Accelerationism, inside and out

A recurring theme in this discussion between Pete Wolfendale and Anthony Paul Smith is the relationship between the inside of a conversation and its outside. The scenario, in abstract, is like this: a conversation is going on; some people are admitted as interlocutors, and others are not. Still others are neither included or excluded, but simply not engaged – most of the world most of the time is not engaged in conversations of this type, for reasons ranging from antipathy to apathy to (perhaps most commonly) urgently having other things to do. Some desired interlocutors are unavailable, and may need more than an open invitation in order to come onboard.

I read Pete and Anthony as prioritising different sets of needs on the part of possible-yet-absent interlocutors. For Pete, the “space of reasons” is something like the conditions of possibility of an agora, and the way to draw outsiders in is to seek reasons whose ramifications include the kinds of concerns those outsiders might want to talk about. I cannot join a conversation with you if we cannot reason with each other, and will be actively excluded from conversation if all you will meet my reasons with is assertions of your own truth. Our respective freedoms, in the sense of being able to encounter one another as interlocutors who can give and ask for reasons, are vitiated by what Pete called a “truncated” conception of reason, such as that currently sweeping the academy in the guise of neo-liberal management practices. We need, rather, an extensible conception of reason, in order that the ramifications of our reasons should spread out to include presently unacknowledged and unforeseen human needs and situations.

I’m confident of having paraphrased Pete sympathetically here, even if I may well be wrong on some points of detail or emphasis. It’s more difficult for me to do the same for Anthony, because I often find that we disagree strongly about things, but I’ll try anyway. One of Anthony’s concerns I think is that the polemic of accelerationism, in taking aim at tendencies within an established conversation (within “the humanities”, “academic philosophy” and so on) which seem to hamper access to an extended, more powerful, political rationality, unfairly dismisses as “folk politics” and “localism” a wide and valuable range of already-extant conversations. The accelerationists want in to the established conversation, and see themselves as trying to get a wedge in the door; but those they attack also see themselves as embattled – and, what’s more, as battling on the side of the genuinely (that is, socially and not merely discursively) excluded.

Now, we can picture a kind of dyad between those inside the conversation who maintain that they uphold a link with the socially-excluded – that they are exercising a kind of “option for the poor” in opting to argue in certain ways and according to certain rules – and those who are outside of the conversation because they are actually socially excluded from being where it is happening. To attack the insiders who speak as/for the outsiders, to undermine the link the they claim between their discursive positions and practices and the concrete social oppressions to which they address themselves, is necessary if you want to make the argument that those positions and practices are politically insufficient. The dyad has to be dissolved if you want to make a claim for a kind of political rationality that opens up options beyond the currently-favoured “option for the poor”. (The accelerationist argument is, in a nutshell, that this favoured option is a not-very-satisfactory “local maximum” in the space of reasons, and that we need to do some speculative roaming-around if we’re to find a better vantage-point).

However, I think there is also a certain fantasy of the academy at work here, as a zone of social privilege where the “outsiders” and their struggles by definition are not. In this fantasy, the “insiders who speak as/for the outsiders” tend to appear as privileged people instrumentalising the oppressed in order to lend moral gravity to their insider-positions. That is sometimes the real situation, but in reality a) the academy is also, and intensifyingly, a place of struggle, where nominally “included” people nevertheless routinely experience oppression and exclusion, and b) the conversation in which the accelerationists wish to intervene is in any case not confined to the academy: “folk politics” and “localism” are among the modes of political rationality at work in much wider social movements. In this situation it is no longer possible to specify a dyad linking the conversationally-included with the socially-excluded, because the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive in the first place. The target of the accelerationists’ attack is accordingly much harder to identify: there is a real risk that they will in fact succeed in a) gaining a place for themselves within the academy discourse, but b) through becoming incorporated in that discourse, end up playing a part in hardening it against outsiders who can be stigmatised and dismissed as practising “folk politics”, “localism” and so on.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that one doesn’t want this – that what one wants is an extended space of reasons, and that one’s enemies are dogmatists on the inside not social activists on the outside. Because in fact the social activists often do sound pretty dogmatic, especially when they’re fighting on the inside against continual attempts to contain/expel and stigmatise/normalise them. It is of course frustrating to be on the wrong end of impatience, suspicion and the seemingly-malicious withholding of interpretative charity, but not everyone shares, or can reasonably be expected at this juncture to share, the accelerationists’ confidence that success for them in the long run means success for everyone – even if success for everyone is the desired and ostensible goal.

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