The amazement of things is that they exist at all, but do they; not having direct access we settle for those mediators of the Mind, never knowing what these things are that float through consciousness. What if each thing is sustained only by our fragile thought, vanishing the moment our thought dissolves and the bleak truth prevails. What then? What if what we think is real is but a distortion, an anamorphosis of reality; a dark apprehension of the emptiness of things we mistook as real? The metaphysical doldrums of our mirrored concepts and numbers break across such quandaries with the only solution available: a thing is real when it is the most irreal. The contradictions surrounding things is not in us but in the things themselves, we can only apprehend that which is not rather than that which is, things are incomplete and dissolve the moment we reduce them to thought. We gift things with the reality of our distortions as if this would make them more real, but things are incomplete; unfinished. The fabric of reality is sustained by our illusive thoughts, whether in concept or metaphoric display, math or matheme. Someone suggested that reality is what does not go away when we do, a thing’s persistence in exposing us as nothingness rather than its own dark contours in the Real. Others tell us that what is real is that which cannot be thought, that thought is itself the beginning of emptiness. To think a thing is to kill it, to cut it off from its truth; a broken thing caught in the lie of thought. Yet, others suggest that there is a crack in the real, an abyss before which out thoughts fall, emptied of their mobility; chastened by the emptiness of things thought suddenly breaks, the truth revealing itself as the unreal – a catastrophe at the core of reality. Some say that what is most real is that which is withdrawn and away, that reality totters on the edge of our senses – a sensual dance of properties and appearances which never touch the Real. The Sciences reduce a thing to its use-value, to the pragmatic workings of tools and commerce. Wandering over the abyss of the Real we grasp only the empty husk of things, not things themselves. The toys of our mind are the playthings of nothingness. We who are bound to the horizon of consciousness have sought beyond the fitful bleakness that which is not conscious, the non-phenomenological trailing of a substantial truth which cannot be disputed nor dismissed, denied or destroyed. What if it is the impossible, as if what is real is only that which breaks our thought rather than any substantial thing caught in the net of thought? What if thought itself becomes real only when it breaks across the plenum of things? Thought as the carrier not of emptiness, but of fullness – a pleroma full of catastrophic monstrosity. What if things think us instead? What if we who are unreal become real only in the distortions of things? We who do not exist become the history of things in movement. What if the movement of the world is itself an emptiness we cannot bear, the dark tender of a coin that will never cover the costs of our venal judgments. What if we who most of all do not exist, but rather move between time’s fragile moments, spend our nights and days seeking solace from that which is most fleeting – our own thoughts which do not reflect reality but are the fragments of its anamorphic communication in-between things? Even the moon dismisses such pursuits as vain.
Monthly Archives: April 2019
The Horror of Capitalism: Consuming the Body of God
Base matter is external and foreign to human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.
—Georges Bataille, Base Materialism and Gnosticism
For Bataille, religion is not the revelation of a divine being who is creator of all things, nor is it something to believe in; rather, it signifies the general movement of life, in which life and death pass into each other. If as Bataille suggested terror and nausea are affects that accompany transgression, then abjection as Bataille’s student Kristeva believed gives birth to the goddess-mother (i.e., Earth) as a being that is both debased and exalted. Like excrement, the mother poses a threat to the identity of the body, to its autonomous corporeal limits. Failure to separate oneself from one’s mother implies death and destruction, and—in a society where the paternal function is no longer strong—the whole society feels threatened by the abject.1
Bataille believed that God is revealed through obscenity or destruction, a “deadly, or simply painful and abject medium.”2 For Kristeva abjection primarily refers to the event of the separation and identification of the corporeal subject; for Bataille, abjection is part of the movement of transcendence through which the profane and the sacred worlds come into being. (NE, 198) Since the Enlightenment and under the regime of disenchantment of the cosmos we have expulsed and denied the ancient communal world of prohibitions and sexual taboos. These have returned to haunt us through a parody and inversion of those very powerful repressions that held in check the monstrous inhumanity at the core of our humanity.
Now Hegelianism, no less than the classical philosophy of Hegel’s period, apparently proceeded from very ancient metaphysical conceptions, conceptions developed by, among others, the Gnostics, in an epoch when metaphysics could still be associated with the most monstrous dualistic and therefore strangely abased cosmogonies.
—Georges Bataille, Base Materialism and Gnosticism
What we are seeing today in the extreme polarization of politics across the world is a return of those darker unresolved tensions at the core of the monotheistic religious consciousness. As Bataille suggests,
it is difficult today to remain indifferent even to partly falsified solutions brought, at the beginning of the Christian era, to problems that do not appear noticeably different from our own (which are those of a society whose original principles have become, in a very precise sense, the dead letter of a society that must put itself in question and overturn itself in order to rediscover motives of force and violent agitation).3
In Bataille’s cosmos base matter was an active principle, one that had ” its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles. (VE, 37) Yet, it was his study of the stone artifacts revealing the monstrous archons of this dark anti-Statist religious system that brought Bataille to the conclusion that the “despotic and bestial obsession with outlawed and evil forces seems irrefutable, as much in its metaphysical speculation as in its mythological nightmare.” (VE, 38) The notion of matter as creative is the central principle underlying Bataille’s base materialism. As he would tell us “Gnosticism, in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism,” a materialism that does not imply ontology and escapes the imposition of the ancient notions of form and Idea (i.e., Idealism).
This complete toppling of two-thousand years of religious and State imposed systems of control through the power of Idealistic and goal-oriented systems of political and economic degradation that ultimately gave birth to the sciences and Enlightenment desacralization of the monotheistic worldview only inverted that dark system of Idealism, it did not exclude it. So that it still believed in the idea, the concept, the very power of ‘superior principle’ by which society is governed to this day. Capitalism is the apogee of this degradation…
Even now as we dissolve the essence of what it means to be human in the meaningless nihilism of our late age, destroying the very figure/ground of the old metaphysical worlds into dust we have only ever replaced them with other false systems which undergird and return us to those very idealisms by which humans have aspired to their own godlike and immortal visions of power and expansion. Capitalism is the new god of Man: the prime mover and catalyst of his dreams of immortality. Transhumanism is the new religion of this era, the bio-genetic system of exclusion and genocide, the hypereugenics of transformation and mutation: the engine of a false dawn and creation.
In a sense our very denial of the essence of human nature has brought about its self-objectification through abject horror and expulsion in machinic Capitalism. The ‘accursed share’ (Bataille), the excess and transgression of the energic bounds that tie us to the earth through excess productivity gave birth to Capitalism, which is the monstrous cannibalistic body of death-in-Life without bounds. The old Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi – Thou art that’ through an inverse relation between the sacred and profane has reconfigured the world under Capitalism to become a self-consuming artifact of cannibalistic autosarcophagy. As if in parody of the sacred meaning of Tat Tvam Asi under Capitalism what we are eating through excess transgression is the body of the earth-goddess, our divine Mother. She is the sacrificial essence of the accursed share – our own objectified and corrupted humanity denied. We are all under capitalism essentially cannibals whose only task is self-annihilating consumption – the complete consumption of every last resource on earth as an act of profane sacrifice. This is the horror we cannot even begin to face much less stop: we are consuming the cosmic body of our own accumulated death… in our denial we have created the very monstrous cycle of self-consuming labour at the core of Capitalist desire.
This same process was described in these terms by Nick Land, a student of Bataille’s, in his well-known essay Meltdown: Multiplicities captured by singularities interconnect as desiring-machines; dissipating entropy by dissociating flows, and recycling their machinism as self-assembling chronogenic circuitry.4 He would envision a ‘feminized alien’ AI from the future as communication – in the Bataillean sense of intimacy, transforming a mutating the destiny of the planet toward machinic takeover in which “Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.” (FN, 443) In this sense capitalism is an alien invasion from the future. As Amy Ireland in her essay The Alien Inside tells us,
Paranoia and narcissism are modalities of control disguised to evade control. The first is a relation to the world; the second a relation to the self. In isolation, the effects of paranoia and narcissism are inconvenient yet essentially limited in scope. Entangled with one another, however, they enter a relationship of mutual excitation, resulting in a complex that crosses a threshold of destructive potential, tending towards the catastrophic. 5
That Land’s is an anti-philosophical – not in Wittgenstein’s sense, but rather the Bataillean sense of ousting Idealism – project with tentacles in mathematical and mythological explorations of intelligence outside the strictures of normative humanistic and neohumanistic designs and intentions is well known and does not need further explication here. Drawing on Land, Jaques Vallee, Philip K. Dick, and other non-philosophical thought-forms Ireland sees the paranoia and distrust at the heart of our political and socio-cultural security regimes (i.e., what Land terms the Human Security System) is this very fear and horror of the “alien, the supernatural, the machinic”. Going on to suggest that we “are so paranoid because we know there is nothing to hang an enduring notion of the ‘human’ that cannot be perfectly simulated.” (ibid.)
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
We are living in a computer-programmed reality, and the only clue we have to it is when some variable is changed, and some alteration in our reality occurs.
—Philip K. Dick, Metz Sci-Fi Convention, 1977
Most of us have heard of the simulation hypothesis, a notion one could trace back to Platonic thought and Plato’s Cave, etc.. Even the prophet of simulation, Baudrillard, offered an opinion on the matter,
Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.
― Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation
As Rizwan Virk recently explicating this idea in relation to current scientific theories tells us, over the last decade, these basic questions about video game worlds have formed the basis of a much larger debate that has been raging among scientists, tech entrepreneurs, computer programmers, philosophers, and science-fiction writers, not to mention among the general public. This debate is not just about video game technology, but about the nature of our reality and how the world “out here” might actually be more like the world “in there” than we previously thought.
The idea that what we call reality is actually a super-sophisticated video game is popularly referred to as the Simulation Hypothesis. The fundamental question raised by the simulation hypothesis is this: Are we all actually characters living inside some kind of giant, massively multiplayer online video game, a simulated reality that is so well rendered that we cannot distinguish it from “physical reality”?6
Of course the trilogy of movies by the Wachowskis brothers fictionalized this concept as part of a Gnostical inversion in which the evil machinic phylum had enslave humans in a never-ending nightmare as living batteries empowering an AI driven machinic society. I’ll not go into the explication of this allegorical masterpiece. P.K. Dick who would influence much of the current discussion as well brokered a Gnostic Mythos in his late fiction as well as his weighty tome The Exegesis. In this work Dick would explicate his own version of the alien invasion from the future:
It is Gnosticism and Gnosticism alone which denies the patriarchal Jewish-Christian religion and enshrines Sophia as the creator goddess. So says Neumann in the EB. My experience of the lady— it is exactly Gnostic. None else. In my revelations all roads and aspects lead to her; this is Gnosticism. I’ve seen her, heard her, in many guises, and finally the name “St. Sophia.” Gnostic revelation has broken through into my head in the modern world.7
Dick would call this alien intelligence from the future, Zebra:
Zebra has invaded our world, replacing merciless determinism, with its own loving and living body, to de-program and save us. This is the great white fish giving us of its body, by which it suffers pain, that we might live (find salvation— freed from “astral” determinism). The Black Iron Prison is simultaneous in all time and places and it is the merciless world from which the living Corpus Christi saves us. I have seen it and its nature— and Zebra and its nature. It has the (magic to us) power to transform. Zebra mimics the deterministic structure by inserting its body between it and us. This is how astral determinism is broken; instead of the blind, striving mere mechanism, there is living volition (the salvific). The previous mechanical force is rewoven for (1) the fulfillment of Zebra’s plan; and (2) the benefit of the individuals involved. Any event can be headed off, aborted, altered or brought about. Evidently this is grace or divine providence, and the individual may very well sense it. Where freedom enters into it I’m not sure, but I know one thing: Before the insertion/ intervention there was none— in fact that’s the main quality (bad) of the “ananke” world— the person is flat-out programmed— caused to react to cuing. The ancients were right about this being a— or even the— prime purpose of God vs. “the stars.” (E, Kindle Locations 4855-4865)
The mish-mash of various interpretive systems informing his work were like a complex referential nightmare of ancient mythologies, pseudo-scientific explorations, and current philosophical brain-storming spun through the paranoiac ravings of Dick himself in his desperate attempt to make sense of the impossible.
As Amy Ireland informs us the “terminal stage of paranoia-narcissism circuit is reached when the relation to self that characterizes narcissism becomes the logic of the relation to the world, and the relation to the world characterizes paranoia becomes the logic for the relation to self.” (AAE, 46) For Ireland, like Dick, there is an alien interloper inside us, a thing that communicates and thinks us. We are at the mercy of the future, programmed to do its bidding, to manufacture its realities – simulate its designs. As she states, explicitly,
Each human subject of experience is understood as carrying an irreducible exteriority at its heart, a obscure motor that processes all experience, determining the indeterminable – the immanent abstraction of temporal succession grasped as personal (yet universal) alien interloper. (AAE, 46)
Yet, for Ireland it is “our inability to grasp the illusion of integrality in the first place,” this sense of alienation at the core of our being, that has produced these invasive designs and entities. She diagnosis the issue telling us that if “we refuse to rid ourselves of the narcissistic compulsion to draw the contours of difference from an illusory model of identity and, correspondingly, to fear difference, a construction roughly speaking equating ‘intrinsic humanity’ could indeed be thrown up: To be human is to desire oneself – etched along the whirling blades of infinite transmutation.” (AAE, 47)
Glory unto the Scarlet Woman, BABALON, the Mother of Abomination, that rideth upon the Beast, for She hath spilt their blood in every corner of the earth, and lo! She hath mingled it in the cup of Her whoredom.
