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DEATHG̶U̶I̶L̶D̶ DIALOGUES #13
0x2619
March 28th, 2022

ANONYMOUS IN CONVERSATION WITH TRAVIS WYCHE

Do you have any sense of how people are responding so far?

The DeathGuild crew is loving these conversations. I hope that you would say the same, but it seems like everybody I’m talking to is having a real good time. I’m definitely having a good time. I curated this project because I think these people are all super interesting, you included.

Is this like therapy for Travis?

No, it’s not like I need some kind of therapeutic release, but I need to talk with people that are better qualified than I am to help me think through these ideas. I’m surrounded by experts and it became clear that this was going to be really valuable for the whole community that I’m examining. The first step was to see if, in fact, they would recognize the value in my ideas by putting up some money to support me. That happened with this MolochDAO grant and now we’re going to test the discrepancy between what they were expecting I was going to do and what they end up getting, whether they’re going to embrace this experiment in uncertainty or whether there’s going to be some kind of backlash or pushback. *You said you were gonna be producing research reports, but you just had a bunch of unruly conversations with a bunch of people that don’t know anything about Web3, so we’re pissed. *I could see it going both ways.

One of the questions here is how people will relate to the idea of what research is, which has been on my mind. I’ve been seeing these memes on Instagram recently where people are really critiquing the loose colloquial use of the word research; just the sentence I did my research and then it was footnoted in a comical way to reveal that the research was watching a video on YouTube. One user wrote:

“Please stop saying you researched it. You didn’t research anything and it’s highly probable that you don’t even know how to do so. Did you compile a literature review and write abstracts on each article? Or better yet, did you collect a random sample of sources and perform independent probability statistics on reported results? No?”

It goes on, but the thing that I find interesting is that there is a very academic argument against the use of research, purporting that if you didn’t do it the academic way then it’s not valid research, which I think we could argue with, but even within academic spaces what it means to do research is highly contested. It will be interesting to see how willing DeathGuild people are to think about something as research based on their preconceived notions of what research is supposed to look like or sound like.

Do you mean the audience that will be reading the articles or the other DeathGuild contributors? I’m thinking of this as potentially a long term project, but that will be up to the community to validate whether that’s possible or not. I have been very explicit and transparent in the proposal that this would be wild and abstract. I didn’t know exactly how this would pan out. Every conversation has been radically idiosyncratic and unique. The main goal here is to expand these conversations into communities that might not be naturally predisposed to thinking this way or to considering these topics. It’s really important for us to continue to remind each other that what’s at stake here is both an experimental method and a deep elaboration on topics that might be easy to take for granted. We’re experimenting with the form as well as the content. We have discussed research as an idea and why we might use that term and if that distracts from the thing that we’re actually doing, but today I really wanted to hear your thoughts on power.

Ok, let’s talk about power. The question of research relates to power, right?

Yes. Er, you tell me.

Or you tell me?

No, I would really prefer in this case if you told me.

The power to evaluate a product and deem it either valid research or not, positions valid research as an operation of power. We might mean that in a sinister way, where somebody in a position of power invalidates something that in other contexts is deemed valid research, because that research challenges some piece of their political agenda, or if it’s a more benign version, like an editorial board of an academic journal that received a submission and decided that submission doesn’t constitute valid research because it doesn’t conform to the conventions of what research looks like for that curatorial body. The connector for me between research and power is the question of evaluation. Who’s in a position to evaluate? Is there an evaluator? How does that look? Are the procedures of evaluation always abided by faithfully or is there inconsistency in how they’re applied? When it comes to this research that you’re assembling for DeathGuild, it will be really interesting to see how it’s evaluated, in a hard or soft way. Even if there isn’t an official review of what you put together, what does the informal evaluation of it look like? Who’s clapping for what?

