Perhaps this gives us a minimal definition of materialism: the irreducible distance between the two vacuums.
……– Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing
In Michael W. Clune’s excellent essay Loving the Alien: Thomas Ligotti and the Psychology of Cosmic Horror (LA Review of Books: Jan 26 2016) I find what many would affirm a non-human reading of these two masters of Horror. As Clune will remark, “perhaps Lovecraft’s most ardent recent lovers have been philosophers like Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and Eugene Thacker, who approach his work with a new kind of intellectual intensity. These philosophers see Lovecraft as effecting a kind of Copernican revolution. In story after story, he depicts the invasion of the human world by a monstrous perspective, embodied in hideous forms of alien life. But what makes Lovecraftian horror genuinely cosmic is the capacity of the monstrous perspective to put humans in their place.”
In a recent book The Nonhuman Turn (Richard Grusin, Series Editor) Grusin will delimit this field of thought telling us the “nonhuman turn more generally, is engaged in decentering the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman, understood variously in terms of animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies”.1 Clune for his part speaks to the monstrousness of things, saying of Lovecraft: the monstrous perspective of Lovecraft’s invention presents the ultimate challenge to anthropomorphism, which these thinkers argue became endemic to philosophy with the work of Immanuel Kant. It’s this decentering of the humanist and Judeo-Christian heritage locked in its fantasy of Man as the exception in the grand scheme of things, as the being created by God – a “little lower than the angels, only to ultimately rule over them” (KJB). In Kant’s time Enlightenment Reason was the central motif of the human, the light that guided thought and politics, that brought emancipation and the sciences, gave us the truth of the universe of things, etc. Some call this era the “great disenchantment”. Nietzsche’s “Death of God” or the nihilist liberation of the universe from its significations and meanings. An age when the universe lost its human meaning and regained its own truth: the truth of meaninglessness, impersonalism, and indifference to human wants or needs. The universe was devoid of human meaning or gods and would hence forth be ruled by the mastery and power of Reason alone. Yet, the bourgeoisie would take this as meaning the universe could be stripped bare of its resources for the utilization of men for profit and gain: the capitalist credo.
So as Clune tells us these “philosophers imitate Lovecraft by resolutely pushing to the margins our own interest in the world, our own desire for the world, our own experience of the world. They tell us that we should strive to see ourselves as the puny and fundamentally insignificant beings we are. We need to abandon our comforting illusions of a human-centered world and orient our thought to the vast cold universe of things. We must inquire how things look from the perspective of the things themselves; we must attend to the world without us.”
Yet, I wonder sometimes about this nonhuman turn and whether it is just another academic bandwagon pop-philosophy of the moment that seeks to corner some niche in the scholarly grist-mill. What I mean by this is the simple fact that we may talk of perceiving things from their own perspective – the nonhuman perceiving on its own autonomously, but isn’t this, too, just a fantasy; a way of speaking, rhetoric and nothing more. After reading for several years in Speculative Realism from Quentin Meillassoux through Harman, Bogost, Morton, Bryant; as well as DeLanda and the vitalist materialists or any number of new Media-Theorists of nonhuman or other decenterments of the human I have yet to see how this is more than a linguistic trick, a game of poetry and words rather than something we could actually know by way of experience or intellect (intuition or understanding), etc. Who exactly is it that would “look from the perspective of things themselves”? Not you or I, and certainly not those nonhuman philosophers. So would those things-in-themselves suddenly rise up and speak, tell us just what they perceive? Isn’t this change of perspective just a way of “speaking,” a trope, a turn of phrase, a mere piece of sophistry; pure rhetoric and spin on a conceptual notion that is actually a non-concept, since only humans that we know of have epistemic or ontological capacities and powers to reflect or even self-reflect upon third or first person singular actions and activities?
As much as I’ve enjoyed all this fantasy of nonhuman objects, hyperobjects, and the dance of sentient perspective form panpsychist to polypsychist notions that things have perceptions, there is as yet no way to prove this – at least scientifically. But this is the stickler for most of these nonhumanists, science is reductionary and based on an outmoded methodology of Objectivity and description that they see as just wrongheaded and out of joint. I keep asking myself: if that is so, then why do the sciences work? How did the atom bomb ever split on that infamous day? How has a an AI recently beat a GO champion at his own best game. How did a scientist and entrepreneur recently implant himself with electrodes and manipulate wirelessly a computer? Science works. What about philosophy?
Most of philosophy has returned to metaphysics in search of sustenance and a new path forward. Yet, even Clune wonders out loud: “Can it be that this strict avoidance of anthropomorphism is itself a mystification? Are we afraid to peer too deeply into our experience of the Lovecraftian abyss? Do we fear learning the nature of our desire for what Lovecraft offers?”
