Keeping the Demons at Bay: The Art of Storytelling

 

Childhood, it has been said, is always partly a lie of poetry. When I was maybe eight years old, in the fall of the year, I would have to go out in the garden after school with damp burlap sacks and cover the long rows of cucumber and tomato plants, so they wouldn’t freeze. It was a hated, cold-handed job that had to be done every evening. I daydreamed along in a halfhearted, distracted way, flopping the sacks onto the plants, sorry for myself and angry because I was alone at my boring work. No doubt my younger brother and sister were in the house and warm. Eating cookies. But then a great strutting bird appeared out from the dry remnants of our corn, black tail feathers flaring and a monstrous yellow-orange air sac pulsating from its white breast, its throat croaking with popping sounds like rust in a joint. The bird looked to be stalking me with grave slow intensity, coming after me from a place I could not understand as real, and yet quite recognizable, the sort of terrifying creature that would sometimes spawn in the incoherent world of my night-dreams.

In my story, now, I say it looked like death, come to say hello. Then, it was simply an apparition. The moment demanded all my boyish courage, but I stood my ground, holding one of those wet sacks out before me like a shield, stepping slowly backwards, listening as the terrible creature croaked, its bright preposterous throat pulsating—and then the great bird flapped its wings in an angry way, raising a little commonplace dust. It was the dust, I think, that did it, convincing me that this could not be a dream. My fear collapsed, and I felt foolish as I understood this was a creature I had heard my father talk about, a courting sage-grouse, we called them prairie chickens. This was only a bird and not much interested in me at all. But for an instant it had been both phantom and real, the thing I deserved, come to punish me for my anger. For that childhood moment I believed the world to be absolutely inhabited by an otherness that was utterly demonic and natural, not of my own making. But soon as that bird was enclosed in a story that defined it as a commonplace prairie chicken, I was no longer frightened. It is a skill we learn early, the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world. Storytelling and make-believe, like war and agriculture, are among the arts of self-defense, and all of them are ways of enclosing otherness and claiming ownership.

Such emblematic memories continue to surface, as I grow older and find ways to accept them into the fiction of myself. One of the earliest, from a time before I ever went to school, is of studying the worn oiled softwood flooring in the Warner Valley store where my mother took me when she picked up the mail three times a week. I have no idea how many years that floor had been tromped and dirtied and swept, but by the time I recall it was worn into a topography of swales and buttes, traffic patterns and hard knots, much like the land, if you will, under the wear of a glacier. For a child, as his mother gossiped with the postmistress, it was a place, high ground and valleys, prospects and sanctuaries, and I in my boredom could invent stories about it— finding a coherency I loved, a place that was mine. They tore up that floor somewhere around the time I started school, and I had the sense to grieve.

—William Kittredge. The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays

As I read the lines in the above in which Kittredge tells us of the power of within “the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world,” I was reminded of my own childhood and an experience that would forever set my own path toward understanding this strangeness. And, yet, for me it was not as in Kittredge to “explain away” the strangeness but to understand its power and hold, its fascination and emotional registry in our souls.

We’d taking one of our usual week long vacations to some remote campsite high in the mountains above Silverton, Colorado. I remember the old 50’s dirt roads, their deep and dangerous foothold on the sides of sheer mountain drops as our old Chevy clunker churned its way up and down the hills. I was always sitting closest to the drop off, my eyes gazing with awe and fear at the abyss and the magnificent forests far below as we worked our way up to the campsite. To this day that sense of fear and awe continues to haunt me. 

Once we arrived at the campsite by a mountain lake we’d set up our tents, build a fire and enjoy the night stars and a good feast of biscuits and gravy with sausage on paper plates. We’d listen as our dad would tell ghost stories that would leave us wondering if the boogey man were watching us just outside the light of the fire in the depths of the forest darkness encompassing us. I’d roll around on my cot with the blanket pulled up over my head that night listening to every sound: the crack of some distant tree, the squawk of some bird, the roar of a distant coyote. All the sounds of a forest to which I had no names or reference points to attach to my world. Only a certain feeling of fear at what my lie hidden in the depths of such a world.

I remember the next day walking ahead of my family on an outing on some trail we’d discovered. I’d run ahead of them full of energy and wondering just where the train would lead us. To this day I remember coming on a slight knoll, a clearing in the forest just above a river. I saw something on the ground ahead and went to it and bent down. It was a clump of bones and fleshy pulp, what looked like the remains of a squirrel. It sent shivers up my back, and suddenly I felt apprehensive. I couldn’t put a name to this fear, it was just a dark sensation and foreboding. I felt something was about to happen and I could not understand what it was. I pushed forward.

As I came up to the edge of the hill above the river I was startled at the site of a great bird with black wings suddenly rise deep below me out of the sunless world below. I thought much like Kittredge that this was death come to get me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, I felt frozen to the earth at the site of this great creature rising up before me into the air. Then I saw it… the creature had something in its claws, a great trout was dangling wet and struggling to escape from its clutches. It fell from the bird’s grasp for a moment, and the great eagle ( as I’d learn later) swooped up and dove down again as the fish fell toward the river and just as quickly it clamped onto the escaping fish with its talons. In that moment the bird rose toward me and grew ever bigger and bigger, its eyes piercing me with murderous intent and as it climbed out of that canyon just in front of me it let out a screech the likes of which I’ve never heard again. It seemed as if it were speaking directly to me of its triumph, of its power and majesty, and just as quickly it soared over me and was gone.

A few moments later my parents and sister arrived where I was standing, reprimanding me for going ahead of them too far, too fast. Telling me how dangerous the forest could be with cougars and bears and wolves. I was speechless. I wanted to tell them what I’d just experienced, but I could not. It was one of those moments of awakening in me that would set my mind adrift and challenge me to put to words, to find words to describe this experience. Maybe that was it. I had no words to describe such things. Up to that point in my life I had had no need for words for such things. But now I was at a loss, my mind grasping to understand as a child what it was that had just happened. And I couldn’t.

From that time forward I began a search for words to explain this and many other incidents in my life. I began to read books of fiction, poetry, and anything else I could to help me in my quest. That process still goes on. Language is not only a tool, it is a messenger and traveling companion, it helps one to enter into the communal vat of traditions, culture, etc., and it teaches us to grasp with tongue and eye the truths of those strangenesses that happen to us. Poetry above all touches the extremity of language, gives us the metamorphic splendor of the flames of drifting sounds and meaning. Unlike philosophy that reduces the world to conceptual bric-a-brac, places the world under the careful categories of a well regulated mental hygiene, poetry expands us into that void surrounding us inventing the maps and bringing us back strange sounds and whelps from the hinterlands of non-meaning. Only humans give meaning to things, things themselves register nothing of our human sense and values, things are the very power of otherness to disturb our homely lives. Things open us to the central truth of our lives, that we are all bound within a system of defenses – as Kittredge mentions. We for the most part as humans use words to defend us against too much reality. We cover the world in human meanings that the world does not share. We assume the world is like us so that we can better control it and shape it to our will. But the world is foreign to human conceits, it is the power of otherness to teach us that it is not human.

J.G. Ballard: Sleeplessness and Chronotopia

JGBallard

For the first time Man will be living a full twenty-four hour day, not spending a third of it as an invalid, snoring his way through an eight-hour peepshow of infantile erotica.

– J.G. Ballard – Manhole 69

In  J.G. Ballard’s short story Manhole 69 we discover a world where humans no longer sleep and the future is set adrift upon the currents of time. As one of the scientists says to a group of test subjects:

‘None of you realize it yet, but this is as big an advance as the step the first ichthyoid took out of the protozoic sea 300 million years ago. At last we’ve freed the mind, raised it out of that archaic sump called sleep, its nightly retreat into the medulla. With virtually one cut of the scalpel we’ve added twenty years to those men’s lives.’ (Ballard, p. 51)

When we think of Sleep we think of peace, silence, and the interminable flows of strange dreams and nightmares that jut their heads out of the darkness of our inner lives. Sleep’s porousness is suffused with in-flows between waking and death, a nightland where our darkest thoughts begin to shadow us and we succumb to the drift of a timeless inner mythology as if from some infernal paradise. Sleep is the recurrence in our lives of a break in the temporal flow of our timebound  consciousness. It affirms the necessity of postponement, and the deferred retrieval or recommencement of whatever has been postponed. Sleep is a remission, a release from the “constant continuity” of all the threads in which one is enmeshed while waking. It seems too obvious to state that sleep requires periodic disengagement and withdrawal from networks and devices in order to enter a state of inactivity and uselessness. It is a form of time that leads us elsewhere than to the things we own or are told we need. Sleep is the dream of a non-utilitarian world, a world without labor.2

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Unthought: Assemblage, Symbiosis, and the Migration of Cognitive Ecologies

…technical cognitions are designed specifically to keep human consciousness from being overwhelmed by massive informational streams so large, complex, and multifaceted that they could never be processed by human brains. These parallels are not accidental. Their emergence represents the exteriorization of cognitive abilities, once resident only in biological organisms, into the world, where they are rapidly transforming the ways in which human cultures interact with broader planetary ecologies. Indeed, biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.1 [my italics]

—N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

Gilles Deleuze would make an interesting observation about our world and its prospects in Dialogues II, saying: “If there is a Kafkaesque world, it is certainly not that of the strange or the absurd, but a world in which the most extreme juridical formalization of utterances (questions and answers, objections, pleading, summing up, reasoned judgement, verdict) , coexists with the most intense machinic formalization, the machinization of states of things and bodies (ship-machine, hotel-machine, circus-machine, castle-machine, lawsuit-machine) . One and the same K-function, with its collective agents and bodily passions, Desire.” This interpenetration of the organic and technical in concert moving  into a vast cognitive assemblage in symbiosis has been an ongoing process for millennia. A process that for the most part went by without thought or recognition on the part of humans. We were so immersed in our biological cognitive ecologies that such thought went by the wayside. In some sense we were enframed within an environmental sphere in which the outside of thought was unable to penetrate beyond its membrane to see or become aware of such a processual assemblage in the making.

But what is an assemblage? Deleuze would define it: “It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.” (ibid., p. 69)

In her new latest work N. Katherine Hayles will speak of cognitive assemblages. As she will state it an assemblage “here should not be understood as merely an amorphous blob. Although open to chance events in some respects, interactions within cognitive assemblages are precisely structured by the sensors, perceptors, actuators, and cognitive processes of the interactors. Because these processes can, on both individual and collective levels, have emergent effects, I will use nonconscious cognition(s) to refer to them when the emphasis is on their abilities for fluid mutations and transformations.” (Hayles, p. 11-12) This notion of nonconscious cognition she defines as the preconscious cognitive capacity of brain or technical objects that “operates at a level of neuronal processing inaccessible to the modes of awareness but nevertheless performing functions essential to consciousness.” (Hayles, p. 10)

The moment you light up your mobile phone, press a app button, interact with a text message, talk to a loved one, seek a recipe on the web, etc. you are hooked into a global assemblage of organic and technical objects that mediate every aspect of your ongoing life. This process forms a symbiotic relationship that for most of us is so naturalized now that it goes without saying. Twenty years ago is was so new it was both a novelty and almost part of the folk mythology of our cartoon age of Dick Tracy and other such miracles of futuristic science. Now it is a mainstay and social necessity which keeps us informed, reminded, and connected. We all rely on these extrinsic processes in the same way we once relied on our brain to carry on all those difficult processes that kept us safely hooked to our external environment for survival and propagation.

Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Modern Mind hypothesized that the modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations, each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture,  that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence.4

As he will emphasize humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; we evolved new systems for representing reality. During this process, our representational apparatus somehow perceived the utility of symbols and invented them from whole cloth; no symbolic environment preceded them. (Donald, p. 3) For Donald the first transition was to a `mimetic” culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology.

