Doctor Octopus: A Reading of Deleuze’s “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (1993)

This is the edited transcript of a short presentation I gave at the University of Warwick on the 14th November 2016, as part of a series of seminars called “Topics in Philosophy and the Arts”. I gave what I thought to be a highly subjective yet spirited analysis of “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, a chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (1993); itself drawing heavily on Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), as well as the remaining body of Melville’s fiction.

I should preface by saying that I do not intend to cover everything in Deleuze’s essay, not only due to time constraints, but also because there are many passages that are best read in the wider context of Deleuze’s philosophy. So instead I wish to hone in on the points most relevant to our discussion on philosophy and the arts, and construct a particular reading of an essay which is itself a particular reading of a short story.

“Literature is a health.”[1] This is Deleuze’s claim in the Preface to Essays Critical and Clinical, not irrelevantly one of the final works within his oeuvre to be published before his death in 1995, and of which “Bartleby; or, The Formula” is a chapter of. This statement might lead one to begin to engage with what Deleuze has to say here in terms of his own biopolitics. However Daniel W. Smith, one of the translators of the volume (however not of the particular essay we will be looking at) instead interprets this statement in terms of a specific relation between literature and life;[2] one which finds its precedence in earlier works of Deleuze, specifically his study of sadomasochism in Coldness and Cruelty, as well as in select quotations in the Guattari-assisted What Is Philosophy?:

Through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. […] In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess[3] is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death.”[4]

There are obvious parallels with this interpretation of literature as healthcare and the function of the character Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which we will now turn our attentions to.

The thrust of Deleuze’s reading of Melville’s short story hinges, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eponymous character’s now infamous turn of phrase, the statement “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze reads this sentence as the key to the text’s understanding. He begins:

“Bartleby” is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever. It is a violently comical text, and the comical is always literal. It is like the novels of Kleist, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Beckett, with which it forms a subterranean and prestigious lineage. It means only what it says, literally. And what it says and repeats is I would prefer not to. This is the formula of its glory, which every loving reader repeats in turn.[5]

Now, before we proceed with Deleuze’s essay, we need to decide what he means by this word, formula. What immediately came to mind for me was a mathematical formula: an equation that could be used by us as readers as a means to translate the literary architecture of the story, its space, and the characters who inhabit that space. And I still don’t entirely wish to discourage that reading, because I think it still can be a fruitful one. However, I wish to nuance this definition of formula slightly further, and suggest that we instead treat Bartleby’s formula as an incantation or magic spell, a specific set of syllables that transform the rationalities of the attorney narrator, and effect real change on us readers’ textual interpretation.

I think what Deleuze is reaching for with the word formule is a kind of medieval sorcery of words, of which Bartleby, by appointment of Melville, is the witch doctor tasked with healing us of our narratological neuroses. But it is not a soothing treatment. The Formula is “ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake”; it “eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred.”[6] Perhaps most significantly of all, the Formula is responsible for “hollow[ing] out a zone of indiscernibility”.[7]

What does Deleuze mean by this phrase, which he repeats in a variety of guises: zone of indiscernibility, zone of indetermination, zone of indistinction? A clue may be offered by another quick hop over to What Is Philosophy? and a reading of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s many ruminations on what they term the “concept of concept”:

What is distinctive about the concept is that it renders components inseparable within itself. [Each concept] has a zone of neighborhood [zone de voisinage], or a threshold of indiscernibility, with another one. […] Components remain distinct, but something passes from one to the other, something that is undecidable between them. There is an area ab that belongs to both a and b, where a and b “become” indiscernible.[8]

Melville and Deleuze both understand literature, and perhaps we would like to extend this reading to all art, as a necessary complication of the act of interpretation itself. Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly, this is one of its intrinsic functions. Bartleby hexes the attorney and the aesthetician alike with his Formula, and renders the literary work derationalized and uncategorizable: an approximation of the Universe’s boundless chaos staged as absurdist comedy routine. Undercut by a deterritoralized American language, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is surgically lacerated by the Formula, creating vacuous zones on its surface that invite deeper inspection. It is no longer a question of subject or object, author or character, art or nonart; dialecticism is now ineffective and unwanted. Subject and image, in their encounters, cause friction, this friction causes slippage, and they are no longer bound to one another. Their “unnatural alliance” establishes “a “hyperborean”, “arctic” zone”,[9] as smooth as the “arctic sublimities” of Duchamp’s Fountain, if we recall Arthur Danto’s parody of George Dickie’s challenging of the artworld’s narrow criteria.[10] The alien Bartleby exhales ambiguity, barricading the story from the rigorous, institutionalized analytic practices and techniques of Euclidian, earthly minds[11] with an inhuman cloud of unknowing, that perhaps cannot ever be fully penetrated.

