To The Generosity of Humans

Over the past few years with the onset of retirement and financial difficulties its been tough to keep my head above waters. The internet and my connection to it are a luxury, yet one that I can ill afford to let go: it being my only source of access to the shared world of human thought and mind in our ongoing age of perplexity. But that’s not the point of this post: the point is that there are humans out there who – even though anonymous, reach down into their pocket books and help others (such as myself!). There are two such people that have over the past few years supported this site and its maker with the generosity of donations. It would be nice to know who they are, to realize that in the generosity of their kind spirits they have felt the need to give. I cannot every repay such kindness or generosity, but the acknowledgement of their support and my gratitude to their gifts is truly appreciated. What else can one say to such generosity?

Thank you!

To say more would be to say to much or too little.

Blindness: The Logic of Lack and Neglect

The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

Slavoj Zizek

We all live in illusory worlds of shared beliefs and fantasy. If we did not we would never have a world at all, at least a human world. It’s our blindness to reality that allows us to get on with our lives. Our mind filters out what we do not need to be humans in a human world of work and play, survival and propagation. Over thousands of years humans slowly abstracted or subtracted themselves from the natural order, and then through philosophical speculation they discovered that as a fact. The whole of philosophy from Plato to the present could be said to be the this coming to the impossibility of attaining knowledge at all.

Most of the time we misperceive rather than perceive things, misread rather than read, misprision rather than see things correctly — we color the world in our mind’s faulty neglect and call that understanding. Yet, as Fredric Jameson once surmised Understanding (Verstand) is a kind of spontaneous ideology of our daily lives, of our immediate experience of reality. We filter out most of what we don’t understand and live in this circle of blindness and call it our world. The only world we will ever feel safe and secure in. When the walls to this blind cage begin to crack and fall apart we go apocalyptic and fear that like chicken little the sky is falling and we are doomed. When in fact it’s in the very cracks and fissures in our safe world that the Real breaks through, the Outside flows in.

The Mind does this act of filtering out of the world for a simple reason: too much data blurs our vision and would make it impossible to see at all. So we as humans have evolved mechanisms to escape the sensory overload of the Real through subtraction and abstraction, of tearing out of the world’s sensory overload only that which will enable us to act in the world. Of course thousands of pages of the philosophers has been put to print to elaborate this into conceptual bric-a-brac of refined concepts over the past two thousand years. Yet, in the past couple hundred years this best kept secret was released upon the common everyday reader and journalist: the notion of this illusory world we have all shared for so long. When Zizek, after Lacan, uses the term big Other to describe the shared world of illusion and cultural/ideological systems that have bound us together in our mutual ignorance and belief that our world is grounded on truth, etc.; that the big Other is the one who is “supposed to know”, and that we accept blindly and without thought the basic value systems of our time laboring under the assumption that someone has the answer: we are just morons hoping against hope that someone – some grand strategist behind the scenes knows the truth. 

Nihilism came upon the scene in western civilization when the world of shared understanding had exhausted itself. The illusions that had supported the religious and political vision of two thousand years was put into abeyance, and for the first time during the Enlightenment age men began to retroactively posit an end to the social world that had kept European civilization bound in a nexus of shared systems of belief and practice.

Most of the past couple hundred years of this state of affairs refined itself down to an embittered debate between philosophy and the sciences. On the one side philosophy turned toward either language or consciousness (intuition), while the sciences by way of physics slowly broke the hold of objectivism – or, that there is an objective world independent of mind’s filters and blindness. Oh, there’s been many debates over if we will ever get out of this circle of mind-object correlationalism, etc., which for many has become passé. Even now certain philosophers have embarked on another fantasy of the inhuman or non-human turn – trying to overcome the limitations of this debate and either return to pre-critical forms of thought and nature beliefs, etc. or to certain forms of realism through a turn to metaphor and rhetoric rather than conceptuality (Harman). It’s like the cat chasing its tail, the circle cannot be escaped; but, then again, the circle is not the problem. The problem and solution are false to begin with. Such philosophers miss the point.

As my friend R. Scott Bakker in a recent not suggests: “Science is blind without theory, so absent any eliminativist account of intentional phenomena, it has no clear way to proceed with their investigation. So it hews to exceptional posits, trusting in their local efficacy, and assuming they will be demystified by discoveries to come.” ( see: Framing “On Alien Philosophy”). This blindness of philosophers and scientists is not a negative, but rather the as Zizek’s been harping on for quite a while now: this inability to describe consciousness or the world is not an inadequacy on our part, but rather a sign that the something is incomplete. The thing we would describe is not an object – neither objective or subjective – it is a process that always is in excess of our mind’s to grasp either with language or instrument. Our positings are always notional and heuristic – there is not Archimedean vantage point outside language, mind, or the world from which we could ground our knowledge. The world that we could describe escapes our tools and linguistic tricks, not because it isn’t there but because it isn’t some passive stable objective thing we could grasp or fold into our thought or practice. Like the fabled Proteus it is forever changing and formless. We alone impose our artificial and abstract thought upon this amorphous world, cut and subtract and tear from it figures of insight that we can shape in that age old give and take of understanding and reason.

Scott argues that “On Alien Philosophy” challenges both scientist and philosopher

Thus the challenge posed by Alien Philosophy. By giving real, abductive teeth to (5), my account overturns the argumentative terrain between eliminativism and intentionalism by transforming the explanatory stakes. It shows us how stupidity, understood ecologically, provides everything we need to understand our otherwise baffling intuitions regarding intentional phenomena. “On Alien Philosophy” challenges the Intentionalist to explain more with less (the very thing, of course, he or she cannot do).

But we have always been stupid in this regard, we have always  explained “more with less” because as he’s pointed out ad infinitum we lean by neglect. We can do no other, the mind in the very process of producing conscious agents subtracted out of this world of infinite data a hole. The point is not to explain consciousness — there is nothing to explain because there is nothing there, nothing at all. Consciousness isn’t a thing, object, substance — it’s not something you can trap by language – metaphor or concept; rather, this very pursuit is false, seeking to answer a problem that was a red herring to begin with. If consciousness is empty, a cut – a process of abstracting, tearing, and breaking the symmetry in an otherwise universe of blind process then wouldn’t the better question be to ask: What was the need in a universe of blind forces and processual interactions for consciousness to begin with? How did consciousness arise? And in just this form?

If we cannot get out of this box of ignorance and stupidity, this realm of neglect by which the brain interacts and filters out more than reveals  through the body membrane in its sensual forays against the stubborn resistance of the Real, then maybe we should turn from explaining consciousness to explaining this gap / lack that produced it to begin with. Spinoza took thought down this path but left it there in a realm of pure material process without outlet. Kant looking into the terror of this blind horror revolted and sought in his inward turn the still waters of the transcendent Subject to anchor and ground the world. Between Spinoza and Kant the latter day philosophers have warred to imbecility.

Yet, I wonder if my friend Scott isn’t falling into the same trap when he says:

Now I think I’ve solved the problem, that I have a way to genuinely naturalize meaning and cognition. The science will sort my pretensions in due course, but in the meantime, the heuristic neglect account of intentionality, given its combination of mediocrity and explanatory power, has to be regarded as a serious contender.

This notion of naturalizing meaning and cognition is itself to reduce the problem into a mere exercise in the Spinozian optimism as if naturalizing and reducing this problem to a set of axioms could deliver the goods. Scott’s notion of heuristic neglect:

The aim of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) is to rough out the ‘logic of neglect’ that underwrites ‘error consciousness,’ the consciousness we think we have. It proceeds on the noncontroversial presumption that consciousness is the product of some subsystem of the brain, and that, as such, it operates within a variety of informatic constraints. It advances the hypothesis that the various perplexities that bedevil our attempts to explain consciousness are largely artifacts of these informatic constraints. From the standpoint of BBT, what we call the Hard Problem conflates two quite distinct difficulties: 1) the ‘generation problem,’ the question of how a certain conspiracy of meat can conjure whatever consciousness is; and 2) the ‘explanandum problem,’ the question of what any answer to the first problem needs to explain to count as an adequate explanation. Its primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience. It argues that philosophy of mind needs to keep its dire informatic straits clear: once you understand that we make similar informatic frame-of-reference (IFR) errors regarding consciousness as we are prone to make in the world, you acknowledge that we might be radically mistaken about what consciousness is. (see: Logic of Neglect)

What’s brilliant in the above is the acknowledgement of the “role lack [my italics] plays in structuring conscious experience”. What Scott does not go on to do which would radicalize his insight further is in positing this lack not just in the structuring of consciousness, but in the physical realms as well. Both epistemologically and ontologically the world of both consciousness and a reality is structured by the logic of lack. The logic of neglect is not just in the Mind but in the world, the incompleteness of consciousness and the universe acknowledged in the concept of lack (gap, crack, hole, etc.) provides us with the key to consciousness. We’ve known for a while that we fill in the blanks, the holes in knowledge with guesses, fictions, leaps of intuitive insight, etc. What if the world does too? The notion of heuristic neglect – of working in the dark, mapping a terrain unknowable even resistant to our thought provides us the basis of a materialist explanation. The place to look is in the very break points – fissures, holes, gaps of consciousness and world; seeking in these resistances to our thought and instruments the very kernel and key to the dilemma. Because we have our eye on consciousness or the universe, we are blind to other problems which would be better served in exploring. Rather than trying to explain consciousness or reduce it or the universe to an adequate explanation or naturalized meaning one begins to refocus on the logic of lack itself. 

 

 

 

Zizek Quote

…the true trauma lies not in our mortality, but in our immortality: it is easy to accept that we are just a speck of dust in the infinite universe; what is much more difficult to accept is that we effectively are immortal free beings who, as such, cannot escape the terrible responsibility of our freedom.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Zizek Quote of the Day

Capitalism and communism are not two different historical realizations, two species, of “instrumental reason”— instrumental reason as such is capitalist, grounded in capitalist relations, and “really existing socialism” failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to “have one’s cake and eat it,” to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient. Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Pacing Myself

I must admit that of late my return to blogging has actually been to rethink what it is I’m doing, and the regeneration of a goal to retroactively encompass not some grand narrative of my former selves or even the modes of being through which these momentary figures in the wind have dissolved, but rather to repeat the gesture of awakening that emerges for each of us in finding ourselves in the midst of an impossible universe and realizing for the first time the wonder of being alive and thinking it.

Rereading Zizek’s work has led me to reevaluate certain aspects of my own thought and to understand the mechanism of change and emergence of thought in my own life. Knowing I change continuously and that there is no stable or identifiable Subject or Self, but rather a process of continuous dialectical reactivation of certain problems that force me to act in thought, to neither secure some ultimate meaning nor even edge my way into some ultimate answer; rather to realize in the multiplicity I am the process of change that continuously works its way through this state of awareness. Against this process is not some pre-Adamic Self or Essence that existed to be discovered, found, or reawakened… there being no transcendental realm of Being beyond the very material registers of this life of process. Instead attuning my self to this retroactive process of reappropriation in thought of the very process of failure to become at all.

Zizek puts it this way in his philosophical bric-a-brac, saying,

In a subjective process, there is no “absolute subject,” no permanent central agent playing with itself the game of alienation and disalienation, losing or dispersing itself and then re-appropriating its alienated content: after a substantial totality is dispersed, it is another agent— previously its subordinated moment— which re-totalizes it. It is this shifting of the center of the process from one moment to another which distinguishes a dialectical process from the circular movement of alienation and its overcoming; it is because of this shift that the “return to itself” coincides with accomplished alienation (when a subject re-totalizes the process, its substantial unity is fully lost). In this precise sense, substance returns to itself as subject, and this trans-substantiation is what substantial life cannot accomplish.1

The point here is that the process is all, there being no static or momentary stillness of the turning world around which the self-as-Self-Subject suddenly finds rest in substantialized Being. Against all this is the Void or Gap that can never be filled, which unceasingly forces us to incessantly repeat the process till death. But then again maybe the process is after all what Freud found it to be: the pure repetition of the death-drive. As Zizek will problematize: “To put it bluntly: if Substance is Life, is the Subject not Death? Insofar as, for Hegel, the basic feature of pre-subjective Life is the “spurious infinity” of the eternal reproduction of the life substance through the incessant movement of the generation and corruption of its elements— that is, the “spurious infinity” of a repetition without progress— the ultimate irony we encounter here is that Freud, who called this excess of death over life the “death drive,” conceived it precisely as repetition, as a compulsion to repeat. Can Hegel think this weird repetition which is not progress, but also not the natural repetition through which substantial life reproduces itself? A repetition which, by its excessive insistence, breaks precisely with the cycle of natural repetition?” And as I’ve quoted before many times, and Wallace Stevens says better, in the end there is only the anxiety ridden never resting activity of the Mind:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

—Wallace Stevens 1942


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5477-5482). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Quentin Meillassoux

Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. He relies here on Badiou, who also pointed out how Cantor’s great materialist breakthrough concerns the status of infinite numbers (and it was precisely because this breakthrough was materialist that it caused so much psychic trauma for Cantor, a devout Catholic): prior to Cantor, the Infinite was linked to the One, the conceptual form of God in religion and metaphysics; after Cantor, the Infinite enters the domain of the Multiple— it implies the actual existence of infinite multiplicities, as well as an infinite number of different infinities.

Zizek’s comments on the above  goes as follows:

Does, then, the choice between materialism and idealism concern the most basic scheme of the relationship between multiplicity and the One in the order of the signifier? Is the primordial fact that of the multiplicity of signifiers, which is then totalized through the subtraction of the One; or is the primordial fact that of the “barred One”— more precisely, that of the tension between the One and its empty place, of the “primordial repression” of the binary signifier, so that multiplicity emerges to fill in this emptiness, the lack of the binary signifier? Although it may appear that the first version is materialist and the second idealist, one should resist this easy temptation: from a truly materialist position, multiplicity is only possible against the background of the Void— it is only this which makes the multiplicity non-All. The (Deleuzian) “genesis” of the One out of primordial multiplicity, this prototype of “materialist” explanation of how the totalizing One arises, should therefore be rejected: no wonder that Deleuze is simultaneously the philosopher of the (vitalist) One.

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. In psychoanalytical terms, this is the gap between desire and drive, and here also, one should resist the temptation to give priority to one term and reduce the other to its structural effect. That is to say, one can conceive the rotary motion of the drive as a way to avoid the deadlock of desire: the primordial lack/ impossibility, the fact that the object of desire is always missed, is converted into a profit when the aim of libido is no longer to reach its object, but to repeatedly turn around it— satisfaction is generated by the very repeated failure of direct satisfaction. And one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp. In philosophical terms, this couple echoes (not the couple of Spinoza and Hegel, but) the couple of Spinoza and Kant: the Spinozan drive (not grounded in a lack) versus Kantian desire (to reach the noumenal Thing).

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

 

Quote of the Day!

