The Annihilation Industry

A mosaic of “Lazy Lion” NFTs made into a person right-clicking and saving an image. You know. Like a normal person would. Credit: @decembermoth on Twitter

Dom Rottman

12 January 2022

Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but, from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Every single day I spent composing this piece I uncovered something new about the horror of crypto and especially Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs. Fractional NFTs. NFTs of the dead. NFTs of fart jars. I saw bleeding-heart liberal Matt Damon do an over-produced commercial for crypto. I learned of Cryptoland, a project so utterly absurd and appalling that it required a solid hour of convincing for me to realize that it was not satire; after which I went through all five stages of grief, probably died from the horror, and either somehow re-entered the plane of the living, or accepted my presence in hell. The latter would explain the rising temperature.

In May of 2021 I wrote a piece about Non-Fungible Tokens, NFTs. By way of review, an NFT is essentially a digital certificate of authenticity that can be attached to digital things, usually images, but can also include videos, gifs, audio files, anything that can be considered a digital object. An NFT is “minted” on, and can be bought or sold through, (typically) the Ethereum blockchain, which is essentially a decentralized ledger that holds all transactions made with the Ethereum cryptocurrency, or ETH. These transactions, the “writing” of the ledger, require massive amounts of computing power. Consequently, any blockchain, anything crypto–whether they be NFTs, Bitcoin, Ethereum, other cryptocurrencies, etc–is exacerbating the current chip shortage, skyrocketing the price of GPUs (my 4 year old GPU has actually increased in price since purchase), and consuming amounts of energy so significant that it has become an environmental concern. With respect to these concerns, there is a solution, which involves converting the crypto ledger to a “proof of stake,” where, instead of using computing power, decentralized ledger verification is achieved through surrendering the cryptocurrency itself. Forge a ledger on this chain, somehow, and all of your cryptocurrency is gone. The energy consumption of this is negligible and requires no warehouses of GPUs. Ethereum–the blockchain which supports NFTs–plans to convert its blockchain to this model. Even if we take Ethereum at its word, though, such a conversion is insanely difficult and time consuming. And while some new emerging crypto/blockchain technologies are adapting such a model, several major players in the crypto market have not expressed any intention of doing the same. Thus, we might well imagine that every time a NFT is minted or a bitcoin mined, a tree suddenly catches on fire.

Admittedly, I was a bit unfair to the environmental concerns in my last piece by only gesturing to them and nothing more. My reason for this was not only because it was not my primary focus, but also because in light of the existence of “proof of stake” as a very feasible solution to the damaging effects of crypto–hardware prices and energy consumption/environmental damage–I needed to focus my argument on the fact that NFTs are, as an advanced form of aesthetic commodification, inherently awful, regardless of any pernicious effects.1 And while that continues to be the argument I revise and enhance further here, I find that the environmental damage caused by crypto provides a deep insight into what function makes the NFT as commodification uniquely dangerous: Annihilation.

In my previous essay I wrote that it is the capitalist dream to become God himself, to be able to create value out of nothing, to create something out of nothing. This aspiration is manifested in the ever-cheapening commodity to be sold at the highest price possible in order to realize maximum value. Creatio ex Nihilo is the principle which separates God from humanity. The NFT offers an alternative path. The capitalist can instead abandon the faculty of creation entirely. As the blockchain consumes great energy to mint NFTs, as trees and coal burn, nature, creation, is made into–nothing! Utterly nothing! The NFT is not the image, not the art, but the “certificate of authenticity” that must be digital. A mock NFT certificate printed out is worth no more than the paper it’s on. The NFT’s entire “existence” is tethered to the digital ledger of the blockchain and can be verified in no other way. What’s more, the nature of the blockchain as a decentralized ledger means that it cannot even really be pointed to on it since, any single copy of the “ledger,” even digital, is only a representation of it and cannot itself be legitimate, since its legitimacy is dependent on all other “copies” lining up. The single “master ledger” in and of itself of any blockchain exists only in the imagination. The NFT exists on such a ledger. We cannot even say it exists in ones and zeroes. It is literally fucking nothing.

