Thomas Ligotti: There Is Something Wrong With The World

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. … But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it.

—Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race

In an Interview Thomas Ligotti describes the aberration that is our life in the universe: “Other people might have simply concluded there was something wrong with them to have emotions that made them feel outside of the world around them. My conclusion was exactly the opposite. I concluded that there was something wrong with the world. And now I was in tune with everything that was wrong, everything that had been wrong since I was born, since life evolved on this planet, since the universe began, and perhaps even before that.”1

“Perhaps,” opens us in that last sentence to an ambiguous relation to our notions of the cosmos in Ligotti’s thought. It’s as if underlying his pessimism is an open door into the unknown and unknowable fractures in reality, the gaping holes that thought alone cannot think, an incompleteness and possibility of something outside our very thought of beginnings which harbor a more destitute and abyssal nightmare than we can imagine. This sense of wrongness, that the world is not what it seems, but is much more dangerous and incomprehensible than our sciences with all their theoretic power of mathematical precision can reveal; for underneath all the calculations, all the theorems is something hiding in plain sight but invisible to our mental calibrations. Ligotti’s apprehension of a universal tilt, a “wrongness” with the world and life in this universe goes beyond our ability to reckon or conceive, is situated outside our earthly configurations and philosophies to know. And, yet, we can sense it, feel it, without being able to think it. The Gnostics once believed there was a form of knowing outside Reason, outside the visible calculable realm of appearances, something that opened onto the void, the great vastation and emptiness; what they would term the ‘kenoma’: in the Gnostic schema(s) the kenoma (emptiness) is the imperfect and the antithesis of pleroma (fullness), where all are in a state of privation and unreality.

The notion of the Unreal in Ligotti’s worldview,  not unlike the concept of maya (illusion) in the various Indic traditions, is different, is more abyssal and indifferent to our desires or thoughts alike, seeking neither to delude us nor seduce us into some nefarious relation of entrapment, either through our own internal needs and desire, or from some outer magnetic field of attraction beyond our control. Instead as Ligotti will say elsewhere: “We are defined by our limitations; without them, we cannot suffice as functionaries in the big show of conscious existence. The farther you progress toward a vision of our species without limiting conditions on your consciousness, the farther you drift away from what makes you a person among persons in the human community.”2 This sense of the kenomic privation and unreality of both world and self is at the core of Ligotti’s world and fiction. Agreeing with the philosopher Zapffe, “the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs.” (Conspiracy, pp. 41-42)

The point here is that without our illusions and seductions the whole façade or human consciousness and existence breaks down leaving us entrapped in a never-ending nightmare of unreality. For Ligotti and others of like mind this state of things can no longer be denied. Ligotti sees the world naked, stripped of its veneer – the duplicitous illusions by which others energetically prolong the delusions of their lives that sustain  the world as real. For Ligotti on the other hand there is something behind the scenes of life that is “pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world“. (ibid., p.54) Explicating this process in Zapffe, Michelstaedter, Mainländer, and Bahnsen he states:

For Zapffe, the evolutionary mutation of consciousness tugged us into tragedy. For Michelstaedter, individuals can exist only as unrealities that are made as they are made and that cannot make themselves otherwise because their hands are forced by the “god” of philopsychia (self-love) to accept positive illusions about themselves or not accept themselves at all. For Mainländer, a Will-to-die, not Schopenhauer’s Will-to-live, plays the occult master pulling our strings, making us dance in fitful motions like marionettes caught in a turbulent wake left by the passing of a self-murdered god. For Bahnsen, a purposeless force breathes a black life into everything and feasts upon it part by part, regurgitating itself into itself, ever-renewing the throbbing forms of its repast. For all others who suspect that something is amiss in the lifeblood of being, something they cannot verbalize, there are the malformed shades of suffering and death that chase them into the false light of contenting lies. (ibid., p. 55)

The bleakness of this dark thought of the extreme powers at play in the universe would lead the normal man into madness and suicide, but Ligotti and others such thought leads only to the knowledge that we are living in an infernal paradise whose only telos is never-ending omnicide. This viral thirst for annihilation and self-renewal at the heart of the universal kenoma-vastation ruled over by impersonal laws and inhuman forces beyond our comprehension align well with both the Lovecraftian pantheon of Old One’s and the ancient inverted cosmos of the Gnostics who believed our universe was and is a catastrophe-creation and fall, a mistake created by a demiurgical blind power; mindless and impersonal to our desires and needs alike, a machinic system of an endless vicious circle without outlet. If there ever was a vision of hell it is the one without gods, a machine of death who has no maker, self-made monstrosity whose cannibalistic enactments and engorgements make the most macabre and grotesque tales we as humans could contrive fare for kindergarten matrons and educational devices for apotropaic dissuasion. Tales of the weird and horror become in this sense the narratives of grand illusions and entertainments that keep the truth at bay, revealing only by way of words and image the unreal as mitigated by the world of aesthetic distance and illusion.

Against realists of every persuasion Ligotti says of those who tell us we must “get real” and accept untruth as truth, a utopia of the Real: “A utopia in which we no longer deny the realities we presently must repress cannot be realistically hoped for. And who except a pessimist would wish for that utopia?” (ibid., p. 71) And, against all those who would discover some anti-natalist message in Ligotti, or some deep environmentalist agenda of wiping the human race off earth by way of species suicide, he states flatly:

As appealing as a universal suicide pact may be, why take part in it just to conserve this planet, this dim bulb in the blackness of space? Nature produced us, or at least subsidized our evolution. It intruded on an inorganic wasteland and set up shop. What evolved was a global workhouse where nothing is ever at rest, where the generation and discarding of life incessantly goes on. By what virtue, then, is it entitled to receive a pardon for this original sin— a capital crime in reverse, just as reproduction makes one an accessory before the fact to an individual’s death? (ibid., pp. 78-79)

No, he’ll have none of that. Commenting on the German neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, who came to the conclusion in his Being No One that humans evolved the illusion of self as a survival technique, a naïve realist delusion to help us cope with and repress the very dark truth of our own unreality: ‘Conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself.’ (ibid., p. 106) Deluding ourselves that the world is real and that we are, too, is to repress the harsh truth, to mask as Ligotti will remind us “the single most startling and dreadful revelation for human beings: that we are not what we think we are. Assuaging our qualms about such a deplorable enlightenment, Metzinger avers that it is “practically impossible” for us to attain realization of our unreality due to inbuilt manacles of human perception that keep our minds in a dream state.” (ibid., p. 106)

In many ways humans over eons have developed civilization as a safeguard against this impossible truth of the world and universe, invented a utopian playground of work and play to deny the unfolding trauma of our delirious enslavement to illusion. The insanity of our sociopathic civilization tied as it is with a utopian desire to escape the truth of reality by repressing it, by building a nexus of illusions, a simulated world of erotic delight and happiness has led us into a dead end zone of hyperviolence and aberration. Commenting on Zapffe’s conjectures that with the passing of generations the more profligate will become humanity’s means of hiding its disillusionments from itself: the more brainless and delusive its isolation from the actualities of existence; the more stupefying and uncouth its distractions from the startling and dreadful; the more heavy-handed and madcap its anchorings in unreality; and the more callous, self-mocking, and detached from life its sublimations in art. “These developments will not make us any more paradoxical in our being, but they could make all manifestations of our paradoxical nature less effective and more aberrant.” (ibid., p. 175)

The fractures in the armature of our defensive mechanisms, the torturous aberrations into which we’ve seduced ourselves into delirium, the global breakdown of this grand narrative of human concern and security is imploding all around us. The signs of chaos and the ingress of the unreal into our world as if from Outside in is slowly eroding all the old myths and tales we invented to hide the truth from ourselves. With the advent of modernity the key myths of human salvation and redemption, the notions of heaven and all other utopian worlds of promise have since the Enlightenment one by one fallen by the wayside corroding the old worldviews of the Human Security Regimes that held our illusions together while repressing the dark truth of the Unreal.  As Ligotti will sum it up (and I quote at length):

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are. (ibid., p. 182)

If you have the tendency that drags everything down into the abyss you’ll agree with Ligotti when he says:

“For better or worse, pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal. In all, the few who have gone to the pains of arguing for a sullen appraisal of life might as well never have been born.”

Over the years of writing on pessimism on my blog since my early years on LiveJournal (2001) to my change over to WordPress in 2012 the darkest segments of my gaze into the pessimistic worlds of philosophy and literature have seen little favorable reaction from readers of my blogs except that small minority that sees as I do this uncompromising view as their inner truth and diagnosis of the “festival of carnage”. The truth is that most react with horror and disgust at such a bleak view of the world and universe, and as Ligotti again correctly surmises,

“…when it comes to existential judgments, human beings in general have an unfalteringly good opinion of themselves and their condition in this world and are steadfastly confident they are not a collection of self-conscious nothings.”

Hell, I know myself that the gloom and doom of this view onto life if taken too seriously can lead to madness. I think that’s why I’ve developed over the years my own defense mechanisms by way of a quirky humor, a sardonic wit and irony to keep at bay those times when even I become too depressed. Humor is above all (and, I don’t mean the satiric jibe or gallows humor) the only reprieve from such abyssal seductions. But even it should be tinged with the dark fires of an uncompromising gaze onto what is. I’ve seen recent philosophers weave such a web of words from various traditions of Idealism and Materialism of late to cover over the truth using mathematics, diagrammatic, and other edgy forms of thought that I often wonder if they truly believe their own horseshit or not. Take away the power of rhetoric and sophistry and what remains of a philosopher’s thought? Not being a philosopher, but rather a creature undefinable by any category I’ve seen my own thoughts wander through the gamut of autodidactic quests, pondered so many various thought-forms from a myriad of traditions that to lock oneself into any of them is a sort of safeguard against openness and incompleteness. This notion of the universe as open and incomplete rather than a closed entropic totality seems for me at least to allow for that negative capability of which John Keats once described so eloquently:

‘The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems.’

Knowing that the world is not for-us, that the impersonal and indifferent universe is a realm of unfolding chaos and mayhem; and, yet, that there are underlying forms of order beyond our Reason to collate (Lovecraft) – offers one – if not a consolation, at least an acknowledgement that as self-nothings: accidents of time, evolution, and the mystery of obscurity and contradiction that is this universe, is for many of us to accept that we may never uncover the underlying mechanisms and structures of knowing and being. But that this is enough: to have lived, loved, and been a part of something that is and remains a mystery that drives us, puzzles us, and gives of the courage of our hopelessness to continue… for we seek not a place to rest, but the never-ending restlessness of the quest of intelligence and Mind to know and understand even if there is no answer forthcoming out of the Void.


1. Vastarien, Vol. 1, Issue 1 (p. 84). Grimscribe Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ligotti, Thomas. The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (p. 33). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.

The Great Menippean Tradition

I’ll admit my heritage is with the long line of pessimistic realists… the Great Menippeans!

The Encyclopedia Britannica will give us this rendition on Menippean satire: it is a seriocomic genre, chiefly in ancient Greek literature and Latin literature, in which contemporary institutions, conventions, and ideas were criticized in a mocking satiric style that mingled prose and verse. The form often employed a variety of striking and unusual settings, such as the descent into Hades. Developed by the Greek satirist Menippus of Gadara in the early 3rd century bce, Menippean satire was introduced to Rome in the 1st century bce by the scholar Varro in Saturae Menippeae. It was imitated by Seneca and the Greek satirist Lucian and influenced the development of Latin satire by Horace and Juvenal. The 1st-century-ce Satyricon of Petronius, a picaresque tale in verse and prose containing long digressions in which the author airs his views on topics having nothing to do with the plot, is in the Menippean tradition.

Oxford will tell us this Menippean satire is a form of intellectually humorous work characterized by miscellaneous contents, displays of curious erudition, and comical discussions on philosophical topics. The name comes from the Greek Cynic philosopher Menippus (3rd century bce), whose works are lost, but who was imitated by the Roman writer Varro (1st century bce) among others. The Canadian critic Northrop Frye revived the term in Anatomy of Criticism (1957) while also introducing the overlapping term anatomy after a famous example of Menippean satire, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). The best‐known example of the form is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865); other examples include the novels of Thomas Love Peacock, and John Barth’s campus novel Giles Goat‐Boy (1966). The humour in these works is more cheerfully intellectual and less aggressive than in those works which we would usually call satires, although it holds up contemporary intellectual life to gentle ridicule.

Yet, during the modern and postmodern eras – so called, we saw the rise of what many term now the drift between maximalist and minimalist forms of Menippean satire, a fusion of socio-cultural critique that would take on the whole of ancient humanism as its target, undermining the very foundations of anthropocentric authority and exceptionalism. In the paradigmatic work of its age James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake would undermine the whole tradition stemming for Aquinas to the Great War flying past the world of race, religion, and nation, producing a work that would go even as far as smashing the world of language itself: abnihilization of the etym” (Wake). For Joyce Western Civilization was already dead and he would bury it in his book along with undermining any sense of resurrectionist ideology and pretense of reviving it. He would undermine the fascist stance of such authoritarian poetics of the Occult complicity of poets like W.B. Yeats and their ilk, along with a detailed undermining of the Catholic Church and its hold on politics and Ireland. He would also disallow any form of nationalist discourse, but would seek to explode the very roots of our rhetorical strategies by including a detailed comedy of politics as part of his drunken satyr play and Saturnalian festival.

Many of the young scholars today are much too lazy to actually delve into the great spread of ancient, modern, and postmodern thought, literature, and philosophy and discover or invent a path forward for our world.   The only lost potential failure in our time is the failure of imagination and reason: it is the failure to do nothing at all, to sit back and allow authoritarian power to diminish us, to strip us of our dignity, our rights, our ways of life. As I show below, there has always been times when authoritarianism ruled, and yet many artisans of that ancient light of reason, the great Menippeans pulled out the truth of their time and shined a light on the darkness with verve and energy of satire, wit, and critique that allowed people to learn the truth by other means: laughter. As Bataille would make this the cornerstone of critique, as would Nietzsche before him… people forget that the tools for battling authority are always ready to hand for those intelligent enough to use them. No matter the darkness of authoritarianism surrounding them. Only those who give up and allow the authorities to win are the true cowards.

There’s a whole world of past literature and culture that many seem ready to obliterate that could teach them a thing or two about the use of language as a weapon: the whole tradition of Menippean satire from Lucian to Pynchon brought to bare every aspect of this technique, which in times of authoritarian rule becomes the low-brow path of critique through sardonic laughter and sadness. The great pessimist realists were all Comic satirists of their age: Chaucer, François Rabelais, Robert Burton, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Nikolai Gogol, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Stanislaw Lem, Mikhail Bulgakov., DeLillo.. just to scratch the surface. So I’m in good company… I could as well bring in the great writers of the Third World nations, too. From the Middle-East, Africa, South and Middle America, China, and the Island nations, India, the whole world has a literature awaiting us… my only regret at sixty-five is that I had to plunder whole forests to discover the narrow world of my current list of great thinkers, poets, satirists, essayists, etc.

