Orgies of Stupidity Fuck the Painful Present Away

In a 2011 interview with Polish magazine Kronos, Ray Brassier shares a damning appraisal of the blogosphere. Asked about his “love affair” with the speculative realist movement – that is, his vague association and then disavowal of its aims and goals – he does not pull any punches.

I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a “movement” whose most single achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

Looking over the current state of accelerationism today — or “speculative realism”, “object-oriented ontology”, “patchwork”, or whatever other (relatively) recent post-Continental position has been boldly explored by certain groups of people online — it is hard not to feel like Brassier has been largely vindicated. From the collapse of accelerationism as a speculative realism politics to a formless mess, to the transformation of U/ACC into a Twitter badge for identifying an allegiance to a philosophy wholly misunderstood, to the prostitution of Mark Fisher into a log in the waves — a meme in the algorithms — of communicative capitalism, in all of its incarnations the blogosphere has seemed terminal as it struggles to resist the reterritorializing processes inherent within its own target audience. Considering the ultimate reterritorialization of accelerationism into a far-right mode, perhaps this infuriating process has finally proved fatal.

And yet, what remains clear is that, for all its work-in-progress flailing and meandering, when we actually look at what was said, resisting the present habit of retconning all arguments backwards and applying them to the twentieth century, we find that the blogosphere is far more consistent than it is often given credit for. In attempting to break with, not just the twentieth century but post-Kantian philosophy as a whole, it has persistently attempted to address questions of how it might forestall its own (re)capture by the system at large and its prejudices. And even though it has failed — not just once, but arguably twice — the political stakes of its questioning have only gotten more prescient. Because this is not just a crisis within accelerationism or the blogosphere more broadly but a crisis within philosophy and politics as a whole. Accelerationism, in its violent irony, has only served to demonstrate how disastrous a politics or philosophy of immanence can be if it does not remain vigilant to the ways the very processes it hopes to critique act upon its own fortunes.

This is to say that, if accelerationism’s greatest achievement is the generation of “an online orgy of stupidity”, this is largely down to its own accelerative nature. This philosophy’s initial questions and the secondary problems attached to them have fallen wholly by the wayside thanks to a process of abstraction that the accelerationists themselves were clearly not in control of. The blogosphere’s machinations are now so disparate and fast-paced, and its adjacent publishing industry so over-simplified and slow, it is difficult to curate a middle ground where this “orgy of stupidity” – nothing less than capitalism’s own hegemony of mediocrity – can be kept at bay. This is the problem of accelerationism, found both inside and out.

Brassier, then, is obviously not wrong, but it seems a little mean-spirited to focus our contempt on the internet alone. When these philosophical movements were first birthed, in the late 2000s, there was a vision of a bright new future emerging in all sorts of areas. In his book Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline, for instance, John Mullarkey writes about how there was a new excitement in the air as disciplines, riding the ways of capitalism’s schizophrenic globalisation, came newly into contact with each other. “It is reassuring to see philosophy thinking with Leibniz and embryology and political resistance movements, or Plato and set theory and militant insurgency”, he writes, in reference to the work of Deleuze and Badiou respectively, newly embraced and utilitised in the Anglosphere, in being deemed wholly appropriate to the new age.

Though two philosophers with divergent views of the world, Mullarkey argues that what Deleuze and Badiou at least share is a rejection of transcendence in favour of a newly immanent kind of philosophy:

Philosophy has seemingly come back down to earth from the inconsequential heavens of transcendence. Immanence means relevance, even when that relevance comes through the abstractions of mathematics (Badious) or epistemology (Laruelle). As David Papineau put it, ‘nearly everybody nowadays wants to be a “naturalist”’. And everybody wants their ontology to be a political ontology too. But things are never so simple, alas.

Alas, they are not. That same year, Zero Books — having just released Capitalist Realism and a host of other titles that announced a new era of critical engagement outside of traditional and, more importantly, academic publishing — came out with Paul Ennis’s Post-Continental Voices, a collection of interviews with up-and-coming thinkers like Graham Harman, Ian Bogost and Stuart Elden. He talks to them about their journeys into philosophy, publishing and academia, and what they see as the future for all three, just over the horizon.

