The Technocosm: Neomodernity and the Future

The city operates as the analog of an elaborate time-travel scenario, in which an obscure labyrinth of fate is taking shape, and has always been taking shape.

—Nick Land, Shanghai Times

We already live in an urban world and share an urban future.

—Carl Abbott, Imagining Urban Futures 

Paul Virilio is the philosopher of speed who argued that our society of pure growth is leading us to nothing other than the “liquidation of the world,”1 to the realization of the one original idea the West has produced: nothingness, the being of nothing, the void.2 Speed is nihilism in practice,3 the “defeat of the world as Weld, as distance, as matter.”4 “Pollution, population growth, shortage of natural resources— more unsettling than all that is no doubt the constant rise of higher speeds; acceleration is literally the end of the world!”5 We are living in the age Nietzsche foretold as the time of the Last Man, an age when nihilism would complete itself.

But how should we take such thoughts? Should we fear or welcome it? Our society has left the cradle of mythologies of the eternal return (Mircea Eliade) for better or worse. The great round of Agricultural civilization which guided it by the cycles of sun and moon, seasonal movements of the death and renewal of crops, of the laws of fate and destiny that hooked us to some occult and mysterious round of and vicious circle of mind and natural process, the organic and circadian rhythms of life amidst the violence of the earth. All this seems to have vanished from our urban landscapes like the extinction of the dinosaurs. For better or worse we live in a de-sacralized universe of our own egoistic desires, our systems of unnatural and artificial times go in diametric opposition to the long history of or forbears organicist vision. Under the auspices of clock-time and the technological beat of machinic worlds we live in a time-beyond-times, cut off from the organic plenitude of our ancestral ecologies of mind.

For Virilio we as humans lived during most of our evolutionary lives at the rate of metabolic speed or what he termed the “age of brakes,”6 in which the powers of continuity dominated those of motion and change. Our societies were formed to dampen and apply the brakes against the hurtling and accelerating progress of motion and change. Traditional societies were built to stave off the future, to construct ecologies of habit and habitation that would bind us to the stability and meta-stability of this cyclic time of the Same and Restoration: the great cycles of sacrifice and renewal from Mesopotamian, Indic, Mayan, China and other civilizations. Virilio would speak of the “space-time dispositif,”7 by which various cultural complexes shared geographical markers or strata in which historical time was considered longue durée in Braudel’s sense:8 “extended time—time that lasts, is portioned out, organized, developed”9 and so eo ipso acts as an “inertial limit” and a guarantor of “stability.”10

With the Industrial Revolution we entered a new stage of evolution in which the technical time of the artificialization replaced the natural rhythms of our pre-industrial Agricultural Civilizations. Virilio would term this the “dromocratic revolution” which would produce artificial speeds that overcome the physical limits of organic metabolic societies eternal return of the Same. Our culture of machines driven by combustible, electronic, nuclear, and quantum power compressed the former space-time continuum toward a zero limit in which pure time was spatialized to the point that virtual onlife lives would become fully digitized and bound to the dromocracy of a non-temporalized time-machine. This liquidation of space by time has produced disruptions of mind and body in our species that are unprecedented. In this sense we live in a Technocosm: a realm in which “all the surfaces of the globe are directly present to one another.”11

For Virilio this sea change of time came about through conquest and military takeover of the planet by cultures who sought to build vast empires of time. Under their dictate, the universe was rearranged by the military spirit: the building of infrastructure, the “total mobilization” of the population, the harnessing of ever new sources of energy for the military economy of attrition. “Dromocratic intelligence is not exercised against a more or less determined military adversary,” Virilio concludes, “but as a permanent assault on the world, and through it, on human nature.”12 We can see in the work of scientist and philosophers such as Kepler, Galileo, Huygen, and Newton among others the defining characteristics of this sea change in time and movement, the age of progress and modernity being grasped within the central obsession with the movement of the planets (Kepler), gravity (Galileo), uniform rotation (Huygen), and the inertial motion developed by Newton. We can see in Hobbes notions of rest as resistance the overturning of the Aristotelian conception of hierarchical movement: the ‘Great Chain of Being’,  according to which the movement of the universe was caused by an unmoved mover.13