From Deleuze’s point of view, the Formula is a transformative utterance. Its purpose is to render the literary environment in which it is heard so weird as to escape from the sovereignty of the interpreters, the literary and aesthetic theorists, and thus evade all attempts of rational codification. In this respect, this essay is no different from Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic against the domestication of the paradigm of desire, encompassed in the figure of the psychoanalyst. Deleuze champions Melville and a handful of other “great novelists” as cultivators of

a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist. […] Once it has reached that sought-after Zone, the hyperborean zone, far from the temperate regions, the novel, like life, needs no justification.[12]

Likewise, our own enjoyment of literature ultimately transcends all notions of art theory, and remains fascinating to us. So perhaps too, there can be no art without our failure to know why it is art, or why we are drawn to it or revere it. Our hermeneutics must account for the human limitations we impose on the artwork when we try to interpret its possible meanings. This is not to say that there is no intellectual worth, or indeed no intellectual pleasure in trying to identify the specific features or phenomena which account for the aesthetic experience; however, in doing so, we can only gain truths about Life as we perceive it. The radiant sights which leave Melville and the great writers short of breath and with bloodshot eyes attest to something less anthropocentric, and many times more complex, and overall healthier: nonhuman things, living within a nonhuman conception of Life. Bartleby’s Formula – I would prefer not to – thus can be read as an essential rejection of all prescribed methods of aesthetic interpretation, and a liberation of the artwork from symbolic or metaphoric necessity. Our future art and future philosophy ought to equip us with a greater vocabulary to describe what we may only be able to envisage now as the “irrational”.

Notes

[1] Deleuze, G. (1997) “Preface to the French Edition”, in Essays Critical and Clinical [Critique et Clinique], trans. Smith, D.W. & Greco, M.A., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: lv.

[2] Smith, ““A Life of Pure Immanence”: Deleuze’s “Critique et Clinique” Project”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: xv.

[3] Smith refers here to the likes of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze himself, who suffered from respiratory ailments throughout his life.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 172.

[5] Deleuze “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: 68.

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

[8] Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy?:19-20.

[9] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 78.

[10] Danto, A. (2005) “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art”, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press: 35.

[11] These are Ivan’s words in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When discussing his scepticism of God with Alyosha, Ivan concludes that if God were truly to exist, he would surely have to exist outside of three-dimensional space, “where two parallel lines meet”; a concept he admits is entirely beyond the comprehension of his “Euclidian earthly mind”.

[12] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 82. Emphasis added.

A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing

To interact with Hidden Writings, one must persistently continue and contribute to the writing process of the book.[1]

In the landmark Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Reza Negarestani identifies a proposal towards a new method of narratology: that of Hidden Writing. It supposes we read texts not only in light of, but through their plot holes.[2] The reason for doing so is that texts are diagrams that are themselves networks of lines, crosshatching and bifurcating the earth. Earth is perceived as a singularity, terra firma; that is, a solid object: a hegemony, whether technical, capitalist, biological, or otherwise. But what are solids but “particles built up around flux,” “objective illusions supporting grit, a collection of surfaces ready to be cracked”? Never permanent, always decomposing. Robert Smithson was correct in identifying the process of “de-architecturing”, the decoupling of subject from form, a primal “return to dust or rust” which is characteristic of all elemental singularities, organic or inorganic. And what is effected by this decomposition, when fanged noumena detach and fling off this ill-considered subjectivity? The reduction of mind from matter, the emergence of the Cartesian fissure: a “mine of information”, a hole.[3]

