Masks All The Way Down

This is a guest post by James Curcio, an excerpt from MASKS: Bowie & Artists of Artifice (Intellect Books), available now

Bowie appeared unusually prescient when it came to the Internet, and what its social significance would be, though he maintained an amount of pre-millenarian utopianism. Perhaps this prescience is more akin to an optical illusion; he was already well on his way, having spent most of his life plumbing the rewards and dangers of the mask before most people had even recognized the unmooring power of anonymity or the virtual. Although an ever-shifting world of masks may be navigable to aliens like Bowie, many have not found themselves so well equipped. This is surely the fraying future society he imagined when he penned the character/interlude ‘Algeria Touchshriek’:

I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr. Walloff Domburg
A reject from the world wide Internet
He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man
It would be nice to have company
We could have great conversations
Lookin’ through windows for demons
Watchin’ the young advance in all electric 

Digitization has yet to allow us to flee our material origins. If we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. Those who go permanently offline and return to the village of the future may find it is falling in on itself, the windows cracked and soot-stained. It is eerily silent, with not even the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.

This is yet another possible guise of the end of history: We flee silence and stillness, self-medicated on endless distraction. Will the future be like a reality TV show where we compete to have human rights? Must we perform our relatability in front of a sea of semi-anonymous strangers to crowdfund our healthcare? I’m a little afraid of Americans, and a little afraid to tune in next season and find out.

It’s happening now
Not tomorrow
Not tomorrow  

Our society is experiencing a crisis along the same fault line as Bowie and Mishima’s “mask obsession”. To see it, we must broaden our gaze beyond the contours of their lives, to see how a shared ‘nostalgia for a future that never happened’, a subtle ‘form of Romanticism’ that resides sometimes at the background and sometimes in the foreground of their respective works bleeds into the crisis that is now (again) at our doorstep. 

We must recognize the ‘beauty’ of fascist fantasy that appealed to Mishima, its need to realize itself, literally, in war. The flattening of ethics into aesthetics has had repercussions that not only spanned the past century, but also helped define it. It formed the conceptual foundation of modernity, yet remains poorly understood. We all should have paid attention to the philosophical underpinnings of Mishima and Bowie’s work, as they served, if nothing else, as a sort of canary in the mineshaft. This is an attempt to begin to do exactly that.

First of all, we must recognize the nihilism that they dealt with in their art, which arose during an era when superpowers mutually exhausted one another, for surely that is a narrative that spans the globe, 1950–the present. In 1936 Walter Benjamin wrote that Europe was a society whose ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’. He concluded, ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war’. The essay that quote comes from, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’. Here we can only highlight a few salient points. Namely, authenticity, or what Benjamin refers to as the ‘aura’ of a unique work of art, is transformed by the reproducibility afforded by technology: ‘as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics’. 

Most believe life isn’t art, precisely because it lacks the mediation of artifice; “real” comes to mean “unplanned”. And therein lies our self-deception. In Goffman Erving’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, most social roles are established in a manner virtually indistinguishable from those embodied by artists. More accurately, life isn’t art because life doesn’t require the mediation of artifice to exist on its own terms. Our engagement and immersion in life will always introduce this element of suspicion in anyone self-conscious enough to recognize it. As Nietzsche claimed, ‘no artist tolerates reality’. 

An artist had best prefer the lie that tells the truth, over the truth that could never lie well enough to be of any artistic use. Bowie instructed artists to steal well and lie better, and the young Bowie in particular saw absolutely nothing as outside the realm of “source material” for his appropriation. His genuine enthusiasm, and consuming interest in the artifice of art goes a long way towards forgiving at least some of his “Warholishness”, but it raises a good question of how we determine what is “off limits” for author or artist. Some of this is attributed to style. Truman Capote’s willingness to cross these lines was legendary; much of the so-called “gang that wouldn’t write straight”, New Journalists like Tom Wolfe and most especially Hunter S. Thompson, hardly acknowledged there was a line at all. 

How can any of us ever know who we are outside the social context we are always-already engaging with? For example, go to court and refuse to address the judge as “your honour”. Is your contempt charge for refusing the judge’s pretence art, or life? This question is a thematic cornerstone of George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, especially the first and second books: the difference between a king and a beggar, a soldier and a murderer remains in the realm of performance, a kind of farcical mummers trick that we agree to play along with, if often unconsciously. Despite being a fantasy, this theme is essentially true to life. The reality of these fictions is established through history, this is the cycle of reification; even if only through the myths that codify our societies, and the way history recapitulates itself in the present through the assumptions we have built through growing up in a society based on those narratives.

