The Presence of the Original

NFTs don’t restore “aura” — they obliterate it

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Currently sitting at the intersection of art and technology is a special kind of car crash involving cryptocurrency and digital-art licensing that is known as an NFT. Promoting an article about the phenomenon, the New York Times inanely tweeted, “NFT stands for ‘nonfungible token,’ which isn’t really important. They’re fun! And cool! And selling for a lot of money!”

I basically disagree with all of that. They are neither “cool” nor “fun,” but an environmentally destructive means for extending the matrix of capitalist relations to emerging forms of commonality. As Everest Pipkin put it on Twitter, “NFTs are bad for the environment not accidentally but because of the value system of the world they are building, which is also bad.”

Also, NFTs are not “selling for a lot of money” exactly either; the values involved are largely bound up in cryptocurrencies and are thus mostly speculative and unrealizable, except for those very few who win the timing game and can cash out. NFTs combine the baseless speculative frenzy associated with bitcoin with the often baseless speculative frenzy associated with trends, under the imprimatur of 4chan-ish or WallStreetBets-style memes to keep the action going. Let a thousand Dogecoins bloom.

And lastly, I think it actually is “really important” that these properties are called nonfungible tokens and not something more like “digital artworks” or “DRM” or “intellectual property.” The oxymoronic term not only signals the centrality of cryptobabble to the phenomenon and the perception of its value; it also highlights how the fantasy of tying value to “nonfungibility” — to the arbitrary assertion by fiat of an object’s uniqueness — collapses into “tokens,” empty counters, the essence of the fungible.

The idea behind NFTs is to put digital images (or at least contracts pertaining to their ownership) on a blockchain so that someone can have grounds to claim private ownership of them, as though the images (infinitely duplicable by their intrinsic nature — copies without originals, as Baudrillard would put it) were unique and maybe even auratic works with a provenance that can’t be faked or falsified. These contracts can be applied to artworks, memes, or footage of sports highlights — the point is to turn some piece of digital media into a collectible, into an autograph of sorts instead of something whose essence is that it’s a freely circulating piece of content. The logic of NFTs is that the illusion of owning something should be more enjoyable than experiencing it; or, ownership is the best experience you can have, the apotheosis of the “experience economy” and its pursuit of “authentic” encounters.

As the New York Times article explains it, “The buyers are usually not acquiring copyrights, trademarks or even the sole ownership of whatever it is they purchase. They’re buying bragging rights and the knowledge that their copy is the ‘authentic’ one.” NFT buyers, by this account, are trying to spend their way to re-establishing something “real” in the face of the digital surfeit. The “bragging rights,” though, are not a matter of direct social recognition — they don’t even have the utility of, say, the digital clothes one might buy for their avatar in a video game to articulate and augment one’s social presence in that space. Rather the “bragging” plays out as speculation, as rising and falling values in NFT markets. The “authenticity” involved is just a matter of formal bookkeeping and bears no relation to the nature of the content of what is purchased. “With NFTs, you have the art part largely stripped from the equation — which is perfect [for their collectors], since they don’t understand it, and it just gets in the way anyhow,” artist Kenny Shachcter writes in this Artnet column.

Felix Salmon, in his assessment of NFTs, claims that with the NFT market “there is no correlation between artistic merit and financial value.” Is there ever? There is no correlation between apples and oranges either. If you could measure artistic merit in dollars, all art would be is a pile of money. (If, as Kant argues, rational beings have dignity and no price, NFTs have a price that precludes dignity.) Salmon argues that “the artists turning to NFTs are generally outsiders who don’t make the kind of art that traditional collectors like, but who know how to tap into a large online following.” That is, NFTs reflect the hope of some artists that they can escape the “art world” and sell their work directly, as though the art world weren’t (in theory, at least) the gatekeeping system that grounds artistic value in some other social principle beyond financial speculation or the prerogatives of the “attention economy.”

Art is obviously not reducible to “popular stuff” (which is just another way of saying it is not reducible to money). People collect art (or familiarize themselves with what is being collected) to belong to the art world, to gain access to artists, to parties, to scenes, to situations, to interpretive communities. Art is as much the concept that holds that exclusionary construct together as it is any sort of particular work, digital or physical. Gambling on NFTs does nothing to democratize that world or that concept; if anything, it makes them more rarefied.

The overriding fantasy of blockchains is that they can eliminate the need for social systems of trust and legitimation, but they accomplish the exact opposite: They destroy the very possibility of trust, the very possibility of legitimacy — positing instead a world in which every kind of incident is permanently recorded in a log and the possibility of “becoming” itself is banished from the world. There can be no “art” without an art world that mediates it and negotiates it, that functions dynamically and is capable of unpredictable shifts. As unjust and irrational as the art world can be, it can’t be replaced with “smart contracts” on blockchains that purport to arbitrate value automatically. In the blockchain there is no space for difference. Everything is explicit and empty.

In a sense, the aim of NFTs is to empty content of whatever it contains that makes it circulate, that makes people want to see it and copy it and redistribute it, and reduce instead to a moment of property, an assertion of the self who owns it over its potential social significance. Or to put that another way, NFTs make the social significance of any digital artifact the simple fact that it can be owned and valued, and that its value can fluctuate. As Schachter puts it, “NFT ‘art’ doesn’t communicate much, nor have anything in the way of purpose other than its exchange value.”

Under the guise of re-creating aura, it extinguishes the possibility of aura once and for all and asserts that cash is king. NFTs create property rights in memes, which might otherwise be understood as an aspect of the cultural commons. The result is to make ownership the only meme, the only concept we ultimately share. “You’re buying a feeling,” venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, an investor in exchange platforms that make NFT trading possible, tells the Times, and he means it as though it is a good thing. In a perfect example of psychological projection, his partner Marc Andreeson gives a quote that pre-emptively declares that people who are skeptical of NFTs are the real cynics. Shouldn’t we be able to buy feelings? Shouldn’t we able to spend more and thereby feel more? Shouldn’t rich people’s lives be more meaningful?

Rob Horning is an editor at Real Life.