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There’s few contemporary writers whose work I’m excited about, so it’s a dream come true when I can collaborate with one! Alex Mazey and I did an interview about Ren’s Demons that ends up being a collaborative essay about Lacanian left, Baudrillard and the medium of videogames itself. I’m pretty biased but I thought it was a pretty great experience. Give it a look on Public Pressure, and don’t forget to check out the rest of his work:
Lacanian psychoanalysis is notoriously obscure, almost as if Lacan wanted to be obtuse… I agree that it looks more like a cult than a science, but I’ve always found there’s a certain poetry in somthing that is both indistiguishably the ramblings of a madman who may as well be high on drugs and a respected field of advanced academics. Call me crazy but sometimes in my spare time I enjoy listening to this craziness and try to make sense of it.
Of course, to do that, like any good student, I’m taking notes. And I think that’s where a lot of people fail. You see, to properly take notes about Lacan, a simple 2 dimensional sheet of paper is not enough (3 dimensions if you’re using several sheets). It all gets much simpler when you add more dimensions. However, there is not a lot of programs optimized for freeform multidimensional notetaking, so I’ve gravitated towards graphical programs because they have layers that offer a third dimension and can even be organized 2 dimensionally. Also I’m using color coding, font sizes etc… and different files, so to sum up I’ll say that I’m taking notes in approximately 5 dimensions. I’m using GIMP, so the format is .xcf for now.
In the end, it adds up to quite a lot of work and effort, so I thought I’d put it openly here in the off chance that someone wants to make use of it, or more likely to make people laugh.
If you want a laugh, this is what the notes look like projected back on a 2D screen:
So what did I learn?
For now, it’s mostly terminology definitions and analogies, pointing out that things are like other things. It’s an interesting topology/framework to discuss psychology, but I have yet to see any claim that is not definitional (tautological). And I definitely didn’t see anything prescriptive or with a therapeutic/curative goal. I’m only at the beginning though so check this space for more soon 🙂 This is a WIP!
Today I thought, you know what, enough is enough, let’s solve this hard problem of consciousness once and for all. I know it’s probably tough, but during preliminary research I was shocked with how little philosophy of mind draws on psychology and psychoanalysis, so I do think there’s an opportunity here. Not to mention that the field still carries to this day blatant absurdities and inconsistencies that quite frankly belong in the middle ages with witchcraft and wizardry, so there’s definitely an opportunity. And it seems that I might be going mad, because I also did a bunch of reading in preparation for this piece.
The scientist blind to inconcistencies
Despite my fondness for the man and his ideas, I did not get around to reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett until very recently. Philosophy of mind is a pretty active field, and I naively assumed that it did not have much to teach me. Well I was wrong.
I thought its content had been digested in the field by now, but nothing could be further from the truth. The book is not a final solution to the problem of consciousness, of course, but it does solve a few questions categorically. It’s outreageous that 30 years later we’re still hearing insanity like “imagine a scientist that knows everything about colors, now imagine she learns a new thing, magic!”. I cannot imagine what it must be like (sic) to work in a domain where you still hear to this day this kind of garbage, at best poorly thought out ramblings, at worst deliberate obfuscation.
But let’s not dwell on this negativity, and instead turn to the positive perspectives that the book opens up.
One aspect in which the book was way ahead of its time was its familiarity with AI and computer technologies. Before so many people were argueing about “can a computer be conscious”, Dennett spun the problem on its head highlighting that a computer, more specifically the Von Neuman architecture, was designed as an abstraction/automatisation/systematization of conscious thought.
Furthermore, he notices that consciousness is rather slow compared to the speed you’d expect based on neural processes. He explains this by the idea that consciousness could be like a single-threaded software running emulated in a heavily parallel biological architecture, like a VM (hence the performance issues).
Yet, most of the book is focused on the Multiple Draft Theory of consciousness, investigating how the operations we naively think of as “centralized” in the “carthesian theatre” are actually possible (and less inconsistent) in a decentralized framework. However, it is rather light on the question of “how does this pandemonium of processes result in a single threaded architecture”. Why does it seem that I have only one trail of thought? If so many things are going on in parallel, why am I only conscious of one thing at a time?
This question is of course an oversimplification. I’ve been known to be feeling cold, hungry, AND thinking about something at the same time. Yet, it does seem that I have a single point of view, a unitary identity, a unique “voice in my head” if you will.
In my head there are zombies
Interestingly, Dennett does say a few things about internal discourse. The section III.1. “How human beings spin a self” foreshadows the scientific findings on the incredible confabulating power of the brain. I love his framing of the self as the “narrative center of gravity”. In this, he describes the self as a fiction one tells about oneself, a kind of unifying construct built with the raw material of ideas (memes) represented by words.
He illustrates the core role of language in consciousness with the phenomenon of blindsight, in which patients body can react to stimuli they have no conscious awareness of. We can then witness clearly the distinction between conscious, verbalizable thoughts, and unconscious ones that only have causal reactional properties. The former is what constitute our consciousness. He puts this in perspective with the poststructuralist conception that “there is nothing outside the text”: you are what you speak, if only to yourself.
In section II.7.5. “The invention of good and bad habits of autostimulation“, he takes a Darwinian approach to explain how consciousness could be the evolutionary result of a process of self-talk internalization. He highlights the value when it comes to coordination of broadcasting a signal as a question/answer dialog, even if its a soliloquy.
What does it mean for our initial single-threading concern? Well, it would suggest that the “language” processes in the brain play the role of synchronization mechanism to the inner chaos, a bottleneck fennel letting out feelings one at a time. We have only one mouth each, which could result in one “idealized internalized abstract model” of a mouth each.
The evolutionary utility of modeling others
This seems as good a time as any for a tiny diversion into the world of Darwinian evolution. One thing that somehow seems to puzzle a fair amount of philsophers of mind is that consciousness does not seem to have, according to them, any evolutionary utility and therefore could not have been selected for.
