On Dark Realism: Part One

On Dark Realism

The question for speculative realism then becomes: of what does speculation consist? The answers to this are as diverse as the field of speculative realism itself. What they have in common, however, is a desire to break with the recollective model of knowledge as well as the authority of phenomena, and to engage problems that are, roughly speaking, metaphysical in nature.

 —Tom Sparrow, The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism 

For me there is no natural or supernatural, we’ve been imposing human categories on the Real for so long that the these categories of thought have become reality rather than Real. Now that the actual Real is resisting our categories of thought we are left pondering all our idiotic axioms. The Real is what resists our explanatory explanandum; that is the only viable realism. It’s so dark and unknown that we must start from the beginning, erase the human categories of thought and begin negotiating and communicating with the resisting forces of the Real. This is not a War but an admission of absolute alterity in all relations. The non-human other is speaking to us, but we are not listening. Time to enter the dark…

Reading a recent essay by Eugene Thacker on Mark Fisher’s last book before his untimely death The Weird and the Eerie, he reminds us of a statement by H.P. Lovecraft from that horror writer’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu”:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

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Neoliberal Aesthetics: Alien Organizations and the Non-Human Turn

Capital is not a pimp but a seething vat of biomachinic mutagens…
………– Iain Hamilton Grant, Swarm 2

Isn’t global capitalism, the neoliberal paradigm itself the absolute thing-in-itself? Its pervasiveness is everywhere, yet no one can quite make it visible, or think about it; instead, we live within its ruins like alien crime lords who have lost their home to an even more Alien Organization: a Symbolic Order of virtual and actual systems that have become so immersive, so ubiquitous within our perceptual and ideological fold that we no longer perceive anything else. How did this come about? How did we become encased in an invisible nexus of networks and social relations that have trapped us in a maze of thought, feeling, and fantasy to the point that we cannot invent alternatives? Is neoliberalism a machine of some advanced future replicant system that has invaded our time luring us onward with dreams of posthuman and transhuman immortality? Offering us new lives in the machinic civilization of a postbiological order if only we will sell ourselves to the demons of machinic desire? Caught between the Symbolic and the Real we weave tales of fantasy to fill the gap of our fears, our terrors, our ignorance of ourselves and our non-human others in our midst. Tales of Terminators, terrorists, global chaos, climatological and biological catastrophism all offered as talking points to guide us to one conclusion: you must submit to the neoliberal order, else die in the isolated house of being, alone and trembling at the hands of unknown forces.

Our leaders encase us in debt, force us to become dependent on them for our livelihoods, our security, our very source of human freedom. Yet, instead of any of these they give us the chains of taxation, 24/7 work days, fear of religious terrorism, eternal war, and the likelihood of endless misery and pain. Yet, we seem to accept this as if there were no other way, as if this was all natural, just the way things are rather than the embellishments of an aesthetic order of calculated planning and ingenuity that has reconfigured the very foundations of democracy over the past sixty years. A fantasy world of neoliberal fiction and ideology that has subtly worked its propaganda systems shaping Hollywood, major news networks, news papers, journals, think-tanks, academic systems through the pressure of economic power and the nomos of legal and ethical systematic coercion. A system so subtly built over time gradually remaking the Industrial enclaves of the Fordist era, destroying it, decentralizing labor, shifting the old factory systems to the periphery of the globe, while dismantling the unions and their security, the family farm systems, and isolating the workers through divisive politics, multicultural racism, difference, and monetary refinancialization and immaterial subterfuge. Capitalism knows very well what it is about, it is built on the notion of reinventing itself, auto-reconfiguring its systems of power and control even in the midst of breakdowns between crises. It thrives on crisis at the expense of dialecticians of the Left who still sit there spellbound as to why it continues. Reactionaries like Nick Land call this present system of neoliberalism the “Cathedral”: a system of governmental, corporate, and academic intellectual and ideological, political and economic power, coercion, and narratives that work through the ICT’s to manipulate and communicate, reinforce repetitively their system of false hope and democracy. I’m not a reactionary, but this does give a nice fictional summation to the global capitalist system we see around us and yet seem unwilling and unable to emancipate ourselves from. The Left is like a broken child’s toy, a Humpty-Dumpty that no one can put back together.

Even as Badiou and Zizek dream of the Idea of Communism as something to return too: a failed idea and lost cause that must be continually tried again and again, even amidst failure. Fail, and try better! – Is such a revitalization possible? When one watched Greece and Syriza recently crack under the pressure of isolation and economic servitude, its Leftist government caving before the EU gods, unable to provide its people even the hint of freedom much less economic salvation. Much rather generations of taxation and monetary austerity. What is left? How did the neoliberals capture the desires of the world and trap them in a cage of austerity from which only eternal war, taxation, and unfreedom reign?

