It is thus necessary to make a distinction between speed and movement: a movement may be very fast, but that does not give it speed; a speed may be very slow, or even immobile, yet it is still speed. Movement is extensive; speed is intensive. Movement goes from point to point; speed, on the contrary, constitutes the absolute character of a body whose irreducible parts (atoms) occupy or fill a smooth space in the manner of a vortex, with the possibility of springing up at any point.
- Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
Accelerationism is a community blog with several well known young philosophers investigating theories of an accelerated futurism: Tristam Adams, Jon Lindblom, Andrew Osborne, Benedict Singleton, Nick Srnicek, James Trafford, Tom Trevatt, Inigo Wilkins, Alex Williams, and Peter Wolfendale. I’ve covered much of this territory before (here) but thought I’d take a second look.
In a post Some Friendly Questions Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics fame tells us that the group has ”taken quite a bit of flack online since the site went up, some of it informed and well intentioned, some of it the complete opposite, and much of it lying at various points in between”. I admit to being critical of the manifesto (pdf) by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in my previous post. My friend Levi in a post affirming aspects of Srnicek and Williams manifesto mentioned in passing – commenting on my post, that “Perhaps I just completely fail to understand what the accelerationists are on about, but I find noir’s picture unrecognizable”. So I thought to myself: was my appraisal that far off base? Does this accelerationism deserve a second look? I thought “Okay, let’s give them the benefit of doubt, take another look, see exactly what it is they are saying to us.”
Wolfendale’s post relates answers to some questions provided by Tom O’Shea that he hopes will alleviate some of the criticisms as well us relaying vital information about this project. The first question “Does accelerationism collapse into mere futurism—simply substituting abstraction for mechanics (e.g. HFT for cars)?” deals with difference and could be expanded to include: what is the difference between accelerationism and futurism, what are the relations between the two concepts if any, and can we equate the two concepts or notions as equivalent, can the one be reduced to the other or vice versa? Wolfendale tells us succinctly that
“Accelerationism is in many ways an attempt to revive previous cultural and theoretical ways of relating to the future that have been suppressed, subverted, or otherwise simply degraded in the latter half of the 20th century to now. Amongst these the notions of modernism and futurism and the cultural movements associated with them are crucial predecessors to anything we’re doing.”
This revivication of modernism and futurism within a socio-cultural theoretic formation entails us to first understand just what was “suppressed, subverted, or otherwise degraded” by the post-modern turn that seems to be the central to their argument. If this is so then we need first to understand what these new accelerationists see from that historical matrix of ideas and concepts alleged under the notions of modernism and futurism. Ezra Pound probably typified in his statement: “Make if New!” the essential screed of the modernist ethic. Yet, modernism cannot be reduced to simple screeds, it is too complex, too full of antagonistic elements and movements to be reduced to an essentialist discourse of any type or persuasion. Harold Rosenberg once argued that the progenitor of modernism was none other than the poet, Baudelaire “who invited fugitives from the too narrow world of memory to come aboard with him in search of the New”. 1 Some have suggested that The Scream injects that sense of apprehension and angst that is central to the modernist spirit. As Peter Gay remarks in his seminal study of the period:
The Scream, widely considered the quintessence of modern angst, which he revisited in several versions from 1893 on, shows a scantily articulated figure— whether man or woman is impossible to determine— its hands clasped to its cheeks, its eyes staring, its mouth wide open, standing on a long bridge, with ominous clouds swirling around. We have it from Munch himself that the idea for this portrait of a nervous fit came to him after experiencing an overpowering anxiety attack. But usually its untold thousands of viewers have generalized his nightmarish vision and read The Scream as the artistic epitome of the nervous unease that observant contemporaries thought was haunting crowded and bustling urban existence in the 1890s.2