Graham Harman is characteristically self-centred, arguing that “the Continental philosophy of 2050 will be visibly descended from one or more of [the] branches” sprouting from contemporary conversations around Speculative Realism, including his own Object-Oriented Ontology. But the other interviewees in the volume cast their net a little wider, and are a little more speculative than just merely self-promoting.

They speak more broadly of a future interdisciplinarity. Levi Bryant is palpably excited that philosophy is “once again … discovering its others.” Adrian Ivakhiv argues that “young scholars with inter- or anti-disciplinary leanings” should rejoice that their oft-rejected tendencies will soon be recognised as “the way of the future”. “The future is in the hands of those who know how to work on shifting and unstable grounds”, he suggests — clearly unaware of how torturously true his statement is for an emerging precariat. Ian Bogost is a little more nuanced, but argues much the same point: “I don’t simply mean to rename the well-trod path of interdisciplinarity, but to suggest that philosophy is re-entering the world in a different way from its predecessors.” And yet, from the vantage point of 2021, it is Jeffrey Malpas whose tentative vision of the future feels the most accurate:

Much as I would like to see a more open, engaged, and vibrant form of philosophy developing that is not bound by ideology, such a hope seems overly optimistic, and it is certainly not helped by current developments in higher education in the UK or Australia.

Malpas is, of course, referring to the general upheaval of 2010, not only in higher education but in all forms of life for young people. Indeed, it was a pivotal year for me and my generation. I had just turned 18 at the end of 2009, but being able to (legally) drink was less exciting than the prospect of voting in my first general election. I wasn’t politically consciousness, by any means, but with most legal age limits easily circumvented, it was down to learning to drive and participating in democracy to provide a coming-of-age thrill – and I couldn’t afford the former.

I voted for the Liberal Democrats. There were well-thought-out reasons for doing so — we actually discussed the election at length in school — but, if I’m honest, the main reasons I remember being in favour of Nick Clegg’s party were the Lib Dems’ policy to legalise weed and block the government’s plan to treble university tuition fees. It was also an opportunity not to vote for the Labour Party. The 2000s were defined, even in my young mind, by the travesty that was the Iraq War. Getting rid of Blairism felt like a real responsibility for a new generation newly eligible to exercise their right to vote. I remember feeling like we’d been presented with an opportunity. This was a first, small step in shifting to a new world order.

In the end, the result of a hung parliament; David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, was sworn in as prime minister, entering into a coalition government with Clegg and his MPs. It was not the result that anyone my age wanted, but at least Clegg was there to reel Cameron in – or so we thought. By the end of the year, it was clear that we were all fucked, and we wouldn’t even be able to legally smoke in order to take the edge off.

In September 2010, I moved to Newport in Wales to start an undergraduate degree in photography and spent the next few months travelling back and forth to London at every opportunity in order to protest. (I’ve spoken about that period a few times before, most recently here.) I wasn’t directly affected by the trebling of fees – I was the last cohort to pay £3000 a year tuition – but I knew that, if I was any younger, I’d feel priced out of education in the years ahead. As I grew older, this near-miss just felt like a delay. I wanted to do postgraduate study but it increasingly felt like it was the preserve of a privileged few. Undertaking a Master’s degree six years later, that concern was proved correct. The utter evacuation of class as a discourse from everywhere but a few bold corners of postgraduate education was striking. (When Mark Fisher died in 2017, partway through my studies, it was all the more harrowing given his background, as he was one of the only lecturers who had a working class background to speak of, and one of the few lecturers who working class students felt comfortable talking to about their concerns and experiences. It was striking how low the quality of the conversation on campus about class plummeted once he was no longer around to steer it.)

With the past decade of navigating higher education (and life in general) in mind, the future that the post-Continental voices had predicted feels like a naive pipedream. By 2016, interdisciplinary courses were not constructed by design but by accident. My Master’s degree was, for example, exceeding interdisciplinary. Though an “arts” degree by name, it was theoretically focussed and, as such, welcomed philosophers, geographers, cultural studies people, designers, art historians, musicians, and more into its midst. This worked in my favour, personally speaking, as it allowed a twenty-something philosophically-curious late-bloomer to sidestep a flailing career in photography and arts administration to engage properly with philosophy without having to prove myself by retreading a pre-ordained academic pathway that meant spending £23,000 on an undergraduate do-over.

