by Steven Craig Hickman
At this point it may seem that the consolations of horror are not what we thought they were, that all this time we’ve been keeping company with illusions. Well, we have. And we’ll continue to do so, continue to seek the appalling scene which short-circuits our brain, continue to sit in our numb coziness with a book of terror on our laps like a cataleptic predator, and continue to draw smug solace, if only for the space of a story, from a world made snug and simple by absolute hopelessness and doom.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory
I am no book thief. But I could not bear to part with your words…
—Poppy Z. Brite, On Thomas Ligotti
Why do we read such works as these? A darkness unbearable, a world where nothing good ever happens, a realm of pure and unadulterated hopelessness and doom? Why? Even the notion that one could be consoled by such intemperate melodies of utter death and destruction, madness and delirium seem to send one back to that strange place of emptiness, that weird space of story where the thing we’ve been chasing, the object of horror that we’ve sought even against our own will (do we have a will?) suddenly stands revealed – not as a visible thing that we can observe, nor as a shaded emptiness that we can absolve into the particles of our mindless aberrant fetish, obsess over, ponder as if it were the ultimate answer to our deepest longings; no, such are the illusory tricks of stagecraft magicians, no – what we seek is as in Walter Pater’s aesthetic,
“A sudden light transfigures a trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing flail, the dust in the barn door; a moment – and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.” - Walter Pater
It’s this secret moment, this pure effect: a moment that cannot be shared, no testimony brought forth or enveloped with the reasoning powers of intellect; no, rather such moments that suddenly present their absolute aura – a profane light, a flame from the darkness that attests not so much to our fear as to our exhilaration in the face of the unknown. Such moments leave us desperate, longing for the return, for the return of such infinitesimal mysteries, glints from elsewhere that awaken in us neither nostalgia nor some futurial glance into the mists of time forward; but, rather, give us hint of that seed that lies in the depths of our own mind as the outer form of some object breaks over us releasing powers we had as yet to register or distill from the voids surrounding us. For that is the key, we seek what cannot be locked down in the daylight of reason, a hint of that terror at the heart of the world which holds us in its desperate flight, if only momentarily a glance into the Real.
A host of strangers come together at the intersection of time and space in a world between worlds. Their eyes “fixed with an insomniac’s stare, the stigma of both monumental fatigue and painful attentiveness to everything in sight”.1 We are not given a reason, only that this gray host has returned to a place from which they were excluded. To what purpose if any have they returned. And, more to the point, why did they leave, abandon this place to begin with? A crime, an unimaginable collective massacre, some dark and unfathomable secret or burden to which staying meant certain madness and eventual death; or, was it just inexplicable, no reason at all, or one that they have long forgotten in their collective misery and spiritual ennui. A clue: “Only one had not gone with them. He had stayed in the skeleton town…”
But why? Why would he stay and all the others leave, abandon their homes (were they residents?) and depart to unknown lands or cities. Was there a natural or unnatural disaster? Something like those cities abandoned in Russia or American because of ecological and technological meltdown? A collective amnesia: “They were sure they had seen something they should not remember.” A murder, a sacrifice, a collective ritual of such magnitude and horror that they were all brought to that point of mental breakdown whose catastrophic consequence was some form of memory sickness and dementia: “A paralysis had seized them, that state of soul known to those who dwell on the highest plane of madness, aristocrats of insanity whose nightmares confront them on either side of sleep.” There is a sense of solidarity in madness, a hysterical craving after the truth of which they are both enamored and yet absolved to never discover again. And, yet, like one of Beckett’s creatures in the hell of modernity: “I’ll go on. I can’t go on.” This sense of being in-between, caught in the active and passive passage into the vastation on some banal nihil.
We know that for Thomas Ligotti there is a deeper truth unfolded in those darker thought of such men as Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, Philipp Mainländer, Julius Bahnsen, Ernst Lindner, Lazar Hellenbach, Paul Deußen, Agnes Talbert, Olga Plümacher and, last but not least, the young Nietzsche. Something of the flavor of that spiritual anomie which gathers itself under the icon of pessimism. Those German Romantics, melancholy and suicidal – poet manqués who would define it as ‘weltschmerze’ (“worldpain”) hinting at the dark moodiness of things whose aura was surrounded by sadness and weariness weighing down the soul with an acute sense of evil and suffering at the heart of existence. As Fredrick C. Beiser will attest “Its origins have been traced back to the 1830s, to the late romantic era, to the works of Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine…” and others.2
Yet, it was the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (1899– 1990), even more than the better known Schopenhauer who would awaken in Ligotti the sense of utter futility and the dark contours of pessimism concerning the human condition and predicament:
Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them. For us, then, life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would leave us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, staring void. To end this self-deception, to free our species of the paradoxical imperative to be and not to be conscious, our backs breaking by degrees upon a wheel of lies, we must cease reproducing.3
This notion of cessation, this withdrawal from the contract of organic Will-to-live in Schopenhauer’s terms is the central motif of Zapffe’s pessimism. Ligotti’s, too.
Yet, even in this strangest of tales, the stubborn refusal to die continues as if death were itself the very core of existence, a subtle circulation around a hollow abyss that could never find the flame that would end it all: “Blessed is the seed that is planted forever in darkness.” a woman says. When asked what she meant by the invocation she is merely as confused as the interlocutor. Maybe that is how the outside circulates into our world, seeps into the daylight with its dark jets of inky delirium.
The Man Who Stayed Behind
Andrew Maness like many of Ligotti’s officiators is a loner, a scholar or bookworm, and a misfit renegade from reality. As he stands in the room atop a mansion that once housed many of his predecessors he watches these gray citizens wander the streets below him, each following some prerecorded script that even they do not understand but know they are powerless to abandon. In the room is a book that seems to hold both a secret and a mystery, one that Maness himself has sought to decipher for as long as he can remember: “You know what made them come home, but I can only guess. So many things you have devoutly embellished, yet you offer nothing on this point.” As if the book had a personality, as if it knew more than a book should know, a book that not only exceeded the limits of its covers but seemed to grow as the seed in the darkness grows. A book whose title would serve a greater mystery: TSALAL.
Many of Ligotti’s tales speak of secret books whose forbidden knowledge reveals to its antagonists certain hellish paradises, utopian realms of utter bittersweet jouissance: a jouissance which compels the subject to constantly attempt to transgress the prohibitions imposed on his enjoyment, to go beyond the pleasure principle (a la Lacan!). What Georges Bataille would speak of as “the recoil imposed on everyone, in so far as it involves terrible promises…”.4 Ligotti as if in agreement has always attributed to the (un)natural objects of his world, the mundane homes and streets of a village or city this aura of terrible promise:
Surrounding this area were clusters of houses that in the usual manner collect about the periphery of skeleton towns. These were structures of serene desolation that had settled into the orbit of a dead star. They were simple pinewood coffins, full of stillness, leaning upright against a silent sky. Yet it was this silence that allowed sounds from a fantastic distance to be carried into it. And the stillness of these houses and their narrow streets led the eye to places astonishingly remote. There were even moments when the entire veil of desolate serenity began to tremble with the tumbling colors of chaos. (ibid., Tsalal)
As if this unbinding, an unraveling of things mundane as holding within themselves the keys to remote mysteries about to be unveiled. Most of Ligotti’s most memorable passages are of nightwalks along the strange alleys, streets, and thoroughfares of certain villages and cities where the imponderable strangeness of things seems to crawl down out of remote regions to merge and take up residence. This atmospheric prose-poetry is what unveils Ligotti’s greatest strength rather than the narrative of the tales themselves. It’s as if in such places there is a sense that the “magical desolation of narrow streets and coffin-shaped houses comes to settle and distill like an essence of the old alchemists”. In one of his better known essays Walter Benjamin would speak of this as an aura:
Historically, works of art had an ‘aura’ – an appearance of magical or supernatural force arising from their uniqueness (similar to mana). The aura includes a sensory experience of distance between the reader and the work of art. … The aura has disappeared in the modern age because art has become reproducible.5
Maybe it’s this sense of loss that pervades most of the stories in Ligotti’s oeuvre. We sense this endless circling round the aura of an object that cannot be revealed without terrible consequence for both reader and author. To name it is to destroy it, so it remains outside in the dark, unnamed and full of that aura that against the modernists remain unreproducible. It cannot be profaned except on pain of death and annihilation.
