Sense and Subjectability


September 6, 2023

Jessie Rommelt

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by Kira Bell. Edited by Harrison Kinnane Smith and Anna Mirzayan

​The views and opinions expressed in this series are solely those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Bunker Projects or its members.

​In Information, Intimacy & Immateriality, our first serial publication at the Bunker Review, author Kira Bell explores language, intimacy and technology. You can read Bell’s contextualizing “Note on Legibility,” as well as the full series announcement, here.

The danger of poetry is its ability to confuse milk and meat,
of something given and of something taken by violence.

Poetry is the foundation of language.
Thus language is the arbiter of forgetfulness.

The danger of forgetting is more aptly
the danger of beauty.
Beauty is known to us as deception.

And Deception is the currency of velocity,

Deception is an act of
thus speed is violent as well

But velocity
is the nutrient of love,
love is the enemy of violence

And love is the impetus for life,

violence breeds

decay, but
is equally the
impetus for life
And Life is the reason for

All of everything is dependent on the friendship of creation and
decay, powered by constant exchange between them, by movement, change, and ultimately

Godspeed is a state beyond simultaneity wherein all information is processed instantaneously
through the mechanism by which it is received,
godspeed is the velocity of consciousness.
Computers can approximate this speed but cannot surpass it without sentience, just like
we can’t move faster than the speed of light
tim e.
Godspeed is the barrier between creatures and things.

The codependency of physical, technological, and sociological systems is intrinsic to the way we learn. A system is any set of processes that take place within a structure over time. To fully comprehend a system, we must also understand the complex relationship between its structure, processes, and the time and space it occupies. The projects of language, education, and government are examples of systems wherein our biology, and psychology are deeply entangled with our use of technology. Each of these projects spawns a vast net over our entire species. Each net is dependent on one another to function, and capable of both protection and entrapment. Following a rise in
telecommunicationsCommunication that happens over a distance through the use of technology.
, the accelerated transfer of
informationFacts, data, content, material attributes, or properties that can be transferred through various mediums (including sound, language, visuals, touch, etc.)
wields exponentially more influence on our experience. Our novel access to information is infiltrating our cognition, and expanding the way we think. This expansion has led to a shift away from traditional linguistic modes of understanding, requiring us to reconsider our continued attachment to the ideological structures these modes are predicated on.

Through the creation of a
phoneticBased in sound, or in reference to a language that uses symbols (letters) to represent sounds – as opposed to one that uses symbols pictoraly (ie. Chinese characters).
language, we have effectively unstuck our
signifiersAny entities used to represent something else, like words used to express an idea or pictures used to portray an event.
from the physical reality they represent, allowing (or perhaps forcing) us to construct difference through
semantic In reference to the meaning of language, often used to discuss the difference in meaning or interpretation of language derived by personal connotation or experience.
aesthetic Pertaining to a particular style or cultural movement, often used to describe artistic style, fashion, or association with a particular generation or social group.
means. This construction of difference allows a perceptual separation of our cognitive processes from our physical ones, framing the body as a sort of material, an object whose
agencyAction, intervention, or the capacity to carry out action, usually with intention
is dependent on the will of our minds. If we define technology as the use of external materials to carry out our desires, humans are, and have always been in the Harawayan1 sense,
cyborgian.“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”
Acceptance of our multifaceted, cyborgian nature may aid in explaining how we came to be both responsible for, and subject to, extensively imbalanced institutional power structures.

To better understand the psychological effects and societal implications of humans’
coevolutionTo evolve together. Evolution that is affected by the evolution or presence of another, often causes the evolving entities to resemble each other increasingly over time.
with technology, this series of essays will outline the relationships between the material,
ontologicalRelating to a set of relationships between ideas and the way they are organized within a discipline or system.
, and moral structures that govern human consciousness by exploring the ways in which technological advancements and social institutions have allowed information to be leveraged as a tool of power. Through an allegorical examination of how our values, psyches, bodies, and avenues of communication have dictated the ways information is designated, represented, disseminated, and perceived, we can begin to reverse-engineer these systems to construct alternatives that better account for our ineluctable physicality, emotionality, and environment.

