I am going to talk about hyperstition. It is a term we used only once in the original Xenofeminism text, but it was lurking around quite a bit during the writing and I think is worth thinking through. I think it is very seductive as an idea, but I will argue it is also limited in what it can do and who can use it as a tool and when.1
To briefly summarize what hyperstition is, I will quote Nick Land from an interview by Delphi Carstens. Land defines it as:
‘… a positive feedback circuit … It can be defined as the experimental (techno-)science of self-fulfilling prophecies. Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hyperstitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality. Capitalist economics is extremely sensitive to hyperstition, where confidence acts as an effective tonic, and inversely. The (fictional) idea of Cyberspace contributed to the influx of investment that rapidly converted it into a technosocial reality.’2
So for me a big part of the seduction of hyperstition and why I wanted to understand it, was that it seemed to be a way to think time outside of its perceived linearity, and how that could have real effects. Time can be understood as a system to measure rates of change and/or the experience of duration (among other things, depending on what context you are speaking about it). It can be a very tricky thing to define, as St. Augustine said in the 5th century, “If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I know not.”3
But the ways in which we act in the world — these actions have agency and appear to happen in time, in one direction; we take action, it has an effect, linear causality. This thing in the present is happening because of that thing that happened in the past; this thing I am doing now, will effect things tomorrow and so on. Hyperstition is this linearity springing out of joint; it alludes to time travel and time bending, retro-causality; it alludes to alternate temporal directions, and the ability to produce effects in the wrong order — an order that runs counter to our daily lived experience of time.
So do we leave hyperstition in the realm of fiction or is it worth looking at in the real? Or is the very point of it that it functions as a fiction that fabricates the real? If this is the case, I would argue it can only happen under certain conditions. I will come to this side of the argument in a moment, but if we think about the real possibilities of time springing out of joint, which is where my curiosity about the concept of hyperstition began, I would like to briefly glance at the sciences.
There is substantial argument that time does in fact, independent of the human, function in some very counter-intuitive and counter-experiential ways. For example, on a very fundamental level, if one is to look at the basic laws of physics, ‘(they) are symmetric with respect to time — namely, they remain unchanged if we reverse the flow of time’4
Physicist Julian Barbour presents the idea that time does not exist at all but is instead, an infinite number of instances all co-existing, memory being a quality of a particular instant rather than a causal remnant of a past event.5 So hyperstition, if we are to follow it into some sort of ‘stranger than fiction’ type of thinking with regard to science, would seem to fit best within Barbour’s conception of (non)time — that hyperstition could exist as some sort of special privilege of hacking into other instances in the giant block of the universe and that somehow you could hack your way in or out of these laws of physics. It doesn’t really hold up though; it all starts to look like a house of cards. Just because the laws of physics are symmetrical with respect to time does not mean that one can hack one’s way in and out of them like some sci-fi dark web anti-hero (as appealing as this scenario may be). And though science does indeed get very odd and counter-intuitive (and this, in my opinion, is where it can be very interesting/exciting), it does not mean that things which are experientially intuitive are necessarily not the case, or the persistence of time’s appearance is an illusion preventing us from understanding its reality.
With an alternative view to Barbour, physicist Lee Smolin argues for the reality of time. He claims that
“Temporal naturalism holds that all that is real (i.e. the natural world) is real at a moment of time, which is one of a succession of moments. The future is not real and there are no facts of the matter about it. The past consists of events or moments which have been real, and there is evidence of past moments in presently observable facts such as fossils, structures, records, etc. Hence there are statements about the past that can have truth values, even if they refer to nothing presently real”6
If we accept this understanding of time, hyperstition can exist exclusively as a fiction — there is no retro-causality coming from a real future that already exists. But what if we flip the last sentence to read:
‘there are statements about the future than can have truth values, even if they refer to nothing presently real.’
