Things I’ve been reading recently #2

Following on from this post:

I wasn’t enormously impressed by Malign Velocities. I had assumed it was a book about social acceleration but was surprised to find it’s actually about accelerationism. To be fair, it’s quite clear about this in the blurb, it’s just that I failed to read the blurb properly. Its concern was far more with the cultural valorisation of acceleration than it was with the (putative) social process of acceleration, whereas mine is precisely the opposite of this. It’s also written in precisely the kind of continental philosophy speak that I always find mildly irritating. Nonetheless, its review of various iterations of accelerationism was interesting, even if parts of it were familiar: I’d read about the Futurists before but the detail on the communist accelerationists after the Russian revolution was new to me. The most impressive part of his argument was the author’s critique of the direction of French postmodern thought, with the deconstructive impulse – along with intellectual one-upmanship – progressively leading to “a politics of radical immanence, of immersion in capital to the point where any way to distinguish a radical strategy from the strategy of capital seems to disappear completely” because of an unwillingness to theoretically allow for an ‘outside’ to capital. My opinion of Baudrillard and Lyotard has declined even further as a result. The author locates the contemporary impulse towards accelerationism in this theoretical trajectory, seeking escape through the fusion with and overcoming of capital because there’s no longer anything beyond it. We embrace the system to transcend it. It’s basically somewhat silly but the author does an effective job of demonstrating how people who aren’t idiots get taken in by it. Though when he writes of accelerationists working to “continue Land’s project to break with the despotism of Western reason through a parodic hyper-reason, through an acceleration into the iterative” I wonder if we shouldn’t instead point to the possibility that Land simply took too much speed and went slightly mad.

In contrast Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF by Derek Sayer was fantastic. It’s a blistering inditement of the lunacy of REF and persuaded me of a position I’d been slowly, up till now reluctantly, moving towards: metrics are obviously the lesser of two evils. They’re far from perfect (to say the least) but they would be a huge improvement on REF2014. He makes the case convincingly that the ‘peer review’ of the REF falls dramatically short of accepted standards of peer review. Far too few people are asked to review far too much. They also frequently have little to no specialist knowledge about the work they’re ‘reviewing’. He’s particularly interesting on the politics of the ‘internal REFs’ that have been conducted and paints a vivid picture of the vast REF bureaucracy being reduplicated within each university itself. He argues that this is an important tool for the disciplining of academic labour, extends the power of managers and the exercise as a whole (‘modernization’ of higher education) entrenches a small elite within the sector. To use the memorable phrase offered by Will Davies, which I’ve had stuck in my head for ages now, the whole thing is an exercise in heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest.

I’d forgotten how much I like Mark Fisher’s writing until reading Ghost of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. I’m not overly taken with the notion of hauntology which, as I understand it, refers to the latent connections which serve to constitute any seemingly subsistent entity i.e. how the past lives on in the present and things like that. But I loved reading this nonetheless. Much of it is his music journalism and I ended up with 4 new Spotify playlists after reading this book, including the discovery of Burial and the rediscovery of Tricky, who I used to listen to obsessively years ago but had largely forgotten about. It’s a bleak and downcast book, offering a depressive counterpoint to ‘crack capitalism’: it’s not concerned with the spaces of hope that exist within our present circumstances but rather with the potential futures which were latent but have now been lost. He offers an inditement of 21st century culture which, though convincing in its own terms, I can’t help but note was written by someone who clearly used to take a lot of drugs in the 1990s… I’m not saying this to be snide, I have immense respect for Fisher, only to point out that there’s likely a biographical element in this which oddly doesn’t figure into the text in any direct way despite it being such a personal book

Another brilliant book was The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer. It’s an attack upon biomorality: the social injunction to enjoy, thrive and be healthy (as well as the corresponding shaming of those who fail in this task). I should blog more extensively about this at a later point in time because I have a lot to say about it. In short, I think they overstate their case but it’s nonetheless a very important case. It’s not entirely clear to me from where this injunction to enjoy is being issued: if it’s a case of attitudinal change then this in itself needs to be explained. My fear is that some quite specific political projects (of the sort I’m looking forward to hearing Imogen Tyler talk about on Friday) are being subsumed into a general claim about social morality. It has its virtues, in that it helps draw together a diverse range of phenomena into one analysis, but we need to be careful about undertaking explanation on this basis. As a descriptive project, I think it’s great and of immense value.

The only graphic novel I’ve read since my last post in this series was The Massive volume 4. This has already become one of my favourite series and generated my current preoccupation with civilisational collapse. However it’s walking a fine line in this volume between exploring the world of the crash & developing the plot of a thriller. Volume 4 is the first time it’s gone too far in the direction of the latter for my liking.

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