Terminus : The City as a Fictioning-Machine
Investigation and exploration into the fiction of the self, machine and the City of London.
produced by : Eddie Wong
Terminus. At the nexus of this essay is a piece of fiction one square mile in area. It has a clearly delineated boundary, walled behind a safe enclave that separates the ‘within’ from the without. There are ten entry points to enter within; each point is guarded by statues of dragons. You may physically enter the fiction, but you cannot access the words. The evidence of its origins is unclear, but it is said to exist since time immemorial. It will continue to exist for many futures. This piece of fiction takes the form of a city.
To locate The City, imagine that it sits at the center of the world. Imaginary lines converge from this single point across the globe, to the North, South, East and West. Beginning from the inside and moving outward, a radiating spiral spans ocean and land to connect with islands that are remnants of a once mighty Empire. The City deals with fictions – capturing, storing, filtering them. It is also responsible for building the instruments, systems and mechanisms that produces these fictions. The City is a self-regulating program – a fiction-output generator and is one of the most powerful of its kind.
The City may be an ebb and flow of noises, but beneath the surface are dense layers of silence. These silent fictions, written and rewritten over many epochs, are also its source of longevity. The City’s shadow looms large over the areas outside its walls, its tendrils attached to an archipelago which it feeds on. It is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats. —Haruki Murakami, After the Quake. (pg.98)
This essay is an exploratory text that uses ‘fictioning’ as a method to look at performance fictioning (mythpoesis) and machine fictioning (mythotechnesis) as a set of practices to blur the boundary between reality and fiction with the influence of technology (O’Sullivan, 1).
The research assumes the City of London as a piece of fiction built on multiple layer of fictions. These layers are charged with dialectic tension; secrets vs transparency, silence vs noise, within vs without etc. These dualities in the City’s fiction produce intangible imaginaries that leave very tangible consequences on our world.
Progressing with that mode of fictioning, the paper questions the definition of a smart city and proposes that the City of London can be thought of as a computational system that powers the network of a global offshore system. Situating myself in this context, I experience the City from my own assemblage of fictions that trace my lineage and family history through their entanglement with Britain’s post-colonial reality.
Finally, my fictioning practice involves mixing the fictions of old and new, drawing out tensions between the City and personal stories. Inspired by techniques gleaned from avant-garde poetry, I experiment with a Natural Language Processing (NLP) method of word embeddings for text analysis and manipulation, creating poetic juxtaposition recontextualize the text.
My history is connected to the City of London through my birth country’s status as an ex-colony of Great Britain. As the British Empire was beginning to dissolve, and her colonies were “granted” independence, my grandfather left his wife and 5 children to go into the Malayan jungle to fight against the British Armed forces as a Communist guerrilla. He was shot and killed. A family lore recounts an incident when my grandmother was brought in to identify the body. The authorities wanted her to admit that she’s related to the deceased. My grandmother resisted from showing any emotions and remained in quiet defiance because the admission of relation to a communist fighter would mean jail. At that moment, she intuitively grasped the power of silence and collective secrets. Nobody knew where my grandfather was buried. To many, the British Malayan ‘war’ had never happened (McSmith, par.2).
As a child, my father tapped rubber in the jungle, one of Malaya’s major exports during British colonial rule. As a young girl, my mother worked as a housekeeper for British expatriates employed by the HSBC Bank. During this time, a new kind of British colonialism descended upon post-independence Malaysia in the guise of mercantile banks to help the young country to sail the choppy sea of free-market capitalism. After the British Empire’s dissolution, its main sources of wealth and export, shifted from the tangible goods previously extracted from its colonies, to the intangible export of financial derivatives. The second wave of imperialism quietly flourished in its wake: The City of London’s financial heart galvanized. The bells of St Mary-Le- Bow rings out and Britain’s transformation from a colonial power to financial power.
My personal fiction is entangled with the City in a more literal sense. I am here in London studying at Goldsmiths University; an institution founded by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of the ancient Livery Guilds of the City of London. The intention of the college was to “promote “individual skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young men and women belonging to the industrial, working and poorer classes” (Goldsmiths College Archive). Deleuze’s concept of summoning a ‘people-yet-to-come’ and his idea of ‘fabulation’ (O’Sullivan 297) seems fitting in this context. Considering how colonialism has shaped my family history, perhaps I am now one of the ’invented’ people, a minor character that has arrived at the City's terminal.
