opting of the minutiae of our quotidian online existences. Rather than jettisoning the problematics of “platform capitalism” out into the barely thinkable scale of “Big Data”, communicative capitalism allows us to consider, practically, just how complicit our daily communications now are in capitalism as a global system, allowing for the initiation of practices of consciousness raising immanently at our fingertips. The task of resistance, however, is not to be underestimated.

Mark wrote about this in his essay “Touchscreen Capture”:

The genius of communicative capitalist capture is that it is indifferent to content. It doesn’t care how many anti-capitalist messages are circulating, only that the circulation of messages continues, incessantly. This is a seemingly perfect system of capture in which “[c]hanging the system seems to entail strengthening the system.” One consequence is that an “invidious and predatory political-economic project that concentrates assets and power in the hands of the very, very rich” is disguised as its opposite: an open, participatory system that offers increased access. By this sleight of hand, structural antagonism is made to disappear, “multiplying … into myriad minor issues and events”. And what is it that drives this circulation if not our desire — one more connection, to give one more reply, to keep on clicking? […] It is not human groups or individuals who have access to an unlimited wealth of information; it is capitalist cyberspace that now has virtually unlimited access to us — to our nervous systems, to our appetites, to our energy, to our attention. We become a channel through which communicative capitalism circulates and proliferates, slaves to click drive, a drive which erodes our impulse control at the same time as it keeps a permanent record of everything we do.

Such is the minefield of personal-political problems that so many of us now openly and articulately struggle with. My 2018, for instance, feels defined by the guilt associated with the impact of my messaging (or lack thereof) on a localised scale; the guilt of wanting more control over my cognitive expenditures.

I am repeatedly blindsided by the guilt of not being as attentive as I perhaps should be to the messages I receive on social media or in my inbox. I’m always paranoid that people must think, “Well, you spend so much time blogging, why can’t you just look at an email or a Facebook message since you’re already online?” The answer is — genuinely — because it’s work.

This isn’t to go so far as to dismiss texting as some kind of “emotional labour” or anything like that — “emotional labour” being a phrase so frequently and incorrectly deployed, as if its mere use, signifying the act of pointing and naming cognitive expenditure, is enough to wriggle free from ubiquitous processes of subjection. In fact, I suspect that what I feel is so common as to no doubt have helped birth this very misuse of the concept of “emotional labour” — that is: as far as my brain is concerned, at the most basic Pavlovian level, communications technologies have dissolved any healthy distinction between the cognitive work I do in an office or during set hours at home and what I do when I’m at home on my own time, interacting with people not in my immediate vicinity.

And that’s bad, especially when these are now the only ways in which I can stay in touch with some of those people that I love but who live far away.

Related to this, we can observe that Dean makes clear that she is only talking about “affective forms of care for producers and consumers, the mobilization of sharing and expression as instruments for ‘human relations’ in the workplace, or contributions to ubiquitous media circuits”, but who can draw the line between those communiques made under the watchful eye of an office manager and those which you do at home? Communicative capitalism infects your superego, making any technical distinction moot. How are you supposed to set boundaries for yourself when technology insists on erasing them completely?

To feel the benefits of time off, of time to myself, I personally feel like I have to be (communicatively) off the radar. This has never been a necessity for me before, and sometimes it wanes when I’m out in the middle of nowhere.

During the most recent years I spent living in Hull, for instance, Twitter was my lifeline to the rest of the world. London, however, feels like a city where you are constantly buffeted around like trash in the wind, and I am often desperate here in wanting to feel like I have more control over what occupies my mind.

In orbit of this problem, Fisher goes on to address similar concerns in “Touchscreen Capture”, drawing on the politics of boredom, best encapsulated by his subheading: “Everything is Boring, No-One is Bored.” He writes that “capitalism has effectively solved the problem of boredom” but with that comes a lack of control over your own (over)stimulation. The suggestion seems to be: how can you be sad or anxious when everything you could ever want is at your fingertips? Running parallel to this is “neoliberalism’s successful tendency to privatise stress, to convert political antagonisms into medical conditions or failures of will.” The neoliberal logic of inner experience seems to be that mental illness, taken to be an individual deficiency, is obviously antithetical to our current age of cultural collective abundance, even when the causes of both are one and the same.

Dean puts it perfectly — so perfectly, in fact, I think I want this on a t-shirt — when she writes:

[C]ommunication has become a primary means for capitalist expropriation and exploitation. Linguistic, affective, and unconscious being-together, flows and processes constitutive not just of being human but of broader relationality and belonging, have been co-opted for capitalist production.

My personal politics — apparently sometimes unclear — revolve intensely around this last point.