subjectAn entity with agency or the person or thing in a sentence that completes an action.
, in grammar, is an entity that performs action on an object (fig. 1). A subject and object can be of the same substance or material but are distinguished by their position of agency. In this way, language presupposes a hierarchical structure
animacyThe state of being alive, animated, or sentient.
. Subjecthood is a privilege usually assigned to the conscious or human. We are so accustomed to this structure that we feel the need to anthropomorphize animals and objects in cartoons before they are allowed to speak. The inverse is also true, humans historically strip others of subjecthood in order to validate their own violent actions, what Mel Y. Chen calls ”de- animation (by way of objectification).”2 In a hierarchical capitalist organization, agency is mediated by those with significant capital. The powerful determine who is granted subjecthood by controlling access to both material and informatic resources and commodities. Vast percentages of the global population are denied subjecthood through the exploitation of their labor and objectification of their bodies. This pattern of abuse disproportionately affects those deemed as other (i.e people of color, queer people, differently abled folks, and the chronically ill) as these groups have historically been socially and legislatively marginalized. The same groups are responsible for creating modes of organization that are not dependent on singular hierarchies or even human-centered structures of organization. It is no coincidence that many of these examples come from traditional and indigenous cultures outside of the western canon, cultures which have been systematically weakened or forcibly eradicated by colonial endeavors.

Figure 1.
The most fundamental human impulse is subjectification — the colonization of our physical bodies by the notion of self. Much like the master/slave structure of command-line programming,3 the brain governs the body through electrochemical signals. To interpret these signals and carry out cohesive action, the body’s constituent parts come equipped with a sort of Rosetta Stone, programmed in the DNA embedded in each cell. For one entity to be colonized by another, they must be separate. But within one body, or even one ecosystem, separation is entirely relative to space and scale. The elasticity of our linguistic, immaterial modes of understanding create a perception of distance that allows the self to “inhabit” the material body. This fabricated lapse between us and other is the impetus for all subsequent alienation, exploitation, and disillusionment. The self as a site of possession encourages the designation of ‘
resourceA useful material, object, or service- a commodity that is usually considered limited or finite.
’ upon all other things, people, and processes, thereby making all actions involving the self (both inside and outside the body) into interactions or relations. Physics provides a framework for grounding our understanding of these seemingly abstract relationships in the material world. In this case, we can think of distance as difference, sculpturally — as a spatial problem.

Figure 2.

information, intimacy and immateriality
To understand relationships through space and time, let’s first define the terms of a relationship. All relationships have at the very least an action, a material, and a direction (fig. 2). For example, there is an (admittedly outdated and heteronormativite) idea in psychology that the love of a father is conditional and the love of a mother is unconditional. If we try to interpret this relation in terms of action, material, and direction, we find that love is being used to describe both action and material when we know that cannot be true. When using abstract concepts to modify abstract actions, we are left with no material or actual understanding, only a direction. Unless we develop a language that is purely directional (maybe modeled on
vectorsLinear representations that can be scaled infinitely.
tensorsMath objects used for representing physical properties.
?), direction means nothing without material. A more specific description of this interaction provides an alternate insight; the expression of a father’s love is conditional upon external means, while a mother’s love does not use external means to be expressed. Not only does the addition of an action and a material clarify the dynamics of this concept, it poses a question: if the material is love and the action is expression in both cases, why would the mother and father have different requirements for completing the same action if their position is equal relative to the child? We know from experience that different groups of people have different standards for what is an appropriate way for particular actions to be carried out (in this case expressing love). The authority of these standards has little to do with the actions themselves (or what would be most efficient for that matter), but rather arises through cultural constructs that are systematically and institutionally compounded over time. This contradiction illuminates a logical fallacy embedded in the structure of language: how can we pretend to exist in a perfectly shared reality when our ways of defining that reality are relative?

Our relative conception of reality is rooted in our relationship to sensory information. When what is is dependent on what is understood, matter uncoded by a familiar
taxonomyA system of classification.
exists illegibly, as a vacuum. The infinite complexity of what is observable is limited to a taxonomy fixed by our ability to observe. Our brains parse information into more manageable patterns, because the infinite is certifiably unknowable4. When a brain is presented with information it cannot comprehend, or a pattern it cannot complete, it makes a patch by stitching together available information based on patterns it has already observed in a process known as abstraction5. Consequently, these patches are subject to bias based on the experience of that brain. Though they are small, they become compounded through iteration, creating an experience of reality more
syntheticDescribing something made up of other things, a frankenstein. Artificial in that it has been created and did not arise naturally. Some examples can seen here.
than informatic.

