Epistemic Panic and the Problem of Life
In this transcript of a presentation given at the Accelerationism symposium in Berlin December 2013, Josephine Berry Slater questions whether, in the era of biopolitics, forms of epistemic ‘accelerationism’ can be divorced from the management of life from which they flee
In his essay entitled ‘The Storyteller’ Walter Benjamin confronts us with the image of a WW1 soldier, standing in a valley transformed by technological destruction, unable to share his experience – to speak. ‘Was it not noticeable’, he writes,
at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.1
This stark image reveals something fundamental to the modern condition – the sense in which, the more the world is transformed by the forces and effects of technological development, the more the human is exposed as a frail animal. The harder we try to protect ourselves from the threat of nature, the more deeply we rediscover this fundamental inseparability. Part of the way we experience this is through our slow individual and special pace of change in relation to the self-reinforcing speed of technological-becoming. The erratic pace of our developmental growth, our ageing and degeneration, our bursts of energy and exhaustion only serve to remind us of the profound difference between our bodily selves and the accelerating machines and systems we build to serve, replace or annihilate them. According to Benjamin, there is something in this asymmetry that renders us mute. Why is this, and what has the intensification of automation and computation got to do with communicable experience and knowledge?
This image of the fragile and naked human-animal, now hopelessly out-performed, manipulated and threatened by its own technological systems, presents itself as the risk and stakes of epistemic acceleration as a strategy of resistance to capitalism’s lethal acceleration. It begs the question of whether accelerationism demands that we somehow leave behind the frailty of the organism, with its limited scope of experience and self-interestedness, in order ultimately to defend it and its environment at the brink of man-made planetary extinction? In other words, whether we must work against the inherent proclivities of the living in order to protect ‘Life itself’? Or, taking this one anti-humanist step further, even to free thought itself from the limitations of the life-form, with its inherent conservatism, in the interest of knowledge itself! Or whether we must liberate reason from its capitalist control in order that particularity, which includes the contingent experiences of actual lives, may reemerge as a basis for understanding and action? What has knowledge based in embodied experience got to do with all this?
It seems necessary to say straight away that Benjamin was not charging modernity with degeneracy in his lament over the lost art of storytelling:
The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This however is a process that has been going on for a long time. And nothing would be more fatuous than to want to see in it merely a ‘symptom of decay’[…]. It is, rather, only a concomitant symptom of the secular productive forces of history, a concomitant that has quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time is making it possible to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.2
Likewise, to speak of the frail body is not to revere it as that to which all reflection must be answerable, nor as the unvarying ledger of perception. It is to draw attention to the question of what the historical intensification of the forces of production makes of our lives, in order to factor this into ideas of accelerating forms of knowledge, or epistemologies, so that we can think what kind of knowing we might trigger in this way, or wish to trigger.
Knowledge produces power and power produces knowledge, and with the empowerment of something often comes the disempowerment of something else. An acceleration of knowledge then, we can conjecture, might easily further diminish the kinds of experiential knowing that are stowed in the consciousness and everyday activities of the body – its working and resting attitudes, its varying states of attention and inattention, acute and indefinite perception, memories and associations, periods of rest or excitation, boredom or attraction, and so on. A will to knowledge therefore that proposes what Foucault calls a ‘limit attitude’, which for him is inextricable from notions of enlightenment and the critique it advances, is always one that questions what we are, and how we come to be so. This is because the enlightenment is driven by the will to know the limits of knowledge (‘what can we know?’) – something that Foucault translates positively into the work of deducing the ‘arbitrary constraints’ within what is given to us as ‘universal, necessary, obligatory’.3 And despite the human form, or the ‘man form’ as Nietzsche called it, being one of the key prisms through which such universal categories are transmitted, it was one of Foucault’s great achievements to exhaustively trace the construction of the body and its life as the theatre of certain types of experience, and the relationship this had to what we call ‘bodies of knowledge’.
It seems crucial to note here that this construction of the body as the site of experience and hence of knowledge, in the estimation of both Foucault and his fellow traveller Deleuze, is afflicted by a long lost harmony between life and thought, one whose ideal form is expressed thus by Deleuze in his 1965 essay entitled Nietzsche:
Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought and thought in turn affirms life. We now have only instances where thought bridles or mutilates life, making it sensible, and where life takes revenge and drives thought mad.4
Benjamin had registered this growing antagonism between life and thought through the disappearance of stories and narratives that are embedded in the contingency of lived experience. An oral tradition that is replaced by the mute subject of the age of the novel, technological intensification and circulating information. Decades before Marshall McLuhan, Benjamin drew attention to the effects of the printing press in relation to experience. The novel, unlike the epic forms such as the legend, fairytale or even novella, doesn’t arise out of oral tradition, and doesn’t return to it. ‘The storyteller’, Benjamin writes,
takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself uncounselled and cannot counsel others.5
This is McLhuhan’s theory of hot and cold media avant la lettre, only with a far more acute evaluation of its social consequences.
