Berger on praxis

Edmund Berger unpacks the prescriptive theory of unconditional accelerationism via Yaneer Bar-Yam: ‘The complexity profile is rising and will continue, and as it does the capability for collective intervention will become all but impossible.’

Deterritorial Investigations


One of the major points of contention concerning unconditional accelerationism (henceforth U/ACC) is a perceived slight or rejection of any ‘positive’ form of political activity or organizing. The complaint can be summed up with the single phrase “U/ACC lacks praxis”. In the common leftist deployment of the phrase, this is exactly correct. Moreover, we could go as far to say that U/ACC rejects praxis, even that it is anti-praxis – yet, at the same time, this is not so straightforward. If we step back take praxis in its most broad sense – the higher form of acting in the world – then U/ACC is hardly anti-praxis; it simply asks that the limits and the inevitable dissolution of things be acknowledged (there is no contradiction between posing this alongside the Xenofeminist mantra “if nature is unjust, change nature”). No, U/ACC manifests an anti-praxis line when a very specific sort is proposed…

View original post 2,354 more words

The missing homeostat

medea‘I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.’

In his 2009 book The Medea Hypothesis, paleontologist Peter Ward offers a provocative theory of ecology. Motivated by the realisation of climate science that ‘there are indeed situations where life does not better the environment for itself but in fact makes things worse’, Ward takes the idea to its radical conclusion. Geologically, he notes, the catastrophes that now loom over us are hardly novel. Mass extinctions wrack the history of the planet; destruction has sprung from every step of evolution, every killing-machine it has created. Far from being a stable system of vital equilibrium, in fact, the biosphere is an ocean of aggressive algorithms, a seething orgy of death that threatens at every moment to overwhelm the fragile suspension in which it is contained. The Greek figure who best characterises our planetary ecosystem is not Gaia, then, the watchful mother-goddess. It is Medea, the wife of Jason who killed her children to repay his betrayal. Zero is immense, and the Earth suffers not its offspring.

Leo Löwenthal, in an essay on the Norwegian poet and Nazi sympathiser Knut Hamsun, claimed that in his work Hamsun had hypostatised nature into a vengeful and authoritarian father-figure, constructing a fascism of nature over humanity. The same tendency can be found in many kinds of environmentalism today, which have often taken the form of a curiously middle-class longing for an imaginary, unalienated, primitive past. This might, in fact, make scientific sense in the parameters of James Lovelock’s famous Gaia theory, which holds that the ‘total ensemble of living organisms which constitute the biosphere can act as a single entity’, an ‘active adaptive control system’. As an immense homeostat, Gaia really would be a watchful regulator whose wrath comes down on those who challenge its reign. But recent analysis has found the Gaia hypothesis lacking. The balance of nature is not just lacking, in fact: it seems not to exist. The longing for return, Ward tells us, is misplaced. For the wise judgemental father, Medea substitutes a mother gone insane. There is no hope, no protection, to be found in her authority: humanity is just one vector of extinction among many, one of innumerable spirals of positive feedback spun out by Medea to kill her children.

Killing children, in fact, is the one thing nature does best. It is one of the most fundamental laws of physics that in the long run, everything tends—speeds—to zero. The ostensibly negentropic heterogenisation both of life and of the unlife of capital in itself cranks up global entropy, radiating heat and disorder precisely according to entropy’s thermodynamic definition. Black-eyed Carl Sagan: ‘We are a way for the Cosmos to kill itself.’ In this sense there is something horrific about Heidegger’s famous question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Jean-François Lyotard’s talk of the ‘solar catastrophe’, the unbearable knowledge of the Earth’s far-future destruction by the Sun’s own inevitable escape from control, is joined by Nick Land’s despairing cry in The Thirst for Annihilation: ‘Space echoes like an immense tomb, yet the stars still burn. Why does the sun take so long to die? … Is death itself shy of us?’ Philosophically, these all express the same realisation: that the Universe is playing tricks on us. It kills itself not by smooth projection from Big Bang singularity to cosmic zero, but through infinite, frenzied local excesses, ‘accursed shares’ that waltz across gradients of entropy, occulting the cosmic death-drive underlying it all. Far from being a thermostat, the Universe seethes perversely with positive feedback spirals. Cosmic expansion accelerates, ripping itself apart. Black holes are punctured in the opposite direction: the internal energy of an imploding star generates, by mass-energy equivalence, more gravitational attraction, releasing more energy, strengthening gravity, collapsing in exponentiating singularity…

