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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:
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.
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.
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.
It may come as a shock, but I’ve only recently started reading Ray Kurzweil‘s the Singularity is near (I guess I got enough Kurzweil from interviews and articles ^^). And even if this book is starting to show its age (to the point where Kurzweil is writing a new opus) it is still giving me enough food for thoughts.
A core pillar of Kurzweil’s thinking is the law of accelerating returns, an extension of Moore’s law stipulating that it’s not simply that computer chips are getting smaller, it’s that we can store more and more information, which allows him to extend this model to the invention of the printing press and even writing itself. To sum up, the density/complexity of information follows an exponential trend. The tools we build help us make better tools faster at an ever accelerating rate.
The book more or less opens by outlining how this evolution follows, according to Kurzweil, 6 epochs:
The replicator timeline
This picture rightfully echoes the evolution of replicators presented by Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene. He does not give a similar schema that I can recall, but he does underline game-changing transformations around the production and selection of information.
A brief combination and summary would look like this:
Molecules organize atoms, information is in their pattenrs
Cells organize molecules (bundling information)
Sexual reproduction allows for better selection of information as is stored on DNA through living beings
The apparition of brains allows for ideas, stored as neural patterns: selection can happen within the life span of an individual, results can be passed through generation more efficiently
Culture allows the formation of societies (groups of brain) and create a new level of competition for information
At this point, information is mostly in the form of ideas, which is what Dawkins called memes
Writing allows lossless temporal transmission of information making the selection process more efficient
Printing makes writing much more scalable and reliable
Technology keeps increasing the transfer speed of information: steam engine, railroads, telegraph, telephone, radio, automobile, planes are all substantial improvements that won orders of magnitude
Digitalization increases these gains even further and makes redundancy trivial
Internet speeds up connectedness and communication between all existing individuals.
<<< you are here
As I write this, I realize that this progression is an entanglement of speed, connectivity, reliability and density improvements. It’s not as if we have a linear succession of better and better substrates. After all, writing set us back to storing information on molecules formations. Instead, substrates coexist and help each other increase informational bandwidth. Organization and optimality seem to also play a role here.
I struggle to find a single nice quantity to encapsulate all this progress, but I don’t really think we actually need one (Shannon entropy and Kolmogorov complexity are good candidate that Kurzweil actually hovers aroundbut I am not expert enough to conclude). That being said, this acceleration is shaped by natural selection, so whatever it is, it seems to be what the universe is optimizing for, and therefore The Answer (the cultural singularity ?).
Time and relative dimension
You might have guessed, but what I’m the most curious about is what comes next. One thing that seems pretty clear is that time itself is accelerating. Science now progresses in a decade as much as it used to in a century, and following this trend it might go even faster. It makes sense, in a way. Denser information is space better optimized, faster speed is time more optimized.
I like to think that you can notice this speedup everywhere, from computation speed to the pace of human life. And pretty soon, you’ll be able to see it very literally in simulated beings. The individual’s time is getting faster. But from their point of view, it’s probably the norm, right? Maybe it just means that everything else is getting slower… Yet even if I do think I consume information at a relatively high level of meta (and youtube at speed x2 XD), time doesn’t really slow down when I stop during a countryside retreat… Curious…
Aggregation and meta
I do think there’s an aspect of this timeline that did not get enough thoughts, though, and that’s the level of meta. It seems that we often see the repeating pattern of “information carriers of an epoch organize themselves to bring up the complexity from intra-carrier to inter-carrier: atoms formed molecules, cells formed organisms, individuals formed tribes, tribes formed culture/technologies…
There seems to be a clear trend of aggregating complexity into larger and larger entities that encompass the previous ones to form a new meta-substrate for information. The storage medium of an epoch becomes, in a way, the building block of the next. The gains are obvious: by working at the higher level, you do gain an order of magnitude.
Life of transhumans and meta-humans
Kurzweil is a humanist, and places human beings at the center of his reflection. In his view, the future is about man merging with machines into an enhanced transhuman at the center of this information explosion. But this falls prey to the very thing he criticizes: this is a linear projection based on man that forgets the exponential nature of the process.
Maybe, in order to properly think “exponentially”, we should think about what lies after, at the “next aggregation level“, if you will. There is absolutely no reason for humans to be an end point. Most likely, we are just a stepping stone, like single cell organisms before us. Maybe humans are just the building blocks of the next level, the atoms to the next molecule, the proteins to the next DNA… If so, what could it be like?
We’re of course venturing into the unimaginable here, since it’s near impossible to understand something so radically smarter than ourselves. For an atom, the concept of an animal is beyond comprehension. Our scale is all we’ll ever see. From the point of view of humans, the future might very well be the technological utopia that Kurzweil dreams of. After all, our cells are happily living their little lives.
