The Accursed Share: Economics of Excess

Once again I return to Bataille. In the preface to Accursed Share Vol 1 he describes the disconcerting experience of being confronted with the question of his work – the why of it:

“…the book I was writing (which I am now publishing) did not consider the facts the way qualified economists do, that I had a point of view from which a human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel were no less interesting than the sale of wheat. In short, I had to try in vain to make clear the notion of a “general economy” in which the “expenditure” (the “consumption”) of wealth, rather than production, was the primary object.”

This sense of coming at economics not as some narrow system of capital expenditure and profit, but rather as the ‘general economy’ of the system of the world itself – the Solar Economy – is this bewilderment we feel in realizing his conceptual reversal of modern economic theory based on the object of production rather than that of expenditure and waste (“consumption”). As he’ll tell it “This first essay addresses, from outside the separate disciplines, a problem that still has not been framed as it should be, one that may hold the key to all the problems posed by every discipline concerned with the movement of energy on the earth – from geophysics to political economy, by way of sociology, history and biology.” For underpinning it all was a materialist conception of force, drives, and energetics:

“Writing this book in which I was saying that energy finally can only be wasted, I myself was using my energy, my time, working; my research answered in a fundamental way the desire to add to the amount of wealth acquired for mankind.”

In his iconic affirmation that “the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space” he reminds us such comparisons follow from considerations of an energy economy that leave no room for poetic fantasy, but requires instead a thinking on a level with a play of forces that runs counter to ordinary calculations, a play of forces based on the laws that govern us. In short, the perspectives where such truths appear are those in which more general propositions reveal their meaning, propositions according to which it is not necessity but its contrary, “luxury,” that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems.”

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Bataille’s Solar Economy of our Anti-Culture

Bataille interprets all natural and cultural development upon the earth to be side effects of the evolution of death, because it is only in death that life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss. … Poetry, Bataille asserts, is a ‘holocaust of words’. A culture can never express or represent (serve) capital production, it can compromise itself in relation to capital only by abasing itself before the philistinism of the bougeoisie, whose ‘culture’ has no characteristics beyond those of abject restraint, and self-denigration. Capital is precisely and exhaustively the definitive anti-culture.

-Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation

The Violence of Capitalism

What saves us is efficiency-the devotion to efficiency.

—Marlow, in Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Life appears as a pause on the energy path; as a precarious stabilization and complication of solar decay. It is most basically comprehensible as the general solution to the problem of consumption.

—Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation

The belief that all things should act efficiently is at the core of both Fordist and post-Fordist forms of capitalism. Why should this be so? One could say that the concept of efficiency arose out of its opposite: inefficiency, as its negation. Most of modern economic theory grew out of this battle for efficiency and has been based on optimizing time, motion, and waste. One might say that the whole Progressive era of which we remain tied was bound by this pursuit of efficiency (perfection, growth, optimization) in the political, economic, social, and engineering (technics/technology) realms. Ultimately the central motif of modernity is the zeal for efficiency, and the desire to control a changing world, by bringing it into conformity with a vision of how the world does or should work.1 One might go further and Weberize it saying that modern global capitalism is the child of Christian perfectionism.

The terms “perfect” and “perfection” are drawn from the Greek teleios and teleiōsis, respectively. The root word, telos, means an “end” or “goal”. In contemporary translations, teleios and teleiōsis are often rendered as “mature” and “maturity”, respectively, so as not to imply infallibility or the absence of defects. Rather, in the Christian tradition, teleiōsis has referred to progressing towards spiritual wholeness or health. In the secular form that would enter into the concept of efficiency this movement from defect to wholeness or completion, would end in capital accumulation: profits, surplus, excess, etc. would take priority in engineering machines, assembly lines, and the mereology of the machinic or the techno-commercial sphere that in our moment is leading to total efficiency in digital economy and the autonomy of the machinic in robotics and AGI. The elimination of inefficiencies has led to the final struggle of eliminating the human from the equation. Capitalism perfected is a process in which humans are annihilated and expulsed as inefficient.

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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 Daemonic Imaginal: Ecstasy and Horror of the Noumenon

Historically speaking, demons are far from being horned and goateed Mephistos tempting us to do bad things. The demon is as much a philosophical concept as it is a religious and political one. In fact, the “demon” is often a placeholder for some sort of non-human, malefic agency that acts against the human (that is, against the world-for-us).

-Eugene Thacker,  In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1

There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and mind or imagination. If it happens that someone passes through all three of these gates, he binds most powerfully and ties down most tightly.

-Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic

Vauung seems to think there are lessons to be learnt from this despicable mess. It describes a labyrinth which is nothing but an intricate hall of mirrors, losing you in an ‘unconscious’ which is magnificent beyond comprehension yet indistinguishable from an elaborate trap.

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

Stuart Clark in Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe offers us an opening onto an abstruse subject: Demonology. “Demonology was a composite subject consisting of discussions about the workings of nature, the processes of history, the maintenance of religious purity, and the nature of political authority and order.” (6) One could say that contrariety is the key to demonology, a thinking against the impurity and counter-sublime that would destroy both the cultural aristocracy and its elitism, as well as its political, religious, and legal order-nomos. In Empedocles the notion of contrarieties would find its harbinger in promoting discord (Strife) and concord (Love) as the primary contraries in a dualistic system of warring elements that produced the cosmos between Heimarmene (Fate, Discord) and Harmonia (Concord, Order).

Heimarmene or the Moirai (Moirae) were the three goddesses of fate who personified the inescapable destiny of man. They assigned to every person his or her fate or share in the scheme of things. Their name means “Parts.” “Shares” or “Alottted Portions.” The individuals were Klotho (Clotho), the “the Spinner,” who spun the thread of life, Lakhesis (Lachesis), “the Apportioner of Lots”, who measured it, and Atropos (or Aisa), “She who cannot be turned,” who cut it short. Zeus Moiragetes, the god of fate, was their leader.

At the birth of a man, the Moirai spinned out the thread of his future life, followed his steps, and directed the consequences of his actions according to the counsel of the gods. It was not an inflexible fate; Zeus, if he chose, had the power of saving even those who were already on the point of being seized by their fate. The Fates did not abruptly interfere in human affairs but availed themselves of intermediate causes, and determined the lot of mortals not absolutely, but only conditionally, even man himself, in his freedom was allowed to exercise a certain influence upon them. As man’s fate terminated at his death, the goddesses of fate become the goddesses of death, Moirai Thanatoio.

HARMONIA was the goddess of harmony and concord. She was a daughter of Ares and Aphrodite and as such presided over both marital harmony, soothing strife and discord, and harmonious action of soldiers in war. Late Greek and Roman writers sometimes portrayed her as harmony in a more abstract sense–a deity who presided over cosmic balance. In Plato’s Timaeus harmonization by proportion (of contrary elements, seasons, physical motions, and components of the soul) became the principle by which the Divinity created from chaos.

One can discover the use of contrariety as a guiding concept throughout both religious and philosophical speculation from Plato and Aristotle, his pupil on down to Immanuel Kant whose philosophical system both concluded one tradition and began what we’ve come to term Modernity (even though this term had been contested throughout the 16th to 18th centuries). The Aristotelian maxim contrariorum eadem est doctrina expresses this, as does Kant’s dictum that ‘all a priori division of concepts must be by dichotomy’.

The dichotomy that will concern us in this tentative assaying of the territory of demonology or thinking with demons is that of the contrariety of the phenomenal/noumenal divide. So I begin with Immanuel Kant. One could almost say that the demon in his philosophy is the concept of the noumenon. In our own time many philosophers, anti-philosophers, non-philosophers have converged upon the noumenon. Kant  was the philosopher who sundered the known from the unknown, appearance from reality, sensible from intelligible. One could traces aspects of this battle back through the Idealists / Rationalists and on down into the Scholastics nominalist/realist divides in one form or another. Yet, it was Kant that introduced the categories and introduced the specific terms argument of the terms in his division of the concepts of “phenomena” and “noumena” that have haunted both Continental and Analytical philosophy in the Secular Age.  Kant first used these terms in his 1770 Inaugural Dissertation, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World.

Sensibility is the receptivity of a subject in virtue of which it is possible for the subject’s own representative state to be affected in a definite way by the presence of some object. Intelligence (rationality) is the faculty of a subject in virtue of which it has the power to represent things which cannot by their own quality come before the senses of that subject. The object of sensibility is the sensible; that which contains nothing but what is to be cognized through the intelligence is intelligible. In the schools of the ancients, the former was called a phenomenon and the latter a noumenon. Cognition, in so far as it is subject to the laws of sensibility is sensitive, and, in so far as it is subject to the laws of intelligence, it is intellectual or rational. (§3, Ak 2:392).

Kant goes on to claim that there is a form of the intelligible world, an objective principle, which is “some cause in virtue of which there is a combining together of the things which exist in themselves” (§13, Ak 2:398). This cause is a unitary being on which all substances depend, a creator and architect of the world. Thus, Kant makes what he would later call a “transcendental” use of the pure concept of cause (or that from which something is derived) in principles like the following: “The substances which constitute the world are beings which derive from another being, though not from a number of different beings; they all derive from the same being” (§20, Ak 2:408).

