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Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism)

Malign Velocities (Accelerationism)

A deeper dive into accelerationism after Step 67, jumping from Marx and labor automation to the libidinal economy, joy in pain, the value of poop, and sex as work in the machinic future. There are good reasons to accelerate beyond our current state, but Walter Benjamin advises using the “emergency brake” instead of blindly rushing into the unknown.

Primarily drawn primarily from Benjamin Noys’s “Malign Velocities” there are references to “#Accelerate”, Lyotard, Bataille, Deleuze & Guatarri, and Godard’s “Weekend.”

Note: there are references to earlier podcasts on the 1-dimensional man and artificial negativity as well as our previous podcast on Cybernetics

Accelerationism

Malign Velocities” by Benjamin Noys

#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader 2014 (edited by Robin Mackay, Armen Avanessian)

  • 0:00 Introduction to this episode.
  • 1:53 In 1879 there was a horrible train wreck: the promise and cost of technology
  • 4:27 A cautionary tale about the influence of the machine on communism.
  • 6:53 What is the frame of Capitalism? (Marxism into desire) 
  • 12:17 The problem with capitalism is not just the machinery, but also our social and libidinal economy.
  • 15:04 Our desires are shaped by society, work, and culture, which are not easily overthrown altogether. 
  • 17:52 How do you manifest the spirit of man at his boldest while denying him his rude desires?
  • 23:33 Accelerationism as a “sadistic” approach to crisis: rush towards death. 
  • 25:49 Barbarism is the only way to get to socialism: nihilism of values. 
  • 27:53 Accelerationism grasps misery: The world of work is confronted as one of future horror. 

references

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

Intro:

Today we will be covering multitudinous aspects of accelerationism, pulling just a little bit from #ACCELERATE: the accelerationist reader which has several new and old essays to map out the terrain. And, of course, I will draw from Malign Velocities by Benjamin Noys. I found this a compelling thought about accelerationism: we tend to think the only radical or subversive response to capitalism is to reject it, or deny it, which closes our minds to other potential opportunities. This podcast is called “let us think about it,” so we might as well spend some time considering something we normally don’t. 

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

 PART 1: The hand brake 

walter benjamin

In 1879 there was a horrible train wreck. The weather conditions were very foggy, and a train derailed and plummeted off a bridge into the water below. Not knowing what happened, they sent out another train to investigate, and only by speedily applying the “emergency brake” did this train avoid the same fate. 

The story inspired poets, who in this odd time of machine worship, declared the locomotive a “saint of the future,” to which the response was, “it is quite unnecessary to become an Angel, since the locomotive is worth more than the finest pair of wings.” 

This incident influenced the eclectic philosopher Walter Benjamin. Benjamin discusses the “emergency brake” of history, which is pulling the brake without falling into nostalgia, tribalism, or a pastoral vision. It is reconsidering technology and capitalism as they co-mingle into these forms of speedy production. There are aspects of Benjamin that are accelerationist. However, he attempts to disrupt the capitalist bent as it rapidly propels forward into the fog. 

bertolt brecht

Walter Benjamin began interacting with Bertolt Brecht, who was a radical disruptor criticizing the sleek “streamlined technological future.”  He wrote a short story about a man he calls a slob, who can’t stand the Bauhaus modernist aesthetic. When the owner leaves the beautiful modernist house, he violently rearranges the furniture and pastes magazine Pages onto the walls to leave some sort of trace of human presence: the slob is not unsophisticated; he revels in his humanity

This is what the technological imperative rushes past: humanness. 

Cautionary Tale

Now, for another cautionary tale about communism and capitalism and the influence of the machine. 

The means of capitalist production were supposed to be wrested away from the capitalists to serve the communist ends. (Communists are a community of humans who do not exploit each other at the most basic level.) But the broader argument is to question if it is indeed possible to use the machinery of production, built and designed under capitalist ideals, and not smuggle in the negative aspects of capitalism.

