Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjectivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 1: Accelerationism and the Ideology Without Subject

This is the first of a three-part essay looking at the roles of subjectivisation and mythology in the Robin Mackay and Armen Avennesian-edited volume #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (2014) and the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Circular Ruins” (original publication date in Spanish: 1948). Parts 2 and 3 will be uploaded on the next two following Mondays.

In terms of its current usage, accelerationism is a term first coined by critical theorist Benjamin Noys in his work The Persistence of the Negative (2010), which he used to criticise a group of radical Left political thinkers as disparate as Ray Brassier and Antonio Negri, as being categorised by their endorsement of the idea that the path to postcapitalism may be through capitalism, and may be realised by accelerating capitalism’s “alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.” [1] The origins of this idea, elucidated in the Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian-edited volume #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (2014), go back as far as Marx’s “Fragment on Machines”, from the Grundrisse (1871), used by the accelerationists to show that industrial technology did not have to be seen as a nemesis to the proletariat, and that instead marked the shift from the use of technology as a tool to increase the rate of human production to automated, machine labour which reduces the role of the worker, therefore liberating him. “Individuals are incorporated into a new, machinic culture, taking on habits and patterns of thought appropriate to its world, and are irreversibly resubjectivized as social beings.” [2] From this unconventional reading of Marx, accelerationists skip ahead to the early 1970s, to two texts in particular: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), and Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974). It is in the former of these where we find the now infamous quotation appropriated by the accelerationists, in which we can see the ferment of this particular political theory:

But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one?–To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises the Third World countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is, we haven’t seen anything yet. [3]

A third and final important touchstone should now be mentioned for now: the cybertheorist Nick Land. In the 1990s Land was a relatively obscure figure, a lecturer on Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick and co-founder of a group centred around expressions of cyberpolitical thought called the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru) [4]. Land’s work, characterised by one critic as “mad black Deleuzianism” [5], takes the central counter-revolutionary idea of Anti-Oedipus, that of deterritorialization, to a startling conclusion, envisioning an eventual nihilistic atomisation of the humanised subject itself. This “antihumanist anastrophism” is proposed as the only legitimate means of escape from “a human inheritance that amounts to imprisonment in a biodespotic society compound to which only capital has the access code.” [6] Human subjects must be themselves deterritorialized, in order to make way for a posthuman, postcapitalist, technological society straight from cyberpunk science fiction.

The accelerationists of recent years, despite largely acknowledging a debt to Land’s theories [7], tend towards distancing themselves from the more apocalyptic end of the spectrum, likening the more radical concepts to fascism or Right accelerationism, and identifying the problems surrounding a dehumanised, decentralised accelerationist vision. Their alternative Left accelerationism is summarised and proposed in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, first published online and circulated in 2013 and reproduced in #Accelerate a year later. The Manifesto (hereafter MAP) opens with what its authors perceive as the main crises global civilization currently faces: radical climate change, the oncoming depletion of global resources and the collapse of global economy which have led governments to “embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatization of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages.” [8]; in other words, the hegemony of neoliberalism and its most devastating inheritance. Williams and Srnicek go on to define the (Left) accelerationist solution to the oncoming catastrophe as “an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility”, in contrast to the Landian “simple brain-dead onrush” which “confuses speed with acceleration.” [9] The essential break with the current prevailing politics of the left occurs in Williams and Srnicek’s accelerationism because, they argue, this left is bereft of imagination for the future, a short-sighted localism or “relentless horizontalism” that wishes to withdraw from an engagement with the global economy and technological innovations in a way that betrays the Marx of “Fragment on Machines”, and will not go any way towards addressing the looming crises. The third and final section of the MAP documents the writers’ alternative desires: “an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology [and which] seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.” [10] This “new left global hegemony” would only be made possible by adopting several diverse political strategies at once; an “ecology of organisations” fashioned together in an experimental manner, encompassing both the horizontal socialities seen during the Occupy movement and “a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority” [11]. Williams and Srnicek conclude by declaring that “only a Promethean politics of maximum mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.” [12] Ergo “[w]e need to revive the argument that was traditionally made for post-capitalism”:

Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society. The movement towards a surpassing of our current constraints must include more than simply a struggle for a more rational global society. We believe it must also include recovering the dreams which transfixed many from the middle of the nineteenth century [Marx, Samuel Butler] until the dawn of the neoliberal era [Deleuze and Guattari, Lyotard], of the quest of homo sapiens towards expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms. [13]

