“What was needed was accelerationism…”:
A Note on Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities

For months and months now, I have very slowly been making my way through Robert Musil’s monstrous and unfinished modernist masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. This is, in part, because of a tenuous connection between the book and Hervé Guibert’s memoir, To the friend who did not save my life. There, Guibert controversially chronicles, at intervals, the final months of Michel Foucault’s life and the long shadow of his death.

Foucault is pseudonymised as a man called “Muzil”, but it didn’t take long for the book’s initial readers to connect the dots between this character’s biographical experiences and those of the philosophical giant. Still, I wondered: why Muzil? Perhaps this was a veiled refence to Robert Musil — his man without qualities certainly seems like a Foucauldian character; another man who sets about constructing these vast and detached observations of a rapidly changing world. Guibert writes that, towards the end, just as Muzil had “attacked the foundations of society’s collective assumptions regarding sex, he’d begun to undermine the structure of his own labyrinth.” So too does Musil in his own monument to intellectual and subjective transience in the modernist era.

Because it wasn’t remotely what I was looking for, it took me completely by surprise when The Man Without Qualities began talking about accelerationism, and explicitly as well… That is, not as some German futurist prototype or some vaguely thematic antecedent, but a book that uses the term “accelerationism” explicitly, long before I’d ever seen (or heard anyone else argue) it being used.

Benjamin Noys has previously attributed his unconscious poaching of the word “accelerationism” to Roger Zelazny’s 1967 book Lord of Light, for instance, as a sort of late modernist document watered down with New Age sentiments. But here is Musil using the term some 37 years earlier. And what is most notable about it is that his brief entanglement with this phrase, which appears only once, resonates profoundly with that early Ccru sentiment, calling for “a new human race”, a new spirit for a newly technical age, a lyricism “allied to the most intense dramatism of life”; a new kind of human subject that can withstand “the ultimate speeding up of experience based on the biomechanics learned in sports training and the circus acrobat’s precision of movement!”

Funnily enough, this brings my own stance on accelerationism full circle… Here I was, looking for some allusions to Stoicism at the heart of modernism, powered on by some vague reference made in one philosopher’s anonymization, looking, at the same time, for a way to connect this all back to Deleuze. And then here is a mention of “accelerationism” in the midst of it all, unexpectedly chiming with old attempts to re-emphasise “the missing subject” at its heart, drawing on Deleuze’s flattening of the subject contrary to bourgeois individualism, which places a drag on our development rather than encouraging it.

And now here the two meet… Is this passage, from this dense and meandering book, the true source code, lost for all these years?


Dr. phil. Arnheim had received a scheduled visit from two top executives of his firm and had held a long conference with them; in the morning, all the papers and calculations still lay in disorder in his sitting room, for his secretary to deal with. Arnheim had decisions to make before his firm’s emissaries left by the afternoon train, and he always enjoyed this sort of situation for the pleasurable tension it never failed to arouse. In ten years’ time, he reflected, technology will have reached the point when our firm will have its own business planes, and I shall be able to direct my team long distance during a summer vacation in the Himalayas. As he had reached his decisions overnight and had only to go over them and confirm them in the light of day, he was at the moment free. He had ordered his breakfast sent up and was relaxing with his first cigar of the day, mulling over last night’s gathering at Diotima’s, which he had been obliged to leave rather early.

This time, it had been a most entertaining party, with a large number of the guests under thirty, few over thirty-five, almost still bohemians but already beginning to be famous and noticed in the newspapers: not only native talents but visitors from all over the world attracted by word that in Kakania a lady who moved in the highest circles was blazing a trail for the spirit to penetrate the world. It was, at times, like finding oneself in a literary café, and Arnheim had to smile at the thought of Diotima looking almost intimidated under her own roof; but it had been quite stimulating on the whole and in any case an extraordinary experiment, he felt. His friend Diotima, disappointed with the fruitless meetings of the very eminent, had made a determined effort to give the Parallel Campaign an infusion of the latest trends in thought and had made good use of Arnheim’s contacts for the purpose. He merely shook his head when he remembered the conversations he had been obliged to listen to, crazy enough, in his opinion, but one must give way to youth, he told himself; to simply reject them puts one in an impossible position. So he felt as it were seriously amused by the whole thing, which had been a bit much all at once.

