The Philosophy of Salvagepunk:
XG at the Association for the Design of History

On 16th January at 21.00 UTC+1, I’ll be giving a talk at the Association for the Design of History.

I’ll be sharing some new research for this event, framing Evan Calder Williams and China Miéville’s concept of “salvagepunk” as the missing link between hauntology and accelerationism — two conceptual approaches to late capitalism that are often seen as opposed to one another but which can nonetheless be traversed diagonally and generatively.

You can find the Facebook event here (which will be updated with a YouTube streaming link in due course), and you can read my abstract for the talk below:

The Philosophy of Salvagepunk: On the Missing Link between Accelerationism and Hauntology

The mid-2000s were a melting pot of philosophical experimentation. New names and new positions were thrust into the open with a brash regularity. A few of these names and positions caught on, only to fall into disrepute. Hauntology — associated with Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, and initially borrowed from Jacques Derrida — was one such name. It spoke to the lingering presence of apparently thwarted cultural trends, and the effect of this haunting on emergent new movements. It was later denounced as a pretentious byword for middle-aged nostalgia, coming to represent the very tendency he sought to critique.

Another name was accelerationism, introduced to the blogosphere by Benjamin Noys and Alex Williams. Hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, accelerationism was a “political heresy” that sought to midwife political newness by gutting a conservative belief in the “end of history”. It, too, has fallen on its own sword, now a byword for society’s most reactionary tendencies in the 21st century — again, coming to represent the very thing it sought to critique.

Between these two maligned philosophies lies another that has managed to pass under the radar, successfully synthesising their individual sensibilities whilst avoiding the cannibalistic contradictions of contemporary critical theory. Its name is salvagepunk, coined by Evan Calder Williams and China Miéville.

This talk will consider what this missing link between accelerationism and hauntology can teach us today, and what its aesthetic considerations mean for any new cultural movement that hopes to design new spaces for future politics using the untapped potentials of past radicalisms. 

Covid Libertarianism and Capitalist Realism

Following on from yesterday’s response to a criticism of my Covid libertarianism post, I’ve only just noticed that Chris has weighed in with a very nice post of his own on Covid subjectivities. I had planned to go through Chris’s post but I actually find much to agree with here. Not that that is a surprise, but in going through it I fear this post will take the form of a series of long quotations broken up by me nodding along, adding very little…

I’m curious to see what more Chris might have to say following my earlier response to Adam. He does such an excellent job of bringing in the various complexities I discuss via Foucault. In fact, the amount of resonance between my second post and Chris’s made me think he was responding to yesterday’s post, not the original one from back in December!

With that being said, go check out Chris’s post, where he draws “business ontology” into the strange bouquet of Covid subjectivities and presages the Foucauldian hydra — “a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted” — that is produced by the libertarian dichotomy of individual and state.

I think our conclusions are largely complementary: “The viral cracking of the ground of subjectivity has opened up chasms with no clear options.” In my tendency towards the millenarian, I’m okay with a lack of clarity. “Baroque sunbursts” and all that…

Covid Libertarianism and Molecular Freedom

Adam has written a response to my previous post on Covid libertarianism on his blog. It collects together the myriad misunderstandings that have followed my post from readers on the right but it is at the very least clearly constructed, and therefore the first argument against my post I’m happy to respond to.

That being said, I’m sorry to say I found very little of value or insight here, but it does provide an opportunity to at least sharpen the argument, so let’s go through it.


To Adam, the main purpose of my previous post was to criticise the individualism that I see “underlying a lot of right-wing criticism of the lockdowns.” But I supposedly have a point: “a traditional liberal-humanist individualism is a flimsy foundation for anything”. This is because a liberal-humanist form of “individualism can pose various threats to a more molecular freedom; individualism does create new, subtler routes for state control.”

Except…Matt does not invoke molecular freedom at all in his piece (except peripherally via a Mark Fisher quotation), but focuses instead on collective freedom. He says To curtail our own individual freedoms for a common good ensures we regain our collective freedom sooner”. The phrases “common good” and “collective freedom” alone are enough to give me hives, but there’s something else being missed here: it was precisely collective freedom that the pandemic restrictions attacked.

I find this appeal to “molecular freedom” very bizarre, since my definition of collective freedom, which Adam quotes in italics, is precisely how molecular freedom functions, particularly at present… To consider the molecular is to consider individual or small parts, but precisely in their relationship to a larger whole. What Adam seems to be invoking is a far more atomistic view, focussing on the antagonisms that the right itself is perpetuating.

