The Accelerationist Vertigo (II): Interview with Robin Mackay

Mackay is the director of the arts and research project Urbanomic. He is co-editor, with Armen Avanessian, of the #Accelerate reader.

F-100D in trial of zero-length-launch system. Source: Wikipedia

F-100D in trial of zero-length-launch system. Source: Wikipedia.

The following conversation with Robin Mackay took place by e-mail in summer 2014. Mackay is the director of the arts and research project Urbanomic. He is co-editor, with Armen Avanessian, of the #Accelerate reader, a compilation of recent and classic texts that offer an overview of the roots and offshoots of the accelerationist movement.  With Luk Pendrell and James Trafford, Mackay has also recently co-edited Speculative Aesthetics, a collection of essays that brings together the discursive lines of Speculative Realism, contemporary art and accelerationism.

(Roc Jiménez de Cisneros) My initial reaction when I first started reading about accelerationism was that it is all about context: to a certain extent, what makes accelerationism radical-sounding is the fact that it is coming from the left. The neoliberal right has always pretty much advocated the same thing, perhaps not going as far as to destroy the system. But there is an intrinsic recklessness embedded in what Tim Morton calls ‘agrilogistics’ that is part of what led to the current situation to begin with. What is your take on that sort of paradox?

(Robin Mackay) That’s been one of the reactions to the book: that adopting a stance that is pro-technological manipulation and which advocates the continuing transformation of the human and of society is at once a betrayal of the humanitarianism of the left, and risks compounding capitalism’s reckless expansionism and depredation of the earth. However, I don’t think accelerationism, or Prometheanism, is necessarily synonymous with this recklessness—at least, it is no more complicit in it than is a left politics that is happy to simply critique and protest while keeping its hands clean.

The striking thing is, of course, that left politics should have almost without remainder ceded the Promethean impulse to the right. While at the same time, in neoliberalism, the rhetoric of ‘revolutionary technological change’ has become a marketing slogan for fairly anodyne developments. So where is the ambition and the vision? Of course, in certain quarters of the liberal and radical left alike, ambition and vision are themselves seen as mere symptoms of an unacceptable instrumentalising, dominating rationality, and therefore as ‘part of the problem’. At its simplest, accelerationism is just a reclaiming of that ambition and vision that progressive politics once had.

And it’s important to realise that there are many ‘accelerationisms’. This indeed was the primary reason for publishing the book: when ‘accelerationism’ began to emerge over the last few years, as a constellation of positions coming from various quarters (both theoretical and political philosophy, art and design) it referred back to diverse previous moments such as Marx’s writings on machines, Russian cosmism, the work of Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard in the 70s, and Nick Land, Sadie Plant, and CCRU’s more recent work in the 90s. The first aim of the book is to trace this genealogy, to take note of all the different nuances and disagreements possible within a broadly accelerationist position, and above all to see how, at each stage, new accelerationisms tend to adopt some features of their forerunners and reject others. The second aim is to ask what accelerationism could mean now, whether it is or could be a coherent theoretical and political position.

Going back to recklessness, that’s certainly present in the 90’s ‘cyberculture’ era, where, carrying further the heresies of Lyotard at the moment of his 1974 book Libidinal Economy (which he himself later recanted), the human and human politics (what Land calls the ‘Human Security System’) is seen to be irrevocably repressive, a ‘drag’ on the process of auto-sophisticating intelligence, on the planetary mutation that is capitalism. And, in turn, since capitalism tends to dissolve hereditary social forms and restrictions, given that it is not a social system but the negative of all social systems, it is seen as the engine of exploration into the unknown. So to be ‘on the side of intelligence’ is to totally abandon all caution with respect to the disintegrative processes of capital and whatever reprocessing of the human and of the planet they might involve.

In some of the more recent writings on accelerationism, and in particular Williams’ and Srnicek’s Accelerationist Manifesto, there is an attempt—which may seem rather paradoxical, to be sure—to meld this belief that ‘the only way out is to go forward’ with a more traditional set of concerns about social and political justice. According to this point of view, the historical product of capitalism must be positively factored into any possible liberatory politics: for instance, pursuing a localist agenda against globalization, or organising happenings where you gesture symbolically towards ‘other possible worlds’ without engaging in the concrete questions about the construction of new platforms for trading, communication, etc., and the legacy of the existing ones, is necessarily going to be ineffective – it simply leads to a disconnected, aestheticised, feel-good politics. For a start, to withdraw from globalisation and, for example,  retrench into local organic food and power production at this point in history would mean that many people on this overpopulated planet would simply have to die off… So, there is a kind of realism here about left politics facing up to the aspects of capitalist development that are effectively irreversible. But at the same time it’s not a reckless abandonment to capitalism, because one of the main tenets of the new accelerationism is to avoid what, in philosophy, is called the ‘genetic fallacy’: just because something was produced within the sociopolitical framework of capitalism, doesn’t mean that it is somehow forever irrevocably tainted by capitalist modes of production. There’s a ‘redeploy and reuse’ strategy which I think is put forward as a realist alternative to the hopeless miserablism that comes out of thinking that all of human life is absorbed by capitalism and there’s no way out except by looking backwards—or dreaming of a total, absolute break, a miraculous event that would enable us to start over.

