Terminator vs. Ghostbusters

On Wednesday I went to Tate Britain to hear Amy Ireland, Mark Fisher and Luke Pendrell speak at Haunters and the Haunted, the last in the Speculative Tate series. I hadn’t been to any of the other talks but I must say this part did what panel talks should do: stimulate thought. It is this thought I would like to explore here. My thoughts are not fully formed yet, they are more questioning and exploratory. Hence, they are here on my blog!

Ireland’s talk concerned itself at times with Land’s concept of Teleoplexy and its end point for us. The Landian accelerationist moment of transformation, for us, as we understand ourselves today, is an end point. The faceless machines coming to Bethlehem was one of the themes put forward. In a way Land’s project was contextualized within a continuum of particular formulations of a modernist aesthetic. It is a continuum that does not look for our own new solution, but imagines a change brought about by an AI driven dawn of non-knowledge. I won’t try to outline Ireland’s particular narrative content in any critical detail; instead I wish to focus on Teleoplexy in isolation. The following is my take on the of Teleoplexic end-point of Landian Accelerationism.

Teleoplexy is the trajectory of machines, faceless machines that seek efficiency. It is a seeking indifferent to the human. It correlates with many things (Land, 2014, p.514) but the crucial aspect for me here is twofold. Firstly that it organizes the fleshy things around it, the humans. It also organizes our little coins and creaking communication networks. Secondly that the concept of Teleoplexy, its mode or operation if you will, is based on the most fundamental of circuitry theories – cybernetic intensification. Thus, although Teleoplexy is a vast prospect, its basis has unnervingly simple groundings: technological modulation of humans and cybernetic intensification. But this is not the end of the story, because supposedly as Teleoplexy blossoms many things occur. The most important facts of its blossoming for me are that the machines gain consciousness and are able to quantify the world – a vaguely techo-gaia or cybernetic singularity type prospect that Land (along with Sadie Plant and Iain Hamilton Grant) would term ‘anorganic convergence’. This is Skynet as fate: ‘technics is increasingly thinking about itself. It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone some metaphysical perpetuity.’ (Land, 2011, p.293)

If you consider Teleoplexy as a massive sprawling intensifying machine, a machine that inhabits any non-human object in the world, then that circuit’s consciousness is an unthinkable and horrific prospect (unthinkable in the proper Thackerian horror sense – see Thacker, Clouds of Unknowing, 2011, pp.1-9). Teleoplexy also ‘names historical process in time’ (Ireland) It collapses the past and future, or time running forwards or backwards. Because such folksy linearity, the spasm of humanoid time must cease – or rather, already has! Teleo-plexy is the end to the seizure of history as linear time.

But further to this horrific prospect there is another. It is that such an immense and world sprawling network may come to ask itself: ‘what is the value of this earth?’ It is at this point that catastrophe (as indistinguishable from confluence) comes. Of course, it may well be a catastrophe of the human as we know it, but crucially, and most importantly it is an end to the technonomic currency. Capitalism or any value system that is hierarchical, inefficient and unequal is able to be, for the first time stripped of its values and potencies: denominated. (Land, 2014, p.520) For Land this is not a case of if but of when we will experience what has already happened in the future.

This is a powerful and bombastic notion with a streak of shiny booted indifference threaded through it. But do not get it wrong, Land is not arguing for more machines and more Capitalism as we know it today. As Ireland was sure to point out, Land is not wishing to accelerate the domestic trappings of the bourgeoisie and their political accessories. Quite the contrary: “The deep secret of capital-as-process is its incommensurability with the preservation of bourgeois civilization, which clings to it like a dwarf riding a dragon.” (Land, 2011, p.265) More shops are not the answer. An intensifying economy isn’t the answer. Rather, an AI afforded catastrophy that renders all economies (libidinal, nominal, oedipal, temporal) dethroned is. Such a notion is, at best, indifferent to our current humanism but it does have, at its core, a sort of strange inhuman positivity. It is of course, so inhuman in its nature that to call it positive chimes oddly. To call it nihilistic would be more correct under local frameworks. But for me it is positive in a nihilistic way because it outlines how a massive change will happen – not could happen. For me this is what is significant. It seems that in the paralyzing impasse of today, a world that is easier to imagine ending in fire and brimstone than emancipated from Capitalism, Lands texts are still conspicuous by virtue of their ambition to set out a trajectory of future change (albeit relinquished to autonomous technics and machines). Maybe not any time soon, and maybe not without some form of planetary cataclysm – but it will one day. It is a Teleoplexic Spectre – a fate haunting the present.

The obvious criticism here is the difficult question. Is the end of Capitalism worth the destruction of our familiar libidinal, technonomic, oedipal and temporal castles? However, and this elucidates how easy it can be to criticism Land too quickly, such a question is flawed. It is a doomed question because it accepts one part of Teleoplexy, the end of Capitalism, but forgets the other: the fact that it has already happened – we just haven’t tottered to it yet in our quaint linear time. Such a question is a false luxury, a mirage, a phantom that haunts us because we are dumb and weak – so dumb and weak we can only navigate space and not time. In Land’s project the luxury of such a question is impossible, it has never existed. Our faceless fate is sealed.

