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Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism. Part 1 – Thanks for Nothing

Robert Jackson

Just think about the ordinary, and by that I mean not an ordinary life, event, custom, or thing (at least not yet), but the ordinary as such

We can never fully exhaust the ordinary – how could we? For as sure as we try to get close, the ordinary becomes something else. Elusive – in the same way that words, peoples, names and symbols become strange if we concentrate on them too long. Neither does anyone grasp the ordinary in sheer ignorance, because its ordinariness just evaporates in retrospect. The ordinary claims little attention only because it is ordinary and is implicitly taken on that account. The extraordinariness of the ordinary has to be rejected if its implicitness becomes something we unavoidably accept. Yet, its givenness appears unproblematic insofar as it remains unacknowledged. The ordinary is what happens when we’re concentrating on something else: it is what constitutes the ontological furniture of the world.

Nevertheless, the ordinary remains drastically important, as it always was: and yet its implicitness already remains curiously forgotten, waiting to be exposed or made present. As Charles Bernstein writes in The Art and Practice of the Ordinary, “any attempt to fix the ordinary pulls it out of the everydayness in which it is situated, from which it seems to derive its power.” Representations and objectifications of the ordinary claim transparency to its own cost.

“Science” wishes to naturalise the ordinary into a neat little piecemeal encroachments of textbook knowledge and then move towards the next eliminative paradigm. Technology commandeers the ordinary seeking to render it more efficient and effective for the benefits of, well, hardly anyone but futurists. Traditionalists seek to undermine the ordinary in favour of some primordial ordinary which benefits some reactionary stupor. Global neo-liberalism commandeers the ordinary even further, waging that no-one will change anything in it for lack of time or for opposing the marketplace. Everyone has access to the ordinary, even though the ordinary remains unaccessible.

Yet it seems that whatever we do, whatever new particle is discovered, whatever new economic theory found, or new conceptual scheme offered – the coordinates of “normality” and “convention” might change, for some at least, but soon after the ordinary returns, with a hidden shrug and an hour to kill. Faster computation and digital transmission may have egged a generational shift of Western production, knowledge, communication, control, community, yet the ordinary still prevails only by re-shifting and re-configuring itself: different uses, words, things, together with different uses of words and things. The concrete acknowledgement of banal yet entirely extra-ordinary things constitute the bizarre ecology of the ordinary, which operates regardless: detached memes, first-world jokes, boredom, mediocre top 10s, compassion, political intrigue, scoops, as well as emotional heartache.

Different cultures, tribes, gangs, and communities have their ordinaries: everyday customs and uses, most different, some utterly indifferent to one other. Some ordinary customs hold the relevancy of others to account. Yet the ordinary is clearly there, unshakeable and implicit, yet also unmistakable and haunting, without any essence of natural custom to which it can be easily assigned. It has just a background assumption of ‘bleh’, or ‘meh’ with no distinctive features to explicitly signal its silent functioning.

Why am I waxing lyrical abut such matters? I do so in the effort of introducing an underdeveloped but convergent alternative. Not one that has any justification nor merit of its own, but one that exists, for the most part, as an epistemological alternative to what has hitherto been called accelerationism: and how the tensions and similarities of both positions impact art, literature, science and especially systems.

The Self-Mastery of Thought

The doctrine of accelerationism is accelerating, as it should be (Twitter hashtags and all) making giant leaps in art and cultural theory circles. By no means does it signal anything concrete, (at least not yet) than it provokes the insistent beginnings of a modern political doctrine: one that joins up similar threads of interest across disparate thinkers and topics. Of late, it has enjoyed multiple discussions online, a recent symposium in Berlin, the sole topic for an e-flux journal on aesthetics, a forum held last year, and an expectant anthology from Urbanomic.

Coined by Benjamin Noys in The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, the acceletrationist doctrine takes many forms, but by and large, its aim is to accelerate, conceive, invert and uproot capitalist infrastructures and abstractions using the abstract epistemic resources of capitalism itself. For Marx and Engels this required the dialectical development of capitalist contraction towards its ‘inevitable’ destruction. Deleuze and Guattari famously mused that the process of capital was to be accelerated, and in its darker, more heightened levels (most famously, the macabre futurist machinic practice of Nick Land), it meant pushing the social deterritorialising force of capitalism into its inevitable post-capitalist future.

