by Arran James
In Mark Fisher’s talk he repeated the recent intervention made by the Institute for Precarious Consciousness where it states that we have moved from a world of boredom to one of anxiety. Mark was quick to add that he felt that it isn’t so much that boredom has disappeared, as that today we can say that everything is boring but no one is bored. This is a formulation that really struck me. In this statement boredom appears detached from its usual understanding as an emotional condition, a state one can or can’t be inside of, and as such is also uncoupled from its phenomenological understanding. A stimulus without a response, the boring has no subject that it bores down and into. Why? How is this possible?
In the introductory section of his talk Mark placed two “speeds” beside one another. Mark doesn’t deny the idea that we live at an accelerated pace, that the rhythms of everyday life have been pushed into overdrive, and that we therefore race to keep up with ourselves, with the demands placed on us by work, social media and a consumerism that isn’t limited to the closing time of the local shop or the high street store. This is the accelerationism of Virilio, the acceleration that is tied to the dromological study of speeds, the analysis that places technology at the centre of history (the engine is the engine of history), and which proclaims that wars are won by leaps in speed. It is the same accelerationism of Bifo’s cybertemporality that punishes the limits of organic information processing: semiocapital, capital become units and streams of data, informational products, financial signs, all of which move at a speed that is always approaching the speed of light, the speed of thought, an electrical speed, outpaces the capacities of the human brain. And not just in terms of its speed but also in terms of its volume. Everyday life is too fast for us to keep up with. “There isn’t enough time in the day” is still a common exacerbated cry in an age when we are surrounded by machines apparently designed to liberate time.
Virilio is one of our most important philosophers, not least for his early recognition of the importance of speed and his analysis of the acceleration of everyday life. For Virilio the speeding up of everyday life is driven by the speeding up of our technologies. Indeed, Virilio begins by staking his concerns in received Marxist wisdom as early as Speed and Politics in which he develops the idea that the transition from Feudalism to capitalism was driven by technomilitary concerns rather than purely economic ones, and he is keen to stress that the bourgeoisie would have been nothing without the military class- what Bifo today speaks of as “the warrior”. First it is the military who take a territory and hold it, and it is for reasons of defence that the territory forms itself into an enclosure, a bordered space that is internally policed as it is defended from the externalities of strangers. This policing is necessary when industrialisation calls on a mass migration to the great centres of production where the factories had been erected and hungrily awaited the swarm of living labour that would set them and keep them in motion- and this is in part the continuation of a much older policy of protecting the rich from the masses. Part of what marks the bourgeoisie as the bourgeoisie was its ability to maintain itself in permanent dwellings, to have a settled home, and so to be marked off from the workers who would be lodged in temporary dwellings or- in the case of infrastructure projects- would be, and remain, largely mobile.
At the same time the bourgeoise was thus able to solidify itself as a propertied class via the ownership of land which in contrast to the emergent proletariat secured it to a particular territory in order to allow for fixed property. Such property could be held by deed in order to act as a source of valorisation in itself via rent, and as a form of transgeneration transmission of wealth and right. Virilio sees this economic distinction of bourgeoisie and proletariat as also a spatial one: the bourgeoisie are able to domesticate the proletariat by keeping it dependent upon its property at a distance from it. We see this continued today wherever we find gated communities and favelas; the estates of the rich and the housing estates of the poor; the affluence of home owners and the capacity it gives for both philanthropic and abject gestures towards the homeless, who today are not even so much as allowed to appear. Accordingly, ‘the political triumph of the bourgeois revolutions consists of spreading the state of siege of the communal city machine…’ (39). Virilio generalises these ideas about hold over a territory by military means to put forward the provocative idea that
The state’s power is, therefore, only secondarily power organised by one class to oppress another. More materially it is the polis, the police, in other words highway surveillance, insofar as since the dawn of the bourgeois revolution, the political discourse has been…confusing social order with the control of traffic (of people, of goods), and revolution, revolt, with traffic jams, illegal parking, multiple crashes, collisions (39).
Very rapidly and schematically we have gone through a central idea in Virilio’s history: class society emerges as a result of a confluence between the military and the bourgeoisie centring on the conquest of territory and logistical control of the movement of bodies. At root we’re talking about the command of mobility and immobility in which the bourgeoisie and the military class together determine who moves, where, and when. This is clearly true of the contemporary petrostate and the larger political bodies that have swallowed the deterritorialised nation into their phagocytic chambers. These bodies are entirely concerned with the movement of populations- they must legislate for, allow, track, monitor, and count the movement of workers from city to city, nation to nation, state to state, state to union and so on; they must even encourage the migratory flows of workers between production centres to ensure their survival and the survival of those for whose benefit they exist as final protectors of private property; consumer products have to be allowed to circulate; resources must be shipped, hauled, organised, dispatched and delivered; for all this must exist roads, water and air routes, entire infrastructures, and organisations that exist specifically to police the various forms of access to those infrastructures. Add to this the infosphere and the circulation of data and metadata and the new infrastructures being made and remade to support it. Power is Virilio is quickly seen to be all about the circulation of all these bodies and the control of these infrastructures. In his later works Virilio will link this to surveillance in a much more total sense, approaching what Foucault calls the panopticon in positing a society made transparent to the eye of power. At root then; movement, and movement implies speed.