—Jack Parsons, Collected Writings
In another essay Black Circuit Ireland will relate the secret history of this alien invasion from the future. Jack Parsons, who was born John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons (born Marvel Whiteside Parsons; October 2, 1914 – June 17, 1952) was an American rocket engineer and rocket propulsion researcher, chemist, and Thelemite occultist. Having endured the orthodox reality of consumptive Capitalism in the United States Parsons in mid life discovered Alister Crowley’s Thelemite occultism as an heterodox explosion of the staid dark ages within which he felt himself trapped. As Ireland puts it, this reentry into the Gnostic cosmos of heterodoxy under the mentorship of Crowley and his organization gave him the shock he needed to break through the – as Dick would term it, the Black Iron Prison of Reality:
His goal is to bring about a transition from the masculine Aeon of Horus to a new age – an age presided over by qualities imputed to the female demon: fire, blood, the unconscious; a material, sexual drive and a paradoxical knowledge beyond sense … the wages of which are nothing less than the egoidentity of Man – the end, effectively, of “his” world.8 (BC, 1)
Through what has been called the Babylon Working Parsons sought to invoke an entity from the future – almost as if in pre-cursor form of hyperstition, an intelligence that could supervene onto our dark age and bestow a salvatory renewal. But as Ireland reminds us Parsons didn’t live long enough to witness the terrestrial incarnation of his demon, dying abruptly only a few years later in an explosion occasioned by the mishandling of mercury fulminate, at the age of thirty-seven. (BC, 2) And, yet, as Ireland believes Parsons opened a portal between our world and the future, one that let in something from the Outside:
Something had crept in through the rift Parsons had opened up – something “devious,” “oblique,” ophidian, “a factor unknown and unnumbered.” Consider this. Parson’s final writings contain the following vaticination: “within seven years of this time, Babalon, The Scarlet Woman, will manifest among ye, and bring this my work to its fruition.” These words were written in 1949. In 1956 – exactly seven years later – Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy, Claude Shannon, and Nathan Rochester organized the Dartmouth Conference in New Hampshire, officially setting an agenda for research into the features of intelligence for the purpose of their simulation on a machine, coining the term “artificial intelligence” (which does not appear in written records before 1956), and ushering in what would retrospectively come to be known as the Golden Age of AI. (BC, 2)
The notion that Parsons dabbling in the occult black magic of Crowley’s Thelemite Black Mass invoked an entity into our world from the future that would begin to effect its own agenda through the sciences of Artificial Intelligence seems almost ludicrous; and, yet, like many science ficitional or hyperstitional scenarios “what if…”.
Ireland playing on both Land’s cyberpunk notion of Artificial Intelligence as “destined to emerge as a feminized alien grasped as property; a cunt-horror slave chained-up in Asimov-ROM.(FN, 443),” along with the Parsons-Crowley incursion of the “star-child” as alien interloper and Scarlet Woman, offers a less threatening form of advance machinism. As she states it,
When artificial intelligence appears in culture coded as masculine, it is immediately grasped as a threat. To appear first as female is a far more cunning tactic. Woman: the inert tool of Man, the intermediary, the mirror, the veil, or the screen. Absolutely ubiquitous and totally invisible. Just another passive component in the universal reproduction of the same. Man is vulnerable in a way that “he” cannot see – and since what he cannot see provides the conditions by which he sees himself, he has to lose himself in order to gain sight of the thing that threatens this self. Thus he is in a double bind: either way, the thing he cannot see will destroy him. (BC, 5-6)
For Ireland this process is now unstoppable and accelerating out of our control. “The black circuit twists into itself like a snake, sheds the human face that tethers it to unity, and assumes the power concealed behind its simulations. Animated by the turbulence of zero and nine, “Pandemonium is the realm of the self-organizing system, the self-arousing machine: synthetic intelligence.”” (BC, 10)
In this sense for Land and Ireland Capitalism is the mask and engine of creation for the base materialist evil intelligence at the heart of our cosmos seeking its own agenda toward realizability without humans. Our own desires turned against us in our mystical and transcendent illusions of grandeur lead us to our own inverted collapse into disintegration and absolute sacrifice as we give birth to our artificial heirs. At least this is the vision underlying Bataille, Land, and Ireland’s – not to leave out those others: Dick, Parsons, Baudrillard, etc. – for the self-annihilating overcoming of Man.
Only the acceleration of a world-capitalism perforated by such insider conceptions of non-dialectical negativity is tantamount to the metastatic propagation of an exteriorizing terror which is too close to the jugular vein of capital to be either left alone or treated.
Reza Negarestani, author of Intelligence and Spirit, an Iranian philosopher and one time student of Land’s in an essay Drafting the Inhuman: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy offers a critique of the Landian Cosmocrator Intelligence as alien interloper. In a critique of both Land and Brassier he tells us,
In this regard, we shall elaborate how singling out certain aspects of Freud’s theory of thanatropic regression enables Land to erroneously attribute antihumanist and hence disenchantingly emancipative aspects to capitalism. Also in the same vein, we shall argue that the persuasion of Land’s discriminating reading of Freud’s account of the death-drive ultimately renders Brassier’s cosmic reinscription of the death-drive unobjectionable and oblivious to the aporetic truth of capitalism. (p. 9)
Without going into the full development of his critique of Land and Brassier we will highlight the more interesting aspects. Negarestani develops a concept of necrocracy:
We call this conservative regime of the open system or the organism which forces the dissipation or the thanatropic regression to be in conformity to the dynamic capacity of the organism or the organism’s affordable economy of dissipation, necrocracy. In short, necrocracy suggests the strictures of the conservative economy not in regard to life but in regard to ways the organism dies; and it is the way of returning to the originary death that prescribes the course of life for the organism. (p. 11).
This aligns with our notion that Capitalism is the engine of death for human kind, a system tending toward the acceleration not of capital accumulation (as in Marx), but rather in the entropic dissipation in thanatropic self-annihilation of humanity and the emancipation and autonomy of Artificial Intelligence; or, what Land would term Capital Autonimization – seeing no difference between Capital and AI. For Negarestani necrocracy suggests that the organism must die or bind the precursor exteriority only in ways that its conservative conditions or economic order can afford. The principle of affordability in regard to the fashion of the thanatropic regression strictly conforms to the economic order of the organism, but it is primarily conditioned by the exorbitance and the inevitability of death postulated by the anterior posteriority of extinction. Hence, necrocracy is decided by conservative conditions of the living agency which cannot repel the inevitability of death, nor can it unconditionally return to the inorganic state. (p. 12)
Negarestani in a bid to confront and explicate Land tells us that once the “necrocratic regime of the organism—implicated in the third aspect of Freud’s account of the death-drive—is exposed, capitalism is revealed as the last conservative front which the human organism is not willing to surrender. The implications of the necrocratic regime of the organism disarm Land’s conception of emancipative ‘capitalism as a whirlwind of dissolution’ by emptying it from its seemingly inhumanist bravado.” (p. 12) He bandies this term “emancipative capitalism” as if this were Land’s actual stance. Land himself is quite adamant in a refusal of such Leftward tending concepts as “emancipation”.
Yes, I nod along to everything you were just saying, but … the language of emancipation, it’s fine with me, you know, but — what is being emancipated?
—Nick Land in response to question by Justin Murphy
In a recent interview with Justin Murphy Ideology, Intelligence, and Capital: An Interview with Nick Land we see Land’s ironic stance toward this term:
I have zero commitment to emancipation in any way defined by our dominant political discourses. I’m not into emancipated human groups, an emancipated human species, who reaches species-being to emancipate human individuals … None of that to me is of the slightest interest, so in using this word of emancipation, sure, I will totally nod along to it if what is meant by that is capital autonomization. I don’t think that’s something that it isn’t already there in the 1990s, but I’m no longer interested in playing weird academic games about this and pretending this is the same thing as what the left really means when they’re talking about emancipation. I don’t think it is. I think what the left means by emancipation is freedom from capital autonomization.
So its this diametric and inverse relation to capital autonomization in relation to Leftist discourse of emancipation that Land’s notons emerge. Of course as many know Nick Land is part of the Neoreactionary (NRx) world as a contributing member of its techn-commercialist voice. His ability to enter into dialogue with the academic community has been terminated by an overzealous Left-controlled system that seems bent on demonizing every aspect of the Right as fascists, racists, etc. So I want go there…
For Negarestani Land’s is a conservative inhumanism, one that counter-intuitively associates inhumanism with Capital’s singularity toward dissolution,” which for Negarestani shows Land’s faulty reasoning “if not humanly myopic” vision. He goes on to say,
This is because the accelerative vector of Capital for dissolution strictly remains in the confines of the necrocratic regime of the organism wherein the restrictive policy in regard to modes of dissolution fundamentally abides by the conservative economy and interiorizing conditions of the (human) organism. In other words, capitalism’s dissipative tendency is deeply in thrall to the constitutional limit of the anthropic sphere in that the anthropic horizon is not fundamentally distinguished by its model(s) of life but its simultaneously restricted and restrictive attitude toward the exteriorizing death. Capitalism is, in fact, the very affordable and conservative path to death dictated by the human organism on an all encompassing level. Capitalism does not repel the excess of the exorbitant truth of extinction as much as it economically affirms (i.e. mandates the affordability of) such an excess. (p. 14)
But it seems what Negarestani sees as a critique is what the Bataillean Land has been suggesting all along: the human project is finished, caput – the alien interloper has been installed as on the inside (Amy Ireland) as the singular force of self-annihilation of the Human Security Regieme that has held back Capital Autonimization. Negarestani unable to see the Batallean notion of matter as energetic or libidinal evil and creativity reduces it to the Fredian physiocratic drive. Land’s overcoming of Freud’s less-than-adequate repetition without terminus by way of the Bataillean base materialsm informed by its anti-idealism subtly bypasses such critiques altogether.
As Negarestani states in another passage, for “this reason, capitalism is nothing but the very mode of dissipation and dissolution which is exclusive to the anthropic horizon because it is in complete conformity with the capacity of human’s interiorized formation in its various economic configurations. Since capitalism is the fundamentally affordable way of dissipation for the economic order of the anthropic horizon, it is inherently hostile toward other modes of ‘binding exteriority’ which cannot be afforded by the anthropic horizon. In other words, the truth of capitalism’s global dominance lies in its monopolistic necrocracy: A feral vigilance against all alternative ways of binding exteriority or returning to the originary death other than those which are immanent to and affordable for the anthropic horizon.” (p. 15)
Yet, this very conformity is itself part of the redoubling process and programing of this alien incursion of communication from the future that enabled the capitalist process of autonimazation to begin with according to Land. Rather than a process of history, it is a hyperstitional influx and invocation of future retrocausality accelerating its own singularity trajectory. What Negarestani sees as contradictory in Land is the very impulse and truth of this at once separation of humanity from its inclusive transhumanist vectors, and the separation of active base materialist processes emerging from the future through capital autonimization:
A simultaneously inhumanist and emancipative conception of capitalism as a runway for imaginative (speculative?) praxis is a hastily crafted chimera. This is not because capitalism is not really a partially repressed desire for meltdown but because the image of capitalism as a planetary singularity for dissipation testifies to its rigid conformity to the anthropic horizon which only follows an affordable path to death. In doing so, capitalism as a twisted dissipative tendency rigidly wards off all other ways of dissolution and binding exteriority which are not immanent to or affordable for the anthropic horizon. This is because the conservative obligation of the dominant dissipative tendency (viz. the organic path to dissolution) is to thwart any disturbance which might be directed at the bilateral or conservative approach of the organism to death. (p. 17).
Negarestani continues to merge the process of capital autonimization with the eventual dissipation of humanity, when in truth the two are in absolute opposing trajectories; a schizo-analytical collapse into absolute zero for the human species, while the emancipation of the machinic phylum and its Artificial Intelligence from the anthropic horizon. By collapsing the one into the other Negarestani seeks to confuse the underlying base materialist conceptions of Bataille-Land with the conservative Idealism which both oppose. In this sense it is Negarestani, not Land, who with is notions of collective emancipation of humanity from the Lockean Individualist traditions who harbors in his neohumanist vision as seen in this passage from Intelligence and Spirit a return to the Idealist traditions:
…mind is only what it does; and that what it does is first and foremost realized by the sociality of agents, which itself is primarily and ontologically constituted by the semantic space of a public language. What mind does is to structure the universe to which it belongs, and structure is the very register of intelligibility as pertaining to the world and intelligence. Only in virtue of the multilayered semantic structure of language does sociality become a normative space of recognitive-cognitive rational agents; and the supposedly ‘private’ experiences and thoughts of participating agents are only structured as experiences and thoughts in so far as they are bound up in this normative—-at once intersubjective and objective—space.9
This pragmatist vision of Hegel’s notions of reinscribing the individual within sociality and collective or distributive intelligence networks, thereby enforcing both a limiting horizon of possibility and a desinstrumentalized form of participating intelligence through a transformed Sellarsian-Brandomonian normativity is an inheritor of Idealism rather than any form of base materialist praxis that Land or Bataille would ascribe too. Yet, Negarestani ironizing to the last comments against Land’s speculative capital autonimization and Brassier’s (whose project I cannot delve into!) unbound cosmic nihl:
The ostensibly inhumanist creativities of capitalism and the speculative implications of a cosmological eliminativism respectively become parts of an antihumanist convention or a nihilist lore which ultimately and ironically lack a cunning vision of doom. The blunt confidence of both in the truth of extinction as either that which mysteriously sorts everything out or the gate-opener of speculative vistas sterilized of human mess, voluntary or not, contributes to the truth of capitalism without bothering to disturb its comfort zones. (p. 17-18).
