Tade Thompson, ROSEWATER

WARNING: numerous spoilers, since I cannot really discuss the novel without them

Tade Thompson’s extraordinary new SF novel Rosewater is the second recent book I have read with the premise of extraterrestrials arriving in Nigeria. The first is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, equally wonderful, but in an entirely different way. Both novels go explicitly against the common tendency to set such narratives in big cities of the Global North. Of course, there is always the danger that a white anglophone reader from a hegemonic country and culture (i.e., somebody like myself) might find any such futuristic depiction of the developing world to be alluringly “exotic,” if only on account of its unfamiliarity. However, both Thompson and Okorafor guard against this tendency by immersing us in the social background, without any special explanations. The underlying state of Nigerian society is simply taken for granted in both novels — which forces the reader (no matter his or her own background) to take it for granted as well. Lagoon and Rosewater both expose the provincialism of the very North American, British, and European readers who tend to congratulate themselves on their supposed cosmopolitanism. The fact is, both authors (and many of their characters) are far more cosmopolitan than I am, because they are intimately familiar both with Western (US/UK) society and with societies in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In any case, Rosewater is set some fifty years in the future (2066, with flashbacks to earlier dates in the mid-21st-century). In Thompson’s future Nigeria and future world, computing technologies have been pushed — mostly for reasons of political control — well beyond their actual state today. For instance, people all have implants that allow them to broadcast their location — or to be tracked by the police and by others, even when they do not want to be. Many (but not all) people also have implants that allow them to access the phone and data networks, without the need for an external device. There are also ubiquitous mobile surveillance mechanisms, often lodged in the bodies of animals like birds and cats. The novel doesn’t make all that much of these new technologies; they are fairly linear extrapolations from devices that we already have today. They simply form part of the everyday background of the novel. Surveillance as it exists today has been both expanded, and completely routinized and “normalized.”

The same can be said for the social and political dimensions of Rosewater. The extrapolation remains fairly linear. The world of 2066, in Nigeria and elsewhere, is riven by the same inequalities of class, the same rampant capitalism (and the same downscale version of it, rampant criminal organizations), the same violent prejudices (e.g. against gays and lesbians), and the same governmental corruption and deep-state surveillance and control that we already have today. “Neoliberalism” is never named as such in the text, but despite its complete failure as an economic and social program, it evidently remains as the hegemonic — indeed, as the only — social form. No collective movement for change seems possible. Social, political, and economic forms of oppression therefore exist as obstacles that each individual must navigate on his or her own. In this way, Thompson keeps us aware of the constrictions of what the late Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the situation in which we find it easier to imagine the end of the world, than any concrete alternative to globalized neoliberal capitalism.

There is one ironic exception to this situation. At some point in the half century between today and the novel’s future projection, America “goes dark,” shutting off all contact with the rest of the world. There is no trade, and no communication. This is perhaps the triumph of Trumpism, born in reaction to neoliberalism’s utter failure. From the very little information people in the rest of the world have managed to get, America seems to have become a completely closed and regimented society. In any case, neither in America nor elsewhere is there any indication of any movement towards a more equitable social system.

The novum (science fictional novelty) that drives Rosewater is something entirely different from this incremental development of human technologies and social arrangements. It is rather the presence of entirely alien (extraterrestrial) life forms and artifacts. We are introduced, early in the book, to what people call Utopicity: an enormous biodome, of alien construction, that is closed off to all human access. Utopicity is opaque to all outside inquiry; but it crackles with electricity, and it seems to possess almost supernatural powers. Once a year, the gates of Utopicity open for just a few hours: the dome emits radiation that almost instantly cures the illnesses (from cancer and HIV down to the common cold) of anyone who is exposed to it. Because of this, the new city of Rosewater, forming a ring all around the biodome, has grown, in just a decade, from uninhabited savannah to a major metropolis. (The name “Rosewater” is an ironic allusion to the foul river smells of the city, whose sewage treatment facilities have not kept up with its swelling population).

The alien technology of Utopicity is so advanced as to be (in the words of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) indistinguishable from magic. Importantly, though, this technology is not infallible. For instance, the beings in the dome sometimes get the details of human anatomy wrong. The radiation from the dome cures all sorts of ailments, but it sometimes leaves the patients with “knees which point backwards,” or with “multiple and displaced orifices.” The radiation also affects recently dead bodies, reanimating them as shambling, mindless zombies — which then have to be dispatched by the police and the army.

We only learn gradually, in the course of the novel, about the aliens and their actual powers. In Rosebud‘s timeline, an enormous intelligent living entity falls from outer space, and lands in central London, in 2012. People call it Wormwood. It is not the first of its kind to come to our planet, but it is the first to survive. All the previous ones die soon after entry. But Wormwood sinks into the earth, and spends several decades burrowing through the crust. It finally re-emerges in Nigeria in the 2050s. When government forces attack it, it builds Utopicity for self-protection.

Apparently, Wormwood is not quite a single, unified organism, at least in the way that we understand such things on Earth. It seems to contain multitudes within itself. Portions split off and take on a quasi-independent existence. For instance, in order to communicate with human beings, some portions assume a more or less humanoid shape, while others emulate the fantastic appearance of cyberspace avatars. Still other aspects of Wormwood are monstrous and directly threatening, like the floaters: carnivorous flying vampiric entities released from the dome into the surrounding environment. In any case, these different aspects of Wormwood “are not all the same.” They often work at cross-purposes; at times, they even seem to be arguing with one another.

Wormwood also generates an enormous mass of microscopic fungal spores, which it releases into the Earth’s atmosphere. These spores are ubiquitous; apparently they work to gather information about the environment and organisms of Earth. These spores grow in — or better, they infect — nearly everything in the world, living or not. They also form a worldwide transmission network called the xenosphere, through which they funnel data back to Wormwood. The xenosphere can be blocked temporarily, through the use of antifungal medications. But sooner or later, it always grows back.

