Siding With The Machines

Robin Mackay & Armen Avanessian (eds.), #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader

Urbanomic, 536pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780957529557

reviewed by Alex Andrews

Pre-hashtagged and pre-branded, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s ‘#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (MAP) dropped onto an unsuspecting internet last year, occasioning commentary, angry denunciations, satire and some acclaim. The central gambit was that in contrast to ‘a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism’ – the obvious immediate target being 2008’s Occupy protests in the United Kingdom – the political left must embrace ‘an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.’ Rather than recover a time before capitalism or return to one of capitalism’s more benevolent formulations, Accelerationism believes the only way out is through ‘accelerating’ the elements of capitalism that point outside of itself.

Recovering a theme from older arguments against capitalism, Srnicek and Williams say that ‘not only is capitalism an unjust and perverted system, but it is also a system that holds back progress. Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed.’ Aesthetically, it tends towards experimental high-modernism and science fiction. Philosophically, it respects natural and social science, fuses analytic with continental philosophy and signals the desire for a ‘completion of the Enlightenment project of self-​criticism and self-​mastery, rather than its elimination.’

A year later, this volume (available with or without chilli sauce) attempts two tasks: to uncover the history of these ideas and to present some of the currents in the present day as fresh political configuration.

Coined by theorist Benjamin Noys, ‘accelerationism’ was originally a pejorative description of certain theoretical trends in the early 1970s in France. For contemporary accelerationism, there is therefore some work to be done sifting through and criticising the material of this period. Yet, the interest here stretches far beyond this, with the volume exploring everything from imaginative images of the future, to political theory, to the possibility of artificial intelligence, the status of the human/machine relationship and the possibility of human life beyond the earth itself.

Texts from the 19th and early 20th centuries begin the first of three historical sections. As well as Marx’s brilliant ‘Fragment On The Machines’, Samuel Butler’s text from 1872 is incredible: ‘the air we breathe is hardly more necessary for our animal life than the use of any machine … it is the machines that act on man and make him man.’ Although originally imagined partially as satire, Butler strikingly imagines humanity reduced to the status of domestic animals by future machines ‘and will probably be better off in a state of domestication.’ In a 1906 extract, Nikolai Federov sees humanity as involved in a ‘common task’ to escape to the stars performing spectacular feats rendered possible by technology. The ambition of space travel – and its dynamics of escape – are an important touch point for Accelerationism. A shiny new iPhone is slightly less cool than voyaging amongst the stars.

The second section sees the genesis of accelerationism proper in the 1970s. Central is a particular strand in Deleuze and Guattari’s 1972 Anti-Oedipus, which introduced the idea of describing capitalism through movements of ‘deterritorialisation’ and ‘reterritorialisation’. The deterritorialising movement is the destruction of traditional systems of power and their abstraction: one can think of capitalism’s liquidating of the feudal system or the way in which all goods are abstracted from their origin point in space and time to be exchanged purely through a price. However, in order to remain intact, capitalism requires movements of reterritorialisation, the partial reinsertion of those very institutions deterritorialisation abstracted in a modified form. Reterritorialisations often take the form of the nation, the family or most commonly the state: ‘One sometimes has the impression that the flows of capital would willingly dispatch themselves to the moon if the capitalist State were not there to bring them back to earth,’ write Deleuze and Guattari. Considering capitalism requires both movements, Deleuze and Guattari ask if perhaps the revolutionary strategy is not to retreat from deterritorialisation, but allow it to conclude – to push it so far that it cannot be reterritorialised. ‘To go still further, that is, in the movement if the market, of decoding and deterritorialisation … Not to withdraw from the process, but … to “accelerate the process.”’

While Deleuze and Guattari were satisfied in modifying Marxism, Jean Francois Lyotard’s texts are more willing to junk the whole thing. Writing in his self-proclaimed ‘evil book’, 1974’s Libidinal Economy, Lyotard writes that rather than the working class accepting some saviour from their supposed alienation, it should be admitted that ‘one can enjoy swallowing the shit of capital, its materials, its metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pates … And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy – for what? – does not disgust us, even more.’ Lyotard, at least in these texts seeks ‘not those which aim to overthrow the system of Capital, which as opposed to Marxism has never ceased to be revolutionary, but those that completed its rhythm in all it’s radicality.’