For instance, the Soviet Union tried communism, but it had a lot of problems with organization, and the over-arching goal of the state (more than bread for the proles) became the need to strengthen the war machine in order to save the state. This, in hindsight, was probably wise given the rise of Germany, but the goal warped what communism should be into a nationalist ethos.

 When the community goal becomes swamped by the threat of patriotic extinction, the nation required sacrifice as fast as possible. And the people were the resource decimated by the nation. But the union survived for what that is worth.

So, the machine saved Russia, sort of, but can you call it “communism” without a community? or for that matter, can you call it democracy when the citizens’ votes don’t count, which is the Russia of today. 

The machinic future costs lives in many ways, reshaping lifestyles through work, culture, and society. 

At what point in this rush for survival does someone yank the brake? 

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

Part 2: Marxism is the frame 

The ghost underlying much of accelerationism is Marxism.

 You can lean into him or condemn him, but Marx was the one of the first to really dig into the warping of society and labor through the machine. He may have emphasized class struggle, but much of it was predicated on the bourgeoisie having the capital, which means having the machines. 

So, let’s say the “run-away train” is both capitalism and the technology of production. 

Automation was supposed to free men of labor, but in an inverse fashion, our relationship with labor and machines somehow subverted man into the servant who thought he was the master: we have become the slaves to the steam engine.

 The original thought was capitalism would collapse under its own excesses, it’s own contradictions: the production would extract too much at too little cost, draining resources and the labor pool. The people would rebel when capital imbalance became extreme, but somehow the perfect trap keeps returning “just enough,” – just enough comfort and hope – so that we do not rebel. 

The thought was the masses (the proletariat) would unite, turning the machines of capital into the fuel for the revolution. Instead, we have become the fuel. Human coal for the mechanical monster. 

In a less dramatic fashion, as Marx says in his 1858 text The Fragment on Machines, we are merely the linkages between machines completing the system. The machine appears to do the work transferring our labor into the product, but for man these “labor saving” devices have not delivered the 16-hour work week, instead, they are “labor shaping”, that is extracting more while requiring less skill: the automation diminishes man into a link in a broader process; and man does not get the credit, the machine gets the credit.

 For Karl Marx the “means of labor” (living labor plus machine dead labor) becomes synonymous with capital, which is also called the “means of production.” 

“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” 

Karl Marx

 If we consider capitalism the form, or frame, and what happens within it as the content we can see how the frame converts everything inside into itself: into its own perspective and orients everything towards its own vanishing point. Once, the capital was labor + tangible products bought and sold, but in the ’70s, finance moved into speculative abstraction, and now our linkage is to be data mined by behavior cataloging and the subsequent manipulation through the attention economy made possible by surveillance capitalism. (You don’t need me to tell you this, it is just a rehash of the new colonization of territories into the transcendent nether realms that we need to keep in mind.) 

The key issue that accelerationism attempts to tackle is capitalism’s expansion without collapse. (Since it thwarted Marx’s predictions.) How do we escape when the act of rebellion is the work of capitalism? 

As Ray Brassier and others have pointed out: within the frame of capitalism, all of the interlinking systems are shaped to a capitalist perspective. Picture those train tracks vanishing on the horizon: while we want to slow down, pull the handbrake and jump the track into human-centered ideas, there is just too much interlinked momentum. The revolution’s goal was to use the tools of capitalism in its aftermath, but – and this is the key point- we cannot use the tools and remain free of the vampiric capitalism taint. 

Sacred Economics offers several ways to transition from current capitalism to something new and talks about the revolution using the “bones of capitalism” as the “scaffolding” from which we can mature. But the problem is our “capitalist machines of production” are built embedded, coded, with extractive intent. Which lets the capitalist ethos be reintroduced, igniting our conditioned desires all over again. 

This point of view considers that it is not only the physical and infrastructural problems with capitalism but also our social and libidinal economy, our desire for things and stuff and comfort, and how we relate to the world. 

Any revolution must ignite our desires beyond our current desires, reorienting them to point toward a different set of values. While, of course, solving for the current problems. Unfortunately, surrounded by the bones of capitalism, we are like an alcoholic in a bar, or a gambler in a casino told not to enjoy themself: humans aren’t good at saying “no”; we need to say “yes” to enjoyment as well. 

