Part 7: Between Accelerationism, Aesthetics & Politics

Metamodernism and 21st Century Media

Part 7: Between Accelerationism, Aesthetics & Politics

Expanding the examination of contemporary media necessarily involves locating it in the wider context of aesthetics and politics. Central to Steven Shaviro’s post-cinematic episteme is its relationship with neoliberal economics, leading him to claim that new media works “play a crucial role in the valorization of capital”. He expands on this further in his article Accelerationist Aesthetics, stating:

“The process of real subsumption requires the valuation, and evaluation: even of that which is spectral, epiphenomenal, and without value. […] Affect and inner experience are not exempt from this process of subsumption, appropriation, and extraction of a surplus”. (1)

Shaviro goes on to suggest that it is under these circumstances that “accelerationism first becomes a possible aesthetic strategy”. One of the reasons for this is the declining effectiveness of ‘transgression’ in the neoliberal era:

“Modernist artists sought to shatter taboos, to scandalize audiences, and to pass beyond the limits of bourgeois “good taste”. […] But this in no longer the case today. Neoliberalism has no problem with excess. Far from being subversive, transgression today is entirely normative”. (1)

We have moved into a situation in which rather than being a subversive act, or a form of resistance, transgression “expands the field of capital investment” (1) – put simply, without transgression, neoliberal capitalism would not be able to enter into the cycle of renewal that makes it such a successful and persistent system, transgression therefore takes up a role as “the actual motor of capitalist expansion today”. (1) We have witnessed the global finance sector taking over from the modernist artist as the driver of “manic innovation”. (1)

According to Shaviro modernist transgression operated according to the logic of transcendence, “seeking to break free from social constraints, and thereby to attain some radical Outside”, whilst accelerationism favours immanence, “modulating its intensities in place”, leading to the conclusion that “since there is no Outside to the capitalist system, capitalism can only be overcome from within”. (1)

It should be noted that the term ‘accelerationism’ (as used here by Shaviro) refers mainly to the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard in the 1970’s, and Nick Land in the 1990’s. Not to be confused with the accelerationist manifesto published in 2013 by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek or the epistemic accelerationism (or prometheanism) developed by Ray Brassier, Reza Negarestani, Benjamin Bratton, Benjamin Singleton and others. This 21st Century iteration of accelerationism does not advocate the exacerbation of capitalism’s excesses and contradictions, leading to its eventual collapse or complete deterritorialization- but instead is a relatively broad field, that includes (but is not limited to) the re-appropriation of capitalist infrastructure and technology for socialist ends, challenging the notions of individual human subjectivity, advocating an inhuman, or a-human ethics and rejecting the Kantian notion of a limited human capacity for knowledge.

Shaviro posits a role for accelerationist aesthetics that is different than the capitalistic accelerationism of the 1970’s and 90’s, suggesting that it can “offer us a kind of satisfaction and relief, by telling us that we have finally hit bottom, finally realised the worst”. (1) In this sense, accelerationist aesthetics could be described as an “enlightened cynicism” that opts to engage with our current situation in a darkly humorous or explanative way, instead of “offer[ing] us the false hope that piling on the worst that neoliberal capitalism has to offer will somehow help to lead us beyond it”. (1) Shavrio offers several examples of accelerationist aesthetics, but none of which encapsulate it as perfectly as the music video for Future Brown’s ‘Vernáculo‘, in which they set out to demonstrate their strategy of “capitalist surrealism”.

Ultimately, it is unclear what in what sense Shaviro’s accelerationist aesthetics is actually ‘accelerationist’,  and whether this can prove effective as a strategy. Future Brown’s term “capitalist surrealism” may prove a more appropriate term than accelerationist aesthetics, avoiding the use of the already divisive and misunderstood ‘accelerationism’. Shaviro’s conclusions seem decidedly weak in comparison with his competent analysis of contemporary media- having more in common with modernist surrealism and the absurdism of Albert Camus than either capitalistic or epistemic forms of accelerationism. We are somewhat disappointingly left with the cathartic satisfaction of ‘revealing’ the structures neoliberal capitalism, and the ambiguous hope that somehow these can be eventually overcome.

