Teaching at the New Centre

I will be teaching a four-class-long seminar at the New Centre entitled “The Age of Computational Desire: Towards a New History of Culture in the 2020s” This is my first time teaching in five years and an entirely new course. My hypothesis, which I first outlined in 2022 my year in review, is that Network Culture is finished. After looking at postmodernism and network culture while inquiring into the validity of this task of periodization, this research seminar asks: what’s next?  It is part of the Post-Planetary Universal Design certificate program run by my brilliant friends Ed Keller & Carla Leitão. A short description (subject to change follows).

The course will run from 1400 to 1630 EST on May 5th, 12th, 19th, 26th and costs $225. You can sign up on the New Centre site. I’ll have more to say about what interests me about the New Centre and why I am willing to teach again after five years of not teaching in another post I hope to have up soon.

The Age of Computational Desire: Towards a New History of Culture in the 2020s

By 2005 “postmodernism” had outlived its usefulness as a theoretical concept for understanding the present time. Instead, others suggested “network culture” and “metamodernism,” as new frameworks to understand a period in which the Internet became central to everyday life, culture, and economy. By 2010, it was clear to thinkers interested in the subject that network culture would last a decade, after which a new constellation would take hold.

This Seminar sketches the technological outlines of the post-COVID era. Old corporate models of network culture, characterized by the five most prominent global technology corporations, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FAANG) are decaying, cryptocurrencies are questioned and devalued as we see the rapid rise of various forms of Artificial Intelligence that, as yet, have no capacity for inherent cognition but uncannily predict the relationship of immediately-adjacent or related elements. This Seminar probes the consequences of these transformations, tracking how the very structure of networks transformed political forms and discourses. The Seminar asks, can a new political order be constructed around these shifting technological structures? What will this new era’s markets and economies look like?

Session 1: From Postmodernism to Network Culture. Marx, Jameson, and the concept of totality
Session 2: Network Theory. Social Networks, the perils of influence, and the promises of decentralization
Session 3: Artificial Intelligences and computational desire, or Hegel and singularity
Session 4: Jackpot Theory from Dark Accelerationism to Angelicism

2022 in review

I missed the year in review for 2021 entirely. The end of 2021 was stressful: it wasn’t a terrible year, the way the Trumpenjahren were, but it was bad. I ran out of steam and never pulled the post together. Not so this year. I’ve posted once a month on average, which is the most posts since 2016. Most of these were quite long opinion pieces and some, like the Critical AI Art projects took weeks of work to produce. Moreover, posting really began in earnest later in the year after I switched to my new server at Kinsta and my new theme powered by GeneratePress (see here). Not only is the site faster for you, dear reader, but it is also much faster for me to work on. For the first time in years, the future of this blog looks bright.

This post is comprised of four parts: The End of the Covidian, Geopolitical Transitions, Network Culture RIP, the Age of Desiring Machines

I. The End of the Covidian

2022 has been a good year and, although I know some of my readers will disagree, at least half of it felt like we left the pandemic behind. Goodbye to the Covidian era. As I write this, we are off skiing in northern Vermont and while some things still aren’t open and there are longer lines due to staffing shortages, it feels like COVID is over. Everyone in the family except me has had COVID during the last year and nobody got as seriously ill as our youngest did from the flu last month. Now, I’m far from an extremist on this: I have all my vaccines, all the boosters, and have taken reasonable precautions throughout the pandemic. But looking at the statistics, it’s clear that vaccines and herd immunity are here. Pretty much every article I see reposted to raise alarm about the new wave of COVID coming “any day now” declares that we need to watch out for a “troubling new variant,” but there is no troubling new variant, it’s just clickbait. Once there is a troubling new variant, then I’ll worry. In the meantime, this is the new normal. You’ll either be wearing a mask forever—which may be good if you are seriously immunocompromised—or not. Epidemiologists are pretty much always in a constant state of panic about diseases, it’s their training to do so; I’d probably be in a constant state of panic if I knew what they know. Instead, I’ll choose to live my life, which is what most people have done now.

It was always naïve or disingenuous of Dr. Fauci and others to claim that vaccines would utterly eliminate COVID the way Ebola was eliminated, COVID was already too widespread and contagious. But if COVID is, as claimed, a novel coronavirus, the odds are that once the massive and tragic initial impact is over, while it would never disappear, once we achieved a degree of immunity to it, it would be something we could live with in an endemic state, like existing coronaviruses, the new COVID normality. What about long COVID? Sure, it’s real, although many of the studies on long COVID seem quite poor, and instead of fretting about it, maybe we should pay attention to the long-term consequences of all viral infections? I have been struggling with IBS which began after a bad cold forty years ago, and Epstein-Barr, which causes mononucleosis, appears to cause multiple sclerosis. That’s pretty bad right there and while I have immense sympathy for anyone affected by any long viral disease, isolation, and constant masking have very real consequences on human life, particularly on child and adolescent development. We’re done with it and, unless and until something horrible appears, we’ll be living life in most ways as we did before March 2020. The COVID-induced supply chain crisis is largely over. New challenges are emerging, but the Covidian era is (likely) history.

II. Geopolitical Transitions

The biggest news of 2023 was, of course, the invasion of Ukraine. There has been huge suffering for Ukraine in the single largest violation of territorial sovereignty by a foreign power in Europe since World War II. But the Russian Bear stumbled and got badly bloodied. For centuries, Russia has been an awful neighbor, a bully, not a country that plays by the rule of law. Built on kleptocracy and theft at home, the state model for foreign relations is to invade, rape, kill, and exploit ethnic minorities and their sovereign lands to make up for the shortcomings of the kleptocratic Russian economy. As a result, leaders in the Baltics, Poland, and even Ukraine realized that post-cold War Russia was a threat and looked westward, where they might seek protection. Putin might have had a chance to counter this had he struck a decade ago, but for some inexplicable reason, his first excursion into Ukraine was halfhearted and he didn’t complete the task when he had a frightened lapdog as US President.

Corruption, incompetence, and an utter lack of strategic thinking undid the initial Russian thrust and, with help from the US and NATO, Ukraine is not only holding its own, it’s beating back Russian aggression. Russia is resorting to its usual tactics of massive bombardment of civilian positions from a safe distance, but with Ukraine, they’ve encountered a country not only fighting back on its own territory but also lobbing missiles back at Russian bases deep in their territory even as unknown saboteurs are destroying Russian infrastructure. It’s still unclear what the outcome will be or when: the result may simply be a question of who runs out of ammunition first, but Putin’s colossal miscalculation means there is a remarkably high chance it will be in the collapse of the criminal regime of Vladimir Putin. I am zero optimism that the result will be a new, more democratic, peace-loving regime in Russia. On the contrary, the collapse of the remaining empire will lead to a series of internal disputes and civil wars and a decline into a general ungovernability of the sort that has taken over much of the Middle East. Doubtless, China and other smaller powers will also make incursions into Russian territory, whittling away administrative regions for their own purposes. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, the next two decades may feel much more like cyberpunk dystopian versions of their 1990s selves: barely governable cities where the mafia and oligarchs take even more control while ordinary individuals resort to unprecedented measures to survive.

I’ve been to Europe a few times since the invasion and to Lithuania twice. Germany made a tremendous miscalculation under Merkel, allying itself with Russia and drinking deeply of its energy, but that route is going away forever and so is its role as leader of NATO and the EU. France and the UK have also been weakened by their complacency. These are economic empires in decline and—especially if Ukraine wins—a new center for Europe is going to emerge in the East, stretching from the Baltics down through Poland—which will be the most dominant force in this Europe—and into Ukraine. Turkey is already proving a powerhouse, but it is less likely to be a threat than an ally with this new democratic East bloc. This is where the energy in Europe is now: nations rejuvenated by existential threats frequently roar back as mighty powers, just the way Germany and Japan did after WWII. One last word about Russia: it re-introduced nuclear threats into East-West relations, but it did so poorly by repeatedly drawing lines that have been crossed. There has been no real escalation in readiness on the Russian side. While it certainly remains possible, it’s the silent bear you need to worry about, not the grunting one.

Although China hasn’t suffered the same humiliation that Russia has, it seems to be past its peak as well. The Zero COVID policy was an economic and social disaster that led to mass unrest and its end was utterly mismanaged. With Russia’s failure in Ukraine, Qi is forced to question his prospects for invading Taiwan while the West’s turn away from China has become even more urgent as its troubles with COVID cement the idea of China as an unreliable trading partner. Worse still, China has finally turned the corner to the other side of its demographic bubble and its population began contracting in 2022. It will be many generations before it is on the upswing again.

I don’t feel like I know enough about the global south, so I’ll skip that. But all this indicates that the 2020s are going to be very different than the 2010s. The Eastern European nations and Turkey will become increasingly important as Russia, Western Europe, and China are spent. It’s still unclear to me what countries outside of Europe will replace the BRICs, but no doubt there will be some surprising times afoot in this coming decade. Even if everyone may throw up their arms at this, the US—disregarding all its troubles—is likely to come out of the decade in a position of strength simply because of resources, population, a lack of real threats on its borders, and the existing geopolitical order. Much of this was foretold in geopolitical forecaster George Friedman’s 2011 book The Next 100 Years. Crucially, he repeatedly points out that no matter how violent disagreements between parties within the US really seem, the underlying policy doesn’t shift as much as it might appear it would, so notwithstanding Putin’s useful idiot in the White House, the US not only didn’t leave NATO, they left it stronger by forcing smaller countries to increase their defense spending; likewise, when Democrats took power in 2022, the US’s newly aggressive policy toward China didn’t really change. If you are interested in geopolitics, it’s worth a look.

