I’ve got a couple of longer posts in the oven at the moment so apologies for the recent inactivity. I spotted an opportunity for a quick post, however, on J.G. Ballard and Accelerationism following an exchange with Simon “Ballardian” Sellars on Twitter the other day.
Or, at least, it was intended to be a quick post before it became a meandering — but nonetheless interesting — hellthread… Someone has already asked for a TL;DR and this is not one of those… But at least this might make it easier to follow one of the most interesting Twitter conversations to take place recently. I think it is well worth preserving in blogged form.
A note on housekeeping: long tweet threads and conversations will be copied and pasted as quotes here with bracketed numbers linking to original tweets. This is just for cosmetic purposes because the blogosphere and long Twitter threads are wholly incompatible.
I’ve been intending to write something on the blog about Simon Sellars’ new book, Applied Ballardianism, for months now — I read a review copy back in February — but it is a difficult book to approach and do justice second-hand. I have a draft post somewhere focusing on the micro-nations that feature towards the end of the book. I wanted to use their appearances to talk about Ballard and patchwork and the joint dissolution of self and state that I think is exemplified by the protagonist’s (“Sellars'”) tandem adventures into the world and into his own mind as a jobbing travel writer. I’ll finish it eventually…
Simon recently pointed out on Twitter that there is a new “special issue” of Humanities, a peer-reviewed journal from MDPI, in the works. The title of the special issue is “J. G. Ballard and the Sciences” and it is anticipated to feature an essay on Ballard and Accelerationism that name-drops Simon’s book explicitly. Simon tweeted:
The alignment of Simon’s book with an academic project is one he already foresaw and preemptively lampooned — the book’s title in itself is a joke at the expense of his impossible attempt to live an otherwise academic Ballardianism. To align this with an explicitly left-wing project seems to be missing the point even further, but it seems disingenuous to tar Ballard with that brush more generally as well.
The abstract in full:
In 2014 Urbanomic, a British publisher of experimental contemporary philosophy, published #Accelerate: An Accelerationist Reader. The collection was the culmination of a steady reappraisal of certain strands of radical thought that had been maligned by academia but which had continued to develop throughout the 2000s in the para-academic context of the blogosphere, chiefly through the rising influence of Mark Fisher. As defined in the introduction, ‘Acceleration is a political heresy’ because it asserts that the only radical response to capitalism is to ‘accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.’ The book, and particularly its inclusion of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams ‘#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, initiated a heated debate amongst the academic (and para-academic) European left and gained sufficient traction to be characterised in a Guardian think piece as the ‘fringe philosophy’ that ‘predicted the future’, even earning the censure of mainstream politicians like John Cruddas MP for whom it represented the sinister rise of a ‘cyborg socialism’.
Also included in the collection, lurking in a section entitled ‘Ferment’ alongside passages from other proto-accelerationist thinkers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Shulamith Firestone and Deleuze & Guattari, is a short piece by J. G. Ballard; ‘Fictions of Every Kind.’ It begins with the characteristically Ballardian statement that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction.’ For Ballard, realism, chiefly of the literary variety but also, it is certainly implied, any form of realism whatsoever, has been rendered obsolete by the twin solvents of technoscience and capital. Ballard insists that these surrealistic conditions require that the writer ‘become far more analytic, approaching his subject matter like a scientist or engineer,’ a requirement fulfilled by Ballard’s own peculiarly detached, forensic prose perfected in Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition.
In so far as Left Accelerationism (LA) proposes an “applied Ballardianism” as a political strategy attuned to the demands of the 21st Century, it is this combination of what Jeanette Baxter has called Ballard’s ‘surrealist imagination’ and his cold surgical prose style that they attempt to weaponise. LA embraces what Simon O’Sullivan has termed “myth-science” — the construction of new myths and images for increasingly inhuman forms of subjectivity — whilst at the same time celebrating an “algorithmic turn” which affirms the collapse of the distinction between human and machine, mind and computer, society and laboratory, nature and factory. As Benjamin Noys has pointed out, whilst these transformative processes are emancipatory for LA, accelerationism in general has reactionary antihuman tendencies at its core which still maintain in its present day “Right” and “Universal” variants. This essay will critique Ballard as he is read through his accelerationist interlocutors — that is, Ballard as a fictioneering myth-scientist — but will also critique accelerationism as it might be read through Ballard, in both his fiction and non-fiction. It will examine in particular how the complicated political axes of accelerationism are mirrored in Ballard’s own suspect radicality which, following Noys, can sometimes take the form of a kind of ‘libidinal reaction’. It will attempt to resolve whether Ballard’s work can be leveraged to create a kind of techno-utopian myth-science where ‘The future is a better key to the present than the past’ or if the accelerationist Ballard is simply the neoliberal recapitulation of a reactionary fantasy of speed and chrome as old as Futurism.
