Park MacDougald

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ID Politics and Empathy

Jonathan Zhou pointed out to me on Twitter, re: my last blog post, that despite the excessive hay that sometimes gets made of microaggressions, they are real and can be pretty wounding. I actually agree with this, although I admit I can be pretty flippant about the whole microaggression fad as it manifests on campus or certain parts of the Internet. I’m a white dude and so have never been made fun of or made to feel different for my skin color (or I have, because I’m extraterrestrially pale, but it’s not really the same thing), but I can remember circumstances in which someone’s comment (maybe innocent) about some or other aspect of myself has made me feel terrible. On the one hand, that’s part of life; on the other, I imagine this is a lot worse if what’s being made fun of isn’t, say, your shitty personality but the fact that your skin color is different or your parents have accents or the country you’re living in isn’t the one you are from.

My own little social bubble means that I’m exposed to more social justice activism than I have a taste for, which may, of course, also lead me to overrate its importance. But putting that question aside, I’ve been reading a lot of V.S. Naipaul recently and have found him appealing precisely because he’s such a contrast to a lot of the saccharine multiculti stuff you’re exposed to in a university these days. Naipaul writes a lot about what used to be called the Third World. He can be flippant, certainly, and even openly mocking and cruel, but one thing I appreciate about him is that even when he’s a complete asshole, he doesn’t attempt to force different sorts of people—their cultures, their beliefs, their struggles, etc.—into the terms of his own ideological spats, of which he had many. He lets them talk for themselves, and tries as best he can to report what he sees without prettying it up. As a result, I actually get an idea of who the people he is talking to are, instead of just reading about the author’s projections. He actually wrote a book about where I’m from, A Turn in the South, in which I see a more convincing portrait of the place I grew up than in almost any book written by an American. Unsurprisingly, this kind of approach leads to a lot more space for empathy, even if I find the beliefs or customs of the people I’m reading about a bit strange or disorienting.

The contrast comes, I think, from the way that a lot of official “multiculturalism” seems to work these days, which is by translating the world’s different cultures into proxy combatants in an ongoing American culture war. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1967, and the terms haven’t changed much since then. Of course, “cancer of human history” is a bit silly—it’s the intellectual equivalent of fuck you, Dad, and is basically a sentiment of boomer revolt. Unfortunately, its also often the animating philosophy behind a lot of undergraduate humanities education. It’s telling, in my view at least, that people like Jared Diamond, who study comparative civilizations outside of the humanities, are generally ambivalent about the West’s (/”white people’s”) historical record. Yes, there are lots of atrocities (slavery, genocide), as well as lots of good things (penicillin, democracy). You can argue around the margins, or about where we need to go next, but the history of the United States or Europe or whatever is not a Manichean morality play; it’s ambiguous—a mix of civilization and barbarism—as are most human societies in most places.

To go back to Jonathan’s comment—one of the reasons why I think a lot of official multiculturalism (or “political correctness” or “identity politics” or whatever) is flawed is because it tends not to take the real lives of, say, immigrants seriously on their own terms, but instead is mostly interested in using them as a cudgel to bash the dominant cis-white-hetero-partrio-whatever, which of course is just an academic neologism for “Western culture before the 1960s”–the same apparently un-killable enemy that the American left has been fighting for 50+ years. This reaches the height of its absurdity in what I tried to describe in my last post, which was bringing some well-off kid from abroad, who presumably has their own universe of cultural experiences that don’t fit neatly into American terms, and drilling them in the catechism that their experience in America was best understood as a daily dehumanizing struggle against the slights of white men. I mean, maybe it was, and I’m the one projecting—I don’t know. But that is such a culturally- and historically-specific understanding of how the world or human experience works that I really doubt it was arrived at independently.

Now, I think the dynamic I described above is silly, but it’s not silly to ask white people to think about whether what they think is an innocent comment might not be hurtful or alienating. And this is something people of all types will increasingly have to think about and learn to navigate as the United States deals with the actual fact of diversity.

The problem is more that the framing of the question in terms of basic empathy tends to get overwhelmed by the wider logic of the raging and increasingly tribal culture war. This cuts both ways, and I don’t mean to let the right off the hook—I simply have more direct experience with the progressive end of this. But what I see in a lot of elite progressive institutions is a dynamic whereby one side insists that these problems of civility or acculturation or whatever, instead of relatively minor problems of cultural adjustment that can be worked out by reasonable people, are actually just further evidence of the irredeemable evil of America/the West/capitalism, which all get collapsed into the racialized shorthand “white people,” which is then rhetorically flogged to no end. This tends to, among other things, abolish the space for empathy from people who would be empathic on an individual level, encourage zero-sum us-vs.-them thinking, and to encourage an increasing subset of whites who aren’t here for the revolution toward a more tribal response.

This, in turn, is where the alt-right comes in, whose pitch to white people basically amounts to Gene Wilder’s from Young Frankenstein:

Hello handsome, you’re a good-looking fellow, do you know that? People laugh at you, people hate you, but why do they hate you? Because… they are jealous. Look at that boyish face. Look at that sweet smile. Do you wanna talk about physical strength? Do you want to talk about sheer muscle? Do you want to talk about the Olympian ideal? You are a God. And listen to me, you are not evil. You… are… good.

 This is only seductive once the conversation is already pretty dysfunctional.

Learning to Be an American

[I posted a version of this yesterday that a friend who attended the same event flagged for a few errors. I’ve fixed as best I could and edited.]