Most of us find our way in the dark forests of an overwhelming and overloaded world of thought. Some term our age the Infobomb implosion because we are stuffed with too much information, too many books, millions of bits of useless data with no rhyme or reason, organization or path into its maze. There was a time when the literary critics task was exemplary at weeding and filtering the wheat from the shaft in current literature, philosophy, historical writing, scientific literature, etc. Now we live with well paid ad men and women who work to promote not truth but the well-paid propaganda of their overlords. We lack the power of the critical gaze, we’ve even begun to shrink from the tradition of ‘critique’ as if it, too, were passé – a dead issue. People turn blankly at the online libraries, blogs, Face Books, Twitters, Linkins, etc. for something worthwhile and find only the echo chamber of their own miniscule minds thrown back at them. The sigh, or get angry, rage at the stupidity of the world. They are blind to the links from the great traditions of thought, literature, philosophy, etc. that would give them the necessary tools to actually think their own thoughts. Rather academics specialize in exceptional vocabularies that no longer speak to the common reader, the regular man and woman in the streets who could use their vast knowledge base. This is where the great books of the Mennipeans came in to fill in that gap in learning and provide in a humorous and equitable feast of mind and eye a festival of thought and learning palatable for all to enter into and bring away something no matter their education, race, gender, or class relations. These were the true democrats of thought …

In many ways the premier writer’s writer of the postmodern age was John Barth whose localized rendition of the whole metaficitonal sequence of writing was none other than a learned discourse on the rhetoric’s underpinning the ancient world of the Menippean satire from its maximalist to minimalist designs, styles, theories, critiques, parodies, pastiche… a school of wit, comedy, and gentle persuasion, a slow learner’s manual for understanding the inner workings of Western Enlightenment traditions, and its tools of critique and rhetorical strategies and forms, etc. Pynchon would do the obverse, he would run the gamut of categories: exposing the diseases of intellect underpinning our fall into fascism and authoritarian rule. Others like Twain and Vonnegut would strip the illusions that keep us bound to our stupid factor, bound to the chains of our own self-made delusions. Lem and Bulgakov would center on the great institutions of middle-managerial power that automates society in an endless bureaucracy. DeLillo and Wallace would show the bottom-feeder world between paranoia and hysterics where people have become the utter victims of a duplicitous crime world. Zadie Smith would bring to bare the voice of the downtrodden and gender and racial extremes of our cultural malaise, expose the stupidity of allowing our world to continue in this putrid state of imbecility. All would scope the tools necessary for us to rise above it and build another world worth living in.

I could go on and on… but why be a bore. Explore it yourself. Do something creative, today. Pick up a book, begin the long road of recovery. Begin!

Our Future / Our Past

Crash Space: The Coming Age of Machinic Intelligence

We exchanged a flurry of texts. We weren’t idiots. We knew full well the gravity of what had happened. But we also knew we had nothing to fear, and very little to cover up.

—R. Scott Bakker, Crash Space

Anyone still believing that the “blunt tool” of mass surveillance is protecting us from terrorists should read the Washington Post’s two-year investigation of “Top Secret America.” The detailed series of articles suggested that the United States’ massive surveillance system could possibly make us more vulnerable to terrorism:

“Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year— a volume so large that many are routinely ignored. In the Department of Defense, where more than two-thirds of the intelligence programs reside, only a handful of senior officials— called Super Users— have the ability to even know about all the department’s activities. “I’m not going to live long enough to be briefed on everything” was how one Super User put it. The other (Super User) recounted that for his initial briefing, he was escorted into a tiny, dark room, seated at a small table and told he couldn’t take notes. Program after program began flashing on a screen, he said, until he yelled “Stop!” in frustration. “I wasn’t remembering any of it,” he said.

Billions of personal details about the general population, collected by computers, can overwhelm those officials looking for a particular suspect. As the New America Foundation report indicated, most terrorists are caught using “traditional investigative methods, such as the use of informants, tips from local communities, and targeted intelligence operations . . .”

In the coming years all human intelligence will become mute, AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) machinic systems and the decisions made upon such data depend will be done more “efficiently” through rule based normative functional algorithms, making matrices that will be invented by the artificial minds themselves. All surveillance and Global Security Systems will be in the hands of the AGI’s, since humans such as the SuperUser above will not have the necessary processing power to absorb, much less decide on, filter, collate, and analyze such massive Big Data as will be collected in such great Data Centers as the one being built in Utah.

We’ve entered that strange transitional age when we are as humans obsolescing our own intelligence in favor of machinic gods who will have no sense of our cultural or social value systems, only the algorithmic targeting capabilities of seek and destroy policing of the animal called man. We are building the cages of the future, and enforcing a new breed of policing agents in the frontiers of our brave new worlds of machinic being. Through our fear of terror, we are producing greater terrors. From economics to security the deep-learning algorithms and other plasticity based systems of self-transforming and feed-back systems based on endless rhizomatic loops will surpass our capabilities and move beyond our ability to control or constrain. What then?

Stephen Hawking fears it, saying: “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” he said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.” Tesla CEO and famous technology innovator Elon Musk has repeatedly warned about AI threats. In June, he said on CNBC that he had invested in AI research because “I like to just keep an eye on what’s going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is a potential dangerous outcome there.” He went on to invoke The Terminator. In August, he tweeted that “We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” And at a recent MIT symposium, Musk dubbed AI an “existential threat” to the human race and a “demon” that foolish scientists and technologists are “summoning.” Musk likened the idea of control over such a force to the delusions of “guy[s] with a pentagram and holy water” who are sure they can control a supernatural force—until it devours them. As Musk himself suggests elsewhere in his remarks, the solution to the problem lies in sober and considered collaboration between scientists and policymakers. So much for Enlightenment? But these are the extremes, other voices say other things, and the process of making such systems seems inevitable with so many nations and corporations investing so heavily into every aspect of robotics, war machines, and AGI related systems for profit or sex or power.

Mass surveillance programs are run by machines or persons trained to act like machines. Targeted intelligence operations are run by experienced security agents who are allowed to use the knowledge gained through years of training. In the future our urban zones will become more and more integrated into smart infrastructures where the electronic eyes, ear, scent, and prosthetic appendages of sensory outlays once part of the human body will become externalized into the very objects of common everyday work around us. The systems that will shape and secure our systems of command and control within the urban workplace will be a part of a vast integrated system of artificial intelligent centers that will run everything from our basic needs to the most criminal policing enterprise the world has ever seen. It will be invisible, part of the background, so virtualized that we will not even be aware that we’ve become part of a Planetary Prison system that we ourselves built and handed over to the Great Artificial General Intelligent systems to come. To call this paranoiac is to enter into inhuman territory of mind and thought which that term was only a simplified interdiction onto the human, not the machinic.

Watching the recent craze of mobile to mobile Pokémon Go we’ve entered the moment when the virtual is seeping into our world, when men, women, and children stare into the screens of their hand held systems as if they were more real than the world around them. Even criminals have hopped on the wagon. Armed robbers used the game Pokémon Go to lure victims to an isolated trap in Missouri, police reported on Sunday. Pokémon Go warns players to keep aware of their surroundings during their virtual treasure hunt, but after only a few days since its release it has already led people into a string of bizarre incidents. People have ended up in hospitals after chasing nonexistent animals into hazardous spots, and schools, a state agency and Australian police have warned people not to break the law or endanger themselves while “Pokemoning”. The game has also led wanderers to at least one home misidentified as a church, a venue the app considers a public space.

We are so desperate to fill the gap of our meaningless world with meaning, that the virtual worlds of our electronic media are beginning to supervene onto reality and control our very bodies and behaviors. We’ve allowed the virtual to become our reality and left the old worlds of natural existence behind, and yet those world impinge upon our false realms in dangerous and untold ways. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who directs the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, describes the following scenario in his book Superintelligence, which has prompted a great deal of debate about the future of artificial intelligence. Bostrom believes that superintelligence could emerge, and while it could be great, he thinks it could also decide it doesn’t need humans around. Or do any number of other things that destroy the world. The title of chapter 8 is: “Is the default outcome doom?” As Paul Ford recently at MIT stated: “No one is suggesting that anything like superintelligence exists now. In fact, we still have nothing approaching a general-purpose artificial intelligence or even a clear path to how it could be achieved. Recent advances in AI, from automated assistants such as Apple’s Siri to Google’s driverless cars, also reveal the technology’s severe limitations; both can be thrown off by situations that they haven’t encountered before. Artificial neural networks can learn for themselves to recognize cats in photos. But they must be shown hundreds of thousands of examples and still end up much less accurate at spotting cats than a child.” (Our Fear of Artificial Intelligence)

Others like Rodney Brooks tell us hogwash, we have nothing to fear. Extrapolating from the state of AI today to suggest that superintelligence is looming is “comparable to seeing more efficient internal combustion engines appearing and jumping to the conclusion that warp drives are just around the corner,” Brooks wrote recently on Edge.org. “Malevolent AI” is nothing to worry about, he says, for a few hundred years at least. Yet, others like Stuart J. Russell, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley disagree with Brooks, saying: ““There are a lot of supposedly smart public intellectuals who just haven’t a clue.”  He pointed out that AI has advanced tremendously in the last decade, and that while the public might understand progress in terms of Moore’s Law (faster computers are doing more), in fact recent AI work has been fundamental, with techniques like deep learning laying the groundwork for computers that can automatically increase their understanding of the world around them.

As Ford concludes we have no technology that is remotely close to superintelligence. Then again, many of the largest corporations in the world are deeply invested in making their computers more intelligent; a true AI would give any one of these companies an unbelievable advantage. They also should be attuned to its potential downsides and figuring out how to avoid them. This somewhat more nuanced suggestion—without any claims of a looming AI-mageddon—is the basis of an open letter on the website of the Future of Life Institute, the group that got Musk’s donation. Rather than warning of existential disaster, the letter calls for more research into reaping the benefits of AI “while avoiding potential pitfalls.”

Agency: Human or Artificial?

It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality). What this means is that the dialectic of semblance and Real cannot be reduced to the rather elementary fact that the virtualization of our daily lives, the experience that we are more and more living in an artificially constructed universe, gives rise to the irresistible urge to ‘return to the Real’, to regain the firm ground in some ‘real reality.’ THE REAL WHICH RETURNS HAS THE STATUS OF A(NOTHER) SEMBLANCE: precisely because it is real, i.e. on account of its traumatic/excessive character, we are unable to integrate it into (what we experience as) our reality, and are therefore compelled to experience it as a nightmarish apparition.

—Slavoj Žižek. Disparities

This sense of loss of reality and the nightmare quality of our lives in this weird world of the artificial seems to pervade every aspect of our socio-cultural lives. Our politics has turned south, gone under into a nightmare zone of strangeness across the First World. People that have sensed this nightmare surrounding them have been desperate to return to the old ways of our ancestral realms in any form or fashion. Ergo, the reason for traditionalist values and pundits on the Right of the spectrum have arisen because of this vacuum in peoples lives living in the artificial worlds of the modern urban megacities where every form of existence has become plastic and plasticity as a thought form has become all too real. Sex and Race pervade our politics now because the barriers of the fantasy worlds of the old mythologies of Monotheism no longer hold, not longer feed people what they need to give their lives meaning. We’ve been demythologizing and leaving these ancient systems behind for a few hundred years. Yet, in small pockets they  hold on fiercely and adamantly in certain traditionalist camps.

Catherine Malabou explains in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, the concept of plasticity, whose scope and stakes are firmly inscribed in those of our era, has overtaken the schemas of text and the trace. Plasticity “takes over” and “becomes the resistance of difference to its textual reduction.” In The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Malabou expands her reflection to cerebral pathologies, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. She hosts a dialog between philosophy, psychoanalysis and contemporary neurology, offering to demonstrate how cerebral organization presides over a libidinal economy in current psychopathologies. She also proposes a new theory of trauma and defends the hypothesis of destructive plasticity. In her latest book, Self and Emotional Life, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience, written with Adrian Johnston, Malabou continues her exquisite crossing of disciplines, this time in order to explore the concept of wonder.

Without using all the jargon of postmodern shibboleths neuroplasticity in brain and mind is a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. When people say that the brain possesses plasticity, they are not suggesting that the brain is similar to plastic. Neuro represents neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability. There’s both a functional and structural aspect to this neuroplasticity, one which allows other parts of the brain to take over the functions of diseased or traumatized areas (functional); and, the other (structural) refers to the brain’s ability to actually change its physical structure as a result of learning.

Our notions of agency have over the years changed, and the notions of Subject and Self have come under great scrutiny in philosophy and neurosciences. N. Katherine Hayles once suggested that if on the one hand humans are like machines, whether figured as cellular automata or Turing machines, then agency cannot be securely located in the conscious mind. If on the other hand machines are like biological organisms, then they must possess the effects of agency even though they are not conscious. In these reconfigurations, desire and language, both intimately connected with agency, are understood in new ways. Acting as a free-floating agent, desire is nevertheless anchored in mechanistic operations, a suggestion Guattari makes in “Machinic Heterogenesis.” Language, emerging from the operations of the unconscious figured as a Turing machine, creates expressions of desire that in their origin are always already interpenetrated by the mechanistic, no matter how human they seem. Finally, if desire and the agency springing from it are at bottom nothing more than performance of binary code, then computers can have agency fully as authentic as humans. Through these reconfigurations, Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan use automata to challenge human agency and in the process represent automata as agents.1

If our binary and / or algorithmic systems can already be thought to have agency, what of the more advanced AGI’s that even in their primitive beginnings during our experimental age are already surpassing human intelligence? Many guffaw such surpassing of the human as wishful thinking, as imposing upon the machinic world of things our anthropomorphic thought forms. But is this so? Are we not actually following the trajectory of two thousand years of technics and technology that has always gone hand in hand with human culture and civilization? Isn’t there always a sense of a two-way interactive oscillation between human agency and its creations? Isn’t this dialectical interplay between machine and human always already been a part of the human instrumentalism that was to eventually be termed science?  Our elite pundits have tried to spin a story that the Enlightenment was an aberration, that instrumental reason was no more than culturally bound entity, and that it too would be sloughed off for something else. What is this something else if not the AGI’s we are now inventing out of necessity at our own unsurmountable finitude? Building such superintelligences because our own abilities as creatures of finitude and limitation cannot surpass certain barriers due to evolutionary bindings? Because we have created such a desperate need for decomplexifying the data of our world in all its multifarious complexity?