Most human beings are oblivious to the xenosphere; it gathers data from them without their knowledge. But a small number of people are able to feel the xenosphere directly; they are known as sensitives. They develop psychic powers as an acccidental side-effect of the alien incursion. One of these sensitives is Kaaro, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. He is able to plug into the xenosphere, and use it to access other people’s minds. Kaaro explores the network: he goes into a trance, takes on an avatar, and encounters complex informational structures, together with the avatars of other sensitives. At times, he even encounters aspects of Wormwood itself. The way that Kaaro moves through the xenosphere is quite similar to the way that people surf cyberspace in classic cyberpunk novels (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer). But even without such deep immersion, Kaaro is able to read the hidden thoughts of ordinary people, and also to manipulate those people by implanting suggestions into their minds.

Kaaro is the novel’s sole narrator. We only experience things from his perspective. This means that the reader needs to remain vigilant, because Kaaro is not an entirely reliable narrator. It’s not that he is deceptive in what he tells us; but he is a bit selective and slanted in what he chooses to reveal, and when. Also, Kaaro is not a particularly sympathetic character. At least he isn’t an outright sociopath: he fears and avoids violence, and he sometimes tries to do right by people he cares about. But Kaaro is still basically a grifter: he is sleazy and sexist, and always seems to be looking out for the main chance. Even when his conscience gets the better of him, he insists that he is “not the saving-the-world type.”

When Kaaro first develops his telepathic powers, in adolescence, he quickly becomes a thief. He reads people’s minds in order to discover where they stash their valuable items. And he spends the money acquired in this way on sex, drugs, and partying. When Kaaro finally gets caught, he is forced to accept a deal from the cops. In lieu of punishment, he is drafted into the Nigerian secret police. His job is to scan the minds of political prisoners, after they have been tortured, in order to extract their secrets. He doesn’t enjoy doing this, but he has no choice. Kaaro is perpetually disaffected, alienated, and anti-social; but he never imagines that this somehow puts him outside the system. He knows that he’s a tool, and a fairly limited one at that.

The novel finally turns upon the implications of the alien presence on Earth. But the details only get filled in obliquely, and quite slowly. The book has a complicated temporal structure: in between the chapters happening in the present moment (2066), there are also chapters set in 2055, and still others set at a few other times. These flashback chapters give us Kaaro’s backstory, and his earlier experiences with Wormwood and with the secret police. Within each time sequence, events are linear from one chapter to the next. But these timelines interfere with one another as we weave back and forth among them. Each chapter, regardless of which portion of the timeline it comes from, is narrated in the present tense, and made to feel viscerally immediate. This results in an odd sense of displacement. (I couldn’t help thinking, at least a bit, about David Wittenberg’s powerful discussion of time travel narratives, even though it is only the reader, and not the narrator, who actually shifts back and forth between one time and another). In fact, it is only by grasping what happened in 2055 that we can make full sense of what happens in 2066; but we don’t achieve this grasp until almost the end of the novel. The book’s narrative is therefore a slow burn; at the end, we need to look back and revise our understanding of earlier incidents, in the light of what has finally been revealed.

Thompson’s oblique narrative strategy obviously works to keep the reader enthralled. But there is more to it than that: if the narration is oblique, this is really because the events being narrated are themselves oblique. As Seo-Young Chu argues in her general theory of science fiction narrative, so for this novel in particular: it’s not that Rosewater cognitively estranges the process of representation, so much as that it straightforwardly represents a state of affairs (or a referent) that is in and of itself cognitively estranging. Wormwood’s presence on the Earth is neither simple nor straightforward. It doesn’t have a single identity, and its effects on the planet are multiple and inconsistent. This has a lot to do with the formal complexity of the xenosphere. In recent years, we have become accustomed to think that everything is entangled in dense and diffuse networks, so that we cannot isolate individual entities (but also so that we can’t find unity or identity on the level of the network as a whole). Things are separated from one another, and yet entangled with one another, all at the same time. Causality is not arbitrary, but it is also not linear.

Rosewater takes our emerging understanding of networks, and raises it, as it were, to a higher power. Wormwood is radically alien to us, and yet we find ourselves more and more implicated in what it is doing. The xenosphere, with its powers of connection and disconnection and its incessant work of surveillance, both mimics and takes its distance from the social, political, and technological networks that we are already accustomed to, and that have become even more virulent in 2066 than they were in 2016. Wormwood may be seen as an allegory of colonialization; and its ubiquitous surveillance may be seen to reflect that of the neoliberal State. But Wormwood must also be taken as something entirely apart from such power relations; both its autonomy and its dependency on us, and we on it, work in another dimension than that of neoliberal economics and governmentality. Wormwood’s logic is essentially biological, but in a very different manner than the one characterized by our usual understandings of neoliberal biopower and biopolitics. Wormwood’s alien strangeness is what the novel effectively communicates, both in its story and in its form of narration.

Finally, Kaaro worries about alien invasion, and its potential effacement of everything that we have previously understood as human — both for good and for ill. It seems that, when Wormwood heals people with ailments, and when it opens human contact to the xenosphere, it is taking the opportunity to replace our DNA with its own. This is not a biological shift in lieu of a social or cultural one — because it is both, inextricably, at once. Wormwood is taking over, alike by insinuating itself within our cells, and by changing our conceptions and our feelings. Other people, besides Kaaro, feel and experience this. For instance, there is his girlfriend’s half-brother Layi, who seems to be able to fly, and to ignite spontaneous fires; these are evidently powers given to him by Wormword (or more precisely, by some portion of Wormwood); but people in Lagos and Rosewater — in accordance with the heavy influence of evangelical Christianity in Nigeria — presume that his mother was made pregnant by an angel. In fact, by the end of the novel all human beings have had some percentage of their cells “replaced by xenoforms.” This parallels the way that also “we are all part machine,” due to the various technologies that are embedded in our bodies. We are already cyborgs in 2016; this will be all the more the case in 2066. “How human am I?”, Kaaro wonders, and he has no way to tell.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. Kaaro thinks at times that perhaps this transformation is only “what humanity deserves.” People already have been “conquered and killed by invaders” without knowing it; and the saddest part is that they don’t even care. “Humans don’t care about anything as long as their TVs and microwaves work.” For its part, the government doesn’t care either; after the catastrophic failure of its efforts to destroy Wormwood, it cynically uses whatever advantage it gets from the entity in order to maintain and increase its own power. (Kaaro’s last assignment, which he refuses, is to monitor the mind of an opposition politician, so that the party in power will be better able to win the next election). As for the few people and groups who know about the alien invasion, and try to do something about it: they themselves are ironically also dependent upon Wormwood, for it protects them from the official authorities. The only thing to do, then, is simultaneously to “work with and against the xenoforms.”