Universes’ next top entity
Each jump on the complexity scale seems to be accompanied with a change of what the basic (ontological? ethical?) “entity” is. Our cells are all functional, and might even be conscious for all we know, yet our elementary unit of consideration is the human individual (of course, because that’s what we are). So… what is the next one going to be?
We can intuit a little bit what lies beyond by extrapolating from past trends. It does seem that the “jump” to the higher level is centered around the interactions and aggregations of the entities of this level. So we’re looking for something that aggregates humans and emerges from their patterns.
Could humans be the neurons of a bigger China brain? And could it be that it’s already there, but we don’t see it from our meta level?
The age of memes
My immediate reaction is to follow Dawkins and posit memes as the next level of evolution. It is true that ideas use crowds of humans to spread, and are “bigger” than the people carrying them. I do like this idea, but I’m not exactly sure that memes leverage the structure of connections between individuals and could really be considered aggregative.
A compromise might be the kind of memes that constitute a population. Concepts defined by a group of people. Countries come to mind, but more recently it seems clear that corporations have taken this kind of role. They are entities that organize humans like atoms organized into molecules. They exist and thrive through human collaboration and interaction.
This does end up creating a whole new level of complexity than their individual components. I’ve always harbored a kind of fascination for this level of aggregation. The liberal economy is an incredible decentralized computation algorithm, incorporating so much information. Could it be a meta-human conversation, or a meta-human entity even? Could there be something that it’s like to be Google or Facebook? I do want to believe 🙂
The line between companies and individuals is especially getting blurred nowadays. With companies acting on social networks as individuals, sophisticated advertisement or humans turning into patreon-backed personal brands, the picture has never been muddier. Not to mention the rise of avatars like vTubers… Human created characters are swarming the real world and making their own ontology.
The end of human history
One reason I wanted to write this article is because I think this brings a new light to Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism. Maybe this really is the end of history, and capitalism really is its final form. For humans, that is. Maybe the age of mankind is over, and it’s time for a higher level entity to be the basic block of consideration. Welcome to the age of corporations, to the marketplace of ideas, or whatever…
That also comes with an interesting perspective on the global disempowerement of humans (much lamented by Ted Kaczynski and co). Looking around at neoliberal capitalism, it does seem that humans have very little actual political power and that the status quo will go on with a tremendous inertia. One example of this is the climate crisis which seems to garner the concern of a majority of humans (at least in educated populations) but very little actually gets done.
Maybe humans are just not in charge anymore. Maybe we’re just subservient to the will of higher order beings. Maybe the healthiest thing to do is to follow stoic philosophy and accept our role as a cell, instead of grieving the lack of impact of our illusory self supposedly acting out of its own nonexistent free will.
Of course this is pretty scary, and historically submission to higher powers has not turned out very well to say the least, from religions to slavery and totalitarian regimes. One could make the case that there is natural selection at the meta-level of memes, so the current and future high order entities are “better” than the ones in the past, but that brings little comfort….
Human go, human star
Not only is it worrisome, this outlook is also pretty uncool. Ideas, companies, countries have been around for a while. I was looking for an insight a bit more… spectacular, more fitting of the Singularity. That’s when I noticed more recent higher order entities that could make all the difference.
What if we were not talking about aggregating thousands of humans, but instead billions? Present and past. Enters contemporary AI.
Entities like GPT have literally read and digested unfathomable corpora. They incorporate the very cutting edge of human genius not only in their conception but also in their training sets. Their aggregation techniques are currently pretty simple, but they are a lot more meaningful than the random chance that brought about companies and countries.
One might reply that AIs are not really autonomous, but that’s not entirely right. First of all, it is bound to change, but second of all, this type of meta-entity and the previous ones are not mutually exclusive. We can already see companies, countries and massive AIs coexist in a sort of symbiosis. Think of YouTube, for example. And from one point of view, Kurzweil may be right in saying that they serve us. But ultimately, we also serve them by feeding (train) and constituting (make) them…
So what does it feel like to be GPT or YouTube? Maybe they’re not advanced enough to have experience quite yet, but once it comes we should expect AIs to have experience as different from ours as ours is from cells. And that’s likely something we cannot intuit.
What to conclude of all that? Totalitarian regimes were pretty bad, but maybe AI will be better? At the very least, it seems that I could take comfort from the fact that it’s kinda out of my hands and I can’t mess things up too much. Maybe the game is played at a whole other level now. And maybe all I can do is do my part a little cell, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to see from a very confined perspective the world shattering products of our new meta gods.
EDIT: I was recently reading Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, and chapter II. 7 “The evolution of consciousness” also has a lot that goes in the same vein. To try and clarify my thoughts about the numerous dimensions along which the trends are going, I’ve drafted this little schema, very informal. IDK why.