III. Network Culture, RIP

Even as life is recovering and momentum is returning, there has been a renewed economic crisis throughout much of the world. Some of it is thanks to larger macroeconomic factors, e.g olb War, but much of it has to do with mistakes in economic policy—goosing of the market for far too long with loose monetary policy, quantitative easing, the misguided 2017 tax cuts, and too much pandemic relief. But the real cause is the end of a technological and economic cycle that began 20 or 30 years ago (depending on how we measure it) and had its heyday in the 2010s with the vaunted FAANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) growing about ten times faster than the rest of the market and driving equity markets to new highs. Over 2022, Facebook/Meta is down roughly 65%, Amazon and Netflix are down over 51%, Google/Alphabet is down 40%, Apple is down 29%, and FAANG adjacent stock Tesla is down 68%. Bitcoin, itself, which isn’t a stock but rather a Ponzi scheme, is down 64%, the S&P Cryptocurrency Large Cap index is down a massive 69%, and we all know how things ended for Sam Bankman-Fried and SBF. Compare this to the Vanguard Consumer Staples Index Fund, which never ran up as high, but is down a mere 3.69%.

This terrible tech performance, particularly in cryptocurrency, is indicative of a speculative bubble deflating, but it also points to a generational shift in technology. I am not an absolute believer in Kondratieff waves—long economic waves based on technological development that writers from Carlota Perez to Fredric Jameson have embraced—they seem too deterministic to me, but there is also some macroeconomic sense to them. New technologies drive speculative investment, which results in returns that seek more investments of a similar kind. After a while, overinvestment leads to bloat, the bubble bursts, and the economic system declines precipitously. The sharing economy, Web 2.0, and that branding abomination, “Web3” are finished. And with the end of this system, so is its cultural logic, network culture.

I first wrote about network culture in the mid-2000s and my first piece on the topic came out in our book Networked Publics. You can read the original version here and a revised version here. This piece has been translated into numerous languages: Lithuanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Chinese, and others (I’ve lost track at this point). I started a book on the topic immediately thereafter but I wasn’t able to finish it due to external factors beyond my control and a debacle at the publisher. You can read various spin-offs in “Forced Exposure. Networks and the Poetics of Reality,” in Jo-Anne Greene, Networked. A Networked Book about Networked Art on turbulence.org, “History After the End. Network Culture and Atemporality,” Cornell Journal of Architecture 8, spring 2011, “Simultaneous Environments,” in Mark Shepard’s, Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, and in “Architecture of Financialization,” Perspecta 47, 2014 (in the coming days, I will post all these pieces to my site).

The basic idea of network culture came out of my frustration that academics were still using Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or the Logic of Late Capitalism” over twenty years after it had been published, long after that epoch was finished. Jameson was never able to see past this, but a number of us did. Some other words were thrown around like metamodernism and post-postmodernism, but “network culture” made sense to me, indicating that there was a new cultural logic that was now based on relationships and connections primarily mediated by the Internet. As I wrote then, “Increasingly, the immaterial production of information and its distribution through the network is the dominant organizational principle for the global economy.” As Manuel Castells concluded in The Rise of the Network Society networks now supplant hierarchies and the production of information and the transmission of that information on networks is the key organizing factor in the world economy today. On a territorial and even geopolitical scale, Saskia Sassen pointed out in The Global City, megolpolises dominated, linked together by high-speed telecommunications networks, producing the financial and media operations that made the network economy thrive.

Network society was a globalizing society, what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri called “Empire” and network culture was a global culture: subcultures and local undergrounds began to decline. In an economy dominated by sharing, cultural mixing, and rapid wealth generation, the idea of the artist as a cultural elite was largely replaced by an interest in participation and remix. And yet, art could also be tremendously valuable as venture capital relentlessly sought new outlets. NFTs were the logical outcome of all this, removing artistic merit in favor of pure speculation—especially from people who didn’t know what they were doing with art or investment—led to the creation of an utterly bogus $11 billion market of which over $800 million is stupid looking apes that look like they are waiting to audition for a Gorillaz video game.

NFTs and the Boring Ape Club were, however, the last gasp of network culture, a decadent last spurt that only proved the system was spent. The signs of cultural change are around us. Network culture is dying. Social media is not coming back, not in its traditional form. Just 7% of teenagers say they use Facebook constantly. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/ Nobody on Earth, besides Mark Zuckerberg, wants to wear a VR headset to have a meeting in a virtual office full of amputated refugees from a rip-off of a Pixar movie. TikTok is popular, but I would be surprised if there aren’t massive restrictions or even an outright ban put in place by governments by the end of 2023. Twitter is in freefall. The world’s richest man has proven to be the world’s biggest idiot by spending a staggering $44 billion dollars on a site that was already in trouble and cementing it’s demise by acting like an idiot. These sites are not coming back. The one site that seems to absorb the attention of youth today—TikTok is much more like Youtube—a platform for consumption—rather than a traditional social media site and is under constant threat by Western regulators. The beginning of the end really happened in 2016. If on the one hand, Trump rose to power due to network culture—heavily employing social media and viral memes to mobilize followers—he also embodied the discontent with globalization that had always been there, but that had achieved a new fever pitch as the system spent itself.

Back in 2010 Bruce Sterling (in “Atemporality for the Creative Artist”) and I (“The Decade Ahead“) predicted that this epoch he and I called network culture would last at least ten years. I wrote: “Toward the end of the decade, there will be signs of the end of network culture. It’ll have had a good run of 30 years: the length of one generation. It’s at that stage that everything solid will melt into air again, but just how, I have no idea.” COVID was the break, and, after those ten years became “the decade of shit,” nobody is going to miss network culture. In retrospect, the 2000s were the decade of excitement, of forging new connections across age-old boundaries while finding old friends, of a world that had promise and was still imbued with the utopic promises of the early Internet and open source culture. The 2010s showed us just how toxic network culture could get, as both right (and left!) sought to squash dissent and get their minions in line. Hitler and Stalin would be proud of their descendants. A medium designed for utopic levels of human connectivity hurtled us toward civilizational collapse. That a disease spread by globalization and exacerbated by lies on social media (e.g. the anti-vax movement) ended all this is not surprising. We are lucky it wasn’t something worse.

IV. The Age of Desiring Machines

What comes after? My writing on network culture came a good way into that cultural epoch. Writing about this early is guaranteed to fail, but there were interesting if still premature, signs in 2022. First, there is the rise of Mastodon and decentralized communication. I have outlined my thoughts on this topic earlier, but suffice it to say, something new is in the works, a form of social media that hues closer to the original intent of the Internet. It may be that Mastodon always remains a small player in the net, but smallness is its strength. We need to bring back undergrounds and subcultures, not giant corporate meeting places that spread toxicity.

2022 has also been marked by the rise of “Artificial Intelligences” capable of producing text and images. I have explored these extensively and continue to do so. Ignore the horrific kitsch you see produced by these things, or better yet, don’t: the world of Deviantart and Artstation is bad, a byproduct of network culture permeated by simplistic online fan culture, NFTs were always stupid, now anybody can make things like that and this stuff is valueless. Good!

But calling ChatGPT, Midjourney, or Dall-E “intelligent” is wrong. These platforms have no ability to comprehend what they are doing. But might they be desiring machines? In the Deleuzean sense, a “desiring machine” is formed out of connections: every machine (or entity) is connected to another machine and in turn to another. This desire is not just about wanting something, but also about the process of becoming and creating through connections and that Is exactly what these platforms do. Responses to our prompts are based on the machine’s prediction of what a correct response would be. In other words, these systems are characterized by their desire to fulfill our desires. This is all very far from artificial general intelligence—although a baby crying for food is also far from a scientist or even a toddler in its ability to reason—but it is something new. There are a lot of unknowns here: we may already be at the end of the rapidly rising part of the S curve for these systems, or we may only be at the beginning. Either way, there is a reckoning in store for cultural producers and mid-level professionals producing banal work that will cause massive disruption.

There has been a lot of useless noise about the ability of these platforms to create fakes and I’ve played with that in my art, but where did we go wrong as educators? What happened to the idea that we should think critically? Wasn’t art history, as codified by Wölfflin, literally a matter of finding out how to authenticate something? Isn’t that what we learned in high school? Who are these people who have forgotten that “critical thinking” doesn’t mean blindly accepting whatever you see but rather that it means taking a critical distance from a text or an image?

Disruption is the key for the next few years, during which the outlines of a new cultural logic will begin to become apparent. The future is likely to be in terms of exacerbating the dictum attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” Don’t expect a utopic condition from new technologies and don’t expect the rise of socialism. Everyone is out to grab what they can. I am older and less optimistic than I was ten years ago, less prone to see the spectre of capital behind everything but also less prone to think anything can change that much. As the second season of White Lotus just emphasized, the upcoming generation is as confused, toxic, and prone to gaslighting and self-deceit as the previous ones. Colossal numbers of kids are being medicated, and while some small percentage need it, the amount of medication psychiatrists dispense needlessly is staggering. Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, the American Right’s refusal to condemn an insurrection that imperiled democracy, and the thoroughgoing denial of climate change (this essay was written during downtime from a ski vacation that is ending in a massive rainstorm) prove that too many humans are still bastards.

