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Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)

This is the thirteenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. It's going to become a book, so for updates be sure to subscribe.


You are probably reading the first and only blog that a university has ever accused of unfair competition. Congratulations, dear reader. I couldn't have done it without you.

In the last section on my departure narrative, I skipped ahead somewhat, as I was approaching (in real life) my hearing for "gross misconduct." Before that, I had only brought you up to the point of my suspension. In #5, I analyzed the evidence provided in support of my Dean's claim that I was harming the university's reputation. But the posts after that went into some other parallel lines of inquiry while, in real life, the events of my narrative were rapidly approaching their climax.

At the time of this writing, it's now official: I am no longer an employee of the University of Southampton. I will explain how this all came to an end, but first we need to circle back and fill in some gaps in the narrative thus far.

One of the reasons I chose the exit strategy I chose is that I'm now extremely free to share details that I would not be allowed to share right now if I decided to fight this with a lawyer. You're welcome, dear reader.

The gaps I need to fill are between my initial suspension (October 2, 2018) and my hearing for gross misconduct (scheduled February 13, 2019). There were two separate investigation meetings conducted in the period of my suspension. The first was on Friday 2nd November 2018.

There were two notable features of the first investigation meeting that took place after my suspension. Just like the first meeting (before my suspension), the guy simply amassed a dossier of copypasta capturing things I've said and done on the internet, and asked me about them in that stern FBI tone he probably learned watching crime shows. With all due respect to the guy — a very nice and fair man, bless him — my main impression was that he seemed utterly confused about what the frick had been placed in his lap. I got the impression he wanted to start by asking: "First, what is a Twitter?" Instead, he just shoved a bunch of screenshots in my face and asked me to explain what I meant. It was surreal how innocuous were many of the items. Consider the following item from my mile-long rap-sheet, which I'm screenshotting from the final report of the investigation.

Imagine a very concerned Boomer sliding a screenshot of this tweet across the table, and asking "Could you explain what you meant by this?"

I was like, "Huh? That's all it means, I support student activism. I always have. Students should be free to criticize professors, even publicly, I applaud this." To this day, I still cannot even guess what esoteric meaning he thought this one could have had. It was stunning to learn just how badly university administrators are genuinely confused and paranoid about the most straightforward of internet communications.

Then things took a turn toward creepy. It appears that expressing doubts about the viability of academia is itself a punishable offense. When the questioning turned in this direction, again I couldn't even see what they were concerned about; it was only in the third investigation that I was able to decode this line of inquiry. Only later would I discover that they were beginning to investigate a possible breach of "the duty of fidelity." Do people realize academics have a duty of fidelity to their employers? I sure didn't; I had never heard of that, and I certainly never would have signed any pledge of fidelity. Here is a piece of evidence I was confronted with in Meeting 2 (again, 'capped from the hearing documentation):

They basically just asked me "What did you mean by that?" and I answered "Exactly what it says," regarding everything they brought to the table. It was pretty clear I didn't even need to be there. My physical presence was necessary to rubber-stamp the meeting as having taken place, but it was clearly a machinic process in which the purpose and outcome was perfectly impermeable to any combination of noises I might emit.

Apparently, being open to exit options is a punishable offense. As I reported in a previous post, at the time when my Dean handed me my suspension letter, I informed her explicitly that getting suspended would make me money on the internet. Confronted with this unfortunate little molehill in the intellectual topography today, they must have sent a lackey to go find some ordinance that prohibits it. A few weeks later, after I started blogging all the details of the story, the university launched a whole new, additional investigation. In their words:

"the investigation is to explore allegations that through social media posts (provided to JM on 24.01.2019) that JM:
• breached the duty of confidence; and/or
• breached the implied duty of fidelity; and/or
• breached the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence; and/or
• brought the University into disrepute.
"

I couldn't find anything about fidelity in the ordinance they cited. I guess that's why they call it "implied." But with my PhD it only took a few minutes of Googling to resolve what was going on here. In case law, the implied duty of fidelity is what prohibits an employee from taking business from the employer:

