Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Failure

For my commentary on the recent book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (hereafter S&W), Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF), I have decided to build upon the discussion hosted by the blog The Disorder of Things (hereafter TDoT) in which seven writers shared their responses to the book in five essays.[1] Representing a diversity of critical disciplines and viewpoints, from climate change and libertarian communism to “cyborg” geography to international politics, these commentators drew on their own knowledge and experience to identify a number of criticisms of the book, which were then rejoined by its authors in a subsequent post. Taken as a whole, the exercise has cast helpful light on what by all accounts is an often forceful and persuasive text about the writers’ vision of a transformation of the global political Left.

Speaking as a typically liberal British graduate, the need for such a transformation in this country has, in my (limited) memory, never seemed more imminent: the overall majority Conservative victory in 2015’s General Election sent the Labour Party into disarray, and combined with its near-total eradication in Scotland (the Scottish National Party won an unprecedented 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, overturning a typically Labour stronghold overnight) constituted a defeat that may take decades to recover from. Recently, public infighting amongst senior Shadow Cabinet members has become an increasingly regular fixture of the newspapers and the evening news. At times, the idea of any kind of new radical strategy being employed on a national level seems distant at best.

Undoubtedly, this is the kind of crisis of the Left Srnicek and Williams begin their latest manifesto, Inventing the Future, from. “The recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure”, they claim.[2] Speaking more directly of struggles from Occupy to the Arab Spring uprisings, which have often been conveyed by liberal commentators as successes, at least initially, they go on to suggest that “[t]he recent weakness of the left cannot simply be chalked up to increased state and capitalist repression: an honest reckoning must also accept that problems lie within the left.” (p9) The most central (at least, the most quotable) method of complaint Srnicek and Williams express is to reinterpret the horizontalist, localised attitude towards enacting social progress from the left as a pervasive, short-sighted form of political common sense, which the authors brand as “folk politics”. An important qualification here is that the authors do not reject the entirety of this folk politics out of hand, but in terms of an ambitious, large-scale political project it is a perspective best reserved for a “starting point” only, ready to be jettisoned at the point which the project gains sufficient traction (p12).

Folk politics envisage a resistance of the global capitalist megastructure in terms of small, local, “horizontalist”[3] groups, often with a disdain for leadership or higher forms of collectivisation. For S&W, this is the wrong approach for the left to take if its biggest demands are to be met.[4] In fact, the dismal nature of vast swathes of the global Left can be explained by examining their trends towards privileging “the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular” as “sufficient rather than simply necessary moments”[5] An early chapter of ItF lists a plethora of consequences of making this mistake; making an attempt at an “honest reckoning” of the left’s recent political failures. One familiar case study cited once again is the Occupy movement, which took place in several cities throughout the world simultaneously in 2011. The protest camps set up in Occupy Wall Street, for example, were conceived of and functioned as insulated, autonomous, temporary spaces; this meant that they were inherently unable to implement a sustained period of change. Moreover, the occupants themselves were not, despite appearances, a unified group; instead they were made up of a plethora of differing political ideologists (“reformist liberals, anti-capitalists, insurrectionist anarchists, anti-state communists…”). Resultantly therefore their common goals were few, and their general goals diverse. Moreover, Occupy’s adoption (“fetishisation”) of direct (face-to-face) democracy, in the form of the general assembly, quickly became more laborious than liberating, owing to the multitude of micro-decisions considered necessary, wasting precious time and leaving the protesters in stasis (pp29-37).

The left’s shift towards localism is seen by S&W as a “defensive gesture”, a retreat from the battlefield of global commerce and political hegemony, and of rationalising and humanising challenging ideas (pp3, 40). “The problem with localism”, they write,

is that, in attempting to reduce large-scale systemic problems to the more manageable sphere of the local community, it effectively denies the systematically interconnected nature of today’s world. Problems such as global exploitation, planetary climate change, rising surplus populations, and the repeated crises of capitalism are abstract in appearance, complex in structure, and non-localised. […] Fundamentally, these are systemic abstract problems, requiring systemic and abstract responses. (p40)

Localist solutions, whether nostalgic[6] or resistant,[7] are clearly inadequate measures to combat these problems, as both rely on distorting the image of past victories in the vain hopes of recreating them in the present. Instead, S&W suggest that it is possible to learn from the recent and current neoliberalist successes whilst still self-identifying as being in opposition to them. This begins by recognising that

[n]eoliberalism was never a given, never a necessary endpoint of capitalist accumulation. Rather, it was a political project from the beginning, and a massively successful one in the end. It succeeded by skilfully constructing an ideology and the infrastructure to support it, and by operating in a non-folk-political manner. (p52)

In this way, neoliberalism “functioned as an expansive universal ideology” (ibid.), i.e. a hegemony.[8] A brief historical tour, beginning with Hayek’s establishment of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS)[9] in the 1940s and finishing with its total ubiquity in New Labour and the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s, examines the scale of neoliberalism’s unlikely achievement. Neoliberalism did not succeed through protest or head-on collision, rather though parasitical infiltration, taking its time over decades rather than announcing itself as an abrupt change. It simultaneously “builds on the very real desires of the population”, and reduces the desire to resist the worldview it creates by making it appear natural, appealing and a “common sense” approach, despite in reality being anything but.[10]

The Future

Neoliberalism has repurposed the idea of “modernity” for its own ends;[11] but now is the time, say S&W, for the left to reclaim it, by devising a “future-oriented politics capable of challenging capitalism at the largest scales.” Change will not come about as a result of wishful thinking, or by turning our backs on the future altogether. The left must approach the concept of the future as a contestable, hyperstitional field.[12] Likewise the concept of freedom ought to be revised as mutable and synthetic rather than fixed and natural. “Whereas negative freedom is concerned with assuring the formal right to avoid interference, ‘synthetic freedom’ recognises that a formal right without a material capacity is meaningless.”[13] Rather than an emancipatory action, freedom cannot be considered as separate from power.[14] The power to act independently allows us to achieve what is beyond our current capabilities, and is the basic requirement for postcapitalism:

One of the biggest indictments of capitalism is that it enables the freedom to act for only a vanishingly small few. A primary aim of a postcapitalist world would therefore be to maximise synthetic freedom, or in other words, to enable the flourishing of all humanity and the expansion of our collective horizons. Achieving this involves at least three different elements: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources, and the development of technological capacities. Taken together, these form a synthetic freedom that is constructed rather than natural. (p80)

Freedom, in the form of free time, ought to be the basis of any emancipatory movement, particularly a postcapitalist one; not the negative freedoms for further employment or greater consumer choice. It is necessary therefore to “reject the centrality of work” in ordinary people’s lives.[15] Likewise, humanity itself must be freed from the cultural and social definitions of the humanist mould, as “[i]t is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself. This means revising the human both theoretically and practically, engaging in new modes of being and new forms of sociality as practical ramifications of making ‘the human’ explicit.” (pp82-83)

Such proposals for a re-imagining of our future are routinely dismissed as “utopian”, a word often brandished as a synonym for “unreasonable” or “wishful thinking”, but the authors of ItF take on the meaning of this word much more optimistically, announcing their project as openly and necessarily utopian.[16] With the flavour of Ballardian science fiction, they conceive of utopian thought as “[generating] a viewpoint from which the present becomes open to critique” (p139), and subsequently provides the instruments of change. It is this flavour that overspills into the latter chapters of the book, influencing their wider views of the role of politics and their proposed reformist demands.

