…philosophy is a machine that transforms the prospect of thought into excitation; a generator.
– Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation
Nick Land like his compeers – Nietzsche, Bataille, and Cioran has that quality of aphoristic power that keeps one returning here and there to his dark disquisitions and divigations into the night worlds between desire and death. I’ve asked myself many times why certain writers force me to reread them over and over and over again; and, as such, why with each new reading I discover bits and pieces of something I’d missed, or not been aware of within the last set of notations. For, yes, these are writers for whom one takes notes, jots down certain aphoristic sentences that suddenly awaken one’s own machine, one’s own mind, exciting it and generating other thoughts. There seems to be under the darkening layers or scales of his thought an energetics, a theory of composition that seeks its habitation at the crossroads of eroticism, death, and the infinite inroads of desire. Life is a child of the sun, and its curse: to wander in a maze without outlet bound to an infernal machine of desire that seeks only ever more powerful ways of dodging the fatal Minotaur of inexistence.
As a pariah and outlaw philosopher Land in his one book and several essays pushed the limits of mind like some Rimbaud of the last thought. No need to go over the history of that again. Too many superficial readings of his physical and mental breakthroughs and breakdowns into vastation or emptiness are already misunderstood. And, that he has returned not as his former self, but as a gnomic agent proclaiming his cultural provocations to a certain reactionary mindset is only another masked distancing from his earlier wildness.
As he will remind us Bataille’s “thirst for annihilation is the same as the sun” (33).1 Yet, it is not a “desire man directs toward the sun, but the solar trajectory itself, the sun as the unconscious subject of terrestrial history” (33). This notion that the history of the earth is guided by a secret history of the sun, its dark proclivities and mythologies guiding the pathology of human civilization and the inhuman forms that shadow us. Is this not the truth we seem to fear? We seem to hide from the white death of its blinding gold mask, the eye of death that would turn us to ash if we were not protected by the ions swirling in the ocean of our atmosphere. That the ancients who sacrificed to the sun, who with obsidian or bone knives cut the living hearts of its victims from their chests and held them to the sun as to the great glory and splendor of heavenly sovereignty. That blood, and only blood; the violence of death could keep this great power churning in the heavens, this furnace of life, this engine of all creation: was this not at the heart of all ancient religion? Human life consumed in the furnace of the sun? Is not all economics an economy of the Sun? As Land will tell us:
Excess or surplus precedes production, work, seriousness, exchange, and lack. The primordial task of life is not to produce or survive, but to consume the clogging floods of riches – of energy – pour down upon it.
The notion that all organic life on earth is part of a vast consumption machine, a living mouth. Is this not the truth of it? And, what are we consuming? Is it not the excess of the living Sun itself? Are we not fed by the sun and its excessive life? Sometimes I think of those nineteenth century mythologizers who sought to understand ancient religious practices under the auspices of solar mythologies; or, as Land will have it, there “is no difference between desire and the sun: sexuality is not psychological but cosmo-illogical” (37). Land will obliterate the Physicalism of science or philosophical thought through the light of the sun, and out of its ashes – like some new born phoenix, “libidinal materialism” will arise: a theory of unconditional (non-teleological) desire, which as he satirically put it “a scorch-mark from the expository diagnosis of the physicalistic prejudice” (38).
