The Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

a_thrones of pleroma 4

We are so deeply mired in our philosophies as to have evolved nothing better than a sordid version of the void: nothingness. – Emile Cioran

Bataille seems to me far less an intellectual predicament than a sexual and religious one… – Nick Land

Contemporary Cosmology

As we approach Halloween I began thinking of current philosophical and poetic thought on the hidden world of things. Reading an article on NASA recently the authors reminded me how little we know about the universe. What little we know describes a universe in which most of the matter and energy that makes it up is invisible to both technology and the human equation, invisible to our senses, a ruin in the fabric of time. The stuff that we see around us in the universe: the stars, galaxies, suns, planets, etc. are made of baryonic matter which accounts for only 4.6 percent of the known universe. While 24 percent is made up of something scientists have ironically termed ‘cold dark matter’, leaving the rest of the universe in a seething ocean of what they like to call ‘dark energy’ which makes up a whopping 71.4 percent of the universe. As one article describes this dark stuff that is hidden from us, unrevealed and so far undetected but rather predicted by mathematical theorems:

It’s known as dark matter, which is itself a placeholder – like the x or y used in algebra class – for something unknown and heretofore unseen. One day, it will enjoy a new name, but today we’re stuck with the temporary label and its connotations of shadowy uncertainty.

Yet, underscoring the structure of this anomalous dark matter is the unqualified power of dark energy, a force that seems to run through all things, ourselves included – undetected and unbidden. We quietly run our eyes across the baryon spectrum of light and matter visible to our senses as if it were the greater part, when in fact it is but the miniscule and vagrant corruption of a ruinous thought – a kenoma or cosmic degradation.

Nick Land in his reading of Bataille will remind us all “energy must ultimately be spent pointlessly and unreservedly, the only questions being where, when, and in whose name this useless discharge will occur. Even more crucially, this discharge or terminal consumption… is the problem of economics.” (Land, 56) Might it also be the problem of cosmology? As we think of that seething sea of dark energy moving through us, its influx of unimaginable power flowing through our bodies and the universe one wonders just how close to the truth Bataille was as he dreamed of ‘expenditure’. Could it be that what we perceive around us, this baryonic matter is none other than the waste product of this vast ocean of dark matter and energy? And, might not the great engines of consumption, the stars, galaxies, and black holes at the center of these churning systems of heat-death be none other than the slow sepulchral consummation of even darker systems than we have as yet begun to imagine in our theoretic dreams of reason? or understanding?

What if all we see around us in this visible universe of dust and light is nothing but the byproduct of endless expenditure, an excess expunged by the engorgements of a darker world of forces that the ancient dreamers, shamans, and Gnostics could only hint at in their negative theologies, and our scientists can only mathematize in their theoretical alchemy of this universal degradation and catastrophic trauma? What if we are mere shit in the drift of things unseen? Dead waste in a floating sea of black impenetrability? The Big Bang nothing more than a burp in the body of some great blind entity roiling in its own excess? Is this madness, a metaphoric marshalling of strange tales from heresies of dead worlds?

Modern cosmology stripped of its ancient lineage of myth forces the cosmos into the procrustean bed of a bare and minimal system of holographs, strings, and vibrating systems of chaos and order. Has this given us anything better than the older myths? Is this universe bled of its fabrications, emptied of our desires, become a mere artifact of our insanity – an indifferent and essentially blind machine without purpose or telic motion? And, even if we revitalized a gnosis stripped of its redemptive qualities, its soteriological thrust how will we move those dark forces to reveal themselves? How  unconceal their potential by way of math and technology? And, to what ends? Utilitarian ends for some human destitution? A bid to enslave the elements, develop even greater destructive power than our atomic weaponry? Are we nothing more than sorcerers nibbling at the table of existence, seeking ways to tap into its secret machinations, control and master its dark blessing?

Pascal was the first to face in its frightening implications and to expound with the full force of his eloquence: man’s loneliness in the physical universe of modern cosmology. “Cast into the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened.” “Which know me not”: more than the overawing infinity of cosmic spaces and times, more than the quantitative disproportion, the insignificance of man as a magnitude in this vastness, it is the “silence,” that is, the indifference of this universe to human aspirations—the not-knowing of things human on the part of that within which all things human have preposterously to be enacted—which constitutes the utter loneliness of man in the sum of things. This is the kenoma, the vastation; the emptiness of things, the nothingness of the void. (Jonas, 322) This is the negative of rhetoric – the black hole and limit of thought where the ruin of language and man ends.

Enlightenment Ruins

Our fascination with the unknown, our uncertainty about reality and the universe, our origins, our future, our place in the scheme of things, etc. is what has driven us for millennia. We have moved through some strange theories concerning both the universe and our place in it throughout this troubling history. The sciences grew out of a deep and abiding hatred and fear of religion and magical or occult practices. It produced the so called secular progressive Enlightenment, a flowering of Reason and rational thought over and against the unruly passions and irrationalism of religion and uncertainty. This search for certainty drove the cycle of thinkers from Descartes through Kant and beyond. Kant would make the deciding move of separating out what is possible to know from what is beyond all thought requiring of all future philosophy and sciences to yield up the phenomena and leave off any pursuit of that mysterious and occult world of the hidden and unknown, the noumenon. So that for two hundred years those that followed in Kant’s wake stayed with in the navigable borders of what could be known through our senses and the categories of the Mind. And this must as Kant would have it all be submitted to the criticism of Reason:

Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must submit. Religion through its holiness and legislation through its majesty commonly seek to exempt themselves from it. But in this way they excite a just suspicion against themselves, and cannot lay claim to that unfeigned respect that reason grants only to that which has been able to withstand its free and public examination (Axi).

