Noisy Accelerationism

Photonic Hypercapital digitizes eschatology.


IT SHOULD BE CLEAR NOW HOW NOISE MATTERS TO FINANCE. Noise is the dual of information; yet people trading on noise can sometimes make more money and last longer in the market than those trading on information. Noise works to upend models of efficient markets. Noise as sound can indicate potential trading opportunities as well as being indispensable to the smooth functioning of the market. Noise as volatility or fluctuation as time approaches zero is a means for the continual accumulation of small profits. The intersection of informatic and sonic noise produces, on one hand, vocal indications of fear and panic and, on the other, a dark, ghostly cloud from the onslaught of data. How do we understand these interferences, these contradictions that seem to exceed our existing frameworks? The ways in which we respond to this materiality of noise in flesh and machines will help construct our methodologies for addressing the imbrication of finance and contemporary life and might also tell us something about how to deal with the complexity of humans and machines.

The acceleration discussed in the previous chapter—indexed perhaps most dramatically by the fact that Einstein’s theory of special relativity is now a valid reference point for finance—provides one suggestion. But an acceleration toward what? In a historical materialist account, to reach a point where communism—or some other form of social relationship not mediated by the commodity form—can become possible, capitalism must first become extinct. Highlighting and exploiting the internal contradictions of capitalism then becomes one key part of the revolutionary project, of the process of dialectical materialism. Such contradictions are highlighted during most leftist protests these days, and the recent climate marches in New York City in September 2014 were no exception. The day after tens of thousands marched through midtown New York in support of global action against climate change, there was a massive protest titled Flood Wall Street that attempted to march to the NYSE. Police not only prevented activists from getting to the stock exchange but also protected the iconic bull nearby with their presence and crowd-control fencing. The attention to the bull’s safety is a curious spectacle, as it implies that it is the bull itself that is the locus of modern finance. But we know that this is not the case. What might have been the power of the protests—and, importantly, the spectacle surrounding the protests—if they had left the bull alone and instead traveled to 1700 MacArthur Boulevard in Mahwah, New Jersey?

Such a choice is only possible if one understands that the real physical manifestation of the market is among the whirring computers and air-conditioning units rather than people on the floor of the hallowed NYSE. But if critiquing this protest is not heresy enough, what if we wanted to push things further? To not just remain in the realm of critique but rather to suggest that we need to accelerate the processes that produced HFT in the first place? Perhaps such an acceleration could bring capitalism to its foreseen end in less time. And what if that acceleration could use the very mechanisms of capitalism itself?

Such a tendency, latent within Marxist thought over the past century and a half, has only recently been given a name, in a derogatory sense, by the British philosopher Benjamin Noys: accelerationism.[2] More recently, Steven Shaviro has outlined some of the various strands of accelerationism in his No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism.[3] Drawing on an intellectual lineage that begins most recently with the early 1970s work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari and Jean-François Lyotard, that resurfaces in the 1990s with the theory-fiction of Nick Land, and that was resurrected during the most recent financial crisis, accelerationism is a theorization of the conditions and techniques for the hastening of the contradictions of capitalism to produce its ultimate downfall. Such techniques are predicated on a fundamentally antihumanistic position, one that is weakly reflective of similar recent approaches, for example, in actor-network theory or object-oriented ontology, but that radically explodes their implications.[4]

Accelerationist reference points come from the early Deleuze and Guattari of Anti-Oedipus and the early Lyotard of Libidinal Economy. For Deleuze and Guattari, the central conceit is the schizophrenia of capitalism: while it requires the reterritorialization of flows to capture surplus value and reinscribe the logic of Oedipus, it must simultaneously produce their deterritorialization to unleash desire: “Capitalism tends toward a threshold of decoding that will destroy the socius in order to make it a body without organs and unleash the flows of desire on this body as a deterritorialized field.”[5] In this interference of de- and reterritorialization, what is to be done? Writing from within the conflicts of the early 1970s over the relationship of the Communist Party to new social movements, the solution for Deleuze and Guattari was eminently not to be found within the formulations of Party politics. Rather, Deleuze and Guattari suggested that perhaps deterritorialization was not being pushed far enough:

But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one?—To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist “economic solution”? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.[6]

But this ceaseless directionality toward ever more deterritorialized flows is tempered in A Thousand Plateaus:

You have to keep enough of the organism for it to reform each dawn; and you have to keep small supplies of significance and subjectification, if only to turn them against their own systems when the circumstances demand it, when things, persons, even situations, force you to; and you have to keep small rations of subjectivity in sufficient quantity to enable you to respond to the dominant reality. Mimic the strata. You don’t reach the BwO [Body without Organs], and its plane of consistency, by wildly destratifying.[7]