The notion of Agency and Subject developed by Deleuze, Guattari, and Lacan, is a subject in which consciousness, far from being the seat of agency, is left to speculate on why she acts as she does. She is increasingly aware that the origin of agency lies beyond the reach of consciousness, enacted by a computational program that is ultimately controlled by the external agent that has programmed the code to operate as it does. Even at this deep level the ambiguity of agency continues, for program is perceived to act both as an agent on its own behalf and as the surrogate for the will of the human. The ambiguity is repeated within consciousness, where she perceives herself to be exercising agency in the margins, as it were, the grey areas where the objectives of code might be implemented in ambiguous ways. In these complex reconfigurations of agency, the significance of envisioning the unconscious as a program rather than as a dark mirror of consciousness can scarcely be overstated, for it locates the hidden springs of action in the brute machinic operations of code. In this view, such visions of the unconscious as Freud’s repressed Oedipal conflicts or Jung’s collective archetypes seem hopelessly anthropomorphic, for they populate the unconscious with ideas comfortingly familiar to consciousness rather than the much more alien operations of machinic code. (43)

Blindness and Insight: Beyond the Hum of Machines?

Antonio Damasio, argue that body and mind are inextricably linked through multiple recursive feedback loops mediated by neurotransmitters, systems that have no physical analogues in computers. Damasio makes the point that these messages also provide content for the mind, especially emotions and feelings: “relative to the brain, the body provides more than mere support and modulation: it provides a basic topic for brain representations” (xvii). As Hayles tells us ”

The central question … is no longer how we as rational creatures should act in full possession of free will and untrammeled agency. Rather, the issue is how consciousness evolves from and interacts with the underlying programs that operate analogously to the operations of code. Whether conceived as literal mechanism or instructive analogy, coding technology thus becomes central to understanding the human condition. (44)

That great atheist dialectical materialist, Slavoj Zizek in his recent work Disparities will humor us saying that “Einstein was right with his famous claim ‘God doesn’t cheat’ – what he forgot to add is that god himself can be cheated. Insofar as the materialist thesis is that ‘God is unconscious’ (God doesn’t know), quantum physics effectively is materialist: there are microprocesses (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system. And insofar as God is one of the names of the big Other, we can see in what sense one cannot simply get rid of god (big Other) and develop an ontology without big Other: god is an illusion, but a necessary one.”2

Can we say that this necessary illusion is central to our quest to build the God Mind in our AGI’s? Are we not in fact and deed actually trying to create a god? Isn’t this truly at the heart of the artificial intelligent holy grail quest? To become machinic, to enter into the transitional stage of superintelligence, make our own pact with the impossible? For Zizek we have never been human, we’ve always been in transitional movement, that humans are in themselves absolutely nothing, without any fixed agency or stable self, that nothing pre-exists our being in the world, and that the notion of Subject is of movement toward something else. For Zizek we live in-between the Subject which is nothing in itself, and the world that we do not have direct access too. There is a crack in the world between us and reality, and all of our grand tales, our visions, our fantasies are ways in which we seek to bridge the gap between ourselves and reality. Yet, time after time our bridges built out of mathematics or language cannot bridge the gap so we build even more fantastic schemes:

This is why, from the strict Freudian standpoint, fantasy is on the side of reality, it sustains the subject’s ‘sense of reality’: when the fantasmatic frame disintegrates, the subject undergoes a ‘loss of reality’ and starts to perceive reality as an ‘irreal’ nightmarish universe with no firm ontological foundation; this nightmarish universe – the Lacanian Real – is not ‘pure fantasy’ but, on the contrary, that which remains of reality after reality is deprived of its support in fantasy.(Kindle Locations 285-288)

So once our human illusions, our fantasies are stripped from the world, what is left is the bottomless pit of nightmare —the Universe of machinic life. The endless sea of process and chaos churning on and on and on…

Reality is impenetrable not just because it transcends the constrained horizon of finite human being but also because we humans are unable to control and predict the effects on our own activity on our natural environs. Therein resides the paradox of anthropocene: humanity became aware of its self-limitation as a species precisely when it became so strong that it influenced the balance of the entire life on earth. It was able to dream of being a Subject until its influence on nature (earth) was marginal, that is, against the background of stable nature. The paradox is thus that the more the reproduction of nature is human mediated, the more humanity becomes a ‘decentred’ agent unable to regulate the process of its exchange with nonhuman nature. This is why it is not enough to insist on the nontransparency of objects, on how objects have a hidden core withdrawn from human reach: what is withdrawn is not just the hidden side of objects but above all the true dimension of the subject’s activity. The true excess is not the excess of objectivity which eludes the subject’s grasp but the excess of the subject itself, that is to say, what eludes the subject is the ‘blind spot’, the point at which it is itself inscribed into reality.3

My friend R. Scott Bakker calls this ‘blind spot’ of the Subject our inability to turn back upon ourselves and view the very processes that create consciousness —the Brain. We have no direct path toward reality, nor upon our own processes. We are blind to both reality and ourselves. Bakker defines a crash space as “a problem solving domain where our tools seem to fit the description, but cannot seem to get the job done” (p. 203). Bakker argues, plausibly, that the cognitive and emotional structures that give meaning to our lives and constrain us ethically can be expected to work only in a limited range of environments — roughly, environments similar in their basic structure to those in our evolutionary and cultural history. Break far enough away, and our ancestrally familiar approaches will cease to function effectively. As Bakker reminds us:

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. (21)

We are living in such a domain now. We have for a few hundred years moved from our ancient heritage of Hunter/Gatherers, Agriculturalists, and emerged into a new realm both artificial and outside the confines of the natural world environments that were our base and support for millennia. Our philosophies, religions, cultural forms, our mythologies and even our instrumental reasoning powers – both cunning and rational, are no longer bound to the natural earth and environs, but rather have become unmoored within realms unforeseeable by our ancient systems of constraint and reason, our modern civilization. We’ve entered the Crash Space of Modernity in transition and our fantasies that have partially filled the gap of meaning have fallen into fragments and disarray across the planet. Our modern lives in this artificial world or urban cities, mobile to mobiles, electronic virtual realities, etc. has overtaking our ancient ties to the jungles and swamps of our ancient ancestry. Our minds have become unhinged from the natural environments, and have yet to make new ties to the urban zones of our future lives in artificial worlds.

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. ( Bakker, 22)

I remember back in the seventies at university my English teacher (we still had an English Department back then! long before humanities) once said that Science Fiction was the mythology of our Age of Reason and Modernity. I still believe that is true. We are in the thousands of fictional scenarios of science fiction inventing a path forward, creating stories and tales that seek to understand and immerse us not in the past, not in character studies of Novels, but in the tools necessary to help us move steadily, calmly, and with reasoning awareness into the most impossible region of all —the Future.

As we move forward we realize we are not alone, that around us is a great host of stars, planets, galaxies unbound. The only thing stopping us from change and developing viable paths in cultural, social, politics and life is our own defective and maladaptive minds, blinded by our own immersion in these processes we have no control over and yet control us in ways beyond telling. We live by fantasy, we always have… we create meaning not out of blindly stripping reality of our minds, but by weaving meaningful fantasies based on our awakening to the new and unbidden. Only when we allow our fantasies to rule over us, to suborn us and enslave us as in ancient thought of religious and socio-cultural systems of power and knowledge that weave us into their larger frameworks like so many insectoids to do the bidding of the few rather than the many do we begin to lose sight of the power of mind and its place in the universe at large. As Bakker ominously surmises “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.” (22)


  1. Swirski, Peter. The Art and Science of Stanislaw Lem (pp. 28-29). Ingram Distribution. Kindle Edition.
  2. Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (Kindle Locations 1086-1090). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  3. ibid. (Kindle Locations 721-729).

Reading Ervin D. Krause’s ‘You Will Never See Any God: Stories’

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Krause (Left) with brother, Gerald (Right)

The boy felt a shudder—it was not the air and the wisps of drizzle. He knew what it was—there was evil here. He had a swift recognition of the evil of something warped, the terror of darkness and the strange; he had felt it before, on cold lightning-fired nights, in the chill of the church on Sunday mornings, on entering an unlighted barn. This had always held a secret terror for him, for he went much to Sunday school and church, and he had heard much of evil, had known it to be rampant and secret, and it had always been hidden secretly from him, behind bannisters on stairs, in the darkness of doorways at church, behind corners cringing in barns, in the dank, tree-overhung lagoons that were nursed with bad water and a stench down along the river. It had always been a secret terror for him before, but now it was here, very near to him; he could look up and see the heavy, mudded shoetops of the neighbor with that face strange, carved as if from red and rotted wood with the purple, bloodless leer and the red-rimmed, gouged eye.

—Ervin D. Krause, You Will Never See Any God: Stories (“The Right Hand”)

Once all but forgotten, writer Ervin D. Krause, the son of a Midwestern tenant farmer, ranked among the best short story writers in the country in the early 1960s. Championed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro, then editor of Prairie Schooner, Krause’s work was reprinted in both the O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies, sharing space with luminaries like Flannery O’Connor, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. At a time when American literature was still heavily preoccupied with the beatniks — the breathless bebop of Kerouac, Burroughs’ cut-ups and more — Krause wrote hopeless stories in gimmick-less prose, stories that open doors only to slam them shut, stories as dusty as a November cornfield and populated with the characters of his childhood.

As Carson Vaughn says it Krause’s stories evoke a grim determinism more in line with the naturalists of decades prior, a cold reality mimicked by a “frigid sun” or a farmstead “abandoned and gray.” “None of his characters finds peace, none finds a sanctuary of comfort, all find failure and defeat,” Krause wrote in the introduction to his 1957 master’s thesis, “The Three Views of John Dos Passos.” The same could have been written about Krause’s stories themselves, their tone pessimistic, skewing always toward a harsh and unrelenting realism.

I’ve barely begun reading these stories, but already their dipping me in that ancient loam of darkness surrounding us, an abyss of primal worlds that seep into ours every night in the realms of nightmare. And, yet, his stories also touch base with an older world of humanity in the early Agricultural realms of the Icelandic Sagas, a realism that pits humans within a mythology of the elemental earth and its organic cycles. A place we have tried to forget in our urban worlds of artificiality. Krause would remind us that beyond the glitter of the night skies of the great skyscrapers lies another world, the realm of stars and evil energy arising not from some transcendent realm of gods, but rather closer to home in the very soil of our climatic earth where all civilizations have always found their fatal outcomes from womb to tomb.

One perceives this in stark terms as the boy from the short story I quoted in the beginning, ‘The Right Hand’ watches the neighbor farmer as he tries to nurse a young calf back to health whose front forelegs to the nib were gnawed off by his hogs:

After two days the calf would not eat anymore and even then somehow it managed to stand, its sides transparent against the toothpick, tiny-slat ribs, and it wandered thus, falling and rising and floundering in the dust of the yard, like some mad tormented creature, driven by something inexplicable and terrible, seeking to hide in the shade of the plum brush, but always falling and being drawn in the wrong direction, wandering, mad and awful, disfigured and torn, yet somehow, madly, relentlessly living, driven like its master to live, in spite of the want for death, until at last it did die, with even the last death motion feeble, and the calf bellow only a gurgle in the quivering throat, and in the evening when the dust had cooled and Stark came back in from the fields, he took the calf and carried it up the pasture hill and buried it.

This sense of the life force at work in the calf, the blind need to exist, to move, to live. Schopenhauer would see in this physical enactment the power of the will. He’d teach us that through both first and third person perspectives we can by way of self-awareness, by peeling away its layers of meaning, we will inevitably come to the conclusion that the inner essence of things is nothing less than the will. Schopenhauer’s first step toward that conclusion is a simple distinction between two forms of self-knowledge. I know myself as an individual, he explains, through my body, which makes me just this individual and no other. But I know this body in two ways or from two perspectives (I. 157; P 100). I can view it from an external or third-person perspective, where it appears as one object among others; but I can also view it from an internal or first-person perspective, where it is the single, unique object of my self-consciousness. Schopenhauer stresses that these two modes of knowing ourselves are utterly distinct from one another. They are two incommensurable perspectives upon one and the same thing: namely, my body (I. 161; P 103).1

Krause in his vision of evil would see this will to live, this Schopenhauerian energy and drive to exist as a part of the fatal evil of existence, not some metaphysical evil of external devils, etc., but rather the inherent drive of life in its will to exist, to remain, to blindly keep on struggling. In the story the boy learns the difference between actual and metaphysical evil in life and the physical world, and that the two are twain, divided, different.

As Krause relates of the boy, in his mind the farmer was evil for wanting to help the young calf survive. Because of his Christian belief system, taught by his Mama and the Sunday school he is mixed in his views of the natural and metaphysical. Here is his reception of Stark:

After that the boy had even a deeper terror of and hatred for Stark. It was not because of the calf; he had no sympathy for it, for he had seen suffering, he had witnessed agony and seen the dumb struggling eyes of animals in pain, and he had grown used to it, had felt nothing at seeing death—no, that was not it—it was that Stark could want something so misshapen, so awful around, and would want to make it live.

The boy’s sense of evil, taught by his Old Testament knowledge of Cain and the Mark, etc., makes him see evil in this metaphysical light: “The boy wanted to destroy the calf the first time he saw it because it was so badly disfigured, just as he had calmly destroyed ducklings with misshapen beaks and pigs that were born with their guts outside themselves. That which was misshapen and marked was evil, was not natural, and needed to be destroyed, and he felt a shudder run through him, remembering how Stark wanted to keep the animal alive.”

So that the boy imposes an evil on things and animals that are not part of the farmer’s life and being, a metaphysical imposition that rakes across the world a fear and trepidation of all things scarred and misshapen. At the heart of the story is the birth mark on the old farmer Stark himself, whose face is seen in the early description:

The birthmark pulled the lips crooked, made them seem open, even if they were not, made them look dead with that deep-purple, bloodless, blooded color. It was the purple of something dead—the purple on dead horses’ heads before the rendering truck or hogs come to them. The boy stared at this face, the face reflecting the sorrow and the sufferings of lifetimes, a face with the mark of Cain perhaps, or just of the man’s parents; it was a face with that naked hurting look of a burn or a brand healing and yet never quite healed, always inflamed and sensitive and sore; it was a face of terror and of bad dreams, giving to anyone who saw it a weird and evilfearing anxiety.

