My first experience of philosophy occurred as part of an ordinary practice of reading books as a way of escaping an immediate social world struggling with poverty, alcoholism, patriarchy, and labor migration. The practice of reading books replaced that of daily and sometimes daylong TV watching, which did not provide the desired escape but instead overwhelmed me with incessant breaking news. I turned to reading philosophy because it felt like an “intellectual” thing to do. Becoming an intellectual was the only way to escape the immediate reality, I gathered from my observations, my parents, and my schoolteachers (the other way being, it seemed at the time, that of getting into the money-making business). Targeted, censored, and often persecuted during communist times, intellectuals—especially those who had been dissidents—were the heroes of the early years of post-communism in Romania. For me, they were an inspiration to become an intellectual, and being a philosopher seemed the highest embodiment of that aspiration.
My first experience as a beginning philosopher was an encounter with René Descartes’s Meditations, a work that would have been dismissed as “idealist” in communist Romania, with its state-sanctioned dialectical materialism. The encounter with Descartes was a radical experience; it led me to distrust my senses as reliable sources of knowledge and experience. There followed an extended period of what became rather frustrating self-subversion, of me playing ever more intricate games of staging reality in my mind, thinking that I was taking a break from history, which nevertheless continued to happen in the background and to be dramatically presented on the TV that I no longer watched. Divide: body/mind; mind/world. My mind was cutting me off from my senses and from an exterior world reduced to the size of a society in post-communist transition to capitalism, after a contested, televised revolution. Life became poor in experience and overcrowded with ideas. It then struck me that, perhaps, I had misread Descartes. Or maybe, I had read him too narrowly, or had taken him too seriously. What followed was an extended effort to climb out of my own mind, an effort that, I later learned, has been described as being “philosophically fundamental.”1 Performance turned out to be helpful to me in this endeavor: performance as “twice-behaved behavior,”2 twice-behaved both personally and politically in the case of the present book. Theatricality, defined by Samuel Weber as “a problematic process of placing, framing, situating,” was helpful too.3
With the help of performance and theatricality, I learned to read Descartes differently. This reading, which forms the core of this book’s first chapter, entails a problematic process of situating a thought experiment developed by Descartes—of framing it as a problem to be reckoned with and staging it both in its own historical context and in a broader socio-cultural perspective that stretches into the present. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experiment of radical doubt that yielded the well-known meme “I am thinking, therefore I exist”4 and that involves a scenario of total deception engendered by a malicious deceiver. This is a scenario that philosophers to this day have arguably not been able to disprove and that has not lost its power in the cultural imagination; The Matrix is its more recent avatar.5 Once summoned, the malicious deceiver does not go away—it returns again and again under different guises. In Descartes, the (failed) attempt to disprove this scenario gave rise to a stubbornly enduring metaphysics that grounds existence in an abstracting mode of thinking cut off from the senses and the sensible. This mode of thinking upholds mathematics and its subject matter as the highest—and in fact only reliable—truth and posits an irreducible separation between the mind and the body and between the self and the world. It reduces the self to a “thinking I” and the world to a machine that is graspable and (re)producible by mathematics, which renders it exploitable and manipulatable. When automated, this mode of thinking becomes computing.
Descartes undertook his experiment in an attempt to distinguish truth from falsity, the real from the fake, and to secure the former. In fact, I argue, it gave rise to post-truth, to a logic that conjoins deception (dissimulation) and performativity (simulation); this will be theorized in this book as the logic of (dis)simulation. The Cartesian thought experiment offers a model of (the construction of) the real that is inescapably fake—or, more precisely, synthetic. I use “synthetic” here both in the dictionary sense of “devised, arranged, or fabricated for special situations to imitate or replace usual realities,”6 and in the sense of involving simulation based on abstraction that voids sensory, lived experience and historical context. In this book, I show how Cartesian metaphysics is twinned with global, racial capitalism, the (dis)simulation machine par excellence. The (dis)simulation machines and performative objects that this book analyzes are the products of this twinning: software and AI (Chapter 2), television (Interlude), plastics (Chapter 3), and the internet (Chapter 4). These media involve a mode of abstraction that can be traced back to both Cartesian metaphysics and capitalistic exchange. Through various case studies that cross different times and spaces, this book reads these machines and objects as malicious deceivers that have repeatable sameness built into their mode of operation and that construct impoverished pictures of the world by hollowing out embodied histories and lived experience.
