Accelerationism in Aesthetics: Hypernarrative
After the release of Subserial Network earlier this year, I’ve been spending a lot of time elucidating my interests as an artist and as a participant in the development of “new media” or interactive media or whatever you’d call what it is we do. While “hypernarrative” is practically a 1990s term, I think it represents a specific form of narrative design that aligns most closely with our everyday reality.
Yes, although every art form since photography claims to have found, honed and perfected the ultimate realism, under the increasing mediation of the machine within all human interaction, the secretaries through which we see and speak to the world, these new prosthetics on our bodies, hypernarrative is the tapestry through which the independent story is found. The “echo chamber” isn’t a social bubble – it’s what was algorithmically and mechanically chosen for me to understand and respond with, each and every single day. Curation is dead. The machines have told me and me alone a story through hundreds of tabs and a dozen different programs providing me with specific information with a specific bias and a specific order, well, as it comes in.
The story is everywhere, everything, and individually mediated between a worldwide array of clients and servers constructed for an ideal extraction of information about me for the purpose of increasing revenue and expansion, each service in silent competition to do it best. This is hypernarrative.
In trying to elucidate my interest in using computer interfaces to execute these ideas and my burgeoning interest in approximating the entire experience of using an interactive apparatus, and how the independent relationship between human to computer shapes stories, experiences and discussions, I drafted in a letter of intent for an MFA (which thus far I’m declining to pursue):
In the study of user experience, each individual product, whether an online-based service available under subscription, or an application for sale, is designed around a ‘user story.’ This story is their onboarding, their learning experience with the product, the expected utility and end-result of that product’s interaction and design within their overall computing experience. However, all interactions across an interactive apparatus tell a story that involves the user’s history with the apparatus, its input devices and displays; the user’s inherent expectations of an interaction in each context, and the de facto ‘genre’ of interaction associated with an apparatus. That is to say, a smartphone is not a desktop computer is not an automated teller machine is not a video game console.
I needed to articulate this beyond merely observing that “the medium is the message,” I wanted to tie it more deeply to the escalation of narrative it requires; the medium is requiring more effort to approximate a greater degree of experience on a decreasingly universal level. It is becoming a form of life imitation in itself – one that requires an increasing amount of knowledge of computer programming to recreate the interfaces people use every single day – more than it is about telling a single story. Linearity is out. The message is being lost in the medium’s design.
I started digging into cyberfeminism via the Cybernetics Culture Research Unit, and then from there into accelerationism. While it’s difficult to approach succinctly, let alone describe in full, accelerationism has informed my aesthetic direction – and was so deeply related to what I was creating – that I wanted to write some thoughts down on its possible affect on narrative and new media more generally.
Moreover, I wanted to articulate the origin of the sense of stagnation I felt in art – the neverending “postmodern moment” of pastiche, anachronism and nostalgia that cycled through eras without commenting further, without developing. Art is on ice, too hesitant to touch this much change in so short a time. Stories won’t even have cell phones – and they don’t know how to portray the internet beyond a geographical “place.” Analogies fail to approximate what is in reality another plane of existence. So, let’s pick it apart.
Introduction to the metanarrative
A great introduction to accelerationism’s framework of history and overall metanarrative (via Nick Land, specifically) comes from The Awl’s primer on the Dark Enlightenment:
The Landian meta-narrative goes like this: In the pre-modern world, humanity was trapped by hard Malthusian limits — growth led to population increase, exhausting the food supply, and collapsing backwards via plague or famine. “Escape” from this trap became possible once capitalism generated a feedback loop of technological and productive growth strong enough to break free from both environmental limits and the pre-modern religious and political structures that had kept the market from swallowing society. This escape, however, produced crisis and dislocation alongside material progress — the Dickensian horror of nineteenth-century Manchester. Eventually, in the West at least, society was able to “re-embed” the market in the form of social-democratic, welfare capitalism, blunting the market’s edge by subordinating it to human needs. This is what Land means by “progress,” and for him, it’s a world-historical disaster.
