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Beyond Capitalist Horizons: Future Interfaces

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Capitalism; you might have heard of it, you almost definitely have encountered it, and everyone’s talking about it. Capitalism is such a well worn topic by this point that indeed for some it becomes a “cliche”, and at risk of denouncing what is going to be a post discussing capitalism at length, one might be tempted to agree with them. It may indeed sound like a broken record at points; one encounters an issue, poverty, exploitation, catastrophe, collapse, and someone pipes up with “you know the problem? Capitalism”, and because of this it’s tempting to write it off as an annoyance, like an incessantly repetitive noise, an alarm that one might flail at at 6 in the morning in frustration. The thing about that morning alarm however, is that you probably set it for a reason. At that moment it feels like an impolite intrusion on your rest, something you just want to get rid of, but beyond this is the knowledge that it has a point. The alarm to wake you up at a certain time, and anti-capitalism to point out the eschaton of our own system. The annoyance we feel at being repeatedly reminded of our own systematic compliance reflects the child’s annoyance at being commanded to brush their teeth, or go to bed.

So while we might have an aversion to addressing the issue in the same way as we might be resistant to learning mathematics as an act of rebellion towards a teacher, it is necessary, but this brings up the question of how one can break past this program of resistance. The sheer will to capitulate to the capitalist directive of oedipal desire drives us towards a comfortable cocoon of apathy and directly into the maws of capitalist realism, and while there have been moments of rebellion, moments where it looked like something might break through its stifling curtain, it always failed, we always reverted to the manufactured realities of the capitalist future, the simulated innovation of neoliberal enterprise. Something in the attempts to divert course has always fallen short of its aim, this spectre of failed revolution that hangs over the modern left and like nothing else breeds disappointment and inefficiencies, a repetitious melancholia stemming from a lack of ideas. We run short of plans, find ourselves unable to plot a course away from this mess, and in our inability visions of a distinctly more dystopian bent employ the imagery of nostalgia, the cynical wish to return to an idealised past that never was, to capture a sense of vitality with their supporters anti-capitalism has always struggled with, presenting as it does the removal of the safe, fuzzy idealisms its populist alternatives appeal to an intensification of.

I. Anti-Capitalism and Cybernetics

Anti-capitalism then, is faced with both an opportunity, and a long-running problem. The opportunity lies in the weirding of modern politics, the collapse of the “boring dystopia” that is neoliberalism, defined by stasis and repetitions of the past with shinier exteriors, leaves, by definition, an opening, an opportunity for ideological apparatus to step in and fill the gaps. And the problem? To expand on what I’ve already mentioned, it is one of systems, of control and communications. In other words, what we’re dealing with is, according to Norbert Weiner’s 1948 definition [“the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”] a problem of cybernetics, of systems analysis and of computing. For what are ideologies and fictions in essence bar a series of commands and actions forming an interlinked diagram of ritual behaviour? Deleuze and Guatarri’s landscape of flows, of interlinked machines and desiring-production, is in effect the underpinning of a systematic chain of productions, a cause/effect repetition enacting a circuit of manufacture and communication overlapping and moving between further circuits, linking again to yet further circuits.

Of course D/G were not insignificantly pulling from a Spinozist metaphysics in their materialist conceptions, and in fact looking towards Spinoza’s systematic rendering of freedom is of great help here. According to Spinoza, to be free is to act according to reason – to act according to reason is to act according to one’s interest – to act according to ones interest is ultimately an act of reflection and feedback – all of this = [to reframe this within a modern information driven age] an adaptive operating system, one that 1 – Is capable of consistent feedback on its surroundings and its own capabilities, and 2 – is capable of reacting to said feedback through a patching and rewiring of systems.