They had said to hell with . . . what was it, now? Oh yes, experience. That personal sensory experience the earthy warmth and immediacy of which the Impressionists had apostrophized fifteen years earlier, as though it were some miraculous flower. Flabby and mindless, was their verdict on Impressionism now. They wanted sensuality curbed and a spiritual synthesis.

Now, synthesis probably meant the opposite of skepticism, psychology, scientific study, and analysis, all the literary tendencies of their fathers’ generation.

So far as could be gathered, theirs was not so much a philosophical stance as, rather, the craving of young bones and muscles to move freely, to leap and dance, unhampered by criticism. When they felt like it they would not hesitate to consign synthesis to the devil too, along with analysis and all reflection. Then they maintained that the mind needed the sap of immediate experience to make it grow. Usually it was members of some other group who took this position, of course, but sometimes in the heat of argument it could turn out to be the same people.

What fine slogans they came up with! They called for the intellectual temperament. And lightning thought, ready to leap at the world’s throat! Cosmic man’s sharply honed brain! And what else had he heard?

A new human race, restyled on the basis of an American world plan for production by mechanized power.

Lyricism allied to the most intense dramatism of life.

Technicism—a spirit worthy of the machine age.

Blériot—one of them had cried out—was at that very moment soaring over the English Channel at thirty-five miles an hour! If we could write this “Thirty-five Mile” poem we would be able to chuck all the rest of our moth-eaten literature into the garbage!

What was needed was accelerationism, the ultimate speeding up of experience based on the biomechanics learned in sports training and the circus acrobat’s precision of movement!

Photogenic rejuvenation, by means of film . . .

Someone pointed out that a man was a mysterious innerspace, who should be helped to find his place in the cosmos by means of the cone, the sphere, the cylinder, and the cube. Whereupon an opposing voice made itself heard, to the effect that the individualistic view of art underlying that statement was on its way out and that a future humanity must be given a new sense of habitation by means of communal housing and settlements. While an individualistic faction and a socialistic one were forming along these lines, a third one began by voicing the opinion that only religious artists were truly social-minded. At this point a group of New Architects was heard from, claiming leadership on the grounds that religion was at the heart of architecture, besides which it promoted love of one’s country and stability, attachment to the soil. The religious faction, reinforced by the geometric one, averred that art was not a peripheral but a central concern, a fulfillment of cosmic laws; but as the discussion went on, the religionists lost the cubists to the architects, whom they joined in insisting that man’s relation to the cosmos was, after all, best expressed through spatial forms that gave validity and character to the individual element. The statement was made that one had to project oneself deep into the human soul and give it a fixed three-dimensional form. Then an angry voice dramatically asked all and sundry what they really thought: What was more important, ten thousand starving human beings or a work of art? Since almost all of them were artists of one kind or another, they did in fact believe that art alone could heal the soul of man; they had merely been unable to agree on the nature of this healing process, or on what claims for it should be put to the Parallel Campaign. But now the original social group came to the fore again, led by fresh voices: the question whether a work of art was more important than the misery of ten thousand people raised the question whether ten thousand works of art could make up for the misery of a single human being. Some rather robust artists proposed that artists should take themselves less seriously, become less narcissistic. Let the artist go hungry and develop some social concern! they demanded. Life was the greatest and the only work of art, someone said. A voice boomed out that it was not art but hunger that brought people together! A mediating voice reminded everyone that the best antidote to the overestimation of the self in art was a thorough grounding in craftsmanship. After this offer of a compromise, someone made use of the pause, born of fatigue and mutual revulsion, to ask serenely whether anyone present really supposed that anything at all could be done before the contact between man and space had even been defined? This became the signal for technologists, accelerationists, and the rest to take the floor again, and the debate flowed on, this way and that, for a good while longer. Eventually an accord was struck, however, because everyone wanted to go home, but not without reaching some kind of conclusion, so they all fell in with a statement to the general effect that while the present time was full of expectation, impatient, wayward, and miserable, the messiah for whom it was hoping and waiting was not yet in sight.

Arnheim reflected for a moment.

