Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.

My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).

Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.

Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).

As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.

I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.

Monster Portraits (Del Samatar and Sofia Samatar)

Sofia Samatar is one of the most interesting of the new(er) generation of writers of speculative fiction. Her two novels, A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA and THE WINGED HISTORIES, radically rework the conventions of heroic fantasy, both in terms of race/ethnicity and gender, and in terms of narrative conventions and questions about literariness and about the writing of history and of ethnography, not to mention questions of written vs oral more generally. Her short story collection TENDER contains stories straddling the divisions between science fiction, fantasy, and other genres; my favorite of these stories, “How to Get Back to the Forest” — also available for free download here — both moves me and freaks me out every time I (re)read it.

Sofia Samatar’s new book, MONSTER PORTRAITS is a collaboration with her brother Del Samatar. It’s a book of short sections: each section is a short description of a monster, or an even briefer series of mediations on what it means to search for monsters; Sofia Samatar’s text is accompanied by gorgeous (& sometimes gruesome) black-and-white illustrations by Del Samatar. The overall effect is quite poetic. The short sections are mostly fragmentary or nonlinear, combining weird descriptions (weird in the sense of “weird fiction”) with (real or made-up?) autobiographical reminiscences, and citations from a large number of earlier texts (these latter are listed at the end of the book; they range from a Victorian translation of the Odyssey to Frankenstein to Amiria Baraka and Aime Cesaire to Helene Cixous and Roland Barthes).

The result of all this is a text that is kaleidoscopic or dreamlike. It roams in many directions, without ever choosing just one. MONSTER PORTRAITS is a meditation on the varying senses of monsters and of monstrosity. Monsters can be scary, but also misunderstood. “Creating monsters is an act of faith.” Anything that deviates from socially-imposed norms (anything, for instance, that isn’t white cismale heterosexual etc) is a monster; and to identify with monsters is to “identify” with that which escapes or refuses traditional, socially-sanctioned forms of identification. But the endeavor to impose norms, to make everyone and everything alike, to stigmatize anyone who in any way is different, is also essentially monstrous. “The monster evokes, in equal measure, both compassion and its opposite.”

The book moves delicately between these different meanings (or efforts to escape from meaning). Insofar as it is arranged like a catalog — each chapter describes a particular monster, both in prose and in the illustrations that are listed by number — Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. — MONSTER PORTRAITS is reminiscent of Borges’s famous “Chinese encyclopedia”, divided as it is into multiple, incompatible classifications.

This incompatibility is itself the real subject of MONSTER PORTRAITS. At one point in the text, Samatar warns us that: “In the realm of language, the opposite of a monster is a catalogue.” The book takes the form of a catalogue that it is impossible to catalogue. Overall, I find this book pleasurably and frustratingly enigmatic: it teases me with the prospect of an overall comprehension that it continually and finally denies me. In reading it, I find myself passing through thickets of beautiful but unsummarizable prose, interrupted at times with startling pronouncements that jump out from this woven background:

“What joy to be a parasite instead of a host.”

“Her heart bore a pair of claws that were useful for nothing, she told me, but scratching at itself.”

“Exiles and insomniacs share this feeling: that each is the only one.”

“Try as much as possible to conform and you will be saved by a wily grace. Imperfection is your genius.”

And many more. Despite being such a short book, MONSTER PORTRAITS defies closure and summary.


Here is a short piece I wrote for the art group FLAME, who are having a show that opens this weekend (576 Morgan Ave Apt 3L Gallery, Brooklyn, New York — Opening Saturday November 8, 7-10 PM).

The invitation has a shortened version, but here is the full text:

In the early 1960s, alongside Campbell Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol also did paintings of dollar bills. As Warhol recounts:

It was on one of those evenings when I’d asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.

Warhol elsewhere expresses his admiration for Pablo Picasso, on the basis of the quantity rather than the quality of the modernist master’s work. Warhol read that Picasso had created 4,000 masterpieces; he decided to do the same. He reasoned that, given his silkscreening technique, he could make 4,000 paintings in just a single day; “and they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” But Warhol was quickly disillusioned. He discovered that, in an entire month, he was only able to make 500 paintings. At this rate, it would have taken him a whole 8 months to match Picasso’s lifetime output. This was too boring to contemplate, and so he moved on to something else.

