Frenetic Standstill

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At the extreme, signs and significations which are nothing more than significations will lose all meaning. At the extreme looms the shadow of what we will call ‘the great pleonasm’: the unmediated passing into the unmediated and the everyday recorded just as it is is everyday—the event grasped, pulverized and transmitted as rapidly as light and consciousness—the repetition of the identical in a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture, since the ‘news’ never contains anything really new. If this extreme were reached, the closed circuit of communication and information would jeopardize the unmediated and mediated alike. It would merge them in a monotonous and Babel-like confusion. The reign of the global would also be the reign of a gigantic tautology, which would kill all dramas after having exploited them shamelessly… It would be a closed circuit, a circuit from hell, a perfect circle in which the absence of communication and communication pushed the point of paroxysm would meet and their identities merge. – Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume II

Lately I’ve been reading through a rather interesting book that somehow slipped beneath the radar, despite being focused on my long-running obsession with the strange architecture of modernity’ temporality: Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. The sense of acceleration characteristic of ‘classical’ modernity is not something that I’ve talked much about in the scribblings on this blog, having opted instead to look at the inverse that I think is more characteristic of our postmodern or late modernist condition—the sense of atemporal stagnation, declining progress and exhausted slowdown that was once described under the gloomy sign of ‘decadence’. So far my three bigger posts on this topic have been “Spatialization of Time/Temporalization of Space”, “Decadence & (Po)Mo” and “Catastrophic Marxism in the Age of Decadence”.

In the first, I tried to correlate these two orders of time—compressive and accelerative transformation and stasis—to the dialectical unfolding of space and time that Marx found operating in different ways at different points of the capitalist reproduction cycle and associated historical tendencies. The second post was about drawing parallels between the epoch that we describe as postmodernism and the era of cultural ennui and apocalypticism that held sway in Fin de siècle Europe. The third, finally, was a reading of catastrophist Marxism—which overdetermined the prevailing interpretations of Marx’s crisis theory with a mechanistic vision of capitalist breakdown and Kladderadatsch—as a political iteration of this same condition, with a correlation drawn between decadence and the “long depression” of the 1870s-90s. The further implication is that we can find in postmodernism an unconscious cultural reflection and articulation of a similar situation: the “long downturn” that has persisted since the 1970s.

One of the important things to note is that while the classical age of decadence and contemporary ‘postmodernism’ are comparable and reflective of similar trend-lines, there are also stark diverges. It was Frederic Jameson who wrote of decadence as something of a ‘foreshadow’ to postmodernism, but that in many respects, the postmodern condition is one that is worse and more protracted that this earlier mode. Decadent society was one both entranced and enthralled with entropy, which first stamped its mark on social consciousness in the 1860s as yet another great humiliation, one tearing at the fabric of the ideological fantasies of uninterrupted progress and civilizational march. Because entropy is still an affair of directionality (it provides, after all, the arrow of time in a physical sense), so too did decadent society move in particular way. It moved, at a ever-slowing pace, towards the great frozen end: the dimming sun and humanity’s grand buildings and machines coated in vines and rust—and, finally, the heat death of the cosmos itself.

Postmodernism for Jameson is something different. Entropy may still be a force recognized in popular (and unpopular) imagination, but it no longer operates as an arrow of time. Instead, we’ve faced with timelessness itself and the total supremacy of the same space stretching out in all directions, streaking off into horizons that are standing, paradoxically, just before our eyes. Not even the real threat of absolute catastrophe unmoors us here. In The Progress of This Storm, Andreas Malm describes climate change as a sort of ‘revenge of time’ against postmodern spatial domination, writing that “We can never be in the heat of the moment, only the heat of the past. Insofar as extreme weather is shaped by basal warming, it is the legacy of what people have done, the latest leak from a malign capsule—indeed, the air is heavy with time”. But even if we now “inhabit the diachronic”, as Malm says, this has done little to dent the widespread experience of living in posthistorie.

How to make sense of this paradox, where diachronic transformation fails to dint superstructural synchronic space? One can find traces of this non-conflict not only in the cultural response to climate change, but in the freight train of political events and the pace of life itself. From the declining existence of free time to the relentless barrage of political crises and even the recent near-brush with large-scale geopolitical war, space appears full of discrete events. And this brings me back to Rosa and his book, where we find the term to perfectly encapsulate this experience: the frenetic standstill. A twist on Virilio’s notion of ‘polar inertia’ (a “pathological fixedness”), Rosa defines the frenetic standstill as an abyssal scenario that constitutes the flipside of Jünger’s total mobilization—which was, of course, an expression of the developmental sublime at its most vitriolic, a violent joy at a great machinic arrangement seizing the whole of the globe and plunging it into the future. Rosa writes that