The boy raised up on Old Testament horrors and tales sees pain and suffering everywhere, as if these were signs of evil and punishment. While Krause himself portrays the farmer as just a man living in the elements of his world of earth and soil, a man who does what such men do, not bothered by such metaphysical fictions but rather existing in a world without gods or such mind bending tales that warp the psyche beyond repair. I want spoil the tale for you with the ending, just to say that in the end we discover that the evil has all along resided not in the Old Farmer, Stark, but in the boy who has impose upon the world what lies only deep in his own Bible bound metaphysical mind, an evil that has shaped his psychopathic psyche and being, twisting it beyond all telling…

Yet, if there is an epiphany in this short story, it comes not by some sublime enlightenment, rather it comes in the very moment of the common, of the dull, of the truth of our shared lives. The boy who has been working his way up to sneak into the old farmer’s house while he is out and about, thinking in his devious boy’s heart that there must be some hideous evil lying in wait within those four walls, enters the farmer’s domain only to find no real evil other than loss. The boy comes into the old man’s bedroom and finds nothing more in it than a few pictures with memories:

 In the picture, too, were a boy and a girl, the boy younger, both plain, vacant-faced children, like any other boy and girl. And on the picture, written very faintly, but carefully, too, as if it had been written a long time before, above the man’s head were the words “Ezra Stark, Sr., died 1938,” and above the woman’s “Mathilda Stark, died 1943,” and “Carl” beside the boy, and “Harriet” beside the girl. He did not know why the picture was there, and he did not really care.

This moment of the realization: “The boy surveyed the room again. He was genuinely disappointed. He had expected something of a purpose perhaps, overwhelming and evil, a mad old woman, an opium den, a room full of glowering icons, but instead there was only the single dull picture.” And, yet, it is this singular object, this ‘dull picture’ that holds the key to the story, the memories and history of a man, alone, a man who has seen his father, his mother, his wife and children all die before him; a man who will seek to keep alive the things of the earth and soil that are his charge for as long as it takes, a man whose memories and keepsakes are all he is and has…

And, a boy, who is beyond that ability to see just this and, instead, sees nothing there at all but a dull old picture that means nothing. The boy not even adult has already entered into that nihilistic world through the very power of a darkened Biblical vision that has hooked his psychopathic heart, lured him into a world where memories and feelings no longer exist. Only his mission to discover and wipe out evil like some inquisitorial ambassador from an earthly hell…

I’ll not say another word on that story… you will need to read it. Krause’s stories may not be for everyone. His dark vision of life and our ruinous ways is part of what quickens me to write of him. Like Flannery O’Conner there is a deep-seated vision and moral power there in these works, but not one that is pervaded by ancient religious consciousness but rather by something older, darker, and more powerful springing up from the very core of the inhuman earth. His is a violent and twisted world full of weird and at last ghastly figures, at once macabre and horrific, and yet within that is still this sense of a code of being that knows the ways of earth and the elements, the patterns of the stars and fate; and, as well the freedom of decisions and retroactive thought that challenges the deterministic threads that would weave us into some death bound universe of lifelessness. For him evil is not in the world so much as it is the terror filled power of our own mind’s to hide from the truth of the world.

Krause’s posthumous work is out finally in book form: You Will Never See Any God.

youwillneverseeanygod


  1. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (Kindle Locations 1061-1066). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Julia Kristeva and the Abject Grotesque

Julia Kristeva and the Abject Grotesque

Far in the distance the tugboat whistled; its call passed the bridge, one more arch, then another, the lock, another bridge, farther and farther … It was summoning all the barges on the river, every last one, and the whole city and the sky and the countryside, and ourselves, to carry us all away, the Seine too —and that would be the end of us.

-Celine, Journey to the End of Night

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982), Julia Kristeva describes the process of abjection as a form of expulsion and rejection of the Other, which she ties to the historical exclusion of women. Neither subject nor object, the abject, or the state of abjection, is articulated in, and through, grotesque language and imagery. The process of abjection is, then, associated with deformed bodies and oozing bodily fluids: blood, pus, bile, faeces, sweat and vomit break down the borders separating the inside from outside, the contained from the released. Abjection is a state of flux, where ‘meaning collapses’, and the body is open and irregular, sprouting or protruding internal and external forms to link abjection to grotesquerie.

“On close inspection, all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its sociohistorical conditions might be, on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object, etc.) do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject” (Powers 207 ). “Not a language of the desiring exchange of messages or objects that are transmitted in a social contract of communication and desire beyond want, but a language of want, of the fear that edges up to it and runs along its edges” (Powers 38 ).

How do we align such a vision of exclusion, abjectness, borderline breakdowns, fear and terror of the Other to the current world of refugees and the wars of nations: economic slavery, austerity, and the darkening hatred and recurrence of fascist tendencies in our time? How speak to that hunger at the center of the void, the lack, the want of which Kristeva’s notions of the comedy of the Abject speak? Have the refugees, as well as women, the LGBTQ community, and many other aspects of our planetary society and civilization become the excluded Other of which we are now faced with the impossible dilemma of either inclusions or expulsion? Maybe these excluded others view us morbid parasites feeding off the global excess, as creatures of grotesque proportion whose shadow worlds of thought and culture are but the fetid apertures of a dying body, a civilization on the edge of destruction, chaos, and apocalypse? It’s as if the open wounds of the world body we are seeing is connected to an ancient curse of civilization, one that stretches back into the hinterlands ten thousand years ago when the first cities began accumulating, hoarding, and guarding their agricultural harvests against the nomadic wanderers and raiders of the outer reaches. This notion still seems still to pervade the modern psyche, as if civilization from the beginning was shaped by a dark and terrible deed, a grotesque system of dominion, slavery, and exclusion that has ever since haunted the mindscapes of every nation on earth.

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The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne

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I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anactoria

Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. This is the bare truth of a poet who would epitomize the dark sadomasochistic world of Late Romanticism, otherwise known as English Decadence.

Little read today except by aficionados of that dark realm of the fantastic one wonders at his strange craft, the elegant measure of his line and its  insouciance. Swinburne would fuse French Decadence to reinforce Coleridge against Wordsworth reviving the gothic sublime in all its horrific glory. An admirer of Sade, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne restored to English literature the sexual frankness it lost after the eighteenth century. After the Victorian defeat of Oscar Wilde the fate of Swinburne was assured. Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas De Profundis would lay bare the dark contours of his own prejudices and fears, presenting his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.” (here) Toward the end of his prison term in Reading he would sum up the art of Late Romanticism (Decadence), saying, “Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.” Sadly, the fate of Wilde’s outer life would haunt the poetry and writings of Swinburne, which would fall into disfavor as a Late Victorian world of morality and accusation would put a damper on any sense of sexuality in poetry of literature.

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Georges Bataille: The Intimacy of the Sacred

Today I kept thinking back to those lectures by Alexandre Kojève on Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit that he presented to the world from 1930 to 1939. Most of the major intellectuals of the era would attend these lectures: Jean-Paul Sartre, Jaques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Simone Weil, etc.. Below I discuss Bataille’s relation to and against Hegel’s dialectic, and his own preference for a non-dialectical and formless thought based on immanence over transcendence, sacred over profane thought: and, the return of the intimate order of immediacy.

Warning: Up front… this post is more specialist. If you’re not versant with Hegel or Bataille you might want to pass. It would take me a great deal of time to set the stage for the conflicts between the two thinkers approaches. This one deals with a specific reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as seen through Alexandre Kojève’s lectures. So if you’re not well read in these areas I’d just pass by on this one… 🙂 I make no qualms about it. I’m jumping into the midst of the argument rather than setting it up with a lengthy explanatory opening…

We know that the slave, having passed through slavish consciousness in the dialectical reversal engendered by self-negation forms himself as something distinct and durable. He enters, by virtue of his labour, the world of objective reality – he recognizes himself in the world he has transformed by his work; in doing so, he achieves “his authentic freedom,” his ‘true autonomy” (27).

The point being that as the slave transforms the world of objective things he creates the conditions that spawn within him the revolutionary need for recognition, etc.. Having once been a slave to the terror of death (from the Master and the Natural World), this slave, through work, creates a world that is the reflection of his own most value, and by which he seeks to impose this value on others in the renewed struggle for recognition. The creation of the technical world of work thus engenders and reveals the autonomous self-consciousness of the slave.

It’s in this notion of formalism, of self-reflecting objectification through work of a substantial formalism, and the objectifying self-reflection of spirit in the objects of its labours that will of course intrigue Marx later on to reverse this into his own modes… that is another story.

The story I want to relate – more as a spur to thought, than a thought itself is Georges Bataille’s acceptance of aspects of this and rejection of others. Bataille, along with a whole generation of other thinkers from 1930 onward would attend these lectures by Kojeve. But unlike many of the others Bataille would argue against the dialectic in favor of a non-dialectical approach which would exclude both the notion of Hegel’s “recognition,” and his notion of “sublatiion” or synthesis.

Bataille in his Theory of Religion will see in Death, neither a Master nor the driving force of terror shaping human productivity, rather he will speak of “death’s definitive impotence and absence”. (40) Doing so Bataille refuses Hegel’s movement of recognition and its drive toward a telos of final satisfaction or synthesis, replacing it with the “logic of identification and unsatisfied desire”.1 Instead of following Hegel, Bataille just at the point where Hegel’s self-negation kicks in and the path toward recognition would be forged, truncates this and enacts a contrary movement, a movement opposed to this self-perfecting elaboration of objective spirit into absolute knowledge. Rather, Bataille will see in the moment of wavering between the state of being a slave but not yet a master is the liminal zone of the sacred monstrum.

Whereas for Kojève there is liberation into self-recognition, autonomy, and satisfaction; for Bataille self-negation entails no ultimate telos, no goal, no satisfaction – and, rather than the Hegelian logic of recognition there is the logic of identification and the agonistic war of desire interminable. (24) As Biles relates it the Kojèvean master/slave dialectic (his reading of Hegel) is replaces by Bataille with the dualistic opposition or agon of the sacred and profane, the “world of animal immanence and the human world of technology and transcendence” (25). As Biles suggests Bataille will undo the “Hegelian synthesis through a maintenance of antinomies” (25).

Bataille seeks to erase the goal of transcendence and return us to the animalistic immanence of the monstrous sacred where we reenter the world like “water in water” (TOR, 19), a realm of “pure immanence” and continuity.2 For Bataille self-consciousness was neither a mistake as some assume, nor an error but rather a product of thought and distinction. Self-consciousness arose out of utilitarian production of tools for use in hunting and gathering, and the very construction of tools and the knowledge of their use would in turn rearrange the ways we defined our modes of being in the world. As Bataille would say it “the  day we  see  our­ selves  from  the  outside  as another. Moreover,  this  will  depend  on our first having distinguished the other on  the plane  where  manufactured  things  have  appeared  to  us distinctly.”(TOR, 31).

Yet, unlike Kojève’s Hegel who would impart self-consciousness as the great liberator that shaped the course of history, time, and self-negating mastery over nature and civilization, Bataille would remark that this “bringing  of  elements  of  the  same  nature  as  the
s ubject,  or  the  subject itself, onto  the  plane  of objects is always  precarious, uncertain,  and  unevenly  realized”.(TOR, 31). Bataille would hold forth that rather than overcoming our ancient animal heritage in some liberation of self-negation and self-relating consciousness and mastery that we are rather situated in the gap between continuity and discontinuity, bound to neither a world of pure mastery and self-overcoming nor to the escape back into the natural oblivion of pure immanence. Instead we are in the negation of negation, caught between two antagonistic worlds, two powers to which we suffer in pure terror and ecstasy.

One remembers Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus where they ask,

(What if one became animal or plant through literature, which certainly does not mean literarily? Is it not first through the voice that one becomes animal?)

Their point being that Literature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and never has been. All we talk about are multiplicities, lines, strata and segmentarities, lines of flight and intensities, machinic assemblages and their various types, bodies without organs and their construction and selection, the plane of consistency, and in each case the units of measure. (TP, KL 295) It would take me too far afield to tease out the meanings in this passage, let us only mark the notion of a “plane of consistency”:

The plane of consistency (grid) is the outside of all multiplicities. The line of flight marks: the reality of a finite number of dimensions that the multiplicity effectively fills; the impossibility of a supplementary dimension, unless the multiplicity is transformed by the line of flight; the possibility and necessity of flattening all of the multiplicities on a single plane of consistency or exteriority, regardless of their number of dimensions. (TP, KL 389-392)

This flattening into the plane of consistency is Bataille’s pure immanence: “In  a  sense,  the  world  is  still,  in  a  fundamental  way, immanence without  a  clear  limit  (an  indistinct  flow  of being  into  being – one  thinks  of the  unstable presence  of water  in  water).” (TOR, 33). For Bataille it is this movement or tendency from the pure plane of immanence toward the profane world of work and utility in which the logic of recognition and satisfaction are the outcome, and the counter-operation of a tendency or disposition toward an undoing and logic of identification and antagonistic desire seeks the path of immanence in the sacred rather than transcendence in the secular order of culture and civilization that is precarious and uncertain, a wavering between ecstasy and horror.

Yet, as Biles maintains the return to immanence is not an exact reduplication of animality, not a return of the Same, but rather to a world that coexists with the profane world rather than obliterating it or erasing it in an eliminative gesture. Instead of  Kojève’s path of mastering animality and one’s transition to “autonomy,” Bataille seeks to undo and cut the ties to the telos logic of the slave/master dialectic altogether through an evasion of goals and final mastery by entering the sacred realm of immanence. Yet, to attain this is for Bataille to understand what Sacrifice entails:

The  principle  of sacrifice  is  destruction,  but though  it sometimes  goes  so  far  as  to  destroy  comp1etely  (as  in  a holocaust),  the  destruction  that  sacrifice  is  intended  to bring  about  is  not  annihilation.(TOR, 43).

Instead of annihilation, “Sac­rifice  destroys  an  object’s  real  ties  of  subordination;  it
draws  the  victim  out  of the  world  of utility  and restores it  to  that  of unintelligible  caprice.” (TOR, 43) In this way we can tie this notion of Bataille with the recent work of Andrew Culp’s whose rehabilitation of the destructive force of negativity by cultivating a “hatred for this world,” offers us a parallel to the ongoing malaise we find ourselves in within our current social, cultural, political dissatisfaction with neoliberal globalism.4 The world Culp is speaking of is not the literal planetary or natural continuum but rather the artificial Human Security Regimes of our global neoliberal order within which we are all enslaved in the master/slave dialectic. As Culp argues,

[the] politics of destruction, which has too long been mistaken for deliberation but is instead exemplified by the war machines of popular insurrection whose success is registered by the streets themselves— consider the words of the Invisible Committee in To Our Friends: “Like any specific strike, it is a politics of the accomplished fact. It is the reign of the initiative, of practical complicity, of gesture. As to decision, it accomplishes that in the streets, reminding those who’ve forgotten, that ‘popular’ comes from the Latin populor, ‘to ravage, devastate.’ It is a fullness of expression  .  .  . and a nullity of deliberation”. By showing the nondurability of what is taken as real, so-called reality itself, communist politics is a conspiracy that writes the destruction of the world. (DD, KL 502-508)

Yet, unlike Culp who seeks a popular insurrection against the Master’s, Bataille offers another path of evasion that seeks to destroy our ties to the Master/Slave dialectic altogether and cut our subordination to the logics of work and utilitarian modes of being; instead, for Bataille we must separate ourselves out, escape the very terms the Master’s have imposed on us, seek to destroy the ties that have bound us to their logic before we can return to the “intimacy” of the sacred.

