PRINT October 2014


1. WE BEGIN OUR DECLARATION with an act of global positioning, a location capture of the place in and from which it will first have been delivered. Düsseldorf has been home to many heroes of the INS: to wartime radio operator and base materialist Joseph Beuys; to “Negativland” authors NEU!, whose blank, motoric drum patterns transform the fake, hippy emancipation of rock music into an empty baroque Trauerspiel; and, perhaps most significantly, to Kraftwerk, epochal plotters of the signal-transmission structure that, for us, is the secret grid of all literature and all art.

2. YET WE MUST ALSO, at the outset, query our assigned coordinates—mistrust them or reject the default reading that their data might, on first glance, offer us. Future archives will record that, in 2014, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf’s curators invited the INS to devise an admission procedure for the exhibition “Smart New World” (to which the INS responded by turning the entrance lobby into a cross between an immigration hall and an Apple store). But the world into which we proceed to being admitted, both in and beyond the Kunsthalle, is neither smart nor new. Nor is it a world in any conventional sense of a meaningful totality or an ethical substance from which subjects derive their being. “Dumb Old Nonworld” may not be such a catchy title for an exhibition; but that, rather, is our position, the admission from which we proceed. As Shakespeare’s Agamemnon puts it: “Understand more clear, / What’s past and what’s to come is strew’d with husks / And formless ruin of oblivion.”

3. IN A NONWORLD defined by relentless speed and the unending acceleration of digital information flows that cultivate amnesia, by insatiable thirst for the short-term future supposedly guaranteed through worship of the new prosthetic gods of technology, the INS applies what Walter Benjamin called the emergency brake. The INS confronts the (fake) velocity of the future—the credo of contemporary ideology with which much allegedly “critical” theory simply conspires—by slowing things down. In the face of a nonworld based on a fantasy of knowledge and subjective transparency, where the self finds its instant articulation in the selfie, the INS seeks to confront us with what we do not know about ourselves: an unknown force that nonetheless unleashes violent effects on us on a daily, indeed often minute-by-minute basis. Such is what psychoanalysis calls a symptom. It speaks from a background presence of mute violence. It snags in our being, laying snares and booby traps that we blindly trip over in our relentless, stumbling, forward movement.

4. AS STATED on numerous previous occasions, the INS rejects the concept of time as an uninterrupted flow from past to future through the medium of the ever-renewing present. Against this spurious narrative, which neoliberalism has so gleefully embraced and co-opted, we pit the formulation of Hamlet (a figure who, for us, stands as the avatar par excellence of all that is at stake within what the Kunsthalle’s curators astutely termed digital capitalism): namely, that time is, and always has been, out of joint—a formulation that throws all teleology, suddenly and massively, into reverse. The past is not past, the future folds back upon itself, and the present is shot through with fluxions of past and future that destabilize it. For the INS, time flexes and twists, like the rope that hangs Antigone or Jocasta. Against any idea of the “smart” and the “new,” we need to aboriginize the experience of temporality and see it as a complex boomerang structure, wherein the actions that we throw (or that throw us) out into the world return with potentially fatal force, undermining our precious autonomy and desire for personal authenticity. Oedipus, the solver of riddles, becomes the riddle himself; the killer of the monstrous sphinx, he turns into the monster; relentlessly and stupidly engaged in a process of inquiry into the pollution that is destroying the political order, poisoning the wells, and producing infant mortality, he learns (too late, of course—but it’s always too late) that he is that pollution, the very poison that he seeks. And so are we. It is the consequence of our determination to not be stupid.