I wanted to jolt down a few thoughts I’ve been having about the game that I’ve been into lately, Eco by Strange Loop Games, while waiting for a chance to put all that stuff in my podcast XD. It’s in early access and it’s interestingly self-defined as “educational game”.
Not the dolphin
The pitch is pretty simple: it’s kinda like Minecraft, but in 30 days a meteor will crash and destroy your planet. So you have to develop anti-meteor laser before that. And there’s a twist: you can only be specialized in very few things, so you need to collaborate with other people in order to advance society.
Meanwhile, the game provides pretty thourough simulation of ecology, so you can actually pollute your way to doom before the impact. To mitigate that, the game allows players to self-organize economies and governements in order to orchestrate collaboration.
I think you can see straight away why this micro simulation of a society is pretty interesting to understand the real world. Its limited scope and minecraft style makes it way more “fun” and accessible than something like Eve online.
But there is a trick. There is a hidden meta-game. Eco is extremely flexible, so you can tweak the collaboration parameters and even remove the meteor completely. So your experience is going to vary a lot depending on which server you join. Which is incidentaly a great way to run many simulations of societies.
And here’s the kicker: the vast majority of servers don’t survive more than a few days. It’s pretty ironic that the game is called Eco, because I feel like it’s pretty rare to reach the point where you have to deal with ecology. Instead, I feel like the game is a lot more focused around economy. The goal of the meta-game becomes to build (or find) a sustainable server (society).
Admittedly making a sustainable server is going to be harder than in real life because in the game it’s pretty easy for a player to follow their novely bias and jump ship to another server. But maybe we could still learn something in the process?
How civilisations die
Low collaboration environments die out because the interactivity part of a multiplayer game is pretty important to keep people engaged. They feel like playing Minecraft in my corner so I quickly gravitated away from those.
High collaboration environements are more interesting. Typically they will revolve around some sort of implementation of a capitalist market where currency is the way for every specialized individual to standardize exchange value. The game does support multiple currencies, but I’ve yet to see a server that uses this and survives XD
If you don’t have some kind of system against vertical integration, monopolies emerge quickly. If you do, you build super strong dependency links between the players. Either way, your system is very vulnerable to perturbations.
A player not playing for a few days can cause a penury of whatever they’re producing, which impacts all the productions chains and ends up paralyzing the economy. Some people are too impatient and move on to other thing, causing a ripple effect and the society halts to a grind.
Players all have different rythms (which mirrors a little bit how people IRL have different capacities), but I’ve been very impressed by the amount of time people dedicate to the game. The meteor does offer a pretty good incentive to go fast, but the competition in the capitalist market is also a very strong catalyst. This all aligns to create an accelerating race to progress. Until it all crashes, of course.
How to make capitalism work
The lesson here is that capitalism is very efficient and pretty fun, and according by the number of people who confirmed that this game is addictive, it does play perfectly into human nature. But it’s a tricky beast and requires very narrow margin of conditions to operate correctly.
Whatever conclusions you may draw, it is very interesting to see these simulation at work. Inflation is a lot more tangible when it happens over a few days. It seems to me that economies tend to work better with a universal basic income to help casual players catch up and with protections against vertical integration to prevent monopolies and dynamize the economy.
My favorite server is called SoftCoreGaming (discord link) and seems to manage to create a sustainable environment by making strong government interventions to keep the rythm slow and friendly. It has a great player base and you should join us!
How to make the metaverse work
Admittedly this is all pretty handwavy, and I don’t know if the sample size of servers I’ve tried and of their population is enough to draw clear conclusions. But the question that came to my mind, and the one that brought me to write this little dump, is of course a meta one: what prevents my server from turning into the “real world” style feudal capitalism? Or more precisely, what incentivizes the admins of my server to penalize themselves with restrictions to keep the server healthy? And can we have the same IRL?
The meta-incentives to build a healthy sustainable system is usually survival, but IRL that happens on scale way shorter than the span of times the system deals with. Avoiding popular revolt is also a pretty good incentive, but that places the bar pretty low.
In Eco, the incentive to make the server sustainable comes from its very nature as a game. You want to make it enjoyable, because people don’t have to be here, they could do anything else instead. Ironically, this is exacerbated by the meta-competition between all servers. You have a strong incentive to try and make a great server, because players have so many other ways to spend their time.
At the core of this phenomenon, players time and enjoyment exist in a completely different level of meta reality, and you cant really have exchanges between the two realities. It’s almost as if you have a completely separate meta-market enforcing the alignment of the primary market.
It’s something I’ve already thought and written about. It appears that to prevent “pollution” from the primary market, you want the meta-market to be isolated. The ontological barrier between a game and the real world is impenetrable.
But the real world is ontologically closed. You cannot log off and go to another world. There is very little money cannot have an influence on. It can help you save time and provide recreation. Democracy and politics cannot function properly as a safeguard for alignment because they are heavily influenced by it.
