Accelerationist Cinema: On Promethean Shame
Hollywood seems to be captured by science fiction. These sci-fi tales wrangle with the aestheticization of the demise of life-as-we-know it, the projected portrayals of Fukuyama’s end of history. The end of history as planetary decay with rampant and shameless capitalist exploitation managed by very anthropomorphic machinic creations: artificial intelligence, replicants, robots, you name it. The perpetrators of such decay are obvious: the transnational corporations, now presumably planetary corporations, who produce both the geographic ruin and the technological tools deployed to monitor, control, and suppress remaining life-forms. These continuous portrayals of alternative (yet, remarkably similar) futures, or what is better understood as anti-future films, should otherwise be known as accelerationist cinema. Accelerationism, as noted by Byung-Chul Han (2017), “becomes topical or problematic as such precisely at the moment when time is torn away into a meaningless future” (p. 19). As if Hollywood studios found a way to make Mark Fischer’s declaration, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world before the end of capitalism, profitable. Portraying the end of the world has become one of the sole occupations of American mainstream cinema.
This essay grapples with the rise of what I refer to as accelerationist cinema using Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as an example. Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s influential Blade Runner, is set thirty years into the future after the first film (which took place in 2019), where K (played by Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer and new blade runner, catches wind of a hidden secret that carries the capacity to alter the techno-corporatist society which plunged the world into environmental catastrophe: the existence of a replicant-born child. In this post-Anthropocene film, this hybrid child, both replicant yet possibly human, is a hallmark of the techno-utopic dream of the merger between human-made replicants and human life and yet is a potential threat to Wallace Corp, the corporation who develops and produces the blade runner replicants.
However, the valorization of this replicant-born child sets Blade Runner 2049 apart from other dystopian films. K’s pursuit to find the child or, at the very least, evidence of its life is seen as one of the few ways to generate resistance against Wallace Corp positioning Blade Runner 2049 as an example of what Gunther Anders describes as promethean shame. Promethean shame, according to Anders (2016), occurs when a person is “confronted by the ‘humiliatingly’ high quality of fabricated things,’ in this case, a human-replicant (p. 30). Shame is generated from a person’s awareness of the limited and temporally inescapable “nature of his [or hers] own origins” (Anders, 2016, p. 30). In Blade Runner 2049 the potential saviour of an otherwise doomed existence is precisely the source of promethean shame: humans can no longer extricate themselves from their earthly demise, only our creations can. Throughout this essay, I interrogate two central aspects of Blade Runner 2049, the artificial economy developed and managed by Wallace Corp (whose power extends beyond producing replicants) as well as the potential meanings of the existence of a born-replicant through the lens of both accelerationism and promethean shame.
Accelerationism & Accelerationist Cinema
The term accelerationism has captured the minds of a wide range of theoreticians, cultural makers, scholars, etc., over the course of several decades thus producing many iterations and meanings behind the term. The most commonly understood and circulated interpretation of accelerationism, however, is one associated with the intensification of capitalist processes, including (and perhaps highlighting) the most dreadful, exploitative and barbarous aspects of this economic system with the hopes of ‘accelerating’ capitalism until its ultimate demise. The idea here being that the faster capitalism moves the quicker it will eat itself (Williams, 2013). Yet, as Mark Fisher points out in ‘“A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”: Popular Culture’s Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams’, this configuration of accelerationism is forgetting an integral facet of the theory articulated by theorists such as, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, as well as others. It is not that all capitalist processes must be sped up per se, where accelerationism becomes perhaps a mere synonym for Virilio’s dromology, but that accelerationism seeks to illuminate that “there are desires and processes which capitalism gives rise to and feeds upon, which it cannot contain; and it is the acceleration of these processes that will push capitalism beyond its limits” (highlights included in original text) (Fisher, 2013). Here, the accidents, the affective and erotic relations produced by life-under-capitalism becomes a potentially rich untapped resource which can be channeled to create a ‘post-capitalist’ world. While I relate aspects of this meaning behind accelerationism to Blade Runner 2049 as an example of accelerationist cinema, instead, I largely refer to Byung- Chul Han’s interpretation of accelerationism in his book The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering as the backbone, the skeletal framework, of what I mean by accelerationist cinema.
