Toby Bennett – Some thoughts on three new books for 2014…
Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian (eds.), #accelerate: the accelerationist reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic)
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Winchester: Zero)
Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Speed & Capitalism (Winchester, Zero)
It’s a 60 second walk from Embankment station to the Strand, a journey I take not infrequently, during which time I encounter three separate Starbucks, a Costa, and an Eat, a situation that is as incredibly, unnecessarily, but joyfully convenient as it is culturally depressing. As I sit here, sipping my mocha, I wonder whether we can map developments in Western intellectual culture through the lens of coffee: from the ‘penny universities’ of English coffee houses to Parisian Left Bank café existentialism; from the caffeine addiction that led Kant to self-imposed abstinence, to Walter Benjamin’s philosophy that must include ‘soothsaying from coffee grounds’. Coffee was the youthful alternative to alcohol through the ‘50s and ‘60s; while the switch of setting from the homely 1980s bar of the sitcom Cheers to the coffee-to-go lifestyle of its ‘90s spin-off Frasier (and, later, the globally influential Friends) signalled something of a generational shift. Coffee cultivated the social life of Enlightenment thought, nourishing its counter-culture into mainstream media, through a marvellously efficient conjuncture of the logic of global imperialism with the micro-physiology of stimulation.
Caffeinated capitalism is addictive and energising – but too much of it and the crash is inescapable. This was the gambit of Marx and Engels’ communist manifesto, which argued that capitalism contained within it inherent contradictions which will bring about its dissolution. This notion remains in a new theoretical moment which tries to imagine a different future to the one we currently have, although one which is not quite so ‘inevitable’. Designated ‘accelerationism’, it denotes a diverse bunch of theorists (many of them in the middle of their PhDs) that have begun to associate through their reaction against what they see as the localised defeatism of many left ‘alternatives’.
It is the name given to a line of thought stretching from certain tendencies in Marxism, through post-structuralist dissatisfaction with orthodox communist party politics in the 1970s, and the ‘cyberpunk’ rejection of regressive socialist infighting in the 1990s, to an ever-so-slightly more considered reaction to present day conditions. Though a disparate thread, it was given renewed life in the ‘manifesto for an accelerationist politics’, a text written and published online by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, which gained unprecedented traction over the course of a few months, garnering responses from McKenzie Wark and Antonio Negri, amongst others, and which has now been translated into a number of languages.
Accelerationists like their theory like they like their coffee: dark, bitter, and bracing. The development of the espresso is, of course, inextricably tied to the steam-power technology of the industrial revolution and its short sharp shocks are exactly what the contemporary urban future-theorist needs to get through the day. The basic unit of accelerationist communication is the tweet; a collection of tweets is a manifesto; a collection of manifestos is an anthology. Hence #accelerate: the accelerationist reader published this month, which collects together excerpts from Marx, Samuel Butler, and Thorstein Veblen; Lyotard, Deleuze and Lipovetsky; Shulamith Firestone and JG Ballard; Nick Land and Sadie Plant; Benedict Singleton, Tiziana Terranova and Antonio Negri. All of these are gathered together to flesh out the theoretical backdrop to the manifesto and all, with rare exception, perform their message stylistically, using fragments, polemics, and multiple voices. Initial orders of the book come with bottles of hot sauce – but perhaps they should be delivered with shots of thick caffeine. If you’re looking for calm, evidence based plans then you should look elsewhere; the reader is strictly for fans of breathless calls to arms.
But this is entirely in keeping with the accelerationist project. As Deleuze and Guattari commented on their infamous 1972 publication, “The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd”. At the anthology’s launch last night, Singleton noted how the dominant model for contemporary technologies (like social media) is not the plan but the platform: a dynamic space which sets up boundaries and presents tools but tries not to dictate how that space should be explored or how those tools should be used by the collective. It is designed not towards a specific end but to generate new orientations. Philosopher Pete Wolfendale, later added that pure mathematics, which has been the most productive technique for innovation in history, is a practice of experimentation for its own sake almost entirely divorced from instrumental motivations.
Which is not to say that accelerationists are only interested in theory – just that the instrumentalities it reaches for are usually those that lie slightly beyond reach. See, for example, asteroid capture: just one of the rocks currently circling this planet contains minerals worth over $100 trillion – significantly more than the current world GDP. The discovery of relatively small mining resources have previously caused entire markets to crash: the increasingly feasible prospect of asteroid mining (by 2023 at current estimates) has now buoyed mass investment. Accelerationists look to acknowledge the successes of the current system – the ways in which it so efficiently and democratically motivates individual action towards mass structural ends – at the same time as a need to grasp its many failures: the manner in which it encourages competitive dissociation; the reliance of such a system on the economic stability of the few to support the precarity of the many; the short-termism of solutions which satisfy immediate needs and desires but have trouble imagining a future past the next electoral cycle.
