The curse of other people’s poor research strikes again.
I had one of those weird Twitter moments the other day, when I discovered, seemingly by chance, that someone I’d never heard of had blocked me.
And that’s fine. I’m sure there are many more people out there who would rather not see my blog rambles pop up in their wider social networks. But that doesn’t mean that when you find yourself blocked by someone you don’t know, you don’t poke around a bit and try to figure out why…
This is what happened to me earlier this week when I found myself unable to view half of a conversation about accelerationism that popped up on my timeline. It was Dominic Fox whose responses I could see, popping up to defend some random person’s sweeping generalisations about accelerationism, it seemed, but I couldn’t actually see who he was responding to.
When I went to try and see Dominic’s responses in context, I discovered the block, and I discovered a whole lot more besides too.
With this happening in a conversation about accelerationism, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised by what I found next, but it was the circles this other person ran in that amused me so much. It was someone called Lulu Nunn, tweeting about the rise of accelerationism and denouncing anyone “in the art world” who followed Nick Land on Twitter because he is the inspiration behind alt-right mass shootings and wants to start a race war, don’t you know.
I didn’t know who Lulu Nunn was, of course, but a cursory Google revealed that she is the Communications Manager for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. The complete lack of self-awareness that must allow someone to hurl repeated rocks from that glass house is surely on another level! Only someone who works for a charity named after the wife of a Blue Labour war criminal could have the tenacity to criticise other people’s choice in Twitter follows.
What’s illuminating about this isn’t the fact that someone on Twitter is a hypocrite, however. That isn’t shocking in the slightest. It’s rather that it is symptomatic of something more insidious that lingers just below the surface…
It was Rob Myers, doing a bit of detective work of his own, who uncovered where this latest denouncement had originally emerged from: yet another conflation of philosophical accelerationism with 4chan accelerationism. (If you’d like to refresh your memory, here’s an account of the last time something like this kicked up a Twitter fuss — they’re emerging every six months now, like clockwork.)
It’s an article for Palatten, a Swedish art magazine, penned by Dorian Batycka who asks the question: “Is Accelerationism a Gateway Aesthetic to Fascism?”
Coming from the art world, this article predictably goes back to the defining moment of 2017 art world paranoia — the shutdown of the LD50 gallery — and attempts to describe the present emergence of “taboo” art and the artists behind it who keep questionable company. (There is no more to be said on LD50 on this blog, although, in many ways, having read this old post back to myself for the first time in a long time, what is to follow here is an inadvertent kind of sequel, developing and deepening that old argument for now.)
Right from the off, there’s a really weird dichotomy emerging here — an unnamed progressive side of art (conflating “progressive” in the arbitrary sense of pushing forwards into the new with an indeterminate but supposedly predetermined “correct” direction, whatever that is) and the dark side of “taboo”. As Batycka writes, “the paradox of the internet is that while it has given marginalized voices a space in which to secure access to speech and community, disobedience and nonconformity, it has also given platform to taboo ideas, fascist and far-right literature and memes, cannibalizing extremist views into a cornucopia of half-truths and anti-establishment conspiracy theories.”
Is this really a paradox? Or is this just how all forms of media are used in the real world? I can’t think of any technology that hasn’t been used to both liberate and oppress… (Have you read the history of the printing press? It’s a riot!)
Unfortunately, this seemingly innocuous point demonstrates a popular leftist fallacy of assuming something has gone wrong when technology isn’t being used exclusively in your favour. It’s a shadow of the sort of malignant techno-utopianism that led to Trump — and, yes, that’s right, it is techno-utopianism that the article later goes on to critique, through the deployment of a bunch of half-truths — now that’s a paradox — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…
There’s a more important question we need to ask first: How are we separating “disobedience and nonconformity” from “taboo” here? Taboo is a fitting word to use, in many respects. It is an all-too-Freudian Freudian slip. As Freud once wrote:
Taboo restrictions are distinct from religious or moral prohibitions. They are not based upon any divine ordinance, but may be said to impose themselves on their own account. They differ from moral prohibitions in that they fall into no system that declares quite generally that certain abstinences must be observed and gives reasons for that necessity. Taboo prohibitions have no grounds and are of unknown origin. Though they are unintelligible to us, to those who are dominated by them they are taken as a matter of course.
How fitting that the latest critique of accelerationism — that, as someone astutely put it, belongs to the “read Vox once” school of critique — should invoke taboo in such a way that epitomises the shadowboxing of “denouncing something I don’t understand.”