Since the incident in Chicago this past week, there’s been considerable back-and-forth on the internet about “reverse racism.” When video surfaced of four black kids beating up a mentally challenged white kid, a lot of conservatives worked themselves up over the expectation that the mainstream media would ignore the racial nature of the crime (the assailants shouted “fuck white people” and “fuck Donald Trump,” as did the attackers in a similar black-on-white beating in Chicago from November that got relatively less attention). Those fears were overblown—the media did report on it, and the assailants were charged with hate crimes—but some on the left took the bait anyway.

The reverse racism “debate” is not usually very productive or interesting. On the left, there is a reasonably well-entrenched idea that only whites can be racist, so the question is a non-question. This is (I think) a bogus thesis: plenty of non-whites are racist as hell, both against whites and against other ethnic groups, and, more broadly, tribalism is one of the basic problems of human social organization. On the other hand, a lot of my white, middle-aged relatives tend to focus on things like affirmative action and other racial preferences while discounting, say, intergenerational wealth transfers when they think about race and inequality. And then on the paranoid fringe, we have worries about “white genocide,” which, despite the best efforts of Dr. Ciaccerello-Maher (who normally has such good judgment), remains fringe paranoia.

That said, I think that those on the left tend to underestimate just how prevalent rhetorical violence against white people is in mainstream culture these days. This is especially noticeable, I think, among millenials, who, if they haven’t become a Twitter Marxist or a 4chan Nazi, often default to a sort of Manichean dualism in which white men (by which they typically mean Republicans) are the terrestrial embodiment of cosmic evil.

Cynically, this cosmology mirrors almost exactly the interests of a Democratic party that is fine with cultural radicalism but really doesn’t want major wealth redistribution. (It’s also in the self-interest of a lot of diversity consultants, academics, and students with otherwise unremunerative degrees.) More to my current point, lots of white people have gotten used to the “fuck white people” sentiments that are pretty commonly expressed in public these days. That is, they know, or at least assume, that this is a purely rhetorical violence, largely egged on by dumb kids and ethnic studies kooks. Or they believe that getting burned by Sam Bee is a reasonable price to pay for the other perks of being white in America. But if you take this stuff at face value, the rhetoric can be pretty jarring, and even if it’s not, it still seems curious why its Such a Thing.

I’ll illustrate with an example from the relatively cloistered world of Brown/RISD. Last spring, I attended a reading for a RISD poetry class that my girlfriend was in. Now, one of the things that you soon notice if you ever go to RISD is that there are a ton of Asians walking around. This is even more true at the art school than at Brown, which like the other Ivies enforces pretty strict informal quotas. The reason is that RISD has struck gold with wealthy Chinese and Korean international students (the school is 33% international) who can pay the $46,800 tuition without blinking. (This is in somewhat ironic contrast to the largely middle-class Asian-Americans at RISD, who often had to fight their immigrant parents tooth-and-nail to pay for art school.) For instance, there was a persistent jokey rumor when I was there about somebody’s friend of a friend making a killing writing RISD admissions essays for rich Koreans with poor English. Another, possibly apocryphal, story held that public buses in the wealthy neighborhoods of Seoul were plastered with Korean-language RISD advertisements. (There is apparently a RISD in Seoul program, which informs me that Seoul is “home to RISD’s largest group of international alumni.” So maybe the bus thing is true.)

Anyway, back to the poetry reading. The event was emceed by one of the aforementioned Asian students. I believe she was international, but I don’t actually know—just that she was a fourth year and had some South Korean background. But she went by a Korean first name and had a noticeable accent, although her English was otherwise fluent. Her clothes, makeup, and hair were all stylish (and quite expensive-looking) but subdued—no visible labels—which marked her off, in my mind at least, from the rich-but-less-assimilated foreign students who generally preferred bigger-name brands. But the lack of an Anglo name suggested “foreign born,” and her accent, which was either the type you got from a good English-language education in a foreign country or from immigrating as a teenager, meant that she had spent a solid proportion of her formative years (i.e. some decent chunk of ages 11–18) outside of the United States. On the other hand, she was acculturated enough that she could slide into the general student body instead of the social ghetto of the real foreigners.

The event included a reading of a few of her poems. I can’t remember the titles or much of the contents of most of them, except that one started off pretty before moving into a lengthy, graphic description of an abortion, and another one had “Donald Trump” in the title (I’m painting a bad picture, but she was actually a really good poet). The Trump poem was a series of imagined encounters with white men or a white man—addressed as such, “white man”—in places like the grocery store, in class, at the airport, et. cetera, where the narrator was subjected to microaggressions, on the level of “Asian girls are so pretty.” The last stanza of the poem began with something like (paraphrasing from memory), “you don’t know this, white man / but this Chink bitch carries a knife,” which was followed by a fantasy of cutting the white man’s throat and watching him bleed out on the pavement. This final stanza got the biggest crowd response of anything I saw during my time there—literal whoops and cheers and standing applause.

Now, I’m not actually sure how many years she had spent in the United States–four if she was international student, slightly longer if she had come over earlier. Its entirely possible that during that time, she’d had some bad experience—a local Providence yob yelling an ethnic slur at her, some dweeb making creepy comments on Tinder, a clueless store clerk using the term “Oriental,” whatever. But my guess would be that she—a wealthy, attractive, popular art student on one of the most liberal and diverse campus bubbles in America—had never experienced anything like oppression at the hands of white men, at least not in the sense of the structural/institutional discrimination that people normally mean when they talk about “white supremacy.” More likely, if she was anything like a lot of English-proficient Asians in an elite American social milieu, she was friends with white people and/or dated white men, and so I imagine that her actual personal experiences with them would be at least neutral if not positive.