In many ways this movement against the logic of rest was always a part of the complex notions of modernity, a slow and methodical assault of abstraction against the organicism of pre-industrial society. One could say that our age of modernity was and is the project of engineers and physicists: the mathematization of reality, of the space-time continuum as an abstract movement. With the revolutionization of the nature of transport and communication, distances shrink; everything is equally within reach; planetary civilization is transformed into a continuum in which everything is brutally pushed together, in which there are no more borders, no more distances, no more differences. The liquidation of space in abstraction. “Speed-space,” Virilio would term it, or as Sohn-Rethel would have it technological speed requires not merely the absence of obstacles, but rather the absence of matter as such; its ideal space is a vacuum.14 This dematerialization of substantive reality, the obliteration of both the Platonic/Aristotelian worlds of substantial formalism in which naïve realism or common sense philosophies were bound to the empirical world of experience vanished into the virtual immaterialism of quantum time without bounds: “After the duration and extension of geo-physical space have been reduced to nothing or almost nothing by the acceleration of transport, it seems that the vivisection of speed now attacks the very density of mass itself, as if the aim of the pursuit had suddenly become the durability and density of the whole set of physical bodies. . . . Obsessed with producing the void, we no longer tolerate the density of the material”.15

People no longer live in a particular territory, a nation-state, etc., such as a city, but in the “time spent changing places” itself.16 Cities become merely functional spaces for time-bounded activities, their residents become passengers, “displaced,” “u-topic” citizens whose true homes are transport machines and waystations. In place of settledness in space comes a new settledness in time, in place of societies of persistence comes a “society of disappearance.”17 Since the rise of telecommunications, social integration also increasingly occurs in time, such as the time of a program which gathers those who are physically absent into a “city of the instant.” The old depth of topological space is replaced by the depth of time, territoriality by temporality: “Space is no longer in geography; it’s in electronics. Unity is in the terminals. It’s in the instantaneous time of command posts, control towers, etc. Politics is less in physical space than in the time systems administered by various technologies, from telecommunications to airplanes, passing by the TGV, etc. There is a movement from geo- to chrono-politics: the distribution of territory becomes the distribution of time. The distribution of territory is outmoded, minimal.”18

For Virilio we live under the dictatorship of death-time: technological time is dead time, it is intensive time, and it is scarce time. Dead time: for it has to do with the time-travel, thus with the time of circulation, in which the body is cut off from any interaction with its actual environment and is only, as it were, traded in for a life after arrival. Intensive time: for it is defined by immediate and abrupt presence, by the sudden entrance of what is absent, as manifested in the exchange of weapons of mass destruction as well as the exchange of information through the means of communication. Scarce time: for the immense acceleration, which, for example, reaches the speed of light in laser weapons, leads everywhere to a shortening of time limits and time to think. In the age of cruise missiles and strategic “defense” initiatives, what is primarily at stake are warning times, the exploitation of the smallest possible intervals of time, of first-strike and preventative strike capacities—in a word, the “war for time.”

Since the 90’s the deregulation of time along with other capitalist modes has accelerated the world of dead-time, bringing with it both the interminable war on terror and a terror of time itself. Against the accumulation of time as a commodity stored in the monetary systems of material civilization the new capitalism has dematerialized in the advanced terrorism of virtual currency. The world itself is dematerializing before our very eyes and we are all being transformed into digitized dividuals of a mathematical multiverse controlled by the dead time of capital.  Zombies of a new order we have become daemonic agents of our own demise, inventing futures in which the complete artificialization of intelligence and life rules both our desires and our ancient immortalization dreams. For Virilio the technologies of speed bring about a “disruption in the order of perception, a “derangement of the senses” whereby individuals are catapulted into a space beyond, in which they can only maintain their position by means of a complex network of measuring instruments, of perceptual prosthetics. These prostheses in turn compel derealization. Cinema, writes Virilio, is based on a systematic psychotropic derangement, a destruction of chronology. In place of the transcendental aesthetic, which brought sensory data into a spatiotemporal order and, in the categories of the understanding, also produced valid knowledge, we have the “aesthetic of speed,” which only occasionally connects subject and object with blinding speed: “With speed, the world keeps on coming at us, to the detriment of the object, which is itself now assimilated to the sending of information. It is this intervention that destroys the world as we know it, technique finally reproducing permanently the violence of the accident.”19

Neomodernity

As with modernism and postmodernism, it is architecture that is central to the enduring public definition of neomodernity. Philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, but architects get to build it.

