Transcending the Transactional—Part II
The Art vs. Content Question, Continued
Below is a conversation about Content vs. Art which(creator of The Commonplace) and I began last summer via email. You can find Part I here. I’ve removed the paywall from the archived post for those new to the topic.
A Dialogue with Thomas J. Bevan (Continued)
Luke: A lot has happened in the world since we did part I of "Transcending the Transactional" last summer. One of the things I have in mind is the rise of generative A.I. Have you come to think of the "art versus content" question any differently over this past year?
TJB: If anything it’s just entrenched my position further! The rise of generative A.I. has coincided with a personal decision of mine (which we can discuss) to opt out (as much as is feasible) of using the internet as a means of gaining information and staying up to date with world events. For me the internet as a source is something that you can no longer trust implicitly. Perhaps it never was. Virtually everything online is either obviously fake, potentially fake or is created out of motives which I believe to be fake, which is to say inauthentic.
A.I. is just an accelerant for a process that was already a feature of online life, as far as I can see. The promise of A.I.- that it will snowball in sophistication and power such that it can do all that a human can do is false in my opinion. This is a metaphysical and spiritual belief of mine, it is more instinct and intuition than provable premise. But I stand by it. A.I. cannot rise to the level of human, is my contention. Instead A.I. can only get cleverer at simulating the appearance of humanity in a way that is commensurate with how humans are increasingly sinking to the level of machines.
And given that I hold this opinion/worldview/prejudice A.I. doesn’t hold much interest for me as something to write about or engage in. I want to be more present in my ordinary life. This is my only real goal in life. A.I. and VR and metaverses and social media and streaming services and all the rest of it seem to be an impediment to this.
So to get back to your question, I can’t see how anyone can create anything, certainly nothing that could hold its head high and call itself art, with all of these things buzzing away and vying for your attention. I can’t help but see them as being monkey paws for the would-be artist. Most screen-based tech distracts you of the process of creativity. Generative A.I. robs you of all of the worthwhile struggles and triumphs of creating something. No thanks.
I'm with you. I've followed the ridiculous hype train for this past year, and anthropological confusion is astounding. But enough with A.I. Let's turn to politics.
Luke: I've never seen so many Very Online, "new public intellectuals", spouting off with long political treatises and policy proposals which all have the feel to me of content. Some of them even seem to be trying to be intentionally cringe because being cringe gets engagement. So does saying outlandish things, racist things, or things which are obviously put out there for the sheer exhilaration (on the part of these grifters) of being talked about. I sometimes feel like I'm being assaulted on every side by superficial shit dressed up and disguised as serious thinking, and people can no longer tell the difference. Okay, all of that is just a preamble to my actual question: what does the art vs. content question have to do with politics? This dialogue is titled Transcending the Transactional, Part II—and one way that I think of this is that all politics seems to have become transactional, but it need not be. In other words, even politics has been subsumed into the Content Bubble. (Which may not be a bubble at all, maybe it can keep on going for far longer than I thought; but dear God, I hope not.) How do you view the political questions in regards to content?
TJB: Politics, at least on the internet, is an engine for content generation. That’s all it is, just a hot air machine.
Maybe out in the real world of town hall meetings and voting and protests and boycotts and all the rest of it politics is still a genuine activity, but online it is a genre, a particular mode of participating in the attention economy.
The way it works is this- you have two sides which last time I looked were labeled The Left and The Right, The Woke and The Anti-Woke and other such things. The names may have changed now. But it doesn’t matter. The point is that you have these two opposing sides- one believes in the philosophical concept of Idealism (a.k.a Postmodernism, which states that there are no universals, only differing opinions) while the other believes in Realism (the idea that we can derive accurate information and knowledge about the shared external world via our senses). These are two metaphysical positions and as such are intractable. But- and this is the beauty of the trick- they are framed as political difference. And thus the two groups will never stop arguing or come to any resolution or reconciliation. It will just go on and on forever, a perpetual motion engine of memes and think pieces and other forms of bullshit. If one were conspiratorially inclined they might argue that this is a supreme example of divide and conquer, of distraction and of engineering unceasing states of anger, stress and dissatisfaction which are all prove to be effective for both economic growth via rampant consumerism and for keeping people’s eye of the ball while more wealth is transferred from the poor to the rich. That’s an argument that you could make. Me, I couldn’t possibly comment.
But the point is that we can only move on from this endless Red vs Blue back-and-forth when this fundamental metaphysical difference is framed as such and not just as a political difference. Or when a critical mass of people stop engaging in this nonsense, stop giving it energy and attention. The only thing the Attention Economy can’t absorb or co-opt or take advantage of is people ignoring.
This is a clue to how you move beyond Content. You create and consume Art- something that aims at timelessness, at the human condition itself, at the world of real people living away from this fake Black Mirror internet reality. These slower and more human activities rekindle your attention and allow you to aim it in directions that are actually beneficial to you.