That is to say, I don’t think she was racist or “reverse racist” against white men in any real sense, and I kind of doubt there was much of a connection between the explicit content of the poem and her interactions with actually-existing white men. But still, there she was on stage talking about stabbing them, in language that repeatedly drew attention to their whiteness, and not much else about them. What’s weird is that I think she may have just been picking up and repeating, in a somewhat half-digested form, the ambient noise of art school, probably from her professors and peers. Nothing happened to her to make her think she had been oppressed by white men; she learned from her environment that she was oppressed by white men as a sort of a priori principle.

Now, this is a bit striking to me. You take some smart, well-off bougie kid from Seoul—presumably with no real beef against Americans or white men or whatever—and stick them into an elite American institution for four years, and they come out at the end of it writing bloody fantasias about murdering white men, which their American peers and American professors praise to the skies as socially-conscious art. Maybe they are all just having horrible experiences, but I imagine if you looked at previous generations of international students (except for maybe Sayyid Qutb), you would not see a similar pattern. Put a little differently, it seemed that way that this girl assimilated into American culture was by learning to see herself, despite all the obvious advantages that she had, as the aggrieved victim of whites, against whom she was encouraged to nurture gruesome revenge fantasies (or at least to write poems suggesting she did).

This doesn’t constitute a major social crisis or reverse racism. But my gut instinct is that if part of getting an elite education in America is learning to feel fear and contempt toward the country’s majority racial group (even if, at the level of personal behavior, one doesn’t act on this), that doesn’t bode well for social peace going forward. And if you’re wondering why we are now seeing a drifting toward white identity politics, stuff like this is a place to start.

New Article up at NyMag

Actually up yesterday, but I’m in the middle of a move, so internet behavior is sporadic.

Deep History and the Climate

I’ve been reading up a bit recently on two related subjects. One is what’s known as “Deep History,” a recent trend in historiography associated with the Harvard medievalist Daniel Lord Smail. Deep history proposes that historians begin to study the deep past, using findings from science—including (paleo)anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology, primatology, and neuroscience—to study history before the advent of civilization, writing, or agriculture. History should begin 2.6 million years ago, not 10,000.

The second subject is what might be called, in a sense, ‘environmental history.’ Really, it’s a loose set of speculations as to what climate change, or the advent of the ‘Anthropocene,’ means for history, and how we understand ‘the human’ as the subject of history. Dipesh Chakrabarty provides a summary of the problem, in the title of the first of four theses advanced in “The Climate of History”: “Anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.” That is, man is no longer separate from Nature (that’s a break from most of the Western tradition). Worse, dreams of freedom, which have, in both liberal and ‘radical’ guises, dominated Western universal civilization since the onset of modernity, are all equally predicated on the burning of fossil fuels.

The latter point is obvious, when you consider it, but at some level hasn’t quite sunken in. Chakrabarty, a postcolonial Marxist historian, draws it out a bit. The idea of the Anthropocene, which posits a break in geological time due to human destruction of the environment, reveals ‘critical’ (i.e. Marxist or post-Marxist/post-colonial) histories of capitalism to be inadequate to grasp the stakes of the present crisis. Zizek quips that Marx wanted capitalism without the capitalism: a high-tech, productive, leisured society without exploitation or division. Yet many on the left haven’t grasped the extent to which that left-wing vision rests on the assumption of abundant carbon energy.

Deep history is not primarily concerned with the climate. Yet here it intersects with climate history on the question of the species: can homo sapiens be considered as a subject, or agent, of history? And what it would mean to write a history of the species?

For deep history, our identity as a species comes from a shared physiology, evolutionary background, biological constraints, developmental tendencies, and patterns of behavior. Scientific advances have made it possible to speak of something like a human nature, even if we recognize that this nature is non- essentialist and subject to cultural variation. All humans like to stimulate the right neurotransmitters; both our bodies and our cultural forms are probably subject to selective pressures; biology, not cultural conditioning, is our best explanation for why, in every culture, men commit more murders, assaults, and rapes.

From the perspective of critical climate history, as from the perspective of most things ‘critical,’ ‘species’ is more complex and obscure. It is less a biological universal or name for a certain class of walking primate than an identity defined negatively, by its effects. Homo sapiens’ capacity to destroy its own preconditions for life is its species being, as becomes clear only when we actually threaten self-destruction. We emerge as a species into self-knowledge only in the light of shared catastrophe.

For the critical historians, even this reduced idea of ‘species’ sits uncomfortably; it looks like the abstract universal ‘humanity’ that nearly a century of critique has attempted to do away with. Just as the abstract man of the Enlightenment was, in concrete historical terms, always just the white man, so too is homo sapiens, in this view, a false universal; proclaimed by the world’s rich in order to hide the fact that they, not the ‘species,’ are responsible for the climate crisis. It was not homo sapiens that brought us into the Anthropocene, but the Europeans, the Americans, the Soviets, and now the Chinese; and it is not homo sapiens who will suffer the most if the worst comes to pass, but Bangladeshis, Indians, and sub-Saharan Africans. This is essentially a moral critique: it apportions blame, and responsibility. It is therefore political. We are beginning to recognize that the future may be difficult. It may require sacrifice. Yet how to apportion burden and blame?