In its early stages, accelerationism established a darker, more virulently techno-nihilistic strain of theoretical terror. Land was spellbound by the 90s demonic growth of neoliberalism: for it possessed, not just some freaky quality of being utterly impervious to any resistance of leftist critique, but the singular quality of accelerating unparalleled technological progress. Land’s future was a rumbling techno-capital singularity smuggling itself within collapsing human civilisations until the latter would eventually be creamed off. These views eventually drove Land out of academia but remained a curious alternative to other political responses: a darker alternative to fields of protest, against disruption, antonomist intervention, situationist détournement, hackitivism or a resuscitated dialectical antagonism.

Filtering out the hysteric reactionary stupor of Land’s thought, contemporary thinkers have begun to rethink accelerationism beyond the squalid drive of accelerating capitalist contradiction. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who co-authored the widely circulated Accelerationist Manifesto, have clearly articulated this view, rejecting Land’s singularity but endorsing the use of capitalist quantification techniques, engineering, infrastructure, persuasive models, and advanced computational affordances to accelerate the modern left. Whereas leftist thought has sought to question, undermine or even reverse modernity, Srnicek and Williams suggest that radical thought must accelerate the mediums of capitalist production into a post capitalist future. They proudly assert that “if the political left is to have a future it must be one in which it max­im­ally embraces this suppressed acceler­a­tionist tendency.”

Against what Srnicek and Williams term “folk politics” (the title for their forthcoming publication) – defined as “loc­alism, direct action, and re­lent­less ho­ri­zont­alism” – an accelerationist politics preserves neoliberal infrastructure, but intends to push its affordances faster than neoliberalism would allow: in particular a basic universal income and the reduction of work (through automation). For them, folk politics has no big picture, nor any infrastructural plan beyond a ‘the party’ or a ‘horizontal network’: no method of effectivity or material advancement. In a separate article they condemn the conservative left for reducing themselves into “traf­ficking in the politics of fear, rather than the politics of freedom and the pro­ject for a more just so­ciety”.

Technology is to be used as method of “furthering leftist goals”, that is, building a material platform for a genuine post-capitalist societal framework. The emphasis is on accelerating modernity and progress, not accelerating contradictory speed (the latter evident in, say, high frequency trading), investing an understanding of post-capitalist infrastructure through new economic models and repurposed machinery. There is no wiggle-room here for Srnicek and Williams: either build a post-capitalist future or don’t. Either establish or experiment towards a broad ideological vision for accelerating the future or repeatedly fail. Failure, in their eyes, is not a thing of beauty, but a path towards an alternative future. Instead of leftist faith, Srnicek and Williams advocate alternative means of building an infrastructure of the future.

And there’s a lot here to agree for the most part. The left has instigated a lot of its own irrelevancy by ignoring or rejecting the often affective affordances of technology – rather than changing its use, or learning how to build a more just society. Yet, accelerationism’s major problem concerns itself with peddling a systematic theory to explain the practice of doing all the stuff the left failed to realise. What happens to the ordinary?

Within the accelerationist doctrine lies an old epistemological assumption that the problem with political thought is the rejection of progress, and the mastering of knowledge: that folk politics has suppressed knowledge and progress to its cost, whilst capitalism marched onwards and upwards, mostly upwards. All of this is partly accurate. Yet philosophically, accelerationism is more than these insightful remarks, and justifiable political demands. For Srnicek and Williams:

“The move­ment to­wards a sur­passing of our cur­rent constraints must include more than simply a struggle for a more ra­tional global society. We be­lieve it must also include re­cov­ering the dreams which trans­fixed many from the middle of the Nineteenth Century until the dawn of the neo­lib­eral era, of the quest of Homo Sapiens to­wards expan­sion beyond the lim­it­a­tions of the earth and our immediate bodily forms. These vis­ions are today viewed as relics of a more innocent mo­ment. Yet they both diagnose the stag­gering lack of imagina­tion in our own time, and offer the promise of a fu­ture that is af­fect­ively in­vig­orating, as well as intel­lec­tu­ally en­er­gising.”

Accelerationism then, is not just a new doctrine for the left whom have failed to reignite the dream for a better future, endlessly squabbling over moralistic games of trumpery, but a renewed praxis (and only that) of enlightened self-knowledge. Accelerationism is a renewed humanism that seeks to re-master the world. As a “Right-Accelerationist” this is as much as Land wants, accelerating reactionary aristocracy past democratic values (Land’s so-called Dark Enlightenment). As “Left-Accelerationists, Srnicek and Williams declare that only a radical “maximal mastery” of renewed Enlightenment values will secure victory over capital, in an age where modern infrastructure is constituted by complexity and systemic automation.

