by David Roden
Back in 1999 I argued that that J G Ballard’s novel Crash employs a system of interlinked metaphors to construct an entirely self-referential system of desire and symbolic action: a ‘cyborgian symbolic’. The auto-destructive desires of Vaughan, ‘James Ballard’, Gabrielle and other members of Ballard’s ‘crash-pack’ refer always to a singular and impossible event which is coded for by the detritus of auto-collisions. For example, the hoodlum scientist Vaughan remarks of his longed for death in an auto-collision with Elizabeth Taylor that it would be ‘a unique vehicle collision, one that would transform all our dreams and fantasies’ (Ballard 1995: 130).
The actual collision with which Ballard opens the novel is, by contrast, Vaughan’s ‘one true accident’ (Ibid., p. 7). Instead of meeting in terminal embrace with a dying star, Vaughan’s car careens into an arline bus below the London Airport Flyover. Yet it is the non-coincidence of accident and crash that keeps the machinery of representation functioning. Every token or keepsake – Gabrielle’s alluring thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipple – signifies ‘the repeated failure of the cyborgian universe to knit together’ (Roden 2002). This closed, self-referential system is secured by the radical metaphoricity of Crash, its repeated deployment of metaphors of formal conjunction as models of reference itself (Derrida 1982).
If the semantics of Crash, on my original reading, is Derridean, the logic of desire that it elicits is Lacanian: a symbolic system tied to excremental fragments by an absent real.
I think that the logic of terminal metaphor successfully captures some of the workings of Ballard’s incomparable text. However, it is important to distinguish a literary close-reading from any interpretation of social reality. The self-referential character of Ballard’s text means that it it is appropriate to view it as an internally coherent, windowless monad, not a representation of the way technologies actually mediate our agency. The absent referent indicated by the imaginary auto-disaster can articulate Vaughan’s desires because his role just is to express the exigencies of the symbolic structure woven in the novel:
The … rules which authorise the exchange of signifying modules are ‘memorialised in the scarred contours of his face and chest’ (Ballard 1995: 147). In the classic Lacanian formula, James desires the desire of the Other: ‘to be involved in a second collision, this time under Vaughan’s eyes’ (Ballard 1995: 146).6 It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus (Roden 2002).
Vaughan is that Ballardian stock in trade, a totemic figure of authority (characteristically a scientist) who valorizes senseless concatenations of bodies and technique. Modern technological systems furnish rich material for fantasies of apocalypse or transcendence. But these are rarely if ever reasons for acting. However apocalyptic their rhetoric, the 9-11 hijackers articulated a political aim – the ejection of Western power from the Islamic Middle East. The unabomber, Ted Kaczinsky, likewise, had a reasoned analysis of the effects of technological complexity. Most transhumanists hold down mundane day jobs whose contribution to their dreams of technological transcendence are liable to be marginal at best. Despite seeming violent or far-fetched these goals can never be equivalent to Vaughan’s since no subject can occupy the position from which he speaks and acts.
Even those of us affected by the poetry of ‘derelict filling stations’ use cars, analgesics and computers to reach destinations, relieve headaches and write up pilot studies. So what, if anything, does Crash reveal about the way modern technology affects us? Ballard indicated in his introduction to the French edition that the novel was intended as a warning against a contemporary world pathologically abstracted by ubiquitous media. Freud’s distinction between manifest and latent content of dreams, he wrote ‘needs to be applied to the external world’ (Ballard 1995: 5). But the technological world of the early 21st Century is not a symbol but a mesh of things, pumped by geographically dispersed flows of energy, matter and information. A system of this order is not a psyche, or a text – despite having psychic and textual parts – thus carries no meaning, latent or otherwise. The pathological dreams of its psychic parts may function as tradable commodities – gossip or porn; otherwise these replicate in the margins of culture without impact on the wider system.
Nonetheless, Crash can be read as a kind of formal allegory for the proliferation of modern technological systems, violently incised onto the bodies of its protagonists – much as Adorno ‘reads’ the dialectic between serial method and tonal fragment in The Philosophy of Modern Music (Roden 2014, Ch7). For while our individual dealings with technique may be practically rational, technical systems arguably develop in ways that no single agent can control or predict, let alone intend. The logic of the parts may be functional, but the logic of technological networks is, to use a term coined by Baudrillard in his seminal essay on Crash, ‘hyper-functional’, without goal or norm. In Ballard’s novel, this counter-final evolution is recuperated by treating its proliferating violence as if it were something that could be desired.
Ballard, J.G (1995) Crash, (London: Vintage).
Baudrillard, Jean (1994). ‘Crash’. Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Sheila Faria Glaser, Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 111-119.
Derrida, Jacques, (1982), ‘White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’. Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass. (Brighton: Harvester), 207-272.
Roden, David (2002), ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds), (Bristol: Intellect Books), pp. 89-100.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
by David Roden
A hermetic suburb ringed by derelict overpasses.
The low sun etching grainy pebbledash and plaster. Internal walls pucker grey-veined “new flesh”.
Pink sporocarps in tenement halls, tumescent foam mattresses fruit delicate engines over stained concrete. Roaches juiced with bone or collagen radii.
Hear them pine, their agony. It makes you want to hurt them some more, for justice’s sake.
The evisceration of time replicates in the talismanic zeroes.
Projects to resuscitate the dead ignore the immense traffic beyond the orbital. Its crawling luminescence mimics familiar cities or constellations.
There is a crucial difference in expression between the dialectic of extinction and the zero which etches the former into a stark relief.
Despite its manifest abstraction zero is unreasoningly affective.
The mainland bombing campaign claimed 11 lives the previous year. Bogus warning are circulated to pin down police and intelligence resources, hampering commerce and travel.
The few tourists we see cluster around cultural sites from stoic commitment. Listless drudges on a government scheme, or homeless psychotics. In the auditorium, jangling electronica plays a trauma memory of some exoskeletal future.
by David Roden
Frank Cotton ached for nothing but Hell. He must have burned excessively before the hooks ripped his chest and shoulders, opened the choirs of his rectum, unspooled him like an urchin on a dissecting slide. The “Surgeons” peel the loin from his sides. He gives them red ocean spray, from which viscera and spleen fly and spin on singing chains. 
Who does not want this?
It is not a matter of self-destruction but a ratification of loss, of insurgent bodies marking time. Bataille terms this seething void “expenditure”.  It is not willed or desired but makes desire redundant; a viscid noise that purges bone of flesh and reveals the glamorous chrome terminator teeth adhering to “the lips of a severed head.”
Or, if we are to write of “desire”, it is self-cancelling, as Edia Connole puts it: “auto-annihilation, annihilation of the self/mind, ego death” in which the condition of the human is surpassed. The figure of Frank, willingly damned and shredded, mirroring the passion of the mystic Angela of Foligno: “There are times when such great anger ensues that I am scarcely able to stop myself from totally tearing myself apart. There are also times when I can’t hold myself back from striking myself in a horrible way, and sometimes my head and limbs are swollen.” 
There is nothing between Hell and mystic union. Indeed, for Bataille, that is a mirage of the cacophony of time, whose “imperative purity” we cannot feel or inhabit: “As the shockwave of jealousy ejects the universe’s lactescent debris from the crater of reason, transcendent matter loses the perfection of its inertia (design), and nature implodes into the spasms of its own laceration.” 
This rolling wave cannot be felt or given through some “categorical intuition”. “Ecstatic time is not able to find itself except in the vision of things that puerile hazard makes brusquely appear: cadavers, nudities, explosions, spilt blood, abysses, bursts of sun and of thunder” It can be understood only as a traumatic and empirical residue, like the desire to have nails or suns for skin.
“Catastrophe” is another name for disconnection. Angela’s need antecedes the posthuman scission. Yet disconnection is not the concept we sought in order to regiment the posthuman difference. It returns to a speculative void once we acknowledge the Shoggothic ruin of the concept of agency.
There almost nothing we understand about being an agent beyond the chirurgic marks it leaves, like traces on a desolate planetoid. The space of feeling and erotic dislocation when we feel the insatiable urge to be eaten.
The agent is always less tangible than the body, which is itself a ruin or a chimera. According to Eugene Thacker in “Bataille/Body/Noise: Notes Towards a Techno-Erotics”, Bataille does not view the body as a phenomenological fullness behind discourse, but in terms of its deformations, ruptures, collisions.
Thacker cites the passage in Bataille’s Story of the Eye when Simone insert the eye of the priest Don Aminado into her vagina. The vision of the eye “gazing through tears of urine” implies a discrepant anatomy like one of Lovecraft’s monsters. The crossing of the eye with its hairy frame, is part of a “reconfiguration” of the body that he likens to Ballard’s concatenations of flesh and technique in Crash. The body consists in its possibilities for “moving out of itself” for sumptuary destruction, wounding and transformation.
It follows that the body is not organic or inorganic, nor limited by gendered binaries, let alone the envelope of the flesh or the skin. It is a syntax within a field it cannot define. This erotics is, as Thacker argues, a techno-erotics that exhibits the affective capacity for derangement and xenomorphology: The egg throbs between Kane’s legs. Its tapered point irising, licks the base of his scrotum, releases oily gold vapour. He smells warm musk as segmented tendrils clasp his penis; inject into his anus, coil against tender rectal tissue.
Frank’s and Angela’s desires have nothing to do the retention of life and form, autopoiesis. Agency is a derivative of catastrophe time and does not travel well.
If the body consists in its affective graphism, the urge to become inhuman, to be ripped into, disconnected, is no longer a derivative but an empirical mark of a catastrophe that no longer belongs to any territory or domain. As Thacker observes of the noise music of Merzbow – though he might have spoken here of Ballard, or Xenakis:
The question of not being able to find the words, not being able to adequately describe an experience, reaches here (in an alliance with Bataille) its greatest tension in a medium marked by its non-visuality. Where or how is something called the experience of noise or eroticism marked off or delineated?
The pornography of Bataille or Ballard’s Crash offer a corrosive substitute for a phenomenology or folk interpretation of the spectral matter body, pre-digested in a planetary matrix dense beyond imagining. The spectral phenomenology of noise is the “overflowing disintegration of music’s forms and contours” – the viscid anorganic displacement that leaves the tympanum torn on the bleak omphalos of LV-426. Kane feels like magma, a flow that obliterates him and pulls the world inside. His body bleeds through the new orifices that crown his nipples and wound chest and sides. His heart, now huge, bludgeons his ribs, inflaming the veined spire of the inseminator into a buttress whose crenelated tip warms to his eager mouth. A metachronal wave runs through the cilia of the surrounding flagellants.
The techno-erotics of noise is thus an aesthetics of unfurling catastrophe/disconnection. But disconnection no longer has a field. It is already an aesthetic operation without semantic content and thus inaccessible to desire. The urge to be posthuman is a fractured imperative that we can only hear as loss, raptured in poisons. Frank/Kane mumbles something out of earshot. Something neither anorganic quivering like a crushed god in the reliquaries of an underground car park.
 Barker, Clive. “Hellraiser [DVD].” C. Figg (Producer). USA: New World Pictures (1987).
 Bataille, Georges. Visions of excess: Selected writings 1927-1939. Vol. 14. Manchester University Press, 1985: 118-119.
 Connole, Edia. “Seven Propositions On the Secret Kissing of Black Metal: OSKVLVM”.
 Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Routledge, 2002: 67-8.
 Thacker, Eugene. “Bataille/Body/Noise: Notes Towards a Techno-Erotics.” Merzbook: The Pleasuredome of Noise (1997): 61
by David Roden
Traven lost within the blocks
With the exhaustion of his supplies, Traven remained within the perimeter of the blocks almost continuously, conserving what strength remained to him to walk slowly down their empty corridors. The infection in his right foot made it difficult for him to replenish his supplies from the stores left by the biologists, and as his strength ebbed he found progressively less incentive to make his way out of the blocks. (Ballard 2014, 40).
In J G Ballard’s “The Terminal Beach” an ex-military airman, wanders Eniwetok Atoll, a former US nuclear test site dubbed the “nuclear trash can of the Pacific”. Malnourished and delusional, he is haunted by intimations of World War III and tracked across its concrete desert by his dead wife and child, victims of a fatal car crash (31).
There is no psychological pretext for Traven’s presence on the atoll. The narrative is unconcerned with motivation or history which only breaks its surface in fragments: an opening reminiscence of a birthplace in Dakar, images of night bombing raids on Japan, a reference to Auschwitz, the vigilant ghosts of Traven’s family (29). His existence is now equivalent to his exploration of its synthetic landscape:
The system of megaliths now provided a complete substitute for those functions of his mind which gave to it its sense of the sustained rational order of time and space. Without them, his awareness of reality shrank to little more than the few square inches of sand beneath his feet (40).
Traven has become his traversal of the island; what passes for his world the unity of his disparate encounters. The island is thus a function of temporal synthesis or time binding. As Ballard writes: “if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, 20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places.)”
The reduction of Eniwetok to these obsessive circumlocutions is Ballard’s aberrant version of the philosophical position that the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”. Correlationism gets its initial formulation in Kant’s claim that concepts cannot be dogmatically assumed to hook onto a mind-independent world but, instead, cook or create connections between experiences or judgements. Thus, objects are not external to thought but must be conceived in terms of what thinking performs.
Correlationism holds that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 2006, 5). Meillassoux describes Kant as a “weak” correlationist, however, because a non-correlated thing-in-itself remains conceivable in his philosophy, if unknowable (35). Subsequent “strong” correlationisms, such as Husserl’s phenomenology or Hilary Putnam’s internal realism, view the very idea of an absolute reality as incoherent.
For Meillassoux, strong correlationism marks a profound failure of metaphysical nerve, locking philosophy into a closeted reflection upon human experience which struggles to make sense of the inhuman vistas revealed by mathematical natural science (Meillassoux 2006).
Ballard’s writing is likewise forgetful both of the cosmic “great outdoors” explored by traditional science fiction writers and the narrowly personal horizons of literary realism. In the 1995 introduction to Crash, Ballard suggests that the inner life of traditional literature has become pre-empted by mediated lifestyles and identities. There are no “true” or “authentic” needs when we are free “to play games with our psychopathologies” (Sellars and O’Hara, 288).
As Jean Baudrillard points out in his essay on Crash, there is no more perversion in Ballard’s universe, no yardstick to measure the pathology of our sexual aims (Baudrillard 1994,113). A correlationist analysis of our mediascape is justified, then, because the social has already acquired the consistency of a dream. Ballard explores a posthuman topos where the “elaborately signaled landscapes” of motorways and airport termini, the launch gantries of Cape Canaveral, are metaphorical bindings to the future. Their matter or proper function is irrelevant.
Posthuman desire is correlated with technique while technological systems form the crucible of our “time filled” unconscious (Ballard 1995: 5). This “Cyborgian desire” can be revealed in fetishistic enjoyment. In Crash, the central protagonist “James Ballard” observes Gabrielle, a recovering crash victim, finding affinities between her damaged body – sleeved in its enticing orthopedic exoskeleton – and the display vehicles at the Earls Court Motor show (Crash 1995 …).
However, the true sexuality of the novel pivots around the terminal metaphor of its title. Vaughan, the self-appointed ideologist of its Cyborgian world dreams of dying in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor; remarking that this “unique vehicle collision … would transform all our dreams and fantasies” (Ballard 1995: 130).
The actual collision, with which the novel opens, is bathetically, Vaughan’s “one true accident” (Ibid., p. 7). His car misses Taylor’s limousine, careening into an airline bus below the London Airport Flyover. Vaughan’s poor aim fuels’ the novel’s fatal machinery, however. Ballard is clear that Gabrielle’s alluring thigh wound or Vaughan’s “heavy nipples” are not erotic in and of themselves. They are pure relata within its mediatized world. It is being-in-relation-to that is of erotic interest.
Early in the novel Ballard’s sexual reveries are occupied by the “dulled aluminum and areas of imitation wood laminates” of airport buildings or the coincidence of a “contoured lighting system” and the bald head of a bartender. These are substituted by a savage inventory of overkill bodies: “the over-white concrete of [an] evening embankment”, ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in “glass, metal and vinyl”, skin incised by underwear, or chromium manufacturers’ medallions – all erotically interchangeable (Baudrillard 1994: 113).
There is no ruling metaphor for these functions beyond the one sex=death we know can never happen. Everything can be concatenated with anything because the event these couplings allude to is a dream of unmediated presence beyond the flat multiple of the world.
Towards the end of “The Terminal Beach” Traven discovers the corpse of a Japanese doctor tucked in a crevice at the edge of a vast bunker complex (46). It tells him that the island is an “ontological Eden” which can free him “of the hazards of time and space” if he accepts the plurality of the universe (48).
But acceptance is no solution to the potent yet empty time of the blocks. Traven must look beyond the actual posthuman world, “suspended from the quivering volcano’s lip of World War III.” The “historical and psychic zero” binding modernity’s excremental fragments through the extirpation of sense and history (30-31).
In Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction Ray Brassier enlists catastrophe to explore the relationship between his speculative realist ontology and the crisis of human meaning or “nihilism”, which he proposes as the liberating consequence of scientific reason.
This catastrophe is the extinction of matter following the heat death of the universe, when even nucleonic particles will decay in a shower of gravitons and only an “implacable gravitational expansion will continue … pushing the extinguished universe … into unfathomable darkness” (Brassier 2007, 228).
This absolute terminus pulls the curtain down on Brassier’s dark vision of Enlightenment. It marks the point at which scientific will to know discovers life and thought to be deflections on the path to extinction (Brassier 2007,). It supposedly marks an event for thought that could never be correlated for thought since embodiment and intelligence will have long ceased before the final “asymptopia”. Brassier’s catastrophe is thus a transcendental event that, he claims, forces us to consider radically asubjective and anti-vital conditions for objectivity and truth.
As Paul Ennis observes, death is ontologically flattened in this narrative: “the sun is dying precisely to the same extent as human existence is bounded by extinction” (223). It is no longer human death, or death for us; no longer the horizon of human finitude (Ennis 2016, 23). Reason, meanwhile, is shown as a vector: “for an alien process … that actively undermines attempts to provide our species with a unique, special status within the cosmos”. (26-7)
If everything dies in the same way, everything is equally consequent upon the “purposelessness which compels all purpose” (236). If our experience suggests that the world is meaningful or that we are in a world suffused with purpose, then so much the worse for it. Our phenomenology – as I have argued independently – is dark (Roden 2013, 2014). Cosmic extinction shows reality to be alien to thought: thus thought to be alien to itself. As the tag-line to R Scott Bakker’s ultra-dark thriller Neuropath has it: “You are not what you think you are” (Bakker 2009).
If thought is inimical to life, then what drives it? Brassier likens this all-corroding will-to-know to Freud’s death drive, the tendency for all life to seek a lifeless state. In divesting our humanist conceits thought seeks to become adequate to its death. It copes with the traumatic real of extinction in a universe hurtling towards death – by somehow “identifying” with it:
It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. But to acknowledge this truth, the subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead, and that philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation, nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction (Brassier 2007, 239; Ennis 2016, 26).
Brassier’s catastrophe is thus analogous to the terminal metaphors of Crash and “Beach”. Ballard’s ontological catastrophe lacks all positive qualities beyond the excision of sex=death. The zero-promise ratifying our abrasive sexualities. For Brassier, the zero is the real determining knowledge of itself from outside the correlation between thought and object, even outside chronological time (230). The thing comes to know itself as thing (Woodward 2015, 33).
Yet learning I am dead, or selfless, cannot make me deader. Extinction through the medium of thought is thus not the spatio-temporal extinction of the asymptotic universe (228, 130). If knowledge seeks death it misses its target, just as Vaughan misses his appointment with the actress. Both events are strictly impossible. Brassier will articulate a somewhat a more tenable itinerary for the dead subject; though, as we shall see, this substitutes an encounter the strictly unthinkable for the impossible. Both formulations imply an alien drive to encounter the dark side of our phenomenology.
So who, or what, is in the driver’s seat?
2. New Flesh Disconnect
My first viewing of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) was shattering. I was upended by its dislocated narrative rather than the body horror of its denouement, where image extrudes into reality, bodies explode or form erogenous control surfaces. I could not see how this unreality grew from the film it initially seems to be: a paranoid thriller unconventionally crossed with an s/m romance involving Max, a director of a cable TV station specializing in soft porn (James Woods) and a masochistic radio psychiatrist, Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry).
My psychotic blip was aptly mimetic of the ontological catastrophe it depicts. The Videodrome of the title is a snuff TV signal which causes brain cancers and reality-warping hallucinations.
Retrospectively, it is easy to see that Videodrome is never realist. Its cinematic world is potent with disaster from the first.
This is evident in the early scene where Max and Nicki meet on a television panel show hosted by Rena King. The topic is sex and violence on television. Rena challenges Max to justify then erotic content on his station. He responds that it’s a “harmless outlet” for his subscribers. A defense which seems to draw interest the third guest, “Media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion.
O’Blivion replicates an exaggerated version of this posthumanist ontology in video monologues curated by his daughter Bianca. She later tells Max that he invented the Videodrome signal to facilitate our “evolution as a technological animal”. In a reveal that might have inspired young Brassier, we learn that the Professor was quietly killed by fascists hoping to use Videodrome to purify North America. Rena’s guest is only a recording from Bianca’s video vault.
Still O’Blivion “responds” as Max speaks. He turns in his baronial chair, stroking his pencil moustache. When Rena asks him about the effects of erotic TV, he again “returns” her glance from the monitor. The content of the interview scene is less important than its formal erosion of the cue or frames distinguishing the real from its electronic simulacra (Browning 2007). Cronenberg cinematic world will deliquesce like old film stock; reforming as “new flesh”; infinitely plastic, deliriously non-compliant. Like Brassier’s extinction, Cronenberg’s catastrophe has already taken place.
The de-framing is reiterated in the gun scene in Max’s apartment. He is watching a recording of O’Blivion stating that the video-induced cancers are new organs of perception:
I think that it is not really a tumor, not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling part of flesh, but that it is, in fact, a new organ, a new part of the brain. I think that massive doses of Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain, which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality. After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there? You can see that, can’t you?
At this O’Blivion’s face fills the screen – effacing the partition between virtual and real. There is a reverse shot of Max’s face and naked torso. He has been absently stroking a sore patch on his abdomen with a gun, which has now opened into a wetly dilating vaginal slit that will double as his data port (Wilson 2016). Max is becoming the incarnation of the “new flesh”.
This brings us to Debbie Harry’s Nicki.
During O’Blivion’s video monologue on the Rina King show, Max asks her out. Back at his apartment, Nicki looks through his VHS’s for “porno” to get her “in the mood”. She picks up the Videodrome tape. He tells her it’s a constant round of torture and murder: “It ain’t exactly sex”.
Nicki is concerned by the poor quality of the pirated tape but she’s “turned on” by its representation of a women being flogged in a bare room with wet clay walls. (14.39) Max is unsettled by Nicki’s insouciance, though he later accedes to her desire for pain. Nicki wears an off-the-shoulder top which allows her to show Max the cuts on her neck by lifting her hair. She invites him to cut her with his Swiss army knife (Browning 2007, 63).
This segues to an incongruously tender scene: Max and Nicki naked together on a rug; Videodrome torture images washing over them while Max perforates Nicki’s ear with a needle (Browning 2007).
The effectiveness of the sequence relies on the vulnerability both leads bring to their characters. The pornographer is revealed as a considerate lover, concerned for Nicki and her desires. Harry, meanwhile, convinces us of Nicki’s vulnerability and self-possession.
These s/m scenes are the erotic core of Videodrome. They seem preoccupied with a secret – Nicki’s “desire” – which is unveiled as another kind of death drive. In a later scene, Nicki tells Max that she’s been assigned to investigate Videodrome in Pittsburgh, where she intends to audition for the show. When he warns that its owners play “Rougher than even Nicki Brand wants to play” she asks him for a lighted cigarette, with which she burns her left breast.
Nicki’s sexuality remains opaque, however. We cannot know whether she always wanted to be killed on the show, whether her statement was foreplay and bravado; or, again, whether, like Max, her desires and fantasies have been accentuated by exposure to Videodrome signal.
At the same time, the ontological catastrophe of Videodrome renders these implied depths irrelevant.
Bianca later shows Max video footage of Nicki being strangled in the room with red clay walls (1.10.31). But, like O’Blivion, she persists as image – except by the end of the film the boundary between image and reality has eroded. As Nicki’s video avatar tells Max near its end, she has learned through Videodrome that “death is not the end”. Videodrome does not allow Nicki – or perhaps anyone – to die. Instead, she is co-opted as a kind of muse for the new flesh.
Max first hallucinates her in this form as a hooded torturer. After showing her garroting O’Oblivion in a coda to one of his video logs, the television tumesces with black veins like an auxiliary sexual organ from one of James Ballard’s machinic reveries. The scene ends with enormous video lips enveloping Max in hyperreal fantasy of sexual availability. The ambivalence of desire is lost.
But what is the new flesh? Its ontology mixes two contrary ingredients: a neuro-reductionism for which experience is a technically manipulable brain process, and a mad dog idealism, in which reality is plastic because nothing (including brain processes) is real.
However, these converge in hyperplasm. Boundaries between desire, fantasy and flesh crash. Videodrome’s catastrophe is fundamentally different to that of Crash – an unthinkable absolute that, like Brassier’s extinction – is outside the correlation. In Videodrome, it is the extirpation of the secret, of death, and reason.
Brassier’s eliminativism is complicated by his rationalism. He is prepared to eliminate consciousness, but must place reasons in a dead universe. His philosophy after Nihilfollows Wilfred Sellars in proposing that agency arises for beings capable of interpreting their mental lives in terms of moves within communal language games. (See also Negarestani 2014 a and b).
This allows them to infer the psychological states of persons from what they do; and what they will do from what they ought to do in the “space of reasons”. Since psychology, unlike physics, is governed by rational norms, strict laws relating mental and physical descriptions is impossible. Such an anti-reductionist physicalism resists arguments for eliminating the manifest image of persons and reasons while leaving natural science sovereign in its own sphere.
However, in a hyperplastic world the manifest image would boil away like plasma without leaving any residue that is even thinkable within the space of reasons.
Define a hyperplastic agent (HP) as one able to alter its body at any grain (without compromising its agency).
Anti-reductionism implies psychological changes in a system cannot be reliably inferred from physical changes in it (or vice versa). So, attributing a psychology to an HP would never tell us what it was going to do. Some auto-intervention could always delete any mental state we attributed to it and reason would be powerless to infer which. Nothing would follow about its future. We could not make sense of an HP using our psychology and neither could it.
We have already seen that Brassier’s analogy between philosophy as the “organon of extinction” and the Freudian death drive is problematic because the itineraries of knowledge and cosmic burn out diverge. In a later essay, he latches onto a speculative passage in the work of philosopher and cognitive scientist, Thomas Metzinger, to lay out a clearer itinerary for a dead subject. The extinction vent is now the neurotechnological ability to model the self as a vastly complex causal system rather than the selves we think we know.
Human personal experience, according to Metzinger, is a dynamic and temporally situated model of the world, which represents the modeler as a distinct and always present part of the phenomenological scene. The phenomenal world model thus includes a phenomenal self-model (PSM). However, neither model represents the subpersonal cognitive processes that generates it. To borrow a phrase from Michael Tye: the phenomenal world- and self-models are “transparent”. It is as if we looked through them into an immediately given world out there and a self-present mental life “in here” (Metzinger 2004 131: 165). However, this is a cognitive illusion generated by the brain’s inability to look under its own hood.
Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure”. The world “out there” and our “inner” life appear not to be models or simulations because the brain neglects its own causal complexity. Autoepistemic Closure explains selfhood as a specific computational strategy. If selfhood is a higher-order model there is a rationale for keeping the representational load incurred by modeling process to a minimum.
The vivid immediacy of conscious experience is thus nothing to do with qualia – mythical intrinsic properties of conscious states. It is an artifact of neglect, or phenomenological darkness (Roden 2013): experience is a poor yardstick for understanding experience.
If so, Metzinger claims, we can also conceive of a Self/World model that did include this extra information (Metzinger 2004, 336).
A being with such a world model would lack the immediate consciousness of self or world. It would, in effect, be the completely objectified subject of a completed neuroscience.
The idea of a subject that knows itself as an object might seem paradoxical; but, taking up Metzinger’s hypothesis, Brassier argues that occupying space of reasons does not entail consciousness. Subjectivity, in this Kantian sense, is the practical capacity to acknowledge or deviate from norms or rules. It “requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self….” (Brassier 2013a) Thus, the subject of a completed neuroscience can be understood as the apotheosis of our scientific quest. A zombie subject, maybe, but one lying within the horizon of human thought.
However, if the argument for hyperplasticity goes through Brassier’s prospectus for a completed neuroscience is outside the scope of our normative epistemic vocabulary. This is because the hypothetical selfless agent would have just the information needed to engage in fine grained self-interventions of a hyperplastic kind (Roden 2014, 100-103; Roden Unpublished).
And if hyperplasticity renders the space of reasons inoperative: the self-less agent could not qualify as a rational subject either. The completion of neurotechnology would not only eliminate conscious selves but rational agency as such.
4. Unbinding and Aesthetics
In Videodrome Cronenberg transposes the correlational posthumanism of Ballard and much of the academic “posthumanities” onto a speculative account of the posthuman as a technological rupture in the correlation.
This idea of rupture can be conceptually tamed up to a point – that is, roughly, what I sought to achieve in Posthuman Life. So, we can wrap up the idea of the posthuman in schemas like SP which states:
SP: Descendants of current humans could become inhuman due to some process of technological alteration.
Where the idea of becoming inhuman through technical alteration is addressed in a distinct schema that I call the disconnection thesis (DT). Very roughly DT equates becoming nonhuman with agential independence from the social-technical systems we designate as human (Roden 2012; 2014, Ch5).
Brassier and Metzinger’s hypothesis of an objectified subject also conforms to this schema for rupture – since it implies a radically different agent, unlike anything humanly attainable. But the argument from hyperplasticity gives it an added twist. This agency (it appears) would lie outside our normative vocabulary. It would be an agent we could not understand as agent.
Speculative posthumanism is consequently unbounded by any concept derived from human experience or sense-making. Or otherwise put, if our concept of agency or subjectivity extends to “hyperagency” we never got agency in the first place.
If I am right, then, speculative posthumanism corresponds to a hole in our understanding of the technological future. Even Brassier’s hyper-bleak futurism founders here, in darkness more absolute than Crash and cosmic burn out. It seems, then, that the conception of the posthuman is threatened by an incoherence not unlike that afflicting Cronenberg’s new flesh ontology. It is, as Derrida might put it, a “regulated incoherence”, however. It allows a thought of posthuman agency even if this thought is forced to confront its own darkness and inadequacy (Derrida 1998, 259). This dark posthumanismrequires us to confront a future beyond intelligibility. In Claire Colebrook’s words, it asks how we orient to a “life beyond humanity, beyond ethics and politics”. But whence this demand, this need for orientation?
Unbounded posthumanism is the Xenomorph blood eating through the pseudo-rigorous formulae defining human/posthuman succession or “disconnection”.. It seems, then, that the desire or demand for orientation is not elicited by a concept. Yet if our relationship to the posthuman is not conceptual – or ethical – might it be aesthetic?
That is, at least, a model we have traditionally used to understand relationships to things which involve a feeling unbound by concept or need. As Steven Shaviro writes “Aesthetics involves feeling an object for its own sake, beyond those aspects of it that can be understood or used.” (Shaviro 2014, Loc 878).
But there are no posthumans. Whatever demands or elicits feeling here is not the posthuman as such. There is nothing to feel. However, aesthetics need not be occupied by things. Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s texts are not things but blocks of metaphor and sensation whose incoherence is also regulated by formal operations that adjoin disparate or antagonistic elements. They are, likewise, invested in something real – if not object-like – our intimate involvement with a planetary technical system too abstracted to be predicted, interpreted and too complex and large to be felt.Hypermodernity: extreme derangements and shocking metamorphoses. The protean social in Ballard; the intimate coupling of desiring-media in Cronenberg: micro-disconnections that, far from being oriented by the will-to-know or the will-to-nothing, are counter-final. The zero horizon which cannot be contained in any idea of progress or reason (Roden 2014, Ch7).
The burden of this encounter rows us back from the alien shores of the hyperplastic to a fissure running through the thought of Ballard, Brassier and Cronenberg. SP is constitutively aesthetic because it perceives the human as massively contingent – nested in a space whose limits are inadequately conceptualized, or unknown. Yet this contingency is not thought but executed in machineries of brutal and uncompromising abstraction.
Bakker____2014, “Zahavi, Dennett, and the End of Being” https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/zahavi-dennett-and-the-end-of-being/, Accessed 22 June 2016.
Ballard, J.G. 2014, The Complete Short Stories Volume II, London: Fourth Estate.
Bakker, R.S., 2009. Neuropath. Macmillan.
Baudrillard, Jean (1994). ‘Crash’. Simulacra and Simulations, tr. Sheila Faria Glaser, Anne Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 111-119.
Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.
Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Brassier, R., 2011a. “Concepts and objects”. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, re. press. pp.47-65.
Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.htm (Accessed March 2015)
Brassier, R. 2011b. “The View from Nowhere”. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture 17: 7–23.
Browning, M., 2007. David Cronenberg: author or film-maker? Bristol: Intellect Books.
Burns, Edward M., and W. Dixon Ward. “Intervals, scales, and tuning.” The Psychology of Music 2 (1999): 215-264.
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Hägglund, M. 2008. Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Stanford Ca.: Stanford University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. 1991. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, G. Bennington & R. Bowlby (trans.). Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Negarestani, Reza. 2014b. ‘The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman’ | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-ii-the-inhuman/
Roden, David. (2012), “The Disconnection Thesis”. In A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.
Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.
Roden (Unpublished). “Reduction, Elimination and Radical Uninterpretability: the case of hyperplastic agents” https://www.academia.edu/15054582/Reduction_Elimination_and_Radical_Uninterpretability
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Shaviro, Steven 2014. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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Wilson, S., 2016. “Death to Videodrome: Cronenberg, Zizek and the ontology of the real”.
Woodward, A., 2012. “The End of Time”. Parrhesia, 15, pp.87-105.
Woodward, A. 2015. “Nonhuman Life”. In Roffe, J. and Stark, H.L., 2015. Deleuze and the Non/human, 25-41.
 “Vaughan excited some latent homosexual impulse only within the cabin of his car or driving along the highway. His attraction lay not so much in a complex of familiar anatomical triggers – a curve of exposed breast, the soft cushion of a buttock, the hair-lined arch of a damp perineum – but in the stylization of posture achieved between Vaughan and the car. Detached from his automobile, particularly his own emblem-filled highway cruiser, Vaughan ceased to hold any interest” (117).
 O’Blivion is an effective caricature of the media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who claimed that new media alter us in virtue of the way they vehiculate information, not their content. The capacity of television or the internet to stimulate sexual desire through pornographic imagery is trivial to compared to their deracination of sedimented ways of life.
 Max is as shocked by Nicki’s interest in pornography (presumably assuming this to be an exclusively male preserve) as by her enthusiasm for a snuff movie.
 Apparently, an earlier draft of Videodrome included a scene where Nicki, Max and Bianca merge into an “orgiastic fusion” sprouting “mutated sex organs” from its ancillary orifices (Browning 2007, 70).
 See Donald Davidson, “Mental Events,” in Essays on Actions and Events, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2001), 207-225.
 Some might hope to re-impose anthropological horizons by insisting on a local correlationism for agency: i.e. the only agents are those interpretable in principle “our” norms imputing beliefs, desires or actions. However, norms or reasons are not – as Robert Brandom concedes – “part of the intrinsic nature of things, which is entirely indifferent to them.” (Brandom 1994, 48). So pragmatist accounts presuppose a further subject to interpret some events as normative. Since this extra subject (hors-sujet) remains outside pragmatist theory, the concept of agency is irreducible being interpretable in the light of social norms. “interpretability is ill-defined unless we have some conception of what is doing the interpreting.” (Roden 2014, 128; Roden Forthcoming). In-principle-interpretability is undefined unless we have some idea of what is doing the interpreting (Roden 2014, 128).
 Videodrome can be viewed as confused preview of “the semantic apocalypse” obsessively discussed by the psychologist protagonists of Bakker’s Neuropath. This is moment where science’s propensity to expunge meaning from the world doubles back on us, leaving a reality in which there are “innumerable causes for everything, but no reasons for anything.”
The book’s main antagonist, Neil Cassidy is a brilliant rogue neuroscientist who employs technologies acquired during his work for the US government’s anti-terrorist program to warp human mind/brains into terrible shapes of his devising. As Steven Shaviro points out in his book Discognition the epistemological double bind Bakker cultivates leaves the reader unable to apply convenient motivations or labels like “psychopath” to Cassidy. For he has used these same neurotechnologies to “subtract” all his illusions of selfhood and empathic communion. Reason and meaning are no longer on his agenda, as he informs us:
“What you folk-psychologists call anxiety, fear; all that bullshit. They’re little more than memories to me now. But I’ve also shut down some of the more deceptive circuits as well. I now know, for instance, that I will utterly nothing. I’m no longer fooled into thinking that “I” do anything at all” (Bakker 2010, 346)
 Bioethicists who take the long view will need to bracket any privileging of anthropoform subjects. For sure, subjects or moral persons may deserve consideration; but we cannot preclude the existence of non-Kantian agents no less deserving of consideration.
 “At the very least, it is time to question the ‘we’ who would subtend and be saved by the question of ethics and politics. If that ‘we’ is annihilated what remains is less a subject of thought, a common humanity, a proto-politics, but a fragile life that is not especially human. And once that is all that remains one might ask about the viability of living on: if humanity values life, rather than imagining itself as that which supervenes upon or survives beyond life, then that valuation would have to consider those modes of life beyond humanity, beyond ethics and politics. This would not yield an environmental ethics, for an environment is always that which surrounds or houses a living being as environs or milieu. What it might be is a counter ethic for the cosmos?” (Colebrook 2014: 148)
 A standard objection to speculative posthumanism is that it presupposes the kind of essentialist account of humanity which critical posthumanism, not to mention AUP, asks us to drop. In Posthuman Life I argued that we could side-step human essentialism by treating succession as a disconnection between human wrought social systems and some technologically constituted entity formerly belonging to those systems. An entity is posthuman if it acquires the functional autonomy to operate outside this assemblage (Roden 2012; Roden 2014, Chapter 5-6).
The Disconnection Thesis (DT) avoids essentialism by treating the Wide Human as a thing rather than an abstract property: an assemblage with both biological and non-biological components. Becoming posthuman is not a matter of losing a necessary property of humanity, but of moving from one environment and learning to function in another.
DT understand becoming nonhuman in terms of agential independence. An artifact like a robot is a “wide human” so long as it depends on its role in human ecologies to exist. It becomes posthuman if it comes to work outside them and enters other functional relationships – e.g. by learning to utilize free energy from nonhuman sources or replicating itself with foraged waste matter.
This is well and fine, but it still depends on characterizing the robot (or cyborg, AI, post-mortal, synth vampire, etc.) as a technically constituted agent. But what is an agent? AUP, as we saw, renders this question illegitimate because it denies there is a substantive theory agency that could apply to all agents. Not only does DT not tell us what posthumans are like; it has no critera for determining when a disconnection occurs.
It follows that understanding the posthuman (if possible) must proceed without rules. Kant argued the same of aesthetic judgements of taste. There are no rules for determining when something is beautiful (and, unlike the Kantian aesthetician, we cannot even appeal to the presupposition of universal assent when identifying disconnection – Roden 2014, 186-7). Similarly, artistic creation shapes objects or events which generate new rules or affordances; it is not limited by pre-existing rules. Unbounded posthumanism cannot lean on an aesthetic theory; but it is conditioned by aesthetic encounters and by the production of the new. Now, if this is right, then we need to ask what kind of encounters and productions furnish its distinctive content.
 “A subject does not cognize the beauty of an object. Rather, the object lures the subject while remaining indifferent to it; and the subject feels the object, without knowing it or possessing it or even caring about it. The object touches me, but for my part I cannot grasp it or lay hold of it, or make it last. I cannot dispel its other-ness, its alien splendor. If I could, I would no longer find it beautiful; I would, alas, merely find it useful” (Shaviro 2012, 4)
 Or at least, the only reason why we might think there are is an artifact of the lack of stable critera for identifying an event or a thing as posthuman.
 “The self-augmenting/counter-final nature of modern technological systems implies that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. A disconnection would be only the most extreme consequence of this “divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces”. An ethics anthropologically bounded by the human world thus ignores its monstrously exorbitant character (Roden 2014, 186).”
by David Roden
Akira Myamoto 'Doll'
Speculative posthumanism (SP) is concerned with the prospect of a posthuman reality emerging from the technological alteration of the human one. This technological focus comports with a general concern with human-made futures that don’t include us. Outside fiction, our moral concern for a nonhuman future is prompted by the theorised potential of technology to drastically alter us or our environments.
Thus qualified, SP claims “there could be powerful nonhuman agents that arise through some human-instigated technological process.” More precisely, posthumans are wide human descendants of humans who have become inhuman through some technical process.
The concept of wide descent avoids bio-chauvinism. We don’t know where posthumans could come from or how. “Wide” descendants can come from any part of the “Wide Human” of humans and their technological objects, a system on which we depend much as it depends on us. Your toothbrush is wide human, as are you and your pet pig.
Its emphasis on technogensis means that SP is often conflated with Transhumanism That’s an egregious mistake. Transhumanists, like classical and modern humanists, hope to cultivate human capacities such as reason and creativity with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence or germline genetic engineering. Transhumanism is an ethical claim to the effect that technological enhancement of capacities like intelligence or empathy is a good idea.
SP, by contrast, is metaphysical. It says only that there could be posthumans; not that they would be better than us, or even comparable from a moral perspective. (Roden 2012a; Chapter 5).
This does not mean that SP is morally inconsequential but the metaphysics and epistemology of the posthuman drive the ethics, not vice versa.
So how can we put bones on the thought of a nonhuman wide human descendant? A posthuman?
A plausible condition for any posthuman-making event is that the resulting nonhuman entities could acquire purposes not set by humans – and that this autonomy is due to some technological alteration in their powers.
I call this claim the “Disconnection Thesis” (DT). The core theoretical construct of SP.
DT says posthumans are feral technological entities. Less roughly, an X is posthuman if and only if X or its wide human ancestors originated in “Wide Human” but now acts outside of it (Roden 2012; Roden 2014: 109-113).
