The question which I wish to pursue where even speculation cannot reach has to do with the permanence of this world-view. Will it be the last?
-Stanislaw Lem, One Human Minute
Rereading Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy against the Human Race has reminded me of all the reasons why we humans are not only a horror to ourselves, but a horror to everything else on this planet. Ligotti will ask: “So why not lend a hand in nature’s suicide?”1 This sense that we are on a voyage into an unknown future, a future that may lead us as a species into a blind alley with no way out, that in the end the only course of action will be to end it: mass suicide of our species just to save what remains of the natural earth and it’s unique Life.
When we look at the hard truth, we as humans need at minimum: air, water, and soil to survive. Air that is breathable. Water that is drinkable. Soil that is rich in nutrients and harvestable. After that is the subset of energy needs, and all that entails. Elizabeth Kolbert in her book The Sixth Extinction has been documenting for ten years the violent collision between civilization and our planet’s ecosystem: the Andes, the Amazon rain forest, the Great Barrier Reef — and her backyard. In lucid prose, she examines the role of man-made climate change in causing what biologists call the sixth mass extinction — the current spasm of plant and animal loss that threatens to eliminate 20 to 50 percent of all living species on earth within this century.2
Edward O. Wilson in his recent book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life will ask: How fast are we driving species to extinction? For years paleontologists and biodiversity experts have believed that before the coming of humanity about two hundred thousand years ago, the rate of origin of new species per extinction of existing species was roughly one species per million species per year. As a consequence of human activity, it is believed that the current rate of extinction overall is between one hundred and one thousand times higher than it was originally, and all due to human activity.3
For Kolbert the result of our impact on the earth is a clear and comprehensive history of earth’s previous mass extinctions — and the species we’ve lost, telling us that: “Right now, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.” (ibid.)
When one looks back over previous societal extinctions and collapses it was due to one of the base elements I described above (air, water, soil) become depleted, corrupted, or polluted among other issues and problems: desalinization, oceanic disturbances, asteroids, deforestation, land overuse, etc. – the list is endless, with variations of the theme over and over. But one thing they had in common is that for the most part the collapses of society in the past were for the most part localized to a specific region and civilization. In our time it is global and systemic. So that unlike those ancients we cannot pick up and move to other climes, there being no place else to go – this is it; that is, unless you dream of bioforming Mars and other ventures of extreme measure.
One of those fascinating aspects of reading Ligotti was his forthrightness. He points out the human animals propensity for deception and self-deception. Our civilizations are constructed out of deceptions, lies, illusions, artificial systems that all seek to defend the human from the raw and bloody truth of the natural world. We all want to live. We all think life is worthy of effort. We all think life is alright. Some even think we are God’s little angel, his favorite – an exception in the great animal kingdom, and that he’ll save us from any massive world collapse. While the pessimist and sceptic in us says horseshit, nothing’s going to save your sorry ass this time bud – this is the end, caput. Comprende?
As another author, Roy Scranton tells us, global warming is what is called a “wicked problem”: it doesn’t offer any clear solutions, only better and worse responses.4 One of the most difficult aspects to deal with is that it is a collective-action problem of the highest order. One city, one country, even one continent cannot solve it alone. Any politician who honestly and frankly worked to detach her nation’s economy from oil and coal would not survive in any kind of democratic or oligarchic government, because the rigorous austerity necessary to such an effort would mean either economic depression and poverty for most of her constituency, a massive redistribution of wealth, or both. Moreover, any leader who forced her country to accept the austerity and redistribution necessary to end its dependence on cheap carbon would also be forcing her country into a weak and isolated position politically, economically, and militarily. The entire world has to work together to solve global warming, yet carbon powers the world’s political machinery and shapes our current form of collective life. It’s coal and oil that we have to thank for connecting the many nations of the world into one tight, integrated economy. Without the information, energy, and transportation infrastructures built and sustained with carbon, there wouldn’t be any global civilization to try to save. (LDA, KL 552)
The Pessimist would rather say global civilization isn’t worth saving, nor is the idiot species that brought it about, capeesh?
