More Glowing Than Words

At what point does value emerge in a contemporary economic system? A conventional view would likely posit that a person, natural or unnatural, produces it by utilizing various forms of capital and labour, hoping to generate a profit in the process. An “enormous [amount of] properly human and anti-natural” labor, configured into “an alienated power,”[1] as Fredric Jameson points added in his seminal analysis of the postmodern condition in the early 1990s. Admitting that his analysis of this new age was not yet fully formed, Jameson ends this work on suggesting a process of cognitive mapping of a “global world system” — which at the time of writing in 1991, he did not consider “unknowable” but merely “unrepresentable” — a system in which time suffers a breakdown and space becomes the primary relational dimension.

More recent phenomena in of value production such as high-frequency trading suggests that the system is indeed approaching the synchronic condition that Jameson describes, with the time of trades becoming so short that the physical distance between computer nodes can make the difference between profit and loss. The rapid advance of the same technology, along with financial instruments and wholly new currencies that derive value from a combination of cryptography and the expenditure of electricity, may have transgressed the threshold of what Karl Marx had been able to capture within the paradigm of the machine in his remarkably anticipatory ‘Fragment on Machines’ (Das Maschinenfragment).[2]

This, in consequence, renders much of contemporary critique somewhat ineffectual when juxtaposed directly with present and near-future forms of economic activity, which for Malik in themselves constitute “the most advanced theoretical tools available today.” While it would be foolish to ignore the enduring importance of Marx’ analysis of the conditions of industrial production, value today is often generated and bound in more abstract forms, ones that operationalize Jameson’s diagnosis and take it much further still. In the case of finance as an industry in itself, it is often a convolution of time and causality — reality even — which leads to a sense of the collapse of the present or perhaps to its ultimate primacy in a way that few would have anticipated in the mid-20th century.

This configuration becomes critically important when considering how its features and effects have also slowly invaded politics. Through a sense of reality being malleable and subject to construction, a future that can be created or constrained in order to be profited from. Likewise, the past can be bound into complex patterns which constitute its record and allow for virtually everything to become an economic transaction through technologies like cryptocurrencies. “Modernization today,” Ulrich Beck writes, “is dissolving industrial society and another modernity is coming into being.“[3]

“Euphorically,” Fredric Jameson diagnoses, “we now inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time.” This leads to, he concludes, “a new and original historical situation in which “[history] itself remains forever out of reach.”[4] We are locked out of time, yet yearn for the past whose aesthetic we attempt to integrate into our experience of a world that is now widely accepted to be a global system (pockets of resistance remain.) As much as we may watch fifty-seven TV screens at once like David Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth,’ as little we actually comprehend of “the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.” It is too much for our cognitive capabilities to grasp, says Jameson, so history has collapsed and become a hyper-present.

But perhaps, this is an illusion. Following Niklas Luhmann’s work on the future that “cannot begin,”[5] I would like to suggest that what we experience may be part of another shift, one that is re-structuring society along with its increasing complexity. Suhail Malik writes that “if the leading conditions of complex societies are systems, infrastructures and networks, rather than individual human agents, human experience loses its primacy” and with it “the present as the primary category of human experience.”[6] This claim, in a sense, this constitutes the inverse of Jameson’s argument — but perhaps it is just a more concise diagnosis — namely that it is human, subjective experience that is suspended, in favor of what Malik and Avanessian call a ‘time-complex,’ in which the present can be operationalized “from outside of itself.”

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann begins his work on temporal structures in modern society with the observation that “the history of the future does not reach back very far.” What he means is not human experience or even our capacity to predict the future, but the very history of linear time in Western culture. “It was only the structural change from traditional to bourgeois society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which dissolved this older notion [of eternal time] and replaced it by a temporal structure”[7] that allowed for history and its collaterals such as geology to emerge. In one development which can not be historically divorced from the emergence of a Bürgertum (the affluent urban class), both the past and the future were made thinkable beyond notions of an absolute beginning and an absolute end of reality. The future “becomes an open future,” the notion of system emerges and time is extended in either direction while the present is oriented “toward the difference” [between the past and the future] becoming the site of arbitrage between two temporal poles.

