Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjectivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 3: Negarestani – An Inhuman Subject?

This the final part 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 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Man is something that shall be overcome. [1]

For the accelerationist subject, the Promethean, then, a form of rationalist ideology is required, one which can sufficiently initiate a mode of practice suitable towards addressing the present and future catastrophes indicated in Williams and Srnicek’s MAP (climate change, economic instability, famine). But how – that is to say, under what guise – could this rationalism arrive in a way that would be sufficiently capable of equipping us with the appropriate knowledge for the current twenty-first century crises, and the unanticipated ones beyond? Some answers may be found in another #Accelerate essay: Reza Negarestani’s “The Labor of the Inhuman”. Beginning with Enlightenment ideals, as with Brassier, Negarestani posits that any meaningful version of rationalist humanism is necessarily inhuman, and that furthermore it can only be this new humanism – inhumanism – that is capable of realising the path towards an emancipatory project.

Negarestani arrives at this conclusion by firstly defining humanism as a commitment to humanity, that is, something in which the human enters into through a process of understanding rather than a condition that is simply bestowed upon it. To mark this distinction, we need to separate “sentience as a strongly biological and natural category and sapience as a rational (not to be confused with logical) subject [my emphasis].” The latter of these terms is seen as “a normative designation which is specified by entitlements and concurrent responsibilities.” [2] It would be incorrect to make or accept any statements on the human which only refer to sentient characteristics: historico-biological developments and so on; it is sapience that holds humanity’s content, not as a fixed inventory of self-evident characteristics, but an endlessly perpetuating feedback loop “between communal saying and doing”, [3] mapping out human behaviour and engineering new processes continually and non-monotonically. [4] The commitment to humanity is that

in which the threads of reassessment and construction which are inherent to making a commitment and complying with reason are intertwined. In a nutshell, to be human is a struggle. The aim of the struggle is to respond to the demands of constructing and revising the human through the space of reasons.

This struggle is characterized as developing a certain conduct or error-tolerant deportment according to the functional autonomy of reason–an interventive attitude whose aim is to unlock new abilities of saying and doing. In other words, it is to open up new frontiers of action and understanding through various modes of construction and practices (social, technological…). [5]

Using these prerequisites, it is no longer possible to align the commitment to humanity with the fixed, narrow definition of humanism, and another label must be applied. Inhumanism “relentlessly revises what it means to be human by removing its supposedly self-evident characteristics”, with a demand that we treat the human “as a constructible hypothesis, a space of navigation and intervention.” [6] In a sense, inhumanism is phase two to humanism’s phase one, “a force that travels back from the future to alter, if not completely discontinue, the command of its origin–that is, as a future that writes its own past.” [7] This is the case only because a commitment to the human is a commitment to the autonomy of reason, over which the human has no hold. Like the Terminator, “a commitment works its way back from the future, from the collateral commitments of one’s current commitment.” By erasing a sentient past, inhumanism is capable of re-engineering potential futures, and indeed must do so in order to fulfil the commitments of the ever-changing human. It is in this sense that Negarestani is able to define inhumanism as “the labor of rational agency on the human.” [8]

The autonomy of reason in this process would be its “autonomy to assess and construct itself, and by extension to renegotiate and construct that which distinguishes itself by entering the space of reason”, [9] in other words, the autonomy to cultivate and perpetuate itself through the human sapient subject. As it is this very autonomy of reason that is needed for the self-actualising inhumanist project, in order to navigate reason’s autonomous space the subject must embrace this revisionary affectation. It is not a given, contingent human characteristic; it is, in Negarestani’s words, an “ought” rather than an “is”. The autonomy of reason consists in “connecting simple oughts to complex oughts or normative necessities or abilities by way of inferential links or processes.” [10]

Devising these oughts and processes for a given scenario and how they should mesh together is humanity’s commitment, through a process referred to as augmented rationality. This is defined as the “dynamic sharpening of the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’”, the process which “augment[s] the demand of reason and, correspondingly, propel[s] rational agency toward new frontiers of action and understanding.” [11] This augmentation produces the material for the labor of the inhuman, and any ensuing political project with freedom as its vector. Such a project would be systematic; however as with the commitment to the human the system must be treated as a constructible hypothesis in order to know it, [12] not taken as a rational, codifiable objectivity. It would be important to note here that Negarestani concludes the essay with a definition of the trajectory of freedom toiled by the labor of the inhuman as incompatible with liberation-in-itself as an end result:

