NFTs and the Simulacra of Hell

by Guy Walker

There’s something worse than the burning of books and famous paintings, as the Nazis famously did. Because in these actions, there’s always the unavoidable revulsion of response in its popularity, through whatever libidinal temptation and payoff it promised. Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible was banned; Shakespeare’s King Lear was banned; so was Darwin’s Origin of Species; D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Ginsberg’s Howl; Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The list is endless, and only demonstrates the resilience for knowledge and art and the unshackling of our primordial armory. In the end, the art or the science or the poetry almost always won. What’s worse than banning it or burning it is the indifferent disregard for it. If Guernica were painted today, if Moby Dick were written today, barely anyone would notice. Maybe you’d see the painting on your phone for two seconds, maybe a hundred professors would listen to a third of the book during a long car ride, but other than that any pièce de résistance will shrivel like a discarded foreskin under the gargantuan trauma and schizophrenia of a generation cursed by its own madness, by knowing they lost the world and will never get it back.

We destroyed this world, so we invented a new one. The internet isn’t real, in any real sense of the word—it’s the imaginary pixelated nebulae of an entire species, a mockery-tableau, as if it were our one and only collective magnum opus, a sprawling scroll of illiterate infinity. Whether we know it or not, we are haunted forever by the dungeons of coruscating shadows that we manufactured: the ejaculatory infinity of TikTok dances mashed together with political tantrums on Twitter, and Youtube tutorials on every conceivable topic or videos of Jordan Peterson sobbing as he talks about postmodernism, hammered together with the edifying immortality of amateur pornos and dizzyingly grotesque flip books of 2am dickpics sent through iMessage. Christopher Columbus thought the New World was in the Americas, among the terraqueous loamy horizons where rivers of gold could be made up and never realized. Look at us now—this frontier of digitized horror is beyond what the peasantry of early explorers could ever imagine.

But then again, the internet is real. Bitcoin is real in the sense that its servers demand more energy than entire countries. It exists somewhere, electrical currents surging like mycelial monstrosities gorging through entire mountain ranges of coal. So, the new craze of non-fungible tokens (NFT) are our Lascaux cave paintings of this new world—the first, already-primitive doodles of an era dominated by fraud.

Schopenhauer famously believed the only redemptive mode of the orgiastic nihilism that devours us is through art and the aesthetic experience. Faint quivers of meaning and awe can be felt in these triumphs; and although a symphony or painting is meaningless in every definitively reductive way, it still signals the titillating siren calling us to carry on. Love, for example, is a ridiculous drive made up of complex synapses surging with a supply of vasopressin and oxytocin, but we still crave it even when we know it’s just our programing. The same is for art. It may just be a single frame of mirthful diversion hanging on an eggshell Swiss Coffee wall, but you still need it. Without it, the debilitating void of a blank wall looms over you like a blizzard of realized misery reminding you that you’re not interesting enough to buy something from Ikea to fill that rectangle of space. If you told someone just a few hundred years ago that a blank wall was the equivalent of a traumatizingly banal existence, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. NFTs are the first iteration of what you never knew you needed. 

Because the original image on a screen is the same as the jpeg or a screenshot of it, the owning of whatever the image or gif or text is, is the drama of our new dementia.

We have already bridged the gap that the screen that you’re staring at right now (and the screen at work, and at home, and in bed, staring at your phone while the tv is on and your laptop is idling by, and as you stare down at it in your car as you’re weaving in and out of traffic) is identical to the real world of loamy empiricism. Twitter is just more of a deranged form of the original chatrooms that existed when the world wide web first started. TikTok is the new Jazzercise studio, the new university classroom. NFT galleries are the new Musée du Louvre of today. And that’s not being hyperbolic.

Baudrillard’s treatise on the simulacra of our day-to-day couldn’t be more accurate in its ubiquity and its evilness. In Simulacra and Simulation, he describes the simulacrum as the total unraveling of originality into false premises. There are four stages of this. The first, rendering as a reflection of our reality. The second, a perversion or distortion of this into a fake reality. The third stage, a copy with no original. And the fourth and final stage is pure simulacrum, or, the signs and images that are totally divorced from reality itself—the rendering of something that has no original. A new truth. This is only possible in the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the terraqueous landmarks of the reality that has given us life evaporate under the influence of our false renderings. There’s no longer paintings of real places. And there’s no longer money that represents real value somewhere. The value is strictly perceived, and perceived in the future. And the art—if we can call it that anymore—is a formless perversion of nothing anymore. Our renderings of feigned chimera may as well rule over us. We spend more time in these strange artificial empyreans than everywhere else combined.

