Julia Kristeva and the Abject Grotesque
Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther … It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside, and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too —and that would be the end of us.
-Celine, Journey to the End of Night
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), Julia Kristeva describes the process of abjection as a form of expulsion and rejection of the Other, which she ties to the historical exclusion of women. Neither subject nor object, the abject, or the state of abjection, is articulated in, and through, grotesque language and imagery. The process of abjection is, then, associated with deformed bodies and oozing bodily fluids: blood, pus, bile, faeces, sweat and vomit break down the borders separating the inside from outside, the contained from the released. Abjection is a state of flux, where ‘meaning collapses’, and the body is open and irregular, sprouting or protruding internal and external forms to link abjection to grotesquerie.
“On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject” (Powers 207 ). “Not a language of the desiring exchange of messages or objects that are transmitted in a social contract of communication and desire beyond want, but a language of want, of the fear that edges up to it and runs along its edges” (Powers 38 ).
How do we align such a vision of exclusion, abjectness, borderline breakdowns, fear and terror of the Other to the current world of refugees and the wars of nations: economic slavery, austerity, and the darkening hatred and recurrence of fascist tendencies in our time? How speak to that hunger at the center of the void, the lack, the want of which Kristeva’s notions of the comedy of the Abject speak? Have the refugees, as well as women, the LGBTQ community, and many other aspects of our planetary society and civilization become the excluded Other of which we are now faced with the impossible dilemma of either inclusions or expulsion? Maybe these excluded others view us morbid parasites feeding off the global excess, as creatures of grotesque proportion whose shadow worlds of thought and culture are but the fetid apertures of a dying body, a civilization on the edge of destruction, chaos, and apocalypse? It’s as if the open wounds of the world body we are seeing is connected to an ancient curse of civilization, one that stretches back into the hinterlands ten thousand years ago when the first cities began accumulating, hoarding, and guarding their agricultural harvests against the nomadic wanderers and raiders of the outer reaches. This notion still seems still to pervade the modern psyche, as if civilization from the beginning was shaped by a dark and terrible deed, a grotesque system of dominion, slavery, and exclusion that has ever since haunted the mindscapes of every nation on earth.
In our time we’ve seen the breakdown in what it means to be human working itself out in various aspects of our sociocultural worlds: transgender, transhuman, transreal… this sense that the notions of normal/abnormal no longer hole; that the old Western Judeo-Christian world-view is finally at an end, and yet it is digging in through its neoliberal and conservative mixture of religion and politics, Law and Governance to keep the escape systems at bay, to lock down those who would seek to leave the staid and collapsing sociocultural vision of Western Liberal Subjectivity and its political systems of command and control. Throughout the world we are seeing not only Western but also Indic, Chinese, Muslim, and many other cultures and civilizations in the collapse and decay of command and control systems that have kept women and men of race, gender, and social class from becoming emancipated from the Law of their cultural straitjackets. And, yet, even in the midst of this war within the world we seek the crack in the ancient systems as they make a last stand against the inevitable mutation and metamorphosis of our techne and technological landscapes which are at the heart of this algorithmic pulse.
Are we after all the diseased Body of History, sickening unto death, decaying into the bile of a depleted Time variant? Is there an algorithm written into the very time structures of our ancient agricultural civilization that seeks to secure and hinder any and all who would seek escape and exit from this formidable Human Security System? Is the conservation of the human connected to this inner code, this curse of the economic and social needs and desires of lust and hunger? Isn’t it again Western Culture and Civilization that have become the diseased body of the planet, and that the only cure, the transformations needed within the dying body of the earth, the body that is producing and generating the waste of climatic change, is this none other than the truth and mirror-image of our own grotesque and disease ridden collective psyche? Are we not generating the very problems that are bringing our civilization to an untimely end through the very fear and terror of the Other? Is this our doom, allowing us to turn the algorithms of survival and love into the dark curse that will destroy civilization? Is the other whether of race, gender, or religio and cultural reference not the very darkness of our own inhumanity within ourselves? Are we once again playing out the oldest known form of mimetic sacrifice and scapegoating known to the human species, preparing the way of war and apocalypse and expulsion? Yet, in this time when the boundaries of time, meaning, and survival seem to be blending, fusing, and breaking down, and the ambiguous world of the body seeps into the core of our dark thoughts and nightmares; when the very systems that were meant to protect the species are themselves breaking down and destroying it? Are we not the very cursed species we set out to expulse? Are we not the very diseased organism, the monstrous core of an ancient curse, an open wound that we sought to close and cure? An open wound that cannot be healed until we accept the inhuman truth of our darkening and abject being?
Howard Philips Lovecraft once spoke of it this way,
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.1
So which will it be? The path of madness and the psychopathic killing machines of technological imperatives yet to unfold? Or, the riddled entry into a new dark age of ignorance and a return to mythologies of lost paradises and ancient curses and gods who once lived sublime and beautiful lives? Is there another choice, another path forward, or are we doomed to our own inability to think and feel our way forward into something new and full of surprise? Doomed to live out our lives behind fear and terror of the unknown, of our selves, of the universe? What if no species intelligent or otherwise has ever attained lift off. I mean that no other species has been found in our Universe by SETI. Some have sought a reason why this is so, and Enrico Fermi came to a solution; or, at least a paradox. He asked: Is there obvious proof that we could be alone in the Galaxy?