At the end of the book Kaaro compares the xeno-invasion of Earth life to such catastrophes as global warming, or an asteroid crashing into the Earth, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. But “the alien in me” tells him that this isn’t quite the case. The coming disaster is, and will continue to be, an intimate one. It will be something for which “we will all be present,” even as we are devastated by it.

Favorite SF of 2016

I am usually not very good at top ten lists and the like; there is always too much stuff that I haven’t seen, read, or heard. But I think that I have done a lot better than usual with new science fiction / fantasy / horror / speculative fiction than usual. So here is a list of my favorite SF published this past year. I mean “favorites” in a broad sense: there are a lot of novels I liked that go unlisted here; but I have tried to name all the new novels that really hit the spot for me in one way or another. (I should note that there are definitely some 2016 publications that are missing here because I haven’t gotten to them yet, but which I expect to like because they are, e.g., sequels to previous books I liked; e.g. N K Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, sequel to her superb 2015 publication The Fifth Season).

Anyway, here goes. List is chronological according to when I read it. Not a ranked order, though if forced to choose, my number one would have to be Death’s End. There are brief comments, and occasional links to blog discussions.

  • Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me – Sullivan is one of our best, and most underrated, contemporary SF authors – http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1356
  • Charley Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky – Cute combination of dueling genres, SF and Fantasy
  • Sofia Samatar – The Winged Histories – Brilliant metafantasy.
  • Matthew De Abitua – The Destructives – DeAbitua is another SF writer who is underrated and insufficiently appreciated. This is a brilliant book about singularity, alien communication, and other matters. (NB: this is the first SF book for which I have been named in the acknowledgments).
  • Lavie Tidhar – Central Station – Future neorealism, sort of.
  • Gemma Files – Experimental Film – Weird fiction about, yes, avant-garde cinema.
  • Ken MacLeod – The Corporation Wars (2 volumes: Dissidence & Insurgence) – Accelerationists versus neo-reactionaries, plus robots, a thousand years from now. Will be waiting impatiently for the final volume, which won’t be out until next summer.
  • Malka Older – Infomocracy – speculative political fiction.
  • Richard Kadrey, The Perdition Score – Latest entry in the Sandman Slim series, which I love.
  • Yoss – Super Extra Grande – Hilarious Cuban SF, newly translated.
  • Warren Ellis, Normal – The maladies of actually existing futurism.
  • Nisi Shawl – Everfair – Progressive multicultural steampunk.
  • Cixin Liu – Death’s End – Massively mindblowing conclusion to the Three Body Problem trilogy.
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Certain Dark Things – Vampires in Mexico, conflicts between tradition and neoliberalism.
  • Laurie Penny – Everything Belongs to the Future – disturbingly plausible near-future dystopia; cutting-edge medical research and the police inflitration of radical activism.
  • Becky Chambers – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – old-fashioned (but multiculturally updated) space opera; a bit cheesy but utterly irresistible, delicious, and adorable.
  • Chris Beckett – Daughter of Eden – Conclusion to the brilliant and thought-provoking Eden trilogy. I wrote about the first volume several years ago: http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1201
  • Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning – This is stunning and altogether original; I have never read anything even remotely like it. A 25th century heterotopia with posthuman inventions, but also a culture-wide obsession with the French Enlightenment (Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Sade). Apparent economic abundance, but messy, complicated politics, strange hierarchies, and odd philosophical dilemmas. Stops basically in the middle – waiting impatiently for the sequel, due in the spring.

Canavan on Octavia Butler

Gerry Canavan’s new book on Octavia Butler is smart and useful. It gives a good introduction to Butler for people who have never read her before, but it also provides much food for thought to those who (like me) have already read all of Butler’s published works, and know them well. This is the case both because Canavan offers fresh and original takes on Butler’s published writing, and also because he is one of the first people to have done research in the Butler archives at the Huntington Library. Butler wrote prodigiously, and left behind a vast quantity of work that she never published: unfinished stories and novels, alternate versions, and texts she completed, but decided weren’t good enough for publication. Canavan goes through a lot of this work, and situates the actual publications in the light of many things that Butler tried out but couldn’t resolve to her satisfaction. In part, this is because she was a perfectionist, always feeling that she hadn’t done well enough. In part, also, this is because Butler suffered from periods of writer’s block, when she was unable to give her work the point and focus that she needed.

But above all, Canavan shows, Butler’s enormous quantity of unfinished and unpublished work testifies to the fact that she was a genuinely original and creative thinker. At their best, science fiction and speculative fiction are indeed acts of speculation and experimentation as rigorous and as insightful as philosophical speculation and scientific experimentation can be. Creating fictional characters, and telling fictional stories, can itself be a way of probing the unknown. This was certainly the case for Butler, all of whose work, even the most polished, is unresolvedly conflictual. As Canavan says explicitly at one point, Butler’s work always grapples with what Kant called Antinomies — that is to say, with dialectically opposed perspectives, both of which have their valid points (or their “truth”) but which remain incompatible with one another. Kantian Antinomies may be distinguished from Hegelian Contradictions in that the former, unlike the latter, cannot be reconciled by jumping to a meta-level with a supposed higher truth that accommodates both.

