Revisiting the future with Laboria Cuboniks | A conversation

Techno-feminisms are, once again, on the ascent. The Xenofeminist Manifesto, published in 2015 by the collective Laboria Cuboniks, is a provocative and elaborate example for the renewed exhortation for gendered bodies to merge with technology, rationality and the sciences in order to defeat white supremacist patriarchal capitalism. Cornelia Sollfrank, a practising technofeminist artist with a long history and rich experience in building and contributing to cyber-feminist-net-art platforms and organisations, and Rachel Baker, a former ‘net artist’ currently involved in collaborative feminist performance and writing practices, are curious: What drives the resurrected hype around techno-feminisms? What is new about the future 30 years after Cyberfeminism? Will the current techno-feminist virus take hold? Or has recent history resulted in an aesthetic immunity to the strategy of “seductive semiotic parasites?”

CS: Who is Laboria Cuboniks? How did you meet and why did you decide to work together?

LC: We are currently six women spread across three continents, all coming from different disciplinary backgrounds which gives us access to cover a broader territory of thought than working alone, and also provides us an intensive context for sharing our discrete approaches. We met in 2014 at a summer school in Berlin (Emancipation as Navigation) – which was equally a transdisciplinary affair focusing on developments in neo-rationalism. We decided to work together to address the rather quick, dismissive reactions that were circulating at the time surrounding neo-rationalism and accelerationism, as being de facto (and permanently so) cis-white masculine pursuits. While the historicity of some of these ideas most certainly does fall into that category, the consequences of brushing off things like reason, science, technology, and scalability as being enduringly locked into patriarchal regimes, seemed to us a serious limitation when trying to think an emancipatory politics and its necessary feminisms, fit for an age of planetary complexity.

Chapter of the Xenofeminist Manifesto, screenshot

CS: It hardly needs mentioning that there has been a feminist history of reclaiming reason, science and technology. In your Xenofeminist manifesto (XF) [i] you are alluding  to both earlier technofeminist concepts, including cyberfeminism, but also to accelerationist ideas. What is your challenge, if any, adding a feminist agenda to a philosophical project that has largely been based on ignoring gender issues? Would XF have ever come into existence without accelerationism?

LC: Certainly the original Accelerationist Manifesto (MAP) did nothing to address gender politics, in a way mirroring its Marxian tones insofar as Marx himself also ignored gender and the types of labour (specifically care and reproductive labour) associated with a binary gender structure to which females have historically been subject to. MAP was a manifesto, which, by form alone is forthright; cannot address everything and is scant on nuance. Our own manifesto is no different in that regard. What we read from it, rather, was a demand for a scalar approach to leftist politics that can affirmatively face up to our situation systematically – the scope of which necessitates massive collective and collaborative mobilisation (which further entails the de-demonizing of the word ‘power’ as it is often portrayed in purely horizontalist approaches). XF responded to some of the general diagnoses mapped out in the MAP, but in its own terms, and opened up other territories for thought neglected by MAP. It’s instructive here to use this as a fruitful example against the type of puritanism that seems to be plaguing much of leftist efforts of late. When we don’t agree with every point, when we are offended at others, when we put all interpretive emphasis on authors’ biographies, we can end up dismissing entire thought-projects in one shot – rather than working out conceptual / pragmatic weaknesses and directing them, augmenting them otherwise. To be clear this isn’t about being conciliatory and taking every position on board – that would be pure triviality – but it is to say that we on the left desire some general transformations. How can we move beyond the game of ‘being right/superior’, of being locked into certain theoretical dogmatisms, of pissing perimeters around intellectual territories for our personal success in the name of a leftist-fashionability, towards the construction of useful concepts that can honestly respond to our complex reality? None of these concepts will ever be possible by a single ‘heroic’ actor/thinker.

First OBN Logo (1997)

CS: I can understand the desire to leave theoretical dogmatisms behind. This is also what we have tried with the Old Boys Network: to open up the term cyberfeminism and offer a platform where diverse and even contradictory concepts could meet. This entails, however, the problem of creating a common ground which is needed for collective agency… Some of the basic claims of accelerationism – that you are sharing – affirm an emphasis on rationality, universalism and self-mastery as well as the dismissal of traditional leftist political beliefs in micropolitics, direct action, inclusiveness, autonomous zones, politics of localism and horizontalism. Therefore, I’m wondering what agency could mean in a xenofeminist context.

LC: These ‘traditional’ leftist forms are only one side of the coin – the ones you mentioned seem more recent historically speaking, but there is also a long history of counter-hegemonically proportioned leftist activity. The danger in binding a leftist politics strictly and solely to a politics of immediacy (presentness, localisation, horizontalism, etc.) is that it seems ineffective at tackling globally-scaled systemic injustices (both structurally and ideologically), often existing in affective or symbolic form alone. The said, all politics occur in a local form – and that’s why a total dismissal of ‘localism’ does a great disservice to the ultimate task at hand (what we might envision as a postcapitalist turn) – but of course it cannot operate in isolation (as many of those with an investment in localist politics themselves acknowledge). The point is to articulate a politics that has the capacity to move between these scales that are commensurate with global reality, constructing vectors of connectivity that transverse these localisations (not only with regards to humans, but to things and disciplines of knowledge as well). Transiting between such scales (between the concrete here and now, and the untouchable, yet thinkable abstract) is a requirement for 21st century emancipatory politics, involving an expanded conception of ‘specificity’, ‘particularity’ and ‘situatedness’. These have been (and continue to be) crucial, contra-modern concepts developed in-large by feminist, post-colonial, queer and sub-altern discourses, but, like every theoretical proposition, have perspectival limits and require bootstrapping within larger ‘field’ conditions. Every difference or particularity exists in relation to something else, it’s embedded so it cannot be extracted and analysed in isolation. The more complex political question to us seem not only identifying/describing (or locating) a site, particularity or identitarian difference, but looking towards the field context as a kind of glue; that is, to approach the field context in which those situated differences experience structural discrimination or unjust advantages and to contemplate how that field context can be manipulated otherwise.

CS: I see your point, and I think it is exactly the complexity of the global situation which makes it impossible to come up with the one universal theory – which is what you are demanding?

LC: The demand would certainly never be for ‘one’ universal theory, but rather for a new theory of what a universalism on the left could mean today. The concept itself needs to be reformulated if it is to signify a non-totalitarian totality. This is where the metaphor of seeing the universal not as a top-down schematic, but as a type of artificial ‘glue’ that needs to be constructed is useful. The universal needs to be seen more as a kind of hosting condition; it is not ‘there’ to be unveiled; it is not a diagram to plug-into; it is an abstraction we urgently need to create in order for maximal human and non-human solidarities to be forged.

Chapter of the Xenofeminist Manifesto, screenshot

CS: Obviously, these ideas of universalism, totality, abstraction and scaleability are adopted from accelerationism that, nevertheless, remains somehow unaccomplished without gender politics? Is this the reason that you have set out to renew technofeminist thinking?

LC: One of the most pernicious critical reflexes against accelerationism (and we need to be clear we are talking about left-accelerationism) was that it was a Futurism 2.0, based on techno-utopianism and brute, masculine virility. While no one is trying to ‘enlist’ people for the accelerationist cause (some amongst us find the term itself quite misrepresentational to the project it espouses), we felt it was necessary to mine the field in two directions: to see what could be usefully applied to contemporary gender politics, and heighten the techno-feminist lineages of several claims made in the MAP. There are a myriad of points in which accelerationist politics intersect with (and are indebted to) feminist thinkers – as for instance with Judy Wajcman’s insistence that technology will neither save us, nor enslave us; but it requires refined analysis in the context of how it is used. Such a position echoes claims made in the MAP that advocate for an examination of the affordances of particular technologies rather than outright celebration or dismissal. Other thinkers associated with the neo-rationalist strand of left-accelerationism, like Ray Brassier, also tend to reverberate certain historically feminist positions, like the Promethean feminism of Shulamith Firestone when addressing the project of refashioning the human; or his emphasis on the use of abstraction for human cognition which also draws upon someone like Donna Haraway as a response to theoretical limitations ushered in via postmodernist positions.

CS: I guess tracking the feminist lineages of accelerationism could be an adventurous project in itself. For reasons of practicality, let’s stay with one example here. Building on Donna Haraway’s anti-naturalist Cyborg Manifesto (1983)[ii], cyberfeminists claimed to rebuild and repurpose technology in order to apply it for emancipatory purposes. At its core, the Cyborg Manifesto is about deconstructing traditionally Western antagonistic dualisms such as human-animal/machine and physical/non-physical. Haraway shows the taxonomic function of such categorisation and how it has been used to identify and construct “the other” in order to establish unjust power relations. She also emphasizes the importance of new technologies as playing an essential role in addressing, challenging and overcoming these dualisms. How does XF exceed this theoretical framework?

LC: We are quite theoretically aligned to the complexities inherent in Haraway’s work – cyborgian concerns – which examine human/machinic coupling adapted to an age where that coupling isn’t necessarily restricted to silicon chips and hardware, but it equally refers to the very ability to hack one’s biological/endocrine operating system. What we glean from such an understanding, is that we can’t simply ‘invest’ in the virtuality of online being as an emancipatory category unto itself, and we need to focus on how virtuality can be better interfaced with material existence. Furthermore, the sprawl-like functioning of online life has since been consolidated by a movement of deep centralization (mainly one search engine, one shop, one social media platform, etc.), so our collective efforts require systemic consideration. We need to conceive of larger structures of governance/justice that are commensurable with these new couplings; we need to focus on the construction of a milieu where the real and virtual, abstract and concrete couplings are politicized towards an emancipatory horizon.

OBN Readers (1998, 1999, 2001). Available online at

CS: Your manifesto stands in the tradition of a whole series of feminist manifestos like the Manifesto of Futurist Woman (1912), the SCUM Manifesto (1969), the Black women’s Manifesto (1970), the BITCH Manifesto (1972), the Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991), any many more [iii]. The cyberfeminist alliance Old Boys Network, however, agreed in 1997, at the end of the first Cyberfeminist International, to undermine the character of a proclamation by publishing an anti-manifesto… Why did you return to the traditional form of a manifesto – including its limitations – while at the same time claiming that what is needed is a refined analysis of technology in the context of how it is used?

LC: The manifesto, above all, gave us a highly compressed form through which to achieve a maximal libidinal engagement with ideas. There’s a reason why this form seems to be proliferating of late across movements; it’s quick to read online and can be readily shareable in snippet form. Those stylistic and factors of dissemination played a crucial role in deciding to write in an aphoristic way. As Sarah Kember puts it in her recent work on “iMedia”, the writing strategies common to manifestos ‘serve as hinge points between description and reinvention, art and activism, critique and creativity, writing about and writing out’. As such, there is still a great deal that the manifesto can do.

CS & RB: This takes us to the question of strategy. You are describing your strategy as the creation of “seductive semiotic parasites,” and we are wondering, if you understand your manifesto as a fictional scenario, or rather as political theory. We noticed, for instance, that you refer to ‘hyperstition’, a term originally employed in the mid-90’s to describe auto-loading ad windows during the delay incurred when the browser loads the main content – i.e what happens in the gaps created by the central activity. More latterly, it was used as an allusion to the practices of computer-based networked literatures (cf Simon Biggs, ‘The Hyperstitial Poetics of Media’) of which there is a notable precedence (Doll Yoko, Mez Breeze, Mark Amerika… etc). What can these linguistic forms and fictions achieve in terms of a politics? What can fiction writing and the creation of myths as literary forms achieve in terms of politics?

LC: We reference ‘hyperstition’ directly only one time in the text. It’s a disputed concept within the group; disputed not in the sense that it doesn’t ‘exist’, but disputed in terms of its operability or the ways in which hyperstition could be guided. The signification you mentioned is a bit foreign to us – we’ll have to check that out! But as far as we used it, it was to indicate the process whereby fictional entities become real. We can see many instances of this phenomenon at work, especially in finance where the sheer (collective) belief in a future occurrence can instantiate that very event, as in speculation. It is one thing to identify existence of hyperstitional operators, but it is another to understand and possibly leverage this type of novel causation they seem to exhibit. So, it’s not a phenomenon one can simply ‘celebrate’ as such. Some of the people – like Nick Land – who coined the term rather happily prognosticated dystopian visions as a result of its deterritorialising force. If XF or any other emancipatory project is to strategize hyperstitionally, it seems that it would be most effective, when conceptualized through the lens of contemporary power operations. Why are some fictions able to permeate reality (and by whom) and why do others simply fade out? One of the main qualities of hyperstition, or these fictional operators is that you can’t quite pinpoint this causation as if it’s of a purely mechanical order with clear input and outputs. So, it’s never something that can be fully determined. The fact, though, that we can see these processes at work, cracks open the given for what it is – contingent and subject to change. That this ‘given’ is volatile to fictional operations, is a clear indication of the relationship between ideality and reality and of a need for future interventions to find ways to mobilise that dialectic without falling into the pitfalls of an either / or dualism.

 Woman 1993, Cornelia Sollfrank

RB: Ok, maybe to concretise this question a little – what are ‘hyperstitional operators’? Are they ‘memes’? And in what terrains would their ‘future interventions’ most significantly occur for XF?  Upon what terrains, exactly, is the fictive, the semiotic, the hyperstitional, actually acting for XF? Does it ever meet a ‘realpolitik’?

