Work-in-Progress Programme 2022 - 2023

We’re delighted to be welcoming the following scholars in our virtual work-in-progress meetings. Sessions are usually held on Thursdays or Fridays, and consist of a 15-minute presentation followed by a 40-minute discussion.

To receive the Zoom link for all five sessions, please register on Eventbrite.

Real Fake: An intellectual history of distortion

Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou (University College London)
(POSTPONED to) 8 December 2022, 16:00 GMT / 17:00 CET

This paper develops an intellectual history of distortion in finance capitalism. I offer an alternative account of the present ‘crisis of truth’ by unearthing new and compelling connections between the enchanted world of finance and our political technologies of truth. Markets, I contend, do not simply abstract or alienate us from ‘material’ values by altering our perceptions of reality. They create new, vertiginous worlds — what the paper calls ‘Real Fake’ — that blur boundaries between fact and fiction and challenge time-honoured classificatory systems of truth and falsehood. This becomes strikingly apparent in the age of gamified social media, Meme trading, Non-Fungible Tokens and the Metaverse, as the digital platforms through which we work, play and trade become untethered from real-world referents. The paper argues, however, that such recent developments must be located in a longer arc of historical changes originating in late-nineteenth country finance — a time when market technologies of prognostication and forecasting were deployed alongside occult cosmologies and forms of mystical foreknowledge to arbitrate truth claims in society writ large. The paper concludes with a reflection on the implications of this history for our contemporary moment, asking whether the resurgent politics of distortion could also open up progressive possibilities for critical thought and action.

The Magic of Delivery: “Unboxing” Logistics

Susan Zieger (University of California, Riverside)
26 January 2023, 17:00 GMT / 9:00 PST

Logistics is the science of moving goods, people, and information efficiently to optimize profit. Its icon is the shipping container, also known as “the box”; logistics can be viewed as a “black box” science. The shipper puts the cargo into a container, and eventually it arrives at its destination, where the buyer receives it. Logistics companies handle the mundane technical operations behind this disappearance and reappearance, so that consumers can experience the enchantment of delivery – the moment when the commodity comes to you. In 2016, the world’s most influential logistics company referred to its new two-hour delivery program as “Amazon Magic.” An entire internet genre of “unboxing” videos features excited consumers removing their purchases from the packaging. My presentation traces the prehistory of such enchantment in the rise of the parcel post and the phenomenon of at-home delivery. But it also “unboxes” logistics itself. Through the story of Henry “Box” Brown, an enslaved man who boarded a box and mailed himself to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849, I illustrate the counter-history of the scientific marvels of logistics. Practicing it as a fugitive art, Brown seized the emerging delivery transportation network to deliver himself. His narrative describing his journey inside the crate rewrites the unseen operations of logistics from the perspective of what theorists have called the Black box – the hidden technical agency of people of color. Moreover in his subsequent career as an illusionist, Brown inspired an overlooked aesthetic tradition of box and chain escapes. Freeing themselves onstage from trick boxes, chains, and handcuffs, Black illusionists offered a different enchantment, one that remade delivery into deliverance.

A Hauntology of the Witch’s Re-Enchantment

Sophie James, James Cronin & Anthony Patterson (Lancaster University)
23 February 2023, 16:00 GMT

Although the living present remains entrenched in a deep sense of ‘capitalist realism’ (Fisher, 2009) whereby it is largely impossible to envisage a liveable reality without capitalism, an eerie filtrate of long forgotten and alternative belief systems, abandoned ideologies, and foreclosed fantasies linger as a ghostly structure of feeling; a collective sense that what once ‘was’ perhaps might be again. The culture industries have long poached upon this gnawing backward-lookingness and engaged in a form of “cultural necrophilia” whereby historic wonders, dramas, and curiosities – such as ‘the witch’ – are resuscitated, repackaged, and remarketed to re-enchant consumption and perpetuate consumer capitalism in the present (Ahlberg et al., 2021; Brown, 2001; Belk et al., 202l).

In this paper, we interpret recurring periods of cultural fascination with the ancient pre-capitalist figure of the witch as illustrative of a market project of commodifying “generations of ghosts, which is to say about certain others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or outside us” (Derrida, 2006: xviii). The witch – as one of these ‘ghosts’ – is never entirely present (if she ever was) though continually ‘haunts’ the present with reminders that once upon a time, long before the rational market-fundamentalist hegemony of modern secular life displaced all alternatives, there were genuinely different modes of living available to us based upon magical thinking and enchantment. By adapting Derrida’s work on hauntology, we discuss how ghosts such as the witch have been – and continue to be – reconfigured by agents of capital to afford consumers the opportunity “to recover a sense of magic, myth, specialness… in other words, (re-)enchantment” (Hartmann and Brunk, 2019: 675; Ritzer, 1999); while remaining placated with shallow consumptive pleasures and commercial simulacra of what moderno-capitalist rationalism has effaced.

Through discussing market actors’ appropriation of the witch over approximately a 500-year period, we reveal how Derridean ghosts are used to engender forms of enchantment and re-enchantment that are simultaneously oppositional to the contemporary rationalised world and the totalistic cynical realism it engenders, yet also corroborative of that world’s hyper-consumerist and performative practices. From early modernity when the witch was invoked by mercantile classes to excite, galvanise, and monetise the persecution of those perceived to be a threat to inchoate capitalism; through to advanced modernity when the witch functioned as a libidinally thrilling aesthetic for burlesque dancers and other workers of the night-time economy; through to the late modern age of commodifiable online and offline neopagan leisure practices; we trace the market’s predatory reliance on ghosts for its own projects of enchantment.

