a valuation of thought (or, american nihilism 3: virtual cartesians, mutant demons)

June 1, 2022

Thinking is not as simple as we think it is.

Presume trained thinking exists on the same axis as embodied feats. The gymnast and the long-distance runner both train their bodies toward specific ends. Can both run a mile together at pace? Yes, probably. Does a long distance runner have the upper body strength and balance to do a headstand? Maybe. Could the gymnast run an ultra-marathon? Probably not, nor could the long-distance runner do back hand-springs on a balance beam. It could be any embodied activity: sewing, cooking, gardening. For the focused athlete, not all training of the muscle is good training of the muscle. Not all exercise is the right exercise. The gymnast and the runner may train the exact same muscle group in different ways toward different ends, both in otherwise distinctly “healthy” ways. 

If there are healthy and unhealthy bodies, then there are healthy and unhealthy minds. 

To draw out the analogy, any professional athlete or regular exerciser will tell you that just “doing it,” when it comes to exercise, is a sure way to injure yourself. This is a warning that thinking is the same. As an embodied task, not all thinking is good thinking. Just “doing it” does not mean doing it well. Doing it without trying to do it well may be undoing it.

Not all healthy bodies are healthy in the same way. Not all healthy minds are healthy in the same way. Just as two distinct bodies do not need to perform the same feats to prove their value, two distinct minds do not need to think the same thoughts in order to both be healthy. The “health” of organic systems indicates an open set of value relations which drift beyond the biological horizons of a single organism’s (or biological ecosystem’s) experience, conscious or not. This is opposed to the value relations which traditionally follow from the legacy of rational frameworks for thought, where thoughts and thinking occur in an abstract space delimited by a totality of conceptual rules, possibilities, and presumed ends. “Doing it,” presumes that thinking occurs in a rational vacuum; thoughts exist like particulars in Euclidian geometry, or Newtonian physics. These observations follow the shift from pre- to post-Einsteinian thought, as this shift pertains literally to thought.

The task of “thinking” involves a host of cognitive, rational, pre-cognitive, and pre-rational forces which can only be properly valued based on the consequence of phenomena which have not yet occurred or which we do not have access to. Notably, I’m not saying thinking is subject to or reducible to pre-rational and pre-cognitive forces. Instead, the task of thought must be understood to include these, whether in support of or to the detriment of working with, working for, or working against open ends which cannot be closed purely within the operative confines of thinking itself.

It requires intentional practice and habitual awareness to think in a way that’s consistent with a practiced set of values directed toward a receding ontological horizon. Just like hygiene and exercise, thinking occurs in relation to values which are external to the thinking itself—like hygiene, for instance how it affects your body and puts you in relation to others—these values are then reinforced inside the thinking itself and iteratively, externalized again for evaluation.

The rational mind evolved and came of age as an embodied consciousness which created coherence across a diversity of phenomena in an otherwise stable context. Technological innovation and the promulgation of media has subjected the mind to a severe and widespread onslaught of factors which lack coherence in a lived-in virtual space which is anything but stable. To make matters worse, the designers of almost every space which we inhabit (virtual or material) are not motivated by the creation of spaces which optimize for human well-being but for the siphoning of profit. (This is easy to do following the wholesale equivocation of profits and human well-being). In the case of virtual platforms this involves the explicit end of biological exploitation. 

Modern libertarian capitalists oblige the premise that the consumer subject occupies a marketplace the same way a conscious human subject occupies a rational cosmos. I presume the designers of our media channels and virtual spaces were motivated by these high minded libertarian presumptions about the rational subject, believing that approaching the limit of pure, unmediated experience of virtuality was as close as we could get to placing the rational, Cartesian mind in its ideal living space. 

The traditional Cartesian subject functions in a homologous, rational space upheld by stable, transhistorical frameworks. Thoughts, however, are no longer judged this way, neither by correlation within nor correspondence to accessible, propositional ontologies for truth based on “logical” or “rational” infrastructures. Our “virtual” world seemed prima facie to institute a space occupied and traversed by subjects of pure rationality; this technological infrastructure facilitated the absolution of pure, rational consumer subjects. But instead, we experience this space as embodied minds: algorithms and codes (the contrived physics of virtual spaces) are tacitly interpreted, indwelled, and explored with the same biological processes human minds in human bodies have exercised across the earth.

Rational, libertarian ideals, applied to the marketplace of ideas, exposed the plasticity of the neurological—and consequently, epistemological—fields and mechanics traditionally thought stably occupied by the rational subject. Although Einstein exposed Newton’s model of the falling apple to be incomplete, we maintain functional operation in a Newtonian universe. Although the Cartesian model has been exposed as incomplete, even more of us continue to operate in a rationalistic universe. The media-saturated techno-boom expropriated the psychic resources from human subjectivities (and their consequent social ecosystems) still reeling from the overthrow of rational, Cartesian space prior to the inauguration of a new paradigm for human consciousness and cognition.