The embodied experience of the two key types of storyteller – the traveller or trading seafarer on the one hand, and the resident tiller of the soil on the other – are produced, to a great extent, by the types of production they are involved in. The ‘university of storytelling’ occurs for Benjamin, when these two types are brought together by the figure of the Medieval artisan. The journeyman would share a workspace with the master craftsman, who had in turn been a journeyman, and thereby combine the stories of far away with those that are rooted in a place. The tales that were told, therefore, bore the mark of the tellers’ lives, like the imprint of the potter’s fingers on a pot – says Benjamin. They were imprinted by everything that sustained or threatened or mobilised their frail bodies – not least their exposure to death. In this sense – and contra anti-humanists – the certainty of death has always been at the heart of knowledge systems. The thought of extinction is only an amplification of this core condition. The wisdom and usefulness that all good tales contain relates, principally, to how to live well, and how to defer death or heroically accept its inevitability. The relationship between knowledge and death, which Benjamin sees as the crux of the tale, thus also involves the principle of a mastery of nature and circumstance. The storyteller’s life is not merely a passive vessel bearing witness to its passage through the vicissitudes of the world, but living proof of creativity and ingenuity, success or defeat in the face of adverstiy. Experiential knowing is, then, crucially not a way of reducing the scope of knowledge to simply what is, but also a way of reinforcing the powers with which to elude determination. The relationship between the life of the teller, or that of the hero of the story, and the world about him is also therefore suffused by a particularising significance. For it may have been the opportunity provided by this branch or that stone, this garment or that caution, that conveyed the storyteller to safety, and ensured that he or she could be there to tell the tale. This fully correlated and animistic relationship to the world and its particularities created a type of knowing, or perhaps even knowledge, that is evaporating; an evaporation that accelerationism seeks to hasten in its pursuit of a global horizon.
The informational mode of communication, which was already replacing both storytelling and the novel in Benjamin’s time, is of course a product of its historical moment and means of production. This type of communication is not so much intelligible as ‘verifiable and plausible in itself’, says Benjamin. Unlike the resonant problems, riddles, or paradoxes of stories, information is ‘always shot through with explanation’. Although Benjamin doesn’t spell out the ways in which technological intensification, or acceleration if you like, is rendering us mute, it is clear that he sees in the demise of the oral tradition, and the rise of the circulation of mediated information, the qualities of the mechanical reproducibility that is its precondition. This is connected to his more optimistic theory of technolgisation’s destruction of aura, and with it the rise of potentially democratising cultural ubiquity. And, as is consistent with its binary body, informational content is created from discrete units, not self-coherent stories – in this way the story’s haecceity is lost. Indeed news stories – the paradigmatic form of the story’s informationalisation – are comprised of recomposable and self-contained information units that, when brought together, usually seem to lack something. The real reason for the prison riot is lost in a welter of detail about how many emergency staff were at the scene, how many helicopters deployed, until what time the prison was under lock-down, how much the clean up operation cost etc. We are left clueless as to what the riot blew up out of, how it actually started, what it changed, who were its winners and losers, what its consequences were. The need for verifiability and plausibility reduces witnesses – those who have lived the event – to mere guarantors of a fact’s value, rather than subjects of an experience. In this sense informational communication explodes the subject of experience as the bearer of wisdom into a multiplicity of partial witnesses, none of whom can be trusted to give a coherent account of any event. The news story operates a complete reversal of the status of the storyteller, who is demoted from the position of knower to the unreliable object of doubt. In this sense muteness is more than a subjective response to informational communication and accelerating technological reproducibility; it is a condition imposed by the very form of information, its empiricist concomitant, and its basis in absence not presence, as well as its production of judgement not understanding.
The shattering of the storyteller into multiple guarantors of facticity is linked to modern democracy’s conversion of the popular body into the basis of sovereignty. The single, divine body of the sovereign is banished and replaced by a collectivity of bodies, represented and unified in the form of a contingent and proxy sovereign. But, as Giorgio Agamben reminds us, it is this very shift to a popular sovereignty based in the multiple lives of the citizens that poses the central aporia of modern democracy: the attempt to vindicate and liberate zoe (or bare life), and ‘to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoe […] it wants to put freedom and happiness into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjection.’6 In other words, the bodily life that is the site of suffering, of penance, of control and reproductive labour, that connects us to all living things, is no longer the anathema of politics – that unfettered space in which decisions over what constitutes the good life are made – but becomes both its source of legitimacy and its target of intervention. Finding the bios of zoe, then, is the process by which life is politicised, and taken as a composite material for the production of certain collective, economic, public and national effects and values. Informational verifiability, like the politicisation of life in modern democracy, relies on a shattering and recombination of wholes, whole lives, and the use of life as a guarantor of a meaning or a truth that is decided elsewhere, by a process far vaster than the lives it feeds upon.
This process of disaggregation and recombination is continuous with industrial capitalism and its separation of the labourer from his or her own labour power, as well as the overall process in which their labour is captured, along with the products of this labour. But social production also has the miraculous effect of releasing the producer from their embeddedness in the particularity of a single place, with its climate, access to certain raw materials, energy reserves, and local methods and recipes, or the limited powers of a single body. It brings forth an abundance and variety of products hitherto unimagined. In this sense, capitalism is the answer to the fairytale dream of the goose that lays the golden egg, or the porridge pot that gives forth endlessly. Industrialisation’s power to aggregate the capacities and minimise the exposure of frail bodies to the risks of local conditions, had the rapid effect of extending life-spans. And this, of course, is the great power that Karl Marx found in industrial capitalism, which remains to be rescued from its profoundly exploitative relations. In this sense, and with many exceptions, to disembed bodies from the productive conditions that give rise to storytelling, is also to defer and lessen the risk of death.
However, death, writes Benjamin, is also the moment at which someone’s entire life is rendered transmissible, and becomes a tale. At the point of death, says Benjamin, ‘the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is the very source of the story.’7 Deleuze says something similar when, writing about Nietzsche’s madness, he imagines the restoration of the lost unity between life and thought, ‘a unity that turns an anecdote of life into an aphorism of thought, an evaluation of thought into a new perspective of life.’8 Today, however, Benjamin observes, ‘people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs.’9 The management of life in the era of biopolitics, in which zoe is conscripted as the basis of bios, entails the expunging of frailty and death from view so that the transformation of suffering into liberation, disease into health and so on, may be perfected.
This vindication of zoe, the creation of happiness on the very site of bodily suffering, fuels the dream of modernity, and perhaps certain inflections of accelerationism. For it is connected, it seems to me, to the project of ridding thought of its fallible basis in phenomenal experience. The abstract systems and technical extensions, that allow us to overcome the fallibility of embodied consciousness, are often the same techniques that allow us to reform the body through mass production, techniques of seeing, medicine, population management, data production, or hide it behind a blizzard of hyperreal images of cosmetic bodies. For this reason, it’s no surprise that extinction would also become the necessary condition of reason’s extension, because it is the cleanest way to separate knowledge from experiential knowing that brings with it the risk of animism, spiritualism, idealism and stupidity, all connected to the proximity and fear of death. With the mercifully hygienic promise of mass extinction, the fear, shame and dignity of death also disappear from view, but with them the transmissibility and intelligibility of experience – the unity by which an anecdote of life could become an aphorism of thought. With this loss comes the inability to relate the particular to the general, because both have lost all standard and scale of relation.This idea relates to Jameson’s notion of our growing inability to cognitively map (something which accelerationist Nick Srnicek has recently discussed) but doesn’t share their desire to reinstate local phenomenological experience’s affordance of a global overview, whether for socialist or other ends. In other words, the relation of aphorism and anecdote to which I think Benjamin and Deleuze refer, has more to do with speciality than mastery – the point at which this life becomes ‘A Life’. It has everything to do with our power to relate to each other. Our inability to inscribe experience into the knowledge systems that disavow it, often on the grounds of objectivity, feeds what I would like to describe as an epistemic panic whose roots are deep and multiple. Conversely, the desire to overcome the mortal limit to knowledge, the life on which it once pivoted, can’t in this sense be divorced from the management of the life from which it flees. This managed life is positioned ever further from thought, because in many respects it has been crossed out as its valid basis. The unity was lost, as Deleuze says, at least as far back as Socrates.
Such an expulsion of the living from the accelerated project of reason, connected to the expunging of the sick or suffering body from general view through its scientific management within capitalist modernity, finds its parallel in the apparent expulsion of labour power from high organic composition production. High organic composition is Marx’s term for production settings where there is a high ratio of constant capital (capital invested in plant, equipment and materials) to variable capital (capital invested in labour-costs). One of the effects of high-tech capitalism is an apparent replacement of direct labour with machinery – a planetary expulsion of labour whose physical limitations now invalidates it from participation in the apparently perfect speed of contemporary technology. Indeed, so far developed was this speed-up of machines already in Marx’s own lifetime that he was forced to consider the ‘exaggerated’ possibility of a capitalist employing no labourers and still generating an average profit rate on his machinery and other elements of constant capital alone. This is what, in his essay ‘Why Machines Cannot Create Value’, George Caffentzis calls the ‘zerowork paradox’.10 Without getting too entangled in the precise demonstration of its impossibility, it will suffice here to say that Marx showed that this seeming possibility of escaping the Law of Value is really just a distortion created by the difference between price and value. Commodities are not exchanged at their value, and the ‘profits of capitalists in different spheres of production are not identical to the surplus value created there’. Caffentzis explains that ‘commodities produced in spheres of high-organic composition production generally exchange above their value, while commodities produced in spheres of low organic composition generally exchange below their value’. Thus, profits are not derived solely from the labour employed in their own individual sphere. However, the law of value can still be said to hold because the sum of prices achieved and the sum of values produced at any one time are equal. ‘Indeed’, writes Caffentzis, paraphrasing Marx, ‘the very existence of spheres of production with such high (tending toward infinite) organic compositions necessitate the existence of a much greater mass of labour-power exploited in spheres of production with extremely low organic composition. Otherwise the rate of profit would fall dramatically.’