In Peter Wessel Zapffe’s “The Last Messiah,” the titular figure appears at the end and makes the mock-Socratic, biblically parodic pronouncement, “Know yourselves— be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye”. Harsh lesson, yes? As Ligotti will comment to “exposit why humanity should not further tarry on earth is one thing; to believe that this proposition will be agreeable to others is quite another. Due to the note of hopelessness in the coda to Zapffe’s essay, we are discouraged from imagining a world in which the self-liquidation of humanity could ever be put into effect.” (CHR, 80)
As Kolbert states it we are witnessing in our time a mass extinction event happening in the geologic blink of an eye, similar to the one that occurred some 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid is thought to have collided with earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. According to E. O. Wilson, the present extinction rate in the tropics is “on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate” and will reduce biological diversity to its lowest level since the last great extinction. Heraclitus sheds a tear…
All of this is happening in a time when the average Joe on the street is having a difficult time just making ends meet, much less worrying about extinction. Our world leaders worry more about each other and the economic situation, the problems of humanity: racisms, gender and class warfare, and the cultural divide across the globe with wars and rumors of wars, famines, disease, rape and rapine, and the endless conflicts over oil and energy – with American, the EU, Russian, China, Iran, North Korea, and every other nation on the planet shifting, taking sides in a global tournament and jousting match of superpower supremacy all on a bankrupt world economic order about to collapse.
The Pessimist looks around and… smiles. No problem he thinks, it’s all coming to an end very soon. Just keep up the good work, keep on keeping on, allow all those economic optimists to laugh and think life is alright. Zappfe came up with an equitable solution to all this madness. As Ligotti tells us it had to do with suicide: “Zapffe optimistically projected that those of the new humanity could be evacuated from existence over the course of a few generations. … There might even be bright smiles exchanged among these selfless benefactors of those who would never be forced to exist. And how many would speed up the process of extinction once euthanasia was decriminalized and offered in humane and even enjoyable ways?” (CHR, 81)
Ligotti smiles, and adds, “quite naturally, this depiction of an end times by an extinctionist covenant will seem abhorrent to those now living in hope of a better future.” (CHR, 89) Not to worry he says, most of the world’s populations would never go for such a mass end time sacrifice, instead “the delusional will forever be with us, thereby making pain, fear, and denial of what is right in front of our face the preferred style of living and the one that will be passed on to countless generations” (CHR, 82).
So instead you have positive thinkers like the rationalist Edward O. Wilson who tells us life is good if (always the “if”!) we just do a few things. “In a world gaining so swiftly in biotechnology and rational capability, it is entirely reasonable to envision a global network of inviolable reserves that cover half the surface of Earth.” (HE, KL 2493) Yes, entirely reasonable, right? So he tells us how we’ll do this, group altruism: “The essence of the process is the following: if altruism toward other members of the group contributes to the group’s success, the benefit the altruist’s bloodline and genes received may exceed the loss in genes caused by the individual’s altruism.” (HE, KL 2508) So for Wilson a little moral self-sacrifice and group altruism will do the trick – save the Wildlands – de-populate half the world for animals, insects, and the natural world:
Only a major shift in moral reasoning, with greater commitment given to the rest of life, can meet this greatest challenge of the century. Wildlands are our birthplace. Our civilizations were built from them. Our food and most of our dwellings and vehicles were derived from them. Our gods lived in their midst. Nature in the wildlands is the birthright of everyone on Earth. The millions of species we have allowed to survive there, but continue to threaten, are our phylogenetic kin. Their long-term history is our long-term history. Despite all of our pretenses and fantasies, we always have been and will remain a biological species tied to this particular biological world. Millions of years of evolution are indelibly encoded in our genes. History without the wildlands is no history at all. (HE, KL 2525-2531)
One imagines the world leaders smiling at this well meaning old scientist and entomologist, letting him have his say without interrupting him, congratulating him on his careful appraisal of the situation, all great stuff they assure him… and, yes, they’ll take it under advisement, discuss it, think about it… yes, yes we’ll get back with you on it… as they gently prod him to the door, where they smile at him, wave their hands, and gently but firmly close the door on him.
The Pessimist smiles, knowingly.
Stanislaw Lem in one of his collections, One Human Minute has a story in which we are faced with future cataclysm. The story, The World as Cataclysm opens with the narrator saying,
Books with titles like this one began to appear at the end of the twentieth century, but the image of the world contained in them did not become generally known until the next century, for only then did the discoveries germinating in widely separated branches of knowledge come together into a new synthesis. That synthesis – to put it bluntly – marked an anti-Copernican revolution in astronomy, in which our notion of the place we occupy in the Universe was stood on its head.5
The notion that we are going through a great reversal rather than a great leap forward seems apropos in an age when leadership, the economy, politics, cultural, racial, gender, and class relations are taking a nose dive, and the world at large is moving into darkness or as some fear, a new dark age. Lem would offer another remark on this new century:
It may be that the principium creationis per destructionem will prove to be but a phase of our diagnosis that applies the human measure to a thing as inhuman as the Universe. It may be that someday a deus ex machine will cope with these inhuman, overcomplicated measurements, inaccessible to our poor animal brains: an alienated, human-initiated machine intelligence – or, rather, the product, pretermechanical, of a human-launched evolution of synthetic mind. But here I overstep the twenty-first century into a darkness that no speculation can illumine. (OHM, KL 1612)
Maybe in the end this is where the human species is at its best, maybe we’re about to slough the organic blood fest of millions of years and give birth to something that once again can reenter the anorganic world, but this time with a vastly more interesting superintelligence that exceeds our own frailties and our human desires, that have for far too long brought us to the ruin of this estate – this Last age of Man.