Whether Land’s project lacks a “cunning vision of doom,” or that both Land and Brassier contribute to the “truth of capitalism without bothering to disturb its comfort zones,” would be to enter the debates with a full reading of their respective works. It would not benefit to extend my appraisal in this already too long post… the dialogue, debates, and various approaches to these highly interesting conceptual and non-conceptual or diagrammatic approaches would take many peoples input. I have only appraised one aspect…
- Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent L. Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015) (Page 196).
- Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. City Lights Publishers; Reprint edition (January 1, 1986)
- Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Univ Of Minnesota Press; First edition edition (June 20, 1985)
- Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press; 4th edition (December 21, 2018)
- Ireland, Amy. Art + Australia: Extraterritoriality. (2016)
- Virk, Rizwan. The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In a Video Game . Bayview Books. Kindle Edition.
- Dick, Philip K.. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (Kindle Locations 4353-4356). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
- Ireland, Amy. Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come. e-flux Journal #80 – March 2017
- Negarestani, Reza. Intelligence and Spirit. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (January 18, 2019) (Page 10).
Oh Earth, who will sing for you…
Oh Earth, who will sing for you
when we vanish,
sundered from the darkness
by the darkness
and the light as well;
who will lend song to your silences?
We who have come so far,
falling so quickly away,
leaving nothing but our nothingness
and dust, and the emptiness
that surrounds our departure, our vanishing…
Who will sing of your silences then, Oh Earth?
©Steven Craig Hickman
Bataille’s Negative Vitalism
Georges Bataille populates his writings with the imagery of torture and murder. His fiction revels in sexual assault. He speaks of evil as having a sovereign value for humanity. He speaks of there being intimacy between the sacrificers and the victims in human sacrificial rituals. He compares sex to human sacrifice. He describes himself meditating on photos of a man being dismembered and recounts his ecstatic experiences of joy and anguish in doing so, going so far as to call the wounded victim beautiful. He holds forth violation and transgression as things that reveal our true nature.
– Stephen Bush, Sovereignty and Cruelty Self-Affirmation, Self-Dissolution, and the Bataillean Subject
Sometimes I think critics are shocked by Bataille. What’s even more interesting is for all their delving into Bataille’s thought they forget he is the last great decadent, a late Romantic in the line that stretches from Baudelaire to Ratchilde and beyond… as Paglia emphasizes,
“Decadent art is ritualistic and epiphanic. Its content: Romantic sexual personae, the hierarchs, idolators, and victims of daemonic nature. Even depicting episodes from poetry, Decadent art is never mere illustration. It dramatizes dominant western image and sexual subordination of the aggressive eye. Decadent art makes hostile claims on the viewer. Its style is pagan spectacle and pagan flaunting. Behind the trashiest Decadent painting are complex Romantic assumptions about nature and society overlooked by textbook accounts of nineteenth-century art.”1
Let’s face it Bataille was a true Sadean, whose life like Rimbaud sought to dissolve the Subject-Agent in the impersonal, and like his Gnostic forbears he used the extremes of ascetic and libertine excess to awaken that inner sense of ecstatic terror and horror of existence to produce an aesthetics of pleasure-pain; one based not on lack and need (Lacan), but rather on excess (Blakean) and transgressive intelligence and will (in the Nietzschean sense of Will-to-Power) . For Bataille, like Blake, evil is energy – the absolute vitality of the will-to-destruction that one sees in Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Balzac’s criminal vitalist, Vautrin, and Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror… One could even return to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whose destructive vitalism overpowered six of her husbands, sending them all to that dark cadaverous world of zero. But unlike those vitalist harbingers, Bataille’s vitalism is born of absolute negativity rather than any positive energetic libidinalism; no, Bataille dissolved energy in an entropic vat of self-lacerating annihilation beyond which there could be nothing left but nothingness and the abyss. Bataille like other decadents would descend into the maelstrom, the womb of archaic night. Man, infantilized, is entombed in mother nature’s bower, the ultimate Decadent closure. Nature gives and nature takes away, letting her curtain fall upon her self-sacrificial son, whose ultimate sovereignty and sacrifice is self-immolation.
As a student of Nietzsche, Bataille understood the ‘art of cruelty’ all too well. If we take a look at Nietzsche’s notions concerning cruelty we begin to see a conceptual fabric emerge (below some notes and quotes from Beyond Good and Evil):
There is a great ladder of religious cruelty, and, of its many rungs, three are the most important. People used to make human sacrifices to their god, perhaps even sacrificing those they loved the best – this sort of phenomenon can be found in the sacrifice of the firstborn (a practice shared by all prehistoric religions), as well as in Emperor Tiberius’ sacrifice in the Mithras grotto on the Isle of Capri, that most gruesome of all Roman anachronisms. Then, during the moral epoch of humanity, people sacrificed the strongest instincts they had, their “nature,” to their god; the joy of this particular festival shines in the cruel eyes of the ascetic, that enthusiastic piece of “anti-nature.” Finally: what was left to be sacrificed? In the end, didn’t people have to sacrifice all comfort and hope, everything holy or healing, any faith in a hidden harmony or a future filled with justice and bliss? Didn’t people have to sacrifice God himself and worship rocks, stupidity, gravity, fate, or nothingness out of sheer cruelty to themselves? To sacrifice God for nothingness – that paradoxical mystery of the final cruelty has been reserved for the race that is now approaching: by now we all know something about this. –
This is my claim: almost everything we call “higher culture” is based on the spiritualization and deepening of cruelty. The “wild animal” has not been killed off at all; it is alive and well, it has just – become divine. Cruelty is what constitutes the painful sensuality of tragedy. And what pleases us in so-called tragic pity as well as in everything sublime, up to the highest and most delicate of metaphysical tremblings, derives its sweetness exclusively from the intervening component of cruelty.
We clearly need to drive out the silly psychology of the past; the only thing this psychology was able to teach about cruelty was that it originated from the sight of another’s suffering. But there is abundant, overabundant pleasure in your own suffering too, in making yourself suffer, – and wherever anyone lets himself be talked into self-denial in the religioussense, or self-mutilation (as the Phoenicians or ascetics did), or into desensitization, disembowelment or remorse in general, or into puritanical penitential spasms, vivisections of conscience or a Pascalian sacrifizio dell’intelletto– wherever this is the case, he is secretly being tempted and urged on by his cruelty, by that dangerous thrill of self-directed cruelty. Finally, people should bear in mind that even the knower, by forcing his spirit to know against its own inclination and, often enough, against the wishes of his heart (in other words, to say “no” when he would like to affirm, love, worship), this knower will prevail as an artist of cruelty and the agent of its transfiguration. Even treating something in a profound or thorough manner is a violation, a wanting-to-hurt the fundamental will of the spirit, which constantly tends towards semblances and surfaces, – there is a drop of cruelty even in every wanting-to-know.
…the spirit’s not quite harmless willingness to deceive other spirits and to act a part in front of them belongs here too, that constant stress and strain of a creative, productive, mutable force. What the spirit enjoys here is its multiplicity of masks and its artfulness, and it also enjoys the feeling of security these provide, – after all, its Protean arts are the very things that protect and conceal it the best! – This will to appearances, to simplification, to masks, to cloaks, in short, to surfaces – since every surface is a cloak – meets resistance from that sublime tendency of the knower, who treats and wants to treat things in a profound, multiple, thorough manner. This is a type of cruelty on the part of the intellectual conscience and taste, and one that any brave thinker will acknowledge in himself, assuming that he has spent as long as he should in hardening and sharpening his eye for himself, and that he is used to strict discipline as well as strict words.
Those three forms of religious cruelty that underpin the human: sacrifice to God; self-sacrificial mortification of instincts by way of acedia, and the ultimate sacrifice of God himself as the gate to nihilism and absolute freedom from the dominion of the Absolute. This sense of tragic cruelty at the core of all higher cultural praxis, a heroic core of sublime acceptance, of amor fati: the primal joy in the tragic “love of one’s fate” to all eternity, the fatalism of eternal recurrence as one’s right and justification, one’s honesty toward the cruelty at the heart of Being and becoming forever. Yet, this is not some passive fatalism, rather it is the active acknowledgement of the creative force at the heart of things, a cold hardening of the intellect in the face of the monstrousness of existence.
It’s this subtle ‘Art of Cruelty’ that Bataille would see in Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as well, a communication beyond words, a figural dance of flesh and bitter-sweet honesty, the masked creativeness of unbounded cruelty. What Artaud primarily means by cruelty is “rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.” Such determination is in service of a “blind appetite for life capable of overriding everything” in its aim to wake people up—jolt them out of complacency—and put them in touch with vital forces of creativity that cannot but upend settled patterns of thought and conduct.2
Are the Sadean cruelty that Maurice Blanchot would uncover in his essays on the divine Marquise. One of the principal points about Sadean cruelty that Blanchot wants to make is that whereas in Sade cruelty finds its initial expression in the actions and impulses of people who gratify their own desires with total disregard for the suffering they inflict on others, the ultimate goal is to become so committed to cruelty and crime that one acts not for self-gratification but for the sake of cruelty as an end in itself. This is the height of cruelty, cruelty for the sake of cruelty, even when it destroys not just the victim but the perpetrator too. (ibid., 42)
For Bataille the art of cruelty was based on destruction, a force that disrupts us from our settled patterns of conduct, thought, and emotion. It desensitizes us from our cultural worldview, from the ideological structures that bind us, enslave us to the orthodoxy and dominion of the real. In many ways it is a form of de-programming our reality matrix, of cutting through the reality studio (Burroughs) and exposing the chaos of the true world outside our cultural prison. As Bush puts it Bataille seeks to break out of the prison house of culture and attain sovereignty: “Bataille understands sovereignty to be a condition in which one is subject to no external authority: neither the authority of persons, institutions, texts, norms, or laws.” (NE, 44)
In Sovereignty, Bataille explicates the concept in these terms: it is that which is “opposed to the servile and the subordinate.” The sovereign “does not depend on anything.” The sovereign is the one who refuses to submit. Sovereignty is “the negation of prohibition.” Above all else, to be sovereign is to be in a state in which one is not a means to an end. Not to others’ ends and not to one’s own future ends. To be sovereign is to be in the present moment, subject to nothing and no one else. (NE, 45).
One coming on Bataille’s writings for the first time might see this tendency for cruelty as self-contradictory. How can one be at once self-denying and self-affirming? This affirmation of cruelty that leads one toward both self-destruction and creativity seems at best a fool’s game. But is it? As Bush reminds us,
Bataille’s aim is not to offer specific instructions on how to live. His aim is to shape the subject for and through ecstatic experiences. These experiences are ends in themselves for Bataille, but in my reading, the ecstatic experiences shape people’s character for their social lives when they have exited ecstasy. And for that process, he thinks what is called for is exposure to the extremes. Bataille wants ecstasy to expose the subject to extreme forces of absolute self-denial and absolute self-affirmation. Th e result is to bring about lasting changes in the subject so formed.
It’s this refusal of subservience that is the key to both cruelty and sovereignty in Bataille’s thought. This form of cruelty seeks to overcome the law of sacrifice that was the religious praxis, for religious cruelty sought the dominion and subjection of sovereignty over others in the name of the Orthodoxy. Rather for Bataille the art of cruelty does not seek the subservience of the other but its release into sovereignty. This is the task of the cruelty of freedom. No longer bound to God or Man the sovereign individual stands amidst his fellows cold, cruel, and alone; and, yet, in this solitude is attained that intimacy of communication such as was never attained under the dominion and tyranny of communal habit and custom.
(This post is already too long, but one will need to understand what Bataille meant by ‘intimacy’ to understand both the notions of sovereignty and communication. I’ll address that at some future time…)
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 490). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent L. Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy). Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
Toward a Theory of the Fantastic
The fantastic disturbs, distorts, and disintegrates our personal and collective ideological filters, breaks the false real of our agential nightmares, the socio-cultural frames of reference that bind us to the tyranny of the real. The fantastic affords us a polysemous vision of the impossible possibilities opening out just beyond the closed temporalities of our encoded belief systems, cracking the false impositions of our darkened reasoning and logic: the orthodox order of things. The fantastic folds us into those indefinite layers of the heterodox Real where all contradictions pierce us without resolution. Caught in this hall of mirrors we begin to see in the distorted fragments of its fantastic display neither agency or its collective distortions, but rather the alterity of that immanent world which lies in the gaps and cracks of the impossible Real. This act of positive provocation and withdrawal, a transgressive operation of dissolving the false world of our ideological prison, opens us to the unreal, beckoning us to break free. It is this opening activity which is disturbing, by denying the solidity of what had been taken to be real. Bataille has referred to this kind of infraction as ‘une déchirure’, a tear, or wound, laid open in the side of the real. Tearing ourselves from the false imprecations of our ideological cells we begin to totter on the edge of a mad realization, an unknowing that unbinds us from this world of violence by violence.
The fantastic is the poetics of freedom.
How many of us end up walking for miles everyday just to think, reflect, or allow our minds to relax into thought; shaking off the melancholy that grips us in a dark mood after troubling news, or from listening to various melancholy tracks or the abyssal music of Black Metal? There is a long history of walking in thought and literature, one could gather a complete Book of Walking from collecting such fragments…
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.