LC: Hyperstitional operators could be a variety of things – but at least according to CCRU definitions they are ideas that enter and transform the flow of cultural reality – a kind of hype mutated into actuality. We don’t spend much time on hyperstition because there doesn’t seem to be an adequate understanding of how this engine works exactly, but perhaps a more useful way to illustrate the power of fiction upon reality, is to look at it through the lens of modelling practices. The study on the Black-Scholes model of options pricing (arguably one of the most important models ushering in financialisation) from the sociologist Donald Mackenzie is a really interesting case wherein the model – at first – had little correlation to pricing activities on the trading floor; but as the model gained traction, won a Nobel Prize and became a tool of the trade, reality started to conform to the predictions of the model. This is a simplification of a book-length study, but the point being that the uptake, or ‘performativity’ of the model produced a reality in its likeness, provoking Mackenzie to even close his book with the question “What sort of reality do we want to see performed?” Clearly, we are not advocating for more profit-imperative modelling innovations, but we can leverage this incredible potency differently since we know how effective it can be. Models don’t represent or merely ‘reduce’ reality; they are tools as the philosopher Margaret Morrison argues, to intervene in reality.

RB: There is a sense that accelerationism and XF is invested in the organisational techno-architectures of social programmes, in platform-building and scaling networks. If so, how can one avoid the bureaucratic traps of techno-social administration  – like the coercion and (self) surveillance through data management – that are encouraged under the guise of ‘creative tech innovation’? In addition, how can one escape the internal race, gender and class hierarchies that are often so constitutive to open techno-collaborative platforms?

LC: The materialisation of the conceptual framework raised in XF is certainly the largest, most difficult task at hand, one that will require substantial collaboration outside of our group. The hope with XF is that it manages to conceptually infect others to experiment on this tangible level. We know that the development of technology is also a reflection of our own biases, limitations, needs, desires and perceptions of the world, so contaminating this perceptual or cognitive level, although not enough, is still an important step. Your question really points to the delicacy and riskiness of our current world where so many potentially beneficial innovations are twisted to serve the few, be it either through sheer profit gains or through the cultural capital of becoming an antagonistic hero. The gross demographic misrepresentation within the building of techno-architecture (not to mention access to it) is the most obvious, direct hurdle to leap in order to mould and retrain these structures to serve the many. There are no user-manuals as to how to avoid the hazards you mentioned, all of which are bound to ideological imperatives of our time (for profit and self-branding), so any radical overhauling of the purposes that technology may serve, is wholly dependent on the restructuring of our given ideological ‘myths’ or frameworks.

The Nicolas Bourbaki collective

RB: Is Laboria Cuboniks intended as collective pseudonym for others to inhabit, in a similar way, for example, to Luther Blisset where a specific political tactic was applied through its availability as an open alias, or is it a more limited identification, akin to art group Bernadette Corporation which was always a specific core group of authors? How important is anonymity? Are there other groups you know of assuming the tenets of Xenofeminism as a discourse/practice? Do you envisage more Xenofeminist ‘chapters’ as a scaling strategy?

LC: Our name is an anagram of Nicolas Bourbaki, another collective pseudonym for group of largely French mathematicians from the 20th century advocating for abstraction and genericity in their field, so we playfully identify with them. As of now, the group is just the six of us, and, for the better or for the worse, anonymity was never achieved from the outset having launched the manifesto in person (without costumes and robot voices). In hindsight, the performative ‘appearance’ of Laboria could have been much more elaborately conceived and enacted – but as it is now, the importance must be placed on the labour of XF in general (open to anyone who wants to tinker, intervene, augment, refute and expand on these initial claims), and not on ‘Laboria’, the author. We’ve seen several groups and individuals respond to the manifesto – either through translation, dissemination, zine creation, talk-radio, inclusion in course readings, artistic practices and so on – and this is crucial to any ambitions of scaling up beyond our own finite capacities. Perhaps it would make sense to speak of ‘nodes and forks’ rather than ‘chapters’; ‘chapters’ seem to indicate a certain linear sequence that fulfils a narrative, whereas ‘nodes and forks’ affords a plurality of actants and events, piece by piece, deviation by deviation.

very Cyberfeminist International, Hamburg, 2001

CS+ RB: Many thanks for clarifying some of our questions related to xenofeminism. The issues you address are urgent and we hope your manifesto will inspire technofeminist experiments on all scales and levels and contribute to the materialisation of more feminist concepts, particularly within the development of technology.


[i] Laboria Cuboniks (2015):
[ii] Donna Harway,
[iii] The Internation Feminist Art Journal n.paradoxa published a comprehensive collection of feminist manifestos in 2011:

The Xenofeminist Manifesto is available at

More by Cornelia Sollfrank on Furtherfiled:

Giving What You Don’t Have: Cornelia Sollfrank, Joss Hands & Rachel Baker

Reading Club – Furtherfield – London 21-22 oct 13

Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism. Part 3 – What Motivates the Accelerationist impulse?

[A] hundred reasons present themselves, each drowning the voice of the others.” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: supra note 11 § 478).

For Part 1 click HERE.

For Part 2 click HERE.

Voice and unintelligibility play a greater, complex role in reasoning than the Left or Right accelerationists are prepared to admit, or fail to see. Establishing ones political voice is far broader and extensive than any of these thinkers take it to be, and is not simply the by-product of a phenomenological given unable to envisage any political alternative. Voice has to take priority here, for how else does one actually communicate? By this, we don’t have to take Voice to be the literal act of saying something out loud, or examining the behaviour for doing so. It can interpreted both as a metaphor and means encompassing every political act to which it can be applied; having a voice, or an opinion, hearing the public representation of someone, or of a community, wanting to being heard, letting someone have a say in the matter, etc. Above all it takes on the force of voicing ones own condition.

Might every form of modern communication then, be it a WhatsApp message, a bored glance at a meeting, cynical internet comments to nondescript mumbling, be one of ordinarily voicing our own condition? Perhaps even more so when it is mediated by an infrastructure (sometimes especially so). Both Voice and infrastructure are components of communicating indirectly, as most language games tend to do, whether face to face, face to mirror or interface.

The problem with philosophy is that the ordinary gets blamed, largely as the historical list of philosophy’s complaints almost always aim for the ordinary first as if its triviality is, by itself, not to be trusted with political or rational action. Indeed the very task of calling the ordinary to our attention, takes into account that we have lost interest in it. Perhaps it was already assumed that the market silently reduces the depth of ordinary communication and circumstance to capitalist knowledge anyway. Or maybe since ordinary life is increasingly and consistently mediated through online platforms, technology has overtaken its significance.

Yet what Ordinaryism seeks to uncover is that Voice does not constrain freedom because of its vulnerability: it is only because of vulnerability that voice expresses the freedom to reason in the first place. This is the split that severs both the sovereign rationality of Accelerationism (and Sellars), and the non-sovereign self of Ordinaryism (and Cavell). Indeed, this appears to be Cavell’s political lesson: it seems rational to want build a platform for others to air their democratic voice and decry any ineffective basis in favour something more determinate, more grounded, more inhuman. Yet freedom and justice only begins if a community is capable of ‘finding’ their own voice in the face of injustice. Likewise freedom is constrained if other voices repudiate the voice of others. There is no cognitive purchase for this, and no pre-built, implicit, or explicit ground for determining intelligibility either. So we have to ask, how else can the inhuman make itself intelligible unless it gives voice to its own condition? (As an aside, what else is philosophy but a set of specific and singular voices crying out for recognition in their appeal? A voice that may be acknowledged, yet equally repudiated? Just as the sound and look of Voice matter in reasoning, [how it persuades, how it strikes you] so too does the sound and look matter to philosophising arguments and deductions.)

The easiest way to round these political concerns up is to show how the very need to bypass the vulnerability of Voice, the need to provide an ‘answer’ or ‘solution’ to that vulnerability, is the same philosophical question that concerns solving skepticism. This is the heart of Cavell’s philosophy.

Following Naomi Scheman, the heart of transcendental inhumanism to which the epistemic accelerationists follow aims to draw attention to what underlies the possibility of our ordinary lives. But in Ordinaryism, the Cavellian rejoinder must insist that “the ordinariness of our lives cannot be taken for granted; skepticism looms as the modus tollens of the transcendentalist’s modus ponens.” (Scheman, “A Storied World”, In Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies, 2011 p.99). Whereas Accelerationism posits a renewed set of tools to re-determine intelligibility in an era of supposed ‘full automation’, Ordinaryism speaks to these same conditions but where intelligibility routinely breaks down, is endlessly brittle, always delicate, sometimes connects, but is never ensured or determined by philosophical explanation alone. What might it mean to understand the fragmented world of machines as a uniquely literary responsibility?

In other words, a future world of increased automation needs a romantic alternative. And it is sorely needed, because in this future order where automation is assumed to outpace human knowledge, or supersede it in any case (amplifying existing industries, or creating new ones) Ordinaryism speaks of new moments of doubt which constitute the skeptical fragments of ordinary life with machines. Perhaps also of machines. It might take on a specific personal form of questioning and living with what these new forms takes on; “what does this foreign mapping of data really know about me”, “what does it know about all of us?”, “Am I just being used here?”, “How can I know whether anyone is spying on me?”, “why are they ignoring me?”, “what on earth does that Tweet mean?”, “what’s happening?”, “what am I supposed to think about this”, “Why would I care about you’re doing?”, “I need to know what they’re doing.”

There are innumerable ordinary circumstances where a life with machines begins to make sense, but also starts to break down in all the same places: how might one suggest that a machine “knows” what it’s doing, or that “it knows” what to do? Where does the scalability of automated systems start to break down, and what sort of skepticism does it engender when it does? What happens when software bugs, and unpredictable acts of mis-texting chagrin habitual pattern? How might such finite points of knowledge exist, so as to understand and inhabit systemic doubt? What are the singular and specific means for how such systems are built, conceived or decided? And most of all, how might we even begin to characterise and acknowledge the voices which emerge within these systems? You might say that Ordinaryism wishes to extract acknowledgement out of the knowledge economy.

What is required then, is both a Cavellian critique of epistemic accelerationism (what potential political dangers might arise if Voice is repudiated) and why its solutions to solve skepticism through collective reasoning and self-mastery are no different from skepticism itself. But to do that, one also has to take account of how Cavell brings an alternate approach to imagining how normative rules are implicit in practice. This is not an act of opposition, more of a therapy, which might be needed, especially as politics is involved.

The Fragile Depth of Our Agreements

Now, despite the fact that Cavell’s philosophical questions work (almost) exclusively in the Wittgensteinian domain of articulating and expressing normative concepts which regulate speech and pragmatic action (beginning from his first essays Must We Mean What We Say? and his later magnum opus, The Claim of Reason) these texts don’t appear to be required reading in accelerationist and neo-rationalist circles.

Take the newly released art journal Glass Bead, whose aim is to suggest that any “…claim concerning the efficacy of art – its capacity, beyond either it’s representational function or its affectivity, to make changes in the way we think of the world and act on it – first demands a renewed understanding of reason itself.” If such a change in thinking is motivated by a renewed post-analytic approach to reason in a world of complexity (and an additional capacity for aesthetic efficacy), the continued omission of Cavell’s work into reason and aesthetics, is notable by its complete and utter absence. It’s enough to warrant the claim that certain imaginings of reason – in this case the abstract inferential game of giving and asking for reasons – are to be favoured over other types (usually with a secondary, pragmatist demand that science is the only authentic means for understanding the significance of the everyday).

In fact there’s a good reason for that omission: because Cavell discovered that he wasn’t able to ignore the threat of skepticism entirely, and instead discover it to be a truth of human rationality (is there anything more paradoxical than discovering ‘a truth’ in skepticism?). He instead sought to articulate how such concepts were not inherent features of inhuman ascension by means of inferential connection, but fragmented conditions of differentiated identity. In the eyes of the epistemic accelerationist, it’s as if there isn’t any possible option in-between some half-baked, progressive ramified global plan to expand the knowledge of human rationality, and a regressive fawning over the immediacy of sensual intuition. Fortunately, Cavell’s ‘projective’ approach to rationality questions this corrosive forced choice.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations sets up the key differences here. Instead of using Wittgenstein’s text as an introductory tool to show how the public expression of saying something can be explained and correctly applied (as Robert Brandom pedantically attempts), Cavell paid attention to Wittgenstein’s voice, as it invokes a specific and personal literary response to what happens when we are in search of such explanatory grounds (and how they always disappoint us). Perhaps more pertinently, Wittgenstein alluded towards an effort ‘to investigate the cost of our continuous temptation to knowledge.‘ (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 241) Compare this to the current neo-rational appeal which has little to no awareness that the pursuit of certain knowledge (and the unacknowledged consequences for when it will go astray) might itself be inherently unproblematic. Because reason presumably.

It’s no accident therefore that Philosophical Investigations has become one of the oddest literary feats in Western philosophy, insofar that it presents itself as a personal account, rather than a systematic one. Cavell was not only the first to prise out a Kantian insight from Wittgenstein’s text, but also to ask the simple question of why does he write like this? It’s as if every single word, every ordinary word, now takes on the full power and insight as any theoretical term of jargon: as if a theoretical vocabulary isn’t wanted or needed. Why does Wittgenstein provide provocative literary fragments to elucidate his philosophical struggles? (the infamous ‘mental cramps’) Why does he raise literary devices to flag up disappointing conclusions: where a rose possesses teeth, beetles languish in boxes, and lions speak in packs of darkness? It’s an insight which lies in acknowledging that Wittgenstein’s unique literary voice is inseparable from his philosophical ambitions. It is not that he offers an anti-skeptical account to fully fix and explain what it means to say something: nor does he posit an implicit mastering of normative concepts, whereupon said possibilities are subject to further explanation (the conditions under which cognition or experience become possible).

