back to e-flux.com

Superconversations Day 8: Jason Adams responds to Nina Power, "Construction With Steel and Technology"


#1

DAY 8 /// RESPONDING TO NINA POWER - CONSTRUCTION WITH STEEL AND TECHNOLOGY, BY JASON ADAMS

Accelerationists for Auto-Creation

Pete Townshend of The Who destroying his guitar during the live performance of My Generation at Monterey Pop Festival 1967

Nina Power’s short theory-fiction piece, Construction With Steel and Technology, introduces a virtual resonance between accelerationism and auto-destructive art both fictionally and non-fictionally. At first glance, this resonance might seem somewhat counterintuitive, given the nomenclatural discord between the terms accelerationism and auto-destructive art. However, Power’s juxtaposition of the fictional art group the Aesthetic Accelerationists, and its counterpart, Nihilists for Auto-Destruction, leads to potential complications with regards to respective relationships with their doubles outside the story. Within the story, the Aesthetic Accelerationists are presented as harboring “[an] image of capitalism and technology [that is] rather shallow”, their members “hovering” around the fictional character of Gustav M, whose persona is inspired by the non-fictional originator of auto-destructive art, Gustav Metzger. The Nihilists for Auto-Destruction are introduced as a counterpoint: a group of violent, unstrategic and overzealous provocateurs willing to engage in kamikaze-like suicide attacks in order to ensure the “speeding up of the destruction” and the “hurrying up of horror”.

Juxtaposed to all of this is what the non-fictional Metzger really “had meant” by auto-destructive art, and, though not directly stated, what acceleration amounts to today. Of course, according to the art historian Catherine Jolivette, “Metzger’s theories drew on Nietzsche’s philosophies, reflecting Deleuze’s commentary on Nietzsche: ‘in auto-destruction the reactive forces themselves are denied and lead to nothingness.” Thus, to understand the virtual resonance of Metzger, Deleuze, and Nietzsche - and potentially, of all three with accelerationism, it must also be understood that, “in the reactive process of turning against oneself, active force becomes reactive.” As a result, and contrary to Power’s fictional character’s ideas, the non-fictional Metzger’s auto-destruction is not about turning against oneself, as the Nihilists for Auto-Destruction do, but instead circumventing the liberal image of the free-floating individual through which one is compelled to participate in late capitalist society.

The non-fictional Metzger, in other words, strives to create an active destruction, one that would “express the becoming-active of forces”, thereby compelling “reactive forces [to] deny and suppress themselves.” In this way, “negation, by making itself the negation of reactive forces themselves, is not only active but… expresses affirmation and becoming-active as the power of affirming.” The point of this is not some simplified “yes of the ass”, as Power’s fictional Aesthetic Accelerationists seem to suggest, but instead, the selective affirmation the Dionysian Yes:

The yes which does not know how to say no (the yes of the ass) is a caricature of affirmation. This is precisely because it says yes to everything which is no, because it puts up with nihilism it continues to serve the power of denying - which is like a demon whose every burden it carries. The Dionysian yes, on the contrary, knows how to say no. It is pure affirmation, it has conquered nihilism and divested negation of all autonomous power. But it has done this because it has placed the negative at the service of the power of affirming. To affirm is to create, not to bear, put up with, or accept.

The non-fictional Metzger, of course, never limited himself to either the discourse of auto-destruction, or the simple yes of the ass, either: instead, he proceeded in Dionysian fashion, by affirming the centrality of auto-creation -. If the fictional Nihilists for Auto-Destruction misunderstood Metzger so tragically then, in what sense might Power’s fictional Aesthetic Accelerationists have also misunderstood uninvoked accelerationist thinkers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, when they asserted that:

Neoliberalism confuses speed with acceleration. We may be moving fast, but only within a strictly defined set of capitalist parameters that themselves never waver. We experience only the increasing speed of a local horizon, a simple brain-​dead onrush rather than an acceleration which is also navigational, an experimental process of discovery within a universal space of possibility. It is the latter mode of acceleration which we hold as essential.