[Irrelevant digression: To my mind Hegel’s vision is a catastrophe for human thought, and a dishonest denial of the stubborn intractability of actual Antinomies. You know Zizek is engaging in mystification when he says that Hegel is really about rupture rather than reconciliation; for if that were the case, Hegel would have stayed with the “bad infinity” of the Kantian Antinomies, instead of making a bogus claim to “sublate” or resolve them. Sorry for this detour, which has nothing to do with Canavan’s book, but only reflects my own obsessions.]

In any case, Canavan’s accounts of the unpublished material work to show how complex a thinker and writer Butler was; how she always rejected facile resolutions, and only published novels and stories in which unresolvable difficulties were articulated in many dimensions, remaining intact through all their developments and metamorphoses. Butler’s work is largely concerned with utopian desire as it meets the horrors of actual human history. Encounters with alien beings work to sharpen these terms. Butler’s books look at human-created predicaments like exploitation and enslavement and bigotry and other sorts of violence and destruction, without willing into existence a solution to these more-than-difficulties, and also without cynically accepting the status quo on grounds that it is supposedly inevitable. This leads to opposed valorizations at the same time, which is what makes her books so knotty and difficult and uncompromisingly clearsighted. For instance in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, it is both the case that the Oankali (the aliens who rescue the few human survivors of a global nuclear war) stand for a cosmopolitan, hybridizing and civilised remedy to the intractable racism/sexism/etc of actual American and world culture, and, at the same time,  that the Oankali are arch-oppressors, whose actions encapsulate and repeat all the horrors of colonisation, exploitation, and enslavement, from the Middle Passage to the current day. Canavan is very good at outlining these antinomies, which drive Butler’s fictions, and are their main expressive content.

Ray Brassier on Nick Land

This is a brief (and quickly written) commentary on an old talk by Ray Brassier, about Nick Land, dating from 2010. The questions around speculative realism, accelerationism, and Land’s current politics are all still with us today. Brassier describes Land’s philosophical project, its impetus, its originality, and why it ends in an impasse that Land can only deal with by becoming a neo-reactionary.

According to Brassier (and I think this is entirely accurate), Land’s starting point is the “transcendental materialism” of Deleuze and Guattari. Land “proposes to radicalise critique… by collapsing the hierarchy of the transcendental and the empirical… the first thing that needs to be destratified is the empirical/transcendental difference.” Kant’s critique of metaphysics is conducted precisely by means of distinguishing the transcendental from the empirical (and also the transcendental from the transcendent). Deleuze and, a fortiriori, Land turn this critique back upon its presuppositions, in order to affirm a radical immanence, in which “matter itself is synthetic and productive. Matter is primary process, and everything that unfolds at the level of conceptual representation is merely secondary and derivative.” Deleuze already pursues this via Bergson’s critique of representation and privileging of intuition. Land goes further, getting rid of intuition, and of anything else that is subjective, phenomenological, or affective. Land values intensity in itself, apart from any of these frameworks; the “subject” cannot experience intensity, because intensity destabilises and eliminates it. Brassier applauds this move, in contrast to the “flaccid inanity of contemporary Bergsonian vitalism,” which Brassier clearly detests.

However, this move also gets Land into an impossible impasse; this is because

vitalism is hence all about having intense experiences. But Landianism can’t avail itself of this register of intensification, because he’s not interested in phenomenological subjectivity and he’s not interested in experiences insofar as they are experiences of a subject in the Deleuzoguattarian register: an organism, with a face and a personal identity, etc. These are all the things that are supposed to require destratification.

In other words, the project fails precisely because intensification is “not translatable into any register of affective experience or affective intensity” — in exactly the same way that it is not translatable into any register of cognition or conceptualization. Those of us working in affect theory have been claiming for quite some time that the realm of affect is presubjective, and that it includes layers of efficacy and determination that are irreducible to cognition or to concepts. (My own version of this works this out by ignoring Kant’s transcendental argument in the First Critique, in favor of his aesthetics in the Third Critique). Brassier tells us that we are operating with a stacked deck, as it were; all our arguments about the failure of cognition or of concepts can be turned around to equally demonstrate the failure of “affective experience or affective intensity.” From Brassier’s point of view, we are all a bit “muddle-headed” (as Russell accused Whitehead of being). In Brassier’s account, the superiority of Land is that he at least faces the deep consequences of an ethics of intensity, as Deleuze and affect theorists do not.

But the other side of this is that, according to Brassier, Land has no other basis for action besides the one that he has so rigorously destroyed. Land wants to maintain “that you can just keep on intensifying and intensifying,” without end. This is impressive in that it substitutes a death drive, Thanatos, for the vitalist  (Bergsonian) life drive that Brassier finds so lax and vapid. But ultimately Land’s process of radicalization subverts itself: “if your schizoanalytical practice is fuelled by the need to always intensify and deterritorialize, there comes a point at which there is no agency left: you yourself have been dissolved back into the process.” Inevitably “you end up engendering performative contradictions, not just theoretical ones. Contradictions at the level of concepts manifest themselves as an incapacity at the level of practice.” Or, in other words, Land’s philosophy  “leads to a kind of practical impotence.”

From this, the route to Land’s current politics is easy to see. For Land, “politics must be displaced, it must be deputized, and all you can do is endorse or affirm impersonal processes which at least harbour the promise of generating or ushering in the next phase of deterritorialization.” You can only be fatalistic, welcoming the processes that destroy us as agents or subjects. But in practice, your disavowal of any willed practice “means affirming free markets, deregulation, the capitalist desecration of traditional forms of social organization, etc…. If you have no strategy, someone with a strategy will soon commandeer your tactics.” Land ends up becoming “he pawn of another kind of impersonal force… a much more cynical kind of libertarian capitalism.” Celebrating capitalist deterritorialization for its own sake leads to neo-reaction, or neo-feudalism, or whatever else we want to call the emerging politics of Silicon Valley. Trump may be losing the current election, but (as Roddey Reid suggests), a Trump 2.0 is likely to emerge in the near future, one much slicker than Trump, and even more insidious. 