Let’s start with my peripherical invocation of molecular freedoms via Fisher, since that is apparently clear enough already. The molecular freedom that Fisher gets close to is Spinozist in nature, arguing that “individual liberty presupposes collective freedom”. It’s not that complicated a relation.

The molecular, philosophically speaking, is an interesting provocation in this regard because it complicates our causal understanding of any appeal to universalism. Collective freedom, understood molecularly, does not dissolve individuals into a mass to the extent they disappear from view. Rather, molecular freedom remains vigilant to the ways that individual molecules react and interact as part of a whole, whether that be biologically, ecologically, sociologically, et al. This is why the molecular is so important for Deleuze, for whom it instigates an inter-scalar philosophy of difference, from the microscopic to the cosmic, with human being produced in the fray.

Without getting too bogged down in the philosophical particulars, molecular freedom is a kind of individual freedom that understands itself in context. Any sense of individual freedom that does not understand itself in its relation to other beings is precisely the opposite of a “molecular” freedom. This is how Deleuze is able to “spiritualise dust” whilst, at the same time, pulverising the world (as he writes in The Fold). It is how he invokes the micropolitical and demonstrates its impact on a biopolitical whole; how new freedoms can be folded within new restrictions (and vice versa), making the political an innately creative endeavour always capable of producing new lines of flight. This is related to intersectionality, to molecular segmentarity, to seeing the connections between positions and perspectives — exactly the sort of considered thinking the wrecking-ball right seems to be incapable of, whether under the threat of the Covid pandemic or otherwise. Suffice it to say, with a little bit of consideration, Adam’s invocation of the molecular quickly becomes absurd.

He goes on to claim that, as far as I am concerned, “the only restriction made on our bodies was the imposition of mask-wearing”. This is not true. I simply highlighted masks as a positive example within a broader network of biopolitical failures. In fact, masks are the perfect example of how a molecular freedom is constituted. In wearing a mask, I am newly aware, under the pandemic, of having gained a new freedom — the freedom to hide my face — which I did not have previously. In this sense, it is a kind of heterotopic imposition, and the realisation it provokes pivots the world on its axis slightly, especially in a country where people who cover their faces for religious reasons have long been subject to all kinds of suspicions. It provides a new perspective on surveillance capitalism, which has had to quickly adapt to this new obstacle.

Wearing a mask, then, is a molecular freedom in the sense that this minor addition to my daily existence has reoriented by perspective on the world around me. It has meant I can move around my local town centre in ways I could not previously, but I also wear it because I understand that this new freedom is additional to the freedom it affords other people who are medically more at risk. Simply put, wearing a mask doesn’t really cost me anything — in fact, I gain a certain anonymity in a world where any semblance of it has been phased out — but it does allow more at-risk people to be reassured and to move around me more freely. Therefore, I do not see wearing a mask as a restriction — that was the point — precisely because I understand the effect that doing so has on my broader social relations.

[Update — 08/01/2020: Of course, there’s a meme perfectly encapsulating this argument now. See below.]

Nevertheless, attempting to refute an apparent claim about masks, Adam argues that “the injunction against our bodies freely coagulating into a mass was the biggest corporeal restriction.” Unfortunately, coagulating into a mass does not a molecular politics make. Adam’s choice of words here are increasingly telling. Coagulation — transforming from a liquid to a solid or semi-solid state — is an odd word to use in an apparent appeal towards freedom. It shows how the right desire reification over flux, precisely desiring their own subjugation whilst decrying that apparent tendency in others. It is contradiction all the way down, making the entire paragraph in which this line occurs ridiculous — and that’s without mentioning Adam’s invocation of “Covid-19 biopolitics”, a terrible bastardisation of what Foucault meant by that term.

This is blatantly apparent when Adam argues against the ban on groups coming together, suggesting that “it became clear quite fast that these mass gatherings did not even pose the kind of dangers that many expected”, linking to an article from Forbes illustrated by a mass gathering of Black Lives Matter protestors… all wearing masks.

The prevalence of masks at BLM protests is significant for all the same reasons listed above. They dampened the spread of the virus whilst also frustrating state surveillance. Gathering like that is still a risk, but it is a risk in numerous ways. Frankly, you’d be an idiot to go to a protest that politically sensitive and not wear a mask, virus or no virus, no matter what you’re fighting for. But even beyond the issue of masks, the BLM movement is molecular politics in action, understanding the micropolitical relations between peoples, practices and institutions. BLM understands that, yes, whilst mass gatherings are ill-advised, their anti-racist cause is synchronous with the broader biopolitical impact of the virus, which is affecting BAME working class communities more than anyone.