Aside from this pressing question, here are a few additionals:

  • What exactly is it that propels Power to deny non-fictional accelerationism a balanced presence with auto-destructive art in her narrative, even at the expense of the story’s conceptual integrity?

  • If the point of the story’s description of the fictional Aesthetic Accelerationists is to suggest that non-fictional accelerationism is an inherently destructive idea and will always result in shallow social expressions, what reasons for this claim are provided by Power and are they, in the final analysis, adequate?

  • Is it really the case that non-fictional accelerationists’ image of communism is reducible to one laden with “flying robots” and “automated machines for everything”? And if so, will technocommunism necessarily mean, as the fictional Metzger is presented as thinking, that “nature would likely perish even faster if these goons ever got any power”?

Jason Adams is an organizer at The New Centre for Research & Practice and holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hawaii and a PhD in Media & Communication from the European Graduate School.


#2

Thanks for the introduction to the forum and invitation to reply. If I can introduce Power’s Decapitalism, Left Scarcity, and the State, which can serve as a sort of companion essay underpinning the arguments informing this piece.

I am sympathetic to her highlighting of the misunderstanding of such figures as Illich, who I feel help to form an integral and fruitful understanding of contemporary institutional control and disablement. As she puts it, quoting Illich, “only participatory democracy creates the conditions for rational technology”. In highlighting this and other “deeply non-accelerationist subjects” involved with care of the weak, fragility, finitude, I think Power highlights crucial ideas that might get misunderstood in accelerationist discourse.

And yet, as summarized in her quote of Toscano, throughout the article there is the implication that accelerationism is “a position that simply states things about the world because it would be more exciting for the world to be like that”. This seems to commit just the kind of caricaturing and misunderstanding she decries. That a commitment to, for example, the transparencies of science has something Futurist about it is to displace a rigorously thought out critique of the nebulous dynamic power that capitalism exercises, to a realm of historically dismissable superfluities and enjoyable fantasy.

Perhaps the most interesting and relevant quote of the essay is this:

“An interesting question to ask here, instead of what an accelerationist theory might be, is what it would mean to generate an accelerationist aesthetic that would be genuinely politically mobilizing: Could an interplanetary communism of future techno-humans be enough to get disaffected youth to vote for universal basic income as a transitional demand on the way to our cosmic workless future? Rather than scale at the level of the universe, I want to turn now to scale at the level of the universal, toward a reason that would blow any sense of “human” scale out of the water.”

I think this complicates a little Power’s intentions in “Power Construction with Steel and Technology”. How much of the philo-fiction is critiquing accelerationism, and how much is presenting the interesting alternative of an accelerationist aesthetic that would be more politically relevant and mobilizing in her view? In either case I found both the essay and “story” helpful in its close readings and comparisons of what either position might amount to.


#3

“The Aesthetic Accelerationists didn’t seem to get it, Gustav M. reflected—they just liked the fact that there was a massive cube filled with computers, because they thought that computers were cool and would usher in communism, or something.”

The idea that non-fictional accelerationism can be reduced to a group of academics who ‘thought that computers were cool and would usher in communism’ relates to Power’s criticism of the solipsistic art world (in which artists show such “little responsibility they felt they had for nature, for politics, for wars perpetuated in their name, for other human beings.”)

Central to the critique of both aesthetic accelerationism and the art world is the disconnect between theory and practice. Power criticizes artists who fail to engage with the world of politics, nature, war, etc., and aesthetic-accelerationists who are trapped in their lofty world of ‘flying robots.’ More importantly, the only attempt to put aesthetic accelerationist theory into action by the Nihilists for Auto-Destruction results in a tragic misunderstanding. Just as Power critiques artists who remain insulated in the art world, Gustav wants his aesthetic-accelerationist sculpture to remain outside so that it does not cause harm to the gallery space and his chances of exhibiting again. Both the art world and aesthetic-accelerationism have their designated spaces.