What really separates the species universalists from the skeptics is the question of capitalism, or modernity itself. To what extent should we view the last two centuries—the Industrial Revolution, the Great Divergence, the Great Acceleration—as a qualitative break from the rest of human history? Quantitative measures of human activity, from CO2 emissions to GDP to population, generally appear when graphed as a J-curve, with a long flat tail stretching into the deep past, increasing first linearly, then exponentially, then, by the mid-20th century, almost hyperbolically. Environmental and economic historians now generally agree that for most of human history, there were hard, Malthusian checks on population (therefore the economy) due to the limited availability of land for food and fuel—a bottleneck that was only removed by the Industrial Revolution. ‘Capitalism’ names, roughly, the particular set of social relations that has made this escape possible and self-sustaining; ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’ name its integration—by force or persuasion—of discrete localities into one global, modern, commercial civilization. It’s difficult to see how this could not be singular.

Yet deep historians want to argue that it’s not. For them, what appear to us as qualitative breaks are, when compared to the patterns of the deep human past, better understood as mere increases in scale. In a chapter on “Scale” from Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, Mary C. Stiner, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, and her co-authors argue that “human history follows the pattern of a fractal, in which the same pattern is repeated at every level of magnification.” Rather than a static pre-modern history broken by a modern rupture, Stirner et. al. see the entirety of homo sapiens’ history as “punctuated by momentous leaps in population, energy flow, efficiency, levels of political organization, and degrees of connectivity” (247). For instance, understood as emergent properties of complex systems operating at different scales, there is little difference between the leap in social connectivity enabled by the internet, and the one enabled by the cultural and cognitive evolution that allowed early humans to expand social groups beyond the ‘natural’ limit of 150 implied by the size of our neocortex.

A corollary of a fractal, or repeating past, is that human degradation of the environment—including a tendency to overshoot ‘natural’ limits, and attempt to compensate for rather than prevent crisis—is not a modern deviation, but a constant pattern in our relations with our environment. Anthropologists still debate the existence of the “ecologically noble savage,” or low-tech, pre-industrial societies that maintained sustainable relations with their environment, but there is evidence of humans precipitating local ecological collapse at nearly every level of social complexity. Stiner et. al. even cite the thesis that agriculture first arose due to changes in technology, the division of labor, and food-gathering techniques prompted by a human-induced collapse, in the Mediterranean basin, of big-game mammals some 35,000-15,000 years ago. (While the deep historians tend to be pessimistic about long-term sustainability, there are examples of successful response to ecological crisis, notably Japan’s Tokugawa-period reforestation.)

The fractal thesis is intriguing. Still, something about the sheer scale of our contemporary problems makes it difficult to credit the idea the present is not absolutely different from the past. Yet the same thing is often said about capitalist globalization and empire: nothing like this has ever happened before. I recently began reading V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers, a book about—to use a charitable description—Islam in the modern world. His epigraph reads as an eloquent description of the most recent century:

Now in earlier times the world’s history had consisted, so to speak, of a series of unrelated episodes, the origins and results of each being as widely separated as their localities, but from this point on history becomes an organic whole: the affairs of Italy and Africa are connected with those of Asia and Greece, and all events bear a single relationship to a single end.

Yet those words were written over 2,000 years ago, by Polybius, in his history of the Roman republic. Perhaps the past is not so foreign after all.

The question of how to act in the present is political no matter what. But what action we take will differ if we understand our condition as the result of a few bad historical actors, a flawed civilization, or an exploitative set of social relations, rather than the logical culmination of how our species relates to the world. One set of solutions runs away from ‘modernity,’ broadly conceived; the other runs through it.

Accelerationism, Left and Right

After my giant NRx piece at The Awl, I’d been planning on leaving the topic alone. Recently, however, I’ve had a few interactions – a conversation with another grad student who’s into Left Accelerationism and ran across my piece, and an e-mail from someone who wanted to discuss a recent Twitter exchange they had with Nick Land – that have gotten me thinking about Land and Acceleration once again, so I thought I’d type out some of my thoughts.

To begin with: I’m not a neoreactionary, nor an accelerationist of either the left or the right-wing variety. I don’t quite have a dog in these fights. At the end of the day I consider myself a liberal, albeit one who is suspicious of some of liberalism’s broader truth-claims (e.g. regarding the source of rights or the efficacy of rational debate). Still, I tend to think that much of the worthwhile political thought out there comes from traditions that are, in their broad outlines, il- or anti-liberal. The Communist Antonio Gramsci and the Nazi Carl Schmitt had more interesting things to say about the political and ideological dynamics of parliamentary liberalism than most liberals do, and I think the best book on modern ethics is the conservative Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Liberalism tends, perhaps more than any other ideology, to perceive itself not as an ideology but simply as the way things are, and this tends to obstruct understanding.

All this to say, I think there’s some utility in familiarizing one’s self with anti-liberal thought. Most of us, especially if we go to elite colleges, and especially if we take classes in the humanities, are exposed to the left-wing variety. Marx, Freud, Foucault, Fanon, Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze-Guattari, Judith Butler, and Zizek (who else?) form a sort of quasi-radical cultural theory canon that achieves a limited but significant penetration in the mind of many American students. Limited, because, despite the revolutionary aspirations of most of these theorists, they are typically assimilated into a vague left-liberal critique of consumer society, patriarchy, and structural racism. Significant, because they do at least transmit, in embryo, the idea that “liberalism,” understood as an ideology that prioritizes abstract individual rights and equal opportunity, might have some problems with it. That these problems have recently been glossed along the lines of “liberal norms unfairly protect the speech of oppressors (read: people I don’t like)” is unfortunate, but neither here nor there.