DT understands human-posthuman differences without being committed to a “human essence” that posthumans will lack. This is a feature rather than a bug because if there is an essential human nature nobody knows what it is. So best get by without it. 
Becoming posthuman, then, is a matter of acquiring a technologically enabled capacity for independent agency.
DT is multiply satisfiable by beings with different technological origins and very different natures or powers (e.g. artificial intelligences, mind-uploads, cyborgs, synthetic life forms, etc.). This is as it should be since there are no posthumans and no substantive information on them, yet.
Nonetheless, DT has philosophical commitments which can be approached with varying stringency. The key variable is agency.
Disconnection is stipulated to only involve agents.
This is to avoid the trivial consequence that any formerly useful part of WH becomes posthuman when it ceases to have a human function. Hulks, ruins and discarded mobile phones are not posthumans because none exhibit agency following their loss of human centred function.
However, the concept of an agent can be relatively constrained or liberal. I refer to a version of SP with a constrained agency concept as “bounded”; with a relatively liberal one as “unbounded”. In the later part of the talk we will take unbinding to the limit and see what we find.
Posthumanism with constrained agency usually conforms to some moral conception of human life and is often indistinguishable from transhumanism.
For example, in Posthuman Personhood Daryl Wennemann adopts a Kantian, rationalist conception of agency. He holds that true agency is personhood. Being a person requires one be answerable to reasons or in the space of reasons. A person must be capable of reflecting on “himself and his world from the perspective of a being sharing in a certain community.” A person is reflective subject capable of belonging to a moral community, bound by norms of action etc. (Wennemann 2013, 47)
This stringent concept implies that, whatever the future throws up, posthuman agents will be social and, arguably linguistic beings like us, even if they are robots or computers, have strange bodies, or even stranger habits.
A (First) Unbounded Posthumanism (UP1)
However, we can also can frame much more liberal agency requirements which need not involve the capacity for self-evaluation though social norms or rational autonomy.
The agency concept I introduce in Posthuman Life only requires some degree of what I refer to there as “functional autonomy” Roden (2014, 125-141).
This minimal agent is a self-maintaining system. Its functional autonomy measures its capacity to exploit the world to survive while becoming useful in its turn for other things. A drastic diminution of functional autonomy is a reduction in power that, for us, is experienced as harm. Arthritis of the back or limbs painfully reduces freedom of movement. Gaining new skills or becoming fitter increases functional autonomy or one’s capacity to affect and be affected (DeLanda 2006: 50).
However, we could envisage posthuman entities with equivalent or greater functional autonomy to us who do not satisfy the conditions for personhood or rational autonomy because they cannot answer to communal principles or norms.
To bring the implications of this home I’ll focus on the special, monstrous instance of the hyperplastic.
I call an agent “hyperplastic” if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to its body or structure without compromising its capacity for hyperplasticity.
Now, it is possible to argue that if certain assumptions about the relationship between physical and mental properties hold, a hyperplastic agent would be uninterpretable for us.
The assumption in question is modest. An antireductionism for which our mental life depends on our body’s physical state without being reducible to it or inferable from it.
If mental life cannot be inferred from physical facts about a creature or vice versa, a hyperplastic would have no use for concepts of belief, intention or desire; for it would never be able to infer what it would believe or want following a self-intervention. Nor would it be able to preclude that some intentional state would be deleted by another self-modification. Thus, the common-sense psychology underlying our communal attachments would be useless to hyperplastics.
The limit of functional autonomy, or of plasticity, then, is not an immortal superhuman but something almost infinitely capable yet devoid of mind and meaning. An entity inciting comparisons with the disgustingly shapeless Shoggoths that Lovecraft depicts in his novella, At the Mountains of Madness – or maybe Cthulhu himself.
As stated, hyperplasticity is an ideal limit, what is interesting is whether we can approach it. Significant hyperplasticity may not be possible in worlds like ours.
However, its introduction here is intended as salutary not demonstrative. To show that our conceptions of agency and subjectivity may be too parochial to travel far beyond our ecological niche. As a route to posthumanity hyperplasticity would constitute an instance of what the deranged and deranging protagonists of R. Scott Bakker‘s super dark thriller Neuropath call the “semantic apocalypse” – the point at which the scientific predilection to eliminate meaning washes back on us (Bakker 2010).
Total black. Nonmeaning. Black sun.
If this, or an equivalent derangement of subjectivity and agency is possible through disconnection, then bounded posthumanism is false and some regions of posthuman possibility space may be quite as weird as the “abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy” hinted at in Lovecraft.
Before considering the implications of unbinding for our understanding of human-posthuman disconnection, I want to consider some complementary justifications for unbinding posthumanism with a lax as opposed to a stringent agency concept.
The first plank is the thesis concerning “dark phenomena” (See Roden 2013, 2014, Ch4).
Dark phenomena are contents or structures of experience such that having them does not confer much or any understanding of them. For example, we seem to experience time as an open flow into the future. Many philosophers have thought that this flow is a condition (technically a “transcendental condition”) of experiencing objects and worlds. Phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have argued that we can have grasp this structure in experience and thus understand of the structure of objectivity in any world.
But if temporality is dark, experiencing it is philosophically useless. For example, although this flow seems continuous we cannot know it is continuous without analysing it at ever finer grains. This seems to be as much beyond our powers of attention and memory as remembering very fine differences in colour.
So, if lived time has the features it needs to give access to a world, its structure must elude us in much as the fine structure of matter does. If its structure eludes us, then how can we know it gives us worlds. How can we even know what a world is? Doing phenomenology can’t tell us what phenomenology is or can do. Our consciousness is at best a shadow or “cartoon” generated by systems having no truck with subjectivity or meaning (Bakker 2010; Metzinger 2004).
The second plank is aimed at pragmatist arguments which, like Wennemann’s, seek to show that serious agency requires participation in linguistic or cultural practices.
Explaining subjectivity and agency in terms of shared practices requires a prior account of how certain behaviours get to be evaluable as practices. I’ve argued that the most plausible account is to claim that behaviours are evaluable wherever a competent interpreter would judge them to be so.
Unfortunately, this doubles subjectivity in such a way as to unbind it again. We have a first order subject accounted for by its participation in social practice. We have a second order, interpreter-subject presupposed but not explained by that first account. “[In] principle interpretability is ill defined unless we have some conception of what is doing the interpreting.” or what their competence would involve (Roden 2014, 128; See Roden 2017a).
The common thread here is that bounding constraints invoke untamed, wild principles which cannot be regimented or reigned in. This form of argument is inspired by Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction. His close readings of philosophers like Kant, Husserl, J L Austin, were designed to show that their claims about consciousness, form or meaning required an excessive element outside their systems. For example, meaning requires repeatably usable symbols. Derrida argues that such repetition only works if symbols can also be abused or misused. So no symbol can be defined by fixed rules of use. Which is the same as saying there are no meanings, no semantic essences (Derrida 1988).
SP, Deconstruction and the Philosophy of the Limit
Deconstruction is a form of what Drucilla Cornell refers to as “The Philosophy of the Limit” (POL) – as is the process of constraint peeling that I call “unbinding”.
POL’s strip away the artificial constraints that make the world in our image, layer by layer, concept by concept. What remains, as in deconstruction, is something other than a world, and perhaps something other than philosophy, but an encounter with a remainder or non-meaning that philosophy cannot recognise or conceptualise without coming apart (Kolozova 2014, 99; Cornell 1992).
Let’s Break Worlds
Reconsider the minimal agency model of unbound posthumanism. We should call this Unbound Posthumanism I (UP1) since yet more unbinding is necessary if we are to take this to the limit.
In UP1 all agents are assumed self-maintaining. But what is it to maintain oneself in the most general sense? What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? (Hval 2015). Is it a tendency to preserve a certain organic boundary or core temperature? But why assume that posthumans have fixed tolerances, state blankets or operating parameters?
The extremum case of the hyperplastic suggests otherwise. Hyperplastics would lack structural invariance beyond the bare fact of hyperplasticity itself. They would not be self-maintaining in any sense that connects with the biological forms we know about. Above all, entertaining the possibility of a hyperplastic means thinking about agents we could not see, interpret or recognise as agents.
Can we even think of an agent that we cannot recognise as an agent?
The problem ramifies to a dilemma, a conversation between the monsters Philosophy Scylla and Philosophy Charybdis:
Scylla – the criteria for attributing agency do not apply to all agents since hyperplastics are unrecognisable as agents. Thus, the concept agency extends beyond our capacity to recognise instances of it.
Charybdis – Scylla, this seems absurd! How does any concept have an extension it is not applicable to. Being an agent must be coterminous with being recognisable as an agent. Thus, hyperplastics would not count as agents according to first principles.
However, opting for the whirlpool Charybdis does not save us from ruin if, as argued independently, the concept of agency can only be elucidated by some wild principle of subjectivity. We are simply left with tired quietist gloop like “agents are the things we call agents relative to ‘our background practices”.
Given the issues raised by speculative posthumanism this merely throws us back on a debatable human and an even more debatable (and threatened) human community.
Thus, the arguments for unbinding posthumanism also threaten the ontological clarity of the disconnection thesis, not least by implying that the Wide Human system is just another reification, another tautological assertion of human privilege.
Like the adult sea squirt, UP1 eats its own brain and becomes UP2.
UP2 leaves the theory of human/posthuman disconnection disconnected, without empirical or metaphysical purport. To some this might seem a pity. UP1 seemed about to flower into Lovecraft’s vacuum of cosmic pessimism. Yet unbinding reverses this futurist/cosmist bent
But if unbinding is justified (and I’ve indicated that it can be) posthumanist philosophy is at an impasse; not only because the speculative posthuman is undetermined in advance (that we knew) but because DT is disconnected from any rules which could identify disconnections when and where they occur.
To some extent, this was already true of the standard formulation of speculative posthumanism. As we noted, DT doesn’t provide any information about posthumans. Even with UB1 the only way we can acquire substantive knowledge of posthuman lives is through an event of synthesis or engineering: making posthumans, becoming posthuman.
This, I think, is the ethical impasse of the posthuman, of modernity even. If we unbind the posthuman we cannot deliberate on becoming posthuman without pre-empting our deliberation. A “major” or “state politics” of disconnection is consequently impossible since the voices that will contribute to the decision cannot be fixed independently of challenging the very composition of voices (Roden 2014, 179-182).
Posthuman prospects can be identified or evaluated only by doing. As Steven Shaviro asks:
‘How can we come to terms with forms of “knowledge” whose very effect is to change who “we” are? How do we judge these disciplines, when they undermine, or render irrelevant, the very norms and criteria that we use to ground our judgments?' (Shaviro 2012: 15)
UP1 referred to an abstract event of technogenesis that could not be decided within any pre-existing ethics or politics precisely because only the event could produce the conditions under which it could be retroactively assessed. What changes with the new unbinding (UP2) is that there is no longer a distinction between wide or narrow human or between wide human and posthuman to regiment its content.
However, the problem of pre-emption has not gone away – our fatal entanglement with a planetary technology that is inhuman not because it is made of metal and plastic or lithium or silicon, but because its totality is not compliant to to norms. It is not even an autonomous monster ruled by impersonal principles of efficiency (Roden 2014, pp. 150-165). Its hypertrophy is contrary to any end or transcendent order.
With this historical and semantic background in view, I want to enlist Derrida again by describing disconnection as “a differential function without an ontological basis” (Derrida 1984, p. 16).
This formulation, which originally applied to Derridean textuality, is intended to reaffirm the affinity I broached earlier between unbound posthumanism and “philosophies of the limit”.
Deconstruction like other POL’s suspends philosophy’s assumption of sufficiency or competence, just as unbinding appears to cede philosophy’s relation to futurity.
In what remains of this talk, I hope to use this affinity or analogy to rethink the relationship between UP2 and its real, and thus to begin to understand the pull, ethical or otherwise, of the posthuman in a world of ramifying technics.
We can illustrate this with two of examples of Derridean terms that are drawn from the phenomenology of subjective time: différance and trace.
Différance (which utilises the homonymy between the French verbs for differing and deferring) indicates a slippage between the now and an undetermined future. This present is always “vitiated” by a not yet which undermines its stability (Derrida 1984, 13–17).
The “trace” is the remnant always susceptible to this modification or destruction through the passage to a new state.
Both refer to a bending back (fold, pli) that can never be given and is thus inconceivable and unpresentable. They split and fold subjectivity irrevocably.
Since they are not experiencable, Derrida will re-use them to discuss other folds or splits in biological, linguistic and social structures, not just minds. The account of the trace can thus be reused beyond its origin to motivate a form of speculative materialism, a deconstruction of matter if you will. For example, in his Radical Atheism: Derrida and Time of Life Martin Hägglund (2008) reads the trace as the inherent destructibility of any material mark or entity. Nothing in time can be closeted in the now if it is not to be stuck in a changeless present. Everything is hollowed by “a relentless displacement in everything that happens” (17).
Différance and trace thus slip and slide beyond the field of subjectivity much as disconnection slips beyond the philosophy of the posthuman future.
However, it is arguable that even this extra-philosophical status is insufficiently radical as an analogy for the caesura between UP2 and philosophy. For unbinding gives us almost nothing to think other than the fact of techno-political pre-emption. An abstract event that has no formal status comparable to différance. It is an ungiven given of the posthuman predicament, not an abstract condition for it.
As Francois Laruelle, has stated in his Principle of Non-Philosophy, deconstruction still abides within the assurance of philosophy’s ability to adequately think about the structures of meaning and temporality (This is best put in Bakker 2016). This becomes more obvious if we consider that différance and trace, like the unbound repeatability of symbols, are transcendental lubricants, ensuring that the system will function, that it will be legible, meaningful, adaptable, plastic etc. But the legibility of the future or our trajectory towards it is at issue in the posthuman. SP is an attempt to address the long-run implications of technological modernity which, unlike transhumanism, rejects the transcendent moral status of the human subject or person as well as any subject-like or language-like transcendental organising principles. Thus, unbound posthumanism is immanentist insofar as it brackets hierarchical conceptions of this “long-run” (Dubilet 2017, 232-3).
This context is incomplete or open because the planetary engine is non-purposive, counter-final, not a project. It voids itself without ever having an itself. This implies a potentially instructive analogy with a second POL: Laruelle’s own Non-Philosophy, of which very inadequate sketch follows:
Non-philosophy goes further than deconstruction by suspending what Laruelle calls the “philosophical decision”, a term for any philosophical analysis of the real into form and content, structure and the empirical stuff external to philosophy that it exploits in making up its constructions (Laruelle 2013). For Laruelle, as for Richard Rorty incidentally, Derrida doesn’t abandon this mixture-making but simply treats the unconceptualizable trace as yet another organising principle for the empirical field of non-philosophical stuffs.
In contrast, Non-philosophy does not attempt to think or conceptualise the real at all.
The real is no longer a topic – as is the case with traditional realism – but the unthinkable medium or “One” in which all philosophical decisions operate.
Thought is not bonded to the real by concepts or relations of reference. Rather all varieties of thought are actuated by the real in a unilateral relation of pure passivity. In this, as John O Maoilearca has argued, all forms of thought are equal since there is no transcendent meta-thought that can organise the real only a series of clones or mutant copies that are produced by the Real without being able to conceive it (O Maoilearca 2015).
Philosophy has no privileged status as a means of accessing the world in Non-philosophy. It is just another raw material for performances which could be artistic, political, erotic, poetic or inhuman or posthuman etc. in a field devoid of anything beyond simulacra of transcendence – much as unbound posthumanism holds. Philosophy is a marionette that dances to strings suspended from an invisible point, like the “clown puppet” apparition that keeps returning for no reason, floating before the hapless narrator of Thomas Ligotti’s horror story of that name (Ligotti 2008)
Using non-philosophy as our model, posthuman disconnection may be conceivable as an instance of the non-transcendental marionette or clone. Disconnection, as we have seen, remains to be specified through its production and thus cannot be intentionally related to its object. The concept posthuman does not think a world, but is rather part of a world or planetary thinking that has always eluded philosophy. Unbinding does not think a world but is another project of intellectual evisceration, manufacturing dolls out of subjects that were never alive in the first instance.
I think this analogy is potentially fruitful because it explains how the posthuman can be understood in the first instance as a performative principle, a differing that operates contingently through humans and nonhuman agents, a differing cloned in unbinding.
As in UP1, becoming posthuman is not transcendence, it is differing, but now it is everywhere. We can desire it, fixate upon it, find erotic or aesthetic pleasure in it (and I fess up to all of these). but all these manifestations follow on from a ramifying hypermodernity that is neither disease nor emancipation (One thinks of Derrida’s pharmakon, equivocal poison-cure).
We understand this pharmakon through the limits of philosophy, the fractured frames and broken faces it leaves on the Earth’s surface – although, in philosophical terms, there is nothing of substance to understand.
If this picture differs from Laruellian non-philosophy it is firstly in motivation. I don’t take the illegibility of the posthuman to be a foundation or axiom of a system or non-system, as Laruelle seems to do, but a consequence of unbinding which can be justified in some detail. Secondly, I don’t think of this planetary disconnection as outside relation or as having any special appurtenance to some primitive experience of radical human identity (See Kolozova 2014). There’s no primitive oneness or mystical gnosis of immanence here, nothing that we want to apply the name “human” unless in moments of sick and disgusted humor.
There’s just the heaped trash of broken frames and dead-faced puppets.
Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
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Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden, David (2017a). ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: Robert Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’, in Philosophy After Nature, edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn, London: Roman and Littlefield, pp. 99-119.
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Roden, David (2016a) ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’, Dis Magazine. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/81950/letters-from-the-ocean-terminus-david-roden/
Roden (Unpublished). “Reduction, Elimination and Radical Uninterpretability: the case of hyperplastic agents” https://www.academia.edu/15054582/Reduction_Elimination_and_Radical_Uninterpretability
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Thacker, E., 2015b. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy vol. 3. John Hunt Publishing.
Yeager, Ben. 2017. Amygdalatropolis. Schism Press.
Wood, D. 2001. The Deconstruction of Time. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
 A more precise way of putting this is to say that posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans who have become nonhuman in virtue of a process of technical alteration (Roden 2012; 2014).
Posthuman making could involve reasonably well understood interventions into the biology of reproduction such as genetic editing, or exotic technologies for copying and “uploading” human minds onto powerful computer systems. There are no posthumans, or so it seems. Thus, we are currently ignorant of their mechanisms of emergence. Of course, neither gene editing nor mind-uploading might be feasible posthuman makers while some other, wholly novel technology might be. The term “wide descent” is employed as a neutral descriptor of a historical relationship; one that could be mediated by some technical process or processes to an arbitrary degree.
 There are good empirical as well as philosophical reasons for being methodologically anti-essentialist. There is little empirical evidence that there are traits that all humans share (like being rational or having the ability to use language.) while the possibility of a human transition implies that some humans are not essentially human in any case. So SP implies that even if there are essential properties of humanity they impose no constraints on us and thus might just as well not be there.
 Perhaps, then, we should determine the limits of posthuman weirdness. It is, in a sense, our weirdness, a potentially Shoggothic modernism. Yet speculation on the weird won’t tell us how weird we or our wide descendants could be. It only inscribes the limit, like Wells’ fragment from the forgotten future. To account for ourselves – and for our modernity – we need something tighter, more rigorous, assured.
There are no posthumans to date (or appear to be none). So, there is no way to fix the bounds of posthuman weirdness by observing wild posthumans. In any case, isn’t morality about pre-emption. We want to understand the scope for weirdness before it manifests. What we seem to need is future proof knowledge of the degrees of posthuman weirdness and boils us away.
Since it would be wholly non-empirical it would have to analysis of our concepts – the kind of thing that professional philosophers are supposed to be adepts at. The catch, here, is that countenancing this method also means rejecting realism in its most radical forms. If reality may vary independently of our thoughts about it, pure conceptual analysis will tell us little about its scope for variation. If there are bounds on posthuman weirdness discoverable a priori, reality must exhibit partial mind or concept-dependence.
Following Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy in the 18th Century, the most common means for establishing such future proof bounds are transcendental arguments. Transcendental thinking is supposed to tell us something about the subjective conditions of experience, meaning and knowledge. Kant is the first philosopher to suggest that knowledge and experience have such conditions. His idea of a transcendental subject is a set of conditions for unifying experience under forms of judgement. Later philosophers have cited the experience of being a centred body, the continuity of experienced time, or being a language user among such invariant conditions.
 They are derived from transcendental arguments without “transcendental entities” or “transcendental causation” (Wood 2001, 312).
 Différance is an alterity that “protrudes from unity” and thus its disunifying power retains the assumption of philosophy’s sufficiency or probity (Laruelle 2013, 54).
 But this embedding in modernity means that it is a response to structural condition in technical modernity: industrial scale abstraction auto-catalysing outside control; abstracting beyond compliance to merely human norms (Roden 2014, Ch7).
 Which, like Well’s afterworld in Chapter 11 of the Time Machine, may contain anything “we” could easily recognise as thinking, acting or feeling (Dubilet 2017, 232-3).
 If it were a complete thing and functioned according to deterministic laws, we could model it with precision and could control it by simulating our interventions in it.
But the model of technology is an extra piece of technology. It is not outside the process it models. Any complete model of the technological system would thus need to include a model of its itself and its interactions with other parts and; so on with higher order models, without upper limit. Moreover, each model would be iterable across sites within the system according to the principle of industrial abstraction. Thus, any model of at any order would need to model mutations of itself that, due to alterations of structure or context, could accrue different behaviours to the original.
 One might cavil here. It’s far from clear that removing transcendental order suffices for equality. Maybe the democratic rhetoric of Non-Philosophy is inflated.
The essay is taken from:
by David Roden
In “The Basic AI Drives” Steve Omohundro has argued there is scope for predicting the goals of post-singularity entities able to modify their own software and hardware to improve their intellects. For example, systems that can alter their software or physical structure would have an incentive to make modifications that would help them achieve their goals more effectively as have humans have done over historical time. A concomitant of this, he argues, is that such beings would want to ensure that such improvements do not threaten their current goals:
So how can it ensure that future self-modifications will accomplish its current objectives? For one thing, it has to make those objectives clear to itself. If its objectives are only implicit in the structure of a complex circuit or program, then future modifications are unlikely to preserve them. Systems will therefore be motivated to reflect on their goals and to make them explicit (Omohundro 2008).
I think this assumption of ethical self-transparency is interestingly problematic. Here’s why:
Omohundro requires that there could be internal systems states of post-singularity AI’s whose value content could be legible for the system’s internal probes. Obviously, this assumes that the properties of a piece of hardware or software can determine the content of the system states that it orchestrates independently of the external environment in which the system is located. This property of non-environmental determination is known as “local supervenience” in the philosophy of mind literature. If local supervenience for value-content fails, any inner state could signify different values in different environments. “Clamping” machine states to current values would entail restrictions on the situations in which the system could operate as well as on possible self-modifications.
Local supervenience might well not hold for system values. But let’s assume that it does. The problem for Omohundro is that the relevant inner determining properties are liable to be holistic. The intrinsic shape or colour of an icon representing a station on a metro map is arbitrary. There is nothing about a circle or a squire or the colour blue that signifies “station”. It is only the conformity between the relations between the icons and the stations in metro system it represents which does this (Churchland’s 2012 account of the meaning of prototype vectors in neural networks utilizes this analogy).
The moral of this is that once we disregard system-environment relations, the only properties liable to anchor the content of a system state are its relations to other states of the system. Thus the meaning of an internal state s under some configuration of the system must depend on some inner context (like a cortical map) where s is related to lots of other states of a similar kind (Fodor and Lepore 1992).
But relationships between states of the self-modifying AI systems are assumed to be extremely plastic because each system will have an excellent model of its own hardware and software and the power to modify them (call this “hyperplasticicity”). If these relationships are modifiable then any given state could exist in alternative configurations. These states might function like homonyms within or between languages, having very different meanings in different contexts.
Suppose that some hyperplastic AI needs to ensure a state in one of its its value circuits, s, retains the value it has under the machine’s current configuration: v. To do this it must avoid altering itself in ways that would lead to s being in an inner context in which it meant some other value (v*) or no value at all. It must clamp itself to those contexts to avoid s assuming v** or v***, etc.
To achieve clamping, though, it needs to select possible configurations of itself in which s is paired with a context c that preserves its meaning.
The problem for the AI is that all [s + c] pairings are yet more internal systems states and any system state might assume different meanings in different contexts. To ensure that s means v* in context c it needs to do to have done to some [s + c] what it had been attempting with s – restrict itself to the supplementary contexts in which [s + c] leads to s having v* as a value and not something else.
Now, a hyperplastic machine will always be in a position to modify any configuration that it finds itself in (for good or ill). So this problem will be replicated for any combination of states [s + c . . . + . . ..] that the machine could assume within its configuration space. Each of these states will have to be repeatable in yet other contexts, etc. Since a concatenation of system states is a system state to which the principle of contextual variability applies recursively, there is no final system state for which this issue does not arise.
Clamping any arbitrary s requires that we have already clamped some undefined set of contexts for s and this condition applies inductively for all system states. So when Omohundro envisages a machine scanning its internal states to explicate their values he seems to be proposing an infinite task has already completed by a being with vast but presumably still finite computational resource.
Block, Ned (1986). Advertisement for a semantics for psychology. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 10 (1):615-78.
Churchland, Paul. 2012. Plato’s Camera: How the Physical Brain Captures a Landscape of Abstract Universals. MIT Press (MA).
Omohundro, S. M. 2008. “The basic AI drives”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and applications, 171, 483.
by David Roden
There evolved at length a very different kind of complex organism, in which material contact of parts was not necessary either to coordination of behaviour or unity of consciousness. . . .
—OLAF STAPLEDON, First and Last Men
When Stapledon wrote that book he was thinking of Martians, but in our time one might think he was studying the strangeness of what our posthuman progeny may evolve into. In Last and First Men Stapledon presents a version of the future history of our species, reviewed by one of our descendants as stellar catastrophe is bringing our solar system to an end. Humanity rises and falls through a succession of mental and physical transformations, regenerating after natural and artificial disasters and emerging in the end into a polymorphous group intelligence, a telepathically linked community of ten million minds spanning the orbits of the outer planets and breaking the bounds of individual consciousness, yet still incapable of more than “a fledgling’s knowledge” of the whole.1
Modern humans (Homo sapiens or Homo sapiens sapiens) are the only extant members of the hominin clade, a branch of great apes characterized by erect posture and bipedal locomotion; manual dexterity and increased tool use; and a general trend toward larger, more complex brains and societies. We evolved according to Darwinian theory from early hominids, such as the australopithecines whose brains and anatomy in many ways more similar to non-human apes, are less often thought of or referred to as “human” than hominids of the genus Homo some of whom used fire, occupied much of Eurasia, and gave rise to anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa about 200,000 years ago where they began to exhibit evidence of behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago and migrated out in successive waves to occupy all but the smallest, driest, and coldest lands. (see Human)
You begin to see a pattern that evolution moves through various changes and transformations. Yet, there is no end point, no progression, not teleological goal to it all. Instead evolutionary theory – and, more explicitly its modern synthesis, connected natural selection, mutation theory, and Mendelian inheritance into a unified theory that applied generally to any branch of biology. One thing that sticks out in this is that evolution deals with organic evolution. The modern synthesis doesn’t include other types of evolvement that might portend what the posthuman descendants of humans might become. If we follow the logic of evolutionary theory as it exists we could at best extrapolate only the continued organic evolution of humans or their eventual extinction. We know that extinction is a possibility since 99% of the species that have ever existed on earth are now extinct. Something will eventually replace us. But what that ‘something’ might be is open to question, an open ended speculative possibility rather than something a scientist could actually pin down and point to with confidence.
This is the basic premise of Dr. David Roden’s new work, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. We are living in a technological era in which a convergence of NBIC technologies (an acronym for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science), as well as certain well supported positions in cognitive science, biological theory and general metaphysics imply that a posthuman succession is possible in principle, even if the technological means for achieving it remain speculative (Roden, KL 157). Roden will term his version of this as “speculative posthumanism”:
Throughout this work I refer to the philosophical claim that such successors are possible as “speculative posthumanism ” (SP ) and distinguish it from positions which are commonly conflated with SP, like transhumanism. SP claims that there could be posthumans. It does not imply that posthumans would be better than humans or even that their lives would be compared from a single moral perspective.2
Roden will develop notions of “Critical Posthumanism” — which seeks to “deconstruct” the philosophical centrality of the human subject in epistemology, ethics and politics; and, Transhumanism — which proposes the technical enhancement of humans and their capacities.Yet, as Roden admits before we begin to speak of the posthuman we need to have some inkling of exactly what we mean by ‘human’: any philosophical theory of posthumanism owes us an account of what it means to be human such that it is conceivable that there could be nonhuman successors to humans (Roden, KL 174).
One thought that Roden brings out is the notion of subjectivity:
Some philosophers claim that there are features of human moral life and human subjectivity that are not just local to certain gregarious primates but are necessary conditions of agency and subjectivity everywhere. This “transcendental approach” to philosophy does not imply that posthumans are impossible but that – contrary to expectations – they might not be all that different from us. Thus a theory of posthumanity should consider both empirical and transcendental constraints on posthuman possibility. (Roden, KL 180)
Yet, such premises of an anti-intentional or non-intentional materialism as stem from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, and Nick Land would opt that we need no theory of subjectivity, that this is a prejudice of the Idealist tradition and dialectics that are in themselves of little worth. Obviously philosophers such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Quentin Meillassoux, and Adrian Johnson stand for this whole Idealist tradition in materialism in one form or another. Against the Idealist traditions is a materialism grounded in chaos and composition, in desire: Nick Land’s sense of libidinal materialism begins and ends in ‘desire’ which opposes the notion of lack: instead his is a theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire (Land, 37).3 Unlike many materialisms that start with the concept of Being, or an ontology, Libidinal Materialism begins by acknowledging thermodynamics, chaos, and the pre-ontological dimension of energy: “libidinal materialism accepts only chaos and composition” (43). Being is an effect of composition: “being as an effect of the composition of chaos”:
With the libidinal reformulation of being as composition ‘one acquires degrees of being, one loses that which has being’. The effect of ‘being’ is derivative from process, ‘because we have to be stable in our beliefs… one has a general energetics of compositions… of types, varieties, species, regularities. The power to conserve, transmit, circulate, and enhance compositions, the power that is assimilated in the marking, reserving, and appropriation of compositions, and the power released in the disinhibition, dissipation, and … unleashing of compositions (Land, 44) … [even Freud is a libidinal materialist] in that he does not conceive desire as lack, representation, or intention, but as dissipative energetic flow, inhibited by the damming and channeling apparatus of the secondary process (Land, 45).
R. Scott Bakker author of the fantasy series The Second Apocalypse is also the theoretician of what he terms Blind Brain Theory (BBT). Very briefly, the theory rests on the observation that out of the vast amount of information processed by the brain every nanosecond, only a meagre trickle makes it through to consciousness; and crucially that includes information about the processing itself. We have virtually no idea of the massive and complex processes churning away in all the unconscious functions that really make things work and the result is that consciousness is not at all what it seems to be. Even what we term subjectivity is but a temporary process and effect of these brain processes and has no stable identity to speak of, but is rather a temporary focal point of consciousness. (see The Last Magic Show)
So to come back to Roden’s statement that some “philosophers claim that there are features of human moral life and human subjectivity that are not just local to certain gregarious primates but are necessary conditions of agency and subjectivity everywhere (Roden, KL 180)”. We can with BBT and Libidinal Materialism, or what might be better termed an anti-intentional philosophy based on non-theophilosophical concepts throw out the need to base our sense of what comes after the human on either ‘agency’ or ‘subjectivity’ as conditions, for both are in fact effects of the brain not substance based entities. So Roden need not worry about such conditions and constraints. And, as he tells us weakly constrained SP suggests that our current technical practice could precipitate a nonhuman world that we cannot yet understand, in which “our” values may have no place (Roden KL 187). Which is this sense that our human epistemologies, ontologies and normative or ethical practices and values cannot tell us anything about what the posthuman might entail: it is all speculative and without qualification.
But if this is true he will ask:
Does this mean that talk of “posthumans” is self-vitiating nonsense ? Does speaking of “weird” worlds or values commit one to a conceptual relativism that is incompatible with the commitment to realism? (Roden, KL 191)
If posthuman talk is not self-vitiating nonsense, the ethical problems it raises are very challenging indeed. If our current technological trajectories might result in the world turning posthuman, how should we view this prospect and respond to it? Should we apply a conservative , precautionary approach to technology that favours “human” values over any possible posthuman ones? Can conservatism be justified under weakly constrained SP and, if not, then what kind of ethical or political alternatives are justifiable? (Roden, 193)
David comes out of the Idealist traditions which I must admit I oppose with the alternate materialist traditions. As he tells us:
As I mentioned, an appreciation of the scope of SP requires that we consider empirically informed speculations about posthumans and also engage with the tradition of transcendental thought that derives from the work of Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. (Rode, KL 200)
These are the questions his book raises and tries to offer tentative answers too:
Table of contents:
Introduction: Churchland’s Centipede
1. Humanism,Transhumanism and Posthumanism
2. A Defence of Pre‐Critical Posthumanism
3. The Edge of the Human
4. Weird Tales: Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism
5. The Disconnection Thesis
6. Functional Autonomy and Assemblage Theory
7. New Substantivism: A Theory of Technology
8. The Ethics of Becoming Posthuman.
I’ve only begun reading his new work so will need to hold off and come back to it in a future post. Knowing that his philosophical proclivities bend toward the German Idealist traditions I’m sure I’ll have plenty to argue with, yet it is always interesting to see how the current philosophies are viewing such things as posthumanism. So I looked forward to digging in. So far the book offers so far a clear and energetic, and informative look at the issues involved. After I finish reading it completely I’ll give a more informed summation. Definitely a work to make you think about what may be coming our way at some point in the future if the technologists, scientists, DARPA, and capitalist machine are any sign. Stay tuned…
1. Dyson, George B. (2012-09-04). Darwin Among The Machines (p. 199). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
2. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 165-168). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
3. Nick Land. A Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992)
to be continued ...
by Steven Craig Hickman
I’ve begun of late to wonder if our use of the term ‘post-human’ is more of an acknowledgement not of the End of the Subject or the demise of Liberal Humanist civilization that spawned it, but rather of another problem altogether: the extinction event of technological disconnection. David Roden in his Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human is fairly convinced of such a disconnection:
“I have characterized posthumans in very general terms as hypothetical wide “descendants” of current humans that are no longer human in consequence of some history of technological alteration”. Speculative posthumanism is the claim that such beings might be produced as part of a feasible future history.”1
This notion of ‘technological alteration’ in which the present form of the human loses its integrity and is replaced or altered through either genetic manipulation or some other unforeseen technical event seems eerily prognostic. Of course David has couched his thesis in scholarly garb or academic noblesse of acceptable jargon and discourse. But the radcial underpinnings of such a thesis are there hidden under a thick verbiage of carefully reasoned argumentation and examples.
David asks the right questions, brings up the philosophical quandaries of such a notion as post-human:
“What is the “humanity” to which the posthuman is “post”? Does the possibility of a posthumanity presuppose that there is a “human essence”, or is there some other way of conceiving the human– posthuman difference? Without an answer to this question we cannot say, in general, what it is to become posthuman and thus why it should matter to humans or their wide descendants. In short, we require a theory of human– posthuman difference.”
The above is a philosophical conundrum rather than a scientific puzzle, a metaphysical immersion in an old puzzle of substance and form, distinction and horizon. Is there something essential at the core of the human? Do humans have an essence, something that escapes the mental and physical features that on the surface in appearance we attribute to that entity we term human? And, if the notion of essence is itself in error and there is no core, no essence, nothing that makes of humans something distinct or unique then how do we proceed to speak of the “post” of human? How to make this distinction? Of course being an antagonist of theories of phenomenology and the traditions of presence and substance, I’ve thought long and hard of alternatives. Graham Harman describing what he terms the “prejudice of phenomenology” will quote none other than Jean-Paul Sartre on this very prejudice:
“The essence of an existent is no longer a property sunk in the cavity of this existent; it is the manifest law which presides over the succession of its appearances, it is the principle of the series . . . The phenomenal being . . . is nothing but the well connected series of its manifestations.” 1
Harman will comment on this tradition, saying,
Stripped of its objectivity, though obviously more unified than the separate appearances that announce it, the object is trapped in a difficult position. It is irreducible to its series of appearances, yet it exists outside of them only as an ideal principle, not as something truly independent.2
For Harman phenomenology is the end game of Idealism, trapped in its ideal principles that cannot touch the actual outside vectors of the real, but rather circulate within a realm of abstract and postulated, bracketed by a mistrust in the objectivity of the world.3 The point for Husserl was that the eidetic reduction tries to arrive at the essential kernel of a thing by varying its modes of appearance and stripping away the more transient features until we gain direct intuition into its essence. (GM, p. 30) But if the whole search for an essence is erroneous for the simple reason that there is not essence behind the appearances: What then? The whole tradition of presence, of substantive formalism – the notions of substance and form that were best typified in the works of Plato and Aristotle of which Husserl and Heidegger, and even Jaspers and Sartre were modern heirs has always been there. It’s enemy, too: materialism which would replace presence with absence – or the notion of pure negation or the Void whose modern heirs of the moment are Badiou and Zizek.
But what is this notion of ‘essence’ – how define it? In his dialogues Plato suggests that concrete beings acquire their essence through their relations to “Forms“—abstract universals logically or ontologically separate from the objects of sense perception. These Forms are often put forth as the models or paradigms of which sensible things are “copies”. When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized. Sensible bodies are in constant flux and imperfect and hence, by Plato’s reckoning, less real than the Forms which are eternal, unchanging and complete. Typical examples of Forms given by Plato are largeness, smallness, equality, unity, goodness, beauty and justice.
Plato began that whole tradition of devaluation of reality in favor of the transcendent realm of the pure Forms, a two-world theory and dualism that sided with the universal at the expense of the concrete and material realms of the cosmos. All the dichotomies of metaphysics and the hierarchical travesty of both religious and secular ideologies can be traced back to these early thinkers (not that they were the first or originators of such ideas, but that they brought the tendencies of their own cultural mindset to fruition). I’ll speak to the materialist traditions later in the essay.
Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, would extend and refine much of this heritage in his master’s thought with a more naturalistic approach, more worldly and in deference to the spiritual aspects for a more earthy ethical approach. In Book Ζ of the Metaphysics, Aristotle takes up the study of substantive theory. He begins by reiterating and refining some of what he said in Γ: that ‘being’ is said in many ways, and that the primary sense of ‘being’ is the sense in which substances are beings. Here, however, he explicitly links the secondary senses of ‘being’ to the non-substance categories. The primacy of substance leads Aristotle to say that the age-old question ‘What is being?’ “is just the question ‘What is substance?’” (1028b4).4
Some say this is where the first error occurred as well. The degradation of non-substantive categories of sense as secondary and of little value as part of our reality, our world as against the primacy of Being and Substance which are not copies or simulacrum but the very incarnation of form (Ideas) set the tone for debates for two-thousand years. As we discover Aristotle turns in Ζ.4 to a consideration of the next candidate for substance: essence. (‘Essence’ is the standard English translation of Aristotle’s curious phrase to ti ên einai, literally “the what it was to be” for a thing. This phrase so boggled his Roman translators that they coined the word essentia to render the entire phrase, and it is from this Latin word that ours derives. Aristotle also sometimes uses the shorter phrase to ti esti, literally “the what it is,” for approximately the same idea.) In his logical works, Aristotle links the notion of essence to that of definition (horismos)—“a definition is an account (logos) that signifies an essence” (Topics 102a3)—and he links both of these notions to a certain kind of per se predication (kath’ hauto, literally, “in respect of itself”)—“what belongs to a thing in respect of itself belongs to it in its essence (en tôi ti esti)” for we refer to it “in the account that states the essence” (Posterior Analytics, 73a34–5). He reiterates these ideas in Ζ.4: “there is an essence of just those things whose logos is a definition” (1030a6), “the essence of a thing is what it is said to be in respect of itself” (1029b14). It is important to remember that for Aristotle, one defines things, not words. The definition of tiger does not tell us the meaning of the word ‘tiger’; it tells us what it is to be a tiger, what a tiger is said to be in respect of itself. Thus, the definition of tiger states the essence—the “what it is to be” of a tiger, what is predicated of the tiger per se. (Cohen)
Ultimately in the above – and, I see no need to explicate further this notion of essence – we see a circular logic to such statements and predications – this predication of a tiger’s essence as the tiger per se. The concept of essence begins to sound more like those universals of Plato, the form and Ideas. The whole point is the separation of appearance and reality, with reality falling into a pure realm of forms while our material universe is but a bad copy of such purity. One could say that Plato was the first Puritan. He tried to purify the world of its mediocrity and error at having not been the famed immortal realm of stable and unchanging forms.