Brassier’s own answer to this dilemma consists in his turn toward Sellars and allied philosophers; it’s a sort of Kant 2.0 that rehabilitates epistemology, rationality, and scientism from Deleuzian and Landian critiques. But I am not going to go into my own critique of Brassier’s position in any direct way here; rather, I want to suggest the possibility of a third position, distinct from either Brassier or Land, but nonetheless subsisting within the (anti-vitalist) terrain that Brassier depicts.

In short: Brassier warns us that “once thinking itself becomes subordinated to the imperative to intensify and destratify,” — and thereby rejects representation and epistemological issues– then “it’s clear that there must be a limitrophic point of absolute deterritorialization towards which the process of affirmation or acceleration tends.” But why should thought be governed by “the imperative to intensify and destratify,” any more than by the more traditional philosophic imperative of self-reflexive epistemological and representational critique? I am inclined to think that these are two sides of the same coin. Why should we do either? 

My own response here is an aesthetic one. I am inclined to think (as I already argue in my book Discognition) that — far from being a discrediting flaw — performative contradiction is actually a sign that something is going right. Or — to put it a bit less categorically — arguments that end in performative contradiction are of course not necessarily right; but any line of approach that is right must necessarily lead to some sort of performative contradiction. This is because of the necessary inadequacy of cognitive categories to grasp and determine the Real. It’s a lesson we ultimately get from Kant, in spite of himself, and that becomes more overt in post-Kantians like Derrida (I know he usually isn’t regarded this way, but he should be), and in today’s speculative realism. This is where we get the philosophical destratification of the transcendental-empirical binary. All of our transcendental a prioris (and we cannot ever dispense with them) turn out to be empirical and contingent in the last analysis. The very act of making a categorical assertion involves me in a performative contradiction; yet we cannot do without such categorical assertions. You can well say, from the point of view of epistemology, that this situation leads to a kind of practical impotence,” or to an endless process of deconstruction. But performative contradiction is an aesthetic condition, not an epistemological one. Art exists because the most important things in life are epistemologically intractable. Epistemology (the First Critique) and ethics (the Second Critique) are incomplete, and indeed they can only avoid collapse, through the intervention of aesthetics (the Third Critique).

I think that (as I argued in a different way in my little book on accelerationism) any such neo-aestheticism also implies a different theory of desire from the one we take for granted. Affirmationist and vitalist theory, and the radical negation of these that we find in its most “virulent” form in Land, and in a much more sophisticated form in Brassier, are united in that they both assume the infinitude of desire, and hence the inevitable discontinuity between desire (or desiring production) and its actual effects or consequences. Such is also the presupposition of the 19th and 20th century sublime, of psychoanalytic theories of desire, and of the simple consumerism which is our most elaborated form of desire today. Against this widely-shared idea of desire’s infinitude, what I am calling neo-aestheticism understands desire as being finite, multiple, and combinatorial. Such an approach to desire is expressed most fully perhaps, in Charles Fourier’s utopian visions (which are simultaneously a parody of bourgeois-capitalist forms of subjectivity, and their antidote), as well as in the notions of self-fashioning that we see, perhaps, in Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol. Aesthetic self-fashioning does not start in any thing subjective or agential; instead, it ends in them (and of course it only ends in this way provisionally, because as finite and combinatorial it always runs out at some point, and hence needs to be practised again. This incompletion is what is often misunderstood as the infinitude of desire; but it involves repeated small satisfactions, rather than some general existential dissatisfaction).

Nalo Hopkinson – “Message in a Bottle”

Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Message in a Bottle” was originally published in 2004; it can currently be found in her recent collection of short stories Falling in Love With Hominids, as well as in her short volume Report From Planet Midnight

[MY DISCUSSION CONTAINS SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. So you really shouldn’t read this until after you have read the story itself. My method with writing about science fiction always involves going over the plot in tedious detail. This is unavoidable, or at least necessary to what I am trying to do: which is neither to evaluate the story — it should be a given that I think it is great, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place — nor to interpret it in anything like a hermeneutical or New Critical or deconstructionist close reading — since I pretty much confine myself to overt surface meanings — but rather to elicit, and develop in my own way, and (I’m afraid) according to my own preoccupations, the mindblowing (I hope) feelings and ideas that it already contains.] 

The story is set in Canada, in a near future that is not much different from our actual present. The characters are nonwhite. Greg, the narrator, describes himself as “Indian” — though I am unsure if this means that he is South Asian (like other characters in the story) or First Peoples (he does say that he is “Rosebud Sioux on my mum’s side”). Greg also remarks on the brown skin of his lovers and friends. The story is mostly about Greg’s encounters with Kamala, the adopted daughter of his friends Babette and Sunil. It’s a fraught relationship, because Greg is ambivalent, at best, about children: he admits that they “creep me out,” and says overall that  “I truly don’t hate children. I just don’t understand them. They seem like another species.”

Greg and his girlfriend Cecilia — who he describes as “lush and brown” — don’t want kids of their own; but when she gets pregnant despite their precautions, 

we both got… curious,  I guess. Curious to see what this particular life adventure would be; how our small brown child might change a world that desperately needs some change. We sort of dared each other to go through with it, and now here we are.

So Greg and Cecilia are stuck with what he, at least, calls their “creepy little alien child.” All this is just background to the main action of the story, but it sets the atmosphere. I am the last person to be judgmental about whether other people choose to have kids or not; and Hopkinson clearly isn’t judgmental about this either. But Greg’s highly self-conscious ambivalence gives the story its uneasy tone. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator; but his emotional responses to the story he recounts just seem a bit… I’m not sure, askew.