“When the circumstances demand it,” “mimic the strata”—these are not the phrases of an acceleration toward ultimate deterritorialization but rather a statement of pragmatics in the dawning years of Reagan-Thatcher neoliberalism. And even in Anti-Oedipus, they noted that “No one has ever died from contradictions”.[8]

Lyotard published Libidinal Economy shortly after, and partially in response to, Anti-Oedipus; he would later refer to it as his “evil book,” and evidently it caused much trouble between him and his former Marxist colleagues and comrades from his time in Socialisme ou Barbarie.[9] If possible, Lyotard’s evocations of desire are more intense than those of Deleuze and Guattari in Anti-Oedipus; as writing becomes intensity, libidinality does not merely remain as potential: “Our danger, we libidinal economists, lies in building a new morality with this consolation, of proclaiming and broadcasting that the libidinal band is good, that the circulation of affects is joyful, that the anonymity and the incompossibilty of figures are great and free, that all pain is reactionary and conceals the points of a formation issuing from the great Zero.”[10] The “circulation of affects” is already to be found within the bodily practices of the proletariat; here Lyotard deserves to be quoted at length:

Why, political intellectuals, do you incline towards the proletariat? In commiseration for what? I realize that a proletarian would hate you, you have no hatred because you are bourgeois, privileged smooth-skinned types, but also because you dare not say the only important thing there is to say, that one can enjoy swallowing the shit of capital, its materials, its metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, swallowing tonnes of it till you burst—and because instead of saying this, which is also what happens in the desire of those who work with their hands, arses and heads, ah, you become a leader of men, what a leader of pimps, you lean forward and divulge: ah, but that’s alienation, it isn’t pretty, hang on, we’ll save you from it, we will work to liberate you from this wicked affection for servitude, we will give you dignity. And in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalized’s desire be totally ignored, forbidden, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy—for what?—does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either.[11]

Lyotard’s vitriol is directed against those who would postpone revolution (the Party), postpone desire (the reterritorialization of Capital, in the language of Deleuze and Guattari), and postpone the enjoyment of the proletariat (the “political intellectuals”). In Lyotard’s view, this postponement needs to be burst open: “We desire the effects of conduction and the conduction of effects. Lysis, thesis.”[12] Although Libidinal Economy has been excoriated for this passage in particular, I think it is too hasty to deny the fundamental claim Lyotard makes here, namely, that there might be some sort of enjoyment in the actions of capitalistic machines on the body; we can accept this point while simultaneously suggesting that something needs to be done regarding the physical damage that occurs. For subjugation is not simply a negative experience, as the practices of sadomasochism show, but rather a complicated conjugation of humans, machines, and practices that should not be dismissed so quickly.

Noys notes that for Deleuze and Guattari (as we can understand from certain passages in A Thousand Plateaus) as well as for Lyotard (as evidenced in some texts from the 1980s and early 1990s), the move toward a slowing down of the unleashing of desire might have reflected the realization that their earlier positions were becoming “congruent with capitalist flows.”[13] Yet these trajectories were soon to have another adherent within the work of the renegade academic Nick Land and his colleagues and students at the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru) at the University of Warwick in the mid-1990s. Among the hype of the potentials of the Internet and its professed ability to deterritorialize all traditional categories—race, ethnicity, gender, class, humanism—Land, along with the codirector of the Ccru, Sadie Plant, produced a number of visceral texts and performances that reactivated the accelerationist tendencies of the earlier works by Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard.[14] Land’s dynamical evocations are a reworked invocation of Nietzsche, Kant, Bataille, computational technology, viruses, drugs, and what he and Sadie Plant term the “cyberpositive.” Recalling Norbert Wiener’s valorization of negative over positive feedback, Plant and Land write that

the modern Human Security System might even have appeared with Wiener’s subliminal insight that everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind. Evolving out of work on weaponry guidance systems, his was an attempt to enslave cybernetics to a general defence technology against alien invasion. Cybernetics was itself to be kept under control, under a control that was not itself cybernetic. It is as if his thinking were guided by a blind tropism of evasion, away from another, deeper, runaway process: from a technics losing control and a communication with the outside of man.[15]

Whereas Wiener understood the negative feedback of cybernetics as enacting a stabilizing force on systems, a position that resonates with his fundamental humanism that was key to his later writings, Plant and Land, following in the waves unleashed by Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard, moved to the other end of the binary, provocatively suggesting that positive feedback, though uncontrollable in principle, could in fact enable a certain antihumanism, one that would allow for the “communication with the outside of man.”

