There Is An Alternative: A Tribute to Mark Fisher

It was a great sadness to hear about the passing of Mark Fisher this weekend. As both a cultural critic and theoretician, Mark’s writing was at once highly engaging, original, and accessible to his many audiences. A founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru) during his years studying at the University of Warwick during the mid 1990s, Mark was one of a number of talented individuals who, in blending together Deleuzoguattarian thought and emergent AI theories with cyberpunk and junglist aesthetics, set a precedent for some of the most memorable and vital contributions to twenty-first century intellectual and artistic culture. Mark was instrumental in helping to develop the term “hyperstition”, and later popularised the concepts “capitalist realism” and “hauntology” in two essential volumes for Zero Books. It was his writings in the latter – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014) – as well as posts on his own blog K-Punk, which first attracted me to his subjective and genre-defying writing style, and became a key inspiration for my own ventures out of (and back into) academic writing.

While he may not have been as revolutionary a figure to philosophy as Kant or Heidegger were (although with the traction and prescience Capitalist Realism has proven to have, anything is possible), few writers outside of fiction for me have been able to construct a complete, palpable image of their being-in-the-world – his relationship to the past and projection of the future, through music, film and theory – and in a field of academia which tends towards blandness and the illusion of objectivity, it is this directness and playfulness that will perhaps be missed most. Here are a few quotes from Ghosts of My Life, which express to me precisely the qualities of Mark’s work that made him so unique:

In England, working class escape is always haunted by the possibility that you will be found out, that your roots are showing. (37)

A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s no surprise that it is in hip-hop – a genre that has become increasingly aligned with consumerist pleasure over the last 20-odd years – that this melancholy has registered most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume – they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted – Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. (175)

Darkside jungle projected the very future that capital can only disavow. Capital can never openly admit that it is a system based on inhuman rapacity; the Terminator can never remove its human mask. Jungle not only ripped the mask off, it actively identified with the inorganic circuitry beneath: hence the android/ death’s head that Rufige Kru used as their logo. The paradoxical identification with death, and the equation of death with the inhuman future was more than a cheap nihilist gesture.  At a certain point, the unrelieved negativity of the dystopian drive trips over into a perversely utopian gesture, and annihilation becomes the condition of the radically new. (31)

Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

A memorial fund has been set up to help support Mark’s family. It can be found here.

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.

Epistemic Dam, or What Shadow of the Colossus Tells Us About Public Security and Societies of Control

The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal worlds. Rather it was an affair of vague psychological symbolism and æsthetic association—a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes.[1]

The term gamespace, when used in relation to video games, has been used in the past to denote a seemingly conceptual playground that is then analysed in relation to other social paradigms, including economies and political organisations, across lines of intersection. Less often considered is gamespace as an optical realm, with the illusion of real physicality: an aesthetic playground akin to cyberspace, but with the necessary distinction of being topographically constructed by a team of developers, as opposed to a perpetual, “open-source” project akin to a complex organism. Here I am going to borrow the term magic circle, introduced by Johan Huizinga in his classic study on game theory, Homo Ludens (1949), but used more recently by “new media” and “New Games” journalists to explain the theoretical boundary between the virtuality of the video game as it exists as a set of rules and conventions and the outside space of the gamer, and then subsequently to determine the transparency and porousness of this boundary. What I want to explore is this second definition of gamespace, i.e. the three-dimensional polygonal models of the video game as a physical territory; for the sake of convenience I will employ a new word – gamescape. This will involve a recognition of video games as being qualitatively different from previous forms of play. A gamescape is not simply an imaginary location embedded in a real one, conceived purely from the rules and objectives undertaken by the player, and only ideologically separate from the world it exists within; but a deliberate place that exists independently of such rules and objectives, bound within the magic circle.