Exactly! Maybe instead of peering into that abyss we are so busy filling it up with dreams and fantasies of speaking objects, and nonhuman things with lives and perceptions of their own that we forget just what it is that drove us away from the human center to begin with. What if what we fear is the abyss in ourselves? That we seek to cover up this wild mistake, this accident of the human, consciousness, this strange and disquieting guest and “vanishing mediator” between all those nonhuman Things-in-themselves and the fantasy worlds of our cultural and symbolic realms of the human. What if what we seek to escape is not the human, but its lies, its fictions, its fantasies? To reenter the gap of self-reflecting nothingness – the abyss of our own being, our freedom – free of the rhetorical garbage heap of culture that has overdetermined our worlds for far too long.
Maybe what we’re afraid of is looking into that Lovecraftian abyss and discovering the rude truth: that the abyss is empty, a Void, a great vastation of nothingness in which the monstrous quantum flux of immaterial sparks flash in and out of existence. That underneath the mask of appearances lies nothingness, a great empty Void:
What if we posit that “Things-in-themselves” emerge against the background of the Void of Nothingness, the way this Void is conceived in quantum physics, as not just a negative void, but the portent of all possible reality? This is the only true consistent “transcendental materialism” which is possible after the Kantian transcendental idealism. For a true dialectician, the ultimate mystery is not “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but “Why is there nothing rather than something?” (Zizek, Less Than Nothing: p. 239).
In fact as Clune tells it this is the central vision of Thomas Ligotti, inheritor of the crown from Lovecraft: “Ligotti gives this wild impulse to surrender our human way of seeing things its proper name: vice. His protagonists voluptuously give themselves over to it. They seek disciplines and practices that will give them the capacity to see the human world as a deceptive veil, “an ornamented void.” ” He’ll further quote Ligotti, of those who wish to live “…in unwavering acceptance of the spectral nature of things.” Organic and inorganic matter pushes through the familiar shapes of the human world and warps them. Our world dissolves in fantastic shapes and unreal colors, “appearances cast out of emptiness.” Zizek will speak of the two vacuums or voids and the Higgs field, saying,
“…introduc[ing] a distinction between two vacuums”: first, there is the “false” vacuum in which the Higgs field is switched off, i.e., there is pure symmetry with no differentiated particles or forces; this vacuum is “false” because it can only be sustained by a certain amount of energy expenditure. Then, there is the “true” vacuum in which, although the Higgs field is switched on and the symmetry is broken, i.e. there is a certain differentiation of particles and forces, the amount of energy spent is zero. In other words, energetically, the Higgs field is in a state of inactivity, of absolute repose. At the beginning, there is the false vacuum; this vacuum is disturbed and the symmetry is broken because, as with every energetic system, the Higgs field tends towards the minimization of its energy expenditure. This is why “there is something and not nothing”: because, energetically, something is cheaper than nothing. (LTN, p. 240)
The realms of quantum pre-ontological vacuums out of which the phenomenological baryonic worlds of matter all around us arises. What is crucial to note with the Higgs field is that the two vacuums whose existence it posits are not by any means equal: rather than encountering a mere polarity, a two-sided principle that brings together a delicate dance of opposites like light and day, life and death, fullness and lack, into equilibrium, we see a constitutive imbalance. 2 As Carew relates it:
Once we apply this principle cosmologically as a metaphysical principle, instead of having an eternal repetition of creation (breaking of the symmetries) and its destruction (return to the void), reality and its disappearance into the abyss, we come across a “displaced One, a One which is, as it were, retarded with regard to itself, always already ‘fallen,’ its symmetry always already broken.” (Carew, p. 240)
Almost as if in contradistinction to the Christian creationists who see the universe as fallen in sin, lost within the sorrows of ancient chaos and time. Or the Gnostics who saw the universe as the catastrophic creation of a demon god, the Demiurge, fallen son of Sophia, a blind god bound immanently with the particles of the churning ocean of time, the very embodiment of pain and suffering, the infernal desires of the death drive in all its endless “rotary” of drives in the ocean of Being. A nod to the later Spinozistic God of substance and blind determinism. Yet, against these two readings above Zizekian metaphysics relates us to the two voids: out of this blind universe of determinism and Ananke, or Necessity, something strange and uncanny arises: a gap is opened in the darkness of being and time, a self-reflecting nothingness born out of a traumatic event: an antagonistic freedom: the ‘false vacuum’ cannot simply be dismissed as a mere illusion, leaving only the ‘true’ vacuum, so that the only true peace is that of incessant activity, of balanced circular motion—the ‘true’ vacuum itself remains forever a traumatic disturbance.” (Carews, p. 241) Zizek says, But why? –
For the precise reason that without this primordial antagonism we could not explain the minimal distinction between the void and its vibrations, between the nothing and the ontologically incomplete realities barely distinguishable from it—in short, how the symmetries between particles and forces could have been broken in the first place. (C, p. 241)
So here we are in the gap between the Real and the Symbolic bound between the two like an engine of fright, terrified of the one, comforted by the illusory worlds of fantasy of the other, restless and full of that melancholy light of freedom that keeps us striving to know and understand. The reason Žižek can say that if “[t]he answer to ‘Why is there Something rather than Nothing?’ is thus that there is only Nothing, and all processes take place ‘from Nothing through Nothing to Nothing,’” then “this nothing is not the Oriental or mystical Void of peace, but the nothingness of a pure gap (antagonism, tension, ‘contradiction’), the pure form of dislocation ontologically preceding any dislocated content,” thus radically changing our very notion of nothingness itself. (C, p. 241)
Clune in his essay will mention the critic Rei Terada tells us about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Romantic, proto-Ligottian practice of certain optical illusions that lift the burden of reality slightly: a squint in the eyes in which things are seen in the right way, the streetlamp outside looks like it is submerged beneath flowing water. He’ll say: What happened? – “A little gap opened between appearance and reality. For a moment, the streetlamp looked different. It looked as if it belonged to another world than the one I know. At such moments I am like the protagonist of Ligotti’s greatest story, “Vastarien”: “a votary of that wretched sect of souls who believe that the only value of this world lies in its power — at certain times — to suggest another.””
