Cybergothic: From John Milton to Nick Land
"It all starts for you with a casual channel-hopper question: What's happening on the other side?"
Cybergothic is the aesthetic of a digitizing humanity that refuses to die.
Should we refuse to die? And if so, in what style should we refuse to die?
This week, we’re reading Nick Land's 1998 article CyberGothic, so I’d like to explain the main idea, and why I find this text so interesting (PDF, the book is out of stock right now).
As technocapital continues to subordinate human agency to its obscure teleology, we find ourselves unsure how to think about this.
I would not suggest that CyberGothic provides any particularly straightforward playbook, but it does provide a convincing map of the ulterior socio-technical gameboard that institutions dissimulate.
Cybergothic Defined: From Milton to Gibson
“Skyscrapers overshadowing seventeenth-century graveyards.”
On one level, the essay is a reading of William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), but really Land is just using Gibson as a pretext to develop his own unique model of the postmodern and digital cultural economy. It’s the same model developed in many of his other texts (e.g. Machinic Desire, Circuitries, Cyberrevolution) and essentially similar to that developed in the collective writings of the CCRU.
What John Milton was to the Gothic, William Gibson is to the Cybergothic.
In this analogy, we find some interpretive clues.
Paradise Lost (1667) is famous for its ethical ambiguity: Satan almost seems like the hero. But it’s not so simple, because one of the great Gothic themes is pandemonium. Indeed, this word recurs throughout the CCRU writings (2017).
The Gothic involves intense swirls of emotion, where good and evil wrestle so vigorously that it's often hard to tell what's going on. This, I would suggest, is the correct way to read the essay at hand, but also Land more broadly.
Who is the Gothic Avatar?
Land has a reputation for being a nihilistic, atheistic anti-humanist; for gleefully endorsing the subsumption of man by machines. There is certainly plenty of textual evidence to corroborate this view, but where pandemonium reigns, it is never so clear.
For instance, CyberGothic describes a paranoiac hunger for immortality, which he associates with the unifying, homogenizing monopod of European bureaucratic Logos:
Now, ask yourself the following question: Which of the following is a closer approximation of Land’s Gothic avatar: The educated American Christian, or the educated American Rationalist?
Many readers of Land will assume that the dream of immortality refers to the Christian idea of eternal life, monopod refers to monotheism, and so on.
But if we look closely, Land’s paranoid and neurotic Last Man looks, objectively, much more like your average Effective Altruist or Longevity guru than any educated Christian man I know.
“The 'Gothic avatar' is a decadent Western dream of immortality… Clutching at the eternalization of self… Subordinating techonomic efficiency to demonic negative transcendence.”
The educated Christian calmly trusts the plan. It is not given to him to know the plan, but he would rather trust it than produce “a corruption of the atmosphere” everywhere he goes.
The Cybergothic avatar is an anxious striver—plagued with nightmares of extinction, lusting for bodily extension and political control—because he believes in nothing other than this one, short, material life.
But I digress—my point is only to show that CyberGothic (and Land’s perspective more generally) is, at the very least, much more unsettled than you might have been told.
Predicting AI Safety 20 Years in Advance
Land perfectly anticipates the AI Safety police—who demand control of all machine intelligence in the name of preventing “extinction”—more than 20 years in advance:
But strangely—remember, this is pandemonium—the AI Safety police are actually the agents of the most reckless AI acceleration. Sam Altman founded OpenAI with the express purpose of making AI research open, in order to guard against malignant corporate acceleration. OpenAI is now, objectively, the most reckless corporate accelerator of AI (“actuality as primary repression”). This is exactly how cybergothic meltdown works: Humans becomes ruthlessly, machinically pragmatic and instrumental, and their paranoiac anxiety is precisely what propels them to accelerate what they dread, dissembling it with increasingly shameless verbal treachery (“monopod socius runs the whole thing, and ‘society is only a filthy trick.’”)
This is the “cumulatively sophisticating pseudo-synergic machine-intelligence” virus:
So what is one to do?
“It's just a tailored hallucination we all agreed to have, cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows, fucking knows it's a whole universe.” —William Gibson, Count Zero
Cybergothic is not a moral or evaluative frame. It is an updated description of the contemporary horizon (“Sartre defines socialism as the horizon of humanity. It is now behind the process…”)
One should not read a text such as this looking for advice, but only a map of the ulterior landscape. The advice you draw from it all depends: Do you wish to play Neuromancer or Wintermute? Are you Zero or One? Are you Light or Dark? Are you Satan or God?
One cannot model pandemonium without participating in it.
That is what Land understands better than most.
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