Needless to say, the publication of the MAP in 2013 has since led to a number of responses from figures representing many fields around the globe. Not least of these is from Land himself, who quickly made a number of criticisms on his blog Urban Futures 2.1, and again in the essay “Teleoplexy: Notes on Acceleration”. Amongst the more credible points made by Land are that the authors of the MAP do not clearly define what they mean by “neoliberalism”, and often use the term synonymously with “capitalism”. Simon O’Sullivan identifies within the MAP “a call of sorts for a ‘new’ kind of (human) subject,” based on Williams and Srnicek’s call for an accelerationist politics which “must seek to knit together a disparate array of partial proletarian identities”. [14] He also points to a lack of “libidinal materialism”, and, most crucially, the question of subjectivity within the essays of #Accelerate more generally. [15] Whereas Land would discredit the significance of a (human) subject entirely, others, including Williams and Srnicek, have made their position less clear. Beyond the need for “self-mastery” and a “Promethean” sense of vision, what form may the subject of this projected post-capitalist global society take, and how might they be desirable, effective molecular beings within this larger molar body, one which they may have to share with Terminators or Replicants?

The answers to these questions, I believe, are, roughly speaking, the concerns of aesthetics, a field which has been to an extent overlooked, even indirectly dismissed in the key latter essays in #Accelerate. The exception to this is Patricia Reed’s closing entry, “Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism”, which is structured as a list of improvements or potential territories for the writers of the MAP and their kin to further expand upon. I want to investigate one of Reed’s prescriptions in particular: the fourth one, “Fictionalize” (although several others will feed into this investigation regardless, due to their proximity). She has the following to say on the matter:

Speculative possibility is effectuated through fiction, a fiction that maps vectors of the future upon the present. A type of fiction unleashed upon ossified norms (including the very privileging of an exclusively ‘human’ power at work in politics, to the neglect of non-human agents), modes of being, and forms of use, projected through that delicate sliver between affect and effect; a medium yoking the dialectics of sensibility and practice. This is a fiction driven by anticipation (the unknown); a fiction that lacerates and opens the subject towards what awaits on the periphery of epistemic certainty. It is in this image that Accelerationism must embrace the fictional task of fabulating a generic will [my emphasis] with a commitment equal to that which it makes to technological innovation. Fiction is a vehicle for the introduction of a constituent demos […], and helps tackle the self-evident question facing Accelerationism, namely: Who or what does the accelerating? Without reducing the demos […] to parliamentary regimes of democratic materialism, accelerationist politics must take up the challenge of motivation and popular will if it is to cast off its shadows of techno-dictatorial prescription. [16]

Suppose we are to take up the “fictional task of fabulating a generic will”; this would be to, in as many words, either unveil or otherwise inject the fictional or mythological into this particular arm of the political left. As Deleuze and Guattari would themselves say, all politics is a politics of desire. And certainly there is enough evidence in the MAP and related literature to suggest a latent (suppressed?) idealist, perhaps even utopian streak within the core of left accelerationism already (an immunising measure against Landianism?): all dismissive critics (as well as the more even-handed ones) have pointed out the dangers of totalitarianism which perhaps invariably accompany any future-oriented “grand project” (with the Italian and Russian futurists nearly always being the illustrative examples). One word used again and again throughout left accelerationist texts without as much as a basic definition is “Promethean”. In itself the word suggests a myth which does much to cause alarm for those with even a cursory investment in classics; the Greek titan who with godlike ambition steals the fire of Zeus from the peak of Mount Olympus, only to suffer damnation in the form of being chained to a rock for all eternity. In Franz Kafka’s reading, Prometheus “pressed himself deeper and deeper into the rock until he became one with it.” Subsequently “every one grew weary of this meaningless affair”, and soon forgot all about it, leaving behind only “the inexplicable mass of rock.–The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth in had in turn to end in the inexplicable.” [17]

What is interesting is that no user of the word “Promethean” in relation to an accelerationist grand project seems to either know or take much notice of these blindingly negative connotations. What Kafka seems to be saying is firstly that all matter (and therefore, I would add, materialist philosophy) is, after a process of abstraction (or perhaps stratification), indistinguishable from the conditions of its existence; undoubtedly then accelerationism cannot evade fictionalisation or the question of the subject. And secondly that the erosion of this distinction leaves behind a certain residue conditioned not by the myth-in-itself, but a “substratum” or shadow of its original moralising intent, and therefore can be used for alternative purposes. To someone tracing the myth of Prometheus to its present day adjectivised usage, then, it would appear that its legacy is something “inexplicable” to its original causes.