"A number of potential aspects of the duty of fidelity, including a duty not to compete with the employer, have been identified in case law... These issues often arise in "team move" situations, where a number of employees who work in the same business decide to leave and join a competitor, often with assistance from the new employer, or set up a competing business themselves." (Thompson Reuters Practical Law)

Because I was writing about what was happening in the university, and people from the public were giving me money for it, they must have realized what I was trying to warn them of: Their entire business model is in serious trouble. If they were intelligent, autonomous agents, then upon realizing this they would have taken my advice and not have suspended me. Of course, being what they are, they could do nothing other than escalate their own doomed institution to the highest possible level of self-ownage, by confirming and enshrining the accuracy of my vague wager in the majestic aura of their own legal strategy. Thus, likely for the first time ever (as far as I know), a university built a formal legal case to the effect that a single academic's blogging was unfair competition.

Let's start by savoring the irony of their two-pronged legal strategy. On the one hand: "Justin, you're awful words and inappropriate antics are harming the university's reputation." On the other hand: "How dare you enjoy a good reputation without us!"

So this is how academia gets pwned, ladies and gentlemen. If you wonder aloud whether academia is the best way to constitute a free intellectual life, people dissatisfied with academia will throw you money to encourage this line of inquiry, while academia will... make it harder to constitute a free intellectual life. It doesn't require advanced game theory to see the ineluctable equilibrium on the horizon, once the intellectually ambitious start to downgrade their valuation of status relative to independence. When I look at the dynamics of influence and attention, I see the relative payoff of status decreasing and that of independence increasing (1 , 2, just to cite a few places where I've developed these observations). Ergo, stick a fork in it, baby!

I would not put any money on some kind of institutional course-correction, because even when they realize they've owned themselves, they are structurally barred from responding in any way other than owning themselves at a higher level. Academia is so pwned already that I didn't even need to bait it into a final round of self-destruction in order for my own exit plans to enjoy a satisfactorily high probability of success. I could afford to walk away, even before the university was done hitting itself with my hand. Unfair competition, indeed, so unfair I honestly started to feel bad.

And I assure you, the university was eager to hit itself with my hand at least one more time. In fact, the university is very lucky I'm not the attention whore my haters accuse me of being. Lucky for them that I would rather theorize this process in peace and quiet, than sacrifice myself on the altar of accelerating it. I am no saint, dear reader. I am now but a commoner, a peasant. It would have been easy for me to accelerate the process more aggressively, but then I would very likely be embroiled in a busy, exhausting, dizzying media spectacle of one kind or another, instead of writing this blog post with calm glee. Truly, at the end of the day, I only wish to till my own soil. That's all I've ever asked, dear reader. Instead of trying to accelerate the downfall of academia single-handedly — an Icarian dream, no doubt — it seems at once wiser and more radical for me to lay bare the system's underlying mechanics to the best of my ability, allowing dozens of others, potentially hundreds of others, to accelerate the process as well. With the knowledge I've gleaned from the belly of this beast, at the outer-most edges of its contemporary development, together we will accelerate the process without anyone ever having to fly too close to the sun.

Explaining Who Gets to Speak at Universities

I recently received the following question from a journalist (paraphrased): "Universities host many Islamist extremists as speakers, but they order comedians performing on campus to not offend transgender sensibilities. Could you comment on this double standard in light of your own experience?"

Here is what I wrote in response. I don't have precise research or data to back up every claim here, to be clear, but this is how I currently see the matter.

People imagine there is some sophisticated explanation for all of this, but the best explanation is probably the most simple and classic one, to be honest. I think it's almost all about money, specifically liability. Right-wingers criticize academic administrators for being “cultural Marxists,” but this gives administrators way too much credit. Academic administrators have no principles, they are just untrained business people trying to keep government money flowing into their glorified real estate businesses (which happen to have some classrooms tacked on). Islamic extremists are allowed to talk because they’re afraid of the financial implications of getting labeled racist; comedians are not allowed to joke about gender because they’re afraid of getting labeled sexist. Meanwhile, academics have to focus on customer satisfaction — that is, placating students — because results on the National Student Survey affect the university’s income in the following year.