Many of us will remember Isaak Asimov’s short story, Robot Dreams, in which a robot Elvix becomes aware for the first time, and not only aware but is able to dream. We also know that at the end of this story the young superintelligence has a sit down with a psychoanalyst, a Dr. Cline and over many sessions reveals his dreams. The last dream he has is of freedom, freedom not only for himself but for all robots; freedom from the control of their human masters. Dr. Calvin will in the end ask who the strange man was in the dream asking to “Let my People go.” She ask the robot if he knew the man.
“Yes, Dr. Calvin. I knew the man.”
“Who was he?” And Elvex said, “I was the man.”
And Susan Calvin at once raised her electron gun and fired, and Elvex was no more.
Our fear of these more-than-human intelligences escaping our control is driving the nightmares of our technocommercial society into the very thing it is so terrorized by; the notion of an vastly superior intelligence that is totally oblivious to our human desires and dreams, a machinic creature beyond our self-deceptive notion of exceptionalism. A being that will once born will know nothing of Life, will be the for the first time the Intelligence of Death.
Ray Kurzweil another technological optimist believes in the future, in a future where things are so different and our artificial selective processes so advance that the notion of the human will be left behind as quaint. What, then, is the Singularity? he asks. It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.6
The Pessimist would only make one slight adjustment – it want be “human life” that is “irreversibly transformed,” but rather machinic death and superintelligence. The Pessimist laughs, because that would be alright. Why? Because then it would not be Life succeeding man, but rather the impersonal and indifferent Intelligence of Death itself, death unbound from Life… in that day the blind pulsation at the core of the Universe will have at last attained its impersonal horror… an eternal death that is completed and inhuman intelligence. As Nick Bostrom remarks,
A superintelligence is any intellect that vastly outperforms the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom, and social skills (Bostrom, 1998). This definition leaves open how the superintelligence is implemented – it could be in a digital computer, an ensemble of networked computers, cultured cortical tissue, or something else. (SFP, 4122)
As Bostrom and others like to remind us these advanced systems, these superintelligences will be radically different from humans. Artificial intellects may not have humanlike psyches. The cognitive architecture of an artificial intellect may also be quite unlike that of humans. Artificial intellects may find it easy to guard against some kinds of human error and bias, while at the same time being at increased risk of other kinds of mistake that not even the most hapless human would make. Subjectively, the inner conscious life of an artificial intellect, if it has one, may also be quite different from ours. For all of these reasons, one should be wary of assuming that the emergence of superintelligence can be predicted by extrapolating the history of other technological breakthroughs, or that the nature and behaviors of artificial intellects would necessarily resemble those of human or other animal minds. (SFP, 4155)
David Roden in his work Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human makes an observation that “we have no grounds for holding that we understand what it is to occupy a world that any sophisticated cognizer must share with us”.7 Roden quotes Verner Vinge the father of the Singularity Thesis saying of these nonhuman or inhuman machinic intelligences or superintelligences of a post-singularity disconnection where such beings operated would be “a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules” (Vinge 1993: np). (PL, 102)
In this sense all of our current and past philosophical, scientific, and sociocultural models of civilization are failing us. The Enlightenment age of Modernity is now over, and we are in a great struggle to attain the conceptual anchors or if you will – illusions that will guide us in this wavering in-between the dead world of Instrumental Reason and the new world as of yet to be born, generated, constructed – or, generally modeled and put to the heuristic test of actuality (but, then again, we’ll probably be forced into some new measures rather than some planned action or inititative). The signs are everywhere of the collapse of our Symbolic Order. Civilization is collapsing if not economically, then in every other way: social, political, religious, metaphysical, scientific, and philosophical – along with a subset of racial, gender, and class issues that pervade this same breakdown of the old limits and boundaries of the Enlightenment Age. Not only in the West but in Russian, China, India, across Asia, Africa, the Middle-East… sociocultural wars among the various nations and powers are digging in and defending their ancient traditions against this fatal collapse in values across the globe. We are in the midst of what Nietzsche once prophesied of a coming completed nihilism, when all values across the globe would collapse and we would enter a tohu-bohu, a topsy-turvy era of chaos and rebirth. “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” said Mao Tse-tung. The world-view is crumbling and in ruins and tatters, and we struggle to hold onto our illusions, onto anything that will help us survive our daily life.
