Accelerationism, Desire and Madness

Last night at the Glasgow School of Art Mark Fisher took the stage to discuss accelerationism. I have to say that up until last night I had given only a passing interest to accelerationism, seeing it as not linked to my reading in antipsychiatry. But for all that its necessary to focus our readings it is myopic to act as if something like accelerationism can be passed by, as if it registered no effect on the left at all. The relevance of accelerationism first of all comes from its success in circulating around left tendencies, in appearing in different contexts, and in stirring us on the left, on both sides of an increasingly spurious divide between anarchism, autonomism and traditional Marxism.

What follows is less a report on the specifics of what Mark talked about, although that’ll be in there, but more my first attempt at really engaging with accelerationism, something I’ve been reticent to do until now as I’ve largely felt that accelerationism has functioned as an intellectual meme. But this is probably the strength and weakness of the term. As it spreads it everywhere forces a kind of decision. It seems impossible for most people to discuss accelerationism without endorsing it a a tendency or dismissing it as an irrelevance. I’m most interested in the stakes involved in this decision and in how accelerationism really operates as a force that it has become impossible to be indifferent to.

The double-bind of desire

Among the most interesting aspects of Mark’s talk last night was his continued insistence on desire. Its here that I think it is impossible for someone involved in a renewed antipsychiatry can first connect up with accelerationism. First and foremost psychiatry operates according to the regulation of desires and behaviours. One is mad if one’s desires are unacceptable and/or if one’s actions betray aberrant desires. This is something that antipsychiatrists have always emphasised. Foucault is perhaps the clearest on this question in his interrogation of proto-psychiatric techniques and strategies that constituted the therapeutic battle between doctor and patient.

The first is that these four elements introduce a number of questions into psychiatric practice that stubbornly recur throughout the history of psychiatry. First, they introduce the question of dependence on and submission to the doctor as someone who, for the patient, holds an inescapable power. Second, they also introduce the question, or practice rather, of confession, anamnesis, of the account and recognition of oneself. This also introduces into asylum practice the procedure by which all madness is posed the question of the secret and unacceptable desire that really makes it exist as madness. And finally, fourth, they introduce, of course, the problem of money, of financial compensation; the problem of how to provide for oneself when one is mad and how to establish the system of exchange within madness which will enable the mad person’s existence to be financed.


For now I’ll simply assert my agreement with Foucault on this point, although I hope to expand on it elsewhere. We could perhaps quickly state that the question of madness, of identifying mad subjects, always passes through the question of desire, of what it is the mad person wants and what actions and beliefs they are invested in, what libidinous attachments they have formed, half-formed, wrenched themselves away from or had shattered in front of them. This is part of what Foucault will isolate in the confessional apparatus of Christianity that will again be seen in the psychoanalytic confessional: one must articulate one’s desire before the cure can be effected. This is still seen in today’s psychiatry among the new hysterical subjects with the proliferation of bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and anorexia nervosa. These diagnoses codify experiences of aberrations in desire first and foremost. The so-called new symptom is circulates more around the question of desire than it does cognition, and this is perhaps proven by the disappearance of the term “desire” from psychiatric literature. Instead we see the accumulation of theories about impulse control, motivational deficits, obsessive-compulsions. With this is the deployment of procedures for the manipulation of these psychological constructs, chief among them the motivational interviewing techniques and the mindfulness based protocols that seek to attach subjects to proper desires via “values work”, and which may remain open to repurposing among radicals.

The question of desire doesn’t just circulate around madness, although this is one of the aspects in which the engineering of desires by capitalism effects casualities. We can talk of psychic wounds when we talk about madness, but we could just as well talk about libidinal wounds. Capitalism effects double-binds. Its not so much that there is this injunction to Enjoy! It is more that there is the injunction to Enjoy Responsibly! The command is issues at once to enjoy but also to isolate a limit that is never explicitly specified. Libidinal subjects are then forced into the situation of enjoyment in which enjoyment becomes an ethical moment without any existing rule of thumb. What is the limit? Where is the limit? Does one transgress it? Is that enjoyment? The double bind is a perverse command that undoes itself, dissolves itself by doubling back on itself, the second fork in the injunction sweeping back to cancel the first.

