Friday, October 28, 2011

Reading Nick Land: Meltdown

Nick Land's Meltdown is an intriguing text, written in the mid-90s, which reads at times like a prediction for our time - yet at the same time, it is very marked by the time in which it was written.

The text paints a picture of a collapse of the world as we know it, which in the process changes humanity as such, under the pressure of what Land calls a "technocapital singularity". He seems to envision the world capitalist/technological system as a huge entity with unpredictable, even anti-humanistic behavior patterns, all its own. It follows a logic that is proper to it, fueled by technological developments run out of control, leading to a moment of radical collapse, which at the same time heralds fundamental changes in the human perspective on life:

Level-1 or world space is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-
configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly.
Garbage time is running out.
Can what is playing you make it to level-2?

Meltdown is an apocalyptic text, reading like a feverish roller coaster ride, a kind of update of the Book of Revelations that mixes the critiques of capitalism & schizophrenia from Deleuze & Guattari with imagery from the state-of-the-art of science and science fiction as it was in the 90s. The feel is very cyberpunk.

As such, the text feels curiously accurate and contemporary on the one hand - he seems to be talking about a huge crisis coming from a world-encompassing capital system run out of control, quite like what we are experiencing today - but somewhat dated at the same time, since it follows a mode of description that felt very exciting in the 90s but feels a bit different today. Our contemporary technology makes our lives quite close to a life with "virtual reality" as it was imagined in the 80s and 90s; but no longer does this feel exciting and adventurous, but rather a bit mundane.

Land's text, for example, seems to assume that weird urban subcultures will have come to determine the state of global cultural schizophrenia. Cyberpunk depicted grimy formless metropolitan sprawls inhabited by hackers, punks and cyborgs. It did not predict the streamlined friendliness of Apple and other tendencies of culture towards normalization and cleanliness. Land's view in particular does not contain any sense that the populist, culturalist, inward- and backward-looking tendency, that we have been seeing in many places (from the American Tea Party to the Dutch Freedom Party), which may well be a direct reaction to the revolutionary radicalness of said "technocapital singularity".

Land's text is interesting to read for its utopian interpretation of capitalist/technological mayhem. The text seems to revel in what, on the surface, might look like an unsettling and dystopian view of technology and capital; in fact, Land expects total transformation and change to come from it. He seems to see a utopia to exist within the meltdown itself. "Level 2", the anti-human utopia that is to come, is merely hinted at; the text, which promises an all-effacing, final singularity, itself actually does not finish, but ends "To be continued". An alternative to the capitalist logic described is thus hinted at but does not seem to be the central point of the text itself.

Could capitalism keep collapsing forever, and thereby also keep alive the promise of a Something Else that might have to come after the collapse? At this session of the reading group, the question was posed if the fictions of meltdown & collapse, that have been with us for quite a few years and that seemed like exciting fictions at the time, may not have prepared the ideological ground for a politics today, that takes such imminent collapse for granted, and uses that to sell the necessity of austerity measures to a domesticated general electorate.

On the other hand, a sense of apocalyptic collapse may have been a symptom of capitalism from the very start. From at least the tulip mania of the 17th century onward, there have always been bubbles, there have always been manic accelerations of value and debt. Meltdown as an ideological image might not necessarily be particular to our age, but a constant background, a foundational myth, for capitalism as such. Collapse as capitalism's secret desire.

This is a summary of the discussion held by the Reading At Occupy Amsterdam group on friday october 28. It was a brief session with four people attending.