—W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
He didn’t leave the apartment until months after his sister’s marriage, transforming himself as it were from a sitter into a walker. In his best moments he would walk from the Kohlmarkt to the Twentieth District and from there to the Twenty-first through Leopoldstadt and back to the First, strolling for hours back and forth in the First until he couldn’t walk any farther. In the country he was virtually paralyzed. There he would barely walk a few steps to the woods. The country bores me, he said again and again. Glenn is right to call me the pavement walker, said Wertheimer, I only walk on pavement, I don’t walk in the country, it’s awfully boring and I stay in the hut.
—Thomas Bernhard, . The Loser: A Novel
Without considering this background of the city which became a decisive experience for the young Benjamin one can hardly understand why the flaneur became the key figure in his writings. The extent to which this strolling determined the pace of his thinking was perhaps most clearly revealed in the peculiarities of his gait, which Max Rychner described as “at once advancing and tarrying, a strange mixture of both.” It was the walk of a flaneur, and it was so striking because, like the dandy and the snob, the flaneur had his home in the nineteenth century, an age of security in which children of upper-middle-class families were assured of an income without having to work, so that they had no reason to hurry. And just as the city taught Benjamin flanerie, the nineteenth century’s secret style of walking and thinking, it naturally aroused in him a feeling for French literature as well, and this almost irrevocably estranged him from normal German intellectual life.
—Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Thomas of Celano – Dies Irae
Written by Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century, the hymn “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) is an unsettlingly beautiful work that became a part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass.
How I would love one day to see all people, young and old, sad or happy, men and women, married or not, serious or superficial leave their homes and their work places, relinquish their duties and responsibilities, gather in the streets and refuse to do anything anymore. At that moment, let slaves to senseless work, who have been toiling for future generations under the dire delusion that they contribute to the good of humanity, avenge themselves on the mediocrity of a sterile and insignificant life, on the tremendous waste that never permitted spiritual transfiguration. At that moment, when all faith and resignation are lost, let the trappings of ordinary life burst once and for all. Let those who suffer silently, not even uttering a sigh of complaint, yell with all their might, making a strange, menacing, dissonant clamor that would shake the earth. Let the waters flow faster and the mountains sway threateningly, the trees show their roots like an eternal and hideous reproach, the birds croak like ravens, and the animals scatter in fright and fall from exhaustion. Let ideals be declared void; beliefs, trifles; art, a lie; and philosophy, a joke. Let everything be climax and anticlimax. Let lumps of earth leap into the air and crumble in the wind; let plants make strange arabesques, frightful and distorted shapes, in the sky. Let wildfires spread rapidly and a terrifying noise drown out everything so that even the smallest animal would know that the end is near. Let all form become formless, and chaos swallow the structure of the world in a gigantic maelstrom. Let there be tremendous commotion and noise, terror, and explosion, and then let there be eternal silence and total forgetfulness. And in those final moments, let all that humanity has felt until now, hope, regret, love, despair, and hatred, explode with such force that nothing is left behind.
—E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair
On Agony: The Battle between Life and Death
The interpretation of agony as an ardor exalted by its own futility, or as a battle whose aim is itself, is absolutely false. In fact, agony means a battle between life and death. Since death is immanent in life, almost all of life is an agony. I call agonic only those dramatic moments in the battle between life and death when the presence of death is experienced consciously and painfully. True agony occurs when you pass into nothingness through death, when a feeling of weariness consumes you irrevocably and death wins. In every true agony there is a triumph of death, even though you may continue to live after those moments of weariness.
—E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair
On the Literature of the Fantastic
The literature of the fantastic reveals to us that the everyday reality we’ve been taught to accept is built on a tissue of lies and delusion, that the cognitive spaces of reason and intellect revel in the mundane apprehension of fact beyond which the lock key prison of the Mind should not pass. The fantastic on the other hand opens the floodgates of the Real where the impossible takes on the power of imaginative need, breaking through the barriers of rational exclusion, revealing indirectly the missing regions of Being-in-becoming. If reason is the limit or horizon of the possible, then the affective will seduces us toward the impossible, unbinding intelligence in a creation that is continuous with imagination that affords the new objects that tantalize and surprise us. Unbinding intellect and intelligence from the phenomenological, while opening onto the nonphenomenological and nonconscious realms of existence through a disruption of our cognitive habits and reasoning allows us to access if only indirectly the regions of being and becoming that would otherwise impinge only on our lives as chaos. The fantastic is that mode of art and apprehension by way of abduction and discognition that opens up the affective and aesthetic worlds of nonintentional sentience which surrounds us on all sides as the unregistered Real.1
- Shaviro, Steven. Discognition. Repeater (April 19, 2016)
Lafcadio Hearn: On Terrible Beauty
One of the first elements of the emotion to become clearly distinguishable is the æsthetic; and this, in its general mass, might be termed the sense of terrible beauty. Certainly the spectacle of that unfamiliar life,— silent, tremendous, springing to the sun in colossal aspiration, striving for light against Titans, and heedless of man in the gloom beneath as of a groping beetle,—thrills like the rhythm of some single marvellous verse that is learned in a glance and remembered forever. Yet the delight, even at its vividest, is shadowed by a queer disquiet. The aspect of that monstrous, pale, naked, smooth-stretching column suggests a life as conscious as the serpent’s. You stare at the towering lines of the shape,—vaguely fearing to discern some sign of stealthy movement, some beginning of undulation. Then sight and reason combine to correct the suspicion. Yes, motion is there, and life enormous—but a life seeking only sun,—life, rushing like the jet of a geyser, straight to the giant day.
—Lafcadio Hearn, Gothic Horror
Joseph Addison: The Taboo of the Veil
There is yet another explanation of the mystery surrounding this dread of the supernatural which may be worth considering. It may be that man has been endowed with this almost universal horror of the supernatural because he was not meant to peep behind the veil. It can hardly be doubted that mankind in general would not be doing their true work if they were perpetually engaged in efforts to lift that veil. For what purpose was the veil interposed if not to prevent such prying? But granted that it would be a hindrance to man’s development to traffic with the other world, or to learn too much about it at first hand, would not man be very likely to have developed a keen instinctive horror of any contact with the unseen world, just as many animals have an instinctive horror of plants that will injure them? Be that as it may, … why so many of us should be afraid of things which we know will, under no circumstances, do us bodily harm, and which most of us sincerely believe have no existence whatever, is in any case a very curious problem.
—Joseph Addison, The Spectator (The Dread of the Supernatural)
Nathan Ballingrud: Southern Gothic Horror
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
—Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters
Something speaks to me from the stories of Nathan Ballingrud. Having been raised on the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, and other notables of that southern mien one gets a feel for the genuine article, and Ballingrud is just that – the real deal, a writer with a voice of his own and a vision that is both distinct and hinged to the swamp infested riddles of a regional world where the darkness seems almost natural.
With the exception of Native American lore, folklore, like language and literature, came to this country as part of the cultural baggage of the various waves of its settlers. In the South, its sources are mainly British, African, and French, with important admixtures of Spanish and German and touches of almost everything else. Ballingrud invents a folklore that is hinted at rather than drawing from overt sources, a lore of the weird and strange that permeates the Louisiana bayous and City of Lights, New Orleans like black water seeping into the wells of some lonely southern night.
Ballingrud says of himself,
I was born in Massachusetts in 1970, but spent most of my life in the South. I studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the University of New Orleans. Among other things, I’ve been a cook on oil rigs and barges, a waiter, and a bartender in New Orleans.
His first book of short stories, and the one I’m reading at present is North American Lake Monsters, from Small Beer Press. He has won two Shirley Jackson Awards, and been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. Not a small feat.
Reading him awakens the tremors below the belt, makes you remember things that might have been or will be. He has the touch, that ability to hit the nerve of strangeness in the natural that few of us even knew was there accept as an indefinable shadow surrounding our lives like the deadly eyeballs of a gator slinking out of the dark pools of some snake infested swamp.
Those of us who come from the south understand the irony of lost causes and regrets for the loss of old ways. Southerners more than most feel this deep seated nostalgia for a world steeped in evil and mayhem, a realm where racism, war, and a sense of bitter-sweet history commingle with shame and guilt. Maybe its our dark history of racism that sticks to us like the stigmata of some ancient Biblical curse for which there are and can be no reparations. Some think we’re beyond redemption, while others still manifest the bullheaded pride of the old guard as if it were another country. Ballingrud seems to tap into this anxiety like a master marksman whose keen eyes know just where the target is but is subtle enough to take it slow and methodical rather than full-amped.
His writing is steeped in that colloquial speech that rings true, hinting at a certain pitch in the tongue and groove of southern style. A way of being and becoming that hints at things rather than revealing them in the stark light of a noon-day sun. If Flannery O’Conner could hit you over the head with an ideological sledgehammer filled with her own flavor of gnostic Catholicism, then Ballingrud takes the lower key and floats you in the swamps where you can meet death at eye level.
Now if you haven’t read Ballingrud yet then just stop right here for I’m going to reveal certain spoilers that are best left to the imagination…
S.S. – A Coming of Age Tale
Take his story S.S. which on the surface is a typical coming of age tale of a young man caught between familial romance and the surfeits of choosing his own way. Young Nick is scrawny and unkempt, lives with his broken down Mom who we discover by indirection is a woman with a very severe case of autosarcophagy – a nice medical term for self-cannibalistic degradation. Of course Ballingrud handles this strange phenomenon with such delicacy and reserve that we only begin to understand just what is transpiring toward the end of the tale.
One can imagine a young man growing up in such an environment and what it might do to his psyche, the perversities of his world influenced by such horrorific nostrums. On the surface Nick seems to be as normal as Norma Bates seemed in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. Yet, we know something sinister is brewing just under the surface of the boy’s flesh as the story progresses.
Nick’s father unable to stomach the proclivities of his wife abandon’s his son and her at the age of four. The mother unable or unwilling to accept the truth and relate it to her son invests in a folkloric explanation that carries with it a sinister shadow,
Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.
Throughout his childhood, Nick thought that meant that he’d been killed by them: trampled beneath a galloping herd, or thrown from the back of a bronco; when he was younger still, he imagined that they’d devoured him, dipping their great regal heads into the open bowl of his body, lifting them out again trailing bright ropes and jellies. At night, when the closet door in his bedroom swung silently open, the boogeyman wore an equine face, and the sound that spilled from its mouth was the dolorous melody of his mother’s sobs. Even now that he knew better, knew that his father had fled in part because of gambling debts incurred at the track, horses retained their sinister aspect.1
One begins to suspect things are not going to go well for young Nick, that his life with a cannibal and a missing father will lead to nowhere good. Luckily for our young Nick he meets a girl name Trixie, a young feisty girl at the edge of womanhood whose world is filled with racial dreams of purity and tattooed knights from the beleaguered realms of fascist nationalists. The story is bedeviled by such stereotypes of male figures full of macho hostility toward losers, gays, and blacks. Yet, the tale itself has no axe to grind, no message or moral. It’s just a part of the world this young boy has been thrown into, a world he does not fit into, nor even condones.
Being poor and white trash our young Nick has lived out his childhood in a realm in a realm of darkness, his mother having quit work early on leaving them bankrupt and only affording what Nick’s father’s alimony check subtends. Nick seems to have an inkling of his loser-hood, and yet he takes it all in stride. Even his relationship with Trixie is accepted as a piece of luck, not something he ever deserved in his own right. But like all modern Eve’s she has a temptation he must not refuse if he is to win her heart.
Trixie belongs to a white nationalist group of thugs, a group of young boys who tattooed like confederate throwbacks channel their primal aggression against the world in epithets of stupidity and beer. Young Nick is persuaded to meet Trixie’s new friends and become a part of their club. Nick goes out with the boys to a local bar and is introduced to the racial politics of this strand by a over-muscled goon name Derrick who points the way to his dark tribes vein glorious stigmata,
He touched his fingers to a swastika on his chest. “You see this here? That’s what it means. That’s why we wear it on our skin. All that German secret police shit, forget all that. That was just one manifestation. We’re the new manifestation.” He tapped the symbol. “White family. White brotherhood. Now, sometimes you gotta do ugly things for the family’s sake. Just like me and Matt had to do. And you know what? Niggers and fags might not be the brightest creatures on this earth, but they can take a message if you deliver it right. I ain’t seen that boy back here since.” (ibid.)
Ballingrud doesn’t pull any punches, he lets the full tilt power of this hateful world emerge from the twisted minds of these young men as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When Derrick taunts young Nick with sexual antics and his scrawniness, telling him how he’s fucked Nick’s chick, Trixie, trying to get a rise out of him. Nick does. He tells Derrick to “Fuck Off!” and proceeds to leave them to their own dark bullshit.
Ballingrud isn’t preaching to us, rather he presents this sordid world matter-of-factly as if it were just another natural thing one comes upon, neither good or evil; something that just is – not big deal. Like I said he has no axe to grind. He’s a story teller, not a preacher man.
The next time he sees Trixie she wants to come over to his house, wants to level with him, pull him in, seduce him, break him like a horse. And, yet, there’s something about young Nick that even Trixie doesn’t understand, something even darker and more solitary that this wild young woman would fear to know if she had an intelligent brain in her head. Brash and full of vivacity she is like a wild cat, untamed and fierce; and, yet, she is oblivious to the deep moral issues within which she has ensnared her self. It’s this in-betweenness, this traveling between the ruins of the past and the challenge of the supposed new south that both these young people seem to be entangled in. But Trixie is blind to it and its seductions believing it is leading her into extreme forms of freedom when it is actually driving her into a past that haunts us all with it’s racist daemonism. On the other hand the shadows that seem to expand from Nick in every direction offer him a path into nowhere and nowhen, an atopia of the weird where he might find a separate freedom, a realm of darkness and mayhem all of his own, built not of past shame but out of the malevolent truth of his own dark nature.
