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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

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.

Wang Yi's Other Life

A listener of the podcast writes me about a Christian pastor in China who was recently detained. The pastor Wang Yi has released a personal and theoretical statement that followers of my work (and readers of late Foucault) may find compelling. My listener summarizes the background:

In your podcasts I've often heard you talk about religion and revolution so I thought you might find some inspiration from this letter. Wang Yi was a former academic who became a leader in the house church movement in China. He, along with his wife and over 100 followers, was arrested the other day and has not been heard from since. This letter was written with instructions to release it if Wang Yi went missing for more than 48 hours. It's a profound combination of a statement of faith and a meditation on revolution.

Here is his statement. It's worth reading in full if you're into this kind of stuff. Here are some choice bits as a TLDR.

The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world...

This does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China...

From a positive perspective, all acts of the church are attempts to prove to the world the real existence of another world.

That's the "kynical" model of radical politics right there, dating back to Diogenes of Sinope, as discussed by Foucault in The Courage of Truth and by Peter Sloterdijk in The Critique of Cynical Reason.

There's also the following line, which encapsulate the Spinozan dictate "no hope, no fear."

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power.

I wish him the best.

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