In the Accelerationist Manifesto currently circulating, we find the following passage:
We believe it must also include recovering the dreams which transfixed many from the middle of the Nineteenth Century until the dawn of the neoliberal era, of the quest of Homo Sapiens towards expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms. These visions are today viewed as relics of a more innocent moment. Yet they both diagnose the staggering lack of imagination in our own time, and offer the promise of a future that is affectively invigorating, as well as intellectually energising. After all, it is only a post-capitalist society, made possible by an accelerationist politics, which will ever be capable of delivering on the promissory note of the mid-Twentieth Century’s space programmes, to shift beyond a world of minimal technical upgrades towards all-encompassing change. Towards a time of collective self-mastery, and the properly alien future that entails and enables. Towards a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-criticism and self– mastery, rather than its elimination.
One of the things that disturbs me about the rhetoric of “posthumanism” or “inhumanism” as a political strategy (rather than something like Laruelle’s non-standard humanism, which I am inclined to prefer) is a certain stunning lack of consciousness about the forms in which such a kind of post- or in-human politics (and subjectivity) is already here. If we look around us, “post-corporeal,” even “post-affective” forms of subjectivity, grounded on the “completion” of the Enlightenment project of “self-criticism” and “self-mastery,” are far from missing. These forms may be parodies or perverse dark precursors of what accelerationists are really looking for, but in that case there is much more conceptual work to do. (For those with the patience to read this long post to the bitter end, you’ll see that what follows is not meant as a cavalier dismissal of accelerationist impulses but an invitation to just that conceptual work).
Last weekend the New York Times Sunday Review had an article that was particularly telling on this front. The author, Jennifer M. Silva, spent two years (2008-2010) interviewing young people (19-28 year olds, women and men), about their economic and relationship prospects. Besides the facts widely reported on, that prospects for young people world wide (not just in the USA) are increasingly grim, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the report, for me, was the absolutely psychotic level of “self-criticism” and “self-mastery” aspired to by these young people. They nearly universally blamed themselves for what was happening. One young man described staring himself in the mirror, examining each of his failures, each of his shortcomings, every day. It’s not capitalism, it’s not class warfare, it’s not empire and biopwer that are the problems, it’s just me. I’m the cause of all this suffering and misery.
One of the major problems of the political left, at least in the USA, has always been how to combat the American individualist spirit and motivate modes of collective consciousness. Silva ends her article with a timid plea for something like mutual recognition, for the recognition that we are in this together, that we are all suffering. But she does put an interesting, developmental-psychological twist on the argument, pointing out that perhaps the new threshold for “adulthood” at this conjuncture is precisely that point beyond which one can finally afford to trust others and form meaningful long-term relationships. For she found, in her research, that almost every young person she interviewed said that they simply could not afford the risk involved in intertwining their lives with another person—obviously this affects marriage rates and childbirths, but more broadly and probably much more importantly this self-enforced isolationism is precisely what the neoliberal order needs in order to obscure the injustice of the maintenance of unpayable debts.
This is, of course, the zenith of neoliberal hypocrisy and the essence of its killing machine agenda of biopolitical holocaust. As David Graeber has shown, an unpayable debt is simply the perversion of a promise. Graeber points out that although a loan, in legal terms, is a contract whose risk is mutual—since not only the borrower but even more so the lender stands to gain from the introduction of credit—the liability in contemporary neoliberal capital is borne almost entirely by the party who needs the credit, and depends upon it so much that it is almost makes an oxymoron of calling a loan a “free contractual agreement.” (Graeber notes that historically, the law was much more often on the side of the borrower rather than the lender, since during the time that the loan is unpaid, one is effectively enslaved to the one to whom one “freely contracted” oneself). But “going into debt” simply means “being the subject of an investment.” Why should the financial powers that choose to make such investments not bear most of the responsibility for the contingencies that will inevitably arise, forcing the need for the renegotiation of social agreements in the face of changing circumstances (so-called “economic downturns”)? How and by what insane logic do individual borrowers, particularly students, become saddled not only with legal but with moral and even religious responsibility for the situation of the entire economy?