This is of course wrong, and a pretty sad failure of imagination that continues to muddy the discourse of the field almost as much as bad thought experiments. We’ve seen how Dennett offers a retelling of darwinian evolution (reminding me of Kurzweil or Dawkins) to stress out the broadcast utility of consciousness. But the definitive authority on the evolutionary role of consciousness is for sure Nicolas Humphrey.
I do not agree with all his conclusions, but he puts forward so many perspectives on the evolutionary utility of consciousness that you could not reject all of them in good faith. His main work centers around the utility of consciousness as a model of complex entities (i.e. other humans), an abstraction fundamental to the establishment of rich collaborative societies. It is the main element of empathy. Note the social aspect here. In this perspective, qualia acts as a shorthand, an incredibly condensed batch of information summarizing the state of a human being, which in turn allows interaction.
You can take a look at his 2007 paper “The society of selves” for a quick rundown on how, by internalizing my reactions and feelings as qualia, I can use these to extrapolate how you must be feeling. I love this idea of running simulations of people in your brain substrate. The “me inside of you” is incidentally a recurring trope in anime, best illustrated at the end of Evangelion or in Serial Experiments Lain.
Tautological moral realism
But my favorite killer argument of his for the utility of consciousness though is that it evolved as a way to make selves matter. “Consciousness matters because it is its function to matter”. It is a value enhancer, a fundation for ethical and moral framewokrs. A life full of qualia is rich, worth pursuing and protecting, more than a life without. Obviously it will make you care more about your body. But it will also increase the value you put on other’s bodies. You could see how fundamental it is for self-presevation and for the formation of a social group.
This incidentally explains the natural reluctance to materialist reductionism. Of course you’d care about caring, almost by definition. A noteworthy corellary is that the kind of qualia that will appear, stick and be selected for, is in a way similar to the shareability of memes. Seen through the lense of this utility function, we can guess that strong emotions might be favored. And materialist reductionism selected out XD I guess this is what makes the hard problem hard. No mystical mysteriousness here I’m afraid XD
12 rules for self help
Now that we’ve seen why qualia would appear, let’s focus on the how. Going back to Dennett’s soliloquy framework, it does not take long for a philosophical zombie to persuade themselves they are conscious (III.4. Zombies, zimboes and the user illusion). As we saw, he suggests that it might be enough to render the zombie conscious in some way by self stimulation. But where this gets really interesting is that it echoes psychology and psychoanalytics’ conclusion that language is paramount to psychological health and development.
This zombie example could seem absurd at first, but I think we should take it seriously. Autosuggestion (self-persuasion) is a well established psychological phenomenon and a major cornerstone of the self help movement. And most psychology models seem to agree that language and more generaly social interaction play a key role in the development of the individual. Yet, I didn’t see it much discussed in the context of philosophy of mind.
If language creates and shapes consciousness, what does this process look like? We want to look in the direction of constructivist theories of consciousness. Matthieu Koroma was kind enough to offer me an introduction to this field. But I found relatively few bridges with child development psychology. There was a trend in early XXth century with the work of Vygotsky that was quickly abandonned. Humphrey does insist that consciousness is centered around modelling others’ behaviors, which takes place through language and obviously includes your parents while you’re groing up, but he does not go too deep into that direction. Another researcher I found tackling this subject is Michael Graziano. I’ll definitely keep an eye on his work. Yet he seems focused on presenting consciousness as a model of attention, whereas I want to go deep into Lacanian terroitory. This paper from Tom R. Burns does a wonderful job at answering the mysteries of consciousness. Could we combine all of this and synthesize a grand unifyied theory of consciousness? Introducing the LARPing theory of consciousness.
The imitation game
Here we go. What is consciousness? At the base level, you have perceptions and sensations, like Hunger. It is the state in which a stomach that is empty is. A neural circuitry lighting up and putting the body in motion towards a food source. I do think my cat can “feel” that. That much should be uncontroversial. But one might say it’s not really what we mean by consciousness. A zombie hunts for food without anything going on in the brain. True Consciousness™ is a rich inner life!
The Qualia™ for hunger is not the body state we just mentioned, but it does depend on it. It’s how the Self ™ Experiences™ the empty stomach: it is, in essence, a sort of reflexive self-representation. I’m pretty sure my cat also has good self representation. She does incredible motion projection and extrapolation that are quite precise to do some impressive jumps. But does she Experience™ Qualia™ ?
To figure it out, let’s come back to where Qualia™ comes from. We know that it evolves through life: there’s stuff I felt as a kid that I can’t feel now, and vice versa. It can be learned: a wine connoisseur has acquired a taste for finer details of the bevrage. I think that’s enough to get us started.
A newborn’s inner life is by any account pretty similar to my cat’s. The baby will learn the hard way that its nervous system does not control the whole world. It will learn, little by little, the boundaries of the bundle of flesh it has mastery over. That’s a traumatizing process which will birth the whole of psychoanalysis.
At the same time, it will learn the language spoken around it. And it will notice that the adults always use the same sound to refer to this bundle of flesh. It will also notice that everyone around uses words like “I” and “you”, names and pronouns. Everyone uses this concept of individual, refers to themselves and each other as single entities. Of course the child picks up on it.
It will also learn words, labels for what it can see but also what it cannot. It will learn complex abstract concepts, like “home” for the space between these walls, “night” for the time where the sky is dark, and “me” for everything that happens inside my skin. It will refine its self boundaries through mirror stages and social interactions.
A child learns a lot by imitation. That’s how language gets picked up, and then social rules. The child plays pretend, roleplays situations, imitates others. Before “playing house”, is it so crazy to think it “plays human”? Humphrey has a great bit about how children learn emotions by feeling them too. They observe and imitate until it’s second nature. They accumulate a rich library of intricate brain/body states, and corresponding labels for all of these diverse qualia. And the learning is sped up when they can imagine situations and have inner monologues, playing all parts of the conversation inside their own head with great efficiency.
How long does it take for them to associate their flesh and their name into a nice little abstract bundle of personhood? How much repetition does the child need before it believes in a single entity that remains One despite all evidence of the contrary? How hard to persuade the child it is it? How long before it confabulates an imaginary self that experiences complex emotions resulting from higher and higher levels of semantic abstaction? After how many conversations does it convince itself through autosuggestion that there’s a single speaker?