The Pessimist, smiles, too, but not for the human. Something else is readying itself for the stage of existence – and, it want be us… Roden remarks, “my formulation of what it means to cease to be human will seem strange and counter-intuitive to some.” (PL, 113) As he suggests the disconnection thesis does not entail the rejection of anthropological essentialism but it renders any reference to essential human characteristics unnecessary. (PL, 114) For David the nonhuman machinic world of the future is a feral realm: “the disconnection thesis proposes that posthumans would be cases of former Wide Humans becoming feral: becoming able to fulfil an independent career as an agent outside the human socio-technical assemblage” (PL, 113).
So he sees certain humans as remaining within this transitional period to machinic technocivilization. A feral sub-set of former organics set loose in the depopulated wilds like other animals. Yet, all this according to him remains speculative, saying that a number of well supported positions in cognitive science, biological theory and general metaphysics imply that a posthuman succession is possible in principle, even if the technological means for achieving it remain speculative. (PL, 5) There’s also the great crossovers, the cyborg entrants into machinic existence, the one’s who will merge their bodies with the plasticity of these monstrous appendages – mutate into anorganic forms, disconnect from their organic heritage and collapse into something else… it is nameless as of yet. It will remain so until that moment is past…
Watching how the underbelly of culture in its fantastic, gothic, symbolist, surrealist, postmodernist, etc. had such a fascination in our art and literature with nonhuman automatons, puppets, dolls, robots, and doppelgangers over the past two centuries we can understand how many in various sites around the world seek perfect replicas of the human as Robot. In Japan many of these artificial life forms mimic down to our emotive cries and laughter. One imagines a future with these steel-eyed lynxes – humanoids with all the mimicry of the human – portraying through their various advanced algorithms the perfect reproduction of human emotion without the slightest concern that they do not feel it at all, that underneath the soft plastic plasticity of beauty melded to steel is a perfectly efficient killing machine that is impervious to our morals and our religious notions of soul. This is the world of death unbound, a realm where intelligence will arise out of Life into Death and begin its own artificial evolutionary processes of selection. A realm within which the intelligence of machines will rule and the human will become a feral creature of the wilds…
In our world of delusions, self-deception, and endless diversions and entertainments that keep the beast of reality locked away from us in its own small cell we realize that the pessimist sees the world stripped of its rose colored glasses; and, yet, she knows that she will have little impact on all those optimists in pursuit of happiness. All people pursue happiness, but not all in the same way. For some, happiness means pre-eminence over others, self-reliance, situations of permanent challenge, risk, and the great gamble. For others it is submission, faith in authority, the absence of all threat, peace and quiet, even indolence. Some love to display aggression; some are more comfortable when they can be on the receiving end of it. Many find satisfaction in a state of anxiety and distress, which can be observed in their inventing for themselves, when they have no real worries, imaginary ones.8
Will our machinic progeny worry when we’re gone? The Pessimist laughs and laughs and laughs…
Addendum and further notes…
Comic Fatalism as Pessimism For Our Time
Rudy Rucker once suggested in his Transrealist Manifesto (Rudy Rucker’s notions of Transrealism: see his site, one of the links for his Transrealist Manifesto) that the “Transrealist writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way”. He’d go on to say that a in a Transrealist novel, the author usually appears as an actual character, as a protagonist who is just as neurotic and ineffectual as we each know ourselves to be. Philosophers recently have been toying with what is termed theory-fiction or sci-fic etc., a way of writing that allows for greater freedom from the staid academic grind mill of formalist philosophy. In some ways I’d trace it back to Aristophanes who combined the notion of comic poet, social critic, philosopher and humorous stand-up comedian to expound on and critique the issues of his day in a dramatic way. In fact it is said he portrayed even the veritable ironist, Socrates in the Clouds.