Happened on a paper this morning on a journal devoted to Organizational Aesthetics dealing with Speculative Realism and Non-human agents such as Artificial Intelligence within Alien Organizations of the virtual and actual that have already become a staple of the current network society. A society in which  the world is flattened out across a grid of electronic circuits providing a platform for both non-human and human agents a 24/7 Onlife system of exchanges and transactional arbitration. Technologies and technics based on the emerging ICT technologies (Information and Communications), outsourcing and global networking. These Virtual organizations are “open and temporary coalitions of independent and usually geographically dispersed economic entities, whose structure is being constantly reorganized, whereas the scope and aim of the performed activities depends on the emerging market opportunities”.1 What is interesting is how the neoliberal world of capital is co-opting a value-neutral philosophy of speculative aesthetics and marshalling its concepts for use within the global marketplace as a design-engineering and organizational ploy for a future non-human system that flattens economics and productivity of knowledge workers within the emerging network economy and society.

Adam Dzidowski will develop a thesis in which these virtual organizations cannot operate  without systems like MRP (Material Requirements Planning), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), DSS (Decision Support Systems) or BI (Business Intelligence). Concurrently data mining, expert systems, neural networks and genetic algorithms are commonly incorporated into the daily activities of many corporations. Because of this he begins to question whether human perception is still central to organizational aesthetics. In the newer world of Onlife, when both human and non-human agents interoperate and the stakeholder position is more and more taken over by artificial systems rather than human actors/agents: a networked realm algorithmically driven by autonomous organisational agents like high-frequency trading (HFT), in which statistical arbitrage or trend following software already exist and act within the timeframes (milliseconds) and space (global market) that are unreachable for human perception, whether the most interesting question right now is how we should consider the sensitivity of non-human agents in

James Brindle in a blog post entitled The New Aesthetic (Bridle, 2011),  followed by a Tumblr feed (see: new-aesthetic.tumblr.com). He would describe the project as one undertaken within its own medium: an attempt to “write” critically about the network in the vernacular of the network itself: in a tumblr, in blog posts, in YouTube videos of lectures, tweeted reports and messages, reblogs, likes, and comments. Examples of this “new aesthetic of the future” would entail glitches, pixelations, render ghosts, GPS anomalies and other digital artefacts serve to introduce alien and synthetic visual forms, created by non-human actors, but also by humans incorporating “new” forms of perception.

The important motif here is the flattening out of human and non-human players on an equal footing in which both incorporate new forms of perception. One might as well say, “intentionality”: the directedness of the agency, human or non-human toward its objects, goals, or self-reflected operations. The point is that within the network human and non-human work or play in ways that are bound to a virtual environment to real time global participation and infoenactivism (i.e., the notion that inforgs or informational organisms – both human and non-human – collaborate in dynamic environmental interaction through elaborated channels of both representational and diagrammatic dataflows that rather than passively receiving information from their environments they then translate it into the idioms of exchange appropriate to the perceptive powers and capacities of their respective aesthetic organization).

As Dzidowski describes it the debate around the New Aesthetic “has spanned everything from feminist critique of the machine gaze to electric anthropology to alien toaster pastry to cats” (Dzidowski, p. 4). What we’re seeing here is a reorientation of the aesthetic paradigm toward the non-human actor’s viewpoint, a decentering of the human or displacement, that takes the new non-human objects of advanced modes of neoliberal industry, science, and business seriously. The stakeholders within these virtual enclaves more and more is being seen as a non-human actor with its own set of aesthetic perceptions and dynamic forms of interactive judgements and decisions. He’ll quote Karl Marx’s The Fragment on Machines along with Michael Betancourt comments:

What the “new aesthetic” documents is the shift from earlier considerations of machine labor as an amplifier and extension of human action  – as an augmentation of human labor  – to its replacement by models where the machine does not augment but supplant, in the process apparently removing the human intermediary that is the labor that historically lies between the work of human designer-engineers and fabrication following their plans. (Dzidowski, p. 5)

In this scenario the non-human agents “supplant” the human agents or “intermediary” as the active participants of value in this new virtual organization of corporate Onlife initiatives. As Ursula Huws in  Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age  will tell us neoliberal global capitalism’s extraordinary ability to survive the crises that periodically threaten to destroy it by generating new commodities.2 Even as non-human agents supplant or replace humans at various jobs over the next century there will still be a need for corporations and governments to maintain a balance between economic viability and the migration to new forms of machinic civilization. This means that it is still “humans” not the “non-human” agent that supports the economic base, which means along with new forms of commodification comes the need to invent new types of jobs for humans who actually invest and buy these commodities. After all non-human actors have yet to become fully autonomous economic agents in their own right, whether they are beginning to supplant humans in many of the repetitive tasks across the mundane world of real production or not.

