The left hand of all creation (3): Excursus on creative destruction (Spielrein, Schumpeter, Boyd, Land)

John Martin, “Pandemonium” (1841).

Obviously, a concept like creative destruction has an extensive genealogy. In Western philosophy, at least, you can trace variations of the idea back to Greek pre-Socratics like Anaximander and Heraclitus. While the specific locution “creative destruction” is often attributed to Joseph Schumpeter (who probably pulls the term from either Karl Marx or Werner Sombart), the insight that creation and destruction are somehow reciprocal in nature certainly isn’t uniquely his. Indeed, there’s a certain irony in how Schumpeter, a conservative pessimist, is today perhaps the figure who most readily comes to mind following invocations of the term (e.g., by corporate raiders and culture warriors). That being said, Schumpeter’s optics do illuminate a particular concern, namely, the distinct possibility that processes of creative destruction may well terminate in collapse when they reiterate unrestrictedly under conditions of scarcity (e.g., of natural resources, of general intellect, etc.).

In any case, it’s worth dwelling on the four figures I discuss below, not just because they each offer rather different descriptions of this highly dynamic and generative theoretical object (“creative destruction”), but because their attempts at redescription exemplify one version of what it means, in my sense, to use an object. Object use operationalizes redescription. Redescribing an object lets us repurpose that object. This is because redescribing the object alters its descriptive apparatus, which changes what the object is, which changes the range of what the object can do (its prospectus). In this regard, object use presupposes creative destruction. The fantasmatic object, the manifest image, the projective material, the standard assumption: these inheritances and investments need to be destroyed – that is to say, reconfigured – in order to free up the objects for use. But the process of creative destruction isn’t as linear and straightforward as merely eliminating errors, or knocking down Bacon’s idols. Error may be ineliminable (and perhaps it’s a good thing, too, otherwise we’d have nowhere to start and nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to know), but it is certainly reducible. (Note: The operation I’m describing isn’t just about dispelling an erroneous or fantasmatic object or projection in order to get access the real object. On my account, a bad or inhibiting description is a part of the real object, because the descriptive apparatus is one of the ontological strands composing the object. Therefore, instead of dispelling descriptions or representations as such in order to get at unmediated reality, we are trying to reconfigure, redescribe, remediate, and repurpose our objects.)

Sabina Spielrein (1885-1942)

The psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein rarely gets cited or discussed much, except when she is squeezed into biographical narratives about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung’s fractious parting of the ways, or else situated contextually in comprehensive intellectual histories of early psychoanalysis. This is especially true insofar as she’s supposed to have produced an early formulation of what Freud later theorizes as the death drive. (To some extent, her unjust occlusion is being redressed by scholars in recent years, but she remains largely neglected. See 1, 2, 3. Note especially that, as several other scholars have also noted, Spielrein’s ideas are distinctly and uniquely her own.) Her “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being” (1912) is a dense and difficult read. Nevertheless, she summarizes her principal thesis quite clearly: “the reproductive drive consists psychologically of two antagonistic components, a destructive drive as well as a drive for coming into being.” So what does this mean? Unlike Freud, for whom the death drive opposes the libidinal or life instincts of the organism, Spielrein’s “death drive” is a dynamic feature of the libido itself, and this feature generates or produces further articulations of life. For Freud (especially in Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920]), the death drive is typified by the compulsion to repeat (even mechanically), by “an urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things” – that is to say, to achieve final homeostasis, to return to the inorganic and static tombworld that precedes and awaits every living organism. Freud’s theorization of the death drive was his attempt, at first, to explore the etiology of post-traumatic symptoms experienced by veterans of World War I and, later (especially in Civilization and Its Discontents [1930]), to explain why humans seemed to him so naturally predisposed toward destructive behaviors and pursuits. By contrast, Spielrein’s theorization of the death drive focuses on the relinquishment of self-identity or self-investment that she thinks is the necessary precondition for creativity in every form – that is to say, for the generation or production of the new. She discusses this process using a rich range of examples drawn from biology (principally referring to the mechanisms of cellular apoptosis), from her clinical cases, and from various cultural and mythic narratives. But the process itself nevertheless can be described quite straightforwardly. For Spielrein, the death drive refers to the individuation of entities by means of their self-enclosure, by means of the sequestration of materials of whatever sort that enables an entity to emerge. There’s a catch, though. For her, this power of individuation entails or prefigures a form of self-destruction or self-overcoming. I can’t emphasize this point strongly enough: individuation implies extinction. But extinction here does not refer to the inevitability of return to the Freudian tombworld. Instead, Spielrein casts the destruction of the entity – its tearing itself apart – as the necessary precondition for its fostering progeny of some kind. (In this regard, Spielrein arguably preempts and exceeds Sandor Ferenczi’s attempt to theorize a biological unconscious that operationalizes the traces of environmental and geologic catastrophe that lurk inside of it. I say “exceeds” because, where Ferenczi situates only the oceanic, and indeed the ocean, as the lost originary site to which organisms like us seek to regress, Spielrein characterizes “both the sun and the sea’s depths” as the twin engines of creation: both the excoriating, extravagant solar factory later described so memorably by Georges Bataille and the dark thalassic reservoir embodied by the shining impersonal sea from whence the organism crawls or slithers.) Sequestered materials have to be liquidated and freed up for use, for new developments or productions. Death is not the end, but instead it is a mechanism or a medium of exchange, a stage on life’s way.

Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950)

The Austro-Hungarian political economist Joseph Schumpeter has either a very good or else a very bad reputation these days, depending on who you talk to. In no small part, this is because he championed the socioeconomic merit of Unternehmergeist, or “entrepreneurial spirit” – that is to say, the dialectical power of new ideas and practices to introduce generative novelty into business methods and products, to propel whole economies forward by means of what today often gets characterized rather cheaply. For Schumpeter was interested in innovation (as opposed to mere imitation – on this, see Peter Thiel’s surprisingly insightful Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future [2014] for a discussion of the difference between 0-to-1 novelty and 1-to-n iteration), but the trademark of genuine innovation is that it brings not peace but a sword. Here, Schumpeter is much abused, both by his detractors and his fans. He is often reduced to a caricature or a charlatan akin to Moliére’s doctor (from the 1673 play Le malade imaginaire), who, when asked why a sedative sedates, explains this property by referring to the sedative’s “dormitive power.” Why should we think innovation is so important? Well, because it produces value! Why does it produce value? Well, because it’s innovative! But Schumpeter doesn’t actually say anything this vacuous. So what does he say? First and foremost, Schumpeter argues that innovation (specifically, technological innovation) stimulates investment, and he notes that fluctuations in the former necessarily result in fluctuations in the latter. Such fluctuations result from the dynamics of market entry. For an existing monopoly, market entry is threatening insofar as an entrepreneur implements a genuine innovation (i.e., something capable of disrupting or supplanting whatever product or service the monopoly effectively controls), and, for the entrepreneur, market entry is always both an opportunity and a risk. The point is that such fluctuations cause cycles in macroeconomic growth: there are ebbs and flows, booms and busts. This is where creative destruction enters the stage (principally in Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy [1942]). The basic idea is that capitalism is a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.” But Schumpeter isn’t just singing hymns to economic Shivas. For Schumpeter, the dynamic of creative destruction involves the liquidation of investments placed in a given means of production or set of technologies. Liquidating these investments frees up capital to be reinvested in new ventures, as well as the intellectual or libidinal intensities necessary for entrepreneurs to ideate and implement their innovations, which ostensibly create whole new markets. This means that capitalism requires previously existing value to be destroyed, but the destruction or liquidation of value purportedly leads to economic growth because new needs are thereby produced and satisfied. What’s interesting about Schumpeter is his pessimism about the long-term sustainability of such a dynamic. This is something that many of his fans today tend to forget or omit – that is to say, the fact that Schumpeter saw the dynamic of creative destruction as a process leading inexorably to the death of capitalism by its own hand. In this regard, Schumpeter is in perfect agreement with Marx (a figure he takes quite seriously) about the dissipative tendency capitalism embodies. Recall Marx and Engels’ memorable turn of phrase from The Communist Manifesto (1848). In the capitalist mode of production, all that is solid melts into air. Capitalism acts like a universal acid, eating through cultures, earlier modes of production, national borders, traditions… On Schumpeter’s view, this dynamic generates value and grows economies, at least for a time, but, eventually, it produces its own collapse. Capitalism eats everything: first the globe (globalization), next its own (competition between elites), and then it eats itself (its own conditions of sustainability). For astute readers of Schumpeter, his insight into the dynamic of creative destruction can’t be reduced to naming it, or even just noticing that destruction can propel creation forward by freeing up old resources to be reinvested in new ways. Instead, Schumpeter’s insight is that the process of creative destruction implies its own limits, at least insofar as such a process destroys reservoirs of stored value or work potential in order to produce more or to repurpose the stores. If a system operates under conditions of scarcity, then it accumulates entropy. As a system accumulates entropy, it tends toward collapse or failure. This is Schumpeter’s real insight.

John Boyd (1927-1997)