Two philosophers that Plato seems to have despised and even anathematized from his academy by way of total silence were Leucippus and Democritus. Both were the progenitors of that other tradition that would come down through the better known poetry of Lucretius and see a revival during the Renaissance that would pave the way to the Enlightenment atheism and materialism from Spinoza onward. Leucippus is named by most sources as the originator of the theory that the universe consists of two different elements, which he called ‘the full’ or ‘solid,’ and ‘the empty’ or ‘void’. Both the void and the solid atoms within it are thought to be infinite, and between them to constitute the elements of everything. Because little is known of Leucippus’ views and his specific contributions to atomist theory, a fuller discussion of the developed atomist doctrine is found in the entry for Democritus.5
Democritus, known in antiquity as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because of his emphasis on the value of ‘cheerfulness,’ was one of the two founders of ancient atomist theory. He elaborated a system originated by his teacher Leucippus into a materialist account of the natural world. The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void. Of the ancient materialist accounts of the natural world which did not rely on some kind of teleology or purpose to account for the apparent order and regularity found in the world, atomism was the most influential. Even its chief critic, Aristotle, praised Democritus for arguing from sound considerations appropriate to natural philosophy.6
Against Plato and Aristotle and the metaphysics of substance, essence, and the real world of Ideas/Forms the materialists offered us a non-substantive theory of absence or the void. Some will argue against Slavoj Zizek’s appropriation and transformation of this tradition, yet he makes some valid points:
Obscurantist idealists like to vary the motif of “almost nothing”: a minimum of being which nonetheless bears witness to divinity (“ God is also present in the tiniest speck of dust …”). The materialist answer to this is the less than nothing. The first to propose this answer was Democritus, the father of Ancient Greek materialism (and also, incidentally, one of the first to formulate the principle of equality—“ Equality is everywhere noble,” as he put it). To express this “less than nothing,” Democritus took recourse to a wonderful neologism den (first coined by the sixth-century-BC poet Alcaeus), so the basic axiom of his ontology is: “Nothing is no less than Othing,” or, as the German translation goes, “Das Nichts existiert ebenso sehr wie das Ichts.” It is crucial to note how, contrary to the late Wittgensteinian thrust towards ordinary language, towards language as part of a life world, materialism begins by violating the rules of ordinary language, by thinking against language. (Since med’hen does not literally mean “nothing,” but rather “not-one,” a more adequate transposition of den into English would have been something like “otone” or even “tone.”)7
But what is this void that is less than nothing, and what is nothing itself? If essence and substance have slipped away from us in materialism then what exactly did these philosophers mean by atomism? Of course the heritage of atomism would reappropriate these entities and turn them into substantive forms making a mockery of the whole gamut of the original materialist thrust. The first order was that there was no separation between atoms and the void, the void was in the atoms themselves – a source of absence at the heart of every object in the universe. But that begs the question, What is Absence? The later apophatic traditions would seek presence in the core of absence, etc. What was said above of God in a grain of sand, etc.We will return to this question later.
Ancient sources describe atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge offered by Parmenides. Despite occasional challenges, this is how its motivation is generally interpreted by scholars today. Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are often thought to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes . (Berryman)
The Ancient Greeks had two words for nothing, meden and ouden, which stand for two types of negation: ouden is a factual negation, something that is not but could have been; meden is, on the contrary, something that in principle cannot be. From meden we get to den not simply by negating the negation in meden, but by displacing negation, or, rather, by supplementing negation with a subtraction. That is to say, we arrive at den when we take away from meden not the whole negating prefix, but only its first two letters: meden is med’hen, the negation of hen (one): not-one. Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. As such, den is “the radical real,” and Democritus is a true materialist. (Zizek) Yet, Zizek would also add that the substantive formalist tradition would appropriate and re-ontologize such notions: “The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”( less-than-nothings).” (ibid.)
So against the two-world theoretic of Plato / Aristotle with its primacy of Being/Substance we have a one-world theoretic in Leucippus/Democritus with its primacy of Nothing/Absence (less than nothing: Void or subtraction from Nothing). No sense in boring you with more details, you can follow the trail in the footnotes below to your heart’s content. Of course I side with the materialists against all substantive formalists of whatever stripe. I’m still on friendly terms with many of the current crop of substance based philosophers, and have yet to publish my own ongoing project. Scattered among my blog or bits and pieces, and yet for the most part I’ve tried to keep a neutral non-critique and more commentary based approach for the most part here on this blog from the beginning. I’ve seen where criticizing other philosophers on a blog tend to go: to the dogs in warring and bitter incriminations and judgmental stupidity on both sides. I’ll not have any of that. I leave my bitterness for politics not philosophy.
The post is already too long as is, but wanted to get back to David Roden’s quandary concerning “human essence,” and the division between human / post-human. If you accept as I do that the whole notion of essence is of no value, there being none, then as a materialist one sees a natural disposition toward the gradual and irruptive dislocations in evolutionary theory. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge would provide an alternative to Darwinian mainstream gradualism in their notion of “punctuated equilibrium”. Gould’s critique of central concepts of the Darwinian paradigm asserts the importance of historical contingency and other factors in evolution besides the mechanism of adaptation to the external environment. The theory of punctuated equilibria, which he first formulated with his colleague Niles Eldredge in 1972, states that the history of evolution is concentrated in relatively rapid events of speciation rather than taking place gradually as slow, continuous transformations of established lineages. Most species during most periods do not evolve radically, but rather fluctuate aimlessly and within bounds given by expected spreads of statistical variation. Gould considers the dramatic implications for this interpretation in the context of his historical critique of the gradualist model of evolution. In Gould’s view, adherence to a belief in directed evolutionary progress expressed cultural and political biases of the 19th century. Charles Darwin in particular was unable to abandon these ideas despite apparent contradictions with his own theory of evolution and his agonizing intellectual struggle with gaps in the fossil record, gaps that could not be explained if evolution moves forward by the accretion of many small changes. (see Presidential Lectures, Stanford)
Yet, in our time there is also the artificial factor of humans instigating changes through technological innovation and technics. Humans are the first animal who through augmentation and prosthetic extensions in technics and technology will perform genetic change upon their own genome. Of course we’ve been doing this with plants and other domestic animals for some time now. Whether Gould’s theories on natural evolution stand the test of time, we can say that humans have in themselves accelerated the process of evolution in plants and animals, in altering their DNA sequences and producing artificial changes into their genomes. This artificial intrusion into the natural evolutionary cycle may have repercussions we as yet do not or cannot fully understand or respond too. If there is no essence and everything is formless and void then almost anything can produce strange and artificial variants because there is not stable pattern or eternal form or universal guiding or establishing the Law of Identity in things. Everything is malleable and changing, always.
David will use the term “technical alteration” against such terms as “enhancement” and “augmentation” because of the controversy surrounding transhumanist discourse. He’ll define what he terms successor species or “wide humans” as the core of speculative posthumanism. As he states it:
SP [Speculative Posthumanism] states that a future history of a general type is metaphysically and technically possible. It does not imply that the posthuman would improve on the human or MOSH state, or that there would be a commonly accessible perspective from which to evaluate human and posthuman lives. Posthumans may, as Vinge writes, be “simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil” (Vinge 1993: np). (Roden, p. 108) [Italics Mine]
The point here is that the Posthuman is a category of the Impossible in our time, a speculative notion that we can tinker with, think about, but not know or reduce to a linguistic or definitional proposition or axiom. In fact as he states it “the possibility that shared “non-symbolic workspaces” – which support a very rich but non-linguistic form of thinking – might render human natural language unnecessary and thus eliminate the cultural preconditions for propositional and sentential thinking. If propositional attitude psychology collectively distinguishes humans from non-humans, users of non-symbolic workspaces might instrumentally eliminate the non-propositional and thus cease to be human. (Roden, p. 109) Another point of clarification is that biological humans or Homo Sapiens are defined as what he’ll call “narrow humanity,” the posthuman is part of a “technogenetic construction or “assemblage” with both narrowly human and narrowly nonhuman parts” (Roden, p. 110).
The notion here that the posthuman or wide humans will be part of an intrusive and manipulative technological and genetic alteration, a project that will form some strange almost Deleuzian “assemblage”. Of course in the works of Deleuze/Guattari assemblage theory assemblages are formed through the processes of coding, stratification, and territorialization. I am not sure that this is what David had in mind at all. And, yet, the basic notion of an assemblage steal holds that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority. If we take this stance then instead of some stable and fixed essence within narrow humanity being needed or defined, we move into assemblage theory in which the notion of displacement takes over and nothing is stable or fixed, but rather there are flows and fluidic change and metamorphic movement of relations of exteriority.
Roden almost seems to accept such a notion when he says of biological humanity that,
If this model is broadly correct, hominization has involved a confluence of biological, cultural and technological processes. It has produced socio-technical “assemblages” where humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities and computer-mediated information networks. (Roden, p. 110)
In other words assemblages entail the coupling of human/technics, a dialectical movement of these various “biological, cultural and technological processes” all working on and with each other within our modern socio-technical “assemblages”. Technology is not some deterministic force, but rather a part of the externalization of human processes that in turn process humanity in ways we have barely begun to focus on. Taking from the Deleuze/Guattari notions its impact on Manuel DeLanda’s theories Roden comments:
Assemblages are emergent wholes in that they exhibit powers and properties not attributable to their parts but which depend (or “supervene”) on those powers. Assemblages are also decomposable insofar as all the relations between their components are “external”: each part can be detached from the whole to exist independently (assemblages are thus opposed to “totalities” in an idealist or holist sense). This is the case even where the part is functionally necessary for the continuation of the whole (DeLanda 2006: 184; see § 6.5). (Roden, p. 111)
One would have to delve into mereology or part/whole theory to dig deep into this notion, of which I’ll not add more. Instead moving back to David’s central notions of Disconnection we discover the return to the question of essence: “To say that a human essence exists is just to say that there is a set of individually necessary conditions for humanity.” (Roden, p. 113)
To answer the notion of essence he will fall back on what he terms the question of the posthuman impasse and use what many describe as Anthropological Essentialism not a guarantor but as a simplified notion that would “if true, would allow us to identify each path to posthumanity with the deletion of some component of the human essence. This, in turn, would allow us to adjudicate the value of these paths by considering the ethical implications of each loss of an anthropologically necessary property.” (Roden, p. 113)
For David it provides an eliminative or subtractive path forward, one that he follows after those desert monks of “apophatic theology,” or the discovery of the essence of God by way of the elimination and negation of all earthly properties that have become attached to him. One could call this the elimination of appearances or surface textures of the human in favor of that which after everything has been eliminated is left: the irreducible limit of the human, the minimal nothing which remains as something – a something that is less than nothing – not an appearance but rather the appearance of appearance, the essence.
Yet, the point of this exercise becomes muted and unnecessary to David’s project as he says, the “disconnection thesis does not entail the rejection of anthropological essentialism but it renders any reference to essential human characteristics unnecessary” (Roden, p. 113). So once again the whole understanding of essence is unnecessary to the disconnection thesis then what is the point of asking the question to begin with? Why worry about eliminating the unnecessary or even discussing it? If he is not defending a substantive theory then what is he defending? Is he after all a non-substantialist? No, in truth he has been all along building up to an anti-essentialist theory, one that as he says that “essential properties seem to play no role in our best scientific explanations of how the world acquired biological, technical and social structures and entities. At this level, form is not imposed on matter from “above” but emerges via generative mechanisms that depend on the amplification or inhibition of differences between particular entities (for example, natural selection among biological species or competitive learning algorithms in cortical maps). If this picture holds generally, then essentialism provides a misleading picture of reality.” (Roden, p. 114)
Ah, so the whole gamut of metaphysical notions of Being and Substance derived from Plato/Aristotle and the traditions they spawned provide a “misleading picture of reality”. Of course David is working his way into a naturalist philosophy that moves into both the materialist DeLanda and the Object Ontologies of Graham Harman, one in which as Roden says, paraphrasing Harman tells us that “a flat ontology recognizes no primacy of natural over artificial kinds (Harman 2008). (Roden, p. 114)
So again we’re seeing the distinctions between natural and artificial stripped of their metaphysical and hierarchical substance, and by way of subtraction and elimination flattened out onto a plane of immanence (Deleuze). Such a path provides for David the central motif of his disconnection thesis:
A disconnection event would be liable to involve technological mechanisms without equivalents in the biological world and this should be allowed for in any ontology that supports speculative posthumanism. (Roden, p. 115)
The point here is that contrary to most transhumanist thought there need not being any continuity between narrow (biological) humans, and there wide (technogenic) successors. There could be multiple paths such a course might take, all born of technics and either non-biological (robotics) or technological alterations of biology (bio-genetics). Since humanity has no fixed stable presence, no essence, we are formless and malleable open to alteration through technological adaptation and disequilibrium.
David Roden in his book will go further noting the ethical and other dimensions of this future of wide humanity, one we can’t predict or know, thus implicating us in the issue, saying “even if we enjoin selective caution to prevent worst-case outcomes from disconnection-potent technologies, we must still place ourselves in a situation in which such potential can be identified. Thus seeking to contribute to the emergence of posthumans, or to become posthuman ourselves…” (Roden, p. 122)
There are broadly three ways of thinking historically about capitalism. One draws on Marx’s value theory and pretty much treats capital as eternal. Its appearances may change but its essence is always the same, until the revolution, which strange to say never comes.
The second is able to think more historically. For example the regulation school came up with a convincing portrait of what it called the Fordist regime of regulation. In this version capitalism has stages, each of which are qualitatively different. But it tends to be troubled by the current stage, which can only be described negatively as lacking the attributes of the last. Hence it speaks of post-Fordism. In general, when change is described via modifiers, such as post or neo or late, one is not really thinking the specificity of an historical period, but merely saying that it is like or not like another.
The third approach is to try and define the specificity of the twenty-first century social formation. An excellent example might be Yann Moulier Boutang’s Cognitive Capitalism (Polity Press, 2011), a book which presents in English the results of a research program that has been going on in French for some time. As Boutang says, “cognitive capitalism is a paradigm, or a coherent research program, that poses an alternative to post-Fordism.” (113) It no longer takes Fordism as the norm, and it certainly does not get bogged down in theories of eternal capital. Its attention is on “new vectors of the production of wealth” (135)
This is a challenge, as not even capitalism’s biggest fans seem to have much of a clue how to describe it. Perhaps Francis Fukuyama was right, and there are no new ideas, just comedies and tragedies of repetition. But Boutang wants to step back from post-situationist thought, whether than of Baudrillard or others, for whom capital becomes an absolute, and all of politics foreclosed: “is this capitalism so absolute?” (3)
Perhaps it calls rather for a fresh analysis, “a kind of small defrag program for Marxism’s mental hard drive.” (8) “Are we, in particular, going to remain obstinately stuck to the perspective of the value of working time, of the utility or scarcity of resources, in order to measure a wealth that depends on the time of life and on the super-abundance of knowledge?” (4)
Boutang’s method is, like that of Terranova, shaped by the Italian workerist tradition, and its strong commitment to the point of view of living labor. Like them, his jumping off point is Marx’s Grundrisse, especially the ‘Fragment on Machines’, and particularly the concept of the ‘general intellect’. If Marx were to appear by time-machine in today’s California, he might find that at least some of the work being done there is no longer explainable via recourse to scarcity and physical labor. There has been another ‘great transformation’, as Karl Polanyi might call it. After mercantilist and industrial capitalism comes cognitive capitalism.
Industrial capitalism at its peal – what the regulation school calls Fordism – was characterized by cheap energy, foreign labor importation, cheap raw materials, full employment, fixed exchange rates, low or even negative real interest rates, price inflation, and wage rises in line with productivity. But rather than concentrate on the break-down of that system as the regulationists do, Boutang is more interested in the features of what replaced it.
Boutang is rather sparing with the term ‘neoliberal’, which is so often used now as a kind of linguistic operator to describe by contrast what this era is supposed to mean. The rise of finance is clearly a key feature of our times, but for Boutang neither economic ideology nor financial speculation is causative. The rise of finance is what has to be explained.
The explanation is an interesting one. With the conversion of intellectual activities into tradable assets, work dematerialized, and the contours of the company became unclear. Financialization is a way of assessing the value of production when production is no longer just about labor and things. Finance both predicts and actualizes futures in which private companies extract value from the knowledge society, where the boundaries of who ‘owns’ what can never be clear.
Cognitive capitalism has its problems, however. Ours is a time in which we witness the crash of unlimited resource extraction against limits. It is a time of “the revenge of externalities” and the predation of the “bio-fund” (20) when “the city turns into a non-city.” (22) The global urban crisis – what Mike Davis calls the Planet of Slums (Verso 2006) – is a witness to the exhaustion of positive externalities upon which capital has depended. Which would be another way of figuring what Paul Burkett, following Marx, sees as the resources both natural and human that capital uses “free of charge.”
Those are the problems cognitive capitalism appears completely unable to solve. What it did solve, after a fashion, is the problem of the network effect. Value creation now relies on public goods, on complex processes, and things that it is very difficult to price. Financialization is a response to that complexity.
Boutang follows Lazzarato in speaking of “immaterial labor” (31), a term I never liked, although not quite for the same reasons as some of Boutang and Lazzarato’s other critics. I think it is important to hang on to the materiality of information-based sciences and technologies. Indeed, information changes the way one thinks about what the ‘matter’ in materialism might be. For Boutang and Lazzarato, capitalism has changed in that “the essential point is no longer the expenditure of human labor-power, but that of invention power.” (32) Now the potential for future innovation is incorporated into pricing of future possibilities.
Immaterial labor is supposed to be an updating of Marx’s category of abstract labor, the aggregate of concrete labors that make up socially necessary labor time, or that labor time whose value is realized in exchange value when commodities are successfully sold. But perhaps there’s a more thorough rethinking of the role of information in production that is really called for here.
Boutang thinks that in its advanced centers – what the situationists called the overdeveloped world – a new form of capitalism has emerged. “We call this mutating capitalism – which now has to deal with a new composition of dependent labor (mostly waged) – ‘cognitive capitalism’, because it has to deal with collective cognitive labor power, living labor, and no longer simply with muscle power consumed by machines driven by ‘fossil fuel’ energy.” (37) Like the Italian workerists, the emphasis is on living labor, with the twist that for Boutang cognitive capitalism comes to be more dependent on it.
Cognitive capitalism is not limited to the ‘tech’ sector. As I argued in Telesthesia (Polity Press 2013), if one looks at the top Fortune 500 companies, it is striking how much all of them now depend on something like cognitive labor, whether in the form of R+D, or logistics, or the intangibles of managing the aura of brands and product lines.
Moreover, this is not a simple story of the exogenous development of the forces of production. This is not a revival of the ‘information society’ thesis of Daniel Bell and others, a theory which shied away from the complexities of capitalism. There’s a story here about power and hegemony, not just pure linear tech growth. It is interesting, for example, to watch a billion dollars or more being spent on American elections, to try to keep the fossil fuel industry’s state protections and subsidies, so that new kinds of tech intensive capital does not render it all obsolete. Boutang points towards a more complex way of understanding ‘capital’ than the Italians, for whom it is always more or les the same thing, and always purely reaction to labor’s struggles to make value for itself.
Boutang also wants to separate knowledge from information, and to avoid making a fetish of the latter. Knowledge-work is the way information is made. This is salutary. However, I wonder if it might not be the case that just as the dead labor congealed into fixed capital overtook living labor, so too the dead cognition reified into information systems might not have taken over from the living labor of knowledge workers. This might be what the era of ‘big data’ is really about. Perhaps after an era of ‘primitive accumulation’, based on the circuit K-I-K’, this has now been subsumed into the mature form of I-K-I’, where information systems shape living knowledge production to their form, and for the purpose of extracting more information, I-prime. Hence I am skeptical of one of Boutang’s key themes: “… the novelty we are witnessing is the centrality of living labor that is not consumed and not reduced to dead labor in mechanism.” (54)
It is certainly helpful, I think, to focus on knowledge as a kind of work, rather than to submit in advance to bourgeois categories, where one would speak of ‘intellectual capital’ without wondering where and how it was made. Boutang also takes his distance from the state-led schemes of the regulation school, who hanker for a return to something like an industrial world with Keynsian regulatory tools, and for whom finance can only be rent-seeking.
I would have liked to know more about the science + labor alliance policy that Boutang attributes to the French Communists in the postwar years. In Britain this was called ‘Bernalism’, after J D Bernal, its post effective advocate. What I find useful in that tradition is that, unlike in Boutang and others, it understands the problem as not one of new kinds of labor, but of labor’s potential alliance with a quite different class – what elsewhere I called the hacker class.
Given how different Boutang finds cognitive labor to be to physical labor, I question why it has to be thought as labor at all, rather than as the social activity of a quite different class. Boutang at least canvasses this possibility, in mentioning Franco Berardi’s idea of a “cognitariat” (97) and Ursula Huws of a cybertariat, but the least settled part of attempts to think the current mode of production seem to me to be questions of the classes it produces and which in turn reproduce it.
The symptom of this for me is the emergence of new kinds of property relation, so-called ‘intellectual property’, which became private property rights, an which were extended to cover an ever-wider range of information products. Boutang is aware of this: “One of the symptoms indicating that both the mode of production and the capitalist relations of production are changing is the importance assumed nowadays by institutional legal issues. Never has there been so much talk of property rights, by way of contesting them as well as by way of redefining them.” (47) Perhaps one could press this even further.
Of course, Boutang is not one of those who thinks the ‘new economy’ is somehow magically ‘weightless’. He points out that it does not eliminate material production so much as re-arrange it in space and time. “Not only are the parameters of space and time being radically altered, but the radical overhaul of representations that is underway affects the conception of acting and of the agent/actor doing things, as well as concepts of producing, of the producer, of the living and of the conditions of life on earth.” (48) While Boutang does not go there, I will: what it was not just a new stage of capitalism but a new mode of production? What if this was not capitalism, but something worse? I think it is a necessary thought-experiment, if the concept of ‘capitalism’ is ever to be a valid historical one. We need to have a sense of the conditions under which it could be said to have transformed into something else entirely.
Whenever one suggests such a thing, the counter-arguments quickly default to one or other ideological tropes. One is that if one thinks this is not capitalism, one might subscribe to some version of the California Ideology, and be oneself a dupe of various new age Powerpoint-slingers. But why does thinking one thing has ended automatically mean one must believe it was succeeded by something else? That does not follow at all. It points rather to the poverty of imagination of todays (pseudo)Marxists that can only imagine capital to eternal. They seem to have a hard enough time with Boutang’s thesis that it is in a new stage, so needless to say the thought-experiment in which something else succeeds it is literally unthinkable. Hence I would press even harder than Boutang on this: “does this not bring immediately into question the capitalist mode of production as a whole, and not just the dominant system of accumulation?” (115)
But I digress. Boutang takes a lively interest in the evident fact that in certain parts of the over-developed world, companies have. California ideology, and yet they have “discovered and invented the new form of value.” (49) He attempts to inventory them. Cognitive capitalism affects all sectors. Across the board new tech increases the power of immaterial. But tech change is no longer an exogenous resource, but the very thing accumulation aims at. Value production comes to depend on social cooperation and tacit knowledge. The complexity of markets means increasing efficiency can’t just be solved by economies of scale. Consumption has become a productive and part of research and development. Information now manages production cycles in realtime. There’s a plurality of inputs into most productions, including new kinds of labor. There are new spatial forms, including the clustering of production systems. There is a crisis of property rights, in parallel with attempts to capture positive externalities by successful firms.
Cognitive capitalism looks for spatial and institutional forms that allow it to capture value from things other than traditional labor, including all of those things that writers from Terranova to Trebor Scholz call non-labor or digital labor. Hence the rise of the network, as a third organizational form alongside the market and hierarchy. Networks are quick to identify resources when time, attention and care are what are scarce. ‘Labor’ becomes about connectivity, responsiveness, autonomy and inventiveness, and is hard to measure such labor in time units. (But is it still labor?)
What motivates this new kind of (non)labor besides wealth or power is libido sciendi, or the desire to know. “in cognitive capitalism we are witnessing the emergence of the systematic exploitation of a third passion – or desire – as a factor of efficiency in human activity deployed in an enterprise… What I am referring to here is the libido sciendi – the passion for learning and the taste for the game of knowledge.” (76)
Béatriz Préciado has a quite interesting critique of what she sees as the anti-corporeal and masculinist bias of such a way of thinking about what drives the contemporary economy. The passions might be a broader question, which is why in The Spectacle of Disintegration I went back to Charles Fourier and his theory of the twelve passions. It might be better to say that one of the things today’s economy is about is the productive use of all twelve of those passions, of which libido sciendi – or Lyotard’s parology – might be just one.
As Pekka Himanen showed already in The Hacker Ethic, there’s a quite different relation to both time and desire at work in what Boutang calls cognitive labor, and what I called the hacker class. They might at times be motivated by libertarian ideologies, but as Gabriella Coleman has shown, the actual ethnography of hackers reveals a more complex ideological field. Not that traditionally ascribed to labor, but not one entirely consumed with petit bourgeois dreams, libertarian or otherwise.
Following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Boutang sees the development of work after Fordism as being about coopting the rebellion from work’s alienated form. “Work comes to dress itself in the clothes of the artist or of the university. The values of creativity only become capable of being exploited by an intelligent capitalism to the extent that they were promoted as a value, first experimentally and then as a norm of living.”(88) Hence, at least in part, “the ‘hacker’ individual is closer to the creative artist and the ivory-tower professor than to the risk-taker or the possessive individualist.” (90) This might not however take full account of the rose of the ‘Brogrammer’, product of elite American universities who studied programming rather than go to business school, and for whom tech is just a means to get into business. The ethnographic realities of class are always complicated.
Even so, while start-up culture is designed to shape a kind of petit-bourgeois personality, not everyone drinks that kool-aid. Many will discover that there is now a kind of second degree exploitation, not of labor per se but of one’s capacity to hack, to invent, to transform information. Who knows? Some might even question the split that this emerging mode of production forces between labor and creation, which was the basis of Asger Jorn’s very prescient situationist critique of political economy. For Boutang this new division is like that between the ‘free’ worker and the slave in mercantilist capitalism – which I must point out is a division between two different classes.
Perhaps one could even open up the question of whether the tensions within the ruling class point toward the formation of a different kind of ruling class. One part of the ruling class really insists on the enclosure of information within strict private property forms, while another part does not. One part has lost the ability to produce information goods strapped to physical objects and charge as if they were just physical objects. This is the case not just with things like movies or music, but also with drugs and increasingly with sophisticated manufactured goods. You can buy a pretty good knock-off of an iPad now for a fraction of the price.
And yet there’s a tension here, as there is another kind of value production that is all about the leaky and indeterminate way in which social knowledge gets turned into products. One could frame this as an instability for a ruling class which does not know which of these is more important, or whether both tendencies can really occur at once. Or whether it is even a split between different kinds of ruling class: one still dependent on extracting surplus labor power and selling commodities; one dependent instead on asymmetries of information and commanding the processes of social creation themselves.
In Boutang, the markets act as multiplier and vector for values produced by other means. “Like the giant Anteus, who could only recharge his strength by keeping his feet on the ground, cognitive capitalism, whose purpose is to produce value (and not commodities or use values), needs to multiply its points of contact with a society that is in motion, with living activity.” (108-109) Entrepreneurial intelligence is now about converting social networks into value. The entrepreneur is a surfer who does not create the wave. Here, like Marx, Boutang understands value creation as taking place off-stage, and made invisible by a kind of market fetishism. These days it is not the commodity that is the fetish so much as the great man of business. As if the world just issued fully formed from Steve Jobs’ brain. Cognitive capital is based on knowledge society, but is not the same thing.
There’s a tactical value in seeing cognitive and industrial capital as distinct. “The real challenge us thus to minimize as far as possible this phase during which cognitive capitalism and industrial capitalism can build anti-natural alliances in order to control, restrain or break the power of liberation of the knowledge society.” (112) Perhaps there are fissures between them that can be worked in the interests of the dispossessed peoples of all kinds.
In a lovely metaphor, Boutang talks about a ruling class that has figured out how to capture the productive labor of its worker-bees when they make honey, but is only just figuring out how to capture the value of their efforts at “pollination.” (117) What Boutang calls the knowledge society underlying cognitive capitalism is precisely that pollination, that practice of collaborative effort between humans and non-humans to make worlds. Hence: “Cognitive capitalism reproduces, on an enlarged scale, the old contradictions described by Marx, between the socialization of production and the rules of appropriation of value.” (120)
In ‘Escape from the Dual Empire’, I talked about the two-sided nature of this emerging mode of production, one looking for ways to commodify knowledge in the form of information to sell on the market, the other doing the same thing but producing military products for sale exclusively to the state. One could I think press further on this than either I or Boutang have done. The military origins of Silicon valley tend to be a bit invisible in Boutang’s account.
Boutang understands the precarity that arises out of the current, rather disorganized stage of the class struggle, and where “getting the multitude to work for free is the general line of cognitive capitalism” (133) Cognitive capital both depends on the pollinating efforts of a knowledge society built on a social-democratic pact and yet undermines it at every turn. “Knowledge becomes the raw material, but it now creates real ‘class’ divisions….” (131)
So far the only way of governing this mess that even partly works is, paradoxically enough, finance. “Finance can be said to be the only way of ‘governing’ the inherent instability of cognitive capitalism, even if it introduces new factors of instability…” (136) Hence “In the cognitive capitalism school of thought, flexible production and financialization are both seen as being subordinate to the achievement of permanent innovation (the substance of value).” (139)
The value of companies has become intangible, and accounting rules don’t quite capture the value of knowledge contained in the firm. Finance is a way of assessing and capturing the value of the externalities on which companies actually rely. Price is formed by forming opinion among traders. Financial markets are themselves part of long term capture of publics as a resource. “One could even argue that one of the main activities of cognitive capitalism is the production of different kinds of publics, of which the stock market public is not the least.” (145) This is an original and provocative thesis.
In a concluding ‘Manifesto for Pollen society’, Boutang notes that there is now “Wealth in society, but poverty of social organization…” (149) The “human cyborg” comes into being as cognitive capitalism acquits power over life itself. (150) For Boutang, the privatization of social cooperation is a regression. Particularly given the “urgency of the environmental question” one has to ask about the priorities of a mode of production that seeks more power over externalities for which it does not pay. (173) “The only thing that our magicians, pirates and conquistadors of finance have forgotten is that pollination requires the existence of bees!” (189)
by Steven Craig Hickman
We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.
– F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto
The revolutionary contingent attains its ideal form not in the place of production, but in the street, where for a moment it stops being a cog in the technical machine and itself becomes a motor (machine of attack), in other words aproducer of speed.
– Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics
What is at stake in our world today? Should we align ourselves with what one Japanese poet sang: “I pray for the music of the citizens walking.” Is this it? Movement, speed, the future as the force of acceleration? Has accelerationism become the order of the day? Maybe we need something on the order of what Mark Fischer describes, quoting Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” Against all those like the Italian Autonomists who as Bifo Berardi (After Future) remarks that the ‘future is over’ we should think differently.1 But to give him his due, Berardi was not speaking of temporality, but of ‘psychological perception’, which ’emerged in the cultural situation of progressive modernity, the cultural expectations that were fabricated during the long period of modern civilization…”(AF 18). So it is against ‘progressive modernity’ that he speaks of future as progressive, as some unending temporal order of succession as a radical Enlightenment Project projected into an endless future of possibility and hope. He says this is over, caput, dead and buried amid the wastelands of modernity strewn around us on this dying earth we all inhabit.
Nick Land was one of the first to take up the battle cry of accelerationism. For him it was all about thanatropics: “labour is far harder to control than the live stuff was, which is why the enlightenment project of interring gothic superstition was the royal road to the first truly vampiric civilization, in which death alone comes to rule” (TA, p. 79). Continuing his inquisition he remarks, echoing Nietzsche:
“This is the initial impulse into capital’s religious history; the sacrifice of all dogmatic theology to the ascetic ideal, which is finally consummated in the death of God. The theology of the One, rooted in concrete beliefs and codes that summarize and defend the vital interests of a community, and therefore affiliated to a tenacious anthropomorphism, is gradually corroded down to the impersonal zero of catastrophic religion” (TA, p. 79).
It is in this absolute zero of capital religion that we discover Land’s accelerationism, wherein capital “attains its own ‘angular momentum’, perpetuating a run-away whirlwind of dissolution, whose hub is the virtual zero of impersonal metropolitan accumulation. At the peak of its productive prowess the human animal is hurled into a new nakedness, as everything stable is progressively liquidated in the storm” (TA, p. 80). Benjamin Noys in his own variation of this interesting doctrine tells us that it is “an exotic variant of la politique du pire: if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better. We can call these positions accelerationist.” (Accelerationism)
The point that Mark Fischer makes is that all our contrary dreams for organic wholeness, our slippage back into some primal time of peace and tribalism, some paganistic mishmash of communal habitability is a fantasy, an unreal possibility. Instead we should accept the accelerationist movement forward. And, for him, it entails three things: 1) Everyone is an accelerationist; 2) Accelerationism has never happened; and, 3) Marxism is nothing if it is not accelerationist. In a reversal of intent he says we need to return to aspects of both Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy and Deleuze and Guattari Anti-Oedipus: “the resources of negativity” that the left desperately needs to energize its programs effectively. Doing so we must emphasize “politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes”.
Fischer moved on from their to Land’s cyberpunk capitalism: “an accelerationist cyber-culture in which digital sonic production disclosed an inhuman future that was to be relished rather than abominated. Land’s machinic theory-poetry paralleled the digital intensities of 90s jungle, techno and doomcore, which sampled from exactly the same cinematic sources, and also anticipated “impending human extinction becom[ing] accessible as a dance-floor” (Fanged Noumena, 398)”. Fischer sees in Land something the Left needs desperately, because it was the failure on the Left’s part “to foresee the extent to which pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism would become the dominant cultural tendencies” that lead to a “fundamental misjudgement about the dynamics of capitalism”.
He tells us that Land’s failure was to collapse “capitalism into what Deleuze and Guattari call schizophrenia, thus losing their most crucial insight into the way that capitalism operates via simultaneous processes of deterritorialization and compensatory reterritorialization. Capital’s human face is not something that it can eventually set aside, an optional component or sheath-cocoon with which it can ultimately dispense. The abstract processes of decoding that capitalism sets off must be contained by improvised archaisms, lest capitalism cease being capitalism.” The problem is here that Fischer himself could not have foreseen that Land’s abrupt turn to the Right, to a neo-reactionary worldview and ideology that would no longer try to subvert the forces of capital, but would in fact enter into the very accelerating instrumentalism that Fischer himself feared. One sees in many of Land’s works of present note in his current blog Outside In a neo-reactionary stance, as well as a foray into what is termed the Dark Enlightenment (organized on Matt Leslie’s site) here. Without realizing this inner logic of accelerationism as an entry point onto reactionary forces rather than the radical Left Fischer remarked: “accelerationism can function as an anti-capitalist strategy – not the only anti-capitalist strategy (other anti-capitalist strategies are available, as it were) but a strategy that must be part of any political program that calls itself Marxist.” But can this truly be so?
Toward the end of this post Fischer tell us that “capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it. Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing”. Yet, isn’t the opposite true, capitalism has not given up on the future, it has only given up the ‘progressive future’, not the hyperintensive future of climatology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, bioinformatics, and genomics and the transhumanist dreams of a technocapitalistic global empire. That seems very much alive. At the moment it looks more like the future is only over for the Left, that they are more and more failing to gain a foothold in this venture of the future, and for all intents and purposes are living in the past of dead glories, fantasies, and revolutionary rhetoric that is no longer viable in any measure or deed. Why is this? Why has the Left failed? Why is the Left left on the Ouside looking in rather than leading the vanguard into the hope of a future worth living? Is it truly as Derrida suggested that it is the ‘Specter of Marxism’ that haunts us rather than Marxism itself? Are we left with only provocation in such philosophical hijinks as Badiou and Zizek? Is there a Left left?
One critic of Land’s Accelerationism, Jehu Eaves, a self-styled “marxist-in-recovery” on Gonzo Times, states that for Land “the determinant factor in a capitalist economy are the exchange relations, not production relations. This effectively puts him in the same bed with underconsumptionists and he seems simply to be an underconsumptionist perversely turned inside out. If you think exchange is the determining factor in the mode of production, the logical conclusion is that the mode of production can be ‘accelerated’ simply by the most rapid extension of exchange relations. Land’s leading critics seem to agree that this is the chief defect of Landian accelerationism — it absolute emphasis on expansion of the world market and commodification of all human relations.” (here)
This same critic says that one argument against such an accelerationism is that there is a fifty-fifty chance that it might lead into an “onrushing catastrophe” rather than some revolution in the system. He also says of Land’s critics, the very Leftists that use his accelerationism to other ends that “we must stop the collapse of civilization, but the working class must first be goaded to do this through an increasing deterioration of its conditions of existence. And none of these cowards wants to be the one to deliver the bad news to the worker as she is just getting off her third job.” He continues stating that the “defect of Land’s argument is to realize it inverts the actual relation between the mode of production and the mode of exchange. Land proposes the mode of production can be accelerated toward its demise by imposing uninhibited commodification on every aspect of social relations. In fact, the opposite is the case: the mode of production is accelerated by compelling capital to become ever more productive, by compelling a constantly rising organic composition of capital.” (ibid.) But I wonder if this is a defect in Land or a misprisioning / misreading of Land by others?
Jehu, in one final bite, remarks:
“The possibility of an entirely communistic accelerationism is already given by labor theory in the very conception of capital as the production of surplus value — the self-expansion of capital being the motive of capital and its only concern. One of the most important empirical observations Marx makes in Capital is that once society imposed limits on hours of labor in England, the introduction of machinery and intensive employment of labor power accelerated. … The conclusion has to be that reduction of hours of labor not only has the effect of freeing the proletariat from the destructive impact of the value form, it actually accelerates the demise of capital. The demand for a reduction of hours of labor, therefore, completes the connection between critique of the value form and elaboration of a practical communist program.(ibid.)
From Land we turn to Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek who have taken up once again the banner of the Accelerationist cause in their “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”. They seem to envision a terroristic age of climatic upheaval, mass unemployment, terminal resource depletion, and continuing catastrophes in both human and planetary scales unimaginable during previous eras except for the global catastrophes of asteroids, etc. Because of this, they, too, join forces with such as the Autonomists and spouting an end to the future: “In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.”
They describe a neoliberalism 2.0 that is reinventing itself, something Land and his neoreactionaries call the ‘Cathedral’. The idea of the State as encompassing Academia, Think-Tanks, Finance, Governance, etc. etc… to the nth power as an all pervading octopus with its tentacles everywhere in our lives with no escape other than that of ludicrous gestures of comic subversion or pathetic terrorism based on mindless and meaningless gestures of inertia. They seem to feel that all of this is the Right’s fault: “In the absence of a radically new social, political, organisational, and economic vision the hegemonic powers of the right will continue to be able to push forward their narrow-minded imaginary, in the face of any and all evidence.” As if the Left were not a part of this neoliberal world (Clinton, Obama) as well. As if the supposed democratic party were absolved of its complicity in this state of affairs. It’s not, it’s as guilty as hell. There can no longer be any justification for either party in its complicity as it allows such a hypercapitalism to slowly cannibalize the world. All the breast beating in the world will no stop this. The Left has failed itself and cannot continue to blame some imaginary Right, when its very own parties enact neoliberal agendas.
W & S tell us that that present capitalistic 2.0 system “in its neoliberal form, its ideological self-presentation is one of liberating the forces of creative destruction, setting free ever-accelerating technological and social innovations.” They situate their own discourse within the slipstream of Landian thought, saying, even his “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity” is not enough. They criticize him saying that “Landian neoliberalism confuses speed with acceleration. We may be moving fast, but only within a strictly defined set of capitalist parameters that themselves never waver. We experience only the increasing speed of a local horizon, a simple brain-dead onrush rather than an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility. It is the latter mode of acceleration which we hold as essential.” But is this true? Have we not seen many of the new City-States as neocapitalist laboratories, prime examples of the neoliberal vision that seems to be overtaking us in accelerating speed, as sites of possibility that the neoliberals are using as experimental labs of capitalism, allowing the future to permeate their secret lairs as they build their free-trade (criminalized) zones? Isn’t there something like a dark enlightenment going on in this process? Think of Shanghai, Land’s on home base, where creative destruction by capital has been an ongoing project for a while now. As Land once remarked: “Philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, but architects get to build it. Although still inchoate, a neomodern architectural landscape is quite unmistakably under construction. This is especially evident in Shanghai.” (Land, Shanghai Times) The reemergence of Shanghai as a sort of City-State of the neoliberal future beckoning all to drift between a Confucianism stabilizing the secular modality of the populace with the petulance of a neomodernist revivalism in architecture, art, culture, and the liquid movement of an accelerating future mobilized in each moments awareness is telling.
W & S seem to be stuck and fixated in the ‘progressive futurism’ of the past, rather than in accelerationsm as it is – a future coming at us, rather than as some progressive accumulation of past successes and transformations. “Even worse, as Deleuze and Guattari recognized, from the very beginning what capitalist speed deterritorializes with one hand, it reterritorializes with the other. Progress becomes constrained within a framework of surplus value, a reserve army of labour, and free-floating capital.” How could progress become constrained, when accelerationism is about the implosion of the future in accelerating speed upon the present? Isn’t it Williams and Srnicek themselves who have misunderstood Land, accusing him of myopic vision, when in truth it is they themselves who have become fixated on outdated tools of critical appraisal an Marixian discourse that is no longer viable for what they see in front of them? This notion of free-floating capital, immaterial, wandering the networks of the new nomos of earth, a transnationalized flow valve of monetary bits channeled to the desires of an incomplete machinic unconscious? Progress never stopped, it just changed directions: innovation moved out of the national and into the global world where biotechnology, robotics, nanotech, artificial-intelligence… all the current drift toward transhumanism and a notion of Singularity (Kurzweil). Progress stopped only for the older Industrial systems in a America and EU. The creative destruction of the older technologies as such purveyors as Wal-Mart enforced new global regimes of production of on-demand, supply-side economics on a moment by moment basis have demonopolized the unions and the capitalist classism of old. The Left targets a world that no longer exists, and has yet to actually see the new world in all its fractured success. The world has changed but the Left has remained the SAME. In a void of ideological in-fighting and resuscitation of outmoded conceptuality it blindly moves forward espousing its epithets of derision and calls for a return to beginnings. A beginning is something New not a return…
W & S would even have us believe that the neoliberal forces have “progressed, rather than enabling individual creativity” and eliminated “cognitive inventiveness in favour of an affective production line of scripted interactions”. What they describe is more like a Ballardian future of affectless psychopaths who have become cyborgs of the new cognitariat of intellectual production who having absolved themselves of freedom live in gated cities secured by the RFID tags stapled to their DNA. They remind us that along with Land we should remember Marx, not as our contemporary Left seem to remember him, but as the prophet of accelerationism he was: “we must remember that Marx himself used the most advanced theoretical tools and empirical data available in an attempt to fully understand and transform his world. He was not a thinker who resisted modernity, but rather one who sought to analyse and intervene within it, understanding that for all its exploitation and corruption, capitalism remained the most advanced economic system to date. Its gains were not to be reversed, but accelerated beyond the constraints the capitalist value form.” Should we assume from the above that Marx is still Sacred Writ, that he is still providing the Left with the adamant script to be enforced? Is the capitalist world the same as in Marx’s time. Should we not finally begin thinking for ourselves, and incorporate Marx’s insights without following him as if by the letter of the law?
