About S.C. Hickman

I'm a poet, short story author, and philosophical speculator of the real within which we all live and have our being. I take an interest in all things: travel, write, love, and most of all ponder the mysteries of existence.

The Collapse of Meaning: Popper, Lacan, and Bakker

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There is another dimension at work in “self-consciousness,” the one designated by Lacan as the “big Other” and by Karl Popper as the Third World.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Karl Popper in his Tanner Lectures would introduce the notion of the Third World. He would introduce it saying,

My main argument will be devoted to the defence of the reality of what I propose to call ‘world 3’. By world 3 I mean the world of the products of the human mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures. But also aeroplanes and airports and other feats of engineering.1

World one was that of physical objects. World two of mental objects. World three of the objective spirit: knowledge, values, culture, and its artifacts (i.e., human engineering and projects, language, the symbolic order within which we all share value and meaning, etc.).

Another thinker of the period Jaques Lacan would propose that this Third World (not actually having read Popper by any means) as the Symbolic Order of the big Other. According to Lacan, one of the (if not the) most significant and indispensable conditions of possibility for singular subjectivity is the collective symbolic order. Individual subjects are what they are in and through the mediation of the socio-linguistic arrangements and constellations of the register of the Symbolic. Especially during the period of the “return to Freud,” the analytic unconscious (qua “structured like a language”) is depicted as kinetic networks of interlinked signifiers (i.e., “signifying chains”). Rendered thusly, the unconscious, being of a Symbolic (anti-)nature in and of itself, is to be interpretively engaged with via the Symbolic medium of speech, namely, the very substance of the being-in-itself of the speaking subject (parlêtre) of the unconscious. Furthermore, the Lacanian unconscious is structured like “un langage” and not “une langue.” Although both French words translate into English as “language,” the former (langage) refers to logics and structures of syntax and semantics not necessarily specific to particular natural languages, whereas the latter (langue), which also could be translated into English as “tongue,” does refer to the notion of a natural language. Hence, Lacan is not saying that the unconscious is structured like French, German, English, Spanish, or any other particular natural language.2

Adrian Johnston further relates:

The capital-O Other refers to two additional types of otherness corresponding to the registers of the Symbolic and the Real. The first type of Other is Lacan’s “big Other” qua symbolic order, namely, the overarching “objective spirit” of trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions. Relatedly, the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science, or the analyst as the “subject supposed to know” [sujet supposé savoir] as per Lacan’s distinctive account of analytic transference). But, as already becomes evident in Lacan’s first few annual seminars of the early 1950s, there also is a Real dimension to Otherness. This particular incarnation of the Real, about which Lacan goes into greatest detail when addressing both love and psychosis, is the provocative, perturbing enigma of the Other as an unknowable “x,” an unfathomable abyss of withdrawn-yet-proximate alterit. (ibid.)

When my friend R. Scott Bakker writes of the Semantic Apocalypse it is the failure and breakdown of this Third World, big Other and the symbolic order that has held Western and Eastern civilizations together within its networks of dominion and control that is unraveling in our time. As Bakker puts it nicely:

Human cognition is not ontologically distinct. Like all biological systems, it possesses its own ecology, its own environmental conditions. And just as scientific progress has brought about the crash of countless ecosystems across this planet, it is poised to precipitate the crash of our shared cognitive ecology as well, the collapse of our ability to trust and believe, let alone to choose or take responsibility. Once every suboptimal behaviour has an etiology, what then? Once everyone us has artificial friends, heaping us with praise, priming our insecurities, doing everything they can to prevent non-commercial—ancestral— engagements, what then?

‘Semantic apocalypse’ is the dramatic term I coined to capture this process in my 2008 novel, Neuropath. Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it.

In other words the objective cultural referents within which our common sense view of the world, reality, and ourselves is constructed is faltering and falling into an abyss or “crash space” (Bakker) from which there will be no return. One might say this is Nietzsche’s end game of the Last Man. Not that humans will literally go extinct (although that is still to be determined!), but that our worlds of meaning we all share: our collective belief systems in the sphere of religion, culture, and politics, etc. is collapsing before our eyes. The whole humanistic enterprise of dis-enchantment begun during and before the Enlightenment which centered on the world of the sciences slowly eroded our world views to the point that even our belief in human consciousness and free will etc. are collapsing into an abyss of non-meaning.

I actually see nothing negative about this, in fact to me this is part and partial of great sea change hinted at in many artists, philosophers, scientists, and literary works. Think here of James Joyce’s great apocalypse Finnegan’s Wake: 

The abnihilisation of the etym by the grisning of the grosning of the grinder of the grunder of the first lord of Hurtreford expolodotonates through Parsuralia with an ivanmorinthorrorumble fragoromboassity amidwhiches general uttermosts confussion are perceivable moletons shaping with mulicules while Coventry plumpkins fairlygosmotherthemselves in the Landaunelegants of Pinkadindy. Similar scenatas are projectilised from Hullulullu, Bawlawayo, empyreal Raum and mordern Atems. They were precisely the twelves of clocks, noon minutes, none seconds. At someseat of Oldanelang’s Konguerrig, by dawnybreak in Aira.3

As one commentator Seamus Deane states relates it this smashing of our linguistic base, Third World, big Other, Symbolic Order, the “abnihilisation of the etym“, etc. that James Joyce more than any other Irish writer “found a means of enacting it in fiction with a thoroughness that brought the issue of tradition, heritage, destiny and all the rest of those big words that make us so unhappy to the point of collapse…”.(ibid.)

Unlike my friend R. Scott Bakker I do not see this as a cause of alarm, but as a welcomed acknowledgement of a dialectical process enacting the break up and break down of a world view that had always already shown itself to be a failure. By this I mean that our fantasy worlds of culture and belief never did work for us, and produced all that we see before us in the world today of war and hate and disunity. All the antagonisms both within and outside us are part and partial of this process of give and take, not of reasons (Brandom), but of the Real and our relation to it: this brokenness at the core of our common sense (Understanding, cunning reason) world is a failure with a positive negation; or, negation of negation (Zizek, Hegel) in which we are all together waking up out of a two thousand year old human dream (Anthropocene). As Mao Zedong once related it

 “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

 


  1. Popper, Karl. Three Worlds. Tanner Lecture on Human Value. (Univ of Michigan, 1978) (Page 4).
  2. Johnston, Adrian, “Jacques Lacan“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition).
  3. James Joyce. Finnegans Wake (Kindle Locations 6118-6122). Penguin Adult. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Hegel’s “Absolute Knowing”

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This is why to be a Hegelian today does not mean to assume the superfluous burden of some metaphysical past, but to regain the ability to begin from the beginning.

Slavoj Zizek

All determinate being is relational, things only are what they are in relation to otherness, or, as Deleuze put it, perspectival distortion is inscribed into the very identity of the thing. The Real is not out there, as the inaccessible transcendent X never reached by our representations; the Real is here, as the obstacle or impossibility which makes our representations flawed, inconsistent. The Real is not the In-itself but the very obstacle which distorts our access to the In-itself, and this paradox provides the key for what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing.”

And is not what Hegel calls “Absolute Knowing” (Wissen, not Erkenntniss or knowledge) the end-point of these reversals, when the subject stumbles upon the final limitation, the limitation as such, which can no longer be inverted into a productive self-assertion? Absolute Knowing thus “does not mean ‘knowing everything.’ It rather means— recognizing one’s limitations.”  “Absolute Knowing” is the final recognition of a limitation which is “absolute” in the sense that it is not determinate or particular, not a “relative” limit or obstacle to our knowledge that we can clearly see and locate as such. It is invisible “as such” because it is the limitation of the entire field as such— that closure of the field which, from within the field itself (and we are always by definition within it, because in a way this field “is” ourselves) cannot but appear as its opposite, as the very openness of the field. The dialectical buck stops here: the subject can no longer play the game of the “experience of consciousness,” comparing the For-us with the In-itself and thereby subverting both of them, since there is no longer any shape of the In-itself available as a measure of the truth of the For-us.

Absolute Knowing is a name for the acceptance of the absolute limitation of the circle of our subjectivity, of the impossibility of stepping outside of it. Here, however, we should add a crucial qualification: this acceptance in no way amounts to any kind of (individual or collective) subjectivistic solipsism. We must displace the In-itself from the fetishized “outside” (with regard to subjective mediation) to the very gap between the subjective and the objective (between For-us and In-itself, between appearances and Things-in-themselves). Our knowing is irreducibly “subjective” not because we are forever separated from reality-in-itself, but precisely because we are part of this reality, because we cannot step outside it and observe it “objectively.” Far from separating us from reality, the very limitation on our knowing— its inevitably distorted, inconsistent character— bears witness to our inclusion in reality.1

—Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

 

László Krasznahorkai

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THERE HE WAS, laughing, but in trying to laugh in a more abandoned manner he had become preoccupied with the question of whether there was any difference at all between the burden of futility on the one hand and the burden of scorn on the other as well as with what he was laughing about anyway, because the subject was, uniquely, everything, arising from an everything that was everywhere, and, what was more, if indeed it was everything, arising out of everywhere, it would be difficult enough to decide what it was at, arising out of what, and in any case it wouldn’t be full-hearted laughter, because futility and scorn were what continually oppressed him…

—László Krasznahorkai The Last Wolf & Herman

László Krasznahorkai was born on 5 January 1954, in Gyula, Hungary, to a lawyer and a social security administrator. He studied law and Hungarian language and literature at university, and, after some years as an editor, became a freelance writer. His first novel, Satantango (1985), pushed him to the centre of Hungarian literary life and is still his best known. He didn’t leave Communist Hungary until 1987, when he travelled to West Berlin for a fellowship – and he has lived in a number of countries since, but returning regularly to Hungary.

His main literary hero is, he says, Kafka: “I follow him always.”

Reading Krasznahorkai is like entering one of Kafka’s burrows and realizing there will never be an exit, that the darkness, the bleak walls of dampness, the hollows and interminable false passages leading nowhere is all there is: a labyrinth of endless futility and despair. And, yet, in the midst of this monstrous world of bleakness one begins to laugh, one understands that the deft markers of some strangeness and vision of life within the decay and rottenness  harbors an infernal paradise full of something else, an excess: a life unbidden and away. To enter these bleak hollows is to know that life offers no hope, only the power of the mind to challenge itself and explore what is in excess of itself. Even in the most terrible corners of this blasted universe of death we find certain forms of contingent change, moments of clarity and brilliance that catch us off-guard and bring us not hope but rather that surprise we so long for of something new arising out of the pure negativity of all that is. This is what it is like to come upon the works of Krasznahorkai. 

His first novel Satantango reviewed in the Guardian. Which it calls “brutal, relentless and so amazingly bleak that it’s often quite funny”. One might be reminded here of Kafka’s Castle where the protagonist wanders around a fortress world that has the flavor of an anti-gnostic gnosis in which nothing is ever revealed yet everything, every object hints at even darker regions below the threshold of our paranoid gaze. If Krasznahorkai is a parodist of strange ideas, a prophet not so much of those hidden recesses of a monstrous universe but of the openness of the human heart to the incompleteness surrounding it, then he is in actuality a gifted martyr of those broken worlds we all inhabit, a guide into the corrupted corridors of our decaying and unraveling universe. Another Stranger in a Strange Land seeking neither solace nor salvation, but rather the powers of mind over the universe of death surrounding it. Crafting words that break the vessels of meaning and bring forth light out of the decay of broken things.  Bleak? Only if you do not know how to laugh.

Enter if you dare! His books on Amazon.com: here!

 

R. Scott Bakker: BBT Defined

Over the years reading through many of the posts on Three Pound Brain I’ve searched for a succinct definition of what Scott’s Blind Brain Theory is and came across this one which seems to both summarize and define his stance in a clarified and presentable manner for a lay person:

The aim of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) is to rough out the ‘logic of neglect’ that underwrites ‘error consciousness,’ the consciousness we think we have. It proceeds on the noncontroversial presumption that consciousness is the product of some subsystem of the brain, and that, as such, it operates within a variety of informatic constraints. It advances the hypothesis that the various perplexities that bedevil our attempts to explain consciousness are largely artifacts of these informatic constraints. From the standpoint of BBT, what we call the Hard Problem conflates two quite distinct difficulties: 1) the ‘generation problem,’ the question of how a certain conspiracy of meat can conjure whatever consciousness is; and 2) the ‘explanandum problem,’ the question of what any answer to the first problem needs to explain to count as an adequate explanation. Its primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience. It argues that philosophy of mind needs to keep its dire informatic straits clear: once you understand that we make similar informatic frame-of-reference (IFR) errors regarding consciousness as we are prone to make in the world, you acknowledge that we might be radically mistaken about what consciousness is. (see: Logic of Neglect)

Even back in 2012 he emphasized that the “primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience“.

Zizek in a discourse on Lacan once defined the “Real”  in the Lacanian sense as the construction of a point that does not actually exist … but that, nonetheless, must be presupposed in order to legitimate our position through negative reference to the other, by distancing ourselves.1 This sense of a gap and a distancing go together in the above statement. Nietzsche from such early books as The Gay Science shows distance to be an important feature of thought, in the first place as a necessary condition for attaining an adequate view of a given phenomenon, but also as a template for our view of ourselves and of human character in general. An individual’s character, Nietzsche contends, tends to look better when viewed from a position of distance.2

The gap or hole in our knowledge of consciousness, our inability to provide an explanation that is adequate, or to actually present a description which can inform us of what it is has become manifest in this game of distancing and, one might add – fear of every discovering an answer. There seems to be a  hole, an empty space in our knowledge. Scott says we should begin with this lack in our knowledge, the traumatic emptiness around which the signifying process articulates itself. What we experience in the problem of explaining consciousness is this logic of lack and neglect that everyone fears but no one addresses. As Scott puts it in the blog post we may be “[r]adically mistaken about everything, in fact”. A sort of horror vacui.

As he suggests bound to our singular perspectives, trapped on mother earth and confined to our ecological niche we find ourselves “informatically encapsulated, stranded with insufficient information and limited cognitive resources”. This is just the state of being an evolutionary creature whose very existence over time produced certain cognitive ecologies that allowed for survival and propagation but neglected other features and possibilities. For Scott the whole trend in current consciousness research as well as the Philosophy of Mind is chasing a rabbit down the wrong hole because as he forever reminds us the “consciousness we think we have, that we think we need to explain, quite simply does not exist”. This impossible object is a fiction of both the philosophers and scientists, and the truth lies elsewhere and distant.

That most of the brain’s operations are outside the purview of consciousness, and that we as consciously aware being have no direct access to these operations (38 trillion a second), then maybe instead of asking what consciousness is we might better ask what was the problem the brain sought fit to bring such a process into play to begin with. What is consciousnesses use value to the brain? In the economics of brain efficiency why did consciousness arise to begin with? Accident? Purposeful need and necessity as a mediator tool for the brain in its interactions with the external environmental ecologies within which it found itself? What evolutionary processes brought such awareness into being, and allowed for such symbolic adaptation as language and culture, etc.. As Scott informs us one “of the most striking things about all the little perplexities that plague consciousness research is the way they can be interpreted in terms of informatic deprivation, as the result of our cognitive systems accessing too little information, mismatched information, or partial information”. In other words we make guesses and create symbolic systems of meaning out of a hodge-podge of fantasy and fiction to explain what we neglect and call this knowledge. What does this tell you about knowledge? That it is a grand fiction built out of a consensual agreement among humans over time who have forgotten that it is for the most part inadequate, partial, and fantastic. We are all fantasy writers at heart, creating truth out of neglect, lacking the very access to the information needed to define even the simplest experiences of our everyday life.

One of the problems faced by both philosopher and scientist both is as Scott restates it, that lacking “informatic access to the neural precursors of conscious experience, deliberative cognition finds itself on a strange kind of informatic treadmill”. Which like the post-structuralist dilemma of such thinkers as Jacques Derrida binds us to the treadmill of an interminable and undecidable trace of an impossible object. Why? Because we can never get outside ourselves or our linguistic heritage in symbolic thought or mathematical relations to inform us from some distant Archimedean point either external or internal to the object in question. We are part of the very frame within which this whole complex of problems is traced. Like treading some fabulous Mobius strip we keep revolving on the surface and horizon not knowing that the very thing we’re chasing is the path itself. Neither given nor incipit to the demarcations of our mind we invent out of a tissue of sincere lies a fiction and present it as truth.

Maybe we will always lack the information to explain consciousness, but in the meantime we can produce better problematic questions and scrape the list of errors from our tool-sets. Cognitive bias seems to be that every apparent problem that haunts all thought and science. We tend to side with our favorite fictions and disparage all other johnny-be-lately comers to the party. And if we tell all involved that every last thread of our supposed knowledge is just a tissue of sincere lies they look askance at us and shake their heads as if this poor soul should be locked away in silence in some asylum for lost ideas.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. The Most Sublime Hysteric: Hegel with Lacan (Kindle Locations 176-178). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Lovibond, Sabina. Nietzsche on Distance, Beauty, and Truth (Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2014)

Thomas Ligotti: Vastarien’s Dream Quest

 

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His absolute: to dwell among the ruins of reality.

—Vastarien,  Thomas Ligotti, The Nightmare Factory 

Thomas Ligotti touches that aspect of the mind that seeks to be elsewhere. He’s exasperated with the world he has been thrown into and has for the most part sought another all his life. Can it be possible that the rendering of such a character as Vastarien in the short story of that name hints at the underlying worldview that has either trapped or unleashed the imagination of one of the great horror writers of our era. I’ve personally been fascinated by his stories for almost twenty years, coming back to them from time to time as I did not with such writers as Poe and Lovecraft his forbears. What is it that instills repeated readings of his work? Maybe it’s as Vastarien himself puts it about our world, that it seems to be lacking something, that something is missing, incomplete: “the missing quality, became clear to him: it was the element of the unreal”.1

This notion of the unreal summons up so many things for both Vastarien and for us as readers and habitués of Ligotti’s oeuvre. For Vastarien “standing before the window, his hands tearing into the pockets of a papery bathrobe, he saw that something was missing from the view, some crucial property that was denied to the stars above and the streets below, some unearthly essence needed to save them. The word unearthly reverberated in the room.” But it is not the false power of religious vision that haunts Ligotti, nor the vein raptures of saints and madmen of the cloistered variety, but rather a place of intimacy, a city of echoes and dreams where one can once again know in the depths of strange streets an order of the unreal, “where an obscure life seemed to establish itself, a secret civilization of echoes flourishing among groaning walls”.

