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“A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams

We live in a moment of profound cultural deceleration. The first two decades of the current century have so far been marked by an extraordinary sense of inertia, repetition, and retrospection, uncannily in keeping with the prophetic analyses of postmodern culture that Fredric Jameson began to develop in the 1980s. Tune the radio to the station playing the most contemporary music, and you will not encounter anything that you couldn’t have heard in the 1990s. Jameson’s claim that postmodernism was the cultural logic of late capitalism now stands as an ominous portent of the (non)future of capitalist cultural production: both politically and aesthetically, it seems that we can now only expect more of the same, forever.

At least for the moment, it seems that the financial crisis of 2008 has strengthened the power of capital. The austerity programs implemented with such rapidity in the wake of the financial crisis have seen an intensification—rather than a disappearance or dilution—of neoliberalism. The crisis may have deprived neoliberalism of its legitimacy, but that has only served to show that, in the lack of any effective counterforce, capitalist power can now proceed without the need for legitimacy: neoliberal ideas are like the litany of a religion whose social power has outlived the believers’ capacity for faith. Neoliberalism is dead, but it carries on. The outbursts of militancy in 2011 have done little to disrupt the widespread sense that the only changes will be for the worse.

As a way into what might be at stake in the concept of aesthetic accelerationism, it might be worth contrasting the dominant mood of our times with the affective tone of an earlier period. In her 1979 essay “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis noted that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude.” It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a “social and psychic revolution” could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation, and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. The Sixties counterculture might now have been reduced to a series of “iconic”—overfamiliar, endlessly circulated, dehistoricized—aesthetic relics, stripped of political content, but Willis’s work stands as a painful reminder of leftist failure. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to Beginning To See The Light, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and statism of mainstream socialism. While the music she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The story of how the counterculture was co-opted by the neoliberal Right is now a familiar one, but the other side of this narrative is the Left’s incapacity to transform itself in the face of the new forms of desire to which the counterculture gave voice.

The idea that the “Sixties led to neoliberalism” is complicated by the emphasis on the challenge to the family. For it then becomes clear that the Right did not absorb countercultural currents and energies without remainder. The conversion of countercultural rebellion into consumer capitalist pleasures necessarily misses the counterculture’s ambition to do away with the institutions of bourgeois society: an ambition which, from the perspective of the new “realism” that the Right has successfully imposed, looks naive and hopeless.

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