Most video games are inherently mimetic: they require a sense of “role play” and the imagination of the player not only to control their actor,[2] but to transport themselves into the gamescape; in short, to believe in the environment they are vicariously exploring. Roger Caillois defined mimicry as one of the four basic categories of play, alongside agon (games of skill and competition), alea (games of chance), and ilinx (games that produce sensations of “vertigo”, or dizziness, such as amusement rides or rollercoasters).[3] “With one exception,” wrote Caillois, “mimicry exhibits all the characteristics of play: liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time. However, the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed—rules for the dissimulation of reality and the substitution of a second reality.”[4] By this he means that although gamespace constitutes a closed-off territory for the purposes of gaming, it can never be confused as primary reality: the player knows this if she is to consider her activity play at all. The gamespace must be considered “a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe.”[5]

This poses a problem for the video game designer: how to create an entertaining recreational experience in a gamescape that allows the player freedom over their actions, to explore, to make mistakes, and so on; but that simultaneously is structured by rules, challenges, and objectives. These two poles roughly correspond to what Caillois called paidia (“uncontrolled fantasy”, or a lawless gamespace) and ludus (a rigid and ultimately “purposely tedious” approach to game design).[6] It seems to me as though the video game designer must compromise between paidia and ludus design for their gamescape to be effective. Too much freedom and the experience actually becomes less liberating and more quotidian, and the illusion of participating in a mimetic, escapist fantasy is diminished (online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft bypass this issue to some degree with the organisation of players into “guilds” who then work together on agreed group objectives). If on the other hand the game design places too much emphasis on completing set tasks dictated by the character’s limitations or environment (if for example certain objectives need to be fulfilled in sequence before new contents, such as levels, items, or vehicles, become available), the game feels too “linear”, or too much like a thankless task.

On bridge of Dam
On top of the “beta dam” in Shadow of the Colossus, an area usually inaccessable in the final game

The balance between paidia and ludus can be ultimately understood as the extent to which the player is able to explore the gamescape freely and the opposite extent, to which the player is denied freedom; their actor instead being directed by the space itself, i.e. the designer’s will for the game’s content to be accessed in a specific way. Video game narrative may be considered as a series of non-interactive video segments (“cut-scenes”), strung together through the player’s actions; but this intermediary play, the bulk of the game, is as essential to the player in understanding the game’s narrative structure. How this narrative is authored may be the player’s choice, but the list of options, broadly speaking, are limited to the range of options offered by the designer. Whereas Marcel Duchamp spoke of the “art coefficient”, or the difference between an artist’s intent and the spectator’s subjective interpretation, as being the process by which art (or narrative) is constructed,[7] in a gamescape the designer can implement all manner of physical obstacles and handicaps to limit player experience, and steer the narrative away from the player’s desires.

Atopian paidia

In spite of this, it can be observed that video games have gradually employed a greater degree of non-monotonicity[8] as their history develops, with the player being trusted more to explore territory and implement their own ludic objectives through increased paidia. Partly this is for technological reasons. The leap from 2D to 3D gamescape design, as a result of greater processing power, was instrumental in this aspect. Earlier 2D games were nearly entirely level-based, i.e. divided into separate, independent stages: the basic objective being to move from one side of the screen to the other (usually left to right) while defeating enemies and avoiding hazards. Early examples of commercial three-dimensional games, such as Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo) heralded the arrival of a form of gamescape not previously technologically possible. Instead of resembling a kind of scrolling, interactive tapestry, as in earlier entries in the Mario series; the Nintendo 64 version begins with a 3D model of the princess’s castle grounds, and immediately feels like a more “realistic” experience. Instead of being littered with enemy monsters to defeat or clear directions, the player is able to navigate this initial model from Mario’s perspective free of penalties or time limitations. The emphasis is on control and fluidity of gameplay, and the sense (if only illusory) that the player is not bound by the invisible, guiding hand of the game’s designers. This castle garden’s structure is deliberately closed, using steep hills and other unnavigable terrain. In this sense game designers can be said to be not only landscape gardeners but cartographers: they dictate the edges of the map and make it virtually impossible to escape.

