The Genius: Insurrection as Art

Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment is the site where art irrupts into European philosophy with the force of trauma.

—Nick Land,  Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007

One hardly thinks of Kant’s thoughts on the Sublime as traumatic, and yet for those who have suffered through those long poems of the Romantic poets from Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats not to mention all the minor ones great and small from Germany, Italy, and other nations of that European clime one realizes just how great Kant’s impact truly was upon the mind and imagination of the 19th Century, not to mention philosophical and poetic speculations, his oeuvre was and is to this day.

As Land will say in his essay Art as Insurrection: the Question of Aesthetics in Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche: “The ferocious impetus of this irruption was only possible in an epoch attempting to rationalize itself as permanent metamorphosis, as growth.”1 The myth of progress would inform both the spirit of capitalism and the artistic impulse of a generation, and would become the staple of the liberal imagination from that point on. Endless growth, endless expansion, the appropriation, manipulation, the ruination, the …. as Land puts it, “catastrophe” of this mythos would destroy one world and inform another.

Sandor Ferenczi biographer and ephebe of Freud in his apocalypse, Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality, explains all myths of deluge as a reversal:

The first and foremost danger encountered by organisms which were all originally water-inhabiting was not that of inundation but of dessication and trauma. The raising of Mount Ararat out of the waters of the flood would thus be not only a deliverance, as told in the Bible, but at the same time the original catastrophe which may have only later on been recast from the standpoint of land-dwellers.

This sense of origins, of events so catastrophic that they leave a trace in every new generation of living organic life on this planet. Of course the greatest myth of catastrophe is the universe itself, the scientific myth (theory) that it all began with a Big Bang – a catastrophe so great that the repercussions are only now being registered on our telescopes some fifteen billion years after the event. Harold Bloom always a romantic critic if there still is one said of Shakespeare’s Tragedies that they were situated in the kenoma – the vastation of our cosmological emptiness spawned in the wake of the greatest catastrophe in which Creation and Fall were the same event. As Bloom relates an audience suffering through a rendition of Hamlet begins to sense the uncanny force of this vastation, to feel as if it had been thrown into the catastrophic events of this cosmos portrayed. We walk away purged and empties of our emotions, left blank and ruined by the force of this catastrophic world shown so movingly and dramatically.  In speaking of those poets that inherited the naturalism of Shakespeare, who had been an avid reader of Lucretius (recently found in the Renaissance):

Lucretius and his tradition taught Shelley that freedom came from understanding causation. In his final phase, Shelley preceded Nietzsche by surmising that causes and effects alike were fictions. The grand tradition of naturalism moves from Lucretius on to Montaigne, Hume, and Freud. Shelley would belong to this tradition except that, like Nietzsche, he converted Epicurus’s “the what is unknowable” into a quest for the imageless deep truth or mystery of things. Nietzsche urged the will’s revenge against time and time’s “it was,” and yet “it was” remains part of the unknowable what: the will then would seek to revenge itself against a phantom or a fiction. Shelley, who in Prometheus Unbound had observed that the wise lack love and those who have love lack wisdom, went to his end in The Triumph of Life asking why good and the means of good were irreconcilable.2

The kenoma (vastation, or great cosmological emptiness) is this “imageless deep truth” at the core of the ruinous truama that is our universal catastrophe.

It is here that Kant would begin his great work seeking a resting place for thought, for mind, for the labours of the philosophical tribe. In the midst of this sea of emptiness, this nihilistic realm of annihilating light Kant would seek to redeem us from the creation and fall, seek to cut us off from the dark imageless truth (noumenal) and provide us a safe haven of light and comfort (phenomena). His was the attempt to do what the Redeemer could not – “save the appearances”.

Kant would seek to stay the anarchy of creation, to legislate the universal laws that would hold chaos at bay, and yet throughout his first two critiques he began to realize shockingly so that he had failed, that a third critique would be needed:

although this [the pure understanding] makes up a system according to transcendental laws, which contain the condition of possibility for experience as such, it would still be possible that there be an infinite multiplicity of empirical laws and such a great heterogeneity of natural forms belonging to the particular experience that the concept of a system according to these (empirical) laws must be totally alien to the understanding, and neither the possibility, even less the necessity of such a totality could be conceived.

