Revenge of the Unreal

Benjamin Bratton’s “The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World”: A Review

“There is chemistry, abstraction and phase change, pattern and then collapse, and other things besides.”

I selected this quote because it appears to be a key to the worldview of Benjamin Bratton, author of the recently published The Revenge of the Real (ROTR). Bratton presents himself as a self-styled and self-professed bad boy “globalist […] well beyond your worst fears,” an ‘intellectual of statecraft’ for the post-state age. His mission is a return to totality and cognitive mapping; his book inserts itself in the genre of planetary-scale ideas.

The publication, sold by Verso, is subdivided into some nineteen chapters, all with a certain improvised and only loosely coherent feel. They blend Bratton’s personal anecdotes and acid wit with technological and cultural observations to formulate a response to the variety of global phenomena which have been called ‘Covid-19’. 

“The real” of the title stands in for the repressed “hard science” reality “crash(ing) through comforting illusions and ideologies.” For Bratton, a technocrat, however, these illusions and ideologies not only encompass limp social science constructivism but also nothing less than the basic tenets of Western political culture: individualism, personal responsibility, privacy, health freedom, bodily sovereignty, a cultural dislike of surveillance, biopolitics and centralization. 

What the theorist terms an “epidemiological perspective” reveals such stuff to be untenable in light of a “pandemic” which acts as an “irruptive revelation of the complex biological reality of the planet with which we are entangled [with an] underlying reality [that] is apathetic to the plotlines and mythic lessons we may try to project upon it.”

This revelation calls for us to “reform habits of thought” towards a public rather than private conception of risk as a “plural and intersubjective set of relations.” For him, the individual, as a silly agent of a “debilitating and lazy constructivism” and “insubordination against the state” too often “takes precedence even over preventable deaths” (emphasis added). 

Bratton instead proposes a “planetary competency” modeled on Western IT/logistics giants and East Asian states. According to him, the latter have been successful because they managed to organize IT logistics, which he conceptualizes as a “sensing layer” with political will. Digitization is a necessary precondition for effective response: “it’s also true that with lousy numbers, there will be more bleeding” (emphasis added). It is particularly a Western political culture hostile to surveillance which acts as a stumbling block to this planetary vision of smooth logistics. To alleviate this problem, the author suggests a rethinking of the terms of the debate too loaded with left-wing academic cultural ballast: “Surveillance is not the right word.” Debates on it, rather, are fuel for conspiracy theory like that on 5G, which for Bratton “is apophenia as political science; it perceives causes and deliberate agents where only truly frightening systemic failures exist” (emphasis added).  

The problem then is cultural. As a result, Bratton spends considerable energy attacking the man he singled out as embodying such discourses: Giorgio Agamben. The Italian philosopher is harshly described as a representative of an “all-encompassing post-structuralist medievalist,” who has destroyed “whatever was left of his reputation as a public intellectual with his many agitated, delusional, and frankly embarrassing published responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The booklet ends with foreseeing waves of biomedical startups combining with corporate “new normal” solutions.

So what to make of it?

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy ROTR. The 115-page booklet is a real page-turner: Bratton stays true to his self-stylization of bad-boy thinker pursuing an intellectual surenchère from beginning to end. Absolutely nothing is left out which would make ROTR seem less like a cartoon conceptual apology of the New World Order: from an awkwardly poetic eulogy of mask-wearing and remote interactions (“It prevents contact by the deliberate withdrawal of the space between us, and it is precisely for that reason a way that we care for one another”) to an apology of mass vaccination – resistance to which is “reactionary epidemiological biopolitics.” It’s not the only good-old USSR-style psychologizing attack on those who oppose the vision of his world reduced to logistics Ge-Stell. They are denounced as “conspiracy theorists,” “crazies” and notably “Karens,” a trope which I assume is de rigeur in his milieu of alienated middle-class academics (“Ha Ha: White People. I know!”).

The Revenge of the Real casts Bratton as the veritable Redditor-Endgegner. I was impressed by the theorist trying to single-handedly and unironically shill the Fourth Industrial Revolution wholesale to his clientele. The tract evoked in me the image of a ‘Ben Shapiro of the Left’, physiognomical similarities and the dark and brooding nature aside. Above all, Bratton mirrors Shapiro’s shoddy corporate scientism, which he also opposes to a mirage of academic constructivism. 