The main feature of historical thought proper is not “mobilism” (the motif of the fluidification or historical relativization of all forms of life), but the full endorsement of a certain impossibility: after a true historical break, one simply cannot return to the past, or go on as if nothing happened— even if one does, the same practice will have acquired a radically changed meaning.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Fichte and the Making of the Modern Self

So perhaps, before dismissing his philosophy as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance. To properly understand his passage to full idealism it is necessary to bear in mind how he radicalizes the primacy of practical reason, which had already been asserted by Kant.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

In many ways the dark horse within Zizek’s philosophical ‘night of the world’ is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher whose works rivaled Kant’s in obscurity and complexity. Schopenhauer would remark that Fichte “gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration”.1

Fichte’s confrontation with Kant would set his life’s task. We know that primary task of Fichte’s system of philosophy (the Wissenschaftslehre) is to reconcile freedom with necessity, or, more specifically, to explain how freely willing, morally responsible agents can at the same time be considered part of a world of causally conditioned material objects in space and time. Fichte’s strategy for answering this question—at least in his early writings, which are the ones upon which his historical reputation as a philosopher has (at least until recently) been grounded —was to begin simply with the ungrounded assertion of the subjective spontaneity and freedom (infinity) of the I and then to proceed to a transcendental derivation of objective necessity and limitation (finitude) as a condition necessary for the possibility of the former.2

Zizek devotes a great deal of time in his opus Less Than Nothing to a full (mis)reading of Fichte’s work telling us that what “Fichte failed to see was that, in the subject-object relationship, the subject is a negative entity, a pure self-relating negativity— which is why, in order not to “implode into itself,” it needs a minimum of objectal support. That is to say, although Fichte repeatedly emphasizes how the subject is not a thing but a self-relating process, a Tat-Handlung, he conceives of the subject in an all-too-positive way when he claims that the absolute I (subject) is all reality— the subject is, on the contrary, a hole in reality.” It’s out of Fichte that Zizek’s notions of the Subject as gap, crack, and the “something that is less than nothing” emerges. Fichte would develop the concept Anstoss, which has two primary meanings in German ( check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. (*see note below)

So that Zizek’s notion of the Subject as lack – or a negation of negation arises out of this confrontation of the self-recognition scene of the Self’s inability to re-present itself as substantial. Instead it is caught in a circle of it’s own self-relating negativity until it confronts a resistance both within and without that is not itself and discovers in itself the very truth of finitude. It is at this point Zizek will ask:

So why can the subject not simply be limited by the object? Not because the subject is absolute in the naïve sense of being the all-encompassing reality, but precisely because it is finite, caught in its self-relating loop and therefore unable to step out of itself and draw a line of delimitation between subjective and objective: every limit the subject draws is already “subjective.” (Zizek, KL 4179-4181)

We are already always bound within a circle of neglect, our knowledge already tied to the circle of our ignorance, never escaping the finite horizon of our own false infinity of consciousness. And, yet, something not us resists us from within and without, something that we come to know only as we delimit or posit a limit or cut or gap between us and this unknowable X. Or, as Zizek in my note below states it: “Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a [Lacan], to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.

Because we cannot find a third point outside ourselves from which to represent ourselves to ourselves, nor even represent the world in its objectivity that Fichte would rely on imagination rather than intellect as the only other option. As Zizek relates it we “can now see why representation needs to be supplemented by imagination proper: since the field of representations remains within the loop of the subject’s self-relating, it is by definition always inconsistent, full of lacunae, which the subject must somehow fill in to create a minimally consistent Whole of a world— and the function of imagination is precisely to fill in these gaps.” (Zizek, KL 4187) The admission here is that we rely on fictions rather than any actual factual knowledge of the world. Most of us get up each morning believing the world to be our common sense world of social activities never realizing that our shared vision of the world is an active dreamscape of illusion and self-deceptions based on just this kind of supplemented reality show of “filling in the gaps” of a world full of holes.

Yet, it is just here in this fantasy land of subjectivism that Fichte tries to escape out of the circle. As Zizek asks: “how does the relationship between subject and object become one of real opposition, that is, how does the external world become a real opposing force to the I? According to Fichte, this happens only when our mind adopts a practical stance towards the world.” (Zizek, KL 4237) A practical philosophy rather than theoretical:

In the theoretical-observational stance, it is easy to conceive of reality as a mere dream that unfolds in front of our eyes— but reality “hurts” and resists us once we start intervening in it and trying to change it. Here enters, of course, Fichte’s infamous “spurious infinity”: the practical Self can never totally overcome the resistance of the not-I, so “the self’s original practical constitution is a striving (Streben)”— ultimately the endless ethical striving to create a reality that would fully conform to the moral ideal. (Zizek, KL 4238)

Fichte’s notion of striving would be the first time the concept of drive (Trieb) was introduced in the sense that Freud would later incorporate it, and Lacan would only appropriate in Seminar XI as the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object. (Zizek, KL 4253) This very striving of the Subject-as-self in self-referential acquaintance was for Kant and his opponent Jacobi the very core of madness, and yet for Fichte the truth of this self-reflexive power of the self in it’s own acquaintance did not lead to madness but evasion:

There is thus no “objective” approach to self-consciousness (I): if we look at it from the outside, it disappears, dissolving into an objective psycho-physical process: The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and does not know what he wants. (Zizek, KL 4290)

Every approach to understanding of consciousness (hard problem) in the sciences (neurosciences) ends in this reduction to deterministic physical processes (a Spinozan materialism). The point being we cannot get outside the loop of our own neglect and ignorance. For Fichte this was no problem in fact it was the solution, we are nothing but this self-positing self-relating nothingness as process:

it is not just that the mind (I) relates to itself— the mind (I) is nothing but this process of self-relating. Therein lies the circle or loop Fichte talks about: the relating itself not only creates what it relates to, it also is what it relates to. (Zizek, KL 4308)

But this was just a first step for Fichte: “he discovered that the most elementary structure of self-consciousness— the I’s self-positing— is more complex than it initially appears, and displays a precise structure. Fichte’s starting point is that the Self is not a product of some pre-subjective activity that generates it— the Self comes immediately with the activity.” (Zizek, KL 4313) The point here is that this striving, this drive and the self-reflecting process arise together and are never separated or escape the circle of this process since both form an activity in unison. Already in 1795, Fichte employed the metaphor of the eye (das Auge): the Self is an activity into which an eye is inserted, an activity which sees itself and is only through seeing itself. His next step is to admit that “we cannot account for the duality of the activity and the eye in terms of one of them alone”: “Neither the eye nor the activity can provide this account. In this moment, the idea of a ground of the structure becomes indispensable.” (ibid.)

This is where it becomes tricky for Fichte and his project, for in the end he would fall into theology because of it: the notion of ground, how to posit the self as self-positing without some supporting objective Ground? I want go into all the commentary in Zizek’s rendition other than these notes from his book:

The Lacanian notion of le grand Autre (the big Other, vaguely corresponding to what Hegel called “objective spirit” or the “spiritual substance” of individual lives), triumphantly resolves this problem. The big Other is a totally subjectivized substance: not a Thing-in-itself, but a Substance which exists only insofar as it is continuously sustained by the work of “all and everyone.” Reproducing Fichte’s formula of the subject’s self-positing, the big Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only as permanently “posited” by subjects. (Zizek, KL 4405)

In other words we all live in a shared world of symbolic structures that we agree on and posit in our everyday practical lives as if they were objective truth. This is the big Other of Lacan-Zizek: this vast symbolic structure which is the ground of our shared experience and reality system. When it breaks down and begins to crack at the edges we perceive it as a threat to our mental stability. Our present world is in social psychosis because the shared systems that we choose to identify between Left and Right are breaking symmetry and the big Other of our grounded vision is falling apart and will not hold. Because of it we are at war with each other, a civil war of the psyche and mind struggling in-between a world dying and one being born out of the unraveling of this Ground.

According to Zizek Fichte was unable to resolve the status of Ground because he does not have at his disposal a term which would designate an entity that is not-mental, that is asubjective, and yet at the same time is not a material “thing,” but purely ideal. This, however, is exactly what the Lacanian “big Other” is: it is definitely not-mental (Lacan repeatedly emphasizes that the status of the big Other is not psychological), it does not belong to the order of the subject’s experience; but it is also not the pre-symbolic material Real, a thing or process in reality independent of subjectivity— the status of the big Other is purely virtual, as an ideal structure of reference; that is, it exists only as the subject’s presupposition. (The big Other is thus close to what Karl Popper, in his late writings, designated as the Third World, neither objective reality nor subjective inner experience.) The Lacanian “big Other” also resolves the problem of the plurality of subjects: its role is precisely that of the Third, the very medium of the encounter between subjects. (Zizek, KL 4410)

Ultimately it’s this encounter and oppositional play of forces between subjects working within the shared symbolic field that produces our understanding of reality and ourselves. Without this conflict of forces as process in ongoing activity we would forever remain bound within an illusory world of self-positing negativity. It is only in the confrontation with what resists my own self-positing which awakens me from my dream into understanding of an other, and of myself as an othering.


*Note – “It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits for itself in order to stimulate its activity, so that by overcoming the obstacle it can assert its creative power (like the games the proverbial ascetic saint plays with himself, inventing increasingly perverse temptations in order to confirm his strength by successfully resisting them). If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.” (Zizek)


  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13
  2. Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 4132-4136). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Thought of the Day: The Limits of the Mind

At times philosophers are like magicians whose whole world of magic is bound within evasion and trickery, seeking to keep your mind occupied by the bells-and-whistles of distraction and stage props while the real work goes on elsewhere and in plain sight. The philosopher’s old enemy was the rhetorician, the Sophist, who could use the figures of intellect and speech to cover over the truth in a veil of pure illusion and make it seem by way of metaphor and rhetorical flourish the very thing itself. But the philosopher is himself caught in the trap of self-deception, believing that the very words he so uses under the scrutiny of careful persuasion and example have the power to awaken truth from its hiding places while all the time as Nietzsche reminds us: “Even great spirits have only their five-fingers’ breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”

Zizek’s Philosophy in a Nutshell

stock-photo-52586260

We can thus identify three positions [in philosophy]: metaphysical, transcendental, and “speculative.” In the first, reality is simply perceived as existing out there, and the task of philosophy is to analyze its basic structure. In the second, the philosopher investigates the subjective conditions of the possibility of objective reality, its transcendental genesis. In the third, subjectivity is re-inscribed into reality, but not simply reduced to a part of objective reality. While the subjective constitution of reality— the split that separates the subject from the In-itself— is fully admitted, this very split is transposed back into reality as its kenotic self-emptying (to use the Christian theological term). Appearance is not reduced to reality; rather the very process of appearance is conceived from the standpoint of reality, so that the question is not “How, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality?” but “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” (italics mine)

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Commentary:

For those who might have difficulty in this tri-philosophical breakdown it goes as follows: naïve-realism, idealism, dialectical materialism. Naïve realists or old school “democratic materialism” of the scientistic materialist sort defined as structuralist realism in which the mathematical structure of reality is both objective but not directly accessible. This is the age old metaphysical split between Subject-Object which has played out since Plato and his heirs and on through pre-Quantum scientific thought. Plato would separate the world into two: an eternal static realm of Ideas-Forms (although in his Parmenides he would begin to question this!), and our world – which he considered the realm of shadows and illusion (think of his Cave parable!). This two-world theory would survive in Plato’s heirs, the Neo-Platonists, and in the Catholic Church under many guises until Kant and his Idealist heirs. After Kant the two-world theory literalized in Platonic thought was internalized in the Mind-Nature divide as seen in both German and English Romantic philosophers and poets. All the debates surrounding the circle of correlationism fall into this as the thought-object pair. Idealism in its core Kantian mode seeks to understand how reality is created by the Mind, there being no objective structure or Real beyond the subjective genesis of it from the human perspective (anthropomorphism, etc.). The third mode is a dialectical reversal of the second, rather than asking how reality is shaped by the Mind, it asks: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to arise within the world to apprehend itself as itself to begin with. What Zizek has done is to reinscribe a non-human viewpoint into the mix wherein there is a before/after gap between appearance as pure appearance without consciousness and an after of appearance as appearance – knowing itself as appearance (i.e., consciousness). So that dialectical materialism unlike idealism is concerned not with the eternal circle of correlational thought of Subject/Object, but rather is concerned with the very reversal: what conditions were necessary to bring about this great gap, split, and cut the world to produce consciousness. Zizek would fold consciousness back into its origins, take up the stance of the Real. This double fold of consciousness into appearance has yet to be explained by any and all thinkers or even neuroscience. It was termed once the hard problem of consciousness. Those last two questions of Zizek are the scientific thinker coming to the fore: “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” This is the speculative mode proper. The grand tour from externalization on to internalization and then a great kenosis or emptying of Self-as-void and the Void-of-self into things begins with the latest works of Badiou and Zizek.

The point here is what were the conditions necessary to bring about consciousness – this split, cut, gap in appearance? Rather than explaining consciousness, it asks the harder question: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to begin with?  And the conditions necessary in reality to cause this separation necessary to allow awareness of appearance as appearance? In this since one must focus not on either side of the equation, but rather on the cut, gap, split itself. Most democratic materialism and idealism focus on one side or the other of the issue: either on objective reality, or on the Mind; while dialectical materialism focuses on neither, but rather on the cut or subtraction itself. What brought about this split, gap, cut, subtraction from appearance to begin with? The conditions necessary for this break in symmetry? How did this cut in the fabric of appearance come about? Traumatic events? What sequence of events were necessary to instigate such a rupture at the core of time and space as awareness? Is it common? Uncommon? Appearance aware of itself as appearance: is it an aberration or a commonplace in the universe? What Zizek does is to focus on this process of subtraction rather than on either side of the equation of Subject or Object, rather the all important concept or notion of the Void between them is the focal point around which Zizek’s philosophy hovers. Not just a void, but a subtraction from the Void. Those resistances to the Real that make us stumble in asking such questions.

American Grunge

It is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of our experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?

—Jaques Lacan

Of late I was re-reading Edmund Berger’s 2015 essay Grungy “Accelerationism” (here) which recounts a short underground history of a facet of the counter-culture from the Beats (Burroughs) to the late age of slack. Informative as always Edmund relates these tidbits from a forgotten world with elan and a cynical eye toward its positive and negative effects. As he’ll tell us certain focal points were developed by the rogue intelligentsia of the era best typified by the rebels and street nihilists of Semiotext(e), an elite underground mixture of avant-garde intellectuality – drifting in the wake of Americanization of French theory and thought of the era – after Foucault and Derrida, etc. As Edmund relates it this melange of hybrid thought from low and high cultural praxis embodied

what I’m referring to as grungy accelerationism. Instead of opting for a direct confrontation with the powers of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and the state (as Marxist-Leninism or communization theory might pose, in their own different routes), what was promoted instead was the construction of alternative, aesthetically experimental, DIY networks right in the midst of the ruins.

This notion of working amidst the ruins of capital rather than within some academic and high-cultural mediatainment system seemed to have an effect on the bottom feeders of the dark street nihils of the age. For average citizens of the machine such antics went by the wayside and were lost among obsolesced realms of thought and culture. The last breath of such thought came in the way of hyperfictional works as Nick Land and associates would produce in the mid to late 90’s.

Two things would end all this sponge fest: the bubble-burst of Californian ideology in the wake of cyberculture meltdown in the fated economics of Internet start-ups, and Osama Ben Laden and crews burning of the Twin Towers. The splice and cut that would subtract worlds before and after swallowed any hope of a counter-cultural revolution in the wake of both political and economic break down and the collapse of the American Dream into Apocalyptic Nightmare.

