Everyone’s already extensively theorized this week’s pulling-of-the-proverbial-curtain on Horse_ebooks. We’ve had two posts already on this very blog. But I’m gonna beat a dead Horse_ebooks because I think there are theoretical dimensions that, while sorta nerdy, are nevertheless important and productive to examine.

So, Horse_ebooks isn’t the bot we were hoping for; it’s a human after all. Nathan describes the performance as “a person tweeting as if” it were a bot. This formulation is really philosophically evocative–Kant, if you recall, argues that the coherence and meaning of artworks must not appear to be explicitly contrived: “the purposiveness in its form [that is, its coherence or logic] must seem as free from all constraint of chosen rules as if it were a product of mere nature” (Critique of Judgment section 45.1). Artworks have to make sense to their audience, but the fact that they are comprehensible (and not just random gibberish) can’t, at least according to Kant, seem like the result of explicit, intentional, formulaic, “painstaking” (45.2) rule-following. “The academic form must not show; there must be no hint that the rule was hovering before the artist’s eyes and putting fetters on his mental powers” (45.2). It has to appear to be a happy coincidence that the artwork has a structure, and that this structure is something that we humans can also comprehend as such. In other words, Kant thinks “a product of art appears like nature” (45.2), as if it were not artificially manufactured, but naturally generated.

The hypothetical Horse-bot is, I think, a Kantian genius working in a neoliberal world. The bot would have generated content as if that content was “natural.” But what’s “natural” about a bot? Well, nothing. However, if we follow Foucault’s argument about the changing status of “nature” in neoliberalism, then bots–autonomous, apparently random, asubjective and non-intentional programs–are the quintessential manifestation of the concept or ideal that the neoliberals use in place of “nature” or the state of nature–deregulation.

In classically liberal social contract theory, “nature” meant the state of nature: it was the pure, unmediated, originary, but unthinkable precursor to civilization. Nature was whatever was untouched by culture; civilization was constituted by the exclusion of or separation from “nature” as such. But in neoliberalism, nature isn’t the foundation of culture. As Foucault argues, neoliberals (specifically, German ordoliberals) reject this view as a “naieve naturalism” (BoB 120). Instead, they think the deregulated, “free” market is the foundation; nature (materiality, etc.) is merely an effect. If left alone (in the sense of lassiez-faire), a healthy market will produce the healthiest, best, most natural, most sustainable culture.

“Competition,” Foucault argues, is not a natural given, it’s a “principle of formalization,” a “formal game,” a “logic.” Basically, competition is a program that needs to be left to run without external interference from, say, the state. Hence, the neoliberals think that markets need to be deregulated as extensively as possible. Deregulation, not nature, is the central principle of neoliberal thought.

A bot seems to be a deregulated content producer–like the supposedly free market, it’s not influenced or biased by anything other than its programming (its “background conditions,” in Foucault-speak). A bot produces content in the same way that a deregulated market produces social and economic outcomes. Tightly-controlled background conditions (e.g., the program), left to run autonomously, produce outcomes that appear to be random because they’re not directly intentional; they’re not really random, however, because only a specific range of outcomes can be produced by the given background conditions. The Horse_ebooks case demonstrates that we look to a bot algorithm, like the “free” market, to tell us our truths–or, as Foucault would say, we look to them as sites of veridiction” (32). It could produce content “as if” it was deregulated, and since neoliberalism thinks only deregulated processes (i.e., only genuinely competitive markets) are objectively true, this deregulated content-production is thought to be a more “true” expression than naively natural human expression.

We wanted Horse_ebooks to be a bot because such a bot would be a neoliberal genius. In Kant’s account, it is the “attunement of [the genius’s] powers that gives the rule to art” (45.3). The Kantian genius is attuned to nature; that’s why art seems as if it were natural, even though it’s artificial. To update Kant, replace “nature” with “deregulation”: deregulation is the “attunement” that allows the bot to produce objectively good/true work. So, in the case of Horse_ebooks, its algorithm stands in for the deregulated market, such a bot would seem to autonomously, non-painstakingly and non-contrivedly make art, art that could tell us “truths”.

And it’s this point about deregulation that brings me to one of the most important claims in Sunny’s account of the reveal:

the idea that the source of a lot of the discomfort is discovering that the story doesn’t mean what we thought it did – that, in fact, we weren’t the ones deciding what it meant (by the way, I think we still were), and even that we were unwitting parts of someone else’s story.

Deregulated markets enable the fiction of meritocracy, the false view that we, and only we, are responsible for our successes or failures (and not, say, institutions or structures like racism or sexism). In the absence of apparent external regulations that might influence outcomes, we appear to be the only variables in the system, so its outcomes must be the direct consequences of our inputs. We can take personal credit for what is really the effect of institutional structures or, in Foucaultian terms, “background conditions.” So, this is just a more roundabout way of saying what Sunny did, but it also provides some theoretical backing to show just how right Sunny is. It also shows how this discomfort vis-a-vis Horse_ebooks is part of broader, deeper ideologies and practices.


Robin tweets as @doctaj.