political events again take on the situational character of episodes and are comparable to… compressed episodes of individual experience… However, because they lose their status as elements of a meaningful historical chain of development and can no longer be transformed into genuine historical experience (Erfahrung) in Benjamin’s sense, they also lose any (“deeper”) significance in general, as countless cultural (and pop-cultural) observers of the present attest. Quite in the spirit of Marx’s dictum that history only repeats itself as farce, the documents of contemporary culture observe (occasionally even very turbulent) historical events in terms of the peculiar waning of their personal and collective significance. “From the turn of the twentieth century up to the present, the semantics of time has developed from a field upon which there are still victories to be won to an area in which all battles have already been fought and nothing more can happen,” as Nassehi summarizes this feeling of an end of history; his summary is confirmed by Imre Kertész, the Hungarian winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 2002, who writes: “everything keeps on going, but somehow flatter, if also more bluntly.”

Elsewhere in Social Acceleration, Rosa describes the frenetic standstill as a “decelerating force”, a “tendency towards rigidity” and “return of the ever same”. While this return of the same—or bare repetitionis meant first and foremost to define the repetition of the present itself within the (eternal) present, it seems to me that it could also be used to define another curious hallmark of the present moment, which is the flight into a sort of unproductive anachronism. Just as Malm’s poisoned air diffuses within the present the actions of the past with little cultural effect, so fragments of past cultural forms and even more recent recombinations of these forms come to circulate endlessly, colliding and mixing into ever more strange hybridities. These cultural artifacts are symptoms of a chronosickness (to borrow Alex William’s term to describe the postmodern flight into “kitsch retro-futurism”), the most illustrative example of which might be this cursed meme recently shown to me by Cockydooody:

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If chronosickness diagnoses the constant collisions of past forms with the wall of frozen time, this seemingly pointless meme reflects the immense piling-up of broken pieces and turned-over scraps. The quote is from the Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, an author whose works continually probed the interzone between hyper-modern acceleration and exhausted obsolesced through experiments with uncanny occurrences and anachronistic encounters. The font and coloring, meanwhile, brings to mind both the title card of Twin Peaks and the aesthetic templates of vaporwave—both of which engage in a strange time-scrambling, the former by dragging the 1950s into the late 1980s and the latter by dragging the anticipated futures of the 1980s into the 2010s. And, finally, the picture itself, borrowed from Fallout New Vegas: a game that depicts the leveled future of an alternative future where the 50s returned in full force. Importantly, the post-apocalyptic desert of New Vegas is not the “desert of solace” pursued by the Church fathers and hermit monks, but a desert that is teeming with events and haunted by the ghost of Great Politics (with all the required nods to Hegelian dialectics and Walter Benjamin). In a very real sense it too is a depiction of the frenetic standstill: what’s left of human community might be locked into a timeless moment and even on its way down, but events that resemble history continue to take place. Even the franchise’s motto, which alludes to an unchanging nature of things, situates these events not as unfolding in the context of a grand narrative (even if some players on the stage read it this way), but on the treadmill of eternal mechanical repetition, the bad infinity. In Fallout, not even the literal apocalypse can alter this bleak fate.

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A dynamic similar to Rosa’s frenetic standstill is traced by Guy Debord in his late Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. There, Debord was concerned with a historical evolution in the nature of the spectacle itself. In the United States and Western Europe, the ‘diffuse spectacle’, typified by a relatively mild bureaucratic order and the proliferation of commodities, had reigned, while the ‘concentrated spectacle’, based on a ‘controlling center’ promoting a singular social vision, held sway in countries such as the Soviet Union. Both of these, however, were superseded by the rise of the ‘integrated spectacle’—’integrated’ because it was the merging of the logics of both the diffuse and concentrated spectacles, on the basis of the diffuse spectacle itself. The spectacular society, in other words, now operated in a way that its operations were maintained by a controlling center, one regulated the logic of capitalist production and exchange, that remained occulted, hidden from view.

There are “five principal features” of a “society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle”, which Debord lists as “incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; eternal present”. Of these, ‘generalized secrecy’ and ‘unanswerable lies’ are indicative of the ‘conspiratorial turn’ of Debord’s thought, which emerged in the aftermath of the Years of Lead in Italty and the subsequent revelations of the state security services’ role in perpetuating terrorist attacks to justify crackdowns. This wasn’t, however, the flight into unabashed conspiracy theorizing as it was the articulation of a new sort of epistemological uncertainty that underpinned social order: lies that unanswerable means that we cannot, ultimately, discern whether or not they are lies or the truth. Truth, by extension, is extinguished as a political force, and the efficacy of public opinion as a democratic tool is annihilated. This is exacerbated by the role of generalized secrecy, which for Debord is “the most vital operation” of the integrated spectacle, and acts as the “decisive complement of all its displays”. Between generalized secrecy and unanswerable there emerges a society swarming with apophenia, misdirection and noise, all of which work together to produce a new sort of political order just as quickly as they grinds the gears of traditional mass politics to a halt.

