Interview with Robert Singleton (April 2022)
Singleton met me at a door and led me up the stairs into his flat, which he shared with a friend whose phone conversations in the adjoining room could be heard throughout our interview. They lived in Tulse Hill, a subdued district quietly nestled in the bustle of South-East London about which Allen Fisher wrote , opposite a school. Singleton told me he worked at a school further away. He said he had moved up to London in search of a ‘scene’ but hadn’t found it – ‘I’m sure that stuff does exist, I just haven’t found it, maybe I’m less outgoing than I expected or pictured myself.’ His room was modest and bare, there was a line of maybe a dozen or so books against the wall, a stack at his bedside table and a few notebooks lying around. The walls were white; one wall, that served as the headboard to his bed, with two pillows smushed up against it, was covered in pictures of the luminescent strip-light artworks of Dan Flavin which he had printed out and stuck up. The room’s actual light sources were a good deal less assertive. His desk fitted into the space left between the end of his bed and the far-side wall. On it were two laptops, one stacked on top of the other, and a mic, which he explained had been purchased as part of a, since abandoned, Twitch-stream lecture project, and had never been used. I conducted the interview on a fold out chair he fetched from the kitchen while he pontificated from his desk chair. He cut a slightly ridiculous figure, in his bedroom, characterizing himself as a ‘late late late late Modernist.’
SINGLETON : … like really late, like completely missed the party, turned up weeks late to the wrong location, so that it doesn’t even matter, even with the right intentions. Late enough that no-one cares anymore, which is kind of liberating – I don’t need the credentials, the thing doesn’t exist, so it’s free entry because it doesn’t even matter.
INTERVIEWER : Then why Modernist, if it doesn’t matter … why anything?
SINGLETON : Because it’s the most aspirational. The most credentialled standard is the one I can fall short of in the most emphatic, telling way. Because that standard is unreachable for my generation, the ivory tower, the world-historical ambition, the ability to marshal such massive intellectual resources. I’m mentally disabled in comparison : my sense of the Canon, the interconnections between books and parts of literary history, was honed by exposure to the Amazon recommendations algorithm. I’m a different kind of human, my intellectual world has been assembled in a different way. Or to state it less dramatically, me, and many others of my generation, are a new mutation in that subsection of humanity, isolated by Jacques Roubaud*- the ‘Homo Lisens’, ‘man who reads.’
Since the interview Singleton has requested that the reader be informed that he no longer styles himself a ‘late late late late Modernist’ but a ‘Baby Modernist’ who makes ‘Baby Modernism.’ It is unclear what bearing this has on his opening comments, whether he has still ‘completely missed the party’ or is now too early, so I have just let them stand.
Jacques Roubaud ‘The Great Fire of London’
INTERVIEWER : And this is what you’re thematising or making explicit in the piece ‘What I Know About Logic’?
SINGLETON : Yeah, pretty much. ‘What I Know About Logic’ is an exercise. It’s supposed to be a paradigmatic instance of the kind of knowledge structures accumulated by ‘surfing the web.’ I wanted to see for myself what all my skim-reading, all those twitter-threads, those overheard discussions, half-remembered, those Wikipedia entries and half-read articles, what it all amounted to, what kind of knowledge it could all be made to cohere into. I soon realised that what it amounted to wasn’t grounded knowledge about a subject area (in this case Logic) but an ability to simulate competency in the handling of concepts and ideas associated with a particular subject area… And then there’s all these interesting questions that arise concerning the boundaries between knowledge and its simulation, what pathways can be created between the two, where the distinctions lie etc.
In an attempt to ‘get at’ these boundaries, expose them, I split the text into 4 levels. 1- (Mostly quite general) Facts about the subject area I can state with certainty ; 2- More specific facts I can’t state with certainty, some connections between these facts ; 3- constructive attempts to give adequate explanations to all the ‘facts’, to build a coherent picture of their place within the whole subject area and the connections between them, often relying on a combination of guesswork and fabrication ; 4- purely speculative and fantastical incursions into the subject area.
The mind transforms its patchwork of remembered internet bits and bobs into premises, saying ‘these elements, whether based in reality or not, are what I have to work with’ it sets to work constructing coherences out of them, narratives, explications, histories. And this work is happening right at the boundary between the faculties of Imagination and Judgement, in a way that Peli Grietzer’s ongoing work* on the Imaginative faculty has a lot to tell us about… Imaginative fabrication is used to give ignorance the same formal qualities, the interdependency of structure, the consequentiality, as knowledge. But this simulation of the formal qualities of knowledge is only effective up to a point and within a certain rhetorical context, with the different levels I wanted to direct the readers attention to the points at which that simulated knowledge cracks, the points where ignorance is being covered over, where pressure can be applied so as to force ignorance to reveal itself. While at many points in level 2 the simulation is successful, at level 3 it is pushed beyond breaking point, forced to explain itself, to go into more detail, and ends up drawing on the resources of postulation, estimation and fiction. It’s important to remember though that even here there is still reasoning going on, but reasoning that is forced to ‘make do’ with faulty premises/foundations… As an appendix to the piece I list all the premises that turned out to be incorrect or misremembered.