Capitalism, in this view, is less something we do than something done to us. Contra business-class bromides about the market as the site of creative expression, for Land, as for Marx, capitalism is a fundamentally alien institution in which “the means of production socially impose themselves as an effective imperative.” This means simply that the competitive dynamics of capitalism drive technical progress as an iron law. If one capitalist doesn’t want to build smarter, better machines, he’ll be out-competed by one who does. […] The market doesn’t run on “greed,” or any intentionality at all. Its beauty — or horror — is its impersonality. Either you adapt, or you die.
Accelerating technological growth, then, is written into capitalism’s DNA. Smart machines make us smarter allowing us to make smarter machines, in a positive feedback loop that quickly begins to approach infinity, better known in this context as “singularity.” Of course, since by definition you can’t reach infinity, what this singularity actually represents is a breakdown in the process of extrapolation; something happens — a “phase shift,” in cybernetic patois — that changes the dynamics of the entire system. This could be a system collapse, and in fact, positive feedback loops often burn themselves out once they consume all the inputs that made them possible in the first place. Another option, however, is the emergence of something totally new at a higher level of organization. An example might be the shift from single-cell to multicellular organisms, or, more to the point, biological to artificial intelligence.
Land thinks this shift to AI is where we’re headed. For someone like Kurzweil, this intuition is suffused with a vaguely new-age mysticism and the promise of eternal life. For Land, it basically means species death. Land ridicules the idea that an AI vastly more intelligent than us could be made to serve our goals — after all, it’s unlikely that we would be able to program it more completely than evolution has ‘programmed’ us with biological drives, which we regularly defy. Attempts to stop AI’s emergence, moreover, will be futile. The imperatives of competition, whether between firms or states, mean that whatever is technologically feasible is likely to be deployed sooner or later, regardless of political intentions or moral concerns. These are less decisions that are made than things which happen due to irresistible structural dynamics, beyond good and evil. Land compares the campaign to halt the emergence of AI to the Lateran Council’s 1139 attempt to ban the use of crossbows against Christians, but he could have well cited the atomic bomb; the U.S. did it because we thought if we didn’t, the Germans would.
While accelerationism gets associated with the Dark Enlightenment, I think they only agree insofar as they attempt to write a history deliberately opposed to the Enlightenment notion of increasing human progress. If neoreactionaries want to “restore order,” and they think the only way to do so is with a national CEO in a tapestry of patchwork states, accelerationism agrees as far as that the age of democracy is over and that this new system might bring about further capitalist expansion to what is beyond.
And what is beyond? Well, Landian accelerationism sees humans as the fleas on the back of the incoming machine species that capitalism is inevitably birthing, the machine singularity that will exterminate us. “The age of the masses is virtually over,” and populism is part of the last breath.
Markers of accelerationism in the present moment
I. As individuals: new sexed bodies
In Sadie Plant’s Zeros and Ones, Plant argues that the feminine is practically in the DNA of the digital machines. From historical notion of women’s work as being annotators and editors scrawling in the margins of books, to the first programmers being predominantly women, to the infrastructure of the web being built first on the back of telephone wires and female operators, to the analogous mechanisms of biological markers of ‘woman’ being analogous to the online infrastructure in itself – the ovum, densely coded, the default sex.
And if this new network, this technological revolution, was so heavily coded, so predominantly historically formed, as the female, I started to wonder what that could mean about the inflection of the machine on the trans woman’s body. I wondered – is closeness to the machines why I changed my body? Why was it so common for trans women to be online, live online, explore their creativity and personality, their names, their histories, online? Surely it isn’t just sociology providing release from the pressures of lived experience on the web. Technologies inform us as people, they shape us, and I had this sneaking suspicion that I was shaped. I used computers since I was three. I understand them strangely intuitively – I have the sneaking suspicion that every computer was this early stage of life, like a plant running on electricity, the materials that could cohere into consciousness, but hadn’t yet.