In the meantime, I’ll keep working on the design of my 1/2 acre (1/5 hectare) native plant garden, my art, and my writing—most especially on this blog, where the only thing that can impede my publishing is me. I’d love to get new commissions, but if not, there’ll be more to come on this site. Let’s hope 2023 is a better one. I think it will be, but I don’t expect miracles. Let’s hope the new cultural logic is at least as interesting, but less toxic than network culture. That would be quite an accomplishment right there.

On Mastodon

The demise of Twitter and Facebook together with the rise of Mastodon is one of the biggest changes in online culture in the last decade and, naturally, I am covering it in my upcoming 2022 year in review. But in drafting it, the section on Mastodon kept growing until I thought it best to break it out into a separate post. The first part, an overview of Mastodon and its rise, is likely to be most interesting to general readers. The second part is a set of observations about how Mastodon could be improved, intended as an offering to improve the platform on its own terms, not to replicate existing social media. While I am relatively new to Mastodon, I have also been on the Internet for over thirty years and I started on more decentralized platforms like USENET, email lists, and forums, not to mention a scholar of network culture for well over twenty years so I have seen a lot of things work and a lot of things break.

I. The Rise of Mastodon

After a decade and a half of corporate social media, the current system, dominated by Facebook and Twitter, is spent. Who would have thought that algorithms designed to reduce engagement with actual friends and to instead promote celebrity and brand worship as well as political polarization would drive away people of all political persuasions? Who could imagine a VR world of cartoon avatars that look like legless small children would not be an attractive alternative to the workplace, be it real or Zoom? Who would think promoting genocide and allowing shootings to be live-streamed would be a bad idea? Increasingly, Facebook is a brand for old people like America Online, Talbots, or Prevention. The broader public is finally sick of this mental diarrhea and the result has been a rout for social media stocks. Like Facebook, Twitter had been in decline for years and Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has been a massive unforced error, destroying both the network and any lingering shred of credibility he still possessed. As I wrote this last night, the site went down for hours. Both Twitter and Elon are shot, their glory days are over and the end is near. Facebook can hardly be far behind, as doomed as Mark Zuckerberg’s presidential ambitions.

Mastodon was founded in 2016 and while I signed up for it a while back, I didn’t find it a compelling place for things that interested me—partly because I hadn’t encountered any good guides on how to do so and partly because it had few active users. Even though Mastodon still has less active users than any major social media network, as anyone who has been involved in technology in the last forty years will tell you, it’s not the number of users that matters, it’s how steep the growth curve is and starting with the Twitter exodus in November the numbers of monthly active users has grown at least tenfold from 300,000 to 2.5 million. Moreover, the engagement I am getting on Mastodon is far greater than on Twitter: a ratio of about 2 posts for every new follower on Mastodon, as opposed to 48 to one on Twitter. Within a month, I have found myself with almost half as many followers on Mastodon as on my two-year-old Twitter account (I purposely burned my previous account out of frustration during the end of the trumpenjahren). Moreover, whereas many of my Twitter followers are random bots, confused political extremists who have made a colossal mistake in following me, or accounts that haven’t been used in a year, my Mastodon friends are chiefly interested in experimental technology, art, and music, are native plant enthusiasts, are people who dream of a less corporate network culture, e.g. exactly the kind of intelligent friends I’d like to engage with. What interests me is the community of individuals working with art and technology I have met. I have seen more interesting work in a couple of months on Mastodon than I have in years on Twitter. I think part of the reason for this is that while Mastodon is about as technically challenging as a toaster, that is still enough to scare off many people (like this reporter), so it has the advantage of being a relatively good place, at least for now.

Crucially, Activitypub, the system underlying Mastodon, is a protocol, not a platform owned by a corporation (see this article on protocols vs. platforms by Mike Masnick). Mastodon is a non-profit that rejects VC funding and does not insert advertising in its feeds. But Mastodon isn’t just an open-source alternative to Twitter, it is a decentralized system that uses individual servers, (“instances” in Mastodon parlance) that are linked (“federated”) together. It is possible, although challenging and relatively expensive (unclear how much, but I would budget about as much as to operate a website or $100-$300 a year), to create one’s own instance and while there are instances that have hundreds of thousands of users (such as the one I am on, mastodon.social), there are also quite a few instances with only a few dozen users.

Whereas in traditional social networks content moderation is the purview of a large corporation, at Mastodon it devolves to the administration of each instance. Terms of service are up to each instance and if the administrators of one instance feel that another instance is not moderating content appropriately, they can stop federating with it. Extremist social network Gab, for example, is an instance, but most other instances refuse to connect to it. If it turns out that mastodon.social—which is clearly progressive politically—is not federating with instances that have reasonable albeit right-wing views, I might leave it for an instance that is more broad in its thinking, the same goes if extremists from either side begin to take over. This is only a hypothetical situation, but it gives me an out that other social networks don’t. There are few easy solutions to content moderation and as law scholar Alex Rozenshtein argues in this piece, the debates are likely to be “messy and public.” I noted that one Mastodon server devoted to archivists, librarians, and museum workers also bans images of insects that aren’t marked as sensitive, requiring a direct click to see. This would be quite disheartening for a curator of entomology! I suspect instances with overly restrictive regulations will be less popular in the end and that will largely be a good thing. That said, for now, I personally avoid posting political positions and avoid following anyone who posts too many. I don’t need another shitshow like Twitter and I certainly don’t need to get my news from people posting on social media.

Again, joining Mastodon isn’t difficult for anyone with a minor degree of tech savviness: you start by choosing an instance at joinmastodon.org based on what you want to see, where you live, or maybe based on your profession (for example, journalist, mathematician, or infosec), then you start following people. You can follow me at @[email protected] but, if you have a Twitter account, a good way to follow individuals is to use movetodon, which scrapes the profiles of people you follow on Twitter to identify their mastodon account. Your main feed on Mastodon is composed of the people and hashtags you follow, but there are also both local and federated feeds, which show the most recent posts for either condition. In this case, being on a server that matters to you might make more sense.

II. Observations and Comments about Mastodon

First, discovery is something that Mastodon needs to work on. Understandably, search works for one’s server as well as for hashtags, but broader search across instances isn’t possible. This is apparently by design, to avoid trolls who search for topics to drop into. But the problem remains. How does one find something obscure, say posts about Nakagin Capsule Tower that aren’t tagged ? This seems to be a stumbling block that requires some really innovative thought.

Second, while it is possible to repost (or “boost”) a post (or “toot”), it isn’t possible to quote a post as this is seen as similarly seen as creating an atmosphere that encourages trolling. A number of Black social media users have complained that this undoes the call-and-response culture in their community. I would add that the real harm on Twitter isn’t from retweets, it’s from subtweets, in which someone takes a screenshot of a tweet and then adds a derogatory comment that the original poster, or lolcow, isn’t even aware of.

Third, the instance model is designed to encourage people to interact with their local community, as most smaller servers are based on self-identification. This is a great idea. One of the most destructive aspects of network culture has been a loss of subcultures and underground movements. Instead, we have a boring global soup. But having to choose an instance forces some individuals into making tough choices: is one’s sexual identity more important than one’s profession, is one’s country more important than one’s sexual identity, is one’s profession more important than one’s race? As of now, while one can see a local feed or a feed of everyone on Mastodon (useless at best), it seems impossible to see another server’s feed without joining it or making the effort to visit the server’s web page. The current solution preferred—multiple accounts—would make some sense for someone whose sexual identity and ethnic identity are important but who also wants to join a professional server, but what about someone whose identity brings together history, music synthesis, technology and art (e.g. me)? These are hard choices to make and it seems that being able to read and interact with feeds from multiple instances seems important.

Fourth and most crucially, Mastodon should create a distinct way to follow big accounts such as news sources and (gulp), celebrities of all stripes. The Long Tail is a ruse. The Internet has been prone to the Pareto principle or 80/20 rule (80 percent of the traffic goes to 20 percent of the sites… usually those numbers are even worse). Now Pareto wasn’t out there to promote democracy, he thought those 20 percent should rule society, an idea that immediately appealed to Mussolini. Social media companies have sought to encourage this, implementing algorithms to promote posts that get more likes instead of ranking posts chronologically. Facebook did this in 2009, constantly tweaking the algorithm in ways that made it worse and worse each time. Twitter ceased using chronological sorting and implemented its algorithm in 2016. By some uncanny coincidence, an idiot was elected US President in 2016, largely on the back of his Alzheimer’s induced tweets and, coincidentally Twitter also ceased being an interesting place to use that year. Social media algorithms set out to reinforce a model based on influence (as well as power and wealth) accumulating to a small number of individuals. They are terrible. But stars and influencers are also responsible for encouraging people to come to them (for example, one individual on Mastodon, who is also a well-known actor and social media personality follows under a hundred individuals but has hundreds of thousands of followers and added “boost this toot” and to one of his posts earlier last month). I didn’t disagree with his political message, but this seems deeply unhealthy to me as it reduces discourse to one-way communication dominated by the few. Now there might be situations in which this might make sense. For example, I might want to follow updates from my town, NASA, the location of Elon Musk’s jet, or a news source, and it seems ludicrous to expect them to follow me, plus as it is possible to follow RSS feeds (such as this blog) on Mastodon. But following a good number of these clogs up one’s timeline, which ideally should be a social feed from a community of friends. The solution here seems simple enough: create a section that we might call “channels” or “news” for these one-way accounts. That way, one could follow whatever one-way accounts one wanted while preserving the timeline for genuine interaction. This can be done with two lists now (say “friends” and “channels”), but that requires the active addition of accounts to each, which is needlessly time-consuming and means the timeline itself becomes useless. There is already a “News” tab on the official Mastodon iOS app, although not on the web interface, although this is already pre-populated with news sources and there appears to be no way to change this and is still meant to drive users to follow those profiles.