They even bring Lenin in on this accelerating future: “Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.” Why this need of a large-scale Social Engineering project? Is not already what the Neoliberal Thought Collective has done for the past 50 years? From the days of Mount Pelerin Society to now so well documented by Philips Mirowski in The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. As well as in such works as Angus Burgin’s The Great Persuasion, and/or Masters of the Universe by Daniel Steadman Jones. For Lenin it the central motif of Communism that what was required of capitalism was the ‘planned state’ as the driving force behind it, that otherwise it would be impossible to maintain. But isn’t this in itself an admission of failure and stasis, that someone would need to control and govern such energies, that without the iron fist of some central committee to drive such forces they would accelerate beyond reasonable control? Was Lenin always already defeated? That humans could control such impersonal forces? Isn’t this at the heart of what W & S mean when they tell the Left that it must embrace “suppressed accelerationist tendency” within Marxism itself freed of the entrapments of a planned state?
In their manifesto Williams and Srnicek call for an end to the divisions in the Left, for a folk politics based on “localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism”, and instead they tell the Left that they must embrace instead “an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” Does this not remind one of the earlier Italian futurists who embraced modernity to the point of “ruinous and incendiary violence”? They tell us that everyone wants to ‘work less’, but that instead we’ve seen the “progressive elimination of the work-life distinction, with work coming to permeate every aspect of the emerging social factory.”
They complain that instead of real freedom and inventiveness the neoliberalism has brought in its wake constraints that have narrowed the possibilities of work and production in a endless round of the same iterative inanity because of monopolization of those very forces. They tell us a return to the industrial style societies (Fordism) of the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century are foreclosed to us, that we there is nothing essentially wrong with neoliberalism other than that it needs to be ‘repurposed toward common ends’: “the existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-capitalism”.
“Who amongst us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await in the technology which has already been developed?” A question W & S ask. They remind us that the true potential of such technologies have yet to be ‘exploited’, that what is needed an acceleration in the ‘process of technological evolution’. Yet, they remind us that this is not some techno-utopian dream, but a way to resolve the current malaise within our world and provide a way to overcome our real ‘social conflicts’. But on the other hand they seem to fall back into old habits of thought telling us that this post-capitalist endeavor will require ‘post-capitalist planning’, that ‘we must develop both a cognitive map of the existing system and a speculative image of the future economic system’. How would that help? Wouldn’t any such effort be a totalizing gesture, a symbolic fiction of simulated mappings in some computer modeling algorithmic constellation based upon outworn Platonic representationlism of past economic systems? This would be to reenter the world of representation by the back door, a return to the past rather than some accelerating future. A sort of have your cake and eat it too methodology. A control system that totalizes everything through some centralized planning committee that leaves nothing to chance. Just another totalitarian regime of knowledge and power controlling the destiny of the earth and her inhabitants.
They even hint of such a tyrannical gesture when that tell the Left that they “must develop sociotechnical hegemony: both in the sphere of ideas, and in the sphere of material platforms”. In fact they tell us that democratic processes are not enough, that “direct action is sufficient to achieve any of this,” that the “habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing temporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success.” In fact, more pointedly that tell us that the “overwhelming privileging of democracy-as-process needs to be left behind”. Is this so? Hmmm… Instead of an open society they tell us that “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action”. Again, is this so? Is this the future of the Left? In a bold statement they reiterate: “Real democracy must be defined by its goal – collective self-mastery.” Such Nietzscheism seems quite different from what the Left has usually been associated. Yet, in a gesture of equivocation they try to wiggle out of such totalitarian centralization, saying:
We need to posit a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality, to avoid becoming the slaves of either a tyrannical totalitarian centralism or a capricious emergent order beyond our control. The command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network.
Instead of sectarianism and in-fighting that ensues with centralized planning they hope to evolve an “ecology of organisations, a pluralism of forces, resonating and feeding back on their comparative strengths.”
Out of this process they hope to achieve three goals: 1) Intellectual Infrastructure: “a new ideology, economic and social models, and a vision of the good to replace and surpass the emaciated ideals that rule our world today”; 2) Media Infrastructure: “wide-scale media reform” to bring media “as close as possible to popular control is crucial to undoing the current presentation of the state of things”; and, 3) Class Infrastructure: “reconstitute various forms of class power”. All of these enfolded within each other will produce they suggest a “positive feedback loop of infrastructural, ideological, social and economic transformation, generating a new complex hegemony, a new post-capitalist technosocial platform”. And, of course, it all comes down to money: “we require funding, whether from governments, institutions, think tanks, unions, or individual benefactors”. Without this such a project will be a pipe-dream for ludicrous activists. Like the titans of old they hope to overthrow capital like some new vanguard of hardened veterans: “We declare that only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.” With such Nietzschean aspirations of ‘maximal mastery over society and its environment’ whose worried about their fears of capitalism. They seem to be ready to bulldoze over history itself with such Promethean aspirations.
If as they tell us “accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society” what does such a letting loose portend? In Manichean terms they tell us we only have two choices ahead: “either a globalised post-capitalism or a slow fragmentation towards primitivism, perpetual crisis, and planetary ecological collapse.” And like the true constructionists they are they tell us the “future needs to be constructed,” that the failure of neoliberalism is that it fell into history, not that it ended history; and, that now the future that we seek is more modern – “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate. The future must be cracked open once again, unfastening our horizons towards the universal possibilities of the Outside.” Out of what magic box will we ‘generate’ this future? Is the future like heaven, a gate we must storm, a wall to surmount, an ocean or abyss to plumb? And what form shall such a unversalism take that seeks the possibilities of an ‘Outside’?
What they offer is a resurgent modernism or metamodernism, a postfuturism that unbinds us from the constraints of neoliberalism yet reterritorializes us within a planned economy controlled by a new elite. And what is this ‘Outside’? Is this another return to the old outmoded transcendental ethics and realisms of the past? There are many contradictions in the manifesto of Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek which need a complete rewrite to absolve it of its staid and outworn creeds of older misplaced ontologies and defunct political critiques dressed up in accelerationist garb. That there is a need to free us of the entrapments of the neoliberal system is one thing, but to suggest that we will be induced to find support for such a project from the “governments, institutions, think tanks, unions, or individual benefactors” seems a little far-fetched. Where are these to be found? As for their supposed move beyond a tyrannical central system how can you incorporate such a Promethiansim and Nietzschean self-mastery, as well as hegemonic control while working outside the very control mechanisms that support the platforms and infrastructures of such a projected planned society? And are we truly only left with two alternatives: a devolution into primitive barbarism and dark age, or a post-capitalist hegemony? Are there other as of yet unthought possibilities on the horizon? Or should we return to the real movement of communism of which Marx once said:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.
the essay is taken from:
by Steven Craig Hickman
It is thus necessary to make a distinction between speed and movement: a movement may be very fast, but that does not give it speed; a speed may be very slow, or even immobile, yet it is still speed. Movement is extensive; speed is intensive. Movement goes from point to point; speed, on the contrary, constitutes the absolute character of a body whose irreducible parts (atoms) occupy or fill a smooth space in the manner of a vortex, with the possibility of springing up at any point.
– Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Accelerationism is a community blog with several well known young philosophers investigating theories of an accelerated futurism: Tristam Adams, Jon Lindblom, Andrew Osborne, Benedict Singleton, Nick Srnicek, James Trafford, Tom Trevatt, Inigo Wilkins, Alex Williams, and Peter Wolfendale. I’ve covered much of this territory before (here) but thought I’d take a second look.
In a post Some Friendly Questions Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics fame tells us that the group has “taken quite a bit of flack online since the site went up, some of it informed and well intentioned, some of it the complete opposite, and much of it lying at various points in between”. I admit to being critical of the manifesto (pdf) by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in my previous post. My friend Levi in a post affirming aspects of Srnicek and Williams manifesto mentioned in passing – commenting on my post, that “Perhaps I just completely fail to understand what the accelerationists are on about, but I find noir’s picture unrecognizable”. So I thought to myself: was my appraisal that far off base? Does this accelerationism deserve a second look? I thought “Okay, let’s give them the benefit of doubt, take another look, see exactly what it is they are saying to us. For those that are interested there is a five part series on Social Accelerationism on the Social Acceleration blog (here) which I touch base with below as another aspect of what I perceive as part of several conditions for an accelerationist critique; or, as I define it a temporal critique. I know that for the most part Srnicek and Williams manifesto dealt with a specifically political vision, but we should also see accelerationist discourse as viable in other domains as well.
What the Accelerationists seem to be saying is that we need a return to modernity rather than this dead zone of postmodern boredom and malaise and stasis that offers little more than a postnihilist rapture in transhumanism or a politics of despair in some technocratic capitalist realism. But which path of acceleration shall we take: Nick Land and his Reactionary followers on the Right (see Outside In) offer the Dark Enlightenment with their ringleader, Mencius Moldbug to run the global circus; while Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Manifesto) and their ensemble of Accelerationists on the Left seek another path, which seems to be a return to an ultra-modernism. McKenzie Wark offers a critique of Nick’s and Alex’s Manifesto as well (see both from here). I have spoken of Accelerationism as well in previous blog posts (here) and (here).
Wolfendale’s post relates answers to some questions provided by Tom O’Shea that he hopes will alleviate some of the criticisms as well us relaying vital information about this project. The first question “Does accelerationism collapse into mere futurism—simply substituting abstraction for mechanics (e.g. HFT for cars)?” deals with difference and could be expanded to include: what is the difference between accelerationism and futurism, what are the relations between the two concepts if any, and can we equate the two concepts or notions as equivalent, can the one be reduced to the other or vice versa? Wolfendale tells us succinctly that
“Accelerationism is in many ways an attempt to revive previous cultural and theoretical ways of relating to the future that have been suppressed, subverted, or otherwise simply degraded in the latter half of the 20th century to now. Amongst these the notions of modernism and futurism and the cultural movements associated with them are crucial predecessors to anything we’re doing.”
This revivication of modernism and futurism within a socio-cultural theoretic formation entails us to first understand just what was “suppressed, subverted, or otherwise degraded” by the post-modern turn that seems to be the central to their argument. If this is so then we need first to understand what these new accelerationists see from that historical matrix of ideas and concepts alleged under the notions of modernism and futurism. Ezra Pound probably typified in his statement: “Make if New!” the essential screed of the modernist ethic. Yet, modernism cannot be reduced to simple screeds, it is too complex, too full of antagonistic elements and movements to be reduced to an essentialist discourse of any type or persuasion. Harold Rosenberg once argued that the progenitor of modernism was none other than the poet, Baudelaire “who invited fugitives from the too narrow world of memory to come aboard with him in search of the New”. 1 Some have suggested that The Scream injects that sense of apprehension and angst that is central to the modernist spirit. As Peter Gay remarks in his seminal study of the period:
The Scream, widely considered the quintessence of modern angst, which he revisited in several versions from 1893 on, shows a scantily articulated figure— whether man or woman is impossible to determine— its hands clasped to its cheeks, its eyes staring, its mouth wide open, standing on a long bridge, with ominous clouds swirling around. We have it from Munch himself that the idea for this portrait of a nervous fit came to him after experiencing an overpowering anxiety attack. But usually its untold thousands of viewers have generalized his nightmarish vision and read The Scream as the artistic epitome of the nervous unease that observant contemporaries thought was haunting crowded and bustling urban existence in the 1890s.2
The Scream - Munch
There were others within modernism that felt a need to open new spaces for thought, art, sociality, etc., and to do that they suggested we should begin by a few deft acts of destruction. In an extreme movement against the reactionary forces within bourgeois society the outspoken French Realist critic and novelist Edmond Duranty had suggested that the Louvre, that “catacomb,” be burned to the ground, an idea that the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro happily endorsed some two decades later. The demolition of these “necropolises of art,” he thought, would greatly advance the progress of painting. Indeed, at their most bellicose, modernists refused to entertain any traffic with what Gauguin snidely called “the putrid kiss of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.”(ibid. KL 424-430)
Manifesto of Futurism
But then we come to the Italian Futurists, who, not unexpectedly, made destruction of these bourgeois institutions an ingredient in their immoderate program of aggression against contemporary culture: “We want to demolish the museums, the libraries,” exclaimed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the group’s founder, in his Initial Manifesto of Futurism of 1909, “combat moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian acts of cowardice.” Hostility could hardly go further short of direct action. At its most central futurism was about speed: Futurists insist that literature will not be overtaken by progress; rather, it will absorb progress in its evolution, and will demonstrate that such progress must manifest in this manner because Man will use this progress to sincerely let his instinctive nature explode. Man is reacting against the potentially overwhelming strength of progress, and shouts out his centrality. Man will use speed, not the opposite. F. T. Marinetti was very active in Fascist politics until he withdrew in protest of the “Roman Grandeur” which had come to dominate Fascist aesthetics. Mussolini once said that the historic soil of Rome had ‘a magical power’. For fascism, the discovery and restoration of Roman ruins was mainly ‘symbolic archeology’, inspired by a mythical attraction towards a ‘sacred centre’ and a desire to come into contact with its ‘magical power’. The fascists also treated the ‘birth of Rome’ ceremony as an initiation ritual, intended to familiarize initiates with ‘romanita’. This ceremony was also inspired by ‘a “divine will”, by an imperial and powerful will’, through which ‘the new Italian resumes spiritual contact with ancient Rome.3 As Peter Gay remarks:
The Futurists’ public declamations, in large part written by their leader and self-appointed spokesman, Marinetti, and noted for their fierce anti-traditional and uninhibited tone, broadcast their case for bellicosity, together with calls for manliness. They were a blatant symptom of discontent with a foreign policy of compromise, and the anxiety about what many termed a nationwide failure of male self-confidence. This ideology made them ideal forerunners for the Fascists’ ambitious, if vague, agenda. Thus several elements of modernism entered Fascist culture with no need for translation. (Kindle Locations 6903-6907).
All of this brings us back to our New Accelerationists, and to the question that Wolfendale paraphrased as “in what ways are we not simply returning to these concepts/movements, but trying to inherit and develop them?” Wolfendale argues that instead of the nostalgic language of return, rehabilitation, or defence Accelerationism offers a model of inheritance and development. First, he tells us that this new accelerationist creed situates itself within a Hegelian tradition of dialectical historicism. Yet, against some of the more encrusted conceptual notions associated with Marxian absorption of Hegelian dialectic for historical materialism Wolfendale offers this ‘stripped-down’ version without the excess baggage of Marx’s various linguistic and conceptual trappings. Wolfendale disparages both Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek for what he terms their resurrection of Hegel, insofar as it just looks like Lacan/Sartre/Schelling wearing a Hegel mask.
“What of futurism and modernism then?,” asks Wolfendale. Applying his ‘minimalist dialectic’ he informs us that we can now separate the truth from the falsity that has been obscured by both the disparagement of post-modern turn theorists or sublimated by contemporary capitalist discourse out of touch with these radical notions. Against those supposed post-moderns he would revive Lyotard – who has fallen out of favor in recent critical history, saying, the “point is that Lyotard’s thought explicitly denies anything like a historical epoch of ‘postmodernity’, and that anything which self-identifies as postmodernism on the basis of an analysis of such an epoch is thus highly suspect.” The point is for the new accelerationist is to bypass postmodernity altogether as if it were itself an illusionary project that had no bearing on the return of modernism and futurism.
Instead he offers a Futurist Opportunism that opposes three aspects of the political: 1) political nostalgia (any notion of a “return to the good old days of revolutionary praxis, etc.”); 2) political activism (which stuck in the moment, the eternal now, offers no view onto the future coming at us); and, 3) political eschatology (“whose relationship to the future has become pathological”). One is reminded of Matteo Pasquinelli who in his ‘Manifesto of Urban Cannibalism’, says, “if in the modern age ‘Europe was beginning to devour, to digest the world’, urban cannibalism is the nemesis of late capitalism”. Such apopcalypticisms offered an eschatology of the political that could open new spaces of struggle against a capitalist totality – methodologically reframing Western neoliberal economics – which on the one hand appears to be unavoidable, and on the other hand constantly changes its form. What these new accelerationist oppose is not so much this pop-culture of zombie capitalism discourse as it is any “consideration of future social transformations from both theoretical attempts to identify the enabling conditions of these transformations in the present and practical attempts to act upon them to bring about such transformations”. So its a need to find the new possibilities or conditions of the future in the present that might offer real change and social transformation that is at stake rather than some dire need to enter the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War Z variety.
Wolfendale tells us that what accelerationsism is most against is the “bland techno-capitalist vision of incrementally upgrading of the present state of affairs, which lacks both plausibility and vision”. And that what we need are new visions, by “creating a new link to history, by finding opportunities in the present to appropriate trends from the past and accelerate them into the future”. Which makes it seem like accelerationism is a sort of ‘time-machine’ that is able to exploit opportunities within events of our moment, as well as movements still viable with events of the past – which makes me beg the question why they despise Badiou/Zizek so much, since this is much the same as what those two argue for in their ‘Idea of communism’ essays. And, not to be matched, they want to accelerate the present and past into the future. How is this possible? What concepts are notions of Time does this accelerationist philosophy conceive as its central insight? Do we enter this future through some speed machine, some strange twisting of time and gravity, a loop through the infinite wormhole of possibility; or, is our temporal registry skewed beyond our limited Kantian categories, bound to an engine of necessity that slows us to a standstill allowing the past and future to bleed into our present finitudes like so many small rivulets from a great river that has no beginning and no ending.
“The imperative is to see both the past and the future in the present, in the nooks and crannies of the current system, and to exploit these mercilessly, without waiting for some deferred revolutionary horizon or mourning the passing of the old conditions that may have made it possible.” says, Wolfendale. In other words time is not some object situated in the past or future, it exists in the very movement of our present global system, waiting for us to exploit it without mercy or forethought. This is sounding more like Harman’s ‘Time is an Illusion’, or like Julian Barbour’s ideas of all those pockets of time sitting out there disconnected waiting to be exposed and manipulated, each isolated in their own eternal nows. If the past and future exist to be manipulated in this eternal now of our present moment then what is accelerationism? Is it a speeding up of the mind itself to light speed? Does the mind overcome the inertia of universal entropy? Do we suddenly allow the past and future to bleed into the present making our ability to change the political systems at will? Are do we anticipate the future by inventing it out of our past and present needs? Or, better yet, maybe it is the future that is inventing us out of the specters of past civilizations, cracking open the dead zones of lost realities, pulling out of their twisted faded shadow life the formations for our present dispositions?
From its beginnings Modernism and Futurism have practically embodied the experience of acceleration: “modernity is about the acceleration of time,” ran Peter Conrad’s influential formula. This is confirmed by the testimonies from the “epochal threshold” investigated by Koselleck as well as by the theoretical frameworks of “classical” sociology. From Simmel’s observation of the continuous “heightening of nervous life” in the modern metropolis to Weber’s analysis of the time discipline of the Protestant ethic, for which wasting time is the “the deadliest of all sins,” and from Durkheim’s fear of anomie as a result of overly rapid social change to Marx and Engel’s dictum that capitalism’s inherent tendency is to make all that is solid “melt into air,” classical sociological analyses of modernity can always be reconstructed as diagnoses of acceleration.4
So the key to Accelerationism is a new theory of Time or the temporal use of history and the future in the present. Could it be that the post-modern turn forgot about Time? That it formulated simulations in a void, created static models based on mathemes that were in themselves based on Platonic entities rather than the real processes of change in the world? Maybe the reason for this is above all a “forgetfulness of time” in twentieth-century social-scientific theory, which notoriously preferred “static” models of society and modeled the modernization process (almost entirely according to the analytical pattern of a “comparative statics”) along the dimensions of structural differentiation, cultural rationalization, the individualization of personality, and the domestication of nature (Hartmut p. 300). What if there was not just one monolithic past, present, and future but a plurality of bubbles or spheres of time? What then? What if there are many types of acceleration, and not all on the same time track, but colliding with each other in ways we have yet to understand?
What if we break it down into three complementary components of acceleration as Hartmut Rosa does in Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity:
1) technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes. From this perspective, the acceleration history of modernity essentially represents a history of the progressive acceleration of transportation, communication, and production.
2) the acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations. As Hartmut puts it : Here “acceleration” means primarily the accelerated change of fashions, lifestyles, work, family structures, political and religious ties, etc. For the definition and empirical operationalization of this form of acceleration I drew on the concept of the contraction of the present introduced by Hermann Lübbe, but also justifiable on systems-theoretical grounds. Accordingly, “the acceleration of social change” means the following: the intervals of time for which one can assume stability in the sense of a general congruence of the space of experience and the horizon of expectation (and hence a secure set of expectations) progressively shrink in the various domains of society, whether these are understood in terms of values, functions, or types of action, although this shrinkage neither occurs in a unilinear way nor at the same tempo across the board. Thus the acceleration of social change can be defined as the increase of the rate of decay of action-orienting experiences and expectations and as the shortening of the periods of time that are defined as “the present” in the respective spheres of society.(p. 301)
3) the acceleration of the pace of life, represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/ or experience per unit of time.
Along with this is certain counter tendencies or antagonistic forces that seek to bind acceleration and curtail its effects. She terms these counter-dynamization processes:
first, there are natural geophysical, biological, and anthropological speed limits, that is, processes that either absolutely cannot be manipulated or only at the price of a massive qualitative transformation of the process to be accelerated;
second, there are territorial, cultural, and structural “islands of deceleration,” i.e., areas that are in principle susceptible to modernization and hence to processes of acceleration but that have, up till now, not been caught up in them or have managed (at least for the time being) to remain idle. They thus appear to be places where “time stands still.”;
third, there are in many fields of action blockages and slowdowns occur again and again as unintended side effects of acceleration that can lead to dysfunctional and, to some extent, pathological consequences. The most well-known example of this is the traffic jam, though economic recessions and forms of depressive illness can also be placed under this heading. Yet beyond this, acceleration-induced unintended slowdown also occurs at the interface points of functional systems or processing cycles when these prove to be capable of acceleration to different extents, which causes desynchronization problems that are expressed in unwanted waiting times: for instance, when the new long-distance express train arrives at the station twenty minutes earlier than the old long-distance train did, but the local commuter train comes at the same time it did before;
fourth, there are phenomena of intentional deceleration, which appear in two different forms: either as “functional” or “accelerative” deceleration in the sense of individual and collective moratoria or phases of recuperation (as in the four-week retreat of a CEO to the tranquillity of a monastery) that ultimately serve the goal of further increases of speed (for example, in the form of an increased capacity for innovation) or as “ideological” deceleration movements that often have a fundamentalist or antimodernist character and aim at genuine social slowdown or a stalling of the acceleration process in the name of a better society and a better form of life. This idea of deceleration may even be on the verge of becoming the dominant counter-ideology of the twenty-first century;
and, fifth, there are cultural and structural phenomena that embody a tendency toward rigidity. This tendency does not appear to be a self-standing principle, but rather the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration. These phenomena constitute the basis for the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization. It is often precisely in phases of an intense surge of acceleration that this phenomenon is reflected individually in manifestations of “ennui” or “existential boredom” and collectively in the diagnosis of cultural crystallization, or the “end of history,” but in both cases as the perception of a return of the ever same.(303-304)
It was Niklas Luhmann among other representatives of systems theory who defended the idea that the principle of functional differentiation is generally accompanied by the heightening and temporalization of complexity: decisions are not all made simultaneously, but rather a growing number are displaced into the future, thus constantly increasing the amount of open and realizable options. So the notion of accelerating our options and programs into the future has its own lineage. If the Enlightenment project can be seen as the temporalization of history with its concomitant of speed, then post-modernity can be seen as the detemporalization of history into static modes of life. In our time we are seeing the political project of modernity coming possibly to its end as a result of the desynchronization of socioeconomic development and political action. The dialectical inversion of acceleration and movement into rigidity and standstill, which is, so to speak, the leitmotif of this analysis of the modern acceleration process, which culminates in a “postmodern” political culture that dispenses with the claims to autonomy and identity that have always characterized the project and ethos of modernity.(314) Wark at the end of the essay gives some cogent advice:
What remains is to push it a little toward a more ‘left-accelerationist’ position, without lapsing into the sins of the left: the fetish of politics as the magical solution to everything high among them.
Ours has been seen as the age of ‘Time Sickness’, of too little time and too much speed all colliding in a time-induced void that offer ‘pathologies of change’ rather than change itself. Caught between modes of acclerationism/decelerationism we find ourselves pulled by forces into temporal dilemmas that have opened wounds in our collective as well as singular psyches, opening flows that end in stasis, or produce blockages that open onto chaos and timeless contingencies. Because of this the old critiques of alienation must become for us a Critique of Time. As our socioeconomic and technocapitalist spheres of influence seep between time past,present, and future, and our movements speed up in endless cycles of rage, our ability to control those forces through collective decision making processes are slowing down to zero. And more the acceleration of technique leads to the apparent slowdown and collapse of the environment and natural resource base that sustains this acceleration process.
What we are seeing in our time is the end of the Enlightenment project, an end to modernity and postmodernity as new forms of posthuman subjectivity begin to open up alternative paths and lines of flight, and make inroads from the future into our present moments. New modes of perception, new ways to process speed, and new forms of individual and collective self-relations are even now in the midst of forming as these new modes of existence insert themselves within the wounds or interstices of our forgotten lives. What these new modes of existence and posthuman subjectivity might entail are still open possibilities, yet fragments of that future lie scattered everywhere in our present moments waiting to be awakened and put into play. How we approach this maddening moment as the forces of acceleration/deceleration seem locked in eventful battle is undecided and undecideable. Yet, the breaking of the symmetry of time in synchronic-diachronic lines of flights are bifurcating outward even now.
Long before these forces play themselves out and before that point is reached when capital consumes the last of earth’s resources these ‘pathologies of acceleration’ might well have replaced us with our posthuman progeny through some as yet unknown bifurcation in time. Yet, if we can establish a temporal critique worthy of a new Posthuman project who can say what possibilities will remain to us as we open that past and that future in our present moments of empirical movement. Cracking open the dark rift that bars us from that future where our own singularities await us on the final speed bump at the edge of time, we may just discover the unique potential that awaits the human species itself as the conditions for its own possibilities flowers into a thousand resilient forms. If Utopia is only the possibility of hope that keeps us following those lines of flight toward impossible futures, and its opposite is the dystopic entropy of a false stasis at the end of the line enfolding us into that dark abyss from which there is no exit, then what is the path between – the one that offers us the only balancing act worth having and living, that of reality itself?
1. Harold Rosenberg. The Tradition of the New. (1959)
2. Gay, Peter (2010-08-16). Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (Kindle Locations 2004-2010). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
3. Fascism as Political Religion. Emilio Gentile. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 25 No. 2/3 (May-Jun., 1990) pp. 229-251)
4. Rosa, Hartmut (2013-05-21). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (New Directions in Critical Theory) (pp. 299-300). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
the essay is taken from:
by McKenzie Wark
Rather than read books when they come out, I like to lay them down for a while. Sometimes their flavors get richer, just like wine – and sometimes they turn out to be vinegar. I set aside Matteo Pasquinelli’s book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (NAi, 2008) because I did not care for how he interpreted my own work. But now, four years later, I partly agree with him about that, and in any case the book turns out to be robust, complex and built to last. So here are some notes of engagement with it.
Pasquinelli’s work descends from the Franco-Italian or autonomist school of Marxism, which he brings into contact with the literary and digital avant-gardes and also with (mostly) Anglophone work on the critical theory of the city. These turn out to be fruitful encounters. However, I think it starts to push against certain limitations of the autonomist paradigm.
Put simply, the autonomist approach is a philosophical interpretation of Marx, drawn substantially from his Grundrisse, which privileges living labor as a kind of vitalist and productive agent. It shares with Bogdanov and proletkult a devotion to the labor point of view, but interpreted as labor against the totality, rather than as labor extending its organizational capacity toward the totality. And where Bogdanov makes labor’s relation to nature primary, for the autonomists it is all about capital as antagonist. Theirs is a Spinozist and Deleuzian universe, with only one agent – the vitalist energy of labor – on which capital is a reactive fetter.
The main virtue of the autonomist school is that it tried to forge new concepts to keep up with what became of labor’s struggles in the over-developed world in the late twentieth century and beyond. Hence they often talk of how the exploitation of labor in the factory gave way to the exploitation of the multitude within the social factory, where industrial capitalism gave way to cognitive capitalism, or semiocapitalism which exploits immaterial labor, giving rise to new social subjects, such as the cognitariat or immaterial worker, as expressions of the general intellect.
I have some problems with this language. It seems to depend on the somewhat limited example of Italy and France over the last forty years. In this it tends to be a bit provincial. I was never happy with this idea of the immaterial, which seems to me to reify a certain idea of what ‘materiality’ is, by simply doubling it with the non-concept of the ‘immaterial.’ What could ‘immaterial’ possibly mean? This always seemed to me to be a refusal to think the mutation in the very concept of materiality that occurs in the natural sciences and thence in applied science and engineering.
Information is not something ‘immaterial’; it is an aspect of materiality that begins to be industrially exploited as such only in the mid-twentieth century. Understanding this requires an extra-philosophical excursion into the labors of the applied sciences. Materialism can never be a philosophical category. Materialism as a concept can only ever translate into conceptual terms what advanced forms of labor, such as the sciences, have discovered and produced as the material in a given era. In this respect, the Bogdanovites are more consistent in thinking from the labor point of view than the autonomists, who smuggle old philosophical notions of a contemplative materialism back into their social theory.
In short: autonomist thought had the advantage over more dogmatic Marxisms in at least dealing with more contemporary situations, but it took local conditions for general ones, and its elaboration of classical concepts followed the temporary expedient of adding linguistic modifiers (im-material; cog rather than prol-etariat, and so on). These could only ever be place-holders for further work.
One useful way that Pasquinelli moves us on from the standard Italian thought is in introducing the question of energy back into the picture. But here I think the privileging of living labor in autonomist thought, often given a vitalist hue, holds him back a bit. When he speaks of energy he sometimes means energy production, but he often limits his analysis to social energy alone.
Following Paolo Virno, Pasquinelli sees this social energy as an ambiguous force. Here he usefully takes his distance from the rather more sunny faith in the people or in the multitude that one finds across a range of figures from Noam Chomsky to Hardt and Negri. As if when the day came when the fetters of capital and state are cast aside, all will be sunshine and unicorns.
Speaking of mythical beasts: Pasquinelli thinks the multitude as an ambivalent category, whose base urges and irrational obsessions are as much a part of today’s urban, networked production chains as labor and reason. He offers a bestiary for thinking the agency of these aspects of multitude, and zeroes-in on three topics where the animal spirits of contemporary commodity production can seen at work and play.
His three topics are ‘free culture, the ‘creative city’ and the confluence of porn and war imagery on the internet. These topics each have their own presiding monster or conceptual beast: the corporate parasite that lives off free culture, the hydra that feeds on the gentrification of the creative cities, and the two-headed eagle of power and desire that lives in the more troubling image-world of the ‘net'. Perhaps it is time to have done with the figure of Man, the ‘political animal’, and think instead of other political animals, of a more monstrous and inhuman kind. It is a way of proceeding behind the back, as it were, of what Giorgio Agamben calls the anthropological machine, and its relentless chopping of the human off from the animal.
Pasquinelli: “The concept of animal spirits supplies the missing ground of the three idle loops of theory, art and activism.” (27) His ambition is to tap the “zeitgeist of the biosphere” (15), where questions of energy and climate are slowly consuming the hopes and dreams of a kind of weightless, bodiless digital gnosis in which we might all hope to become angels in a network of pure data. Conceptually, he achieves this with an important and seemingly obvious idea that is often completely overlooked: the proposition that what defines a system is the external access to energy that makes it run.
Here he sets himself against both the euphoric newspeak of the digital, but also against the language fetishism that lingered on in the theory world, from Baudrillard to Zizek. After Althusser declared the superstructures relatively autonomous, Marxist and post-Marxist theory settled down to thinking language as the only ‘material’ out of which the superstructures are made, and set about a critique of representation. In Baudrillard, this terminated in a critique of representation itself; in Zizek, it ended up in an all-enclosing critical three-step via which the symbolic order works to produce the split subject over and over as the same. “The over-arching suspicion is that Lacan and Zizek make the disease worse, trapping frustration in an even more oppressive matrix.” (22)
Pasquinelli follows rather that line of thought that co-joins Guattari and the Italian autonomists in thinking language as a means of production rather than of representation. From Virno in particular he acquires a sense of its ambivalence. Unlike Habermas, for whom language grounds the possibility of the unforced-force of reason, or Bogdanov for whom it could be the metaphoric engine of cooperative labor, for Virno and Pasquinelli, language is not an alternative to competition and antagonism but its very means.
Hence the starting point is the animal body of our species-being, with its drives and aggressions, but also its productive energy. This is quite the opposite of a certain concept of biopower, which tends to adopt the point of view not of labor but of power itself, and to insist that it is this external power that is productive. As Michel De Certeau pointed out long ago, this is always the problem with Foucault: his is always the point of view of power. That his work became a sort of doxa in the humanities is a phenomenon worthy of much more critical scrutiny.
Pasquinelli thinks he is starting somewhere other than from Haraway’s famous cyborg, but this is not actually the case. Her figure was always one of both labor and language, technics and flesh. Hers is a version of the labor point of view in which what Marx called living and dead labor are fused in an artificial ecology of production and reproduction. The cyborg is a concept that rather troubles the fetish of living labor in autonomist thought, which rarely attends to how much of our vitalist selves are actually machine made these days. Here Preciado’s work is a useful corrective, in that it brings Haraway to bear on the limits on such weightless concepts as ‘immaterial labor’ and the ‘general intellect.’
The human is an animal open to the world, and culture is an expression rather than limit to its conflictive nature. Pasquinelli offers a sinister version of the dialectic of enlightenment. The culture industry is not a regression but an extension of our animal spirits. The challenge is to turn the drives into antidotes to themselves.
No radicalism is possible based on a fictitious goodness or neutrality of human nature. The enlightenment, it turns out, only amplifies aggression. Destructive drives have to be managed by the multitude itself. In a way this could be seen as descending, as does the work of Laruelle, from the heretical materialism of the gnostics, but without the promise of redemption in a higher heaven of the old gnostic heresies.
Pasquinelli is rightly suspicious of the fantasy of the digital realm as some kind of redemption from our filthy animal selves. In his view, the so-called knowledge economy, or the information economy – call it what you like – is rather a parasite on the material economy. His focus is on the unequal exchange of energy, via which one strata of the socius extracts more from the layer ‘below’ it than it give back.
He draws the concept of the parasite from a largely forgotten work by Michel Serres, The Parasite, which I have to confess I have not read for twenty years. Pasquinelli makes it a very productive source for fresh thinking. The parsite takes energy and repays it in information. It is a figure of unequal exchange, I would say even of incommensurable exchange. Pasquinelli usefully interjects the categories of energy, surplus and unequal exchange into a discourse stuck on the ideas of code and flow.
It is a way out of making a fetish of code and assuming that whatever flows, flows eternally. Pasquinelli:“our tools have now begun to impose their own internal languages to describe themselves” (54) This is analogous to what I called gamespace in Gamer Theory, a kind of totalizing topology that understands the world as discrete, quantifiable values in global competition, unable to understand itself as a second-order system made possible by energy sources whose global effects are outside its parameters of detection.
As Pasquinelli puts it: “There is no Second Life, no autonomous cyberspace – all machines belong to the bios.” (56) There’s no gnostic haven of pure signs. Both biological and computer systems are energy systems. Pasquinelli sees the reduction of life to genetic code as of a piece with a kind of code fetishism – but here once again he misses a connection to a useful ally in Haraway, who made exactly this point in her Modest_Witness book, and who always had a deep connection to a more organicist biology, going back to Joseph Needham.
But no matter: even if he missed that connetion, Pasquinelli makes a brilliant other connection to Serres, and the asymmetry of energy exchange. Serres offers a far less jolly machine energetics than Deleuze and Guattari, which tended to see only endless flow, as if Bataille’s solar excess just went on happily forever when trapped in the greenhouse of the planet.
Serres offers the suggestive category of abuse value, as that which always precedes use value and is its condition of possibility. Exploitation begins with the extraction of energy, then, and the so-called information revolution is a parasite upon it. Or, perhaps it is a kind of theft of information. Pasquinelli: “What then happens to the notion of multitude, intended as a the self-organization of the general intellect into an antagonistic subject, when the parasite of intellectual labor enters the political arena?” (72) Well, to keep such questions open was exactly why I proposed three distinct kinds of productive class: farmer, worker, hacker. It may well be the case that each depends on its historical predecessor for a surplus on which to labor.
I find it helpful when Pasquinelli starts to move away from the old philosophical vitalism of the ‘multitude’ towards a more nuanced and organicist picture of what Haraway calls natureculture, which in its current state can be designated with Marx’s prophetic term metabolic rift. Pasquinelli: “Organicism does not mean a new vitalism, but an acknowledgement of the dystopian reality driven by unstable cycles of surplus, entropy and neg-entropy.” (63) This was Platonov’s intuition of the totality; this was Needham’s world.
I also find helpful the recoding of the beast of info-tech exploitation from vampire to parasite, for the latter is usually a symbiotic creature. It does not intend to kill the host that feeds it. It wants the host alive, and as such is a more sinister figure. Pasquinelli’s world is a series of parasites upon parasites, of energy extracted from the world, but suborned by one parasite after another – and in exchange for what? Pasquinelli: “the immaterial parasite is an assemblage of semiotic, technological and biological strata that extracts an energy surplus (in the form of labor as well as money or libidinal investments.)” (66)
It is a form of rent-extraction. Whether in the industries of media infrastructure, urban real-estate, intellectual property of finance, rent becomes the dominant form of surplus. I’m not sure if it is helpful to extend the category of rent beyond a more technical understanding. For Ricardo, rent was different from profit, in that rising prices could not lead to increased supply. There’s only so much land of a given quality or proximity. Increased demand leads to rents that just keep rising. Of course it is possible to think of other situations where monopolizing supply defeats the corrective mechanism of added supply from competitors. But at some point ‘rent’ starts to feel more like an analogy than a concept.
Paying attention to unequal exchange, parasitism and even rent-extraction does however return a certain ‘materialist’ grounding to a kind of media discourse that has become weightless and virtual. Pasquinelli calls this ‘digitalism’, or the embrace of the “gnostic temptation of the sign.” (70) In its current incarnation, the info-tech parasite is no longer exclusively interested in trying to lock down information restrictive forms of intellectual property – although that is certainly still one of its strategies. Rather, the other aspect of its practice is to exploit the ‘commons’ of shared resources. As Paul Burkett shows, Marx thought capital depended on a ‘free gift’ from nature. Now capital’s latter-day avatars have found ways to corner the surplus from urban, aesthetic, social and even information ‘commons.’
Pasquinelli is rightly critical of ‘cyberspace’ discourses that suffer from the digitalism of trying to think the information economy divorced from more material ones. This kind of ‘cheap gnosis’ posits a purely specular relation between the world of signs and the world of energy. It looks only at information to information exchanges, and favors the model of the gift. It does not acknowledge the labor and energy that makes it possible, “yet it is estimated that an avatar on Second Life consumes more electricity than the average Brazillian.” (73)
Digitalism is an approach that pays attention to tech evolution but avoids any dimension of conflict from the picture. I should add here that in this it is not new, and is a mode of thought that goes back to Saint-Simon. The question of how Saint-Simon’s thought mutated over the years into today’s digitalism would certainly repay closer study.
Digitalism has tended to be obsessed with property rights but not questions of production. In Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benckler, information appears as a non- rivalrous good, but friction with the material economy of labor, matter and energy hardly ever appears. Pasquinelli further adds that non-rivalrous information produces conflict rather than cooperation, but here I think he misses some of the subtlety of things like free software social organization, which is indeed about channeling the animal spirits of programmers towards common goals by appealing to their rivalry and desire for recognition. It is a very different structure of feeling to labor solidarity and equality, and not the least reason to think that the hacker class is a different beast to labor.
The critique of property relations in information actually had two sources. One was the programming world; the other was post-situationist avant-gardes. Pasquinelli builds on the critique of what one might call the Neoist avant-garde: Florian Cramer, Anna Nimus (actually a pseud for Dmytri Kleiner and Joanne Richardson), and Kleiner writing under his own name. These artist-writer-activists saw the limitations of things like the Creative Commons license, or free software’s idea of copyleft, in that its most common flavors gave the user consumer rights but not producer rights. They opened a discussion on the autonomous right to produce out of the ‘common’ stock. Kleiner even proposes a copyfarleft, which restricts rights of use for companies but opens them for worker’s cooperatives.
But as Pasquinelli rightly points out, the information commons ended up being captured by the commodity form. It might annoy Hollywood movie studios that their stuff is all online for free, but it is all going to support a whole raft of other industries, from the makers of routers and computers to even Google. And as Tiziana Terranova pointed out quite early on, the commons depends on a lot of free labor, or perhaps non-labor, work that takes time and energy but is not compensated at all and hence not even recognized as labor.
I think it is worth pointing out that there’s a bit of wisdom of hindsight going on about this now. Here are some dates for the founding of key institutions of the digital commons: Project Guttenberg (1971), Usenet (1980), Free Software Foundation (1985), Wikipedia (2001)and Creative Commons (2001). Here are dates for major companies that figured out how to exploit the information commons: Google IPO (2004), Facebook (2004). These are built on the ruins of earlier attempts that faded into oblivion: America Online (1991), Geocities (1994). It was not unreasonable, up until the early 2000s, to think free culture could win this one. In the end, we won the battle but lost the war. But it took them 30 years to beat us.
It would also be more consistent with autonomist Marxism itself to argue that it was the agency of the ‘multitude’ itself in finding ways to free information from the private property form that pushed the ruling class, firstly into a reactive posture of trying to shore up the old property regime, and then into the more effective remedy of finding ways to recapture those flows in new kinds of commodity relation. The people made history, but not in a format of our choosing.
Moreover, I think there were at least two kinds of agency here. One was a kind of popular agency, a social movement in all but name, that thought of popular culture as our culture, the culture of the people, as the product of our unconscious drives and desire, and took it back. The other agency was more specialized, and composed of those whose effort was captured in the intellectual property form and rendered equivalent by the market, but where that effort was not quite ‘labor’. This I still call the hacker class. What Yann Moulier Boutang calls cognitive capitalism came to depend on the work-product of the hacker class to drive accumulation, and it evolved forms of workplace practice, modes of valuation, investment decision protocols and so forth to build an economy in which information was what controlled and arranged matter and energy by subordinating it to powerful tools of abstraction.