Rewind back to Earth. As the Medea hypothesis suggests, it’s certainly not just at the unimaginable scales of astrophysics that we find these processes. Exponential runaway is not a peculiar feature of technological modernity; intelligence-explosion is just one of an entire category of exponential xenoecological processes. ‘The Singularity’, then, is not humanity’s escape from death, those ‘idiotic gurglings of futurologists’ mocked by Metcalf in ‘Neo-Futurism’—’you and I: we’re gonna live forever’. The Singularity is the icon of the insistent supremacy of death itself—machines embodying dead labour, machines embodying the death of the human as another phase of the process—happening not by human intention and planning, but by a profoundly inhuman dark mirror-image of that ‘ruse of reason’ identified in varying ways by Kant, Hegel, and Negarestani (or as the providential aspect of Gnon in latter-day Land). The term ‘Anthropocene’, in this sense, is a misnomer. Humanity is not the protagonist of this story. Our contribution to positive-feedback capital growth intelligence explosion, as much as our orgies of destruction, all themselves enact spontaneously the grim commands embodied in nature’s own laws of exponential returns. Georges Cuvier, the founding theorist of nineteenth-century catastrophism, put it best in his Essay on the Theory of the Earth: if it appears to humans that nature is ‘never disturbed, except by the ravages of war’, in fact nature itself has had interminable ‘intestine wars … the surface of the globe has been broken up by revolutions and catastrophes’. Anthropogenic disaster is just a small subset of the panoply of triumphant catastrophe that nature serves itself.

Perhaps part of the reason the Medea hypothesis has attained less traction than it ought to have done, despite this radical revaluation of the way we perceive the world, is that Ward does not take these implications far enough. He retains a humanistic, anthropocenic faith that with decisive planning efforts humanity can resist the horror of Medea, replacing her by the construction of an artificial Gaia. The unconditional accelerationist rejects this conceptually, not out of moral disdain, but because of the transparent character of its futility. Like the species of solar excess it embodies and like the Universe as a whole, modernity escapes control. Its drive towards the increasing returns of AI, markets, and all its other cybernetic features, reflect precisely the unrestrained suicidal/libidinal character that runs rampant over it. Conceived radically in this sense, the Medea hypothesis helps highlight the transcendental character of ‘accelerationism as the critique of the primacy of the secondary’. It furnishes a thoroughly disequilibrated accelerationist ecology.

All this is far removed, of course, from most of our everyday experience. But it has important implications for our understanding of contemporary capitalism as a megamechanical social order, an understanding carried out according to the transcendental conceptual diagram of acceleration. The homeostat reigned over the first phase of cybernetics: the system that regulates itself, military command-control. Spontaneous acceleration reigns over the second: resilient and ever-improving networks, distributed systems that escape control of their nodes. This, not homeostasis, is the architecture of modernity conceived cybernetically, and reflects the virtually-ontological process of overthrow that the unconditional accelerationist places at the heart of her understanding of reality. If we take seriously the analysis of terminal-Marx, the story of modern capitalism is not homeostatic, but, at best, homeorhetic: delirious oscillation cycles over an exponential trendline of falling rate of profit and capital-alienation determined by the heartbeat of overproduction crises. To understand its implications, Medea will serve far better than Gaia. We are not breaking the homeostat. The homeostat was missing all along.

With thanks to Pale Pink Spectre and Edmund Berger.

The end of (your) humanity: Cybernetics casually defined

I have written before, and repeatedly, that I believe two dynamics prevalently characterise ‘modernity’, namely the radical expansion of capital and the radical compression of communicative cybernetics, and I think it is often useful to analyse the history and the contemporary characteristics of modern society through the interaction of these two forces. Generally, however, when I make this argument people accept the former tendency—mass production and commodification is more or less an inescapable feature of modern life—but question the significance and, more fundamentally, the meaning of the latter. So here I will offer a casual, by no means rigorous, definition and historical overview of what I mean by ‘the compression of communicative cybernetics’.

‘Cybernetics’ is a complex term with a rich diversity of contemporary usage. Often it is rather loosely, and correctly, associated with computer technology, but its significance substantially predates the advent of modern computing and encompasses a great deal more than it. When I talk about cybernetics, I generally mean it in the way it was characterised by Norbert Wiener in 1948, that is, technologies ‘of control and communication’. The former of these two concepts is usually the one being emphasised when the term is used—kubernaô is, after all, ‘steer’ or ‘govern’ in Greek—so I often refer specifically to ‘communicative cybernetics’ to redistribute the focus a little. Of course, a technology of communication is already by definition a technology of control—anything that mediates interpersonal relationships transmits relationships of power; at the minimum, a communicative technology can communicate commands—so this remains only a difference in emphasis.