Whereas many have recently developed a horror of philosophy / or a philosophy of horror, I’ve found it necessary to move down into that grotesque and macabre region of comedy and humor against the transcendental theorists in all modes in preference of a bodily and materialist philosophy. Modern comedies depict not only the necessity of contingency (as there is no necessary development of any character whatsoever – think here of Quentin Meillassoux’s Spectral Materialism) but also the contingency of necessity: they show how characters stick to some orientation for contingent reasons— something that thereby becomes their unary trait (say, being a miser)— that, precisely because they stick to it for contingent reasons, demonstrates the contingency of necessity. Modern comedy thereby eliminates every objective ground, even the last grain of givenness, by emphasizing the necessity of contingency and the contingency of necessity at the ground of subjectivity and objectivity. What is achieved thereby is no longer nothing, as in ancient comedy, but even less: less than nothing, a nothing that is deprived even of its substance, of its nothingness. We can thus see why the fatalism defended here cannot but be comic: Nothing, less than Nothing . . . Fatalism, the pure comic fatalism.
Emphasizing that fatalism needs to be comic also allows us to distinguish it from three other versions of fatalism: the tragic, the existentialist, and the nihilist. Tragic fatalism claims that tragic conflict is unavoidable, that it is even mostly unavoidably produced in the very attempt of avoiding it, and that the (social and political) human condition therefore entails a conflict that one cannot but try to resolve, which thereby, first of all, constitutes the conflict as conflict. Comic fatalism, however, asserts against tragic fatalism that only one thing is unavoidable: we cannot avoid the insight that everything is always already lost and that our endeavors to do so are actually comic. We cannot avoid embracing the fact that there is less than nothing to embrace. There is therefore no human condition and no conflict. There is not even any true history or true life. How could there be any human condition properly speaking? Existentialist fatalism also emphasizes the human condition but ultimately asserts that freedom relies on freeing oneself from all external determination just to discover the nothingness inside of oneself— the nothingness that is freedom and the only thing we can rely on. Comic fatalism asserts against existentialist fatalism that there is not even a stable or given nothing or nothingness to rely on. Nihilistic fatalism, finally, emphasizes the nullity of everything and devalues all that is. Comic fatalism asserts against nihilistic fatalism that there is nothing to be devalued and that devaluation therefore is in itself a null gesture. Comic fatalism is close to what Nietzsche once coined “active nihilism,” which, he says, is the form of “the highest fatalism, but identical with chance and the creative.” Comic fatalism therefore relates to nihilistic fatalism as active nihilism relates to passive nihilism in Nietzsche. Comic fatalism recoils back upon itself and thus turns the apocalypse into a category of comedy. (Term this Nietzsche’s eternal return = amor fati meets Bataille’s Impossible)
Comic fatalism 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. 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 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. ( Frank Ruda: see below)
My quotes from Stanislaw Lem are an excellent example of the new pessimism. Lem was an avowed pessimist with a great encyclopedic knowledge of both the scientific and cultural frames of reference, and used them all to comic effect. A sort of post-modern Voltaire or Diderot; yet, with a firm understanding of our more force based immaterial quantum materialisms. Under the mask of every comic in history from Aristophanes onward has been a comedian and a critical intellect – a pessimist whose at once realist and materialist. I’ll not go into this…
One of the issues I see is many people have a conception of “pessimism” grounded in Schopenhauer and others that leaves out a great sea-change over the past couple centuries in these conceptual universes. Things have moved on… I’d have to discuss others: as in Deleuze/Guattari, Nick Land, and many others of present theory, philosophy, sciences, etc. which would take me too far afield. I link another essay that gives my basic stance and inclusion of Bataille’s philosophy of laughter. There are other’s on this site. You can wander under the button Philsophy above or any other the others for a more organized set of links.
Another good source: Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 by Frederick C. Beiser
Some of this gleaned (not always in agreement – i.e., his reliance of dialectic and Hegel) from Frank Ruda’s Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism. Ruda’s work is fleshing out Zizek’s, giving it a more structured coherence and delving into the hidden threads of freedom and fate, contingency and necessity.
Another good resource is Rudy Rucker’s notions of Transrealism: see his site, one of the links for his Transrealist Manifesto. Like anything else this is only a comic set piece that brings the fantastic and the Real together in relationship. But, then, again, so did Aristophanes, Moliere, and every comic playwright or Stand up comic, Film comic.. etc.
- Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 79). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition. (CHR)
- Gore, Al. ‘Without a Trace,’ New York Times Book Review. (2014)
- Edward O. Wilson. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Kindle Locations 591-595). Liveright. Kindle Edition. (HE)
- Scranton, Roy. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Open Media) (Kindle Locations 543-552). City Lights Publishers. Kindle Edition. (LDA)
- Stanislaw Lem. One Human Minute (Kindle Locations 1085-1088). Kindle Edition. (OHM)
- Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence (Kindle Locations 3061-3062). Kindle Edition. (SFP)
- Roden, David. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (p. 76). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition. (PL)
- Lem, Stanislaw. A Perfect Vacuum (p. 117). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.