This wry passage in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation paints a fine point on the almost thaumaturgic power of performance:

Simulation is infinitely more dangerous because it always leaves open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation. […] Simulate a robbery in a large store: how to persuade security that it is a simulated robbery? There is no “objective” difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or another. To the established order they are always of the order of the real. Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal).

Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible – in short, remain close to the “truth”, in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real – that is, to the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play.

A policeman seems distinct from someone merely playing at being a policeman, though it should be evident that the only difference lies in our social constructs. Certainly, there are institutional codes of conduct, but these amount to nothing more than a structure of agreement about those beliefs, which never plays out quite to spec in the real world. Art is both a form of play, and dead serious. The same might be said of our lives, and deaths. It all becomes a matter of perspective, and of ‘framing’. Hardly anyone would consider a policeman or a judge an artist, but the role is established in more or less the same way – symbols and manner of behaviour which are imbued with social significance. We can’t unearth hard and fast dichotomies without playing artist with the truth.

This seems to follow from Nietzsche’s aesthetic insight in The Birth of Tragedy, ‘Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest’. Under all this remains a pervasive anxiety about the nature of reality, and the interpretive simulacra we invariably reproduce in an effort to encounter that ultimately enigmatic figment of our collective imagination: Truth.

In Nietzsche’s subsequent work On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, he cuts to the heart of this dilemma, ‘all things are subject to interpretation, whichever interpretation prevails is a function of power and not truth’. Note that this aphorism doesn’t say ‘there is no truth’, nor does it question whether we all ultimately inhabit a single reality, only that whichever interpretation of the truth prevails is a function of power. The correspondence theory of truth claims that truth relies on an accurate, corresponding representation of reality. The authority to determine which of numerous given interpretations is a more accurate picture of reality is obviously of the utmost social importance. It is the basis of political authority, which is to say, power.

‘In modern political performances’, writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, ‘the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs and tastes – ‘ an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility’. Not only from responsibility, but also from reality. Possibly one of the most quoted poems of the previous century, Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ does a terrific job of anticipating a core anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial worlds, which is maybe not so surprising when we consider modernity coming to self-awareness in the aftermath of the First World War. That is, of course, that ‘the centre cannot hold’.

Many generations separate us now from the outcome of that apocalyptic conflict, and its sequel, yet the existential crisis, even the core political ideologies remain fundamentally the same. We may find no better presentation of the reactions to this crisis than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation – the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence, a world with nothing sacred, copies without originals. Postmodernism didn’t generally proclaim a solution, but it does uncover problems that we’ve yet to satisfactorily answer as a society. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with today’s headlines, of the collapse of consensus reality – or the consensus that there is one – into the event horizon of what author-philosopher R. S. Bakker refers to as a ‘semantic apocalypse’. People are right to feel anxious, though this particular crisis is different in quantity but not kind from the sort of unmooring and acceleration which followed the advent of the printing press.

Even the Pendulum is a false prophet. You look at it, you think it’s the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conservatoire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same. And there are other pendulums: there’s one in New York, in the UN building, there’s one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others. Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it. 

Our primary method of engagement with the world is guided by principles of appearance. From that seduction we arrive at our ideology, and around that, finally, the protestations and assurances of rationalization. At the same time, what most appeals to a given person is already influenced, if not determined, by their existing ideology. Oscar Wilde stated that ‘beauty is a kind of genius’, and the nineteenth-century Aestheticism movement sought to centralize such values, but this falls short of the scope of aesthetics’ conditioning of cultural hierarchies and power dynamics. Much of what we refer to as “culture” is a collection of implicit aesthetic assumptions. Nietzsche’s ‘moral prejudices’, developed throughout On The Genealogy of Morals, flatten in similar fashion.

Aesthetics are seen to exist as surface, “beauty is only skin deep” as the popular saying goes, so we want to dismiss the superficiality of appearances, forgetting that in the sense of Deleuze’s immanence, all that is manifest is one “surface”. Or the arresting nature of the romantic impulse taken to its extreme: to possess, to become, to halt the imperfections of nature itself, and memorialize eternity within the field of time.