Gill Sans and the Sacralization of Technique

Michael J. Golec (School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
31 March 2023, 16:00 GMT / 10:00 CST

In her account of the implementation of a standardized typeface produced by the British Monotype Corporation (BMC) for the London North Eastern Railroad, Beatrice Warde observed that typographic modernity is rooted in economic fact. If Warde’s example of economically embedded typographic modernity—the typeface Gill Sans—reflects that fact, then we also have to contend with the designer (engraver, typographer, and sculptor) Eric Gill’s own conceptualization of his typeface. Gill was cognizant of the far-reaching economic effects of standardization. Unlike Warde, however, he acknowledged the concept as in keeping with, what the French theologian Jacques Maritain characterized as, the age of the “taylorized gesture.” Gill Sans was an example of the designer’s attempt to construct a bulwark against scientific management’s desacralization of labor. Sacramental work, as Gill understood it, opposed managerial attempts to balance the ledger that recorded and evaluated the relationship between cost of labor and company profit. Put another way, sacramental work incorporated a universal human effort to transcend mere utility, to restore spiritual equilibrium to the laboring body.

In designing his typeface for the BMC, Gill intended to produce an alphabet that was “as near as possible [to] ‘fool-proof.’” But by “fool-proof,” Gill did not mean to suggest his work was an opportunity to generate more profit, as Warde proposed. Certainly, utility factored into the cost-benefit analysis of equipping printers with Gill’s ostensibly fool-proof typeface. Nevertheless, in addition to this economic fact, he intended to furnish compositors working in large-scale printing firms with occasions to attend to concerns unrelated to the mundane task at hand, and thereby partake in—either at the keyboard, at the composition caster, or at the case—liturgical practices.

Yet, as Eugene McCarraher has observed, management shared this same goal in a systematic retooling of labor with its own secular liturgy of efficiency. How did Gill’s design of a “fool-proof” typeface contribute to the enchantment of industrial cooperation? And what impact did Gill’s typeface have on compositors such that it altered their technique to serve the beatific in managerial efficiencies? My answers to both questions will contend with the sacralization of technique in terms of establishing a proportional relationship between material form in Gill’s design and remnants of spiritual longing activated by his design.

Occult and New Age Spirituality Bookshops as Sites for the Production and Exchange of Rejected Knowledge in the UK, c. 1893 - c. 1993

Shai Feraro (University of Haifa)
28 April 2023, 16:00 GMT / 18:00 IDT

This presentation is based on an ongoing project that examines the cultural and intellectual history of occult and New Age spirituality bookshops in the UK and aims to illuminate their function as hubs and spaces for the transference of knowledge and information within these respective milieus, c. 1893 - c.1993. Its time frame will be dictated by the founding of Watkins, the first British bookshop to dedicate itself specifically to occult literature and one of the oldest such establishments in the anglophone world, and by the rise of the Internet, which has since replaced bookshops as the chief space for the exchange of relevant knowledge. I aim to show how these literary establishments were simultaneously dependent on and cultivated a large array of networks concerned with ‘rejected knowledge’. Following Webb (1976) and especially Hanegraaff (2012) we can define ‘rejected knowledge’ as a generative culture of epistemic claims, based on a fusion of heterodox religion and speculative science, which has been practiced against hegemonic religious and scientific institutions since at least the late Nineteenth Century. The project will thus contribute to intellectual and cultural history, to the history of the book and of knowledge transfers, and to the history of British occultism and New Age spiritualities as key elements in the late modern history of alternative religiosity. Research will be based mostly on primary materials located in public and privately-held archives, complemented with semi-structured interviews with relevant bookshop proprietors, employees, and patrons.

Re-Enchantment Engines beyond Cognitive Capitalism / Capitalist Realism

Thomas Mical (New Centre for Research and Practice & National Institute of Advanced Studies - Centre for Consciousness Studies)
19 May 2023, 16:00 GMT / 20:30 IST

This essay turns to recent theories of enchantment and re.enchantment to come to a greater understanding of the potential of apparatuses, instruments, and devices to function as transformers and transducers to modify environments to performs forms of everyday magical realism in the spaces of everyday life. This machinic animist model (of new subjectivity in procedural spaces re:animates archaic processes of enchantment (identified in the anthropology of Gell) in cognitive capitalism ( Boutang) / capitalist realism (Fisher), this the construct of re-enchantment engines are simultaneously artistic and philosophical that can signal-jam the smoothing-machines of capitalist absorption. To this intellectual history line we introduce a second (dashed) art historical line through the signal-jamming protocols of the Fluxus movement which used capitalist techniques to accomplish scripted unexpected situations and happenings in event-spaces to lay bare the capitalist apparatuses of capture. We trace a third (thin) dimensional line of cultural history in the post-wall cultural practices experienced in Berlin’s alternative artist squat Kunsthaus Tacheles and also the simultaneous rise and fall of the techno festival Berlin Love Parade, both temporary heterotopias in the 1990’s.

Interested in presenting in future work-in-progress meetings? Contact us with a title, an abstract of 200-400 words, and a brief bio. Please include your time zone and preferred dates (Thursdays or Fridays) in your message. Note that these meetings will likely take place in 2023/2024.