As for Picasso, it’s been recorded that he was a cheapskate, who didn’t like to spend his money if he could avoid it. So what he did was, whenever he wrote a check, he would draw a small doodle on it as well. This way, he hoped, the recipient would choose to keep a signed Picasso drawing, rather than actually cashing the check. In this way, everyone benefited; Picasso got to keep his money, and the recipient was able to sell the check for more than its face value.

Alongside Warhol and Picasso, we may place the artist J. S. G. Boggs, who combines and improves on the practices of both. Boggs’ drawings and digital replications of paper money are far more meticulous and detailed than Warhol’s dollar paintings. And Boggs overtly pays his bills with his work, rather than just incidentally turning his means of payment into a work as Picasso did. When he owes money, Boggs makes a picture of currency with the same face value as the amount he owes. He trades this work to his creditor in lieu of cash payment. Boggs’ works do not proclaim themselves to be legal tender — which is what differentiates them from counterfeit bills. But they usually sell for more than the face value of the bills they depict.

Warhol, Picasso, and Boggs all successfully addressed the economics of the art market in the 20th century. But what does their work have to say in the 21st? Do their practices still have import for the art market today? The problem is that paper currency (Warhol and Boggs) and personal checks (Picasso) are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Only relatively poor people still use them. The middle class depends instead on credit cards and online banking. As for the One Percent (the class that accumulates the greatest share of wealth, and that also collects art), it no longer relies on paper money (bills and checks) at all. In the course of the past fifty years, we have moved from a cash economy to a credit economy — and beyond that, to an economy that is largely driven by transactions in arcane financial instruments.

The history of finance, like the history of Western painting, moves in the direction of ever-greater abstraction. The first coins were worth their weight in gold and other precious metals, because that is literally what they were made of. The figure of the king or president on the coin was only a guarantee that the one-ounce gold coin, for instance, really did weigh one ounce. Later on, coins were made from metals of lesser value, or else (in higher demoninations) were replaced by paper. The picture of the king or president now worked as a guarantee that the coin or bill could be exchanged for gold upon demand. But then, in 1971, Richard Nixon abolished the gold standard; now currency is only valuable because of government fiat (which means, in practice, that it is valuable as long as other people accept it, and the government itself accepts it for tax payments). Such is the legal tender that Warhol and Boggs simulated. And once we accept government paper, we are bound to accept paper checks as well — which is what Picasso relied on. And this development is likely irreversible, even though right-wing cranks like Rand Paul demand a return to the gold standard (and even though a Republican Congressman, some years ago, blocked the issuance of a Ronald Reagan coin because he felt it would demean the revered ex-President to have his image stamped on “scrap metal”).

Money has always been something of an abstraction, because it is exchangeable for goods and services without being of any other intrinsic use. But it became far more abstract with the abolition of the gold standard — and that was only the beginning. Starting in the 1970s, corporations realized that, instead of giving raises to their employees, they could simply give them credit cards. So now the vast majority of Americans can purchase all sorts of commodities without ever actually owning them. Corporations are able to sell goods to consumers, keep the money, and eventually get the goods back as well (or at least, collect their cash value a second time). Spending goes on as usual — but the bank can foreclose at any moment. More than a third of US adults are currently being pursued by debt collectors.

The One Percent, meanwhile, can revel in ever-greater powers of fiscal abstraction. From simple interest-collecting loans, they first moved on to commodity futures options: the ability to buy and sell, and collect a profit on, goods and services that don’t even exist yet. These subsequently developed into derivatives: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and even more abstract financial instruments. These no longer physically “exist” in any conventional sense of the term; they are purely virtual, numbers calculated by supercomputers. They are joined by Bitcoin and other electronic currencies, which don’t have presidential images on them because they are not accepted by governments. But this is no longer considered a danger to the accumulation of value; instead, it is an opportunity, a way of evading taxes altogether.

The philosopher and derivatives trader Elie Ayache points out that advanced financial instruments are so fully abstract that they no longer refer back to any “underlying” whatsoever. They are blank forms, Ayache says, pure contingencies; traders may use them to literally “write the future.” Today the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” are quants, rather than poets and artists.