Fisher’s and Pendrell’s talks were quite different from Ireland’s. Like Ireland’s I cannot recall in fine detail the narratives of each but there was a dominant theme of hauntings, ghosts and spectres. It is this that I will focus on here. In the discussion afterwards a few dominant themes emerged. One was a lack of creativity (or as Fisher would suggest a marked absence of future-shock in the last twenty years). Another was the Sisyphean absurdity of being forced to continue in pointless, endless work. It is on these points that I want to raise a definition that I tried to highlight then. It is lifted directly from Davis’ essay ‘Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms’. Davis’ essay explores how Derrida, in Spectres of Marx, took his very particular notion of the ghost or spectre. The ghost that informed hauntology was a very specific type of ghost – a ghost that is distinctly different from a phantom. Davis’ circles the different geneses of hauntologies in more detail than I can do justice to here but I feel that the crux of the argument is the definition between a spectre and a phantom. We can say that the phantom lies with Abraham and Torok whereas the spectre remains Derrida's secret.

Lets look at the differences between the phantom and the spectre. On an epistemological level one can take the spectre to be something unknowable, a liminal thing, a limit, a lacunae whereas a phantom is knowable by its falsity. The phantom is in our narrative, it is known whereas the spectre always remains to a large degree outside our knowledge and narrative. Keeping this in mind we must see each as a form or type of secret. Phantoms lie to us, they do not tell the truth, but such a deceit is within our world. Spectres are secrets because they themselves are never fully known. Phantoms are liars that we must uncover to be so in order to banish them. Spectres on the other hand cannot really be banished in the same operation as the phantom because they were never in our world or our narrative framework to begin with. The phantom is a domesticated ghost secret we can solve (often returning from the past) whereas a spectre is a secret to our knowledge – something we may be able to know in the future. As Davis states:

“The crucial difference between the two strands of hauntology, deriving from Abraham and Torok and from Derrida respectively, is to be found in the status of the secret. The secrets of Abraham’s and Torok’s lying phantoms are unspeakable in the restricted sense of being a subject of shame and prohibition. It is not at all that they cannot be spoken; on the contrary, they can and should be put into words so that the phantom and its noxious effects on the living can be exorcized. For Derrida, the ghost and its secrets are unspeakable in a quite different sense. Abraham and Torok seek to return the ghost to the order of knowledge; Derrida wants to avoid any such restoration and to encounter what is strange, unheard, otherly, about the ghost. For Derrida, the ghost’s secret is not a puzzle to be solved; it is the structural openness or address directed towards the living by the voices of the past or the not yet formulated possibilities of the future. The secret is not unspeakable because it is taboo, but because it cannot not (yet) be articulated in the languages available to us. The ghost pushes at the boundaries of language and thought.” (Davis, 2005, pp.378-379)

Phatomic lies from past or spectral future possibilities of a future. This is a key question that I want to turn towards. For example, I feel it is safe to say that the cultural stasis, the marked lack of future shock in pop music or fashion, is a phantom. We have phantom bands and phantom brands selling us nostalgic lies from yesteryear (this is a also a growing domestic political trend, registering as conservatism and retro-fetishistic fervor). We also do phantom work. Most of the work we are engaged in is utterly pointless. For example, we have more powerful machines than every before for quantifying and calculating our work but human workers now spend more time than ever doing the same. Even our reasons and justification for working appear phantomic. Cars, for example. I suggest cars for three reasons. Firstly because they are often luxuries (unlike property) that people buy on credit or payment plans. Secondly, because of the odd premium attached to particular types of cars that are no superior to what are seen as lesser machines. And Thirdly because, like our iPhones, cars are always undergoing phantom upgrades. But, unlike an OS update, a personal vehicular upgrade has massive financial implications. But the comparison here is precisely that both Cars and Smart Phones promise to get better and better but in functional terms remain the same. (For a good examination of BMWs progress see Robert Kelly and Robert McNamara: Extended Narrative versus Data Mining by Liam Gillick).

Apart from impractical supercars that only the super-rich non workers can afford the middle range luxury cars seem to be a register of how people, at some level, conjure up meaning for from work rather seek the ends of work. People want phantomic reasons to work more than they want things from work. I say this because things like BMW's or Mercedes are really no different to other cars (in essence) they are not massively quicker, or quieter or safer. Yet many people still buy them, why? The answer lies in the way in which such cars are bought. For example, most BMW's are bought by working people on credit or payment plans. Middle-class, wealthier than average, workers - sure - but worker's nonetheless. To make a generalisation, I think it is safe to say that the target German car demographic is not the private island owning jet set billionaire but the 40k suburban toiler. Unlike Ferraris the BMW's or Audi's are likely to be bought on credit. Here I see the creation of works meaning. It is a way to solve the running out of ends, if you have a certain amount of things you need (roof, food, heat) then very soon you need to find other ends to maintain your work as a means to. You have to find reasons to work – albeit phantom reasons. The rise of luxury cars on credit is a register of people's yearning to maintain their focus on the means and not the ends and conjuring phantoms in the process. The rise of luxury phantom goods is a register of peoples unimaginative clinging to work as the prospects of their ends run dry. My luxury car suspicion is not negative, it's not to say that people are dumb and will buy anything and wind up trapped in a job. It's actually the opposite. People, at some level, know full well that things are pointless luxuries but want them anyway for obscure, counterintuitive and phantomic reasons. The car defers the expose of phantom work, or meaningless work, by providing a material justification for such Sisyphean drudgery. An anxiety, a denial of meaninglessness, is deferred from the phantom job into a justificatory object of desire.