While Han refrains from defining accelerationism in politico-economic terms similar to those found in the aforementioned meaning of the term, he elucidates on the conditions in which acceleration becomes topical (which are nonetheless in congruence with the politico-economic state(s) of the moment-in-time accelerationism emerges as a viable project). Han refers to accelerationism as a by-product emerging from a shift in how we experience, understand, and visualize time. Unlike prior regimes-of-time, including historical time and mythical time, where ideas of progress and time are bound together in an open-ended future-oriented sense, equating time with change, progress, etc. (i.e., historical time); or, where time reflects the immutable and eternal positioning events in “fixed relations with each other” forming “meaningful chains” (Han, 2017, p. 21). Where movement may occur, but the order of the world and the outcome of events are fixed and determined prior to their unfolding with time experienced within the eternal present (i.e., mythical time). Accelerationism arises when the “narrative or teleological tension” found in historical time and mythical time are lost (p. 26). When time becomes disassociated from a meaningful future, when it loses its sense of direction (often towards a goal as Han states), time emerges as atomized point-time untethered to any line-of-time where time “whizz[es] around without any sense of direction” (p. 26). As Han mentions, “acceleration is felt as such only where time loses its historical meaningfulness, its sense” (p. 19).
Instead of myth or history orienting and shaping time, in our time-regime we have information. Information exists both in abundance and yet in isolation where sense cannot be inferred from the wealth of information available nor from events that occur thus producing a differently punctured temporality. This is precisely why Han connects point-time with the perception of the end of history. The consequences and effects of point-time are startling. As Han writes,
Atomized time is a discontinuous time. There is nothing to bind events together and thus found a connection, a duration. The senses are therefore confronted with the unexpected and sudden, which, in turn, produces a diffuse feeling of anxiety. Atomization, individualization and the experience of discontinuity are also responsible for various forms of violence. Today, those social structures which create continuity and duration are increasingly disintegrating. Atomization and individualization take hold of societies as a whole. Social practices such as promising, fidelity or commitment, which are temporal practices in the sense that they commit to a future and thus limit the horizon of the future, thus founding duration, are all losing their importance (p. 27).
Accelerationism then is a symptom, an epiphenomenon of discontinuous time, a time without a scent (for a scent can only be achieved through lingering and duration) or gravitational rooting (p. 27). Han continues, “Time rushes off, even is in precipitous haste, in order to compensate for an essential lack of being. In this, however, it is not successful, because acceleration by itself does not produce any hold. On the contrary, it only makes the existing lack of being more pungent” (p. 28). Accelerationism aims to shorten the periods between point-time, to overcome the empty space separating this punctured temporality. Mirroring the compression of space-time which has come to define the fluidity and mobility of capital often associated with neoliberalism. However, accelerationism fails to integrate point-time into a series or sequences-of-time linked together despite the frenzied attempt to minimize the “yawns [of] emptiness” between points-in-time described by Han (p. 26).
Accelerationist cinema embodies the meaningless future producing atomized point-time elucidated by Han where the accelerated state of capitalism constrains the horizons of thought, rebellion, and hopes for a different world. Occurring within dilapidated, degraded cityscapes deteriorated by the calamitous and austere forces of climate change, these post-Anthropocene hellscapes are the backdrops in which these stories are told. Blade Runner 2049 takes place in a run-down and seemingly barren (of life-forms that is) Los Angeles appearing as a faded rendition of the cyberpunk aesthetic defining the original Blade Runner yet with a noticeable expansion of technological sophistication adorning derelict urban infrastructures. Despite a noticeable erosion of quality of life as seen through run-down buildings, rampant poverty, and a film of dirt and grime covering the streets, consumption reigns supreme with advertisements colonizing virtually all spaces. Brightly lit neon holographic images and videos of simulated companions and other alluring objects walk throughout the streets towering over the remaining inhabitants beckoning pedestrians to purchase and consume them.