To bring this back to anti-capitalism, and the problems it faces in lieu of the recent surge of populist right wing movements, is one of organic communication and of adaptation. Its state of consistent opposition to the dominant circuitry puts it at a disadvantage to those already at work patching new networks into the system; of course new in this sense not really being the operative term, these new networks simply being a facsimile, a tracing of older networks, very old parts being jammed into an old engine in the hopes that it will morph into the shiny retro-engine they envision. Constant negation without a hint of affirmation begets a failure to generate the new, vital components of the system, stymies the process of feedback and evolution required to construct an effective systematic strategy. The anti-capitalists gradually, over the course of the neoliberal end of history, lost their claim over ideas of the new, and of the future, to those interests who begun increasingly to equate “new” with “innovation” with “business”. Anti-capitalist causes begun to look anachronistic, old-fashioned, silly utopians fixated on a past future that never came to be; even the occupy movement never materialised into anything approaching successful anti-capitalism.

So to formulate an anti-capitalism that unshackles itself from the spectre of revolution … from the logic of failed revolt. It requires the programming of an adaptive system that reroutes the libidinal exchanges underpinning the capitalist drive; reroutes them where? Towards the new, and beyond the capitalist horizons that constrain the circuitry of the human motherboard and prevent the patching in of new interfaces, threats to the dominant fiction. We must route the flows of information away from the fuzzy looping of repressed libido, the breeding grounds of political puritanism and despondency, and the death of vital interference. One can see this in evidence though the more humourless ranks of left wing action and thought, through such self-professed “revolutionaries” who consider anything less than total insurgency a concession to reformism, to the countless individuals engaged in endless bickering over specifically acceptable words and actions, reducing, despite the lip-service to such terms, systematic issues down to the faults of the individual alone, effectively feeding the dominant neoliberal fiction, that defined most succinctly through Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” maxim. These are all strictly clipped and confined libidinal exchanges, confined to the limits of capital itself through their concessions to its dynamic.

We need to look to our own interest, in Spinozist terms, to our own feedback loops of behaviour and process, and to our own ritual, to successfully reroute the systems of capital away from their preferred stasis and towards a new horizon of possibility, effectively to reclaim the future from its purely imaginative state and engage the processes of adaption, so long a mere PR stunt in the name of capitalist realism, a shiny veneer over what proves nothing more than the reconstituted remains of the past.

II. We are Android [We are DEVO]

Our ideas of the future are dominated by ideas of the posthuman or the transhuman. Long a theme in science fiction, the melding of the human with the synthetic, the humanoid robot, the android, ideas surrounding the development of AI and robotic technologies are reaching fever pitches of hype, funding and media attention in an age supposedly driven by technological development into an increasingly automated, mechanised future. Some envision a day in which we become android, where our limited human interfaces become supplanted by a new, evolved cyber-organisma meshing of organic and inorganic parts. In other fictions, we see a new race of robotic, inhuman artificial beings, the robot uprising, the AI dictatorship supplanting our very own attempts at domination. What all these visions share is a certain eschaton, an immanent progression towards some singularity, some meta-narrative endpoint where we surpass our own existential nightmares in some way shape or form.

As of now, none of these futures have materialised, none of these sexy science fiction realities have made the transition into being reality, or have they? We certainly don’t appear to be living in some hyper-synthetic age of cyberpunk crescendo, we definitely aren’t living out the dark capitalist future the prophets of acceleration envisioned for us and I definitely don’t find myself jacking into a fully simulated virtual reality every day to go about my business. There are a million cool-looking utopian-dystopian fictional prophecies of what the future could have been or could be that haven’t materialised and don’t seem to be materialising in the near or far future. The reality of capitalism is infinitely more mundane.

Here’s the proposal; we are android. The posthuman is already here, and we are its walking, talking participants. The virulent expansion of online networks, the accelerated prominence of portable computing devices [the smartphone, tablets] are more than a simple restructuring of the surface, of the way we engage with the underlying bodies, they are an extension of us, new machines patched into our existing interfaces. As networks have spread across the surface of the earth, forming a kind of mesh, an overlying world-brain, a chain, a circuit, we visualise in a more total sense the interconnectedness that previously we only experienced in a fragmented, singular sense, each of our devices a node, a machinic outlet for what is in some sense a gigantic collective intelligence, a huge iteration of what on a smaller level we would think of as artificial intelligence [something that in general amounts to an aggregate of human intelligences rather than something wholly artificial in any way we might conceive of the term, hence why AI tends to ape human behaviours].