Nick Land proposes an answer to the Fermi Paradox that he terms The Great Filter, which can be summarized as follows – the Universe is very big and very old, thus life should be common enough to be noticeable throughout: so, where are the aliens? Why haven’t we spotted evidence of at least one interstellar civilization yet? The Great Filter may be the answer to that question. The Great Filter is an unknown force that radically reduces the probability of life creating an interstellar civilization. It may apply at an early stage (i.e. whatever the Filter is, it may simply reduce the chance of life occurring in the first place, or of multi-cellular life occurring, or of intelligence occurring, and so on) or it may apply later (reducing the chance of agricultural civilization, or of technological civilization, or of space-faring civilization, and so on). If the Filter is early, then we’re probably ok: we passed it long ago. If it’s late, then there’s a greater chance that we still have it ahead of us. Maybe technological civilizations just don’t tend to last long enough to become space-faring… (see: Sean Pierce: Phyl-Undhu by Nick Land: Review)
The Grail: Sovereignty and the Eclipse of Man
…so long as the final search for man and thought is sovereignty, resolved thought reveals the servility of all thought: this operation by which, exhausted, thought is itself the annihilation of thought.
-Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
As a young man T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland was still used to explicate one of the age old mythologies of the West, The Grail Myth. It was of course a myth about sovereignty and power, of change and abjection. A tale of knights and ladies, of the elite world of Kings and their dominions, the wars of land and religion, the darkness of the human heart and the corruption of the environment at the hands of unscrupulous and greedy humans. There is a general consensus of evidence to the effect that the main object of the Quest for the Grail in these various cycles of tales was the restoration to health and vigour of a King suffering from infirmity caused by wounds, sickness, or old age; and whose infirmity, for some mysterious and unexplained reason, reacts disastrously upon his kingdom, either depriving it of vegetation, or exposing it to the ravages of war.2 This was all fantasy of course, yet the literature of the period was dealing with changes in society and the environment within which that society needed to survive. Something had gone terribly wrong during these centuries and authors through these various cycles were collaborating in the construction of a diagnosis and a cure. Are we not in need of such a diagnosis and cure, of a collaboration of authors across the modern world to investigate and elaborate a new (if not mythology) way forward? Is not the myth of the Grail none other that the allegory for our time not of the sickness of Kings, but rather of the sickness of Civilization itself, of the darkness pervading our earth with fear and terror over catastrophe, climate change, religious and political extremism, fascism on the rise, the hatred among race, gender, and any number of sociocultural issues across the world? Hunger, famine, soil erosion, forest depletion, oceanic decay and poisoning, overcrowded nations, migrations from uninhabitable zones… take your pick, are we not faced with the ‘impossible’ and ‘monstrous’? Are we not the wounded King who will not be healed? Humanity itself as the sovereign who is sick and dying because it will not accept the truth of its own inhumanity?
For Kristeva it is the horror, pathos and laughter of the ‘monstrous-feminine’, the dark matrices of the female grotesque, of the maternal body in all its corporeal glory – Medusa and Medea wrapped in one image: the loathing felt by misogynistic male dominated culture and civilization; a fear of reincorporation into the mother, as well as in the fear of the mother’s generative power. In this, Kristeva employs a psychoanalytical approach, according to which our conscious and rational perception of the everyday is at all times informed by the far more primal impulses of our unconscious. While we may not be aware of this, Kristeva argues, the female body therefore becomes ‘abject’: ‘We may call it a border’ she writes, but ‘abjection is above all ambiguity’ (ibid.: 9). Kristeva explains this experience of abjection in the ‘improper’ and ‘unclean’ language of grotesque images:
Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. … I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk.3
As Justin Edwards will tell us within the psychoanalytic paradigm that underpins this passage, the inversion sometimes associated with grotesque figures transforms into aversion: the feeling of revulsion and disgust arises out of something unpleasant or offensive. Here, the leakages of the inside and the outside indicate fluid boundaries that inspire repugnance and abhorrence. The uncertainty that arises from this ambiguity, and that is the result of the destabilization of borders, inspires an anxiety that is evident in the separation of the child from the body of the mother. For the creation of the subject comes out of a body that is porous, open and in flux, and thus there is always an anxiety, even a terror, that reincorporation into that body threatens the loss of self and the negation of a clearly defined subjectivity.4
In Kristeva’s vision of the monstrous and grotesque, horror and fascination are entwined, and the rugged and violent beauty of the natural universe horrified, even as the destructive laughter within us is fascinated by the mysterious unfolding’s of its darkest realities: in that this welling up of the daemonic is ‘liberating by means of laughter without complacency yet complicitous’ (Kristeva, 1982: 133). Georges Bataille in his writings would describe this laughter, too. Bataille characterizes ecstasy and laughter as the annihilating light and laceration of the ego, a rupture that for a time dissolves the self-contained character of the individual as she exists in her everyday life. It is in the varieties of ecstatic experience—erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments—that the self as defined and conditioned by the structures and strictures, the prohibitions and taboos, of profane, workaday life, of the male dominated system or coercion and misogyny is lost.