For my own part, I care to think of myself as an evaluator serving as a steward rather than a God-King judiciary force who validates or invalidates according to an inherent bias, although any evaluation implies a bias. Even an attempt to render a system neutral by removing the human element implies a programmer that imparts their bias into the recognition of data points, to calibrate whether something is valid or not, like facial recognition software developed by predominantly white males having a difficult time recognizing people of color or any face that doesn’t fit within a hypernormative anatomical geometry. As steward, the procedure that I’ve attempted to adopt here is to render these conversations faithfully — a loaded word — to only edit the minimum amount to render the text legible to an audience of readers, because there’s discrepancies between oral and written communication. I don’t write into the texts or elaborate on the ideas beyond the spatial and temporal coordination of this conversation.

I’m contradicting myself from earlier conversations that we’ve had, I recognize that, because it wasn’t so clear that this was important before, but the more I move through the project the more I understand that restraining myself from intervening in the content might support the transparency and the integrity of these conversations in service to the unruliness and diaphanous nature of the concepts and the experimental procedure. I’m trying to edit as little as possible, just enough to make it readable, much to the chagrin of some of the contributors and also of the readers. There has been feedback that these conversations are difficult to read, because they’re transcriptions from spoken language.

The conceptual wrangling is a matter of fostering the conversation to go as far as we can, seemingly so deep into the weeds that we lose ourselves, while also attempting to practice an agility of oscillating back out to the macro scale to remember that the propulsion in this project is built around the triangulation of three key concepts that deserve to be scrutinized: governance modalities, resources becoming treasuries, and privacy as the fulcrum between autonomy and anonymity. If our discussion is not in service to that agenda, then we might evaluate ourselves as failing, because we did not achieve what we set out to do. How does power play into that?

I think that there’s a difficulty that the steward faces in managing the problem of how perspicuous it will immediately be whether a piece of content is relevant or not. There are cases in which irrelevance will be more obvious and indisputable, but if we’re talking about an experimental procedure where there might be a slow or more gradual development into something that feels like a valuable insight, then that poses a problem for certain speeds of evaluation. How can we be sure that you as the evaluator are right to deem something relevant or not relevant? Is that a question of power? The measurement is a certain kind of power, but it also places the evaluator in a position of vulnerability, because those judgments will be taken to task if the experiment is ultimately deemed a failure.

The vulnerability is that there has to be an individual that is held accountable. In this particular case, it is me. I have suggested and encouraged that you remain anonymous in order to alleviate any potential accountability that might come back to negatively reflect upon any other involvement that you might have in the world. I am not dedicated to being a centralized force of evaluation, to determine what will and will not be accepted, but to take up the responsibility of ensuring impactful content. I think there is a way that we might think about this in terms of a curation or coordination, as an active crafting of context. There is a need to focus deeply upon minutiae without confusing the map for the territory. Ideally, we might all take collective accountability for this.

Except for me, because I’m anonymous.

Gerhard Marx — Calligraphy and Cartography, 2015.
Gerhard Marx — Calligraphy and Cartography, 2015.

There’s something else at play here in these conversations. I’m not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes and deceive them, presenting this as a private conversation and then suddenly, without them knowing, pushing it into public. There is a need to craft a safe space for a sincere and vulnerable conversation to take place, free of censorship. I have no interest in serving as a censor, but there is an editorial responsibility and accountability. How do we render a metric of the relationship between those two things: steward of the community and editor for an audience?

Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) — Map of Utopia
Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598) — Map of Utopia

You’re in a difficult position from a social perspective. You’re working within a project that isn’t benefiting from certain conventions formed around how a person is interpolated by a certain institution or publishing body. You’re inventing conventions. If certain contributors, like myself, are experiencing unease, it relates to the fact that we’re not tapping into a set of conventions that determine how editing and censorship function here.

Can you tell me about your unease?

I’m hung up on this question of transparency and censorship. Transparency is something of a construct. I don’t feel like I have an essential self that can be communicated, conveyed, represented in an uncensored or censored manner. I am always navigating questions of context when I’m making decisions about how to appear. Within that framework, there are instances where I’m muting my desires or my instincts more or less, depending on what the particular situation is. I don’t know what it would mean to have a transparent conversation. There’s always an audience, a way that I would make a particular point to my mom, that differs from how I would make that point to my advisor or other people in my life. I don’t think that one of those modes is more authentic than another. There’s always strategy.