Kant introduced the concept of the noumenon in the oppositional or negative sense, as the concept of an object that is not the object of a sensible intuition or the intellect; a placeholder for the limits of thought rather than thought itself. The function of this concept is to “limit the pretension of sensibility” (KrV A255/B311); and since this “pretension” is that sensible, i.e., spatiotemporal, predicates apply to things in general, this limitation is central to Kant’s “critical” project. Moreover, it brings with it the replacement of a transcendental by an empirical realism and therewith a commitment to transcendental idealism.1

One last item is the battle between those in favor of a “two-world” theory, and those in favor of a “two-aspect” theory of the phenomenon/noumenon divide. Allison will condense his argument from the anti-idealist camp using the work of P.F. Strawson and H.A. Pritchard. Strawson would reduce Kant’s Transcendental Idealism to incoherence, suggesting that Kant perverts the scientific empirical model of the mind’s being affected by physical objects by a mental trick. For Strawson Kant division into sensible/intelligible, appearance/reality distinctions creates the very problem it pretends to overcome: the reduction of the spatiotemporal relation to the subjective constitution of the mind (i.e., that the external is constructed by the mind, not affected by the sensible objects themselves). Secondly, is Pritchard’s argument that Kant confuses the issue claiming that we can know appearances but not things-in-themselves, and proceeds to affirm that we can really know appearances and they really are spatial. This leads Pritchard says to the assumption by Kant that we can only know things as they seem to us through appearances (representations), not how they really are in-themselves external to this system of representational mythology. 2

It would lead to too far afield to dig deeper into the tangled skein of analytical vs. transcendental idealist divide in Strawson, Pritchard, Paul Guyer, and Rae Langton. Each in their own way tried to separate out the transcendental idealism from the analytical aspects of Kant’s philosophy. I’ll leave that to the interested reader.

To simplify: the point is that for Kant there is no argument that things-in-themselves exist independent of us (realism), the point is rather that until these things are conceptualized for us and by us in the mind. But this does not mean that they exist as in Bishop Berkeley as Ideas or sense data in the mind independent of those external objects, rather these external objects to become objects for us must conform to the conditions of their representation in our mind. Whatever these objects, things, entities are independent of us is meaningless until they are made intelligible in the mind and conditioned as representations.

Most of modern philosophy and art has been a civil-war over this representational model of the mind that Kant distilled out of ancient to rationalist philosophy.  Kant himself would try to blend the two without fusing them saying: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” (A51/B76) For Allison Kant’s Transcendental Idealism was founded on a “two aspect” theory of epistemic conditioning, one that would require the transcendental distinction between appearances and things in themselves as based on two ways of considering things be maintained (as they appear and as they are in themselves) rather than as, on a more traditional reading, between two ontologically distinct sets of entities (appearances and things in themselves). (TI, p. 16)

This battle between epistemic conditioning of reality for us or for itself on the one hand, and those who would ontologize this gap between things for us and in themselves plays into many current notions surrounding knowledge. If reality must conform to the representations we have of it then we are bound in a circle of predetermined forms that guide our thoughts, while if reality can be divided in itself between objects as appearance (phenomenon) and objects as noumenal unknowns to which we have no direct access then we are bound to diametric and confrontational views of life and meaning.

Some like Quentin Meillassoux in his recent After Finitude would argue against what he termed correlationism, which is seen to be the thesis that it is impossible to think being independent of the relation between thought and being.  Meillassoux’s aim is to think the absolute or reality as it exists independent of human beings. The correlationist on the other hand thinks that there is no human without world, nor world without human, but only a primal correlation or rapport between the two. Hence, the object has no autonomy for the correlationist. In franker terms, the object does not exist. Kant’s ultimate judgment and the central teaching of his so called Copernican Revolution was to turn philosophy into a meditation on human finitude and forbid it from discussing reality-in-itself. So that after him all we could affirm positively was the phenomenal region of our spatio-temporal cosmos as conditioned by our representational mind.

Meillassoux and others since Kant have tried without success to counter this explicit closure of the noumenon, seeking to discover another path, one that seeks outside direct access to this noumenal sphere a more indirect access to its unknowability. It’s in this liminal sphere between the possible and impossible, phenomenal and noumenal that the wars of philosophy between epistemic and ontological access have for two centuries striven sometimes winning small battles here and there but none winning the war. The noumenon will not let itself be reduced to either epistemic conditioning nor ontological excess, it acts like a daemonic continuum that is full of discord, strife, and contradiction that allows only the vagrant mediator, the vanishing mediator to convey, though indirectly some semblance of the darkness made visible.

The Daemonic Realms: The “Subject” of Posthumanism

“…all demons are malevolent, deceiving, posturing enemies of humanity…”

-Jean Bodin, Démonomanie

Thinking about the daemonic or thinking the daemon brings us to edge of both thought and speech, of what can be thought and what spoken. Kepler in his, “The Speech of Daemons,” which formed a part of his allegory of the Cosmos that sought to explain his scientific and natural views constitutes the central core of the elaborately framed narrative. The Daemon became in his Somnium: The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy a polysemic allegorical assemblage of the Christian and scientific imagination, represents Kepler’s attempt to resolve competing discourses available for theorizing nature. Kepler struggled to break through the limits of thought in his time, a thought that restricted the minds of those he sought to convey his natural and cosmological information to. To do that he pushed the limits of a form of dream discourse that could reach into that abyss of the daemonic imaginal where meaning could be brought back in a form of daemonic speech that spoke the alterity beyond the limit’s of his time’s cultural register. Eugene Thacker in his three-volume work In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy on the horror of philosophy would offer a view onto this limiting factor of our knowledge of the world and ourselves:

[T]he horror of philosophy: the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language.(2)

The Daemonic Imaginal is that alterity beyond the limit of our symbolic and cultural horizon that allows the abyss to open its darkness to us and reveal what is both most natural and most daemonic to us in forms that take on powers of speech and thought irreducible to the logic and instrumental reasoning of our everyday utilitarian language and mental make-up. Yet, this is not some transcendent realm of spirits from some external world beyond our world, but rather the powers at the heart of our elemental desires and fears, our deepest noumenal affective registry that cannot be any part of intuition (Intellect) or sense-data (Sensibility) but is rather part of that contrariety and agonistic world of strife that is neither logical or reasonable.

The Daemon arises from that dark sphere of thought by way of indirect appropriation, through lures and traps, alluring its subtle world not by way of representations and the light of Reason, but rather by way of diagrams, sigils, forces and powers of imaginal entreaty, drawing this non-knowledge into that intermediated realm between the sublime and ridiculous without reducing it to our daylight utilitarian symbols thereby degrading it and losing the very force of its message. As Thacker surmises

I would propose that horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us). (8)

Opening any number of current philosophical or scientific works in the past few years one gets a feeling that an advanced cadre of alien invaders were slowly erasing the memory of the human from our cultural complex, as if an invasion of alien thinkers had replaced our age old vision of human exceptionalism. This novel undermining of two thousand years of Christian humanist civilization some say has been going on since the Enlightenment age of Kant. That what is occurring in our midst, to the detrimental to the both the older humanistic and humancentric view of life, self, and the universe is nothing less than the destruction of the human species in advance of some transvaluation of both our values and our genetic inheritance in an ongoing transformation into a posthuman civilization.

If as some have surmised that one can only radicalize or reverse a philosophical system then what has happened recently in terms of philosophy is the extreme end of Kantianism: it has been both radicalized and reversed to the extreme nth degree and found wanting. Over the past two centuries Kant’s system would divide the House of Philosophy into both Analytical and Continental forms in its quest to overcome the dilemma he’d set for his philosophy of finitude and the phenomenal. Unable to break out of the correlational circle of thought and affirm objects independent of the mind’s representations, philosophers have sought either to extend into analytical and mathematical theoretic or the discursive and phenomenological theoretic left open to it. Both paths ended in failure. But even this failure to break out of the correlational circle has spawned other possibilities.

Slavoj Zizek realizing the quandary of this circular reasoning will remind us of Niels Bohr who liked to repeat, at the level of the physics of micro-particles, there is no “objective” measurement, no access to “objective” reality— not because we (our mind) constitutes reality, but because we are part of the reality which we measure, and thus lack an “objective distance” towards it.3 Zizek himself will join all those dualists that have seen a gap between thought and reality, yet he stays with the notion of the Subject or a humancentric view that begs the question. As he’ll say of Meillassoux,

Meillassoux’s claim is to have achieved the breakthrough into independent “objective” reality. But there is a third Hegelian option: the true problem that follows from Meillassoux’s basic speculative gesture (transposing the contingency of our notion of reality into the Thing itself) is not so much what more we can say about reality-in-itself, but how our subjective standpoint and subjectivity itself fit into reality. (LTN, KL 14517)

That seems to be the most degrading and almost reactionary aspect of Zizek’s stance in maintaining the notion of a Subject in a world where neuroscientists and many philosophers have escaped or evaded this notion as retrograde and dubious at best. I don’t have time to go into all the arguments for this here, and will only add Thomas Metzinger’s statement:

Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self. But it is not just that the modern philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience together are about to shatter the myth of the self. It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness—that is, how it can arise in the brain, which is a purely physical object—if we don’t come to terms with this simple proposition: that to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity, that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences?4

Which will force Zizek to then ask if problem is not “Can we penetrate the veil of subjectively constituted phenomena to Things-in-themselves?” but “How do phenomena themselves arise within the flat stupidity of reality which just is; how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself?” For this, we need a theory of the subject which involves neither transcendental subjectivity nor a reduction of the subject to a part of objective reality; such a theory also enables us to formulate in a new way what Meillassoux calls the problem of correlationism (ancestrality). Here, both Lacan and Hegel are anti-Leninists, for their problem is not “how to reach objective reality which is independent of (its correlation to) subjectivity,” but how subjectivity is already inscribed into reality— to quote Lacan again, not only is the picture in my eye, but I am also in the picture. (LTN, KL 14520)

