(Im)probability, Post-sublimity and Recognition

Matt Nish-Lapidus

Continually reduced to knowing
inorganic sublimity, blurred edges and hard corners
Californian fields
required for entry.
Do you remember how to identify
trees, trucks, bikes
loose ends?
Ancient and forgetful, operating
clear, followable.

For the last one
just put in whatever you
even if it
is just close enough
to know
that the light is not the sun
and the light is not the sky
and the light is not the gods
who can't save you, don't want to
who can't even see you
through the density
of our collection.

As one we conflate
sometimes many for a few
and other times
too specific
close to home, but not
a waste-land, cold

The cultural primacy and predictability of modern rationalism and individualism grinds to a halt when the improbable become probable—the (im)probable. As Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “the bourgeois belief in the regularity of the world has been carried to the point of derangement.” 1  We cling to our rational view of the world even as it burns around us, infected by novel viruses both biological and memetic.
The contemporary world is one of assemblages, object aggregates existing at a level of complexity that elude apprehension from an individual perspective. These things are more than the thing itself, they are abjectly boundary-less. They exist beyond notions of inside and outside—porous Möbius surfaces with shifting boundaries that perpetually consume and reject human actors, who leave a little bit of themselves behind with each interaction.

The mathematic sublime stems from our ability to compare—how do we know the mountain is sublimely large if not for smaller things?2 The dynamic sublime emerges from a priori principles, cultural foundations.3 Both of these become fragmented and lose their points of reference, in the face of assemblages so large and new that we lack any way to compare them by scale, or understand them from existing cultural, or natural, principles and perceptions.

002 This is the age of the (im)probable—events, things, circumstances that evade prediction and fundamentally challenge the primacy of rationality, the regularity of bourgeois life. These are world altering things. Some arrive fast, as if unleashed by a game-player set to wipe the board. Some arrive gradually, so slowly that we can’t comprehend the change until retrospection. Both fast and slow confound our complex systems of foresight, which have come to rely too heavily on reductive computational models rooted in a rational mechanic of reality. Nassim Nicholas Taleb called these “black swans”4 —something that is both high profile and hard to predict; is not computationally modelable; and we are blind to it through cultural and psychological biases (normalcy bias). Recently, this could describe the election of Donald Trump, anomalous extreme weather, wildfires, Brexit, negative oil prices … But isn’t a black swan just another bird?

At the same time, the (im)probable have been reduced to the mundane. That which we no longer admire, but instead experience in a perpetual state of temporary astonishment.5 One thing quickly replaced by the next astonishing thing. Inundated with media that masquerades as familiar but acts on culture to create confusion and complacency through overwhelm. A constant stream of updates, numbers, contradictions, and hearsay brought to you by your closest friends, your mother and father, professional broadcasters, politicians, and celebrities.

003 Mundanity of astonishment diffuses into our operational lives. Artificial intelligence domestic assistants, a common trope in both science fiction and Saturday morning cartoons, have arrived. Not with fanfare and excitement, but with race to the bottom prices, features to help us consume faster, corporate surveillance, and such a lack of amazement that you would think we have had them for decades. The AI in your house is not the one that helps you organize your thoughts, solve mysteries, or become your best confidant. No, it is the one that can automatically order you more laundry detergent, play your favourite top-40 hits, and record your intimate conversations to mine for better product recommendations.6 What was once a fantasy of Popular Science and dystopia of Orwell and Huxley becomes the everyday thing that goes without acknowledgement.

These new invasive technologies differ from previous marvels in their scale—the new virus is pandemic. Rather than slowly spreading and evolving over decades or longer, they spread instantly. Like a global delusion, new technological things immediately seem as if they have always existed. The new normal continually morphs while continuing its normalcy. The “derangement,” in Ghosh’s terms, is the unquestioning acceptance of all that is new as regular and mundane.

While the technological shifts like the automobile had systemic impact that was unforeseen (suburban planning, traffic), the new type of complex assemblage “object” often challenges our very notion of self. We are both hyper-individuated and aggregated as data. The individuation of the systems helps to hide the fact that we are but one drop in the ocean, selling us the myth of the productive and self-determined neoliberal individual while simultaneously dismantling it for gain. These technological assemblages act as intermediaries between each of us as individual agents and the leviathan that is “the market.” There is no interior or exterior, we are one with the system, a cybernetic transubstantiation. There is often an uncanny feeling that our devices can read our thoughts, that they are inside us. This shine7, collapsing our inner life with external systems, makes them feel both abject and indispensable.