The infrastructural attention Virilio pays here is important. For him wars are won by speed. Immobility is the secret of fortification. Wars have been won and lost based on the speed of navies. Who can identify who first determines who gets the first shot away. The rifle is faster than the spear- a crucial part of the military aspect of colonialism- and the machine gun is faster than either. Weapons of speed conquer distance rendering territories smaller, more compact, less meaningful, transforming them into interruptions to be overcome. The promise of laser weapons presents the ultimate fantasy in which the moment of the trigger pull is the moment of the target’s death; and why not eradicate the trigger? Couldn’t a neuromodulation device inserted into the brain of the soldier mean that few seconds of delay could be eradicated too? Based on these observations we could suggest a formulation: the speeding up of everyday life is a military phenomena.
Of course, the use of technology isn’t to be confined to the military complex. Technological innovation may be accelerated in times of war but it is also increasingly the domain that the expansion of capital depends on. The emergence of technocapitalism has seen greater investment in biotechnologies, neuromodulation, and the rise of research oriented cognitive work, supported as ever by an industrial capitalism that has been subject to an aesthetic of disappearance. Against Virilio’s insistence on the centrality of technology we can say that technology has always been primarily linked to production, that war has in fact always been about capitalism in one way or another- such as the capture of natural resources or of a surplus population that could then be fed into the valorisation process, or the “shock doctrine” effect of fucking up enemy’s infrastructures just so ally corporations can sweep onto the scene and tidy up, at a cost. One way or another, we’re talking about some kind of primitive accumulation. Capitalism may not have invented war but it has certainly always needed it. For this reason it isn’t quite right to call the speed-up of everyday life a military phenomena. In fact, when we consider war and economy together we can only conclude with their combination in the formula of class war. Virilio addresses this theme when he writes that
The economic war that is currently ravaging the earth is but the slow phase of declared war, of a rapid and brief assault to come, for this is what perpetuates, in non-combat, military power as class-power (86).
Military power and class power are all but identified in Virilio, even if he misses the point that the former has been sunk into the latter. It isn’t that military power disguises itself as class power, that the military class engages in the subterfuge of hiding among the bourgeoisie, but that the bourgeoisie brings the military into its fold as part of the productive apparatus. The economic war is thus the slow war that is interrupted by rapid phases that act as stimulants to the metabolism of segments of the global market. Any other way around and we’d be submerged in a weird idealism wherein there was but one eternal war against humanity carried out by some more or less invariant military power.
What does this mean for my concern here? I’ve drifted a ways away from boredom. Firstly it means that there is a war being conducted, a class war, and that it is being conducted via the control of the movement of bodies. In my essay on the society of stimulation I tried to show that this war isn’t just conducted at the macroscale but also at the microscale of molecules, of neurotransmitters, of drugs and of physiological excitations of a variety of technological kinds. Caffeine and amphetamines, the agitation of the screen, the neurostimulators of psychiatry and medicine: all stimulants that produce hyperarousal in our bodies. But right at the start I said that Mark also discussed a second kind of speed. This speed works in the opposite direction to the speed up that operates at the level of bodies and their cellular constitution. There is a cultural slow-down accompanying the speed-up of everyday life.
As the rhythms that structure experience get faster, innovation in the sphere of culture drops. We get repetitions: the faddish return of previous cultural obsessions, fashions, musical forms. Retro dominates dress codes- or the vapidity of normcore steps in as a refusal of retro without the ability to think anything new, an admission of the blankness of a creativity sick of its own sluggish incapacities. Popular music is trapped inside a time warp with the return of boybands and girlbands, the blandness of the majority of hiphop, the staleness of indie music and rock, the proliferation of new electronic genres that play on their forebears without announcing anything really innovative and which go so far as to declare their thwarted desire to be genuinely novel (“future-garage”; “post-dubstep”). We reach the exhaustion of our cultural imagination. We gave up. Everything we consume is a nothing; there is no cultural nourishment; no autonomy of art; no counter-culture.
Virilio also has a term for this phenomena: the meeting of the acceleration of everyday life with a slowdown elsewhere is what he calls polar inertia:
When a businessman travels from Paris to new York, new York-Paris, Paris-new York, new-York Paris by Concorde, he begins to experience the situation of polar inertia. This new form of sedentariness is the active tendency in technology. Sedentariness in the instant of absolute speed. It’s no longer a sedentariness of non-movement, it’s the opposite…I think its a desire for inertia, a desire for ubiquity, instantaneousness (1997, 69).