Because the simplification and categorization of information is vital to understanding, it is also necessary for communication. These processes of reduction mean that human understanding is also tangled in a dense network of abstractions. The boundary between signifiers and what they represent is slippery at best, making it difficult to construct a shared reality without confusion. The perceived danger of this type of confusion repeatedly manifests in Adolph Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” as a strangely gendered vilification of
ornament Decoration, embellishment, or stylized design.
, in the Quran a condemnation of representational pictures of prophets, and even in the ten commandments: “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Though the basis of these arguments is reasonable (lying is bad because it confuses people), the conflation of decoration and ornament with manipulation implies the existence of some imaginary form of communication that is universally
a-aestheticWithout a style or aesthetic, not associated with any art movement or genre.
and objective. Like any effort towards
universal designAn attempt to design something that is universally applicable.
, what they are really saying is “all uses of ornament and style are manipulative, except for mine.” The irony of these critiques is that stylistic and semantic biases are the foundation of our understanding. Other theorists, Nietzsche, and later Derrida and McLuhan, propose that this collective confusion is actually embedded into all phonetic language and perhaps translation altogether. A concept which Barthes and Farouki extend to photographic and video representation. Each of these critiques of representation seem to encircle the same obstacle, a sequence of behavior that I am calling the patch.

Figure 3. A patchwork quilt made by the Gees Bends Quiltmaking Collective, which creates quilts from found or repurposed material.
Figure 4. The same image of the Gees Bend quilt edited in photoshop with a tool called patch, which hides imperfections of an image by patching it with visual data from other parts of the existing image. Both images are examples of composite creation, the first grounded with physical material limitations and the second synthesized from sensory (photographic) data.

These synthetic “patches” are better known as
affectprogramming + attachment – the product of ones influences and their attachment to them
. Patricia MacCormack describes affect as the creation of something new or “something essentially a-human,”11 expanding Deleuze and Guattari’s notion: “affects are the becoming inhuman of man.”12 Michel Foucault discusses this phenomenon by telling the story of Don Quixote, who exists as only affect, less a man than a catalog of influence.13 Though Don Quixote’s choices or qualitative assessments are based in emotion, these emotions are based on the experiences of others, as his physical and cognitive reality are completely separate. Machines are programmed in a similar manner, processing data through instructions they have been fed. The difference between programmed and agential response is one of
procedureAn operation or set of operations that follows a set instructions
choiceA decision made with intent to achieve a certain outcome
. This distinction collapses in the consideration of more advanced computational models, because artificial intelligence not only operates based on the instructions it is fed but learns to operate from its experience. It becomes hard to say what exactly is artificial, the programming or the experience, especially considering human intelligence also relies on those processes. Ultimately the nature of intelligence itself is a
sublation To “transcend”, “preserve”, and “abolish” all at once. To be made into an altogether new thing while maintaining all the attributes of the previous form.
14 of both, more aptly described as synthetic than artificial or otherwise.

Figure 5. A meme by @helpimtrappedinsideofatv.

The codependence of our material creations and our cognitive reality is easily provable. New research in pain and neuro-physiology has proven that sense (including pain),15 and in effect all experience, is passed through the emotional center of the brain before it is interpreted, demonstrating that 1) feeling is the the interaction of multiple systems with multiple inputs and 2) these interactions physically alter our sensitivity to stimuli, meaning 3) the way we receive information is moderated by a system with standards that are constantly changing. It seems we have been using terms of state to describe what is actually a relation. Understanding that knowledge is information mediated by experience, we must accept that knowledge is inherently relative. Ironically, the nature of representation is exactly the opposite — linguistic, mathematical, and symbolic communication are based on a set of fixed abstractions that are at best incomplete and at worst a collection of emotionally coded approximations disguised as truth. The fact that knowledge and its most popular mediums are at odds means at each juncture, communication between entities is modified by both the receiver and transmitter. This hamfisted collaboration is arguably responsible for the exceeding degree of polarization at the heart of contemporary discourse. It also might be a clearer description of the phenomenon that we have been calling affect. Maybe affect is not “the becoming inhuman man” but the becoming linguistic of man.

PRINTING PRESS Mass production of the Bible, colonization, enlightenment. Mass proliferation of binary morality as expressed in the Bible, a shift toward what Nietzsche would call Slave Morality, a rise in the use of statistics.
PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE Industrialization, modernism, mass exploitation of labor, formation of unions, women’s suffrage. An increase in the speed of production, transportation and the reproduction of imagery, growing emphasis on advertising, changing standards of living and changes in workplace regulations.
TELEVISION Pop Art, corporate consolidation, 24 hour broadcast news, advancements in civil rights. A concentration of corporate power, the extentension of electronic media into the home and private spaces, growing interest in populat culture and tabloid news, distrust in the government as a singular authority.
PERSONAL COMPUTER Globalization, technophilia, cyberpunks, art surrounding identity politics, activism for LGBTQ rights. The formation of search engines, expedited communication, an interest in decentralizing power via the open source revolution.
SOCIAL MEDIA The iPhone, neoliberalism, virtue signaling, formation of the alt-right, emphasis on customization and accessibility. A total interconnectivity no longer bound by the constraints of space and time, an understanding of the body as a raw material to be molded.