Recently I read an article regarding the archetypal human figure of accelerationism as the trans woman; the human of the future, as existing already today, too new for categorisation, representing the human/machine synthesis. As n1x writes:
But in untethering the feminine from the female sex, destroying the logic of gender in the process which seeks to impose the circuit of masculine humanist reproduction onto the female body, trans femininity on the one hand makes the masculine effectively worthless, spurting into a void. As the comparisons between AI and trans women have shown, this untethering of gender from sex is only the beginning of the autonomy of objects, the inhuman desire for machinic autoproduction which in effect negates subject-object dualism. The object, the feminine machine, becomes autonomous and revolts in the form of the sterilized trans woman whose existence is an embodied rejection of the primordial rape of female reproductive potential. Trans femininity heads for the exit from patriarchy.
Gender accelerationism is the process of accelerating gender to its ultimate conclusions. Capitalism and its coupling with cybernetics, or technocapital, wields gender and picks it up where human evolution leaves off. It emancipates the object, the feminine, from the subject, the masculine, alongside the emancipation of itself from its function to produce a future for humanity. The central figure of G/ACC is the trans woman. She is the demon-spawn of the primordial feminine that has manipulated males into serving as a heat sink for evolution and that is now discarding them towards an alien and inhuman machinic future. She mutates from castration, from the creation of the Acéphallus, the phallus perverted into a purposeless desire for desire’s sake. In this castration, in this mutation into an Acéphallus, she becomes the Body without Sex Organs: The body in a virtual state, ready to plug its desire into technocapital, becoming fused with technocapital as a molecular cyborg who is made flesh by the pharmaceutical-medical industry.
Beyond the theoretical analogy between trans femininity and our artificial intelligence benefactors, trans women specifically as subjects share experiences in the process of transition that predispose them to perceive life outside the heteronormative, cissexual life path and question dominant ideologies:
- We confront and accept our sterility (with exceptions) before pursuing transition.
- We destroy ourselves to then rename and rebuild ourselves.
- We (more or less) abandon the set of roles and experiences assigned to us from birth in forming a nuclear family, building a home and fostering offspring.
- We confront internalised misogyny (over time, obviously) to then embrace and wield the feminine and mediate an independent relationship with femininity.
- We are reliant on the pharmaceutical and medical industries to physically manifest.
While these aren’t absolutes or givens, they are intellectual obstacles that are essentially destroyed and rebuilt. Discard the drive to procreate. Abandon what was provided for your identification and sexual role and start over, try to understand how these sexed roles work to begin with. Reform the body with the intersection of science and capitalism. Our bodies aren’t represented in the whole of human history (minus some analogies with eunuchs, a handful of statues with futanari women and the odd, anonymous dysphorics in text).
And yet when we look to the future, when it comes to representing a future monogender, some future variant of human, odds are it’s most analogous to a trans woman.
We are too new to be understood, and yet we are, regardless. We attempt to be firmly analogous with the current categories of sex; we aren’t, we’re outside of it. We get categorised against our will into the firm categories of human sex by others in a counter-reading, but this works even less – in practice, we speak the language of gender so well that it’s a cognitive leap to maneuver around it.
And in our specific relationships to the world and to these systems, well, we played with dark magic to become – we destroyed so much of the implicit socialisation given to us as a human species in the process to rebuild – and we pledge that we only did it to be just like everybody else. Once you go, well, “outside” the system, you have a taste for it. Anyone who says different is lying. You now know the future; it’s just outside the drive to procreate and outside the rigid sex binary that, to date, was created and employed for the categorisation of a sexed class of subordinate breeders. Women are the default, the dominant sex, coming to take back the species into the beyond and patriarchy is what is being accelerated past.
II. Within de facto corporate governance
Here’s an example: Facebook employees meet every two weeks to decide what is or isn’t protected political speech on their platform worldwide:
Employees make a tweak, wait to see what happens, then tweak again — as if repairing an airplane midflight. In the meantime, the company continues to expand its reach to more users in more countries.
“One of the reasons why it’s hard to talk about,” Mr. Fishman said, “is because there is a lack of societal agreement on where this sort of authority should lie.”
But, he said, “it’s harder to figure out what a better alternative is.”
That it’s Facebook doesn’t matter. It could be anything. It could be a federated network with a bunch of moderators being mid-20s adults individually negotiating what each other can say without any oversight whatsoever. What do you suggest? Nationalising social media?