Level 4 is pure fabrication and speculation. Brandom* says that as our statements or assertions become less subject to error, as they move further from the provably incorrect, they also become less conceptual. At Level 3 we are still at the level of a fabricated conceptuality, by Level 4 there is no conceptual content left within the statements, they are pure fiction… but haven’t we entered the realm of a different form of knowledge, a different relation with truth here?
INTERVIEWER : Ok interesting, and do you th-
SINGLETON : Uhh – One secon- sorry to interrupt, but I would also just like to say that I think this piece is also interesting as a kind of case study for that kind of knowledge so endemic to the internet, the kind of knowledge censoriously labelled ‘misinformation’, ‘post-truth’, ‘conspiracy theory’ whatever. You can see how it builds through the different levels. First the patchwork of general, gleaned facts, maybe in combination with insufficient analytic resources to fully understand them and their interconnections, so that when they’re pressed at they release postulational, speculative explanations and connections, which once unchained from the possibility of provable incorrectness start to develop purely fictitious and even mythical lives… We are still learning what the particular productive capacity of this internet-assembled mind is.
Peli Grietzer, https://effects-journal.com/archive/vibe-coherence ; https://twitter.com/peligrietzer
Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust
INTERVIEWER : Do you see your work as mapping this productive capacity or tapping it?
SINGLETON : Mostly tapping into it. In most of the pieces collected on my website I just leave the outcomes of this ‘productive capacity’ to stand, I retain the mistaken and fanciful premises which are the residue of our attempts to organise or make sense to ourselves of our endless, branching paths through the contemporary world’s sea of textual content, I leave them to stand without subjecting them to any process of rational refinement. The ‘Readings’ for example, are really just catalogues of the kind of fanciful premises that can be derived from works of literature when they are read in the same way the internet is ‘read’ … ‘What I Know About Logic’ is more on the mapping side though, because there I show what would happen if I tried to launch actual arguments or critical interpretations from of these premises, giving a portrait or making explicit the type of ignorance left implicit in the other pieces, forcing it to reveal itself.
INTERVIEWER : Ok, did I misunderstand you or did you just suggest that your ‘Readings’ are the kind of critical texts that would be produced by someone reading works of literature in the same way they read the internet?
SINGLETON : Hmm … yeah I want to slightly adjust that, it’s more a case of the ‘Readings’ being the kinds of critical texts produced by someone using the faculties developed by internet reading (parsing) for reading literary texts. Seeing how faculties developed to hold together a sustained reading in a textual environment as heterogenous, noise-filled, fleeting as the internet function in more conscientiously arranged environments (like a 19th century realist novel for example) with the hope that the kinds of mishandlings produced by this mismatch may be indicative… And also I should add, that the textual outcomes of this mismatch aren’t anything near the critical texts we’re used to.
INTERVIEWER : What kind of relationship would you say they bear to such ‘critical texts’, if any?
SINGLETON : I think that placing an emphasis on the more pragmatic, peremptory, opportunistic reactions a mind can have towards textual material, the kind of reactions that play a central role in our ability to navigate the internet, in responses to ‘literary’ material gives us a view of the pre-lives of critical assessments, the embryonic stages of a fully ‘worked out’ interpretation of the kind we are used to seeing… the fancies that they build on, the ferment of synaptic ignition. I see these pieces as display boxes for premises that couldn’t be built upon without breaking down into inconsistency, the premises for arguments that could never be made, the bases for crumbling patterns of inference. A kind of gallery of monstrosities or obsolescence then. But the interesting thing is that as long as these mistaken premises aren’t investigated they can be preserved in a kind of prelapsarian innocence. You could think of them like those deformed two-headed lambs on display in the backrooms of weird museums: had they been left to develop naturally they would have quickly died and decomposed into the mud of some field, their monstrosity lost forever, but preserved in formaldehyde they live on, in a limbo, as ‘curiosities.’
The interesting questions for me concern what value these mistaken premises can have on their own terms, what can we learn from such ‘curiosities’, can they be fruitful, what kind of frame can they provide to help us understand more normative processes of argumentative development? Wrapped in these questions are stylistic ones: what techniques of textual preservation, what particular language-formaldehyde, do such ‘curiosities’ require in order to stand ‘on their own terms’?
INTERVIEWER : Why do you call them ‘premises’?
