【by Kwai-Cheung Lo, Dec. 2020】
Just three days after my university has switched the teaching mode from online to face-to-face, we were told that an undergraduate student has tested positive for COVID-19. It was of course not the first infection case in my university, but it may be the closest one since the student went to the places and buildings we usually frequented on campus. We were told that the student has worn face mask throughout his stay in the university. And we were also told that the university upon receiving the case immediately arranged the closure of and thorough disinfection for all the classrooms and venues concerned. Risks have been minimized and we are safe. We have been told.
But what does it mean by being safe these days? There is no safe haven. We all know that. Hong Kong, this (post-)colonial enclave, is no exception, though throughout its modern history refugees and fugitives came here to avoid the dangers of political turmoil and state persecution. Not long ago, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower of the United States’ global surveillance program, believed Hong Kong was safe enough to be his hideout. He chose to stay in a hotel located at Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the busiest districts in the city. Nathan Road was also the main street where violent confrontations broke out between the riot police and the protesters against the extradition bill in the rebellious year of 2019. Seemingly having the mysterious forecasting power of what came afterwards, the frontline anti-government protesters’ protective gear—their gas mask—that captured international headlines now evolves into a variety of face masks people all over the world put on every day for the current pandemic. The lockdown situation was also predicted by the 2019 social movement. Protesters shut down the airport, blocked the roads, stopped the busy traffic, and called for strikes. In response, the authorities closed the schools, government buildings and subway stations for the implicit purpose of banning people go out on the streets. As a result, the sleepless financial hub became a ghost town at night, unintentionally serving as an example of a tight stay-at-home restriction. Ironically, Hong Kong government has never imposed any lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. Critics see it as an official gesture or ingratiation to ensure the border is always open to the visitors from China.
When safety has become the primal governing priority, whose interest does it really serve? By no means is the city safer than ever even with the draconian new National Security Law recently imposed by Beijing. China under Xi Jinping is certainly preoccupied with safety in all aspects by unendingly implementing new precautionary measures against any potential threats: from crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, through labor camps in Xinjiang, the complete lockdown of Wuhan, to inward economic shift and self-reliance when confronted with the decoupling fears from the United States. But still, the regime does not look like it feels safe at all. In order to curb possible protests on any given occasions in Hong Kong, there is often a huge deployment of police force on the streets across the city to handle potential chaos and mobs that the ruling power believes may erupt. The preemptive act in the name of safety led to the violent police arrest of a 12-year-old girl who was caught in a protest crowd while out buying art supplies for school. She was brutally tackled by an officer to the ground and immediately pinned down by other policemen. Citing coronavirus public gathering restrictions, the authority bans all demonstration. Legislative election has been postponed for an entire year for the reason of fighting the virus. In the name of taking aggressive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19, many countries indeed have already extensively undermined civil rights, enforced surveillance policies, and continuously extended emergency regulations with no checks and balances. We are told threats, risks, and dangers come from all directions. Enemies do not just assault from the outside. They hide deeply among us. The asymptomatic, invisible spreaders fueling the coronavirus outbreak must be ferreted out. Where the cozy, securely soothing and homely community is also hidden fearful, threatening, and intimidating aliens. Mass testing with centralized quarantine is prepared to check for your virus, your loyalty and degree of obedience. For the safety concerns, it is never possible to ward off the threats to the outside even though numerous fences, barbed-wires, moats, walls have already been built and are under construction. But the witch hunt could be equally devastating.
There is probably no pivotal point but only acceleration—the acceleration of what has been undergoing for years, if not decades. We can easily blame all the intensifying problems, such as the retreat of democratic freedom, increasing oppression of aggressive governance, escalating geopolitical tensions, growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, more and more intruding surveillance with the rise of AI, worsening climate change, etc., on the populist, authoritarian or fascist regimes, political leaders and far-right groups. In an unimagined speed, we are approaching a new form of authoritarian society. But aren’t we also collaborators? Are we not facilitating complicitly all along such acceleration process with our addiction to the speed pattern of modern life? Is the world in a horrific high-speed plunge into an abyss?