The self-important NFT connoisseur might retort, “Is anything imaginary thus nothing, thus unreal?” Not so. What is real can be realized. Imaginary things like fictional characters can be realized in art, real art, stories, songs, images both digital and physical. An NFT cannot be realized by definition. Anything like a print-out is a mere illegitimate representation. Art, in contrast is, only also representation. It also exists independently, in and of itself in its physical forms. Were an imaginary thing to suddenly disappear from everyone’s imagination, it could be immediately restored upon seeing a pretty picture of that thing. Should the Ethereum blockchain disappear, the NFT continues to not exist.

Destruction, strictly speaking, is inherent in production. In contrast to struere–to build, to construct–to de-struere is to destroy in a form of demolition, of unmaking. The farmer breaks the soil during planting, prunes the plant during growth, and removes the fruit during harvest. The carpenter cuts and shapes the lumber as needed and leaves the scraps. The film reel is trimmed for edit with excess frames left on the cutting room floor. Capitalism takes the principle of destruction to the extreme, destroying nature, labor, and even products themselves to a certain degree. Great machines are built for harvesting the raw materials of nature beyond dangerous bounds; even animals are penned up in small crucibles and bred, fed, and slain in a timely and efficient manner. Stewardship is a dead principle, and animals no longer have the dignity of the hunt or the ranch. Labor is isolated and deskilled; the worker cannot have the fruit of her labor or the work of her hands, she is discouraged to connect with her fellow workers in camaraderie, and as individual tasks become increasingly menial and meaningless she cannot even take pride in a job well done. And that old saying–“they don’t make ‘em like this anymore”–remains ever true; planned obsolescence, cheap materials, reissuing of anything and everything from iPhones to film remakes we never asked for cheapens stuff to such a degree that we begin to believe that all matter actually is a corrupt shadow of what is good. Yet never, not once, did capitalism ever seek to annihilate any single instrument of production. If it wished to reduce everything to inherent meaninglessness, to mere instruments, instruments for the pursuit of profit, they still existed and had to exist as instruments.

Annihilation–ad + nihil, literally, to nothing–is antithetical to efficient production. It is distinct from destruction because destruction can be used instrumentally, as in production. To this end, there are degrees of destruction, such as reducing something to its constituent parts versus blowing something up to get it out of the way. Annihilation is destruction to the maximum by taking its principle for its own sake and leaving utterly nothing, not even space, but a void. Since it has literally nothing to show for its “work,” Annihilation cannot be used instrumentally. It is anti-utility. The NFT, as nothing, is itself annihilation. Bitcoin and like cryptocurrencies at least have the dignity of being next to nothing. They have at least the guise of currency; they are fungible and can be redeemed directly in value. Both cryptocurrency and the NFT require the destruction of nature, but whereas this is instrumental for the former it is the very essence of the latter; it must exist as a permanent void among creation. That it changes hands and seemingly “produces” value is again not attributable to the NFT itself as the new value is attributable to transient speculative values, as even transient things are still things. In exchanges of NFTs someone is always holding the empty bag that facilitated the realized exchange value of speculation. There is no other way to describe NFTs beyond annihilation and nothing. Calling them garbage is an insult to garbage.

The difficulty of comprehending and discussing the NFT, here as well as in everyday conversation, is a consequence of its non-being. It is one of the oldest problems in philosophy: how can non-being itself be? To call its proponents and enthusiasts delusional is therefore partly on the mark. But make no mistake, they are indeed innovators. They have introduced a new principle for the capitalist, who need no longer wish to become God himself, but can instead achieve the much more earthly possibility of becoming the Antichrist. The governing principle of the NFT is not Creatio ex Nihilo, but Nihil ex Creatione.

The scope of annihilation by NFT is creation both natural and artificial. Adorno’s fear that the culture industry would kill art and culture through commodification, to make works of art not only “also” commodities but soon “commodities through and through,” was unfounded because the latter is only infinitesimally possible, whereas annihilation is a fate beyond even his worst fever dreams. The mediums of the culture industry which exist to pump out commodities–music, television, film, video games, etc–insofar as they are used mainly for and refined towards commodity production, can still be reclaimed since these mediums still produce “culture,” even if it is bad. Once in a blue moon a cultural object comes through to us that throws off so much of its commodity trappings that it becomes almost independent of them, castigating the society and productive forces of its birth. It is our hope that one day such art becomes the norm, and that there would be no longer any culture industry to speak of.

