May 16, 2017

Considering Accelerationism


A friend sent me a couple of articles about chatter concerning a revival of a movement called Accelerationism.

Accelerationist Art by Rob Meyers

The Dark Enlightenment by Nick Land

My friend's over-riding concern is about the changing nature of the art world and his anticipation of or adaption to the avant gardist horizon. His diagnosis is that recent events have decimated the business of the art world: speculative practice has destroyed lower and middle market and shifted activity exclusively towards the high end, younger artists and galleries have capitulated to zombie formalism to cater to the market shift, that all existing categories of art making are antiquated beyond redemption. His prescription for artists is to seek patrons in big business, create projects directed towards the market at large and generally be an asset geared to the operations of the emerging global economy. He says that the old model is dead and will not revive, collectors as we knew them no longer exist.

Naturally, the painter in me chafes at these suggestions, but there is little to refute of his diagnosis despite my resistance to his prescription. All I have in response is the hope that all of this is a lull and merely a moment in a cycle soon to revive. My shield of faith in the eternal vitality of painting trembles in the face of his critique. I yet take his argument seriously and I study his evidence intently.

Rob Meyers introduces Accelerationism thusly:

Despite its image of rapid technological change, progress under capitalism has stalled. Spinning ever faster is not the same as going somewhere. Contemporary Accelerationism wants to take off the brakes, and it is enlisting art's help to do so. [...] Accelerationism [...] is an attitude of "prometheanism", of amplifying our capabilities, of rationally overcoming intellectual and material limits. Of hacking the systems of philosophical and political thought to find the exploits that will allow us to increase our knowledge of them, our control of them, our reach through them. Hopefully this will work out better than it did for the original Prometheus of Greek myth...

And Andy Beckett treats his definition in the Guardian's Long Read, Accelerationism, How a Fringe Philosophy predicted the future we live in:
Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified - either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative.

Accelerationists see that the cure for the cupidity of capitalism is to overclock creative destruction. It's particularly notable that this movement (if it can be called one at this early stage) possesses adherents from both sides of the political aisle, AltLeft and AltRight. Both accept capitalism at face value and both see no alternative to it. Bipartisan support for an art movement --much less the appearance of a Rightward aesthetic-- this is as rare as a unicorn.

I noted with interest in my readings, compelling references to Deleuze & Guattari's deterritorialization induced by change wrought by capitalism. Schizophrenia in this testimony is an integration disorder generated by the sweeping operations of modernity. As I drill down into this illness proper, I note that the human mind requires periodic neural reorganization. Even the brain requires creative destruction! What scientists know so far, is that the brain must prune neural connections -to have the capacity to forget, in other words- so that we can learn anew. Of particular note is the role of the immune system in this process, the exact nature of which we are only now beginning to understand. D&G present an attractive case for exploring the dynamic of schizophrenia for creative exploit. We are the children of the umbrella on the operating table, after all.

Deterritorialization and reterritorialization is another way to say creative destruction. The alienation and stress that arises when "all that's solid melts into air" is a stressor specific to modernity. Recent generations had vague concerns that their careers remained viable by the time that they retire, current generations are wary that their chosen occupations could become obsolete at the snap of a finger and that there is a high probability that retraining into new career paths could happen at least once if not multiple times in a working life... a working life, meaning, a whole lifetime since retirement itself is quickly becoming an antiquated idea. Deterritorialization and reterritorialization is also a way to describe the stressors of shifting cultures in an age of jet travel, immigration and information -internet- flows. Learning and adapting to one's own culture is enough of a problem, shifting the conditions and adding multiple other cultures to the mix brings any human being to the limits of coping and endurance.

Now, I don't mean to be a contrarian, but to be merely critical in the most sympathetic manner possible. I feel compelled to ask: what if Accelerationism is, for our historical moment, aspirational?

Acceleration is a concept borrowed from physics. Together with velocity, it is a vector indicating direction and speed. Velocity is the change of position divided by the change in time, ∆ x/∆ t, how long it takes for an object to travel between two points. Acceleration is the change of velocity divided by the change in time, ∆v/∆t, how fast or how slow it takes to reach traveling speed.