Enjoyment becomes a duty and a predicament, a matrix for anxiety, a milieu in which pleasure and distress are comingled without the masochistic sensibility of the symptom that constitutes jouissance. And here we see the other side of madness, its disavowed side, the proliferation of addictions that the Lacanians have so little to say about. Addiction seems to me the natural response to the double bind of capitalist pleasure wherein desire is tortured by a simultaneous stimulation and caution against its own stimulation. A hermeneutics of suspicion of one’s own desires is generated just as the capacity for desire to be limited is lost: the compulsive indulgences in heroin, cocaine, alcohol, sex, pornography are partly the result of this tortured desire. Maybe the best example of this recently is the production of self-limiting gambling machines.

These machines have the built in capacity to limit the amount of money the gambling body is able to put at stake- either by limiting the amount of the bet or by refusing to go on after a certain amount of money has been lost. But the ingenious thing about these machines is that it is the gambler herself that decides whether to activate this limit and if they do it is the gambler who decides where to set that limit. The responsibility for their hyperstimulated desire is fed-back onto the gambling subject. After all the inducements to the desire to gamble, all the promises of the win, the exploitation of the gambler’s fallacy (a curious quirk of subjectivation that results in the idea: “I didn’t loss; I almost won”), all the investment and crafting of environments, linguistic prompts, libidinal couplings the gambling industry is able to quit itself of any and all responsibility. It is the gambler, the addict, who is to blame, we offered them the chance to stop.

It seems to me that this double-bind both posits and erases the pleasure principle so that its function as limit is lost. If for Lacan the subject of desire attempted to transgress the limit to reach jouissance then in this situation there is nothing to transgress, only a search without end, a bottomless frustration. And this only pushes the compulsivity of pleasure further. It is as if the body bent over their tablet or smartphone, listlessly scrolling through pornography, Buzzfeed or Facebook (what is the difference?) is engaged less in a genuine pleasure seeking or the avoidance of actual suffering, and more in the attempt to escape from the anxiogenic double-bind by throwing itself head long into it. At the core of this kind of a-symptom is the obsessive-compulsive need to engage in safety behaviours that prevent some unknown terrible dreadful thing from happening. Maybe this serves as a model for capitalist consumption as such: consumerism was/is less to do with exchange-values or symbolic-values and more to do with an impossible search for psychic survival, the consumer objet petit a translating itself into the magical object that will prevent subjective collapse and psychological exhaustion. It should come to us as no surprise that as this is occurring we are also experiencing a return of macrofascism. In Kingdom Come Ballard has the psychiatrist Maxted calmly report that

Consumerism creates huge unconscious needs that only fascism can satisfy. If anything, fascism is the form that consumerism takes when it opts for elective madness.


The stakes that the accelerationist left is thus betting on are high. The accelerationist manifesto opens with a list of some of the artifacts of material nihilism such as ecological disaster and resource conflicts, but also lurking more immediately is the return of the mass psychopathology of fascism. Fascism returns during crises, austerity, because the magic ritual of consumption is no longer enough, a bunker consciousness takes shape that is threatened by exteriorities and interior corruptions, in short when bodies become aware of their vulnerable condition, their proximity to corporeal dying (rather than existential being-towards-death), and they find themselves confronted with soothing voices that assure them they can be kept safe, made invulnerable and unkillable again. The abject failure of the left to occupy the ideological space opened by the demise of neoliberalism is what opened the space for fascism’s return into popular discourse. If accelerationism declares the end of the death of grand narratives, this too is out of necessity.

Abundance and scarcity

But we needn’t go to that far to talk about desire. Capitalism is a means for the emancipation of desire and its channelling into the commodity-form, this is the lesson of Deleuze and Guattari among others. Desire and reason have been paired against each other, placed as antagonists or, as in Hume, as two forces that outpace each other such that one must guide the other. For Deleuze capitalism is itself a kind of madness, a madness in a quite traditional sense, in a mode that preexists the nosological carving up on madness into various psychoses and neuroses: it is a mania. A generic madness. But it is also rational. Or at least it has its rationality.


