Thomas Ligotti: Dark Phenomenology and Abstract Horror

Of course, mystery actually requires a measure of the concrete if it is to be perceived at all; otherwise it is only a void, the void. The thinnest mixture of this mortar, I suppose, is contained in that most basic source of mystery—darkness.

-Thomas Ligotti

Dark Phenonmenology and the Daemonic

Thomas Ligotti in his essay The Dark Beauty Of Unheard-of Horrors (DB) will tell us that “beneath the surface utterances of setting, incident, and character, there is another voice that may speak of something more than the bare elements of narrative”.1  He’ll emphasize as well the notion that “emotion, not mind, is the faculty for hearing the secret voice of the story and apprehending its meaning. Without emotion, neither story nor anything else can convey meaning as such, only data”.  Stephen Zweig in his study of daemonism in the arts once told us that great art cannot exist without inspiration, and inspiration derives from an unknown, from a region outside the domain of the waking consciousness. For me, the true counterpart of the spasmodically exalted writer, divinely presumptuous, carried out of himself by the exuberance of uncontrolled forces, is the writer who can master these forces, the writer whose mundane will is powerful enough to tame and to guide the daemonic element that has been instilled into his being. To guide as well as to tame, for daemonic power, magnificent though it be and the source of creative artistry, is fundamentally aimless, striving only to re-enter the chaos out of which it sprang.2

Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.

-Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror

Ligotti makes a point that horror must stay ill-defined, that the monstrous must menace us from a distance, from the unknown; a non-knowledge, rather than a knowledge of the natural; it is the unnatural and invisible that affects us not something we can reduce to some sociological, psychological, or political formation or representation, which only kills the mystery – taming it and pigeonholing it into some cultural gatekeeper’s caged obituary. As Ligotti says “This is how it is when a mysterious force is embodied in a human body, or in any form that is too well fixed. And a mystery explained is one robbed of its power of emotion, dwindling into a parcel of information, a tissue of rules and statistics without meaning in themselves.” (DB) The domesticated beast is no horror at all.

In the attic of the mind a lunatic family resides, a carnival world of aberrant thoughts and feelings – that, if we did not lock away in a conspiracy of silence would freeze us in such terror and fright that we would become immobilized unable to think, feel, or live accept as zombies, mindlessly. So we isolate these demented creatures, keep them at bay. Then we anchor ourselves in artifice, accept substitutes, religious mythologies, secular philosophies, and anything else that will help us keep the monsters at bay. As Ligotti will say, we need our illusions – our metaphysical anchors and dreamscapes “that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds” (CHR, 31). Yet, when even these metaphysical ploys want stem the tide of those heinous monsters from within we seek out distraction, entertainment: TV, sports, bars, dancing, friends, fishing, scuba diving, boating, car racing, horse riding… almost anything that will keep our mind empty of its dark secret, that will allow it to escape the burden of emotion – of fear, if even for a night or an afternoon of sheer mindless bliss. And, last, but not least, we seek out culture, sublimation – art, theatre, festivals, carnivals, painting, writing, books… we seek to let it all out, let it enter into that sphere of the tragic or comic, that realm where we can exorcize it, display it, pin it to the wall for all to see our fears and terrors on display not as they are but as we lift them up into art, shape them to our nightmare visions or dreamscapes of desire. As Ligotti tells it, we read literature or watch a painting, go to a theatre, etc.:

In so many words, these thinkers and artistic types confect products that provide an escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it— a tragic drama or philosophical woolgathering… to showcase how a literary or philosophical composition cannot perturb its creator or anyone else with the severity of true-to-life horrors but only provide a pale representation of these horrors, just as a King Lear’s weeping for his dead daughter Cordelia cannot rend its audience with the throes of the real thing. (CHR, 32)

So we seek to cover it over, isolate it, anchor ourselves in some fantastic illusion of belief, and distract ourselves with Big Brother episodes or Kardashian hijinks, else read or watch tragic portrayals of the horror as a way to purge the effects of these dark emotions that we just cannot cope with. All to no avail. For in the end they will not stay locked up in the attic, but begin to haunt us, begin to find ways to make their presence known, to escape their dark dungeons and enter our lives in surprising and unexpected ways till in the end we discover we are overwhelmed by their dark necessity. Even Ligotti admits that after all his own short narratives, his art, his horrors are little more than escapes from the ennui – merely providing an “escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it”. (CHR, 32)

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Freud – A Modern Day Machiavelli


Men ought either to be indulged or utterly destroyed…
– Machiavelli

In the Future of an Illusion Sigmund Freud allowed his bourgeois elitism to play itself out. He had no love of the vast majority of workers who struggled daily to feed their families. Freud in typical Victorian upper-class snobbery shows forth his utter disgust and horror of the common man:

It is just as impossible to do without government of the masses by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization, for the masses are lazy and unintelligent, they have no love for instinctual renunciation, they are not to be convinced of its inevitability by argument, and the individuals support each other in giving full play to their unruliness. It is only by the influence of individuals who can set an example, whom the masses recognize as their leaders, that they can be induced to submit to the labours and renunciations on which the existence of culture depends.1

Intellectuals have always mistrusted the workers and the poor. Freud shows his true allegiance to the elites in this short book. Could one trust such a man as this? How did a whole culture blind itself to such tyrannical thinking? Freud was an out and out elitist who didn’t give a shit about the working class. Yet, his supposed cultural standing is that he influenced many thinkers, artists, etc. Were they all blind to his actual thoughts? How many studies have been conducted that show this dark side of Freudianism? Zilch. At least I have yet to discover much. There may be some hiding away in academic journals. This side of Freud is disgusting and seems to be par for many intellectuals of his time. This notion of the masses being ruled by a minority: what else could this mean than tyranny? Instinctual renunciation? Repression is more the word that comes to mind. Leaders that induce submission and renunciation? That culture depends on such repression? Freud was very much a Machiavelli in disguise. I can imagine him as persona non grata among the people under the thumb of austerity in the EU. I see him even now giving adverts for the need for renunciation and hard work to pay one’s debts, that stern look on his stoic face, the furrowed wrinkles above those stone eyes, the twisted frown displaced by the well-groomed and manicured white beard, the spotless suit with its golden time-piece. Lecturing the populace about the great sacrifice their making for their countryman, etc. Here he is berating the masses that might actually kill themselves or their neighbors – or, should we not admit of him thinking: “They might just kill me, me the great psychoanalyst!”:

And so follows the necessity for either the most rigorous suppression of these dangerous masses and the most careful exclusion of all opportunities for mental awakening, or a fundamental revision of the relation between culture and religion. (KL 694)

Mental awakening, heir Freud? Is this what you fear? An intelligent populace, masses with brains? So we’re dangerous are we Dr. Freud? You would like us to be suppressed, dumbed down, kept from awakening to your superior mind and culture? Is this it, Dr. Freud? “Yes,” he would answer. Are you afraid that the masses if they were to know the mind of Dr. Sigmund Freud, know his real thoughts, that possibly they just might not like what they see? Is that it Dr. Freud?

Freud would even use religion and science to quell the heart of the beast, the masses:

What is then left is a body of ideas which science no longer contradicts and which it cannot disprove. These modifications of religious doctrine, which you have condemned as half-measures and compromises, make it possible to bridge the gap between the uneducated masses and the philosophical thinker, and to preserve that common bond between them which is so important for the protection of culture. With it you would have no need to fear that the poor man would discover that the upper strata of society “no longer believe in God”. I think I have shown by now that your endeavour reduces itself to the attempt to replace a proved and affectively, valuable illusion by one that is unproved and without affective value.’ (kl 923)

Modifications of religious doctrine, hey Dr. Freud. Just a little correction here and there, a little revising of the literature, rewriting of the Bible perhaps? A little therapeutic lie want hurt, will it? Bring in alignment the gap between those dumb beasts of work and the great philosopher of culture, hey: Is this your plan, Dr. Freud? Ah, and what if they should suddenly discover you’re an atheist? You could just replace one illusion with another, yes? Dr. Freud you have it all so carefully figured out. Just give the masses their illusions carefully crafted by Dr. Freud, preserver of culture and philosophy. It’s only for their own good, right? “Yes, yes,” he says. “It’s only to protect us high ones, the noble ones, the elite of culture!” Ah, Dr. Freud you are so smart, I bet the leaders will love you for this last bit of knowledge. What a strange fellow you are Dr. Freud. Even Machiavelli would have praised you.

1. Freud, Sigmund (2011-03-07). THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION (Kindle Locations 108-112). Wilder Publications. Kindle Edition.

Zizek on Freud’s Prosthetic God

Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you. And without feet I can make my way to you, without a mouth I can swear your name.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Freud looked on technology and saw what was coming: the prosthetic God. Humans enfolded in the myth and illusions of Nietzsche’s self-overcoming man: becoming other, becoming machinic, enhanced; merging with his supplements, his technological appendages, shaping and shaped in their likeness bringing both transhuman and posthuman unhappiness and misery in pursuit of immortal godhood:

Long ago [man] formed an ideal conception of omnipotence and omniscience which he embodied in his gods. To these gods he attributed everything that seemed unattainable to his wishes, or that was forbidden to him. One may say, therefore, that these gods were cultural ideals. Today he has come very close to the attainment of this ideal, he has almost become a god himself. Only, it is true, in the fashion in which ideals are usually attained according to the general judgment of humanity: not completely, in some respects not at all, in others only half way. Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times … Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great achievements in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interests of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.1

