Catastrophe and time


Each day, each hour, each minute, is becoming centuries, is becoming eternity…

Something has gone wrong with time.

It’s hardly a novel observation. Debates are raging across the Internet as to whether we’re in the ‘best timeline’ or the ‘darkest timeline’. Events that seemed unimaginable happen, rudely, then negate themselves, then negate their own negation—in months, weeks, days, minutes. History itself is going into reverse. No less than the New Yorker has questioned whether recent events suggest we may be living in a computer simulation—one where ‘everything has gone haywire’. Hegel gone mad.

There is, at least, a name for this pervasive temporal weirdness. Nick Land termed this condition—or something like it—‘templexity’. Templexity, in essence, is the inherent nemesis that responds continually to modernism’s hubristically escalating negentropic reversal of the laws of thermodynamics. It is the radical externality of its defiance of the Void. When humanity plays with time, templexity is the whirls and eddies of disorder we leave behind—in Land’s own Shanghai, the ‘strategic’ clash of the different futures and different historical epochs suspended kaleidoscopically across the city’s soaring vistas.

This example may seem tame enough. But in conditions of enormous excess—in conditions, that is, of catastrophe—the generation of templexity is taken to extremes. Time warps and frays, threatening to disintegrate entirely. The strict and comfortable causality of events seems to fall apart. They assume, as George Sansom observed of the last mad years of Japan before the Meiji Restoration, ‘the plausible inconsequence, the unearthly logic, of events in a dream’, seizing life in the immense whirlpool of a convulsive and perverse acceleration of history. The longue durée, which usually hides so modestly behind the veil of centuries to come, happens instead with pornographic obscenity before the eyes of the living.

The phenomenon goes right back to modernity’s blood-soaked political origins: shortly before the world-shaking insurrection of August 10, 1792 that ended the French monarchy, the militants of the Mauconseil proclaimed on August 4 that ‘each day, each hour, each minute, is becoming centuries, is becoming eternity’. Each instant, as the Mauconseil saw, assumes the gravity of a historical era. Time dilates, yet it also compresses: every moment drags on, yet looking back you can hardly believe how fast it’s all gone.

Now, it seems, we are experiencing the same extreme templexity. ‘President Trump’: the label still has the quality of a dream. Each day brings fantastical news. The Oscars were just the latest example. Above it all, long-held beliefs are being swept away, careening in a gathering tide that threatens ominously to overwhelm the postwar political order (let it return to its origins: may it rest in war).

We are living in catastrophic times. The reactions we observe may not be too different, in the end, from the ones that Sansom saw in Japan: millennialist fury, desperation, even—perversely—all-encompassing laughter. The consuming ironisation of life online might not be too distant from those ee ja nai ka carnivals where ordinary Japanese abandoned their social responsibilities and took to the streets in Dionysian merriments obscenely divorced from all political order. Collapse. Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the Universe as such is a computer simulation, this question that alternately fascinates and terrifies people like Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky. Our own reality has, observably, become simulation enough regardless. What’s more, we know its alien operator all too well. Wizard, thy name is capital.

In a world consumed by the ever-automating flows of capital, everything has become unreal—or, as Baudrillard saw in The Perfect Crime, reality itself is a commodity. The accumulation of capital, indeed, indexes modernity’s reversal of time. The great and ongoing concentration of industry is precisely the engine that drives the reversal (so to speak) of thermodynamics: concentration of industry, concentration of capital, concentration of energy—negentropy. Cybernetic decentralisation has hardly changed this, feeding as it does on exponentially increasing inputs of energy, to the point that we demand, as Marinetti once did, the enslavement of the Sun itself.

Yet as the ur-catastrophe of the French Revolution also shows, there are other forces that lie in wait, wanting nothing more than to take the controls. If catastrophe, as I believe, is identical with excess, the question of contemporary catastrophe becomes: an excess of what? In 2017, it certainly isn’t an excess of capital we are dealing with: as I have commented before, the indices of globalization are declining, not rising, and the reign of Trump will intensify this trend. This is no classical capitalist crisis of overproduction.

There is another locus of excess. Modernity is a story not just of the amassing of capital, but the amassing of cybernetics, of social interconnectivity, which reached its first apogee in the monstrous ‘molten masses’ (Jan-Werner Müller) of the twentieth century whose relentless advance was only temporarily averted (or satisfied) by the elitist liberal institutions of the postwar era.

The technical specialists of macroeconomics worry over an underconsumption of products—tools like quantitative easing attempt to restore it to life—but there is one thing that we are consuming more and more, with little sign of reversal, in frenzy upon frenzy: information. For all the backwards-looking ressentiment that the political events of the last few years have encompassed, 2016 was also radically novel: it was the first year of cyberian politics, where the Internet transformed, partially and in fits and starts, from an instrument of existing political rationalities to a subjectivity of its own. So let that begin our new calendar.

The relentless compression of cybernetics has inaugurated a new form and new era of mass politics, and the catastrophe we are experiencing betokens its birth.

We can return to my implicit question at the start: what has gone wrong with time? Time, to be sure, has been ‘going wrong’ since the advent of capitalism. But the catastrophe we are now living through is only indirectly to be blamed on capital. Time is failing because cybernetics has taken the controls.


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