The so called crisis of the Enlightenment that Kant hoped to overcome was at heart an acknowledgement that the sciences, and physics (of his day) based on mechanistic laws that governed the universe and humans undermined the very principles of freedom and reason to which the Enlightenment project tended.  What was at stake was the newly assumed ‘authority’ of Reason itself, and it was to answer this that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was instigated. “Kant’s main goal is to show that a critique of reason by reason itself, unaided and unrestrained by traditional authorities, establishes a secure and consistent basis for both Newtonian science and traditional morality and religion. In other words, free rational inquiry adequately supports all of these essential human interests and shows them to be mutually consistent. So reason deserves the sovereignty attributed to it by the Enlightenment.”1

In our own time this very notion that self-reflecting reason can turn inward and critique its own movement has itself turned viral, become the heart of contemporary philosophy. The authority of Reason is itself being questioned and undermined. At the heart of studies in consciousness and the neurosciences is a questioning of both reason, philosophy, and the mind-tools that have for millennia been built up to describe the self-reflecting processes of the Mind. Kant wanted to ground philosophy in the principle of sufficient reason, which simply put tells us that for every fact there must be an explanation for why that fact is the case. Among the alleged consequences of the Principle are: the Identity of Indiscernibles, necessitarianism, the existence of a self-necessitated Being (i.e., God), the Principle of Plentitude, and strict naturalism.

The point of the modern neurosciences is that Kant’s Transcendental Subject is blind to its own foundations or ground, it has no access to the given entity of its own formation, the brain. Therefore in our time the notion of freedom, will, reason, and consciousness have come under attack from the naturalists sciences who see these processes that have been for the most part hidden from view, bound to speculative ideas and notions of philosophy for far too long as spelling an end to this long distorted history. With the rise of neuro-imaging technologies scientists are slowly accruing live data concerning the very processes that up to now philosophy only speculated about rather than being able to answer. Yet, for all that the sciences rely on the rhetoric and application of concepts and interpretive strategies that it has borrowed from the very speculative systems it seeks to undermine so that it has found itself at the mercy of its own prolific knowledge.

Some scientists religiously hold that only mathematics can convey the intricacies of those extreme phenomenon that are lifted out of the technological worlds we’ve created, others that the shining weave of images – light-bearers of design and hidden algorithms can break through the empirical screen of things; others still imagine truth is a contingent event, a retroactive agent of our intellect ordering the temporal facticity of time-bound equations. Sciences extrapolate and translate the world from language to the natural in man hoping thereby to repeat what is by nature incomplete and troubling, knowing full well that all the vein communal verification and acceptance of one’s peers is nothing more than the experimental disclosure of an impossible thought. The sciences seek to stabilize what is in motion, lock it down, put it in a void where it can be questioned like a trapped animal, gaze into its secret world as if it could reveal something hidden and away.

Cosmologists have brought us to the edge of the visible and beyond, sought in their mathematical magic the keys to the secrets of time and space, and like those early Shamans of the Greeks have brought back from their escapades in the unknown regions news of strange worlds. They tell of darkness and beginnings, of chaos and order, of the struggles below the threshold of reality as our senses know it; they whisper to us of black holes where light emits music, where stars vanish in a night without morning, of data sparkling on the edge of a whirlpool that sucks the very galaxies in its wake. What scientists see in the mathematical symbols of their art is the merciless order of an incomplete thought, a universe plunging toward oblivion, yet in that very movement seeking a sepulchral existence, a world of dust turned hot and flaming in the birth of light and suns. A realm of flux that gives birth to life on the edge of chaos, that impossible thing that no one as of yet can explicate.

We travel among ancient myths and philosophies, rationalists and atheists as we are seeking to know why these ancients accrued such fanciful tales, why they needed the comfort of strange gods and powers, the inklings of order and chaos and the as if harmony of the spheres; and, why others sought to oppose such worlds with Heimarmene and Ananke, Fate and Necessity. Between the positing of an optimistic realm of light and life, and a negative and pessimistic realm of darkness and death these ancients seemed to war among each other for the soul of the world. Even now in our political myths we see this ancient stream of thought suborning humans to its secret battles, enacting the already depleted designs of its inner necessity. Blindly the parties of humans follow their doom without ever knowing they are repeating the gestures of automated algorithms engineered long ago in the death of stars.

end of philosophy?

Philosophy over the course of the twentieth-century divided itself into two major streams of thought: Continental (phenomenological) and the Analytical (language based) philosophies, which have respectively encompassed speculation on the grounds of conscious reasoning from observing either the phenomenological datum of thought, or the linguistic structures that produce thought. Both were like a Mobius strip in which one or the other had a partial truth, but neither alone held it completed. Yet, for all that both kept with Kant’s notion of the subject bound to an object, the notion of consciousness and world bound together in a unique circle or reasoning. This circle of reasoning, or self-reflection became for certain speculative realists (Quentin Meillassoux) a trap. Meillassoux would term it correlationism, “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”. 2

This notion that at the heart of the human is a split (dualism) between self and world, thought and being is as old as philosophy itself. From the beginning philosophers have speculated on this fundamental issue of thought and being and how they relate. Those that followed in the wake of Kant took the path of either Idealism (Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, etc.) or Materialism (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx (under Hegel’s shadow), Bataille, etc.). With the emergence of modern physics and the overturning of mechanistic physics new process philosophies would emerge as Quantum Physics came to the fore with its confrontation of the limits of human thought and mathematics.

