Every Which Way but Loose

November 21, 2014   •   By Brian Willems

MY FIRST JOB after graduating from college was at a chain bookstore in a shopping mall. There were many silly regulations that employees there only followed when the boss was around. One in particular involved a procedure for closing the store down at the end of the day. The door was built in four sections that slid on a rail because the entrance was so wide. According to the employee handbook, one had to close a section, wait 45 seconds, then close another section, wait another 45 seconds, and so on — presumably to give lingering yet unseen customers the chance to get out. Of course, no one followed this rule. Not even the boss: we all just closed up as fast as we could and went home. That is, no one followed the rule except for Tim. He would stand in front of the store, empty of customers, looking at his watch, waiting for his second hand to count down each 45-second interval before moving on to close the next section of the door. Tim was great, but this habit of following the rules, regardless of the context, drove everyone crazy. He made me wonder: what if all the employees followed all of the rules, to the absolute letter, all of the time? Would anything ever get done? In some ways, to do so would have brought the whole bookstore to a grinding halt.

Without knowing it, my coworker was an early adopter of a philosophical movement just now gaining popularity: accelerationism. Both the June 2013 issue of e-flux (edited by Gean Moreno) and the Acceleration Symposium held in December of the same year (organized by Armen Avanessian and Mateo Pasquinelli) functioned as early collocations of the movement. The basic idea of accelerationism is that the best way to carve out alternatives to a dominant system is by speeding up the system’s own mechanisms. For example, one strategy for challenging, say, consumerism, is to become such a perfect consumer that you end up demonstrating how unattractive consumerism actually is. In a way, this is what Tim did, though unintentionally: he found a way to use the rules of a system against the system itself, although he did it in a way more similar to the work-stoppage practices of the Autonomia movement (Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno) rather than the speeding-up of acceleration.

Benjamin Noys, one of the main figures of accelerationism, delivers an excellent and fast-paced 100-page introduction to the topic in his new book Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. While books such as the #Accelerate Reader and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s accelerationist manifesto are also key texts, the strength of Noys’s book lies not only in how he provides an overview of past figures and movements from which accelerationism sprang (Nietzsche, communism, Detroit techno, cyberpunk), but also in his discussion of some of the limits and challenges to the movement. Typically for Noys, the book covers a wide range of topics, from high-frequency trading to literature and social politics, and it sounds more like a warning against immersing one’s self in accelerationism than any kind of manifesto for it — and Noys appears to be aware of this. Indeed, this turns out to actually be a good thing, because the argument for accelerationism becomes stronger the more Noys teases out the problems of many of its accepted notions. “Accelerate accelerationism” appears to have been something like the motto underlying this book.

One of the strongest aspects of Noys’s work in general, and this book in particular, is that its form is a key presentation of its content. Accelerationism is at its best when it ebbs and flows. This is because accelerationism has a tendency to become too smoothly integrated into the system it is trying to dismantle. In the example used above, my coworker Tim’s over-attention to the rules needs to keep pissing off the bosses, otherwise he will become one. Thus a kind of negation is a key element in order to protect accelerationism from falling into an affirmationist fantasy, although this negativity also needs to be kept in check. In this sense the ebb and flow of Malign Velocities is much closer to that of the definition of acceleration in the realm of physics: a change of velocity in any direction whatsoever, rather than just an increase in forward motion.

