Benjamin Noys on Accelerationism & Counter-Accelerationism

I want to suggest that the starting point for any political sensibility, by which I mean the sensibility from the left, is to break with the fantasies of Real forces of acceleration.
– Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities

Just finished reading Benjamin Noys’ new book Malign Velocities. It’s a work one could finish in an afternoon, yet it is packed with some interesting and insightful historical and critical nuggets. His blog No Useless Leniency has been a mainstay for lively thought for a while now, and his earlier work The Persistence of the Negative is an excellent critique of Continental philosophy.

The notion of Accelerationism has a distinctive history, which of late do to Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics (here) has revived certain tendencies within leftist theory concerning its investment in Marxist ideology and practice. A good book that incorporated many of the historical texts as well as later commentary from both left and right is the #Accelerate# the accelerate reader (here) edited by Robin Mackay, Armen Avanessian. I’ve published several essays on this and other aspects of Accelerationism in my Speculations on Philosophy page (here). Nick Land has the majority of links to most web related information (here).

Noys work does something worthwhile in that he gives a nice history and summation of current thought concerning accelerationism, as well as offering his own counter-accelerationism critique and positive thought on what is to be done in our current moment. If you know nothing of accelerationism this would be a good place to start. If your a non-philosopher, but would like to get your hands dirty and understand some of the current controversies and aspects of political and social philosophy as it is being touted by some on the left or right this would be a good introduction.

Noys makes no qualms, he’s politically on the left and his discourse stays within the perimeters of Marxist ideology and economic thought. Yet, he also sees accelerationism as part of something greater and perplexing, perverse. As part of that tradition steaming from Nietzsche, Bataille, Italian Futurism, Surrealism, Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death, and finally given a new formulation within the work of Nick Land and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at University of Warwick in the 1990’s. It would be the work of Land that influenced his decision to write this work, that and the notion that Land and the CCRU crew abandoned the humanistic traditions in favor of a new “post-human state beyond any form of subject, excepting the delirious processes of capital itself.” Land’s sense of a full blown Deleuzeguattarian accelerationism along with an investment in neo-reactionary thought would force Noys to term their work as “Deleuzian Thatcherism”.

What I enjoyed is that he kept the polemic to a minimal, and delved into the history and commentary with both an equitable and even handedness, never falling into personal attacks nor castigating what he in fact finds a little distasteful. He seems to utilize the old ironic stance of placing accelerationism within a realm of “fantasy” which is opposed to the Real of production. One might assume he was formulating the Real as part of the Lacanian Real, but instead as he states it “the Real is capitalized to indicate this is not the ‘real’ qua reality, but rather the excessive force of production that is that is only ever cooled-off to form the apparently ‘real’. I would have like to see him actually go into more details in a critique of Land’s only book, A Thirst for Annhilation and his recently published essays in Fanged Noumena, but for better or worse he adds a small appraisal in chapter four of this work.

A better way to understand this production of the real is to realize it is fundamentally incongruent with Freudian and Lacanian models of the unconscious. Freud and Lacan see the unconscious as symbolic, fantasy laden, and dramatic ­­ filled with semiotic puzzles and ancient Greek theater. Hence, for both authors desire is associated with lack. That is to say, desire desires that which is fantasized, repressed, wished for, or absent. Desire is engaged entirely with that which is lacking and needs to be represented. Hence, “desire gives way to a representation” of that which is lacking ­­ the phallus, the Oedipal escapade, the ideal “I”, etc.. But for Deleuze and Guattari in their Anti-Oedipus the schizoid, as a figure of nomadic thought and life is incapable of experiencing lack. For him or her the unconscious is always productive and never fantastical. Desire itself produces the real and creates new worlds. So instead of desire as ‘lack’ we have desire as a positive force or power that is creative or libidinal (i.e., a drive without intention or goal).

In some ways this agon over concepts of desire as lack or productive fullness; as an absence seeking the big Other, the represented One: Freud, Lacan, Badiou, Zizek, etc.; and, the other tradition from Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, and Nick Land is central to our era. This battle over desire and its force is at the heart of accelerations as well. As Nick Land will tell us in A Thirst for Annihilation we should return to Schopenhauer, not Hegel for our understanding of Desire:

“It is not Hegel or Schelling who provide… it is Schopenhauer. With Schopenhauer the approach to the ‘noumenon’ as a energetic unconscious begins to be assembled, and interpreting the noumenon as will generates a discourse that is not speculative, phenomenological, or meditative, but diagnostic. It is this type of thinking that resources Nietzsche’s genealogy of inhuman desire, which feeds in turn into Bataille’s base materialism, for which ‘noumenon’ is addressed as impersonal death and as unconscious drive” (8). 

I’ll not go into detail of Noys confrontation with Bataille, which is part of his section on Terminal Acceleration in which he confronts Jean-Luc Goddar’d films and Bataille’s ‘excremental vision’ as he terms it after certain remarks in Bataille’s works such as The Literature of Evil, etc. If there is one fault in Noys book it is this inability to tease out the conceptual frameworks of the various accelerationisms. He does a great job of skimming the surface layers, but because of his investment in Marxist ideology his mind seems blinkered to read everything toward some counter-accelerationist teleology or resistance without ever truly lifting and separating out the various forces of the Right and Left Accelerationisms except as history and economics, politics and cultural critique – not as philosophies vying for the mind of our current era. 