But we rarely see the word “aesthetics” offline, except within the context of the philosophy of art. Aesthetics either fixates on art criticism, futile attempts at constructing a neo-Aristotelian model of “good” art, or it is constrained to the context of art museums and galleries. Art is sequestered from life. The challenging and troubling issues raised so far in this chapter rarely seem to factor into the discussion. 

Wilcken wrote of the ‘psychological key’ to Bowie’s Low, ‘Everything becomes a reflection of the self, until you lose sight of where the self stops, and the world begins’. That ‘key’ applies to much more than a single album. Despite the frequent fetishization of logic across the ideological spectrum, lay arguments “for” or “against” a book or movie, a religion, a course of action, a political platform, a way of life all arise from a valuation of appearances. Rigorous disciplines manage to reduce this effect to some extent in their specific contexts, but an astrophysicist is still unlikely to maintain a view of world history unbiased by their deepest personal preferences and biases. Our aesthetics are inculcated and determined not only by what we see, but also how we want to be seen. Organs of sense provide raw data that is ordered and interpreted before we are made aware of that interpretation.

For all that, we don’t merely replicate whatever we have been taught, as if we begin as blank slates and repeat whatever we hear without variation or truncation, nor is it only a reproduction of our organs of sense and the billions of years of evolution that stand behind them. There must be an ongoing synthesis or dialog between all of these various factors. As I explore in more detail in my book Narrative Machines, drawing from the work of Manuel Delanda, this “dialogue” between the constitutive parts of a culture behave like a complex, nonlinear system. Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight deals with the future implications of this with startling clarity:

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains – cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I. 

Aesthetics comprises a field of idealized possibilities and desires that run through the whole of our daily lives, composed among other things of what we want to see and how we want to be seen. All our ethics might amount to the attempt to make that idealized vision a reality. Language may conspire in this occult process as ‘linguistic enculturation, and the perceptual learning that’s often involved, influences and enables the mastery of aesthetic concepts’. As it occurs out of plain view, the very idea is challenging if it is properly understood. This is why it is so easy to manipulate our politics through the gradual algorithmic manipulation of our social interactions, if it can be performed “at scale” for long enough. Performance is not only play, it is an obligatory part of social life – our sense of values, of personal meaning, our hierarchies of authority and power, whether intentional or otherwise, even the pose of vulgar nihilism itself remains a performance that defines a “personal brand”.

A strange fascination emanates from ambiguity, specifically the ambiguity between aesthetics and ethics, as in the realm of human interaction all things seem and nothing is, the protestations of Hamlet be damned. There is no escape. 

If this were the whole story, then art is propaganda, and remains nothing other than an instrument of some power, and whatever reality it seeks to enforce. A popular 1984 quote lays the heart of the raison d’etre of power, considered in the singular: more of itself.

Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. 

The vested interests of powerful actors are to intentionally distort reality, possibly even to the point that there is no shared reality. This underlies the frequent accusations of fake news levelled both at and by the current president of the US. However, that obviously isn’t quite right, either. Rather, the appeal for truth in the media – whether CNN’s 2017 ‘this is an apple’ advertisement or Fox New’s old ‘fair and balanced’ – itself enters into the marketplace of ideas. 

A more apt metaphor might be a battlefield, especially when we consider the amount of capital, technology and labour that states, corporations and billionaires can throw at furthering their personal agendas. Cognitive biases, innate responses like tribalism, the myopia of fear, etc. are all leveraged via messaging, all around us, all the time. Often this reduces to an almost behaviourist, lowest-common denominator feedback loop of what excites or engages us. Renee DiResta’s 2018 essay ‘The Digital Maginot Line’ explicates the true scope of this information war, and the direction some of it is likely to take. 

It’s notable how major world events are increasingly understood in the language of television – episodes, plot arcs, major players – though this is in fact nothing new, the decentralization of media and information networks has hyperrealized the news broadcast. Consider the scheme presented in John Carpenter’s cult film They Live, as interpreted by Slavoj Žižek in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, where there is one true reality that underlies all the messages we are bombarded with. Nada puts on the glasses, and those covert messages are rendered overt. 

In the place of the soothing or arousing veneer of advertisements, he saw something quite new: ‘OBEY’ ‘CONSUME’. A libidinal, Behaviourist source code that underlies our simulation of reality.

The Perspectivist view is that reality is far more confusing and confused than any one “truth” can contain. All messages are in code, every collection of data points can be fictionalized in any number of ways. To what purpose do we select one narrative over another? Žižek gives an essentially Marxist reading of They Live, and it is a good one. But these are his “glasses”. We can just as easily imagine a Randian “Objectivist” Libertarian read of the same movie. Our biases make artists of us all; all fictions stand in for the truth as they are repetitively performed.

