The Coming (to Jesus) Singularity
Yann Moulier Boutang, in his book Cognitive Capitalism (2011), suggests we need a time-out to process precisely how it is we’re going to exit a loop devoted to wealth production in an age of financial speculation. Maybe the conversation isn’t or isn’t only about the precarity of physical labor in our hyper-mediated knowledge economy; perhaps all we need is simply, “a kind of small defrag program for Marxism’s mental hard drive.”1 But when the summer of life hands you a near-endless Hulu binge impinged by the contours of profit and despair, does it really matter how much Lemonade (2016) you drink?2
I forget why I started thinking about Ally Sheedy. I was reading Andrew McCarthy’s Wikipedia entry on my couch upon relinquishing narrative pursuit of Less than Zero (1987)—the movie streamed on in the background, jostling me with an occasional ill-advised increase in decibel level during drug-addled Robert Downey Jr.’s descent into the shadow economy (the Cult’s “Lil’ Devil,” which accompanies James Spader’s initial appearance as RDJ’s remorseless WASP dealer, was not a particularly well-mastered recording—it never made it on the official soundtrack). I note now that the penultimate item in my Google Chrome search history prior to “High Art” was “skinny fingers like Herman Melville.” 3
Recently, I’d been obsessively Googling Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy tribute pages—most of which fell into one of two categories. There were blogs (“Simply Carolyn”) established in the years following CBK’s premature death in 1999, hosted on platforms like GeoCities, or customized for the now-defunct Opera 5 browser, including a listserv with several email addresses from the domain “valstar.net,” each accessible via the Internet Archive’s web-trawling Wayback Machine. These were accompanied by another series of sites from the second full-on decade of the twenty-first century, which situated CBK as an alt-Kate Moss ingenue, meant to be excavated alongside the Delia’s Catalog, Chanel’s Vamp, and hex #343379, the shade of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. This later wave of interest, most of it enabled by the WordPress platform, complicates the fetish of 1990s cultural history, both a simpler (“nostalgic”) moment otherwise undercut by emergent neoliberal globalization and a temporally oriented commodity, meant for consumption as “a mood.” These WordPress sites recycled photos from GeoCities web clusters, initially scanned from the pages of commemorative editions of People Magazine, which relied upon high-school yearbook photos or small-town newspaper scavenging; these poor images, to borrow from Hito Steyerl, now exist as ghostly upcycles on Pinterest, the web domain of the first two dozen hits for “Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy superfan.”
The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation.
In short: it is about reality.3
What would it mean to mark digital technology’s mediation of Caroline Bessette-Kennedy as singular—the filter for digesting the world? Would the levity of everything shift if I insisted on allocating all of my interpretive labor in pursuit of this honest subject, for lack of anything better for which to barter my existence, or any existence worth bartering? At best, when we take steps back from the hum of the cloud, we might lay bare the machinations of capital as capital, and any particular circulatory network, despite (or maybe in spite of) its novel specificity, as merely another semiotic current of $$$, in which we then attempt an impossible swim upstream. Would anything more irregular be offered up about the margins of our predicament if I were to focus solely on the accumulated Google images of classified black-op military bases, or all of the Himalayan salt crystal lamps produced between 1992 and the present? That refinement is no different than your average single-subject PhD dissertation, weighted as it is with performing its own absurd specialization to open up a new arena in which capital might sadly sprawl, i.e., when’s the last time you purchased the production of a credential for free?
Jarett Kobek’s book Atta (2011) offers up the imagined internal narrative of Mohamed Atta, the hijacker-pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Is Kobek’s recuperative choice of Atta as world-historical figure/minor antagonist—onto whose internal narrative he maps the contemporary novel’s diachronic, dysphoric potential—more or less salient than any other rando? Is it Atta’s singularity that’s here to teach us something about being human or is it merely this gesture toward singularity-in-general, which refers us to the concept’s, and thusly the protagonist’s, melancholic ubiquity? We yearn that our choices might produce something like individuality, yet all we get in return is 5,702 edits to the 284 articles on the LOL (Lil’ Outrageous Littles) trademark wiki. How obscure or particular or particularly obscure does a point of reference need to be in order to reveal something new about why, rather than how, meaning circulates? (A: There is nothing new under the sun. A: The sun has set on the empire. A: The emperor’s new clothes are really second-hand, scalloped-lace bralettes manufactured at a Forever 21 factory in Tientsin, China.).
