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Accelerationism: questions after session 1, Mark Fisher and Ray Brassier

Transcribed from the Backdoor Broadcasting Company recording.

Alberto Toscano: I’m wondering if either of you actually think Land has a theory of capitalism. It seems to me simply an aesthetics, a very common extrapolation from a certain lyrical vision of capitalism which to one extent or another you famously encounter in the Communist Manifesto, which simply doesn’t seem to actually involve any theory, if by theory we also understand something which could find confirmation or refutation. You mentioned the “mad black Hegelianism” and “mad black Deleuzianism” and so on… and to one extent of another, that model of ever-going faster and deterritorializing has an inkling of truth, at the same time as it completely misunderstands, and which Deleuze and Guattari do understand, the opportunistic nature of the system in which this form of social life is valued. That’s where there is a gap between the aesthetic payoff, which is the most disavowed, narcissistic, humanist thing you could want. “Enjoying the death of the universe”: is there anything more pitifully human? On the one hand, there is this idea that that this is going to be really exciting, that speed is something you can experience, that destruction is something you can experience, and then on the other hand, the disappointing day-to-day reality of sausage patties and various other things.

From both of your presentations, what really struck me is this constant form of disavowal. I’m interested in this as a symptom of a certain theoretical and political moment. There is a disavowal of phenomenology, a virulent attack on phenomenology, and it ultimately turns out that the only thing which justifies this is a form of experience, a form of course inhuman[?] but nevertheless. You have this disavowed morality, and Jameson’s very good at pointing out that once you have these dualisms–the intensive and the extensive–you have morality all over again, you have disavowed teleology very clearly, you have disavowed vitalism, because capitalism as a network is this being which wants things and so on.

What strikes me is that this is a completely ideological position, and there is nothing wrong with ideology as such, but it’s a position that simply states things about the world because it would be more exciting for the world to be like that, rather than because there is anything which seems to give purchase to that account. And that might be mobilizing, cynically speaking, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into anything that would be recognizably a theory. I agree that compared to some of the homilies of left moralism, there’s a mobilizing kick to this, but it’s at a purely ideological level. I might agree that ideologically speaking it’s an interesting counterpart, but I wouldn’t say it’s an interesting theory.

Mark Fisher: I think Ray’s highlighted the issue of the whole status of theory, and that goes back to Lyotard in Libidinal Economy. There’s this hatred of the position of theory itself, that partly is a twisted response to a kind of Marxist moment, already to the whole reflexivity issue about what theory is doing, that “philosophy has merely interpreted the world”, etc. That’s the thing: it’s not enough. That’s the point of the conversations we were having at various points: it doesn’t matter what the theory is, theory is just part of the hyperstitional circuit of intensification.

In order to make it into a theory, you have to construe it in particular ways. He’s got a get-out clause in relation to that: it doesn’t matter if your theory is good, because theory is already bad and on the side of representation anyway. There’s reason to raise a very serious problem with that. It’s something inherited, I think, from Lyotard, who I emphasize above Deleuze and Guattari as the key figure here. That “scorched earth, burning the ground on which you walk” kind of position in relation to theory which Lyotard spectacularly, and inevitably, fails to generate in his own work is something that you could [take off? (unclear)]

Ray Brassier: I think the really interesting issue is the status of critique, of critical theory. Because in a way, at the start of his trajectory, it seems that he accepts the post-Hegelian, kind of Marxist critique of the sterility of philosophy, that it’s nothing more than a series of ideological symptoms. He wants to radicalize the critique of theory, but he says the question… in a way he turns the Marxist critique of philosophy against Marxist critical theory itself, and says: “What is it that you’re doing? In what way does this critical praxis actually intersect with …” If you take this minimalist definition of communism, simply as the movement to abolish the existing state of things, that the world is constantly changing, being transformed, and communism is simply the movement to abolish the existing state of things, and the communist task is somehow to facilitate this move, [then] all your theoretical activity must be governed by the imperative to connect and facilitate this movement.

Nick really agrees with this, but as we said, the bearer of this movement is no longer the revolutionary proletariat, it becomes capitalism itself. In a way, this is my fundamental disagreement with the premise of the whole account: if you begin by disavowing the relative autonomy of theory, and the need to negotiate with theoretical problems theoretically, the need to articulate the relation between theory and practice in theoretical terms, you end up with a kind of hyper-practicism, which is impotent as theoreticism. There’s a blind devotion to practice: we must do something, we must do something, we must intervene. Which ends up being as completely useless as the most abstruse hyper-critical, hyper-theoretical reflection.

