Acceleration

We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.

—Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

At present, we accelerate. Or, so argue scientists who claim that the epoch of the Anthropocene is also the time of the Great Acceleration (Steffen et al. 2004; Waters et al. 2016). Since the mid-twentieth century, they assert, human-driven ecological destruction has left a clear trace in the planet’s geological record; industrial infrastructures have expanded dramatically across the planet, including impoverished parts of the globe (McNeill and Engelke 2016).

Framing the Anthropocene as acceleration conveys an old notion: mass-scale industrialization as an upward velocity of change. Members of the Italian artistic movement Futurism, for instance, famously declared in 1909 that industry had created “omnipresent speed” and worshiped the technologies that made it possible. Similar statements came from high-modern politicians such as Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Juscelino Kubitschek in Brazil. Stalin claimed in 1931, “we are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance within the next ten years.” Kubitschek promised, in 1955, “fifty years of progress in five years of government.” For Paul Virilio (2006), such calls were the stuff of dromopolitics, the politics of speed whereby cities, highways, and industrial parks were built to spur the movement of masses that would drive kinetic empires forward. Speed was a means of creating dreamworlds—utopian futures that would justify the industrial catastrophes that made them possible (Buck-Morss 2000).

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Before the Parachute Opens, by Tullio Crali, 1939.

Strikingly, proponents of such proposals adopt an irreverent, joyful tone even when promoting destruction and death. As Walter Benjamin (2007, 242) suggests, such a political style was more than mere rhetoric, enabling national leaders and political groups such as the Futurists to prime their audiences to experience kinetic self-destruction as “an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Are scientists likewise suggesting that acceleration is no delusion, representing an objective accomplishment of industrialization that has shaped the planet’s geological becomings?

The question is especially pressing given that notions of acceleration are still foregrounded in contemporary political conversations. Consider, for instance, discussions I have had with farmers and scientists in Brazilian agro-industrial towns at the southern edges of the Amazon basin (a region that has become a global agro-industrial powerhouse). While conducting fieldwork there, I was told that farmers were racing to develop new agro-industrial technologies so they could expand their operations and address problems related to climate change and productivity that were generated by industrial agriculture itself. Environmental scientists, in turn, quickly developed policy after policy designed not to arrest the agribusiness boom but to modify the direction of its sprint.

When, in Amazonia, I raised the possibility of deceleration or degrowth, most interlocutors, from staunchly conservative landowners to progressive environmental scientists, were visibly baffled. They could not understand how slowing down could be of any practical use. Did we not need rapid increases in wealth so that the economy could take off? Or, from the other end of the political spectrum, did we not need to create and innovate as quickly as possible to forestall the ravages of capitalism, alleviate hunger, and adapt to climate change?

Broadly similar questions are posed today by scholars whom Benjamin Noys (2010, 2014) calls accelerationists. According to Noys (2010, 5), accelerationists claim that “if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalize capitalism itself: the worse the better.” As accelerationists put it, “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” (McKay and Avanessian 2014, 4). Accelerationists keep alive an old tradition among speed-lovers: the use of an irreverent, joyful tone to describe willful self-sacrifice.

Despite many telling similarities, however, current notions of acceleration (and those implicit in the arguments of some Amazonian peoples) are unlike the high-modern politics of speed. Current acceleration agendas do not characterize industrial destruction as a sacrifice that will result in good dreamworlds. As Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2014, 227; my emphasis) suggest, contemporary accelerationists promote “the intensification of the variation of variation and consequent loss of all values of reference.” Rather than (over)valuing industrial destruction for the engendering of good futures, accelerationists frame catastrophe as valuable in itself.

From the perspective of accelerationists, we have no choice but to forego value judgments as acceleration is neither good nor evil; it is, for them, simply a reality built into the thick webs of wires, roads, and pipelines that sustain our industrial modes of living (Shaviro 2015). In Amazonia, similar ideas inform policies that integrate agro-industrial expansion into the basin’s ecological dynamics: avoiding agribusiness expansion is not seen as an option. An environmentalist politics, in this context, must eschew the utopian objective of building a good future and focus instead on limiting certain aspects of impending crises (see Rojas 2015, 2016).

Perhaps these darker contemporary notions of acceleration signal the birth of a novel political entity: not the Great Acceleration but Acceleration the Great. A seductively destructive, diffuse being, Acceleration the Great promises the collapse of the socioecological foundation on which engines, servers, and grids run—and some hope that novel modes of living will emerge from capitalism’s ruins.

To resist this being, we may want to listen to the Amazonian peasant who, when I asked him about the expansion of agro-industrial operations in his town, laughingly exclaimed: “Why do people desire so many problems? Why always more, and more, and more?” While deeply concerned about his own poverty and acknowledging that his livelihood depended to a great extent on industrial infrastructures, he rejected self-sacrificial commitments to industrial expansion. Like others in Latin America for whom a good life is a political objective (Villalba 2013), he cultivated a generous lifestyle by caring for neighbors, visitors, plants, animals, and the soil at his site. This life-affirming, joyful, downward shift in velocity may have the power to gradually undermine mass-industry kinetics—the flesh and blood of Acceleration the Great.

References

Benjamin, Walter. 2007. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, 217–51. New York: Schocken. Originally published in 1939.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 2000. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2014. “L’arrêt du monde.” In De l’univers clos au monde infini, edited by Émilie Hache, 221–339. Paris: Éditions Dehors.

Mackay, Robin, and Armen Avanessian. 2014. “Introduction.” In #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, edited by Robin Mackway and Armen Avanaessian, 1–47. Falmouth, U.K.: Urbanomic.

McNeill, J. R., and Peter Engelke. 2016. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Noys, Benjamin. 2010. The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

_____. 2014. Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism. Alresford, U.K.: Zero Books.

Rojas, David. 2015. “Environmental Management and Open-Air Experiments in Brazilian Amazonia.” Geoforum 66: 136–45.

_____. 2016. “Climate Politics in the Anthropocene and Environmentalism Beyond Nature and Culture in Brazilian Amazonia.” PoLAR 39, no. 1: 16–32.

Shaviro, Steven. 2015. No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Steffen, Will, et al. 2004. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. New York: Springer.

Villalba, Unai. 2013. “Buen Vivir vs Development: A Paradigm Shift in the Andes?Third World Quarterly 34, no. 8: 1427–42.

Virilio, Paul. 2006. Speed and Politics. Translated by Mark Polizotti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e). Originally published in 1977.

Waters, Colin N., et al. 2016. “The Anthropocene is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.” Science 351, January 8.