The condition of any ‘solid’ mass (Negarestani uses the earth as an example, in his account of the exiled Iranian archaeologist (refashioned as “paleopetrologist”), Dr. Hamid Parsani) can be interpreted as “( )hole complex” (“with an evaporated W”): a reimagining of Deleuze and Guattari’s “holey space”[4] better equipped to synchronize with Cyclonopedia’s other multi-tentacled concepts. ( )hole complex attests to the meticulous choreography between solid and void, and the void within solid (“void excludes solid but solid must include void to architectonically survive”).[5] Similarly, narrative needs inconsistency, gaps, flaws, derailment and chaos. Narrative operates within limitations, is compressed into a linear trajectory through various forms of time (chronological; the destructive cosmic time identified by Quentin Meillassoux, which pours from schizzes in the hyper-chaotic absolute;[6] the “abysmal” modes of the inner Earth known as Incognitum Hactenus[7]) for which the page, the screen, and the earth serve as milieus, capturing its radiation as chlorophyllous leaves capture light. There is simply more happening inside narratives than they themselves are able to express on their surfaces. A main plot is used as subterfuge, or “hypercamouflage”, to smuggle in a multiplicity of subplots that once exhumed, irrecoverably alter the form of their host.[8] Thus the hegemony of primary interpretation and the illusion of the coherency of plot are savagely torn apart from the Inside.

This is not to say that Hidden Writing only operates on the level of representation.[9] There is an explicitly acknowledged debt in Cyclonopedia to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘machinic thinking’:[10] everywhere there are machines – “real ones, not figurative ones”.[11] Likewise, narratives are actually transformed (“deformed”, “defaced”, or “messed up”) when explored internally (“exhumed”) by outside forces, through the navigation of the complex web of interconnected plot holes effectuated by the reader’s becoming-vermin, as opposed to an external (surface-level) appreciation. Far from upholding an illusionary fidelity and sense of incorruptible representability in its textual analysis, as is the case with “so-called hermeneutic rigor”; Hidden Writing, according to Negarestani, “can be described as utilizing every plot hole, all problematics, every suspicious obscurity or repulsive wrongness as a new plot with a tentacled and autonomous mobility.”[12] Stories that write other stories, machines that produce other machines…

***

Otacon: Raiden? About this Colonel of yours — I found out where he is.

Raiden: Where?

Otacon: Inside Arsenal.

Raiden: What?

Otacon: I’ve checked out all the possibilities, but I keep coming back to Arsenal. It isn’t a relay point, it’s the origin of the signal.

Raiden: …

Otacon: And, the encryption protocol it uses is exactly the same as that of Arsenal’s AI — the so-called GW.

Raiden: …What the hell does this mean?

Otacon: I think it means — you’ve been talking to an AI.

Raiden: That’s impossible!

Otacon: The Colonel probably isn’t GW per se. GW was most likely stimulating cortical activity in the dormant part of your brain through signal manipulation of your own nanomachines. The Colonel is in part your own creation, cobbled together from expectations and experience…

Raiden: That’s crazy…

Otacon: But it’s probably the truth. The virus may be starting to affect GW, which would explain the Colonel’s behavior.

Raiden: It was all — an illusion? Everything I’ve done so far…?

Snake: Raiden!

Raiden: Snake — what’s happening around here?

Snake: I don’t know. What I do know is that you’re standing right here in front of me. Not an illusion — flesh and blood.

Raiden: …

***

The narrative of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is full of holes. Ostensibly packaged as a blockbuster videogame for the then-state-of-the-art entertainment system, the PlayStation 2, back in 2001, it is in fact (to the disappointment to many gamers) a hypertextural theory-fiction being continuously interrupted by gameplay and cinematic cut-scenes. MSG2 operates according to its own timescale: principal character/actor/soldier Raiden’s conversations with the CO and other military personnel over the nanos (nanocommunication system: imperceptibly small biotechnical implants which make the relay of vertically-aligned operative commands, not to mention surveillance, all the more efficient[13]) unfold dramatically while the battlefield is held in suspension – ten minutes, thirty minutes, the action can wait. Don’t worry if the enemy can hear you (they can).