Instead of acceleration, collapse and apathy would ensue and the forces of war, conservative, and traditional capitalist regulation of the masses, and the false worlds of hypermedia irrealism would create the Middle-East conflict and the hybrid market inflation and hyper speculation of profiteers on a scale that would eventually lead to the social and political collapse of 2007. Nothing would remain the same afterward. Instead we now live in another of those eras of authoritarian re-balancing in which acts of violence on both social and economic scales empower the powers-that-be attuning our minds to the ever-present stage mechanics of mass beliefs that would make Shakespeare laugh in pure cynical glee have come to the fore. Both the Left and Right play out their ancient ideological wars as if it meant something, all the while both sides are being pulled by the puppet strings of mediatainment experts under the cash cow eyes of the power brokers of profit.

Yet, one might say: “Hold on, what gives you the right to make such cynical judgements on our lives?” Look around, what do you see? Our supposed political and social underground has turned into a circus of cliche and less than adequate response to the state of the world’s affairs. Globe trotting gangs of philo-thought philosophers roam the stage spouting on anything and everything; and, yet, talk… always more talk and more talk that acts like a factory of stupidity producing imbeciles unable to change themselves or the world. Words and more words come from scholars, philosophers, essayists, comedians, etc., repeating the latest clown antics in Trumpsville U.S.A.. The moneyed left mediatainment networks keep our ire leveled at this puppet show while nothing is done in the real world to alleviate the real social and political issues, not to speak of other more environmental and global pressures. We seem to be in an era of Regressionism rather than Accelerationism, a time when nostalgia and dreams of a lost America loom in the minds and hearts of its citizenry. Truly Grunge has slacked its way into the abyss of stupidity rather than accelerating us into some new era of freedom.

 

 

Christ Without God: Post-Religious Atheism as Christian Materialism

It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective— the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.  But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

One of those subtle yet revelatory aspects of the whole tradition of Marxism is its inner spirit and alignment with a counter-gospel of redemption and salvation: that of the Proletariat of the World. All revolutionary philosophies have as the kernel of their emancipatory power the tension at the heart of Christianity. Slavoj Zizek had in as many books written a counter-thought to the accepted or Orthodoxy of Christian philosophy, theology, and revelation. In a poignant aside he tells us,

The standard reproach addressed to this project of “Christian materialism” is that it amounts to a “barred” belief: not being courageous enough to make the “leap of faith,” I retain the Christian form of religious engagement without its content. My reply is that this “emptying the form of its content” already takes place in Christianity itself, at its very core— the name of this emptying is kenosis: God dies and resurrects itself as the Holy Ghost, as the form of collective belief. It is a fetishistic mistake to search for the material support of this form (the resurrected Christ)— the Holy Ghost is the very collective of believers, what they are searching for outside of the collective is already there in the guise of the love that binds them.1

This strain within Zizek’s thought of a “Christian atheism” was challenged by his own ephebe, Adrian Johnston in a personal communique:

You and Badiou clearly, openly, and unambiguously are thoroughgoing atheists, thinkers insisting on the non-existence of any big Other, One-All, and so on. Moreover, both of you labor to reveal, in a non-reductive manner, the material basis/ genesis of “spiritual” phenomena. And, of course, you yourself vehemently insist on reading Christianity as the “religion of atheism.” But, from others’ texts I’ve read and conversations I’ve had these past few years, some people register you and Badiou as religious in the same fashion that audiences register Penn and Teller as magical: “I know full well that Badiou and Žižek are atheists, but nonetheless …”; “I know that Christianity is, as the religion of atheism, an immanent self-negation of religion, but nonetheless … (I continue to relate to it as religion, in a religious mode replete with all its established rituals, practices, etc.).” I guess one of the things I’m saying is that the tactic of employing Christianity as a tempting Trojan horse carrying within it the explosive potentials of an atheistic-materialist radical politics carries dangerous risks arising from this je sais bien, mais quand même reaction evident in those who latch onto you and Badiou as licensing, as displaying strains of phenomenology and its offshoots, a version of “post-secular” Continental philosophy. (ibid.)

Zizek’s counter to this religion without content notion goes as follows. He asks:

Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological— the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers. (ibid.)

A bold pronouncement if there ever was one from Zizek. It would take me a book to explicate the hidden threads lying within that passage. At the heart of it is the notion of the Big Other, which like my preamble from King James on the notion of the Comforter (Holy Ghost) spoken and written of in the Gospel of John we hear from Jesus himself that there is a “Spirit of truth” that will enter history (materialism) as the power at the heart of this collective project that is emancipation of world.

Christ the Man

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

In the above passage Christ is hanging on the death cross totally shriven of all thought and inner sustenance, becoming as we are: fully human, alone, without God. In this moment a humanist would say that God had died to God. The moment that the true and actual meaning of “freedom” is born in the world. For freedom is this knowledge of separation, of aloneness, of self-reliance in the midst of a world without any anchors, gods, or big Other to hear, understand, know one’s darkest inner pain and feelings. To be alone and utterly emptied is to know the truth of humanity in the universe. It was this utter isolation and abandonment in a cosmos without God that Jesus Christ experienced: the truth we all face each and every day if we were honest without ourselves.

I do not know but I suspect that Zizek like me was at one time an Orthodox believer who accepted all the truth handed down by the elders of some Church and its dogmas without questioning it until something happened. I’ve often gone back over what it was that moved toward a radical atheistic view of existence. There is no one moment, or thing, or event I can point to that would explain it. Rather it was a slow accumulation of little events and memories that pushed me over the edge into the no man’s land of atheism. This is neither the place nor do I have the time to relate all this sordid history of my own dark path into freedom and solitude, only to say that it came by way of a slow awakening to this deep seeded belief that we are alone and without recourse to any external authority, power, or big Other to hear us, save us, comfort us. We are alone. And this in itself comforts me now. It gives me hope. It allows me to realize that I must act responsible out of my own nothingness, my own abandonment, my inner core as a human among other humans and creatures in a cosmos bereft of external power and authority. What I do matters because I am unique and alone in a universe that knows not of me.

As Zizek says in another passage of import,

Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a( nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief and thus have no need for any figure of the Other to guarantee that belief; to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-même. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of its inexistence. (ibid., Kindle Locations 2866-2870)

One cannot emphasize how much empowerment there is in this acceptance of God’s inexistence. This acceptance that we are free and without bond or chains to any Law or Power. To be alone with the alone, to know that one has no support, no external authority whether of God, State, or parent to hold one up, comfort one, or hear one’s cries of desperation in the lonely nights gives one the greatest comfort of all. Knowing that we must find within ourselves the sustaining courage to be, to exist in a world bereft of any big Other is to know for the first time that one is on equal footing with all other creatures in this universe. This is the only true democracy of objects, to be free and withdrawn from all so that one can then enter into relations out of that solitude and freedom. Knowing one’s shared knowledge is bound within the network of illusions and neglect that is our lot as humans. All revolutionary thought starts from this inner core of solitude and freedom.

 


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 2785-2790). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Big Other: Positing the Presuppositions

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.”

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

The Void That Moves

—“Then if we were to say, to sum up, ‘if one is not, nothing is,’ wouldn’t we speak correctly?” —“Absolutely.”

—Plato, Parmenides (Translated: Mary Louis Gill and Paul Ryan)

We don’t know much about Democritus, the father of materialism, beyond a few anecdotal reports passed down to us from Aristotle and the lists of lost works reported by Diogenes Laertius. Aristotle wrote a monograph on Democritus, of which only a few passages quoted in other sources have survived. Democritus seems to have taken over and systematized the views of Leucippus, of whom little is known. Although it is possible to distinguish some contributions as those of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer either to both figures, or to Democritus alone; the developed atomist system is often regarded as essentially Democritus’.1

It’s the view of Democritus’s natural philosophy of atomism that has for the most part guided our knowledge of materialism for millennium. Yet, it is this reception of Democritus as an atomist that is challenged within Slavoj Zizek’s Magnum Opus Less Than Nothing. In his first chapter Zizek spends an inexorable amount of time parsing the work of Plato’s Parmenides. Of course the point here is the age old battle between Idealism and Materialism which have warred through the generations over the notions of change and the real.

Berryman in his article on the Stanford site relates the standard view onto this ancient battle:

Ancient sources describe atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge offered by Parmenides. Despite occasional challenges, this is how its motivation is generally interpreted by mainstream scholars today. Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are often thought to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes. (ibid.)

After the final quote above from the Parmenides in my epigraph Zizek will quote the last lines:

Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Most true.3

Zizek will add: “Is this not the most succinct, minimal definition of dialectical materialism? If there is no One, just multiplicities of multiplicities, then the ultimate reality is the Void itself; all determinate things “are and are not.”” (ibid.) To answer that Zizek explains that it all depends on what we “mean by zero, nothing, or the void”. He goes on to explicate (and I quote at length):

First, there are two zeroes, the zero of measure (like a zero degree, the point of reference chosen to establish a quantitative difference, which is arbitrary— for measuring temperature, Celsius and Fahrenheit posit a different zero) and zero as the neutral element, like 0 in addition and subtraction: whichever number we add 0 to or subtract 0 from, this number remains the same. This, perhaps, offers one approach to the “analyst’s neutrality”: the analyst is just there as an inert objet a, s/ he does not actively intervene. However, we should add to this neutrality of 0 the opposite case of multiplication wherein 0 is, on the contrary, the absorbing element: whichever number we multiply with 0, the result is 0.  …

This distinction between the neutral/ absorbing zero and the zero of measure is not to be confused with another distinction which also relates to the psychoanalytic practice: the distinction between nothing and the void. Nothing is localized, like when we say “there is nothing here,” while the void is a dimension without limits. 

So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. (ibid., Kindle Locations 1738-1746) [my italics]

Better and more succinct is Levi R. Bryant’s explication of Deleuze’s notion of the ‘Virtual‘ in his book The Democracy of Objects: “No one has explored this anterior side of substance—in the transcendental, not the temporal, sense—more profoundly than Gilles Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze names this dimension of substance that is formatted or structured without possessing qualities the virtual. Here the virtual is not to be confused with virtual reality. The latter is generally treated as a simulacrum of reality, as a sort of false or computer generated reality. By contrast, the virtual is entirely real without, for all that, being actual. The term “virtuality” comes from the Latin virtus, which has connotations of potency and efficacy. As such, the virtual, as virtus, refers to powers and capacities belonging to an entity. And in order for an entity to have powers or capacities, it must actually exist. In this connection, while the virtual refers to potentiality, it would be a mistake to conflate this potentiality with the concept of a potential object. A potential object is an object that does not exist but which could come to exist. By contrast, the virtual is strictly a part of a real and existing object. The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations.”3

This notion of the virtual as displaying powers and capacities (Bryant), as well as “being known for its real effects and consequences” (Zizek). So here we begin to see an outline of dialectical materialism in its equation of Void > Real > Virtual in which Ideas or immaterial powers and capacities effect change and consequences upon our world. As one reads through Zizek we begin to realize that the Void is the energetic and volcanic underbelly of existence, that in its virtuality it produces the very fabric of the space-time continuum of our universe. And, of course, Zizek promotes such analogies between modern quantum physics with its Higg’s fields and these philosophical concepts. Seeing in the mathematical fictions of physicists and the conceptual fictions of the philosophers a corollary. Being does not exist in its own right but is rather a subtraction from the Void much as are all those small particles that come into and out of existence from the void of the quantum realms.

Zizek’s return to Plato and Hegel is not as Idealist, but rather as correcting what they in themselves got wrong. For Zizek Ideas do not exist in some other permanent realm Outside, but rather are always already within the very fabric of things: a gap or crack within objects themselves that allows this passage between or in-between those powers and capacities to be mediated and translated – distorted into our world of actuality. As Zizek will argue in another passage, comparing the ancient Buddhist notion of nirvana against Freud’s notion of death-drive, saying,

So does the paradox of the Higgs field not also prefigure the mystery of symbolic castration in psychoanalysis? What Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—“ incestuous”— object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and of meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity.  (ibid., Kindle Locations 3166-3170).

This sense of restlessness at the heart of things, this movement that never ends, never finds resolution of its tensions, but forever oscillates between diametric poles producing all we know and are. Not some New Age mysticism but a very powerful materialist understanding of the universe in its continuous creativity. Closer to Heraclitus’s “War is the Father of All,” than to some mystic eyed nirvana of absolute peace. Ours is a world of continuous strife and tension, and creativity comes in opposition rather than some release of tension. Ours is the realm of death and the drive.

The Freudian answer is the drive: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive. (ibid., Kindle Locations 3147-3152)

Whether Zizek understands actual Buddhism is besides the point, the conclusion to draw from this is this difference that makes a difference in our world. Life is itself a part of this death-drive, complicit in its warring strife and existence. The very motion of our being is moved by the turning wheel of death-in-Life: Galileo’s eppur si muove? (“But nonetheless, it continues to move!”)

Whereas Plato sought some absolute still point outside our realm of illusory appearances, so stable and unchanging eternal realm of Ideas, etc., Zizek sees our realm as itself the site of endless conflict and change wherein Ideas become the powers and capacities complicit in the movement of the world.


  1. Berryman, Sylvia, “Democritus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  2. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1705-1708). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  3. Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. University of Michigan Library (October 31, 2011) [italics mine]

 

Zizek Quote: Divide Between Materialism and Idealism

The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness / the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void / nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e., there is an indistinction of being and the void.

—Slavoj  Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Zizek’s Return To Plato As Materialist?

Another quote from Zizek’s Less Than Nothing I’ve been rereading carefully over the past few months:

This “truth of Plato” received its clearest formulation in one of the great anti-Platonic works, Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, where Deleuze begins by “inverting” Plato’s dualism of eternal Ideas and their imitations in sensuous reality into the dualism of substantial (material) bodies and the pure impassive surface of Sense, the flux of Becoming which is to be located on the very borderline of Being and non-Being. Senses are surfaces which do not exist, but merely subsist: “They are not things or facts, but events. We cannot say that they exist, but rather that they subsist or inhere (having this minimum of being which is appropriate to that which is not a thing, a nonexisting entity).”  The Stoics, who developed this notion of “incorporeals,”

were the first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion. For if bodies with their states, qualities, and quantities, assume all the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of the Idea are relegated to the other side, that is to this impassive extra-Being which is sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things: the ideational or the incorporeal can no longer be anything other than an “effect.”

This dualism is the “materialist truth” of the dualism of Ideas and material things, and it is against this background that one should envisage a return to Plato. Let us take an unexpected example: A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form— the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate— the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” One should thus fully accept that spatio-temporal material reality is “all there is,” that there is no other “more true” reality: the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order, how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

In this sense Zizek is returning to Plato and revising his misunderstandings of the notion of matter/form. For Zizek as always this realm we are living and participating in is always already the eternal order of energetic matter informed by the appearance of appearance of Ideas that circulate. There being no two-world theory as has been brought down since time immemorial by all those false idealists. Zizek’s materialism is Idealism manifest not as a two-world theory but as a One-All in which the division of Idea/Matter are always here now, there being no separate realm of Eternal Ideas beyond appearance. Only this universe seen as the eternal stage of struggle of Idea and Form as appearance as appearance.