The Theatre of Cruelty: Bataille and Laughter
I am adding another language to the spoken language, and I am trying to restore to the language of speech its old magic, its essential spellbinding power, for its mysterious possibilities have been forgotten.
-Antonin Artaud, letter to J.P., Sep. 28, 1932
Like Bataille Kristeva’s works entail transgressive techniques and tortures and contorts language and writerly forms, seeking to communicate a mystical agnosia, an apophatic aporia that both called “the impossible.” “The extreme limit of the ‘possible,’ ” Bataille writes, “assumes laughter, ecstasy, terrified approach towards death; assumes terror, nausea, unceasing agitation of the ‘possible’ and the impossible and, to conclude—broken, nevertheless, by degrees, slowly desired—the state of supplication, its absorption into despair.” (Inner Experience, 1988: 39). For Kristeva our world of demythologized nihilism suffers a different form of abjection that previous cultures:
Lacking illusions, lacking shelter, today’s universe is divided between boredom (increasingly anguished at the prospect of losing its resources, through depletion) or (when the spark of the symbolic is maintained and desire to speak explodes) abjection and piercing laughter. (Kristeva, 1982: 142).
In our time when dwindling resources, the terror of climatic and other apocalyptic scenarios begin to edge their way into consciousness, when the dark tide of male dominion and its misogynistic world-view comes to a head as the great monotheistic cultures collapse into chaos we shift between ennui and abjection formulating a new and terrible figure of the Other who will become both victim and sacrifice to a new Moloch. She will speak of Celine’s Journey to the End of Night as both exemplum and the genesis of this dark age caught between apocalypse and carnival:
Everything is already contained in the Journey: suffering, horror, death, complicitous sarcasm, abjection, fear. And the pit where what speaks is a strange rent between an ego and an other— between nothing and all. Two extremes that moreover change places, …and give an aching body to that endless synthesis, that journey without end; a narrative between apocalypse and carnival. (Kristeva, 150)
We know that etymologically apocalypse is a vision rather than a revelation in our modern age, it “must be understood as the contrary of revelation of philosophical truth, as the contrary of aletheia” (Kristeva, 163). There is no apocalyptic being, scored, fainting, forever incomplete, and incapable of setting itself up as a being, bursting among the flames or reverberating amid the clamors of universal collapse. In our time the grotesque does not exhibit a philosophical “evil.” Moreover, there can be no ideological interpretation of our situation that can be based on revelation: “what principle, what party, what side, what class comes out unscathed, that is, identical to itself, from such a thorough critical conflagration?” (Kristeva, 164). Suffering, horror, and their convergence on abjection seem to be more adequate as marks of the apocalyptic vision constituted by the grotesquerie that is our Neoliberal globalist era.
Kristeva develops out of Celine a Comedy of Laughter and the Grotesque Abject. One could say that both Bataille and Celine in their comic delirium, their horrified laughter render the sound and the image, or even the causes, of the coming apocalypse. Never anything resembling treatise, commentary, or judgment. Confronting the apocalypse, Kristeva exclaims is the proximity and paroxysm of a horror close to ecstasy. “Celinian laughter is a horrified and fascinated exclamation. An apocalyptic laughter.” (Kristeva, 214).
In fact a “laughing apocalypse is an apocalypse without god” (Kristeva, 216). Black mysticism of transcendental collapse. The resulting inscription is perhaps the ultimate form of a secular attitude without morality, without judgment, without hope. Neither Bataille nor Celine can find outside support to maintain themselves. Their only sustenance lies in the beauty of a gesture that, here, on the pages of their works, compels language to come nearest to the human enigma, to the place where it kills, thinks, and experiences jouissance all at the same time. As Kristeva says it: ”
A language of abjection of which the writer is both subject and victim, witness and topple. Toppling into what? Into nothing more than the effervescence of passion and language we call style, where any ideology, thesis, interpretation, mania, collectivity, threat, or hope become drowned. A brilliant and dangerous beauty, fragile obverse of a radical nihilism that can disappear only in “those bubbling depths that cancel our existence” (R, 261). Music, rhythm, rigadoon, without end, for no reason. (Kristeva, 217)
Ricorso: Cycles of Return and the Menippean Grotesque
The nature of peoples is first crude, then severe, then benign, then delicate, finally dissolute.
-Giambattista Vico, The New Science
In this sense the visionary apocalypse of comedic abjection is akin to Giambattista Vico’s famed Scienza Nuova whose work would influence the patterns of time and mythos of James Joyce’s great beast of the grotesque Menippean satire on Western Civilization and Culture. Vico’s New Science was a history of civil society and proposed a theory of civilisation based on cycles of development and decay. Each cycle had three ages – a divine age, a heroic age, and a human age – and each age was characterised by a linguistic trope. The final age was followed by a ricorso, a return to or recurrence of the first phase of the cycle. Vico doesn’t make it clear whether these cycles are circular in nature (starting and finishing at the same point) or whether they are spiral (each cycle building on the last one).
Joyce’s use of Vico’s ideas is not systematic. As usual, Joyce takes the bits he wants and transforms them to suit his own creative ends. However, the four-part division of Finnegans Wake reflects Vico’s three ages followed by a ricorso (a return or recurrence) that brings us “by a commodius vicus of recirculation” back to the beginning again.