In the narrative’s third act, the authoritative voice known simply as the “Colonel” begins to exhibit outward signs of radical schizophrenia. These signs are linked by the nomadic rebel trio (the American-born Solid Snake and Otacon gradually wrench Raiden over to their side, the covert NGO Philanthropy) to a virus they had previously installed onto the onboard AI (called GW) of the H-bomb-carrying Arsenal Gear, done in an attempt to neutralize a terrorist strike directed at Wall Street. Eventually Raiden is convinced by Otacon that his commander was a purely fictional entity, an avatar of GW, and that his schizophrenia was induced by the contagion of the “wormhole cluster” program installed onto its system. But should we be as convinced? After all, schizophrenia is not caused by a virus, it is viral, “the very nature of virulence, empiricism, and hence the true nature of the brain.”[14] The most schizophrenic character is not GW, it is Raiden, who after all, has partially manifested the image and voice of the Colonel (based on his experience of playing the previous game, Metal Gear Solid, another narrative trick). What kind of fiction has Raiden let loose?

***

I would like to examine Hidden Writing’s relationship with another concept partially generated by Negarestani: hyperstition. An early definition for this term can be found in Ccru’s online glossary, which lists hyperstition as an “[e]lement of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials.”[15] Additionally, in Cyclonopedia, hyperstition is interpreted as “a seemingly forgotten website,” a “password-protected laboratory”; itself “a location for exploring a diverse range of subjects from the occult to fictional quantities,” which finds itself “swarming with renegade academics, pyromaniac philosophers and cryptogenic autodidacts”.[16] Indeed, there was a forum called Hyperstition which operated between 2004 and 2008, of which Negarestani certainly contributed towards (many of his posts have since been deleted, presumably as they later developed into published material).[17]

Although hyperstitional entities adopt a variety of guises, frequent tactics deployed involve tactics of subterfuge and a blurring of authorship across malleable boundaries of fictionality. “Fictional quantities” (to adopt the established Deleuze-Guattari term),[18] their causes and effects, fluctuate between states of becoming and Being, ungrounding themselves at each fresh attribution and appearance. An archetype for such an entity can be found in Professor Challenger, whose zoological studies were first widely publicized in works by Arthur Conan Doyle (beginning with The Lost World). Challenger takes on a new dimension in Deleuze and Guattari’s “The Geology of Morals”, which reveals him to be the self-proclaimed originator of schizoanalysis/nomadology, and in which he is observed by the authors “[giving] a lecture after mixing several textbooks on geology and biology”.[19] Hyperstitionally, Challenger’s actuality is a side issue: he remains a valuable tool for the authors not only to dispense their own experimental hypotheses and conclusions, but as Anna Greenspan notes, to “populate thought” and “produce something new”,[20] by generating anti-identity in the gap between subject and appearance. But more than this, the “carrier” or “puppet” (in this case Challenger) benefits by leeching off its diegetic meal, becoming-multiple and achieving something close to real existence. It’s no coincidence that many hyperstitional entities (Challenger, Land, Barker, Parsani, Negarestani, the Old Ones) are reclusive authors, which come pre-packaged with their own weird narratives.

Hyperstition is a narrative in flight, and can only be observed in motion. It crawls across narratological conceptions of the world autonomously, non-linearly and non-monotonically, in many directions. And this is where Hidden Writing can be drawn back into the fold, as a provider of a transportation network that fully enables hyperstition’s functioning. Through the interconnected complexes of plothole tunnels, fashioned by sprawling multiplicities of subplots (“Hyperstition is methodically inextricable from a ‘polytics’ or promotion of multiplicity”)[21] bursting out from within their host (main) plot, a hyperstition can navigate the resultant ( )hole complex and achieve its primary objective: becoming-real. This can only occur through a continual process of ungrounding and de-authorizing, delegitimization and a capturing of and experimentation with artificially engineered feedback.

***

Fascinatingly, hyperstition as a deauthorizing, deartificializing process has enjoyed an increasingly prominent life in the field of liberal, utopian politics. Notably, Srnicek and Williams spoke of hyperstitions as “orienting narratives with which to navigate forward”, which “operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence”, in their expansive post-work programme outlined in Inventing the Future.[22] Similarly, a “hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet-strings” as a means towards the reengineering of cultural “memetic parasites” is a contingent tactic within the operations of the “xenofeminist” collective Laboria Cuboniks (themselves a continuously becoming-hyperstition).[23] But in order to understand how this political tactic has been envisaged, and how it could operate on the plane of minor politics, we must turn again to Cyclonopedia.

