Accelerationism vs. Academism (at Centre Pompidou)

This is the English version of Tobias Haberkorn’s text Akzelerationismus vs. Akademismus, which was originally published at Merkur-Blog last Tuesday.

Last Monday at the Centre Pompidou, Alex Williams’ and Nick Srnicek’s Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics was for the first time presented to a French audience. A year ago, Armen Avanessian had gathered more than five hundred people at an Alexanderplatz location for the book launch of the Manifesto’s German edition. Translations into eighteen different languages followed. Then Paris began to stir. Yves Citton, professor of literature in Geneva, has translated and published the text in Multitudes, a journal of such impeccable leftist pedigree that I hold it to be one of the best but have never gotten around to actually reading it. In Paris too, accelerationism draws crowds. Of the two hundred or so people that showed up, more than fifty were turned away at the door of a conference room that turned out to be far too small.

How would France’s leftist establishment receive a political program drafted by two London-based PhD students in International Relations that has been supplying the international theory-industry with buzzwords for well over a year? No need for suspense: as an irritation, worse, as a threat. A few kind words were said, to be sure, but they served as a minimal display of courtesy in what otherwise looked like an allergic reaction. Williams and Srnicek, who hadn’t been able to come to Paris for visa-related reasons (Srnicek is Australian), were subjected via Skype to two scathing attacks on their project.

Before things unravelled, the artist and theoretician Fabien Giraud welcomed the audience with the demonstration of a reception mode that could be termed as conceptual anarchy. His performance lecture was based on the principle of cumulative re-definition: „Accelerationism is… accelerationism is… accelerationism is…“ In the end, Giraud spoke about trepanation and abandoning fear while showing images of skulls into which holes had been drilled („trepanned“) and an Earth scarred by a bomb crater the size of Australia. Aside from that, a long passage on the Dyson sphere which according to an astronomical model of the 1960s was destined to enable energy production on a planetary, stellar, and eventually galactic scale. As a literary piece, Giraud’s Retro-Science-Fiction was quite a success. Only once did he bungle the intended rhetorical effect, precisely by anticipating it. He raised his eyes looking up from the manuscript and asked „C’est clair?“ but couldn’t refrain from grinning before the audience had a chance to laugh.

But then the fun came to an end. Things became political (and soon too heavy-going for some – bit by bit, a third of the audience left). Yves Citton, in order to provide a sound textual basis for the debate that was to follow, read from his translation of the Manifesto for about fifteen minutes. After Srnicek and Williams had introduced themselves with some preliminary remarks, the panel proceeded to the core of the event, the „discussion“ of the Manifesto. It certainly wasn’t a dialogue (which would have had to contend with Skype delays and on-the-fly translations anyway), but rather a public reading of two commentaries.

The first speaker was Sophie Wahnich, a historian at the CNRS and a specialist of the French Revolution. For what seemed like a good half hour, she went after the two Londoners relentlessly. One could perfectly observe the effect a rhetorical assault produces on the bodies of those involved. Wahnich’s posture straightened as she grew in agitation, her grip on the microphone tightened, her voice became louder and her body language more prone to gesturing as her punchlines were met with laughter from the audience. Meanwhile we saw Williams and Srnicek on the screen, in close up and with their microphone turned off. Both started to take notes feverishly, but soon slowed down. Williams scuffled his hair back and forth, sank into his couch, and drank two full bottles of water. Srnicek remained cool. The only feature of his face that showed movement were his eyebrows arching sharply in the middle. With each passing minute, his poker-face grew more perfect. „How will they reply to this?“, I kept wondering.

It had become clear that Wahnich didn’t intend to discuss the Manifesto, but to discredit it by all means of academic degradation (historicisation, moralising, philology, word fetishism, quoting out of context, conceptual disavowal – she continuously called the authors „futurists“, for example). When, as a result, the mood of the audience (and even the host Citton) shifted from tense bewilderment to palpable discomfort, Wahnich tried to ease the situation with a joke; she said she was performing the two authors’ „trial“. What was meant to be a self-deprecating or playful remark ended up making her speech even more authoritarian since it did little more than echo a sentiment already widespread in the room.

As Viviana Lipuma, my politically well-versed companion (and fellow PhD-student working on cognitive capitalism with Anne Sauvagnargues) tried to explain to me later on, Wahnich’s reading implicitly associated the accelerationists with the leftist autonomists who seek radical empowerment through vertical structures. According to Viviana, the Italian Autonomia movement as of now wields a para-military, almost state-like level of power in communes like Palermo, Turino and Bologna, and is being opposed, on the left, by libertarian, „horizontalist“ anarchists. The Manifesto (at §3.13) actually states that „secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one).“ On the one hand Wahnich accused Williams and Srnicek of a lack of concreteness, and on the other she demonized their cautious call for a little more verticality as potential techno-stalinism.