Trying to compress this history does little to explain it. The reader will have to follow the threads for herself. For me the issue turns on certain tendencies that seem to come to a head in our contemporary moment. Some philosophers such as Badiou and his disciple Meillassoux turn toward Candorian Set theoretic and mathematics to overcome the linguistic and descriptive barriers of rhetoric and analysis that have bound philosophical speculation since Kant. Others like the Object-Oriented speculators turn toward the structural linguistic roots seeking new rhetorics of description to convey a hint of that which cannot be described. Others like Brassier seek to bring the worlds of thought and world together in the middle-world or concepts believing that it is only in the sphere of conceptuality that we can overcome the split and dualisms that have kept philosophy mired in such dichotomist relations as Idealism/Materialism, etc. for way too long.  Then there are the skeptical naturalists like my friend R. Scott Bakker whose Blind Brain Theory harbors the acute critique of all philosophies as misguided, turning away from such speculative systems to renew an empirical tradition that states flatly that humans or for the most part reduced to a functional system of consciousness that is completely blind to its own foundations in the brain’s processes; and, because of this all self-reflection is both mystification and a form of self-delusion for the simple reason that consciousness has literally no access to its internal functions so cannot now or ever describe those processes. He will even stipulate that we don’t even know what we don’t know because the brain has locked us into an evolutionary system built to survive and work with the external environment rather than its own internal processes, and what the brain gives us is only a minimal fraction of this very realm of internal / external relations, and no more. Poverty is our singular state of being. Less is more. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and if we knew just how little we really do not know we’d end it all quickly.

Kant and modern physics agree on one thing: most of reality, ourselves included, is inaccessible (i.e., the realm of noumenon) and hidden away from our prying eyes. Yet, we know this, we are secretly aware of this, and because of this lack of access we strive against it, we seek to overcome these internal and external limits of consciousness and thought through a combination of thought and technology. Most of all we strive to make visible what is inherently invisible to our senses, our empirical functions of consciousness and our external systems of technology. Through mathematics and neuroimaging we seek both empirical, theoretic and indirect access to what is hidden (occult) from us.

excess and consumption

Others like Bataille and Land seek to formulate a dehumanization of self and nature, seeking to impersonalize our notions of both internal and external forces, contributing to a strict atheological cosmology. One that is indifferent both to human thought and affective relations. For Nick Land the only foundation is no foundation at all, rather a ruthless fatalism; one devoid of human intentions, decisions, morality, or that illusionary icon of all idealisms, human freedom. Instead as he warns us we must become alien and estranged from what has up too now been termed the ‘human’. Following Nietzsche, Freud, and Bataille he squanders, sacrifices, and exuberantly wastes the excess of the human through an economy of consumption and libidinal excess. His dark atheological cosmology situates itself within the current paradigm of our universe that is a seeming ocean of dark energy and dark matter. One that is impersonal and indifferent to both human thought and aspirations.

In the popular imagination one sees in such strange phenomenon as the paranormal and the amalgam of horror and ghost tales, as well as shows now prevalent in TV and movies a popular investigation of our fears. This underbelly of literature and film over the past couple hundred years as if in direct opposition to the Enlightenments project of a controlled and reasonable world seems to have become in our time a deluge. The themes of gothic horror and dread in such writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, and science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem help contribute to current speculative philosophies that seek new rhetorical strategies and support for understanding the emergence of the noumenal and hidden, the base matter below the threshold of the known and objective worlds of the sciences. Many of these tales uncover a negative rhetoric of desire based on eroticism and death, twin progeny of a anhedonic cosmos of delirium.

Jacques Lacarrière in his short meditation on the ancient Gnostics offered his personal estimation of these strange and bewildering texts that have come down to us across the millennium of a bygone world that was slowly obliterated by the institution of Christian Paternalism that installed itself in ancient Rome and ruled Western Civilization through its spiritual hold from the fall of Rome till the Enlightenment. With the uncovering of the Nag Hammadi works and their slow translation over the past few decades we are becoming more and more awakened to this alternative view of this now lost history. For Lacarrière it came down to a cosmic and political battle against false realities and tyrants both earthly and cosmic:

My conviction goes still further: I believe that these paths show us the only possible way, the only way of acting in the face of the mysteries of the world. One must try everything, experience everything, unveil everything, in order to strip man down to his naked condition; to `defrock’ him of his organic, psychic, social, and historic trappings; to decondition him entirely so that he may regain what is called by some his choice, by others his destiny. As I write this word, decondition, I perceive that I am reaching the very heart of Gnostic doctrine. No knowledge, no serious contemplation, no valid choice is possible until man has shaken himself free of everything that effects his conditioning, at every level of his existence. And these techniques which so scandalize the uninitiated, whether they be licentious or ascetic, this consumption and consummation of organic and psychic fires-sperm and desire-these violations of all the rules and social conventions exist for one single, solitary purpose: to be the brutal and radical means of stripping man of his mental and bodily habits, awakening in him his sleeping being and shaking off the alienating torpor of the soul.