“This mas­tery must be dis­tin­guished from that be­loved of thinkers of the original Enlightenment. […] But this is not to align ourselves with the tired residue of post­mod­ernity, de­crying mastery as proto-​fascistic or au­thority as in­nately il­le­git­imate. Instead we pro­pose that the prob­lems be­set­ting our planet and our spe­cies ob­lige us to re­fur­bish mas­tery in a newly com­plex guise; whilst we cannot pre­dict the pre­cise result of our ac­tions, we can de­termine prob­ab­il­ist­ic­ally likely ranges of out­comes. What must be coupled to such com­plex systems ana­lysis is a new form of ac­tion: im­pro­visatory and cap­able of ex­ecuting a design through a prac­tice which works with the con­tingen­cies it dis­covers only in the course of its acting, in a politics of geo­so­cial artistry and cun­ning rationality. A form of abductive ex­per­i­ment­a­tion that seeks the best means to act in a complex world.”

In this guise (as well as Land’s), accelerationism resumes the Enlightenment’s dictum of ‘dare to know’ – to pursue moral knowledge under the name of rational universalism, to which the ‘daring’ or ‘cunning’ part isn’t limited to empirically tracking or modelling post-capital infrastructures, nor of resuscitating the modern ethos (quite why Enlightenment thinkers are assumed to be beloved isn’t addressed, but hey ho). Instead, their task consists in expanding human rationality beyond its current epistemic state and limit, to test the critical faculties of human knowledge, and extend them without apologising, without any dint of skepticism. That it really could demonstrate the “best means” of acting in a post-industrial society. It aims to accelerate the human mastery of the concepts as well as the technical infrastructures to which it cohabits. The human ‘we’ must be self-constructed, such that – in their words – we “collect­ively come to grasp our world such that we might change it.

Such a grasping or understanding wants to, at the bottom of everything, reduce or eliminate the ordinary. Thus capitalist infrastructure isn’t just an infrastructure but also a manifest limit of what it means to be familiar in a community: within that it must be universally unified into a rational community of self-knowledge. It is our concepts and rational freedom, our everyday experience which is to be extended, sustained, accelerated, even beyond the pale vagaries of our solar system. The ordinary is inherently set to be eliminated in accelerationism: and this becomes a problem.

By all means, accelerationism’s recent trajectory and increasing prominence (especially in Berlin) is a moving target, and so not all the arrows fired at it intend to halt that movement, nor what it might spawn. Our provocation towards, what I call ‘ordinaryism’ is less of a tactical move, not a hostile polemic, certainly not a threat, than it is a sympathetic twin operating alongside accelerationism’s endorsement of universal self-mastery. The philosophical fate of the human creature, tends to re-assert self-mastery from time to time, until it runs out of steam, or submits to itself that the best “science” undercuts its own majestic foundations, leading to critical revisions. Ordinaryism is not intended to trump accelerationism, than it is presented as an alternative to think about the ignorance of limitations within human finitude and of human creatures, which constitute the very presence of the ordinary. Ordinaryism doesn’t advocate a traditional ‘ordinary’, natural, ‘way of life’ against future mastery – nothing of the sort – rather, it seeks to expose the hidden wound of human mastery which becomes unavoidable.

Ordinaryism is presented as what might be left over once accelerationism has finished in avenging the limits of rational concepts (and the violence in doing so), such that the ordinary always returns, inherently unwelcome, but always ambiguous. That accelerationism will be beset by the mark of tragedy, finitude and disappointment: but in ordinaryism’s eyes, this is to be accepted and resettled. Of course accelerationism, by its own definition, cannot abide disappointment: manifestos are not the best means of articulating disappointments. 

It is only after a state of affairs has been accelerated, that ordinaryism begins and works with the reconstruction or resettlement of the everyday, of what we already took for granted. Whilst accelerationism reimagines the future by eliminating the everyday, ordinaryism reimagines the entanglement of the everyday which weaves in and out of our collective grasp endlessly. We might indeed change the world, but in most cases, it feels like the ordinary changes us. Ordinaryism resembles and works through the difficult unsolvable left-overs of accelerationism, where it must be collectively reconstructed, rather than collectively mastered.