In other words, acceleration is about attainment.

Acceleration differs by degree of change and direction. A negative example of the latter would be the atavism of ISIS. Acceleration is not the same at different points in history. In terms of the physics of civilization, the change that exploded at the dawn of the 20th century was gargantuan. We have to exert ourselves to imagine what it was like to live at a time when a host of innovations erupted on the scene: the invention of electric light; the emergence of new transportation in the form of trains, planes and automobiles; the mechanization of industry and war; the invention of the nation state and the capacity to conscript entire populations to exploit total war; new communication by wire and air; life extending discoveries in medicine. Yes, the acceleration we have lived through in our emerging Information Age is a marvel to behold. But please allow a possible heresy of suggesting that it was minor compared to the early 20th century. The miniaturization and ubiquity of computers together with the interconnectivity of the internet sped the flow of information to a dizzying degree, but this accelerational change pales in comparison to what happened in the events surrounding WWI. The disruptions wrought by the former is small bore and more gradated than the latter ever was.

The only way to imagine an analog to the acceleration of the dawn of the 20th century is to conjure thoughts of the impact of something truly game changing in civilizational terms. Something like a revolution in energy sources, for example. What if cold fusion wasn't a pipe dream? What if we found an energy source that could eclipse what petroleum can do? What if we could reorganize matter at the the atomic level at will, or transport organic matter over distances, travel in warp drive, such as was imagined in Star Trek? What if we could cure cancer and reverse and control aging? What if robots could build robots? What if we could finally weave carbon nanotubes into cables strong enough to fashion a space elevator? (Lowering the cost of space travel could enable unlimited solar power someday.) What if we actually made contact with sentient alien life? What if utility fog was real? Any one of these wish list items could do the trick of changing civilization into another creature altogether, just as it did in WWI.

This is not to discount the apprehension of the advent of civilizational change, we are chipping away furiously at this wish list and progress is being made. This list could pale at what might actually be just around the corner in terms of change. We don't really know how long we will linger at this brink. It could take another century or two to bring some of it to pass. We might well be waiting pathetically like Godot for the exponential curve to make n approach zero. While we now are on the brink, we are also merely at the brink. This threshold moment might last a very long time or it could collapse fell swoop in the coming decade. Or next year.

We. Don't. Know.

What we do know is that not all acceleration is the same. We know that we have yet to experience change at the scale that it was in the early 20th century. We also know that accelerational change is metabolized, reterritorialized --in D&G's terminology-- with difficulty to be sure and with dire collateral damage, but in civilizational terms, relatively quickly. We grow accustomed to it. Acceleration dissipates as we attain the traveling speed of civilization. It doesn't last long.

What is the impact of all this for the adherents of Accelerationism? I have looked and will look intently at the art offered as examples of it. I have yet to see anything fundamentally different in kind from the art forms arrayed since I was in grad school in the late 80's and early 90's. There are also special problems inherent in the anticipatory nature of an Accelerationist movement: one must necessarily await ones' cue. There is only coping, but not leadership, save the crap shoot of the visionary.

And all the while, there is a siren song of art emulating life and the inevitable absorption of the former by the latter as a result. Art requires the special boundary frame in order to survive contact with life. Life trumps art every time, it will remain much more interesting mano-a-mano.

What remains of all this is the cautionary tale. Beware of wishful thinking. Take out the birthday party decorations only on the day of the birthday. The toughest critique is the glancing comparison to the Futurism of ye olde days. Banish any doubts of this with a quick read of Marinetti's Manifesto. The lesson from this is to have the bridle of enthusiasm firmly in hand, and to be wary of over-inflating prejudices from an earlier soon-to-be-defunct-epoch into the next overcoming one.


There is a possibility of a soft acceleration. Instead of the zero to sixty in a couple of seconds g-force slam of acceleration, consider a quarter g-force buckle-your-seatbelt surge of a civilization moving gently past the 500mph cruising speed. No hype, just calm expectation. Maybe this should instead be called Velocityism?

What would that kind of art look like?

Posted by Dennis at May 16, 2017 4:18 AM

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