As for right-wing anti-liberalism, however, many people’s intuitive understanding is that it is some sort of bizarre atavism; a product of racism, religious indoctrination, and/or ignorance, with no possible substantive content. No doubt, some of it is – ressentiment is a powerful thing. But calling someone a racist – even if they are a racist – can only get you so far in dismissing an argument, especially if they don’t actually care about the social consequences that usually give a term like that its power. And it would be foolish to simply assume that the fact of their racism (or whatever else) is in itself evidence of their stupidity. Carl Schmitt was a Nazi, and also a brilliant political theorist. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Nick Land’s neoreactionary, right-wing accelerationism is racist in any conventional sense of that term. Yet Land is also a quite interesting thinker of capitalism, and because capitalism, broadly defined, is the reality that structures and will continue to structure human existence throughout the foreseeable future, he is perhaps worth paying attention to. His overriding political and ethical ‘goal,’ from which his racism, his eugenicism, and technological fetishism spring, is optimize for intelligence, which for him is both the Darwinian law of the universe (‘Gnon’), as well as a functional description of what really-exisiting capitalism actually does. Even to call it a ‘goal’ is misleading, as for Land capitalism is an abolition of Hume’s is/ought distinction. What capitalism ‘should’ do (optimize for intelligence) is, as a matter of fact, what it does. Land’s Acclerationism, insofar as it can be understood as a political program, simply counsels that we let this process be, because we don’t really have the capability to control it anyway.

One of the conversations I had that got me thinking about this again centered around the prospects for a Left Accelerationist politics, and Land’s relation to it. In the context that it came up – beers after a graduate seminar on postructuralism, full of smart people all affiliated with some form of left-of-liberal politics – Left Accelerationism was roundly denounced, based on the (mistaken) notion that the Left Accelerationist program is a form of the Leninist “heighten the contradictions,” or a plan to ‘accelerate’ capitalism, intensifying alienation and exploitation along with technological development, until the entire edifice collapses under the weight of its own immanent contradictions and space opens up for some form of high-tech communism (this is how Malcolm Harris interpreted the phenomenon in his review of #Accelerate). As Pete Wolfendale points out, no one actually holds this position, or at least, none of the thinkers typically associated with Accelerationism of any form – not Nick Srnicek/Alex Williams, not Pete Wolfendale, not Reza Negarestani, not Robin Mackay, not even Nick Land. Its primary thrust is simply that of a high-tech, Promethean Marxism (and is in that sense more orthodox than other strains of post-Marxism), that stresses the political need to re-purpose capitalist technological advances for the goals of communism, and not to get bogged down in localism or nostalgia. It is similar to something like Aaron Bastani’s Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, and some other forms of leftist thought emerging from Italian Autonomist Marxism.

Once we got that out of the way, however, someone mentioned that it was unfortunate that Land had ‘defected’ to the right wing, because he was an interesting theorist and his Accelerationism had a potential to be put to good left-wing use. The thesis I proposed, however – and its one I know that Twitter (in)famous communist Jehu shares – is that for all the good intentions of the Left-Accels, Land’s “right” version of Accelerationism is the only authentic and logically consistent form of Accelerationism, as well as the only one that helps us understand anything about the dynamics of capitalism. For Landian Accelerationism, capitalism is a machinic, ‘techonomic’ (technological-economic) explosion, whose self-reinforcing, self-excitatory mechanism is best modelled as a runaway cybernetic feedback loop (it should be said that if you’re a cyberneticist, everything is best modelled as a feedback loop). This just means that the immanent dynamics of capital push necessarily towards the ever-greater expansion of capital – Marx’s M-C-M’ circuit is cybernetic runaway par excellence – and immanent within that expansion is a necessary co-dependence of technological and economic advance, including ever-increasing powers of abstraction and computation. As ‘capital’ expands in both space and time (imperialism, futures’ markets), the market, understood in its Misesian sense as catallactic, itself becomes a sort of distributed computer for the calculation of prices, spontaneously generating collective intelligence far in excess of what humans are consciously capable of mastering. Thus, the market an sich is a form of ‘artificial superintelligence’ long before the computer is even invented. This is, in part, what Land means by the “teleological identity of capitalism and artificial intelligence.”

There is a certain perversity inherent in this runaway which animates Marx and much subsequent critique of capitalism: exchange is ‘supposed’ to serve human ends by allowing us to trade useful items, yet capitalism makes exchange an end in itself, to which humans are then subjected; the abstraction makes itself real, supplanting the ‘real thing’ itself. As a beneficial side-effect, we’ve gotten richer, and our science, medicine, and diet have advanced to the point that we’re smarter, healthier, and live longer, but we are no longer masters of our own destiny in any meaningful sense (whether we ever where is another question altogether). This critique of capital in the name of human self-control tends to split into (at least) two political tendencies: the ‘machine-breakers,’ who want to simply abort capitalism/industrial society for some previous social arrangement (this can be a form either of nostalgist leftism or conservatism), and the futurists, such as orthodox Marxists and the Left-Accelerationists, who think that we can overcome (sublate/aufheben) alienated industrial society and build a non-alienated utopia that nonetheless retains the myriad benefits of industrial society.

Machine-breaking might be a viable, though dangerous political program. The left-futurism is, in my view, a delusion, that can itself only end in another form of machine-breaking. For Land, as for Marx, as for Weber, the entire point of capitalism is that it is not amenable to human aims. ‘Capital’ is in a sense an abstraction, as there is no such thing existing in the world, and Marxists are quick to point out that capitalism, as a mode of production, is a totality of social  relations between humans that nevertheless imposes itself upon us as if it were a real thing – it is ‘reified,’ it is, a ‘social construct.’ Yet it is not any less real for being a construct, and its constructedness does not imply an ability to de- or re-construct it in accordance with our intentions. A sandcastle is a social construct, but there are ways you can build them, and ways you can’t, no matter how much solidarity you are able to mobilize on behalf of better sandcastles.

