This week I read through the #AltWoke Manifesto and the #AltWoke Companion (links below). One line from the companion piece, a commandment from the Ten Commandments of #AltWoke, jumped out at me and I want to offer some thoughts on it. The fourth commandment of #AltWoke says, “Read Baudrillard while scrolling Kim K’s feed. Repeat until you understand.” Now, this post might be somewhat sacrilegious insofar as it serves as a circumvention of this commandment. In other words, I’ll be attempting to unpack the insight contained inside it without you having to go do the work for yourself. As Jay-Z once said, “Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that”. On top of just sounding cool, the fourth commandment of #AltWoke has a lot to tell us about the world we currently live in and how the Left must tailor its strategies to it in order to be effective, that is, it gives us a vision of a new praxis, a hyperpraxis.
So what does Kim Kardashian’s social media activity have to teach us and how does it relate to the work of Jean Baudrillard? Let’s start off with some basics. First, we must get an idea of what Baudrillard meant by “simulation”, “hyperreality” and “the virtual”, and, more specifically, what he had in mind when talking about the fourth order of simulacra. He famously described a strange developmental trajectory in the history of images.
Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. In the first case, the image is a good appearance — representation is of the sacramental order. In the second, it is an evil appearance — it is of the order of maleficence. In the third, it plays at being an appearance — it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.
(Simulacra and Simulation, p. 6)
We, therefore, have four different types of images. Each one’s particular identity is based on its relation to reality, that is, to the referent. The first image is an accurate representation of its referent. Think of photos that have not been edited or realist paintings. This sort of image (copy) goes out of its way to be as faithful to the referent (original) as it can be, but it also simultaneously preserves the distinction between the two. In other words, no one confuses a photograph or a painting with the actual referent itself. The line between the real thing and its representation is clear and precise. A mirror image, a reflection, is also largely an accurate representation (though we must remember that a certain inversion is at work here).
The second image is one wherein representation still occurs, but in a way that also misrepresents the referent in some way. A good example of this is a photoshopped image. You would still recognize the person if you were to meet in person, but there is nevertheless a deception in the image. Consider how the women in Playboy were airbrushed. Another example of this would be the classic form of ideology, i.e., false consciousness. One’s consciousness is false or ideological when it perceives the world through certain concepts (images) that serve to distort various aspects of their referents. Think about how workers have been tricked into supporting policies that actually hurt them by secretly serving the interests of the capitalist class. The policies might be real ones, actual referents, but they are misrepresented in particular ways that are maleficent. If the first image is an accurate representation, then the second is an inaccurate one, but both have corresponding referents.
Things get much more perplexing with the third image. This has to do with an image or a group of images that functions to conceal the fact that it has no referent, that is, it’s an image that “indicates” a referent, a state of affairs, that does not actually exist. For example, all of the images produced by advertising have a simulatory effect. These images function to create the impression that we live in a society that caters to our desires and seeks to make our lives happy, content, satisfied and complete. But this is exactly the opposite of what advertising is all about. Advertising images make it seem as though this is the reality of things when, in fact, there is no actual referent that corresponds to them. The ad is there to manipulate us into desiring things that will never make us happy and does so for the sake of capital accumulation. The ad is meant to stir up desire and purposely seeks to undermine what little satisfaction and contentment we have. However, this third image still has a relation to the reality principle and the principle of referentiality. While there is no real referent to the image, it still utilizes the distinction between the real thing and its representation in order to deceive us. It exploits the fact that our default setting is to assume that the vast majority of signs indicate real things. This is the order of hyperreality.
This brings us to the fourth image. This one is unique insofar as it discards the very structure of referentiality (correspondence). The image is the reality, a virtual reality, a reality comprised of images that supersedes the world of concrete objects. Within this integral reality, this virtual world, the image has completely replaced the referent. If it refers to anything, then it refers only to itself. Baudrillard talks of this fourth order being viral and fractal. Images no longer reflect or even pretend to reflect reality — they are reality. The mirroring-effect of the structure of representation is obsolete now. All that matters is the image itself. “Nothing is truly reflected any more — whether in a mirror or in the abyssal realm (which is merely the endless reduplication of consciousness). The logic of viral dispersal in networks is no longer a logic of value; neither, therefore, is it a logic of equivalence” (The Transparency of Evil, pp. 5–6).
