The Anatomy of a Frog
The Frog Body
It is the object before you, dis-intermediated, limp, moist. You feel fear, wielding a scalpel to begin the procedure. Under the direction of your teacher, the implicit threat of failure weighs over you. It is harmless in its posture of death. You pass the scalpel to your lab partner; better that other people enact the violence. It isn’t alive, therefore you feel no guilt.
All of the organs have been removed and what is now visible is a distorted form, splayed out before you. It resembles something familiar, something which was once living in interconnection with other bodies of meaning. But it is difficult now to remember what it once was, as those relationships have been severed.
Berardi writes, “Dis-empathy is the consequence of this dis-harmonization of social communication. The sexuality of the fractal body is exposed in the form of panic, and desire is driven simultaneously in countless directions, in the frigid orgy of pornography.” (Uprising, 129)
In Crypto-art, Benjamin’s object aura is a spiritual power which is consecrated through its sublimation to capital. Thus we have the image-body as pornography, mirroring a meaning-body which was sacrificed for its ability to becomes a pure semiotic container of financial value. In much the same way pornography elicits a response in the viewer of arousal because of the objectification of those being portrayed, Crypto-art allows the user to project fantasies of power onto its artifice.
This produces images like Pepe the frog, with its alt-right associations and banal referentiality.
Full disclosure, I hate this stupid fucking little frog. Let us dissect him.
The Earth Body
Our bodies provide points of differentiation, and scaffold up. We have physical bodies, and we have social bodies and we have data bodies. Bodies which assemble larger forms of relationship. The Earth-body is the material substrate for all relationship and power, systematically recycling false narratives and consuming false gods through its cyclical process.
Compression is a concept of applying an algorithm that reduces information to make a file size smaller. We look at compressed pieces of content every day on the internet. The Jpeg format has largely allowed for images to exist on the internet, otherwise our computers would take a long time to download images. Compression enables transference.
Hayek saw markets as a form of information compression that allowed for decision-making. This made markets superior to state-controlled economies because they were decentralized and could respond in real-time to supply and demand, thereby more efficiently distributed resources. In this way, a market is a form of distributed computation using a “price index” to compress disparate pieces of information into a human readable framework. We understand how much something costs, and can factor in many different values in ascertaining that price.
Price compresses relationships and information. Price is a body.
The Earth-body is also compression, taking the sum total of everything that has ever existed and churning it into hydrocarbons like oil and coal. The earth compresses death into latent power, and that power is directly converted to consensus protocols fueling financial speculation via the blockchain.
Proof of work is a meta-body overlaid on top of the earth. A computational network scaffolding on top of other power networks which reifies and transfers power through its degrees of sublimation.
All of the bones of those from before, melt into this dark concentrate, concatenate into code, drawing new relationships, reifying power, replicating power, manufacturing power, promising more power.
The Fascist Body
Fascism in this sense is a set of properties which may apply to the contemporary moment as we transition into decentralized and distributed social, political and cultural frameworks.
The Fascist body is a transitional framework describing a set of relations, rather than a specific set of contents. It is the body-image compressed into a semiotic container of productive surplus-value, interchangeable through its own dis-intermediated body-protocol.
Fascism was described by Adorno as a set of latent properties inherent to liberal democracy, as opposed to an outside threat. The qualities of Fascism involve a crisis provoked by economic precarity, creating an opening for authoritarian leaders invoking false populism and promises of power.
According to Benjamin, the Fascists will not change property relations, but will give you an outlet to channel your rage. Through campaigns of dehumanizing the “other” Fascism directs that rage towards war, which at least temporarily bolsters the economy. In this way, we can describe the impulse towards economic stimulus as directed violence. It promotes the dominance of the strong over the weak as a natural law and precondition for the functioning of the state.
Certainly the racism, sexism and xenophobic content pervading the memetic communities of 4chan, 8chan have bled into Crypto-art through these tools of permanence and cultural transmission.
In the age of decentralization this impulse manifests itself differently. We have fragmented cells of paranoid internet communities congealing on conspiracy theories and ultra-nationalist policy agendas. The social algorithm boosts their polemic because it caters to strong emotions and therefore delivers increased viewership for advertising platforms. In the place of an authoritarian leader, we have a proof of work algorithm promising absolute candor and “trust” i.e. a trustless system of transaction which will restore fairness to an otherwise unfair and rigged economic system.
