MAY 17, 2018
AT 45 YEARS OF AGE, Viennese writer Armen Avanessian has produced a large and thematically varied body of work located at the nexus of art and philosophy. He has collaborated with Anke Hennig on two monographs, Metanoia and Present Tense: A Poetics, and with the illustrator Andreas Töpfer on Speculative Drawing; he is co-host of the show 60HZ on Berlin Community Radio; and he co-directed, with Christopher Roth, the documentary film Hyperstition. Along with scholarly essays on Hölderlin and Musil, he has written enthusiastic defenses of accelerationism and speculative realism, and has published several of those movements’ key figures in the Spekulationen series at Merve Verlag. His introductions to these volumes do much to render plausible their frequently caricatured standpoints and to show their possible importance for overcoming the apparent impotence of leftist “folk politics.” His most recent book — and also his most enjoyable — is last year’s Miamification, a journal intermingled with sidebar quotes recording two weeks spent in Miami. Its hybrid nature, its attempt to think in and through a given instant against the backdrop of the social and economic realities conditioning it, recalls the emphasis on the Da-ste, the “there-est,” of Rainald Goetz’s internet diary Abfall für Alle (Garbage for Everyone).
Miamification opens in a situation that will be so familiar to many readers in academic or artistic fields as to constitute a kind of habitus: with its author on a trans-continental flight, surrounded by torpid figures, “all […] in their own image-universe,” seeing flickers, robots, fantasy landscapes on the seatback screens, but hearing nothing. The represented world, in its crude velocity, leads to a hunger for the deliberateness of words, for a free, contemplative writing, without deadlines, without a plan. Doubts arise: Is there still time for philosophical consideration, or has a new “chronopolitics of artistic, cultural, and intellectual labor” swept all that aside in favor of “short-term projects, constant traveling, social media, perpetual connectedness”? If so, is there a positive angle here, a way to sidestep the crankiness of hackneyed vituperation toward the frenetic pace of present-day life?
Invited to ArtCenter/South Florida as an artist-activist-researcher — a métier vague yet, paradoxically, inconceivable outside a highly specific cultural moment — Avanessian poses the question that will govern the book’s structure: “How does it happen that I am sitting in this airplane, headed for Miami, of all places?” This rings like a 21st-century reformulation of Kant’s Was ist Aufklärung?, which Foucault saw as presaging the “attitude of modernity.” For Foucault, Kant’s inquiry addressed the distinction between yesterday and today; for Avanessian, what is at issue is the relation of today to tomorrow.
Accelerationism, which Avanessian has described as “the assertion that the crimes, contradictions and absurdities of capitalism have to be countered with a politically and theoretically progressive attitude towards its constituent elements,” reached a low point recently with Slavoj Žižek’s favoring of Trump over Clinton as the best way to break “the inertia of status quo,” but its frequent characterization as a jejune insurrectionary fervor is not quite fair. More important than fomenting revolution, in Avanessian’s view, is a change in perspective concerning determinants of the present. While not eschewing the historical approach — indeed, his Overwrite offers interesting insights on Prussian antecedents to the current crisis in the university — he stresses that predictive modeling, and its incorporation into the business and even legislative sphere, have led preemption, based on a hypothesized future treated as though it were extant, to become a pivotal force in many people’s lives. As examples, he adduces the racist biases of risk-assessment software or the United States’s use of preemptive strikes against potential enemies, and quotes Antoinette Rouvroy to the effect that “the force of algorithmic government consists in separating subjects from their ability to do or not do certain things.” An accelerationist perspective on preemption need not impel subjects to rush forward into the fire; it may instead recognize that backward-looking protest movements’ attempts to hinder these developments are pointless, and that the task facing the left is to supplant the totalitarian vision of the future that preemption politics depend on with another, decentralized, liberatory one.
On day four of the author’s stay, the decision to buy a new iPhone leads to considerations of smartphones as “new organs of apprehension.” Citing Friedrich Kittler’s assertion that digitalization is the a priori of the present era, he contrasts the relative flimsiness of whatever forms of self-realization these apparatus provide to the so-called “end user” with the pervasive and insidious data-harvesting characteristic of “surveillance capitalism.” If the product is free, you are the product is by now a well-worn cliché, though recent uproar about Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook user data suggests it has not seeped as deeply into the popular consciousness as it ought to; but the monetization of data freely uploaded to the web is less concerning than what David Auerbach has referred to as the “coarsening” effected by recommendation engines and other forms of customization as the net has moved from the open model of the ’90s to a more insular, app-based one. Far from mimicking human complexity, these technologies, and the clickbait that embodies them, inure users to confronting the world with a reduced set of responses — a dependency on regular doses of indignation and contempt, a craving for constant praise, and an almost cultish belief in the significance of nugatory acts of virtual solidarity.
Avanessian describes this reduction as a “loss of deictic flexibility” that threatens the persistence of the subject. Whether this is an occasion for nostalgia is a major point of doubt in the book. Paeans to lapsed iterations of humanism skirt the reactionary; but to be a plausible political strategy, accelerationism cannot embrace progress as such while it careens toward disaster; it must work backward from a vision of the future that fulfills, at least in part, already existing needs and desires. Perversely, it is these that are undermined by the virtualization of the self: as Avanessian notes, the metastasis of individual “bio-archives” lacks a historical dimension. It is not that the information isn’t there — indeed, the archive’s easy accessibility may be a disincentive to sober engagement — but that we lack a historiography appropriate to it; and for this reason, the fever for novelty that scrolling news feeds and push alerts epitomize entails a capitulation to transience.