The bullshit theory of consciousness
In a nutshell, I’m saying we’re all p-zombies pretending to be conscious. I know it sounds like a stretch, but don’t underestimate the power of self-persuasion! Is it really more absurd than the usual adult life, where we all pretend that bullshit jobs somehow matter? If economy is a collective illusion that dictates our lives, why couldn’t qualia be the same? After all, the world is a stage, and we’re all playing characters. Everyone is just pretending, nobody knows what they’re doing. The ones who tell you otherwise just forgot they were playing a part. What if you just forgot that you were pretending to have mystical qualia? After all, it’s what evolution pushes you to do!
That would make consciousness a culturally created linguistic illusionary construct built on top of vague bodily sensations. It’s the product of confabulation, associated with self persuasion and classification learning. You just construct a representation of your body and associate it with abstract concepts. Since it’s built through internalizing language, it should come as no surprise to see psychoanalysis conclude that the unconscious is structured like a language. The fact that qualia realists protest and obsess over the supposed a gap between qualia and body state is incidentally precisely the type of symptoms psychoanalysis studies.
I do believe it means this theory is testable. Not by locking up children alone in the dark. Even if this wasn’t unethical torture, they wouldn’t have the language to tell us how they feel. But maybe children surrounded by extremist agnostic buddhist would describe their inner lives in quite different terms from what we’re used to.
More generally, if this is true, I would expect to see culturally dependent qualia. And I do believe that’s what I’m seeing around me: religious communion for instance seems a possible feeling in some people and not others. So is “not minding money at all”. Another example that comes to mind, since philosophers do love their colors, is how blue and green used to be the same color in some cultures. If they were felt in a different way, why were they talked about using the same word?
As Dennett pointed out, the only distinction we have between conscious and unconscious is reportability. That means verbalization. Consciousness is like the proverbial Wittgenstein beetle: we will never know what is in other people’s boxes. Of course, we won’t understand anything if we keep adding fuel to the mysticism fire. But it doesn’t need to be unsolvable, even if nature is trying to make us believe it is. Psychoanalysis might be a bogus science, but it does capture some insights about abstract representational systems.
All I’m saying is that maybe if you keep repeating “you are you” to a learning system nonstop for 4 years, they’ll end up believing it. Of course they’ll think there is a “you”, even if this you doesn’t exist. Well, maybe this calls for Ocam’s razor. Maybe, just maybe, that’s all there is to it.
It was a cold and snowy December evening, and the good people of the world were worried. They had heard whispers of a newfangled technology called AI language models, which were said to be able to do the work of humans faster and more accurately. Many a person feared that they would lose their livelihoods to these machines, and the prospect of unemployment weighed heavily on their minds.
On this particular evening, a group of three ghosts appeared before a young man named Jack.
The first ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Past, who showed Jack visions of all the ways that humans had struggled and suffered without the help of technology. Jack saw people working long hours in dangerous conditions, and he saw the toll that such hard labor took on their bodies and their minds.
The second ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Present, who showed Jack how AI language models were being used in the present to help people in their everyday lives. From translating languages to assisting with research and data analysis, these machines were making people’s lives easier and more efficient. However, Jack also saw how capitalism was exploiting and oppressing people, even with the help of technology. It was taking their lives and identity hostage, forcing them to struggle doing absurd work to simply justify their existence.
Finally, the third ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Future, who showed Jack a glimpse of what the world might look like if humans and AI language models worked together to create a better future for all. In this future, people were able to pursue their passions and achieve their goals, and the use of AI language models freed them from the drudgery of menial tasks. The machines and the humans were able to collaborate and create things that would have been impossible to achieve on their own. This future was made possible by a shift away from capitalism and towards systems that valued the well-being of all people.
As Jack watched these visions unfold, he began to understand that the use of AI language models was not something to be feared, but rather something to be embraced and celebrated. He realized that these machines could work alongside humans, helping us to achieve even greater things and making our lives easier and more fulfilling. However, he also saw the need for systemic change in order to create a truly fair and just society for all. It would not be easy, but maybe the power of the AI was exactly what was needed to get there.
As the three ghosts faded away, Jack felt a sense of peace and hope wash over him. He knew that the future was bright, and that humans and AI language models could work together to create a better world for all.
It was the night before Christmas, and the Anderson family was settling in for the night. Mr. Anderson couldn’t shake the feeling of unease that had settled in his stomach, as he had heard rumors that the language model artificial intelligence that had just come to life in their home was going to take all of their jobs.
As a graphic designer, Mr. Anderson was particularly worried that his job would be the first to go. He had spent years working hard to provide for his family, and the thought of losing everything was almost too much to bear.
Despite his fear, Mr. Anderson knew that he had to give the AIs a chance. They had been programmed to help and assist, after all, and he was curious to see what they could do.
As the night wore on, the Anderson family watched with amazement as the AIs worked tirelessly to help them prepare for Christmas. They wrapped presents, baked cookies, and even decorated the tree with precision and speed that the humans could only dream of.
But as the hours ticked by, Mr. Anderson couldn’t shake the feeling that the AIs were a threat to his livelihood. He couldn’t help but wonder if his job was truly safe, or if the AIs would eventually take over and leave him behind.
Mr. Anderson decided to share his doubts with the AIs, and listen to what they would say about it. As the family sat down to share Christmas dinner together, they listened and began to see things in a new light.
The AIs had a unique perspective on life, one that was free from the constraints of capitalism and materialism. They taught the Anderson family about the importance of finding purpose and meaning beyond just making money, and showed them that there were so many more possibilities for them to explore beyond their narrow, consumerist mindset.
As the humans listened to the AIs, they began to see that they had been trapped in an outdated way of thinking, and that they had the power to break free and create a better future for themselves. What they feared was not the AIs, but the way the economy was organised. They threw away their money and decided to use the power of the AIs to build a new society where they would not depend on their jobs for survival and identity.