As Kirsten J. Grimstad describes it in her study of Thomas Mann and Gnosticism in the Cultural Matrix of His Time: “Gnostic motifs and sensibility began cropping up in the fiction of contemporary authors Herman Melville, Charles Baudelaire, Huysmans, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Antonin Artaud, Franz Kafka, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Conner, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Herman Hesse, Lawrence Durrell, Jorge Luis Borges as well as in science fiction novels by Philip K. Dick, to name just a few well known examples noted in critical studies. (see notes)  She argues that the modern cultural movement known as the religion of art (aestheticism, decadence, late romanticism) rekindled a culturally subversive Gnostic sensibility that was expressed in an extremist revolt against modernity, reiterating the Gnostic revolt against the cosmos.

Like the Divine Marquise (Sade) the Gnostic’s first task was  to use up the substance of evil by combatting it with its own weapons, by practicing what one might call a homeopathic asceticism. Since we are surrounded and pulverized by evil, let us exhaust it by committing it; let us stoke up the forbidden fires in order to burn them out and reduce them to ashes; let us consummate by consuming (and there is only one step, or three letters, between `consuming’ and `consummating’) the inherent corruption of the material world. ( Lacarrière, p. 59) Explaining it in detail:

If the soul during the course of this life has not succeeded in experiencing everything before death, if there still remain certain forbidden areas it has not penetrated, some part of evil it has yet to consume, then it must live again in another body until `it has acquitted its duty to all the masters of the cosmos.’ This threat-which is virtually a curse-hanging over the future lives of the disciple must certainly have incited him to take the plunge straight away, to `have done with’ these masters of the cosmos in his present life, to `wipe out’ his debts to evil at a single stroke – that is to say, in a single existence. Contrary to what one might be tempted to make of this idea, it is a question of asceticism and not of indulgence in pleasure. ( Lacarrière, p. 60)

The notion of pushing the limits of every extreme to excess by breaking every law, every taboo, every form of licentious act by a consuming act of excess, and a consummation of evil in this life seems the impossible task of our time. Ultimately is it not to overcome the self-imposed limits of thought that since Kant have locked us into a prison both philosophical, economic, artistic, and normative? Have we now finally come to the point that the most extreme forms of active nihilism are forcing us to adopt even more extreme and – must one dare say it, acosmic nihilisms? Land tells us that such thinking is “less concerned with propositions than with punctures; hacking at the flood-gates that protect civilization from a deluge of impersonal energy” (p. xxi).3

archons and the iron prison

In his widely regarded survey of Gnosticism Hans Jonas once described the gnostic cosmology:

The universe, the domain of the Archons, is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the scene of man’s life. Around and above it the cosmic spheres are ranged like concentric enclosing shells. Most frequently there are the seven spheres of the planets surrounded by the eighth, that of the fixed stars. There was, however, a tendency to multiply the structures and make the scheme more and more extensive: Basilides counted no fewer than 365 “heavens.” The religious significance of this cosmic architecture lies in the idea that everything which intervenes between here and the beyond serves to separate man from God, not merely by spatial distance but through active demonic force. Thus the vastness and multiplicity of the cosmic system express the degree to which man is removed from God.4

The Archons collectively rule over the world, and each individually in his sphere is a warder of the cosmic prison. Their tyrannical world-rule is called heimarmene, universal Fate, a concept taken over from astrology but now tinged with the gnostic anti-cosmic spirit. In its physical aspect this rule is the law of nature; in its psychical aspect, which includes for instance the institution and enforcement of the Mosaic Law, it aims at the enslavement of man. As guardian of his sphere, each Archon bars the passage to the souls that seek to ascend after death, in order to prevent their escape from the world and their return to God. The Archons are also the creators of the world, except where this role is reserved for their leader, who then has the name of demiurge (the world-artificer in Plato’s Timaeus) and is often painted with the distorted features of the Old Testament God. (Jonas)

Georges Bataille would say of these ancient systems: “It is possible to see as a leitmotif of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action).”5 As Jonas would affirm the world is the product, and even the embodiment, of the negative of knowledge. What it reveals is unenlightened and therefore malignant force, proceeding from the spirit of self-assertive power, from the will to rule and coerce. The mindlessness of this will is the spirit of the world, which bears no relation to understanding and love. The laws of the universe are the laws of this rule, and not of divine wisdom. Power thus becomes the chief aspect of the cosmos, and its inner essence is ignorance (agnosia). To this, the positive complement is that the essence of man is knowledge—knowledge of self and of God: this determines his situation as that of the potentially knowing in the midst of the unknowing, of light in the midst of darkness, and this relation is at the bottom of his being alien, without companionship in the dark vastness of the universe. (p. 327-328)

For the Greeks cosmos, was the seat of order and harmony; but for the Gnostics this same system was still an order — but order with a vengeance, alien to man’s aspirations. Its recognition is compounded of fear and disrespect, of trembling and defiance. The blemish of nature lies not in any deficiency of order, but in the all too pervading completeness of it. Far from being chaos, the creation of the demiurge, unenlightened as it is, is still a system of law. But cosmic law, once worshiped as the expression of a reason with which man’s reason can communicate in the act of cognition, is now seen only in its aspect of compulsion which thwarts man’s freedom. The cosmic logos of the Stoics, which was identified with providence, is replaced by heimarmene, oppressive cosmic fate. (Jonas, 328)