I quote below an extended passage on this intimate return to the sacred:

The  major weakness  of dualism  is  that it  offers  no  legitimate  place  for  violence  except  in  the  moment  of pure transcendence, of rational exclusion of the sensuous
world. But the divinity of the good cannot be maintained at that degree of purity; indeed, it falls back into the sen­suous world. It is the object, on the part of the believer, of a search for intimate communication, but this thirst for intimacy will  never be quenched.  The good is an exclu­sion of violence and there can be no breaking of the order of separate things, no intimacy, without violence; the god of goodness is limited by right to the violence with which he  excludes  violence,  and  he  is  divine,  open  to  intimacy, only  insofar as  he  in  fact preserves  the  old  violence within him,  which he  does  not  have  the  rigor to  exclude,  and to this  extent he  is  not the god  of reason, which  is  the  truth of  goodness.  In theory this  involves  a  weakening  of  the moral divine  in  favor of evil. (TOR, 80-81).

It is the violence against subordination to the profane power of the Master’s authority and world of the profane that opens us to the relations of intimacy:

In  the  divine  disorder of crime,  I  call  for the violence  that will restore the destroyed order. But in real­ity  it  is not  violence  but  crime that  has  opened  divine intimacy  to  me.  And,  insofar  as  the  vengeance  does  not become  an  extension of the irrational  violence  of  the crime,  it  will  quickly close  that  which  crime  opened.  For only  vengeance  that  is  commanded  by passion  and  a taste for untrammeled  violence  is  divine. The  restoration of the lawful  order is  essentially subordinated to  profane  reality. (TOR, 81).

The destroyed order is that of the order of intimacy itself. “Through medi­ation  the real  order is  subordinated to the search for lost intimacy,  but  the  profound  separation  between  intimacy and  things  is  succeeded  by a  multiplicity  of confusions.” (TOR, 84-85) Yet, it is this maintaining of the “disorder of things” that is Bataille’s strategy:

Under the sover­eignty of morality, all  the operations  that claim to ensure the  return  of the  intimate  order  are  those  that the  real world  requires:  the  extensive  prohibitions  that are  given as the precondition for  the return are aimed  primarily at preserving the disorder of the world of things. (TOR, 85)

Ultimately not only are the violences that morality condemns set free on all sides, but a  tacit debate  is  initiated between the works of salvation, which serve  the  real  order, and those  works  that  escape or evade it…

I’ll need to return to this in a new post to describe the notions of Death, Sacrifice, Intimacy, and Evasion in more depth, but that is for another day.


  1. Biles, Jeremy. Ecce Monstrum: Georges Bataille and the Sacrifice of Form (Fordham University, 2007)
  2. Bataille, Georges, Theory of Religion. (Zone Books, 1989)
  3. Gilles Deleuze; Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus (Kindle Locations 294-295). A&C Black. Kindle Edition.
  4. Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 73-74). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

 

The Neon Demon: Decadence and the Art of Darkness

Since the most eloquent decadences edify us no further as to unhappiness than the stammerings of a shepherd, and ultimately there is more wisdom in the mockery of an idiot than in the investigations of the laboratories, is it not madness to pursue truth on the paths of time—or in books?

– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay

An interview is up for Nicolas Winding Refn’s – film director of Drive and Only God Forgives on Quietus by Phillipa Snow –  new movie The Neon Demon.

Is the neo-aesthete’s revival of an arch decadence? The artificial enclosure of violence and despair within the neon terror of a refined oblivion devoid of even nullity, a slow infestation of the sublime underbelly of death so vital it inhabits a posthuman futurism without the “post” or “human”?

“Neon is no longer anxious” Eleanor Courtemanche writes… as if anxiety and the uncanny no longer worked for us, as if Freud-Lacan and the Oedipalization were finally a myth of a past refined out of existence. Now the comedy of the nil can appropriate the cliché’s of kitsch within kitsch, expose the throbbing pulse of automated death at the heart of a devitalized voyeurism.

Pain as a commodity, the sacred as a moment between pain and ecstasy becomes in this new economy just one more sad conformity. Pain as the marketable ecstasy of those who have no emotion, the psychopath of devitalized robots and artificial denizens of an apocalyptic comedy at the end of human civilization. No longer the moral hijinks of an outdated derision or scornful hatred of the body, rather the undaunted acceptance of flesh as itself the excess of a last ditch effort to squeeze ecstasy from a devitalized world of cold and impersonal death.

Bear with me as I digress through both decadent literature and critique, gathering a thousand flowers along the way that may dip into that dark abyss of sacred pain and jouissance.

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A Short History of Decay

Percy Bysshe Shelley in his infamous poem On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery brought us the dark romanticism of terror as the breakaway sublime of a new form of Beauty when in his last refrain he stated:

‘Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror; 
  For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare 
Kindled by that inextricable error,  
  Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air 
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror 
  Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.

In his early The Romantic Agony Mario Praz would tells us of this new darker romanticism, saying of “Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror…” that these lines of pleasure and pain are combined in one single impression. “The very objects which should induce a shudder – the livid face of the severed head, the squirming mass of vipers, the rigidity of death, the sinister light, the repulsive animals, the lizard, the bat – all these give rise to a new sense of beauty, a beauty imperiled and contaminated, a new thrill.”1

That moralist Max Nordau in his castigation of those followers of Charles Baudelaire, the Decadents brought forward his harsh condemnation of this night school saying it “reflects the character of its master, strangely distorted; it has become in some sort like a prism, which diffracts his light into elementary rays. His delusion of anxiety and his predilection for disease, death, and putrefaction (necrophilia), have fallen…”2 As for Baudelaire himself, he once stated of modernity:

. . . it is much easier to decide outright that everything about the garb
of an age is absolutely ugly than to devote oneself to the task of distilling
from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain, however
slight or minimal that element may be. By ‘modernity’ I mean the
ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half
is the eternal and the immutable.3

In his study of this heritage, Daniel Pick, in Faces of Degeneration would analyze the various threads of this notion of cultural decline into the ugly.3 Degeneration was seen as a general decline in humanity from a previous age as seen in poverty, disease, destitution, degradation, and misery in general. Degeneration was seen as the opposite of progress (which occupied an alternative though rejected view of history) and was expressed as a theory to explain crime, poverty, and the lack of moral character by various European writers and thinkers. In particular, the thinkers Morel, Lombroso, Maudsley, and Nordau wrote extensively on the issue of degeneration as it applied to crime and art. Other European figures focused on the horror of the crowd (as seen in various revolutions in particular the French Revolution) or the rise of Social Darwinism and eugenics. Authors also focused on the themes of degeneration in their novels including those which mentioned the issues of mental deterioration, psychoanalysis, and the decline brought about by entropy. These ideas occupied a prominent place on both the political left among various proposals for socialism and the right which often advocated eugenics (and which came to emerge in the Nazi terror). Pick’s book considers these ideas as they developed in European thought during this period and their role in the continuing history of the twentieth century as it would impact both Communism and Fascism, as well as the medical community by way of Psychoanalysis and Freud’s scientism among other traces.

The social, scientific, and industrial revolutions of the later nineteenth century brought with them a ferment of new artistic visions. An emphasis on scientific determinism and the depiction of reality led to the aesthetic movement known as Naturalism, which allowed the human condition to be presented in detached, objective terms, often with a minimum of moral judgment. This in turn was counterbalanced by more metaphorical modes of expression such as Symbolism, Decadence, and Aestheticism, which flourished in both literature and the visual arts, and tended to exalt subjective individual experience at the expense of straightforward depictions of nature and reality. Dismay at the fast pace of social and technological innovation led many adherents of these less realistic movements to reject faith in the new beginnings proclaimed by the voices of progress, and instead focus in an almost perverse way on the imagery of degeneration, artificiality, and ruin.4

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The Mundane World of Sex

The man who proposes a new faith is persecuted, until it is his turn to become a persecutor: truths begin by a conflict with the police and end by calling them in; for each absurdity we have suffered for degenerates into a legality, as every martyrdom ends in the paragraphs of the Law, in the insipidities of the calendar, or the nomenclature of the streets.

– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay

In his interview Nicolas Winding Refn remarking on sex tells us  there’s something mundane about it, that “it’s something we all do – hopefully,” and “everyone has his own take on it”. Our obsession with porn, violence, necrophilia, rape, perversion, etc. is a way of moving the audience, the voyeuristic eye, the perverse need to observe the outer forms of sex, its visual cues and bodily imprint as if to quantify and measure its dark secrets. As Refn hones in on the key is not the direct visual participation that allows us to sensualize the filmic, but rather by “not showing sex, you’re actually much more sexy, because in not showing sex, you’re forcing the audience to have a very subliminal reaction to it, and everything becomes very specific [to them]”.

thM6HAWKstrawThe Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus  Bosch among the many bizarre and outlandish images, will find both a giant strawberry (a symbol of earthly pleasure in Medieval iconography; the fruit looks very tempting, but tastes of nothing), and a naked couple copulating within a glass vessel. What interests us about Bosch is not only his strange and beautiful painting, but also his supposed involvement with a heretical sect called the Adamites. This sect, according to de Perrodil’s Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes, saw it as their sacred duty to violate the laws which the Creator had given to man. This neatly encapsulates the Decadent impulse. They also wished to rehabilitate Adam and Eve by seeking inspiration from their conduct in the garden of Eden. Nudity and sexual games formed part of their ritual. The Adamites were of course condemned and brutally persecuted by vindictive ecclesiastical authorities.5

An 1893 poem by Albert Samain proclaims “the era of the Androgyne,” who mushrooms over culture like an antichrist. The sex-repelling Decadent androgyne is Apollonian because of its opposition to nature and its high mentalization, a western specialty. It is louring and enervated rather than radiant:

Musique – encens – parfums,… poisons,… littérature ! …
Les fleurs vibrent dans les jardins effervescents ;
Et l’Androgyne aux grands yeux verts phosphorescents
Fleurit au charnier d’or d’un monde en pourriture.

Aux apostats du Sexe, elle apporte en pâture,
Sous sa robe d’or vert aux joyaux bruissants,
Sa chair de vierge acide et ses spasmes grinçants
Et sa volupté maigre aiguisée en torture.

L’archet mord jusqu’au sang l’âme des violons,
L’art qui râle agité d’hystériques frissons
En la sentant venir a redressé l’échine…

Le stigmate ardent brûle aux fronts hallucinés.
Gloire aux sens ! Hosanna sur les nerfs forcenés.
L’Antechrist de la chair visite les damnés…

Voici, voici venir les temps de l’Androgyne.      

            And, my translation…

Music – incense – perfumes,… poisons,… literature! …
Flowers vibrate in the sparkling gardens;
And your large and androgynous
Phosphorescent green eyes flower
At the grave of gold of a world in decay.

To the apostates of sex, she brings in food,
Under her dress of green gold jewels rustling,
Acidic virgin of fleshy spasms squeaking
And his lean pleasure sharpened into torture.

The bow bites until the violins in the soul’s blood vibrate, an art –
General shaking of hysterical chills struggles
Coming in feelings of geometric defiance…

The frontal assault of ardent hallucinations burn in stigmatic splendor, 
Glory to the senses! Hosanna to the federalists nerves.
The Antichrist of the flesh visits the damned…

Behold, here comes the time of the Androgyny.

lsSidonie-Gabrielle Colette or just – Colette calls this type of androgyne “anxious and veiled,” eternally sad, trailing “its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears.”

Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo (written in 1888 and published in 1908), in which the philosopher called himself “a decadent,” opens with a biographical section that resembles a psycho-medical case study of his delicate, morbid nature and physical ailments. The Case of Wagner (1888) treats degeneration and decadence as instantiations of a single discourse: “[T]he change of art into histrionics,” wrote Nietzsche, “is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism) than every single corruption and infirmity of the art inaugurated by Wagner.” He preceded this comment with the claim that Wagner is a decadent, “the modern artist par excellence,” embodying modernity’s sickness. Calling Wagner a “neurosis,” he wrote, “[P]erhaps nothing is better known today, at least nothing has been better studied, than the Protean character of degeneration that here conceals itself in the chrysalis of art and artist.”6 As Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, degeneration “explained how a heredity that was burdened with various maladies ([. . .] organic, functional, or psychical) ended by producing a sexual pervert.”7

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Late Romanticism: The Gothic Art of Darkness

David Punter in his excellent study The Literature of Pity reminds us that there is a great deal that could be said about the relations between pity and the dark worlds of Gothicism; indeed, “a radical view would suggest that the longstanding association between terror and Gothic has been in part a cover story which places us as readers in positions of power – identifying, for example, with the hero/villain – rather than allowing us to share in the no doubt pitiable plight of the victim/heroine”(107).8

This sense of the voyeuristic element of sex and power comes out in the interview of Refn when he speaks of the stereotyping of porn and violence coupled with the femme fatale, telling us “there is still a very heavily-stereotyped view about women and violence. It’s generally either very pornographic, where it’s sexualizing an act of a violent nature: either by degrading it, or by worshipping it, but in either case purely from a male perspective. And then there is the other version, which is a lot more complicated — that women can be vicious to women, and what’s so wrong with showing that? Because there’s nothing sexual in that viciousness.”

Janey Place writes that ‘[t]he dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (1980, p. 35). The conspicuousness of the femme fatale in Western culture has waxed and waned; she features heavily in the tragic drama of the early seventeenth century and was something of an obsession for a number of poets and novelists in the nineteenth century and in popular art in fin de siècle France. She became ubiquitous in Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, the genre with which the term femme fatale is most closely associated, as well as the neo-noir of the late 1980s and early 1990s.9

femme_fataleWoman as fatal to man has been the primary image in men’s discourse for two-thousand years or more. The more nature is beaten back in the west, the more the femme fatale reappears, as a return of the repressed. As Camille Paglia will remark, “She is the spectre of the west’s bad conscience about nature. She is the moral ambiguity of nature, a malevolent moon that keeps breaking through our fog of hopeful sentiment.”10 The femme fatale became the secret fear men had of women and the natural both within themselves and in nature, she would incarnate that dark power of both the unconscious and the externality of deterministic natural process that men in their religious and sacred mythologies had tried, vainly to surmount through at first philosophy by way of Platonic beauty or the Idea, a notion of the perfect world, a world beyond our delusional one; and, secondly, through the endless world of the grotesque, macabre, and bitter satires from Juvenal to Swift and beyond. With the Romantics things would bifurcate into the aesthetic of Beauty and of Terror, the sublime would seek transcendence or immanent revelation and excess (transgression). One might say that this tradition as a whole in which the path of light and that of darkness lead to a ‘literature of narcissism’. As Refn who directed this film with his daughter in mind, says:

We live in a society where we’re constantly being bombarded by the negativity of the future, the negativity of the digital revolution, the negativity of youth being self-absorbed — like my parents weren’t? I mean, they were hippies! So I think, well, my daughter will grow up into this world of amazing opportunities. And maybe the final frontier is no longer treating narcissism as a taboo, but — on the contrary — celebrating it as a natural evolution of the human psyche.

