What is a Kurtz-gradient please, Matt? You’ve have used this phrase before, forgive me if you’ve defined it but I couldn’t piece it together.
A Kurtz-gradient is, essentially, a reference to the kind of intensive journey “to the end of the river” undertaken by Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and its source material, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Whether in Conrad’s or Coppola’s adaptation, the central supporting character to the entire scenario is the environment. As Willard explains before he assassinates Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “Even the jungle wanted him dead — and that’s who he took his orders from anyway.” But more than the jungle, it is the river that plays the starring role. It is a kind of horizontal rabbit hole. It doesn’t go down but across, and at the end of it is always madness.
J.G. Ballard knew this explicitly. He is the master of Kurtz-gradients. There’s a great Q&A session with him where an audience member asks him about his story “The Day of Creation” — in which the character of Mallory is an obvious homage to Conrad’s Marlow. Their exchange is illuminating:
Audience: In “The Day of Creation”, did you know that Mallory was going to live at the end of the book? Because it was a great shock to me, I was sure he was going to die. The whole thing felt like a hallucination carried to the extreme, and then it ended naturalistically, you let him off the hook as it were.
JGB: Well, my heroes have a bland version of self-immolation. But I think it is important that he survived his own dream. In “The Day of Creation” for the benefit of those who haven’t read it, a doctor working at an aid station in darkest Africa, on the edge of an approaching Sahara, accidentally starts a stream running and he is convinced he has created this river and becomes obsessed with it and decides to sail up to its source and you can imagine where that source lies. By the end he is absolutely convinced that this river is flowing from his psyche. And I think it is important that he survives his dream so he can reflect upon it. At the end of “The Day of Creation” the dream disposes of him. The river decides to as he reaches its source, it literally dies in his arms, as a tiny trickle, the river is rejecting him and dismisses him, I think it is important that he is able to reflect upon his dream which remains ambiguous to the end.
Audience: Yes I looked at the ending again, and he’s waiting for the girl to come back and he’s waiting for the river to come back.
JGB: Absolutely, so the cycle will begin again. The whole thing is a vision of his own deepest possibilities and it touches his own imagination.
Audience: Did you think of “Heart of Darkness” as you wrote it?
JGB: I don’t think I’m allowed to forget “Heart of Darkness”. If the phone rings, it’ll probably be Joseph Conrad, saying “Mr Ballard, you stole it all from me”. But to be fair to myself Conrad in “Heart of Darkness” is not in the least bit interested in the river. The River could be a super highway. The river is just something that gets Marlow, the narrator, up to Kurtz’s station in “Heart of Darkness”. Whereas the river is all important in my novel, but it is impossible to write a novel just about a river without people automatically thinking of Conrad. I just console myself with the fact that no-one will be able to write a novel about car crashes without giving me a credit.
Ballard describes the quintessential Kurtz-gradient here. It is the journey to the end of the river; to the source. It is a journey into the heart of darkness that is the (notably European but also imperial-capitalist) unconscious. The journey, however, is one of emancipation from this conditioning.
I often think of Kerans, for instance, in Ballard’s The Drowned World, and a passage from near the start of the book which I have thought about routinely ever since I first read it:
The growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminds Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
Perhaps the best and most systematic reader of the Kurtz-gradient is Robin Mackay. Looking back on my notes from a lecture Robin gave back in 2018 on the Kurtz-gradient, he summarised it as our capacity to “immerse ourselves in the most destructive fantasies and swim.” It is an almost Bataillean anethics, in this sense. A giving-over of oneself to cosmic forces; to your own unconscious.
He made particular reference to Ballard and notably argued that “Ballard doesn’t believe in the death drive. There’s no latent will to self-destruction. There’s always something on the other side.” The only way to describe such a process is through fiction. It is, as Robin argued, an “attempt to say something which can only be said in mythical form; an attempt to reach a horror which belongs to something so deep within the human psyche that it is outside of subjective experience.”
With its explicit relevance to psychoanalysis, the environmental drama of the Kurtz-gradient is psychogeographic in its original sense. Robin noted, for example, that, in Heart of Darkness, “Conrad is already talking about the first age of globally integrated industry and its acceleration.” He was “inventing a planetary poetics” and so Conrad can be thought of, in this sense, as being a sort of Nietzschean writer. According to Robin, Conrad and Nietzsche “both saw the thing that was coming.”