Since Max Weber we have recognized that capitalism is stapled together, link by cruel link, with the iron (and ironies) of a maniacal Calvinist vision of “the world” not as a place of contingency, change, and development, but a static, eternally predetermined field of winners and losers (the saved and the damned) within which one must nevertheless, paradoxically, “prove” oneself as belonging to the saved (even though such effort is pointless, given that all is predetermined by divine election). One can almost hear this form of fetishistic disavowal (first identified by Marx and replayed by Žižek) sounding off within our hopelessly isolated individual heads: I know it’s not really my fault, I know it’s this rigged, unjust, hopelessly compromised class structure of exclusion and exploitation that is ruining my life systematically, but nevertheless I believe that it’s all my fault—I could have gotten slightly better grades, I could have played one more sport, I could have done one more internship, hell, I could be just a little bit more good looking . . . yeah, that’s definitely my fault, too.
The most pernicious aspect of this ideology of individual responsibility is of course that it prevents the formation of class consciousness, of shared recognition of suffering and plight that might galvanize resistance, rebellion, and revolt against the powers that be, and ground the energy necessary for the epic struggle to create new institutions (faced by every generation, and not just the current one). But to return to the issue of maturity, the author has an interesting way of putting the problem that stands the whole idea of human maturity and “humanity” in an unusual light, a light that illuminates some of my own misgivings about the accelerationist vogue.
We might think that nothing could be more “mature,” “adult,” “responsible,” “reliable,” “dependable,” “trustworthy,” “dignified,” even “heroic” about the cavalier attitude of American 20-somethings who blame only themselves for their lack of opportunities, meaningful long-term relationships, and hopes for the future. But the assumption of individual responsibility for one’s fate, one’s destiny, the fulfillment or denial of one’s hopes and dreams is not maturity. It is a black hole of despair created by the evisceration and evacuation of social life as that life is increasingly undermined by debt, and by the moral isolation the logic of debt perpetuates.
Which brings me to my doubts that the progressive politics we need is grounded in our ability to complete the project of escape from the human body and from planet earth through a completely realized, “Promethean” form of self-mastery and self-critique. It seems to me that this has always already been the project of capital itself, and already of empire, and of course above all of neoliberal biopolitical strategy. I realize that the accelerationist claim is that neoliberalism only pretends but does not actually complete the necessary modern project of emancipation through technological self-mastery. But I am haunted by the fact that we can hear all too easily the mantra of self-mastery and self-critique in the inner voice of the young men and women blaming themselves, as they search for mastery through the technique of self-hatred, instead of investigating the various ways in which what was promised them by society, by those who have invested in them—by parents, by institutions at all levels, by capitalism itself—has been systematically denied them.
I see the ideology of individualism run amok in its most extreme form, each and every semester I continue to work in the increasingly corrupt and compromised institutions of higher education. In my own continuing desperate scramble for a decent living (yes, it’s my fault, too, I’ve only published one book with a major university press, have only one currently in the works, am only translating one major French philosopher, have only 16 peer-reviewed essays in academic journals, have only developed just under 25 different courses in 7 years at 5 different institutions in three different states while endlessly interviewing for hopelessly competitive tenure-track positions while co-parenting a 5 year old—mea culpa, I am so inadequate I can hardly stand myself) I have seen both ends of the post-human student spectrum, the zombies and the vampires. The individualism of my ultra-elite liberal arts college students in Main Line Philadelphia is vampiric—well-dressed, mannered, slow, subtle consumption of all energy sources on the way to the eternal life of class privilege, even in the name of social-welfare oriented NGO leadership. That of my lower- and working-class community-college transfer students at a mid-level state school in South Jersey is the individualism of the zombie: desperate, malnourished, harried, unstable, under-resourced, unprepared, precarious, disposable. If what I have to teach my students can be compared to flesh and blood, then while the zombies devour my brain only to immediately forget (i.e. digest, because they are so hungry, so malnourished to begin with), the vampires simply keep a tiny cut open from which each day they extract another drop, sniff at it, occasionally taste, then systematically disregard most of what I have to offer. After all, they don’t really need me, since as soon as they graduate into their debt-free heaven of entitled do-goodsterism, the zombies will provide all the blood the vampires will ever need to survive.
My students, it seems to me, are inhuman, all-too-inhuman. Beyond the obvious rhetorical dangers of Prometheanism (and beyond the fact that there really is nothing new here—the details of the accelerationist program seem to dovetail quite nicely with a familiar Habermasian ideal of communicative rationality with a sadistic-scientistic twist), my own problem with an accelerationist politics, at least as stated in the manifesto, have more to do with a substantive disagreement about the real stakes and promise of a fully unleashed or “weaponized” scientific outlook as the ground of a desirable future, particularly where that outlook or “rationality” is grounded on the premise and promise of “abductive experimentation” within given fields or structures amenable to probabilistic reasoning (i.e. prediction in keeping with the law of large numbers, whereby prediction becomes increasingly accurate if samples are large enough).