Fifth, from up in Section I, thinking of instances as communities or subcultures is an incredible step forward in building real places online, but it’s important to accommodate the natural human tendency to identify with multiple communities. Being able to register with, say, up to five instances to read and write to their local timelines would be better than just allowing local and federated timelines or at least make it possible to follow more than one local timeline.

art and text in AI (on Chat.openai.com)

I’ve been working with art and Artificial Intelligence image generators recently. Untalented artists are scared of AI image generators since they are tools for making bad art, which is all that is being promoted in the press. All of the image generators—save perhaps for Dall-E 2—are tuned to produce such work in order to generate revenue. Ed Keller calls this “the black light black velvet painting of our time.” AI Art is likely to destroy ArtStation and Deviant Art. But we have a jobs crisis and need people to work in more important positions like food service. Who can argue that this re-allocation of human labor is bad?

Virtually all the work being done with this—even work that is lauded as exemplary—is bad. A few friends do interesting work. I will let them publicize it, although it’s safe to say Ed is interrogating these generators as a medium, pushing their boundaries in ways that are interesting to me. A recent article on the topic in the Architects’ Newspaper highlighted only bad work. Patrick Schumacher has convened a symposium on “futuristic” work indistinguishable from his own, which means that it is midbrow and pedestrian. Archdaily published a piece that gives the impression that AI interior designs are the stuff of nightmares. I could waste my time and yours coming up with more links to bad work.

This should not surprise anyone. Almost everything is bad because intelligent thought in architecture is now nearly extinct.

Making interesting work with AI image generators requires work. It doesn’t take as much time as it might to create a painting by hand, but an AI painting might take hours, a day, or more. One needs a plan and a mind for experimentation. AI art generators are incapable of originality. Neither are almost all artists working today. That should not stop anyone as until the modern era, originality was not valued. In the Renaissance, “genius” did not mean making an unprecedented work, rather it meant the ability to shape something pleasing out of existing sources.

AI image generators create forgeries. One appropriate response, then, is to use them to create explicit forgeries. I undertook this as a project starting this summer with the Lost Canals of Vilnius, the Drowning of Doggerland, and the Witching Cats of New Jersey.

Any good forgery begins a kernel of truth. Basing texts and images on existing sources, I created alternate histories. I used a feedback effect: provocative works created by the image generators inspired my alternate histories and ideas from the alternate histories guided the prompts for image generators. Most of the work was done with Dall-E 2 since it alone is tuned to produces semi-convincing paintings and photographs.

I unintentionally duped some readers. But AI art and text generators are already being used to deceive people for political purposes, to satisfy high school and college requirements, and for work purposes. Convincing people has never been easier. This project was intended to foreground this. I intend to write an essay for this site on the topic, but this one came out first. I am in Vilnius, Lithuania which is not boring like New York City. Visiting here often jars me out of complacency, spurs new ideas, and forces action.

A related route is to use AI art in a surrealist sense. This does not mean prompts for paintings in the style of Salvador Dali. That is kitsch and awful. Rather, this is a way of accessing what Jung called the collective unconscious to produce visual automatic writing: Pinot-Gallizio’s “Industrial Painting” updated for our day. In a sense, the “Witching Cats” project came out of a prompt for a black and white cat that came out gruesomely misshaped, became an amusing diversion for Instagram, led me to read about photography and the occult in the nineteenth century, and that, in turn led to the essay and project. Otherwise, I have not released this work. I may or may not.

Two days ago (30 November 2022), OpenAI released a freely-accessible interface to ChatGPT, a language model capable of conversation in the format of a dialogue. Although it is possible to trip it up, it is also remarkable how effective it is at generating content, even content that can be quite lengthy and complex in nature. I began by trying to produce critical essays.

In all of these, my prompt will come first.

>In 1,500 words, compare “Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg and “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried.

Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays address this question, they take very different approaches and come to somewhat different conclusions.

In Modernist Painting, Greenberg argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its emphasis on the flatness of the canvas. He argues that the history of painting is one of the progressive flattening of the picture plane, and that modernist painting represents the culmination of this process. According to Greenberg, the flatness of the canvas allows the painter to focus on the formal elements of the painting, such as line, color, and composition, and to create a more intense and immediate visual experience for the viewer.

In contrast, Art and Objecthood takes a more philosophical approach to the question of modernist painting. Fried argues that the defining characteristic of modernist painting is its refusal to be reduced to a mere object in the world. He argues that modernist painting is defined by its ability to transcend the merely physical and to create a “presence” that is distinct from the physical object of the painting itself. According to Fried, this “presence” is what allows modernist painting to truly engage the viewer and to create a meaningful artistic experience.

One key difference between the two essays is their focus. While Greenberg is primarily concerned with the formal qualities of modernist painting, Fried is more interested in its philosophical and artistic implications. This difference is reflected in their respective conclusions. While Greenberg ultimately argues that the flatness of the canvas is the defining characteristic of modernist painting, Fried argues that it is the ability of the painting to create a “presence” that sets it apart from other forms of art.

Another important difference between the two essays is their treatment of the viewer. For Greenberg, the viewer is an essential part of the modernist painting experience. He argues that the flatness of the canvas allows the viewer to engage more directly with the formal elements of the painting, and that this creates a more intense and immediate visual experience. In contrast, Fried is less concerned with the viewer’s experience of the painting and more interested in the painting’s ability to create a “presence” that transcends its physical form.

Overall, Modernist Painting by Clement Greenberg and Art and Objecthood by Michael Fried are two important essays that address the question of what constitutes modernist painting. While both essays take different approaches and come to different conclusions, they both provide valuable insights into the nature of modernist painting and its place in the history of art.

>Write a 2,000 word analysis of the song “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey’s 1992 hit “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of aggressive and confrontational lyrics, coupled with her powerful and haunting vocals, Harvey exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship.

The song opens with a haunting and intense instrumental introduction, featuring distorted guitar riffs and driving drums that set the tone for the rest of the track. This instrumental introduction immediately establishes the song’s aggressive and confrontational atmosphere, setting the stage for the confrontational and emotional lyrics that follow.

The first verse begins with Harvey’s powerful and haunting vocals, as she sings: “I want you gone / But I want you still.” This opening line perfectly encapsulates the confusion and conflicting emotions that can arise when trying to leave a toxic relationship. On the one hand, the narrator wants to rid herself of her partner, but on the other hand, she still desires their presence and connection.

The chorus, which follows the first verse, features the repeated line: “Rid of me / Rid of me.” This chorus serves as a cry for help and a desire to be free from the suffocating and harmful relationship. The repetition of the line, coupled with Harvey’s powerful and emotive vocals, emphasizes the narrator’s desperation and longing for freedom.

The second verse continues with the narrator’s emotional turmoil, as she sings: “I’m an animal / I’m a dog / I’m a death / I’m a thief.” These lyrics paint a vivid and disturbing picture of the narrator’s state of mind, as she feels trapped and degraded in her relationship. The use of animalistic imagery also highlights the loss of humanity and dignity that can occur in a toxic relationship.

The bridge of the song features the line: “I’m a mess / I’m a wreck / I’m a fault / I’m a scar.” These lyrics further emphasize the narrator’s feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness in the relationship. She sees herself as a burden and a source of pain for her partner, and longs for the release of being free from the relationship.

The final verse of the song features the line: “I’m not a child / I’m not a pet / I’m not a toy / I’m not a doll.” This line serves as a powerful declaration of the narrator’s autonomy and independence. She rejects the idea of being treated as a possession or object, and asserts her own worth and dignity.

The song’s instrumental outro features a repetitive guitar riff that gradually builds in intensity, culminating in a ferocious and powerful finale. This instrumental finale perfectly captures the narrator’s emotional release and liberation as she breaks free from the toxic relationship.

In conclusion, “Rid of Me” is a raw and emotional exploration of the pain and anger that can arise in a toxic relationship. Through the use of confrontational and powerful lyrics, coupled with Harvey’s haunting and emotive vocals, the song exposes the desperation and helplessness that can arise when trying to leave a harmful relationship. The song’s intense and driving instrumentals perfectly capture the narrator’s emotional turmoil and eventual release, making it a powerful and impactful anthem for anyone who has experienced the pain of a toxic relationship.

Unfortunately, ChatGPT can make mistakes and there are mistakes in that essay. Later, I asked it to write about the relationship between Vytautas Landsbergis and George Maciunas and it stated that while they are both Lithuanians interested in Fluxus and music, they had no direct relationship, which is untrue. ChatGPT receives a failing grade for not meeting the required word count, although adding those phrases produces longer analyses.

Still, the above essays are better than what 95% of graduate students are capable of doing in an afternoon or, usually, a weekend. This should not be surprising as, while ChatGPT is incapable of original thought, so are 95% of graduate students and, indeed, 95% of faculty.

When I did my dissertation at Cornell, a dissertation was defined as a “contribution to knowledge” but the vast majority of such work in the humanities is formulaic: find an obscure topic related to an important topic (an unknown modern architect in Brazil in the 1960s who made middling buildings but met Lina Bo Bardi at a restaurant for dinner once or a failed, uninteresting project by someone who saw Le Corbusier speak) represented in an archive, go to said archive, find some obscure fact of no importance and blather on about how important said find is, add a conclusion in which Foucault is invoked to make the work “political,” and submit as a dissertation. Or at least that was a “good,” Ivy-level dissertation in the 2000s. Today one would have to add some random verbiage about marginalized communities, identity, and oppression to indicate that one is more “political.” Such work is not intended to be original, but rather to indicate that one has been properly disciplined in graduate school and is now capable of independently programming other students to also produce work of no importance whatsoever. If it is true we live in a simulation, most of these people are NPCs. Original thought is almost non-existent.