—Nick Land, Shanghai Times

As Land tells us it might reasonably be argued that the modern is always and inherently neomodern, that relentless, self-surpassing upgrades are hard-wired into it, from the beginning.20 The celebration of discontinuity over the progressive notions of smooth, continuous improvement typify its program. One might better understand neomodernity as the discontinuous renewal of modernity out of its own ruins, the transfiguration of its depleted energies into the surface tension of a renaissance rather than oblivion. “Above all, perhaps, the neomodern is manifested indirectly, through display spaces. It points away from itself, and towards what it revives, in the manner of contemporary museum design, with its ideal of invisible mediation. Its pride is adapted to an information age, in which subtlety trumps assertion, inventive perception supplants self-expression, and flexible anticipation outperforms stubborn purpose.”21

Like a heavy metal apocalypse neomoderinty orchestrates the virtual designs of the dematerialization of civilization. It’s cyclopean structures: “scorched and rusted girders, massive chains, vast slabs of semi-crumbled brickwork, pitted concrete, splintered masonry, the cavernous, eroded shells of warehouses and machine shops” rise up like transfigured creatures out of some hellish paradise. The post-industrial functionalism of this hybrid of supraintelligent artifact and ruinous abstraction combines the disconnection of the mind from its former ecologies in the natural order as its move and metamorphoses shapes it to the post-civilizational matrix of conditioned possibility. “Around and amongst these paleo-modernist dinosaur skeletons, it weaves an exquisite web of maximally-dematerialized and near-transparent structures, emphasizing lightness, subtlety, openness, and innovation. High-bandwidth digital communications, intelligent environmental control systems, hydroponically-nourished creeping plants, hyper-designed furnishings, tastefully understated interior decoration and sophisticated artworks complete the metamorphosis. Neomodernity is at once more modernity, and modernity again. By synthesizing (accelerating) progressive change with cyclic recurrence, it produces a distinctive schema or figure: the time spiral. “22

Technicity and the Inhuman

It is ceasing to be a matter of how we think about technics, if only because technics is increasingly thinking about itself.

—Nick Land, #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader

Plato in his Meno would institute an opposition between the Socratic “recollection” of the immortal soul, called ἀνάμνησις (anamnēsis), and the artificial or technical supplement to memory, called ὑπόμνησις (hypomnēsis). It is with this entirely unprecedented opposition that western metaphysics and, arguably, western philosophy more generally, comes into existence. To Plato’s way of thinking, thought is nothing other than the act of the immortal soul remembering itself once again. On the one side, then, we have thought, the infinite, the transcendental and something called “philosophy.” On the other, however, we have artifice, finitude, the empirical and something called “technicity.” Yet what happens to the finite world— with all its inherent contingency, variability and fallibility— when the immortal soul recollects itself? If thought is defined as the recollection of immortality, then finitude, contingency and technology are, as Bernard Stiegler has argued, thereby consigned to the darkness of the unthought: true anamnēsis apparently has no need of the sophistical or technical supplement that is hypomnēsis. What, though, might it mean to ”think” this unthought, that is to say, technicity itself?23

Aristotle is  the first thinker to construct an ontology of the technical object. To Aristotle’s eyes, technē is an essentially inert, neutral tool whose status is entirely determined by the use to which it is put by human beings. If nature (physis) contains the principal of its own motion— an acorn will grow into an oak tree all by itself— the same is obviously not true for a technical or fabricated object: an oak table or bed frame requires an efficient cause (causa efficiens) such as an artisan to bring it into being. In this way, we arrive at an idea of technicity that has dominated philosophy for almost 3,000 years: technē is a prosthesis (πρόσϑεσις: pro-thesis, i.e., an addition; what-is-placed-in-front-of) considered “in relation to” nature, humanity or thought; one that can be utilised for good or ill depending upon who or what happens to wield it.