In such circumstances, it follows that the only art that makes sense is art that is as fully abstract and non-referential as financial instruments themselves. The painterly abstractions of the twentieth century — seen either as pure subjective expressions, or else as pure explorations of the artistic medium itself — are no longer abstract enough. Today abstract art needs to be purged of expression, and of Greenbergian self-reflection, as much as it has been purged of extrinsic representation. It no longer makes sense even to simulate currency, as in the post-representational practice of Picasso, Warhol, and Boggs. Rather, a work of art must actually be an abstract financial instrument, rather than merely mimicking it, or referring to it, or being exchangeable for it. Consider the statement of intent of, which “identifies prime artist prospects based on known trajectory profiles… Our algorithm is intent on assessing the intrinsic value of an artwork, not its survival value. We do not judge any works’ aesthetic or emotional value.” This should be understood as implying that survival values, aesthetic values, and emotional values are entirely extrinsic. They are archaic and outdated in our current economic climate. Intrinsic value can only be defined in terms of a work’s functioning as a financial instrument, entirely divorced from any “underlying.” FLIP ART, as The New York Times has put it, “is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.” It’s only when the art is “flipped,” or sold by one collector to another, that it accretes intrinsic value.

If you are hungry, you can eat a burrito. Alternatively, you can speak the word “burrito”; in that case, something comes out of your mouth instead of going in. You can also take a photo of the burrito, before you eat it; and you can write the word “burrito” instead of speaking it. We like to think that these are ways of preserving the burrito; but in fact, you can’t have your burrito and eat it too. Doubtless, if Jacques Derrida were my dinner companion, he would elegantly prove to me that even my apparent act of nourishing myself with a burrito really comes down to a disavowed abstraction: a naive assertion of metaphysical presence. I can neither have a burrito, nor eat it; I will surely starve to death. But it’s yet a greater abstraction when I don’t even write the word “burrito,” but rather inscribe it on canvas as a meaningless, iterated sign. Now, “burrito” can neither be eaten, nor spoken, nor depicted, nor even read. It has been separated from any underlying. It has no survival value as food, and no aesthetic or emotional value as a sign of food. It can only be flipped, passed in a series of sales from hand to hand (or more properly, from wall to wall, or from bank vault to bank vault).

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2” (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Value Experience

Here is the text of one of my talks from the SLSA conference this weekend. It was for a panel (part of a stream) on "Towards a Stengers-Whitehead Lexicon of the Nonhuman."

Alfred North Whitehead writes in "Civilized Universe," the sixth lecture in his book Modes of Thought, that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe" (MT 111). Isabelle Stengers remarks, rather sardonically, that this "demand" on Whitehead's part is "foolish," because it "challenges philosophy to refrain indulging its favourite sport, catching commonsensical positions into the clutches of "either… or" alternatives" (Stengers Claremont talk, 12). Stengers then goes on to comicaly imagine a Socrates who accepted and even celebrated the "value experiences" of all his fellow Athenian citizens, instead of striving to deface those experiences by proving that none of his interlocutors knew what they were talking about.

Following Stengers, I'd like to consider what it might really mean to refrain from defacing value experiences. I take it that this largely applies to the "value experiences" of others than ourselves. And respecting the value experiences of others is not always an easy thing to do. I certainly don't want religious fundamentalists who deny the theory of evolution and claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old to be teaching my children. But living as an atheist in a common world with religious believers, I also reject defacing the value experience of those believers, in the way that "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens have done.

I also want to work through the implications of Whitehead's claim that such "value experience… is the very essence of the universe." But doing this demands that we pass beyond the human. For Whitehead's claims here, as always, are cosmological in scope — or as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitical. Other entities aside from human beings also have "value experiences" that we have no right to deface. We need to take some account, at least, of the value experiences of dogs and flies and clams, of trees and slime molds and bacteria, and even of pebbles, drops of water, and stars.