Far-right protestors, on the other hand, rather than develop a sensitivity to the relations between political causes, are more likely to protest the masks themselves. Because they cannot see the wood for the trees. They do not see how their actions prolong the restrictions they claim to be fighting against, because they lack any sort of functional understanding of biopolitical dynamics, despite paying lip service to them. They fail to understand how biopolitics is a contradictory set of relations and folds where individual and collective are entangled to produce contemporary (and, perhaps, a new future) subjectivity.

Their failure to comprehend these complex stakes is epitomised by Adam’s poor invocation of the molecular. In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is to avoid the obvious irony… Keep open the prisons, hospitals and schools, the right insists. Keep open those institutions that Foucault decried for their smothering infrastructures. Don’t take away my “molecular freedom”! But traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions are breeding grounds for the virus. The right mistakes “molecular freedom” for the free movement of molecules, especially those of the coronavirus itself.

This is somewhat paradoxical, of course, but it is a paradox that Foucault baked explicitly into his understanding of biopolitics, specifically in the lectures entitled “Society Must Be Defended”. What Foucault describes here is the way that a “disciplinary” form of bodily control has been implemented because disease catastrophically disrupts productivity. In the final lecture, he goes into some detail about the transitions that have taken place regarding how societies are controlled, which were the direct result of the state’s emergent disease-consciousness. He connects an increased awareness of illness during the eighteenth century with the state development of a medical establishment, for instance, suggesting that societies are coagulated into population masses so that they can be better understood epidemiologically. He notes how, at the end of the eighteenth century, “it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else — what might broadly be called endemics, or in other words, the form, nature, extension, duration and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population.” Increasingly, diseases like smallpox, cholera, measles, the plague, et al., “were not regarded as epidemics that caused more frequent deaths, but as permanent factors which … sapped the population’s strength, shortened the working week, wasted energy, and cost money, both because they led to a fall in production and because treating them was expensive.” And so disease control is developed for the sake of the economy. As with most things, medical institutions are not created in accordance with the Hippocratic oath alone but in order to service capitalist productivity.

I don’t think the right are presently arguing against disease control for the sake of anti-capitalism, however. They have bizarrely turned this logic on its head, confounded by their distrust of the state which they oppose to the extent that they smother the very world they’re desperate to get back to.

This is why I previously invoked Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, which no critic has engaged with and which Adam has clumsily trampled all over. The right is dogmatically refusing to kowtow to apparently new restrictions on their freedom not because they want to escape contemporary control societies but because they would rather get back to a previous form of disciplinary society that, arguably, hasn’t existed for decades. It’s the mythic oasis of national sovereignty and imperial greatness applied to contemporary biopolitics — the individual as Brexit-state in miniature. It’s moronic, plain and simple.

I’m of the opinion that this sort of thinking manifests because the epidemics Foucault describes as catalysts for control were wholly jettisoned from the first-world Western mind. Around the time that HIV/AIDs was a thing, diseases became things that other people had — subalterns in particular. Disease is what you get when you don’t conform. Now, we abide by this level of biopolitical control having forgotten the threat that implemented it in the first place, and sit back as it further erodes our freedoms in other contexts. We look over at Asia and blame them for the virus, all the while bemused that they’ve managed to contain it far better than we have. Because they are used to this kind of threat. In the West, on the other hand, when the threat of an epidemic — worse still, a pandemic — arises anew and the medical-industrial complex previously set up to deal with such issues reveals itself to be untested and ill-equipped when faced with something of this scale, the right soils itself. It fails to see the irony of how it once treated the wrong kind of nonconformist. But that’s because what the right seems to be turning away from isn’t conformity, so much as it rejects any potential retooling of society.

At the start of the pandemic, the media rippled with radical suggestions along these lines, wondering aloud about the future of work and whether the pandemic might finally disrupt our previous complacency regarding an unnecessary and ecologically-damaging drive to always be productive. As Foucault notes, biomedical control was implemented precisely to retain societal productivity but now that level of control is unfit for purpose, and so productivity takes a hit. Business as usual is interrupted. The left starts to think about new ways of organising themselves once this is all over. It is clear that, if we want to “take back control”, we have to change how we understand control to be implemented. We appear to be on the brink of a new transition. Foucault wrote at length on these transitions in the twentieth century and Deleuze produced a posthumous capstone for his thought on the societies of control. But we are likely entering a new era, and the right is ill-equipped to weather the storm. It misunderstands the Foucauldian project at hand and how, “rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their power they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects” — as the average Covid-libertarian loves to do — “we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.”