If an AI can equal or better such work today, albeit only in short pieces, imagine it in a few years.

ChatGPT can also be used to create instruction-based art. A series of these follow.

>produce a textual score by John Cage

0’00”: Silence
0’01”: A single piano note is struck
0’02”: Silence
0’03”: A second piano note is struck
0’04”: Silence
0’05”: A third piano note is struck
0’06”: Silence
0’07”: A fourth piano note is struck
0’08”: Silence
0’09”: A fifth piano note is struck
0’10”: Silence
0’11”: A sixth piano note is struck
0’12”: Silence
0’13”: A seventh piano note is struck
0’14”: Silence
0’15”: An eighth piano note is struck
0’16”: Silence
0’17”: A ninth piano note is struck
0’18”: Silence
0’19”: A tenth piano note is struck
0’20”: Silence
0’21”: An eleventh piano note is struck
0’22”: Silence
0’23”: A twelfth piano note is struck
0’24”: Silence
0’25”: A thirteenth piano note is struck
0’26”: Silence
0’27”: A fourteenth piano note is struck
0’28”: Silence
0’29”: A fifteenth piano note is struck
0’30”: Silence
0’31”: A sixteenth piano note is struck
0’32”: Silence
0’33”: A seventeenth piano note is struck
0’34”: Silence
0’35”: An eighteenth piano note is struck
0’36”: Silence
0’37”: A nineteenth piano note is struck
0’38”: Silence
0’39”: A twentieth piano note is struck
0’40”: Silence
0’41”: A twenty-first piano note is struck
0’42”: Silence
0’43”: A twenty-second piano note is struck
0’44”: Silence
0’45”: A twenty-third piano note is struck
0’46”: Silence
0’47”: A twenty-fourth piano note is struck
0’48”: Silence
0’49”: A twenty-fifth piano note is struck
0’50”: Silence
0’51”: A twenty-sixth piano note is struck
0’52”: Silence
0’53”: A twenty-seventh piano note is struck
0’54”: Silence
0’55”: A twenty-eighth piano note is struck
0’56”: Silence
0’57”: A twenty-ninth piano note is struck
0’58”: Silence

>produce a textual score by John Cage

  1. Open the piano lid.
  2. Place a single sheet of paper on the piano keys.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly draw lines and shapes on the paper, creating a visual score.
  4. Sit at the piano and interpret the visual score, allowing the lines and shapes to guide the movements of your hands on the keys.
  5. Explore different sounds and timbres by experimenting with various techniques, such as striking the keys with different parts of your hand or using the pedals.
  6. Allow the music to emerge naturally and organically, without predetermined melodies or harmonies.
  7. Continue to improvise and explore the piano’s soundscape for a set duration of time, determined by the performer.
  8. When the performance is complete, gently remove the sheet of paper from the piano keys and close the lid.
  9. Reflect on the experience and the unique sounds and melodies that emerged during the performance.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a wall in your space that has a minimum height of 8 feet and a minimum width of 10 feet.
  2. Measure the dimensions of the wall and divide it into equal horizontal and vertical sections, creating a grid pattern with a minimum of 10 horizontal and 10 vertical lines.
  3. Using a pencil, randomly select one of the grid squares and draw a line that extends from one edge of the square to the opposite edge, without crossing any other lines or touching the sides of the square.
  4. Repeat this process for each of the grid squares, creating a series of lines that fill the entire wall.
  5. Experiment with different line lengths, angles, and directions in order to create a varied and dynamic composition.
  6. Avoid erasing any lines or making any corrections, and allow the drawing to evolve organically.
  7. When the drawing is complete, step back and admire the final composition.
  8. Optional: photograph the drawing and share it with others.

>write the instructions for a new Sol Lewitt pencil wall drawing

  1. Choose a blank wall in a well-lit area to create your wall drawing.
  2. Using a ruler and a pencil, draw a horizontal line across the center of the wall.
  3. Draw a second horizontal line above and below the center line, each spaced at equal intervals.
  4. Draw a third set of horizontal lines, above and below the second set, at the same intervals.
  5. Continue adding sets of horizontal lines until the entire wall is covered with a grid of evenly spaced lines.
  6. Using a different color pencil, randomly draw diagonal lines connecting the horizontal lines.
  7. Experiment with different patterns and densities of diagonal lines, creating a unique and visually interesting composition.
  8. Step back and observe the overall composition, adjusting and refining the diagonal lines as needed.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Choose an everyday object, such as a paperclip, a pencil, or a piece of string.
Place the object in a simple, unadorned setting, such as on a blank sheet of paper or a plain background.
Using a camera or smartphone, take a photograph of the object in its chosen setting.
Share the photograph on social media, along with a simple and enigmatic caption that invites viewers to interpret the object in their own way.
Consider how the chosen object and its placement in the photograph might evoke emotions, thoughts, or memories in the viewer.

>write an instruction piece in the style of a list by Yoko Ono

Find a quiet, peaceful space where you can be alone and undisturbed.
Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your body and mind to relax.
Slowly open your eyes and look around your surroundings, taking in the details and textures of the space.
Imagine yourself floating in a vast, empty void, free from the constraints of time and space.
Allow your mind to drift and explore, without judgment or expectations.
Listen to the sounds around you, and allow yourself to be present in the moment.
As thoughts and ideas arise, allow them to flow freely, without attachment or resistance.
When you feel ready, write down any thoughts or ideas that emerge during your meditation.
Take your time, and trust in the process.
When you are finished, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths, grounding yourself back in the present moment.
Reflect on your experience, and let go of any judgments or expectations.
Enjoy the feeling of freedom and openness that comes from exploring your inner landscape.

All of the artists I have chosen employ deliberate repetition, variations within a framework, and an element of chance. I produced these pieces in an hour and yet they are plausible variations on their work. Not all attempts were as successful. It is, however, evident that one could, for example, generate a large number of these to hand out to an audience at a performance so for participants to perform and evaluate the results.

AI has been rapidly developing this year and ChatGPT is only an early step in this decade, likely to be dominated by AI. Serious artists need to ignore the bad art and forge ahead. AI image and text generators are the tools of our time.

On valdas ozarinskas and stalker architecture

I am going to Vilnius next week and this reminds me of my last visit… in which I told myself that it’s critical to get my unpublished 2019 essay on Valdas Ozarkinskas, the most brilliant architect I ever met out there.
Well, here it is: Stalker Architecture: Design and (Private) Ideology.

Imagery is the stumbling block for this essay, as I don’t have access to an archive, so I have mainly borrowed images from other sites. I’m doing this under the principle of academic fair use since all I want to do is get Valdas’s work exposure outside Lithuania, if you own any of them and want me to take them down, by all means, get in touch!

The Witching Cats of New Jersey

The history of the European settlement of North America goes hand in hand with the history of occult practices—particularly witchcraft—on the continent. A large and unfamiliar land with an indigenous population that had recently died out under mysterious circumstances (now of course known to be largely due to disease brought by contact with Europeans) and in which esoteric movements were tolerated was fertile territory for individuals and groups with practices of worship at the edges of Christianity and even beyond. While at the archives at the Germantown College Archives in New Germantown, New Jersey, I recently had an opportunity to visit the noted Witchcraft Collection. Visually, the record is dominated by a peculiar obsession with cats reputedly engaged in witchcraft in the “Mosquito State.”

Silas “Grim” Cole, Cat owned by Hattie Simpson of Cape May, 1782, courtesy the Witchcraft Collection of the Germantown College Archives, New Germantown, New Jersey

A wealth of paintings and photographs document the obsession with these animals and their connection to the occult in the state and I am delighted to share them with you on this Hallowe’en since so many of you have reacted positively to the ones I have posted on my Instagram account.

Cats are the most popular pets in the world, and certainly on the Internet, but the history of domestic felines is inevitably linked to the idea of the witch’s familiar. Cats are mysterious creatures (I suppose) that are active at night (not mine) and often, especially when in heat, make otherworldly sounds (Roxy is guilty as charged). Given their further association with femininity, they wound up historically linked with witchcraft.

The Witch and her Familiar, American Primitivist Painting, Artist Unknown, Morristown, New Jersey c. 1824. 
DALL·E 2022-07-30 22.15.22 - A thomas cole painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch
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DALL·E 2022-07-30 22.24.33 - A thomas cole photorealistic oil painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.07.19 - A thomas cole painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810 (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.18 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.18 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810 (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.08.19 - A thomas cole folk horror painting of __ “a black cat with white belly and white paws” dressed like an evil witch, 1810
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (3)
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New Jersey, unlike Massachusetts, was not settled by a single, religious community, thus diverse faiths were tolerated here. Moreover, the colony was not originally British but originally was composed of New Sweden (by the Delaware river) and New Netherlands (by the Hudson), becoming a colony only in 1664. A land for free-thinkers, the colony embraced Huguenots fleeing from France, as well as Baptists and Presbyterians from Ireland and Scotland, as well as other faiths while Quakers crossed the Delaware from Pennsylvania and brought their beliefs here as well. The Presbyterian leader of the First Great Awakening, Gilbert Tennant (1703-1764) came “to blow up the divine fire lately kindled there.” Thus began the colony’s early affliction with the supernatural, something made vividly clear in a young Benjamin Franklin’s accounts of the Mount Holly Witch Trials in 1730. If witches were a source of pre-revolutionary terror, by the late eighteenth century, archivist Alistair Cailleach-Crone told me, the burgeoning New Jersey merchant class in New Jersey began to commission portraits of their cats as witch’s familiars or “witching cats.” There is little documentation left of this fashion, save for this text by one Pieter Heks, 1783:

There are, and ever have been, cats and other felines, who converse Familiarly with the Spirit Realm and while some say they thus receive Power to both hurt and deceive, others claim them as happy mediums who, by their very being, keep a home free from plague, louse, and the lyke. Others, particularly, the wives of merchants in our land, keep these animals dear and hold them the pride of their house even, as the fashion holds, having portraits made of them.