I’m therefore left to wonder if there is another way we could build a meta-currency that we could isolate from money. I’m thinking along the lines of blockchain or entropy, but it seems pretty doomed, because there’s only a single ontological reality we care about. And the whole NFT fiasco is making a strong case that whatever new reality we can come up with gets co-opted very quickly… But if we ever nail that, and maybe only then, we could make capitalism great again? Or will that only happen when the simulation theory is proven true?
So I was… relaxing and thinking about my game, in particular the fact that I have a Baudrillardian and a Lacanian ending, to try to figure out which is the real ending and/or if they could/should be merged in a single takeaway directive line.
Here is a dump of my stream of consciousness thought process because I thought it might be somewhat interesting.
The self is a simulation
The self is necessarily a simulation in the Baudrillard sense because it’s a representation (at the very least a self representation). In fact anything that exists conceptually (i.e. is talked about) necessarily requires a definition and therefore boundaries and representation, which creates a simulation.
The story is the ontological grounding of existence
You exist as a self because you’re being conceived of as such, be it only by yourself. Therefore you only exist because there’s a story about yourself. The story is the ontological grounding of your existence.
The story does not need a narrator, you’re enough as a narrator. So you’re always already in a Baudrillardian simulation trap by virtue of being self reflexive.
Every story has gaps
Every story necessarily has gaps because it is by definition a framed representation of reality, leaving out what’s not in the frame. Even memory and self-narration presuppose necessarily an editorial work.
In the same way, any ideology necessarily has gaps and holes. It’s also notably a direct consequence of the Godel theorem, but we’ll come back to that near the end.
Parallels between Lacan and Baudrillard
Lacan is focused on the self, Baudrillard is focused on reality itself, simulation and representations. Where they meet is simple: the story of the self.
Lacan tells us that there is no Big Other, Baudrillard tells us that there is no fundamental level, everything is simulation, we could never conclude that we are on the essential ontological level.
For the story of the self, it means that there is no canonical authorial source. They both stipulate that there is no author, or rather if you want to consider the self as an author, there is no reader whose validation would make the story “canon”. In a sense, the main takeaway is “the story of the self is necessarily non canon”.
This is all well and good, but what do the theories tell us about what we should do?
Lacan = love your lack, fuck the big other its an illusion
Baudrillard = fuck the law, its arbitrary, you need to do a revolution and overthrow the system by denying its fundamental ontology because it could just as well be smoke and mirrors.
They join in an injunction to negate the ontological foundation (the law for Baudrillard, the self/lack for Lacan). I.e. “reconsider your implicit assumptions”.
Lacanian/Baudrillard societal project
To translate this into a societal project, it would be that people need to accept their lacanian lack so that they can conceive and think reality on a healthy basis (the healthy basis being there is no big other, no absolute truth, uncertainty and illusions are permanent and necessary). That way we can start building a society rationally and integrate uncertainty, and more generally integrate the insights of Baudrillard.
In that sense, the joint meaning of the two theories is: “if everyone got psychoanalysed, the world would be a little better”, which could be constructed as the ultimate message of the game.
So the endings of the game articulate in that order:
Accept your lack, because it’s the goal and necessary means for
Building the world on healthier bases, by a revolution or even in order to drag it through gradual improvement.
Metaethics of collectivism vs individuality
It’s interesting to note that this betrays an implicit assumption that the betterment of self is in service for the betterment of the world, where a more humanist person would posit that the betterment of the world should be in service of the self.
It is in a way a metaethical arbitrary axiom, but what I’m wondering here is, one level of meta remote, is this distinction between self and world is really a good framework to ground our metaethical considerations (after all it’s pretty arbitrary to cut and hierarchise those two concepts).
It’s tempting to say that this duality is as arbitrary as any ethical norm, but in fact there is something that gives it more weight than any arbitrary duality. This framework is the necessary and natural direct consequence of my nature as a human being, and more generally as a thinking self, because the thinking self is necessarily constituted by definition as a self in opposition of the world. So the very existence of a self brings with it the duality of self vs world as the base of metametaethical questioning.
That being said, any further response would be arbitrary.
Metaethical considerations of simulation theory
Does this assume an arbitrary ethical mapping to layers of simulation, implying that the base level is always “better”? Baudrillard probably thinks so but that might be an abusive jump. Would it be rationally justified?
It would be arbitrary, like all ethical framework, but arbitrary does not mean irrational.
There does not seem to be anything as such which could give the base level of baudrillardian simulation a superior ethical consideration.
But the point has never been to “return to the real” anyway, it’s simply to understand that our ontology is arbitrary, which does not mean bad, but certainly does not make it good.