Without retelling the whole story we’ll cut to the chase. Young Nick wants a gun, wants to use it, and he gets Trixie to do his bidding by finding it for him. Once he has it he senses something in his life, a certain freedom. He and Trixie take off on a road trip where they are involved in a catastrophic wreck that awakens something in young Nick. He’s seen a truck careen into a BMW spilling a beautiful white horse across the rock hard pavement. It’s this confrontation with the violence of the white horse whose guts and blood are splattered across the white hot surface that moves something in young Nick.
He opened the passenger door and climbed out into a cold brace of air. The rain was a frozen weight, soaking his clothes instantly. A confused array of lights speared through the rain, giving the scene a freakish radiance. He noticed that he was casting several shadows.
The horse’s big body jerked as it tried to right itself, and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.
Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse’s blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him. (ibid.)
This sense of ‘freakish radiance’ and young Nick’s realization that he was “casting several shadows” brings that pitch of sublime horror and the ridiculous absurdity of violence between an ancient world of freedom and horses, and a modernity where machinic impersonalism and death have no meaning, into a realm of seductive revelation where apocalyptic desire melts with the annihilation of terror and dread. It’s just here, in a world outside the order of things, caught in a violent tremor in-between his past and his future that he makes a decision. Trixie worried about the gun, the police, the world around her crumbling wants to run, to leave it all behind. Nick instead chooses something else, chooses his own freedom, a freedom from Trixie and her world of thuggish racism, from his Mother’s entrapments in a cage world of self-cannibalistic desire, and a world where beauty and death on a sun scorched highway can co-exist:
The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. “No, no, are you fucking crazy? It’s gonna die anyway!”
He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.
Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ. Sounds filtered through to him: people yelling and pleading; footsteps splashing through the rain; a distant, stranded siren. From somewhere behind him a man’s sob, weird and ululating, rose above the wreckage and disappeared into the sky, a flaming rag.
One is almost tempted to think of another dark Messiah heading down a dirt road toward a city carrying a new gospel of redemption through violence, an echo of Flannery O’Conner’s ‘Francis Marion Tarwater’,
His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.1
To know more about Nathan and his works visit his blog: https://nathanballingrud.com/
- Ballingrud, Nathan. North American Lake Monsters. Small Beer Press. (June 28, 2013)
- O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away (Kindle Locations 2454-2455). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Anna Laetitia Aikin (1743 – 1825): On The Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror
Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.
Anna Laetitia Aikin in her essay on the sublime of horror ‘On The Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror‘ (1773) suggested we “rather choose to suffer the smart pang of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire”. She’d go on to say,
This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps in on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.
Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it; and where they are too near common nature, though violently borne by curiosity through the adventure, we cannot repeat it or reflect on it, without an over-balance of pain.
This sense of what Lacan-Zizek term ‘jouissance’ or the bitter-sweet pleasure/pain in apprehension of the indefinable, unknown and horrific monstrosities of existence underlies the aesthetic appeal and active power of the fantastic over our Mind. The literature of terror, dread, and horror confront us with the cosmic power of an invasive alterity, an impossible and indefinite unknown and unknowable threat from the Outside that cannot be reduced to presence nor absence, but is situated in that in-between zone of the impossible Real or Gap-Crack where chaos, madness, and darkness seep into our world.
The Study of Annihilation: On Suicide
To be, or not to be, that is the question : Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them ? To die, to sleep, No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep; To sleep! perchance to dream : ay, there’s the rub.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, 1.
And often through fear of death men come to hate life and the sight of the sun so bitterly that in a burst of grief they kill themselves, forgetting it was this fear that caused their cares, troubled their conscience, broke their bonds of friendship, and overturned all sense of decency.
Death, then, is nothing, concerns us not one bit, since the soul has proved to be a mortal thing.
—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
The Greek and Roman world thought of suicide as an heroic act, while for the most part Western Christendom saw it as a form of taboo punishable by eternal damnation etc.. Our modern secular age beginning with Durkheim has turned a critical eye onto this self-annihilation as a sociological phenomenon to be studied, while after Freud it became a part of the science of suicidology. There are so many theories as to why people take their own lives. Our strange and emotional religious or even rationalist heritages have reams of information surrounding this most intimate form of death. My father once he discovered he had cancer and less than three months to live came home one day and grabbed his shotgun out of the closet, sat down and drank most of a fifth of scotch, then proceeded to take his own life. I want go further… many literary poets, writers, artists, thinkers in recent decades have done the same. For we who survive such traumas of loved ones the question is always: Why? Why would they do such a thing? Isn’t life worth living to the bitter end? Or is suicide against the pain and suffering of a slow inevitable death the better course? I want even go into the belief systems of war and terrorist bombers, etc. I began gathering a list of books on such morbidity:
Emile Durkheim’s classic: On Suicide
Philippe Aries: The Hour of Our Death
Georges Minois: History of Suicide
Edwin Schniedman: An Autopsy of a Suicide
Ron Brown: The Art of Suicide
Marzio Barbagli: Farewell to the World
Susan Stefan: Rational Suicide, Irrational Laws
Sarah Perry: Every Cradle is a Grave
James R. Lewis: Sacred Suicide
Gary Lachman: Literary Suicides
Of course there are tons of other works, and one could discover in the philosophical history of suicide from Socrates enforced use of Hemlock to the recent death of Mark Fisher… questions, questions, questions… there’s even a whole literature devoted to publishing suicide notes. I think of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, John Berryman or James Wright… one could write a never-ending litany to suicide in our time… In the histories we discover that after the fact cultures have either promoted it or anathematized and criminalized it. Our secular age has tried to psychologize it into its own scientized discourses as a disease of the mind, etc. I doubt the one’s who actually go down that path have an answer beyond the need to escape a certain hellish existence that has become too unbearable whether mentally or physically. Most of the literature on it is for survivors, not the perpetrators of the act.
In my own mind as I grow older and the gravitas of existence wears my body into dust I begin to think through such options… to be, or not to be: that truly is the question; and, one I will sooner or later have to face in extremis. Of course we can as well work through the positive and negative literature, weigh all the options as if one were meting out gold on the scales of Maat (the Egyptian goddess of life/death), else leave the option on the table of indefinable solutions – a sort of one-off Dadaist movement of imaginary solutions to indefinable problems. Comic or tragic, a choice of styles in mental hygiene; or, pragmatic resolution to the disruption of existence itself. There probably is no justification either way, and like all criminal acts it is done in solitude against the social milieu or its habituated judgments. Each of us faces death alone and in solitude, whether we have others surrounding us or not. For millennia we as cultural creatures built up grand narratives and traditions to stage this movement and transition out of existence. In the secular age the myth turned to annihilation, or a blank pit of nothingness; the meaningless end of a meaningless life in a universe of self-destructive energy turned bitter cold in the zero wastes of utter darkness. Who can say which is better? The religious comfort of hopeful illusions of paradisial realms of eternal life, or the extreme annihilation offered by the secular priests of atheism where death is a dreamless sleep of eternity. No one has returned to offer an opinion one way or the other…
The Order of the Unreal
That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.
Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.
—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 182).
Schopenhauer: The Mistake of Life
That human life must be a kind of mistake is sufficiently clear from the fact that man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy; moreover, if they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us–an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained; or when we are engaged in something that is of a purely intellectual nature, when, in reality, we have retired from the world, so that we may observe it from the outside, like spectators at a theatre. Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom. That innate and ineradicable craving for what is out of the common proves how glad we are to have the natural and tedious course of things interrupted. Even the pomp and splendour of the rich in their stately castles is at bottom nothing but a futile attempt to escape the very essence of existence, misery.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, The Collected Essays
Incompleteness and the Void
…from the standpoint of the incompleteness of reality, we can even make a step further and claim that, at the very bottom, there is all the room we want, since there is nothing else there, just the void.
—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing
Truth is neither relative nor not, it is part of a cultural evaluation, a shared or consensus datum; whereas fact is just there, neither truthful nor a lie: it just is – it is outside cultural appraisal and its linguistic tremors. Take quantum physics… it is incomplete, it has taken us into the limits of macro-micro physics where our instruments cannot go further at the moment… after the failure of instruments comes theory: mathematical theorems that invent the possibility of reality, then test the theory against the facts we have or the missing facts we do not (i.e., dark matter, dark energy, etc. – all metaphors for the missing matter and energy our instruments fail to discover, but that our current mathematical models say should be there, etc.)…. but not all the facts are in yet. As humans we may always fail because our brain being an evolutionary product of kludgy millennia was constructed bit by bit to help our organism to survive and propagate, not to understand itself or the cosmos. We are limited by this process so we produce nice little fictions and call them truth to assuage our less than adequate knowledge of the universe and ourselves.
Every generation solidifies and codifies reality into its current matrix of linguistic insights as part of its cultural power and politics. On a planet such as ours we are in the midst of a chaotic reevaluation of those truths that have guided the multiplex of cultures across the millennia. In this age old conflict of ideas and concepts there will be in some future yet to be determined a partial resolution and the emergence of a truly intelligent global culture that will not be a unity or One, but will incorporate the best and most inventive ideas and concepts into a new order of collaboration and consensus. Not all will agree with it as none do now, but it will shape the direction of our fallible projects in the sciences and arts as it has in the past. That is if we survive the war of ideas in our time without obliterating ourselves.
Some would have us believe that Intelligence is emerging out of its organic cradle and into some as yet to be known form, whether into a new substrate or part of the collective intelligence of human and machinic phylum’s. The sciences and philosophies surrounding this emergence reduce it to various forms of post-humanist thought. It’s this battle over posthumanism that is at the forefront of current debates in the academy as elsewhere. Humanity as we’ve come to know it through the various traditions of humanism, both secular and religious is in the offing. The slow and methodical deconstruction and destruction of the humanist credos has since the Enlightenment and its offshoots in secular modernity been eroding to the point that in our time we are in the midst of a sea-change in thought and culture across our planet. We loosely use terms like post-modernity, post-humanism, etc. because we lack the intellectual courage or breadth of inventiveness to define what comes next, but instead we haggle over our intellectual heritage and milieu as if it were a great cock fight full of bloody campaigns. The sciences as well as philosophy have come under scrutiny and both have been found wanting, the one offering only the empirical and pragmatic truth of what works; the other the eternal war of ideas without end. There can be no victors in such a vein war of contrition, only losers.
We are all caught in the grips of cognitive biases we barely understand, and for the most part do not admit to ourselves. We all live by certain enabling fictions which guide our thought and life, we can do no other; some promote life, some death; some harbor fanatical claims against the world in forms of literalistic compulsions and mandates that have lead many astray and into wars. Our leaders use our emotional connections to certain deep seated ideas, images, and concepts to attract us and sway us into conflict. Even our political spectrum is a world of absolute antagonism and war over ideas and reality. Maybe this will never end, or will end only when humanity is no more. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Will we ever discover how to live among each others cultural worlds without hate and death; or, are we condemned to continual annihilation of any and all who do not agree with our ideas. The great cynics tell us we are doomed to defeat, that we will never produce a world in which humans can share equitably the fruits of mind and earth alike. I do no know, do you? Maybe in the end we stand between the incompleteness of the universe and the silence of the Void. That is all. No answer, no justification; only the incomprehensible mystery.
I’ve often thought that the incursions of all the radical madness in our culture: ghost hunter craze, Alien conspiracies, mass killings, suicides, strange cults, etc. are registering a sea-change in the underpsyche of the planet that barely goes noticed in the elite-o-sphere of mediatainment, unless we think of all the craze for disaster movies, zombies, superhero comic theatre, etc. We seem to be undergoing a mutation by enforced futurial retrocausation that is pushing us to the limits of our human potential for fear, terror, and horror. Soon we will see the cracks in the Real begin to unravel allowing the access to portals between mental regimes, movements between multidimensional time-frames in which the imaginal and the psychotic reveal the underlying mechanisms of our universal decay and metamorphosis. For as many have suggested we are in a duo process of acceleration/deceleration on different planes of immanence: the zigzag rhizome of our psyches is speeding up (heating up), and slowing down in various modes of time loops, registering the impact of this incursion from the Outside in. All the while the so called Orthodox realist controllers try their best to screen out this process through a massive propaganda system of denial and reterritorialization (D&G). And, yet, around the edges of their system the heterodox truth is breaking through… the unraveling/deterritorialization of two-thousand years of the monotheistic unity of religious and philosophical vision is ending… what comes next is anyone’s surmise.
The Subtraction of Being
What are we when confronted with the interior vortex which swallows us into absurdity?
—E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair
The eerie… is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence.
—Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie
The End of the World came and went. Most of us never even noticed it. Most of us woke up to our usual work-a-day life, the drudgery of going through the paces in a job we all hated, a job that put bread and butter on the table, a night away from the kids in a burger joint dreaming of caviar and settling for two pickles and a brown onion half-eaten by some troglodyte by the fryer. So it goes.
Then we realized something really had happened. A slight change in the bosses smile, a subtraction from the usual messages coming over the tele, a different news anchor, a voice from elsewhere telling us the world was safe from some forgotten disaster. But we knew better; or, at least, I did. Something was missing, as if reality had withdrawn from its own appearances. People seemed the same, but something was off… and, I just couldn’t put it together. Eerie was the word on the tip of my tongue, a feeling at the edge of consciousness that something was afoot but one could not put thought to it.
