Nick Land: Libidinal Materialism vs. Physicalism

Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is  nothing but a scorch mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.

– Nick Land, A Thirst For Annihilation

At the heart of the physicalist’s prejudice is an implicit theological core, says Nick Land. Devoid of the trappings of theology Physicalism, none the less, returns us to its hidden center: a regression to the first cause (38). The basic motto of the physicalist is –  “There is nothing over and above the physical.” Donald Davidson in his formulation of anomalous monism coined this phrase, which holds that, although there is nothing over and above the physical, our mental states cannot neatly be identified with our brain states, or subsumed under physical laws. The problem of Physicalism is the problem of meaning: What do we mean by the physical? Philosophers are spread to varying extremes as to how to define this concept. We have many and various approaches to this from theory based to token based to object based conceptions, as well as reductive and non-reductive approaches.

Land provides a critique against a form of Physicalism based in externalist theoretic which is both reductive and intrinsic in its approach to matter as a passive substance which is “exhausted by the dual characteristics of transmitting alien forces and decaying according to the universally legislated exigencies of composition” (38). Land offers against such a reductionist ploy an alternative non-reductionist account based on non-linear dynamics and complexity theory which follow Boltzmann’s thermodynamics toward an “absolutely improbable negentropy” (38). Using Boltzmann’s non-reductive theoretic Land tells us it offers the only “conceivable physicalistic atheism, at least if the second law of thermodynamics is to be maintained” (39). The point being that it posits that the probabilistic nature of our universe supports the notion of a far-from-equilibrium state theory as we see around us in the universe, which suggests the reality of negentropy rather than theological assumptions regarding first causes best explains the probabilistic manifestation of our universe today.

I’ll not go into the depths of Boltzmann’s theories as Land does in his book. Instead will reveal the notion that marks his libidinal materialism as both non-reductive and incorporates the notion of drive:

Libidinal matter is that which resists a relation of reciprocal transcendence against time, and departs from the rigorous passivity of the physical substance without recourse to dualistic, idealistic, or theistic conceptuality. It implies a process of mutation which is simultaneously devoid of agency and irreducible to the causal chain. (41)

Following Schopenhauer and Nietzsche he develops a theory of causation based on the drives, but one that is explanatory of the cause/effect coupling of classical physics but does not presuppose it. His conception is that the “drives are the irruptive dynamics of matter in advance of natural law.” Against vitalist notions of the drives such as panpsychism or panexperentialism which are based on theological notions Land offers instead a theoretic based on thermodynamics which is purely materialist based in approach and practice. This new energetic research program is based on four essential concepts: Chance, Tendency, Energy, and Information. As he states it chance: entropy is the core of a probabilistic engine, the absence  of law as an automatic drive (42). Tendency: the movement from improbable to the probable is an automatic directionality; an impulsion (it is not purpose driven, there is not intentionality connected to this impulsion) (42). Energy: everywhere only a quantitative vocabulary (“The nature of the intelligible cosmos is energetic improbability, a differentiation from entropy” 42). Information: the laborious pieties of the Geisteswissenschaften; signs, thoughts, ideologies, cultures, dreams, all of these suddenly intelligible as natural forces, as negentropies (42). He terms the process the thermospasm, the ineluctable down-hill slide toward chaos, death, equilibrium; yet, far from this dark Tohu Bohu is the local districts of our energetic system full of dynamic flux that is the “receipt of information – of intensity – carried downstream” (43).

Against a reading that would see libidinal materialism as thermodynamics he tells us that we must realize that it has no ontology, it does not predicate any substantial or subsistent being: in “contrast to the energy of physical thermodynamics, libidinal energy is chaotic, or pre-ontological” (43). There is no sense of a science and ontology of energy, particles, space/time dynamics, etc. instead there is only ever utter “chaos and composition” (43). Being is an effect of chaos rather than the first cause stabilized in some ungrounded ground. With a theory of composition at the core of this there is no sense of a substantial formalism involved, there are only layers and degrees of being as becoming, as process not some static fixed ratio of solid Being.

Instead of the path of a Badiou or Meillassoux in Land there is an aspersion to the mathematization of reality, so that he follows Nietzsche and formulates a compositional energetics based on three qualifiers or axes of thought. Against the logic of mathematization based on the logic of same, equal to, and identical he offers a compositional framework: of types, varieties, species, and regularities. As he explains:

The power to conserve, transmit, circulate, and enhance compositions, the power that is assimilated in the marking, reserving, and appropriating of compositions, and the power released in the disinhibition, dissipation, and Dionysian unleashing of compositions. Beyond essentializing philosophies lies art, as the irrepressible flux of compositions, the interchange between excitation and communication. (44)

Second, he explores the ramifications of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence within an energetics compositional framework which is “stretched between a thermodynamics  baseline and a libidinal summit, a theoretical machine for transmuting ontologico-scientific discoveries into excitations” (44). Third, a “general theory of hierarchies, of order as rank-order (compositions)” (45). The defeat of scientism and Kantian internalism is at hand, now history returns with a vengeance but no longer bound to the limits of a singular process, instead the clock moves in all directions in multiplicity. And, finally, a latter day diagnosis of nihilism, of the weariness of dead souls, of the dark hinterlands of desire caught in the meshes of Plato and Christianity.

