Sun Graphic / Olivia Weinberg

March 2, 2020

YANG | A Marxist Lens on the Digital Age – Part 1

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Let’s talk about Marxism. As someone who was born and raised abroad, when I first moved to the States, I was bewildered by Americans’ general disdain of the mere mention of Marxism. Is it the enduring legacy of the Red Scare that turns people off when they hear the word? Many seem to equate the term with communism and immediately neglect it, yet such total disregard for the ideology is often a blindspot in the American understanding of material culture. Marxist philosophy as a way of thinking informs humanity’s development.

In the past century, the Frankfurt school and Critical Theory facilitated radical changes in our socio-technological system. Through critiques on power imbalances — particularly in regards to gender, race and class — it is Marxist philosophy that sheds light on our contemporary problems

With the recent neoliberal shift in our capitalist society, Marxism has become more relevant than ever. This article merely focuses on a fringe philosophy of Marxism — Accelerationism.

Accelerationism surfaced as an intellectual movement rooted in a Marxist notion that the intensification of an unhinged force like capitalism will inevitably result in that force’s self-destruction. As articulated by Andy Beckett in The Guardian, accelerationists argue that technology and capitalism should be radically sped up and intensified – “either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative.”

Over the past five decades, with the advent of new technologies, much of the world has gotten increasingly faster. Working patterns, political cycles, production flows, financial circulations, information transmissions – all of these have accelerated in an iterative fashion. The 2008 financial crisis stands as the most recent testimony that capitalism is bound to suffer from periodic crisis as an unsustainable mode of production.

So, why am I talking about Marxist philosophy in my arts column? At the University of Warwick in the 1990s, a young philosophy professor named Nick Land argued that the triumph of capitalism and the rise of technoculture were inextricably intertwined. Land argued that with the material advancement in technologies, our selves are being dissolved by the increasing speed and pace of modern life — the individual is becoming less relevant than the techno-capitalist system it finds itself in.

Land was one of the founding members of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick that brought accelerationism to modern revival. In 1996, the CCRU published a list of interests that included currencies, dance music, feminism, markets, networks, simulation and virtuality. In retrospect, CCRU seems to have predicted envision all the problems we are seeing today in our technoculture.

Such emergence of a school of thought coincided with the rise of Silicon Valley. For the entrepreneur class, technological progress was perceived as a catalyst of social transformation, and such notion of techno-utopianism was most notably promulgated by Wired magazine. To this date, the neoliberal ideologies of Silicon Valley remain shocking and provocative in capitalist America.

Accelerationism further speaks to the greater pursuit of the transcendence from materiality. Yet, as our digital world is still grounded in the physical and analog in the form of global infrastructures, it is still fundamentally unequal and imbalanced — as reasoned by Marx’s materialist conception of history. We can’t yet escape the material constraints in late capitalism. Fast forward to the dot-com bubble in the late ’90s, and we can see the recurring theme of periodic crisis. This is when the post-apocalyptic connotation of digital dystopia rose to prominence in the culture’s consciousness.

Such cultural trends are exemplified in the popular art form of electronic dance music that embodied the new possibilities of social changes in the digital era. Electronic dance music, particularly techno, can be conceived of as a manifestation of dance floor socialism, where people dance to the same beat across social boundaries with ecstasy permeating a sense of togetherness and unity. As the youth continued to throw discreet parties in abandoned warehouses, it stands as a grassroots movement of civilians reclaiming the occupied space. The acquisition of space remains central to the mechanism of capitalism as a form of the commodification of materials, thus making it analogous to the practice of colonialism.

In a digital dystopia, with most space under the ubiquitous surveillance by the state and corporate power, individuals are rendered powerless and alienated from the means of production. Electronic dance music remains a prominent element of underground subcultures in cities that provoke the post-apocalyptic connotation of cyberpunk  –– most notably Berlin and Tokyo. (The mention of Tokyo here also sheds light on the intertwined relationship between the alt right and Asian fetish in the subsequent development of Accelerationism as prompted by Nick Land. I know it sounds interesting, so I will explain it next time!)

Digital dystopian narratives are no longer a fictional niche genre, but an overarching reflection of our reality. By no means am I attempting to propose that Marxism is the solution to our capitalist society engineered and devastated by power imbalance, yet I contend this is a crucial time to rethink how the imagined extremes are closer to reality than ever in a cultural sense. As I can only take up one page of the Arts section at a time, I will save the contemporary development of accelerationism from the chopping block of metrics-driven digital journalism. Stay tuned for how Accelerationism is related to alt right and Asian fetish.

 

 

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.