What is this other world? The very void of which we’ve been speaking, the nothingness out of which all pre-ontological things become part of our universe of ontologically real entities. What Ligotti more than even Lovecraft tries to reveal is the visible darkness of this Void of the Real. As Clune mentions, in Ligotti’s the “The Dreaming in Nortown” the antagonist will say: “All that was needed to shatter this acceptance waited outside — something of total unacceptability atop a rickety scaffold of estrangement.” What is needed Zizek tells us is to “traverse the fantasy,” to allow ourselves to work through the symbolic codes and illusions of the Symbolic Order that has pulled its ideological blinkers over our minds, its defense mechanisms against the truth, and then to wander free of this human(ist) world into the inhuman world of the Real around us. Yet, do not wonder too closely, for it might just burn you beyond recall. Insofar as this gap or crack in things cannot be mediated with the absolute, it presents itself as “the non-dialectical ground of negativity,” so that “[t]he old metaphysical problem of how to name the nameless abyss pops up here in the context of how to name the primordial gap: contradiction, antagonism, symbolic castration, parallax, diffraction, complementarity, up to difference.” But the name that is perhaps best suited to this is the subject. (C, p. 242)
As Clune reminds us Ligotti’s tales are “allegories of a style of writing that carries out guerilla warfare against the familiar world”. To free ourselves of the Symbolic Order of illusions, the ideological constructs of political, the socio-cultural systems of signification and meaning is to join the war for the Real. What we need is a politics of the Real. Not one that would lead us into it, but one that would allow us to know it for what it is, to unbind our minds from the illusions that have been imposed on us from childhood by our authoritarian worlds of education, and national or global systems. To as Zizek has said repeatedly “tarry with the negative”. Not to transcend it in some rapture of the Real which would only destroy us, but to situate ourselves in the gap of freedom without grasping after some fantasy of safety, truth, myth to fill that gap up again and fall back into the illusions of comfort and the sleep of reason.
In fact as Clune asks: “Who is it that feels liberation when the weight of life is lifted? Who is it that feels infinity flower as the appearances of the human world drift free of the things?” His answer:
If in Ligotti’s cosmic horror “unreal” names the desired object of perception, then “unborn” names the desired subject of perception. The one who opens himself to the uncanny experience of the disintegration of the human world, discovers in himself a trace of someone or something that is not human.
Is this not the Subject as self-reflecting nothingness, free of the Symbolic Order of humanism, all the fantasies and illusory comforts of those apotropaic charms of society and civilization, literature, philosophy, science, poetry, etc. shorn from our being, left with the bare minimum the “homo sacer” where at last we discover that abyss within ourselves of the inhuman core. As Zizek says in Less Than Nothing:
This, perhaps, is how one can imagine the zero-level of creation: a red diving line cuts through the thick darkness of the void, and on this line, a fuzzy something appears, the object-cause of desire—perhaps, for some, a woman’s naked body (as on the cover of this book). Does this image not supply the minimal coordinates of the subject-object axis, the truly primordial axis of evil: the red line which cuts through the darkness is the subject, and the body its object? (C, p. 243)
This is the empty place between the void and the void, a slight perturbation and fluctuation between two realms: the brokenness of Being and Void in which the Subject arises in freedom.
- The Nonhuman Turn (Richard Grusin, Series Editor) Center for 21st Century Studies. (21st century studies) 2015 (Page iv).
- Carew, Joseph. Ontological Catastrophe: Zizek and the Paradoxical Metaphysics of German Idealism (New Metaphysics). (Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, October 29, 2014)