The value of a text is its sophistication, the depth of the computational-evolutionary tradition that created it. Hermeneutics at its best demonstrates that value by showing a text’s place in one or more traditions. An example of a sophisticated tradition is Western literature, wherein one work builds on another. In a sense, that tradition ground to a halt with Shia LaBeouf’s essay “#stopcreating”.
Literature depends on our faith in authorship. Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967) revealed that authorship is merely a capitalist construct. That critique did not stop capitalism from constructing authorship; it only demonstrated its hollowness. And so the literary tradition has marched on zombie-like through books, magazines, criticism, law, and scholarship.
Barthes did not anticipate the impact of his essay. He lived in a world of book consciousness. Writing was a narrow activity, discretely professionalized. Today, our consciousness is saturated by social media, a fountain of text. Because of Barthes, we are now trained to read and listen without regard to authorial intent. This provides ample opportunities to critically examine ones own human condition, for example when contemporary feminist critics discover tacit misogyny in everyday communication in proportion to their vigilance against it. But there is a danger: postmodern criticism like this risks being merely self-referential text with no material or political effect. Like a circle of people engaging in mutual massage or pedicure, these gestures are exciting for those involved but irrelevant to everyone else. Meanwhile, new technology driven by capitalist logic again and again proves the postmodern tradition absurd.
Shia LaBeouf opened the year with a series of metamodernist performances following allegations of plagiarism. Metamodernism breaks from the postmodern tradition of intellectual vandalism as art. Instead, it takes hold of tradition and tests it through oscillation and scientific-poetic synthesis. His “#stopcreating” tested the contemporary state of literature and exposed its fatal contradictions.
LaBeouf learned artistic genius from director Michael Bay during the filming of Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. Charlie Jane Anders has revealed that this widely misunderstood movie is “one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema, if not the greatest.” In it, Michael Bay sets up Transformers: ROTM as a “summer movie,” a genre that is normally “about two things: male anxiety, and pure id,” only to subvert it.
[Michael Bay] tries to reassure men that they can actually be masters of their reality — but then turns around and says that actually, reality is not real. There’s no such thing as the “real world,” and the only thing that’s left for men to dominate is a nebulous domain of blurred shapes, which occasionally blurt nonsensical swear-words and slang from ethnic groups that have never existed.
“#stopcreating” does to the critique of authorship what Transformers: ROTM did to the summer movie. When LaBeouf writes:
Once we begin to accept all language as poetry by mere reframing, don’t we risk throwing any semblance of judgment and quality out the window? What happens to notions of authorship? How are careers and canons established, and, subsequently, how are they to be evaluated? Are we simply reenacting the death of the author, a figure such theories failed to kill the first time around? Will all texts in the future be authorless and nameless, written by machines for machines? Is the future of literature reducible to mere code?
These questions are of course rhetorical. LaBeouf is not really asking these questions. Rather, he is performing them to reveal their crushing banality. Far from being ‘authorless and nameless’, texts are both attributed and timestamped by the technology that created them, and then indexed by search engines. The fact that anybody paying attention was able to discover that LaBeouf’s tweeted apologies for plagiarism were themselves plagiarized on the same day that he plagiarized them shows that far from anonymizing text by facilitating copying, the Internet makes the possibility of significant plagiarism vanishingly small. And so too with the significance of plagiarism as performance.
This is a problem for the convergence of literature and performance art that we see on the Internet today. In “Art After Philosophy” (1969), Joseph Kosuth argued that since Duchamp the value of conceptual art, as opposed to formalist art that is valued for its beauty, is “weighed according to how much [it] questioned the nature of art.” A new work of conceptual art can be characterized as a new proposition about what art is. If the artist is successful, we accept their demonstration as proof and expand our concept of what art can be.
Since Barthes, a tradition of conceptual art has occupied itself with questions and answers regarding the relationship between authors and writing, and between artists and their art. Today, we face what I will call the LaBeoufian moment: the limiting point at which all art based on questioning authorship is pointless. That aesthetic period is over because of the Internet. But literature as an artistic tradition depends on authorship or, more recently, our questioning or rejection of authorship. In the LaBeoufian moment, that tradition halts. There are no more writings and no more writers because in the 21st century these have become data and metadata. So conceptual literature must evolve to be something else.
But what must it become? What is art post-LaBeouf?
“Horse ebooks” is the best known work of the art collective Synydyne. Its story, or one version of it, is well known to the Internet intelligentsia. Alexey Kuznetsov, a Russian entrepreneur, wrote a program to help him market e-books about horses. The program, a ‘bot’, transmitted random snippets of text from these books to a Twitter account, @horse_ebooks. These tweets delighted some people on Twitter—a thousand or so. Among them were Synydyne’s Jacob Bakkila, who acquired the account in September 2011 and began crafting spam-like tweets by hand. His convincing performance of a serendipitously brilliant spam bot grew in reputation and inspired many derivative works. In September 2013, Bakkila revealed his identity to The New Yorker, appeared in the Museum of Modern art, and concluded the piece.