Instead we propose that the problems besetting our planet and our species oblige us to refurbish mastery in a newly complex guise; whilst we cannot predict the precise result of our actions, we can determine probabilistically likely ranges of outcomes. What must be coupled to such complex systems analysis is a new form of action: improvisatory and capable of executing a design through a practice which works with the contingencies it discovers only in the course of its acting, in a politics of geosocial artistry and cunning rationality. A form of abductive experimentation that seeks the best means to act in a complex world.
But at this point in the manifesto, I can hear sampling from Reza Nagarestani’s work, whose “inhumanist rationalism” I personally find fascinating and more complex than the manifesto makes it out to be. Some recent Nagarestani:
“In fact, once we unbind the scope of the rationalism project and terminalize the transcendental asymptocity of knowledge, we realize that the ambition of rationalism is to sever the purported alliance between reason and human and to accelerate the dislocating and renegotiating power of the modern system of knowledge by which the human is humiliated at each and every turn” (Reza Nagarestani, http://blog.urbanomic.com/cyclon/)
Nagarestani objects to a “computationalist” model of modern reason, one that would fetishize the cyborgian program in the way that Nick Land’s work does. And yet, even though Nagarestani seems to want to leave open a space for contingency within continuity, the price paid for rationality is still humanity. Why this tradeoff? What is it that we apparently need, so desperately, to humiliate in order to progress? And who or what is left after this humiliation, or rather, who or what is humiliated (and yet also somehow strangely exalted, or at least transmuted) in this process?
Lately I have been deeply impressed by the work of Henri Atlan, who is thinking about the possibility of the reproduction of human life by human beings, and the implications of potential control over that most significant of contingencies, at least for human beings—the contingency of births.
In practice, these contingencies of existence [all sources of humiliation for knowledge] can be handled in two ways: one, deeper, in which random events are transformed into singularities that bear various meanings, which appear in original an unique constructions that are always being started afresh; the other, superficial and deceptive, in which random events are hemmed in by the law of large numbers in the homogeneity of statistical averages. This makes it possible to control and master randomness by replacing it with a statistical calculation, but only on condition of wiping away all differences and eliminating every individuality. Here chance is not eliminated, but congealed into a homogeneous random whole in which causal relations are collective and all individuals are interchangeable, like molecules in statistical thermodynamics; any uniqueness is excluded, along with any spontaneity and any novelty. Opposed to this death by dilution in the ineffable multiplicity of chaos is death by the rigidity of imposed order, directed by the predetermined collective name and exclusive meaning. (The Sparks of Randomness: Vol. 1, Spermatic Knowledge, 56)
It is not entirely clear to me that the “humiliation” Nagarestani invites us to court should be neatly opposed to spontaneity, uniqueness, and novelty; he seems to be trying to develop a quite complex theory of how such irreducibly local traits are asymptotically coordinated in some general, universal space. I am not entirely sure, that is, that Nagarestani’s position is all that far from Atlan’s, in the end. And unlike Brassier and Brandom, Nagarestani also seems to realize that maturity and “Enlightenment” are not to be found in systems of total control and the sadistic- violent imposition of epistemic norms, upon fields of probability (i.e. “compression”). The future we want is not one of increasing control over chance, change, and contingency. What is needed, rather, is an entirely different relationship to contingency, and to chance, as such, one that is neither marked by fear and self-deception (neoliberalism) nor fascinated by dreams of total control, dominance, and escape from the peculiarities of flesh, blood, and earth (facile accelerationism). Atlan sets the stakes of this problem in a very clear way:
The desacralization of chance was completed in the seventeenth century, with the advent of rational mechanics and the principle of sufficient reason, which for all practical purposes reduced Aristotle’s four causes to one: the efficient cause. No event can take place unless it has an efficient cause, and knowledge of the cause suffices to explain it. This idea has been diversified since then; the cause maybe replaced by a set of causes or, especially, by a causal law whose generality and abstraction are greater than the effect it produces and explains. Nevertheless, the mechanical explanation no longer invokes the final causes in nature that formerly gave meaning to events. Since the eighteenth century, such final causes have found asylum—temporarily, and only for the idealist heirs of Leibniz and Kant—in the attributes of the human soul and in the suprasensible universe of moral law and freedom. Today, randomness is no longer merely the lack of a purpose that would provide meaning. This is because in our world, determined by physical laws in which final causes no longer have a place, every natural event that is not produced by human art and planning lacks an end and purpose. The only conceivable end is the formal one of maximum or minimum, in mathematical physics; but this is just another way of expressing mechanical causality. Modern randomness refers to what is produced without a cause that is known, or even knowable, and whose isolated incidence accordingly cannot be predicted. The only possible prediction of such events—and even it is not always available—is statistical forecast, which no longer relates to the occurrence of single events but only to the set of events we construct by adopting a perspective that makes them indistinguishable from one another.