There were others within modernism that felt a need to open new spaces for thought, art, sociality, etc., and to do that they suggested we should begin by a few deft acts of destruction. In an extreme movement against the reactionary forces within bourgeois society the outspoken French Realist critic and novelist Edmond Duranty had suggested that the Louvre, that “catacomb,” be burned to the ground, an idea that the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro happily endorsed some two decades later. The demolition of these “necropolises of art,” he thought, would greatly advance the progress of painting. Indeed, at their most bellicose, modernists refused to entertain any traffic with what Gauguin snidely called “the putrid kiss of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.”(ibid. KL 424-430)
But then we come to the Italian Futurists, who, not unexpectedly, made destruction of these bourgeois institutions an ingredient in their immoderate program of aggression against contemporary culture: “We want to demolish the museums, the libraries,” exclaimed Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the group’s founder, in his Initial Manifesto of Futurism of 1909, “combat moralism, feminism, and all opportunistic and utilitarian acts of cowardice.” Hostility could hardly go further short of direct action. At its most central futurism was about speed: Futurists insist that literature will not be overtaken by progress; rather, it will absorb progress in its evolution, and will demonstrate that such progress must manifest in this manner because Man will use this progress to sincerely let his instinctive nature explode. Man is reacting against the potentially overwhelming strength of progress, and shouts out his centrality. Man will use speed, not the opposite. F. T. Marinetti was very active in Fascist politics until he withdrew in protest of the “Roman Grandeur” which had come to dominate Fascist aesthetics. Mussolini once said that the historic soil of Rome had ‘a magical power’. For fascism, the discovery and restoration of Roman ruins was mainly ‘symbolic archeology’, inspired by a mythical attraction towards a ‘sacred centre’ and a desire to come into contact with its ‘magical power’. The fascists also treated the ‘birth of Rome’ ceremony as an initiation ritual, intended to familiarize initiates with ‘romanita’. This ceremony was also inspired by ‘a “divine will”, by an imperial and powerful will’, through which ‘the new Italian resumes spiritual contact with ancient Rome.3 As Peter Gay remarks:
The Futurists’ public declamations, in large part written by their leader and self-appointed spokesman, Marinetti, and noted for their fierce anti-traditional and uninhibited tone, broadcast their case for bellicosity, together with calls for manliness. They were a blatant symptom of discontent with a foreign policy of compromise, and the anxiety about what many termed a nationwide failure of male self-confidence. This ideology made them ideal forerunners for the Fascists’ ambitious, if vague, agenda. Thus several elements of modernism entered Fascist culture with no need for translation. (Kindle Locations 6903-6907).
All of this brings us back to our New Accelerationists, and to the question that Wolfendale paraphrased as “in what ways are we not simply returning to these concepts/movements, but trying to inherit and develop them?” Wolfendale argues that instead of the nostalgic language of return, rehabilitation, or defence Accelerationism offers a model of inheritance and development. First, he tells us that this new accelerationist creed situates itself within a Hegelian tradition of dialectical historicism. Yet, against some of the more encrusted conceptual notions associated with Marxian absorption of Hegelian dialectic for historical materialism Wolfendale offers this ‘stripped-down’ version without the excess baggage of Marx’s various linguistic and conceptual trappings. Wolfendale disparages both Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek for what he terms their resurrection of Hegel, insofar as it just looks like Lacan/Sartre/Schelling wearing a Hegel mask.
“What of futurism and modernism then?,” asks Wolfendale. Applying his ‘minimalist dialectic’ he informs us that we can now separate the truth from the falsity that has been obscured by both the disparagement of post-modern turn theorists or sublimated by contemporary capitalist discourse out of touch with these radical notions. Against those supposed post-moderns he would revive Lyotard – who has fallen out of favor in recent critical history, saying, the “point is that Lyotard’s thought explicitly denies anything like a historical epoch of ‘postmodernity’, and that anything which self-identifies as postmodernism on the basis of an analysis of such an epoch is thus highly suspect.” The point is for the new accelerationist is to bypass postmodernity altogether as if it were itself an illusionary project that had no bearing on the return of modernism and futurism.