Ultimately for Zizek there is an irreducible (constitutive) discord, or non-correlation, between subject and reality: in order for the subject to emerge, the impossible object-that-is-subject must be excluded from reality, since it is this very exclusion which opens up the space for the subject. The problem is not to think the Real outside of transcendental correlation, independently of the subject; the problem is to think the Real inside the subject, the hard core of the Real in the very heart of the subject, its ex-timate center. (LTN, 14533) Thinking through what this exclusion from reality might entail, the negation that opens up this object that is the Subject and forces the extreme solution to think the Real at the core of this Subject as internal to the Subject in itself seems to reverse the Kantian distinction. Now the noumenon is at the core of the Subject rather than in the external world or Thing-in-itself. Rather than a split between appearance / thing-in-itself or phenomenon/noumenon we now have in Zizek’s metaphysical system the introduction of a split also into the subject, between its thinking and its (not actual life-being but its) non-thought thought, its non-non-thought, between discourse and the Real (not reality). So the point is not only to overcome the inaccessible In-itself by claiming that “there is nothing beyond the veil of semblances except what the subject itself put there,” but to relate the In-itself to the split in the subject itself. (LTN, KL 14543)

This displacement of the noumenal from the external to the internal split within the Subject-in-itself seems to open the world of the daemonic that Eugene Thacker in the epigraph to this essay terms  “a placeholder for some sort of non-human, malefic agency that acts against the human”.

…it has been gone for 2,000 years, either because God withdrew the Holy Spirit or because for one reason or another man lost the method and the notion. And then all that came were daemons rather than daimons— evil spirits only…

-Philip K Dick,  The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

The Split: The Daemonic in the Subject

I am one of those who not only knows that those who sleep in death will awaken, but I know how (and I know it, too, by gnosis, not pistis). Thus I see now that the fact of anamnesis is tied in with the basic, informational quality of the universe. After all, it was information which retrieved me, whereupon I then could distinguish other higher information and learn from it.

– Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

E.R. Dodds in his now classic The Greeks and the Irrational would remind us that the ancient people of Greece, from whom our conceptuality and notions of reason and the irrational first arose, saw the world in daemonic terms as the will of Zeus “working itself out through an inexorable moral law, his characters see only a daemonic world, haunted by malignant forces”.6 Dodds would go on to say,

The daemonic, as distinct from the divine, has at all periods played a large part in Greek popular belief (and still does). People in the Odyssey attribute many events in their lives, both mental and physical, to the agency of anonymous daemons; we get the impression, however, that they do not always mean it very seriously. But in the age that lies between the Odyssey and the Orestia, the daemons seem to draw closer: they grow more persistent, more insidious, more sinister. (GI, KL 794)

The Greeks would in fact begin to see our passional nature, our irrational emotions and intentions as daemons. As Dodds will tell us those irrational impulses which arise in a man against his will to tempt him, such as Theognis calls hope and fear are “dangerous daemons,” or when Sophocles speaks of Eros as a power that “warps to wrong the righteous mind, for its destruction,”  we should not dismiss this as “personification”: behind it lies the old Homeric feeling that these things are not truly part of the self, since they are not within man’s conscious control; they are endowed with a life and energy of their own, and so can force a man, as it were from the outside, into conduct foreign to him. (GI, KL 804) A second type of daemon would be associated with various diseases that would eat away the body such as Cholera, Smallpox, and Plague. Third would be the notion of moira or “portion” of personal luck in which as Theognis laments that more depends on one’s daemon than on one’s character: if your daemon is of poor quality, mere good judgement is of no avail— your enterprises come to nothing. (GI, 907)

Empedocles would teach the Greeks of the occult self which persisted through successive incarnations which he called, not “psyche” but “daemon.” This daemon has, apparently, nothing to do with perception or thought, which Empedocles held to be mechanically determined; the function of the daemon is to be the carrier of man’s potential divinity113 and actual guilt. It is nearer in some ways to the indwelling spirit which the shaman inherits from other shamans than it is to the rational “soul” in which Socrates believed; but it has been moralised as a guilt-carrier, and the world of the senses has become the Hades in which it suffers torment. (GI, KL 3036)

This notion of the split within the Subject as daemon and psyche would have repercussions down through Plato and then into the Neo-Platonists and Christian Gnostics who would inherit these ideas and extend them taking over the notion that we already exist in Hades or Hell and suffer the torments of a Demon King, the Devil or Demiurge. As Dodds would admit the Classical Age inherited a whole series of inconsistent pictures of the “soul” or “self” the living corpse in the grave, the shadowy image in Hades, the perishable breath that is spilt in the air or absorbed in the aether, the daemon that is reborn in other bodies. (GI, KL 3607) Yet, as the Greeks demythologized their society and rationalized it into philosophical concepts and reason the externalization of these daemons would slowly withdraw into the human head as intentions, impulses, and irrational drives pulling and pushing humans into sinister paths.

Plato’s fission of the empirical man into daemon and beast is perhaps not quite so inconsequent as it may appear to the modern reader. It reflects a similar fission in Plato’s view of human nature: the gulf between the immortal and the mortal soul corresponds to the gulf between Plato’s vision of man as he might be and his estimate of man as he is. (GI, KL 4253) Over time the naturalization of these mythical entities into passions, emotions, intentions would resolve them in ways that allowed the political and social control of human behavior. Yet, the rational never quite was able to exclude the older mythical elements from its systems, and even Socrates would do honor to his daemon on his death bed.

In our time Zizek will speak of this daemonic realm of the Real as the pure virtual surface, the “incorporeal” Real, which is to be opposed to the Real in its most terrifying imaginary dimension, the primordial abyss which swallows up everything, dissolving all identities— a figure well known in literature in multiple guises, from Edgar Allan Poe’s maelstrom and Kurtz’s “horror” at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to Pip from Melville’s Moby Dick who, cast to the bottom of the ocean, experiences the demon God:

Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes … Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke to it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. (LTN, 1579)

Zizek would return us to Plato, to the Real of the Gap: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. As he’ll suggest:

Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form— the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate— the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” (LTN, KL 935)

For Zizek our realm, this universe of material reality is “all there is,” that there is no Platonic true world beyond the cosmos: and, the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The question becomes not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance. No wonder that the two great admirers of Plato’s Parmenides, Hegel and Lacan, both provide exactly the same formula of the “truth” of the Platonic supersensible Idea: the supersensible

comes from the world of appearance which has mediated it; in other words, appearance is its essence and, in fact, its filling. The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible is therefore appearance qua appearance … It is often said that the supersensible world is not appearance; but what is here understood by appearance is not appearance, but rather the sensuous world as itself the really actual. (LTN, 953)

The implicit lesson of Plato is not that everything is appearance, that it is not possible to draw a clear line of separation between appearance and reality (that would have meant the victory of sophism), but that essence is “appearance as appearance,” that essence appears in contrast to appearance within appearance; that the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.(LTN, 969)

Which brings us to the Void. For Zizek appearance as essence is in itself empty, a nothingness manifest, the “nothingness of a pure gap (antagonism, tension, “contradiction”), the pure form of dislocation ontologically preceding any dislocated content”. (LTN, 983)

This whole digression brings us back to the inhuman split subject within as the place of this warring, antagonistic, contradictory realm of the daemonic Real.

The Rise of the Archons: Gnosticism, Gnosis, and Nonknowledge

Why do these spiritual beings have mercy on us in the first place? And why do they choose to speak to us through sudden and striking images? Why is their presence always marked by an odd, eerie, weird apparition? Why do they have to pervert nature in order to reveal their messages?

-Armando Maggi, In The Company of Demons

Philosophical sophisticates like Marcus Aurelius are no less vulnerable than the local shoemaker, for, as Marcus’s own philosophy might show,  daimones can turn philosophy itself into a means of subjugating people to their tyranny.7 Pagels in her study on the origin of Satan will trace the concept of daimonies through its Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic variants. The whole of the ancient world was pervaded by the daimonic in both its moral and amoral forms. One finds literature in all pagan or Christian forms pervaded by magic, binding spells, curse tablets, voodoo dolls, and rituals to control and direct daimonies for good or ill.9

In his Against the Heresies Irenaeus relates the origins of the Demiurge:

When she saw that all the rest had a consort, but she herself was without a partner, she sought for one, with whom she might unite; and when she did not  fi nd one she took it sorely, extended herself, and looked down into the lower regions, thinking to  fi nd a consort there. And when she found none she leapt forth, disgusted also because she had made the leap without the goodwill of the Father. Then, moved by simplicity and goodness, she generated a work in which was ignorance and audacity.

This work of hers they call the First Archon, the creator of this world. They relate that he stole from his mother a great power and departed from her into the lower regions, and made the  firmament of heaven in which also they say he dwells.

One hears in this an echo and inversion of the ancient Christian and Greek myths with Sophia, Wisdom, giving birth to the blind demiurge or first Archon who will in turn steal a “great power” from his Mother that will help him reorder and construct the Cosmos: the lower realms of our universe. One thinks of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, or Pandora’s box of toxic gifts as well… as if the corruption began with the breaking of a taboo, a sacrifice – a blind and tearful progenitor seeking to mold a universe of pure hate and desolation.