Dealing with another species — as Greg at least metaphorically feels children to be — is quite often, in science fiction, a figure for dealing with another culture, or another gender or sexual orientation, than one’s own (or than the normative white male heterosexual Euro-American perspective that narrative fictions all too often presuppose by default). Hopkinson, a West Indian/Black Canadian fantasy and science fiction author, has long been concerned with white supremacy, and the continuing marginalization of people of color, as well as misogyny and homophobia, both in the writing of SF and related genres, and in the fan culture surrounding the writing. “Message in a Bottle” responds to this history by giving us a narrator who is male and heterosexual, but nonwhite. He’s very aware of racial hierarchies, but maybe not so much of other sorts. His perspective is in between; partly but not entirely normative. At least he is very aware of the particularity of his subject position, rather than taking it for granted as universal. His uneasiness about the otherness of children is not really phobia or panic, though it is certainly marked as a kind of uneasiness, or as an inability to negotiate difference as fluidly and openly as one might hope. I find myself a bit distrustful of Greg, but at the same time I “identify” with the way that he seems to enact and embody tendencies that I recognize in myself, and that I strongly dislike — but that, from my position of unavoidably taken-for-granted privilege — I somehow feel powerless to escape or change.

Greg — as I should already have noted — is an installation artist. He’s a hoarder, and a *bricoleur*, of miscellaneous odds and ends and pieces of junk:

My home is also my studio, and it’s a warren of tangled cables, jury-rigged networked computers, and piles of books about as stable as playing-card houses. Plus bins full of old newspaper clippings, bones of dead animals, rusted metal I picked up on the street, whatever. I don’t throw anything away if it looks the least bit interesting. You never know when it might come in handy as part of an installation piece. The chaos has a certain nestlike comfort to it.

In his art practice, at least, Greg is open to otherness and change. The exhibition that he describes in the story is a mock archeological site. It consists in “half a ton of dirt” covering the floor of the art gallery. In this dirt he has buried “the kinds of present-day historical artifacts” that actual archaeologists “[toss] aside in their zeal to get at the iconic past of the native peoples” they are studying (in this case, people in Chiapas, Mexico). Visitors to the installation become archaeologists of the present, instead of the past. When they enter the gallery, they “get basic excavation tools. When they pull something free of the soil, it triggers a story about the artifact on the monitors above.”

In this way, Greg’s installation undermines notions of aboriginal authenticity, such as well-meaning white Westerners are all too likely to have. Instead, he acquaints his viewers with the actual, present-day material culture of native peoples: a culture that is multiple and heterogeneous, and that bears the traces both of colonialist oppression, and of these peoples’ struggles against it and affirmation of their own lives and values. The installation also relates material culture to narrative; stories matter, because without them objects are deprived of the contexts that give them meaning and importance.

Greg evidently has trouble fitting children into the artifactual stories that he likes to tell. He complains that he they

don’t yet grok that delicate, all-important boundary between the animate and inanimate. It’s all one to them. Takes them a while to figure out that travelling from the land of the living to the land of the dead is a one-way trip.

With their magical beliefs, children strike Greg as being oddly self-contained — in a way that belies their eventual transformation into adults just like ourselves. Greg admits to feeling freaked out that, in just a decade, his toddler son will be “entering puberty. He’ll start getting erections, having sexual thoughts.” Greg is perturbed by the difference of children, as expressed in all the things that they do not understand; as well as by their irksome dependency upon us. But he is equally perturbed by the knowledge that they will not be like this forever, that soon enough they will become fully grown, and therefore entirely independent of us. And all this is even more confusing against the background of our massive social and technological change:

Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly posthuman… Things change so quickly. Total technological upheaval of society every five to eight years. Difficult to keep up, to connect amongst the generations. By the time your Russ is a teenager, you probably won’t understand his world at all.

In these manifold ways, children are indeed like science-fictional aliens (or vice versa). But all these confusions are further intensified, until they finally come to a head, in Greg’s interactions with Kamala. The girl is unusual, to say the least. Even at a very young age, when she is first adopted, Kamala has an “outsized head” that looks “strangely adult.” She also “speaks in oddly complete sentences” for a young child. At the same time, her body seems to develop very slowly: she looks far younger than what her parents believe is her chronological age. Eventually, Kamala is diagnosed with Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS), a condition shared by other children who came up for adoption at the same time she did:

Researchers have no clue what’s causing it, or if the bodies of the kids with it will ever achieve full adulthood. Their brains, however, are way ahead of their bodies. All the kids who’ve tested positive for DGS are scarily smart.

 Kamala perturbs her parents, and perturbs Greg even more, because of how she disrupts their historical, developmental, and archaeological schemas — in much the same way that posthuman technological developments also do. Kamala stands at a nodal point that compresses together all of Greg’s — and indeed, all of our society’s  — confusions and anxieties about difference, otherness, and change.

“Message in a Bottle” finally offers us — as science fiction generally does — a narrative resolution of all these dilemmas. I say “narrative resolution” here advisedly — rather than speaking of a “solution” in any more expansive sense. This point requires a more detailed explanation, which would be too much of a digression here, but which I hope at some point to develop elsewhere. In brief, I think that science fiction, in its practice of *extrapolation*, and in its presentation of social, technological, and even ontological difficulties in a narrative with individual characters, does something similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as the purpose of *myth*, which is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).” But where myths for Levi-Strauss are synchronic structures (like language according to Saussure), narratives are in their very nature diachronic or temporal; and science fictional extrapolative narratives most of all. It’s not that I want to trade structural anthropology for narrative theory — indeed, I find both of these disciplines insufferable. But SF deals in futurity, rather than being set in the eternal present either of myth or of mimetic fiction (and neoliberal actuality). And in this way, it is counter-actual: it offers us a provisional resolution — one in potentiality — of dilemmas and difficulties that are all too actual.

In any case, at the end of “Message in a Bottle” Kamala offers Greg a futuristic explanation of all that has been going on: this is a resolution, at least, for us as readers, though Greg himself remains reluctant to accept it. It involves a conceptualization of time travel radically different from any that I have encountered in any other science fiction text. Kamala explains to Greg that she is in fact an art curator from the future, who has been sent back in time to our present day, in order to collect cultural artifacts that have otherwise been lost in her own time. Because of the energetic and financial costs of time travel, the future art gallery Kamala works for cannot afford to send adults back in time, nor to bring back the collectors once they have found what they are looking for. “Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too” — apparently, at least some aspects of neoliberal governmentality are still in place several hundred years in the future.