Without burrowing too far into its terminology and Parsanian demonological agenda, it is claimed that, from the petropolitical standpoint, an accurate understanding of the political functioning of the Middle East can be obtained from its placement atop the flows of oil which circulate the globe: economically, historically, geographically, politically and ideologically. Oil is “supreme narration lube” that upsets the anthropo-Western hegemonies of the operations of globalization: its production and distribution easing works of Middle Eastern minor literature which (literally) unground any other system of global dynamics through plot holes of the earth. As an exhumed primordial soup which infuses the past into the future, oil is autonomous, a “global conspirator”, the flow of which “poisons capital with absolute madness,” usurping it as the dominant deteritorializing machine; while at the same time “bleeding into economies”, parasitically infiltrating and influencing world politics and inscribing oil’s own projections for a successful future. In short, oil is a multitude of political hyperstitions, and in Cyclonopedia, the most alluring and contagious ones.[24] Oil can teach us about an additional quality of the hyperstitional form: that at core earth temperature, its most stable state is that of a viscous liquid (much like the core earth). But oil itself is also a subplot of another hyperstition, the one attributed to “Negarestani”. And Cyclonopedia, when viewed as a main narrative, begets possibilities for further political tactics imbued with the desire to become reality.

Through the politics of Hidden Writing, the aforementioned authors of Inventing the Future and “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, have exponentially built on their dual roles: as hyperstitional parasites of Negarestani’s achievement; and carriers who facilitate the contagion through mutation of their political schemas, and recalibrate the virus into potentialities for their own hypergeneric and hyperspecific ends. In the case of Srnicek and Williams, the hyperstitional form operates as a diagram of progress, installed as a system of expansion and ruthless self-criticism.[25] This system is subsequently auto-reflexive, capable of withstanding any argument and adapting to any unforeseen change in temporal environment: as time moves forward on the chronological scale, the post-work schema will absorb any economic or political shocks – to the extent its limitations will allow – and continue to carve out a tunnel through ( )hole complex to enable a future of its own engineering to germinate. And this will occur through contagion of the idea, spread to other (human) carriers via a multichannel attack on all media fronts.[26] The tactics involved in actualizing the “world without work” will therefore become polyvocal and leprous – original inauthenticity.[27]

Laboria Cuboniks address the inauthenticity already rampant in the textures of a social media which facilitates the “puritanical politics of shame” through its virtual carriers: user profiles. The emergent politics of “moral maintenance” are seen to obstruct debate on issues of gender discrimination and wider issues concerning segregation and oppression, and to uphold a rigorous, victimizing conservatism. The solution is beautifully accelerant: “We want neither clean hands nor beautiful souls, neither virtue nor terror. We want superior forms of corruption.”[28] Persist with the new viral technology and methods of socialization, but adapt. Exhume and take command of the underlying corruptive forces emerging as subplots within this medium, but overcode them with outsider feminist antibodies, watch them explode, and spread the xenofeminist disease across a diverse array of socio-political causes and institutions. Enable and transmit the oily flow of hyperstition, “which brings a time of the aeons, a geological time, through a hole in historical time.”[29]

***

Colonel: Raiden! They’ve got Rose!

Raiden: What!

Colonel: Rose is being held in the holds!

Snake: It’s a trap!

Rose: Help!

Raiden: Rose!

Snake: Raiden, get a grip!

Raiden: But Snake!

Snake: It’s a trap. Since the Colonel doesn’t exist, there’s no way he can take Rose hostage.

Raiden: Yeah — you’re right…

Snake: I am right.

Raiden: …OK. … Does Rose — exist — ?

Snake: Don’t be weird. She’s your —

Raiden: What if I’ve never really met her…

Snake: What?

Raiden: If the Colonel is something that I partly dreamt up, then… everything I remember about her could be…

Snake: Don’t jump to conclusions!

Raiden: You and Otacon are the ones that say the Colonel never existed.

Snake: Raiden!

***

I want to conclude by returning to Raiden’s predicament. An open-ended carrier, or a “sink” for “eccentric agendas”,[30] he performs the superlinear tasks transmitted into his corrupted biosystem via a demonic Colonel-vector partially engineered by his own imaginary. He navigates an extra-diegetic narrative as an extra-diegetic subject: a xeno-subject, resembling the totality of the cyber-military flows which converge and compete within him. The only end to his mission that can be envisaged is an inhumanly engineered one. By allowing his schizophrenic narratives to diverge, and selecting from those unleashed narratives the most effective vectors of progress on which to cling (Snake, Otacon, Arsenal), Raiden performs a feat of Hidden Writing, boring his way out of the virtual battlefield and onto the New York streets, and camouflaging amongst its citizenry pack.