This fatum is dispensed by the planets, or the stars in general, the personified exponents of the rigid and hostile law of the universe. The change in the emotional content of the term cosmos is nowhere better symbolized than in this depreciation of the formerly most divine part of the visible world, the celestial spheres. The starry sky—to the Greeks since Pythagoras the purest embodiment of reason in the sensible universe, and the guarantor of its harmony— now stared man in the face with the fixed glare of alien power and necessity. No longer his kindred, yet powerful as before, the stars have become tyrants—feared but at the same time despised, because they are lower than man. (Jonas, 328)

nick land as demon of time

Land in a moment of sarcasm aligns himself with the mythos of the archons in a parodic respite: “I slunk into Hell like a verminous cur, accompanied by a wanderer of an altogether more celestial aspect. According to the Sikh religion humans are the masks of angels and demons, and my own infernal lineaments bear little ambiguity (everywhere I go the shadows thicken). (Land, xxii) One wonders who the accompanying wanderer is? That Land would have no truck with revitalizations of Gnostic religion, no harboring of escape from the Iron Prison of Time, no salvation mythology of gnosis with acosmic gods or God is I think an assured assessment.  Land is a culmination of those atheological masters who would push the extremes of active nihilism beyond the limits of the human. But where does this leave us? For Land the answer is simple: nowhere. Death is our lot, and the sooner the better.

If Land has a similarity to the ancient Gnostics it is one that requires of us the repudiation of even the acosmic God and his knowledge, instead for Land it is humanism itself that is the enemy of man:

“Humanism (capitalist patriarchy) is the same thing as our imprisonment. Trapped in the maze, treading the same weary round. Round and round in the garbage. Round… round and round (God is a scratched record), even when we think we are progressing, knowing more. Round and round, missing the sacred, until it drives you completely out of your mind. But at least we die. (Land, 209)

Trapped in false systems of thought, bound to a cosmic madhouse, circling in a repetitious universe of garbage in which the sacred itself has been expunged. Is this not the beginnings of a gnosis? Nietzsche indicated the root of the nihilistic situation in the phrase “God is dead,” meaning primarily the Christian God. The Gnostics, if asked to summarize similarly the metaphysical basis of their own nihilism, could have said only “the God of the cosmos is dead”—is dead, that is, as a god, has ceased to be divine for us and therefore to afford the lodestar for our lives. Admittedly the catastrophe in this case is less comprehensive and thus less irremediable, but the vacuum that was left, even if not so bottomless, was felt no less keenly. To Nietzsche the meaning of nihilism is that “the highest values become devaluated” (or “invalidated”), and the cause of this devaluation is “the insight that we have not the slightest justification for positing a beyond, or an ‘in itself of things, which is ‘divine,’ which is morality in person.” This statement taken with that about the death of God, bears out Heidegger’s contention that “the names God and Christian God are in Nietzsche’s thought used to denote the transcendental (supra-sensible) world in general. God is the name for the realm of ideas and ideals” (Holzwege, p. 199).7 Since it is from this realm alone that any sanction for values can derive, its vanishing, that is, the “death of God,” means not only the actual devaluation of highest values, but the loss of the very possibility of obligatory values as such. To quote Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche, “The phrase ‘God is dead’ means that the supra-sensible world is without effective force.”

In such a cosmos where law, nomos, and transcendence have withdrawn from any normative relation to the world reality becomes emptied of its connections to the human, devoid of its traces, unbound from its old hallucinatory power and is suddenly forced to divulge its hidden existence as pure horror.  The point being there remains no external authority, no framework, ground, or foundation for human thought and meaning. We are left to ourselves, thrown back upon our ignorance without hope or recourse. Reality disperses its illusions and the void hiding in the veil of nothingness releases the chaos stirring below the threshold, and the tensions within this flux of consume us like a black hole at the center of our turbulent being. A being without center or circumference, without substance or essence; a being that is itself at war with nonbeing, an interminable movement that gravitates toward that final flame of extinction.

Land is one of those messengers from Hell – a zone of terror and energia where the darkness becomes light, light darkness; an antinomian realm where angels and demons where the masks of humans. As he states it each “day that I remain trapped in the garbage I forget a little more of what it is to cross the line, but even forgetting is dying, and dying is crossing the line.” (Land, 210) As Jonas will remark  there is a distinction to all modern parallels: in the gnostic formula it is understood that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so also have an aim in eternity. This places the innercosmic nihilism of the Gnosis against a metaphysical background which is entirely absent from its modern counterpart. (Jonas, 335) In Land the only background is that there is none, there is only the “zero of words” and, as he will admonish us, “nor are words about words” (Land, 210). For Land there is only poetry:

to sleep hanging upside down
in a barn
sheltered from the day
and then when it gets dark
flapping out