We have already discussed this regarding how masks normalise hiding your face, undermining surveillance and thereby forcing surveillance systems to adapt. But what if we could get one step ahead, fundamentally transforming work relations? Not by relinquishing certain rights for the sake of the virus, as some have naively advocated, but using it to enforce the implementation of new rights previously maligned.

Instead, the right, as it is wont to do, starts screaming about the wrong issues. Rather than adapt and open up a previously closed system to new possibilities, they attempt to retreat to an earlier form of “disciplinary” society that hasn’t exists for decades, demonstrating their own lack of imagination. It is in this sense, as argued last time, that the right’s sense of freedom is anemic. They invert the argument, protesting new disease control measures precisely because they are keeping us from our familiar subjugations, only to have the gall to ask others why they are so willing to embrace these new impositions.

Precisely because it shows that the world they’re clinging onto is over. We should be getting ready for what comes next.

Polemics aside, I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the anxieties produced by this situation. For many, the virus has produced a very difficult situation. I lost my job at the start of the pandemic and have had to wholly reorganise my life and even move city to account for the change in financial circumstances. But as far as my working life goes, I’m better off than I was before the pandemic. In no longer being under the thumb of poor office management, I’m fully in control of my own schedule and working hours, and I look forward to being even more better-off (mentally at least) afterward this is all over. That’s not the same for everyone, of course, and things are made all the more difficult by the state’s reluctance to offer up adequate financial support. (If you’re a libertarian, I suppose that’s by-the-by.) Nevertheless, I see a better future ahead for all, but only if we learn from the lessons of the pandemic. That takes some courage, though, and plenty of imagination.

I think what terrifies so many — state and subject alike — about coronavirus is the considerable possibility that this kind of pandemic is the “new normal”. We may get Covid-19 under control, but we are already seeing new variants emerge. The response to this is obviously not to just keeping going as we have been, hiding away in our homes forever in case of any new virus. There will be a time that transmission rates are low enough that returning to a more public life makes sense. But, in the long-term, society as a whole will need to adapt to the presence of new coronaviruses, and how it adapts and in favour of what form of life remains an open question.

Rather than pondering this question with hope for a better future, the right seems to be insisting on a conservative self-harm that preserves suddenly outdated forms of social organising, despite the impact on the population and, therefore, on the economy they hold so dear. In the process, they fail to see how the exercising of their “freedoms” negatively impacts the freedoms of others. They fail to adapt. It is in that sense that my previous post still stands — and largely unscathed too, I think.

Covid libertarianism is nothing more than a conservatism unwilling to adapt to new risks. They don’t want this crisis to be over; they only wish that it never started. They are fighting for the return of old forms of control, rather than seeing how present restrictions challenge them fundamentally and open up new possibilities for change if approached in the right way. But they’re not smart enough for that.

The right looks backwards and focuses on minor impositions, whilst the left focuses on what freedoms it might gain once this is over. That’s a truly molecular politics, in more ways than one.

Junk Capital:
On the Anti-Burrovian Trajectory of Nick Land

In his recollection of his time at the University of Warwick, as a student studying under Nick Land, Robin Mackey describes how, then as now, Land’s reputation preceded him:

Before I met Land, I already knew of him through the gossip of new undergraduates taken aback by what they had heard on the grapevine: Did Land really claim that he had come back from the dead? Did he really think he was an android sent from the future to terminate human security? In person he belied these outrageous claims (both of which he did indeed make in writing), being thoroughly polite and amiable and, above all, willing to engage in earnest conversation with anyone. He had paid his philosophical dues and could hold his own in a discussion with any professor; these discussions often turning vituperative, however, as Land railed against the institution and its conservatism. But he preferred to spend his time in the bar with undergraduates, always buying the drinks, smoking continually, and conversing animatedly (and where possible, vehemently) about any topic whatsoever.

