When Things Take Time

speculative ecologies

The immensity of the effort that must be made, the necessity of again putting into question all of the values to which we are attached, of returning to a new barbarity in order to break with the polite and camouflaged barbarity that serves as our civilisation, the unknown toward which we direct ourselves—for we absolutely do not know what man could be—the terrible violence that the inequality in the satisfaction of needs provokes, the enslavement to things, the governance of things, as well as the dialectic proper to technology, the inertia, finally, the fatigue: everything would contribute to putting off the realization of such a movement to the time of reckoning of a dream (or of blood), if the pressure of needs did not represent a force, a reserve of great duration. One could say that the speed of the movement’s progression is surprising, but in any case, time is required for it…[1]

Maurice Blanchot, in this river-like passage, which flows and unfolds without stopping across contentions, challenges and difficulties, all on the issue of how we might begin to approach communism as our “material search for communication,”[2] in arguing that “time is required for it”, is not simply asking his reader for their patience (although I might do well to ask you for yours). What Blanchot is building here is an “impossible” project and one that still resonates with us today, faced as we are with our own impossibilities – the impending climate crisis looming large as the most unassailable obstacle of all.

We should note, first of all, that Blanchot’s communism is principally focused on a new communality; a new collective subjectivity; on radical friendships and infinite conversations; on subjective relations that escape the bounds of capitalist utilitarianism; that escape our understanding of human lives as tools for production with benefits and costs. For Blanchot, the innate violence of capitalism occurs when a man who accepts his thingness, his toolness, his usefulness for the system of which he is a part “not only breaks off communication with one who is similar or dissimilar to him but breaks off communication with himself,”[3] having little sense of the self that he is outside the restrictive context of economic relations. It is this interpersonal sense of alienation, most fundamentally and foundationally, that communism as the material search for communication must first seek to remedy today.

Despite our best intentions, the apparent impossibility of succeeding in this search comes from our total capture by capitalist modes of relation. Capitalism is so entangled with our language and modes of communication that we struggle to think and articulate the benefits of a life outside its grasp in terms that the system has not already captured for its own uses. The consequences of this capture continue to echo down the centuries. All that we have ever held sacred – all that exists beyond economic value – for Blanchot, the poetic and the artistic most explicitly – “loses and obscures itself as soon as it is satisfied in value.”[4]  Indeed, as so many on the political left have noted and mourned over the years, it was this very process that killed the counter-cultures of a 20th century avant-garde, an event that our processes of cultural production have still not yet fully come to terms with. 

This paradoxical process is not limited to the commodification of artistic pursuits, however. It is a process to be found at every level of contemporary being and experience. This is a result of capitalism’s well-documented and total co-option of time and the necessity of time for everything that we do. No matter what it is that we are producing – be it capitalist commodity or avant-garde artwork, disciplinary regimen or revolutionary movement, or even life itself – time is required for its growth and development. It is in our entanglement with these disparate forms of time that the impossibility of Blanchot’s project most clearly reveals itself. However, this impossibility is not an obstruction. As Blanchot writes, it is not his intention to put off “the realization of such a movement to the time of reckoning of a dream.”[5]His project is instead radically positive in its impossibility, wherein the impossible is not a horrifying non-Euclidean space of complacent capture – of the sort that the artist M.C. Escher so famously depicted, for instance – but rather a concept that offers us an opportunity for reflection in our consideration of it, allowing for new perspectives on our own libidinal desires as we seek to exit the tempo-capitalist loops that any given subject finds itself trapped within today, and allowing for such a capture and its projected exits to be confronted on their own absurdist terms. 

