lundi 8 août 2011

Renegade Academia.

Professor Bourbaki, Alienated and Loving It!, 2011.

CCRU retrochronically triggers itself from October 1995, where it uses Sadie Plant as a screen and Warwick University as a temporary habitat... CCRU feeds on graduate students + malfunctioning academic (Nick Land) + independent researchers + .... At degree-O CCRU is the name of a door in the Warwick University Philosophy Department. Here it is now officially said that CCRU "does not, has not, and will never exist".

- Communiqué from the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, November 1997

Still nominally affiliated to the famously poststructuralist Department of Philosophy of Warwick England, the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit is a rogue unit. It's the academic equivalent to Kurtz: the general in Apocalypse Now who used unorthodox methods to achieve superior results compared with the tradition-bound U.S. military. Blurring the borders between traditional scholarship, cyberpunk sci-fi, and music journalism, the CCRU is striving to achieve a kind of nomadic thought that to use the Deleuze and Guattari term - "deterritorializes" itself every which way: theory melded with fiction, philosophy cross-contaminated by natural sciences (neurology, bacteriology, thermodynamics, metallurgy, chaos and complexity theory, connectionism), academic writing that aspires to the future-shock intensity of jungle and other forms of post-rave music. 

According to CCRU, its frenzied interdisciplinary activity - as seen in its Virtual Futures and Virotechnology conferences, and its journals collapse and Abstract Culture - disturbed Warwick's philosophy department, resulting in the termination of the unit. Just as Kurtz disappeared "up river" into the Vietnamese jungle. The CCRU has strategically withdrawn to its operational base in an apartment in nearby Leamington Spa. Institutionally, it has abandoned the university and linked up with renegade autodidacts and para-academic activists like O(rphan)d(rift>), Matthew Fuller and Kodwo Eshun

CCRU was originally set up as a research unit for cybertheorist Sadie Plant, freshly recruited to Warwick from Birmingham University. With Plant's unexpected departure in early 1997 to become a freelance author (of the acclaimed cyberfeminist polemic Zeros + Ones, and the self-explanatory Writing on Drugs), the role of director of the CCRU was taken over by her ex-lover Nick Land.

Land is the kind of "vortical machine" around which swirl all manner of outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories - allegedly he went through a phase of talking only in numbers, and was once "taken over" by three distinct entities. True or not, there's no denying the fact that, as Lecturer in Continental Philosophy, Dr. Land has been a "strange attractor" luring students to Warwick purely through his personal reputation and charisma. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, Land's sole book-length publication, is a remarkable if deranged mix of prose-poem, spiritual autobiography, and rigorous explication of the implications of Bataille's thought. Prefiguring CCRU's struggles with university bureaucracy, the book drips with anti-academic bile, occasionally spilling over into flagellating self-disgust. 

In the early 1990s, Land used to describe himself as a "professor of delirial engineering". After the relatively down-to-earth Sadie Plant's departure, Land has shepherded the CCRU into an uncanny interzone between science and superstition, blending Deleuze and Guattari and Norbert Wiener's cybernetics with his own vast knowledge of the occult, chaos magick, and parapsychology: the I Ching, Current 93 (Aleister Crowley's kundalini-like energy force), Kabbalist numerology, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, the eschatological cosmology of Terence McKenna, and the like.

It is easy to see why Warwick University was consternated by CCRU's research. Explaining one of their numerological diagrams ("an attempt to understand concepts as number systems"), Land descibes it as a gift from "Professor Barker". Inspired by Professor Challenger - the Conan-Doyle  anti-hero reinvented by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia - Barker appears to be a sort of imaginary mentor who reveals various cosmic secrets to the CCRU. "But we'd be a bit reluctant to say "imaginary" now, wouldn't we?", cautions Land. "We've learned as much - well, vastly more from Professor Barker - than supposedly "real" pedagogues!" This would include Barker's "Geo-Cosmic Theory of Trauma". Following the chemistry of metals to the cycles of capitalism, from the nonlinear dynamics of the ocean to the fractalized breakbeat rhythms of jungle, the cosmos is an "unfolding traumascape" governed by self-similar patterns and fundamental processes that recur on every scale. Picking up on Deleuze and Guattari's submerged Romanticism, CCRU have developped a full-blown mystic-materialism.

Following the materialist lead of Deleuze and Guattari, human culture is analyzed as just another set of strata on a geocosmic continuum. From the chemistry of metals to the nonlinear dynamics of the ocean, from the cycles of capitalism to the hypersyncopated breakbeat rhythms of jungle, the cosmos is an "unfolding traumascape" governed by self-similar patterns and fundamental processes that recur on every scale. 