Everything about capitalism is rational, except capital…A stock market is a perfectly rational mechanism, you can understand it,learn how it works; capitalists know how to use it; and yet what a delirium, it’s mad…It’s just like theology: everything about it is quite rational—if you accept sin, the immaculate conception, and the incarnation, which are themselves irrational elements.

Capital is a delerium and its presuppositions are akin to those of theology. These days Bifo is keen to tell us that economics is not a science and here Deleuze makes it clear why: despite its own rationality, its own intelligibility, and its own space of reasons in which its justifications and discourses can circulate, and which is populated by all kinds of intensities, challenges, duels and so forth, there is nonetheless the molten core of a delerium at its foundation. Economics is the rationality of an irrationality, the attempted intelligibility of  madness in the same sense that Laing gave to his social phenomenology of schizophrenia. And it is desire that is this irrationality. Capitalism understands desire and this is its success. To challenge capital at the level of the rational- at the level of interest- is already to give it too much, if one is also not working to decolonise the unconscious libidinal investments that serve to couple bodies to capital forms.

And here I’m getting one of Mark’s central points about how he regards accelerationism: it is impossible to challenge capitalism in the domain of desire. I always go back to the 2011 riots in England on this point. These were undoubtedly political riots, triggered by the state assassination of Mark Duggan and the police’s glib dismissal of his family, as well as a rising antagonism towards an increasingly hostile and self-assuredly invulnerable police force. But at the time everyone asked: why burn down your own neighbourhoods? Why go looting for the latest trainers, for flat screen TVs and gadgets. The answer is obvious: because people want those things. They have been induced to want those things. And why not? They’re fucking good things to have. The answer to the looting is desire, the desire that capitalism itself had produced in the social unconscious of its consumer subjects. And why burn down the buildings? Well, why the fuck not? It may seem simplistic but when desire and rage are released what you get is precisely this kind of libidinous explosion, a thirst for destruction, a chaotic upsurge of the irrational that is also implicitly a demand for neighbourhoods worth preserving against the fires.

I’m tempted to talk about Bakunin’s creative destruction. Its also tempting to argue that the destruction of parts of London by those who live in London is a form of self-harm and that self-harm ultimately involves the corporeal communication of that which can’t be parsed into the linguistic dimensions of symbolic thought, which in fact refuses the numbing negotiated bartering of positions of an interpollating agencies assumed authority to ask their complaints and grievances, which, in the dizziness of a kind of derealisation of subjectivity, seeks to reaffirm its own existence. The danger of this is that is risks lapsing into the kind of insurrectionalist immediacy that accelerationism takes as one of its targets. However, isn’t the point of something like accelerationism precisely to harness this energy? We can’t compete against capitalism in terms of desire, but is desire not exactly one of those dimensions of capitalism that is deserving of acceleration?

But there is something in this conjunction of the obsessive-compulsivity and the libidinal explosions of riot and insurrection. One leads to the other. Capitalism generates all the luxuries we could want, and yet we’re not happy. The reasons for this are manifold but chief among them is that inseparable from capitalism is the wage-relation: we’re condemned to work for the very luxuries that we produce as living labour. Economic exploitation produces the conditions bedrock conditions for misery within capital by producing the society we know to be a class society. The fact of work produces a society split among workers on the one hand, and bosses and owners on the other hand. We could talk endlessly about the mutations this has taken in recent decades with the processes of the recomposition of labour but the kernal of my concern here is with the libidinous contradiction that is incited. We still live according to the economic reason that maintains our enslavement to necessity, to the domain of material want. This plays itself out in terms of desire in the situation where we produce all the goods we want but our access to them is limited by the fact of our wages, their precarity and artificial depression. This deprivation takes place in an era of unrestrained wealth. The luxury items the London rioters had been induced into wanting and wanted because they are desirable were seized, short-circuiting the wage in a refusal to acknowedge exchange as the mechanism whereby we get a hold of the objects of our desires. The looters knew what they wanted and taking the oppotunity smashed the windows and grabbed them. In a sense this criminal act is to act as if private property were already abolished in a way that recalls the practice of proletarian shopping of the Italian autonomous movement. The situation is best summarised by Murray Bookchin- a definite candidate for the name “accelerationist anarchist”- when he writes that

Today, however, capitalism is a parasite on the future, a parasite that survives on the technology and resources of freedom. The industrial capitalism of Marx’s time organised its commodity relations around a prevailing system of material scarcity; the state capitalism of our time organises its commodity relations around a prevailing system of material abundance. A century ago, scarcity had to be endured; today it has to be enforced- hence the importance of the state in the present era.