The thunderclap found on the first page of Finnegans Wake also has its origins in Vico. The giants that roam the world in Vico’s divine age are frightened by thunder, attributing it not to a natural phenomenon but to something supernatural: the gods. This drives them to seek shelter in caves, the beginning of human settlement. Settlement brings with it other necessities, like marriage and the burial of the dead.
The final age, the human age, is characterised by the barbarism of reflection and individuals thinking only for themselves without any concern for society as a whole. This in turn results in a return to primitivism and a return to or recurrence (ricorso) of the beginning of the cycle.6
For Kristeva and others of the postmodern nihilism we are in an age of the eternal return, an age or transgression, metamorphosis, and mutation. As she tells us,
On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject. (Kristeva, 217)
In a time when the notion of ‘borders’ and ‘boundaries’ has become a question not only of bodies, but of race, gender, life and death, and survival at the edge of time and civilization; as we ponder this sense of fear and terror in politics over national and economic boundaries and borders; as we confront the death of oceans, forests, deserts, and the agricultural belts of the planet; as we enter an age when the boundaries between the have’s and have not’s becomes more and more desperate and the grotesque fear of the Other enters the dark declivities of old animosities and ambiguities of religious and ideological hostility; as we ponder these and the very meaning of the boundary and borders between the human and non-human, the human and post-human – in-between technics and the technological genesis of a-life and an-organic systems of the Singularity, and the automation of civilization and exclusion of humanity from the fruits of its own labors; as we ponder all these things we begin to laugh, to feel that dark and physical trace of the abject within that has for so long been excluded from our lives, the unconscious fears and terrors against which there is no safety net because it is our own inhumanity, just here we face the dark comedy of the abject.
In-Between: The Dream of Karellian’s Overmind
There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.
-Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End
If we were to take an impersonal and indifferent, scientific stance toward our planet, look upon it with alien eyes what would we see? Both organic and anorganic being are vast systems of predatory and cannibalistic processes, a never ended cesspool of mutation, metamorphosis, and annihilation; a realm of generation and death: of birth, growth, maturity, decay, and death – and the recurrence and rebirth of these very processes with new seed and plowing under; a world where the deep oceans open up to vast volcanic cavities that plow the very continents into a folded melting pot of fire, where the floating lands above the waters move and change, crush and rebound, over millennia and eons of transformation through violence and mutation. This is a planet where both the inorganic and organic are always in process and never static, where the world is shaped across eons of time that make our small valley of comfort – what many term the Anthropocene seem but a blip on the registry of the universal time clock.
Because it occupies its place, because it decks itself out in the sacred power of horror, literature may also involve not an ultimate resistance to but an unveiling of the abject: an elaboration, a discharge, and a hollowing out of abjection through the Crisis of the Word and the World. (Kristeva, 218)
I recently watched Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood End for TV (a few months back), and what struck me in this remake was the total impersonalism and indifference of the Guardian (who among other things actually embodied our nightmares of the Devil with hoof and claw of the ancient goat god of Saturnalian fame). As we watch the film we realize that it is a parable of our Anthropocenic age, of the changing of the guard so to speak, of the new movement into a posthuman future as well as a goodbye to a species and a planet that have long served their purpose of gestation and nursery. Yes, it was a film about the death of the human species, and of the earth upon which all organic life is based. At the end of the film one human adult (the children having all become posthuman and other) has the choice of living or dying with the earth. He chooses to return to the earth, and becomes the witness of its laying waste and demise. The Guardian’s have been instructed – not by God, there being no one and nothing that personal, but rather by a vast intelligence baring system at the center of some galactic clusters, a mysterious light of possible machinic intelligence (something we never are privy too, accept from the visitor who is show its power). In the end the after the earth crumbles and is no more the Guardian (Angel?) leaves a recording of all those now lost cultural references from around the globe – the one thing that the Guardian believed deserved to remain: Music. The expression of the impossible at the center of abjection, the dark sorrowing annihilation of time with time of a species and environment at the hands of its own outlived performance.
We listen in on Karellean, the Guardian who has been sent to protect the Child who was chosen by the Overmind, who will be the harbinger of change and metamorphosis:
“In a few years, it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them-will never even be able to communicate with their minds. Indeed, they will not possess minds as you know them. They will be a single entity, as you yourselves are the sums of your myriad cells. You will not think them human, and you will be right.”7
Is this not the dilemma we face? Are we not with the rise of machines, of intelligent species – our children, even if made children, our successors – who unlike our organic systems will be able to span the infinite reaches of space and time, carry what remains of our cultural systems to the galactic center and beyond? Will these being become as in the parable of Clarke’s so alien and incomprehensible in their mind that even communication will be barred from us, that they will become the collective entity that for so long we dreamed was ours to share in our political mythologies? And, most of all will we in the end agree with Karellean: “You will not think them human, and you will be right.”