This is the problem that leads us to consider accelerationism: our “social value” is linked to “production value” is linked to the “libidinal economy,” and reformulating all of these all at once seems unlikely unless we either universally transcend or the entire system breaks or implodes. Universal transcendence seems cool, but my neighbor is waiting in a bunker with guns and canned beans for Jesus to return instead of taking shrooms with me, so I think it will be a hard sell. Acceleration is (unfortunately) more feasible.

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

SIDENOTE: Schizoid Interweaving

Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari bring up the schizoid desire for “lines of flight,” which can be our schizophrenic desire to fragment, embrace irrationality as we break free, and deterritorialize the system. They also bring up the concept of machinic enslavement, which, oddly enough, might be more “positive” than being pulled out of the machine to become an autonomous subject. 

On a purely materialistic level it is not preferable to be without machines. On a psychological level, without machinic influence, what does that even look like? 

One problem is that our libidinal economy (or desires shaped by society) feeds our values and excesses right back into the system. You may feel alienated, split from yourself and others, and left only with desires, but they are routed through technological means, shaped pre-discursively by work and society, meaning the very shape of our thoughts and desires are born within the form of capital. Our desire is paint within the frame. 

We cannot separate work life from social life; they are intertwined, much like labor and leisure and social consumption and production: they are all interreliant. In short, we are intimately bound to labor (both in work and socially, which once again cannot be separated) all mediated through the form of the machine or technology. 

And we cannot separate ourselves from that influence as we have become an appendage to the machine: that’s right, your phone is not an external organ to you, you are merely a replaceable limb for the bazillipede known as the global technological apparatus. 

yes, I drew this
Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

Part 3: the logic of acceleration 

No one can see a way back. Even if you want regressive nostalgia, it won’t work to rebuild a past and ignore the possibilities of the future, so we lean into the future. The futurists were a bit too bombastic, overshooting with passion and zeal as a way to engage the libidinal desires, the imaginary. 

Today’s accelerationism is more sober, based on theory and taking cues from Marx, d and g, Negri, Jameson, Fisher, and others. It considers the excessive machinic impulses in Nick Land’s cyberpunk phuturism to be a bit too schizo, too sacrificial of the human. This is good to hear, because while Land broke ground in an artsy interesting way, it required too much nihilistic faith to follow. 

Instead, accelerationism has turned into a real discussion about which elements need to be accelerated: for instance, if we have a decline of the symbolic exchange, where the chain between signifier and signified, from master signifier to the signifier is disrupted, do you want to re-establish a chain – that is linkages- or do you want them all running in parallel, sort of explosive lines of flight? 

So, maybe we don’t break everything, but rather look to break the elements that abstract everything, or maybe symbolic representation is the problem that homogenizes everything? I don’t know. 

It is difficult to parse, but in Accelerationism, there is a need to distinguish between the Promethean rise, the spirited ambition to reach the stars and activate our imaginative drives which tends to privilege a reliance on rationality and logic, which- of course- tends to deform society and humanity. Or the other side of recognizing our plight and recalibrating to re-center human-based health and happiness.

You may say ‘socialism will recenter humanity,’ but there is an unfortunately incommensurate vibe difference: excitement and socialism don’t align. Egalitarianism is just not sexy, (especially when you unfairly compare it with rockets in space) and is often confused with flattened freedoms. This friction and boredom in the political, in this case, is the “handbrake:” to flatten the impulsive desires that we dream. 

I’ve been circling it, but the question remains: How do you manifest the spirit of man at his boldest while denying him his rude desires?


I know it is easy to rail against capitalism, but accelerationism reminds us that capitalism has always been a revolutionary force: 

“Communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical. Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

‘[R]evolutionary actions’ are not those which aim to overthrow the system of Capital, which has never ceased to be revolutionary, but those which complete its rhythm in all its radicality, that is to say actions which accelerate the metamorphic process of bodies

Gilles Lipovetsky

However, according to Althusser, these bodies may already be processed: “the human being is dead,” transformed into a passive machine part, and no longer possessed of any ‘irreducible element’ that would revolt against capital.