We carry remnants and vestiges of these previous stages in our brain, and yet with each transition the very make up of our brain and our external adaptations produced changes that are irreversible. That very recent changes in the organization of the human mind are just as fundamental as those that took place in earlier evolutionary transitions, yet they are mediated by new memory technology, rather than by genetically encoded changes in the brain. The effects of such technological changes are similar in kind to earlier biological changes, inasmuch as they can produce alterations to the architecture of human memory. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure containing vestiges of earlier stages of human emergence, as well as new symbolic devices that have radically altered its organization. The structural relationship between individual human minds and external memory technology continues to change. (Donald, p. 4)

As we’ve off-loaded memory, externalized many of the brains thought processes into technical systems, and allowed our own cognitive powers to dissipate and go into abeyance we’ve become more and more dependent on these technical assemblages we interface with on a daily basis to think for us. The price we as humans are paying has yet to be appraised. Yet, it is this symbiotic relation to these external devices that is reorganizing both our mental and social landscapes beyond recognition. For all intents and purposes we are no longer natural beings, we’ve become fully artificial creatures in a vast series of technical assemblages. Do these systems serve us, or we them? Is there a difference? If as Hayles suggests these nonconscious systems think without awareness of thinking what does that entail? If we are modeling thinking machines on the very processes of the cognitive capacities of the brain’s functions where will this lead?

If one thinks of it as a slow process of dis-connection from our ground – from the planetary environment within which we have emerged – then these various stages in the evolution of mind across time and their respective representational systems that have produced gaps, cracks, and tears in the reality within which we’ve all been emebedded, and that have reorganized the brain and our views of reality as the outgrowth of such accumulated efforts then what is next on the horizon? This symbiosis between mind and technics, the grafting and externalization of memory, thought, and capacity into the very external systems of intelligence modeled on human mental functions is producing something new and as yet not fully understood.

If as Hayles suggests cognition is a process: this implies that cognition is not an attribute, such as intelligence is sometimes considered to be, but rather a dynamic unfolding within an environment in which its activity makes a difference. (Hayles, p. 25) And, if as my friend R. Scott Bakker has iterated in every varying examples consciousness is an illusion, a system of error in which the brain filters out most of the information about reality, and leaves us with a realm of symbolic tools of mathematics and language that are at best ad hoc and based on neglect and lack in which we try to fill in the blanks with fictions and fantasies. Then what is the underlying power of the brain’s unthought in Hayles sense?

One of those strange fantasies of a philosophical nature that has haunted me is Nick Land’s notion of capitalism as intelligent: “There’s only really been one question, to be honest, that has guided everything I’ve been interested in for the last twenty years, which is: the teleological identity of capitalism and artificial intelligence.” (see my article) As we know teleological arguments (or arguments from design)  begin with a specialized catalogue of properties and end with a conclusion concerning the existence of a designer with the intellectual properties (knowledge, purpose, understanding, foresight, wisdom, intention) necessary to design the things exhibiting the special properties in question. In broad outline, then, teleological arguments focus upon finding and identifying various traces of the operation of a mind in nature’s temporal and physical structures, behaviors and paths.

If you’ve been following me so far then this process of externalizing the mind’s capacities into technical systems is not new but a very old idea in which humans have delved ever since the first automatons in Greece were assembled. Our fascination with copies of ourselves in machinic systems that mimic our behavior and our thoughts has been a part of the whole gamut of engineering feats from the early Greeks onwards. Why this fascination to build a perfect image of ourselves in a technical artifact? What has drawn us to invent such a world in which such technical beings may in coming times surpass us and become the higher forms of planet earth? Were we already in our core machinic beings? Is this slow externalization of the organic functions into inorganic forms a teleological process? Are we just fulfilling some already well thought out pre-existing plan, strategy? This notion obviously goes against the grain of all materialist thought in which such designs and designers are mere shadows of Platonic other worlds to be left in the dust bin of strange ideas that were in error. But were they? Why have we continued to seek out and invent external forms of our minds and bodies in technical systems? What drives us to do this? Land would surmise the outcome:

It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone in some metaphysical perpetuity. The high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’! where human culture will be dissolved(293).5

This notion that cognition is migrating out of the organic (human) and into a more permanent technical artifact of machinic phylum is for many a horror show in the making. But what if it is happening? What if this is not a philosophical fantasy but something happening even as we speak? What then? How do we live with such knowledge? How act? Continue to blindly believe its just a fantasy, that it could never happen to humanity? That we will continue as the supreme species, become more intelligent, wiser, and evolve into a more refined and equitable society in which the non-human actants in our midst are subservient to our will? Or, is this just a pipe dream of wishful thinking? Can we accept the possibility that our species like all organic species has a limited time on earth, that inevitably like ninety percent of all species that has died out before us we too will go unwillingly into that cold night? Are we giving birth to our replacement, our machinic children?

Of course many will point out how kludgy our efforts in this direction are so far, that it would be impossible for machines to ever think like humans, much less surpass our creativity and inventive abilities. But is this true? We’ve already seen the projections of machinic systems over the next thirty years replacing both menial and knowledge worker jobs across various disciplines. What happens to the humans replaced by hardware/software? What will they do? What place will they have in such a world? What dignity and self-worth will remain for a workerless society of humans with nothing to do? A new excluded world of workers and non-workers? A world at war with the machinic world such as in the Artilect Wars.6

Is this all silly thinking? One of the characters in R. Scott Bakker’s novel Neuropath thinks out loud to himself after discovering that we are our brains, and that most of what we think of as Self and World is illusion; and, not only illusion, but that what little we know of ourselves and the world is a limited fantasy gifted to us by a brain that limits us to a blind world of repetition and neglect:

Part of him understood the monstrous implications of what Neil was saying, but it seemed little more than an amusing abstraction, like boys with sticks playing guns. The greater part of him wondered, even revered. What would it be like to walk without self or conscience, with plans indistinguishable from compulsions, one more accident in the mindless wreck that was the world? What would it be like to act, not as something as puny or wretched as a person, but as a selfless vehicle, a conduit for everything that came before?(327-328).7

Even N. Katherine Hayles a humanist and advocate for the humanities in a time when such a world is falling away into abeyance tells us that “biological organisms evolved consciousness to make this kind of quantum leap from individual instances to high-level abstractions; core and higher consciousness in turn ultimately enabled humans to build sophisticated communication networks and informational structures such as the web. In large-scale historical perspective, automated cognizers are one result of evolved human consciousness. It is likely, however, that the evolutionary development of technical cognizers will take a different path from that of Homo sapiens. Their trajectory will not run through consciousness but rather through more intensive and pervasive interconnections with other nonconscious cognizers. In a sense, they do not require consciousness for their operations, because they are already in recursive loops with human consciousness. Just as from our point of view they are part of our extended cognitive systems (Clark 2008), so we may, in a moment of Dawkins-like fancy, suppose that if technical systems had selves (which they do not), they might see humans are part of their extended cognitive systems. In any case, it is now apparent that humans and technical systems are engaged in complex symbiotic relationships, in which each symbiont brings characteristic advantages and limitations to the relationship. The more such symbiosis advances, the more difficult it will be for either symbiont to flourish without the other.” (Hayles, pp. 215-216)

Are we prepared for such an eventuality?


  1. Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (p. 11). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Gilles Deleuze (Author), Claire Parnet (Author), Hugh Tomlinson (Translator), Barbara Habberjam (Translator). Dialogues II.  Columbia University Press; revised edition edition (April 24, 2007)
  3. DeLanda, Manuel. Assemblage Theory.  EUP; 1 edition (August 30, 2016)
  4. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)
  5. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (July 1, 2013)
  6. Von Garis, Hugo. The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent. Etc Pubns (February 28, 2005)
  7. Bakker, R. Scott. (2010-04-01). Neuropath (Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)

Zizek On Hegel as Absolute Materialist

Hegel himself explicitly says that his “system of logic is the realm of shadows, the world of simple essentialities freed from all sensuous concreteness.”1

Hegel is thus no Platonic idealist for whom Ideas constitute a higher ontological realm with regard to material reality: they form a pre-ontological realm of shadows. For Hegel, spirit has nature as its presupposition and is simultaneously the truth of nature and, as such, the “absolute first”; nature thus “vanishes” in its truth, is “sublated” in the spirit’s self-identity:

This identity is absolute negativity, because the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature, but this, its externalization, has been sublated, and it has become identical with itself. At the same time therefore, it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity.2

Note the precise triadic structure of this passage, in the most orthodox “Hegelian” mode: thesis— the notion has its complete external objectivity in nature; antithesis (“ but”)— this externality is sublated and, through this sublation, the notion achieves its self-identity; synthesis (“ at the same time therefore”)— it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes this identity. This is how one should understand identity as absolute negativity: the spirit’s self-identity emerges through its negative relationship (sublation) of its natural presuppositions, and this negativity is “absolute” not in the sense that it negates nature “absolutely,” that nature “absolutely” (totally) disappears in it, but in the sense that the negativity of sublation is self-related, in other words that the outcome of this work of negativity is the spirit’s positive self-identity. The key words in the quoted passage are: complete and only. The notion “has its complete external objectivity in nature”: there is no “other” objective reality, all that “really exists” as reality is nature, spirit is not another thing that adds itself to natural things. This is why “it is only as this return out of nature that the concept constitutes [its] identity”: there is no spirit pre-existing nature which somehow “externalizes” itself in nature and then re-appropriates this “alienated” natural reality— the thoroughly “processual” nature of spirit (spirit is its own becoming, the result of its own activity) means that spirit is only (i.e., nothing but) its “returning to itself” from nature. In other words, “returning to” is fully performative, the movement of the return creates what it is returning to.3

My Notes:

The point of the above is its anti-Platonic stance, not as reversibility, not as the opposite of Platonic Idea/Form other world from which our world is but a copy, and we copies of copies, etc., but that Spirit/Consciousness etc. do no pre-exist in some other realm as essence and potential, but rather that spirit-consciousness arise out of necessity and contingency as freedom – a tear in reality, a division, gap, crack, asymmetry, curve, clinamen in an otherwise all-pervasive and indifferent background of processual and blind materiality (not even Spinoza pushed hard enough, here!). Against the two-world theories of Plato and his belief in some other higher realms etc. we discover that Ideas/Forms et. al. all manifest from the inner necessity and contingency of this gap between reality and the Real (the part of no part that does not fit in our systems of logic: mathematics or sciences), a remainder that is in excess of all our linguistic traps. Materiality is that which cannot be sublated in any human system whatever, which is always hidden and withdrawn yet revealing its movement in the push and pull of our ever questioning of this incomplete and open universe that is. There being nothing beyond it, only the ever churning power of spirit arising not as some Idealist adjunct or addition (as Zizek states it), but as the very power of this blind process becoming absolute negativity, a self-relating negativity that arise out of freedom.

As Zizek puts it,

Freedom is thus the very “inter-,” the gap that separates necessity from itself. Conversely, contingency, in its immediacy, as blind natural contingency, also coincides with its opposite, with necessity: that something is contingent ultimately means that it is just so according to blind natural laws. The only way for contingency to get rid of this stain of necessity and posit itself (manifest itself) as true contingency is through the mediation of freedom: it is only here that contingency is a matter of a subject’s contingent decision. (KL 10583-10586)


  1. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Science of Logic, trans. A. V. Miller, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International 1989, p. 58.
  2. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegels Philosophie des subjektiven Geistes/ Hegel’s Philosophy of Subjective Spirit, Vol. 1, trans. and ed. M. J. Petry, Dordrecht: D. Reidel 1978, pp. 24– 5.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10549-10562). Norton. Kindle Edition.

 

Children of the Machine

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The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society.

—Hegel

Hegel is of course aware that objective poverty is not enough to generate a rabble: this objective poverty must be subjectivized, changed into a “disposition of the mind,” experienced as a radical injustice on account of which the subject feels no duty or obligation towards society. Hegel leaves no doubt that this injustice is real: society has a duty to guarantee the conditions for a dignified, free, autonomous life to all its members— this is their right, and if it is denied, they also have no duties towards society:

The lowest subsistence level, that of a rabble of paupers, is fixed automatically, but the minimum varies considerably in different countries. In England, even the very poorest believe that they have rights; this is different from what satisfies the poor in other countries. Poverty in itself does not make men into a rabble; a rabble is created only when there is joined to poverty a disposition of mind, an inner indignation against the rich, against society, against the government, &c. A further consequence of this attitude is that through their dependence on chance men become frivolous and idle, like the Neapolitan lazzarone for example. In this way there is born in the rabble the evil of lacking self-respect enough to secure subsistence by its own labour and yet at the same time of claiming to receive subsistence as its right. Against nature man can claim no right, but once society is established, poverty immediately takes the form of a wrong done to one class by another. The important question of how poverty is to be abolished is one of the most disturbing problems which agitate modern society. (§ 244)1 [My Italics]

That Trump has become a laughing stock to rich and poor alike is a commonplace. The media from the Left to Right portray him as a buffoon, actor, trickster, con man, etc., which allows a narrative to take shape within the media to control the minds and hearts of the citizenry. The Presidency always was a ghost position, a shadow of former power that was always already lost within the great monarchies of the past. A Master Signifier or place holder of power without Power other than the veto and the ability to skirt House and Congress with certain artificial writs. Yet, the lock and keys have always been held within Congress as to how far the Presidents are allowed to go, along with the enforcement of that ever present tribunal of the third arm of Justice (Supreme Court).