This idea that the free-market is an inherently fair mechanism is reflected in the anarcho-capitalism which underpins much of the ideology of the blockchain. While the blockchain isn’t authoritarian or centralized, it involves a direct transference of power through global computational compression.
The Remix Body
The Crypto-Art image represents a reaction against culture itself. It uses repurposed 3D tutorials, bitmap drawings, Vaporwave and Synthwave regurgitation. It represents a rage channeled against an imagined “art world,” of elite cultural creators from which many feel excluded. Crypto-art communities couch their language in that of the entrepreneur, using words like “disruption,” to imply the ways in which they will reverse the power dynamic.
It is ultimately not about the image contained in Crypto-art, but the gesture that the image has become a form of economic power.
The Crypto-art image is assemblage, in a purified mechanism of concatenation. In the compression of the image, we create a semiotic container capable of interoperability in the emergent system of financial capital. Each image is interchangeable, tradable, transferable. This is different then the image compression algorithm, in that a JPEG circulates an image, but is not tied to a specific economic system.
In The Uprising, Berardi writes about how this affects the “social body” or the ability to entertain notions of social solidarity. When faced with recombination, the social body withers when meaning is stripped and recombined. There must be continuity of meaning in order for there to be a solid basis for social relationships and commonality. Thus, the implications for art compressed into the speculative asset is that all notions of social solidarity or societal progress become subservient to notions of financial capital and exchange value.
In practice, this assemblage comes masquerading as many of the thematic elements of a previous moment; participatory, community driven, gift economy. De-skilling, remix, appropriation. The moment of remix represented a type of finality, where the value of intellectual and creative labor was wholesale de-valued by the supposed gift economy — turned platform. We created the virtual potlatch of the internet to share content, and that content was re-appropriated by capital and held hostage; sold back to us with interest. Our social networks became sticky webs of entanglement as we mainline the network driven by advertising metrics and auctioned attention economies.
Because meaning has been divorced from the body, Crypto-art is incapable of creating something new; it feeds off of relics of old ideas, referential aesthetics, the inversion of the liberatory moment of re-mix where a different type of populism rose up to combat the forces of corporate control over media. Within all of this there was a type of teleology, towards a salvation. One could sacrifice themselves for an idea, but the narrative implied a future.
In Crypto-art, we have traded salvation for power by sacrificing our meaning-bodies to the network. To become validated by the other nodes. To verify, and be verified.
“Feels good, man.”
The Image as Empty Body
The Crypto-art image is the ultimate nihilistic gesture, conforming across all possible meaning, rendering it moot.
High or low, whether Pepe the Frog or Vaporwave, it is an essence; a form without substance. It is a body without organs, a free flowing empty vessel, occupying multiple states simultaneously, and none and all.
Crypto-art is a reflection of pure mechanism. A virus looking for a host. It attaches itself to the organs of culture, replicating, transmitting, but incapable of creating something new. Perhaps an apotheosis of late capitalism, or a harbinger of new horizons. The meme is dis-intermediated content reified as a reductive process disseminating fragments of meaning.
In Crypto-art, suddenly the meme has value beyond its power of transmission. Through packaging the image through these NFT protocols such as erc-721, or 1155, It becomes a symbol consuming itself. The network becomes a mirror hallucination of the abyss, drawn from deep within the earth’s dark memory. The complete absence of meaning in the present is both a condition of the evaporation of the past, as well as notions of futurity.
It is populist, feeding on this moment of precarity to wholesale devour culture and transform it into its image. The virus melts down capitalism and reforms it in the image of it’s own power conception. The sacrifice of meaning is a self imposed and internalized logic; our infected cells replicate the logic, forming new organs for perceiving new truths.It is the wholesale digestion of the social body, so it can be legible to the network. Through that conversion, the artist becomes one with the new body.
The body “feels good, man.”
Crypto-art cannibalizes the essence of commercial subcultures and reframes it as an autonomous agent of capital.
Artists may attempt to mint NFT tokens, thinking that the meaning they supply the object is enough to counteract the effects of its de-matrixing, but that meaning is stripped away in order for the new object to be born. The artist must sacrifice themselves in order to transmit that compressed vector of value.
Alfred Jarry, entering the stage, prophesying,“ Merde.” And so has it come to pass, frozen, on repeat, hashed, stored and tokenized.