Sellars and Cavell

To prise open this debate further, we have to set up a philosophical/historical split that encompasses both world-views – namely, a set of philosophical attributes which partly make up accelerationism and ordinaryism’s similarities and tensions. All philosophical topics are quite good at this from time to time: historical figures count as manifest gaps, whom might inherit one particular zeitgeist, but whose differences from it continue to play out in subsequent world-views. The transcendent forms of Plato, vs. the individual forms of Aristotle: the determinate computational rationality of Leibniz vs. the determinate horizontal immanence of Spinoza: The scepticism of Kant’s concepts to never know the ‘thing in itself’ vs. Hegel’s absolute motions of the concept that can: Heidegger’s horizon of withdrawn Being vs. Wittgenstein’s later ‘forms of life.’

Without preaching to anachronism, the split between accelerationism and ordinaryism follows these gaps in various ways. The split discussed may be established within the predominant influence of two American analytic philosophers, who have had little recognition in continental philosophy and scarcely their political vicissitudes. They are Wilfrid Sellars and Stanley Cavell, and both of their contemporary philosophical systems are cited here for a number of reasons: both philosophers are prolific contemporaries, who from the 1950s, worked tirelessly after the rejection of logical positivism (Sellars in founding a materialist, nominalist inferentialism – Cavell as a second-generation ordinary language philosopher, writing after Wittgenstein and J. L Austin). Both are completely influenced by the foundations of Kant and the teachings of Wittgenstein, albeit different stages. Both jointly understand the human condition to be a product of the rules and standards of language, holistically used in a social community and both have dedicated their careers to moral and ethical questions that are produced from such insights. That’s about where the similarities end, important as they are.

More controversially, both thinkers have in some method or other, been cited as attempting to represent a bridge between analytic and continental philosophy, despite such a incessant institutional divide remaining. Clearly, to establish any such divide is prone to error, insofar as the term ‘continental’ – established by analytics – only pithily defined other thinkers who ‘don’t do what they do’. What’s interesting here, is the sense of the world-view to which such bridge-building is actioned.

The ‘continental’ use of Sellars is fairly recent, and has taken place conterminously with the rational analytic wing of (what is usually referred to as) speculative realism, most notably Ray Brassier’s recent work (despite him rejecting the movement entirely). Brassier himself, has sought to make Sellarsian epistemology central to the materialist future of continental philosophy, appealing to thinkers who seek to break away from an affirmation-vitalist induced metaphysics (Deleuze & Guattari), deconstructionist accounts (Derrida, Butler), or a post-Hegelian dialectical materialism (Žižek/Badiou).

What is pivotal for Brassier is that a Sellarsian legacy points towards a recoding of continental post-Hegelian framework set within an analytic project of scientific realism. This is where accelerationism finds its enlightened humanist teeth, even if it isn’t explicitly Sellarsian: an analytic-continental framework, which accurately establishes a set of arguments enlightening human conception (that we can scientifically speculate on what human rationality is) and to go to work putting these tools into pragmatic action, with the hope of extending our reign of knowledge. That in its scientific efficacy, both Sellars and the return to Hegel reflects one basic insight: that the special human affordance of ‘knowing’ must be identical with what it knows.

In his recent article The Labor of the InHuman: (parts [1] and [2]) Reza Negarestani has promoted similar accelerationist principles within a similar universalising project of humanism. Quoting Negarestani, Inhumanism establishes the same accelerationist dictum: which “stands in concrete opposition to any paradigm that seeks to degrade humanity either in the face of its finitude or against the backdrop of the great outdoors.” In any case, Sellarsian tropes are all over Negarestani’s and the accelerationist enterprise: such as how one justifies what one says in the “space of reasons”. How reasoning exists as a universal, meta-linguistic evolutionary natural function, which once grasped, eliminates the ambiguities of using it. Even Sellar’s students (notably Robert Brandom) have begun to reengage with the systematic potentials of Hegelian philosophy. All equally share an implicit rejection of romantic thought.