If Mark Fisher is right that we can’t compete with capitalism in terms of desire it is because there is nothing communism could offer in material term that capitalism can’t already. What communism can offer is generalised access to the sphere of abundance that capitalism restricts and inhibits. This inhibition isn’t just about access- it isn’t just that private property and the commodity restrict what we can have– it is also about desire. As soon as we desire to have that which the capitalist can have, as soon as we want the luxurious life that the rich have access enjoy, we are told that we can’t have it unless we work for it and receive the right as our meritocratic reward. So much bullshit. This is because capitalism liberates desire just as it liberates productive forces, but it only does so in order to re-constrain them, every deterritorialisation being accompanied by a necessary reterritorialisation. In Murray Bookchin’s Post-scarcity anarchism we see similar concerns to those of the accelerationists in relation to the productive forces, especially in relation to technoscience (in fact, I can’t help but see a lot of the accelerationist debate as a rehash of the debate between Bookchin and the anarcho-Primitivists). We also see it in terms of desire. Our desires have to be captured by the circuitry of work-wage-commodity exchange. So this is the libidinous contradiction: capital liberates itself by capturing desire, by harnessing desire as its engine. Desire is the incited, engineered, managed, brought into the rational framework of an irrational system.

Machinic enslavement or technolibidinous liberation?

In experiences of madness we see this all the more explicitly. Desire is managed pharmacologically. It is incited by stimulants and damped down by mood stabilisers like Sodium Valporate and Lithium. With the inaugeration of the age of neuromodulation desire can now even be controlled electronically. The use of transcranial stimulation in the treatment of addictions via neuroelectric therapy actually cancels the experience of the addictive craving dead: the electronics of desire can simply be turned off. For me this places desire at the centre of politics in a way that differs from the libidinous politics of the 1990s and 2000s. Today desire is under threat and must be reappropriated from capital before it becomes fully programmable in the hideous vision of a totally administered brain. If neuroelectric treatment can currently be used as a consent-based therapy for addictions, how long is it before squeamish ethical questions are pushed aside as technological develop tends to do so that it can be used by remote for the management of populations. Perhaps this is a dystopian dream, but it is one worth bearing in mind. Against such a total machinic enslavement of desire we have to posit desire’s autonomy and to accelerate the processes that intensify and liberate desire from its fetters.

Perhaps pornography functions as the perfect neurotic machinic enslavement of desire at the moment. Pornography shares the infrastructure of the attention economy, distributed across bodies, brains, eyes, cocks and cunts, as well as fibreoptics, satellite relays, circuit boards and microchips, mining operations, and so on. The reactionary critique of porn tends to conflate sexual slavery with sex work and doesn’t interest me at all. Another aspect of porno-critique that is stupid is the one that talks about porn as offering an explosive proliferation of sexual proclivities, preferences and choices and that thus opens us to a playful sexual libido that can appear in more and more ways. If this is true it is also immediately marked by management and control. Pornography isn’t just the ejaculations and performances of bodies fucking for the camera; more than anything else pornography is the categorisation and ever narrowing specification of forms of desire. Bodies fucking is fucking; bodies engaged in amateur bukakke is pornography. Porn thus returns us again to psychiatry. They share a fundamental symmetry: the identification of symptoms, their clustering together as syndromes, and their setting out in an ever expanding classificatory system.

