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Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief: An Attempt at Thinking Art and Capital

Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief: An Attempt at Thinking Art and Capital is an essay by Canadian artist & critical thinker, Katie McCain. McCain discusses how capitalism has become on the one hand all-encompassing and on the other utterly unreal. Arguing that we need to focus on moments of paradox, illogic and the impossible in order to rethink capital, this essay explores and succumbs to the circuity of it’s own thinking. Drawing on a host of sources, it attempts to weave an account in which system failure is seen as a point of rupture, whether in legislation, bureaucracy or thought itself.

Moments of paradox are seen as a space in which to re-orient our capacity for thought, and in doing so find a place for art as a point of resistance. It promotes a negative approach to capital, a re-imagining of nihilism, and fosters a general penchant for the illegal and the illogical. Ultimately it seeks the expansive space contained within what is impossible or unknown, although this is known to be impossible.

Download PDF of Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief: An Attempt at Thinking Art and Capital

Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief 2

Lies, Lawlessness and Disbelief 1. Thinking Art and Capital: Unknown Unknowns, is the second of five essays by Canadian artist & critical thinker, Katie McCain. McCain discusses how capitalism has become on the one hand all encompassing and on the other utterly unreal. Arguing that we need to be prepared to think the impossible so that resistance is able to grow.

DOWNLOAD the full text (including all 5 parts) here, or read part two below:

An Attempt at Thinking Art and Capital: Unknown Unknowns

In 1942 the Ministry of Defense labeled Gruinard Island as X Base. It was an isolated island that had been deemed acceptable for testing the viability of an anthrax weapon, as it was unknown if the spores be able to survive the blast. An anthrax bomb was dropped on a herd of sheep kept in individual crates, their heads in hoods so they could not lick the spores. Of 15 sheep, only 2 survived. The test was repeated with less success as a change in wind direction caused the bomb to land in a peat bog where it sank. The test was moved to Wales. In 1981 operation dark harvest – led by a team of microbiologists – collected soil samples from Gruinard Island, which had since been quarantined. Their demand was for the government to decontaminate the island or the samples would be weaponized and distributed. Two samples were found outside a research facility in Porton Down, and in Blackpool, where the ruling conservative party were meeting.[i]

Unknown unknowns are intrinsic to this conceptual, contemporary capitalism, and operate as the risk that can eventually cause a system to fail. Failure emerges from the unprecedented, from the unthinkable, from the things you do not know you do not know.[1] Instead of attempting to predict these events for market gains, what would it mean to merely acknowledge the paradoxical nature of thinking the unthinkable? Unthinkable operates as the other to any thought capacity, and in an attempt to access this impossible, it would be possible to access a non-knowledge, something on the edge of logic, of research, of ideas.

Non-knowledge is not the same as ignorance, but rather references the other of the knowledge system itself, an indeterminate zone between knowledge and ignorance.[2] Huberman addresses this topic in the exhibition catalogue: For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Searching for the Black Cat that Isn’t There. The phrase was initially attributed to Charles Darwin’s description of a mathematician, but here is used to underscore the type of knowledge, the type of logic, that art explores. A work of art that isn’t. As a method of generating new forms of thinking and unknown circuits of consciousness, visual art often verges on logic.[3]

Quantum physics is constantly pushing the boundaries of the unknown. If these formulations, these theories, constitute the boundary of the known, imagine the possibilities contained in unknown unknowns. This of course is impossible, but in the impossible lays unimaginable possibilities. The acceptance of the fact that there are unknown unknowns and, like dark matter, they are invisible, but make up the majority, could operate as a placeholder for limitless possibilities.[4] The things we do not know are impossible, contradictory and badly behaved; the things, then, that we do not know we do not know could be more radical still in terms of reality and the perception of it –an impossibility for thought, but this is the heart of it, the possibilities contained in the impossible. It is fundamentally possible for anything to be true (or conversely false), to be known (or to be unknown)[5]. The more this point is exhumed the more amazing and simultaneously frustrating it can become.

Quantum reality proves that we can alter reality just by looking at it. Photons behave differently under scrutiny than when left to their own devices, which leaves us incapable of describing their behaviour.[6] Einstein asked physicist Niels Bohr if he really believed that the moon disappears when no one is looking at it, to which the retort was “can you prove otherwise?”[7] The answer is of course no, we are incapable of removing ourselves, of removing our relation to the thing-in-itself, of removing the impact of thought from suppositions of reality.

‘Quantum physics is an exciting theory because it is extremely precise, it is mathematically beautiful, it describes everything. It just doesn’t make sense.’[8]

Perhaps the language of mathematics is not a language invented in order to describe reality, but rather is the basis on which the physical world manifests, and slowly consciousness grasps more and more of this structure. If the theory is wrong, fundamental physics will hit a roadblock beyond which is it impossible to tread; if the theory is right everything is potentially understandable, dependant on thought’s capacity to understand.[9] These fundamentally opposite poles of reality offer, to us, the same plain of comprehension – the capacity of thought, the very limit of which we cannot pass.

Dreamwork, specters, illogic, the impossible – it is where thought begins to break down in terms of accuracy or coherent narrative that it begins to get interesting. On the fringes of thought lie truth, radicalism, subversion and change. And on the fringes of reality are lies, paradox and the imaginary. Does this mean that truth can be found in lies, paradox and the unreal?