The NFT leaves no such possibility for reclamation. It has nothing to do with art and is not in the business of producing art. Rather, the NFT requires the annihilation of art after its annihilation of nature. Primitive accumulation, the violent seizure of existing goods and resources to accumulate the initial capital required for production (which, as the Global South shows us, isn’t so primitive after all), has a parallel in the development of the NFT as the existing world of art is devoured. When any aesthetic thing is slapped with the mark of the beast it is dragged to hell, whether it is the characters of the beloved comic book author Stan Lee, virtual musical artists Crazy Frog and Gorillaz, or famous internet memes such as Nyan Cat or Doge, and even the smallest of artists who are finding that their art has been NFT-ified and commodified, with their identity as the artist completely irrelevant. That some of these hellfires are simply the broad condemnation of NFTs and NFT-ification by society at large is of no small importance. The determination of what art is “good” or “bad” requires such claims and judgments to be made in the public presence of others. Part of the joy of judging art as beautiful or brilliantly critical is the hope that others will realize this also. In the same way the sharing of judgements, the give and take of conversations of the aesthetic, are the means through which aesthetic norms are established or discovered. That a friend once expressed “no matter how shitty we are, we will never buy into fucking NFTs,” is a reflection of a largely accepted judgement that NFTs are an irredemptive negative and a marring on the aesthetic.

More specifically, it is a regression of the aesthetic. Aesthetic value, strictly speaking, is something which cannot be owned. To attempt to own it anyway has deleterious effects towards such value. Owning a painting privately means that less individuals can appreciate its aesthetic value. Adorno’s argument that the culture industry makes art into commodities, as if they were goods to be bought and sold, cheapens art’s aesthetic value so that ideology can take its place. The NFT wishes to annihilate aesthetic value altogether. The owner of the Doge NFT is stretching its annihilation to such bounds by allowing individuals to purchase shares in the NFT as if to legitimate the NFT as the only point of value. A representative of the collective which owns the Doge NFT writes, “[I]t’s very much as if the Louvre decided to fractionalize the Mona Lisa and distribute a portion of it for the public to own. However, unlike at the Louvre, collective ownership of art is really only possible using crypto art.” On the contrary, it is very well conceivable that one day the Louvre will announce, to a disturbingly enthusiastic audience, an Initial Public Offering on the Mona Lisa, with the Louvre still maintaining a majority stake. Its majority shareholders, instead of museum curators, would decide if, when, and where the painting should visit, for how long, etc., all for the extraction of surplus value.

From a cynical point of view, this might not be so different than what happens at the Louvre already. What is unlike the Louvre, however, what is different between a fine historic painting and a piece of digital art, is that no one can control the latter in the manner of “ownership,” which is really only possible using a piece of physical art. The development of technology, first with mechanical reproduction in film and radio, and then with digital reproduction through software and the internet, allows more and more for the possibility for art’s “liberation.” In the first movement art became a part of not just the bourgeois world but the world of all–at the price of commodification. In the second movement art maintains reproducibility and distribution but begins to shake off commodification. It mattered not who “owned” Doge because such a thought was literally inconceivable. What mattered was only how funny the dog looked. To annihilate this and nature in the uniquely devastating and inefficient commodification of minting NFTs is violent regression. It is a denial of a new and freer aesthetic reality and a whole disavowal of aesthetic value, instead opting to attach value to that which literally does not exist.

The NFT must suck the life out of art like a leech and render it meaningless so that the NFT can change hands while dragging along the image of its victim. That the annihilation required for the NFT takes only seconds means it always outpaces the production of anything, much less anything aesthetic, and severely less that which we might consider “art.” That many NFTs are represented by revolting drawings of monkeys and lions is not a mere metaphor but a necessary consequence of the fact that cheap aesthetic things must be produced en masse solely that they might be devoured.