To this extent, Graham Harman and the other thinkers of Object Oriented Ontology are right to regard Whitehead as an exemplary anti-anthropocentric thinker, an anti-correlationist avant la lettre. For Whitehead no less than for Harman, "all relations are on the same footing" (Harman 2008, 4). This means that, for Whitehead just as for OOO, the particular relation that is the obsessive concern of post-Cartesian and post-Kantian epistemology — the relation between human beings as subjects, and the objects that they happen to perceive — does not have any unique or special philosophical status. Epistemology loses its centrality, as the problem of knowledge is just one instance of the more general problem of how entities relate to, and interact with, one another. For Whitehead, physical causality and mental intentionality are just two among the many ways in which entities "prehend" one another. For Harman, similarly, both "vicarious causation" and metaphorical "allusion" are instances of sensual contact. For Whitehead and Harman alike, the problem of relations is therefore ultimately an aesthetic one.

Whitehead's anti-anthropocentrism, shared by OOO, also implies that relations among entities — and, in particular, relations of sensation and perception — cannot be reduced, in the manner of British empiricism, to atomistc "sense impressions" in the "mind" of a human observer — or more generally in the mind of one of the entities in the relationship. Harman rightly insists that we encounter, not isolated impressions, but whole objects. Citing Husserl, Harman argues that an "intentional object" is more than just a "bundle of adumbrations" (Harman 2011b, 24). Even though I may only see particular "adumbrations" of a tree, it is indeed a tree that I am actually seeing. The tree is real; it cannot be reduced to the status of being a mere mental construction (as Hume would suggest), or even the sum of its various actual and possible adumbrations (as Merleau-Ponty argues — Harman 2011b, 24-25). It's not the mind that unites multiple perceptions into the figure of a tree; rather, the tree itself is already doing this. For Whitehead, similarly, our "ideas" are always "determined to particular existents," rather than being ungrounded universals (PR 138). In this way, "an actual entity is present in other actual entities" (PR 50). We do not just receive isolated impressions, which we would then only combine in our minds. In any experience, "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113).

Indeed, Whitehead goes still further than this. He doesn't just claim that the existence of an entity cannot be reduced to the sum of another entity's "impressions" and "ideas" about it. He also argues, beyond this, that the atomistic perceptions upon which British empiricism bases its account of experience are trivial and unimportant. At best, they are just minor refinements of a much more basic form of experience. And this is directly connected with Whitehead's dismissal of anthropocentrism. It may well be, Whitehead concedes, that the "clearly envisaged details" of distinct perception "exalt men above animals, and animals above vegetables, and vegetables beyond stones" (MT 109). But these "details" play only a minor role in comparison to the vague and diffuse "background" out of which they emerge. "If we forget the background," he writes, "the result is triviality" (MT 108). Indeed, consciousness is a highly specialized and extremely rare form of feeling, which "only arises in a late derivative phase of complex integrations" (PR 162). Most thought, or sentience, or sensibility, or experience — both in ourselves and in other beings — consists in "simple physical feelings" that are not themselves conscious (PR 236).

The upshot of this is that we need to stop congratulating ourselves upon the breadth and subtlety of our consciousness and self-consciousness. We ought to recognize, instead, that "thought" is a much humbler, and much more common, phenomenon than we usually assume. Thought — or sentience, or experientiality — happens in many ways and on many levels. It is not just a matter of concepts, or computation, or cognition. It includes all of these, but also extends beneath them, or behind them. Thought doesn't require rational understanding, or a cogito. It doesn't even require a brain — as recent studies of brainless organisms like trees, slime molds, and bacteria have clearly shown.

Deleuzians — starting with Deleuze himself — love to cite Spinoza's dictum that we do not know what a body can do. But it also true, for a symmetrically opposite reason, that we do not really know what thought can do. For often thought does far less, and operates far more diffusely — than we know. Most thought takes place below our threshold of conscious awareness. Cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind are quite aware of this. The cognitivists are entirely right to point up the importance of nonconscious mental processing. My only problem with them is that they are content to stop with cognition. They need to extend their views to also include noncognitive and precognitive experience. This is what Whitehead calls "feeling" — and what Kant already points to in his discussion of aesthetic experience, or intuitions without concepts, in the Third Critique.