It’s as if the theoretical problem doesn’t come with fully understanding norms implicit in practice, but the very situation in which using words like “rules”, “freedom”, “determine”, “correct” and so on, do not have the desired theoretical effect (in the accelerationist case, freedom). These are very nice words after all, but the neo-pragmatist theory is found wanting in their full expression, sufficient to the limits given when they are spoken not as a licensed inference, but as a creative effect. Cavell’s take on language thus, is that there is always something more to words than the current practice in which they are put to use.

The appeal to Wittgenstein’s literary conditions is what motivates Cavell to suppose that his theory of norms in practice isn’t something to which words are used to line up a certain conclusion, rather, the specfic and singular non-formal ordering of ordinary words in themselves provide a certain crispness and perspicuity, as well as difficulty and confusion. As Paul Grimstad suggests:

Cavell wonders what one would have to do to words to get out of them a certain kind of clarity; to ground their meaning in an order. A kind of literary tact—the sound of these words in this order—would then serve as the condition under which we are entitled to mean in our own, and find meaning in another’s, words. The sort of perspicacity striven for here is not a matter of lining up reasons (it would not be “formal” in the way that a proof is formal), but of an attunement to arrangements of words in specific contexts.”

As Sandra Laugier chooses to describe it, Cavell’s posing of the Ordinary Language Philosopher’s question – “What we mean when we say” arises from “what allows Austin and [the later] Wittgenstein to say what they say about what we say?” For Cavell jointly discovered a radical absence of foundation to the claims of ‘what we say’, and further still, that this absence wasn’t the mark of any lack in logical rigour or of rational certainty in the normative procedures that regulate such claims. (Laugier, Why we need Ordinary Language Philosophy – p.81)

If agreement in normative rules becomes the presupposition of mutual intelligibility, then any individual is also committed to certain consequences whereupon certain rules might fail to be intelligible. Therein lies a simple difference: the espousal of following a universally applicable rule (as Brassier holds) and everyone else wondering whether that same rule has been correctly followed.

To mean exactly what we say, or to mean anything in fact, might be contingently mismatched to the specificity of what we say and project in any given context, hence one must bare the normative challenge that *what* we mean may differ from what we say.

The ordinary is saturated with these innumerable variations of mismatch through specific and singular situations, to which our attunement is threatened: when a co-worker fails to turn up to a meeting because they misunderstood someone’s directions or when a poor sap fails to get the joke he or she is the brunt of, or when a close friend misunderstands a name in a crowded bar. These moments are not insignificant wispy moments of human limitation swallowed up in a broad history of ascension, but become the necessary exhaust that emanates from a social agreement in which the bottom of our shared communal attunement falls away. With a language, I speak, but only insofar as we are already attuned in the projections we make.

As Cavell put it in this famously long (but necessarily long) passage;

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing ensures that this projection will take place (in particular not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing ensures that we make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, sense of humour, and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of what an utterance is an assertion, what an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of activity that Wittgenstein calls “forms of life”. Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. (Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? p.52)

If the reader might allow a Zizekian-style joke here (apologies in advance), it might elucidate Cavell’s insight further than the lofty quote above: “Two guys are having an heated exchange in a bar. One goads to the other, “what would you do if I called you an arsehole?”, to which the other replies “I’d punch you without hesitation.” The first guy thinks on his feet: “well, alright, what if I thought you were an arsehole? Would you hit me then?” The second guy reflects on his reply, “well, probably not” he says, “how would I know what you’re thinking?” “That settles it then,” says the first guy, “I think you’re an arsehole.”

Although the mismatch is played to (a rather ludicrous) comical effect, it offers a way into Cavell’s strange appreciation of skepticism’s lived effect. We intuitively know these ordinary situations, ordinary utterances and yet such acts are not instances of reason ascending its limits through knowledge, but are necessary and specific instances where reason’s endless depth and vulnerability enacts itself within such limits. The intelligble process by which the concept of “I think you’re an arsehole” arises, does little only to serve how brittle the semblances between saying and thinking portray. This for Cavell produces an anxiety; and it “… lies not just in the fact that my understanding has limits, but that I must draw on them, on apparently no more ground than my own.” (Claim of Reason, p. 115).

But it also presents a shift from the commonness of ordinary language to the question of a community where that commonness resides. And for Cavell if it is the case that there’s no firmer foundation than shared practices of common speech and community, there cannot be a shared conceptual framework, so as to collectively determine an objective intelligible method of treating and avoiding skeptical claims. Thus, any instability between what we find intelligible (what we cognitively understand or grasp) and how it is expressed in what we say, is also indicative of the social and cultural conditions that sustain such vulnerabilities. This is why for Cavell, the social conditions of a language game are fundamentally aesthetic in character, because we are both attuned to the conditions of a game and the experimental moments in which one tries out new and progressive literary arrangements that push against the game’s limits.

Which is why the history of the inhuman is constitutive of skepticism as barbed wire is constitutive of blood stained fences. And in conclusion, we’ll begin a preliminary move towards a bona fide Ordinaryist alternative to epistemic accelerationism (to be fleshed out in the final part). Key to this alternative is to understand that reasoning is not explainable by rule-governed inhuman rationality, but has a hand in the general projection of words, criteria and concepts in ordinary language (and moreover how inhuman Exit threatens this reasoning). Just because political action within reasoning can often fail to be intelligible, does not render it subject to inhuman ascension.

What is the Skeptical Impulse?

Nonetheless, Accelerationism operates as if there’s no other type of future worth wagering on, nor any method other than the force of reason suitable enough to supply the tools required. The morality put forward hence is that the more we are able to harness our knowledge of our social and technical world, the better we will be able to effectively rule ourselves and the greater chance of a strategy to overcome capitalism. The chief rejoinders that usually face criticisms of renewing the Enlightenment, consist in labelling detractors as complicit with skepticism, misunderstanding skepticism, languishing in sophism, abandoning reason for irrationality, justification for complicity, and trading off modern knowledge for theological assumption. Brassier recently referred to this skeptical questioning as the “unassailable doxa” of the humanities, constitutive of an influential strand of 20th Century European philosophy (from Nietzsche onwards), where the desire to know is “identified with the desire to subjugate”. Brassier goes on;

This is skepticism’s perennial appeal: by encouraging us to give up the desire to know, it promises to unburden us of the labour of justification required to satisfy this philosophical desire. Thus it is not certainty that skepticism invites us to abandon, but the philosophical demand to justify our certainties.

What Brassier takes for granted however, is that refusing to adhere to the force of reason and the ongoing project of attaining knowledge does not instantly amount to embracing skepticism, or that such knowledge will always be inadequate (and a violent act). What is at stake is not *simply* an inadequacy of knowledge as a cognitive resource. To view it as this, is what Cavell associates as skepticism, even if the desire is to then overcome it, or, in some way pushing skepticism to a deeper conclusion. The issue is not sophism, but skepticism.

Cavell’s romantic inclinations towards ordinary language philosophy offers a way out of this forced choice: skepticism simply cannot be refuted in favour of a renewed inhuman anti-skepticism. Entertaining skeptical doubt isn’t something which philosophers are especially adept at, treating it as an intellectual error to refute or ward off afterwards. Skepticism inhabits itself as an everyday, ordinary occurrence, equally puzzling and troubling, eternally unsatisfied and yet utterly enticing. It is a strange, yet equally relentless human drive to repress and reject the very attuned conditions that sustain intelligibility: conditions which also contain the ability to attune to one another’s projections.

In consideration of the fact that Accelerationism wants to conceive our conditioned intelligibility as a product of rule-governed knowledge this poses problems worthy of the best tragedies the humanities have to offer. Here’s Cavell’s take on the matter (my emphasis):

I do not […] confine the term [“skepticism”] to philosophers who wind up denying that we can ever know; I apply it to any view which takes the existence of the world to be a problem of knowledge […]. I hope it will not seem perverse that I lump views in such a way, taking the very raising of the question of knowledge in a certain form, or spirit, to constitute skepticism, regardless of whether a philosophy takes itself to have answered the question affirmatively or negatively. (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p.46).

Brassier would probably lambast this certain condition as a conformist view of ‘I should or ought to live my skepticism’, such that it hides an implicit refusal to investigate or question these forms (leading to various, inexorable ‘end of’ philosophies). But in doing so he takes on, at least in Cavell’s eyes, the compulsive epistemic assurances that skepticism compels. By implication Brassier’s endorsement of an anti-skepticism hides the fragility and depth of normative claims, and that claims are always voiced and projected. The problem with espousing rules for generating normative freedom is that a rule is neither an explanation nor a foundation – it is simply there (note that in saying this Cavell does not deny any rigour, moral or political commitments to normative rules). What Brassier and Accelerationism share is to answer a source of disquiet; that the validity of our normative claims seem to be based on nothing deeper than ourselves, or how words are put. And this attempt to reject Cavell’s insight, to erase skepticism once and for all, backfires only by reinforcing it.

Cavell’s treatment of skepticism is that it must be reconfigured away from an entrenched view of epistemological justification as a product of certainty: or that the existence of other minds, objects, procedures, processes and worlds can be reduced to problems of (and for) knowledge. The head on effort to defeat skepticism allows us to think we have explanations when in fact we lack them. Or put better, the idea that we can theorise a clean break from skepticism is itself a form of skepticism. The point is that we clearly can approach communities, other minds, systems and communities which often appear incomprehensible, unintelligible; but such appearances are features of vulnerability, and vulnerable grounds which we depend on nonetheless. Yet change only occurs not because we’re certain about the knowledge we possess, but in response to others whose involvement happens to be beyond my intellectual attempt to know them with certainty. There is nothing more uncertain than a response to alterity.

Politics operates exactly in this way, coming to terms with ones immediate response to injustice, not in “knowing” it or offering an explanation, but by acknowledging it. The “folk” vulnerabilities that Srnicek and Williams find ineffective are constitutive of intelligible injustices that we must acknowledge in order to engage at all. Nothing guarantees this. This is the central point: reasoning with the inhuman, requires a human appeal to acknowledge another – or put differently, making the inhuman intelligible requires that we acknowledge the voice of the inhuman (and equally that this same voice can reject our appeals). After all, what use is a politics based on the epistemic assurances of knowledge, if such knowledge can be regularly doubted?

What Brassier doesn’t acknowledge is that both his position and the skepticism he attacks, are guilty of the same premise: the longing for a genuine inhuman knowledge, without acknowledgment. This appeals to something greater than the everyday which gives voice to such justifications. Nihilism might be fun, but at some point its political actions soon becomes silent to its own screams, as it spins into a void of its own making. The ordinary prevails.

Cavell suggests that this philosophical impetus towards the inhuman is inherent to the skeptical habits of philosophical drive, for there is:

…inherent to philosophy a certain drive to the inhuman, to a certain inhuman idea of intellectuality, or of completion, or of the systematic; and that exactly because it is a drive to the inhuman, it is somehow itself the most inescapably human of motivations. (Conant, “An Interview with Stanley Cavell,” in Fleming & Payne, eds., The Sense of Stanley Cavell, 1989)

Unlike most ordinary language philosophers, Cavell has always been clear that the appeal to ordinary language is not the same as refuting skepticism (as some disciples of Wittgenstein might have it). Nothing is more skeptical, more aversive to the everyday that the “human wish to deny the condition of human existence” and that “as long as the denial is essential to what we think of the human, skepticism cannot, or must not, be denied.” (Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary, 1988, p. 5) In fact, most of Accelerationism’s Promethean attempts in fully maximising the human drive to transcend itself, were preempted by Cavell: as the skeptics’s treatment of the world (and others) is endless, completely prone to acceleration. One might say, acceleration is built into skepticism when the human mind convinces itself that the world is divorced and devoid of meaning – it encounters nothing but the meaningless of itself. It becomes a tragic temptation which the human creature carries out, an internal argument that it can’t quite relinquish. Or as Cavellian scholar, Stephen Mulhall puts it simply. “the denial of fintiude is finitude’s deepest impulse.” (Mulhall, The Self and its Shadows, 2013, p.48)

Better than Finitude

Accelerationism becomes a tragedy. A tragedy of never quite knowing what knowledge is enough, or when (it’s tragic enough that in theorising the emancipatory potentials of technology, it hasn’t appeared to go any further than incessantly arguing about it with others on blogs and Facebook threads – this author included).

However this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise when you have a political movement which shares an enthusiasm for building AI systems that are (quoting Mark Zuckerberg early last year); “better than humans at our primary senses: vision, listening”. When Facebook’s CEO thinks it’s unproblematic to invent a future sending unmediated telepathic thoughts to each other using technology (and your response to this is that it’s merely constrained by neo-liberal market forces) skepticism has reached a new apex. Ordinaryism makes no conservative attempt to preserve some fabled image of humanism located outside of technology, nor provide any Heideggerian technological lament, but instead reflect on what this tragic apex of skepticism will mean for us, what it says about our condition, and how the vulnerabilities of Voice make themselves known nonetheless. More than anything, how will this new apex of skepticism change the ordinary?