So I think that the initial premise of the Landian trajectory, which I think he inherits from critical theory, from his tutors… well, not mentors, because he has a very antagonistic relationship to them, but from the Frankfurt school advocates by whom he was taught…

MF: The other argument against it is: if the appeal is to the hyperstitional efficacy of things, well, Nick’s texts had limited hyperstitional efficacy. They didn’t feed back into capitalism at all, which didn’t require them. Capitalism didn’t require hyperstitional intensification by Nick Land’s work. And that’s a serious objection. Because otherwise, what is it doing?

RB: Otherwise I’m sure he would have become a CEO or something.

MF: It was like waving a flag as the juggernaut of capitalism rushes past him. Why is that any better than trying to stem the flood of that juggernaut? It’s equally impotent. He’s completely undercut the position of any kind of agency at all, but then you raise the very simple question of why write anything? Unless you maintain a theory/practice distinction of at least a minimal kind, you don’t get a real mode of practice at all. Writing then becomes a hyper-representational thing. It’s like a dog chasing its tail, endlessly trying to produce a form of writing which would somehow transcode the intensities it’s alluding to into a pure form of intensity, which is why he ends up with strings of numbers.

The thing I will say about it is at least he took it seriously. And this is really rare, particularly amongst people in his position. He really took all of these issues seriously to the point of derangement. To the point where he was hearing voices… this is what’s so admirable about it.

RB: Ironically, the thing which makes his work most theoretically, conceptually interesting, and which is there right from the beginning, is this interest in signifying systems. He took this with his obsession of constructing a counter-signifying regime using numbers. This is one of the most fascinating moments of his project: to create an anti-logos. If logos is the medium of human rationality, of means-end reasoning, then the anti-logos, which would be a purely numerical medium…

MF: The digital alludes to the mathematical, doesn’t it?

RB: Yes..

MF: It’s not about a theory of numbers, it’s about a numerical practice…

RB: Yes, but a signifying practice, that signifies things which have never been and are conceptually unintelligible for anyone using the resources of current conceptual categories, etc. This is something of conceptual interest, which could be pursued independently of this whole practical thing, of connecting theory with capitalism.

Rob: Insofar as there’s this critique of organically individuated human subjects, for me it’s made more problematic by your invocation of so many proper names of male philosophers, albeit all with “-ism”s on the end. And can I also observe that–and I know what the occasion of this day is–but the oscillation between “the Landian trajectory” and then occasionally switching back and forward into “Nick”, in a sense you’re inscribing the difficulty of your own opposition, with this romance element in that, so if I could just observe that as something which seems to me problematic. If you’re going to maintain this argument to the extent which you seem to be theoretically outlining it, you should dispense with all the proper names whatsoever.

MF: Well, no, there was a perfectly valid theory of proper names in Deleuze and Guattari. Why do you think that proper names refer to organic individuals?

Rob: Uh, because when they then revert to “Nick”… [unintelligible]

MF: That’s just another form of… [unintelligible]

Rob: Well, I’m just making an observation; I’m not making a huge…

RB: I can see your [point]…

Rob: The reason I raise this was to ask Mark, that if you are raising questions of praxis, of the idea of the human, then I think one of the most powerful ideas on the Left at the moment is Zizek’s insistence on the idea of sovereign decision. And you are talking about the remorselessness and so forth, the predator or terminator quality of capitalism. So there is, in this hopeful idea, a kind of alternative to that too, which may require a certain idea of the individual, which is the ability to be absolutely remorseless back. And I’ll give two examples of this, one of which you’ll know very well.

In Anouilh’s Antigone, at one point Antigone says a wonderful thing to Creon. She says: “I’m here to say no to you, and then to die.”

The second one, which I know you know, is of the chief leader in Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, who in that brilliant early scene, will not let go of the adversary. So there’s an idea of militancy which is inconceivable without some kind of idea of absolute counter-remorselessness, to be the terminator back.

Which is why I’m making the quite serious point about the necessity to allow for the fact that the individual, whether in the form of Nick or proper names, remains in the equation, no matter how much one may want to theorise it out, and I don’t think one should.