Land commenting on the above passage remarks,

There are few horrors comparable to that of the master legislator who realizes that anarchy is still permitted. Far from having been domesticated by the transcendental forms of understanding, nature was still a freely flowing wound that needed to be staunched. This was going to be far more messy and frightening than anything yet undertaken, but Kant gritted his yellowing teeth, and began. (FN)

Philosophers since Plato have sought above all the laws governing the universe, the causes, the orderly procession of uniform thought, language, and mathematics that would tame the beast of anarchy that seemed to pervade the endless mystery surrounding them on all sides. They would seek to put an end to this unruly realm of accidents and catastrophes, these traumas that were forever just outside the known and knowable. Philosophers were the enemies of Mystery. And, yet, Kant admitted to himself that the mystery remained, the beast could not be tamed, the anarchy of the unknown and unknowable did in deed and fact exist and would not fit the systematic philosophizing of the philosophers.

So Kant would turn to beauty, to the aesthetics of the negative, to the long sought for goal of describing the universal laws of nature. Land commenting says of this third attempt: ”

Kant’s ‘reason’ is a reactive concept, negatively defined against the pathology with which it has been locked in perpetual and brutal war. In the third Critique all inhibition is lifted from this conflict; it becomes gritty, remorseless, cruel. (FN)

Against the pure and perfect world of Reason Kant would enter the fray of that nasty fanged naturalism of experience like a storm trooper blitzing the anarchic and irrational impulses irrupting at the borders of his fragile world of order. At the heart of this war was for Kant the incarnation of the prodigal genius – the creative one; or, as Land tells it,

Kant is quite explicit that a generative theory of art requires a philosophy of genius – a re-admission of accursed pathology into its very heart – and one only has to read the second Critique alongside the third to notice the immense disruption that art inflicts upon transcendental philosophy. (FN)

Harold Bloom in his book Genius would speak of the genius as the one who frees our minds from the literalisms of theology. In this sense Kant’s whole philosophy was a long battle with the theologians of Christian and Secular schools of thought. Against the simplifications and reductions to the One whether of God or Concept Kant’s thought would lead him to the notion of the energetic unconscious which he would never develop in full but would enter by way of Schopenhauer through denunciation and silence of suicidal death-drive, and Nietzsche in the Dionysian pessimism of endless chaotic creativity through cruelty and excess. He would show us just how irrational the forces of creativity are through the figure of the Genius. As Land remarks,

Despite superficial appearances it is not with the thought of noumenal subjectivity that the unconscious is announced within western philosophy, for this thought is still recuperable as a prereflexive consciousness, so innocuous that even Sartre is happy to accept it. It is rather out of an intertwining of two quite different strands of the Kantian text that the perturbing figure of the energetic unconscious emerges: first, the heteronomous pathological inclination whose repression is presupposed in the exercise of practical reason, and second, genius, or nature in its ‘legislative’ aspect. The genius ‘cannot indicate how this fantastic and yet thoughtful ideas arise and come together in his head, because he himself does not know, and cannot, therefore, teach it to anyone’. (FN)

It’s this intertwining of the pathological and the legislative acts of genius which have no reason, which cannot be explained by any laws whatsoever that are at the core of this philosophy. The new comes as if from the outside in, from elsewhere, from the irrational realms of the energetic and unruly unconscious, genius, nature. All these metaphors cover over that which cannot be so tidily explained in a reasonable fashion, the element of chaos and creativity that will not be bound within the system of descriptions and concepts.

The great point if there is one is that creativity in art, politics, philosophy, the sciences, etc. cannot be legislated or explained, it can never be commoditized or brought under the corporate house of monopoly. The creative impulse is freedom itself which does not belong to, nor ever will within the House of Reason. The New comes from elsewhere…

I’ll stop here because Land moves onto Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. I’ll take that up another time… instead just leave you with Land and his echo of Nietzsche,

Philosophy, in its longing to rationalize, formalize, define, delimit, to terminate enigma and uncertainty, to co-operate wholeheartedly with the police, is nihilistic in the ultimate sense that it strives for the immobile perfection of death. But creativity cannot be brought to an end that is compatible with power, for unless life is extinguished, control must inevitably break down. We possess art lest we perish of the truth. (FN)

  1. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 1993-1994). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Bloom, Harold. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Kindle Locations 2745-2751). Yale University Press – A. Kindle Edition.
  3. I. Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, ed. W. Weischedel (Wiesbaden: Suhrkampf, 1974), 16.