Philosophical accelerationism is, in many ways, a school of thought that purposefully rejects the pop-left’s penchant for secular-Protestantism and moralism in this regard, engaging critically with the “taboo” in this original sense and how it continues to define our worldview under capitalism, and so it makes total sense that this be lumped in with the “Outside” category of Batycka’s diffuse worldview.
There is a great many ironies here. For example — and, believe me, there are many to choose from — the mode of critique being generically deployed here without any self-awareness is also the one Nick Land first skewers in Fanged Noumena with his essay “Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest.”
To turn to Robin Mackay’s summary for the sake of brevity, in this essay Land maps out
the capitalist need to keep the proletariat at a distance while actively compelling it into the labour market […] Land sees in capitalism a suspension, a compromise: at the same time as it liberates a frustrated tendency towards synthesis […] it reinstates ‘a priori’ control by sequestering kinship from this general tendency and containing it within familialism and the nation-state.
Translation: capitalism cannot help producing its own enemies; to counteract this, it compartmentalises disruptive “deterritorialising” tendencies into instances of stasis but such pressure cookers eventually go off and with explosive consequences for life and thought.
As Robin continues, Land explains how “Kant’s thinking of synthesis” — the generalised relationship between self and other — is of particular use to us here because it “symptomatizes modernity, formally distilling its predicament, the ‘profound but uneasy relation’ in which European modernity seeks to stabilise and codify a relation (with its proletarian or third-world ‘material’) whose instability or difference is the very source of its perpetual expansion.” (It’s a argument made, drawing similarly on an analogous Orientalism, in this recent article from The Philosophical Salon on academic philosophy.)
This is a tension encapsulated — by Lévi-Strauss in an epigraph to Land’s essay — by the incest taboo. Lévi-Strauss observes that “incest proper … even combines in some countries with its direct opposite, inter-racial sexual relations.” For Land, in his reading of Kant and the patrilineal development of capitalism’s logics of continual growth, this reflexive problematic of incest being equated with exogamy defines the contradictions of capitalist modernity in the form of the “taboo”. Reproductively speaking, facing inwards is to die, but facing outwards must be done with violence and suspicion. In an imperial and capitalistic sense, “an enlightenment society wants both to learn and to legislate for all time, to open itself to the other and to consolidate itself from within, to expand indefinitely whilst reproducing itself as the same.”
This is precisely the contradictory logic of capitalist modernity being deployed in this anti-accelerationist essay, where the “progressive nature” of the art world is tied arbitrarily to a superficial faith in its righteousness whilst a different “progressive” form — a just as arbitrary misreading of accelerationism — is taken up as the enemy and given a show trial to reassure others just how powerfully and self-assuredly we are progressing in the right direction.
It’s performative bullshit, in which cheap shots are taken at an xenomorphic scapegoat to cover over the incestuous logic that rots the art world from within.
It is also a bullshit compounded by the only passage in the article that actually engages with accelerationism.
In essence, what Batycka thinks accelerationism is is a kind of “techno-futurism”:
… a slick blending of cyber-utopian thinking [with] an impulse to think that humanity’s problems will magically be solved through technology, science and engineering. Indissoluble from deliberately nihilistic meltdowns, technological determinism has exacerbated the vertiginous speeds of capitalism gone amock. [sic]
There’s a strange conflation going on here that we haven’t seen for a few years — not since Jon Cruddas MP wrote this weird thing for the New Statesmen, demonstrating all the flustered, fear-mongered hand-waving that many have come to associate with the UK centre-left. It ironically conflates a STEM progressivism with Blade Runner’s neo-fascist aesthetics of futurity but without paying any heed to the documented benefits of the former (which we can surely recognise without falling into STEM supremacy) and the baked-in Oedipal critique of the latter.
It is, basically, an outdated art world critique of “left-accelerationism” — a vague offshoot of accelerationism that was both born from and died with Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future. This was because no-one interested in accelerationism beyond that point picked up the torch they fashioned and so it eventually went out.
Nevertheless, ever since, we have seen these same critiques make appearances in various magazines and news websites where this wildly divergent and fragmented intellectual history is consolidated into some popular Thing — a truly monstrous amalgamation of the few scraps of thought that some have managed to pick up on, producing something that maybe looks like a sick dog or human or an alien from certain angles if you don’t know what you’re looking at, but to everyone who has actually kept abreast of these things, they just see a mutated mess.