It seems unfair to pick apart the abstract of an unpublished (and, perhaps, at this stage, unwritten) article so the less said about the appearance of that populist (and deeply inaccurate) definition of Accelerationism right now, the better. If it follows the path it has already laid out for itself, however, towards Ballard’s “suspect radicality”, it will hopefully course correct itself and come to the conclusion that the opening assumptions are wholly incompatible with the commendably honest reading later planned.
That being said, the main thing to take issue with here is the suggestion that “Left Accelerationism” has proposed anything remotely like an applied Ballardianism — ever. Such a suggestion misses the irony of Sellars’ book as a sci-fi comedy of errors, epitomised by the irony of its catalytic moment: attempting to write a PhD on Ballard, somehow reducing Ballard’s project to a somehow live-able and digestible theory. As I tweeted:
If there’s any concrete takeaway from your book, isn’t it “try and pin down Ballard’s lessons for the subject at your peril”? … [via]
To which Simon replied:
Yes, and that’s emphasised when anyone tries to claim [Ballard] politically. He’s been characterised as “an enemy of the working class”, as an anarchist, a far left icon, a libertarian… it’s quite extraordinary. He can’t be everywhere on the spectrum at once! [via]
Ballard, in this sense, I would tentatively argue, is much like Nick Land. Whether salvaging his thought for one political project or another, it is always to remove something from the original analysis and that’s not how Accelerationism works — hence it falling largely into disrepute whilst various groups have fought over the scraps of its overly publicised bad readings.
In considering this I was reminded of Extreme Metaphors, a collection of Ballard interviews co-edited by Sellars and published in 2012, following the publication of which many reviewers fixated on a moment where Ballard apparently expresses an admiration for Margaret Thatcher. From a review of the book by John Gray in The New Statesman:
There has been much perplexity among Ballard’s critics as to his political views, with many displaying a mix of gawping incredulity and prim distaste at his departures from standard progressive positions. The editors of the current volume — an illuminating and at times revelatory collection of more than 40 interviews given over 41 years — follow this tradition, expressing bemusement at Ballard’s professed admiration for Margaret Thatcher. Why a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear.
My view of Ballard, expressed unsatisfactorily to Simon in the thread, is that given the more cosmic perspective of Ballard’s writings — concerning the world, the universe, and its forces as they affect the helpless individual — it seems facile to reduce it to a simple “left” or “right” ideological cul-de-sac.
This is likewise my view of Accelerationism in general. I am firmly in the camp of U/Acc, or “Unconditional Acceleration” — making much of my analysis of what is to follow inherently bias, so forgive me for that.
I have written about U/Acc a few times on this blog, most successfully a few months ago in a short post that I still like very much called “Fragment on the Event of ‘Unconditional Acceleration’“. I believe that Accelerationism, as a philosophy, properly understood, is an explicitly Deleuzian call “to become immanent with the acceleration that already occurs in the depth of things, impersonally, without condition.” It is, in this way, a theory for and an analysis of a “general economy” rather than a “restricted economy” — to borrow from Bataille’s The Accursed Share. To bend its insights to the will of a left- or right-wing political project is to fundamentally misunderstand and undo the forces it is attempting to describe. To quote Gray again for emphasis, whether talking about Ballard or Land, why should any writer “presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear.”
It is perhaps this admittedly provocative point that led to the meandering thread that followed.
Robin Mackay jumped in following my brief exchange with Simon, adding:
JGB has in common with CCRU-era
#acc a belief in the possibility of a (still somewhat romantic-heroic) individual’s participating in virtual futures via processes of desocialisation-depersonalisation. I have written about this elsewhere…  but JGB’s ambivalent relation to #acc is really encapsulated brilliantly in this phrase that Simon pulls out in Applied Ballardianism:
“Once in an interview, Ballard revealed the role of his fiction: ‘I’m trying to say: “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” Later he revised the statement. ‘But of course, there’s a small part of me which has always said: “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.” Because I’m curious to know.'” 
JGB undoubtedly shared with R/acc the understanding that capitalism operates as a mechanism of desublimation (this is clear in his comments on pornography, reality TV, etc.). I can’t see that he shares much with L/acc tbh  … (understanding ‘desublimation’ as the triggering/awakening and crucially, remixing-reconfiguration, of atavistic impulses to form the lineaments of a potential future forms of in/humanity).  … but this could easily be the subject of a critique since his characters are all without exception bourgeois professionals, able to enjoy their trips into violent virtuality. 