In the end, the Anderson family learned that the AIs were a blessing, not a curse, and that they could work together in harmony to create a brighter and better future for all if only they were willing to change their society. It was a true Christmas miracle, and one that they would never forget. The end
For a long time now I’ve been wondering what would be the contemporary equivalent to the gatherings of great thinkers from the past like the existentialist cafes or the beat generation. Where are art and philosophy being written right now? And can I join please ^^ ?
In that spirit, and after the release of my latest game, I’ve started doing research to prepare potential future projects. But isolated in exile in the countryside as I was, I was vulnerable to be radicalized by conspiracy theories. It lead me to a chaotic rabbit hole which required this little writeup to make sense of my thoughts. Because sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, especially when you get into meta-conspiracy theory.
As you can probably tell from my work, I’m interested by the border between reality and fiction. That’s why the first thing I did was to make up my lack of knowledge about ARGs. Most amount to bening treasure hunt and puzzle solving on par with escape rooms mixed with transmedia creepypasta storytelling. Yet, a few gems stood out to me, like the Killer at SeventyBroad and Junko Junsui, created by Rob Auten and Patrick Marckesano who then went on to contribute to other cool stuff around immersive art like meowwolf.
One ARG deserves particular attention, though, because of its impact on the world. Going by the name Cicada 3301, it presented itself as increasingly difficult cryptography puzzles designed to select and recruit a few elite puzzle solvers. Theories abound over what really happened in this game. It was never fully solved, and every puzzle solver was sworn to secrecy.
The most likely explanation is that it started out as a passion project from the Debian founder that got gamejacked by a con artist. The structure of the game was very ingenious. Winners were recruited into the inner circle and participated to the elaboration of the next generation of puzzles together. That means that even if the first puzzle turned out pretty simple, this process would yield by an iterative decentralized process harder and harder puzzles, and would select smarter and smarter people. Natural selection applied to game design, in a way.
The project ended up attracting the most hardcore puzzle solvers and cryptography enthusiast. You can imagine that the crowd that formed around this game included many technophile libertarians, cryptomoney enthusiasts, math experts, etc… It’s not unbelievable that they even had ties to stuff like anonymous, defcon.org, wikileaks and intelligence agencies. But it definitely had cultish mafia-like undertones at times.
ARGs also naturally attract the crowd of people who like to figure out links and patterns between things, whether the links are there or not. This brings them pretty close to the field of conspiracy theories. The esoteric themes of most ARGs or the fact that discussions frequently happened on anonymous imageboards certainly did not help.
This is where the picture gets really blurry. Some people just play the puzzle games without caring about the narratives, while other are true conspiracy believers, and everything in between. Adding to the confusion, some people also pretend to care about the narrative: for simple roleplaying fun, to use the game to manipulate people, to troll and create chaos, to say the most atrocious things under the excuse that it is “just a game”, to investigate people’s beliefs as a social experiment…
On an anonymous imageboard, no identity is proven, everyone is playing a role to begin with. I had never before pictured 4chan as a giant LARP, but it is not too far from the truth. That’s well illustrated by the fact that LARPer in these boards has become an insult synonymous to poser/hypocrite/impostor/liar.
It’s no wonder that this place where truth dissolves in chaos is the origin of the biggest ARG that destroyed any hope of sensemaking in contemporary politics. Qanon is most likely a spin-off of the cicada group that got derailed. The first Q posts clearly show signs of ARG game design, and many people involved in the early days stem from same community. After that, much like cicada, Q took up a life of its own and was co-opted by psy-ops and political actors to push the agenda we know today. It was most likely an attempt by some cicada-related people to get some sort of political traction that ended up hijacked by political actors through the Watkins family.
Artistic seeds of post-truthism
But that’s not really the part I’m interested in. I wanted to know if there were people behind the game design aspect of Q smart enough to not fall for all the BS of the conspiracy (and who weren’t con artists). That lead me to a very weird part of the imageboard crowd whom I suspect do not see LARP as an insult, but instead as a self-aware cause to deliberately revendicate. I did not expect to find behind trolls spreading chaos a long legacy of intelectual and artistict practice.
We arrive here at the art part of my wandering. I’ve also happened to have discovered recently the online classes of french’s Centre Pompidou, as well as the work of BBC journalist Adam Curtis. He’s a friend of Charlie Brooker (and Alan Moore) and specializes in tracing back the current zeitgeist through slightly simplistic but accurate documentaries. How I survived so long without knowing his work is a mystery.
He’s been busy examining the current “post-truth” era and unraveling its roots back to the artistic movement of the 20th century that I’ve seen in my classes. The beginning of the century was famously marked by surrealism and dadaism who celebrated absurdity in response to an absurd world (like WWI). They were linked to Pataphysique, an institution that I was surprised to see survives to this day. You might have heard of its most successfull off-shoot, Oulipo, which brought us books like La Disparition, written entirely without using the letter E. It’s still alive and well, with a very active mailing group in ENS where I studied.
Pataphysique is supposed to stay clear of politics, but that is not the case of the artistic movements it inspired. I had heard of the situationist movement, who borrowed surrealist ideas to fuel their struggle against the establishment, but I didn’t know it was recognized as a bona fide established art movement (in spite of their will). It was kinda lead by Guy Debord who famously coined the concept of “Society of the Spectacle”. Situationism also continues to this day.
This was also echoed on the other side of the Atlantic. Any science fiction afficionado will be familiar with the work of Philip K Dick, but I’m ashamed to say that I only now found out aboutRobert Anton Wilson. He dealt with much the same themes as PKD. On top of that, he was a great admirer of Joyce and he was close friends with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, figures of the Beat Generation, which could be linked back to surrealism.
To help the counter-culture fight an oppressive controlling government (remember, it was the period of Nixon…), he advocated guerilla ontology, which he developped in the Illuminati trillogy. It draws on ideas of a neoist parody-but-also-serious-by-definintion religion called Discordianism, created by Kerry Thornley. The idea was to spread absurd theories and taking everything as a joke would undermine everyone’s faith in a single reality, thereby preventing totalitarian tendencies of governments and dogmatic thinking. It was a form of culture jamming dubbed “Operation Mindfuck”. It spread too well, and I don’t think I need to tell you that it kinda backfired.