Another milestone of video game paidia is the Grand Theft Auto series. In these games, the gamescape is a single, fluid model: a whole virtual city, populated with ordinary people, traffic, police force, and of course law-breakers and criminal activity. The vast, interactive area embodies the developers, Rockstar Games’s attitudes towards player control and discovery, and is the primary reason for their massive successes. With little to no restrictions on what the player is able to achieve, no two experiences are alike, and with every (legal and illegal) temptation lurking around the corner, GTA is as close to Caillois’ definition of unrestrained mimicry that a video game is likely to get. McKenzie Wark, in a detailed study of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002, Rockstar Games), described this kind of gamespace as atopia. Built on what Foucault called “heterotopia”, or “other space”, an ideal at a remove from the common dysfunctional space we usually inhabit; atopia can instead be considered a “complete gamespace” – completely ordered and self-sustaining, with no requirement of externality, and existing seemingly everywhere.[9] Vice City is not a parallel universe, it is perfectly assimilated into ours. It is all-pervasive, and as an arena of play, it illustrates our own, “imaginary” gamespace better than any other. Wark goes as far as to label Vice City a “negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow,” which possesses a self-governing system of laws. “It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.)” The game internalises transgression: in this way it is not even necessary to promote it. Law itself is “part of a larger algorithm”; the player manoeuvres their actor over the game’s physical “surfaces” in order to “intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm.”[10]

The player’s behaviour in Vice City is not inherently transgressive: the game itself facilitates violence, theft, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, and so on, and presents them amorally, as methods of acquisition and progression. Video game play cannot be considered transgressive unless it breaks the rules by which it is defined, and manipulates the algorithm in unexpected ways. This requires disrupting the boundaries of the magic circle: to be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by the cartography of gamescape and construct new methods of play. Certain examples in video gaming demonstrate that it is possible to disregard the rules of play within a defined magic circle and still participate in self-sufficient activity that can only be defined as play.

H6-i5 beta lands
“Mountains of madness” floating in the sky over the Forbidden Lands

Sub-liminal palaeontology

Whereas in GTA players were made to actively transgress manifestations of the law to reap reward, Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team Ico) had players follow the law to the letter, and ultimately lose for it (or at least reveal an ending that spelled disaster for the actor). The game’s premise was to defeat sixteen cyclopean, ancient beasts (colossi) in an order set by the immaterial, polyphonous deity Dormin, and thus save the princess from death. All promotional material for Shadow of the Colossus placed the enemy colossi as the game’s unique selling point, but as many players derived enjoyment from devising strategies to take down their immense opponents, others were quickly captivated by the scale of the environment they were able to explore. The GTA series has a similarly massive gamescape, yet in SotC the terrain is almost entirely empty: no smaller challenges or side-quests exist, and only one opponent is generated at a time, at a location disclosed by the authoritarian Dormin, and pinpointed by the player using a compass-like sword. Nor is it possible to complete the challenges out of sequence (if a player arrives at a colossus arena prematurely, no opponent will be waiting for them). As other video games moved towards non-linear design and player choice, SotC deliberately chose one of the most linear schematics imaginable.

In effect, the game is divided into sixteen levels, which consist of the following: navigating the expansive Forbidden Lands in the direction indicated by the sword, discovering the beast, and calculating and executing an offensive strategy, at which point the player is teleported back to the central compound (the Shrine of Worship) to pursue the next enemy. What elevates this monotonous exercise is doing exactly what is “forbidden”: exploring this infinitely empty, Edenic landscape. Unlike other games which often award desertion from the primary objective with unlockable content or upgraded skills, there is absolutely no gamic advantage for going AWOL in SotC (if anything, the likelihood of getting lost constitutes a noticeable disadvantage). The player and the actor are most bonded here, in flouting protocol to investigate the knowingly sublime and excessive, not for profit but for the sheer decadence of it all.

Bridge behind entrance
Hacking the game can reveal some unusual and memorable computer-generated visual effects

Of course the game has been constructed precisely so that players can find metaphysical rewards within its gamescape; interestingly, it is precisely because of taut ludic conventions that paidia is able to creep in. But it can only be expected that from this point paidia would be converted by the players back into ludus, that a small group of fanatical players would create their own games using the available tools of the gamescape and often considerable skills of using external software to navigate the underlying properties which make up the game: the game code itself, a kind of sub-gamescape. Like DNA, the “code” which determines the direction and rate of protein growth in living organisms, video games are composed of a single extensive program, an ur-text which is responsible for everything from facilitating the narrative, deciding which sound files play as a result of certain actions, and, perhaps in this case most significantly, the game’s graphics: i.e. the gamescape and all its contents. If the hacker is lucky, he (in virtually all cases it seems to be a “he”) will find certain leftover content not implemented into the final version of the “game”, and not intended to be accessible to the player. For many, this is the goal of their investigation. Seeking out this hidden data is a kind of palaeontology: it can be studied and used to reveal the various stages of the game’s evolution, akin to carbon dating, and thus further speculations can be made over the design of the finished gamescape and its previous incarnations.