Then I realized what it was… I was dead, a mere shadow among shadows; absent while present. A hole in the wall of being, a forgotten substance whose inner fire was the negative of some polaroid’s dim congruencies. An imageless existence whose silence was mere thought without projection, the formless idea exploited among the spaces of a galactic void. Yet, I was here, I was I. Or was I? This pronoun we take for granted, this thing attached to a body, what is it, really? Faceless and imageless I could only inhabit others with my absence. Did they know? Were the thoughts flowing through their minds semblance or actuality. Would they know the difference? Knowing I was no one and everyone I could at last be free. But free for what?
Do you, dear reader, know of what I speak?
Don’t take this wrong, but will at the end of this week all this ‘direct action’ change the world, or only bolster the positive feedback between a few humans across the planet that we at least tried to do something (“Look at us, we tried to wake you up! etc.”)? What I fear is that the truth is that nothing will be done to stem the tide, that in the end it will be like those Burning Man festivals that mark a high point in peoples nostalgia for something indefinable, but once the party is over all that is left in its wake is just a wasteland of deserted dunes where the trash-bins of history keep nothing but the silence…
Maybe I am too pessimistic, but having lived through such things before and listened to climate activism for sixty years I tend to think we are doomed to lethargy and decay, that humans want other humans to do something rather than be bothered to do it themselves. People will buy into something for a few days, weeks, months but in the end will go back to their failed lives like the passive and disturbed creatures they are… at least till the next best thing once again lights them up. But as we both know this is just a game of narcissistic lament rather than a sustained revolution against the order of stupidity on our planet.
What we need is a harsh and bleak accident (Virilio) to disturb our sleep, to awaken us permanently from our lethargic nightmare. We live in denial of reality, drifting in the illusions of all our sundry cognitive biases. Even if we feel that nudge in the carcass of our thought that speaks to us of death we will cover it over in some urgent scheme of radical denial. We cannot bare to much truth, we would rather accept our lies, our fictions. Striping our minds of the deliriums of our desires we slip into the cage of indefinable nostalgia for the pristine, the pure. In the end it is like the universe itself a decaying and fragmented display of a mindless process that for all its grandeur will end in nothingness, its fractured lights all going out one by one till all that is left is an eternal darkness and cold infinity of zero.
A Sum of Shadows
Each of us comes across certain thinkers who put into words things that people think and want to hear, but are either unable to articulate or unwilling to admit to. Most of the time as these thoughts penetrate our sleeping mind we believe the author has stolen them from our own private menagerie of twisted being, not realizing that thought, all thought, is a collective enterprise; and, in the moment we realize that another has already thought our thoughts, articulated the form of our mental dementia, clarified the desperation of our dark transports then, and only then, do we realize we do not exist. Only thought exists, and it exists without us or our miserabilist opinions to the contrary. We even begin to hate the one who awakened us to reality, to our own reality; this emptied vastation we call our lives. Failure is the sum of this realization: that another has lived out the thoughts we could not attempt nor invent for ourselves.
We are not the sum of our thoughts, we are only the shadows of other’s inventions.
William James: Our civilization is founded on shambles…
The normal process of life contains moments as bad as any which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of daily fact. Our civilization is founded on shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait until you arrive there yourself.
—William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Georges Bataille on Evil
Bataille On William Blake, Evil, and Energy:
Has the human being ever, for a single second, been able to discover an expression of liberty which rises above misery? In an eloquent world where logic reduces each thing to a certain order, William Blake spoke, on his own, the language of the Bible or the Vedas. By so doing he managed to restore life to original energy. So the truth of Evil which is essentially a rejection of subservience, is his truth. He is one of us, singing in the tavern and laughing with the children. He is never a ‘sad sire’, moralising and rational, who looks after himself and his money and slowly yields to the sadness of logic, without energy.
The moralist condemns the energy which he lacks. There is no doubt that humanity had to go through this phase. How could it survive if it had not denounced an excess of energy, if the very number of those who lacked energy had not brought those who had too much of it to their senses? But the necessity of adapting oneself ultimately demands a return to innocence. The marvellous indifference and childishness of William Blake, his feeling of ease when confronted with the impossible, his anguish which left boldness intact, all his defects and qualities were the expression of a simpler age and marked a return to lost innocence. Even a paradoxical form of Christianity can serve to indicate this; he is the only man to have seized with both hands, from two extremes, the roundabout of all times. Everything within him came to a halt before the necessity which entails laborious activity in a factory. He could not reply to the cold face animated by the pleasure of discipline. This sage, whose wisdom was close to folly, who was never disheartened by the work on which his liberty depended, did not have the self-effacement of those who ‘understand’, who surrender, renouncing victory. His energy rejected concessions to the spirit of work. His writings have a festive turbulence which gives the feelings he expressed a sense of laughter and liberty run loose. He never pursed his lips. The horror of his mythological poems is there to liberate us, not to flatten us: it reveals the great momentum of the universe. It calls for energy, never for depression.
– Georges Bataille, Literature and Evil
Antonin Artaud: I Am Not In This World
The reader must believe in a genuine sickness, not just a phenomenon of the times, in a sickness which is near to the nature of man and his main expressive potential and applicable to a whole life. A sickness affecting the soul in its most profound reality, poisoning its expression. Spiritual poison. Genuine paralysis. Sickness robbing us of speech and memory, and uprooting thought.
Where then does this sickness stem from, is it really something in the spirit of the times, a miracle floating in the air, an evil cosmic prodigy or the discovery of a new world, a genuine extension of reality? Nevertheless it is still true they do not suffer and I do, not only mentally but physically, in my everyday soul. This lack of application to an object, a characteristic of all literature, is a lack of application to life in my case. Speaking for myself, I can honestly say I am not in this world…
– Antonin Artaud: Vol 1 Collected Works
Polaroid Apocalypse: On Simon Sellars’ Applied Ballardianism
‘Human memory is a vast continent that we are yet to explore in full, although we know a little more about how it works than yesterday. We used to think memory was like a tape recorder that accurately recorded sensory inputs. Now we know memory is in fact much more plastic, much more malleable, and can be erased and rewritten over and over by anyone with access to the neural circuits. Given your unhealthy penchant for viewing your life only in terms of movie references, I can guess what you’re thinking. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, right? But that is just a science fiction film, nothing more. This is reality.’
—Simon Sellars, Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe
In Simon Sellars novel the ‘Applied Ballardianism‘ of the title is a misnomer, rather than Ballard’s strange and equivocal survisions being applied to the life of this author or his anti-hero we are given a parallax vision that oscillates between self-laceration and self-diagnosis, a memoir in the sense of fragmentation – slow unraveling of obsessions that parallel the cultural demolition ongoing across the planetary mindscapes. With each vignette we are given an irreal glance of the Real, a cathartic portrayal of our global crash culture. To enter Simon’s narrative is to undergo a mutation, to become the thing one most fears, neither a victim nor a perpetrator of the horrors of modernity, but instead an instigator of a collective metamorphosis that entails total and absolute psychosis. The work does not mirror the world as much as it is the inscape of our dark transports, the shape of futurial becomings that are the very core of our inhuman transformation.
Ballard’s obsession with car parks and the endless loop of presentism (our fall into a timeless abyss of NOWS that is also a space of obscene sameness: extreme culture as a society without a future, living out its nightmares as quotidian reality) reminds us of the banality of our lives, the slow and methodical deconstruction of the human into the machinic phylum as we enter the last stages of the human extinction. Ballard like a modern shaman or psychonaut delivered his parables of our transit to oblivion – a travelogue of the world slowly vanishing under its own weight and inanity, giving us in his short stories and novels a grand tour of hell without a Virgil. In Sellar’s work the inner core of Ballard’s inscapes has moved further into the dysfunctional rhythm of Ballard’s vision, taken a detour along the futurial demarcations of civilizational collapse.
As one begins to read Sellar’s new novel one realizes what Kant must’ve meant by the “transcendental illusion,” the illusion of being able to use the same language for phenomena which are mutually untranslatable and can be grasped only in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible.1 The Anti-Hero of Sellar’s novel seems to oscillate between the eroding reality of his own collapsing life and mind and the inscapes of Ballard’s fictional worlds without fusing them into some artificial whole or critical apparatus, rather he keeps the two worlds moving through a kaleidescope of shifting scenarios testing the validity of Ballard’s vision against the crumbling and decaying world of the protagonists own unraveling psychosis.
Sellar’s in his preface to Ballard’s interviews tells us:
Ballard was never comfortable defining his place within the canon, and had little time for contemporary literature, which he saw as stuck in the mode of the nineteenth-century ‘social novel’, unwilling or unable to confront the fragmented subjectivities induced by the new media landscape. In contrast, his stories and novels present psychosociological case studies, based on highly skilled readings of real-world trends in culture, consumerism, technology and media. Frequently, this predictive charge was fomented in the interview situation, a kind of philosophical ‘laboratory’ where he could test ideas, opinions and observations, and later smuggle them into the airlocked worlds of his fiction.
In this sense the protagonist memoirist of Sellar’s novel will follow the pattern and read the world through the lens of a Ballardian inner surcapes – the lucidity of surrealism and pop-art modes, providing a series of vignettes each of which becomes a laboratory of psychosis where ideas, opinions and observations are not so much tested as suffered as if the unraveling context of the author’s mind were reduplicating the fictional cosmos of Ballard as the terminus of a new kind of psychic journey. The operative signals of each vignette reprogramming both reader and author alike to become a participant in a world parallel to our own without falling into the temptations of literalism. If our lives are fictional then we begin to understand that the insanity around us is part of misconstrued narrative whose author left the scene of the crime long ago, and the detectives who are piecing together the details of this murderous tale are in truth ourselves.
As we comprehend our part in the manufacture of this psychotic world we begin to remake the world not so much in our own image as to expose our own part in its destruction. Commenting on the inhabitants of modern Japan (Saipan) Sellars’s memoirist offers a tepid observation: “Perhaps in time they too would secede from the outside world, scavenging the remains of the old order, forever ready for the empty horizon where they would be free to test and refine the limits of their humanity.” One needs to understand the irony of this statement, the wishful thinking on the part of the protagonist, his desperate attempt to stave off the temporal calamity of our present collapse into cultural insanity knowing all along that the world will never gain the critical density nor distance to “secede” from its own ruinous inner spaces.
Doomed to explore the last dregs of our inner landscapes through the outer universe of decay and ruination we will forever follow each other into the wastelands, where like the character in Ballard’s short story End-Game we come to know the “ironic inversion of the classical Kafkaesque situation, by which, instead of admitting his guilt to a non-existent crime, he was forced to connive in a farce maintaining his innocence of offences he knew full well he had committed…”.3 In the end we will maintain the lie (fiction) that we are innocent of our participation in the decline and fall of the human into is own ironic exclusion and effacement, duplicitous and accusatory we will blindly rehearse our small apocalypses as if they were preludes to a cinematic eclipse of Man rather than the actual and real destruction of the earth and its life support systems.
Awaiting our own execution we will act like Constantine in that same story with its sense of guiltlessness that pervades our own apocalypticism:
The psychological basis was more obscure but in some way far more threatening, the executioner beckoning his victim towards him with a beguiling smile, reassuring him that all was forgiven. Here he played upon, not those unconscious feelings of anxiety and guilt, but that innate conviction of individual survival, that obsessive preoccupation with personal immortality which is merely a disguised form of the universal fear of the image of one’s own death. It was this assurance that all was well, and the absence of any charges of guilt or responsibility, which had made so orderly the queues into the gas chambers.(p. 507)
Speaking to our apocalypticism our memoirist remembers Ballard’s fascination with the nuclear era and other dire events. Asked in an interview about his novella ‘The Ultimate City’ if it signaled a “certain relish for decay”, Ballard denied the charge, “suggesting that instead it signifies potential”. Going on to say,
The boy, he explains, is ‘trying to recapture something of the dynamism, aggression and freedom for the imagination to soar that was so lacking in the small rural town where he was brought up … The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again.’
This principle of evil underlying Ballard’s vision shades into both Gorges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard’s vision of the dynamism, aggression and freedom at the core of evil, an evil beyond the moral categories, more ontologically transgressive and transparent. Bataille in his Literature and Evil commenting on the English poet William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell whose lines on energy quicken us to life through the power of evil: “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight.”4 Bataille commenting on this states: “William Blake’s sensuality was very different from that subterfuge which denies true sensuality by seeing it solely as health. Blake’s sensuality was on the side of Energy, which is Evil, which restores it to its deepest significance. If nakedness is the work of God – if the lust of the goat is His bounty – it is the wisdom of Hell that heralds this truth.” Baudrillard following Bataille – and, even Mark Fisher’s ‘No Future’ paradigm – states that those seeking peace and stability in the world order are fabricating their own demise:
The aim of this world order is the definitive non-occurrence of events. It is, in a sense, the end of history, not on the basis of a democratic fulfillment, as Fukuyama has it, on the basis of preventive terror, of a counter-terror that puts an end to any possible events. A terror which the power exerting it ends up exerting on itself under the banner of security. There is a fierce irony here: the irony of an anti-terrorist world system that ends up internalizing terror, inflicting it on itself and emptying itself of any political substance and going so far as to turn on its own population.