Neoplatonism and Pico’s attempted synthesis of all philosophies on a mystical basis are really, at bottom, an aspiration after a new gnosis rather than a new philosophy. At any rate, it was their immersion in the atmosphere of gnosis through their veneration for Hermes Trismegistus which led Ficino and Pico to their religious approach to magic and to their placing of the Magus on a lofty pinnacle of insight, a position very different from that held by the vulgar necromancers and conjurors in former less enlightened times.

-Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Georges Bataille will tell us that in practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action).9 Here we see Bataille revealing the power of darkness and matter as energetic power, both active and creative. Bataille attributes to such sovereign moments of energetic, affective expenditure a sacrificial character. “the principle of sacrifice is destruction,” he writes, “but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely . . . the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing—only the thing—is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim. Sacrifice destroys an object’s . . . ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility” and into the sphere of the sacred.10 (NE, 220)

One might say Bataille was seeking an anti-political left-hand path out of our capitalist prison, a way to exit the system of profits without expenditure that was a living hell for those trapped within its vast mechanisms of clockwork utilitarian culture and practice. And, for Bataille, the only path out was down and into the daemonic heart of “inner experience,” a revitalization of those dark powers of the ancient archons who were the energetic force of excess and transgression. Bataille sought to negate the darkest prison of all: Time.

For Bataille the sacred was a realm of splits and gaps as well. He’d seek through “inner experience” (gnosis or non-knowledge) a exit from the mundane and utilitarian profane work-a-day world, and an entry into the realm of the left-hand path of the dangerous, decaying, morbid sacred. Bataille advances this “duality of the sacred,” extending and radicalizing the features of the “two opposing classes” observed by Durkheim: “pure
and impure,” vivifying and decaying. According to Bataille’s account, the right sacred amounts to a transcendent projection of the profane world; it is rational utility elevated to the level of God or some other exalted figure. The left sacred, by contrast, is the Dionysian dimension of the sacred; it is not accessed in transcendence but activated through the transgression of prohibitions that keep the profane world intact. Whereas the elevated, Apollonian consciousness seeks stable and enduring forms, the disciple of the monstrous, left sacred revels in “ruptur[ing] the highest elevation, and . . . has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms” attendant upon intoxication, madness, and artistic profusion. (NE, 221)

This lower left-hand sacred path was for Bataille excessive and  transgressive, escaping assimilation or systematization. In this way, like the chthonic god with which it is affiliated in Bataille’s thought, the left sacred is a “low value” that disrupts both the rational order of utility—the “real world,” conditioned by telic thought and dedicated to useful projects—as well as its divinized counterpart, the right sacred. It is at once activated by, and provokes the death of, the closed,  individual self—the death that grants the experience of continuity.(NE, 221)

It’s in this realm of continuity that the daimonic manifests itself. “Nonknowledge communicates ecstasy,” Bataille writes. “Thus ecstasy only remains possible in the anguish of ecstasy, in this sense, that it cannot be satisfaction, grasped knowledge.” It is in the “dazed lucidity” of ecstatic agnosia that one realizes the sacrificial shattering of the self. In a manner that recalls Freud’s characterization of dreams, this oneiric mystical experience is “heedless of contradictions”; indeed, it proceeds in and through affective and intellectual contradictions, with “as much disorder as in dreams.” This ecstasy is the anti-Hegelian, excessively Nietzschean fomentation of inner experience: the point of extreme “contradiction” in which “circular, absolute knowledge is definitive non-knowledge.” Inner experience is the encounter with the dream knot: a “dream of the unknown . . . the refusal to be everything,” a loss of self in the night of nonknowledge, which carries the “meaning of dream.” (NE, 236)

It’s this sense in Bataille’s gnosis of nonknowledge of coming up against the limit of the human, of sacrifice and the loss of self in immersion with the inhuman core of being, its continuity. As Thacker will remind us

Here again we arrive at the concept of the demon as a limit for thought, a limit that is constituted not by being or becoming, but by non-being, or nothingness. And here we should state what we have been hinting at all along, which is that in contrast to the theology of the demon, or the poetics of the demon, there is something more basic still that has to do with the ideas of negation and nothingness – hence we should really think of the demon as an ontological problem (not theology, not poetry, but philosophy). (DTP, 45)

It’s this sense that the daimon is more about thought and the limits of thought, an ontological problem about limits that brings us back to Kant and the noumenon. As Thacker will state it “if demonology is to be thought in a philosophical register, then it would have to function as a kind of philosoheme that brings together a cluster of ideas that have, for some time, served as problematic areas for philosophy itself: negation, nothingness, and the non-human. (DTP, 45) What the daimonic brings us to is the agonistic confrontation with the Real outside the mundane and profane realm of work and utilitarian values, and into that horizon of possibility where the unthinkable noumenal that philosophy cannot speak is suddenly communicated by the very daimones themselves via a non-philosophical language. (DTP, 2)

This is where Bataille’s impure way of extreme surrealism, an onerism that no longer as in Andre Breton seeks to synthesize the contradictions of the daimonic in some Hegelian sublation, follows rather the monstrous images of dream into the contradictory realms of darkness and decomposition, risking the loss of self as the acceptable transgression needed to raise the energies from their abyss. Thacker mentions Rudolf Otto in regards to this

In the West, Otto argues, there have been two major modes in which this negative thought has been expressed: silence and darkness. To these Otto adds a third, which he finds dominant in Eastern variants of mystical experience, which he terms “emptiness and empty distances,” or the void. Here the negation of thought turns into an affirmation, but a paradoxical affirmation of “nothingness” or “emptiness.” As Otto puts it, “‘void’ is, like darkness and silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every ‘this’ and ‘here,’ in order that the ‘wholly other’ may become actual.” (DTP, 155-156)

Invoking the Powers of Thought: Daimones as Intelligencers

Is qabbalism problematical or mysterious? …Epistemologically speaking, qabbalistic programmes have a status strictly equivalent to that of experimental particle physics, or other natural-scientific research programmes, even if their guiding hypotheses might seem decidedly less plausible than those dominant within mainstream scientific institutions.

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

Giordano Bruno would describe transnatural magic as the power of invoking the Mind’s daimons:

The methods of the fifth kind of magic are words, charms, the reasons of numbers and times, images, forms, seals, symbols, or letters. This magic is intermediary between natural magic and extra- or supranatural magic. the most suitable name for it is mathematical magic or, rather, occult philosophy.

The sixth kind is achieved by means of the cult or invocation of external or superior intelligences or agents, through prayers, incantations, fumigations, sacrifices as well as certain customs and ceremonies directed toward the gods, demons, and heroes. The results to contract the spirit into itself in such a way that the spirit is changed into the receiver and instrument and appears endowed with the wisdom of things, but this wisdom can easily be withdrawn, at the same time as the spirit, by means of sufficient remedies. This is the magic of the hopeless, who become recipients of evil demons caught with the help of the Art [Ars notoria]. Its purpose is to command the lower demons through the authority of the higher demons; the latter, one cultivates and attract; the former, one exorcises and controls. This form of magic is transnatural or metaphysical and is called theurgia. (EM, 157)

Couliano’s readings of these thinkers who revitalized the hermetic, magical, and gnostic forms of thought Ficino, Bruno and others gives us a view onto these ancient worlds of the Medieval Mind that have recourse to sources of thought and literature that preserved these traditions and practices out of Greece, Rome, Alexandria, and kept them buried in the vast libraries of the Catholic world. Bruno would castigate the authors of the Malleus maleficarum as obscurantists who knew nothing of the magical arts:

Recently, the words “magician” and “magic” have been denigrated: we have not taken this into consideration at all. The magician has been called stupid and evil sorcerer who has obtained, through dealings and pact with the evil demon, the faculty to do harm or to enjoy certain things. This opinion is not shared by wise men of philologists, but it is taken up by the hooded ones [bardocuculli; that is, monks] such as the author of the Malleus maleficarum. In our day, this definition has been reassumed by all sorts or writers, as we can observe by reading the catechisms for the ignorant and for drowsy priests. (De Magia, III, EM, 157)

It is from Bruno that the philosophical aspects of demonology will become more mainstream within Catholicism. Demons he would tells us are invisible spirits who have the ability to act upon the intelligence and judgment. They produce visual and auditory hallucinations, sometimes simultaneously. Bruno differentiates five categories of demons. The first, who corresponds to Psellus’s subterranean and aquatic demons, are bruta Animalia and have no sense. The second, who inhabit ruins and prisons, are “timid, suspicious and credulous.” They can be invoked, since they are capable of hearing and understanding spoken language. The third are of “a more prudent king.” They inhabit the air and are especially redoubtable since they lead a man astray through imagination and false promises. The fourth, who inhabit the airy regions, are beneficent and resplendent. The fifth, who inhabit the stellar light, are sometimes called gods or heroes but in reality they only agents of the one and only God. The cabbalists call them Fissim, Seraphim, Cherubim, etc. (De Magia, III, EM 427-428)

Bruno’s philosophy cannot be separated from his religion. It was his religion, the “religion of the world”, which he saw in this expanded form of the infinite universe and the innumerable worlds as an expanded gnosis, a new revelation of the divinity from the “vestiges”. Copernicanism was a symbol of the new revelation, which was to mean a return to the natural religion of the Egyptians, magic…

-Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Demonic possessions in this house are not unknown. Is this really Keith, her father? taken when she was half her present age, and returned now as not the man she knew, but only the shell— with the soft meaty slug of soul that smiles and loves, that feels its mortality, either rotted away or been picked at by the needle mouths of death-by-government— a process by which living souls unwillingly become the demons known to the main sequence of Western magic as the Qlippoth, Shells of the Dead. . .