Baudrillard talks of this fourth order being viral and fractal. It’s viral insofar as it works by way of contagion. The virtual reality of fourth order images is one that spreads like viruses. It’s very easy to make the connection between this concept and the phrase “going viral”. The internet has become our reality. Though the domination of the fourth order was well underway when TV was still the primary medium, it has only gone on to drastically increase its sovereignty with the rise of the internet. It is the locus of the “real”. Yet it’s a virtual reality. There are no objects, no people, no bodies, on the internet — only images and signs. Nevertheless, the internet is our reality now. There’s no way to locate the line between online reality and offline reality. All of reality is virtual, since digital images are real (not appearances but realities).
Fourth order images are fractal because of the way they go on reproducing themselves indefinitely. Their pattern is an infinite duplication of the same. This is what happens when an image, video or meme goes viral. It’s a fractal that spreads itself out all across cyberspace. It’s power lies in the very process of its digital proliferation. But in strict representational terms, there’s no original and no copy. Each part of the fractal is merely a clone of a clone — a clone without an original. The “original” is the viral process of the fractal fractalizing itself. Baudrillard also associates the “four successive phases of the image” with four types of value.
All of which brings us back to the fate of value. Once, out of some obscure need to classify, I proposed a tripartite account of value: a natural stage (use-value), a commodity stage (exchange-value), and a structural stage (sign-value). Value thus had a natural aspect, a commodity aspect, and a structural aspect. These distinctions are formal ones, of course — reminiscent of the distinctions between the particles physicists are always coming up with. A new particle does not replace those discovered earlier: it simply joins their ranks, takes its place in a hypothetical series. So let me introduce a new particle into the microphysics of simulacra. For after the natural, commodity, and structural stages of value comes the fractal stage. The first of these stages had a natural referent, and value developed on the basis of a natural use of the world. The second was founded on a general equivalence, and value developed by reference to a logic of the commodity. The third is governed by a code, and value develops here by reference to a set of models. At the fourth, the fractal (or viral, or radiant) stage of value, there is no point of reference at all, and value radiates in all directions, occupying all interstices, without reference to anything whatsoever, by virtue of pure contiguity. At the fractal stage there is no longer any equivalence, whether natural or general. Properly speaking there is now no law of value, merely a sort of epidemic of value, a sort of general metastasis of value, a haphazard proliferation and dispersal of value. Indeed, we should really no longer speak of ‘value’ at all, for this kind of propagation or chain reaction makes all valuation impossible. Once again we are put in mind of microphysics: it is as impossible to make estimations between beautiful and ugly, true and false, or good and evil, as it is simultaneously to calculate a particle’s speed and position. Good is no longer the opposite of evil, nothing can now be plotted on a graph or analysed in terms of abscissas and ordinates. Just as each particle follows its own trajectory, each value or fragment of value shines for a moment in the heavens of simulation, then disappears into the void along a crooked path that only rarely happens to intersect with other such paths. This is the pattern of the fractal — and hence the current pattern of our culture.
(The Transparency of Evil, pp. 5–6)
For our purposes, the main point is that the value operative within the parameters of the fourth order is radically different from older value-forms. The fractal-image has no use-value, since it doesn’t meet a basic human need. It has no exchange-value proper due to the fact that it’s impossible to calculate its exact worth in terms of a precise dollar amount (quantitative determination in the “mirror” of money is not possible here). Nor does it have a sign-value. Why? Because sign-value is differential and structural. In other words, the value of a sign is determined by its position in an overarching structure (think Saussure’s langue). The fractal-image belongs to no synchronic system. In fact, it contaminates such structures. It injects its own “value” into networks, thereby, infecting, overriding and disrupting the relative stability of their value codes. The value of the fourth order image, which is totally unlike the other forms of value, is a value that exponentially augments itself on no other basis than the rate at which it virally spreads. This value grows on the back of the growth of the fractal-image. The more viral, the more value.
What does it mean to “break the internet”? Remember what happened when Kim K broke the internet to bits and pieces with her Paper magazine cover in November 2014? Is this not a perfect example of the fourth order fractal-image and its viral value? The image refers to nothing but itself. It doesn’t even pretend to represent an actual person. It refuses to assume the pretense of conveying a concrete reality. The image itself is Kim K. Kim K is the Fractal Queen. And those images spread like wildfire. The more viral extension the fractal-image amasses, the more material power Kim-the-person collects.
Yet this distinction between the person and the image is a relic of representation, but it’s one we cannot help but make even though the line that separates them has been completely blurred. The reason why Baudrillard disliked The Matrix is because it preserved the reality principle, the clear line between the image and the real, between the Matrix and Zion. He thought that our predicament is much more confused. This is why his preferred example of our virtual reality was The Truman Show.
