Monday, May 22, 2017

Iain Grant, Ray Brassier, and Robin Mackay reflect on accelerationism and the CCRU

Because the article is part of The Guardian's "long read" series - in the interest of accelerating time - I'll include below what I thought were the most interesting parts and then link to the full article below. The title is "Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in," published back on May 11.  Also involving time (because I just haven't had any) is why it took me so long to publish this post.  But please do read, alot of interesting reflections.

At any one time, there have probably only been a few dozen accelerationists in the world. The label has only been in regular use since 2010, when it was borrowed from Zelazny’s novel by Benjamin Noys, a strong critic of the movement. Yet for decades longer than more orthodox contemporary thinkers, accelerationists have been focused on many of the central questions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the rise of China; the rise of artificial intelligence; what it means to be human in an era of addictive, intrusive electronic devices; the seemingly uncontrollable flows of global markets; the power of capitalism as a network of desires; the increasingly blurred boundary between the imaginary and the factual; the resetting of our minds and bodies by ever-faster music and films; and the complicity, revulsion and excitement so many of us feel about the speed of modern life. 
Noys says: “Accelerationists always seem to have an answer. If capitalism is going fast, they say it needs to go faster. If capitalism hits a bump in the road, and slows down” – as it has since the 2008 financial crisis – “they say it needs to be kickstarted.”...In recent years, Noys has noticed accelerationist ideas “resonating” and being “circulated” everywhere from pro-technology parts of the British left to wealthy libertarian and far-right circles in America.


Yet it was in France in the late 1960s that accelerationist ideas were first developed in a sustained way. Shaken by the failure of the leftwing revolt of 1968, and by the seemingly unending postwar economic boom in the west, some French Marxists decided that a new response to capitalism was needed. In 1972, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari published Anti-Oedipus. It was a restless, sprawling, appealingly ambiguous book, which suggested that, rather than simply oppose capitalism, the left should acknowledge its ability to liberate as well as oppress people, and should seek to strengthen these anarchic tendencies, “to go still further … in the movement of the market … to ‘accelerate the process’”. 
Two years later, another disillusioned French Marxist, Jean-François Lyotard, extended the argument even more provocatively. His 1974 book Libidinal Economy declared that even the oppressive aspects of capitalism were “enjoyed” by those whose lives the system reordered and accelerated. And besides, there was no alternative: “The system of capital is, when all’s said and done, natural.” 
In France, both books were controversial. Lyotard eventually disowned Libidinal Economy as his “evil book”, and moved on to other subjects. Deleuze and Guattari warned in their next book, A Thousand Plateaus, which was published in 1980 – as relatively benign postwar capitalism was being swept away by the wilder, harsher version of the Thatcher-Reagan era – that too much capitalist acceleration could suck society into “black holes” of fascism and nihilism. 
Yet in Britain, Anti-Oedipus and Libidinal Economy acquired a different status. Like much of postwar French philosophy, for decades they were ignored by the academic mainstream, as too foreign in all senses, and were not even translated into English until 1983 and 1993 respectively. But, for a tiny number of British philosophers, the two books were a revelation. Iain Hamilton Grant first came across Libidinal Economy as a master’s student at Warwick in the early 90s. “I couldn’t believe it! For a book by a Marxist to say, ‘There’s no way out of this’, meaning capitalism, and that we are all tiny pieces of engineered desire, that slot into a huge system – that’s a first, as far as I know.” Grant “got hooked”. Instead of writing his dissertation, he spent an obsessive six months producing the first English translation. 
By the early 90s Land had distilled his reading, which included Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard, into a set of ideas and a writing style that, to his students at least, were visionary and thrillingly dangerous. Land wrote in 1992 that capitalism had never been properly unleashed, but instead had always been held back by politics, “the last great sentimental indulgence of mankind”....He [Land] saw civilisation everywhere accelerating towards an apocalypse: “Disorder must increase... Any [human] organisation is ... a mere ... detour in the inexorable death-flow.”