So instead of sending arts curators themselves back in time, the future art galleries genetically engineer “small people… children who [are]n’t children,” to go back in their place. All the DGS kids are in fact far older than they appear; Kamala, who looks like she is 6, and whose adoptive parents think she is about 10, is in fact 23 years old. She is a genetic clone of the curator whose interests she represents, and the curator’s actual memories have been “implanted” within her as well. But her chromosomes have been altered, given extra telomeres in order to “slow down aging.” As a result, Kamala says, “my body won’t start producing adult sex hormones for another fifty years. I won’t attain my full growth till I’m in my early hundreds.” She will physically bring her artifacts back to the future by living through the entire span from our time until then.

“Message in a Bottle” doesn’t spare us any of the grotesque and horrific consequences of this deeply compromised technological strategy. Kamala and her cohort find themselves having to spend all their time and energy in strenuous forms of pretense: “Do you know what it’s like turning in schoolwork that’s at a grade-five level, when we all have PhD’s in our heads?” Their double consciousness on a sexual level is even worse: “the weird thing is, even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex, I remember what it was like, remember enjoying it. It’s those implanted memories from my original.” Some of the seeming-children from the future have an even harder time than Kamala, because they get abused, just as actual children sometimes do; or they find themselves “living in extremely conservative places”; or they fail to get adopted, and have to “make [their] own way as street kids.” In any case, these people from the future have no legal rights, because in appearance they are “never old enough to be granted adult freedoms.” Some of them have already died, Kamala says, and she and the rest will probably be institutionalized at best. All for the sake of an art retrospective: “this fucking project better have been worth it,” Kamala says.

All this is too much for Greg — and probably for us as readers as well. One of the great things about the story is how it has a sort of light tone, even as it drops these atrocious details on us. Because we know that we are reading a science fiction story, we have a much easier time accepting Kamala’s account than Greg does within the frame of the story. The first time I read “Message in a Bottle,” it all seemed kind of cute — the horror only kicked in retrospectively.

But there’s even more. The one thing in Kamala’s story that initially gets to Greg is Kamala’s interest in his art: she has been sent back from the future to get ahold of something from Greg’s installation. “This little girl has dug her way into my psyche,” Greg thinks, “and found the thing which will make me respond to her.” But alas, this too turns out to be a misconception. Kamala isn’t interested in Greg’s installation concept, nor even in the remnants of present-day Indigenous life that he included within it. Rather, she treasures a seashell that plays no real role in Greg’s exhibition; for “some of the artifacts” buried in the dirt “are ‘blanks’ that trigger no stories.” But in the future, this seashell is regarded as a greater work of art than anything Greg or his contemporaries ever created.

Kamala explains to Greg how “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” such as Greg himself, eventually gave birth to a broader understanding that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” In fact, the particular shell that Kamala retrieves from Greg’s installation is a masterpiece: 

Every shell is a life journal… made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought… Of its kind, the mollusc that made this shell is a genius. The unique conformation of the whorls of its shell expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species. After this one, all the others will draw on and riff off its expression of its world. They’re the derivatives, but this is the original.

The poignancy of this claim — if we are willing to entertain it — has to do with a new understanding of limits. We need to respect the aesthetic creations of other entities, Kamala says, even though

we don’t always know what they’re saying, we can’t always know the reality on which they’re commenting. Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?… Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

Greg isn’t entirely ready to accept Kamala’s claim; indeed, it puts him in mind of a Monty Python routine:

“Every shell is different,” she says. My perverse brain instantly puts it to the tune of “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

But in the end, Greg feels forced to admit that “a part of me still hopes that it’s all true.” He understands the heuristic value, at least, of Kamala’s story. For the reader, the same thing plays out on a metalevel. “Message in a Bottle” takes up the traditional science fiction figuration of extraterrestrial aliens; it shows us how this figuration works in hegemonic groups’ fears of other human beings as aliens; in the way the narrator cannot help seeing children as aliens; and finally in the unassimilability of other (alien) species to our own. 

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

Freedman on Mieville

I just finished reading Carl Freedman’s excellent book on China Mieville, which I can heartily recommend to anybody who’s interested in Mieville.

The book is filled with insightful and powerful close readings of Mieville’s fiction, and with commentary on how the fiction conveys Mieville’s own Marxist understanding of things.

I have a few disagreements with Carl, which are pretty much the same ones I had vis-a-vis his earlier book Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), which I expressed in my own book Connected (2003), and to which Carl replied in his very generous review-essay on that book. So a lot of this is ongoing (though Carl here sharpens and revises his theses from the earlier book, in response to criticisms by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and by Mieville himself).

Basically what it comes down to is that Carl still positions himself in the line of Darko Suvin when it comes to theorizing SF; whereas I would like to see a non-Suvinian theory of science fiction (analogous, I suppose, to Laruelle’s non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy, which itself is modeled on non-Euclidean geometry).

In practice, what does this mean? Carl maintains a somewhat revised and updated version of Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement; Carl mentions extrapolation as only a minor example or component of cognitive estrangement. I want to invert this definition: for me, SF is primarily a literature of extrapolation, and cognitive estrangement is only a minor variant of extrapolation. For me, this is because SF is about, not the actual future, but rather futurity insofar as it really (but inactually) exists in the present.

Writing about Mieville, Carl of course extends the definition of SF to include weird fiction as well — something I would also want to do with my definition of SF — but I don’t think this fundamentally changes either of our positions.

