Fear The Walking Machines: a review of Malign Velocities

In Malign Velocities Benjamin noys has written a concise critical history of the idea of acceleration. Beginning with the post-structuralists he moves through a series of historical appearances of the idea of acceleration in French Theory, politics, aesthetics and in today’s left accelerationist moment. noys coined the term accelerationism but he is not a fan of the idea of acceleration. Indeed he stakes his critique early on in the text when he explains that

accelerationism tries to reengage with the problem of labor as this impossible and masochistic experience by reintegrating labor into the machine. In what follows, we will see this fantasy of intgegration, the ‘man machine’ (note the gendering), that might at once save and transcend the laboring body (12).

Labour appears here as ‘impossible and masochistic’ because of the conditions of emergence of today’s left accelerationism. These conditions can be broadly referred to as neoliberalism and we could list among the markers of this artificially singularised name a series of interacting processes: deregulation of markets, privatisation of public bodies, dereferentialisation of currencies, the transition from manufacturing to service economies, the erosion of the capacities of labour, and the disappearance of the proletariat. noys highlights two processes at the heart of this historical period that are crucial for accelerationism: the deceleration of the real economy and the concomitant acceleration of financialization. All of this means that labour has become increasingly difficult for capitalism. noys doesn’t go all the way into discussing the possibilities of automation but it seems as though we should include it in this list, alongside the supposedly hysterical fears of mass unemployment and falling consumption rates.

noys clearly articulates one of the foundational gestures of today’s left accelerationists in response to the stagnation and stasis (cf. property development) of contemporary capitalism. The accelerationists are

answering deceleration with the promise of a new acceleration, driven by faith in new productive forces that come online and disrupt the ideological humanism that tends to be capitalism’s default ideology (11).

Capitalist humanism is that of the more-or-less rational personological agent who is capable of choosing between values, commodities and lifestyles in the market place. noys does not question whether or not capitalism actually operates this way considering the heavy investment into and practical use it has made of advertising, state compulsion, and the coercions that take their most up to date form in behavioural economics- a discipline the left is ignoring at its peril. We can question whether capitalism’s explicit ideology of humanism has ever really been its view of the masses and whether this humanism has ever been anything but a liberal delusion that capital has been steadily disabusing us of, if we were paying attention.

Either way, these new productive forces- in noys’s traditional Marxist terminology- include the newer ‘computing and cybernetic technologies’ (10) although we should readily include all the varieties of synthetic biology, nanotech, biotech, and so on. All of this renders labour impossible and masochistic because it reduces an ever growing amount of human bodies that would once have comprised the “living labour” necessary to capital’s self-valorisation into a vast relative surplus population. We see capital’s half-hearted attempts to manage this problem itself whenever it deploys zero hour or flexible working contracts, or wherever it compels people to work by stripping out the welfare state and gearing up into workfare program: wage slavery becomes welfare slavery. This is a totally fair assessment of accelerationism’s relationship to technology when we return to the ageing Manifesto and read that

Accelerationists want to unleash latent productive forces. In this project, the material platform of neoliberalism does not need to be destroyed. It needs to be repurposed towards common ends. The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-​capitalism.

There is a lot in this little paragraph, and much has already been said elsewhere so I will happily move on.

In Malign Velocities noys simply doesn’t believe that the left accelerationists strategies will work. He traces its historical variants and locates the earliest with the protofascist Futurists that he diagnoses as having tried to ‘harness the forces of velocity and acceleration as the Ur-form of accelerationism’ (14). The Futurists were the first to attempt a theoretical fusion of the mechanical and the organic in their aesthetics and politics but because of their short-sightedness they were unable to grasp the “repurposing” strategy and merely lauded the delirium of speed.

As fetishists of speed and read in the context where “masculine” has become code for “bad”- a leftist symptom of bad faith- the Futurists are undoubtedly exciting to read, especially as noys presents them. He writes that for them ‘the only survival is elective surgery by the “cruel razors of velocity”‘ (15) in a turn of phrase that accords entirely with a post-nihilist pragmatics of intervention with neural infrastructures. He states that there’s was ‘a homeopathic expropriation’ (16) that suggests ‘a reworking or struggle to push acceleration into new forms’ (17). Of course the Futurists failed and their aesthetics would be tied to fascism, but noys at least opens a crack here to suggest that this identification was not necessary.

noys also discusses communist acceleration and its attempt to ‘restore control and human will over the despotism of capital’ (25) and the sad history of the slippage of communism into Stalinist ‘”labor duty” and “shock work”‘ (26). He notes that the culmination of the transformation of the dream of a scientific socialism that would be able to deploy Taylorist and Fordist models of managing the productive forces eventually turned into a nightmare:

Stalinist “politics of productivity” rescinded the dreamworld of the integration of living labor and the machine, only to replace it with the brutal organization of dlave and unfree labor through social regulation and spatialization.

The Stalinist acceleration of the rhythms of daily life accompanied the Leninist acceleration of the latent productive forces via the repurposing of capitalist productivity management techniques. The result was the gulag and the immiseration of the living human bodies that hide behind the Marxist abstraction of “labour”.

noys then discusses Tausk’s influencing machines- a schizophrenic delusion of control coupled to the emergence of dimly understood machines- which he understood as a problem related to our ‘alienation or estrangement from our bodies…due to the formation of the ego’ (38). For noys the influencing machines are an example of what he sees as the accelerationist fantasy par excellence that is captured by Deleuzo-Guattarian machinism, in which there can never be representation but only ever immersion in the Immanent Real:

This is a fantasy of the end of fantasy. It also evades the pathological and painful elements of this identification with the machine, the friction between the body and its integration (40).