This seems to be possible; this seems to happen. For example, when projections are made about possible futures and those projections in turn effect actions in the present then this is a case of a future having a truth value, though it is a projection of the future happening in the present, not the future itself causing effects in the present. We can see this in derivatives markets, where the agreement to buy or sell an asset in the future at a certain price (there-by determining a future price of the thing itself) affects how that thing is traded in fact today.7 This projected future takes on a truth value because it effects things in the present. But it does not exist as a truth value in the future, or not yet anyway, and it doesn’t matter if that future actually comes to pass or not, because it has already had its moment of truth by altering the present (which, by the time the projection is seen to become real or not, the truth value of it is in the past).
Claims for the reality of time are strong, despite the weird and wonderful paradoxes it leads to. For example, if we look at the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which is a physical law that only goes in one temporal direction, it isn’t reversible, so becomes a very good marker of an arrow of time8. But, if this is the case, one puzzle is how complex life or any ‘thing’ at all (all ‘things’ here defined as complex objects having low entropy) came to be in the first place, arriving as they did from a high entropy soup of particles in space? If we are to believe in the existence of time, and entropy as its marker, how did this space dust coalesce into complexity, into something that can have consciousness? Why is there something instead of nothing? According to astrophysicist Mario Livio it is due to the expansion of the universe itself. The entropy of the whole system increases through the expansion of space (in time?9) so order (areas of low entropy) is left by this expansion and gravity congeals it into yet more ordered bits.10
Physics and thinking of the effects of the expansion of the universe may seem remote, bearing little relation to lived experience, but this question of time’s existence as an objective reality and/or a product of consciousness lays a foundation for our convictions regarding our ability to affect the future or not. Smolin speaks at length about some of the consequences of time’s existence as an objective reality for lived experience. Clearly summing up the issue, he says:
“How can we get rid of the conceptual structure of a divided and hierarchical world separating the natural and the artificial? To escape this trap, we need to see everything in nature, including ourselves and our technologies, as time-bound and part of a larger, ever evolving system. A world without time is a world with a fixed set of possibilities that cannot be transcended. If, on the other hand, time is real and everything is subject to it, then there is no fixed set of possibilities and no obstacle to the invention of genuinely novel ideas and solutions to problems. SO to move beyond the distinction between the natural and artificial and to establish systems that are both, we have to situate ourselves in time”11
If one, given the evidence for its existence, accepts the directionality of time (despite all the paradoxes that exist within it given our current knowledge), then hyperstition remains a utilization of fictions in the present to alter a reality in the future and/or fictions about the future to alter reality in the present (and in turn the future), some of which will be more successful than others. In many cases this will be proportional to the power and authority held by those trying to substantiate these fictions.
There are a few examples I would like to speak about that seem very close to what hyperstition does, or how it operates as a fiction to effect reality. The first relates directly to my own practice as an artist and is more about what hyperstition feels like, than what it in fact is. If one is having a great day in the studio, the things that get made do not feel like they are coming from you, the maker. It feels much more akin to archaeology, like you are discovering something that already exists. This, I’m sure, is the case for many other fields that have invention or the discovery of novelty at their core12.Returning to the same interview of Land (quoted above) he goes on to say this:
John Carpenter’s (film) In the Mouth of Madness includes the (approximate) line: “I thought I was making it up, but all the time they were telling me what to write.” This line operates at an extraordinary pitch of hyperstitional intensity. From the side of the human subject ‘beliefs’ hyperstitionally condense into realities, but from the side of the hyperstitional object (the Old Ones), human intelligences are mere incubators through which intrusions are directed against the order of historical time. The archaic hint or suggestion is a germ or catalyst, retro-deposited out of the future along a path that historical consciousness perceives as technological progress.13
This is a wonderfully evocative idea, of things being retro-deposited out of the future, and as a fiction it’s great, but I think it is important it isn’t understood as a program, or a way to move forward. This may be what it feels like when one is ‘in the zone’, when things you are working on are going well, but it is not really what is happening. Depending on whether the claim of these ‘intrusions’ from 5 min/5 hours/300years in the future or ‘hyperstitional objects brought into being’ are seen to happen by some external force or by a future version of the human in question (your future self telling you what to do). Either way, it turns the labor of thinking, rationality and construction of a future into a mysticism. If it remains in the theological realm, rather than giving us access to understanding the reality of time slipping out of joint, it will merely be a distraction both from understanding the possible counter-intuitive/counter-experiential paradoxes within the nature of time, as well as a distraction from the possibility for human agency to change what the future is by design.