Before reading Power’s story, I had just read this article about how police are using more advanced weapons and equipment to track and control protesters, a very real example of how advanced technology can cause harm. Though this left me feeling cynical about the ways that technology is used as a control mechanism by those in power, I am also not sure that non-fictional accelerationism is ‘an inherently destructive idea and will always result in shallow social expressions,’ and think that it might hold some potential for building a political project. Just as Power explains that she does admire some artist groups that speak at political events and at protests, perhaps there is also reason not to view non-fictional accelerationism through a reductive lens and to consider its affirmative possibilities and practical applications.


#4

@erikzepka I am not sure if clarity in one work can make up for unnecessary ambiguities in another by the same author.


#5

The passage in Power’s piece that stood out to me was in the fictional/real Metzger’s presentation talk, " “Auto-destructive art will be financed by the state, local authorities, the universities and—monopoly capitalism." Whether or not Metzger actually wrote this probably doesn’t matter as much as his ventriloquized voice is updated to address the co-opting of a destructive theology by present day institutions. A recent example includes the reason for a student withdrawal at USC based upon an art-program revamped since being underwritten by music moguls and venture capitalist interests in Silicon Valley. Changed to an art and design program,the newer format seeks to integrate such advanced (accelerated?) theories as “disruption” into a curriculum perhaps formerly based upon a more arcane idea of creativity. Late capitalism subsumes both the creative and destructive aspects of “world making” and integrates the transgressive into its program. To your question Jason: “If the point of the story’s description of the fictional Aesthetic Accelerationists is to suggest that non-fictional accelerationism is an inherently destructive idea and will always result in shallow social expressions, what reasons for this claim are provided by Power and are they, in the final analysis, adequate?”
I perceive Power’s point to be a dispassionate, yet fairly traditional, representation of machine vs. body, state vs. desperate anarchism. Power’s narrative has a resigned cynicism that often, paradoxically, characterizes lyrical attempts to interject “sincere” content. The content here as far as I can tell is that of the old guard (Metzger/Power) helplessly witnessing the spectacle of late capitalist subsumption of the transgressive act attempted by all parties. While this may be a creative illustration of such, the piece doesn’t adequately delve into contemporary theories dealing with this issue.


#6

Yes but Illich is absolutely regressive when it comes to the question of “conviviality” and other such proximalist fetishes. What use is participatory democracy as everlasting meeting when we can just have the meeting beforehand and program the algorithms according to what we agree upon for perpetuity? For instance, if we believe there should be both a minimum income floor that no one can fall below and a maximum income ceiling noone can rise above, that decision can itself be participatory but its logic can be pre-programmed into public policy as inviolable, for instance, connecting any unforeseen rise in inflation to an automatic rise in the minimum income, etc. Machinic democracy is much more relevant to our time than continuous participatory democracy because today we have the capacity to transfer some decisions to algorithms, in particular those agreed-upon - i.e., collectively decided upon - ahead of time. True care for the weak, fragile, and finite means creating the conditions for their flourishing, refusing to think small and local in the face of a planetary power apparatus that will simply incorporate these effective non-protestations, as Illich does. The remainder of the Power essay you invoke sounds very much like this, however. Thanks for the tip!


#7

As you seem to suggest, tracking and controlling are not inherently negative things, as of course, it depends who is tracking/controlling and who is being tracked/controlled. One could imagine, for a fictional example, an apparatus of tracking/controlling that uses these control mechanisms to force anyone making over $500k/yr to have their bank accounts and individual transactions completely transparent in a public database for all to see over the Internet, with a legal cap at $1 million. The point of such crowdsourced transactional surveillance would be to ensure that no one violates the $1 million ceiling on income, which is enforced so as to enable a $100k floor on income that is guaranteed to all, regardless of work or wages of any kind. Whether this would or wouldn’t work economically is beside the point, which is that surveillance and control become issues most centrally when it comes to the question of who is being surveilled and controlled and who is enacting the enforcement powers. Contemporary surveillance technology enables these sorts of things not only for the rich to control the poor, but also, once repurposed, reimagined, and reinvented, precisely the reverse.