Dzidowski will rely on Ian Bogost’s orientation in Alien Phenomenology for a new orientation in corporate organizational aesthetics:

Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally – plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. I contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves. (Bogost, 2009)

Is OOO becoming the aesthetic of choice for the Neoliberal agenda? Does it offer these design engineers of the virtual enclaves or other real-world design a form that flattens everything out on a plane of immanence that equalizes the human and non-human agents? Quoting from Levi R. Bryant’s book Democracy of Objects he’ll remark, saying, “flat ontology is not necessarily about the destruction of all hierarchies, but rather acknowledging the other ones. As Levi R. Bryant explains “the point is not to stop thinking about humans (…) but rather to start thinking about the role nonhumans play in organizing our social relations in particular ways” (Bryant, 2012). (Dzidowski , p. 5)

I know Levi leans toward anarchic and leftist forms in his politics, but can OOO itself be value neutral, open to reactionary as well as leftist politics within the neoliberal globalist system? As Dzidowski comments “when taking into account the digital, synthetic and artificial organizational  systems, some authors argue that the OOO and modern philosophy are hugely influenced by ICT itself” (Dzidowski, p. 5). So that OOO can be co-opted into either neoliberal or leftward agendas at the level of flat ontology. There being no ethical or epistemic dimension to counter or organize its philosophical presuppositions: it being concerned solely with displacing and decentering our authoritative and cultural imperialism of the human onto a level plane in which both human and non-human players, objects, agents work, live, and perceive.

He’ll quote from the Speculative Aesthetics Research Project at University for the Creative Arts describing their efforts in the following manner:

Our research emphasizes the requirement for novel modes of thinking aesthetics that refuse to hypostatize human experience as the master category through which the world is to be interpreted. To this end, the speculative dimension regarding aesthetic thought, as well as art and design practice, may well involve a productive tension between the levels of phenomenal experience, metaphysical speculation and scientific description, whilst, nonetheless, refusing a return to naïve realism, reified subjectivity, or (new) materialisms. (Dzidowski , p. 6)

The moment you displace the human from the center, with its sense of moral or socio-cultural legal or political motivations, and at the same time undermine the notion of the Subject as a form of naïve realism what then? What guides the use of such a philosophical or speculative aesthetic? The Neoliberal organizations can co-opt such a value-neutral non-human aesthetic to its own economic and political goals. What might that entail? Will our distinction between public and private be re-conceptualized as well? Will non-human agents gain political and social status? Does OOO allow for the emergence of new political actors to emerge at the moment, non-human agents gaining legal and social rights on an equal footing with humans? Will the emerging Artificial Intelligences take priority in class labor disputes, or legal battles over Security or any of a number of other issues? As the neoliberal organizations incorporate such philosophical underpinnings in their approach to law, aesthetics, economics, human and non-human relations what effect will this entail for society as a whole? Could we see an Artificial Agent of Intelligence gain a foothold in politics, become a governing agent in national or global affairs, rule over humans in any number of ways?

Steven Shaviro would have us accept panpsychism as a central aspect of this emerging paradigm: that everything is mindful, or has a mind; but this does not necessarily entail that everything is “given” or “manifested” to a mind. (…) If we are to reject correlationism, and undo the Kantian knot of thought and being, no middle way is possible. We must say either (along with Harman and Grant) that all entities are in their own right at least to some degree active, intentional, vital, and possessed of powers; or else (along with Meillassoux and Brassier) that being is radically disjunct from thought, in which case things or objects must be entirely divested of their allegedly anthropomorphic qualities. (Shaviro, The Universe of Things: 2011)

This dualism that decenters the human as the agent of mind, and allows the mental within objects of every type and stripe, while rewiring our framework of humanistic systems through a nihilistic wiping of the anthropomorphic traces in things is central to this orientation and aesthetic. The point of new speculative aesthetic is not to get rid of the human, but rather to undermine the heritage of humanistic learning and education. To develop a new education, aesthetic, and perceptive relation to the non-human as equal to ourselves. In this sense it is to move from a hierarchical ranking system to a non-hierarchical networking system in which objects both interact and withdraw from action, all bound by a space of equalization in which a non-elitist or democratic playing field is enabled.

One wonders how this would work in the real world? I’ve only recently purchased Harman’s Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political which is about Latour’s specific relational theory and its uses for politics. I’ve read a couple of reviews where he is leery of mixing ontology and politics. This seems right to me, yet even if he is cautious one realizes that others will not be and will co-opt such ontologies to other purposes than originally intended. That’s one of the problems with the “intentional” perspective: intentions are prone to abuse and error if directed toward objects outside the ontological domain. One of the weaknesses of the OOO perspective is the ethical and political aspects that will need to be addressed. I’ll need to see what Harman might have to say to this after I read his work on Latour.