This is not to say the idea of hyperstition needs to be thrown out entirely. It can still be useful, but it makes me wonder who is best positioned to use it?
This brings me to the second example of where I see hyperstition working/operating, in fact rather than in appearance. I am arguing that it is closer to marketing or gossip, or indeed hype, than it is to time bending. And to use hype well and productively, it is helpful to already have some power, or agency. What hyperstition can do when it is coupled with power and/or capital, is create a reality from thin air – from nothing, from rumour. It is this coupling with power, though perhaps not an essential ingredient, which will help change something from a fantasy projection of a future to a form of hyperstition by actually bringing it into being. This is always easier with money and power behind you.
As an example, I turn to a journalistic anecdote from New York Times journalist Ron Suskind. He describes an encounter with a (Bush) white house aide, I believe later attributed to Karl Rove. In his article Suskind says:
“…he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency. The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”14
So this to me sounds like Landian hyperstition; it is a making of the future, it is a future arching backwards to bring itself into being, but only because the agents in this story already have the power to make the reality they describe happen so it can be seen to be arching backward, bringing itself into being. Those of us in the ‘reality based community’ have far more limited access to that kind of hyperstitional construction. Suskind says he believes that this gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency, but I think it may actually get to the heart of power more generally. It may be constitutive of what power is. The ability to make the future is power, and how wide that reality or future spans can be said to be a measure of power.
An additional example of this can be seen in the promotional (some would argue propaganda) videos for Lockheed Martin (LM).
LM is an American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies company and it is the world’s largest defense contractor. It gets almost 10% of the Pentagon budget and 78% of its contracts are from military sales, though they do also invest in healthcare systems, renewable energy systems, intelligent energy distribution and compact nuclear fusion.15
The video itself begins with what we presume to be father and daughter gliding smoothly along in a driverless car gazing on casually as the ‘routine flight to Mars’ goes up. We learn by the end that they are on their way to pick up who we presume to be mom who works at the Skunk Works (LM’s advance development program), ‘harnessing the tides’ and ‘creating limitless energy from fusion reactors’, oh and also re-inventing all sorts of military craft, though these get a disproportionately small amount of air time. There is however one bit where the voiceover says: “it’s why we’re always thinking of new ways to prevent the unthinkable” paired with an image of a fighter jet being blown out of the sky. We are not sure what the unthinkable is here — are we the pilot? Are we civilians on the ground about to have our house bombed by that pilot? Either way, the implication is that this violence is for the good, as is Lockheed Martin. It is a promo-vid after all. It’s not going to show the reality of what happens with that 78%, but it is in its promo-ness that it is hyperstitional. I’m not sure who this video is for – us I guess, the public. But importantly, it creates an image of what LM do and how they make the future and make it better, and some of that might even be true, insofar as limitless energy is indeed more likely to come from somewhere with this type of budget. The focus is on all these wonderful future visions that are made real through ‘physics, material science, technology and engineering’ and ‘obsessing over things most people only imagine.’ And yet, there is still that pesky 78% that is going towards efforts to protect this set of interests (or humans) over another set of interest (or humans).
Even culturally there is something that seems familiar and appealing about the whole Skunk Works thing. They say things like working at the Skunk Works is great because it is a ‘risk tolerant environment’ and we are encouraged to ‘look beyond the next thing’ and “We wanna do what’s radical” but this is what we as ‘creatives’ are raised on, this is what we do, we ‘think different’ right?16 Well, guess who else does?Lockheed Martin.
