The Game Stops / Starts Here | Spike Art Magazine
On brinksmanship considered as a fine art
An edited version of this essay was published in Spike Art Magazine 67, pp. 18-184. It was submitted in early February as “The Game Stops Here” and published as “The Game Starts Here” on April 7. The Spike version is included in the images below.
As Year One of the Covidian Æsthetics project comes to a draw, the time may be ripe to take stock of where we are, and what we stand for.
To do so, I will identify three concurrent phenomena that seem superficially disjointed but may well prove mutually reinforcing. They are, in ascending order of velocity: the decentralisation of Silicon Valley through the radiation of the tech sector to cities outside the Bay Area; the concerted social media deplatforming of a then sitting President of the United States, and Reddit’s spec[tac]ular—because mimetic and memetic―assault on Wall Street, which it may be incautious not to read as a storming of the Bastille. It’s all fun and games until somebody loses $70 billion in front of the world overnight.
What these events all have in common is how they challenge the accepted rules of engagement in ways that raise the stakes whilst altering―or threatening to dynamite―the gameboard as we know it. We are witnessing a renaissance in brinksmanship and deep play the likes of which we had not seen since the end of the Cold War. And not even overt War on Terror is more frightful than Terror as balance.
While the so-called “techxodus” from San Francisco was an extant process accelerated by the pandemic, it didn’t take on a properly designed dimension until December 21, when Mayor Francis Suárez of Miami put the question “How can I help?” to the tech sector on Twitter. Ask, and ye shall be given. Barely a month later, Miami had a $100M Tech Fund, a digital town hall, and is following Wyoming’s lead in adopting blockchain technology, being the first city to host Satoshi Nakamoto’s whitepaper on its government site.1
This was not, of course, an undercooked development, and the speed with which it caught is evidence of a preparedness and timing that can only have arisen from an instinct for the new sociopolitical ecologies ahead. It is also why Miami’s metamorphosis through agile governance could become the most significant urban phenomenon of the American Covidian: one that may impact and redefine how politics, tech and the arts―or technocrats, technologists and technicians—interact. In the expansion and explosion of Miami as a possibility space, Suárez has emerged as an outlier not just in his party, but on the national stage. In substance and style, the most progressive mayor in the US is a Republican.
Suárez also avails himself exceedingly well of the superinformal agoras that Twitter and Clubhouse provide. In January of this year, Clubhouse hosted two events that could become the templates for the refashioning of near-future political engagement. First was “The Future of San Francisco,” where District Attorney Chesa Boudin made a surprise appearance and—in perverse observance of the Rashomon Effect―either killed or was killed in self-defence. Two days later, a more genial Clubhouse meeting was held between Mayor Suárez and his colleagues in Austin and San Francisco that did not merely showcase their cities, but signalled the existence of a neo-Delian league of mayors who are clearly in friendly, frequent and florescent conversation across state and party lines.
The emphasis on mayoral governance also stressed the rapid gains being made in politics as undertaken at the local/city level: more nimble, collaborative, results-oriented and directly representative than what now passes for normal at the state and national levels. As opposed to “the State” with a capital S (or as objet petit a)—abstract, unrepresentative, unwieldy―the city-state is gaining ground as grounded.
The only way in which the mass buy-and hold of GameStop resembles the storming of the Capitol is in how each attacked a locus of representation. The reason why the former made a deeper dent is not simply because of the social media embargo that seemingly stilled the MAGA tide, but because the notably consilient hivemind of r/wallstreetbets is made up of memeticians who—like all great financiers―understand their target and its theatre of operations to its full hyperreal extent (and lack thereof).
The Capitol and Wall Street are of a similar—maybe even interchangeable―symbolic stature to the increasingly defrocked American Establishment. It is not the Bastilles being charged that matter so much as who is doing the charging and under what assumptions―and, for all their similarties, there is a world of difference between r/wallstreetbets and MAGA. The Establishment is not, alas, aware of it; its default deterrent against “redditerrorism” being to qualify it as “white supremacist” in the expectation this would instantly diffuse the situation. This kneejerk response does, however, lay bare the reactionary trappings of our ancien régime which, being not conservative nor liberal but hollow, will disguise itself as either, depending on what it needs to project/protect.
While history will determine whether―and, to quote Trump, in what “form”―MAGA stands to reappear, provided that it ever really disappeared, r/wallstreetbets already marks a flashpoint and a point of no return, regardless of outcome. And though MAGA is still dialectically enmeshed within the status quo, r/wallstreetbets may be just synthetic enough to set the groundwork for new rules of engagement.
The same can be said for the choreographed deplatforming of Trump and tens of thousands of his supporters beginning on January 8. Though ideologically fraught in ways the Reddit strike is not, this coordinated social media manoeuvre was a no less visible or irreversible display of power that, at the time of writing, has already spiralled into an Australian-wide news blackout, courtesy of Facebook. This is a strong hint as to whom will be [re]writing history from this point onward―and backwards. What needs establishing now is if this, too, is our game; if these, too, are our rules.
Any sufficiently rigged game requires a telosocracy, or government that helps align the means to the more or less explicit ends of its preordained victors. This is the mechanism that, in its current iteration, has been shown to be no stronger than cheap hose. It cannot be patched, and no effort should be expended in so doing. The corollary: symbolic warfare must be waged and won in whichever form will most effectively destroy the outgoing order. Guillotines may not quite cut it anymore, but I am told exposure does the trick for vampires.
Photo of Balinese fighting cock (Tajen) from earthstoriez.com
The advances since have been consistent and almost innumerable. By the time of this essay’s physical release, Miami Tech Week and SaveArtSpace’s and gmoney’s city-wide NFT exhibition loomed visibly on the horizon.