In truth, interdisciplinarity (and, indeed, anti-disciplinarity) was attractive for quite practical reasons too. The future was so uncertain, it was good to be able to adapt. (Something I did quite explicitly when the pandemic hit, pivoting on a dime from a job in arts administration into working as a proofreader and copyeditor — something I could not have done without taking that course.) But it is still readily apparent that the academic acceptance of interdisciplinarity was the direct result of course mergers and budget cuts, rather than progressive future-oriented thinking.

This is to say that, whilst a shift to the interdisciplinary appropriately transformed certain courses from specialties into umbrellas, it also reduced those subsumed underneath from courses to modules. A potentially positive change in principle, students were still limited by academic bureaucracy, able to choose just two modules to participate in for a grade. Auditing classes was a possibility but schedules were hardly drawn up with this in mind. Interdisciplinarity was not encouraged for the sake of student fulfilment, intellectual exploration or even careerist adaptability, but as a cost-cutting measure, pure and simple. The idea that there was an abundance of choice was undermined by more general administrative restrictions, meaning there was literally too much to choose from. That something resembling an interdisciplinarity mindset survived these adaptations was down to the creative thinking of the precariously-employed lecturers who worked there, but even these attempts to make the best of a bad situation were repeatedly trodden on by clueless senior management.

I could go on, but the point is that, whilst the internet may be an “orgy of stupidity”, but it is nonetheless true that academia’s turn towards neoliberal interdisciplinarity has transformed it into a clusterfuck of mediocrity too. We are more time-poor, and poor in just about every other way too. But the questions once asked and entertained on the old blogosphere are still available to us. What became an orgy of stupidity did not start that way. The strange thing is that post-Continental philosophy feels like a collective hallucination now, if it is remembered at all. We forgot all about its heresies, unorthodoxies and challenges to the status quo. We also forgot its exceedingly political mindset, which sought to truly update philosophy for a new era, rebuilding it from the ground up, creating new modulations, not simply applying the past haphazardly to the present, as if using the canonical thought of old to understand the postmodern present did anything other than capture and neutralise it..

We only need return to Zero Books for an example of this, with its own downwards trajectory a perfect example of the poverty forced upon us. The recent dramas around its turn towards aesthetics and politics are anemic compared to what the old blogosphere had in mind. Consider Steven Shaviro, who has written some excellent books on aesthetics for Zero and elsewhere. In an old blogpost, he writes about how we must be prepared to “think outside the limits of thought that have been defined and legislated by neoliberal capital”. However, in a moment of reflexivity, he cautioned against giving the impression that his own interests were the best way to do this: “I’m not trying to claim that aesthetics resolves this in any way”, he says, “only that a radical rethinking of aesthetics is necessary, in order to re-find the values that Adorno and Marcuse found in the aesthetic, given that their direct hopes have been rendered obsolete by the expansion of the forces they described and deplored to degrees of exacerbation that they never imagined.” (The Urbanomic Redactions edition, Speculative Aesthetics, shows just how far-out this conversation was going.) Someone should tell that to the current Zero Books crowd, but it is just as true for the rest of us around these parts who continue to focus on the arguments of the past, even the very recent past, without any sort of acknowledgement that the dreams we parrot in the present all failed miserably.

The first blogosphere embraced this as an opportunity to start again. But we seldom talk about them in this way. They have essentially been forgotten. We know the names of those involved, of course, and love to throw them around, but who can tell us anything about what they argued over or fought for?

Take Mark Fisher. The other day, on Twitter, I was sharing sections from a email conversation Mark had with Graham Harman, which he shared on his k-punk blog. Though essentially Mark answering questions that Harman has about the recently released Capitalist Realism, he totally captured the philosophical discussions going on around that book’s release and the release of a dozen other books in the years that followed. He presents Capitalist Realism as an attempt to wake a generation from its slumber, and specifically to make them aware of the battle lines he and others were fighting over. (A brief conversation with Vincent helped demonstrate how different his terms were to those now attributed to him by others.)