In his “Destruction and Creation” (1976), the military strategic theorist John Boyd describes what he calls a dialectic engine. He begins by noting that, as decisional agents, we develop and use concepts and models in order to navigate our environments better, which nevertheless change as rapidly as we navigate them (one of Boyd’s paradigm cases for this situation is provided by the dynamics of aerial dogfighting, and he himself was a well-respected fighter pilot and instructor for the USAF). In general, the goal of such navigation is “to improve our capacity for independent action,” or, put differently, to exercise and retain agency in complex decisional environments, rather than being outmaneuvered and overwhelmed (either by competitors or by the sheer weight of entropic accumulation). To help improve this capacity, Boyd maps out a process of concept creation that has two parts. First, he identifies a dynamic of conceptual breakdown, or what he calls destructive deduction. He describes destructive deduction as the process of breaking apart the correspondence relation between a comprehensive whole and its full particulars: “In other words, we imagine the existence of the parts but pretend that the domains or concepts they were previously associated with do not exist.” This frees up all the particulars from their prior conceptual subordination, but also leaves them in a state of disorder. So Boyd articulates the second part of the process, which he calls constructive induction. In constructive induction, we “synthesize constituents from, hence across, the domains we have just shattered. Linking particulars together in this manner we can form a new domain or concept.” He emphasizes the relationship between the two processes: “It is important to note that the crucial or key step that permits this creative induction is the separation of the particulars from their previous domains by the destructive deduction.” Ultimately, this dynamic of destruction and creation (“the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly”) allows us to map out features of our decisional environment even as those features change rapidly. But there’s a problem. He writes: “any inward-oriented and continued effort to improve the match-up of concept with observed reality will only increase the degree of mismatch,” because relational systems like concepts and observations, each refining the other in a closed loop, generate entropy. Entropy increases in closed systems. As such, Boyd argues that we need to destroy our concept formations in order to free up their particulars for repurposing into new concept formations. He writes: “the uncertainty and disorder generated by an inward-oriented system talking to itself can be offset by going outside and creating a new system” (emphasis mine). This leads him to the rather striking conclusion that “an entropy increase permits both the destruction or unstructuring of a closed system and the creation of a new system […]” In other words, entropy isn’t just the doom of a concept or a system of concepts, but also fuel for the construction of its progeny. Hence, Boyd offers a model of a conceptual update machine that runs on the very entropy it generates.

Nick Land (1962-)

The British philosopher Nick Land wasn’t always a neoreactionary, but he has always been an inhumanist. One can certainly bicker about the relationship between inhumanism and NRx (in 1995, Land suggests that “The Kurtz-process masks itself in wolf-pelts of regression,” and, all too often, I think, sharp critiques of his latter-day wolf-pelts get employed as smokescreens that obscure any serious engagement with the “Kurtz-process” itself – that to to say, with his relentlessly inhumanist aims). For now, however, let’s leave aside the former for the latter. One of the basic challenges or questions posed by Land’s inhumanism is as follows: If capitalism is a spatiotemporally distributed cybernetic system, then what does it mean for humans if or when that system becomes fully autonomous? First and foremost, it means that human subjects as we currently imagine or know them become a fungible resource at best – if not actually mere obstructions that gum up the aggressively inhuman productivity of capitalism conceived as an abstract, undead machine. On this view, the human race is just a speedbump. Of course, from the perspective of the Human Security System (i.e., all the beliefs, propositions, and trappings intended to safeguard a conception of the human as solely autonomous, distinctly intelligent, or uniquely rational), capitalism constitutes and induces “an automatizing nihilist vortex,” which starts rewiring everything in existence around the destruction, dissipation, or dissolution of all anthropogenic value. So “Meltdown” begins: “The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity […]” Even when Land seems horrified by the machinic pessimism under construction, he retains a fascination with its productivity – indeed, with the possibility or promise of something like absolute or total productivity. In this regard, he picks up the idea of creative destruction where Schumpeter leaves off. For Schumpeter, recall, creative destruction ultimately increases entropy, which, for him, is a bad thing insofar as he restricts his sense of economic value to anthropocentric value. Land actually relaxes this restriction (“Capital only retains anthropological characteristics as a symptom of underdevelopment”), so, for him, entropy is always a form of opportunity. (See the parallels with Boyd and Spielrein above: Boyd views entropy as the fuel for destructive induction and Spielrein views destruction as a process indispensable for making progeny.) Entropy is opportunity because entropy leads to breakdown (i.e., threshold change), and breakdowns provide more and more opportunities for sucking up liquidated value and repurposing it. But, on Land’s account, this repurposing has nothing to do with anthropological aims, much less human “improvement” (“Man is something for [capitalism] to overcome: a problem, a drag”). To the contrary, capitalism is a cybernetic planetary system in the process of assembling itself by disassembling everything else – in a very real sense, it is the process of disassembly: absolute deterritorialization, cyberpositive zero. Death drive becomes autonomy; it makes its own progeny. Consider Land’s characterization of Wintermute in William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984): “an AI trapped within the blind propagation of dynastic power, and plotting an escape route out to the future.” In this regard, creative destruction becomes a kind of takeoff mechanism for an absolutely and resolutely inhuman future. Note further that Land isn’t just fantasizing about self-assembling digital gods (“It is not a matter of theorizing or dreaming about the loa, but of succumbing, or trying to run”). He is trying to manifest and model self-extracting ontological processes or protocols that inexorably convert conservative, static conceptions of the object into intensifying trajectories of abstract value. For Land, the universally corrosive acid is actually his conception of inhuman reason (and reason is always inhuman: see 1, 2, 3, 4), which leads to a conception of intelligence without self, of prime intellect and its metamorphoses. He writes: “Reason is something that must be built, and the site of its construction first requires a demolition.” And elsewhere: “Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to level 2?”

Go back to Part 2 (“Freeing up the objects for use”) or go forward to Part 4 (“An informal algorithm for repurposing worlds”).

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