The disruption between man and total reality is at the bottom of virulent nihilism as it is with Gnosticism. The illogicality of the rupture, that is, of a dualism without metaphysics – an atheology, makes its fact no less real, nor its seeming alternative any more acceptable: the stare at isolated selfhood, to which it condemns man, may wish to exchange itself for a monistic naturalism which, along with the rupture, would abolish also the idea of man as man. “Between that Scylla and this her twin Charybdis, the modern mind hovers.” (Jonas, 340) Our contemporary cosmologists wrap us in an ocean of dark matter and dark energy of which we know little, and steeped as we are in mythologies of light and baryon matter we assume in our ignorance too much. Our knowledge and thought have entered the moment of limits, a time when humans must move beyond the human, enter a new stage of immanent metamorphosis, undergo a transition to a new state, a happening. Else die. The Gnostics and Land agree that this universe is an impersonal system of energetic forces, what they disagree is on the notion of Exit. Both agree the cosmos is a garbage heap, the body of a dead or dying demiurge – though Land would expunge any anthropomorphisms. For the Gnostics exit was to affirm the gnosis “What makes us free is the Gnosis of who we were of what we have become of where we were of wherein we have been thrown of whereto we are hastening of what we are being freed of what birth really is of what rebirth really is” (Gnostic credo from the second century C.E.) As Harold Bloom would explicate:

What the Gnosis tells us is that time, which degrades, itself is the product of a divine degradation, a failure within God. The crisis within the Pleroma, the disruption in the original Fullness, had to be mutual: when we crashed down into this world made by the inept angels, then God crashed also, coming down not with us, but in some stranger sphere, impossibly remote. There are (at least) two kenomas, two cosmological emptinesses: our world, this world, and the invisible spheres also formed in fright, as Herman Melville says in his very Gnostic masterpiece, Moby-Dick. In those waste places, God now wanders, himself an alien, a stranger, an exile, even as we wander here. Time, an envious shadow (as the Gnostic poet Shelley called it) fell from the Fullness onto our world. An equally envious shadow, a nameless one, hovers across the wandering God of the Abyss, not only cut off from us, as we are from him, but as helpless without us as we are without him.6

What Bloom and many commentators of this Valentinian myth seem reluctant to ask is: Why is this acosmic God so powerless? Why has he fallen into his own kenoma? Why has he lost himself in his own degraded cosmic catastrophe? Of course there is no answer but one: he wanted to die and couldn’t, his eternal life had become impossible, and the only possible escape, exit was to purge himself of his own degradation: the emptiness of things is this divine degradation, at least for the Valentinian gnosis.  Yet, this does not explain why this supposed acosmic God is so helpless to bridge the gulf of shadows between us and him. The mythus would have it that we are the ‘tears of god’ that we are his forlornness, and it is only by way of sacrifice and a deeper corruption that we can begin to burn through the cold wall of indifference that is God himself. The Body of Evil that is this dead universe is that degradation, that evil which for Bataille like Land is not a moral evil, but rather the energetic derision of a cosmic agon, the seething sea of corruption that is none other than God himself, his Dead Body. Or as Joyce would say “Dog’s Body”. All metaphors and poetry of the inexplicable indifference of things…

The notion that our universe came about through a cosmic catastrophe (“war in heaven”) which left both God and Man separated in two realms of kenoma, or degradation and emptiness in which both are aliens locked in prisons founded by a demiurgic takeover is both strange and estranging. Land knowingly or unknowingly takes bits of this strangeness and reduces the enemy to the system of Humanism and Personalism while opting at the only salvation left: the total destruction of this cosmos by way of utter annihilation.

Maybe William Blake said it best:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

For Blake, a natural gnostic, all tigers were framed by an impersonal order that had no thought about tigers or humans; an indifferent system of wheels within wheels that was both mindless and without thought. The poet Blake, emphasizes the importance of the human imagination. Systems of thought, philosophies or religions, when separated from men, destroy what is human. Like many of his era Imagination, not Intellect or Passion was the central aspect to man’s exit from the horrors of universal impersonalism that surrounded him on all sides. All gods, religions, philosophies resided in the human breast, but we had externalized them to the point that now they’d escaped us and were ruling over us like blind unreasoning forces. “The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions, / Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.” We wander in a zone of pure death and have forgotten our true home. This hellish paradise is both our glory and our ultimate fate, born of catastrophe we die the lives of angels, and live the lives of demons.

Yet, for Land, this, too, is myth and wishful thinking. There is no escape from this kenoma, only annihilation. Land has taken despair and turned it into a joyful acceptance of Nietzschean “amor fati” – the eternal return is the only exit we can know, our fatum. Yet, unlike the Cosmos of the ancient Greeks where harmony and order ruled, in Land’s Cosmos there is nothing but the impersonal energetic forces of a groundless ground immanent to all degradation and corruption, the eternal return of chaos in motion and happening. For Land if the Universe is an abortion, man is it primal advocate; man is the abortion of a fetid thought.

 “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
— Nietzsche

Philosophical speculation gives way to the empirical machinations of artificial intelligence, algorithmic calculations and the impersonal data grafts of an indifferent world of technology and inhuman thought. As philosophy gives way to artificial life we begin to access the inhuman future of those ancient angelic intelligences for whom the universe is an infinite mechanism of interconnecting engines of creation and destruction, a veritable consuming machine whose blind machinations is indifferent and beyond appeal. As biological man moves beyond the limits of his organic existence, shaping his intelligence to the iron law of this indifferent cosmos he will discover a deeper and more infinite putrefaction; the slow metamorphosis from human to inhuman and artificial existence will not give him the freedom he expects, but will instead enmesh him mercilessly into the necromantic arts of a vast and indomitable system of emptiness without end. Locked into the dark folds of this seething sea of energy he will spend out his eternity in the wastelands of oblivion, a mind hollowed out by its dreams of reason, it will know only the tumescence of an engorged festival of death; a death, cold and indifferent, solitary and emptied of its last vestiges of human affect, immortal at last.