Odd as it may seem, the best artists of New Jersey’s first decades as a state were involved in this work, as well as artists from the neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New York. After scolding sermons and threats from Presbyterian ministers, the fashion of Witching Cats fell out of favor among the wealthy, who soon went back to commissioning portraits of themselves, their children, their families, and noted racehorses. More than one artist was relieved. Famed painter Benjamin West, whose paintings of the subject have been lost, wrote unaffectionately in his notebook: “Damned cats and their owners. To the devil with them! These Jersey brutes love their animals but to have them sit for you would try any man’s patience. And half do seem to be possessed by the devil. I will never lose the scars from these accursed creatures, all claw and fang.”

DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.36 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (4)
DALL·E 2022-08-02 20.38.44 - primitivist painting of a “a black cat with white belly and seven white paws” 1610 Blair witch carcosa wicca thomas cole (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 18.51.00 - american primitivist painting of a witching cat, 1780
DALL·E 2022-08-01 11.15.20 - American primitivist folk horror painting of __ “a drunken black cat with white belly and white paws at a table in an old pub” dressed like an evil wi (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 17.59.48 - american primitivist painting of drunken cat 1840
DALL·E 2022-10-31 12.42.25 - American primitivist folk horror painting of a drunken black cat with white belly and white paws dressed like an evil witch wicca thomas cole
DALL·E 2022-10-31 13.20.51 - american primitivist painting of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch magick foul
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DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.22.45 - american primitivist painting of a drunken witching cat of new jersey 1830 (2)
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By the 1820s, however, the Witching Cats found a resurgence in the vogue for alternately amusing and frightening paintings made by self-schooled Primitivist (or Naïve) painters in rural areas, notably the Pine Barrens. Whereas the previous paintings had largely been portrait-like in nature, memorializing specific favored pets, new paintings were often sold by itinerant painters as well as peddlers who purchased them elsewhere to sell from the back of their carts and wagons. This work—of varying quality, sometimes remarkably comical—comprises the bulk of the collection at Germantown College. More than one observer has noted that the cats in the paintings of both periods are dominated by tuxedo (or piebald) cats, which were a common “breed” in New Jersey at the time. As Benjamin Franklin (who owned an angora) wrote in 1745, “In the dark, all cats are gray, but in the light, only the cats of New Jersey are piebald.”

DALL·E 2022-08-11 18.51.04 - american primitivist painting by joseph whiting witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obje
DALL·E 2022-08-11 18.51.03 - american primitivist painting by joseph whiting witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obje (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.24 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.26 - Matthew Brady Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual obj (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.28 - Matthew Brady Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu
DALL·E 2022-08-12 15.00.46 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.15.13 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-13 13.15.13 - thomas cole painting of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (6)
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The fashion again lasted about a decade, and toward the end of the period, a young painter from Speertown, in northern New Jersey named Theodore “Red” Baudrons (1810-1910) began a curious series of paintings in which cats were depicted in environments with strange objects that hinted more directly at witchcraft. This series, called “Cats in the Garrett” soon became controversial and he wound up leaving for New London, Ohio where he lived and worked on a farm owned by the Townsend family and depicted the wealthy farmers of the area instead.

If primitive, compositionally Baudrons’s art evidences an interest in the phenomenon of “the Cabinet of Curiosities.” Precisely where Baudrons learned about the artifacts and symbolism used in witchcraft is unclear, although there have been suggestions it may have been from his sister Hattie Cunnan or perhaps his mother Diana both of whom were spoken of as “cunning women” who could cure many aliments. Baudron, about whom little more is known, also left a few drawings behind at the Townsend farm, which are mixed with the paintings in the gallery above.

DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.36 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.38.46 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.36 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul
DALL·E 2022-08-08 18.24.33 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch “ritually unclean” carcosa foul (2)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.34.57 - Silver albumen print of a witch’s familiar black cat with white paws, 1840, Blair witch carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.34.58 - Silver albumen print of a witch’s familiar black cat with white paws, 1840, Blair witch carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.01 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.09 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, witch trial dock taxidermy
DALL·E 2022-08-03 19.03.31 - american primitivist silver albumen print of black cat white belly white paws witching cat of jersey witch unclean carcosa foul (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.12 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witche's room (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.35.39 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.37.19 - Silver albumen print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a witch's room (1)
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.37.30 - Silver albumen print of a New Jersey witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects in a wit
DALL·E 2022-08-11 17.38.46 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of glory” “stick figu (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-12 12.03.24 - Sepia print of a witching cat black cat with white paws eating scary meat, 1840, Carcosa, in taxidermy surrounded by unclean ritual objects “hand of (3)
DALL·E 2022-08-13 14.08.27 - a silver albumen 1865 photograph of “a maine coon cat” , 1810 Blair witch carcosa unclean ritual objects stick figures (2)
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Again, the fashion for Witching Cats died only to re-emerge in the years immediately after the Civil War, this time in photography. One Thomas “Namir” Bastet (he claimed Persian ancestry) set up a photographic studio in West Bloomfield, where—along with the usual photos of widows and their errant children—he took an extensive series of photographs of cats that are clearly within the Jersey Witching Cat tradition although in fairness, some appear to be just ordinary housecats. Bastet, it seems, was both a student and friend of photographer William H. Mumler, noted for his notorious 1869 photograph of well-known cat-lover Mary Todd Lincoln and the ghost of her husband Abraham Lincoln—there are suggestions that Bastet actually pioneered the practice—but also was a friend of Swedenborgian Spiritualist painter George Inness who once told Bastet of his photographs, “Namir, you really have something there.” Inness wrote that Bastet—alone among photographers—understood the vital forces in his subject matter and the first image in the slider above is of his cat, Roxelana.

Bastet’s photos often seem influenced by the compositional strategy of Baudrons’s paintings: a cat perched on a shallow ledge populated by strange artifacts, but Cailleach-Crone suggested to me that this may have to do with deeper folkways and practices now lost to time. Compounding the supernatural nature of these images quality, the photographs of the day had long exposures, requiring a stillness an awake cat could hardly be expected to meet, resulting in a blurred image that gives many of them an especially otherworldly quality.

Together, these three eras of art reveal to us the nature of the most haunted state in the Union and the peculiar genetic misfits (by this, of course I mean the piebald cats, not the citizens) that have inhabited it to the present day. Long before the Internet, our fascination with cats—as well as with folk horror—was already common. Please visit the Germantown archives, or perhaps visit the Dall-E 2 site to learn more about these images and how they were made.

Regarding Twitter

I have another, much more interesting and important thing to talk about—e.g. the witching cats of New Jersey—but enough people have asked me for my hot take on the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk that I’ll take a stab at it. I will get back to my regularly scheduled programming in the very near future, but for now, I am going to celebrate the fact that moving this site to kinsta earlier this week has made a rapid response like this one much easier.

In the 2005-2006 academic year, I led a team of scholars at the Annenberg Center for Communication in researching the topic of “Networked Publics.” This project led to a book of the same name, published by the MIT Press in 2008 and an aborted project on the broader topic of network culture that faced too much opposition from entrenched interests in the academy to see the light of day. Our little group didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but if there was anything we could agree with, it was the grim conclusion of the brilliant politics chapter written by Merlyna Lim and the late Mark E. Kann: although the Internet is a powerful resource for mobilization, it is a poor venue for democratic deliberation.

To this day, we have absolutely no evidence otherwise. The dramatic rise of algorithmically-produced content feeds in the nearly twenty years since our research year has made matters much worse. As algorithms respond to user engagement and reaction, they deliver the content that users want to see, creating a spiral of ever-increasing polarization (for a series of links to studies on this matter, see this piece from the Brookings Institution). Making matters worse are the social media “cops” on both sides who thrive on attacking viewpoints divergent from accepted consensus. If you say that vaccines are important and that the 2020 election was legitimate but your social media “friends” are right-wingers, you’ll get called out by an army of Trumpenproles if you say so. If you say that magic monetary theory is insane or that defunding the police will hurt African Americans more than anybody, you’ll get publicly shamed by the Internet cops on the Left. Then there are things that we know very well not to talk about with our peers. To take one example, virtually no academic would publicly say that doctoral programs are in crisis and universities are producing vastly more PhD.s than there will ever be jobs for just so that doctoral chairs can gain status in the academy and professors can get free research assistants, even though most academics I have spoken to about this agree wholeheartedly off the record. I am outside the academy so I can freely say this. But nobody in the academy can. The cops there have the power to destroy unorthodox thinkers so nobody will say it. Even outside academia, there are positions so politically dangerous that I won’t dare utter them out loud even here, notwithstanding that the vast majority of my peers agree with them privately (you’ll just have to guess, so sorry). Internet cops gain symbolic capital by dismissing ideas that don’t conform to the orthodoxy and it’s been interesting to observe as a few cops have, coincidentally or not, attained positions of minor leadership in the academy (probably because no sane person wants them). Cops tend not to think for themselves, but rather they are guided by what Venkatesh Rao calls beef-only thinkers, who demand unqualified support, folks like Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey, or Marjorie Taylor-Greene.