Even as Andrew closes the book the metamorphoses begins, a changing of shadow to shadow, an unfolding to an infernal paradise whose dark transports offer the reader neither comfort nor escape, consolation or reprieve. Andrew’s father, a defender of day and light, a priest, whose dogma’s seem out of another more medieval age reprimands his reprobate son: “There is nothing more awful and nothing more sinful than such changes in things. Nothing is more grotesque than these changes. All changes in things are grotesque. The very possibility of changes in things is grotesque. And the beast is the author of all changes. You must never again consort with the beast!”
This sense that the orthodox seek an unchanging world, a realm where time stands still and all things stave off the inevitable evil of change and movement. Andrew feels the burden of change growing in him, the “seed in the dark” growing. It allures him and terrorizes him, and yet he knows it is his destiny. Like Adam in the garden, Andrew has been forced to renounce the temptation of his own fallen trees: books, forbidden books, the forbidden knowledge of those infernal regions that offer and allure him toward the remote darknesses. As his father says of these books: “I keep them,” he said, “so that you may learn by your own will to renounce what is forbidden in whatever shape it may appear.”
Returning to that chapter in the Bible where the forbidden fruit of knowledge first offered its allurements we find a serpent whispering in the woman’s ear. The serpent is simply there, the tempter already in place, an unexplained occupant of the Garden—and of the human mind. The serpent appears to be the concentrated and symbolic remnant of an earlier religious age, before the Jews passed through the tumultuous shift from polytheism to monotheism. Nothing yet links the serpent to Satan or to the Devil. It is calmly insubordinate and categorically denies God’s verdict of death for eating the forbidden tree. “Thou shalt not surely die” (3:4). The serpent tells the woman that, rather, the act will open their eyes and make them as gods. The woman eats and gives of the fruit to her husband. Everything goes by halves now. Adam and Eve start out innocent and immortal. The serpent claims that by eating the forbidden fruit, they will achieve divinity without losing immortality. He is half-right—that is, they attain insight into good and evil and at the same time they lose immortality. “And the Lord God said, Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever … the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:22). Because they have become mortal, Adam and Eve must now be kept away from the Tree of Life. Prohibition did not work for the first tree. Banishment is the logical answer.
This sense of prohibition and banishment or exclusion as the fruit of a temptation pervades many of Ligotti’s stories. Breaking the prohibition leads in many cases to utter madness and a break with the sane everyday world of humanity, where the codes of sleep and blindness encode most humans in a dubious form of wakefulness. Yet, it is this very prohibition that awakens Andrew’s desire: “But how wonderful he found those books that were forbidden to him.” Or, again,
He somehow knew these books were forbidden to him, even before the reverend had made this fact explicit to his son and caused the boy to feel ashamed of his desire to hold these books and to know their matter. He became bound to the worlds he imagined were revealed in the books, obsessed with what he conceived to be a cosmology of nightmares. (ibid.)
Andrew would spend hours within this forbidden paradise of books and knowledge, mapping the underbelly of a universe that only he could see in his mind’s eye. He imagined the stars in this private infernal universe: “They had changed in the strangest way, changed because everything in the universe was changing and could no longer be protected from the changes being worked upon them by something that had been awakened in the blackness, something that desired to remold everything it could see…and had the power to see all things.” This sense of a dark presence, a power of creativity and surprise that could suddenly remake the universe at will, an agent of change and metamorphosis such that in “those nights of dreaming, all things were subject to forces that knew nothing of law or reason, and nothing possessed its own nature or essence but was only a mask upon the face of absolute darkness, a blackness no one had ever seen.”
Ultimately even these forbidden books offered little consolation to Andrew, what he sought was another book, access to a forbidden knowledge that seemed to offer a counter-creation:
It was another creation he pursued, a counter-creation, and the books on the shelves of his father’s library could not reveal to him what he desired to know of this other genesis. While denying it to his father, and often to himself, he dreamed of reading the book that was truly forbidden, the scripture of a deadly creation, one that would tell the tale of the universe in its purest sense.
Remonstrating with his father over the hideousness of these prohibitory measures, that all they did was cause the very thing his father sought to end – the desire for a forbidden knowledge of things that no book held or could hold but the one book whose very temptation was bound to the darkness of his own mind and nightmares:
You preached to me that all change is grotesque, that the very possibility of change is evil. Yet in the book you declare ‘transformation as the only truth’—the only truth of the Tsalal, that one who is without law or reason. ‘There is no nature to things,’ you wrote in the book. ‘There are no faces except masks held tight against the pitching chaos behind them.’ You wrote that there is not true growth or evolution in the life of this world but only transformations of appearance, an incessant melting and molding of surfaces without underlying essence. Above all you pronounced that there is no salvation of any being because no beings exist as such, nothing exists to be saved—everything, everyone exists only to be drawn into the slow and endless swirling of mutations that we may see every second of our lives if we simply gaze through the eyes of the Tsalal.
I will not spoil the ending for those who have yet to read Ligotti’s works. It’s this sense of a counter-world, not a mirror world but a realm that is counter-factual and disturbs, even intrudes our own world; a world that is already seeping into ours from remote dimensions out of mind that is at the heart of Ligotti’s works. As if all along this very realm we are in is that eternally metamorphosing infernal region of change, but that through the secret wizardry of those dark agents of time – the time of change was stopped, and that we’ve all been imprisoned in a lifeless universe of the death-drive, pursuing a circular and repetitive course of unchanging repetition. Isn’t this the dream of those oligarchs of thought surrounding us with a world of capitalistic desire, a realm in which the only circulation is that of immaterial goods and money, a realm where nothing changes so much as the static representation of change. A change that is itself a repetition of death?
Maybe in the end we – all of us are Andrew awakening to the truth, a truth he comes to see as the horror of his and our unchanging society. As he shouts it to his father:
“You knew this was the wrong place when you brought me here as a child. And I knew that this was the wrong place when I came home to this town and stayed here until everyone knew that I had stayed too long in this place.”
