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Superconversations Day 10: Bassam el Baroni responds to Ahmet Öğüt, "Things Based on Real-Life Events"


Where Is Your Selfhood?

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, detail, 1566, oil on canvas

Different Strokes
Ahmet Öğüt’s contribution to e-flux’s Supercommunity special issue is a tale about two acquaintances with identical names who befriended during the “People’s Park revolt” in Istanbul. Although the two Ahmed’s in this story have some things in common one can be clearly defined as an activist the other as an artist. As the story unfolds the two characters develop and are ascribed differentiating traits. To simplify, the main difference is that the artist and his circle of friends appear to have experienced events or interactions that have led them to doubt the conventional notion of the self (and personal identity) as a unified and stable essence. Rather, their identities are “distributed” or a “combination of many”.

The artist at one point asks “What if I am not who I think I am?” The destabilization, fragmentation, and disintegration of selfhood the artist types are going through is put up against the unified, stable and non-doubting personal identity of the activist and we get to witness the disappointing results of this contest. While the now Berlin-based artist can only romanticize about creating anonymity and confusion as affect by inviting the activist to represent him at a biennial, the Istanbul-based activist is steadfast and determinate in his endeavors, supporting friends in court hearings and making documentary films anonymously to effect the political situation without taking any credit.

What is to be gleaned from the juxtaposition of artist and activist? More importantly, what is it exactly that has caused the artists’ destabilized sense of self and personal identity? Is it something they share with the activist or is it something that only artists can experience? Ahmed the artist spends so much time online that he “gets lost” while Ahmed the activist is always depicted in places where something with a sense of urgency to it is happening. This indicates that the absent and non-elaborated reason for the artists’ destabilized sense of self can basically be attributed to the internet or more generally contemporary information and communication technologies. To be more precise, this is what has been referred to as the disembodied communication of the internet, a quality that has led to a constant stream of warnings by some about the loss of the traditional sense of self amidst the multiplication of identities and self-presentations and as a result the gradual loss of moral agency.

The artists in this tale are representatives of disembodied communication while the activist’s seemingly superior morals seem to be a reflection of embodied interaction, always already present in “real” places and events, the courthouse etc. The story implies that disembodied information-communication technology leads to the disintegration of identity while discretely defining the activist as: a person who has not allowed the disembodied nature of present day communication-information to disrupt her/his self or identity as a unified and stable core.

Intellectual Honesty
The irony of course is that the unified self has never existed in the first place and here the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger is due a quick mention. His main point is that there is “no such thing as a self” that actually exists. The self is generated by the brain which is an information-processing system that gathers data to construct each individual’s blend of selfhood. But, because we do not have access to this technical process it’s impossible to live without these selves that are more like flocking clusters of information. Metzinger’s point is that the split between knowing that you don’t have a locatable unified core called a self and having to nonetheless automatically generate a self to function in everyday life should not be taken as a contradiction that can then be turned into some kind of dialectical resolution which attempts a synthesis between what we know to be our true neurologically generated selves and the self-constituting narratives that are our ‘selves’ in social interaction.

The concept of intellectual honesty for Metzinger is the recasting of knowledge from the position of “being no one” scientifically speaking and “having to be someone” socially speaking. This is rather different to the subjectivities or personal identities of both artist and activist in the story that are classified according to their perceived political efficacy in “Real-Life Events”.

The dynamic continuity of revolt
In the story, the artist’s attempt at making a project inspired by “Real-Life Events” fails. This is because the real here is strictly understood as concrete and physical and not as a dynamic continuity between physical space, informational processes, and data flows. In their article Catalysing Dissent Andrew Osborne and Inigo Wilkins elaborate on what they call Computational Immanence which they describe as: “the thesis that all aspects of the real without exception may be understood as both inputs and outputs of a purposeless and non-problematic computation …”. Osborne and Wilkins equate Computational Immanence with the generative science behind computational modeling that is “instrumentalised by the contemporary state in order to maintain public order in a highly cynical manner”.

But, while this may be true, Osborne and Wilkins recognize that it is this same generative capacity in the deep logic of information and communication technologies that “has afforded the population at large an unprecedented possibility for liberation through the communalisation of information”. Riots cannot be articulated by the explanations in the media because all “politico-ideological narratives aimed at explaining the riots” are “based in moral breakdown” while they would be better understood in the generative computationally immanent terms of computational modeling. Osborne and Wilkins here make an attempt at understanding revolt within a physical-informational continuum that distinguishes between and does not confuse “real-life” read: subjectivities, identities, personal narratives with “generative science” read: data, information-processing, neurons.

To wrap up some brief questions:

  • Is the disintegration of the self in relation to disembodied communication becoming an increasingly popular field of reference in the expanded field of art? Which postures does it assume, what are its variations, does it have both progressive and reactionary side, and, if so, how can we distinguish the two?

  • Has the wave of political protests from the UK Riots to Baltimore via Arab spring et al. had any positive impact on art’s conceptualization and progress or has any progress come into being independently of such events and through other linkages?