A Sellarsian future is unquestionably wrapped up in an accelerationism one, insofar as a) both distinguish what functions are essential to human rationality (inferential sapience), from biological functions (animal sentience), and then b) use such epistemic assurances to take account of discursive practices and establish moral actions. The Hegelian end-game, as it were, is to not only establish (with certainty) the laws of thought, but to show how the possibilities of the world’s laws (Being) and rational laws (appearance) are one and the same: that is, rationally accessible through enlightened reason. What is important to such insights are that the conditions of finitude cannot be attached to such accounts: i.e. Sellars’ account of what concepts are in a community (that is inferential semantics) have no bearing on what can or can’t be known by an individual. All intuitive ambiguity must be rooted out: such that ‘what I can deduce is what I know’ and that such ‘ought to dos’ are necessary yet speculative features of grasping the best moral actions.

Stanley Cavell however is immeasurably harder to pin down: not least because whilst recognised as a major analytic American philosopher, he has never been discussed with much, if any, resounding depth in continental circles, and remains substantially unknown to various audiences who would stand to benefit from his work. Cavell’s thought is thoroughly respected, maybe referred to, yes, but was historically disregarded once the analytic mission ‘to know everything’ through cognitive science resumed itself and sidelined ordinary language philosophy. Secondary literature on Cavell continues to grow however, particularly on studies of literature, film (literary studies in general), American studies, Shakespeare, animal studies, political philosophy and even pedagogy.

Yet, if there is one thinker who attempted to unite both analytic and continental world views since the 50s it is Cavell, only he tried it in reverse. Usually, the analytic way of treating continental texts is to de-romanticise them, by eking out or condemning what is purported to be rational arguments. Cavell went the other way, and sought to romanticise the analytic tradition by showing that it never had any absolute rational arguments in the first place. Thus, Cavell was emphasising ambiguity and the instability of language, independent of Saussure, Lacan, Habermas, even Derrida, and way before structuralist and poststructuralist texts arrived on our Anglophone shores in the 60s. Before Continental philosophy ever thought Žižek (or perhaps Baudry before him) was radical in combining philosophical insight into American cinema, Cavell caused disconcerting ripples in analytic circles when he starting doing it in the late 60s, and arguably did it better.

More significantly Cavell’s style of writing, like his thought and world-view, screams prose which is most un-analytic: ambiguity. His work does not fit into any noticeable philosophical idiom. Largely auto-biographical, entirely playful, but never simple – his insights are analytically complex, but written with an attitude much akin to the continental tradition: which is to say, staggeringly allusive yet direct. This, of course, matches Cavell’s heroes, whose prose preys upon and exudes ambiguity: namely the giants of Emerson and Wittgenstein. No wonder Cavell often expresses little interest in meaning anything bar “the accuracy of wording an intuition”. (In Quest of the Ordinary: 53). From here on in, unless otherwise stated, all citations are from In Quest of the Ordinary.

If Sellars is compelling for accelerationists because of his rigorous, technical accounts of what abstract concepts are in a scientific realism, Cavell is compelling because he presents an alternative difficulty: one that proceeds from not knowing: or a willingness to forgo it. There is no technically demanding jargon in Cavell: and barely a consistent systematic technique. He constructs arguments through atmosphere and intuitive lines of enquiry. Sentences which hold moments of stillness, generating an idea and then ending abruptly, but following on through wispy moments of insight, much like a musical score (Cavell began his career as a musical prodigy). His general register freely embraces philosophical insights with auto-biographical notes (philosophy just is autobiographical for Cavell), abstract deductions with concrete experiments, literary ideas with film experiences, Shakespearian tragedy with jazz overtones.

But Sellars and Cavell’s differences are exemplified not just by style, but also by the content and reception of their philosophical outlook. Reception wise: Sellars technical prose, which borders on being life-threateningly dull, provides the kind of challenge which the muscular philosophers among us feel the need to measure up to and surpass, like a scientific research grant or an unsolved mathematical problem. Ineffably technical to the end, Sellars excels in the matter of deductively writing in a certain way, to get out the theorems one is looking for. That reason, and reason only, is the true method of grasping things. To read Sellars then, is to know what one wants (to resolve the gap between oneself and one’s world) and to expect a result at the end of it: an account that answers the thorny issue of explaining, accounting or defining the ordinary within the “scientific image” and proceeding from there.