Even beyond the damage done by NFT’s primitive accumulation, it is an abject lie that the NFT allows the artist to realize the value of her labor, even with–especially with–the production of cheap aesthetic things. The NFT has no labor value whatsoever and is, again, only a facilitator to realizing the exchange value of transient speculation. The fundamental process of M-C-M’, Money, commodity, money prime, is essentially unchanged. In my previous essay I wrote that the NFT is just the latest and greatest commodity. The astute reader might realize a contradiction now that I have argued that the NFT is literally nothing. A commodity must be, however crappy and useless, at least something. We must now be careful to make a nuanced point: While the NFT is not itself a commodity it regardless fulfills the role of commodity in the process of M-C-M’. This is no more than a point of simplicity for the sake of understanding the NFT with reference to the capitalist mode of production which is, of course, focused on making more money (prime). The fundamental difference between the NFT and an actual commodity is the that the latter is, of course, consumed or used. The NFT, as nothing, as void, cannot be consumed, used, or used up, it is, as I wrote earlier, the “empty bag.” Strictly speaking, the commodity C being “sold for consumption” is the financial derivative of the NFT. The mess of NFTs occurs between M and C, which is to say the production of the “commodity.” The money cost M is the cost of annihilation, which involves the cost of minting an NFT and the cost of the digital thing to which the NFT is attached. If this seems wildly inefficient, it’s because it is. One might as well trade in actual financial derivatives. While my opinion of such traders is not particularly high, they at least aren’t in the business of annihilating the world. At least not directly.

I digress, but the point is that with respect to value theory, any value theory, the NFT is hardly a realization of the labor value of the artist. As it annihilates art it annihilates any labor value put into it. There is empirical evidence that this is so: Not only are one third of all NFTs sold for under $100, the fees required for minting and listing average $100 themselves. Only those who have accumulated vast amounts of capital already, monetary or social, can afford to become a “capitalist,” which is to say being in the business of endless commodity production to maximize surplus value. The artist still for her bread relies on the good will of her commissioners and community at large, or the rare shrewdness, tenacity, integrity, and sheer willpower to navigate the culture industry.

The NFT is an unmatched force towards the end of the world, as the realization of annihilation. That its scope is narrow, niche, and unprotected by the state is our saving grace. The silver lining, as with all crises, is how it makes us question what we seemingly take for granted, and examine values we thought not to examine. What is the appeal of the concept of “ownership”? Right, wrong, or indifferent, there exists some draw and pride in saying “this is mine.” Yet we also hold the same intuition that aesthetic value is a value which cannot be owned. The attempts to own it anyway are met with widespread skepticism and condemnation.

We are therefore confronted with the question of aesthetic value. The NFT crisis makes clear that the aesthetic is resistant to quantification. Yet in a world dominated by economy, where like and unlike must be made comparable by reduction to abstract quantities, aesthetic value is an anomaly. “That which does not reduce to numbers,” Adorno and Horkheimer once wrote, “becomes illusion.” That NFTs are willing to annihilate the aesthetic in order that it might be reduced to numbers proves that the two are at odds. That various companies and organizations today are becoming interested in NFTs against the will of the masses proves further that the aesthetic is in fact an active danger to the socioeconomic foundation on which such organizations are founded. In order to affirm that society as it exists is good and needs no improvement or change, to affirm that it is beyond critique, in order to preserve the present order, in order to maintain order in abstracto, the aesthetic must be annihilated.

As the NFT is suddenly pushed more and more against a society which is by and large unaware of it, confused by it, or vehemently opposed to it, we ought to be reminded once again of the lie that the market is freely determined by the consumer. This can only be true when the consumer is falsely given as a singular entity governed by a particular rationality, where each individual is not an independent agent but a bundle of relations perfectly exchangeable with another. In support of this, however, is the truth, the truth that those with the greatest capital have the greatest influence. This has always been true with large corporations, and with the rise of the “influencer” it is seen more plainly in both title and efficacy. Despite intentions, despite their in/efficacy, despite their will, whether it is theirs or not their own, individuals with great social and economic capital, not just NFT enthusiasts but celebrities such as Grimes, Ellen DeGeneres, Mark Cuban, Matt Damon, Lionel Messi, Jimmy Fallon, Snoop Dog, and god knows who else, have embraced this crypto anti-world with tweets and advertisements and smiling faces in the mode of modern cultural performance, overflowing with gaudy, grotesque pomp and circumstance. Through such performances the hunger for annihilation via crypto and NFTs is validated and stoked, belying and making plain the performers’ gross and insipid liberalism, their skin-deep and paper-thin commitment to the environment and the world at large.

That some are so enthusiastically willing to literally annihilate the only world which they inhabit in order to produce something founded on literally nothing is the height of nihilism, the vainglorious attempt to realize that “everything is possible.”

  1. In light of the proof of stake model I have no argument (yet) to condemn blockchain technology itself. The reason such technology holds great interest is because of its decentralized model. While decentralization is never 1:1 with democratic, a decentralized type of technology is potentially a road to or condition of it being democratic. ↩︎