He had been the center of a circle throughout all this; whenever those on the outer fringe who could not hear or make themselves heard slipped away, others immediately took their place; he had clearly become the center of this gathering too, even when this was not always apparent during the somewhat unmannerly debate. After all, he had for a long time been well up on the subjects discussed. He knew all about the cube and its applications; he had built garden housing for his employees; he knew machines, what made them work, their tempo; he spoke effectively on gaining insight into the self; he had money invested in the burgeoning film industry. Reconstructing the drift of the discussion, he realized besides that it had by no means gone as smoothly as his memory had represented it. Such discussions move in odd ways, as though the contending parties had been assembled blindfolded in a polyhedron, each armed with a stick and ordered to go straight ahead. A confused and wearisome spectacle devoid of logic. But isn’t this an image of the way things generally go in life? Here, too, control is gained not by the restraints and dictates of logic, which at most function like a police force, but only by the untamed dynamic forces of the mind. Such were Arnheim’s reflections as he remembered the attention that had been paid to him, and he decided that the new style in thinking could be likened to the process of free association, when the conscious mind relaxed its controls, all undeniably very stimulating.

He made an exception and lit a second cigar, though he did not normally give in to such sensual self-indulgence. And even as he was still holding up the match and needed to contract his facial muscles to suck in the first smoke, he could not help smiling as he thought of the little General, who had started a conversation with him at the party the night before. Since the Arnheims owned a cannon and armorplate works and were prepared to turn out vast quantities of munitions, if it came to that, Arnheim was ready to listen when the slightly funny but likable General (who sounded quite different from a Prussian general, far more unbuttoned in his speech but also, one might say, more expressive of an ancient culture—though, one would have to say, a declining culture) turned to him confidentially and—with such a sigh, downright philosophic!—commented on the discussion going on around them, which at least in part, one had to admit, was radically pacifist in tone.

The General, as the only military officer present, obviously felt a little out of place and bemoaned the fickleness of public opinion, because some comments on the sanctity of human life had just met with general approbation.

“I don’t understand these people,” were the words with which he turned to Arnheim, seeking enlightenment from a man of internationally recognized intellect. “I simply don’t see why these new men in all their ignorance keep talking about generals drenched in blood! I think I understand quite well the older men who usually come here, even though they’re rather unmilitary in their outlook as well. When, for instance, that famous poet—what’s his name?—that tall older gentleman with the paunch, who’s supposed to have written those verses about the Greek gods, the stars, and our timeless emotions: our hostess told me he’s a real poet in an age that turns out nothing but intellectuals . . . well, as I was saying, I haven’t read any of his works, but I’m sure I’d understand him, if it’s true that he’s noted mainly for not wasting his time on petty stuff, because that’s what we in the army call a strategist. A sergeant—if I may resort to such a humble example—must of course concern himself with the welfare of every single man in his company; the strategist, on the other hand, deals with at least a thousand men at a time and must be prepared to sacrifice ten such units at once if a higher purpose demands it. I see no logic in calling this sort of thing a blood-drenched general in one case and a sense of timeless values in the other! I wish you’d help me understand this if you can.”

Arnheim’s peculiar position in this city and its society had stung him into a certain, otherwise carefully watched, impulse to mockery. He knew whom the little military gentleman meant, though he did not let on; besides, it didn’t matter, since he himself could have mentioned several other varieties of such eminences who had unmistakably made a poor showing this evening.

Glumly thinking it over, Arnheim held back the smoke of his cigar between parted lips. His own situation in this circle had also been none too easy. Despite all his prominence, he had overheard quite a number of nasty remarks that could have been aimed at him personally, and what they condemned was often nothing less than what he had loved in his youth, just as these young men now cherished the pet ideas of their own generation. It was a strange feeling, almost spooky, to find himself revered by young men who, almost in the same breath, savagely ridiculed a past in which he had a secret share of his own; it gave him a sense of his own elasticity, adaptability, and enterprising spirit—almost, one might say, the reckless daring of a well-hidden bad conscience. He swiftly pondered what it was that differentiated him from this younger generation. These young men were at odds with one another on every single point at issue; all they unambiguously had in common was their joint assault on objectivity, intellectual responsibility, and the balanced personality.