The example of near workerless production within certain sectors has a profoundly disciplinary effect on the entire labour force. We are all threatened by the prospect of our imminent obsolescence. This obsolescence is, as Marx and Caffentzis both demonstrate, an illusion that masks the need for high organic composition production to expand the total amount of value-producing labour in order to suck it up across the whole production landscape. This seems analogous to the de-anthropomorphising tendency in contemporary thought, happening as an effect of information networks and at the frontiers of philosophy. The muting of life arises out of the wish to defend it, on the one hand, from disease and death, and exclude it on the other from an epistemological development that would rather judge it than include it. As Deleuze writes in his essay on Nietzsche, in relation to western epistemology’s killing off of God,
The only change is this: instead of being burdened from the outside, man takes the weights and places them on his own back. […] values can change, man can put himself in the place of God, progress, happiness; utility can replace truth, the good, or the divine – what is essential hasn’t changed: the perspectives or the evaluations on which these values, whether old or new, depend. We are always asked to submit ourselves, to burden ourselves, to recognize only the reactive forms of life, the accusatory form of thought.11
It is this accusatory form of thought, towards the fallibility of its own basis in life, which fails to acknowledge its desire to guide and burden that life nonetheless. Just as the capitalist utopia of workerless production fails to acknowledge its creation and dependency upon high-intensity forms of labour in other spheres of production, epistemic accelerationism is in danger of denying the life that it seeks to judge, overcome or rectify. Epistemic panic refers at its deepest level to the sensation of the broken relation between embodied life and thought – one that renders us mute, whilst our lives are given over as the guarantors of certain units of value, sense and truth, or as the organs of certain desired and valorisable behaviours, effects and affects. To accelerate in a way that could avoid this burdening of life with ‘higher values’, of charging it with its inevitable death in an accusatory sense, would not need to deny non-existence as thought’s prior and final condition. Instead it could look to find a relation of intersubjectivity, between life and death, which allows movement between these two states, creating a perspective that takes both into account. Deleuze, again in his essay on Nietzsche, expresses something related when talking about the function of illness in Nietzsche’s thought. Illness constitutes, ‘a secret intersubjectivity at the heart of a single individual. Illness as an evaluation of health, health as an evaluation of illness: such is the “reversal”, the “shift in perspective” that Nietzsche saw as the crux of his method and his calling for a transmutation of values.’12 In the same way an emancipated society would be capable of evaluating the interrelationship of the machine and human activity, in such a way that ‘labour’, not ‘human beings’ would become the obsolete category. Such an affirmative relationship to life, not reduced to a set of quantitatively captured capacities or objectivities, but understood as the source-spring of action connected to an immediate knowledge of the world, would better resist our technological reduction, and open up to a use of technology as yet undeveloped and still outside of current experience. The panic brought about by the inclusive exclusion of life from an accelerated capitalist epistemology, despite its debilitating effects, serves to remind us of this excluded part, and challenges us to reconstitute human experience through the reciprocal transmutation of embodied experience and the disembodied capacities of automated reason.
This text was developed from a presentation given at Accelerationism: A symposium on tendencies in capitalism, Berlin, 14 December 2013, www.xlrt.org
Josephine Berry Slater <josie AT metamute.org> is editor of Mute
1 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, Illuminations, London: Fontana Press, 1992, p.84.
2 Ibid., p.86.
3 Michel Foucault, 'What is Enlightenment?', Ethics: Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 1, Paul Rabinow (ed.), p.315.
4 Gilles Deleuze, Pure Immanence, New York: Zone Books, 2001, p.66.
5 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, op.cit., p.87.
6 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, pp.9-10.
7 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, op.cit., p.93.
8 Gilles Deleuze, op.cit., Pure Immanence, op.cit., p.67.
9 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, op.cit., p.93.
10 George Caffentzis, ‘Why Machines Cannot Create Value: Marx’s Theory of Machines’, Jim Davis, Thomas Hirschl & Michael Stack (Eds.), Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism and Social Revolution, London: Verso, 1997.
11 Gilles Deleuze, op.cit., Pure Immanence, op.cit., p.71.
12 Ibid., p.58.