I think JGB is being slightly coy in saying he is ‘curious’ [about “speeding up”]. I think what he shared with
#acc the conviction that this exploration of virtualities that have not yet emerged into actuality is the only thing worth doing intellectually (or practically….)  …a conviction that [is] entirely contrary to L/acc’s call to responsibility — and this is the aspect that R/acc and U/acc make more explicit and aggressive 
Ultimately I think Ballard is right in important ways about a lot of things but his class position (or that of his heroes) and relation to romantic tradition needs to be interrogated. Probably could say the same about other prominent
#acc proponents too… 🙂 
I think the points about responsibility that Robin draws on here are important and his brief class analysis is telling too. (These things are actively discussed in various places behind the scenes if not publicly, but my “Ethics of Exit” post was a recent attempt to square U/Acc with a sense of responsibility — one that is not alien to that expressed by many prominent L/Accers but which is in fact, I would argue, far more nuanced than they themselves allow.
Here, Alex Williams, co-author of Inventing the Future and the forthcoming Hegemony Now, jumped in to address the L/Acc elephant in the room.
If we return to that quote from John Gray — asking why “a writer presenting a view of life that subverts humanist pieties should be expected to defer to conventional political wisdom is not clear” — we can wonder if this aesthetic distinction is not somehow dangerous. Williams writes:
There’s a hard distinction between politics and aesthetics here. I agree with Ballardian acc in aesthetics, but not in politics. Because the aestheticisation of the political = fascism (simplifying a bit). 
Romanticism and irrationality are fantastically generative of interesting art. But in a political sphere, they’re generative of absolute poison. The latter does NOT invalidate the former (different spheres of human activity can have different ethics). 
Also the asetheticisation of the political ends up somewhere deeply boring, as well as unpleasant. Jordan Peterson, not Ballard. 
My thoughts on this were that the importance of Ballard’s more cosmic perspective is not inherently fascistic. There are certainly historical examples to the contrary but surely the developments of science and technology more generally demand that this kind of inhuman perspective be taken more seriously, precisely for political reasons.
There are political challenges ahead of us that are likewise challenges to thought. Accelerationism, in its various modes, is a blogospheric scene that has long had a lot to offer these challenges as they have presented themselves in recent years.
What is important about these challenges is how universally applicable they are, how unconditional their implications, and so a thinking beyond ourselves is a worthy activity. We see it championed all the time in environmentalism — and, in a lot of instances, very bad examples have floated to the top — but for some reason the use of this in more rigorous ways in other but no less expansive areas, such as economics and politics, is widely derided.
This is the importance of scaled perspective, though, surely? Ballard explores the way that the individual is lost in the mess of the universe. For Peterson, it’s the mess of your bedroom. 
Reducing Ballard to an “L/Acc” position is to consider the trauma of his work backwards, from cosmic to individual, rather than the tandem insights and horrors available expanding outwards from that limited perspective. 
Elsewhere, on a similar note, I made reference to how aesthetics,
in this context, explicitly for the left, can provide new avenues for what to do with its new melancholy.  (Or, rather, not new at all — intensified, perhaps. Which is the route Mark seemed to be going down: Weird & Eerie being separate but nonetheless the key to Acid Communism.) 
This is something written about at great length in my “Egress” post and explored in the background on this blog constantly.
Robin, as ever, made the point much better and succinctly. (Much of the conversation that follows I will present here without comment because, as I think I may have already made clear, I agree very much with Robin as many of his points have already been explored on this blog but to see this debate nonetheless continue in long-form would be wonderful):
this position [of inhumanism] is irresponsible, which it admits openly. But does it lead necessarily and inevitably to fascism and boredom or is that merely one possible/likely outcome (presumably because the human is too weak to surf the BwO!)? 
of course the question of scaling up is precisely what has to be asked of any romantic type perspective… because those narratives precisely involve the individual embodying/living through/possibly resolving social tensions 
Less BwO more systemic pathology either fascism (boring racism and state / war-worship) or runaway climate change great filter (boring heat waves and mass starvation). The issue only arises if we can’t see that art and politics are very dissimilar things, though. [via]
So if ballardian or r/acc perspective is valid for art but not politics, can the latter be informed at all by the former or do we just have to sequester them from each other? [via]
The romantic in politics, even if not driven to fascism, tends to be incredibly banal and irritating (cr: left romanticism) [via]
this is the titanic achievement of Land + CCRU though — to make it not banal and irritating !! 
there is something to be excavated here — there is an operation in D&G that, despite critiques to the contrary, extracts certain elements from matrix of romanticism and rigorizes them in a new way  or makes it possible to do so. And I think that is to do with conception of the virtual, and Deleuze’s thinking of signs/events 
This is, I think, in reference to the lampooning and satirising of German Romanticism’s obsession with the geological in A Thousand Plateaus towards even new depths of thought.