No doubt the Left-Accelerationist’s hearts are in the right places: but nonetheless, the dangers become obvious. If the solution to overcoming capitalism takes on the same inhuman skeptical impulses for epistemological certainty that constitute it, what exactly stops the Left-accelerationist’s proposals from being used for reactionary purposes? What sort of decisions must it undertake to control the ordinary, and to that effect, the ordinary voices of others who might doubt their knowledge?

This is why Cavell takes skepticism to not only be the denial of reason having any epistemic certainty, but the entire explanatory quest for epistemic certainty tout court. Both are latent philosophical expressions of what he calls ‘the skeptical impulse’ and both inhabit the very denial of this impulse whilst also becoming its mode of expression. The problem with attaining knowledge of the world, isn’t knowledge, but its theoretical desire for knowledge as certainty. Brassier would have you believe that any deviation from the emancipating Platonic discipline of ascending human finitude – the desire to know – risks disengaging reason from mastering the world. Whereas in the ordinary, reasoning becomes essential because it can never master the world, only inhabit its projections. Under ordinary circumstances reason can only appeal, in numerous and multifaceted paths, experimenting with different kinds and types of intelligibility taken from a shared linguistic attunement. It’s ability to appeal is never achieved as ascendancy, but by the endless vulnerabilities of ordinary language. Intelligibility is a continual, vulnerable task, who failures become the engines for relentless re-attunement with others and the world. Exactly ‘what’ is said, ‘how’ something is said, can make all the difference: and in politics, especially so.

Reason shouldn’t and doesn’t progress by ascending itself, it progresses by tiptoe. It re-engages with the world critically, and can only appeal to others in doing the same. The moral desire of Ordinaryism is exactly this: not to exit the world, but to be in it, to be present to it, and give it and others a voice which might make that desire intelligible, so as to modify the present situation. This is why we always have to acknowledge what we say when. To show how the world attracts itself to us and how it does so in each singular and specific case. When the future comes, it’ll emerge (as it always does) in some sort of vulnerable ordinary way.

Refuting skepticism, is in itself a performative expression that simply repeats skepticism; it denies the very truth and reality of living a skeptical existence, that knowledge as certainty is an ongoing disappointment. Quoting Sami Pihlstrom, “…there is no skeptical failure here requiring a “solution”; the attempt to offer a solution is as misguided as the skeptic who asks for it.” (Pihlstrom , Pragmatic Moral Realism: A Transcendental Debate, 2005, p. 76). Once the fight to close down skepticism is enacted, accelerationism encourages its major conditions – that the problem of knowledge about the world, of other minds, of systems, global insecurities, economics becomes a problem of certainty. And yet, at the same time, Accelerationism neglects skepticism’s fundamental insight that there are specific and important problems about the role of knowledge which might have to be acknowledged. It neglects the truth of skepticism. We live our skepticism. Daily.

The surprising conclusion that arises from this quagmire, is that the skeptic is in fact right – and yet, simultaneously, skepticism is fundamentally wrong. Well, not exactly wrong: just a refusal to accept that the human creature is also a finite creature, or as Cavell put it, skepticism manifests itself as “…the interpretation of metaphysical finitude as intellectual lack.” (Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary, 1988, p.51). As Áine Mahon puts it, “Cavell’s strategy is paradoxical: he strips s[k]eptical doubt of its power precisely by showing that it is right…. the skeptic’s doubt results from a *misunderstanding* of the truth she discovers.” (Mahon, The Ironist and the Romantic, 2014, p. 23). He takes skepticism to not only be a standing menace that denies an ordinary intimacy with the world, but also as a necessity to acknowledge ones finitude. For Ordinaryism too, also challenges political immediacy that Srnicek and Williams lament, but does so on the grounds of renewed intimacy with the ordinary. The issue is not binary: either of knowing or not-knowing, but of acknowledging (and regrettably, failing to acknowledge). The ordinary is grounded, not on knowledge (implicit or explicit), explanation, proof, logic, nor material, it’s grounded on nothing more and nothing less, than the acknowledgement of the world.

For the skeptic is in fact right, because everyday knowledge is vulnerable: the existence of the external world, other minds, and God falls outside the scope of what language can prove. Wittgenstein’s criteria can tell us what things are, but not whether things actually exist or not. This, however, does not mean that Cavell doubts the existence of things, and especially not the existence of other minds. It means that ultimately, such modes of existence must be accepted and received: moreover they have to be recovered and acknowledged.

Bracketing the abstraction here, one can immediately look to timely instances of ordinary life, in which Cavell’s ideas on skepticism seem at first distant, and then suddenly intuitive. Consider the natural, anxious reality of parenting for example (interwoven within a broad tapestry of anxiousness). I speak of first time parenting predominantly here: for doesn’t the very task of living with skepticism, responsibility and finitude, become central to the activities of childrearing and all attempts to find clear answers to the contingency, uncontrollability and unpredictability it engenders? It’s not the normative fault of parents for wanting to find something deeper, clearer and surer in order to solve the anxiousness that childrearing brings: but yet equally nothing solves it either. But there isn’t any normative basis, or universal demand for suggesting that a parent ‘ought’ to know, or ought to justify an explanation on the act of learning how to parent effectively. One simply does so, but in doing so, skepticism is not refuted, or made to temporarily vanish by competent practices alone: it is lived. More importantly, it is lived with others who also live it.

The Ordinary Consequences of Skepticism

This is what Brassier’s anti-skeptical demands of accelerationism gets wrong: it makes the wrong normative demands on what ‘ought’ or ‘must’ be attained for the conditions of intelligibility to function. He makes little contention in suggesting that skepticism might also be understood as a failure to accept human finitude (Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary, p.327), than it is a failure to justify one’s certainty in knowing. Nothing is more skeptical than the precarious efforts to reconstruct human language and communication on a more ‘rational’ or more ‘justified’ foundation, one which would avoid any need for a less tidy, ambiguous, disruptive – and above all – vulnerable aspect of ordinary expression.

It completely bypasses any option that having access to other minds and the things of this world can operate on anything other than certain knowledge. No doubt we have knowledge, and it runs deep, but it also has clear limits. As Cavell brilliantly words it; “the limitations of our knowledge are not failures of it.” (Cavell, The Claim of Reason: p. 241) Is there anything that undermines the accelerationist premise more than the ill-fated attempt to pit human knowledge against an inhuman idea of knowledge? Or if it appears that computation has no limits, neither should humans? Of course the issue here is staked in the idea that computational reason is a transcendental destiny of human knowledge, when in ordinary practice, it automates all the same vulnerabilities that chagrin us daily.

By implication any form of skeptical utterance or speech becomes unintelligible, meaningless, and thus not amenable to normative, rational ascension. By another, machines operate in a weird inhuman world of untapped knowledge, which humans are yet to match their conditions to. But this is not just an accurate reflection of ordinary speech, it’s not even an accurate reflection on how computers work as a specific and singular thing.

Epistemic Accelerationism falls into a skeptical trap – whilst all the while, masquerading itself in as a new heroic anti-skeptical saviour of reason: when knowledge becomes disappointing or fails, it flips into a binary skeptical register of an either/or: either we have knowledge or not at all. But whilst the skeptic realises that true knowledge cannot be attained, they opt for the total withdrawal from any access to the world whatsoever. Anti-skepticism takes on the basic contours of this view, and opts to simply refute skepticism wholesale, reducing the world to laws of thought.

The result of unexpectedly reinforcing skepticism is not (as the skeptic and anti-skeptic thinks) that the world becomes unknowable, or we lose the capacity to claim anything, but that we ourselves become unintentionally mute and unknowable to others. In political terms, this has much to do with how the sovereign usurps the voice of its subjects, rejecting the acknowledgement and attunements of a shared world, evading the responsibility of others to speak politically for themselves by losing the ability to express a political voice. It omits the possibility of an alternative exemplar voicing injustice on behalf of members within a community.

A claim’s meaning is a function, only in its specific use in a specific context but a specific speaker. Epistemic Accelerationism, in speaking to a universal inhuman knowledge evades any sort of position that attempts to speaks on behalf of others, or allowing others to speak, by speaking on behalf of no-one. Except probably machines. With speaking in general, claims of reason are more about saying something as a literary responsibility for what we say (and the specific literary insecurities for how it will be treated, communicated) than it is playing a game of giving and asking for reasons (in what sense is there even a ‘we’ in a game of giving and asking for reasons?). Making claims intelligible means paying attention to such ordinary literary conditions.

The Politics of Acknowledgment

For Cavell, acknowledgment operates as a wider form of knowledge which cannot be a function of certainty. Acknowledgement is a delicate concept, specifically created to oppose the idea that intellectualist knowledge attains entirely new information about the world. Instead we acknowledge, that is, re-conceptualise things that have always been before us: what (or that) we already know. What we ordinarily know, as if we approached it for the first time, can suddenly become vulnerable. Therein perhaps provides a putatively solid difference for what aesthetic claims do, separate to scientific ones; science provides new knowledge about the world, aesthetics re-conceptualises what we already know. Influenced by Cavell (and equally Arendt and Butler), Rosine Kelz, encourages this insight, stating that; 

…it is precisely when we come into contact with others that the finitude of knowledge and understanding most sharply comes into focus. [Cavell] maintains that communication can not only potentially fail, but that indeed the failure to grasp and communicate ‘fully’ is a defining feature of the human condition, [and]… is mired by our inability to control not only what the other understands or acknowledges, but also by an unwanted ‘excess’ where what we say always reveals more than what we intend. (Rosine Kelz, The Non-Sovereign Self, 2015, p.80).

In the face of political injustice, acknowledgement might take on the marginalisation of race, gender, migration, class. We can only know these political injustices, not through certainty, but by paying attention to particular situations we already acknowledge and respond to (in the same way the ordinary language philosopher responds to how the literary responsibility of ordinary language is specifically voiced and projected). As Cavell puts it in this famous passage:

How do we learn that what we need is not more knowledge but the willingness to forgo knowing? For this sounds to us as though we are being asked to abandon reason for irrationality… or to trade knowledge for superstition… This is why we think skepticism must mean that we cannot know the world exists, and hence that perhaps there isn’t one… Whereas what skepticism suggests is that since we cannot know the world exists, its presentness to us cannot be a function of knowing. The world is to be accepted as the presentness of other minds is not to be known, but acknowledged. (Cavell, Must We Mean what We Say?, p. 324)

‘Justification’, ‘political change’ and ‘practice’ in this regard, must also be reconfigured by the same method of acknowledgement and presentness. Because skepticism and anti-skepticism start from the same desire, they provide greater explanatory positions than they actually can. Anti-Skepticism’s “self-portrait […] tends to [..] scientize itself, claiming, for example greater precision or accuracy, or intellectual scrupulousness than, for practical purposes, we are forced to practice in our ordinary lives.” (Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary, 1988, p. 59). Or is accelerationism still pretending that philosophers, futurists and scientists have special access to knowledge that bearers of ordinary language fail to possess?

Cavell’s point is that there is knowledge in acknowledgment, but one that is ethically responsive and politically culpable in projecting political change into the world. This is politically significant insofar as acknowledging someone or something isn’t a practice of seeing what we had previously missed, or not known, but takes on the role of an admission: a confessional quality to it. After all in confessing, you don’t offer an explanation for your reasons and claims, you can’t be certain about them: you can only persuade, or at best describe how it is with you. But there is a wider, ethical and political issue that splits apart the task of certainty in knowledge and the vulnerability faced (and facing) us in acknowledgment – and it has a polarising effect when reason is limiting. As Cavell puts it;

A ‘failure to know’ might just mean a piece of ignorance, an absence of something, a blank. A ‘failure to acknowledge’ is the presence of something, a confusion, an indifference, a callousness, an exhaustion, a coldness. (Cavell, Must We Mean what We Say?, p. 264)

This is at the core of Ordinaryism’s return to a progressive romanticism. Having the philosophical demand to justify our reasons is perfectly respectable: but in attempting to force this task because the demands of thought have failed to know the world, is something else entirely.

It will require a Romantic return for philosophy to become literature, not in the literal sense of imprisoning a subject in language, but the complete opposite, insofar as “literature” names the tension between the projection of words and their future applications. Nowhere is this more perspicuous than in the use of online platforms, and our increasing reliance on them for sharing communities. In this new sense, Ordinaryism – in its most romantic set of moods – sets itself an alternative task, which as Cavell puts it, “the task of bringing the world back as to life.” (In Quest of the Ordinary, p.52f) as if we became astonished with a quiet, naive disbelief that the world and ordinary communication existed at all, or took it to be obvious. But a more helpful way to look at it, is that Ordinaryism is open to modes of expression that require acknowledgement of something beyond the reach of conceptual assertion, both of human creatures that reason in a shared social practice and of the world. Regrettably these are possibilities which Accelerationism and the history of the Enlightenment rule out a priori.

The question that follows, one that for Cavell was too early to consider, is why our current technological situation has made us think otherwise? To what extent has the freedom to Exit become entirely obsessed with a certainty of knowledge that smart technologies supposedly provide? And why is Voice, (understood in these terms as ‘ineffective’ and indirect ‘human’ communication) now viewed with suspicion and redundancy? To provide an insight requires understanding how the eventual ordinary can arrive under the hood of explicit awareness: and how such Cavellian themes of projection, acknowledgment and attunement now play different, albeit, new defining roles in lives insatiably entangled with digital culture, infrastructure, automation and computation.