What it really comes down to, I think — and this might allow for a certain reconciliation between Carl’s position and my own — is the opposition we see in the Bas-Lag novels, particularly The Scar, between crisis energy and potentiality. The former is a basic principle of radical (dialectical) change and transformation, whereas the latter is merely a list of alternative choices, or alternative outcomes, or alternative happenings – but in a way that leaves the essential situation unchanged. Although the terms are different, the logic here is the same as that between potentiality and mere possibility in Deleuze. Crisis energy in Mieville (like the virtual in Deleuze) is, as Carl puts it, “a certain ontological instability at the very center of reality… The core of Being itself tends towards hybridity.” This is a real dynamism, in opposition to the “merely additive static pastiche” which we see in the figure of Motley in Perdido Street Station, and which is manifested in the potentiality engine the Lovers are searching for in The Scar. Though Deleuze uses “potentiality” positively, to mean something like what Mieville and Carl mean by crisis, his critique of mere logical possibility is pretty much the same as Mieville’s and Carl’s critique of what Mieville calls potentiality. In both cases, it is a question of actuality merely being added to a pregiven possibility; as opposed to the way that transformation requires a much deeper process of dialectical contradiction (Mieville) or actualization of the virtual (Deleuze). [I used to get all worked up about the differences between dialectical realization in the Hegelian tradition adopted by most Marxists, and the nondialectical account of differentiation as actualization of the virtual in Deleuze; but my present view is that these are actually quite minor differences, the basic point is pretty much the same in both traditions).

In any case, the Marx/Mieville theory of crisis, and the Deleuze theory of virtuality, both point to the way that there are untapped prospects for transformation or radical change even within the seemingly most static and repressive actual situation. Carl’s own treatment of this issue made it more clear to me than ever before; which is why I wish he had brought it back in the conclusion of the volume, and brought it to bear on the question of science fiction and its relation to other genres such as, especially, weird fiction. I think that, on both Carl’s view and mine, science fiction and other “arealistic” genres (as Carl calls them), have a lot to do with the rendering fictively present of these often neglected alternatives that may underlie and undermine even the most stable and repressive actualities. This is a major part of how SF, weird fiction, and other arealistic genres are different from what I once heard Mieville call “mimetic fiction.” And I think that both cognitive estrangement (including what Carl calls the “cognition effect”) and extrapolation can be comprehended under this philosophical distinction.

I will end with one very minor point. Carl only discusses six of Mieville’s novels. I understand the need for some sort of restriction — Mieville is one of those writers whom I could go on about indefinitely — but I still wish that Carl had written about some of the other books, especially Kraken, which is in some ways the most prodigal, to the point of overfullness, of all Mieville’s books (I mean – the embassy of the sea! the explicit engagement with tentacular horror! all the weird folding stuff! the strike by magicians’ and witches’ familiars! and above all the way Mieville gives a brilliant twist to the common process of retconning fantastic narratives!).

But all in all, this is a great book; it will help to hold me during the impatience of my wait for Mieville’s next novel (which is coming out in January).

[ADDED NOTE: When I saw Mieville give a reading from The Scar, during his book tour in support of that novel, somebody asked him about how the eponymous scar could be the edge of the world, since a globe doesn’t have an edge. Mieville replied something on the order of, I never said that the world of Bas Lag was round….]

More copyright idiocy

So here’s yet another case of over-the-top copyright restrictions involving something I wrote. In December 2014, the Whitehead Research Project held an excellent conference on Whitehead’s short book Symbolism. I was one of the speakers at the conference; I posted an uncorrected version of my talk, “Whitehead on Causality and Perception,” as a blog entry. As has happened with previous conferences sponsored by the WRP, the essays are supposed to be collected in a volume. As far as I knew, the volume was proceeding apace. But today I received the following from the editors in  my email:

As we are only allowed 500 words worth of quotes from any single work within the volume, ALL short Symbolism quotes within your chapter must be paraphrased or removed entirely. This is an unfortunate and difficult requirement, but the alternative is that you pay Simon & Schuster the fee for quotations associated with your chapter, which would also delay the publication of the entire volume up to a year.

This strikes me as completely unwarranted. And actually, I am not quite sure even how to interpret it. Does it mean that no more than 500 words from Symbolism may be quoted in each individual article? Or that no more than 500 words from Symbolism (or any other single text of Whitehead’s) may be quoted in the entire volume of essays?

I haven’t actually counted the number of words I quote from Symbolism in my (approx) 6000-word essay. But my frequent short citations of the volume are entirely to be expected in a scholarly essay that engages in the close reading of a difficult philosophical text. Without the citations from Whitehead’s book, my own essay makes no sense. Whitehead’s Symbolism is itself (approx) 17,000-words long; a short book, in other words, but still I have only cited a small portion of it in my own essay. My citations are clearly protected under fair use. (As far as I am aware, it is only in the case of poetry and song lyrics that such fair use protection is not granted. To extend the poetry rule for philosophical treatises would be a calamity for all intellectual discussion).

In any case, I am not willing either to remove the quotations and substitute paraphrase, or to pay Simon and Schuster whatever extortionate amount they demand for me to exercise my rights under the doctrine of fair use. So my only choice is to withdraw the essay from the volume, unless the current restriction is removed. In any case, I do not blame the editors at WRP for this situation; they have assured me that they are doing their best to get Simon and Schuster to reconsider. But I am angry about the general climate with regards to copyright, in which large publishers (like S&S) can in effect act like bullies, and to impose egregious restrictions like this which contravene the very notion of fair use, simply because they know that nobody else can afford the legal fees that it would cost to contest these restrictions in court.

I should say that I am very proud of this essay; I think it is one of the best and most significant articles that I have ever written. Of course, maybe I am just congratulating myself too much; this is something for every reader to decide. But readers’ judgments can only be made if the article itself is available to read; you can access and download it here.

Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things.

The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-Francois Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.” By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” — as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx — is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left — one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

The new technologies — digital and otherwise — of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.

Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.

Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,

We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.

What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem — well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.

The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.

This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organizational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.

Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favors when they characterize localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”

In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).

Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant — without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions — freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want — under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable — as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realize them — their fulfillment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.

Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that

the power of the left — broadly construed — needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” — an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.

To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the center of policy-making.

The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.

This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.

Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,

Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilize dreams of decarbonizing the economy, space travel, robot economies — all the traditional touchstones of science fiction — in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.

Post-capitalism (or better, communism — to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages — just barely — to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.