A Marxist heresy?

Accelerationism and its discontents

RP 191 () / Article, Future Stasis

In his study of the semantics of historical time, Reinhart Koselleck proposes that ‘two specific determinants’ characterize modernity’s ‘new experience of transition: the expected otherness of the future and, associated with it, the alteration in the rhythm of temporal experience: acceleration, by means of which one’s own time is distinguished from what went before’. If the concept of acceleration is thereby central to the emergence of a qualitatively different modern or new time (Neuzeit) around the latter half of the eighteenth century, it is also at this ‘epochal threshold’ that history itself, in the collective singular, comes to be first perceived as ‘in motion’ – a perception that Koselleck locates in a divergence between the ‘space of experience’ and the ‘horizon of expectation’. There would thus seem to be good reason to argue, as Hartmut Rosa does in his recent book, Social Acceleration, subtitled A New Theory of Modernity, that acceleration just is the fundamental temporal experience of modernity as a whole: ‘the decisive and categorially new foundational experience of history, and the [basis of the] rapid establishment of the concept of modernity’ itself. Such a ‘transformation of the experience of history lies at the root’, as Rosa notes, ‘of the reconceptualization of the role and status of the political in modernity’, according new temporal meanings to such pivotal terms as ‘revolution’, ‘utopia’, ‘progress’ or ‘conservatism’. [1]

It is all the more striking, therefore, that recent accounts of capitalist modernity have tended to stress in acceleration’s ‘alteration in the rhythm of temporal experience’ not, in fact, so much the opening to the alterity of the future, but what Paul Virilio – the curmudgeonly godfather of all such accounts – describes as a ‘futurism of the instant that has no future’, and of an increasing ‘shrinkage to the present’. [2] Thus, for Jonathan Crary, to take another recent example, if ‘the accelerations of an always globalizing capitalism’ produce what Marx identified in the Grundrisse as that ‘constant continuity’ essential to the temporalities of circulation at a world scale – particularly via an intersection of the increasing ‘velocity at which new products emerge’ with the pace of technological development and of its penetration into everyday life – this is generative, today, of what appears as ‘a time without time’, an ‘ever more congealed and futureless present’. [3] Cut loose from historical narrative, the felt experience of the present is one of an ongoing state of transition, which tends to present itself less as a sense of possibility of the truly new than as a paradoxically frenzied sense of repetition, with a consequent depoliticization of the ‘dynamic and historical force’ accorded by earlier political modernisms to time itself. Acceleration become the mark not of ‘progress’ but of the paradoxical temporality of a ‘frenetic standstill’. [4]

This is ‘one familiar story’, as Benjamin Noys puts it. But there is ‘another, stranger’ one that has re-emerged over the last few years: ‘of those who think we haven’t gone fast enough’, who think that the way out of the ‘frenetic standstill’ of acceleration’s ‘futureless present’ is to accelerate through and beyond such (capitalist) acceleration itself. First named by Noys himself in a critical vein, in his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative, where it appears as a subset of the more pervasive ‘affirmationism’ of contemporary continental theory, the idea of an accelerationism has subsequently been valorized as the basis for a re-politicization of leftist thought today. [5] If contemporary politics is beset by a ‘paralysis of the political imaginary’, in which ‘the future has been cancelled’, write Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in their 2013 Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, the ‘political left’ must disinter what they call its ‘supressed accelerationist tendency’. And if confirmation were needed that an accelerationist turn will thus have to be added to the sequence of all those other (dismally accelerating) recent ‘turns’ in contemporary theory, the appearance of Noys’s own extensive critical treatment in his Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism, along with the 500-plus-page #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, should suffice to allay any doubts. [*]