Seeking alternatives to the current system by no means implies Luddism or arts and crafts social utopianism – an ethic which, anyway, it will happily recuperate, improve, and serve back to us with a cup of tea and a Mumford and Sons soundtrack. Instead it means ‘re-orientating’ the technological means we have at our disposal towards new ends, ones that do not acquiesce to our current limitations. It means ‘accelerating the process’, going further than has previously been thought possible, exceeding the bounds of the existing sphere of capital. Instead, Accelerationists merely insist, let’s not throw the technological baby out with the anti-capitalist bathwater. ‘Dog on a string’ anarchism, anti-capitalist protests, and the Occupy movement alike seemingly reject capitalism in its entirety, offering only temporary forms of ‘escapism’ as their answer. By contrast, Singleton talks of ‘escapology’, the art of escape through using our restrictive ties against themselves. Let’s emphasise the ‘craft’ in craftiness, the accelerationists say; let’s use the power of our imaginations once again.
Coffee is no longer the symbol of intellectualism, of pretentiousness, elitism, counter-culture, youth, and so on that it used to be – it is the taste of the multitude. Independent coffee-shops are the new sites of resistance, where we pay an extra 20p to pin our insurgent, anti-consumerist colours to the mast. How many business meetings are fuelled with lattes and Americanos? How much networking has been preceded by the phrase ‘shall we go for a coffee?’ This is where free trade meets fair trade: one aspect of a totalised, routinized, global system which collapses the ethics of social responsibility into liberal consumption, and to which There Is No Alternative. As Starbucks insist: it’s “good coffee karma”.
If 1968 was the moment of crisis that inaugurated the generalised momentum of counter-culture thinking, then ‘our’ moment of crisis came exactly forty years later, once cultural liberalism had reached its middle age, settled down, and decided to keep calm and carry on. The moments after 2008 may have been initially promising for anyone seeking new economic systems but it was not long before what Mark Fisher (2009) called ‘Capitalist Realism’ – i.e. the cultural impossibility of imagining an alternative – set in (let’s not forget that the most scathing critique levelled at Occupy protesters was that they should fancy a cup of coffee). It around this time that Benjamin Noys (2010) coined the term ‘accelerationism’ in his critical appraisal of a tendency towards ‘affirmation’ in post-structuralist thought after the fact. Both Fisher and Noys were present at the first ‘Accelerationism’ event at Goldsmiths in 2010, held amidst the on-going wave of occupations and protests over the rise in student fees (just a few weeks before the massive London ‘DemoLition’ march that ended in mayhem at Millbank) and a few months before the Arab spring erupted – both events frequently characterised by their ‘revolutionary’ deployment of social media and by a sense of lost opportunity. It is a sense which today, four years on, seems pervasive.
Both of these writers have new offerings out in the near future (both for Zero Books): the former’s Ghosts of My Life furthers his thoughts on hauntology, exploring the psychological and affective impact of ‘Retromania’, the nostalgic cultural trend towards seeking futures in the past that Simon Reynolds (2011) depicts as the cultural logic of capitalist realism; the latter (in Malign Velocities) continues his critique of acceleration in more detail, having previously applied it as an identification of forms of misdirected reaction to political failure that conflate the completed capitalist project with communism, displacing the proletarian subject with capital itself. Both writers draw attention to intertwining of psychological and political problems and the problem with basing your alternatives either too far in the past or too far in the future.
Certainly, it is easy to poke fun at the accelerationist project, particularly when it teasingly, dangerously, presents itself as a ‘political heresy’ (how daring! how sexy!). But as Patricia Reed notes in #accelerate’s closing chapter, it ‘has little to do with novelty […] indeed it is practically reformist – and since I’m not French this is not in essence a politically pejorative term’ – a sentiment with which last night’s event explicitly concurred. As a practical handbook for developing a new future, accelerationism is probably dead before it’s even begun (although perhaps it will one day be resurrected, in keeping with Fedorov’s hopes for our ancestors): it’s difficult to see these books being given much time at the IPPR. But as a theoretical toolbox (a platform even) for equipping new imaginations, and making us think harder about the relation to technology in the current era, about what might constitute progress in such conditions, and what kinds of culture befit this future – it certainly gives us something to think about over a coffee.
23 May 2014: Accelerationism: a workshop and a lecture, University of Westminster, Centre for the Study of Democracy, Regent Street
29 May 2014: Ghosts of My Life Book Launch, Café Oto, Dalston
Accelerationist Aesthetics, e-Flux #46, 2013
Benjamin Noys, ‘Intoxication and Acceleration‘
Extract from Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life