If Land preferred to spend his time with undergraduates, it was perhaps because he was fascinated, as Mackay notes, by “the sensibilities of the first generation … to have grown up surrounded by technology.” Today, such sensibilities are a bottomless source for parental panics but, for Land, they signalled exciting times ahead. As Mackay writes: “The unbridled production of new brands of erotic adventure within capitalism” had the potential to usher in a cyberpunk “transformation of the human, cutting its bonds with the (cultural, familial, and ultimately biological) past and opening it up to new, inorganic distributions of affect.” It is arguably this same belief in the revolutionary potential of youth that has allowed Land’s work to continue to circulate through myriad young cybercultures in more recent years as well.

This technology that the young are ever-increasingly surrounded by, however, was not and is not inert. The transformation then underway was particular. To be surrounded by technology was, more or less, to be surrounded by globalised capitalism. Youth culture from the 1990s onwards was beholden to the structural possibilities of work and play that capitalism itself was selecting for. Though the future seemed open ended, with the benefit of hindsight we can see how the bottleneck of the present was prefigured, by hollowing out the countercultures once synonymous with anti-capitalism but which were increasingly synonymous with the excitations of the system itself. At around that same time, Timothy Leary updated his famous phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” for the PC era, advising people instead to “turn on, boot up, jack in.” Counter-cultures were, at that moment, the new capitalist cultures of the dot.com era.

This was of particular interest to Land, who was (and, arguably, remains) deeply engaged in the cultural implications of free-market capitalism, following its ultimate victory during the Thatcher-Reagan years and following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The issue for Land’s critics is that his interests only served to shake up a philosophical conservativism rather than a more political one — something that is blatantly apparent in the present. His philosophy was born from the moment that conservatism, broadly speaking, began its own modernisation process. When accelerationism was christened in 2008, this is why it was post-Landian. Land accounted for a moment when the ratchet of modernity was cranked up several notches. He planted the seeds for a new philosophy in a heretically Badiouian sense, birthing a new thought that could do justice to the new political, socioeconomic and scientific advances of its era. However, we have been stuck in that era for some time now, atrophying along its over-worked vectors. Land’s relevance persists because neoliberalism does. For most, this persistence is more a sign of our stagnation than of a newly-emergent right-wing radicality.

But surely even Land himself would admit that the mundane present capitalism has provided us with is far from what he too believed was to come. Consider, for example, Land’s cyberpunk interventions in the day-to-day runnings of an up-tight academic institution like the University of Warwick in the 1990s. These activities were not protests against capitalism but celebrations of its innately mutative nature, revolutionising the structure of the university as an institution, the way it was run, and the ways teaching, research and writing were done inside its hallowed walls. At its most innocuous, this could be seen in the Ccru’s favouring of the Internet over stuffy academic journals. In universities today, however, this mutative process has borne only rotten fruit. Indeed, whilst it is hard to deny that the unsentimental march of marketisation has radically transformed “The University” as an institution, with the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to imagine how anyone deemed the potentials of such a process to be exciting in the slightest.

Nevertheless, for Land at least, they were exciting, but not just because capitalism could transform his own place of work. Bootstrapped to every mode of production within society, the accelerative nature of capitalism was transforming every human endeavour along with it. The impact of capitalism on writing, in particular, provided new vectors for experimentation and, therefore, new vectors for thought as well. As Mackay explains, Land sought “to intensify capitalism’s undoing of language through new practices of writing, speaking, and thinking”.

In this regard, we might say that Land was to a Nineties cyberculture as William Burroughs had been to the Beat generation before him. Burroughs, too, was concerned with the “technology of writing” — that utilitarian function of language that is taught in schools, and arguably the only type of writing that can be taught.

“There is a definite technology for the negative use of words to cause confusion, to create and aggravate conflicts, and to discredit opponents”, Burroughs writes. However, for him, this is “the opposite of what a writer does.” The writer is more like a magician, going far beyond the accepted technological bounds of a given medium and sending new weapons back from the future, in order to counter the technology of writing that is “developed in the mass media … refined in Life and Time, and carried still further by the CIA in some subsidized literary periodicals.” Land, instead, flattened the circle in accordance with the new era, plugging into the networks Burroughs was most suspicious of. Suddenly, the technology of writing was colliding with new writings on technology. Over the decades since, it seems the generative tension between the two, for Land at least, has struggled to sustain itself.