As deployed in this book, the malicious deceiver is a metaphor standing in for Cartesian metaphysics and the logic of (dis)simulation associated with it, as well as a nomadic frame for analyzing and theorizing the deceptive performances of various (dis)simulating machines and objects. By calling something a malicious deceiver, I seek to highlight the ways in which it embodies the logic of (dis)simulation and with what consequences, as well as to think through ways to counter it. Specifically, I turn to performance and theatricality to counter this logic and to imagine more capacious, careful, and caring modes of world/sense-making. I do so in two ways: through the theatrical performances I engage with and through the staging of the embodied authorial “I” and its lived experience and histories. The performances the book engages with include pieces (in the order of appearance) by Annie Dorsen, the International Institute of Political Murder (founded and directed by Milo Rau), Pinar Yoldas, Chris Jordan, Alejandro Durán, Nao Bustamante, American Artist, Hassan Khan, as well as my own performance works. Through forms of repetition with a difference, these performances work with and out of the refuse produced by the twinning of Cartesian metaphysics and capitalism: “refuse” both in the sense of leftover and in the sense of that which has been left out in the processes of voiding or hollowing out. Displacing performativity through theatricality, these performances play with and against global capitalism’s (dis)simulation machines and performative objects so as to expand perception and experience and enable different modes of relationality and world/sense-making.
My use of the embodied “I” as a framing and situating device for the book and its sites of investigation is an attempt to enact a different kind of relationship between self and world from the one posited by Descartes and replayed in much Western philosophical and—more broadly—academic writing: a relationship of separation that places the “I” on a pedestal of abstraction, which voids it of its embodied histories and fails to account for its positionality within a socio-historical context and the operations of power that define it. In this move, I follow the call of Naomi Scheman, who stressed the need to take “responsibility for social location” in one’s philosophical work and “to write as one voice in a conversation, not as the last word, to say . . . how the world looks from here, the very particular place I occupy in it.”7 At stake here is also an attempt to enact a decolonial practice that counters what Walter Mignolo, building on the thought of Santiago Castro-Gómez, has termed “zero point epistemology”: “the ultimate grounding of knowledge, which paradoxically is ungrounded, or grounded neither in geo-historical location nor in bio-graphical configurations of the bodies.”8 The richly textured engagement with the Romanian social and political context of the transition from communism to capitalism as a site for the analysis of (dis)simulation, as well as the autobiographical method used in this book’s Interlude, serve to account for the positionality of the authorial “I” and the view—or sense—of the world that the book as a whole enacts. At the formal level, the ordering of the chapters and their contents aim to make an argument, mirroring my own experiences from the deep dive into Western philosophy as an expression of my internalization of the imperative to “catch up” with the West, to the undoing of that conditioning through performance (and performance studies), the exposure to different strands of feminist, decolonial, and Black thought, and varied life encounters and experiences.
The way in which subjects and objects of study come together in this book mimics the way in which things often come together in lived experience: as a seemingly random association filled with both repetition (of themes, ideas, objects) and with the unexpected. It also mimics, with a significant difference, the logics and ways of structuring of the internet: the montage of seemingly disparate pieces of information that appear in a social media feed driven by the algorithmic assessment of one’s interest based on past behavior, as well as the coexistence of disparate “virtual windows” on the screen when one has multiple tabs open on one’s networked device.9 Yet, there is method in the madness: transdisciplinary in spirit, it is a method (or way—by no means the only one) of sense-making, of allowing oneself “to become in relation to what” one is “seeking to understand.”10 In essence, this method is theatrical: the book brings things together in the manner that an experimental theatre director might bring together subjects and objects on a stage to make concrete and (re)imagine a constructed world, whose constructedness and mode of construction are foregrounded rather than concealed or disavowed. Some of the things may not fit well together: the temporalities activated may be incongruent; the things gathered may seem incompatible. And, in a sense, that is the point, because the globalized world picture that Western modernity has entrapped us in is filled with things that simply don’t fit together—things extracted, circulated, and forced to exist under conditions that often harm and even destroy them. The plastic objects staged in Chapter 3 of this book, for instance, don’t fit well in the stomach of baby albatrosses, who, deceived by their appearance, mistake them for food. These plastic objects should not be there. But global capitalism, and the ongoing colonization of all areas of life by consumerism, brought them there.11 That they got there is counterintuitive and absurd yet perfectly in line with global capitalism’s mode of operation. It is the hope of this book that, by inhabiting such incongruences with attention and care, possibilities for change, however elusive, might open up.