I was also reminded of those neocon-intellectuals who accompanied the post 9-11 coup perpetrated by their peers with establishment contrarianism and unashamed apology of state violence. Bratton appears as part of a new breed of heavy-handed authoritarian leftists, who similar to creatures like Emmanuel Macron, deliver the New World Order top-down style and with a few meaningless quips against woke constructivism, which every halfway decent person by now has understood has been a tad excessive in its insanity. The ultimate goal of this brand of politics and thought is to deliver global government, not as before in the form of cybernetic liberal disorder but with authoritarian and equity-delivering efficacy. It thereby reacts to that stressed zoon politicon of globalisation, the consoomer, pandemic-panicked, cortisol-ridden and on the verge of a nervous breakdown who just wants things to be taken care of so he can spend the rest of his life slowly demoulding to Netflix, Uber Eats and UBI. 

Naturally Bratton never seriously investigates Covid-19. That’s not the job of the marketing technocrat nor that of the subject who is to get-on-with-it; all that stuff is over our heads anyway, isn’t it? Bratton appreciates competency. He laments algorithm researchers who cannot distinguish different types of algorithms, yet dare to comment on their political effects. But is the writer not applying a double standard here as a non-medical expert writing about Covid-19? Does Ben even understand the effects of vaccination on heterosubtypic immunity? And why, when already criticizing the ridiculous propaganda of guys in hazmat suits spraying the streets of Shanghai, doesn’t he actually move beyond the 19th-century science understanding of the body as a sterile bathroom which needs to be protected against outside intruders? While contemporary research already understands that viruses and bacteria are the main components (85%) of the human genome and that we need to coevolve with them rather, ROTR never questions the new normal of masks and lockdowns.  

The point, of course, is that we have been bombarded with the ‘appeal to authority’ a million times during Covid-19. It’s an injunction to complete resignation to a ‘scientific consensus’ which in reality has never existed and never will. To even use science in the singular strikes me as irresponsible and, yes, even populist. And even if singular science did exist, Bratton would certainly be smart enough to know that scientific breakthrough has a history of happening against consensus. Doesn’t every social science undergrad read that Thomas Kuhn tome?

I must thus admit I had a hard time believing that Bratton can actually still fully assume his ‘new normal’ marketing manual. But then we must ask: What happened here? Was it one of those books that took just a tad too long to publish and is a bit too early-Covid? We know this kind of mistake frequently happens to intellectuals unwilling to wait for the fog of war to clear. Or is there a genuine political conviction or mission behind the tract? Is there, for example, something we don’t know about his years as a Yahoo salesman that spilled over into his theorist present? 

Bratton’s book seems suspiciously determined as a hit-job. Recalling his below-the-belt attacks and Twitter bullying against Giorgio Agamben and Ivan Illich, it appeared to me almost as if someone had to neutralize these intellectual antagonists. In actual fact, both provide coherent responses to the advent of a ‘scientific’ dictatorship seeking to abolish bodily autonomy and bullying subjects into injecting rushed experimental medication to generate a valuable legal-cultural precedent for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is officially heralded as the blending of IT and the life sciences.

Despite his old age, Agamben has persistently been one of the few intellectuals who could muster a bit of cojones to oppose the techno-structure. He persisted in the similarly hostile post-911 intellectual climate. And today, nobody remembers the name of his attackers from back then, who thought it witty to support the badly aging projects of Bush administration criminals by bullying resisting intellectuals.

Covid-19 in fact vindicates both Agamben and Illich, who criticize excessive state power, dismantle simplistic hegemonic industry scientism, and profess decentralization and medical autonomy against the dubious machinations of the state. ROTR, on the other hand, reveals itself as a philosophy of blindspots: How can we speak of a real, when nothing about Covid-19 is; when everything about this crisis is constructed, exaggerated, doctored, mediated? Of course, some comparatively (but not excessively) nasty virus is making the rounds, but as increasing numbers of doctors have been witnessing, this virus and the subsequent lethal bacterial superinfection is treatable with safe, cheap and effective medication like Ivermectin, Hydroxychloroquine, Azithromycin, Vitamin D and blood thinners. As prestigious scientists and clinicians like Dr. Peter McCullough have stated (well worth watching the entire interview), the dissemination of treatments protocols and medications has meanwhile failed because it has been nothing less than sabotaged by centralized medical authorities, a complex of corrupt state statisticians and big pharma pushing politicians and health officials. Even as the WHO advised people to stay home and only present at the hospital when it was too late, any real effective medical response in the Covid-19 crisis was decentralized and took place despite and against the global authorities.