Equally, there is a nostalgic conservative premise in blaming capitalism:  Lyotard calls out Marx for considering the past as “naturalism.” Allowing him to then decry capitalism as if it owed us something. He asks, why do we think we are owed something, and if so, can we also see what it has given? 

Capitalism (according to Lyotard) has allowed us to throw off norms and obligations, reconsider internalized guilt, or even be cynical. Lyotard goes so far as to suggest the workers “enjoy” their enslavement and suffering; they take pleasure in it as a form of jouissance that mobilizes their desire. 

This is the dark part: we enjoy our suffering, even if it’s because it identifies us and gives us a place from which to voice discontent, from which we draw pleasure… not from the discontent itself, but the pleasure in voicing it. Look at social media for an example of negative pleasure, artificial reputational defense, and jouissance: it is toxic, and people go back for negative enjoyment. They take pleasure in trolling and defending, yet I would argue it is primarily self-imposed suffering. (It is because we crave intensity, either good or bad, and our primordial nervous system isn’t too picky on which one it is.)

So, we can blame the frame, capitalism, which subverts us and shapes us, but accelerationism pushes the point that a bit more egalitarianism or some more politics, to claim “all should be held in common” is not going to change anything because we have been shaped not to agree, to see that throttling as totalitarianism or anti-individual.

As we have become inextricably tangled in and tied up in machinic processes (machinic enslavement) we still possess the very human desire to go beyond -surplus desire- which can still be channeled into moving past certain limits, which would open up new ways of being. 

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

Part 4: Malign Velocities

As a slight repeat: what accelerationism is trying to do is to use the abstractions that represent value as tools to push us forward. For instance, we know a five-dollar bill or social media are merely abstract representations of value, yet it does not mean they do not have real effects on the world. Capitalism is an abstract concept and a real force.

We are already embedded in this abstract world, and to encourage and amplify these abstractions provokes a new world. Yet, accelerationists say we are hesitant to embrace it completely: It is as if we have one hand applying pressure on the break, our foot on the gas, and one hand over our eyes. 

Benjamin Noys goes through a history of futurism into accelerationism and says the Accelerationists are looking for a “new inventiveness in the face of crisis” and rightly resisting calls for sacrifice and austerity, which “usually fall on the victims of crisis rather than those who caused it.” But he cautions that they employ a “quasi-Marxist cunning of reason” where the “worst will produce the good” – to immerse in the destructive to extract a power to break capitalism. 

This is very much cybernetic theory, or a psychoanalytic approach: the power of freedom is not without, but within. Defeat the evil empire by becoming more sadistic than the sadist to clear a path to the light. 

The real problem of championing this type of apocalyptic martyrdom is that, as Alain Badiou says, in their haste to find a line of flight out of capitalism, they ironically reflect the accelerative logic of capital. In dissolving reality, they mirror capital’s dissolution of reality and thus fall back into it. 


A great example Benjamin Noys discusses is Godard ‘s film “Weekend”. This fits into a chapter in Malign Velocities on Georges Bataille‘s notions of general economy as shit and recycled waste and anality. In the movie there is a traffic jam scene for 8 minutes, representing the blockage or stoppage, the excremental flows thwarted. On their way to have the weekend vacation is a bourgeoisie married couple, both with secret lovers and no principles, who are planning to murder each other.

Finally free of the blockage, they are both pieces of poo that escaped that shitty city. But on the vacation, they are abducted by this barbaric sort of socialist hippy tribe, who are cannibals.

And why does Noys bring all this up? Because the point implied by Godard is “barbarism seems to be the only way to Socialism.” 

“We can only overcome the horror of the bourgeoisie by even more horror.” 

What’s sad is the socialist barbarous tribe is experiencing nihilistic exhaustion: even at the furthest extremes, they have become flattened and passionless. So, there is no smooth transition from those who hold power and wealth into socialism without barbaric consumption so that we may regenerate: we have to turn everything into “shit” for the flowers to grow.

