Théophile Gautier: Posthuman Decadence and the Philosophy of Closure


…where is the image for longing? – A.R. Ammons

“Travel is perhaps a dangerous element to introduce into your life, for if some circumstance or duty prevents you from leaving, it profoundly disturbs you and causes distress like that of birds of passage held prisoner at the time of their migration. You realize that you will expose yourself to fatigue, deprivation, boredom, and danger even, and that you must bear the cost of renouncing fond habits of body and soul, leaving behind your family, friends, and relations for the unknown.”1

This sense of leaving the known for the unknown is at the heart of decadence and closure, a need to close one circle while opening another into the unexpected and the new – an exoticism of the eye that seeks in the other nothing more nor less than the pure art object. Théophile Gautier whose theory of “l”art pour l”art”, art for art’s sake would subtract itself from the utilitarian philosophies of the bourgeoisie for a more subtle and colorful, sensual exoticism of the eye – provide a seeing that would float upon the surface of things like a desiring machine whose longing was to discover the image of its own unquenched fires.

The style of decadence for Gautier was none other than “Art arrived at that point of extreme maturity that determines civilizations which have grown old; ingenious, complicated, clever, full of delicate hints and refinements, gathering all the delicacies of speech, borrowing from technical vocabularies, taking color from every palette, tones from all musical instruments, contours vague and fleeting, listening to translate subtle confidences, confessions of depraved passions, and the odd hallucinations of a fixed idea turning to madness.”

This was the style which a decadent would use to summon the extreme motion of life, through a “language already veined with the greenness of decomposition, savoring of the Lower Roman Empire and the complicated refinements of the Byzantine School and the last form of Greek Art fallen into deliquescence; but such is the necessary and fatal idiom of peoples and civilizations where an artificial life has replaced a natural one and developed in a person who does not know his own needs. Contrary to classical style, it admits of backgrounds where the specters of superstition, the haggard phantoms of dreams, the terrors of night, remorse which leaps out and falls back noiselessly, obscure fantasies that astonish the day, and all the soul in its deepest depths and innermost caverns conceals the darkness, deformity, and horror, move together nervously.”


Camille Paglia will tell us that Gautier looks forward to the posthuman or even inhuman art of the future synthetic being. “It looks forward to modern avant-garde narrative, where it is quite permissible and even desirable for nothing whatever to happen. But we sense in Gautier the cold immobility of the object so meticulously dissected, as if by autopsy. Since he dwells so much on the external, there is no one to identify with. The treatment of persons as art objects is present as an ambition in Maupin but is not technically realized until A Night with Cleopatra. (p. 418).” This sense of the android, the robot, the golem and art object that we see in many Japanese Geminoids was first described in this decadent immersion of the human as art object.


This history of manufactured beings has yet to be written in full details, but from Paglia we see the first entry of the hermaphrodite, the android, the sexless being whose allure and double articulation as a machine made of synthetic materials begins with the bust of Nefertiti:

The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear. The queen is an android, a manufactured being. She is a new gorgoneion, a “bodiless head of fright.” She is paralyzed and paralyzing. Like enthroned Chephren, Nefertiti is suave, urbane. She gazes toward the far distance, seeing what is best for her people. But her eyes, with their catlike rim of kohl, are cold. She is self-divinized authority. Art shows Akhenaten half-feminine, his limbs shrunken and belly bulging, possibly from birth defect or disease. This portrait shows his queen half-masculine, a vampire of political will. Her seductive force both lures in and warns away. She is western personality barricaded behind its aching, icy line of Apollonian identity.  (pp. 68-69).

The android as Hermaphrodite, an “ardent chimera” or “charming monster” of “accursed beauty,” that is both provocative and reclusive, it is a ritual cult-object to which gifts are brought. The Hermaphrodite is separated from society and nature. It is a Late Romantic freak, symbol of the impossible. “Dream of poet and artist,” “supreme effort of art and pleasure,” it is an artificial sex. Its “multiple beauty” unites the art object’s sexual duality with the multiplicity of response art generates in its audience. (p. 413).