-Thomas Pynchon,  Gravity’s Rainbow

For several centuries we’ve heard the Grand Narrative of the separation of scientific thought out of this ancient world of sorcery, hermeticism, magian literature, kabbalah, occult and arcane practices of witchcraft and other forms. To what end? Is there anything behind this other than the delusions of mythographers and poets? Is the strange and weird worlds of this hidden realm of thought have any place in our world now? One sees the vestiges of it in the soupy sweetness of various forms of New Age obscurantism. Yet, one also sees Universities sponsoring Esoteric studies and an occult revival at reputable universities in such works as Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (here). At night on American television one can see a myriad of programs in the pop-cultural sphere of ghost hunters, channelers: or people who speak with the dead, etc., along with occult or other magical or witchcraft programs as if the ancient sorceries were still well and alive in the madness of the mass mind. Is the unknown at the limits of the mind’s tether opening up to the noumenal sphere once again? Is the noumenal part of the split internal to the core of our inhuman monstrousness? Or, is it rather the Real at the heart of the abyss within which we are all situated? Who can answer? Are the demons speaking, sending us messages from the dark places?

Zdzislaw Beksinski - 1978 (4)

I know it’s true; I mean, I know now that what I’ve been seeing which I assumed was many sources, many doctrines, was and is the worldview and knowledge, the gnosis and secret wisdom…

-Philip K.Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

On January 7, 1994 Alan Moore would spend part of an evening talking to an entity who claimed to be a Goetic demon first mentioned in the Apocrypha (Moore would later weave Goetic demons into Promethea). He struggled over whether the demon was purely internal, that is, a projection of his psyche, or whether it was external and more or less what it claimed to be. In the fantastic paradoxical pattern that will structure all that follows, Moore confesses that the most satisfying answer is that it was both: “That doesn’t make any logical sense but that satisfied me most emotionally. It feels truest.”

“These are gnostic experiences,” the writer declares. “You’ve either had them
or you haven’t.” By gnostic, Moore means a particular kind of direct and immediate
experiential knowledge of one’s own divinity that cannot be reduced to reason or faith
and stands very much opposed to the consensus reality of society and religion: “Faith is for sissies who daren’t go and look for themselves. That’s my basic position. Magic
is based upon gnosis. Direct knowledge.”12

The dark side of the Etz Chiim is also called the Tree of Death and considered to represent the reverse or occult side of the Tree of Life. It is a diagram of the evil forces or Qliphoth (hebrew, Shells) assigned to each Sephiroth. They represent the counter-forces of the ten divine emanations as described in Lurianic Kabbalah. The Tree of Death, however, essentially is a creation of 20th century Western occultism rather than genuine Jewish Kabbalah.

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“The Devil is composed of God’s ruins’” 

-Eliphas Levi, Dogma and ritual

The Qliphoth are the evil forces that exist within creation. Their coming into existence was one of the central philosophical problems dealt with after the forced displacement of Jews from Spain in 1492. Similarly like World War II positioned the  theodicy problem (i.e. ‘How can a merciful God allow evil in creation?’) in the centre of Christian speculation, it was the banishment from Spain in 1492 that was perceived as similar fundamental and unanswerable paradox for the Jewish communities. After all the Jews were God’s chosen people, yet the banishment from Spain had destroyed the first perceived state of freedom and homeland since the destruction of the Second Temple.

During his short years in Safed – where many Kabbalists arrived from Spain – it was Isaac Luria who tried to answer this unanswerable question with revolutionary freedom of thought. His main key was to transcend the idea of a fall of man from the Garden Eden into the actual process of creation of the world itself. Thus, with a single stroke he transcended the origin of evil from human to cosmic level. This revolutionary thought of a cosmogonic fall of creation will be sketched out in a highly abbreviated and insufficient form in this first chapter.

The Lurianic process of creation starts with a voluntary act of the Divine to confine itself within itself. The Divine in the final state before creation is called Ain Soph Aur which can be translated as ‘borderless light of non-creation’. In order for the Divine to become diversified and active in creation it had to create a space, a vacuum of non-being into which it could immerse itself by help of a sequence of ten subsequent emanations from the Ain Soph Aur. Nine of these emanations would express one perfect aspect of the nature of the Divine each and they would all unite and come together in the tenth. For these emanations – and all subsequent creation – however, to be differentiated from the perfect borderless light (Ain Soph Aur) they had to be in a confined space of emptiness which they could subsequently fill with life. This ongoing process of the Divine confining itself within itself in order to create space for creation is a key concept of Lurianic Kabbalah and called Zimzum (also, Tzimtzum).

Into this vacuum of non-being the Divine released a single ray of light. This ray of light emerged from the Ain Soph Aur, entered into the empty space of creation and started to bring forth the matrix of all life in ten distinct emanations. These emanations are illustrated as ten ‘first-lights’ which the author of the Sefer Yetzirah introduces by the name of Sephira (singular) or Sephiroth (plural).

One by one, each light would be captured in a vessel made of clay in order to transfer their state of pure being into one of becoming and creation. Each vessel had a specific name, function and shape, perfectly expressing the idea of creation it represented and brought to life by the light it captured. The sequence of filling these vessels with light is called Seder Hishtalshelus (the order of development).

This process went well for the first four Sephiroth, which all came forth from the veil of non-being into the vacuum of creation. The shell of the fifth Sephira, however, turned out to be not solid enough in order to capture the light that emanated into it. The fifth point or light and vessel in the sequence of creation was dedicated to the idea of Strength or Severity (hebrew, Geburah). Thus the clay vessel broke due to the overflowing light of Strength in it and the process of creation continued with the remaining five Sephiroth.

Yet, even though creation continued the original vessel of Geburah couldn’t be restored. This, finally,  is the way how evil managed to enter into creation by shape of untamed Strength or Severity. This momentous event during the first ten emanations is called Schebirath ha-Kelim (hebrew, breaking of the vessels) and marks the birth of the ten original demonic forces, called Qliphoth (hebrew, shells).

The broken parts of the original vessel of Geburah sank down to the bottom of the Zimzum space of creation. Just like droplets of oil remain on the surface of a broken clay vessel the light of creation remained captured on these shells. It is these remains of divine light which are the reason why the broken shells weren’t lifeless but filled with a shadow-like yet highly effective state of demonic being.

This process lays open the essential nature of the Qliphoth according to Lurianic Kabbalah. Just like flames devour its own aliment while burning, the only reason for the Qliphoth to come into being were the original sparks of divine light captured on their shells. In case one managed to separate the oil from the clay surface or the flame from the coal the flame immediately disappeared and the coal was left without life.

The Qliphoth therefore continuously strive for new aliment, just like flames constantly need new coals to keep burning. Yet, at the same time they destroy their very reason for being when they come in touch with it. It is this paradox of using creation to maintain the existence of destruction that marks the essence of demonic forces in Lurianic Kabbalah.

This is also the reason why Western occultists started to call this dark side of the Etz Chiim the Tree of Death. The forces who came to life in the process known as Schebirath ha-Kelim cannot be mistaken for demons in a graeco-egyptian or medieval sense. The Qliphoth aren’t former celestial or chthonic deities related to a foreign cult or religion which were redefined by Kabbalists at a later point. The Qliphoth are an authentic kabbalistic creation in order to explain evil in creation. As each of them reveal by nature of their name their urge is to conceal and suffocate the seeds of life – and to ultimately destroy man’s aspiration and pursuit of finding beauty in every aspect of creation.

(Note Sources: Gershom Scholem – On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism; On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah; Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah; Kabbalah)13

The Gateway to Ignorance and Silence

Because our knowledge is ignorance, or because it is neither knowledge of anything there nor the understanding of any truth, or because even if there is some entrance to that [truth], the door may not come open except by means of ignorance-which is simultaneously  path, gatekeeper, and gate.

-Giordano Bruno. The Cabala of Pegasus

Bruno conceived of a daimonic continuum existing between the human and divine realms. Bataille dreams of the split in the sacred of divine realms and impure and corrupting powers leading to immanent ecstasy and horror neither sublime nor ridiculous, instead a lifting up into the downward abyss of things unknown and impossible, a self-lacerating jouissance at once macabre, obscene, and morbid revealing the realms of the archontes in their blackened night of horror. As Thacker will remark,

If historical mysticism still had as its aim the subject’s experience, and as its highest principle that of God, then mysticism today – after the death of God – would be about the impossibility of experience, it would be about that which in shadows withdraws from any possible experience, and yet still makes its presence felt, through the periodic upheavals of weather, land, and matter. If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet. (DTP, 158)

 And what lies in the dust of the planet if not as Iamblichus once affirmed negatively, the “archons of the midnight sun who guide the terrible rays,” where a picture emerges that presents the descent into the elements of the material world’s envoys, those alien ones from the darkest labyrinths of silence:

It is hard to believe the Gnostics did not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for the obscene and lawless archontes, for the head of the solar ass… a peculiar licentious Gnostic sect with their sexual rites fulfills this obscure demand for baseness that is irreducible and commands our indecent respect even as it continues in the  black magic traditions to the present day. (VE, 48)


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  11. Ioan P. Culianu. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 1987)
  12. Jeffrey J. Kripal. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (December 21, 2015)
  13. Scholem, Gershom. Conf. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism Schocken; Revised ed. edition (January 30, 1996);  On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah  Schocken (March 30, 2011); Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah  Princeton University Press; Revised ed. edition (January 1, 1976); Kabbalah Doreset Press; 1St edition (December 1987)

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.