Luke: "Slower and more human activities" reminds me of the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy. It's an entirely non-political approach to engaging the real and, in some sense, re-educating the senses. Developing a sensitivity to the real. One pattern I have noticed among fans of the new Nietszchean strain of politics—on the right, Bronze Age Pervert is one of the more influential proponents of this—is that fans describe these ideas as energizing (okay—energising, for you). Perhaps that's partly because they preach a return to raw physicality: strength, power, sexuality. In a world that is becoming increasingly abstract, I think that is part of its attraction. Don't get me wrong: I find it repulsive on a number of levels. I'm just trying to make sense of it. My question is this: why is the real—the kind that you and I are talking about—not as energizing for many people? Is this due to a kind of organ failure? I suppose my phrasing may be begging the question: perhaps it's wrong to assume that energising is what people should even be after in the first place, but I have heard this language used to describe the titillation from content so often lately that I think it may open up some avenues for exploration for us. If Content is Energizing, then what is Art?
TJB: There’s a lot to discuss there and you could take that in a hundred different directions. Now, I don’t know what a Bronze Age Pervert is exactly so I’m not going to speculate about that much. My limited experience with self-described Nietzschians from first year philosophy classes was that all of the ubermensch discussion was a pep talk to themselves to compensate for them being physically frail, socially awkward and resentful about those two things. Unwilling to take on the humbling work of personal growth and change and instead seeing everything as being solely the world’s fault and believing that they would be great and revered if only they lived in a different era. I’m not going to tar this Bronze Age Pervert person with that brush because I know nothing about his work (and am not especially motivated to find out to tell you the truth) but that’s what ‘Nietzschean vitalism’ brings to mind for me. Perhaps I’m way out of line.
Anyway. The heart of your question was why do people seek ‘energising’ Content- or feel energised by it- versus the comparatively slower and duller pleasures of the world away from screens? A big question. Well, I think the issue is that essentially everything online is pornography, virtually everything we imbibe via the internet acts as a super-stimulant that messes with the human appetite and sense of perspective. Like junk food all of these platforms and their Content spew out the equivalent of Frankenfoods, morsels precisely engineered to elicit the maximal dose of (addiction causing) stimulus.
So the ‘organ that’s failing’ is the brain, is the dopaminergic reward system and it is being worn out through overuse. It’s a truism that gets dismissed because it is so obvious but looking at dozens and dozens of copulating ‘pornstars’ can’t be good for your brain just as mainlining hundreds of half-baked hot takes, context-striped news clips, rage-inducing anecdotes and envy-inducing and meticulously crafted ‘candid’ instagram posts in a single multi-hour doomscrolling session can’t be good for your psyche and your neurochemistry. This is stressful, and as you become increasingly detached from your own physical body and lived reality this stress could easily be mislabelled as ‘energising’. I’m sure crack feels energising once the first rock of the day hits and takes away the growing withdrawal symptoms.
People know something is wrong with how we are living but because the internet is the source of all of our information we ‘look up’ how to cure Content caused issues and are simply presented with more Content to consume. The cycle continues.
Real life is the only true solution I can see. ‘Touch grass’ is a flippant critique thrown at the Terminally Online (often among themselves as part of the Perpetual Motion Engine of Bullshit endless debates that I mentioned in the last question) but it is sound advice. When you unplug you soon regain your perspective and find ‘normal’ stimuli- witnessing nature, reading physical books, having a face to face conversation and so on- engaging and rewarding again. From this vantage point you can find both the creation and consumption of Art possible. Art is not ‘energising’ (which as I said is a mislabelling of acute and chronic stress responses) but it is nourishing, for lack of a better term.
Funnily enough Nietzsche knew all of this. He was a prodigious hiker and he railed against writing in stuffy libraries and creating books constructed from the borrowed opinions of others. Books about books sound to me like the 19th century precursor to Content Creation and Content Curation and Reaction Videos and Hot Takes and all the rest of it. So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Nietzsche himself on account of all of the Nietzscheans who have followed in his wake.
Luke: One can never dismiss Nietzsche. René Girard thought he was so important—a thinker who alone saw things about Christianity that everyone before him had missed—that Nietzsche is really the only philosophy he seems to feel the need to grapple with directly, with great force. He dedicates the last chapter of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning to Nietzsche's enduring influence. It's devastating—and, in my opinion, the most important thing Girard ever wrote. This makes me realize I need to read a good biography of Nietzsche. I'd like to understand the specific ways that he thought of himself as a non-conformist. I didn't know the part about him not liking to write in stuffy libraries.
My next question is about transactional relationships. We've all heard that term. I think of transactional work relationships. But friendships, even family relationships, can be just as transactional. What are the signs of a transactional relationship? And how does one transcend that mode of relating? I'm asking the question here, in the context of this broader art vs. content discussion, because I wonder if art is an important component of a non-transactional relationship between two people. What do you think?
TJB: Nietzsche’s thoughts on tech are covered in Nate Anderson’s In Emergency, Break Glass: What Nietzsche Can Teach Us About Joyful Living in a Tech-Saturated World, which is worth reading in spite of that Tedtalkesque subtitle. And yeah, Nietzsche needs to be wrestled with, we all live in the shadow of his influence and exhibit many signs of being the Last Men who he was so concerned about us devolving into.
But let’s switch from that cheery topic to the equally cheery topic of transactional relationships! Transaction relationships can be hard to define partly, I fear, because they are so ubiquitous.