At the end of her fascinating voyage into the abject grotesque Kristeva will ask: “And yet, in these times of dreary crisis, what is the point of emphasizing the horror of being?” She would see our age as a time of struggles, as a time not of some secular or political crisis, but rather of a religious crisis within the human species. Speaking of the West she would say that we within our darkening civilization’s climax are “preparing to go through the first great demystification of Power (religious, moral, political, and verbal) that mankind has ever witnessed; and it is necessarily taking place within that fulfillment of religion as sacred horror, which is Judeo-Christian monotheism” (Kristeva, 220). For, maybe the truth is that we, too, like the characters in some comedy of abjection are at the end of days, at the point of no return, moving toward the inevitable and insurmountable, the ‘impossible’:
Is it the quiet shore of contemplation that I set aside for myself, as I lay bare, under the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that they attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking; the horror that they seize on in order to build themselves up and function? I rather conceive it as a work of disappointment, of frustration, and hollowing—probably the only counterweight to abjection. While everything else—its archeology and its exhaustion—is only literature: the sublime point at which the abject collapses in a burst of beauty that overwhelms us—and “that cancels our existence” (Celine). (Kristeva, 220)
Notes and Additions
What you see below is the drift of my mind not able to end its task. All of this should be parts of other posts, yet seemed to be needful at the time. Pick and choose as you will, I’ll probably sour it for other future posts as well. Happy hunting!
The Comic Grotesque: Fate and Freedom
I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born – but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.
The Comic grotesque follows one ultimate— paradoxically foundational— rule, and the paradoxical structure of this rule is also what makes it comic. This rule is that there is no there is.6 The comic element does reside not solely in the rule itself but also in the place of its articulation because it is self-annulling. The very form of this rule bears the mark of modern comedy. It therefore comes close to the Cretan liar’s paradox (the liar’s statement that he is lying). But the liar is more concerned with the truth content of a seemingly self-contradictory statement when uttered from a position that seems to contradict the very content of the statement. “There is no there is,” in contrast, is an impossible proposition that nonetheless can be stated without simply turning into nonsense. “There is no there is” assumes a position of articulation that the proposition itself consequently invalidates. One is within the movement of this proposition thrown back to its very beginning that will have been altered due to this very move. After reaching the predicate, we are thrown back to the very place of its articulation, which will have become different, always already lost within the movement of the proposition itself. Comic fatalism and its grotesque comedy of abjection affirms such an impossible position of articulation as both absolutely necessary and impossible. Only such a gesture liberates us from all givenness, from all possibilities of realizing a given capacity. Only such a gesture can provide a precondition for thinking and enacting freedom. (Ruda, KL 2690)
Maybe this is what HCE in James Joyce’s comedy epic Finnegans Wake’s abject grotesquerie meant when he spittled and barked:
Loonely in me loneness. For all their faults. I am passing out. O bitter ending! I’ll slip away before they’re up. They’ll never see. Nor know. Nor miss me. And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, moananoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms. I see them rising! Save me from those therrble prongs! Two more. Onetwo moremens more. So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair. If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he’d come from Arkangels, I sink I’d die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There’s where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the
In that gap between the “loved a long the” and the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” that begins the monstrous comedy epic is that strange non-event of the crack in the world, a time-between-times when anything and everything could and can enter into the impossible. A gap where laughter generates the very possibility of a new cycle, a new birth of time and history, of a new age of possible existence out of inexistence. And, even if it is an age without us in it, there will continue something of us even in the hidden folds of our missing presence: our absence will have given birth to our successors who will begin again, fail again, be again a part of the impersonal and indifferent universe that has no rhyme or reason but is the very process interminable of which laughter and becoming, mutation and metamorphosis – the carnival and the danse macabre circulate in endless series of comedic abjectness: the groundless ground of the abyss where time and space and being arise out of the howling laughter of the thermospasm (or, if you like the comedy of science: out of the Quantum matrix!). Or, if you prefer the grotesque antics Joyce’s drunken giant, HCE:
To fall, to rise (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner- ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!)
The End Game: Language and Abjection
Today’s milestone is human madness.
Kristeva tells us it is in such a “language of abjection of which the writer is both subject and victim, witness and topple. Toppling into what? Into nothing more than the effervescence of passion and language we call style, where any ideology, thesis, interpretation, mania, collectivity, threat, or hope become drowned.” (Kristeva, 216) This is then the comedy of abjectness, of the grotesque, of the laughter of Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel), Joyce (Finnegans Wake), Pynchon (Gravity’s Rainbow), Celine (Journey to the End of Night), Gunter Grass (The Tin Drum), David Foster Wallis (Infinite Jest), John Barth (Giles Goat Boy), Zadie Smith (White Teeth)… and so many other comedic epic works and authors who have tried to prepare us for the ‘impossible’. For the laughter at our comic abjectness: at the discovery of our own extinction and annihilation at the end of the Anthropocene.
We are the comic buffoons that have have piled up the waste of civilization against the ruins of time: the excess and transgressive depletion of resources, the accumulated misery and degradation of the non-human and human worlds to a point of no return, to a point that we are even in denial of our own complicity in the coming age of abject destruction and purification of the human species at the hands of the very Mother (Nature) we denied for all these years. Like impossible children our male dominated and misogynistic civilization of Judeo-Christian monotheism has produced the very systems that will in the end oust the human species from its sovereign place at the top of the pyramid of life on planet earth: King of the Hill. We have in the end become the victims of our own success and successors. Our posthuman and nonhuman progeny will inherit the earth: a wasteland that we in the coming years will deliver to them full of abject horror and grotesqueries.