The cult effect takes hold once a subculture gains a certain momentum. The mainstreaming of conspiracy news should not be mysterious in light of this. We never step out of ideology, but instead merely switch one pair of glasses for another. This is the fallacy behind enlightenment or pop-cultural re-interpretations of the simple, illusory alternatives of “getting #woke” or “taking the Red Pill”.

Tricksterish hoaxes, such as the one William Boyd and Bowie pulled off by “inventing” artist Nat Tate, read very differently in the context of fake news. In 2004, Latour’s excellent essay ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ raised the point that we can see critical theory’s recognizable shadow when we encounter ‘conspiracy theory’ and the alternate realities that outsider narratives can plunge us into. Latour explains:

It has been a long time, after all, since intellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed, it has been a long time since the very notion of the avant-garde – the proletariat, the artistic – passed away, pushed aside by other forces, moved to the rearguard, or maybe lumped with the baggage train. […]

Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland. 

This critique of critical theory is aimed especially, and perhaps unfairly, at Baudrillard, ‘What has become of critique when a book that claims that no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon can be a bestseller?’ Despite Baudrillard’s rhetorical posturing, it is hard to believe he truly intended a literal interpretation of the Twin Towers being brought down by global capital alone. There may be some small sense of misguided guilt in Latour’s essay, as postmodern philosophers are not responsible for causing this epistemic crisis, even the most popular quite simply don’t have the social capital, they merely saw it around the bend a little sooner than most everyone else.

He was quite right, in any event, that a considerable amount of modern propaganda amounts to a reverse engineering of conspiracy theory thinking. We’ve actually seen it in practice for quite some time now. All the arguments engaged in for Holocaust denial, the moon landing, and so on, provide a kind of template, which are built into memetic munitions with the assistance of the postmodern theory that has gained such a nefarious reputation. So much for its supposed self-referential uselessness.

Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol, Silver Screen, can’t tell them apart at all’ is now true as a general statement about hypermodernity, despite the fact that Warhol himself reportedly didn’t like the track much at all. Whatever we think a mask means is what it means, ‘countering illusion with illusion’, now that we’ve entered what Simon Critchley refers to as a ‘post-philosophical era’. Meanwhile, on the Internet, we may have reached what Max Read called ‘the Inversion’ in a 2018 editorial on the New York Magazine, ‘Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real’. 

Berlusconi once said, ‘What is on TV exists, what is not on TV does not exist’. In his book, The Invention of Russia, Arkady Ostrovsky writes about how the Kremlin took this one step further, so that things that did not exist could appear on television, through the alchemical power of the image. All political figures engage in a form of kayfabe, and we participate as relatively minor Demiurges (creators of reality) in the realm of social media. We must remember the way that Russia has reinvented itself through myth and media, detailed in Ostrovsky’s book, which should be a touchstone in any study of current events in the US and UK as well as post-Soviet history. Though American history is equally unique in its trajectory, there are considerable overlaps with the propaganda strategy of right-wing outlets like Fox News or Infowars, and post-Soviet media, which we may discover is not entirely incidental. Whatever the outcome in the US of the Mueller investigation and subsequent impeachment attempts, we can recognize the political dangers presented by interactive media, combined with the freedoms that are risked in trying to manage them.

The methods used in creating alternate realities is also quite familiar to anyone with a background in Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), which arose in the early “Net” and zine culture of the 1980s and 1990s at the hands of people such as Joseph Matheny. However, and this is absolutely essential, the intent of these works was to broaden the scope of creative possibilities, and was never in any sense to further political objectives. Here is what he said in ‘Transmedia: Who Invited the Lobsters Anyway?’:

As one of the developers of the literary style now referred to as Transmedia, and it was started as a literary style, regardless of how Johnny-come-latelys and interlopers may attempt to spin it these days, I am here to tell you that it was never intended as yet another marketing gimmick. Hands down, no exceptions, not part of the plan.

Transmedia and its immediate predecessor, Alternate Reality Gaming are hybrids of traditional literary narrative, video game story arc, web enabled interactivity and real-life role playing games like LARPs. The original intention was to broaden and open up the storytelling process to mediums outside of the traditional publishing platforms, i.e. text/images. It was part Borges, part George Coates, part The Game (the movie with Michael Douglas) and part other things. 

