Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Book Review: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu

Spoilers

This is, quite simply, one of the best SF novels I've ever read. It's that rarest of beasts, a hard SF novel that's actually readable.

The story provides an interesting spin on the alien invasion scenario. A response to a signal sent out by a SETI equivalent in Culture Revolution era China is detected by scientist Ye Wenjie. The message she receives warns her not to respond, as the sender's civilisation is seeking to escape its homeworld for a more hospitable planet, and if she responds they'll be able to pin-point the origin of the signal and send their invasion fleet.

Reasoning that a sufficiently scientifically advanced civilisation must also have arrived at a high level of moral sophistication, Ye responds, hoping that the invading 'Trisolarans' will conquer the Earth and, being completely outside human history and thus far more objective about our state of affairs, will be able to offer solutions to humanity's problems.

The book initially spends a lot of time familiarising us with the insanity of the Cultural Revolution (don't think that this necessarily marks this book out as anti-establishment: the official Party line in China is that the Cultural Revolution was a disastrous error of judgement on Mao's part), as well as the possible consequences of extraterrestrial contact. Perhaps most interestingly, though, is the author's defence of reason and rationality. Indeed, there's so much scientific-Promethean sentiment in this book that I almost got an accelerationist contact high.

Early on, we learn that there's a growing movement claiming that our ability to understand the universe is far more restricted than had previously been supposed. Seeking to apply the scientific method to science itself, the Frontiers of Science movement hold that fundamental science has reached its limit. The particle accelerators around the world have stopped generating identical results, suggesting that at a certain basic level, the universe is utterly random and cannot be comprehended.

Furthermore, one character notes that there's a growing cultural hostility towards scientific and technological progress, a burgeoning strain of primitivism that pushes for the abandonment of the projects of techno-science in favour of a return to nature. What we learn, though, is that this movement is a product of the Trisolarans attempt to undermine our ability to offer resistance when they arrive. Shocked by how rapid human technological development has been in the last century, they work with their collaborators on Earth to frustrate scientific research, in particular fundamental theory. Indeed, even the lack of identical results from the particle accelerators is revealed to be part of their plot.

There's something quite classically SF about that, this strong feeling that it's only scientific rationality that will bring humanity triumph, almost clich├ęd in fact. Indeed, some of their human collaborators even view the Trisolarans in religious terms. Perhaps it's a little on-the-nose, but there's still something really quite pleasing, from an accelerationist perspective at least, about how the efforts to undermine technological and scientific enterprise is painted as a betrayal of humanity.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Accelerationism talk at the Catalyst Club: 08/10/2015

The following is the talk I gave on Accelerationism at the Catalyst Club on Thursday, 8th October, 2015. If anyone involved with the Club is reading this, thanks again for having me. 

To what I am certain will be the heartbreaking disappointment of my Neoreactionary readers, this is of a Left Accelerationist tendency. 

Now, given the restraints of only having about 15 minutes to speak, I had to summarise what would have been worth taking my time explaining, simplify what is properly approached as complex, skip over points it would have been worth dwelling on, and miss out some stuff completely (most notably, I only name check the CCRU et al). So you'll notice that the focus is on broad themes, rather than fine details. 

Any outright inaccuracies are just down to me not doing enough research.  

My plan is to use this skeleton as the jumping off point for a later, longer and more detailed piece on the subject. This being said, I'm not sure a single promise I've made about where I'm going to take this blog has actually come about, so don't hold your breath.

I'll include a list of sources I used when researching this at the end of the text.

Finally, thanks to my good friend Rob for the constructive criticism throughout the writing of this. 

***
Capitalism is an extraordinary thing. There has never been a force as productive, innovative or as liberating as capitalism, a fact well recognised by Marx. Capitalism has chewed up the old world and transformed the life of humanity: at least, for the most part. The release of productive energy, both physical and mental, accomplished by capitalism has unleashed the potential for scientific and technological development, as well as radical social change, on a global scale. That has never before been possible. 

However, many insist that capitalism needs to be overthrown, dismantled, fought against and, in a word, destroyed. Of course, even with the huge gains it has made taken into account, only a fool would claim that capitalism is by any means perfect. But it would be equally foolish, if not dishonest, to claim that any of the alternatives we have attempted have worked better. What if the standard critique of capitalism has been going in the wrong direction by trying to curtail, diminish, and do away with it? Perhaps we do not need deceleration, but instead the opposite: that is what accelerationism is all about.