As Paglia would say, “The femme fatale is one of the refinements of female narcissism, of the ambivalent self-directedness that is completed by the birth of a child or by the conversion of spouse or lover into child. (ibid., 14)” Returning to the image of the Medusa Paglia suggests that “Medusa’s snaky hair is also the writhing vegetable growth of nature. Her hideous grimace is men’s fear of the laughter of women. She that gives life also blocks the way to freedom.” (ibid., 14)  The Divine Marquee de Sade once suggested that we have the right to thwart nature’s procreative compulsions, through sodomy or abortion. Paglia would go so far as to affirm that “male homosexuality may be the most valorous of attempts to evade the femme fatale and to defeat nature” (14-15). Suggesting that male homosexuals by turning away from the Medusan mother, whether in honor or detestation of her, had become one of the “great forgers of absolutist western identity” (15).

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Novalis and the Kiss of Death: A Poetics of the Baneful

The poet Novalis would develop a complete aestheticism of the voluptuosity, a secret and forbidden world of the sensuous and the mundane held within a an enclosure of the excess of the natural by way of a construction of the artificial. For Novalis himself initiates his account of the human body with the lips and the entire system of the mouth a complex system in which nourishment, elimination, sexuality, and speech are interrelated indeed, by an “anastomosis of discursive individuals” (2: 350). The system of the mouth subtends a “theory of voluptuosity”; yet it is also subject to the dire forces of nature. Nature, characterized by the expansive force of eros, is nevertheless often described in the notebooks in the way a voice in The Apprentices at Saïs describes it, namely, as “a terrifying death-mill,” ”a frightful, rapacious power,” “a realm of voracity and the wildest excess, an immensity pregnant with misery.” Novalis’s theory of voluptuosity culminates in a “poetics of the baneful.” The first kiss is always a kiss of death and the first thing to die is the concept of “firstness,” inasmuch as thaumaturgic idealism does not conjure up a theory of origins.11

Strangely, this poetics of the baneful and malignant would according to Novalis possibly bring about a metamorphosis within the human species and their culture is only we learned love our “illness or pain”:

Perhaps a similar metamorphosis would occur if human beings could come to love what is baneful in the world the moment a human being began to love its illness or pain, the most stimulating voluptuosity would lie in its arms the summit of positive pleasure would permeate it. Could not illness be a means to a higher synthesis the more horrific the pain, the higher the pleasure concealed within it. (Harmony.) Every illness is perhaps the necessary commencement of the more intense conjunction of two creatures the necessary beginning of love. Enthusiasm for illnesses and pains. Death a closer conjunction of lovers. (Krell, 61).

As the neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, “Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury.”12 The notion of pain, self-inflicted or other inflicted, masochism or sadism is encrusted in human memory, violence, and the sacred:

Pain is not a simple matter: There is an enormous difference between the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of a religious practitioner. Religious pain, secular or institutional, produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with the divine and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain. (Glucklich, 6)

As Ariel Glucklich will suggest the task of sacred pain is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious or secular, psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence. (Glucklich, 6) Georges Bataille who sought the intimacy of ecstasy within a secular or immanent mysticism was once gifted with some photographs of a Chinese man undergoing the lingchi method of torture and execution, in which flesh, organs, and limbs are slowly sliced from the still-living victim until he succumbs—“death by a thousand cuts.” Bataille meditated upon this “insane” and “shocking” image of “pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable,” with the fervency of a monk contemplating the crucifi ed body of Christ. The meditation elicited an ambivalent spiritual convulsion whose reverberations carried into Bataille’s final days.13

In Inner Experience, Bataille sketches a set of practices that foster aimlessness by developing a particular kind of relationship to an unknown—but desirable—object. Bataille wants a project that will undo project, a program with the intention of dissolving intentionality, for the purpose of destroying purposiveness. In the process of discovering a secular form of jouissance Bataille will involve intimacy and  a “jouissance of otherness” distinct from masochistic jouissance, a jouissance that “owes nothing to the death drive.” (NE, 65) As Biles and Brintnall maintain this jouissance “has as its precondition the stripping away of the self” and can be described as an “ascetic . . . practice,” insisting that it is not masochistic and, in fact, requires, as an additional precondition, “a loss of all that gives us pleasure and pain in our negotiable exchanges with the world.” (ibid., 65)

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The Beauty of Decadence

I think “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future. I’m not critiquing, nor validating. I think you have to accept it in order to examine it. But surely our obsession with beauty is only going to increase. And longevity will only continue to shrink in our perception of beauty, and the ideal will continue to get younger. Those are facts. The question is, how do we deal with it?

-Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon an Interview

Umberto Eco will align the concept of the Beautiful with the Good tracing it back to that Platonic world of perfection and the real, saying,

‘Beautiful’—together with ‘graceful’ and ‘pretty’, or ‘sublime’, ‘marvellous’, Lucera, Museo Civico ‘ superb’ and similar expressions—is an adjective that we often employ to indicate something that we like. In this sense, it seems that what is beautiful is the same as what is good, and in fact in various historical periods there was a close link between the Beautiful and the Good.14 Notions of the Sublime have been with us at least since Longinus if not before. Harold Bloom, quoting Thomas Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime relates:

The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.15

But is there an inverse to this? What of the grotesque, the ugly, the macabre? Is there a non-teleological and immanent (non-transcendent) form of the Sublime? Or, is this as some suggest rather the realm of the Ridiculous and Comic? For Baudelaire the arch-decadent would harbor the notion that nature is a living temple where confused words would sometimes slip forth from the mute stones releasing the symbolic confusion of human worlds, thereby breaking the Law of custom and habit and freeing the revelations that had been lying imprisoned within the depths of abysses and evil. For Arthur Rimbaud the visionary decadent must undergo a “lengthy, immense, and rational dissolution of the senses,” and would say in his A Season in Hell:

One evening, I seated Beauty on my knees.
– And I found her bitter.
– And I railed against her. …

I succeeded in erasing from my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffled leap of the wild beast.16

Bataille in Erotism: Death and Sensuality (City Lights, 1986) would report

In  sacrifice, the victim is chosen so that its perfection shall give  point  to the full  brutality of  death. Human  beauty, in the union  of  bodies, shows the contrast  between the purest aspect  of  mankind and the hideous animal quality of the sexual organs. The  paradox  of  ugliness  and  beauty  in eroticism  is  strikingly expressed  by  Leonardo  da  Vinci  in his Notebooks:

“The  act  of  coition  and the  members employed are so ugly that  but for the beauty of the faces, the adornments  of  their partners and the  frantic urge,  Nature would lose the  human race.”

Leonardo does not see that the charm of a fair face or  fine clothes is effective  in that  that fair  face  promises  what  clothes  conceal.  The face and its beauty must  be  profaned, first  by  uncovering the woman’s secret  parts, and then  by  putting the male organ into them. (73).

Ultimately for Bataille Beauty’s cardinal importance in contrast to ugliness is that ugliness ‘cannot be spoiled‘, and to despoil is the essence of  eroticism. “Humanity implies  the  taboos, and  in  eroticism it and they are transgressed. Humanity is transgressed, profaned and besmirched. The  greater the  beauty, the more it is  befouled.” (73). So that when the director of The Neon Demon as quoted above states that “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future, we understand that as in Bataille that without Beauty there would be an end to desire and jouissance, that pleasureable pain of sacrifice and an eroticism that gives us the degradation of immanent corruption and evil bliss. The allurements of seduction, the energia of the abyssal darkness, the fleshy excess that invades us from within and without all fold us in a world of delusionary delirium, eroticism and death without end… an artificial paradise and a resplendent inferno of desire.

Laughter may not show respect but it does show horror.

-Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality

But you know all this, my sweet Beauty. Our only hope is that our present purgatory will come to an end one day: we rub along with it as best we can. What else is left to us? … And as Gozzi said, “We cannot be always laughing…”

-Garielle Wittkop, Murder Most Serene


  1. Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Meridian; Reprint Edition edition (1956)
  2. Nordau, Max. Degeneration. University of Nebraska Press; Reprinted edition (November 1, 1993)
  3. Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-1918 (Ideas in Context). Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (July 30, 1993)
  4. Marja Harmanmaa and Christopher Nissen. Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siecle. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (November 19, 2014)
  5. Medlar Lucan. The Decadent Gardner (Kindle Locations 219-227). Dedalus. Kindle Edition.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche. transl. Walter Kaufmann. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage; Reissue edition (December 17, 1989)
  7. Foucault, History of Sexuality, 1:118.
  8. Punter, David. The Literature of Pity. Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (April 30, 2014)
  9. Simkin, S. Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: From Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (October 28, 2014)
  10. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 13). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  11. David Farrell Krell . Contagion: Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism (Studies in Continental Thought).  Indiana University Press (March 22, 1998)
  12. Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  13. Jeremy Biles,Kent Brintnall (Editors). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (FUP)  Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  14. Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. Rizzoli; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010) (p. 7)
  15. Bloom, Harold. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (Kindle Locations 161-163). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  16. Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell and The Illuminations (Kindle Locations 373-374). Kindle Edition.

On Land, Zizek, and Speculative Realism: The Mediation of the Real

What’s always been interesting in the current battles between materialist, vitalist, and speculative realist philosophies is that they all seem to dispute where to begin: the dialectical materialists and vitalists begin with the pre-ontological and formless void, then turn toward an emergent ontology arising out of it; while SR starts at that point when substance or form has already emerged, battling over just what it is that form and substance are without ever appraising the pre-ontological (or as Harman likes to put it: it’s objects all the way down).

I seem to float between Zizek and Land. Land begins in the formless ocean of energy – the vitalist stream of process and becoming he sees in Nietzsche and Bataille a non-dialectical process that never enters into any form of static substance, ever. Zizek seems to oscillate between form (Substance/Subject) and formlessness (Void) never resting in either world, always moving like a desperate thought between the two. Where Land is non-dialectical, Zizek is dialectical. For me there is a parallax view between the two that has yet to be assayed.

Or as Zizek says of parallax view:

“The common definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight. The philosophical twist to be added, of course, is that the observed difference is not simply “subjective,” due to the fact that the same object which exists “out there” is seen from two different stations, or points of view. It is rather that, as Hegel would have put it, subject and object are inherently “mediated,” so that an “epistemological” shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an “ontological” shift in the object itself. Or, to put it in Lacanese, the subject’s gaze is always-already inscribed into the perceived object itself, in the guise of its “blind spot,” that which is “in the object more than object itself,” the point from which the object itself returns the gaze.” (http://www.lacan.com/zizparallax.htm)

In this sense it coincides with Nietzsche’s sense of Zarathustra’s statement that one must be wary of staring into the abyss lest “it stare back” (paraphrase). This sense of the object gazing back becomes in Graham Harman’s system the notion of when two objects gaze into each other a third object is formed in excess of the original objects, thereby forming something new that is neither one nor the other. In this sense they form a parallax view onto each other; or, as Harman would say “Every relation needs a mediator.” So that for Harman:

“My view is that this problem arises directly from Latour’s “flat ontology.” If all actors are equal, then you cannot avoid an infinite number of mediators between any two entities. Yet the solution provided by object-oriented philosophy is that there are two kinds of objects, not just one: there are real and sensual objects that mediate each other one at a time, much like the north and south poles of a magnet which alone can make contact, leading to a potentially endless chain of magnets. … As for “weird realism,” it denotes a kind of realism that is not simply a question of matching the contents of the mind with a real world outside the mind. My sort of realism is “weird” because it claims that the real is too real to be known, or too real to be accessed. I choose the word “weird” because of its desirable association with things that never fully appear insofar as they are not quite of this earth: Shakespeare’s “weird sisters,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “weird tales.”” (http://figureground.org/interview-with-graham-harman-2/)

So in this sense Harman when he says that “the real is too real to be known” he would take us back to Socrates; or, as Land says:

“By interpreting contact with the unknown as the deferral of judgment by the subject, translating the positivity of sacred confusion into the negativity of epistemic uncertainty, Socrates initiates the proper history of the West.”1

So in this sense it’s a battle whether one argues from and for an epistemic stance (Zizek) over the ‘ontic’ or reduction to some static known or physical substance, and rather opts for either a non-dialectical or dialectical parallax view onto the object that one relates to within the mediation. The problem that one must resolve is not that there is relation and mediation, but rather is this mediator conceptual or energetic? This seems to be the battle among current philosophies. We’ve discussed Zizek’s and Harman’s views, below are Brassier and Land.

Brassier opts for the concept as mediator. “…many philosophers follow Hegel in defining the ‘concrete’ as that which is relationally embedded, in contradistinction to the ‘abstract’, which is isolated or one-sided. In what follows, the terms ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ do not designate types of entity, such as the perceptible and the imperceptible or the material and immaterial. They are used to characterise the ways in which thinking relates to entities. As Hegel showed, what seems most concrete, particularity or sensible immediacy, is precisely what is most abstract, and what seems most abstract, universality or conceptual mediation, turns out to be most concrete.”  (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wandering-abstraction)

Land says: “Everything is mediated by elucidations, re-elucidations, elucidations of previous elucidations, conducted with meticulous courtesy…” or “mediation assumes a kind of quarantine, whereby the interaction of organism-specific id and exo-organismic reality can be monitored and negotiated, collapsing libidinal circuitry into a polarity of the psychic and the extrapsychic, inside and outside.”2

Both Brassier and Land speak in almost Zizekian terms of oscillating between inside/outside, Brassier more formally reverting to the ‘concrete universal’ of Hegelian abstraction; while Land, energetic as always, moving among Freud’s libidinal dialectic; yet, both are in the end agreeing on a dialectical vision of mediation so that even Land succumbs to Hegel whether he will or no. Strangely, so did Bataille, who also struggled with and against Hegelian dialectics. Only Zizek would emerge from this battle with a notion of the Void within the Void – a return to Democritus’s notions that matter is void (“empty, immaterial”).