Physicalism was bound to theology, to the One. It was a dualism, having formulated matter as dead and passive and mind as other than this stuff. It was already caught in its on fly-trap, bound to false assumptions before it even began explaining the universe of its reasoning madness. After a thorough investigation of thermodynamics, entropy, negentropy and Boltzmann’s mathematics and findings he will recenter his understanding of “libidinal matter” saying,
“Libidinal matter is that which resists a relation of reciprocal transcendence against time, and departs from the rigorous passivity of physical substance without recourse to dualistic, idealistic, or theistic conceptuality. It implies a process of mutation… (following Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud ) entitling it ‘drive’. Drive is that which explains, rather than presupposing, the cause/effect couple of classical physics. … drives are irruptive dynamics of matter in advance of natural law. (42)”
In his theory Land is moving toward a non-intentional philosophy, one that is “not a transformation of intentional theories of desire, of desire as understood as lack, as transcendence, as dialectic” (42). So against Hegel, Marx and their progeny Land offers another libidinal materialism. One must turn to thermodynamics and ‘energy’ for an alternative view of materialism. Two-thousand years of metaphysical blundering is overthrown and new tropes rearrange our relations to science and philosophy: Chance, Tendency, Energy, and Information. He will offer a new cosmographic cosmos:
“…thermospasm is reality as undiluted chaos. It is where we all came from. The death-drive is the longing to return there, just as salmon would return upstream to perish at the origin. … Life is able to deviate from death only because it also propagates it, and the propagation of disorder is always more successful than the deviation. (43)”
The universe is an open, rather than closed system: “no closed systems, no stable codes, no recuperable origins. There is only the thermospasmic shock wave, tendential energy flux, degradation of energy,. A receipt of information – of intensity – carried downstream” (43). Yet, against Boltzmann who built his notions of thermodynamics within an ontology, libidinal materialism sits in chaos outside any thought of Being. What Land offers is a processual theory based on composition, one in which Being is an effect of chaos composition rather than some static substance: the “effect of being is derivative from process…” (44).
Out of Nietzsche he will demarcate a general libidinal energetics: 1) a questioning of the mathematical underpinnings of science as same, equal, or identical – as essentializing; 2) the figure of eternal recurrence as libidinal engine producing energetics; and, 3) a general theory of hierarchies, of order as rank-order (composition). Idealism and Physicalism collapse, transcendental philosophy from Kant till now is decapitated; finished; and, finally, 4) a diagnosis of nihilism, of the hyperbolic of desire (the terminal end-point of humanity in null or God). (44-45).
Land will admit Freud into the new philosophical world of libidinal materialism: he, too, is an energeticist: “he does not conceive of desire as lack, representation, or intention, but as dissipative energetic flow, inhibited by the damming and channeling apparatus of the secondary process. Yet, Freud – even though recognizing the truth of the drives will bolster up the old metaphysics of ego and the reality principle against their force, going against the very truth of the pressure of the drives as modulation of self not as intentional agent but as temporary control point for the drives in their fluxuations and endless compositions. Land will discover in Freud another Solar Mythologist, one found within his Beyond the Pleasure Principle where he discovers life as a mazing in complex escape from death or null zero, an endless wandering in the labyrinth of time against death: “a maze wanderer” (47). Then Land asks: “What is the source of the ‘decisive external influences’ that propel the mazings of life, if not the sun?”
Life is not an accident as some suggest, but is rather the curse of the sun. Land is our postmodern Lucretius teaching us that death is nothing to be feared, death is merely the form life takes in its infinite mazings and compositions under the gaze of the Apollonian eye of the Sun. “Confronting the absolute posed by our inevitable extinction, we feel brave, proud of ourselves, we permit ourselves a little indulgence, swooning in the delectations of morbidity. … Across the aeons our mass hydro-carbon enjoys a veritable harem of souls.” Desire continues its quest for the sun. Or, as that Shaman of the Evening Lands says it:
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
The secret of the labyrinth is in its “scalings” – like dark matter and dark energy which structurate and energize the visible matter we see in the universe the drives within that chaotic sea produce the veritable universe of light and suns and galaxies around us. Composing and decomposing and recomposing matter in an infinite play without purpose or teleological goal. There is no whole, no totality, there is nothing but the labyrinth and process, comings and goings and returnings, endlessly all the way up and all the way down.
Land will remind us that for Bataille the natural and cultural worlds that envelope the earth or nothing more than the evolution of death. Why? Because in “death life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss” (56). He will add that such a materialist discourse is free of that intentional subject that mars all idealist discourse, and that it offers a non-metaphysical and non-intentional understanding of the of the economy as pure poetry rather than philosophical plunderings of either Descartes dualism or Marx’s dialectical modes of thought. Instead, as Bataille will affirm, poetry is a “holocaust of words” (56).