Posthuman decadence

Posthumanism will be the inheritor of the decadent style. As David Roden in Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human reminds us:

… Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values (within WH, as I would qualify it) is interrupted.6

Continuing David will say Stelarc’s stated rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. These performances decouple the body from its ecology and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use-value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolescence:

The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain sub-population feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility. (p. 189)

This longing to become other, to enter the flow, the schizmatrix of an ultraworld of desire beyond the flesh has haunted the dreams of religious and now materialist discourse for thousands of years. This need for transcendence seems to haunt us like a dark thought of redemption. Yet, in the very moment we tell ourselves dreams of transcendence we enclose ourselves in a tissue world of lies and fictions, a false chamber of horrors – a zombie world of dead bodies whose only thought is war, terror, and violence.


Nick Land – Posthuman technoshamanism and the Hyperstitional

“But simplification is not a teleologically regulated approximation to simplicity, to the decadent terminus we call ‘truth’, it is an inexhaustibly open-ended creative process whose only limits are fictions fabricated out of itself. Nothing is more complex than simplification; what art takes from enigma it more than replenishes in the instantiation of itself, in the labyrinthine puzzle it plants in history. The intensification of enigma. The luxuriantly problematic loam of existence is built out of the sedimented aeons of residues deposited by the will to power, the impulse to create, ‘The world as a work of art that gives birth to itself.’” says Nick Land. 7

Land’s update to Théophile Gautier’s ‘art for art’s sake’, beyond utilitarian protocols, an intensification of the enigmatic toward a “positive confusion (delirium), problematic, pain … the torment of the philosophers in any case, is the stimulus to ecstatic creation, to an interminable ‘resolution’ into the enhanced provocations of art. What the philosophers have never understood is this: it is the unintelligibility of the world alone that gives it worth. ‘Inertia needs unity (monism); plurality of interpretations a sign of strength. Not to desire to deprive the world of its disturbing and enigmatic character’. Not, then, to oppose pain to the absence of pain as metaphysical pessimism does, but, rather, to differentiate the ecstatic overcoming of pain from weariness and inertia, to exult in new and more terrible agonies, fears, burning perplexities as the resource of becoming, overcoming, triumph, the great libidinal oscillations that break up stabilized systems and intoxicate on intensity; that is Dionysian pessimism – ‘refusal to be deprived of the stimulus of the enigmatic’; ‘the effect of the work of art is to excite the state that creates art – intoxication’.” (Land, KL 2243)

The sense of the “unintelligibility of the world,” of art as terror, as a posthuman excursion into the inhuman “possibility space” of intensified forms of sex and violence, a self-overcoming of the limits we’ve imposed on ourselves, and a release into the enigma of the new, the posthuman becoming other. Yet, against the “decadent Western dream of immortality, producing a corruption of the atmosphere wherever something refuses to die; clutching at the eternalization of self, or returning from the grave (Land, KL 4729),” Land will expose the dark undertones of Cyberpunk as being too wired to concentrate. It does not subscribe to transcendence, but to circulation; exploring the immanence of subjectivity to telecommercial data fluxes: personality engineering, mind recordings, catatonic cyberspace trances, stim-swaps, and sex-comas. (Land, KL 4848)

Land would enter the numericity of a decadent tidal wave realizing that the set theoretic “Cantor slides across schizophrenia, nomos nonzone, magnitude is occupied without being counted. A smell like something burning in the Superstratum. Outside it’s Planomic Now, and the numbers are swarming. Aleph-0 vaporizes on the plane of consistency.” (Land, KL 7665)