With Harman we come upon the notion of “vanishing mediator,” which strangely – due to his readings of Zizek would take an inverse relation to that philosopher’s use of the term. Whereas Zizek in The Ticklish Subject would bring to the fore is a thematization of the Subject as some kind of disjunctive “and”:

The key point is thus that the passage from “nature” to “culture” is not direct, that one cannot account for it within a continuous evolutionary narrative: something has to intervene between the two, a kind of “vanishing mediator,” which is neither nature nor culture—this In-between is silently presupposed in all evolutionary narratives. We are not idealists: this In-between is not the spark of logos magically conferred on Homo sapiens, enabling them to form his supplementary virtual symbolic surroundings, but precisely something that, although it is also no longer nature, is not yet logos, and has to be “repressed” by logos—the Freudian name for this In-between, of course, is the death drive. Speaking of this In-between, it is interesting to note how philosophical narratives of the “birth of man” are always compelled to presuppose such a moment of human (pre)history when (what will become) man is no longer a mere animal and simultaneously not a “being of language,” bound by symbolic Law; a moment of thoroughly “perverted,” “denaturalized,” “derailed” nature which is not yet culture.3

Harman in his first work would discuss this notion, saying,

Zizek is perfectly right to point to the impossibility of correlating ontic choices to the ontological gap between presence and absence. It should also be clear that human existence never occupies the point of either pure immersion or pure awareness: “the ‘specifically human’ dimension is thus neither that of engaged agent caught in the finite life-world context, nor that of universal Reason exempted from the life-world, but the very discord, the ‘vanishing mediator’ between the two.” This ambivalent discord goes by many names in Heidegger, among them geworfener Entwurf, thrown projection. I have argued in this book that projection is no more primary than the thrownness, and hence, that the future has no real priority over the past.4

This brings into play another agreement between Land and Zizek over Harman. Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation, or against Harman – the notion that the future does have a priority over the past. Playfully Zizek in Absolute Recoil will tell it this way,

The book’s title refers to the expression absoluter Gegenstoss, which Hegel uses only once, but at a crucial point in his logic of reflection, to designate the speculative coincidence of opposites in the movement by which a thing emerges out of its own loss. The most concise poetic formula of absolute recoil was provided by Shakespeare (no surprise here), in his uncanny Troilus and Cressida (Act 5, Scene 2):

O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself!
Bi-fold authority! where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt.5

Hegel uses the term “absolute recoil” in his explanation of the category of “ground/ reason (Grund),” where he resorts to one of his famous wordplays, connecting Grund (ground/ reason) and zu Grunde gehen (to fall apart, literally “to go to one’s ground”):

The reflected determination, in falling to the ground, acquires its true meaning, namely, to be within itself the absolute recoil upon itself, that is to say, the positedness that belongs to essence is only a sublated positedness, and conversely, only self-sublating positedness is the positedness of essence. Essence, in determining itself as ground, is determined as the non-determined; its determining is only the sublating of its being determined. Essence, in being determined thus as self-sublating, has not proceeded from another, but is, in its negativity, self-identical essence.6

In a final explication we quote from Zizek one last refrain:

To put it in traditional terms, the present work endeavors to elevate the speculative notion of absolute recoil into a universal ontological principle. Its axiom is that dialectical materialism is the only true philosophical inheritor of what Hegel designates as the speculative attitude of the thought towards objectivity. All other forms of materialism, including the late Althusser’s “materialism of the encounter,” scientific naturalism, and neo-Deleuzian “New Materialism,” fail in this goal. The consequences of this axiom are systematically deployed in three steps:

1) the move from Kant’s transcendentalism to Hegel’s dialectics, that is, from transcendental “correlationism” (Quentin Meillassoux) to the thought of the Absolute;
2) dialectics proper: absolute reflection, coincidence of the opposites;
3) the Hegelian move beyond Hegel to the materialism of “less than nothing.”7

Nick Land always an opponent to a certain type of dialectical thinking will harken back to Socrates to begin his attack, saying,

With Socrates, things are different. Philosophy becomes dialectical; which is to say justificatory, political, logical, plebeian. Truth is identified with irrefutability, evidentiality and educated belief, beginning its long subsidence into the forms of human credence, as if its acceptability were in any way a criterion.8

For Land Socratism is the mobilization of unknowing on behalf of knowing; subordinating irony to dialectic, confusion to judgments and the sacred to a subdued profanity.9

Land, favoring Maoist over Leninist/Stalinist Marxism and dialectics will offer an appraisal:

The Superiority of Far Eastern Marxism. Whilst Chinese materialist dialectic denegativizes itself in the direction of schizophrenizing systems dynamics, progressively dissipating top-down historical destination in the Tao-drenched Special Economic Zones, a re-Hegelianized ‘western marxism’ degenerates from the critique of political economy into a state-sympathizing monotheology of economics, siding with fascism against deregulation. The left subsides into nationalistic conservatism, asphyxiating its vestigial capacity for ‘hot’ speculative mutation in a morass of ‘cold’ depressive guilt-culture. (FN, KL  6110-6114).

Yet, in the end Land’s non-dialectical of base materialism begins in a rejection of physicalism or reductionary substantive formalist and scientific factuality:

A cosmological theory of desire emerges from the ashes of physicalism. This is to presuppose, of course, that idealism, spiritualism, dialectical materialism (shoddy idealism), and similar alternatives have been discarded in a preliminary and rigorously atheological gesture. Libidinal materialism, or the theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, is nothing but a scorch-mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice.10

Land’s reading of Hegel unlike Zizek’s would see dialectical materialism as part of a redemptive system of saving the appearances, etc. as substantive formalism writ out in absolutist terms. Zizek’s Hegel is read through Lacan and vice versa as a non-substantive or immaterialist system wherein the Void or Less than nothing replaces substantive matter of physicalism. So that in some ways and by circuitous route both Land and Zizek are in agreement as to the dephysicalization of matter, but disagree over desire. Zizkek following Lacan sees in desire lack seeking the Object a; Land following Deleuze will see the unconscious as productive rather than lacking or needful, and will build an energetic or constructive notion of desire as desiring machines, as producer of desires.

In the end there will remain no reconciliation among these various philosophers, only open war and disparity.


  1. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3310-3311). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 4489-4491). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, p. 39.
  4. Harman, Graham. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (pp. 206-207). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  5. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 1-2). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  6. ibid. (pp. 3-4)
  7. ibid.
  8. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3255-3257). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. ibid.
  10. Land, Nick. A Thirst for Annihilation. (p. 26)

On David Roden’s Dark Phenomenology

I originally made a post on FB (Facebook) on Steven Shaviro’s new book Discognition which elaborated on aspects of Frank Jackson’s notions on Qualia. At the end of this essay he mentioned the work of a friend, David Roden. David is developing an approach he terms ‘dark phenomenology’, and it is this that I wish to clarify and expand upon. To do this I’ll be digressing across a spectrum of various concepts, authors, philosophers, neuroscientists, etc.. Bare with me…

Terrence W. Deacon, in his recent Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter will argue that a complete theory of the world that includes us, and our experience of the world, must make sense of the way that we are shaped by and emerge from such specific absences. What is absent matters, and yet our current understanding of the physical universe suggests that it should not. A causal role for absence seems to be absent from the natural sciences. (p. 3) As he suggested in his conclusion, “It’s time to recognize that there is room for meaning, purpose, and value in the fabric of physical explanations, because these phenomena effectively occupy the absences that differentiate and interrelate the world that is physically present.” (p. 541)

David Roden in Posthuman Life will argue that our understanding of human agency in terms of iterability and différance leads to a moderately revisionary (but still interesting) account of what human rationality and agency consists in. But this leads us beyond the human by suggesting how rationality and agency depend on structures that are shared by nonhuman systems that may lack the capacities associated with human agency, or have other powers that humans do not enjoy… (p. 45).1 For Roden first person experience is fractured by these “dark” elements of experience which “offers no standard for [their] own description or interpretation.”

To understand notions of iterability and  différance we need to work through the logics of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ in Western traditions of philosophy. Most of Western Philosophy from the time of Plato till the postmoderns was based on the logic of ‘presence’ rather than ‘absence’. Deacon and, I will say, Roden – in his Dark Phenomenology, will both offer the perspective that ‘absence’ not ‘presence’ is key to our current understanding of how we build up our perceptions of the world. As David reports it “the problem of interpretation arises because there are empirical and theoretical grounds for holding that some phenomenology is “dark”. Dark phenomenology is experienced; but experiencing it offers no standard for its own description or interpretation.” (p. 76)

So let’s begin…

First, presence describes an original state, a state that must have come first.  As I gaze out into the world I can say the world is present to my observing eye.  If that is the case, then my observing consciousness must be present to my own self-reflection.  It thus follows that meaning, in its most pure sense, as conscious thought, must be present to me as I gaze out onto the world.  Presence is, therefore, the main predicate for a text’s meaning (its sense or its reference), despite the fact that this meaning is always absent and in need of reconstruction through reading or interpretation.

For this reason, a second moment of presence invades consciousness as absence (i.e., in the parlance of post-modern thought: the disappearance of the world behind the veils of language, consciousness going astray, the reign of death, non-sense, irrationality).  In this way gaps, absences and deficiencies of all imaginable kinds (the structurality or play of a structure) are subordinated to a principle of presence. Is it possible to imagine an absence without reference to the principle of presence? It would be a radical absence, something always and from the beginning absent, missing, lost to experience.  If there was such an absence, how could we glimpse it?

We glimpse it between repetitions as their repeatability. If the present moment can be repeated (i.e. remembered) then, preceding the present moment, is the possibility of its being repeated in memory (i.e., memory itself as repeatability).  So memory precedes and exceeds the present moment, which we will have remembered.

In Shaviro the crux comes here: “This leads to the ironic consequence that first-person experience cannot be captured adequately by first-person observation and reflection. “What the subject claims to experience should not be granted special epistemic authority since it is possible for us to have a very partial and incomplete grasp of its nature”.”

This “incomplete grasp” of nature/reality is Deacon’s as well as Roden’s acknowledgment that what is important is not what is present to consciousness, but rather what is absent in presence. Let me clarify. In chapter 7 of David’s The Posthuman Life he will develop his dark phenomenological approach. He lays the ground by arguing for a substantive or substantial formalist approach that is based on a non-teleological account of human/technique interaction in which – as in other cognitive scientific accounts – would see our evolutionary cognitive adaptations within a human and technological schema that supports abstraction but not autonomous self-augmentation. Let me digress…

Michel Tomasello in his recent book A Natural History of Human Thinking maintains that our prehuman ancestors, like today’s great apes, were social beings who could solve problems by thinking. But they were almost entirely competitive, aiming only at their individual goals. As ecological changes forced them into more cooperative living arrangements, early humans had to coordinate their actions and communicate their thoughts with collaborative partners. Tomasello develops what he terms the “shared intentionality hypothesis” which captures how these more socially complex forms of life led to more conceptually complex forms of thinking. In order to survive, humans had to learn to see the world from multiple social perspectives, to draw socially recursive inferences, and to monitor their own thinking via the normative standards of the group. Even language and culture arose from the preexisting need to work together and coordinate thoughts.

What this implies is that we developed external memory systems that could be transmitted across time, from generation to generation. Merlin McDonald in his book Origins of the Modern Mind would develop a staged history of this notion. Donald traces the evolution of human culture and cognition from primitive apes to the era of artificial intelligence, and presents an original theory of how the human mind evolved from its presymbolic form. In the emergence of modern human culture, Donald proposes, there were three radical transitions. During the first, our bipedal but still apelike ancestors acquired “mimetic” skill–the ability to represent knowledge through voluntary motor acts–which made Homo erectus successful for over a million years. The second transition–to “mythic” culture–coincided with the development of spoken language. Speech allowed the large-brained Homo sapiens to evolve a complex preliterate culture that survives in many parts of the world today. In the third transition, when humans constructed elaborate symbolic systems ranging from cuneiforms, hieroglyphics, and ideograms to alphabetic languages and mathematics, human biological memory became an inadequate vehicle for storing and processing our collective knowledge. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure built from vestiges of earlier biological stages as well as new external symbolic memory devices that have radically altered its organization.

My own view is that these external memory storage and transmission systems have been part of an evolving and elaborate combination of technics and technology which humans have shaped, but that in turn have shaped our cognitive relations with each other and our environments. Bernard Stiegler recently argued in his book Techniques and Time that “technics” forms the horizon of human existence. This fact has been suppressed throughout the history of philosophy, which has never ceased to operate on the basis of a distinction between episteme and tekhne. The thesis of the book is that the genesis of technics corresponds not only to the genesis of what is called “human” but of temporality as such, and that this is the clue toward understanding the future of the dynamic process in which the human and the technical consists. Another digression… this time on Aristotle and the notion of Epistêmê and technê:

Epistêmê is the Greek word most often translated as knowledge, while technê is translated as either craft or art. Without going into a full history there are at times in Aristotle that he’ll confuse the two forms. Aristotle says that the person with epistêmê and the person with technê share an important similarity. Aristotle contrasts the person of experience (empeiria) with someone who has technê or epistêmê. Yet, at other times he’ll argue that at person who has a technê goes beyond experience to a universal judgment. Aristotle goes on to say that in general the sign of knowing or not knowing is being able to teach. Because technê can be taught, we think it, rather than experience, is epistêmê ( 981b10). Presumably the reason that the one with technê can teach is that he knows the cause and reason for what is done in his technê. So we can conclude that the person with technê is like the person with epistêmê; both can make a universal judgment and both know the cause, etc.

All this brings me back to something David says in Chapter 7 of his book:

“Abstraction exposes habits and values to a manifold of sensory affects and encounters (§ 8.2). It entails that the evolution of particular technologies depends on hugely complex and counter-final interactions, catalysed by transmissibility and promiscuous reusability (Ellul 1964: 93).” (p. 160)

Now if we put that into the perspective of Tomasello and his “shared intentionality hypothesis,” along with Donald’s notions of various hybrid cognitive revolutions in transmission of cultural memory or representational systems of external storage as complex and counter-final (i.e., having no teleological or autonomous impact). We begin to see a picture emerging of what David will term dark phenomenology. Following Stiegler David will argue that the “essence of a technology is not simply to be found in an analysis of its internal functioning but in the concrete ways in which these functions are integrated in matter. The invention of a new device is neither the instantiation of an abstract Platonic diagram nor the invention of an isolated thing, but the production of a mutable pattern open to dynamic alteration (Stiegler 1998: 77– 8).” (p. 162) He’ll go on to say:

“This reaffirms my claim that a phenomenological ontology which reduces abstract technical entities to their uses is inadequate. Technical entities are more than bundles of internal or external functions. They are materialized potentialities for generating new functions as well as modifiable strategies for integrating and reintegrating functions…” (p. 162)

What is important here is the notion of “materialized potentialities”. What does this mean? Aristotle’s proposal in Book Theta of his Metaphysics, that “a thing is said to be potential if, when the act of which it is said to be potential is realized, there will be nothing im-potential (“that is, there will be nothing able not to be,” (in HS, 45) (see: http://www.iep.utm.edu/agamben/). Giorgio Agamben will offer us a opening onto this. Agamben argues that this ought not be taken to mean simply that “what is not impossible is possible” but rather, highlights the suspension or setting aside of im-potentiality in the passage to actuality. This suspension, though, does not amount to a destruction of im-potentiality, but rather to its fulfilment; that is, through the turning back of potentiality upon itself, which amounts to its “giving of itself to itself,” im-potentiality, or the potentiality to not be, is fully realized in its own suspension such that actuality appears as nothing other than the potentiality to not not-be. While this relation is central to the passage of voice to speech or signification and to attaining toward the experience of language as such, Agamben also claims that in this formulation Aristotle bequeaths to Western philosophy the paradigm of sovereignty, since it reveals the undetermined or sovereign founding of being. As Agamben concludes, ‘“an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be, letting itself be, giving itself to itself’” (HS 46).