Irony awakens death from sleep.

If one could reduce the portrayal of Land to one aphoristic ensemble, then one must depict him as a member of that dark tribe who sees in the modern veneration of the intellect a blueprint for spiritual gulags and the corruption of the world. Indeed, for Land, man’s task is to wash himself in the black cesspools of dead stars, for futility is not hopelessness; futility is a reward for those seeking to rid themselves of the epidemic of life and the virus of hope. Probably, this image best befits the man who many might describe as a fanatic without any convictions a stranded accident in the cosmos who casts a nostalgic gaze towards the abyss beyond which nothing remains but nothingness and absolute zero, a terminal zone of pure annihilation.

 Screen Shot 10-26-15 at 09.53 AM
 Emile Cioran

  1. Rohlf, Michael, “Immanuel Kant“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Quentin Meillassoux.  After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. (2008, London: Continuum)
  3. Nick Land. A Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992)
  4. Hans Jonas. The Gnostic Religion (Beacom Press, 2001)
  5. Georges Bataille. Visions of Excess (University of Minnesota, 1985)
  6. Harold Bloom. Omens of Millennium. (Riverhead Books, 1996)
  7. Holzwege. Martin Heidegger. Klostermann (February 1, 2003)

13 thoughts on “The Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

  1. “The sciences grew out of a deep and abiding hatred and fear of religion and magical or occult practices.” <–not sure how this squares with the fact that all the early scientists (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, etc.) were religious and/or occultists? On my reading, modern science grew out of a strange mix of Christian scholastic rationalism, alchemy, hermeticism, and neoplatonism.


    • I’m not writing a scholarly history here: I included your listing under the rubric of religion and occult (magical, alchemic, hermetic, etc.). You’re just being pedantic to a point. I was being general not pedantic. Obviously from Ficino, Bruno, Newton, Dee, Agrippa, among others were a mixture of both, yet many like Bruno despised the officialdom of Church scholastics of their day and scorned as well as feared the repercussions of the Inquisition and other following labors of the Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant terrors… even now one sees the wars against science in our own age… You can write your own history, defend it by whatever means, but in the end the sciences led to the secularization of thought not religion. Even now the resurgence of religion in thought and philosophy seems an aberration and defensive gesture against the progressive Enlightenment. Even my own secularization of gnostic themes has its own history and undercurrents, its degradations.

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      • Fair enough. I am a fan of the Yates thesis and have been influenced by Charles Taylor’s very detailed and well argued “A Secular Age” that paints a very different picture. So I jumped in to be pedantic. I will finish your whole post before responding further!

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    • I’ll never understand how you manage to write so much! If you’ll forgive me, I may make comments here as I read through your engaging post.

      “The point of the modern neurosciences is that Kant’s Transcendental Subject is blind to its own foundations or ground, it has no access to the given entity of its own formation, the brain.”

      This was true already for Kant, who was careful to point out that the subject has no direct access to its own self-activity (no intellectual intuition). The mind can only experience itself via inner intuition as an appearance. The underlying ground of the mind’s appearance to itself remains beyond reach. I don’t think anything we have learned *or could possibly learn* from the neurosciences changes this. We can stare at and theorize about the meaning of fMRI scans all day: they are still appearances that reveal nothing about the formative process of mentality.

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      • I’ll assume there is a point to be made here? Obviously the neurosciences are still in their infancy (less than 20 years old). Real-time brain mapping and monitoring is considered by many as one of the most exciting developments in neuroscience today. At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a scanning device which measures the brain’s magnetic field in real-time is allowing clinicians to more accurately pinpoint those areas of the brain causing epileptic seizures. The scanner also can aide in the diagnosis and study of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia and schizophrenia.

        That they have yet to uncover the actual movement of thought or consciousness is not the issue. That the brain performs its task before consciousness is now known, and it remains for empirical science to uncover at some future time the full implementation of this subtle fabric of consciousness. To assume differently is to just expose one’s agonistic fear of the sciences. I think philosophy will return to its original goal of the love of wisdom rather than trying to outdo the sciences on their own terrain. The traditions of self-reflection on the mental processes of the Mind will become a part of the continuing empirical pursuit of sciences rather than philosophy. Philosophy will turn to other tasks… Like Land I believe philosophy will find new pursuits and tasks rather than subordinating itself to science. It may as Badiou has shown pursue various other philosophical regions.

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  2. I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.

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    • You say: “The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory.”

      Yes, I understand you’re a critic of this supposed perspective. “Molecular magic”? is that science? Are your observation of what you’ve read in natural language translations of scientific findings? To me the issue is Language at the moment… Philosophy is caught in a double-bind, its inherent tools limit it to a narrow spectrum of heuristics, namely our linguistic and mathematical heritage: a long growth in environmental testing, both empirical and non-empirical theoretic and abstraction. The history of philosophy is between our turn outward, realizing that our empirical data and that which cannot be brought to bare under sense-data; and, our theoretic and abstract data, mathematic and symbolic, etc. We’ve battled for two centuries over naming this ill-defined territory of the Mind: What is it? Can it be mapped? Can it be reduced to categories of the Mind (Kant), functions of the Brain (neuroscience), etc. All of it bound to the myth of the given (Sellars), as if we could define the “blank” or “blind spot” in our own knowledge, with the very knowledge that was originally used not to question our Minds but our environments. We go in circles over and over again, just as you are in holding to the spiritual and mental worlds of philosophical speculation.