Speculative Aesthetics. Eds. Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, James Trafford.

Speculative Aesthetics. Eds. Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, James Trafford.

To a certain extent (and apologies for the kinda clumsy analogy), accelerationism makes me think of the use of toxins in vaccines, in that it suggests an alternative by actually allowing the thriving of the very thing it wants to overcome. I keep thinking there must be other examples of this sort of strategy (not just in biology) but I couldn’t think of more. Any other non-sci-fi analogies/comparisons you’d like to point out that could work as a metaphor (or an inspiration) for accelerationist ideas?

This goes back to the same question of ‘real subsumption’ i.e. that human life in its entirety has been absorbed and is now capitalism’s bitch. That’s something we can all identify with… but on the level of a political vision it’s obviously a counsel of despair; at best it calls for constant vigilance, suspicion, and even self-hatred, and ultimately a kind of depression and paralysis. The gambit of ‘left accelerationism’ would indeed be that, firstly, we can access some libidinal drivers beyond individualist capitalistic and consumerist motives, and harness them as a collective motor for development (and here it can appeal to the open source movement and the like); and secondly, that what capitalism has produced is not inherently tied to the capitalist system (this is more complicated than is appreciated, I think. It requires a great deal of analysis in each case to understand just how deeply a technology is entrenched in capitalist relations, and how it might be ‘repurposed’). In any case, certainly there’s the thought here that, if the status quo has all of this power on its side—control systems, big data, social media, realtime statistical analysis, etc. etc.— then one certainly can’t counter it without taking a hold of some of those means.

The other view, already mentioned, is that it is capitalism itself that nourishes a deregulation and disintegration of social, political, cognitive, even biological norms that is so extreme that the social relations that constitute ‘capitalism’ as we know it will themselves not survive it.

Neither of these viewpoints are concerned with the ‘contradictions of capitalism’ – there’s an erroneous view that accelerationism is about a Marxist ‘acceleration of contradictions’, which in fact none of these authors advocate (as Deleuze and Guattari said, ‘nothing ever died of contradictions’). Instead it’s about whether these sophisticated automated systems that have formed an incredible planetary web of intelligence are ultimately thinkable in terms of, and tied to, any particular kind of economic system; or whether the ramifications of what’s let loose by capitalism go beyond that parochial viewpoint. That was Marx’s view, certainly.

But, as Mark Fisher points out, on one hand this view can lead to political nullity: the idea that, since this massive inhuman process is underway, there’s nothing that we can ‘do’: human politics is simply irrelevant ‘sub specie aeternitatis’. I think that’s Nick Land’s view, ultimately, and I don’t think it’s necessarily to be dismissed just because it disappoints our need to feel like agents of history. And yet the very act of theorising about something seems to indicate that there is something to be ‘done’…. On the other hand, other thinkers—and you find this already in Marx and in Veblen, in the #Accelerate volume—seem to take the ambivalent position that this separation of ‘the process’ from the specific social relations of production is inevitable but also can perhaps be hastened through collective political means. The most optimistic position, I guess, would be to say that the contemporary left potentially has access to the means to construct other systems, and that all it takes is a collective change in political spirit to stop trading on a politics of fear, and to instead strategically mobilize those means.

One of the ideas behind #Accelerate is to offer a sort of historical background, which covers a number of authors, underground figures and collectives outside of the strictly political arena, from cyberpunk to science fiction and music. Can you briefly describe that cultural crossroads, as well as its influence in the current accelerationist movement?