We all know this is the truth, that we’ve allowed this world to continue down its unnatural course, allowed leaders to lead us nowhere and nowhen – a circular void of capitalist desire in a vacuum of consuming consummation. A realm where time and space have accelerated into a virtual hellhole of circulating capital to which we are all bound like servants in a vast machinic system. Knowing what we know we still desire it: and, that is our burden and our downfall. And, yet, we all have known for a long while that the forbidden knowledge that would free us of this trap has been in plain sight all along, our eyes glued to its strange temptations: the eyes of the Tsalal. Shall we open those eyes, now, and begin to change, metamorphosize beyond this seeming world of stasis and repetition? As we open our eyes the infernal seeps in… the dark seed sprouts…
In the ancient Gnostic Gospels of Valentinus there is this play between the Pleroma (“Place of Fullness”) and the Abyss (“Place of Emptiness”), in which a dialectical interplay transpires between the powers of fullness and absence, an oscillation and hesitation between the visible darkness and the darkness made visible, a seeming that stages a cosmic battle and forces that which cannot be named to give birth to the dark seed: the parental abyss, at once foremother and forefather, from which the babe rushes forth into our emptiness. And, we, like the cannibalistic village must consume the fleshy remains of such corruption, become one with its energetic will, let the white bones sink into black earth where in the darkness a light will begin to shine: a nihilistic light, glimmers of strange wonders filtering up from the radiant Abyss.
Ligotti, a subtle master of the unsaid, never exposes the reality below the surface edge of his prose-poetry, rather he hints at it, allows the reader to intermingle in the shifting sands of his dark waters where either the seed will awaken in her the mystery from elsewhere; or, close the door forever in a momentary gleam from the impossible enchantments that trap us in our own allurements.
In continuing to explore the domains of the digital and the analog, I’ve come to an unexpected conclusion, one that will no doubt be obvious to others but which I nevertheless found surprising. I’ve finally realized the extent to which analogicity has been hounded out of technical history. In the past I had assumed, incorrectly, that digitality and analogicity were more or less equal alternatives. Yes there was a litany of digital techniques in human history — moveable type, arithmetic, metaphysics — but so too history could furnish its share of analogical triumphs, right? Not exactly. In my unscientific survey, the digital techniques far outweigh the analog ones. And many things categorized as blockbuster interjections of peak analogicity — the invention of the calculus, Richard Dedekind’s 1858 definition of real numbers — harbor deeply-ingrained anti-analog biases upon closer inspection. Dedekind sought to discretize the real, not think the real as pure continuity, and his tool of choice was the cut, a digital technology if there ever was one. And while Newton’s “fluxions” are genuinely strange and interesting, both Newtonian and Leibnizian calculus aimed to “solve” the problem of pure continuity via recourse to a distinctly digital mechanism: the difference unit, or differential. Good show, now try it again without cheating! It almost makes me nostalgic for Euclid. At least he stayed true to the analog sciences of line and curve, without recourse to the digital crutches of algebra or arithmetic.
So while I’m deeply skeptical of the analog turn in theory — a few decades ago it was all language, structure, symbol, economy, logic, now it’s all affect, experience, expression, ethics, aesthetics — it’s only fair to admit the profound rareness of analogicity. Particularly in philosophy, which is almost entirely dominated by digital thinking. (In mathematics it’s not even close: math is one long sad story of arithmetic subduing geometry, the symbol subduing the real.) It’s exceptionally difficult to think continuity as continuity. Very few have accomplished this feat. So if anything we need more work on continuity and analogical sciences, not less. More work on signal processing, noise, randomness, modularity, curves and lines, heat and energy, fields, areas, transduction, quality, intuition. Less on arithmetic and discrete breaks. More on bending, blurring, bleeding, and sliding. More on the body, more on real experience. More on what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of life.
The answer is all around us, in real materiality. Here is the theorist Karen Barad talking about how quantum particles unsettle the various abstractions fueling Western philosophy and culture:
“Quantum particles unsettle comfortable notions of temporality, of the new, the now, presence, absence, progress, tradition, evolution/extinction, stasis/restoration, remediation, return/reversal, universal, generation/production, emergence, recursion, iterations, temporary, momentary, biographic, historical, fast/slow, speeding up, intensifying, compressing, pausing, disrupting, rupturing, changing, being, becoming.”
In other words, if computers are black boxes, and if they can be opened, revealing other black boxes, with boxes inside of those boxes, still there exists one black box that’s not like the others, the black box of the world. It’s the box that can never be opened.
Or I should clarify, we can open it. That’s what phenomenology teaches; our mode of being inquires into the conditions of real materiality. So we can. But computers can’t. Computers can process data but they can’t be there present in and as the data. I mean this 100% phenomenologically. Digital computers can’t not formalize. That is their special curse: always only form. Always only box. Presence isn’t part of the equation. Computers require input, but they have a hard time generating input out of whole cloth. Computers require givenness, but they can’t, ultimately, give it themselves.
In other words, computers finally solved the old mind-body problem from Descartes. It was easy. Just keep the mind, and amputate the body! Computers are idealism, perfected. And every perfection comes at a cost.
I’m exaggerating, of course. Computers exist in the real world. For instance, crypto-currency mining is defined explicitly as a thermodynamic process (the expenditure of energy) not an immaterial process. And to be clear: my point is really about digital computers in silicon. DNA computers and quantum computers are something quite different: DNA computers because they’re massively parallel; quantum computers because they don’t follow the logic of exclusively-binary states. And we know that computers can generate data until the cows come home, even if, as I maintain, computers are difference engines and not “presence engines.”
But what about neural nets and the kinds of images drawn using AI, don’t they generate new data? No, these kinds of algorithms are just glorified techniques for computing averages. The semantic essence of these images was pre-tagged and databased by some underpaid intern or Mechanical Turk worker. Don’t be dazzled by Deep Dream. You made the data, Google just crunched the numbers. In the 19th Century it was called “composite photography” and it was used for eugenics research. Oh how the world turns. And anyway artists like Jason Salavon or Trevor Paglen have made much better use of this technique than the AI companies ever will.
Of all genuinely computer-generated data — not the stuff tagged by workers — the most successful is probably procedural noise. Procedural noise is essentially a pseudo-random sequence of numbers. It has been incredibly influential in computer graphics and other areas.
Procedural noise is mathematically elegant. It’s what they call a “fract of a sine” – that is, the fractional component of a sine wave. How does it work? First, compute sin(x); then go deep, deep rightward past the decimal point and grab an integer; that number will be, for all practical purposes, random. Do it again, and you have a pseudo-random sequence. So it’s the fractional component — or “fract” — of a scaled-up wave:
//compute the sine of x
sin(2) = 0.90929742682
//multiply by a large number to scale the value way up
0.90929742682 * 100000 = 90929.7426826
//lop off the fractional component
//the remaining value is pseudo-random
//voila the formula for a pseudo-
random number random = fract(sin(x) * 100000)
There’s already enough noise in the system. You just have to know where to look for it, in this case deep, deep down inside a sine wave. But this makes perfect sense. Of course the source of this random “noise” would be a wave form, the sine wave. For we know that there is no greater analog technology than the wave form. And we know that all randomness — perceptual or actual — has its roots in the analogical real.
Another success is the JPEG compression algorithm, used in both still images and digital video. Philosophers like to wring their hands anxiously over the fact that digital images can be synthesized (and thus manipulated and even faked), breaking the supposed link between referent and representation. But, as usual, these philosophers don’t really know what they are talking about. If you’re nervous about images being inauthentic, the queue for complaints is twenty-five hundred years old and it starts right behind Socrates.