The capitalist, though himself a human, in order to exist as capitalist must act in accordance with the laws imposed by the logic of the system (i.e. the profit motive). These laws according to which he acts, however, are not the ‘laws’ of e.g. a central bureaucratic state, but the emergent properties of a vastly complex and decentralized system of interactions, whose outward manifestations (like ‘prices’) are the products of distributed calculations that exceed any single agent or group of agents’ capacity to calculate. This is why central planning doesn’t work – elite financiers hardly understand the market, and it would be absurd to expect a government agency to do so. While the conditions, or parameters, for these interactions are not ‘given’ – one can certainly destroy an institutional structure, or design it poorly enough that it ceases to support market mechanisms – that is not the same thing as saying that you can tweak the parameters to make them give you any desired outcome. And as we see with things like Bitcoin and shadow-banking, localized efforts to (re-)direct capital towards consciously-chosen human aims are simply obstacles that Capital routes around. To stop this you would need something like a Hegelian world-state, but even then, its unclear how you dodge the calculation problems.

The intractability of capitalism is something that Marx understood, and was accordingly derisive of voluntaristic attempts to reform the system. However, within the orthodox Marxist schema, the labor theory of value (LTV) provided a built-in theoretical escape hatch from capitalism in the form of the revolutionary proletarian subject. Both Landian Accelerationism and orthodox Marxism acknowledge that the technological drive of the capitalism leads towards the increasing superfluousness of human labor to economic production. Within the LTV frame, however, as living human labor is the ultimate source of all value, the abolition of human labor from the productive process is ultimately the abolition of the law of value itself: a work free, high-tech Eden, the end of mankind’s prehistory, communism. Yet absent the LTV – which has grown increasingly difficult to maintain in the 20th and 21st centuries, and which Left Accelerationism makes no serious attempt to defend – the entire schema falls apart. As Land writes in his critique of Srnicek and Williams:

If the Law of Value is to be defended, value production is measured in (labor) time. Marx’s transformation factor is designed to conserve the equation between quantified — timed — work and economic values, as expressed in prices. If this patch fails, the entire analysis of Capital loses application to determinate social fact. There would be no Marxian economics at all (a conclusion Negri and the Autonomists seem willing to accept).

It is hard to see how a Left Accelerationism could be maintained under these conditions. Historical time would no longer have any calculable relation to labor commoditization, working life, or any constructable proletarian class identity. The real time of (capitalistic) modernity — onto which accelerationism latches — could no longer be described as the time of work. At the limit, human work-forces are relegated to “aphidian parasites of the machines”. Once the class struggle over labor time is divorced from a fully-determining role in the production of value, the proletariat is stripped of the potential to incarnate history for-itself, consigning ‘Marxism’ over to an articulation of marginal grievances, and ultimately to the heat death of identity politics. (This, of course, is exactly the trend that has been sociologically apparent.)

Absent LTV, all that Left Accelerationism can really hope for is a sort of socialist voluntarism that subjects production and exchange to supervenient political aims. But here we’re back to the problem of central planning, and thus have lost whatever libidinal futurist appeal Left Accelerationism had in the first place . More strikingly, absent LTV, the problem posed to humanity by the technological drive of capital is not how to reach the New Jerusalem that the elimination of human labor from the production process will allow, but that this elimination will simply result in humans becoming superfluous to an increasingly autonomic system of machine production. What we will do with a warming planet of 10 billion people when progressively fewer of them can be productively integrated into the global economy, the marginal cost of their labor sinks below the cost of their own social reproduction, and states are obliged to provide for larger and larger numbers of unproductive workers at the expense of smaller and smaller numbers of high-skill workers who can still be plugged in to economically-productive roles? This is an entirely different economic, political, and ethical problematic. In this landscape, Land’s killer AI, speciation, and Galt’s Gulch-style ‘exit’ all begin to look like provisional speculative (if malevolent) answers to the question of: what do you do with all these (economically) useless people?

I’ve got a bit more to say on the subject of the (Landian/Moldbuggian) autocratic-libertarian differentiation between dialectics and difference (voice/exit) as a potentially useful frame (for non-reactionaries!), but this is long enough as is so I’ll leave that for later.

Speech and all that

Since I’ve been back in a university setting this year (I’m currently at Brown), I’ve been struck by the recent wave of campus activism; both the nature of the protests themselves and the media reactions they’ve provoked. They’ve received extensive coverage in the mainstream press, and some prominent journalists, such as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, have made “campus protest” one of their regular beats. One should keep in mind that much of this protest has taken place at the elite colleges where so many prominent journalists went to school, but narcissism only goes so far as an explanation; it seems likely, rather, that many see in campus activism a microcosm of larger social dynamics in America.

The facts of the matter, of course, depend on your point of view, but the best attempt I can do at neutral summary goes something like this: a number of student activists, acting principally as spokespersons for marginal identity groups, have charged their colleges with failing to provide institutional spaces in which they feel respected and validated. The range of alleged crimes on the part of the colleges is vast, and includes institutional complicity with macro-scale historical injustices, such as racism, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and cissexism, but the offenses most typically targeted for action are smaller-scale: institutional underrepresentation of minorities, hostile learning environments, implicit bias and discrimination on the part of professors, and frequent low-level insults endured from fellow classmates.

The students have demanded a number of major institutional reforms, including more money for scholarships, more resources for students, increased diversity in hiring, mandatory diversity training for students and faculty, and more effective punishments for those who deviate from universities’ communal norms of respect, diversity, and progress. The students were only partly successful, typically eliciting praise, symbolic gestures, and even large changes in spending and hiring priorities, but rarely getting the radical institutional reforms they demanded. Critics of the activists, both inside and outside of the academy, have accused them of violating important liberal norms such as freedom of speech and academic freedom, which in turn has provoked a wider, though generally unproductive, debate on the nature and limits of free speech.

