Sunday, 10 November 2013

Tracing the Invisible Time of the Present

In Reading Capital (1968) Althusser argues that we cannot rest content with the insight that there exist different forms or rhythms of time to undermine the linear time of historicism and capital. He argues that, in addition to different forms of visible time, there are invisible times. In particular we cannot read capitalist time ‘in the flow of any given process’, because this is an invisible time that is ‘essentially illegible, as invisible and as opaque as the reality of the total capitalist production process itself.’ (RC 112) Such a time is only accessible in its concept, and this is a concept which must be constructed’ (RC 113).

            This would seem to leave the ‘lived time’ of capital, its relation to the biological, as only ideological – a receding moment that we cannot grasp outside of a discourse of science. If we return to For Marx, and in particular the essay ‘The ‘Piccolo Teatro’: Bertolazzi and Brecht’ (FM 129-151), then we can consider this a phenomenology, even in the Hegelian sense,[1] of our access to ‘invisible time’ (so, Reading Capital would then be equivalent to Hegel’s Logic). Althusser’s essay explores three modes of time that are staged in the play. He begins from ‘the co-existence of a long, slowly-passing, empty time and a lightning-short, full time’ (FM 134) in the play: between scenes of mass characters going about everyday life – the time of the chronicle – and the sudden intrusion at the end of each act of the three central characters (Nina, her father, and her lover) – the time of tragedy. This would seem to instantiate also a Benjaminian contrast between ‘empty, homogeneous time’ and ‘now-time’ (Jetztzeit), especially as this second form of full time, according to Althusser, ‘is a dialectical time par excellence.’ (FM 137)

            The essay, however, disputes this identification. The tragic time of encounter, dialectical time, is, in fact, the melodramatic time of the father of the central character. We have not passed from ideological time to non-ideological time, but to another form of ideology. While dialectical time is pushed to the margins, this dialectical time is a time dictated by the father, who wishes to save his daughter’s honour from her lover-cum-pimp. It is melodramatic. ‘Sheltered from the world, it unleashes all the fantastic form of a breathless conflict which can only ever find peace in the catastrophe of someone else’s fall: it takes this hullabaloo for destiny and its breathlessness for the dialectic.’ (FM 140) This is still the dialectic of consciousness and ‘And that is why its destruction is the precondition for any real dialectic.’ (FM 138)

            The third form of time is only indicated when Nina abandons her father – who has murdered her lover – to embrace the life of (presumably) a prostitute. ‘Father, consciousness, dialectic, she throws them all overboard and crosses the threshold of the other world’ (FM 140) This rejection of the false dialectic of consciousness is parallel to Marx’s gesture in Capital and to Brecht’s theatre. It is the emergence of a true knowledge. It requires the rejection of consciousness to pass into an ‘experience’ of time, which is to say capitalist time, as it is – in its naked dominance.


I now want to turn to contemporary reflections or endorsements of accelerationism as a site that replicates this tension of the attempt to trace a phenomenology of capitalist time. What we could call ‘classical accelerationism’, associated with the work of Nick Land, involved the endorsement of capitalist time as a time of acceleration, in the form of expanding value and the absorption of all elements of life under an ‘inhuman’ marketization (Land 2013). It is the acceleration of this vector that will, it is claimed, pierce the wall of capitalism itself an usher in a radically new future that has, in Land’s reading, already occurred. We are infiltrated from the future, by guerrillas of this technological and cybernetic mobilization of flows.

            Contemporary accelerationism modulates this schema (I will be referring to the work of Alex Williams, Nick Srnicek and Mark Fisher). It concludes that we have been robbed of our future by an inertial and crisis-ridden neoliberalism that has rescinded the dynamism of capitalism for the opaque mechanisms of speculative finance. The phenomenology of this experience of capitalist time is provided by dance music. Once, in this story, dance music provided an inventive form of musical accelerationism. In Mark Fisher’s characterization, ‘While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion.’ Whereas once, in the 1990s, there was a ‘hardcore continuum’ that had guaranteed an experimental acceleration (from rave to jungle to early grime), today, adopting Simon Reynolds diagnosis of ‘Retromania’, that future has stalled in bad pastiche (Williams 2013). Our moment is a nostalgia for a future that was once promised (‘Today is the Tomorrow you were Promised Yesterday’, in Victor Burgin’s phrase). Retromania is, in Alex Williams’s formulation, the ‘pop-cultural logic of late neoliberalism’.

            The stasis of neo-liberalism, which concludes the only way into the future is more of the same, is mimicked by a plundering of the past to grab images and forms of acceleration that reappear as merely static moments. We live, in Alex Williams’s Ballardian coinage, a chronosickness (2013). Unable to accede to the future, or even a faith or belief in the future, we instead can only live out the blockage of our present moment.