Pasquinelli is critical of my older analysis of this moment, and in some ways rightly so. He thinks I was “trapped in a form of digitalism.” (87) He reads the category of the hacker class as a “Californian translation” of what the autonomists called immaterial workers, the cognitariat, the multitude or the general intellect. But I think I had good reasons for rejecting this language. The ‘immaterial’ simply imposes a linguistic differential (material/immaterial) to cover the very thing that needs to be understood at the technical level.
There is no such thing as the immaterial. Rather, information science produced a mutation in how the material world can be understood and controlled. It really is just a matter of controlling matter at the level of electrons. From that came a half-century long build-out of an infrastructure made of both dead and living labor whereby this means of controlling matter became the means of imposing abstraction on the world at a hitherto impossible level of scale and speed.
The hacker class is the producer, not of concrete things, but of modes of abstraction. But Pasquinelli slightly misreads this. Viz: “Wark’s hacker class is, therefore, specifically defined by the power of abstraction (the ability to shape new ideas, or the creative act) rather than the living labor or cooperation between brains found in the Autonomist Marxism of Negri, Lazzarato or Virno.” (87) But an abstraction is not an idea. The autonomists keep slipping towards philosophical idealism, or the vitalism of fetishizing ‘living labor’, by not thinking through in a more vulgar fashion the mutations in the means of production over the last half century or so.
What is abstract is a material world in which both matter and energy are controlled by an infrastructure that subordinates them to information. It is an apparatus whose evolving properties stem from the efforts of the hacker class, whose contributions are registered and valued as intellectual property. But the hacker class does not end up owning and controlling the world it enables. It becomes the property of a ruling class, perhaps of a new kind.
As it says in the ‘Communist Manifesto’, the forces for social change are those who ask the ‘property question,’ for it is the property form that is the superstructural expression of infrastructural developments in the ownership and control of the forces of production. Hence I don’t think it is a matter of asking a production question instead of a property question, but rather asking the property question as a question about production, and specifically about how the forces of production change, and are captured by mutating forms of inequality and exploitation.
By not paying close enough attention to this, I think the autonomists ends up with concepts that – ironically enough – did only work at the level of a kind of linguistic or structural binary: material / immaterial; productive labor / general intellect; proletariat / cognitariat. The second term is constructed as the inverse of the first, like Levi-Strauss’ the raw / the cooked. This mythic and structural bifurcation was then too-hastily packed back into a Spinozist monism by insisting that it is all about the ‘multitude’, which then functions as a kind of empty sign and reconciles all differences. And while the autonomists were always good on the evolution of new kinds of labor, it always confronted an eternal ‘capital’ that remained rather unthought.
This was why I thought it worth paying attention to the changes in the property form, and the rise of a kind of corporation that no longer even owned the means of production, but rather owned the brands and patents, and the logistical means of control of the plant and equipment that constitute direct production. Pasquinelli is quite correct that I do not distinguish between material and immaterial property, simply because the latter term is meaningless. (The only immaterial would be God, who doesn’t exist.)
The question is rather to track how that distinctive kind of effort that is the hack became ever more contained in the private property form. The old forms of patent, copyright and trademark were vastly extended into new forms of enclosure. Owning these assets then became a substantial part of the value of major companies. As Moulier Boutang would have it, finance then emerges both as an expression of the same logistical vectors that control the rest of direct production, but also a way of both competing and collaborating on the process of assigning value to these new kinds of corporate ‘property.’
Pasquinelli is correct in identifying the limits to how I thought of this in the early 2000s. “Wark believes that the vectoral class is still committed to a reactive concept of scarcity.” (88) Here he was right and I was wrong. The strength of his analysis is in addressing the way the commons did not actually need to be enclosed to be productive and profitable.
However, it is not quite the case that I make “no acknowledgement of the material parasite operating from outside the digital sphere directly on such a conflict.” (89) A Hacker Manifesto tells an historical parable about three successive modes of production. The first commodifed agriculture, the second commodifed manufacturing, the third commodifed information. Each depends on, and extracts, a surplus, from its predecessor. In that sense I’m not too far from his ‘parasite’ theory, only I did not have the wit to call it that.
But I still think it worth parsing out the different classes that confront each other in contemporary social formations, rather than reductively thinking everything is a confrontation of the multitude versus capital.
Here I think Marx’s political writings are a much better guide than either Grundrisse or Capital, which neglect the complexity of real social formations. Hence I tell an historical parable about six classes, from which one can then think about all sorts of alliances and conflicts, without collapsing everything into a binary. Quite a lot of features of the current political landscape seem to me explicable as intra-ruling class struggles, between what I call capitalist and vectoralist classes. The latter are trying to dominate the former through control of information, including its infrastructure.
In A Hacker Manifesto I was thinking with the physiocrats and Ricardo, not to mention Marx’s writings on ground rent, where agriculture was still visible as a fundamental layer of the social metabolism. What I missed was the even more important role of energy, as Altvater and others had already discovered. So in Gamer Theory I made some amends for that omission, ending as the book does with the externality of climate change to the gamespace of global commodification. But here I think the foregrounding of energy in Pasquinelli is a welcome reframing.
Also very welcome is the middle section of Animal Spirits, on gentrification and urban rent. Pasquinelli here combines autonomist thought with Anglophone urban Marxism that descends from Lefebvre to look at the contemporary western city, and pursuing a broader understanding of the category of the hydra of rent-seeking behavior.
Autonomist Marxism “has developed the theory of rent by upgrading Marx’s notion of the general intellect. If in Marx the general intellect was embodied in the fixed capital of machinery, today knowledge producing value is rooted in the distributed cooperation of brains.” (92) As I have written elsewhere, I think there’s some limits to taking Marx’s Grundrisse notes as too much of a sacred textual source. But for now let’s concentrate on what this line of though can do rather than what it can’t.
For Pasquinelli, rent is the other side of the commons, a multi-headed hydra that sucks value out of anything it can corner: “the central axis of valorization is the ‘expropriation of the commons though rent’ within cognitive capitalism.” (94) Rent comes in many forms, including real estate, intellectual property, even the rent extracted from attention. Drawing on the work of Enzo Rullani, rent becomes the dominant form of surplus-extraction. Pasquinelli: “Intellectual property (and so rent) is no longer based on space and objects, but on time and speed.” Rent can be extracted both from the multiplication of users or from monopoly over a secret.
The key to this dynamic theory of rent is three axes of value: its performance, the number of replications, and the speed of sharing. Or to translate this into the language I used in Gamer Theory, its about how to extract rents not just from topographic space, like a city, but also topological space, like an information infrastructure, where there is a flexible rather than a fixed distribution of points in space. “Value is a matter of good timing: not too early, not too late, at the proper rate of dissemination. Similar to fashion, rent is applied through a provisional hegemony along a temporal coordinate.” (98) That so many industries come to resemble fashion is an astute insight.
For Rullani, rent is now extracted dynamically along temporary micro-monopolies. Arguably, this is old-fashioned competitive advantage rather than rent. This would be to consider the other side of the problem: that in the move from topographic to topological space, in which many points are put in relation to each other via an infrastructure of the communication vector, it is just that much harder to secure monopolies of the old kind, and thus rent. Getting rent out of it might still depend on a kind of absolute ownership of non-replicable property, such as certain key patents.
In that regard I would opt for a rather more narrow understanding of the term rent. Pasquinelli: “All these forms of rent represent immaterial parasites. The parasite is immaterial since the rent is produced dynamically along the virtual extensions of space, time, communication, imagination and desire.” (100) I find the language of the parasite enabling here but I am a bit skeptical about this broader use of rent and the residual language of the immaterial.
Here I think there’s a project still to be undertaken to bring Franco-Italian autonomist Marxism more into conversation with Anglophone varieties. Both have tended to be a bit provincial, and the latter lost much sense of being a coherent body of work in the cold war. Missing in action are those like Joseph Needham and JD Bernal who thought about science and technology from the 30s onwards. Also missing are people like Mike Cooley, Hilary Wainwright and the leftist engineers whose finest hour was the alternative plan for Lucas Aerospace. Then there’s the more critical current around the journal Free Associations, which published Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, which in turn owes more than a little to Needham and also connects to Marcuse’s influence in the United States. There are whole genealogies yet to be reconstructed.
Hence it is not entirely true what Pasquinellis says “It is no mystery that the Anglo-American context has nothing of the productivist and workerist approach of continental Marxism.” (108-109) But it is true that what looks most like it is lost and buried. Pasquinelli makes real progress in connecting the autonomists with Anglophone Marxist urbanists around their shared concept of the city as a social factory, which in both cases probably came from Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, it is the city as a whole rather than just the factory that is the engine that produces value. Hence critical theory can ‘scale up’ from the factory to city as a conceptual unit. Both approaches together an then be deployed against the rhetoric of the ‘creative city’ and its role in gentrification.
David Harvey has already taken a step in this direction in thinking about how rent can be extracted not just from valuable land but from the cultural marks of distinction that can accrue to that land. This has become an ever more conscious strategy, via which artists create the value of a place by the work they do there and the lives they lead, lending a sort of ‘aura’ that can then be turned into rising rents. Here Lefebvre’s analysis of the urban revolution meets Adorno’s of the culture industry, and one might add Benjamin on aura. “The capital is spectacle to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes a skyline of cement.” (126) A skyline branded with the supposedly non-reproducible value of art and culture.
Pasquinelli draws from the pioneering work of the late Neil Smith and Sharon Zukin on the gentrification of New York. Zukin called it the artistic mode of production, a term later elaborated by Martha Rosler. This is the art world’s perverse alliance with the real estate industry. It is another kind of free labor, done to make a commons, that is later commodifed by other players. And now it is not just happening in New York. Pasquinelli mentions Berlin and Barcelona. Andrew Ross found a similar mechanism at work even in Phoenix, Arizona. It may, however, be more common in the over-developed world, and thus not typical of the megacities emerging elsewhere.
Pasquinelli shows how the city itself becomes both the social factory for the production of value and itself a more valuable commodity, product of both labor and non-labor in the metropolis. “The total value of a commodity is produced by the material labor plus the cognitive labor plus the symbolic value brought by the public.” (138) On the question of symbolic value, one could see a use here for a quite other Anglo-Marxist tradition, running from Raymond Williams to Stuart Hall, Ien Ang and Dick Hebdige, on symbolic value as the contested result of cultural and subcultural practices.
Here the ‘digitalism’ of much thought about the ‘new economy’ touches down in the zone where it clearly produces real effects, in the gentrification of the old cities of the over-developed world. On the one hand, creative and digital labor becomes more precarious, but on the other, the externalities of value that this labor produces is captured through rising rents. Here I agree completely with Pasquinelli that it is these material practices of value capture that need more analysis. “If contemporary Autonomist Marxism is to be criticized, it should be in terms of requiring an even deeper economic insight, a more rigorous analysis of the asymmetries of cognitive capitalism, a more grounded theory, not a more linguistic or mediatic one.” (149) Or as I put it elsewhere, and belatedly: four cheers for vulgar Marxism!
But as he astutely observes, there are some rather strange properties to this kind of hydra economy. It is not like energy or commodity accumulation, it that the value it condenses and can’t be un-produced so easily. Hence once a place, whether Facebook or Brooklyn, has value, it can be exploited for a long time. It is hard to imagine what sort of campaign of negative symbolic capital, or perhaps the metropolitan strike, could devalue it again.
The third and last animal spirit is the double-headed monster of reason and desire, where the underside to collaborative creation is the swampy tides of formless id that sticks to even its brightest creations. “The collective imaginary gathered in the internet underground more accurately resembles an extension of an animal body than a rational mind.” (158) Here Pasquinelli draws on Michael Taussig’s carnal approach to the imaginary, and also from J. G Ballard. The common stock in both cases is likely a certain strand of surrealism, one less interested in marvelous and ethereal spirits and more in weird and contorting bodies.
This is a way of resisting various formalisms that crept into theory in the late twentieth century. “In retrospect, it is increasingly apparent how the postmodern agenda and the church of simulacra functioned as an immunization strategy of an armchair intelligentsia against the monsters emerging from the collective id.”(159) A world that, say, Lauren Berlant has redirected us towards.
For Ballard, the unconscious exists in the outer, not the inner world. He anticipated the machinic unconscious of Félix Guattari, but in a more pessimistic mode. He mapped the latent destiny of Pax Americana via a psychopathology of everyday life, something that, incidentally, could be connected to another post-surrealist thinker – Henri Lefebvre’s work on the symbolic register.
Actually, I think Haraway’s cyborg is also more of a connection here than Pasquinelli wants to acknowledge. That figure was an ironic political myth, not unlike Ballard’s writing, and fully aware of its plug and play connections to both carnality and war. The cyborg was a brief surfacing of what Mario Perniola, after that other post-surrealist, Walter Benjamin, called the sex appeal of the inorganic. Strangely even Deleuze came close to this sensibility, in his writing on Francis Bacon’s portraits not of the face-spirit but of the head-meat.
Writing in 2008, Pasquinelli fully anticipates the era of the universal troll, of twitter hate-speech and #gamergate misogyny, where otherwise tame twenty-first century human animals fell like they can be let off their leashes, not quite grasping that exercising such ‘freedoms’ to describe their fantasies is exactly the thing that keeps them trapped within a perennial gamespace of competitive nastiness. It’s the sordid side of digitalism, with its “autistic desire for a parallel universe without conflict, friction and gravity.” And which increasingly bleeds into the other worlds on which it is a parasite in the first place.
In short, Pasquinelli usefully redirects critical media theory toward the deep levels of materiality and visceral inhabitations, with an uncompromising language meant to short-circuit any too optimistic a gnosis about transcending our baser selves up in the ‘cloud.’ The parasite is a particularly useful figure here, directing attention downwards to the energy sources of – call it what you like – semiocapitalism, cognitive capitalism, or the post-capitalist, vectoral order. The hydra, sucking value out of any pocket of territory, whether real estate or digital estate, directs our attention to the cities of the over-developed world as accumulators of rent, and perhaps of more than one kind. The two-headed monster reminds us of the folly of ever imagining that our bad, bad selves won’t follow us ‘up’, into the ‘cloud.’ Never was the ideology of transcendence more nakedly in the service of those who accumulate power in this world by claiming to control portals to a better one.
But what I think is best in Animal Spirits pushed against the limits of autonomist thought. Its fetish of living labor, its undifferentiated multitude, its residual philosophical vitalism are all dead skin that Pasquinelli could readily shed. At the same time, I think there are still things for Anglophone Marxisms to learn from the Franco-Italians. It really was and is the Marxisant complex most connected to contemporary social struggles and issues, if sometimes limited to a certain southern stretch of the old west. If anything needs a commons, with all the tensions of collaboration and competition that go with it, then it would be #Marx21c. Let’s drink a toast to that task with some nicely aged wine!
by Steven Craig Hickman
Truly total automatization is impossible: it could occur only by destroying the conditions of its own functioning, namely, in this instance, the psychic individuals and social individuals without which some purely automatic functioning could do nothing other than turn the earth into a desert – that is, entropize it.
—Bernard Stiegler, The Automatic Society
In our moment of transition, this phase shift between the ages, from entropic to a possible negentropic, Anthropocene to Negenthropocene civilization we’ve seen a tendency toward advanced technologies and the software that run them to become more and more intelligent as if combined with human ingenuity (technics) and the proclivities of time and processes repeated through computational complexity to a point that many believe in a supposed or hypothetical boundary zone in which machinic life will suddenly and in a great epochal shift displace humanity in intelligence on planet earth. Stiegler mentions the work of Gilbert Simondon and his notion of technical individual becoming autonomous from us as we fall away into stupidity and forget ourselves.. As Stiegler emphasizes,
At the start of the becoming that is totally computational capitalism, no strategies are involved, neither to deceive the masses through the use of algorithmic machines, nor to ‘neutralize and inactivate’ them by these means. This occurs de facto. But this fact is an outcome of the appropriation of diffracted universal technical tendencies, tendencies that precede all such strategies.
This sense that there is no human purpose involved in these pre-individual tendencies within technologies, no purpose or plan but that these tendencies have been there from the beginning, de facto. Yet, he will emphasize as well that these tendencies to become law rather than just natural facts among facts can only do this through the rational, that is, neganthropic, appropriation of these tendencies, and by collective individuations instituting a process of transindividuation, and thereby constituting psychic individuals, that the outcome can be a state of law.1
But what is transindividuation? For Stiegler, the concept of “transindividuation” is one that does not rest with the individuated “I” or with the interindividuated “We,” but is the process of co-individuation within a preindividuated milieu and in which both the “I” and the “We” are transformed through one another. Transindividuation, then, is the basis for all social transformation and is therefore a way of addressing what happens within education. As Stiegler will expound in Technics and Time,
Attention is the reality of individuation in Gilbert Simondon’s sense of the terms: insofar as it is always both psychical and collective. Attention, which is the mental faculty of concentrating on an object, that is, of giving oneself an object, is also the social faculty of taking care of this object – as of another, or as the representative of another, as the object of the other: attention is also the name of civility as it is founded on philia, that is, on socialised libidinal energy. This is why the destruction of attention is both the destruction of the psychical apparatus and the destruction of the social apparatus (formed by collective individuation) to the extent that the later constitutes of system of care, given that to pay attention is also to take care.
As he’d say it in an interview available on e-flus journal: My thought was much influenced by the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon, who was an important thinker of individuation. Simondon says that if you want to understand the individual, you need to inscribe the individual in a process of which he is only a phase. As such, the individual has no interests. The individual is only an aspect, or phase of a process, but the process is what is important. So what is this process? It is the process of individuation, that is of transformation, and for Simondon, everything is a caught up in and brought into a process of individuation. For example, the passages of life are a process of individuation, but “technics” are also processes of individuations.
This process has passed from humans who are being de-individualized and displaced by the very technical objects and artifacts that are becoming more and more intelligent and independent of the human. Yet, as Stiegler will tell us there is a tendency in all things toward transindividuation,
It is because critical theory – this term often referring in America and the Anglophone world today more or less to political thought – is yet to elaborate a theory of the technicity of all noetic life (that is, its own technicity) that this becoming in which 24/7 capitalism and algorithmic governmentality encloses us, absurd and without future as it may be, can become hegemonic – and suicidal. (AS, KL 4004)
For Stiegler digital machines, algorithms and infrastructures participate after the fact in strategies that aim in the first place not at mass-deception, nor at ‘neutralizing or inactivating’ the masses, but at exploiting them as resources of which they take no care, and, from this perspective, exploiting them without any biopolitics, inasmuch as biopower also consists, to an extent at least, in ‘taking care’ of life so as to be able to exploit it.(AS, 4036)
In its carelessness Neoliberalism in its ultra-rationalism and decision making computational capitalism has ended in utter irrationalism. 24/7 capitalism to appropriate digital artefactuality attempts to integrate the older forms of an analogue society and consumerist model that is based on the functional pair ‘production/consumption’, itself founded on the redistribution of purchasing power. To concretize the technical tendencies borne by automatization by utilizing such factual strategies (conducted without any care to establish a state of law) is, however, to make this redistribution and therefore this functional pair strictly impossible. (AS, KL 44456) As Stiegler tells us,
Here it is a question not of anticipating desire, but of destroying it by anticipating it, and short-circuiting it by automatically triggering drive-based behaviour, channelled through the self-fulfilling protentions induced by the feedback loops that constitute the fundamental basis of totally computational 24/7 capitalism. This transdividual trafficking of data, operating as a kind of trafficking of ‘dividuated’ psychic organs… (AS, 4748) [my italics]
Epoch of Care
To combat this state of fact and establish a state of law is to oppose to this economic irrationality an integrated rationality, that is, to invent a new epoch of care, at a moment when the earth and earthlings have need of this as never before, a care that could only be a new epoch of and therefore a redefinition of rationality, in such a way that it would not be limited to calculability and scientific apodicticity: taking care above all of the improbable. (AS, KL 4139)
From Descartes and Leibniz’s age till now rationality has been under the sign of calculus and calculability: a computational reason based on numeric and algorithmic re-duplication and tracking of data, traces, lives, investments, etc. At the core of capitalism is this spirit of cold calculation grinding everything in its path for profit. If it were allowed to persist it would grind every last resource on this planet into profit and leave a totalized wasteland of uninhabited life, a dustbowl and planet of ashes.
Calculation and the digital empires arising around us do not need human truth only results:
that ‘the new regime of digital truth is embodied in a multitude of new automated systems modeling the “social” ’,14 is a promise, or a potential law, more than a reality. The reality is the state of fact, and this, on the contrary, amounts to the denial of this promise: this is to say in effect that this state of fact no longer has any need for the ‘truth’. It just needs ‘results’ – and they are performative. But this is not openly declared, still less (AS, KL 4048-4054)
Google boasts that it doesn’t need theory or theorists, analysts nor any of the old human interventions in the new digital empire of its consumer/production model for it is bound to algorithmic governmentality: to the deep computational dataveillance systems that continuously 24/7 gather, analyze, collate, filter, trace, decide etc. without any plan or strategy behind them – only the sheer decisioning processes of what works which need no theory. As Stiegler puts it,
Within algorithmic governmentality, there is no longer any time to dream because the oneiric soul, which the psychic and noetic individual had hitherto been, is now always preceded by its digital double, derived from the industrial traceology that is the data economy. This digital double in effect functionally short-circuits the desires in which dreams consist – and replaces them with individual and collective interactive operating sequences. And we will see that these operating sequences amount to what, fashioning an allegory, we may call digital pheromones.
As dividuals rather than individuals humans are mere databanks of information to be programmed in a 24/7 capitalist economy that has no time left for the dreams of fleshly creatures to imagine or think. In this world the machines will do the thinking for us, and we can live in an utter world of stupid innocence, activated on demand like any other mindless commodity at the behest of some event call within the algorithmic systems. The early promise that the internet would make us free has turned south and brought instead a new global prison for the human animal. As Stiegler remarks the “algorithmic destruction of the promise is an annihilation, which leads back to the fact that we live in the epoch of the completion of nihilism, if not of fully accomplished nihilism: we are living through the phase in which the nihilistic katastrophē is in the course of unfolding. Katastrophē here refers to the moment of a turn or an outcome, a denouement, that may indeed, as in the structure of the stories of the Scheherazade, revive the desire for history and for stories (that is, desire tout court), rather than lead to the fulfilment of the death drive.”(AS, KL 4399)
Yet, at the still point of the turning world we could go either way: we could become totally enslaved in a algorithmic world of machinic life that has no human purpose or intent, a world that would grow more and more destitute as it consumes every last resource on the planet for its own technical individuation; or, we could begin to dream again, to envision a life-world that renews the age old contract with time and process, of the intelligence of humans caring and shaping a world worth living in rather than one devoid of all human life. What remains of humanity will be those enclosed in ultra-smart cities based on hypercontrol algorithmic governmentality that has become a totally integrated environment made ‘reactive and intelligent systems that displace all human decisions by the proliferation of sensors in order to adapt constantly to specific needs and dangers’. These humans in their search for higher standards of living and security will enclose themselves in these protected enclaves where they will become so hypernormalized and bound by this new technical intelligent assemblage that truth will no longer matter, only the constant dream of innocence: that is, stupidity. As Stiegler remarks,
This 24/7 capitalism constituted by the functional integration of consumers precisely realizes what Deleuze anticipated in 1990 when he distinguished the moulds of disciplinary societies from the modulations of control societies: ‘Confinements are molds, distinct moldings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the next, or like a sieve whose mesh will change from one point to another.’ Deleuze is here taking up concepts both from Foucault (for example, the mesh) and from Simondon (modulation). (AS, KL 4377)
Already our mobile devices are becoming standardized, controlled, and modulated by algorithmic governmentality through security, access, and consumer regulation of our habits, customs, mores, and day to day cycles to the point that living without these instant gratifiers and constant flow of text messages that are catalogued, filtered, analyzed, and appropriated by a hidden world of programs that are massaged and datafied for reassembly and recomposition to promote your every dream and wish that we have lost the distance necessary to extract ourselves or exit from this digital hell. We are now locking ourselves in a cage without a key or bars. The perfect prison of the mind.
Our very sense of Self and Subjectivity is becoming unbound from the old liberal worldview of individualism. As Steigler comments,
It is subjectivity and its reflexivity that this affecting in advance of the subject by its double renders obsolete, the ‘subject’ always arriving too late, and never having ‘to take account by itself for what it is or what it could become’. It is therefore legitimacy as well as critique that in fact become ‘obsolete’, just as does theory, according to Anderson, and with it its criteria and categories of experiment, hypothesis, model, and so on: ‘Algorithmic government has no room for and takes no account of any active, consistent or reflexive statistical subject, capable of legitimating it or resisting it.’
The double he speaks of is one’s online presence, the dividual, the statistical dataprint of datatrace of one’s digital self who is captured by all these control systems. The actual human beyond the digital frame has vanished, disappeared without a trace and is no longer of any import. This other self I am is no longer legitimate and cannot resist what happens to my Other online image, my double, my digital avatar… I no longer exist as a singularity, only as data in an algorithmic compuverse. For Stiegler we are entering a moment in which we are faced with an imperturbability that remotely controls every decision by consolidating media driven governmentality, and “algorithmic governmentality, public power has become impotent and incapable – and by public power or Nation states, Europe, international organizations and non-governmental organizations. At the same time, floating cities are being planned on which there would be no state, no police, no justice, nor any social dimension, and an absolute oligarchy composed of a post-human nobility and immortal singularities.
Leaders as we’ve seen are powerless now before the processes that are being let loose by the digital and algorithmic compuverse that now has swallowed the world in its mesh. The digital economy has eliminated the need for laws and lawmakers, governments and their representatives. The vast majority of decisions is taking place in a hypervoid of electronic circuits at speeds that no human could apprehend nor calculate. We’ve already become members of a hyperorganism that is now dispersing its own decisions through a nexus of algorithmics that we do not even understand much less resist. We are prisoners in the house we built for freedom and communication, governed by cold impersonal intelligences that we as of yet do not accept and even deny. Humanity is in denial. We are no longer in control. Paranoia reigns. As Stiegler puts it, the structural incapacitation imposed by full and generalized automatization, of which algorithmic governmentality and 24/7 capitalism are the worldwide and total concretization is a dimension in which no one escapes this incapacitation, not even those who cause and exploit (or who believe they can exploit) this situation: this is the lesson of Alan Greenspan. (AS, KL 4635)
Our inability to act, our feeling of hopelessness, our powerlessness to effect change or change our situation. Unemployment, rising costs of living, taxes, day to day survival, the struggles just to make ends meet while one sees on the media the promotion of vacations, the variety stars of pop culture, sports, and business promoting an ultra elite rich world of fast paced fun in the sun while most ponder the bare paper bread with a slab of fat or butter brings us to the realization that the future does not offer most humans a bright world but rather and end game where they are not in it.
As Stigler in his own words states it we are becoming hiveminded insects in a digital prison house,
The functional integration of psychic individuations by an automatic associated milieu functioning in light-time thereby constitutes a factual naturalization of the technical milieu and, if we can put it like this, an ‘artificial naturalization’ through which psychic and collective individuation becomes a psychic and collective disindividuation that functions like a kind of 24/7 insect society – via ersatz digital pheromones, and where it is a matter of ‘accelerating the flows – wherever possible saving on any “detour” or subjective “reflexive suspension” between the “stimuli” and their “reflex responses” ’. (AS, KL 4769)
The total control of a society that doesn’t even know it is being controlled because it is so immersed in the ubiquitous naturalization of this digital maze of algorithmic governmentality that it assumes it is being given tools of freedom when instead it is being hooked and plugged into a system of enslavement where its desires are captured and modulated and, even channeled according to the dictates of the user’s own deepest desires and cravings.
the essay is taken from:
Shoggoth – Wikimedia Commons
Accelerationism – An Introduction
“‘ACCELERATIONISM’ IS THE IDEA THAT THE ONLY WAY OUT IS THROUGH.” – STEVEN SHAVIRO
There have been myriad musings on Accelerationism spreading like a virus across the press, blogosphere and message boards as of late and this post is yet another manifestation of said virus. As topics such as ‘the Singularity’, Automation, Blockchains and AI grow ever more prominent in the press, the yearning for a philosophical explanation or religious understanding to this technomic explosion grow louder.
The Guardian’s journalist Andy Beckett has penned a comprehensive introduction to Accelerationism including background on some of the progenitors of the movement, such as Warwick University’s Cultural Cybernetic Research Unit (Ccru). Beckett’s expansive text also covers perhaps its most important and controversial figure – Nick Land. It’s certainly a worthy starting point for the uninitiated. It’s the entrance to the rabbit hole if you will.
For those looking for a deeper dive you could do worst than review Meta-Nomad’s Nick Land, CCRU, Accelerationism and Neoreaction – An Overview & Guide. This article covers all the various flavors of Accelerationism with quotes straight from their constituents.
Complementary to writings in the press and blogs, books such as Writings – Ccru 1997 – 2003 and #Accelerate have done a fine job of bringing together many of the field’s important passages. In addition to compilations, contemporary writings by former and now sadly deceased Ccru member Mark Fisher and still very much alive Critical Theorist Benjamin Noys (the originator of the term Accelerationism as we understand it today) have delved into the subject further. Through their work they have attempted to chart its history – warts and all.
These texts have often tackled Left (Lx) and Right (Rx) Accelerationism which broadly speaking aligns with their respective sides of the political spectrum. The text #Accelerate in particular compiles texts from not just both sides of this divide but from across time including the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries.
Further still a number of articles have touched upon the politically agnostic thoughts of some of Accelerationism’s philosophers – Unconditional Accelertionism (Ux) – as you will see it labeled.
The hyperstitional collection of ideas/individuals/groups we shall call ‘Grey Hat’ Accelerationist (deriving its name from InfoSec terminology) is an emergent body and the coalescing of a path between the early Rx of Land and Ccru and the more recent Lx of Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and #AltWoke. Arguably it is the melding of antithetical sides, rejecting that which doesn’t work empirically and philosophically and forging something a fresh from this fire.
Where as the Hegelian approach adopted by traditional movements would be action and reaction synthesizing a new path where one side eventually wins (Left or Right, Good or Evil, Capitalism or Communism), GHx is Deleuzian in its approach (as indeed both Rx and Lx are). It’s a diffuse action refusing to engage head on with either side, whilst absorbing these wider movements eídein into each members gnosis. Or as Ken Baumann puts it:
For Nietzsche, Deleuze, and myself, direct engagement is a mistake. Diffuse or indirect engagement is preferable. Diagonal rather than horizontal or vertical attack. Non-Euclidean game plans. Rhizome rather than root, molecular rather than molar, dynamic rather than static: reroute the flow of power toward new creative constructions.
If Ux rejects both sides of the political spectrum, GHx instead synthesizes them.
Seeking some of the outcomes posited by Lx and the utopian ideals of a Kurzweilian Singularity, it is a position that cannot shy away from its Landian influence. Although arguably some of its emergent members aren’t aware of this influence. However it will stand in opposition to the Neo-Reaction movement, which it will view as a poor Alt-Right interpretation of the arguments around exponential technological evolution.
Nor does the kernel of this annealing Grey Hat Accelerationism (GHx) movement appear to accept the tomes of the great postmodernist philosophers wholesale in their opposition to Modernism (or anything else for that matter).
Rather it displays an oscillation between Modernist and Postmodernist ideas. In the former case this Modernist strain of thought includes concepts such as rational thinking, technological progress and an objective purpose to life. In the later that ‘the self’ is influenced by social constructs, battles are won on Baumann’s diagonal and language is both fluid and messy.
In this regard GHx will likely be considered metamodernist and largely have its roots in contemporary transhumanist (H+) and internet Futurology culture. A plethora of subreddits and blogs floating in the digital ether are exactly the type of breeding ground where we see this mode of thought emerging.
Humanity Plus Logo – Wikimedia Commons
It is therefore important to examine both sides of the Accelerationist coin and parallel movements in order to garner a better idea of how GHx is forming, its telos and some of its exoteric and esoteric influences.
Left Accelerationism – Lx
“FULL AUTOMATION IS A UTOPIAN DEMAND THAT AIMS TO REDUCE NECESSARY LABOUR AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.” – NICK SRNICEK
The beginnings of contemporary Lx movement can be found around 2009 and really materialized in 2013 with Nick Srnicek (a friend of deceased Ccru member Mark Fisher) and Alex Williams’ #Accelerate Manifesto for Acclerationist politics.
The manifesto was written in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. This period for many shone a new light on how financial institutions, debt and FinTech operates in conjunction with Western governments and regulators. From bank bail outs to bankers bonuses for many Left-wing writers the time was ripe for suggesting a new approach. During this period we saw the Occupy movement (2011) rise to fame (and failure) which was very much a product of our technological zeitgeist.
It was in this world that Srnicek and Williams explored the concept of adapting Accelerationism. The byproduct was a three part treatise spelling out the framework for a Left Accelerationist (Lx) movement.
Following this Srnicek and Williams published their title Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work which proposes a future beyond late stage capitalism. The blog This Disorder of Things does a good job of analyzing its contents concluding with the comment:
Post-capitalism (or better, communism – to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages – just barely – to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.
– This Disorder of Things, Accelerationism without Accelerationsim
This extrapolation beyond the current mode of thinking, living and economic system charged with a technological energy is a core feature of Lx and indeed Srnicek and Williams writings.
In addition to these two notable characters there is another important figure in the field of Accelerationism – Benjamin Noys. Known by many Accelerationists as the author of Malign Velocities he has provided commentary on contemporary capitalism and the technological changes within it. Noys who is perhaps one of Nick Land’s greatest logomachizing partners on the subject of Accelerationism, summarizes Lx succinctly as:
Left accelerationism, instead, aims at a post-capitalist future. The image is not of a ‘purified’ capitalism per se, but a socialism or communism that will make full use of productive forces.
– Benjamin Noys
We can say that in essence Lx is a top-down technocratic movement wedded to a traditional Left-wing push for a world beyond capitalism. It aims to appropriate the exponential change that modern capitalism and technology have brought us. It attempts to harness these properties and develop a post-capitalist world.
Where traditional Marxist approaches have failed Lx hopes to achieve.
In the wider Internet the movement has found a home in blogs, message boards, sites, the #AltWoke manifesto and Twitter. Often incorrectly it is accused of wishing to speed up capitalism to usher in its collapse and force revolt. This charge is countered in the #AltWoke manifesto:
Accelerationism doesn’t propose letting capitalism expand and erode to such a degree that its corrosive contradictions become so unbearable that the oppressed and working classes have no choice but to revolt. #Alt-Woke doesn’t and wouldn’t espouse such a simplistic and foolish framework, either
– #AltWoke manifesto
Left-Accelerationism (which we could refer to as “White Hat” to keep with the hacking nomenclature and Fisher’s early writings on White Magic) however was always doomed by its own paradoxes according to its critics.
Ostensibly Marxist in outlook with a heavy dose of Deleuze and Guatarri, Lx cannot escape the seed both Ccru and Nick Land planted and from which it sprouted.
We agree with Nick Land’s diagnosis of late capitalism. It is an entropic AI, a systemic feedback loop wholly incompatible with the welfare of human beings.
– #AltWoke companion
As a result effectively there exists a contemporary Left-wing movement whose philosopher king is now accused of being a Right-wing demagogue who has validated the horseshoe theory. This isn’t lost on elements of the Lx movement however who attack the nihilistic stances of Land:
The nihilism exhibited by Nick Land and his NRx acolytes looks anemic from where we’re standing. NRx/Right Accelerationism is nihilism for cowards.
– #AltWoke companion
Land having absorbed Marxist and postmodernist influences into his own writings, laid the ground-work for the core of Accelerationism as we would know it in the new millennium.
Without him and the Ccru it is likely as an intellectual tradition it wouldn’t exist in its current form. In fact the situation could simply be an ideological war waged between a “blind idiot god neoliberalism” (centrist Neo-Liberal Kurzweilianism with a heavy dose of T. L. Friedman’s globalism thrown into the mix) versus some form of populist movement(s) and the usual Left and Right wing parties watching helplessly from the side lines.
In addition to this conundrum regarding Lx’s origin a question exists around just who on the Left is supporting the concept of a fully-automated society? The blogger Jehu suggests the call for full automation isn’t being supported by the hungry masses – or any class for that matter:
This is a second contradiction in Srnicek and Williams argument. Society seems to be moving inexorably toward complete automation, despite the fact no class in society wants complete automation
– Jehu, The Poverty of Left Accelerationism: A review of Srnicek and Williams, “Inventing the Future
In the face of this criticism it is worth remembering the following. The very group the Left has claimed to represent are predicted to see their livelihoods crushed by the Soggoth like advance of automation. In turn the Lx movement is very likely to be accused of embracing this creation of the Elder Things.
Further to observations about their relationship to the wider postmodern movement many could argue Left Accelerationism’s associations need to be loosened and its views broadened to include the Modern.
This is a direction Srnicek and Williams seem to have headed in whether consciously or not at least in regard to the ‘Modern’. Edmund Berger’s piece on the plane beyond postmodernism draws this link between said school of thought, technology and Left Accelerationism:
It validates Nick Srnicek and Alex William’s insistence on the need for a left-wing “politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.
– Edmund Berger
Perhaps then the logical next step for Lx is to move into a metamodern direction, or for those who break away from Lx to do so? Huffington Post writer Seth Abramson captured the underlying essence of the relation between the Internet and metamodernism, which is obviously applicable to Lx:
Radios, and even the early years of technological industrialization, emphasized distance in a way that was unmistakable. The Internet, by comparison, is a strange mix of distance and closeness, detachment and immediacy — our sense of ourselves and strangers’ varying senses of us — that postmodernism doesn’t really seem to describe well.
– Seth Abramson, Huffington Post
In addition to postmodernism, members of the Lx movement also seem to be critiquing its association with other elements of the modern Left. The #AltWoke manifesto being an example of this. Looking at Lx’s relationship to other dominant Left-wing platforms it attacks the ‘identity-politics’ that have become a lightening rod of late.
Identity politics became an albatross, however. Both the moderate and radical were too eager to evangelize oppressed identities. There was no room for discussion, no place for debate. Call outs, clap backs, and other reality tv patois replaced dialectics.
– #AltWoke Manifesto
This train of thought continues throughout the Manifesto demanding a reformist approach. An attempted move into a new direction however has not come without its problems. The #AltWoke and larger Lx movement is unfortunately caught in a self defined feedback loop – by pinning the colors of the Left to its chest it has also bound itself to the culture, ideas and fortunes of said political grouping.
This has been lost on Nick Land. When tackling the subject of Accelerationism in Jacobite magazine he had the following to say at first about capital:
In this germinal accelerationist matrix, there is no distinction to be made between the destruction of capitalism and its intensification. The auto-destruction of capitalism is what capitalism is. “Creative destruction” is the whole of it, beside only its retardations, partial compensations, or inhibitions.
Capital revolutionizes itself more thoroughly than any extrinsic ‘revolution’ possibly could.
– Nick Land, A QUICK-AND-DIRTY INTRODUCTION TO ACCELERATIONISM
And then secondly Lx’s relationship to it, specifically citing Srnicek and Williams work:
In 2013, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams sought to resolve this intolerable – even ‘schizophrenic’ – ambivalence in their ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics,’ which aimed to precipitate a specifically anti-capitalist ‘Left-accelerationism’, clearly demarcated over against its abominably pro-capitalist ‘Right-accelerationist’ shadow. This project – predictably – was more successful at re-animating the accelerationist question than at ideologically purifying it in any sustainable way. It was only by introducing a wholly artificial distinction between capitalism and modernistic technological acceleration that their boundary lines could be drawn at all.
– Nick Land
As a result Left-Accelerationism has largely be dismissed by the Right as yet more pie-in-the-sky Marxism and critiqued by some of their fellow travelers as utopian fully automated luxury communism. Or as Land and Rx proponents would have it, just simply off-base drawing artificial boundaries to justify its existence.
It is thus this paradox and the failure of Left-Accelerationism to coalesce into anything material so far that lead to Syffr’s Requiem for Left-Accelerationism. This decline has been catalyzed further as the inevitable attacks from elsewhere on the Left started due to its association with Land.
The collaborations of Lx proponents such as those at the New Centre with this controversial figure were bound to draw the ire of others on the Left, especially when we consider Land’s move into the world of Neo-Reaction (NRx) and its racist associations.
The question now largely rests with if the #AltWoke movement or similar Lx threads will form into something broader influencing the wider Left and beyond.
Or will they simple fade away?
Right Accelerationism – Rx
“MATTER SIGNALS TO ITS LOST VOYAGERS, TELLING THEM THAT THEIR QUEST IS VAIN, AND THAT THEIR HOMELAND ALREADY LIES IN ASHES BEHIND THEM.” – NICK LAND
We could have started by surveying the Accelerationist scene by tackling the Rx movement first . However it seemed more fitting to start with Left-Acceleratonists due to the number of accessible ‘mainstreamish’ books published (as mentioned above) before tackling the beast to the right.
Before digging into Rx with gusto we must first address the topic of Nick Land. He’s been referenced throughout this piece so far and of course is a cornerstone of the subject.
In brief, Land was a philosopher in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick from 1987 to 1998. It was during this time the Ccru was created by Sadie Plant a fellow Philosopher who had joined the university’s philosophy department. The Ccru “Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit” was anointed with its infamous tagline:
does not, has not, and will never exist
If you have ever wondered where this came from it’s due to the fact the thanks to academic wrangling and Plant leaving Warwick University, Ccru in any official capacity did not exist.
After a number of collaborations between Land and Plant including the Virtual Futures conference, Plant left Warwick University as noted. At this point Land took over the gaggle of individuals that made up the “non-existent” Ccru. After moving out of the University to the nearby town of Leamington Spa, they continued until the early 2000’s the research that would form the darkly unsettling undercurrent of Accelerationism.
At this point the group drifted apart with many of its members going on to work in academia. Land appears to have packed his bags for Neo-China.
Many of the links provided in this piece such as the Guardian article provide a richer chronology for those interested, they are well worth reading if only for understanding the historical curiosity of how we reached this point.
The Right Acceleration movement is arguably therefore a migration of Ccru’s work into a Right-wing political direction lead by Land. Once again we can turn to Noys for an explanation:
In terms of the subject of accelerationism, as I have hinted, right accelerationism has a straightforward answer: capitalism
– Benjamin Noys
Where as some early Ccru members went on to create/align themselves with the Lx movement, Land did no such thing. In the 21st Century he has become a leading figure along with Mencius Moldbug in the idea of a Neo-Reactionary movement (NRx). Wholly capitalistic in nature it rejects the ideas of the Enlightenment and Liberal democracy creating a political wrapper for the onward thrust of Rx.