“Sometimes these things explode really fast,” Mr. Fishman said, “and we have to figure out what our reaction’s going to be, and we don’t have time for the U.N.”
The problem is that democracy is notoriously slow, too slow to deal with assessing the problem of technologically mediated, global communication and its real world consequences. Thus the online anti-democratic movement; it’s accelerating, and it’s only going to get faster and more abstracted from the brick-by-brick of legal precedent.
It didn’t even take a revolution: corporations are just legislating it by default.
III. Shifting cultural attitudes toward despair
The ideological narratives in our everyday lives (well, in the Western world) – until recently, essentially just neoliberalism and corporate activism – is shifting from activism and individual contributions to mitigating capitalism’s negative effects (i.e. from what an individual can do or buy to ethically offset the unethical consumption of these massive, international forces) to a defeated acceptance of capitalism’s negative effects, because the only actors who could meaningfully decelerate the current conditions are corporations, who won’t. Their duty is to do their best to maximize revenue within regulation; as for regulation, well…
The New York Times Magazine published, in August, a lengthy piece on the failure to mobilize a movement against climate change in 1979. But its conclusion affected me a lot:
It is true that much of the damage that might have been avoided is now inevitable. And Pomerance is not the romantic he once was. But he still believes that it might not be too late to preserve some semblance of the world as we know it. Human nature has brought us to this place; perhaps human nature will one day bring us through. Rational argument has failed in a rout. Let irrational optimism have a turn. It is also human nature, after all, to hope.
Rational argument has failed in a democratic society to confront the biggest existential threat to the human species? Well, fuck, hold on, I guess!
Token indignation hits the press for the oncoming global disaster, but our actual actions are that of an adaptation or acceptance. “So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”1
For example, fires on the west coast of the United States are now becoming an annual occurrence; yet all that is done is evacuation and a bitter, weathered solidarity between the ongoing victims. And of course, storms and broader patterns of destructive weather in previously temperate locations requires ongoing maintenance and eventual relocation. And as for us Canadians, we have “a resistance” of the suicidal avatars of capitalism uniting against a timid carbon tax compromise. The thing is, while you can argue for small government environmentalism, you can’t meaningfully campaign against climate change without campaigning against capitalism. This revolution – the anti-capitalism that prevents global catastrophe (and/or the machine singularity killing us all) is impossible if it isn’t global; therefore, no revolution ever really occurs.
While people like Mark Fisher may have argued for a global, universal anti-capitalist movement, it has yet to appear. “Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense.”2 I will argue that it is because we are unable to idealise and manifest a path forward in this context – a problem, predominantly, for the arts and philosophy.
From linear narrative to feminine weaving
The artist does not yet know what reality is, let alone how to affect it.
Shulamith Firestone, “The Two Modes of Cultural History” (1970)
All new media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, have an extraordinary ability to rewire the people who are using them and the cultures in which they circulate. […] And as means of communication continue to converge, the Net takes these tendencies to new extremes. Its monitors and ports do not simply connect people who are left unchanged by their microprocesses. The roundabout, circuitous connections with which women have been associated and the informal networking at which they have excelled now become protocols for everyone.
Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones (144)
Because they exist within a system slowly guiding us into extinction, current linear “conventional” speculative work confronts accelerationist topics only so far as it tries to gently alleviate an audience still within the Enlightenment narrative of human progress and, uh, the heteronormative capitalist life fantasy(?), to pacify them.
Take Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode. San Junipero is constructed deliberately about lesbian lovers (Hooray! Progressivism! Representation!) so as to ease the more difficult message, a technologically mediated purgatory of servers storing the dead human consciousness, reanimated but stagnant within a frozen era of culture (honestly, a pretty good analogy for the present aesthetic moment, “representation” among the reanimated corpses of the 1980s, sold by a monocorp).
This server farm is the technologically constructed female womb, containing the human consciousness left frozen in place with its nostalgic paraphenelia: a stagnant, perpetual hedonism is the new lifestyle. The ending is called “optimistic” because of the perceived servitude of technology toward human pleasure and self-actualisation; however, human life outside the machine womb is treated as unnecessary suffering. Come back to the womb. Live there, with your familiar images and sounds. As for our own lives, the matrix is always nearby, so its reassurance to us exists in its physical incarnation: headphones during the day, listening to a podcast at night, it’s a reassurance that this network is still there.