5. TO MAKE A BOOMERANG of our own discourse, we loop back to our initial claim that the signal-transmission structure forms the matrix of all literature. This is what that older Agamemnon (Aeschylus’s) means to tell us. In allowing Clytemnestra’s meticulous description of the beacon chain running from Troy to Argos—her itemizing of each of its relay posts—to occupy much of the opening of the Oresteia, Aeschylus affirms that before any of the human dramas that will unfold over the course of the trilogy, dramas of heroism, vengeance, and appeasement; before even any of the larger questions that open up around the murder of Agamemnon, issues of domestic or polis-oriented (that is, political) space, of justice, citizenry, and democracy itself; before any of that comes the information network. Whether in the form of signal towers with movable parts and attendant encryption systems, or of patriarchal (slaughter)houses that form archives storing up horrific family secrets, or of restricted oracles speaking in code whose interpretation is a matter touching on the security and, indeed, survival of the state, the signal’s movement, the conditions of its legibility, provides the framework and very possibility of the drama’s entire world. The Oresteia premiered in 458 BC. Which is to say both that literature has always, from the outset, been a question of information relay, of encryption; and that the question of information relay and encryption, of data legibility, has always been a literary one. That this is equally the case in the Oresteia’s modern counterpart Hamlet, a work saturated in surveillance and the state scanning of private correspondence, and populated by human subjects whose parameters are assessed by what they set down in the “tables” that form their “souls,” goes without saying.

General Secretary Tom McCarthy and Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley of the International Necronautical Society presenting the Declaration on Inauthenticity, Tate Britain, London, January 17, 2009. Photo: Richard Eaton.

6. TO SNAG AND STUMBLE once more on that opening claim: The same structure forms the matrix of all visual art as well. As Heidegger compellingly argues in his essay on the origin, or springboard (Ursprung), of the artwork, techné underwrites a realm whose dual, counterembedded movements are hiding and making visible—a realm, that is, of surveillance. The French term for “curator” is commissaire, same as for “chief of police.” The German word, of course, is Kurator/Kuratorin, a term that also carries in its womb the twin notions of gathering and sheltering that Heidegger sees as attendant on all art. Curating, or artmaking as curating, as an act of setting forth and protecting (herstellen und bergen), an exercise in bringing-into-the-open in secluded or concealed form (ins Offene bringen als das Sichverschließende), is equally a technology of encryption, and technologies of encryption are curatorial exercises.

7. YET, DESPITE ALL THIS, the occidental tradition of aesthetics begins, in Aristotle’s Poetics, with the repression of its machinic, mechanical, digital data source. At a crucial moment in his quietly and confidently dogmatic argument, Aristotle claims that the artwork should be possessed of an organic integrity that is provided by the unity of the plot, the story, mythos. Plot should unravel of its own momentum and not on the basis of any deus ex machina, he insists; art should be lifelike and consistent. This is the kind of shit that gets taught today in creative-writing classes—shit that the INS most fervently rejects. Art is deathlike and inconsistent. The Greek for “deus ex machina” is mechane, which signifies not only the crane or theatrical machine by means of which gods appeared to be in the air in Greek tragedy but also any artificial means of contrivance. Aristotle’s point is that the form and content of art should flow from the intrinsic rationality of the plot itself and not by means of any external contrivance, which he calls alogon, or irrational. For us, on the contrary, art is the eruption of the mechanical, the machinic, the irrational, and the nonintegrable. But the machinic here is not the remote presence of God or the gods, but of a formless, deforming base materiality that operates through signal, relay, deferral, and transmission—a kind of radio network that is neither dead nor alive but both at once: ghostly and spectral.