Cavell, unsurprisingly, establishes the complete opposite: the reader has no quick response, no general method of opposition to his ideas. There isn’t meant to be one. This is a philosopher, who takes pride in admitting that he tried to make Thoreau’s Walden more difficult, not on the adoption of jargon, but on the basis of how it educates problems in philosophy. Philosophy for Cavell, never makes any genuine progress, so neither should his writings. Philosophy will never be able to model itself successfully on the sciences, as it never thrives on deductive answers. Philosophy does not command a privileged relationship to reality, as it thinks science does or science thinks of itself: only the knowledge of science would purport the demolition of the ordinary, to which it’s own practice depends on. Accelerationism, likes other disciplines renders matters as supreme to themselves, such that the ordinary, monotonous means of how they got there are lost: their complexity squandered into an easy simple vision (its no surprise that Cavell was a close friend of Thomas Kuhn at UC Berkeley, and amongst other influential affinities, introduced him to Wittgenstein).

The Cavellian method actively incites disturbances and tensions in the reader, but ones that cannot be assimilated into one easy position or framework, where an effective solution is baldly asserted. Reading Cavell is akin to finding one’s own voice, in the midst of accompanying Cavell’s own. This is an important quality. And so, both Sellars and Cavell differ immeasurably in their accounts of what can be rationally asserted as real, and how the possibilities for how human language can be used. In fact, its not so much a differing account, but a diametric opposition. 

Cavell’s relationship to what I’m calling ordinaryism, matches Sellars relationship to accelerationism in one formal sense: a collection of world-view tools set to work on two separate problems occurring in post-Kantian philosophy. For Sellars, the aim of philosophy from Kant onwards is to blatantly ‘solve’ Kant’s transcendentalism, insofar as philosophising operates as a “stereoscopic fusion” accounting for one privileged insight of knowing how one’s concepts work and how one functions. As Cavell puts it, “the aim of reason [is] to know, objectively, without stint; to penetrate reality itself.” [The Claim of Reason, 431]

In this regard, Cavell’s approach to language and humanity, is presented as a legitimate alternative to the latter: namely that the ordinary is a worthwhile avenue for philosophy and political change, not to eliminated out of existence: to be looked for and lived in, but not to be known. What does it mean to abide with reality? Is that even enough? This is the question of the ordinary.

To that effect, the entire epistemological role of the human creature changes (Cavell prefers ‘human creature’ to subject or rational agents): for Sellars and the accelerationist world-view, the human creature’s basis in the world must self-master its own conceptual possibilities for freedom, like a cognitive open-source self. For Cavell and the ordinaryist world-view, the ordinary human creature’s basis in the world, takes interest in its skeptical limits. In Cavell’s words, “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole, its relation to the world as such, is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” (The Claim of Reason: 241) That the skeptical limitations of knowledge are not failures of it, but an attempt to bargain with the things-in-themselves.

Bargaining with Skepticism: Thanks for Nothing

I emphasise this contrast between Sellars and Cavell, mainly to bring about an old Cavellian insight as to why accelerationism originates in the form that it does, and why it does.

This issue is present in Cavell’s understanding of modern skepticism: the deceptive fraudulence of what one experiences, the feeling of distrust to that which becomes given. Cavell’s innovative treatment of scepticism is never given its dues: perhaps as the broader interpretation of recent theory in the midst of ecological catastrophe, technological infrastructure and global networks, has done away with concentrating on such banal philosophical problems. When the environment is disintegrating and a just world seems more unlikely, old problems of wondering whether ‘we’re dreaming’ or not, seem less and less justifiable.

Fair enough: but this is not Cavell’s insight into skepticism. Skepticism for Cavell is less a rigorous method or intellectual exercise than it is a relation to the world that establishes itself within living in the everyday. “My idea”, as Cavell writes in In Quest of the Ordinary, “is that what in philosophy is known as skepticism is a relation to the world, and to others, and to myself, and to language, that is known to what you might call literature.” (155) Skepticism, following Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is not about whether one refutes knowing anything outright, but a mark or basic feature of finitude that constitutes human existence. It is not the case that skepticism is true, (i.e. relativism) but of re-emphasising the irrefutability of truth within skepticism. In his words, written elsewhere, the problem of skepticism does “not consist in denying the conclusion of skepticism but in reconceiving its truth” [The Senses of Walden, 133].

The legitimacy of scepticism reminds us of the contingency of criteria that a society possesses of itself. We can never be absolutely certain of ourselves and our relation to the world, nor of our words, nor of securing what they mean. To understand what we mean by a moral utterance, or command is to already bring the ambiguity of the world to such utterances, and any attempt to narrow such definitions, of making them explicit, or grounded in certainty, is utterly doomed. Language does not await precise explicit, functional use, but is unintentionally bubbling through us within contingent slips, mistakes and failures. What we mean, must forever stay implicit if we are to communicate at all.