Libidinizing "flows" and investing them with intrinsically subversive power, Deleuze and Guattari have been criticized as incorrigible Romantics. The CCRU has developed this element of A Thousand Plateaus into a kind of mystic materialism. Discussing what the CCRU calls "Gothic Materialism" ("ferro-vampiric" cultural activity which flirts with the inorganic and walks the "flatline" between life and death), Anna Greenspan talks about how "the core of the earth is made of iron, and blood contains iron", about how the goal is to "hook up with the Earth's metal plasma core, which is the Body-Without-Organs". Body-without-Organs (B-w-O) is the Deleuzian utopia, an inchoate flux of deterritorialized energy; Greenspan says they take the B-w-O as "an ethical injunction", a supreme goal.

O(rphan)d(rift>) also talks about "metal in the body" and seeking the B-w-O. Another Land-influenced theory-fiction collective, O(rphan)d(drift>) is the CCRU's prime ally: the group perfomed at VF96 and is staging an event in collaboration with CCRU/Switch at London's Beaconsfield Arts Centre [in October 1998]. Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherkee, the core of OD, originally met as fine arts students at the prestigious but conservative Royal College, where their ideas about creating a form of multimedia-based synesthetic terrorism oriented around "schizoid thinking", prelinguistic autistic states, and man-machine interfaces proved way too radical. Formed in late 1994, OD was shaped by two mind-blowing experiences: "experimentation with drugs and techno", and a 1993 encounter with Nick Land.

"Before CCRU started at Warwick, Nick latched onto us very intensively for a while", says Roberts. "We fed him image experience, tactile readings of the stuff he was buried in theoretically. He wanted his writing to kick in a much more experiential way. For us, there was something wonderful about having a man you could ring up and ask: "what's radiation?", "what's a black hole?"".

OD's collective debut was a multimedia installation at London's Cabinet Gallery. What began as a catalog for the show escalated into an astonishing 437-page book, Cyberpositive. Like Plant's Zeros + Ones, Cyberpositive serves is a swarm-text of sampled writings that aren't attributed in the text. But where Plant offers footnotes OD merely lists the "asked" and "un-asked" contributors at the end. Published in 1995 by Cabinet Press, Cyberpositive serves as a sort of canon-defining primer for the CCRU intellectual universe, placing sci-fi and cyberpunk writers on the same level as poststructuralist theorists. "We treat Burroughs as clearly as important a thinker as any notional theorist", says Nick Land: "At the same time, every great philosopher is producing an important fiction. Marx is obviously a science fiction writer". For her part, Sadie Plant regards the '80s cyberpunk novelists like Gibson and Cadigan as "more reliable witnesses", precisely because, unlike theorists, "they don't have an axe to grind".

The most highly charged passages in Cyberpositive are the hefty chunks of Plant-Land writing and Robert's and Mukherjee's evocations of the techno-rave-Ecstasy-LSD experience. "I used to write a lot in clubs, which probably looked really pretentious", recalls Roberts. "Tracing what's happening in all the different sound channels and what they're doing spatially and physically to you". The language veers from masochistic mortification of the flesh ("deep hurting techno", "the meat is learning to know loss") to imagery influenced by voodoo and shamanic possession ("white darkness", "the fog of absolute proximity", "psyclone", "beautiful fear"). "It's trying to process the disassembling of the self", says Roberts. "Maybe what you're calling abject, we'd call melting. The violence of the sounds of techno, it's like you're being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated".

Despite her facial piercing and techno-pagan accoutrements, Roberts has a sort of burned-out, aristocratic air that suggests Marianne Faithfull circa 1969. A half-smile flickering on her lips, as if she's privy to some Kosmik joke, Roberts speaks in a faded falter - as though some unutterably alien zone of post-human consciousness hasn't quite relinquished its hold - which may be a pretty accurate description of the state of play. If CCRU has something of a cultic air, OD goes a lot further. Combining Mayan cosmology with ideas about artificial intelligence, they seem to believe that humanity will soon abandon the "meat" of incarnate existence and become pure spirit.

Throughout Cyberpositive there's the recurrent exhortation "we must change for the machines", and the book ends with the declaration - "human viewpoint redundant". Not only do OD reckon Charles Manson had some good ideas, their East London HQ contains several cages of snakes - proof of their determination to get really serious about voodoo rites. The obsession was sparked by Gibson's Count Zero, in which cyberspace has spontaneously generated entities equivalent to the loa (the spirit-gods of voodoo rites. Throughout our interview, a shaven-headed OD member called Rich sits with baby boa constrictors wrapped around his body. His other contribution to the evening is to make sandwiches - daintily quartered, but containing peanut butter mixed with sardines. "Too radical for me", I confess after one nibble. Rich's eyes light up triumphantly: Mind Game Over.

"Cyberpositive" was originally the title of an essay by Sadie Plant and Nick Land. First aired at the 1992 drug culture symposium Pharmakon, "Cyberpositive" was a gauntlet thrown at the Left-wing orthodoxies that still dominate British academia. The term "cyberpositive" was a twist on Norbert Wiener's ideas of "negative feedback" (homeostasis) and "positive feedback" (runaway tendencies, vicious circles). Where the conservative Wiener valorized "negative feedback", Plant-Land repositivized positive feedback - specifically the tendency of market forces to generate disorder and destabilize control structures. 

"It was pretty obvious that a theoretically Left-leaning critique could be maintained quite happily but it wasn't ever going to get anywhere", says Plant. "If there was going to be scope for any kind of ... not "resistance", but any kind of discrepancy in the global consensus, then it was going to have to come from somewhere else". As well as Deleuze adn Guattari, another crucial influence was neo-Deleuzian theorist Manuel De Landa's idea of capitalism "as the system of antimarkets". Plant and the CCRU enthuse about bottom-up, grassroots, self-organizing activity: street markets, "the frontier zones of capitalism", what De Landa calls "meshwork", as opposed to corporate, top-down capitalism. It all sounds quite jovial, the way the CCRU describes it now - a bustling bazaar culture of trade and "cutting deals". But Cyberpositive actually reads like a nihilistic paean to the "cyberpathology of markets", celebrating capitalism as "a viral contagion" and declaring that "everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind". In Nick Land's essays like "Machinic Desire" and "Meltdown", the tone of morbid glee is intensified to an apocalyptic pitch. There seems to be a perverse and literally antihumanist identification with the "dark will" of capital and technology, as it "rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, disolves subjectivities".

This gloating delight in capital's deterritorializing virulence is the CCRU's reaction to the stuffy complacency of Left-wing academic thought. "There's definitely a strong alliance in the academy between antimarket ideas and completely scleroticized, institutionalized thought", says CCRU's Mark Fisher. "It's obvious that capitalism isn't going to be brought down by its contradictions. Nothing ever died of contradictions!" Exulting in capitalism's permanent "crisis mode", CCRU believes in the strategic application of pressure to accelerate the tendencies toward chaos.

Hungry for intellectual reasons-to-be-cheerful, CCRU simultaneously renounces postmodernism's wan fatalism (the idea that we're at the end of everything) and the guilt-wracked impotence of the Left. In the process, they've jettisoned the concept of "alienation" in both its Marxist and Freudian senses. They speak approvingly of "surplus value", sublimation and commodity-fetishism as creative tendencies. Where "Cyberpositive" noted how runaway capitalism has accessed "inconceivable alienations", CCRU's collectively written essay "Swarmachines" goes further and climaxes with the boast: "alienated and loving it". The idea, says Fisher, comes from a mix-and-blend of Lyotard and Blade Runner - "the proletariat as the synthetic class, and revolution that's on the side of the synthetic and artificial. The concept of "alienation" depends on the notion that there's some authentic essence lost through the development of capitalism. But according to Barker, everything's already synthetic". If reality really is a bio-mechanical, geocosmic continuum, there's no reason to resist capitalism's escalating dynamic of antinaturalism: addiction to hyperstimulus, the creation of artificial desires.

The mania of CCRU's texts - with their mood-blend of euphoric anticipation and dystopian dread - is contagious. Much of the time they're trying to create a "theory rush" that matches the buzz they get from contemporary sampladelic dance music; they describe, half-jokingly, what they do as "sub-bass materialism". "The musical model is really key to us", says Land. "It's absurd to say that music doesn't represent the real and therefore it's an empty metaphor. Every theorist who hasn't a real place for music ends up with one-dimensional melancholia". Not only do the CCRU derive a lot of their energy form music (specifically drum'n'bass, which one member of the unit actually makes and DJs) but popular culture is where their ideas seem most persuasive. Right from its late-'80s beginnings, rave culture's motor has been anarcho-capitalist, from promoters throwing illegal parties in warehouses to drug dealing. Even after its co-optation by the record and clubbing industries, rave music's cutting edge comes from small labels, cottage-industry producers with home studios, specialist record stores, and pirate radio. Sadia Plant attributes these bottom-up economic networks to the end of welfare and "dependency culture", which forced people "to get real and find some ways of surviving" but also invent "new forms of collectivity" (the micro-utopian communality of the rave).