To be perfectly frank, right now higher education in the UK is suffering from multiple, severe crises: Appallingly low morale across academic staff (too nervous to express it publicly); criminally overpaid and outright incompetent Vice-Chancellors; the suffocation of intellectual
life by extraordinary quantities of meaningless paperwork and performance metrics; increasing awareness that teaching does not actually work; Soviet-Union-levels of collective delusion in the form of polite euphemisms to describe every obviously unsustainable problem. And all of this at a time when digital technologies are replacing nearly all traditional institutions with sleek, cheap, easy-to-use platforms? There is an unspeakable but widespread sense that the higher education system cannot last much longer, but people want to keep their jobs. So many administrators will just say and do whatever is going to keep the money flowing until tomorrow.

People get confused about the weird academic politics of who is, or is not, allowed to speak, but that’s because people assume there is some social or political principle at work. If you think there is any principle other than money, you’re going to be really confused for a long time, because the reality is that academic administrators are just straws in the wind. They’ll allow today what they’ll ban tomorrow, and vice versa, depending on whatever they think will protect their financial interests.

On that note, are you a current or former academic with a personal story on this front? I have a new little experiment called AcademiaLeaks, where anyone can anonymously submit their craziest stories from the ivory tower. You might not be able to tell them, but I can! Submit a story here.

On Being Fired (How Academia Got Pwned 12)

This is the twelfth 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. In fact, now that I'm living out of a backpack and I have received a few invitations, a book tour seems to be spontaneously self-organizing. If you'd like for me to come through your area, please let me know and I'll see what we can do.


[The numbering below does not reflect any formal order or logic. It's just to indicate the relatively stand-alone nature of each item, and the somewhat random chronology in which they came to me.]

1. Many theorists say that social reality is splintering, but how many theorists gamble their life on this claim?

2. Different types of people see predictably different streams of media, have predictably different interpretations of objective facts, and repeat what they learn in predictably different ways, with predictably different consequences, in predictably different subspaces of society. One of the most significant categorical differences among individuals, in this regard, is the difference between those who genuinely search the data of the world for an increasingly true understanding, versus those who scan the data of the world looking for rewards.

3. When one's grasp of these predictable differences reaches a certain threshold, it becomes possible to tell one story — honestly and clearly, with no irony or gimmicks — while also producing systematically different interpretations in different heads. To admit this reality, and to choose one's words accordingly, is not cynicism or dishonesty, but classical oration with digital sophistication. There is dishonesty in speaking to the world as if every person will receive every message in the same way, or at all.

4. There are three different audiences in the theatre of my life. My first audience is composed of the people in my personal life, to whom I have obligations I consider just and binding. Call it Level 1. The second is composed of the people who read my blog and watch my videos and hangout in my server; I've heard it called the Murphyverse, let's call it Level 2. The third are all the normies of the world who happen to have some vague and distant interest in me and my affairs. For instance, other academics aware of my work but also the random person who read one of the Daily Mail headlines about me. These people are Level 3. Who sees what, when, and where, and how they interpret it, differs vastly but predictably. Having observed this closely throughout my protracted 4-month controversy, I now possess a highly granular communications infrastructure. To give you just one concrete example, if I say something significant in the 46th minute of a generically titled Youtube video, it will only ever become known in Level 2, and quite quickly by nearly everyone in Level 2. (Unless it's something scandalous, which always has the possibility of getting picked up by Level 3).

5. I've labeled the Levels to reflect the rank ordering of my ethical obligations, as far as I can see them. There is rarely a defensible reason to make any significant life decision with any respect to Level 3. These people could not care less about you, first of all, and any lifestyle at all dependent on the vicissitudes of Level 3 is worse than fragile. For a real intellectual, it is nothing short of doom. One should generally be as icy as possible toward Level 3, which is composed mostly of idiots following idiots. Level 2 is like extended family, you must love them and give them your all, but also keep enough distance that you don't spread yourself too thin. Level 1 deserves the most undivided and unconditional care. When life becomes complicated and priorities are difficult to sort, truly good and honorable people generally use the simple algorithm of deferring to Level 1.