It’s not that digital images can be manipulated; if they are images compressed through JPEG (or similar algorithms), they are *100%* synthetic. The image exists strictly as a combination of what they call “DCT basis functions” with corresponding coefficients. The DCT basis functions are little wavelets and they work a bit like the alphabet does, only with more significant visual impact. There are 64 of them, just like a chess board. Every inch of your image is synthesizedfrom combining these 64 thumbnail elements in different strengths determined by the coefficients. The “D” in DCT stands for “discrete.” The “C” stands for “cosine” — not “sine” but a wave form nonetheless. So, again, the analog is the “real materiality” at the heart of the digital.
In other words, the light at the end of the black box is an analog light. The computer is one half of an asymmetrical relation. Computers need their inputs; and most of the inputs come from other computers. But there’s one terminal input, the transductive interface where the analog real enters through the side door.
by Edmund Berger
The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalitization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off. Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway. As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip. 1
These are the opening lines of “Meltdown,” a short, hallucinatory psalm, spoken on behalf of the capitalism of the information age and, more specifically, the schizoid bifurcation points occurring in the cracks and fissures it triggers across the globe. Initially impenetrable yet strangely alluring, the text’s language is poetic in form, its progenitors found in critical theory and cyberpunk fiction and film, and its logic machinic and amphetamine addled. The place is the University of Warwick in the early 90s, and the author is a former Continental Philosophy lecturer by the name of Nick Land. “Meltdown: planetary china-syndrome, dissolution of the biosphere into the technosphere, terminal speculative bubble crisis, ultravirus, and revolution stripped of all christian-socialist eschatology.”
A little background information: “Meltdown” is torn from the pages of Abstract Culture, the journal/decentralized cultural mirror put out by the now-defunct Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (CCRU). With its brief nexus located at Britain’s Warwick University, CCRU was the brainchild of cyber-feminist Sadie Plant and Land himself, with a supporting cast of characters who have gone on to radicalize social and academic spaces in various ways: Steve Goodman, an early innovator of dubstep, well known under his moniker Kode9; Mark Fisher, the force behind the K-Punk blog and author of Capitalist Realism; Kodwo Eshun, whose work More Brilliant than the Sun employs “sonic fiction” to explore the musical trajectories of afro-futurism; Iain Hamilton Grant, a philosopher and translator of texts by Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard; among others. Running through the thoughts manifested by these individuals is the emergent philosophical lineage called ‘speculative realism,’ eschewing post-Kantianism’s correlationism in exchange for a quasi-nihilist metaphysical realism abound with nods to Lovecraft and modern cultural trends.
Its impossible to speak of CCRU and the frantic cybertheories they repeatedly injected into dry academic ivory towerism without providing a cursory mention to Sadie Plant. A graduate of the University of Manchester’s philosophy program, Plant’s Ph.D thesis-turned book The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age gained her renown and a position as a researcher fellow at the University of Warwick’s Social Sciences department. Her curious brand of post-Situationist/post-Thatcher cyber-feminism initially seemed to fit the bill for Warwick’s intellectual climate, drenched in information technology research and the hybrid political philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. To assist her work, CCRU was set up in 1995 as a sort of adjunct facility – but when joined by Nick Land, it quickly transformed itself into what has been described as a sort of university equivalent to Colonel Kurtz and his frightening, psychedelic war machine from the end of Apocalypse Now. Land’s animosity towards the academic universe’s unwritten commandments and careerist bureaucracy had already been readily apparent in his 1992 work The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, a “deranged mix of prose-poem, spiritual autobiography and rigorous explication of the implications of Bataille’s thought.”2 He quickly overtook Plant’s position as steward of the unit, spinning it into a thousand directions, simultaneously encompassing philosophy, physics, biology, mysticism, and all manner of beyonds, sidestepping through the disciplines and exploring the strange spaces between them in a sort of D.I.Y. remix of Norbert Weiner’s original research into cybernetics.
CCRU received ample boosts from sweaty dance floors moved by the sample-heavy bass and backbeats of jungle, dropping chopped-up and scrambled variants of previous musical cultures into the blossoming rave scene of the UK. Jungle’s method of appropriating micro-units of traditional sonic form and social detritus by the way of Kingston’s dub sound systems and Britain’s own recent punk/post-punk past provided a close analogue, in the eyes of the Warwick’s renegade explorers, to the overdriven systematics of post-Fordist capitalism; its tendency towards crisis were also collapsing into Bataille’s feverish fixation on existence in the face of the apocalypse. Capitalism and jungle collide through Abstract Culture with pop culture nuggets reflecting the technological innovations in military hardware, the internet, and other communication platforms: film such as Blade Runner and Terminator, cyberpunk fiction like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, each capturing visions of the future where technology has reached escape velocity, exiting the terrestrial plane with a humanity dragged along with it. Limits dissolving not simply into thresholds, but innumerable exit points.
And thus Land and the CCRU, now minus Plant, produced a bizarre and complex theoretical position called “accelerationism.” Academia was stagnant, reflecting a wider stagnation in the government and the social. State-thought pervaded every level, stifling creativity and movement, reducing everything to the drab and gray monoliths of housing projects – repetition. Everywhere was overwritten with codes, essentially dictating what one can think and what one could do. Even the so-called opposition was complicit. The Old Left was incapable of transforming itself with the changing times, getting themselves lodged in the muck of the laborist paradigm of big unionism and legislative quagmires.
With the dawn of complex information technologies and its proliferation on the grassroots level, combined with the perceived assault on stateform through the neoliberal program, CCRU produced a radically new proposition for revolutionary change that differed wildly from the Marxist-lite meanderings of the professional left. Emancipation from traditional and constraining modes of thought could come, they argued, from the apparatuses of capitalism itself. Monetary flows had the capability, as Marx himself had observed, to make everything solid “melt into air.” Solidity was stagnation; accelerating the melting process thus became essential. Looking at it like this, Marx can been seen as a proto-accelerationist, counting on capitalism to cultivate the proper moment where the “revolution” – whatever that truly means – would flash into existence. But Marx’s method was based in dialectical materialism, a reworking of what is otherwise a philosophical position fixed in a linear and totalizing cosmology. Land and the CCRU, on the other hand, resisted the Hegelian discourse that was the trademark of the dominant state-thought. Instead, they relied heavily on post-Marxist, anti-Hegelian theory emerging in France following the collapse of May ’68’s utopian aspiration – namely, the work of Deleuze and Guattari and those who followed in their footsteps.
The Accelerationist Moment
So now it is high time to speak of the disembodiment of reality, this sort of breakdown which, one should think is applied to a self-multiplication proliferating among things and the perception of them in our minds, which is where they do belong – Antonin Artaud, “Description of a physical state”3
Several key texts from the 1970s have been identified as the locus of the accelerationist theory: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972), Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy (1974), Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), and, I would argue, his infamous Forget Foucault (1977), with an aftershock of sorts occurring in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000). All these works share a commonality in new understandings of capitalism, socialism, control, and resistance; they map new and expectant cartographies of the then-present and the now-current future. Furthermore, each zeroes in the nature of the new paradigm where the logic of revolt that fueled the events of 1968 have become the twin logics of production and consumption, the new language of the marketplace.
Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus oscillates somewhere between fiction and reality, between radical critique and poetic manifesto – utilizing an assault on Freudianism and Hegelian dialectic with an arsenal of weapons stripped from Marx, Spinoza and Nietzsche, they propose a new model of the unconscious mind. No longer is it a theater of symbols, as Freud posited, but a factory where flows of machines of desire couple and disconnect from one another. Their model of the machinic unconsciousness collapses the superficial boundaries between man and nature, mind and body, and all other manner of dialectics. Current social structures, on the other hand, impose boundaries and block flows, reroute them, capture them for their own rationale, and overcode them. Deleuze and Guattari further their strange new world by producing the concept of ‘nomad thought’ – a formulation with its roots in the Situationist derive or drift, a manner of looking for divergent modes of becoming that finds passages to the outside of the logic and ‘rationalized’ discipline that power creates. This nomadic mechanism is complimented with a charting of the convergences between capitalism and the desiring flows, showing how the system’s tendency towards dissolution breaks down the traditional codework. This isn’t to say that capitalism as-is is the fiscal equivalent of nomadic thought, but there are similarities, the most principle being the concept of deterritorialization. Probing these approaches, Deleuze and Guattari ask:
…which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – To withdraw from the world market,as Samir Amin advises Third World countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go further still, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.4
Even if this is the only place in book where the theory of accelerationism is expressed directly, the entire work illustrates the need for a revolution built upon moving into a beyond through the folds of deterritorialization. They call for a “schizoanalysis,” a radical new form of psychotherapy built upon the model of the schizophrenic – as opposed to the Freudian school’s emphasis on neurosis – to allow for brushes with alterity (otherness) to trigger accelerated processes of becoming. Schizoanalysis, nomadic thought, the flows, there is little separating these, and each urges us to go further and further, beyond doctrinaire Marxism and even the text of Anti-Oedipus itself.
Within four years, Jean-Francois Lyotard, a veteran of May ’68 and a close friend of Deleuze, had taken up their challenge, effectively schizoanalyzing Anti-Oedipus into a strange new formation that he dubbed Libidinal Economy. He would later disown the book, calling it “evil;” while this is certainly hyperbolic, the ideas expressed within isolated him from mainstream Marxist currents. Rejecting the left’s vanguardist approach to what they characterize as ‘proletarian consciousness,’ Lyotard conflates capitalism’s engine with the worker’s desire for deterritorialization and decoding. “Hang on tight and spit on me,” he commands, thrusting forward the insistence that the working class “enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity…”5 Further still, the intelligentsia, by looking to direct the worker’s desires, was acting in a rather counter-revolutionary model and was complicit with the bourgeoisie:
Why political intellectuals, do you incline towards the proletariat? In commiseration for what? I realize that a proletarian would hate you, you have no hatred because you are bourgeois, privileged, smooth-skinned types, but also because you dare not say that the only important thing there is to say, that one can enjoy swallowing the shit of capital, its materials, its metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, swallowing tonnes of it till you burst – and because instead of saying this, which is also what happens in the desires of those who work with their hands, arses and heads, ah, you become a leader of men, what a leader of pimps, you lean forward and divulge: ah, but that’s alienation, it isn’t pretty, hang on, we’ll save you from it, we will work to liberate you from this wicked affection for servitude, we will give you dignity. And in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalized’s desire be totally ignored, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners…6
After quickly as it had begun, Lyotard immediately retreated from his vitriolic theory-fiction and from a Deleuzian perspective in general, later penning his seminal work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979. But nomadic wanderings were continued by Jean Baudrillard, whose philosophical trail had begun in the Situationist ferment but were becoming increasingly difficult and abstract. If Deleuze and Guattari had captured the late Sixties zeitgeist and Lyotard had taken these energies to produce a proto-punk refusal, Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death and Forget Foucault was the first blast of cyberpunk – “it didn’t look like anything else that was being published in France during that period. It didn’t seem to belong there, or anywhere for that matter. It was as if it had fallen from outer space.”7 Symbolic Exchange assaults Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard, arguing that their work with ‘desire’ bound them into the dialectical system they were critiquing, and that the schizophrenic flows that desire moved in acted as justification for capitalism itself, which was then transitioning from the post-war Keynesian structure into free-floating, transnational neoliberalism. In other words, he could see fully the spectre of accelerationism and what it meant for any revolutionary alternatives. But, as Benjamin Noy points out, “The difficulty is that Baudrillard’s own catastrophising comprises a kind of negative acceleration, in which he seeks out the point of immanent reversal that inhabits and destabilizes capital.”8 With the aid of anthropology and Bataille’s work, he created the concept of “symbolic exchange,” dissolving the traditional value assigned in the marketplace of capitalist exchanges. This, he says, constitutes a “death function” for the system – but it can only occur if we challenge capitalism to embrace what it is, a monstrous and surreal complex, “endlessly cutting the branch on which it sits.”9
If Baudrillard directly foreshadowed the non-leftist accelerationism and fixation on Bataillian apocalypses of Nick Land, Hardt and Negri’s Empire attempted to re-situate Deleuze and Guattari’s original idea into a [post-]Marxist format in search of a liberatory politics. In 1972, the year that Anti-Oedipus had been published, President Nixon had removed the US dollar from the gold standard, effectively stripping capitalism from any material base and transforming it into a language game, a semiotic system of control that could circle the globe unfixed from the structures that had always augmented monetary flows. It was financial deterritorialization coming to fruition, and, to quote Baudrillard, power had “dissolved purely and simply in a manner that still escapes us.” This power, dispersed in transnational networks across the globe, would be given the name “Empire” by Hardt and Negri, and for them (like Baudrillard), there was no longer any alterity; modernism became postmodernism, Fordism dissolved in the face of post-Fordism, all the previous categories collapsing into one another. Because of this, reactionary revolt as a passage out will never lead to emancipation. We have to go forward:
We cannot move back to any previous social form, nor move forward in isolation. Rather, we must push through Empire to come out the other side…Empire can be effectively contested only on its own level of generality and by pushing the process that it offers past their present limitations. We have to accept that challenge and learn to think globally and act globally. Globalization must be met with a counter-globalization, Empire with a counter-Empire.9
In 1980, Deleuze and Guattari released their follow-up to Anti-Oedipus, an exercise in schizoanalytic nomadic thought they titled A Thousand Plateaus. Here, they seemed hesitant to their earlier vision of unabashed acceleration, offering instead words of caution. They were necessary words: Anti-Oedipus had been written while the revolutionary high of 1968 still hung in the air; but a decade later, left-wing terrorism, rampant drug abuse and rising neoliberalism had generate an aura of pessimism and in certain places, outright despair. They speak of ‘black holes,’ fascistic traps that deterritorializing flows can accelerate themselves into. To make revolution, to engage in processes of becoming, to escape along a line of flight, each operates as a bifurcation point that can lead outward, but there exists the dangers of ‘coiling’ inwards, toward structure and binary oppositions, dialectic stateform dependency – and, in the most extreme cases, death.
