Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun: NFTs and the Prohibition of Expenditure
Guest Post #1 | C. N. Jaimes
First published @ Covidian Æsthetics on July 2, 2021.
“Who cares what ‘anyone’ thinks, knows, or theorizes about Bataille? The only thing to try and touch is the intense shock-wave that still reaches us along with the textual embers […] for as long, that is, as anything can still ‘reach us.’”
—Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism1
“It is the green parts of the plants of the solid earth and the seas which endlessly operate the appropriation of an important part of the sun’s luminous energy. It is in this way that light — the sun — produces us, animates us, and engenders our excess. This excess, this animation are the effect of the light (we are nothing but an effect of the sun) [VII 10]. The solar ray that we are recovers in the end its nature and the sense of the sun: it is necessary that it gives itself, loses itself without reckoning [VII 10].”
—Georges Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes2
There’s nothing new under the sun, yet. Smart contracts—computer programs or transaction protocols meant to be executed automatically—have been around since the mid-2010s. Were we to take the Nietzschean motif of amor fati—the eternal recurrence of exponentially recurring and self-referential cycles—to task, the current NFT craze could be compared to the 90s dotcom bubble (which itself coincided with the cultural contagion that came from the East known as Pokémon). Translated to our current cultural landscape, it is the same memetic contagion we would describe as mimetic desire.
There has been a lot of recent talk around the speculative burst of the NFT bubble. Type “NFT” into any search bar, and one will have their feed inundated with top searches and headlines talking about how “the NFT bubble” has burst, or will, imminently. It is undeniable that the buzz around NFTs has died down significantly since the great March explosion. It is also true that the news cycle tends move like that, swelling with the latest influx of novelty to allow only those who’ve disengaged from it to “swipe right.”
One could make the case that NFTs are propagating memes: the lowest, most contagious, form of cultural production. Memes are high information density cultural artifacts that invoke mimesis. One of the CCRU’s most important concepts is that of “hyperstition,” a neologism for the action of “successful ideas in the arena of culture.” Hyperstitions are, in short, ideas that “once ‘downloaded’ into the cultural mainframe, engender apocalyptic positive feedback cycles.” So, like a virus, ideas infect the nucleus of a socius. Once the meme enters and inhabits the host, it uses its social tools for positive-feedback propagation. Thus is why memes, in the Spinozian sense, are the virus of the attribute of thought; in the same way that real viruses are material contagion for the attribute of extension.
Technological advancements in information technology and media permit the spread of information at lightspeed. The self-referentiality of memes makes them particularly contagious, folding and unfolding into themselves, and transforming their host’s behaviour (see, for instance, the events unfolding around Dogecoin and GME stock). Social or memetic contagion can and should be compared to the spread of SARS-CoV-2, which shut down most of the world in early March 2020. It is hardly accidental that, a year to the day since the global pandemic was declared, NFT art took the Zeitgeist by storm.3
What NFTs can offer at the moment is quite basic. Where the smart contract technology can go has only been teased at; with the current state-of-the-art market showing the lack of imagination people have when faced with something genuinely disruptive from the ‘outside.’ Not much new should be expected to emerge from selling NFTs in the same way that analog art pieces are traditionally auctioned off to those engaging in auto-erotic libidinal expenditure. Thus, to understand the current compressive post-Covidian phase, we will look to Lyotard.
Lyotard has two concepts that are useful to consider culture as already captured by the logic or telos of techno-capital, or as a byproduct of material libidinal intensities: the libidinal band, and the libidinal bar. The libidinal band, or skin, could be likened to a body-without-organs where the band, which has no inside or outside, is a “presentation of difference independent of the (secondary) orders of re-presentation in which identity, signification, and reference are determined.”4 This allows Lyotard a “pseudo-appearance” at the inside/outside (difference as such) distinction, without getting hung up in a “theatrical-play” of what takes place in the noumenal ‘outside.’ The difference between the libidinal band as a place or a labyrinth for libidinal intensities and the libidinal bar, which is the cooling or the slowing down of the aforesaid band, is that the bar produces a “theatrical volume”. This volume is in turn governed by rationalization, categorization, and dichotomization; it negates or restricts intensities, and is more akin to the phenomenal realm of representations.
If we were to apply the rationality of the bar, we could extend the analogy of memetic and viral contagion with smart contracts behaving like viral RNA, unfolding and inserting themselves into their host cells’ DNA, changing them in order to facilitate their viral propagation through auto-intelligent processes. Viewed purely from within this theatrical volume, cultural production would be merely part of a self-propelling element towards technological innovation, a trend that can be generally examined by approaches such as accelerationism. (The metaphor helps illustrate the inhuman machinic nature of cybernetic culture).
The general trend of modernity, however, is to diagram cultural and economic progress as the same process. Technical innovation creates new forms of cultural production while, simultaneously, these cultural artifacts reflect their epoch by being “stamped” by the technological medium. However, nothing as direct as one in fact necessitates the other. To understand cultural production as simply following from technological acceleration would be too reductive and dismissive of culture as only an emergent phenomena of complex dynamics. Culture, which extends to art, craft, memes, etc., is facilitated by technological innovation, but it is not its cause.