Bratton’s idea of a need for a “sensing layer” does not hold up. Today, it has become entirely obvious that Covid numbers have been artificially blown up as a casedemic geared upon the most intimate and expansive health data collection in history via PCR tests which deliver inadequate results and false positives depending on relatively arbitrary cycle thresholds. Together with the financial incentives chronically underfunded hospitals received for counting deaths with SARS-COV2 as caused by SARS-COV2, they inflated a pandemic that could have easily flown under the radar as a particularly bad flu season. Professor Didier Raoult, among the world’s foremost infectious diseases experts according to citations (according to Expertscape), also pointed out that there had been considerable tension between the statistical arm of medicine and clinicians who actually treated patients. Clown statisticians like the now-discredited Neil Ferguson, who spread panic with exaggerated cooked-up death tolls, were persistently contradicted by experienced clinicians who knew that the pandemic was far less dangerous than advertised.

Had Bratton just paid attention to what was actually happening his eulogy of model simulations would have fallen to pieces. Of course for some ideologues, if the model does not work, the solution is always to have more of it. But in reality, more data will never really show anything, as long as interested experts translate and skew it to match their goals. Today, every critical citizen is familiar with the myriad ways data can be arranged to say a thing and its exact opposite. This is far too obvious as to not have been noticed by Bratton. But who cares about what is actually happening? For Bratton and other grad school global salesmen, it’s the conceptual elegance that counts, conclusions need to just be coherently and eloquently deducted from a series of premises whose accuracy hardly matters. Critically reading news beyond passive consumption of the Guardian is not a skill taught at university theory departments, and almost certainly even deemed vulgar

For Bratton, every bit of disturbing information that does not fit the narrative will again be dismissed as being ‘conspiracy theory’. Politics is incompatible with his universe of De Landaian phase-changes and Virilian technological accidents. This middle-class consciousness cannot help but project its own incompetence and innocuousness onto the political world in toto. Carefully and discretely cultivated Herrschaftswissen is alien to it. Its idea of power can be resumed as “Just high IQ people living in the moment.”

To this simplistic explanation, one must oppose a plea for complexity: Political interest cannot be eliminated from a social model, and it does not exclude technological accidents, incompetence, and botched plans. And what is even more disturbing, it exists in the plural and actively resists investigation. 

There are only the networks, themselves composed of inscrutable private motives making their moves. Even academic political science concedes that elite power-knowledge is notoriously difficult to access and might escape the ‘expert interviews’ which most academics gladly accept as revealed knowledge. Bratton, as he presents himself to us, is clearly an adept of this brand of naive social science common to those who have spent too much time in academia and neglect common sense observations. They prefer to designate door-closers (as did the very popular Bruno Latour under the pseudonym of Jim Jonson) and microbes as political agents and remain oblivious to the schemes of political, economic, and military elites. 

Perhaps then Bratton himself is a bit like the Karen he chuckles at: a hysterical strawman philosopher of privileged condescension in deep psychological need of order, incapable of interacting with the complexity of the knowledge society which knows only information and cares little about its institutional framing. In this world of flat data hierarchies, his eloquence and tech-savvy impress only those snarky urban grad school students from academic households that are similarly shielded from reality. 

As to ‘the Real’ described in the book, it is only an optical illusion whose origin is the concrete violence of the state. Bratton just passively transmits it as an intellectual marketing clerk and animator of the process of production (Clouscard). It has already subtly influenced and anticipated his every thought, and only uses his jargon as an ornament for its agenda. It is also the reason why his smooth graphic design-supported tracts can never be avant-garde. This is also his tragedy.

As to that other Real – the poetic justice – which Bratton summons, it is already clear that it won’t be found in the form of a high modernist state science which is imposed on the people. Rather, the real is its repressed ugly outside gnawing on his ivory tower.

Book reviewed: Benjamin Bratton’s “The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World

Nicolas Hausdorf is a German writer living in Melbourne, Victoria. He is the author of the “Psychogeography Superstructural Berlin“.

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