Nick Land saw this retreat, perceived as a sudden moralizing stance, as being antithetical to the ethos of Anti-Oedipus and something in the direction of a betrayal of the work’s spirit. His vision was one of capitalism as the harbinger of the end; he had dialed back a portion of their oeuvre and conjoined the schizoid flows to the Freudian death drive, or thanatos. If bourgeois humanism forms a reactionary mechanic of power, then only the antihumanism provided by the acceleration of capital and its technological counterparts could finally dissolve what is. In “Meltdown,” we find that “Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag.”10
Apocalyptic intensities aside, Land has conveniently sidestepped a critical aspect of Anti-Oedipus‘s analysis of capitalist deterritorialization. If deterritorialization advances the subversive forces in capitalism’s own flows, there is always the accompanying process of reterritorialization, which draws these unravels energies into a manageable system. These reterritorializations do not happen to spite capitalism, they happened in accordance with it, to stave off the death function that Baudrillard had found:
Capitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territories, thereby attempting, the best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons who have been defined in the terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families. That is what makes the ideology of capitalism “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed.”11
We’re told in A Thousand Plateaus that “the nomad can be called the Deterritorialized par excellence… because there are no reterritorialization afterwards…”12 Thus, we can no longer draw as tidy parallels between nomadic becomings and capitalism as we have to this point, for the true threshold of the nomad is held off, existing only perhaps as a carrot to move power networks to resemble more and more the aesthetic and moral stances of their opposition. As neoliberal capitalism itself became deterritorialized following the end of the Fordist class compact, it simultaneously exalted itself as the great bestower of health,wealth and equality (just think of development programs for the Third World and the philanthropy of industrial and financial giants) while in reality acting as a great destroyer (cyclical crisis, mass wealth inequality, war). To confuse matters more, Deleuze and Guattari point their finger to the stateform itself, the system that was supposed to dissolve away under both Marxist-derived programs and neoliberalism, as the principle actor in the reterritorializations. As we can now see, looking backwards from the vantage point of the latest crises, the state never, ever went away in the neoliberal revolution; it only slightly altered its function, retracing itself in the image of the market. It still creates level after level of bureaucracy, bails-out, enforces laws, regulates, and manages the direction that so-called free trade moves in.
Land once remarked in an interview that “organization is suppression,” a phrase so anarchic that it could have been found just as easily in the graffiti of the Situationists in 1968 or in the manifestos of the Italian Autonomists in the late 1970s. Following this logic, we can reach the conclusion that the acceleration of capitalism proper will never bestow a post-suppression environment, by virtue of the existence of the corporate model alone. With the modern corporation, the center of power and politics in the neoliberal sphere, we have a multilevel institution operating with the sanction of the state – through the granting of corporate charters – and, frequently, receives direct financial lines from the public coffers in the form of subsidies. And while the corporation is the principle arbiter of capitalism’s global flows, encompassing the monetary, the material, and human elements, it acts as a lopsided entity, a mass centralization that works not with the market, but against it. Manuel deLanda, drawing on research of Fernand Braudel, assigns both the corporation and the idea of capitalism itself to the category of the anti-market – the systems of “large scale enterprises, with several layers of managerial strata, in which prices are set not taken.”13
In contrast to the anti-market is the marketplace proper, a complex “meshwork” of both exchange and production, operating in primarily localized settings and through decentralization – small firms and individuals that actually determine price and labor conditions. deLanda’s meshworks were reflected in the CCRU’s interest in the bottom-up “street markets… a bustling bazaar culture of trade and ‘cutting deals’”,14 and also brings to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s articulation of the ‘rhizome’, a decentralized network formation that spreads across smooth spaces, free from hierarchy and command. Yet deLanda warns not to look to the meshwork of the market as something completely revolutionary; while they can resist them, they can also reinforce traditional binaries and hierarchies. There is also the issue of growth, which places the meshworks on a natural trajectory that can lead them to become anti-markets. The rhizome model is to be contrasted with that of a tree, but the figurative tree, not the process of further deterritorialization, is what can grow from the marketplace.
If we are speaking of illusionary rhizomes and false promises of open networks, we can turn to the other side of the accelerationist coin: the advancing marches of technology revolving around the internet itself. An interactive medium encompassing text and image, code and emotion, history and the future, global interrelation, the internet’s highly schizophrenic and every-shifting nature, its perpetual self-connection through hyperlinks, makes itself appear to be the fulfillment of the rhizome: “Principles of connection and heterogeneity: any point of rhizome can be connected to any other, and must be…A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.”15
But the internet has its trees and has always had its trees, unlike even the the deLandian market, which becomes hierarchical and treelike. From the beginning it was an agenda of Cold War politics, born from the research laboratories of DARPA and its allied universities. When it came time for the great privatization, it was handed off to corporate monopolies, anti-markets in the purest sense of the word, free from any real competition or external threats. The telecommunication giants serve as the internet’s gatekeepers, the guardians of the flows of information; digital ‘freedom’ comes at the cost of a monthly subscription and the consent to be monitored. And for many, the freedom doesn’t even exist – there is currently a growing crisis, particularly in the US, where people living in rural areas are deprived of internet access. This unfortunate problem stems from the service providers themselves, who simply choose not to operate in these regions because lower population densities would mean lower revenue streams. A double centralization occurs: a digital one, in the form of the ISP’s role as a gatekeeper, and a geographical one, where power, knowledge, and opportunities remain situated in the urban zones. To even begin to truly decentralized the world wide web and flatten out its intrinsic hierarchies, its not a matter of acceleration. Its a matter of a total structural change, a new paradigm for digital futures entirely.
Despite this, however, the spaces of the internet play host to a whole series of deterritorializations. Cyber warmachines – Anonymous, WikiLeaks, the countless advocates of open source technology, social media users in times of political struggle– are capable of crossing the digital threshold and impacting the physical world in very real ways, changing the contours of everyday life. File sharing platforms such as music blogs, torrent sites, and smaller, individualized programs allow capitalist creative destruction to impede on the constructs of copyright and intellectual property, while deeper structures, the darknet and TOR networks, allow for subterfuge and anonymity from the prying eye of government agencies and corporate data collectors.
We can extoll the virtues of these deterritorializations, for they constitute very real examples of radical becomings with the tools we have available. Yet the spectre of reterritorialization haunts them still, with the state taking on the very roles identified in Anti-Oedipus. As copyright laws become dismantled with the digitalization of music, film, text and information, governments have stepped in to take an active role in taking down hosting sites – an development situated in a great agenda of internet regulation and creation of watchdog agencies. Very real political repression of WikiLeaks is occurring, while the continual use of the TOR networks, stereotyped as a digital ‘wild west’, by violent and exploitative criminal elements only amplifies the calls for intervention. The digital sphere has reached a point where it serves as a mirror of the great neoliberal system, a state of affairs that was predicted decades ago by cyberpunk authors. In works such as Neuromancer, lauded by Land and the CCRU, technology is inseparable from the human body and his external environment while corporate monoliths act in the void left by the absence of functional government – but there exists a strange contradiction in that individuals living and acting on the level of the physical and digital streets have assumed heightened degree of autonomy while also being subjected to the greater ebbs and flows of power. In the cyberworld, as well as the real world, sources for freedom and the bindings of control are being transmitted from the same source – the schizoid movement of capital itself. Through this paradigm, perhaps we can push acceleration away from its looming black holes and reconnect it, as Hardt and Negri try to do, to some form of revolutionary politics.