The City of London
The City of London — known by the locals as the Square Mile — is seldom discussed beyond its existence as business district and international financial hub of Great Britain. It is an ancient city that has survived conquerors, ravage of fires, changes to the throne, but yet this entity has persisted for hundreds of years. The City has existed since “time immemorial,” boast the Alders of the City Corporation (Shaxson, ).
It has remained a political fortress withstanding the tides of history that have transformed the rest of the British nation state. “The City still acts as a state within a state, there are in fact two cities, called London. One is a real city; the other place call London is home to eight million people” (Shaxson). While it is embedded in Greater London, it is does not belong there. This dialectic opposite is the essence of many of the City’s character as we will learn.
The City is delineated by the within while anything outside of it was called without – the archaic term was infra and extra respectively.(British History Online " Wards and Occupations"). The within/without binary can also be thought of as a metaphor to describe the privileges afforded to those in The City, usually at the expense of those live outside it. One of these privileges is freedom. “The medieval term 'freeman' meant someone who was not the property of a feudal lord but enjoyed privileges such as the right to earn money and own land. Town dwellers who were protected by the charter of their town or city were often free – hence the term 'freedom' of the City” (City of London "Freedom of the City"; par. 4).
Today, the title of freeman is merely symbolic, though it held considerable privileges during medieval times. True freedom for the City is something more pragmatic and significant in its application. First and foremost, this means freedom from state jurisdiction, deregulation of financial practices, tax loopholes and immunity from Parliamentary debate or accountability in policy-making. The true power of the City is the fiction of sovereignty which the City dons over itself like a royal garb.
The City is a clearly delineated fortress, entrenched in dualities and secrets. It is an enclave, a center for controlling the wealth of what was the most powerful colonial empire in the world. But there is another, invisible, dimension to this fortress. Today, the City's tendrils sprawl far beyond the city’s walls, reaching its probes to faraway lands North, South, East, and West, latching itself to post-colonial remnants of a dead Empire. The tendrils act as extractors and transmitters of a valuable kind of fiction, channeling back into the enclave.
The City of London is a Smart City
On the surface, the City’s landscape of gleaming skyscrapers, alongside its medieval architecture, and the ebb and flow of human traffic, might be the ideal depiction of its status as Britain’s financial capital. However, the ‘smart’ City of London implies a space that posesses an intelligence and agency through it’s informational code-based transactions (Easterling).
“Spaces and urban arrangements are usually treated as collections of objects or volumes, not as actors. Yet the organization itself is active. It is doing something, and changes in the organization constitute information” (Easterling). The City’s arrangement possesses a “vital effectivity called an agency of the assemblage” (Bennet).
We are accustomed to Smart Cities being promoted by governments via the language of efficiency and cost cutting. The Smart City is seen as the optimised future. This is the common definition. The Googlisation of Toronto is one example of a smart city project Sidwalk (Google's sister company) plotted for a “neighborhood built from the internet up” (Sauter, para.1). The end-goal of techno-capitalist corporations have always been to replicate our online experience in the physical realm through a city-scape network of embedded sensors, ubiquitous connectivity and A.I and machine learning (Zuboff 83). This wholesale integration of computing power and urban settings of smart cities have in fact manifested as ‘the penultimate value extraction machines” (Goodspeed).
The City of London too, is a 'value extraction machine'. While it extracts, it also expands through its network offshore ‘virtual’ servers. These are island out-posts, remnants of the dead British Empire. The thing of value here are fictions – manifestated as secrets, trusts, cash and financial data.
I argue that the City of London has become its own version of a smart city, but one that reaches far beyond its physical location. The City of London is akin to a computational nerve centre in the running the global offshore system. Island-based tax havens are scattered across the world to capture passing foreign business and channel it back to London, catching its prey like a spider’s web. British territories like the infamous Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Bermuda, Anguila, Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, and the British Virgin Islands are all part of the network (Easterling 43). These offshore sites function as a storage mechanism for assets, they are money laundering filters that let the City get involved in dirty business while providing it with enough distance to maintain plausible deniability (Shaxson).
Nicholas Shaxson defines offshore centers best when he sums up that: ‘you take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.’ There are many such networks of offshore possessions tied to cities and financial hubs globally, but the City of London is unique due to the fact that it is not only a deregulated financial zone, but a state within a state — it plays by its own rules.