He will quote a letter from none other than Carl Gustave Jung

Letter from Carl Gustav Jung to Echidna Stillwell, dated 27th February 1929 [Extract] … your attachment to a Lemurian cultural-strain disturbs me intensely. From my own point of view – based on the three most difficult cases I have encountered and their attendant abysmally archaic symbolism – it is no exaggeration to state that Lemuria condenses all that is most intrinsically horrific to the racial unconscious, and that the true Lemurians – who you seem intent upon rediscovering – are best left buried beneath the sea. I agree with the Theosophical writings at least this far: it was in order that the darkest sorceries should be erased by deluge that this continent of cultural possibility has been placed under the unconscious sign of definitive submergence. I know little enough about the nature of those that populated that cursed zone, but there are things I suspect, and the line of your own researches confirms my most ominous intimations … (Land, KL 8034)

Reading Land is like entering the rhizomatic travels of a hyperstitional navigation system, an secret travel-machine that has entered the dark rhizomes of an infinite time-loop possibility space where the Lemurian undertribes have been sending secret messages back from an alien future.

My researches have led me to associate this Chthonian entity with the deep terrestrial intelligence inherent in the electromagnetic cauldron of the inner earth, in all of its intense reality, raw potentiality, and danger. According to the Nma she is the plane of Unlife, a veritable Cthelll – who is trapped under the sea only according to a certain limited perspective – and those who set out to traffick with her do so with the very greatest respect and caution. That her submerged Pacific city of R’lyeh is linked to a lemuro-muvian culture-strain seems most probable, but the assumption that she was ever a surface-dweller in a sense we would straightforwardly understand can only be an absurd misconstrual. It is much more likely that Cthulhu’s rising – like that of Kundalini as it was once understood – is a drawing down and under, a restoration of contact with abysmal intensities. Why would Cthulhu ever surface? She does not need rescuing, for she has her own line of escape, trajected through profundity. Much of this relates to the occult teachings of the sub-chakras in zones of Indo- Lemurian influence. Hyperstition strikes me as a most intriguing coinage. We thought we were making it up, but all the time the Nma were telling us what to write – and through them … (Land, KL 8408)

Land’s hyperstitional travels into futurity bring back to us from his technoshamanistic cycles a message of the posthuman other we are becoming:

We cross over again into electric-burning, but forget that it hurts in the brain to die this way. It takes so long to learn that it is grating-apart and burning, that dying is felt in the brain, and that it is horrible … (Land, KL 8066)

The inforg society

In a recent rebuttal of John R. Searle the information philosopher Luciano Floridi would say to Searle: We are not at the center of the universe (Copernicus), of the biological kingdom (Darwin), or of the realm of rationality (Freud). After Turing, we are no longer at the center of the world of information either. We share the infosphere with smart technologies. These are not some unrealistic artificial intelligence, as the review would have me suggest, but ordinary artifacts that outperform us in ever more tasks, despite being no cleverer than a toaster. Their abilities are humbling and make us reevaluate our unique intelligence. Their successes largely depend on the fact that the world has become an IT-friendly environment, where technologies can replace us without having any understanding or semantic skills. We increasingly live online (think of apps tracking your location).

This sense that we are now connected 24/7 to our technological infosphere, that we are onlife and living in an enclosed sphere of continuous information and data, that what we once termed “Nature” has vanished from our field of vision. As Timothy Morton in The Ecological Thought will describe it “If we want ecology, we will have to trade in Nature for something that seems more meager. The mesh is made of insubstantial stuff, and its structure is very strange.”2 Floridi continuing his rebuttal of Searle tells us the pressing problem is not whether our digital systems can think or know … but what our environments are gradually enabling them to achieve. Like Kant, I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, a view that the review erroneously claims I support. What I do know is that our conceptualization of the world is. The distinction is trivial and yet crucial: from DNA as code to force fields as the foundation of matter, from the mind–brain dualism as a software–hardware distinction to computational neuroscience, from network-based societies to digital economies and cyber conflicts, today we understand and deal with the world informationally. To be is to be interactable: this is our new “ontology.”