Land and Moldbug’s writings have found a cadre of fellow travelers, some within Silicon Valley others within the press, the White House and wider blogosphere who have used their work to chart a somewhat darker path for humanity.
Broadly speaking NRx envisions itself as follows:
– A rejection of sociological universalism, and a preference for particularism.
– An acceptance of human biodiversity.
– An acceptance of Darwinian evolution, shunning egalitarian political correctness both from the left and from the Trotskyite right.
– On religion, if not agnostic or atheistic, then a preference for ancestral neopaganism or a form of Christianity that is ethnocentric and particularist.
– An acceptance of science and futurism as a means to improve at least some peoples’ lives while not rejecting one’s ancestral folkways (i.e. archeofuturism). And a recognition that ‘progress’ will be available only to some, and not the entire human population.
– A rejection of The Cathedral (or whatever other names it goes by, such as Universalism or Political Correctness).
– The recognition that there is no single best political order. As Aristotle notes in the Politics, some ethnies are better suited for monarchy; others, for aristocracy; others, for a limited form of politea.
– Skepticism about mass Third World immigration and the realization that human populations are not fungible but unique.
– A realization that liberty is incompatible with democracy, and that democracy leads to mediocrity.
A more comprehensive list can be located here at the reactionary Occam’s Razor blog from which the above was sampled. For those on the Left, Centrists and the Center-Right it makes grim reading.
In regards to the second point on religion something interesting has taken place. Land has been a promoter of the idea of GNON .
Gnon is no less than reality, whatever else is believed. Whatever is suspended now, without delay, is Gnon. Whatever cannot be decided yet, even as reality happens, is Gnon. If there is a God, Gnon nicknames him. If not, Gnon designates whatever the ‘not’ is. Gnon is the Vast Abrupt, and the crossing. Gnon is the Great Propeller.
This concept has attempted to bridge the theological divide between traditionalist religious types in the NRx and Secular Atheists. And within the Alt-Right there have certainly been religious undertones just as there have with some who foresee a singularity cumulating in an Omega point.
As we saw during the run up to US elections in 2016 and even beyond this, aspects of the Alt-Right and NRx adopted a belief in what can be described as Technomancy or as some call it “Meme-magick”.
Nothing emphasized this merging of online culture, the Alt-Right and Meme-Magick more than the Kek/Pepe meme-cult that appeared in the run up to the US election.
This idea of melding the semiotics of magic and technology isn’t new. Erik Davis wrote a comprehensive account of this during the 1990’s in his book Techgnosis – Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. Also alluded to elsewhere in this piece, Mark Fisher of the Ccru touched upon this subject of Magick. In fact throughout the Ccru’s collected writings we see Lovecraftian symbolism and hints of hermeticism.
And how can we forget they relocated to Leamington Spa once home to Aleister Crowley.
Science is always discovering odd scraps of magical wisdom and making a tremendous fuss about its cleverness.
– Aleister Crowley
Can Rx however be separated from NRx, the Alt-Right and fellow travelers? Conceptually yes. Accepting the Rx position does not automatically make the individual a Neo-Reactionary. It does create a fork in the road however with Land.
The Rx (let’s call it Black Hat) movement however outside of NRx has faired no better than Lx as of late due to this cannibalization by the Alt-Right. Land’s original ideas and that of Right-Accelerationism at large are now trapped in a movement that results in paradox due to its constituencies. Those who agree with the premise of Rx outside of the NRx movement seem to be nowhere to be found, or have turned else where (perhaps to Ux).
So what is at the root of this paradox? On the one had we have the pro-Accelerationists who follow his Neo-Reactionary (NRx) Dark Enlightenment. On the other, the larger Alt-Right with elements who wish to slow the ravages of capitalism down through protectionism, populism and nationalism.
This has played out on the national stage in the United States with some figures whom back President Trump pushing for a technological revolution, off-shore Libertarian communities and such, whilst others arguing to reopen coal mines and and restrict free trade.
Land himself has even acknowledged this situation:
As a consequence of its essential populism, the Alt-Right is inclined to anti-capitalism, ethno-socialism, grievance politics, and progressive statism. Its interest in geopolitical fragmentation (or Patchwork production) is somewhere between hopelessly distracted and positively hostile. Beside its — admittedly highly entertaining — potential for collapse catalysis, there’s no reason at all for the techno-commercial wing of NRx to have the slightest sympathy for it. Space for tactical cooperation, within the strategic framework of pan-secessionism, certainly exists, but that could equally be said of full-on Maoists with a willingness to break things up.
– Nick Land
Quite why Land moved in the NRx direction is interesting and something worthy of further research. There has been some speculation perhaps unfairly that it was a byproduct of his mental breakdown. To quote Robin Mackay:
Let’s get this out of the way: In any normative, clinical, or social sense of the word, very simply, Land did ‘go mad.’
Although Land may argue his NRx lurch rightward is a logical outcome from his lifelong philosophical positions especially having distanced himself from some of the amphetamine ‘inspired’ work after leaving Warwick.
So we’re now back at those horseshoe accusations again….
And here in lies the problem for many. His early works with the Ccru were certainly insightful. As linked above Andrew Hickey says:
Land is basically the Dave Sim of philosophy — someone who did good work, and then had some sort of severe breakdown which he incorporated into his later work, including some horrific political views
– Andrew Hickey – Not A Review of Neoreaction A Basilisk
However the Dark Enlightenment manifesto has roundly been condemned outside the Alt-Right. Land in response to some of the charges leveled at him appears to have distanced himself from the Alt-Right label. In the same article quoted previously he responds:
This blog, I’m guessing predictably, takes a count me out position. Neoreaction, as I understand it, predicted the emergence of the Alt-Right as an inevitable outcome of Cathedral over-reach, and didn’t remotely like what it saw. Kick a dog enough and you end up with a bad-tempered dog. Acknowledging the fact doesn’t mean you support kicking dogs — or bad-tempered dogs. Maybe you’d be happy to see the dog-kicker get bitten (me too). That, however, is as far as it goes.
– Nick Land
However he still comes under a lot of criticism for this move into NRx not least because of its anti-democratic stance and views on race and Human Bio-Diversity (HBD).
This Catch-22 in the Alt-Right opens up an interesting question however. If capitalism is an all encompassing chthonic force as many would have us believe, then the Alt-Right cannot possibly “win” long-term? Any populist movement that attempts to slow the accelerating speed of technology will surely be crushed.
Cthulhu – Wikicommons
If some of the technologies touted as being “just around the corner” really do start to manifest, especially in the area of life extension it’s impossible to see how any government or movement can possibly block their progress globally. Especially an isolationist one.
The larger Dark Enlightenment movement sees the future essentially run by CEO lead city-states. To many these sound like they resemble some type of bleak Blade Runner or Shadowrun-esque dystopia. This of course is a direct threat to those on the Alt-Right who see Ethno-nation states returning to some pastoral “golden age”.
Whilst Land suggests the larger Alt-right and NRx movement have common cause on the splintering of states, massive technological shocks to human civilization that fundamentally change the question of “what we are” will rip such a weak coalition asunder (if a failing Republican administration doesn’t finish doing it first).
To summarize in the case of the Alt-Right from an Rx position it surely stands then that a return to some form of mercantilism or closed protectionist-capitalist system will ultimately fail, and which ever nation state embraces this will be left a loser. This isn’t accelerating anything, it’s an attempt at jamming the brake on.
Edmund Berger hits upon this in his discussion of Unconditional Accelerationism:
To properly operate in the real, some sort of sociopolitical island of stability, L/ACC or R/ACC praxis would be contingent upon the expunging of variables upon variables to push the complexity profile downwards, to make it more manageable (which is something that R/ACC tends to admit more than L/ACC). But to do this would not only mean restricting flows of people, goods, and money, as the populists of the left and right both are rushing over one another to do. It would also require roadblocks thrown up in the path of technological development, and the suppressing of the capability of making and using tools to operate in the world. The promotion of a collective cognitive project would, ironically, be forced to suppress cognitive activity on the molecular scale.
– Edmund Berger
And we can see an attempt at throwing up some of Berger’s afore mentioned roadblocks coming to pass. It now seems that the classic Neo-Conservatives, Religious Right, Neo-Liberals and final trappings of the non-Accelerationst Alt-Right have pushed out the NRx sympathetic brigade in the US political world.
With Steve Bannon’s recent departure from the White House, and the stasis of the technology advice council, NRx and their fellow traveler’s political ties have largely been severed from the seat at the heart of US power. It’s doubtful even Elon Musk who certainly isn’t a member of the NRx wing will have much influence on the situation. All this is before we even get to the subject of Net Neutrality.
Within the Alt-Right, some of those whom would be attracted to the NRx concepts have also been put off by the doom and gloom of Moldbug and Land.
As a result in response to the Dark Enlightenment has been the incarnation of some of its concepts as the Grey Enlightenment.
However a close reading of this theory shows it to be nothing short of a Dark En-‘lite’-enment. Essentially a call for much of the status-quo but with chopping off the bits of the Liberal-Democratic systems its supporters opposed. Ultimately it is nothing more than a watered down version of Land’s NRx bathed in the type of language typically found in the online Libertarian movement.
The fact that it was formed shows that within the coalition of the Alt-Right there has been schisms over Land and Moldbug’s work. In fact it is another example of the entropic nature of the Alt-Right and the difficulty some have with coming to terms with the Rx kernel of NRx.
As we’ve seen both Left and Right have their flavor of Accelerationism but what of those who have no strong philosophical or political opinion either way?
Kurzweil and the Singularity
Around the time the Ccru was really getting going, in the US a parallel view of accelerating change was being developed by entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil.
Many readers will be familiar with Kurzweil so we will keep this summary short. Kurzweil’s (a serial entrepreneur and now employed by Google) central thesis is that technology is evolving at such a rapid pace eventually we can no longer predict what will come next. Coupled with the idea of self improving AI this point is called the singularity – a term borrowed from physics.
Kurzweil published these ideas initially in the book The Age of Spiritual Machines and followed up on it in the 2000’s with his more famous tome – The Singularity is Near.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Kurzweil’s work has had a huge impact in Silicon valley. Its influence gave birth to Singularity University, an institution located by NASA’s AMES Research Center. Singularity University (SU) bills itself as:
Singularity University is a global community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.
– Singularity University
With courses geared towards topics such as Exponential Finance and Exponential Manufacturing it acts as an intellectual hub for those interested in Kurzweil and his peers ideas.
Unlike Lx and NRx the ‘core’ of the singularity movement if we can use such a term has largely been apolitical in nature with questions around technology at its heart. This is rather than the political governance of nation states or how this should take shape in a singularity driven world. Many have accused it of being a form of techno-religion with Kurzweil as their prophet – a rapture of the Nerds is a common refrain. The #AltWoke manifesto even comes out explicitly against ‘the cult of Kurzweil’
AltWoke is not the cult of Kurzweil.
– #AltWoke manifesto
The apolitical nature (or weak nod to an ephemeral Liberalism lurking in the corner of the Cathedral) within the singularitarians can be seen in Kurzweil’s interview with Fortune magazine:
The power and influence of governments is decreasing because of the tremendous power of social networks and economic trends. There’s some problem in the pension funds in Spain, and the whole world feels it. I think these kinds of trends affect us much more than the decisions made in Washington and other capitals. That’s not to say they’re not important, but they actually have no impact on the basic trends I’m talking about. Things that happened in the 20th century like World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the Great Depression had no effect on these very smooth trajectories for technology.
– Ray Kurzweil
Kurzweil largely downplays the influence of governments going forward and says nothing of how they should be structured or any philosophical impacts. It’s not surprising in fact therefore that many Libertarians with their small government stance have thus been drawn towards his technological prophecies.
In this video he does speak to the need for a social security net and largely sees Left and Right moving in a common direction on this subject regardless of difference on the details. This isn’t unique as the idea of a UBI has take hold amongst many of Silicon Valley’s titans (and Lx ) as a solution to the economic dislocation many will face.
However the overriding theme of his talk (and others) is that technology will solve the world’s problems for us. Something the ‘cult of Kurzweil’ has been criticized for in the past.
Kurzweil and Transcendent Man want to evangelize that technology will help human beings rise above the limitations of their biology and become something literally more divine. Yet Kurzweil comes across as naively uninterested in the philosophical and practical implications of that possibility—not unaware of them, but blithely optimistic that the problems will work out.
– John Rennie
This of course is not unique to Kurzweil, those not heavily politically aligned tend to see technology as a solution to their problems while ignoring larger political impacts. Thus one gets the feeling that many whom seek a singularity think the problem of politics/governance will just sort itself out long term.
How long this view is sustainable is debatable however. There is now a very real prospect of self-driving vehicles and other cutting edge technology having a colossal impact on employment figures which in turn will become a political battlefield. And the political opponents who rise up during this period to seize government will attempt to marshal followers.
In addition to the unstable political outlook the subject of an AGI being a massive risk to the future of humanity has been raised by many prominent individuals from Elon Musk to Stephen Hawking. They along with many Accelerationists don’t seem to share the default optimism that Kurzweil laces his comments with:
Sometimes people talk about conflict between humans and machines, and you can see that in a lot of science fiction. But the machines we’re creating are not some invasion from Mars. We create these tools to expand our own reach.
– Ray Kurzweil
Maybe not from Mars but it’s not uncommon on the topic of Accelerationism to see writings such as the following by Steven Shaviro quoting Nick Land:
By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital
– Steve Shaviro quoting Nick Land. Accelerationism without Accelerationism
But what of Kurzweil’s UBI championing contemporaries in Silicon Valley? We know some have warned of the dangers of AI.
Tim Urban over at Waitbywhy.com has penned a very in-depth article on Elon Musk’s Neuralink and his vision of human kind’s future. This being essentially merging with AI through what he has nicknamed “the wizard hat” Brain Machine Interface (BMI).
It would seem from his interviews with Elon Musk he believes Musk’s stance is that the only way to counter the existential threat of AI as mentioned above … is to become it.
That’s why, in a future world made up of AI and everyone else, he thinks we have only one good option:
To be AI.
– Tim Urban – Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future
The push to merge with AI hasn’t of course gone without criticism. In a SingularityHub post by Edd Gent titled: Scientists Call Out Ethical Concerns for the Future of Neurotechnology Gent reports on 27 experts in fields ranging from Machine Learning to Ethics who have warned of areas of concern around AI+BMI, including:
privacy and consent, agency and identity, augmentation, and bias
– Edd Gent
And it’s not just Silicon Valley or Machine Learning experts. Philosophers such as David Chalmers have cast a Philosophical eye over the subject matter.
What happens when machines become more intelligent than humans?
– David Chalmers – The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis
Of course many of Nick Land or Hugo De Garis fellow travelers would argue this AI colossus is inevitable and we either merge or become extinct. Politics is thus little more than a flat tire to Accelerationism.
So outside of Rx/NRx and Lx we see techno-optimism, we see fear but we see little in the way of a political angle. Either through disinterest or a belief that governments are just becoming less important this surely means by proxy that politics becomes less relevant with it.
And this leads us to another group of Accelerationists who find themselves on neither the Right or Left. The Unconditional Acclerationists (Ux) whom unlike their Kurzwelian neighbors take the slightly more pessimistic view of a Transhuman escape route. It could be seen as an apolitical philosophical angle to the fears of Musk and others wedded to the concepts Land formed in the 1990’s.
Unconditional Accelerationism – Ux Antipraxis.
UNCONDITIONAL ACCELERATIONISM BEGINS WITH A RENUNCIATION OF THE RETROGRADE POLITICISATION TO WHICH ACCELERATIONISM HAS FALLEN SUBJECT – VINCENT GARTON
If Lx and Rx provide a politico-economic construct around the concept of Accelerationism what of those who reject this constraint?
This abandoning of any political ideology associated with Accelerationism has been anointed with the moniker Unconditional Acceleratonism by blogger Vincent Garton. In fact we could say that from the Left wing understanding of the term, Ux is lacking praxis – a perspective shared not just by Garton but also Edmund Berger.
Garton points out other terms have been used to describe this non-socio-political-aligned understanding. However he traces the roots of this purer form of Accelerationist thought back to the Ccru itself. Specifically Steve Metcalf’s Neo-Futurism piece. The following except from that text gives us a flavor of Metcalf’s thoughts:
Beyond the authoritarian mania of modernist econometric planning, and the nihilistic, self-referential third cycle damnation of the ultramodern NOW, NEO-FUTURISM tracks a double process: – (i) where the operational political, economic, and sociological codes of universalized humanity contract – to the point where, condemned to endlessly circulate in an interminable statistical survey, they finally collapse into a black hole where meaningless signs reduplicate themselves. This is the secondary process. The humanities in flames. (ii) The primary process: where the abstract, generic value of human intelligence migrates beyond the madreporic core of an organism regulated by the negative feedback of theses archaic codes – becoming increasingly artificial and synthetic at intense speeds, converging on a future in which it has already been rewired. Here the “medium is the message”: a viral mechanism acclerating the replication of more of itself. Runaway capitalism; anarchic, “headless” self-organization. Invasion from the future.
– Steve Metcalf
If Metcalf has captured the essence of Accelerationism in its unconditional form it is that Accelerationism (at least as a mechanism of observation) is a looking glass to the fate of mankind.
Through this term we see the future as essentially an implosion following the technomical explosion. After the big bang, the big contraction. The true singularity, a one dimensional point of huge mass in an infinitely small space where all physics’ laws are rendered null and void. Perhaps the final outcome of an intelligence spread like matter throughout the universe which collapses in on itself via a Big Crunch and divides itself by zero.
Stripping away the political baggage of Rx and Lx also in practice strips away the Dyson structures that orbit it. Accelerationism is thus reduced to its inhuman roots, the other, the outside, the supernova, the embodiment of capital invading from the future. A Lovecraftian horror.
…outside the ordered universe, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.
– H.P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath
Garton in his article Unconditional accelerationism as antipraxis touches upon the unimportance of the human agent that embodies this Ux epiphany:
The unconditional accelerationist, instead, referring to the colossal horrors presented to the human agent all the way from the processes of capital accumulation and social complexification to the underlying structure, or seeming absence of structure, of reality itself, points to the basic unimportance of unidirectional human agency.
– Vincent Garton
It is here the parting with the singularitarians can be found. Garton summarizes this divergence with one of Metcalf’s stances in a single sentence:
He rejects the ‘idiotic gurglings’ of those transhumanist futurologists who claim they can rescue humanity from the explosion.
– Vincent Garton
Ultimately the Ux approach is to reject the collective assertion that Accelerationism can be controlled as said control is impossible. The system is uncontrollable due to its state of entropy and multiple feedback loops that feed said state.
So why bother with politics? It’s an attempt to to humanize an inhuman process that cares nothing for petty tribal alignments.
However what of those who do wish to recouple some form of politics to Accelerationism? Those who wish to synthesize Lx and Rx? The lantern guiding those who wish to follow through the dark?
A group who dream a course exists that harnesses Ux and nudges it in certain directions, like pinball flippers?
We are now entering the territory of hyperstition.
GHx – speculation, theory-fiction, hyperstition?
HYPERSTITIONS BY THEIR VERY EXISTENCE AS IDEAS FUNCTION CAUSALLY TO BRING ABOUT THEIR OWN REALITY – NICK LAND
It could be now, it could have been last month or it might not have happened yet.
From the fragments of the past, present and future we can begin to piece together the components that will form the building blocks of a hyperstitional Grey Accelerationism.
And what is hyperstition? In the words of Delphi Carstens:
Functioning as magical sigils or engineering diagrams hyperstitions are ideas that, once ‘downloaded’ into the cultural mainframe, engender apocalyptic positive feedback cycles
– Delphi Carstens
In response to the NRx movement it is not surprising that those who believe Lx and the Left in general have too much baggage but are opposed to the Alt-Right associations of Rx and its dystopian vision will look for a middle road. An approach that peers into the gaping abyss of Ux and seek a parachute? Surely it exists?
Unlike the broadly apolitical centrist ground the emergent GHx movement is a return to embracing and making sense of the philosophical and political currents that underpin society.
Goddess Maat – Wikimedia
Simon O’Sullivan in his 2014 piece The Missing Subject of Accelerationism suggests shades of grey exist between the Lx and Rx movements. In particular O’Sullivan highlights the work of Reza Negarestani the Landian influenced writer of the Accelerationist inspired theory-fiction Cyclonopedia.
But things are more complex than this, and there are grey zones between these two poles. Zones which are also to do with the place of the human subject or, indeed, with what the human might become within an accelerationist agenda. Reza Negarestani, for example, calls for attention to be given to an inhuman impulse that is nevertheless ‘within’ the human, when the former names the commitment to an on-going experimental but also rational process – of conceptual navigation – and the latter names the fetters on this (the ‘folk’ (everyday and common-sensical) sense of a human self – or ‘myth of the given’ – that can limit this other adventure insofar as it relies on pre-existing categories and definitions).
– Simon O’Sullivan
In contrast to Negarestani’s pedigree many of those who will fall into what we can term the GHx movement may/will have been only dimly aware of Ccru and Land’s earlier writings as was covered previously. Their gateway to accelerating returns being from Kurzweil, Singularity University, Hugo de Garis and other such sources.
However as the exponential explosion in technology marches on in the face of a fragmented West and rising East the questions around the philosophical origins and direction of Accelerationism will surely be amplified.
How can we navigate the future? What if it becomes a torrent of change, deterritorializing everything it touches and mechanistically grinding society into silicon sausage meat?
Many of these new adherents plumbing the depths of Accelerationism’s canon in search of an answer are likely to stumble onto the works of Old Nick. Rather than recoil and dismiss due to his political associations this corpus will likely been seen as a sign-post for how things can go very wrong for humanity when unchecked.
Some will ask – is checking even possible? Where do we go from here? As a result GHx won’t be caught carrying the baggage of the Left and will have no qualms about engaging with Land. That doesn’t mean they will agree with him though.
This new Accelerationist orientation will largely accept the possibility of the eradication of the human species and society in its current form that many on the Rx side and elsewhere see.
The possibility of humanity being chewed up and spat out by an all encompassing AGI won’t be viewed as fiction. Society will accept that if AGI is possible it is inevitable and better we get there first than “the other guy”.
And this belief won’t be paranoia. A nightmarish situation is already beginning to play out on YouTube. When some bizarre, emergent, macabre, video generating algorithms drag themselves out from the depths of the digital world who can blame them?
Exploitation is encoded into the systems we are building, making it harder to see, harder to think and explain, harder to counter and defend against. Not in a future of AI overlords and robots in the factories, but right here, now, on your screen, in your living room and in your pocket.
– James Bridle
And when said AI is driving human actors to mimic it in the pursuit of profit, we ask the same question as James Bridle:
This is content production in the age of algorithmic discovery — even if you’re a human, you have to end up impersonating the machine.
– James Bridle
To paraphrase Oscar Wilde “Life imitates Algos, far more than Algos imitate Life”.
And it does/has/will not end with AI.
The vision of competing city states, secessionism and the breakup of transnational entities that the NRx and fellow travelers promotes risks becoming a reality. Not least because in embryonic form it has begun to happen through nationalistic backlashes and plans for collapse.
Perhaps there is more than a grain of truth to Adam Curtis criticism of the hyper-normalized simulacrum type world we inhabit and how it feeds this collapse.
Amongst GHx adherents however we can expect to see a push back against this state of affairs with calls for transnational political blocks whilst advocating for sovereignty and power to be distributed at the lowest levels possible. Devolution versus Revolution. Cede versus Secede.
It is perhaps to the work of Leopold Kohr some will turn to find a path through the current disintegration. When talking of the existing nation states and their arrangements in the 1970’s Kohr had this to say:
… it would seem that neither a United World nor a United Europe can last for any length of time on the basis of the existing arrangements uniting as they do an indigestible medley of small as well as large states. Organizations of this nature lack the vital internal balance that could give their federal structure more than a passing success. In their present form the various attempted international unions of our day can therefore be held together only by means of an external force such as the threat of aggression. Once this is passed they must either burst, collapse, or be transformed into single-power tyrannies. As free, democratic unions of nations they cannot survive.
– Leopold Kohr
Kohr came at politics and economics from a different angle to the NRx brigade but he seems to have been of a similar train of thought in the belief that the structures of the West are not sustainable.
However he didn’t discount the idea of some kind of federal structure nor democracy itself, realizing that many would wish to form a closer union in Europe for example he had this to say:
For all practical purposes, therefore, international unions must seek, instead of the heavy stable balance of great-power organizations, the fluid mobile balance of multicellular small-state arrangements. The solution of their problems lies in the micro- not in the macro-political field. They must eliminate from their system not the small states but the great powers. This alone will furnish them with the internal mechanism for coping with the daily frictions of social life without the necessity of building up a governmental machine of such proportions that it could not be maintained even if it could be created.
– Leopold Kohr
Kohr seems to propose a solution, one that sits nicely with the concept of a rapidly changing technological environment. What we have here is a balance between the CEO dominated Neo-cameral city states that Land and others talk of and the nationless, open-borders world that many on the Left have supported.
The process of getting to such an arrangement would of course be an interesting one in the face of current challenges.
Many of GHx proponents will be/are the beneficiaries of gentrification in cities such as London and San Francisco. In fact they will be the “winners” in an increasingly fragmented world filled with “losers”. They’ll be stuck in a dichotomy where those they oppose are the very people who pay their very handsome wages.
They’ll support in business those building the technology they wish to see Accelerated but oppose many of them on the political stage. They will very much be in McKenzie Wark’s sense of the word Hackers:
We are the hackers of abstraction. We produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data. Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we are the abstracters of new worlds. Whether we come to represent ourselves as researchers or authors, artists or biologists, chemists or musicians, philosophers or programmers, each of these subjectivities is but a fragment of a class still becoming, bit by bit, aware of itself as such.
– A Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark
Existent in all the four corners of the globe, mobile and often well traveled as a social group they couldn’t be further away from the Alt-Right on social issues. That doesn’t mean however we can expect them to be rootless in their globe trotting devoid of a link to their heritage. Nor will they be the culture burning Left as mused over by Hanson, Heath and Thornton:
The study of ancient Greek and Latin language and civilization has been immolated in various bonfires lit by any number of modern Savonarolas, the ideologues of the multicultural and postmodern Left who wish to destroy the beauty and brilliance they cannot acknowledge or appreciate.
– Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age, Hanson et al.
Hipsterism emphasizing the local, unique and artistic is certainly a social precursor to the type of world these people will attempt to forge. And it won’t be ironic either.
Metamodernist architectural schools such as New Urbanism and the Urban Village will find a role amongst their ranks. Fusing the old with the new to design and re-design the world around us. The embrace of driverless vehicles, remote working and non-traditional work hours will feedback into urban planning as the call to build the suburbs of old diminishes.
The dérive of Guy Debord and the Situationist International will be at the heart of this new urban world:
Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
– Guy Debord
A radical reconfiguration of urban environments will cause friction, especially amongst established, often poor communities in existing cities. Something we have already seen with the tech sector specifically and the complaints of gentrification generally.
What we will experience is an attempt to reconfigure the existing environment in preparation for a phase shift brought on by the threat of climate change and the explosion in multiple technological fields, from quantum computing to AI.
To quote the character Alexander Leek in the Richard Gere movie The Mothman Prophecies:
If there was a car crash ten blocks away, that window washer up there could probably see it. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s God, or even smarter than we are. But from where he’s sitting, he can see a little further down the road.
– The Mothman Prophecies (Movie)
This is a core aspect of GHx. Seeing a little further down the road. Sending a warning and acting before it is too late. Sometimes acting when it is too late and picking up the pieces.
We could say then that GHx will look to harness the power of capitalism to radically redesign the world around us for the future but with a nod to the past. An attempt to direct it to the point where perhaps it renders itself obsolete before it renders us obsolete. Failing that harnessing it for the better of (trans) human kind and not the destruction.
Of course this raises the question of what will happen to humanity itself, a question poised by many as of late?
An embracement of Accelerationism of any side is an admission that an escape velocity from humanity’s biological constraints not only exits but that un-restrained exponential change will send us speeding towards a trans-human state or extinction. The logical end goal? Post-humanity or once again – extinction.
How long this takes depends really on your perspective of the advance the sciences are making. Skeptics will abound but for Accelerationists it’s the only logical outcome short of well you guessed it ….. extinction.
We’ve taken a a brief walk through the library of Accelerationism and noted it tomes and librarians. It’s set the scene for the past, present and future. Finally we stopped at the book labeled GHx. Was it in the fiction section?
On reading the blurb we find GHx is ultimately the meta-modern synthesis of Lx and Rx hoping to guide us to that trans-human future without losing the ‘human’ bit. It knows the path is laden by pitfalls and seeks to become the master of the future not the victim.
It sounds like a book worth reading.
In Part 2. of this series of articles we open the pages of this great work of Theory-Fiction and will pour over its hyperstitional pages.
The essay is taken from:
I have a passing acquaintance with the work of Felix Guattari, but the person who perhaps knows his work best is Maurizio Lazzarato. His recently translated book Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (Semiotext(e), 2014) shows the ongoing usefulness of the “anti-sociology” (120) that Guattari elaborated, both alone and in his collaborations with Gilles Deleuze.
The starting point for Lazzarato is what he takes to be a contemporary crisis of subjectivity. Capitalism launches new subjectivities like new model iPhones, only these days the subjectivities are all basically just bloatware versions of the same model – just like the iPhones.
We are all supposed to be entrepreneurs of the self, an impossible task, leading to depression – as Franco Berardi might concur. This version of capitalism – if that is still what it is – no longer promises to be the ‘knowledge society.’ All it offers is just debt servitude and lottery tickets. Contrary to the slogans repeated over and over, there’s not much ‘innovative’ or ‘creative’ about it.
Lazzarato dismisses those critical theories that deal only with the relation of language to subjectivity while ignoring what he calls “machinic enslavement.” On his shit-list are such names as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Paolo Virno and Judith Butler. They are all still too caught up in the linguistic. They treat language, subjectivity and politics as if they all happened in a sphere described by Althusser as ‘relatively autonomous’ from production itself. Their stances seem ‘political’ but are more strictly idealist. A contemporary critical theory needs rather to investigate – and intervene – in both the domains of social subjection and also machinic enslavement. Machines have invaded everyday life. There is no autonomous sphere of language, subjectivity and politics.
Capitalist cynicism insists we be individual subjects when actually we’re dehumanized nodes in indifferent meshes of humans and nonhumans. We are all inside what Lewis Mumford called the megamachine. What this demands is not counter-hegemonic ideologies but means of producing a new kind of mesh of both machines and subjects.
It’s a matter then of keeping two things together: the formation of subjects, mostly but not only in language; and the machines that produce trans-individual effects. Subjectivation is always mixed, and, includes more than language. Real ‘innovation’ requires more than language games. The dominant signification has to be suspended for anything new to appear at all.
Creating genuine novelty means starting from both social subjection and machine enslavement, and making a break from both, whether in the fields of politics, art or even science. Once upon a time the party and the union were examples of innovations that resulted from such a break, but they have become integrated into capitalism and no longer function as they once did.
Interestingly, the making of subjects is not something that happens in the superstructure. Lazzarato: “Guattari and Deleuze bring to fulfillment the discoveries of Marx…: the production of wealth depends on abstract, unqualified, subjective activity irreducible to the domain of either political or linguistic representation.” (23) It is a move from political economy to subjective economy. Marx dealt mostly with the production of commodities, and dealt with the production of workers only as an effect of the production of commodities. Guattari and Lazzarato want to extend that analysis, ‘sideways’, as it were, to a parallel set of production process that make not objects (commodities) but subjects (consumers).
Social subjection provides roles: you are a man, you are a woman, you are a boss, you are a worker, and so on. It produces individual subjects with identities – and ID cards. But this is only part of the picture. The other aspect is machinic enslavement, which does the opposite. It makes de-subjectivized flows and fragments. It turns those subjects into component parts of machines (slave units in the cybernetic sense).
Social subjection makes subjects; machinic enslavement makes dividuals, It divides the self up and attaches bits of it here and there to machinic processes as less-than-human agents. These machinic assemblages – rather like Harawayesque cyborgs – are hybrids of human and machine, but where the human parts are indeed parts rather than subjects, and to the extent that some sort of semiotic code organizes it, this takes the form of what Guattari called an asignifying semiotics. It isn’t organized by language that means anything or is meant to be interpreted.
Machinic enslavement works on pre-personal, pre-cognitive and pre-verbal affects, as well a supra-personal ones. One could think here about how Big Data deals on the one side with fragmented flows of data and on the other with huge aggregates, which only secondarily identifies the subject on which to pin a hope (that they might be a consumer) or a fear (that they might be a terrorist).
Lazarrato mentions all too briefly the role that property rights plays in tying the desubjectivized world of machines to the subject producing world of discourse. “By ensuring that creation and production are uniquely the feats of ‘man’, it uses the ‘world’, emptied of all ‘soul’ as its own ‘object’, as the instrument of its activities, as the means to its ends.” (35) The property form makes the individualized subject the author and hence owner of something that is really much more likely the product of a machinic assemblage of different bits of various people’s subjectivity, various machines, assorted technical resources. Hence we end up with the myth that Steve Jobs created the iPhone – and reaped most of the rewards from it.
From Guattari, Lazzarato takes the idea of seeking strategies that deal with both subjection and enslavement, which are also in Deleuzo-Guattarian parlance the molar and the molecular. One can use the machinic, molecular perspective to critique the molar dualisms, but then also take enslavement as opening to produce something other than paranoid consumerism as a corresponding and compensating mode of subjectivity. (A recent, rather wonderful example of which might be the xenofeminist manifesto).
Sure, capital has its linguistic dimension, but it may not be as important as flows of labor, money and signs as a system of production. Dividuals are governed statistically, not as something that operates through ideology or repression. They are strung together via asignifying semiotics that act on things to produce sense without meaning. “What matters to capitalism is controlling the asignifying semiotic apparatuses (economic, scientific, technical stock-market, etc) through which it aims to depoliticize power relations.” (41)
There might still be ideologies, in a sense, but these are second-order effects. “The signifying semiotics of the media, politicians, and experts are mobilized in order to legitimate, support, and justify in the eyes of individual subjects, their consciousness and representations, the fact that ‘there is no alternative.’” (41) They are not primary. Capitalism isn’t really about individuals or language.
It isn’t really about people at all. Here Marx was still too anthropocentric, in thinking that surplus value is tied to human agency. Guattari had the nerve to propose that there is such a thing as machinic surplus value, too. Capital exploits not workers but machinic assemblages, and is indifferent to their relative organic or metallic composition. All labor is cyborg labor. Productivity depends more on the enslavement of dividual parts than to the formation of proper individual subjects.
Capital exploits the difference between subjection and enslavement. It is machines that do the real work, while value remains partitioned between workers who get mere wages, and bosses who get the rest. Here Lazzarato does share a point with Yann Moulier Boutang and the theory of cognitive capitalism: that value is no longer really assignable to particular subjects as its ‘author’, whether in a labor theory of value, or the equivalent bourgeois ideology, in which genius entrepreneurial ‘leaders’ are the sole agents of wealth creation.
Lazzarato: “it is never an individual who thinks.” (44) And it is never a corporation that produces. The corporation appropriates the unassigned values of a machinic ‘commons’, as it were, “free of charge,” and captures it in the form of profit or rent. Just as in Burkett, where capital appropriates the natural commons, here it appropriates a social commons, or rather a social-machinic one. Meanwhile, the dividual agents have to be patched back together as more-or-less whole subjects meant to think of themselves existentially as free agents who are both investors and debtors, trading in the self as currency in a market for souls.
Like the social-factory theories of Italian workerist and autonomist theory, Lazzarato works with an expanded view of workplace. The production of subjectivity is not superstructural. Marx followed classical political economy in taking the subjective essence of production to be labor. Lazzarato wants a broader concept of that which produces and is produced as – human. Capitalism is not just rational calculation, but also the production of desiring-machines that are actually not entirely Calvinist rational-choice actors. As any viewer of the Mad Men tv show can see for themselves, capital integrates desire into its own functioning.
It is in the highlighting of this theme of the functionality of desire that Lazzarato breaks with Yann Moulier Boutang and the theory that this is cognitive capitalism. That approach reduces the wider subjective economy to a narrower idea of a knowledge economy. It concedes too much to economics, where knowledge is now supposed to be the endogenous growth factor. But knowledge is less basic to capital than desire. Capitalism doesn’t actually need that much knowledge to function. Indeed recent attacks on schools and universities seem to indicate that it wants to function with much less.
Capitalism needs desiring subjects. But there’s a crisis of desire. All it has to go on at the moment is the despotic super-ego – ‘be your own boss! – which in Franco Berardi’s terms keeps collapsing into depression, or worse. Subjectivity is a key commodity that now has to be produced. The preliminary question might then be: how to construct a theory of subjectivity itself. Lazarrato wants to move beyond structuralist, phenomenological and psychoanalytic theories, which tend to privilege the inter-subjective and leave out the machinic. Interestingly, he also brackets-off base and superstructure theories, which make a prior (molar) cut between what is material and what is ideological, or what is instinctual and what is subjective, or what is a deep structure and what is a particular linguistic sign.
The subject is no mere effect of language, even if language is thought, after Butler, as performative. Capital is now machine-centric not logocentric. The act of enunciation, where a partition between an enunciator and the enunciation appears, may no longer be unique to humans. “Subjectivity, creation, and enunciation are the results of an assemblage of human, infra-human, and extra-human factors in which signifying, cognitive semiotics constitutes but one of the constituent parts.” (63)
In a move parallel to Berardi’s rethinking of alienation, Lazzarato writes: “That objects might start ‘speaking’, start ‘expressing themselves’ (or start dancing, as they do in the celebrated passage from the first book of Capital), is not capitalist fetishism, the proof of man’s alienation, but rather marks a new regime of expression which requires a new semiotics.” (64) Things really do speak in this world of neo-capitalism, or whatever it is. It is not just the alienation of the worker from her product that one has to look at, but the insistence with which the things she made talk back to her and demand to be not only bought but loved.
One of the knottiest parts of Deleuze and Guattari’s joint work was their disquisition on the linguistics of Louis Hjelmslev, and the categories of expression and content, which in some ways rework the classic categories of signifier and signified. They refused to make a hierarchy between them. Expression does not depend on content (as some Marxists hold) or content on expression (contra certain structuralists). Rather the idea is to grasp the content-expression binary by the middle, which is enunciation. It is the act of enunciation which produces the relation between expression and content, or between object and subject. The ground of enunciation, however is not itself discursive.
This opens the door to a general semiotics that extends way beyond language and the language-like. It includes natural asemiotic codings, such as crystals and dna – central to the work of such scientist-marxist-theorists as Bernal and Needham. It includes human languages too, of course, but where thinking starts from the ground of enunciation. For example, in the political and military forces that shape a ‘national’ language. (One might connect this up with Friedrich Kittler’s famous work on the quite literal apparatus of the mother tongue and the ‘machinic’ supports for it in things like textbooks for mothers with diagrams of how the infant should make various sounds of the national language).
Lazarrato calls language a general equivalent. Lazzarato: “… the semiotics of significant functions both as a general equivalent of expression and a vector of subjectivation centered on the individual.” (68) . (Actually I would call it a general non-equivalent. I don’t think it works the way money – Marx’s general equivalent – works). But focus on language tends to leave out the transindividual experiences that in neo-capitalism are only given their due as symptoms of madness, infancy or art. But for Guattari and Lazzarato, those are not keys to a surrealist world of infinite possibility, but rather one with its own asignifying semiotics.
Deleuze and Guattari had a sometimes alarming tendency to generalize from anthropological literature, and Lazzarato picks up on certain distinctions between pre-capitalist and capitalist social-machinic systems. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, in his marvelous Cannibal Metaphysics (Univocal, 2014) lends some ethnographic dignity to such more speculative accounts of the non-modern subjective machine. In Lazzarato it takes the form of a rather more abrupt juxtaposition. But perhaps it is better to risk saying something too reductive about other cultures, other natures – than to play safe by saying nothing at all.
For Lazzarato, in the pre-capitalist world, social forms precluded the formation of one homogenous signifying strata. It is only in the modern world that there is a homogenizing of the human, at least within the bounds of the nation, via the imposition of a national language. Such language is the means via which all semiotics appears to become compatible with capital. Lazzarato thinks this means a reduction of polyvalence. Actually I think this is not so. It is rather the reduction of the significance of aberrant meanings. The witch trials and inquisitions recede.
Here too I think he quite misunderstands the role of the mathematical theory of information, which has nothing to do with meaning at all, only with information as statistical probability and the problems of its transmission. Claude Shannon’s work is actually at the extreme end of polyvalence, in that meaning is not relevant at all. Here I think Tiziana Terranova better understands the significance of this for the formation of the machinic.
One can agree with Lazzarato that “There is no language in itself.” (76) What mid-century information theory did is call statistical operations on asignifying flows into being via an apparatus where transmission would be relatively (but not absolutely) seamless and where polyvalence could occur in an extreme form – where interpretation no longer matters at all. Except of course for certain patterns of association and usage that will be flagged as potentially ‘terrorist’ in this here surveillance state.
The concept of an asignifying semiotics really is intriguing. For Lazzarato it includes computer languages, corporate accounting, but also music, art. For him these are all semiotic flows that don’t depend on interpreting subjects, and where the human can be just a component part. For Guattari, unlike Heidegger, the machine does not turn away from being but produces it. The machine runs on kinds of power-sign that do not represent but anticipate and shape the world. They are like diagrams that can accelerate, slow or direct deterritorialized flows of labor, matter, energy, or even desire. They are artificial routes to action on the world.
These asignifying semiotic flows mobilize non-reflective subjective fragments, or modular subjective components. They now grid the whole world. Lazzarato: “In Marx’s time, there was only the inside of the factory (with a concentration and intensity incomparably lower to that of today’s corporations) and the outside, the latter among a handful of apparatuses such as railroads. Today, they are everywhere except in critical theory. They are everywhere and especially in our daily lives.” (91) There is a broad challenge here, then to think way beyond the limits of the cognitive contribution to labor or the distribution of the sensible as founding an autonomous political realm.