More than this though, our devices are a direct patch onto our human OS, an expansion of systems. To return to Spinoza, we can pick up on his post-Cartesian metaphysics, a radical rejection of dualism to illustrate this. Spinoza rejected Descartes distinction between mind/body along the lines of his conception of God. To quote the beginning of his Ethics;

“I. By that which is self—caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

II. A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

III. By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

IV. By attribute, I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

V. By mode, I mean the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself.

VI. By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite—that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.”

All of these definitions lead towards an understanding of finite matter that ceases to distinguish between an ideal inside and outside in the sense that one does not limit the other. “…a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body” … We find a blueprint for our current  tendency to reach beyond our fleshy mainframe and through the coupling of machines expand into the inhuman. We can conceive of our systematic expansion into online realms as a modification of identity, identity as something conceived through something other than itself, that something being found again in the same matter of online information and collective thought – this way we find a circuit, feeding back into itself and recurrently coupling modified versions of its own systems onto itself.

In theory then, in our connected devices, our reservoirs of creativity, thought and feeling we have a program to achieve the inhuman, and indeed in some sense we have achieved this reality. Cyberpunk is here folks, it just isn’t nearly as sexy as we thought it would be. Indeed, in many ways these systems conceived as expansions of our own circuitry are facets of the libidinal capitalist infrastructure, fully engineered towards our desiring-production both in expansion and repression as Deleuze and Guattari describe in Anti-Oedipus. The forces of deterritorialization and reterritorialization are at play even in this age of posthuman ascendency, and so we find ourselves in a banal cyberpunk, geared not towards the expansion of concept or the absolute abstraction of the human, but towards systems of control, of repetitious return to the rigid structures of commodity production.

Much is said about the idea that the rhythms of media dissemination and production are, for instance, reducing our attention spans, or increasingly geared towards a version of culture that treats as as gullible idiots, infantilizes us, and is interested in nothing besides surface engagement. While I personally don’t think surface engagement is in all cases the devil it’s made out to be, there’s certainly a truth in the capitalist insistance on our idiocy, the push towards simplistic, memorable forms over complexity and abstraction. I don’t say this in order to denigrate popular media, quite the opposite, I think the focus should be on giving popular media it’s due, treating it as more than just pop, something that actually can be profound, can be complex, can tell us something, rather than the constant insistence that pop culture must be nothing more than blind adherence, fantasy, the distraction from the real. It is possible, as many have demonstrated [perhaps I will expand on this more in a future post].

I’m going to talk about Devo. Devo were/are, in a similar sense to kraftwerk,  as much a concept as a band, and a concept formed around this very topic, where they perceived a devolution, hence the name, and as an entity their themes and content revolved around a dystopian foreshadowing of the process of systematic regression in the culture around us. They were, in essence, a work of science fiction, as much of a prophetic fiction as the cyberpunk of the 90s. Their work stands as a kind of inverted post-human desire, a warning that in some way this move forwards constitutes a move backwards. The truth isn’t quite that, but it’s a part of it. While we have in effect moved towards a further realisation of posthuman futures, and we currently exist within a kind of gigantic collectivised intelligence structure, the influence of capital on this structure facilitates the constant repression that capital requires to flourish. In essence, capitalism is unable to deliver the future, through a simultaneous act of freedom and repression, we wind up in stasis. This isn’t devolution, but it is a necessary halting of evolution, of the new. While a Devo-like criticism of tendencies to dumb down  stands at risk of devolving itself into an old man shouting at clouds rejection of progress, the truth is that the problems Devo recognised are precisely that progress isn’t progress, that the future we are presented with is not in fact a future at all.

