Letters

The Drone of Minerva

The one kind of speculative thought that might be of service in the Anthropocene is surely some kind of philosophy of history, and yet within the academy itself it seems the one nobody wants to actually attempt. It is as if the debates at the end of the last century on Francis Fukuyama’s End of History had put the whole attempt in bad odor.

And yet given that the Anthropocene presents the technical evidence for a very bad future clearly, what could be more necessary than the thinking the less-bad ones?

This I think is the underlying reason for the popularity of the accelerationist fantasy. If there appears no forces that might divert history onto another path, then one could double down on the faith in the current course working out alright in the end. Damn the storms! Shovel on more coal! Full steam ahead!

There is a debate of sorts – mostly extra-academic – between acceleration and what I would call negation. The best statement of the latter position is Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities, Zero Books, Winchester 2014. Its publication is a good opportunity to look at the limitations of both the accelo and negationist philosophies of history.

Both share a complete indifference to the whole question of the Anthropocene, and the reorientation of humanist (or even post-humanist) thought toward the natural sciences for which the Anthropocene clearly calls. This is why I think the real debate doesn’t begin until these two positions are put in a dialog with another pair, which I would call inertia and extrapolation. These are ways of thinking history in which the natural world is necessarily present.

The difference being that inertia is thought which discovers scarcity and limit negatively, whole extrapolation thinks positively from what can be empirically known about forms of organization in natural history as constraints that set limits but do not otherwise determine, what future social-natural forms could be. If the key thinker of inertia was the Sartre of the Critique of Dialectical Reason, for extrapolation I would name Joseph Needham, and one of those rare contemporary thinkers who actually knows of his once-well known body of thought – Donna Haraway.

Sartre’s Critique I take to have largely refuted the accelerationism of Nick Land in advance. However, Noys pursues a different path, and brings other figures into the conversation.

For Noys, the accelo writing Land created in the 90s is a “Deleuzian Thatcherism,” a kind of masochism of submission to the creative destruction of – call it what you want – semio-capitalism, cognitive-capitalism, or what in my language is the rise of the vectoral class, seeking control over the value chain through control of information.

In ‘The Communist Manifesto’, capital is already figured as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, unleashing powers that exceed its control. This version of Marx could be fused with a reading of Nietzsche, giving rise to a school equally opposed to the Spinozist-Marxists (Althusser’s progeny, and in a different vein, Negri) and the Hegelian-Marxists (from Adorno to Lefebvre and their epigones).

The key note of these Nietzschian “heretics of Marx” (9) was a kind of performative affirmation of new values, made by pounding with a hammer, or at least a keyboard, on the old. Having lost faith in labor as a force of negation, they wanted to think through how capital might have other modes of historical supersession. Noys: “This is a crucial political question: how can we create change out of the ‘bad new’ without replicating it?” (10)

The key authors here are Deleuze and Guattari (D+G), Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard. For Noys they all suffer from a “fantasy of integration” of labor into capital. (12) But is it a fantasy? Maybe it is more a fantasy to think that labor, the subject, even the body are not already machine made extrusions from a technical, semiotic and, as Preciado would insist, pharmaceutical machine.

For D+G in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, the schizophrenic is as failed attempt to break through the limits of capital, “for perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough.” Lyotard out-affirmed them. In his Libidinal Economy, there is only one circuit, that of capital, and not even D+G’s desiring machines are outside of it. Baudrillard trumped that in Symbolic Exchange and death, where death is the last symbolic challenge that re-introduces the gift and reverts to a pre-capitalist economy. What accelerates in Baudrillard is not capital so much as a kind of entropic negativity.

It is hard to invoke the atmosphere of the late twentieth century in which reading these books was such an exhilarating challenge. What they had in common was an intuition that capitalism had reached a certain historical threshold that called for a new language to describe it, and metaphors through which to feel out the historical space of possibility. Desire, libido, death – each of these authors was still looking for some agent or progressive force, even if it was no longer quite a human agent. It was an historicism of forces rather than agencies.

The old agencies seemed – in the overdeveloped world at least – to be fatally compromised. Lyotard made a now notorious argument that workers enjoyed their own alienation. Elio Petri’s film The Working Class Goes to Heaven had a brilliant scene about this, with the camera lingering lovingly on the worker-machine combination, in a kind of dance in which they merge.

What Lyotard was really saying is that the worker was dealing with the transformation of the body by the machine way in advance even of avant-garde artists, whose methods and working conditions were – until very recently – still rather traditional by comparison. In short: he was simply restating Marx and Engels’ intuition that the worker’s integration into machine production was the precursor of new kinds of forces.