In my earlier post Stanislaw Lem: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub – The Collapse of Knowledge I mentioned the work of Nicklas Luhman and his theory of communication which describes social systems as “systems of communication”:

Being the social system that comprises all  communication, today’s society is a world society. A system is defined by a boundary between itself and its environment, dividing it from an infinitely complex, or chaotic, exterior. The interior of the system is thus a zone of reduced complexity: Communication within a system operates by selecting only a limited amount of all information available outside. This process is also called “reduction of complexity”. The criterion according to which information is selected and processed is meaning. Both social systems and psychical or personal systems operate by processing meaning.3

So Luhmann would develop the notion that in the medium of meaning, there is no “nature” and no “essence.” And there are no boundaries that cannot be crossed (for otherwise they would have no meaning as boundaries, as indications of something else). Instead, there are only horizons that move along with every movement. And meaning can only be defined self-referentially in recursive connections that refer to other things, and always to the unmarked state of the world, thus passing into instability. Identities materialize by the repetition of operations. At the same time, they are the structure by which repetition recognizes itself as repetition. In short, meaning is “autopoietically” constituted by systems that can only recognize their own boundaries in the process of constituting meaning by providing themselves with inward and outward referents, their own distinction of self- and other-reference. Each observing operation draws a distinction and is distinguished by performing the distinguishing.

Peter Sloterdijk reports in In the World Interior of Capital will describe our enclosure within the Sphere of the Infotainment System of Social Communications Systems or the Infosphere (Floridi) as the site of a decadent elite that has entered the last stages of boredom and apathy seeking through violence and cinematic display the lost longings of its desire:

The underworld paranoid programmes of the affluent citizens demand that the slightest signals proving the existence of an external enemy be captured and amplified. In the hystericized infosphere, such magnifications are disseminated as a picture of the situation to the terror consumers, who absorb the indirect feeling of being under threat into their metabolism as a stimulant. (p. 181)

“THE SUBURBS DREAM of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world . . .” a character in J.G. Ballard’s novel Kingdom Come tells us.4 As Phil Baker in the Guardian tells us Ballard’s novel is a late decadent consumerism sliding into fascism and giving the “punters what they want”.  ‘This was a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity,’ says Richard Pearson: ‘In short, the town was an end state of consumerism. I liked it and felt a certain pride that I had helped to set its values.’

This sense that we are sliding into a soft fascism, a sphere of jouissance in which violence and sex are the order of the day, the only avenue left to us to touch that deeper affectivity that we have cut ourselves off from in leaving our natural existence for the artificial worlds of the ultra-informational society of our ICT’s. As Sloterdijk reports it what “drives the most resolute attackers, be they assassins, speculators, criminals, entrepreneurs, artists or chosen ones, is the longing to transform themselves into a beam of pure initiative – and this in a global situation that musters everything it can to contain offensives and discourage initiatives.” (p. 182) This schizmatrix culture caught between competing motions of action and inaction is according to Sloterdijk’s action-theoretical perspective closed off in a infosphere in which every citizen shares in a “space of action in which acting out inner excesses and making world history occasionally come to the same thing” (p. 183).

In a world of total information and decadence the consumer demands violence as terror for the sheer panic ecstasy of once more being able to touch the natural it no longer has access too. Bound as we are in the circle of a closed mediatainment system of communication the ‘war on terror’, the rise and fall of the stock markets, the ruins of the shadowed worlds of a dying civilization hem in the rabble by enforced voyeurism and spectacles of cynicism and Reality TV making the consumer complicit in the very crimes of imagination from which it secretly seeks satisfaction. Our elites on the other hand enter the enclosed circuses of their hypercapitalist pleasure domes, the world cities that offer them the luxury palaces of a new sadomasochistic realm of sex and violence where only their imaginations or the limit.