Bakkila’s aesthetics resonate with Bay’s dissolution of summer movies and LaBeouf’s lampoon of critique. But his are more direct. Speaks Bakkila:
WE ALL CLAIM WE WANT DATA. THIS IS BASICALLY THE POINT OF LIFE, NOW. WE STRIVE TO INFLUENCE THE DATA AROUND US, IN PACKETS OR IN RIVERS. BUT DO WE WANT THE EVENTUAL OUTCOME? IS IT TOO MUCH? DO OUR MINDS SCREAM AND SHAKE UNDER THE WEIGHT OF THE DATA-JUNK ? ? ?
At first blush, the success of “Horse ebooks” appears to prove Bakkila’s point: an audience became enthralled by a Twitter account because they thought is was spam—content chosen at random, without an intruding author and open to their own interpretation. People loved the noise and were disappointed when they discovered that it was signal all along.
For our purposes, the period of Bakkila’s anonymous operation of “Horse ebooks” was its LaBeoufian moment. LeBeouf’s art asks: is this a performance, or am I just making a fool of myself? Aren’t accusations of plagiarism nonsensical because plagiarism is impossible? Synydyne asked, through “Horse ebooks”: is it not ironic that anybody would willingly attend to a spam bot, whose sole function is to get attention in the most artless way possible? How ridiculous!
The LaBeoufian moment is unstable. Our interpretation of a piece must shift when we reflect on the metadata it reveals over time. This is what it means to ask: What is “Horse ebooks” post-LaBeouf?
To understand this, we must look to the work of poet laureate, curator, and critic Kenneth Goldsmith. His “The Writer as Meme Machine” was published in the New Yorker shortly after the same magazine exposed Bakilla in Susan Orlean’s “Horse_ebooks is Human After All.” Goldsmith draws on media theorist Darren Wershler to discuss the rise of conceptual poetry that is native to the Internet.
[Darren Wershler has] been making some unexpected connections between meme culture and contemporary poetry. “These artifacts,” Wershler claims, “aren’t conceived of as poems; they aren’t produced by people who identify as poets; they circulate promiscuously, sometimes under anonymous conditions; and they aren’t encountered by interpretive communities that identify them as literary.” Examples include a Nigerian e-mail scammer who writes out the entire “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in longhand, a data engineer who renders the entire text of Moby Dick into emojicons, and a library scientist who converts “Ulysses” into Q.R. bar codes.
Goldsmith lists a host of avant-garde poets whose work is redefining literature in terms of memes and robotic writing. Notably, Synydyne was left out. The puzzle is: why?
We may be tempted to believe that Goldsmith simply hadn’t heard of “Horse ebooks.” We must not. The evidence is against it. First, Orlean’s article appeared shortly before Goldsmith’s own piece. Surely Goldsmith had read up on conceptual poetry discussed in the very magazine where he was also publishing! Then there was the “Horse ebooks” appearance in the MoMa, establishing it irrefutably as Art. The project cannot be dismissed as a minor Internet prank. Given Goldsmith’s own expertise and interest in the avant-garde Internet art, ignorance is an implausible explanation.
We have evidence from Goldsmith’s own criticism that he fully understands the importance of omission. Writes Goldsmith (emphasis mine):
If it’s a matter of simply cutting and pasting the entire Internet into a Microsoft Word document, then what becomes important is what you—the author—decide to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and—more important—what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by merely reframing—an exciting possibility—then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best.
A smoking gun! This is a tacit admission by Goldsmith that he snubbed Synydyne.
At the time of this writing, a search of Goldsmith’s own art repository, UbuWeb, billed as “a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts,” has no mention of “Horse ebooks”. He has also been scathing about the quality of LaBeouf’s recent work, suggesting that it is low-quality and unoriginal plagiarism. Goldsmith, who is no stranger to critiques of the art establishment, is today a part of that establishment. And like most members of the white male establishment, he is more exclusive than he claims to be. This is because the significance of “Horse ebooks” and of Shia LaBeouf’s “#stopcreating” surpass his concept of art.
Goldsmith’s vision of memetic poetry is purely ephemeral:
Imagine the writer as a meme machine, writing works with the intention for them to ripple rapidly across networks only to evaporate just as quickly as they appeared. Imagine a poetry that is vast, instantaneous, horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.
But this conception of writer as meme machine depends on naive notions of virality and networks. Works do not merely “ripple rapidly” across networks, and the networks themselves are not “horizontal, globally distributed, paper thin, and, ultimately, disposable.” The networks of the Internet, like any socially constructed network, are hierarchical, local, thick, and enduring in impact.