Case in point: in his article, Batycka half-truthfully says that accelerationism was born out of the Ccru at the University of Warwick in the 1990s — so far so good — which “began looking at how global varieties of technology and capitalism should be sped up and intensified, if only to ensure their (and our) demise. According to Land, in order to move past the disastrous effects of capitalist accumulation, we must instead accelerate past it towards its own eventual destruction.”
It’s worth noting that this “According to Land,…” sentence comes with a footnote, but the footnote isn’t actually quoting anything Nick Land has written — just Andy Beckett’s write-up on accelerationism for the Guardian. This article has a lot to answer for and is deceptively authoritative because, whilst Beckett has obviously interviewed a bunch of people who were there and brought accelerationism to the light for the mainstream — specifically Robin Mackay — the understanding of accelerationism that Beckett attributes to them is a misreading that this “fringe philosophy” has been trying to shed almost since its conception.
Because accelerationism isn’t about making things worse, and because Land — or anyone else for that matter — has fundamentally never argued for this. To quote Pete Wolfendale again: Nick Land “likes capitalism. He wants to accelerate it, but not because it will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.”
However, what Land arguably does believe will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, at least in a political effective sense, is “the Cathedral” — a concept borrowed from Mencius Moldbug to describe what Land calls “the truly dominant instance of the democratic polity”; an otherwise broadly leftist (or generically “progressivist”) hegemony populated by people who are, “despite their avowed secularism and faux egalitarianism, in effect a theocratic priestly class” (as Moldbug once wrote). (There’s an argument to be made that Mark Fisher called this same tactless cabal the Vampire Castle.)
Whether anyone likes the term or whoever coined it is largely irrelevant at this point. The Cathedral is a term that carries a certain valence by describing the conditions of contemporary politics far more astutely than anyone on the left has thus far been capable of, precisely because it views popular leftism from outside itself.
Whilst Land has his own further nuanced definitions of what exactly the Cathedral is, to my mind the Cathedral remains a useful term because it skewers a kind of political religiosity that broadly affects the popular left in particular, beyond the infamous ties that bind the Church with the far-right in the mind of your average leftist. More specifically, it points to a brand of progressivism that adheres to a downright Protestant logic of always being without political sin based on nothing more than the fact you have an unshakeable faith in the leftist cause. (This is why there is much anxiety that comes from critiquing the left from within — to betray a lack of faith is to betray the left most fundamentally.)
It should go without saying — you’d hope — that using this term does not, by default, place one on the right. Personally, I recognise my politics as being far to the left but that doesn’t mean I’m not repulsed by the pop-left’s “universal priesthood of believers” that is constituted by a highly recognisable cross-section of the media commentariat. It is, in essence, a continuation of the “Christ to the bourgeoisie” argument of the twentieth century. Just as Fukuyama’s “end of history” reveals itself to be wishful thinking, not to mention premature, the left’s self-assurance that we live in a world after the “death of God” finds itself disturbed by an acknowledgement of the absorption of religiosity into secular politics.
If anything — and Mark Fisher acknowledged this repeatedly and explicitly — this is why Nick Land needs to be read. Reading someone does not constitute agreeing with them, but reading Land (beyond his tweets, at least) does confront you with some of the most incisive critiques of leftism that are in present circulation.
It is interesting to note here that Land’s suggested praxis when facing down the Cathedral is: “Do nothing.” Such is his horrorist approach. “Rather than resisting the desperation of the progressive ideal by terrorizing its enemies, [the horrorist task] directs itself to the culmination of progressive despair in the abandonment of reality compensation.” My reading of this is that Land believes the left will die by its own melancholy; by its own impotent and internal logics. It’s melancholic state is its true form — the rest of the time it is exercising a kind of “reality compensation”. That is an argument that has certainly been vindicated — to an extent at least — considering the last five years of leftist political failures, and has been an internal critique of the left since Walter Benjamin if not before, but Land goes further than this. Once the world is revealed to be as truly unforgiving as it is, and elusive to human control, he seems to argue, the left will drink the Kool-aid and end its own despair by giving up the ghost of Marx once and for all.
Horrorism, then, is the rightist anti-praxis of “accelerationism” proper, understood as an analysis of this very sensation and the noumenal mechanisms that show just how out of our control things are. (Might we say that this is where Z/Acc comes in?)
The leftist anti-praxis, as I see it, doubles down on the Deleuzianism of accelerationism and advocates an ethics of “making oneself worthy of the process.” Both viewpoints makes value-judgements and recommend responses, but neither does that ahead of an attentive vigilance regarding the shape-shifting and accelerative nature of the system itself.