This method included playing characters online, interacting IRL, and generating a self-consistent world of media that support this ‘alternate reality’. Method is ethic-agnostic, as methods and symbols can always be re-appropriated by new actors. This isn’t to say that Putin’s media network consciously co-opted ARGs (though Matheny has indicated to me that it’s not outside the realm of possibility), but rather that ARGs were a response to changing mediums, which gov-corp media machines have also come to adapt to. Of course, there is also the now infamous Internet Research Agency, which ran numerous Kremlin disinformation campaigns.

Many of Matheny’s most popular transmedia narratives, such as Ong’s Hat and El Centro, were active parodies of conspiracy thinking, at most raising the spectre of all the fictional possibilities posed by the ‘unknown unknowns’, yet they were often quickly adopted by conspiracy theorists, much to his consternation. People still hunt the pine barrens of New Jersey for the fictional Ong’s Hat.

In 2004, the signs were clear for those who knew where to look. Now we are in it. These are topsy-turvy times in even the most literal sense, so this can only serve as an instructive example. The potential for the creation of entirely fictional individuals is not new, but the danger of this being automated in video, image/text, and even audio, as so-called ‘Deepfakes’ is absolutely real. If the US government wasn’t already as fully committed to this game of asymmetrical cultural warfare as much as the Kremlin, it was purely because their position made these tactics seem unnecessary.

The future is likely to include yet more layers of fictional narrative, not less. If we recognize that reality is fundamentally a conflict over the power to define how the world is interpreted, a mythic construction, do we also recognize that it operates on dynamics that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of our dearly held moral values? We must be very careful that we do not mistake the real for reason.

Whilst the relationship between aesthetic and social value may be impenetrably problematic, it is also dynamic, fueling the systems of relations that drive capitalist society. To see how “the mask”, as wrestled with by Bowie or Mishima, has been blown up to the scale of a society-wide spectacle, some consideration must be given to the mechanism that funds social media: a simplified, gamified mirror-image of our group instincts. We perform relatability in search of approval, acceptance, even the rush of opposition and outrage, because we are social animals. This includes all forms of media, since it’s all digital narrative building of a collective sort – a profit-centric system that can be leveraged for any ideological purpose, so long as that actor has the resources to bring it about. Evolutionary biases can work against us.

We’re keyed to find threats; to have our attention drawn most by danger and intense emotions are literally a threat warning to the body that says: pay attention. The cute kittens get adopted, and the ugly ones get exterminated. Outrage becomes an end to itself in an attention economy. Either accept it outright or our outrage is sold back to us as a product, which fuels our compulsive use of social media to signal our opposition. We read what we read, or vote for who we vote for because of what that image represents to us.

All social behaviour can be manipulated, because we have come to understand that members of society should be evaluated entirely based on economies of relational value. A baby’s cry is a crowbar , a form of leverage. Beauty – or really any aesthetic qualities that we valorize – can manufacture economies fueled by the “push and pull” of desire and shame. It’s easy to spot in fashion magazines marketed for women, but it isn’t just coincidence that the men Michelangelo sculpted look like they could bench press a house. The knife cuts both ways. Neither the reductive, often quite misogynistic narratives of evo-psychology that claim men are genetically programmed to want sex with all blonde-haired, blue-eyed, leggy supermodels, nor the feel-good, lip-service of easy equality and “everyone is beautiful” campaigns, “won” before the battle is ever actually waged, actually engages with the reality of beauty – its inscrutability, its arresting power of fascination, the ways it defines our values despite ourselves. Construct an aesthetic as a rebellion against, and you’ve only managed to identify a new niche market that can be exploited. So much for the revolutionary possibilities of commoditized counter-culture.

Facebook’s entire front-facing business model claims to be about the all-mighty ‘Connection’. This was quite intentional. Sean Parker, who served as the first president of Facebook, spoke to this in November of 2017 in an interview on Axios, and it is indicative of all we know about the social engineering that has gone into creating this business. 

The opiate of narrative keeps us clicking. The hunger in us that seeks validation, recognition and amplification – the same craving that draws artists to an audience and vice versa – is bait on the hook, and Silicon Valley is holding the fishing rod. We ask our collected pantheons of branded media to show us who we are, and hear nothing in reply except the far off sound of a cash register dinging. Our post-industrial world is based upon utter reproducibility, and so we find that our identities are constantly at threat of utter commodification.