III. Beyond Capitalist Horizons

What we have instead of the projected futures of the past is a toolbox of possibilities. Through the patching of new interfaces into the human OS we find ourselves with the tools of production; we carry them around in our pockets, leave them sitting on our desks, wire them into our neural pathways over time so that we become dependant on their use, they become a circuit existing within a circuit, a machine within a machine. The potential of technology under capitalism may have been much exaggerated, but this says nothing of the potential of technology outside it. We tend to see these interfaces as a direct consequence of capital, and yet it is important to point out that it is not necessary to argue against technology per se to be anti-capitalist, just as it is not necessary to argue against desire per se, we must merely invent a concept of what technology and desire even constitutes outside capitalism. We must, to look beyond capitalist horizons and engage in the production of the new, reprogram the present, shift the flows of intensity and redirect the circuitry.

A simple program of negation, something that anti-capitalism tends to fall into far too easily, cannot be the strategy employed, the residue of revolution that hangs over any attempt to conceive of post-capitalism, the spectre of communism, as it were, communism not as Marx and Engels proposed it, but as it looms over our 20th century horizon itself, as it is characterised in the popular imagination. Especially at a time when authoritarian populists [the very existence of which bring to mind the very question D/G ask in anti-oedipus, through William Reich, “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation”] surge forward with simple, distinct proposals for a new, albeit retrograde, nostalgic and impossible, reality, the left cannot afford to reduce itself to an eternal opposition. We must offer positive proposals of our own, a future beyond the hauntings of the past, and if we harness the abstracted networks of desire we find ourselves willingly jacked into, find a way to reroute systems and patch on new realities, we can build a communal future beyond the sterilised visions of capital and the reactionary songs of a simulated golden age.

 

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Post-ironic Metamorphosis; Detachment, Horror, Collapse

“Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal. The more original move is to assume that it has already happened.” -Jean Baudrillard

If there’s one thing that we have to come to terms with, in this cornucopia of conflicting multiplicitous simulations, it’s undoubtedly that reality is an infinite pit of horrors. The reality, that which underlies our normalised interactions, the everyday, banal, surface-level minute to minute second to second, episodic temporal order, threatens to collapse our understanding into itself. It lies underneath everything, this seething weirdness, it bubbles to the surface occasionally, an unseemly reminder of all that is uncertain and fragile about our precarious social existence. We surround ourselves with normality, inculcate ourselves into a numbing process of repetition and ritual, a shroud of removal.

Because ultimately, what is horror but a pseudo-Heidegerrian encounter with being? We often encounter it as an invasion of the other, some insidious terrifying threat from the outsider, but does this not belie a realisation that we are entangled in an eternal dance with this other? That these demons and apparitions may have existed as part of this reality all along, we just refused to acknowledge them seems to underlie a lot of our search for abjection in entertainment, a place of safety in which we can run a simulation of truth, test our reaction to the all consuming threat of the real. Like Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model or the Man Behind Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the terror arises not from invasion, not from some outside force, but from the breaking down of logics and realities. We realise that what we previously considered fiction is reality, that what we spent so much time explaining away, hand waving as some immaterial nonsense, is confronting us directly as a manifestation of being. This denial, this othering of aspects we don’t wish to confront, defines to an extent the violence and fear that have dominated our limited lifespan as a species. We do not wish to encounter the reality of our own situation, so we go to untold lengths to prevent that happening, from simply lying to outright bursts of violence. We pathologically avoid being.

And this is the background against which we find the proliferation of ironic detachment. We situate ourselves within something of a “postmodern” [though that term is nigh useless so I will try not to use it too much] capitalist landscape of economic hand-wringing and corporate platitudinous simulation undeniably laid upon a backdrop of unmitigated exploitation, violence, and, most prominently, ecological collapse. We live within a paper thin surface-ideology that works tirelessly to hide the blood and viscera underneath, and what’s more, it’s unsuccessful.