It is only by becoming attuned to this system and how it impacts us that we can even begin to answer the question “What is to be done?” Therefore, the argument from the left is that we must respond better, and less reactively. So far, the left is abjectly failing to do this and the fallacies and poor research that pepper Batycka’s text — along with just about every other popular reading of accelerationism — demonstrate this fact abysmally, as their paranoia remains focused on shadow-boxing and straw man arguments that they don’t even realise they’re making.
All of this is important because Batycka’s critique essentially doubles down on the worst aspects of Cathedralism in this regard. It reminds me of my Mum’s old aesthetic squeamishness regarding the music I liked from childhood. Playing anything that was not recognisably melodic or classically “musical” often resulted in a request to turn it off because she didn’t like anything “satanic” being played in the house. (This from a woman who was in no sense a practising Christian or adherent to any other kind of religious belief.)
(Notably, I remember a particularly mind-boggling instance of this resulting from me playing DJ Shadow’s remix of “The Gloaming” by Radiohead a bit too loud. Is this music “taboo” by Batycka’s logics of aesthetic darkness? Or is critiquing George W. Bush through dance music too complex a notion to compute?)
The words “taboo” and also “contrarian” take on much the same tone here in Batycka’s article. They are words used to lump together aesthetics that do not adhere to the doctrines of the-right-kind-of-leftism and more explicitly “alt-right artworks”.
Even then, how these aesthetics are to be defined is not made clear. It is seemingly a dismissal of any of the more specific offshoots of postmodernism — as the cultural logic of late capitalism — but the issue is that there is no separation made between aesthetic practices and investigations of form, and political beliefs and practices of resistance.
Plenty of the “post-Internet art” referenced here, for instance — including that which appeared at the notorious LD50 Gallery show — is just superficial and bad. Do we need to lump that in with any art that attempts to investigate or reflect on the present aesthetic chaos in which we live? Is the argument here really that we have a moral imperative only to imagine nice, simplistic worlds rather than reflect the chaos of the world in which we live, just in case someone thinks we might be glorifying our contemporary dystopia? That’s certainly how it comes across. Beyond the positive affirmations, all you’re left with is an ahistorical and apolitical view of art that is all finger-pointing spectacle and no substance.
What is even worse is that this article is far more guilty of entrenching the homogenisation it tries to stand against. Towards the end, Batycka writes:
we must continue to develop proportionally well-honed critiques of the alt-right, taboo and contrarian aesthetics that use satire and irony to cycle through dangerous ideas. In such politically uncertain and chaotic times, the sense of impatience many people feel today can make neoreactionary ideas like accelerationism seem romantic.
But what does any of this mean? References to neoreactionary politics — a broad church that, rudimentarily summarised, explores the contradictory pulsion of using technological innovations to entrench conservatism (techno-capitalists for monarchy), i.e. capitalism being used to produce the mechanisms the nation-state (rather than vice versa) — completely lose all meaning when deployed in a veritable word salad that even the Ccru would send back to the kitchen. This isn’t a “proportionally well-honed critique”, unless what is “proportional” about it is the fact it is as dumb as the tracts produced by the alt-right themselves.
This is why I personally find myself tearing my hair out over articles that bodge their reading of accelerationism. They are merely perpetuating the “impatience” they say they reject, because nothing epitomises that impatience more in the media than the replication and homogenisation of useless critiques and inaccurate summaries.
This is the lesson that no one wants to hear. It is your own perpetuation of “accelerationism is making thing worse” that has inspired these mass shooters, far more than anything written by Nick Land. To those of us who are familiar with Land’s work, we know that these monsters haven’t read him. We know that you haven’t either. What is abundantly clear, however, is that these monsters have read you. They are defining themselves through their enemy’s shoddy Cliff Notes rather than any engagement with those you deem to be the enemy. It is articles like this that short-circuit the discourse, imposing an incestuous logic of creating that which it says it already opposes. As such, it is the likes of Batycka who don’t realise that they have blood on their hands.
The line repeated again and again here on this blog and elsewhere is that the accelerationist shooters and 4chan edgelords are precisely the subjects that accelerationism first sets out to critique: those subjects who respond to the accelerating nature of their environments by doubling down on populist rhetoric and racism. These are the life rafts too readily available to too many in a failing world, who jump at the conspiracy theories rather than actually engaging their critical faculties.