Demand!

S&W set out their “demands” clearly and articulately over the second half of the book (indeed, also on the cover). Here they are in outline:

– The first is for “full automation”, i.e. to incorporate existing and new technologies into the workplace as seamlessly as possible. A fully automated economy “would aim to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth”, and therefore the tendency towards automation is one that should be “enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left.” As the demand for skilled labour is set to reduce drastically in the years ahead, whether we like it or not, it is better to embrace and prepare for this change than to try to resist it (pp109-114). Furthermore, as the most significant new technologies, from the Internet to the iPhone, have been the result chiefly of governmental funding and not, as popular myth may suggest, solely the efforts of Silicon Valley mavericks and entrepreneurs, the transition towards full automation must be conceived of as  a political and not merely an economic project.[17]

– A reduction of the working week. This is endorsed not only as “reducing the working week constitutes a key response to rising automation”, but it also benefits the environment, and enables a consolidation of class power; all things for which work is more often a problem than a solution (p116). It also gives body to the reasons for which we work in the first place.

– The demand for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A weekly income, which would be a sufficient amount of money for a citizen to live on, given to everyone, would finally separate people from the economic necessity of work, and therefore “[transform] the political relationship between labour and capital.” Precarity, the condition of part-time, flexible hours or zero-hours work would also be transformed, into “voluntary flexibility”. “[T]here are a vast number of reasons to support a UBI”, say the authors: “reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy.” (p118-122)

– A diminishment of the work ethic. The authors see their biggest obstacles as “not economic, but political and cultural: political, because the forces that will mobilise against it are immense; and cultural, because work is so deeply ingrained into our very identity.” Therefore part of their project would involve a seismic shift around the ideology of work, even a secularisation, as the origins of the work ethic are entangled with religious beliefs, institutions and practices.[18]

But of course it’s not as simple as replacing workers in the current economy, or producing funds for UBI out of thin air, which is why, S&W argue, these demands are better taken multilaterally and simultaneously, as part of an “integrated programme”. They even provide an interesting example whereby the implementation of both demands enhances one another in a positive-feedback loop:

Low-paid work is often crass and disempowering, and under a programme of UBI it is unlikely that many would want to undertake it. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid. In other words, the nature of work would become a measure of its value, not its profitability. The outcome of this revelation would also mean that, as wages for the worst jobs rose, there would be new incentives to automate them. UBI therefore forms a positive-feedback loop with the demand for full automation. (pp121-2)

Only when these proposals are fought for can the left stand a chance at replacing the current hegemony with a counter-hegemony of its own. It should be based on these goals in particular, say the writers, because they are based on “the real desires of people” and “grounded in real tendencies in the world today, giving them a viability that revolutionary dreams lack” (pp126, 108). Instead of taking the approach of deciding what is necessary, it is better to begin from a position of achieving what is possible. S&W decide that we ought to learn from the ideological successes of the twentieth century and aim to create a “Mont Pelerin of the left” (pp65-7). A new common sense is to be constructed and for this, both emerging online as well as traditional forms of media are necessary, as they influence to a large degree the boundaries of what is considered “realistic” in the public purview.[19] A “sociotechnical hegemony” will enable the drawing together of the disparate and fragmented left under the heading of a “new collective ‘we’” (pp136, 158). This “we” will constitute a decentralised “ecology of organisations”: a combined vast pool of resources and talent from across multiple fields and both open and closed groups (p163). That such an ecology would be a populist movement is taken to be self-evident, the authors defining that term positively as “a kind of political logic by which a collection of different identities are knitted together against a common opponent and in search of a new world” (p159).

Contesting the future

The essayists at TDoT find much to admire and recommend in ItF, but whether singularly or collectively, they each express serious doubts about the book in its entirety. Perhaps unexpectedly, the biggest issue here is over the term “folk politics” and its application within the book’s first half. Interpreted as a cynical, condescending attack on the very same liberal-minded footsoldiers S&W wish to employ for their own project by most of the critics, Steven Shaviro makes an additional comment on the term’s synonymity with that of “folk psychology”, “the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves.” Joe Hoover finds that, instead of a practical guide on the upscaling of localised tactics, readers “get little practical advice for how abstraction and new cognitive maps and subversive universalism enable this work and [instead] plenty of indictment backed with limited evidence. Perhaps, there is scant advice on offer because there is such minimal engagement with what local struggles actually do beyond marching and occupying.” There is also, he says, insufficient evidence of “a powerful common sense that is impeding alternative projects”, despite what the authors propose. Redefining the authors’ universalism as a “pluri-versalism”, Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell find that S&W’s proposals are not easy to disentangle from the folk politics rubric; using the example of Indigenous struggle, Lewis and Bell highlight the term’s inherent complications:

Indigenous people have frequently been equated with the natural; whilst Indigenous politics is necessarily ‘local’ in focus (even if it is often all-too-aware of the global dimensions of power) and frequently entails resistance against enclosure. Do S&W see Indigeneity as a ‘folk political’ drag on the future? The consequences of their claims for Indigenous politics are – seemingly – that it should get on board with a ‘universal’ left-modernity in return for the promise that it be allowed to develop autonomous ways of living once capitalism is overthrown. (Lewis & Bell)

This last comment leads into the next most frequent criticism: the particularly Eurocentric, colonial (white, male) topography of S&W’s plan. It would be nearly impossible, say Lewis and Bell, to implement a programme of full automation without the continuing, in fact intensifying of racialised labour, in the form of mining for raw materials (such as precious metals used in electronic components) and low-cost prison labour. Such an oversight constitutes for Lewis and Bell “a privileging of (ending) predominantly white, male work”, but not a global response to rising surplus populations or a solid foundation for full automation. In Joseph Kay’s comment the author tackles the consistency of ItF’s “postcapitalist ecology” more directly. Reading the book alongside Neil Smith’s “ideology of nature”,[20] the opposing poles of folk politics and S&W’s own radical proposals can be read in tandem with Smith’s dialectic of “back-to-nature romanticism” versus a “politico-theological modernism”. In his own work, Smith retraces the origins of this opposition back to the colonialism of emerging European capitalism, repositioning “nature” as an occidental conception: codifiable and conquerable, the “inverted reflection of capitalist modernity” (Kay). Kay’s own examples of the disposal of toxic waste (again linked to the mining of rare earth minerals) and SRM (solar radiation management) as a proposed solution to climate change (although not in ItF)[21] call into question the ethical considerations along racial faultlines not addressed sufficiently in the book. While S&W clearly attempt to reposition their demands as incompatible with the horror stories of racialised labour, they do not go far enough, at least in the respects mentioned by their critics.