Guattari was interested in machines that could take us towards new kinds of subjectivation, even if, in his as in Lazzarato’s work, ‘machine’ usually ends up being much too metaphoric a term. We never quite get to any detailed understanding of actual machines. For example, Lazzarato gestures towards the mixed semiotics of the trading room floor, but we lack the more specific attention to such a world as occurs for example in the work of Donald MacKenzie. Also, there might be more mileage in the tripartite scheme of Henri Lebfebve – signal, sign and symbol – than in the dual one Lazzarato extracts from Guattari. (Even if both are rather simplifying Charles Sanders Pierce).
Still, it’s a compelling conceptual gambit. Mere signifying semiotics has the function of containing deterritorialized and desubjectivized flows that results from asignifying diagrams and symbols and the assemblages of dividuals and machines they organize. The latter idea contains a measure of Spinoza on the transitive nature of affect as a pre-personal category, but not necessarily as a good that one can bank on. The asignifying works via contagion rather than cognition – (as it does in Terranova as well.)
Part of Lazzarato and Guattari’s thinking on pre-individual subjectivity comes from Daniel Stern’s work on early childhood. Humans’ early experience is trans-subjective, and evolves not in stages not a la Freud but is thought a series of levels. Actually there are hints of a base-superstructure model here, except in Guattari that is generally a reversible relationship. Pre-individual subjectivity might start out as a base but except for artists and the insane, but then an individuated one is acquired, at first as a superstructure, but which then becomes the infrastructural layer. The trouble is that this tends to foreclose any genuine learning or creation, which is always destabilizing of constituted subjectivity. Here Guattari and Lazzarato also come close to Gilbert Simondon and Bernard Stiegler on the process of individuation and its failures.
In Guattari in particular there is an insistence on forms and consistencies of this pre-individual and asignifying ground. It is not a raw world of drives, instinct, animality and spontaneity against which language has to bring the law, structure a lack and make prohibitions. Lazzarato insists that what psychoanalysis presents as a necessary order imposed on raw id is actually a political model. This is where his way of thinking forks from so much of contemporary thinking, including: Butler and the necessity of castration; Stiegler and symbolic sublimation; Virno, where speech replaces drive, and Badiou, where spontaneity yields to organization. For Guattari nonverbal semiotics are already organized. Just differently organized.
The strategy is to work not on the layer of language and the subject, but to start from the heterogeneous middle, from enunciation as what happens between the pre-individuated, object world and the subjective world where language rules. (Although it is unfortunate that Lazzarato’s polemics only address biases towards the subject. He has nothing to say on how the deep machinic level is organized. Friedrich Kittler, for example, is not addressed. Nor a more vulgar-Marxist approach that might take the molecular more literally).
The method does seem a bit stuck in the past to the extent that its operating example is still cinema. Here cinema appears as a form in which a signifying machine neutralizes, orders and naturalizes an asignifying semiotics. All the same, cinema can show a pre-signifying semiotics in a post-signifying world. Lazzarato’s example is Pier Paolo Pasolini, who perhaps shares with Guattari a kind of “fanatical Marxism” (79) Pasolini worked in Italy, a country to which national language came very late, and until the seventies many subaltern and regional people did not speak a recognizable version of the dominant Italian. Many ended up as speaking their ‘subaltern’ and ‘indigenous’ language even in the cities to which they migrated for work.
Cinema functions like group psychoanalysis, normalizing intensities, making a hierarchy between language and the rest. The effects of classic Hollywood are not ideological and don’t work primarily through language, even if it is a controlling level. Cinema is a mixed regime of signs, (which Alex Galloway – to give another alternative example – figures as Hermes, Iris and the Furies.) For Pasolini, cinema was also a mixed semiotics that starts with the image, with a kind of vision in which the machinic eye is embedded in objects.
Cinema using the diagram as the sciences or business do, to see, decide, choose, act. Hollywood-style cinema was important for what Pasolini called neo-capitalism, product of a second and final bourgeois revolution. If the first created the industrial worker, the second created the industrially produced subject to match. Neo-capitalism needed new kinds of flexible subject mobilized by a functional language devoid of meaning. It reversed the old semiotic hierarchies. Ideological superstructures (law, school, university) were no longer very important. Subjects were directly made by production and consumption systems.
Pasolini was loyal to the lumpen-proles who made themselves outside this emerging regime, excluded not just on linguistic but also existential grounds. They were to be remade as new-model Italians and consumers, territorialized on a far more restricted and hetero-normative model of the family. Neo-capitalism does not just require ideological submission but also directly manufactures the subjects it wants. It is a subjective economy, which draws on old familial forms of life and adds a new false tolerance – tolerant only of consumer choices. It destroys the old popular cultures and their sacred animist worlds. Pasolini’s literature and cinema tried to re-animate the old animist culture in a new machinic form, a “machinic animism.” (134)
Pasolini makes a strange bedfellow with materials drawn from Italian workerist and autonomist theory. Antonio Negri certainly never forgave him for siding with the (working class) cops against the (bourgeois) students in a famous provocation. But it has to be said, Pasolini had unique insight into the long arc of transformation in Italy. His provincial roots and his queerness gave him an existenia ground for perceiving and creating affective life that the theorists did not have.
I don’t know if we can still call this, after Pasolini, neo-capitalism given that it has been with us now for half a century, although in the larger scheme of things perhaps that is still rather new. For all their refusals of the language of base and superstructure, one way of reading Guattari and Lazzarato is as flattening the strata of natural-social organization, such that the top layers – the ideological – are omitted, but unfortunately so too are the deeper layers, the earthy substrata that was not foreign to Pasolini. One wishes sometimes for a more vulgar-Marxist note, or perhaps more of the Guattari of Three Ecologies.
Still, the neo-capitalism concept does touch on certain key features, to do with how subjectivity is machined rather than merely ‘hailed’ into existence via language. Lazzarato draws attention to the vacant language of org charts, graphs, budgets, charts – one might add Powerpoints. Hierarchy is really organized more through the asignifying aspects of such procedures. Or take the call center, where the latest systems do not even require that the worker actually speak. She or he can just click on pre-recorded phrases to step the caller through the sales-routine. The software of course includes rating, ranking, classifying and timing functions.
In a useful insight, Lazzarato claims that what is managed now is not really labor so much as processes, of which labor is just a component. Management is not really about ‘human resources’, just resources for machinic enslavement, cordoned off in subroutines that are controlled and which have no reciprocal capacity to effect control. Lazzarato: “Sociology and industrial psychology seem to be incapable of grasping conceptually the qualitative leap that has occurred in the move from ‘work’ to ‘process’, from subjection to enslavement. Those high on the hierarchy no longer deal with work but with ‘process’ which integrates labor as ‘one’ of its parts.” (119) Against those version of Marxism that assign all value and creativity to living labor against dead labor, such as Hardt and Negri, Lazzarato sees only hybrids of dead and living labor.
The great deterritorializing molecular flood is money, the general equivalent, but it can’t function on its own. Its asignifying functions have to be infused with meaning from without by molar, interpretive interpellating functions. Sometimes this subjective production can be progressive. Signifying semiotics can produce things like the worker’s movement. The worker deterritorialized in production could be reterritorialized in different directions, either radical or reactionary.
But the party-and-union model of the labor movement, based on territorializing worker-subjectivity on the dignity of labor, may have run its course. New subjective modes might have to be created. Lazzarato spends some time on a strike by part-time culture workers, whose conditions of labor and life were being determined for them, without their input by researchers, experts, the media and political spheres. Their counter slogan: “we are the experts.”
The strike fits a general pattern of the delegation of knowledge and speech to experts and the exclusion of the governed. A contemporary American example here would be Black Lives Matter. A ‘problem’ is defined by others, not by the people affected. In order to exist politically one has to refuse the homogenous space of acceptable differences and force a cleavage which in turn allows a new kind of subjectivity to form.
Such a new kind of existential situation creates its own field of reference, and cuts through the insistence that there is no dispute, no racist violence, no class struggle and so on. It has to refuse the expert as mediator, translator for the media of what the policy parameters should be. Here Black Lives Matter’s refusal to be coopted by ‘leaders’ is salutary.
Being based on the French situation, Lazzarato spends quite a bit of energy on psychoanalysis as a kind of pastoral power which reconciles the subject with dominant modes of being a subject in a family. In the United States a mediatized version of the old religious pastoral care is probably more salient here. In either case: “There is nothing natural about the subject-function in communications and language. On the contrary, it must be constructed and imposed.” (162) And can be challenged.
The latter part of the book is a fairly sweeping critique of rival positions, although I doubt those critiqued would recognize themselves as presented here. Lazzarato refuses the language of performativity, which he finds at work in Viron, Butler and Marazzi, for whom language is still something of a transcendent and homogeneous plane. Deleuze and Guattari’s adventures in anthropology had already shown this linguistic plane is not a given but an historical and political construct.
Lazzarato thinks there is too much emphasis on the conventional function of language in reproducing social obligations. He focuses on the idea – borrowed from Austin – of the illocutory act which institutes an obligation. This line of thought tends to concentrate on formalized and institutional settings where the speech act does not really involve or commit the subject to the truth of the statement.
That would be a matter of parrhesia, or a rupture with dominant signification. Lazzarato draws on, and extends, Bakhtin’s pragmatics of the situation of speech. For Bakhtin, the dialogic is not reducible to language, which is supplementary to the situation. The performative is just one element of a heterogeneous situation. Enunciation is accomplished in a situation where the world can be a problem (Bakhtin) not just a convention (Austin).
Lazzarato wants to stress the micro-politics, or situation, of enunciation, as more than an inter-subjective relation between speakers. In Bakhtin the listener is not put in a subordinate position by the performativity of the speech act, but it is possible to go further and see enunciation not as performative at all, but as strategic. Enunciation contains pre-individual voices, gesture, expression. Hence revolt is firstly asignifying, invoking a new existential field of reference.
What precedes the subject is not so much language as speech genres, which are not a molar constraint but an assemblage of heterogeneous elements. In terms of genre, the performative are just the most stereotyped genres. Creation requires a discourse imbued with trust, a particular existential space out of which enunciation of a certain type can arise. The politics of the situation of enunciation is what determines whether it is standardized or open, not the performativity of the speaker. “Linguistics appears obsessed by the desire to reduce the indeterminacy, risk, and instability created by the event-capacity of enunciation to a fixed grammatical or syntactic structure, to norms of enunciation, to the invariants of the official language.” (197)
Guattari pushes past Bakhtin’s dialogic to include the extra-linguistic, which can’t be confined to the inter-subjective, nor is it reducible to an infrastructure. “The vectors of subjectivation… are not exclusively human…” (205) Thorough analysis requires semiotic logic plus the “ontological pragmatics” of the pre-subjective, machinic layer. (207) These two layers are different. “Discursive logic implies exchange, whereas in ontological pragmatics existence is not exchangeable… Ontological or existential pragmatics is processed, irreversible, singular, and event-gathering, whereas discursive logic is reversible, structural, ahistorical, and universal. The two logics are thus dis-symmetrical functions of subjectivity.” (207, 209)
Contra Althusser, Guattari and Lazzarato advocate an aesthetic paradigm. “The enunciation of the relation to the self and the existential territories that support them always depends on a détournement of narrative whole primary function is not to produce rational, cognitive, or scientific explanations, but to generate complex refrains (‘mythico-conceptual, phantasmatic, religious, novelistic’) which give consistency to the emergence of new existential territories.” (201) There is no science of history, but there might be an art. A art of the pragmatics of the relation between the discursive and existential, or the actual and the virtual, the possible and the real.
It would be a topical art, perhaps not unrelated to what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping. Or in this case perhaps it should be called affective mapping. A cartography not just of feelings but of their forces. Its aim, in our time, would be to start from neo-capitalism’s failure to produce subjects to match it products, inaugurating the long slide in soft fascism and depression, with all the “pathology of subjectivity,” its racism, misogyny and intolerance of disability. (217)
Neo-capitalism seems hell bent on a kind of anti-production that intentionally multiplies stupidity. “Only a rupture with the mode of subjectivation can secrete an existential crystallization productive of new references, and new self-positionings, which, in their turn, open the possibility for constructing new languages, new knowledges, new aesthetic practices, and new forms of life.” (223) It would be instructive to compare this, with its uncompromising modernism, not just with Pasolini but with, say, Raymond Williams, for whom the wellsprings of another life always ran deep rather than new.
The last section continues the polemics, upholding Foucault’s version of the Greek polis against Ranciere’s. Oddly enough, slavery and production disappear altogether in this part of the book, and we are stuck with that enduring myth of the intellectuals – ‘the political.’
Still, if one has to choose… “Whereas Ranciere plays with universals and discursive rationality… Foucault describes subjectivation as an imminent process of rupture and constitution of the subject.” (233) For Foucault, the failure of democracy leads to a crisis of parrhesia: on the one hand, philosophy, where truth-telling tries to exempt itself from the risks of politics, out of which comes Christianity. On the other, the cynics (an ancestor for what I call low theory), who want the other life to be this one. They criticize and scrutinize the institutions and ways of life of their peers through self-experimentation and self-examination and the experimentation and examination of others and the world.” (240)
There is certainly merit in the move towards understanding subjectivity as something produced by machinic operations rather than through a hailing, in language, via a superstructure. It is just a pity the actual machines do not become more concrete in Lazzarato. Some contact with the work of, say, Alexander Galloway or Wendy Chun might help here.
The focus on the enunciation in the middle has a lot to say about the subject, but much less so about the object, which remains much more vaguely characterized. The molecular turns out to be rather too metaphorical. The metabolic rift via which actual molecules, containing carbon, or nitrogen, or other global flows currently in states of rift – none of this ever appears.
Even on the side of the subject, there is not enough on the specific property forms and the kinds of subject they make – as for example class subjects of new regimes of ownership and non-ownership. We are stuck with a very static model of capital versus labor, where the modes of labor organization appear as outmoded, but the terms capital and labor themselves appear as ahistorical and eternal.
The emphasis on desire is a useful critique of the emphasis elsewhere on the cognitive and knowledge as drivers of this stage of commodification. But it is not an effective way of addressing the centrality of information, or the way particular historical arrangements of the machinic make information a control layer over both objects and subjects, and indeed as what produces them and assigns them their values and rewards.
In all these regards, Lazzarato has offered a vital and useful update on Guattari, showing his enduring value, but also his limitations.
The essay is taken from:
by Steven Craig Hickman
“As for living, our servants will do that for us.”
– Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Axël
In the posthuman context one wants to rephrase that to say: “As for dying, our proxies will do that for us.” In the age of neoliberal fragmentation the self is no longer confined to some unified sphere of consistency that can be tracked, identified, and commoditized according to external market pressure, but is as Deleuze once described it a ‘dividual’, a datatized agent of the simulated virtual economy. The neoliberal self is dispersed in the free-floating bits of flotsam and jetsam of that vast assemblage of phantasmatic networks to be exploited by machinic algorithms in a posthuman economy of the endless transactions and brokered financialization. Self as Proxy, a self-constructed kit of affective relations built not by some internal mechanism but by the neoliberal market forces and their minions in the Grand Cathedral of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (so well documented by Philip Mirowski). In today’s neoliberal hypercaptalist state the self is immersed in the flows of data, unhinged from its physical status within the water bag we call the body, it is seen as a flexible and liquid commodity, neither manufactured or fabricated, but more of a neurogram: a programmable commodity of accelerating human capital moving toward greater and greater energy flows within the digital marketplace guided by neither rational choice nor the neoclassical sense of self identity but as performative player in a vast game script structured by a mathematical information economy modulated second by second in a global system run amok on the shores of a desperate elite that no longer believes in its own mystical religion of money.
Why worry about job loss in such a world? Think of it as an opportunity for a major overhaul, an upgrade, a self-modified algorithm one can install as part of an everyday maintenance program. Designer drugs to modify not one’s brain but one’s desensitized body laid on ice awaiting the expected post-singularity when humans and machines merge in immortalist visions of economic heaven. We are told over and over that the self is illusion, that the brain’s plasticity allows for multiple roles to be cast in flexible functions and mechanisms, just another graft of the fractured rhythms of accelerating world. Accountability? The legal definitions are evolving too, at least that’s the latest bit of wisdom from the neoliberal ignorance. Slowly but surely the neoliberal self is dissolving into the very fabric of the market where rules are just another set of algorithms pumping the fluid of wealth from the poor to the rich. As Philip Mirowski describes it satirically:
This is the true terminus of the neoliberal self: to supplant your own mother and father; to shrug off the surly bond ratings of earth; to transform yourself at the drop of a hat or the swallow of a pill; to be beholden to no other body but only to the incorporeal market. It doesn’t matter if the procedure actually lies within the bounds of contemporary scientific possibility, because it is the apocalypse and the Rapture of the neoliberal scriptures.1
All of the above may seem like a mad satire of the our present world, even the peregrinations of a mind at the end of its tether. Yet, living in America as I do I feel like a one of those old gnostics that has suddenly awakened from his sleepwalking existence, his zombiefied dream state within the ideological mindmeld of the mediatainment scapeworlds that pervade us. But this is no religious vision, nor is it some battle between gods of Left and Right like some all encompassing dualism of those old preachers of the desert. Instead this is the truth of which George Orwell once stated:
The Party could not be overthrown from within. Its enemies, if it had any enemies, had no way of coming together or even of identifying one another. Even if the legendary Brotherhood existed, as just possibly it might, it was inconceivable that its members could ever assemble in larger numbers than twos and threes. Rebellion meant a look in the eyes, an inflection of the voice; at the most, an occasional whispered word. But the proles, if only they could somehow become conscious of their own strength, would have no need to conspire. They needed only to rise up and shake themselves like a horse shaking off flies. If they chose they could blow the Party to pieces tomorrow morning.2
Everywhere one turns we hear over and over how we are powerless against the incomprehensible market, as if the market had become our god, the invisible hand that guides our lives like chess pieces on some world board that no nation, corporation, or economist can either know nor control. We want to say with Orwell that we too could wake up together and throw off the chains of servitude to this world system if we only would. No instead we are put to sleep by the very enemies we so hate. Why? Philip Mirowski speaking of the 2007 Crisis of the economy and its aftermath tells us, speaking to the mechanics of the Fed and its minions satirizes their crying and helpless stance in ignorance and apathy:
First off, you can’t blame us just because the neoclassical orthodoxy we actively help enforce is pathetically empty in its ability to discriminate such matters. Moreover, we assert those who were adamant in sounding the alarm were cranky Cassandras and perennial moaners, which means mostly pariahs exiled outside the orthodoxy, so we, the Fed, were fully justified in ignoring them. When in doubt, always err on the side of Pollyanna optimism. Finally, the supposed consensus enforced at the Fed was clearly not based on any demonstrable intellectual discernment, so much as herding behavior and the chairman’s visible iron hand, but not to worry, because it is eminently “rational” to stick with the herd. People whine about the parade of economists being unable to come to a conclusion, but soothing their anxieties concerning dissention and disputation is the main reason we were right to persist in our stubborn errors. We simply channel the cultural zeitgeist.(Mirowski, 3870-3876)
Cronyism and protectionism have been with us from the beginning of this nation, and one might extend this to all supposed nations under the neoliberal thumb. What seems clear is that most of the economists that purport to give us the truth of this event are in the pay of the very ones that caused it. Pleading ignorance is the first line of defense for these creatures. The failure of economics forecasting is the failure of economists who not only lack any understanding of the facts, but who are actually paid to distort the facts and put the blame not on the very financial institutions that caused the issue but to propagandize the citizenry into believing that knew all along just how the crisis came about and how to fix it. The Great Bailout in which the institutions that failed regained ascendency through an influx of trillions. Yes, this is better than the great train robbery. And, as Mirowski reminds us the blame was finally laid not on Wall Street, the Fed, or the Bankster-Industrial complex but on us the People. Yes, we are to blame they reiterate over and over and we must pay.
Mirowski spends a full chapter in his new book outlining how naturalized the neoliberal economic world view has become over the years. He shows a litany of both Nobel Prize economists and their epigone who are all aligned in a coterie or cartel of intellectual survivorship that lives in denial of the truth, and in fact espouses a new economic mythology or social constructivism to support their continued intellectual control of the academic, governmental, and corporate/financial institutions. With the help of the neoliberal press and media the crisis of 2007 and the glut of books, journal reports, etc. lay the blame everywhere but at the door of the neoliberal economists themselves.
Mirowski asks a simple question: How did these neoliberal economists dodge the bullet? Why are they even more entrenched in the places of power within both the government and private enterprise systems that they were before? For all the calls for reform of the very institutions whose deregulation caused much of the latest issues we discover that instead of reform we are getting guffaws and prognostications that it was not the institutions that failed us but we who failed the institutions: and we must pay and pay dearly with austerity and endless taxation for years to come.
The truth is that the neoliberal consensus has become the Orthodoxy of our Era, a new vast Cathedral with the economist as High Priest preaching the gospel of prosperity for all and happiness to those who deserve it. These grey men of renown hide everywhere in plain site guiding, cajoling, interpreting, complexifying, mythologizing the raptures of our ignorance. The old theme of the Market as to great for any one individual to master, that like the invisible hand of god we must allow the market to work itself out without intervention. As Mirowski aptly remarks: “Economists, it appears, have unexpectedly displaced the clergy as the untouchable Delphic oracles in modern society” (Mirowski, 4022-4023). Mirowski describes four basic techniques and ploys that have helped these neoliberal autocrats to remain fixed in their power pulpits across the world. There is the immunity granted by the Financial Sector and the Fed; the immunity conveyed by the Neoliberal Restructuring of Universities; the propaganda that Neoclassical Economic Theory Denies That Academic Markets Can Ever Be Corrupt; and, finally, the notion that a “double truth” is the neoliberal economists best friend (i.e., there is the truth for the public at large, and another truth for the oligarchic elite insiders). As Mirowski remarks this it the theme that the crisis has revealed a severe epistemological contradiction that festers at the heart of the modern economics profession; this has dovetailed with a new set of practices and institutions that have developed since 1980 to paper over the contradiction.(Mirowski, 4429-4431). And, yet, the neoliberal economist self-image may be breaking down: “it sets up a treacherous dynamic interplay between the economics profession and the general public, awkwardly brought closer to the surface by the crisis. In a word, neoliberal theory in the context of economic crisis creates problems for economists’ self-image as public intellectuals.” (Mirowski, 4432-4434)
But what is the key to their continuing success? Ignorance? Yes. The economists and their institutions sponsor a message of pure ignorance with relativistic glee in the face of public anger. This is what Mirowski terms the postmodern imperative of the neoliberal machine; its agnotology (i.e., It is not the study of ignorance and doubt under all their manifestations, as sometimes mistakenly asserted, but rather the focused study of the intentional manufacture of doubt and uncertainty in the general populace for specific political motives.). In the neoliberal playbook, intellectuals are inherently shady characters precisely because they sell their pens-for-hire to private interests: that is their inescapable lot in life as participants in the marketplace of ideas. It is the market as superior information processor that ultimately sorts out what the masses should deem as truth, at least in the fullness of time.(Mirowski, 4435-4437). As he remarks:
…orthodox economists tend to waver between two incompatible positions, depending upon which appears more convenient for the entity that provides their institutional identity (as explored in this chapter); but the only way they can manage to accomplish this is by fostering greater ignorance among the public , their primary audience. Indeed, the think tanks and corporations that employ economists frequently explicitly seek to foster ignorance as part of their business plans: that is the postmodern phenomenon of agnotology. Economists, witting or no, have become the vanguard of the purveyors of ignorance in matters pecuniary, precisely because they cannot face up to their own epistemic dilemma. The crisis only highlights the divergence between “Trust us” and “Trust the neoliberal market.” (Mirowski, 4458-4464)
One could retrace the full gamut of propaganda from Bernays to Chomsky and how it blinds the public through media blitz and other mythical mindmelds to control public opinion. Disinformation can sometimes be more potent than the truth, but in this case for every book published that might actually shed light on the truth there are a hundred others to refute it, along with journals, newspapers, talking heads, etc. So the public at large sifting through all the mess of information glut is offered the devil’s bargaining chip of “Trust Us” from the in-power media critics to trust them with the truth. Mirowski points out economist after economist that speak the truth go unreflectively unnoticed in mainstream media and get little or not hearing in mainstream economy journals of repute. One need not go far to see the truth of this, one could return to the father of neoliberal thought, Friedrich Hayek in the Constitution of Liberty: “There is not much reason to believe that, if at any one time the best knowledge which some possess were made available to all, the result would be a much better society. Knowledge and ignorance are relative concepts”. This relativization of knowledge and ignorance is at the heart of the postmodern neoliberal vision. The production and proliferation of excessive information is one of the key ways the neoliberal world stays in power. Another way for it to enforce its Rule of Ignorance that the Market as information processing system is to great for any one individual to control or know. Only the High Priests of the new Cathedral of the Neoliberal Religion can hope to provide us with oracular messages from its dark pools of machininc nightmares. And, this is the neoliberal escape hatch and why it continues to survive amid so much scrutiny on the Left, because the target is hidden behind a glut of information and ignorance carefully crafted by the Neoliberal Thought Collective Mirowski so carefully registers.
But for all that one wonders: Who is listening? Have we all become dupes in a neoliberal theatre of cruelty? Who will pierce the veil of maya that has blinded the public at large in a world of illusions? Every move the Left makes is coopted by the NTC (Neoliberal Thought Collective) and turned to its own purposes. Without access to the mediscape the Left is powerless to change public opinion. We see this in many of the recent failures of the Occupy movements. Mainly derided in the mass media or for the most part ignored we see nothing really changes in the public at large who blissfully unaware or even asleep drift to the somnambulant beat of the neoliberal snake charms. Even now I get the feeling no one is listening. Even those who read my blog very rarely use their voice to communicate. Most blithely glance through the information and turn away to something else without it registering. More and more I’ seeing that blogging is more of a note taking occupation that makes little difference in the truth of things. I become more pessimistic day by day that all this blogging, academic lecturing, etc. is going nowhere. That nothing is going to change, but that what is peering over the horizon is a darker world of control growing more pervasive not because we are ignorant, but because we do not act on what little knowledge we do have. There is no solidarity, to connection, no communication. There is just this noise of endless chatter to no effect….
Why? Why do we seem alone in this dark age of neoliberalism? Where is the greatness of the Left today? Is there anything more than an eclipse? Everywhere you turn there is in-fighting, back biting, conniving, blamers rather than the energy to shape and change the state of affairs as Marx once espoused. Where is our hope?
1. Mirowski, Philip (2013-07-09). Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Kindle Locations 3081-3084). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
2. George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four (Kindle Locations 819-823). Kindle Edition.
the essay is taken from:
By Jose Rosales
To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present […] Science fiction operates through the power of falsification, the drive to rewrite reality, and the will to deny plausibility, while the scenario operates through the control and prediction of plausible alternative tomorrows.
A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction…What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. In this sense, it should have been an apocalyptic book (the third time in the series of times).
In this essay we will argue for the necessary connection between of Kodwo Eshun’s and Gilles Deleuze’s thoughts on the nature of Time due to each thinkers shared Bergsonian premises. The aim is to demonstrate that the primary illusion, which we must disabuse ourselves of in order to grasp the philosophical and political import of the reality and structure of Time, is the assumption that Afrofuturism (Eshun) and a ‘philosophy of Difference’ (Deleuze) remain preoccupied with the future as such. On this view, Deleuze and Eshun appear to privilege the future in their understanding of time due to their assumption that it is in this futural dimension of time where novelty and difference meaningfully determines the present; in other words, Deleuze and Eshun supposedly assert that it is when the Future affects the present that the true qualitative transformation of the present (categorized Difference-itself or ‘novelty’) is said to be realized in any meaningful sense. Against this understanding of things, we will begin by rehearsing some of the shared Bergsonian premises that inform Deleuze’s and Eshun’s thoughts on Time. Then, we will see how Bergson’s influence operates in their own thinking as well as contrast their understanding of Time to the nature of time under capitalist social relations. Lastly, we’ll conclude by showing how this specific understanding of time, in philosophy for Deleuze and in science-fiction for Eshun, is of an apocalyptic, or catastrophic, nature.
1. On Geometrical & Vital Time
For Bergson the problem that we face in understanding Life and the duration proper to it is the imposition of what he called the ‘geometric’ order onto the ‘vital’ order of Life (this language of a geometric order as opposed to a vital order is taken from Creative Evolution but is already found in his earliest text Time and Free Will). For Bergson, the intelligibility of Life-in-itself is never grasped, as Aristotle thought, through the definition of time as the measure of movement through space; a definition which posits the essence and actuality of time as dependent upon space for its own existence. For the Aristotelian, Time’s existence and actuality is subject and determined by Space as such. Thus, if time is not ontologically dependent on space as Bergson maintains; if time is not reducible to the linear progression of the measure of movement; then this understanding of Time-itself requires a reconceptualization of the very lexicon of temporality: the past, present, and future.
This reworking of our temporal lexicon can be seen in Bergson’s Creative Evolution, and specifically in the passages where he gives his refutation of interpreting Life in terms of finality/final causes. On the ‘Finalist’ or teleological account of the reality of Time, the future finds its reality in the past and present, follows a certain order, and is guaranteed due to first principles. Thus, for the finalists, the future remains fixed and dependent upon the linear progression of time. For Bergson, however, the future is precisely that which does not depend on the linear progression of time for its own reality.
From the ‘vitalist’ perspective (contra the finalists), Bergson writes, “we see…that which subsists of the direct movement in the inverted movement, a reality which is making itself in a reality which is unmaking itself.” Just as Eshun’s epigraph highlights how Afrofuturism was never concerned with the future as such but with the relation between the alternate futures the present world makes possible; just as Deleuze notes that the science fiction aspects of a ‘good’ book mirror his reading of Nietzsche’s untimeliness as wresting from the present a future which does not repeat the violence of the past and present; Bergson should be seen here as giving this vital theorization of Time in its most ‘pure’ or theoretical manner. It is this theory of time as conceived by Bergson that will become the grounds for Deleuze’s and Eshun’s understanding of Time as it relates to the practice of philosophy and the genre of science-fiction/Afrofuturist aesthetics.
2. Deleuze and Eshun on the Future
When Deleuze articulates his Third Synthesis of Time; that ‘static and ordinal’ synthesis where time exists ‘out of joint’ and thus gives a new order/meaning to our very understanding of the world; what constitutes Time’s ‘out-of-jointness’ is precisely a revaluation of the geometric modeling of time in order to propose the understanding of Time as the process that proceeds without any concern or care for the future as such. As we saw with Bergson, it is of the nature of Time to exist as without purpose, end, or final destination. If Time has no concern for the future and yet it is said to be constitutive of the reality of a really novel difference that is made in the world, what constitutes the creative novelty of time resides in Bergson’s claim of ‘a reality that is making itself in a reality that is unmaking itself’. In other words, the novelty that pertains to ‘difference’ is to be found in the reciprocal relationship between the past and the present.Thus, for Deleuze, the temporal development of life taken in its broadest sense does not care about the preservation of species or even the preservation of its own natural processes. Thus, time taken as it is constituted by Life itself, must be understood as continuously producing various possible futures that are left up to the contingency of the other evolutionary, biological, chemical, etc., processes of Life itself. We might say that Time understood in this vitalist manner means that Life is the continual superabundance of an excess that Life can neither control nor wants to control. It is the vitalist, as Deleuze underscored, who gives us access to life (Difference) in its free and untamed state. Similarly, Eshun’s idea of the genre of science-fiction as one of capitalizing on the ‘powers of falsification, the drive to rewrite reality, and the will to deny plausibility;’ conceives of time as ‘out-of-joint’, as constituting a new ordering/meaning of the world, but one forged out of the coexistent pasts that remain subordinate to a particular ordering of the world at present. Just as it was with Bergson and Deleuze, Eshun will deny the futural dimension of time the potency of the past-present relation. As he writes,
it would be naïve to understand science fiction, located within the expanded field of the futures industry, as merely prediction into the far future, or as a utopian project for imagining alternative social realities. Science fiction might better be understood, in Samuel R. Delany’s statement, as offering “a significant distortion of the present.”To be more precise, science fiction is neither forward-looking nor utopian. Rather, in William Gibson’s phrase, science fiction is a means through which to preprogram the present. Looking back at the genre, it becomes apparent that science fiction was never concerned with the future, but rather with engineering feedback between its preferred future and its becoming present.
The future of science-fiction as conceived by Eshun is precisely the opposite of Utopian and Messianic time (these latter two conceptions of a future-to-come locate the determining temporal factor in the future while Deleuze and Eshun, following Bergson, locate the element that determines and actualizes a future as the relationship between the past and the present). For Eshun, this view of time as the non-teleological procession of change and development becomes crucial for understanding what is specific to Afrofuturism as a whole. Not only is it the case that Afrofuturism “studies the appeals that black artists, musicians, critics, and writers have made to the future, in moments when any future was made difficult for them to imagine.” Additionally, Afrofuturism reveals the aesthetics of science-fiction as capable of giving us real, historical, knowledge about the lives of Afrodiasporic subjects: “Afrodiasporic subjects live the estrangement that science-fiction writers envision. Black existence and science-fiction are one and the same.” Black existence and science-fiction are one and the same for Eshun precisely because the Time that defines their respective locations in history and society are conditioned by the geometric ordering of time that ensures the continuous marginalization of lost or forgotten (Afro)future in the name of the perpetuation of capital’s present. Additionally, Eshun’s refusal of the geometric model of time follows the likes of Toni Morrison; where Morrison argued that the geometric model of time simply guarantees a repetition without difference of the processes of racialization, colonization, and exploitation that originally marked African subjects:
In an interview with critic Paul Gilroy…Toni Morrison argued that the African subjects that experienced capture, theft, abduction, mutilation, and slavery were the first moderns. They underwent real conditions of existential homelessness, alienation, disloaction [sic], and dehumanization that philosophers like Nietzsche would later define as quintessentially modern. Instead of civilizing African subjects, the forced dislocation and commodification that constituted the Middle Passage meant that modernity was rendered forever suspect.
By now this much should be clear: Afrofuturism engages in a thoroughgoing criticism of the geometric view of time since it simply ensures the perpetuation the originary colonial violence that ensures capitalism’s development.
3. A Society Without Time: The Time of Capital
In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari define philosophy as the creation of concepts; as an activity that requires the engendering of Thought in a subject, in order for that thinking-subject to fabricate a concept that is adequate to the Idea-Problem of their time. However, this tripartite criteria (Thinking; posing Problems; and creating Concepts) given by Deleuze for identifying and undertaking the praxis of philosophy was already formulated as early as his 1968 work Difference and Repetition:
The famous phrase of the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ‘mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve’, does not mean that the problems are only apparent or that they are already solved, but, on the contrary, that the economic conditions of a problem determine or give rise to the manner in which it finds a solution within the framework of the real relations of the society. Not that the observer can draw the least optimism from this, for these ‘solutions’ may involved stupidity or cruelty, the horror of war or ‘the solution of the Jewish problem’. More precisely, the solution is always that which a society deserves or gives rise to as a consequence of the manner in which, given its real relations, it is able to pose the problems set within it and to it by the differential relations it incarnates.
What is significant regarding the equation ‘philosophy = concept creation,’ and the subsequent annihilation of any guarantee that the thinking-subject will be rewarded with optimism in their search for truth, is that these three elements that constitute the practice of Philosophy do not operate according to the linear/finalist conception of temporality. That is, the thinker cannot hope for any optimism insofar as they are thinking precisely because what is given in a thought that adequately poses problems and creates concepts are the multiple solutions, or futures, that are harbored within every problem posed and concept created. Thus, philosophy properly understood according to Deleuze stands against the linear conception of time, where the reality of the future is fixed and furnished by the internal and originary principles of the past. In a similar manner, Eshun’s considerations regarding Afrofuturist art and practice isn’t devised to give one a sense of optimism or pessimism regarding the ways in which capital perpetuates the worst aspects of human history on an ever increasing scale. Afrofuturism isn’t simply one more science-fiction bedtime story for the radical imagination.
Rather Afrofuturism is a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic projection and as a space within which the critical work of manufacturing tools capable of intervention within the current political dispensation may be undertaken…As a tool kit developed for and by Afrodiasporic intellectuals, the imperative to code, adopt, adapt, translate, misread, rework, and revision these concepts…is likely to persist in the decades to come.
For Eshun the imperative of the vital as opposed to geometric ordering of Time is that we must do violence to our habituated forms of cognition in order to sinew the order of philosophical, aesthetic, and political practice to an actualized overcoming of the persisting relevance of Morrison’s claim that the historical fate of African subjects, being the first true moderns, rendered modernity forever suspect. Thus it would appear that philosophy (Deleuze), aesthetics (Eshun), knowledge (Bergson) are united in their shared duty to intervene in a manner that does justice to the counter-futures that coexist within our present.
For the Deleuze, this violence done to habituated forms of cognition means freeing oneself from the bad habits of thought that we have been socialized into taking as synonymous with Thinking as such. To dissuade ourselves of the idea that the task of thought is representation and realize that the power and function of thought is in its ability to pose true as opposed to false problems. For Eshun, this violence we must undergo means freeing oneself from the ongoing effects of the determination and construction of a global future that continues to exclude ever growing swaths of humanity and their respective counter-futures. Thus, philosophical activity (Deleuze) and Afrofuturism (Eshun) aren’t simply against their own socio-historical situatedness and thereby concerned with the future for its own sake. As we saw with Bergson in terms of “Life,” and as we apprehend through Eshun, we are not concerned with the theorization and determination of time because time (Life, History) has a concern for-itself, for-us, and for its future. To the contrary: it is precisely because the past and the present, taken in themselves, have neither a concern for their own future nor the future of human existence that a thought and politics of the future is not one that is infatuated and enamored with the blind and intensifying processes of our present.
It is instructive, here, to note a difference between time as conceived by Deleuze and Eshun and the specific temporal order imposed by capital. Time as determined by capital, and specifically in terms of finance capital, enacts its own ‘synthesis’ of past, present, and the future. What distinguishes the time of financial capital from time as conceived by Deleuze and Eshun is that in the former case, the synthesis of the past and present of capital with its future; the future here understood as resource for appropriation via debt and the determination of global societies future; is actualized in a manner such that global capital’s future secures and perpetuates the power relations of its present. As Maurizio Lazzarato has noted regarding capital’s own synthesis of time via finance:
No use making a fuss because the economy’s “present” and “future” fail to match up! What matters is finance’s goal of reducing what will be to what is, that is, reducing the future and its possibilities to current power relations. From this perspective, all financial innovations have but one sole purpose: possessing the future in advance by objectivizing it…In this way, debt appropriates not only the present labor time of wage-earners and of the population in general, it also preempts non-chronological time, each person’s future as well as the future of society as a whole. The principal explanation for the strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without foreseeable rupture, is debt.
Rather than a synthesis of the past, present, and future that prises multiple futures from the mutual determination of the past and present, the synthesis of time offered by capital forecloses the possibility of many futures in the service of a single future time that resembles our present circumstance: living in a society without time. Capitalist society as one that produces this experience of living outside of time essentially means that our present and future are increasingly made to be identical with one another, thereby rendering the very lexicon of time (past, present, future) meaningless. The past, present, and future of Time have now become one and the same reality.
Catastrophe – The Time of Science-Fiction
As we have seen, Deleuze’s and Eshun’s theorization of Time affirms the mutual determination of the past and the present while avoiding a determination of the future that simply repeats the socio-political power relations of our present. Regarding their theoretico-political commitments, it is clear that neither novelty, nor difference, nor utopian salvation is taken to be synonymous with the futural dimension of time as such. Rather, it is through the participation and determination of the relationship between the past and the present that one wards off the continuous foreclosure of the future within our present. It is in this way that the Third Synthesis of Time acts as the science-fiction element of Difference and Repetition; the books ‘apocalyptic’ moment where the I and Self are both fractured and dissolved, respectively, in the static ordinance of Time. And this is precisely what Eshun means when he says that science-fiction was never really about the future in the first place. To merely be ‘about the future’… such an interpretation is only possible if we take the reality of time to be founded upon the reality of space, or time’s determination by capital; a perspectival-position that revokes any philosophical and/or political potential for the existence of multiple futures within a single future-time from the current present of geopolitical life, clearly defined by its terrestrially instantiated death-drive.
In light of these reflections we can conclude with our own reassessment of Bergson’s contrast between geometric and vital time. While instructive, it must be admitted that Bergson’s schema of the two orders of time, is outstripped by the concerns of both Deleuze and Eshun. Instead of a geometric as opposed to vital time, we might say that what Deleuze and Eshun are constructing is a schema that poses capitalist time against a time characterized by capital’s abolition; a time also proper to science-fiction which can be called apocalyptic, or even catastrophic. When Deleuze reflects on Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, it is precisely this missed opportunity of developing an apocalyptic work of science-fiction that Deleuze takes as his cue in approaching philosophy itself: “A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction…What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. In this sense, it should have been an apocalyptic book (the third time in the series of times)” (Difference and Repetition, Preface). Likewise, with Eshun, the tools of Afrofuturism are geared toward constructing a future where counter-futures no longer need qualification as a counter-future in the first place. Thus we can say that Deleuze and Eshun’s theorization of time can be formulated in a manner that seeks to bastardize Nick Land’s claim that catastrophe is the future’s coming into existence as seen from an all-too-human perspective. On the contrary, and for Deleuze and Eshun, catastrophe must be understood as the future’s coming into existence seen from the vantage point of Capital.
ON THE END OF HISTORY & THE DEATH OF DESIRE (NOTES ON TIME AND NEGATIVITY IN BATAILLE’S ‘LETTRE Á X.’)
By Jose Rosales
To continue from our conclusions regarding the question of what it would mean to love as a communist, we begin from the idea that abolition is what necessary binds communism as real movement to problems encountered in the life of desire, of the heart, of the family. And one key consequence of this would be the following: if communism as the real movement that abolishes the present state of things that allows us to truly pose questions pertaining to sex, love, and family life, then what we call the political and libidinal economy are revealed as inseparable and indelibly bound, each with the other. Thus, says Bataille, ours is a time where desire’s libidinal activity can no longer be thought of, and even more so understood, as independent of the base of capital’s political economy. So, if last time we saw that questions of sex and love are revealed to be inherently socio-historical and not merely personal and private, then the very notion of desire is given a new, and hopefully truer, meaning. Moreover, this new understanding of the life of desire also brings about a shift in our theoretical and practical perspective – from a position that has been comfortable in thinking desire as solely belonging to pertaining to private (as opposed to public) life to a view that finds it impossible to think through problems of libidinal life independent of their socio-political and material determination.
