Reading Nick Land is always an exercise in honesty. He want pull he wool over your eyes. No. Instead he’ll strip you of all your illusions and delusions, leave you naked in the midst of a world of fanatics. In his essay ‘Delighted to Death’ he takes a quote from Emil Cioran writing about the differences between that ancient world of the Chinese Taoist, Lao Tzu whose practice of intense quietude is shown to be at war with the whole tradition of Western culture and civilization. Why? Simply put: Our culture is built upon the thirst for violent and ecstatic annihilation, we seek the total obliteration of all barriers to freedom, seek to overthrow all that upholds our minds, our hearts, our loves, our hates; we seek transcendence from the one thing we cannot transcend, our miserable lives.
As Land remarks,
Cioran quotes Lao Tsu’s maxim ‘the intense life is contrary to the Tao’, and compares the tranquility of the modest life with the thirst for annihilating ecstasy that has possessed the Western world. However, acknowledging the compulsion of his Occidental heritage, he remarks ‘I can pay homage to Lao Tsu a thousand times, but I am more likely to identify with an assassin’. Our culture, he argues, is essentially fanatical.1
In his A Short History of Decay Cioran would elaborate further, saying: “Far from diminishing the appetite for power, suffering exasperates it; hence the mind feels more comfortable in the society of a braggart than in that of a martyr; and nothing is more repugnant to it than the spectacle of dying for an idea. . . .”2 Land, a remarkable reader of Kant, would use that philosopher as the true figure of the fanatic, the culmination of our Western heritage in fanaticism. Kant would for Land typify the figure of the Secular Martyr – a fanatic for the universal:
It is worth remembering that a glimpse into Kant’s philosophy was sufficient to drive Kleist to suicide, and that Schopenhauer found in it the ethical imperative that existence be denied. Perhaps neither of these writers were ecclesiastical enough to enjoy the ghoulish cruelties that Kant explored. For Kant was a consummate saint, a cheerful man. He was not a stoic, but rather, faithful to his Christian heritage, a voluptuary of defeat.
A master of renunciation, a martyr of reason, a seeker of perfection and transcendence Kant would promote pain over pleasure, or to put it more succinct he would see in the perfection of pain the completed and satisfaction of pleasure. As Land echoes from Kant’s Anthropology, published in 1798, where Kant tells us:
Satisfaction is the feeling of the promotion; pain that of the obstruction of life. But life (of animals) is, as doctors have already noted, a continuous play of the antagonism of the two. Thus before every satisfaction there must first be pain; pain is always first. Because what would proceed from a continual promotion of living force, which does not let itself climb above a certain grade, other than a rapid death from delight?
Freud would learn a great deal from Kant and the suicidal poets that both feared and respected him. Yet, as Pierre Klossowski will tell us in his study of Nietzsche for whom Kant served as the figure of end game of Western culture and civilization:
A society believes itself to be morally justified through its scientists and artists. Yet the very fact that they exist – and that their creations exist – is evidence of the disintegrating malaise of the society; and it is by no means clear that they will be the ones to reintegrate the society, at least if they take their activity seriously.3
Decadence is at the heart of this pleasurable annihilation, a thirst that offers the organic animality within the human a return to its death driven dreams. Land commenting on this dark truth reminds us,
Uninhibited pleasure does not tend to the benefit of the organism, but rather, to its immolation. Or, more precisely, the enhancement of life is intrinsically bound to its abolition. Life is not consumed by death at its point of greatest depression, but at its peak, and inversely; it is only the brake provided by suffering that preserves the organism in its existence. It is pain that spares life for something other than an immediate and annihilating delight. So Kant suggests that pleasure is the combustion of life, and we survive by smouldering.
Ever a critic of the heritage of Christianity, Land will see in Kant the primal figure of the new religion of Capital, a religion that secularized the Christian art of martyrdom but promoting endless work and accumulation against the all too easy expenditure of pleasure and fulfillment. Rather Kant like a good Christian would have us renounce earthly pleasures of bodily love and endless delights in life for the never-ending delights of capital gain. Commenting on Kant’s marriage of bourgeois capitalism with Christian fortitude and martyrdom says: “Only religion speaks the sort of language that could possibly affirm the conclusive loss of terrestrial pleasure, such as that which is represented by the subordination of consumption to the amassing of productive resources.” We would come to know it as the work ethic of the Germans which was adopted by the nations of this Western system of martyrdom and utilitarian dreams.
Land will cite several passages on the history of Christian martyrdom (which I’ll not quote) to make explicit the mindset of this old philosophaster from Konigsberg:
Kant learnt from Protestantism and secularism the necessity for internal discipline, so that, to a degree that was without philosophical precedent, he became the source of his own persecution. In the modem age, martyrdom has to become more systematic, independent of psychological and historical accident, or, to use Kant’s word, autonomous. Kant describes this new passional experience as sublime, and the theory corresponding to it is to be found in his Critique of Judgment.