Timothy Morton makes much the same point about thought, in the context of OOO. Morton suggests that, when I perceive a pencil lying on a table, my relation to the pencil is not all that different from the table's own relation to the pencil. If I the pencil is the "intentional object" of my thought, then it is a kind of intentional object for the table also. In saying this, I am of course not making the claim that tables are wont to reflect upon ontology. Rather, I am trying to point out that reflecting upon ontology, or contemplating Being, is not that significant a feature of our own mental lives either. Here Heidegger's critique of thematization, and Harman's extension of this, are as much to the point as are Whitehead's observations on how we overestimate "clear and distinct" perception. Our inner mental lives mostly consist mostly of far more mundane and situated practices than conceptualization. The table holds up the pencil; but I am also holding up the pencil, when I contemplate it, or when I grasp it in order to write.

This line of argument also entails that perception and causality are pretty much the same thing; or at least that they are varieties of the same thing. Whitehead distinguishes between "causal efficacy" and "presentational immediacy" (PR 120-121). The former involves the feeling of being caused, or more broadly of cause and effect; while the latter has to do with conscious representation. But for Whitehead, they are both modes of perception, or forms of prehension. Harman also sees causal relations and metaphorical allusions alike as being ways in which otherwise separate entities nonetheless enter into vicarious contact. Timothy Morton generalizes this, when hee describes the aesthetic as the realm of causal relations. For OOO and Whitehead alike, thought is primordially aesthetic, and ultimately inseparable from physical causality. If A contemplates or otherwise perceives B, this means that B is a cause of A.

Thus far I have been pointing out the similarities between Whitehead's metaphysics and that of OOO. But this discussion also leads us to a crucial difference between Whitehead's philosophy and OOO. And no, I am not referring here to the well-known dispute over what Harman calls "relationism," or what Levi Bryant calls the difference between internal and external relations. Far too much ink has been spilled on this point already, and I do not think the discussion is profitable any more. Rather, I would like to suggest that the really important difference between Whitehead and OOO has to do, not so much with whether and how we prioritize relations, as it does with the ontological status of this humbler form of thought that they both espouse.

Things think, for Harman, but only under certain conditions. Harman rejects panpsychism, according to which — he says — "anything that exists must also perceive." Harman instead argues that "anything that relates must perceive… This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right" (Harman 2008, 9). Even shale and cantaloupe perceive and think and display intentionality, Harman maintains, insofar as they come into contact with us, or with one another. But according to Harman, such contact is merely contingent. Conversely, even human beings do not perceive and think and intend in their inner depths, but only on their outer surfaces. Thought, for Harman as for the phenomenologists, is always necessarily intentional. To think means to think about something, and therefore to relate to something — and indeed to correlate with something. But as such, thought for Harman is necessarily vicarious, or occasional (Harman 2009, 221).

To state this in other terms, it is always possible, according to Harman, that a particular entity does not relate to anything at all. Harman tells us that "the name for an object that exists without relating, exists without perceiving, is a sleeping entity, or a dormant one… Dormant objects are those which are real, but currently without psyche. Each night we make ourselves as dormant as we can, stripping away the accidental accretions of the day and gathering ourselves once more in the essential life where we are untouched by external relations" (Harman 2008, 9).

When I hear this, I cannot help asking: to sleep, perchance to dream? To the extent that dreaming is internally generated, its very possibility shows us that the psyche exists and functions even in the absence of external perception or stimulation. And, to the extent that dreaming does respond to events outside the dreamer, we have evidence that what Harman calls "withdrawal" is never total or absolute, even when the dreamer is not explicitly conscious of these external events. Harman seems to envisage ontological withdrawal as an impossibly dreamless sleep, one altogether devoid of thought or sensation, and therefore blissfully free from any sort of correlation whatsoever.

Whitehead, in contrast, never envisages such a blank utopia. Things don't need to relate, in order to dream or to feel. They do so intrinsically, as part of their very being. Panpsychism claims that anything that exists must also think; but — contra Harman — this does not necessarily mean that anything that exists must also "perceive." At least not if we understand "perception" as a matter of intentionality and presentational immediacy. If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential. In other words, where OOO claims that everything is an object, Whitehead rather claims that everything is a subject: "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness" (PR 167).