What does it mean, then, to say that these technologies have had a ‘compressive’ tendency? This is simply an attempt to describe the historical development of modern politics as a whole. Control-and-communication is not just about orders issued from on high: the institutions that represent ‘crystallised’ architectures of power stand as a small minority in contrast to the dynamic fluidity of power relations that characterises most of our everyday life. Communication also means mobilisation, the spontaneous arrangement and distribution of power among groups of people whose size and coherence will depend on the forms and capacities of the technologies being deployed. Modern technology—both in the everyday sense of machinery like railways and radios, and in Foucault’s sense even ideas, like novel forms of political thought—has tended to bring, or force, ever larger groups of people into ever closer spontaneous arrangements. In other words, it has tended to compress them.

In his intellectual history of the twentieth-century challenge to liberal democracy, Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller characterises the eruptions of early-twentieth-century mass democracy through an image used by David Lloyd George: the ‘molten mass’. The implication of the ‘molten mass’ is that in mass politics we are dealing with a fundamental disintegration of rational individuality—the kind of thing that peaked, conceptually, in 18th century Enlightenment philosophy—into a fluid mass consciousness. Compressive cybernetics means melting the masses: as Müller puts it in an interesting echo of Nietzsche, it means the ‘levelling and homogenizing’ of sociable humans.

The tendency of drastic compression in the early twentieth century, which gave rise in the end to totalitarianism, was permitted and abetted by the emergence of many different kinds of cybernetic technologies in the period. Breaking through the fragile gates of established politics, it provoked a hurricane of disorder and contributed to the ravaging of the world in the 1940s. In reaction, in the postwar period the molten masses of the West were, if not resolidified, tamed and regulated to a considerable extent by a new liberal elite order supported by far-reaching welfare systems that averted the need for mass organisation. In most Western countries social democracy divorced itself from the masses and crystallised progressively into managerial technocracy. Neoliberalism kicked out one important pillar of this order—and it’s not coming back—but to a large extent it remained a managerial ideology; as a mode of internal political organisation it even represents the culmination of the original postwar trend (consider Blair’s autocracy in New Labour). This has become all too clear today in the escalating standoff between technocracy and the new populism.

New technologies have arisen, however. Among them, the Internet is the most radical and the most totalising: it has kicked the ‘melting of the masses’ into a new phase of overdrive, converting the basis of society from rigid individuality into what Ccru called ‘flat productive collectivities’. The consequences are already running riot. The Internet far exceeds what was available in the early twentieth century. Where cybernetic mobilisation was hitherto a sporadic and temporally limited phenomenon—the heightened phases of politicization of the twentieth century tended in the end to spend themselves relatively quickly, as the Cultural Revolution showed in China—the Internet is distorting, compressing, and collapsing all our social relations, all of the time. It’s driving people mad, and it’s questionable whether ‘individuals’ will still exist in any meaningful sense once it’s finished years from now, torn apart as they are between the constant spontaneous mass action and the endless proliferation of identity that the Internet encourages.

Is this something we should be worried about? I have written that the current effects of the dominance of cybernetics are well-characterised as ‘catastrophic’. Yet in the long run it’s only an apocalypse, without reprieve, if you’re attached to the glory of the individual and to humanism as an end in itself. In the short term, to be sure, all kinds of pathological phenomena will result, and are resulting, from this intensifying cybernetic delirium. Yet Nietzsche suggested that the process of ‘levelling mankind’—like the process of nihilism—tends to overcome itself. This, I think, is precisely the wager and the motivating optimism of the ‘fundamentalist accelerationist’ who can find it within themselves to identify with this process (exit is hard to imagine).

Nietzsche, for his part, offered political analogies: the French Revolution, which went through similarly pathological phases, led in the end to a new order under Napoleon; the docility of mass Confucianism led to the glory of imperial China. Questionably encouraging exemplars, to be sure, but when projected to the level of the species, the levelling of mankind, the end-point and disintegration of the Enlightenment’s autonomous individual drives us inescapably from humanist society to a posthumanist society, from a society based on competing relationships of power to one where power itself, as Baudrillard predicted, becomes increasingly meaningless. Cybernetics is generating all-encompassing blackness, but combined with the force of techonomy it is a fair wager that in these extraordinary conditions something new will emerge. We can only hope the ride there isn’t too rough.