Parameters of Change:
Notes on Queer Accelerationism and Libidinal Materialism

The central point of contention within accelerationist discourses is one of complicity. If there is no “outside” to capitalism, how far is any affirmation of capitalist forces prepared to go? Even when you are affirming the capitalist production of anti-capitalist sentiments — as is the default accelerationist position; accelerating the negation of negation — a certain anxiety remains: to what extent are you just doing a Jameela Jamil?

For many, the response to this problem is old and obvious – in the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But Lorde’s point, when she uttered these immortal words at the New York University Institute for the Humanities annual conference in 1984, was that differences must be incorporated into any overarching discussions about the nature of society, rather than be given their own unique and compartmentalized pasture. Otherwise, all we are left with is a form of “epistemic apartheid”.

Accelerationism has fallen foul of this in recent years, as Adam Fitchett recently discussed, noting how a feminist accelerationism is compartmentalised as “xenofeminism” and given its own outcrop to play around in, whilst others gatekeep “accelerationism” “proper”, failing to realise that accelerationism was built on a cyberfeminist foundation. But this is how capitalism itself operates, splitting and organizing everything into its own category and genre.

To offer up a more familiar example, the same sort of contradiction happens in music all the time. Rock’n’roll or certain forms of dance music have gradually become hegemonic and coded as “white”, while R&B and hip-hop get filed into the “urban” category. The truth, of course, is that all of the above have been built on a black foundation. But this isn’t just cultural appropriation. That’s like white boys trying to rap. This is instead a kind of cultural expropriation.

The problem with this process of compartmentalisation for Lorde, within the context of academia at that time, is that black lesbians like her only get to speak to and for black lesbians, as if her experiences could not also tell us something about the system at large. She is excluded, just as she is in the world outside. “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” she asks. The answer is simple: “It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”

I sort of changed my mind about my last post, which I’ve since taken down. It was a rushed and half-baked response to Adam’s summary of XF and g/acc talking points, which speedily encapsulates the thrill of an old discourse that we haven’t really seen around here for a minute. I got overexcited by it. But others have rightfully taken issue with it, and on listening to some of the discussion that has taken place online, I am left embarrassed that I didn’t address a lot of the post’s problems when I had the chance. I focussed entirely on the pre-season recap, without addressing all that went wrong afterwards.

Going back to the drawing board and doing my homework, I found that what I liked about Adam’s post was just a repeat of Nyx’s blackpaper, which makes the argument about overlooked women oddly citationless. The argument towards the end about xenofeminism and socialism was also incredibly misinformed, not just from a feminist standpoint but even from a Landian standpoint. It’s barely recognisable as any form of accelerationism whatsoever.

And that’s weird, because it’s a post that starts with excellent overview of the conceptual stakes, before doubling down on impotence and ending with a contradiction. And not the fun kind either. Instead, it fails to synthesise the stakes of the material under consideration, even critically. For example, after arguing that xenofeminism shouldn’t be separate from accelerationism, Adam nonetheless writes that:

Xenofeminism is still too leftist for its own good. It wants to be something different, alien, amorphous and adaptable but it remains trapped within the cage of conventional socialist politics. I’ve argued before that socialism is a ball and chain hanging around accelerationism’s neck. Any interesting politics that comes out of acc needs to radically dissociate itself from the discourse of socialist and communist intellectual traditions.

The problem is that accelerationism separated from communism or socialism (read: from Marxism) just isn’t accelerationism. This is the sort of hack-job compartmentalisation that renders acc useless. It is from Marx that the entire dialectical manoeuvre of negating the negation comes. And so, Adam fundamentally misunderstands the stakes. This becomes more evident when he adds:

This Marxist illusion must be overcome in favour of a libidinal realism: the key opposition is not Capital vs. Labour but Super Ego vs. Id. The ultimate oppression is not the oppression of the underclass by the overclass, it is the oppression of desire by constraints. XF, in its admitted rationalism, has failed to go deep into the bowels of the libidinal.

Unfortunately, it is Adam who has voided his own bowels here. This passage is fatally confused, not least because it calls for a libidinal realism that is stuck in the mind, which is not a realism but an idealism. I mean, even Nick Land insisted upon an libidinal materialism… And an accelerationism that isn’t materialist is no accelerationism at all.

Let’s break this down:

Generally speaking, a “materialism” is a philosophical position concerned with what things are made of — that is, matter. However, in this context, it is more readily a reference to the Marxist theory of historical materialism, which considers, in addition, how our material conditions influence our understanding of our own development – that is, our history. This is important because, for Marx, “the abstract materialism of natural science” too often “excludes the historical process”. It talks about matter without considering how or why matter changes, and so his theory is an attempt to fix this blind spot.