In fact bourgeois culture is not an expression of capitalism, it is its antithesis: capitalism is anti-culture (56). In the older feudalism of the aristocracy and Catholicism the notion of “expenditure” and pure loss were central, in the new modern economies cannot accept the need for expenditure or even admit that overproduction is an issue or problem. Instead of waste and excess, sacrifice and pot-latch festivals of total expenditure we get endless cycles of overproduction, deflation, and depression.
One remembers those anthropologists who studied the notion of potlatch:
“In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished”.2
As Earnest Becker in his Escape from Evil will remind us “primitive man created an economic surplus beyond basic human need so that he would have something to give to the gods; the giving of surplus was an offering to the gods who controlled the entire economy of nature in the first place”3, so that he needed to give to keep the power flowing, the cosmological circuit of power from sun to earth and back again moving, allowing the obligation and expiation to channel its forces of accumulated riches rather than hording them. In the potlatch when the entire goods of a community and a chieftain were destroyed and annihilated it was to open up the power of the gods and sun to the community as a whole: “the eternal flux of power in the broad stream of life was generated by the greatest possible expenditure; man wanted that stream to flow as bountifully as possible” (30).
In our time War is the potlatch feast of nations, the way in which nations sacrifice to the gods of life and expend their generosity and glory to the ancient sun and death. As Paul Virilio in Pure War speaking of the atrocities of Pol Pot will tells us: “If they had let Pol Pot act as he saw fit, there would have been no one left. Cambodia is the scale-model of the suicide State which no longer gathers populations in order to exploit territory, but which infinitely dissolves it” and allows the festival of a endless annihilation of expenditure.4
In our time philanthropy and other so to speak redistributions of wealth back to the community have become parodies and examples of the forgotten truth of those ancient potlatches. Even in the latest democratic pitch to redistribute the wealth to those in need is a parody. We’ve lost the truth of giving, of expenditure, or the pure waste of goods to the gods and sun. We live now in that labyrinth without outlet where no expenditure and no waste exist, only the endless cycles of repetition and economic depression. The riches of the world continue to be accumulated in the hands of a few who will never all those to return to the community or the sun. Yet, as the debt and guilt of this accumulate the earth and sun will have their day, too.
As Land will tell us the “mobility peculiar to the labyrinth – real cosmic motion or liquidation – is not confined by the scales, instead it finds a shaft of facilitation passing from one to another, a “slippage”, the full consequence of which is an illimitable dispersion across the strata: communication through death” (203). Harold Bloom in a book on The Labyrinth will tell us that the ancient identity of rhetoric, psychology, and cosmology is preserved in the figuration of imaginative literature “as a breathing, moving labyrinth”.5 James Joyce once said that “history is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”, and Finnegan’s Wake is a figural labyrinth within which both secular and sacred mazings repeat themselves in moving kaleidoscope of pun in which the reader is condemned to wander between sea and sea. But then again maybe the truth is that the living labyrinth doesn’t want you to escape, that in truth it lulls you into wandering its dark corridors forever in hopes that you will never discover the exit; for to find the exit is to discover neither escape nor freedom, but the final termination: death.
Land will leave us one last sublime darkening, a philosophical knowing (kairos-happening) or gnosis (not Gnosticism but a knowing that is at once a corruption and a degradation of all we have been or will be):
Poetry is this slippage that is broken upon the end of poetry, erased in a desert as ‘beautiful as death’. There is no question of affirmation, achievement, gain, but only a catastrophe without mitigation compared to which everything is poverty and imprisonment.
1. Nick Land. The Thirst for Annihilation. (Routledge, 1992).
2. Potlatch. Wikipedia.
3. Escape from Evil. Ernest Becker. (Free Press, 1975)
4. Pure War. Paul Virilio ( Semiotext(e), 2008)
5. The Labyrinth. Harold Bloom. (InfoBase, 2009)