If madness is the ground of Reason, its other face and dark brother whose power over us must be conquered if we are to become whole and free —that is, normalized — then is the quest of Vastarien to reenter the gates of madness or does his quest harbor some other more formidable end? Vastarien in his quest to uncover the traces of such an unreal world, a paradise of dark wonder and rapture had sought for years in the out of way stalls and venues of rare book stores a hint that would provide the keys to unlock its mysteries. But none had been found. Oh there had been hints and wonders here and there, but most of the authors and visionaries had in the end failed the test. As Vastarien relates it he “had, in fact, come upon passages in certain books that approached this ideal, hinting to the reader—almost admonishing him—that the page before his eyes was about to offer a view from the abyss and cast a wavering light on desolate hallucinations. To become the wind in the dead of winter, so might begin an enticing verse of dreams. But soon the bemazed visionary would falter, retracting the promised scene of a shadow kingdom at the end of all entity, perhaps offering an apologetics for this lapse into the unreal. The work would then once more take up the universal theme, disclosing its true purpose in belaboring the most futile and profane of all ambitions: power, with knowledge as its drudge.”

Then Vastarien is awakened from his reveries of unreal paradises by a crow of a man, a thin little frog that squawks at him inquisitively: “Have you ever heard of a book, an extremely special book, that is not…yes, that is not about something, but actually is that something?” Such a strange question from an even stranger personage Vastarien is taken aback. Intrigued by the question which reminds him of his own passionate quest for a book that would reveal the road map to his infernal paradise he’s about to ask the man of it when suddenly the little man interrupts him and is off speaking to the proprietor of the store dismissing Vastarien and the question without further adieu.

This idea that book would not only reveal and represent the object of his dreams and nightmares, but that it in itself would be that very world astounded Vastarien. How could an object whose qualities were only the linguistic traceries of an infinite sea of language ever unfold and open the doors to a secret kingdom. Vastarien had to find out. Feeling abandoned and frustrated our Vastarien followed the two men into the alcove at the back of the store where many unusual volumes lined the shelves. As the narrator relates it:

Immediately he sensed that something of a special nature awaited his discovery, and the evidence for this intuition began to build. Each book that he examined served as a clue in this delirious investigation, a cryptic sign which engaged his powers of interpretation and imparted the faith to proceed. Many of the works were written in foreign languages he did not read; some appeared to be composed in ciphers based on familiar characters and others seemed to be transcribed in a wholly artificial cryptography. But in every one of these books he found an oblique guidance, some feature of more or less indirect significance: a strangeness in the typeface, pages and bindings of uncommon texture, abstract diagrams suggesting no orthodox ritual or occult system. Even greater anticipation was inspired by certain illustrated plates, mysterious drawings and engravings that depicted scenes and situations unlike anything he could name. And such works as Cynothoglys or The Noctuary of Tine conveyed schemes so bizarre, so remote from known texts and treatises of the esoteric tradition, that he felt assured of the sense of his quest.

Then it happened, he came upon a “small grayish volume leaning within a gap between larger and more garish tomes”. Something about it attracted him, a magnetic appeal that forced him to act, and to his delight the small indistinct book revealed something he’d never seen before. It’s this singular paragraph that harbors the promise of so much that we allow it to unfold:

It seemed to be a chronicle of strange dreams. Yet somehow the passages he examined were less a recollection of unruled visions than a tangible incarnation of them, not mere rhetoric but the thing itself. The use of language in the book was arrantly unnatural and the book’s author unknown. Indeed, the text conveyed the impression of speaking for itself and speaking only to itself, the words flowing together like shadows that were cast by no forms outside the book. But although this volume appeared to be composed in a vernacular of mysteries, its words did inspire a sure understanding and created in their reader a visceral apprehension of the world they described, existing inseparable from it. Could this truly be the invocation of Vastarien, that improbable world to which those gnarled letters on the front of the book alluded? And was it a world at all? Rather the unreal essence of one, all natural elements purged by an occult process of extraction, all days distilled into dreams and nights into nightmares. Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else. Rampant oddity seemed to be the rule of the realm; imperfection became the source of the miraculous—wonders of deformity and marvels of miscreation. There was horror, undoubtedly. But it was a horror uncompromised by any feeling of lost joy or thwarted redemption; rather, it was a deliverance by damnation. And if Vastarien was a nightmare, it was a nightmare transformed in spirit by the utter absence of refuge: nightmare made normal.

Nightmare made normal. This book that neither revealed an object, nor conveyed some symbolic representation of another world, but in fact brought Vastarien and the world together forming a new third object, where both entered into the force of madness and wonder. One would almost want to say that this is a parody of the most extreme idealist quest imaginable, and yet it is different an inversion of that romantic mythos with its death prone heroes such as Shelley’s Alastor. 

Ultimately Vastarien is able to purchase this work and bring it home, a  book that “did not merely describe that strange world but, in some obscure fashion, was a true composition of the thing itself, its very form incarnate”. This notion of a book breaking all the bonds of representationalism, of freeing us from the mediation of language, of symbols, of the infinite traceries of the undecidable realm of false promises and becoming for us the very thing itself we’d sought all those years. This is what Vastarien had found. One has to ask why humans possess the need to quest after such impossible objects. That we lack something, that we are incomplete, that there is a pit, a void in the recesses of our being that forces us to seek amends, to seek an answer to the quandaries of our torn and bleeding heart. This quest for the Absolute. But not a quest for God, not a quest for some simple answer or trope, some all encompassing One that can assuage the pain at the core of our being. No. We will not stand for hand-me-down mythologies of salvation and transition. No transcendental beyond for us, but rather the thing itself.

Of course in the end things do not end well for Vastarien. Locked away in an insane asylum we discover that the interns have daily to inject him with passivators, because he reads and rereads a certain book that will not go away. Oh, no, not they have not tried. They have. But the book always returns to its victim releasing the dark torments that he sought for so long…

This short story reminds us that underneath the veneer of our homely lives lays an order of the unreal, a void of the void, a darker structure of strangeness and disquiet that over millennia of techniques we have managed to build for ourselves a prison house of Reason to fend off and keep at bay the truth of this mad realm. Every once in a while a creature will break through the barriers of this prison of Reason we’ve trapped ourselves in, this normalcy and consensual hallucination of culture and sanity we call modern civilization. If one manages such an act of violence against the order of the real and Reason he/she is quickly imprisoned and barred from the normals, hidden behind professional medical systems and the Law. But in our time the vast prison is crumbling and the light of the unreal has been slowly seeping into our world from the great Outside. Oh, we turn a blind eye to it, we find scapegoats and madmen to fill the chinks and gaps with reasonable explanations and explanada. We hide in our artificial prisons of language and culture and carry on our lives as if the enemy is not us but some false system of religious or philosophical bullshit. We reach out to the sciences to find the answers promised us. We shift our fears of the haunted landscapes from the past to the ever-present threats of war, famine, and apocalypse. The whole genre of children utopian novels, or that of Apocalypse culture seem to bare witness to this as a traversing of the fantasy that is our times. These fears keep our minds preoccupied and allow us to forget the pull of the unreal just below the surface of our artificial climes. We’ve become so enamored of our prison that we’ve forgotten there ever was a great outdoors of Being inhabited by nightmares. Instead we live in a narrow prison of consciousness feeding each other the sincere lies of our immediate and daily lives of survival and propagation. Our keepers patrol the horizon of our world seeking out those who have found the escape routes back into the void, and with the power and dominion of the Law and State they incarcerate and imprison those who are so bold as to offer a vision of the unreal realms. For our world is a tidy and normal world controlled to keep us passivated and herd like in our mental straightjackets. We are the victims of our own success.

Authors like Ligotti hint at the brokenness of our world, open the door onto those strange and misplaced realms we’ve all forgotten except in the deep imaginaries of our nightmares.

A Philosophical Coda

As I was thinking about Ligotti’s tale of the Book that is a World I remembered that congenial author short stories Jorge-Luis Borges (a favorite author!). In one of his most often anthologized stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, he imagines an entirely hypothetical world, the invention of a secret society of scholars who elaborate its every aspect in a surreptitious encyclopedia. This First Encyclopedia of Tlön (what fictionist would not wish to have dreamed up the Britannica?) describes a coherent alternative to this world complete in every respect from its algebra to its fire, Borges tells us, and of such imaginative power that, once conceived, it begins to obtrude itself into and eventually to supplant our prior reality.2

Borges would hint at the possibility that our universe is itself a regressus in infinitum – and, that we are all repeating the gestures of a circuit that has no outlet (its all been done before!). This illustrates Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which embodies a regressus in infinitum which Borges carries through philosophical history, pointing out that Aristotle uses it to refute Plato’s theory of forms, Hume to refute the possibility of cause and effect, Lewis Carroll to refute syllogistic deduction, William James to refute the notion of temporal passage, and Bradley to refute the general possibility of logical relations. Borges himself uses it, citing Schopenhauer, as evidence that the world is our dream, our idea, in which “tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason” can be found to remind us that our creation is false, or at least fictive. It’s in this sense that Ligotti poses the addition or subtraction of the Unreal from the real, that we are all part and partial of an infinite regression into the spurious realms of a universal nightmare of Reason. (see John Barth below)

Thinking through this notion of the breakdown of our worldview, of Zizek’s big Other – the Symbolic Culture we’ve built up over eons to enclose us in a realm of safety and apathy in which our accepted horizon of what is real and unreal, of the commonsense realm of our everyday life that goes without saying, almost a background noise of inertia and total blindness, brought me back to my recent readings in philosophy of how our end game of present society is breaking apart into fragments – a Humpty-Dumpty vision of the crumbling of Western and Eastern and Middle-East civilizations into so many broken pieces that no one will ever be able to put it back together again. Which leaves us in this intermediary period of a void, a black hole in the fabric of fictions we’ve been telling ourselves for so many millennia we began to think that it was permanent. Instead we find ourselves being impinged on by other realms, realms of the Real that we had forgotten existed because we were so well policed in our imaginations by the media lords of our age into accepting the truths of philosophy and the sciences as the end-all-be-all of our view of existence. Instead our psychotic break with the past is leaving us in a quandary in which our whole world civilization is at war for a new worldview. Ligotti’s vision of the unreal and existing in the “ruins of the real” hints at this unraveling of the symbolic order that has imprisoned us for so long that it became habit.

So in our paranoid state of fear and trepidation we grasp at any past, any tradition, anything at all that will give us hope from despair, etc., all the while believing we can restore the age old dream of a utopian society of peace and plenty. Instead we produce more friction, more war, suicides, hate, fear, and the mingling of age old superstitions. As the dark waters of the Real seep in from the Great Outdoors of Being we are frightened to death, not understanding that this is needed, that to free ourselves of the burden of our past, our traditions, our prisons we must step out into the ocean of the void and begin again…

Like the Shamans of old Ligotti has seen into this strange new realm of the (Un)Real. The “contamination of reality by dream,” as Borges calls it, or in Ligotti’s tormented pessimism the contamination of the real by nightmares. In one of his other stories Dream of a Mannikin the narrator will hint at the solipsistic nightmare of a self-reflexive universe of despair we’ve all created for ourselves and have become passive and apathetic mannikins:

Contemplating the realm of Miss Locher’s dream, I came to deeply feel that old truism of a solipsistic dream deity commanding all it sees, all of which is only itself. And a corollary to solipsism even occurred to me: if, in any dream of a universe, one has to always allow that there is another, waking universe, then the problem becomes, as with our Chinese sleepyhead, knowing when one is actually dreaming and what form the waking self may have; and this one can never know. The fact that the overwhelming majority of thinkers rejects any doctrine of solipsism suggests the basic horror and disgusting unreality of its implications. And after all, the horrific feeling of unreality is much more prevalent (to certain people) in what we call human “reality” than in human dreams, where everything is absolutely real.3

This reversal and dialectical move or inversion of the real/unreal in the awakening of many of Ligotti’s anti-protagonists give hint of this underlying theme of the unreal world impinging upon our safe have of utter mindlessness and generative madness. For in this sense as Zizek has repeatedly show Reason is not the obverse of madness but its completed mask.

The narrator in the Sect of the Idiot will offer this

The extraordinary is a province of the solitary soul. Lost the very moment the crowd comes into view, it remains within the great hollows of dreams, an infinitely secluded place that prepares itself for your arrival, and for mine. Extraordinary joy, extraordinary pain—the fearful poles of the world that both menaces and surpasses this one. It is a miraculous hell towards which one unknowingly wanders. And its gate, in my case, was an old town—whose allegiance to the unreal inspired my soul with a holy madness long before my body had come to dwell in that incomparable place.4

Again this opening to the unreal, to those locus miraculous sites of explosion and seeping, those gaps in the contours of our safe world of sleep that harbor doors into the unknown. “No true challenge to the rich unreality of Vastarien, where every shape suggested a thousand others, every sound disseminated everlasting echoes, every word founded a world. No horror, no joy was the equal of the abysmally vibrant sensations known in this place that was elsewhere, this spellbinding retreat where all experiences were interwoven to compose fantastic textures of feeling, a fine and dark tracery of limitless patterns. For everything in the unreal points to the infinite, and everything in Vastarien was unreal, unbounded by the tangible lie of existing.”5  This notion of Vastarien as a place, a site of the unreal, a realm apart and away, elsewhere from our everyday mundanity and sleeplessness: our somnambulism and death-drive repetition of safety and mere motionless movement.

Again in the short tale The Mystics of Muelenburg the narrator relates

I once knew a man who claimed that, overnight, all the solid shapes of existence had been replaced by cheap substitutes: trees made of flimsy posterboard, houses built of colored foam, whole landscapes composed of hair-clippings. His own flesh, he said, was now just so much putty. Needless to add, this acquaintance had deserted the cause of appearances and could no longer be depended on to stick to the common story. Alone he had wandered into a tale of another sort altogether; for him, all things now participated in this nightmare of nonsense. But although his revelations conflicted with the lesser forms of truth, nonetheless he did live in the light of a greater truth: that all is unreal. Within him this knowledge was vividly present down to his very bones, which had been newly simulated by a compound of mud and dust and ashes.6

This openness to the madness of our fake world in which only the madman has returned to tell a tale of the unreal reality of our own world while hinting at the greater truth of another realm situated not just beyond appearances (which is still the old Platonic two-world hash), but of this world seen as it truly is from a new perspective. The mad poet William Blake once sang of this:

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The narrator in Mrs. Rinaldi’s Angel explains how fragile our supposed real world of common sense reality truly is, saying,

How well I knew such surroundings, those deep interiors of dream where everything is saturated with unreality and more or less dissolves under a direct gaze. I could tell how neatly this particular interior was arranged—pictures perfectly straight and tight against the walls, well-dusted figurines arranged along open shelves, lace-fringed tablecovers set precisely in place, and delicate silk flowers in slim vases of colored glass. Yet there was something so fragile about the balance of these things, as if they were all susceptible to sudden derangement should there be some upset, no matter how subtle, in the secret system which held them together.7

Again we ask is the Kant re-written from the perspective of a critique of pure reason, but rather of a critique of pure madness? And if we see within the confines of this critique the maps of a world which is ours seen not through the safe eyes of Reason but through the indirect appeal – not of unreason, but of the unreal itself, then could we say that our world is itself the very thing, the book, the place and site of the Unreal? There being no Platonic other world, no safe haven beyond appearances, but rather the appearance of appearance as manifest madness. But then what is this madness that Reason fears? If madness is the ground of Reason, and Reason is itself a form of and horizon of madness, then is it possible that Reason is but the attempt to bind with magical force the power of the Unreal surrounding us?

Another mad poet Arthur Rimbaud would apprehend this at a youthful age then renounce the path, but before living on into a dead world he would write:

“The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, complete: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one–and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown! ….So the poet is actually a thief of Fire!” (see)

This combination of criminal, accursed one, and scholar brought into unison seems apt for Ligotti as well. A slow and methodical derangement of the senses that bind us to the culture of Reason, the big Other and Symbolic Order of the real in which we are imprisoned suddenly falling away revealing a realm of torment and paradisial wonder. And, yet, even the average citizen of this faded dream of the Real can still stumble upon those places of power that lead to the Unreal:

For there are certain places that exist on the wayside of the real: a house, a street, even entire towns which have claims upon them by virtue of some nameless affinity with the most remote orders of being. They are, these places, fertile ground for the unreal and retain the minimum of immunity against exotic disorders and aberrations. Their concessions to a given fashion of reality are only placating gestures, a way of stifling it through limited acceptance.8

A sort of minimalism of our current prison world in which the lineaments of the unreal shine through, but only through the very protected power of the inhabitants of this borderland of the unknown. In fact the “citizens of such a place are custodians of a rare property, a precious estate whose true owners are momentarily absent. All that remains before full proprietorship of the land may be assumed is the planting of a single seed and its nurturing over a sufficient period of time, an interval that has nothing to do with the hours and days of the world.”9

A final quote:

No one gives up on something until it turns on them, whether or not that thing is real or unreal.

—Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco

 


  1. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory  Kindle Edition.
  2. John Barth. The Friday Book (Kindle Locations 1452-1456). G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Kindle Edition.
  3. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 1080-1086). Kindle Edition.
  4. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 2992-2997). Kindle Edition.
  5. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 3541-3545). Kindle Edition.
  6. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 5285-5291). Kindle Edition.
  7. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7407-7411). Kindle Edition.
  8. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7878-7881). Kindle Edition.
  9. Thomas Ligotti. The Nightmare Factory (Kindle Locations 7883-7885). Kindle Edition.

Graham Harman: A Theory of Everything

“To think is to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.”

― Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger believed it was necessary to think one thought and one thought only, and to think it through to the end. Having just read Graham Harman’s latest fare Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything I’m reminded Heidegger’s dictum. After a foray into modern physics and its reputed search for a theory of everything, which during the late 80’s and 90’s became a sort of popular fad among layman and scientists alike, with String Theory becoming the obvious front runner for many theoretical and mathematically inclined participants because of its elegance. In the end nothing much came of it other than more mathematical conundrums and endless debates. The sceptics and such scientists as Lee Smolin would see in this utter acceptance of String Theory as the end-all be-all theory that would someday provide such an objective truth-bearing report as utter non-sense, and that putting all one eggs in one basket and filling the minds of graduate students with a baseless non-experimentalism gone awry would in the end produce a form of end game for the sciences.

Harman for his part will attack any such Theory-of-Everything as baseless from another angle, philosophy. For Harman – using a fictitious scientist named Browne – there are four false assumptions to be addressed. Taking his que from Brian Green a popularizer and commentator of the various trends in String Theory who tells us that ‘if you … believe that we should not rest until we have a theory whose range of applicability is limitless, string theory is the only game in town,’1 Harman relates the false assumptions as follows, and then addresses them:

  1. everything that exists must be physical
  2. everything that exists must be basic and simple
  3. everything that exists must be real
  4. everything that exists must be able to be stated accurately in literal propositional language

Harman will of course dispute each of these assumptions and ultimately remind us that the four major pitfalls faced by such a theory are: physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism and literalism.2 The he’ll go on to relate that OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology)  rigorously avoids these intellectual toxins. As he relates it for the “object-oriented thinker, physical objects are just one kind of object among many others, and hence we should not be in a hurry to scorn or ‘eliminate’ those that are not a good fit with a hardnosed materialist worldview” (p. 39). Harman’s notion of materialism here should be differentiated from that of such philosophers as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek’s dialectical materialism. Harman is singling out scientific materialism rather than these other strains. As Harman puts it (and I quote in length):

Philosophy is not the handmaid of materialism any more than of religion. Against smallism, object-oriented thought holds that objects exist at numerous different scales, including the electron, the molecule, the Dutch East India Company and the galaxy. The mere fact of complexity and largeness does not make something less real than its component parts. Next, we should be in no hurry to flush fictional objects out of existence, since any philosophy worthy of the name must be able to say something positive about such beings. And remember that by ‘fictional’ I do not just mean the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Emma Woodhouse, but also the everyday houses and hammers that we seem to encounter directly, but which we perceive in the manner of simplified models of the real houses and hammers to which we can never gain direct access. And finally, OOO is anti-literalist, because any literal description, literal perception, or literal causal interaction with the thing does not give us that thing directly, but only a translation of it. Hence, an indirect or oblique means of access to reality is in some ways a wiser mode of access than any amount of literal information about it. (p. 40)

So that for OOO a notion of scales, indirect access, and anti-literalism are earmarks of philosophical stance. As part of this stance Harman relates three  notions he uses to defend his position from certain other forms of philosophical speculation: Undermining, Overmining, and Duomining. As Harman emphasized in his work on Dante the underminer is a thinker who eliminates objects by telling us what they are made of; the overminer gets rid of them by telling us how they appear or what they do; the duominer does both at once.

What all three of these miners miss is the real object that remains what it is despite all of the intellectual methods that aim at abolishing it. It is my contention that this anti-mining current in philosophy goes back not just to the substantial forms of the Middle Ages, but as far back as the Socratic disclaimer that only a god can have knowledge, and that human aspiration should aim instead at a love of the real.4

Another objection to Harman’s use of Objects came from the materialist realist Manuel Delanda who did not understand why Harman ‘wants to stick to objects’ while ignoring events. Harman for his part saw no conflict seeing an event as just one more object among many, saying that the only criterion for OOO is that “an object is more than its pieces and less than its effects” (p. 53).

If one has read Harman’s previous works we discover that in his first book Tool-Being the central thesis was that objects exist in utter isolation from all others, packed into secluded private vacuums. But that this was only half the story, and that in his second work Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things he would show how utterly isolated or withdrawn objects ever make contact with others, or how relations and events are possible despite the existence of vacuum-sealed objects or tool-beings. To do this he introduced the notion of vicarious causation derived from a combination of the Occasionalism philosophy of Nicolas Malebranche and his Arab pre-cursors on through Leibniz and others. As he related it there any “philosophy that makes an absolute distinction between substances and relations will inevitably become a theory of vicarious causation, since there will be no way for the substances to interact directly with one another”.4

Without going into the details of Real Objects vs. Sensual Objects etc. the notion of vicarious causation has a simplicity to it that one could mistake and overlook:

according to this theory, two real objects in the world make contact not through direct impact, but only by way of the fictional images they present to each other. One real rock strikes the sensual version of another, in such a way that there are retroactive effects on the real. This is what OOO calls vicarious causation. (p. 165)

This notion that two rocks come into contact with each other by indirectly presenting ‘fictional images’ to one another may sound absurd and trite to the average layman but the key is in this notion of retroactive effects on the real. If anything Harman is a philosopher of the real rather than knowledge. Following Socrates example Harman disputes that philosophy every gains knowledge, instead it is a pursuit of the love of wisdom rather than its attainment that matters to Harman as to Socrates. Knowledge for Harman will always be incomplete as is our universe, because there is no One, no external stable object that can literally every be put into some linguistic or mathematical formula. Why? Because the universe is processual and incomplete, an ongoing object and force whose relations are not all connected but in movement and withdrawn into subterranean processes that can never be lifted into a completed totality.  There being no totality, no ground, no Outside.

Against the religious occasionalism of the line streaming from Malebranche through the idealists Harman will discover in Bruno Latour a new twist in presenting a secular occasionalism in which real and sensual objects interact – or in the case of mind/body dualism etc. – through a vanishing mediator. This process of composition and decomposition between objects takes place in a new object formed for the duration of the interaction between the two objects. It’s this temporary vicarious relation or “compositional sense of causation is the primary one, since it holds that any relation between separate things produces a new composite object” (p. 168).

I don’t have time to go over every aspect of Harman’s book in this post, and would ruin the reader’s experience of delving into it whether one agrees or disagrees. The book is more of a summary and redefining of Harman’s previous work. As he will relate it himself:

As is always the case in an ancient discipline like philosophy, not all of the ideas of OOO are new, though they are deployed in new combinations and applied to subjects philosophers have often neglected. Some of the basic principles of OOO, to be visited in detail in the coming chapters, are as follows: (1) All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real or fictional. (2) Objects are not identical with their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this very tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world. (3) Objects come in just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects cannot relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in just two kinds: again, real and sensual. (6) These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence and eidos. (7) Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science. (p. 9)

For me philosophers mis-read or mis-prision each other to present new and innovative readings of  past philosophy and form new concepts, ideas, and in Harman’s case tropes and metaphors. There is no correct philosophy or correct reading of philosophy only more interesting interpolations and the emergence of new forms, the pursuit of wisdom being endless and the purveyors of such thought endlessly challenging themselves and others to think about life and experience. It’s all in the stance a philosopher takes up within the history of this ongoing debate about the real that is most interesting in each and every thinker, philosopher, scientist, literary worker etc. that concerns me. It will never end, and the debates between literalist and anti-literalist stances will probably go on forever unless the Law or Police of culture step in and outlaw it. Till then we have as many philosophies as we do humans to take up the task. Harman’s is always of interest for its clarity, precision, and acumen. He knows his history, he knows his enemies, and he has that humor and magnanimity that one needs to survive the onslaught of attacks in such an age of dispute as ours.


  1. Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (p. 21). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. ibid., p. 39.
  3. Harman, Graham. Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (p. 277). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  4. Harman, Graham. Dante’s Broken Hammer (Kindle Locations 2269-2273). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.
  5. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 2). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

 

The Impossible Subject: Semantic Apocalypse and the Naturalist

The subject is the frame/ form/ horizon of his world and part of the framed content (of the reality it observes), and the problem is that it cannot see or locate itself within its own frame: since all there is is already within the frame, the frame as such is invisible.

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

Sometimes a truth is so simple that it goes without saying, and yet we say it as if we could actually bring together the virtual backdrop or stage machinery and the mind-consciousness aware only of the staged scene of the actual appearances before us. Much like those parodied cityscapes of Disney where the buildings are fake plasterboard art ensembles presented as the real thing. We will accept fake over real, illusion over actual, representation over substance every time. Street and stage magicians have known this for a long while: humans are easily duped. This separation of consciousness from its impossible other side is like the proverbial mobius strip upon which one traces the universe only to arrive back at the still point from which one started without knowing it. We all run this circuit of neglect (R. Scott Bakker) in which we’re trapped trying to apprehend the kernel of consciousness (Subject/Self/Awareness), thinking we can actually explain it as if it were an external object with a myriad of properties, when in fact it is – as Zizek would put it, the very frame/form/horizon and part of the framed content it would explain through observation. An impossible situation wouldn’t you say? Consciousness will never be explained because we will forever be blind to the frame within which we are all trapped. We will forever explain only our own ignorance of the impossible object. Why? Because we can never get out of the frame and see it from some Archimedean point of external advantage. So why continue to explore this impossible object?

In many ways what we as humans are experiencing in this age of social psychosis is what my friend R. Scott Bakker has harped on for years: the Semantic Apocalypse; or, as Zizek would put it the death of the Big Other. The horizon of human knowledge has returned to its beginning in absolute ignorance and failure. As Bakker puts it: “We presently have no consensus-commanding, natural account of thought and experience—in fact, we can’t even agree on how best to formulate semantic and phenomenal explananda.” What Nietzsche spoke of a hundred years ago as nihilism is and the death of God is the wiping of the slate of knowing in the bath of this ignorance. Awakening to our failure is the first step in realizing that all our human learning is itself broken much like the fabled king Humpty-Dumpty whose fall into a thousand fragments could never be put back into place… ever.

The question is: What do we do now? If we are caught in the circle of our own ignorance and error, blind to the very truth of our world and ourselves, how to proceed? What next? For Scott it is simple humanity lacks “any workable, thoroughly naturalistic, theory of meaning or experience”. So is this what we need a naturalistic theory of meaning or experience? Wouldn’t this be to fall into another loop of error? The term “naturalistic” is the key here. A trope covering over the whole gamut of scientific prejudice (harking back to Enlightenment pretensions!) that the world can be understood in terms of science. And as we know this term of science or Scientia as the etymologists will tell us:

mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens (genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, split” (source also of Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old English sceadan “to divide, separate”).

From late 14c. in English as “book-learning,” also “a particular branch of knowledge or of learning;” also “skillfulness, cleverness; craftiness.” From c. 1400 as “experiential knowledge;” also “a skill, handicraft; a trade.” From late 14c. as “collective human knowledge” (especially that gained by systematic observation, experiment, and reasoning). Modern (restricted) sense of “body of regular or methodical observations or propositions concerning a particular subject or speculation” is attested from 1725; in 17c.-18c. this concept commonly was called philosophy. Sense of “non-arts studies” is attested from 1670s.

So that it returns us to the collective enterprise of human learning and knowledge. And relies on certain metaphysical presuppositions and concepts that go without saying. This notion of to know, to cut, rend, cleave, divide, and separate out through skill, handicraft, theory, observation all contribute to this naturalist perspective. And, yet, it too is still within the horizon of human ignorance and belief for all Scott’s hearty promotion of his Blind Brain Theory. Just another fiction of the human mind seeking to stabilize and render the Real real. 

Of course my observations of Bakker’s notions are a caricature of his own well-thought out theory of meaning and experience and we hope that someday he will actually put it into book form for us to peruse. At the moment all we have is Three Pound Brain and the myriad of critical forays into such a work. What we are really saying is that we all fall into that error that we have the truth, as if truth was Truth in the big sense of some objective thing we could all come together and agree to agree upon, a consensus (as in the very sense of what scientists do all the time). But all this is a sort of working set of mind-tools, agreements, and – shall we say it, lies that help us get on with what we are all doing in our silos of ignorance and bliss. This is not to dispute or be in disagreement with this process, because as we all know it works, it produces not only theoretical and practical knowledge that in actuality gets the job done, but as in all things it allows us to share it in a communal silo of knowledge that others can immerse themselves in and produce further observations and knowledge. This is just the state of ignorance working with an impossible object: the universe of nature and mind.

What the Semantic Apocalypse truly entails is the collapse of a two-thousand year project of humanism. The pretensions that all our accumulated knowledge would produce some stable and unified worldview from which we could then create a utopian society based on science and knowledge as stable and unchanging. In humanism humans became the be-all end-all of this project, gods in their own right sitting atop the palace of creation as masters and rulers of the universe etc., as if we were the pinnacle of creation rather than just another creature born in ignorance and error. Humanism made humans exceptional. This exceptionalism in life, ethics, religion, thought put humans at the center of a grand narrative in which everything in the universe revolved around humanities project. All our politics, ethics, and practical systems could then align themselves to this Theory-of-everything, etc. The Truth would have been explained once and for all. It’s this dream that is falling apart because the object it sought to explain: mind and universe are not complete objective things we could place into our systems of knowledge, but rather are impossible objects that are both incomplete (processual and changing) and unstable, without ground or objective correlates. The objects we sought to explain were always and already lost, escaping our pretensions of science and humanistic learning.

This is not to belittle the humanism of our forefathers, nor to castigate the dream of philosophy. Rather what we have to admit is that we are still locked in this dream without a way out, there being no point beyond the horizon of our own ignorance and learning, no advantageous spot outside the system. Because the mind and universe encompass and form the frame/form/horizon of all we are and know, our ignorance is our knowledge. What to do? What we have always done: move the furniture around, discover new ways to talk/speak the old problems and discover variants on the ignorance and errors of our ancestors. Much like Herman Hesse’s excellent anti-Utopian book on the utopian society of the Glass Bead Game.

Of course such a society of scholars, scientists, philosophers, specialists, historians, literary writers, etc. is all hypothetical. All living in harmony seeking universal knowledge, playing their symbolic game within a utopian world separated from the common run-of-the-mill life of the ordinary citizens who live in misery and decay while these men and women of the elite, the crème-de-la-crème live out their lives in a secular existence based on those religious monastic systems of yesteryear. All this is a parody of past hopes and dreams. Hesse’s is as much about the semantic apocalypse as any other great tale, all rendered as if he were in fact promoting it rather than critiquing its fantasy. Hesse was shrewd in this regard and had in letters to Thomas Mann who praised this work iterated as much that is was a pure parody of such pretentious ideology in both Christian and Secular humanistic goals and systems which he’d studied for most of his adult life and abandoned.

Zizek in his rehabilitation of Hegel not as absolute idealist but rather as dialectical materialist (or rather how Zizek misprisions Hegel into a new more interesting distortion) reminds us:

The underlying problem here is the impossibility of the subject’s objectivizing himself: the subject is singular and the universal frame of “his world,” for every content he perceives is “his own”; so how can the subject include himself (count himself) in the series of his objects? The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].”1

We’ve all gone mad now. Is there a way out?

Maybe the truth is that madness is always a possibility, a pre-supposition of the human rather to be overcome continually. Or, as Zizek quoting Hegel suggests:

Although not a factual necessity, madness is a formal possibility constitutive of human mind: it is something whose threat has to be overcome if we are to emerge as “normal” subjects, which means that “normality” can only arise as the overcoming of this threat. This is why, as Hegel puts it a couple of pages later, “insanity must be discussed before the healthy, intellectual consciousness, although it has that consciousness for its presupposition.” (ibid.)

To put it is Bakker’s terms we only ever have our blindness – our ignorance and medial neglect to work with, we are immersed in it, it is the field of force within which we are trapped. Zizek’s big Other… the realm of collective and shared knowledge, learning, symbolic power and domination we have so willingly objectified in the sciences, culture, politics, etc. We’ve all agreed to pretend to pretend this realm is universal and not to be impugned: it has become invisible to us as fiction, and has taken on the contours of Truth and Habit. So that in Scott’s terms any future theory of meaning will be presented in naturalistic terms because this is the invisible frame of our current worldview.

In conclusion I quote or mis-quote Zizek rendering the definition of a madman “as a subject unable to participate in this logic of “sincere lies””. Maybe this is our truth today, that we are all at heart part and partial of the private and social madness of our psychotic age, unable to participate in the logic of sincere lies and get on with the business of living together on a planet within which we are all ignorant, blind, and immersed in our own fallible truths. Or, as Hegel would put it in a grandiloquent passage:

The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity— an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him— or which are not present. This night, the interior of nature, that exists here— pure self— in phantasmagorical representations, is night all around it, in which here shoots a bloody head— there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears. One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye— into a night that becomes awful.2

 


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8052-8059). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  2. G. W. F. Hegel, “Jenaer Realphilosophie,” in Frühe politische Systeme, Frankfurt: Ullstein 1974, p. 204; translation quoted from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection, Albany: SUNY Press 1985, pp. 7– 8.

Slumps

Every writer – or thinker for that matter, goes through cycles and peaks, slumps and empty zones. Not so much the slough of despond as it is the deep vale of lying fallow, of letting the seeds of so many years lay untended in the deep earth of the mind to work out their renewal without the aid of consciousness. I’ve been in one of those sloughs for months, knowing that I could write daily but it would be of little import. One needs to tend these periods of blankness attentively. It’s usually a prelude to a rising tempest of creativity to come. One cannot push out of such times to quickly, but must instead allow for that deep pressure of the mind to work its power in silence and strength. I will return, it will return: this power of the mind that pressures us to create, to think, to explore.

To The Generosity of Humans

Over the past few years with the onset of retirement and financial difficulties its been tough to keep my head above waters. The internet and my connection to it are a luxury, yet one that I can ill afford to let go: it being my only source of access to the shared world of human thought and mind in our ongoing age of perplexity. But that’s not the point of this post: the point is that there are humans out there who – even though anonymous, reach down into their pocket books and help others (such as myself!). There are two such people that have over the past few years supported this site and its maker with the generosity of donations. It would be nice to know who they are, to realize that in the generosity of their kind spirits they have felt the need to give. I cannot ever repay such kindness or generosity, but the acknowledgement of their support and my gratitude to their gifts is truly appreciated. What else can one say to such generosity?

Thank you!

To say more would be to say to much or too little.

Blindness: The Logic of Lack and Neglect

The greatest power of our mind is not to see more, but to see less in a correct way, to reduce reality to its notional determinations— only such “blindness” generates the insight into what things really are.

