the data-image

This was my presentation for SPT2021, the biennial meetings of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. See here for the abstract; note that the talk doesn’t follow the particular sequence of ideas in the same order.

A few things I didn’t mention in the talk: first, the data-image effectively reverses the theory of thought Deleuze lays out in Difference and Repetition. In his words: “the theory of thought is like painting: it needs that revolution which took art from representation to abstraction. This is the aim of a theory of thought without image.” By contrast, the data-image figures thought as nothing but representation. Maybe this is why so many people say that the internet destroys their imagination. Whether we call it “abstract” or “aesthetic,” a certain recessive quality of thought vanishes in data’s floodlights.

In my work on digital methods and scientific epistemologies, I emphasize that representativeness — i.e. the capture and (allegedly) faithful reproduction of an a priori truth, especially empirical truth — is not the only measure of epistemic value. In many cases, it’s not even the best measure. This point has its roots in art history. The “revolution” Deleuze recounts was, at least in part, technological: in the nineteenth century, photography helped liberate painting from its representative function. Meanwhile, critical theory maintains that representativeness is always politically normative.

At 13:45 I talk about methodology. As I explain, the data-image needs to be articulated in the language of the empirical psy- sciences — psychology, psychiatry, and so on — and address Foucauldian critiques of the psy- sciences as bearing normative power. Towards the end, I attempt a reconciliation between the Foucauldian view and my approach. This reconciliation supports “the data-image” as a theory which politicizes the process of datafication and accounts for its mental effects. In the paper, I use findings from psychedelic research to describe how the data-image works. This is consistent with Deleuze’s Cinema I and II, where he uses specific films to theorize what he calls “the movement-image” and “the time-image.” Since art and science make different epistemic and aesthetic claims, I felt it necessary to explain why I use scientific research as opposed to, say, artefacts from digital culture, like social media apps.

And regarding psychedelics: the data-image expedites what Stanley Kubrick called “psychedelic fascism,” “the eye‐popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug‐oriented conditioning of human beings by other beings.” Psychedelic fascism employs psychedelic (mind-manifesting) techniques in the service of neoliberal capitalism. (Some people have used “psychedelic fascism” to refer to the neo-Pagan/right-wing hippie fascists’ interest in hallucinogenic drugs, e.g. the QAnon Shaman. The phrase also makes sense in that context, but this is a different thing).

Kubrick’s “psychedelic fascism” can also be called “psychedelic capitalism” or “acid capitalism.” It was bad enough in Kubrick’s day, but now there’s big data, with its epistemic lacquer and crisp right angles, suffocating a hermeneutically open world.

I think we need psychedelic communism to fight psychedelic fascism and its many technologies, including the data-image. But it’ll take me years (a whole career, maybe) to express exactly what I mean by that — what it looks like in practice.