Yet, in our time the Aristotelian notion of techné as inert, a dead thing onto which we must impress our form and give it purpose is no longer valid. As the disciplines of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and information technology continue to develop at a bewildering pace, the ontological boundaries between the human and the technological are being re-drawn: what we used to think of as the defining properties of human being— mind, agency, affect, consciousness, the very operation of thought itself— are revealed to be inextricably bound up with complex, quasi-mechanical and technically replicable processes. To put it crudely, technology in this way appears less an instrumentum of an a priori “reason,” than an ontological state. Consequently, technicity names something which can no longer be seen as just a series of prostheses or technical artefacts— which would be merely “supplemental” (or supernumerary) to our nature— but the basic and enabling condition of our life-world. From the watch we wear to the server we log into, we exist pros-thetically, that is to say, by putting ourselves outside ourselves. If the classical opposition and hierarchy between thought and technology can no longer be sustained from this perspective— such that what Plato calls anamnēsis may be nothing other than a complex repertoire of motor functions, cybernetic loops and self-replicating hypomnesic systems— then it is clear that this insight poses a new and urgent task for any philosophy of technology. In other words, the question arises as to whether it is possible to think something that is nothing less than the basic condition of thought itself.25

This interplay of anamnesis and hypomnesic systems in a cyberpositive loop of self-reinforcing acceleration is at the core of Nick Land’s vision of our neomodern capitalist society:

Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control. This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.26

Couched in mid-90’s cyber-punk rhetoric this notion of the future impinging on the present as if some advanced civilization was transfiguring our own mad world into a monstrous vision of its own artificial intelligence seems almost ludicrous to us, and yet this retroactive and recursive notion of time is essential. Combining the thanatropic vision of Freud and Land in his critique of our current late capitalist society Reza Negarestani outlines the tendencies at the core of this project, saying, “the collusion between science and capitalism imparts an alarmingly critical significance to such inspections into the relation between capitalism and its image as an inevitable singularity that coheres with the compulsive regression of the organism toward the inorganic exteriority. The collusion of capitalism with science enables capitalism to incorporate contemporary science’s continuous disenchantment of cosmos as the locus of absolute objectivity and inevitable extinction.”27

Call this the Great Reversal: originary technicity as the origin of humanity, becomes increasingly autonomous and emerges outside the meat-bag of its parasitical relations. In Derrida’s terms originary technicity inhabits the interiority of life itself: ‘life is a process of self-replacement’, Derrida asserts, ‘the handing-down of life is a mechanike, a form of technics’ (‘Nietzsche and the Machine’, p. 248). From its beginnings cybernetics emerging from the thought of such luminaries as Norbert Weiner, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Valera or Niklas Luhmann, offers us a picture of the emergence of artificial intelligence, complexity, adaptation and emergence or the embodiment, extension and distribution of mind into autonomous forms outside the human: the slow externalization of the very processes of thought and technics.

Maturana and Valera’s image of a self-organizing, self-regulating and self-regenerating autopoietic machines represents a kind of litmus test for the originary technicity of life:

[It] is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader.Urbanomic)

Perhaps most crucially, autopoiesis recognizes no qualitative difference between organic and inorganic systems: all living systems are autopoietic, and so any physical system – whether social, cultural, artificial – can, if autopoietic, be said to exhibit life (Autopoiesis and Cognition, p. 48). (Bradley, p. 21) Ultimately originary technicity is less a tool or prosthesis that has been super-added to life nor even quite a metaphor for life but what I will call the empirico-transcendental condition of life itself. Such an aporetic condition is articulated phenomenologically, historically and even ontologically by different thinkers under such names as labour, matter, the real, Being-in-the-World, the other and the body, but the basic gesture remains the same: what is supposedly outside the sphere of the human, nature and life is constantly folded back inside it as its ‘ground’. If the classical philosophy of technology is a machine for producing the non-technological, in other words, then contemporary theories of originary technicity see themselves as a machine for revealing that technology is always already contaminating phusis, anamnësis, consciousness, ipseity or the living more generally. (Bradley, p. 22)