Against Lacan and those who fold the belly of the whale in lack, gaps, intention, or representation Land returns us to Freud whose “dissipative energetic flows” inhibited only by the secondary processes of the reality principle. Riding on a neo-stoicism of pleasure/pain Freud gave us the kernel of zero politics of desire. He exposes the usual diagnosis that Freud’s theory and his practice were in opposition, that his practice led to repression and ultimate alliance with the destructive tendencies of the drives in support of the illusionary apparatus of the ego. It is at this point in the cycle of Freud’s musing that he comes upon his unique metapsychological insight: the goal of life is death; yet, it is not a straight line, a zero point dive into the abyss, no it is a maze [Umwege] a subtle circumnavigation of the treacherous dance above the abyss:

Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mould upon death. This crust is also a maze – a complex exit back to the energy base-line – and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself, being nothing but escape from itself, from which it tries to escape: maze-wanderer. That is to say, life is itself the maze of its route to death; a tangle of mazings which trace a unilateral deviation from blank. (47)

Land asks: “What is the source of the ‘decisive external influences’ that propel the mazings of life, if not the sun?” This notion of the Solar Economy, the economy of the Sun as life’s mazing seems to thread itself through much of Land and Bataille’s writings. As Land states it:

Bataille interprets all natural and cultural developments upon the earth to be side-effects of the evolution of death, because it is only in death that life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss. (45)

Land remarks that for Bataille the truth of Capitalism is not to be found in Marxian analysis, but in the simple notion that the failure of capitalism is to be found in its very success. That its own severe overproduction and commodification of reality, people, territory forces it into overdrive, an accelerated vacuum, a zero point continuum:

Bataille, in contrast, does not see a problem for production in the perpetual reproduction of excess, but rather, in a manner marking the most radical discontinuity in respect to classical political economy, sees production itself as intrinsically problematic precisely insofar as it succeeds.(46)


Addendum: The major point I’m trying to make is that many confuse Land for promoting or espousing Virulent Nihilism when in fact his critique of Kantianism and its traditions shows that it is the romantic, idealist, etc. systems of transcendental thought that actually leads to this form of nihilism based on the false notions of finitude and self that continue to this day. As he says over and over our investment in finitude is the problem, not the solution: we are the virulent nihilists who seem to wallow in the morbidities of the heat death of the universe and our trivial lives within it. Whereas for Land as for his reading of Bataille, death has no sting, its all a matter of “scales” of “strata” of layers in our ontological capacity to know. “Being would be other to death – either annihilated by it or left immaculate – were there not scales”.

“What could be more pitiful than the romantics with their sobs of aspiration?” Land asks.

In his logic:

Humanism: capitalism and patriarchy is the same thing as our prison.

Personalism (property, sovereignty of self, etc.): is a trap because to believe that some of what one was holding onto will be taken care of by another being is irreligion.

What lies beyond humanism and personalism, the traps of capitalism bound to the theological ‘first cause’ (God), or the hope that we will be saved from ourselves (Personalism)? Something else… yet, to be defined. This was Land’s book against the contemporary cesspool of both Continental and Analytic philosophy. Finitude: the contraction of death to a humanistic and personal confrontation, a mythological distillation of some allegorical tale of good and evil belies the truth of science which brings us instead the cold zero blankness of the heat death of the universe, the dark impenetrable mazings of light that cannot escape the black hole. The inhuman gaze that is neither human nor alien at the edge of the universe is the abyss of which Nietzsche once said: “…when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you.” Death: the mask of what can no longer be thought or spoken: the goal of life. Neither pessimism nor optimism, not even the virulent nihilism of one who dances on graves can contain this thought. Death is the zero of meaning. Yet, and this is the most important point: death is the repetition of the One and the Same, the end point of that ‘first cause’, therefore it is illusion, too. But that is another tale…

4 thoughts on “Nick Land: Libidinal Materialism vs. Physicalism

  1. You capture skillfully the Nietzschean zeal fueling Land’s book on Bataille. Here’s a link to my brief July 2009 remarks about Land’s book. The discussion thread features a couple of commenters who knew Land from his Warwick/CCRU heyday. The fiery rhetoric is not to be denied. It is curious that, while Land explicitly rejects the “mathematization of reality” in the book, he was (and still is, I believe), an enthusiastic adept in the practice of various forms of esoteric numerological mysticism.


    • thanks… yes, his essays in the book Brassier edited have a number of examples of number magick in the old sense… but there is a difference, I do not believe he believed that math could describe our mundane reality, but did believe it was a sort of cosmic communication system much like those Renaissance Magus’s who dabbled in the occult sciences – as they called them: even Newton wandered into this:

      ** You’re link didn’t seem to take… might be wordpress thing, security? **


  2. Pingback: The Mutant Prophet of Inhuman Accelerationism: Nick Land and his Legacy | dark ecologies

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