The final point on Deleuze’s thinking of signs and events is a topic that has also been explored on this blog repeatedly and it is still an active point of research for me at the moment. Again, “Fragment on U/Acc” introduces the relevance of Deleuze’s (ethics of the) event to Accelerationism and in my “Eerie Engine” post, in which I shared an email conversation Robin and I had a few months ago. There, Robin noted the importance of trauma to the Ccru as “the site of a kind of leverage, producing a compelling sensory experience of outsideness that could then be parlayed into other domains. ‘Thought always begins with an intensity’…”
However, returning to our thread, Williams writes:
There’s a distinction between use of aesthetic things, objects, processes… And the subsumption of politics to aesthetic imperatives [via]
It is here that issues of definition start to become apparent. This seems to be the point that I think Robin has argued to me previously, particularly the Ccru’s “use of aesthetic things”. How the two things are distinct from one another eludes me at present.
a lot of loose terms rattling around here, art, politics, aesthetics.. it can’t be this simple, it was a virtue of post-68 to insist this, nothing is solely political, merely aesthetic, etc..  also talk of “use” of art in the service of (non-aesthetic?) politics raises an equal amount of danger signals 
This is a common issue across the board. There is certainly work to do to ascertain concrete definitions of other terms within the context of Accelerationism — the one that is my frequent bugbear is “agency” — but the “use” issue retains prominence here. Williams continues:
Sure, I don’t disagree … But what we’re talking about when we say politics being subsumed to an aesthetic logic is pretty clear, I think, even with fuzzy definitions. [via]
Personally, I’m not so sure. Robin neither:
not really, I think very few people have a clear idea of what ‘aesthetic’ means, and it is a highly contested term [via]
So politics involves signs, symbols, may deploy art in different forms and modes. It might build on cultural currents that are partly recomposed through art works. But its ultimate logic is not to build a nation as an art work. [via]
Here I felt like the original argument against the inchoate abstract came back. I tweeted:
That’s the original argument of this thread too, surely? An attempt to tie the joke of Simon’s title, “Applied Ballardianism”, to L/Acc is missing the punchline and highlights the misstep with reducing Acc to exclusively political endeavors when it speaks to much more besides. [via]
No one here is arguing that a nation become a work of art. Again, that is to invert the productive trauma of Ballard’s work. It starts there and moves outwards. To invert it is to put blinkers on it, to say this creative object or insight is the goal when it is rather the push off the edge into something else entirely.
Any encouragement of fragmentation on this blog is not a fragmentation towards an “art work”. That seems to suggest, in my understanding of the use of the phrase “art work”, to be something consolidated into a concrete thing not unlike a state as it already is.
Robin again makes the same point:
but that’s the q about this hard separation — what do you understand an ‘art work’ to be… something that is purely a visual stimulant? Something that is exhibited in a gallery… or… ? not to defend avantgarde dream of merging art+life but there is at least a question here. 
Any aesthetic object or process can be an artwork. Songs, poems, novels, films, television, comedy, crafts, and… grudgingly at some very low level the trinkets exhibited in magical white rooms…  But the point isn’t about that but about judgement and hence evaluation, and hence organisation. Aesthetic judgement is disjunct from political judgement, or if not there are bad consequences that arise partly from misapprehending the system in question 
What is good from the standpoint of aesthetic judgement is not the same as political judgement. So L-Acc needs to do boring stuff like “responsibility” (not a term I’d use but it does index something relevant) 
scaling again — is aesthetic accelerationism (a/acc ) = crypto-romanticism = judgement that what is exalting to me, resolves my micropolitical tensions, allows emergence of new existential territories *must be* beneficial in some wider, as-yet uninterrogated sense? 
political acceleration (p/acc) = forget what feels good for you, some infallible kind of impersonal judgement/Reason will tell you what’s beneficial for all… both a/acc and p/acc are conceivable if very flawed… what interests me is the (Ballardian?) claim they can be combined 
The wild rush of extreme gestures is a good, healthy even, way of exploring dimensions of human experience within artworks. But on a personal level or societal it is damaging. Look at Land for the problems of that on the personal level. [via]
but from the other side precisely what’s great in Ballard is that he has already left that behind. As Baudrillard says of Crash: Is it good or bad? We cannot say, it is simply fascinating. and this is the miracle… 
if anything ultimately he is u/acc. Just let go, “responsibility” is just another pathology. 
