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.

The creative promise and open collections: An interview with Template

Annet Dekker interviews Template, a graphic design and digital development studio run by Lasse van den Bosch Christensen and Marlon Harder. They engage in both client oriented work and initiate their own critical design related projects.

‘The contemporary interface of many digital collections shows images merely in neatly divided grids. How can we create context and meaning for these images?’


As sociologist Mike Featherstone puts it, ‘Increasingly the boundaries between the archive and everyday life become blurred through digital recording and storage technologies’ (2006, 591). Whereas the paper archive has always been the place to store and preserve documents and records, and has functioned as a warehouse for the material from which memories were (re)constructed, its digital counterpart is changing the meaning and function of an archive. The archive’s traditional representational relationship to social identity, agency and memory is challenged by the distributed nature of networked media. Initially designed as a mirror of physical collections and paper archives, the digital repository became a collection itself. A new set of values is presented, but it often remains unarticulated at the cultural and scientific level. What are some of the new understandings of the relationship between the software by which online archives are coded and the social, commercial and organisational practices of what is still considered the archiving of documents? What are the roles of users, in all their manifestations as the meeting point of cultural value and technological systems?

Numerous terms are used to describe the ‘new’ types of archives, for example ‘living archives’ (Passerini 2014; Lehner 2014, 77) or ‘fluid archives’ (Aasman 2014), what is commonly acknowledged is that archives are no longer stable institutions.  The terms ‘living’ and ‘fluid’ point to the following characteristic of online archives: openness (they are constantly changing and accumulating), self-reference (hash tags have replaced traditional categorisation), and they represent – like many other online platforms – the shift from passive audiences to active users. Due to their transient quality, it could be argued, these archives are not designed for long-term storage and memory, but for reproduction. As media scientist Wolfgang Ernst explains, the emphasis in the digital archive shifts from documenting a single event to redevelopment, in which a document is (co-) produced by users (Ernst 2012, 95). Whereas the source may remain intact, as in the original archive, its existence is changing and dynamic.

One of the main reasons for this change in archiving is the practice of a variety of non-specialists  who are ‘archiving the everyday’ and creating endless ‘personal archives’. This has often given rise to statements about the ‘democratisation of archival practices’, which allows a broad range of individuals, communities and organisations to document, preserve, share and promote (community) identity through collective stories and heritage (Cook 2013; Gilliland and Flinn 2013). What does it mean when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems? Whereas this question has many consequences for thinking about the archive, the design duo Template focuses on how these changes affect the agency of users, by addressing the ways in which users engage with online archives and playfully interrogate and subvert systems such as archives to produce new knowledge concerning their social, cultural and commercial values. With their project Pretty old Pictures, Template addresses the future of online archives and collecting. Whilst critically analysing web 2.0 innovative platforms, particularly Flickr Commons, their aim is to present potential consequences of openness, unclear copyright and ownership legislation, and loss of context in a playful manner.

Template [http://template01.info/] is a graphic design studio established in 2014 and run by Marlon Harder and Lasse van den Bosch Christensen. Marlon studied graphic design as a bachelor at ArtEZ in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and Lasse did his bachelor studies in communication at Kolding School of Design, Denmark. They met during their master studies at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. With their studio they both engage in research and client practice. Their research projects often relate to their own practice as designers. For example: how labour, especially digital labour, is in flux and how ‘fun’, playing and making friends are new ways to conceal this. Or how the idea of the creative individual seems omnipresent (everyone is a maker) and how digital ‘template-promoting’ tools are stimulating this tendency. However, they argue, instead of the promised individuality these tools generate a very bland sameness. In their client-based work, they do almost everything that relates to visual communication: from web programming to areas where digital translates into analogue (or the other way around), such as Automated books and the conversion of HTML to print.

Annet Dekker: Can you describe the project Pretty Old Pictures and in what way it represents a ‘new’ archive?