Against Land’s energetic-technics (neo-vitalist) capitalism as intelligent agent of artificialization and death-syndrome Negarestani turns to Ray Brassier’s cosmological re-inscription of the thanatropic drive:

Brassier’s cosmic reinscription of Freud’s thanatropic regression is an attempt to enact eliminativism as an ultimate vector of enlightenment and emancipative disenchantment. Yet to cosmically enact eliminativism, one must have a model to divest all horizons of interiority (from organisms to stars to galaxies and even matter itself) of their ontological potencies and so-called vitalistic opportunities for carrying on the life of thought. The model capable of guaranteeing such a great purge is Freud’s account of the death-drive. 28

Yet, this unhooking of Freud’s thanatropic vitalism from the Landian cosmos of capitalist dissipation into artificial intelligence is for Negarestani a utopian speculative enterprise at best:

By leaving the fundamental body and the primary front of the Landian definition of capitalism unharmed, Brassier’s own project of enlightenment ironically turns into a dormant ethico-political enterprise with an utopianistic twist. Brassier’s account of eliminativist enlightenment, in this sense, basks in the comforts of an utopianistic trust in opportunities brought about by the neurocognitive plasticity whilst peacefully cohabiting with capitalism on the same earth.29

Against both Land’s conservative vision and Brassier’s speculative cosmic nihilism Negarestani tells us there is a need to institute another form of inhumanist praxis: the programmatic objective of an inhuman praxis is to remobilize non-dialectical negativity beyond such Capital-nurturing conceptions of negativity. Without such a programmatic sponsor, alternative ethics of openness or politics of exteriorization, the speculative vectors of thought are not only vulnerable to the manipulations of capitalism but also are seriously impeded.30


  1. Paul Virilio, L’horizon négatif (Paris: Galilée, 1984), 59.
  2. Ibid., 16.
  3. Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991).
  4. Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, trans. Mark Politizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1986), 133.
  5. Paul Virilio, Fahren, fahren, fahren, trans. Ulrich Raul¤ (Berlin: Merve, 1978), 30.
  6. Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, trans. Mark Polizotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 44–45.
  7. Paul Virilio, The Lost Dimension, trans. Daniel Moshenberg (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 128.
  8. Virilio, L’horizon négatif, 288. 20.
  9. Virilio, Pure War, 46. 21.
  10. Ibid., 72, 99.
  11. Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (Radical Thinkers), Verso (June 9, 2009), 46.
  12. Virilio, Speed and Politics, 64.
  13. Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being. Harvard University Press (June 30, 2009)
  14. Virilio, L’horizon négatif, 90.
  15. Ibid., 174–75.
  16. Virilio, Pure War, 60.
  17. Ibid., 88, 75.
  18. Ibid., 115.
  19. Virilio, Aesthetics of Disappearance, 101.
  20. Land, Nick. Shanghai Times.  Urbanatomy Electronic; 1 edition (February 14, 2014).(Kindle Locations 120-122).
  21. Ibid., Shanghai Times (Kindle Locations 154-156).
  22. Shanghai Times (Kindle Locations 160-170).
  23. Armand, Louis; Bradley, Arthur; Zizek, Slavoj; Stiegler, Bernard; Miller, J. Hillis; Wark, McKenzie; Amerika, Mark; Lucy, Niall; Tofts, Darren; Lovink, Geert. Technicity (Kindle Locations 75-84). Litteraria Pragensia. Kindle Edition.
  24. Ibid., Technicity, (Kindle Locations 89-98).
  25. Ibid., Technicity, (Kindle Locations 101-115).
  26. Nick Land, ‘Machinic Desire’, Textual Practice, vol. 7, no. 3, 1993, p. 479.
  27. Negarestani, Reza.  Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy (The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, 2011)
  28. Ibid., p. 8.
  29. Ibid., p. 9.
  30. Ibid., p. 19.

 

 

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