The internet is in such an infancy that we have not even begun to design (let alone build) virtual spaces premised on and optimized for human well-being. (Unless they make a profit, which in the final constellation of things seems to be diametrically opposed to many aspects of human well-being, despite the handful of healthy growth patterns it may promote.) Until we accept that the mind is bound (for the foreseeable future) to the evolutionary biological processes from which it emerged—more like a muscle than a computer—our minds remain prone and predisposed for subjugation to those with bigger computers.

Paradigmatic shifts are required to recompose our human ecosystem (and consequently the terrestrial system as a whole). To stop treating the mind as a stable, unaffected, disembodied agent, and start asking the question, “what makes a healthy mind?” implicates individuals, systems, causes, and effects equally.

Knowledge which successfully floats to the historical surface, surpassing trans-generational criteria for “wisdom,” tends to fail in its contemporary’s eyes in large part because it is willing to take its own advice. What we really need to learn is almost always at extreme odds with the given world and may even mean its undoing.

Following the commingling of rational, Cartesian space with accelerated, virtual consumption in our prevailing paradigm, value mechanisms of capitalism have become the structural basis for evaluating knowledge, wisdom, and the types of thinking which traditionally give rise to lasting insights about our species. The best way to form a knowledge industry in the modern world (whether in academia or media) would be to sell knowledge which only appears to undo the existing value structure while being sure not to do so in actuality, since the value of the knowledge commodity requires the existing intellectual markets to persist enough that its product will be exchanged.

Now, knowledge is appraised based on a rubric of marketableness, transactionality, and scalability, not unlike goods or services being taken to market. “Epistemology” would be best undertaken as a theoretical study of how knowledge (historical or present) is justified on the basis of capitalistic value propositions, following premises not from Plato or Descartes but Smith, Ricardo, and Friedman. Furthermore, a product’s success in existing markets continually reifies that market’s valuation mechanisms. 

Online writing and content creation courses, for example, are no more interested in the genuine discovery of earth-shattering insights than modern venture capital firms are interested in businesses or innovations which would overthrow, rather than accelerate, the pre-existing conditions of our society derived entirely from capitalist ontologies. Having uncritically accepted the given market conditions, these courses—despite high-minded ideals and good intentions—do not cultivate the discovery of the new revolutionary thinkers. Instead, hopeful geniuses are taught how to bring knowledge products to market. If there were revolutionary thinkers or creators in these courses they are not catalyzed but properly institutionalized (like good middle management knowledge bureaucrats) to abide by the existing conditions of the content industry. Enterprising content capitalists championing humanitarian well-being with techno-optimistic, market libertarian techniques are naive to the antagonizing juxtaposition between the form and content of their ingenuous idealism.

Truly paradigm-shifting insight could never be brought to market under the prevailing conditions. Resultantly, most, if not all, public attempts at wisdom fail ipso facto because they cannot heed their own advice, since success is based first on reifying principles which need to be undone; our public is understood by all regards as a marketplace first.

However, modern libertarian capitalism is no longer merely an ideology in the historical sense. That is, it is no longer simply an interpretative or value framework independently upheld by like-minded individuals, diffused through concrete actions and behaviors. It is an extant arrangement of forces, accelerating and gaining inertia, located in the trans-cognitive infrastructure of our society. If knowledge is now controlled and dispersed through networks governed by market physics and ontologies, no idea will ever succeed in overthrowing those networks or values which also requires the same infrastructure for proliferation.

The challenge of thought is now two-sided: it is no longer simply a challenge of improving the health of rational, disembodied minds. Rather, thought and mind are thoroughly enframed by technosocial infrastructure and apparatuses to which we have willingly outsourced them. We believed this would free the rational, libertarian subject to unencumbered self-determination through free-market enterprise and consumer desire-satisfaction. Instead, we’ve imprisoned our own minds to these circuits which have certainly many things, but will not relent regardless of how many facets of our well-being they fail to promote.

A legacy we contend with psychologically as reasonable, well-being minded individuals is the libertarian subject’s over-determination of how a single individual can supposedly effect the material inertia of systems. It is a paradox of capitalism how the market determines value in response to the actions of individuals. Now, the mechanisms of capital are so ontologically embedded in psychology, society, and infrastructure, that capital now has a monopoly on the mechanisms by which value is determined. With capital, we highly value objects and systems even if they are at the expense of our well-being. 

The force now required to make even the smallest changes in the material arrangements of our networks and society recedes so far into the future that it is not to human scale. The result is the requirement of constant tension in thought-life for the responsible individual, who drifts neither into blanket acceptance of the conditioned premises, nor possibilities abandoned to a future messianic generation that may never be.