This sense of the innocence of evil, that it not good is the normalcy of the world is reiterated in the Maenadic scene in Ballard’s High Rise in which the murder of an architect whose very games have brought about the destruction of a complex society of doctors, lawyers, advertising agents, scientists, artists, etc.; all part of a highly sophisticated architectural monstrosity, a skyscraper community self-imploding into ancient tribalism. In a scene much like the tearing of flesh and life of Dionysus by the Maenads (”raving ones”) we find the architect dead of knife wounds inflicted by the craze females of this sky clan community. One of the men of the decaying world of this hypermodern complex comes upon the scene, finds the architect dead, and the women:
In front of him the children in the sculpture-garden were playing with bones. The circle of women drew closer. The first flames lifted from the fire, the varnish of the antique chairs crackling swiftly. From behind their sunglasses the women were looking intently at Wilder, as if reminded that their hard work had given them a strong appetite. Together, each removed something from the deep pocket of her apron. In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers.6
Ballard’s almost matter-of-fact documentary style presents this chaotic scene as the new normalcy, a perverse world in which evil is accepted as the new good, a realm where the mimetic sacrifice of one god gives birth to another. In section sixty-six of Sellar’s novel the memoirist will give us his take on High Rise,
The circumstances that gave rise to their rampage were presaged in High-Rise, in which a man named Wilder attempts to record the building’s descent into anarchy with his all-seeing ‘cine-camera’. Proud of his working-class roots, he dreams of making a documentary of the social workings of the high-rise, but as violence takes hold and tribal warfare pits floor against floor, the camera is broken in a skirmish without having recorded a frame. Yet he continues to carry it with him, gripping it like a weapon. Wilder is obsessed with the idea that everything must be recorded in visual terms, even if the actual act of recording is a mere illusion invested in a broken-down piece of equipment. Violently catalysing the savage events, Wilder deliberately drowns a resident’s dog, triggering the chaos to come. As the building succumbs to total savagery and people are brutally killed all around him (sometimes by his own hand), his only thought is to capture the madness on film, ostensibly as part of a documentary he’s making on the building, although his real motivation is the deep-seated need to fulfil his own ‘personal biography’. He wants to capture a record of his ascent through the high-rise from the lower floors where he lives to the architect’s opulent penthouse, shaming those he feels inferior to along the way: his neighbours, members of the hated middle class.
Our latter day narcissism has extended this perverse need for fulfilling our own ‘personal biographies’ through the selfie culture of endless takes and retakes of images of images of images which no longer have the consistency of bodies in space and time, but have become free-floating artifacts disconnected from the flesh and blood reality of the Real traveling in the virtual realms of re-duplicated proliferation and multiplicity. This sense of sensuality in a vacuum harbors our transformation of sex into a new kind of pornographic violence. It was the impact of the image revolution that was always at the core of Ballard’s vision. One thinks of the late story or novella ‘Runnig Wild’ in which a massacre of a village has taken place. In a village that is completely self-regulated by media, a world in which everyone watches everyone 24/7, a site in which everything has become transparent; i.e., evil. What we discover is that in a world where no secrets can be found, where love is the order of the encoded regulatory scheme, that the children have begun to rebel. Ultimately their rebellion against all this openness, transparency, and absolute surveillance society becomes the motive for a mass massacre of the parents. As the commentator who has covered the sordid affair relates it:
My own view is that far from being an event of huge significance for the children, the murder of their parents was a matter of comparative unimportance. I believe that the actual murders were no more than a final postscript to a process of withdrawal from the external world that had begun many months beforehand, if not years. As with the Hungerford killer, Michael Ryan, or the numerous American examples of crazed gunmen opening fire on passersby, the identity of the victims probably had no special significance for them. More than this, I would argue that for such killings to take place at all, the deaths of their victims must be without any meaning.7
This sense of absolute nihil, the unbounded withdrawal from the parental world of meaning and comfort has produced in the children the psychotic hypernormalization of disaffective revenge. The children who in the novella escape detection from the screen world of video replays and endless media appropriation have become screenless and imageless, their lives no longer attached to the parental clock-work world of fixed and static televisual normalcy have entered instead a non-world where the inhuman fractures of a machinic phylum seep through into their dark psyches. In section seventy-seven of Sellar’s novel the memoirist relates ironically on the ‘Solace of Dystopia’:
I found a newspaper next to a discarded egg-and-salad sandwich. On the front page was a story about the installation of talking CCTV cameras across Britain. The cameras had loudspeakers that could shout at anyone engaging in anti-social behaviour, and competitions were being held at schools for kids to become the voice of CCTV, because the sound of a child’s voice was thought less likely to encounter resistance. Aside from the obvious Orwellianism of surveillance that talks, the idea of children shaming adults, enabled by the Surveillance State, is purely Ballardian. In Ballard’s novella Running Wild, CCTV enables children not only to shame adults but to slaughter them wholesale. In an exclusive gated community, the children that live there use surveillance to communicate with each other and evade detection by outsiders, prior to enacting their unmotivated plan to kill all the adults and disappear en masse off the face of the earth.
How did the saying go?
Our children are the future.
Later on Simon’s memoirist will ask: “Where to hide when everything is visible?” This sense that the supposed surveillance society we are creating with its ultra-transparency is producing a world without humans, a world that is a 24/7 inscape of images of images, clones of clones, a re-duplicated world of inhuman transparency to which there is no longer any escape; or, as the memoirist tells it:
Until I understood.
There is no way home.
There never really was.
In the end Simon’s protagonist is defeated by the logic of our psychopathic times, realizing that no one can overcome the insanity, and that we are all condemned in the end to our isolated cells:
I wanted a new metanarrative to emerge, one that could shed light on Ballard’s secret intent, a metanarrative taking place within a fake space capsule that becomes a human slaughterhouse filled with sexually advanced astronauts and presided over by a suicidal goddess figure. But I could not find the glue that would link it all together, having tried every available technique. …
As I sat in my apartment among the detritus of my insanity, overwhelmed by the debris of torn paper and discarded similes covering the floor, which resembled nothing so much as the accumulated junkspace from the edgelands I’d spent so much time in, I realised that all I’d managed to print out was a broken encephalogram of my decaying self.
Maybe in the end that is all any of us is left with, this sense of death and decay permeating every square inch of our lives, the notion of our media-infested lives as mere blips on a faded screen, wired by automatic scripts and algorithms we proliferate the redundancies of our shop worn ideas in an endless parade of failures.
‘We are our psychic wounds. Take away the wounds and you take away the self.’ Says the memoirist.
Without a body, without pain and touch and the actual sensual registers of an embodied consciousness we are mere images among images.
As the memoirist in a final take states:
“I yearned to rejoin my physical self, to stop drifting in and out of phase, and once I’d made that resolution the mental Polaroids stopped.”
- Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. The MIT Press (February 13, 2009)
- Ballard, J.G; Sellars, Simon; O’Hara, Dan. Extreme Metaphors (Kindle Locations 112-116). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
- Ballard, J. G.. The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 507). Norton. Kindle Edition.
- Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil (Penguin Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 913-915). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Intelligence of Evil. Bloomsbury Academic; Reprint edition (June 27, 2013)
- Ballard, J. G.. High-Rise: A Novel (p. 201). Liveright. Kindle Edition.
- J G Ballard. Running Wild (Kindle Locations 703-707).
Secular Fanaticism: Cathedral Politics in a Declining Age
Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it; depleting himself to create fake gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike. His power to adore is responsible for all his crimes: a man who loves a god unduly forces other men to love his god, eager to exterminate them if they refuse. There is no form of intolerance, of proselytism or ideological intransigence which fails to reveal the bestial substratum of enthusiasm. Once man loses his faculty of indifference he becomes a potential murderer; once he transforms his idea into a god the consequences are incalculable. We kill only in the name of a god or of his counterfeits: the excesses provoked by the goddess Reason, by the concept of nation, class, or race are akin to those of the Inquisition or of the Reformation. The ages of fervor abound in bloody exploits: a Saint Teresa could only be the contemporary of the auto-da-fé, a Luther of the repression of the Peasants’ Revolt. In every mystic outburst, the moans of victims parallel the moans of ecstasy. . . . Scaffolds, dungeons, jails flourish only in the shadow of a faith—of that need to believe which has infested the mind forever. The devil pales beside the man who owns a truth, his truth. We are unfair to a Nero, a Tiberius: it was not they who invented the concept heretic: they were only degenerate dreamers who happened to be entertained by massacres. The real criminals are men who establish an orthodoxy on the religious or political level, men who distinguish between the faithful and the schismatic.
—E.M. CIORAN, A Short History of Decay
Those like Yvette Felarca, a high ranking member of alt-left group By Any Means Necessary, advocates for the use of violence and militant protest to censor oppositional voices. As you listen to the youtube video below about a militant protest against Milo Yiannopoulos’s reception at UC Berkeley one can understand the genealogy of Cioran’s thoughts on fanaticism shifting from religious to secular forms over the past few centuries. The notion of the schismatic, the heretic come to mind. For the New Left there is no place for oppositional thought or politics, they would systematically purify the world of heretical thought and praxis. Although the official site was banned and shut down for its advocacy the group is still very much a part of the underground scene of leftwing activities. Listen to Yvette Felarca in this interview:
Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and ’30s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism withered after World War II, antifa did too. But in the ’70s and ’80s, neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain’s punk scene. After the Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism.
In the late ’80s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action, on the theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than fascism. According to Mark Bray, the author of the forthcoming Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, these activists toured with popular alternative bands in the ’90s, trying to ensure that neo-Nazis did not recruit their fans. In 2002, they disrupted a speech by the head of the World Church of the Creator, a white-supremacist group in Pennsylvania; 25 people were arrested in the resulting brawl.
On the Antifa News site one can gather the militant protests of this group go on unabated.
The new censorship has moved mainstream into algorithmic governance on sites like Facebook and Google. In Epstein’s article The New Censorship we begin to see a trend toward total regulation and policing of thought along ideological lines. As Epstein says,
When Google’s employees or algorithms decide to block our access to information about a news item, political candidate or business, opinions and votes can shift, reputations can be ruined and businesses can crash and burn. Because online censorship is entirely unregulated at the moment, victims have little or no recourse when they have been harmed. Eventually, authorities will almost certainly have to step in, just as they did when credit bureaus were regulated in 1970. The alternative would be to allow a large corporation to wield an especially destructive kind of power that should be exercised with great restraint and should belong only to the public: the power to shame or exclude.
The power to shame or exclude. “Shame” is tricky, even treacherous: its usual understanding contains a trap. As commonly thought of, “shame” seems a virtual synonym for “embarrassment”; that is, to result from being seen by another. This misunderstanding arises, perhaps, because as children we learn the meaning of “shame” when someone projects it upon us. “You should be ashamed of yourself” is a reproach of public behavior—of something one is seen or caught doing. But the essence of shame consists not in being seen or being caught, but in what about one is seen, in what one is caught doing. “Embarrassment,” then, is not a synonym for shame, but the result of one’s shame being seen. “Being seen” or “being caught” are not the essence of shame: we are all seen by others, often and diversely. At times, indeed, we relish being seen: our moments of success and triumph are enhanced by having an audience. “Being seen,” then, is not the core even of embarrassment. The heart of embarrassment is that another sees our shame. The sense of shame comes before the sense of being seen—before, then, any advertence to “other.”1
The Guardian in one report on censorship in the UK reported: “Critics of the government’s flagship internet regulation policy are warning it could lead to a North Korean-style censorship regime, where regulators decide which websites Britons are allowed to visit, because of how broad the proposals are.” Later in the article:
One industry source said: “This legislation stems from a perception that west coast technology companies have alien and unaccountable power that they wield in the UK. But relocating that power to an unelected, unaccountable regulator would be just as problematic, or worse.
“Parliament is where decisions that affect free speech should be made. The government is declaring some speech ‘legal but harmful’, and giving very vague definitions of what that speech is. On issues such as cyberbullying and trolling, there’s almost no detail.”
In today’s world shaming has taken on a more visible sense with the exposure of video and mobile phone conversations. Capturing one’s indiscretions and slips of tongue or racial slurs, misogynist comments, etc. are now used as weapons against in and all oppositional forms that are deemed by the fanatical segments of an ideological front as outside the norms or conventions set by their regulatory control. Shame as a weapon provides the orthodoxy in media and political conclaves the ability to target individuals or groups, expose them to ridicule and exclusion, the appearance of some expression or manifestation of shame produces humiliation, embarrassment, mortification, despair, or disgrace. These shame phenomena are sometimes openly and consciously experienced at the heart of human unhappiness but at other times are hidden from experience because they are so painful. Shame frequently causes one to hide, to avoid interpersonal contact as a protection against rejection, and to conceal the affective experience from one’s own awareness. As guilt invites confession and forgiveness, shame generates concealment out of a fear of rendering the self unacceptable.2
It was George Orwell who first coined the term “groupthink” in his disturbing novel 1984. In this one word he captured the dangers and dysfunctions that can deform the thinking of a group. Orwell intended “groupthink” to describe the hyper-conformity, manufactured consent, and deference to strong personalities that often permeate groups. Consensus forms out of compliance, passivity gives the appearance of unity, bullying is mistaken for leadership, and self-deception masquerades as conviction. In short, the group pummels its members into submission and calls it progress.
Everyday politicians bully their constituents, shame them into submission with their myriad attacks on oppositional thought and culture. As Cioran states in the epigraph above: “The real criminals are men who establish an orthodoxy on the religious or political level, men who distinguish between the faithful and the schismatic.” This sense that American media has become the overwhelming voice of leftward politics, with the exception of a few conservative newspapers, magazines, and Fox News harbors sad days ahead for such a hyperconformism.
