all I want in this world is a family. of bots.
I am sitting down, staring at my computer. I boot it up. The fan whirs out dust and the ethernet receiver thirsts for its first ping. My heart beats in my throat as I wait to enter the swarm. But I don’t even need internet for what I’m about to do. All I need to build a bot is a briskly portable piece of software.
Building bots is something that is fairly easy for the average script kiddie to do. It doesn’t require much more than a little bit of basic code and a lot of concentration. The bots move like a story, like a narrative: one event leads to another, and another and another. The same kind of narratives play out in the minds of Marx’s workers reduced to a contemplative state: arterial ideas that pump blood into vain hematomas. Ideas that are frustrated, becoming gross, terrifying and dangerous. But the workers Marx described didn’t have the internet.
Does that change anything? Does the internet fundamentally change the nature of a worker’s contemplative state, trapped by onerous piecework? Today’s workers go online to decompress, only to whirl about in media shitstorms, only to click through advertisements and pump out data that makes this dazed, contemplative state possible. The worker in her contemplative state paws gently at her smartphone and has, while on a federally mandated five-minute break, the world in her hand. But what can she do? Can she change anything? Can she grasp the internet shitstorm, becoming the internet sovereign? According to Byung-Chul Han in In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, to control the shitstorm, one must be able to command absolute silence: to control chatter with a heavy-handed muffle, or a cannily aimed silencer.
I watch the world implode with my bots in my hands. It seems impossible to get a handle on things when Twitter trolls and Russian bots supposedly spew out a constant flow of misinformation. Bots crawl the web to siphon up data. Bots pick fights and war over wikipedia pages. But for all their ill repute, I like bots. Bots keep things loud and rowdy. The best part? They never run out of steam. My bots keep tweeting even when I am fast asleep.
According to Latour, critique lacks steam. And it certainly doesn’t seem to have made it very far within the shitstorm radar of the internet. So why not give critique a little extra oomph? Why not use the tools that glean data from contemplative browsers to carve a path for a new vision? This is an enormous proposition to be sure, so let’s take it in the direction of a friendly thought experiment.
First, let’s bastardize the vocabulary of elite theory and bring it down to the vulgate. Not down to pig Latin, but to the inconsistent, intelligible vulgate. A vulgar perspective. I don’t always know what’s trending, but it seems to me that #newsubjectivity and #reification and #invagination are unlikely to trend or go viral. The last one might even get banned for being (from a vulgar perspective) an implied obscenity. In the world of fiction, wordy postmodernism only seems to do well among a niche set, and well–I’m going to argue we need something a little bit bigger than a niche set in order to actually do something. For scale: our mediasphere.
In this piece, I’ll be using “mediasphere” to refer to the complex, networked web of high-speed information and high-speed people that is integrated into our society. Examples of this function might include tweet storms, viral memes, and the 24-hour news cycle. There are events, rumors, and topics of discussion that ripple through it, as users each receive and process the data give-and-take. It can also be overwhelmed by storms, disturbances that change the broader media narrative. They can sometimes be called (to use the academic term) shitstorms. Conceive of it like this: a gas giant of farts, except the farts mingle with other farts to create super farts. Occasionally, there’s a shart to be had.
Now that I’ve got the profanity out early on, let’s talk about perspectives. The vulgar perspective is a thoroughly disoriented one. Let’s zoom out to start, because you can’t quite know a disoriented perspective until you get what it looks like to ponder on an axis. I plant my two feet as far apart as I can. Below my crotch, there is a line created when the slab of concrete was embossed with a frame in order to divide one swath of concrete into four petit slabs. Now, step into my shoes—they are loose Payless flats, so there ought to be enough room for you—and imagine the heat of New York when summer starts to burn. There are children playing outside in the spray of a fire hydrant, and there is laughing and yelling and grenade-shaped plastic flasks of brightly colored drink to buy at the dingy corner store.
Let me grow a mile tall and a kilometer wide. Hold on for the ride; I’m going to spread my legs across the East River. It runs through the city just like water from a happy summer day trickles through the crack within the concrete. One of my feet rests atop the rolling hills of Central Park, abutting the Upper East Side and the shady maples of Museum Mile. The other one rests firmly on Fresh Pond Road, the main thoroughfare that runs through Ridgewood, in Queens. My point is that I don’t want you to think about this growth spurt, I want you to think about everything that lies between the spread of my legs. Then, perhaps, you’ll get a glimpse of my perspective: one in which I shuttled from Ridgewood to the Upper East Side every day for school, my experience of the city less of towering skyscrapers and more about a horizontal journey through winding, hot, dirty tunnels. Even when the elevated rail runs through any given crowded neighborhood, they never get much taller than the old tenements they flank.