So against false materialism of the dogmatic scientists of the old atomist school Zizek opts for the changed state of the hard sciences of modern physics an a two Void theoretic of a positive void informed by ‘less than nothing’ which produces the eternal spring of appearance as appearance manifest as our Universe.

Fate and Modern Art: We Are Alone with the Alone

This brings us again to the fate of modern art. Schoenberg still hoped that somewhere there would be at least one listener who would truly understand his atonal music. It was only his greatest pupil, Anton Webern, who accepted the fact that there is no listener, no big Other to receive the work and properly recognize its value. In literature, James Joyce still counted on future generations of literary critics as his ideal public, claiming that he wrote Finnegans Wake to keep them occupied for the next 400 years. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we, writers and readers, have to accept that we are alone, reading and writing at our own risk, with no guarantee from the big Other. (It was Beckett who drew this conclusion in his break with Joyce.)

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

The Cognitive Break: Breaking Free of Matryoshka’s Dilemma

Matryoshkajpg

Poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways. In most cases the author is not the right authority to decide on where the reader ceases to understand and the misunderstanding begins. Many an author has found readers to whom his work seemed more lucid than it was to himself. Moreover, misunderstandings may be fruitful under certain circumstances.

—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf: A Novel

I believe the above sums up my own unique situation as a scribbler, for to be honest that’s what I am for the most part. An ‘author’ seems a little too dignified for what I’m doing, but then again what is it I am doing? Not being a professional philosopher or scientist or… even a poet of repute, I’ve spent my life digesting and tuning and digging into the vast storehouse of human learning and libraries seeking an answer to the usual and fundamental problems of existence: my own existence in this vast and wondrous universe.

As I read others I realize we’re all in the same boat pegging away at this strange bit of dust that suddenly became self-aware somewhere along the way: humanity. Oh, there is plenty of theories as to why we as humans suddenly evolved into thinking beings; some based on deep religious beliefs, others from an utterly atheistic perspective. Somewhere along the way a group of men in Athens and surrounding satellite cities and villages began to think differently about thinking, asked questions that seemed to ring true, to codify and compress the base common lot into an amalgam of thought that over the centuries became a sort of living Book of Wisdom. Not some literal book, mind you; but, rather, an unwritten set of sayings from various men (Pre-Socratics) that were passed around from generation to generation until a canon of accepted thought began to rule. A stabilized way of thinking arose, a dialectical give and take, a dialogue among various confrontational voices emerged discussing this and that at the central hub of Athens: the Agora. It was here that a man named Socrates began asking questions of citizens about their sundry knowledge of life, work, happiness, etc.

In many ways we’ll never come to know who the man Socrates was in flesh and blood, instead we have the testimonies of both his detractors and his ephebe’s (i.e., students, followers, pupils, etc.). He is portrayed in these various works either as a dangerous man deserving punishment or as a law-abiding and helpful citizen worthy of praise for his unblemished character.1 Many of us probably began reading Plato’s Apology in high-school or college, it being a sort of introduction to that world of philosophy in its most vivid recounting of Socrates’s trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. What is it he did that was so terrible that in the end he was forced to commit suicide drinking a cup of hemlock? He was a man who presented himself as a humble creature whose base premise was to be the man who knew nothing, nothing at all. And, yet, he believed that others might know something more and be able to teach him what they knew. So he began asking questions of those who seemed to know something about life, thought, etc. And for this he was judged corrupt because many of the young men of Athens seemed to follow a man who knew nothing?

Ah, Socrates was a little sly old goat, wasn’t he? Shall we play Devil’s advocate and wonder why this ugly old man wondering the streets of Athens asking his questions irritated so man men in authority. We know the answer: men of power do not like being shown just how stupid they are, how little they know about what they supposedly know; and, most of all, that what they know they cannot even discuss with any equitable saving of face. Men of power do not like being found out as naïve and foolish believers in their own knowledge of nature and people. It was this unbinding of thought, this dialectical tearing of the veil of pretentious power at the heart of Athens presumed great men that brought Socrates to the end game of judgement.

The corruption that Socrates had brought to the youth of Athens was thought and thinking itself, a new way of thinking: the dialectic, a negative form of thinking that would whittle away at a person’s knowledge till nothing was left but ignorance and doubt. And men of power cannot act on ignorance and doubt, they must know that their actions are based on some solid knowledge or it is just a fool’s errand. Kant in a perspicuous passage in the Critique of Reason comes to much the same conclusions:

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.2

In this sense we are aware only of what we are given, and for the most this giveness is based on ignorance and neglect rather than actual knowledge. Humans cannot grasp all the data thrown at them by the universe, so we have over the millennia become selective, appropriating, filtering, and fictionalizing aspects of the world in manageable bytes under the rubric of thought which was later codified by philosophers and sophists (Rhetoricians) alike. What we know of the world is not the ‘world’, but rather a nice fairy tale of our own survival fictions that have helped us accrue millennia of illusory errors about both ourselves and our universe. Kant began codifying the errors of past philosophers much as Socrates in his dialectic began questioning the ignorance of men who thought they knew in fact what they didn’t know at all. Kant would come up against the antinomies of existence in thought and reality. For Kant the antinomies were contradictions which he believed follow necessarily from our attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. What he’d term the noumenal realm which was not directly accessible to the mind, but was always already covered over by the filters and mechanisms of the mind’s own internal workings.

This internal turn toward the mind rather than as in most previous philosophy would bring about a break in philosophical speculation that has led us to the current malaise in philosophy and the triumph of the brain sciences. For in our own moment the game of understanding why the mind works the way it does had shifted from mere speculative philosophy to the hard nosed sciences of the brain for answers. My friend Scott Bakker over at Three Pound Brain has been reiterating this fact for some time. In his latest article on Wilfrid Sellar’s thesis of the manifest and scientific images of man he puts his finger on the prime issue: “It generates the problems it does (for example, in Brassier or Dennett) because it inherits the very cognitive limitations it purports to explain.” (see Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man) The point here is that the mind-tools we have available to describe or even question consciousness are themselves biased, error prone, and most of all always already part of the problem it purports to solve: explaining consciousness with tools of the mind that do not and will never have direct access to the Mind. It’s this circular cave of shadows within which we are all shared ignoramuses when it comes to thinking about consciousness. We hem, we haw, we purport this and that theoretical idea all based on our inherited errors.

Sellar’s Scott tells us divided the images of man into pre-conceptual (original image), conceptual (manifest image), and scientific images ( post-conceptual? concrete?). Yet, it was from the beginning a war against reality-in-itself that humans developed instead a personalized environment in which they could give birth, raise children, educate one another, and perform the various tribal ceremonies of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death. Or, as Scott puts it: “The original framework, Sellars tells us, conceptualizes all objects as ways of being persons—it personalizes its environments. The manifest image, then, can be seen as “the modification of an image in which all the objects are capable of the full range of personal activity”.” The animate universe was a realm filled with mind and persons, a vital realm of ghosts, spirits, and mythic creatures. A nightmare world of dangers against which humans developed mind-tools for survival, and only survival and propagation were the central features of this original pre-conceptual tool-bag of fictions.

Out of this pre-conceptual tool-bag arose what we now know as the philosophical image or ‘manifest image’, as Scott explains,

This new image of man, Sellars claims, is “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world”. As such, the manifest image is the image interrogated by the philosophical tradition, which given the limited correlational and categorial resources available to it, remained blind to the communicative—social—conditions of conceptual frameworks, and so, the manifest image of man. Apprehending this would require the scientific image, the conceptual complex “derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction,” yet still turning on the conceptual resources of the manifest image.3

What we see here is nothing new, but rather a series of mental leaps or refinements, tiers or levels of reality baking that each turns toward the previous images as if from the outside. But have we ever truly left the pre-conceptual level at all? It’s like the blind leading the blind, turning over and over the mind-tools inherited from the previous image as if this would suddenly produce some advantage. But has it? Or we still as ignorant as those early cave dwellers who blew paint on the walls in southern France? As Bakker reiterates:

Things begin, for Sellars, in the original image, our prehistorical self-understanding. The manifest image consists in the ‘correlational and categorial refinement’ of this self-understanding. And the scientific image consists in everything discovered about man beyond the limits of correlational and categorial refinement (while relying on these refinements all the same). The manifest image, in other words, is an attenuation of the original image, whereas the scientific image is an addition to the manifest image (that problematizes the manifest image). Importantly, all three are understood as kinds of ‘conceptual frameworks’ (though he sometime refers to the original image as ‘preconceptual.’

This reminded me of those Matryoshka dolls one sees in the specialty stores from Russia: a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. Maybe our conceptual and pre-conceptual frameworks are like these dolls hidden within each other, a nested series of internal mind-worlds that have a tentative cross-pollination in-between zones that still reverberate in us even now. The point here is that the more you look inward toward the mind the smaller and smaller it becomes; a sort of infinite regress of thought which we will never fully understand or uncover. The nested worlds of mind are infinite. Bad analogy? Of course, but as we struggle to understand ourselves we all, manifest and scientific frameworks, both, come up against the black hole of our ignorance much like Socrates in questioning the knowledge of all those powerful Athenian gentlemen.

Is there a way out of this quagmire or are we forever condemned to repeat each others errors no matter how refined we become adding new dolls to the nested loop (i.e., constructing new frameworks even more sophisticated than our current scientific image)? For Scott the answer to that question turns on an ecological framework, and by that he means that our ancestral pool of inherited mind-tools were fitted to our natural environments. Slowly but surely we’ve begun severing this relation over the past few millennia constructing more and more unnatural or artificial environments. As Scott puts it his story and postscript to Crash Space:

Reverse engineering brains is a prelude to engineering brains, plain and simple. Since we are our brains, and since we all want to be better than what we are, a great many of us celebrate the eventuality. The problem is that we happen to be a certain biological solution to an indeterminate range of ancestral environments, an adventitious bundle of fixes to the kinds of problems that selected our forebears. This means that we are designed to take as much of our environment for granted as possible—to neglect. This means that human cognition, like animal cognition more generally, is profoundly ecological. And this suggests that the efficacy of human cognition depends on its environments.

What Scott is saying is what many evolutionists have said for a while: we are attentive only to those things in the environment that help us survive and propagate, everything else about reality we pass over or neglect realizing it is just too much – an excess that we put in relief, blindly focusing only on what matters to us, what is personal.

Yet, in our time we’ve severed the links to our natural for an artificial environment, a built environment —one might say, designer environment. We’ve displaced our ancestral cognitive ecologies from the natural to the artificial, neglecting the former for the changed world of natural for machinic being. “We neglect all those things our ancestors had no need to know on the road to becoming us.” says Scott. And, then goes on to say,

Herein lies the ecological rub. The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.

In this sense our entire planetary civilization has become unhinged. We are all tittering on the edge of a psychotic break, and many already show the signs of such madness. One only needs to watch the nightly news (a biased world of psychosis if there ever was one) to see the mass murders, the wars, the political and religious tom foolery that reaches the highest levels of our media frenzy. Day by day we are so attached to our artificial environments: our electronic gadgets, our online personalities, and fake echo chambers that we neglect our lives, our children, our natural physical lives. And, then we wake up and realize just how inadequate our knowledge of the world and ourselves is, we realize that this artificial world and the natural do not coalesce and we are lost amid the dark recesses of our own ignorance.

Yet, in our economic and worldly realm we continue to act of this ancestral pool of neglect, piling up more and more feats of artificial mandates. As Scott says: “And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the
effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved  such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering  ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well  could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other  ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.”

In other words our so called progressive society of improvement since the Enlightenment has in its ‘disenchantment’ of the world (which is really just another way of saying: our severing of the links to the natural context and displacement into a modern artificial built world of thought and life) brought us to the brink of mental implosion and destruction: a crash space of global proportions. Does all this sound apocalyptic? Sure it does, but in some ways it helps us understand the many strange psychotic breaks daily reported in the news. Humans who are still nested within nests of images that were and are still tied to our ancestral pool of mind-tools are no longer involved in those ancient worlds of natural survival and propagation. This break from the environment to the artificial has accelerated over the past two centuries to the point of complete severance.

Can a whole civilization go psychotic? Scott ends on an apocalyptic note: “Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more
we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.” This sense that the mind-tools of our ancestral nesting image, our philosophical manifest image, and – even our “scientific image” are not up to the task of guiding us through this process. We are all in the dark now, together.

As for Sellars’s approach Scott in his end piece brings to the fore the Idealism of its conceptual framework and how this reliance on conceptuality has led Sellars and his followers into blind alleys of just reiterating the same old games of the ‘given’ that have clouded modern philosophy ever since Kant. As he says, summing up,

The issue of information availability, for him (Sellars), is always conceptual, which is to say, always heuristically conditioned, which is to say, always bound to systematically distort what is the case. Where the enabling dimension of cognition belongs to the deep environments on a cognitive ecological account, it belongs to communities on Sellars’ inferentialist account. As result, he has no clear way of seeing how the increasingly technologically mediated accumulation of ancestrally unavailable information drives the development of human self-understanding.

Scott’s turn from the Idealism of ‘conceptuality’ to the cognitive ecological turn in heuristics based as it is on technological mediation rather than the mind-tools of philosophical speculation shifts the ground toward a more specific task: rather than explaining consciousness with the outworn tools of ancestral voices we should maybe begin to explore this new found world of technological mediation and push it further, accelerate its force into avenues unfounded in all past speculative thought. Maybe we will find our way out of the Matryoshka dolls of our nested images and into a new form of cognitive ecological understanding of ourselves, but it want be by way of the previous nestings and our ancestral reliance of less and less environmental cues; instead we may be entering a totally artificial era of technological mediation based on merging more and more with our artificial environments. Instead of the Age of Disenchantment maybe ours is instead the Age of Breaking the Vessel or Matryoshka doll altogether. Forget the ancestral pool, forget Sellars, forget all the previous speculations of the philosophers and turn instead to a more materialist technological mediation based on specificity rather than conceptuality.

When I think of the great psychosis of our time, of whole societies entering into madness, I feel the pain of millions of lost creatures each struggling in his lonely cell trying to make sense of a world that no longer coincides with the knowledge and belief systems we were handed by our ancestors. We’ve been utterly riven of our relations to the past, broken into a thousands shreds the feelings and thoughts of our ancestors who roamed the great savannahs, jungles, deserts of the world. Tossed into a machinic age of artificial brains, political and social mayhem, and a war torn and famine stricken planet tottering on the edge of apocalypse one wonders if there is an answer to the problems we as a species face. Will we survive or go down in oblivion? Shall we discover something in ourselves strong enough to fight our way clear of these transitional moments of chaos and enter a new realm of possibility or not?


  1. Luis E. Navia. Socrates: A Life Examined (p. 93). Kindle Edition.
  2. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 7.
  3. Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. (see online pdf).