As we drill down into the feedback mechanisms employed by the designers of these platforms, we are finding it re-enforcing a sort of aesthetic “hygiene” as utilitarian capitalist logic is increasingly applied to social interactions of all kinds – self-selecting the people we follow and oppose based on the messages they signal with, and more specifically, the virtues implicitly extolled thereby. We engage with our idea of what strangers represent, rather than with them as people. Meanwhile, ‘virtue signaling’ is used as a common attack against activists, as if having virtues was the problem. Our digital shadow forms yet another mask: psychological profiles based on the phase space of our behavior, constructed through years of constant interaction with our smartphones, tablets and computers. The real-world risks here should be quite evident, after a genocide was incited on Facebook, at least in part by posts from Myanmar’s military. It is unlikely it will be the last.

How we got here is a long story in its own right, but perhaps one of the clearest examples can be seen in the adoption of a now doubly famous mask by the leaderless movement, Anonymous, both in its mythic meaning and in the truth behind it. In books such as Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, and Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, we saw the best parts of the movement came to embody an approach to activism based on the theory that, although there are bad actors online, in aggregate people are fundamentally good, the “wisdom of crowds”, and so on. The many various and disparate people involved in these movements also experienced the protection of anonymity – a kind of mask that people can use for a variety of purposes online.

In return, that mask became symbolic quite literally of the movement. According to Nagle in that book:

[I]n many of the events that were considered part of the leaderless revolution narrative […] the Guy Fawkes mask was adopted as a central symbol. But the online origins of the mask and the politically fungible sensibilities that can be traced back through the mask should have offered a clue that another very different variety of leaderless online movement had potential to brew.

Many thought anonymity would be freedom, and discovered something quite different. However, Gregg Housh, who became one of the more public faces of the Anonymous movement, explained to me just how much mythology played a role in this “history”:

Nagle, like many others, has this romantic view of the mask and its use throughout a lot of modern activism. I wish I could tell you a great story involving feelings, emotions, car chases. But I can’t. Here is how the Guy Fawkes mask was chosen for the first large, worldwide, Anonymous protest in February 2008. We had no idea what we were doing. We were a small group of Anons from 4chan sitting on IRC and accidentally starting this whole Anonymous thing with a few posts and a video (the Message to Scientology). With no knowledge of how to do any of the things we were about to do, we just stumbled along.

At one point we decided that having 10,000+ people on an IRC server waiting for instructions, we should ask them to protest worldwide in a few weeks time. Having no idea what we were doing made this easy for us. We had no reason to think we were making horrible mistakes, but we absolutely were. We needed more time to plan, more time to organize and far more time to figure out how to protest. Without that, we just made it up as we went along. About a week into planning, the small chat channel that was organizing all of this (#marblecake) ran into a problem. We wanted everyone in the world to have some sort of single image to unify the protests. Events were going to be happening in 142 cities in 43 countries. We quickly realized we had a problem with shipping. In a lot of those cities we didn’t have time to get anything shipped to these cities if people ordered them. A group of us spent almost 24 hours straight calling comic book shops, costume shops, and other stores in every major city in the world. We started in Sydney, Australia and ended in Los Angeles.

In the end we only found one mask in stock and cheap in every city we called: The Guy Fawkes mask. We went back to the others in our little group and told them the news. This was a completely practical and logical decision with nearly no emotion. After that we made a bunch of material to put out that asked everyone to use the Guy Fawkes mask. Lucky for us, everyone seemed to love it. The mask itself took off after that and started being used in protests and movements all over the world.

Like any myth, the symbol of the mask fulfills a psychological need, one that is deeply linked to the massive challenges our societies are currently experiencing, and will likely continue to experience in the near future. It is masks all the way down. Deleuze’s statement in Difference and Repetition, ‘The masks do not hide anything but other masks […] The same thing is both disguising, and disguised,’ begins to make more sense. In this “future” we have come to inhabit; identity is both performance and commodity. The virtual can only usurp the manifest by trading place with reality, which is to say, consuming increasing shares of our attention.

Identity is tattooed on emptiness; a series of potentials, variations on a theme. Many iterations, simulacra blindly wandering in an orbit around the black sun, that locus of the unseen and unheard, the subconscious of surrealists and land of the dead, Burrough’s ‘Western Lands’. But what gods (and demons), we can invent from our reflections.

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  1. White_Rabbit says

    When simulations are too realistic…