Last Thursday an online discussion of “Universalism and Its Discontents” took place at noon via livestream. It was the first in what is projected to be a series of conversations on the theme of Fixing the Future, related to some of the problems raised by the accelerationist current. Anthony Paul Smith of the online collective An und für sich and Pete Wolfendale of the blog Deontologistics were the primary discussants, with Deneb Kozikoski playing the role of moderator. Mohammed Salemy was responsible for setting up the event. Video footage of the proceedings can be found here.
What follows are some scattered thoughts in response to it.
Kozikoski’s introduction to the speakers’ opening remarks was, on the whole, extremely helpful. She provided a serviceable overview of debate up to this point, the main issues involved, etc. (and did so in a compact enough manner that even a beginner could follow). I hadn’t kept up with all the literature pertaining to accelerationism myself, so the primer was welcome. Her own editorializing was fairly minimal. She remained evenhanded throughout the subsequent exchange.
To briefly recapitulate her summary: Accelerationism poses a challenge to the prevailing negativity of the contemporary Left, the default logic of both its academic and activist wings. Namely, accelerationists reject the defensive posture of “resistance” struck by leftists when new modes of domination emerge from capitalism’s evolving matrix of creative destruction. By extension, this critique also takes aim at the ideological tendency to simply propose the inverse of whatever deleterious effects are associated with capitalist development — a procedure that could well be called abstract negation. Capitalism is a global phenomenon? If so, anticapitalism must of course counterpose local solutions. Universal, alienating, and abstract? Surely leftists are duty-bound to offer particular, disalienating, and concrete alternatives. Rather than delirious Prometheanism, ruminative Epimetheanism. One could go on.
Against the “folk politics” of localism, direct action, and horizontality that dominate the Left today,1 accelerationists set out to recover the quintessentially modern vision of a global emancipation, working toward “a completion of the Enlightenment project of self-criticism and self-mastery, rather than its elimination.”2 They thus reaffirm the emancipatory potential of science and technology, repudiating the dire predictions of Malthusian doomsayers and primitivists. Kozikoski explained that this broader accelerationist drive to embrace forms of universality discarded by poststructuralists and postcolonial theorists in recent decades puts the fledgling movement at odds with these more established discourses.
“Universalism and Its Discontents” staged this specific antagonism, providing a platform for accelerationism and postcolonialism to debate. Wolfendale represented the former of these two schools, while Smith — a postcolonial theologian skeptical of calls for a renewed universalism — represented the latter.
Smith spoke first. He began by announcing his sympathy with much of the accelerationist program, especially as laid out in Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s jointly-written article “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Quoting the Marxian scholar Alberto Toscano, Smith agreed with the accelerationist argument that forces of production can be effectively decoupled from relations of production and made to serve different ends. “[U]se can [still] be drawn from the dead labors which crowd the earth’s crust,” Toscano asserted, “in a world no longer dominated by value.”3 Overcoming capitalism needn’t entail scrapping the productive implements it brought into being, as these can potentially be repurposed or reconfigured. Nor is the manifesto’s emphasis on climate change misplaced, in Smith’s judgment. Indeed, he would appear amenable to many of its theses.
Much of Smith’s quarrel with the accelerationists, as Kozikoski hinted toward the outset, seemed to revolve around the premise that the terms “modernity,” “colonialism,” and “Enlightenment” are somehow practically separable, that you can have one without the others. At the very least these terms are closely associated, even if they are not perfectly interchangeable. Wolfendale and others in the accelerationist camp have argued that the Enlightenment is not a monolith, and thus admits of “selective appropriation.” Quoting Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s paraphrase of Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, Wolfendale upheld this distinction. “To acknowledge our debt to ideas of Enlightenment,” Chakrabarty had written, “is not to thank colonialism for bringing them to us.”
Smith and others schooled in the postcolonial tradition clearly have their doubts as to whether such a neat separation is possible, and the accelerationists’ very desire to disentangle this web of words has given them cause to be suspicious. According to Smith, Enlightenment universalism simply doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. It is unable to survive the peculiarities of its origin. Both historically and logically, he opined, modernity, colonialism, and Enlightenment are essentially coterminous:
Some have argued that we can eliminate the racist project from the Enlightenment, that the abstract universalism it declared might be separated or distinguished from its historical expression as the creation of the black race, the destruction of black bodies, and the pursuit of wealth. I find such a separation dubious…There is no “true” Enlightenment behind its historical expression. It is how it is historically, for good and ill.