6. Warhol was wrong about the future, when he predicted that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. In the words of Momus, "In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people." In 1953, of the American families that owned a TV, about 72% of them watched I Love Lucy at its highest point. That was about 44 million viewers. By one estimate, a popular episode of The Joe Rogan Experience might reach 190 million people, or 12% of the English speaking world (and that's with unlimited playbacks on multiple devices at any time). Therefore, what's impressive and significant about one of the world's biggest podcasts is not how many people watch and listen, but how few. Outside of a few particular occupational or social milieus, there is no location in the English speaking world where you can assume anyone in your Level 1 has watched or heard any particular episode, or even knows anything about the show. What's most interesting about famous people today is that nobody has ever heard of them.

7. To constitute an intellectual life necessarily involves strategic navigation of the meme pool, and yet optimizing for memetic reproduction per se is to betray the intellectual vocation. There is nothing sinister or superficial about memetic fitness; any intellectual you admire enjoyed memetic fitness, by definition, because you learned about them in the first place. Given the utter domination of the memetic landscape by the coarsest players today (marketers, essentially), the very possibility of a non-sinister and non-superficial intellectual life in the 21st century hinges on real intellectuals comprehending the memetic landscape (and risking themselves on this comprehension). The global terrain of the meme pool, divided into increasingly shallow but porous pockets, is increasingly complicated and opaque. The function that should be optimized by a true 21st century intellectual has not yet been established, but assuming you can talk to everyone equally is certain to be a losing strategy.

8. Political correctness has become sufficiently suffocating that, strangely enough, getting fired from prestige institutions has become a badge of honor, and a credible signal of noteworthiness. If you find yourself in trouble, there is a good case to be made that getting fired is the preferred exit mode, in part because it provides a catapult into higher pockets of Level 3. "Dude, you could get on Joe Rogan." But as we've already noted, Level 3 should be the lowest priority for any good person with a long-term intellectual agenda.

9. The flattening of the broadcast-based, central prestige hierarchy into a bewildering quantity of smaller pyramids (with larger absolute numbers given population growth and global delivery) is accelerating. The hundreds of speaking and writing people roughly at Joe-Rogan-level are the fruit of a previous stage of splintering. Divide the Tom Brokaw personality (a generic broadcaster optimized for a captive, mass audience) into a few hundred sub-personalities specialized in different traits and interests, and you'll get a few hundred personalities who are still rich and influential, although their audiences are smaller percentage-wise than Tom Brokaw's.

10. To compete in a meme pool characterized by accelerating segmentation, therefore, one cannot aim for what is currently adaptive (which guarantees you'll be a day late and a dollar short). It seems to me that a promising rule of thumb, consistent with the informal case study data available at this time, is for intellectuals to jump as far ahead as they can into the most precise and obscure depths of their own genuinely motivating curiosities, passions, and temperamental strengths, while escaping as recklessly as possible every occupational and social constraint on these depths. The high-brow intellectual is obviously a different type than most of the writers/speakers currently at the top, no doubt, but the trick is to infer what the intellectual equivalent of the prevailing players would look like. What we do know is that Joe Rogan did not become the Joe Rogan Experience by trying to earn an interview with Tom Brokaw or by trying to be the next Tom Brokaw, he became the Joe Rogan Experience by doing the weird non-lucrative things he liked to do, doing them intensely forever, and then getting selected in a stochastic distributed search process (a market). In 2019, if your goal is to get on Joe Rogan or be the next Joe Rogan, the only guaranteed outcome is that you certainly won't be the intellectual equivalent of Joe Rogan in 2040. When the world's biggest symbol-producers have audiences of only 10,000 people, those winning symbol-producers will be a huge set of people who, in 2019, were maximally disengaged from mimetic rivalry and building out as effectively as possible their even weirder mix of ideas, interests, and aesthetics.