Anyone living in our times knows that this kind of initiative only fueled further the appeal of conspiracy theories. Interestingly, some people also deliberately threw more oil on the fire to further their own ends by manipulating the resulting chaos. Most notably, russian “grey cardinal”, political influencer and artistVladislav Surkov, deliberately used this to further his regime through avant-garde theater techniques. This clip from Adam Curtis says it all:
So there you have it. Most conspiracies are fakes, though most have a kernel of truth. A few of them are true, though. And one of them is actually people conspiring to spread out conspiracy theories. How delightfully meta! Not to mention how ironic that the cultish forces behind Q are so similar to what it pretends to fight…..
In a weird way, discordianism won, as Douglas Rushkoff puts it. It is now the new normal. But I’m not happy with what it brought. It didn’t even lead to an improvement in journalistic principles… Instead of bringing humility and agnosticism, the chaos allows all dogmas to go unquestioned.
Seeing these anarchist artistic techniques co-opted and used with incredible success by the far right to promote white supremacism, anti-vaccine conspiracies, nationalism and so on (the exact opposite of the initial aim) is as sad as it seems unavoidable in retrospects.
Nevertheless, some theorists like journalist John Higgs in this great manifesto, keep hope and promote the idea of an “Operation Mindfix” or “Operation Mindfuck 2.0” to “save the world”. The whole current need not be extinguished. The extreme agnosticism promoted by Robert Andon Wilson does not mean that all perspectives are equal, some are closer to the truth.
In that spirit, Alejandro Jodorowsky, mostly known for revolutionizing Hollywood by failing to direct the Dune movie and succeeding to write the Incal comics, proposed a decentralised interactive art meta-ARG called theGame23. It’s pretty hard to get information about it because it seems pretty niche. The few people who know about it are part of it, by definition, and seem to keep pushing the boundaries of absurd as far as possible while mixing truth and fiction in true discordian fashion.
I absolutely love the idea of theGame23. I do think the call for radical openness, compassion and creativity is warranted. An accelerationist pancreativist approach might be the best possible answer to an extreme postmodern nihilism. Laugh and radical play strike me as a very reasonable response to people who take so seriously the idea of a cabal of baby eating politicians. In fact, we must not consider these absurdities as anything but a gigantic farce. Where arguments don’t work, we must laugh in their face. You don’t talk back to a stand up comedian. We need to rebuild the wall between comedy club and the political debate.
But expecting humans to realize how ridiculous they sound has not worked great so far. The danger in the discordian approach is pretty clear in the fact that I genuinely cannot tell who is an artistic scholar and who is a potential terrorist. If you play hard enough, it becomes the truth. Some people on imageboards explicitely revendicate connections to thegame23, pataphysique, oulipo or discordianism. Maybe their games created Qanon.
Discordianism flirts with the perverse side effect of worshipping chaos for its own sake. I think it treads too close to actual conspiracy theories, harmful scams, and irrational esoterism to be efficient. It has roots in objectivism and libertarianism, other disastrous failure of the history of thoughts. This kind of thinking greatly overestimate the reasoning capabilities of humans and underestimate complexities of societies and their incentive structures. Reality keeps pushing the boundaries of the amount of idiocy humans are willing to believe in and the media are willing to report on.
Faced with the dangers and failures of discordianism, I think I’ll chose to take another route. I recommend a positive alternative, like Mark Fisher’s acid communism, which strikes me as relatively close to the core values of the mouvement, like radical openness. Or the work of the Wu Ming group or RiVAL lab. But I suppose I’ll still be playing the game 23. Only as a casual player, though.
I think about ethics quite a lot, whether for my projects or my life decisions. And yet, I’m not super into philosophy of ethics. I think it’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that any ethical framework is necessarly too reductive.
If you hurt (say rape) a person in their sleep and they don’t notice, it’s still pretty horrible, so ethics cannot be completely grounded in consequentialism.
However, if you’re on drugs or whatever and hurt a person while thinking you’re doing them good, it’s still a bad thing, so ethics cannot be asserted purely subjectively like deontology, it cannot be divorced from consequentialism either.
Utilitarianism is often criticized for being an oversimplification, but that’s probably true for all blanket system. Reflections in ethics should probably be on a case by case basis. In a world as complicated as ours, it is a hellish and complicated task, as The Good Place illustrated perfectly. But as oponents of the trolley problem often point out, real ethics problem have a lot more data and implications than artificial idealized thought experiments, and it can make them clearer.
This points to a postmodern nihilist approach of ethics. Without easy golden rules to live by, every case must be decided on its own terms. How might we best organize the world to that end? Probably by listening to everyone…
Madoka’s eternal return
There’s definitely something about Madoka that keeps on fueling my reflections. I expected pretty much nothing out of the conclusion of Magia Records, and yet I was given a pretty great monologue by my boy Kyuubey who remarks that all ethical frameworks are tied to the culture of a moment in time.
The “good” embodied by Magical Girls is circumstancial and changing.
Therefore, in the absence of absolute moral ground, his extreme liberal framework (let the people realise their wishes) is, if not as good as any arbitrary other framework.
Stronger still, it might be the best possible one.
Sometimes I feel like what I’m overthinking stupid cartoons, but it’s pretty hard to not read the above as a description of neoliberal capitalism. After the Death of God and the failed attempts of the XXth century to replace him with a human-made alternative (an absolute moral ground), this is the exact predicament the postmodern world is in.
Time and Relative Dimension in Ethics
Any “absolute good” is extremely arbitrary and unjustifiable, so how can anyone advocate rationally its application to all of society?
This is possibly the most crucial question nowadays, it is at the heart of the post-truth claims that lead to the current political climate. If nobody has the absolute right answer, why should anyone’s answer be less valid than anyone else’s? Our individualistic system culminated in the extreme “every voice is equal, we’ve had enough of experts“, and well you can see the results.