Cavell’s target of course were the logical positivists, who did aspire to such certainty. Cavell reinterpreted their philosophy thus: instead of actually knowing a truth, or claiming some cast-iron logical proposition which brings human knowledge closer to reality, the logical positivists distanced themselves from the ambiguity of the ordinary even further. The logical positivists evacuated the ordinary, attempting to fill it with an artificial, scientific theoretical language of functional certainty, whereupon deductive answers, much like scientific theories would emerge, hard won and settled as fact. Cavell allied himself as an American interpreter of Oxford’s ordinary language philosophy (particularly J. L. Austin’ work), a new technique of undermining logical semantic certainty by emphasising how a certain word or game is used within a society, as established in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Yet Cavell went further and deeper than other ordinary language philosophers by aligning their insights towards a renewed focus on post-Kantian scepticism (in the same historical manner Sellars achieved with his own philosophy) – on how one lives, or how a society functions despite these irrevocable conditions of finitude. No doubt of course that fundamental to the human condition is to know: to make the world more present, to solve skepticism. This is what Kant ultimately achieved: to bargain with skepticism and establish a conceptual stability founded on epistemological mastery, which Sellars thinks he has extended and accelerationism follows in equal measure.

But such stability comes at a price. The bargaining of building Kant’s transcendental a priori synthetic knowledge, assures us that the thing-in-itself exists, yet we are forced to give up true knowledge of it. At the cost of preventing human thought from lapsing into crippling doubt, Kant prevents us from gaining knowledge about the world we know exists beyond us. In short, Cavell argues that Kant gave up intimacy with the things in themselves in order to establish conceptual certainty. “You don’t – do you?” Cavell laments, “have to be a romantic to feel sometimes about that settlement: Thanks for nothing.” (31)

Cavell’s interpretation of logical positivism followed this line of diagnosis: the human creature performs a certain kind of violent satisfaction in response to the discovery of its limitations, where our relation to the world is contested. And its this sense of anti-romantic satisfaction which accelerationism excels at: not stopping at self-mastery, but of suspending illusions, and building a platform for Promethean expansion. Its own form of bargaining with human mastery and planning for a more ‘just’ world, may appear effective, but still carries with it all the same Kantian bargaining tools of a settlement which it has little hope of fully mastering. That’s the trouble with bargaining with the noumenon: the other party (the things in themselves) might deceive and hoodwink the terms of agreement.

Caught in the bind of disappointment with the world, and of being a disappointed species because of it: we are a set of creatures who are continually ordinary. Accelerationism appears less a system of bargaining, than a wish fulfilment. One that accelerates Kant’s bargain into some unknown techno-future, on a foolhardy whim that rationality is somehow more significant than everything else, or rather, such mastering will always get on the best side of the agreement. A revenge against the romantic that dared to suggest something else.

Ordinaryism offers no such remedies, and any appeals to such expansions are fragile, fraught with tragedy or crafting goals out of the banal facets of the ordinary. Bargaining with skepticism, is in Cavell’s eyes, simply a redirection of its difficulty. In his preface to Must We Mean What We Say? he presses his finger on this salient point:

“The idea that there is no absolute escape from (the threat of) illusions and the desires constructed from them says there is no therapy for this, in the sense of a cure for it … [that] was evidently something that captured my fascination halfway through Must We Mean What We Say? with Samuel Beckett’s Endgame––in effect a study of the circumstances that, “You’re on Earth, there is no cure for that.” [Must We Mean What We Say, 129]

Au contraire, demands accelerationism, we have the moral cure! But to know it, you’re going to have to sacrifice the ordinary, and why not? As Cavell notes, the enlightenment’s conscience is likely to herald Kant’s achievement intact: the Sellarsian response may feel, yes Kant, “thanks for everything.” (53) However, in The Claim of Reason, Cavell utterly dismantled philosophy’s quest for the foundations of moral obligation, by showing that it too had bargained with Kant’s foundations for knowledge: that somehow, the dream, as is accelerationism’s dream, to fully render some natural method of grasping a common world to which everyone ‘reasons’ in a space. That reason: inferential reason, is supposedly enough of a confrontation to be, quoting Cavell, “sufficiently powerful [that] it must work on people at random, like a ray.” [The Claim of Reason, 326]