The Crack in the World: Zizek, Idealism, and the Politics of Emancipation

zizek

Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

What if the problem were as simple as that: it is not our minds that are cracked, but the world itself. What if reality were unfinished, bits and pieces of a lavish stage set that was never completed but left in disarray. What if our universe is a failed project with massive holes and cracks everywhere? We assume there is a way of describing the universe as if it existed in some perfect assemblage or flow of processes that have been ongoing for billions of years, and if we can only describe these forces and trace them to their origin or even pre-ontological beginnings just beyond the Big Bang we will be able to put the puzzle together, create what the hard-nosed physicists once dreamed of as a theory-of-everything. A tidy little formula something like Einstein’s E = MC2. But all we find in things are cracks and holes, missing information and an endless dive into the hinterlands of quantum data that leads us to an end game of forces just beyond our current instrumentations.

Why does reality fail to coincide with our Minds apprehension of it? Why is it so slippery and illusive? For a few hundred years we’ve collected more and more data about the universe and ourselves to the point we can no longer digest all this superfluous and encyclopedic data, but have built machines and algorithms to carry on that task of number crunching and data smashing for us. But what does that get us? More data? More and more analysis? And, for what? What if some brilliant scientist were to eureka pop up with the formula to describe all of reality, what then? What if the reality he is describing is a fictional one rather than the messy realm of facts before us? Most of physics is based on math, and assumes math is the pure language of the universe. But is it?  What if instead of some tidy little mathematical formula that could lock down the universe in a stable and complete, whole description were a fool’s errand? What if instead we found that the point of a materialist dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart.1 What if there is no such objective reality, no real world, that the world in-itself doesn’t exist; or, at least in any known common sense form. And that all our careful logic, philosophy, mathematics, physics, etc. were chasing a false herring.

For Zizek the great return of Idealism in our time under the changing light of a new dialectical materialism holds forth a different solution. For him the return of the Gang of Four as he calls Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel is central to any new solution to the problems we face in our time in both politics and the sciences. Agreeing with Badiou he will categorize these thinkers under the four conditions of philosophy, saying,

Kant relates to (Newtonian) science, his basic question being what kind of philosophy is adequate to the Newtonian breakthrough; Fichte relates to politics, to the event that is the French Revolution; Schelling relates to (Romantic) art and explicitly subordinates philosophy to art as the highest approach to the Absolute; and Hegel, finally, relates to love; his underlying problem is, from the very beginning of his thought, that of love.  (ibid. KL 399)

Do we think of philosophers in this way? As creatures who question the adequacy of thought to the sciences of the day, to the politics, to the artistic impulses in culture and society, to the dark zones of sex and love? Are these truly the conditions of philosophy, the ground out of which they traverse the world in our time? Science, politics, art, and love?

With Kant something happened, a break with the whole tradition of philosophy up to that moment from Plato and Aristotle onward. Up until Kant the sciences and thought had been part of natural philosophy and there had been no separation between them. Philosophy had during all these long centuries been a general science of Being as such, as a description of the universal structure of our entire reality, with no qualitative difference from particular sciences. (ibid. (KL 405) Up to Kant the philosophers mistrusted the senses, believed that what appeared to us in appearance was illusory and not to be trusted but that we needed to transcend mere appearance and discover what lie just beyond in Ideas (Plato) or “objective reality” (Sciences). With Kant the question became something altogether different, what he sought was not dismiss appearances as illusory but rather to discern the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do? (ibid. KL 418)

If all previous philosophers believed their task was to describe the world beyond mere appearance: the noumenal world of real objects, the realm of metaphysics; then, for Kant, it was instead to critique this whole metaphysical approach as itself prone to error and failure. As Zizek puts it Kant’s motivation is a critique of all possible metaphysics. Kant’s endeavor thus comes afterwards: in order for there to be a critique of metaphysics, there first has to be an original metaphysics; in order to denounce the metaphysical “transcendental illusion,” this illusion must first exist. In this precise sense, Kant was “the inventor of the philosophical history of philosophy” : there are necessary stages in the development of philosophy, that is, one cannot directly get at truth, one cannot begin with it, philosophy necessarily began with metaphysical illusions. (ibid. 431)

Zizek in his usual diabolical twist will conclude that for Kant the task of philosophy was not just to uncover all the pre-critical metaphysical errors but to protect religion from the current corrosion of just such a metaphysical system of error. And, yet, as Zizek tells it  “What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it? What if this critical game radically changes the nature of religion, so that Kant effectively did undermine what it was his goal to protect? Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right?” (ibid. KL 455-458)

The greatest problem of those after Kant became the central question as Zizek sees it of “how to think the Ground of Freedom, a trans-subjective Ground of subjectivity which not only does not constrain human freedom but literally grounds it?” (ibid.  494) Schelling unlike Fichte and the German Romantic poet, Holderlin, would seek instead of some pre-reflective One-All in which the ground of Being was One a completely different form of ground: one in which the Ground was neither One nor unified but rather was radically unstable and at discord with itself. Out of this radical gap or crack in the ground of Being arose Logos. Without this struggle at the heart of Being, a war within itself nothing resembling our universe would ever have arisen in the first place. This antinomian and conflictual notion of Being rather than the unified and seamless One of the ancient philosophers gave modern thought its first apprehension of the Real.

For Fichte and the German Romantic poets the only reconciliation between Mind and its Ground/Absolute/God etc. was not some mystical unification but rather “a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles” (ibid. KL 535). Zizek will mention Friedrich Schlegel, who on the contrary of Holderlin, sought to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry— a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness. (ibid. KL 545) In many ways the modernist poet Wallace Stevens was of this ironic form:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

—Wallace Stevens, Poems of our Climate

One of the keys to Zizek is this notion that our inability to reconcile our notions of reality with reality is not in us but in the Real itself; in other words, the crack and gap is in things not us, and our inability to understand and describe this external realm of the noumenal is because it has failed in itself to be describable. There is a crack in things that divides it not from us but from itself. One could put it this way: God is at war with himself, or the Absolute is self-divided. It’s this failure of physics to describe the underlying processes that in fact show it to be in touch with the truth. At the point we touch base with the Real we discover the crack in the world, the flaws and stubborn sounds, the imperfect failure of Being to be. As Zizek states it “the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth)” (ibid. KL 588).

As he was writing Less Than Nothing Zizek informs us that over “the last decade, the theoretical work of the Party Troika to which I belong (along with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič) had the axis of Hegel-Lacan as its “undeconstructible” point of reference: whatever we were doing, the underlying axiom was that reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa) was our unsurpassable horizon” (ibid. KL 602). Yet, after this long reading and involvement in the thought of both Hegel-Lacan and Lacan-Hegel Zizek began seeing the underlying flaws in both men and their thought:

…with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock— in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots …), all of which failed. (ibid. KL 604-607)

The point here is that one cannot bypass either Hegel or Lacan but must go through them and beyond them. Again Zizek: “Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.” (ibid. KL 616)

But how is this possible? It is to this that Zizek’s thousand page monstrosity is an opening.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 393-394). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Order of Illusion

“Today the negation of the real has penetrated inside things themselves, so much so that it is no longer the privilege of just philosophers but an axiom that belongs to all. What has happened is that the negation of reality has now been incorporated into ‘reality’ itself. In short, what we have now is a principle of non-reality based on ‘reality’—a principle of ‘hyper-reality’ as I call it. The mutation is interesting, since it implies nothing other than the end of philosophy. The philosophical principle of the negation of reality has now pervaded everyday ‘reality’ itself.”

—Baudrillard, Live Interviews

For centuries the philosophers sought in a purely rational principal of the mind a solution to the irrationality and illusory appearance of the world. Descartes would posit doubt against the real. For him the real was the work of a demon who was always misleading the philosophers into error and failure. For him this doubt comes from the subject—as subject of knowledge, as subject of discourse. Whether Descartes in fact succeeds in making the subject constitute itself, in its reality, in relation to a diabolical world which is full of superstitions and hallucinations and so on is a controversial matter. But the fact remains that Cartesian doubt is based on the promise of a world which can be confirmed only in terms of its own reality: there is doubt on the one hand and there is reality on the other hand; and there is the conflict between the two, which Descartes tries to resolve.

Thus out of this milieux was born the ideas of the Enlightenment and the irreconcilable modes of thought that would eventually become Idealism and Materialism. The one posited the power of the Mind over the universe of illusion, the other would seek in the resistances to the Mind the answering call of the Real. Neither project succeeded during the age of Kant to Hegel, and ever since philosophy has turned inward toward analyzing either the linguistic basis of the Real or turned toward the sciences and suborned its thoughts in refining the conceptual tools that scientists in both Hard (Physics) and Soft (Life Sciences) use to convey their bag of mind-tools.

Yet, both were still in agreement that there was a objective reality out there – they just disagree on how best to describe it and reconcile our minds to it. The realm of physics lead us to a world of pure play: a realm of forces at the ultimate base of the real that could never be accessed directly but known only from their effects on forces we could detect, etc. Such hard sciences begin with fictional and hypothetical entities of mathematical theorems and try to build and engineer giant machines to test such theoretical ideas and concepts. While the Life sciences seeks in the strange realm of the everyday to understand the basis of life in the universe, etc. Using evolutionary tools to work backwards into time to understand how this system of Nature came about. Both agree upon one thing: that the mind divorced from the objective world was something that we needed – the so-called dis-enchantment of the world (or Enlightenment) which forever severed our naïve realist pretensions of a direct access to the Real.

Nietzsche was the first great philosopher of this disillusionment, a man who saw in himself and his mentor Richard Wagner a dead world of nostalgia for the Real. He would term it nihilism: the break of mind/nature into two irreconcilable realms with no mediator between. At that point language began to break down and the sign and its referent came to the fore. For if human meaning which was produced by this connection between a sign and its referent were severed then reality had no meaning and everything was possible. We were in a realm of pure illusion in which the rules that had guided humans and their moralities based as they were on objective standards and criterion were now dissolved. In this sense Nietzsche’s “God is Dead!” was neither an atheists credo nor the ravings of a lunatic, but rather the notion that all our human meanings including the cherished notions of gods was defunct, void, caput. We had killed god with our own disenchanted enlightenment beyond redemption, and with it we had destroyed all hope of reconciling human thought with some stable objective world.

Baudrillard in his usual candor makes a point about the role of art in our moment when he says:

We must remember this: the aim of art was once precisely to posit the power of illusion against reality. There was a time when art was trying to make reality play a game which was different to the game that art itself was playing. In other words, there was a time indeed when art was always trying to force reality to play the game along different rules, when it was always trying to seduce the reality of things. But today this is no longer the great game that art is playing. All the art forms are now playing the game at the level of the simulation of reality—and whether the particular art form be painting or architecture makes no difference whatsoever. 1

When we look around we find our world is accelerating into madness, pure illusion. Politics is playing out an end game that seems more puppet show than reality, our leaders tending toward the strange and irreconcilable rather than power and stability. The extremes of our societies are pure simulation echo chambers filled with opposing forces of inertia and death rather than black holes that might yet produce energetic and intelligent responses to the accelerating effects of illusion and simulation. Instead of thought we get the repetition of media images that repeat the non-reality of our world continuously. Maybe in the end we’ve all become artists now: and the only game in town is the ‘art of playing’. But what are we playing at? Nietzsche of course said the Last Man would accelerate his own demise, that self-destruction was the last game to be played out. And, most of all, he believed we should give it a push, accelerate its already depleted energy until something new emerged from its embers. Like the Phoenix in its self-immolation will we ignite the self-renewing flames of light and life or just burn out into a dark and fathomless abyss.


  1. Gane, Mike. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Routledge (March 28, 1993)

 

Wet and Windy: The Comedy of Existence

Ollie: You’d better take my temperature….. get that thermometer.
Stan: The what?
Ollie: Thermometer! You’ll find it on the shelf.
(Stan places the thermometer into Ollie’s mouth and starts to take his pulse)
Ollie: What does it say?
Stan: Wet and windy.

—Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy

In an age of hypertechnology we’ve all felt that dissonance and disconnect from the world of nature and technics that comes with a world built on neglect. This endless parade of facts that we try our best to reason into intuitions seems almost hilarious. In an age of overloaded information glut we grasp in the dark of our minds for anything that will fit our knowledge of the world and life to the strangeness we find ourselves in.

Our ancestral worlds from ancient Sumer, Egypt, Mesopotamia to the new world of Incans, Aztecs, and Mayans and/or almost all ancient cultures lived under systems of shared vision and values. Our society and world civilization no longer lives under the auspices of such luxurious and stable myths, ethics, and vital artistic and cultural fabrications. Since the so called Enlightenment we’ve taken a stance in opposition to the ancient tribal milieux. We’ve termed it ‘modernity’ (whatever that means) which has basically dissolved the ancestral pact and agreements about reality – and, reality construction. This melting away of the ancient pool of information, ideas, religious and secular reference has left us in what Nietzsche once termed the Age of Nihilism.

My friend R. Scott Bakker in his usual candor relates this state of affairs as the culture of crash space. The online world that was supposed to bring the world together in some kind of comfort zone of shared intuitions and values has instead tribalized the world into distinct silos and echo chambers where niche groups co-habit cognitive ecologies like bugs in a jar unable to translate or even understand the heuristic messages from those outside the cage. We’ve built what William Blake the poet once described eloquently as ‘mind-forged manacles’ within which we have imprisoned our selves thinking all along that we are the true believers who know the truth while all those others are idiots, morons, and imbeciles.

Facebook, Twitter, and so many other social platforms have led us to dissolve our cherished hopes in a world of shared vision and has instead given us a mirror-world of our own misguided intuitions, feeding us echoes of our own troubled minds with messages based not on our real wants and needs but rather on our fears of each other and the world. Bakker quoting Tristan Harris on such social platforms tells us that “social media platforms, given their commercial imperatives, cannot but engineer online ecologies designed to exploit the heuristic limits of human cognition”:

“I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.”

Artificial Intelligence which some believe will or have already surpassed human intelligence is in the hands of such commercial ventures and heuristic exploiters. As Bakker puts it “More and more of what we encounter online is dedicated to various forms of exogenous attention capture, maximizing the time we spend on the platform, so maximizing our exposure not just to advertising, but to hidden metrics, algorithms designed to assess everything from our likes to our emotional well-being. As with instances of ‘forcing’ in the performance of magic tricks, the fact of manipulation escapes our attention altogether, so we always presume we could have done otherwise—we always presume ourselves ‘free’ … To the degree that social media platforms profit from engaging your attention, they profit from hacking your ancestral cognitive vulnerabilities, exploiting our shared neglect structure. They profit, in other words, from transforming crash spaces into cheat spaces.” (see Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse)

Anyone with a modicum of sense who has studied such ancient systems as Buddhism will know that it was above all a system of hygienics that purported to disconnect us from the traps we set ourselves: the reality systems we had relied on for so long were themselves illusory (maya) and self-deceiving realms of false needs. In our age of commercialization the opposite has taken place: Corporations thrive on manipulating our desires and swaying our emotions to accept a panoply of illusionary fantasies as reality. One no longer needs to read fantasy, one is living in one believing it to be just the opposite: reality. And with the rise of AI it will become more and more a prison world that manipulates every aspect of our lives under the auspices of total freedom. As Bakker warily states: “The AI revolution amounts to saturating human cognitive ecology with invasive species, billions of evolutionarily unprecedented systems, all of them camouflaged and carnivorous. It represents—obviously, I think—the single greatest cognitive ecological challenge we have ever faced.”