Now that we have set the inflection and scale of this experiment, we must understand what the theory that we’re looking for is. In Traditional and Critical Theory, Max Horkheimer writes, urges thinkers to cast aside the traditional theories that are supported by and function within capitalism. He sees this as a difficult task, one in which he can be a full participant.
The possibility of a wider vision…the kind possessed by university professors, middle-level civil servants, doctors, lawyers, and so forth, is what constitutes the “intelligentsia,” that is, a special social or even suprasocial stratum.Max Horkheimer, Traditional and Critical Theory p.221
This task–to nurture the flame of free thought–seems to be a lonely one.
But under the conditions of later capitalism and the impotence of the workers before the authoritarian state’s apparatus of oppression, truth has sought refuge among small groups of admirable men.Horkheimer, p.237-238
Horkheimer sees these “admirable men” cradling the flame of a free mind without the threat of conflagration. This group exists in opposition to the ravaging intellectual and social repression of late capitalism; they struggle to free thought from the structures and sciences of the bourgeoisie. In trying to divorce himself and his vision from a bourgeoisie liberal intelligentsia, he and his posse inadvertently get stuck in a vertical perspective. Not because of a sense of superiority, or of detachment; but because the perspective is one fixated on degeneration; it’s what he’s looking for.
…these have been decimated by terrorism and have little time for refining the theory. Charlatans profit by this situation and the general intellectual level of the great masses is rapidly declining.Horkheimer, p.219; emphasis mine.
But, if he stepped into a vulgar perspective–if he let himself descend into the storm–he might find a very different world, with very different relations. To quote an excellent one-liner from before my time, “Beneath the asphalt lies the beach.” Beneath the city lie pulsing arteries of humanity, steam pipes and Morlocks, urban myths and despair; beneath the borough of Brooklyn lies one of the largest oil spills in the United States of America. The Gowanus Canal leaks fetid water into the East River. In Brooklyn and Queens, we sit on our stoops drunk on cheap punch and talk about what you can get at the Queens Center Mall’s out-of-business Best Buy. Best buy soon, eh?
Let yourself be swept away in this tide of humanity. The cleft between intellectual and proletarian looks different when you accept your personal dismay from a disoriented perspective, this common and vulgar one in which the structures of class can be transitioned through in the space of a day.
Here, the strata of class are less geological and more geographical. A vertical perspective like Horkheimer sees the working class as masses, slaves to popular thought moving like cyclones of ants driven by instinct and pheromone. A vulgar, swarming perspective brings us closer to the grounding earth, to the truth that Horkheimer hints at: we are inextricably and intricately linked.
The vulgar perspective brings us back to our relations within an actual society. Watching teens vault over the turnstiles, you can realize that the CUNY Graduate Center and Columbia and NYU and all their philosophy departments and all their critical theory concentrations can’t exist without the workers who shuttle and swarm through the city. Who live within its boroughs, despite being connected by only bridge and tunnel.
The “Bridge and Tunnel” crowd is looked down upon by the supra-class society of prestigious-university-alumni that percolates at exclusive cocktail parties and events at the Yale club. At the end of the night, the “Bridge and Tunnel” return back to their working-class ratholes in Queens and the Bronx and even New Jersey. What I’m trying to get at here is that despite their degrees, and despite their technical prestige, the “Bridge and Tunnel” are at best temporary imposters. After dark, they sink back into the protean slush of New York’s masses. They fade into the periphery, into that banal mediasphere, into the swarm.
But what makes the swarm? What do we do between the brief pause between morning and evening commutes? What do we do besides move? In a community center, a film student leads a workshop teaching people how to make films with their cellphones. In the basement of an old rowhouse, someone side-hustles a sculpture studio, cobbled together with things brought in from the kerb. They’re all very popular on instagram. And there is always something happening at the library, which is seemingly always somewhere between empty and full. Shouldn’t this hold promise for the bold spirit of the Bridge-and-Tunnel? Horkheimer has a response:
The intellectual is satisfied to proclaim with reverent admiration the creative strength of the proletariat and finds satisfaction in adapting himself to it and in canonizing it. He fails to see that such an evasion of theoretical effort (which the passivity of his own thinking spares him) and of temporary opposition to the masses (which active theoretical effort on his part might force upon him) only makes the masses blinder and weaker than they need be.Horkheimer, p. 214
There’s something going on here, something that makes Horkheimer’s truth-fondling intelligentsia uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the rowdy vulgarians cluster around the most recent media shitstorm, the Kardashians or whatever else went down at a music festival too expensive for most people to attend. They spend too much time contemplating with social media. And yet this use of media is what animates the very swarm that seems to telegraph a continued decline of the general intellect, America’s IQ. In this swarm, there is no order or orientation. There is no up or down. In the swarm, relationships are built on perceived proximity and the motion of others. Our internet, or our mediasphere, is simply made of whirling motes: each with a different ip. [author’s note: maybe this is more palatable than farts.]