Underlying this method is the law of large numbers. Much ink has been spilled in the attempts to give this empirical law a theoretical basis, from Pascal and Leibniz through the statistical interpretations of quantum physics. According to this law, if a random phenomenon—for example, casting lots, where the outcome cannot be predicted because we do not have adequate knowledge of all the causes that produce it—is repeated many times, we can predict the results as an average value for all these repetitions. The more times we cast lots, the more precise the predicted average; or, to put it a different way, the closer to certainty is our knowledge of the result for all of these many events taken together.
In other words, thanks to the law of large numbers, our lack of knowledge of the causes of a phenomenon or an individual event is replaced by knowledge of the mean of a set of phenomena that are supposed to be identical. Statistics and the computation of probabilities constitute a powerful method for taming and controlling chance, but their fundamental hypothesis is that all events or all individuals that make up a set of random phenomena can be taken as mutually indistinguishable. This is why the most spectacular applications of this law are in statistical thermodynamics, where we can postulate almost infinite collections of identical molecules. But similar results can be obtained for human mass behavior, such as visitors to a public place, public transport, traffic, opinion polls, and so on. This is possible, of course, only if we take a large number of individuals into account. The causes of individual actions are multiple and unknown to the observer-statistician; but, as with molecules, the mean behavior of the whole is known with great precision. In the human case, each individual knows—or thinks she knows—the causes of her actions and even thinks she decides freely, perhaps after deliberation. Nevertheless, the behavior of the group is determined, inasmuch as it obeys a statistical law that describes and makes it possible to predict it.
Some have seen this as a possible solution to the theological problem of human freedom in a world that is subject to the determinism of an omnipotent and omniscient God. Unfortunately, rather than offering a solution it actually does away with the problem, because it requires we treat human beings as if they were molecules in a thermodynamic system. Alternatively, it is merely one way—and probably the simplest—of denying the reality of free will, leaving only our subjective illusion of it as individuals. (291)
Atlan himself does not believe in the ultimate reality of human free will (he is a rigorous Spinozist on this point), but he does believe that the ultimate “meaning” of human life is irrevocably endangered by any fantasy of control over contingency. With certain Talmudists, he believes that randomness is an inherent, irreducible part of infinite substance (i.e. God, or Nature), and thus that adequate knowledge is always “of” (or “from,” Laruelle might say) chance and contingency rather than any process by which chance is “compressed” or controlled by the banishment of uncertainty from knowledge. The dream of the accelerationists, like the futurists before them and, unfortunately, like the scientologists among us still, is a dream of having life entirely on our own terms, of having a future that is entirely a human construction, amenable to entirely human intentions with entirely foreseeable outcomes (even if these are rendered probabilistically).
As Atlan realizes, this would mean, at the limit, the ability to construct or reconstruct ourselves (the project that Atlan believes, as a geneticist, we are very close to achieving). But, drawing on the Talmudic and kabbalistic meditations on the possibility of the Golem—the artificial creation of a human or humanoid by a human being—Atlan warns that there is a condition for the successful creation of humanity by human beings, or successful co-creation with God (or, if you enjoy the atheistic-mystical terms of Nagarestani, the total humiliation of humanity by cosmic reality). The condition of this success, or achievement of absolute knowledge, is that it cannot pretend to eliminate chance. If the world human beings manage to create, including the human beings we may be able to create by wholly artificial means, eliminates novelty, spontaneity, and uniqueness—that is to say, eliminates chance, contingency, and unforseeability—we will have in the last instance destroyed rather than created, since we will have once again removed ourselves from the cosmic drama (i.e., the infinite substance) rather than conjoined ourselves to deeper participation with it.
Paradoxically, it seems to me that to the extent that accelerationism is post-corporeal and post-terrestrial, it is nevertheless hyper-humanist, in precisely the Enlightenment sense of the human as a rational subject whose desire and will can be atomically considered, understood, evaluated, predicted, and controlled, like a molecule in a thermodynamic system (even if that subjectivity is now seen as “distributed” or “aggregated” over a network function). The more that humans seem to have control over their lives, the more life becomes inhuman, transforming each of us into automata—into the very ontological impress (impresarios?) of the random molecules that ground the probabilistic epistemological framework.