Wallace Corp emerged as the domineering techno-benefactor dictating and controlling Los Angeles (and presumably other planets the wealthy fled too upon the onset of climate catastrophe which is vaguely referenced throughout the course of the film) after their synthetic farming initiatives prevented a famine from decimating the remaining life-forms which precipitated their rise to power and usurping the role Tyrell Corporations played in Blade Runner. Wallace Corp, led by Niander Wallace (played by Jared Leto) refined and evolved the replicants originally manufactured by Tyrell in order to use them as a form of slave-labour in the severe and harsh landscapes littering the decaying planet as humans do not have the fortitude or strength to work in such gruelling conditions. Yet, replicants are employed in other industries and professions as well. K, an LAPD officer and latest blade runner, is a replicant too who is tasked with hunting down older replicants produced by Tyrell. Again, K is assigned this job due to his strength, speed (both in terms of his physicality and processing time) and seeming indestructability. Towards the end of the film, in an exchange with Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), the maybe-replicant featured in Blade Runner, Deckard remarks that he was once a Blade Runner as well, with K replying, “It was simpler than,” indicating the role of the blade runner can now only be performed by replicants.
Wallace Corp touches every facet of Blade Runner 2049. Whether they are supplying replicants to the LAPD, the technology used in their morgues, providing slave-replicants for synthetic farming, producing and selling simulated companions like Joi (played by Ana de Armas) who is K’s only intimate relationship, manufacturing memories to be installed in replicants, or owning vast data warehouses and archives. Beyond assuming a God-like role as the creator of replicants (this imagery and connection solidified as Luv, played by Slyvia Hoeks, Wallace’s primary replicant, takes K down an aisle displaying the evolution of replicants), Wallace Corp appears as omniscient and ever-present. This ‘artificial economy’ (originally dubbed by Paul Smart as artificial economics) is another feature of accelerationist cinema. As described by Smart, artificial economies “yields a vision of AI systems operating as the deliberately engineered components of an economic system, one whose functional goals (e.g., economic growth and capital accumulation) are perhaps no longer adequately served by traditional (i.e., human) forms of production and consumption” (2019, p. 188). The ubiquity and persistent presence of either a single employer (Wallace Corp) or even a handful of techno-scientific corporations who ostensibly have monopolizing control over production, distribution, and the consumptive capacities of a given society both captures the consequences of an accelerated capitalism while highlighting Han’s assessment that the abundance of information in these political economic conditions produces an alternative punctured temporality.
Wallace Corp’s omniscient surveillant gaze is contingent on their role as manufacturers of data producing commodities as well as owners of the vectors of information containing this data. K appears to be reachable regardless of whether he is on or off duty. His boss, Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright), can interject wherever he is popping up on the screens in his automobile or even interrupting an intimate moment with Joi. As K continues seeking the lost born-replicant, increasingly believing that perhaps he is the replicant he is searching for, Wallace Corp, through Luv, is monitoring his actions closely. Wherever K goes, whether it is a visit to the waste management site sitting at the outskirts of Los Angeles, or the nuclear wasteland of a formerly prosperous city where K encounters Deckard, Wallace Corp is only a few moments behind. Here, Wallace Corps omnipresent surveilling eye mirrors Virilio’s predictions about the future of vision and warfare. Virilio writes, “it will be an optical, or electro-optical confrontation; it’s likely slogan, ‘winning is keeping the target in constant sight’. ‘Winning’ here means the status quo of a new balance of forces, based not on explosives and delivery systems but on the instant power of sensors, interceptors and remote electronic devices” (1989, p. 2).
Despite this consistent deluge of data and information both available and concurrently being produced by K’s actions, Wallace Corps is monitoring K’s pursuits to find the born-replicant as they do not know where the born-replicant is located either. This lack of information reveals the lingering flaws in a seemingly omni-seeing surveillant gaze. While a volume of information exists, it is precisely the volume of information available which can simultaneously conceal the information sought. When information becomes a substitute for narrative or even memory, gaps connecting events together persist. K is attempting to find the born-replicant by scouring his own potentially falsified memories, whereas Wallace Corp hovers in the distance watching K struggle to connect the clues he has collected. Yet, both Wallace Corp and K remain in the dark. K’s growingly desperate yearnings to discover he is more-than-replicant by being born rather than made lead him to the wrong conclusions. Only to be assisted in the end by a small rebellion familiar with the born-replicant’s whereabouts. While Wallace Corp increasingly attempts to persuade Deckard, who we learn is the father of the born-replicant, that perhaps Tyrell developed Rebecca, the replicant mother, to seduce Deckard and produce the child. The ability for replicants to procreate, Niander remarks, will dramatically reduce the cost of producing replicants creating potentially endless possibilities for Wallace Corp to expand. For Niander has greater ambitions including owning the stars. Narrative or memory loss then characterize accelerationist cinema. In Blade Runner 2049, disjointed faulty memories drive K forward where he attempts (and fails) to connect different events. Each journey in the film is perceived as isolated from each other with K attempting to draw lines and create meaning between them as a way to suture them together.