Land released the cyberpositive in delirious works of theory-fiction that, depending on one’s taste, are either the highlight or the doldrums of 1990s cultural theory. Land’s texts, long available only in obscure journals that have long gone out of print, were recently published in an edited collection of his work, the release of which was the occasion for a symposium in 2010 around this question of accelerationism. It is here that we can reconnect to the questions of noise and finance that have been the topic of this essay. Consider the following quotation regarding the potential of finance capital from his 1993 article “Machinic Desire”:

The obsolete psychological category of “greed” privatizes and moralizes addiction, as if the profit-seeking tropism of a transnational capitalism propagating itself through epidemic consumerism were intelligible in terms of personal subjective traits. Wanting more is the index of interlock with cyberpositive machinic processes, and not the expression of private idiosyncrasy. What could be more impersonal—disinterested—than a haut bourgeois capital expansion servo-mechanism striving to double $10 billion? And even these creatures are disappearing into silicon viro-finance automatisms, where massively distributed and anonymized human ownership has become as vacuously nominal as democratic sovereignty. . . .

Markets are part of the infrastructure—its immanent intelligence—and thus entirely indissociable from the forces of production. It makes no more sense to try to rescue the economy from capital by demarketization than it does to liberate the proletarian from false consciousness by decortication. In neither case would one be left with anything except a radically dysfunctional wreck, terminally shut-down hardware.[16]

Land evokes Lyotard’s contempt for those who would “speak” for the proletariat while graphically noting the embeddedness of capital markets within society; the removal of markets would leave nothing but a “dysfunctional wreck.” Latent within these passages, as well as others in the text, is a foreboding tone toward the potential for transformation that removes accelerationism from the realm of choice. This is perhaps most evident in a later text from 1995 titled “No Future”:

Mass computer commoditization de-differentiates consumption and investment, triggering cultural micro-engineering waves that dissociate theopolitical action into machinic hybridities, amongst increasingly dysfunctional defensive convulsions. Acephalization = schizophrenia: cutting-up capital by way of bottom-up macrobacterial telecommerce, inducing corporate disintegration. The doomed part of intensively virtualized techonomic apparatuses subverts the fraying residues of anthropomorphic guidance. Control dissolves into the impossible.[17]

This lack of control, this orientation toward Thanatos embedded within a cyberpositive system, is indexed by Land to, among other things, the dynamics of the market. Consider this fragment from “Meltdown,” a presentation from 1994:

Neoclassical (equilibrium) economics is subsumed into computer-based nonequilibrium market escalations, themed by artificial agencies, imperfect information, sub-optimal solutions, lock-in, increasing returns, and convergence. As digitally microtuned market metaprograms mesh with technoscientific soft engineering, cyberpositive nonlinearity rages through the machines. Cyclonic torsion moans.[18]

My own evocation of Land through voluminous quoting from his work is meant not only to note a certain prescience in his writings but also, as with Lyotard, to re-present the dynamics of his writing, a dynamics that follows the noisiness of his referents. Land’s writing resonates with the activity of computational technologies, of their fits and starts and seeming ability to act in ways that exceed their rational, ordered frameworks. And what are the “microtuned market metaprograms” but the algorithms of AT or HFT? The body of Land’s work from the 1990s deserves its own reactivation during a time when the imbrication of computational technologies—of electronic trading, of mathematical formalism—seems to have run amok. Though we may be profoundly concerned about the implications of Land’s seeming disavowal of human agency to intervene within cyberpositive systems, we perhaps should understand these texts as the speculative imaginary of a delirious merging of theory and fiction that mirrors the purported fusion of human and machine. I read Land’s writings against the grain, not as prescriptions to be enacted, nor a political position to be held, but rather as oneric possibilities that mark some of the fundamental implications of the theories, authors, and materials we hold dear.

Nevertheless, Noys has returned to his critique of accelerationism in his recent book Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. Here Noys understands accelerationism, in the form in which it is currently expressed, as a “fantasy of smooth integration” of humans, machines, and capital.[19] Noys is fundamentally concerned, among other things, with what he sees as the transformation of misery into jouissance, as indexed by the quotation from Lyotard earlier.[20] Instead, Noys wants to restore “the sense of friction that interrupts and disrupts” the aforementioned fantasy.[21] Yet I would argue that there is no necessary reason to eschew accelerationism for this alone. I read under the surface of Land’s texts a graininess, a noisiness that interferes with the seemingly smooth fantasy he presents. Indeed, fantasy is never as straightforward as it seems. As previously mentioned, I see accelerationists such as Land presenting a speculative fantasy, not a political program. And fantasy is needed more than ever to help us develop new conceptual apparatuses out of the “there is no alternative” doldrums. Shaviro understands this as well when he writes that “science fiction is the accelerationist art par excellence.[22]