Template: With our project Pretty Old Pictures we are looking into the archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut. Along with many other institutions Het Nieuwe Instituut shares part of its image archive on Flickr Commons. This section of the photo-sharing platform Flickr hosts images with either none or unknown copyright restrictions. The interface of Flickr is extremely visually focused, often displaying an endless amount of imagery lacking any original context. We wanted to explore what potentially can happen to this rather overwhelming content. In a way, these images only exist in the present and attain meaning when a user starts working with them. As such, we believe the ‘present moment’ will very likely become more important in the future where content is extracted from archives and presented as single images unrelated to each other and seemingly without a past. Our intention is to print out specific selections of the images and sell them in nicely packaged bundles.

What were your intentions? What do you want to achieve?

As graphic designers we are fascinated with crowdsourcing platforms and what they stand for: the promise of creative empowerment. You spend four years in an art school learning a trade and then in the real world it is of course not easy to find work. You become part of a broader creative category and especially online there are numerous platforms that turn your trade and your livelihood into un- or underpaid competitions or games, albeit not always in an obvious way. Already at the Piet Zwart Institute [Media Design and Communication in Rotterdam] we became interested in this type of ‘crowd sourced graphic design.’ Take the example of 99Designs. 99Designs is a platform that organises competitions around specific design jobs. For a mere 250 dollars a client often has over 500 designs, made by hundreds of designers, to choose from. For a week we participated in 99 design competitions and made 99 designs that fitted the briefs. During the process we exhibited the designs together with the rejection letters – none of our designs were selected. Rather than being cynical about it, we sincerely wanted to follow this prescribed anticipation of 99Designs and see where it would lead us.

We were interested in how feasible it would be to make the designs, how many hours it would take and in return what our profit would be. Secondly, how much exposure it would generate and if it would broaden our network, which is a main motivation pushed on to designers using these platforms.

Similarly, we looked at other business models like Etsy that all have this same promise of generating an income for your ‘unique products’. When browsing their database it soon becomes apparent that the products are not unique; there even seems to be a very specific Etsy aesthetic. In the end, these platforms tell you more about a specific period in time than anything else. From these experiences we became interested in starting our own company to see how we could benefit from the trend. And then we saw all the content on Flickr Commons and how hardly anyone is using it in the way these other platforms are using content. We wanted to see how easy it would be to make a business out of it: to live the dream of creative entrepreneurs!

Basically we want to comprehend how these institutions are dealing with their digital archives, especially when publishing the content online. In the meantime we confront them with what could potentially happen. There are many possibilities, from selling to copying and changing the images. We want to investigate the consequences of those actions. For example, what does ‘open’ content mean, what are the consequences not only in terms of copyright, but also for the institute and its archival tasks. Are museums following a general trend or are they idealistic about spreading information, or both, and what does that mean in relation to traditional methods? More generally, what are the effects of a changing image culture with regard to new ways of dealing with decontextualized content, appropriation, or even the influence on cultural – and individual – memory? With this project we want to poke at all these issues by actually doing and setting up a business.

At the same time, we are interested in the influence of the online platform that is used. What happens when you give away content to a commercial business, which then becomes a co-owner of the material? This is not necessarily a new question, but it is becoming more urgent now that bigger platforms are offering these easy solutions. In a way it resembles the Google Books project in which many libraries and publishers gave away rights just to have their books digitised. These issues are far less resolved within Flickr Commons, or by those uploading – or downloading – the content. It all happens without people being truly aware of the consequences.

Why did you focus on Flickr Commons, rather then other large repositories, databases, or archives like, for example, Europeana?

We started looking at what sort of external databases and platforms Het Nieuwe Instituut is using, and found out that Flickr Commons is one of the more central, and definitely the biggest. Flickr Commons is interesting because of the promotion of public domain and ‘openness’, using guidelines on copyright that seem purposely unclear. Each image under Flickr Commons is tagged with ‘No known copyright restrictions’, meaning that either the image is in the public domain or that the author cannot be verified or found. Additionally each participating institution has its own rights statement, some of which loops back to the Flickr statement and therefore remains  ambiguous or even contradictory. This leaves room for interpretation and opportunities from both Flickr as a platform but also other third parties, like us.