 

Georges Bataille, Nick Land: Base Materialism, Aberrant Thought, and the Archontes

 

In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille will give a rather different reading of our ancient spiritual systems: “In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles.”

The notion that matter is not dead as most of our philosophical and scientific thinkers thought up till the introduction of quantum theory, along with this notion that rather than some eternal realm of Ideas, some Platonic acosmic world of archetypal powers superior to our Cosmos, another view onto things might be: a truth that matter harbored within its immanent fold a strange and energetic, even monstrous and daemonic source of intelligence and creative action never entered these ancient systems of philosophy. In fact, as Bataille would remark: “It is difficult to believe that on the whole Gnosticism does not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes… If today we overtly abandon the idealistic point of view, as the Gnostics and Manicheans implicitly abandoned it, the attitude of those who see in their own lives an effect of the creative action of evil appears even radically optimistic. It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil if evil itself does not have to answer before God”.

Bataille has also come to the conclusion that philosophy, and even the sciences should not concern itself with Being or the Science of Being, Ontology: “Thus it appears – all things considered – that Gnosticism, in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” So that against Kant and all his inheritors matter would no longer be reduced to ontology, nor even to the epistemic view onto “being” or “phenomena” as if these were the attributes and core of matter, Being’s Kingdom. No. As he’d suggest,

Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations. But the psychological process brought to light by Gnosticism had the same impact: it was a question of disconcerting the human spirit and idealism before something base, to the extent that one recognized the helplessness of superior principles.1

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Georges Bataille: The Struggle Against the Absence of Authority

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Evil is certainly not what hypocritical misunderstanding has tried to make of it; is it not really concrete freedom, the troubling break with taboo?
– Georges Bataille, Toward Real Revolution

For Bataille all past revolutions were against Sovereignty, against societies based on monarchy or its derivatives. In our time one could not follow even the Communists of the October Revolution. Why? Simply put, power in these older societies still resided in the figure of a Leader, in modern democratic societies this power is absent. In modern democratic states and societies power shifts between two tendencies, each of which cannot overcome the other except through supposed political change of parties so that without “a crowned head to unite the opposition against it, no lasting union is formed; for if a chief of state or head of government does become the object of a general outcry, the institutions normally at work will eliminate him, thus satisfying a portion of the disaffected. Political crises within these regimes develop differently and in a radically contrary direction from those within autocracy. Under autocracy, it is authority which grows intolerable. In democracy, it is the absence of authority”.1

Modern Bourgeois democracies are clock-work mechanisms, pendulums that shift Left to Right and back again as one or the other side moves too far toward an extreme position, thereby forcing a shift in the opposite direction. Yet, as we’ve seen in our own time, politics is stage-show, a sham for the masses that stages a theatre of media-propaganda to entertain rather than resolve difficult social, economic, or political issues. Nothing gets done. But that’s the point, both the Left and Right sold out to the powers beyond government long ago: the bankers, the stockholders, the rich and elites that squander the resources of the planet and keep us attuned to the charade of a democracy that has become for the most part an oligarchs paradise and for the oppressed  and exploited, the excluded and the poor of the world an End Game without an outlet.

Bataille wrote this essay back in 1937 but it is as fresh as ever. Bataille was a singular figure who attacked both Communist and Bourgeois democratic forms of government. In many of the essays of this book he was developing an answer to the rise of fascism in his time, as well as the dark fall of communism into Stalin’s terrors. Throughout his life he would follow Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Idealism wherever it was found, attacking any form of closed systematic systems of philosophical or political subterfuge. An arch anti-Platonist and anti-representationalism he strove to develop an attack against both discursive (linguistic) entrapments and any system of closure that tried to contain humans in enslavement.

What we’re seeing in the global world today is a repetition of this very absence of power across the civilized world of which Bataille suggests is an “absence of authority”:

Bourgeois society is an organization with no true power, which has always relied on a precarious balance, and which now, as its balance weakens, is expiring in powerlessness. It must be fought not as authority, but rather as absence of authority. To attack a capitalist government is to attack a blind, heartless, inhuman, truly unspeakable leadership, which strides helplessly, stupidly toward the abyss. Against this garbage we must use direct imperative violence, direct construction of the basic force of an uncompromising authority. (p. 35)

Some mistook his statements as harboring fascistic components, yet if one carefully reads his statements one comes to a direct opposition to both Fascism, Communism, and Bourgeois democracy under capitalists forms as totalistic systems of enslavement against which he was an arch-enemy. As he’d state it:

The crisis of bourgeois democratic regimes leads neither to the putsch nor to popular uprising; it regularly results in the development of organic movements, movements of recomposition to which important politicians are forced to give way. This move has until now been undeniably to the benefit of social conservatism of the blindest sort. Only the lackeys of capitalism could and would undertake it. Under the mask of demagogy, they have tried to reconstruct the social structure only the better to curb the oppressed. They have, however, discovered new methods of propaganda fitting to a new situation; they have exploited the sole possibilities of effective action against the dissolving regime. …

We must cease to believe that methods invented by our adversaries are necessarily bad. On the contrary, we must, in turn, use those methods against them. (p. 35)Bataille’s study of the Left showed him that its methods and goals could only ever be provisional at best, that their alignment with the oppressed and hatred of all authority allowed them to act nobly, yet brought them to a point of complete destruction and destabilization but yielded no ability to reconstitute new social, economic, or political forms beyond this destructive tendency.

Sadly, in most instances the Left during most crisis developed a their ideological constructs based on overcoming autocracy in any form, which cruelly led the opposing forces of religion, state, and the older conservative tendencies of economics, etc. to reassert themselves in altered forms thereby once again entrapping the base proletariat in new traps of exploitation. A circle of closure that must itself be overcome. All systems based loosely as Marx’s was on Hegel’s closed system were tainted by Idealisms. Marx and Lenin were tainted by Idealisms of a merciless kind, a materialism that was itself the epitome of Idealism.

Against the abstract and rational systems and schemas that most hard core revolutionary idealisms have forged their organic and limited insurrections Bataille sought something baser, closer to the actual world of relations and realize that “a given form of action is on principle useful in either of two directions, just as a cannon can be directed eastward or westward. Only the analysis of the political situation at our disposal, seen in relation to goals pursued, allows us to decide whether or not recourse to a given form in a clearly defined case is valid” (p. 39).

Bataille was clearly working toward a theory of events, of a timebound register of action rather than some abstract schematic or universal system of thought. As he’d question it we cannot be sure of the direction or ends to which such mass movements will eventually turn, nor can we control those outcomes: “This being so, extreme prudence is in order from the start. How is one to know in advance that this mass, caught in an evolution which may somewhat alter its composition, will not, eventually, be propelled by nationalist goals or by forces hostile to workers’ freedom? How is one to know that a movement which first appears to be antifascist will not rapidly develop toward fascism? (p. 39)”

As he saw it we we’re in a battle against two competing forces in the modern world. The first forces them to kill each other in the setting of nation against nation(Capitalist democracies); the second forces them to work for an inhuman minority of producers at a time when the latter have become blind and impotent (Communist regimes). Neither of these systems of government offer true freedom or individual sovereignty. Both are enslaved to power regimes that profit only a select elite and minority. “We are fighting to transform the impotent world of human society in which we live; we are fighting so that human omnipotence may free itself from a past of misery and freely distribute the world’s riches. (p. 40)” Against commodity capitalism or communism Bataille struggled for the emancipation of all oppressed peoples of the earth.

Against both Fascist and Communist systems Bataille believed in a third alternative, an “organic movement for the liberation of the exploited, of an organic movement not of national consciousness and moral slavery, but of the universal consciousness committed only to the struggle against war and to the hatred of the legacy of past constraints.” (p. 40) In his own time Bataille looked to the Popular Front as typifying this embodied form of organic movement. What he’d hoped for did not come to pass. What Bataille believed was that we must relinquish our democratic illusions which still prevent us from seeing that a government formed under a parliamentary organization can only be weak, ineffective, and disastrous. That ultimately the necessary task for any future form of government set up a “revolutionary authority which will set the capitalists trembling in their banks, which will liberate the exploited, and which alone can bring about the passionate union of the peoples of the world.” (p. 41)

Yet, one wonders what such revolutionary authority would constitute after the revolution? Humans seem to repeat the same mistakes in every new generation because we are bound to those inevitable and real tendencies that come not from some external realm of cosmic horror, but from the very real drives and impulses that so immanently control our conscious perceptions of reality from within. Bound and trapped in neurochemical systems or organic being we still hang onto the notion that consciousness once free of the traps of external coercion will suddenly manifest some new social form of freedom. Yet, history continues to prove otherwise. Are we truly victims of our own evolutionary blindness? Are we shaped to powers we still believe we can control? Is the brain after all an accidental machine or organic and chemical reactions that like other physical and animal systems binds us to a heritage of survival mechanisms that disallows the very abstract notions of freedom we so heartily pursue. Why else to we continually allow ourselves to be brought back into chains with another turn of the wheel of time? Bataille would turn from external political concerns toward the base material of our inner experience seeking answers to modern man’s dilemmas.