The situation verged on the grotesque when the second speaker, Yann Moulier-Boutang, co-editor at Multitudes and one of several people who coined the term „cognitive capitalism“ sardonically saluted the two „Englishmen“ for having finally smuggled a bit of Nietzsche (!) onto the British Isles (“outre-Manche”). His talk was rhetorically convoluted and filled with inside jibes at rivals in his own leftist camp. Antonio Negri, who had previously expressed appreciation for accelerationism, received his pound of barbs, as did, albeit indirectly, the host of the evening’s event. (Yves Citton, who, incidentally, is Swiss, saved the evening from a full-blown communication breakdown thanks to his good English and a certain international sensibility).

Once Moulier-Boutang had finished his laborious takedown, which seemed intended as a mockery (Wahnich looked tired by then), Srnicek and Williams were finally given the floor. Their response was not academic and defensive, but political and strategic. After all, their position was not (as their tenured opponents seemed to imply) one of students trying to „defend“ a term paper; they are, lest we forget, the authors of an internationally discussed program that advocates, among other things, the development of more efficient forms of communication, discussion, and organisation on the Left. The two precariously employed academics gave thanks for criticism and suggestions, ignored the preceding distortions, and set out to repeat point by point the core of their Manifesto without the faintest whiff of polemic in their words or gestures.

Why shouldn’t we describe, as they do, climate change as an imminent, global apocalypse that „ridicules the norms and organisational structures“ we currently work with? ($1.1 of the Manifesto) Why not rely on technological acceleration and automation in order to navigate societies and ecosystems in a more sustainable manner? Why not try to recover by all available and obtainable means collective agency directed towards more social rationality and a shapeable future? Shouldn’t we try all this within the realm of political organisation instead of abandoning the collectivization of humanity to corporate actors like Google?

Wahnich and Moulier-Boutang simply weren’t interested in answering these questions. The CNRS historian went to great lengths in enumerating failed leftist movements of the past and several struggles unfolding in the present but failed to explain how these experiences refute the actual claims of the Manifesto. What little criticism drew on the text was rather petty (as when she scolded the authors for not specifying when the „nation state“ began) or based on principles such as „you must not demand any policies by conjuring up fear or catastrophe“. Her colleague’s only factual criticism came down to fact that Williams’ and Srnicek’s evoke the necessity of „creating a new ideology“ capable of supplanting the reigning one which they identify as neoliberalism (§3.15 of the Manifesto). Moulier-Boutang was unconditional in that „we shall never ever have an ideology again“. (A few concise questions about strategical issues such as tax structures, basic income or the use and abuse of affects within political communication only arose after two full hours of discussion, when the microphone at last wandered through the auditorium.)

Accelerationism, that much is sure, has no bone to pick with localist, anarchist or horizontal activisms insofar as they manage to delay or inhibit the destruction of social or ecological local systems. (The most spectacular resistance in France is now deployed against the airport Notre-Dame-des-Landes in Nantes and against a dam at Sivens, where the young protestor Rémi Fraisse was recently killed by a police grenade). Accelerationism’s question is merely ‚How could you scale up?‘. What is needed for planetary activism? Two smart, polite, matter-of-fact PhD students from London (post-docs as of now) have contributed more to answering this question than an entire corps of well-established leftist academics, which for the duration of the evening was represented by Sophie Wahnich and Yann Moulier-Boutang in the mode of stubborn professorial certainty. (Yves Citton, this must be said to his credit as well as to the credit of the academe, has added a subtle and nuanced introduction to his translation of the Manifesto.)

Why reject a Manifesto that tries to resurrect a moribund internationalist Left? The two French critics deliberately ignored the pluralistic and complementary character of the new leftist infrastructure for which Srnicek and Williams are calling. Their motives remain inscrutable to me. Or perhaps they don’t. Maybe Wahnich and Moulier-Boutang were driven by the all-mighty power of habit. At the expense of dialogue and exchange, let alone the development of new forms of political thought, it might well be that they have mistaken the presentation of the Manifesto for a stage on which to unleash yet another instalment of the compulsive, self-legitimizing critical academicism that has consigned most of our humanities departments to complete irrelevance. That night, accelerationism looked like a promising alternative.

Translated from the German by Louis Morelle