The interface of Flickr also caught our interest. Once you enter the website you see a vast amount of images, infinitely scrollable. Some museums have millions of images on Flickr, which is served up visually as an extremely fragmented image collage. Rather than offering the original context of an image, the system functions primarily through visual linking. That’s how a new context and meaning is made. Of course if you know what you are searching for and manage to type in the right search query you can get relevant results, but this will never match the expertise or human-provided knowledge that is found in a traditional archive. This is what we found fascinating when visiting the physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut, where the archivist explained all kinds of relations between documents, offering additional information that you would not necessarily be looking for. We realised what is missing in many online archives or databases right now, and more so in the future, since this kind of human knowledge, built up over time, does not transfer easily. Of course there are descriptions, categories, and keywords based on folksonomies on Flickr, but there are no stories – at least not yet.

Do you use specific criteria for the selections you make?

At first it was merely based on our own favourites. Now we are also looking more at things that are popular, that sell on platforms like Etsy. Often these are the regular things like nature, space, and architecture of course, but we are still testing. For Het Nieuwe Instituut and other institutes partaking in Flickr Commons, Pretty Old Pictures creates custom packages. These are sold in their museum shop, perhaps used as business gifts, merchandise or advertisements. Design-wise we grasp the DIY [Do It Yourself] spirit and this is essential for our strategy. For example, we make our own envelopes for the images we sell, which neatly transforms into an image-frame. They even smell of the laser cutter that we used.

There is such an overall emphasis on all kinds of retro trends, from old school barber haircuts and beards to riso prints on vintage book pages and moustaches on t-shirts. Trends we do not necessarily try to understand, but feed into our project. We are at the same time following the hype and trying to create hype: all in pursuit of a genuine creative business.

What is your relation to the material you selected? Is it ambivalent, or are you complicit – buying into the creative promise?

It is both. On the one hand we feel a bit ashamed, because at times it comes across as ripping someone off. On the other hand we are very excited about the project and looking forward to what may happen. There is a tension between these elements, which we also want to enforce and play with.

Your studio Template also seems to have two sides. On the one hand you make a critical nod to templates and on the other hand your work is about playing and using templates in slightly different ways. Similarly, an interface directs what you can do, and now you are building your own interface. You work seems rather paradoxical.

Yes, we use templates as topics for our research, but then we refuse to use them in our commercial projects. You know templates exist and it is really hard to avoid them. Because of their ease of use it is also completely understandable that people use them. It does not make sense to be completely negative about them. However, of course we like to be critical and subversive in our use of templates. Often the very limited possibilities or options of the template enhance the feeling of having made something. You created something original, that no one ever thought of or will do again. However, you created it within a framework that dictates what you can and cannot do. All these platforms and DIY mechanisms very much play on the assumptions of the importance of the original, the authentic and the individual. Essentially, these are still important beliefs in art traditions and our culture at large.

Most of these discussions also link to the debate on free labour; sometimes you feel in control when using all these readily available tools, but at the same time you are losing your power, because you are giving up the content and work that you create. We have no idea what 99Designs, for example, will do with the 99 designs that we made: they might sell them to different parties, use them to create new templates, or just delete them. Then again, communities get formed on platforms, and seeing other people’s work might in turn benefit you in some way or another. Some platforms even organise special lunch meetings, and the relationships between users have been known to outlive the platform itself. It is too easy to just be dismissive of it all.

Where is the breaking point for you; when will you, or the user, become more powerful than the other?

