Key article in The Guardian today. I was one of Sadie Plant’s students from 1992-1995 in the Cultural Studies Department, University of Birmingham.
Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in
The world is changing at dizzying speed – but for some thinkers, not fast enough. Is accelerationism a dangerous idea or does it speak to our troubled times?
by Andy Beckett
By the early 90s Land had distilled his reading, which included Deleuze and Guattari and Lyotard, into a set of ideas and a writing style that, to his students at least, were visionary and thrillingly dangerous. Land wrote in 1992 that capitalism had never been properly unleashed, but instead had always been held back by politics, “the last great sentimental indulgence of mankind”. He dismissed Europe as a sclerotic, increasingly marginal place, “the racial trash-can of Asia”. And he saw civilisation everywhere accelerating towards an apocalypse: “Disorder must increase… Any [human] organisation is … a mere … detour in the inexorable death-flow.”
Land gave strange, theatrical lectures: clambering over chairs as he spoke, or sitting hunched over, rocking back and forth. He also spiced his pronouncements with black humour. He would tell lecture audiences, “I work in the field of The Collapse of Western Civilisation Studies.” A quarter of a century on, some former Warwick philosophy students still talk about him with awe. Robin Mackay says, “I think he’s one of the most important philosophers of the last 50 years.”
But for a would-be guide to the future, Land was in some ways quite old-fashioned. Until the late 90s, he used an ancient green-screen Amstrad computer, and his initial Warwick writings contained far more references to 18th- and 19th-century philosophers – Friedrich Nietzsche was a fixation – than to contemporary thinkers or culture. The Warwick version of accelerationism did not crystallise fully until other radicals arrived in the philosophy department in the mid-90s.
Sadie Plant was one of them: a former Birmingham University lecturer in cultural studies, the study of modern popular culture. Mark Fisher, a former student of hers at Birmingham, was another incomer. He was jumpy and intense, while she was warm and approachable. For a time in the early 90s, she and Land were partners.
Like Land, Plant and Fisher had both read the French accelerationists and were increasingly hostile to the hold they felt traditional leftwing and liberal ideas had on British humanities departments, and on the world beyond. Unlike Land, Plant and Fisher were technophiles: she had an early Apple computer, he was an early mobile phone user. “Computers … pursue accelerating, exponential paths, proliferating, miniaturising, stringing themselves together,” wrote Plant in Zeroes and Ones, a caffeinated 1997 book about the development of computing. Plant and Fisher were also committed fans of the 90s’ increasingly kinetic dance music and action films, which they saw as popular art forms that embodied the possibilities of the new digital era.
With the internet becoming part of everyday life for the first time, and capitalism seemingly triumphant after the collapse of communism in 1989, a belief that the future would be almost entirely shaped by computers and globalisation – the accelerated “movement of the market” that Deleuze and Guattari had called for two decades earlier – spread across British and American academia and politics during the 90s. The Warwick accelerationists were in the vanguard.
Yet there were two different visions of the future. In the US, confident, rainbow-coloured magazines such as Wired promoted what became known as “the Californian ideology”: the optimistic claim that human potential would be unlocked everywhere by digital technology. In Britain, this optimism influenced New Labour. At Warwick, however, the prophecies were darker. “One of our motives,” says Plant, “was precisely to undermine the cheery utopianism of the 90s, much of which seemed very conservative” – an old-fashioned male desire for salvation through gadgets, in her view. “We wanted a more open, convoluted, complicated world, not a shiny new order.”
The Warwick accelerationists were also influenced by their environment. “Britain in the 90s felt cramped, grey, dilapidated,” says Mackay, “We saw capitalism and technology as these intense forces that were trying to take over a decrepit body.” To observe the process, and help hasten it, in 1995 Plant, Fisher, Land, Mackay and two dozen other Warwick students and academics created a radical new institution: the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU). It would become one of the most mythologised groups in recent British intellectual history.