8. THE SUPPRESSION of the mechanical and the concomitant rise of a “naturalist” aesthetic go hand in hand with, and culminate in, the rise in Western culture of the unified self—the self conceived as a natural, absolute essence to be expressed through the work of art as through life—a culture that reaches its apex in Romanticism. This rise of the self, or individual, is equally orchestrated by a suppression of the very networks and technologies that hoist and scaffold it into place. Another way of putting it would be to say that the project of philosophy, from Plato to Kant and Hegel, has at its core the idea and ideal of psychical integration, whether expressed in terms of the relation of justice to the good (Plato), in terms of moral law (Kant), or in terms of a socially articulated freedom (Hegel). This belief in psychical integration is what drives the modern commitment to ideas of subjective autarky and, most of all, authenticity. The INS has repeatedly declared its irrevocable enmity to any and all notions of the individual and of authenticity, advancing instead the counterconcept of the dividual, that is, of a radically divided, inauthentic half being who can experience his/her own subjectivity only in and through fragments, specters, and radio ghosts. What we see in literature and art is the description and celebration of psychical disintegration. We are dividuals, divided against ourselves, at war with ourselves, undoing ourselves, endlessly inauthentic. The self is not a soul that can aspire to be at one with itself and its experience of the good. Rather, it is a fractured node in a network of unconscious relations, prey to the forces of passion, affect, and the past; a weak, vulnerable, but finally glorious comic speck (or stain) in the cosmos. This, for us, is the life of desire: unconscious, unruly, ungovernable, and gorgeous.

9. TO TURN TO THE QUESTION of digital capitalism—that is, to return to the coordinates we never left, since all aesthetic questions are already ones of network culture and vice versa: Current debates around surveillance, metadata capture, and so forth invariably present a scenario in which personal autonomy is threatened by out-of-control networks. In these scenarios, the individual, who, being “natural” and “real,” is endowed with rights and privileges that are absolute, finds the citadel of this essential authenticity breached, invaded, held for ransom by information systems he himself supposedly predates. The INS refuses to participate in such badly cast and badly scripted pantomimes; refuses to ride to the rescue of a construct that was always and inherently misconceived and reactionary. Like Oedipus, the individual was the problem in the first place. If the rise, or reification, of the network, the undeniable insertion of its points and vectors into so-called private space, render quite unworkable the bourgeois fantasy of humanist sovereignty, then we applaud this fact. At the same time, the network’s nodes and relays, once apparent, call (as Clytemnestra knows) for naming and for mapping; and the names and maps, in turn, call for consideration, even action.

10. THE DUMB LIBERAL RESPONSE to Edward Snowden’s revelation of the reach and penetration of the Google/NSA consortium—that is, the conservative-lite response (didn’t some wag once define a liberal as a Republican who just got arrested?)—is to demand the individual’s return or restitution to the Argive palace from whose cloistered halls the beacons and the oracles have ousted him: Rouse Agamemnon from the bloodbath, put him on his throne again and let his sovereignty trickle down (not today, nor tomorrow, but eventually) to all corners of the empire. But as the data psychic and darling psychotic Cassandra could have told them, as she knew right from the off, this just ain’t gonna happen. Nor would we want it to. A more nuanced and intelligent response, still ultimately liberal, would be to press for “fairer” network architecture: for transparency and oversight—in other words, to issue and see through a Juvenalian demand for the surveillance of surveillance, for the curating of meta-metadata. While not entirely hostile to the people who pursue it, the INS lets it be known that this second course of action holds as little interest for us as the first. A third, neo-Luddite strategy would be to “go analog”: revert to typewriters, pigeon post, smoke signals, and anything else that might elude the radar. Yet if we accept scholar Lydia H. Liu’s definition of the digital as that which “makes the analog appear as such” (so speech, for example, is digital in relation to breathing since it breaks the former into differentiated lexemes), we soon come to see the analog as yet another fantasy—one, moreover, that dovetails all too neatly with the first, dumb liberal position on which we heaped our scorn moments ago. As the Unabomber should have realized, there’s nothing revolutionary about wanting to be Henry David Thoreau.