As well as being galvanized by music, the CCRU are influenced by the theory-driven leading edge of music journalism. One of their associate members if Kodwo Eshun, contributor to iD and The Wire, and author of the book More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (Quartet, 1999), a study of Afro-futurist music from Sun Ra to 4 Hero. Eshun describes himself and the CCRU as "concept-engineers". "Most theory contextualizes, historicizes and cautions; the concept-engineer uses theory to speculate, excite and ignite", Eshun proclaims. Like a DJ/producer, the concept-engineer is a "sample-finder", free to suspend belief in the ultimate truth-value of a theory and simply use the bits that work (in the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari's offering up A Thousand Plateaus as a toolkit rather than a gospel).

"Concept-engineer" is a good tag for the outer zone of "independent researchers" to which the CCRU is connected - renegade autodidacts like Howard Slater, a Deleuze-freak whose techno-zine break/flow brilliantly analyzes rave culture in terms of "surges of intensity" and "impulsional exchanges"; and Matthew Fuller, a media theorist/activist with a backround in anarchist politics and links to the hacker undergound. Fuller's CV of cultural dissidence includes flypostering, a non-Internet bulletin board called Fast Breeder, the scabrous freesheet Underground, and a series of anarcho-seminars dedicated to the praxis of media terrorism. Fuller also put out the anthology Unnatural: Techno-Theory for a Contaminated Culture, which included Plant-Land's "Cyberpositive".

Discussing his own cybertheory writings, Fuller talks about dismantling traditional "modes of political address" and developing a sort of postideological realpolitik of resistance. A true concept-engineer, he believes in ransacking theory texts for task-specific ideas. "Publishers like Autonomedia and Semiotext(e) produce material that you don't have to be an academic to get into, so it circulates outside those milieux. When I give presentations at academic events, it's easy to see I'm in a more powerful position than the academics - I can steal all the advantages of their discipline, plus do something else with it that fucks it up totally". Noting that Deleuze and Guattari are already being institutionalized into "the most dreary, saintly area of discourse", Fuller says he's dedicated to "cracking open those texts again, thinkers who originally opened stuff up to delirium and the irrational. I mix up different linguistic registers and narrative strategies so that the text writhes in the hands of the reader. In that respect, there's a lot more to be learned from fiction than theory". Here Fuller chimes in with Sadie Plant, whose Writing on Drugs includes a fictional component, and who hopes her future books will become "pure fiction". 

"The most enjoyable aspect of CCRU is that they are a gang - Ph.D students with attitude!" says Eshun. Loathing the "necrotic side of philosophy, the chewing-over of dead thinkers' entrails", and bored limp by the "delibidinizing" atmospheres of seminars, CCRU used to attend academic events, claims Eshun, expressly "in order to disrupt, undermine and ridicule.... They'd get into pitched battles with Derridians!"

Weary of such sports, Plant and CCRU have all enthusiastically embraced the idea of escaping "institutional lockdown" by going freelance. The CCRU hopes to become a kind of independent think-tank, selling "commodities" on the intellectual free market - like their strikingly designed Abstract Culture (each "swarm" consists of five separate monographs bundled together) and, in the future, CDs, CD-ROMs, and books.

It seems unlikely, however, that Plant and her erstwhile cronies will rejoin forces once they're out in the free-market wilderness. Some kind of ideological rift seems to have occurred. Plant says she couldn't really go along with the trip in numerical mysticism, not least because she didn't like finding herself "in the role of the sensible, conservative one - not a role I'm used to!" The remaining members of CCRU, for their part, seem to have resented their guru's premature departure from Warwick. "Nick Land's hermetic, he wants acolytes", says Eshun. "Whereas Sadie's this total communicator. Zeros + Ones is the return of the grand narrative with a vengeance. I can't think of any other writer with the same ambition. Sadie wants the world and I think she'll get it".


All quotations taken from an author interview with CCRU members conducted in 1998. This piece was originally written in 1998 and an abridged version was published in Springerin magazine, Vienna, 1999. For more on the CCRU and their subsequent adventures, check Steve Goodman aka Kode 9's; Hyperdub label,; Mark Fisher's; along with the CCRU website; and Transmat,

Simon Reynolds, Renegade Academia in Sound Unbound, The MIT Press, 2008, p.171-179.

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