There are several reasons why SotC should prove attractive to these kinds of players; all of them relate in some way or another to conventional or recent views on aesthetics. In the conceptual sense, SotC is quite clearly sublime: the diminutive hero must battle with monsters of such immensity that the screen can often only capture them in part. Likewise, the Forbidden Lands are sublime: containing vast mountains, forests, deserts, ruined temples and forts; but more importantly, they are empty (or at least seem to be) – free from human presence, and inhabited only by the occasional bird or lizard. Between fights, the atmosphere is existential, alien, even Lovecraftian: the game’s orchestrated soundtrack is not present (It creeps in only as the player approaches a colossus), reducing audible sound to howling winds and the actor’s footsteps. As a result, anything visible or audible to the player may become a source of intrigue, particularly if it resembles a human construction (such as a ruined pillar or the strange stone rings which populate the desert), or potentially the hand of an even elder race (the scale of the Shrine of Worship and the bindings on some of the colossi suggest an inhuman precedence).[11] Such accents in an otherwise barren landscape actually enhance the player’s alienation, awe, and fascination, as well as the scale of his surroundings. One is reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of another formally crafted gamescape, the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”[12]

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

The emptiness of the mystical Forbidden Lands entices players to project any kind of meaning on what is not there, based on what is, and what should be or ought to have been. The results of expert hackers and compilers of unused SotC content, such as Michael Lambert, who goes by the YouTube username Nomad Colossus, have revealed to more casual players the scope of Team Ico’s initial project. The most significant discoveries made are the remnants of “test areas”, used by the game developers to try out battles with colossi before their designs were finalised – and there is a high probability that unused, deleted colossi designs once occupied them.[13] Even more startling is a complete model of a dam that seemingly had no other but decorative purposes. Lambert’s current conclusions are that, despite official indications from Team Ico that the finished model of the Forbidden Lands is entirely based on the placement of the finished 16 colossi arenas, and would be “completely different” if more were incorporated; that “there never was a different map”; and the “beta” content is evidence of a shrunken final design “planned at the outset”, rather than a complete rebuild.

Map_all extra lands
A version of the in-game map restored by Lambert to include the “inaccessible” locations – the territory floods over the map
Beta + retail colossi locations
Locations of the game’s sixteen colossi (red) and speculated territories for the discarded eight (blue)
B2 model_cut
Section of a probable colossus test area partially remaining in the finished game

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

Eddo Stern uses the term artifact as an explainer for unintended phenomena within video game gameplay. In computer science, the term is more familiar, used to refer to “undesired cosmetic disturbances” which result from compression of jpeg or mp3 files, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file; all of which pre-empt an “unperfected aesthetic disturbance”. In gamescapes, artifacts can reveal themselves unexpectedly, but more commonly are prompted by erratic or methodological player actions. Regardless, all artifacts are extra-diegetic: they disturb the narrative flow orchestrated by the game designer, and often the senses.[14] In turn, they invert old and invent new diegetic and aesthetic forms.