So Karl Rove is not kidding when he says ‘We’re history’s actors’. The things that get made at Skunk Works are, in fact, amazing as technology and examples of what humans can do/make, but the reality of the politics involved, (which is, of course, less visible in the videos) is a disaster if you are want to build a politics of egalitarian justice or fancy yourself being ‘on the left’. The politics that is visible in these videos is propagandistic. There is a seamless swaying between this technology for the development of humans on and off the planet but also the destruction of particular pockets of humans.
These videos are hyperstional. They image a future, and they help that future come into existence in the real, and they do this not through mysticism but through making a propositional future seem appealing and even necessary enough to the right constituency to make sure they have the funding needed to bring itself into being. Of course it is not done just through these videos, but they are part of a larger program that is/does hyperstition in a way that we mere mortals can only dream of. This is hyperstition, the future seeding itself, a future fiction bringing itself into being, through and for power.
The question we are left with is what fictions get uptake and why? Is it as simple as having an enormous budget? Does it need to have the financing of the US department of defense to do it, and to have wide effects?
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams begin their recent book Inventing the Future with a sort of lament, saying:
“Where did the future go? For much of the 20th century the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizon of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and liberating potential of technology. From predictions of new worlds of leisure, to Soviet-era cosmic communism, to afro-futurist celebrations of the synthetic and diasporic nature of black culture, to post-gender dreams of radical feminism, the popular imagination of the left envisaged societies vastly superior to anything we dream of today.”17
Though I agree with much of the thesis of their book which avows technology and complexity as potential vectors of emancipation and indeed claims it as a course of the left, on this point about envisioning a future, I disagree. The visions of the future they list are not more visionary than what Lockheed Martin is presenting us with. The visions Srnicek and Williams present and the politics on which they rest are closer to something one can avow and stand with, but the future defined by the LM video is not lacking in form and articulation. The problem is not the lack of vision in general but that vision belongs to a reprehensible ideology and a politics of and for power.
So where does this leave us? In the XF manifesto we reject both illusion and melancholy, which, when faced with this problematic, is a challenge. It is a claim that needs to be continually worked and redefined since the temptation of both are so strong. When constructing the future, it is good to know what you are up against. This is what we are up against, and my question is: how can one have a Skunk Works of the left?
I support Srnicek and Williams’ ideas about repurposing technology for different ends,18 I think it is possible and necessary, and I would concede that changes in the cultural field do affect how tech plays out, what is acceptable or desirable and what gets developed as a result, but I think that relying on this is insufficient, and probably becoming more so. Hacking is one route, but I don’t think that is a sufficient plan either. Changes need to be considered more structurally.
Skynet,19 however, need not be the sole trajectory. I don’t see a good reason as to why these technologies cannot be used for projects that could be emancipatory, but the task is to try to think about how that could happen, and I don’t just mean the leaps of imagination around what tech can do. Although that will be quite a task, it is relatively manageable.
The greater challenge is how it can be made attractive to the right constituency to support the research and development necessary to advance this kind of tech if it’s not governmental or military. Does it need to be state-led? Are there ways to change what the state is, to make it more focused on development of the human while maintaining a commitment to egalitarianism and justice, rather than sinking disproportionate percentages of budgets into the future of weaponry, using axioms based on an antiquated foreign policy locked in a Westphalian logic of national sovereignty?20
If we are to take seriously what is and what ought to be, how change happens and the fact that change is possible at all, then we presume temporal direction, we presume (in line with Smolin) that the future does not yet exist. Nothing is going to mystically retro-seed itself into being. If we accept the reality of time, we can accept the idea that the future can be made. It is constructed, so all the more urgent are the questions of how, by and for whom?
1 The following text is adapted from a talk presented as a member of Laboria Cuboniks for the Futures & Fictions Series – Visual Cultures Public Program, Goldsmiths College, London on December 10, 2015.