A chapter on Uber asks whether the present economic order ought properly be described as capitalist, or rather, in a felicitous phrase, as “a post-capitalist something.” The question is a timely one given the quaint free market justifications employed in the defense of Uber, Amazon, and dozens of other companies whose fundraising allows them to operate at an indefinite loss to attain monopoly-like positions in their respective markets. A condition of free markets is low barriers to entry, which for libertarians is synonymous with deregulation — but as Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Netflix, or the only now-profitable Airbnb have shown, a basic requirement for competitiveness in the market in its present form is the ability to lose more money than one’s rivals.
No book on Miami worth its salt can fail to mention climate change, and as a hurricane pounds the city, Avanessian’s thoughts turn to the interdependence of technics and subjectivity since the industrial revolution, and hence to the fundamental place of oil. He invokes Melinda Cooper’s superb Life as Surplus, which describes the 21st century, with its obdurate faith in the beneficence of limitless growth, as “a state of suspended crisis.” The vision of the digitized future, with on-demand services, smart homes, wearables, and the like demands a significant increase in the number of data centers, whose power consumption has already begun to graze the unsustainable. Ian Bitterlin, an engineer and consultant and visiting professor at the University of Leeds, has said, barring radical technological innovations, data may need to be rationed within the next 10 to 15 years. Every like, every email, every photo uploaded is translatable into energy — 80 percent of which remains non-renewable.
To Avanessian’s credit, he does not pretend the vision Miamification presents applies equally to all — or, put otherwise, he admits that Miamification as a process generates residue in the form of people made redundant by modernity. Rather than subjects proper, these are “surplus populations to be administered.” This group includes the incarcerated and those consigned to low-wage labor or pushed aside by gentrification. In contrast to Europe, where the “heroic tale of artistic bohemia and influence of autochthonous local residents, all the mendacious and correspondingly cherished stories of artistic authenticity” is necessary to draw money into once-marginal areas, here “all that can be nonchalantly […] skipped over.” Instead, there is a celebration of “gentrification as such.”
I wondered, as I read Avanessian’s interview with Wolfram Eilenberger, inserted toward the book’s final pages, about another group of digital exiles, those whose internet experience is almost entirely passive. Though some form of online profile seems nigh-incumbent upon today’s citizens of the industrialized world, there is an immense gulf between those whose profiles impend on their public and private lives and those whose profiles barely attain to relevance: the people with 15 Facebook friends or 20 followers on Twitter, who send photos, comments, and links stillborn into the ether. It is a contrast that leaps out painfully when one catches a flight or train: for every executive or “creative class” impresario shifting back-and-forth from emails to spreadsheets to iMessage, there are dozens of people taking selfies no one else will ever look at, checking their phones compulsively to see a screen bare of notifications. What would an accelerationist praxis look like for such people? Is there a duty to draw them forward somehow, to help make their lives digitally relevant?
In the end, Miamification is a subjective look at the disappearance of the subject as presently understood. It is impressionistic in part because the massive theoretical, historical, sociological, and scientific resources required to grasp the matter exceed the capacities of any individual, and in part because the thinking it demands is itself impressionistic: any attempt at synthesizing and predicting the results of, to choose a few examples at random, Steve Ramirez and Xiu Lu’s experiments on memory implantation, biohacking in its various forms, Piketty’s predictions concerning economic stagnation and rising inequality, cannot but take on a sci-fi hue. Avanessian remarks:
Instead of transhumanism, perhaps what is preferable is the concept of inhumanism propounded by the accelerationists, the notion that “humans” and thus a human ideal anchored in the past have never existed.
This recalls, in its way, Manuel De Landa’s hypothesized “robot historian” for whom human beings would be little more than “industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers.” I am not sure there is cause for optimism here, but Avanessian’s attempt to conceive of a progressive politics equidistant from technological utopianism and technophobia is an admirable one, and his style is pithy, literate, and personable.
Note: Miamification was originally published in German by Merve Verlag. This review is of the German version, and the translations belong to the reviewer; there is an English edition available from Sternberg Press in Nicholas Grindell’s translation.
Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of more than a dozen books, among them Juan Benet’s Construction of the Tower of Babel and Marianne Fritz’s Weight of Things.
Avanessian, Armen. Miamification. Leipzig: Merve Verlag, 2017.
Avanessian, Armen (Nils Schott, trans.). Overwrite: Ethics of Knowledge — Poetics of Existence. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017.
Avanessian, Armen and Robin Mackay. #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014.
Bawden, Tom. “Global Warming: Data Centers Consume Three Times As Much Energy in the Next Decade, Experts Warn.” The Independent, 23 January 2016 (https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/global-warming-data-centres-to-consume-three-times-as-much-energy-in-next-decade-experts-warn-a6830086.html).
Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: UWP, 2014.
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Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London and NY: Bloomsbury, 2014.
Noonan, David. “Meet the Two Scientists Who Implanted a False Memory into a Mouse.” Smithsonian: November 2014 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/meet-two-scientists-who-implanted-false-memory-mouse-180953045/)
Žižek, Slavoj. “Slavoj Žižek on Clinton, Trump, and the Left’s Dilemma.” In These Times, November 6, 2016 (http://inthesetimes.com/features/zizek_clinton_trump_lesser_evil.html)