It is precisely this sort of exit that requires the “immensity of effort” that Blanchot describes and this immensity cannot be understated. As Blanchot’s friend Georges Bataille would write of his own (very similar) conception of the impossible: “Only the extremism of desire and of death enables one to attain the truth” that the impossible contains.[6] Death looms large here as a morbidly negative dimension of this formulation. However, for Bataille, the unthinkable nature of death provides philosophy with a foundation on which to build a new ethics, echoing the more contemporaneous observations of ecological activists and political theorists such as Donna Haraway and Mark Fisher, for example. As Fisher would write, death and our experience of it – and “not just individual death, but hyper-death, and not just the unexperienceable, but the evaporation of the very possibility of experience” – with humanity’s extinction as a result of the climate crisis being the most pressing example – “becomes a speculative and cognitive challenge.”[7] For Fisher, the stakes of this challenge are made most accessible to us through “the alienating power of the arts of modernism” which frequently provided us with experiences that made “one question one’s own experience.”[8]  Likewise, echoing Fisher’s famously borrowed provocation from his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, that ‘the end of the world is easier to imagine that the end of capitalism,’ Bataille would himself write: “Modern realism admits death, making human life, from the cradle onward, prey to an impossible nothingness.”[9] However, since “we cannot limit ourselves to postponing this deadline” that our own mortality represents, “in the end we can only face the impossible.”[10] In contending with the enforced realism of our time, we must all, then, become surrealists, imagining and enacting other forms of life beyond the prescribed realisms of our capitalist present. 

To approach life and death in this way – following another friend of Blanchot’s, Emmanuel Levinas – we must understand the latter alternatively as “the disappearance in being of … those movements that are always responses.”[11]Within this definition we find a two-fold understanding of death. It is, on the one hand, that thing towards which we cannot respond once it has taken us. On the other hand, emphasizing death’s place “within being,” it is also that which is primarily encountered second-hand, through the death of the other, an experience that demands change and new forms of life for those still living. This is to say that, culturally, we have long understood death to be its own form of departure: death as a movement of its own, as a “departure toward the unknown, a departure without return, a departure ‘with no forwarding address.”[12] The importance of this distinction – for Levinas, Blanchot and Bataille alike – is that it emphasizes death’s “impact upon the duration of the time that we live, its irruption within time” and “its irruption outside of time.”[13] It is another death beyond which time does not end.

What becomes of time, then, in this formulation of the impossible? Time, we might once again note, is required for many things. It is a requirement of being, as a category of experience, but its (measurable) mechanisms are also at the very heart of capitalism itself. It is here that the surreality of temporal capture comes to bear on the modern subject. It is, internally, how we understand experience, memory and speculative thought. It is, externally, that which we sell as part of our labour. Does this mean that any anti-capitalism is ostensibly anti-subjective in its abolition of the category of time? No – time is still required for it – but it is a time that is largely unfamiliar to the overbearing clock-time of our capitalist present. To return to Blanchot, he is likewise uninterested in capitalist time, restrained and compartmentalized. What interests him is time in itself, in its “metaphysical nudity”– “not only the time that shows itself to human consciousness but the time that is the basis of all consciousness, not time that is expressed in history but time in which history is made.”[14] It is not just a present time, in both senses of that word, but also an absent time, signifying a broader “absence of the world in which we act and work (that of the possible, which constantly denies being in order to transform it, through work, into livable reality).”[15]

Resonating with Fisher’s adoration for modernism and its questioning of quotidian experience, Blanchot considered Virginia Woolf’s The Waves to be the most daring and affecting poeticization of this new temporality, with the symbolism of relentless oceanic torpor capturing the thalassic life and death drives that connect human subjectivity to the natural and unnatural worlds of which we are always already a part. This symbolism is perhaps all the more resonant for us today with the rising tides of the climate crisis echoing the increased fervor of our unconscious sociopolitical undertows. 