Rather than liberation, the condition of freedom is a piece-wise structural and functional accumulation and refinement that takes shape as a project of self-cultivation. […]

The sufficient content of freedom can be found only in reason. One must recognize the difference between a rational norm and a natural law–between the emancipation intrinsic to the explicit acknowledgment of the binding status of complying with reason, and the slavery associated with the deprivation of such a capacity to acknowledge, which is the condition of natural impulsion. In a strict sense, freedom is not liberation from slavery. It is the continuous unlearning of slavery. [13]

It is the autonomy of reason’s erasure of the conditions of social or environmental crises, the “unlearning of slavery” borne from a lack of knowledge of the conditions for emancipation, which allows for a constructible, collective, inhuman subject; not the practices of the current “kitsch Marxist” Left which are fundamentally unable to realise their own commitments. [14] “Liberal freedom, whether it be a social enterprise or an intuitive idea of being free from normative constraints (i.e. a freedom without purpose or designated action), is a freedom that does not translate into intelligence; and for this reason, it is retroactively obsolete.” [15] On the other hand, accelerationism as outlined in the MAP “attempt[s] to outline ‘what ought to be done’ in terms of functional organizations, complex hierarchies and positive feedback loops of autonomy”. [16] There are echoes of the autonomy of reason in Williams and Srnicek’s call for a reconceptualisation of the future as capable of “unfastening our horizons towards the universal possibilities of the Outside”; [17] and the inhumanist strain of self-mastery and the redemptive property of rational intelligence in “the quest of homo sapiens towards the expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms.” [18] The MAP stresses the need for a multiplicity of political projects for the realisation of postcapitalism; it is easy to conceive of Negarastani’s labor of the inhuman as being a contingent element of the struggle.

Throughout this essay so far, I have been teasing out the idea of collapsing the subject/object binary. Now it is time to complete that motion, and examine its implications. It makes sense to view the subject of accelerationism in relation to its verb and object. Its verb of course is accelerate. Its object is capitalism, [19] which in contrast to the “kitsch Marxists” is a system which the accelerationists agree can function as a means towards facilitating socioeconomic equality, following overcoding and abstractifying accelerationist measures upon capital. Lastly, the Promethean individual would assume the role of subject, completing a basic Williams-Srnicek equation which can be expressed in the sentence “The Promethean accelerates capitalism.” (to the point at which capital takes on new properties and can be hijacked for sociodemocratic good).

In “The Circular Ruins” the principal verb is dream, i.e. to manifest in the unconscious, to fantasise or imagine futurity. The subject is the dreaming man, a sort of ageless, nomadic, oneiric shaman. His object(ive) is the golem, a living human being created entirely from dream processes. As this story is told itself using the framework of mythology – a timeless setting, references to ancient, non-Western religions and practices – there is no impetus necessary as such for its telling. Like a dream, a myth’s beginning is not important, only its main action and consequences. As such, crucially, the dreaming man has no individualistic motives, despite appearing to be entirely selfish, even foolish at first: “This magical objective had come to fill his entire soul; if someone had asked him his own name, or inquired into any feature of his life till then, he would not have been able to answer.” [20] The dreaming man is orphaned, has no tradition or apparent lineage. But this too is like Prometheus, a myth of vague, multiple origins, which is retained in the cultural memory not for its beginning, but its consequences.

For the reasons outlined above, the dreaming man of “The Circular Ruins” is an exemplary practitioner of inhumanism. The object of his desire, the golem, is defined by his commitment to humanity: the golem seems like us, however his features are entirely constructed and malleable: it is easily possible to imagine him being conceived differently, for example. He is able to embody quantum existence, in that the qualities that make him human are endlessly revisable: he can represent many different human potentialities all at once. The story’s denouement, in which the protagonist is revealed to be no different from his creation, exemplifies the underlying inhumanism of the dreaming man’s humanism: his commitment to humanity is notionally indifferent to that of the golem; he too is a golem, his commitment capable of endless revisions. We could say that “The Circular Ruins” is the dreaming man’s particular myth, the one in which he is the subject; however in order for this to be the case there must be another corresponding myth (not told here) in which he is the object.