The atomization of characters is another central feature of accelerationist cinema. Throughout the film, almost all of the characters are portrayed as working or living alone. K both lives alone and ventures to different parts of Los Angeles by himself. Deckard seemed to be the only occupant inhabiting the radiation tainted abandoned city he was found in by K. While Joi never appears alone, a daunting physical and material gulf chronically separates her from K. Dr. Ana Stelline (played by Carla Juri), the memory maker subcontracted by Wallace Corp, who we find out is in fact the born-replicant, exists closed off, isolated, and removed from both people and the environment due to her ‘weakened immune system.’ Even Niander’s chosen replicant, Luv, exists and works alone. Loneliness oozes from this film.
There are only two moments in Blade Runner 2049 where people or replicants are seen either collaborating or working in groups. First, the remaining humans residing in the waste management location. Children are shown tinkering with rusted metal remnants presumably attempting to build something greater. Second, K’s brief encounter with the rebellion where they convey their aspirations: if replicants can prove their reproductive capacity they will transcend their slave position and live amongst the purportedly liberated humans.
Technological advancement and hubris are both characteristic of late-stage capitalism and integral to accelerationist projects for without technology capitalism cannot accelerate. This heightened role of technology feeds into Gunther Anders concept of promethean shame. Promethean shame, as expressed earlier, refers to a person’s contempt or shame for their naturally born origins where a human’s feeble and limited body fails to compare with the high quality of carefully designed and purposefully crafted synthetic objects. Although the plot of Blade Runner 2049 appears to be antithetical to Anders claims, as the replicants are attempting to assert their ‘humanity’ by proving their reproductive capacity, this inversion of promethean shame only serves to resolidify this tension between born-humans and made-objects. As one of the members of the rebellion states to K, if replicants can procreate they will be more human than humans.
However, it is necessary to point out that Anders did not devise the notion of promethean shame as a way to re-articulate the sanctity of the human over made objects. At the core of promethean shame is a yearning to be made. As Anders writes, “humans do not want to make themselves because they can no longer tolerate anything that was not made by them, but because they too no longer want to be someone who is not made. They feel indignant not because they were made by others (God, gods, or nature), but because they were not made at all and as such, they are inferior to all their fabricated things” (2016, p. 31). The superiority of technologically sophisticated replicants is evidenced by the minimal presence of humans throughout Blade Runner 2049. In this post-Anthropocene world coupled with the rapid development of technology (leading to the destruction of our life-worlds), humans simply cannot bear, tolerate, or manage both the grading quality of work and the environmental conditions shaping the work itself. Replicants are manufactured as slave-labour because they can work in degraded environments at a reduced cost for Wallace Corp. Moreover, K works as a blade runner because humans do not have the strength, agility, and technological prowess built into their systems to hunt replicants down.
Despite the replicant-rebellions pursuit to prove their humanity, Blade Runner 2049 repudiates the rebellions claim that they will shed their subordinate, inferior, slave-like status by being closer to humanity. K’s trip to the waste management site, returning to a place he vaguely remembers experiencing as a potential child, is evidence of the falsity in the rebellions project. The remaining humans, who are no longer considered suitable or viable for the labour necessary to maintain Wallace Corps dominance, are cast off from Los Angeles city core, living in the hinterlands of rubble, trash, and decay. K witnesses the conditions of the left-over humans, the humans deemed unworthy for work and conceivably unsuitable for relocating to a newly cultivated planet. K sees rows of children sitting at rusted desks working away while their adult leader barks orders at them. The audience can infer that this group of people are in fact humans because they are children. Humans, then, may not be enslaved by Wallace Corp but they have barely transcended a slave-like existence. If the remaining humans on earth exist in such poverty living amongst forgotten trash (which adequately parallels their perceived value in society) why would proving a replicant’s capacity to procreate elevate them beyond this maligned and marginalized status?