Of the responses to ItF posted at TDoT, the most critical (and one of the most interesting) is Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman’s “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”. Its authors waste no time in expanding their critique of S&W’s Eurocentricity into a fully-fleshed Neoliberal apologeticism:

Given enduring conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, and a host of associated structural inequalities with which we in the West are complicit, it is difficult not to mistrust the (white, Western, male) authors’ deliberately provocative claim to strategic leadership of the entire Left.. Read in this way, Inventing the Future amounts to an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices. While the book plays lip service to the importance of a respect for a diversity of tactics and socio-political multiplcity, it consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus. Indeed, such practices are precisely those indicated for getting in the way of the business of acquiring and wielding power. In its romanticisation of past forms of Leftist (not to mention Neoliberal) organising and the modernism of the Second International the book offers precious little in the way of safeguards against the potential tyrannies of hegemony, vanguardism and Leninism. (Hirst & Houseman)

Predictably, therefore, S&W’s goals “do precious little to disrupt, and are entirely compatible with, neoliberal thought and subjecthood.” Furthermore their insistence on focusing on the implementation of their demands on a national level, “geared towards achieving parliamentary dominance in North/Western democratic states”, belie a lack of forethought of the global consequences, particularly in regards to the outsourcing of dangerous and poorly-paid (and unpaid) labour to the struggling developing world.[22] S&W’s privileging of hegemony over horizontalist discourse even extends to their “folk politics” terminology, codifying all localist social movements and hypocritically subtly denying their protesters ability to challenge their viewpoint in advance.[23] Taking all of these observations of ItF into account, Hirst and Houseman conclude: “it is difficult not to feel somewhat bewildered and apprehensive that a project claiming to promote human emancipation and freedom would argue for a form of political organisation which employs deceptive, repressive, and violent means in the service of its ends.”

This is an atypical reaction to the book, yet elucidates a latent agreement, which in hindsight can be detected in the articles of all the other DoT critics. The exercise as a whole illustrates the strengths of outsider knowledge and expertise advocated by S&W’s programme; it is unsurprising therefore, on reading ItF, that the authors would agree to subject their work to this method of observation. Yet it is also clear that, despite rigorous research beforehand, there are a number of amendments that can and should be made to future editions. Two authors in particular suggested by the commentators are valuable starting places. Donna Haraway’s work on cybernetic ideology is advocated separately by both Kay and Lewis and Bell as a useful resource when grappling with the complexity of the human/machine binary, which does not, in truth, really exist and is much of a colonial-capitalist invention as “nature”. The latter authors pick out an especially valuable quote from Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” which they argue can be applied to ItF: “the acid tools of postmodernist theory and the constructive tools of ontological discourse about revolutionary subjects might be seen as ironic allies in dissolving Western selves in the interests of survival.”[24] Instead, Haraway’s own line of disseminating the ontology of man over machine, a distinction which “organises ItF’s politics of liberatory automation”, is preferable. Instead of fabricating further topographies, it is better to acknowledge a change in perception. “We have always been cyborgs with no clear place to go; and are (probably unendingly) stuck with the mess and trouble of making ourselves comrades – making ourselves, as S&W put it, a ‘people’” (Lewis & Bell).

A synthetic subjectivity for a synthetic freedom is not to be reached as a “destination”, as Lewis and Bell put it (in other words, in a time marked “the future”); rather the cyborg perspective emerges atemporally, perpendicular to history. A further comment on S&W’s synthetic freedom is provided by Hannah Arendt, annexed by Hoover. His paraphrase: “what is the meaning of freedom in a world less and less of our making?” In a fully implemented programme of “full” automation, what is it that is to be automated, or rather, what isn’t? This raises a final point, namely that in ItF’s overzealousness (fetishisation) of machinic efficiency key questions on human and societal value in a work without work are all too quickly sidelined.

Personal reflections

S&W themselves posted a detailed response to the criticisms made by the TDoT commentators.[25] As this blog post is already lengthy I won’t really go into unnecessary details here, but instead will conclude by offering some light on my own perspective of ItF. Being all too familiar with S&W’s previous manifesto, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013, hereafter MAP), and the authors’ roles in establishing the critical term “accelerationism” in its current usage,[26] I was interested to see the impact of that previous work on this. But an early footnote in the book discourages further comparison with their earlier thought, or that word in any rate:

This work builds upon and expands our earlier proposals set out in the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’. We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has arisen around the concept, rather than from any abdication from its tenets as we understand them. (p189, en 1.55)

I largely agree with Steven Shaviro, who has for a while now been a significant critic against the concept of accelerationism as a political programme,[27] when he notes that, “[t]hough the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference.” The only sense overthrowing this term seems to make is to simplify the rhetoric for newcomers, this being the authors’ first book for a major publisher (Verso). Yet that term, for all its faults, suggested a slightly more coherent and integrated argument, making connotations towards further interesting texts by a group which potentially includes the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, to name a few. Although S&W try to inject the word into later strands of the book (“tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated”, “we must build a world in which we can accelerate out of our stasis.” (pp109, 181, emphasis added)), it feels as though it has already been defanged and disregarded. Similarly references to previous arguments made in MAP are hardly any more advanced than they initially appeared in that text.[28] The authors “do indeed make accelerationist proposals,” Shaviro observes, but significantly they do so “while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years.” Maybe if S&W weren’t so afraid of the Pandora’s Box they helped to pry open a few years ago ItF could have been even more radical with its proposals; instead its feels like a concession to critics (Shaviro included) who reduced accelarationism to a one-dimensional, petrolheaded, infantile, phallocentric solution to already  volatile political issues.[29]

It is true that ItF only functions as a manifesto by codifying with the labels “folk politics”, “neoliberalism”, “human”, “machine”, and so on. But it’s also true that there is enough flexibility within these terms for an ecology of organisations to come to agreement over specific issues involving human rights, environmental concerns, and so on. ItF is structured in such a way that, as many critics have expressed, it is difficult to be entirely opposed to (after all, who would be opposed to a reduction in the working week with no loss in pay?). S&W have been so accommodating to revision and intellectual sparring that their prescriptions appear more moderate and less revolutionary than the book’s dramatic cover implies. It is a book of good ideas, but better intentions. This means that the authors sometimes stray into territory they probably don’t know enough about to comment on, but in any case by doing so they facilitate the debate you feel is more important to them anyway.

S&W quite rightly address the claims that their work has a too dominant “Western male” feel, and somehow manage to win back footing by acknowledging their situation as a limitation:

[O]ur knowledge is primarily of conditions in the spaces within which we live and breathe. […] [O]ur intention was instead to circumscribe the limits of our analysis and highlight our own situatedness. The alternative, it seems to us, would have been a hubristic claim that we know best how the rest of the world can and should build a post-work society – that two white men should lead the way. (Srnicek & Williams, “Reinventing the Future”)

This statement might illustrate a sensible decision made by the authors, but it can’t plug the holes made by the TDoT critics concerning the racialised, gendered and environmental implications of some of the book’s proposals. Neither can statements like “a post-work world must be seen as a response to existing and emerging neocolonial, racist, sexist and exploitative conditions” – not by themselves, at least. Not that I’m saying that the authors need to go back to the drawing board – they are certainly on the right track. But a reconsolidation of the four demands might be in order. S&W state that “[w]hile each of these proposals can be taken as an individual goal in itself, their real power is expressed when they are advanced as an integrated programme”, in other words, their counter-hegemony. And it is here, above all other points where I must most strongly disagree: these goals can only be achieved as part of an integrated programme. The four central demands are like leaky buckets that must be stacked together if they are to hold water. Taken individually, not one of them is capable of successful implementation in the current socioeconomic climate without exacerbating the problems the others are (potentially) capable of solving. The other critics have already illustrated this clearly, whether stressing the undesirable environmental turmoil and increase in exploitative labour required to kickstart full automation (Kay, Lewis and Bell), or the financial resources needed to instigate a unilateral UBI programme (Shaviro).

If, however, these four targets (in revised form, with necessary additional sub-targets addressing specific social, financial and ecological issues) were indeed presented in a coherent, flexible manner, as S&W ideally envisage, there is a lot of evidence provided in the book that suggests that over a medium-long time period (20 to 50 years, perhaps) there may easily be enough public support for a populist political project to see these desirable goals mounting a successful challenge to the current projected sequence of events.[30] What climate change has taught us is that intervention can indeed sustain a reversal against the deeply embedded odds, but only provided that we act now, quickly, decisively. Likewise ItF illustrates some of the shortest routes towards postcapitalism: the sooner their simplicity and desirability reach a level of mainstream promotion, the easier a broad restructuring of labour, money and technology able to defend against the “global crises” first identified by S&W in MAP[31] will seem to a general audience. And if to propose that a challenge to the “common sense” espoused by the corporate media is indeed their objective, they lack only the publicity this media manages.

Endnotes

[1] The essays are as follows: Shaviro, S. “Accelerationism Without Accelerationism”, Kay, J. “Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future”, Lewis, S. & Bell, D.M. “(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It”: A Response to Inventing the Future”, Hirst, A. & Houseman, T. “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”, Hoover, J. “Myths of Invention”. (2015) Published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/tag/inventing-the-future/].

[2] Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, London/New York, Verso, p7. [All subsequent citations refer to this text unless otherwise stated.]

[3] “Horizontalism rejects the project of hegemony as intrinsically domineering, putting forth an affinity-based politics in its stead. Rather than advocating an appeal to or takeover of the vertical power of the state, horizontalism argues for freely associating individuals to come together, create their own autonomous communities and govern their own lives.” p26.

[4] Although, for small, localised issues, for example campaigning to keep a hospital open, folk political strategies such as street protests and petitions are perfectly adequate methods of public engagement. S&W do not call for an outright rejection of folk politics, they merely identify its inadequacies when addressing non-local, multi-faceted political issues; folk politics cannot be the only, or even the default way of inciting change. p12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “For centre-left political parties, nostalgia for a lost past is the best that can be hoped for. The most radical content to be found here consists of dreams of social democracy and the so-called ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Yet the very conditions which once made social democracy possible no longer exist. The capitalist ‘golden age’ was predicated on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (white, male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system depended on an international hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. Moreover, social democracy relied on a particular balance of forces between classes (and a willingness for compromise between them), and even this was only possible in the wake of the unprecedented destruction caused by the Great Depression and World War II, and in the face of external threats from communism and fascism. For all the nostalgia many may feel, this regime is both undesirable and impossible to recover. But the more pertinent point is that even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and the social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people.” pp46-7.

[7] “While nostalgia for a lost past is clearly not an adequate response, neither is today’s widespread glorification of resistance. Resistance always means resistance against another active force. In other words, it is a reactive and defensive gesture, rather than an active movement. We do not resist a new world into being, we resist in the name of an old world. The contemporary emphasis on resistance therefore belies a defensive stance towards the encroachments of expansionary capitalism. Trade unions, for instance, position themselves as resisting neoliberalism with demands to ‘save our health system’ or ‘stop austerity’; but these demands simply reveal a conservative disposition at the heart of the movement.” p47.

[8] Neoiberalism itself “differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state. A major task of neoliberalism has therefore been to take control of the state and repurpose it. […] [N]eoliberals understand that markets are not ‘natural’. [They] must be consciously constructed […] Under neoliberalism, the state therefore takes on a significant role in creating ‘natural’ markets.” p53.

[9] A “neoliberalist thought collective”, which (successfully) tried to introduce an anti-Keynesian counter-hegemony into Western governments. pp54-56.

[10] Although able to recognise the magnitude of neoliberalism’s success, the writers are far from enthusiastic about the negative effects of its pervasiveness: “It is […] not just politicians, business leaders, the media elite and academics who have been enrolled into this [neoliberalist] vision of the world, but also workers, students, migrants – and everyone else. In other words, neoliberalism creates subjects. Paradigmatically, we are constructed as competitive subjects – a role that encompasses and surpasses industrial capitalism’s productive subject. The imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. Perpetual education, the omnipresent requirement to be employable, and the constant need for self-reinvention are all of a piece with this neoliberal subjectivity. The competitive subject, moreover, straddles the line between the public and the private. One’s personal life is as bound to competition as one’s work life. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that anxiety proliferates in contemporary societies. Indeed, an entire battery of psychopathologies has been exacerbated under neoliberalism: stress, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders are increasingly common psychological responses to the world around us. Crucially, the construction of everyday neoliberalism has also been a primary source of political passivity. Even if you do not buy into the ideology, its effects nevertheless force you into increasingly precarious situations and increasingly entrepreneurial inclinations. We need money to survive, so we market ourselves, do multiple jobs, stress and worry about how to pay rent, pinch pennies at the grocery store, and turn socialising into networking. Given these effects, political mobilisation becomes a dream that is perpetually postponed, driven away by the anxieties and pressures of everyday life.” pp63-67.

[11] We all know today that ‘modernisation’ translates into job cuts, the slashing of welfare and the privatisation of government services. To modernise, today, simply means to neoliberalise.” p63.

[12] The authors definition of a hyperstition is “a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth. Hyperstitions operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence. They have the temporal form of ‘will have been’. Such hyperstitions of progress form orienting narratives with which to navigate forward, rather than being an established or necessary property of the world.” pp70-75.

[13] “Under a democracy, for example, we are all formally free to run for political leadership. But without the financial and social resources to run a campaign, this is a meaningless freedom. Equally, we are all formally free not to take a job, but most of us are nevertheless practically forced into accepting whatever is on offer. In either case, various options may be theoretically available, but for all practical purposes are off the table.” p79.

[14] “As Marx and Engels wrote, ‘it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means’. Understood in this way, freedom and power become intertwined. If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something else, then an increase in the ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom. The more capacity we have to act, the freer we are.” Ibid.

[15] S&W posit themselves in a continuum of post-work thinkers from across a spectrum of political idealists: “Marxists, Keynesians, feminists, black nationalists and anarchists”. p86.

[16] “Utopias are the embodiment of hyperstitions of progress. They demand that the future be realised, they form an impossible but necessary object of desire, and they give us a language of hope and aspiration for a better world.” p138.

[17] “The fact of the matter is that capitalist markets tend towards short-term views and low-risk investments. […] It is governments that make investments in high-risk developments that are likely to fail – but for that reason are also likely to lead to major changes. […] The challenge is to develop institutional mechanisms that will enable popular control over the direction of technological creation.” pp146-7.

[18] “[F]or our societies, remuneration requires work and suffering. […] This thinking has an obvious theological basis – where suffering is thought to be not only meaningful, but in fact the very condition of meaning. […] But we should reject this logic today and recognise that we have moved beyond the need to ground meaning in suffering. Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified.” pp123-6.

[19] Here the writers utilise the concept of the Overton Window, “the bandwidth of ideas and options that can be ‘realistically’ discussed by politicians, public intellectuals and news media, and thus be accepted by the public.” p134. Also they observe: “[T]he left has typically focused on creating media spaces outside the mainstream, rather than trying to co-opt existing institutions and leaking more radical ideas into the mainstream”, a trend which they would like to overturn. p165.

[20] See Smith, N. (2008) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Athens, University of Georgia Press.

[21] “The principle behind SRM is simple. The warming aspect of climate change is proximally caused by outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation becoming trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature. To counter this, it is proposed to use atmospheric aerosols (or orbital reflectors) to intercept a portion of the sun’s incoming shortwave radiation (‘insolation’), thus reducing the total energy input to the Earth system and offsetting the surface warming caused by greenhouse gases. This seems like a textbook case of technologically-augmented human control over complex systems.
“However, the Earth’s atmosphere being the prototypical chaotic system – i.e. deterministic but with sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the localised consequences are not easily modelled (SRM alters the atmosphere’s temperature gradient, known as the lapse rate, which is critical to meteorology). Some models suggest that the main adverse consequence of SRM would be severe droughts in regions dependent on seasonal rains, principally sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.” Kay.

[22] “The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation.” Hirst & Houseman.

[23] “The authors are clearly aware of the diversity in both character and tactics of the new and newest social movements the world over, and the huge variation in their respective goals and capacities to realise their widely divergent aims. Despite this variety, however, they choose to subsume this plethora of groups under the signifier ‘folk’ by means to which to develop a blanket challenge, enacting a hegemonic move at the level of language. Such a signifier serves to construct its various objects in such a manner as to homogenise and delegitimise them from the outset; to frame political actors or groups as ‘folk’ is not simply to offer a description but rather to render them provincial, backward, quaint or parochial. By dint of their subsumption under a common signifier, highly refined and reflexive political practices are rendered equivalent to hipster faux-authenticity and ecological mysticism. The reader is thereby invited to disregard, dismiss and even parody contemporary activism the world over in toto, while the accelerationist project claims for itself a unique and privileged position.” Hirst & Houseman.

[24] Haraway, D. (2000) “A Cyborg Manifesto”, London, Routledge, p297. Available at: https://libcom.org/cyborg-manifesto. PDF available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Haraway-CyborgManifesto-1.pdf.

[25] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) “Reinventing the Future”, published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/2015/11/11/reinventing-the-future/].

[26] See Carswell, J. (2015) “Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjctivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 1: Accelerationism and the Ideology Without Subject”, orbistertius, available at https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/red-adam-accelerationist-subjectivisation-and-borgess-the-circular-ruinspart-1-accelerationism-and-the-ideology-without-subject/.

[27] See, for example, Shaviro, S. (2013) “”Accelerationism: An Introduction”, Lecture by Steven Shaviro @Grand Valley State University”. Video published online by Jason Adams at youtube.com [https://youtu.be/gi6I0K2PJrw].

[28] For example, Negarestani’s idea of “a humanism that is not defined in advance […] without a pre-established endpoint” is merely referenced by S&W (p82), not really grappled with or integrated well into the outline of their project. This is the kind of confusing avoidance that could have been eliminated if the authors were seen to be more comfortable with their previous output.

[29] One of the best anti-accelerationist texts is Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (2014, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books). Yet this book is also an example of mistreating its central subject as something else from what its advocators use it for. Noys (who earlier coined the term “accelerationism” in The Persistence of the Negative) argues at the end of Malign Velocities for “a restoration of the sense of friction that interrupts and disrupts the fundamental accelerationist fantasy of smooth integration.” (p103)  However he has failed to take into account the internal conflicts within accelerationist thought as to the nature and extent of Deleuzoguattarian deterritorialization, for example between the views of S&W and Land set out in MAP.

[30] S&W themselves make use of and praise the populist form of the Kickstarter-funded Podemos party in the book: “Podemos, […] has aimed to build mechanisms for popular governance while also seeking a way into established institutions. It is a multi-pronged approach to social change and offers greater potential for real transformation than either option on its own.” p169.

[31] These crises are as follows: “the breakdown of the planetary climactic system […]; [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves, [which offer] the prospect of mass starvation, collapsing economic paradigms, and new hot and cold wars […]; [c]ontinued financial crisis [which] has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatisation of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages.” 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. [Also available in PDF format at https://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf].

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World of Ecco: A Look Back at Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1.

An eccojam is a piece of music usually made from a single short loop of source material, nearly always from the seventies, eighties or nineties, and smothered with effects, most notably reverb and echo. When listening to an eccojam, or watching a music video for one on YouTube (usually fan-made, set to washed-out stock footage from the VHS era), a number of associations are elicited. The name itself pastiches Ecco the Dolphin, a cult Sega video game from the early 1990s, a reference which seems apt given the vaguely aquatic, waterlogged quality of the music, and also suggests crude CGI dolphins leaping over the sunsets of corporate videos and the bucket-list aspirations of the information age’s middle-management. It’s also not difficult to interpret the eccojam as a sort of nostalgia wormhole; a lament to the pre-Internet era already slipping out of collective memory, an ode to the two tapes: video and cassette. But a large part of their appeal is their ambiguity: the miniscule focus of a single line or phrase of FM drivetime pop, destined to repeat forever, like the last skipping CD in the post-nuclear wasteland of our Hollywood-prescribed future. The eccojam’s enduring quality is probably its fragility: it grasps at something about our present and our future, about memory and the human condition, but it never quite reaches it. The famous quote attributed to Marx and Engels about capitalism could work equally well in this context: “All that is solid melts into air”. [1]

All of this has been said before to an extent, including by Simon Reynolds in his nostalgia inquiry Retromania. [2] But I want to go further by suggesting that the eccojam might be the artform (or genre, or what you will) that best describes and challenges perceptions of our political and economic position in the early years of the twenty-first century, although itself not without its inherent problems. It was invented by Daniel Lopatin – now a successful and highly regarded electronic musician working under the alias Oneohtrix Point Never, but back then “a total 9-to-5er” in an office cubicle – in around the mid-00s, mostly as a diversion from the menial day-to-day drudgery experienced by virtually (or virtually by) everyone in his occupation. [3] Posted to YouTube, Lopatin experienced an unexpected degree of success with his experiments, including the Chris De Burgh-sampling “nobody here”, which accumulated views into the tens of thousands.

Fast-forward to 2010, and Lopatin has become a genuine underground music celebrity, having released amongst other things the celebrated 2CD compilation of synthesizer works Rifts as Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN), and a further album under that alias, Returnal. His next release is another compilation, this time of his sample-based eccojams, using the pseudonym Chuck Person. Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 was a limited edition cassette released by The Curatorial Club; only 100 copies were made available (to date it has never been reissued, or officially released on any other format). Inevitably several rips were uploaded online by fans lucky enough to get their hands on an original tape, and as of January 2016 the different versions have combined viewing/listening figures on YouTube of around 200,000. [4]

The fact that the vast majority of listeners (including myself) have only experienced Eccojams digitally rather than in its original analogue format can only be by design, the same reason why it never received an mp3 equivalent. On an outdated medium, it exists as a modern-day artefact, assembled in a DAW and translated to analogue. [5] It is up to the online community, that utopic population, to share their own uploads with the wider world, which is only an approximation of the contents of the cassette. [6] Several versions of Eccojams exist online, including a popular one at the “wrong speed” (as if there can ever be such a thing), and another, the “Asterite Edition”, an unofficial remaster by an avid fan. [7] Whilst not the only distinguishing factor, speed functions as a key identity in each version of Eccojams. The slow version posits Lopatin as a successor to DJ Screw, a famous Houston DJ who was both celebrated and derided for his “Chopped n Screwed edits” of hit Southern rap songs; these songs were usually just the originals slowed down to a narcotic pace, completely antithetical to the ecstasy-fuelled Hi-NRG expectations of the usual club sound. Although a certified influence on Lopatin’s output as Chuck Person, [8] I would suggest that this association is misleading, as it predicates slowness as the principal quality of the eccojam’s alteration, and marijuana as the principal drug. [9] Instead I want to return to the idea of acceleration, and propose that Prozac is as important as weed in orienting the eccojam’s escape velocity.

Prozac (as well as caffeine) is the drug of neoliberal capitalism’s gargantuan accumulation. In Heroes, Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes the effects of Prozac culture on the global economy over the last twenty years as being a direct result of the expansion of the economy, the internet and the haemorrhaging expectations of the cognitive worker’s individual consciousness:

Economic phenomena have long been described in psychopathological terms (euphoria, depression, slump, ups and downs . . .), but when the production process involves the brain as the primary unit of production, psychopathology ceases to be a mere metaphor and becomes instead a crucial element of economic cycles. Throughout the 1990s the overall economy expanded literally euphorically. Prozac culture became an integral part of the social landscape of the internet economy, which was expected to unfold in the manner of infinite growth. Hundreds of thousands of Western operators, directors and managers took innumerable decisions in a state of chemical euphoria and psychopharmacological light-headedness.

But although the productivity of the networked brain is potentially infinite, the limits to the intensification of brain activity remain inscribed in the affective body of the cognitive worker: these are the limits of attention, of psychic energy, of sensibility. While networks have produced a leap in the speed and in the very format of the info-sphere, there has not been a corresponding leap in the speed and format of the mental reception. The receivers, human brains of real people made of flesh, fragile physical organs, are not formatted according to the same standard as the system of digital transmitters. The available attention for the info-workers is constantly being reduced, involved as they are in a growing number of mental tasks that occupy every fragment of their attention span. They take Viagra because they don’t take time for sexual preliminaries. They take cocaine to be continuously alert and reactive. They take Prozac to block out the awareness of the meaninglessness of their working activity and life. [10]

I don’t imagine for one moment that Lopatin has ever worked as an investment banker or a stockbroker, but it doesn’t defy reason to assume that he felt the top-down effects of his employers’ (or their employers’, or their bankers’, or their financial advisors’, or indeed their governments’) deregulated euphoria from within the working environment of his office cubicle, and projected these effects outward into his music, like any effective artist. In many of the uploaded versions of Eccojams (for example the Asterite Edition), the tempos of each sample are roughly equivalent or even faster than in their original tracks. Their editing too is of a schizophrenic character: you may hear an uninterrupted loop for three or four minutes before it disintegrates into chaos as it buckles under the pressure of its monotonous day-to-day existence, revealing capitalism’s distorted, untameable underside. True to form, the eccojams’ lyrical content is also vague and provocative in meaning. They sound off under waves of echo, becoming an abstraction of pop music’s underlying message as read between the lines. “Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy,” could be a line from a motivational speaking training video, a neoliberalist sanctuary of affirmative action which can be interpreted much more darkly when paired with “Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you,” the language of want and need. It’s very easy to pull out eight or so lines at random and turn them into a Burroughs-style cut-up poem; it is hard, however, not to make it sound like a cry for help:

… There’s nobody here …

… nothing left … but you just … do …

… when I make my … I’ll be fine …

… Don’t give up … You know it’s never been easy …

… Where’d you get that information from? …

… angel please don’t go … I’ll miss you when you’re gone … please stay …

… let it go …

… the feeling … my head … [11]

Hearing these lines repeated incessantly and nonsensically draws attention to both modern, glossy pop and prescribed cognitive labour’s abject meaninglessness and proliferation of themselves. If we take Theodor Adorno’s viewpoint, we could say that pop’s tendency towards standardisation is a result of its inherent derivativeness, which is needed as an example of any mass-market product in direct competition with others. [12] In this case Eccojams becomes a kind of mockery of standardisation, subjecting each loop to similar processes and highlighting the thematic similarities in the original songs’ lyrics. But who would write such a poem as the one above? In Japan, there is a term for young people who lock themselves in their bedrooms, resist all points of contact with the outside world, and perform a kind of social suicide – hikikomori. “If one reflects on the incredible levels of stress that social life implies,” says Berardi, “the spreading of this phenomenon is not particularly surprising. On the contrary, hikikomori behaviour might appear to many young people as an effective way to avoid the effects of suffering, compulsion, self-violence and humiliation that competition brings about.” Speaking of his personal experiences with hikikomori persons, Berardi “found that they are acutely conscious that only by extricating themselves from the routine of daily life could their personal autonomy be preserved.” [13] A related analysis occurs later in the same book, this time within the rapidly-constructed metropolises of South Korea:

In a cultural space already eviscerated by military and cultural aggression, the [South] Korean experience is marked by an extreme degree of individualization and simultaneously by the ultimate immaterial cabling of the collective mind. The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web. Perfectly insulated and perfectly wired, the organism becomes a smooth interface of the flow. In order to access the interaction, the individual must adapt to the format, and their enunciations must be compatible with the code. [14]

The relationship between Eccojams and the curiously Asiatic [15] phenomena of self-withdrawal and alienation can be further explored by considering the influence the tape had on a group of musicians who came to be known collectively as “vaporwave”. “The typical vaporwave track”, notes Adam Harper, “is a wholly synthesised or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality or standing alone, and sometimes with a smattering of miasma about it.” This music evolved from a number of individuals’ studies of the music of Lopatin and collaborators such as James Ferraro, who can be said to lead the charge in this respect (the latter specifically with his 2011 album Far Side Virtual). [16]

“The text surrounding vaporwave – the artist names and track titles – is almost entirely in declamatory, brutally attention-craving capital letters, and often employs Chinese and Japanese lettering whose inscrutably (to me and most other Westerners, at least) enhances the music’s sense of tapping into the airwaves of global techno-capitalism and overhearing its business as usual, meant for someone else.” [17] The utilisation of Asian alphabets and characters, vocal samples and imagery in music videos and album art indicates the importance of shrinking globality and the acceleration of the proliferation of techno-capitalism in the spheres of art and ordinary life for the vaporwave producers. Lopatin himself made allusions to the Soviet states of a displaced time and place with the alias KGB Man and the OPN album Russian Mind (2009). [18] Is there an argument to be had here about Orientalism and the appropriation of non-Western iconography as a result of simplifying and exoticising the Eastern Other? Absolutely, but again it’s more complicated than that. For one, as alluded to before, the identities of most vaporwave producers are unknown, so it’s difficult to label any unidentified individual as Western. Another important point is that there is a certain relationship based on economic-cultural identity between, say, 1980s America and 2010s South Korea; these are the eras, roughly speaking, that these countries entered into rapid periods of economic growth adjacent to a technological renaissance and recalibration of the scope of cultural possibility, of which the creation of an innovative new musical identity plays a huge part. [19] And there’s also the “shrinking globalism” argument; that the advent of Web 2.0 and humanity’s adjustment to it has engineered interconnecting bridges across different cultures throughout the world. [20]

None of these provide a stable defence against the more problematic issues surrounding cultural reappropriation, however they do demonstrate that there is a feeling of affinity, even envy that Eastern mainstream cultures are currently at their height of innovation, compared with the sense of “lost futures” which Western culture was never quite able to fully realise. Building somewhat on Reynolds’ Retromania, Mark Fisher solidifies this melancholia-tinged social condition as “hauntology”, a term borrowed from Derrida’s Specters of Marx to illustrate “the agency of the virtual” of the spectre of a proto-futurity which was never to exist. [21] Eccojams can be said to be a hauntological statement, when considering that

[i]n hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgement that the hopes created by postwar electronica or by the euphoric dance music of the 1990s have evaporated – not only has the future not arrived, it no longer seems possible. Yet at the same time, the music constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for the future. This refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism. [22]

Whilst fundamentally unable to avoid confrontation with the nostalgia mode, what differentiates hauntological music from “retro” pastiche is its political engagement with the past’s relationship with the future. [23] All of Lopatin’s music can be viewed in this way: Rifts, for many their first taste of OPN, was routinely compared with the Geman kosmische synth-work of Tangerine Dream; Replica (2011) butchered the TV info-mercial into chopped-up weird taunts and sleep-deprived soundscapes; and Garden of Delete (2015) invented a whole new genre of what could have been called hypergrunge, taking Lopatin’s experiences touring with Nine Inch Nails and smothering the poseur-pop of PC Music with heavily-processed metallic distortion, resulting in a prepubescent nightmare. [24] Part of what makes the hauntological package supplied by Eccojams so effective is its directness: the up-front nature of this particular experiment is something which appears more unconsciously in later works by the vaporwavers, or producers like Jam City or Lee Gamble, as exciting as their developments may be.

Ironically, however (put perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly), Eccojams already to an extent feels like a product of the past, which seeing as it was released only half a decade ago tells us something about the speed of life (and fibre-optic cable). It appeared at the moment when the mixtape was starting to gain traction over the traditional album format in terms of innovation (but, on the whole, not popularity): we can hear its influence in recent album-inspired production mixes such as Sharp Veins’ The Earth Splashed [25] or Fluxogramma#27: ‘Designer Environments’ By Djwwww & Sentinel [26] (both 2015). These mixes abstractify elements of Eccojams in bolder and even more unique ways, in the same way as Lopatin’s project essentially built on ideas circulated by Philip Jeck, Oval and the aforementioned DJ Screw and reapplied them to its cybercapitalist environment. All are necessary products of this particular cultural environment, simultaneously made of it and able to identify passages of resistance and escape within it. Eccojams shares an inherent quality with all fundamentally valuable art: it echoes.

Endnotes

[1] Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2004) The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Moore, S. and Engels, F., London, Penguin Books Ltd., p7. Digital copy available online at marxists.org/archive. Adam Harper also made a similar remark in his article for Dummy Mag about the musical genre vaporwave, which I will be returning to below.

[2] Reynolds, S., Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, London, Faber and Faber Ltd., pp80-83.

[3] Lopatin apparently likes to downplay his input in the creative process of authoring the eccojam: “I’m just participating in stuff that’s happening all across YouTube, kids doing similar things all over.” Ibid.

[4] Excluding plays of individual tracks, etc.

[5] A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is a piece of software that anyone can freely buy on the market and use to produce or edit music on their computer. Examples include Ableton, Logic and Pro Tools. Anyone making music in this way will be using a digital output or signal, which then has to be translated into analogue if it is to be released on an analogue format, such as vinyl, or in this case a cassette tape (but not CD). This is in contrast to some of the pre-digital sources on Eccojams, such as “The Four Horsemen” by Aphrodite’s Child, which have been recorded in analogue (on tape) and subsequently converted to digital for CD and download versions (and then manipulated by Lopatin). What’s interesting about Eccojams is that much of its source material is from the eighties, the period where analogue recording was being phased out in favour of digital, and both types of studio setup were being used in parallel. These sources are a combination of analogue-to-analogue, digital-to-analogue, and digital-to-digital (e.g. “Too Little Too Late” by Jojo) recordings, all of which have been digitised, digitally edited by Lopatin and converted back into analogue for recording onto cassette tape. Finally the analogue signal of the tape has been re-digitised again by fans in order to upload the “tape” onto YouTube. This constant analogue-digital fluctuation has degraded the quality of the original recordings, including Eccojams itself, considerably, yet, for the most part, intentionally. It is no longer possible to hear the exact piece of music the eccojam is derived from anymore, due to the compression of the analogue signal during the analogue-to-digital conversions, and the loss of ones and zeroes during the reverse, digital-to-analogue conversions. This is not dissimilar to the function of human memory, which instead of preserving a perfect (visual or aural) picture of the past, experiences degradation and loss of clarity as memories are “reformatted”. The past is nothing but a distortion. For me personally, understanding this is more important than any quest for “fidelity”, or the fruitless search for the highest possible quality of sound.

[6] For reasons outlined above.

[7] More information about this version can be found at http://pastebin.com/9iHztScW.

[8] Reynolds, p81.

[9] However I will concede that this the case for the edit of 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” on the second half of the tape, which has an overtly “screwy” quality.

[10] Berardi, F. (2015) Heroes, London/New York, Verso, pp53-4.

[11] I’ve used approximate lyrics here, close to what can be heard from the original samples without looking them up (the people’s encyclopaedia, Wikipedia has a list of samples used on their “Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1.” page). The lyrics, as they appear in the eccojam, are obscured to the point where an approximation will suffice in extracting their meaning, and allows for potential “happy accidents” through mishearing.

[12] Adorno, T. (2000) “On popular music”, in Soundscapes, Volume 2 / 1999-2000, available online at http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/On_popular_music_1.shtml. Adorno was writing this in 1941, when the main forms of popular music were jazz standards in the swing or sweet styles, therefore his ideas about the “standardization” of pop are best understood in this context.

[13] Berardi, pp159-60. Berardi resists the idea that hikikomori persons suffer from forms of autism or Aspergers, as behavioural psychiatrists have tried to suggest: “such a purely psychiatric definition may be little more than an elusive way to avoid the social problem that is implied in the behaviour of so many of Japan’s youth.” This is a social problem that, as of 2010, has affected the behaviour of 700,000 individuals, with an average age of thirty-one, in this way; and the Ministry of Health in Japan warn that another 1.55 million are supposedly at risk (this in a country with a population of around 127 million).

[14] Ibid, p193.

[15] By no means are the withdrawal from or re-orienteering of neoliberalist-tinged social relations phenomena exclusive to east Asia. But it is in countries like Japan and South Korea where the rates of industrial growth have occurred at an unparalleled speed, and, not coincidently, it is in these countries where these phenomena appear most frequently and acutely, according to Berardi: “Only two generations ago, starvation was a frequent and widespread experience throughout country [sic]. Then, in the space of only two generations, South Korea reached the same level of wealth and consumption of the most advanced countries in the West. But the price of this dramatic improvement has been the desertification of daily life, the hyper-acceleration of rhythms, the extreme individualization of biographies, and an unbridled competition in the work market.” pp193-4.

[16] Robin Burnett is a vaporwave musician who trades under a number of pseudonyms, including one called ECCO UNLIMITED, and cites the OPN album Replica as “one of [his] favourite records ever”. Another anonymous producer who goes by names such as New Dreams Ltd. and MACKINTOSH PLUS, is believed by Harper to “[explore] the territory of Oneohtrix Point Never’s renowned ‘Nobody Here’ loop” (which makes an appearance on Eccojams) on one particular project. When asked whether the term “vaporwave” has any significance to their music, the same producer replied, “I’ve heard the term used a lot but I don’t affiliate with it personally. When I started assembling the original LASERDISC VISIONS tape, we just called them eccojams – of course referencing Oneohtrix’s quintessential “Chuck Person” tape, the entire catalyst behind a lot of what we began doing.” Harper, A. (2012) “Comment: Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza”, Dummy Mag, available at http://www.dummymag.com/features/adam-harper-vaporwave.

[17] Some examples of this include the artist names/aliases ░▒▓新しいデラックスライフ▓▒░, esc 不在 and 情報デスクVIRTUAL. Ibid.

[18] Reynolds also points to a scene in the OPN DVD Memory Vague (2009) wherein “a young Soviet couple blissfully share a ‘his and hers’ portable cassette player with twin headphone sockets.” p81. The segment, “Heart Of A Champion”, can be watched at https://youtu.be/ySchu3k7fO0.

[19] South Korea now enjoys one of the most successful, vibrant and creative music industries in the world, often in a style branded affectionately as K-pop. This is akin to Japan’s J-pop or even Nigeria’s Nollywood as an example of creative flourishing on an institutionalised scale as a result of increasing economic prosperity in developing countries.

[20] The most interesting musical developments of recent years have occurred when online technologies such as Soundcloud, Dropbox, YouTube, Bandcamp, and various online radio stations (NTS Radio, Radar Radio, Berlin Community Radio) and shows (Fade to Mind, BBC AZN Network, Tropical Waste) have  resulted in cultural cross-pollination, such as the Scandinavian dembow and reggaeton of Staycore, NAAFI’s Central American refix of Jersey and Baltimore club and ballroom, the Berlin-based melting pot of Janus, the uncategoriseable output of South Africa-via-US-via-UK’s NON Records, and countless others. Commentators, curators and DJs have grouped these sounds together under the umbrella term “global club” (in isolation, this name too carries a clinicism that would likely appeal to vaporwavers). Global club is a good example of the reciprocal nature of cross-cultural influence, though perhaps not quite one of Occidentalism.

[21] Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books, p18. Italics in original.

[22] Ibid, p21.

[23] As opposed to retro itself, which “involves an element of exact recall: the ready availability of archived documentation (photographic, video, music recordings, the Internet) allows for precision replication of the old style, whether it’s a period genre of music, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative misrecognition of the past – the distortions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the Gothic Revival, for instance – is reduced.” Reynolds, pxxx. There exists a tendency in retro to observe the past idealistically, uncritically and ultimately blandly; coupled with an often radical shutting-out of the present and future.

[24] This album came with a prefabricated backstory leading up to its release, dubbed “an elaborate alternate reality game”. To read more about it, see FACT (2015) “Mystery Surrounds Kaoss Edge, 90s band cited as influence by Oneohtrix Point Never”, available at http://www.factmag.com/2015/09/04/kaoss-edge-oneohtrix-point-never-mystery/.

[25] Available at https://soundcloud.com/sharpveins/the-earth-splashed. This mix was eventually released on limited-edition cassette, similar to Eccojams.

[26] Available at https://soundcloud.com/vitrio/fluxograma27-designer-environments-by-dj-wwww-sentinel.

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.

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.

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.