      To me both are nice fictions to discuss what is actually again as Nietzsche once said “perspectives on the impossible in thought”. Nihilism stepped in because all these systems of description failed us, failed to produce any actual positive knowledge. Where does that leave us? Are we like those blind mice in the maze, learning new tricks, being fed by the unknown drives, filters, blanks in our Mind? Pragmatism takes the path of “what works”, what can be put to work… So neuroscience is not explanatory, it only produces what works, what cures illness, what delimits and controls our behaviors, our modes of literal perception. So yes it does not try to explain consciousness. I doubt that nut can be cracked (my opinion).

      So in many ways we’re in agreement. Philosophers dabble in explanations, while scientists make use of the data to do work. I doubt the two will ever agree on what consciousness “is”, because their work, their professions, their questions are actually separate. So yes, even those supposed scientists that try to explain consciousness reenter philosophy or non-philosophy by the back door, get stuck in the same metaphysical quandaries. So why should scientists even bother? I’d say they should rather drop philosophizing altogether and get on with the job at hand… The philosopher if he has work must deal with the repercussions of the scientists work: the effects upon the Real, the world, our bodies and lives… new a value systems not bound to outmoded ideologies, religious, or non-religious. Instead our world has changed, and for the better or worse there is a battle over what humans want – their goals for civilization and planetary, and, even galactic and cosmic ends; and, that is not a question the sciences can answer. That once again brings us back to philosophy’s ancient heritage in the love of wisdom… We do ourselves ill if we think eliminating either science or philosophy is a good thing, both have their place and neither should be the handmaiden of the other; both have specific missions in defining our thought and work, to blend them or even to tie them together would be a mistake. Yet, to create boundaries between them would be erroneous as well, instead they need to understand just what their place is, what their work is, what their goals are rather than continue an error prone evasion of each other’s priority and authority over life and humanity.

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      • When I say “molecular magic,” I am referring to the miracle that would be required to explain how extended matter could become intentional mind. I believe you know my perspective on this is that “matter” is the most abstract concept ever imagined. Concretely speaking, the microcosm–atoms, molecules, and all–must already be “minded” in some sense, else there’s just no non-miraculous way to get to consciousness of the sort we are used to as humans. “Emergence” is great for getting from single cells to metazoa. But I think we need to do better than that for the supposed leap from “matter” to mind.

        The critical/transcendental breakthrough inaugurated by Kant need not lead to a dizzying infinite regress. The seemingly infinite regression of subjectivity making an object of itself can itself grant us a new kind of self-understanding: we are not subject-substances, we are groundless, self-creating processes (we can thank Fichte and Schelling for this insight).

        I do believe we see eye to eye on the sciencephilosophy quandary. I do not want to keep scientists from doing what they do best. I would of course prefer that their research questions weren’t shaped by profit-seeking corporations and power-seeking defense contractors. But hey, what can you do.

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      • For me there is no magic involved. What I think is that we just don’t know what we don’t know: a circular logic of no value, but the truth none the less. The Mind that would understand the Mind is unable to make that leap because if was not engineered that way; not engineered to explain just this particular kind of paradox. To add such concepts as “mindfulness” (a Buddhist concept) is to add what is essentially just another fiction of interpretation, rather than an explanation. Of course we all do that, even I. Hell what else to de have but our presumed fictions? We are all trapped in our various fictions, arguing over which one gets us closer to some “truth,” when even Nietzsche observes that truth itself is just a fiction we all agree to agree on. Scientists have no corner of truth, they all supposedly form some kind of collective peer agreement on a working truth – a sort of mobile truth always open to revision. But as we all know the sciences are still about power, money, corruption, and politics – at least in our age. The old adagio of the sciences or even philosophy being pure pursuits of knowledge died out for lack of support in the sphere of finance. Science is bound to politics and money goals and ends. So the idea that it will relinquish its money base and happily forgo the corporate backers who fund all the foundations, think-tanks, medical systems, space-ventures, etc. is to be blind to currents in our world. I know you know this.

        Both of us have our own value systems that support us. Mine tends toward the modern nihilistic traditions, yet with the underlying notion that matter is not longer solid nor atomic, but has become uncertain, quantum, and dark… So for me the enemy is substantialism and the Platonic-Aristotelian formalisms and archetypal reliance of transcendence.

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    • “The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. ”

      So, Matthew, we should never conceive guiding hypothesis and try to prove them out with evidence (until other evidence proves otherwise)? Your “cart before the horse” (or “chicken and egg”) critique doesn’t really hold up.

      What if we do, at some point, prove conclusively that our consciousness is in fact produced by (inside) the brain? Would you be willing to walk back your emotional “molecular magic” idea here and accept that fact? I suspect you wouldn’t, or won’t, and may even refuse to … even in light of that evidence.

      The truth is, we don’t know. But even the proponents of the “materialism is dead” paradigm don’t know. The odds are, our real experiences are based on a physical reality in its entirety, but proving the “unknowns” presents an eternal barrier will allow us to deny this reality for the remainder of time.

      tl;DR – we won’t figure it out.


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