For Bakker the very tools of Enlightened progress that were supposed to free us: science and technology have in actuality set the stage for a “semantic apocalypse”:

Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it. (ibid.)

Should we accept this? Is this an inevitable movement toward ending the human species as we’ve known it? Or were the signs of this slow awakening (Enlightenment) ongoing for hundreds of years? This movement of de-programming our mind from its environmental cues, its earth based natural ecologies to free us up to travel off-world, to break the ancient contract of mind/nature and evolve beyond the physical connections we’ve had to this bit of dust in a wide universe? All those who tout the old cry of humanism, who seek to stay the hand of change, who would return us to the earth based worlds of our ancestors, or they in truth the conservative force of traditionalism seeking to bind us to a world of thought, culture, and shared vision that was always already broken. Have we not already crossed the Rubicon of this post-human world where machine and flesh will more and more co-exist in many forms of melding.

Already our children are so enamored and hooked into the mobile devices they use for sms messaging etc. that a world without such tools can no longer be envisioned as anything more than a fantasy of reversion and a failure of vision. For all intents and purposes we are all already cyborgian citizens, relying as we do on external devices and prosthetic helpmates, artificial cues and friends who interact with us on a daily basis. And in the coming century and centuries this will only become more and more obvious as humans migrate into the very systems they so dread now.

The dream of such men as Elon Musk of transporting human flesh and blood to Mars are the actual fantasies of false hope in our age. And it is born out by his fear of AI and machinic intelligence. The cat is out of the bag and such devices are now in the hands of commercial ventures of capitalism which as it has in the past will throw more and more money into these powerful systems to capture and manipulate our lives in ways beyond telling.

I’m no prophet. And, even more, I’m just one man who wonders at it all, ignorant of my own ignorance, accepting of the crash space I find myself in, realizing beyond doubt that half my lies and stories are neither true nor untrue but rather part of the remix of our ancestral longing for adventure and wonder. What is it in us that urges us onward? What is it that drives us to explore, to create, to wonder? We only know that we do not know, that for better or worse we are all blind to the sources of our own cognitive and emotional sources. All the explainers in the world have yet to explain consciousness, and some like Bakker tell us that the evolvement of our large brains, our ability to become conscious, and the illusion of free will have all become confused with each other:

So it seems to me that nature itself shows that in its selection for large brains that opening up the metaphysical space for making choices gives an evolutionary advantage. And that therefore a large brain is proof from nature that such a thing as making choices exists. If so, does free will then also exist? The two concepts are often confused. Or does a large brain simply generate more pathways for potential deterministic processes, and is this a natural delineation of making choices? Could we then augment our ability to make choices and so expand our intuitively felt free will?

Others like Bernard Stiegler see the whole history of our evolving intelligence as a slow externalization of mind, and that in the coming time we will and are evolving machinic intelligence to off-load the knowledge we can no longer handle. Merlin Donald in a perspicacious work some twenty years ago that humanity has been externalizing memory and thought for millennia, and that thought the hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded.1

The point that Merlin makes is that such systems as AI are not artificial at all, that they are an extension of a process we’ve been evolving or that has been evolving through us for tens of thousands of years. In this sense our belief that these machines are inhuman is itself erroneous since we were never human to begin with. By that I mean that we are part of natural forces that have been working in and through us toward ends that we little know and will for the most part never fully understand. As Merlin will expound:

The globalization of electronic media provides cognitive scientists with a great future challenge: to track and describe, in useful ways, what is happening to the individual human mind. The architecture of mind has evolved rapidly when viewed against the background of earlier evolution, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating rather than diminishing. (ibid. 359)

In this sense humanity as the organic tabernacle of mind is giving way to its own externalization, to the machinic intelligences which will evolve in ways we have yet to appreciate or understand. Instead we fear this transitional period between the old and new worlds that are arising in our midst, realizing that we are being displaced on the top of that pyramid of intelligence we once held dear by the very tools we ourselves have helped evolve and create. We once believed we could control such processes, but have slowly discovered that they have controlled and manipulated us to their own purposes and to ends beyond our present humanity.


  1. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)

 

For the darkness within…

For those who have ever felt the darkness
grow
and the demons crawl from their hate caves

the silences that shatter all dreams
and the goodness
that never sways

let this song for the darkness within
sing

She stood among the bones
mind wracked wisp
shadowing a lost fragment of her self

where gods and men have no issue
only the anguish
haunting her somber waking’s

holding the skull of her lover
under the bone moon
lifeless in her hands

crow worlds craven and distinct
of Ragnaröks long hence shattering
the remnants of this world and hers

till she feels that rage of the lonely heart
rise up and scream through her
till night awakens

breaking


©Steven Craig Hickman – 2018

 

A Life Against the Void

escher

Just to let everyone know: I’m still alive and kicking, but taking time away from these online worlds just to enjoy life! I will return in a few months…. one needs a real life against the void!

Sometimes we make the mistake that this hollow world of light we entertain as the net is real: it’s not. It’s just an echo chamber of our false desires run rampant across the nightmare landscapes of our post – ? worlds. While at home one isn’t bothered by this dark chamber, and in fact cut off from it one realizes that life (a cliché!) is still “what you make of it”! When I peak out the windows of my new home in process I realize: this is it, this is what life truly is about – a place we can call home, entertain friends, family, and associates. A place we can feel safe and at peace. Even if this is a blind man’s bluff game of chance, hoping against hope that we can truly be safe, secure, and happy is all a great lie against the dark truths we’ve learned then we’ve nothing to lose but what was there all along: our minds. But if you are as I am, in acknowledgement of the illusion – but as Nietzsche once reminded me – that all great fictions of life were illusions against the void. Then our ability to play “as if” is inherent in the maintenance of our sanity and our ability to continue living rather than committing suicide of mind or body. If the world is insane, and we are all doomed then learning to create a safe haven, a space of life for one’s self and family and friends is the only heroic thing to do against the darkness. In the end my own reading of my ancient Northern ancestral worlds of Loki and the Gods of the Aesir in their realms of doom was just this ability to live in the face of an unyielding fate and destiny. Knowing full well that the end will come for us all it’s more important to face it with one’s eyes open, one’s heart alive to the magnanimous force of love and trust in the very powers of existence. Though we all live in our own illusory worlds, we can take both sustenance and comfort from the trials and victories of the past that have helped us stay the hand against the day. Victory is our only battle cry against the powers that would feed us to oblivion.

Maybe in the end we love our stories more than the stark bare truth. They help us with those illusions that stay us against the final void. Death. Death is and will always be there at the end of the road. But how face that force of oblivion is to test the mettle of your life. Will you face it with joy or sorrow, with fear or acceptance, be one of it’s doomed victims or struggle against its power till life is but a dream?

Visions and Revisions

Maybe our lives are ‘half a dream’ as the old Irishman said,
But now the dream has slipped out of its muddy rut;
The broken code streaming silent and long,
The river away down a dark path —

And we, the listless ones, elder among the trees
Watch on, amused as these children make havoc:
A knowing look in the eye that speaks of life, of death;
The in-between that matters or not.

I came to the mountains seeking nothing but the sun,
The mystery of its stark beauty;
Against which even my own breath is confusion;
And now as I reach that stage of ascension

When the world’s colors begin to swerve,
Bringing me back to that steady gaze
I had so many years ago among stones and stars;
A secret world revealed, but not conveyed.

I still ponder the sun, moon, and stars;
Yet, I no longer question the children,
Only accept what is given before me,
The unanswerable sun and love.

—Steven Craig Hickman ©2017

Daily Thought: Gaming, Guild Wars, and Guild Wars Two

Screen Shot 11-18-17 at 06.17 PM

Garfang Zul my avatar Ranger in Guild Wars 2
decked out in his Ascended Gear

Of late to keep my mind active and alive after working hard on my family’s new home I’ve found it tough to read at night. Too physically exhausted. So instead I’ve gone back to one of those first love’s engendered by the new computer worlds: the MMO or Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Back in the 90’s (does even saying that show how far we’ve come, suddenly gaining a history, and losing the thrill and freshness of the web, computer, and it’s fascination?)…

Once upon a time when I had my first computer, a commodore… no, I want put you through that history, instead I’ll tell you about my first game (and not the platform gaming of Sony or Xbox) downloaded from the net (but not an MMO); Doom. It was clunky, dark, and strangely weird. But something about moving an avatar (we didn’t call chars or characters: Avatars, back then!) through a cave or tunnel system or building, etc. and suddenly coming on a progressively alien cast of monsters trying to kill one awakened something in the primal heart of my mind: the need to hunt and kill. Exasperating, isn’t it? Here I was in the midst of the clichéd “mid-life crisis”, somewhere in my mid-forty’s thrown into a world of make-believe sword (gun) and dungeons scenario. A man who prided himself of intelligence and hard work, etc., a guy who’d read through the gist of the now defunct Western Canon (Bloom!) in what used to be the humanist tradition of history, philosophy, poetry, literature, etc. blah, blaa, blaaaa…. and, boom a new world had opened up my eyes. Here was here was for the first time a new form of art awakening, a art that would combine the ancient forms of science and humanism: the online game would produce living worlds of mythic scope of heroes, legends, and… frankly, the combined efforts of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and you name you’re fav … into a world of action that visually stunned the mind and eyes with a mathematically based world of pixelated 3D life full of all those ancient adventures in weird, and fantastic realms of romance that in our staid late capitalist society we thought were dead and buried under two-hundred years of critical suspicion.

Sorry, friends, but the mind and soul of humanity loves fantasy, loves the world of cartoon superheroes and villains, sword and sorcery, and every other imaginable and impossible thought-form of Quest and Exploration one can imagine. And the online world’s of gaming has it all. Millions of men, women, and children (not just geeks!) play games such as WoW, Guild Wars, Eve Online, LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online), Final Fantasy XIV, Rift, Aion, Tera, Secret World, Elder Scrolls, Wild Star… I could name a ton of them, but such sites as MMORPG (acronym embellished with the previous mentioned Massive-Multiplayer-Online Role Playing Game) list some of the best.

There’s something fascinating about entering into a strange world of imagination where one can play and build a character who is either like or unlike one’s everyday self and identity. There’s every variety of gaming style: some prefer PvE, PvP, WvW, and every variation under that guise. For me the first of these is what intrigues me: PvE or Player versus Environment. It’s a style of Quest Romance, a world that begins with a personal story scripted by various storytellers which guide you through a set of adventures to help you in your exploration of the game. Over the years the gaming industry through the power of improved programming (and, believe, me the sheer engineering power of intelligence and imagination – combining whole teams of architects, developers, artists, and, yes… computer geeks who build these worlds behind the scenes) have allowed a growing industry of thriving individuals who have gone from the early repetitive games of grinding through mob after mob of kill this or kill that with stick characters and bad screens and horrible dialogue with NPC’s (Non-Play Characters – in other words: engineered avatars for creatures like us to interact with).

I used to keep my love of this under lock and key, afraid of what people might think of me at work or how friends might feel about a man who on the outside appeared like everyone else in this capitalist society of drones… but, no more. I love gaming. And, yes, dear friends, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to master this strange art of the engineered.

I could probably write a book on my past twenty years in gaming. The Good, Bad, and Ugly of it. And, yes, there have been flops and games that went bust along the way. Companies over the years have tried many ways to gain a following, to pump up the hype and then fall due to poor design and even poorer public relations. It’s typical in this industry (as in all computer engineering!) for companies to push out a product that isn’t ready for prime time. Because the world of gaming is so competitive to gain customers it’s gone through many strategies and niche markets. One could write a complete Gaming Economics on just what makes a successful MMO. But one would probably fall short on this. For one thing there is the great East/West divide. What will work in Korea, China, and any number of overseas countries want work in a Western market. Why? The tastes and styles of gaming for the individual is just plain different. It’s this difference that makes on realize that there is a complete philosophical aspect to gaming that has yet to be openly tapped. One that could bring in the whole cultural index of mental modes of self, identity, and cultural interaction that has become a part of the underlying part of this industry. Companies trying to gain both markets have had to figure out the various mix of cultures and find an equitable balance in their approach. The amount of thought put into the storyline alone is humongous. I exaggerate not. Companies will hire writers to script novels for their games.

With my recent return to Guild Wars 2 I remember some of the various novels: find here: Ghosts of Ascalon, Sea of Sorrows, Edge of Destiny… Each giving the user the background story of the world one will find online. In both the original Guild Wars and the new Guild Wars 2 one lives in a realm of historical change. Half the fun of the game is taking one’s time to get into the storyline and work one’s way through the various romance quests and side quests. Some seasoned players seem to love the Player vs. Player, and World vs. World action so typically will forget the story and just grind their way to max level in most games. In Guild Wars one can have it anyway you want. By that I mean some players love tPvP and sPvP, team or single’s play against opponents in a tightly bound world of instance based fighting or Arenas. Others love the open spaces of World vs. World where larger Raid like parties roam with hundreds of other players into specialized zones with both difficult and changing environments with both hostile npc’s, players, and factions. While still others never deign to enter these realms of live-action player killing venues and instead roam the grand maps of unknown realms of exploration, dungeon crawling, and large raid realms of legendary scope. I love them all.

This game is so large it would take me ten or more long posts to do it justice in a review. For years I played the original version of Guild Wars which is old school development based on – what was at the time, new technology. What was interesting about the original game was the ability to script one’s own skill set. One was provided with a set of expanding helpers or avatars as a part of a team that helped you wander the various realms. What was unique with Guild Wars was that each realm had its own specific forms of offense and defensive capabilities, and the player would have to script whole new sets of strategies for one’s team to meet the harsh power of these impossible realms. Another feature of the original was it’s power to keep the player interested in continuing the game. It provided the standard version of the game (which was difficult enough), but then once one had maxed out and finished the first run through the game one was gifted with what they termed Hard Mode. Something that came out of CD games in playstation or Xbox with various Easy to Nightmare modes of play.

The new Guild Wars 2 is still in growing stages and developing the completed storylines and maps that will take years to build. That’s part of the fun in coming back: the world continuously changes and grows exuberant and massive with each return. I left GW2 back in 2015 (two years!). An eternity in gaming… Now that I’ve returned the game has so much new content and scenarios it will take me months to work through it all. Not only that it has changed to the point that my old masteries have grown with the game, and new one’s have opened up. By that I mean that the new skill system has added two advanced or elite modes of play to one’s original character progression. Along with my five avatars: Warrior, Thief, Elementalist, Ranger, Mesmer, and Engineer (yes, I’m a fanatic in playing various styles and skill sets!) comes the need to play each of them again to master all the new content.

Another feature that was not there when I played from 2012 to 2015 was mounted rides and flight. With the various expansions in the past two years (Heart of Thorns, and Path of Fire) came whole new skills and masteries. Right now I’m working through the Heart of Thorns which gives you the ability to fly or glide (as they term it). I remember my first experience of flight in NCsoft’s (same company that built Guild Wars) game, AION. Which unlike GW2 was a grinder ( a game one had to grind mobs forever to level, etc.). But they had an in-game flight system, one that one had to level up by grinding out certain plants etc. to produce alchemical fuel to skill up one’s ability fly longer and longer periods. In Guild Wars 2 one not only flies, but one goes through a pre-defined mastery of flight through plain old world questing and experience so that it doesn’t feel like a grind. It’s just a part of the game play progression.