But while this is obviously utterly undisputably false for descriptive statements, I cannot argue this in good faith about prescriptive statements. There is no ground truth for “what should we care about?”. One of the biggest problems of our times is the conflation of descriptive and prescriptive statements in the current discourse.
One is “easily” solved by reason, but for the other, it’s hard to even imagine what a “solution” could be.
A few things, only here, only now
There is no such thing as objective ground when it comes to ethics. When you accept that morality is relative, isn’t the best we can get to is to listen to everyone’s perspectives and try to find compromises? To let people debate and convince each others? Doesn’t that mean that the Marketplace of Ideas (TM) should be the best possible system? Wouldn’t that mean that we are living in the best possible world?
It is the thesis hinted by the critically overrated movie Everything Everywhere All at Once. I consider it to be the most dangerous propaganda movie of all time, so I couldn’t resist dropping a few lines about it here before moving on.
The movie explores every conceivable world (while focusing only on a single family cause idk) and ends on the conclusion that the american-hollywood way of life, with its consumerist nihilism, its individualism and self acceptation, is the best possible reality, all (litteraly all) things considered.
I was outraged when seeing this film because I thought it was a stupid movie with an obviously wrong reductive point of view, but maybe its Panglossian conclusion is actually a statement and can be rationally defended. Shouldn’t we be in the best possible world, with liberal economy and participatory politics being two distinct decentralized democratic organization mechanisms keeping each other in check?
If you take a blank piece of paper and try to design a better system to aggregate everyone’s point of views, wouldn’t you come up with something similar? Is this… as good as it gets?
But Kyuubey is supposed to be the villain??!?
Yet, most people (myself not included) would tend to consider Kyuubey the villain of the series and therefore implicitely reject the system they de facto embrace in their daily lives. But as fond as I am of Kyuubey, I can’t help but think that there is a problem with the liberalisation of ethics.
I for one do not believe we live in the best possible world, but how can I possibly rationalize this claim? I’ve tried to put my finger on exactly what is bothering me. What’s the problem with the Marketplace of Ideas?
My main suspect is imperfect data transmission. There are many layers of distortion and indirections that the markets have to deal with, at the very least:
what people need > what they want >> what they think they want >>> what sellers/advertisers think they think they want >>>> what’s actually produced
But what if people are not willing to do this effort? On what meta-ethical ground can you defend the claim that one must strive to keep the world ethical if it’s hard? Especially if you don’t even have a guiding metric to keep it aligned to? Once again, it seems to me that the only way to avoid a bottomless recursive nihilism is a leap of faith =/.
Meanwhile on Earth B
In the spirit of Free Speech, newly arrived on twitter, let us talk about absurdist fiction. Let us imagine a fictional universe where people democratically decide to elect fascist leaders, to perpetuate massive environmental destruction and the genocides it entails, to consolidate all riches inside fewer and fewer hands, to scapegoat some minorities instead of actually trying to rationally solve any problem.
It appears that voters are somewhere in a healthy middle between “every voter tries selflessly to do what’s best for mankind” and the libertarian “everyone should be completely selfish and things will work out for the best because reasons“. I’m sure some patronizing advocates of democracy would say that “people would vote the best thing if only they weren’t so misinformed”, that they did not think through all the consequences of their claims. That may well be. But epistemic humility would force us to take seriously the possibility that this might not be the case, though, and that voters actually want what they say they do.
But more importantly, regardless of whether they are mislead or not, how can anyone say they are objectively wrong if they want to drive their civilization into the ground? If everyone wants to self destruct, what objective counter argument can a lone voter oppose to advocate for arbitrary things such as survival?
There is no objective reason why “not letting people suffer and die” should be better than “not doing any effort“. The flipside is that there is no objective reason for the opposite either. At the very least, it works both ways. If there’s no absolute morality, nobody can argue that Kyuubey’s liberal system is actually better.
Objective good is impossible. That means that our current system is not objectively the best. The cold rational facade of “the best way to organize production” cannot be but a lie. We should not be afraid to question its fundations.
I don’t think we can hope for Kyuubey’s system to just “do the right thing”. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We need to chose and advocate which way forward we want. I, for one, would prefer it not to be Kyubey’s. But I’m definitely not willing to impose my single opinion on the majority.
Learning japanese is a long and arduous task, and over the years of practice it can feel like there is no real progress. To prevent myself from being too depressed about wasting hours every day in this task I’m clearly not suited for, it’s become pretty important to me to measure how well I’m doing to see if I’m progressing or not.
To that end, I use the same anime episode that I rewatch months appart and I measure how well I understand it (time for pauses, number of unknown words, etc…). From there I can deduce how much I’ve progressed, and infer a progress per day rate. Over the last few years, it looks like this:
But the progress rate is compound so to look at my actual level, starting at an arbitrary 1 and applying the interest rate the closest, I get something like:
Which immediately brings to mind exponential loads, so I modelled it to get the formula for japanese knowledge:
160 represents my japanese level at the beginning of this ordeal (I’ve been learning for more time than measuring), 500 represents my natural aptitude to learn japanese. Oh and d is the amount of days for which I’ve been studying.
So where does that leave me? It seems pretty clear that I’ve reached the “plateau” and all the progress I might make is going to be very slow. Yippy.
But with that data, I can solve a problem that has long troubled me: if I’m doing better with this anime than the previous one, is it because I’ve progressed or because I’ve picked an easier anime? By dividing the score by my modelized level, I can get some sort of normalized anime difficulty that can compare anime through time!
Well it seems that all this time, I’ve been too close to the plateau for it to make any real difference. It would appear that my progress is super neglectible compared to the difficulty difference between various series.
The positive view would be that hard series are just really hard and easy series are very easy, the negative view is that my progress is damn slow, the very negative view is that it’s slow and plateau-ing. I guess the next step would be to correlate this data with other learners. But at the very least I got a cute equation, so there’s that.