11. Mainstream media can only report on events. I can report non-events.

12. I successfully avoided being fired by the University of Southampton on Wednesday. To this day, I have never once been disciplined, or even warned, for any problematic behavior as an academic. I managed to secure an additional 3 months of pay, which I would not have received had I been fired, and I did not have to sign any non-disclosure agreement whatsoever. To anyone who asks, I can provide a short and sweet account of myself, with my chin held high. I am quite pleased.

13. As the author of this non-event, I am spared the obligation of any social campaigning. No lawyers, no calls from journalists, no pressure toward personal image maintenance, no crying for pity donations. For Level 1, a short and honest message. For Level 2, all the juicy details, reflections, and observations. And for Level 3: nothing. They'll either forget, or guess the ending (probably incorrectly). Except those floating around Level 3 interested enough to hear me out, patiently and openly, which means I've converted them to Level 2. If that's you, thanks for reading this far, and welcome to the Murphyverse. I would be stunned if any Daily Mail journalist could find a lede buried this deeply, though nothing is impossible.

With the conclusion of this long preface, now the real story will begin. My next posts will build out a section of the book I would like to call 12 Rules for Ruining Your Life (To Get a Better One).

Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)

This is the eleventh 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.


I am considering the benefits and drawbacks of simply resigning, compared to being fired in my hearing tomorrow. One of the reasons I’m finding it hard to decide is because I suspect it matters quite little in the long run. Yet I've often insisted on deliberate and disciplined internal accounting about one’s motives and decisions, so I can’t help but think it through. But because it hardly matters to me, I have to zoom-in all the more microscopically on details, to find the pros and cons. Even if I resign, they might still fire me, so that’s another layer of it hardly mattering. Well, now that I’ve got you enthralled by the profound importance of this decision, let’s proceed.

In my mind, the most important factor inclining me to resign is simply that it feels the most honest and authentic way to exit at this point — the simple truth is that this disciplinary imbroglio has radicalized my disillusioning and given me 4 months to prepare for exit. So if I’m now eager to exit — in principle, emotionally, and even practically (I’ve ended my lease as of today and we’ve reduced all our belongings to what fits in our backpacks) — then I should tell them I am done. Clearly, I’m done. The main reasons to let them fire me are all instrumental. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that here at Other Life instrumental rationality is the root of much evil. That’s not to say I’m above it, not at all — it’s a root of evil precisely because our survival is largely conditional on it. It would certainly be a new drop in the bucket of academia’s self-destruction, my case would probably become an official milestone in absurd administrative repression. That would be good, funny, and politically desirable. But things are already at that milestone, anyway; the event of a formal dismissal might trigger some kind of category click in the minds of people who think in discrete variables. In reality, most variables are continuous variables, and I’m already about 99% fired. There are also other instrumental reasons to prefer dismissal, such as notoriety/media/sympathy, but as soon as anyone starts optimizing for those things — you’re doomed.

More than a few people seem to think everything I’m saying and doing is for notoriety/media/sympathy, all of which are ultimately convertible to cash. I generally don’t care what idiots guess about me, but given this objection is the exact opposite of my core vision, I feel somewhat motivated to minimize it. Just to pwn the haters, I am inclined to resign with purposeful quietude, minimizing the probability of both infamy and sympathy. The mainstream media revolve around discrete events, and getting fired is an event, so if I get fired then the chance of receiving phone calls from all the Tucker Carlson types probably shoots to what? At least 25%, conservatively, I would think. If that level of media buzz arrived, especially given that my type of person is quite capable of milking it for all its worth, it would have a long-term expected value of what? At least several thousand dollars probably, at least? Of course, media is stochastic, it’s perfectly possible I am fired and nobody cares. On average, though, in the long-term, there would probably be a fairly large, positive financial upside to being formally fired.