Figure 6. Timeline depicting the relationship of communications technology and cultural movements.

Most commonly, when a hard drive is corrupted, the issue is not that the data has been deleted but that the hard drive has lost the map of code that explains the way the information is organized and thus how to access it — implying the hard drive’s ability to process information is linked to the way it has been programmed to access it. Extending this idea to our own relationship with information, media works like a
resistorAn electrical component that creates resistance in a circuit in order to reduce the flow of electrical current.
between content creators and consumers. In any given era, the dominant form of representation and its creators have the power to designate who mediates the truth by dictating what information is deemed valid, who can see it, and who can share it. This dynamic results in a direct relationship between the proliferation of information and the moral, ethical, and social standards of a community — the trajectory demonstrated by figure 6 correlates to an increasingly populous moral framework; over time, more information is shared and received by more people in more forms. However, this shift toward equity in the means of informatic production has an equal and opposite side effect — the more information we produce, the more vulnerable we become to manipulation.

Beginning in the Enlightenment era, science and the ability to mass print coincided as the study of statistics. Because Western values are prominently based in Christian morality that encourages a binary understanding of good and evil, the use of empirical data can be leveraged for biological control, validating racist and sexist theories from phrenology to I.Q.-based eugenics. Not only is the use of data easily made violent, its collection can cause violence as well. Our linguistic attachment to numerical certainty works against the best interest of our species. Giorgio Agamben cites the anti-terrorist hysteria in the United States after 9/11 as the nexus of our current era in which inflammation and public unrest is the standard — a reality that allowed, in turn, an expansion in the collection and use of data in the name of security. The ideological precursor to this phenomenon resides in ancient history, as humans have consistently used mortal fear as a disciplinary tool (re: eternal damnation). The degree to which we are affected by this attempt to control us depends on the speed and direction of information we consume. Our accelerated ability to produce and consume information makes the origin and intent of its creator more and more opaque. Since the beginning of the 24-hr news cycle, media has infiltrated our experience both in and outside the home; information envelops us like an aspic, simultaneously transparent and grotesque. This is what Agamben calls the “depoliticization of citizenship.” “Video-recorded place is no longer an agora and becomes a hybrid of public and private, a zone of indifference between the prison and the forum.” In claiming the end of politics, he means that the term politics is inadequate in describing our current state of affairs because it evokes a purely public space that no longer exists.

Figure 7. Chernoff faces, an information visualization method for representing multivariate data in the shape of a human face.

Dataism (the contemporary descendant of statistics) relies on information collected via mechanisms of digital surveillance that are frequently unknown to the user. Following the creation of social media, the zone Agamben previously described “between the prison and the forum” is extended to all of cyberspace. It now exists on your home computer and the cell phone in your pocket. Because these items act as most peoples’ primary interface to the outside world, the dissolution of privacy and publicity becomes projected onto our notion of self. Social media’s promise to grant us the power to represent ourselves in the almost full complexity of our form (ie. visually, intellectually, emotionally, and aspirationally) has made us complicit in upholding the same
monopolized platformsFacebook, Twitter, Google or any online media space that people spend lots of time on and is owned by a large corporation or billionaire.
that profit off our personal information, creating a sort of
ouroborosA snake that eats its own tail, something that lives off its own destruction.
of consumption. But that’s nothing new, corporations use the rhetoric of free market capitalism to do this with environmental issues, workers rights, and income inequality. In the
neolibralA belief system based on the concept that free market capitalism can solve all problems, including ones it creates. Often used in reference to capitalist endeavors targeted at solving problems that used to be considered personal or problems you would not normally need money to solve (i.e. attempts at self-betterment in the form of mental health care or physical fitness).
era, it is your responsibility as an individual to be happy, successful, and make the world a better place, and your fault if you can’t, despite the varying degrees to which corporations and governments make that impossible. Unlike the demanding nature of disciplinary control under a clear authority, neoliberalism is much gentler, presenting you with “opportunities” to solve your own problems while secretly priming you to feel responsible for your own debasement.