Yet, this disparity fits within promethean shame. Anders pointedly relates the experiences of promethean shame to the majority of people who do not participate, partake, or profit off of the development and production of machinic creations. For as Anders states, these human-made objects “are more likely to be proof of one’s own insufficiency than evidence of one’s own power” (p. 33). This insufficiency stems from either being unable to afford the machinic commodities available (i.e., the simulated companion, Joi, although we never find out how much she costs) or possibly being ousted from the labour market as humans no longer fit the needs of the capitalist classes (as seen by the inhabitants of the waste management site). As Anders argues, “the larger, more intricate and complicated the man-made bureaucracy of machines becomes, the more futile are their attempts to keep up with it. It may hence be right to conclude that human misery leads to an accumulation of machinery, which in turn leads to the accumulation of human misery” (p. 39). The expansion and enhanced sophistication of machinery, in the case of Blade Runner 2049, has resulted in the erosion of the planet as a viable place for human-life with the human under-classes living in obscurity. As capitalism accelerates, as technological fixes attempt to deal with the catastrophes produced by techno-capitalism, the more marginalized humans are likely to become. Their existence lies amongst discarded machines both determined to be unfit for the increasingly sophisticated technological world. Yet, in Blade Runner 2049, neither being made nor being born will lead to the reduction of misery, humanly or otherwise.
Due to the limitations of the corporeal body of humans, the human engineer features prominently in promethean shame. Their task or, better yet, the task they have set themselves? To accentuate human capacities in order to minimize the gap between them and their machinic-creations. Anders remarks, “the ‘human engineer’ does not want to know what the human physis is. He rather wants to find the threshold within which it could ‘just about’ still be (without biting the dust during the stress test) … He is hence only interested in artificially induced corporeal limit situations, because he aims to surpass these limits” (p. 41). Niander Wallace plays the role of the human engineer in Blade Runner 2049. Although there are speculations regarding Wallace’s status – is he a replicant or human – his character is better understood, in my view, as an attempted hybrid between the two. Not only does he manufacture replicants, but he has attempted to transcend his own corporeal limitations through technological adjustments. Wallace has the glowing eyes which characterize replicants. A technician is seen placing a small chip into an open sliver located beneath his jaw so he can ‘download’ necessary information. As Anders suggests, through these technological enhancements, something new has been created which is why Wallace occupies this hybrid yet liminal space between humans and replicants. Or better yet, Wallace’s hybrid form perhaps symbolizes the limited role human bodies can have in this techno-accelerated capitalist world.
However, in Blade Runner 2049, whether you are a replicant or human, the odds remain staggeringly high that you will exist in an oppressed, subordinated role either working to serve Wallace Corp or cast off from society at large. The fact that born-replicants could serve to enhance Wallace Corps profit margins and enable them to expand their operations suggests that identifying a replicant as human due to its reproductive capacities could actually serve to intensify their subordinate slave-like position. The paradox of the born-replicant symbolizing both the possibility of liberation or a deeper entrenchment of their oppression speaks to the inability of accelerationist cinema to articulate an alternative future, or perhaps any future at all. The future of replicants ostensibly rests with the born-replicant, Dr. Ana Stelline. Yet, the future articulated by the rebellion does not extend beyond the simple fact that she does indeed exist. What happens after her existence is revealed? K’s brief encounter with the rebellion seems to take place only to inform him that he is not the born-replicant he has been pursuing.
Accelerationist cinema then denies a chance for the future as it is unable to envision something beyond the accelerated state of capitalism. Rebellions are portrayed as empty pursuits to change little about their current world. The agenda underpinning the replicant rebellion’s pursuits in Blade Runner 2049 is proving their worth to the very actors who are constraining their path. Yet, their proof of their ‘humanity’ offers possibly infinite potential for Wallace Corps future accelerated growth. Instead of portraying an alternative future (if replicants are liberated, what does that future look like?), or even articulating an idea of a future outside of general sentiments of liberation, Blade Runner 2049 relies on a sentimental and conservative notion of humanity (the ability to procreate). Ok, replicants can procreate? So, what.