The Body as Currency
The platforms themselves have politics, and those politics construct the image. The image is given meaning through the context of its delivery. In the case of crypto-art, the image is ripped from its context, and re-instantiated as pure property relation.
In Debt, Graeber describes one of the preconditions of slavery as a form of exchange, whereby the slave is the subject completely de-contextualized; it is a person ripped from their native familial context, therefore allowing the slaveholder to treat that person like property.
This implies that this type of decontextualization contains an inherent violence. The very structure through which this process happens, this commodification is violence.
The context is also defined by the technical parameters of the medium itself. Adorno, writing about the Phonograph, writes about the record as the first time human subjectivity becomes denatured and subservient to technology.
“It is no coincidence that [in German] the term “plate” is used without any modification and with the same meaning in both photography and phonography. It designates the two-dimensional model of a reality that can be multiplied without limit, displaced both spatially and temporally, and traded on the open market. This, at the price of sacrificing its third dimension: its height and it’s abyss.” (Adorno, Phonograph)
In creating a technology that flattens meaning into a semio-asset, we are killing Art.
The Inversion Body
The counter-cultural movement of the 1960’s gave way to the technology culture of Silicon Valley and the internet. The distrust of authority, the state, tradition, and the seeking of novelty and self reliance converged and gave birth to a politics which in many ways primed us for this moment.
Left libertarian counter culture politics takes an ugly turn on the blockchain and becomes an invocation of its demon brother. The disillusionment with the “state” becomes co-opted by the right wing iconography, lubricated by new age ideology that softens the mind to ideas beyond rationality.
In Dogen, Mystical Realist, Hee Gee Kim discusses the transmission of eastern spirituality to western culture, and the ways in which the “pure expression” of the spiritual state as something which defies logic, against rational thought, primes it as a source of power to be wrapped around nationalist causes, as was the case in Japan during WWII.
This deflection of critical discourse in favor of “power” and “purity” have a familiar echo with 20th century Fascism. In this way, by decontextualizing the image, it is reconstituted not as a form of discourse, but as a form of power.
In this way, the power distribution reflects an emergent trend in politics, whereby right-wing libertarianism is ascendant, and democratic social discourse is under siege. These principles can be loosely summarized as “Anarcho-Capitalism” and originated in the mid 20th century.
Murray Rothbard’s Dis-embodied Ghost
It’s like that scene in Ghostbusters when Bill Murray’s girlfriend gets possessed by the ancient evil spirit and says, “There is no Dana. Only Zuul.” Except it’s government and capitalism.
Murray Rothbard, is largely considered the progenitor of Anarcho-capitalism. He was a holocaust denier, like 5 years after it happened, and thought it was permissible to put your children up for auction.
If Crypto-Art is a symptom of fascist tendencies, it finds pure expression through Anarcho-capitalist principles, and in this way embodies this same 20th century reactionary ethos in response to economic precarity. The Bitcoin blockchain was issued after the 2008 financial crash and has gained in popularity as increasing financial austerity erodes the public’s safety net. In the same way that Fascism refocuses the public rage against the forces of capital, the blockchain doubles down on the same market forces which cause financial precarity.
Anarcho-capitalists believe in an ultra-purified version of the free market where power is exercised freely through the unequal distribution of capital. There are no social protections, safety nets, consumer advocacy groups, or services. There are however police, who are private contractors protecting the property of the wealthy. Anarcho-Capitalism is violence perfected into a belief in markets as the totalizing expression of human sociality. Financialization is the logic of this system, whereby everything becomes a form of economic exchange. The market compresses human sociality into that which is capable of being expressed via a price index. The sovereignty of property relations is absolute, and everything can be bought and sold.
The Blockchain is a pure expression of this principle, because it creates an unfettered speculation economy backed not by state power and mediation, but by computational trust. In this way, this computational trust is a stand in for the “invisible hand” of the market, promising fairness.
In this way, Crypto-art is an expression of radical populist rage towards the cultural establishment, seen as exemplary of larger exclusionary establishment forces. Crypto-Art can be seen as a compression of meaning that represents the final form of financialization of discourse, rendering all futurity subject to market forces and power distributions.
Eric Barry Drasin is a media artist and researcher, currently based in Buffalo NY where he completed his MFA in fine art. He will become a Doctoral student in Media Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder fall 2021.