As Dzidowski summarizes organizational aesthetics or how organizations organize themselves both in the virtual and actual world through their relations within and outside is taking on a more non-human and alien feel and style: speculative design concept spans across futurism and foresight methods,  incorporating tools like concept art, design fiction, culture-jamming, futurescaping, scenarios, horizon-scanning, science fiction, or even gonzo and new journalism (Dzidowski, p. 9) He’ll suggest that future organisational designs would either let us gracefully withdraw from organisational areas where our perception is simply unnecessary or insufficient, or they would ultimately motivate us to defend the remnants of human agency in a more and more artificial world. (Dzidowski, p. 10) Admonishing us that autonomous manufacturing plants are already here, but the intuitive fear of autonomous organisations seems to be well justified. Our open, but watchful imagination of the things to come is especially needed today. Eventually “it is the business of the future to be dangerous, and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties” (Dzidowski, p. 10).

So will the sciences reengineer our ethics, provide us goals, initiatives, duties? Is the future some speculative system of non-human agents slowly displacing the human from center to periphery in an accelerating world out of joint, a world of objects that interact among themselves without human knowledge or benefit. Objects that take on the role of legal, political, and social mediators that once fell to humans alone. A world of artificial intelligence, robotics, nano-tech, rogue biotech viruses and retroviruses, plastic environments of an infosphere in which the virtual and actual mesh to the point that the lines between them that once seemed so well defined by our human interfaces blur and disappear as non-human players begin to migrate into the human, and the human into the non-human? Will anything human remain? That ominous marker from Land’s Meltdown (read here) ringing in my ears: “Nothing human gets out alive.”

Maybe our passion to escape the human along with its entrapments in the anthropomorphic cage of correlationism is actually leading not to some new freedom and aesthetic openness and equalization of human and non-human, but rather is in a strange and uncanny reversal allowing the Real to invade the Symbolic Order of humanistic narratives, cannibalize the scripts that have underwritten the human project for millennia, that have guided its politics, education, literature, ethics, religion, philosophy, etc. for several hundred years from the Renaissance to Enlightenment into Modernism? And, yet, under the light of advance nihilism begin to see itself deconstructed, dismantled, brought into the margins of a defunct ideology and unsound and pathological system that pit humanity against the non-human as mythologized in Nature. Even now the speculative aesthetics of undoing the category of the human and natural is well under way. The older forms of Culture/Nature divide falling apart. Nature seen as a fantasy of the Enlightenment and instrumental reasoning of men seeking mastery and control of the resources of the natural world. Instead the new aesthetic would relinquish our hold on the natural, allow the non-human an autonomy the likes of which have never been seen before. Allow as well those other systems, the machinic to emerge from their human bondage and become autonomous: AI’s, robots, all slowly rising out of human collapse as the new agents of freedom and non-human aesthetic, philosophy, science. Allowing the non-human to suddenly stand in the sun on its own, autonomous and free of the human encroachment, allowing it to take on even the sacrosanct powers and capacities of human thought and creativity, to become intelligent and perceptive. With the human stripped of its emperor’s new clothing what will remain of this bare homo sacre? If civilization and society were once seen as apotropaic defense systems against the crude violence of nature, what of those newly crowned powers of the virtual, the machinic progeny of our posthuman future?

Of course the other side is those posthumanists, and transhumanists who seek just this: to merge with our machinic cousins, become more or less immortal; with fixable plastic bodies of portable parts, replaceable and impervious to the natural elements of erosion. Systems that will allow the human to migrate into alternate forms of artificial life. Allow a world of possibility undreamed by organic life-forms. The opening of space to forms and modes of existence and space exploration unimaginable before, due to the limits and finitude of man. A world where pain will be a thing of the past, where problems in the physical substratum of the robotic bodies we will inhabit will just inform nanotech operators and self-replicating robots to fix us on the fly. Metamorphic systems of advanced intelligence working alongside the posthuman enclaves as if Ovid’s poem of Metamorphosis was not about gods from above, but about the human children of time emerging from their cocoon of organic flesh into the anorganic and plastic encasement of titanium and other metal alloys as the new immortals of a new earth. A utopian dream of neoliberal power?

Where does the truth lie in such dreams of reason?


  1. Dzidowski, Adam (2015) “New and Speculative Organisational Aesthetics,” Organizational Aesthetics: Vol. 4: Iss. 1, 19-31.
    Available at: http://digitalcommons.wpi.edu/oa/vol4/iss1/5
  2. Huws, Ursula (2014-12-05). Labor in the Global Digital Economy: The Cybertariat Comes of Age (Kindle Locations 34-35). Monthly Review Press. Kindle Edition.