Against the machinic immersion noys highlights our ‘fear of our own becoming-machine’ that is certainly evident when we think of the bioconservatism that often accompanies transphobic attitudes, or that underlie the monstrous appeal of Daleks, Cybermen so on.

Yet the reference to Cybermen reveals the extreme conservatism and sentimentality of the fear of becoming-machine. For instance:

The real horror here is the erasure of the emotional life of the subject understood as an individual which, in the Cyberman’s autopsy, comes back fully in the ridiculous image of the bride before her wedding. The only way to register the fear and anxiety of the integration into the machine is through the children’s tv show image of a mechanical monster drowned in uniformity and completely depersonalized. Interestingly the Cybermen also correspond to the hard, phallic, and mechanical body of Futurism’s masculinism, even if the Man is in fact a woman.

And this is noy’s real philosophical objection to accelerationism. It finally comes to the surface in his discussion of brief Landianism and the CCRU when he writes that

Land’s statements code the paradox of extinction in-and-through machinic acceleration. The cybernetic machine is at once liberation from the meat and destruction of the meat, resolved in the jouissance of immersion in immanence.

In discussing Land’s machinic revolution in which it is impossible to deterritorialize enough we see the horror of the possibility of our extinction as human beings- that is, as ego-riven and labouring  and suffering organic beings- who are absorbed into the unrelenting rush of the nihilistic energies of capital through an integration so total that it becomes indistinguishable from integration. In this image of post-nihilistic affirmation (of what? by whom?) in which extinction is becoming-machine or rather becoming-capital we are hit with the absolute inhumanism of unfettered acceleration.

He will go on to discuss other forms of acceleration but it is clear that this is what most scares noys, and if not noys than human beings. The point of reading Malign Velocities for me is to see clearly that capital is leading us to a place in which the manifest image has become unstable and we are revealed as a multiply and fully determined- genetically, neurologically and socially programmed- entity that is indistinguishable from any other arrangement of matter. And it is this that noys cannot stand.

Through the book he will rail against dehumanization and conflate it with inhumanism. But the inhuman and the dehumanizing are not the same thing.Of course Landian acceleration- libidinal materialist acceleration or quasi-Schopenahuerian acceleration- is bad accelerationism. Why it that? Because as we can see it offers us nothing but the status of accomplices in our own self-destruction. There can be no leftism here. There can be no humanism here. And it is a leftist humanism above all else to which noys is attached throughout the book.

Even the restrained and leftist image of a navigational left accelerationism is not humanist enough for noys. If Land wants to speed-up to the point where everything evaporates into Capital-Will or libidinal force or whatever then the left accelerationists want to keep things steady. Indeed for noys the problem is- as he repeatedly says throughout the book- human suffering. This is the moment of noys’ humanism that it should be impossible for us to ignore.

noys defined revolution as a human activity, a throwing of the break in order to avoid a catastrophe. In fact he states it done to avoid a second catastrophe. We live in an era of unprescendented and multiple catastrophes. It may be too late to through the break now. Unlike the accelerationists- in his accusation- noys wants a ‘just society’ (9) and seeks a politics that could ‘construct a just society’ (10).

In fact noys’s only positive contribution is to suggest that we require ‘struggles over the state and condition of labour’ (98). The closest we get to concrete illustration of this is in the list:

Campaigns against privatization and for a return of privatized services to public control try to reduce our dependence on work by attacking the way work is supposed to account for all our self-reproduction. These struggles are in parallel for struggles to defend public services, protect benefits, and sustain local and collective forms of support…[and] defence of workplace and employment conditions (99).

noys is aware that these will appear “reactive”. Indeed they are those struggles that respond to the aggressions of capitalism and that left accelerationism wants to out-pace. These are indeed reactive but they may be necessary. I don’t see any reason why a left accelerationist would deny any of these struggles, except to say that while necessary they are certainly insufficient. How any of these would end the refugee crisis or mitigate the worst effects of climate change? What they do have on accelerationism is that there defensiveness appeals to one of our inbuilt cognitive biases: loss aversion. Appeals to loss- and so to defensive struggles- and much more likely to move people to action than are any appeals to full automation, luxury or indeed- the most empty word- “revolution”.

In the end it seems that noys text traces a history of acceleration in order to show how whenever it appears it soon after disappears, having left a wake of tragedy and suffering. In doing so he successfully navigates us through and up close to many of the pivotal questions of our contemporary political environment. noys’ book should also be applauded for its desire to avoid human suffering but it should also be questioned for its traditionalist humanism that means it is unable to get to grips with the realities of our situation in the way it urges us to. For instance noys states that we can build a just society- a completely empty phrase- on the ground of what exists without

‘accepting all that exists or accepting what exists as given’ (10).

Yet if we do not accept all that exists aren’t we in fact entering a delusional world where we get to pick and choose which realities we attend to and which we do not? noys repeatedly says he wants us to avoid excess, to be sober, reasonable, and yet he does not want to work from the position of the repurposing of what exists. How else is anything to be achieved other than through is suggestion of interruption? For all its concern for actual living bodies- disguised under the term “labour”- noys’ politics ends up as leftism as usual out of fear of Landian monsters.

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