On the left, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on weighing the demands of the protestors with liberal procedural norms; some deny there is any conflict, while others are openly contemptuous of “free speech” and other bourgeois legalisms; the question is not whether abstract speech should be protected, but of the content of particular speech. Speech by oppressors or which legitimizes or fails to interrogate oppression is itself a form of oppression and should not be tolerated. As Jonathan Chait noted to some controversy, this is essentially a Marxist-derived theory of political rights; that is, abstract individual rights are subordinated to the overriding goal of class, race, or gender justice. Abstract liberal protections for speech in this view can only ever be protections for speech of the oppressor, and serve to further reveal liberalism’s complicity with oppression, i.e. its moral and ideological bankruptcy. It should therefore not be considered a pejorative to term this worldview “illiberal.”

The rise of this relatively anti- or il-liberal radical left, supported by a lively far-left media presence perfectly captured by the prominence of Jacobin magazine, occurs within a larger national context in which, as we read every day, a right-wing demagogue is summoning the forces of reactionary populist darkness, promising strongman rule and a disregard for the law, scapegoating foreigners and domestic minorities, and pointing dangerously to a sort of incipient white ethno-nationalism. While the candidacy of Hillary Clinton suggests that liberalism is still a winning political platform (though perhaps an unenthusiastic one), it would seem that ideologically, American liberalism is threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. Its not surprising, then, that a few Cassandras are speaking of a Weimar America.

Crises tend to polarize, and that is what we are seeing: a nation that is increasingly split into two hostile, perhaps irreconcilable political tribes, each convinced that the other is evil, stupid, and bent on total victory. Liberalism doesn’t tend to fare well in these situations, because it is primarily an ideology of proceduralism that remains agnostic on values beyond those of “rights,” typically defined in the negative. Of course, as any good Marxist or Catholic knows, placing the rights of the individual metaphysically prior to the claims of the community or to an analysis of the social dynamics in which those rights were conceived and are embodied is not exactly an agnostic position when it comes to organizing a society. It obstructs revolutionary plans for social transformation, yet in the long run tends towards the progressive abolition of the claims of tradition. More fundamentally, when the enemy is conceived not as someone who disagrees with you, but someone who is simply wrong and whose errors can only be caused by stupidity or evil, there is little reason to grant them rights, except perhaps as a tactical concession until your side has sufficient power to annihilate them. So there’s no surprise, really, that young radicals are rejecting liberalism.

Within the context of the university, as long as one maintains that the purpose of the university is intellectual inquiry of some form or other (which may be naïve), it seems obvious that one cannot concede to the demands of activists on certain points, such as, notably, persistent demands that schools grant power to certain students and faculty to discipline or fire other students and faculty members for perceived ideological infractions. However noble the nominal goals, Chait rightly points out that the question of “who are the oppressed, and who the oppressor?” has typically been answered by leftists as “the Left is the oppressed, and whoever opposes the Left is the oppressor,” and once party unity breaks down, the question of “who is the authentic Left?” is generally resolved in favor of whoever has the power to assert their will. One doesn’t have to go back to the Stalinist purges to observe this dynamic – enough time spent on left-wing Twitter gives a sufficient example of radicals’ congenital inability to avoid self-destructive purges, witch hunts, and purity contests, with the role of General Secretary played by whoever has amassed the most social capital in the relevant milieu. It’s impossible to watch something like Jacobinghazi and think, “these people should hold power.” At a more basic level, this sort of politics is only really justifiable if you are convinced you have some sort of unmediated access to capital-t Truth, a claim that no university should accept.

However, I think that the concern about Whats Wrong With the Kids These Days speaks to a larger anxiety that we are slipping into some sort of low-level civil war in which the gloves are finally being thrown off, and we are generally unsure that our liberal foundations – in the broad sense that encompasses both the mainstream right and left – will hold. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly these conditions of intense conflict in which liberal procedures are most likely to be rejected and in which they are also the most important. Aside from somewhat tired pleas for humanity and civility, or invocation of free speech as if it is natural law, we might settle for that classic of the liberal canon, self-interest: insofar as you consider your enemy to be the worldly manifestation of evil, treat rights, norms, and procedures with the knowledge that at some point, your enemy will hold power.

Nam June Paik in DC

[I’m posting some re-edited versions of my old blog posts to get some more content up here. This one is referencing an exhibit that I attended in Washington, D.C. in April 2015]

This Sunday, I went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition Watch This! Revelations in Media Art, “an introduction to media art and to the material and conceptual exchange with technology that is shaping artistic practice,” according to the Smithsonian website. Next to that, in slightly smaller type, we learn that the exhibit has been made possible by (among others) Altria– known until 2003 as Philip Morris:


In an exhibition about how human systems of meaning have been mediated and changed by technology and the image, it’s perhaps appropriate that an unsavory source of funding was obscured by a nonsense corporate neologism and pre-imagistic block of colors. Anyway.

The most spectacular piece on display was Nam June Paik’s Megatron/Matrix, a gigantic wall of tube televisions that had been transformed into an avatar of subjectivity in the information age:


Nam June Paik. Megatron/Matrix. 1995


The Smithsonian says:

Megatron Matrix is roughly the size of a billboard and holds 215 monitors. The video – augmented by a loop of unrelated soundbites – mixes images from the Seoul Olympics with Korean folk rituals and modern dance. Smaller clips play simultaneously on multiple monitors, while larger, animated images flow across the boundaries between screens, suggesting a world without borders in the electronic age. Paik sorted the monitors into two distinct sections. The Megatron conveys the vast reach of the media, while the smaller section, the Matrix, emphasizes the impact on each of us.”