For us it is important that the design part of the project functions in the way it should. We want to create something that is convincing. In more general terms, it is important how people are addressed, what agency they get and how much freedom they have to use what they created in other ways or places. Of course the failures never receive any attention: the focus is on the success stories as they help promote the platform. That is the point where things start to derail.  It may also go wrong when more obvious commercial stakes become apparent. For example, at a certain point Flickr started to sell images from its users licensed under the Creative Commons, causing a scandal amongst angry users who saw their content being commercially appropriated by Flickr. Likewise, we would also be very happy once we can sell the archive back to the organisation to which it belongs! Then again, we would just continue the cynical part of the project, which is not the most interesting part. It would be more interesting to discuss the situation the organisation has created for itself.

I am particularly interested in the idea of sharing and circulating images and other information that is made possible with Flickr Commons as a new form not just of distribution but perhaps also production – and archiving. In what way do you play with these kinds of mechanisms? Do you think it brings out a new potential in archiving?

These collections of images are open, so essentially you can do what you want; digital archiving is really made for interpretations. It demands a much more active role from its audience. They can provide context to the images without having to follow any rules. This would be unthinkable in a traditional archive. At the same time it brings up the question of what the role and function of an archive is. The relation to the past seems to disappear. It is only the present that counts, which is linked to the near future; the excitement of other people’s reactions and how they will respond. Most likely the two ‘archives’ will exist simultaneously, because at a certain point we will need to go back into history. The real question is how we will be able to return to the past in a digital archive, in which context is very scattered, and based of rapidly changing folksonomies rather than standardised categorisations.

In a way it could be argued that your project follows the same ideas as many creative industry start-ups: focusing on future business, economic models and sometimes even utopian perspectives. But at the same time, you work from the present, which may not be obvious to everyone, but is still very relevant as it is changing the way we deal with property, archives and memory.

One of the main things that is often missing in these discussions are the users: they are somewhere in the background, invisible. However, in this project we are replicating this system by focusing on the platform, and not necessarily the users. The physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut was a valuable experience for us. It became so clear that the knowledge the archivist possesses is unique and this kind of contextual information is hard to replace in a digital environment. Rather than trying to bring that into a digital environment we wanted to expose other layers, other ways of using and perhaps abusing the content that is void of context. Essentially today’s image culture is hard to grasp, it is partly steered by mechanisms and systems that are working in the back-end, which makes us use images in different ways. Archives are transforming from places where memories are kept to databases in which the present and near future are becoming more important. It is all about the now, presenting and sharing your, or other people’s images with friends and strangers alike. The context of an image is not important anymore; it is all about form and ease of distribution.

This, of course, throws up interesting questions: how do we relate to these images, how does this culture influence us, now and in terms of how we think about the past? Are we taking the image – and its content – for granted? In a way images – and perhaps archives – also become meaningless, or at least the importance shifts in favour of relations and communication between people. We tend to think that selections are still important: similar to the archivist we make selections that may seem random but the constraints generate meaning. Not necessarily the same ‘original’ meaning, but a selection brings something new, it makes people think in a different way about the images. Connections are thought of and narratives appear. Such creative thinking is of course easier with a selection of five than with hundreds of images. This new way of dealing with the content of the archive is no longer related to singular objects but meaning is generated through different constellations. Similar to oral culture, events and histories are now retold in different ways. As such it could be argued be that the (future) digital archive has more in common with oral traditions than with its paper version.

Pretty Old Pictures is commissioned by Het Nieuwe Instituut as part of their ongoing research  ‘New Archive Interpretations’ (curated by Annet Dekker). For more information see http://archiefinterpretaties.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en

Template are part of the exhibition: “Algorithmic Rubbish: Daring to Defy Misfortune” @ SMBA in Amsterdam, with Blast Theory, James Bridle, Constant Dullaart, Femke Herregraven, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Template, Suzanne Treister. The show runs till 23 August with a final day discussion that includes Template and Constant Dullaart, moderated by Josephine Bosma. For more info: http://smba.nl/


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