Already, this is the foundation for a number of social media controversies regarding how people understand cause and effect within contemporary capitalist society. For instance, how many times has someone received a Twitter scolding for saying “ADHD is your brain of capitalism”? I’m sure I’ve witnessed this happen at least twice, and a quick Google even brought about this article by someone very angry about it. Of course, dismissing a disability by saying it is some sort of capitalist excess is bad form — precisely because it denies that person’s individual material circumstances. But we can still — and, indeed, should — utilize our understanding of capitalism to explore why certain forms of mental functioning are increasingly dominant socially. This is because most individualized explanations eject the social dimension entirely, and are therefore guilty of doing precisely what Marx criticized over a hundred and fifty years ago. When we say that mental illness is just brain chemistry, for example, without any attention paid to what is causing our brain chemistry to develop or change in a certain way, we precisely engage in a form of “abstract materialism” that “excludes the historical process”.

Adam, in a misstep even worse than this, rests his critique of xenofeminism on an abstract idealism instead. He calls for the freeing of desire from constraints without any exploration of where our desires come from or what is constraining them. These are both structural problems. Reducing desire to an opposition between superego and id is like trying to figure out where a curious smell is coming from by looking more closely at the end of your nose.

Not that this sentiment is shocking. Plenty of people reject Marx’s materialist view of capitalism out of hand today. But what is weird about that is we’re perfectly happy to consider the historical-materialist process in other areas of science. Indeed, what is striking about the ideological rejection of Marx’s materialist approach today is that, in many other areas of knowledge, it has been implemented without so much as a second thought. It was in Marx’s time that we first understood that old adage “you are what you eat”, for example, as developments in nutritional science began to tell us much more about our health, unveiling the fact that our abilities and sensibilities are influenced by the things we eat and drink. Marx’s view was that history is similarly shaped by the labour we do and, in particular, the technologies that enable that labour. Simply put, historical materialism is the argument that reality creates consciousness, not the other way round. “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life,” he writes, “and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.” Adam argues, instead, that consciousness is real and leaves it at that.

Maybe Adam is putting some Kantianism to work here. Kant’s “transcendental idealism” is less concerned with history than it is with reason itself. In his Critique of Pure Reason, he famously argues that we can never hope to know “things-in-themselves” outside of our experience of them. Contrary to any materialism, Kant is concerned with the various limits placed upon what we are able to know about matter outside our experience of it – that is, in itself. Following Kant, we might ask ourselves: what am I able to know about a table? (Philosophers love tables.) Recalling Plato’s theory of forms, I can understand what a table is made of, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it is used for, etc. I can attain an understanding of its generic form, of its “tableness” – those identifiable qualities that all tables share, no matter their design. I can even learn how to take material, like wood or metal, and turn it into a table – that is, I can take my idea of “tableness” and use it to shape the matter around me to reflect that very idea. But Kant argues that, even with that level of mastery, I cannot know the table-in-itself. No level of knowledge about tables allows me to understand what a table is outside of my perception of it. There will always be a gap regarding what I can know about a table’s nature. It is that gap that makes Kant’s idealism “transcendental” – our knowledge of some things cannot transcend our experience of them.

Land’s transcendental or libidinal materialism brings Kant and Marx together. He suggests that we cannot possess absolute knowledge of the material conditions that produce our desires. What we end up with is the realisation that we are at the mercy of certain processes that we do not have direct access to. At the level of the individual, Freud’s idealism may have called this process “the unconscious”, with its drives and desires affecting us in ways that circumvent our conscious willpower; but Land, zooming outwards from the ego to look at the world as a whole, acknowledges this unconscious process as nothing less than capitalism itself. “Wanting more is the index of interlock with cyberpositive machinic processes,” he writes, “and not an expression of private idiosyncrasy.” As he puts it elsewhere, “rather than placing the personal unconscious within the organism,” libidinal materialism “places the organism within the machinic unconscious.” Capitalism becomes a set of material conditions that create consciousness, but these conditions may never be fully revealed to consciousness itself. Capitalism, then, has a certain level of autonomy beyond our experience of it — what Zizek calls the “pure agency of transcendental causality”. As such, we also cannot understand or hope to grasp capitalism-in-itself. In fact, capitalism represents the materialisation of Kantian critique. Land’s is not a philosophy of capitalism but a capitalist philosophy. He is less concerned about what we think of capitalism and more interested in what capitalism “thinks” about us.

The cyberfeminist undercurrent of accelerationism intervenes here, extending Freud’s transcendental view of desire to include his hapless view of woman. Indeed, it is little surprise that Land’s NRx bros see capital and women as similarly enigmatic entities.