One of the largest NFT projects is Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), whose description on the homepage of their website is “A limited NFT collection where the token itself doubles as your membership to a swamp club for apes. The club is open! Ape with us.” It’s just a collection of thousands of individual poorly rendered apes dressed in strange clothes. It’s a deck of virtual baseball cards—that’s what all NFTs are in essence. You know the masses of devotees are the same people who ran the Pokémon Go craze—otiose nerds wandering in public and across crowded lanes of traffic like drugged pigeons, telling you through visible cloudbursts of spit, that no, you just don’t get it, it’s revolutionizing both art and finance into one!! They’re unique digital assets! These people are monstrous actually. Every article you read that describes what NFTs are compares real paintings to real NFTs. One compared DeKooning’s Interchange (which sold for $300 million) to Chris Torres’ Nyan Cat NFT ($600,000), which is one of those blockish rudimentary-pixelated renderings of a cat with a poptart for a torso, flying through the night sky, trailing a rainbow behind it. It says that the copy of these two images are the same on your screen, and therefore the originals are the same because they’re originals. They both have “original traceability.” This is incorrect. The DeKooning is clearly real, in that it was made with oil paint, on canvas, and it hangs on the wall. And the original NFT is quite literally the same thing as the copy—an amputation from the real. The simulacra is all-consuming now—a vast cosmic void that has pulled us into its control like the demonic forces in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. This is, indeed, the new flesh.

So let’s get it over with. Let the museums hasten their rot. Their transition from the démodé formality of canvas and paint and the appreciated renderings of their subjects are already giving way to the pixelated grisliness of our modernity. The museums will soon turn to fortresses of rubble, ornate ceilings ruined into spiderweb-cracked plaster, marbled columns now only partially standing like the brittle anorexia of empires. The grandest scale paintings of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church have been ripped from their frames and eaten through by moths and silverfish, and are now used as the simple dish rags and tattered ponchos for the homeless. The once famously grandiose auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s give way to the sanguinary gore of crypto bros lecturing to chicks about the blockchain.

The sun sets with a violent crimson filling the sky. The armies of NFTs have arrived at the doors of all the great artistic venues, and they’re here to revolutionize the financial world through the most childlike finger doodles. Jack Dorsey’s first tweet that he sold as an NFT for over $2.9 million summersaults down the crowding hallways of the British Museum. CryptoPunk #7523, which sold for $11.8 million, scatters its large pixelated blocks across the floor like confetti. The NFT for the World Wide Web source code ($5.43 million) digitizes the air into noxious perfumes, and the world’s last remaining rodents suffocate under the drama’s grotesquerie. Ten thousand Bored Apes enter the bombed out doors of the MET. One is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and ushanka hat, with a slice of pizza dangling from his mouth the way Clint Eastwood holds a cigarette in the old westerns. Another ape is wearing bunny ears, and has X’s over his closed eyelids. Another is clad completely in leopard print, drooling from his mouth, rubbing his genitals all over Da Vinci’s Vergine delle rocce. Strange amoeba-like creatures bounce around like gleeful villains, demanding that they want more money, or rather, they want more digital coins.

We lost the future long ago. The phytoplankton will soon disappear entirely from the ocean, starving every living thing from its oxygen. The forests are burning in the Arctic. What were once the lush dew-drenched canopies of oaks and moss and the deafening chorus of towhees and tanagers and red-capped woodpeckers, are now graveyards of split and splintered trunks and maybe a gaunt coyote sucking on a petrified dead rat. The gurgling riverbeds that swayed with overgrown green reeds are now mass graves of fossils and skeletons. So you wait for the next vacation. You buy a hologram for a wife. You buy some digital image on your phone with a made-up currency while hunched over on the toilet, taking a shit. You are the future, and you have arrived.

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