This process, it could be argued, has continued and, along with an overall acceleration in technological development, expanded and shrunk the temporal horizon(s) at the same time. They have become deeper: we can reasonably hypothesize both the beginning of the universe and its possible end(s), but at the same time more shallow: the past and the future have now become so short that they have seemingly collapsed into the Jamesonian hyper-present. Yet technological acceleration is only part of the explanation. While the primary experience of temporality in early agricultural societies may have been related to the production of food (traces of which remain in contemporary festivities such as carnivals) things have become vastly more complex with the invention of deferment-of-gratification techniques to store value such as money, debt, and other artifacts that causally bind the past, which through them becomes present. “Older societies […] did not need to understand themselves” — a less differentiated society necessitates “a less differentiated time.”[8]

But not only the past can become the present. As Elena Esposito writes, the contemporary present has become “a programmatic sacrifice to the future.” In contrast to the “present future” of the past, the one that can be inferred and judiciously acted on from available information, the future present “does not yet exist but will become real later, in part as a result of today’s actions and decisions,”[9] meaning that the present (at least in terms of what is within the causal reach of a human-technological systems) also always produces the future.

Notions of profit that emerge from a common notion of financial speculation may now appear simplistic, considering that the future (along with the profit) is made in the present by the narratives, models, events that will eventually give rise to it. Consider for instance the largely self-fulfilling trend forecasting in fashion or the prediction of the movements of financial markets through “models [which] can predict all possible future courses of the markets, except the future of finance led by models,” something that Esposito identifies as one of the cardinal problems in contemporary finance as it creates a blind spot that by definition cannot be hedged against and which as such tends to produce economic crises.

This modelled (and typically acted-upon) future is causally more tightly bound than the the one that stochastic calculus produces, which, according to French idealist philosopher Leon Brunschvicg’s [10] work on human experience and causality, represents a “defuturized” future, one that, Luhmann adds, “can be used as a feigned present from which we chose our present present to make it a possible past for future presents”[11] — in a sense, it is written.

Contemporary cultural reflections of this awareness are plentiful. Each mention of ‘speculation,’ for instance in practices like speculative design, bear witness to a current sensibility of the future being as much of a cultural artifact as natural contingency, divided by domain yet systemically bound in the end. The most explicit example of this shifting notion perhaps comes from an interchange between New York Times Magazine journalist Ron Suskind and Karl Rove (then aide to the George W. Bush administration) in 2004 which Stephen Duncombe quotes in his book on “re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy.” Rove, when pressed by Suskind on the second Iraq War, called his counterpart a member of “the reality-based community,” which for him exists in stark juxtaposition to the way that his side operates in the world, namely by creating it from the present — “when we act, we create our own reality.”[12]

With a future this writable, the past needs to be equally present, yet at the same time it cannot be equally open or it would overwhelm the system with complexity. The arrow of financial time must thus point into the direction of the future, where profit resides, yet needs to consider past transactions for they are the origin of both current wealth and future ‘capacity.’ There needs to be a ledger that keeps track. This role is traditionally performed by trusted intermediaries currency (or other carriers of value) which as institutions permit its abstract transmission through time.

The recent invention of cryptocurrencies upsets this structure as their mathematical structure appears to be uniquely suited to address this temporal configuration. In the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, for instance, brought into existence as open-source software by a pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009, any transaction is recorded into a continuous chain of causally independent events which are cryptographically easy to calculate in one direction but costly in reverse. A record in which layers of time get compacted into an almost geological structure called the ‘blockchain’ through which past that can be activated in the present and its financial energy released.