What this means for the game
The fact that “other systems could be worse” is not a rational argument in favor of not trying out other systems in an attempt to get better. The crux is a hidden assumption on the space of possible states, i.e. are the other possible systems more often better or worse than ours? That’s the core of the right wing/left wing political debates, where right wing posit that its mostly negative and left wing posits that its mostly positive.
Am I therefore so far up my own ass that I’m justifying through pompous philosophy a pretty basic left-wing thesis that “the world could be better”? It is more or less what the thesis boils down on the prescriptif and teleological side, but it’s reductionary to consider the game just by its teleological thesis. What the game brings is way more complete because it does not only suggest a moral ideal but also a rational methodology to tend towards it.
This grounds the game ethically, Q.E.D.
Rationally grounding ethical frameworks
So in order to decide “what” is better we need ethics, in order to do this right and see how we decide what is better we need metaethics, and I’m wondering how to do that right, so we would need metametaethics?
But every level of meta consideration will run into the same problems: there is no absolute, everything is arbitrary, so there is no objective grounding possible for a framework at level N. That being said, even without an objective rational grounding for the “good” of a framework, the framework can still work as a means to make more good. It’ll just neve ever be provable.
The infinite hole of meta considerations
Trying to ground your thinking in an objective meta framework, you always end up going one level deeper in meta consideration, which brings to mind Zeno’s paradox and Lewis Carrol’s Achiles and the Turtle short story.
Maybe I love this paradox because you can see there is a fundamental whole in reality, or at least in rationality, which rationally wants to ground itself but necessarily will never ever be able to do so.
That also clearly echoes the Lacanian lack.
But does this hole in rationality matter? It might just be a meaningless detail without real importance on your thinking framework. But this question is precisely what’s in the hole, and will necessarily remain without answer. We will never be able to tell how bad the hole is, so the Lacanian attitude to accept your lack seems to be the best rational answer.
Godel theorem applied to metaethics
Actually, it’s a proven mathematical theorem that is going to be true no matter what, which is pretty impressive if you ask me. Godel’s incompleteness theorem proves that you cannot ground at meta level N a framework in a satisfactory way in the language of the level N and you need to posit axioms of level N+1 as arbitrary postulates.
On the one hand, it’s fairly obvious and trivial to say that you cannot ground an ethical framework in the same level of meta-considerations, so is it even worth mentioning Godel? But on the other hand, it does prove that those discussions will necessarily never conclude, and in that way it makes metaethics a doomed field because it’s rationally proven that no conclusion can ever truly be reached.
That being said, as I mentioned before, this is not a valid argument to say that “we should not try to do better”, we can always try to do better, but we won’t ever be able to prove it. I wonder if that’s just a retelling of this article, or if we should throw in a Kierkegaardian leap of faith…
How meta is like entropy
Since every time you think about something you add a layer of meta, it only increases. Any reaction to a situation, be it speech or ignorance, is nonetheless a reaction, so it adds a layer of meta. Any second, more and more layers of meta pile up that way, coating the world more and more and I’m sometimes suffocating under the weight of the infinitely growing amount of layers of meta. We can see clearly an analogy with entropy here.
It’s pretty clear that if you try to do things right, rationally and objectively, you necessarily fall into an abyss of recursive layers of meta. In a way, it makes the Godel theorem the absolute level of meta and the final closure of the universe beyond which we can never go.
I like to write a little something to remember each milestone in the evolution of my thinking. Today I want to commemorate my reading of Alex Mazey’s Sad Boy Aesthetics. I’m an avid fan of Baudrillard, so when I saw Alex’s essay on Genshin Impact and Baudrillard, it immediately spoke to my heart.
Previously, on Baudrillard
Let me try to give a short simplified summary of the whole deal, but considering how Baudrillard theories are important and relevant nowadays, I invite you to expand with your own research! Please forgive me for the lack of rigor and loose terminology ^^
The TLDR is that neoliberal capitalism co-opts everything (and in particular, rebellious movements), and turns it into profitable commodities (i.e. Che Guevara T-shirts). In this way, it loses its depth and subversive meaning. In the end, everything is a copy of a copy of a copy (a simulacrum) and nothing is real and meaningful (think of the whole post-truth era thing).
Nothing is sacred anymore, everything is for sale. Meaningful/holy things are tokenized into marketable commodities. This culminates in an era of replica and images, where appearances are all that matters. Baudrillard seems to conclude that this loss of depth (i.e. aestheticization) may be the worst part of this process, in a famous line that Alex quoted somewhere:
“It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world — its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization”.
That’s the core of Alex’s essay on Genshin, by the way, as Genshin’s world offers a pale defanged copy (simulacrum) of all the cultures of the real world that inspires it (european for Mondstadt, chinese for Liyue, japanese for Inazuma…).