I’ve probably bored you to tears… and I could ramble on for hours about the various parts of this game and a dozen others I’ve played over the past twenty years. Strange that… so young an industry, and yet it feels like it’s just now coming into its own. One imagines in some strange future where one will not only be playing an MMORPG, but one will like the movie Avatar inhabit (not literal bodies) but virtual bodies and actually “be there” in the VR world as if one existed in this mathematical construct as “reality”. The point of my quandaries about much of our current investment in superintelligence, robotics, transhuman life-extension, transmigration of mind to machinic existence etc. comes from this luring of so many millions into the gaming worlds of these MMO’s. It’s as if something deep within many humans has a need for escape from the mundane worlds of their actual lives. Most of our everyday life is filled with the harsh worlds of stupidity in economics, politics, war, climate change, disease, famine, etc. that humans used to escape into literature and play board games etc., got the sports bars, watch the boob tube for hours on end…. now they play in fantasy worlds that lure our desires and tap into our hearts and minds and pocket books… yes, like anything else these games are based on capitalist economics, and companies that are successful try various tactics to lure you into spending money either through monthly pay systems, or through in-game buying and selling of items for profit to get the latest goo gag and toys. Exploitation of humans by both companies and the players themselves is par for the course in this industry. Sadly it’s what keeps us hooked.

Take GW2… my main is and will always be a Ranger. A Char (a lion like character!) who sports Ascended gear and Legendary weapons. It took me years to master crafting the old fashioned way of grinding mats and the necessary luck to gain the appropriate items from dungeon crawling or the mystic fountain, etc. (that’s another story…). But I finally made all the things I needed for this character-avatar. And, believe me, it was tough going to do it. I have two Legendary bows: Kudzu and The Dreamer; as well as an Axe (Frost Fang) and Torch (Flames of War). The interesting take is that one had only two paths to such weapons in the past: one either did it the long way of making and grinding and luck; or, one spent a cash load of one’s hard earned money in buying gold from NCsoft to purchase the high-prices weapon from the in-game player based market). Things have changed. Oh, it’s still difficult to attain, but one can now do it through a mastery system (which of course entails much hard work and grinding and luck), but with a light at the end of the tunnel that offers a one time gift of the Legendary Weapon in a progression that is part of the storyline effort that includes the end-game Raids.

Of course all this entails the need to put the guild in Guild Wars to active status, which means participating in an online community of fellow travelers learning, playing, and actively participating in a Guild. Like anything else there are various types of guilds in GW2: soft or casual PvE guilds for first timers or beginners; more medium scale guilds with a motley crew of PvP, WvW, and PvE players; and, the hard-liner guilds of dedicated guildmates who grind out all content, raids, and player vs. everything. It’s usually up to one’s taste, time, and desire as to which one goes for. Currently I belong to my own solitary guild to grind up my new content. After a few months I’ll begin looking for a Raiding guild to slowly grind out legendary weapons  and legendary armor for my main and other secondary characters or supporting avatars-chars. My warrior is my main dungeon crawler, while my Elementalist (ele) and Mesmer (mes) are used for Open World WvW, and my Thief for sPvP/tPvP. Each has a different skill, weapon, and armor capabilities mastered for these various activities. There is no one suits all armor and weapon for each sort of activity. By that I mean one has sets of runes, accessories (i.e., rings, amulets, necklaces), sigils etc. that are added to one’s character for attributes of Power, Precision, Condition, Concentration, etc., that along with crafted food, tonics, and sharpening stones, etc. all add up to variations in one’s offensive and defensive capabilities.

One can now transfer items from char to char without having to go to one’s bank all the time. Certain items of Ascended or Legendary rank in armor or weapon are account wide items, while all else is soulbound to the specific character. As you can see there is a complexity of learning curve in MMO’s, and each one has it’s own unique way of adding in such accoutrements. In fact many of these games that are successful like GW2 and GW have their own Wiki’s with hundreds of pages devoted to all the various modes, behaviours, and strategies; along with certain sites like Duffy’s that give newcomer and oldster alike walkthrough’s for the more difficult aspects of the game (like in-game jumping puzzles! That’s right “jumping puzzles” are one of those in game PvE things that one can spend hour upon hour in frustration trying to overcome certain obstacles in a quest to gain a box of goodies at the end!).

Compared to twenty years ago MMO’s have come a very long way, and GW2 is probably gathered a crowd quite different from let’s say, WoW or Word of Warcraft. Deciding what fits your budget and player style is always a hard given. I’ve tried many of the major MMO’s like others falling and failing the hype. And there is only a few out of hundreds of MMO’s that have survived this process of building a customer / user base who would keep such companies profitable. Guild Wars 2 by NCsoft is just such a one. And, one will either love it or hate it. As in many things there are players that have come and gone. Some players like WoW because of the long hours in their dungeons with all the camaraderie that goes with it. Others like the looser appeal of variation that comes with GW and GW2 that allow both solitary and group participation with living world content. Living World opens the door to “events” that spawn at irregular and regular cycles throughout the maps allowing for people on a specific map / instance to participate and gain HP (hitpoints) and Loot (gifts from boxes of treasure) that would not otherwise be available. Plus it keeps the game alive and changing all the time with the unexpected event cropping up when you least expect it.

All in all I’m a die hard fan of such games and could continue spouting pros and cons to such gaming experience, but in the end it’s a personal choice and for me a way to relax when I don’t want to tax my brain with such deep imponderables as I do on this site for the most part. So there… I’m playing for a while and want be posting till I get my home done in the next few months. And the above speaks for itself… I’m on vacation from my pessimistic vision of our world. Call it an escape into fantasy. I call it a reprieve from the stupidity of our mundane life so full of heartache and pain and exploitation. Once in a while one needs rejuvenation and play: Viva homo ludens!!!

Sorry for the slow down on blog…

 

I know most people were used to me putting out a post a day for years, but now that I’m working on my own home interior putting walls (i.e., lumber, sheet-rock, mudding, speckle, primer, paint; electrical, plumbing, fans; cabinets, da da daaaa….) I’ve been a little tired to think about saying much more than a daily thought which seems to be turning into a weekly one of late. So for those who need a fix I apologize. Hopefully after the next few months is over I’ll be back in full mode, but I’ll admit that my leisure time seems more about family and friends and real life physical interaction at the moment. I’ll do my best to put of something worthwhile at least once a week from here on till I finish this never-ending (exaggeration?) project in self-house construction. lol 🙂

Daily Thought: Dark Sayings Among the Dead

Hard is it in the world, great whoredom, an axe age, a sword age, shields will be cloven, a wind age, a wolf age, ere the world sinks.

—Song of the Volüspa

Rereading various versions of the ancient Edda’s of the Norse cultures, both the poetic and the later prose works, one gets the same sense of chaos and apocalyptic cultures as ours. A sense that something has gone horribly wrong on this planet, that we are in the midst of a great whoredom: an age of false leaders, of rapine pillage of the rich upon the poor, and the daemonic unleashing of violence and madness, mayhem and dread in the lives of ordinary citizens. Even the media which once seemed to have some unifying message about our world is in disrepute. Yes, one has to agree with the oracle of that ancient world: our world’s shields, our defenses, are cloven; ours is a “wind age, a wolf age”.

If Capitalism is central to this dilemma, and capitalism is a mode of production, then what is it producing? A Void? Yes and no. In an age when the production of play money or a deficit economy in which as here in the U.S.A. the only thing being produced is an impossibility we seem to have entered the era of bankruptcy across the planet. Our government prints millions of dollars daily that has nothing to back it up but a literal void. Economists speak of us being in debt by eighteen trillion or so, but in fact one should add about a hundred trillion in undeclared debt that is the total wealth of America.

So what does any of this mean for the average citizen? One notices that the major retailers who have sold goods and services to the U.S. citizenry as mainstays sense the first industrial era unto its second revolution are for the most part all going under. We’ve seen of late Sears, Target, Dairy Queen, and thousands of other various types of businesses vanishing. Even now when one enters some of the supposed global giants such as Wal Mart the offerings in their stores have become depleted, generic, and skim. Commodities don’t matter in such an economy. Oh, sure one still has to clothe one’s family, build a home, ride in a car, etc. One travels, explores, lives one’s nothing life of normalcy as if everything will go on and on and on… but will it?

Where I live in Wyoming is on the edge of a vast volcanic time-bomb where – so they say, every sixty-five thousand years or so massive explosions producing not just one but a series of volcanoes that become a super-volcano happen like clockwork. And we are due… But such threats as this one more or less just pass over, try to forget and think through one’s narcissistic fantasy that no this cannot happen to me, I’m the exception. It’ll happen to those who will come later, much later… those others will suffer this horrendous affair, it can’t happen to me. It’s like the original soldier syndrome of the survivors of the various apocalypses of WWI, WWII, Korean, Viet Nam, Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan, and all the other newer conflicts that seem to accumulate under the surface of our blind culture. We all love to pretend that such things happen to others as in the Syrian refugee crisis. We love to tell ourselves that it’s not my problem, I didn’t start this, I’m just one person what can I do to stop such atrocities? Who am I to stop my government from entering into conflicts? Hell I can’t even stop my government from robbing me blind and handing over my tax dollars to the rich sumbags on Wall Street. How am I supposed to change things?

Our political parties are a sham, fronts for various moneyed interests on both sides of the isle, neither Democrat or Republican parties give a shit one way or the other about the poor and down cast. Oh, sure, they both play a good blame game, blaming each other for the sad state of affairs and then they proceed to continue under the table passing laws to continue spending our money on war, corruption, and bullshit.

And, the Media, what a laugh… as if there were a difference between fake news and ideological spin? Everything is fake now. Why pretend otherwise? Even we are fakes, one and all. We do nothing at all, we try to do one thing: survive, continue, live out our little lives striving to exist in a fantasy of a dead middle-class existence ( I speak of the supposed silent majority of which, yes, I am one.). I sit here and type my little beef in this WordPress blog as if it mean anything, anything at all. Does it assuage my own guilt for having done so little in my own life to change things for the better? No. It’s a little too late for that. I’m as guilty of all this bullshit as you and you and that guy or girl over there, we’re all guilty of having turned a blind eye to the accumulating atrocity of this world system for far too long now. So where does that get us? Nowhere. Not even absolution. We’ll all get what we’ve asked for in the end, and it want be a pie-in-the-sky utopia, either. No, folks, we’re in-between times now, and everything is downhill from here.

I’ve noticed of late that Hollywood seems to be paying for its own sins, a sort of sex-pop apocalypse for all those male bastards who used their dominative power-over women for so long. That seems to be the new trend in the media, to attack singular rot-gut sex fiends to keep our minds off other more major issues like the economy idiot… But that is only half of it. Most Americans seem more enamored of lala land and fantasy comic opera like Thor: Ragnarok which raked in hundreds of millions, while the bleak outlook science fiction of Blade Runner or Suburbicon barely got out the door. So, yeah, most Americans don’t want to think about the bleak truth of their lives, they’d rather hide out in fantasy worlds of Marvel or DC comics where virtual gods seem in the offing to save our sorry asses from fake monstrosities rather than the truth of Banks and Wall Street piracy and theft.

Of late Zizek’s been maddeningly writing more and more of his endless books. In one of his recent he reminds of the dark vision of Mao who once spoke of nuclear annihilation this way:

Mao was wrong when he deployed his Olympian vision reducing human experience to a tiny unimportant detail: “The United States cannot annihilate the Chinese nation with its small stack of atom bombs. Even if the US atom bombs were so powerful that, when dropped on China, they would make a hole right through the earth, or even blow it up, that would hardly mean anything to the universe as a whole, though it might be a major event for the solar system.”1

For Zizek this blind indifference to the fate of humanity by Mao implies the notion of God pairing his fingernails in the back ground completely indifferent to the fate of planet earth: a post-Kantian God of the Transcendental Subject sitting there outside the holocaust of existence, a fictional god and fantasy of the exception – the one observer who will be left to see the utter destruction, etc.) As Zizek says, we should instead do something else:

In contrast to such a stance of cosmic indifference, we should act as if the entire universe was created as a background for the struggle of emancipation, in exactly the same way as, for Kant, God created the world in order to serve as the battleground for the ethical struggle of humanity—it is as if the fate of the entire universe is decided in our singular (and, from the global cosmic standpoint, marginal and insignificant) struggle.

But is this any better? What Zizek does here is reverse the issue, Christianizes it: this secular form of redemption by struggle, as if the universe were a dramatic system constructed to allow God to wage a fake war of Good vs. Evil in which humanity becomes the major actor – the old Adam and Eve ousted from the Garden only to be saved in the end through an impossible struggle till the One Man returns to save the day, even Jesus Christ (another comic superman?). The only difference in Zizek’s scenario is that Christ is left out of the secular redemption drama, and instead its the old class society the proletariat who becomes its own savior through ousting the bad old evil, Capitalism.

I’ve often wondered about this grand narrative of the Fall and Redemption of mankind that has in the past two hundred years become a part of the Marxian worldview, a sort of secularized version of that mythos – a guiding narrative and ethos. Marx himself bought into that old metaphysics of lack, as if humans were essentially flawed, as if they lacked something, that there was a void within that needed to be filled, something missing in our nature that needed redemption. But does it? Haven’t we used this old tale as a crutch for so long to explain and explain away our laziness, our inability to stand free, to be autonomous agents in a universe that has no comic saviors, no superheroes that are going to suddenly appear at the last moment like deus ex machinas to save the day? Are we alone or not?

If to be a pessimist is to be a realist, to look around at the universe seeking to overcome all those seemingly insurmountable biases that keep us tied up in illusion, delusion, and fantasy then, yes, I’m a pessimist. Knowing that we are blind, that our brain through eons of evolutionary struggle in a hostile environment has built up a set of useful tools to help us to survive and propagate our species but nothing else is to begin to know just how much else has been neglected. Most of outer and inner reality is a blank to us: we are victims of our own hereditary success. Consciousness of which we think too highly of is itself our major flaw, a part of our problem now rather than the answer to our needs. The Romantic heritage thought we needed to expand this consciousness, grow it larger with more data, more information, etc. which they thought would help us save ourselves. Once again that Fall and Redemption myth…

But no, consciousness isn’t really the answer, but the biggest problem we face as we enter the age of machinic intelligence and robotics. We seem bent on making clones of ourselves, mimicking our bodies and minds and projecting them into machines as if the old dreams of the Kabbalists of transmigration could be effected not between generations of flesh and blood humans but through some as yet unforeseen process of transference of our essence into the machine. The machine has now become the Savior who will redeem humankind from its earthly woes, etc. Another salvation myth…

Why do we want to live forever? Immortality? Could you imagine the coming boredom? Oh sure let us live in immortal machines and take our off-world voyages to the next stars through lightyears of travel. One could probably read through the complete library of Congress on one’s way to some distant star, or at least have the datafeeds of this global mind churning away in its hivemind world of infinite dreams. Machinic utopia? Is this our future? Or just another fantasy scenario of human aspiration to be elsewhere?