Pete: Mine follows on from Alberto’s. Leaving the problems of the relation between theory and practice behind, and just sticking within theory, I’m wondering whether there’s not an additional problem with this kind of metaphysics of capitalism, whether giving capitalism some kind of special or privileged place in your metaphysics or of thinking capitalism from a particularly metaphysical standpoint actually prevents or disables concrete empirical critique of the social structures involved in capitalism. Does this metaphysics of capitalism corrupt genuine empirical study of it?

Alex: I probably agree with Rob to a limited extent, on the point that I think it’s somewhat illegitimate to attempt to valorise someone like Land via a romantic-individualistic conception, even though we might want to use his name to indicate the works collected underneath it. But thinking a bit more broadly, I really wanted to ask Ray about the dissolution of theory into pure practical self-generating matter, on which I think he’s absolutely correct. But isn’t it partly because of the inadequacy of thought to bind the absolute intensity i.e. =0, =death, he necessarily nominates an inorganic bearer to be able to think and experience that?

RB: Yes, absolutely. And in that regard, I consider myself an idealist, opposed to a materialist, as I insist on the need to preserve the relative autonomy of thinking, and the cogency and the consistency of thinking, and of conceptual rationality, precisely in order to be able to adjudicate the relationship between thinking and reality, between theory and practice, and also it’s an enabling condition for practice. In other words, if you try to fuse thought into material reality indiscriminately, I think that leads to an impotent short-circuit. So I would insist on defending the representational structures that are simply attacked… it’s a caricature of representation that’s being attacked, it’s a straw man. Representation here, and theoretical representation in particular, is a straw man.

I want to defend the imperatives of conceptualization, and even a kind of dialectics, as although I agree with what Nick says about the way in which death is a marker for real identity of matter itself, the point is that you should never confuse the symbolic marker for the thing in itself. You need a much more careful and subtle articulation of those terms–actually, between zero, one, and two–to explain the autonomy of thought and rationality and of thinking. Not to put too fine a point on it, so that you can maintain and generate a locus of rational agency. In other words, keep a space of subjectivation open that provides a prism for practical incision, a point of insertion. And that has to be done, and I think this involves re-examining the legacy of Hegel, and of Hegelianism. In other words, to maintain a kind of conceptual rationality that necessitates transformation at the level of practical existence. It requires a lot of theoretical work to do this. I would insist on the need to preserve the autonomy of rationality as something that allows you to intervene, to cut, in the continuity.

Alex: Yeah, me too. This is very much the thing that Land doesn’t just remove as an option; I mean, any ability to intervene is deliberately abjured. There is no agency at all for Land. Well, there’s a paradox, there’s this strange excrescence of subjectivity which his project seeks to almost practically erase because of the difficulties that it presents, but there is obviously a paradox there as for him it’s kind of unintelligible on some level; for him I think the real aim of his project is towards this kind of obliteration of this problematic thing. It’s almost self-refuting to that extent. He wants to close this void, this excision into the world.

RB: I think that’s a problem.

MF: As for Pete’s problem, I guess my own work is much more towards the very empirical study of capitalism. I’m not fully sure of the answer to that question, but I think it’s a good question. Of course, you’re in danger of doing capitalism its own work for it, or are you? That’s the weird thing. Part of the problem of Nick’s work is that capitalism cannot identify with it. That he is the cheerleader for capitalism is absurd. Of course, capitalism couldn’t work if it advertised itself as what it really is: the remorseless terminators which suck up all human intelligence and metabolize it, etc. In fact it requires an utterly inane set of cultural conditions: PR couldn’t be further from this Landian model of identity disintegration, the absolutely banal world of PR and of advertising, etc. [unintelligible] Even if it’s irrelevant, it’s happening anyway. It could be teletubbies, it’s indifferent, it doesn’t matter. I think there is an important question to what extent we need to talk about capitalism in this metaphysical way in order to demystify it, or if it’s the danger of the demystification… [unintelligible] contours of it.

In terms of Rob’s question, no-one’s claiming that individuals don’t exist. If you’re a Marxist, that’s the problem, that’s where you’re starting from. One of the great virtues of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of capitalism is that you could have this massive planetary deterritorialization and destratification, this unnameable thing on one hand, but on the other hand, how it operates is by the production of a banal biographical individualism. And we can see that everywhere. This is where Nick is wrong: there is no tendency towards the decoding of individual identity in capitalism. It improvises new and increasingly inane forms of subjective personalization.

Rob: So why give up terminator to the bad guys?