11. THUS, CONFRONTING OUR OWN DESTINY at this spot where three paths meet (in Sophocles’s Oedipus, a place called Phocis, which we will hear as “focus”), the INS chooses none of them. Instead, we affirm a solidarity with or affinity for what we will here term the digital abject. Let us explain. In another crucial, but muted, moment in the Poetics, Aristotle makes a distinction, almost in passing, between, on the one hand, the fear and pity that arise from the integral, organic unity of the artwork and, on the other, what he calls to teratodes, which can be rendered as “the monstrous” or “the weirdly strange,” the incursion of the unfamiliar and bizarre. Two millennia later, in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant makes a similar distinction in relating the beautiful, the sublime, and the monstrous. The beautiful is the free play of the imagination and understanding, when everything seems to hang together, rather like when we drive an expensive, humming-engined German car through the California desert. The sublime is what is refractory to the formal harmony of the experience of beauty, something indefinite and mighty, an “almost-too-much” that is still containable within the realm of the aesthetic. Yet Kant distinguishes this sublime from the monstrous, or “the absolutely-too-much.” That which is monstrous defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension or cognitive mapping; it simply has no place within the field of aesthetics. It is in clear opposition to Kant that one of our heroes, Hölderlin, defines the very essence of the tragic in terms of the monstrous (das Ungeheure) as the moment of Empedocles’s abjection as he plunges like a piece of jet debris into Mount Etna—and death.

12. AT THIS LIP, this limit where the almost-too-much becomes the absolutely-too-much, art becomes anti-art; the humming vehicle starts to stutter and backfire, and we experience discomfort—what Bruce Nauman perhaps had in mind when he declared that art should be a blow to the back of the neck. The INS would argue that what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, its data overload, has been the experimentation with an art of the monstrous. Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty; Bataille’s holy disgust; the plays of Heiner Müller and, more recently, of Sarah Kane; the art of the Vienna Actionists, Cindy Sherman, and Paul McCarthy—all these stand as instances of an eruption, within a series of spectacular communication vectors, of the abject. We are no longer dealing with the sublime, or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of desublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled—that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

13. THE INS ALIGNS ITSELF with this tendency, and urges its exacerbation. Beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation that risk becoming hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect—namely, disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot, volatile, and distasteful core. What is profiled here is the anti-art within art, the invisible lining of visibility, which produces itself as an ever-unfolding matrix of latent possibilities, where the deconstitution of art becomes its constitutional arrangement, which is also true, inter alia,of politics understood as government. Form is deformed and unformed through the formless, the basely material. Art undoes itself through a sophistical procedure of contradiction, not analogia but antilogia.

14. ART, THEN, has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary. Nothing is less contemporary than art, especially contemporary art. Or theater—yet we here nonetheless call for a reinvigoration (or relocation) of Brecht’s idea of Epic Theater, a theater that is highly specific, punctual, and political, but that is also deeply conceptual and philosophical. The very term theater would perhaps have to be understood in a military or medical (rather than thespian) sense: as a theater of operations that shakes up the default expectations of spectators (the Greek term for “spectator” is theoros—from which, theory) and tries to wake them from the hypnosis, or more often slumber, they slip into when they walk into a theater or a kunsthalle. This would be a theater where smooth narrative flows are constantly interrupted, where signal, noise, and static are used to jar the arc of the plot; a theater of fits and starts, like images on a strip of film, stuck and repeating, repeating, repeating. Participants in this new theater would be required to become experts in repetition, relaxed like a sports crowd (Brecht wanted the audience to smoke Havana cigars) rather than cramped and anxious like the wretches who tiptoe through galleries after having thumbed twenty pages of Rancière. Profound intelligence would be required on the part of the actors, to awaken the intelligence of others by producing astonishment. This theater would, above all, be one that refuses catharsis through any identification with the sufferings of the tragic hero.