“The street finds its own use for things”
I now sense an extraordinary acceleration in the decomposition of all coordinates. Its a treat just the same. All this has to crumble down, but it won’t come from any revolutionary organization. Otherwise you fall back on the most mechanistic utopias of the revolution utopias, the Marxist simplifications… The Italians of Radio Alice have a beautiful saying: when they are asked what has to be built, they answer that the forces capable of destroying this society surely are capable of building something else, yet that will happen on the way. – Felix Guattari, “Why Italy?”16
At this juncture I would like to interject a new text into the accelerationist canon: The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, recently written by Italian autonomist icon Franco “Bifo” Berardi (who, incidentally, was the founder of the Radio Alice mentioned in the quote above). Its concern certainly isn’t accelerationism per se, but a snapshot of the crisis of largely deterritorialized neoliberalism, taken at the feverpitch of the US Occupy movements, the renewed left-wing insurgency in Europe, and the Arab Spring. As the new democratic consciousness (if it can be called that) swept up malaise and despair and transmorphed them into anti-capitalist meshworks, Bifo reminds us of the crisis of technocapitalism had very real and dangerous possibilities for reterritorializations, harking back to Deleuze and Guattari’s black holes. The text draws forth apocalyptic imagery: the punk refrain of “no future”, violence, the specter of fascism. In many ways, it resembles (in tone, certainly not wording) Land’s own accelerated apocalypse – government’s corruption by “narco-capital” and the transfer of its police and military powers to “borderline-Nazi private security organizations”, the “urban warscape” and the “feral youth cultures” crawling their way through the “derelicted warrens at the heart of darkness.”17
All these things have come to pass, with the war on drugs transforming Mexico into a failed state, the privatization of warfare and relief with Blackwater in Iraq and New Orleans, the rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece… From here, Land appears not as our Nietzsche, as Fisher claims, but our Antonin Artaud, embodying the crisis in his precognitive, end times-tinged madness, while simultaneously showing potential avenues for exodus, passages to the outside. To quote his former student and fellow CCRUer, Robin MacKay, “academics talked endlessly about the outside, but no-one went there. Land, by exemplary contrast, made experiments in the unknown unavoidable…” 18
Anti-Oedipus, by way of MacKay and Fisher: “A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.”19
Where is this outside, the big other, alterity? As we’ve mentioned, in post-Fordist neoliberalism, its vanished, existing only as prepackaged exoticism. This provides a fundamental paradox – Hardt and Negri, in their own formula of acceleration, repeatedly tell us that Empire must be pushed to the “other side” (where is this other side?) and that exodus from the system constitutes a vital strategy (exodus to where?). Exodus can no longer inhabit a physical outside, so the only place that exodus can occur is within – both in the social spaces of capitalism itself and in the individual itself. Again, nomadic thought, the traversing even the exteriority inside oneself. But we cannot escape into pure thought, float like the original surrealists amongst the unconscious pools of phantasms and dreams – or can we? Shed of its Freudian and Stalinist ambitions, surrealism can show how drifting through the mind’s ambiances can create form in the physical world. “Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.”20 Let us conjoin these notions with George Jackson, by way of Anti-Oedipus: “I may take flight, but all the while I am fleeing, I will be looking for a weapon.”21
We can now loop this back to one of starting points, Deleuze and Guattari’s recomposition of the unconscious mind as a flowing factory of desiring-machines. Desire is not necessarily libidinal, as Freud and his alcolytes would have it; at its basis, it is a creative force. If capitalism has seized desire into its own deterritorializing and reterritorializing processes, then a proper method of acceleration would not have to be capitalism itself, but of the rhizomatic creativity buried within it. How else can we dodge the hierarchies of command and centralization that follow in the stateforms wake?
Land’s acceleration, in the speculative sense and the market sense, concerns itself, at its core, with one thing: pushing past its limits. Here Bifo is central: he notes that in the 90s, capitalism did accelerate, straight into what was predicted by CCRU – a collapse with shades of the apocalypse. And in a similar train of thought, he expounds a thesis that traditional forms of solidarity, and forms of resistance, are an impossibility, assigned to the dustbins of nostalgia that keep the system’s heart beating even when it has, for all intents and purposes, died on the operating table. Instead, he turns to a different form of limit-busting, that of language itself, the experience of which “happens in finite conditions of history and and existence… Grammar is the establishment of limits defining a space of communication.”22 Capitalism, at the end of history, descended into the empty circulation of linguistic signs and symbols, abstracts. Now we can scramble these linguistic parameters further, seize them and appropriate them, use them to eek out new conditions for solidarity. The mechanism he proposes is poetry, “the reopening of the indefinite, the ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words.” I think back to Magritte and his most famous work of surrealism, the juxtaposition of the image of a pipe with the words ‘this is not a pipe’ – code scrambling need not be poetry alone, but any aesthetic form.
If this linguistic-aesthetic turn seems too abstract, consider that speech itself forms part of the rock on which subjectivity is built: “I is an other, a multiplicity of others, embodied at the intersection of partial components of enunciation, breaching on all sides individuated identity and the organized body.”23 Guattari divides up the impact of these forms of enunciation, placing on oneside the signifying system of “emtpy speech”, direct command and logistical control; and on the other, “ordinary speech,” an complex affective system that encompasses not only the words themselves but articulates itself in conjunction with tonations, rhythms, facial expression, collaboration. Take the academic ivory tower, railed against by Land – theory-talk, political correctness, servitude to the given field’s magistrates and the cookie-cutter essay format, all provide a one-way uniformity in the student body, who pass on these hierarchies and overcodes in their own careers. Empty speech and all that it entails acts as a self-replicating system of control, and what is at stake is an autonomy of subjectivity itself.
Lets look at another example of subjectivity with connections to the CCRU moment: rave culture, the emergence of which Sadie Plant linked to the collapse of Britain’s labor paradigm under Thatcher’s neoliberal revolution as a method for finding new forms of collectivity. Curiously, it resembled deLanda’s meshworks: it initially flourished in the underground, linked by cottage industries and word of mouth, secret codes and maps pointing the way to parties. The patchwork music, cobbled from various sources and blended into an alchemical mixture, established the smooth sonic space where the rave took place, but the DJ or MC, in collaboration with the ravers, utilized polyphonic enunciations (oohs and ahhs, toasting, complex affective exchanges) to create emergent subjectivities that were far more collective than individual, subjectivities that looked for the outside at a time when none could be found or occur:
In her memoir Nobody Nowhere, the autistic Donna Williams describes how as a child she would withdraw from a threatening reality into a private preverbal dream-space of ultravivid color and rhythmic pulsations; she could be transfixed for hours by iridescent motes in the air that only she could perceive. With its dazzling psychotropic lights, its sonic pulses, rave culture is arguably a form of collective autism. The rave is utopia in its original etmymological sense: a nowhere/nowhen wonderland.24 (emphasis in original)
Quite literally a deterritorialization in the truest sense of the word – and one following the trajectory of capital acceleration – rave culture was quickly reterritorialized for capitalism by the state: crackdown on illegal parties, the creation of new laws, the centralization of power in the hands of corporate promoters, attacks on MDMA, all these moved rave culture away from the ‘margins’ and into the mainstream. A line of flight consisting of enunciation, aesthetics and movement, it ended up rebolstering the consumptive process of the spectacle, but there are still divergent deterritorializations utilizing the initial ethos against the powers of transnational capitalism. I’m talking here of the alter-globalization movement’s “Reclaim the Streets” (RTS) program of direct action. Rave party and protest collide together in streets of urban space, the arteries of the centers of postmodern capitalism. By occupying the streets and turning them into public bazaars, social centers and dance parties, a new form of social collectivity is produced: the Common, not only in the sense of a space of mutual aid and collective work, but also as a form of multifaceted enunciation. The fact that both RTS and the early rave movement latched onto the same theoretical construct – Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone (T.A.Z., a “temporary ‘power-surge’ against normality”)25 – and that Hardt and Negri believe that the Commonwill insue from accelerating Empire into the outside, we can gleem an important lesson: what is being concerned here is not simply a matter of physical space, though that is important. It is of a subjectivity established along lines of multiplicities, frenzied criss-crosses of speech and affective deterritorialized becomings. Acceleration collapses because neoliberalism can’t promise what it said it would. It’s up to us to carry on the mantle.