Instead he offers a Futurist Opportunism that opposes political nostalgia - any notion of a “return to the good old days of revolutionary praxis, etc.”, as well as opposing political activismis, which stuck in the moment, the eternal now, offers no view onto the future coming at us, and also opposes political eschatology“whose relationship to the future has become pathological”. Once is reminded of Matteo Pasquinelli who in his ‘Manifesto of UrbanCannibalism’, says, “if in the modern age ‘Europe was beginning to devour, to digest the world’, urban cannibalism is the nemesis of late capitalism”. Such apopcalypticisms offered an eschatology of the political that could open new spaces of struggle against a capitalist totality – methodologically reframing Western neoliberal economics – which on the one hand appears to be unavoidable, and on the other hand constantly changes its form. What these new accelerationist oppose is not so much this pop-culture of zombie capitalism discourse as it is any “consideration of future social transformations from both theoretical attempts to identify the enabling conditions of these transformations in the present and practical attempts to act upon them to bring about such transformations”. So its a need to find the new possibilities or conditions of the future in the present that might offer real change and social transformation that is at stake rather than some dire need to enter the post-apocalyptic wasteland of World War Z variety.
Wolfendale tells us that what accelerationsism is most against is the “bland techno-capitalist vision of incrementally upgrading of the present state of affairs, which lacks both plausibility and vision”. And that what we need are new visions, by “creating a new link to history, by finding opportunities in the present to appropriate trends from the past and accelerate them into the future”. Which makes it seem like accelerationism is a sort of ‘time-machine’ that is able to exploit opportunities within events of our moment, as well as movements still viable with events of the past – which makes me beg the question why they despise Badiou/Zizek so much, since this is much the same as what those two argue for in their ‘Idea of communism’ essays. And, not to be matched, they want to accelerate the present and past into the future. How is this possible? What concepts are notions of Time does this accelerationist philosophy conceive as its central insight? Do we enter this future through some speed machine, some strange twisting of time and gravity, a loop through the infinite wormhole of possibility; or, is our temporal registry skewed beyond our limited Kantian categories, bound to an engine of necessity that slows us to a standstill allowing the past and future to bleed into our present finitudes like so many small rivulets from a great river that has no beginning and no ending. “The imperative is to see both the past and the future in the present, in the nooks and crannies of the current system, and to exploit these mercilessly, without waiting for some deferred revolutionary horizon or mourning the passing of the old conditions that may have made it possible.” says, Wolfendale. In other words time is not some object situated in the past or future, it exists in the very movement of our present global system, waiting for us to exploit it without mercy or forethought. This is sounding more like Harman’s ‘Time is an Illusion’, or like Julian Barbour’s ideas of all those pockets of time sitting out there disconnected waiting to be exposed and manipulated, each isolated in their own eternal nows. If the past and future exist to be manipulated in this eternal now of our present moment then what is accelerationism? Is it a speeding up of the mind itself to light speed? Does the mind overcome the inertia of universal entropy? Do we suddenly allow the past and future to bleed into the present making our ability to change the political systems at will? Are do we anticipate the future by inventing it out of our past and present needs? Or, better yet, maybe it is the future that is inventing us out of the specters of past civilizations, cracking open the dead zones of lost realities, pulling out of their twisted faded shadow life the formations for our present dispositions?
From its beginnings Modernism and Futurism have practically embodied the experience of acceleration: “modernity is about the acceleration of time,” ran Peter Conrad’s influential formula. This is confirmed by the testimonies from the “epochal threshold” investigated by Koselleck as well as by the theoretical frameworks of “classical” sociology. From Simmel’s observation of the continuous “heightening of nervous life” in the modern metropolis to Weber’s analysis of the time discipline of the Protestant ethic, for which wasting time is the “the deadliest of all sins,” and from Durkheim’s fear of anomie as a result of overly rapid social change to Marx and Engel’s dictum that capitalism’s inherent tendency is to make all that is solid “melt into air,” classical sociological analyses of modernity can always be reconstructed as diagnoses of acceleration.4
So the key to Accelerationism is a new theory of Time or the temporal use of history and the future in the present. Could it be that the post-modern turn forgot about Time? That it formulated simulations in a void, created static models based on mathemes that were in themselves based on Platonic entities rather than the real processes of change in the world? Maybe the reason for this is above all a “forgetfulness of time” in twentieth-century social-scientific theory, which notoriously preferred “static” models of society and modeled the modernization process (almost entirely according to the analytical pattern of a “comparative statics”) along the dimensions of structural differentiation, cultural rationalization, the individualization of personality, and the domestication of nature (Hartmut p. 300). What if there was not just one monolithic past, present, and future but a plurality of bubbles or spheres of time? What then? What if there are many types of acceleration, and not all on the same time track, but colliding with each other in ways we have yet to understand?