Maybe the solution to this trouble lies cross the east river, downtown by the New School—over by the west side near the Village—there is someone whose theory might make Horkheimer feel vaguely nauseous. That would be McKenzie Wark, who is likely the greatest living theorist. I mean, she ran a ruse in which she claimed Tino Segal’s signature was tattooed on her ass and was was ready to show it to the world. Who else has that kind of moxie? Or rather, who has enough marxie to tell the world that a new version, more up-to-date, of Marxism is available. In her recent book Capital is Dead is This Something Worse, Wark separates Marxism into two categories: genteel and vulgar.
This sense of the vulgar other as having tracked their muddy footprints across the disciplines and not followed the protocols of its sovereign form is different to its sense in Lukács or Merleau-Ponty where to be vulgar is to lack a sense of the whole, although both of the latter will claim in turn to have the more elevated means of affecting the synthesis. They are all variants of the genteel gesture of reserving to itself a sovereign role for a more refined Marxism, with access to a special method or perspective.McKenzie Wark, Capital is Dead is This Something Worse p.69 [see bibliography]
The genteel Marxist claims to know and negate bourgeois culture and then to represent it metaphorically to the working class. By identifying metaphorically with labor as a whole, Marxist intellectuals evade the question of their own class location and the extent to which it may be shared with others whose immediate labor processes are otherwise quite different. The metaphoric inversion impedes the possibility of thinking metonymically, that they are just a part of some other subaltern class.Wark p.71
Wark is herself an artist, writer and academic; she acknowledges fully that the Marxism that exists at the CUNY Graduate Center, NYU, Columbia and The New School is one that retreated into the academy after the turbulent 1970s. She makes an explicit call (four cheers!) for vulgarity, stressing its importance in terms of creating a relevant, contemporary understanding of Marxism–one that might well be changed by this whirling shitsphere of media that we’re dealing with. At the beginning of the thought experiment she employs in her chapter “Four Cheers for Vulgarity” she writes,
In this chapter’s thought experiment, let’s suppose that getting a conceptual grasp on the twenty-first century might only be possible from the everyday experiences of the various vulgarians who were insulted during the twentieth century.Wark, p.64
In today’s world, the only way to actually understand the masses is enter into the perspective and experiences of everyday proletarian life. And to do that today means to become part of the swarm, the mediasphere where people understand their relations as chaotic points of proximity, exception and flux. While Wark has more to say about the change in social relations and the information political economy, our walking tour has to move on. I do think it’s important to note that she introduces a class for persons like myself, the “hacker class” comprised of highly skilled workers who produce digital products but are not owners of the product of their labor. But that’s enough for now. We’re headed to the:
[NEXT AND LAST STOP. PLEASE LEAVE THE TRAIN AND TAKE YOUR BELONGINGS WITH YOU. THANK YOU FOR RIDING WITH THE M. T. A. NEW YORK CITY TRANSIT.]Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York
Across the bridge in Williamsburg, long-time e-flux contributor and Italian Automatist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, slowly stalks public parks looking for all the world like a humble Italian grandpa. These parks are where hipsters sun themselves silly before they’re too old to “slum it” or they actually become “Bridge and Tunnel.” When I am on my way home, I am sure that Berardi can shake his fist at the quake and rattle of the M train as it disrupts his kindly conversation. In an e-flux podcast interview from last year he details an exchange with a Google facial recognition data collector:
Do you want to take part in a Google Experiment? We are doing these days French team, something. [description of data-collection tool]
She told me if you agree, I’ll give you a bonus of $5 to spend on [sic] Starbucks or something like that. And I take some picture of you and make some questions to you in order to prepare a system of facial recognition.
Oh wow! I asked to know more. I wanted to understand…in the end, I told [her] I prefer not to contribute to the criminal activity you are obliged to do, because you I understand you need a salary.e-flux podcast, “Franco Bifo Berardi on the future possibility of living well” 11:39-12:35
Berardi considers her actions to be criminal because he sees the greatest threat to humanity as the construction of a digital automaton, born of the “Extraction of data from daily life and insertion of intelligent automatons in daily life.” That is, the meta-mind of the swirling fartsphere, emerging as something other than the sum of its farty parts. In the same interview, he later mentions that the thing to do is not to shy away from the automaton, but to befriend it–and in doing so, sabotage it. I like the way this guy thinks.