Accelerationism emerged out of the often esoteric works of Gilles Deleuze, Feliz Guattari and Jaques Lyotard, as collated, synthesised and remixed by Nick Land, Sadie Plant and the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit in the 1990s. This peculiar fusion of thinkers, methods and styles produced a strange and sometimes frightening reinterpretation of capitalism and its potential to change the world. It held that the task at hand was not the revolutionary destruction of the market, but instead its acceleration and evolution. In Deleuze and Guattari’s much quoted words: ‘Which is the revolutionary path? ... Is there one? To withdraw from the world market…? Or might it not be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further…in the movements of the market…not to withdraw from the process, but to accelerate the process…’

What is this process? For Deleuze and Guattari, it is the process whereby capitalism decodes and deterritorialises the flows of production. Now, I’m not sure anyone actually quite knows what that means (it isn’t exactly uncommon for Continental philosophers to just make up words and never feel the need to include a glossary), so we will have to take a moment to unpack these expressions.

I think they mean exactly what they sound like. They mean the undoing of codes, the disruption of territories. A code is the form of something, the way something occurs, a set of instructions (for example, a code of honour). To ‘decode’ means to undo a code, to abolish or deconstruct a set of instructions. The act of decoding allows something to take another form, to occur in a different way. A territory is the location upon which something occurs or by which something is bound. It is both a limit and a plane of actualisation. Deterritorialisation is the act by which a plane is undermined and demolished, thus displacing limits and allowing new potentials for actualisation. In other words: to decode and deterritorialise simply means to create opportunities for new things to happen, or for old things to happen in new ways.

Decoding and deterritorialising. When have these things happened? They happened in this country. We saw it during the industrial revolution, we saw it during and after the World Wars, when new realities were forced upon an old society. We saw it when the edifice of the Soviet state was collapsed by its inability to properly direct productive forces. We are seeing something similar in China and India. We see it every time an underdeveloped country is acted upon by the forces of the world market. We are, globally, on average, freer and with a better chance of not dying prematurely than we have ever been before: that is a disruption of the prior order. 2015 has far less in common with 1915 than 1915 had with 1815, and although we must not try to reduce all of this change down to a single factor, it is supremely foolish to not recognise the positive impact the breakthrough of market forces has had upon our world. You might say: it was the utopian ideals of the Enlightenment that made us freer! It was the downfall of religious superstition that gave us science! And you are right…but it is only a general increase of wealth, individual self-determination and opportunities for voluntary association that allowed us to have those things in the first place.

This is where we must start to consider accelerationism as a critique of the mainstream Left. Lyotard makes the claim in his work Libidinal Economy that ‘…the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they…enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic…exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories…they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them…’ Cultural theorist Mark Fisher helps us extract something tangible from this bizarre flurry of prose: which of us, he asks in his essay Terminator vs Avatar, wants to go back to our existence before the mines, the factories, the foundries? Who really wants to trade in all our technology and science and security and liberty for a nostalgic existence moralised and spiritualised as more ‘authentic’, and a community more ‘organic’? What do these words even mean?

For an accelerationist, there is only one word for the call to return to an existence untouched by capitalism, technology and market forces: ‘reactionary’. We are capitalized. We are part of the market. Do we really want to live off of the land again? Although some of us might say yes, most of us would not. Capitalism was an escape for our ancestors. Yes, they lost the cosy, ‘authentic organicism’ of rural life, but wasn’t that a sacrifice worth making? Didn’t it liberate them, and us, from the tyranny of living by the seasons, fearing the next bad harvest? The Russian futurist Nikolai Federov, who called for the complete mastery of nature by man, considered nostalgia for nature a mark of someone who lives comfortably outside of its vindictiveness: indeed, for Federov, the love of nature is tantamount to the love of death. Capitalism broke us out of nature.

Deleuze and Guattari consider the origins of capitalism, and wonder why it was that capitalism happened here, in Europe, and not in China or the Islamic world. Not because they lacked technical skill: rather, they suggest, because these were societies that were still too caught up in themselves. This is perhaps especially true of Imperial China, with its emphasis on harmony, hierarchy and serenity. The despotic state was too well developed, too far extended, for the initial conditions that capitalism appears to need. Capitalism needs a thousand, thousand things to occur, but perhaps it especially needs disorder and a desire to push forwards and outwards. Capitalism creates an explosion of individual and group desires that are not caught up in the apparatus of the social order. The market grows to satisfy these desires, and to create new ones. The result of this is a new way of doing things that no other socio-economic arrangement has seemed capable of outcompeting. The world was opened up by capitalism, decoded and deterritorialised by capitalism, but in the end closed up again by capitalism, recoded and reterritorialised by capitalism too.

There’s the rub.