This prompts two examples: Where’s Waldo? (1987) and the legacy of New Age manifestation doctrines (half watered down and culturally appropriated Eastern theology + half Horatio Alger–style, rags-to-riches, “Anyone can make it!” capitalist primer—The Secret is a fine example of this fusion).
Where’s Waldo?, nee Where’s Wally?, an American adaptation of a series of British children’s books, fixed the elementary-aged attention span of a generation on complex global scenes of everyday life, meant to be scanned for a bespectacled man in a striped sweater. Was there a more poignant manifestation of late ’80s/early ’90s neoliberalism—the stage our seekers would turbulently trod upon years later in the WTO and G8 protests—than a bunch of five-year-old kids eyeballing illustrations of worldly specificity looking for a white guy and his stuff? Sometimes the singularity of a subject lays bare the circumstances under which we manufacture our reality, or alternatively, sometimes those circumstances manifest too precocious a form, around which much larger cultural confluences congeal, in the fashion of all syntonic conflicts, despite the threat of legibility. Like when you stick a wad of chewing gum under the table and, later, raise your knee.
Kaleidoscope Eyes and Other Shiny Objects
Once upon a time in the history of the universe, a nondescript baby boomer, perhaps say an adolescent Bill Gates, located in the collaged cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a microcosm for some not-yet universal reality. On the surface, the flattening of history and hierarchy this image evoked seems to have less to do with John Heartfield’s anti-fascist photomontages or Hannah Höch’s Dadaist constructions than a bored graduate student’s recitation of Frederic Jameson’s idiomatic parable of postmodernism as the logic of consumption in late capitalism. Here are John, Paul, George, and Ringo—and Lenny Bruce and Carl Jung and some wax models of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and a velvet snake and a garden gnome and Shirley Temple. It’s 1967. Elvis Presley got married, I believe. A probe entered into the orbit of the moon. We’re still on the gold standard. Nicole Kidman was born. What a world!
That it was both the world and their world—one that turned the forward-thinking artistic innovations of modernism into car advertisements—was part of the generational “realization” of Sgt. Pepper’s and the marketing brand strategy for the post-war generation. Lots of blackboards in 1970s first-year literary seminars were likely peppered with arrows pointing between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s as the pop-cultural birthing place of an emblematic postmodernism (I was never that into the inheritances the Beatles save passion for John Lennon’s posthumous solo album, Double Fantasy ; sometimes the Moog synthesizer that opens “Reflections,” released six months later  by the Supremes, seems a more appropriate clarion call for the times). As the oft-quoted line from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” demands of its daydreamer:
“Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.”
Hold this in your mind. Keep scrolling.
The World’s Your Oyster, or Impermanent Holding Pattern, etc.
In “Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness,” Keith Cunningham-Parmeter examines the metaphors used by Supreme Court Justices to analyze the relationship between cognitive linguistics and legal reasoning, ultimately excavating the rhetorical parameters behind immigration law’s problematic discourse: “immigrants are aliens, immigration is a flood, and immigration is an invasion.”4
Metaphor, the way we know it best, makes implicit an otherwise opaque or hidden resemblance between two unrelated things: “The world is a vampire,” or “Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” (That second one is tricky because it also contains a simile, the most direct type of metaphor, reliant as it is on “like” or “as” to blast through that aforementioned opacity.).
Cunningham-Parmeter leans on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work on conceptual metaphor when he explains how metaphors function:
Cognitive linguists emphasize the difference between conceptual metaphors and their linguistic expressions. Conceptual metaphors involve the process of understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another. Linguistic expressions are the words or phrases that reflect the conceptual metaphor. . . . Whether or not the speaker actually utters the conceptual metaphor, researchers can identify the underlying idea based on the number of linguistic metaphoric expressions that refer to it.5
Conceptual metaphor understands one idea or intellectual domain in terms of another; famously, Lakoff and Johnson offer the example, “argument is war,” pointing to how culturally pervasive its linguistic variations have become, as in, “She won the argument,” or “They attacked all my weak points,” or “His criticisms were right on target.” Here metaphor doesn’t merely unite two unrelated endeavors, but also reflects back how society structures itself in and through its everyday language.