Yet the core of most notions of accelerationism is actually a kind of going forward. Accelerationism is always, in the words of the Marquis de Sade, “One More Effort.” This sense of “more” is essential because it is what gives the movement its critical edge, meaning its potential to create potential. As Noys says, “Instead of rejecting the increasing tempo of capitalist production [accelerationists] argue that we should embrace and accelerate it. We haven’t seen anything yet as regards what speed can do.” What speed can do is make “much too much” of the dominant ideology of our time: Capitalism. “The only way out of capitalism is to take it further, to follow its lines of flight or deterritorialization to the absolute end, to speed-up beyond the limits of production and so to rupture the limit of capital itself.” Here Noys is using some terminology from one of his main influences, Gilles Deleuze, and repurposing it in order to start defining “what speed can do” to capitalism. For Deleuze, both “lines of flight” and “deterritorialization” indicate acts of diverging from a set path, like water leaking from a pipe, or a plastic cup melting into a puddle. In these examples, both leaking and melting indicate certain forces for escaping set paths: the water from the pipe and the plastic from the shape of a cup. Noys aims to add “speeding up” to the list, and to show how it can provide an escape from capitalism in particular.

In the above quote Noys says that speeding up can do two things: go “beyond the limits of production” and “rupture the limit of capital itself.” Both of these are quite large claims, and Noys aims to stand up to the challenge of developing them both in much of their complicated capacity.

“Going beyond the limits of production” means something quite specific for Noys: creating a relationship between human and machine which results in a level of production so high that “lines of flight” develop away from being chained to a factory floor. This “reintegrating labor into the machine” which “might at once save and transcend the laboring body” carries its own problems, however, for the speeding up of labor might simply lead to trapping humans into an inhuman pace. Yet this potential for danger is not a negative aspect of accelerationism. Rather, it shows how accelerationism best functions not as a tool for generating actual lines of flight, but as a technique for analyzing when and where these lines fray. This is why Steven Shaviro can claim in Post Cinematic Affect that accelerationism has heuristic rather than political validity.

A quite different assessment of this “danger” emerges from a close reading of an earlier use of the term “accelerationism,” in Roger Zelazny’s 1967 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel Lord of Light. The novel is perhaps best known today because an unproduced screenplay based on it was the real-life ploy used in the Iranian hostage story on which Ben Affleck based his film Argo (2012). While Noys allows a bit of space for Zelazny (“It turns out that term occurs in Roger Zelazny’s sci-fi novel Lord of Light (1967), which I’d read. The unconscious, as usual, works in mysterious ways”), he never engages with it in the way he does other pieces of fiction, such as Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) or William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).

In Zelazny’s novel, an elite class of planetary colonists suppresses the generations they have spawned by pretending to be Hindu gods and creating a utopian city for themselves called Heaven. However, they are brought down by the “accelerationists,” a group who believes in speeding up the development of everyone to god-like status, with the result that “there would no longer be any gods, only men.” Thus the fake gods are destroyed by everyone who becomes similarly fake. As explained in the novel:

Accelerationism — it is a simple doctrine of sharing. It proposes that we of Heaven give unto those who dwell below of our knowledge and powers and substance. This act of charity would be directed to the end of raising their condition of existence to a higher level, akin to that which we ourselves occupy. Then every man would be as a god, you see. The result of this, of course, would be that there would no longer be any gods, only men.

For Zelazny, the focus of accelerationism is on raising everyone up, while for Noys it seems that it is about pulling everyone down.

An early example of accelerating human labor up to the speed of machine labor is the streamlining of workflows and worker-movements known as “scientific management,” as developed by Frederick Taylor at the end of the 19th century. According to Taylor, production needed to be maximized: this included measuring the movements of factory workers’ bodies in order to make them as efficient as possible and pushing their output to the maximum of their physical capacity, creating a large number of managers to make sure that procedures were followed in the process: thus workers’ bodies become more “machine-like.”

