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, choking a hermeneutically open world.

grieving

Capitalism has produced a class of people rich enough to avoid domestic commitments. I get it. To accept others as family is to shack up with death. The day I got engaged I fixated on one of us burying the other. That’s why today’s elite prefer the primordial monotony of Mars over familiar but perpetually decaying worldly paradises. Mars is the permanent second chance, a hack only dreamable by those who can afford to see its remedial effect on life and death. This vision may be better than sex and other Earthly delights, but I could never take it seriously enough to think it through.

My mom and dad are getting old, neither are in great health, and they’re raising my sister’s four year old son. Covid might hand them a really bad deal; I’ve lost sleep about it. My nephew was born three days after my mom finished chemo for breast cancer. Their hair came in at the same rate, and even though they’re best friends, they drive each other crazy. She insists he observe the same grammatical mandates trained into her by Catholic nuns half a century ago (e.g., the word “of” never follows “off” and it’s trashy to say “sure” when you actually mean “yes”). Growing up I thought that proper speech indicated proper character, which made my classmates hate me.

So I have a lot of these domestic ties. There was a romantic nihilism to getting married in the early days of the virus, like we mattered more than These Unprecedented Times. I put on a Johnny Cash record and made a makeshift nuptial boudoir of my bedroom. We shared a drink in the kitchen — I hid my gown and makeup beneath a floor-length coat and surgical mask.

Two days before the ceremony, my twin brother tested positive. He was relocated from the group home where he lives with other nonverbal autistic people to an “extremely comfortable” quarantine — my mom’s description, and she expressed gratitude to New York state taxes. I told my fiance that’s socialism working, my cruel attempt to give his pain political meaning, and it’s not the first time that sort of detachment’s been a comfort. Champagne-drunk I announced his diagnosis to my wedding guests and it struck me that it’s not political at all.

Like everyone I know, I’m more sensitive to Twitter’s sophistic brand of bullshit than universal inevitables. Year-end accomplishment lists, internally consistent and Borgesianly precise that sort of thing. They’re more conducive to sanity than the big nothing which lies where political discourse should have a beating heart. The timeline scaffolds the illusion that there’s a positive center to the world-pain rather than a void of meaning.

For years I’ve charged social media with advancing capitalist realism. It’s a staple of my writing career. It’s still easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but honestly, I find the thought experiment less useful than ever. These days my working response is that even the most improbable fantasy has a price tag. Finance lays claim to anything intelligible. If you poke them enough, every weird amalgam of colors, faces, and desires turns into a commodity.

I started writing this on New Year’s eve. Four days later I learned that my friend Will died. They found his body on the side of a road in Macon, Georgia. It was a hit and run accident; now there’s a criminal investigation. He was 36.

Will was building his own idiosyncratic version of the reset, an unfucked / pro-social variation of the Musk-Bezos-Gates otherworld rendered in websites, novels, community projects, relationships. That’s not why I loved him, but it’s worth mentioning. The word visionary comes up in his eulogies. He loved public commons and hated private cars.

We dated for three years; for a while I thought we’d get married. I’ve thought of him as family for over a decade. So I’ve mourned him twice now. Of course I prefer this over any sterile extraterrestrial fantasy. Will was not a normal person, but to paraphrase one of his favorite authors, the only abnormality we should care about is the incapacity to feel. Maybe my hypothetical noncapitalist future is only reserved for those who are okay with death. That might be the political radicalism I’m chasing.

acid communism as radical realism

I have a lot of thoughts about acid communism and not a lot of time to write. Here’s something brief inspired by Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s essay “Left-Wing Hypomania,” a call for realism in light of the new post-Trump bloodless optimism: “From uncertain celebration to fluctuating fixation, it is our inner depressive realists, our exhaustive selves, speaking to our collective effervescence.”

I know that collective effervescence seems to characterize acid communism as I and others have written about it. But there’s no singular affective mode of acid communism any more than there’s one paradigmatic type of psychedelic experience (although clichés of “the psychedelic experience” suggest otherwise). So acid communism might be a sort of radical realism that proceeds from a clear-eyed, unflinchingly honest acknowledgment of two links: first, the causal connection between capitalism and depression — Mark Fisher’s version. Second, the affinity between class consciousness and non-quotidian states of consciousness. That includes psychedelic inebriation, but also every other phenomenon that capital’s tools can’t tabulate and standardize for profit. These effects aren’t always bright and cheery. If anything, the work acid communism demands would be destabilizing and demoralizing. Just like any proper rite of passage — see Chaudhary:

Growing out of Melanie Klein’s “depressive position,” in which the individual finally faces up to the reality principle, depressive realism is the opposite of enforced optimism. (Melancholics against biopolitics).