For the bourgeoisie and the nihilist hippies, there is no joy or passion in their self-destruction, just equivalence of all values. And this is a testament to the implosive path of acceleration: social rejuvenation only occurs after a collapse. The nihilistic homogenization is an undifferentiated shit pile from which to grow new dreams. 

Step 68: Malign Velocities (Accelerationism )

Part 5: Terminal Desire 

“The world of labor is confronted as one of future, horror, endless and trivial. Accelerationism provides an answer by turning the horror of work into the jouissance of machinic immersion.“ 

Benjamin Noys

Benjamin Noys covers a lot of ground in Malign Velocities, from Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, to Victor Tausk’s influencing machine from 1919, to cyber-phuturism, to music like machine techno into vaporwave, and sex work machines, talking about the Marquis de Sade showing us endless erotic possibilities until all sex becomes work, repetition, and labor. 

And the reverse is equally true: labor injected with desire, a synthesis of desire and machine, becomes all labor: We are already in alienating labor, but we keep trying to make it at once “sexy” to work, and yet sex at work is taboo, triggering a rebellious desire for more sex at work. 

Noys says this is “integrating the repetitive and deadening circuit of the sexual drive into the deadening circuit of labor” 

More broadly, we are enticed into the machine with sex: the sexy machine offers endless, repetitive pleasure… which is really a disguised future boredom and enslavement. Machinic immersion. 

It is the horror of the prostitute who mingles work with the small pleasures it affords, unable to separate labor and pleasure, left with confused desire; caught in repetition and wanting only to escape into the mechanical sensations with no thought. 

This is a point that struck me in Noys book: the modern self-deadening impulse is rampant

Noys says the “desire for immersion and forgetting, is generated out of the psychopathologies which capitalism introduces.” In our repetitive work, we grow darkly jealous and relate to the machine, wanting to no longer feel. And yet in an ecstatic frenzy to be more human we attempt to feel more, leaving us more empty, more despairing. 

The promise of machinic or cyber-merging is 1) the desire to be useful and 2) to be a part of something bigger than our isolated self. At some point we must recognize these desires and either uncouple or offer alternatives that are not terminally negative. 

One point is to reconsider the definition of desire and pleasure: Desire is compulsive, it is demanded that we chase it and consume it, overriding the slower, more sensuous, and lasting aspect of pleasure. Timothy Brennan says socialism would offer pleasure at a slower pace: we could confront and thwart our rabid pursuit of desire with the choice to pursue pleasure instead. 


In the end, accelerationism honestly acknowledges pain but transforms it into jouissance. 

In converting the machine pain into a source of pleasure Noys says

“making the transition is ‘going hard’ to go soft, and a peculiar mixture of machismo and the valorization of feminized immersion.” 

Benjamin Noys

If anything, accelerationism’s recognition of the pain returns this to a collective struggle, where we recognize enforced pathologies and are not trying to offer false consolations. But it is still peculiarly contradictory, a death drive pathos, to rush towards what causes us misery rather than yanking the break. 

 The more viable solution may be to recognize and delink these causes of misery rather than celebrate them and rush even faster into the fog as we lay the tracks in front of the train. 

Thank you

 Many thanks for sticking with me on this. I am still fascinated by accelerationism, and we will probably hear more about it in future episodes. But until then, I hope this is giving you enough to chew on. 

If you found this episode helpful in any way, please consider sharing it with a friend or colleague, maybe let them reconsider jumping into the machine, making themselves a better cog. 

Coming up I have to do some more reading for another super cool topic: mimetic desire. I only know the basics right now, so I have a lot of reading to do, then I want to jump into the ‘scapegoating machine’ and violence in architecture, and do a whole episode on camouflage. 

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References

Malign Velocities, Benjamin Noys (highly recommended)

#Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader 2014 (edited by Robin Mackay, Armen Avanessian)

Freud, Marx, Bataille, Badiou


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