Accelerationism and Posthumanism II

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Accelerationism combines a transhumanist techno-optimism with a Marxist analysis of the dynamic between the relations and forces of production. Its proponents argue that under capitalism, modern technology is constrained by myopic and socially destructive goals. They argue that rather than abandoning technological modernity for illusory homeostatic Eden we should exploit and ramp up its incendiary potential in order to escape from the gravity well of market dominated resource-allocation. Like posthumanism, however, Accelerationism comes in several flavours. Benjamin Noys (who coined the term) first identified Accelerationism as a kind of overkill politics invested in freeing the machinic unconscious described in the libidinal postructuralisms of Lyotard and Deleuze from the domestication of liberal subjectivity and market mechanisms. This itinerary reaches its apogee in the work of  Nick Land who lent the project  a cyberpunk veneer borrowed from the writings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

Land’s Accelerationism aims at the extirpation of humanity in favour of an “abstract plan­et­ary intel­li­gence rap­idly con­struct­ing itself from the bri­c­ol­aged frag­ments of former civil­isa­tions” (Srnicek and Williams 2013).

However, this mirror-shaded beta version has been remodelled and given a new emancipatory focus by writers such as Ray Brassier, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Williams 2013). This “promethean” phase Accelerationism argues that technology should be reinstrumentalized towards a project of “maximal collective self-mastery”.

Promethean Accelerationism certainly espouses the same tactic of exacerbating the disruptive effects of technology, but with the aim of cultivating a more autonomous collective subject. As Steven Shaviro points out in his excellent talk “An Introduction to Accelerationism”, this version replicates orthodox Marxism at the level of both strategy and intellectual justification. Its vision of a rationally-ordered collectivity mediated by advanced technology seems far closer to Marx’s ideas, say, than Adorno’s dismal negative dialectics or the reactionary identity politics that still animates multiculturalist thinking. If technological modernity is irreversible – short of a catastrophe that would render the whole programme moot – it may be the only prospectus that has a chance of working. As Shaviro points out, an incipient accelerationist logic is already at work among communities using free and open-source software like Pd, where R&D on code modules is distributed among skilled enthusiasts rather than professional software houses (Note, that a similar community flourishes around Pd’s fancier commercial cousin, MAX MSP – where supplementary external objects are written by users in C++, Java and Python).

This is a small but significant move away from manufacture dominated by market feedback. We are beginning see similar tendencies in the manufacture of durables and biotech. The era of downloadable things is upon us. In April 2013, a libertarian group calling themselves Defence Distributed announced that they would release the code for “the Liberator”, a gun that can be assembled from layers of plastic in a 3 D printer (currently priced at around $ 8000). The group’s spokesman, Cody Wilson, anticipates an era in which search engines will provide components “for everything from prosthetic limbs to drugs and birth-control devices”.

However, the alarm that the Liberator created in global law-enforcement agencies exemplifies the first of two potential pitfalls for the Promethean accelerationist itinerary. The democratization of technology – enabled by its easy iteration from context to context – does not seem liable to increase our capacity to control its flows and applications; quite the contrary, and this becomes significant when the iterated tech is not just an Max MSP external for randomizing arrays but an offensive weapon, an engineered virus or a powerful AI program.

I’ve argued elsewhere that technology has no essence and no itinerary. In its modern form at least, it is counter-final. It is not in control, but it is not in anyone’s control either, and the developments that appear to make a techno-insurgency conceivable are liable to ramp up its counter-finality. This, note, is a structural feature deriving from the increasing mobility of technique in modernity, not from market conditions. There is no reason to think that these issues would not be confronted by a more just world in which resources were better directed to identifiable social goods (See Roden 2014, Ch7).

A second issue is also identified in Shaviro’s follow up discussion over at The Pinocchio Theory: the posthuman. Using a science fiction allegory from a story by Paul De Filippo, Shaviro suggests that the posthuman could be a figure for a decentred, vital mobilization against capitalism: a line of flight which uses the technologies of capitalist domination to develop new forms of association, embodiment and life.

I think this prospectus is inspiring, but it also has moral dangers that Darian Meacham identifies in his paper ‘Empathy and Alteration: The Ethical Relevance of the Phenomenological Species Concept’ (Meacham 2014). Very briefly, Meacham argues that the development of technologically altered descendants of current humans might precipitate what I term a “disconnection” – the point at which some part of the human socio-technical system spins off to develop separately (Roden 2012; 2014, Ch5). I’ve argued that disconnection is multiply realizable – or so far as we can tell. Meacham suggests that a kind of disconnection could result if human descendants were to become sufficiently alien from us that “we” would no longer have a pre-reflective basis for empathy with them. We would no longer experience them as having our relation to the world or our intentions. Such a “phenomenological speciation” might fragment the notional universality of the human, leading to a multiverse of fissiparous and alienated clades, as envisaged in Bruce Sterling’s novel Schismatrix. A still more radical disconnection might result if super-intelligent AI’s went “feral”. At this point, the subject of history itself becomes fissionable. It is no longer just about “us”. Perhaps Land remains the most acute and intellectually consistent accelerationist after all.

References

Meacham, D., 2014. Empathy and alteration: The ethical relevance of a phenomenological species concept. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy,39(5), pp.543-564.

Roden, David 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Edited by Ammon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.

Roden, D., 2014. Posthuman life: philosophy at the edge of the human. Routledge.

Srnicek, N.and Williams A (2013), #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/

Sterling, Bruce. 1996. Schismatrix Plus. Ace Books.

Williams, Alex, 2013. “Escape Velocities.” E-flux (46). Accessed July 11. http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8969785.pdf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Accelerationism and Posthumanism II

  1. “[…] rather than abandoning technological modernity for illusory homeostatic Eden […]”

    That’s just it. It’s all based on false oppositions. It’s the same old dream of becoming masters and possessors of nature with some excessively abstract libidinal-Marxism thrown in to bamboozle us into thinking that this is new, sexy and exciting. It mirrors the neoliberal fantasies of space mirrors, etc. almost perfectly. What’s the difference between this and the daydreams of Silicon Valley libertarians? Give or take an Ayn Rand or a Nick Land it’s the same thing. The same techno-fantasy, anyway. Same fantasy just with a different politics mixed in. Markedly similar political economies, too, give or take a revolutionary Event.

  2. I like techno-fantasy. It’s the way we develop the impetus to alter an arbitrary and shitty nature in ways that suit us. I don’t actually see anything wrong – for example – with the transhumanist aim of combatting ageing. It’s not pre-ordained that our bodies start to fall apart in middle age or that we must speed towards a miserable, disease-ridden senescence by our mid-70’s (if we’re lucky! Some of my forty year old friends aren’t). Why is the use of space for industrial purposes a fantasy? Are you a moon-landing denialist ? Communications satellites are also real, I take it. Maybe the use of mirrors to send energy to Earth by microwave will turn out to be unfeasible; maybe asteroid mining is long shot too! But I see no reason to dismiss them as fantasies. Intercontinental jet travel would have been poo-pooed as a far more extravagant prospect before the advent of powered flight.

    So I think both transhumanist and accelerationist aspirations set out worthwhile itineraries for humans given that we are committed to some kind of technological modernity. I just argue that they the principles which articulate those itineraries are problematic.

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