There was one thing in particular that enabled Arnheim to take a kind of spiteful joy in this situation. The overestimation of certain of his contemporaries, in whom the personal element was especially conspicuous, had always irked him. To name names, even in his thoughts, was a self-indulgence that so distinguished an opponent as himself would never permit, of course, but he knew exactly whom he meant. “A sober and modest young fellow, lusting for illustrious delights,” to quote Heine, whom Arnheim secretly cherished, and whom he recruited for the occasion. “One is bound to extol his aims and his dedication to his craft as a poet . . . his bitter toil, the indescribable doggedness, the grim exertions with which he shapes his verses. . . . The muses do not smile upon him, but he holds the genius of the language in his hand . . . the terrifying discipline to which he must subject himself, he calls a great deed in words.” Arnheim had an excellent memory and could recite pages by heart. He let his thoughts wander. He marveled at Heine, who, in attacking a man of his own time, had anticipated phenomena that had only now come fully into their own, and it inspired him to emulate this achievement as he now turned his thoughts to the second representative of the great German idealistic outlook, the General’s poet. This was now, after the lean, the fat intellectual kine. This poet’s portentous idealism corresponded to those big deep brass instruments in the orchestra that resemble upended locomotive boilers and produce an unwieldy grunting and rumbling. With a single note they muffle a thousand possibilities. They huff and puff out huge bales of timeless emotions. Anyone capable of trumpeting poetry on such a scale—Arnheim thought, not without bitterness—is nowadays rated by us as a poet, as compared with a mere literary man. Then why not rate him as a general as well? Such people after all live on the best of terms with death and constantly need several thousand dead to make them enjoy their brief moment of life with dignity.

But just then someone had made the point that even the General’s dog, howling at the moon some rose-scented night, might if challenged defend himself by saying: “So what, it’s the moon, isn’t it? I am expressing the timeless emotions of my race!” quite like one of those gentlemen so famous for doing the very same. The dog might even add that his emotion was unquestionably a powerful experience, his expression richly moving, and yet so simple that his public could understand him perfectly, and as for his ideas playing second fiddle to his feelings, that was entirely in keeping with prevailing standards and had never yet been regarded as a drawback in literature.

Arnheim, discomfited by this echoing of his thoughts, again held back the cigar smoke between lips that for a moment remained half open, as a token barrier between himself and his surroundings. He had praised some of these especially pure poets on every occasion, because it was the thing to do, and had sometimes even supported them with cash, though in fact, as he now realized, he could not stand them and their inflated verses. “These heraldic figures who can’t even support themselves,” he thought, “really belong in a game preserve, together with the last of the bison and eagles.” And since, as this evening had proved, it was not in keeping with the times to support them, Arnheim’s reflections ended not without some profit for himself.

I mentioned this to Ed Berger last night, who noted that the accelerationist grounding described here — “a new human race, restyled on the basis of an American world plan for production by mechanized power”; “lyricism allied to the most intense dramatism of life”; technicism as “a spirit worthy of the machine age” — sounds very much like the grounding for the Soviet “new man”, which Ed has written about here.


  1. But Dr. Arnheim (without the phil. in orig.) is a counterfigure to Ulrich who is on his way to trascend moderinsim even retreat from it. Arnheim (Walther Rathenau!) is supposed to be a self-centred pseud who represents a technocratic naivité. “Akzelerismus” is here in a line of bombastic programs. As the world of Arnheim will tumle into ww1, Ulrich will seced to an a-religious mysticism. If sth is Musil then that the world of mechanics, the Utilitarian world leads nowhere.

      1. Yes, depending on some ghouls it’s a fr movement, but here it’s set within a contemplation as 1 point within a satirized character. I think you’re overinterpreting it cause the point sounds familiar from a naive view of technooptimism (technophilia?). so regarding acc this means there’s an angle to it, that was being ridiculed already 100yrs ago. it’s the mediatable part (? – the part of acc that is easily translsted through media, pop culture, and so on) that easily derails into a charicature of itself. it either turns into Marinetti-pseud-intellectual-edglords or Bratton-boring-lib-technocrats. Musil was very much pro-technology in an early stage, but he went further on. kinda interested what happens to you the further you dive in (don’t forget that unpublished chapters at the end!!!!).

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