As with Woolf then and with Blanchot here now, the challenge laid down before us seems to be that the only way out of time – out of capitalism, out of work, out of our own impending ecological doom – is through time itself (albeit an amorphous form of time that capitalism persistently denies us access to). Here we might hear an echo of a familiar phrase: The best way out is through. It is a phrase, first uttered by American poet Robert Frost, that is arguably most readily associated today with the political philosophies of “accelerationism” – that controversial catchall used to demarcate various arguments that suggest we must escape capitalism by exacerbating the outward-reaching flows it incessantly produces for itself but also cannot but obstruct. By constantly seeking to expand into its own outsides, capitalism opens up egresses to other forms of life that it must quickly capture and subsume within its own mechanisms. With this in mind, the broad church of accelerationism is perhaps best understood as a consideration of the ways in which the capitalist subject is able (and unable) to hack and control capitalism’s own life and death drives – the internally produced forces that keep it alive, on the one hand, and those that likewise threaten its own existence on the other. It is also, more importantly, a consideration of the ways that we ourselves are hacked and controlled by these very same inhuman forces. 

More specifically, neoliberalism – that term used haphazardly to refer to our contemporaneous political realities which function in the service of capitalist economics – approaches capitalism’s death drive by affixing a control value to its various material and libidinal instantiations, releasing just enough of the tension capitalism produces so as to keep its own internal processes of entropy at bay. When we consider the contemporary climate crisis such an argument comes up against various ethical impasses. The climate seems to be a blind spot for neoliberalism’s control valve. Despite decades of reports to the contrary, our political institutions have largely ignored capitalism’s detrimental affects upon the climate. We might also say that, at best, neoliberalism’s attempts to remedy the situation just enough – balancing the health of both the earth and the parasitic system of capitalism that is stubbornly attached to it – have been repeatedly humiliated by their own shortsightedness. Today there is little room for humiliation left with many believing that we are on the precipice of a point of no return. As such, the agentic capacity of the capitalist subject – that which, today, we all are by default – becomes an increasingly important consideration for accelerationism as a philosophy to deal with. We might ask ourselves: what sort of project do we have time for that can produce a radically new subjectivity? In many ways, accelerationism is a response to this contemporary dilemma explicitly, but the popular understanding of “the only way out is through” often leads to many believing that any accelerationist view on the crisis at hand is innately nihilistic, as if the response is to “do nothing and see what happens.” In fact, the reality is far more nuanced.

We should emphasize here that Blanchot’s deployment of the impossible in relation to a deathly desire for communism is likewise an attempt to place the communist movement, as the “death” of capitalism, within time itself – not as an end point or as that which lies beyond empirical knowledge, but rather as an event-horizon that ruptures our present closed-circuit understanding of temporality as such (whilst nonetheless being integral to it in the first instance). It is time understood cyberpositively. The death of capitalism, then, is not a future-past but a concept to be thought actively in the becoming-present – and it is in this sense, most explicitly, that we can understand time as being required for its movement. This is an insight that is likewise central to philosophies of accelerationism, which we should recognize here as being, first and foremost, a theory of time, and one that does not function well when transposed onto the “frenzied stasis” – the cybernegative reality – of contemporary politics. As arch-accelerationist Nick Land would write in a recent summative essay on the marginal philosophy he helped develop:

In philosophical terms, the deep problem of acceleration is transcendental. It describes an absolute horizon – and one that is closing in. Thinking takes time, and accelerationism suggests we’re running out of time to think that through, if we haven’t already. No contemporary dilemma is being entertained realistically until it is also acknowledged that the opportunity for doing so is fast collapsing.[16]

Likewise, when Blanchot says that “time is required” for the development of any communist movement, he is not simply saying, “Hold your horses; be patient – these things take time.” On the contrary, he is instead demanding an antipraxis of time that echoes of the accelerationist coupling of “the implosion of decision-space to the explosion of the world – that is, to modernity,”[17] rethinking time beyond the inertia of time’s capitalist capture. 

Rather than resting on this diagnosis, as many self-described accelerationists are today satisfied to do, Blanchot emphases the innately tempo-ethical dimension of communism and of Karl Marx’s particular “search for the right direction and the determination of a possible future.”[18]  He is suggesting that we, ourselves, must take time; we must seize time as the means of production, but also, in a more radical sense, as the ground of all creation. We must seize anew the temporality – the speed; the time signature – of our present moment. And so, Blanchot’s challenge to us becomes a new understanding of the communist movement as the Great Duration – as time itself. 

