January 17, 2015

Accelerated Substance Abuse

It’s very simple to grasp accelerationism. Accelerationism refers to the engagement with forms and forces of technology and abstraction that must, selectively, be accelerated to punch through the limits of a stagnant and inertial capitalism. It’s very difficult to grasp accelerationism. There are multiple forms and types of accelerationism, if that’s even the right name for it. Maybe it would be better called ‘redesigning’, [1] for example, or ‘extrapolation’ [2]. We don’t know yet what accelerationism could do, or be? It may be we need ‘create two, three, many accelerationisms’.

#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (2014) [3] embodies this tension. There’s a lot of accelerationism, a whole lot, no shortage of it, 536pp of it, often selected from much larger works. There’s a wealth of accelerationism. On the other hand, there is not much explicit accelerationism, which is to say, depending on when you start numbering, third or fourth wave accelerationism (after the 70s French moment and Nick Land (3), or after Marx, the 70s French moment and Nick Land (4), or if we include the various avant-gardes the numbers could go up). Perhaps it is best to approach the reader as an ‘accelerator’, which is to say #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader wants to construct a genealogy, a fiction or a hyperstitional fiction of origins, for accelerationism. It is ‘hyperstitional’ because, as this concept was developed by the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at Warwick in the 1990s, it implies a performative generation of a new fiction or myth that becomes real by being articulated.

In this case the Reader is a Borgesian parable that in announcing accelerationism also wants to announce that we were all (or most of us) already accelerationists. On the one hand, accelerationism has to be proclaimed and announced as the new thing, the new truth. On the other hand, accelerationism was always with us. What is proclaimed is also revealed as the truth that permeates the thinking of modernity or is even synonymous with modernity. This is a partisan and provocative story; we are meant to be shocked by accelerationism. At the same time, this is a story of normalization. Accelerationism is not simply the name for a new movement, but in fact is the name for what most, or some, or even all, of us do or should do.

The instability is how many do is part of the aim of the accelerationists to reveal and change. It is certain that not all of us do ‘accelerate’. Certainly there are those of us who are definitely not accelerationists: the practitioners of localism or ‘folk politics’, the kitsch Marxists, paleo-Heideggereans, recidivist Adornonians, etc. But these non-accelerationists fall, according to the accelerationists, outside of modernity: they themselves are nostalgic remnants of the past, trapped in time, the Miss Havisham’s of theory, to borrow the character from Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) who, once jilted, remains frozen in that moment of time. In fact this image speaks to the core of the dismissal of anti-accelerationism: it cannot imagine a future. This is the break or rupture, the dividing line, between accelerationists and anti-accelerationists.

Of course such a line is very vague. The real division lies between those able to affirm a positive vision of the future based in the development of technology, abstraction and reason and those unwilling or unable to. In the second case we find those who see the future as potentially or actually catastrophic, usually due to climate change, but also due to the persistence of capitalism; those who imagine a future which is ‘retrograde’ (in accelerationist terms): refusing technology, embracing a return to the local or natural; those who refuse to speculate on the future except in the sense of grasping the current limits and possibilities of contemporary struggles (this would be communization). That these are usually minority positions is not so much noted by accelerationist critiques. Certainly both in everyday life and in struggles many contemporary movements have made extensive use of technology, notably social media (although we should avoid exaggeration of twitter/Facebook as sole or major drivers of struggle). This, however, opens the gate for accelerationists to argue that these movements are nascent accelerationists, often unwilling or unable to follow through with the use of technology. They are using technology as if it were a temporary measure, when it should be embraced (differentially) as the possibility of a new ‘platform’ or ‘stack’ that can embed and articulate a global political alternative [4] [5].

Contemporary accelerationism articulates itself as a ‘platform’ or ‘stack’ or ‘hegemonic project’. If a stack is, as Bratton states, ‘vast (if also incomplete), [and] pervasive (if also irregular)’, it’s probably not a bad schema for the dispositions of accelerationism at the moment. We can arrange the layers of this stack along fairly conventional disciplinary divisions, perhaps in the process doing some violence to the claims to totality (without totalization) and globality (without the global) accelerationism makes. There is the philosophical layer: a radical and inhuman Promethean articulation of reason as a site which explores and proposes norms that reinvent the ‘human’ in the form of global reason [6] [7]; the political layer: the Manifesto as the statement of a new hegemonic project for the left organised through the embrace of planning, abstraction, and a global horizon as the conditions to overcome inertial capitalism; the experimental or aesthetic layer: the deployment of accelerationism as a ‘probe’ to grasp or analyse the contemporary moment and its overcoming ([8]; [9]).