When it comes to my unease with censorship, I don’t think anything terrible will happen as a consequence of publishing these conversations with my name attached to them, but there is a desire to be able to curate my persona to a greater extent than this project allows. A difficulty with the translation of dialogue or conversation into text is that there is a relatively radical freedom in conversations, because I feel like I can have conversations with people where I test out completely ridiculous perspectives and they’re not on the record. I mean, they’re on the record insofar as my interlocutors remember pieces or aspects of the conversation, but they’re not on the record in a way that a piece of writing is, so I’m allowed to evolve or change the perspective that was shared in that moment. In a text it’s more permanent, because a text is crafted for a precisely understood context that gives it a container that feels less risky.

I think that your concerns are important to address. I also find them perplexing. No one else that I’m speaking to in this project has raised such concerns or admitted their inhibition to speaking to me in the context that is being woven here. No one has raised any consideration of a strategy in the crafting of their persona, in considering the possibility of an inauthentic presentation of themselves. I am glad that you are raising this issue and I feel like it is absolutely significant content that we should address. I am wondering if your provocation to consider control and censorship, of context and permanence, of the textual documents and of the strategies of how one orients their persona in relation to an unknown audience on this quivering ground that you locate yourself on, if we might point our attention towards the crux of privacy. I’ve been thinking of privacy as composed of anonymity, one’s ability to wield the control and influence of their constructed persona with intention, and the autonomy of revealing or allowing oneself to be revealed through the performance of a role within a public sphere, that I would purport that we always already are.

I have a background in reporting. I started my newsroom experience on a college newspaper, where there were many ridiculous experiences where an editor chose a headline that didn’t at all fit the piece of writing that I had submitted. There’s an unease in putting together a piece of writing and then feeling like somebody has more power than you in the hierarchical body can have the ultimate say in how that piece is received. There are also cases where editors would make errors like publishing a draft instead of the final piece. There was a particular case where I’d interviewed a politics professor who asked to stay off the record and the editor submitted the draft instead of the final version, causing a great deal of embarrassment and anger. This person felt really betrayed by me. The carelessness of the editor put me in a position of having to be accountable for something that was not my job. As a result of those experiences, I decided to become an editor and then it just wasn’t a problem anymore. If I wanted to write a piece for the paper, I would also be editing it so I could make sure that whatever was being put out wasn’t an embarrassment to me or a betrayal of the sources who had trusted me to tell their stories somehow.

In the academic context, there is a really important distinction between having an idea, an intuition or an instinct, and then subjecting that idea to a process of scrutiny and verification, accessing and connecting with the conversations about a particular idea that have already happened. You talked about certain aspects of this work becoming more clear to you as you went along. For me, it wasn’t clear from the onset how much these texts needed to ventriloquise the kind of rigor that is expected in academic contexts. **A person in my subjective position — a woman, a person of color trying to do philosophy — doesn’t have the same wiggle room to say ignorant shit about somebody like Wittgenstein that somebody else might. **Maybe the point is that philosophical discourse is so tyrannical that nobody has the right to say bogus shit about Wittgenstein, but I feel quite self conscious about how I appear to be speaking to a philosophical tradition that continues to be hostile to people like me. I don’t have the leeway to speak extemporaneously about things that interest me when it comes to those kinds of topics. All of us are shot through with issues of power. As a person who is trying to cultivate a professional position as a public intellectual and scholar, there are obvious pragmatic questions that I’m faced with.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) — The Rage of Achilles
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) — The Rage of Achilles

There’s another piece that I’m recognizing as I move through these thoughts, which is that I really hate tech culture. Some of how this research is proceeding gets to the heart of what I find quite repugnant about tech culture. One of those things is the idea that research is cheap or can be made cheaply and quickly. That’s already happening in academia through adjunctification. There are ways I don’t want to associate myself with a certain kind of tech culture and I’m learning the extent of that through the conversations.