#8

It can if it is actually invoked or alluded to, but in this case it could have been alluded to with a bit more force, I think.


#9

@olivia_leiter It is good to keep in mind that in Nina’s story, not only the fictional acceleration but even its non fictional double is an imaginary force and bears nothing but skin deep resemblance to what acceleration is actually about.


#10

There is definitely some overlap rhetorically between Deleuze/Nietzsche’s “Active Destruction” (the latter portion of which influenced Metzger directly in the formulation of his Auto-Destruction/Auto-Creation), and Schumpeter/Marx’s “Creative Destruction”, which has been ventriloquized but uncited as “technological disruption” by the technological elite over the last decade or so in particular. But I don’t think this is reducible to Deleuze / Nietzsche / Metzger / Schumpeter / Marx: the venture capitalist variation on this is primarily about power, ethico-politically legitimating their right to disrupt and destructure already-existing institutional and social forms, etc., which is a “yes”, but as Deleuze would put it, “the yes of the ass”. Anyways, I think one of the main oversights in Power’s analysis is the extent to which Metzger himself is drawing upon Nietzsche, so that it’s not the old master that the contemporary art world fails to live up to but rather that the old master is himself a copy of a copy of a copy, too.


#11

Yes the old master Metzger as mechanically reproduced becomes dilute, yet also retains an awareness of his ineffectual gesture toward critique of consumer culture. His original intentionality gets updated as farce in Power’s narrative.The venture capitalist buzzword of “disruption” is similarly dilute, yet dilute in a way that empties if of it’s original intention as transgressive (and perhaps potentially emancipatory) in Deleuze / Nietzsche in order to be instrumentalized as theory for free-market rapaciousness. It’s a bait and switch (in Power’s narrative aided by the cadre of Accelerationists) that leaves the old school master scratching his head in disbelief, as the reader helplessly looks on.


#13

Yes, for sure - in a later comment on this piece, Power stated that for her it was really a kind of joke about the way the artworld takes up theory, primarily, and that aside from that, it should be read as essentially an homage to Metzger’s commitment to praxis.

I’m fine with that except that my assumption is that it’s often art that is in the vanguard and not the other way around, like how cinema is both a popular medium technologically and at the same time capable of providing space for development of engaged thinking through form and content alike, etc. well before it’s been properly worked out theoretically. Metzger himself did this I think, by drawing attention to destruction by repeating destruction in the form of self-destruction or auto-destruction, but he also drew attention to how auto-destruction is about destroying reactive forces, suppressing them to make room for creation, and for the selective affirmation of the new, as in “auto-creation”.


#14

Art is a soft target for farce. Power’s attitude towards art is shot through with the Platonic conceit of appearances clouding fundamental truths. Her post-modern ventriloquism fails to conceal a play of ethics between appearance and reality. This lightweight, detournemental tack has been a common strategy of Radical discourse a long while now. Her piece exists, on some level, as a representation of post- representational theory.


#15

In The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño writes about the Visceral Realists, a fictional poetic movement whose only poem in the novel can easily be classified as a drawing, and whose claim to poetic presence is having read a great deal of poets–and this without written critical comment or really any trace of a trace. Readers of the novel are well aware of its play with the trace and disappearances.I only write this to point out that, perhaps, the play of ethics between appearance and reality is at the heart of adequacy for Art and Literature:

“If the point of the story’s description of the fictional Aesthetic Accelerationists is to suggest that non-fictional accelerationism is an inherently destructive idea and will always result in shallow social expressions, what reasons for this claim are provided by Power and are they, in the final analysis, adequate?”

I say this not to argue against Laruelleans or any other philosophers of the Real (like Clement Rosset), as I think that we are firmly in the realm of the philosophical decision with Nina’s work and Jason’s question. What I suggest is that the question of adequacy, if it is to be tied to accelerationism as a quest for depth–depth in the sense of a nourishing field for aesthetic practices, maybe–must be situated, as least provisionally within the imagining of aesthetic destruction and creation as a politics.