Accelerationism deals with problem of labor by merging it into the machine. Accelerationism is the futurism for the postindustrial worker. I actually think there are significant differences that Noys’ narrative glosses over. But we shall come to that. Certainly, futurist art was the “Ur-form” (14) of merging of body and machine, at least as far as a the rather retro world of ‘art’ is concerned.

One thing that was striking about the futurist retrospective at the Guggenheim was that as one climbed Wright’s spiral ramp, one say image after image of cars, planes, guns, bombs and boats, but it was only in the last room that one saw any attempt at images of communication. The last room held some rather kitsch but not uninteresting panels about radio and telegraphy. In this, futurism was even more retro than is usually supposed. It celebrated the machine at just that moment when the machine was becoming subordinated itself to another regime of control.

Noys misses this detail in technological history, and misses an opportunity also to recast the accel / negation ideological field by considering how it is doubled by the inertia / extrapolation one. This is when he discusses Walter Benjamin’s ‘Luna Park’. For Benjamin, the great war was a kind of cosmic conflagration, in which the forces of nature – machinic, electric, chemical – were cast violently into the old horse-plowed fields of Europe. This was a kind of utilization in negative of the future powers of extrapolation, with which another world might actually be built.

For Benjamin, collective labor isn’t about mastering nature, but organizing the relation between nature and labor. Here he touches on, but does not much elaborate, a worldview that is present much more fully in Alexander Bogdanov, and also in his Proletkult follower, Adrei Platonov – the worker-writer-modernist who actually knew something about locomotives. There is a lost opportunity here to start thinking history in the light of the Anthropocene, and have done with the residues of old modernism in art and theory, in which nature appears only negatively as scarcity and obstacle.

Benjamin thought something like Coney Island, with its pure expenditure of energy and machines of vertigo could be a kind of homeopathic acceleration, a diversionary one, but this is a line of thought taken up much more convincingly by Roger Caillois. Coney Island is also the prototype of the modern city itself in Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York. Far from a diversion it is the actual model. Perhaps we need a moratorium on Benjamin-quoting for a few years so that some of these other modes of thought might have a chance against these received ideas.

In any case, for Noys, the Nietzschian turn can only be a dangerous one. “It seems that the desire to transgress leftist ‘pieties’ leads to the embrace of the sublime, and an embrace which restores that trope to its conservative roots.” (22) The problem is that this pathway in historical thought is identified in isolation, whereas what we really need is a map of all the paths through the modern era in historical thought. Yes, there are routes through the sublime to conservatism, just as there are routes through the sublime to the ridiculous, but there are clearly also such routes through leftist pieties as well.

Psychoanalysis makes a signal contribution to accelo thought via Victor Tausk, and his studies of the machine dreams of schizophrenics as projections of alienation from the body. This was reversed by D+G, for whom machines are the Real of desire. Noys: “This is a metaphysics of the production of the Real as the Real of production. It is one form of the metaphysics of accelerationism, which can be more widely grasped as a metaphysics of the forces – forces of production, of destruction, and human, mechanical and cybernetic forces, that must be welded or melded together into a plane of immanence… The collapse of fantasy into the Real by accelerationists is… a sign of fantasy that tries to produce the Real as such.” (39)

Of course one does not have to take this as a metaphysics at all, but more a kind of tactics in the use of metaphor, of what Bogdanov (who had also read his Nietzsche) called tektology. I think the mistake was indeed to see the tactics of the Nietzschian-Marxists as a metaphysics, to extract from them (as is so often done with Nietzsche himself) a mere philosophy separate from its literary, textual form. Rather, what opened here was a mode of thinking opposed to all dualisms. Opposed, it must be said, to the fantasy of the subject produced in and by language.

My strategy here would be to affirm the basic direction here, but to go further. D+G always collapse back into the subjective flows and processes, and tend to think the ‘machines’ that produce this only metaphorically. It is time to know something about those machines qua machines. It is time to take it all literally. How is the world of the Anthropocene made? That is not a question to be answered by philosophy alone, but by a collaborative labor that has to connect the production of natural history to the production of human history as a metonymic part of it.

This was not, unfortunately, where the most popular strand of accelo thought went after D+G. It lacked another aspect of Deleuze, most in evidence in his film books, a kind of Epicurian love of the world. One finds that, instead, in the work of one of their most telling critics: Donna Haraway. The Harawayesque cyborg also refuses the fantasy of purely linguistic subject, but turns not toward a schizoanalytic fluid of subjective flows, but to questions instead of how such things are actually made, not just out of the machine meeting human flesh, but hydraulic-engineered out of the ‘multi-species muddle.’