It is nonetheless worth bearing in mind Burroughs’ appraisal of the written word and the myriad ways it is used and abused. Whereas Walter Benjamin had one argued that the aesthetisation of politics is a key weapon in the armoury of any fascist regime, for Burroughs this process is innate to writing itself. Writing is never not political and it is never not pursued under some sort of aesthetic guise. Writing, then, is the form of political aestheticisation that we witness every day, both for the better and for the worse — and this is no minor accusation to come from someone like Burroughs, who has dedicated their life to the very medium they distrusted most.

Burroughs was a literary accelerationist, in this sense. He intensified the cascading conundrums of modern language to break the illusion of a “common” (or, rather, an ideologically mass-mediated) sense and introduce into capitalism a newly virulent surreality. From within the depths of its confounding currents, Burroughs single-handedly short-circuited the system that swirled around him and supercharged its most ubiquitous weapon — language — towards new processes.

Land, whilst sympathetic to and heavily influenced by Burroughs’ work, updated his insights to a new era, contaminating language with numbers. Through the heretical deployment of gematria — the assigning of numerical value to letters, producing new modes of connection and resonance; a practice associated with various ancient religions, and particularly Judaism — Land intensified not just language itself but capitalism’s alphanumerical relationship to thought, wholly recasting Burroughs’ notorious relationship between writing and drugs.

This is to say that capital was to Land as junk had been to Burroughs — and Land’s self-destructive relationship with late-capitalism was certainly as generative and morally ambiguous as Burroughs’ entanglements had been before him.

Just as Burroughs had once described heroin — “junk” — as a “transitional” drug, operating “between living and dead matter, between animal and vegetable life”, to the extent that it is hard to “avoid the feeling that junk is in some way alive”, Land saw capital as a similarly transitional (but exceedingly more abstract) substance that was zombifying labour relations and production in all its guises. As in Burroughs’ visions of a drug-addicted mid-century America, Land’s capital is not just a concern for Wall Street junkies but everyone. Even anti-capitalists — just like the narcotics agents in Burroughs’ novels — are caught up in their “special relation” to capital. But this clandestine networking of desires and addictions, power and control, remains obfuscated from those on the outside of this obscured but nonetheless pervasive counter-culture, who are concerned but easily manipulated.

As such, we can imagine Land echoing Burroughs at almost every heretical turn. “Official propaganda opposes any factual statement about [capital], so that almost nothing accurate has been written on the subject.” Accuracy is not to be found in the objective reporting of financial journalists and economists, nor on the bank statements of everyday people; an accurate portrayal of capitalist life can only be written by a cut-up, jacked-up, fucked-up subject who feels its controlling influence pumping through their veins; who desires it, knows its many names, and feels the hum from those blackened alleyways of knowledge that the addict is most likely to find it in.

Land was one such subject, and yet he also seemed to embrace a wholly anti-Burrovian position. He was Burroughs come full circle, from anti-capitalist to hyper-capitalist. After all, Burroughs was a writer who, like Land, was no stranger to serious controversy, but even he was adverse to “the Ugly Spirit” of the “acquisitive evil” that is American capitalism. Unlike Land, Burroughs saw his own intensive writing practice as a way to resist capital’s dark possession. Land, instead, saw writing as its ultimate possessive vector; as a way to let capitalism (further) in.

Peak Boring Dystopia:
On the Legacy of FarmVille

“Boring dystopia” is a real Mark Fisher sleeper hit — an “anti-Facebook Facebook group”. In Roisin Kiberd’s evergreen report on the group for Vice, she describes what it was used for:

Members shared pictures of an England rarely seen in the meticulously filtered world of social media: mundane, unlovely images of broken machinery and canned Christmas dinners, tattered shop signs and CCTV cameras watching over decaying streets. A short description served as a prompt: “Neoliberal England is a boring dystopia. Here’s why.”

It captured a culturally flattened England, one filled with human drones herded along by automated voices. It was an in-joke, the antithesis to Facebook’s smarm and kneejerk sentiment, operating from within Facebook itself.

It epitomised the closed-loop of our contemporary moment, using that ultimate time-sinker as a platform for raising consciousness about itself. With delicious irony, Mark summarises the group’s argument to Roisin very succinctly and efficiently: “The point is always made that capitalism is efficient, people say ‘You might not like it, but it works.’ But Britain is not efficient. Instead it’s stuck in a form of frenzied stasis.”