The market depends on our belief in it, and our lack of faith can have catastrophic results. So bolstering collective belief in markets is the main strategy for their stabilization. But consciousness is not so simple; the market begins to rely not only on our belief in it, but in our belief in our belief in it[10], and so on ad infinitum. An infinite regress of belief created in order to prop up that self-same belief. How can consciousness continue to reconcile itself with this infinite regress? In quantum physics, observing photons can change how they behave. In the market, disbelief can cause it to collapse. A ping pong ball, by the time it’s bounced nine times factors the gravitational pull of a body standing next to the table into it’s bounce, by the 56th bounce ever single elementary particle of the universe has to be present in your assumptions [11]. In reality, many things are affected by human existence, but thought, or existence itself is not one of them.

It is not true that in order to live one has to believe in one’s own existence. There is no necessity to that. No matter what, our consciousness is never the echo of our own reality, of an existence set in “real time.” But rather it is its echo in “delayed time,” the screen of the dispersion of the subject and of its identity – only in our sleep, our unconscious, and our death are we identical to ourselves. Consciousness, which is totally different from belief, is more spontaneously the result of a challenge to reality, the result of accepting objective illusion rather than objective reality. This challenge is more vital to our survival and to that of the human species than the belief in reality and in existence, which always refers to spiritual consolations pertaining to another world. Our world is such as it is, but that does not make it more real in any respect. “The most powerful instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real.”[12]

Asleep, unconscious or dead. These are the three options in which one is identical to oneself. But what does that mean? Harman discusses sleep as a lack of relations. We still exist as pieces that make a physical whole, but the thing we lack in sleep is relations. ‘Sleep is our closest approach to the freedom from relations in which we are most ourselves’[13]

An object, too, can be dormant. It is capable of existing apart from a specific situation, and therefore is capable of existing apart from any situation at all; therefore, it is relationless, or has the possibility to be relationless. Unlike objects, however, this dormancy is not so much a freedom from the world, as a dormancy to the world, withdrawn, incapable of anything else.

Yet, in a sense we are always inside the world through the fact that we are made up of pieces – and only therefore are we free, with our components doing the work of liberty on our behalf. For there is an excess in our pieces beyond what is needed to create us, and this excess allows new and unexpected things to happen.[14]

So perhaps seeking freedom in individuation, in isolation, as the linking of subject to object, in the perpetual delay of satisfaction that capitalism offers is the achievement of the exact opposite of the freedom sought. Perhaps the individual freedom presented by capital and democracy is in fact a relationless sleep that removes the other, the alternative, removes the opportunity for change, and ultimately time itself.


Freudian kettle logic is an example, a joke employed by Freud to explore the mind’s capacity for self-deception. It is this logic, or rather this illogic that some manages to access the impossible. Kettle logic refers to the thought process of a mind on the defensive. It shows the impossibility of thought or rather it’s circular nature, that manages to disregard laws of non-contradiction. It goes as follows:

A neighbour is accused of borrowing a kettle and returning it with a hole. He answers simultaneously that 1) he did not borrow the kettle; 2) it was unbroken when he returned it, and 3) that it was broken when he borrowed it.[15]

Freud uses this to unpack dream logic, during which time mutually exclusive answers or states can easily co-exist. “Wendy Brown says that dreamwork provides the best model for understanding contemporary forms of power. It produces a confabulated consistency that covers over anomalies and contradictions”[16]. Žižek uses Freudian kettle logic to explain the U.S.’s right to wage war on Iraq, and the notion of the pre-emptive strike, which renders events of the future to a fictional or probabilistic past.[17]

Žižek also argues:

If we postpone our action until we have full knowledge of the catastrophe, we will have acquired that knowledge only when it is too late. The certainty on which to act is never a matter of knowledge, but a matter of belief. If, accidentally, an event takes place, it creates a preceding chain which makes it appear inevitable – Hegelian dialectic of contingency and necessity. In order to confront a disaster – we should accept it as fate, as unavoidable, and then retroactively insert into the past of the future possibilities on which to act in the present.[18]

This is frighteningly similar to the rhetoric of war used by the right, but employed by the left with regard to environmental disaster. Both the right, and the quite radical left in this instance, are using the same logic of prediction to validate an action. The difference, it seems, is Žižek’s disbelief, or awareness of the impossibility of a situation that requires action despite the fact that the specifics of the situation itself are still largely unknown.

Link to first artcile


i. Critical Art Ensemble, Marching Plague, 29.

1. Taleb, The Black Swan, 35.
2. Huberman, For the Blind Man, 28.
3. Kurant and Taleb, “Unknown Unknowns,” 131.
4. Trotta, “Dark Matter,” 84.
5. Meillassoux, After Finitude, 64-65.
6. Horizon: What is Reality?
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Žižek, First as Tragedy, 10-11.
11. Taleb, The Black Swan, 178.
12. Baudrillard, Radical Thought, 2.
13. Harman, Circus Philosophicus, 70.
14. Ibid, 76.
15. Žižek , The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle.
16. Fisher, Capitalist Realism, 60.
17. Žižek, The Iraqi Borrowed Kettle.
18. Žižek, First as Tragedy, 151.


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