Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjectivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 2: Brassier and the Promethean

This the second 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). Part 1 can be found here. Part 3 will be uploaded next Monday.

The following extract is the opening paragraph of Ray Brassier’s 2014 essay “Prometheanism and its Critics”. I reproduce this to demonstrate the scope of accelerationist ambition at its most optimistic, contrasted here sharply with the overwhelming defeatism of the contemporary Left:

What does it mean to orient oneself towards the future? Is the future worth investing in? In other words, what sort of investment can we collectively have towards the future, not just as individuals but as a species? This comes down to a very simple question: What shall we do with time? We know that time will do something with us, regardless of what we do or don’t do. So should we try to do something with time, or even to time? This is also to ask what we should do about the future, and whether it can retain the pre-eminent status accorded to it in the project of modernity. Should we abandon the future? To abandon the future means to relinquish the intellectual project of the Enlightenment. And there is no shortage of thinkers urging us to do just that. Its advocates on the Right promise to rehabilitate ancient hierarchies mirroring an allegedly natural or divine order. But this anti-modernism–and the critique of Enlightenment–has also had many influential advocates on the Left throughout the twentieth century. They have insisted that the best we can hope for, via a radical scaling-down of political and cognitive ambition, is to achieve small-scale rectifications of universal injustice by establishing local, temporally fleeting enclaves of social justice. This scaling down of political ambition by those who espouse the ideals of justice and emancipation is perhaps the most notable consequence of the collapse of communism as a Promethean project. The best we can hope for, apparently, is to create local enclaves of equality and justice. But the idea of remaking the world according to the ideals of equality and justice is routinely denounced as a dangerous totalitarian fantasy. These narratives, whether on the left or the right, draw a direct line from post-Galilean rationalism, and its advocacy of the rationalisation of nature, to the evils of totalitarianism. [1]

Like Williams and Srnicek, Brassier begins by immediately positing accelerationism (he uses the word “Prometheanism”, however they are largely synonymous in his applications, so I will continue with the term we have already established) as a more recent incarnation of the Enlightenment, thus a rationalist philosophy, with the intellectual heft of its predecessors and capable of distressing the neoliberalist hegemonic object. His essay addresses the criticism of accelerationism as metaphysical, subjectivist voluntarism. Citing Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Brassier identifies dialectic binaries such as the distinction between (human) existence and essence, and “the human condition [as] an inextricable mixture of things given and things made [i.e. self-imposed limits]”. [2] Through these ideas he is able to make out some of the logic behind the criticisms of accelerationism. “The sin of Prometheanism”, says Brassier,

consists in destroying the equilibrium between the made and the given – between what human beings generate through their own resources, both cognitive and practical, and the way the world is, whether characterised cosmologically, biologically, or historically. The Promethean trespass resides in making the given. By insisting on bridging the ontological hiatus separating the given from the made, Prometheanism denies the ontologisation of finitude. [3]

Ivan Illich is used as an example of the necessity of finitude, or knowing one’s limits, within recognising the human condition. Illich claims that the human condition is inconceivable without the undeniable prerequisite factors of birth, suffering and death. That suffering should be considered a meaningful, unchangeable part of human life is for Brassier, ludicrous; therefore the second anti-accelerationist protestation he identifies lies in

the Promethean error […] to formulate a rule for what is without rule. What is without rule is the transcendence of the given in its irreducibility to the immanence of making. The Promethean fault lies in trying to conceptualise or organise that which is unconceptualizeable and beyond every register of organisation; in other words, that which has been divinely dispensed or given. [4]

Thus for Brassier the anti-Promethean takes on a quasi-religious argument, crossing an imaginary border between God-made and man-made and careering towards an existential dilemma regarding the sanctity of human life. In the likes of Dupuy there seems to be a fear that “the more we understand [humanity] as just another contingently generated natural phenomenon, the less we are able to define what we should be.” [5]

This concern reaches conceptual fever pitch when the Promethean is given free rein to “make the given”: an example which derives from Dupuy is especially relevant to our specific interests, and therefore will be quoted in full:

Humans might well be able to produce life: a living creature, a Golem. But in the version of the fable cited by Dupuy, the Golem responds to the magician who has made him by immediately enjoining him to unmake him. By creating me, the Golem says to his creator, you have introduced a radical disorder into creation. By making what can only be given, i.e. life, you have violated the distribution of essences. Now there are two living beings, one man-made, one God-given, whose essence is indiscernible. So the Golem immediately enjoins his creator to destroy him in order to restore the balance between the man-made and the God-given. Implicit in the parallelism between divine and human creativity is the claim that everything that is must have a unique, distinct essence, whose ultimate source can only be divine. [6]

Clearly the notion of essence is problematic, as it introduces an assumption that there is something unique about that which we call human, something surplus to essence. It is now easy for Brassier to identify a Heideggerian attack on Prometheanism as historico-theological paranoia which dissipates under the microscope, and makes way for the defence alluded to in the title of the essay:

Prometheanism is the attempt to participate in the creation of the world without having to defer to a divine blueprint. It follows from the realization that the disequilibrium we introduce into the world through our desire to know is no more or less objectionable than the disequilibrium that is already there in the world. [7]

What is now required is a return to Kantian rationalism, in the form of “a dynamic process which is not about re-establishing equilibrium [between made and given], but superseding the opposition between order and disorder”. [8] To break free of the too-often cyclical repetitionism of dialectics, and to orient towards a velocity through which the left can move outwards, is the task of the Promethean.