Exponential leaps in the capabilities of communications technology have significantly diminished the spatial and chronological constraints of human interaction. It has become commonplace to receive multiple streams of data from multiple sources at once without differentiation. This allows the online subject to exist far beyond the limited capacity of the physical one it signifies, making it much more vulnerable to the assumptions of value and validity online platforms rely on. As subjecthood becomes increasingly
fractalizedSplit apart into smaller and smaller bits, echoing the shape of the whole but becoming increasingly separated.
and manufactured, there is an opportunity to extend Marx’s condemnation of private property (of inhabitable spaces and material objects) to the original site of ownership: the conception of self. Though this transition toward a
deterritorializedA space where private property does not exist, something that has no ownership/ is not owned or partitioned.
subjecthood appears benign or even beneficial, the vehicle of its arrival bears with it new and more insidious avenues for
codificationThe process of organizing a set of signals or information into a code or language or to create new labels or identifiers for something.
and exploitation.

Figure 8. Depiction of the data points the AI in Trevor Paglen’s work uses to understand faces.

When all things are recorded and stored as data, our sensory experience exists simultaneously with its signifiers. The only other scenario wherein the past exists simultaneously with the present is the human brain. And, like in a brain, this almost infinite well of digitally recorded information must be organized, forcing us to again make evaluative judgments. Externalizing our desire for categorization, we’ve programmed synthetic neural networks to do this for us. Artists like Hito Steyerl18 and Trevor Paglen19 have taken on the task of delving into the digital invisible to make sense of the ways virtual representation complicates agency, subjecthood, and what/who can be considered true and real in this new state of immateriality. In Paglen’s work Image Net Roulette, he invites users to upload personal pictures to be processed by an inverted version of Google’s image recognition AI which displays a list of possible tags for each image — exposing the absurd, often racist, biases of the widely used AI’s programming. Steyerl discusses similar biases in her essay “A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis)Recognition,” giving form to the agency of increasingly pervasive digital actors. Each of these exercises in representation have origins in early modernist movements,
AutomatismA movement surrounding “ the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.” often to make art (like drawing with your non-dominant hand with your eyes closed).
, Dada, and the Avant Garde — movements whose practices were often influenced by, if not co-opted from, mysticism, the occult, and the practices of indigenous people — as a response to the industrialization of production, life, culture, and even death. What we face in our current era is an echo of the same — we are compounding the mechanization of our physical capabilities with the automation and virtualization of our psychology, sociality, and expression. The power to produce and disseminate information is inextricable from the use of technology; as digital interfaces mediate so much of our experience, the aesthetics and operations of the virtual are inseparable from the information it seeks to communicate.

Though the modes of oppressive power may take on different forms (biopower in the time of statistics, psychopower in the time of dataism, and now aesthetic power in the neoliberal era) they each use information as material. To reorient our imbalanced relationship to information, we must begin to disentangle language and power from our positions as subjects, and look at the ways information is perceived, processed, and transmitted by entities deemed objects rather than subjects. Examples of representative models that extend our notion of agency to entities traditionally overlooked can be found in works of political theory, science fiction, and art. This sentiment is echoed in Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory which uses
actantsParts of a network (Latours term for any situation or relationship between entities) that have some role to play. “All actants are presupposed to be equally important participants, actants are measured and valued only by how they interact in the system, intermediaries are actants that do not tend to change the system, mediators are actants that do cause changes in the system.”
20 in place of subjects and objects, allowing for an agency to be carried out in either direction through their
connectionsThe ways actants interact in a network/system..
. In Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, she uses the concept of
holobioncyThe state of being an organism whose identity encompasses both the host body and all the microbes that exist on it.
, a body understood as both an ecosystem and an individual, to expand our notion of the individual through biology. Octavia Butler’s Afro-futurist science fiction promotes an empathetic understanding of liminal positionality, exploring characters whose genders, physical forms, and positions of power are fluid. Artists do this reframing of relationships (be they microscopic, technological, mineral, or corporeal) all the time through considerate reconfigurations of the way they are represented. The work of Anicka Yi21 and Pierre Huyghe22 respectively use multiple applications of sensorial stimuli at once to explore the parallelity of complex systems, drawing novel connections between our own biological processes and the technological and ecological ones we inhabit. Yi uses smell particularly because it is the least describable, prompting the viewer (or sensor) to interpret the sense signal more emotionally without the biases of linguistic intervention. Huyghe’s show UUmwelt presented animations of human brain activity recorded by an fMRI scanner and fed through an artificial neural network, resulting in amorphous assemblages of a simultaneously human and AI process of image interpretation. Both artists create systems in which the biological and technological are literally interconnected, complicating the not only positions of agency and authorship between the artist and the work (in the tradition of systems aesthetics, Hans Haacke etc.), but the dynamics of control between the work’s constituent parts (forming the more contemporary genre of
speculative aestheticsA loose theoretical framework used by contemporary artists and philosophers that seeks to explore the meditations of technology and media on our experience, through the belief that aesthetics are a vehicle for knowledge.