Bassam El Baroni is an independent curator and a theory teacher at the Dutch Art Institute, Arnhem. He lives in Alexandria, Egypt.


The text by Ahmet Ogut feels like a cautionary tale, as you have pointed out: the artist seems defensive of his not having a self, the activist has a simplistic one of a stable self, and it almost reads as a parable of overeducation, too much sophistication.

You’ve rightly pointed out that scientifically “being no-one” and socially “having to be someone,” are compatible (though not synthesizable) positions. The antifoundationalist argument that is an art world orthodoxy, and which this artist figure allegorizes, was targeted at the racial biologies, gender hierarchies, and the naturalization of class.

There are certain contexts in which the antifoundationalist critique may have power, though I doubt anymore. For example, policies that adversely or positively affect relatively specific groups can be enforced just as strictly based on the idea of constructed, acquired traits, rather than essential, pre-existing ones: professional skills, language fluency, etc. These policies may be racist in effect, though they are culturalist in theory—it’s the problem in the US of colorblindness.

By the same token, though, this critique never precludes strong constructivism. I tend to think of it this way: the self is constructed, but so are chairs, and they serve well. The key for their durability is coherence, or performing consistently over a long period, whether that’s by sitting on the chair in the expected position, or presenting yourself publicly in the expected way. This is the heft of “strategic essentialism,” when it was posited as a solution to the problems of cultural relativism; the problem with Spivak’s phrasing, which describes how certain groups may want to simplify their internal divisions, their hybridities and liquidities, for political gain, is that it is useless without a strong idea of political values and ideals.

The selves that the activist works with are sophisticated in just this way; provisional but durable, targeted, impactful, organized. Festus Okey’s identity is juridically constructed. The other Ahmed Basiony’s identity is also perpetuated by a social context: hence the importance of showing his name in the documentary. You are what you respond to, when people call your name you repeat yourself. There is finally a naiveness to the artist’s approach; a shock to have the ground pulled out from under them, a sneaking realization that the formative moment of their subjectivity isn’t their work but their recognition, “We e-mailed you a few times but haven’t heard back. We wonder if you would be interested in participating in the …” The artist’s problem is that she doesn’t see the emancipatory potential of the call and response.



To do a visual analysis of Arcimboldo’s painting I am reposting the full image here since the format restrictions of the Conversations template requires for the image to be horizontally oriented.

No painting can be said to foreshadow today’s conditions of knowledge production and the mediating role of technology between the networked object and the posthuman subject as much as Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s Librarian (Figure 2). 61 It is based, most likely, on Wolfgang Lazius (1514-1565), a scientist and collector who worked for Ferdinand I, the king of Bohemia and Hungary, as the official historian and director of the Kunstkammer and the imperial library. The painted figure is literally an interface for knowledge. Rather than directly representing its human subject, the painting depicts him as a composite automaton made up of many volumes of books that together form his disjointed figure. He appears out from behind a curtain that perhaps symbolizes the private and public functions of the librarian/archivist. In the place of his eyes there are two keys referring to his access privileges both at the library and at the king’s royal court. The top of the subject’s head is depicted with an open book whose pages are forming a half circle. He appears to be made up of the very books that he is carrying under his arms, which itself is consisted of two large atlases with one containing paper bookmarks as the subject’s fingers. He is simultaneously the interface and the database.


Dear Bassam,

I must first of all confess that the attitude of the artist in the story reminded me constantly of Suhail’s indeterminacy, perhaps an offspring of an -indeterminacy to act-.
The disintegration of the self in relation to disembodied communication is a very popular theme in art, but the narrative for reactionary attitudes far outweighs that of the progressives (if we understand progressive in the same terms, as I am very skeptical of progress as an implied betterment or a sophistication of the current) I feel media is in part the culprit for this, as the role of disembodied communication is far more prominent than progressiveness. It is also in part a generational thing, you know, parents scared that disembodiment is controlling the attention span, intellect, etc of kids. Its usual, and of course, those fears also existed with rock and roll music, novels, movies, etc.

Of course, I have been commenting on great lengths about the great potential the internet brings (and I think it FAR outweighs its caveats) so I won’t bore you with it. What I do think is that projects like the artist’s in the story, inspired by Real Life Events tend to fail because their potentialities are annulled through the metaphorical implicit in contemporary art’s modus operandi.

The commnunalization of riots of course have a tremendous impact on or conceit of the world, but we also have to remember that those very riots are often state programmed in the same cynical manner Wilkings and Osborne described as:

Just remember about the ZunZuneo scandal (well, wasn’t really a scandal…since it was barely reported) when we found out this new Cuban social media was indeed just another desperate political maneuver by the USA to try and overthrow the current government. Those very protests are very often generated by state apparatuses to alleviate other sores. While I do not think it is likely to be the case with the Ferguson riots, Crimea and Syria on the other hand…


It’s interesting that Borges hasn’t come up already, being in many ways one of the ur-writers of subjectivity. In the tale Borges and I, Borges proceeds by means of a series of second person description of himself and the “other” Borges in order to destablize his identity as a literary object–as the object of a discourse. Yet writing himself in this way he reveals the play of mirrors that is the consciousness or the taking oneself as object produced by subject.