Accelerationism, in this part of the world, is — and I genuinely believe this — a salve to that. So many times I have been referred back to imageboard threads where my explanatory post, “A U/Acc Primer”, has been shared by anons to coax the edgelords down from their hysteria and maybe get them to engage critically with their surroundings and interrogate their alienated place within the world, all through a mix of canonical philosophy and contemporary thought. To some, that is a crime against humanity in itself, but I think it’s better than what we’re used to.
This is why the left’s present purity politics is so asinine. Whatever you want to call it — identity politics, cancel culture, etc. — the overarching issue here — not always but often — is that reactive denouncements and Twitter blockings are often fuelled by a mistaken sense of who is right and who is wrong. Is the Nick Land follower worse than the Blairite charity worker? Either every argument against complicity is important or none of them are.
The fear-mongering of art world paranoia is a further demonstration of this. LD50 wasn’t scary because it demonstrated how some people in our midst have bad politics. Most people who run art galleries have bad politics. Most people who run art galleries have money and people with money tend to have bad politics. The egregiousness of Lucia Diego’s Trump apologism was just an easy target — an example of the postmodernist edgelording that the Ccru and its successors effectively dramatised and critiqued. Having an awareness of the way these people want to attract your ire and attention is certainly worthy while but a moralising scattershot approach gets you nowhere.
Nor does focusing all of your attention on a generalised boogieman you don’t understand. In the case of accelerationism at least, this does nothing but demonstrate the impotency of art world criticism at large and Batycka’s article perfectly demonstrates the flaws of its logic. It is, in effect, a deployment of an institutionalised thinking undermined by laziness and false consciousness, that is part of a system far more corrupt in how it is organised than in the ideas it dares to interrogate or explore.
This isn’t a case of whataboutery but rather demonstrates how poor internal critiques are mirrored by poor external critiques. The fact is that both the interrogations and explorations of such ideas and the articles that denounce them are as superficial as each other. This negative feedback loop does nothing to remedy the situation. In fact, it is the situation, and not all of us who want nothing to do with it are de facto fascists, particularly when we do so much work to skewer these bastard logics in pursuit of a properly anti-capitalist communism.
Anti-capitalism isn’t just a hatred of wage labour. It’s a protest against the logics that inhabit and undermine the political actions that must be enacted within its spaces. If accelerationism, in its original philosophical mode, is a gateway to anything, it is to an apprehension of just how deep these logics go and the speed with which they adapt to the frenzied stasis of our present world order.
This apprehension is necessary because it demonstrates how nothing will ever collapse under the weight of its own contradictions — neither capitalism nor its parasitic growth that we call “the art world”.
As far as I know, “The Cathedral” comes from Eric Raymond via Moldbug. For Raymond it was central-planned, state- or big-corporate-controlled, top-down organisation (of large software projects), to which he opposed “the Bazaar” of open source software development – a broadly libertarian vision. (Raymond later went very paranoid Trump-ist, convinced that SJWs were out to wreck the tech culture that once lionized him).
Moldbug adapts and expands the notion to mean the hegemony, as he sees it, of universalist, egalitarian thinking in US elite culture, against which he pits particularism and hierarchy. It’s “the Cathedral” because it’s monolithic and hegemonising, and we’d be better off, he thinks, with a neocameralist Bazaar of rival fiefdoms all independently hustling. Similar to Raymond’s libertarian vision except that the unit of agency is little patches of territory controlled by despots compelled to behave in more or less enlightened ways by market discipline.
I can’t say that I’m enthusiastic about taking over this terminology from a left perspective. For Land it obviously resonated with his image of the transcendental-miserablist left as a defunct hegemony overtaken by events it couldn’t comprehend. But it’s really just another version of the Hayekian grand ad hominem against “totalitarian” central planners. In the context of an emerging war economy this all seems rather quaint; and the outcome in practise of turning public services into a “patchwork” of competing service-providers was ultimately, as Mark observed, “market Stalinism” rather than a bazaar of creative destruction.
It’s certainly entangled with his patchwork thinking but the secular-Protestantism is still a central component of it — as quoted here — and the one most useful, I think. It’s not called the Cathedral in his thought for nothing. The Randianism can go but I still think that part of it is usefully provocative and astute.
That said, the Batycka article is really wretchedly bad. It’s remarkable how much this sort of thing has its own momentum. Like CDOs aggregating junk assets, each instrument leveraging the weaknesses of the last. It’s how the artworld has always operated I suppose. I’m just glad I don’t have to operate within it.