The book unfolds in two parts connected by an Interlude. The first part, consisting of the first two chapters, theorizes the logic of (dis)simulation with its attendant processes of voiding in the context of Cartesian thought, as well as its connection to capitalism and computation. The second part, comprising the last two chapters, stages the synthetic realities that (dis)simulation machines and performative objects repeat into being.
Chapter 1 introduces the malicious deceiver scenario as presented in Descartes’s experiment of radical doubt and shows how (dis)simulation is its structuring logic and why it matters. It also restages the Cartesian experiment in its historical context: tulipomania, one of the first speculative economic bubbles and remarkable collapses of the market in the history of capitalism. The chapter thus begins to reveal global capitalism as the broader context for understanding the malicious deceiver. By building on the thought of Marxist economist and philosopher Alfred Sohn-Rethel, it begins to unravel the twinning of Cartesian metaphysics and global capitalism as well as the link between Cartesian thought and computation. Through these moves, the chapter connects the malicious deceiver scenario with its more recent iterations as found in the computer simulation hypothesis and The Matrix.
Chapter 2 further unpacks the link between the logic of (dis)simulation and computation through an investigation of the kinds of thinking that computing machines perform. It highlights two modes of machine thinking—or thinking through machine thinking: one is a function of the machine’s actual operation and can be traced back to Descartes; the other is a function of the human–machine interaction at the interface and connects with Turing’s imitation game. At play between these two modes of machine thinking is both the difference and the intimate connection between simulation and dissimulation. The chapter attends to performances of machine thinking theatrically staged by Annie Dorsen, culminating in an analysis of globalizing modernity’s paradigmatic memory play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as it is performed by algorithms in Dorsen’s A Piece of Work: A Machine-made Hamlet. I read A Piece of Work as part of the broader context of “the drama ‘Big Data’” in which algorithms supposedly “shape” and even “rule our world,” in what appears to be one of the latest versions of Descartes’s scenario, with thinking machines—powered by capitalism—in the role of the malicious deceiver.12
Working with an autobiographical method that centers personal recollection, the book’s Interlude stages the context in which I first read Descartes: the Romanian transition to capitalism and consumerism and what preceded it. Through a deep dive into Romanian history and cultural context, this transitional chapter spotlights two malicious deceivers: (i) the communist apparatus of state deception sustained through a vast surveillance machine (which I read as a precursor to big data) and through a propaganda machine; and (ii) television, a (dis) simulation machine that represents the “object-symbol of the transition” from communism to capitalism and consumerism in the Romanian context.13 In different ways, both of these malicious deceivers construct synthetic realities, and both are undergirded—and programmed—by the internalized imperative to “catch up” with the West, an effect of modernity’s myth of progress. Through a focus on the televised revolution that marked the end of communism and beginning of capitalism and consumerism in Romania—which media philosopher Vilém Flusser read as the beginning of “post-history”14 (or, in today’s language, “post-truth”)—the chapter attends to the transformation of history into a circulated, ever-repeatable TV image that voids history and social context. One specific image it focuses on is that of the dictatorial couple put on trial during the days of the revolution, as reenacted in the International Institute of Political Murder’s theatre project The Last Days of the Ceausescus (Die Letzten Tage der Ceausescus). This reenactment counters the voiding of history and the perpetuating self-sameness of the TV image through a form of theatrical repetition with a difference across nonlinear times.
