Unpicking the lexicon of NFTs reminds us how interconnected capitalism, technology and slavery really are.

Zelda Solomon  |  Ed. Peter Traynor  |  27 December 2021

Studio Visit with Dread Scott (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Dread Scott’s 2021 NFT project, White Male For Sale, consists of a 1minute 10second  looped video of a typical middle-class man standing atop an auction block in Brooklyn, and the NFT was then auctioned live at Christie’s. This substitution of the historical Black body auctioned into slavery was inspired by Scott’s uneasy reaction to seeing the “F” in “NFT” bloom over the past years. As Scott puts it: “I heard the term fungible in connection with its use by scholars of the history of slavery.” Here, Scott draws on the long history of “fungibility” as an important term in Afro-pessimism and theorising redress.

“Fungibility” is commonly used in legal and economic terms to refer to an essentially exchangeable commodity; conversely, non-fungible means something that is not exchangeable. For instance, my NFT is unique and can’t be swapped out with yours: it is non-fungible. While my £5 note means the same as your £5 note: it is fungible. 

It is this idea of fungibility as the disciplining of a subject into a tradable, exchangeable commodity that is a central part of theorising slavery, which Saidiya Hartman references in her seminal text Scenes of Subjection written in 1997. She discusses fungibility as foundational to the logic of slavery, tracing the social process wherein the slave as a human subject becomes a commodity. Hartman says: 

“Put differently, the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of other’s feelings, ideas, desires and values; and, as property, the disposed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and the acts as the sign of his power and domination.” 

Thus, for a body to be made fungible is to empty the subject of meaning — to be abstracted. Hartman frames the concept of fungibility as a form of “social death” to help us understand the legacy of chattel slavery, and how those marked as Black continue to be denied humanity today.

These are the intertwined histories of economic ontology and slavery that Scott draws on in White Male For Sale. As Scott says:

“People are inherently non-fungible. But as slavery became an integral part of developing capitalism, enslavers sought to turn people into commodities and make them fungible. Capitalism, born in slavery and colonialism, in an ever relentless pursuit of profit, forms the foundation of modern society.” 

Not only is capitalism built on slavery and colonialism, so are modern technics. From Karl Marx to Lewis Mumford, the conception of technics and automated machines are inseparable from the logic of slavery. Mumford himself theorised the first machines as slaves in The Myth of The Machine, saying:

“… the great labor machine was in every aspect a genuine machine: all the more because its components, though made of human bone, nerve, and muscle, were reduced to their bare mechanical elements and rigidly standardised for the performance of their limited tasks. The taskmaster’s lash ensured conformity. Such machines had already been assembled if not invented by kings in the early part of the pyramid age, from the end of the Fourth Millennium on.”

Here we see this same, fungible, idea of mechanising and commodifying the body being a process of emptying meaning; making the body an abstract tool to be utilised by a centralised force.

Tim Armstrong also highlights the persistent idea of the slave as conceptually aligned with the machine in his text The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology, and Pain in American Literature. He discusses how, throughout slavery and redress in America, the slave body was yoked to machines — whether it be the myth that industrialism would bring an end to slavery or the pro-slavery arguments that favoured corporal punishment over clock-time and factory-style discipline.

The legacy of slavery persists even in the language of technics today. For example, asymmetric control systems are still referred to as “master/slave” in computing and technology, and there’s been a move in recent years to rename “master” branches “main” branches.

Yanique Norman, The Poetics of Black Fungibility  (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

If the central spirit in the synthesis of technology remains the thirst for power and order over the natural world, then the domination of peoples and bodies will remain tied to it. This stretches from the theoretical foundations of capitalism to exploitative outsourcing. Such are the histories and interlocking systems of capital, labour and power that can be unravelled from “fungibility.”

Interestingly, artist Yanique Norman is proposing a new kind of fungibility. Norman is an Atlanta-based multimedia artist who outlined her theory of Black Fungibility in a lecture she gave at Atlanta Contemporary in October 2019. Away from capital and commodification, Norman proposes a Black Fungibility that is modelled on fungi.

Norman uses Black Fungibility to taxonomize categories of cultural production, using different classes of fungi to sort representation in media; from The Princess and The Frog as decomposing Saprobes to The Invisible Man as disembodied Commensals. Black Fungibility is a dream model, an alternative viewpoint, a new imaginary and, as Norman says, something that provides a different shaped cake-tin to create a new, radically shaped cake. 

However you look at it, fungibility” is fertile ground. It can lead us through Hartman’s theorisation of slavery and redress right through to NFTs, crypto and asymmetrical computation systems. It can also turn our eyes to the future, where fungal connections might help us see fungibility as a network instead of a discipline.

Dread Scott, White Male for Sale (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

14 September – 1 October, 2021: Dread Scott, White Male for Sale, Cristin Tierney Gallery 

1 October 2021: Dread Scott, White Male for Sale, Christie’s NFT sale

About the artist

Dread Scott (b. 1965, Chicago, IL) is an interdisciplinary artist who for three decades has made work that encourages viewers to re-examine cohering ideals of American society. In 1989, the US Senate outlawed his artwork and President Bush declared it “disgraceful” because of its transgressive use of the American flag. Dread became part of a landmark Supreme Court case when he and others burned flags on the steps of the Capitol. He has presented a TED talk on this.

His art has been exhibited at MoMA/PS1, The Walker Art Center, and street corners across the country. He is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow and the 2019 Open Society Foundations Soros Equality Fellow and has received fellowships from United States Artists and Creative Capital Foundation. His art is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. His studio is in Brooklyn.

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