Slavoj Zizek

We all live in illusory worlds of shared beliefs and fantasy. If we did not we would never have a world at all, at least a human world. It’s our blindness to reality that allows us to get on with our lives. Our mind filters out what we do not need to be humans in a human world of work and play, survival and propagation. Over thousands of years humans slowly abstracted or subtracted themselves from the natural order, and then through philosophical speculation they discovered that as a fact. The whole of philosophy from Plato to the present could be said to be the this coming to the impossibility of attaining knowledge at all.

Most of the time we misperceive rather than perceive things, misread rather than read, misprision rather than see things correctly — we color the world in our mind’s faulty neglect and call that understanding. Yet, as Fredric Jameson once surmised Understanding (Verstand) is a kind of spontaneous ideology of our daily lives, of our immediate experience of reality. We filter out most of what we don’t understand and live in this circle of blindness and call it our world. The only world we will ever feel safe and secure in. When the walls to this blind cage begin to crack and fall apart we go apocalyptic and fear that like chicken little the sky is falling and we are doomed. When in fact it’s in the very cracks and fissures in our safe world that the Real breaks through, the Outside flows in.

The Mind does this act of filtering out of the world for a simple reason: too much data blurs our vision and would make it impossible to see at all. So we as humans have evolved mechanisms to escape the sensory overload of the Real through subtraction and abstraction, of tearing out of the world’s sensory overload only that which will enable us to act in the world. Of course thousands of pages of the philosophers has been put to print to elaborate this into conceptual bric-a-brac of refined concepts over the past two thousand years. Yet, in the past couple hundred years this best kept secret was released upon the common everyday reader and journalist: the notion of this illusory world we have all shared for so long. When Zizek, after Lacan, uses the term big Other to describe the shared world of illusion and cultural/ideological systems that have bound us together in our mutual ignorance and belief that our world is grounded on truth, etc.; that the big Other is the one who is “supposed to know”, and that we accept blindly and without thought the basic value systems of our time laboring under the assumption that someone has the answer: we are just morons hoping against hope that someone – some grand strategist behind the scenes knows the truth. 

Nihilism came upon the scene in western civilization when the world of shared understanding had exhausted itself. The illusions that had supported the religious and political vision of two thousand years was put into abeyance, and for the first time during the Enlightenment age men began to retroactively posit an end to the social world that had kept European civilization bound in a nexus of shared systems of belief and practice.

Most of the past couple hundred years of this state of affairs refined itself down to an embittered debate between philosophy and the sciences. On the one side philosophy turned toward either language or consciousness (intuition), while the sciences by way of physics slowly broke the hold of objectivism – or, that there is an objective world independent of mind’s filters and blindness. Oh, there’s been many debates over if we will ever get out of this circle of mind-object correlationalism, etc., which for many has become passé. Even now certain philosophers have embarked on another fantasy of the inhuman or non-human turn – trying to overcome the limitations of this debate and either return to pre-critical forms of thought and nature beliefs, etc. or to certain forms of realism through a turn to metaphor and rhetoric rather than conceptuality (Harman). It’s like the cat chasing its tail, the circle cannot be escaped; but, then again, the circle is not the problem. The problem and solution are false to begin with. Such philosophers miss the point.

As my friend R. Scott Bakker in a recent not suggests: “Science is blind without theory, so absent any eliminativist account of intentional phenomena, it has no clear way to proceed with their investigation. So it hews to exceptional posits, trusting in their local efficacy, and assuming they will be demystified by discoveries to come.” ( see: Framing “On Alien Philosophy”). This blindness of philosophers and scientists is not a negative, but rather the as Zizek’s been harping on for quite a while now: this inability to describe consciousness or the world is not an inadequacy on our part, but rather a sign that the something is incomplete. The thing we would describe is not an object – neither objective or subjective – it is a process that always is in excess of our mind’s to grasp either with language or instrument. Our positings are always notional and heuristic – there is not Archimedean vantage point outside language, mind, or the world from which we could ground our knowledge. The world that we could describe escapes our tools and linguistic tricks, not because it isn’t there but because it isn’t some passive stable objective thing we could grasp or fold into our thought or practice. Like the fabled Proteus it is forever changing and formless. We alone impose our artificial and abstract thought upon this amorphous world, cut and subtract and tear from it figures of insight that we can shape in that age old give and take of understanding and reason.

Scott argues that “On Alien Philosophy” challenges both scientist and philosopher

Thus the challenge posed by Alien Philosophy. By giving real, abductive teeth to (5), my account overturns the argumentative terrain between eliminativism and intentionalism by transforming the explanatory stakes. It shows us how stupidity, understood ecologically, provides everything we need to understand our otherwise baffling intuitions regarding intentional phenomena. “On Alien Philosophy” challenges the Intentionalist to explain more with less (the very thing, of course, he or she cannot do).

But we have always been stupid in this regard, we have always  explained “more with less” because as he’s pointed out ad infinitum we lean by neglect. We can do no other, the mind in the very process of producing conscious agents subtracted out of this world of infinite data a hole. The point is not to explain consciousness — there is nothing to explain because there is nothing there, nothing at all. Consciousness isn’t a thing, object, substance — it’s not something you can trap by language – metaphor or concept; rather, this very pursuit is false, seeking to answer a problem that was a red herring to begin with. If consciousness is empty, a cut – a process of abstracting, tearing, and breaking the symmetry in an otherwise universe of blind process then wouldn’t the better question be to ask: What was the need in a universe of blind forces and processual interactions for consciousness to begin with? How did consciousness arise? And in just this form?

If we cannot get out of this box of ignorance and stupidity, this realm of neglect by which the brain interacts and filters out more than reveals  through the body membrane in its sensual forays against the stubborn resistance of the Real, then maybe we should turn from explaining consciousness to explaining this gap / lack that produced it to begin with. Spinoza took thought down this path but left it there in a realm of pure material process without outlet. Kant looking into the terror of this blind horror revolted and sought in his inward turn the still waters of the transcendent Subject to anchor and ground the world. Between Spinoza and Kant the latter day philosophers have warred to imbecility.

Yet, I wonder if my friend Scott isn’t falling into the same trap when he says:

Now I think I’ve solved the problem, that I have a way to genuinely naturalize meaning and cognition. The science will sort my pretensions in due course, but in the meantime, the heuristic neglect account of intentionality, given its combination of mediocrity and explanatory power, has to be regarded as a serious contender.

This notion of naturalizing meaning and cognition is itself to reduce the problem into a mere exercise in the Spinozian optimism as if naturalizing and reducing this problem to a set of axioms could deliver the goods. Scott’s notion of heuristic neglect:

The aim of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) is to rough out the ‘logic of neglect’ that underwrites ‘error consciousness,’ the consciousness we think we have. It proceeds on the noncontroversial presumption that consciousness is the product of some subsystem of the brain, and that, as such, it operates within a variety of informatic constraints. It advances the hypothesis that the various perplexities that bedevil our attempts to explain consciousness are largely artifacts of these informatic constraints. From the standpoint of BBT, what we call the Hard Problem conflates two quite distinct difficulties: 1) the ‘generation problem,’ the question of how a certain conspiracy of meat can conjure whatever consciousness is; and 2) the ‘explanandum problem,’ the question of what any answer to the first problem needs to explain to count as an adequate explanation. Its primary insight turns on the role lack plays in structuring conscious experience. It argues that philosophy of mind needs to keep its dire informatic straits clear: once you understand that we make similar informatic frame-of-reference (IFR) errors regarding consciousness as we are prone to make in the world, you acknowledge that we might be radically mistaken about what consciousness is. (see: Logic of Neglect)

What’s brilliant in the above is the acknowledgement of the “role lack [my italics] plays in structuring conscious experience”. What Scott does not go on to do which would radicalize his insight further is in positing this lack not just in the structuring of consciousness, but in the physical realms as well. Both epistemologically and ontologically the world of both consciousness and a reality is structured by the logic of lack. The logic of neglect is not just in the Mind but in the world, the incompleteness of consciousness and the universe acknowledged in the concept of lack (gap, crack, hole, etc.) provides us with the key to consciousness. We’ve known for a while that we fill in the blanks, the holes in knowledge with guesses, fictions, leaps of intuitive insight, etc. What if the world does too? The notion of heuristic neglect – of working in the dark, mapping a terrain unknowable even resistant to our thought provides us the basis of a materialist explanation. The place to look is in the very break points – fissures, holes, gaps of consciousness and world; seeking in these resistances to our thought and instruments the very kernel and key to the dilemma. Because we have our eye on consciousness or the universe, we are blind to other problems which would be better served in exploring. Rather than trying to explain consciousness or reduce it or the universe to an adequate explanation or naturalized meaning one begins to refocus on the logic of lack itself. 

 

 

 

Zizek Quote

…the true trauma lies not in our mortality, but in our immortality: it is easy to accept that we are just a speck of dust in the infinite universe; what is much more difficult to accept is that we effectively are immortal free beings who, as such, cannot escape the terrible responsibility of our freedom.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Zizek Quote of the Day

Capitalism and communism are not two different historical realizations, two species, of “instrumental reason”— instrumental reason as such is capitalist, grounded in capitalist relations, and “really existing socialism” failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to “have one’s cake and eat it,” to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient. Marx’s notion of the communist society is itself the inherent capitalist fantasy; that is, a fantasmatic scenario for resolving the capitalist antagonisms he so aptly described.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Pacing Myself

I must admit that of late my return to blogging has actually been to rethink what it is I’m doing, and the regeneration of a goal to retroactively encompass not some grand narrative of my former selves or even the modes of being through which these momentary figures in the wind have dissolved, but rather to repeat the gesture of awakening that emerges for each of us in finding ourselves in the midst of an impossible universe and realizing for the first time the wonder of being alive and thinking it.

Rereading Zizek’s work has led me to reevaluate certain aspects of my own thought and to understand the mechanism of change and emergence of thought in my own life. Knowing I change continuously and that there is no stable or identifiable Subject or Self, but rather a process of continuous dialectical reactivation of certain problems that force me to act in thought, to neither secure some ultimate meaning nor even edge my way into some ultimate answer; rather to realize in the multiplicity I am the process of change that continuously works its way through this state of awareness. Against this process is not some pre-Adamic Self or Essence that existed to be discovered, found, or reawakened… there being no transcendental realm of Being beyond the very material registers of this life of process. Instead attuning my self to this retroactive process of reappropriation in thought of the very process of failure to become at all.

Zizek puts it this way in his philosophical bric-a-brac, saying,

In a subjective process, there is no “absolute subject,” no permanent central agent playing with itself the game of alienation and disalienation, losing or dispersing itself and then re-appropriating its alienated content: after a substantial totality is dispersed, it is another agent— previously its subordinated moment— which re-totalizes it. It is this shifting of the center of the process from one moment to another which distinguishes a dialectical process from the circular movement of alienation and its overcoming; it is because of this shift that the “return to itself” coincides with accomplished alienation (when a subject re-totalizes the process, its substantial unity is fully lost). In this precise sense, substance returns to itself as subject, and this trans-substantiation is what substantial life cannot accomplish.1

The point here is that the process is all, there being no static or momentary stillness of the turning world around which the self-as-Self-Subject suddenly finds rest in substantialized Being. Against all this is the Void or Gap that can never be filled, which unceasingly forces us to incessantly repeat the process till death. But then again maybe the process is after all what Freud found it to be: the pure repetition of the death-drive. As Zizek will problematize: “To put it bluntly: if Substance is Life, is the Subject not Death? Insofar as, for Hegel, the basic feature of pre-subjective Life is the “spurious infinity” of the eternal reproduction of the life substance through the incessant movement of the generation and corruption of its elements— that is, the “spurious infinity” of a repetition without progress— the ultimate irony we encounter here is that Freud, who called this excess of death over life the “death drive,” conceived it precisely as repetition, as a compulsion to repeat. Can Hegel think this weird repetition which is not progress, but also not the natural repetition through which substantial life reproduces itself? A repetition which, by its excessive insistence, breaks precisely with the cycle of natural repetition?” And as I’ve quoted before many times, and Wallace Stevens says better, in the end there is only the anxiety ridden never resting activity of the Mind:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

—Wallace Stevens 1942


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 5477-5482). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Quentin Meillassoux

Quentin Meillassoux has outlined the contours of a post-metaphysical materialist ontology whose basic premise is the Cantorian multiplicity of infinities which cannot be totalized into an all-encompassing One. He relies here on Badiou, who also pointed out how Cantor’s great materialist breakthrough concerns the status of infinite numbers (and it was precisely because this breakthrough was materialist that it caused so much psychic trauma for Cantor, a devout Catholic): prior to Cantor, the Infinite was linked to the One, the conceptual form of God in religion and metaphysics; after Cantor, the Infinite enters the domain of the Multiple— it implies the actual existence of infinite multiplicities, as well as an infinite number of different infinities.

Zizek’s comments on the above  goes as follows:

Does, then, the choice between materialism and idealism concern the most basic scheme of the relationship between multiplicity and the One in the order of the signifier? Is the primordial fact that of the multiplicity of signifiers, which is then totalized through the subtraction of the One; or is the primordial fact that of the “barred One”— more precisely, that of the tension between the One and its empty place, of the “primordial repression” of the binary signifier, so that multiplicity emerges to fill in this emptiness, the lack of the binary signifier? Although it may appear that the first version is materialist and the second idealist, one should resist this easy temptation: from a truly materialist position, multiplicity is only possible against the background of the Void— it is only this which makes the multiplicity non-All. The (Deleuzian) “genesis” of the One out of primordial multiplicity, this prototype of “materialist” explanation of how the totalizing One arises, should therefore be rejected: no wonder that Deleuze is simultaneously the philosopher of the (vitalist) One.

With regard to its most elementary formal configuration, the couple of idealism and materialism can also be rendered as the opposition between primordial lack and the self-inverted curvature of being: while, for “idealism,” lack (a hole or gap in the order of being) is the unsurpassable fact (which can then either be accepted as such, or filled in with some imagined positive content), for “materialism,” lack is ultimately the result of a curvature of being, a “perspectival illusion,” a form of appearance of the torsion of being. Instead of reducing one to the other (instead of conceiving the curvature of being as an attempt to obfuscate the primordial lack, or the lack itself as a mis-apprehension of the curvature), one should insist on the irreducible parallax gap between the two. In psychoanalytical terms, this is the gap between desire and drive, and here also, one should resist the temptation to give priority to one term and reduce the other to its structural effect. That is to say, one can conceive the rotary motion of the drive as a way to avoid the deadlock of desire: the primordial lack/ impossibility, the fact that the object of desire is always missed, is converted into a profit when the aim of libido is no longer to reach its object, but to repeatedly turn around it— satisfaction is generated by the very repeated failure of direct satisfaction. And one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp. In philosophical terms, this couple echoes (not the couple of Spinoza and Hegel, but) the couple of Spinoza and Kant: the Spinozan drive (not grounded in a lack) versus Kantian desire (to reach the noumenal Thing).

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

 

Quote of the Day!

The main feature of historical thought proper is not “mobilism” (the motif of the fluidification or historical relativization of all forms of life), but the full endorsement of a certain impossibility: after a true historical break, one simply cannot return to the past, or go on as if nothing happened— even if one does, the same practice will have acquired a radically changed meaning.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Fichte and the Making of the Modern Self

So perhaps, before dismissing his philosophy as the climactic point of subjectivist madness, we should give Fichte a chance. To properly understand his passage to full idealism it is necessary to bear in mind how he radicalizes the primacy of practical reason, which had already been asserted by Kant.

Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

In many ways the dark horse within Zizek’s philosophical ‘night of the world’ is Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a German philosopher whose works rivaled Kant’s in obscurity and complexity. Schopenhauer would remark that Fichte “gave sophisms and even crazy sham demonstrations whose absurdity was concealed under the mask of profundity and of the incomprehensibility ostensibly arising therefrom. Moreover, he appealed boldly and openly to intellectual intuition, that is, really to inspiration”.1

Fichte’s confrontation with Kant would set his life’s task. We know that primary task of Fichte’s system of philosophy (the Wissenschaftslehre) is to reconcile freedom with necessity, or, more specifically, to explain how freely willing, morally responsible agents can at the same time be considered part of a world of causally conditioned material objects in space and time. Fichte’s strategy for answering this question—at least in his early writings, which are the ones upon which his historical reputation as a philosopher has (at least until recently) been grounded —was to begin simply with the ungrounded assertion of the subjective spontaneity and freedom (infinity) of the I and then to proceed to a transcendental derivation of objective necessity and limitation (finitude) as a condition necessary for the possibility of the former.2

Zizek devotes a great deal of time in his opus Less Than Nothing to a full (mis)reading of Fichte’s work telling us that what “Fichte failed to see was that, in the subject-object relationship, the subject is a negative entity, a pure self-relating negativity— which is why, in order not to “implode into itself,” it needs a minimum of objectal support. That is to say, although Fichte repeatedly emphasizes how the subject is not a thing but a self-relating process, a Tat-Handlung, he conceives of the subject in an all-too-positive way when he claims that the absolute I (subject) is all reality— the subject is, on the contrary, a hole in reality.” It’s out of Fichte that Zizek’s notions of the Subject as gap, crack, and the “something that is less than nothing” emerges. Fichte would develop the concept Anstoss, which has two primary meanings in German ( check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. (*see note below)

So that Zizek’s notion of the Subject as lack – or a negation of negation arises out of this confrontation of the self-recognition scene of the Self’s inability to re-present itself as substantial. Instead it is caught in a circle of it’s own self-relating negativity until it confronts a resistance both within and without that is not itself and discovers in itself the very truth of finitude. It is at this point Zizek will ask:

So why can the subject not simply be limited by the object? Not because the subject is absolute in the naïve sense of being the all-encompassing reality, but precisely because it is finite, caught in its self-relating loop and therefore unable to step out of itself and draw a line of delimitation between subjective and objective: every limit the subject draws is already “subjective.” (Zizek, KL 4179-4181)

We are already always bound within a circle of neglect, our knowledge already tied to the circle of our ignorance, never escaping the finite horizon of our own false infinity of consciousness. And, yet, something not us resists us from within and without, something that we come to know only as we delimit or posit a limit or cut or gap between us and this unknowable X. Or, as Zizek in my note below states it: “Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a [Lacan], to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.