Incessant technological renewal and the eternal present are more directly relevant to the question of the frenetic standstill. Debord writes of a “recent acceleration” of technological development that has served to “reinforce spectacular authority”—and this language is telling. Rosa’s own analysis of acceleration as something intrinsic to modernity is routed through an understanding of a historical trajectory embattled by repeating waves of technological innovation. It’s also something to be found in Marx, with his emphasis on the introduction of new machinery as a means of speeding-up of production (alongside an increase in the productivity of labor), and the importance of investments in means of transport and communication to decrease turnover time, which is to say, to increase the pace of the whole vital circuit. The latter stands at the basis of contemporary theories of space-time compression, the dynamism through which time horizons tend to collapse and the obstacles posed by space are eliminated. Reality itself seems to speed up as the globe itself shrinks.

Screenshot from 2020-01-09 17-27-32

But if we are going constant technological transformation, and such transformations constantly remake our world, then how do we end up with this other angle that Debord identifies, that of the eternal present? Debord suggests that the eternal present is induced by the forceful eradication of historical knowledge and memory, which is a point that conforms to permanent technological renewal: one simply doesn’t have the time to grasp a foothold and hang onto the present past. This too the ultimate conclusion that Rosa comes to, with the frenetic standstill being the index of a kind of psychic shock arising from the overwhelming of the senses by hyper-kinetic modernization.

However tempting these reading is, based on the relentless rush of individualized and discontinuous events, it seems to me that this cannot be the explanation, as this experience is taking place not within an explosion of innovation and change, but in the context of a protracted downturn. It’s the same problem that arises when we seek to apply Marx’s theory to the reality of the economic environment: we can tell, from both measures derived from Marx and from the mainstream economic toolkit, that the rate of profit has fallen—yet at the same time, it was Marx that argued that the rate of profit falls in proportion to the rising productivity of labor through increasingly mechanized production. The situation that we’ve seen since the 1970s, with a notable exception in the mid-1990s, has been different: productivity has stagnated in comparison to the period prior to the 1970s. This can be viewed through the measure of productivity as the ratio of output to labor hours and also through more neoclassical models such as total factor productivity; in the case of the latter the following chart from Robert Gordon is particularly telling:

Screenshot from 2020-01-09 18-06-02
source: The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War

At first blush this might seem like a counter-intuitive claim—after all, it appears difficult to imagine that growth in productivity has slowed across this period, because it appears undeniable that ‘incessant technological renewal’ is a reality. This question, then, is one of to what degree this technological change is really innovative, in the sense that it breaks paradigms, transforms the condition of labor and social life and increases the robustness of production. Gordon takes up such a question in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, writing that while he is “impressed by the frenetic pace of innovation”, doubts linger for him as to the “strength of its impact on productivity growth”. There is no doubt this pace is a reality; for example, “[t]he number of U.S. patents issued increased by 27.9 percent between 2006 and 2016, even faster than the 24.2 percent decadal increase from 1996 to 2006, which in turn was more rapid than the average 17.4 percent per-decade increase between 1956 and 1996”. But is are these innovations really innovative as such? And what does it mean to be truly innovative? I’m reminded here of Boris Groy’s comment that “[a] new iPhone is not an innovation. It is repetition”, which falls so close to Peter Thiel’s declaration that he doesn’t “consider [the iPhone] to be a technological breakthrough”.

“The reevaluation of values is the general form of innovation”, writes Groys, explicitly aligning innovation with the Nietzschean project of the transvaluation of values. It’s a snaking underground chain of continuity: we should recall, on the one hand, that Joseph Schumpeter’s own definition of innovation, creative destruction, is traceable back to Nietzsche via the mediation of German economist Werner Sombart, while on the other, this concept is fully prefigured by Marx’s own comments on the unity of destruction and renewal exhibited by robust modernizing processes. If what we’re left with in lieu of technical and social transvaluation is simply modular repetition, the breakdown of the identity between ongoing technological change and innovation as such is clear. It also illustrates the economic and technical processes underpinning the frenetic standstill: everlasting change with the effect of deepening the bare repetition of present life. Society becomes trapped, to quote Henri Lefebvre, in “a wild whirling dance devoid of Dionysian rapture”.

6 thoughts on “Frenetic Standstill

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