SotC’s hidden artifacts certainly make for compelling viewing to players who would otherwise be unaware of the presence of large, physical manifestations of data beyond unattainable horizons: objects that to borrow Robin Mackay’s term can be regarded as aesthemes. These mountains, this dam; their “deep resonance and transcendent qualities […] make appeal to a transcendent self which, through sensory experience, is innately touched by ideas that are equally transcendent.”[15] Aesthemes convey the transformative properties of the artistic phenomenon without relying on falling back on Kantian sublimity or Duchampian co-authorship; they exist independently of the subject’s relation to the ideas that subject conceives, and furthermore in this instance amount to a reconceptualization of both subject (the player) and aesthetic content (the fractured gamescape and implied gamespace).[16] The search for beta content in SotC, of which the dam is the end result, demonstrates the emergence of new guerrilla modes of play outside of the game’s physical boundaries, which in turn defies the designers’ understanding of players’ capabilities.  To its core, hacking is an ontological activity. Practitioners transform gamespaces, and themselves become transformed subjects, free of the autistic behavioural algorithms[17] which they were ultimately expected to endure to be considered players at all. When these subjects are able to navigate the hero Wander – to allow him to “wander” from his omnisciently scrutinised assignment, which is to rescue the damsel Mono (a name implying singularity and restriction), they simultaneously stretch the magic circle from within and play outside of Team Ico’s jurisdiction. They cross over an epistemic gap: in real terms, they gain knowledge of the game’s construction, as an archaeological discovery, a gnostic journey, a technophilic qabbala.

It is disheartening, therefore, that this new ontology of gaming has met with such unambiguous resistance. Previous attempts to acquire accurate information about SotC’s development from Team Ico have caused communications to cease, and this policy is unlikely to change.[18] Much has been made of the game’s “artistic” qualities, which the developers evidently worked hard at to achieve, not only by promoting a minimalist, creative and beautiful experience, but also by the scope of the player’s possible actions and concealing ugliness. Director of the project Fumito Ueda has stressed clearly his preferred interpretation: in an interview he stated “I think [the game] holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.”[19] But by doing so he revealed himself to be less of an artist and more of a manipulative auteur. There have certainly been artists working in more traditional media that have objected to a spectator or a critic’s evaluation of their work, but here is a case where the artists involved have actually been able to impose an interpretation of their own choice – romanticism – and have insinuated that any actions taken to reject the suggested readings and facilitate reinterpretations are akin to criminality. This seems especially confusing as the whole objective of the game is to search for the colossi to fight, and to explore the Forbidden Lands in order to do so.

The player’s impulse to flaut the rules imposed by gamespace relates to Heather Alexandra’s concept of ludic tension, or the tension exerted on the player to uphold ludic and diegetic elements of a game at the expense of forming an individual game narrative. Alexandra conceives this tension as an active, affective, “emotional” force which indirectly forces a singular interpretation or gaming experience. The game “transubstantiates into a noumenon, a platonic idea in the mind of the player.”[20] It becomes little more than interactive film, antithetical to paidia, bland and unadventurous. This is not to suggest that a noumenal, monotonic vision of the game is Team Ico’s, but when there are so few other “legitimate” forms of play within SotC, there seems to be a lack of foresight concerning the degree to which ludic tension would be resisted and lose out to the persuasiveness and intrigue of the game’s huge, mysterious territory.

Dam_Devil image
The dam may have been a backdrop to a fight against a deleted colossus, Lambert speculates

Controlling gamespace

One is tempted to think of the Forbidden Lands as a self-contained disciplinary society, akin to the juridical and prison systems described by Foucault; a fixed space overseen by its creators from the Panopticon, poised to reproach deserters and troublemakers. But it would be more accurate to observe Team Ico’s microcosm as a Deleuzian control society instead. “Enclosures are molds,” said Deleuze, “distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other”.[21] As we have seen, the gamescape of the Forbidden Lands may be fixed, if ultimately inconceivable; yet the gamespace fluctuates with every new discovery. As a result, Team Ico fail to enclose their version of SotC: its grand yet imperfect programming is penetrable, therefore its designers can only modulate its image and dissuade multiplicity of that image; disguising its atopia as heterotopia. This method of control is harder to diagnose than disciplinary instruction, which can easily be challenged or rejected outright, which is often exactly what happens when, for example, artistic institutions announce compromising plans for the sake of further monetization. But that it has managed to creep its way into artistic content, into the magic circle is insipid, and should not go unnoticed.