What is interesting to me is how this instability is always read as an antifoundationalist position, rather than simply the material consequences of our cognition. I’m very much behind Bassam el Baroni’s position on antifoundationalism, and I think it really powerful that he cite Computational Immanence, because I think that this is precisely what we need–a sense of the non-problematic immanence that is computation, but in Borges’ use, writing and literature.

I’m interested in seeing how this plays out in terms of an epistemology of the Real, given that I think that the very capacity to both confuse and reimagine the real could easily itself be read as a product of computation. I’m anxious to see how this would play out in what Mo writes about machine art.


Öğüt’s (The Artist’s) voice in the original piece is reminiscent of a magic- realist narrator, as is his grouping of disparate characters from real and fictional life intermingling in present dialogue. It speaks in a bemused naivete that sounds quaintly detached from the context of the revolutionary world events it describes. This voice implies the point that you make in your response Bassam, that:

Öğüt’s naive-sounding narrative voice actually represents a nostalgia for a magic-realism that would formerly be deployed (prior to its daily, virtually- instrumentalized version at present in computational apparatus) to effectively diffuse the fallacy of the concrete and physical for the continuity of a disembodied revolt- paradoxically against a local, subjective reasoning. The voice in other words was a figurative/ virtual one that could nevertheless change or otherwise effect the literal concrete illusion of the traditional novel or narrative. Virtual, revolutionary poetics once possessed the power to atomize the states’s ideology of the concrete. The model for the meta in this instance predates the meta of Öğüt’s modelling. And to your notation:

I would add that the artist and activist’s confused inter-subjectivity represents a shared and very concrete pathology brought on by the behavior modification inculcated by the contemporary state employing virtual means. The artist is therefore resigned to performing in yet another international biennial as the activist seems doomed to repeat real revolt with virtually- idealized projected outcomes. In the end of the narrative Öğüt’s modelling takes a farcical turn toward the universal in a case of mistaken subjectivity on repeat mode: the eternal return as a figurative non-recognition/ prison. The prospect of a dynamic continuity “between physical space, informational processes, and data flows” and the “dynamic continuity of revolt” are figuratively present in Öğüt’s modelling yet cynically/whimsically lacking in concrete effect.

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Borges haunts Öğüt’s narration for sure. Who is the “I” that speaks the “I”, and is this I’s material, historical agency qualified by the vertiginous symmetries of the narrative fallacy.

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Susan Haack also writes about what she calls “foundherentism,” which combines foundationalism (which is susceptible to infinite regress, what’s the foundation of the foundation) and coherentism (susceptible to circularity, because you’re being coherent with your being coherent with your…). She thinks of it as being in the pragmatist tradition of Dewey and William James, and I think that there insights—buttressed by the neurological observations of Metzinger and the biological ones, of, say Varela—are still to be integrated into how we think common-sense-wise about living. We’re obviously identical to ourselves, yet we’re also constantly different from ourselves—so how do we understand that without lapsing into Baddhism (that’s my term for the zen-happy orientalist fantasy which recuses itself from science)?

Have you heard of the definition of biological organisms as extended critical situations?

You know, I regret that Ogut’s story focuses on two people. Isn’t it more interesting and less parable-like to have three people, an unstable triangle, a three-body problem that can’t ever be predicted, rather than this false choice of two caricatures, which suggests a continuum where most people would belong on another dimension, not even depicted? Let me recommend the Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad as a better version of that story. A sailor one day discovers a castaway, who turns out to be a fugitive; he hides him in his own bed (the only way two men can legitimately share a bed at the time, already on the lam?).

Sometimes there is something erotic to meeting someone who is somehow in your place—ah, another curator, with a ponytail, of that certain height, oh you’re also mixed—are you me?—are we in the same space and time, do we occupy an overlap?—am I inside you?

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@dxb The point of showing that subjectivity is a construct is not to go on and live a life as a Deleuzian “dividual” but to begin immediately constructing a subjectivity. If as Amanda Beech was saying this morning in one of The New Centre seminars, consciousness leads to self consciousness, then if self consciousness does not lead to a newer consciousness it can disable our movement in a nasty infinite regress.

‘Am I inside you?’ is a sentient way of describing it. The artist might be, and possibly should be inside us, if they are performing the oracular work we ask of them. Artists that move us are fearless travellers, they roam mercurially through information, feelings, historical events, underworlds, cyberworlds, human conditions in flux, risking health and sanity to deliver the world a holistic reading, from their aggregated lens, of who we all are, and where we all may be going, in any era. This is an invaluable service, and an impossible quest with an airtight identity. Why would we compare an artist to an activist? If curators are now art directors and critics judge the pixelation of the artist unfavourably beside the single-mindedness of the activist, perhaps art, commerce and politics have become too gleefully enmeshed in the digital era?

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