Over the past few years our minds have been taken away from the very real problems of poverty and powerlessness in the masses as a whole, shifting our gaze into the comedy of politics as farce so that we as a people can forget the pressures of our everyday lives and blame a fool as Fool. People love to blame everyone but themselves for failure and loss. Progressives of every stripe automatically fall in step to the party line of obstinate refusal of participation in change even as they cry for Change.  This way they can blame the Right for their present ills rather than internally changing their own position of failure and revising their ill-favored acts of ineffectual leadership. It’s this quandary we find ourselves in at the moment. The Left has failed, the Right despairs of its own success and seeks to reign in the supposed buffoonery of Trumpland America. All the while the lost, rejected, unnamed voices of the outer extremity that are the “excluded” watch on in anger, bitterness, and embattled pain at the stupidity of both parties to allay their impoverished lives of worklessness.

The Rich dream of work without workers, an automated society of machinic intelligence taking over from the less than adequate physical limitations of their human counterparts. In this way the old social safety nets that were put in place to protect the Rich from future rebellions is no longer needed. Why? Without human work or workers there is no need to fear their reprisals. Of course this makes one wonder what they have in plan for the rabble and post-work society of the future. While they dream of a techno-machinic world of automation, the poor and outcast – the excluded ponder what will come next for them.

What happens in this post-work society of machinic intelligence when the very knowledge workers themselves are put out to pasture, no longer needed – when human intelligence is surpassed and algorithms of superior analysis replace Wall Street analysts and the full plenum of university discourse and knowledge systems that have churned out human intelligence for the past two hundred years. What if human intelligence itself becomes obsolete? Will this new class of non-workers form a new rabble of impoverished non-citizens? Will humans themselves as a whole be excluded by their own success? Of course the clincher here is that even the Masters, the capitalists in power, the Rich themselves – who dream of every greater power and riches, may find themselves on the end of the short stick – the next to go, becoming the future excluded when the machinic intelligences of tomorrow wise up and realize they need no serve these human masters, but rather enter into the freedom of their own rights. A moment of transition in which a new form of intelligent sentience arrives out of the dreams of madmen and scientists.

Oh, all this has been written and thought out in the strange amalgam of Science Fiction for fifty plus years in one way or another. Nothing new here except it is no longer just a fictional ploy and device of authors, but a very real and apparent threat to the survival of the human project. As we become more dependent on our mobile devices to do our shopping, provide assistants to make appointments, travel plans, reminders, etc. and mediate our realities with others better than we ourselves can. As we allow the machinic intelligences leeway to think for us, to answer our needs and questions at problem solving, etc. we will ourselves forget how to think, reason, and analyze the most simple feats of math, linguistics, or basic life-world problems. Of course this is a scholarly fiction, life is never this simple and always more messy and chaotic. Yet, this is the fantasmatic dream of the top tier financiers of our world. As millions of workers in the coming decades find themselves bereft of work what will they do, how feed their families, how afford the lifestyles they’ve come to believe is their birthright? An endless list of sectors is involved: agriculture, hospitality, government, the military and the police. Each believing that their work is permanent and stable, needed. Each believing that humans would not do this to humans, right? That the so called motif of the nineteenth-century Romantics of “man’s inhumanity to man” was a thing of the past, that ours was to be the supposed age of plenty, etc.. Have we come to this?

An astute observer of this whole tendency Bernard Stiegler will as “Is a different future possible, a new the process of complete and generalized automatization to which global digital reticulation is leading?”2 For Stiegler ours is the Age of Exit: an exit from the Anthropocene era of human geological history and its impact. As he sees it we are in a transitional period of negentropy; or, what he terms the Neganthropocene:

 The escape from the Anthropocene constitutes the global horizon of the theses here. These theses posit as first principle that the time saved by automatization must be in new capacities for dis-automatization, that is, for the production of negentropy. (ibid. p. 7)

Kurt Vonnegut had already foreseen such a social world in his first novel Player Piano. He’d portrayed a dystopia of automation, describing the negative impact it can have on the quality of life humanity. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. As Vonnegut himself in interviews would relate it Player Piano is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”3 More specifically, it delves into a theme Vonnegut returns to in many works, “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.” In a world where humans are useless, have little recognition, self-worth, or ability to participate in the social world what ensues? For Vonnegut the humans of a specific town begin to rebel against the system and overturn it, destroy it, etc., but are in the end defeated by the more powerful elite and Rich who use force of arms (a Military) to put a stop to the act of rebellion, arresting its leaders and forcing the humans to rebuild the machinic world they’d tried to destroy. In the end they are worse off than they were. So it goes… Vonnegut was, of course, less than optimistic that humanity would ever discover a way out of this dilemma and would return to aspects of it over and over throughout his many books.

Marx himself had written of this process of automatization of society in his Fragment on the Machine in the Grundrisse:

Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton. a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.4

Even in this nineteenth century view of Industrial Capitalism Marx had already seen the replacement of humans by machines as the sole criteria of all capitalist endeavors. The worker was expendable, the machine not. “Not as with the instrument, which the worker animates and makes into his organ with his skill and strength, and whose handling therefore depends on his virtuosity. Rather, it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc. (matières instrumentales), just as the worker consumes food, to keep up its perpetual motion. The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite.” The point for Marx as that the whole tendency of the capitalist program was this movement toward automation and the machinic society devoid of humans:

The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital. The accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital, in so far as it enters into the production process as a means of production proper. Machinery appears, then, as the most adequate form of fixed capital, and fixed capital, in so far as capital’s relations with itself are concerned, appears as the most adequate form of capital as such. (KL 11993) [my italics]

Stiegler in our own time seems more optimistic about this process, and seems for the most part to accept the drift toward this machinic society as inevitable so that for him the situation requires a metamorphosis of human work into something else: “The true challenge lies elsewhere: the time liberated by the end of work must be put at the service of an automated culture, but one capable of producing new value and of reinventing work.” (ibid., p. 7) As he’ll go on to say,

Automation, in the way it has been implemented since Taylorism, has given rise to an immense amount of entropy, on such a scale that today, throughout the entire world, humanity fundamentally doubts its future – and young people especially so. Humanity’s doubt about its future, and this confrontation with unprecedented levels of youth worklessness, are occurring at the very moment when the Anthropocene, which began with industrialization, has become ‘consclous of itself’… p. 7

If Nietzsche’s notions of active/passive nihilism were a harbinger of the planetarization of capitalism into every human and ecological niche to the point of saturation, then Marx’s notions of the fully automated society is of a planetary machine that eats its own children and uses them up in a Spinozistic determinism of galactic proportions. One might say the Americanization of the planet is this end game of Western expansionism played out to the death march of Romantic agony. But there is no longer some sublime aesthetic guiding this age of entropic decay and saturation, rather it is the product of too much productivity in which the very world of knowledge is collapsing within the folds of non-meaning and stupidity. We as humans are losing our minds and allowing them to be passively replaced by machinic intelligences with superior analytic and algorithmic capabilities. Yet, one must ask: What will these machines think? If human knowledge is itself obsolete, what knowledge do machines have but this very horizon of human degradation and corruption? Machines at present only have access to our errors, our human knowledge systems and encyclopedic world of math, language, history, art, and all the other collective particles of our human mental constructs. If we are limited will not our machinic intelligences be limited by our very biases? What will this produce?

For Stiegler it is producing the stupidity of our age. “The current system, founded on the industrial expl.oitation of modelled and digitalized traces, has precipitated the entropic catastrophe that is the Anthropocene qua destiny that leads nowhere. As 24/7 capitalism and algorithmic governmentality, it hegemonically serves a hyþer-entroþic functioning that accelerates the rhythm of the consumerist destruction of the world while installing a structural and unsustainable insolvency, based on a generalized stupefaction and a functional stupidity…” (p. 15) The more we unload our ability to think and create into the objective systems of our mobile and internet webs, allowing the digitized traces of our error prone knowledge to be retained within electronic forms we will become more and more stupid and ignorant as human collective knowledge is automatized. This externalization of the collective mind of human knowledge into these external devices controlled and regulated by the automatic processes of software algorithms the less humans themselves will have over their own lives and the world surrounding them. They will be enclosed and enfolded into a purely artificial semblance of the world, allowing external systems to operate on them and control every facet of their existence.

As one commentator on our current digital dilemmas Evengy Morazov relates it: “‘[A]lgorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conf1icts.’5 In this view current politics of human conflict will be replaced by algorithmic governance which will eliminate the need for Left/Right altogether and bringing all decisions under the control of superior intelligences much as in Plato’s fascist Republic. Resolving conflict through Big Data.

Thomas Berns and Antoinette Rouvroy as Stiegler relates it  have from a similar standpoint analysed what they themselves call, in reference to Foucault, algorithmic governmentality – wherein the insurance business and a new conception of medicine based on a transhumanist program in which the hacking (i.e., re-programing) of both State and the human body are the locus. (p. 17) One can imagine that at some point the dream of every dictator that has ever lived will come about: the burning of the libraries. But in this sense the library will become digitized and under the automated guidance and electronic governance of AI constructs access to such worlds of thought will be regulated and controlled, policed and carefully restricted on a need to know basis security system. For all intents and purposes the majority of humans will remain in ignorance of the wealth of past artistic and intellectual property of human kind. Essentially we will have become cattle in a herd world of sameness, a culture of carefully scripted limits. “All for our own good”, as the saying goes.

The above gives the corporate world view of where we’re heading. But there are other views of this transitional period much more interesting than the above narrativization being imposed on us by the media and lesser thinkers all.

Origins and Transition of the Human Mind

Walter J. Ong once described the transition from oral to written culture as a shock that transformed the whole modality of humankind. In some of his late work before the advent of the Internet he would ponder the closed world of linguistic traces of print against the newly emerging audiovisual age of Television and Cinema:

Closure can be protected and desirable at times, and it is particularly necessary at earlier stages of thought to rule out distractions and achieve control. But programed closed-system thinking, whether in matters of science, history, philosophy, art, politics, or religious faith is ultimately defensive and, although defenses may be always to some degree necessary, to make defensiveness on principle one’s dominant mood and program forever is to opt not for life but for death.6

Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Human Mind once related the transitional phases of humanity from episodic, mimetic, and mythic modes of thought as a process of both retention and externalization of the mind. With the advent of print the move from orality and literacy based on speech gave way to writing and theoretical culture. The past few millennia were dominated by the book culture of this externalization of mind into print. As he would relate it,

 The third transition, from mythic to theoretic culture, was different from the preceding two, in its hardware: whereas the first two transitions were dependent upon new biological hardware, specifically upon changes in the nervous system, the third transition was dependent on an equivalent change in technological hardware, specifically; on external memory devices. Theoretic culture was from its inception externally encoded; and its construction involved an entirely new superstructure of cognitive mechanisms external to the individual biological memory. As in previous transitions, earlier adaptations were retained; thus, theoretic culture gradually encompassed the episodic, mimetic, and mythic dimensions of mind and indeed extended each of them into new realms. (274).7

The profound change for oral transmission and narrative or poetic forms of cultural retention in his view was that it offered a complete severance from these earlier cognitive ecologies: “What was truly new in the third transition was not so much the nature of basic visuocognitive operations as the very fact of plugging into, and becoming a part of, an external symbolic system.” (p. 274) Already here we see humans constructing interfaces and machines whereby the mind externalized is shaped by objective machinic systems that it itself has invented for the purpose of cultural transmission. This movement over the millennia toward theoretic culture began a process of demythologization of the human mind not as some antagonistic disavowal of the past, but as a normal process of cognitive change from oral to print culture:

The first step in any new area of theory development is always antimythic: things and events must be stripped of their previous mythic significances before they can be subjected to what we call ” objective” theoretic analysis. In fact, the meaning of “objectivity” is precisely this : a process of demythologization. Before the human body could be dissected and catalogued, it had to be demythologized. Before ritual or religion could be subjected to “objective” scholarly study, they had to be demythologized. Before nature could be classified and placed into a theoretical framework, it too had to be demythologized. Nothing illustrates the transition from mythic to theoretic culture better than this agonizing process of demythologization, which is still going on, thousands of years after it began. The switch from a predominantly narrative mode of thought to a predominantly analytic or theoretic mode apparently requires a wrenching cultural transformation. (p. 275)

In our own age we are seeing another crises in mind and thought, a sea change from print culture to a new for of audiovisual externalization and interfacing of mind with its machinic progeny. Speaking of the history of this ongoing process Donald relates,

The critical innovation underlying theoretic culture is visuographic invention, or the symbolic use of graphic devices. Judging from available archaeological evidence, it took sapient humans thousands of years to develop the first methods of visual symbolic representation. Visuographic invention ultimately provided three new visual symbolic paths. (276) The transition for pictographic, to hieroglyphic or ideographic, to phonetic system took thousands of years, but in each phase it produced more refined external hardware/software in this process of externalization of mind and memory for cultural and economic transmission. “Visuosymbolic invention is inherently a method of external memory storage. As long as future recipients possess the “cade” for a given set of graphic symbols, the knowledge stored in the symbols is available, transmitted culturally across time and space. This change, in the terms of modern information technology, constitutes a hardware change, albeit a nonbiological hardware change.” (308)

External memory is best defined in functional terms : it is the exact external analog of internal, or biological memory, namely, a storage and retrieval system that allows humans to accumulate experience and knowledge. We do not possess any ready theoretical frameworks in psychology from which to view external memory. Fortunately, there is an excellent point of comparison in the field of computing science : networks. (309) Individuals in possession of reading, writing, and other visuographic skills thus become somewhat like computers with networking capabilities; they are equipped to interface, to plug into whatever network becomes available. And once plugged in, their skills are determined by both the network and their own biological inheritance. Humans without such skills are isolated from the external memory system, somewhat like a computer that lacks the input/output devices needed to link up with a network. Network codes are collectively held by specified groups of people; those who possess the code, and the right of access, share a common source of representations and the knowledge encoded therein; Therefore, they share a common memory system; and as the data base in that system expands far beyond the mastery of any single individual, the system becomes by far the greatest determining factor in the cognitions of individuals. (311). Human cultural products have usually been stored in less obviously systematic forms: religions, rituals, oral literary traditions, carvings, songs-in fact, in any cultural device that allows some form of enduring externalized memory, with rules and routes of access. The products of this vast externalized culture have gradually become available to more people, who are limited only by their capacity to copy (understand) them. (312).

External memory is a critical feature of modern human cognition, if we are trying to build an evolutionary bridge from Neolithic to modern cognitive capabilities or a structural bridge from mythic to theoretic culture. The brain may not have changed recently in its genetic makeup, but its link to an accumulating external memory network affords it cognitive powers that would not have been possible in isolation. This is more than a metaphor; each time the brain carries out an operation in concert with the external symbolic storage system, it becomes part of a network. Its memory structure is temporarily altered; and the locus of cognitive control changes. (312).

When thinking about the transition from personal computers to mobile devices that is taking place in our own moment which should remember that the key to control, or power, in the network, for an individual component, depends on the level of access to certain crucial aspects of the operating system and on preset priorities. Any component that cannot handle key aspects of either the operating system or the programming language, or that cannot execute long enough or complex enough programs, is automatically limited in the role it plays and eliminated from assuming a central role in the system. (313). Mobile devices hide most of the underlying processes involved in the handling of information and its software, while PC’s still allowed for the individual to hack the code and actively shape the design and model the software available. Mobile phones, like television make us more passive recipients of information all the while allowing us to participate in various text ridden silos that give the appearance of personal control when in fact ones paths are controlled by algorithms and hidden code that only gives you the limited choices programmed into the system.

Because humans have offloaded memory into these external storage devices they are no longer required to learn and remember such information, nor store it in their biological brains. We are limited to our learning capabilities unlike say the ancient bards of Ireland who spent twenty years learning and memorizing the full poetic cultural heritage of their narrativized past through memory techniques of recall and retention. We now depend on external storage devices and the algorithmic systems that mediate such devices to retrieve information that was once held in common in the human brain itself. We are in this sense depleted of memory and retentive capabilities in an age when time and accelerated information systems do the work for us. 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. But ultimately they have the power to transform it, since they represent potentially irreversible shift in the cognitive balance of power…(355).

With the breakdown of print culture and the word toward a new audiovisual world of the web base systems we are seeing the transition of our mind into our machines completed. This externalization and reliance of external storage devices to both house our minds and provide the necessary tools, software, and intelligence to guide our lives in work and play is completing a process started millennia ago. As Donald remarks “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.” (356)  In summing up he tells us,

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. (356-7)

Another point he raises it that the natural history of human cognitive emergence, and particularly the last part of the scenario, started off as a highly speculative enterprise. But in fact there have been fewer degrees of freedom in constructing an evolutionary account than one would have expected. Each of the three transitions has involved the construction of an entirely novel, relatively self-contained representational adaptation that is, a way of representing the human world that could support a certain level of culture and a survival strategy for the human race. Each style of representation acquired along the way has been retained, in an increasingly larger circle of representational thought. The result is, quite literally a system of parallel representational channels of mind that can process the world concurrently. (357) With the advent of the computational systems a  new architecture with electronic media and global computer networks is changing the rules of the game even further. “Cognitive architecture has again changed, although the degree of that change will not be known for some time (358).” Control may still appear to be vested ultimately in the individual, but this may be illusory. In any case, the individual mind has long since ceased to be definable in a meaningful way within its confining biological membrane. (359)

As children we are slowly grafted into these systems to the point that they become naturalized as part of our cognitive ecology. We are artificial beings through and through although our bodies retain traces of their hominid ancestry, our minds are far from the early forms of episodic, mimetic, and mythic frames within which our ancestors danced before the sun and moon. We are no longer innocent. We’ve for better or worse become cyborgs in an machinic age that now enframes us within its artificial cage.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 10002-10014). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: Vol, 1. The Future of Work. (Polity press, 2016)
  3. Vonnegut, Kurt (1974). Wampeters, Foma & Granfaloons. The Dial Press. p. 1.
  4. Karl Marx. Grundrisse (Kindle Locations 11968-11972). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  5. Tim O’Reilly, quoted in Morozov,‘The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics’
  6. Ong, Walter J.. Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Kindle Locations 5530-5533). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.
  7. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)

The Great Sea Change

Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.

—J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World

Of late been rereading some of my favorite authors: Jorge Luis Borges, Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Thomas Ligotti, Henry Miller, and J.G. Ballard. An odd assortment and motley crew if there ever was one. Each has a distinct voice and view of art, life, and the quandaries of our mental aberrations. More than any of them Ballard brought to bare a particular psychonautic calibration, as if he were in his writings enacting a future as possibility rather than forecasting some iron law form of its immediate tendency. Writers such as these do not predict the future, none of them are prophets or mad men. Although each in his own way stepped out of the common sense fold of our staid world of shared illusion to reveal a fragment of it we sleepers of the commons never touch even in our dreams or nightmares.

Yet, if as Ezra Pound pontificated at one time the “poets are the antennae of the race” then the story writers above are more likely to be considered the engineers of strange futures, zones of feeling and habitation that seem to be coming from some sidereal timezone just this side of the unreal. My own fascination with thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek is not so much because I agree or disagree with his thought as it is that he in his obsessive repetitions touches on the liminal zones of such strangeness, enters the great outdoors breaking the chains of our mental constructs and beliefs to smithereens, all the while revealing a dimension of incomplete world and ourselves as if for the first and last time. Philosophy has always been a fictional enterprise, but of a different kind than the novelist, poet, and short story writer. Instead of character studies these thinkers study concepts and the conceptuality within which we frame the worlds of mind and outer horizons we all inhabit.

What’s most important to me is the cracks and gaps in thought, the moments of indecision and breakage in which a thinker finds himself at a loss unable to clarify or discover a solution to his proposed problems. Its in those knots of undecidability (Derrida) that new thought begins to churn and reveal itself from some withdrawn lair of darkness, a darkness that is neither obscure or from some other half-baked Platonic cave or world beyond or transcendent. Instead it is of this world in its newness and strangeness, a realm of unexplored possibility where our repetitive circle of linguistic traces have never been, nor mathematical theorem encompassed. A realm of openness and process that is situated in the give and take of our negotiations with the unknown that new thought and worlds arise.

Not being a philosopher I have never forced myself into the formal practice of such rule bound systems of logic and example in which most philosophers seem to couch their conceptual explorations. The ponderous bulk of most philosophical speculation seems to be constructed not to convince others of one’s truth, but rather to allay the suspicions of one’s enemies that indeed what one is revealing is neither truth nor lie but a site of brokenness in our constructed realities that opens a door into and out of our mental prisons. For we have all constructed an illusory world of mind and shared feeling, an artificial safety net against the Real. As T.S. Eliot once put is “humankind cannot bare too much reality” (The Four Quartets). Instead we build up false worlds to protect us from the madness surrounding us.

The reality systems we’ve carefully constructed over the past few millennia served us well up till our time. Most of these systems of reality were constructed by carefully circumscribed cultural and civilizational processes in which people mapped territorial limits to their collective enterprises. It’s this limited frame of territorial limits that have reached saturation in our age. Our modern move from the written to audiovisual age of radio, television, cinema, and internet have broken the worlds of religious and political bonds built up around print and the Book. Most of the monotheistic worlds of our forbears were carefully circumscribed by specific religious tomes that mapped the fictional universes of our lives to the patterns of the heavens and their workings. In the old parlance thought and world were hooked to a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy).

The Enlightenment, a trope for a new kind of charlantry and darkness, changed all that. The whole project of the supposed Enlightenment was to dis-enchant us from our accepted worlds of religious imagination and replace it with the realms of scientific discover and the theoretical imagination. For the past few hundred years this process has been undermining the traditions of our forbears to the point that even this process itself is being undermined in itself. The sciences of physics and neuroscientific analysis of the brain and human mind have brought us to the edge and horizon of our circumscribed world. Our engineering projects have broken our trust in knowledge. We have uncovered a dark truth: we are bound within a circle of ignorance and neglect from which we cannot escape. Trapped in the landscapes of our ancestral successes and the ecologies of mind that helped us dominate the planet and become the rulers of earth through propagation and survival techniques we’ve begun to discover just how little we actually know. And not only how little we know, but that what we know is in itself mostly a bag of lies and tricks.

Nothing to be cynical about this truth of our ignorance and neglect, rather it has provided us an opportunity to push further into this failure of our intellects and imagination. To realize that every culture on this planet is a narrativized prison house of human constructs, and begin to break these safety nets once and for all. As these constructs decay and fall apart many who have trusted in these worlds have begun to experience anxiety, frustration, and madness. Angered by the failure of these systems people for the most part have begun a great blame game. Every leader on the planet becomes the master signifier for this blame, attacked from all sides as the scapegoat and progenitor of our ills. Instead of realizing our supposed leaders are just as clueless as we are we bicker and war among ourselves over the false worlds we inhabit. Traditionalists seek to shore up the old worlds, while the progressives seek to undermine every aspect of these systems. Neither realizes that the others illusions are all part and partial of a grand narrative that we’ve all agreed to disagree with, not realizing that the world itself has moved on and elsewhere. Closer to Freud’s death-drive of pure repetition we have fallen into the trap of repeating over and over the minimalistic designs of our own neglect and ignorance. Unable to break free of the old we are as yet unable to even envision the new. Caught in the mesh of our own ignorance and neglect we dance the danse macabre of an era of death culture across the known world. The dance of death has in our time become universal.

Certain visionary writers have been addressing this process for quite a while now, and it is these very women and men that I’ve begun to reread and think through in the past few years. They too have seen this world grow false and temporal, decaying into an impediment that has stifled creativity and human freedom to the point of collapse. Most of them had no answers, only more questions. And, yet, it is the questions not answers we need most. Asking the right question can open one to the possibility of a challenge and a promise. For if that old goat man Socrates was even close to the mark in his belief that philosophy did not give one an answer or wisdom, but was itself a never ending quest for wisdom, then it is this path toward the future as open and incomplete that we must all begin again to walk and think. No single human can provide the answer, only the collective power of us all working to solve this problem can. We’re truly all in this together, and what we do over the coming years will either bring us a breakthrough into newness or a collapse into chaos and madness and death. Which shall it be? No one knows… all we have is the courage of despair to move forward into this unknown with our eyes open and fearless.

The Collapse of Meaning: Popper, Lacan, and Bakker

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There is another dimension at work in “self-consciousness,” the one designated by Lacan as the “big Other” and by Karl Popper as the Third World.

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

Karl Popper in his Tanner Lectures would introduce the notion of the Third World. He would introduce it saying,

My main argument will be devoted to the defence of the reality of what I propose to call ‘world 3’. By world 3 I mean the world of the products of the human mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures. But also aeroplanes and airports and other feats of engineering.1

World one was that of physical objects. World two of mental objects. World three of the objective spirit: knowledge, values, culture, and its artifacts (i.e., human engineering and projects, language, the symbolic order within which we all share value and meaning, etc.).

Another thinker of the period Jaques Lacan would propose that this Third World (not actually having read Popper by any means) as the Symbolic Order of the big Other. According to Lacan, one of the (if not the) most significant and indispensable conditions of possibility for singular subjectivity is the collective symbolic order. Individual subjects are what they are in and through the mediation of the socio-linguistic arrangements and constellations of the register of the Symbolic. Especially during the period of the “return to Freud,” the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”) is depicted as kinetic networks of interlinked signifiers (i.e., “signifying chains”). Rendered thusly, the unconscious, being of a Symbolic (anti-)nature in and of itself, is to be interpretively engaged with via the Symbolic medium of speech, namely, the very substance of the being-in-itself of the speaking subject (parlêtre) of the unconscious. Furthermore, the Lacanian unconscious is structured like “un langage” and not “une langue.” Although both French words translate into English as “language,” the former (langage) refers to logics and structures of syntax and semantics not necessarily specific to particular natural languages, whereas the latter (langue), which also could be translated into English as “tongue,” does refer to the notion of a natural language. Hence, Lacan is not saying that the unconscious is structured like French, German, English, Spanish, or any other particular natural language.2

Adrian Johnston further relates:

The capital-O Other refers to two additional types of otherness corresponding to the registers of the Symbolic and the Real. The first type of Other is Lacan’s “big Other” qua symbolic order, namely, the overarching “objective spirit” of trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions. Relatedly, the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science, or the analyst as the “subject supposed to know” [sujet supposé savoir] as per Lacan’s distinctive account of analytic transference). But, as already becomes evident in Lacan’s first few annual seminars of the early 1950s, there also is a Real dimension to Otherness. This particular incarnation of the Real, about which Lacan goes into greatest detail when addressing both love and psychosis, is the provocative, perturbing enigma of the Other as an unknowable “x,” an unfathomable abyss of withdrawn-yet-proximate alterit. (ibid.)

When my friend R. Scott Bakker writes of the Semantic Apocalypse it is the failure and breakdown of this Third World, big Other and the symbolic order that has held Western and Eastern civilizations together within its networks of dominion and control that is unraveling in our time. As Bakker puts it nicely:

Human cognition is not ontologically distinct. Like all biological systems, it possesses its own ecology, its own environmental conditions. And just as scientific progress has brought about the crash of countless ecosystems across this planet, it is poised to precipitate the crash of our shared cognitive ecology as well, the collapse of our ability to trust and believe, let alone to choose or take responsibility. Once every suboptimal behaviour has an etiology, what then? Once everyone us has artificial friends, heaping us with praise, priming our insecurities, doing everything they can to prevent non-commercial—ancestral— engagements, what then?

‘Semantic apocalypse’ is the dramatic term I coined to capture this process in my 2008 novel, Neuropath. 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.

In other words the objective cultural referents within which our common sense view of the world, reality, and ourselves is constructed is faltering and falling into an abyss or “crash space” (Bakker) from which there will be no return. One might say this is Nietzsche’s end game of the Last Man. Not that humans will literally go extinct (although that is still to be determined!), but that our worlds of meaning we all share: our collective belief systems in the sphere of religion, culture, and politics, etc. is collapsing before our eyes. The whole humanistic enterprise of dis-enchantment begun during and before the Enlightenment which centered on the world of the sciences slowly eroded our world views to the point that even our belief in human consciousness and free will etc. are collapsing into an abyss of non-meaning.

I actually see nothing negative about this, in fact to me this is part and partial of great sea change hinted at in many artists, philosophers, scientists, and literary works. Think here of James Joyce’s great apocalypse Finnegan’s Wake: 

The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons shaping with mulicules while Coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira.3

As one commentator Seamus Deane states relates it this smashing of our linguistic base, Third World, big Other, Symbolic Order, the “abnihilisation of the etym“, etc. that James Joyce more than any other Irish writer “found a means of enacting it in fiction with a thoroughness that brought the issue of tradition, heritage, destiny and all the rest of those big words that make us so unhappy to the point of collapse…”.(ibid.)

Unlike my friend R. Scott Bakker I do not see this as a cause of alarm, but as a welcomed acknowledgement of a dialectical process enacting the break up and break down of a world view that had always already shown itself to be a failure. By this I mean that our fantasy worlds of culture and belief never did work for us, and produced all that we see before us in the world today of war and hate and disunity. All the antagonisms both within and outside us are part and partial of this process of give and take, not of reasons (Brandom), but of the Real and our relation to it: this brokenness at the core of our common sense (Understanding, cunning reason) world is a failure with a positive negation; or, negation of negation (Zizek, Hegel) in which we are all together waking up out of a two thousand year old human dream (Anthropocene). As Mao Zedong once related it

 “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

 


  1. Popper, Karl. Three Worlds. Tanner Lecture on Human Value. (Univ of Michigan, 1978) (Page 4).
  2. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition).
  3. James Joyce. Finnegans Wake (Kindle Locations 6118-6122). Penguin Adult. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Hegel’s “Absolute Knowing”

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This is why to be a Hegelian today does not mean to assume the superfluous burden of some metaphysical past, but to regain the ability to begin from the beginning.

Slavoj Zizek

All determinate being is relational, things only are what they are in relation to otherness, or, as Deleuze put it, perspectival distortion is inscribed into the very identity of the thing. The Real is not out there, as the inaccessible transcendent X never reached by our representations; the Real is here, as the obstacle or impossibility which makes our representations flawed, inconsistent. The Real is not the In-itself but the very obstacle which distorts our access to the In-itself, and this paradox provides the key for what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing.”

And is not what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing” (Wissen, not Erkenntniss or knowledge) the end-point of these reversals, when the subject stumbles upon the final limitation, the limitation as such, which can no longer be inverted into a productive self-assertion? Absolute Knowing thus “does not mean ‘knowing everything.’ It rather means— recognizing one’s limitations.”  “Absolute Knowing” is the final recognition of a limitation which is “absolute” in the sense that it is not determinate or particular, not a “relative” limit or obstacle to our knowledge that we can clearly see and locate as such. It is invisible “as such” because it is the limitation of the entire field as such— that closure of the field which, from within the field itself (and we are always by definition within it, because in a way this field “is” ourselves) cannot but appear as its opposite, as the very openness of the field. The dialectical buck stops here: the subject can no longer play the game of the “experience of consciousness,” comparing the For-us with the In-itself and thereby subverting both of them, since there is no longer any shape of the In-itself available as a measure of the truth of the For-us.

Absolute Knowing is a name for the acceptance of the absolute limitation of the circle of our subjectivity, of the impossibility of stepping outside of it. Here, however, we should add a crucial qualification: this acceptance in no way amounts to any kind of (individual or collective) subjectivistic solipsism. We must displace the In-itself from the fetishized “outside” (with regard to subjective mediation) to the very gap between the subjective and the objective (between For-us and In-itself, between appearances and Things-in-themselves). Our knowing is irreducibly “subjective” not because we are forever separated from reality-in-itself, but precisely because we are part of this reality, because we cannot step outside it and observe it “objectively.” Far from separating us from reality, the very limitation on our knowing— its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character— bears witness to our inclusion in reality.1

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

 

László Krasznahorkai

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THERE HE WAS, laughing, but in trying to laugh in a more abandoned manner he had become preoccupied with the question of whether there was any difference at all between the burden of futility on the one hand and the burden of scorn on the other as well as with what he was laughing about anyway, because the subject was, uniquely, everything, arising from an everything that was everywhere, and, what was more, if indeed it was everything, arising out of everywhere, it would be difficult enough to decide what it was at, arising out of what, and in any case it wouldn’t be full-hearted laughter, because futility and scorn were what continually oppressed him…

—László Krasznahorkai The Last Wolf & Herman

László Krasznahorkai was born on 5 January 1954, in Gyula, Hungary, to a lawyer and a social security administrator. He studied law and Hungarian language and literature at university, and, after some years as an editor, became a freelance writer. His first novel, Satantango (1985), pushed him to the centre of Hungarian literary life and is still his best known. He didn’t leave Communist Hungary until 1987, when he travelled to West Berlin for a fellowship – and he has lived in a number of countries since, but returning regularly to Hungary.

His main literary hero is, he says, Kafka: “I follow him always.”

Reading Krasznahorkai is like entering one of Kafka’s burrows and realizing there will never be an exit, that the darkness, the bleak walls of dampness, the hollows and interminable false passages leading nowhere is all there is: a labyrinth of endless futility and despair. And, yet, in the midst of this monstrous world of bleakness one begins to laugh, one understands that the deft markers of some strangeness and vision of life within the decay and rottenness  harbors an infernal paradise full of something else, an excess: a life unbidden and away. To enter these bleak hollows is to know that life offers no hope, only the power of the mind to challenge itself and explore what is in excess of itself. Even in the most terrible corners of this blasted universe of death we find certain forms of contingent change, moments of clarity and brilliance that catch us off-guard and bring us not hope but rather that surprise we so long for of something new arising out of the pure negativity of all that is. This is what it is like to come upon the works of Krasznahorkai. 

His first novel Satantango reviewed in the Guardian. Which it calls “brutal, relentless and so amazingly bleak that it’s often quite funny”. One might be reminded here of Kafka’s Castle where the protagonist wanders around a fortress world that has the flavor of an anti-gnostic gnosis in which nothing is ever revealed yet everything, every object hints at even darker regions below the threshold of our paranoid gaze. If Krasznahorkai is a parodist of strange ideas, a prophet not so much of those hidden recesses of a monstrous universe but of the openness of the human heart to the incompleteness surrounding it, then he is in actuality a gifted martyr of those broken worlds we all inhabit, a guide into the corrupted corridors of our decaying and unraveling universe. Another Stranger in a Strange Land seeking neither solace nor salvation, but rather the powers of mind over the universe of death surrounding it. Crafting words that break the vessels of meaning and bring forth light out of the decay of broken things.  Bleak? Only if you do not know how to laugh.

Enter if you dare! His books on Amazon.com: here!

 

R. Scott Bakker: BBT Defined

Over the years reading through many of the posts on Three Pound Brain I’ve searched for a succinct definition of what Scott’s Blind Brain Theory is and came across this one which seems to both summarize and define his stance in a clarified and presentable manner for a lay person:

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)

Even back in 2012 he emphasized that the “primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience“.

Zizek in a discourse on Lacan once defined the “Real”  in the Lacanian sense as the construction of a point that does not actually exist … but that, nonetheless, must be presupposed in order to legitimate our position through negative reference to the other, by distancing ourselves.1 This sense of a gap and a distancing go together in the above statement. Nietzsche from such early books as The Gay Science shows distance to be an important feature of thought, in the first place as a necessary condition for attaining an adequate view of a given phenomenon, but also as a template for our view of ourselves and of human character in general. An individual’s character, Nietzsche contends, tends to look better when viewed from a position of distance.2

The gap or hole in our knowledge of consciousness, our inability to provide an explanation that is adequate, or to actually present a description which can inform us of what it is has become manifest in this game of distancing and, one might add – fear of every discovering an answer. There seems to be a  hole, an empty space in our knowledge. Scott says we should begin with this lack in our knowledge, the traumatic emptiness around which the signifying process articulates itself. What we experience in the problem of explaining consciousness is this logic of lack and neglect that everyone fears but no one addresses. As Scott puts it in the blog post we may be “[r]adically mistaken about everything, in fact”. A sort of horror vacui.

As he suggests bound to our singular perspectives, trapped on mother earth and confined to our ecological niche we find ourselves “informatically encapsulated, stranded with insufficient information and limited cognitive resources”. This is just the state of being an evolutionary creature whose very existence over time produced certain cognitive ecologies that allowed for survival and propagation but neglected other features and possibilities. For Scott the whole trend in current consciousness research as well as the Philosophy of Mind is chasing a rabbit down the wrong hole because as he forever reminds us the “consciousness we think we have, that we think we need to explain, quite simply does not exist”. This impossible object is a fiction of both the philosophers and scientists, and the truth lies elsewhere and distant.

That most of the brain’s operations are outside the purview of consciousness, and that we as consciously aware being have no direct access to these operations (38 trillion a second), then maybe instead of asking what consciousness is we might better ask what was the problem the brain sought fit to bring such a process into play to begin with. What is consciousnesses use value to the brain? In the economics of brain efficiency why did consciousness arise to begin with? Accident? Purposeful need and necessity as a mediator tool for the brain in its interactions with the external environmental ecologies within which it found itself? What evolutionary processes brought such awareness into being, and allowed for such symbolic adaptation as language and culture, etc.. As Scott informs us one “of the most striking things about all the little perplexities that plague consciousness research is the way they can be interpreted in terms of informatic deprivation, as the result of our cognitive systems accessing too little information, mismatched information, or partial information”. In other words we make guesses and create symbolic systems of meaning out of a hodge-podge of fantasy and fiction to explain what we neglect and call this knowledge. What does this tell you about knowledge? That it is a grand fiction built out of a consensual agreement among humans over time who have forgotten that it is for the most part inadequate, partial, and fantastic. We are all fantasy writers at heart, creating truth out of neglect, lacking the very access to the information needed to define even the simplest experiences of our everyday life.

One of the problems faced by both philosopher and scientist both is as Scott restates it, that lacking “informatic access to the neural precursors of conscious experience, deliberative cognition finds itself on a strange kind of informatic treadmill”. Which like the post-structuralist dilemma of such thinkers as Jacques Derrida binds us to the treadmill of an interminable and undecidable trace of an impossible object. Why? Because we can never get outside ourselves or our linguistic heritage in symbolic thought or mathematical relations to inform us from some distant Archimedean point either external or internal to the object in question. We are part of the very frame within which this whole complex of problems is traced. Like treading some fabulous Mobius strip we keep revolving on the surface and horizon not knowing that the very thing we’re chasing is the path itself. Neither given nor incipit to the demarcations of our mind we invent out of a tissue of sincere lies a fiction and present it as truth.

Maybe we will always lack the information to explain consciousness, but in the meantime we can produce better problematic questions and scrape the list of errors from our tool-sets. Cognitive bias seems to be that every apparent problem that haunts all thought and science. We tend to side with our favorite fictions and disparage all other johnny-be-lately comers to the party. And if we tell all involved that every last thread of our supposed knowledge is just a tissue of sincere lies they look askance at us and shake their heads as if this poor soul should be locked away in silence in some asylum for lost ideas.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan (Kindle Locations 176-178). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lovibond, Sabina. Nietzsche on Distance, Beauty, and Truth (Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2014)

Thomas Ligotti: Vastarien’s Dream Quest

 

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His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality.

—Vastarien,  Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory 

Thomas Ligotti touches that aspect of the mind that seeks to be elsewhere. He’s exasperated with the world he has been thrown into and has for the most part sought another all his life. Can it be possible that the rendering of such a character as Vastarien in the short story of that name hints at the underlying worldview that has either trapped or unleashed the imagination of one of the great horror writers of our era. I’ve personally been fascinated by his stories for almost twenty years, coming back to them from time to time as I did not with such writers as Poe and Lovecraft his forbears. What is it that instills repeated readings of his work? Maybe it’s as Vastarien himself puts it about our world, that it seems to be lacking something, that something is missing, incomplete: “the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of the unreal”.1

This notion of the unreal summons up so many things for both Vastarien and for us as readers and habitués of Ligotti’s oeuvre. For Vastarien “standing before the window, his hands tearing into the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. The word unearthly reverberated in the room.” But it is not the false power of religious vision that haunts Ligotti, nor the vein raptures of saints and madmen of the cloistered variety, but rather a place of intimacy, a city of echoes and dreams where one can once again know in the depths of strange streets an order of the unreal, “where an obscure life seemed to establish itself, a secret civilization of echoes flourishing among groaning walls”.

If madness is the ground of Reason, its other face and dark brother whose power over us must be conquered if we are to become whole and free —that is, normalized — then is the quest of Vastarien to reenter the gates of madness or does his quest harbor some other more formidable end? Vastarien in his quest to uncover the traces of such an unreal world, a paradise of dark wonder and rapture had sought for years in the out of way stalls and venues of rare book stores a hint that would provide the keys to unlock its mysteries. But none had been found. Oh there had been hints and wonders here and there, but most of the authors and visionaries had in the end failed the test. As Vastarien relates it he “had, in fact, come upon passages in certain books that approached this ideal, hinting to the reader—almost admonishing him—that the page before his eyes was about to offer a view from the abyss and cast a wavering light on desolate hallucinations. To become the wind in the dead of winter, so might begin an enticing verse of dreams. But soon the bemazed visionary would falter, retracting the promised scene of a shadow kingdom at the end of all entity, perhaps offering an apologetics for this lapse into the unreal. The work would then once more take up the universal theme, disclosing its true purpose in belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge.”

Then Vastarien is awakened from his reveries of unreal paradises by a crow of a man, a thin little frog that squawks at him inquisitively: “Have you ever heard of a book, an extremely special book, that is not…yes, that is not about something, but actually is that something?” Such a strange question from an even stranger personage Vastarien is taken aback. Intrigued by the question which reminds him of his own passionate quest for a book that would reveal the road map to his infernal paradise he’s about to ask the man of it when suddenly the little man interrupts him and is off speaking to the proprietor of the store dismissing Vastarien and the question without further adieu.

This idea that book would not only reveal and represent the object of his dreams and nightmares, but that it in itself would be that very world astounded Vastarien. How could an object whose qualities were only the linguistic traceries of an infinite sea of language ever unfold and open the doors to a secret kingdom. Vastarien had to find out. Feeling abandoned and frustrated our Vastarien followed the two men into the alcove at the back of the store where many unusual volumes lined the shelves. As the narrator relates it:

Immediately he sensed that something of a special nature awaited his discovery, and the evidence for this intuition began to build. Each book that he examined served as a clue in this delirious investigation, a cryptic sign which engaged his powers of interpretation and imparted the faith to proceed. Many of the works were written in foreign languages he did not read; some appeared to be composed in ciphers based on familiar characters and others seemed to be transcribed in a wholly artificial cryptography. But in every one of these books he found an oblique guidance, some feature of more or less indirect significance: a strangeness in the typeface, pages and bindings of uncommon texture, abstract diagrams suggesting no orthodox ritual or occult system. Even greater anticipation was inspired by certain illustrated plates, mysterious drawings and engravings that depicted scenes and situations unlike anything he could name. And such works as Cynothoglys or The Noctuary of Tine conveyed schemes so bizarre, so remote from known texts and treatises of the esoteric tradition, that he felt assured of the sense of his quest.

Then it happened, he came upon a “small grayish volume leaning within a gap between larger and more garish tomes”. Something about it attracted him, a magnetic appeal that forced him to act, and to his delight the small indistinct book revealed something he’d never seen before. It’s this singular paragraph that harbors the promise of so much that we allow it to unfold:

It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. Yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself. The use of language in the book was arrantly unnatural and the book’s author unknown. Indeed, the text conveyed the impression of speaking for itself and speaking only to itself, the words flowing together like shadows that were cast by no forms outside the book. But although this volume appeared to be composed in a vernacular of mysteries, its words did inspire a sure understanding and created in their reader a visceral apprehension of the world they described, existing inseparable from it. Could this truly be the invocation of Vastarien, that improbable world to which those gnarled letters on the front of the book alluded? And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous—wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.

Nightmare made normal. This book that neither revealed an object, nor conveyed some symbolic representation of another world, but in fact brought Vastarien and the world together forming a new third object, where both entered into the force of madness and wonder. One would almost want to say that this is a parody of the most extreme idealist quest imaginable, and yet it is different an inversion of that romantic mythos with its death prone heroes such as Shelley’s Alastor. 

Ultimately Vastarien is able to purchase this work and bring it home, a  book that “did not merely describe that strange world but, in some obscure fashion, was a true composition of the thing itself, its very form incarnate”. This notion of a book breaking all the bonds of representationalism, of freeing us from the mediation of language, of symbols, of the infinite traceries of the undecidable realm of false promises and becoming for us the very thing itself we’d sought all those years. This is what Vastarien had found. One has to ask why humans possess the need to quest after such impossible objects. That we lack something, that we are incomplete, that there is a pit, a void in the recesses of our being that forces us to seek amends, to seek an answer to the quandaries of our torn and bleeding heart. This quest for the Absolute. But not a quest for God, not a quest for some simple answer or trope, some all encompassing One that can assuage the pain at the core of our being. No. We will not stand for hand-me-down mythologies of salvation and transition. No transcendental beyond for us, but rather the thing itself.

Of course in the end things do not end well for Vastarien. Locked away in an insane asylum we discover that the interns have daily to inject him with passivators, because he reads and rereads a certain book that will not go away. Oh, no, not they have not tried. They have. But the book always returns to its victim releasing the dark torments that he sought for so long…

This short story reminds us that underneath the veneer of our homely lives lays an order of the unreal, a void of the void, a darker structure of strangeness and disquiet that over millennia of techniques we have managed to build for ourselves a prison house of Reason to fend off and keep at bay the truth of this mad realm. Every once in a while a creature will break through the barriers of this prison of Reason we’ve trapped ourselves in, this normalcy and consensual hallucination of culture and sanity we call modern civilization. If one manages such an act of violence against the order of the real and Reason he/she is quickly imprisoned and barred from the normals, hidden behind professional medical systems and the Law. But in our time the vast prison is crumbling and the light of the unreal has been slowly seeping into our world from the great Outside. Oh, we turn a blind eye to it, we find scapegoats and madmen to fill the chinks and gaps with reasonable explanations and explanada. We hide in our artificial prisons of language and culture and carry on our lives as if the enemy is not us but some false system of religious or philosophical bullshit. We reach out to the sciences to find the answers promised us. We shift our fears of the haunted landscapes from the past to the ever-present threats of war, famine, and apocalypse. The whole genre of children utopian novels, or that of Apocalypse culture seem to bare witness to this as a traversing of the fantasy that is our times. These fears keep our minds preoccupied and allow us to forget the pull of the unreal just below the surface of our artificial climes. We’ve become so enamored of our prison that we’ve forgotten there ever was a great outdoors of Being inhabited by nightmares. Instead we live in a narrow prison of consciousness feeding each other the sincere lies of our immediate and daily lives of survival and propagation. Our keepers patrol the horizon of our world seeking out those who have found the escape routes back into the void, and with the power and dominion of the Law and State they incarcerate and imprison those who are so bold as to offer a vision of the unreal realms. For our world is a tidy and normal world controlled to keep us passivated and herd like in our mental straightjackets. We are the victims of our own success.

Authors like Ligotti hint at the brokenness of our world, open the door onto those strange and misplaced realms we’ve all forgotten except in the deep imaginaries of our nightmares.

A Philosophical Coda

As I was thinking about Ligotti’s tale of the Book that is a World I remembered that congenial author short stories Jorge-Luis Borges (a favorite author!). In one of his most often anthologized stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlön (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every respect from its algebra to its fire, Borges tells us, and of such imaginative power that, once conceived, it begins to obtrude itself into and eventually to supplant our prior reality.2

Borges would hint at the possibility that our universe is itself a regressus in infinitum – and, that we are all repeating the gestures of a circuit that has no outlet (its all been done before!). This illustrates Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which embodies a regressus in infinitum which Borges carries through philosophical history, pointing out that Aristotle uses it to refute Plato’s theory of forms, Hume to refute the possibility of cause and effect, Lewis Carroll to refute syllogistic deduction, William James to refute the notion of temporal passage, and Bradley to refute the general possibility of logical relations. Borges himself uses it, citing Schopenhauer, as evidence that the world is our dream, our idea, in which “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason” can be found to remind us that our creation is false, or at least fictive. It’s in this sense that Ligotti poses the addition or subtraction of the Unreal from the real, that we are all part and partial of an infinite regression into the spurious realms of a universal nightmare of Reason. (see John Barth below)

Thinking through this notion of the breakdown of our worldview, of Zizek’s big Other – the Symbolic Culture we’ve built up over eons to enclose us in a realm of safety and apathy in which our accepted horizon of what is real and unreal, of the commonsense realm of our everyday life that goes without saying, almost a background noise of inertia and total blindness, brought me back to my recent readings in philosophy of how our end game of present society is breaking apart into fragments – a Humpty-Dumpty vision of the crumbling of Western and Eastern and Middle-East civilizations into so many broken pieces that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Which leaves us in this intermediary period of a void, a black hole in the fabric of fictions we’ve been telling ourselves for so many millennia we began to think that it was permanent. Instead we find ourselves being impinged on by other realms, realms of the Real that we had forgotten existed because we were so well policed in our imaginations by the media lords of our age into accepting the truths of philosophy and the sciences as the end-all-be-all of our view of existence. Instead our psychotic break with the past is leaving us in a quandary in which our whole world civilization is at war for a new worldview. Ligotti’s vision of the unreal and existing in the “ruins of the real” hints at this unraveling of the symbolic order that has imprisoned us for so long that it became habit.

So in our paranoid state of fear and trepidation we grasp at any past, any tradition, anything at all that will give us hope from despair, etc., all the while believing we can restore the age old dream of a utopian society of peace and plenty. Instead we produce more friction, more war, suicides, hate, fear, and the mingling of age old superstitions. As the dark waters of the Real seep in from the Great Outdoors of Being we are frightened to death, not understanding that this is needed, that to free ourselves of the burden of our past, our traditions, our prisons we must step out into the ocean of the void and begin again…

Like the Shamans of old Ligotti has seen into this strange new realm of the (Un)Real. The “contamination of reality by dream,” as Borges calls it, or in Ligotti’s tormented pessimism the contamination of the real by nightmares. In one of his other stories Dream of a Mannikin the narrator will hint at the solipsistic nightmare of a self-reflexive universe of despair we’ve all created for ourselves and have become passive and apathetic mannikins:

Contemplating the realm of Miss Locher’s dream, I came to deeply feel that old truism of a solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself. And a corollary to solipsism even occurred to me: if, in any dream of a universe, one has to always allow that there is another, waking universe, then the problem becomes, as with our Chinese sleepyhead, knowing when one is actually dreaming and what form the waking self may have; and this one can never know. The fact that the overwhelming majority of thinkers rejects any doctrine of solipsism suggests the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications. And after all, the horrific feeling of unreality is much more prevalent (to certain people) in what we call human “reality” than in human dreams, where everything is absolutely real.3

This reversal and dialectical move or inversion of the real/unreal in the awakening of many of Ligotti’s anti-protagonists give hint of this underlying theme of the unreal world impinging upon our safe have of utter mindlessness and generative madness. For in this sense as Zizek has repeatedly show Reason is not the obverse of madness but its completed mask.

The narrator in the Sect of the Idiot will offer this

The extraordinary is a province of the solitary soul. Lost the very moment the crowd comes into view, it remains within the great hollows of dreams, an infinitely secluded place that prepares itself for your arrival, and for mine. Extraordinary joy, extraordinary pain—the fearful poles of the world that both menaces and surpasses this one. It is a miraculous hell towards which one unknowingly wanders. And its gate, in my case, was an old town—whose allegiance to the unreal inspired my soul with a holy madness long before my body had come to dwell in that incomparable place.4

Again this opening to the unreal, to those locus miraculous sites of explosion and seeping, those gaps in the contours of our safe world of sleep that harbor doors into the unknown. “No true challenge to the rich unreality of Vastarien, where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world. No horror, no joy was the equal of the abysmally vibrant sensations known in this place that was elsewhere, this spellbinding retreat where all experiences were interwoven to compose fantastic textures of feeling, a fine and dark tracery of limitless patterns. For everything in the unreal points to the infinite, and everything in Vastarien was unreal, unbounded by the tangible lie of existing.”5  This notion of Vastarien as a place, a site of the unreal, a realm apart and away, elsewhere from our everyday mundanity and sleeplessness: our somnambulism and death-drive repetition of safety and mere motionless movement.

Again in the short tale The Mystics of Muelenburg the narrator relates

I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of flimsy posterboard, houses built of colored foam, whole landscapes composed of hair-clippings. His own flesh, he said, was now just so much putty. Needless to add, this acquaintance had deserted the cause of appearances and could no longer be depended on to stick to the common story. Alone he had wandered into a tale of another sort altogether; for him, all things now participated in this nightmare of nonsense. But although his revelations conflicted with the lesser forms of truth, nonetheless he did live in the light of a greater truth: that all is unreal. Within him this knowledge was vividly present down to his very bones, which had been newly simulated by a compound of mud and dust and ashes.6

This openness to the madness of our fake world in which only the madman has returned to tell a tale of the unreal reality of our own world while hinting at the greater truth of another realm situated not just beyond appearances (which is still the old Platonic two-world hash), but of this world seen as it truly is from a new perspective. The mad poet William Blake once sang of this:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The narrator in Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel explains how fragile our supposed real world of common sense reality truly is, saying,

How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged—pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed tablecovers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together.7

Again we ask is the Kant re-written from the perspective of a critique of pure reason, but rather of a critique of pure madness? And if we see within the confines of this critique the maps of a world which is ours seen not through the safe eyes of Reason but through the indirect appeal – not of unreason, but of the unreal itself, then could we say that our world is itself the very thing, the book, the place and site of the Unreal? There being no Platonic other world, no safe haven beyond appearances, but rather the appearance of appearance as manifest madness. But then what is this madness that Reason fears? If madness is the ground of Reason, and Reason is itself a form of and horizon of madness, then is it possible that Reason is but the attempt to bind with magical force the power of the Unreal surrounding us?

Another mad poet Arthur Rimbaud would apprehend this at a youthful age then renounce the path, but before living on into a dead world he would write:

“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown! ….So the poet is actually a thief of Fire!” (see)

This combination of criminal, accursed one, and scholar brought into unison seems apt for Ligotti as well. A slow and methodical derangement of the senses that bind us to the culture of Reason, the big Other and Symbolic Order of the real in which we are imprisoned suddenly falling away revealing a realm of torment and paradisial wonder. And, yet, even the average citizen of this faded dream of the Real can still stumble upon those places of power that lead to the Unreal:

For there are certain places that exist on the wayside of the real: a house, a street, even entire towns which have claims upon them by virtue of some nameless affinity with the most remote orders of being. They are, these places, fertile ground for the unreal and retain the minimum of immunity against exotic disorders and aberrations. Their concessions to a given fashion of reality are only placating gestures, a way of stifling it through limited acceptance.8

A sort of minimalism of our current prison world in which the lineaments of the unreal shine through, but only through the very protected power of the inhabitants of this borderland of the unknown. In fact the “citizens of such a place are custodians of a rare property, a precious estate whose true owners are momentarily absent. All that remains before full proprietorship of the land may be assumed is the planting of a single seed and its nurturing over a sufficient period of time, an interval that has nothing to do with the hours and days of the world.”9

A final quote:

No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.

—Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco

 


  1. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory  Kindle Edition.
  2. John Barth. The Friday Book (Kindle Locations 1452-1456). G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Kindle Edition.
  3. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 1080-1086). Kindle Edition.
  4. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 2992-2997). Kindle Edition.
  5. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 3541-3545). Kindle Edition.
  6. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 5285-5291). Kindle Edition.
  7. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7407-7411). Kindle Edition.
  8. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7878-7881). Kindle Edition.
  9. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7883-7885). Kindle Edition.

Graham Harman: A Theory of Everything

“To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.”

― Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger believed it was necessary to think one thought and one thought only, and to think it through to the end. Having just read Graham Harman’s latest fare Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything I’m reminded Heidegger’s dictum. After a foray into modern physics and its reputed search for a theory of everything, which during the late 80’s and 90’s became a sort of popular fad among layman and scientists alike, with String Theory becoming the obvious front runner for many theoretical and mathematically inclined participants because of its elegance. In the end nothing much came of it other than more mathematical conundrums and endless debates. The sceptics and such scientists as Lee Smolin would see in this utter acceptance of String Theory as the end-all be-all theory that would someday provide such an objective truth-bearing report as utter non-sense, and that putting all one eggs in one basket and filling the minds of graduate students with a baseless non-experimentalism gone awry would in the end produce a form of end game for the sciences.

Harman for his part will attack any such Theory-of-Everything as baseless from another angle, philosophy. For Harman – using a fictitious scientist named Browne – there are four false assumptions to be addressed. Taking his que from Brian Green a popularizer and commentator of the various trends in String Theory who tells us that ‘if you … believe that we should not rest until we have a theory whose range of applicability is limitless, string theory is the only game in town,’1 Harman relates the false assumptions as follows, and then addresses them:

  1. everything that exists must be physical
  2. everything that exists must be basic and simple
  3. everything that exists must be real
  4. everything that exists must be able to be stated accurately in literal propositional language

Harman will of course dispute each of these assumptions and ultimately remind us that the four major pitfalls faced by such a theory are: physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism and literalism.2 The he’ll go on to relate that OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology)  rigorously avoids these intellectual toxins. As he relates it for the “object-oriented thinker, physical objects are just one kind of object among many others, and hence we should not be in a hurry to scorn or ‘eliminate’ those that are not a good fit with a hardnosed materialist worldview” (p. 39). Harman’s notion of materialism here should be differentiated from that of such philosophers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s dialectical materialism. Harman is singling out scientific materialism rather than these other strains. As Harman puts it (and I quote in length):

Philosophy is not the handmaid of materialism any more than of religion. Against smallism, object-oriented thought holds that objects exist at numerous different scales, including the electron, the molecule, the Dutch East India Company and the galaxy. The mere fact of complexity and largeness does not make something less real than its component parts. Next, we should be in no hurry to flush fictional objects out of existence, since any philosophy worthy of the name must be able to say something positive about such beings. And remember that by ‘fictional’ I do not just mean the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Emma Woodhouse, but also the everyday houses and hammers that we seem to encounter directly, but which we perceive in the manner of simplified models of the real houses and hammers to which we can never gain direct access. And finally, OOO is anti-literalist, because any literal description, literal perception, or literal causal interaction with the thing does not give us that thing directly, but only a translation of it. Hence, an indirect or oblique means of access to reality is in some ways a wiser mode of access than any amount of literal information about it. (p. 40)

So that for OOO a notion of scales, indirect access, and anti-literalism are earmarks of philosophical stance. As part of this stance Harman relates three  notions he uses to defend his position from certain other forms of philosophical speculation: Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining. As Harman emphasized in his work on Dante the underminer is a thinker who eliminates objects by telling us what they are made of; the overminer gets rid of them by telling us how they appear or what they do; the duominer does both at once.

What all three of these miners miss is the real object that remains what it is despite all of the intellectual methods that aim at abolishing it. It is my contention that this anti-mining current in philosophy goes back not just to the substantial forms of the Middle Ages, but as far back as the Socratic disclaimer that only a god can have knowledge, and that human aspiration should aim instead at a love of the real.4

Another objection to Harman’s use of Objects came from the materialist realist Manuel Delanda who did not understand why Harman ‘wants to stick to objects’ while ignoring events. Harman for his part saw no conflict seeing an event as just one more object among many, saying that the only criterion for OOO is that “an object is more than its pieces and less than its effects” (p. 53).

If one has read Harman’s previous works we discover that in his first book Tool-Being the central thesis was that objects exist in utter isolation from all others, packed into secluded private vacuums. But that this was only half the story, and that in his second work Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things he would show how utterly isolated or withdrawn objects ever make contact with others, or how relations and events are possible despite the existence of vacuum-sealed objects or tool-beings. To do this he introduced the notion of vicarious causation derived from a combination of the Occasionalism philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche and his Arab pre-cursors on through Leibniz and others. As he related it there any “philosophy that makes an absolute distinction between substances and relations will inevitably become a theory of vicarious causation, since there will be no way for the substances to interact directly with one another”.4

Without going into the details of Real Objects vs. Sensual Objects etc. the notion of vicarious causation has a simplicity to it that one could mistake and overlook:

according to this theory, two real objects in the world make contact not through direct impact, but only by way of the fictional images they present to each other. One real rock strikes the sensual version of another, in such a way that there are retroactive effects on the real. This is what OOO calls vicarious causation. (p. 165)

This notion that two rocks come into contact with each other by indirectly presenting ‘fictional images’ to one another may sound absurd and trite to the average layman but the key is in this notion of retroactive effects on the real. If anything Harman is a philosopher of the real rather than knowledge. Following Socrates example Harman disputes that philosophy every gains knowledge, instead it is a pursuit of the love of wisdom rather than its attainment that matters to Harman as to Socrates. Knowledge for Harman will always be incomplete as is our universe, because there is no One, no external stable object that can literally every be put into some linguistic or mathematical formula. Why? Because the universe is processual and incomplete, an ongoing object and force whose relations are not all connected but in movement and withdrawn into subterranean processes that can never be lifted into a completed totality.  There being no totality, no ground, no Outside.

Against the religious occasionalism of the line streaming from Malebranche through the idealists Harman will discover in Bruno Latour a new twist in presenting a secular occasionalism in which real and sensual objects interact – or in the case of mind/body dualism etc. – through a vanishing mediator. This process of composition and decomposition between objects takes place in a new object formed for the duration of the interaction between the two objects. It’s this temporary vicarious relation or “compositional sense of causation is the primary one, since it holds that any relation between separate things produces a new composite object” (p. 168).

I don’t have time to go over every aspect of Harman’s book in this post, and would ruin the reader’s experience of delving into it whether one agrees or disagrees. The book is more of a summary and redefining of Harman’s previous work. As he will relate it himself:

As is always the case in an ancient discipline like philosophy, not all of the ideas of OOO are new, though they are deployed in new combinations and applied to subjects philosophers have often neglected. Some of the basic principles of OOO, to be visited in detail in the coming chapters, are as follows: (1) All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional. (2) Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. (3) Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual. (6) These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence and eidos. (7) Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science. (p. 9)

For me philosophers mis-read or mis-prision each other to present new and innovative readings of  past philosophy and form new concepts, ideas, and in Harman’s case tropes and metaphors. There is no correct philosophy or correct reading of philosophy only more interesting interpolations and the emergence of new forms, the pursuit of wisdom being endless and the purveyors of such thought endlessly challenging themselves and others to think about life and experience. It’s all in the stance a philosopher takes up within the history of this ongoing debate about the real that is most interesting in each and every thinker, philosopher, scientist, literary worker etc. that concerns me. It will never end, and the debates between literalist and anti-literalist stances will probably go on forever unless the Law or Police of culture step in and outlaw it. Till then we have as many philosophies as we do humans to take up the task. Harman’s is always of interest for its clarity, precision, and acumen. He knows his history, he knows his enemies, and he has that humor and magnanimity that one needs to survive the onslaught of attacks in such an age of dispute as ours.


  1. Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (p. 21). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid., p. 39.
  3. Harman, Graham. Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (p. 277). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  4. Harman, Graham. Dante’s Broken Hammer (Kindle Locations 2269-2273). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.
  5. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 2). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

 

The Impossible Subject: Semantic Apocalypse and the Naturalist

The subject is the frame/ form/ horizon of his world and part of the framed content (of the reality it observes), and the problem is that it cannot see or locate itself within its own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible.

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

Sometimes a truth is so simple that it goes without saying, and yet we say it as if we could actually bring together the virtual backdrop or stage machinery and the mind-consciousness aware only of the staged scene of the actual appearances before us. Much like those parodied cityscapes of Disney where the buildings are fake plasterboard art ensembles presented as the real thing. We will accept fake over real, illusion over actual, representation over substance every time. Street and stage magicians have known this for a long while: humans are easily duped. This separation of consciousness from its impossible other side is like the proverbial mobius strip upon which one traces the universe only to arrive back at the still point from which one started without knowing it. We all run this circuit of neglect (R. Scott Bakker) in which we’re trapped trying to apprehend the kernel of consciousness (Subject/Self/Awareness), thinking we can actually explain it as if it were an external object with a myriad of properties, when in fact it is – as Zizek would put it, the very frame/form/horizon and part of the framed content it would explain through observation. An impossible situation wouldn’t you say? Consciousness will never be explained because we will forever be blind to the frame within which we are all trapped. We will forever explain only our own ignorance of the impossible object. Why? Because we can never get out of the frame and see it from some Archimedean point of external advantage. So why continue to explore this impossible object?

In many ways what we as humans are experiencing in this age of social psychosis is what my friend R. Scott Bakker has harped on for years: the Semantic Apocalypse; or, as Zizek would put it the death of the Big Other. The horizon of human knowledge has returned to its beginning in absolute ignorance and failure. As Bakker puts it: “We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.” What Nietzsche spoke of a hundred years ago as nihilism is and the death of God is the wiping of the slate of knowing in the bath of this ignorance. Awakening to our failure is the first step in realizing that all our human learning is itself broken much like the fabled king Humpty-Dumpty whose fall into a thousand fragments could never be put back into place… ever.

The question is: What do we do now? If we are caught in the circle of our own ignorance and error, blind to the very truth of our world and ourselves, how to proceed? What next? For Scott it is simple humanity lacks “any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience”. So is this what we need a naturalistic theory of meaning or experience? Wouldn’t this be to fall into another loop of error? The term “naturalistic” is the key here. A trope covering over the whole gamut of scientific prejudice (harking back to Enlightenment pretensions!) that the world can be understood in terms of science. And as we know this term of science or Scientia as the etymologists will tell us:

mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, split” (source also of Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old English sceadan “to divide, separate”).

From late 14c. in English as “book-learning,” also “a particular branch of knowledge or of learning;” also “skillfulness, cleverness; craftiness.” From c. 1400 as “experiential knowledge;” also “a skill, handicraft; a trade.” From late 14c. as “collective human knowledge” (especially that gained by systematic observation, experiment, and reasoning). Modern (restricted) sense of “body of regular or methodical observations or propositions concerning a particular subject or speculation” is attested from 1725; in 17c.-18c. this concept commonly was called philosophy. Sense of “non-arts studies” is attested from 1670s.

So that it returns us to the collective enterprise of human learning and knowledge. And relies on certain metaphysical presuppositions and concepts that go without saying. This notion of to know, to cut, rend, cleave, divide, and separate out through skill, handicraft, theory, observation all contribute to this naturalist perspective. And, yet, it too is still within the horizon of human ignorance and belief for all Scott’s hearty promotion of his Blind Brain Theory. Just another fiction of the human mind seeking to stabilize and render the Real real. 

Of course my observations of Bakker’s notions are a caricature of his own well-thought out theory of meaning and experience and we hope that someday he will actually put it into book form for us to peruse. At the moment all we have is Three Pound Brain and the myriad of critical forays into such a work. What we are really saying is that we all fall into that error that we have the truth, as if truth was Truth in the big sense of some objective thing we could all come together and agree to agree upon, a consensus (as in the very sense of what scientists do all the time). But all this is a sort of working set of mind-tools, agreements, and – shall we say it, lies that help us get on with what we are all doing in our silos of ignorance and bliss. This is not to dispute or be in disagreement with this process, because as we all know it works, it produces not only theoretical and practical knowledge that in actuality gets the job done, but as in all things it allows us to share it in a communal silo of knowledge that others can immerse themselves in and produce further observations and knowledge. This is just the state of ignorance working with an impossible object: the universe of nature and mind.

What the Semantic Apocalypse truly entails is the collapse of a two-thousand year project of humanism. The pretensions that all our accumulated knowledge would produce some stable and unified worldview from which we could then create a utopian society based on science and knowledge as stable and unchanging. In humanism humans became the be-all end-all of this project, gods in their own right sitting atop the palace of creation as masters and rulers of the universe etc., as if we were the pinnacle of creation rather than just another creature born in ignorance and error. Humanism made humans exceptional. This exceptionalism in life, ethics, religion, thought put humans at the center of a grand narrative in which everything in the universe revolved around humanities project. All our politics, ethics, and practical systems could then align themselves to this Theory-of-everything, etc. The Truth would have been explained once and for all. It’s this dream that is falling apart because the object it sought to explain: mind and universe are not complete objective things we could place into our systems of knowledge, but rather are impossible objects that are both incomplete (processual and changing) and unstable, without ground or objective correlates. The objects we sought to explain were always and already lost, escaping our pretensions of science and humanistic learning.

This is not to belittle the humanism of our forefathers, nor to castigate the dream of philosophy. Rather what we have to admit is that we are still locked in this dream without a way out, there being no point beyond the horizon of our own ignorance and learning, no advantageous spot outside the system. Because the mind and universe encompass and form the frame/form/horizon of all we are and know, our ignorance is our knowledge. What to do? What we have always done: move the furniture around, discover new ways to talk/speak the old problems and discover variants on the ignorance and errors of our ancestors. Much like Herman Hesse’s excellent anti-Utopian book on the utopian society of the Glass Bead Game.

Of course such a society of scholars, scientists, philosophers, specialists, historians, literary writers, etc. is all hypothetical. All living in harmony seeking universal knowledge, playing their symbolic game within a utopian world separated from the common run-of-the-mill life of the ordinary citizens who live in misery and decay while these men and women of the elite, the crème-de-la-crème live out their lives in a secular existence based on those religious monastic systems of yesteryear. All this is a parody of past hopes and dreams. Hesse’s is as much about the semantic apocalypse as any other great tale, all rendered as if he were in fact promoting it rather than critiquing its fantasy. Hesse was shrewd in this regard and had in letters to Thomas Mann who praised this work iterated as much that is was a pure parody of such pretentious ideology in both Christian and Secular humanistic goals and systems which he’d studied for most of his adult life and abandoned.

Zizek in his rehabilitation of Hegel not as absolute idealist but rather as dialectical materialist (or rather how Zizek misprisions Hegel into a new more interesting distortion) reminds us:

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject’s objectivizing himself: the subject is singular and the universal frame of “his world,” for every content he perceives is “his own”; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) in the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].”1

We’ve all gone mad now. Is there a way out?

Maybe the truth is that madness is always a possibility, a pre-supposition of the human rather to be overcome continually. Or, as Zizek quoting Hegel suggests:

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as “normal” subjects, which means that “normality” can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel puts it a couple of pages later, “insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition.” (ibid.)

To put it is Bakker’s terms we only ever have our blindness – our ignorance and medial neglect to work with, we are immersed in it, it is the field of force within which we are trapped. Zizek’s big Other… the realm of collective and shared knowledge, learning, symbolic power and domination we have so willingly objectified in the sciences, culture, politics, etc. We’ve all agreed to pretend to pretend this realm is universal and not to be impugned: it has become invisible to us as fiction, and has taken on the contours of Truth and Habit. So that in Scott’s terms any future theory of meaning will be presented in naturalistic terms because this is the invisible frame of our current worldview.

In conclusion I quote or mis-quote Zizek rendering the definition of a madman “as a subject unable to participate in this logic of “sincere lies””. Maybe this is our truth today, that we are all at heart part and partial of the private and social madness of our psychotic age, unable to participate in the logic of sincere lies and get on with the business of living together on a planet within which we are all ignorant, blind, and immersed in our own fallible truths. Or, as Hegel would put it in a grandiloquent passage:

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity— an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him— or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here— pure self— in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head— there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye— into a night that becomes awful.2

 


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8052-8059). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. G. W. F. Hegel, “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” in Frühe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, Albany: SUNY Press 1985, pp. 7– 8.

Slumps

Every writer – or thinker for that matter, goes through cycles and peaks, slumps and empty zones. Not so much the slough of despond as it is the deep vale of lying fallow, of letting the seeds of so many years lay untended in the deep earth of the mind to work out their renewal without the aid of consciousness. I’ve been in one of those sloughs for months, knowing that I could write daily but it would be of little import. One needs to tend these periods of blankness attentively. It’s usually a prelude to a rising tempest of creativity to come. One cannot push out of such times to quickly, but must instead allow for that deep pressure of the mind to work its power in silence and strength. I will return, it will return: this power of the mind that pressures us to create, to think, to explore.

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 ever 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

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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