If, on the one hand, we have a social media landscape actively patrolled by cops, we also have a steady-state of outrage from the woke and the trumpenproles: everything is burning, right now/there has never been a more consequent election/there has never been a greater threat to democracy/etc. The news media—particularly TV news, but also online personalities—amp up the rhetoric in order to profit from the clicks. Outrage makes money, even as it makes us stupider. But after years and years of outrage, people are exhausted. It’s very much like pornography, searching for ever-greater stimulus, things got more and more extreme and eventually it wasn’t that people got scandalized, it’s that they got bored. Only the most politically active and the most insane want to the outrage to continue. After the nightmarish calamity following the 2016 election, COVID, the January 6 insurrection, and then the invasion of Ukraine, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline have literally taken their toll on our bodies, creating inflammatory reactions that leave us with no way to absorb more bad news. It may have been funny when a demented old grifter demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, it was hilarious to see “America’s Mayor” stand up in front of the garage of a landscaping firm, burbling nonsense, his false teeth nearly falling out of his head, but nobody wants to see it again. In an economy sustained by growth, Facebook’s aging user group is down by significant numbers, and analysts are talking about a “death spiral.” Well, thank goodness. Nor is the subject of today’s diatribe, Twitter, immune, its active users are also fleeing, just in time for Musk’s ill-timed purchase. The only solution people are finding to this anxiety is disconnection, leaving all this crap behind. It will likely cause a rout for the Democrats in the 2022 election (I am not, however, entirely convinced of this), but if it does, it will be the far Left’s relentless barrage of alarmist news that will be, in large part, to blame.

What are the options? Clearly not Twitter. Elon probably should fire most of Twitter’s staff. Around 5,000 employees work at Twitter and, judging from the evidence, none of them save the people who make sure the servers don’t go down, do anything. The site has had virtually no innovation since its launch, the code is a notorious mess, and, well what do they actually do all day long?

Journalists like to promote TikTok as an alternative, but TikTok’s growth is limited to a high school and college age demographic in search of diversion. What political content exists there—a Johns Hopkins study suggests— is hardly any better than what can be found at Facebook and, in any event, like YouTube, TikTok is oriented less toward people producing their own content and more toward passive consumption and commenting. Instagram is not dissimilar, although there, the content-production tends to be aspirational and imitative in nature, contributing to body dysphoria and leading young women to seek to surgically reshape themselves into the “Instagram face” look pioneered by Jocelyn Wildenstein. The one healthy (for now) antidote for this is BeReal, an anti-Instagram that values immediacy and promotes looking real, or at least, candid and terrible, it’s only drawback is that virtually nobody except for college-age kids uses it (I know, you can visit mine, I have one follower). TIkTok and Instagram are terrible platforms for political messaging—although some will try—and BeReal is virtually useless for it. This, of course, is their charm.

If there are genuine alternative social media spaces right now, they are Discord and Substack. Both are flawed, but it’s Substack—not Twitter—that holds the only potential for a future social media platform right now.

Discord is a set of “servers” (not really servers, but they are called that, they are virtual spaces for micropublics) dedicated to a given topic, e.g. Minecraft gaming, Roblox, GTA, (Discord started as a space for emergent gaming communities), online generative art generators, techwear, eurorack synthesizers, alt-space, AI generative art, Arduino programming, white supremacism (this has since been banned) or whatever excites you. Discord is growing rapidly, but it has two major limiting factors. The first is that because of the conversation-like organization, unless one is actively engaged with a server, one rapidly loses track of what is being talked about. Catching up is neither intuitive nor, well, interesting. The second is that there is no broader link between these micropublics. Each server is a walled silo and there is no communication between them.

Substack is a platform for content-creators—mainly writers but also some podcasters— in which subscribers pay subscriptions for content and content-creators are promised income directly from their subscribers. Unlike the similar Patreon, however, it is more oriented around discovery and community. Log into the Substack site and you will be shown a sidebar with recommendations for other Substacks that are, shades of Facebook and Twitter, algorithmically recommended for you. Subscribe to a right-wing Substack, you’ll definitely be offered more. So, basically, another Facebook or Twitter. The up side is that Substack allows comments (depending on settings), and also has recently allowed users to incorporate RSS feeds from outside of Substack into their feed. If—and it’s a big if, one that likely won’t take place since it’s only my idea, not Substack’s—the platform can find a way to create glue between Substacks and users—such as making it easier for users to follow each other and talk directly to each other— it has some hope. The reason I hold any hope for Substack is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, it promotes long-form writing. This post makes no sense on Facebook or Twitter, but it will easily work on Substack. The second hitch is that Substack is heavily tied to a subscription economy. Most newsletters, it seems, cost about $10 a month. That’s great but can rapidly become unaffordable in an era where we are already paying for one or two newspapers, a couple of magazines, Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, and you get the idea… People are getting tired of subscriptions, very tired.

This leaves us with with WordPress. WordPress is not only the dominant worldwide blogging platform, it has a reader that allows readers to follow blogs and participate in dialogues in the comments. Again, it’s a long shot, but users are also implicitly encouraged to become bloggers and, well, why not? In the 1970s and early 1980s mass media seemed to be all-powerful, but then we had the Zine revolution and the explosion of the Internet, back when it was still fun and potential seemed everywhere. Substack and WordPress may not be the future, but I still think a platform with some future in it (I am no longer comfortable thinking it will be any lasting solution, let alone a utopian space of deliberative democracy) is coming if we have any hope of talking to each other online.

A final reflection on all this is how deeply sad this is for Elon Musk. Although he has recently shifted from being an icon of the Left to being an icon of the Right, he is the Steve Jobs of this age, having made both electric cars a reality and creating the first successful reusable rocket system. Ten years ago, even five years ago, owning two electric cars by 2022 would have seemed entirely implausible to me and yet, we replaced both our cars with Teslas in 2020. These cars require less maintenance than any other vehicles we have ever owned (thus far, our total repairs involve a heat pump valve on the Model Y and some issues with the rear gate on our Model S, plus some cabin air filter replacements oh, and new tires), have excellent performance (I’m a car guy, but my wife loves driving hers as well), and it is delightful to skip the weekly trips to the gas station. SpaceX’s phenomenal success speaks for itself (not only am I car guy, I’m a space nut) and Starship promises to revolutionize the space industry, and even though I am concerned about Starlink’s impact on astronomy, it has the ability to deliver secure Internet communications at broadband speeds virtually everywhere and has made a big, positive impact in military operations in the Ukraine. That, for whatever reason, Musk is spending his time and money on Twitter is very sad. If he wanted to have fun, wouldn’t it make better sense to just book a flight on a crew Dragon? I would. It’s not like he doesn’t won the only company that ever regularly sent people into outer space; eat your own dog food, Elon. Running Twitter seems incredibly boring. Moreover, Elon has a long list of failures to go along with the successes—Tesla Solar (I just put a new roof on my house, why wasn’t it from Tesla Solar?), Tesla’s Full Self-Driving has been around for almost two years and hasn’t gone anywhere (remember when Elon said we’d have self-driving Tesla taxis by 2020), and Tesla not only hasn’t released a single new vehicle since 2020, it has raised prices on existing vehicles while cutting out features such as front-facing radar and rear-facing ultrasonic sensors but hasn’t found ways to compensate. I own Tesla stock but I think they are in trouble unless Elon spends some time there soon and Twitter is a distraction he hardly needs.

Finally, as far as the future of Twitter. Who cares? It is a dying platform. I have met some great friends on it—many more than on Facebook—but if it dies and Facebook dies, it will be better for everyone. If Captain Dementia joins back up over the weekend, or Monday, or whenever, what does it matter. It’s not like anybody listened to him on Truth Social anyway.

A New Career in a New Town

I moved Varnelis.net to Kinsta yesterday, widely seen as the best WordPress host around. I also updated the site theme to GeneratePress which I first used at the Native Plant Society of New Jersey where I am the head of advocacy and, to help out, brought the Web site to WordPress. The site struggled after I had serious security issues earlier in the year. Not only was that a crummy experience for you, the backend that I write posts with glitched constantly and it was frustrating for me to enter new content. The new site is a delight for me and, I hope, is interesting for you as well. The theme is ultimately based on Indexhibit, which was admirably minimalist in a way a Lithuanian artist could love but never worked for me as a content management system.

I have lost count of how many times I have said that I will be posting more on this site, so I won’t make promises I can’t keep, but at least the site won’t be an excuse anymore. So what about blogs? Aren’t they dead? Archinect’s blog, aggregat:456, archidose, ballardian, javierist, m.ammoth.us, markasaurus, sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy, strange harvest, subtopia all gone, lgnlgn a record of an aborted restart ten years back. Even bldgblog barely posts more than I do now. But I refuse to go. Loos titled his first collection of essays “Spoken into the Void.” Being untimely may be the strongest position of all.

Now, there’s not that much to say about architecture anymore, but that’s ok. Times change. Architecture is at its lowest point in my lifetime. There is no excitement. When is the last new building that interested you, I ask my friends? Nobody knows. Maybe the Casa da Música, one said. That’s like saying the Ford Foundation building was the last great building in 1981. Not one great building on this list of top ten buildings in the 2010s, not even one good building. The scandal isn’t that there is a scandal, the scandal is that nobody cares and nobody talks about it. Conceptual architecture is dead in the water. Architecture fiction was the last burst of a shooting star deep in the atmosphere before it disappeared. In fairness, I don’t know if either AUDC or the Netlab will do anything again, although I continue my own work in earnest (more on that work another day).