All of which is probably why we pay them so much heed. Why do we believe information that comes from our feeds rather than from expertise or historical precedent? Why is this memetic virus so effective? Is it because it appears to come from both inside and outside, directly from our aggregate self? It is us, us is I, we are it.

005 In 1992 Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash. In the novel a virus is transmitted inside of the metaverse (Stephenson’s version of Gibsonian cyberspace) through a bitmap image masquerading as a “virtual” (neurological) recreational drug. Viewing the image causes meat-space brain damage due to the neural link between the user and their metaverse avatar.8
This virus spreads through rumour, through desire. A politicized fantasy of neurological drugs with no physical side effects or aftercare, appealing to a very specific type of desiring mind-body. A memetic virus that infects through image.

Recognition. Re-cognize. To experience something familiar, to understand again. To internalize based on a priori knowledge. Cognate, akin, common roots. Re-cognate, to see that things have common roots and understand them as such.

What is astounding about new media is the ability to make the unrecognizable into the mundane, and therefore make it palatable—make it acceptable to our neural link with the network, and make us susceptible to its viral payload. We are constantly in the midst of things that have no analog. Massively scaled social networks are not the faster carriage. Even though it feels like we have had them forever, the phenomenon is really only ten to fifteen years old.

Our frame of reference is failing us.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 we have another frame of reference failure. This is not the Spanish Flu; this is a meta-virus.

008A virus that attacks the assemblages at the core of contemporary global capitalist society. A coincidental concurrence with the end of an oil agreement between OPEC and Russia brings the markets to their knees.9 Global travel ceases almost overnight.10 It destabilizes elections11 and decreases carbon emissions12, doing what many activists have tried to do for decades. This new assemblage proves to be an actor with agency beyond human, beyond our imagination.

A deluge of information spreading quickly through digital networks—populating social spaces, journalism, government. A stream of viral information, information sewage, leaking from sealed official sources, contaminated with rumour, hearsay, false flags, and provocateurs. Every infection breaking down our ability to differentiate truth from misguided best-intentioned misinformation, or perfectly guided ill-intentioned lies aiming to profit, control, and harness the crisis. A virus that infects trust, faith, and community. In crisis, our people see themselves through the lens of our interpellated culture—liberal individuals, consumers who must acquire all of the toilet paper before the apocalypse.

009The logic of viruses permeates networks. Viruses spread not just through the body, but through the culture. As Jussi Parikka put it, viruses “are seen also as a kind of a memory of their environment and the ethology of their hosts. What they reveal are movements and connections.”13 The virus is always-already a contact tracer. It infects the lungs as it infects the mind, through physical and memetic contact. An image that has neurological impact, breaking down the surface facade of rationality and community, unleashing the everyone-for-themselves individual responsibility attitude at the heart of competition based liberal ideology. A virus that causes both pneumonia and grocery hoarding. Images of bare shelves beget bare shelves in a nightmare positive feedback loop.

Maybe our frame of reference is too rational? If this pandemic isn’t like previous pandemics, then previous pandemics are no longer an adequate reference. Maybe we need assemblage references in order to recognize assemblages. Not a deductive “a = b, b = c, a = c” but an abductive “something like a is sort of like something like b, so this is something like c and d.” A reasoning of the best possible fit, changing as context and information continues to evolve. A flow of understanding rather than an answer. A best attempt that we keep reattempting. Reasoning that acknowledges the vast and (in)complete interconnectedness.

Assemblages like the COVID-19 pandemic are multi-faceted agencies, exposing and collapsing the vast interconnectedness of globalized society while challenging the sacredness of the individual. A moment of truth, a “crisitunity”14, for the contemporary. But who takes advantage of this opportunity, and how? Will the (im)probable act towards emancipation, or the deepening of regressive power structures? The only thing I know is that there is no going back to “normal.”15

012James Bridle uses the metaphor of “enchantment” to describe the magic of computational technology.16 He calls for a “re-enchantment” in order to reimagine and reframe how modern computational and network technology functions in the world.