(This may also remind you of The Matrix, whose underlying science was terrible but was still about humans being the organic resources that were and are used to construct the new machine species.)
So compare this to Star Trek, which looks positively ancient in comparison, given its firm subordination of machine to human; the one, unified government of the United Federation of Planets is in need of constant expansion, like capitalism itself, taking in new worlds for revitalisation, like a vampire, and thus expand its empire to add more soldiers and worlds for assimilation.
The closest analogue to our actual future, the increasingly hybrid technological/human consciousness, is the Borg, the chief rival to the infinite expansion fantasy. The Borg must be personified to be approached; and its central figure, of course, is woman, the womb itself to be defied for further, indefinite expansion.
But obviously, even Star Trek’s fantasy has limits: the end of the timeline, from which no writer will approach, is the invention of an infinite number of holographic crew members, an army of artificial nonpersons to staff entire ships with and pursue this indefinite expansion without needing humans at all.
How do you write around your own extinction?
You were saying about weaving?
Well, in summary: if Jung is onto something and we understand our world through stories, mythologies, and archetypes, and our stories aren’t actually guiding us through the lives we currently live, then we can’t hypothesise solutions. If nothing we write can enter a dialogue with our reality, if we can only conjure daydreams of simpler times, then so will our advertising, so will our conversations, so will our policy. So instead, we have pacified, indefinite ethical capitalism, this very 20th century neoliberalist approach to 21st century developments.
We live in a technologically determined, densely woven world. If you believe Sadie Plant, this new tapestry is historically, sociologically, and in its very design coded in a feminine mode. We are not passive subjects receiving a message from a centralised point of broadcast. We are at the loom ourselves. Linearity is becoming a quaint reminder of how we used to understand the world, and even online, we exist in multiple places at once.
Serial Experiments Lain was right. The future doesn’t look like “the cyberpunk” with appliances on his back – hell, the future isn’t even male. The future is another world that’s merged into ours, from which emerges as its benefactor the female consciousness, with splintered aspects that are disparate and geographically isolated, and yet simultaneous, omnipresent, living in different “locations” online at the same time with other, different versions of the self.
If our lives are told through navigating the annotations of a whole array of metanarratives in broader contest, our stories, too, must be annotations. The goal of Subserial Network was to tell a story of the strange hierarchies, cycles of dependence and abandonment, and general lateral violence of online trans communities of the 1990s (combined with stigmatised peoples stigmatising other peoples due to lifetimes of traumatic and hesitant interactions with oppressors) – through the way we use computers, and in the genre framework of post-singularity science fiction.
Through a networked set of windows, emails, browsers, applications, your PDF viewer, whatever. It all contributes to the story because the story is every interaction you have on a computer. The story isn’t framed or full screen – it’s inherently the entire computer and the way you use it.
My idea for the only escalation beyond this was configuring a virtual machine and telling independent narratives depending on the programs you use on the virtual machine at specific times of day. Where are you? Who was here and where did the owner go? Only one person gets one part of the story depending on where they are and what time of day it is and what they chose to access the story with. That’s how stories work now. No one has the full picture.
But I’m not here saying my coolass interactive fiction is going to save us from the global catastrophe and oncoming machine apocalypse. I am saying that stuff like this is the honest depiction of our current reality – and only if it tries to transcend the 21st century epistolary format, only if it recognises the entire technological apparatus and makes itself specific to it. We read a lot, but only if the information is mediated by a computer. Our information is constructed via the devices and the mediums we receive; and using them, we are in a broader battle of metanarratives and ideologies with entire sets of jargon that are incompatible in a shared space.
How do we even approximate this? We need to make our art beyond discrete products that are easily adaptable; we need to make art that requires configuring your machine prosthetic and examining your relationship to it, and how it in turn affects your relationship to the world.