Because we cannot find a third point outside ourselves from which to represent ourselves to ourselves, nor even represent the world in its objectivity that Fichte would rely on imagination rather than intellect as the only other option. As Zizek relates it we “can now see why representation needs to be supplemented by imagination proper: since the field of representations remains within the loop of the subject’s self-relating, it is by definition always inconsistent, full of lacunae, which the subject must somehow fill in to create a minimally consistent Whole of a world— and the function of imagination is precisely to fill in these gaps.” (Zizek, KL 4187) The admission here is that we rely on fictions rather than any actual factual knowledge of the world. Most of us get up each morning believing the world to be our common sense world of social activities never realizing that our shared vision of the world is an active dreamscape of illusion and self-deceptions based on just this kind of supplemented reality show of “filling in the gaps” of a world full of holes.

Yet, it is just here in this fantasy land of subjectivism that Fichte tries to escape out of the circle. As Zizek asks: “how does the relationship between subject and object become one of real opposition, that is, how does the external world become a real opposing force to the I? According to Fichte, this happens only when our mind adopts a practical stance towards the world.” (Zizek, KL 4237) A practical philosophy rather than theoretical:

In the theoretical-observational stance, it is easy to conceive of reality as a mere dream that unfolds in front of our eyes— but reality “hurts” and resists us once we start intervening in it and trying to change it. Here enters, of course, Fichte’s infamous “spurious infinity”: the practical Self can never totally overcome the resistance of the not-I, so “the self’s original practical constitution is a striving (Streben)”— ultimately the endless ethical striving to create a reality that would fully conform to the moral ideal. (Zizek, KL 4238)

Fichte’s notion of striving would be the first time the concept of drive (Trieb) was introduced in the sense that Freud would later incorporate it, and Lacan would only appropriate in Seminar XI as the Freudian drive as an uncanny “undead” partial object. (Zizek, KL 4253) This very striving of the Subject-as-self in self-referential acquaintance was for Kant and his opponent Jacobi the very core of madness, and yet for Fichte the truth of this self-reflexive power of the self in it’s own acquaintance did not lead to madness but evasion:

There is thus no “objective” approach to self-consciousness (I): if we look at it from the outside, it disappears, dissolving into an objective psycho-physical process: The faculty of representation exists for the faculty of representation and through the faculty of representation: this is the circle within which every finite understanding, that is, every understanding that we can conceive, is necessarily confined. Anyone who wants to escape from this circle does not understand himself and does not know what he wants. (Zizek, KL 4290)

Every approach to understanding of consciousness (hard problem) in the sciences (neurosciences) ends in this reduction to deterministic physical processes (a Spinozan materialism). The point being we cannot get outside the loop of our own neglect and ignorance. For Fichte this was no problem in fact it was the solution, we are nothing but this self-positing self-relating nothingness as process:

it is not just that the mind (I) relates to itself— the mind (I) is nothing but this process of self-relating. Therein lies the circle or loop Fichte talks about: the relating itself not only creates what it relates to, it also is what it relates to. (Zizek, KL 4308)

But this was just a first step for Fichte: “he discovered that the most elementary structure of self-consciousness— the I’s self-positing— is more complex than it initially appears, and displays a precise structure. Fichte’s starting point is that the Self is not a product of some pre-subjective activity that generates it— the Self comes immediately with the activity.” (Zizek, KL 4313) The point here is that this striving, this drive and the self-reflecting process arise together and are never separated or escape the circle of this process since both form an activity in unison. Already in 1795, Fichte employed the metaphor of the eye (das Auge): the Self is an activity into which an eye is inserted, an activity which sees itself and is only through seeing itself. His next step is to admit that “we cannot account for the duality of the activity and the eye in terms of one of them alone”: “Neither the eye nor the activity can provide this account. In this moment, the idea of a ground of the structure becomes indispensable.” (ibid.)

This is where it becomes tricky for Fichte and his project, for in the end he would fall into theology because of it: the notion of ground, how to posit the self as self-positing without some supporting objective Ground? I want go into all the commentary in Zizek’s rendition other than these notes from his book:

The Lacanian notion of le grand Autre (the big Other, vaguely corresponding to what Hegel called “objective spirit” or the “spiritual substance” of individual lives), triumphantly resolves this problem. The big Other is a totally subjectivized substance: not a Thing-in-itself, but a Substance which exists only insofar as it is continuously sustained by the work of “all and everyone.” Reproducing Fichte’s formula of the subject’s self-positing, the big Other is the Ground-presupposition which is only as permanently “posited” by subjects. (Zizek, KL 4405)

In other words we all live in a shared world of symbolic structures that we agree on and posit in our everyday practical lives as if they were objective truth. This is the big Other of Lacan-Zizek: this vast symbolic structure which is the ground of our shared experience and reality system. When it breaks down and begins to crack at the edges we perceive it as a threat to our mental stability. Our present world is in social psychosis because the shared systems that we choose to identify between Left and Right are breaking symmetry and the big Other of our grounded vision is falling apart and will not hold. Because of it we are at war with each other, a civil war of the psyche and mind struggling in-between a world dying and one being born out of the unraveling of this Ground.

According to Zizek Fichte was unable to resolve the status of Ground because he does not have at his disposal a term which would designate an entity that is not-mental, that is asubjective, and yet at the same time is not a material “thing,” but purely ideal. This, however, is exactly what the Lacanian “big Other” is: it is definitely not-mental (Lacan repeatedly emphasizes that the status of the big Other is not psychological), it does not belong to the order of the subject’s experience; but it is also not the pre-symbolic material Real, a thing or process in reality independent of subjectivity— the status of the big Other is purely virtual, as an ideal structure of reference; that is, it exists only as the subject’s presupposition. (The big Other is thus close to what Karl Popper, in his late writings, designated as the Third World, neither objective reality nor subjective inner experience.) The Lacanian “big Other” also resolves the problem of the plurality of subjects: its role is precisely that of the Third, the very medium of the encounter between subjects. (Zizek, KL 4410)

Ultimately it’s this encounter and oppositional play of forces between subjects working within the shared symbolic field that produces our understanding of reality and ourselves. Without this conflict of forces as process in ongoing activity we would forever remain bound within an illusory world of self-positing negativity. It is only in the confrontation with what resists my own self-positing which awakens me from my dream into understanding of an other, and of myself as an othering.


*Note – “It is important to bear in mind the two primary meanings of Anstoss in German: check, obstacle, hindrance, something that resists the boundless expansion of our striving; and an impetus or stimulus, something that incites our activity. Anstoss is not simply the obstacle the absolute I posits for itself in order to stimulate its activity, so that by overcoming the obstacle it can assert its creative power (like the games the proverbial ascetic saint plays with himself, inventing increasingly perverse temptations in order to confirm his strength by successfully resisting them). If the Kantian Ding an sich corresponds to the Freudian-Lacanian Thing, Anstoss is closer to the objet petit a, to the primordial foreign body that “sticks in the throat” of the subject, to the object-cause of desire that splits it up: Fichte himself defines Anstoss as the non-assimilable foreign body that causes the subject’s division into the empty absolute subject and the finite determinate subject, limited by the non-I.” (Zizek)


  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur.  Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. I, §13
  2. Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 4132-4136). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Thought of the Day: The Limits of the Mind

At times philosophers are like magicians whose whole world of magic is bound within evasion and trickery, seeking to keep your mind occupied by the bells-and-whistles of distraction and stage props while the real work goes on elsewhere and in plain sight. The philosopher’s old enemy was the rhetorician, the Sophist, who could use the figures of intellect and speech to cover over the truth in a veil of pure illusion and make it seem by way of metaphor and rhetorical flourish the very thing itself. But the philosopher is himself caught in the trap of self-deception, believing that the very words he so uses under the scrutiny of careful persuasion and example have the power to awaken truth from its hiding places while all the time as Nietzsche reminds us: “Even great spirits have only their five-fingers’ breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”

Zizek’s Philosophy in a Nutshell

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We can thus identify three positions [in philosophy]: metaphysical, transcendental, and “speculative.” In the first, reality is simply perceived as existing out there, and the task of philosophy is to analyze its basic structure. In the second, the philosopher investigates the subjective conditions of the possibility of objective reality, its transcendental genesis. In the third, subjectivity is re-inscribed into reality, but not simply reduced to a part of objective reality. While the subjective constitution of reality— the split that separates the subject from the In-itself— is fully admitted, this very split is transposed back into reality as its kenotic self-emptying (to use the Christian theological term). Appearance is not reduced to reality; rather the very process of appearance is conceived from the standpoint of reality, so that the question is not “How, if at all, can we pass from appearance to reality?” but “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” (italics mine)

Slavoj Zizek,  Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Commentary:

For those who might have difficulty in this tri-philosophical breakdown it goes as follows: naïve-realism, idealism, dialectical materialism. Naïve realists or old school “democratic materialism” of the scientistic materialist sort defined as structuralist realism in which the mathematical structure of reality is both objective but not directly accessible. This is the age old metaphysical split between Subject-Object which has played out since Plato and his heirs and on through pre-Quantum scientific thought. Plato would separate the world into two: an eternal static realm of Ideas-Forms (although in his Parmenides he would begin to question this!), and our world – which he considered the realm of shadows and illusion (think of his Cave parable!). This two-world theory would survive in Plato’s heirs, the Neo-Platonists, and in the Catholic Church under many guises until Kant and his Idealist heirs. After Kant the two-world theory literalized in Platonic thought was internalized in the Mind-Nature divide as seen in both German and English Romantic philosophers and poets. All the debates surrounding the circle of correlationism fall into this as the thought-object pair. Idealism in its core Kantian mode seeks to understand how reality is created by the Mind, there being no objective structure or Real beyond the subjective genesis of it from the human perspective (anthropomorphism, etc.). The third mode is a dialectical reversal of the second, rather than asking how reality is shaped by the Mind, it asks: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to arise within the world to apprehend itself as itself to begin with. What Zizek has done is to reinscribe a non-human viewpoint into the mix wherein there is a before/after gap between appearance as pure appearance without consciousness and an after of appearance as appearance – knowing itself as appearance (i.e., consciousness). So that dialectical materialism unlike idealism is concerned not with the eternal circle of correlational thought of Subject/Object, but rather is concerned with the very reversal: what conditions were necessary to bring about this great gap, split, and cut the world to produce consciousness. Zizek would fold consciousness back into its origins, take up the stance of the Real. This double fold of consciousness into appearance has yet to be explained by any and all thinkers or even neuroscience. It was termed once the hard problem of consciousness. Those last two questions of Zizek are the scientific thinker coming to the fore: “How can something like appearance arise in the midst of reality? What are the conditions for reality appearing to itself?” This is the speculative mode proper. The grand tour from externalization on to internalization and then a great kenosis or emptying of Self-as-void and the Void-of-self into things begins with the latest works of Badiou and Zizek.

The point here is what were the conditions necessary to bring about consciousness – this split, cut, gap in appearance? Rather than explaining consciousness, it asks the harder question: what were the conditions necessary for consciousness to begin with?  And the conditions necessary in reality to cause this separation necessary to allow awareness of appearance as appearance? In this since one must focus not on either side of the equation, but rather on the cut, gap, split itself. Most democratic materialism and idealism focus on one side or the other of the issue: either on objective reality, or on the Mind; while dialectical materialism focuses on neither, but rather on the cut or subtraction itself. What brought about this split, gap, cut, subtraction from appearance to begin with? The conditions necessary for this break in symmetry? How did this cut in the fabric of appearance come about? Traumatic events? What sequence of events were necessary to instigate such a rupture at the core of time and space as awareness? Is it common? Uncommon? Appearance aware of itself as appearance: is it an aberration or a commonplace in the universe? What Zizek does is to focus on this process of subtraction rather than on either side of the equation of Subject or Object, rather the all important concept or notion of the Void between them is the focal point around which Zizek’s philosophy hovers. Not just a void, but a subtraction from the Void. Those resistances to the Real that make us stumble in asking such questions.

American Grunge

It is because we know better than those who went before how to recognize the nature of desire, which is at the heart of our experience, that a reconsideration of ethics is possible, that a form of ethical judgment is possible, of a kind that gives this question the force of a Last Judgment: Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?

—Jaques Lacan

Of late I was re-reading Edmund Berger’s 2015 essay Grungy “Accelerationism” (here) which recounts a short underground history of a facet of the counter-culture from the Beats (Burroughs) to the late age of slack. Informative as always Edmund relates these tidbits from a forgotten world with elan and a cynical eye toward its positive and negative effects. As he’ll tell us certain focal points were developed by the rogue intelligentsia of the era best typified by the rebels and street nihilists of Semiotext(e), an elite underground mixture of avant-garde intellectuality – drifting in the wake of Americanization of French theory and thought of the era – after Foucault and Derrida, etc. As Edmund relates it this melange of hybrid thought from low and high cultural praxis embodied

what I’m referring to as grungy accelerationism. Instead of opting for a direct confrontation with the powers of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and the state (as Marxist-Leninism or communization theory might pose, in their own different routes), what was promoted instead was the construction of alternative, aesthetically experimental, DIY networks right in the midst of the ruins.

This notion of working amidst the ruins of capital rather than within some academic and high-cultural mediatainment system seemed to have an effect on the bottom feeders of the dark street nihils of the age. For average citizens of the machine such antics went by the wayside and were lost among obsolesced realms of thought and culture. The last breath of such thought came in the way of hyperfictional works as Nick Land and associates would produce in the mid to late 90’s.

Two things would end all this sponge fest: the bubble-burst of Californian ideology in the wake of cyberculture meltdown in the fated economics of Internet start-ups, and Osama Ben Laden and crews burning of the Twin Towers. The splice and cut that would subtract worlds before and after swallowed any hope of a counter-cultural revolution in the wake of both political and economic break down and the collapse of the American Dream into Apocalyptic Nightmare.

Instead of acceleration, collapse and apathy would ensue and the forces of war, conservative, and traditional capitalist regulation of the masses, and the false worlds of hypermedia irrealism would create the Middle-East conflict and the hybrid market inflation and hyper speculation of profiteers on a scale that would eventually lead to the social and political collapse of 2007. Nothing would remain the same afterward. Instead we now live in another of those eras of authoritarian re-balancing in which acts of violence on both social and economic scales empower the powers-that-be attuning our minds to the ever-present stage mechanics of mass beliefs that would make Shakespeare laugh in pure cynical glee have come to the fore. Both the Left and Right play out their ancient ideological wars as if it meant something, all the while both sides are being pulled by the puppet strings of mediatainment experts under the cash cow eyes of the power brokers of profit.

Yet, one might say: “Hold on, what gives you the right to make such cynical judgements on our lives?” Look around, what do you see? Our supposed political and social underground has turned into a circus of cliche and less than adequate response to the state of the world’s affairs. Globe trotting gangs of philo-thought philosophers roam the stage spouting on anything and everything; and, yet, talk… always more talk and more talk that acts like a factory of stupidity producing imbeciles unable to change themselves or the world. Words and more words come from scholars, philosophers, essayists, comedians, etc., repeating the latest clown antics in Trumpsville U.S.A.. The moneyed left mediatainment networks keep our ire leveled at this puppet show while nothing is done in the real world to alleviate the real social and political issues, not to speak of other more environmental and global pressures. We seem to be in an era of Regressionism rather than Accelerationism, a time when nostalgia and dreams of a lost America loom in the minds and hearts of its citizenry. Truly Grunge has slacked its way into the abyss of stupidity rather than accelerating us into some new era of freedom.

 

 

Christ Without God: Post-Religious Atheism as Christian Materialism

It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective— the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

But this cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause.  But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

One of those subtle yet revelatory aspects of the whole tradition of Marxism is its inner spirit and alignment with a counter-gospel of redemption and salvation: that of the Proletariat of the World. All revolutionary philosophies have as the kernel of their emancipatory power the tension at the heart of Christianity. Slavoj Zizek had in as many books written a counter-thought to the accepted or Orthodoxy of Christian philosophy, theology, and revelation. In a poignant aside he tells us,

The standard reproach addressed to this project of “Christian materialism” is that it amounts to a “barred” belief: not being courageous enough to make the “leap of faith,” I retain the Christian form of religious engagement without its content. My reply is that this “emptying the form of its content” already takes place in Christianity itself, at its very core— the name of this emptying is kenosis: God dies and resurrects itself as the Holy Ghost, as the form of collective belief. It is a fetishistic mistake to search for the material support of this form (the resurrected Christ)— the Holy Ghost is the very collective of believers, what they are searching for outside of the collective is already there in the guise of the love that binds them.1

This strain within Zizek’s thought of a “Christian atheism” was challenged by his own ephebe, Adrian Johnston in a personal communique:

You and Badiou clearly, openly, and unambiguously are thoroughgoing atheists, thinkers insisting on the non-existence of any big Other, One-All, and so on. Moreover, both of you labor to reveal, in a non-reductive manner, the material basis/ genesis of “spiritual” phenomena. And, of course, you yourself vehemently insist on reading Christianity as the “religion of atheism.” But, from others’ texts I’ve read and conversations I’ve had these past few years, some people register you and Badiou as religious in the same fashion that audiences register Penn and Teller as magical: “I know full well that Badiou and Žižek are atheists, but nonetheless …”; “I know that Christianity is, as the religion of atheism, an immanent self-negation of religion, but nonetheless … (I continue to relate to it as religion, in a religious mode replete with all its established rituals, practices, etc.).” I guess one of the things I’m saying is that the tactic of employing Christianity as a tempting Trojan horse carrying within it the explosive potentials of an atheistic-materialist radical politics carries dangerous risks arising from this je sais bien, mais quand même reaction evident in those who latch onto you and Badiou as licensing, as displaying strains of phenomenology and its offshoots, a version of “post-secular” Continental philosophy. (ibid.)

Zizek’s counter to this religion without content notion goes as follows. He asks:

Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological— the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers. (ibid.)

