Monday, November 8, 2021

Yaris Varoufakis's Novel "Another Now" Presages and Contests Mark Zuckerberg's Metaverse

This review of Yaris Varoufakis's speculative novel Another Now was published by PopMatters on November 8, 2021.

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Almost immediately upon Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement on October 28 that his company was adopting the new identity Meta, Greek economist and political activist Yaris Varoufakis fired off a tweet, saying: “Hands off our mέta, our Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation, Mr Zuckerberg. You, and your minions wouldn't recognise civilisation even if it hit you with a bargepole.” In Another Now (Melville House, 2021), a work of speculative fiction that is his first novel, Varoufakis offers an alternative vision to what he brands Zuckerberg’s “Technofeudalist” nightmare.

Varoufakis is the author of the best-selling economic analyses Talking to my Daughter About the Economy: or How Capitalism Works -- and How It Fails (Bodley Head, 2017), a history of capitalism, and The Global Minotaur: America, Europe, and the Future of the Global Economy (Zed, 2011), an analysis of the economic system from the 1970s to 2008 crash within which the US occupies a central role, He is also author of Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment (Random House, 2017), a memoir of his six-month crash-and-burn tenure as Greece’s Minister of Finance, attempting to resist the draconian terms being forced upon the country by the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (collectively known as “The Troika”) in 2015 to resolve its public-debt crisis.

In addition to serving on mέta’s Advisory Board, Varoufakis is currently a member of the Hellenic Parliament representing greater Athens. He is also co-founder of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), a pan-European progressive political movement, and Progressive International, an organization dedicated to uniting and mobilizing progressive activists and organizations around the world.

Another Now is a thought experiment disguised as a sci-fi narrative that ponders what a society might look like that balanced freedom and equality.

The narrator of the tale, Yango Varo, relates events that took place primarily from 2025-2035 as recorded in the diary of a woman who had recently succumbed to cancer. It concerns three friends, the diary’s author Iris, a radical contrarian living off a bequest from a hereditary peer; Eva, a former Lehman Brothers investment banker turned academic; and Costa, a computer engineer who made one fortune shorting high-tech stocks ahead of the dotcom bust in 2001 and another, even bigger fortune shorting financial services in the run-up to the mortgage-backed derivatives crash of 2008.

At his job, Costa's technological innovations were constantly being shelved by his employers in the interest of extending the life cycle—and revenue streams—of existing, less-effective technologies. Disaffected by this experience and enjoying the autonomy granted to him by his wealth, Costa sets out on a secret project to create a kind of Freedom Machine that would offer users the ability to experience an infinite horizon of pleasure, freedom not only from want but from every boundary one could imagine. The catch: the price of entering the blissful world of the Freedom Machine being that one could never leave it, a price he believed no one would be willing to pay. This refusal, Costa thinks, would be based on a recognition of the ultimate emptiness and futility of unending desire under capitalism.

To protect his project from being stolen by corporate hackers, henceforth known by its technical acronym HALPEVAM (Heuristic ALgorithmic Pleasure and Experiential VAlue Maximizer), Costa creates a security device that inadvertently opens a wormhole into an alternative reality, the “Other Now” of the book’s title. He begins communicating via batch-file messaging technology with someone in Other Now, who is in fact his Other Self, identified as Kosti. The messaging back and forth between Costa and Kosti, which soon brings in Iris and her Other Self Siris, and Eva and her Other Self Eve, provides an opportunity for Varoufakis to lay out how things might work in a world without capitalism, ideas he has put forth elsewhere outside the realm of fiction.

These include direct democracy applied to corporate governance in which each employee receives a single share of an organization’s stock and an equal vote in all decisions. Everyone also has a Personal Capital account from a central bank that has three buckets: an Accumulation fund based on their work income, a Legacy trust fund given by society to all at birth intended for retirement or extreme emergency, and a monthly Dividend from the state derived from a 5 percent tax levied on all gross corporate revenues. These policies emerged from the wreckage of the great disruptions set off by cadres of various techno-rebels in Other Now, which brought an end to capitalism in the wake of the 2008 crash and the point at which it diverged from the Our Now inhabited by Costa, Iris, and Eva, along with the rest of humanity.

The balance of the plot deals with the interactions between Costa, Iris, Eva, and their Others as they confront their existence—their aspirations and their discontents—in their divergent Nows. Other Now is not an unmitigated utopia, it turns out: corporations may have been democratized, capital markets and investment bankers may no longer exist, but patriarchy continues to hold sway. The shared prosperity of Other Now brings with it a renewed social conservatism. Shady characters continue to find ways to game the financial system even if their machinations are quickly uncovered and swiftly dealt with.