            This is evident in Mark Fisher’s recent discussion of juke / footwork – a form of Chicago ‘ghetto house’ at 155-165 bpm, with repetitive and often aggressive sampling (‘Fuck Dat’). It would seem that footwork continues the hardcore continuum and instantiates another acceleration, which would dispute the accelerationist characterization of the present moment as a moment of stasis. To rescue this diagnosis, Fisher argues that while jungle ‘was dark, but also wet, viscous, and enveloping’, footwork is ‘strangely desiccated’. This illiquid form traces its resistance ‘in the bad infinity of the animated GIF, with its stuttering, frustrated temporality, its eerie sense of being caught in a time-trap.’ If jungle was predictive of accelerative temporalities the footwork, according to Fisher, only captures the impasses of the present moment.




The answer of ‘classical accelerationism’ to this dilemma is more acceleration through celebration of the speed of capitalism. When jungle embodied the ‘Landian imaginary’ of ‘apocalyptic paranoid euphoria’ this made possible a future (Williams 2013). The present moment rescinds that promise and so contemporary accelerationism no longer works on the ‘speed’ of capitalism, which is not present, but seeks another form of time. Lacking this ‘alienating temporality’ (Williams 2013), speed only replicates capitalist parameters. To push beyond them we need to play off acceleration against speed, against ‘a simple brain-dead onrush’ (Williams 2013), we are called to a new ‘universal field’ of accelerative possibilities. This future is predicated, for Alex Williams (2013), in the engagement with ‘the forward-propelling energies embodied in the best of UK race music, its posthuman ingenuity, alien sonic vocabulary, and its manipulation of affect and impersonal desire.’

            I leave to one side the nationalism of this agenda (seemingly an endemic feature of music writing in the UK, usually in regard to an inferiority complex in relation to US-music). The example of footwork I’ve just discussed points to a problem with this agenda: the lack of any instantiation of ‘acceleration’ in the present moment. The ‘possibilities’ that contemporary accelerationism promises to trace in a universal field slip, unpleasantly, into another form of retromania. This is another form of nostalgia, but a retooled nostalgia that castigates the present in the name of encrypted possibilities that remain largely invisible.

            In the Althusserian terms I sketched I would argue that this figuration of capitalist temporality is melodramatic. It implies that at the edge of the present – dominated by the empty time of the chronicle – is the occasional flash of melodramatic dialectical time. These flashes are, however, largely sent from the past. For all its proclamations of a knowledge of the present and future, accelerationism does not accede to the abandonment of this ‘full’ time of the clash. What are lacking, ironically, are precisely the new aesthetic forms, the new modes of knowledge, which accelerationism is premised upon.

            Contemporary accelerationism remains perched precariously in the present moment, between a valorized past and a receding future. This is disjunction without synthesis. Again, it registers our broken relation to capitalist time, but only in the mystification we can reconnect to a superior force. Althusser insisted that it was the absence of relations that marked the temporal experience of capitalism for consciousness. My objection to accelerationism is not on the ground of absence, but on the promise of reconnection.



Even discussing accelerationism might be considered a waste of (your) time. This is especially true of a critical discussion. What interests me, however, is accessing the question of the knowledge of capitalist time.  Accelerationism promises the kind of exposure of capitalist time that marks Althusser’s real dialectic. It premises itself on the stripping away of consciousness, which is not now the result of capitalism’s practical anti-humanism, but rather of epistemic expansion and extended ‘rationality’. What I am suggesting is that it falls back from this into mere melodrama, and that it positions such a real dialectic as a melodramatic form.

            Of course it could be said, in line with Althusser, that knowledge of capitalist time is simply a matter for a critique of political economy and a reconstruction of the logic of capitalism, beyond human consciousness. What interests me is the registration and shaping of these experiences on and for consciousness, which does not simply disappear – except in Althusserian science or the accelerationist dream of inhuman knowledge. This implies, to me, a necessity to think the disconnection and impasse of the present moment as a figure, at least potentially, of consciousness. In this case our choice, or decision, of aesthetic figuration becomes a crucial mode of knowledge.


Althusser, Louis, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969). [FM]

Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar, Reading Capital [1968], trans. Ben Brewster (London and New York: Verso, 2009). [RC]

Fisher, Mark, Break It Down: Mark Fisher on DJ Rashad’s DoubleCup’, Electronic Beats, 22 October 2013b:

Land, Nick, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, intro. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2013).

Reynolds, Simon, Retromania (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).

Reynolds, Simon (2013), ‘Introduction to the Hardcore Continuum’, The Wire:

Rose, Gillian, Dialectic of Nihilism:Post-Structuralism and Law (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984).

Williams, Alex, ‘Back to the Future? Technopolitics and the legacy of the CCRU’, Berlin, 1 February 2013.

[1] In Gillian Rose’s summary: ‘Hegel’s text invites us to witness the education of natural consciousness, presented as a series of confrontations set in more or less recognizable historical settings: between two opposed individual consciousnesses, between opposed forces residing within a single consciousness, and between opposed forces belonging to the same communal consciousness.’ (6)

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