Slavoj Zizek commenting on this passage would add the Lacanian twist. “In his Ethics seminar, Lacan invokes the “point of the apocalypse,” the impossible saturation of the symbolic by the Real of jouissance, the full immersion into massive jouissance. When, in a Heideggerian way, he asks “Have we crossed the line … in the world in which we live?,”  he refers to the fact that “ the possibility of the death of the Symbolic has become a tangible reality.”  Lacan himself invokes the threat of an atomic holocaust; today, however, we are in a position to offer other versions of this death of the symbolic, principal among them the full scientific naturalization of the human mind. The apocalyptic process will reach its zero point when prostheses no longer merely supplement the human body but in a way supplant it, leaving behind the notion of the human being as a worker whose know-how enables him to use prosthetic instruments.”2

This notion of the zero point of humanity, the vanishing point beyond which one will not know what is human or not, but will cross the Rubicon of animate/inanimate becoming: producing in the process the erasure of the human in the inhuman.  The point that Zizek makes is that in this transition to prosthetic implementation or enhancement through technology, medicine, nanotech, etc. we will become unknowing of the line between the human and machinic, it will become ubiquitous and invisible:

While in principle this may be true, the problem is that when the prosthesis is no longer experienced as such, but becomes invisible, part of our immediate-organic experience, those who technologically control the prosthesis effectively control us at the very heart of our self-experience. (279)

My friend R. Scott Bakker will align this naturalization of humanity into either hybridity or machine-life as the ‘Semantic Apocalypse’. A cultural and socialization process that began with the breakdown in universal values: Kant’s moment of doubt when the notion of finitude and intuition emerged. The notion of eternal truths suddenly dies and spawns history, the dark truth that ‘truth itself is time-bound’, a cultural artifact that we have as Nietzsche once taught “all agreed upon”.

For Zizek this whole breakdown allowed the sciences to fantasize and bring into the world things that were not found in nature, that allowed a process to begin shaping itself without us:

Science and technology today no longer aim only at understanding and reproducing natural processes, but also at generating new forms of life that will surprise us. The goal is not just to dominate nature (the way it is), but to generate something new, greater, stronger than ordinary nature, including ourselves— exemplary is here the obsession with artificial intelligence, which aims at producing a brain stronger than the human brain. The dream that sustains the scientific-technological endeavor is to trigger a process with no return, a process that will exponentially reproduce itself all on its own. The notion of “second nature” is therefore today more pertinent than ever, in both its main meanings.(279)

One must remember that underpinning the notion of “second nature” is the old Christian or even monotheistic/gnostic notion of becoming the ‘being of Light’, etc. One could provide thousands of examples from the World’s religions of this transcension of the natural. From East to West various notions of becoming other than we are, of transcending our nature, etc. has been the goal of moral and religious engines for thousands of years. This movement from religion to the religion of science is one and the same: these new NBIC sciences are sponsored by a new secular religion seeking immortality. Yet, many fear this and realize it is once again the dream not of the common man, but of the elites seeking to gain a new dominion over nature, etc. At the bottom of this fear lies the fear that sex, a natural process that has up to now guided natural evolution is being replaced by what Lacan termed the lamella:

This fear also has a clear libidinal dimension: it is the fear of the asexual reproduction of Life, the fear of a life that is indestructible, constantly expanding, reproducing itself through self-division— in short, the fear of that mythic creature Lacan called lamella (which can be loosely translated as “manlet,” a condensation of “man” and “omelet”), the libido as an organ, an inhuman-human organ without a body, the mythical pre-subjective “undead” life-substance.(280)

Zizek will remind us that Lacan’s term for these objects that have become invisible, ubiquitous in our midst, objects that are merging with us are becoming the surround of our inforworlds are “lathouses”:

The world is increasingly populated by lathouses. Since you seem to find that amusing, I am going to show you how it is written. Notice that I could have called it lathousies. That would have gone better with ousia, it is open to all sorts of ambiguity … And for the tiny little a-objects that you are going to encounter when you leave, on the pavement at every street corner, behind every shop window, in the superabundance of these objects designed to cause your desire in so far as it is now science that governs it, think of them as lathouses. I notice a bit late since I invented it not too long ago that it rhymes with ventouse [windy]. (Zizek quoting Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, p. 162.)

Of course Zizek will take on the political interpellation of this, saying that as such, lathouse is to be opposed to symptom (in the precise Freudian sense of the term): lathouse is knowledge embodied (in a new “unnatural” object). We can see why, apropos lathouses, we have to include capitalism— we are dealing here with a whole chain of surpluses: scientific technology with its surplus-knowledge (a knowledge beyond mere connaissance of already existing reality, a knowledge which gets embodied in new objects); capitalist surplus-value (the commodification of this surplus-knowledge in the proliferation of gadgets); and, last but not least, surplus-enjoyment (gadgets as forms of the objet a), which accounts for the libidinal economy of the hold of lathouses over us.(282)


1. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, New York: Norton 1961, p. 39.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (pp. 277-278). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.