Notes

[1] Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press: p62.

[2] Ibid: pp60-65.

[3] Smithson, R. (1979) “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects”, available online at https://monoskop.org/File:Smithson_Robert_1968_1979_A_Sedimentation_of_the_Mind_Earth_Projects.pdf. For a more thoroughgoing analysis of Smithson’s “abstract geology”, see Shanmugaratnam, A. (no date) “Glimpsing the Cosmos Through Cracks in Our Chrysalis”, available online at https://www.academia.edu/24976491/Glimpsing_the_Cosmos_through_Cracks_in_Our_Chrysalis_A_Research_File_on_Elysia_Cramptons_Music_and_Writing. For another perspective on the fissure within object-quality continuity, see Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”: pp355-7, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic: pp333-64.

[4] Deleuze & Guattari (1987) “1227: Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine”, in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Mille plateaux: Capitalisme et schizophrénie]. Trans. Massumi, B., Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press: pp351-423.

[5] Negarestani: p44. This comment is a reference to Nick Land’s The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism.

[6] Meillassoux, Q. (2012) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Brassier, R., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic: p64.

[7] Negarestani: p49.

[8] Ibid: pp61, 241, 62.

[9] The folly of representational thinking with Cyclonopedia is given careful consideration by Melanie Doherty, in “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious”, in Keller, E., Masciandaro, N., & Thacker, E. (eds.) (2012) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: pp115-29.

[10] For the sake of the example provided below, this is true; however, the authors of Cyclonopedia (an amorphous “hyperstitional” collective of contributors occupying the interstice between the virtual and the actual, or the fictional and the non-fictional, of which Negarestani and the text’s subject Dr. Hamid Parsani are the most easily identifiable) present radical alternatives to the Deleuzo-Guattarian models of war machines elsewhere in the text.

[11] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p1. Cf. Welchman, A., “Machinic Thinking”, in Ansell Pearson, K. (ed.) (1997) Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Engineer, London, Routledge: pp211-229.

[12] Negarestani: p61 [my emphasis]. Cf. Marshall, K. (2012) “Cyclonopedia as Novel: (A Meditation on Complicity as Inauthenticity)”, in Leper Creativity: p148.

[13] During one such transmission, the theme of surveillance is granted full, unambiguous immanence, when Raiden is told that it is no exaggeration to assume that “whoever control[s] the NSA facility could move the world.”

[14] O’Toole, R. “Contagium Vivum Philosophia: Schizophrenic Philosophy, Viral Empiricism and Deleuze”, in Deleuze and Philosophy: p175.

[15] Ccru (no date) “Glossary”, available online at http://www.ccru.net/id(entity)/glossary.htm. Steve Goodman, in his book Sonic Warfare, dates the Ccru journal Digital Hyperstition, in which the glossary appears as its final component, to 1999.

[16] Negarestani: p9.

[17] http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/. The date cited in Cyclonopedia for the “tumultuous discussion” over the uncovered Parsani notes which kickstart the text, 11 March 2004 (p9), is, somewhat pleasingly, inconsistent with any visible entries.

[18] Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: p153.

[19] Ibid, A Thousand Plateaus: pp43, 40.

[20] Greenspan, A. (2004) “Hyperstitional Carriers”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003707.html.

[21] Land, N. (2005) “Hyperstitional Method I.”, Hyperstition, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004711.html.

[22] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London/New York, Verso: p75. Cf. my work “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams”.

[23] Laboria Cuboniks (2015) “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”: 0x0D. Available online at http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

[24] Negarestani: pp13-14, 19, 130, 25-8

[25] Srnicek & Williams: p75

[26] Ibid: pp164-5.

[27] Cf. Negarestani: p191.

[28] Laboria Cuboniks: 0x0C.

[29] Wark, M. (2012) “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces”, in Leper Creativity: p41.

[30] Land. “The term ‘eccentric agenda’ is being coined technically here, to cover an immense terrain, namely: every hypothesis, belief, emotion or commitment that can be evacuated from the principles of hyperstitional activity.”

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.