In both the example of neuroelectric therapy and pornography I think we have small scale examples of possible accelerationist programs. These technologies both act as inhibitory functions on desire, authorising it to exist in only this form and no other, at these times, under this context, under this name. The reactionary approach would be to denounce them as perversions and as destructive in their very essences. But if accelerationism is in part about reclaiming desire then it also means the repurposing of these technologies of desire. We really could use the neuroelectric technologies to stimulate desires outside of the frustrating circuits of a commodity economy, and pornography really could be a mode for the intensification of the sexual imaginary. We could hack our brains and our sexuality and use these technologies to work on desire itself: we would finally be able to take direct control of subjectivation. At first maybe on the auto-guinea pig scale of individual experimentation or in secret groups, akin to the countercultural explorations of LSD, but eventually on a mass scale. At stake here is a kind of transformation of our bodies and brains into laboratories for experimentation- the rhetoric of experimental politics giving way to a concrete biotechnological praxis that is already foreshadowed by the popularity of “cognitive enhancers” among young students, and perhaps in the black market of image-enhancing drugs among body-builders and transsexuals.

It seems to me that accelerationism can thus be seen as a tendency or an orientation that forces us to decide where we stand on technology: is it a despotism of automatism or is it force for liberation? I want to refuse that choice. Its false. Technologies can be both and neither of these. My position again echoes Murray Bookchin’s point in the essay Towards A Liberatory Technology:

I make no claim that technology is necessarily liberatory or consistently beneficial to man’s development. But I surely do not believe that man is destined to be enslaved by technology and technological modes of thought..On the contrary….an organic mode of life deprived of its technological component would be as nonfunctional as a man deprived of his skeleton…[technology] is literally the framework of an economy and of many social institutions.

In this context I’ve suggested that there exists the possibility for a pharmaco-syndicalism. We’re the prosumers of neurotransmitters, neuroelectrical activations, and the passage and transmission of molecules in infracorporal and intercorporeal relations. Our very bodies are sites of production, just as our biological bodies belong to the productive body of capitalism. But our desires aren’t capital’s desires, our desires, if realised, would necessarily lead us to the abolition of capitalism one way or another. We’ve known since Hegel, through Lacan and everyone since then that there are no authentically “own” desires, that our desire is always based on the desire of the other, so we should feel no terror at the prospect of libido having become wrapped up with technology. The question to ask is what is the relationship? Does this technology in this circumstance enhance as a prosthetic or disable as a restraint? Today the bio-techno distinction belongs only to frightened humanists and Catholics.

Today our desire is a kind of technolibido- an infrastructural unconscious that doesn’t acknowledge the distinction between humanity and machine, organic and inorganic, endogenous and exogenous. Perhaps this is part of what accelerationism is doing in the end. It recognises abundance and desire, takes them as its preconditions and so departs from the preconditions of capitalism.

The history of the left is the history of responses framed in capital’s terms. Marxism, anarchism, the history of Party’s and of horizontalist networks… these are inadeuqate to the machinic present. Outmoded forms they can’t really even see the situation we’re in, let alone formuate anything but conservative defensive postures and moralistically purist refusals of engagement. Perhaps this is why Mark spoke of so many “phobic responses” to accelerationism. We have been historically conditioned to have an aversive reaction to the scales that accelerationism wants to speaks at.

In its assessment of our situation, and in its insistence that we use what is to hand, and that we refuse to make a priori judgements about what is to hand, a particular approach to accelerationism seem to begin to cohere with the concerns of the postnihilist praxis discussed here. It is tempting to suggest that postnihilist praxis might be a kind of accelerationist therapeutics…but this is only a first pass at a much bigger tendency.

In the next post I want to talk about two other aspects Mark touched on, specifically luxury communism, and boredom, particularly his interesting formula that today “everything is boring but no-one is bored”, and his use of the term promethanism.

3 responses to “Accelerationism, Desire and Madness

  1. First, do read Pete’s long as hell blog post. Its a fine account of the practical roots of rationality and how it might go wrong or get co-opted. I don’t agree with a number of his formulations (mostly on empirical grounds) but give it a go nonetheless.

    Second, FANTASTIC piece Arran. You keep the post-nihilist flame burning good sir! There is so much to work with here and I agree with almost everything you draw out. I hope to respond to the thrust of post (as supplement not critique) asap. We’ll see if that actually happens.. :/

  2. Pingback: Quick links (#12) | Urban Future (2.1)·

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