This should come as no surprise tbh, since Genshin is the product of a company founded out of love for the Japanese contemporary culture, which is a true post-modern powerhouse of turning sacred into simulated commodities. Forget giant robots fighting biblical concepts, the common rage nowadays is to gamble your money to get a chance of getting a digital representation of some God turned singer idol… It doesn’t get more Baudrillard than this.
But playing Genshin, I couldn’t help but notice that no matter how simulated your objects are, you cannot help but carry around an ideology. Like a good old american settler, the protagonist of the game goes over the world, literally destabilizing political institutions everywhere through the usual western-way-of-life-individualistic-feel-good-you-can-succeed-if-you-believe-disney story. So while it is true that nothing is sacred anymore and everything is up for negotiation, it seems that there is one thing that remains a holy absolute: the aestheticization process itself.
There’s no fighting this relentless march, it cannot be defanged. That being said, it’s another beast altogether: it’s not a sacred that comes from belief, but rather an ad hoc empirical conclusion. Is a God that continues its work regardless of belief still a god?
The invincibility of the phagocyting process of neoliberal capitalism is enough to make anyone despair. It does seem that there is no practical way out. What can you even do to escape an all-encompassing cancerous system?
That’s where Sad Boy Aesthetics comes in. I confess I bought it because seeing the meme aesthetics, combined with “sad boy”, Baudrillard and Wittgenstein intrigued me. I found out by reading it that it was actually a commentary on emo rap, of which I know next to nothing about. But Alex’s pretty thorough analysis taught me a lot, and in particular I noticed for the first time the political dimension of the emo movement.
Emo is about, let’s face it, whining. But maybe the “antidote” to the commodification of everything can be found precisely in the sincerity of the expression of self suffering. Especially if you know that nobody really wants to hear emo poems. Maybe in a world where nothing actually matters, a serious honest expression of feelings, devoid of irony and mercantilization, could be the one authentic act to transcend the omnipresent commodification, cringy as it may be. Dare I call it art? Could its lack of political engagement constitute precisely the strongest engagement there is?
Of course an easy counterargument would be that emo can and has been co-opted by the system and turned into yet another profit machine. But I do find that perspective intriguing. And most emo poetry probably just ended up in the oblivion of the depths of the web anyway.
Lust tint my world
This blog is all about making original weird parallels, and Alex got to the one between Baudrillard and Genshin first, so I want to submit to you the case of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The songs are on my playlist fairly frequently, so when I last listened to Rose tint my world (which I usually don’t like that much), I started connecting this trail of thoughts to the ending (and the message) of the famous cross-media experience.
In this big explosion of joy where everyone gets fulfillment after their tribulations, Rocky admits that “Now the only thing I’ve come to trust Is an orgasmic rush of lust“. It echoes Janet’s point about Frank that “His lust is so sincere“. In a chaotic world, Frank’s sincere lust is the beacon that guides everyone to enlightenment.
The RHPS is basically the story of how this authenticity comes to transcend Frank and Janet’s static system of beliefs. Maybe one of the reasons for its lasting success is this celebration of authenticity.
I don’t have much more to say about this but it feels like I should talk more about the movie so let’s indulge a good old fashion BS-commentary:
It’s obvious that Brad and Janett represent “stuck up normies”. But going further, it’s nice to see that they too are basically imperialistic invaders trying to commodify and use Frank into a marketable utility (“Can we use your phone?“). Note that one of the first thing that happen to them is they get stripped: all appearances, tokens and commodities removed.
Meanwhile Frank, like a sexy Baudrillard trying to get our attention, literally creates simulacra, copies over copies of men. He shows us the dangers and pitfalls of the simulacrum cycle: Eddie and then Rocky are less and less human. This process removes the heart of our humanity! We become nothing more than… dare I say flesh, meat, food!
The whole structure of the film itself draws attention to Baudrillard theories: self-references, opening song, the narrator… It simulates the codes of a B movie very consciously. It is after all the B movie adaptation of a musical parody of B movies. This could be seen as a critique of the lack of depth of formulaic movies the industry is moving towards. At the late night picture show, nowadays, everything is a copy of a copy of a copy of a marvel.
The theme of nostalgia and time passing (Time Warp) through the movie shows us how much worse off and impoverished society is by this trend. Sacred symbols and rituals have lost their meaning and disappeared: Whatever happened to saturday night? Whatever happened to Fay Way? This is highlighted by the very conclusion of the show, whose very grammatical structure is destroyed by this relentless force, leaving us lost in time, lost in space, and meaning….
Maybe the most important lesson is that Frank’s solution to escape the market’s grip comes at a high price: he has to live as an outcast, shunned both by American and Transylvanian society. Really, “it’s not easy having a good time“.