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A similar, albeit more nuanced and ambiguous strategy was taken up by early proponents of the ‘vaporwave’ – an internet movement that “let flow the music that lubricates Capital, open the door to a monstrously alienating sublime”. (2) For music theorist Adam Harper, these musicians can be read in one of two ways:

“as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound”. (2)

Like Shaviro, Harper uses the term accelerationism to describe ‘vaporwave’ and positions it in explicitly within global capitalism:

“This music belongs to the plaza, literal and metaphorical, real and imaginary- the public space that is the nexus of infinite social, cultural and financial transactions and the scene of their greatest activity and spectacle”. (2)

In this sense, Vaporwave forms a part of Shaviro’s post-cinematic episteme, serving to articulate and render visible the forces of neoliberal capital. The vaporwave artist behind INTERNET CLUB, has expressed his intent to “reveal the true extent of the alienation of capitalist social relations”. (v) But again, like Shaviro’s approach, this does not seem to correspond with any established form of accelerationism. Instead, the creator behind INTERNET CLUB (Robin Bennet) cites strategies favoured Guy Debord and the Situationist movement. Instead of wanting to accelerating corporate culture and its “dehumanizing hyperreality”, Bennet aims to produce the effect of “defamiliarisation”, in order to draw sharp attention to “things we’ve become so used to that we don’t notice them any more”. (2)

Other proponents of vaporwave have taken a more ambiguous approach, somewhat similar to that of metamodernism. For example, New Dreams Ltd opts to combine an approach that is simultaneously “conceptual”, “sarcastic”, “simplistic” and “sincere”, setting themselves the task of producing “effective social commentary […] without dialogue”. (2)

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Breaking with the idea of accelerationism as a form of resistance or emanciptation, cultural theorist Robin James proposes an aesthetics and ethos of ‘uncool’ which would serve to “undercut neoliberal imperatives to self-capitalisation”. (3) James is not interested in establishing causal relationships between music and politics, instead she highlights the parallels between them. James claims that “in the contemporary Western world, neoliberalism is one of the primary epistemological frameworks that shape structures of subjectivity”, and establishing parallels between music and politics are made possible under the conditions of this “common epistemic framework”.

James, in agreement with Shaviro, highlights the counter-intuitive nature of transgression in the neoliberal era, claiming that “deregulation makes the avant-garde the new normal. Everyone in the bourgeois mainstream (not just elites) is expected to cut a new leading edge, to ‘go gaga'”. (3) James suggests that this neoliberal deregulation compels “otherwise ‘normal’ individuals […] to be as quirky, bizarre, unruly and noisy as possible”, to be “cool”. (3) Following Michel Foucault, James posits that “coolness” becomes a form of ‘surplus value’, a form of capital investment in the ‘self’ that serves to generate “the human capital necessary to produce and maintain the overall status quo”. (3) In her search for practices that could “subvert the politics of cool”, James explores strategies that bypass the generation of ‘cool’ capital , and become “unprofitable” or produce “diminishing returns”- leading her to ask whether “resolute averageness” could be a “viable alternative to ‘the neoliberal aestheticizing of difference'”. (3) For James:

“Normal, middle-of-the-road, mainstream taste may be an antidote to cool’s prescribed transgression. Mainstream success deflates ‘cool’ cultural capital. Abandoning the avant-garde for the mainstream, the politics of uncool seems to have found alternatives to the biopolitics of cool”. (3)

James champions the “excessively normal” as a form of resistance against the ‘coolness’ valorised by neoliberalism.

Further to this, James suggests that the ‘uncool’ has a reduced impact when operating on an individual level, having “little effect on macro-level processes”, “allow(ing) individuals to opt out of norms and institutions while simultaneously reaffirming those norms and institutions as such”. (3) For James “deregulation is both ‘free’ (on the surface) and highly administered (in the background)”, and therefore, for any resistance to be effective on the level of the public it will need to mirror neoliberalism’s ability to work on “two levels at once”. (3) ‘Uncoolness’ as a strategy works on an individual aesthetic level; the adaptation of “averageness and apparent conformity as alternatives to norms of entrepreneurship, self-improvement, and risk-taking”, and on a public economic level; “adopt[ing] strict regulations as alternatives to deregulatory imperatives”. (3) These two levels of ‘uncoolness’ combined would serve to “short circuit the biopolitical means of producing surplus value”. (3) James provides several examples of the sonically and politically uncool, including Spandau Ballet’s single ‘True’, 1980’s post-punk bands that “sold out” (Gang of Four, New Order etc) and the much maligned genre, Yacht Rock.