Robin argued that Nietzche is most important in this context because it was he who “introduced geography into philosophy.” He did so during “the simultaneous emergence of a global geopolitics … a multitude of territorial processes … ending the teleological history of Hegel with a geography of space.” With the acceleration of industrial capitalism across the world, “a new inhumanism was needed to make a genetic account of thought because it’s a humiliation of thought and of the human … Like Conrad, Nietzsche’s own movements — the landscapes and heights of his work — are philosophical movements also. Not just metaphors but actual attempts to bring thought back to it geographical foundations, tracing thoughts back to their earthly origins.”
It is this same observation that instigates Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of a geology of morals over a genealogy of morals. It is an intensive journey back into the core; the unconscious. It is a journey beyond good and evil where the human subject finds itself accessing the planet’s primary process — the mechanisms of a planetary unconscious — which is also always already ours. (Here, we might alternatively — or complementarily — argue that a Kurtz-gradient is less a digging down into the core of the earth but rather a dramatisation of what Sándor Ferenczi called “thalassic regression”.)
If you want more detail on all this, you’d be best off reading Robin’s amazing essay “A Brief History of Geotrauma”, in which he asks, for instance:
What stimuli will key into the triggers that will attach us to a Kurtz-gradient, disintricating the tangled themes that surface as reality-symptoms, allowing us egress into dreams where the lagoon of personal memory drains into a sea of cosmic trauma?
That’s probably the best starting point / summary I can give you in the time available to me right now.
All of this is directly relevant to Abra Karl’s secondary questions, which unfolded as follows:
I’m interested in understanding the ‘anti-praxis’ of U/Acc, this idea that the “revolutionary path” is to become immanent with the acceleration that already occurs in the depth of things, impersonally, and without condition (I paraphrase you/D&G).
In practice, if (again paraphrasing your quoting Vince Garton) U/ACC is merely ‘amor fati’, that ‘the unconditional accelerationist… points to the… unimportance of… human agency,” doesn’t that justify just about anything, politically, ethically? Isn’t it just like the conquistadors, fuelled by debt to break new worlds in their own image? Can’t anyone just say they went along with all the “colossal horrors presented to the human agent… from the processes of capital accumulation and social complexification to the underlying structure” just because? Is it nihilism? Is there an imaginary U/ACC can take us to?
If U/ACC is a ‘transcendental consideration of time pressure’ in the same sense that Marxism ‘is a materialist analysis of history’ can it be deployed for any collective human endeavour in a way even comparable with Marxism (which arguably lost its efficacy in 20th century, but it sure inspired a lot of human agency)?
First of all, it must be said that the “letting go” of anti-praxis is not equivalent to the recklessness of neoliberalism’s laissez faire approach to market capitalism. Nor is it some apologist account of human evil.
What people tend to have done when they end up here — and this is a really common error in countless readings of theory with roots in Freudian psychoanalysis — is that primary and secondary processes are confused for one another. (I have an essay that discusses this coming out elsewhere next week, talking about poor understandings of “hauntology” most specifically.)
I was thinking about this very recently whilst reading Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis & Feminism, in which Mitchell provides a feminist reading of Freudian psychoanalysis, at a time when Freud was constantly coming under attack from feminists of the Second Wave. It’s a really interesting take, as it seems to refute a lot of assumptions made about Freud at that time (in the late 1970s), and goes some way towards undermining Deleuze and Guattari’s readings of Freud as well.
In the text, discussing the unconscious most explicitly, she argues that Freud’s readings of the unconscious are taken far too literally (or consciously) by his critics. His theory of “penis-envy”, for instance, is taken literally to be a misogynistic insult or a limiting of a female consciousness. It only looks this way, she argues, when “taken outside the context of the mechanisms of unconscious mental life — the laws of the primary process (the laws that govern the workings of the unconscious) are replaced by these critics by those of the secondary process (conscious decisions and perceptions), and as a result the whole point is missed.”
Now, I’m still making my mind up about Mitchell’s take, but this is absolutely true, in my experience, of more contemporary readings of things like accelerationism. Accelerationism is precisely a planetary poetics, where the primary process of the Freudian unconscious is made interscalar, constituting a bridge between individual and collective desires and injecting into the circuitry an understanding of how accelerative capitalism is fundamentally changing the human subject as such. In this sense, to think that any of accelerationism’s arguments or observations are comments upon or suggestions towards conscious decisions is a fallacy. It has nothing to do with what we can do to capitalism and everything to do with what capitalism is doing to us.