Related to this claim was an interesting objection Smith raised in connection with Williams and Srnicek’s manifesto. Citing its push “[t]owards a time of collective self-mastery, and the properly alien future it entails and enables,” Smith insinuated that such talk merely obscures the fact that the future they desire is actually quite familiar. He continued:
We are called toward a “properly alien future.” But that alien future is precisely the recovery of a European future. One may be forgiven for thinking this alien future is perhaps only alien to the indigenous, who rather than the Bible might be given [Adam] Smith’s Wealth of Nations or [Karl] Marx’s Capital and told, “One must make sacrifices for the future.” Why not a truly alien future? One utterly alien, even to Anglo-European debates?
During the remainder of the discussion, a great deal of energy was spent trying to parse the meaning of the modifier “properly alien” in “properly alien future.” There was also quibbling about a phrase that appeared in a text Wolfendale wrote for the upcoming summer school session in Berlin, “Emancipation as Navigation: From the Space of Reasons to the Space of Freedom.” Wolfendale had written: “Postcolonialism’s antipathy to (and perhaps fear of) the positive content of modernity is principally political, it has colonized the intellectual and artistic domains, coalescing into a pervasive cultural negativity.”4 Smith took issue here with the verb “colonize,” which he felt implied a crude reversal: the postcolonialists are now the colonizers, whereas once they were the colonized.
Bafflingly, Wolfendale’s initial inclination was to be apologetic. “That was just a slippage on my part,” he said regretfully. “I shouldn’t have used that word, but I don’t think it has any significance beyond my own personal psychology.” At least from where I stood, however, it seemed a relatively innocent parapraxis. Perhaps the phrase had indeed filtered into his unconscious from somewhere; but if it has, it’s done so fittingly. Fredric Jameson has identified “[the] colonization of the future as a fundamental tendency in capitalism itself.”5 By this, he meant capitalism’s tendency to annex a foreseeable duration of the present — to invest in an ensuing state of affairs with the expectation of a return. In order for this to work, capitalists must assume that the “ironclad” laws of the economy which presently obtain will hold good for the future as well. Such an assumption tends to foreclose the possibility that things might someday be radically different. This, and nothing else, constitutes “the phenomenon of reification” theorized by Lukács (i.e., commodity fetishism).6
Addressing Smith’s complaint about the “properly alien” character of the future spoken of by the accelerationists, Wolfendale proved more tenacious. On this score he was far less willing to concede ground: “The insistence on complete and radical otherness is just a way of shutting down practical engagement…[An ‘alien future’] is not necessarily one that is totally unrecognizable. It’s not a future that we can’t comprehend.” Smith was dissatisfied with this qualification, and suggested “diasporic future” as a possible substitute, but Wolfendale’s instincts were correct. “Radical alterity” as a sui generis notion has for too long gone unchallenged, having become something of a commonplace among pluralistic thinkers indebted to Lévinas’ concept of the “Altogether-Other”7 or Derridean différance.8 As Wolfendale rightly pointed out, the idea that the future bears no ascertainable relation to the present amounts to an eschatology, wherein the Messiah will return “like a thief in the night.”9
It was unclear from his remarks in “Universalism and Its Discontents,” which covered a range of topics, whether Smith fully concurred with the accelerationists’ contention that the future requires resuscitation. He merely maintained that any attempt to reimagine it should seek to incorporate perspectives traditionally left out of Eurocentric narratives of progress. Though Smith touched on the “brand-building” bravado exhibited by much of the accelerationist literature to date, he never elaborated on this important insight. He thereby missed a perfect opportunity to hit Wolfendale, Williams, and Srnicek where it really hurts. One of the distinguishing features of the accelerationist canon to date, after all, has been its fearless attitude toward the new tasks that confront humanity. Adherents of accelerationism display an unswerving commitment to radical innovation and feats of derring-do. For all their talk of novelty, however, the goal of reviving Enlightenment rationalism cannot help but remind us of the appeal Jürgen Habermas made more than thirty years ago, as he urged his colleagues to carry forward the “unfinished project” of modernity.10
Points of contact also exist between Habermas and accelerationist fellow-travelers such as Wolfendale or the philosopher Reza Negarestani, insofar as all of them are exhausted by the seemingly interminable nature of critique. Despite his status as heir apparent to the legacy of the Frankfurt School, Habermas gradually became disenchanted with the relentless negativity of his mentor, Theodor Adorno. Seeking a way out of the aporias opened up by the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Habermas endeavored to retrieve “the normative content of modernity.”11 Negarestani has written in a similar vein of critical theory’s refusal to take part in the production of new norms. In a recent polemic against “kitsch Marxism,” he declared:
A dedication to a project of militant negativity and an abandonment of the ambition to develop an intervening and constructive attitude toward humanity through various social and technological practices is now the hallmark of kitsch Marxism. Consumption of norms without producing any is the concrete reality of today’s Marxist critical theory.12
Although Negarestani would go on to distance himself from Habermas in the sequel to this essay, writing off “Habermasian rationality” as a kind of “conservative humanism,” the parallels between their respective approaches are too numerous to deny.13 Both attempt to salvage Reason’s legislative capacity to determine the future.