Laboria Cuboniks is a collective of 6 women across 5 countries who share a commitment to rationalism as a vector of emancipation seeking to define a feminism adequate to the globality and complexity of contemporary life. They met in Berlin in 2014 and published Xenofeminism-A Politics of Alienation in 2015.
2”Hyperstition: An Introduction”, Delphi Carstens interviews Nick Land, 2009, accesed 26th of February 2016 http://merliquify.com/blog/articles/hyperstition-an-introduction/.
3St. Augustine. Confessions (New York: Macmillan 1912), 239. Can be accesed online: Book XI, chapter XIV, http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/augconfessions/bk11.html
4 Mario Livio, The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant and the Beauty of the Cosmos (New York: John Meily and Sons Inc., 2000), 74.
5Julian Barbour, The End of Time, The Next Revolution in our Understanding of the Universe (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999), 53-56
6Lee Smolin and Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015), 361.
7 Suhail Malik, “Ontology of Finance,” Collapse VIII (2014), 687-688.
8The law itself basically says that everything in the universe moves to a higher entropic state, so a human, an apple, or a car, would have low entropic states compared to the same set of particles that make up these things floating around as individual particles through the vastness of space. There is, however, negentropy as well, but this functions under very limited cases or subsystems.
9 This is my insertion —, it is not addressed in Livio’s explanation. It represents a genuine question for me. I believe the answer to be ‘yes, in time’ but don’t have sufficient information — could also be space-time.
10 I want to include an explanation of this idea, which in short is: we can thank our existence to the fact that the universe is expanding. It is elegantly and simply articulated by:
Mario Livio, The Accelerating Universe: Infinite Expansion, the Cosmological Constant and the Beauty of the Cosmos (New York: John Meily and Sons Inc., 2000), 79.
Here he explains: “The Maximal value that the entropy can attain depends on the size of the system. In a larger container, the entropy of a gas in thermal equilibrium is larger than in a small one. The expansion of the universe can allow the entropy to grow. This could explain why the cosmological and thermodynamic arrows point in the same direction — the increase in the size of the universe is accompanied by an increase in the entropy…As the universe expands, two things happen: The matter and radiation continuously become more dilute and cool down, and the maximal value that the entropy can attain is continuously increasing (with the increasing size). Due to the dilution and cooling, the rates of all that atomic and nuclear processes that result from collisions among particles are reduced, as the matter spreads thinner and the random motion of these particles becomes less and less agitated. From a certain point on, these processes could not keep up with the expansion, and the actual entropy of the universe started falling behind the maximal possible entropy. The increasing gap between the actual disorder and the maximally possible disorder simply means that order could appear on different scales. Gravity also played a crucial role in the emergence of cosmic structure. Gravity is responsible for the fact that small clumps of matter became increasingly dense…”
11Lee Smolin, Time Reborn (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 257.
12 Mathematics being the most extreme example. If it is accepted that mathematical truths are discovered, not invented, it would be interesting to see what the brain is up to during these moments of discovery, comparing neuro-biology during moments of mathematical discovery to similar moments of artistic or conceptual discovery/invention as a means to help to understand what we can know, what we can understand, what we have the capacity to know and how it happens.
13”Hyperstition: An Introduction”, Delphi Carstens interviews Nick Land, 2009, accessed 26th of February 2016, http://merliquify.com/blog/articles/hyperstition-an-introduction/
14Ron Suskind, “Faith Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
16 Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, “Magic”, accessed on 26th of February 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fbgUOWVi9g.
17 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future -Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015), 1.
18 Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, in: #ACCELERATE: The Accellerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014).
19Skynet is a fictional conscious, artificial general intelligence system that features centrally in the Terminator franchise and serves as the franchise’s main antagonist(Wikipedia)
20 “Westphalian sovereignty is the principle of international law that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law.” accessed 26th of February 2016 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westphalian_sovereignty