It is a classic Fisher paradox, and arguably his personal brand of accelerationism in action — using the addictive, crowd-sourced clickathon mechanisms of Facebook to undermine Facebook itself (and the technologically-underwhelming world it was helping to establish) from within. This was his form of salvagepunk in practice, and it was insanely successful. Far better than the inanity that passes for memetic praxis on Facebook today…


Fast-forward half a decade and The New York Times recently reported that FarmVille, the Facebook farming simulator, was shutting down after it had previously taken the social network by storm a decade earlier.

Truth be told, I have vague stoned memories of clicking away at FarmVille during my first year at university in 2011, but I’d since completely forgotten it existed until New Year’s Eve 2020, when the article by Daniel Victor went live.

Despite the game’s demise, Victor notes, somewhat insidiously, that “FarmVille lives on in the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth-hacking techniques it perfected, now baked into virtually every site, service and app vying for your attention.”

A familiar name appears in Victor’s article: Ian Bogost, original member of the 2000s blogosphere, who says that “the behaviors FarmVille normalized had made it a pace car for the internet economy of the 2010s.” Victor continues:

He did not mean that as praise.

The game encouraged people to draw in friends as resources to both themselves and the service they were using, Mr. Bogost said. It gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon, he said.

“The internet itself is this bazaar of obsessive worlds where the goal is to bring you back to it in order to do the thing it offers, in order to get your attention and serve ads against it or otherwise derive value from that activity,” he said.

It’s funny that the article goes on to note that FarmVille taught Facebook some “important lessons”. FarmVille, like many other mobile games of its generation, was notorious for how often it would ping you and your friends, trying to get you back onto the game. But not by “promoting a conversation between you and your friends, or encouraging you to spend time together within the game space … It’s really just a mechanic of clicking a button.”

I seldom use Facebook these days. I usually only go on it after my birthday, when people inevitably leave messages on my ghost profile and I don’t want to look like the sort of prick who just ignores genuine well-wishers. But I am always struck by how, when I do go on, there is always at least a dozen notifications waiting for me. They’re usually not about anything explicitly relevant to me — there is an event upcoming in your area (it’s usually not); your friend posted something (that’s cool, I guess) — but there they are, waiting for a click.

I’ve no doubt this experience is near-universal, among regular and sporadic users alike. Point being: FarmVille may be gone, but what does it matter when Facebook is FarmVille.

I wrote about this already last year, after watching the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which specifically engages with how these FarmVille tactics are used by the far-right to radicalise your kids. The problem with that documentary for me is that it never mentions the elephant in the room, which is capitalism. It talks about all the bad consequences and why we need to change something but it never once skewers the primary reason why these attention-seeking tactics have been developed in the first place — to advertise; to sell your attention; to make money.

The same issue lingers in the background of the NYT article. The question asked, somewhat fleetingly, is: Are these platforms actually making us more social or are they just selling our attention? Conversely: Are these platforms really boredom-alleviators or are they just selling our boredom by perpetuating it with bottomless timelines and endless notifications? The argument is, perhaps, that they’re trying to do both… But they clearly can’t without consequence.

With FarmVille, the analogy basically writes itself. Facebook isn’t a social network, it is a click farm. In 2020, they don’t need the pretense of a boredom-alleviating farming simulator to function effectively. They can cut out the middle man.


Fisher again, on boredom:

The dreary void of Sundays, the night hours after television stopped broadcasting, even the endless dragging minutes waiting in queues or for public transport: for anyone who has a smartphone, this empty time has now been effectively eliminated. In the intensive, 24/7 environment of capitalist cyberspace, the brain is no longer allowed any time to idle; instead, it is inundated with a seamless flow of low-level stimulus.

Yet boredom was ambivalent; it wasn’t simply a negative feeling that one simply wanted rid of. For punk, the vacancy of boredom was a challenge, an injunction and an opportunity: if we are bored, then it is for us to produce something that will fill up the space. Yet, it is through this demand for participation that capitalism has neutralised boredom. Now, rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored.

But if the contemporary form of capitalism has extirpated boredom, it has not vanquished the boring. On the contrary — you could argue that the boring is ubiquitous. For the most part, we’ve given up any expectation of being surprised by culture — and that goes for “experimental” culture as much as popular culture. Whether it is music that sounds like it could have come out twenty, thirty, forty years ago, Hollywood blockbusters that recycle and reboot concepts, characters and tropes that were exhausted long ago, or the tired gestures of so much contemporary art, the boring is everywhere. It is just that no one is bored — because there is no longer any subject capable of being bored. For boredom is a state of absorption — a state of high absorption, in fact, which is why it is such an oppressive feeling. Boredom consumes our being; we feel we will never escape it. But it is just this capacity for absorption that is now under attack, as a result of the constant dispersal of attention, which is integral to capitalist cyberspace. If boredom is a form of empty absorption, then more positive forms of absorption effectively counter it. But it is these forms of absorption which capitalism cannot deliver. Instead of absorbing us, it distracts from the boring.