The greatest issue with Team Ico’s univocal control is that it is undemocratic. We can define democracy as the citizenry (demos) having control over that which has control over them (i.e. the instruments of control in that society: government, economic institutions, etc.). While it should never be a goal in itself, free democratic movement should be able to operate independently of and exist as a challenge to law and modular tension. Renegade action demonstrates effective methods of undermining state control and revealing artifacts blocked by intelligence agencies. Yet how we interpret this information and the measures which were implemented to disguise it from us are more important than the mere acquisition of anti-democratic secrets. Consider the news stories back in April 2016 regarding the leaking of over 11.5 million files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which unveiled extensive levels of tax evasion from wealthy elite figures from global finance and politics.[22] One name leapt upon by the British media was prime minister David Cameron, whom it had been revealed received £200,000 as a tax evasive measure in 2011. To contain further scandal, Cameron took the unprecedented step of publishing his personal tax records for each year of his premiership up to 2014-15. However, this seemingly reconciliatory measure quickly spread into a witch hunt, wherein every senior UK politician was so mistrusted by the public that by failing to follow Cameron’s lead they could be interpreted as suspicious or underhanded.[23] Others went further, implying perhaps rightfully that the distinction between politician and non-politician was misleading, pointing instead to overseas multinationals’ abuse of the global tax system as more significant; yet this measure escalated further into a weak admission that no-one should be exempt from publicising their tax returns.[24] Thankfully the demand for further transparency was quickly curtailed, before the emphasis shifted from naming and shaming public individuals to the “nothing to hide” mentality that apologises for any private security breach nominally covered by the Data Protection Act.

The obvious message here is that revealing information regarding others may escalate into revealing information regarding ourselves (something Julian Assange would know all about). “Tension” over our behaviour is not only a coercive force used by figures of governmentality to incite particular responses, it is also something we project onto ourselves, our peers, and our communities. We ourselves present a large risk to our own security and privacy:  the social media profiles, image feed, and string of security passwords we’ve been encouraged to litter throughout the internet are just a fraction of the evidence that we are as much participants of a control society as we are its victims.[25] We too possess our fair share of artifacts and aesthemes; sometimes we even leave them in plain sight.

Nevertheless, democratic self-control is important; this includes the right to decide our own paths free of tension, observation or persecution. It is even necessary and expected to some degree for cartographies to leak outwards: control societies “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[26] Data leaks that remap socio-political ontologies, as a result of unsolicited action, can be internalised, like any predictable behaviour. Freedoms of thought and expression run like viruses through our algorithmic megastructure, creating ruptures that heal themselves, allowing the host to grow stronger. New rules are made by allowing old ones to be broken. Yet the size and shape of the rupture dictate the nature of reconstruction; in atopias, individuality can mean the difference between meaningless propagation and practical, ontological influence.

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close

Conclusion

The aesthetic case for Team Ico’s control paradigm is a valid, and not ineffective one. The linear gameplay of SotC helps to develop the intensity of the player’s action and sense of challenge to a crescendo, in an otherwise permeable gamespace. Yet the implications of the actions of play in within a defined territory inevitably permeate outwards, into a larger but less defined space. Consider Huizinga’s comments made immediately following his use of the phrase “magic circle”:

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.[27]

While it is preferable to play a game that is aesthetically appealing than one that is not, disruption of a game’s order is an equally valid method of play: educational, creative, skilful, vertiginous. Caillois dedicated a whole chapter of his study to the “corruption of games”, and spoke positively of the “desire for disorder and destruction” associated with ilinx.[28] The magic circle can be thought of as a positive barrier, a shield from the outside world where ordinary laws  are suspended; but more often we see this barrier being pushed both inwards and outwards. Refusing to accept any boundary as immobile and opaque not only leads to new forms of play, but also fluid ways of self-conception and effective relationships with control societies that lie outside its territory. Once atopia is fractured, and gamespace changes from an ideological subsistency to a fragile ecology, we affirm play as the means of collective social and cognitive development once more.

All images taken from Nomad’s Blog and used with permission.

Notes

[1] Lovecraft, H.P., At the Mountains of Madness. In Klinger, L. (2015) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, pp457-572.

[2] The tem “actor”, proposed by James Clinton Howell, is given to the game’s playable character(s). Howell, J.C. (2007) “Driving Off the Map”, Deltahead Translation Group, available online at http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/DOTM2.htm.