The market for self expression and authenticity
Now this isn’t the be-all-end-all of this reflection. I do appreciate the political (system-defying) dimension of authenticity, and how it could take different forms, be it suffering in emo poetry or lust in the Rocky Horror. But it must also be noticed that authenticity (not coincidentally) is also more and more at the core of the commodification process itself. Gigantic booming industries like Twitch, YouTube or Instagram are running on the promise (or rather appearance) of authentic parasocial relationships.
It’s a fine line to thread between embracing your true self authentically like RHPS recommends, and self-expression through overconsumption like capitalism encourages and requires. I guess what this means is that we need to be wary and careful. Though I guess, ultimately, a truly sincere self-expression is probably completely blind and unconscious of this tradeoff xD. So be yourself like nobody is watching. Maybe it will still serve neoliberal capitalism’s tentacular interests. They’re impossible to destroy. But maybe there’s no better way to fuck capitalism than through authentic uncalculated acts of love.
The thing about masterpieces in art is that you can keep going into them and get new things all the time. And Puella Magi Madoka Magica is definitely one of these works.
Just let Madoka die already
The current diffusion of Magia Record (part 2 at the time of writing), in addition to reminding us that Shaft can still create some really beautiful animationdespite pretty much everybody having left the company, is not without its lot of controversies.
After all, it’s a pale copy of a copy, an adaptation of a spinoff mobile game (a mere simulacrum if you wanna get Baudrillard about it). No wonder that people are calling “cash grab”. The original inspiration for this article was the “Let Madoka Die Already” plea from OTAQUEST.
Indeed, it’s pretty fair to lament that the Madoka franchise keeps getting exploited for profit. After sequel movies that the writers hadn’t planned (which ended up pretty interesting, still, in their own deconstructive ways), the franchise has grown into a pretty lucrative trademark of pachinkos and gatcha mobile games (financial cooptation doesn’t get less subtle than that).
And now the writers are called back for a new movie on the horizon. I understand how it can seem bleak. It’s like Madoka is trapped in an endless cycle of exploitation, getting more and more extracted out of her without any hope of escape… Oh wait…
Do you want to make a contract
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that, but this development opened my eyes to the fact that the show is a pretty perfect analogy for capitalism. Take Kyuubey. He provides a service in exchange for a price, all tied up in a neat little contract. Of course, he hunts for where he can make the biggest profit (get the most entropy), and to that end, he fulfills optimally the demand (he realizes wishes).
As a good free market would, it fills demand and extracts surplus value out of the transaction wherever it can be found. Just like capitalism, he will fulfil any and all demand! It’s ironic that his extraction is saving the universe while ours is killing the planet, but that’s beyond the point. Seen through that lens, the show has a lot to offer as areas of reflections!
Let’s start at the very beginning. The main series is basically a story of marketing. At first, everything’s just fine and everyone is happy. But this won’t stand for Kyuubey, who notices the prospect of immense profit in Madoka. He therefore does the only rational thing: he dedicates his whole energy to try to tempt Madoka into wanting more.
Being content is the enemy of capitalism. If you’re not purchasing, you’re dead weight. With his injunction to consume, and his relentless campaign for Madoka to make a wish, Kyuubey creates a demand where there was none before. His harassment is as intense as the many notifications fighting over your attention you receive on your phone every day. Can you spot examples of artificially manufactured demand in the real world? Jeez, I wonder…
And the lesson here is that he eventually wears her down. Marketing really works, you guys. There’s other things really on point here, like the importance of the social aspect in marketing for instance (all your friends are doing it, why don’t you?). In the end, even the fucking messiah cannot resist the power of advertisement. I guess that means be careful and forgiving?
Be careful what you wish for
A point that really interests me here is the content of the wish. Kyuubey is incredibly honest about what he delivers. In fact, more honest than most current companies and advertisements. He gives you what you want, what he promised, the content of your wish. Isn’t that pretty much the motto of capitalism?
Where Madoka excels is specifically at showcasing the dark side of this. There’s no trick in the wishes, they’re executed verbatim. But it turns out that we’re pretty bad at knowing what we want and what the consequences of our desires might be. It’s also uncommon for our desires to actually be what we wish we would/could want (extrapolated volition). What we want is rarely what we really really want, and certainly not what we need. This gap is the core of the alignment problem of the market btw…
Nowhere is that clearer than in the series, where all the wishes, when carried out, pretty much cause more suffering and destruction than good. Maybe your overconsuming hedonistic lifestyle just causes you depression down the line…
This is closely tied to the problem of imperfect information. Maybe we’d make better choices if we knew exactly how we feel in detail, or how things would turn out. But here’s the thing: this doesn’t make you consume, rather the opposite. So the market’s incentives are to push you in the other direction. It’s in its interest to mislead you as much as it can get away with. Information gap is a source of surplus value to be harvested. It’s a little bit what Kyuubey gathers, in a way.