The larger section on the left (“the Megatron”), broadcasts fragmentary, disconnected loops of news footage, partially and sometimes fully overlaid by striking animated images such as the bird shown in the picture above, or manga-style human figures. On the right, in the Matrix, the images were more abstract – awkward, dancing CGI humanoids, or highly rendered human faces, flashing and rotating in patterns – always arranged to draw the viewer’s attention to the eye of the visual storm: a single TV in the center of the Matrix playing a continuous loop of softcore pornography. Two topless women writhe on a bed in a sharply illuminated room; the camera cuts and zooms erratically, lingering on the the obvious body parts, and briefly displaying the mock seduction on the models’ faces.

The description provided by the museum suggest that the nude women are meant to convey that “our bodies are our primal connection to the world,” and in fact the central screen suggests a substrate of animal desire beneath the sensory overload of the spectacle. Yet its telling that in this vision, even primitive sexuality is always already mediated by the image. Pornography represents desire, though in a thoroughly commodified, spectacular form. While true of all representations, it is especially true of porn that its status as representation calls attention to itself, assuming an independent significance outside of the reality – sex – of which it is nominally a copy. What does it mean that our ‘primal connection to the world’ is a secondary, artificial, socially mediated fantasy?

It seems clear that Megatron/Matrix depicts a basically Freudian model of the self: the Megatron is the ‘real’ world and the Matrix is our inner/subjective world, with unconscious sexual drives at its core. These divisions are formally maintained by the organization of the piece, and even at the level of content we observe differences – notably, the images in the Matrix are almost exclusively of other humans. Yet the overall effect is to efface these distinctions by emphasizing their sameness. The world and the self are simply different aggregates of electronic images, or packets of information. Sex is no different, essentially, from politics. History too collapses into a ubiquitious “now,” with Korean folk rituals side-by-side with modern entertainment in a timeless, repetitive world of pictures.


Paolo Virno has termed this sense of the collapse of history as déjà vu, a condition in which new experience is perceived as memory, and the present as a repetition of an illusory past. Déjà vu is a sort of colonization, by memory, of both the present and the future. It is at once the condition theorized by postmodern partisans of the End of History thesis – Virno names Kojeve and Baudrillard – as well as an actually existing mode of conduct in late industrial society, characterized both by fatalism regarding action, which is doomed to repeat the past (one is a performer playing out a role), and by a tendency to view one’s own life as would a spectator or tourist, “collecting” experiences rather than living them. TINA and Instagram. Virno maintains that this is fundamentally a misrecognition.

In déjà vu, our present action is felt to correspond to some identical action in the past. This past, however, is not an actual past event, but a “fictitious other-then,” an undifferentiated past in general that “accompanies every actuality like an aura – without, though, itself having ever been actual.” Because it is a purely formal past, containing no content of its own, every event or experience can be referred back to it, taking on the appearance of a repetition.

Déjà vu here is what Virno calls a “real anachronism,” because it really is an error in chronology – the appearance of repetition is an illusion. Yet this real anachronism refers back to, and is a confusion of, a “formal anachronism” that actually is found in human language and action. The past-in-general is an a priori form of anteriority, structurally attached to all presents, and pointing them back to itself. It refers all actuality to a prior potentiality. This structure is embedded within human language, understood not as a system of signs, but as the language faculty, or the capacity for speech. Language exists as “an inexhaustible potential, a potential that is perennial because it is never exhausted or attenuated by the ensemble of its realizations.” The actual instances of language as we experience it, in the form of concrete words and utterances, emerges from this language-as-potentiality, and both presuppose and refer back to it. This is an anachronism, because language-as-potentiality is always formally anterior to any concrete utterance, even though it only ever appears to us in the guise of these utterances, which then point back to the faculty that made them possible. Virno applies the same formula to all action, and thus labor and politics – our capacity to act always exceeds, and is presupposed by, our actions. As the gap between what is and what could be, this formal anachronism is thus the absolute pre-condition for all human action, communication, and History.

Déjà vu occurs when the formal anachronism is confused for a description of reality: our actions are nothing but repetitions of that which already exists, my speech is nothing but a re-arrangement of things that have already been said. In Virno’s words: “false recognition [i.e. déjà vu]… reconfigures today’s possible as a previously-existing real that we must now inevitably reiterate.” Thus Virno’s thesis that déjà vu’s illusion of the End of History is only possible as a misrecognition of History’s actual condition of possibility – the formal gap between our actions and our capacity to act.

This sense of déjà vu is on terrifying display in Megatron/Matrix: our reality is a looped repetition of previously existing realities, and distinctions between past, present, and future lose their meaning. The way out of this bind is suggested by another piece in the exhibit – Buky Schwartz’s Painted Projections:


Abstract shapes are painted on the wall and floor of a hallway in such a way that they appear as a cube when viewed from the correct angle. A camera and monitor are arranged so that any person walking through the hallway, when viewed on the monitor, appears to be walking in and out of this cube. For the viewer, ‘reality’ is limited to the view of the camera; insofar as every passerby is perceived in terms of their interactions with this illusory cube, this view entails a foreclosure of possibility – ’action’ can only be action within the confines of the frame, which in reality is no action at all. It is only when we remove our eyes from the screen that its ‘reality’ is shown to be nothing of the sort.


Not really using this site anymore but article of mine is up at the Awl!