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Early Days of Defacing the Currency (How Academia Got Pwned 10)

This is the tenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe.


For such an extraordinary idea, with a lot of anecdotal empirical support behind it, it’s curious that the concept of “defacing the currency” remains so obscure. Many authors have approached the phenomenon in different ways, and there have always been people trying to practice it, but nobody has quite yet pinned the idea down. One finds echos of it in Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values and in Georges Bataille’s “general economy.” Jesus pursues a very Cynical strategy, and there’s some evidence suggesting he may have been exposed to some Cynics. Rousseau seems to channel Diogenes, to some degree. Once you develop an eye for it, you start finding it all over the place (ever hear of Arthur Cravan?). But its formal mechanisms remain utterly mysterious to most people. For now, I would just like to tell you about my earliest experiences with the idea.

I first made contact with this idea when I was about 21, as an undergraduate; I inched my way a little bit closer to its explosively illuminating core in the first years of grad school; became utterly convinced of its general empirical reality; and was excited to work on it as a possible PhD dissertation topic. But I had to shelve it, in order to learn stats, in order to have any chance of landing a tenure-track academic job. Interestingly, however, the idea was vindicated for me in the experience of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and it lived on inside me after this in part because of the socialization effects Occupy exerted on me. The insurrectionary anarchist tradition behind Occupy is still today one of the best living, breathing descendants of Diogenes’ discoveries, even if they are now sadly watered-down. Through the militant conversion experience of Occupy, Ancient Cynicism became lodged in my body and character much more than it would have, if I had merely written a dissertation on it.

At around the same time, after years of social investment in the DIY music and art scene in Philadelphia, I carried out my first year-long performance art project to destroy all bourgeois hypocrisy. I lost most of my friends and became persona non grata because this project required many unwelcome speech acts. But I gained new friends and ultimately had much more impact than any of the artists I knew at the time. To get a sense of what I was doing and how I thought about it, take a gander at my “artist statement,” written in 2011, which you can still find on my old website from that time period. I am very embarrassed by much of my work from this period, of course, and my current self would correct my former self on many particular points, but on the whole I am pleasantly surprised to see so much continuity…

Having forgotten about this distant episode, upon revisiting it I am amazed how much of my current philosophy was already laid out by my 24-year-old self:

I am an outsider artist with no training whatsoever but only an irrepressible desire to destroy everything that currently exists and do everything over again better…

At the beginning of this summer I was just an ordinary PhD student studying not Art with a modest monthly stipend. But during the first month of the summer when I began running out of stipend money, I had started writing a book of fiction and making a film and using drugs and just generally doing anything I wanted because I had just enough money to do so. Then I realized that all of my friends were artists and it is easy to be an artist if you just make stuff… I suddenly learned that my real passion in life is just doing anything I want, doing and creating everything I can think of that is good, without having to work a job but while also being rich, not just in spirit but literally rich in money. (Although I don’t care at all about money, which is why people have begun to just give it to me. Please see my writings/lectures for more on this point, which has confused many.)...

That is how I became an artist and that is what I believe art is. It is doing anything you want that is true and good, no matter what, never obeying a single law of any kind, and not having to work a job but still being rich, not just in spirit but in money, although you really would not mind even being homeless. I believe that if you just do everything you want to do and do it just absolutely well and you tell the truth about everything then that is true Art. The real thing is just to do everything and never ask permission and just do it really well because you can do it, because that is genius and genius is the only goal.

Barclay Shields
Philadelphia, 2011

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