The initial generation of value here is directly equated with time, as new currency can, within a predetermined level of artificially imposed scarcity, be ‘mined’ by solving cryptographic problems (which in fact confirm transactions that are happening elsewhere on the network), a process in which the expenditure of work is rewarded with fractions of the currency itself, deriving value from time and non-human labor driven by electrical energy. Marx may have agreed with Ben Vickers that this is an “alien technology”[13] (although cryptography as a military practice is all too human-historical), coming from virtually out of nowhere and bootstrapping itself into “[capturing] vast amounts of wealth” — around $100 billion at the time of writing — “generating its own resources from its belief and dogma,”[14] unlike any other economic system has done before. Cryptocurrency mining may also perhaps come to be regarded the first large-scale creation of wealth through deployment of fully automated labor (a fact that may explain the fascination with the factory-like mining ‘farms’ that exist, for instance in China.)

There are other technologies that exist on the blockchain that are less of a currency, but rather aim to provide an infrastructural layer that can be built upon. ‘Ethereum’ for instance, provides a programming language which can be used to code contracts that allow for a trustless execution of terms after certain conditions have been reached. Following Ami Clarke, we encounter here “a writing of sorts,” one which is enabling a performative, time-stamped act that points towards the future and thus allows the future to be written — thus perfectly aligning it with the notion of an open future.

In writing lies a “capacity, not a possibility” — making it feasible to ”distinguish between possibility and contingency, only through the writing, trading performance and not through the realization of a theoretical stochastic process […] can the writer and trader of contingent claims succeed” (Elie Ayache), all of which gets bound within the blockchain’s own time-stamped temporality. Here, “contingency [is framed as] the actuality of being able to write the future outside of the pool of probability […] to act as such, to make a difference within a field of probability, an act which differs considerably, to what we think of as agency and free will but one which may just be more accurate.”[15]

Such code creates a future in the present, yet it potentially comes at a price. Technologies such as Ethereum stand poised to become something akin to an operating system for the world. Smart devices can own themselves, know their past and their future conditions under precisely defined circumstances. As they move through time, interactions become transactions. According to some, this constitutes the third big wave of technological transformation within one generation. After the semantic web and the social network, it will bring about a transactional turn, potentially rendering each act into a ledgered microexchange—which may or may not be charged for. “This mediatization of money” Jonathon Kyle Sturgeon writes, is “the fever dream of [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal’s narrator in his great ‘Letter of Lord Chandos’ […] ‘And the whole thing is a kind of feverish thinking, but thinking in a medium more immediate, more liquid, more glowing than words.’”[16]

It has vast potential in a future that is highly likely to be marked by the non-human agency autonomous machines, the unwritten sequel to Marx’ ‘Fragment’ when even the maintenance function of the human worker will have fallen away and a myriad of minds will write and perform the future on all time-scales. This would likely provide the self-knowledge to the system that Jameson was missing when he first probed postmodernity at the end of the last century. The risk is, still, that those performances will all too neatly fold into the same logic that most every transaction of our ‘present present’ submits to.

Notes

1. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1992, p.72

2. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Penguin Classic, 1993, pp.690–712

3. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity, Sage, London 1992

4. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, p.60

5. Niklas Luhmann, The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society, Social Research: An

International Quarterly, Volume 43, №1, 1976

6. Suhail, M., Avanessian, A., The Time Complex. Post-Contemporary, [NAME] Publications, 2016

7. Niklas Luhmann, The Future Cannot Begin, p.130

8. Ibid., p.149

9. Elena Esposito., The Construction of Unpredictability, Berlin Biennale reader, 2016 (http://bb9.berlinbiennale.de/the-construction-of-unpredictability/)

10. Leon Brunschvicg, L’expérience humaine et la causalité physique, Alean, 1949, p.355

11. Niklas Luhmann, The Future Cannot Begin, p.144

12. Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, New Press, 2007

13. Ben Vickers, Thinking Through The Block, Banner Repeater gallery, London, 10/22/2017 & 11/12/2017 (available at http://x-fx.org)

14. Ibid.

15. Ami Clarke, Thinking Through The Block, Banner Repeater gallery, London, 10/22/2017 & 11/12/2017 (available at http://x-fx.org)

16. Jonathon K. Sturgeon, On Theory and Finance: Review of Berardi’s “The Uprising”, The American Reader, 2013 (http://theamericanreader.com/on-theory-and-finance-review-of-berardis-the-uprising)