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Mimetic Acceleration and Capitalist Hyperintelligence

On Accelerationism and Mimetic Theory

The text below, which explores the relationship between accelerationism and mimetic theory, is a slightly modified version of my presentation at the 2021 Colloquium on Violence and Religion, hosted by Purdue University. Readers are advised that I provide different amounts of exposition for accelerationism and mimetic theory: because of the orientation of its original intended audience, I presume the reader possesses considerable familiarity with René Girard’s work, but assume no prior knowledge of accelerationism. Readers in need of a primer on Girard may find the resources here useful. Accelerationism and mimetic theory both have reasonably informative Wikipedia entries.

In his 2014 book Malign Velocities, political theorist Benjamin Noys defines accelerationism as “the strategy of accelerating through and beyond capitalism.” This “strategy,” he notes, was first outlined by several French philosophers in the 1970s, in particular Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and Jean-François Lyotard in Libidinal Economy. Confronting the failures of Marxian revolution in the wake of 1968, these thinkers suggested that rather than trying to mitigate the ravages of techno-capitalism, the truly radical choice is a political alignment with the latter’s destabilizing trajectories. Accelerationists thus reject the standard regulatory and compensatory proposals of both the left and right, and repudiate any nostalgia for simpler times, whether that takes the form of a longing for harmony with nature, economic stability, or traditional families or communities. Instead, as Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian state, they “insist that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, or critique, nor to await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies” (4). According to Mackay and Avenessian, co-editors of the 2014 Accelerationist Reader, accelerationism is therefore a “political heresy” (4). 

Despite its rejection of the standard left- and right-wing political nostrums, accelerationism has divided into left and right factions. For the left flank, “[a]ccelerationism seeks to side with the emancipatory dynamic that broke the chains of feudalism and ushered in the constantly ramifying range of practical possibilities characteristic of modernity” (Mackay and Avanessian 4). The authors of the 2013 “Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” align themselves with a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment,” and assert that “technological development is being suppressed by capitalism.” Accordingly, “[a]ccelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society” (Mackay and Avanessian 360-1). Conversely, according to the premier right accelerationist, the philosopher Nick Land, the left-accelerationist project depends on “a wholly artificial distinction between capitalism and modernistic technological acceleration” (“Quick and Dirty Guide”). Against this distinction, Land asserts that “[c]apital . . . is nothing beside the abstract accelerative social factor . . . [A]nything able to consistently feed socio-historical acceleration will necessarily, or by essence, be capital.” It follows that “[a]ccelerationism is simply the self-awareness of capitalism.” Accelerationists of the right and the left both align their political visions with the maximal development of technological capacity. However, they disagree on whether the purpose of this development is the transcendence of the capitalist order or its realization.  

What could accelerationism possibly have to do with René Girard, who had relatively little to say about either technology or capitalism? The first convergence between them is that both rely upon a cybernetic model of human social dynamics: a model, that is, based on the principles of negative and positive feedback. Generally speaking, negative feedback loops comprise the process by which systems spontaneously stabilize themselves, while positive feedback loops are runaway spirals that disrupt that stability. Here is Land again, drawing on Deleuze and Guattari – again, key theoretical progenitors of accelerationism:

For accelerationism the crucial lesson was this: A negative feedback circuit – such as a steam-engine ‘governor’ or a thermostat – functions to keep some state of a system in the same place. Its product, in the language formulated by French philosophical cyberneticists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is territorialization. Negative feedback stabilizes a process, by correcting drift, and thus inhibiting departure beyond a limited range. Dynamics are placed in the service of fixity – a higher-level stasis, or state. All equilibrium models of complex systems and processes are like this. To capture the contrary trend, characterized by self-reinforcing errancy, flight, or escape, D&G coin the inelegant but influential term deterritorialization. Deterritorialization is the only thing accelerationism has ever really talked about. (“Quick and Dirty Guide”) 

For Land and his associates at the short-lived Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) at Warwick University, the main incubator of accelerationist thought in the 1990s, Deleuze and Guattari were the prophets of positive feedback. Their intellectual opposite in this regard was the founder of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, for whom the new field was “a tool for human dominion over nature and history, a defence against the cyberpathology of markets” (Land and Plant 305). But according to Land and his CCRU colleague Sadie Plant, it was clear by the late second millennium that such containment efforts were for naught: “Rotted by digital contagions, modernity is falling to bits. Lenin, Mussolini, and Roosevelt concluded modern humanism by exhausting the possibilities of economic planning. Runaway capitalism has broken through all the social control mechanisms, accessing inconceivable alienations. Capital clones itself with increasing disregard for heredity, becoming abstract positive feedback, organizing itself.” The only real political choice, Land and Plant posit, is between the “Human Security System,” which frantically improvises new, futile defenses against the “cyberpositive” proliferations of late modernity, and the process of deterritorialization induced by these “cyberpositive” cycles.  

