Last month, Taco Bell tweeted “Taco Bae.” The cycle from early adopters to late-capitalist commodification from urban dictionary to corporate twitter seems to be accelerating at a quicker and quicker rate. Nothing seems safe or colloquial. Karl Lagerferd staged a women’s rights demo on the catwalk to sell clothes during Paris Fashion Week, and in Norway, there’s a reality TV show where fashion bloggers work in sweat shops, commodifying class difference in the global economy into entertainment value and tidy tear-filled emotional arcs sandwiched between commercial breaks. Some would see this all as a promising sign.
If we can’t escape capitalism, if it’s too all encompassing, then maybe the only path of resistance is the exact opposite of resistance. Instead of trying to slow it down, maybe we need to speed capitalism up until it self-destructs. That’s the thinking behind accelerationism, anyways, an idea that finds its roots in the 19th century, authentically Marx by Karl Marx, but which has had several iterations since. Most recently it’s been tangled up with tech singularity, Bayesian rationality, and Silicon Valley bros of a certain persuasion, and at the same time it’s been a bit of an art-world buzz word used to make sense of the obsession with consumerism and branding we’ve been seeing the past couple of years with net art, from Jon Rafman’s Kool Aid man to Cory Archangels Applebee’s Giftcard, and which became more codified with Dis and The Jogging, the cycles are so fast, the moment I’m describing already feels a bit passé. No one says “net art” anymore, only “post-internet art,” and already that word has become a bit of a punchline.
In the 90s, Nick Land, a British philosopher working in the intersection of nihilism and cybernetics, put accelerationism and the hyper-accelerated speed of capitalism in context with technological singularity, the idea that the ever-increasing speed of technological innovations would eventually mean that the difference between material and virtual reality, between human and machine would be eclipsed. There’s a strong libertarian thread to believing in either with conviction—an anti-interventionist ethic that contends we shouldn’t try to stop the snowball effect, that we shouldn’t try to slow down either, and that both would eventually reach a breaking point so the sooner the better. But beyond the parallels, the speed of capitalism and the speed of technological advancements can propel each other along, eg. Silicon Valley where strange subcultures and near-religious fervor for these sorts of philosophies and others like transhumanism is burgeoning.
It’s not surprising this type of Silicon Valley bro would see the utopian potential in capitalism or technology, but it is a bit unexpected that the white dude who benefits from the social hierarchies of today would put so much stock in the potential of the new frontiers of tomorrow. Ditto that a culture that still sees so much difference between man and woman would imagine a near-future where there’s little to no distinction between the biological and the digital. But maybe it’s just the latest iteration of a sort of bourgeoise nihilism. Those who are most removed from concerns with how to survive find nihilist philosophies the most appealing, and accelerationism certainly is a breed of nihilism updated for the 2.0 era.
Arguably virtual realities still provide refuge for the disenfranchised more than their material equivalents—Black Twitter or Trans Teens on Tumblr. And even though these online spaces are becoming increasingly centralized, corporatized, and commodified, and as they are often old hierarchies are being re-mapped onto these new spaces, they are still less codified than our IRL systems and structures. Just a few weeks ago, we had a white male artist who has appropriated the image of a woman instagram model showing in a New York gallery while the group show of women (mostly) using their own bodies in their work is showing online. From the cyborg manifesto to the queer and transgender roots of transhumanism, there are exciting imagined possibilities for how tech and its sci-fi futures can be radical but these futures are not inherently nor inevitably radical.
At the heart of accelerationism is a question of inevitability. If we feel like all of our alternatives and transgressions are subsumed into capitalism is that the same as believing that this incorporation is inevitable? And do we believe that some alternative is inevitable, as well, eventually? Whether all alternatives are doomed for failure but then ultimately success, is impossible to say without a crystal ball or natal chart, but the transgression de jour, anyways, seem to have lost its teeth. Appropriating brands, logos, and banal consumerism feels decidedly not radical—worse it feels passé. Capitalism insists on the new-new, but will the same forces that demand not just S/S and F/W but now Resort and Pre-Fall collections compel us to find new better ways of dismantling that very system? Or is our constant desire for something fresh just a symptom of it?
Even within accelerationism there are two schools of thought: one that capital’s evolution will come from within and the other that it will come from without after being confronted by a radical social force. Believing in the former feels a bit like benevolent negligence or irresponsible optimism, but the latter depends on there being the possibility for anything to exist outside a system that feels total and all-encompassing. Counter-culture is an anachronism. Art feels like the most promising space right now for one to contemplate and confront these grim realities but, as Chris Krauss explains in Lost Properties, exorbitantly-priced MFA programs are also responsible for much of the sky-rocketing rates of student debt.
But just because there seems to be no space outside capitalism, it’s not to say that capital is fixed or eternal. Capital and the commodity economy have been changing shape and adapting to technical innovations and our new networked digital realities. With what he calls the commodification of information, McKenzie Wark explains that “the new stage of commodification is less about extracting surplus value from labor as extracting surplus information from play. It extracts value by offering information for free, but extracting more information in return – surplus information.” I’ve argued before that the art-world obsession with Doritos logos seems nostalgic for a middle-class that doesn’t really exist anymore thanks to increasing class inequality. But it’s also maybe retrograde in that it’s been referencing an era of capitalism that is already outdated. Although it seemed transgressive for a moment to be as ultra-consumerist as possible, maybe it’s a trend that was backward-looking to begin with.
Arguably more forward-looking than artists emulating corporate aesthetics and principals are artists, like Kari Altmann, who are interrogating the way information and images circulate in our current commodity economy, which Wark posits is defined by this commodification of information. Brian Droitcour made a case that the defining feature of “post-internet art” is art made to look good online, art that looks better in a browser than IRL in the gallery, and rather cynically acknowledged some artists fucking with this distinction. There was an angst, though, that pervaded Droitcour’s critiqued. He seemed “over it.” He called out the art world’s appetite to subsume the term post-internet, turning it into a marketing term and ultimately reinforcing their own power systems, but seemed oblivious to his own vulnerability to the same cycles of consumption that make us bored so quickly and always demand something crisper, fresher, newer, younger.
Often it feels like even our attempts to criticize capitalism seem to fall victim to its accelerated cycles that are driving at more and more frenzied pace. In the face of this overwhelming machine churning at a faster and faster rate, resistance can feel futile, and thinking that this will all end in a delicious collapse and a better system will emerge from the wreckage is a comforting idea. But maybe it’s also a dangerous one, a mirage that ultimately dissolves us of any responsibility to be a part of any radical social force. Food for thot—at least until Taco Bell tweets that too.