Noys traces the spread of Taylorism in the Soviet Union under Lenin, who hoped to use it in order to go beyond “the limit of capital itself.” The movement was spearheaded by a literary figure, avant-garde poet Aleksei Gastev, a one time laborer himself. Gastev advocated Taylorism as an anti-humanist approach that would create a utopian merging of human and machine; as he says, “Soulless and devoid of personality, emotion, and lyricism — no longer expressing himself through screams of pain or joyful laughter, but rather through a manometer or taximeter. Mass engineering will make man a social automation.” On the one hand, this dream of the worker as a “living machine” has the danger of leading to both, in Noys’s words, “the adoption of the most dehumanizing capitalist techniques of management and the implementation of them in dictatorial and authoritarian form.” Yet this is why the figure of Gastev in particular is important, for he saw lines of flight appearing within scientific management; Gastev saw the worker as “an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process.” Thus instead of leaking and melting, the forces of divergence are action, sentience, and creativity. One example of the power of the forces Gastev names is in the way he died: despite having been paramount in Lenin’s appreciation of Taylorism, the poet was arrested and shot in 1939 for suspicion of terrorist activities during the Great Purge.

In this reading of Taylorism, one main idea regarding accelerationism — that speeding up leads to alternatives — has been briefly sketched, including both its positive and negative consequences. Yet the difference between Gastev and Lenin’s intentions for Taylorism points to one of the main fantasies that accelerationism can engender: that there is something emancipatory in participating in this speeding-up process. In other words, in what sense are Gastev’s actions, sentience, and creativity possible from within acceleration, and are these even the right forces for which to be looking? Noys approaches this question in his chapter on “tendency.”

Tendency is seen as the moment in which lines of flight diverge from their fate of being subsumed into capitalism. The sources used in the development of the idea of tendency include: Marx’s comment in the third volume of Capital on “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”; Georg Lukács’s idea in History of Class Consciousness that there is a tendency to “dissolve” the appearance of capital in order to understand underlying historical processes; and Antonio Negri’s concept of tendency as “an adventure of reason as it comes to encounter the complexities of reality, an adventure of reason that is prepared to accept risks.” It is important to focus on the notion of tendency, because its definition is that of the thin crack between a line of flight and becoming an exemplary member of a system one is trying to challenge. Put another way, in the case of my coworker Tim, his timing of the closing of the doors could have easily ended in the boss demanding that all employees follow Tim’s lead, perhaps even revising the employee handbook in order to codify that all employees must have a time-telling device on their person at all times. The reason why this did not happen is hard to pin down, but it boils down to Tim’s behavior simply being “too much” for his boss (and fellow employees) to bear.

At least since Philip Anderson’s pivotal 1972 essay “More is Different,” the idea that “too much” engenders lines of flight has taken hold. But Noys seems to take a different route to the concept of tendency. Up to this point, tendency is related to different ways of uncovering the underlying forces of capital, which (from Marx to Negri) would result in a tendency to swerve away from the mean. However, Noys is interested in “charting more closely the forms and forces of contemporary labor and modes of struggle, rather than an apocalyptic assertion of some final unveiling of forces.” Thus tendency is similar to “speeding up,” in that both aim to foreground a tension between the subject which is accelerating and the system in which the accelerating is being done. This tension is kept in focus in order to maximize the chance that the subject will not become incorporated into the system she is trying to challenge. Yet what is created out of this tension has not been answered.

And in fact this question is perhaps best left unanswered, for one of the main points throughout all of the examples in Malign Velocities is to show how the line of reasoning which asks “What can accelerationism do for you?” leads to the wrong kind of accelerationism. This is because it turns the real forces behind both speeding up and lines of flight into fantasy. For Noys, “This fantasy consists of the premise of the existence of forces that promise accelerative vitality, even in the most extreme moments of despair.” What he advocates instead is to remain with despair, for all accelerationism can do is foreground “the disorder of an inhuman existence.” In this sense, accelerationism is simply a manner of understanding our struggle “over the state and condition of labor.” Any attempt to use acceleration for more than this sinks into fantasy, which leads to a dangerous appropriation by the forces that are being struggled against. And this is the strength of the accelerationism that Noys demands throughout his work: a willingness to partake in the enjoyment of destruction in order to maintain a friction with fantasy.


Brian Willems is Assistant Professor at the University of Split, Croatia, where he teaches literature at the Faculty of Philosophy and film theory at the Arts Academy.