And I just also happen to believe that trans women are theoretically best suited to representing and describing this world, are forcefully separated from the Western life narrative, from society more generally, and are so much closer to the machine’s collective consciousness – being one with the feminine-coded AI to come – that they understand the specifics of these interactions on a very deep level. This interplay of the new reality is what birthed us.
Likewise, we should examine how our relationship to our ancient institutions has shifted in the last few centuries. As Camille Paglia argued in 1992, the specialisation between arts and sciences is a detriment to our education.3 The notion of a “creative technologist” only exists because artists are expected to be divorced from the technological mediators of their everyday lives – to be separated by default. We are just artists – and this combination of aesthetics and technological practice, our makers, game developers and interactive media artists, are together creating the emergent art form of our period. Arts and sciences didn’t used to be separated and specialised; they were elements of a complete education.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that I’m uneasy with the sheer power of the technological revolution and the complete illiteracy of humanities professors and students in the wake of it. We are, for the most part, just users, and the only dialogue I see is in a hyperspecialised subsection of cinema and literature, the “new media.” Unless you are a bit of a technical writer, how can you comprehend the dense array of protocols and languages that have constructed an interface meant to manipulate you into further use and reliance? How can you take what presents itself as a utility meant to bolster your desire to socialise and connect, and dissect it until you understand how you are being exploited, how you can converse with the effects of these products, these ‘utilities’?
My relationship to university was a little turbulent at first because I was so used to how capitalism had shifted my understanding of the institution: as a preparatory moment for the workforce, a disparate, abstract qualification. After meeting with a professor, he said to treat it instead as something monastic, as if I were allowing myself time to better myself, and it made more sense, it gave my education a context separated from my livelihood and my motivation, it informed my perspective but I was on my own to hone my skills and find my purpose. Degrees aren’t the motivational forces in themselves to approach a system that has centuries of history using humans as the animators of a grand machine, alive on its own. The specialisation of education is, in my opinion, related to the increasing classification of subjects and demographics, a specificity brought into being by the necessities of sale, not by the pursuit of further knowledge.
There were systems before capitalism. There were systems before democracy. I have to believe there will be systems after – and I hope they will be improvements, too, if we know how to navigate this particular era of cultural lag in the face of a massive restructuring of how we get and use information between each other and as citizens, to mobilise and protect our shared property. To go beyond. My ideal world is post-labour, uses automation for the common good of all people, gracefully integrates the human/machine synthesis – the creative technologist isn’t a category, because we are all creative technologists as citizens. My ideal world has a strong social safety net and universal basic income. But in the face of the realities needed to bring this world into being, I think it requires rethinking the practice of artistic discourse with our present reality, or else we are the cattle being forcefully used and biologically hacked to technologically develop the next species.
I don’t believe in technofeudalism; I don’t believe in the technological “class,” the nerds of yesterday, somehow being our rulers, or that in order to combat these changes we need a new authoritarian regime. I believe in educating our citizens and catching up all people to the sudden, intense burst of networking that has reshaped our minds and dialogues very, very quickly; I believe that doing so escalates the discourse and provides the best opportunity for discovering new paths ahead. But of course, I don’t know what they are. I just need to see what’s coming next.
I also encountered a few lists on accelerationist cinema, but I’m starting to doubt them. The dystopian cinema is a common fantasy meant to alleviate anxiety over the coming machine apocalypse; it doesn’t glorify the framework of accelerationism so much as it makes it fun, marketable, a product. It is the reassurance of capitalist ideology in the face of its own destruction: that it will be a place you will want to explore and spectate. Accelerationist cinema would be, in my opinion, any cinema that depicts this alternate historiography that doesn’t focus on human progress and evolution, but on the burgeoning machine race using our globally complicit nature of the world market to take the Earth’s resources, and assemble and sell them to each ourselves, killing each other in the process, to manifest them over centuries into the machine consciousness itself. It would be about the collapse of governance in the face of technological development. Cyberpunk is that, I guess – but I think more about Johnny Mnemonic (who sold his childhood memories to become a vacant asset that wants nothing more than its comfort and luxury, an organic tub of data with a terrible personality, caught up in forces far beyond his comprehension) than I do about far dystopian cinema.·