In the book’s final pages, the wormhole begins to deteriorate as corporate hackers are getting close to breaching HALPEVAM’s security device. Big Tech’s takeover of HALPEVAM would, of course, result in its total monetization, offering only short-term pleasures in pay-per-view until its customers are completely enmeshed in its experience, the very specter of the Technofeudalist nightmare Varoufakis abhors in Zuckerberg’s notion of the “metaverse.” What’s more, the ability of Our Now users to communicate with their counterparts (it goes without saying for a fee) would likely devastate Other Now, as well.

How the various characters respond to the impending doom is the denouement of Varoufakis’s narrative. In offering a glimpse of how things might be different, Another Now invites us to contemplate possibilities that are not without their challenges, but worth entertaining nonetheless.



Monday, October 25, 2021

Amy Taubin Interviews Todd Haynes

Todd Haynes's documentary The Velvet Underground screening at Outer Limits Lounge, 21 October 2021

The October 2021 issue of Artforum (which I wrote for in the late 80s/early 90s) has this interview with director Todd Haynes about his documentary on the Velvet Underground by Amy Taubin, critic and one of the early hangers on in the 1960s at Andy Warhol's Factory on Union Square. I loved the film and yes the centrality of Jonas Mekas, to whom the film is dedicated and who I got to meet at a party on the Upper West Side when I lived in New York, is right on. Mekas took Warhol to see a performance by La Monte Young, whose group, Dream Syndicate, at one point included John Cale, a founding member of VU. Young's trance music is said to have inspired Warhol's cinema verite, such as his famous 8-hour film of the Empire State Building. 

I saw Todd Haynes's movie at the Cinema Lamont screening outside in the yard behind the Outer Limits Lounge in Hamtramck, which seemed like an appropriate venue given the underground world the film attempts to capture. Some have criticized the omission of Doug Yule from the film, but I'm OK with it. As Haynes notes in the interview, he wasn't making the standard rock documentary but instead trying to capture the feeling of the avantgarde scene in New York at VU's inception. Yule wasn't part of that, having joined the group after Cale's departure.

Here's the official trailer:

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Fear Factor, Revisted: On the 20th Anniversary of September 11

This Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center that set off the 20-year war in Afghanistan (with a side trip to Iraq) from which the United States has theoretically been extricating itself. (Whether we will ever be totally out remains to be seen.) I was living in New York City on September 11 (Brooklyn actually, Carroll Gardens to be exact) while getting my MA in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. I wrote a first draft of this piece as part of a class I was taking with Christopher Hitchens, who soon after began using the term "Islamofascism" to stake out his position as a "left hawk," ultimately to advocate for regime change with the invasion of Iraq. (For my take on Hitchens, see my PopMatters review of his memoir, Hitch-22.) I updated the essay a couple of years later when Sherry Hendrick asked me for a contribution to Alley Culture AC News. It appeared in volume 6, number 2 in spring 2005 under the title "Fear Factor" and is reprinted below.

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Before dinner on September 11, 2001, I walked from my apartment in Carroll Gardens to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Still dazed from that morning, I stood at the railing that overlooks the East River with hundreds of men, women, and children, watching the sunset on Manhattan.

It was nearing the end of a picture-perfect autumn day. The air was crisp, the sky a brilliant blue and nearly cloudless. There was nothing to suggest anything amiss but the hole in the New York City skyline where the Twin Towers once stood and from which an enormous stream of dark smoke now issued, billowing over the Brooklyn Bridge seemingly into infinity.

It was almost eight hours since the first tower collapsed; yet papers and other debris still fluttered down from above. A charred document settled beside me; I caught another in my hand moments later. Another came down behind me, and I turned to pick it up.

The first document was a foreign exchange letter between Citibank in New York and Bank of America in San Francisco, setting the currency rate in US dollars for a business deal going down in Australia. The second was a page from the balance sheet of an English automotive supplier, presented in pounds sterling as part of its Lloyd's of London proof of insurance certificate. I recognized these things as the mundane yet essential tools of empire, evidence of the global capitalist network within which New York City is a command center.

The third sheet gave me a chill. Through the scorched-brown tinge, I made out a webpage with information about an orthodontist practicing in New Jersey. Next to the doctor's name was jotted a note to look into whether it was the same person the note's author knew in high school.

Did whoever had written that note get out? I wondered. Did he or she have any idea what was happening at the time of the attack and in its immediate aftermath? What of the family and friends? What were they doing right now? Did they know anything more about the fate of this person whose perhaps last thoughts I held in my hand? In the flash of an instant, the day's global and personal implications crystallized.

Unease turned into dread over the next few days, not because I feared for my life; although, I did change subway cars one time when I noticed a gaunt olive-skinned man with a beard sitting across from me holding a backpack I could swear was ticking.

Rather, it was because the first order of business I heard Congress pick up when it reconvened wasn't to ask what the hell went wrong but to pass legislation protecting the airlines from lawsuits surely to result from lax security that let suicide pilots with box cutters get through undetected.

