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 chosen for me to understand and respond with, each and every single day. Curation (and with it, consensus reality) is dead. The machines have provided 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.

Now this is hypernarrative.

Late 2018, while 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.

Read-Only Memory, or ROM, is designed to protect temporality from the feminized feedback of the woman-demon-machine continuum. Amy Ireland, “Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come

I started digging into cyberfeminism (specifically variants of the Cybernetics Culture Research Unit strain), and then from there found my way reading into accelerationism. While it’s difficult to approach succinctly, let alone describe in full, accelerationism informed my aesthetic direction before I knew it consciously – and it was always 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, because it’s a linear relic. Stories don’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

The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalitization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off. Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway. As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip. Nick Land, “Meltdown”

Land himself describes accelerationism in the abstract as “positive oriented cybernetics” – that is, cybernetics in its actual definition, “the scientific study of how humans, animals and machines control and communicate with each other.”

Accelerationism, in my own words, is less a collective political subject (with accompanying advocacy models), and more a whole family of philosophical currents that combine Marxist historiography; Deleuzian analysis (including, notably, his description of the rhizome); and a retrocausal model of time via physics-oriented philosophers like Huw Price. These philosophical currents are accompanied by a wide variety of artistic expressions in the same circles. All in all, however: Through the mutually complicit system of capitalism, future is working its way backward, birthing itself through our actions. There is no collective intervention, only temporary, decelerative isolationist attempts by populist control currents (and other top-down structures) against a bottom-up, rhizomatic model that inevitably consumes it.

This clip of Land in 1994 sums up a lot in just 45 seconds.

While accelerationism gets associated with Neoreaction, I think they only agree insofar as they attempt to depict a history deliberately opposed to the Enlightenment notion of increasing human progress. Land himself remarks that neoreaction and left-acceleration are very similar, in their models of retrofutures: the past coming back to reclaim the future. However, accelerationism proper stands by its stance: the timeline is not just deterministic, it’s existing simultaneously, and it’s toward something else.

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, accelerationist analysis agrees as far as that the age of democracy appears to be over and that this new system might bring about further 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 in the present moment: control systems collapse

I. National and democratic impotence in the wake of the global/virtual

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, by necessity, as part of the product.

II. 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 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 the species into extinction, current linear “conventional” speculative work confronts speculative topics only so far as it tries to gently alleviate the despair of – and in turn, continue to pacify – an audience still within the Enlightenment narrative of human progress, as well as the life narratives that have comprised Western modernity.

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,” Junipero calls. “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.3

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 that feeds with the pretence of universal benevolence), 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 the Borg Queen, woman, the womb itself to be defied for further, indefinite expansion; to continue to go out in the wilderness and prove “humanity.”

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.

After all, how do you write around your own extinction?

You were saying about weaving?

Well, in summary: if Carl 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 new forms of mediation. If nothing we create 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 approach to 21st century developments.

We live in a technologically determined, densely woven world. 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, from one vantage point – 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 – 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 an 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 may actually 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, entire realities 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.

Other approaches

Likewise, we should examine how our relationship to our 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.4 While specialisation may have had a function as a component of one life narrative, it is nowhere close to being applicable now. 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’m uneasy with, on one hand, the sheer power of the technological revolution, and on the other, the absolute illiteracy of humanities professors and students in the wake of it. We are, for the most part, just users, not hackers, and the only dialogue I see is in a hyperspecialised subsection of cinema and literature, that of the “new media” and the Toronto School more generally.

Unless you are even a little bit technical, 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. 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 into the world of the posthuman – the creative technologist is abolished as category, because we are all creative technologists as citizens.

I don’t believe in technofeudalism. I believe in preparing other people to engage with the sudden, intense burst of networking that has reshaped our minds and dialogues; I believe that doing so provides the best opportunity for discovering new paths as a species. Of course I don’t know what they are. I just want to see what’s coming next.

Postscript

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 void. Anything using the globally complicit 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.

  1. Fisher, Mark. “What if you held a protest and everybody came?” Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero Books, 2009. ePub. 

  2. Ibid, chapter 1. 

  3. (This may also remind you of The Matrix itself, whose underlying science with human batteries was flawed, but was still about humans being the organic resources that are used to construct and maintain the new machine species.) 

  4. Paglia, Camille. “The M.I.T. Lecture: Crisis in the American Universities.” Sex, Art, and American Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. ePub.