Let’s put this in more straightforward terms. In its current form accelerationism is an idea, one which exists in writing, spoken word, and the minds of those who wish to make it into a global political reality (as well as those who don’t). As long as people are interested in perpetuating this idea it will continue to develop and diversify; the ways in which acceleration develops over time will be down to its progenitors’ ideologies (either they will continue to use the term themselves or they will inspire others to do so; the effect is the same). There is no overt narrative perpetuated by accelerationism, but there certainly are beliefs and desires which account for it. So do these elements of accelerationism, desires to allow at least the first steps towards a political project to be taken constitute a latent myth – Prometheus or otherwise – and if not, could the philosophy benefit from a fictionalisation, as O’Sullivan and Reed are suggesting? Can fiction provide a new viewing platform for acceleration, and will we see anything new from its vantage?

Anyone who makes predictions about the future – philosophers, soothsayers, politicians, economists, science fiction novelists – are essentially authors of individual fictions; architects of temples of the future inscribed with hieroglyphics of the present. While not explicitly a science fiction text, or one that deals with the theme of futurity overtly, I want to use what I believe to be a Prometheus-inspired text, the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Circular Ruins”, as a means of examining the position of subject in an accelerationist politics. This essay may not attempt to define Promethean characteristics as such; rather the placement of the subject within a project of acceleration, and their interaction with and utilisation of rationality and self-realisation in the face of overwhelming societal alienation and abstraction brought on by the prevailing capitalist global hegemony, of which neoliberalism is merely its purest form (to date). I will refract the illuminating subject of “The Circular Ruins” through the prisms of two essays which both feature in #Accelerate: Ray Brassier’s “Prometheanism and its Critics” and Reza Negarestani’s “The Labor of the Inhuman”. I hope this will sufficiently answer Williams and Srnicek’s call for “experimentation with different tactics”, [18] and provide a possible candidate for the “missing subject of accelerationism”.

 

Endnotes

[1] Mackay, R. & Avenessian, A. (eds.) (2014) #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, p4. Introduction by Mackay & Avanessian available in PDF format at http://www.urbanomic.com/Publications/Accelerate/Accelerate-Introduction.pdf.

[2] Ibid, p9. The essay itself “Fragment on Machines” is also republished in #Accelerate (pp51-66).

[3] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. & Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, pp239-40. See also Deleuze & Guattari’s “The Civilized Capitalist Machine” in #Accelerate (pp147-62).

[4] Members and affiliates of this group included, amongst others, accelerationist theorists Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, Mark Fisher and Robin Mackay, artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and original dubstep pioneer Steve Goodman, aka Kode9.

[5] Cited by Brassier, R. in his presentation at the Accelerationism Symposium at Goldsmiths, University of London (2010). Audio published online by the Backdoor Broadcasting Company at http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2010/09/accelerationism/.

[6] Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (2014) #Accelerate, p20.

[7] Urbanomic, the publishing house ran by Mackay which published #Accelerate also compiled many of Land’s unpublished and long out-of-print texts into the volume Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007 (2011), edited by Mackay and Brassier.

[8] Williams, A. & Srnicek, N. (2013) “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, first published online by Critical Legal Thinking at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/, 1.2 [N.B. the index numbers refer to those ordained in the structure of the essay to allow for easier navigation]. Also available in PDF format at https://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf and republished in full in #Accelerate (pp347-62).

[9] Ibid, 2.2.

[10] Ibid, 3.1.

[11] Ibid, 3.14.

[12] Ibid, 3.21.

[13] Ibid, 3.22.

[14] Ibid, 3.18.

[15] O’Sullivan, S. (2014) “The Missing Subject of Accelerationism”. Published online by Mute at http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/missing-subject-accelerationism.

[16] Reed, P. (2014) “Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism”, in #Accelerate, pp529-30.

[17] Kafka, F. (1946) “Prometheus”. In The Great Wall of China: Stories and Reflections [Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer], trans. Muir, W. and E., New York, Schocken Books. Online copy available at  Zork.net. [http://zork.net/~patty/pattyland/kafka/parables/prometheus.htm].

[18] Williams, A. & Srnicek, N., 3.15.

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