By any standard, our response to the future will be established by our changed attitude to reason and freedom. When faced with the onslaught of the Anthropocene, and diminishing opportunities to establish a progressive alternative of change, we might need to be clearer with how reasoning comes to emerge: is it through the self-determination of ascension or the persistent acknowledgement of its vulnerabilities?

Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism. Part 2 – Exit versus Voice: Freedom, Reasoning and Skepticism.

Robert Jackson continues with a second journey into the realms of Accelerationism and Ordinaryism. Having articulated how Accelerationism merges Enlightenment principles in a supposed age of automation, Jackson interrogates its philosophical roots by suggesting that the core motivation behind its key approach embraces skepticism (even if the explicit method is to reject skepticism in favour of increasing applications of knowledge) – whereas what Ordinaryism suggests (following Cavell) is that skepticism cannot be refuted nor endorsed, only inhabited as a salient vulnerable conditon. The political implications of this division are telling and can be extrapolated through the freedom to Exit (inhuman acceleration) versus the freedom to find ones Voice (Ordinary appeal).

But who is the authority when all are masters?” (Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 180).

For part 1 click HERE.

For part 3 click HERE.

In its philosophical usage ‘skepticism’ [i] hardly surfaces, if at all, in the contemporary Accelerationist lexicon. This is to be expected: as its political aspirations are organised by a cascade of philosophical trajectories designed to either refute skepticism, or as ordinaryism will claim, not bother to take it seriously enough.

Ordinaryism and Accelerationism approach familiar problems, even familiar desires, from familiar starting points, yet ultimately arrive at different conclusions. Most notably the political desire to overcome the intellectual chagrin of postmodern skepticism. Exactly what sort of overcoming is required feeds the conflict put forward: a conflict which has its history in the activity of reasoning as referenced earlier between Wilfrid Sellars and Stanley Cavell’s divulging and unique approaches to post-analytical knowledge.

Part 2 explores the following discord: Accelerationism (specifically its neo-rationalist, epistemic variant) builds a collection of political arguments which in order to work, have to refute skepticism. This is akin to (but not conflated with) the removal of skepticism in political emancipation through the practical competency of conceptual, normative reasoning. Ordinary, everyday experience is only considered as a human constraint that can be overcome or explained by a technological inhuman sovereignty of collective reasoning, where linguistic practice is essentially procedural, explanatory, functional and rule-governed. Alex Williams put it this way in his 2013 essay ‘Escape Velocities’;

Accelerationism in this guise is the project of maximizing rational capacity—the contents of knowledge about the world—and enabling the ramification of the conceptual space of reason…  Enlightenment, rather than entailing an edifying reassurance of the humanistic order, instead gradually but irreparably modifies the manifest image of ourselves-in-the-world, stripping back the comforting homilies of humanism to reveal, Terminator-style, the gleaming bones of Sellars’s empty, formalist, rational subject lying beneath.

Ultimately Ordinaryism and Accelerationism want the same outcome though: the progressive aim for a better future in the face of the immediate everyday. But whereas Accelerationism thinks this can be achieved through the ascension of reason, Ordinaryism thinks it can be achieved only by acknowledging reason’s vulnerability. We must attend and attune to a diurnal world and others around us through the emotional exposure of claims rather than the Promethean expanse of the stars. Ordinaryism interrogates this force of Accelerationist reasoning and seeks a romantic alternative located in the epistemic, ethical and aesthetic priorities of responsiveness, alterity, otherness and appeal that are constitutive of the everyday and its fusion with technology. The larger attempt calls for the everyday to be reclaimed whilst surrounded by the purported effects of a ‘knowledge economy’. How is it that everytime we appeal for a new future, we are really appealing for a ‘new normal’?

The diagnosis establishes itself in the role of skepticism: and for Ordinaryists, skepticism cannot be refuted – only inhabited. Epistemic doubt has to be lived and coped with. The Cavellian lesson of the ordinary is that the world isn’t to be known, but to be acknowledged: a viewpoint which, presumably, would make the accelerationist hairs stand on end. But this not to say that ordinary acknowledgement – the everyday in general – is tantamount to political complicity and illusive habit. Ordinaryism only establishes an interest in what Cavell terms the eventual everyday, against the actual everyday of common sense, responding to the ordinary as if it appeared to us for the first time. Our relationship to others, and of the world, isn’t an exercise of philosophical skill which can be explained or solved because of an intellectual error, with its ambiguities swiped aside or viewed as insufficiently limiting. Nor is this condition indicative of ‘ordinary beliefs’ in public consensus whilst experts and technicians manipulate the structural groundwork behind the scenes: it is central to the democratic possibilities of all political activity. Bringing Cavell’s views of skepticism into focus allows us to acknowledge that politics is not well-serviced from a detached epistemological point of view: or an inhuman, impersonal space of reasons. One might wish to ask, why should any appeal to the strange tendencies of the inhuman take priority, when the familiar is equally as strange?

And following Cavell, the ‘ordinary’ in this view, is taken from the ordinary language philosopher’s commitment to reasoning. It appeals to “what we should say when..”: that any ordinary voice, what we ordinarily say, ordinarily mean, ordinarily know, has the same authority as any other when responding to what a situation calls for. Moreover, with ordinary language philosophy’s technique (in particular its leading practitioner J.L. Austin), one can simply take an instance of a word, used with certainty (I am free, I know) pick out all the ordinary, ambivalent uses philosophers don’t bother addressing, only to reveal as if for the first time, what it is we ordinarily accept everyday.

It’s a radical challenge that has a loose origin in Romanticism, but can be hinted at through punctuated periods of twentieth century philosophy.  However the idiosyncratic musings of Wittgenstein interest us here, or at least those brought into fruition by Cavell’s masterpiece The Claim of Reason building towards later work on Emerson. Cavell remains indispensable here insofar as his collective, idiosyncratic view imparts a view of language, justification and reasoning based on the never-ensured acknowledgement of one other (and the claims of what we ordinarily say through one’s voice), in each specific and singular case of reasoning. This will be opposed against a neo-rational appeal to a universal inhuman force, waging on some quasi-guarantee that reason is alien, determinate and self-correcting.

In the space given I won’t be able to replicate the philosophy here at its most sophisticated, so we’ll have to settle for a more general level of enquiry that collates various, repeated aspects of the conflict involved. The remarks put forward will hopefully show why a Cavellian normative ‘Voice’ or ordinary appeal is an indispensable political tool, only because it treats skepticism seriously as an ordinary task in a world of increasing automation, not to superseded by a warped view of technology that can overcome it. Ordinaryism sheds a Cavellian insight that our relationship with technology fundamentally pivots on living our skepticism: inhabiting our condition, acknowledging our vulnerability, making ourselves intelligible to others, desiring an intimacy with things and establishing a voice to do so. The additional requirement here, comes to terms with the notion that skepticism isn’t a unique feature of ordinary language projected onto the world (as Cavell held), but is now operationalised in machinic systems. This is explicitly against an accelerationist insight, that machines  operationalise the ascension of inhuman reason.

The problem is that Accelerationist reasoning simply refuses to consider skepticism as a problem, ridicules the everyday and instead pines for an inhuman, rule-bound determination of normative governance, which the ordinary cannot achieve. By doing so, it appears unconcerned with political dangers once the voice of others is rendered insufficient: that we could fail to acknowledge others, unwittingly presenting our relationships to knowledge and of other minds as unproblematic.

This unorthodox schism on reasoning can be exposed into a more contemporary technical conflict vying for political, philosophical and technological priority – call it, the freedom to Exit (inhuman acceleration) versus the freedom to find ones Voice (Ordinary appeal). The claim being that all political repercussions of Exit versus Voice pivot on whether you can refute skepticism, or inhabit its condition.

“Lets talk about Exit”

Over two years ago, Stanford University lecturer and entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan delivered a speech at the 2013 Startup School event, entitled “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” (Transcript here). His talk was noteworthy for galvanising Silicon Valley cohorts into a usual online futurist catatonic stupor. But like all effective presentations Srinivasan delivered one simple, established idea into a contemporary setting and did so with honesty and gusto. Silicon Valley’s seemingly unstoppable knack for disrupting nearly all forms of cultural production and communication can be unpacked from an insight in 1970s political science.

Srinivasan paid tribute to the landmark libertarian 1970 treatise “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organi[s]ations, and States” by Albert O. Hirschman, in which the author stated the following economic conjecture: When any particular form of human system culturally designed to offer a service (a business, charity, government, country, state, school, etc.) experiences a decrease in quality, they have two options for freedom; either Exit or Voice. Put simply, Exit is the attempt to withdraw completely from the relationship provided with the aim of joining or starting up another, whereas Voice gives the customer the right to reform the existing relationship through protest and complaint.

Hirschman used these two options as a prism for opening up a range of economic and political outcomes that encapsulate ones freedom, equally emphasising that such models were mutually exclusive, operating in a parallel stop-start fashion. He understood Exit to be exclusively libertarian where freedom was guided under the economic freedom of the market, where decline could be corrected by ‘better’ services. Voice became the political freedom to confront existing decline by reforming the system within. Unpacked into differing global contexts, Exit vs. Voice shifts into multiple flavours of freedom, emanating from the same source. For a consumer, Exit manifests itself as the freedom to take your business elsewhere, whereas Voice is sending off a complaint form. For a country, Exit becomes emigration whereas Voice becomes the democratic right to vote. In the case of lobbying, Exit expresses itself as the think tank, whilst Voice emerges as the grassroots protest.

However Srinivasan took Hirschman’s options and gave the distinction a new technological edge relatable to an age of platforms, code, startups and disruption. Srinivasan suggested that Exit is a meta-concept which Silicon Valley has implicitly adopted, subsuming Voice without eliminating it (and perhaps even amplifying the latter). It is the hidden gear behind the Valley’s dominance, from various startup successes to the inherent properties of code itself. He cites the fact that Larry Page and Sergey Brin could never have reformed Microsoft from within, and so had to found Google by attaining the freedom to exit Microsoft completely, taking the sustained knowledge of their peers and independently crafting something smarter and better. Similarly, in software engineering if Voice operates as a patch designed to reform existing functional problems, Exit is the fork designed to splinter an existing platform of ineffective decline into a separate, and (presumably) more effective one.

But Srinivasan’s talk was essentially in support with ‘ultimate exit’ – the idea that the United States itself was completely beyond libertarian reform, and that Silicon Valley would in the next 10 years have to secede, and launch its own independent platform if it wanted to maintain freedom. Srinivasan’s rationale (which has solidified its popularity since 2013) is that if you can do it with a startup why not an entire country? It’s not exactly a pipe dream wither. A failed startup called Blueseed already sought funding in order to attempt such a feat, but it was eventually postponed. Blueseed was the closest attempt at creating an ultimate Exit, where a purposely built cruise liner, sailing twelve nautical miles from San Francisco, would allow entrepreneurs to create their own businesses without the need for a U.S work visa. Earlier still, a 2005 startup called SeaCode promised something similar, but similarly folded due to insufficient funding.

In the eyes of the Valley though, the Exit strategy has successfully challenged existing industries anyway; including Hollywood (through Netflix), print and television outlets (through social media), city transport (through Uber), currencies (through Bitcoin and Blockchain), healthcare (The Quantified Self movement), and even simple objects (3-D printing). Before the backlash hit the fan, Srinivasan’s foresaw that the only future worth betting on would involve building “an opt-in society, ultimately outside the United States, run by technology.” Who is John Galt? Presumably Balaji S. Srinivasan.

Randian fetishes aside Exit versus Voice is a clever forced choice. It’s designed to organise a schism in contemporary political thought where cultural activities and labour are increasingly wedded to automation: from casual acts of ordinary communication, to the darkest depths of hidden encryption. It’s a schism which the theoretical movement of Accelerationism is borne out from, despite the clear difference of its political goals and the varying flavours bundled with its name. Replacing Srinivasan’s libertarian freedom for a hard left emancipatory stance, Exit is now construed as engineering a post-capitalist exit, and ‘opting-out’ becomes inventing and repurposing technological infrastructure towards emancipation without losing any of the inhuman significance that got it there.

Land chooses, A Slave Obeys

What is it however that philosophically separates the contemporary Left accelerationist position from previous iterations unable to grasp the future, or have resisted such attempts? We are of course reminded of such post-structural flights of fancy, (accelerationist musings of Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari) to the experimental Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit (CCRU) whose famous figureheads included Nick Land & Sadie Plant. As many have already written, Land has become the quintessential prophet of the contemporary ‘Exit’ strategy (both in his early philosophical work, and later activities) understanding capitalism to be the ultimate engine of inhuman freedom. If our manifest fate is destined to head towards a technological singularity, it has only been put on ice because of meddling Marxists and (in his eyes) a dribbling progressive State. Having reorganised his views into neo-reactionism (NR-x), (which Srinivasan’s talk contributes to and in no small part, influentially gravitated a great number of libertarians towards), Land has one goal: the full realisation of ultimate exit. As Park MacDougald put it last year, Land’s;

Laissez-faire, in this view, is doomed to failure as soon as it’s up for a vote.  Rather than accept creeping democratic socialism (which leads to “zombie apocalypse”), Land would prefer to simply abolish democracy and appoint a national CEO. This capitalist Leviathan would be, at a bare minimum, capable of rational long-term planning and aligning individual incentive structures with social well-being (CEO-as-Tiger-Mom). Individuals would have no say in government, but would be generally left alone, and free to leave. This right of “exit” is, for Land, the only meaningful right, and it’s opposed to democratic “voice,” where everyone gets a say, but is bound by the decisions of the majority — the fear being that the majority will decide to self-immolate.