Another reason I’m disinclined to the dismissal->outrage->media->money strategy is that I genuinely can’t access any feelings of indignation, victimhood, outrage. And these seem to be performative requirements of the contemporary media charades. From the beginning, I have said that this a hilarious and wonderful experience in which a once-prestigious institution has become so paranoiacally bureaucratized that it is actively empowering me to leave it behind while it further destroys itself. When you were a kid, did you ever do that thing kids do, where they take the hand of a sibling and make the sibling hit them in order to scream to mom, “Johnny’s hitting me!!!” I feel like the university is doing that with me. I’ve never once set out to harm the university or academia as a whole, but they keep grabbing my hand and smacking themselves with it. I can hardly be faulted for enjoying it!

When I try to tell my story outside of the aggrieved/indignant framing, instead asserting my contentedness with it all, I suppose it must read like monstrous or ridiculous gloating or delusions of grandeur or something. I was recently invited to submit an article somewhere, and I wrote up my perspective but with historical backing that would make it more than just a personal thinkpiece — citing precedents for the model of life I am seeking to live — and it was rejected. That was an interesting signal. I could try to perform yet another rendition of the persecuted academic, there seems to be insatiable demand for such stories, but unfortunately that’s not my story. It’s quite possible my actual story is either too dumb, or too idiosyncratic, or not interesting/valuable enough to succeed in even the para-institutional meme pool. But my story is my story, and I’m sticking to it. That's where blogs excel, in fact. My whole wager is that anyone who does this with sufficient intensity wins in the end, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to soften up now!

I'd also be lying by omission if I did not include some instrumental reasons for resigning. To be honest, the only slight negative emotion I have about any of this comes from thinking about my PhD supervisors, and everyone else who invested in my career as an academic. Getting fired could arguably tarnish them. I don't think any of this will have any real effect on them, ultimately, but I would feel bad — a combination of guilty and embarrassed, I suppose — to have to tell them all that I was fired. Same thing goes for my parents, and in-laws, and so on — all the normal people to whom I would like to give a clear and straightforward accounting of myself. "I decided academia is not for me" is much shorter and sweeter than "I was fired but..." As I said, I could still be fired even if I resign, but if I resign I can immediately after inform my family and mentors, simply and honestly, that I've decided to resign and that will be that. If the university fires me the day after nonetheless, I'm not obligated to send everyone an update. If they ask or read about it in the papers, I would tell the truth. This is, admittedly, a pretty superficial and instrumental reason to favor resignation. It's not the main reason, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a reason.

Another benefit of resigning is that it will improve the generalizability of my practical enterprise model for exiting academia. If getting fired and receiving publicity and sympathy increased my patrons and book sales and so on, and then I’m successful in my plot to achieve a financially successful independent intellectual model, in the future people could say that my plan for exiting academia is not realistic or practical for most people. And they could be right, in that case. So exiting quietly, and succeeding without any huge brouhaha, would make the social value of whatever I’m able to make greater, and more impactful.

Finally, I’m just tired of talking about myself — believe that or not. I’d like to get back to work, on projects that are not just telling the story of this protracted controversy. If I get fired, it kind of makes the story more interesting and longer and spicier, but I'd rather it be over sooner than later.

What would you do?

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

Defacing the Currency (How Academia Got Pwned 9)

This is the ninth 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.


"Interesting points," you might be thinking, "but why must you speak and act in ways so obviously doomed to get you in trouble?" Am I an earnest but naïve young man, who seriously thought he could act and speak this way without getting fired? Am I trying to become a martyr to win donations of pity and sympathy? Am I a cynical manipulator enacting a Trumpian gambit to gain power, or what?

I could just tell you how I understand myself, but you wouldn't believe me, and you'd be wise not to. We don't always understand ourselves, first of all, and even when we do, we love to lie about ourselves.

All I can say is that, whatever it is I am doing right now, it's something I've done at least three times before in my life. A few stories about how this particular political-behavioral pattern has recurred periodically throughout my life should be enough to assure you that — whatever I am doing — it is no opportunistic ploy or gimmick. In no way does this guarantee the goodness of my life choices: it could very well be a consistently perverse, pathological thread in my life. But if this thread turns out pathological, I am sure as hell not going to let anyone think it's merely a short-term, opportunistic paroxysm of pathology. No sir.

I will tell you the story of my life, but it will take a while, because it starts in Ancient Greece.