A bold pronouncement if there ever was one from Zizek. It would take me a book to explicate the hidden threads lying within that passage. At the heart of it is the notion of the Big Other, which like my preamble from King James on the notion of the Comforter (Holy Ghost) spoken and written of in the Gospel of John we hear from Jesus himself that there is a “Spirit of truth” that will enter history (materialism) as the power at the heart of this collective project that is emancipation of world.

Christ the Man

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

—The Bible: Authorized King James Version

In the above passage Christ is hanging on the death cross totally shriven of all thought and inner sustenance, becoming as we are: fully human, alone, without God. In this moment a humanist would say that God had died to God. The moment that the true and actual meaning of “freedom” is born in the world. For freedom is this knowledge of separation, of aloneness, of self-reliance in the midst of a world without any anchors, gods, or big Other to hear, understand, know one’s darkest inner pain and feelings. To be alone and utterly emptied is to know the truth of humanity in the universe. It was this utter isolation and abandonment in a cosmos without God that Jesus Christ experienced: the truth we all face each and every day if we were honest without ourselves.

I do not know but I suspect that Zizek like me was at one time an Orthodox believer who accepted all the truth handed down by the elders of some Church and its dogmas without questioning it until something happened. I’ve often gone back over what it was that moved toward a radical atheistic view of existence. There is no one moment, or thing, or event I can point to that would explain it. Rather it was a slow accumulation of little events and memories that pushed me over the edge into the no man’s land of atheism. This is neither the place nor do I have the time to relate all this sordid history of my own dark path into freedom and solitude, only to say that it came by way of a slow awakening to this deep seeded belief that we are alone and without recourse to any external authority, power, or big Other to hear us, save us, comfort us. We are alone. And this in itself comforts me now. It gives me hope. It allows me to realize that I must act responsible out of my own nothingness, my own abandonment, my inner core as a human among other humans and creatures in a cosmos bereft of external power and authority. What I do matters because I am unique and alone in a universe that knows not of me.

As Zizek says in another passage of import,

Authentic belief is to be opposed to the reliance on (or reference to) a( nother) subject supposed to believe: in an authentic act of belief, I myself fully assume my belief and thus have no need for any figure of the Other to guarantee that belief; to paraphrase Lacan, an authentic belief ne s’authorise que de lui-même. In this precise sense, authentic belief not only does not presuppose any big Other (is not a belief in a big Other), but, on the contrary, presupposes the destitution of the big Other, the full acceptance of its inexistence. (ibid., Kindle Locations 2866-2870)

One cannot emphasize how much empowerment there is in this acceptance of God’s inexistence. This acceptance that we are free and without bond or chains to any Law or Power. To be alone with the alone, to know that one has no support, no external authority whether of God, State, or parent to hold one up, comfort one, or hear one’s cries of desperation in the lonely nights gives one the greatest comfort of all. Knowing that we must find within ourselves the sustaining courage to be, to exist in a world bereft of any big Other is to know for the first time that one is on equal footing with all other creatures in this universe. This is the only true democracy of objects, to be free and withdrawn from all so that one can then enter into relations out of that solitude and freedom. Knowing one’s shared knowledge is bound within the network of illusions and neglect that is our lot as humans. All revolutionary thought starts from this inner core of solitude and freedom.

 


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 2785-2790). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Big Other: Positing the Presuppositions

The big Other is a virtual order which exists only through subjects “believing” in it; if, however, a subject were to suspend its belief in the big Other, the subject itself, its “reality,” would disappear. The paradox is that symbolic fiction is constitutive of reality: if we take away the fiction, we lose reality itself. This loop is what Hegel called “positing the presuppositions.”

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

The Void That Moves

—“Then if we were to say, to sum up, ‘if one is not, nothing is,’ wouldn’t we speak correctly?” —“Absolutely.”

—Plato, Parmenides (Translated: Mary Louis Gill and Paul Ryan)

We don’t know much about Democritus, the father of materialism, beyond a few anecdotal reports passed down to us from Aristotle and the lists of lost works reported by Diogenes Laertius. Aristotle wrote a monograph on Democritus, of which only a few passages quoted in other sources have survived. Democritus seems to have taken over and systematized the views of Leucippus, of whom little is known. Although it is possible to distinguish some contributions as those of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer either to both figures, or to Democritus alone; the developed atomist system is often regarded as essentially Democritus’.1

It’s the view of Democritus’s natural philosophy of atomism that has for the most part guided our knowledge of materialism for millennium. Yet, it is this reception of Democritus as an atomist that is challenged within Slavoj Zizek’s Magnum Opus Less Than Nothing. In his first chapter Zizek spends an inexorable amount of time parsing the work of Plato’s Parmenides. Of course the point here is the age old battle between Idealism and Materialism which have warred through the generations over the notions of change and the real.

Berryman in his article on the Stanford site relates the standard view onto this ancient battle:

Ancient sources describe atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge offered by Parmenides. Despite occasional challenges, this is how its motivation is generally interpreted by mainstream scholars today. Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are often thought to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes. (ibid.)

After the final quote above from the Parmenides in my epigraph Zizek will quote the last lines:

Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Most true.3

Zizek will add: “Is this not the most succinct, minimal definition of dialectical materialism? If there is no One, just multiplicities of multiplicities, then the ultimate reality is the Void itself; all determinate things “are and are not.”” (ibid.) To answer that Zizek explains that it all depends on what we “mean by zero, nothing, or the void”. He goes on to explicate (and I quote at length):

First, there are two zeroes, the zero of measure (like a zero degree, the point of reference chosen to establish a quantitative difference, which is arbitrary— for measuring temperature, Celsius and Fahrenheit posit a different zero) and zero as the neutral element, like 0 in addition and subtraction: whichever number we add 0 to or subtract 0 from, this number remains the same. This, perhaps, offers one approach to the “analyst’s neutrality”: the analyst is just there as an inert objet a, s/ he does not actively intervene. However, we should add to this neutrality of 0 the opposite case of multiplication wherein 0 is, on the contrary, the absorbing element: whichever number we multiply with 0, the result is 0.  …

This distinction between the neutral/ absorbing zero and the zero of measure is not to be confused with another distinction which also relates to the psychoanalytic practice: the distinction between nothing and the void. Nothing is localized, like when we say “there is nothing here,” while the void is a dimension without limits. 

So, to conclude, if we return from the second to the first part of Parmenides, i.e., to the status of Ideas, then the result should be that Ideas do not exist, do not have ontological reality of their own: they persist as purely virtual points of reference. That is to say, the only appropriate conclusion is that eternal Ideas are Ones and Others which do not participate in (spatio-temporal) Being (which is the only actual being there is): their status is purely virtual. This virtual status was made clear by Deleuze, one of the great anti-Platonists. Deleuze’s notion of the Virtual is to be opposed to the all-pervasive topic of virtual reality: what matters to Deleuze is not virtual reality, but the reality of the virtual (which, in Lacanian terms, is the Real). Virtual Reality in itself is a rather miserable idea: that of imitating reality, of reproducing experience in an artificial medium. The reality of the Virtual, on the other hand, stands for the reality of the Virtual as such, for its real effects and consequences. (ibid., Kindle Locations 1738-1746) [my italics]

Better and more succinct is Levi R. Bryant’s explication of Deleuze’s notion of the ‘Virtual‘ in his book The Democracy of Objects: “No one has explored this anterior side of substance—in the transcendental, not the temporal, sense—more profoundly than Gilles Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze names this dimension of substance that is formatted or structured without possessing qualities the virtual. Here the virtual is not to be confused with virtual reality. The latter is generally treated as a simulacrum of reality, as a sort of false or computer generated reality. By contrast, the virtual is entirely real without, for all that, being actual. The term “virtuality” comes from the Latin virtus, which has connotations of potency and efficacy. As such, the virtual, as virtus, refers to powers and capacities belonging to an entity. And in order for an entity to have powers or capacities, it must actually exist. In this connection, while the virtual refers to potentiality, it would be a mistake to conflate this potentiality with the concept of a potential object. A potential object is an object that does not exist but which could come to exist. By contrast, the virtual is strictly a part of a real and existing object. The virtual consists of the volcanic powers coiled within an object. It is that substantiality, that structure and those singularities that endure as the object undergoes qualitative transformations at the level of local manifestations.”3

This notion of the virtual as displaying powers and capacities (Bryant), as well as “being known for its real effects and consequences” (Zizek). So here we begin to see an outline of dialectical materialism in its equation of Void > Real > Virtual in which Ideas or immaterial powers and capacities effect change and consequences upon our world. As one reads through Zizek we begin to realize that the Void is the energetic and volcanic underbelly of existence, that in its virtuality it produces the very fabric of the space-time continuum of our universe. And, of course, Zizek promotes such analogies between modern quantum physics with its Higg’s fields and these philosophical concepts. Seeing in the mathematical fictions of physicists and the conceptual fictions of the philosophers a corollary. Being does not exist in its own right but is rather a subtraction from the Void much as are all those small particles that come into and out of existence from the void of the quantum realms.

Zizek’s return to Plato and Hegel is not as Idealist, but rather as correcting what they in themselves got wrong. For Zizek Ideas do not exist in some other permanent realm Outside, but rather are always already within the very fabric of things: a gap or crack within objects themselves that allows this passage between or in-between those powers and capacities to be mediated and translated – distorted into our world of actuality. As Zizek will argue in another passage, comparing the ancient Buddhist notion of nirvana against Freud’s notion of death-drive, saying,

So does the paradox of the Higgs field not also prefigure the mystery of symbolic castration in psychoanalysis? What Lacan calls “symbolic castration” is a deprivation, a gesture of taking away (the loss of the ultimate and absolute—“ incestuous”— object of desire) which is in itself giving, productive, generative, opening up and sustaining the space of desire and of meaning. The frustrating nature of our human existence, the very fact that our lives are forever out of joint, marked by a traumatic imbalance, is what propels us towards permanent creativity.  (ibid., Kindle Locations 3166-3170).

This sense of restlessness at the heart of things, this movement that never ends, never finds resolution of its tensions, but forever oscillates between diametric poles producing all we know and are. Not some New Age mysticism but a very powerful materialist understanding of the universe in its continuous creativity. Closer to Heraclitus’s “War is the Father of All,” than to some mystic eyed nirvana of absolute peace. Ours is a world of continuous strife and tension, and creativity comes in opposition rather than some release of tension. Ours is the realm of death and the drive.

The Freudian answer is the drive: what Freud calls the “drive” is not, as it may appear, the Buddhist Wheel of Life, the craving that enslaves us to the world of illusions. The drive, on the contrary, goes on even when the subject has “traversed the fantasy” and broken out of its illusory craving for the (lost) object of desire. And therein lies the difference between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, reduced to its formal minimum: for Buddhism, after Enlightenment (or “traversing the fantasy”), the Wheel no longer turns, the subject de-subjectivizes itself and finds peace; for psychoanalysis, on the other hand, the wheel continues to turn, and this continued turning-of-the-wheel is the drive. (ibid., Kindle Locations 3147-3152)

Whether Zizek understands actual Buddhism is besides the point, the conclusion to draw from this is this difference that makes a difference in our world. Life is itself a part of this death-drive, complicit in its warring strife and existence. The very motion of our being is moved by the turning wheel of death-in-Life: Galileo’s eppur si muove? (“But nonetheless, it continues to move!”)

Whereas Plato sought some absolute still point outside our realm of illusory appearances, so stable and unchanging eternal realm of Ideas, etc., Zizek sees our realm as itself the site of endless conflict and change wherein Ideas become the powers and capacities complicit in the movement of the world.


  1. Berryman, Sylvia, “Democritus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),
  2. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 1705-1708). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  3. Bryant, Levi R. The Democracy of Objects. University of Michigan Library (October 31, 2011) [italics mine]

 

Zizek Quote: Divide Between Materialism and Idealism

The ultimate divide between idealism and materialism does not concern the materiality of existence (“ only material things really exist”), but the “existence” of nothingness / the void: the fundamental axiom of materialism is that the void / nothingness is (the only ultimate) real, i.e., there is an indistinction of being and the void.

—Slavoj  Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism 

Zizek’s Return To Plato As Materialist?

Another quote from Zizek’s Less Than Nothing I’ve been rereading carefully over the past few months:

This “truth of Plato” received its clearest formulation in one of the great anti-Platonic works, Gilles Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, where Deleuze begins by “inverting” Plato’s dualism of eternal Ideas and their imitations in sensuous reality into the dualism of substantial (material) bodies and the pure impassive surface of Sense, the flux of Becoming which is to be located on the very borderline of Being and non-Being. Senses are surfaces which do not exist, but merely subsist: “They are not things or facts, but events. We cannot say that they exist, but rather that they subsist or inhere (having this minimum of being which is appropriate to that which is not a thing, a nonexisting entity).”  The Stoics, who developed this notion of “incorporeals,”

were the first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion. For if bodies with their states, qualities, and quantities, assume all the characteristics of substance and cause, conversely, the characteristics of the Idea are relegated to the other side, that is to this impassive extra-Being which is sterile, inefficacious, and on the surface of things: the ideational or the incorporeal can no longer be anything other than an “effect.”

This dualism is the “materialist truth” of the dualism of Ideas and material things, and it is against this background that one should envisage a return to Plato. Let us take an unexpected example: A Woman Throwing a Stone, a lesser known painting by Picasso from his surrealist period in the 1920s, offers itself easily to a Platonist reading: the distorted fragments of a woman on a beach throwing a stone are, of course, a grotesque misrepresentation, if measured by the standard of realist reproduction; however, in their very plastic distortion, they immediately/ intuitively render the Idea of a “woman throwing a stone,” the “inner form” of such a figure. This painting makes clear the true dimension of Plato’s philosophical revolution, so radical that it was misinterpreted by Plato himself: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form— the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate— the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” One should thus fully accept that spatio-temporal material reality is “all there is,” that there is no other “more true” reality: the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The ontological problem of Ideas is the same as the fundamental problem addressed by Hegel: how is meta-physics possible, how can temporal reality participate in the eternal Order, how can this order appear, transpire, in it? It is not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

In this sense Zizek is returning to Plato and revising his misunderstandings of the notion of matter/form. For Zizek as always this realm we are living and participating in is always already the eternal order of energetic matter informed by the appearance of appearance of Ideas that circulate. There being no two-world theory as has been brought down since time immemorial by all those false idealists. Zizek’s materialism is Idealism manifest not as a two-world theory but as a One-All in which the division of Idea/Matter are always here now, there being no separate realm of Eternal Ideas beyond appearance. Only this universe seen as the eternal stage of struggle of Idea and Form as appearance as appearance.

So against false materialism of the dogmatic scientists of the old atomist school Zizek opts for the changed state of the hard sciences of modern physics an a two Void theoretic of a positive void informed by ‘less than nothing’ which produces the eternal spring of appearance as appearance manifest as our Universe.

Fate and Modern Art: We Are Alone with the Alone

This brings us again to the fate of modern art. Schoenberg still hoped that somewhere there would be at least one listener who would truly understand his atonal music. It was only his greatest pupil, Anton Webern, who accepted the fact that there is no listener, no big Other to receive the work and properly recognize its value. In literature, James Joyce still counted on future generations of literary critics as his ideal public, claiming that he wrote Finnegans Wake to keep them occupied for the next 400 years. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, we, writers and readers, have to accept that we are alone, reading and writing at our own risk, with no guarantee from the big Other. (It was Beckett who drew this conclusion in his break with Joyce.)

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

The Cognitive Break: Breaking Free of Matryoshka’s Dilemma

Matryoshkajpg

Poetic writing can be understood and misunderstood in many ways. In most cases the author is not the right authority to decide on where the reader ceases to understand and the misunderstanding begins. Many an author has found readers to whom his work seemed more lucid than it was to himself. Moreover, misunderstandings may be fruitful under certain circumstances.

—Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf: A Novel

I believe the above sums up my own unique situation as a scribbler, for to be honest that’s what I am for the most part. An ‘author’ seems a little too dignified for what I’m doing, but then again what is it I am doing? Not being a professional philosopher or scientist or… even a poet of repute, I’ve spent my life digesting and tuning and digging into the vast storehouse of human learning and libraries seeking an answer to the usual and fundamental problems of existence: my own existence in this vast and wondrous universe.

As I read others I realize we’re all in the same boat pegging away at this strange bit of dust that suddenly became self-aware somewhere along the way: humanity. Oh, there is plenty of theories as to why we as humans suddenly evolved into thinking beings; some based on deep religious beliefs, others from an utterly atheistic perspective. Somewhere along the way a group of men in Athens and surrounding satellite cities and villages began to think differently about thinking, asked questions that seemed to ring true, to codify and compress the base common lot into an amalgam of thought that over the centuries became a sort of living Book of Wisdom. Not some literal book, mind you; but, rather, an unwritten set of sayings from various men (Pre-Socratics) that were passed around from generation to generation until a canon of accepted thought began to rule. A stabilized way of thinking arose, a dialectical give and take, a dialogue among various confrontational voices emerged discussing this and that at the central hub of Athens: the Agora. It was here that a man named Socrates began asking questions of citizens about their sundry knowledge of life, work, happiness, etc.

In many ways we’ll never come to know who the man Socrates was in flesh and blood, instead we have the testimonies of both his detractors and his ephebe’s (i.e., students, followers, pupils, etc.). He is portrayed in these various works either as a dangerous man deserving punishment or as a law-abiding and helpful citizen worthy of praise for his unblemished character.1 Many of us probably began reading Plato’s Apology in high-school or college, it being a sort of introduction to that world of philosophy in its most vivid recounting of Socrates’s trial for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. What is it he did that was so terrible that in the end he was forced to commit suicide drinking a cup of hemlock? He was a man who presented himself as a humble creature whose base premise was to be the man who knew nothing, nothing at all. And, yet, he believed that others might know something more and be able to teach him what they knew. So he began asking questions of those who seemed to know something about life, thought, etc. And for this he was judged corrupt because many of the young men of Athens seemed to follow a man who knew nothing?

Ah, Socrates was a little sly old goat, wasn’t he? Shall we play Devil’s advocate and wonder why this ugly old man wondering the streets of Athens asking his questions irritated so man men in authority. We know the answer: men of power do not like being shown just how stupid they are, how little they know about what they supposedly know; and, most of all, that what they know they cannot even discuss with any equitable saving of face. Men of power do not like being found out as naïve and foolish believers in their own knowledge of nature and people. It was this unbinding of thought, this dialectical tearing of the veil of pretentious power at the heart of Athens presumed great men that brought Socrates to the end game of judgement.