SINGLETON : Because in the context of ‘What I Know About Logic’ that’s the place they have, but outside that context they are always tenuous. By labelling them ‘premises’ I mean to point towards the processes (of inference, consolidation, ratiocination whatever you want to call it) that would unpick them, reveal their inconsistencies. My premises are always leaning dangerously on the edge of these processes, ready to topple at any moment. This is the challenge I face trying to write in this way, how to treat them so that they don’t topple, how to fix them in this precarious stage, ending chains of implication before they become burdensome to the play of assertion. Being abrupt is the key…. The Knausgaard piece, which is the oldest piece on the website, written at a time when I was still trying to figure out how I wanted to write these pieces, is a failure in this regard. I wasn’t able to stop the various claims and premises in that piece from turning into arguments. Argument grew like a disease in that text; once one sentence follows on consequentially, inferentially, from another it creates the expectation that others will as well, that other connections will follow the pattern. And in that piece my attempts to counteract this were clumsy, the interpolated ‘literary’ sections, the interview etc.
INTERVIEWER : Earlier you talked about ‘the value these mistaken premises can have on their own terms’, it’s surprising to me that questions of value would be a concern for you in these texts considering the connection between valuation and argumentation, the fact that attributions of value are usually dependent on the provision of reasons for such an attribution…
SINGLETON : Well I suppose I’m trying to unpick that traditionally indissoluble relation between attributions of value and the construction of arguments in order to justify such attributions. My probably rather naïve and un-worked out belief is that prior to finding value in an art object, during the actual consumption of it, our mind is primarily at work trying to find interest on it, constantly trying to motivate itself to continue its project of consuming the art object, and that it is only once interested, once enthused, that we work on justifying our interest by finding arguments to attribute a kind of objective, communicable value to the object that has aroused such interest. I have no doubt that the processes of finding interest and finding value are much more concurrent and intertwined then this quick sketch suggests, but still think that the focus placed on the latter has been detrimental to our understanding of the role played by the former. I’m interested in trying to give a picture of the whims that propel us through the consumption of an art object, how we whim ourselves into and then through it. So the ‘Readings’ collected on the website are kind of documents of the ways I have found to make certain texts interesting to myself, to conjure the enthusiasm required for continued reading projects. And in this I’d like to think of myself as skirting around for hints towards a new system for the communication of intersubjective value, ways in which the internet-assembled mind can re-develop the faculty of taste using its own tools… but I haven’t thought too much about this yet, it’s something I’ll explore through the writing of the pieces.
INTERVIEWER : So there’s a kind of will-to-normativity underlying your ‘experiments in proto-normative textual and critical behaviour’ (as you’ve characterized your own texts)?
SINGLETON : I’ve never said such a thing!
INTERVIEWER : You were drunk.
SINGLETON : [thinking] … Oh yes, I may have said something along those lines, how embarrassing… But yes, in answer to your original question, there is a kind of normative ‘long game’ I suppose. Our relationship with our shared cultural inheritance is very confused, we’re kind of pre-installed with all these valuations of certain art objects while at the same time being completely alienated from the social contexts in which these valuations were first made (alienated in a variety of ways: by our technologically mediated life-world, by our enmeshment in a kind of cognitive capitalism, by the fact that the value systems of previous societies were based on varying forms of exploitation and domination), the estimations aren’t our own, they are as much historical artefacts as the works they’re estimating. We have all the valuations and values and aspirations but without the traditional means of getting there, so we have to try and get there with the materials available to us, the stuff that we have to hand, to find personal, whimsical forms of appreciation and approbation… and one thing I can say with certainty is that the internet is full of these forms, millions of them, like a weird hothouse of whimsical approbations (and that’s without me even getting started on its incredible Bosch-gallery of communal disapprobations).
INTERVIEWER : Twitter is the ‘hothouse’ you are referring to, right? It seems to be the platform that has had the largest shaping influence on your writing?
SINGLETON : Yes, absolutely, Twitter has been very influential for me… My parents talk about how when a new Bowie or Led Zeppelin record dropped they would line up at the record store, purchase the vinyl, look at it all the way home, pure anticipation, then play it in their rooms, over and over, a personal cultural supernova, my closest analogue to that experience would be the day Deontologistics dropped his thread on Deleuze… watching all the discussions peeling off in all directions in the replies was a cultural experience … Anyway, I would say that the parts of Twitter that have most influenced my writing are the sections defined by the activity of competitive, outmatching approbation, all the approbations being basically non-evidential, just personal, personality-displaying, ways of reaching an already determined consensus. Opinions are incredible to watch when they are they are tools of self-promotion, I guess they become ‘takes.’ This area of Twitter reads like a schizophrenic George Steiner essay, all just different textures of vague critical authority. And recommendations. This is the hothouse I was referring to yes.
Peli Grietzer, https://effects-journal.com/archive/vibe-coherence ; https://twitter.com/peligrietzer
Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust
Jacques Roubaud ‘The Great Fire of London’