Theory brought to you by AI

By Alex Mazey

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I was doomscrolling Instagram stories again when I saw the Urbanomic account had shared an interesting cover of the CCRU Writings 1997-2003. The aesthetic miscibility of lemurs with cybernetic theory retold through a cutesy manga style got my blood pumping for a moment and I really thought the publisher was finally releasing some kind of CCRU inspired manga, perhaps in a similar vein to Reza Negarestani/Keith Tilford/Robin Mackay’s Chronosis. Maximum intensity disappointment ensued and yet the consolation prize was, to my surprise, pretty good. To say, the disappointment soon dissipated as I entered Theory Brought to you by AI, The Covers They Deserve, which is pretty much an account that does exactly what it says on the tin – theory books with their cover jackets reimagined by generative AI.

I asked the admins of Theory Brought to you by AI what made them want to pursue the idea of reimaging book covers, to which Renee (@just_renee_nee) replied, “I had recently subscribed to ChatGPT4 and we needed a direction for our creative energy. We were also reading Nietzsche at the time and the copies we had had these really cheesy “corporate art” book covers. Jill (@sluttynietzsche) had the idea of using ChatGPT and DALL-E to make new book covers for our favorite books.”

“I think AI is a fascinating new tool…” Jill wrote in reply, “Which will inevitably have reach over every profession and possibly even every facet of our lives. To adopt and explore the possibilities for its use in artistic endeavors, even very casually, in the earliest stages of its acceleration was something which piqued my interest when my girlfriend brought up the idea of splitting a subscription to GPT4. Theory is something I’ve had an interest in since around the start of the pandemic and so I had a lot of material to work with. Attempting to use AI to capture one’s personal interpretation of a given theoretical text sounded like a rich and stimulating artistic project, not to mention paying respect to thinkers I personally admire.”

It seemed like some mystical synchronicity of the universe when I inevitably followed the Instagram story to the colourful presentation of Renee and Jill’s Instagram account, my tired eyes coincidentally drawn to the trippy rendition of Fatal Strategies by Jean Baudrillard. As a scholar of Baudrillard’s work, I was also ecstatic (hehe) to look back on their account to find one of the earliest covers prompted from the AI was Simulation and Simulacra. Both interpretations of these books put me in mind of the vaporwaved version of Rick Roderick’s lecture on Baudrillard, whilst the Penguin Classics version of Strategies stood out as practically uncanny – like I’d seen it before in some kind of parallel dimension. I wanted to know why the two admins were picking these books in particular, later asking if they had a particular artistic direction in mind when it came to prompting the AI.

Renee kindly replied to the question to say that, “Many of the books we’ve featured on our page explore the relationship between humans and technology.” Adding that, “It seemed appropriately ironic to reimagine them with AI.” As such, the intention with these reimagined covers was “…to emphasize the themes of the book, highlight a certain aspect of the book, or even try something absurd like Elementary Particles by Houellebecq as a children’s book or CCRU as a chibi manga. We also like using “vintage paperback” in our prompts.” Renee added, whilst, “…the vaporwave / retvrn aesthetics are our way of signifying the internet’s effect of flattening time, as if these books have always coexisted, republished for eternity.” Likewise, Jill provided another thoughtful answer here, relaying a particular interest in their aesthetic direction.

“I tend to enjoy retro aesthetics and explorations of nostalgia, and particularly in physical media, which tends to inform the direction I take posts in. I don’t like for the book to look too sleek or contemporary. The quality of art on old commercial paperbacks I find to be something I have specific nostalgia for. When GPT gives me a cover which seems too corporate or airport-core I feel dissatisfied. I also try to incorporate specific elements of the book’s content or themes into the design, which is something I find to be pretty lacking in general in cover designs for theory books, especially recently. The idea for the project came partly out of my dissatisfaction with the cover art on the books I otherwise love.”

Putting the aesthetic direction of the account to one side, I wanted to ask Renee and Jill about the use of AI more broadly. It is simply the case that generative AI catches a lot of grief these days – perhaps for good reason – but I’ve often found it somewhat liberating, a great tool for looking at a problem from a perspective that isn’t my own. Likewise, reimagining theory books in this way seemed to expose the drabness of those publishing houses whose cover designs are often extremely limited by resource allocation – a place where the budget limits imagination. With this being said, I asked the admins if had any general thoughts on the use of AI in creating art? Was it really the big evil or was it just another bogeyman for peeps to point the finger at and say, ‘look, it’s the AI’s fault that art is dead’. Renee answered, “Art is only dead because of the homogeneity brought on by the internet.” Insightfully, Renee added, “Those artists who are able to use AI to more fully express themselves stay ahead of the crowd and keep art alive. Big shout out to @poorspigga who’s been a huge inspiration in my approach to art and AI. AI is only as evil as its human operator.” Jill’s words, whilst similarly enthusiastic, displayed a measured ambivalence to the AI capture on the art world.

“I have complicated feelings about the effect AI will have on art.” Jill answered. “One of my personal heroes in the art world is Jon Rafman who uses AI to brilliant ends, and AI definitely has Warholian implications for the future of art, which is something I find exciting.” Amongst those feelings of anticipation however, Jill added, “It does also make me concerned how AI might cheapen the quality of art produced and make the Internet and already artistically bankrupt art market even more saturated with low quality, low effort ‘conceptual’ art.” Additionally, Jill acknowledged a level of inequality that has often hampered the art world, where the ongoing use of AI, “…might also make a career in the arts more difficult and accelerate the problems which have already led to an epidemic of ‘starving artists’ among communities lacking in trust fund recipients.”

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part but there seems to be a quiet revival of sorts going on in the world of critical theory/contemporary philosophy which was once (and likely still is) a space made boring by an ageing hegemony of gatekeepers and academics. Nevertheless, “We should be reading every book posted on our account.” Renee replied in regards to a question about what kind of books we should be reading. “Simulation and Simulacra by Baudrillard and Valis by Philip K. Dick are for sure enlightening to the nature of the internet and its effect on humanity.”

“I’m personally a big fan of Michel Foucault…” Jill answered in relation to the same question. “[Foucault] seems strangely to no longer be a common reference point in theoretical discourse, or at least his position has become more marginal than it once was. The 2020s are shaping up to be very Foucaultian,” Jill added, “Especially in regards to the accelerating crisis of our education system as well as the expansion of the medical industrial complex. We should really be returning to much of the critical theory from the sixties on which attempted to theorize early consumer culture and the emergence of information economies more broadly, like Lyotard, Baudrillard, even Roland Barthes. Baudrillard would be an obvious reference point here, as one of the defining issues of our time is the tension between the map and the territory, or more clearly, the ‘real’ world (whose influence seems to be weaker day by day) and the simulated realm, where most events occur. Other people I think need to be read more […] are Marshall McLuhan, Nietzsche, Camille Paglia, and Christopher Lasch in particular who I think is one of the most astute critics of  what would become the neoliberal consensus in the late 1970s and onward.”

Playful and interesting to browse, it is perhaps accounts like Theory Brought to you by AI, The Covers They Deserve, that draw attention to a radical alterity in theory, indicative of those social media users who aren’t just passively accepting reality for what it is but are today interested in what reality could become.

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