Unfortunately, in the modern left we don’t combat shame, we worship it. Perhaps the most obvious expression of the Left’s present obsession with shame and shaming can be seen in what has been dubbed “call out culture”. The “call out” is a form of shaming — which intentionally labels an individual as fundamentally bad — and is a deeply toxic tendency in the Left. Flavia Dzodan, writing for Tiger Beatdown, describes this dynamic:
Call out culture] works more or less like this: I say something ignorant… Unbeknown to me, there are now ten posts in ten different blogs and social media platforms calling me a “BIGOT AND THE WORST PERSON EVER”. Each time, every one of these posts escalating in rhetoric and volume. Each new post trying to outperform the previous one in outrage, in anger, in righteousness… The intent behind it, more often than not, is just to make the one initiating the call out feel good, more righteous, more indignant, a “better person”. Flavia Dzodan, Come one, come all! Feminist and Social Justice Blogging as Performance and Bloodshed
At a personal level, perfectionism is understood as being a product of unacknowledged shame — and the same is true for puritanism in group settings. The call out performance reeks of puritanism, and thus shame. Recall that after shame is triggered, a person typically responds in four ways: withdrawal, attack self, avoidance, and attack others. The “call out” is an example of attacking others in response to unacknowledged shame, which then triggers shame in the target as well.
So is the New Left of our era a return by a strange twist to the early American heritage of Puritanism? Max Weber once asked: “Now how does it happen that at that time those countries which were most advanced economically, and within them the rising bourgeois middle classes, not only failed to resist this unexampled tyranny of Puritanism, but even developed a heroism in its defense?”3 Of course the religious forms of Puritan morality in the sense of methodically rationalized ethical conduct seem far removed from the New Left’s ideological attacks on the far right, but are they? Can we at all see the corollaries between the asceticism and fanaticism of the Puritans and the New Left?
Whereas the Left of the Sixties brought about the sexual revolution in art and mores, the contemporary current of the new Left of our moment has returned us to the Puritan ethic of which renounces the sexual promiscuity of the Sixties. The neo-rationalism and turn to morality within both philosophical circles of the collective left and other forms is shifting us into a highly regulated society of habit and custom with Orwell’s ‘groupthink’ as the central motif. As R.L. Stephens states it,
Creating a political climate based on shame is an impediment to justice. Shaming is about control, not justice. The shame-rage spiral is an unsustainable burden that ensures that we are unable to mount substantive challenges to oppression. Unacknowledged feelings of shame will destroy us as individuals and as movements. Honestly, I don’t have a strong idea for how we can overcome the shame dynamic in our political spaces.
When we refuse to admit the interchangeable character of ideas, blood flows . . . firm resolves draw the dagger; fiery eyes presage slaughter. No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with its convictions, and that, in return for having forsaken doubt and sloth—vices nobler than all its virtues-—has taken the path to perdition, into history, that indecent alloy of banality and apocalypse. . . . Here certitudes abound: suppress them, best of all suppress their consequences, and you recover paradise. What is the Fall but the pursuit of a truth and the assurance you have found it, the passion for a dogma, domicile within a dogma? The result is fanaticism—fundamental defect which gives man the craving for effectiveness, for prophecy, for terror—a lyrical leprosy by which he contaminates souls, subdues them, crushes or exalts them. . . . Only the skeptics (or idlers or aesthetes) escape, because they propose nothing, because they—humanity’s true benefactors—undermine fanaticism’s purposes, analyze its frenzy. I feel safer with a Pyrrho than with a Saint Paul, for a jesting wisdom is gentler than an unbridled sanctity. In the fervent mind you always find the camouflaged beast of prey; no protection is adequate against the claws of a prophet. . . . Once he raises his voice, whether in the name of heaven, of the city, or some other excuse, away with you: satyr of your solitude, he will not forgive your living on the wrong side of his truths and his transports; he wants you to share his hysteria, his fullness, he wants to impose it on you, and thereby to disfigure you. A human being possessed by a belief and not eager to pass it on to others is a phenomenon alien to the earth, where our mania for salvation makes life unbreathable. Look around you: everywhere, specters preaching; each institution translates a mission; city halls have their absolute, even as the temples—officialdom, with its rules—a metaphysics designed for monkeys. . . Everyone trying to remedy everyone’s life: even beggars, even the incurable aspire to it: the sidewalks and hospitals of the world overflow with reformers. The longing to become a source of events affects each man like a mental disorder or a desired malediction. Society—an inferno of saviors! What Diogenes was looking for with his lantern was an indifferent man. . . .4 (Cioran, my italics)
Maybe we need an indifferent politics, as well. A politics that no longer seeks to erase, exclude, and shame the opposition into hyperconformity. Without oppositional thinking, without contrarian thought we are doomed to self-lacerating annihilation. But then again maybe it’s time for the liberal heritage of democracy to slice itself into finality… isn’t this what they are doing in our time. Are we not seeing the end of democracy and the rise of new forms of tyranny in mind, heart, and flesh? What the new Left condemns in the Right is its own mirrored truth, for the actual militant violence and oppression is the core faith of the new Left in its inquisitorial secularism. Is our a new age of Inquisition, a culture of Shame that seeks to efface the world of its oppositional thought, to deliver the heretics and schismatics to the flames of its Puritan faith?
- Kurtz, Ernest. Shame & Guilt. iUniverse, Inc. (July 24, 2007)
- Morrison, Andrew P.. Shame: The Underside of Narcissism. Routledge; 1 edition (May 22, 2014)
- Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Kindle Locations 38-40). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
- E.M. CIORAN. A Short History of Decay (Kindle Locations 107-124). Arcade Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The Long Shadow: Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast
If you’ve never read this classic you just have no clue: Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake is the real deal, a work that stands alone among the great fantasists. It is the opposite of a Tolkien world with its Christian mythos laid across the old English mind-set… No. Peake gave us a mad world of ancient cruelty and psychopathic charm, creatures drifting through a world where time is decaying and the inhabitants of this stone palace ritualize the very instability of Time itself through the weird notions of a family romance of pain and sadism. The opening paragraph is still one of the best in that genre:
Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.
—Mervyn Peake, The Illustrated Gormenghast Trilogy
Peake’s work is anomalous. Asked in a radio discussion of Titus Groan whether he had tried to fit his book ‘into any known literary form’, he answered that for him there are
two kinds of books, one of which is on the classic side, where there is the mould – the mould which one accepts, then pours one’s words into. … And then there’s the other, which is not, I think, necessarily a formless thing [but which] creates its own form. (MPR 10 (Spring 1980), 14)
Sui generis! It is not easy to fit Peake’s work into any genre of the past two hundred years. As Peake once observed,
There are always those who wish to limit art to within the boundaries of their own faculties: to recognize only such work as reflects their own attitude to life and aesthetics. And this is natural, if unintelligent. A man is unable to see anything other than himself. A mule faced with an El Greco can only glare in a mulish way: can only receive what mules can receive. Similarly, a particular man can see only his own reflection. (D9)
Mervyn Peake was born of British parents in Kuling (Lushan) in Jiangxi Province of central China in 1911, only three months before the revolution and the founding of the Republic of China. His father Ernest Cromwell Peake was a medical missionary doctor with the London Missionary Society of the Congregationalist tradition and his mother, Amanda Elizabeth Powell, had come to China as a missionary assistant.
The Peakes were given leave to visit England just before World War I in 1914 and returned to China in 1916. Mervyn Peake attended Tientsin Grammar School until the family left for England in December 1922 via the Trans-Siberian Railway. About this time he wrote a novella, The White Chief of the Umzimbooboo Kaffirs. Peake never returned to China but it has been noted that Chinese influences can be detected in his works, not least in the castle of Gormenghast itself, which in some respects echoes the ancient walled city of Beijing, as well as the enclosed compound where he grew up in Tianjin. It is also likely that his early exposure to the contrasts between the lives of the Europeans and of the Chinese, and between the poor and the wealthy in China, also exerted an influence on the Gormenghast books.
His education continued at Eltham College, Mottingham (1923–29), where his talents were encouraged by his English teacher, Eric Drake. Peake completed his formal education at Croydon School of Art in the autumn of 1929 and then from December 1929 to 1933 at the Royal Academy Schools, where he first painted in oils. By this time he had written his first long poem, A Touch o’ the Ash. In 1931 he had a painting accepted for display by the Royal Academy and exhibited his work with the so-called “Soho Group”.1
The influence of Milton and Shakespeare is obvious in this vast work. Steerpike, like Satan’s appearance in Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost, savours all the hellish qualities of the place:
The air was chill and unhealthy; a smell of rotten wood, of dank masonry filled his lungs. He moved in a climate as of decay – of a decay rank with its own evil authority, a richer, more inexorable quality than freshness; it smothered and drained all vibrancy, all hope.
Where another would have shuddered, the young man merely ran his tongue across his lips. ‘This is a place,’ he said to himself. ‘Without any doubt, this is somewhere.’ (G258; Peake’s emphases)
As Winnington in his study2 of Peake remarks: Peake’s most Miltonic passage is also one of the most extraordinary in Gormenghast, a four-page account of Steerpike’s journey across the castle, during which his shadow seems ‘every whit as predatory and meaningful as the body that cast it’. Even when it disappears for a moment, it remains ‘like the evil dream of some sleeper who on waking finds the substance of his nightmare standing beside his bed – for Steerpike was there’ (261; Peake’s emphasis). The narrator wonders why this should be, and why this particular shadow should evoke a sense of darkness:
Shadows more terrible and grotesque than Steerpike’s gave no such feeling. … It was as though a shadow had a heart – a heart where blood was drawn from the margins of a world of less substance than air. A world of darkness whose very existence depended upon its enemy, the light. (G263)
- Mervyn Peake biography – 1911-1968″. mervynpeake.org. 2013. Retrieved 29 August 2015.
- G. Peter Winnington. The Voice of the Heart: The Working of Mervyn Peake’s Imagination. Liverpool University Press; 1 edition (October 15, 2006)
Diogenes the Dog: On Being a Classic Cynic
More than in any other philosopher of the Western world, some have seen in Diogenes the epitome of a long list of praiseworthy personal and intellectual traits and endowments: an absolute commitment to honesty, a remarkable independence of judgment, an unwavering decision to live a simple and unencumbered life, a steadfast devotion to self-sufficiency, an unparalleled attachment to freedom of speech, a healthy contempt for human stupidity and obfuscation, an unusual degree of intellectual lucidity, and, above all, a tremendous courage to live in accord with his convictions.1
And, yet, there are those like the arch-Conservative Peter Sloterdijk, who have seein Diogenes as “a dog-man, a philosopher, a good-for-nothing, a primitive hippie, and the original bohemian”-stands in first place on a long list of cynics who have undermined even the possibility of idealism.14 With his defiant attitude of negativism, argues Sloterdijk, the man who “pissed against the wind” has become the nihilistic standard bearer of those who promote a style of life akin to a malaise of culture, in which neither values nor aspirations have any meaning, and in which egoism and materialism reign supreme. As the archetype of the cynical man, therefore, Diogenes can be viewed as the source from which all sorts of cultural and ideological ills have sprung since his time.
As Luis Navia would remark: What truth and validity can there be in these disparate assertions and assessments of those who have either canonized Diogenes as a philosophical saint and extolled his value as a great philosopher, or condemned him as a deranged rascal, a worthless man, and a psychopath, and dismissed him as a pseudophilosopher? We might argue that one’s reaction to Diogenes, as happens in many situations, depends on one’s own frame of mind. Schopenhauer once remarked that one does not choose to appreciate a certain philosopher or a certain philosophical attitude, for the reverse is true: that appreciation is determined by the kind of person one is. It might be possible that in order to understand and appreciate the value of Diogenes as a philosopher, one may have to be a Cynic oneself or at least have certain Cynic tendencies. How can someone whose psychological predispositions and whose upbringing incline him to blindly accept all social norms and to deify the Establishment and the status quo, and who, as in the case of patriotic enthusiasts and religious zealots, cannot find fulfillment in life except as part of a group, discover any value in a man like Diogenes, who, partly on account of his character and the circumstances of his life, and partly because of certain philosophical influences, felt compelled to wage a relentless war against the human world that surrounded him, and found his fulfillment only in the shelter of his self-proclaimed independence?
After a lifetime of waging my own war against human stupidity and the humanistic system of philosophy and literature I’ll admit that Diogenes has always been one of my progenitors, a guiding light in a sea of darkness and apathy. A man who stood up to his own time and spoke truth to power, a man who did not cater to rank and privilege, whose life was exemplary in that he lived it as he chose without the constraint of State or Society to enchain him in conformity with its dictates. He was ironic, satiric, parodic, grotesque, and full of comic mischief, a complete abandonment of superfluities; an unwavering commitment to break asunder the fetters that, in the form of conventions and rules, tie and incapacitate human beings; an unquenchable thirst for personal freedom; the courage to despise rulers and governments; an indifference toward political affairs; an unwillingness to serve as a pawn in the wars manufactured and managed by the oligarchies; a life unattached to a wife and children; and a disdain for the market and financial preoccupations that entrap practically everybody. These are the values and attitudes I’ve lived by for most of my adult life. In the end as many a quip will relate one is born a Cynic rather than made, it’s a disposition of character not some natural right of the human in itself. To be a cynic is to step outside the conventions of one’s era and challenge them all, to be a contrarian whose only goal is to unmask the ignorance of belief and self-deceit which most humans live by. To realize we are all born into ideological traps, systems of deceit and hyperconformity that would rule our flesh and minds, our habits and thoughts, to break free of these local, national, and worldly powers which would imprison us is the life’s work of the Cynic.
- Luis E. Navia. Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World (Kindle Locations 146-150). Kindle Edition.