But to what extent is our seizing of time even possible? Put another way: how is a politics of time possible at all? We are in no position, at present, to broach such a topic and recent attempts to do so anyway – with so-called left-accelerationism chief amongst them – have only emphasized this point. This is precisely the impossibility that we are faced with under the contemporary climate crisis – the impossibility of a politics of time. Instead, perhaps what we need first is an ethics of time through which we might broaden the political scope of our accelerationist philosophies. Faced with the politics of capitalist time – wherein time = money – which cannot but consider themselves in terms of qualities and quantities – we must reorient ourselves to understand time differently – that is, anti-capitalistically. 

In hoping for the quick establishment of a politics of time, we are likely to assign far too much agency to ourselves, as if the propulsive teleology of the techonomic processes of modernity were open to affectation by ‘us’ at all; as if time itself were susceptible to our wills. What is required instead, as Gilles Deleuze would write most infamously, is that we “accelerate the process” by entering into the process. We must view ourselves from within the depths of things in order to fully recognize the flows that flow through, with and around us. In this sense, our task is only to make ourselves worthy of the process. We must attempt to become, as Deleuze would write in his 1969 work Logic of Sense, “the quasi-cause of what is produced within us”.[19] Alternatively, as Levinas writes, we must allow our being to exceed itself by “flowing toward an I that approaches it, but flowing toward it infinitely without running dry, burning without being consumed.”[20] We must enter into wholly new ways of being.

Many such ways of being have already been described for us, by Virginia Woolf most memorably. We must understand consciousness as Woolf does – and capitalism too, for our benefit and to its detriment – collectively and fluidly, finding it to be cyclical and repetitive but unstable nonetheless. We must enter into a collective consciousness and find outsideness within and without. Here we may find hope, as Blanchot does in Woolf –  “What does it matter, then, that the end is nearing! What does it matter that death is coming!”[21]  This hope must not be mistaken for an apolitical nihilism. It is more akin to Nietzsche’s amor fati. “Each moment is a step towards the end of being, but it is also a moment in which the being asserts itself; each moment that is a progress towards death is a moment saved from death.”[22]

As Woolf would write from the depths of her novel’s templexity: “How to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.”[23]  What an opportunity for the ever-present xenopoetics of late capitalism, for there is no time here either and, for capitalism, as for us, time is all there is.

This essay was first published in Speculative Ecologies: Plotting Through the Mesh (Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2019).

[1] Maurice Blanchot, “On One Approach to Communism,” Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) 94-95.

[2] Blanchot 93. Blanchot acknowledges that this phrase has been borrowed from his friend, the political activist and essayist Dionys Mascolo, although its original context is not cited in the text.

[3] Blanchot 93

[4] Blanchot 93

[5] Blanchot 95

[6] Georges Bataille, The Impossible, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1991) 9.

[7] Mark Fisher, “Practical Eliminativism: Getting Out of the Face, Again” in Speculative Aesthetics, eds. Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, James Trafford (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014) 91.

[8] Fisher 92

[9] Bataille 20

[10] Bataille 20

[11] Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000) 9.

[12] Levinas 9

[13] Levinas 9

[14]Maurice Blanchot, “Time and the Novel” Faux Pas, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) 249.

[15]Maurice Blanchot, “The Museum, Art, and Time” Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) 32-33.

[16] Nick Land, “A Quick-and-Dirty Introduction to Accelerationism,” Jacobite, 25 May 2017, accessed 8 October 2019<https://jacobitemag.com/2017/05/25/a-quick-and-dirty-introduction-to-accelerationism/>.

[17] Land

[18] Blanchot, “On One Approach to Communism” 95

[19] Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense (London and New York: Bloomsbury Revelations, 2015)153.

[20] Levinas 221

[21] Blanchot, “Time and the Novel” 251

[22] Blanchot, “Time and the Novel” 251

[23] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Penguin Classics, 2000) 221.

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