Although produce no longer goes to the manor house, and fealty is no longer owed to the lord of the land, new institutions, new codes and territories, have arisen out of the machinery of the market. The new code is capital itself. The new territory is the nation state. Production is almost universally routed through capital. Desire follows the same path, being so caught up in the productive system that, short of a complete and violent rejection of it (which I maintain is a primitivist gesture par excellence), the two are almost identical. This has had the effect of blinding us to the sheer possibilities of what is already at hand. We seem peculiarly incapable of recognising the potential of the technology that capitalism has given us. Consider Facebook: doesn’t it in many ways fulfil the utopian ambition of being able to converse with other, like-minded people instantaneously, irrespective of borders or geography? And yet, even though this could be a powerful tool for collaborating on projects in a way that is international, almost post-national, our use of it presently is best described as ‘uninspired.’

I feel that this is true of all our technology. The feminist Shulamith Firestone summed up our lack of imagination well when she imagines a scientist saying: ‘Dear, I discovered how to clone people at the lab today. Now we can go skiing in Aspen.’ Our energy, our productivity and our imagination is primarily directed towards the narrow aims of the market, curtailing the possibility of exploring new forms of innovation, new projects, new ways of being.

It is here where we must distinguish between left-and right-accelerationism. Right-accelerationism, which is closely aligned with the techno-commercialist wing of Neoreaction, calls for the acceleration of capitalism itself, for the indefinite expansion of the marketplace, replacing even the functions of government itself. It holds that the productive potential within capitalism can only occur in the capitalist form, and that this form will continue to outcompete all opposition, consuming whatever is left of the commons. Left-accelerationism instead seeks something different: it seeks to rediscover those decoding and deterritorialising tendencies that tore apart feudalism, and to turn them against capitalism itself.

This must not be the same as previously attempted forms of revolutionary socialism. The revolutionary event, if it is to take firm hold of a society, must rely on political Terror, in either an extreme and sudden form, or else in the form of a persistent feeling of dread: the history of the Soviet Union and China give us ready examples of both methods. The result of these centrally planned alternatives to the market were only ever variations of what Nick Land described as ‘Platonic-Fascist top down solutions that always screw up viciously.’ The work of rediscovering what was and is innovative, transformative and liberating within capitalism must occur within capitalism. We must build upon what is here now, and not in the form of piecemeal, socially democratic reformism- this project must be radical, it must be different. But it cannot be as dramatically divorced from reality as past attempts have been. The task at hand is to work with the already existing forces of production and desire, not against them, to push production and desire beyond capitalism’s boundaries, to rediscover the urge to go forwards and outwards.

If the Left wants to be a real force for change, it needs to upgrade.

To quote the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek: ‘The habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing temporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutions for effective success. “At least we’re doing something” is the rallying cry of those who privilege self-esteem rather than effective action. The only criterion of a good tactic is whether it enables significant success or not.’ Williams and Srnicek, perhaps deliberately, recall the moto the Chinese Communist Party deployed during the shift from top-down central planning to their current market economy: ‘Practice is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth.’

The accelerationist Benedict Singleton describes the mechanism of a trap: a trap is something that turns the characteristics of something against it - the rabbits struggle to escape only tightens the snare. That is a model for us to explore. We must learn to set traps for desire, for self-interest, for competition, production, and capital, to turn them to different ends. Reorientation is as important as acceleration. 

Experiment. Communicate. Network. Above all: learn. Learn how to analyse the movements and fluctuations of the market. Learn how to make use of the technology already available to us in new ways, ways its creators did not intend or even envisage. Learn new ways of being together with both your allies and your opponents. Learn what capitalism does right, what it does wrong, and where the possible schizes between these things lie. Learn where the Left has failed, and why. Learn, and prepare for a future that will not resemble the past. Acceleration is inevitable, the question is can we avoid crashing and reach escape velocity? In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: ‘in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.’


References

  • Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Bloomsbury Acedemic, 2013, London & New York)
  • The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Federov and his Followers by George Young (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012)
  • 'Libidinal Economy (extract)' by Jaques Lyotard; 'Terminator vs Avatar' by Mark Fisher; 'The Two Modes of Cultural History' by Shulamith Firestone; 'Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics' by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek; 'Maximum Jailbreak' by Benedict Singleton are all collected in #Accelerate: the accelerationist reader edited by Robin Mackay & Armen Avanessian (Urbanomic, 2014, Falmouth)
  • 'Meltdown' by Nick Land is collected in Fanged Noumena, Collected Writings 1987-2007 by Nick Land, ed. by Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (Urbanomic & Sequence Press, Falmouth & New York, 2014)
  • http://deontologistics.tumblr.com/post/91953882443/so-accelerationism-whats-all-that-about