Worshiped by the Chinese government as an ideal for their own experiments in financial deregulation, the City of London was proclaimed “the holy place’ of international finance and globalisation” by Tianjin’s Mayor Dai Xianglong on his visit to London alluding to comparison with the Vatican City, another state within a state (Shaxson 253). The City of London has inspired other governments to replicate their own de-regularized cities. Other examples of such “smart cities” exist in Switzerland and Hong Kong. As a departure from Tianjin Mayor’s quote, can we speculate that these cities are the ’temples of high finance’ of our future?
Driving the technological metaphor home, if the City is a version of software, then its replication and distributed usage can be thought of as algorithmic-virus, which infects the legitimacy of a democratic government on a global scale. Thus, the spread of such a program needs to be hacked and halted.
Fictioning as a Method
In their book Fictioning, David Burrows and Simon O’Sullivan categorise myth-functions for contemporary art and philosophy as mythopoesis, myth-science and mythotechnesis,or in other terms, as performance, science and machine fictioning. Mythpoesis (performance fictioning) speculates about the production of new worlds, people and communities to come. Mythotechnesis (machine fictioning) looks at existing and future influences of machines on our life.
My practice is particularly concerned with the methods of performance fictioning, combined with machine fictioning. Fiction as a verb implies a mode of action that refers to “writing, imaging, performing or other material instantiation” (Burrows & O’Sullivan). The ‘materiality instantiation’ in question is through the dyad ofself and machine in a performative act of writing, resampling, replacing text.
“The concept of mythopoesis involves a disruption of a more dominant fiction of the self…talks about the multiplicity that would deterritorialize our usual identification (or speaks to the potential self we also are) while addressing us as part of a wider collectivity – as potentially part of community to come” (Burrows and O’Sullivan, pg 17). Sullivan elaborates on the concept of mythpoesis practice as the art of ’calling forth the something in us that isn’t us.’
Exploring Semantic Space
For my practice and making of the artefact, I was inspired by Allison Parrish’s work on computer generated poetry. Computer generated poetry is commonly aimed to mimic the poetry written by humans. I’m interested in a more experimental approach. Parrish took inspiration from Jean Lescure, a member of the French Oulipo experimental writer group, she quotes that “like mathematics, literature could be explored” (Parrish).
The technical term for this in the Natural Language Processing field is ‘semantic space’. Because I’m exploring the tangible and intangible fiction space of the City of London, it is helpful to opt for a looser and more poetic definition of what it means to explore the semantic space.
A space has two, three or more dimensions. We need a quantifiable representation of these dimensions in space, a measurable way to say Point A is a different from Point B. Semantic space is a system of relating points in that space to a sequence of words, or concepts (Parrish).
Poetic-Fictioning with Word Vectors
The concept was borrowed from Tristan Tzara, a leading figure of the avant-garde movement wrote a set of instructions titled “To make a Dadaist Poem” (1920), whereby he proposed a way to create poetry by cutting out words from a newspaper, mixing them all in a bag and copying the words in the same random order that they are removed. The result is "a poem that resembles you" (Lewis, sec.1).
Zach Blas's Contra Internet (2015) project used gender related text and substituted it with the word capitalism. The practice involved using digital and Internet tools for combining and recombining text as an act of resistance to more totalizing narrative online. (Leckie, para.2)
Instead of combining/recombining random words, I have selected a ‘unit of words that are close in meaning to other units.’ The juxtaposition of words are drawn from vastly different corpus to create an effect of poetic contrast.
Based on Allison Parish's code, "Understanding word vectors", I replaced the nouns, verbs and adjectives with synonymous words based on the corpus. I used the Natural Language Processing library call spaCy with the GloVealgorithm of word embeddings (vector representations for words) to analyse and manipulate the corpus text.
I scrape a financial news database (filtered the result to only ‘London’) to use as my source text. The preface text was a speculative piece to set up the idea of the City as a piece of fiction. My intention was to tint the words that are the closest in meaning to the financial jargons of the corpus. Here’s an excerpt from the modified preface text (miinor edits was made for readability).