It is all of “reality” that has passed over to the other side like we see in the film The Truman Show, where not only is the hero telemorphosized, but everyone else involved as well — accomplices and prisoners caught in the spotlight of the same deception. There was a time — like in the film, The Purple Rose of Cairo — where the characters jumped off the screen and entered into real life in order to be embodied — a poetic situational reversal. Today, reality massively transfuses itself into the screen in order to become disembodied. Nothing any longer separates them. The osmosis, the telemorphosis, is total.
(Telemorphosis, pp. 48–9)
If we were to sit down with Kim and ask her to tell us where exactly to draw line between herself and her online fractals, what do you imagine her response would be? She might very well have a strong desire to draw the line, but could she? And if she was able to, wouldn’t it really be a third order simulacrum, a sign that conceals the absence of an important reality, a panicky simulation of the resurrection of representational criteria? She simply is this blur. Her reality is like that of Truman Burbank. And now we all are Kim and Truman but just on a smaller scale. Our social media avatars have a life of their own and we take our cues from them. This loss of real determinacy, of clearcut ontological boundaries, is the effect of the becoming-virtual of reality but it is also our event, that is, “a viral loss of determinacy which is the prime event among all the new events that assail us” (The Transparency of Evil, p. 7). Virtual reality is the storm and we must ride it — riders on the storm.
Kim is trans-Kim. What this means is that the fractal-image explodes into a cyberspace wherein all discernible territories have always-already been intermixed. The image is sexual, political, pornographic, aesthetic, economic and cultural all at the same time but not in a way that leaves each with its relative autonomy. Everything is now everything. All determinate things transcend themselves by being absorbed into the digital vat. Kim-fractals produce a viral-capital that can infiltrate and manipulate any system be it one in the virtual or in the desert of the real. Fourth order images and their “value” are contagious and trans-plant themselves in all regions of cyberspace. This is the fractal expansion of power and influence.
The law that is imposed on us is the law of the confusion of categories. Everything is sexual. Everything is political. Everything is aesthetic. All at once. Everything has acquired a political meaning, especially since 1968; and it is not just everyday life but also madness, language, the media, even desire, that are politicized as they enter the sphere of liberation, the sphere of mass processes. Likewise everything has become sexual, anything can be an object of desire: power, knowledge — everything is interpreted in terms of phantasies, in terms of repression, and sexual stereotypy reigns in every last corner. Likewise, too, everything is now aestheticized: politics is aestheticized in the spectacle, sex in advertising and porn, and all kinds of activity in what is conventionally referred to as culture — a sort of all-pervasive media — and advertising-led semiologization: ‘culture degree Xerox’. Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all the other categories. When everything is political, nothing is political any more, the word itself is meaningless. When everything is sexual, nothing is sexual any more, and sex loses its determinants. When everything is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly any more, and art itself disappears. This paradoxical state of affairs, which is simultaneously the complete actualization of an idea, the perfect realization of the whole tendency of modernity, and the negation of that idea and that tendency, their annihilation by virtue of their very success, by virtue of their extension beyond their own bounds — this state of affairs is epitomized by a single figure: the transpolitical, the transsexual, the transaesthetic.
(The Transparency of Evil, pp. 9–10)
Kim is trans-Kim. There is no original. The original is a copy. No, not even a copy — a sticky bio-residue left on the sands of the desert of the real. Kim Kardashian, the actual person, is the clone of her viral images. The image is not a reflection, a representation (accurate or inaccurate) of Kim’s life, since there is no line between the two. The metaphysico-representational line of the real has imploded into the spiralling blur of the virtual. The purest reality of Kim K is in the digital fractal-image itself. Her flesh and blood, her three-dimensional density, her tactile presence, is merely an excremental remainder shat out the anus of an algorithmic fractal racing across countless screens. The body of Kim Kardashian was retroactively remade in the image of her image. Kim K’s Instagram feed is Kim K. Kim Kardashian’s very ontology is that of digital imagery. Breaking the internet is always the work of signs and images — there are no actual people in cyberspace. All the material power possessed by Kim-the-person is the derivative effect of the virtual effectivity of her computational omnipotence. There is no Kim K without social media and this not her weakness but, rather, her divine power.