[3] Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games [Les jeux et les hommes]. Trans. Barash, M., Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, p12.

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

[7] Duchamp, M. (1957) “The Creative Act”, transcript from Session of the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Available online at Radical Art [http://radicalart.info/things/readymade/duchamp/text.html].

[8] Reza Negarestani defines non-monotonicity as “a synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In: Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (eds.) #Accelerate, Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp425-466.

[9] Wark, M. (2006-7) “ATOPIA: on Vice City”, in GAM3R 7H30RY, version 1.1, published online by Institute for the Future of the Book [http://www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory/], pp101-25 (my italics).

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

[11] My own constraints here prevent me from exploring the full potential of the similarities between the Forbidden Lands and the work of Lovecraft; needless to say they are extensive.

[12] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London, Pan Books, p135.

[13] Lambert and others have collaborated in the past to gather as much information as possible about all the colossi, including those that were scrapped during various stages of the game’s development. SotC’s director, Fumito Ueda, is reported to have initially conceived of the game having 48 colossi; at an early stage this number was reduced to a more realistic 24, and “halfway through production” this number thinned out again to 16. A few screenshots of the 8 discarded at this point exist, and using these images and the few sections of mountains hiding beyond the game’s natural borders, this group of dedicated fans have collectively made some detailed yet sound hypotheses. See more at Nomad Colossus (2011) “Unused/Beta Colossi”, available online at Nomad’s blog [http://nomads-sotc-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/unusedbeta-colossi.html]; Nomad Colossus (2015) “Shadow of the Colossus – Beta colossi recap & update”, video uploaded at https://youtu.be/5Do_0aWpYeo.

[14] Stern, E. (2002) “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, available online at http://eddostern.com/texts/Stern_TOME.html.

[15] Mackay, R. (2014) “Neo-Thalassa: A Fantasia on a Fantasia”. In Mackay, R., Pendrell, L. & Trafford, J. (eds.) (2014) Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp97-105 (my italics).

[16] Mackay, comments in “Discussion”, Speculative Aesthetics, pp113-4.

[17] Corruption of the phrase “autistic conversational algorithms”, in Stern, “A Touch of Medieval”.

[18] Nor is this policy unique to Team Ico. Lambert and his associates have been turned away multiple times, and have reached the conclusion that “it’s extremely difficult to get Japanese developers on the record about anything regarding unused [content] in their games or even the specifics of the game’s development.” According to a journalist at Gametrailers, some of video gaming’s biggest development teams, including Nintendo and Square Enix, are extremely sceptical about disclosing any production secrets to the public. Nomad Colossus, “Unused/Beta Colossi”.

[19] In an interview with Daniel Robson (Edge #261, November 2013). Ibid.

[20] Alexandra, H. (date uncertain) “Ludic Fuckery, Dynamics, and Emotional Response”, TransGamer Thoughts, available online at http://transgamerthoughts.com/post/109631171387/ludic-fuckery-dynamics-and-emotional-response.

[21] Deleuze, G. (1992) “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), pp3-7. Available online at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T.

[22] E.g. Harding, L. (2016) “What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-panama-papers.

[23] Boffey, D. (2016) “Cameron faces questions over £200,000 gift from mother”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/09/david-cameron-questions-gift-mother; Riley-Smith, B. (2016) “Every MP under pressure to publish tax return [sic] after David Cameron reveals income”, The Telegraph, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/10/every-mp-under-pressure-to-publish-tax-return-after-david-camero/.

[24] Murphy, R., (2016) “What Can MPs’ Tax Returns Actually Tell Us About Dodgy Dealings?” Interview by Sam Wolfson for Vice [http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-do-mps-publishing-their-tax-returns-actually-tell-us-about-tax].

[25] Cascio, J. (2005) “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon”, available online at http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/05/the_rise_of_the_participatory.html.

[26] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénic]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p8.

[27] Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, London/Boston/Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p10. PDF available at http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf.

[28] Caillois, p24. For more regarding the concept of ilinx within video games, see Bateman, C. (2006) “The Joy of Ilinx”, Only a Game, available online at http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2006/05/the_joy_of_ilin.html.

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.