The Decadents praised artifice over nature and sophistication over simplicity, defying contemporary discourses of decline by embracing subjects and styles that their critics considered morbid and over-refined. In a world that – as Roger Scrutton tells us, has entered the stage in which transhumanists believe that we will replace ourselves with immortal cyborgs, who will emerge from the discarded shell of humanity like the blessed souls from the grave in some medieval Last Judgement. In which our hyperworlds of culture have begun migrating into a transsexual world populated by one incestuously self-propagating being – a clone replicant of the perfect human, sexless and erotically optimized.

We are in another Late Romantic bower, shadowless under a grey sky. The ritual limitation on our sexual personae is a Decadent closure, denying our eye right of access to other human types. In which as Camille Paglia will attest our modern machinic culture has geometrized Art Nouveau’s organic patterns into Art Deco and Decopunk. A streamlined ultra-modernism that has enclosed time in a Sphere of ever-accelerating capital shaped to its own desires. A Spenserian dynasty, extending through High and Late Romanticism, unexpectedly ends in the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall. A world where the serpentine line comes from Blake, whose rapacious flamelike flowers reveal the covert sexual meaning of Art Nouveau’s arabesques. The copious histories of Art Nouveau lack psychological insight. Their all surface detail and mediascape, a sunlit world of pure light and topographical statement.  In every star, style, or art work celebrated by these Alexandrine epicenes, there is always a secret hermaphroditism.5

A posthuman world enclosed in its own folded decadence of sex and violence. A site where Hollywood and Wall Street serve as our models for an imploded sphere of techno-delight. We’ve become the artificial citizens of a affectless world of the sun, an artificial sun cut off from the outer extremities of the Real, bound only to the imaginative structures of desire without an object, hollowed out by the mindless traces of a new age of data. A world that is ruled not by the dictates of reason, but by those of pure jouissance.

“The machines have sophisticated themselves beyond the possibility of socialist utility, incarnating market mechanics within their nano-assembled interstices and evolving themselves by quasi-darwinian algorithms that build hypercompetition into ‘the infrastructure’. It is no longer just society, but time itself, that has taken the ‘capitalist road’. Hence the Transcendental Miserablist syllogism: Time is on the side of capitalism, capitalism is everything that makes me sad, so time must be evil.” (Land, KL 8924)

Posthuman Decadence by Art Of Empathy

  1. Gautier, Theophile (2015-06-03). Constantinople (Kindle Locations 30-33).  . Kindle Edition.
  2. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Kindle Locations 470-471). Kindle Edition.
  3. Luhmann, Niklas (2013-01-09). A Systems Theory of Religion (Cultural Memory in the Present) (Kindle Locations 1659-1666). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  4. Ballard, J. G. (2012-02-27). Kingdom Come: A Novel (p. 9). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  5. Paglia, Camille (1990-09-10). Sexual Personae. Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  6. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (pp. 188-189). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  7. Land, Nick (2013-07-01). Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 2237-2242). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.

4 thoughts on “Théophile Gautier: Posthuman Decadence and the Philosophy of Closure

  1. Love this post, Stephen. in particular its drawing of connections with so many sources and themes – Ballard, the decadents, systems theory, the posthuman. For the first time (maybe because I’m slow in these things) it’s also occurred to me that Luhmann might be helpful for theorising the idea of the Wide Human in PHL. Might pursue that when I have time. Thanks again for posting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks… Yea, I’ve felt this underlying thematic and tension in the dark phenomenological threads out of the decadents that seems in need of inclusion into the current debates of modernity and its revitalization in our own time…

      Yea, you might take a look at Levi R. Bryant’s chapters on Luhmann in The Democracy of Objects and his update to Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic thought in his last work “Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media” … I’m not much of a fan boy of the substantive formalism of OOO, but what they describe is to me the other side of the Mobius strip…. the just leave out the pre-ontological levels of reality (and because of that they get the rest confused).

      Luhmann’s notions of the ‘decision’, drawing the circle of closure… the systems theories of communication of communication. A great deal of this can be traced back to such writer’s as the Goncourt Brothers… another window on French Decadence that many overlook… their letters and journals were a mainstream aspect of Parisian life for forty years or so…


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