This edgy cyberpunk nihilism may still seem as far from Girardian thought as possible, but closer examination reveals continuities. Girard made frequent reference to the problem of positive feedback cycles, which he may have become interested in through the writings of the cyberneticist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whom he cites at various points in his major works. In one text, he describes his mimetic hypothesis as follows: 

If the appropriative gesture of an individual named A is rooted in the imitation of an individual named B, it means that A and B must reach together for one and the same object. They become rivals for that object. If the tendency to imitate appropriation is present on both sides, imitative rivalry must tend to become reciprocal; it must be subject to the back and forth reinforcement that communication theorists call a positive feedback. In other words, the individual who first acts as a model will experience an increase in his own appropriative urge when he finds himself thwarted by his imitator. And reciprocally. Each becomes the imitator of his own imitator and the model of his own model. Each tries to push aside the obstacle that the other places in his path. Violence is generated by this process. (“Mimesis and Violence” 9). 

For Girard, as for Wiener and Bateson, the problem any social system faces is the containment of destabilizing positive feedback cycles. He saw the original “Human Security System,” to use Land and Plant’s term, in the scapegoat mechanism and its later ritual offshoots. Like any other negative feedback circuit, scapegoating stabilizes the system using dynamics internal to it. As Jean-Pierre Dupuy has argued, Girard’s is a theory of “self-transcendence”: of how a system generates a regulatory principle from within. Or to say the same thing in another way, an account of how human beings have created gods (through the murder of the surrogate victim). This model is cybernetic because it locates the sources of both stabilization (negative feedback) and destabilization (positive feedback) in the dynamics generated by the system itself. 

Girard’s overlap with accelerationism does not end there. Like Land and the other theorists of the CCRU, he regards the defining feature of modernity as the rapidly waning efficacy of negative feedback circuits. For him, the “Human Security System” based on scapegoating that has protected human beings from their own violence no longer serves to maintain homeostasis. Land and Plant wrote in 1994: “No wonder the earth is said to be hurtling into catastrophe. Climate change, ecological and immunity collapse, ideological upheaval, war and earthquake: California is waiting for the Big One. This is an age of crack-ups and melt-downs” (305). Girard offered a comparable perspective in his last book, Battling to the End: “Today, violence has been unleashed across the whole world, creating what the apocalyptic texts predicted: confusion between disasters caused by nature and those caused by humans, between the natural and the man-made: global warming and rising waters are no longer metaphors today” (x). Looming apocalypse, in both accounts, is the inevitable result of runaway “cyberpositivity.” 

The accelerationist (or at least right-accelerationist) term for positive feedback is, simply, capital. “Acceleration,” according to Land, “describes the time-structure of capital accumulation. It thus references the ’roundaboutness’ founding Böhm-Bawerk’s model of capitalization, in which saving and technicity are integrated within a single social process – diversion of resources from immediate consumption into the enhancement of productive apparatus” (“Teleoplexy”). Fully unleashed capitalist production, always oriented towards projected future profits, must propel itself forward exponentially: “[i]n any cumulative circuit, stimulated by its own output, and therefore self-propelled, acceleration is normal behavior” (Land, “Teleoplexy”). The left-accelerationist’s only quibble here is to identify modern technological expansion and the concomitant overturning of traditional social hierarchies as trajectories at least theoretically detachable from capital accumulation; left accelerationism views the first two processes of “deterritorialization” as developments held in check by capitalist “reterritorialization.”

For his part, Girard identifies the accelerating positive feedback cycles of modernity in what he calls “mimetic rivalry on a global scale,” and, in Battling to the End, following Carl von Clausewitz, the “escalation to extremes.” The historical origin of this crisis is the Christian revelation of the innocence of scapegoats, which gradually undermines the “human security system” of archaic religion – sacrifice, prohibition, taboo. With these defenses eroded, the positive feedback cycle of mimetic conflict is no longer held in check: desires converge on the same objects, rivalries proliferate, and violence threatens to consume the world. Modern egalitarianism, which enables horizontal competition, expands the arena of conflict: in his first book, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, the result is the Dostoevskian “underground,” while in his last, Battling to the End, it is terrorist violence, nuclear immolation, and ecological catastrophe. Yet despite these premonitions of apocalypse, the final reckoning has been delayed for some time. How? What ad hoc security system has thus far forestalled apocalypse?  