While the aesthetic or experimental might appear the most ‘lowly’ layer, mere practice to the ‘queen’ of philosophy, it plays a crucial and even determining role. It is crucial to the very name accelerationism, which itself is an aesthetic gesture. Accelerationism provides the oomph, the edge, the speed, that other signifiers wouldn’t. The aesthetic invocations of everything from dance music to the imaging of data are essential to accelerationism as a necessary supplement, in Derrida’s sense. They galvanize and libidinize a project that, while undoubtedly ambitious, would otherwise join with a whole series of attempts to reengineer the world. We might even say accelerationism is the edge of revolution that would otherwise leave the project at the site of competing with various reformisms.
It would be here that my criticisms begin. I am not chiding accelerationism for being substance-less, although I have remarked on the difficulty of identifying a subject of accelerationism, in the sense of who is doing the accelerating and what is being accelerated. This point was reiterated recently by Simon O’Sullivan in his review of the Reader for Mute [10]. Instead I want to focus on substance not subject, and suggest that accelerationism has too much substance. I mean this in the sense that accelerationism accepts an image of substance, an image of the world and its forces, that integrates, deliberately it’s true, with that world in a way that allows it little critical access to the question of substance.

In a semi-parody of the pre-Socratics we can divide the conception of substance along two axes: hot to cold, solid to liquid. Accelerationism would find its concept of substance as lying in the ‘cold liquid’ zone with, after Preciado, we could locate capitalism as ‘hot’ liquid (‘hot, psychotropic punk capitalism’ [11]). This already over-strained and somewhat fecal analogy seems to break down as we cannot easily imagine much in the other two zones (‘hot solid’ or ‘cold solid’), but perhaps these can stand for the inertial forms of social and political deceleration: ‘hot solid’ for capitalist restraint of the productive forces, in the various models of capitalism as ‘fetter’; ‘cold solid’ for a resistance predicated on the return or recovery of the virtues of what Lévi-Strauss called ‘cold’ societies.

My criticism is of the flattening and simplification this modelling of substance involves. Such a criticism has a venerable and familiar philosophical history. This is Hegel’s critique of Spinoza. For Hegel Spinozan substance is inert, encompassing all it has no movement and the negative is thrown out to become Nothing, with a capital ‘N’. Badiou makes a similar critique of Negri, as Spinozist, arguing that Negri’s conception of substance only permits the development of what exists – its acceleration? – which becomes the means to transcend what exists. The point is relatively simple. Accelerationists’ concept of substance as cold liquid is a deliberate flattening of difference, and the human, in an inhuman immanence that exceeds the ‘limited’ substance of capitalism, qua hot liquid. Capitalism must be cooled to be exceeded or accelerated.

This is why I have focused on the question of labor to suggest that accelerationism, in many variants, has correctly identified the problem, what Marx called the ‘moving contradiction’, but has a false solution: the integration of labor into the abstract and machinic, the identification with substance, with the solvent forces of cold liquid, to exit from the contradiction and fiction of labor. This analysis could equally well be repeated with objects qua commodities. The identification of the object with the commodity as a cold abstraction or cold liquefaction flattens the process by which capitalism constantly transforms objects into commodities through the value-form.

There are a few things to say here, however. The first is that this critique would be unfair because contemporary accelerationism has departed from Landian immanence or, even, that Landian immanence, via Schopenhauer, is a radical integration of negativity into immanence anyway. On the first variant of this point we come back to the aesthetic. While contemporary accelerationism claims to have gone beyond Land’s endorsement of speed, even his ‘brain dead’ endorsement of speed as sole (capitalist) substance, it still makes use of Landian imagery and the imaginary of cold liquid substance. The drive for the global, the abstract, the inhuman, is, still, a kind of practical Spinozism that accepts an image of substance rather than substance as such. It would also be possible to charge Landian negativity with a one-sided an extreme form of negativity as ‘Nothing’, the pulsating will under-girding everything, that coincides with its own opposite: affirmation.

A second charge, which I think lies behind the accusations of ‘kitsch Marxism’, is that to go against substance is to abandon any reference to the present and enter into a world where everything is bad or wrong – what Nick Land calls ‘transcendental miserablism’. This is Althusser’s charge against Kojève: a humanism of negativity neglects substance and so has not grasp on the conditions of the present. Although Althusser stresses a negativity entwined with substance. My rejoinder is that I am concerned with the ‘substance’ of the present, even more concerned, primarily through the concept of de-commodification. Hence in discussion with Ray Brassier in Berlin I’m certainly not suggesting we envisage a future without antibiotics, although I did point out the various iatrogenic effects of capitalism, but what about the uneven distribution of antibiotics now. So, the battle for the future, to make an obligatory Terminator reference, is being fought here-and-now. What future we have cannot be left to the future, but involves struggles over the stakes of ‘substance’, including the violently uneven distribution of the substances to sustain life, that cannot be deferred or regarded as simply requiring a technological solution.

Presented at #Accelerate seminar, The New Centre for Research & Practice (1 October 2014) [12]