In his recollection of his time at the University of Warwick, as a student studying under Nick Land, Robin Mackey describes how, then as now, Land’s reputation preceded him:
Before I met Land, I already knew of him through the gossip of new undergraduates taken aback by what they had heard on the grapevine: Did Land really claim that he had come back from the dead? Did he really think he was an android sent from the future to terminate human security? In person he belied these outrageous claims (both of which he did indeed make in writing), being thoroughly polite and amiable and, above all, willing to engage in earnest conversation with anyone. He had paid his philosophical dues and could hold his own in a discussion with any professor; these discussions often turning vituperative, however, as Land railed against the institution and its conservatism. But he preferred to spend his time in the bar with undergraduates, always buying the drinks, smoking continually, and conversing animatedly (and where possible, vehemently) about any topic whatsoever.
If Land preferred to spend his time with undergraduates, it was perhaps because he was fascinated, as Mackay notes, by “the sensibilities of the first generation … to have grown up surrounded by technology.” Today, such sensibilities are a bottomless source for parental panics but, for Land, they signalled exciting times ahead. As Mackay writes: “The unbridled production of new brands of erotic adventure within capitalism” had the potential to usher in a cyberpunk “transformation of the human, cutting its bonds with the (cultural, familial, and ultimately biological) past and opening it up to new, inorganic distributions of affect.” It is arguably this same belief in the revolutionary potential of youth that has allowed Land’s work to continue to circulate through myriad young cybercultures in more recent years as well.
This technology that the young are ever-increasingly surrounded by, however, was not and is not inert. The transformation then underway was particular. To be surrounded by technology was, more or less, to be surrounded by globalised capitalism. Youth culture from the 1990s onwards was beholden to the structural possibilities of work and play that capitalism itself was selecting for. Though the future seemed open ended, with the benefit of hindsight we can see how the bottleneck of the present was prefigured, by hollowing out the countercultures once synonymous with anti-capitalism but which were increasingly synonymous with the excitations of the system itself. At around that same time, Timothy Leary updated his famous phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” for the PC era, advising people instead to “turn on, boot up, jack in.” Counter-cultures were, at that moment, the new capitalist cultures of the dot.com era.
This was of particular interest to Land, who was (and, arguably, remains) deeply engaged in the cultural implications of free-market capitalism, following its ultimate victory during the Thatcher-Reagan years and following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The issue for Land’s critics is that his interests only served to shake up a philosophical conservativism rather than a more political one — something that is blatantly apparent in the present. His philosophy was born from the moment that conservatism, broadly speaking, began its own modernisation process. When accelerationism was christened in 2008, this is why it was post-Landian. Land accounted for a moment when the ratchet of modernity was cranked up several notches. He planted the seeds for a new philosophy in a heretically Badiouian sense, birthing a new thought that could do justice to the new political, socioeconomic and scientific advances of its era. However, we have been stuck in that era for some time now, atrophying along its over-worked vectors. Land’s relevance persists because neoliberalism does. For most, this persistence is more a sign of our stagnation than of a newly-emergent right-wing radicality.
But surely even Land himself would admit that the mundane present capitalism has provided us with is far from what he too believed was to come. Consider, for example, Land’s cyberpunk interventions in the day-to-day runnings of an up-tight academic institution like the University of Warwick in the 1990s. These activities were not protests against capitalism but celebrations of its innately mutative nature, revolutionising the structure of the university as an institution, the way it was run, and the ways teaching, research and writing were done inside its hallowed walls. At its most innocuous, this could be seen in the Ccru’s favouring of the Internet over stuffy academic journals. In universities today, however, this mutative process has borne only rotten fruit. Indeed, whilst it is hard to deny that the unsentimental march of marketisation has radically transformed “The University” as an institution, with the benefit of hindsight it is difficult to imagine how anyone deemed the potentials of such a process to be exciting in the slightest.
Nevertheless, for Land at least, they were exciting, but not just because capitalism could transform his own place of work. Bootstrapped to every mode of production within society, the accelerative nature of capitalism was transforming every human endeavour along with it. The impact of capitalism on writing, in particular, provided new vectors for experimentation and, therefore, new vectors for thought as well. As Mackay explains, Land sought “to intensify capitalism’s undoing of language through new practices of writing, speaking, and thinking”.