Austerity. A set of economic policies imposed on economies such as: cutting the state’s budget to stabilize public finances, restore competitiveness through wage cuts and create better investment expectations by lowering future tax burdens. Policies grouped under the term ‘austerity measures’ may include spending cuts, tax increases, or a mixture of both, and may be undertaken to demonstrate the government’s fiscal discipline to creditors and credit rating agencies by bringing revenues closer to expenditures.
In out time whole nations are forced into renunciation, bound within the secular martyrdom of Kant’s critique, flayed and immolated upon the dungeon heap of capitalism. We have all become martyrs in a secular religion that’s only goal is accumulation and profit. And, to top it off, we seem to relish our part in this grand pageant of secular subordination and self-flagellation. Schooled to it by two hundred years of liberal and utilitarian thought and ideology we cannot think outside its bounded vicious circle. We actually believe we deserve this state of affairs. We allow it, go with it, even cherish the painful pleasure of these austere systems of regulation and control.
In fact as Land relates it “if the subject is to find delight in the excruciation of its animality, it is the imagination that must bear the fury of holy passion, and this is indeed what Kant argues”:
that which, without our indulging in any refinements of thought, but simply in being apprehended, excites the feeling of the sublime, may appear to be frustrating for our powers of judgment, inappropriate to our faculty of presentation, and a violation of the imagination, but yet be judged even more sublime on that account.4
We relish our martyrdom within this secular pageant of Capital as if it were the only show in town: the only way, the truth, the life of our world. Like the religious fanatics of old we seek even more excruciating paths toward annihilation through the wars of politics, and the literal wars of ideology. The mediatainment façade gifts us with enemies, with the Western nations pitted against the East of Russian, China, Iran, N. Korea, etc.
For two hundred years we’ve been at school with that old master from Konigsberg, a demolition project about to be fulfilled in a final conflagration; not as one might suspect of the literal human animal and its planet, but rather of the immolation and destruction of our ancient animal cunning and natural intelligence. A martyrdom that only Kant could have dreamt up. As Land says of Kant’s new law,
Reason is something that must be built, and the site of its construction first requires a demolition. The object of this demolition is the synthetic capability that Kant refers to as the imagination, and which he exhibits as natural intelligence or animal cunning. This is the capability to act without the prior authorization of a juridical power, and it is only through the crucifixion of natural intelligence that the human animal comes to prostrate itself before universal law.
For the Romantic poets from Blake to Keats the Imagination was the figure of this animal cunning and natural intelligence innate within humans, and each of them would see in Kant’s dark immolation and imperative the destruction of the very means of poetry and life itself at the hands of philosophy. And, yet, the path of the Romantics was already a defeat at the hands of Kant, for the instigation of the Sublime was in itself only a detour into a final death at the hands of reason for the cunning intelligence of the animal and its drives under the universal law of morality. We’ve all become victims of this law of reason and martyrdom. Why? Because as Land admits,
…reason has programmatically deafened itself to the howls of the body, and it is only by means of the aesthetic detour of the sublime that the devastating effects of its sovereignty can come to be enjoyed.
We divert ourselves in the endless pursuits of inanity, our jaunts to music events, our endless hours of repetitive enjoyment of online gaming, our chit chat sessions on facebook, twitter, linked in, etc. We seek to forget ourselves, to immolate our selves, to let the drift of time flow by in immolating gestures of fanatic pleasures of pain through self-forgetting and mindless pursuits of accumulation under the secular gods of Capital. A system driven to appropriate us within its cycle of vicious violence and fanaticism. Or like those daredevils that parade before us the death defying feats of physical prowess, our Houdini’s, our Evel Knievel’s, our Philippe Petit’s, etc. who would defy the end game through temptation and glory. We, less able, allow ourselves only the immolation of unpleasureable pleasure: a life under the end game of Capital.
Squeamishness does not befit a moralist. A certain harshness is necessary if one would prevent life from being delighted to death. Such harshness, indeed, that the pathological lunge towards death rediscovers itself in the process of its own rigorous extirpation; sublimated into the thanatropic frenzy of reason. (Nick Land)
- Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 1745-1749). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
- E.M. CIORAN. A Short History of Decay (Kindle Locations 135-137). Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Klossowski, Pierre. Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. (University of Chicago Press, 1969)
- Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, in Werksgaube, ed. W. Wieschedel, vol. 10 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968), 14; for a recent English translation, see I. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. P. Guyer, tr. P. Guyer, E. Matthews (Cambridge/NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), Introduction, II, 63. Ibid., 90; 129.