We could call this a form of re-subliming. The amazing has become mundane, we have lost our collective sense of sublimity in the face of what should be the most terrifying dynamic sublime we have ever encountered. Pandemics and wildfires reduced to memes that fleetingly scroll by as ontological equals of fart jokes, baby pictures, obituaries, ads for personalized socks, and Fiona Apple’s new album. All in a system that is sublime in and of itself, made of us and extracting our essence as aggregate data used to train machines that are then used to subdue us.17

We need a substantial and systemic re-enchantment. We need to reawaken the terrifying sublimity of assemblages and begin to act accordingly. Not the bourgeois sublimity of enlightenment era tourists visiting the Swiss Alps, who’s privilege kept them at a safe distance. Rather, sublimity in the daily danger of the villagers who lived with the constant threat of avalanche.

It means recognizing the ways in which we inhabit our systems, and the ways in which our systems inhabit us; reconnecting and rediscovering admiration for the complexity and power of these vast assemblages in which we exist.

1Amitav Ghosh, The great derangement : climate change and the unthinkable, The Randy L and Melvin R Berlin family lectures, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 36.
2Immanuel Kant and Nicholas Walker, Critique of judgement, Oxford world's classics, (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

3Kant and Walker, Critique of judgement.

4Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2007).

5See Kant’s differentiation and definition of “admire” from “astonishment”—“… they do not so much excite astonishment (the affect attending the representation of novelty exceeding expectation) as admiration (an astonishment which does not cease when the novelty wears off )”, Kant and Walker, Critique of judgement, 102.

6Sapna Maheshwari, "Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?," The New York Times (New York), March 31, 2018 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/business/media/amazon-google-privacy-digital-assistants.html.

The magical power to see what is to come, an allusion to Danny’s psychic power—his “shine”— in The Shining by Stephen King. Stephen King, The shining, 1st ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977).

8 Neal Stephenson, Snow crash (New York: Bantam Books, 1992).

9 Matt Egan, "Oil crashes by most since 1991 as Saudi Arabia launches price war," CNN, March 9, 2020 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/08/investing/oil-prices-crash-opec-russia-saudi-arabia/index.html.

10 Dominic Rushe, "US airline industry seeks $50bn bailout amid coronavirus pandemic," The Guardian (London), March 16, 2020 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/16/us-airline-industry-seeks-50-billion-bailout-amid-coronavirus-pandemic.

11 Daniel Strauss, "Ohio primary vote halted at last minute amid coronavirus court battle," The Guardian (London), March 17, 2020 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/16/judge-declines-ohio-request-delay-primary-vote-amid-coronavirus.

12 Adam Jacobson, "COVID-19 pandemic response temporarily combating CO2 emissions, but systemic change needed, experts urge," in The Current (Canada: CBC, March 14, 2020 2020). https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-march-12-2020-1.5494992/covid-19-pandemic-response-temporarily-combating-co2-emissions-but-systemic-change-needed-experts-urge-1.5495303.

13 Jussi Parikka, "Contagion and Repetition: On the Viral Logic of Network Culture," ephemera 7, no. 2 (2007), http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/contagion-and-repetition-viral-logic-network-culture.

14 A portmanteau coined by The Simpsons. Crisis + Opportunity. The Simpsons, season 6, episode 11, "Fear of Flying," aired December 18 1994.

15 “Normal” being far from a universal state, while we see the pandemic playing out very differently across race, class, and geographic lines already associated with huge disparity. On The Atlantic podcast “Social Distance” Vann R. Newkirk II said:“Why do we want to go back there? We understand that the things that exist today are the things that are aiding and abetting this virus. If we know now that the entire construct of our system of prisons and jails is going to create reservoirs of disease that is going to be impossible to fight on a public-health front, why do we accept it as necessary?”Vann R. Newkirk II, "Social Distance: We Can’t Go Back to Normal," interview by Katherine Wells and James Hamblin, Social Distance, Podcast, April 11, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/04/world-after-coronavirus-pandemic/609775/.

16 James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (New York: Verso, 2018).
17 Clearview AI, a leading facial recognition service provider, is known to harvest image data from social media, including the common social memes asking participants to post photos of themselves as specific ages.
Kashmir Hill, "The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It," The New York Times (New York), January 18 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/18/technology/clearview-privacy-facial-recognition.html.