What if we break it down into three complementary components of acceleration as Hartmut Rosa does in Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity:
1) technical acceleration, that is, the intentional acceleration of goal-directed processes. From this perspective, the acceleration history of modernity essentially represents a history of the progressive acceleration of transportation, communication, and production.
2) the acceleration of social change, that is, the escalation of the rate of social change with respect to associational structures, knowledge (theoretical, practical, and moral), social practices, and action orientations. As Hartmut puts it : Here “acceleration” means primarily the accelerated change of fashions, lifestyles, work, family structures, political and religious ties, etc. For the definition and empirical operationalization of this form of acceleration I drew on the concept of the contraction of the present introduced by Hermann Lübbe, but also justifiable on systems-theoretical grounds. Accordingly, “the acceleration of social change” means the following: the intervals of time for which one can assume stability in the sense of a general congruence of the space of experience and the horizon of expectation (and hence a secure set of expectations) progressively shrink in the various domains of society, whether these are understood in terms of values, functions, or types of action, although this shrinkage neither occurs in a unilinear way nor at the same tempo across the board. Thus the acceleration of social change can be defined as the increase of the rate of decay of action-orienting experiences and expectations and as the shortening of the periods of time that are defined as “the present” in the respective spheres of society.(p. 301)
3) the acceleration of the pace of life, represents a reaction to the scarcity of (uncommitted) time resources. This is why, on the one hand, it is expressed in the experience of stress and a lack of time, and, on the other, it can be defined as an increase in the number of episodes of action and/ or experience per unit of time.
Along with this is certain counter tendencies or antagonistic forces that seek to bind acceleration and curtail its effects. She terms these counter-dynamization processes: first, there are natural geophysical, biological, and anthropological speed limits, that is, processes that either absolutely cannot be manipulated or only at the price of a massive qualitative transformation of the process to be accelerated; second, there are territorial, cultural, and structural “islands of deceleration,” i.e., areas that are in principle susceptible to modernization and hence to processes of acceleration but that have, up till now, not been caught up in them or have managed (at least for the time being) to remain idle. They thus appear to be places where “time stands still.”; third, there are in many fields of action blockages and slowdowns occur again and again as unintended side effects of acceleration that can lead to dysfunctional and, to some extent, pathological consequences. The most well-known example of this is the traffic jam, though economic recessions and forms of depressive illness can also be placed under this heading. Yet beyond this, acceleration-induced unintended slowdown also occurs at the interface points of functional systems or processing cycles when these prove to be capable of acceleration to different extents, which causes desynchronization problems that are expressed in unwanted waiting times: for instance, when the new long-distance express train arrives at the station twenty minutes earlier than the old long-distance train did, but the local commuter train comes at the same time it did before; fourth, there are phenomena of intentional deceleration, which appear in two different forms: either as “functional” or “accelerative” deceleration in the sense of individual and collective moratoria or phases of recuperation (as in the four-week retreat of a CEO to the tranquillity of a monastery) that ultimately serve the goal of further increases of speed (for example, in the form of an increased capacity for innovation) or as “ideological” deceleration movements that often have a fundamentalist or antimodernist character and aim at genuine social slowdown or a stalling of the acceleration process in the name of a better society and a better form of life. This idea of deceleration may even be on the verge of becoming the dominant counter-ideology of the twenty-first century; and, fifth, there are cultural and structural phenomena that embody a tendency toward rigidity. This tendency does not appear to be a self-standing principle, but rather the paradoxical flip side of social acceleration. These phenomena constitute the basis for the experience of an uneventfulness and standstill that underlies the rapidly changing surface of social conditions and events, one that accompanies the modern perception of dynamization from the very beginning as a second fundamental experience of modernization. It is often precisely in phases of an intense surge of acceleration that this phenomenon is reflected individually in manifestations of “ennui” or “existential boredom” and collectively in the diagnosis of cultural crystallization, or the “end of history,” but in both cases as the perception of a return of the ever same.(303-304)