Atlan notes that automata is one of Aristotle’s words for chance. Despite the fact that the meaning of “automated” or “robotic” is precisely of something pre-programmed and mechanical rather than subject to random fluctuations or chance impulse, what binds the modern robot to the ancient, Aristotelian automaton is that what is at stake is action without meaning, action, that is, without a “final cause.” All action, from a modern epistemic point of view, is the action of automata whose “purposes” can only be determined as “aggregates” or “means,” and never as individually caused or motivated. This view has direct and disastrous political consequences, because it epistemically validates the treatment of individual human beings as components of aggregates, aggregates whose tendencies, statistically mediated, are alone real, and whose values can be thus measured and judged without regard for individual human potential, individual suffering, individually unforeseeable novelty and spontaneity.
So as far as I can see, there is no real “future” in this psedo-futurism of inhumanism, which seems a thinly-veiled and understandably outraged protest against the radical precariousness of the present. (It seems to me, however, that Nagarestani’s work hovers between a usage of “inhumanist” rhetoric and radically humanist substance, in the spirit if not the letter of C.S. Peirce’s universalism). The desire to escape the body and the earth is the desire to escape the precarious contingency of life. But when it comes to funding, it is not the science-fictional agencies of future auto-alienating gnosis that require capital. What requires our time, attention, and devotion (that is to say, what requires capital, or the real essence of post-capital) is precariousness itself, the clear and present presence of chance, change, and contingency that ineluctably marks corporeal and terrestrial life.
Let me conclude with this, then. The desire for total control is a desire for death. In some ways the scions of financial capital are in this way (they know not what they do) one degree wiser than the accelerationists, for at least they remember (at least in secret) that they are lying when they claim to be able to predict market behavior and forecast market futures. For as the Austrian school of economics never tires of reminding us, unless there were radical uncertainty (not just imperfect information) in markets, there would be no market, since there would be then no arbitrage—that is, no asymmetry between the positions of different market actors, and thus no differences in prices and ultimately no economic “movement.” Perfectly predictable markets are not desirable, simply because they are not markets. So it is true that the financial “oracles” are failing to succeed at the accelerationist program of systemic control over human life, all the while pretending to have rendered that life more or less predictable for the purposes of investment (helped by the unwitting social sciences, as Foucault never tired of showing us, since they with their statistical aggregations have helped to created the collective abstractions of normalcy that we are now expected to conform to as individuals). While the accelerationist dreams of a future in which no one is satisfied because everyone is equally subject to the finally unburdened caprice (or cleverness, cunning metis) of a finally disembodied mind—one free to have become fully identical to and thus disappear into chance itself—the economist at least knows that “a throw of the dice cannot abolish chance”: all is not sheer possibility, there must be at least one actuality—that of the observer (if not the poet), the position of Absolute Wealth, even if that position reduces, post-apocalyptically, to One/Zero. (Robert Jackson gave an inspiring paper last summer in Liverpool on computationalism that seemed to confirm my intuition that computationalism cannot be sheerly inferential (if-then), and must always presume some concrete actual starting point, which introduces irreducible contingency and undecidability into even the most arid, abstract, “inhuman” mode of “reasoning,” that of computation. See here for Jackson’s own response to Nagarestani’s position).
But the Absolute Zero of accelerationist subjectivity only has appeal in contrast with the hypocritical relation to chance of the Falsified Unity of the Economist-In-One. What is needed is not the merely apparent mastery of chance by total identification with it dreamt of by the accelerationist in his adolescent paranoia cum cyborgian fantasy. What is needed is the much more difficult relationship to chance that has been the perennial human struggle, perhaps the defining struggle of a non-standard humanism, in the last instance, since chance itself “in itself” if we could say, is the the unforeseeable, the unpredicted, and indeed the longed for, that we must commune with, short of exhaustion and the ever-seductive abyss of death. In the book I’m working on now, I am experimenting with using the generic framework of divination, with its histories, legends, lore, material assemblages and logical paradoxes, for comprehending how human beings have and continue to form the habit and practice of welcoming and evoking chance as the beginning of non-standard wisdom, avoiding the Scylla of disavowed control (pseudo-scientific economics) and the Carybdis of self-immolating despair (pseudo-religious accelerationism) as not only knowledge but in the last instance survival.