A few years earlier, for instance, in 2005, totally caught up in the Anglosphere’s Badiou-fever, following the English translation of Being & Event that same year, Fisher argued that:

The most productive area of conceptual discordance is that between Badiou and Deleuze-Guattari. Perhaps we’re in a position to use each to decode the blind spots of the other. Deleuze-Guattari have never been properly assimilated into Continentalism (the sad vitalist zombie that stalks the halls of the academy in their name is testament to that) because they too are philosophers of commitment, in which philosophy knows its place: as a theory of action, not a substitute for it.

But what of Badiou? I think Mark was still figuring him out. He roused him from his complacent Nineties cyber-Deleuzianism and into a newly political mode. But then, in 2010 and in response to Harman, we find the Badiou backlash in full effect. After the financial crash, it is revealed that neither Deleuze-Guattari nor Badiou were fully appropriate to that moment. Still, he casts both in relief to find the present in remainder:

No doubt, the Cultural Revolution of the 60s to which Badiou pledges allegiance had to happen — but we can’t keep acting as if the problem is a centralizing State or a Stalinist Party structure. At the same time, no simple return to a centralizing State or a strong party is possible either — which is why so many of Zizek’s political provocations amount to what Alex Williams calls “comedy Stalinism”. In many ways, I would argue that the “politics of the event” articulated (albeit very differently, of course) by Deleuze and Badiou is an elaborate apologetics for an actual political failure. The injunctions to keep faith with the event, the claim that Chronos doesn’t matter, only the aeonic event: both are a kind of theology of consolation, akin to Paul’s shifting in position when it became clear that Christ was not going to return immediately. Obligatory affirmationism conceals a surreptitious melancholy.

For me, Badiou’s value lies in his rousing encouragement for anti-capitalist struggle, his contempt for “democratic materialism” (the postmodern ontology of bodies and languages), what Peter Hallward characterises as the rejection of worldliness, and his periodisation of what we are living through as a moment of Restoration. But the central problem with Badiou’s philosophy as I understand it is its retrospective quality. Everything has already happened. It is literally preaching to the converted. The irony, of course, is … that it is hard to imagine anyone actually being converted by Badiou. But it is possible to imagine Zizek converting people; indeed, he had that effect on me, rousing me from my neoliberal slumber.

No doubt Badiou describes a certain kind of militant phenomenology… but what use are these descriptions? All anyone can say is, “yes, that’s what it’s like to attain a militant subjectivity”. But it seems to me that the important questions are how to engender that kind of subjectivity. What practical steps can be taken? Again, that’s what I appreciate in Nick Srnicek’s approach, the way that he instrumentalizes actor-network theory for leftist purposes. These questions are key: what are the actors in any particular network? How can these actors be affected? How can dominant networks be decomposed and new networks installed?

Where have these questions gone? Subsumed within the orgy of stupidity? Maybe. But even those smart enough to know better seem to have forgotten the philosophical character of the present. It’s always the same old faces, reanimated to spread their wisdom. Are they right? Are they applicable to today? I don’t think such questions ever get asked. It seems to me that we only reach back, at our most heretical, to Nick Land. He is the last “speculative realist” we seem capable of remembering and engaging with. Where did the post-Land blogosphere go, proliferating speculative philosophies far beyond his reactionary (post)modernism. Given the shifting grounds on which we live, it seems to me like we’ve reached back to the last stable period of thought that we can canonically — that is virtually, if not actually — remember. It speaks volumes that it is the Nineties.

Where were you in ’92? I’d just been born, right at the end of history. I find it more productive, these days, to ask myself where I was in 2008-2010, with a newborn political consciousness emerging under the shadow of an accelerationist conversation online, triggering a meandering path that, over the next decade, would come full circle back to the blogosphere. From the vantage point of 2021, I look back on 2008 as my Year Zero. That was the last time I remember the world as a whole swirling with an all-encompassing potential, only to dissipate into the disappointment of the decade ahead. It was a year of failures and banal phase-shifts, of “Yes We Can”, but there was a fury underneath that wasn’t sated by Obama’s pleasantries.

This is not to say we need to go back to that period and live there forever. We need only ask what happened to the questions asked of that time, and how their forms might have mutated since. That should be the only question worth a damn for anyone in the present orgy of stupidity, which does nothing but shield us from the pain of the present by keeping our thoughts firmly in the twentieth century.

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