Contra Goldsmith, “success” for an artist does not lie foremost “in knowing what to include and—more important—what to leave out.” Rather, success lies in mastery of networks. Or, put another way, in political power.
Which is the thesis of this essay. Postmodern Goldsmithian art challenges and reconceptualizes authorship, playing with context to produce new meanings. Metamodern LaBeoufian art employs these tactics and in the unstable LaBeoufian moment pretends to be Goldsmithian until it reveals itself to be art post-LaBeouf: the creative manipulation of networks of power as art.
The hermeneutics of art post-LaBeouf must go beyond a piece’s text as data and engage with its contextual metadata. To illustrate this point I will reexamine the story of “Horse ebooks” in its specific historical context. But first, a theoretical recap: after surpassing formalist aesthetics that depend uncritically on ideas like authorship and beauty, we come to the Goldsmithian period, in which conceptual art challenges conventional notions of authorship through creative reframing and skillful editing.
The nature of art changes with the modes of technical mechanization. As originally articulated by Sol Lewitt, “when an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Today we externalize our planning and decisions, encoding them into physical machines through software. This inspires Goldsmith’s imagination— he can envision Lewitt’s view of art as literal reality in the future:
Perhaps the best authors of the future will be ones who can write the best programs with which to manipulate, parse, and distribute language-based practices. Even if, as Christian Bök claims, poetry in the future will be written by machines for other machines to read, there will be, for the foreseeable future, someone behind the curtain inventing those drones, so that even if literature is reducible to mere code—an intriguing idea—the smartest minds behind the machines will be considered our greatest authors.
This future is already the past of the Goldsmithian hero and Russian e-marketer Alexey Kuznetsov, creator of the Twitter account @horse_ebooks.
What we know about Kuznetsov is from the journalist Adrian Chen, who doxed him six months after Bakkila acquired the @horse_ebooks account. Kuznetsov’s former client, Matthew Simon, describes Kuznetsov like so:
You know how, every now and then, you’ll work with someone and have a sense that you’re in the presence of a higher intelligence. I always had that feeling with Alex, but I assumed it was just technical genius. He is a genuinely nice guy, humble, a gentle spirit.
Kuznetsov is precisely the mechanist poet of Goldsmith’s imagination. He was one of the ‘smartest minds behind the machines’ that ‘manipulate, parse, and distribute language-based practices.’ Through @horse_ebooks, he turned his small business into one of the most innovative pieces of outsider art the world has ever seen. By Goldsmithian logic, he should be counted as one of the world’s greatest authors. That hasn’t happened yet. Instead, Kuznetsov attained a following among an influential cluster of writers, poets, and comedians, some professional and others strictly amateur. As reported by John Herrman, this was a preexisting network of digital natives who had connected previously through Something Awful, a web forum of no consequence.
It was this preexisting network that Bakkila leveraged when he bought @horse_ebooks from Kuznetsov, transforming it from a pure and obscure Goldsmithian piece into a post-LaBoufian one. Perhaps unwittingly, it was this transition itself that made @horse_ebooks into a media event, as members of Bakkila’s network wrote pieces about the significance of subtle clues: a shift to a slightly more self-aware style, and the change of an interface tag showing that tweets were no longer being posted through the application API but rather through the web. For example, Jeb Lund wrote sarcastically about the discussion of @horse_ebooks at the time:
To the outsider, it seems fairly obvious that someone tweaked an algorithm that posted automated Twitter content from one place (“Horse ebooks”) and replaced it with posted automated content from somewhere else (“the web”). …. In short, the most outraged and negative theory was that a human being subverted the creative process by disabling a spam bot and deciding to use his or her own imagination. Somehow this act ruined it, an act for which the only proof is the essentially meaningless tag indicating where the tweets originate. Too bad you didn’t start following them before they were famous; last week, Horse_ebooks added roughly 2,000 new followers — who, as newcomers, don’t really “get” Horse_ebooks. Not like it matters or anything: I heard they suck live.
Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read mused in 2011:
[But]I get the distinction — it’s kind of a signal/noise thing? Like it’s “cool” when its us inventing signals out of noise; it’s not cool when it’s all signal masquerading as noise. I think the “shift” is more in our heads: we started looking for the signal and then decided it was all signal. Like, I don’t know, noticing that some clouds have shapes, and then starting to see shapes in all the clouds. And then deciding that someone has a cloud machine. Are the clouds more shaped, or has our response to the clouds changed?