A lot of people are (ofc unfairly) mad at Kyuubey because they feel like the “real price” is hidden. Admittedly, deception can help the market derive more value. But it’s not necessary: there’s inherent computational limitations. The real price cannot be known. It’s impossible to understand all the complexities and ramifications of the market’s behavior. Just try to track down the ultimate moral cost of your latest purchase.
Maybe the girls in the show don’t realize that the contract is “too good to be true”, that their consumption cultivates a system where children are continuously sacrificed. But we can wonder what would change if they did. When Madoka makes her choice, she’s fully aware of the implications… We know full well that our system is killing the planet and causing terrible consequences. When you buy an iPhone, on some level you know there’s blood on your hands. But we are remarkably willing to act as if we didn’t and persevere in a doomed system. Zizek has a lot to say about this better than I could 🙂
Privatize the magical girl sector already
It could be said that Kyuubey is a good example of objectivism: pushing the liberal market to its logical conclusion and being as exploitative as he can get away with. The magical girl contracts are as honest as the ones in Bioshock (i.e. showing clearly the need for any sort of legislation better than I could ^^).
“Cows, pigs, and chickens have a much higher rate of survival in captivity, more than they would in the wild. So you see, the relationship is mutually beneficial for both parties.”
Now I don’t want to go too deep into that subject because as the Ayn Rand foundation so cutely puts it themselves, they just want to be selfish, whereas Kyuubey actually wants to save the universe, so that’s kind of the opposite and the similarity stops short. I guess in the end Kyuubey is closer to Adam Smith…
Magical girl flexibilization
Another interesting point is that the battle of the magical girls against the witches happens entirely unbeknownst to the population. The magical girls are the only ones aware of this cycle of suffering. As soon as they learn about it, they are doomed to suffer from this knowledge. They have to live everyday knowing how bad things are out there. Awareness of the system brings nothing but despair and suffering. You can’t escape or destroy it. No wonder why reflections about the inescapability of capitalist realism often end up in suicide…
Paradoxically, as if to further mock this powerlessness, capitalism and the magical girl system both heavily emphasis individuality. This is a weight the girls have to carry largely alone. Nobody, not even each other, can absolve them from the individual responsibility of their choice. The system even puts them in competition with each other in war of everyone against everyone (see Kyouko). This radical individualism pushes the view that the system is morally neutral.
As Mark Fisher points out, making mental health an individual responsibility/pathology distracts and negates its systemic components and roots. How else can you react when the system simultaneously screams at you that you’re responsible for everything but that everything is irremediably bad?
Like in the world of magical girls, the ones who confront the system all end up in the darkness. They might rebel at first, but their idealistic children’s souls (gems) get corrupted by the system and end up cynical. There’s no better metaphor for it than the transformation of a hopeful magical girl into a bitter crony witch. Should I count the number of people who were activists in their early years and ended up bitter and disillusioned?
The politics of walpurgis
Maybe Madoka can help us make sense of our situation. For starters, it may be very straightforward, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in the two shows, just like in real life, oppressive systems are powered first and foremost by fear. The menace of Walpurgis night forces Madoka’s hand, the cruel fate of the witches provides the impetus for Magius in Magia record. I wonder what’s on TV tonight…
Can the show help us figure out what to do when you’re stuck in a toxic and seemingly invincible system? As with any good ideological system, it really seems that there’s no way out…
The Hegelian perspective often showcased in Ikuhara work is to transcend the system, through love and compassion. But Madoka shows that things are not as easy…
For starters, “follow your heart” is pretty much the core of capitalist ideology. Kyuubey realizes the wish dearest to your heart. You fight to protect your loved ones… Love has already been co opted by the system and made into one of its strongest pillars (what better engine to spark consumption? You’re not gonna be the one who doesn’t give them a present for their birthday, you monster?).
But it goes deeper than that in the show. Every time love is on the table, it ends up counter productive. The love of Homura for Madoka condemns her and creates a mountain out of a molehill. Sayaka’s love drives her straight to despair… Could it be mirroring thedangers of empathy, which push you into emotional reactive thinking and make you lose sight of the bigger picture? You can’t take down an ideological behemoth with narrow thinking. But can you take it down at all?
When Madoka wishes for the end of the exploitative system, another system, perhaps less barbaric but still, takes its place. We already know that Magius’ efforts won’t succeed, since they take place before the end of the series. No matter how smart or outside the box you are, it seems that some systems of oppression just cannot be toppled.
I love it when art and reality mingle. The exploitation in real life of the Madoka brand mirroring the exploitation of the character in universe is like candy to me. But maybe what it shows us is that like Madoka, who will surely wane and be replaced by another brand, the end of any bad system is another bad system. But maybe this one could be slightly less bad… And through an infinity of efforts and iterations, we may yet drag ourselves out of the labyrinth of the witches…