The corruption that Socrates had brought to the youth of Athens was thought and thinking itself, a new way of thinking: the dialectic, a negative form of thinking that would whittle away at a person’s knowledge till nothing was left but ignorance and doubt. And men of power cannot act on ignorance and doubt, they must know that their actions are based on some solid knowledge or it is just a fool’s errand. Kant in a perspicuous passage in the Critique of Reason comes to much the same conclusions:

Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.2

In this sense we are aware only of what we are given, and for the most this giveness is based on ignorance and neglect rather than actual knowledge. Humans cannot grasp all the data thrown at them by the universe, so we have over the millennia become selective, appropriating, filtering, and fictionalizing aspects of the world in manageable bytes under the rubric of thought which was later codified by philosophers and sophists (Rhetoricians) alike. What we know of the world is not the ‘world’, but rather a nice fairy tale of our own survival fictions that have helped us accrue millennia of illusory errors about both ourselves and our universe. Kant began codifying the errors of past philosophers much as Socrates in his dialectic began questioning the ignorance of men who thought they knew in fact what they didn’t know at all. Kant would come up against the antinomies of existence in thought and reality. For Kant the antinomies were contradictions which he believed follow necessarily from our attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. What he’d term the noumenal realm which was not directly accessible to the mind, but was always already covered over by the filters and mechanisms of the mind’s own internal workings.

This internal turn toward the mind rather than as in most previous philosophy would bring about a break in philosophical speculation that has led us to the current malaise in philosophy and the triumph of the brain sciences. For in our own moment the game of understanding why the mind works the way it does had shifted from mere speculative philosophy to the hard nosed sciences of the brain for answers. My friend Scott Bakker over at Three Pound Brain has been reiterating this fact for some time. In his latest article on Wilfrid Sellar’s thesis of the manifest and scientific images of man he puts his finger on the prime issue: “It generates the problems it does (for example, in Brassier or Dennett) because it inherits the very cognitive limitations it purports to explain.” (see Exploding the Manifest and Scientific Images of Man) The point here is that the mind-tools we have available to describe or even question consciousness are themselves biased, error prone, and most of all always already part of the problem it purports to solve: explaining consciousness with tools of the mind that do not and will never have direct access to the Mind. It’s this circular cave of shadows within which we are all shared ignoramuses when it comes to thinking about consciousness. We hem, we haw, we purport this and that theoretical idea all based on our inherited errors.

Sellar’s Scott tells us divided the images of man into pre-conceptual (original image), conceptual (manifest image), and scientific images ( post-conceptual? concrete?). Yet, it was from the beginning a war against reality-in-itself that humans developed instead a personalized environment in which they could give birth, raise children, educate one another, and perform the various tribal ceremonies of birth, growth, maturity, old age, and death. Or, as Scott puts it: “The original framework, Sellars tells us, conceptualizes all objects as ways of being persons—it personalizes its environments. The manifest image, then, can be seen as “the modification of an image in which all the objects are capable of the full range of personal activity”.” The animate universe was a realm filled with mind and persons, a vital realm of ghosts, spirits, and mythic creatures. A nightmare world of dangers against which humans developed mind-tools for survival, and only survival and propagation were the central features of this original pre-conceptual tool-bag of fictions.

Out of this pre-conceptual tool-bag arose what we now know as the philosophical image or ‘manifest image’, as Scott explains,

This new image of man, Sellars claims, is “the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world”. As such, the manifest image is the image interrogated by the philosophical tradition, which given the limited correlational and categorial resources available to it, remained blind to the communicative—social—conditions of conceptual frameworks, and so, the manifest image of man. Apprehending this would require the scientific image, the conceptual complex “derived from the fruits of postulational theory construction,” yet still turning on the conceptual resources of the manifest image.3

What we see here is nothing new, but rather a series of mental leaps or refinements, tiers or levels of reality baking that each turns toward the previous images as if from the outside. But have we ever truly left the pre-conceptual level at all? It’s like the blind leading the blind, turning over and over the mind-tools inherited from the previous image as if this would suddenly produce some advantage. But has it? Or we still as ignorant as those early cave dwellers who blew paint on the walls in southern France? As Bakker reiterates:

Things begin, for Sellars, in the original image, our prehistorical self-understanding. The manifest image consists in the ‘correlational and categorial refinement’ of this self-understanding. And the scientific image consists in everything discovered about man beyond the limits of correlational and categorial refinement (while relying on these refinements all the same). The manifest image, in other words, is an attenuation of the original image, whereas the scientific image is an addition to the manifest image (that problematizes the manifest image). Importantly, all three are understood as kinds of ‘conceptual frameworks’ (though he sometime refers to the original image as ‘preconceptual.’

This reminded me of those Matryoshka dolls one sees in the specialty stores from Russia: a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside another. Maybe our conceptual and pre-conceptual frameworks are like these dolls hidden within each other, a nested series of internal mind-worlds that have a tentative cross-pollination in-between zones that still reverberate in us even now. The point here is that the more you look inward toward the mind the smaller and smaller it becomes; a sort of infinite regress of thought which we will never fully understand or uncover. The nested worlds of mind are infinite. Bad analogy? Of course, but as we struggle to understand ourselves we all, manifest and scientific frameworks, both, come up against the black hole of our ignorance much like Socrates in questioning the knowledge of all those powerful Athenian gentlemen.

Is there a way out of this quagmire or are we forever condemned to repeat each others errors no matter how refined we become adding new dolls to the nested loop (i.e., constructing new frameworks even more sophisticated than our current scientific image)? For Scott the answer to that question turns on an ecological framework, and by that he means that our ancestral pool of inherited mind-tools were fitted to our natural environments. Slowly but surely we’ve begun severing this relation over the past few millennia constructing more and more unnatural or artificial environments. As Scott puts it his story and postscript to Crash Space:

Reverse engineering brains is a prelude to engineering brains, plain and simple. Since we are our brains, and since we all want to be better than what we are, a great many of us celebrate the eventuality. The problem is that we happen to be a certain biological solution to an indeterminate range of ancestral environments, an adventitious bundle of fixes to the kinds of problems that selected our forebears. This means that we are designed to take as much of our environment for granted as possible—to neglect. This means that human cognition, like animal cognition more generally, is profoundly ecological. And this suggests that the efficacy of human cognition depends on its environments.

What Scott is saying is what many evolutionists have said for a while: we are attentive only to those things in the environment that help us survive and propagate, everything else about reality we pass over or neglect realizing it is just too much – an excess that we put in relief, blindly focusing only on what matters to us, what is personal.

Yet, in our time we’ve severed the links to our natural for an artificial environment, a built environment —one might say, designer environment. We’ve displaced our ancestral cognitive ecologies from the natural to the artificial, neglecting the former for the changed world of natural for machinic being. “We neglect all those things our ancestors had no need to know on the road to becoming us.” says Scott. And, then goes on to say,

Herein lies the ecological rub. The reliability of our heuristic cues utterly depends on the stability of the systems involved. Anyone who has witnessed psychotic episodes has firsthand experience of consequences of finding themselves with no reliable connection to the hidden systems involved. Any time our heuristic systems are miscued, we very quickly find ourselves in ‘crash space,’ a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done.

In this sense our entire planetary civilization has become unhinged. We are all tittering on the edge of a psychotic break, and many already show the signs of such madness. One only needs to watch the nightly news (a biased world of psychosis if there ever was one) to see the mass murders, the wars, the political and religious tom foolery that reaches the highest levels of our media frenzy. Day by day we are so attached to our artificial environments: our electronic gadgets, our online personalities, and fake echo chambers that we neglect our lives, our children, our natural physical lives. And, then we wake up and realize just how inadequate our knowledge of the world and ourselves is, we realize that this artificial world and the natural do not coalesce and we are lost amid the dark recesses of our own ignorance.

Yet, in our economic and worldly realm we continue to act of this ancestral pool of neglect, piling up more and more feats of artificial mandates. As Scott says: “And now we’re set to begin engineering our brains in earnest. Engineering environments has the
effect of transforming the ancestral context of our cognitive capacities, changing the structure of the problems to be solved  such that we gradually accumulate local crash spaces, domains where our intuitions have become maladaptive. Everything from irrational fears to the ‘modern malaise’ comes to mind here. Engineering  ourselves, on the other hand, has the effect of transforming our relationship to all contexts, in ways large or small, simultaneously. It very well  could be the case that something as apparently innocuous as the mass ability to wipe painful memories will precipitate our destruction. Who knows? The only thing we can say in advance is that it will be globally disruptive somehow, as will every other  ‘improvement’ that finds its way to market.”

In other words our so called progressive society of improvement since the Enlightenment has in its ‘disenchantment’ of the world (which is really just another way of saying: our severing of the links to the natural context and displacement into a modern artificial built world of thought and life) brought us to the brink of mental implosion and destruction: a crash space of global proportions. Does all this sound apocalyptic? Sure it does, but in some ways it helps us understand the many strange psychotic breaks daily reported in the news. Humans who are still nested within nests of images that were and are still tied to our ancestral pool of mind-tools are no longer involved in those ancient worlds of natural survival and propagation. This break from the environment to the artificial has accelerated over the past two centuries to the point of complete severance.

Can a whole civilization go psychotic? Scott ends on an apocalyptic note: “Human cognition is about to be tested by an unparalleled age of ‘habitat destruction.’ The more
we change ourselves, the more we change the nature of the job, the less reliable our ancestral tools become, the deeper we wade into crash space.” This sense that the mind-tools of our ancestral nesting image, our philosophical manifest image, and – even our “scientific image” are not up to the task of guiding us through this process. We are all in the dark now, together.

As for Sellars’s approach Scott in his end piece brings to the fore the Idealism of its conceptual framework and how this reliance on conceptuality has led Sellars and his followers into blind alleys of just reiterating the same old games of the ‘given’ that have clouded modern philosophy ever since Kant. As he says, summing up,

The issue of information availability, for him (Sellars), is always conceptual, which is to say, always heuristically conditioned, which is to say, always bound to systematically distort what is the case. Where the enabling dimension of cognition belongs to the deep environments on a cognitive ecological account, it belongs to communities on Sellars’ inferentialist account. As result, he has no clear way of seeing how the increasingly technologically mediated accumulation of ancestrally unavailable information drives the development of human self-understanding.

Scott’s turn from the Idealism of ‘conceptuality’ to the cognitive ecological turn in heuristics based as it is on technological mediation rather than the mind-tools of philosophical speculation shifts the ground toward a more specific task: rather than explaining consciousness with the outworn tools of ancestral voices we should maybe begin to explore this new found world of technological mediation and push it further, accelerate its force into avenues unfounded in all past speculative thought. Maybe we will find our way out of the Matryoshka dolls of our nested images and into a new form of cognitive ecological understanding of ourselves, but it want be by way of the previous nestings and our ancestral reliance of less and less environmental cues; instead we may be entering a totally artificial era of technological mediation based on merging more and more with our artificial environments. Instead of the Age of Disenchantment maybe ours is instead the Age of Breaking the Vessel or Matryoshka doll altogether. Forget the ancestral pool, forget Sellars, forget all the previous speculations of the philosophers and turn instead to a more materialist technological mediation based on specificity rather than conceptuality.

When I think of the great psychosis of our time, of whole societies entering into madness, I feel the pain of millions of lost creatures each struggling in his lonely cell trying to make sense of a world that no longer coincides with the knowledge and belief systems we were handed by our ancestors. We’ve been utterly riven of our relations to the past, broken into a thousands shreds the feelings and thoughts of our ancestors who roamed the great savannahs, jungles, deserts of the world. Tossed into a machinic age of artificial brains, political and social mayhem, and a war torn and famine stricken planet tottering on the edge of apocalypse one wonders if there is an answer to the problems we as a species face. Will we survive or go down in oblivion? Shall we discover something in ourselves strong enough to fight our way clear of these transitional moments of chaos and enter a new realm of possibility or not?


  1. Luis E. Navia. Socrates: A Life Examined (p. 93). Kindle Edition.
  2. Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 7.
  3. Sellars, Wilfrid. Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. (see online pdf).

The Crack in the World: Zizek, Idealism, and the Politics of Emancipation

zizek

Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.

—Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism

What if the problem were as simple as that: it is not our minds that are cracked, but the world itself. What if reality were unfinished, bits and pieces of a lavish stage set that was never completed but left in disarray. What if our universe is a failed project with massive holes and cracks everywhere? We assume there is a way of describing the universe as if it existed in some perfect assemblage or flow of processes that have been ongoing for billions of years, and if we can only describe these forces and trace them to their origin or even pre-ontological beginnings just beyond the Big Bang we will be able to put the puzzle together, create what the hard-nosed physicists once dreamed of as a theory-of-everything. A tidy little formula something like Einstein’s E = MC2. But all we find in things are cracks and holes, missing information and an endless dive into the hinterlands of quantum data that leads us to an end game of forces just beyond our current instrumentations.

Why does reality fail to coincide with our Minds apprehension of it? Why is it so slippery and illusive? For a few hundred years we’ve collected more and more data about the universe and ourselves to the point we can no longer digest all this superfluous and encyclopedic data, but have built machines and algorithms to carry on that task of number crunching and data smashing for us. But what does that get us? More data? More and more analysis? And, for what? What if some brilliant scientist were to eureka pop up with the formula to describe all of reality, what then? What if the reality he is describing is a fictional one rather than the messy realm of facts before us? Most of physics is based on math, and assumes math is the pure language of the universe. But is it?  What if instead of some tidy little mathematical formula that could lock down the universe in a stable and complete, whole description were a fool’s errand? What if instead we found that the point of a materialist dialectical analysis is to demonstrate how every phenomenon, everything that happens, fails in its own way, implies a crack, antagonism, imbalance, in its very heart.1 What if there is no such objective reality, no real world, that the world in-itself doesn’t exist; or, at least in any known common sense form. And that all our careful logic, philosophy, mathematics, physics, etc. were chasing a false herring.

For Zizek the great return of Idealism in our time under the changing light of a new dialectical materialism holds forth a different solution. For him the return of the Gang of Four as he calls Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel is central to any new solution to the problems we face in our time in both politics and the sciences. Agreeing with Badiou he will categorize these thinkers under the four conditions of philosophy, saying,

Kant relates to (Newtonian) science, his basic question being what kind of philosophy is adequate to the Newtonian breakthrough; Fichte relates to politics, to the event that is the French Revolution; Schelling relates to (Romantic) art and explicitly subordinates philosophy to art as the highest approach to the Absolute; and Hegel, finally, relates to love; his underlying problem is, from the very beginning of his thought, that of love.  (ibid. KL 399)

Do we think of philosophers in this way? As creatures who question the adequacy of thought to the sciences of the day, to the politics, to the artistic impulses in culture and society, to the dark zones of sex and love? Are these truly the conditions of philosophy, the ground out of which they traverse the world in our time? Science, politics, art, and love?

With Kant something happened, a break with the whole tradition of philosophy up to that moment from Plato and Aristotle onward. Up until Kant the sciences and thought had been part of natural philosophy and there had been no separation between them. Philosophy had during all these long centuries been a general science of Being as such, as a description of the universal structure of our entire reality, with no qualitative difference from particular sciences. (ibid. (KL 405) Up to Kant the philosophers mistrusted the senses, believed that what appeared to us in appearance was illusory and not to be trusted but that we needed to transcend mere appearance and discover what lie just beyond in Ideas (Plato) or “objective reality” (Sciences). With Kant the question became something altogether different, what he sought was not dismiss appearances as illusory but rather to discern the conditions of possibility of this appearing of things, of their “transcendental genesis”: what does such an appearing presuppose, what must always-already have taken place for things to appear to us the way they do? (ibid. KL 418)

If all previous philosophers believed their task was to describe the world beyond mere appearance: the noumenal world of real objects, the realm of metaphysics; then, for Kant, it was instead to critique this whole metaphysical approach as itself prone to error and failure. As Zizek puts it Kant’s motivation is a critique of all possible metaphysics. Kant’s endeavor thus comes afterwards: in order for there to be a critique of metaphysics, there first has to be an original metaphysics; in order to denounce the metaphysical “transcendental illusion,” this illusion must first exist. In this precise sense, Kant was “the inventor of the philosophical history of philosophy” : there are necessary stages in the development of philosophy, that is, one cannot directly get at truth, one cannot begin with it, philosophy necessarily began with metaphysical illusions. (ibid. 431)

Zizek in his usual diabolical twist will conclude that for Kant the task of philosophy was not just to uncover all the pre-critical metaphysical errors but to protect religion from the current corrosion of just such a metaphysical system of error. And, yet, as Zizek tells it  “What, however, if there is more truth in the mask than in the real face beneath it? What if this critical game radically changes the nature of religion, so that Kant effectively did undermine what it was his goal to protect? Perhaps those Catholic theologians who saw Kant’s criticism as the original catastrophe of modern thought that opened up the way to liberalism and nihilism were actually right?” (ibid. KL 455-458)

The greatest problem of those after Kant became the central question as Zizek sees it of “how to think the Ground of Freedom, a trans-subjective Ground of subjectivity which not only does not constrain human freedom but literally grounds it?” (ibid.  494) Schelling unlike Fichte and the German Romantic poet, Holderlin, would seek instead of some pre-reflective One-All in which the ground of Being was One a completely different form of ground: one in which the Ground was neither One nor unified but rather was radically unstable and at discord with itself. Out of this radical gap or crack in the ground of Being arose Logos. Without this struggle at the heart of Being, a war within itself nothing resembling our universe would ever have arisen in the first place. This antinomian and conflictual notion of Being rather than the unified and seamless One of the ancient philosophers gave modern thought its first apprehension of the Real.