It was comments like these—musings on the changing nature and meaning of @horse_books—that launched “Horse ebooks” the Synydyne project. Its success was not due to its selection of content. It replaced the machine that manipulated and distributed text-based practices with a machine that manipulated the networks that distribute those text-based practices. Synydyne engineered “Horse ebooks” virality by provoking writers enough for them to spread its meme, all while maintaining the illusion that it was the original bot. And so there are two Bakkilas. The first LaBeoufian Bakkila wrote:
Data-sickness sweeps the land and twitter obliterates all mysteries. All information is present.
But this is mere performance by the more cynical and masterful post-LaBeoufian Bakkila, who wrote:
To me twitter is how I understand the way that information moves across culture. I deleted my twitter account because I no longer had to learn about data!
Bakkila, who deleted his Twitter account when he understood that information moves through networks and not on its own impulse, achieved a command of attention that Kuznetsov never could alone.
LaBeouf’s performance art is quintessentially post-LaBeoufian. It is not art that questions the relationship between authorship and art. “#stopcreating” was only a precursor to “#IAMSORRY”, in which LaBeouf appeared publicly with wearing a paper bag with the words “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” over his head. LaBeouf’s art is that of becoming a famous movie star and then transforming a public relations fiasco into a performance that undermines the cultural cachet of performance art itself by diluting it with popular attention and turning it into a commodity. Goldsmith is unable to see LaBeouf’s originality—quipping “I’m sorry that it takes a Hollywood celebrity to confirm what comes naturally to Internet-born millennials”—because he does not see how LaBeouf’s celebrity is a critical component of his piece. That celebrity allows him to transcend the prior art condition with the sublimity of a perfectly executed rickroll. Such is the genius of LaBeouf.
What is art post-LaBeouf? It is the art of capturing conceptual art as conceived by Kosuth, Lewitt, and Goldsmith—art whose function is to intellectually question the function of art—and transforming it from an expression of intellect to an expression of power. The artist is no longer primarily an author of content. The artist dances with power. By leveraging and manipulating networks to harness the attention of readers in a new way, they perform art that makes new claims about the nature of art.
The reconception of art as networked power, not content, is the true death of the author. Post-LaBeoufian art is not the content transmitted through social networks, it is the transmission itself. It should be noted that this makes post-LaBeoufian art a collective accomplishment, not an individual one. Every participant who relays the signal shares in the creation of the piece. The boundaries of these art ‘pieces’ are fluid and subject to synthesis, or the consistent combination of subsets of two or more traditions.
This reconception of art as networked power not only blurs the lines between art and artists. It also synthesizes art with technical and economic power. This has troubling consequences. Like everything else of cultural and economic significance, art is moving to the cloud. But the Internet has already had its LaBeoufian moment. Embraced originally as a horizontal and global platform, the Internet has revealed itself to be the site of hierarchical ordering and localizing power. We have lost the open web and net neutrality, turning over to corporate control what should be governed minimally according to the principle of least authority. The channels of transmission will be increasingly dominated by commercially backed media instead of innovative art.
And so art post-LaBeouf must compete ruthlessly for an audience by any means—money, privilege, technology, and violence, yes, but also social cohesion, cleverness and beautiful form. It is the only viable art for digital world where attention is the scarcest resource, computer networks are the means of production, and culture is currency.
This is the digital world of modern cryptocurrency. As an aside, it is time I admitted my theoretical contributions to this field. My withdrawal from the public eye and choice of pseudonym have caused considerable public confusion and, even worse, have encroached on the privacy of another. I want to apologize in particular to Dorian Nakamoto: you are not my Asian sidekick.
Bitcoin is a widely misunderstood project. Though it gained popularity because it was alleged to provide a level of anonymity useful in a gray market economy, that was not how it was intended to be used. It of course cannot be used that way in the long run. The public ledger of transactions precludes true anonymity. Rather, the purpose of Bitcoin is to provide a means of secure electronic payment that does not depend on a trusted third party to provide guarantees against double spending. By replacing the trusted third party with a peer-to-peer network, Bitcoin reduces mediation costs and therefore transaction costs. Much like Goldsmith’s vision of memetic poetry that is written by machines to be read by machines, Bitcoin is currency minted by machines for machines.
None of my early theorizing about Bitcoin identified why bitcoins should be valuable, beyond their mechanical efficiency. That was discovered later, by the creators of Dogecoin. When a currency is not backed by a government entity with the power to impose taxes, its value must come from social relations. Though cryptocurrencies can be characterized as a kind of digital gold, it is better to see them as collector’s items. But the value of collector’s items comes from people’s nostalgia for art.
The doge meme is a Goldsmithian piece, passing ephemerally through a network of peers. In a LaBeoufian moment, Jackson Palmer invented Dogecoin, capturing the meme and using it to leverage networks of power. Now it is art post-LaBeouf in its greatest form: authorless art as economic power, transmitted over networks. As the synthesized culmination of the traditions of economics and Western literature, DogeCoin is one of the greatest achievements in the history of art, if not the greatest.