Fielding a question from Salemy toward the end of the discussion, Wolfendale likewise voiced his displeasure at the various “theoretical shibboleths” erected by critical theory and poststructuralism to ward off rationalism after 1945. Habermas similarly detected an affinity between these two streams of continental theory in his Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1983).14 Much like Wolfendale today, he hoped to defend the validity of public reason and normative ideals against the decades-long assault on positive articulations of politics, ethics, and aesthetics. But while Habermas was usually careful to stress the divergence of Adorno and Horkheimer’s rationalist critique of rationality — their immanent critique of Enlightenment — from the patent irrationalism of Heidegger, Bataille, Derrida, and Foucault, the distinction was immaterial to Wolfendale. (To be fair to Salemy, Wolfendale, and Negarestani, it’s possible that the qualities separating these two currents simply disappear in the hands of their inept successors, so that they appear functionally equivalent).
Whether critical theory still has anything to offer the historical project of emancipation, or if, like poststructuralism and Smith’s postcolonialism, it’s just another diversionary cul-de-sac, may be left for others to decide. Perhaps in a future article, I should like to adduce that critical theory is not only compatible with but remains indispensible to such a project. For the moment, I am content to invite the accelerationists to consider that their program might in many ways be a repetition of the one Habermas inaugurated in the late 1970s. If they agree that the two programs share much in common, they must ask themselves: Why did Habermas fail? How might they avoid a similar fate?
1 “[T]he most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and…an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick. “Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” The Accelerationist Reader. (Urbanomic. London, England: 2014). Pg. 350.
2 Ibid., pg. 362.
3 Toscano, Alberto. “Logistics and Opposition.” Mute. Vol. 3, № 2.
4 Wolfendale, Peter. “Emancipation as Navigation: From the Space of Reasons to the Space of Freedom.”
5 Jameson, Fredric. “The Brick and the Balloon.” The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern. (Verso Books. New York, NY: 1998). Pg. 185.
6 Lukács, Georg. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1968). Pg. 204.
7 “Pluralism implies a radical alterity of the other, whom I do not simply conceive by relation to myself, but confront out of my egoism.” Lévinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Boston, MA: 1979). Pg. 121.
8 Derrida, Jacques. “Différance.” Translated by Alan Bass. Margins of Philosophy. (University of Chicago Press. Chicago, IL: 1982). Pg. 21.
9 “[Y]ou know quite well that the day of the Lord’s return will come unexpectedly.” Thessalonians 5:2.
10 Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity: An Unfinished Project.” Translated by Seyla Benhabib. Habermas and the Unfinished Project of Modernity. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1997). Pgs. 37-55.
11 “If one retrieves the normative content of modernity…the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’ [falls] apart.” Habermas, Jürgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Translated by Frederick Lawrence. (Polity Press. Oxford, England: 1998). Pg. 347.
12 Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: The Human.” e-flux. (№ 52: February 2014). Pg. 8.
13 Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Human.” e-flux. (№ 53: March 2014). Pg. 6.
14 “The radical critique of reason exacts a high price for taking leave of modernity. In the first place, these discourses can and want to give no account of their own position. Negative dialectics, genealogy, and deconstruction alike avoid those categories in accord with which modern knowledge has been differentiated…and on the basis of which we today understand texts.” Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Pg. 336.