Bataille in his time pushed the limits of inner experience to extremes, forming a world of fragments and aphoristic gleams into that hinterland of shadows which rarely comes across in language, and never in communication; yet, it was communication that would haunt Bataille’s thought most of all, that unique ability to form a community of beings based on communication rather than language. He sought in his vision of primitive society a way back to those early ways of perceiving and being that we’ve all lost in the struggles of power within our trivial pursuits of economic comfort. We are accidents of time who have forgotten our uniqueness; and yet, he knew nostalgia was a trap, too, one that would lock us into a world of false images, dreams. There is no going back, only in. We must discover within ourselves that power that can answer the externality of the world that seeks to trap us in its systems and schemas of closure. Between ecstasy and horror we  hang by a thread like shadows on a wall moving silently in a black night of fate and silence that is both unknowing and without remembrance. The only answer to such externality is that sardonic laughter that seems to echo through time like a merciless litany to those dark twins, eros and death…

The fate of human existence thus appears as linked to a small number of beings who are totally without power. For some carry within themselves far more than they, in their state of moral decay, believe; when the surrounding crowd and their representatives place in bondage all that concerns them. He who has been schooled to the limit through meditation upon tragedy ought not to take his pleasure in the “symbolic expression” of destructive forces; rather, he should instruct his fellows in the consequences. He should, by his firmness and persistence, lead them to organize, to become, in contrast to the fascists and Christians, other than the degraded objects of their adversaries’ contempt. For it is incumbent upon them to impose chance upon the masses who demand of all men a life of slavery – chance, meaning that which they are, but from which, through failure of will, they abdicate. (p. 45)


1. Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing translated by Annette Michelson with essays by Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, and Allen S. Weiss (MIT Press)

Georges Bataille as Parodist of Our Monstrous Life

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…he does not write masterpieces, he writes against them…”
…….– Georges Bataille

from Bataille’s essay The Human Face:

It was only until the first years of the nineteenth century that the extravagance of involuntary contradiction and of senile paradox had free rein; since then white men and women have, as we know, tenaciously persisted in their efforts to regain, at last, a human face. Those wasp-waisted corsets scattered throughout provincial attics are now the prey of moths and flies, the hunting grounds of spiders. As to the tiny cushions which long served to emphasize those forms of extreme plumpness, they now haunt only the ghastly brains of those greybeards, expiring daily beneath their weird grey bowlers, who still dream of flabby torsos strangled in the obsessive play of lace and whalebone. And within the image of the earth’s globe seen trampled underfoot by a dazzling American film star in a bathing suit, we may catch the sound, muffled but heady nonetheless, of a cock’s crow. And why blush at that sudden fascination? Why not admit that our few remaining heady dreams are traced by the swift bodies of young American girls? Thus if anything can still draw sobs for all that has just vanished, it is no longer a great singer’s beauty, but mere perversity, sordid and deluded. To us, so many strange, merely half-monstrous individuals seem to persist in empty animation, like the jingle of the music box, in innocent vice, libidinous heat, lyrical fumes. So that despite all antithetical obsession, there is absolutely no thought of dispensing with this hateful ugliness, and we will yet catch ourselves some day, eyes suddenly dimmed and brimming with inadmissible tears, running absurdly towards some provincial haunted house, nastier than flies, more vicious, more rank than a hairdresser’s shop.

Georges Bataille’s Refutation of Hegel

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from a letter to Alexandre Kojève by Bataille:

If action (‘doing’) is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question arises as to whether the negativity of one who has ‘nothing more to do’ disappears or remains in a state of ‘unemployed negativity’. Personally, I can only decide in one way, being myself precisely this ‘unemployed negativity’… I imagine that my life – or, better yet, its aborting, the open wound that is my life – constitutes all by itself the refutation of Hegel’s closed system.

Georges Bataille: The Smokestack

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In 1929 Bataille would see in the smokestack the monstrosity of abstraction at the heart of modernity, a disease of the mind that still guides the dreams of those engineers of a posthuman transcendence who seek a future without-us, a future where humans become machinic and enter the ultra-abstractions of an affectless world, indifferent and apathetic. Born of metalloid nightmares of an Idealism run amok: fearful of death, seeking the immortalization of egoistic myths of an outmoded psychology of duration and identity, forgetful of the entropic effect of time that drives it all we wander the Hollywood dreamlands of a bloated and mortuary aestheticism founded on nothing more than the fetid desires to escape ourselves and enter the very abstractions that would deign destroy us. Bataille reminds us of the memories of his childhood:

When I review my own memories, it seems that for our generation, out of all the world’s various objects first glimpsed in early childhood, the most fear-inspiring architectural form was by no means the church, however monstrous, but rather certain large smokestacks, true channels of communication between the ominously dull, threatening sky and the muddy, stinking earth surrounding the textile and dye factories.

Today, when the truly wretched aesthete, at a loss for objects of admiration, has invented the contemptible “beauty” of the factory, the dire filth of those enormous tentacles appears all the more revolting; the rain puddles at their feet, the empty lots, the black smoke half-beaten down by the wind, the piles of slag and dross are the sole true attributes of those gods of a sewer Olympus. I was not hallucinating when, as a terrified child, I discerned in those giant scarecrows, which both excited me to the point of anguish and made me run sometimes for my life, the presence of a fearful rage. That rage would, I sensed, later become my own, giving meaning to everything spoiling within my own head and to all that which, in civilized states, looms up like carrion in a nightmare. I am, of course, not unaware that for most people the smokestack is merely the sign of mankind’s labor, and never the terrible projection of that nightmare which develops obscurely, like a cancer, within mankind. Obviously one does not, as a rule, continue to focus on that which is seen as the revelation of a state of violence for which one bears some responsibility. This childish or untutored way of seeing is replaced by a knowing vision which allows one to take a factory smokestack for a stone construction forming a pipe for the evacuation of smoke high into the air-which is to say, for an abstraction. Now, the only possible reason for the present dictionary is precisely to demonstrate the error of that sort of definition.

It should be stressed, for example, that a smokestack is only very tentatively of a wholly mechanical order. Hardly has it risen toward the first covering cloud, hardly has the smoke coiled round within its throat, than it has already become the oracle of all that is most violent in our present-day world, and this for the same reason, really, as each grimace of the pavement’s mud or of the human face, as each part of an immense unrest whose order is that of a dream, or as the hairy, inexplicable muzzle of a dog. That is why, when placing it in a dictionary, it is more logical to call upon the little boy, the terrified witness of the birth of that image of the immense and sinister convulsions in which his whole life will unfold, rather than the technician, who is necessarily blind.1

The image of the blind technician of modernity is the frayed shadow cast upon futurity by that first lord of time, the Demiurge, the blind artisan and potter of this dementia we all now live in… and, this, too, is illusion. As Bataille would define it most materialists have been hoodswinked by Idealism:

Most materialists, even though they may have wanted to do away with all spiritual entities, ended up positing an order of things whose hierarchical relations mark it as specifically idealist. They situated dead matter at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of diverse facts, without perceiving that in this way they gave in to an obsession with the ideal form of matter, with a form that was closer than another to what matter should be. Dead matter, the pure idea, and God in fact answer a question in the same way… a question that can only be posed by philosophers, the question of the essence of things, precisely of the idea by which things become intelligible. (Visions of Excess, p. 15)

Against Plato, formalism and humanism among other illusions Bataille would turn toward base matter borne of a teratology of the uniqueness and monstrosity of humanity, and the derisive indifference of the natural in man and Nature that defines us as unique celebrants of this monstrous universe of catastrophe and collapse.


  1. October 36: Georges Bataille – Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing – Spring 1986 by Douglas; Krauss, Rosalind; Michelson, Annette Crimp (Author)

Georges Bataille: The Excremental Vision as Solar Ecstasy

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Max Ernst: Birdhead

Waking up I associate the horror of rats with the memory of my father correcting me… this has the effect of reminding me that my father being young would have wanted to do something atrocious to me with pleasure.
………– Georges Bataille, The Dream

Parody and wit are central to Bataille’s vision of the world: “It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”1 This sense that nothing is what it seems, that appearances are deceptive, that the world is – as Vladimir Nabokov once observed: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” A world lost in the game of time, bound within an endless labyrinth of signs: a floating sea of inference and parodic display where vision and language are tied together in a false totality, connected and connecting word to word  in an endless stream of linguistic copulas to Ariadne’s thread moving further and further into the darkness of a receding abyss. Yet, it was against this false semblance of Idealism that Bataille would lop the head of reason in favor of an interior journey into the labyrinths of the physical body itself, down into the sacred precincts of cruelty, sex, and violence. A voyage into the Solar Anus where love and life are conjugated with “continuous circular movement,” and the “surface of the earth is the image of a continuous metamorphosis”. (Bataille, p. 7)

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Georges Bataille: Beyond the Empire of Words

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I cannot consider someone free if they do not have the desire to sever the bonds of language within themselves.
…..– Bataille, On the subject of Slumbers

Georges Bataille would affirm that the “absence of myth is also a myth: the coldest, the purest, the only true myth.”1 An enemy of surrealism as he would say “from within” he would define it conclusively:

It is genuinely virile opposition – nothing conciliatory, nothing divine – to all accepted limits, a rigorous will to insubordination. (p. 49)

He would sum up Andre Breton with a scalpel precision saying of his timbre and voice that it was “measured, pretentious, and swollen with learning” (p. 38). In fact as he’d relate what “caused me the greatest discomfort was not only the lack of rigour, but the absence of this completely insidious, joyous, and telltale cruelty towards the self, which tries not to dominate but go a long way” (p. 38).