And why ought this be an accelerationist task, involving the radical overheating of capitalist circuitry? Let us now approach “The Circular Ruins”. The story begins with its protagonist discovering an ancient temple in a jungle clearing. He decides to use this location for his solitary task: to create a man entirely from his own dreams, “in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality.” After an early failed attempt his creature begins to take shape, atom by atom, until it resembles “a fully fleshed man.” However, he cannot find the power within himself to animate it. It is a “red Adam”, “rude and inept and elementary.” At this time the dreaming man throws himself to the feet of the idol of Fire at the temple’s crown. The deity then visits him during his following dream; it is described as “not the dread-inspiring hybrid form of horse and tiger it had been. It was, instead, those two vehement creatures plus bull, and rose, and tempest too–and all that, simultaneously.” Fire reveals to the dreaming man that it will animate the golem, and orders him to “send the youth, once instructed in the rites, to that other ruined temple whose pyramids still stood downriver, so that a voice might glorify the god in that deserted place.” [9] The situation described here is identical to that proposed by Dupuy, and subsequently adopted by Brassier to co-ordinate the Promethean’s sensibilities in relation to making the given.

The dreaming man is an accelerationist subject, a Promethean. He ascribes no distinction between actualising life through his own abilities and life actualised through “natural” causes. In fact it is through his desire to dream, to create, which actualises the god (of Fire), and the godlike potential within himself. The story ends when the protagonist is awoken from a long sleep after an indistinct period of time, by travellers. He is informed that at the other temple, the one which he had sent his golem to occupy, there existed “a magical man […] who could walk on fire and not be burned.” [10] Learning of this, the dreaming man undergoes an existential crisis of his own, a fear of his own enabling of disequilibrium into the natural order of essences. But Borges shows us he too, like Dupuy, is hasty in believing this realisation, for when the dreaming man steps onto the fire he discovers that “he, too, was but appearance, that another man was dreaming him.” [11]

In the first part of this essay, I cited Kafka’s “Prometheus” as an illustration of how the origin/destination binary is eroded through the medium of myth, through a system of revisions which leave only the effect of the origin. Using “The Circular Ruins”, we could too say the same thing about the binary creator/creation, or the dreaming man and the golem (indeed by the story’s end these names can be used interchangeably). And what about the binary subject/object? In the Prometheus myth, the titan resembles the human; in a sense he is the Platonic ideal form of the human’s creative and enlightened characteristics. Prometheus the (fictional) titan has made Prometheus the human subject. And in “The Circular Ruins” one Prometheus also engenders another; in fact they are endlessly engendering one another, endlessly producing the same subject – themselves, in a more codifiable, comprehensible form. Need we remind ourselves of Williams and Srnicek’s Promethean proposition:

Democracy cannot be defined simply by its means–not via voting, discussion, or general assemblies. Real democracy must be defined by its goal–collective self-mastery. This is a project which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves. [12]

Likewise with Brassier:

The frequently reiterated claim that every attempt to circumscribe, delimit, or manipulate phenomena [as] intrinsically pathological is precisely the kind of sentimentalism that perpetuates the most objectionable characteristics of our existence. We can choose to resign ourselves to these characteristics and accept the way the world is. Alternatively, and more interestingly, we can try to reexamine the philosophical foundations of a Promethean project that is implicit in Marx–the project of re-engineering ourselves and our world on a more rational basis. [13]

To conclude this investigation, we need to confront the essence of this Promethean subject head-on. In “The Labor of the Inhuman” Reza Negarestani proposes an alternative to the contradictory Enlightenment ideal of humanism, an alternative which necessitates the subject’s perpetual state of self-perpetuation and revisionism. And by formulating the dissolution of the line between subject and object, and the autonomous interjection of their verb (in this case, accelerate!), it will become more evident as to how the mythology of the accelerationist project can begin to navigate us through a stagnant academic and political Left.

Endnotes

[1] Brassier, R. (2014) “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In #Accelerate, p469. [All subsequent citations for this section refer to this text unless otherwise stated.]

[2] p474.

[3] p478.

[4] p480.

[5] p483.

[6] p484.

[7] p485.

[8] p486.

[9] Borges, J.L. (2000) “The Circular Ruins” [“las ruinas circulares”]. In: Fictions [Ficciones], trans. Hurley, A., London, Penguin Books Ltd, pp44-50. Although these characters are not named, I have decided to call them “the dreaming man” and “the golem” respectively, using Borges’s own quasi-factual Book of Imaginary Beings [El libro de los seres imaginarios] as inspiration (2002, trans. di Giovanni, N.T. & Borges, J.L., London, Vintage). Borges relates the golem back to the Kabbalists, who “devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining and permutating the letters of the [Biblical] Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.” This included a desire to understand creation itself: the Talmud indicates that through their studies rabbis made a primitive humanoid through “combinations of letters”, which they called a golem (pp71-3). In all Abrahamic traditions, Adam is created from the “word” of God. Further entries in the Book of Imaginary Beings which bear resemblance to the characters and mythos of “The Circular Ruins” include the following: “A Bao A Qu”, “Baldanders”, “The Chimera”, “The Chinese Fox”, “The Jinn”, “A King of Fire and His Steed”, “The Lamed Wufniks”, “The Phoenix”, “The Salamander”, “Thermal Beings” and “Two Metaphysical Beings.”

[10] Borges, J.L., “The Circular Ruins”, p49.

[11] Ibid, p50.

[12] Williams, A. & Srnicek, N., 3.14.

[13] pp486-7.

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