Anti-praxis is an affirmation of this process. Affirmation does not mean a worsening or an encouragement of forces beyond our control. It is more like a response to drowning. You’ve seen those PSAs, right? If you’re in the UK, I’m referring to the RNLI’s “float to live” campaign:
It is an awareness of your body’s own instincts and a realisation that you have a better chance if you let yourself float, giving yourself over to the thalassic undertow. It is a making yourself worthy of the things that happen to you that is directly informed by observations of the mechanisms of the unconscious.
As with the distinction made in the previous post between political projects and analysis, to honour the distinction is not to undermine or throw one part to the side, as was the assumption made by Marxists guilty of a similar conflation as above. It is rather to recognise that the maintenance of this original separation is precisely what allows action to take place. It is essential to an essential unconsciousness raising that is increasingly ignored due to the arrogance of the postmodern subject, who sees themselves proudly as Nietzsche’s “Last Man” — an endlessly cynical know-it-all who has internalised the end of the history and does not see how they remain subject to a perpetual change. Put more bluntly, to flatten the distinction between primary and secondary processes, as so many readers of Marx and Freud and others are wont to do, is — as Mitchell curtly put it — “to miss the point.”
In preparation for our conversation at the ICA next week, Kodwo and I were talking about this in the work of Mark Fisher over Skype last night. I was regailing him of my experience at the Capitalist Realism conference in Huddersfield the other week, where a group of young PhD candidates felt insulted by Mark’s comments about student behaviour in class, tarring all young people as lazy and incompetent and impotent, unable to unplug themselves from an emerging matrix of media technologies and social networking.
The misreading those PhD students brought to proceedings was in taking Mark’s unflattering anecdotes about his students as a sort of luddite condemnation of their life choices. In fact, as Kodwo put it, what Mark was incredibly prescient in observing was the emergence of an “unconscious 2.0”. He wasn’t damning his students but rather observing behaviours that were symptomatic of a new kind of unconsciousness that was distinctively different to his own. He wasn’t mourning the ineptitude of the youth of today but rather observing the ways that capitalism was fundamentally changing the brains of a new generation.
This 2009 article by Geoff Olson is also prescient in this regard and further demonstrates the kind of thinking Mark was plugged into, way ahead of the popular sphere of discourse. Olson asks, like an academic in a Ballardian narrative:
But what if the mental environment of media – the ads, television shows and movies, the chat lines and the twittering – penetrates into the aquifer of self, our deepest levels of being? Is it possible that today the deeper levels of our psyches are informed – or deformed – by this onslaught of information? Are we displacing the individual dream world with the dream world of media?
Mark saw first-hand the impact that new technologies were having on the developing minds he had been tasked to teach. It is demonstrative of a kind of “depressive hedonia”, he argues. Gone, however, is the Ballardian intoxication. “What we are facing here is not just time-honored teenage torpor,” he writes, “but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems.”
It’s Videodrome — Cronenberg’s perfect premonition of the war being waged by media companies for control of a new unconscious; a New Flesh. However, whereas the protagonist Max goes on an intensive journey — falls onto a Kurtz-gradient — that sees him eventually bringing the fight directly to his new overlords, turning Videodrome’s mutations into literal weapons with which he can go to war, we have been losing the battle for our own minds because we haven’t been fighting the right targets. Taking the fight to politicians, within the bounds of acceptable democratic practice, as the left dedicates itself to with a certain piety, is insufficient. You have to raze the unconsciousness.
The right have done this impeccably — notably by appropriating the language of speculative media. The Red Pill — and I write about this at length in Egress — is the perfect example of an acid communist parable that has been wholly coopted by a right-wing that seeks to maintain its own capitalist status quo. This is why the murderous right-wing accelerationists are deemed to be — on this blog and elsewhere — the very subjects that accelerationism first sought to critique.
U/Acc brings that subjective critique back to the fore. It returns the focus to the primary process rather than the secondary processes of L/Acc and R/Acc. Secondary processes are important but they are doomed to be impotent if you do not understand the impact the system in which you live is having on your own mind — particularly the impact it is having on what you think is appropriate political action. It is an attempt to capture our own capture, rather than arrogantly fight against it. This is the amor fati of U/Acc.
L/R fall into the cold water of capitalism and attempt to swim hard. U/Acc floats to live, and hopes to find itself carried back to the source, back to the end of the river.