For me one of the interesting things about the emergence of accelerationism has been a revival of interest in the work of the CCRU and Nick Land. In fact, that might have worked the other way around: we published Fanged Noumena, a collection of Nick’s writings, in 2011, and having those texts available has probably had an effect on the emergence of a new accelerationism. In the 90s this small group developed a kind of microculture whose works strove to collapse theory into the aesthetics of cyberpunk fiction and electronic music – in particular the late stages of rave, darkside and jungle – somehow bringing writing into immanence with those abstract, synthetic, futuristic sonic spaces, and the science fiction narratives that were intertwined with them: those tracks commonly sampled from SF films like Terminator, Predator, Blade Runner, which were then becoming available on video—an invasion of domestic space by these dark, grandiloquent fictions, alongside the collective ‘outside’ of rave culture and its bleeding into the mainstream. Writing, it seemed, needed to be a part of that affective complex which was at the same time the site for new conceptualisations of human and inhuman futures. That work is, I feel, still potent and has a lot to recommend it, but contemporary accelerationism has had to reconsider its aestheticising tendency and the disappointment of its hopes for a cyberpunk future… But the question of the relation between affective, artistic, or aesthetic production, technology, and politics, is central to the volume, I think. The feminist philosopher Shulamith Firestone tackles it head-on in the chapter of hers that we included: the question there is how to overcome the ‘two cultures’ sequestration of science and technology, which practically constructs new worlds, on one hand; and artistic experimentation, which explores the possibilities for new worlds, on the other.

The presence of science fiction in your book seems unavoidable indeed, since much of the genre has always been devoted to depicting utopian/dystopian futures and collapsing sociopolitical systems. Other than the stuff that’s already in #Accelerate, which accelerationist-friendly science fiction works would you recommend?

That’s right, certainly in those earlier moments of accelerationism (as well as other texts we’ve included in the book, right back to Samuel Butler’s 1872 techno-dystopian Erewhon) the theoretical questions being addressed went along with a stylistic and formal innovation where one was at once writing about the future and in some sense trying to bring it about, through a kind of hype or an aesthetics of futurality. A kind of ‘time-loop’ in which the future brings itself about by infecting the present. J.G. Ballard is absolutely correct in his piece in the #Accelerate volume, when he talks about science fiction being the only possible realism now. I don’t know if I need to mention any particular contemporary literary science fiction since our whole cultural environment, to some extent, is now SF—trying to make political discourse equal to that, in terms of a sophisticated thinking of the future, and in terms of harnessing the libidinal charge of the science-fictioning operation, is one of the major stakes of accelerationism, even if the newer writings seem to have retreated from the particular kind of stylistic mannerism that was prevalent in the 90s ‘cyberculture’ work.

In any case, I am really happy to have been able to include in the volume both those CCRU texts, and the texts by Lyotard, which I think are stylistically some of the most amazing products of the post-68 era.

Robin Mackay

Robin Mackay.

Turning now to the rather harsh critique (“passionate condemnation”) that accelerationism has received—often being labelled naïve and reactionary—Nick Land is arguably one of the key figures of the movement, and he is also responsible for The Dark Enlightenment manifesto, which served as a bedrock of sorts for Neoreaction, a political ideology “supporting a return to traditional ideas of government and society, especially traditional monarchy and an ethno-nationalist state”. I guess some people have a hard time accepting those ideas as part of a supposedly left-wing theory/praxis (despite Land’s notorious leftist-anarchist history). Can you comment on that, and hopefully turn it around?

I don’t think Land has ever pretended to be left-wing! He’s a serious philosopher and an intelligent thinker, but one who has always loved to bait the left by presenting the ‘worst’ possible scenario with great delight…! Nick’s position is, and has always been, that if we are ‘on the side of intelligence’, that is, of escape from the constraints of human, cognitive, and indeed biological heredity, then the only possible motor of that ongoing transformation is capitalism—forward investment, financial speculation, those SF hype-loops we were just talking about—are simply synonymous with modernity, progress, escape; and at the core of Nick’s thought there is indeed a reckless, even romanticist, desire for abolition, a desire to explore the outside of the ‘prison of human being’ at all costs.

As people who have followed the debates will know, what has emerged is a (slightly over-schematic) break between that ‘right-accelerationism’, and the ‘left-accelerationism’ of Srnicek and Williams. The very, very difficult task facing ‘left-accelerationism’ is that of proving that there can be some motor other than the integrated incentivising complex of consumer capitalism for driving future progression: what would that be? A compromise with the ‘human security system’? The question is whether left-accelerationism ultimately looks like another species of leftist wishful thinking, which appears weak set against right-accelerationism’s hard-ass reckless realism!