MF: No, I don’t want to at all!

Rob: The usefulness of the metaphor, these figures of militant implacability, why cede those?

MF: The terminator is interesting as the agent of an impersonal process, that’s the thing that I value. I don’t think we should cede it at all, I think we should to steal it back and that’s what leftist accelerationism is. It’s not a question of stealing it back, either; accelerationism starts off as a Marxist thing, I think, then Land tries to steal some of that intensity. Anyway, as Ray was saying, it’s bizarre, neoliberalism then becomes the agent of this planetary terminator desubjectification program. Which, on an empirical level, is manifestly absurd, I would say.

Alex[?]: I want to bring it back to politics. One of the things being said today is that we should take accelerationism as a guide to practical political action. It strikes me there are two pitfalls to this. Firstly, when we talk about Deleuze and Guattari and Anti-Oedipus, we have to really place it back in the context in which it was written: just after 1968, in France. People believed the revolution was around the corner, and the book is very much written in that tone. If we look at A Thousand Plateaus, by the late 70’s there’s a much more sober tone. It’s “well, you can’t deterritorialize too much”, and the book has all these images of people who did deterritorialize too much: drug addicts, and so on. And there’s talk about lines of death, that too much deterritorialization leads to fascism.

And if we look at the futurists, who were perhaps the original accelerationists, it’s perhaps not coincidential that there is a link between futurism and fascism. Not necessarily a logical one, but nonetheless that’s clearly one of the paths futurism can go down. So my first question is: if we do go down the accelerationist path politically, how do we know that’s going to be emancipatory or progressive in any way, are there not lots of lines of death that we risk encountering or following?

The second problem is a concrete problem which I think Ray identified, which is that you can easily go down the road of a pure instrumentality: in order to get to this particular end, we should do things which support causes or processes that we don’t inherently like, whether it be liberalism or whatever. And in a way we’ve been here before: all sorts of Trotskyite entryism, ideas like “it’s got to get a lot worse before it can possibly get better”, and historically that kind of politics has been quite disastrous, mostly. So, how do we avoid these two pitfalls?

MF: It’s not about accelerating just anything whatsoever about capitalism. It’s about going back to the fundamental insight of the Communist Manifesto, that capitalism makes available certain possibilities that didn’t previously exist in any social system. As Jameson says, this is the most collective society ever to exist on earth. It’s the society of total, global, interdependence. So it’s then a question, and this is where I think the “Wal-Mart as Utopia” essay is really interesting, of how we maximise the potentials which capitalism inhibits. That’s a strategic question. It’s not that we will just make everything faster, and everything worse, and why would it be worse, actually?

There are some fairly benign examples of interesting things in capitalism at the moment, but we don’t know where they’re going: decommodification, which somehow seems integral to a certain logic of certain aspects of capitalism. In recorded music, which is tending towards a state of either decommodification or zero-price as a commodity, and this is coming about through capitalism. Something like the internet, again, has emerged through capitalism and at the moment is locked into certain tendencies because of capitalism. So it’s a strategic question of how we can instrumentalize something like the internet, which would not have happened without capitalism in the form that it has, in order to achieve goals that capitalism cannot and will not ever achieve. It’s a question of strategic instrumentalization, not making things worse and hoping that it gets so bad that people will revolt. That’s not a form of accelerationism that I would advocate.

RB: But with instrumentalization then you’re back to a kind of teleology, a means-end reasoning, that’s the problem I think.

MF: But in politics that’s not a problem, you have to have that means-end reasoning.

RB: But can you square that with full-blown accelerationist [metaphysics?]?

MF: But they can’t be squared anyway. As you said, that kind of accelerationism for its own sake is incoherent, both pragmatically and conceptually. The only kind of accelerationism that would make sense is an instrumental one, not an absolute one, which as you’ve indicated is a nonsense anyway.

Rob: Why aren’t we then describing this as the reform of capitalism? Why aren’t we saying “there are certain bits of capitalism we like, there are bits we don’t like, we want to keep the bits we like…”

MF: Because they are not bits of capitalism. Those things that we want to accelerate are locked by capitalism in a way which necessarily blocks that. So it’s not a case of reforming, it’s a case of escaping out of capitalism, so that they can deliver these extra potentials which capitalism will inevitably block. And they must do so. Reform will say “stay in the capitalist framework, these things will eventually reach their potential.” I’d say that’s just not true, they never will.