Perhaps what is problematic, then, is understanding this fantasy as a set of guidelines for future behavior. If we cannot assume that accelerating capitalism will cause it to collapse under its own contradictions (something that has not yet occurred, and something that we have no reason to expect will occur), then can we develop a properly accelerationist program? Or should we rather see it more as an aesthetic movement, as Shaviro does? Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek attempt to lay out one potential program in their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.”[23] Williams and Srnicek do not accept the Lyotardian or Landian joy at being consumed by capital, at being torn apart by machines physical and digital; rather, they argue that we need to be at ease with the technologies of capital and thus figure out how to repurpose them for more progressive ends—in short, there is no return to a pastoral, pre-Fordist life. But like Shaviro, I am troubled by their call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.”[24] The masculinist and, frankly, colonial connotations of their call for “mastery” ignore the potential enjoyment of being merged with and/or submissive to the machine. Why should these possibilities be rejected tout court? There can be joy in being utterly consumed by a machine in a way that does not simultaneously require an acceptance of the violence that machines do to people on a daily basis. But more importantly, Williams and Srnicek’s desire for “mastery” ignores the ways in which machines function in fashions unintended by their creators—and we do not have to make an obligatory reference to The Terminator (dir. James Cameron, 1984) to understand this. Instead, we need to understand in minute detail the dynamics of how humans, machines, and capitalism come together in a nexus, to discover the potential fissures that constitute the bases for new potential configurations, rather than attempt a “mastery” that preexists this nexus.

So as a result, I would also have to reject Williams and Srnicek’s call for a “universal accelerationism” where the “cunning automata” of HFT “are liberated from the capitalist dynamic.”[25] Here they suggest that such a liberation would “direct capitalism towards a sequence of terminal secular crises” that would produce a “properly post-capitalist society.”[26] Srnicek and Williams suggest that there is a “contingency of the universal,” but I would argue that it is precisely this contingency, what I call noise, that prevents their universal accelerationism from ever occurring. For as we have seen throughout this essay, noise has more often than not brought these “cyberpositive” systems of HFT into equilibrium. Without this correcting force—a force that is not in a realm divorced from humans but rather is because of the ecology of practices and approaches to algorithmic trading—we would have seen the stock market tank to zero on days like May 6, 2010. But this did not occur, precisely because there is no “universal accelerationism” at work due to the functioning of noise. The market is made up of billions of local decisions being made, decisions that are in all cases affected, at least in part, by human thought and action and by the vicissitudes of the material world. Yet these decisions are not necessarily predictable, again due to noise: everything from the noise of an errant cosmic ray upsetting a bit in the memory of a computer to the incorrect inputting of a sell order. As there is no universal, omniscient standpoint in the market that would allow one to perfectly predict the outcome of these algorithmic potential decisions, we can never control, nor guide, a “universal accelerationism,” and a “Promethean politics” is impossible.[27] Likewise, Plant and Land’s “cyberpositive” can never occur within the systems that exist in our world. Like the dynamics of chaotic systems, small fluctuations can cause a switch into negative feedback, reestablishing stability. The eschatology of Land’s texts indexes a desire; but desire remains wedded to material practices that are not entirely amenable to desire’s own machinations. As I have shown in this essay, noise can be counted on for only one thing: an excess that escapes containment within tactics or strategies of positive or negative determination. Noise needs to be understood within its dynamics of both cyberpositive and cybernegative systems, and thus its progressive micropolitical potentials need to be heard simultaneously with the possibility of near-instantaneous shifts toward regressive registers.

So if noise prevents accelerationism from occurring, what is the point of accelerationism? I agree with Patricia Reed that we should instead conceptualize accelerationism as a reorientation, a need to direct “existing energies in (as yet) inexistent directions”: “It is precisely here, on this kernel of stasis, that the call to accelerate needs to take hold, dislodging stagnant conceptual orientations in favor of the creation of eccentric, out-of-centre attractors, where we may discover trajectories of a vectorial (and not rotational or circulatory) sort.”[28] Accelerationism is a fantasy, but it is a fantasy that has enabled us to begin to speculate about the future again. We thus need to recapture the term speculation from the world of finance, to remove it from the boring domain of continual attempts to accumulate capital:

To speculate is to articulate and enable the contingencies of the given, armed only with the certainty that what is, is always incomplete; to speculate is to play with the demonstration of this innately porous, nontotalisable set of givens. Extricating “speculation” from its current bedfellow of finance entails a fidelity to an incalculable future divorced from the reductive apparatus of the wager, wherein all possibilities are conflated with probabilities.[29]

Such a call resonates with Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s interest in “poetry” as a way to combat the financialization of language.[30] So we can work from Land and Lyotard’s heretical texts not with the goal of implementing and realizing their visions but rather as speculations of their own. We can speculate as well, and speculate how to cope with the world as it is presently arranged. From coping we can move forward, articulating the fissures that allow us, at least locally, to shape the nexus of humans, machines, and capital toward desires that are not subsumed by the market. Speculation, poetry, futurity: rather than acceleration toward a given goal, instead the tactile construction of trajectories that respect the noisiness of materiality and that do not have a teleology.