Now, of course this distinction is not quite as absolute as it sounds. "Subject" and "object" are only relative terms: unsurprisingly, since they form a system together. Subjective experience in Whitehead perpetually perishes, and thereby passes over into the "objective immortality" of being a datum for subsequent acts of experience. Conversely, objects in OOO exhibit their own sort of subjectivity, insofar as "intentionality is not a special human property at all, but an ontological feature of objects in general" (Harman 2007b, 205). For OOO, all entities have their own inner being or "alien phenomenology" (Bogost).

Nonetheless, there is still a significant difference between the two positions. For Harman and Morton, causality and aesthetic experience are restricted to what they call the "sensuous" realm. The deep inner essence of objects remains untouched. For Whitehead, however, the conflation of causality and aesthetics is universal; there is no deep "substantial" (or "real") realm in contrast to the "sensual" one. "Experience" cannot be so restricted, because it is a common, generic feature of all entities. As long as there is something rather than nothing, there is, at the very least, an instance of simple physical feeling. That is to say, "thought" exists — or better, it happens — even in the absence of what the phenomenologists call intentionality, and of what the empiricists call "perception."

My current project is to work out what it might mean to thus posit an "image of thought" (as Deleuze would say) that is nonintentional, and thereby noncorrelational or uncorrelated. I take a hint for this from the way that Deleuze suggests a contrast between Husserl — for whom, as Deleuze puts is, "all consciousness is consciousness of something"), and Bergson — who "more strongly" asserts, Deleuze says, that "all consciousness is something" (Deleuze 1986, 56). As I have already mentioned, I agree with Whitehead that "thought" cannot be equated to "consciousness"; this would require some revision of Deleuze's formulas. Nonetheless, I maintain that the more primordial modes of thought — or of sentience, or experience, or "feeling" — can be something before they are about something, before they establish anything like a correlation with things outside of themselves. Such modes of thought are not solipsistic, because they do not refer back to themselves any more than they refer to other things. They are "vague" and indistinct, as Whitehead says, but for this very reason they are no more self-contained than they are outwardly referential.

A better "image" of this sort of thought might be that which is found in autism. I say this on condition that we cease to regard autism pejoratively, as a failure to adhere to neurotypical norms, or as the medicalized incapacity to develop a "theory of mind." Instead, we must understand autism as an original mode of being in the world — as the neurodiversity movement has advocated, and as scholars in the field of disability studies are beginning to understand (Savarese & Savarese 2012, 1). In working through the consequences of this new understanding, Erin Manning suggests that, in point of fact, autistics are stigmatized for not approaching the world "according to standard human-centered expectations" (Manning 2013, 227). Instead, she says, autistics are in fact acutely sensitive beyond the human. They are responsive to "resonances across scales and registers of life, both organic and inorganic"; the testimony of autistics themselves indicates that, for them, "everything is somewhat alive," and therefore an object of empathy and concern (225-226). We might say that autistics are inherently non-correlationist; they do not focus their intentionality upon particular chosen objects, but exhibit a more diffuse and wide-bandwidth sort of sentience. While there are risks in any metaphorical extensions of aspects of human experience to entities in the world more generally, I would still suggest that autism offers us a more adequate "image of thought" than the one provided by phenomenology.

Manning goes on to suggest that autistic experiences may provide us with "a transversal, ontogenetic concept of the ethical," — one that "can never begin with the human, or with the body as such" (Manning 2013, 255). I would like to suggest that such a concept of the ethical is close to what Whitehead means by "value experience." For value, so understood, in intrinsic to the primordial feeling that is the heart of experience, to some extent at least, for every actually existing entity. It isn't just human beings (or even just human beings and other mammals) who have value experience. Trees and slime molds have values and meanings too; and so even do rocks and stars and neutrinos, at least to a minimal extent. This is why "value experience" is the very essence of the universe, and why Whitehead says that we have no right to deface it. For Whitehead, value is immanent to experience as such. Valuation is a universal activity, rather than a specifically human imposition upon an object-world that would otherwise be passive, inert, valueless, and meaningless.