Land gave strange, theatrical lectures: clambering over chairs as he spoke, or sitting hunched over, rocking back and forth. He also spiced his pronouncements with black humour. He would tell lecture audiences, “I work in the field of The Collapse of Western Civilisation Studies.” A quarter of a century on, some former Warwick philosophy students still talk about him with awe. Robin Mackay says, “I think he’s one of the most important philosophers of the last 50 years.”
At Warwick, however, the prophecies were darker. “One of our motives,” says Plant, “was precisely to undermine the cheery utopianism of the 90s, much of which seemed very conservative” – an old-fashioned male desire for salvation through gadgets, in her view. “We wanted a more open, convoluted, complicated world, not a shiny new order.”To observe the process, and help hasten it, in 1995 Plant, Fisher, Land, Mackay and two dozen other Warwick students and academics created a radical new institution: the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). It would become one of the most mythologised groups in recent British intellectual history....For decades, tantalising references to the CCRU have flitted across political and cultural websites, music and art journals, and the more cerebral parts of the style press. “There are groups of students in their 20s who re-enact our practices,” says Robin Mackay. Since 2007, he has run a respected philosophy publishing house, Urbanomic, with limited editions of old CCRU publications and new collections of CCRU writings prominent among its products....These days, Iain Hamilton Grant is an affable, middle-aged professor who wears a waistcoat with a pen in the top pocket. Yet when I asked him to describe the CCRU, he said with sudden intensity: “We made up an arrow! There was almost no disharmony. There was no leisure. We tried not to be apart from each other. No one dared let the side down. When everyone is keeping up with everyone else, the collective element increased is speed.”....Grant explained: “Something would be introduced into the group. Neuromancer [William Gibson’s 1984 novel about the internet and artificial intelligence] got into the philosophy department, and it went viral. You’d find worn-out paperbacks all over the common room.” 
Even inside the permissive Warwick philosophy department, the CCRU’s ever more blatant disdain for standard academic practice became an issue. Ray Brassier watched it happen. Now an internationally known philosopher at the American University in Beirut, between 1995 and 2001 he was a part-time mature student at Warwick. 
“I was interested in the CCRU, but sceptical,” Brassier says. “I was a bit older than most of them. The CCRU felt they were plunging into something bigger than academia, and they did put their finger on a lot of things that had started to happen in the world. But their work was also frustrating. They would cheerfully acknowledge the thinness of their research: ‘It’s not about knowledge.’ Yet if thinking is just connecting things, of course it’s exciting, like taking amphetamines. But thinking is also about disconnecting things.” 
Brassier says that the CCRU became a “very divisive” presence in the philosophy department. “Most of the department really hated and despised Nick – and that hatred extended to his students.” There were increasingly blunt bureaucratic disputes about the CCRU’s research, and how, if at all, it should be externally regulated and assessed. In 1997, [Sadie] Plant resigned from the university. “The charged personal, political and philosophical dynamics of the CCRU were irresistible to many, but I felt stifled and had to get out,” she told me. 
After his [Land's] breakdown, Land left Britain. He moved to Taiwan “early in the new millennium”, he told me, then to Shanghai “a couple of years later”. He still lives there now. “Life as an outsider was a relief.” China was also thrilling. In a 2004 article for the Shanghai Star, an English-language paper, he described the modern Chinese fusion of Marxism and capitalism as “the greatest political engine of social and economic development the world has ever known”. At Warwick, he and the CCRU had often written excitedly, but with little actual detail, about what they called “neo-China”. Once he lived there, Land told me, he realised that “to a massive degree” China was already an accelerationist society: fixated by the future and changing at speed. Presented with the sweeping projects of the Chinese state, his previous, libertarian contempt for the capabilities of governments fell away. 
In 1970, the American writer Alvin Toffler, an exponent of accelerationism’s more playful intellectual cousin, futurology, published Future Shock, a book about the possibilities and dangers of new technology. Toffler predicted the imminent arrival of artificial intelligence, cryonics, cloning and robots working behind airline check-in desks. “The pace of change accelerates,” concluded a documentary version of the book, with a slightly hammy voiceover by Orson Welles. “We are living through one of the greatest revolutions in history – the birth of a new civilisation.” 
Shortly afterwards, the 1973 oil crisis struck. World capitalism did not accelerate again for almost a decade. For much of the “new civilisation” Toffler promised, we are still waiting. But Future Shock has sold millions of copies anyway. One day an accelerationist may do the same.

Link to the full article HERE.