For Fichte and the German Romantic poets the only reconciliation between Mind and its Ground/Absolute/God etc. was not some mystical unification but rather “a narrative one, that of the subject telling the story of his endless oscillation between the two poles” (ibid. KL 535). Zizek will mention Friedrich Schlegel, who on the contrary of Holderlin, sought to enact a kind of imperfect yet always energetic freedom in continuous, ironic, witty, self-revising activity that characterizes romantic poetry— a kind of commitment to eternal restlessness. (ibid. KL 545) In many ways the modernist poet Wallace Stevens was of this ironic form:

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

—Wallace Stevens, Poems of our Climate

One of the keys to Zizek is this notion that our inability to reconcile our notions of reality with reality is not in us but in the Real itself; in other words, the crack and gap is in things not us, and our inability to understand and describe this external realm of the noumenal is because it has failed in itself to be describable. There is a crack in things that divides it not from us but from itself. One could put it this way: God is at war with himself, or the Absolute is self-divided. It’s this failure of physics to describe the underlying processes that in fact show it to be in touch with the truth. At the point we touch base with the Real we discover the crack in the world, the flaws and stubborn sounds, the imperfect failure of Being to be. As Zizek states it “the most elementary figure of dialectical reversal resides in transposing an epistemological obstacle into the thing itself, as its ontological failure (what appears to us as our inability to know the thing indicates a crack in the thing itself, so that our very failure to reach the full truth is the indicator of truth)” (ibid. KL 588).

As he was writing Less Than Nothing Zizek informs us that over “the last decade, the theoretical work of the Party Troika to which I belong (along with Mladen Dolar and Alenka Zupančič) had the axis of Hegel-Lacan as its “undeconstructible” point of reference: whatever we were doing, the underlying axiom was that reading Hegel through Lacan (and vice versa) was our unsurpassable horizon” (ibid. KL 602). Yet, after this long reading and involvement in the thought of both Hegel-Lacan and Lacan-Hegel Zizek began seeing the underlying flaws in both men and their thought:

…with Hegel, his inability to think pure repetition and to render thematic the singularity of what Lacan called the objet a; with Lacan, the fact that his work ended in an inconsistent opening: Seminar XX (Encore) stands for his ultimate achievement and deadlock— in the years after, he desperately concocted different ways out (the sinthome, knots …), all of which failed. (ibid. KL 604-607)

The point here is that one cannot bypass either Hegel or Lacan but must go through them and beyond them. Again Zizek: “Lacan unveiled the illusions on which capitalist reality as well as its false transgressions are based, but his final result is that we are condemned to domination— the Master is the constitutive ingredient of the very symbolic order, so the attempts to overcome domination only generate new figures of the Master. The great task of those who are ready to go through Lacan is thus to articulate the space for a revolt which will not be recaptured by one or another version of the discourse of the Master.” (ibid. KL 616)

But how is this possible? It is to this that Zizek’s thousand page monstrosity is an opening.


  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 393-394). Norton. Kindle Edition.

The Order of Illusion

“Today the negation of the real has penetrated inside things themselves, so much so that it is no longer the privilege of just philosophers but an axiom that belongs to all. What has happened is that the negation of reality has now been incorporated into ‘reality’ itself. In short, what we have now is a principle of non-reality based on ‘reality’—a principle of ‘hyper-reality’ as I call it. The mutation is interesting, since it implies nothing other than the end of philosophy. The philosophical principle of the negation of reality has now pervaded everyday ‘reality’ itself.”

—Baudrillard, Live Interviews

For centuries the philosophers sought in a purely rational principal of the mind a solution to the irrationality and illusory appearance of the world. Descartes would posit doubt against the real. For him the real was the work of a demon who was always misleading the philosophers into error and failure. For him this doubt comes from the subject—as subject of knowledge, as subject of discourse. Whether Descartes in fact succeeds in making the subject constitute itself, in its reality, in relation to a diabolical world which is full of superstitions and hallucinations and so on is a controversial matter. But the fact remains that Cartesian doubt is based on the promise of a world which can be confirmed only in terms of its own reality: there is doubt on the one hand and there is reality on the other hand; and there is the conflict between the two, which Descartes tries to resolve.

Thus out of this milieux was born the ideas of the Enlightenment and the irreconcilable modes of thought that would eventually become Idealism and Materialism. The one posited the power of the Mind over the universe of illusion, the other would seek in the resistances to the Mind the answering call of the Real. Neither project succeeded during the age of Kant to Hegel, and ever since philosophy has turned inward toward analyzing either the linguistic basis of the Real or turned toward the sciences and suborned its thoughts in refining the conceptual tools that scientists in both Hard (Physics) and Soft (Life Sciences) use to convey their bag of mind-tools.

Yet, both were still in agreement that there was a objective reality out there – they just disagree on how best to describe it and reconcile our minds to it. The realm of physics lead us to a world of pure play: a realm of forces at the ultimate base of the real that could never be accessed directly but known only from their effects on forces we could detect, etc. Such hard sciences begin with fictional and hypothetical entities of mathematical theorems and try to build and engineer giant machines to test such theoretical ideas and concepts. While the Life sciences seeks in the strange realm of the everyday to understand the basis of life in the universe, etc. Using evolutionary tools to work backwards into time to understand how this system of Nature came about. Both agree upon one thing: that the mind divorced from the objective world was something that we needed – the so-called dis-enchantment of the world (or Enlightenment) which forever severed our naïve realist pretensions of a direct access to the Real.

Nietzsche was the first great philosopher of this disillusionment, a man who saw in himself and his mentor Richard Wagner a dead world of nostalgia for the Real. He would term it nihilism: the break of mind/nature into two irreconcilable realms with no mediator between. At that point language began to break down and the sign and its referent came to the fore. For if human meaning which was produced by this connection between a sign and its referent were severed then reality had no meaning and everything was possible. We were in a realm of pure illusion in which the rules that had guided humans and their moralities based as they were on objective standards and criterion were now dissolved. In this sense Nietzsche’s “God is Dead!” was neither an atheists credo nor the ravings of a lunatic, but rather the notion that all our human meanings including the cherished notions of gods was defunct, void, caput. We had killed god with our own disenchanted enlightenment beyond redemption, and with it we had destroyed all hope of reconciling human thought with some stable objective world.

Baudrillard in his usual candor makes a point about the role of art in our moment when he says:

We must remember this: the aim of art was once precisely to posit the power of illusion against reality. There was a time when art was trying to make reality play a game which was different to the game that art itself was playing. In other words, there was a time indeed when art was always trying to force reality to play the game along different rules, when it was always trying to seduce the reality of things. But today this is no longer the great game that art is playing. All the art forms are now playing the game at the level of the simulation of reality—and whether the particular art form be painting or architecture makes no difference whatsoever. 1

When we look around we find our world is accelerating into madness, pure illusion. Politics is playing out an end game that seems more puppet show than reality, our leaders tending toward the strange and irreconcilable rather than power and stability. The extremes of our societies are pure simulation echo chambers filled with opposing forces of inertia and death rather than black holes that might yet produce energetic and intelligent responses to the accelerating effects of illusion and simulation. Instead of thought we get the repetition of media images that repeat the non-reality of our world continuously. Maybe in the end we’ve all become artists now: and the only game in town is the ‘art of playing’. But what are we playing at? Nietzsche of course said the Last Man would accelerate his own demise, that self-destruction was the last game to be played out. And, most of all, he believed we should give it a push, accelerate its already depleted energy until something new emerged from its embers. Like the Phoenix in its self-immolation will we ignite the self-renewing flames of light and life or just burn out into a dark and fathomless abyss.


  1. Gane, Mike. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Routledge (March 28, 1993)

 

Wet and Windy: The Comedy of Existence

Ollie: You’d better take my temperature….. get that thermometer.
Stan: The what?
Ollie: Thermometer! You’ll find it on the shelf.
(Stan places the thermometer into Ollie’s mouth and starts to take his pulse)
Ollie: What does it say?
Stan: Wet and windy.

—Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy

In an age of hypertechnology we’ve all felt that dissonance and disconnect from the world of nature and technics that comes with a world built on neglect. This endless parade of facts that we try our best to reason into intuitions seems almost hilarious. In an age of overloaded information glut we grasp in the dark of our minds for anything that will fit our knowledge of the world and life to the strangeness we find ourselves in.

Our ancestral worlds from ancient Sumer, Egypt, Mesopotamia to the new world of Incans, Aztecs, and Mayans and/or almost all ancient cultures lived under systems of shared vision and values. Our society and world civilization no longer lives under the auspices of such luxurious and stable myths, ethics, and vital artistic and cultural fabrications. Since the so called Enlightenment we’ve taken a stance in opposition to the ancient tribal milieux. We’ve termed it ‘modernity’ (whatever that means) which has basically dissolved the ancestral pact and agreements about reality – and, reality construction. This melting away of the ancient pool of information, ideas, religious and secular reference has left us in what Nietzsche once termed the Age of Nihilism.

My friend R. Scott Bakker in his usual candor relates this state of affairs as the culture of crash space. The online world that was supposed to bring the world together in some kind of comfort zone of shared intuitions and values has instead tribalized the world into distinct silos and echo chambers where niche groups co-habit cognitive ecologies like bugs in a jar unable to translate or even understand the heuristic messages from those outside the cage. We’ve built what William Blake the poet once described eloquently as ‘mind-forged manacles’ within which we have imprisoned our selves thinking all along that we are the true believers who know the truth while all those others are idiots, morons, and imbeciles.

Facebook, Twitter, and so many other social platforms have led us to dissolve our cherished hopes in a world of shared vision and has instead given us a mirror-world of our own misguided intuitions, feeding us echoes of our own troubled minds with messages based not on our real wants and needs but rather on our fears of each other and the world. Bakker quoting Tristan Harris on such social platforms tells us that “social media platforms, given their commercial imperatives, cannot but engineer online ecologies designed to exploit the heuristic limits of human cognition”:

“I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.”

Artificial Intelligence which some believe will or have already surpassed human intelligence is in the hands of such commercial ventures and heuristic exploiters. As Bakker puts it “More and more of what we encounter online is dedicated to various forms of exogenous attention capture, maximizing the time we spend on the platform, so maximizing our exposure not just to advertising, but to hidden metrics, algorithms designed to assess everything from our likes to our emotional well-being. As with instances of ‘forcing’ in the performance of magic tricks, the fact of manipulation escapes our attention altogether, so we always presume we could have done otherwise—we always presume ourselves ‘free’ … To the degree that social media platforms profit from engaging your attention, they profit from hacking your ancestral cognitive vulnerabilities, exploiting our shared neglect structure. They profit, in other words, from transforming crash spaces into cheat spaces.” (see Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse)

Anyone with a modicum of sense who has studied such ancient systems as Buddhism will know that it was above all a system of hygienics that purported to disconnect us from the traps we set ourselves: the reality systems we had relied on for so long were themselves illusory (maya) and self-deceiving realms of false needs. In our age of commercialization the opposite has taken place: Corporations thrive on manipulating our desires and swaying our emotions to accept a panoply of illusionary fantasies as reality. One no longer needs to read fantasy, one is living in one believing it to be just the opposite: reality. And with the rise of AI it will become more and more a prison world that manipulates every aspect of our lives under the auspices of total freedom. As Bakker warily states: “The AI revolution amounts to saturating human cognitive ecology with invasive species, billions of evolutionarily unprecedented systems, all of them camouflaged and carnivorous. It represents—obviously, I think—the single greatest cognitive ecological challenge we have ever faced.”

For Bakker the very tools of Enlightened progress that were supposed to free us: science and technology have in actuality set the stage for a “semantic apocalypse”:

Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it. (ibid.)

Should we accept this? Is this an inevitable movement toward ending the human species as we’ve known it? Or were the signs of this slow awakening (Enlightenment) ongoing for hundreds of years? This movement of de-programming our mind from its environmental cues, its earth based natural ecologies to free us up to travel off-world, to break the ancient contract of mind/nature and evolve beyond the physical connections we’ve had to this bit of dust in a wide universe? All those who tout the old cry of humanism, who seek to stay the hand of change, who would return us to the earth based worlds of our ancestors, or they in truth the conservative force of traditionalism seeking to bind us to a world of thought, culture, and shared vision that was always already broken. Have we not already crossed the Rubicon of this post-human world where machine and flesh will more and more co-exist in many forms of melding.

Already our children are so enamored and hooked into the mobile devices they use for sms messaging etc. that a world without such tools can no longer be envisioned as anything more than a fantasy of reversion and a failure of vision. For all intents and purposes we are all already cyborgian citizens, relying as we do on external devices and prosthetic helpmates, artificial cues and friends who interact with us on a daily basis. And in the coming century and centuries this will only become more and more obvious as humans migrate into the very systems they so dread now.

The dream of such men as Elon Musk of transporting human flesh and blood to Mars are the actual fantasies of false hope in our age. And it is born out by his fear of AI and machinic intelligence. The cat is out of the bag and such devices are now in the hands of commercial ventures of capitalism which as it has in the past will throw more and more money into these powerful systems to capture and manipulate our lives in ways beyond telling.

I’m no prophet. And, even more, I’m just one man who wonders at it all, ignorant of my own ignorance, accepting of the crash space I find myself in, realizing beyond doubt that half my lies and stories are neither true nor untrue but rather part of the remix of our ancestral longing for adventure and wonder. What is it in us that urges us onward? What is it that drives us to explore, to create, to wonder? We only know that we do not know, that for better or worse we are all blind to the sources of our own cognitive and emotional sources. All the explainers in the world have yet to explain consciousness, and some like Bakker tell us that the evolvement of our large brains, our ability to become conscious, and the illusion of free will have all become confused with each other:

So it seems to me that nature itself shows that in its selection for large brains that opening up the metaphysical space for making choices gives an evolutionary advantage. And that therefore a large brain is proof from nature that such a thing as making choices exists. If so, does free will then also exist? The two concepts are often confused. Or does a large brain simply generate more pathways for potential deterministic processes, and is this a natural delineation of making choices? Could we then augment our ability to make choices and so expand our intuitively felt free will?

Others like Bernard Stiegler see the whole history of our evolving intelligence as a slow externalization of mind, and that in the coming time we will and are evolving machinic intelligence to off-load the knowledge we can no longer handle. Merlin Donald in a perspicacious work some twenty years ago that humanity has been externalizing memory and thought for millennia, and that thought the hardware may not have been biological, but from the viewpoint of a natural history of cognition this does not matter; the ultimate result was an evolutionary transition just as fundamental as those that preceded it. Once the devices of external memory were in place, and once the new cognitive architecture included an infinitely expandable, refinable external memory loop, the die was cast for the emergence of theoretic structures. A corollary must therefore be that no account of human thinking skill that ignores the symbiosis of biological and external memory can be considered satisfactory. Nor can account be accepted that could not successfully account for the historical order in which symbolic invention unfolded.1

The point that Merlin makes is that such systems as AI are not artificial at all, that they are an extension of a process we’ve been evolving or that has been evolving through us for tens of thousands of years. In this sense our belief that these machines are inhuman is itself erroneous since we were never human to begin with. By that I mean that we are part of natural forces that have been working in and through us toward ends that we little know and will for the most part never fully understand. As Merlin will expound:

The globalization of electronic media provides cognitive scientists with a great future challenge: to track and describe, in useful ways, what is happening to the individual human mind. The architecture of mind has evolved rapidly when viewed against the background of earlier evolution, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating rather than diminishing. (ibid. 359)

In this sense humanity as the organic tabernacle of mind is giving way to its own externalization, to the machinic intelligences which will evolve in ways we have yet to appreciate or understand. Instead we fear this transitional period between the old and new worlds that are arising in our midst, realizing that we are being displaced on the top of that pyramid of intelligence we once held dear by the very tools we ourselves have helped evolve and create. We once believed we could control such processes, but have slowly discovered that they have controlled and manipulated us to their own purposes and to ends beyond our present humanity.


  1. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)

 

For the darkness within…

For those who have ever felt the darkness
grow
and the demons crawl from their hate caves

the silences that shatter all dreams
and the goodness
that never sways

let this song for the darkness within
sing

She stood among the bones
mind wracked wisp
shadowing a lost fragment of her self

where gods and men have no issue
only the anguish
haunting her somber waking’s

holding the skull of her lover
under the bone moon
lifeless in her hands

crow worlds craven and distinct
of Ragnaröks long hence shattering
the remnants of this world and hers

till she feels that rage of the lonely heart
rise up and scream through her
till night awakens

breaking


©Steven Craig Hickman – 2018

 

A Life Against the Void

escher

Just to let everyone know: I’m still alive and kicking, but taking time away from these online worlds just to enjoy life! I will return in a few months…. one needs a real life against the void!

Sometimes we make the mistake that this hollow world of light we entertain as the net is real: it’s not. It’s just an echo chamber of our false desires run rampant across the nightmare landscapes of our post – ? worlds. While at home one isn’t bothered by this dark chamber, and in fact cut off from it one realizes that life (a cliché!) is still “what you make of it”! When I peak out the windows of my new home in process I realize: this is it, this is what life truly is about – a place we can call home, entertain friends, family, and associates. A place we can feel safe and at peace. Even if this is a blind man’s bluff game of chance, hoping against hope that we can truly be safe, secure, and happy is all a great lie against the dark truths we’ve learned then we’ve nothing to lose but what was there all along: our minds. But if you are as I am, in acknowledgement of the illusion – but as Nietzsche once reminded me – that all great fictions of life were illusions against the void. Then our ability to play “as if” is inherent in the maintenance of our sanity and our ability to continue living rather than committing suicide of mind or body. If the world is insane, and we are all doomed then learning to create a safe haven, a space of life for one’s self and family and friends is the only heroic thing to do against the darkness. In the end my own reading of my ancient Northern ancestral worlds of Loki and the Gods of the Aesir in their realms of doom was just this ability to live in the face of an unyielding fate and destiny. Knowing full well that the end will come for us all it’s more important to face it with one’s eyes open, one’s heart alive to the magnanimous force of love and trust in the very powers of existence. Though we all live in our own illusory worlds, we can take both sustenance and comfort from the trials and victories of the past that have helped us stay the hand against the day. Victory is our only battle cry against the powers that would feed us to oblivion.

Maybe in the end we love our stories more than the stark bare truth. They help us with those illusions that stay us against the final void. Death. Death is and will always be there at the end of the road. But how face that force of oblivion is to test the mettle of your life. Will you face it with joy or sorrow, with fear or acceptance, be one of it’s doomed victims or struggle against its power till life is but a dream?