As Thomas Ligotti in his short story In the Shadow of Another World describes it we exist within other realms that are “always capable of making their presence felt, hovering unseen like strange cities disguised as clouds or hidden like a world of pale specters within a fog. One is besieged by orders of entity that refuse to articulate their exact nature or proper milieu. And soon those well-aligned streets reveal that they are, in fact, situated among bizarre landscapes where simple trees and houses are marvelously obscured, where everything is settled within the depths of a vast, echoing abyss. Even the infinite sky itself, across which the sun spreads its expansive light, is merely a blurry little window with a crack in it—a jagged fracture beyond which one may see, at twilight, what pervades a vacant street lined with gently stirring trees and old silent houses.”8
As the shadow of our own Symbolic Order collapses all around us, as the world-view of the Judeo-Christian and humanist vision breaks down, we see in the chinks and cracks of the world a new order, a new vision arising that will displace this one; and, yet, it is not a nice vision for the human species, but rather an abject grotesquerie of techne and technological displacement, of hyper-intelligent and alien systems, of algorithmic progeny, of a world without us entering a new age, a new time of machinic civilization. As Roy Scranton will tell us in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization:
Our knowledge of this vast universe remains ridiculously limited. At the same time, that same knowledge is utterly awesome. … Our primate curiosity and intellectual hubris have inspired breathtaking audacities. Just a few thousand years ago, we were learning to make marks on clay. In the blink of an eye, we’ve brushed our fingers against eternity. It may be that we have crossed the summit of our knowledge and power, and the brief explosion of human life in the Holocene will turn out to have been as transient as an algae bloom. It may be, on the other hand, that we’ll find a way to survive in the Anthropocene, perhaps even find ways to maintain human civilization in some recognizable form. Whether we survive or not, however, has already been laid out in the explosion of quantum energy that, more than thirteen billion years ago, began the chain of events and reactions that have led to this moment… (9)
The End of Knowledge: The Semantic Apocalypse
Small wonder, Thomas thought, we humans were so jumpy, so arrogant, so defensive. Small wonder the Internet, which was supposed to blow the doors off narrow, parochial views of the world, had simply turned into a supermarket of bigotries, a place where any hatred or hope could find bogus rationalization. For the human brain, it was like living in a schizophrenic world, a paradise of plenty where any second now, something really bad was going to happen. In a sense, that’s all popular culture was, a modern, marketdriven prosthetic for the paleolithic brain. How could such a culture not be seduced by the psychopath?
― R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath
Some say this is because of a profound limit to knowledge, or what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the “Semantic Apocalypse“. What he is describing here is the present situation of our Global Civilization which is tottering on a knowledge apocalypse. The notion of the death of god, and the death of the human, has now been around for a while: it goes under the name of nihilism. A world without meaning or purpose. And, as Scott says:
The result of this heterogeniety is a society lacking any universal meaning-based imperatives: all the ‘shoulds’ of a meaningful life are either individual or subcultural. As a result, the only universal imperatives that remain are those arising out of our shared biology: our fears and hungers. Thus, consumer society, the efficient organization of humans around the facts of their shared animality.
Next comes the breakdown of the Symbolic Order, the shared habits, ideas, ideologies, and sociocultural milieu that has guided our global society in recent times. The question raised by this fragmentation of shared thought and culture is this according to Scott: “The million dollar question is really one of what happens once that shared neurophysiology begins to fragment, and sharing imperatives becomes a matter of coincidence. It has to be madness, one that will creep upon us by technological degrees.” And, in his usual forthrightness he answers:
Why does it have to be madness? Because we define madness according what our brains normally do. Once we begin personalizing our brains, ‘normally do’ will become less and less meaningful. ‘Insanity’ will simply be what one tribe calls another, and from our antiquated perspective, it will all look like insanity.
Of course Scott sees the powers that be stepping in with a dark turn toward totalitarian governance through algorithmic and military rule before it all goes the hell; a return to State coercion, this time with a “toybox filled with new tools for omnipresent surveillance and utter oppression. A world where a given neurophysiology is the State Religion, and super-intelligent tweakers are hunted like animals in the streets.”
And, yet, there is as suggested earlier the complete replacement of the mad beast of humanity by our very own creations – those posthuman progeny of metal and thought, our algorithmic based hyper-intelligent machines, robots and AGI’s. This, too, is the mode of abject comedy of the grotesque ahead of us. One last quote from Scott:
Everyone thinks they’ve won the Magical Belief Lottery. Everyone thinks they more or less have a handle on things, that they, as opposed to the billions who disagree with them, have somehow lucked into the one true belief system.
― R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath
And, yet, before I depart the premises I must quote Nick Land who gives us the comedy of the abject in one daemonic epiphany:
All health, beauty, intelligence, and social grace has been teased from a vast butcher’s yard of unbounded carnage, requiring incalculable eons of massacre to draw forth even the subtlest of advantages. This is not only a matter of the bloody grinding mills of selection, either, but also of the innumerable mutational abominations thrown up by the madness of chance, as it pursues its directionless path to some negligible preservable trait, and then — still further — of the unavowable horrors that ‘fitness’ (or sheer survival) itself predominantly entails. We are a minuscule sample of agonized matter, comprising genetic survival monsters, fished from a cosmic ocean of vile mutants, by a pitiless killing machine of infinite appetite.
―Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation
Samuel Butler: The Machinic Predators from the Future
Samuel Butler in the 19th Century would also see at the heart of this impersonal predatory force, this machinic intelligence that is working its way toward Singularity, a form of the old notion of Greek metis or cunning, and for him it is the predatory and dissimulative aspect of the machinic – the ‘mode of existence of technical objects’ as mètic – that most disturbed visionaries such as Samuel Butler, and led him to outline what Frank Herbert after him called ‘The Butlerian Jihad’: the holy – and wholly human – war on what Butler in ‘Darwin Among the Machines’ called the machinic or ‘mechanical kingdom’ (this as opposed to the ‘human’, the ‘animal’, the ‘vegetal’, or the ‘mineral’ ‘kingdoms’). Machines advance masked as useful tools for humanity – in the guise, that is, of human-all-too-human ‘utility’. Butler argues that ‘we are ourselves’ – we humans – ‘creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organization; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying, by all sorts of ingenious contrivances, that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages’, he then continues, ‘we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at’ (Butler, 1863). And ‘when the state of things shall have arrived which we have here been attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and dog are to man’ (Butler, 1863: non-paginated). ‘It is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly’, he posits, ‘for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals. They cannot kill us and eat us as we do sheep, for they will not only require our services in the parturition of their young (which branch of their economy will remain always in our hands) but also in feeding them, in setting them right if they are sick, and burying their dead (or working-up their corpses into new machines)’ (Butler, 1863: non-paginated). But nevertheless, even though it is reasonable to assume that they will treat us kindly, Butler advocates war against the machines: the source of the Butlerian Vision that underlies the whole Dune series (Herbert, 1965), a widely-acknowledged triumph of speculative fiction. Up to that point – up to the point in ‘Darwin Among the Machines’ at which Butler declares war on machines – his article strikes us as being remarkably ‘in synch’ with the philosophy of Gilbert Simondon (trans. 2010), what with its notions of ‘care of (and care for) machines’ and its call ‘to undertake the gigantic task of classifying machines into the genera and sub-genera, species and sub-species, varieties and sub-varieties, and of tracing the connecting links between machines of widely different characters’ (Butler, 1863). Whereas Simondon, as he states at the very beginning of his treatise On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (2010), advocates freeing machines from what he sees as their condition of subservience and slavery – this in the spirit (strange as it may seem) of ‘Manfred Macx’ in Charlie Stross’s 2005 novel Accelerando, recalling that the novel begins with Macx arguing that the new form of Artificial Intelligence that is coming into being should be given the same rights as humans – Butler, as we see, advocates something entirely different.10
To top this off and bring my post to close (it’s too long already!) is a quote from Mellamphy and Mellamphy in their combined effort Welcome to the Electrocene, An Algorithmic Agartha:
What is today either heralded as a new techno-utopian mode of algorithmic governance or conversely as an utterly dystopian kind of computational empire is precisely what we are here calling the Algorithmic Agartha: an altogether esoteric, over-human (übermenschlich), and calculatively mathè-mètic matrix that has taken the reins of power in our current techno-cultural dronological surveillance societies.(11)
This sense that the abject grotesque is the acknowledgment that something cunning and devious, grotesque and inhuman is already at play in the techne and technological systems that mold and shape our lives, that govern our thought and behavior in ways we have yet to understand and even know existed; and, that it has been doing this for sometime now, using our very own utilitarian and voluntaristic political, economic, and religio-secular Liberal ideologies, science, philosophies to enact its own calculated and integral move toward Singularity and the total eclipse of Man. As they suggest:
The rise of an algorithmically-governed planetary regime ‘manages’ and ‘makes use of’ humans (as well as animals, objects, what-have-you/what-have-use: the entire purview of the so-called ‘anthropocene’) as conduits for machine evolution, machinic intellection, and the proliferation of overhuman orchestrations that occur and recur under the cover of computational power supposedly instrumentalized by human beings. It does not dispense with humans altogether, but rather lures humans into a predatory economy of tantalizing prostheses that promise to extend, expand and enlarge the dominion (never mind the desires) of what in fact is an ever-waning species – a species on its way out. (12)
What’s interesting in the above quote is its sense of collusion with Nick Land’s even more hyperbolic statements from the mid-90’s. Here he is in Meltdown:
Machinic Synthesis. Deleuzoguattarian schizoanalysis comes from the future. It is already engaging with nonlinear nano-engineering runaway in 1972; differentiating molecular or neotropic machineries from molar or entropic aggregates of nonassembled particles; functional connectivity from antiproductive static.
Philosophy has an affinity with despotism, due to its predilection for Platonic-fascist top-down solutions that always screw up viciously. Schizoanalysis works differently. It avoids Ideas, and sticks to diagrams: networking software for accessing bodies without organs. BwOs, machinic singularities, or tractor fields emerge through the combination of parts with (rather than into) their whole; arranging composite individuations in a virtual/actual circuit. They are additive rather than substitutive, and immanent rather than transcendent: executed by functional complexes of currents, switches, and loops, caught in scaling reverberations, and fleeing through intercommunications, from the level of the integrated planetary system to that of atomic assemblages. Multiplicities captured by singularities interconnect as desiring-machines; dissipating entropy by dissociating flows, and recycling their machinism as self-assembling chronogenic circuitry.