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What Shaviro’s ‘accelerationist aesthetics’, vaporwave’s ‘capitalist surrealism’ and James’ ‘biopolitics of the uncool’ have in common is a clear bias towards economic determinism. Focusing extensively on the relationship between cultural artefacts and neoliberalism can have the effect of stripping them of potentiality, reducing them to a conceptual or textual role- approaches like these fail to grasp the positive ethical and political potential of cultural artefacts. These approaches follow a similar line to that of the economic and social theoristJacques Attali, who constructed “four main periods of the sonic economy: sacrifice, representation, repetition and composition corresponding to specific periods in the development of political economy”. In each of these proposed periods:

“the social relations which produce the music of the preceding period are subjected to an external force which simultaneously transforms and absorbs music’s societal encoding as a network of signifying  practices into an entirely new totality”. (4)

Attali’s approach emphasises “music’s  representational properties- its ability to symbolise, stand in for or otherwise substitute itself for the wider superstructure of its society”. (4) The parallels between Attali’s approach and that of Shaviro or James are clear here. The cultural theorist Andrew Stones contrasts Attali’s linear conception of the political economy of music with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s quasi-concept, the ‘Refrain’- which demonstrates “the territorialising power of sound […] to re-encode concepts of bodies, populations and cultures with new meanings”. (4) Stones does not claim that Attali’s approach is an inferior method of “‘reading’ sonic texts”, or of assessing its place “in the wider social division of labour”, but rather he intends to “sidestep this tradition entirely by focusing on the pre-personal or pre-representational domain of affects in relation to the technology of musical production”. (4)

For Stones, Attali’s representational approach “can never penetrate the surface of bodies to uncover the ‘molecular’ politics of  affect at work therein”, operating as it does on a “communicative or surface level”. (4) Attali’s analysis is framed “in terms of lack“, for him musical production in the era of Fordist capitalism represents an “inferior relation to the representational qualities of Romantic works”, thus overlooking the “immanent and affectual relations of force between the body and the new sonic machines” (4) – the recent technological developments in musical production. Another assumption that Attali makes is that “listening bodies appear to remain largely identical throughout” (4) his four stages of musical development. In contrast to this, Stone adopts the practice of Rhythmanalysis, which considers “the body as an organisation of forces, speeds and rhythms both conceptual and biological which occur in tandem with the rhythms of technological development”. (4) This is echoed in the writing of philosopher and cultural theorist, Sadie Plant:

“the digital machines of the late twentieth century are not add-on parts which serve to augment an existing human form. Quite beyond their own perceptions and control, bodies are continually engineered by the process in which they are engaged”. (5)

Leading on from this, Stones claims that: “the body which listens to a performance of a Beethoven symphony in a concert hall is radically different to a body listening to the recorded sounds emanating from a loudspeaker”. (4) This conception of Rhythmanalysis initially bears a resemblance to Shaviro’s post-cinematic affect, but on closer inspection the influences of Attali’s political economy of music also become clear. Whist Shavrio highlights the role of affect in new media, he falls short of expanding its emancipatory potentials. In his account, the body is indeed transformed by the emerging post-cinematic episteme, but the accelerationist aesthetics that he advocates is only capable of repeatedly articulating that process of transformation. We could say that Shaviro’s approach involves finding non-representational means by which to represent non-representation. This introduces the possibility of becoming stuck in an endless feedback loop, or in the case of James’ uncool- cultural artefacts run the risk of being reduced to purely political tools. In both these cases, any real political potential is sacrificed in an impossible attempt to tackle neoliberalism head on.

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Benjamin Bratton provides us with an alternative aesthetic and politic strategy, engaging with the subject from a “willfully ahumanist perspective”. (6) Bratton sees the eventual replacement of “emptied legacy positions”, such as politics and aesthetics, in favour of Design- providing “”aesthetic” programs which are less reflective of political realities than generative of their material evolution”. (6) If Shaviro’s accelerationist aesthetics aims to “train and redeem a recognizable politics through the shock of its inrecognizable affect”, then Bratton has the opposite interest, namely to produce “an unrecognizable politics through a recognizable aesthetics”. (6) In the process, Bratton explicitly rejects Shavrio’s turn to cognitive mapping (inherited from Frederic Jameson), claiming that it is “utterly impossible to map the situation through anything like the self-regard of an “individual subject””. (6) For Bratton then, the “irreducibly complex” nature of whatever follows capitalism, or indeed the Anthropocene, renders any such mapping project useless, the human subject in this sense is no longer “a coherent agent within a stable historical unfolding”. (6)

As Shaviro and James previously noted, neoliberal capitalism thrives on transgression, it assimilates and re-purposes all forms of resistance, utilising its “reversibility of insides and outsides”. (6) In light of this, Bratton posits:

“It is necessary to retrain the work of the “political” away from a direct confrontation with or acceleration of Capitalism as the scope of the problem as such, and instead towards a direct engagement-in-advance with what succeeds and exceeds it”. (6)

Bratton suggests the “more encompassing” term ‘post-Anthropocene’ as an alternative to the frequently touted post-capitalism. Post-Anthropocene is much more expansive than the latter, it “names not only another eco-economic order but articulates in advance the displacement of the human agent from the subjective centre of its operations”. (6) Instead of merely articulating, or revealing the flows of neoliberal (or algorithmic) capital as proposed by Shaviro, Bratton advocates constituting the post-Anthropocene in advance:

“It is less important that they dramatize something dangerous about the world we will face than that they physically incorporate and modify that world in advance without supervision, oversight or guidance”. (6)

Following this, Bratton suggests that the post-Anthropocene is not located temporally ‘after’ the Anthropocene, but is “better conceived as a composite parasite nested inside the host of the present time, evolving and appearing at regular intervals”. (6)

In a further break with Shaviro and James, Bratton plays down the risks of such a venture, claiming that to “disqualify […] an accelerationist geopolitical aesthetic as both too overcoded by hegemonic algorithmic logics and too conditional to pilot the present moment” would miss “the larger point”. (6) Bratton sees the pitfalls of focusing too intently on articulating the flows of algorithmic capitalism, or formulating resistance against it- instead he insists on the importance of actively constituting the future, however uncertain an activity this may be.

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The cultural philosopher Patricia MacCormack explores the emancipatory potentials of aesthetics in a similar way to Bratton. Following Deleuze, Guattari and Spinoza, MacCormack proposes an inhuman ethics of immanent accelerationism, primarily concerned with affect. Inhuman in this sense refers to the “constitution of lives as nodal points entirely specific to their position and constellation of relations, resistant to genus or even species”. (7) Affect is defined as “the defining intensity that constitutes a life’s specificity as a coalescence of expressive powers combined with openness to other affects”. (7) For MacCormack “the more inhuman any series of affective relations makes us, the less attached we are to classification in its majortorian sense, and to oppression”- therein lies the political potential of aesthetics. In a similar vein to Bratton, the aim is to “catalyze inhuman affective relations that are still to come”. (7)

Instead of “privileging the future” or focusing on “what(s) next”, a feature of the capitalist replacement culture, MacCormack introduces a futurity that is based around Michael Serres’ ‘cosmogenic time’. This cosmogenic time favours recomposition over replacement; “the new is always the oppressed of the past rendered capable of catalyzing excitations through recombinings and reconfiguration”. (7) For MacCormack the “strangeness of the combinations creates their relevance”, strangeness produces the inhuman and is therefore a key element of ethical aesthetics. MacCormack suggests that the value of an ‘aesthetic tool’ is measured by its ability to “effectuate the most inhuman affects on other bodies, including bodies of thought”. (7)

The implementation of an immanent accelerationist ethics is a difficult yet essential task- as outlined by MacCormack:

“ethics […] cannot predict the affects of the future, but […] must perform the devastatingly cursed operation of hoping for expressing forces that excite those of others affected that seek to diminish only malevolent majoritarian forces- the future itself must be thought without pre-forming what the future will, should, or even could be”. (7)

We have the unenviable task of “bring[ing] into being other worlds”(7), whist avoiding fixed ideas of what these worlds might be, and without any guarantee,or any way of measuring, this success. Despite this, the futurity offered by Stones, Bratton and MacCormack offers the prospect of an aesthetics with genuinely liberating potentials. The challenge we have ahead of us is to formulate appropriate strategies for an immanent accelerationist metamodernism; strategies that play a role in actively constituting the post-Anthropocene, are ethical in the Spinozist sense, utilise strange recombinings to grant freedom from oppression, and (following Deleuze and Guattari) are inhuman- rejecting the centrality of an individual human subject.

 

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1.  Accelerationist Aesthetics : Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption, 2013, Shaviro
2.  Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza, 2012,  Harper
3.  Neoliberal Noise: Attali, Foucault & the Biopolitics of Uncool, 2014, James
4.  Feedback and distortion in the Political Economy of Music: Rhythmanalysis between Deleuze and Attali, 2014, Stones
5.  Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, 1998, Plant
6.  Some Trace Effects of the Post-Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical Aesthetics, 2014, Bratton
7. Cosmogenic Acceleration: Futurity and Ethics, 2013, MacCormack