DOOMscrolling

2020 was a piece of shit mostly spent doomsrolling and there’s a sick irony that I couldn’t tear myself away from obituaries for MF DOOM on New Years Eve.

I tweeted about it, in the spur of the moment, initially remembering the disappointment felt at a gig where Madlib was playing and interrupted his set with the words “DOOM ain’t coming”, and then said nothing more. A lot of people left — a striking image when you’ve already got someone of Madlib’s stature on stage.

There’s lots to be said and that has been said about KMD and Mm..Food and Madvillainy and everything he touched, frankly, but 2009’s Born Like This was huge for me. It didn’t hit immediately. In fact, it wasn’t until my first year of uni that it clicked. But it really clicked.

The tweet below from Elena Bergeron made me think of that slow process of getting on DOOM’s rhythm a decade ago:

MF DOOM’s mere presence made everything — rap, writing, the world — feel more expansive, more possible. RIP

Originally tweeted by Elena Bergeron (@ElenaBergeron) on December 31, 2020.

That’s how Born Like This felt — expansive. The cover was perfect. It felt exactly like a Rosetta Stone for some future music, or like DOOM’s Golden Record beamed down from his underground lair on Mars.

Hip hop has always loved its superheroes and supervillains but DOOM was the one who really felt otherworldly in his abilities. He was the real deal. Magic on the mic.

2020: The Year in Review

It’s been a busy year of boredom, books, blogposts and bust-ups.

Usually, at this time of year, I write some meandering post summarising the last twelve months, reflecting a bit on all that has happened. This year, in 2020, I honestly don’t have the energy.

It has been a year defined, in my mind, by an almost unfathomable inactivity… And yet, at the same time, I published two books, went to my first academic conference (where I was the keynote), travelled abroad to talk about what I do, taught a class at the RCA, taught a course online, appeared on a dozen podcasts, started my own podcast, started a reading group, had blogposts translated into two languages, made friends, lost friends, moved house, gained weight, lost weight, quit smoking (again), met some of my heroes, mourned some of my heroes, walked a lot, read a lot, took a lot of photos.

To summarise all the ups and downs here would just give me trauma flashbacks, so let’s just say 2020 was big.

Some end-of-year stats… The blog has had upwards of 150,000 views — almost double what was clocked up in 2019. 10% of those views were for last year’s U/Acc Primer. People are clearly still hungry for an introduction to accelerationism — thankfully, I’m 60,000 words into a new book on the subject; Patreons can read the preface here.

Otherwise, I posted 290 times over the year, clocking up some 352,000 words. If you’re new to the blog or just want to catch up — lol — here’s everything (worth mentioning) that I posted over the last twelve months, roughly organised into topics. You can catch up on every other year of blogging over in the archive.

See you next year.


Essays Elsewhere

Events, Podcasts, A/V

Mark Fisher (Egress, Postcapitalist Desire, etc.)

Accelerationism

Politics

Culture Wars (On TERF Bullshit, the Alt-Right, and Other Idiocy)

Xenofeminism

Covid-19 and Quarantine

Hauntology

Body Horror, Anecdotal Theory and Writing About Writing

Music

Film & TV

Video Games

Literature

Music, Film, TV, Literature and/or Video Games

Buddies Without Organs

Reza Negarestani and Cyclonopedia

Philosophical Miscellanea

Photography

“To Take a Walk Like…”

General Miscellanea

Patreon Posts

“There is a world to be transformed”:
Interview in Terrabayt

Many thanks to Ege Çoban and Koray Kırmızısakal for sending over questions about my recent work on Mark Fisher and my interests more generally.

I’m really pleased with how this came out. Written interviews aren’t so in vogue at the moment but I prefer them infinitely to any other kind — duh, I’m a writer, and a waffling and stuttery speaker.

It was also a really nice opportunity to talk about how my own interests link up with present and future writing projects. I particularly relished the opportunity to think about the geophilosophical impact of Hull on my own thinking — something I’ve written about for a forthcoming project from ŠUM Journal, actually. More on that soon…

You can read the interview in English here. A Turkish translation is apparently forthcoming.