Neoreaction is a really interesting phenomenon and one that shouldn’t be simply dismissed as the work of internet cranks (or at least, no more than accelerationism!). Maybe the crucial thing here is to understand the political role played by fictions and what CCRU called ‘hyperstitions’—Neoreaction is like a collective fiction written by people who have given themselves permission to go beyond all standards of appropriateness and decency in liberal ‘political debate’. But at the same time these are not just a lunatic fringe, there are powerful people invested in this stuff. In neoreaction we come across extreme versions of ideas that I think will become more and more important to twenty-first century politics. Ignoring them won’t make them any easier to deal with, they are a part of our future and, once again, the question for the left is whether it has anything to counter with apart from superiority, snide dismissal and deploring how awful it all is. Land’s ‘Dark Enlightenment’, if you actually steel yourself to read it rather than making assumptions about how awful it is, is a challenging piece. These ideas – rejection of the enlightenment legacy, evaluation of the net results of liberalism in terms of cognitive dissonance, corporatisation of government, the end of nation-state politics, voice or exit, and even ‘species thinking’ in regard to the human – need to be taken seriously, even if they viscerally disgust you. That’s where fiction is useful; it can slip ideas past you that otherwise your cognitive immune system will just reject. But Neoreaction actually trades on the left’s allergic reaction to these ideas being presented in their most blatant unrepentant form. They have developed a rather interesting discussion of the liberal ‘cognitive ecosystem’; and again this type of analysis is something for which the liberal left, with its dreary sincerity and earnestness, has no equivalent. To their credit, everyone who has been roped into ‘the accelerationist thing’, left or right, has been very good at engaging with each others’ positions even when they’re miles apart, and that’s been very productive, I think. It’s those on the outside who have been dismissive, or have warned that there are some ideas whose very public utterance simply can’t be countenanced.

None of the neoreactionary stuff appears explicitly in #Accelerate, however. But once again let me say – without it being any kind of ‘apology’, because no apology is necessary – that the point of publishing the book and bringing the question of accelerationism to the foreground isn’t at all to introduce people to some kind of unified position or ‘movement’, and to demand their adherence to it. The point is to present a constellation of different positions which, in their interactions and tensions, outline a set of problems and questions that we think are crucial.

At any rate, the key issue when it comes to drastic social-political movements is of course their viability. Unless accelerationism turns out to be merely a thought experiment, its goal is actually to work out. Gerald Raunig makes a point about capitalism as this extremely efficient machine able to quickly digest and re-appropriate all sorts of counterculture phenomena and revolutionary ideas. That was the case with things like futurism, grindcore or cyberpunk, very different movements/scenes which share some common ground with (or are part of) the accelerationist crux: they were once underground and challenging aesthetics, but they were indeed easily assimilated and smoothed out by the system. What would you say sets accelerationism apart from similar theories? Or simply put, why do you think it could in fact work?

Yeah, let’s hope it goes beyond a thought-experiment. One of the things that’s been rather disappointing, but I guess inevitable, is that as soon as the book appeared, accelerationism immediately became another term fed into the academic meat grinder, another term that can be coupled with other such terms (accelerationism and x, accelerationism and y). If that’s all that it does, it has totally failed. Of course we also courted that by using the hashtag as a title –but that’s actually how accelerationism emerged, and it was interesting to see how the discussion of sociotechnology took place through the very apparatuses that it was trying to analyse. Using the hashtag was also a kind of a pre-emptive strike against the inevitable criticisms of its being just another slogan, just another trend, and so on. And also a gesture toward this question of the collective libidinisation of a politics.

But back to whether it will ‘work’: The Accelerationist Manifesto talks about how an accelerationist politics needs to build alliances across different practices – design, computation, logistics, information processing, etc., as well as political theory and political debate; and about how it needs to get serious about organisational capacities and access to power, probably by means other than the traditional party system. If those demands themselves turn out to be just part of a university discourse that remains comfortably theoretical, then it’s null and void. This is where I think, for example, the design strategist Benedict Singleton’s work is important, when he talks about mêtis, ‘cunning intelligence’ and design or plotting as key components of any accelerationist strategy. And that would include a fully self-conscious manipulation of those dynamics of coopting that you mention. This already changes the stakes of accelerationism, since it means that one can’t adopt a simple means-end view on things: the logic of mêtis serves no exclusive purpose, and is more likely to draw us into twisted plots that we never expected. But here lies the whole question of accelerationism as a politics: If what we want to do is to tap into future intelligence, bringing it to bear on the present, by opening up epistemic, technological and social paths to change… is this intelligence the blind autosophistication of capital, which only seeks to intensify, and has no regard for the human as such? Or does a collective intelligence come forth through a collective practice of rationality (as in Reza Negarestani’s very boldly rationalist text in the book, ‘The Labor of the Inhuman’)? Or is the future a twisted, constantly churning abyss of possibility that we can voluntarily participate in by throwing off dogmatic constraints on our thinking, but can never bring under control for the purposes of a political programme? That’s accelerationism, the political question of futurality, intelligence and politics. And intelligence is not necessarily ‘our’ friend.

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The Accelerationist Vertigo (II): Interview with Robin Mackay