Virilio’s example is Howard Hughes, a man with identical apartments all over the world who was served the same meal everywhere he went. And we are all Howard Hughes now. Or, lacking his pathologies as much as his wealth, we all live in this polar inertia he pioneered. Everywhere I go I can be on youtube, twitter, facebook. I can travel around the world and never leave my favourite places. We travel, like the laser weapon, at approaching the speed of light. Skype conversations take us around the world, conquering geographical distances, even as the very materiality of that exchange depends upon an intensification of the geological of that geography. The disavowal of the geological, the geographical, and of separating distances. But this is hyperbole. It is an incompleted system. We don’t really live in the instant. At least not yet. But we are captivated by the instant, and there is a compulsive libidinous attachment to the technologies of inertia. As Mark Fisher puts it:
The consequence is a strange kind of existential state, in which exhaustion bleeds into insomniac overstimulation (no matter how tired we are, there is still time for one more click) and enjoyment and anxiety co-exist (the urge to check emails, for instance, is both something we must do for work and a libidinal compulsion, a psychoanalytic drive that is never satisfied no matter how many messages we receive). The fact that the smart phone makes cyberspace available practically anywhere at anytime means that boredom (or at least the old style, ‘Fordist’ boredom) has effectively been eliminated from social life. Yet boredom, like death, posed existential challenges that are far more easily deferred in the always-on cyberspatial environment. Ultimately, communicative capitalism does not vanquish boredom so much as it “sublates” it, seeming to destroy it only to preserve it in a new synthesis.
The society of stimulation is a class war waged at the level of our nervous systems. And it does something perverse to us. Just like the capitalist seeks to accumulate value, we seek to accumulate data. Usually meaningless data. A torrent that we can drown in. There is a desire for polar inertia even if it hasn’t been realised. In part this is due to the massified individualisation of our uses of social media. We synchronise around this shit- the affective territory becoming shared, flat, boring. But there is no boredom. We don’t experience the boringness of this shit. We don’t have the opportunity to experience boredom. If there is no subject of boredom it is because that subject has converted into an anxious subject who must perform her safety behaviours: check the email; check twitter; update status; download this; watch that; look at pictures on buzzfeed; the perfect application of the psychiatric principle of distraction. In psychiatry distraction is supposed to remove the psychotic, the depressive, the anxious from focussing on their symptoms and from ruminating on the causes of those symptoms. In other words, distraction is an attempt to direct perception away from the real so that once it has been trained correctly it can be returned to reality.
Boredom was about time. Our time is full. Lefebvre wrote that the media specialised in filling our time, applying a rhythm to it, but today those rhythms fall apart, synchronisation being matched by the protective obsessive-compulsivity of checking, of updating, 24/7. Time breaks down even as it is flattened. We share the same atomised temporality, the same empty time, the same empty lives. Or this is what the abolition of boredom attempts to do. Capitalism is boring but no one is bored. What does it mean? It means that everything happens so quickly- at the speed of information- and under the physiological coupling to the machine that has rendered us addicts to phenomena like social media via the conditioning of necessity introduced by work. It means that we don’t have time to feel the emptiness of our time- of our lives. As the saying goes: work, consume, die.
Accelerationism doesn’t seem to propose a return to boredom, and rightly indicates that there can be no going back. Accelerationism seems to propose a new use of the technologies of speed that drive and are driven by capitalism. It also proposes that we repurpose the existing infrastructure- that we keep our smartphones and our computers and all the rest of it. So if boredom is out, what is it that is going to rouse us back to asking the big questions, what is going to help us to give up on survival and attempt to reanimate our moribund culture, our apparently comatose politics? It seems like the answer to that is accelerationism itself. Accelerationism seems intended to jolt us. It is a profoundly anti-depressive political gesture. It wants us to give up on conservatisms and protectionisms. If reflection has been cancelled then why do we keep trying to reflect? If capitalism is global why the hell are you acting locally? If the challenges exist on the scale of hyperobjects then why do you think molecules will win? Why do you keep distracting yourself with so much bullshit? You’re bored and you just don’t fucking no it. From the perspective of boredom, accelerationism is a kind of assault to the political, a slap in the face.
Fundamentally, the question of boredom leads me to think about accelerationism as a kind of electroshock therapy from the depressive body of the left. It is the political use of stimulation torouse us to challenge the hegemony of those who monopolise stimulation as a technique for control. Accelerationism thus has very little to do with speeding up or slowing down as such. Accelerationism is thus also an attempt to shock some life back into what it sees as a comatose revolutionary movement. The question of whether these concerns are fair belong elsewhere.
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