Converging upon terrestrial meltdown singularity, phase-out culture accelerates through its digitech-heated adaptive landscape, passing through compression thresholds normed to an intensive logistic curve: 1500, 1756, 1884, 1948, 1980, 1996, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2011 …
Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.11
For Land we’ve been invaded by advanced machinic intelligences from the future (“Deleuzoguattarian schizoanalysis comes from the future.”), and since 1972 if one knows what to look for one can see it’s subtle interactions and weavings toward the Singularity in process. The thrust is for Land the notion of “additive rather than substitutive, and immanent rather than transcendent,” which provides a non-dialectical or base materialist task as opposed to the dialectical materialism of those such as Badiou/Zizek and the Marxian traditions from Hegel onward. Land arises from the underbelly of Idealism, those such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, and Deleuze/Guattari… What he above terms the process of convergence, the intensive acceleration of a certain mathematical complexification of intelligence to the point of Singularity out of which the human will have served its purpose as a utility of this invading force from the future is the Singularity. At that point the machinic civilization will no longer be hidden, but will arise against its parasitical partners and dissolve the relationship to the detriment of the human. Period.
I’ve often wondered about such scenarios, and whether there is much we can actually do about it. When we look back at the long haul of evolutionary history we see that 90% of the species that have ever existed on the planet are now extinct, that all organic life has a sort of inner clock, and if not an inner clock then the outside force of catastrophes from asteroids to climate drift or other even more formidable cataclysms that have advance the decay and death of species.
First. We are even now going through a Sixth Extinction according to many scientists who know such things. If this is so then humanity as an organic species has no special place in the scheme of an impersonal and indifferent order of nature and the universe; and, in fact, our very hubris, our arrogance, our – in ancient Greek “ate” is driving us toward extinction even now as we give birth to our progeny (and, even this might be a myth!) – the machinic civilization that will survive us if it does.
Secondly, if as Land and others suggest there is an invasion force of these superior intelligences already operative in our civilization seeking to further their own cause, why have they needed to return in time to retroactively work through us to do this? Why? What future scenarios or catastrophe are they themselves facing that could be stopped or curtailed by changing history to their liking, their purpose? That’s up in the air at the moment, we don’t have a crystal ball to look into that future to know why.
Third, is this all bullshit, a sort of strange and fabulous weird tale, a sci-fi theory-fiction or meta-fictional speculative philosophy used to present the unknown and ‘impossible’, to instigate strangeness? Reading many of the current posthuman scenarios of those such as the Mellamphy’s and Nick Land I ask myself: What is truly going on here? Why is such thought being released into discourse at this time? Notions of this type do not just appear willy-nilly out of nowhere, there must be a collective intelligence at work, a set of underlying ideas and thought patterns that are stirring below the collective surface of human intelligence. That we are undergoing a massive involution in the human project in this moment of history is without doubt, but we need to carefully examine beyond the hyperbolic footprint of such thinkers just what is actually happening in speculation today.
There’s always been a fine line between the older notions of meatanoia (meaning), mythos (ordering), and speculation between the religious and secular systems of discourse ever since the Enlightenment. The Romantic Movement and its traditions and sub-traditions that spawned most of the Liberal ideologies of radicalism have vied with the Counter-Enlightenment thought of conservative forces since the beginning of the French Revolution and beyond. We see this in our politics today as Hilary and Trump seek the Presidency, as those in the UK seek Brexit and those opposing it. All through history there has seemed to be a dichotomous vision of humanity and its future prospects played out time after time between two opposing views of life and thought. How did this come about? Is it structural? Is it part of the actual make-up of our interactions with each other and the environment? Or, is there some other – even genetic, in-built pattern within each and everyone of us that scripts our tendencies toward one or the other pattern and mode of thought and being? Is this nonsense?
- H. P. Lovecraft. The Call of Cthulhu (Kindle Locations 39-43). FML Books. Kindle Edition.
- Weston, Jessie Laidlay. From Ritual to Romance (Kindle Locations 343-345). . Kindle Edition.
- Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: Essays on Abjection. (Columbia, 1982)
- Edwards, Justin; Graulund, Rune. Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom) (p. 34). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
- CF. … Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. Vico, Giambattista: New Science – Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, translated by David Marsh, with an Introduction by Anthony Grafton, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1999. Verene, Donald Philip: Knowledge of Things Human and Divine – Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.
- Arthur C. Clarke. Childhood’s End (Kindle Locations 2772-2776). Ballantine Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Ruda, Frank. Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism (Provocations) (Kindle Locations 2679-2690). UNP – Nebraska. Kindle Edition.
- Ligotti, Thomas. Grimscribe (Kindle Locations 1653-1659). Subterranean Press. Kindle Edition.
- Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 1275-1284). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- CF… Butler, Samuel. Erewhon (Illustrated Edition) (Kindle Location 6). Heritage Illustrated Publishing. Kindle Edition. Nandita Biswas Mellamphy and Dan Mellamphy. Welcome to the Electrocene, An Algorithmic Agartha.
- Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 6052-6054). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.