Its principal incipient observation, inspired by Klein but carried out in experimental studies, was not so much that the depressed had some kind of intuitive understanding of the real world, but rather that “non-depressed people succumb to cognitive illusions that enable them to see both themselves and their environment with a rosy glow.” Pace the preachers of optimism from every corner, they found, much to their surprise, that depression did not inhibit action or perception of capability of action. Rather, it was the “cognitive illusions” and “rosy” outlook of the non-depressed that constantly impaired decision making.

At least one psychedelic scholar is sounding the alarm on inflated claims to the drugs’ anti-depressive efficacy. I can’t comment on that scientifically, but as the zeal for psychedelics grows, she probably has a point. She suggests that meditation and other “alternative” treatments are equally useful. At first glance they’d seem to imply more work than the nuclear option, but there’s no such thing as a painless route to illumination. Psychedelic experiences aren’t always fun.

Speaking of which… I can’t tell if this song is manic or depressive, but it reminds me that sadness is pellucid. It’s the feeling most devoted to the reality principle, but to reap those rewards, sad people have to drink a lot of it. Let it tone and fortify the spirit until its psychic contents dissolve in a stream of light. Political thought should have a similar clarifying purpose.

I don’t mean to make a fetish of melancholy (which Chaudhary warns against). To see things for what they are might be praxis or meditation; both terms work just fine.

I found this comment on the Bjork video after I finished writing this post:

I love this song. It sounds like two depressed people without purpose in life sitting next to eachother on a train, having conversation that most normal people have, about what they’re planning to do in the future. As it turns out, both of them have the same nihilistic point of view but they keep asking eachother questions to find out if they maybe have some things that they wish to do before they die and to keep the conversation going. (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V1Lov1U9mU)

computational intelligence

Last week I was interviewed for a podcast. The first thing the host asked me: “what questions drive your research?” Like any good question, it was hard to answer, and I’m afraid I fumbled the response.

Right now I’m reading Florian Jaton’s new book The Constitution of Algorithms (available for free here)Chapter III accounts for the historical sedimentation of the brain-computer metaphor. In his words, it became reified through a “cascade of reductions” dating to the postwar era of technoscience:

As soon as one inquires sociohistorically into the process by which brains and computers have been put into equivalence, one sees that the foundations of the argument are shaky; a cascade of reductions, as well as their distribution, surreptitiously ended up presenting the computer as an image of the brain. Historically, it was first the reduction of the Turing machine as an expression of mental processes, then the reduction of neurons as on/off entities, then the reduction of the EDVAC as an input-output device controlled by a central organ, then the distribution of this view through academic networks and commercial arrangements that allowed computers to be considered as deriving from the brain. It is the collusion of all of these translations (Latour 2005), along with many others, that made computers appear as the consequences of the brain’s structure. (123)

And a bit further down the page:

In short, similarly to von Neumann’s view on the EDVAC but with far less engineering applications, the brain as conceived by the computational metaphor of the mind selects the appropriate mental program from the infinite library of all possible programs. (123, bolded font originally in italics)

Jaton’s identification of “selection” as the key function of “thinking machines” (biological brains or digital computers) reminds me of this section in Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power:

Intelligence means choosing-between (inter-legere). It is not entirely free in so far as it is caught in a between, which depends on the system in operation. Intelligence has no access to outside, because it makes a choice between options in a system. Therefore, intelligence does not really exercise free choice: it can only select among the offerings the system affords. Intelligence follows the logic of a system. It is system-immanent. A given system defines a given intelligence. Accordingly, intelligence has no access to what is wholly Other. It inhabits a horizontal plane. (85)

So, what questions drive my research? These excerpts describe a sort of technological determinism which impacts not just the way we conceive mentality, but (as Han explicitly argues) the way we actually think, feel, cognize — what minds do. Here’s a question, then: how do we break from cybernetic control to communicate with the new? What are the political stakes of our bondage to selection-from or choosing-among as the only available modes of constituting worlds? You can trace this “intelligence” through Mark Fisher’s writings on hauntology and capitalist realism; critiques of remix/retro culture; anyone who grieves a lost future.

Han uses the word “idiot” to describe the one who outside of this hermetic epistemology. Continuing his quote:

“the idiot has contact with the vertical dimension inasmuch as he takes leave of the prevailing system — that is, abandons intelligence.” (85)

The idiot might be the artist, at least according to my ideal of artistic consciousness and practice. Not the scientist or the philosopher. Art blows my mind more than ideas.