What you hate about tech culture is that it’s built upon a presumption that research can be sourced cheaply and that is a quality that you are locating within the DeathGuild project?

Not quite. What I’m saying is that there is a pre-existing repulsion with tech culture and the utopian schemes that it concocts. When we proceed with assembling research that isn’t fully cooked, undertaken in a spirit of so-called agility or speed, that makes me feel like I’m participating in an unsavory aspect of tech culture. It makes me uncomfortable to think that I might be associating myself with a practice that I’m rabidly opposed to.

This is where I want to throw the ball back in your court and ask you about the value that you are assigning to transparency; where that’s coming from, how you articulate it. I need to hear a robust description of what makes transparency valuable. It seems like the virtue of transparency is part of the justification for a low processing approach. There’s a resemblance for me with the prerogatives of classic captains of industry who want to streamline certain procedures and strip them of the artisanal human touch. I feel like I’m trying to remain an artisan. Pardon the grandiosity or pompousness of that statement. I’m finding myself in a context where an automated set of procedures has been designed. I can imagine you’re thinking that the conversation itself is such an open field and that’s where the artistry happens with the text as a bit of an afterthought. I’m really preoccupied with the text.

This requires delicate handling. Let’s address the justification or the motivation for striving for transparency.

If we want to be fully transparent, why don’t we publish audio of these conversations? Why make any editorial decision? Why make any cuts?

I’m struggling to find an entry point to crafting an answer, because your comments make me feel like you hate everything about what we’re doing, concerning the foundation that the project’s propositions are built upon, that it antagonizes every aspect of your being and your course of action is to antagonize it in turn. I’m struggling with being in a position where I have imposed that upon you, that you’ve been positioned in a way that is the inverse of my intention. Perhaps I should encourage you to continue examining in this way, because it seems like any response that I might offer would be contextualized in defense of a culture that I also don’t want to be associated with, or at least not without some high-fidelity clarification of what you’re leveraging against. It’s not how I am consciously associating with this project.

I have a question about labeling these sentiments and preoccupations as antagonistic in relation to Chantal Mouffe’s notion of mutual agonism. When does an articulation crossover from shared agonism to rivalrous antagonism? I don’t feel resentful towards you or the scope of the project, though I do think that we’re in different positions. I can be completely on the outside. I don’t have the same investment in these communities. You were recently speaking about the enthusiasm and admiration that you have and I’m on the outside of that. It gives me a certain power, because I can just feel like *I don’t give a fuck about this *and dip out if I want to. That seems to be a source of alienation for us. The issues that I’m raising are not intended to tell you to stop doing what you’re doing, or to shit on it and say it’s all stupid. I have genuine curiosities. In questioning the virtue of transparency, it’s productive to think about where that comes from, how people are articulating, if there is a stable meaning within these communities or if it’s used in different ways. What does agonism look like? How might we inhabit a space of shared agony?

It begins with an invitation and an understanding that any democratic modality is at the service of some and at a great disservice to others. We operate within a folklore of consensus building that is disadvantageous to some. I am trying to coordinate conversations from the outside to emphasize the importance of a model of reciprocal exchange by inviting in critical voices that are currently poorly represented in the community. I’m risking my own credibility to advocate for the importance of dissensus, the importance of disagreeing in a constructive way.

Antagonism inhibits clear vision of the larger ontological structures that we are all implicated within. Agonism begins with an understanding that we are all embedded within the same structure and you can’t locate yourself outside of it. We are all subject to the architectures that we build collectively. Shared agony begins with humility, by recognizing that we must share the weight of collective accountability, to continue extending an invitation to the other to co-create spaces for dissipating antagonisms, to show up in service of the other, and to carefully render the script collectively. We must agonize-with rather than antagonize-against.