Figure 9. Image from Pierre Huyghe’s work in the 2011 show UUmwelt.

If we accept that our ways of understanding are inevitably tinted by our attachment to identity, cultural allegiance, and community, we must accept that our conception of value is subjective. Value is shorthand for a hierarchical mechanism of organization. It doesn’t take an economist to recognize that value is no longer dictated by scarcity, demand, or any other physically determinable functionality or necessity (a phenomenon most obviously demonstrated by
NFTsNon-fungible tokens, essentially certificates of ownership for a piece of digital content, could be an image, video, font, tweet, or anything that exists primarily online.
). This way of thinking has seeped into our own psychology; we have been taught to conflate the feeling of desire with the idea of deficiency or material denial when no such connection exists. Neoliberalism co-opts that confusion to sell you remedies for your imaginary deficiency that turn it into actual dissatisfaction (and so on and so on).23 When hierarchy, untethered from material stakes, is implemented to organize not just commodities but people through social and political infrastructure, hierarchy becomes supremacy. Capitalist structures historically promote transactionality because it is profitable and easy to standardize in a linear way. Systems of supremacy inevitably undermine the agency of their constituents, because any deviation from the standards of their supremacist ideology is treated as a problem and punished as such. This disciplinary approach to governing presupposes that there must always be a problem to begin with. The problem-solution-problem pattern is not, as we have been led to believe, the natural state of the world. It is, however, the natural state of capitalism, which seeks solutions to problems that do not exist. Where these systems privilege development and progress, nature opts for maintenance. Instead of enacting punishment for deviation, evolution finds the advantageous aspects of that deviation and rewards it. When liberated from a hierarchical system of value there is an opportunity for a more operational understanding, an understanding not of what things are but of how they function. This ecological approach opens up the possibility of collective organization based on pattern rather than dominance. A call for destituent power is not simply a call for the
decentralizationTo make something that usually exists in a central location and spread it apart so that it exists in multiple locations, to redistribute so that it is less concentrated.
of power but rather an empowerment via decentralization.

Figure 10. Gif of Gmork from the movie Neverending Story.

Through semantic and aesthetic manipulation, the implementation of oppressive power becomes increasingly invisible. If the most primal fear is of alienation, can total alienation create a new radical togetherness?

Figure 11. Diagram of how the meaning of language dissipates and distorts over time.

Historically, shifts in power are cyclical. When power becomes concentrated vertically (e.g. vertical integration, dictatorship, monopolies), it is only a matter of time before it is re-distributed horizontally (e.g. community organizing, unionization, democracy). A closer look at biological evolution tells us not only that the shape of this transformation is typical but also alludes to a potentially more unsettling conclusion: shifts toward total individuation, or the total dissolution of boundaries, always happen just before a major
reclassificationThe reorganization of objects according to a set of categorization rules.
(fig. 11). These swells of creative expansion followed by revolutionary decomposition and destruction are characteristic of all patterns of evolution. This superstructure of interaction is the nature of living systems. If we stretch our spatial comprehension of evolutionary relationships to include ones that are not *tangibly* physical, we can apply this logic to understand the commodification of information and its use as a tool of power. Because value is a construct whose only attachments are with our semantic and aesthetic vocabulary, attempts at reorienting the distribution of value take place in arenas of the virtual, linguistic, and symbolic. Microcosms of redistribution appear repeatedly all around us. Social media epitomizes this, wherein we move from text-only media like email; to text and image (Facebook); to primarily image (Instagram); to purely symbols (emojis, emoticons, and memes). The less attached our representative modes are to information, the more cultural context is required to decipher them, and notably, the easier they are to misunderstand. The social
ontologyA set of relationships between ideas and the way they are organized within a discipline or system..
of the internet was formed by an emphasis on individualism through customization — as Myspace, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok encourage us to customize the way we are perceived online, the sheer saturation of users trying to project their own individuality has created a
hyper-specific lexiconHyper-specific lexicon.
of minor aesthetic variations. Because a larger fraction of our communication takes place over the internet, these systems of categorization have seeped into our identity markers IRL. Privileging context over substance, this ontology requires a literacy based in pop cultural interrelation. If you’ve ever been to Brooklyn, a DIY show, or walked past an art school in the past 6-8 years, you’ve likely noticed an influx of people wearing nascar shirts, Realtree camouflage, baggy track pants, or having mullets, despite the wearers’ lack of interest in actually watching nascar, going hunting, running track, or playing a certain type of music in the 80’s. It seems largely that people perform this kind of
mimesisMimicry, the imitation of one object or form by another.
because they have little or no attachment to the cultural practices associated with those aesthetics; they are doing so because they are trying to be cheeky. Yet, these acts only appear subversive when they threaten to contradict our proprietary associations of value.