Metonymy, another type of metaphor, makes use of shared reasoning to demonstrate the contiguity of part-whole relations. A metonym, like “Wall Street,” or “the White House,” is an association; an object becomes so characteristically representative of a structuring concept that it can stand in as a figure of speech, with minimal or no loss of meaning. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” famously offers up the compound metonym, “kaleidoscope eyes,” which at the moment of the song’s composition was a generationally accessible stand-in for the experience of tripping on LSD. Metonymy’s ability to hone in an extreme characteristic or specific part and co-opt that part, with no loss of contingency or connection, is part of its power: it inscribes its audience in terms of mutual understanding. “Kaleidoscope eyes” is to “binge watch” is to “status update” is to “cloud storage”—language that might be lost on the alien responsible for toggling the Playstation controls behind our lived experiences, yet for those of us bound up in the network through which its meaning circulates, further evidence we’re inculcated by the culture that constructed it.
Metaphor, in turn, is only one kind of trope—whose etymological roots include both noun and verb forms (“a turn” and “to change, to alter,” respectively)—a way of applying metaphor to talk symbolically about metaphor. To literally, “Turn a phrase.” Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) developed a theory of the trope as a method of discourse that runs throughout historiography: each generation has its own way of performing history and engaging in historical work by adopting and adhering to a certain structural style in order that their stories might model their worldview.
The experience of social media—where more often than not we choose to tell our “stories” (proprietary, depending on the medium), a perversely historiographical practice—is interpassive. It simulates participation by generating individually aggregated content that quickly grows indistinguishable from sponsored advertisements. We think the story we’re telling is about getting laid-off from our job and melancholically petting a doggo on the way home and wondering how we’re going to have the psychic energy to get up the next morning and care for ourselves, but really we’re telling the story of a start-up acai bowl home-delivery service.
Anyhow. The History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, one of the nation’s earliest interdisciplinary graduate programs (founded in 1965), where Hayden White taught for several decades, does not offer an undergraduate major, which means it’s not doing its part to educate burgeoning minds about the neoliberal research university’s concomitant agenda of dabbling in real-estate speculation. Diversify.
As of 2016, the median price of 266 homes for sale zoned in the Santa Cruz area is $899,000.6
Andrea Fraser’s recent project is to verify and publish the political donations of museum trustees, in order to explore “the fact that museums, in their origins, are a product of plutocracy.”7 Andrea Fraser didn’t make institutional critique a household name. My parents likely aren’t in touch with what, exactly, institutional critique is—they submit their federal income taxes as a single household—and yet: the phrase has become shorthand for a complex series of practices engaged to critically and systemically self-scrutinize the concept and function of convention. We associate institutional critique with museum spaces or other art world monoliths—but I’d argue the phrase has become a metonym for something larger. It seems part of a contiguous chain of association that includes works like Stefan Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons (2013) or the initial Patreon-based practice of Brad Troemel, in which he lotteried-off ownership of post-social media art from Etsy (2017), each pointing toward complicity as a gesture of fruition, crucial to the kind of passing necessary for resistance, survival, semi-good vibes, and theft of $ from $$$. Criticality, then, begins at the moment of participation.
Choose or Lose
Why isn’t the FBI database an endless scroll? The FBI is my favorite bureaucracy because it calls its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) search page, “The Vault: A Reading Room.” Part of the potential of Melville’s Bartleby or Tom Hanks’s turn as Joe Banks in Joe vs. The Volcano (1990) has to do with radicalizing banality in the face of encroaching bureaucracy. The anthropologist David Graeber writes about the dumbness of bureaucracy, which itself isn’t or isn’t just inherently stupid, but is merely a way of managing social situations that are already stupid to begin with, because they are founded on structural violence. Those structurally violent scenarios—taxes, legalities, hegemonic accrual, marginalization, the loaded gun that is an ATM machine (to paraphrase Graeber)—presume radical agents. Those who initially appear passive because of the minute machinations of their resistance—a clerk who abstains from his labors but doesn’t willingly abscond from the office—are actually made radical at the moment their resistance registers as willful imagination, a form of institutional critique.