I would like to address your not giving a fuck about the ramifications of the project by associating it with a quick, cheap methodology. I don’t find that to be a generous perspective that acknowledges the vulnerability involved in constructing a platform for new voices to be heard. A prerequisite for transparency might be a cooperative and collaborative culture, to coordinate a reciprocal design that serves all the contributors, rooted in radical conviviality. This project is rooted in friendship and friendship is based on trust and faith. From that foundation we might nurture an explorative curiosity, to play together through a pluriversal performativity that facilitates radical sovereignty while we put on and take off various masks; a fluidity of identity might become possible.

The discomfort that I experience in your description is the rootedness of your own identity construct, which seems to have instilled an inhibition to participate in a genuine manner, because you’re perceiving this context as malicious artifice strategically leveraged against your being, conveying an agenda that you don’t condone. I don’t mean to put words in your mouth.

Perhaps centralizing individuation is precisely the root cause of the alienation that has been imposed upon this conversation in the beginning. Might we somehow cooperate in recognizing the need for a deontological orientation? Not simply disembodied or empirically objective and not a reductive tyranny of rulelessness or some similarly absurd, violent, feigned neutrality of universal language, but a local design that creates openings within the at-hand structure that we are playing in. Might we support each other to exercise agency in shifting the circumstances that are imposed upon us?

I want to extend to you an invitation of convivial exchange, reciprocity, potlatch, not built upon debt, but personal sacrifice. I can’t say that I totally understand your hesitation to extend into the middle, what is precisely at stake that you fear might be lost. It’s not to say that your concerns are not real or significant. You might help me clarify and amplify your perspective, to act in service to whatever audience you might imagine will be reading this, to exercise an existential agility to remain limber to the perceived assault on your sensibilities. It’s the willow that survives the storm, while the rigid oak falls with a strong wind.

I don’t know what it is that you hate about the tech community, but the invitation has been extended for you to think with me, not as my subject but as my peer, as the expert in your own field, to define your own role. This struggle goes well beyond the tech industry, but concerns the industrial drive more generally as a globalized accelerationist hystericism, an absolutely dehumanizing force that we must all agonize together to actively dismantle. It’s a matter of survival, quite literally. That’s where the death of DeathGuild comes in; there’s existential risk. I hope to serve as a conductor for a morbid choir.

Umberto Boccioni — States of Mind: Those Who Go, 1912

I feel like any of those points could open out into lengthy and deliberate conversations. There’s an issue of developing a shared understanding of what these values actually mean, the generation of value being one of the values that is incredibly vague. I think it’s incredibly important to think about the values of potlatch, sacrifice, risk, suppleness, etc., beyond this specific context through a historically and politically informed attention to structures. Who is asked to sacrifice in what kinds of contexts? What counts as sacrifice and who isn’t sacrificing?

Sacrifice of Iphigeneia
Sacrifice of Iphigeneia

To remain at an abstract register is an operation of power. My interest in philosophy is preoccupied with the careful crafting of distinctions. I have an incredible bias against tech culture, but I don’t believe myself to be outside of its grips. I’m completely enmeshed and interpolated by the tools and the values and the discourses of tech culture. That’s a core element of the negative bias that I have. It seems important to me in a way that I don’t yet understand that we continue talking to one another in a genuine, earnest, vulnerable way.

Barnett Newman — Broken Obelisk, 1963–69
Barnett Newman — Broken Obelisk, 1963–69

Thinking about David Graeber and his Fragments on an Anarchist Anthropology, he says early in that text that one doesn’t find any anarchists in the academy, perhaps because of an insistence on a consonance between the methods and the values. One of the things that interests me in the conversations that we’re having is something in the spirit of Graeber, where I’m curious about how the procedure is an important part of the radical aspirations here. My point is to bring a great deal of attention to the representational procedures, because they inevitably, necessarily, are inflecting the thing that’s made.

This series is made possible by a generous grant awarded by MolochDAO. Thank you Moloch!

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