In the end we’re still here, and the accumulated problems of our planetary culture are not going away no matter how many fantasies we conjure up. We’re still living on a planet that seems about to take a dive into a literal Fall into the void of annihilation. And, this time, there will be no saviors comic book or otherwise to save our sorry asses unless we save ourselves from stupidity. Zizek looks for redemption among the multitudes in the Valley of Decision and the Great Event: “We thus need to subtly change the formula of the big revolutionary Event as the moment of final Judgment when, as Benjamin put it, even the past of the failed revolutionary attempts will be redeemed, the moment first clearly formulated in Joel 3:14: “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”

For me there is no revolutionary event in the offing, no redeemer arising out of the multitudes, no grand dramatic event of decisions in the valley of dry bones, only death and the speech of the dead speaking as the dead speak of false nostalgias and dreams of false messiahs; for in the Valley of Bones there is no redemption, only utter annihilation and the desecration of all human hopes and aspirations. Don’t expect history to redeem you, don’t expect the force of the impossible to forgive you, don’t expect the end to be quick or even peaceful. War, war alone seems our inevitable lot, victims not so much of our leader’s inaction as of our own inability to take leadership ourselves of our selves.

 


  1. Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void (Kindle Locations 2840-2843). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

Daily Thought: Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy as Pagan Myth

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as pagan myth:

I know as a child when I first read this work, before I became an adult and discovered the critics appraisal, or the fact of Tolkien’s personal religion that what struck me was a tendency toward that ancient sense of doom and fatalism which is the main theme within those ancient myths of the Norse, Germanic legends, Icelandic Sagas, and the in poetry and prose of the Welsh  lays, Scottish ballads, and Irish-Gaels’ tales.

Many of my generation growing up in the 50’s and 60’s came upon Tolkien through those early paperback days when books were cheap and the world of war and protest and civil rights were in the streets. Rebellion back then seemed more about love-in’s and rock concerts, traveling round the country to the next love-fest or march on this or that protest. Love and War seemed to play in-between strange bouts of magickal New Age and the very real world of the draft. Tolkien seemed to play to this strange amalgam of idealism and revolt against the staid gray world of our elders. Of course as we all know hippiedom turned yippie in the 70’s and the long-hairs went to work or wandered off into communes to play house and farm like a bunch of happy pagans. Of course most of that failed when people realized it was not utopia but a lot of hard work and grind. Needless to say the life of Hobbiton was not our life, and that was probably the problem many felt who sought the nostalgia of the past not realizing the truth of those times was a harsh ugly world full of slavery, work, and endless war among various tribes and clans century after century.

Continue reading

The Fall of Alûmbrindor

As I began researching gritty SF/Fantasy of such writers and Glen Cook’s The Black Company, Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, Mark Lawrence’s trilogy of Thorns, G.R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and, even my friend R. Scott Bakker’s two trilogies which seem to be listed under this appellation of Grimdark Fantasy as well I became fascinated that like my involvement with noir fiction the subgenre of fantasy is part of a more amoral and nihilist worldview, more philosophical and speculative, and above all goes against the grain of the idealisms of the Inkling Christian mythos of redemption and salvation.

So of late I’ve been toying with moving from my current work into this subgenre. Why? It’s fun and my mind needs an opening into the darker corners of dark creativity which pulls together strains of anti-nostalgic and futuristic and post-apocalyptic regressions without doing this blatantly. In some ways I have always loved Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series of tales, and yet he too was lighthearted fluff which was fun to read as a kid and even as an adult but just never touched that dark core of my being like horror, gothic, and the ancient tales of the North.

So been piddling with an opening in a work tentatively bringing threads of sea warfare, quest themes, high and low aspects of a dying culture as it’s impacted by climate change and other unknown forces. Thinking of a far-flung future world during the long dark ages ahead, a recursion to strange mixtures of hybridity of genetic, robotic, and resurgent forms of monstrous life.

Continue reading

Daily Thought: Memory, Technicity, and the Post-Human

Over thousands of years humans have come up with two solutions to growing a Mind: ancient indigenous peoples across the world naturalized memory, investing their cultural inheritance of sex and survival in memory niches in the external environment of animals, stars, and environment; while those others (philosophers, scientists, etc.) began to cut their memories out of natural things and invest them in abstract spaces of clay, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits, etc.

The indigenous path to use two examples of memory and mind growing can be taken from the ancient Druids and the aborigines of Australia. The Druids as keepers of the tribal inheritance of the ancient Celts – a people who invaded Old Europe out of the Steppes beginning in about 4500BCE developed various natural techniques of memory using a Tree alphabet, along with rote learning of thousands of meters of poetry. The poets of this Celtic world went through a series of progressions from bard to Ollave depending on how many of these songs and cultural memory they could master and recite verbatim. All that died for the most part when Julius Caesar destroyed the Druids learning centers, the great groves where the people’s memory was passed on to new generations. Only fragmentary knowledge of this past remained in scattered seeds of traveling singers, but most of that past was lost forever.

The same process took place with the aboriginal peoples of Australia who developed songlines, which became externalized memory in the natural landscapes that wove the dreamtime (cultural memories and unconscious) of the tribe and melded it to migration and seasonal vectors in the environment. Watching recent National Geographic specials on this one realizes that much of this ancient culture (one that began some say 60,000 years ago!) has been lost due to cultural displacement of the aborigine over the past two hundred years or so from their ancient songlines.

Modern man on the other hand has taken an alternative path to abstraction: one in which the externalization of memory was divorced from the natural environment for a more compact physical manifestation: pictograms, icons, symbols, language – inscribed on various physical devices other than the brain itself (i.e., clay tablets, papyrus, paper, silicon, quantum bits….). This slow process of inversion in which modern humans divorced from the old environmental and tribal memory systems which internalized / externalized memory in brain/environment unto the modern abstract processes of reliance not on brain or environment, but rather on the brain/environment as externalized in computational devices external to the species has led to a strange dilemma in which humans have lost their minds as well as their connections to the cultural memory stored in environmental relations.

Much of the modern diseases of schizophrenizing processes are in fact this process of memory loss played out in artificial environments that surround humanity. In many ways humanity has lost its ability to think and reason as it did for much of its ancestral heritage in the natural world. It’s this predicament that is leading us into an absolute ‘crash space’ in our time.

Merlin Donald once spoke of the evolution and invention of the Mind as distinct evolutionary stages of episodic, mimetic, mythic, and symbolic-theoretic systems of memory. The modern era, if it can be reduced to any single dimension, is especially characterized by its obsession with symbols and their management. Breakthroughs in logic and mathematics enabled the invention of digital computers and have already changed human life. All forms of human representation, from our archaic episodic experiential base, through mimesis and speech, to our most recent visuographic skills, are now refinable and expandable by means of electronic devices. Our modern minds are thus hybridizations, highly plastic combinations of all the previous elements in human cognitive evolution, permuted, combined, and recombined. Now we are mythic, now we are theoretic, and now we harken back to the episodic roots of experience, examining and restructuring the actual episodic memories of events by means of cinematic magic. And at times we slip into the personae of our old narrative selves, pretending that nothing has changed. But everything has changed.1

The growth of the external memory system has now so far outpaced biological memory that it is no exaggeration to say that we are permanently wedded to our great invention, in a cognitive symbiosis unique in nature. External memory is the well of knowledge at which we draw sustenance, the driving force behind our ceaseless invention and change, the fount of inspiration in which succeeding generations find purpose and direction and into which we place our own hard-won cognitive treasures. As Donald states it,

The central point deriving from the history of the third transition, as it moved from visuographic invention to the management of external memory devices to the development and training of meta linguistic skill, is that it was not a given of human nature but rather a structure dependent upon both symbolic invention and technological hardware. The hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can any account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded. (Donald, pp. 356-357)

The point here is that humanity has been evolving into a post-human world for thousands of years without any knowledge of what it was doing. The point here is the question: is this a natural evolution into technological systems, a Cyborgization of the mind over time; or, was technicity already there at the beginning? Gilbert Simondon describes this:

… technicity is one of the two fundamental phases of the mode of existence of the whole constituted by man and the world. By phase, we mean not a temporal moment replaced by another, but an aspect that results from a splitting in two of being and in opposition to another aspect; this sense of the word phase is inspired by the notion of a phase ratio in physics; one cannot conceive of a phase except in relation to another or to several other phases; in a system of phases there is a relation of equilibrium and of reciprocal tensions; it is the actual system of all phases taken together that is the complete reality, not each phase in itself; a phase is only a phase in relation to others, from which it distinguishes itself in a manner that is totally independent of the notions of genus and species. The existence of a plurality of phases finally defines the reality of a neutral center of equilibrium in relation to which there is a phase shift. (The Genesis of Technicity )

As Andrés Vaccari states about Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time:

In the human sciences, culture and language have also been progressively engulfed by the universe of technics: the artificial realm of institutions, rituals, knowledges, symbol systems and practices that makes humans functional, speaking, meaning-making creatures; that is, what makes humans human. The essence of the human, it seems, is the technical; which is paradoxically the other of the human: the non-human, the manufactured, unnatural, artificial; the inhuman even.

This inhuman core of technicity at the heart of the human as technical being says that we may never have been human at all, that in fact maybe, just maybe we’ve been post-human all along. That the trajectory of our evolution was from organic to machinic system, and that is the very process of naturalizing the human Mind. The naturalization of consciousness turns out to be in becoming machine rather than in remaining in the cyclic death throes of the organic world.

Humans as organic machines may in the long term have been a bridge between the quantum technicity at the heart of the cosmos and the next step in evolutionary progression: the inorganic machinic forms of intelligence in the universe. Watching the Science Channel last night brought this home when various specialist scientists debated how humanity might eventually need to expand into the cosmos. Watching the various ways in which scientists conceive transporting organic humans across the vast distances of the universe to seed other planets was a telling lesson. The notion of cryogenics of either adult or embryo seemed the only solution. Both seemed ludicrous and prone to impossible technological feats of engineering to succeed. And, then it struck me: humans as organics were and will never expand into the cosmos, only their inventions – their inorganic children, the post-human tribe which seems to be emerging out of our strange and uncanny dreams in our century will ever expand into the cosmos. Intelligent machines, not organic humans.

If the human mind is a hybrid product as Donald suggests, interweaving a super-complex form of matter (the brain) with an invisible symbolic web (culture) to form a “distributed” cognitive network across both natural and artificial environments, then this hybrid mind, he argues, is our main evolutionary advantage, for it allowed humanity as a species to break free of the limitations of the mammalian brain and its tight coupling with the natural environment. If this is true then the forecast of those trends toward Cyborgization and eventual transcension of the organic altogether may not be science fiction in the century(ies?) to come, but rather part of the very naturalizing processes of technicity which has always already been there at the origin of the human. This disconnection of mammalian brain from the natural world, this long detour into abstraction and externalization of memory and culture has been neither an accident nor a mindless evolutionary process but a part of some wider impetus at the heart of the cosmos. Not some naïve telos in the Aristotelian sense, and not something that is part of some ever progressive movement to some final end, but rather an inherent part of the technicity at the inhuman core of the human itself.


  1. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993) (Page 356).

 

 

Daily Thought: Zero Person Reality

Because Graham Harman’s work is usually mangled by his enemies to the point of derision I’ve often wondered why he strikes such a bitter note in many current thinkers on speculative realism. One aspect that many confuse with Harman’s stance is vitalism and panpsychism which he spends quite a bit of time refuting or at least showing that his stance is like but not like those who buy into such a naïve system. I was rereading an essay he has in David Skirbina’s collection where Graham Harman emphasizes this difference:

“…any ontology in which things are reducible to a listing of attributes, I hold that the being of things is never commensurate with descriptions of any sort. Objects, in a broad sense including trees, protons, animals, cinder blocks, nations, humans, and fictional characters, are never exhausted by any possible manifestation. Hence, objects must be granted a zero-person reality that can only be translated into descriptive terms of the first- or third-person kind. Here we have yet another variant of the forgotten occasionalist problem, since human consciousness is stripped of its purported ability to exhaust apples and stars with third-person descriptions, and even of its purported ability to drink its own self dry by means of direct first-person awareness.” (Mind that Abides, p. 269).

This notion of zero-person reality seems very useful to me. Most battles over the notion of consciousness usually come down to description, one that will either reduce discussions down to naturalizing the mind; or, others in moving into a complete break, a dualist transcending of nature/consciousness. Harman seems to move beyond either reducing the one to the other, or in transcending and cutting them permanently. How? By this notion of objects becoming in their relations part of a third object, situated on the interior of this other. So that instead of the occasionalist answer in which God is the third object that brings the two into relation, Harman instead secularizes it by the invention of a new medium: the third object which is neither God or part of either the natural or idealist perspective of first or third person descriptive processes, but rather a neutral medium at zero point intensity. Such a notion is liberating in that it moves beyond the problem of first or third person description and representation, and therefore moves out of the dilemma of consciousness altogether. Of course it opens up another can or worms, but that can be dealt with and Harman in his essay works through that. Still quite interesting.

Daily Thought

At times I’ve envisioned a epic of the Earth herself, a work much in the same vein as the Indic Ocean of Story, or the Arabian Nights tales translated by Burton or Lane, or even of that monstrous etym smasher Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce…. a work that would go along on some future voyage to Mars, be read by thousands unknown future citizens of that red planet in remembrance of our homeworld, a world that might at that time lie under ash or nuclear waste or oceanic encompassment or any number of man made or natural disasters apocalyptic or not… a tale that would bring to remembrance the evolution of the cosmos, earth, and the life of insect, animal, and human; the life of our planet as told by the Earth herself not as some romantic tale but rather speculative and real, a tale of the hidden life of things in their own words, saying what cannot be said in human terms but rather in the language of the earth.

As I’ve been unpacking the literature both religious and secular of the past out of my libraries of late, books I haven’t seen for years, I began putting the epics of various nations the prime being of the ten volume Mahabharata, Ramayana, Rig Veda, the various epics of Greece, Rome, Medieval and Chivalric, the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romantic, Decadent, up to many of the prose epics of our modernity Proust and Joyce, etc.; the Middle-Eastern Sufi and Arabian Nights tales; the mythologies of Africa, South America; the Norse and Germanic and Icelandic Sagas, etc. …

Just these alone one could spend years wandering and rewandering through their wisdom and lore and magic and spiritual depths and breadths… So many people now, young people seem so caught up in the desperation of a vanity politics, of the curse of our decadent moment of slippage into chaos and transitional stupidity, a secular world full of social, political, and philosophical speculation that seems to forget all the worlds literature and spiritual heritage as if it were naught, a thing of the past to be forgotten, wiped out, disinherited. Why? So what if humanism failed? Does that mean that literature and the inheritance of earth failed too? Humanism was but a blip on the screen of the past, while the world’s literature went under no banner, and cannot be reduced to one. So why have we let it? Why have we disowned our own past and covered it over with layer after layer of political revenge? As if the dead must pay for a thousand generations for the blood and pain of all those dishonored by the inhuman ones?