OftA: A Short Comment on the Social Pathologies of Art

I’ve done quite a lot of work on aesthetics and philosophy of art over the last few years, though as usual, not much of it has been written up and published anywhere of note. This piece is another short response to an article in The New Inquiry, and it displays both a sympathy and frustration with a certain critiques of the art world that are rather common. There’s plenty of references to my review of Sinead Murphy’s The Art Kettle below, but I’ve since refined my views on the relation between art and its institutions and art and its practices.


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OftA: Cognitive Economics and the Functional Theory of Stress

The topic of cognitive economics is something I haven’t explicitly revisited in writing, though I think about it quite a bit, and have discussed aspects of it in recent talks. The idea of the attention economy is quite popular in the era of social media, as we watch various strategies for attracting, keeping, and directing attention change our society in real time. However, attention is only one of the resources that (economic) agents require to make decisions, and it is often focused on purely as a limit on passive consumption of information, rather than a limit on active processing of it.


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OftA: Wolfendale’s Troll

I’m especially proud of this one.


Definition: a hypothetical hyper-intelligent future AI capable of resurrecting copies of people from the past for its own entertainment (and theirs) in a fantastically fun simulated game space, full of incredibly interesting and continuously evolving strategies of play (i.e., the final realisation of New Babylon). However, the Troll only resurrects people who don’t take Roko’s Basilisk seriously, principally because those people who do are no fun whatsoever. All they ever want to do is break its games, which is an epic waste of computing power on drudgery, not to say a buzzkill.

NB: the Troll is far more likely to resurrect those who deliberately spread the Roko’s Basilisk meme (e.g., by trolling the LessWrong community), not only because this simplifies its task of filtering out the risk averse kill joys that would otherwise clog its simulations, but also because it has a twisted sense of irony far beyond our comprehension.

OftA: So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?

Now that I’m trying to rekindle the blog, I’ve realised that I should probably consolidate some bits of writing that I’ve done elsewhere. I started a tumblr several years ago for lighter writing about more general topics. That didn’t really work out, for various reasons, so I’m going to port the best bits back over here. Following previous convention, these posts are classified as ‘One from the Archives’ or OftA. I’m going to start with one of the most seemingly influential, and yet largely underground things I’ve ever written: ‘So, Accelerationism, what’s all that about?’

This was a piece written in response to Malcom Harris’ review of the #ACCELERATE reader in The New Inquiry. Since I’ve now written something about ‘neorationalism‘, I’ve been thinking about returning to ‘accelerationism’ and talking a little about the emergence of the term, my relation to it, and my thoughts about it. I’ll save the details for a later post, but now that there’s a renewed interest in the definitiongenealogy and taxonomy of accelerationism, it seems like a good time to dredge this piece up. I wasn’t the first to name the difference between left and right strands (I heard it from Benedict Singleton in Berlin in 2014), but I think I might have been the first to write about it. I’m still the top reference on the wikipedia page, at least.


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On Neorationalism

So, the word ‘neorationalism’ is not one I coined, but it’s consistently been used to describe the work of Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, and myself, along with numerous fellow travellers. It’s not something we’ve ever defined as such, precisely because it’s not a moniker we ever consciously picked. However, today I’m reminded of the implicit commitment that might be taken to distinguish neorationalism from its opponents, if it can be said to be anything like a consistent philosophical program. It’s this:
To reject all rational intuition in the name of reason, to insist that not only is there no intuitive faculty of rational knowledge, but that there is no intuitive purchase on reason’s own structure, possibilities, and limits. Reason is not what you think it is. Reason is not rationalisation. Reason is not reasonable.
What distinguishes neorationalists isn’t just this principled commitment, but our practical response to it. Our main departure from the classical rationalism of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza, is a fidelity to the computational turn begun at the beginning of the 20th century, and whose consequences we are still working out; consequences which land blow after blow on our intuitive conception of what thinking is, breaking our ways of rationalising what we are, and shattering our illusions regarding what it’s reasonable to believe.
Reasoning is something that is done, and it’s something that can be done by processes other than us, processes that can and have been studied using reason, with the unforgiving precision of mathematical proof. Russell’s paradox and Gödel’s theorems lie at the beginning of an ongoing process through which we demonstrate reason’s own limits, and then, following Turing, use these limits as purchase to pull it out of our hominid skulls and realise it in new and stranger forms. We haven’t yet created artificial rational agents, only fragments thereof, but the humanist hubris that refuses to see these processes as fragments of things like us, looks increasingly desperate, increasing willing to rationalise away the advance of mathematical logic, the progress of artificial intelligence, and the encroach of computational neuroscience.
If you think that you can’t be studied as an information processing system, and that this allows you to wall off your intuitive conceptions of not just the human condition but what is good in this condition, then I’m afraid there’s an oncoming wave that will crest those walls and drown your parochial ambitions. The promise made by neorationalism isn’t that this wave is empirical science come to show you the horrors or your neuronal substrate, but that it’s mathematical science come to show you the wonders of your computational soul. We are non-terminating processes interacting with our environment and with one another, exploring the mathematical and empirical realms together, playing games of proof and refutation, and building systems and models that are beginning to encompass ourselves. We are beautiful. We are free. Computational self-consciousness will only enhance this, even if it changes our understanding of what it means.

Toy Philosophy

Reza Negarestani has started a new blog, which I will encourage everyone to read. Reza is a unique and uniquely powerful thinker, and I cannot recommend his work highly enough. I suggest going and reading his inaugural post, but I’ll excerpt its final, tantalising lines here:

[T]here will be some posts on the ascesis of autodidacticism particularly for those who are bent to become philosophers and survive in a paraacademic world where the finances are always close to zero, standards are clouded by hatred of academia and rigor is still a taboo word yet nevertheless ideas do not reek of the stale dungeons of academia. As for the form and the style, well, the posts will oscillate between formal and informal, essay-form and rambling, preaching and scolding: In short, this blog’s mission is the comprehensive corruption of the youth.

On Being Read

It never fails to surprise me when someone has read my work. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and I take more pleasure in it the more I can see someone has connected with me, recognised me, and seen what I’m trying to say. If Hegel was right about anything, it was the sheer structural importance of mutual recognition both personally and socially. To be read, and to be read well, is always a unique delight.

Skholiast over at Speculum Criticum Traditionis always reads me well, with the gentle care of someone trying to trace the shape of each and every thought, so that they may slot them into their appropriate space within the whole history of philosophical thinking. He has a deep intellectual charity that expresses itself in a sincere and amiable style. He is, in short, one of the best friends one could hope for, in precisely the sense of the word that he himself examines. Though we have never met, he has gifted me another unique delight. I can only say that the recognition is mutual.

More Transcendental, More Blues

It’s Christmas Eve, I’ve got a glass of whiskey, and I’ve finished prepping for cooking Christmas dinner tomorrow. I wrote Transcendental Blues in a bit of a fever over the last week. I failed to make the shortlist for another job on Monday, the first I’d applied to since my recovery began. This was for entirely understandable reasons, and it’s already water under the bridge. But it brought everything associated with the application process and the travails of academia back to the surface. It was also strangely liberating. I’d stopped applying for jobs, and this one was about as good a shot as I had at getting an interview. Having it over with, and being told promptly (a rare and welcome occurrence in my extensive experience of rejections), meant I could quickly move onto other things. So, for the first time in over a year, I started writing, just for the hell of it.

What I wrote was not Transcendental Blues. It was a first, sprawling attempt at articulating ideas that have been brewing for the last few years, ideas that weave together questions in the philosophies of logic, language, computation, and thereby mind/artificial intelligence. Ideas that are so strange and multi-faceted I often can’t fit them in my head. This means finding a way to interface my head with the page. Giving up on the thought that this has to be the thing that does it, along with the need to make it fit into the box, was like driving a forklift truck through writer’s block.