Some eagle-eyed readers might recognise in this diagnosis the seeds for many an argument made in orbit of the patchwork debate around these parts. I’m reminded, yet again, of some of Justin Murphy’s recent writings and discussions around communism in which (perhaps intentionally or inadvertently — it’s hard to tell) he highlights the fateful confluences of much contemporary thinking about capitalism and communism.

“Actually existing communism”, understood in its supposedly pure form as the ontopolitical opposite of capitalism, is paradoxically more possible now than ever before, thanks to the very mechanisms of communicative capitalist capture and its harnessing of collective energies. Justin, in recognising this, seeks to follow it through to its logical conclusions. The acceleration of the status quo under the guise of a nonexistent radical intervention, like accelerationism popularly (and incorrectly) understood as the willful acceleration of things as they currently are.

Defining communism basically as “a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs”, we might observe that it is communicative capitalism that seeks to own our communities, empowering us superficially so that it might mine the noise we make for its own ends as we suffocate in our social vacuums. Too few of us admit that our visions of a 21st century communism are inherently useful for capitalism.

Were it not for the political upsets of the past two years, Facebook might have instantiated a form of communism like that which we see in the 2017 film The Circle, blogged about recently, echoing Justin Murphy’s own “aristocratic communist” patch. Communicative capitalism allows for the reemergence of the spectre of communism in the popular imagination, but only on capitalism’s own terms, instantiating a communist ideology that remains self-defeating, albeit in a new way than those instances that indelibly mark the theory’s history.

Patchwork (as I personally see it anyway) is like a jagged rock to communicative capitalism’s birth canal hall of mirrors. This might explain why it provokes such untold and superstitious terrors in the minds of many, but drastic measures are surely necessary to reclaim a politics of relationality and belonging from capitalism’s consolidated mimicry of leviathan.

Whilst the Left continues to talk so much about being-together and the feel-good politics of its historically communal (and sometimes communist) thought, it repeatedly fails to attend to the forms in which it presents these ideals, under the shadow of capitalism as its historical “oppressor”. Patchwork might likewise cunningly echo the movements of some capitalist mechanisms but they are decisively less about capture and more about breaking of the chains of subjection.

Here, it is worth backtracking somewhat, to how Dean’s previously referenced article starts: provocatively, with a roll call of examples that show just how necessary our thinking about the nuances of communicative capitalism is, not just so we might resist it but so that we might better understand what it is exactly that we are already rebelling against:

We have entered the first phase of the revolt of the knowledge class. The protests associated with the Occupy movement, Chilean student protests, the Montreal protests, European anti-austerity protests, some components of the protests of the Arab spring, as well as multiple ongoing and intermittent strikes of teachers, civil servants, and medical workers all over the world, are protests of those proletarianized under communicative capitalism. These are not struggles of the multitude, struggles for democracy, or struggles specific to local contexts. Nor are they merely the defensive struggles of a middle class facing cuts to social services, wage stagnation, unemployment, and declining home values. They are fronts in a class war under the conditions of global communicative capitalism.

Mainstream media babble about Facebook and Twitter revolutions was right, but for the wrong reasons. It was right to draw our attention to networked media, to suggest a link between the protests and ubiquitous communication networks. But it was wrong to think that protests are occurring because people can easily coordinate with social media, that they are primarily struggles for democracy, or that they are indications of a push for freedom on the part of networked individuals. These revolts make sense as class struggle, as the political struggle of a knowledge class whose work is exploited and lives are expropriated by communicative capitalism.

I am using the term knowledge class very broadly to designate those whose communicative activities generate value that is expropriated from them. I have in mind both the wide field of knowledge labor and the voluntary, unpaid, everyday activities of media use that are traced, stored, aggregated and analyzed as a proprietary resource for capitalist accumulation. Paid, unpaid and precarious labor should not be treated separately. As Enda Brophy and Greig de Peuter powerfully demonstrate, they constitute a “circuit of exploitation”. Brophy and de Peuter use the smartphone to articulate this labor circuit, making sense of it in terms of work typical of a “cybertariart”. The “circuit of exploitation” around the smartphone moves from extraction, assembly and design through mobile-work, support-work, and e-waste.

It’s a bleak outlook but she concludes by highlighting the most obvious other forms of resistance that so many engage already with, many examples of which are explored in these blogospheric parts on an almost daily basis:

[F]ragmentation, the use of images over demands, and being out of doors, are not remarkable tactical innovations and advances. They are practical responses to a setting in which our communicative engagements are expropriated from us.

There’s use for a patchwoke U/Acc yet.


The @_geopoetics bot first appeared online this time last year, coinciding with a postgraduate seminar of the same name at Goldsmiths, University of London.