The immediate criticism to my flash-cars-as-deferred-phantoms-de-phantomising-meaningless-work would be that it is just a register of consumerism. This is true. It is a register of consumerism, but it’s important to parse out how consumerism works. Because, I have attempted to demonstrate, by doing so with a good tinge of Lacanian structure one can begin locating the passages of phantoms in contemporary life. Phantoms of the past, or denial fuelled lying phantoms must be located if only so that the Spectre can be sensed, felt or suspected. Rather than being chased around the non-space maze of late Capitalism by lying phantoms of the past we should seek the Spectre even though we may never fully know it.

I would like to return to Teleoplexy for a moment. Teleoplexy, and Land’s project generally, is desirable in that it maps out, with striking authority, a path to change. For all its inhuman predictions it is heart-warming in its sheer clarity of prescription, even if such a prescription is the fateful end for us! The collapse of human time is another obstacle. To relinquish history is, as I see it, a strategy to usurp any platform for engagement or discussion. It is a pawn in the dethroning of human agency. But who just wants to be around for the ride? The attraction of Land’s texts lies in the drive for change, seeking change or asking for change – not in the reservation that our fate has already been sealed. I am sure I am not alone in coming to Land’s texts at a point of hopeless political exasperation yet I feel now that my approach was futile. I, like many others I expect, wanted a manual for today not a verdict on the fate of tomorrow.

Of course, Land’s text doesn’t totally avoid human time. Quite the opposite, it insists on placing our inevitable trajectory within a sci-fi narrative framework (this is one aesthetic aspect of his text I adore). Things of the future visit the present and things of the past are addressed. It would be impossible for Land to communicate Teleoplexy in any other way in textual language. A good example of this, pandering to our historical temporal linearity bent, is found in his concept of the schizophrenic and its relation to our oedipal castles of social control:

“With those who bow down to Oedipus we can do business, even make a little money, but schizophrenics refuse transference, won't play daddy and mummy, operate on a cosmic-religious plane, the only thing we can do is lock them up (cut up their brains, fry them with ect, straightjacket them in Thorazine ... ). Behind the social workers are the police, and behind the psychoanalysts are the psychopolice. Deleuze-Guattari remark that 'madness is called madness and appears as such only because it finds itself reduced to testifying all alone for de territorialization as a universalprocess'.23 The vanishing sandbank of Oedipus wages its futile war against the tide. 'There are still not enoughpsychotics'24 writes Artaud the insurrectionist. Clinical schizophrenics are pows from the future.” (Land, 2011, pp.306-307)

We could suggest that the schizophrenic P.o.W. from the future is a type of spectre in temporeal terms – it comes from the future. But, such a reading is false. It is false because despite arriving from the future, the schizophrenic as spectre is not a potential horizon of knowledge and change (as the Derridean spectre is). The schizophrenic P.o.W. from the future is a spectre of inevitability, not opportunity. Let’s imagine the clichéd scenario of a visitor from the future. In many instances of this in fiction there comes a moment when the visitor fades from the screen as a result actions taken in the present. More often than not the visitor only travels back in time to urge the characters of the present to take action so that an undesirable future may be averted. If the schizophrenic P.o.W. was to visit us, Terminator style, then there would be nothing we could do to change the future they arrive from. Even the spectres that Land employs to elucidate his project are autonomous from human agency and hold no potential for us.

After such a prospect I still want to ask what can be done. I don’t buy Land’s project of the inevitable just yet. It is because of this that I feel the phantoms of today are what need to be addressed. Like I have sought to do with cars and labour, exocising contemporary phantoms is something that can be done. It needs a close examination of subjectivities and the libidinal machinations of Capitalism - but it is a productive task. It is productive because, following Davis’ distinction, the Derridean version of the spectre offers potential. We won’t have a chance to glimpse such a spectre (whatever it is, be it metallic gnashing ‘anorganic convergence’ or utopic humanism) if we remain mired amidst lying phantoms of the past framed within the domestic narratives of late Capitalism. Thus, in order to reveal clues for our future, we must start by ghostbusting the phantom pasts that haunt today.

Land, N. 2011. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Urbanomic / Sequence Press.

Thacker, E. 2011. In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Winchester UK: Zero Books.

Land, N. 2014. Teleoplexy; in #Accelerate, eds. Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014)

Davis, C. 2005. États présents: Colin Davis. Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms in French Studies (July 2005) 59 (3): 373-379

Gillick, L. 2012. Robert Kelly and Robert McNamara: Extended Narrative versus Data Mining in Afterall Journal. Spring 2012.