It was Niklas Luhmann among other representatives of systems theory who defended the idea that the principle of functional differentiation is generally accompanied by the heightening and temporalization of complexity: decisions are not all made simultaneously, but rather a growing number are displaced into the future, thus constantly increasing the amount of open and realizable options. So the notion of accelerating our options and programs into the future has its own lineage. If the Enlightenment project can be seen as the temporalization of history with its concomitant of speed, then post-modernity can be seen as the detemporalization of history into static modes of life. In our time we are seeing the political project of modernity coming possibly to its end as a result of the desynchronization of socioeconomic development and political action. The dialectical inversion of acceleration and movement into rigidity and standstill, which is, so to speak, the leitmotif of my analysis of the modern acceleration process, culminates in a “postmodern” political culture that dispenses with the claims to autonomy and identity that have always characterized the project and ethos of modernity.(314)
Ours has been seen as the age of ‘Time Sickness’, of too little time and too much speed all colliding in a time-induced void that offer ‘pathologies of change’ rather than change itself. Caught between modes of acclerationism/decelerationism we find ourselves pulled by forces into temporal dilemmas that have opened wounds in our collective as well as singular psyches, opening flows that end in stasis, or produce blockages that open onto chaos and timeless contingencies. Because of this the old critiques of alienation must become for us a Critique of Time. As our socioeconomic and technocapitalist spheres of influence seep between time past,present, and future, and our movements speed up in endless cycles of rage, our ability to control those forces through collective decision making processes are slowing down to zero. And more the acceleration of technique leads to the apparent slowdown and collapse of the environment and natural resource base that sustains this acceleration process.
What we are seeing in our time is the end of the Enlightenment project, an end to modernity and postmodernity as new forms of posthuman subjectivity begin to open up alternative paths and lines of flight, and make inroads from the future into our present moments. New modes of perception, new ways to process speed, and new forms of individual and collective self-relations are even now in the midst of forming as these new modes of existence insert themselves within the wounds or interstices of our forgotten lives. What these new modes of existence and posthuman subjectivity might entail are still open possibilities, yet fragments of that future lie scattered everywhere in our present moments waiting to be awakened and put into play. How we approach this maddening moment as the forces of acceleration/deceleration seem locked in eventful battle is undecided and undecideable. Yet, the breaking of the symmetry of time in synchronic-diachronic lines of flights are bifurcating outward even now.
Long before these forces play themselves out and before that point is reached when capital consumes the last of earth’s resources these ‘pathologies of acceleration’ might well have replaced us with our posthuman progeny through some as yet unknown bifurcation in time. Yet, if we can establish a temporal critique worthy of a new Posthuman project who can say what possibilities will remain to us as we open that past and that future in our present moments of empirical movement. Cracking open the dark rift that bars us from that future where our own singularities await us on the final speed bump at the edge of time, we may just discover the unique potential that awaits the human species itself as the conditions for its own possibilities flowers into a thousand resilient forms. If Utopia is only the possibility of hope that keeps us following those lines of flight toward impossible futures, and its opposite is the dystopic entropy of a false stasis at the end of the line enfolding us into that dark abyss from which there is no exit, then what is the path between - the one that offers us the only balancing act worth having and living, that of reality itself?
I’ll need to stop now… there are other questions in his post I’d like to take up at another time…
1. Harold Rosenberg. The Tradition of the New. (1959)
2. Gay, Peter (2010-08-16). Modernism: The Lure of Heresy (Kindle Locations 2004-2010). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
3. Fascism as Political Religion. Emilio Gentile. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 25 No. 2/3 (May-Jun., 1990) pp. 229-251)
4. Rosa, Hartmut (2013-05-21). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (New Directions in Critical Theory) (pp. 299-300). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.