In the 1990s, the Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit (CCRU), here collated in the Cyberculture section, took Lyotard very seriously indeed. A loose group of ‘rogue academics’ centred around Nick Land and Sadie Plant, the CCRU were an outgrowth of the University of Warwick’s philosophy department. The group'’ methodology was to consume large quantities of pharmaceuticals and read a combination of cybernetics, the high French theory collected in this volume, cyberpunk and esoteric literature (HP Lovecraft and the I Ching were favourites) while listening to jungle music. The resulting experimental texts may come across as postmodern to the untrained eye but the CCRU were sworn enemies of postmodernism, considered themselves to be thorough going materialists who struck an apocalyptic tone and sought the ‘destitution of the human subject and its integration into the artificial mechanosphere’ – accepting the true revolution of capitalist machinery that was near to full consciousness and accelerating towards it at ‘maximum slogan density.’ Watching The Terminator films they were certainly on the side of the machines.

The results are highly variable, ranging from the striking to the utterly silly, but the CCRU should be acknowledged as one of the first groups to genuinely consider just how much computer technology had transformed what it was to be human and to recognise the ways in which online communities transform the offline, ideas now commonplace. While we can learn almost nothing about the way society actually functions from these near delirious texts, their prose at least whips along like an occasionally utterly ludicrous doom-laden inlay case. The historical interest should be on just how much influence this moment had on the formation of this book and UK culture more widely. The volume's co-editor, Robin Mackay, was a graduate student at Warwick at the time as were contributors Mark Fisher, Iain Hamilton Grant, Lucian Parisi and (later) Ray Brassier. Urbanomic (the publisher of this volume) produce philosophy journal Collapse which was first formulated in the CCRU days, a publication that virtually introduced the burgeoning speculative realist philosophy movement to the world. CCRU associate Steve Goodman’s label Hyperdub resulted in Burial's Mercury Prize nominated album and the popularisation of the dubstep genre.

CCRU had its own apocalypse when, in the words of Robin Mackay, ‘in any normative, clinical, or social sense of the word, very simply’ Nick Land went ‘mad’. Entering a drug and theory induced psychosis, Land left academia only to reemerge years later as a travel reporter in China, the CCRU somewhat lesser for his absence. In the intervening time his politics had totally departed from anything resembling leftism, having now tied himself to the burgeoning online neo-reactionary movement – ‘geeks for monarchy’ as Wired has called them – a form of strange techno-utopian third position fascism that calls for an ‘Exit’ from the supposed total power of the ‘politically correct’ liberal establishment, jargonised as ‘The Cathedral’. A group of sort of right-wing libertarians ‘mugged by reality’ and drifting further right. It is baffling why his current voice is allowed to be represented here in the final section of a book for a left wing project, given that his current stance includes amongst other unsavoury things a belief in scientific racism, so-called human biological diversity, boostering Nicholas Wade’s widely condemned  (especially by scientists working in the field of evolution) neo-racist tract A Troublesome Inheritance. Those wishing to do damage to this work would certainly find an easy target in the presence of a proud racist as a contributor.

In contrast to these wild ideas the contemporary accelerationist texts seem comparatively sober. Indeed, there seems to be a lack of connection between the earlier historical chapters and the political project of the present day presented in the MAP. Allowing the dehumanising and abstracting force of capital to totally strip everything recognisably human - as was the real desire of the 1990s Nick Land – was at very least a distinctive political brand. The contemporary Accelerationist project – repurposing particular elements of capitalist society to launch a post-capitalist future – seems a considerably more modest project. The 1990s texts seem inserted as a matter of provocation, which has its place but seems unwise when you are trying to rally support for your political cause. The book could have been shorter and better without them and would have allowed room for other dissenting and critical voices into the discussion, which would have made for a more convincing argument.

