Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Strange Fascination: Bowie and Apophenia

If the ambition of Cracked-Actor-Network-Theory is to use Bowie to explore the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, then it must necessarily risk apophenia in its tone and spirit and appear somewhat manic; preposterous even. 

Bowie’s very fluidity in his use of mediums and identities lends itself to being connected to everything that was around him. As he said of himself in the Russell Harty interview (1973): “I find that I’m a person that can take on the guises of different people that I meet. I can switch accents in seconds of meeting somebody—I can adopt their accent. I’ve always found that I collect. I’m a collector. And I’ve always just seemed to collect personalities, ideas.

Or, a few years later: "Bowie was never meant to be. He's like a Lego kit. I'm convinced I wouldn't like him, because he's too vacuous and undisciplined. There is no definitive David Bowie." (David Bowie on David Bowie, 1976)

So it should come as no surprise to find the Network Society reflected back in him.

Or, in other words, Bowie’s own eclecticism, opportunism and promiscuity will be reflected in a theory that is itself is eclectic, opportunistic and promiscuous. And that both Bowie and our theory capture something of the nature of subjectivity in late capitalism.

Apophenia is the inclination to find patterns and connections in all phenomena regardless of whether they are related or not (what Tyler Viglen calls Spurious Correlations or, when more developed, Conspiracy Theory). 

The ability to observe and create connections is a profoundly human act; consciousness is drawn both to and from pattern. After all, as the phenomenological commonplace observes: consciousness is always consciousness of something. This can be both banal - such as finding faces in clouds or prophecies in tea-leaves – and sublime - such as Stephen Hawking’s description of the universe as a Grand Design in which: “There must be a complete set of laws that, given the state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward. These laws should hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. Gods or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.” (The Grand Design, pg. 137)

Perception rests on observing figure/ ground relationships, and the use of narrative is fundamental for cognition through establishing connections and causes between events. Working between artificial intelligence and psychology, Schankand Abelson claim that narrative systems and “structures called scripts” are essential for the production of “knowledge systems.” Such pattern finding has emerged from an evolutionary wager in which in survival situations the recognition of patterns paid dividends. Better, for example, to assume that a rustle in a patch of grass is a tiger and act accordingly than ignore it and be eaten.

As this project develops further patterns and connections within the Cracked-Actor-Network will be suggested. No doubt some will be spurious.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Cracked-Actor Network Theory: David, Diana and Donald

We'll explore the connection between these three in later posts. In the meantime here is an excerpt from

Simon Reynolds: Shock and Awe (Faber, 2017)

I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it.

Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality…. Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand.

Bowie and The Network Society

Bowie: The Network Society and Opening Themes (Death; Sex/ Gender; Economics; Love; Medium/ Form; The Future)

The key claim of the Cracked-Actor Network Theory is that Bowie exemplifies the conditions of post-war western society. This was named by Manuel Castells as The Network Society by which he meant those social orders that emerged more or less during Bowie’s adult life. It is characterised by the historical and cultural impact of electronic technologies including the New Media of telecommunication and computation systems and the subsequent primacy of information as a metaphor for communication and organisation.

In this sense Network Society describes the conditions and cultures of late capitalism. Frederic Jameson argues that these conditions are synonymous with both postmodernity and the emergence of “the world system” in which the power of nation states is effaced by global networks of capital and communication where information becomes the primary unit of capitalist exchange. In such cultures power no longer operates according to a disciplinary logic (as Foucault observed of modernity) but rather control where power is distributed across networks (as Deleuze claimed in his famous “postscript” essay).

Subjectivity is similarly understood to be both distributed across different communicative networks and also mediated by them; in other words human identity does not exist a-priori but is in fact constituted by those different networks within which it is situated (such as social media.) Hence, the conditions of the Network Society present radical challenges to the account of autonomous and rational humanity that emerges in the European Enlightenment. As in other accounts of the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, such as Posthumanism humans are identified as enmeshed within and reliant upon existing economic, technological and ecological networks that are beyond their control.

Taking this as a starting point we can consider how Bowie’s own persona as “more than one, less than many” mimicked these effects of late capitalism and the Network Society. His multiple identities were also, performatively, contingent upon those conditions he found himself in.

In doing so we can use the following themes to think about both Bowie and human subjectivity in the age of “the world system”:


[These ideas were first explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]