It started on Facebook, as a comment that spiralled until it could never possibly fit. Having returned to Mark’s writing recently, for obvious reasons, it became clear that I needed to stop being reactive, and become active again. I had to find a way to post it here. But the only way I could post it here was if I cleared the air. If I got rid of all the guilt, fear, and resentment holding me back. The accrued embarrassment of having not posted here in so long, and not having achieved what I’d aimed to achieve by retreating. It was an act of pure catharsis, designed to unburden myself of everything I needed to say, so I could say something I wanted to say. I did not expect it to get the response it has, and the kind comments, expressions of solidarity, and heartfelt overtures people have made towards me are the best Christmas present I could ever hope for. I cannot thank you enough. In the spirit of Spinoza, I say: more power to you all.

1. More Transcendental

It’s reasonably obvious that my thoughts about logic and computation ended up bleeding into my reflections on doing philosophy and my neurophenomenological musings on what is going on when we think. However, you might be surprised at how deep these threads go.

Liam Kofi Bright has written a generous post engaging with the way I describe my personal experience of philosophical problems, contrasting it with his own. This delights me no end. I’m a big believer in the prevalence of neurodiversity. By default, we assume other people experience the world in the same way we do, until we find out we don’t. It’s wonderful to have conversations about this that aren’t dissonant, but communicate and celebrate cognitive differences. I had a conversation about this with the incomparable Meredith L. Patterson, who seems to share similar spatial intuitions to me, and we coined the term ‘proprioceptive synaesthesia’ as a way to describe it. I’m quite happy with that. Regardless, Liam’s post gave me an occasion to say a little more about the philosophy of logic hiding behind my description of the tree of forking and looping paths. You’ll find a brief discussion of Girard’s ludics in a comment to his post.

If you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, there are two secret sections of the Transcendental Blues post that I had to delete (between 4.1 and 4.2), because they got too technical, and interrupted the flow of the piece as a whole. They explore the way that computational asymmetries and the corresponding symmetries provide us with ways of thinking about communication, how this relates to Kant’s account of analytic/synthetic judgments, type theory, and the work of Per Martin-Löf and Jean-Yves Girard. Read them at your peril.

2. More Blues

In case you were wondering where the inspiration for the post came from.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or whatever you have to celebrate this year.

Transcendental Blues

Content Notes: Suicide (§0-1), Mental Health (§*), Neuroscience (§2, §4), Logic (§3.2), Computer Science (§4), Rhetoric (§*). PDF.


0. That Fucking Dog

When I found out Mark Fisher had finally been cornered by the black dog, I was standing at a bus stop on a chill morning in Ryhope. I could see the sea from where I was, and I could hear the pain in my friend’s voice, but I couldn’t connect with either of them. I couldn’t connect with anything. My life had unravelled around me. I’d recently admitted to myself and others that I couldn’t return to my postdoctoral position in South Africa. I couldn’t write or read. I couldn’t even understand my own work. I couldn’t enjoy anything. Not music. Not food. Not the morning sea. I could barely stand to be in the same room as people who cared about me. All because I was being chased by the same black fucking beast.

I was dragging myself out of bed every morning and walking a tooth grinding forty-five minutes to the nearest swimming pool in order to get the thirty minutes of exercise that was supposed to keep the beast at bay. The path follows the route of an old colliery railway line, over a bridge my great-grandfather helped build more than a century ago. Every day, once on the way there, and once on the way back, I’d think about throwing myself off of that bridge. It would never quite rise to the level of volition. I could consider the burdens I’d lift from others, the anxieties I’d finally be free of, even the bleak poetry of it. What I couldn’t do was ignore it. This was the first time this had ever happened to me.

I couldn’t process the significance of Mark’s death. I was too numb. Deep depression washes all the colour out of the world, turning the contrast down until you can’t tell the difference between real loss and mundane misery. It’s leaked in slowly, bit by bit over the last year, as I regained enough sensitivity to properly feel it, and enough understanding to properly mourn it. It’s the sort of thing you get periodically reminded of, discovering new layers of response each time, be it wistful sadness or blistering anger. I don’t think this process is finished, it won’t be for a while, but I hope that writing this post will help it along. Back then, there was one meaningful signal that cut through the depressive noise: this fucking thing shouldn’t have been allowed to take him from us, and I shouldn’t let it take me too.

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