Given this more nuanced position, however, we are still confronted by the following question: what is the nature of desire in both its libidinal and politico-economic determination? If it is said that, now, Desire’s proper place as the ‘base’ and not ‘superstructure’, what, then, does this mean about Desire and its subjects? What kind of subjectivity is as political as it is libidinal such that it is simultaneously constituted by, while expressing itself through, the very forces and relations of production? This is to ask, in another way, about the meaning of a desire that is inherently irreducible to fantasy, dreams, or the physical act of sex?
Bataille & Kojève: A Meeting At The End of History
What is the nature of a desire that is both sexual and political; a desire that is at once psychic and socio-historical? On way of approaching the question of the sexual/psychic and political/socio-historical features of desire is that of Bataille; and particularly his treatment of desire in ‘Lettre á X., chargé d’un cours sur Hegel…’, a letter written to Kojeve in light of his seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the Sorbonne. While Bataille’s letter does not treat the question of libidinal economy explicitly, he does take up the question of desire as it is linked to negativity, and what a desire with negativity at its heart would mean for the very notion of negation/negativity as such. And it is this treatment of desire’s inherent negativity that is instructive for our purposes since the abolition that binds communism to problems of sex, love, and gender is a relation that has negation at its center. As Bataille writes with respect to Kojève’s interpretation of the ‘end of history’:
In truth its no longer a matter of misfortune or life, only what has become of “negativity out of work”, if it is true that it does become something. I am there in the forms which it engenders, forms not at the outset in myself but in others. Most often negativity without power becomes the work of art…In what concerns me, the negativity which belongs to me didn’t give up work until that moment when there wasn’t any work: the negativity of a man who has nothing more to do, not that of a man who prefers to talk. But the fact – which seems incontestable – that a negativity turned away from action would express itself as work of art is no less charged with meaning given the possibilities remaining to me. It shows that negativity can be objectified […] the man of “negativity out of work”… He is in front of his own negativity as if before a wall. Whatever ill he suffers from this, our man knows that henceforth nothing can be avoided, for negativity has no issue. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 49)
Our task, then, is to see whether or not Bataille has good reason to posit a relation between desire, negativity, and the fact that to love as a communist means to love via the real movement of abolition.
The Economy of Abolition; The Economy of Desire
If Bataille shows that the problem of interpreting Hegel’s claim to an ‘end of history’ is not resolved with Kojève’s call for the ‘re-animalization of Man.’ Rather, if there is an ‘end of history’ it is a riddle solved in the attempt to delineate a different kind of negativity; one no longer tied to a notion of a productive activity that progressively attains its historical telos. Contra Kojeve, what the end of history forces us to think is a negativity no longer characterized as laborious. The negativity of desire, at the end of history, has exhausted itself of all productivity and is thus left with nothing to do. As Bataille writes regarding this non-productive negativity of desire:
If the act (the “doing of things”) is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question then arises as to whether the negativity of one who has “nothing more to do” disappears or is subsumed under “negativity out of work” [négativité sans emploi]. Personally I can only decide on the one sense, my own being exactly this “negativity out of work” (I could not define myself better). I wish Hegel had foreseen that possibility: at least didn’t he put it at the outcome of the process he described. I imagine that my life – or its miscarriage, better still, the open wound my life is – this alone constitutes the refutation of Hegel’s closed system. (‘Lettre á X.,’ 48)
Desire as negativity without work is nothing but desire unemployed. If the essence of desire is this unemployed negativity, we are confronted with the paradox of imaging a desire whose particular products and effects are generated through non-productive means; a negativity that can only live and create by means other than that of a life lived according to the dictates of labor; why does Bataille maintain that, at the end of history, Desire continues to be productive in spite of the fact that Desire can no longer continue to be the labor of negativity?
As the editors of Bataille’s letter helpfully clarify: “Bataille thinks this question [negativity] through by discussing what he terms expenditure. Expenditure may be either productive…or unproductive [and] … it is to this second sense of expenditure that Bataille reserves the term ‘expenditure’ sans phrase” (‘Lettre á X.,’ 47). It is for these reasons that Bataille will maintain that the end of history force’s Desire to undergo a substantial transformation: the labor of the negative, and this negativity as productive activity, do not persist at history’s end (and for Bataille this also means that if the labor of the negative was the motor of desire it was only because of historical and contingent factors). At the end of History, humanity isn’t forced to re-naturalize itself into what is animal (a la Kojève). Rather, we are forced to find ways to live the new found life of negativity; that is, we are obliged to live a life no longer tied to labor or productive activity. With Bataille, it is as if the fate of humanity was to eventually see itself in a new light; as if, history was simply the first act in humanity’s reckoning with itself as a negativity now unemployed; as if what is instantiated is a form of subjectivity whose very possibility for existing is now constituted by the simple fact that it has ‘nothing more to do;’ at History’s end, then, the only thing we are left with is Time.
After History, Time
Now, with Bataille’s interpretation of the real and Subjective consequences brought about by the ‘end of History’ two things are clear. First, we are able to understand that there exists the persistence of negativity after History; even if negativity will persist in an altogether different form and be of a different nature. Second, and this is what will become important for this section, the unemployed negativity of desire may have been born at History’s closure but its life is lived in a world where there is ‘nothing but Time.’ So it seems that just as negativity persists after History, Time, too, continues on after History’s closure. Thus it is this question of the Time that emerges at the end of History that is at issue since, it is our intuition that the negativity of non-productive expenditure does not simply belong to a world where there is nothing but Time. What is more, this negativity will be said to have its own form of Time proper to itself (and the least we can say is that, for Bataille, Time and History are said to exist independent of each other, since it is the only way by which History can be resolved while Time presses onward). However, if these two consequences that follow from Bataille’s position are of any significance it is due to the fact that, when taken together, we begin to understand that the end of History doesn’t not mean the absolute exhaustion of Being and rather that Timeand negativity persist beyond History (and we should add to this that they accomplish this only on the condition that they are constituted by a new relation, which determines and guarantees their mutual persistence).
Putting aside, for the moment, other possible consequences we may draw from the contents of this letter, we can at the very least say that the implicit but crucial thesis of Bataille’s letter is that of the ontological independence of Time and negativity from History. That is, if Time is said to be what determines non-productivity as the form Desire must take, it is only because the Desire, which comes at the end of History is the one that finds itself with “nothing left to do.” This persistence of negativity, that is to say, of Desire, is forced to confront itself by virtue of its post-Historical circumstance as a form of Desire that has at its disposal, and when aiming to secure its persistence after History post-Historical existence, nothing other than Time. To be sure, at the end of History Desire does in fact die even though it is made to be reborn in the persistence of this unemployed negativity.
And if we were to inquire deeper into just what exactly this time of unemployed negativity could be, we quickly finds ourselves returning to Marx; for it was Marx who already gave unemployed negativity a name when, in the Grundrisse, he spoke of disposable-time as a form of time that is irreducible to capital’s division between labor- and leisure-time (where the real difference is between waged and unwaged labor). Moreover, says Marx, disposable-time reveals itself to be the real meaning of wealth since it implies the development of the capacities, knowledges, and well-being of society as a whole: ‘For real wealth is developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time‘ (Grundrisse, tr. Nicolaus, London: Penguin, 1973, 708). And lastly, we saw that disposable-time as the time of communism also made possible attempted resolutions to questions/problems of sex, gender, and love since those relations can be created and recreated without the threat to the material- and/or social well-being of those involved. Loving takes time, or at the very least learning to love takes time and it is an education the temporality of which must be disposable.
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by Steven Craig Hickman
Is the general determination of energy circulating in the biosphere altered by man’s activity? Or rather, isn’t the latter’s intention vitiated by a determination of which it is ignorant, which it overlooks and cannot change?
—Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
Bataille’s underlying understanding of the checks and balances in the universe in its indifferent and impersonal forms would inform his pragmatic approach to the economics of the Anthropocene:
The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.
Capital accumulation as performed by the top .01% which hordes its surplus profits (the excess energy (wealth)) brings with it a counter-current or entropic and toxic accumulation of catastrophe in the earth itself which has to be absorbed, spent, and willingly or not “lost without profit” else like other civilizations before it the earth’s resources will reach that point where its own accumulated toxicity must be wasted utterly in catastrophic apocalypse to the detriment of all biotic life on the surface of this planet.
Yet, as Bataille affirms:
Minds accustomed to seeing the development of productive forces as the ideal end of activity refuse to recognize that energy. which constitutes wealth, must ultimately be spent lavishly (without return), and that a series of profitable operations has absolutely no other effect than the squandering of profits. To affirm that it is necessary to, dissipate a substantial portion of energy produced, sending it up in smoke, is to go against judgments that form the basis of a rational economy.
We as humans cannot accept the inevitability of this coming catastrophe which has already happened in the retroactive interventions of accumulated wealth and excess toxicity throughout this profit/loss sequence of human society from its beginnings in Agricultural civilization till now as it accelerates out of Industrial civilization and into the interminable flows of our current virtual, internalized, and financial global network civilization based on convergence technologies.
The debt will be paid willingly or not…
As Bataille puts it succinctly, “when one considers the totality of productive wealth on the surface of the globe, it is evident that the products of this wealth can be employed for productive ends only insofar as the living organism that is economic mankind can increase its equipment. This is not entirely – neither always nor indefinitely – possible. A surplus must be dissipated through deficit operations: The final dissipation cannot fail to carry out the movement that animates terrestrial energy.” Because of this or in excess of this we are condemned to “useless consumption”: if he denies this then “the global movement of energy … cannot accumulate limitlessly in the productive forces; eventually, like a river into the sea, it is bound to escape us and be lost to us” (16).
Incomprehension does not change the final outcome in the slightest. We can ignore or forget the fact that the ground we live on is little other than a field of multiple destructions.
In the final resolution of this law of universal excess and waste we will either actively participate in the destruction, or “if we do not have the force to destroy the surplus energy ourselves, it cannot be used, and, like an unbroken animal that cannot be trained, it is this energy that destroys us; it is we who pay the price of the inevitable explosion” (17). Knowing this ancient societies found relief in festivals; some erected admirable monuments that had no useful purpose; we use the excess to multiply “services” that make life smoother, and we are led to reabsorb part of it by increasing leisure time. (17 Yet, nothing suffices and the remainder or excess beyond such diversions condemns humans in all ages to the doom and destruction of perpetual wars against their own kind. (17) Will we overcome this inevitability, find another path forward; or, end as all great empires have ended on the dung heap of lost or destroyed civilizations?
The very growth and expansion of capitalist society across the globe gave us the “extraordinary intensity” of the two world-wars. And, even now, it is working its intensity toward another global civil war unless as Bataille suggested decades ago:
We can express the hope of avoiding a war that already threatens. But in order to do so we must divert the surplus production, either into the rational extension of a difficult industrial growth, or into unproductive works that will dissipate an energy that cannot be accumulated in any case.
In this sense the Age of Solar Exploration and the expansion into our solar system is the prime avenue in which we could and should dissipate this otherwise accumulated energy. Some will see it as an unproductive and fruitless enterprise, and yet it is this very excess and waste of the capitalist accumulation that needs to be done and accelerated to overcome both the decay, ruination, and catastrophe of unused and surplus energy. Otherwise is will still be dissipated and at the detriment of all living things on the planet in a global civil war. What this means to Bataille and for us is that we are now left with little option but to realize that the “extension of economic growth itself requires the overturning of economic principles – the overturning of the ethics that grounds them” (18). We are in the midst of a global transition that will require nothing less than the overturning of capitalist civilization and the transformation and mutation of a general opening to a new solar economy based on expansion into space.
Universal Basic Income? Bataille offers another modified aspect to this path forward:
Henceforth, leaving aside pure and simple dissipation, analogous to the construction of the Pyramids, the possibility of pursuing growth is itself subordinated to giving: The industrial development of the entire world demands of Americans that they lucidly grasp the necessity, for an economy such as theirs, of having a margin of profitless operations. (19)
In other words if the global economy were to support a universal income and offer of jobs, not work (or salaried expectation) in the next stage of economic transformation into a Space faring civilization; transitioning into our Solar System in the sense of FDR’s Works Projects, which gave tens of thousands of jobs to out-of-work and poverty stricken humans during the depression. On this model both work and income would benefit all concerned in growing a space based civilization no longer bound to the restrictive war based economies of the twentieth century. Overcoming war through mutual cooperation among the globes competing nations aligning as we did with America/Russian during the Space Station era. In this way even old enemies – who seem now bent of waging civil war for the remaining resources of the planet, could be brought into alignment and persuaded to cooperate with each other under a larger umbrella effort of a mulit-pluralistic regime of Interplanetary economic gain and expansion, if both resources and work and income were allocated in a contractual agreement toward off-world mutual benefit for all involved.
Ultimately such a state of affairs will only come about as the Cognitariat – the knowledge workers, engineers, and workers of the planet all unite and invent this culture of off-world planetary transformation as a possibility. Envisioning this through essay, theory-fiction, science fiction, performance art, music, and every other aesthetic and network related system could such a leap forward in human thinking come about.
So the question we must ask ourselves is will we allow ourselves to continue to accumulate the toxic ruins of capital and end in a centuries long civil war and military or climacteric apocalypse, or will we choose to cooperate and invent a future worth living in that chooses to spend our cognitive wealth in expanding off-world and into the cosmos?
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Crochet Coral Reef, by Christine & Margaret Wertheim. Photo by Alyssa Gorelick
It’s a time naming things in another way, because the thing that needs to be named is a certain strange quality of time. Here’s a marvelous sentence by Donna Haraway, with three names for three kinds of time, all in the one sentence, overlapping but not the same: “The unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.” I want to take the opportunity of Haraway’s lovely coinage of the Chthulucene – more on which below – to think about names. I want to take up the question of naming, just for a while, to think about the role it can play in getting to grips with our awkward world. What follows is adapted from Molecular Red.
It is time to leave the twenty-first century. The metabolic rift that wakes from the carbon liberation front is not the only challenge to the biosphere. The Anthropocene is the name Paul Crutzen and others give to this period of geological time upon which the planet has entered. Crutzen: “About 30-50% of the planet’s land surface is exploited by humans…. More than half of all accessible fresh water is used by mankind. Fisheries remove more than 25% of the primary production un upwelling ocean regions… Energy use has grown 16-fold during the twentieth century… More nitrogen fertilizer is applied in agriculture than is fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems.”
It’s not the end of the world, but it is the end of pre-history. It is time to announce in the marketplace of social media that the God who still hid in the worldview of an ecology that was self-correcting, self-balancing and self-healing – is dead. “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of the planet.” The human is no longer that figure in the foreground which pursues its self-interest against the background of a holistic, organicist cycle that the human might perturb but with which it can be in balance and harmony, in the end, by simply withdrawing from certain excesses.
The term Anthropocene splices two roots together, anthropos and kainos. Anthropos: that with the face of ‘man,’ that which looks up. Kainos: that which is not just a new unit of time but a new quality or form. What would this mean to Alexander Bogdanov? He would refuse the authoritarian causality lurking in anthropos, that residue of the sky-God, and insist instead on making it mean collective labor. The kainos of labor in the twenty-first century is labor as intra-action, entanglement, the tragedy of the totality.
As someone who does texts rather than things, I am tempted to reject the term Anthropocene. Naming things ought to be the prerogative of us professional wordsmiths. Why accept a name some scientists came up with? And can’t we have a more aspirational name? I want a name for what ought to be the kainos, not what is. And in any case, it’s too anthropocentric. All of the interesting and useful movements in the humanities since the late twentieth century have critiqued and dissented from the theologies of the human.
The anthropos in Anthropocene might do unexpected work for those trained in the sciences or technical fields. Perhaps it is kainos that could be usefully confusing for humanists, social scientists, or for those few of us who remain who were trained at party school. What might it mean to think the qualitatively new, but where what is new is not defined by the communist horizon? It is striking how much even the anti-communists of the cold war era took the model of a new kainos, against which any other had to be thought, to be ‘communism.’ Their neo-liberal successors too.
This kainos, whether thought in, against or after the communist horizon, is usually thought as a new social relation. To the extent that it is thought as a relation to nature, it is as a victory that made Platonovian struggles in and against nature obsolete. The Anthropocene, by contrast, calls for thinking something that is not even defeat. Nonhuman kainos is then as provocative a thing to think for those whose training is all about organizing the human as anthropos is for those whose training is in organizing the nonhuman.
Or such might be a way to make the most of something Bogdanov would surely have appreciated: that new experiences often have to be thought within the basic metaphors that already exist. Anthropocene it is, then. For now. A bad name for a bad time, thus not unfit. Haraway: “We need another figure, a thousand names of something else, to erupt out of the Anthropocene into another, big enough story.” It’s a task not just of naming, but of doing, of making new kinds of labor for a new kind of nature.
There is still some low theory work to do, to transmit the metaphor of the Anthropocene between domains, but in that process, those labor processes will change it. Rather than ‘interrogate’ Crutzen’s Anthropocene – and where did that metaphor come from? – perhaps it is better to see it as what it is: a brilliant hack. The Anthropocene introduces the labor point of view – in the broadest possible sense – into geology. Perhaps the challenge is then to find analogous but different ways to hack other specialized domains of knowledge, to orient them to the situation and the tasks at hand.
Let’s invent new metaphors! Personally, I like the #misanthropocene, but don’t expect it to catch on. Jason Moore thinks we could call this the Capitalocene. Donna Haraway offers to name it the Chthulucene, a more chthonic version of Cthulhu, the octopoid monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird stories. “Chthulucene does not close in on itself; it does not round off; its contact zones are ubiquitous and continuously spin out loopy tendrils.”
Haraway notes the strikingly parallel evolution of new metaphorical tools in both humanities and biologies, where competitive individualism is no longer a given. In Bogdanovite terms, perhaps it is because in both domains, producing knowledge got strangely complex, collaborative, and mediated by apparatus. A new breed of basic metaphor is at least partly at work and in play, one which in the biology could be described as a “multi-species becoming-with.”
Haraway wants to both “justify and trouble” the language of the Anthropocene. As Paul Edwards does with climate science, she insists on the embeddedness in an infrastructure that makes the global appear as a work-object to those natural scientists for whom the Anthropocene makes sense as a metaphor. She points to the limits of its basic metaphors, which still think one-sidely of competition between populations or genes, where success equals reproduction. More symbiotic – dare we say comradely? – kinds of life hardly figure in such metaphors. But perhaps, as Haraway says, “we are all lichens now” – cyborg lichens.
Perhaps task is not debating names or trading stories, but negotiating between them, making comradely alliances. Is not Crutzen one of those curious scientist-intellectuals that Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction trains us to look out for? Crutzen and his colleagues in the earth sciences have flagged something that needs to shape the agenda for knowledge, culture and organization. For those of us seeking to respond from the left, I think the authors presented in Molecular Red offer some of the best ways of processing that information. Bogdanov and Platonov would not really be surprised by the Anthropocene. They were already vulgar enough to think aspects of it already.
So let’s pop the following tools into the dillybag for future use: Something like an empirio-monism has its uses, because it is a way of doing theory that directs the tendency to spin out webs of metaphoric language to the task at hand. It steers the language arts towards agendas arising out of working processes, including those of sciences. It is agnostic about which metaphors best explain the real, but it sees all of them as substitutions which derive from the forms of labor and apparatus of the time.
Something like proletkult has its uses, as the project for the self-organization of the labor point of view. It filters research into past culture and knowledge through the organizational needs of the present. Those needs put pressure on the traditional catetory of labor, opening it towards feminist standpoints, not to mention our queer cyborg entanglements.
Something like a tektology has its uses, as a way of coordinating labor other than through exchange or hierarchy, or the new infrastructure of corporatized ‘networks.’ It communicates between labor processes poetically and qualitiatively. It is a training of the metaphoric wiliness of language towards particular applications which correspond to and with advances in labor technique.
Lastly, something like the utopia of Red Star has its uses, in motivating those working in separate fields to think beyond the fetishistic habits of the local and toward comradely goals. In the absence of a single counter-hegemonic ideology, perhaps something like a meta-utopia might be more useful, and more fun. Meta-utopia offers not so much an imaginary solution to real problems but a real problematizing of how to solve the differences between the imaginal as it arises from particular labor points of view.
And so, to conclude with the slogan with which we began: Workings of the world untie! You have a win to world! It might be the slogan of a Cyborg International. One which already possesses in imagination the means and the will to undo the workings of the Anthropocene. One with nothing for it but to build the new living world within the ruins of the old one. We all know this civilization can’t last. Let’s make another.
 Donna Haraway, ‘Tenacular Thinking’, e-flux, 2016 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/ See also Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2016: https://www.dukeupress.edu/staying-with-the-trouble
 McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red, Verso Books, Brooklyn NY, 2015 https://www.versobooks.com/books/1886-molecular-red
 Paul Crutzen, ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature, Vol. 415, No. 23, January 2002. The term Anthropocene was probably coined by Eugene Stoermer. See also Vaclav Smil, Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Taken from Nature, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2013.
 Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen, ‘The New World of the Anthropocene’, Environmental Science and Technology Viewpoint, Vol. 44, No. 7, 2010, pp. 2228-2231.
 For a thorough critique, see Eileen Crist, ‘On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature’, Environmental Humanities, No. 3, 2013. Her preferred term is Ecozoic, coined by ecotheologian Thomas Berry. But why should theologians still have the privilege of of naming the kainos?
 Donna Haraway, ‘Staying With the Trouble: Paper for Isabelle Stengers’, Cerisy, 2013, p. 26
 See Jason Moore Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso Books, 2015, https://www.versobooks.com/books/1924-capitalism-in-the-web-of-life ; Haraway, ‘Staying with the Trouble’, ibid. Haraway is less interested in Lovecraft than in the fact that a spider native to her part of California is named after Cthluthu. I borrow #misanthropocene from Joshua Clover and Julianna Spahr, #misanthropocene: 24 Theses, Commune Editions, 2014 http://communeeditions.com/misanthropocene/ , although like all such terms it appears to have been invented spontaneously several times.
 Haraway attributes this slogan to Scott Giblert et al, ‘A Symbiotic View of Life’, Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol. 87, No. 4, December 2012. The classic statement of symbiosis as a basic metaphor is Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look At Evolution, Basic Books, New York, 1998.
 See Chiara Bottici, Imaginal Politics: Images Beyond Imagination and the Imaginary, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014. Bottici is building on Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1998.
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I have been reading the work of Timothy Morton with pleasure for many years now. Originally a scholar of English romantic poetry, I find his work reads best as poetry, or perhaps a poetics, as a singular Mortonian vision of the world – or in this case, a vision of the absence of the world. For his most recent book is called Hyperorbjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota, 2013).
I have some problems with it as theory, however, and will try to outline here where my own thinking and Morton’s both overlap and diverge. Perhaps bodies of work are a case of what Morton calls hyperobjects: spooky, nonlocal, pervasive entities that are at once in us which we are in. In which case best way to proceed is simply to map one onto the other and find the edges where such things resonate.
One of the merits of Morton’s work is its attention to twenty-first century problems. Morton: “To those great Victorian period discoveries, then – evolution, capital, the unconscious – we must now add spacetime, ecological itnerconnection, and nonlocality.” (47) If one suspends disbelief and reads him texts as a science fiction poetics, one starts to breath the (overly warm, possibly radioactive) air of the times. Branching off from Alphonso Lingis, Morton offers a phenomenology for the strange and untimely objects one increasingly seems to encounter –hyperobjects.
But first, objects. Morton: “Objects are unique. Objects can’t be reduced to smaller objects or dissolved upwards into larger ones. Objects are withdrawn from one another and from themselves. Objects are Tardis-like, larger on the inside than they are on the outside. Objects are uncanny. Objects compose an untotalizable nonwhole set that defies holism and reductionism. There is thus no top object that gives all objects value and meaning, and no bottom object to which they can be reduced. If there is no top object and no bottom object, it means that we have a very strange situation in which there are more parts than there are wholes. This makes holism of any kind totally impossible.” (116)
In short, Morton declares victory in advance for the poets. The world is made of things that elude any other kind of knowing. This is even more the case with hyperobjects, which stick to being, which are viscous, nonlocal, temporally weird and detectable only through the waves they make coming in or out of phase with other, more banal kinds of objects.
Mortonian poetics is a species of the genre of object oriented ontology (ooo), which is itself a kind of poetic realism. One in which entities are shy and retiring, like an octopus squirting a jet of ink as it disappears. There’s no transcendental leap outside of this world of hyperobjects, and as such a ‘world’ can not be said to appear at all, if by world we mean that which can be said to exist over and against me.
There’s no more bracketing off of a separate world, as “we are no longer able to think history as exhaustively human…” (5) There’s no outside. We’re always inside hyperobjects and hyperobjects are always passing through us, whether the hyperobject is radioactive waste or global warming. This poetics brings us to an uncanny place – the end of the world.
Morton’s aim is to wake us from the dream of a world ending, to the realization that it has ended already. There’s no outside, no separation. “Because they so massively outscale us, hyperobjects have magnified this weirdness of things for our inspection…. What if hyperobjects finally force us to realize the truth of the word humiliation itself, which means being brought low, being brought down to earth itself?” (12, 17)
The book makes use of many examples from modern science, but I am resistant to the attempt to subsume such examples within ooo. Morton: “science doesn’t necessarily know what it is about.” (10) But surely the reverse is even more the case, as Morton almost acknowledges: “You have to wonder whether your poem about global warming is really a hyperobject’s way of distributing itself into human ears and libraries.” (175) One needs climate science to understand hyperobjects, as it is a key example, but not vice-versa. As always with ontology, ooo comes after the labor of producing a knowledge of affairs and adds a supernumerary interpretation to it.
As a species of the genus speculative realism, ooo wants to have an alternative to what Quentin Meillassoux calls (after Merleau-Ponty) correlationism, where for there to be knowledge of a thing there need be a corresponding subject. The ooo species approaches this by generalizing the Heideggerian theme of the withdrawal of the tool itself in the act of performing its tool-function, by positing that all objects withdraw from each other in this manner. The subject-object relation then becomes just a subset of all object-object relations, in which objects always withdraw from each other, and relate to each other aesthetically, through the face they present.
Morton uses an example from Husserl. Holding a coin, one sees its face. But you can’t see the other side of the coin as the other side. You can only flip it over and make it this side. But I think the thing to pay attention to is not the mystery of the other side or the limits of seeing just this side, but the labor of the flipping. Hence I would want to move on from the contemplative thought of ooo to what it cannot but acknowledge in passing but continually represses: the labor or praxis via which a thing is known.
But to say labor is not to say subject. It is not to return to correlationism. For labor is always a mix of the human and inhuman. To say ‘tool’ is to partly say, and then erase, labor. Particularly when one gets to modern means of knowing the world, the apparatus of labor and techne becomes a vast and inhuman thing. This is the case in a pertinent example such as climate science, as I discussed in Molecular Red. There it’s an array of satellites, computers, terrestrial weather stations, forms of international cooperation of scientific labor, elaborately agreed upon standards and so on. Climate science, like all modern science is an inhuman apparatus via which the nonhuman world is mediated in such a way that humans can comprehend it.
Contra Morton, I don’t think Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is not correlationist at all. Morton writes of “Bohr as thinking quantum events as if they were “correlations to (human) instruments.” (37) But why is the instrument ‘human’? Is not the instrument an inhuman thing that mediates the nonhuman to the human? Again, there’s a collapsing of the space in which praxis occurs here.
For Morton, we are always inside objects. We are neither at the center nor the edge, and if they are hyperobjects they maybe massive, pervasive and weird. But I don’t think it’s the object that withdraws; I think its ooo that occludes the ways in which objects are known in the first place, which is in three steps.
First, there’s the particular praxis that produces a knowledge. Whether the praxis is labor or science, its always a cyborg mix of human effort and inhuman apparatus.
Second, there’s the generalization of that praxis in the form of metaphors and images. This is also a kind of labor, an intellectual labor, a mix of human talk and inhuman apparatus of communication.
The third step is the erasure of the other two. First there’s the praxis of doing science about quantum mechanics or climate change. Second there’s the production of the metaphor of the hyperobject, and third the erasure of the dependence of this metaphor on that prior praxis. In this case, the metaphor will then be claimed to be what precedes all those other steps when it is actually a later derivation.
Objects and even hyperobjects then appear as objects of contemplation, circulating all around us, free from the labor that produced a knowledge of them as such. Here I think Morton’s version of a speculative realism has the same limitation as the work of Quentin Meillassoux, (about which I have written here and here.) Where Meillassoux produces the spectacle of the absolute, Morton produces instead a contemplative relation to the ambience of the long duration. This is progress, however. As Morton wisely notes, it is harder to imagine the long duration than to imagine eternity.
Meillassoux thinks the problem with phenomenology is the finitude of the human subject that correlates to the object of knowledge. Morton thinks it’s the privileged transcendental sphere. Morton: “Kant imagines that although we are limited in this way, our transcendental faculties are at least metaphorically floating in space beyond the edge of the universe, an argument to which Meillassoux himself cleaves in his assertion that reality is finally knowable exclusively by (human) subjectivity. And that is the problem, the problem called anthropocentrism.” (17) But what Morton offers instead is a contemplative access to the immanence of the strange and the weird. But we’re stuck with the problem ooo shares with speculative realism, and speculative realism shares with at least some other species of phenomenology: the erasure of praxis.
We’re left in some version of the eternal gap between the phenomena of the senses and their contemplation versus the essence of things that cannot be known. Interestingly, Morton chooses to concentrate on the contemplation of the gap between essence and appearance itself: “a thing just is a rift between what it is and how it appears.” (18) ‘Just is’, that is, once we have erased the inhuman praxis that produced it as an object of contemplation in the first place.
This is where Hyperobjects gets most interesting: as an aesthetics. By paying attention to the periphery of sensation, the ambient tone, the interference patterns, certain hyperobjects can be detected in everyday life (but only if we know in advance through other means that they are there.) “The ground of being is shaken. There we were, trolling along in the age of industry, capitalism and technology, and all of a sudden we received information from aliens, information that even the most hardheaded could not ignore, because the form in which the information was delivered was precisely the instrumental and mathematical formulas of modernity itself. The Titanic of modernity hits the iceberg of hyperobjects.” (19) Except that it doesn’t. This is like a Platonic myth. Information did not come “from aliens” but from the natural sciences. What modernity hit was (for example) information produced by the praxis of the natural sciences about anthropogenic climate change.
There is already a name for the iceberg: the Anthropocene. What’s with the compulsion of humanities scholars to want to refuse this name we did not coin? Language is our job, of course. Its galling to have to admit that the relevant data here comes from without, from other ways of knowing, which bring with them other ways of naming, and other conventions about the rights of names. Somehow I just don’t think that insisting on the right to name things we did not discover is going to cut much ice.
One can indeed think the Anthropocene as a new historical age in which nonhumans are no longer excluded. Or one can do the reverse, which is perhaps more challenging, and is the point that earth sciences have arrived at: a new stage of geology in which humans are included. That to me is the truly strange thing to think.
However, there are elements in Morton useful for a twentieth century critique of separation. He does not inquire far as to where they come from, but he is hard on the case of modes of thought that assume a prior distinction, between the social and the natural, between self and world, between foreground and background. There are even forms of environmentalism that are caught up in this need for something separate, to be left alone. But this is no longer really possible. “Its oil we must thank for burning a hole in the notion of world.” (34) Its products are now everywhere, not least as that metonym for the Anthropocene, the hyperobject of global plastic residue. The geologists now even find strata of plastic rock being laid down as we speak.
Morton offers a brief glimpse of an aesthetic adequate to the viscous, pervasive nature of the oil-based world. It’s the rhapsodic, ambient, field-based art of a certain moment in modernism: Jackson Pollock, John Cage, William Burroughs. A contemporary extension might be Reza Negarastani’s astonishing Cyclonopedia, a book in which oil is the central character, a malign stain, a memory of sunlight, erupting from the bowels of the earth to change the course of history. Morton: “modernity is the story of how oil got into everything.” (54)
But what I think is to be resisted in Morton is the gesture that makes this poetics a higher truth than that of other practices of knowledge. Borrowing an image from The Matrix, Morton writes: “The mirror of science melts and sticks to our hand.” (36) He wants the viscous hyperobject to somehow be both before and beyond the realm of science, which as Karen Barad would have it, does require a kind of stabilizing of a closed space within an apparatus where observations can be made, repeated, recorded and then communicated.
It may be useful to have poetics (in the plural) that take the specific results of particular sciences and experimentally generalize them. This is what Bogdanov called tektology. But I think we start to get into trouble when we assume that poetics is a higher power. Morton is far less attentive to its limits than to the limits of scientific modes of knowing. So yes, let’s attend to Jackson Pollock, but maybe attend also to how the promotion of his work in postwar America is tied to the suppression of an art that directly addressed the class struggle or racial oppression, or how it partook in the cult of the male genius which is the very opposite of any approach to creation as the product of a field or an emergence from an ambience.
A good example of both the uses and the limits of a poetic and metaphoric extension of specific results from particular sciences is Morton’s use of the nonlocal as a metaphor. Here he has in mind things like nuclear radiation and endocrine disruptors, things that are waste products of modernity but which can’t be kept separate, which get into everything. Atmospheric carbon might be another example. They are examples of what I would call, following John Bellamy Foster, metabolic rift.
It was Marx who opened this metaphoric extension, thinking outwards from the metabolism of separate organism towards the thought that the whole planet is one metabolism. Marx was already starting to think the breakdown of such processes. In his time, it was flows of phosphorous and nitrogen. Now one could extend that thought to atmospheric carbon, complex hydrocarbon compounds, or radioactive isotopes produced by nuclear reactions. Thought of as metabolic rift, or as Jason Moore calls it metabolic drift, one can stay close to the science of geochemistry and need not add too many additional concepts.
It is indeed the case that one has to think causality in a contemporary way to understand such things: association, correlation and probability are all we have to go on. These days, empirical observations only make sense within computer simulated models of earth system processes. This is only weird or strange from the point of view of 19th century models of science. As contemporary science, the aesthetics of this are now quite ordinary, and need to be thought now as such.
One kind of science that really does still seem spooky and weird is quantum mechanics. But again, this is only so if one tries to sustain some sort of 19th century realism, from the point of view of which quantum mechanics seems to point to a troubling and contradictory reality. Niels Bohr really did have a solution to this, but its one that meets strong resistance from those who really need to maintain a faith in a reality that is out there, and separate. One way to read Bohr is as offering a realism not of the object of knowledge but of its practice, but where its practice takes place within the inhuman space of the apparatus.
This is Bohr’s complementarity: an apparatus gets a result; another apparatus gets another result. The results are a product of the apparatus. What is separate is the artificial space and time of the apparatus. One is to resist the temptation to say too much about what the results from within the apparatus might say about what we imagine to be the real and separate world beyond what the praxis of the experiment might say about itself.
But rather than affirm that the apparatus produces the phenomena, something that has the status of a fact, Morton proceeds the opposite way. Rather than stick with the limited recording of an object that an apparatus can produce, he wants to say that the real objects withdraw. Fine, but this is to speak of something that in its very nature is beyond observation, beyond any knowledge, but can only be an effect of a poetic art or speculative discourse.
It is a poetics which runs many risks of simply generalizing habits of mind or extrusions of current social relations onto the cosmic scale. It can lead to statements that are just not true: “OOO is deeply congruent with the most profound, accurate, and testable theory of physical reality available. Actually it would be better to say it the other way around: quantum theory works because it’s object-oriented.” In the space of two sentences, an alleged congruence becomes by fiat a foundation.
From thence we end up doing everything Ernst Mach warned us not to do: subordinating the genuine oddness of the praxis of science and the particular results it gets to a worldview which presumes to speak to a higher reality. Thus Morton: “Unlike the Copenhagen Interpretation, the ontological interpretation is noncorrelationist: particles withdraw from one another, not because humans are observing them in certain ways, but because the implicate order is withdrawn from itself.” (43) This is an imaginative solution to an imaginary problem. Bohr’s approach is not correlationist. To say so excludes the inhuman nature of the apparatus. It might be appealing to imagine objects withdraw, but poetry is not the unacknowledged legislator for the sciences.
Sometimes the praxis of science will simply blow a hole through our speculative worldviews. Thus I agree with Morton that once one has even a poor layperson’s grasp of something like quantum nonlocality, it is hard to call oneself a materialist, or even a ‘new’ materialist any more. In the Marxist tradition there were three responses to this.
One was to sever any connection between what materialism might mean as a scientific worldview and what it might mean when applied to social and historical formations. A second was to formulate a ‘dialectical materialism’ that could keep abreast of the sciences. A third was to shift from statements about the materialism of the world to a critique of the materialism of the production of knowledge about the world.
The first path was that of western Marxism and of much critical theory today. I think Morton and I might agree that (call it what you like) the hyperobject, the Anthropocene or metabolic rift renders it obsolete. There is no separate world of the social. The second path was that of Engels, reinvented in a way by new materialism in a Deleuzian vein, and by ooo in a Heideggerian one. Rather than separate itself from the sciences, it claims to be about something prior to them. I put Morton in this camp.
The third that of the ‘Machists’ such as Bogdanov, reinvented in a different register by Donna Haraway and Karen Barad. The merit of this third path is that it keeps critical thought in touch with the sciences, like the first path, but limits its ambitions. It respects the methods of the sciences and does not claim access to a superior reality. It looks critically at how ideas from the social world end up in the sciences, but also works creatively on how the sciences can produce figures that might be metaphorically extended to other domains. But it does not claim its second-order generation of such metaphors is a first order knowledge of something more fundamental than what scientific knowledge might know.
There is certainly a benefit to the poetics Morton opens up. From the point if view of the hyperobject, “Locality is an abstraction.” (47) Here is a useful reversal of perspective: “… in an age in which hyperobjects start to oppress us with their terrifying strangeness – we will have to acclimatize ourselves to the fact that locality was always a false immediacy.” (48) One can put this alongside the rather different critique of the folk politics of the Invisible Committee in Srnieck and Williams.
But I simply cannot accept statements such as: “The object is already there. Before we look at it. Global warming is not a function of our measuring devices.” (49) What’s missing here is the proper sequence via which knowledge is produced. A theory of global warming is confirmed, by computer modeling based (in part) on measuring devices, which then retrospectively comes to describe a state prior to the result of this praxis.
The particular pleasure to be had here is poetic: “Like God taking a photograph, the nonhuman sees us…” (50) And “We are poems about the hyperobject Earth.” (51) Indeed all life-forms become poems about nonlife, songs to the geo-trauma of being. Well and good. Until this: “Is the beyond of that might explain the poem more real than the here of the poem? There is no way to tell.” (53) There are ways to tell, and they are partial and fallible. They are the various kinds of praxis of knowledge and labor, here as always rendered invisible to the contemplative soul. What is withdrawn in ooo is always labor. In the absence of which magical thinking returns.
Hyperobjects exhibit difficult spatial properties, being both molecular and global in scale at once. They are also temporally difficult. They need to be thought on very long timescales. In a brilliant insight – and a point against Meillassoux – Morton notes that “These gigantic timescales are truly humiliating in the sense that they force us to realize how close to the Earth we are. Infinity is far easier to cope with.” (60)
In a lovely metaphor, Morton has it that after relativity theory, “time and space emerge from things, like the rippling flesh of a sea urchin or octopus.” (63) But here again, the significance of experimental proof is only fleetingly acknowledged. “Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers than entities sit on.” (65) No, physics does, once as theory, and then as theory confirmed by quite particular experimental apparatus.
Hyperobjects are not only spatially and temporally weird, for Morton they even exist in a higher dimension. They manifest through phasing, or interference patterns, when they encounter more mundane objects. This whole argument rests on an analogy: “If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world, first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing.” (70) Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, “A high enough dimensional being could see global warming itself as a static object. What horrifyingly complex tentacles would such an entity have, this high-dimensional object we call global warming?” (71)
For Morton, the mathematical description is not what underlies the object, it is a paraphrase. Not being a Platonist on such questions, I can quite agree. However, I can’t agree with Morton’s attempt to make a poetics of the object an intimation of a higher reality. The so-called flat ontology of ooo needs to be countered with a flat epistemology, one which does not a priori assign a hierarchy to ways of knowing, but rather holds open the question of which forms of knowledge have priority in which domain, and more importantly, what their modes of relation should be. Like Bogdanov, I think the goal is not to assert a hierarchy of one form of knowledge over others, be it the sciences or philosophy or poetry. The goal might rather be a comradely cooperation of modes of knowing as a subset of ways of laboring.
Thus I admire the literary quality of this metaphoric leap: “hyperobjects are disturbing clowns in an Expressionist painting, clowns who cover every available surface of the painting, leering into our world relentlessly.” (76) But I can assign no a priori truth value to this way of claiming a knowledge of the world. Unlike Morton, I want a consistently indexical or metonymic approach to what a form of knowledge praxis does. A known thing is an index of unknown things. But one must always keep in view the means by which the indexical sign is made out of the world. And one should try to assume the bare minimum about that world beyond what the index traces.
Or, one could speculatively imagine a lot of objects, even ‘withdrawn’ ones but assign them no reality besides being possibilities in the mesh of language. And so one can say: “The abyss is not an empty container, but rather a surging crowd of beings…” (80) Or, contra Morton, one can write as Meillassoux does of a universe after the style of Mallarmé that could collapse at any time and exists as and for no reason at all. To think that being reveals itself in such language, even in a veiled or withdrawn state, is really just the via negativa of logos.
To see it as something more Morton has recourse once again to an analogy. What if hyperobjects were to mind as base was to superstructure? “My thinking is thus a mental translation of the hyperobject – of climate, biosphere, evolution – not just figuratively, but literally.” Once again, notice that what is withdrawn from view here is praxis. The mind pulls the pattern of the world by reflecting on itself as itself.
What makes it a more appealingly contemporary aesthetic is its indirectness. Like deconstruction, “for every system of meaning, there must be some opacity for which the system cannot account.” (89) But it may be over-reaching to think that one can speak in the place of that opacity in domains other that writing, of the “magic of real objects that subtend the object system.” (89) It can produce an attractive metaphysics: “Appearance is the past, essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility – it’s the future, somehow beamed into the ‘present.’” But metaphysics is here meta in the sense of supernumerary.
Hyperobjects offer an