January 16, 2015

A Response to Benjamin Noys’ Critique of Accelerationism

A healthy, vibrant movement is one that invites external critique and operates in dialog with those holding different or opposing views. In short, everything must be open to revision, as long as responding to criticisms does not consume excessive time, leaving those in the movement no time to actually formulate that movement’s positions. Another sign of a credible movement is a solid grounding in the work of the past. If any new concept or movement embodies a kind of synthesis of a long dialog with those who have come before, then movements that proclaim to completely revolutionise thought and give no proper due to previous ideas are to be viewed with great suspicion.

It’s not for nothing that Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant and Hegel are still the subject of study, dialogue, and refutation. The main thinkers behind this latest iteration of accelerationism have demonstrated a great deal of attention to both these points of interaction, almost excessively so. In regards to the first point, the respect given to Nick Land and Benjamin as worthy opponents is commendable. Nick Land is important to grapple with, as his views present two problems that left accelerationism must deal with, the first being a fetishisation of technology in its most extreme form, leading to a form of romanticised anti-human irrationalism, and the second arising from his belief in unrestrained capitalism as the herald of freedom. Just as the right tends to caricature Marxists, the left can easily do the same. The left is unfortunately as prone to caricaturing its opponents as the right. One needs intelligent conservatives to wrestle with, or the exhortations of the left will fail to confront the seductive arguments of capitalism. Land’s project of ‘Virulent Nihilism’ forms a foundation for the accelerationist philosophical strand, burning away the last vestiges of theological thinking in philosophy and allowing the formulation of a neo-enlightenment project of reason. Intelligence is demonstrated by the capacity to work with complexity and ambivalence, and it is possible to selectively use Land’s ideas while rejecting those openly in conflict with a radical left project.

Benjamin Noys, for all his scepticism regarding the movement, has done some of the best work of reporting on and summarising the premises of accelerationism and providing useful critical distance not generally possible for those involved too closely, not to mention having coined the problematic term itself. The points in his latest essay, ‘Accelerated Substance Abuse’ merit some responses. The first being that the reader does too well a job of grounding accelerationism in other thinkers, creating too vague an idea of what is latest iteration actually is. I tend to agree with this critique, especially with regards to the inclusion of Lyotard, who many view as emblematic of the vacuity of French postmodern thought of the 70s and 80s. Noys also is mildly ironic in attempting to identify who the antiaccelerationists are. Who are these people against antibiotics? The “kitsch Marxists, paleo-Heideggereans, recidivist Adornonians”? Pretty much any left thinker who does not look to the past for solutions and who values the importance of the enlightenment project can be classified as an accelerationist; the difference is in the approach. Leaving out the Heideggarians, the real contention here is Noys’ preoccupation that accelerationism, with its Spinozian immanent substance via Deleuze & Guattari and Hardt & Negri tends towards affirmationism and machinic vitalism leading to reformist compromise that simply hopes for a future technological totality to resolve the inherent contradictions of capitalism that form the foundation of the critical Marxist tradition. I understand where Noys is coming from, the danger of any affirmation of the present risks capitulating to neoliberal’s sickly sweet positivity. when today critical appraisal of capitalism’s attempts to greenwash or promote Bonoesque billionaire charity, in order to get us to ignore that it is the root cause of the issue, means critical vigilance is needed more than ever. However here is where Lyotard’s provocation IS important, and one that those accused of ‘kitsch marxism’ (Negarestani) and ‘transcendental miserablism’ (Land) have not provided a satisfactory response to.

Nick Snircek and Alex Williams [1] have already responded to the accusation of reformism. As for the embracing the emancipatory potentials of technology, there is none of the unrestrained technological enthusiasm of Land here. If anything, there is a very sober attempt to examine the relationship of society to technological progress. In this sense philosophy and critical theory demand this appraisal of techno-scientific progress. The renaissance man of the enlightenment is rare today, given that the explosion of knowledge requires high levels of specialisation. Galilei, Bruno and Bacon to name a few, were all philosophers and scientists who drew philosophical conclusions based on their discoveries. Did religious scepticism and thought bring about the explosion of scientific discovery, or was philosophy forced to reckon with the new scientific discoveries? During the enlightenment, thanks to these multi-talented people, thought drove science and vice versa. Today, due to both the demands of specialisation and the systematic fragmenting and de-politicisation of the STEM fields, science and philosophy have become disjoined, with prominent scientists openly questioning the value of philosophy while demonstrating exactly the kind of blinkered empiricism that stems from apolitical science. On the other hand philosophy and critical theory have not sufficiently revised their systems in accordance with scientific discoveries that revolutionise our knowledge of the world. This is why the focus is on science, because we increasingly live in a world better described by science fiction and to stay relevant, the radical left needs to gain technology literacy or become increasingly irrelevant.

I think Felix Guattari and I have remained Marxists, in our two different ways, perhaps, but both of us. You see, we think any political philosophy must turn on the analysis of capitalism and the ways it has developed. What we find most interesting in Marx is his analysis of capitalism as an immanent system that’s constantly overcoming its own limitations, and then coming up against them once more in a broader form, because its fundamental limit is Capital itself. –G. Deleuze [2]

This quote from Deleuze is at the foundation of accelerationism. The class power dynamics of today, and the redistribution of wealth remain at the core, and such fundamentals are incompatible with any merely reformist project. The only real difference is the question of how to proceed, and for that only history will tell which strategy worked. Accelerationism is an attempt where traditional Marxism has failed. Frankfurt school rigour in its negativity is to be commended, even used, like Land, as a useful critical corrosive. However this Marxism as a theory of praxis for revolutionary action has failed. One need only look at Adorno’s complete dismissal of the May ’68 movement. Having the correct critical tools to diagnose today’s challenges is a necessary interrogation, which I believe accelerationism does have, but speculating on the efficacy of its strategies for action is a waste of precious time as the future is not amenable to prediction. For all its fidelity to the central tenets of Marxism, the radical left’s project has been a failure, not of diagnosis, but of political victories. New
strategies are needed.

Returning to the jibe of ‘who is against antibiotics?’, and the call that most of us are already accelerationists, rather than this being a critique as to the necessity of this latest iteration of accelerationism, does this point not instead call for the need to make explicit this orientation to the future and to reason? If antibiotics are an example of the benefits of scientific progress, shouldn’t there be an explicit focus on examining the political economy of scientific progress? This does not mean ignoring the class and power relations of capitalism, which Noys assumes accelerationism is guilty of. Without this political aspect, there is no left accelerationism. As Brassier points out, right accelerationism is already happening, and will continue to outpace the left if it does not take a position. This makes the advent of this iteration of accelerationism and its continuation of the enlightenment project, a necessity rather than a fad.