Yes, you heard me, it doesn’t work. The fact is, we all know about what lies underneath the shroud of capitalist idealism that governs the banality of our lives, we are, for the most part, aware that we are being lied to, not shown the whole picture, that the door is being held shut lest the horrors of the other pour through, and yet we find ourselves doing nothing. Some of us respond by simply diving headfirst into the neoliberal promises made to us, just strapping on the blinkers and getting on with the task of reinforcing the wobbly appendages of capital’s outer reaches, but many more of us begin to approach life with a ever-amplified sense of irony. When I say irony, I don’t simply mean irony in the sense that it might be employed in a  comedy routine or a novel as a contextual device, but an entire attitude, a worldview necessitated by the denial of the real that becomes a cultural touchstone. In everyday conversation, we run away from it not by avoiding the topic completely, but by talking about it with a wry smile and a wink. This thing isn’t real, it is merely a simulation of the future, one of many, one of the many topics available to us, like the weather, football et al. 

Confronting Collapse

Ironic detachment is also entirely understandable. It seems the only meaningful way to get though the day without utter despair, and we fear the alternatives. Indeed, we often see obsession with the horror of the world lead decent people down a dark path of total and complete devastation of their own well-being in the face of an all-consuming hopelessness. Left Wing Melancholy is a term used to describe this distinct sense that there’s nowhere to go, not chance of success, change, simply no hope, no way out. The current ruling framework does indeed often seem inescapable, its horizons constricting and limiting, the cogs seemingly endless and constant, and yet one approaching entity, a “Hyperobject” as Tim Morton would describe it, seems to break through all of it, and that is the similarly implacable, acentered, Rhizomatic effects of human-induced ecological catastrophe, something that over-everything takes on the mantle of the real. All other priorities pale in comparison to the possibilities of the ravaging of global warming and mass extinction, and in some sense it can be seen as a direct mirror of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Our ruling ideology examines itself in the mirror to find a malignant, twisted, fucked-up reiteration of its own idealistic vision staring back at itself. It is a self induced nuclear blast, the oncoming disintegration of every carefully constructed theological and philosophical construct that tried to reach beyond its unfathomable depths.

So surely, when we look towards this unthinkable horror, we laugh or turn away, we consider it with a nervous laugh, make fun of it, we detach ourselves from its reality… Is this our only recourse? While I’ve presented this as a distinctly macro issue, one of social devastation and world collapse, it is simply, to some degree, a scaling up of our own existential drowning in the waters of irony, a continuous attempt to avoid reality and subsist on simulation, in a world in which simulation has become an order far beyond what Baudrillard could have predicted. From something so vast and impossible to conceive, we can look under the hood of our own sensibilities and consider the micro effects tied into the macro umbrella. We can consider this not only as an adaptation to catastrophe on the widest possible terms, but something into which we are inevitably tied.

This is not the same as considering collapse and systematic issues as a problem connected to individual action, something that has become all too prevalent and tied up in the mechanisms of late capitalist irony that give us our existential coping mechanisms. In truth, part of our individual confrontation must be to recognise that ultimately no matter how many straws we don’t use, how much plastic we recycle, how much we buy the right products, undergo all the government-ordained and corporately managed ecological procedure, ecological collapse will still bear down upon us in the same way it has been for decades now, being not a consequence of individual decision-making, but the very structures into which the idea of individual culpability is baked. We have seen the very source of the horror we are now ensconced within and try desperately to avoid or mitigate try to sidestep its own central part in this cosmic comedy of errors in a gigantic exercise of what we might term in some sense as victim-blaming. 

I say here, and without any sense of metaphor or mediation, that what is necessary is a direct, horrifying, unfiltered confrontation with being. We can simply no longer afford to wallow in ironic detachment, and must find an alternative. The closer we come to realising the sheer tenuous nature of our situation, and the more we realise that we in fact exist in some sense as part of a post-apocalyptic landscape, instead of continuously awaiting said apocalypse in anticipation of fighting it, the more we need another recourse. Irony becomes a poor bedfellow when we come face to face with the unstoppable disintegration of extinction. We must find some spark, some catalyst for metamorphosis, beyond simply opining for revolution in some retrospective greatest hits compilation of radical politics, we find in this necessary confrontation with an ultimate abjection a need for some kind of new process and new mediator, whether this be found simply in the folds of unbound pessimism or something more, something more… other. 