Shockingly, Land’s NR-x demands the elimination of democratic voice altogether because, in his view, economically and socially effective governments legitimize themselves eschewing any appeal for a democratic voice. There isn’t any need for a voice if, like a commercial service, you can just exit your government and join a better one. So long as the functional technocratic inhuman is maximally realised there can be no room for moralism, sentimentality or suffering, for these are the very human traits which hold back our genuine freedom. Bending the market to fit human empathic needs will be futile. The sustained requirement for humans to lend a voice of political appeal is simply too ineffective to halt the inhuman onslaught of capitalist acceleration.

Cemented into the freedom to Exit is the implicit determination that all global technological progress (and its inherent possibilities as production) is bound up with the invisible, impersonal rigour of inhuman market competition, which democratic voice has little hope of addressing, let alone overthrowing. In Land’s view, capitalism is akin to an inhuman non-conceptual alien automatically programming human behaviour in order to drive it forward. This strange, foreign compulsiveness is integral to our dystopian future and Land’s job is to let the tap run (or more accurately, don’t pull the charger out).

So with Land’s current brand of libertarianism leaning more to the right than someone whose right leg has just been blown off, the political ground to develop a Left accelerationism has been given renewed impetus. As Peter Wolfendale previously pointed out, both positions jointly agree that capitalist production and modern developments of social justice are utterly incompatible, and the site of their incompatibility combined with technological expertise is what motivates both to conceive of an Exit: but crucially the discord between them comes from which set of principles should be exited from, and what sort of freedom is called for;

The right thinks that the accelerative emancipatory force is nothing other than capitalism itself, whereas the left thinks that capitalism is an adaptive and plastic obstacle suppressing a deeper emancipatory dynamic. It is in essence a disagreement about freedom: what it is to have it, what it is to enhance it, and whether there is anything we can do about it.

What both forms of freedom inhabit is to construct an exit from the limitations of the current status quo entrenched in reaction, resistance, refusal and reform. If the force of ‘Exit’ is what both movements share, then they also share the same schism of opposing Voice. And in one name or another, this is exactly what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have dubbed ‘folk politics’: political methods which eschew inhuman knowledge, global reach, feedback and technological infrastructure favouring instead outdated methods of reform, simplicity, horizontal plurality, immediacy and reactive protest (the 2008 Occupy protests being one example of many). In short, politics that might be associated with the demands of Voice. They may not wish to call it Voice, or be opposed to Voice democratically, and might even propose that it has some sort of place in contemporary political struggle. However, their opposition to a certain form of phenomenological immediacy in authentic resistance (which Voice might certaintly inhabit), carries all the connotations of leftist action they find strategically moribund. Reform and resistance are no longer the sole legitimate leftist options to overcome capitalism.

Their logic is two fold – 1.) reforming the capitalist system through protest, localism and critique alone has become useless at furthering leftist goals, often resulting in unashamed defeatism. Human acts of immediate protest and localism are no longer any match for the long term planning of inhuman complexity that global capitalism has become. The left simply sets itself up to fail.

2.) In light of this failure, contemporary leftist politics has a choice: either reduce political action to a relatable human local level, or embrace complex conceptual mediacy of capitalist process. In adopting the latter, the technological tools at our disposal afforded by capitalism must now invent alternative platforms repurposing leftist change, rather than chastised as oppressive, skeptical limits inherent to it. The left can no longer solely rely on ‘having a voice’ which appeals to habitual sit-ins and sporadic acts of resistance: it must invent alternative methods of infrastructure that will eventually abandon the need for capitalism, overcoming leftist resistance and reform completely (think André Gorz, but with Big Data and Apps).

The output of that challenge operates through various interlocking projects:

—Political theories for how a post-capitalist world that abolishes work can not only be made intelligible but be feasibly engineered (see Srnicek and Williams in their recently released publication ‘Inventing the Future: PostCapitalism and A World Without Work’ published by Verso). To be clear Srnicek and Williams entirely abandon the term ‘Accelerationism’, or ‘Left-accelerationism’ not specifically because of disagreement, but to alleviate widespread confusion.

—Renewed commitments to nineteenth/twentieth century cosmicism that manifests in a post-Earth future. Or alternatively treating science fiction as a necessary path towards a real exit (in its absolute form, exiting the Earth). (See Benedict Singleton’s Maximum Jailbreak)

—Regrounded developments in feminist strategies (see the recent xeno-feminist (XF) manifesto), by the anonymous collective Laboria Cuboniks which in their words asks that “Reason, like information, wants to be free, and patriarchy cannot give it freedom.  Rationalism must itself be a feminism. XF marks the point where these claims intersect in a two-way dependency. It names reason as an engine of feminist emancipation, and declares the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular.

—New strategies for art that oppose contemporary art’s global hegemony (See the forthcoming publication ‘On the necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art) by Suhail Malik. One might see a recent influence in Holly Herndon’s song “An Exit” which is describes Malik’s exit as “rather than act in angry opposition to an existing aesthetic or marketplace, we just walk away, facing towards the future”.

Yet, the lynchpin that passes through these varying outputs has one additional philosophical goal: one that has reshifted the political site upon which inhuman freedom can be realised through an interconnected philosophy beginning to rethink contemporary forms of reasoning, knowledge and rationalism.

What gives the Left accelerationists an injection of substance is not merely repeating Marxist demands that capitalism is an unjust, unequal system which promotes corpulent wealth, but that it primarily holds back the progressive and explanatory capacities of inhuman reasoning and technological progress (or at least that Voice, under this view, can only ever be the immediate starting point for an inhuman ascension).

Simply put, Left-accelerationism recognises both the lack of freedom and rationality and seeks to restore both in a more contemporary guise: the normative aim of constructing political freedom in ever greater inhuman measures. Thus the additional impulsion of Srnicek and Williams’ project stresses that the only method of overcoming capitalism is to self-master our epistemological knowledge of it , in order to apply methods that structure  leverage towards rational self-determination. Here one almost tastes the accelerationist contempt for Leftist skepticism, and all of its appeals to doubt that have become complicit in contemporary forms of political action undermining progressive futurist thought. Skepticism for them, only bestows reason with a staggering lack of imagination and of lives that entirely accept the limits of neo-liberal stupor wrought by epistemic immediacy and affirmationist philosophies (distancing itself from the vitalist aspects of Deleuze and Guattari plays a key developmental role here).

The philosophical appeal toward a universal rationalist epistemology supports accelerationism’s desire to reengage with the Enlightenment project, where freedom becomes the binding of oneself to a universal rational rule (that must include and surpass capitalist and economic development) together with an adherence to that rule. More importantly the universalisation required must be a movement of Promethean ascension which promotes, as Williams puts it alongside Srnicek in an interview with Mohammed Salemy: “the idea that through our knowledge of the world and through political struggle, too, we can open new ways of being free that were unavailable to us before.” Inhuman Exit is rescued from the libertarian darkness of the NR-x hand, and into the clutches of unending rigorous collective reasoning. Inhuman freedom is repurposed away from compulsive slavery of alien market forces, to an alien rationality of a free rational subject that might exit from capital. The only alien demand is an inhuman demand to self-master our own possibilities towards rejecting capitalism (towards a post-capitalist future).

Williams has previously suggested that the twin thinkers of epistemic accelerationism are Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani (whether these thinkers agree is another matter). Both are highly influenced by Land, and both are committed to an anti-skeptical method of gaining knowledge about the world, where the freedom to reason emerges as rule-governed, practical, revisable, autonomous and collective, not reducible to the manifest experience of humanity yet central to its emergence. Their neo-rationalism repeats the enlightenment’s desire to explain and act on the collective determinacy of the human epistemological condition outside any specific context.

Fork The Enlightenment: Promethean Pragmatism

The freedom to self-master an Exit lends its the support for a universal rationalist epistemology as enshrined within Sellars pragmatism (as outlined in Part 1 ). In this guise freedom becomes, according to Brassier, “… not simply the absence of external determination but the agent’s rational self-determination in and through its espousal of a universally applicable rule.” For complicated reasons Sellars sets out a pragmatist view of reasoning which is defined by its anti-skepticism as much as its Promethean promise (dependent on which thread of influence you follow). What makes such freedom a feature of pragmatism is that rationality is understood as an inherently social linguistic activity as well as a rule-based resource for expanding collective knowledge. Freedom through reasoning is grounded in essentially public and social normative practices of communication, that account for the correctness and incorrectness of ordinary linguistic usage and function. The accelerationist motivation is compelled by a pragmatist sensibility that rationality is founded by the capacity of a community to ‘agree in’ statements and judgements as normative commitments and entitlements. This domain from which freedom resides, and where it can be emancipated from, lies in a shared conceptual framework of utility. 

The notion that human creatures are defined by living in a normative space of reasons has obvious overlapping concerns with the origins of philosophy, but only really found its teeth in the Enlightenment. The idea that I, as a rational subject can apply a certain concept means I must be committed to or bound by certain consequences. This can be traced through Plato and Aristotle, although the history takes its initial cue from Kant who understood human concepts to be uniquely and fundamentally normative, despite their finite status. Hegel then builds on Kant’s normative insight, eschewing the acknowledgement of finitude, by showing how freedom emerges from normative constraints inherent to discursive social statuses. Or putting it differently, developing an insight that the creation and generation of ideas and concepts arise in a shared normative medium. Freedom is thus, socially expressive, constitutive of norms and rules that already govern and constrain it, yet also subject to generative possibilities which it entertains. As Robert Pippin puts it;

… the problem of freedom, and in the Kantian/Hegelian tradition […] means being able somehow to own up to, justify, and stand behind one’s deeds (reclaim them as my own), and that involves (so it is argued) understanding what it is to be responsive to norms, reasons.(Pippin, The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath, 2005, p. 11)

One of the most influential Hegelian ideas that the epistemic accelerationists have adopted (amongst others) is that without any justification, inferred assertion or claim – let alone a political claim – intelligible forms of progressive political action or agency are out of the question. No human communication occurs, principally, within the sole reducible product of a human individual, but as a distinctly social progressive achievement of reason and that ordinary modes of intelligibility have to be cemented in normative commitments of correctness. The job of philosophy is to offer an explanation constitutive of the very normative system it seeks to explain. Recoding these Kantian and Hegelian insights is said to establish and explain the inner workings of what we mean when we say something.

Clearly, the real reason why such Sellarsian normative accounts are useful is that they are characteristic of many philosophical attempts to comprehend language through a systematic and explainable structure, fully applying the force of reason with practices that commit effective conceptual action. It strips the rational subject back until it finds the primitive inhuman, artificial, functional, rational ‘machine’ guiding the system through the freedoms of feedback and function: What Sellars demarcates as the sapient, normative space of reasons (doing something for a reason) is understood to be completely separate from the sentient, causal nature of reasons (doing something because of a reason). Norms of reasoning cannot, like natural laws, suggest what will happen, but instead what ought to happen, and pinpoint shared, rational outcomes that can be correctly drawn from certain assumptions. 

Responsibility and recognition cannot make sense outside of its social, discursive emergence, as is the case of any concept whatsoever, for concepts themselves are characteristically normative. Judgements that express knowledge are distinctively responsible and moreover they express themselves as social commitments. Normative claims and reasons are usually understood as not only bearing commitments and entitlements that take place in discursive behaviour, holding others as responsible, relating to an ideal, rule or standard: they are part and parcel of what it is to be a rational subject. Normative claims are taken to be reciprocal recognitions between human creatures who then take other assertions to be reciprocally rational and assertive to normative ideals, and thus expressive freedom is generated and determined. Thought and expression in this light, begins to give us a manifest grip on a non-perceptual world, which isn’t typically manifest (the dual roles of Sellars’ Manifest Image and Scientific Image provide this ‘grip’). The application of the concept, establishes what is correct as opposed to what might be taken to be phenomenally correct (and thus potentially wrong).

No wonder then this view appeals to general artificial intelligence as a futurist necessity, because sapience must be understood as different from the natural order. This is where Sellars’ anti-skepticism becomes obvious: not only reducing all human voice and communication to a primitive, determinate and rule-governed inhuman process which silently determines our linguistic activity, but at the same time, fully unleashing its ability to explain all possibilities of human communication, as well as what it means to freely communicate at all. It is distinctive that this peculiar inhuman force determines how we ought to act, only insofar as we can conceive it – seeing language this way is what demarcates the normative from the naturalistic, acting on norms is dependent on our recognition of them. Voice and speech simply becomes subordinate to this normative demarcation, because what we say is reducible to what can be thought.

This expressive toolkit for establishing a rational grip on non-perceptible systems in the world is necessary for epistemic-accelerationism. Like Land it commits to the idea that intelligence is wholly functional, but not tied to the machine of the free market, but the machine of rationality (which Land abhors). If it is the case that an inhuman grip of capitalism evades human representation, and with climate change becoming an ever greater non-human concern, then the entrenched political tactics of Voice, the task of the human, must embrace the promethean progress of science and technology and ascend our current cognitive resources accordingly. Srnicek thinks we can do this by returning to Fredric Jameson’s cognitive mapping – “the means to make our own world intelligible to ourselves through a situational understanding of our own position.” Other theorists express the same premise, but in different flavours: the field, the plot, the thread, the yarn. All yearn for the same process: the ongoing project to expand our cognitive intelligibility so that the left can master, identify, calculate and classify invisibly complex systems so as to change them for the better.