For Lacan, woman famously does not exist in Freudian psychoanalysis. For Freud, he suggests, there is no accounting for woman-in-herself. Lacan argues that she is an enigma, a kind of social unconscious, and ultimately unknowable in Freud’s theory of sexuality. She is absence to male presence, the zero to his one. But for Luce Irigaray, taking issue with and extending Lacan’s analysis, this makes woman matter –literally. If, for Marx, it is technology that “reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life”, for Irigaray technology is female. Or rather, woman is reduced to a kind of technology — think Stepford Wives. Under patriarchy, she writes that

women’s bodies — through their use, consumption, and circulation — provide for the condition making social life and culture possible, although they remain an unknown “infrastructure” of the elaboration of that social life and culture. The exploitation of the matter that has been sexualized female is so integral a part of our sociocultural horizon that is no way to interpret it except within this horizon.

Though this may sound like a leap, it follows Marx’s historical materialism closely. Patriarchal capitalism has long subordinated women to its cause, treating women as property — not just in an abstract way, but literally under law. In this sense, materialism is feminism, and a transcendental material feminism affirms woman as the ground from which cultural conditions emerge. Sadie Plant extrapolates outwards from here, unearthing a hidden history of technological woman, who has far more agency than her inert Stepford Wife ideal. In many ways, it is an affirmation of Irigaray’s critique, exploring the true extent to which women make culture — particularly cyberculture — possible.

In hindsight, it is ironic, that all accelerationism has been able to muster of late is an affirmation of this founding sentiment. I appreciate the frustration emanating from various corners of the blogosphere and the Discord archipelago all the more now. An acc boys’ club says: “Women make our culture possible!” Irigarayan interlocutors reply, “No shit, Sherlock. Now put your books down and come watch me code the future into existence.”

It is this sentiment that resonates with Sadie Plant and her 90s calls to action today. Whereas a Landian personality cult continues to affirm his insistence that we “do nothing”, Plant writes to us from 1992:

Even though the ability to control one’s own life is lost in the midst of all-pervasive capitalist relations, the demand to do so continues to assert itself, and the situationists were convinced that this demand is encouraged by the increasingly obvious discrepancy between the possibilities awoken by capitalist development and the poverty of their actual use.

Just as Audre Lorde argued that, when we compartmentalise certain kinds of knowledge as outside of the norm, “only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable”, xenofeminism extends the purview of a liberalised feminism to its absolute limit, making itself not just immanent to capitalism, leaning into its value-structure like Land does, but immanent to mother nature as a planetary materialism, leaning out of capitalism by following its exogamic trajectory and retreating ahead of it.

This is the one thing to be salvaged from the previously deleted post: xenofeminism keeps this question of action in tact, at once affirming and humiliating our contemporary understanding of change and how it is brought about.

What is the xenofeminist cry of “if nature is unjust, change nature”, after all, if not a hilarious affirmation of the neoliberal mindset? And I mean that as a compliment. It is a proper negation of the situation at hand. The neoliberal individual, content with gradual reformism, keeps the wolf from the door by insisting that “if capitalism is unjust, let’s change capitalism”. The usual response is refusal — we don’t want capitalism, we want something else. Capitalist realism, as an immanent view of the system, is mistakenly countered with dreams of transcendence. But philosophically speaking, transcendence has been out of fashion for a while. (Even a “transcendental materialism” is, in an odd twist, a philosophy of immanence.) Scaling outwards to an immanent view of nature, XF queers reform by swapping the ideological filibuster for biotech mutations on demand, taking the immanence of capitalist realism to its absolute conclusion, from restricted economy to general economy, from liberal feminism to base materialism.

In this sense, though Adam claims that Nyx, with her gender-accelerationist blackpaper, is “faithful to her Plant and D&G, but not to her Bataille”, he couldn’t be more wrong. His own idealism has already betrayed Bataille ahead of time, whilst the base materialism of trans identities already goes much further than his own appeals to anal liberation. “Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations”, Bataille writes. Falling outside Irigaray’s social stock exchange, for trans identities form is malleable and therefore irrelevant. That is the radical intervention of trans abstraction within patriarchal capitalism. (We can turn to Luciana Parisi’s Abstract Sex for a thorough exploration of that.) When Adam suggests that “0 looks much more like an arsehole than a vagina”, he misunderstands Bataille’s gesture, which he carries forward in a number of far more lucid essays. In short, Adam mistakes zero for a form rather than for formlessness. It’s not about the orifice but what comes out of it: surplus — and trans lives are routinely coded as surplus lives. (There is a lot of discussion of that notion in the new Transgender Marxism collection.)

It is with all this in mind that Adam’s call to go further actually comes up short on xenofeminism / accelerationism’s trajectory, despite his insistence to the contrary. Though it starts off cosmic, his vision only narrows the parameters of change, mistaking a philosophical stumble for a radical leap of faith.

He doesn’t yet know what woman can do.

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