There’s a lot to talk about here when it comes to chaos, automata and acceleration, but unfortunately that would be a different screed. My point here is that it is necessary to embrace the chaotic mediasphere, not succumbing to the gut-gripping intellectual instinct to orient. In embracing the bizarre totality of our fart-gas-giant mediasphere, we have the potential to alter this system, disrupt it. For Berardi, what Horkheimer would decry as a general decline of the intellect of the masses comes less from stupidity and more from the chaotic hypercomplexity that we encounter in daily life.
In a hypercomplex environment that cannot be properly understood and governed by the individual mind, people will follow simplified pathways and will use complexity-reducing interfaces. This is why social behavior today seems to be trapped into regular and inescapable patterns…In a swarm it is not impossible to say “no.” It’s irrelevant. You can express your refusal, your rebellion and your nonalignment, but this is not going to change the direction of the swarm…Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance p.15-16
Berardi, however, sees a place to get into it, to change its rythym, to send a ripple through the storm: a refrain.
The social environment is marked by refrains, repetitions of gestures and signs that simultaneously express the singular mode and the relation between the agency and the environment.Berardi, 132
My proposal, here: theory is out of steam because it is not out there amongst the refrains. And, as you might have garnered from the very beginning of this screed (thank you for reading this far) that I think it’s because “intellectuals” believe themselves to be at best outsiders to, and at worst preipheral to, the vulgar farty mediasphere that the rest of the world is trying to cope with.
Sure, there are some popular outlets like e-flux. It’s got provocative, evocative articles that are free and available to the public, just as its promotional abilities are used to push forward the exhibits of public galleries and museums. The journal is couched in genteel language, but the content is anything butt—including an artist’s signature tattooed on McKenzie Wark’s ass. Pun intended, and utterly acceptable if you consider Anti-Oedipus’s opening chapters to be relevant to contemporary theory.
Should one, or should one not, suffocate from what eats, swallow air, shit with one’s mouth?Gilles Deluze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 35
My second point, then, is that theory isn’t–or doesn’t have to be–that far off. We know how the internet has affected political campaigns over the past four election cycles. Russian bots, Bernie Bros, Twitter Trolls, Dank Meme Stashes and “fake news” websites. These and their shareable memes (a very efficient way to communicate while reducing complexity) have changed our refrains. There are, however, new refrains. Many voices together are becoming increasingly critical of the cruel financial capitalism that suggests one ought to sacrifice Mawmaw and Pepop to the stock market. They are critical of capital, promoting Marxism, and slowly growing in volume. Many, of course, are vulgar. This business is all utterly, terribly vulgar and wrapped in a red cloak of dark humor.
One way to do that is with bots.
As a member of some of these communities, I can also tell you that the folks making and laughing at these memes are intelligent, astute and well read. They are not academics: they stroll along the sidewalk while dreaming of yeeting and eating the rich. So this is why I propose we make theory vulgar not only in terms of practice, but in terms of vulgar humor.
Without descending into the farty singularity of our mediasphere, without casting aside the pretense and fancy language of academia, without becoming familiar with a completely and utterly vulgar perspective–without living in such a disoriented state that the word conCATination seems riper for a meme than a journal article or slim philosophical tome–without all of this, we’d have no hope of actually enacting change by influencing the refrain as described by Berardi. Theory would not have to worry about being a product of hindsight and indigestion; theory could become something timely, excellent, hilarious. There have been writers before me who have mixed dicks, pussies and Derrida, and there is room for more out there. Room to change the pulse, the refrain, of our world.
And that’s why I have my bots. If media is an extension of man, my bots are an extension of me. My bots are my fingers. The children of a god-awful homo digitalis. The first two bots in this family are satire bots, designed to skewer presidential primary candidates who have since dropped out. They are primitive now, and the machine learning abilities of theory-bot are not yet ready to get out there. But my hope is that my bots will be able to project my voice, speak for me–in riddles, in jokes, in nonsense–and eventually help me create a shitstorm of my own.
Welcome to Mediaproject.club
Berardi, Franco “Bifo”. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2012.)
Deluze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus. (Minneapolis: University of Minnsota Press, 1983.)
Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects.Translated by Erik Butler. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017)
Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. (New York: Continuum, 2002.)
Petrossiants, Andreas. “Franco Bifo Berardi on the future possibility of living well.” e-flux podcast Podcast Audio. August 2019. Accessed March 20, 2020 at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/franco-bifo-berardi-on-future-possibility-living-well/id1332021431?i=1000445222339
Wark, Mckenzie. Capital is Dead Is This Something Worse (New York: Verso, 2019.) [note: pagination from official Verso e-book]