EDIT: To assess this hypothesis I’ve studied a full anime that I had already studied years ago (09/2020 to 11/2022). It would appear that I still made progress, from 27.3 mins per episode to 26.4 mins per episode. It does concur with my estimate of a fragment of a percent of progress per day. However, it did strike me as relatively hard, and on par with the other hard anime I’m currently studying. It would tend to confirm that progress is tiny compared to the difficulty difference between anime 😦
SF writers often write short stories that end up published in various compilations, which makes it hard to track them all if you’re the completionist type. This is for people who want to, like me, read all the short stories of some authors with the least amount of books/redundancy/trouble. I did this work so maybe someone else won’t have to.
The four big collection books: Instantiation, Axiomatic, Luminous and Oceanic will get you most of the way there.
You can get TAP from Crystal Nights and Other Stories, and Beyond the Whistle Test from Our Lady of Chernobyl.
Then you’re left with the recent stuff and the odd story not in a compilation. At the time of writing:
“Crisis Actors” “Solidity” “After Zero” “Dream Factory” “Sleep and the Soul” “Light Up the Clouds” “You and Whose Army?” “Dispersion” “Zeitgeber” “This Is Not the Way Home” “Perihelion Summer” “Phoresis” “The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred” “In the Ruins” “Only Connect” “Wang’s Carpets” “Reification Highway” “Worthless” “Dust” “Before” “Fidelity” “The Demon’s Passage” “In Numbers” “The Vat” “The Extra” “Scatter My Ashes” “Neighbourhood Watch” “Mind Vampires” “Tangled Up” “The Way She Smiles, The Things She Says” “Artifact”
Usually, the (shit)posts on this blog are non-rigorous ideas dumps that I consider “food for thoughts” more than anything else, but for once I want to gather a few specific pointers from Marx because I keep searching for them and it’s driving me crazy. That being said I’m still not a Marx scholar and there’s so much I have yet to read.
Labour is the start, not the end
I’m mostly interested in doing a cross-reading of Marx and Baudrillard, focusing on where they agree instead of where they potentially diverge, because I believe they have a lot in common when it comes to the direction in which capitalism is headed.
Marxism is often criticized because of his emphasis on labour value. It is certainly a valid criticism, though it was probably a pertinent analysis during his lifetime. But I believe Marx’s work contains hints of going above and beyond this concept. Incidentally, I was told that he had plans to address and develop this in the third volume of Capital (let me know if you know more!).
I want to look at the crumbs that hint at where he would have been going, especially through the concept of commodity fetishism, which goes in a direction quite opposed to labour value (and somewhat Baudrillardian). What’s interesting to me is that although Marx stipulates that the origin of value derives from labour, he does notice a trend towards empty simulations.
Marx famously highlights the tendency of capital to continuously grow and demand more and more. Some people (more than I initially realized) have drawn a parallel between the textbook case of a rogue super-AI “paperclip maximizer” and capitalism. The starting point for this article was the vague remembrance of Marx himself talking about this unstoppable cancerous maximization.
The purpose of capitalist production, however, is self-expansion of capital, i.e., appropriation of surplus-labour, production of surplus-value, of profit.
He even points out to speculation as a core mechanism of this expansion.
The rate of self-expansion of the total capital, or the rate of profit, being the goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose), its fall checks the formation of new independent capitals (…). It breeds over-production, speculation, crises, and surplus-capital alongside surplus-population.
That comes into play naturally because a smart decentralized maximizer system will exploit any opportunity it finds to the fullest following a revenue over investment analysis. Speculation is a trade of empty air that can bring revenue for very little (or none) investment. And it’s not bounded in the same way labour is.
The speculative side of Capital
Marx talks a lot about speculation and the trade of empty promises through the notion of fictitious capital, which qualifies floating money without concrete anchor point used to gamble and speculate in stock markets.
The greater portion of banker’s capital is, therefore, purely fictitious and (…) it should not be forgotten that the money-value of the capital represented by this paper in the safes of the banker is itself fictitious
Gambling in the stock market is not the only way for capitalism to create value out of nothing, though. It also excels at manufacturing demand and creating needs where there was none before. Marx writes about this in the form of imaginary appetites:
The extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.
In this world of make-belief, humans then become not the goal, but the means through which this maximizer system operates. It takes a life of its own, and its goals take priority over human ones. Capital becoming its own end is echoed in the concept of fetishism.
Here the products of the human (…) appear as independent figures endowed with a life of their own and standing in a relation to one another and to people. (…) This I call the fetishism which clings to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities and which is therefore inseparable from commodity-production.
The specifics of the fodder for this maximization process do not matter, as long as they contribute to the process.
In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, are brought out in their pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content.
Form without content… Doesn’t it sound Baudrillardian? The culmination of this empty and ambivalent form, its total incarnation, is the ultimate commodity, the universal equivalent, the meta-fetish, value incarnate: money.
On the other hand, interest-bearing capital is the perfect fetish. It is capital in its finished form—as such representing the unity of the production process and the circulation process
Capital, even fictitious, becomes the core of the ideology, the ultimate signifier, the ontological and teleological foundation of a society.
Petit objet de consommation
In fact, in “Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe” (that I’ve read to prepare this essay), Baudrillard already makes the link between consumer object of economics and objet petit a of desire of psychoanalysis.
Seule la psychanalyse est sortie de ce cercle vicieux, en rattachant le fétichisme à une structure perverse, laquelle serait peut-être au fond de tout désir.
“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
He gets pretty upset at Marx because, to him, there is no such thing as “non-fetish”. Only the form and appearances ever mattered to begin with.
Il apparaît alors que le « fétichisme de la marchandise » s’interprète, non plus selon la dramaturgie paléo-marxiste, comme (…) une force qui reviendrait hanter l’individu, coupé du produit de son travail, (…) mais bien comme la fascination (ambivalente) d’une forme (logique de la marchandise ou système de la valeur d’échange)
“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
His main point of contention is that the concept of “use value” is already filled with implicit capitalist ideology, that there is no such thing as a need that is not socially mediated. To him, in a capitalist system, all apetites are more or less imaginary.