And in Fire we witness the revisionary force, the autonomy of reason which retroactively distinguishes the sapient subject from the sentient matter from which he is constructed. Literally, Fire makes the dreaming men (the boundless chain of golems) what they are, by erasing the conditions from which they are born. It presents the protagonist with the knowledge needed to free him from the tyranny of his desire. Yet the price of the golem’s creation is that he must not be made to be aware of the conditions of his origin; the dreaming man too is unaware of his sentient history for much of the story. At this stage, we are probably tempted to see the rationalism of the postcapitalist, inhuman project and the Promethean subject’s initial condition of ignorance which permeates both its origin and its knowledge of it as a contradiction. However, it is not as though Fire prevents its creations from accessing this knowledge, or that doing so is to their detriment – on the contrary, there are many obvious positive dimensions to their immortality. By stepping onto the flames both subjects discover their constructed nature, their sapience. And again this happens retroactively: running backwards from the chain of creation is a parallel gunpowder line of self-actualisation as ignited by the fire of Reason. Perhaps like Prometheus we are supposed to defy the gods, and by doing so, our mortal limitations, our enslavements, can be overcome. Borges does not offer commentary on the pros and cons of the subjects’ inhuman state; the story ends just before that moment is to arrive. We can only say that, in Negarestani’s terms, the realisation of the labor of the inhuman is normative: based on the conceptualisation of its condition as a norm as opposed to a law (we ought to conceive our state of being as inhuman; it is not a contingent given way of conceiving of ourselves).

It is only after the dreaming man stops dreaming (and becomes, simply, a man), that he is able to “wake up” to his constructed reality. Freeing him from his prefabricated desires, the autonomy of reason has functioned retroactively to leave his future blank, yet to be determined. This ideal condition is the intention of the accelerationist political project. Note that this is exactly the opposite of Nick Land’s absolutist stance on deterritorialization: the absolute dissolution of the human subject is replaced by a reconceptualisation, a reaffirmation of the subject’s conditions. Likewise this subject is necessary as a host of autonomous reason, not merely a blockade or a buffer. Augmented rationality – being able to determine what constitutes the laws which we are limited by and what are merely practiced norms – provides us with the capacity to burst out of false walls from the inside: the labor of the inhuman. By fashioning together a multidimensional ecology of abstractive, algorithmic strategies, non-monotonic, rationalist thinking and nested hierarchies of both horizontal and vertical orientations; Prometheans may be able to dissipate the capitalist tide before its biggest waves hit the shore.

 

Endnotes

[1] Nietzsche, F. (1961) Thus Spoke Zarathustra [Also sprach Zarathrustra], trans. Hollingdale, R.J., London Penguin Books.

[2] Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In #Accelerate, p431. [All subsequent citations for this section refer to this text unless otherwise stated.]

[3] p434. Negarestani attributes the phrase to Brandom, R. (2008) Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[4] p436. “Non-monotonicity”, in Negarestani’s definition, refers to a “synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” It is the basic character of Charles Sanders Pierce’s abductive reasoning.

[5] p438.

[6] p427.

[7] p444.

[8] pp445-6.

[9] Ibid.

[10] p453.

[11] p459.

[12] p460.

[13] pp464-5.

[14] p441.

[15] p465.

[16] p453.

[17] Williams, A. & Srnicek, N., “#Accelerate”, 3.24.

[18] Ibid, 3.22.

[19] I feel a clarification is in order here. I’m not suggesting that there is a singular, unified body or organisation that can be labelled “capitalism”, which the subject is plugged into or stands apart from. By capitalism I mean an abstraction, a system of economic and social organisation of no singular origin or embodiment, of which capital is its axiom. To treat capitalism as an object in this sense is to abstactify and simplify the formal constraints of capital – the banks, businesses, wage packets, and all its other major interjections into the lives of the global population – under a singular umbrella term, and for doing the following I hold my hands up. One could say that Williams and Srnicek’s call for an acknowledgement of complexity when discussing how the Left ought to construct its socioeconomic arguments is undermined during the sections of the MAP where they bandy around the word “capitalism” (as well as “neoliberalism”) with no prior clarification of their interpretation of it, something which Nick Land jostles with in his “Annotated #Accelerate”, published online in three parts at Urban Future 2.1 [http://www.ufblog.net/annotated-accelerate-1/].

[20] Borges, J.L. “The Circular Ruins”, p45.

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