Openings: The Chaos Principle
In November of 2011 I found myself in New York City, moving as one individual in the mass swarm flowing through the streets of the financial district – an event that would have been unimaginable, I believe, without the groundwork laid by things such as RTS and the T.A.Z. As I watched the occupation’s internal workings, its rhizomatic networks of working groups, spokes councils, general assemblies and internet spaces, I was struck with a particular thought. Its not easy to place capitalism and its opposition in an easily defineable binary schema, because capitalism, like the people who actively resist it, is a system-in-becoming. Every person who was there was brought to the occupations by the complexity of capitalism’s flows, and were tapping it to wrestle it into something different. No two people who occupied in America, or marched in the streets of Europe or fought for democracy in the Middle East – or all those who oscillated between each in assemblages provided by information-communicative technologies – were identical; it was a composition of a myriad of collaescing concepts and complaints, hopes and analyses, intentions and experiences, affects and speech.
Because of this, no singular identity could be generated, nor platform for party-based revolution or reform. That didn’t stop the telecommunication-media complexes from trying to find these. “Make yourself a signifier!” they shouted, wanting, hoping, for some fixed point that could be easily digested and assimilated in the bureaucracy of control. They didn’t understand that that year’s transnational event of collective enunciation wanted to avoid the transformation into “empty speech” and the stodgy, gray stateform (both within and outside government) that comes part and parcel with it. They didn’t understand that neoliberalism’s chaos was producing yet another kind of chaos, one that was interactive and swelling from the bottom up.
Perhaps “chaos” isn’t the best choice of words, for we must define ourselves as seperate from neoliberal’s own kind of organized, exploitative chaos. Returning to Deleuze and Guattari, this time through Bifo’s work on poetry: “Art is not chaos, but a composition of chaos that yields the vision or sensation, so that it constitutes, as Joyce says, a chaosmos.”26 The chaosmos, a shift from the “dissonance” generated by accelerated capital and technotronics, “simultaneously creates the aesthetic conditions for the perception and expression of new modes of becoming.” The street will find its own use for things, as the cyberpunks proclaimed, and the micro-revolutions that this produces will be aestheticized and multiplied, not Hegelianized; it will exist on the smooth plane of the virtual, where there can be endless potentials for flight and finding weapons, bifurcation points and new creations. The chaotic principle must be at work to reestablish sources of alterity and to avoid reterritorialization as much as possible – no more totalizing syntheses…
The important thing here is not only the confrontation with a new material of expression, but the constitution of complexes of subjectivation: multiple exchanges between individual-group-machine. These complexes of subjectivation actually offer people diverse possibilities for recomposing their existential corporeality, to get out of their repetitive impasses and, in a certain way, to resingularise themselves… We are not confronted with subjectivity given as in-itself, but with processes of the realisation of autonomy, or autopoiesis…27
The story goes like this: when we speak of autonomy, autonomy of the subject, of its enunciations and its relations to collective experience, we speak of something that neoliberalism and social democratic governance claimed for its own, but never truly had: plurality. As such, making revolt in the neoliberal epoch itself cannot be a strict, singular platform; principles of autonomy, collective aesthetics and chaosmos run contrary to this. There is no utopia at the end of the road, no messianic communist reality knocking at our doorstep. But this does not disqualify resistance. We have the ability to create autonomy when we resist, and what we demand is space – geophysical, affective, and mental space. The Commons, if we so choose. At the very least, the option and ability to live free from command and control.
In at the closing of this dangling, never to be completed essay, I want finish with a final quote from Felix Guattari, as he looked out upon the Brazilian democratic uprisings at the dawn of the 1980s. This, I believe, is precisely the type of sentiments and sensibilities that we must now try to accelerate:
Yes, I believe that there is a multiple people, a people of mutants, a people of potentialities that appears and disappears, that is embodied in social events, literary events, and musical events… I don’t know, perhaps I’m raving, but I think we’re in a period of productivity, proliferation, creation, utterly fabulous revolutions from the viewpoint of the emergence of a people. That’s molecular revolution: it isn’t a slogan or a program, it’s something I feel, that I live, in meetings, in institutions, in affects, and in some reflections.28
1Nick Land “Meltdown” Abstract Culture, Swarm 1 http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_melt.htm
2Simon Reynolds “Renegade Academia” originally published in Lingua Franca, 1999 http://energyflashbysimonreynolds.blogspot.com/2009/11/renegade-academia-cybernetic-culture.html
3Antonin Artaud, Jack Hirschman (ed.) Artaud Anthology City Lights, 1965, pg. 29
4Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Penguin, 1977, pgs. 239-240
5Jean-Francois Lyotard Libidinal Economy Athlone Press, 2004 pg. 109
6Ibid., pgs. 113-114
7Jean Baudrillard Forget Foucault Semiotext(e) 2007, pg. 9
8Benjamin Noys The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pg. 6
9Baudrillard Forget Foucault pg. 12
9Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pgs. 206-20
11Deleuze, Guattari Anti-Oedipus, pg. 34
12Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and SchizophreniaUniversity of Minnesota Press, 1987 pg. 381
13Manuel deLanda “Markets and anti-markets in the world economy” Alamut April 26th1998 http://www.alamut.com/subj/economics/de_landa/antiMarkets.html
14Reynolds “Renegade Academia”
15Deleuze and Guattari A Thousand Plateaus, pg.7
16Felix Guattari “Why Italy?” in Sylvere Lotringer (ed) Autonomia: Post-Political PoliticsSemiotext(e), 2007 pg. 236
18Robin MacKay “Nick Land: An Experiment in Inhumanism” Umelec Magazine, January, 2012
19Mark Fisher and Robin MacKay “PomoPhobia” Abstract Culture, Swarm 1 http://www.ccru.net/swarm1/1_pomo.htm
20Herbert Marcuse, quoted in Franklin Rosemont “Herbert Marcuse and Surrealism” Arsenal no.4, 1989
21Deleuze, Guattari Anti-Oedipus, pg. 277
22Franco “Bifo” Berardi The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance Semiotext(e), 2012, pg. 158
23Felix Guattari Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm Indiana University Press, 1995 pg. 83
24Simon Reynolds Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture Routledge, 1999 pg. 248
25Ibid., pg. 245
26Berardi The Uprising pg. 150
27Guattari Chaosmosis, pg. 7
28Felix Guattari Molecular Revolution in Brazil Semiotext(e), 2007, pg. 9
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