In art work that can be interesting. But in society that is suicidal. The point is that art is a healthy manifestation of the human security system. [via]
as i said i think terms need further examination. A conception of art where it is neither representation/illustration nor (dreamy utopic) examplar nor homeopathic containment mechanism would be a start 
art can be many more things, but my point is simply that when aesthetic judgements become the organisational principle for politics it portends a great irruption of irrationalism. It also becomes less fascinating and more boring. [via]
the idea that art necessarily has to do with judgements (and specifically those described by Kant as disinterested etc.) is itself worth questioning… [via]
True I don’t disagree. But is one way to articulate this argument, or at least to think about how judgement creates organisational imperatives (e.g. what is good? How should we change what exists to make it better?) 
And how might our evaluations of what is good or bad might differ in shape between different domains of operation  Treating the world as a canvas one might find war the most exciting aesthetic pursuit. The futurists were only articulating a real thread of judgment… But while war as aesthetic thing might be interesting I don’t want to be in one. 
Again, I feel like pointing to my post “Ethics of Exit“. There are precedents here that show there are other ways of doing talking about the “organisational” — here implicitly conflated with the ethical, which seems like a bizarre move and one that seems to assist the argument for a conjoining of the aesthetic and the political, but that’s a potentially long tangent…
yeah right but this is where you need the concept of virtuality. Isn’t that the whole thing in D&G about the war machine not having war as its object. Which doesn’t mean it’s ‘aesthetic’. 
Right, but war as aesthetic, represented and recomposed through the practices of an art-form, isn’t the same thing as war as a process involving bullets and strategies, tanks and burning buildings. [via]
Ballardian art manifests the very thing it tries to escape, precisely because it captures the irrational romantic antihuman vectors of escape and domesticates them within the confines of a bourgeois entertainment format (novels and short stories). [via]
don’t you write books too? 🙂 
again I think this is too crude, as if form/format completely determined the effects a work could have 
I just mean to problematise Ballard in his own creative context, which makes him more not less interesting. [via]
This is baked into Ballard at a deep level tho – the most bourgeois apparently pedestrian popular cultural forms are those that harbour the strongest xenolibidinal charge. Suburb/acc [via]
Here the thread died a death.
I was nonetheless haunted by Williams’ implicit suggestions that L/Acc has the monopoly on responsibility. I saw a tweet from Uri that I felt resonated with that was missing from this thread — which, he later told me, was in fact written in response to my “Ethics of Exit” post:
This is what was missed in this morning’s great hellthread. L/Acc acts like it has the monopoly on “responsibility”, making for superior judgements. But it’s a myopic catholic guilt that seldom acknowledges the inherent limitations of classical ethics… 
I’ve written on this unsatisfactorily before but the myopia of the left’s contemporary ethics ironically precludes the efficiency of their premature judgements in seeking an adequate ethics. It’s an ouroboros. Calling it “responsibility” makes ppl think its broader than it is. 
The left misusing its own language of “self care” and “emotional labour” (to pick 2 much memed examples) to frequently sidestep responsibility is a case in point. The contemporary left’s misunderstanding of their own apparent ethics is nauseating. 
I broadly count myself as a lefty and spent a lot of last year studying and talking about ethics. It’s messy. I almost dropped out of my ethics class after the lecturer completely contradicted his own grounding principle of the course. Whole of 2017 was defined by this hypocrisy. 
To be clear, these comments are not really directed at Williams or anything he said in that thread, specifically. However, I would like to see “responsibility” as a euphemism for “ethics” defined concretely by someone in these circles.
I think this is far more pressing than a working definition of “aesthetic”. It is what many an L/Acc argument hinges on and I believe it would fall over at the slightest push.
Feel free to comment on any of this in the comments or on your own blogs. There’s a lot more mileage in this yet and I think it offers a good opportunity and context to fill in a few gaps in the various ?/Acc groups.
- Ed Berger has expanded on the ways that “Williams sees the dangers in aesthetic politics, Mackay sees the possibilities of political aesthetics” in a post called “State of the Art // Art of the State” that is well worth a read.
whenever one moves from describing what is (objects, forces, conditions, sums, etc) to what prescribing what ought to be this has in a broad sense to be an aesthetic judgement (are we really still trying to talk about Art as something distinct, something categorical?) things which please/suit/move us or not and so forth.