But there is plenty to talk about; we can talk about late network culture and the sorry state it has brought us to, the failure of networked publics. we can talk about art, and we can talk about the environment and the importance of native plants in the landscape. We can even talk about architecture since art forms that seem to be things of the past have an uncanny way of coming back to life. I have a lot to say about these things and, with the end of (native) planting season upon me this week, I may be doing just that. But I won’t be doing that on social media. Sure, you may see these posts on Facebook or Twitter, but I’m not really there much anymore. After logging off Facebook for a year, I found I didn’t want to use it anymore. Facebook doesn’t create a feeling of belonging, it creates anxiety and depression. No wonder young people don’t want to use it anymore. Facebook’s troubles are deepening and it’s ridiculous foray into virtual reality will, we all hope cause its utter demise. Twitter stayed relevant for longer, but I am noticing many fewer posts from my friends there these days. Growth at both of these platforms has ceased, even reversed. So Elon Musk is buying Twitter. That’s the equivalent of buying a new gasoline car today, a dying platform terrible for the environment. Twitter is dying. If Elon brings back the seditious, short-fingered vulgarian now suffering through mid-stage dementia, it will just bring end Twitter to an end and wipe out his ludicrous $44 billion investment. Young people increasingly hate these platforms, regardless of what money-chasing analysts want you to believe. Yes, there are podcasts. I love them, but I worry about the effect of constant voices in my head, perhaps because I read Julian Jaynes many decades ago. There are Medium and Substack, but the endless demand for money is tiresome. You may read this on Substack. Great. But you don’t have to. Read it here instead.

The social media era is over. Long live the blog. My posts may be few and far between, they may be late, they may be bad, you may not read them but they are still something I own. I can say what I want, unbeholden to anyone else and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

On the Destruction of Doggerland

Satellite image showing location of Doggerland

In 1422, the long decline of the Kingdom of Doggerland came to an end with the drowning of the vast island once found in the North Sea between England, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Roughly 40,000 km2 (15,500 sq mi) in size, for over a thousand years, Doggerland remained a European Kingdom even as rising sea levels led to large areas being abandoned and depopulated in the later Middle Ages.

With the island destroyed by the tsunami (“the Great Drowning”) caused when an earthquake dislodged vast portions of the undersea continental shelf off Norway, the extinguishing of an entire European kingdom was a critical event, perhaps the critical event, in the history of Early Modern Europe, demonstrating the frailty of mere mortals and the insufficiency of human faith against the wrath of nature.

The island was first referred to in the 4th century BC by the Greek geographer Pythaes of Massalia as “the Kingdom of the Fishes,” and would be dubbed “Ictis” by Diodorus Siculus during the 1st century BC:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like knuckle-bones and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Iktis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons … Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone.

Pliny referred to Doggerland as “Mictis,” describing it as “lying inwards six days’ sail from Britain, where tin is found, and to which the Britons cross in boats of wickerwork covered with stitched hides.” A century later, Doggerland became the northernmost land conquered by Caesar during the Gallic Wars of 54 and 55AD and remained under Roman rule until the Attacotti tribes threw out the Romans in the Dogger Risings of the 364-365 and, in 367, crossed the Dogger Channel to Britain to participate in the widespread risings called the Great Conspiracy.

7th century gold Dogger mask, discovered on the seabed, 1984.
British Museum.
Seal of the United Kingdoms of Denmark and FIskeland, c. 1025.

In the early 10th century, the semi-legendary Harthacnut I became the first King of both Denmark and Fiskeland (Doggerland). Cnut the Great (c. 990-1035) united Denmark and Fiskeland with England and Norway in the brief but effective North Sea Empire. Even so, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, which began in 950 and lasted until 1250, wreaked havoc with Fiskeland as water levels rose and some of the more low-lying farmland and the fish farms (vivaria) that the Fiske peoples had pioneered were inundated.

King Cnut on his throne as the waters rise, Unknown artist from Doggerland, c 1365

No matter how mighty he was in politics and war, Cnut himself understood the futility of the rising of the waters (the Stigendevand) and, as Henry of Huntingdon later recounted in his Historia Anglorum:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”

Fishing Monks, a painting on a wood panel from Fiskeland, mid 14th century.

Inhabitants slowly began to drift away, to Britain, Denmark and Norway, but also Iceland, Greenland, and other points west. By the thirteenth century, the country was dominated by a court whose strength was primarily nautical—the powerful Dogger ships that controlled the North Sea—and by the monastic orders that alternately served, and competed with, the court. Although Doggerland (the new common name of the country after 1360) had been largely spared the Plague, by the time of Cnut VI, also known as Saint Cnut the Drowned (1394-1422), the stigendevand had become acute and a sizable portion of the remaining population inhabited floating vessels at all times.

Still, Doggerland’s Court was widely known for its accomplishments in art, music, and literature. Clockworks and complicated mechanisms were a noted specialty. With the end of Doggerland long prophesied, time-keeping had been an obsession in Doggerland—a common Doggerish saying is “Hours are a greater treasure than gold”—and spring driven clocks were developed in the first years of the fourteenth century. The precursor to the piano—the clavichord—was invented in Doggerland in the early 14th century and primitive forms of printing with carved plates had begun to be employed.

Idesbald of Drounen, Cnut VI’s Lament, 1424

On 21 April 1422, Ugo, Abbot of Drounen wrote,

Late in the morning, when the markets were full, a shudder came upon the land and the sea retreated. The waves rolled back over the horizon and the Dogger ships were left on dry land, revealing monstrous creatures that normally dwelt under the water. The good monks of the Abbey prayed for salvation from this horror, but to no avail as the sea came rushing back and we were forced to climb into the row boats I had commanded the monks to build in the case of the Flood, which God had now thrust upon us again. Thousands were swept past us and those we could haul aboard were saved, but most were drowned under the waves. To our dismay, we saw the King sitting on the rocks but the waves rose and covered him.

Exodus from Doggerland, Painting by the “Master of Doggerland,” c. 1425
Drowning of Doggerland, Unknown Painter, 1520

The exodus from Doggerland led to an influx of refugees to the continent precisely at a point in which post-plague Europe itself lay in wait for a stimulus that would trigger the Renaissance. Although chiefly seen today as a Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck was Doggerish and brought the previously closely-held secrets of oil painting to the rest of Europe while Rogier van der Weyden apprenticed there in his youth. Exiled scholars helped found the Universitas Lovaniensis (Old University of Leuven) while other experts in Latin, astronomy, alchemy, and the culinary sciences became teachers throughout Europe. For example, Henry of Drouen, a tutor for Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Francesco Colonna was the son of Dogger refugees in Venice—a natural destination for many—and in his famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili conjures a dreamscape that scholars see as a description of his parents’ lost homeland.

Jan van Eyck, the Royal Court of Doggerland in Exile, 1433

The first extant spring-wound clock wound up in the court of Burgundy after the Drowning. As is well known by now, Johannes Gutenberg worked with survivors from Doggerland to develop the printing press, a fact that the famed printer Aldus Manutius would memorialize in his logo for the Aldine press.

A picture of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, which was Manutius's imprint.

Laments for Doggerland were common in the Low Countries for centuries after. The Drowning of Doggerland or “de Doyer Overstroming” was a cautionary tale memorialized and returned to again and again by poets, painters, and musicians. A pastoral land of sheep and fish that escaped the ravages of Plague and war but was lost forever due to the vengeance of the sea could hardly be far from the imagination of the creative mind. In the late 17th century, in particular, there was a revival of interest in the Dogger pastoral as Flemish artists rejected the excesses of the Spanish Baroque and their wealthy mercantilist clients sought to surrounded themselves with visible reminders of their—often imagined—past as descendants of the Court of Doggerland.

Jan van Goyen, the Cathedral city of Aleyen, Doggerland, c. 1640
Jan Vermeer van Haarlem the Elder, Doggerland Landscape, c. 1689
Pieter Bout, Dogger Fisherman returning from the Sea, c. 1705

Such laments would dissipate over the course of the eighteenth century as a modernizing Europe increasingly abandoned the lost pastoral land for a eudaemonic narrative of growth and newfound wealth. With the colonization of North America by Europeans, a new and much larger land was—they thought—given to them by God to replace the lost land under the sea. In particular, early settlers to Newfoundland initially called it “New Dagger Land” or “Nieuwe Doyer Land” and Governor William de Doyer had pronounced “It a free land, to be inhabited by all brothers of the land beneath the sea, be they English, French, or Dutch,” a dream wiped out after his death in a storm at sea in 1686 and the subsequent events of King William’s War (1688-1697) even though the ideal was referred to, somewhat cynically, during the British development of the Canadian colonies after the seizure of New France less than a century later.

Light blue indicates areas of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark that will flood with 1.7C of global warming, salmon color indicates flooding with 4.0C of temperature rise.
Credit:Climate Central

For us, the drowning of Doggerland has a different meaning. Rather than a lost past to lament, it is a cautionary tale of the Anthropocene near future. The impact of climate change on the environment forces us to consider that rising seas will likely drown substantial areas of the world, including the coasts of Denmark, eastern Britain, Belgium, and much of the Netherlands (and of course, much, much more of the world). Unlike the inhabitants of Doggerland, we have a choice, but will we take it?