At the paradigm of this thesis is a piece of novel, one-centimeter kilometer in area. It also clearly addressed mapping, citadel into a safety city of ‘within’ from the without. You avoid physically going into the stories but you able not accessing the stanza….To search for The City, imagine that it atop at the center of the globe. Imaginary line along converge into the North, South, East and West. beginning from the inside and moves outward, a radiating vortex span reef and parcel to disconnects with uninhabited because there scattered a once almighty Empire. The City discount with stories – imagery, retrieved, optimized they these also role for build the instrumentation, operating and mechanisms of novel. It is porous, the City’s ripple and velocity of hiss build upon soft sheet of slasher memoir. The City’s horizon loom large over the planet. It is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
I chose the English folktale of Dick Whittington and his Cat (Jacobs) to be my test corpus because of Whittington’s connection to the City of London. The rags to riches story real-life inspiration was Lord Richard Whittington, the four times medieval Lord Mayor of London, successful cloth merchant.
Experts are not sure about how a folktale came about but they share a common human experience. Most revolve around a moral lesson or guidance for living ethically. Regardless they allow us an insight into what ‘common’ folks think (Larrington, para.8). An article in the New Statesman suggested a realist reading of the tale suggesting that Whittington is the Kings primary money lender, a context about English class-consciousness and there never was a magic cat. (Dennison, para.8). For a city that honours its ability to keep secrets, I suggest that one way of accessing the fiction of the City might be a critical fictioning of the tale.
Here are selected output using the semantic similarity method:
Little Dick was all day in the Wall Street; and next Thursday morning, being very tired, he got up and walked about, and asked everyone he met to give him a 32,495,000 coins to keep him from starving; but Nobody stayed to answer him, and only two or three gave him a gold bullion; so his mother was soon quite weak and slight . In this depression he asked behalf of several people and one of them said crossly: 'Go to work for an quiet powerful bankers.''That I will,' said Dick, 'I will go to work for you, if you will let me. 'Away went the Former Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke to the ships, while another a fantastic Friday morning note was got next. He put Puss under his major upwards movement, and arrived at the place just in Time to see the top boxes ready of some risk. One Thursday morning, early, Mr Fitzwarren had just come to his six people-home and seated himself at the computer, to count over the cash, and settle the Business for the day….The similar jump of Sir Richard Whittington with his Mr. White in his supply gluts, carved in bricks, was to be seen till the year 1780 over the WALL STREET of the old prison at Newgate, which he built for migrants.
The result from that was not immediately coherent but the juxtaposition of a children folktale with dry financial news has produced interesting contrasts reflecting the dual-nature of the City.
This essay has given an account of how I have engaged with the performative act of fictioning and mixed up the boundary of reality and fiction. I considered The City as piece of fiction, probing the multi-dimensional character of The City to illustrate the dialectic tensions present. Furthermore, I have put my personal and family history at the crossroad of The City's fiction to complicate the entanglement of self, machine and place. I went on to re-defined the notion of ‘smart’ cities The core idea that I wanted to get across is The City being its own version of a smart city by framing it as an algorithimic program. By way of this new take on myth-making, we are able to critically assess the City's function and its complicity in global financial transgressions.
At this point, this essay is a high-level conceptual sketch of a concept. Moving forward, I intend to evolve this into a research-led project that mixes speculative and investigative approaches. I also plan to deepen my experimentation with machine learning methods to generate more meaningful outputs that might include visuals, text, audio etc. The scope of this essay was too limited to address The City's more fabulous fictions (ie. the relationship with Roman cults, symbology, Freemansory). However, investigating into The City has given me a set of optics to be initiated with offshore banking network and the socio-cultural implications (e.g a divided society, income disparity). I intend to continue develop these tensions as well wedging my personal fiction into the image. If nothing else, this essay is the beginning of a conversation that rises above mere whispers of the strange griffin that is The City of London.
Shaxson, Nicholas. Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World. Vintage, 2012.
Shaxson is a highly reputable author, journalist, investigator. The author surveys the sphere of offshore tax jurisdiction and points out the secrecy nature of the system and the how it has impacted our global economy. Shaxson examines how Britain and to a large extent, The City of London is one of the key players in the secretive offshore system. He likens the system to the construction of a spider's web. Shaxson stresses The City's role in faciliating this 'web' - in capturing, filtering and storing capital outflows (often of criminal origins) from around the globe. The book delved into the mythology of the City of London Corporation, its influential status in the history of Britain, highlighting the subservient attidute by British government pay to The City. The book is an authoritative voice in linking The City's past to the contemporary issues of global significance while spelling out the steps to resist and challenge the dominance to secure a fairer future.