15. CONSIDER—once more—Hamlet. Pinpointed from all angles by the nodes of state surveillance (love letters seized, soliloquies eavesdropped on, whims and musings scrutinized for hidden meanings), Hamlet devotes his energies not to the supposed vengeful destiny whose arc has been plotted for him by centuries of convention, but rather to earth and worms and skulls and dust—to all that is base, monstrous, and disgusting. When, thanks to his jerking and unplotted intervention, Polonius (chief of state intelligence) gets lost, like a Malaysian airplane, within the contours of the palace, Hamlet points out that it will not be the king’s detectives who’ll pin down his coordinates, but rather (thanks to the body rotting in the stairwell, the guts it has lugged around) smell that will reveal them. Intelligence itself is subject to a logic of disgust. Hamlet, for us, opens a window (or casket lid) onto all that the digital abject might be or become. An exemplarily bad Aristotelian, he undergoes no reversal, or peripeteia, nor does he experience any recognition, or anagnorisis, the two key conceptual components of tragic experience for Aristotle. This is why Hegel is right to insist that Hamlet is a lost man. Hamlet—the play, not the persona—permits no sublimation. Hamlet—the persona and not the play—exhibits a relentless intelligence, or counterintelligence, a melancholy inwardness that occasionally flips over into manic energy and exuberance. But we feel no release at the end of the drama, the sheer violence and percussive power of whose language has us (as Lacan claimed) rolling around on the floor or biting the carpet. If Hamlet is the quintessentially modern tragedy, this is because it enacts the tragedy of modernity, which also allows us no relief from power, nor release from the grid, nor even satisfaction of desire. Hamlet is a wonderful proto-Beckettian tragicomedy, a Trauerspiel without redemption, a mournful, melancholic, and melodramatic farce. And so is our smart new world.

16. MICHEL DE CERTEAU, in his brilliantly realized and uncannily prescient masterwork The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), envisages the condition of modernity in terms of “scriptural systems.”* We inhabit a world of endless and inescapable codings and notations, a world whose central currency is legibility. The exercise of power is a “scriptural enterprise.” Citizen agents, whom he dubs consumers rather than individuals, orchestrate small parole acts through the langue of capitalist culture, whose matrix of legibility conspires to capture and decode even the most idiosyncratic. What might escape this matrix? Nothing, not even bodies, since all bodies are already seized hold of and written, transformed into code. But, de Certeau claims, when bodies turn obscene—that is another matter; then, bodily “reminiscences” become “lodged in ordinary language . . . incised into the prose of the passage from day to day, without any possible commentary or translation.” These reminiscences, in turn, generate counterscriptural “resonances . . . cries breaking open the text that they make proliferate around them, enunciative gaps in a syntagmatic organization of statements.” De Certeau goes on to describe these as the “linguistic analogues of an erection, or of a nameless pain, or of tears: voices without language, enunciations flowing from the remembering and opaque body . . . an aphasic enunciation of what appears without one’s knowing where it came from (from what obscure debt or writing of the body), without one’s knowing how it could be said except through the other’s voice.” That’s the digital abject.

17. DE CERTEAU, in a nod to Beckett, titles the final section of his study “The Unnamable” and begins it by considering the role and status of the dying man. “Set aside in one of the technical and secret zones (hospitals, prisons, refuse dumps) which relieve the living of everything that might hinder the chain of production and consumption, and which, in the darkness where no one wants to penetrate, repair and select what can be sent back up to the surface of progress,” the dying man finds his own body transformed from a palimpsest on which the scriptural enterprise has stamped its law into a liminal, disgusting, and yet almost-miraculous new space in which the binaries of life and death break down. A vital question follows: What would it mean to speak one’s own death? It would be “to open within the language of interlocution a resurrection that does not restore to life.” To say, with Poe’s Monsieur Valdemar, “I am dead”—to say these words and mean them, for them to be true, is not, of course, something afforded the dying one. And yet, for de Certeau, one’s own death “defines more exactly than [anything else] what speaking is.” As our own final speech act, one last gesture toward what a digital abject might be (although perhaps be is not the right term, since here, like Gorgias, we’re moving closer to nonbeing, or at least being-otherwise), we leave you with the imaginary scenario of one who says not just (like Hamlet), “The rest is silence,” but who somehow, mutely or stuttering, obscenely or in deus ex machine code, speaks his or her own death—that is, speaks from a position (always inarticulable, elsewhere, somewhere else) of being dead, and in so doing reveals what it is to speak at all.

The International Necronautical Society was established in 1999 in London. Simon Critchley is its chief philosopher and Tom McCarthy its founder and general secretary.

* This and all subsequent quotations are from Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).