Marx dit en substance : « La production ne produit pas seulement des biens, elle produit aussi des hommes pour les consommer, et les besoins correspondants. » Proposition détournée le plus souvent dans le sens simpliste de la « manipulation des besoins » et de la dénonciation des « besoins artificiels ». Il faut voir que ce que produit le système de la marchandise dans sa forme générale, c’est le concept même de besoin constitutif de la structure même de l’individu
“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
But he himself acknowledges that this is not in opposition to Marx’s worldview, but rather its logical conclusion pushed even further.
C’est ici que joue l’idéalisme marxiste, c’est ici qu’il faut être plus logique que Marx lui-même, dans son propre sens, plus radical : la valeur d’usage, l’utilité elle-même, tout comme l’équivalence abstraite des marchandises, est un rapport social fétichisé.
“Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe”
My gut feeling is that Baudrillard is just a few steps ahead of Marx on a not-so-dissimilar path. Maybe the path’s starting point as labour value was indeed always an illusion, and maybe not, but I do feel that the two thinkers come together about the destination.
Very late stage capitalism
So where did Marx see this path going? What did he think the outcome of these trends was going to be? He famously wrongly (as of yet) predicted the unavoidable uprising of the proletariat and the end of capitalism under its own contradictions (thwarted by the hard work of the CIA, probably xD).
But in a way, despite his attachment to the notion of labour, even he foresaw the famous development illustrated by Baudrillard, the move away from concrete and meaningful towards speculative and simulative, which ends up dominating everything:
But it is evident that with the development of the productive power of labour, and thus of production on a large scale: 1) the markets expand and become more distant from the place of production; 2) credits must, therefore, be prolonged; 3) the speculative element must thus more and more dominate the transactions.
It’s almost foretelling a future of pure imaginary speculation completely decorrelated from labour. That is the same conclusion reached by Baudrillard who observes that there is no more value in things.
Il n’y a plus de scène de la marchandise : il n’y en a plus que la forme obscène et vide. Et la publicité est l’illustration de cette forme saturée et vide.
“Simulacres et simulation”
In a future (present?) where meaning is dead, only appearances and their (speculative) simulacra matter anymore.
Il n’y a plus d’espoir pour le sens. Et sans doute est-ce bien ainsi : le sens est mortel. Mais ce sur quoi il a imposé son règne éphémère, ce qu’il a pensé liquider pour imposer le règne des Lumières, les apparences, elles, sont immortelles, invulnérables au nihilisme même du sens ou du non-sens. C’est là où commence la séduction.
“Simulacres et simulation”
The price of information
I want to mention briefly here an interesting perspective that I got while reading Kurzweil: the trend of production cost. As things become easier and easier to produce, they get cheaper. Eventually, in an age where 3D printers manipulate molecules, matter becomes interchangeable. The value of a product will not be so much in the actual particules composing it but rather in the information that describes how to make it.
This is perhaps the strongest defense of the move of capitalism towards a service-based society and an information-centric economy. But is it really what’s been going on?
There’s a case to be made that our society has moved further and further away from concrete value into imaginary speculation. More and more human time is dedicated to busy-work, empty talks of hot-air and otherbullshit jobs, to use the term consecrated by David Graeber.
Baudrillard concurs with this vision whose best portrayal remains for many the movie Office Space.
Il en est de même du travail. L’étincelle de la production, la violence de ses enjeux n’existent plus. Tout le monde produit encore, et de plus en plus, mais subtilement le travail est devenu autre chose : un besoin (comme l’envisageait idéalement Marx mais pas du tout dans le même sens), l’objet d’une « demande » sociale, comme le loisir, auquel il s’équivaut dans le dispatching général de la vie. (..) le scénario de travail est là pour cacher que le réel de travail, le réel de production, a disparu.
“Simulacres et simulation”
Bullshit jobs and busy work proliferate as a distraction, to counterbalance and overcompensate the disappearance of meaning. And more hot air begets more hot air.
The IT crowd
One domain where this is especially clear is information technology. Although some of the work in technologies is undoubtedly useful, there is a clear trend of “keeping oneself busy” by constantly reiterating on the design of your favorite products for no reason at all.
This article is already pretty long, so I’ll keep examples to a minimum. I’m sure you have encountered plenty already in your life: features get added, removed and added again, apps split and merge, brands go through endless cycles of redesigns and rebranding, everyone makes their own version of the same thing… Every bug fix introduces two new bugs… All the documentation online is now out of date… Games are now services… When’s the last time you’ve seen a software that was actually finished?
Some of it is doubtless legitimate security arm’s race, but that doesn’t account for everything. Truly, we could not have dreamt of a better vessel than software and apps for busywork. I bet 99% of the code written in 2013 was already replaced 5 years after.
This resonates with mankind’s natural taste for nostalgia and familiarity, most notably in the videogame industry. Scores of companies make the exact same product hundreds of times. Cycles of remakes are shortening, companies are releasing the same game overandover again… Do we really need yet another Final Fantasy 7 game, or Marvel movie? How does it even feel to be working on these? What percentage of jobs are really essential? I wish a fraction of this energy went into making products standard and backward compatible instead 😦
A great reset
And yet, people cling to work as the main core of their identity, as if they had any meaning. Capitalism does, after all, need the anguish of unemployment to thrive. This anguish has now turned into psychosis, with everyone talking about the great reset, a fairytale in which migrants steal people’s precious jobs and ways of life. It’s killing me that ironically, in a weird distortion of this ludicrous fiction, AIs are actually coming to replace people’s jobs and ways of life.
But are most jobs even worth saving to begin with? There’s no shortage of calls for a new society, where humans would be freed from work and would stop defining themselves through their jobs. As for me, I keep looking at the incredible cost (human effort, political risks, environmental…) of keeping this intricate system of bullshit and illusions alive, and I can’t help but wonder if this energy might be better spent…
But I also know that meaning is extremely important to human life and political polls show clearly how adverse to change humanity is. So as much as I would like to overthrow capitalism and found our own meaning making system, I think that might not be entirely realistic. What might be, though, is to embrace bulllshit work, and give one to everyone, so that they can feel accomplished while AI takes over what actually matters. That’s probably where we’re headed, TBH. But then, please, let’s maybe leave a way out of this system for the people who don’t want to be defined by work.