Whitehead insists upon the immanence of value and meaning to the immediate, everyday experience of all the entities in the world that have experience. This puts Whitehead at odds both with moral absolutists, for whom the only acceptable values and meanings are their own, and to relativists, for whom values and meanings are nothing more than arbitrary, extrinsically imposed norms. Whitehead's ethics is neither categorical and absolute, nor is it merely empirical. Rather, Whitehead subordinates ethics to aesthetics, and derives his ethics only from aesthetics. This is something that many people find difficult to accept. But today, as we come to realize that — in the words of Bruno Latour — "we have never been modern," and as — in the face of ecological and economic crises alike — we are no longer at liberty to ignore what Stengers calls the cosmopolitical aspects of our situation, Whitehead's aestheticist account of value experience shows its full relevance. It is from within Whitehead's aesthetic envisagement, not just of human life, but of the cosmos, that we must understand the ethical injunction I cited at the beginning of this talk: that "we have no right to deface the value experience which is the very essence of the universe."


A footnote from work in progress:

There is a hidden affinity between the aesthetics of Deleuze and of Adorno. For both thinkers, the authentic work of art resists an otherwise ubiquitous culture of commodification, by virtue of its force of negativity (Adorno) or of counter-actualization (Deleuze). Deleuze’s account of how modernist art works to “prevent the full actualization” of the event to which it responds, and to reverse “the techniques of social alienation” into “revolutionary means of exploration,” echoes Adorno’s insistence that it is “only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse” that art can “enunciate the unspeakable: utopia.” For both thinkers, and despite their radical differences in vocabulary, art restores potentiality by derealizing the actual. The question that haunts aesthetics today is whether such strategies of derealization are still practicable, in a time when negation and counter-actualization have themselves become resources for the extraction of surplus value.

Why Porn Now?

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response.

The German art magazine Texte Zur Kunst is planning a forthcoming issue “which deals with the production, reception and theoretization of pornography.” They are including a survey in which they ask a large number of people for brief statements about the status of pornography today, asking (among other things) Do you agree with the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and political conditions?” Here’s my response:

Why Porn Now? In fact, I don’t believe that Now is the time. Of course, there’s more stuff available these days than ever before: extreme porn, gonzo porn, DIY porn, and what have you. Explicit images are everywhere. No fetish, no kink, is so obscure that you can’t find a group devoted to it on the Net, complete with ready-to-download videos. But I find it hard to regard all this as a triumph of anything besides niche marketing. Today, in the era of globalization, electronic media, and post-Fordist flexible accumulation, everything is a commodity. We have reached the point at which even the most impalpable and evanescent, or intimate and private, aspects of our lives — not just physical objects, but services and favors, affects and moods, styles and atmospheres, yearnings and fantasies, experiences and lifestyles — have all been quantified, digitized, and put up for sale. It’s true, of course, that there are many social forces opposed to the proliferation of pornography, and more generally of sexual fantasies and possibilities. In the United States, voters routinely approve anti-homosexual ordinances, and politicians and preachers score points by demanding action to stem the flood of “obscenity.” But really, isn’t this hysterical moralism just the flip side of marketing? The main effect of these crusades is to give pornography, and more generally all forms of nonprocreative sex, the shiny allure of transgression and taboo. And that, in turn, only serves to stimulate the consumer demand for porn-as-commodity, and sex-as-commodity…

In fact, there is nothing more banal than the spectacle of a right-wing politician who turns out to have a passion for teenage boys, or the minister of a fundamentalist megachurch who is discovered to be hiring rent boys on the side. (I cite only the two most recent of the incessant pseudo-scandals that make headlines in the American media). It’s no longer possible to understand these pathetic closet cases in terms of Freudian repression, or the Lacanian Symbolic, or any of the old categories of depth psychology. Rather, their logic is a commodity logic: fetishism in the Marxist sense, instead of the Freudian one. All our affects and passions are perfectly interchangeable, subject to the law of universal equivalence. That is to say, all of them are commodities, detached from the subjective circumstances of their affective production, and offered up for sale in the marketplace. Today our fantasies and desires — indeed, “our bodies, ourselves” — seem to be outside us, apart from us, beyond our power. And this is a very different situation from that of their being repressed, and buried deep within us. Commodities have a magical attraction — we find them irresistable and addictive — because they concretize and embody the “definite social relations” (as Marx puts it) that we cannot discover among ourselves. In the fetishism of commodities, Marx says, these social relations take on “the fantastic form of a relation between things.” The secret sex life of the right-wing politician or preacher is thus a sort of desperate leap, an attempt to seek out those social relations that are only available in the marketplace, only expressible as “revealed preferences” in the endless negotiations of supply and demand. In short, such a secret life is nothing more (or less) than a way of getting relief by going shopping — which is something that we all do. This realization dampens down whatever Schadenfreude such incidents might otherwise afford me.