Here I partly agree with Noys about how accelo went wrong: “While accelerationism might promise an integration of desire and labor in a machinic ‘synthesis’ to accelerate the boredom of work it disguises the boredom of desire… The fantasy of integration is the fantasy of abolishing fantasy.” (47) However, on my reading Noys’ does not for all that escape from fantasy, but rather falls back on some rather stale ones about agency.

Noys: “The avant-garde ‘passion for the real’, that tried to accelerate us to new human types, now seems quaint, kitsch, and politically dubious.” (49) Well, compared to what? At least we tried, those of us who threw ourselves into one or other avant-garde. The passion for the real, with its sublime excess, can also lead back to love of the world, to the attempt to know and make it otherwise.

Noys rightly sees cyberpunk as an avant-garde, as an aesthetic contrary to the slack mannerism of the postmodern moment, which tried to start up again the avant-garde gesture. A proper synthesis of that era is still to be written. A key to it is William Gibson, to my mind still writing brilliantly about the affordances of his times. When he described a future habitat as like “a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast forward button” he had, as Noys remarks, accurately characterized the ‘neoliberal’ world in which we have arrived.

The Afro-futurism of Detroit techno is clearly also a key ingredient. It is curious to see how this component is bleached out of so many retrospective accounts of today’s accelo aesthetic. Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than The Sun is a neglected classic here. Much more could be said about racial, sexual and gendered versions of the desire to overcome capitalism in a forward direction. For the oppressed who lack a retro-vision of the good life, the past has little ‘radical’ value.

There is a ‘little England’ narrative about the history of the last thirty years of cyberculture, where it is made synonymous with Nick Land’s synthesis of D+G, William Gibson and Detroit techno. Honestly, at the time and even looking at the UK scene, I thought Land’s crew were more a bunch of hyperbolic poets than anyone who actually understood what tech change was about. I thought, and still think, Matthew Fuller, Joanna Zylinska and Richard Barbrook were doing more informed and interesting work.

And this is before one even gets to the world of 90s listservers, such as undercurrents, sarai, nettime, spectre, faces and so forth, where a wide range of artist, theorist, activist and tech hackers were trying to build new kinds of communicative spaces out of the left-over tools of the military-entertainment complex. “The street has its own uses for things,” as William Gibson said. Hence it is with some chagrin that I find myself dealing, via Noys’ book, with some more strictly ideological excrescences of that moment. The paradox about Land’s crew is that while the talked a good game about dissolving into the tech, other people were generally much better at actually doing it.

Land was a good ideologist. If capital dissolved religion and chivalry in the icy waters of bourgeois egoism, then “Land’s work dissolves the ego in the flows of this ‘icy water’, although the cult of personality that developed around him indicates the paradox of calls to dissolve the ego…” (57) It was a sort of philosophy of the post-human will. If there is anything to be said in his favor, he gave a series of brilliant young men the courage to write well.

In a curious section, Noys tries to deal with what he calls apocalyptic accelerationism, that which goes back to the Lukacs of History and Class Consciousness, and the notion of the tendency. If anything has to be seen as a wrong turn in the Western Marxist tradition, for me this is it. Lukacs lamblasted the vulgar Marxists and the ‘Machists’ for being too bogged down in facts, in taking the knowledge of the natural sciences as actually prescribing real limits to the forms that could be extrapolated out of them by praxis. Lukacs came dangerously close to celebrating a kind of irrational and totalizing will, like something out of Sorel.

This same thought shows up in early Negri, for whom thinking the tendency was likewise a way of escaping from the facticity of the present and particular, and seeing everything from the point of view of the total revolution to come. Then, in a surprising move, Noys finds the same theme in Alain Badiou: “The asymptotic perspective of flight makes of the empiricist a wandering materialist, a vagabond philosopher of natural substances. Ignorance of the mirror turns the empiricist into the mirror of the world.” Whereas ignorance of the world traps the Badioians in a world of mirrors.

One would not often think the early Negri, Lukacs and Badiou as occupying the same coordiantes. One thing Noys has a great talent for is spotting the underground convergences in late twentieth century thought. While D+G are the object of attack in the Badiou passage above, quoted by Noys from Theory of the Subject, here again I would insist on the need to press even harder in the direction Badiou would oppose. Wandering materialist? Vagabond philosopher? To what kind of enemy of Marx are these bad things?

The tempering of the trajectory with the tendency is for Noys a way to ‘balance’ between, say, Postone and Negri, between one-dimensional pessimism and delirious optimism. But perhaps both of these rather clumsy philosophies of history need to be rejected. The last game in town, the Anthropocene, follows neither a negationist nor an accelerationist story.