I am engaged in what the Ancient Cynics called “defacing the currency.” There is a whole secret history of this practice through the ages, which I can give you if/when these posts get compiled into a book. For now I just want to give you the basic schema of this strange operation. The phrase is most famously associated with Diogenes of Sinope, and the practice is understood as something akin to killing false idols, or altering widely held social values, especially those that are false or hypocritical, and typically through some kind of transgressive behavior. Otherwise the idea remains poorly understood in academic philosophy — when it is even considered a philosophical idea, which is rare. The concept is even less understood by social scientists — when it is even considered as a political mechanism, which is never, as far as I know. Well, there is this (shameless self-citation).

“Defacing the currency” is a type of political action: a particular set of individual-level behaviors, which under certain conditions, produce predictable society-level consequences. Defacing the currency is a demonstrable, and replicable tactic for concretely overthrowing institutions. One act of defacing the currency does not necessarily overthrow an institution, of course. Rather, defacing the currency is a tactic that produces real empirical effects tending toward the actual overthrow of institutions.

Here’s how it seems to work.

Step 1: Invest in a group of people, genuinely, wholeheartedly. The concept of social capital is useful here, for investing in a group means you are growing your social capital in that group. If all you’re doing is looking for social capital, that is not genuinely investing in the group, which will reveal itself, and then you won’t gain social capital. But if you are genuinely committed to the group, unconditional on the instrumental value of your social capital (i.e. what you can get or do with it outside of immanently enjoying it), ironically this gets you the most social capital. Why exactly things work this way must remain somewhat mysterious for now, but as far as I can tell this is a general and real empirical phenomenon.

Step 2: After you have accumulated social capital, performatively demonstrate a lie that the group tells itself. All groups tell themselves lies, for the in-group cannot be different from the out-group without at least some hidden fiction somewhere (in the words of E. E. Schattschneider, “organization is the mobilization of bias”). You can’t just speak the lie to the group, because talk is cheap. Game theory shows that cheap signals are uninformative. In practice, “uninformative signals” are signals that fail to move bodies. Cheap talk leaves things unmoved, whereas costly signals have the strange property of altering the state of the world, and therefore altering behaviors, whether people like it or not.

Step 3. The consequences. The results will depend on a few variable magnitudes, but we’ll focus on two. First, how much social capital did the actor accrue in Step 1? Two, how impressive was the performance? By impressive I mean some weighted function of how big and deep were the lies it revealed, and how grandiose, costly, and aesthetically forceful was the performative activity? As the actor’s initial store of social capital increases, and as the performative magnitude increases, the result is increasingly likely to deface the currency.The implication of a defaced currency is that the truly operating norms, predicated to some degree on lies, become less effectively operative. Their empirical, operating reality decreases, potentially to the point of vanishing. In short, “defacing the currency” is the only theoretically and empirically sophisticated form of protest behavior worthy of normatively positive adjectives such as “progressive,” “emancipatory,” etc., that is known to history (as far as I can see). But in any given case, to any bystander, it just looks like some crazy asshole shitting on a stage. Diogenes of Sinope literally shat on a stage at the Isthmian games, by the way. I have a post in my drafts that will tell this story later.

I know what you’re thinking, what could this possibly have to do with me? “Didn’t you just get popped doing drugs and calling people retards? How dare you place yourself in some illustrious history of subversive philosophers and revolutionaries! You can’t just do that, you have to, like, publish in New Left Review ten times at least. You can’t just become a significant revolutionary, how criminally narcissistic can a person be? A publisher will never give its stamp of truth to such delusions of grandeur…”

Oh but I do dare, I am so arrogant, and criminally narcissistic, disgustingly so, as most intellectuals are, and no publisher should or could ever tolerate it, except that I am the publisher. I am indeed participating in a grand history, though I would be the first to admit I am only a minor and recently enlisted combatant in this millennia-long war on the world. All that is new with me, perhaps, is the degree of engineering transparency with which I am conducting these campaigns — or rather, with which these campaigns are conducting me.

Soon I'll tell you how I've done this all before, on a few different occasions.

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