Chapter 3 follows a plastic bag floating from communist Romania across the waters of the ocean, shifting shapes as it moves across different times and places and yet stubbornly remaining the same. The chapter shows how synthetic plastic—a (dis)simulating object-symbol of modern progress and consumerism that has also become the material for money as well as for a form of payment and credit that is intimately tied to big data—is a malicious deceiver that possesses “metaphysical subtleties” with a Cartesian flavor.15 Both hyper-visible (it is seemingly everywhere) and imperceptible (in the form of micro-and nanoplastics), synthetic plastic is a product of simulation and an agent of deception that tricks perception. Its totalizing presence worldwide constitutes undeniable evidence of “a new form of colonization by consumerism”:16 global colonization by the ever-proliferating products of capital. The chapter explores theatrical performances that involve labor-intensive practices of gathering plastic things by Pinar Yoldas, Chris Jordan, Alejandro Durán, and Nao Bustamante. These performances stage different kinds of encounters with a world permeated by plastics, expanding perception and experience through practices of world/sense-making.
Chapter 4 continues the book’s investigation into (dis)simulation machines and performative objects with a reflection on the memetic circulation of information, ideas, images, habits, and objects and their virality as they connect with the internet—a preeminent (dis)simulation machine of our times that has featured prominently in common understandings of post-truth. Through a focus on fake news and other kinds of viral content, this chapter highlights how the internet embodies the logic of (dis)simulation and looks to performance and theatricality for ways of countering, refusing, and displacing this logic and the virality associated with it. Specifically, it engages with an online performance that I directed and co-created as well as with works by American Artist and Hassan Khan.
The Epilogue concludes the book by returning to a play that I wrote and directed a few years ago. This is the starting point for an open-ended reflection on a living practice of refusing and countering abstraction in a historical moment that some have seen as the beginning of “a new Cold War.”17 Even as it starts far away from the goal, it is to this kind of practice that the book aspires.
1. Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 11.
2. Richard Schechner, Between Theatre and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 36.
3. Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 315; italics in original.
4. The idea also appears in Descartes’s Meditations, but this exact formulation is from Descartes’s earlier work, Discourse on the Method, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume 1, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 127 (AT VI 32); italics in original. The abbreviation “AT” in the notes to Descartes refers to the standard Adam and Tannery edition of Descartes’s works.
5. Lana and Lilly Wachowski (dirs.), The Matrix, 1999.
6. Merriam-Webster, s.v. “synthetic,” accessed June 11, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synthetic
7. Naomi Scheman, Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority, and Privilege (New York: Routledge, 1993), xii, xiv.
8. Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 80.
9. The notion of the “virtual window” is drawn from Anne Friedberg’s book The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).
10. I channel here Claire Colebrook’s phrasing from Gilles Deleuze (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 46; italics in original. The expression “method in the madness” is adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
11. I take the idea of “a new form of colonization by consumerism” from Alejandro Durán, in Anna Gragert, “Riveting Trash-Based Sculptures Mirror Significant Environmental Issues,” My Modern Met, April 20, 2015, https://mymodernmet.com/trash-based-photo-series-mirrors-environment-issues/.
12. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Big Data as Drama,” ELH 83, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 368; Kevin Slavin, “How Algorithms Shape Our World,” TEDGlobal, 2011, www.ted.com/talks/kevin_slavin_how_algorithms_shape_our_world?language=en; Christopher Steiner, Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).
13. Konrad Petrovszky and Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, “Sensuri ale Revoluției Române,” in Revoluția Română Televizată: Contribuţii la Istoria Culturală a Mediilor, eds. Konrad Petrovzsky and Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu (Cluj: IDEA Design & Print, 2009), 30; my translation from Romanian; italics in original.
14. Vilém Flusser, “Television Image and Political Space in the Light of the Romanian Revolution,” April 7, 1990, Kunsthalle Budapest, published on YouTube by Vasily Klenov on May 31, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFTaY2u4NvI.
15. “Metaphysical subtleties” is borrowed from Karl Marx’s analysis of the fetishism of the capitalist commodity from Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), 163.
16. Durán in Gragert, “Riveting Trash-Based Sculptures.”
17. See, for instance, Ian Bremmer, “The New Cold War Could Soon Heat Up,” Foreign Affairs, May 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2022-05-05/new-cold-war-could-soon-heat.