However, before we start (or try to start) building space programs and hedge funds for the Left there is a problem. Giving up on Voice becomes far too hasty, insofar as the accelerationist view of Voice is inherently predicated on function, it undermines the very intelligibility it desperately craves. There is a greater depth and vulnerability to Voice that must be addressed which stretches further than the quagmires of reform and resistance. If political intelligibility is predicated on problems of knowledge, questions surrounding what happens to political voice appear to be eradicated. So what happens to it? What might take on the form of addressing normative claims which speak on behalf of others? What might be the unintended political effects of “everyone speaking for no-one in particular”.  How does this affect the silenced, who wish to make themselves known, rather than ‘being known’?

It’s easy for the epistemic accelerationists to address political authority if reason’s ascension can be established, but the harder questions arise if reason’s authority is primarily established by vulnerability.

[i] – I’m adopting the American spelling of skepticism here, in large part, because it’s easier to quote from Cavell texts for susequent sections.

An Exploration of Diminishing ‘Hope’ & its Correlation to ‘Constructive Alienation’

What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is an exhibition conceived by Alexandrian curator Bassam El Baroni as part of Ashkal Alwan’s international cultural forum, Home Works 7. Run by the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan is a non-profit organization based in Beirut, Lebanon. The exhibition opened on November 12th and ran until the 10th of December 2015. Drawing from philosophical concepts revolving around the drowning of the contemporary human consciousness and free will, the show is an elaborate discussion of how we are coping with the decline of a future that used to be in our hands. Bassam El Baroni in union with the artists involved raise questions as to how we can mediate and engage with solutions for creating (or disintegrating) prospects of a more ‘hopeful’ future.

The omnipresence of our reliance on technology echoes throughout the large space with the persistent humming of numerous projectors utilised in the exhibition. A correlation is directly created between the open space and the idea of alienation, as the reverberating sound becomes the only contributing factor that disrupts the isolation of each work. What used to be an old furniture factory building was the host for considerations regarding the repercussions of the current world’s most celebrated yet paradoxical phenomena. Perceptions of technology are relentlessly conflicting as there is an inherent drive advocating that we may either perceive the phenomena as good or bad. However, it must be understood that technology cannot be subtracted from human social, political or economic life; today, the two coexist. What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is divided into sections that are devoted to facilitating each artist’s work and touching upon these separate ideas.

Curated to represent a hotel room, Leonardo Cremonini’s digitally reproduced paintings are coupled with Yuri Pattison’s video 1014 listed in the exhibition guide as “shot in Edward Snowden’s hotel room hideout”. In the format of a hotel room, the piece also involved a bed and two nightstands with lamps, along with Pattinson’s 1014 being looped on a large TV monitor opposite the installed bed. Hotel rooms are standardised, fixed and homogenous in every single way. Cremonini’s paintings are reproductions both in terms of their digital print format and in the context of the general hotel room, where each room has replicated decors. Considering the idea of standardisation, Pattinson’s video appears to be the inception of a paradox as the space is curated to represent a hotel room, whilst a video about a hotel room plays in the background – but this is not any hotel room, it is Edward Snowden’s hotel room.

Snowden’s outing of the NSA’s and Five Eyes’ global surveillance programs to the popular media was readily perceived as a public civil act as it revealed a huge breach of privacy for citizens worldwide. Closely linked to ideas of ubiquitous surveillance versus freedom and civic liberty, Pattinson’s video utters phrases such as ‘I am only just me, I am a passer-by’, ‘Life is so arduous’ and ‘I am too tired to love’. The camera pans throughout the room to expose translucent glass spaces whilst untagged maps are being graphed when the camera pans to the city-landscape outside the window. Pattinson’s video is a survey of a hotel room, metaphorically standing for transitory spaces that can lead to a certain, self-perpetuated superficiality. We are consumers of desires, trapped within the hotel room metaphor.

Desire is an element in need of a risk assessment, and according to Nelmarie du Preez, such a risk assessment can be measured through a set of computerised algorithms. Two performances are displayed on two screens facing each other, du Preez’s to stab and to rely, from her ‘Loops of Relation’ series – both jesting with risk. Thoroughly reminiscent of Abramović’s and Ulay’s The Other: Rest Energy, du Preez positions herself in a certain degree of danger. to rely features du Preez facing a machine with an extended bow and arrow as she holds the tip of the arrow. to stab features du Preez sitting on a table with her hand stretched as a programmed machine repeatedly performs a five finger fillet (FFF); a popular knife-game embedded into American culture as a popular pastime as featured in the movie Aliens where Sigourney Weaver realises that the character Bishop meticulously performing the FFF is an android. Comparable to Aliens and Rest Energy’s notion of unveiling the full potentiality of the body’s endurance and trust over emotions and nerves, du Preez’s reliance on the machine is inherently vital.

She is performing a trust exercise with her programmed piece of technology and promoting a delicate balance between trust and danger. However, the problem in her actions innately exists when considering the core of the AI’s function; a machine does not possess the same sentiments as Ulay did towards Abramovic. A machine owes no responsibility or emotion towards du Preez, and in some sense, the roles have been flipped. Where du Preez is the possessor and programmer of this machine, she is now inflicting herself as the target. She relinquishes herself as the master, challenging the notion of possessing selfhood and allowing her own free will to be diminished. The metaphor of the bow and arrow pits du Preez and the machine as equals; the tension represents the idea that both entities are needed in order for the piece to have significance. Simultaneously, the interplay between du Preez and the machine uncovers a subtle warning of our insentient confidence towards the inescapable technology; du Preez can only stop herself from being in danger if she pulls the plug.

In very close proximity to du Preez’s work and upholding the same ideals of technology contributing to human activities is Salemy’s The Artist is Hyperpresent. The work is a three-headed screen structure overrun by the artist’s own personal social media feeds. Of course, the immediate reaction of any millennial would be to attempt a ‘scroll down’ function on the screens only to be disappointed that the machine did not respond to the command. The Artist is Hyperpresent is an undeviating allegory of  the structure wanting a ‘digital life’.

On the other hand, Katia Barrett’s Limiting Metaphors, Enabling Constraint is an interesting take on the self through what appears to be an interrogation or courtroom procedure of a crime. Two large projector screens hang in the middle of the room whilst switching between them, introducing an individual of uncertain sex with blonde hair. The over-the shoulder shot is utilised evidently in preserving the mystery of the individual and the case itself. Someone asks ‘Why are you following me?’ whilst it sounds as though the conversation is happening from the other side of a glass window. Several retorts such as ‘I don’t think he was the victim here’ and ‘I’m the last person, you don’t know how I feel’ are followed by more questions such as ‘Who is watching you?’

The protagonist cannot address the questions because there is a certain degree of perplexity surrounding not only the timing of the event, but also the very core of what took place. The video becomes an act of displacement, as there is ambivalent confusion in the idea of the self being mingled with objects separate from the body. The character’s present environment, sitting in a dark empty room, is ambiguous and in this way begins to evoke Andy Clark’s idea of ‘active externalism’.

Clark is a neuro-philosopher whose concept of active externalism is described in the exhibition guide as ‘a description of subjectivity in which he renders the active role of the environment in driving cognitive processes’.  For Clark, ways of perceiving ourselves and those around us are increasingly experiential and dependent on our environment – a notion that extends to Thomas Metzinger’s metaphor of the ‘ego-tunnel,’ which in Metzinger’s book, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, refers to the experience of our own consciousness. He states that ‘conscious experience is like a tunnel’ and that ‘the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information’. If in any case Metzinger’s claims that our ‘sensory organs are limited’ and that we are ‘unable to experience and introspectively recognise our self-models as models’ are even remotely true, then Barrett’s work closely relates. It raises questions of how we experience society – is it a conscious exertion or is it partly constructed by our surroundings? It is more commonly believed that we are solely responsible for constituting the meaning of things, but what if we’re not? What if we are limited beings? What if this finitude is a ramification of our unaware reliance on several advancements that were at their pinnacle within our lifetime?

Walid Sadek also explores this thought in his piece The Conversion of St. Paul. The installation is placed in two separate but identical square rooms at very close proximity to each other. Each room is fitted with an overhead projector displaying the inside of a VHS tape. Between the two rooms is a narrow corridor opening up to a larger but empty peripheral area.  By standing between these two rooms and focusing your vision straight ahead, an entirely new image forms in the void ahead. In the exhibition guide, Sadek explains that ‘what could allow for the making of an openness in which living is possible even without the promise of a coming eruptive event’. In this sense, the act of looking straight ahead onto the devised new image can be perceived as looking into or towards the future. By creating an allegory of the ‘image-encounter’ (or visual illusion), he allows our mind to utilise aspects from two environments and claims the result as a speculative future and existence.

Speculative existence is also examined in Matthew Poole’s collaboration with Bassam El Baroni titled Société Phantome – two separate projections on the wall presenting what could be the commandments of the ‘new’ world.  The poem itself is suggestive of explosive and fiery liturgy sung in religious hymns. It retorts phrases such as ‘We cannot decline’ ‘Our walls are without fervour. Our doors are without zeal’, and resonates Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle both in execution and impression. Just as the Society of the Spectacle frames itself as the manifesto of the Situationist movement in the 1960s, perhaps Société Phantome can be in this light too.

Debord’s Society of the Spectacle focuses on the ‘negation of life’ due to the ‘loss of quality’ because of the instant commodification that occurred during the rise of mass media. In this context, we may associate an evolved spectacle that has arisen from our passive unification with technology. Debord’s claims such as ‘Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation’, and ‘The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of life can no longer be recovered’ are intrinsically concurrent with the alleged futility by which the human dwells in the face of an ever rising technological contemporary society.

Amanda Beech’s Covenant Transport, Move or Die, vocalises a different dimension to What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) – the abstract socio-politics of post-capitalist culture. Beech’s room was curated distinctly with bright green walls, two benches, fitted carpet and two screens; one facing you as you walk in and one to the left of the room.  The video is the loudest in the entire exhibition and perhaps the most extravagant of all as it interplays with the concept of the ‘green-room’ where images are being superficially created. The video spits words such as ‘EFFICIENT’, ‘EFFECTIVE’, ‘VOTE’, ‘REPORT’ and titling the excerpts from the front screen as: ‘Round 1’, ‘Round 2’). Covenant Transport, Move or Die comments on the ‘psyche of Capitalism’ as the video’s intentionally unpolished feel adds a new rawness and immediacy to the exhibition’s concept, touching upon the politics of Accelerationism. If Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was the founding awareness of socio-capitalist consequence, then ‘Accelerationism’ is the current age’s pinnacle of consciousness. It comes as no surprise that Debord’s views are being progressed into a condition far more intricate as we ‘accelerate’ through our daily lives.

Accelerationism is defined in the book #accelerate, as ‘a political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt or critique, nor await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies’. There are two potential paths to consider when taking into account our current world state (economically, socially, politically etc.). One path would be to embrace the fear of becoming a world of a politique du pire, expecting and expending the worst, and as a result relinquishing all hope. The second path would be to simply hope that capitalism would subside (or die, preferably) of its own internal contradictions. Nevertheless, neither of these choices undertaken, by left-wing or right-wing variants of Accelerationism, are perceived as helpful or realistic in combatting the situation. To the contrary, there must be a future-orientated realist philosophy as ‘extremist caricatures obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in the claim of truly progressive political thought’. We are not at the end of the ‘world’ (as we know it) but at the very beginning of an interesting political experiment that is not as bleak as it appears. Such optimism was found during Patricia Reed’s lecture titled ‘Synthesis and Constructive Alienation’, as part of a lecture-series facilitated by Bassam El Baroni to complement the exhibition.

Reed’s lecture makes claims for our ‘social plasticity’ and ‘the need for constant redefinition in light of changing contexts’ revolving around ‘fanaticizing our downfall’. Her assertions opened up a considerably fiery debate at the end of her lecture as she questioned the notion of ‘inexistence’ as a non-being who plays no part in the reasoning of a system. Conclusively, her lecture ruptured the so-called Accelerationist dispute between idealism and realism whilst simultaneously uncovering the inconspicuous anomaly of attempting to guarantee the future when human nature is increasingly malleable.

Furthermore, Reed’s piece Volatile Prophecies was, I personally believe, the most captivating and meditative piece in the show. Placed in the furthest left corner of the exhibition space, Volatile Prophecies was displayed on a giant screen, showing an infinite amount of computer rendered and programmed floating coins moving through the screen in various directions and currents with a soundtrack intentionally (or unintentionally) following the flow of the coins.

The video-installation is described as pinpointing the economy ‘as a global architecture of human relations’. According to an excerpt from the exhibition guide, ‘financial engineers are our contemporary soothsayers and Volatile Prophesies is deploying some of their techniques’. Structures created by these ‘financial engineers’ have the possibility to allow or disallow limitless opportunities of relation, of function, and of structure therefore making them volatile. Floating exists when space becomes abstract, and where space is abstract, time could also be considered as abstract. As a result, the piece appears to be rejecting a harmony to a linear structure of economy and social relations.

Parallel aesthetics can be found in Hisham Awad’s commissioned video named Untitled whose mise-en-scène is prodigious. Awad combines the archetype of Delleuze’s ‘time-image’ and applies it to an allegorical narrative. Tackling techniques such a ‘slippage’ and methods of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, his use of particles applied over a post-produced image, invites the viewer to receive it as a form of film essay, stated to be ‘thinking with and against Deleuze’. Awad’s inclusion in What Hope Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) is an interesting addition. Through connecting the ‘Deleuzian’ thought to modalities of motivation and logic, Awad may be reconstructing the impulse of freedom, undeniably connected to the tussling against unrealistic expectations of our current socio-political (non) human condition.