Yet, as Noys will tell us in his preface his plan “is not to offer an exhaustive account of accelerationism, but rather to choose certain moments when it emerges as a political and cultural strategy”. So we have to accept that this is more of political and cultural critique, rather than a philosophical critique of the conceptual frameworks of the various accelerationisms. I’m not going to give a full reading since much of the material has been covered by many parties. I just want to highlight a few nuggets here and there. Over and over he reiterates that at the core of accelerationism and an ideology is this sense of the merger of the human and machine, whether in economics, politics, social, or cultural life. Noys believes we should stay with the economic realm rather than the fantasies of hyper-accelerated capitalism, understanding how our own machinic nature intersects and links us to the realms of labor and production. He argues that even in the cyberpunk phuturism of fiction and music and economics of High-Frequency Trading (HFT) we see a postmodernism with a ‘passion for the real’. He sees that the aesthetic appeal of accelerationism lies in its sense of jouissance – a sense of perverse enjoyment that seeks a fusion of pleasure/pain or masochistic immolation. At the heart of this sensibility is desire and death, flux and flow – the need to accelerate faster and faster to the point of annihilation. At least this would be the classic form of it found partially in Land and others.

Noys will not take on the task of a critique of his left compeers except to say a few words about Williams and Srnicek’s manifesto, except as baring on the dromological effect of speed (Virilio) they see in traditional accelerationism. His main critique of them is their inability to ‘ground’ their critique of Landian or other forms of accelerationism. He’ll call their move to ‘open a space of possibilities’, or as Brassier and Negarestani later (and they are never mentioned) following Sellars/Brandom in a normative turn toward notions of ‘navigating the space of reasons’ and offering negotiations of ‘give’ and ‘take’ between various strata of society, politics, culture, etc.  He says with it we could speak of an “accelerationist critique of accelerationism”.

Yet, he doesn’t go into any depth into their actual program. Even the work of Land is not fully explored, but is rather caricatured. I felt the early part of the book, the historical reflections and distillation were excellent. His knowledge of Marx seemed basic and flowed with the usual scholarship of labor and labor-power and dead labor, etc. He uses examples extensively from Marx and others to bolster his critiques. Most of his critiques were of early ancestors of the concept of acceleration, teasing out the threads of the concept in discussions of various forms of acceleration: Futurist, Communist, Cyberpunk, Apocalyptic, and Terminal. Each of the various strands weaves a tale of a runaway capitalism that seems bent of merging either with the cyborg posthuman worlds, or allowing some H.P. Lovecraft fantasy of Shoggothic monstrous minds  merging out of the future-past into our moment. This interplay of fantasy and the Real is like a dialectical leitmotif running the gamut of the essay. Each of his historical moments and commentary were spot on and handled with finesse. He is well read and has a good grasp of the material. But in the end I wanted to know beyond the negative critique what he might offer as part of his positive program, his counter-accelerationist agenda.

What he discovers is that tracing this heritage of accelerationist and anti-accelerationist discourse we discover a “strange convergence on nostalgia: nostalgia for a vanishing possibility for socialists slow-down, itself a terminal slide away from socialism, versus capitalist ostalgie that can only fill our absent future with past dreams of acceleration.” He tells us accelerationists see the problem but not the solution, that they opt for an integration with the machine, with capitalism as an accelerating process in which humans are to be integrated. That this is a ‘moving contradiction’, yet it is not a solution. Instead accelerationism seeks to integrate and ultimately move toward oblivion and extinction, which “bypasses the problem of consciousness, awareness, struggle in a logic of immersion.”

Against nostalgia and a revitalization of past accelerationism in whatever form, modern or postmodern, he tells us we need to begin by recognizing the basic contradiction at the heart of the accelerationist agenda. Caught between a terminal future or a nostalgic return to an impossible Fordist past we seem bound to a runaway train. Noys tells us we need to act now, and rethink the traditional problems that workers and labor face in their lives daily. He would have us struggle for the ‘decommodification’ of our lives, fight against the privatization that seems to be forcing the burden of health-care and other public services onto the individual as if this is what they wanted, when in fact it is what the larger capitalist entities want. If they force the individual to pay for their own services then the cost is off their shoulders. He tells us we need to protect public services, benefits, and social support systems that help sustain them.

A counter-accelerationist move he informs us would begin in disruption of acceleration itself and all its capitalist machinery. I kept thinking of the my favorite environmentalist book The Monkey-Wrench Gang and Aldo Leopold for some reason. The notion of gumming up the works and slowing the system down using various tactics came to mind. Yet, he doesn’t suggest we decelerate, or withdraw, instead what he says is our task is to “collectively sustain forms of struggle and negation that do not offer false consolation, either of inbuilt hope or cynicism and absolute despair.” Instead of falling into Land’s trap of “Transcendental Miserablism” we need to track it, understand its failings, and seek ways to obviate its effects.  Ultimately we need to face the fact that we are in the midst of integrations, immersions, and extractions. Capitalism is already seeking to merge us into new forms of posthuman and trans-human machinic worlds. What we need is to realize:

The tension of these moments requires a collective sense of past struggles and of struggles to come, a recognition of that possibility of work as it has been shaped not only by capitalism but by resistance.

Whether you agree or disagree Benjamin Noys needs to be read by those who value current struggles and resistances. His work is clear, incisive, rigorous, and has that measure of intellectual honesty that we need in this time between times.

 

1. Benjamin Noys. Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (Zero Books, 2014)

 

 

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