Therefore, I don’t accept “the thesis of an increasingly pornographic logic of social relations and poltical conditions.” To the contrary: there is nothing exceptional, central, or privileged about pornography and the “pornographic” today. Pornography simply conforms to the same protocols and political conditions, the same commodity logic, as do all other forms of production, circulation, and consumption. Porn today isn’t the least bit different from cars, or mobile phones, or running shoes. It embodies a logic of indifferent equivalence, even as it holds out the thrilling promise of transgression and transcendence — a promise that, of course, it never actually fulfills.

Is it possible to imagine a pornography freed from this logic? Perhaps some recent writings by Samuel R. Delany provide an alternative. In novels like The Mad Man and Phallos, Delany envisions a sexuality pushed to the point of extremity and exhaustion. There are orgies of fucking and sucking, elaborate games of dominance and submission, and episodes of violence and destruction, together with enormous quantities of piss and shit and sweat and cum. Yet there’s no sense of transgression in these texts. Instead, the meticulously naturalistic thick description places these episodes firmly in the realm of the everyday. Delany presents “extreme” sex as a form of civility and community, an adornment of life, a necessary part of the art of living well. Delany’s is the only writing I know that answers Michel Foucault’s call for an ethics/aesthetics of the body and its pleasures, freed from the dreary dialectics of sexuality and transgression. As such, it provides an alternative as well to the relentless commodification that permeates every corner of our postmodern existence.

Davide Grassi


The next event in the DeRoy Lecture series is an appearance by the Slovenian artist Davide Grassi, presenting his “anti-entertainment interactive movie,” DEMO-KINO: VIRTUAL BIOPOLITICAL AGORA. (More information available here).

DemoKino is a virtual parliament that through topical film parables provides the voters (participants) with the opportunity to decide on issues that are, paradoxically, becoming the essence of modern politics: the questions of life. The project questions not only the utopia of contemporary virtual forum that is supposed to open ways for a more direct and influential participation but also points out a much deeper problem of modern democracy (virtual as well). With its reduced narrativeness – the story is built on the ‘pro and contra’ inner dialogues of the protagonist who is led around his home in a parliamentary kind of way by the ‘voters,’ based on their decisions – Demokino shows how these ethical dilemmas of modern life suddenly become the core of our political participation. When the issue of life enters the political arena and modern politics becomes biopolitics the democratic decision reaches an impasse: in the political arena laws are being debated on issues that can actually tolerate no decisions and any kind of majority rule is problematic in itself, any political regulation a publicly legitimated act of violence. Demokino is a virtual parliament that clearly displays how politics comes before law. Law is just a utopic and redundant technical procedure to cover the political essence.

Partrich Auditorium
Wayne State Law School
471 W. Palmer St.
Detroit, Michigan
Tuesday, March 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm.

A new twist on immortality

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).

Quite wonderfully, the conceptual artist Jonathon Keats (great name) has copyrighted his brain, and now is selling futures contracts on his neurons (via Die, Puny Humans). Since copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the creator, Keats is offering the rights to use his neurons for any computational purpose the buyer may wish, during that extended period. You buy now, and cash in when Keats actually dies (which may not be for quite some time, as he is 32). (The actual text of the IPO is available here).
This is brilliant on so many levels. In terms of “intellectual property,” and the commodification of art and intellect; in terms of what personal identity might mean, after death; and in terms of the expectations of artificial intelligence research and interfacing neurons with silicon chips. Keats poses all these issues in a quite hilarious and provocative way (even though, or rather precisely because, Keats insists that he wants to be taken seriously).
Since it’s only $10 for a million neurons, I sent in a check, requesting neurons located in the artist’s anterior cingulate cortex