This view of culture aligns with the current hegemonic worldview that chooses utility and conservation over expenditure, and life over death. Everything is already enslaved to the dominion of the world market and semio-capital. If the Covidian era can be said to have exacerbated anything, it is the West’s hyperfixation with maximising utility, which entails mitigating costs or expenditure that might seem detrimental to the system. This would include humans, insofar as their utility is in providing necessary labor inputs for capital production.
“A creeping slave morality colonizes value, subordinating it to the definition ‘that which serves.’ The ‘good’ becomes synonymous with utility; with means, mediation, instrumentality, and implicit dependence.”5 A puritanical sentiment surrounding excess, closing in on restraint, dominates this utilitarian view. The “good” person is restricted to acting for “the greater good.” Agamben’s critique of societies of control and the state of exception is fundamental to understanding this, as is the work of Foucault, a monument to “contagion control.” With the development of “mental health” and the framing of the individual as a clinical subject, it has become imperative to identify how certain social fields and institutions preserve their legacy practices in order to maintain socio-cultural equilibrium on various social strata.
The puritanical prohibition of anti-utility manifested itself during the pandemic with an overwhelming zeal to maintain lockdowns and to keep as many people safe as possible. This is not to say that lockdown measures were unnecessary; on the contrary, in some cases, they were essential, but the willingness people had to reduce themselves down to bare life—to homo sacer—is an unbestable instance of what Deleuze and Guattari so elegantly stated in Anti-Oedipus; namely that: “The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly (and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered): Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?”6
If the first wave or sentiment in seeing human lives as non-expendable in any sense is a transcendental prohibition on expenditure, the second wave results in prohibiting anything that falls outside of this conservative modality. To stand against economic utility in the guise of ecological consciousness is the “copium” of zealots.
Cultural production should regard itself as more than just an auto-sophisticated runaway process. Metaphysically, culture always stems from the conditions of possibility in which energy to be expended, it is “free time”—otium, as opposed to negotium—in one of its most common forms. The production of free time through technological and capital accumulation due to accelerative processes leads to rapid expenditure, and the rate of this expenditure is linked directly to the energy being input into the system— as in, for example, potlatching, which involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items to demonstrate power. In brief, the struggle for free time or leisure is the pursuit of expenditure.
The critique of energy consumption by the blockchain consensus method is thus empty. Every system—social, biological, economic or thermodynamic—produces waste. “Bataille tells us that the universe is energetic, and the fate inherent to energy is utter waste. Energy from the sun is discharged unilaterally and without design. That fraction of solar radiation which strikes the earth resources all terrestrial endeavor, provoking the feverish obscenity we call ‘life.’”7
The telos for the sun’s core is guided towards its inevitable burnout. This abundant energy, the excrement of the solar anus, mobilizes the entire Earth into animated hysteria. The death drive is not unique to the human subject or psyche, it can be superimposed onto the inorganic itself. The return to a state of inactivity is the actual or final form of “equilibrium.”
The sun is already captured by a futural singularity of non-being, a fate to which we too are destined. The proliferation of libidinal impulses towards this inactive state creates competing systems as an arms race to potlach with the sun. How we choose to face and fade into oblivion is the true affirmation of vitalism. It is not nihilism that should govern us, with its understanding of inevitable burnout, but its opposite. Death is but the flourishing of countless ways to live.
Using new technologies to accelerate cultural production—with unprecedented power, at untold velocity—is an escape route from capital’s hegemonic veil of utility, and a rejection of modern melancholy and secular nihilism. The task is to reenchant how to live. To be[come] post-Covidian is thus to affirm expenditure; to contest the prohibition of expenditure is to be radically transgressive and emancipated from the tyranny of “useful production.” “But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? — To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World Countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go further still, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet”.8
In the case of NFTs, a glimmer of what lies ahead is already being provided by Accursed Share, whose first project, involving the transubstantiation of an algorithmic curse into a blessing via an NFT smart contract, taps into the medium’s true potential.
The recent, Pokémon-like NFT meme explosion was akin to a Cambrian explosion of novelty and waste. The beautiful abominations that will arise from these technologies have yet to be seen. Every compressive phase of NFTs that bursts and fizzles out will furbish the contagion that allows the next wave to emerge. If NFTs are “dead,” they are only so because a shockwave follows each explosion in the eternal recurrence of life and death.
Cover image: Beeple. Everydays: The First Five Thousand Days. NFT. 2021.
C.N. Jaimes is a blogger writing accessible texts on critical theory and culture. Most of his work can be found at https://cutenoumena.medium.com/. You can follow him on Twitter @CNoumena
1 Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation. Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. London: Routledge, 1992, p. 14.
2 Bataille, Georges. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Collection Blanche, Gallimard, 1988.
3 Note from the Editor: this is exactly true. The pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020. Beeple made his historical sale of Everydays: The First Five Thousand Days at Christie’s on March 11, 2021.
4 Lyotard, Jean François. Libidinal Economy. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993 , p. xii.
5 Land, ibid., p. 20.
6 Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. New York: Viking Penguin, 1977 , p. 38.
7 Land, ibid., p. 20.
8 Deleuze and Guattari, ibid., p. 239.