But the ordinary doesn’t exist as an implicit fallacy to be eliminated away by the confrontations of ‘science’. Instead it operates as a romantic supplement to monitor the stability of accelerationism’s settlement: both of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. There is then, a new profound sense of ‘thanks for nothing’ in accelerationism: one that is a measure of dissatisfaction with Romantic attitudes and of their current instability, under attack from speculative realism (of what Meillassoux terms correlationism), amongst other positions. Ordinaryism will argue that this measure of satisfaction with Kant’s settlement is a measure of its stability, one that has persisted to this day: and speculative realism is nothing if not a movement that has become entirely dissatisfied with it. In other words, acceptance of this settlement heralds the conflict of a different version, upgrade, or application of skepticism. A different bargaining.

Romanticism’s answer was to fully justify the existence of the world outside thought, and that the act of enlightenment’s self-mastery had itself lost nature, or even tried to kill it off. For the Romantics (Cavell being one) the task set before them, proceeds in how we can recover, or cure the world from the violence of this Kantian settlement. But this, as Cavell fully admits is also another bargaining, set up from scepticism itself. The first generation’s response to this Kantian settlement was romantic animism, another ‘thanks for nothing’ type of bargaining: that the world lives and dies, as if it were another being (55-56).

Cavell’s own response is to return to the ordinary, as per his interpretation of Wittgenstein. The return to the everyday and ordinary things, which must now bargain with scepticism, and not successfully. That is, “the drift toward skepticism as the discovery of the everyday, a discovery of exactly what it is that skepticism would deny … the impulse to take thought about our lives inherently seeks to deny” (170-71) The way that ordinary language is expressed, or, pushing Cavell further, how ordinary things are used is the challenge of acceptance – with the emphasis placed on challenge rather than acceptance. The issue becomes one of paring knowledge as one fragment of the ordinary, together with Cavell’s suggestion that:

“the existence of the world . . . is not a matter to be known, but one to be acknowledged. And now what emerges is that what is to be acknowledged is this existence as separate from me, as if gone from me. . . . the world must be regained every day, in repetition, regained as gone.” [172]

But to take this further, ordinaryism – and its romantic slant – now has to orient towards a different bargaining strategy, as accelerationism chooses to do. Accelerationism takes Sellarsian tropes and moves them further than Sellars ever realistically envisaged. Its form of bargaining enlists that which is most contemporary: science, computation and quantifiable knowledge. Accelerationism brings forth its ray-like vision, onto the realm of automated systems, extended science and machines. It is the site where rational progress becomes constitutive of a deterministic machine, following rules to an-already decided, method of reason, unanswerable to anything other than more reasons of settlement.

For ordinaryism, language is out of date and out of time. Ordinaryism must keep up with such developments, but not under the banner of progress or knowledge. Instead ordinaryism understands the ordinary within the entangled ecologies of media and machine: of that which we took, and still take for granted. Of what became radically altered once the ordinary mysteriously entered the realms of automation.

Cavell notes that the ordinary changed significantly after the abstraction of logical positivism: ordinary language looked uncanny after it, as if analytic philosophers were discovering for the first time how language, through little reason of its own, operates within the lost meadows of un-graspedness. Just as accelerationism enlists technology for its own sceptical bargaining, ordinaryism enlists the affordances of technology too – how we live in an ecology where such everyday automatedness is continually un-grasped. We must realign, as Cavell does, overlapping regions, “not in [the] deflections of skepticism but in … respect for it, as for a worthy other; I think of it as [a] recognition not of the uncertainty of failure of our knowledge but of our disappointment with its success.” [Emerson’s Transcendental Etudes: 118].

To this end, ordinaryism’s uncanniness must be taken up in automated systems and computational networks, but these appear not as extensions of knowledge, but as separate, wider fields of acknowledgment, to which knowledge is one fragment: not the defining mechanism. That complex systems produced from us within the ordinary, solidify dissappointments with reason’s success: of its extension and operation. And the opportunity to regain the ordinary still stands, but in the time of machines, and systems executing beyond ones finite knowledge: an ecological pluralism of finitude awaits those who wish to bargain anew: of our finitude and theirs.

Ordinaryism’s new dissatisfaction with scepticism specifies nothing more than to inject a romantic slant back into the heart of the machine.


With sincere thanks to Paul Ennis who read through an earlier draft.