So how is all this relevant to Leftist praxis? Let’s return to the fourth commandment of #AltWoke: “Read Baudrillard while scrolling Kim K’s feed. Repeat until you understand.” The idea is that the Left must recognize that the world has drastically changed since the days of Marx and Kropotkin. Simply explaining to workers how they produce more value than they receive in a wage is not going to cut it. What Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call “folk politics” is not enough to combat the viral weaponry of fractalized capital. In the fourth order, capital has entered into its “orbital phase”. Capital has now become flows of digital information electronically traversing the globe at speeds we cannot imagine. Capital fractally augments itself. The tendency of the Left to resist capitalist culture, to shun its ideological spectacles and return to the truth of material conditions, is no longer one that is effective. Yes, humans still have stomachs and require x-amount of calories per day to be optimal, but the truth of the economy is not tucked away in the exploitative dynamics of material production. The economy is viral. The economy is virtual. We must develop an up-to-date version of class consciousness that fractally flows as much as we can, but the means for doing so must be thought anew. The basic facticity of our situation is such that the viral is power. On other words, the Left has much to learn from a Baudrillardian interpretation of Kim K’s feed — it is a tactical model of #AltWoke hyperpraxis (fractalpraxis, viralpraxis).
Kim’s Instagram feed is her overriding fractal. This flow of fractal-images propels the flows of all other Kim-fractals. It’s the viral stimulus of all her viruses. The Left must follow suit and spread itself to every interstice of the internet. Unlike the exchange-value of a commodity, virtual “value” does not increase by way of scarcity. We must take up the most space in the attention expanse. The Left of fractals and viruses, of memes and BreadTube videos, of socialists on Joe Rogans’ podcast, is the Left that lefts. ContraPoints memes to infinity and beyond! The virtual medium of the internet sets the rules: the one with the most views wins. This is the virtual “value” its form bestows upon the content. However, the quality of the content is of extreme importance — especially at the initial point of the fractal. Once the fractal crosses of a certain threshold, the circular trajectories of the form and the content twist together and form a Möbius strip. Kim K’s feed is proof of this. Each new post, no matter where on the “surface” it emerges, is guaranteed a high virtual “value” precisely because of circuitry that has already been established.
The medium sets the tone (go ask McLuhan). The internet is a trans-space or a trans-environment. Everything online is trans-aesthetic, trans-sexual, trans-political, etc. We must produce content with the contextual parameters of this virtual matrix in mind. Fractal Leftism with cool content that seduces attention away from the banality of virtual everydayness. We must accelerate the process to the point of happening before it happens. We must speed up by spreading out. Time is space and space is time. Trans-Leftism, trans-theory and trans-practice: hyperpraxis is theory-practice. Fractal-images racing against themselves at higher and higher rates of acceleration.
We have lost that lead which ideas had over the world, that distance which meant that an idea remained an idea. Thought has to be exceptional, anticipatory and at the margin — has to be the projected shadow of future events. Today, we are lagging behind events. They may sometimes give the impression of receding; in fact, they passed us long ago. The simulated disorder of things has moved faster than we have. The reality effect has succumbed to acceleration — anamorphosis of speed. Events, in their being, are never behind themselves, are always out ahead of their meaning. Hence the delay of interpretation, which is now merely the retrospective form of the unforeseeable event.
(The Perfect Crime, p. 102)
The fact is Trump knows all of this. He wins because of this. Trump is viral-capital “personified” in accelerating fractal-images which accumulate virtual “value”. Virtual reality is reality. There’s no turning back. We must embrace the new “material” conditions. The virtual has replaced the real. “Read Baudrillard while scrolling Kim K’s feed. Repeat until you understand.” Fractal-images must accumulate power over the desert of the real (infrastructure). Give computer technologies the gift of instrumental rationality. Let the Network find efficiency and functionality in all things so that we are freed to symbolically exchange the poetry and singularity in all things. “We should instead rejoice in this totalisation of the world which, by purging everything of its functions and technical goals, makes room for the singularity of thought, the singularity of the event, the singularity of language, the singularity of the object and the image” (Impossible Exchange, p. 121). Accelerating the fractals is the path to symbolic exchange, to the freedom of wasting our time and energy, to the joy of uselessness. The world needs apostles of uselessness. Freedom is having an abundance of time and energy to lazily squander on doing nothing. Power has escaped the configurations of old paradigms and material constraints. Theirs was a battle of bodies, swords, muscles, blood, fire, force. Ours is a war of images, electricity, data, screens, algorithms, memes and attention.
Game of Thrones? No. Game of Phones!