Here though long time revolutionary Antonio Negri makes some interesting comparisons between the manifesto and his own work and Tiziana Terranova makes a rare foray into some pragmatic suggestions. Two hardcore philosophical essays from Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani drift widely from the content of the manifesto but are very interesting indeed.

Negarestani’s very dense essay proposes the project of ‘inhumanism’, the completion of the project of Enlightenment humanism that intends a ‘commitment to humanity’ that jettisons theological glorifications of humanity while retaining human significance – specifically the human ability to have bootstrapped reason into existence. Reason for Negarestani is autonomous, collective and independent from the given facts of the world, while rule-governed and revisable. Reason, says Negarestani, should be allowed to reconstruct and revise what humanity is, washing away the pictures of what the human is and can be like waves washing away self-portrait of humanity in the sand – ‘commitment to humanity via the concurrent construction and revision of the human as orientated and regulated by the autonomy of reason.’ Since reason is independent of humanity, it can also be made artificial, turning into a discussion of artificial intelligence. Negarestani offers us no immediate reasons here that we should (disturbingly) become ‘slaves to reason’ as a condition of our freedom but it is a bracing argument.

Brassier’s essay is on philosophers who believe that the human can never be fully defined, which turns on questions of suffering and the alleged need for humans to properly embrace their limitations and finitude. Brassier proposes a ‘Promethianism’ in the face of this that defies these limitations. Sadly, Nick Land reappears here to explain how markets will become conscious with little more than the fact he remains an occasionally diverting stylist to provide evidence that this is the case.

Overall, one cannot help but feel this is an interesting collection of writings capturing a particular moment of continental political theory, alongside interesting philosophical and political reflections. But as political ‘coming out’ it feels like it prefers annoyance over persuasion to its view - rather too satisfied by its ‘edgy’ status and its affront to what is taken as the status quo. This is not to even begin to consider if any renewed commitment to ‘Enlightenment values’ would cope with material history of the implication of these values during their first statement in white male heterosexual supremacy, projecting a construction of ‘civilising’ reason in the global project of colonialism and slavery. Seventy years of critique of the Enlightenment cannot merely be brushed aside, but must be certainly be carefully addressed. Neither can the fact that so much other contemporary exaltation of the Enlightenment accompanies commitment to muscular liberalism and airstrikes - something contemporary accelerationism would also have to diversify its own brand from. Pages of Lyotard from the 1970s do not convince.

But there is another more pressing issue with accelerationism, that could easily arise from capitalism’s apologists. We know that capitalism as currently constituted provides great technological innovation. We also know that it creates vast inequality. However, what is to recommend this project over simply patching capitalism to take this into account? We know that, through market competition, creating capitalist technology at least ‘works’?  For many on the left a lot is taken as read, but the intention here is to reach beyond these traditional pools of support so such arguments would be necessary. The unknown future of Accelerationism would be a great risk – one that also lacks the ‘people’ the mass movement to enact it. Would not a reformist project be more ‘realist’ and a better use of ‘cognitive resources’?

Indeed, Patricia Reed's contribution notes that both it’s supporters and detractors are caught up in the ‘buzz of a name that, unfortunately, obfuscates the content.’ She proposes a ‘Slightly less tantalising but more honest’ label, ‘Reorientate’. It is, she admits, ‘practically reformist … about directing existing energies in (as yet) inexistent directions.’ But how vast would that re-orientation need to be? Is any action even needed?

Jeffrey Rifkin, in the almost simultaneously-released The Zero Marginal Cost Society, argues that capitalism has already nearly caused itself to be superseded without a large scale leftist re-engineering. The authors would have to work much harder to explain how the bad features are so intrinsic to capitalism that they could not be patched and how an unknown post-capitalism would be necessarily superior while still retaining those gains. To repurpose a phrase, the Financial Times might reply to all this: if you like capitalism so much why don't you go live there?