Xeno Economics: Speculative Phenomenology and Capital

September 12, 2011

Recent market innovation, generated by advances in technology and the creation of a cognitive surplus, has led to a condition that calls into question the epistemological basis of the knowledge project. Increasingly, computers model the world, but not for the purpose of research, but rather in service of capitalist exploitation. Knowledge, under this regime, is then only as valuable as it’s ability to liquidate all forms of matter into their optimal monetary value. [1]

If it is now a machinic capitalism whose artificial cognition rules our world — its amphetaminic diachronism melting all to air and lava-like, re-sedimenting the crust — we must ask what is this unconscious from which everything is pulled, molten, to the surface? The phenomenal being of this alien mind, whose transcendental conditions must be vastly different than ours — stemming from countless electronic eyes, miles of fiber-optic tentacles, and limitless semio-data, operating at billions of floating-point operations per-second — produces more information hours than attention can ever repay. [2]

In August of 2011, NPR reported that 75% of market volatility was the product of High Frequency Trading (HFT). [3] HFT runs on hyper-engineered algorithms whose complex mathematics produce an instantaneous transcendental model of the world based upon data consumption far beyond any human phenomenal capacity. The light-speed synthesis of pure information may or may-not be deciphered by human interpreters after-the-fact, in effect modeling possible futures whose real-world fallout may never actually be understood by the very people it affects or is meant to serve. [4] HFT proposes a world in which capital as social relation is instead operated by an anonymous and asocial computer network whose xeno-economic agenda is all but invisible to only the most advanced of computer specialists whose comprehension of the very devices they deploy may be governed not by understanding (as in knowledge) but an opaque operability. Capital becomes an alien and alienating relation, whose machinic agenda follows no specific human intention, but the purely fictional causality of virtual universe.

Goldman Sachs, one of the premiere operators of this advanced late capitalist techno-model, has also been derisively referred to as the ‘vampire squid’. [5]

Coincidentally,  Vilem Flusser first wrote of the vampyroteuthis, or the vampire squid, in an early work, where he methodically examines the speculative phenomenology of the creature. [6] Basing his investigations on its biomorphic difference, and particularly noting the closeness of the head and the foot ( sky and earth in Heidegger’s terms), as well as the mouth and the genitals (Battaillian erotics), Flusser produces an animal who is our biological anti-hero. His vampire squid is blessed with phenotypical traits that are a nightmare-mirror world to us . The creature’s tentacled grasp radiates outward from its head, the phosphorescent tips of its many arms groping for prey in every crevice. Whatever it finds, it pulls back into its mouth and, in orgasmic joy, digests every morsel. The ‘knowing’ of the vampyroteuthis is synonymous with consuming, the vampire squid understands reality by incorporating it; by making spiteful love to it.

Flusser’s vampyroteuthis, like our financial vampire squid, consumes everything unto itself. In his own time, the vampire squid had rarely been encountered, and the few live specimens that were dragged from the bottom of the ocean quickly succumbed to a world they were not meant to thrive in. His study then, is a fictional one, but one whose speculative energies open up new areas of investigation outside an ever recursively bracketed post-Kantian anthropocentism. Flusser concludes his study with the statement, “In all these places Vampyroteuthis emeges as our own mirror, as our antipode in which all of our aspects inverted. Because to contemplate this mirror with the aim of recognising ourselves in it, and with the aim of being able to alter oneself thanks to this recognition, is the purpose of every fable, including this one.” [7]

If we are to think the conditions of machinic capitalism, whose tentacled form has metastasized outwards from our simple bilateral one, it may be necessary to begin a speculative project that will enumerate the transcendental conditions of an alien difference. If we do not take up this task, we risk living inside a world where our own experience is increasingly dictated to us by machines, whose algorithmic filters reign over vast territories of unrefined data, compressing all that is raw and sublime into an iCloud. There, a friendly graphic user interface breaks all of our decisions into binary conditionals that we, in our haste to consume (as is demanded of us), mistakenly take for the ironclad laws of nature. Kant’s transcendental conditions were only ever the limit of what the human organism could intuit within the terrifying sublime. Technology has allowed us a window to peak beyond the gloss of our own senses, but to begin to believe what is thrown on the glass for everything that is beyond it is a terrible mistake. [8]

To sit inside the spectrum of the continuum that is mediated to us, simply because it is what we can ‘socially’ comprehend, is to ignore the revolutionary potential inherent in attempting to encompass the modal possibilities of the full continuum of experience, especially as our own former tools begin to mirror the possibility of different modalities back to us. Machinic capitalism proposes a phenomenal time beyond our natural capacity, and it is swiftly making us into products not only of its excess, but also its limitations. We are the objects, the cultural products, the art-work of a mind that is modelling its own drive towards limitless consumption. [9] In proposing an investigation of machinic capital, we are proposing an investigation into our own teleology, into uncharted territories of experience, where the human may end and become something more.

1 Franco Berardi (Bifo), “Cognitarian Subjectivation“, E-Flux Journal #20, November 2011
2 I am thinking, of course, playing on Mike Kelley’s 1987 work, “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid,” but operating outside of the anthropic circuit. As Kelley notes about the work in a 1992 interview, “Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe. The commodity is the emotion. What’s being bought and sold is emotion. I did a piece called More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. I said if each one of these toys took 600 hours to make then that’s 600 hours of love; and if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love; and that’s a lot. And if you can’t pay it back right away it keeps accumulating…” [John Miller, “Interview: Mike Kelley”, Bomb Magazine #38, Winter 1992] While leaving aside the violent implications of gift giving, there is an asynchronous relationship between the time accumulated in the labor and the time spent consuming that labor. Under the machinic regime this relationship is inverted. The labor time of computers is able to speed up the production of semio-information far beyond the consumption capability of human beings.
3 Jim Zarroli, “Is Computer-Driven Trading Causing Market Spikes?“, NPR, August 19, 2011
4 Kara Scannell and Tom Lauricella, “Flash Crash is Pinned on One Trade“, The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2010
5 Matt Taibbi, “The Great American Bubble Machine“, Rolling Stone, April 5, 2010
6 Vilem Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, trans. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, Atropos Press, New York/Dresden
7 ibid., 126
8 I am expanding here upon a notion discussed at some length by James Trafford, who derives it from Thomas Metzinger. The basic idea is that mistaking phenomenal experience for the actual conditions of the world is akin to mistaking the finger pointing at the sun for the sun. It is easy to imagine that any phenomenal conditions outside of human experience would also be subject to such a mistake, but on a different modal order of mediation.  [MetzingerJames Trafford, “The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood“, Collapse IV]
9 Franco Berardi, in a devastatingly Huxleyan tone, notes the influx of psycho-pharmaceuticals into neo-liberal culture, and their attempt to combat the mental breakdown imposed by the rapid changes of the new economy. He describes the reformatting of the mind:  “The cognitive performance of the precarious worker must become compatible, fractal, recombinable. Cognitive ability must be detached from sensibility, from the ability to detect, interpret, and understand signs that cannot be translated into words. The standardization of the cognitive process involves a digital formatting of the mind, disturbing the sphere of sensibility, and finally destroying it.” [Franco Berardi (Bifo), “I Want to Think: POST-U“, E-Flux Journal #24, April 2011]