And I especially admire her use of fiction to explore this, as she models through the fictional–a tool that analytic philosophers use all the time, only they call it the thought experiment–the auto destructive potential of political thought, which we know since Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values in The Geneaology of Morals, always has a strange relationship with the preservation and destructive of archives and registers of meaning.

What I mean by auto destructive is that political ideas often are consumed and transformed in practice, as the material for the political according to the combination of the specific material situation (this is true of the aesthetic realm, as well), and the seed of destructive potential in a political idea.

So, to connect imagination, politics, and ethics: Art is a definitely a soft target for Farce, but a difficult target for satire given the motility and flexibility of artistic genres. I only suggest here that Power’s piece, while being a bit cheeky, at least maps out the conditions of a discussion that needs to be had with accelerationism.

If not, then one option is to merely write accelerationism off as “collaboration” or mindless fetishization of technology: but that, in my mind, would be to stand firmly within illusion and not reality.


#16

@carlosamador I guess that’s just my least favorite aspect of analytic philosophy, the heavy reliance upon hypotheticals, as they are so often invoked in order to prove an artificial puzzle such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma that is always already riddled with unneeded presuppositions. Will one prisoner betray another, under a particular set of fictional conditions? Yes, if we presuppose a number of specific things about human nature that are not backed by anything but our own will-to-presuppose. But if we don’t, the hypothetical modeling is utterly useless: fiction’s role is to bring us closer to materiality, not farther away from it, and if it is to do this it must be based upon the most up-to-date scientific and other research, even when that science remains not fully certain of any foredrawn or premature conclusions. If we’re going to be scientific about the history of the concept, then we have to begin from the fact that auto-destruction as Metzger articulates it means destroying the image of the self that tends to become destructive, i.e., the liberal/capitalist reactive impulse-confined variety of the free-floating self, with an ego to preserve that has dropped from the sky and little if any sense of its own genesis from transindividual, collective conditions. The point of auto-destruction is auto-creation.


#17

I don’t think that the “play of ethics between appearances and reality” are necessarily at the heart of adequacy for Art and Literature @carlosamador . My point in regard to the Power piece was not to develop a transcendent critique of her reason as much as it was to reveal an admixture of ethics in her aesthetic deconstruction that is more determinist than transgressive. To clarify, I should re-phrase my previous characterization as “the direct moral correlation between appearances and reality” I completely agree with you that “a nourishing field of aesthetic practices” can helpfully encompass “aesthetic destruction and creation as a politics” . Taking the concept of aesthetic destruction literally is the stalking horse concept of Power’s piece, and why she anchors it in Metzger’s historical gesture. I question the cynical politics directly corollated to the aesthetics (well done for sure) of dispatching Metzger’s transgressive act as simply a representation of political agency that ultimately gets effaced by accelerationists (and the “other”,doused with accelerant). Power’s is a farce of a farce. which doesn’t technically bring it to a place of a different and possibly actionable politics. One might argue in this instance for a radical acceleration past Left instrumentalizing of Art for yet another cynical critique.


#18

I agree with you about the apolitical nature of technology - mechanisms of tracking and control are not intrinsically negative or positive and should be judged on a case by case basis. This makes me think of the phrase, ‘art for art’s sake,’ which implies that there is some intrinsic value in art, some universal state of truth that underlies all values. Similarly, rather than thinking about ‘technology for technology’s sake,’ it is important to contextualize technology and consider who is using it and who it is for


#20

Yes, for sure! That is a great analogy, though I’d phrase it with the slight variation that technology is still “always already political” rather than politically neutral, but that we don’t know ahead of time how it will be politicized or politically deployed. Determinists are at least correct that technologies developed for specific purposes are imbued in many respects and many, maybe even most situations with the values inscribed into the R&D, financial flows, etc., but they are incorrect that this necessarily exhausts the political potential of most such technologies. Even alternate uses once per decade herald the possibility of not only alternate use, but also alternate values and other forces influencing future modes of R&D. So basically it is apolitical to a degree, and political to a degree, depending on the material situation at hand, and the material future in the making, as well.