                                     Image: Still from Untitled. Courtesy of the artist. 2015.

Drawing from these unrealistic expectations, Martti Kalliala’s Exostead installation unearths a vital disparity between ‘idealistic’ and ‘utopian’. Exostead is an installation of constructed aluminium steps with various de-potted plants scattered and broken throughout all levels. It seems to take the shape of an island, or a sovereign ‘seastead’. The concept of a ‘seasted’ hopes to form a utopian civilisation drifting in solitude and untouched at sea. However, Kalliala’s Exostead does not seem to be advocating for a utopian state, but rather for the possibility of one if time and human beings were free from their surroundings.

‘Exo’ is Greek for ‘outside’ or ‘out of’ implying that the ‘seastead’ is a way to ‘get out’, but towards and away from what? Instead, should we not be problematized by the seasted and its unmediated future in solitude and sovereignty? Would such a place not be promoting or accelerating the problems faced by contemporary society if it happened to be inhabited by the wrong type of people? Where does the hope of a seastead begin to be probable and where would it end?

What Hopes Looks Like After Hope (On Constructive Alienation) tends to the elusiveness of a concept such as ‘hope’ as a kind of sine qua non in a world where human desires, actions and thoughts are passively governed by cognitive capitalism. (Constructive Alienation) as stated in the title’s parenthesis, finds itself in the anticipatory readiness of desiring to predict the future, not because it is precarious, but because it needs mending to a certain degree. In an age where post-capitalist economic and social organising is at its most glorious foothold, Bassam El Baroni indexes the finitude of the human condition. Yet, we could be in the middle of capitalism, instead of in a state of post-capitalism, and if it is as such, our anxieties for the future will only intensify. As a result, the exhibition does not supply the answers to hope. What it does provide however are the potential outcomes of the imminent contingency enveloping itself in front of our eyes, only to raise more questions as you exit the space.

All photos are courtesy of Bilal Jawiche.

(Brian William Rogers and Yasmine Dubois Ziai were also featured on the opening night however I was absent for their performance.)

The ABC of Accelerationist Blockchain Critique


Accelerationism came to prominence in 2013 with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s hashtag-titled manifesto. A cloud computing-era spin on the old Marxist argument that we first need to perfect capitalism in order to transcend it, its lineage is fleshed out in a new book from Urbanomic. Urbanomic claim (among others) Nick Land’s skynet midwifery, J.G. Ballard’s science fictionalization of culture, and Marx himself as precursors to Accelerationism, establishing it as a serious anti-humanistic response to the challenges that humanity faces if it is to avoid extinction. Similar to Christine Harold’s strategy of “intensification“, Accelerationism calls for us to appropriate the value of capital’s developments and transform them materially into something else rather than attempt to resist them head-on or refuse them in our hearts.

The Accelerationist Reader (2014) by Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek.

Bitcoin is an example of an accelerationist technology. It uses Internet-scale computing resources to rebuild social bonds by destroying the requirement for them in monetary exchange. You don’t have to know me or trust me or any third parties to receive money from me in the form of Bitcoins. You just have to trust the algorithms that very publicly operate the Bitcoin network. The new Ethereum project takes the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin and generalizes to contracts for purposes other than just the transfer of money, although of course those contracts can involve payments. Ethereum contracts exist as a distributed database of small programs and their state that resembles nothing so much as an economic LambdaMOO. There’s a good guide to their promise and potential pitfalls in the talk “Ethereum: Freenet or Skynet ?” by Berkman Center Fellow Primavera Di Filippi.

Smart Contracts

Smart contracts and smart property, which uses smart contracts to identify and control ownership of physical resources, were first described by Nick Szabo in the 1990s. Smart contracts are “smart” because they are implemented as computer code rather than as legal documents. Real world examples include vending machines, in which a contract to purchase goods is encoded into the simple software that dispenses carbonated drinks when you insert the correct money, Boris Bikes, RFID card payments for photocopies, and car hire schemes that unlock vehicles and track their use with QR codes. Would-be rentiers who try to launder their ambitions with the warm fuzziness of “sharing” are salivating at the prospect, as are the incorrigible snake oil merchants of DRM, but that is not what concerns us here.

Smart contracts and smart property for art already exist. The artwork “A Tool To Deceive And Slaughter” constantly re-sells itself on eBay. The GIF ownership service “Monegraph” uses the NameCoin system to track notional ownership of instances of infinitely reproducible digital art. These are extensions of pre-digital art contracts such as certificates of authenticity or ownership for conceptual and immaterial artworks. They show a way for art to continue producing a useful critique of property and social relations under technoculture, and for new technology to feed art’s ongoing critique of its own production and nature. I wrote about this in “Artworld Ethereum – Identity, Ownership and Authenticity“, which provides code examples demonstrating how simple it is to implement some of these examples with technology dedicated to smart contracts.

The GIF ownership service by Monegraph”.

Like Bitcoin, smart contracts and smart property do not require social trust to build social value, just running code. They have very limited functionality, being unable to check RSS feeds on the Internet for information for example as that information might be tampered with. This raises the question of how individuals can be encouraged to provide valid real-world information to smart contracts rather than just entering the values that will immediately profit them the most. Capitalist economics answers this with the concept of incentives. Value, and values, can be determined by the behaviour of individuals in markets in response to economic incentives. And smart contracts are intended to make markets more efficient.

I would like to apply this agoric approach to truth to the crisis of art criticism in the face of aggregation that I identified in “The Proletarianization Of Art Criticism“. Individuals can be motivated to publish defensible aesthetic and art critical opinion in novel ways via smart contracts. I am not proposing an automated or purely algorithmic art criticism here: human activity is the core of this approach. Nor am I proposing an Amazon Mechanical Turk-style exploitation of affective labour. Rather I am proposing an Accelerationist approach, using the technology of digital capitalism to rebuild the social flows that it has destroyed.

Art is no stranger to the idea of markets, the artworld consists of one of the least regulated and therefore in theory one of the purest markets. But even ignoring the opacity and corruption of the art market, there is a problem with taking a direct approach to the art market as an arbiter of artistic value. As David Galenson‘s 2008 study of aesthetic value and market price showed there is a problem in using pure market mechanisms to establish the value of art: many “great works” have either never been auctioned or have not been to market in decades or even centuries.

I therefore propose three different approaches to art criticism via smart contracts. For work exposed to the market, the mechanisms used to price shares and other financial assets can be used. For work with less exposure, SchellingCoins and prediction markets can work alongside these mechanisms via proxies.

Aesthetic Derivatives

The prices of financial assets, stocks and shares or contracts for commodities for example, are set using a system of derivatives. Financial derivatives gained a bad reputation following their role in the global financial crash of 2008. By 2011 the notional value of the derivatives being traded was almost ten times the total GDP of planet Earth. And their automation by algorithmic high frequency trading is being increasingly scrutinized by regulators.

There are many different kinds of derivatives: short and long options, futures and exotics for example. But in theory at least their function is simple and beneficial. They enable individuals to profit by expressing whether they think a financial asset is over- or under-priced. This incentivizes them to act on this information. The resulting sharing of information and correction of prices benefits society.

Non-physical ownership, sponsorship, crowdfunding, dedications and more exotic value relationships to physical works and, crucially, to works that have not or will not be sold and to unownable digital art can be represented by smart contracts. These can then be treated as the underlying assets of derivatives, also represented as smart contracts, in whole or again crucially in fractional parts or shares. Buying and selling derivatives of shares in digital artworks, and particularly going short or long on them, represents a critical position on their worth. Where the underlying asset does not represent actual ownership of the artwork, we are closer to a prediction market than a financial market. But if the assets themselves attract prestige or value regardless of their proxy status they may become art objects in themselves.

Art criticism in such a market is a matter of financial investment and returns. Critics express their opinion of art, artists and artistic trends by buying and selling different kinds of derivatives at different times. If they are shown to be correct over time, the market will reward them. Derivatives are a prime candidate for implementation as smart contracts, there is already a project to create a standard language of (non-aesthetic) derivative smart contracts.

Cultural SchellingCoins

Since Ethereum contracts have no direct access to the outside world (or the Web), contracts that require information about the outside world must access it through intermediaries. This means that contracts must trust those intermediaries, and if it is more profitable for them to lie to the contracts that creates a problem. To remove this requirement of trust we can use a system that rewards people for independently supplying information that accurately reflects the true (or most likely) state of the world.

A SchellingCoin is an Ethereum contract that allows people to send it messages registering their opinion about (for example) the current temperature in Berlin or exchange rate between dollars and yen. Those that set the majority view are rewarded for doing so, similarly to the operation of a prediction market. But how do they know which value to choose? The game theory concept of a focal point, or Schelling point, is an answer to a question that people who cannot communicate will give independently because it seems natural, appropriate or special. SchellingCoins reward people who give the consensus answer to a question, and people can determine the right answer by converging on a Schelling point. For real world phenomena, such as temperature or exchange rates, the Schelling point is likely to be the correct answer. SchellingCoins can be implemented as smart contracts, removing the need for a trusted entity to run them.

Schellingcoins are designed to address external, quantitative phenomena. Opinions regarding cultural works are personal and qualitative, and spontaneous reactions to cultural works are even more so. This is different from the commonly expressed quantitative values that the SchellingCoin proposal requires. To adapt SchellingCoins to cultural criticism we must adopt the methods of collective intelligence and the digital humanities and use some tricks to turn personal opinion into cultural appraisal.

Collective intelligence algorithms work well with star rating systems and tags. These are popular methods for rating books, films and music on ecommerce and review sites. They can be represeented, aggregated and extrapolated from easily by software, which makes them ideal for representing opinion in SchellingCoins. There are risks in using such systems, as the low rating of the film “Gunday” on IMDB shows, but they are easy and accessible to use.

Digital Humanities approaches often involve counting the frequency of words in texts or other unstructured phenomena. The results of binary checks or of counts can be applied to Schelling coins. For example, whether an artwork appears on CAD or Rhizome or not, or whether the words “blue” or “postbinary” appear the most in reviews about it on major review sites can be reported via further SchellingCoins or via trusted feeds or oracles.

To turn these approaches into a SchellingCoin, we do not ask what people think of an artwork. We ask them what they think the average reviewer will think of the artwork (or to protect against gaming, we ask them to predict the curve for all the star ratings for the work). Given the theory of focal points, the most likely answer is the one that people suspect will be true.

Cultural SchellingCoins can therefore function as aggregators of opinion-about-opinion-about artworks, producing qualitative but consensual evaluations and critiques of works of art that contain more information than purely price-based mechanisms. Using SchellingCoins to aggregate opinion about other schellingcoins, Meta-SchellingCoings, can provide more general cultural critique.

Artistic Prediction Markets

To turn reviews into art criticism with a longer or broader perspective we can ask people not what the current state of reviews of the artwork but about what they will be in a year’s time, five years’ time, etc. How highly starred will they be and what tags/words will be used to describe them? Will the work (or the artist) be used as a point of comparison in reviews and articles? Will it (or they) still be being exhibited or purchased, and in what kind of galleries? How much will the work sell for, or in the absence of sales how many people will visit it at exhibitions? Will the artist still be working in that style, or how will their work have changed?

Each prediction can be represented as a security in a prediction market, and the current price of that security can be interpreted as the probability of that prediction. For example, a prediction market security might reward a hundred Satoshis or ten points if a particular artist has a headline show at Tate Modern. If you think there’s an 80% chance of that happening, you can pay up to 80 Satoshis or 8 points for the security representing that prediction. If you’re right you gain in return for improving the market, if you’re wrong you lose instead. There is evidence that prediction markets are successful, although they have been banned as a form of gambling in the US and the Pentagon’s 2003 attempt at a political prediction market was quickly labelled a “terrorism futures market” by the press and taken offline.

There is already a successful cultural predicton market, Hollywood Stock Exchange, where the price of “shares” in actors, directors and movies function as a prediction of their performance at the box office. The art market itself can be considered a kind of hybrid prediction market, but separating out that predictive function into a pure prediction market concentrating on critical evaluation can remove distortions that result from manipulation of the secondary market and solve the problem of representing critically valuable artworks that aren’t part of the art market.

It’s also possible, as with Hollywood Stock Exchange’s use of directors and actors as well as movies, to have prediction markets for other artworld entities. Not just artists and galleries, but movements, styles, genres, subject matter, even formal and aesthetic properties such as colours can be represented as securities in a prediction market. Buying and selling them can help set a shared understanding of their potential and impact.

Prediction markets can be represented as Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) on Ethereum’s blockchain, free from central control. DAOs present an opportunity to re-think and re-implement organizations on the blockchain. As well as markets they can be used to manage events, publications, co-operatives and educational or artworld institutions on various organizational models in a public and transparent way.


Cultural SchellingCoins, Artistic Prediction Markets and Aesthetic Derivatives are Accelerationist technologies for art criticism. Not necessarily for art criticism of the kind that survives online after being exiled from print media. Rather a functional equivalent to it that recaptures its lost authority in the form of a relationship between individuals and artistic production that exerts a guiding hand on its reception and direction. As they represent an emergent ontology of art and aesthetics manipulating these technologies, whether through technical or social means, is itself art and art criticism.


The text of this essay is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 Licence.

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

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.