In this regard, we might say that Land was to a Nineties cyberculture as William Burroughs had been to the Beat generation before him. Burroughs, too, was concerned with the “technology of writing” — that utilitarian function of language that is taught in schools, and arguably the only type of writing that can be taught.
“There is a definite technology for the negative use of words to cause confusion, to create and aggravate conflicts, and to discredit opponents”, Burroughs writes. However, for him, this is “the opposite of what a writer does.” The writer is more like a magician, going far beyond the accepted technological bounds of a given medium and sending new weapons back from the future, in order to counter the technology of writing that is “developed in the mass media … refined in Life and Time, and carried still further by the CIA in some subsidized literary periodicals.” Land, instead, flattened the circle in accordance with the new era, plugging into the networks Burroughs was most suspicious of. Suddenly, the technology of writing was colliding with new writings on technology. Over the decades since, it seems the generative tension between the two, for Land at least, has struggled to sustain itself.
It is nonetheless worth bearing in mind Burroughs’ appraisal of the written word and the myriad ways it is used and abused. Whereas Walter Benjamin had one argued that the aesthetisation of politics is a key weapon in the armoury of any fascist regime, for Burroughs this process is innate to writing itself. Writing is never not political and it is never not pursued under some sort of aesthetic guise. Writing, then, is the form of political aestheticisation that we witness every day, both for the better and for the worse — and this is no minor accusation to come from someone like Burroughs, who has dedicated their life to the very medium they distrusted most.
Burroughs was a literary accelerationist, in this sense. He intensified the cascading conundrums of modern language to break the illusion of a “common” (or, rather, an ideologically mass-mediated) sense and introduce into capitalism a newly virulent surreality. From within the depths of its confounding currents, Burroughs single-handedly short-circuited the system that swirled around him and supercharged its most ubiquitous weapon — language — towards new processes.
Land, whilst sympathetic to and heavily influenced by Burroughs’ work, updated his insights to a new era, contaminating language with numbers. Through the heretical deployment of gematria — the assigning of numerical value to letters, producing new modes of connection and resonance; a practice associated with various ancient religions, and particularly Judaism — Land intensified not just language itself but capitalism’s alphanumerical relationship to thought, wholly recasting Burroughs’ notorious relationship between writing and drugs.
This is to say that capital was to Land as junk had been to Burroughs — and Land’s self-destructive relationship with late-capitalism was certainly as generative and morally ambiguous as Burroughs’ entanglements had been before him.
Just as Burroughs had once described heroin — “junk” — as a “transitional” drug, operating “between living and dead matter, between animal and vegetable life”, to the extent that it is hard to “avoid the feeling that junk is in some way alive”, Land saw capital as a similarly transitional (but exceedingly more abstract) substance that was zombifying labour relations and production in all its guises. As in Burroughs’ visions of a drug-addicted mid-century America, Land’s capital is not just a concern for Wall Street junkies but everyone. Even anti-capitalists — just like the narcotics agents in Burroughs’ novels — are caught up in their “special relation” to capital. But this clandestine networking of desires and addictions, power and control, remains obfuscated from those on the outside of this obscured but nonetheless pervasive counter-culture, who are concerned but easily manipulated.
As such, we can imagine Land echoing Burroughs at almost every heretical turn. “Official propaganda opposes any factual statement about [capital], so that almost nothing accurate has been written on the subject.” Accuracy is not to be found in the objective reporting of financial journalists and economists, nor on the bank statements of everyday people; an accurate portrayal of capitalist life can only be written by a cut-up, jacked-up, fucked-up subject who feels its controlling influence pumping through their veins; who desires it, knows its many names, and feels the hum from those blackened alleyways of knowledge that the addict is most likely to find it in.
Land was one such subject, and yet he also seemed to embrace a wholly anti-Burrovian position. He was Burroughs come full circle, from anti-capitalist to hyper-capitalist. After all, Burroughs was a writer who, like Land, was no stranger to serious controversy, but even he was adverse to “the Ugly Spirit” of the “acquisitive evil” that is American capitalism. Unlike Land, Burroughs saw his own intensive writing practice as a way to resist capital’s dark possession. Land, instead, saw writing as its ultimate possessive vector; as a way to let capitalism (further) in.