Joe vs. The Volcano was a film ahead of its time—the story’s plot centers on a working stiff named Joe, diagnosed with “brain cloud” and told he has a finite amount of time left to live, who agrees to be the once-a-century ceremonial sacrifice for an isolated Pacific tribe in control of vast deposits of a mineral essential to the production of superconductors. In return, an industrialist CEO offers unlimited funding for Joe’s final days on Earth. It’s not difficult to find in this screwball comedy a prescient fable about our dependence on mining Congolese coltan so we can continue to pivot filters on our iPhone 27, going about our online lives, sent to our precarious dooms IRL without health insurance because of a plurality of pre-existing conditions. Joe’s salvation in the film is accidental: when he jumps in the volcano, it explodes and he’s blown away, along with his love interest, where they both land atop their floating baggage. Bartleby’s fate is slightly less plucky but a form of lateral agency all the same—evisceration.
Bartleby radicalizes himself in the face of nineteenth-century bureaucratic culture by choosing to passively resist. Let’s presume he owns a basic smart phone, but he doesn’t binge-scroll to distract himself from the precarity of his own existence, or the depressive alienation resulting from his estrangement from his labor, his colleagues, his family. Dude has an Instagram account but refuses to upload images or make a Finsta or like your selfie on any sort of regular basis. He doesn’t abscond from the platform, he doesn’t abstain from logging in—he lives by his preference, dismantling the oppression of his existence from the inside, by choosing to minimally fulfill the function of his circumstances. IDGAF as stringent reform. It’s institutional critique, but make it fashion, and Bartleby is radicalized at the moment he imagines he can withdraw, which is when it becomes clear his choice is not to participate. Teenage suicide: don’t do it.
Now I’m thinking about an interview David Graeber did shortly after the events of Occupy Wall Street, where he talked a bit about passive resistance with the Brooklyn Rail:
One could make the argument, that since under neoliberalism everyone was told that everyone should think of themselves as a little corporation, more and more people started saying: Well, if I have to be a corporation, then why can’t I be a financial corporation? Why can’t I just start generating money out of nothing the way that they do? . . . You can think of it as this sort of passive resistance: “Okay, we will play along. You want us to all be little corporations? Fine, watch this.” And then you get a financial crisis.8
To paraphrase Joan Didion: we tell stories on Snapchat in order to live. Those stories are algorithmically ordered to generate a composite demographic subject, whose patterns of use and consumption will be aggregated into data packages far more valuable to corporate interests than any information discernible procured from your tax return, voting records, or annual income. The interpassive sameness, the violent banality and soft boi libertarian gimmicks of social media, covets the singularity of your individual preference, if only to overturn previous generalizations about your habits, and this structural violence overflows into everyday life. It longs for nothing more than to simulate its users, just as capitalism longs for nothing more than to simulate its laborers into feigned states of crisis in order to reach new markets. If you jam the machine by devotionally uploading only photos of shih-tzus in dresses, you eschew the purpose of its mediation—information retrieval masquerading as “social participation.” And soon you get sponsored by Petco. This single-subject visual trope becomes a manner of institutional critique, a metonym for making legible one’s complicity in much denser, more opaque, and more discursive networks of power. To make one’s voice distinct, yet under vacuous cover, from a world of algorithmically metered and data-tested sponsored upticks—the predictably democratic heterogeneity of your content stream—allows you a moment of actual preference, when asked to provide evidence of a distinctly amalgamated string of preferences, which capitalism sullies then computes back into sameness.
IMHO, you would prefer not to.
Yann Moulier, Cognitive Capitalism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), p. 8.↩
As it dropped (proprietarily) on the subscription-based streaming service Tidal in April 2016—then-majority shareholder Jay-Z later sold 33 percent of the company to the Sprint Corporation for $200 million, sometime after “Formation” and before “Apeshit”—Beyoncé’s Lemonade was accompanied by a series of hyperobject-warranting releases, including a 65-minute film of the same name distributed by HBO, a limited edition box set feat. a 600-page coffee-table book, a double-LP, and eventually, a week later, the standalone vinyl recording.↩
Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux 10 (November 2009).↩
Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, “Alien Language: Immigration Metaphors and the Jurisprudence of Otherness,” Fordham Law Review 79.4 (2011).↩
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System,” Cognitive Science 4.2 (April 1980), p. 195–96.↩
Dan Duray, “Andrea Fraser tracks down museum trustees’ political donations,” Art Newspaper (June 6, 2017).↩
“World of Debt: David Graeber with Spencer Woodman,” Brooklyn Rail (September 5, 2011).↩
Portions of this post appeared in earlier form as a special feature for GENERATORS (presented by CDCC in partnership with the Toronto Art Book Fair), curated by Anthony Stepter.