Ultimately this leads us back to David’s dark phenomenology which is part of what is now termed ‘speculative realism’ in the sense that he will use the concept of ‘withdrawal’ as part of his substantial formalism:

“The conditions for the phenomenology of technology thus show that the existence of technological items exceeds their phenomenological manifestation. Technologies can withdraw from particular human practices (Verbeek 2005: 117). If SP is correct, they may even withdraw from all human practices.” (p. 163)

This notion of withdrawal or disconnection began in the Object-Oriented substantial formalism of Graham Harman, although David uses this concept a little differently. Graham will modify Heidegger’s notions of readiness-to-hand (Zuhandenheit), saying it “refers to objects insofar as they withdraw from human view into a dark subterranean reality that never becomes present to practical action any more than it does to theoretical awareness” (p. 1).2 The point here is that it is not conscious, it is absence under the sign of presence (as we observed in the beginning). So that we never have direct access to objects, but only indirect access since we are apprehending that which is attained only by way of absence rather than direct presence. One could draw from this a complete history of ontology as ‘eye’ or ‘optical’ based, and an opposing one that is based on other senses than the eye; affective relations, etc. The notion of the eye has been central to metaphysics since Aristotle or before.

William McNeill in his The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory explores the phenomenon of the Augenblick, or glance of the eye, in Heidegger s thought, and in particular its relation to the primacy of seeing and of theoretical apprehending (theoria) both in Aristotle and in the philosophical and scientific tradition of Western thought. McNeill argues that Heidegger s early reading of Aristotle, which identifies the experience of the Augenblick at the heart of ethical and practical knowledge (phronesis), proves to be a decisive encounter for Heidegger s subsequent understanding and critique of the history of philosophy, science, and technology. It provides him with a critical resource for addressing the problematic domination of theoretical knowledge in Western civilization.

So Harman and Roden both are developing a form of counter-theoretic or dark phenomenology in the sense that it is no longer guided by the ‘glance of the eye’. As Harman would suggest when the things “withdraw from presence into their dark subterranean reality, they distance themselves not only from human beings, but from each other as well. If the human perception of a house or tree is forever haunted by some hidden surplus in the things that never becomes present, the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops.” (TB, p. 2)

So that when David tells us that “technological items exceeds their phenomenological manifestation,” and that “technologies can withdraw from particular human practices,” he is countering this whole scientific tradition of the eye and exposing us to a darker apprehension of absence rather than presence. Or, I should qualify, saying the “presence within absence,” which is apprehended indirectly through various apparatuses, etc. This will lead Roden to state:

Thus we should embrace a realist metaphysics of technique in opposition to the phenomenologies of Verbeek and Ihde. Technologies according to this model are abstract, repeatable particulars realized (though never finalized) in ephemeral events (§ 6.5). (p. 163)

I’ll need to expand this… but it’s grown too long as is. I did not go into the work of Verbeek or Ihde, so will have to take that up at another point. The main thrust is as David tells us, he is moving toward  “a model that addresses the “abstract particularity” of technique while leaving room for a more detailed metaphysical treatment of technicity” (p. 163). This notion of technicity as Arthur Bradley will tell us following as Roden did, the work of Derrida:

In Jacques Derrida’s view, we live in a state of originary technicity. It is impossible to define the human as either a biological entity (a body or species) or a philosophical state (a soul, mind or consciousness), he argues, because our “nature” is constituted by a relation to technological prostheses. According to a logic that will be very familiar to readers of his work, technology is a supplement that exposes an originary lack within what should be the integrity or plenitude of the human being itself. To put it in a word, what we call the “human” is thus the product of an aporetic relation between interiority and exteriority where each term defines, and contaminates, its other. If Derrida was arguably the first thinker to explicitly propose a philosophy of originary technicity— although there are obvious precedents in the work of Marx, Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl and Leroi-Gouhran— this line of enquiry has been pursued, refined and extended by a number of other figures including, most notably, Bernard Stiegler. The technological turn in continental philosophy also feeds into a more general crisis about what— if anything— might now be said to be “proper” to humanity. This can be witnessed in the recent debate— gathering together voices from science fiction, cultural theory and the human, life and cognitive sciences— about our so-called “posthuman” future.3

Ultimately as David reminds us if “phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is a priori, then phenomenological investigation cannot secure knowledge of phenomenological necessity. In particular, we have no grounds for holding that we understand what it is to occupy a world that any sophisticated cognizer must share with us.” (p. 76)


 

  1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (p. 160). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 1). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  3. Armand, Louis; Bradley, Arthur; Zizek, Slavoj; Stiegler, Bernard; Miller, J. Hillis; Wark, McKenzie; Amerika, Mark; Lucy, Niall; Tofts, Darren; Lovink, Geert (2013-07-19). Technicity (Kindle Locations 1468-1478). Litteraria Pragensia. Kindle Edition.

The original post on FB for those who don’t have access to it:

Steven Shaviro discusses David Roden‘s notions of Dark Phenomenology in the first chapter of his book, Discogniton (“Thinking Like a Philosopher”), and I quote:

“When we no longer have concepts to guide our intuitions, we are in the realm of what David Roden calls dark phenonemology. Roden extends the arguments of Kant, Sellars, and Metzinger. Since I am able to experience the subtlety of red, but I can only conceive and remember this experience as one of red in general, there must be, within consciousness itself, a radical “gulf between discrimination and identification”. This leads to the ironic consequence that first-person experience cannot be captured adequately by first-person observation and reflection. “What the subject claims to experience should not be granted special epistemic authority since it is possible for us to have a very partial and incomplete grasp of its nature”.

“In other words, rather than claiming (as Dennett does, for instance) that noncognitive phenomenal experience is somehow illusory, Roden accepts such experience, espousing a full “phenomenal realism”. But the conclusion he draws from this non-eliminativist realism is that much of first-person experience “is not intuitively accessible”. I do not necessarily know what I am sensing or thinking. It may well be that I can only figure out the nature of my own experiences indirectly, in the same ways – through observation, inference, and reporting – that I figure out the nature of other people’s experiences. Introspective phenomenological description therefore “requires supplementation through other modes of enquiry”. Roden concludes that we can only examine the “dark” areas of our own phenomenal experience objectively, from the outside, by means of “naturalistic modes of enquiry… such as those employed by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and cognitive modelers”.

“Roden’s account of dark phenomenology is compelling; but I find his conclusion questionable. For surely the crucial distinction is not between first person and third person modes of comprehension, so much as between what can be cognized, and what cannot. Phenomenological introspection and empirical experimentation are rival ways of capturing and characterizing the nature of subjective experience. But dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” (Kindle Locations: 490-560)1

In the above passage one discovers the differences within the neuroscientific community of the sciences, and the philosophical community: the neurosciences are stripping the lineaments of Kantian intuition and/or ‘phenomenological introspection’ (first person) out of the equation altogether; while those within the philosophical world seek to save the last bastion of Kantian thought from the veritable erosion in a sea of technological systems outside the purview of consciousness. This is the battle confronting 21st Century thought. The Neurosciences vs. Philosophy. On the one hand you have those who believe philosophy should not be seen as opposing so much the sciences as being the guardian of thought itself; maintaining that without philosophy the scientists would not have the theoretical frameworks within which to carry on their conceptual discourses. On the other you have the neuroscientists who could care less about the specifics of thought, but rather seek an understanding of the very real and empirical operations and functions of the brain that gives rise to thought. It’s this intermediary realm between material/immaterial that is at issue. In older forms the physicalist arguments reduced everything to the brain, but newer neurosciences are taking into consideration that things are not so easily reduced; yet, there is no agreement among scientists or philosophers as to what this gap or blank is between the material and immaterial, or even if such questions are pertinent to the task. So that for scientists it’s not so much about frameworks as it is about the pragmatic truth of actual process in real-time that have nothing to do with philosophical intuitionism and much more about the way the brain interacts with the environments within which it is folded.

Already neurosciences, imaging technologies (i.e., fRMI, etc.), and interface tech are bridging the material/immaterial gap without understanding the full details of the processes involved. Along with computer/brain interfaces that can be applied intrinsically and extrinsically to a person, allowing for new and exciting abilities for those whose bodies were otherwise incapacitated access to speech, communication, and computing systems, there is the intraoperative collusion of biochemical and hardware intermediation that up till recently would have been seen as impossible. Yet, in our time technology and invention is bringing a revolution in such splicings of human and machine. More and more those like Andy Clarke are being proven right that humans are already becoming Cyborgs… are, maybe we always already were. Technology that we create is in return changing who and what we are as humans. Some say this is the posthuman divide, a crossing of the Rubicon between human and technology that will change our mode of being in the world forever. What it will lead to is anyone’s guess. David Roden will term it the disconnection thesis: a point beyond which we just don’t know what is being reached in the way of ‘wide descendants’ (or posthuman progeny), one we can only speak of speculatively rather than ontologically with any depth of resolution.

Only time will tell who will come out on top, here; but I suspect if history has a say, that the sciences will uncover the processes of thought in the brain as being outside the control of the first-person navigator we term the Subject altogether. Philosophers want to retain a connection to our sense of Self and Personality, to hold onto the metaphysical basis of human thought and exceptionalism. But the sciences day by day are eroding the very ground and foundations of human subjectivity and self upon which western metaphysics since Plato has encircled itself. The battle continues… and, as Steven suggests, Roden’s “dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” Where it will lead we will need to follow…

1. Steven Shaviro. Discognition. Repeater (April 19, 2016)


 

Steven Shaviro: On David Roden’s Dark Phenomenlogy

Steven Shaviro discusses David Roden‘s notions of Dark Phenomenology in the first chapter of his book, Discogniton (“Thinking Like a Philosopher”), Thinking like a Philosopher in Discognition – and I quote:

“When we no longer have concepts to guide our intuitions, we are in the realm of what David Roden calls dark phenonemology. Roden extends the arguments of Kant, Sellars, and Metzinger. Since I am able to experience the subtlety of red, but I can only conceive and remember this experience as one of red in general, there must be, within consciousness itself, a radical “gulf between discrimination and identification”. This leads to the ironic consequence that first-person experience cannot be captured adequately by first-person observation and reflection. “What the subject claims to experience should not be granted special epistemic authority since it is possible for us to have a very partial and incomplete grasp of its nature”.

“In other words, rather than claiming (as Dennett does, for instance) that noncognitive phenomenal experience is somehow illusory, Roden accepts such experience, espousing a full “phenomenal realism”. But the conclusion he draws from this non-eliminativist realism is that much of first-person experience “is not intuitively accessible”. I do not necessarily know what I am sensing or thinking. It may well be that I can only figure out the nature of my own experiences indirectly, in the same ways – through observation, inference, and reporting – that I figure out the nature of other people’s experiences. Introspective phenomenological description therefore “requires supplementation through other modes of enquiry”. Roden concludes that we can only examine the “dark” areas of our own phenomenal experience objectively, from the outside, by means of “naturalistic modes of enquiry… such as those employed by cognitive scientists, neuroscientists and cognitive modelers”.

“Roden’s account of dark phenomenology is compelling; but I find his conclusion questionable. For surely the crucial distinction is not between first person and third person modes of comprehension, so much as between what can be cognized, and what cannot. Phenomenological introspection and empirical experimentation are rival ways of capturing and characterizing the nature of subjective experience. But dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” (Kindle Locations: 490-560)1

In the above passage one discovers the differences within the neuroscientific community of the sciences, and the philosophical community: the neurosciences are stripping the lineaments of Kantian intuition and/or ‘phenomenological introspection’ (first person) out of the equation altogether; while those within the philosophical world seek to save the last bastion of Kantian thought from the veritable erosion in a sea of technological systems outside the purview of consciousness. This is the battle confronting 21st Century thought. The Neurosciences vs. Philosophy. On the one hand you have those who believe philosophy should not be seen as opposing so much the sciences as being the guardian of thought itself; maintaining that without philosophy the scientists would not have the theoretical frameworks within which to carry on their conceptual discourses. On the other you have the neuroscientists who could care less about the specifics of thought, but rather seek an understanding of the very real and empirical operations and functions of the brain that gives rise to thought. It’s this intermediary realm between material/immaterial that is at issue. In older forms the physicalist arguments reduced everything to the brain, but newer neurosciences are taking into consideration that things are not so easily reduced; yet, there is no agreement among scientists or philosophers as to what this gap or blank is between the material and immaterial, or even if such questions are pertinent to the task. So that for scientists it’s not so much about frameworks as it is about the pragmatic truth of actual process in real-time that have nothing to do with philosophical intuitionism and much more about the way the brain interacts with the environments within which it is folded.

Already neurosciences, imaging technologies (i.e., fRMI, etc.), and interface tech are bridging the material/immaterial gap without understanding the full details of the processes involved. Along with computer/brain interfaces that can be applied intrinsically and extrinsically to a person, allowing for new and exciting abilities for those whose bodies were otherwise incapacitated access to speech, communication, and computing systems, there is the interoperative collusion of biochemical and hardware intermediation that up till recently would have been seen as impossible. Yet, in our time technology and invention is bringing a revolution in such splicings of human and machine. More and more those like Andy Clarke are being proven right that humans are already becoming Cyborgs… are, maybe we always already were. Technology that we create is in return changing who and what we are as humans. Some say this is the posthuman divide, a crossing of the Rubicon between human and technology that will change our mode of being in the world forever. What it will lead to is anyone’s guess. David Roden will term it the disconnection thesis: a point beyond which we just don’t know is being reached, one we can only speak of speculatively rather than ontologically with any depth of resolution.

Only time will tell who will come out on top, here; but I suspect if history has a say, that the sciences will uncover the processes of thought in the brain as being outside the control of the first-person navigator we term the Subject altogether. Philosophers want to retain a connection to our sense of Self and Personality, to hold onto the metaphysical basis of human thought and exceptionalism. But the sciences day by day are eroding the very ground and foundations of human subjectivity and self upon which western metaphysics since Plato has encircled itself. The battle continues… and, as Steven suggests, Roden’s “dark phenomenology points to a mode of experience that resists both sorts of conceptualization.” Where it will lead we will need to follow…

1. Steven Shaviro. Discognition. Repeater (April 19, 2016)

 

You’ll have to read the book to understand the rest of the story…


1. Shaviro, Steven (2016-04-19). Discognition (Kindle Locations 204-205). Watkins Media. Kindle Edition.