The conventional wisdom of moderating and reversing the crash may no longer be applicable to such imminent speedy disaster in global scale. But accelerationism cultists offer an optimistic mantra: let the bad get worse, let everything go faster; then a universal change will get closer with a promising future. The tactics “laam caau” (mutually assured destruction, or “if we burn, you burn with us”) that Hong Kong protesters deem to stand a fighting chance against the formidable authoritarian state is probably a spin-off of accelerationism. Xi’s China also has its own version of accelerationism: the Chinese accelerationists believe that all they can do is to help pull it along when the doubling-down repressive policies of the Chinese Communist Party is pushing the country to hell. They support President Xi to do more, not less, in his authoritarian rule. Xi has been credited by Chinese netizens as the “Accelerator-in-Chief” (in comparison to Deng Xiaoping as the “Architect-in-Chief” in the opening and reform era). The conviction is that when the nation is already beyond saving, helping to it dash along its current downfall trajectory will bring about its self-destruction. Because only a devastating collapse of the whole system can give rise to a phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes. Deleuze and Guattari ask a similar question and provide a possible answer in Anti-Oedpius: “what is the solution? Which is the revolutionary path? … perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the view point of a theory and a practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” The idea that things must get worse before they can get better prevails in the mind of the people who feel hopeless and powerless about the current political situation. While there is not a head-on protest, open revolt, or a passive surrender in straight sense, the agency the Chinese accelerationists assure to themselves is that, by fully complying with the irrational demands of the regime, they are able to speed up the demise of the overt mechanism of the repressive system. Hence, their obedience is entirely an external one without any sincerity in the consciousness. With such performativity, the Chinese accelerationists insist they can exploit and hasten the disruption conducive to the final fall of the system in a fundamentally affirmative manner. Is the notion of acceleration one of the “weapons of the weak”? Can it be counted as a compelling but subtle form of subversion?
How do we know the acceleration of pace leading to the total downfall is not a veil of illusions? Xi Jinping regime advances with more aggressive strategies internationally because it points toward a belief that Trump is accelerating American decline. For some, that the East rises and the West falls is around the corner. Hasn’t the existing system already been promoting from the outset how speed is able to enhance efficiency, productivity, and economic equality in a utopian manner, while speed itself is a part of the systematic violence aggravating exploitation and oppression? What if the acceleration can never give rise to the annihilation of the system but only contribute to its further growth and strengthening, given that capitalism historically expands with crisis and its “creative destruction” has served as the constitutive condition for its structural self-rejuvenating from within? Can high speed make a difference since the system into which we are all trapped is already a very unstable one that only relies on emergencies or obstacles as some kind of “solution” for its survival, if not progress? Where is the human agency if everything is left to the death drive of the mechanism itself?
Accelerationism makes people believe that action is still possible, changes can be brought to the world, and the system is still available to potential changes, no matter how feeble human agency in such circumstances is. However, can the push to accelerating the downfall be understood as some kind of “clinamen” or swerve? The high-speed fall is never homogenous. Lucretius tells us when atoms with their own weight fall straight down, they have a habit of deflecting a bit in space at an unpredictable time to change their motion. If there is no swerving, atoms would all fall vertically into the infinite emptiness, no collision among atoms will produce anything in nature. Hence, there must be a swerve from the downward movement triggering off the following encounters and crashes between the atoms in order to produce the universe. If clinamen is the originary determination or essence of atom’s motion, speeding up or not no longer matters since chance encounter is destined to happen. In addition, if time is out of joint, speed change may no longer tell if it is aberrant, deviant, or normal. To speed up or to slow down is nothing but just a conduct of time. If time is dislocated, chaos is not an exception but a constitutive part of order which is sustained by permanent violations of its own rules. The perception of any difference between chaos and order, between change and stability is made possible, however, by our own subjectivity—our own presence that has to be counted and included in the picture we are observing and analyzing. Self-reflexivity, self-consciousness, and our ability to be aware not only of objects but also of oneself, that by no means are something given but mostly erring, remain the only quality to help us generate bifurcating, dissonant thoughts in order to search for the possibilities of new becoming and reorientation. Acceleration or clinamen, speed or swerve, probably is a logical absurdity without justification. But, consequently, it can find its place in human subjectivity. It is us and only us who can turn physics into metaphysics.
Kwai-Cheung Lo, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong