The Nemocentric Vision: Thomas Ligotti

Technology is now an invasive component of agency.”
     – Ray Brassier, Genre is Obsolete

“We now arrive at a maximally simple metaphysical position with regard to selves: No such things as selves exist in the world. At least their existence does not have to be presupposed in any rational and truly explanatory theory.”
– Thomas Metzinger, Being No One

Thomas Metzinger in his now classic, Being No One, tells us that selves do not exist and that the “phenomenal selfhood originates in a lack of attentional, subsymbolic self-knowledge. Phenomenal transparency is a special kind of darkness.”[1] He goes on, saying,

“Perhaps unfortunately, the responsibility of academic philosophy also consists in telling people what they don’t want to hear. Biological evolution is not something to be glorified. It is blind, driven by chance, and it has no mercy. In particular, it is a process that exploits and sacrifices individuals. As soon as individual organisms start to consciously represent themselves as individuals, this fact will inevitably be reflected in countless facets on the level of phenomenal experience itself. Therefore, defining our own goals involves emancipating ourselves from this evolutionary process, which, over millions of years, has shaped the microfunctional landscape of our brains and the representational architecture of our conscious minds.”[2]

He goes on to tell us that it is time to take on the conscious responsibility for the evolution of our minds as a continuation of the Enlightenment project (ibid. p. 633). As soon as we realize that the “phenomenal characteristics of selfhood” result from the “transparency of the systems model – a new dimension opens up” (ibid. p. 634). If we do this we can, at least in principle, wake up from our biological history. “One can grow up, define one’s own goals, and become autonomous. And one can start talking back to Mother Nature, elevating her self-conversation to a new level” (ibid. p. 634).

The central dictum of this “systems model” is founded on the concept that the “phenomenal self is not a thing, but a process – and the subjective experience of being someone emerges if a conscious information processing system operates under a transparent self-model.”[3] James Trafford commenting on this transparent self-model in Collapse IV tells us that the “phenomenal self comes about through a ‘special form of epistemic darkness’ – essentially, the inability of the subject to represent the conditions of its own intuitions.”[4] This “epistemic darkness” is explained as a kind of opacity that Metzinger analyzes, saying,

“‘With regard to the phenomenology of visual experience transparency means that we are not able to see something, because it is transparent. We don’t see the window but only the bird flying by. Phenomenal transparency in general, however, means that something particular is not accessible to subjective experience, namely, the representational character of the contents of conscious experience.”[5]

Ultimately we are bound to an illusionary sense of subjectivity, one in which the “object ‘man’ consists of tightly packed layers of simulation, for which naive realism becomes a necessary prophylactic in order to ward off the terror concomitant with the destruction of our intuitions regarding ourselves and our status in the world: ‘conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself’.”[6] To explain this sense of enslavement Trafford quotes a passage from Thomas Ligotti’s I Have a Special Plan For This World: ‘There are no people, nothing at all like that, the human phenomenon is but the sum of densely coiled layers of illusion, each of which winds itself upon the supreme insanity that there are persons of any kind.’[7]

Trafford explicating on Ligotti’s concepts tells us that the phenomenal world and subjectivity are two movements in the irrealist matrix in which “the subject’s passive dispossession of self-consciousness, and the ‘enlightenment of inanity’ are seen as a double movement that “unmasks the reality within which the characters have always been.”[8] Because of Ligotti’s rejection of the supernatural there is a complete breakdown of our access to both subjectivity and the real; his writing style, based as it is on a sense of ascesis – which Walter Pater once expressed as a form of “self-restraint, a skillful economy of means”, leads us into his conceptual mythology of Puppets, which Trafford tells us “figures as the insensate and sub-personal reality hidden beneath the ‘mindless mirrors’ of our naive reality. Puppets function as ‘conduits to the unreal’, through whose agency hallucinatory phenomenality bleeds into a simultaneous concretisation of the oneiric. Life is played out as an inescapable puppet show, an endless dream in which the puppets are generally unaware that they are trapped within a mesmeric dance of whose mechanisms they know nothing, and over which they have no control.”[9] Trafford continues, saying, the “puppet is not merely an mocking parody of man, it is the unmasking of the animate face of insensate reality, the unveiling of the inexorable mechanics of the personal…”(ibid. p. 201).  Ligotti’s nightmare world is neither phenomenological, empirical, nor based on any transcendental idealism of the Kantian variety but is non-correlationist in that the real is “‘positively’ senseless, rigorously disabling any attempt to provide reality with substantive or ideal foundations by irreversibly severing its reciprocity with the pretensions of subjective thought.”[10]

Ray Brassier in an interview tells us that he is “rather more interested in experience-less subjects. Another name for this would be ‘nemocentrism’ (a term coined by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger): the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where.”[11] Ligotti’s rejection of both the “Big Other” – any sense of a puppet-master behind the hidden folds of reality; as well as his rejection of empirical realism leads toward this nemocentric turn, and as Trafford tell us “Ligotti can no more assume the existence of an extant and hypostatised nature than he can assume the necessary constancy of presence. The transcendental illusion exposed by Metzinger is expanded into a total disparity between the interests of life and the reality that life finds itself within. The secure foundations of the phenomenal and the real dissolve, not into a universal solipsism, but into a rigorous realism; ‘it is not, in the end, a replacement of the real world by the unreal, but a sort of turning the real world inside out to show that it was unreal all along’.[12]

Ligotti’s rejection of the post-Kantian tradition is absolute. His rejection of any humanism whatsoever, and its belief in the sovereignty of the Self, and his utter rejection of the correlationist tradition of a two-world system based upon the combined self/world connection in either its ‘weak correlationist’ or ‘strong correlationist’ stances(see note*), leads to Ligotti’s nemocentric stance: “the absolute indifference of the real to the human and the personal through a metaphysical irrealism in which he disentangles appearances from both sufficient reason and originary manifestation by severing the nomological isomorphism of appearances and their substrate.”[13] Trafford goes on to tell us that Ligotti’s naturalisation of the neurotechnological puppet-dance of life ends in the “realisation that underlying our parochial self-conceit is the impersonal reality of the meat-puppet,” and that “the objectivation of the world indicates its real condition, unveiling the inexorable mechanics of appearances as a prospect of hideous insanity – a hall of mindless mirrors unbound from the densely coiled layers of illusion that characterise the interests of life and the physiology of thought.”[14] Trafford summing up this dark gnosis of a post-Kantian sublime tells us that meanwhile “cognitive protectionism and organic enslavement ensure the oneiric aphasia of the shadow of the puppet dance”(ibid. p. 206), quoting Ligotti,

“To know, to understand in the fullest sense, is to plunge into an enlightenment of inanity, a wintry landscape of memory whose substance is all shadows and a profound awareness of the infinite spaces surrounding us on all sides. Within this space we remain suspended only with the aid of strings that quiver with our hopes and our horrors, and which keep us dangling over the gray void. How is it that we can defend such puppetry, condemning any efforts to strip us of these strings? The reason, one must suppose, is that nothing is more enticing, nothing more vitally idiotic, than our desire to have a name – even if it is the name of a stupid little puppet – and to hold on to this name throughout the long ordeal of our lives, as if we could hold on to it forever. If only we could keep those precious strings from growing frayed and tangled, if only we could keep from falling into an empty sky, we might continue to pass ourselves off under our assumed names and perpetuate our puppet’s dance throughout all eternity.”

– T. Ligotti, ‘A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing’ in In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land (London: Durtro, 1997).

1. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (2003 Massachusetts Institute of Technology) p. 632
2. ibid. p. 633.
3. T. Metzinger, ‘Response to “A Self Worth Having”: A Talk With Nicholas Humphrey’, at the (2003).
4. The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood, John Trafford (Collapse IV May, 2008) p. 193.
5.ibid. Metzinger, Being No-One, 169. Metzinger elucidates this point: ‘We do not have the feeling of living in a three-dimensional film or in an inner representational space: in standard situations our conscious life always takes place in the world. We do not experience our conscious field as a cyberspace generated by our brain, but simply as reality itself, with which we are in contact in a natural and unproblematic way. In standard situations the contents of pure experience are subjectively given in a direct and seemingly immediate manner. It is precisely in this sense that we can say: they are infinitely close to us.’ (Metzinger, ‘The Problem of Consciousness’ , 11-2).
6. ibid. John Trafford p. 200.
7. ibid. John Trafford p. 200.
8. ibid. John Trafford p. 201.
9. ibid. John Trafford p. 201-202.
10. ibid. John Trafford p. 203.
11. Interview With Ray Brassier – Against an Aesthetics of Noise (nY#2 2009).
12. ibid. John Trafford p. 203.
13. ibid. John Trafford p. 204.
14. ibid. John Trafford p. 206.

*Note: whereas the weak correlationist (Kant) says that there is a thing-in-itself that we can’t know because of epistemic dependence, the strong correlationist (Heidegger and Wittgenstein) say that the very notion of a thing-in-itself makes no sense because of epistemic dependence

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