The growing separation between value and its signifiers in popular culture appears in early stages as a joke. The humor in connecting entities of drastically different social implications, despite serving similar functions, is uncomfortable and unexpected, two qualities that make things funny. This tension is based in our attachment to cultural signifiers as a means of forming identity. What is considered ironic is dependent on the implicit values of the populace (and those are rapidly changing), so resistance to recodifying our signifiers is totally situational. Recently, cultural producers have opted toward aesthetics previously deemed pedestrian by romanticizing markers of the mundane — Crocs and fast food logos on the runway, street guard vests on every hypebeast in 2018, tiny houses, trust punks, ‘naive’ painting style, scratcher tattoos, noise music, etc. — in a performative refusal of traditional capitalist conceptions of value. But this endeavor at subversion is undermined by the fact that it exists on the heels of much more contentious patterns of appropriation.

Aesthetic associations tend to mirror cycles of power distribution because historically appropriation is carried out from positions of power: white European artists took painting styles from indginous sensibilities just like big fashion brands took streetwear aesthetics from black designers in Harlem. The inverse happens as well, high end designer wear is counterfeited and customized by its new broader audience. The accessibility of knock offs and second hand items allow those outside the formal canon of fashion to reimagine mainstream stylings in creative and novel ways. These new models often end up being co-opted by the same high end designers to inform trends of the future. The cycle of cultural production is both generative and self-destructive, because there is a fundamental distinction between the ways appropriation is bound to ownership in these two circumstances. Intellectual property can be monetized, so when the wealthy take ideas from the poor they are effectively seizing the means of production from those who had little capital in the first place. When those with little means reinterpret the standards that the wealthy have thrust upon them, they are reclaiming what would be, in a more egalitarian economy, their right to create. However, the speed at which these standards are established, disseminated, and appropriated has accelerated to the rate of invisibility, making them nearly impossible to trace back to their original creators.

Figure 12. This meme demonstrates how fringe ideas at far opposite end of a spectrum eventually blend together or mirror each other, more united by their distrust of the center than they are in conflict with one another.

Though our signifiers are quickly becoming more contextually nuanced and specified, our understanding seems to be evolving at a slower pace. We’ve used the rhetoric of aestheticization to reinforce outdated structures of social organization and exploitation without upsetting contemporary audiences (think queer-coded corporate advertizing, Instagram infographics about reaching your full potential through “hustling”). Even positively motivated efforts to dismantle disproportionate power relations like the Me Too movement run this risk — cancel culture bears a resemblance to the beheading of heretics in the middle ages. Companies intentionally mime the language and style of
social PSAsSocial PSAs definition
because they understand the associative properties of coded aesthetics. Though mimesis is a natural and common result of mutation, cultural production emulates form in service of association, whereas biological evolution emulates form in service of function. For example: a person can wear a Realtree jumpsuit and no one (except maybe boomers) will assume they are actually trying to blend into the woods, whereas the Helicodiceros Muscivorus (or Pig Butt Arum) has evolved to look like a pig’s butt in order to attract flies for pollination, which appears to us as funny because we associate butts and flowers with very different things (fig. 12).

Figure 12. A meme highlighting the formal mimesis between Labradoodles and fried chicken (left). No parralels exist between the ways each object functions. In contrast, the Pig Butt Arum has evolved to mimic pigs’ butts in order to perform the function of attracting flies for polination (right).

In spite of the growing disconnect between reality and representation, we’ve held onto the expectation that certain aesthetics are attached certain values. That expectation presupposes that each attempt at altering aesthetic standards is an attempt at altering systems of value. It feels silly or shallow to be attached to style so deeply, but it doesn’t feel so silly to be attached to morals, philosophies, values, or whatever you choose to call your personal framework of beliefs. We are emotionally invested in the aesthetics we choose to align ourselves with because they are supposed to mean something, and centuries of conditioning have ingrained classification into our notion of selfhood. Selfhood can be understood to work like the application Google Maps— it uses so much power because it is constantly trying to assess where it (the individual) falls in relation to everything else (its community, work place, social circles). Moreover, like Google maps, the system selfhood attempts to locate itself within is ultimately arbitrary, implemented by forces (governments and institutions) whose goals only occasionally align with that of the user (the individual). Only when this application is turned off will the computer (our mind) be able to carry out other operations swiftly and easily. This metaphor suggests that because all hierarchical systems of organization are based on
judgments of valuejudgments of value definition
, they are all, in a sense, arbitrary. Patterns of cultural mimesis require us to reconsider this possessive instinct toward signification. As the market becomes more and more saturated with the labeling of each new variation, the
differencesdifferences definition
between them become smaller and smaller, as does the meaning of each distinction, creating an informatic landscape so vast it is hardly more legible than the infinity it seeks to communicate. It will always be impossible to measure natural objects or living systems with exact 24 because they are in states of constant transformation, thus their dimensions are dependent on the tool used to measure them the time it takes to do so. This also applies to our identities, languages, and values because they are all natural objects involved in extremely complex living systems. As we enter an era of post-irony, we are coming ever closer to accepting the possibility of an era post-value.

Figure 13. If the most primal fear is of alienation, can total alienation create a new radical togetherness?

The destruction of familiar taxonomy feels like the destruction of us as a species, but this sentiment can be simply countered by a recognition of ourselves both apart from and as a result of our socio-techno-linguistic affect. This recognition makes obvious the absurdity of asking a nonbinary person what percent woman they are, or an indiginous person to set a numerical price for land their family lives off of, just as you would not ask someone what a text message smells like. It is absurd not because prices or percentages are difficult concepts to understand, but because there is no actionable recourse for that information when detached from the supremacist construction of value. Many ancient and non-western organizations of knowledge have useful and poetic ways of describing this position. Astrology uses the logic of physicality to explain complex social and psychological phenomena in terms of polarity, modality, and element (fig. 14). Though astrology’s specific assignments of meaning are controversial and often misrepresented, its use of mutually applied gravitational pulls to explain relative attraction, alignment, or friction suggests a possible reframing of other complex systems in the same way.

Figure 14. Astrology’s use of physical relationships to represent the immaterial (social and psychological) can be looked to as a model for alternative, non-hierarchical systems of information processing and communication.

And all that was there
will be there still – dido 25

Supremacy is not (and was never) compatible with the changing state of human interaction. Phonetic languages’ use of fixed definitions encourages a binary understanding of good and evil, of us and them. Dependency on this binary is transforming our minds in a way that threatens to structurally eradicate our species by systematically privileging producers and punishing decomposers — resulting in the equivalent of a world of flowers without bees, fruit without fungus. In order to horizontalize the hierarchical impulse of colonization and by extension capitalism, there must first be a degradation of these false dichotomies into an understanding of relationships as complex, interdependent systems containing a set of actions and materials that simultaneously apply forces on each other in multiple ways at once (ie. subject-object, pathogen-host, abuser-victim).

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that you can either know the exact speed or the position of a particle, but you cannot know both at once. We have already developed many ways of articulating position, but position is only one variable in a multidimensional system suspended in perpetual motion. The rate technology allows us to represent things is accelerating far beyond our ability to produce them and much further still beyond the rate at which we can comprehend them. When was it ever a good idea to speak or act upon notions you don’t understand? We cannot control our bodies and environments to the extent that we can control the forms of representation. Abstraction will never liberate us from the limitations of space, time, and material because we are space, time, and material. Rather than attempting to collapse space and time to force each other to understand our particular semantic coding of position, an ontology that is capable of describing both physical matter and its abstractions only in terms of their interactions, a relational language for our already relational knowledge.

Situations that appear to us as contradictory look that way because we have been trying to understand many things in motion as if they were one thing that is still. Parallel evolution provides examples of how we can use our interlocking network of interactions to help each other out, even if our objectives are different on the surface. If we can empathetically understand that difference itself is a description of position and all positions are temporary, we can understand more empirically that there will always be people that need things and people that have things, and the only way to balance that equation is through constant mutual sharing. If we begin to put real effort toward understanding the world in terms of how it came to be, rather than how it appears, we’d find that all relationships are the result of simultaneous truths manifesting from a shared impulse — a fundamental desire to maintain life.
Figure 15.



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3 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” (Cambridge, January 1, 2005).
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​Kira Bell 
is a multidisciplinary artist, clothing maker, and tattooist living in Baltimore Maryland. She was born in Dallas, Texas under the 7th house in the sign sagittarius. She received her BFA in Interdisciplinary Sculpture at The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2020. Kira also attended The Glasgow School of Art for Sculpture and Environmental Art and participated in residencies at the Yale Norfolk School of Art at and Korea National University of the Arts in Seoul. Her work explores the physics of abstract interaction through the synthesis of fantasy, mysticism, and natural science to ask questions like how does language move? Does it share a horse’s gait, or dissipate like an aerosol perfume? ​

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