Of Louis Aragorn …”from the first Aragon disappointed me. He was not a fool, but he was not intelligent either. … What we shared was a common feeling of misfortune at living in a world that we felt had become empty – of having, for want of profound virtues, a need for ourselves, or for a small number of friends, to assume the appearance of being what we did not have the means of being” (p. 39).

Of Antonin Artaud … “He looked like a caged bird of prey with dusty plumage which had been apprehended at the very moment it was about to take flight, and had remained fixed in this posture” (p. 43). He would quote a passage that Maurice Blanchot had kept from Artaud: “I began in literature by writing books in order to say that I could write nothing at all; it was when I had something to say or write that my thought most refused me. I never had ideas, and two very short books, each of seventy pages, turned on this profound (ingrained and endemic) absence of ideas. (p. 45)”

For Bataille the failure of surrealism was that it suspended everything in a “rigorous solitude”. It ceased to be “connected to the affirmation of a hope of breaking the solitude (p. 51).”

  1. Georges Bataille. The Absence of Myth. (Verso, 2006)

The Excess of Matter: Bataille, Immanence, and Death

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But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others we know not of.
– from Hamlet, Shakespeare

How do we face the inevitable? Death, the “undiscovered country” of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks? As a poet of the will Shakespeare’s naturalism aligns well with that Epicurean Titus Lucretius Carus. Shakespeare whose “erotics of being” would ensconce what R. Allen Shoaf in Lucretius and Shakespeare on the Nature of Things would term the naturalism of “great creating nature,” (The Winter’s Tale). For Shakespeare death was not of essence since the fecundity of Nature is endless. Death is but a fragmentary entombing, a little sleep and silence. What matters is the mattering of productive and energetic nature from womb to tomb and back again. The eternal round and return from beginnings to endings, cycles upon cycles a sounding out of the depths of time as time’s return through its own mattering formlessness; a continuous play of life in the shadows of oblivion.

Lucretius would tell us in his stark and poetic response that “death is nothing to us“: “Nil igitur mors est ad nos. . .”. We should not fear it, it is the natural in us fulfilling its destiny; nothing more. There is no unique meaning, no need for constructing fabulous paradises or hells to plunge ourselves beyond the truth of animal death. Death is non-meaning: meaningless in itself, a final terminus of life lived out in a natural universe. Then why do people fear and dread death?

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Base Materialism: Bataille, Land, and Harry Potter

It’s like some old joke: “What do Bataille, Land and Harry Potter have in common?” Punch line: they cannot speak the name of that “which cannot be named”. Well, of course, this is a ruse, for the truth of it is that they all name it, yet do they? What is materialism? More specifically what is libidinal materialism? Or, closer yet, What is base materialism? And, to top it off: What is more disgusting than asking for the name of Lord Voldemort, he-who-must-not-be-named?  Hyperbole, superbole? A switch and bait routine between high/low, ideal/material, oppositions to the nth… The whole point of this exercise is nothing, nothing at all is represented here; for every name that we use to qualify that which cannot ever be named, because to name it is to distort it, reduce it, qualify it, measure it, bring it under the sway of language and all the oppositional movements of that linguistic atrocity of the reasoning mind. The naming that Bataille performs is closer to the form of an unnaming, a negating of all positing whatsoever, that Basilides the Gnostic long ago performed (Hippolytus):

There was a time, says he, when there was nothing; not even the nothing was there, but simply, clearly, and without any sophistry there was nothing at all. When I say “there was” he says, I do not indicate a being…

Since therefore there was nothing, no matter, no substance, nothing insubstantial, nothing simple, nothing composite, nothing imperceptible (non-subjective), no man, no angel, no god, nothing at all that can be named or can be apprehended by sense-perception, nothing of the mental things and thus (also nothing of all that which can be simply described in even more subtle ways) the non-existent God … without intelligence, without perception, without will, without resolve, without impulse, without desire, wished to make a world. I say “he wished,” he says, for want of a word, wish, intelligence, and perception being excluded. By “world” (I mean) not the flat, divisible world which later divided itself, but the world seed…

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Nick Land: Quote of the Day!

The authoritarian tradition of European reason tried to pull the plug on the great voyages at exactly the point they first became interesting, which is to say: atheistic, inhuman, experimental, and dangerous. Schopenhauer – refusing the agnostic stand-off of antinomy – was the first rallying  zone for all those disgusted by the contrived peace entitled ‘the end of metaphysics’. Bataille is the most recent successor. The forces of antichrist are emerging fanged and encouraged from their scorched rat-holes in the wake of monotheistic hegemony, without the slightest attachment to the paralytic tinkerings of deconstructive undecidability. ‘An attitude which is neither military nor religious becomes insupportable in principle the moment of death’s arrival.’ The war has scarcely begun.

– Nick Land, Shamanic Nietzsche

Nick Land: Death is Immense

 “Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations…”

– Georges Bataille

What are those forces below the threshold that escape all those investigative reporters of our darkening humanity? There is an excess that escapes the light, that flows out of the zero sum nullity of a non-space and non-time of which our philosophical harbingers are unaware. What if everything was already contaminated, already part of the base slime of existence? What if it were the most vile, disgusting, sacrilegious, and profane excesses; the most foreign and degrading aspects of existence that reveal the truth we are in need of? “Bataille’s matter is that which must be repressed as the condition of articulation, whereby immanent continuity is vivisected in transcendence (122).” 1

E.M. Cioran whose excesses lead him to a gnostic inversion, one that touches not the a-Cosmic god beyond the cosmos but instead drifts with the slime of this degradation, this catastrophe of the kenoma: our universe of death. Cioran sides with all that is base, all that is excluded, ungrounded, cold, and inhuman. Like Cioran, Georges Bataille, followed the Discordia of Gnostic thought hoping to carry its black “germs of a bizzare but mortal subversion of the ideal” into our modern world. 2 As Benjamin Noys tells us: “Gnosticism is important to Bataille because it leads to ‘the most monstrous dualistic and therefore strangely abased cosmogonies” (502). As his ephebe Nick Land states it:

“Base materialism is the plague of unilateral difference, which is difference that only operates from out of the undifferentiated. … A unilateral difference is the simultaneity of a tendency to separation and a persistence of continuity, which is a thought that cannot be grasped, but only succumbed to in delirium. For any ardent materialism truth is madness” (TA 123-125).

 Following the ancient theurgy Bataille practices a new form of magical practice, he teaches us dip our hands in mud and shit, shape figures of monstrous proportion based on the ‘non-logical difference’ of this strange excess inscribed in the darkest particles and particulates of non-being within the void of the Void. Levi R. Bryant in a new post tell us “don’t track in abstractions”. Nick Land also taught that for Bataille, abstraction keeps us from the delirium of the real:

“The dominant tendencies in philosophy are complicit with ordinary language in their suppression of unilateral differences. Because separation is normally thought of as mutual discontinuity, the world is interpreted as an aggregate of isolated beings, which are extrinsically amalgamated into structures, systems, and societies. Such thinking precludes in principle all possibility of base contact or communion” (TA 124).

And, it is the need for an affective relation, a base contact and communion, an orgy of the senses in the theatre of mater materia that we seek. Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations. But the psychological process brought to light by Gnosticism had the same impact: it was a question of disconcerting the human spirit and idealism before something base, to the extent that one recognized the helplessness of superior principles. Even becoming and time are contaminated, fractured and “subordinated to a transcendent law, allowing it to be judged, denigrated, and condemned” (TA 129). Lost among our memories, living our tributary deaths, we learn the harshest truth:

“Humanity is a petrified fiction hiding from zero, a purgatorial imprisonment of dissolution, but to be stricken with sanctity is to bask in death like a reptile in the sun. God is dead, but more importantly, God is Death. The beginning of the secret is that death is immense” (TA 131).

1. Nick Land. The Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge 1992)
2. Benjamin Noys. Georges Bataille’s Base Materialism (Cultural Values Volumes 2 Number 4 1998 499-517) (pdf)

Nick Land: On Scientific Pomposity; or a Beach-Comber’s Paradise

“One consequence of the Occidental obsession with transcendence… is a physics that is forever pompously asserting that it is on the verge of completion. The contempt for reality manifested by such pronouncements is unfathomable. What kind of libidinal catastrophe must have occurred in order for a physicist  to smile when he says that nature’s secrets are almost exhausted? If these comments were not such obvious examples of megalomaniac derangement, and thus themselves laughable, it would be impossible  to imagine a more gruesome vision than that of the cosmos stretched out beneath  the impertinently probing fingers of grinning apes. Yet if one looks for superficiality with sufficient brutal passion, when one is prepared  to pay enough to systematically isolate it, it is scarcely surprising that one will find a little. This is certainly an achievement of sorts; one has found a region of stupidity, one has manipulated it, but this is all. Unfortunately, the delicacy to acknowledge this – as Newton so eloquently did when he famously compared science to beach-combing on the shore of an immeasurable ocean requires a certain minimum of tast, of noblisse.”

– Nick Land, A Thirst for Annihilation (34)

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That most scientists are not philosophers is to the detriment of philosophy. Yet we must not forget the success of science which philosophers seem to gloss over (except within the confines of the Philosophy of Science). As Land tells it the damage has been done, philosophy has even come to the point, the stage of obsolesence that “it has lost all confidence in its power to know … For at least a century, and perhaps for two, the major effort of the philosophers has simply been to keep the scientists out. How much defensiveness, pathetic mimicry, crude self-deception, crypto-theological obscurantism, and intellectual poverty is marked by the name of their recent and morbid offspring…” (35).

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