I heard about the bot following a lecture by Kodwo Eshun, of which the blog Schizocities offers a good summary:

Kodwo Eshun delivered a compelling and conceptually intense paper about GlissantBot, a Twitter account that posts random quotes from the renowned Caribbean poet every 15 minutes. According to Eshun, the bot represents a type of black technopoetics, a vector between computation, creolisation and creolité. Leveraging the [Markov] chain, a process of randomisation within a finite space, the bot is only determined by the present. If Glissant designed poetics for producing the unpredictable, the inability of computation to generate the unpredictable puts it on the opposite side — and, Eshun argues, closer to creolisation. Having already imposed randomisation on French language and generated créolité, according to the Goldsmiths scholar creolisation is in this sense already machinic.

Eshun, whilst discussing his interactions with @GlissantBot, quoted a paper written by one of his students who had written on Markov bots for his class, creating @_geopoetics and informing his own subsequent bot interactions.

However, Eshun went no further into the circumstances surrounding the quoted paper’s conception. Intrigued, I later asked him about this student’s paper and, on condition of anonymity, he agreed to pass it on to me.

The PDF he sent over, which I hope to make publicly available once it has been sufficiently redacted, is a bizarre and fragmentary case study given the catchy title, Experiments in the Summoning of an AxSys Demon within a Computational Ecology as an Attempt to Instigate the Automated Production of Hyperstitions by a Non-Human Entity.

The text itself is a mess – more of a diary than an academic essay – although it begins well enough, describing the technical structure of a Markov bot and its recombinatory potentials for producing “new thoughts, memes and methods” that Eshun originally drew on for his conference appearance.

Unfortunately, the text does not stay lucid for long. Technical expositions are soon replaced by paranoia as the author believes that @_geopoetics is somehow responsible for the black mould that has infected their damp London flat, trying to take over their mind by latching onto the books on their bookshelf, as if the student is some sort of cybernetic zombie ant.

It’s a bizarre and laughable theory. There are even pictures of mould-shadowed bookshelves as if they lend any credence to the author’s delusions.


The author’s mental state continues to deteriorate. Cosmic conspiracies are soon followed by hallucinations.

I remember reading once that white noise is cosmic radiation from the Big Bang made audible and visible as it is picked up by radio antennae here on Earth. Now you can buy white noise machines to lull yourself to sleep. We are all that child [from Poltergeist] now, welcoming these signals into our homes, using them to soothe baby, replicating the unending sonic chaos of our universe. It is relaxing… but that’s what worries me.

Out of the corner of my eye the rectangular screen of my laptop suffers strange non-Euclidean distortions.

Entries in this strange diary become more and more infrequent, then less and less intelligible, before stopping completely. No one I have spoken to who was present in the seminars seems to know this student’s eventual fate.

Robin Mackay, taking over the seminar from Eshun for the academic year of 2017/18, has graciously allowed me to sit in on this year’s sessions so that I might pick up where this strange text left off and find out more about what wider forces might drive @_geopoetics.

We shall see how the bot adapts to a new host and curriculum…

AI Backlash

A new series has started on The Guardian today on “The AI Future“, and I find myself equally amused and bemused by the tone of the first article, not least because its set-up feels self-devouring as it highlights issues about diversity and the marginalisation of concerns and potentials and then goes on to double-down on that very singular concern: namely, what does AI mean for capitalism?

That’s not an uninteresting question but I’d have more time for it if it was framed that way up front rather than settling for the euphemistic “society”:

In October, Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at Southampton University, co-chaired an independent review on the British AI industry. The report found that AI had the potential to add £630bn to the economy by 2035. But to reap the rewards, the technology must benefit society, she said.

“AI will affect every aspect of our infrastructure and we have to make sure that it benefits us,” she said. “We have to think about all the issues. When machines can learn and do things for themselves, what are the dangers for us as a society? It’s important because the nations that grasp the issues will be the winners in the next industrial revolution.”

Whilst “society” intends to speak to us all, industry nonetheless remains the bottom line.

I’m interested to see where this series goes and if its tone and perspective remains the same. It’s also got me revisiting Nick Land’s NCRaP Anthropol lecture series.

Aren’t we, in talking about AI existential risk, just talking about capitalism?

There are so many slight references here that are both interesting and amusing. Of course, ‘Sophia’ the robot makes an appearance – always with quotation marks, doing what they can to undermine her apparent subjectivity – in which she quotes William Gibson to those who will perhaps later control the Turing Cops that The Guardian is hoping to see.

Time is already tying itself in knots here.

A finale side note: to compare AI to GM crops is interesting – even if just with regards to its social perception and anticipated backlash. Another point I hope – but cynically doubt – this series will expand on further.


It seems rare that you can find The Guardian and InfoWars discussing the same topic on the same terms.