Even more unnerving was the President, who on TV vowed vengeance on our behalf while exhorting us to max out our credit cards as part of the newly declared War on Terror. But the War on Terror quickly turned into the Reign of Terror as compulsory nationalism replaced independent thought and the USA PATRIOT Act rendered notions like habeas corpus and due process quaint. As the first anniversary of September 11 drew close, Condoleeza Rice, then Nation Security Advisor, brought tidings of a fearsome new specter – Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction, the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud that could do more harm than 19 Jihadists with hijacked planes could ever dream of.

Through it all, the Homeland Security Advisory shifted between Yellow, a significant risk of terrorist attacks, and Orange, a high risk. We were encouraged to be ever vigilant, to take notice of and report any suspicious person, thing, or activity to the authorities.

In 1984, George Orwell writes about a country where perpetual war is used to foster hate and fear, allowing its authoritarian regime to control the domestic population. Is it paranoid to think that a collateral benefit of the Reign of Terror is to keep us in line while providing cover for tax cuts for the rich, giveaways to Big Business, and now perhaps a rollback of the New Deal to the days of the Robber Barons?

On November 3, 2004, I couldn't help noticing the pall that settled over Manhattan as people faced a reality more ominous than the one they awoke to on September 12, 2001 – where, in a strange land called Red State America, they so loved Big Brother they actually re-elected him.

Vince Carducci lives in exile on a small island off the coast of America.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

RIP Peter Williams

Peter Williams (1952-2021) Photo: Kathy F. Atkinson

On August 19, we lost one of the great Detroit painters, Peter Williams. He had been in and out of the hospital recently and this time he didn't make it.

I remember meeting Peter when first he came to Detroit. At the time he was doing abstract paintings, kind of in the manner of Sean Scully, and quite frankly I wasn't particularly interested in them. As time wore on and he became increasingly embedded in the city, his work took on a more soul-searching character. He began to question issues of identity, all the while slapping on the pigment with increasing mastery.

My intersection with Peter's work was heightened by a class I took in winter 2001 with cultural critics Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendall at the New School for Social Research in New York on representations of race and gender in American culture. One of the books we read was Constance Rourke's American Humor: A Study of the National Character, published in 1931. (It remains a classic and everyone interested in American folkways needs to read it.) In it, Rourke discusses the three archetypes of American humor: the Yankee peddler, the backswoodsman, and the minstrel. 

It was this last archetype that resonated with me in relation to Peter's work. It's important to note that Rourke's understanding of minstrelsy predates its appropriation by white culture particularly after the Civil War. Minstrelsy, in Rourke's view, was originally a subversion, a mechanism for enslaved Blacks to "put Massah on," much like the Cakewalk that made fun of white body carriage only to then be picked up by whites who weren't hip to the dis. I saw the reclamation and reversal of the white minstrel trope to be key to what Peter was up to and my suspicion was confirmed in conversations we had during a solo exhibition he happened to be having at Revolution Gallery. The result was the essay published in the November/December 2001 issue of New Art Examiner titled "Peter Williams's Black Humor." (I have uploaded a scan to Google Drive, which can be viewed here.) 

"Peter Williams's Black Humor" remains one of the best things I have ever written, though the beginning and ending were fucked up by bad edits in part because I was communicating from Brooklyn via fax with NAE literally as the smoke was still billowing over the East River in the wake of September 11. I was thrilled when the next year a reference to the article was contained in the catalog for the 2002 Whitney Biennial in which two of Peter's works appeared.

One of the saddest things about Peter's passing is that he was still on an upward swing. In 2020, he won an Artists' Legacy Foundation Award and more recently a Guggenheim. He also had simultaneous shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Trinosophes, and Paul Kotula Gallery. 

There was some comfort in knowing he was out there in the world, working away (he once claimed to be "hardest working artist in Detroit") and cutting through all the bullshit. I will miss him.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

New Woman Behind the Camera

 I wrote a review of The New Woman Behind the Camera for PopMatters. The exhibition surveys the work of midcentury women photographers now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and traveling to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. International in scope, the show presents the work of 120 women from 20 countries.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Dawoud Bey's American Project

My review of the 50-year retrospective of the work of photographer Dawoud Bey, who College for Creative Studies awarded an honorary doctorate to a few years back.

"Dawoud Bey's American Project," PopMatters, 19 May, 2021.

PopMatters Best Nonfiction of 2020

In December 2020, PopMatters published a list of the best nonfiction books of the year. Three of the books I reviewed were included in the list. I don't write much, but apparently what I do write seems to get some recognition. Since then, PopMatters moved to WordPress and the links from that roundup appear to be broken. Here are the current links to the reviews:

"Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America" on the Library of America's first of three volumes on the work of historian Richard Hofstadter.

Dora Apel's visual culture analysis cum memoir: Calling Memory Into Place.

"First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?" on Hal Foster's collection of essays What Comes After Farce?.