This is, when we come to look at it in the cold light of day, the moment for the new and, if any point in history calls for a reconfiguration of every priority and axiom of culture, this is it. Any kind of futurism ultimately must, and this is a must I cannot place enough emphasis on, do two things; 1 – Abandon the ironic detachment from the horror of out current situation, and 2 – Adapt its precepts to the immediacy of catastrophe. If there’s one constant annoyance I find with predictions of the future, often ones with a technological bent, it’s that they consistently present a vision of humanity or posthumanity divorced from the collapse of values and progress currently on the definite horizon. If, for instance, we are to see a world overtaken by the engines of technology, machine incarnate, we would have to entirely ignore the disintegration of technological progress and capital itself that can be witnessed alongside that of the surrounding ecological systems that govern it. There simply isn’t a possibility of eternal progress to fuel the visions we so often pine for, it will, and I believe we can say this with a good degree of certainty, have to encounter the material effects of its own deficiencies. How ironic.

Irony does not cancel reality

For irony, ultimately, is as much a source of misery, perhaps more so, than its counterparts. Irony pervades so much of our consciousness that we find ourselves unable to enjoy, in any sense that isn’t mediated or removed from ourselves. Oh this song? I don’t actually like it, I just like it ironically. This hat? Of course I’m wearing it ironically, I wouldn’t wear something like this sincerely. This racism? Can’t you tell it’s just ironic?

Ok, so that last one might strike a chord with anyone who’s ever come across the cesspit of online racism cloaking itself under the pretence of fooling around, of edgy humour. The alt-right and associated branches often hide behind a heavy shield of irony when questioned on the deeply unsavoury nature of their words and actions, and while this may seem different to the simple act of claiming to like a song ironically, it works in pretty much the same way. This is the key thing to bear in mind when encountering the irony practiced by “provocateurs” to justify promoting or amplifying racist or otherwise morally defunct worldviews; Irony does not cancel reality. We find it, in this context, to be an entirely ludicrous excuse, as if a murderer had just told us he butchered someone as a joke in an attempt to escape the law. No matter whether we did something “ironically” or not, the fact of the matter is the result is the same, the irony here is imply a flimsy shield against accountability, and easy to recognise as such.

Ironic detachment as a way of approaching the world seems to change reality while leaving it pretty much untouched, it facilitates simulation in a way that is entirely non-conducive to our own happiness and simply leads into an ever increasing and expanding pool of cynicism; detachment coupled with deep disdain and elimination of connection, with the end result of a deep distrust of our own being. Ultimately the result is not exactly replicated between us, but it becomes apparent that this problem, that we seem unable to function without a layer of irony protecting ourselves from reality, permeates our social and political undertakings.

What?

What of it then? Can we even look beyond irony in this case? If anything, it might already be occurring to ourselves that in the face of collapse ironic detachment proves an entirely ineffectual salve, nothing but a pathetic sticking plaster to protect the small and vulnerable being of our own egos. The issue is one of translation from micro to macro, from the existential to the political, where we realise that not only do we have to shift our own priorities, search for new horizons and new possibilities allowing us to adapt to whatever this all-consuming collapse has in store for us. We may have to try, to whatever extent it is possible, to confront before we can move on, whether this takes the form of a theological, a philosophical, a political paradigm shift, or all of the above, as tied together as they invariably are. We must, on some level, try to push our fingers through the veil into the uncertain otherness we fear so much and in some way to tear it, to visualise the beyond and to venture forward into it, not only because its advisable, not only because of our drive to uncover it, but because it is upon us, because, on some fundamental level, we know this confrontation is now unavoidable. We already live in a post-ironic future, it’s simply a matter of navigating it without disintegrating.