A paradoxical answer is: the same system that accelerationism identifies as the primary agent of the spiraling disorder that is modernity, i.e. capitalism. Although he never developed this argument at length, Girard alluded to this possibility periodically. For example, he remarks at one point that the capitalist free market is “the only economic system that channels the competitive spirit into constructive efforts instead of exacerbating it to the point of physical violence” (“Innovation” 16). While, as he argued from his first book onwards, the modern arena of unrestrained horizontal mimetic competition produces the typical pathologies of the “underground,” the channeling of these dynamics into market competition may also, like the archaic sacrificial order that preceded it, contain violence in both senses of the word. This, roughly, is the argument of Paul Dumouchel and Jean-Pierre Dupuy in L’enfer des choses. It suggests that the modern techno-capitalist (dis)order harnesses the unleashed positive feedback loops of mimetic conflict into a secondary, highly volatile human security system. 

This returns us to the question that divides right and left accelerationism: is capitalism, in the final analysis, stabilizing or destabilizing? For right accelerationists, the modern techno-capitalist trajectory is the final, apocalyptic frontier: as Land puts it, “[t]he ‘dominion of capital’ is an accomplished teleological catastrophe” (“Teleoplexy” 513). Conversely, for left accelerationists like Land’s former student Mark Fisher, “capitalism operates via simultaneous processes of deterritorialization and compensatory reterritorialization . . . The abstract processes of decoding that capitalism sets off must be contained by improvised archaisms” (345). In other words, capitalism unleashes cyberpositivity only to recontain it, and in this way, it defers the apocalyptic resolution it seems to portend. Paul Dumouchel echoes the left accelerationist position when he writes: “Scarcity is what we live in, which is neither the sacred nor the Kingdom of God” (106). Scarcity – that is, the rule of the market – is more of a periodically destabilized holding pattern than a final liftoff to the end times.  

A blind spot of accelerationism, from a Girardian perspective, is that as Dumouchel notes, “the radical novelty of modern market economies . . . is related to the unique breakdown of the sacrificial system caused by Christian Revelation” (106). It follows from this that the capacities of techno-capitalism are birthed alongside and in relation to the concern for victims that propels the dismantling of the sacrificial security system. For Nick Land, capital is “revolution stripped of all christian-socialist eschatology” (Fanged Noumena 442). Like Nietzsche, he envisions the overcoming of Christian victimology, not by the übermensch, but by the “monstrous reign of the tool” (“Teleoplexy” 513) which he frequently identifies with the ascendancy of SkyNet in the Terminator movies. In Fisher’s words, Land’s vision is of “Capital as megadeath-drive as Terminator: that which ‘can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, doesn’t show pity or remorse or fear and absolutely will not stop, ever’” (“Terminator” 344). The Girardian apocalypse, on the other hand, is paradoxical: for Girard, the Antichrist is “a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.” Yet despite Girard’s use of the term “machine” here, a blind spot of mimetic theory is that it risks underestimating the Landian “reign of the tool”: the techno-economic obsolescing of human agency through abstract systems that, by harnessing of the unleashed positive feedback loops of mimetic conflict, generate a transcendence comparable to but distinct from that generated by archaic sacrifice. According to Land, “[a] singularity, of any kind, is the limit of a process dominated by positive feedback, and thus driven to an extreme” (“Left Singularity”).  

Rather than imagining the singularity as a future realization of self-awareness by artificial intelligence, then, accelerationists like Land conceptualize techno-capitalism itself as an alien hyperintelligence that has obsolesced individual human agency and thinks without us. For Land, techno-capitalism is itself transcendent in its radical inhumanity: it “has no external limit, it has consumed life and biological intelligence to create a new life and a new plane of intelligence, vast beyond human anticipation” (Fanged Noumena 626). However, a Girardian modification of this account would suggest that its limit is the modern ideology of victimhood on which its reign is paradoxically grounded. We must imagine, in other words, a volatile symbiosis of the the inhuman transcendence of Landian “technonomic” systems with the “Christian ideas gone berserk” that make up contemporary victimology – a phenomenon that seems improbable on the surface, but characterizes much of what has lately occurred in the virtual social realms we increasingly inhabit. All indications suggest the reign of this monstrous hybrid god, which, as Dumouchel writes, “is neither the sacred nor the Kingdom of God,” may last some time yet.  

Works Cited

Dumouchel, Paul. “Indifference and Envy: Girard and the Anthropological Analysis of Modern Economy.” The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014. 

Girard, René. Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre. Trans. Mary Baker. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010. 

—. “Mimesis and Violence: Perspectives in Cultural Criticism.” The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad, 1996. 

Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Eds. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2012.  

—. “Left Singularity.” Old Nick: A Collection of Lost Nick Land Wisdom. January 7, 2013.

—. “A Quick and Dirty Guide to Accelerationism.” Jacobite. May 25, 2017.

—. “Teleoplexy: Notes on Acceleration.” Mackay and Avanessian 509-520. 

Land, Nick, and Sadie Plant. “Cyberpositive.” Mackay and Avanessian 303-313. 

Mackay, Robin and Armen Avenessian, eds. #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2014.  

Noys, Benjamin. Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 2014.