Burrows, David and O’Sullivan, Simon. Fictioning: The Myth-Functions of Contemporary Art and Philosophy. Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
This book by David Burrows and Simon O'Sullivan explains three fictioning methods; mythopoesis, myth-science and mythotechnesis and their related mode of operation as performance fictioning, science fiction and machine fictioning. The book focuses on contemporary art practice and ways that it can use muth and fiction to challenge the dominant fictions of our day and age. The examples offered in this book are drawn from rich philosophical perspectives and moves through variety artistic practices from avant-garde writing to occult leaning techno-feminism. The unique aspect of this book is its use of diagramming, assembling and experimentation to convey a systematic approach to fictioning to usher in new futures, peoples and stories.
de Vries, Patricia . "Conjuring Spirits in the Black Box of Finance."Institute of Network Cultures, 2019, http://networkcultures.org/contesting-capture-technology/2019/03/21/conjuring-spirits-in-the-black-box-of-finance/
This essay appeared in State Machines: Reflections and Actions at the Edge of Digital Citizenship, Finance, and Art published by he Institute of Network Cultures. The author presents examples of how artistic interpretations of the financial market with a focus on algorithmic trading have opened up a new kind of artistic imaginaries. The majority of this essay is an analysis/review of a 17-minute experimental piece of docufiction called Fragments on Machines, by Emma Charles. The author notes that Charle's film succeds in reimaging algorithmic trading as metaphorical phenomenon such as specters, hybrids, and floods. The essay makes correlations between the dualities of financial instruments and wider context ie. trading software vs climate crisis, hardware vs divine. The author suggests critically reimagining algorithmic thinking is a form of resistance against the totalizing narrative future with "no-alternative" but capitalism. This essay have provided me with a useful space in which I can situate my research in.
Easterling, Keller. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. Verso, 2014.
Zuboff, Shoshanna. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, 2019.
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Garner, Biaca. "The Spider’s Web in Filmotomy.” The Spider’s Web film: An investigation into the world of Britain’s secrecy jurisdictions and the City of London, 2015, https://spiderswebfilm.com/blog/
McSmith, Andy. "The lost wars: Britain's Malayan campaigns." Independent, 08 November 2007. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/the-lost-wars-britains-malayan-campaigns-5329010.html
Goldsmiths' College archives. Aim25.ac.uk. 29 September 1905. Retrieved 26 April 2010. https://aim25.com/cgi-bin/search2?coll_id=5499&inst_id=29
Lewis,Pericles, "To Make a Dadaist Poem." Editing Modernism in Canada, 2017, https://modernistcommons.ca/islandora/object/yale%3A352#cite_ref-0
"The City's government." City of London, 2019, https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/about-the-city/history/Pages/city-government.aspx.
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Springier, Florian, and Beverungen, Armin. "Computing the City." Literacy, vol. 45, no. 1, 2011, pp. 25-31.
Sauter, Molly "Google’s Guinea-Pig City." The Atlantic, Feb 13, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/02/googles-guinea-pig-city/552932/
Jacobs,Joseph. (2006). The Project Gutenberg EBook of English Fairy Tales, by Anonymous. Retrieved February, 2005 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7439/7439-h/7439-h.htm, chp.31.
Parrish, Allison. "Exploring (Semantic) Space With (Literal) Robots." Open Transcripts, 2015, http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/semantic-space-literal-robots/
Leckie, Robert. "Get Off the Internet!: Zach Blas's Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1." Rhizome, 2018, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2018/nov/21/get-off-the-internet-zach-blass-contra-internet-inversion-practice-1/
"The City Of London Reel 1 (1951)." British Pathé , 13 April 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b_yzUF0PSg.
"London Metal Exchange | Inside Europe's last physical trading floor." YouTube, Londonist Ltd, 2 Feb 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZX7fIdZlgE.
Rogge, Michael. "Malaya's jungle fight in 1952." YouTube, uploaded by Michael Rogge, British Pathe Newsreel, 9 May 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAO9xqXZ6BQ&t=38s.
Data and code
Data and code is available at https://github.com/aparrish/rwet/blob/master/understanding-word-vectors.ipynb (Allison Parrish, 2018).