Neither Postone nor Negri, for that matter, seem to have all that much to say about the new forms of concrete abstraction that have been build on top of capitalism and which try to control it by exploiting asymmetries of information, or logistical flows of information, or by mining databases of information, some now produced by very strange kinds of non-labor. These are the strategies of the vectoral class. They are what enable the subordination of all planetary resources, human, but mostly nonhuman, to logics of resource tagging, valuing, mobilization and fetishization in which the sign commands the thing, and thing commands the planet. What is striking is now neither the accelos or the negationists have much to say about this.

Gopal Balakrishnan: “the innovations of this period of capitalism have powered transformations in the Lebenswelt of diversion and sociability, an expansion of discount and luxury shopping, but above all a heroic age of what was until recently called ‘financial technology’. Internet and mobile phones, Walmart and Prada, Black-Scholes and subprime – such are the technological landmarks of the period.” Now, I have to say at once that I there is much in Balakhristian’s work that I admire, because I must ask how such a thoughtful critic can write such ridiculous nonsense. How is it that his mind sees only the fetish of the sign and thing, and not the rather strange means of production via which they appear before him, commanded now out of planetary fields of resources?

The problem with negation, as a subset of Marxocological thought, is that it only ever sees the features of the present that look like the past, all else being dismissed as mere appearances, circulation, or distribution. Here it the Marxologicalists who seem to me to have lost sight of Marx, in their inability to take conceptual resources and détourn them, to make a picture of the present, rather than simply see more of the past.

This is clearest when we get to Noys’ alternative to the accelos. It is (yes him yet again) Benjamin’s emergency brake. Noys artfully shows the roots of this image in the Tay Bridge disaster, when a train-load of people crashed off a bridge one stormy night. But this all too quickly becomes purely metaphorical. It is an image of some sort of ‘interruption’. One has to stop the train for there to be something other than the train: “we can’t simply accept technology as it is, but the ‘re-functioning’ of technology depends on the interruption of capitalist acceleration.” (90)

This is a platitude with which we can probably all agree. But how? Perhaps it is worth lingering over the actual Tay Bridge disaster. It is a complex story, one worthy of the sort of forensic techniques that have developed in science studies these last thirty years – developed, it must be said, right alongside all of the discourses invoked by the accelos and the negationists, but rarely made use of by either.

There was an inquiry about the Tay Bridge. There were design flaws, there were limits within the knowledge of physics at the time. There were possibly short-cuts in the construction process and deficiencies in the materials used. The disaster led to improvements in bridge-building in all sorts of ways. In short: the way forward was no ‘emergency brake’. It was a series of practices, some civil, some political, most technical, about how to build the actual infrastructure on which that train to the future runs.

Hence the real question, as Benjamin Bratton puts it, is: can this infrastructure that makes history, and that makes us as component parts of it, be repurposed to build another one? That to me is a question for extrapolationist thought, which puts social history back in the context of natural history, paying particular attention to the infrastructures that mediate between. That, rather than the politics of exhaustion (Bifo) or of slowness, or of the ‘emergency brake’ seems to me to point forward. It is not enough, as Noys ends by arguing, to defend social services and working conditions. One needs a philosophy of history which motivates the affective components of the machine to work together to build a new one, and from within, while the train is running. There’s no getting off Snowpiercer.

Hence there is something self-contradictory in Noys’ call for a “restoration of the sense of friction that interrupts and disrupts the fundamental accelerationist fantasy of smooth integration.” (103) if it is a fantasy, then why does friction even need to be ‘restored’? Does one really have to think with these crude tools, of either the frictionless running or the great brake? I think we need a theory of history (perhaps no longer a philosophy, given how it has failed us) that is more engaged with natural history and has more supple ways of thinking time and change than all that.

Indeed, why are we still using the metaphor of a fricking train? Surely it is high time to start thinking the historical possibilities of space and time via the infrastructure of our time. What historical thought would he vision of global logistics actually enable?

Here I really have to insist on the break between futurism and cyberpunk. The former was about the body and the machine; the latter was about the body and information. The former was indirectly about the working class and its transformation into the machine-labor assemblage. The latter was about the hacker class and its transformation into an information-cognition assemblage. This is indeed what accelerationism is alive and well as an ideology. The absorption of the hacker class into a post-capitalist regime of information inequality is now upon us. The accelo line of thought at least suggests there could be ways out. But it really has to be brought into contact with the problem of the Anthropocene.

Accelerationism, like the drone of Minerva, came too late.

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McKenzie Wark

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