I wrote last time about the human recoil from the world, a tendency to find the world anything from mildly irritating (but inherently so) to utterly unacceptable. I took the initial impetus from Houllebecq's article on H.P. Lovecraft, where Houllebecq describes Lovecraft's art (and his own, and indeed all art) as arising from a fundamental dissatisfaction with the world. Thomas Ligotti, Lovecraft's clear successor as master of horror (and a better stylist), has turned this dissatisfaction into a whole (s)creed; for Ligotti -- not just for his characters, but for Ligotti himself -- existence is a hateful thing. Before anyone gets all clever and thinks "Well, Tom, why doncha just kill yourself then, huh?" -- though of course no one reading here would say such a thing -- I'm going venture that this question comes just a bit too quick off the tongue. Reasonable or not, there's more than a hint of something defensive (and changing-the-subject) about it. And those like Ligotti, who have already decided that human beings just can't bear to confront their real status as accidents in an accidental universe, can smell that defensiveness the way a shark smells blood. So we'll go a different way here, and ask after this intense animus that loathes, as Ligotti says, "everything that exists."
This cosmic pessimism has been informing an ever-broadening trend in philosophy of late, a trend that takes its cue from Cioran and Battaile. As soon as I cite both of these names, I realize that I must qualify things: there is no party line here, and not even any consistent stance; "hatred of the world" is mixed up cheek-by-jowl with a certain style of Nietzschean "affirmation." Nonetheless, I'm going to try to assert that there is a recognizable (albeit minority) common esprit in what one could loosely (and no doubt contestedly) call a school. It began to come into its own with the work of the no-longer-neglected cult figure Nick Land, whose first book was The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, and whose collected essays bears a title, Fanged Noumena, that perfectly sums up this subgenre of critique + horror. In the last decade, this subgenre has shown signs of coming dangerously close to being almost mainstream. Eugene Thacker's Horror of Philosophy trilogy -- re. which see this interview (pdf) with Thacker -- even had a little 15-minute session in the sun when he got some free publicity from an unlikely menage of Glenn Beck, NPR's Radiolab, HBO's True Detective and JayZ's wardrobe designer. (JayZ was filmed wearing a t-shirt that had Thacker's title for volume 1 -- In the Dust of this Planet -- on it in great big letters that pretty much replicates the book's front cover; not long thereafter, a similar shirt was worn on True Detective. Already, in an interview at the Wall Street Journal's website, True Detective director Nic Pizzolato had fessed up: he based the apparent nihilism of one of his characters on several books, including Thacker's In the Dust... and Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Radiolab thought the whole nexus of things was weird, which it sort of was, and worth doing an entire show on, which is open to question (but, for those of you tracking The Conspiracy, it just so happens that Thacker and Radiolab host Jad Abumrad are brothers-in-law.... On the other hand, Thacker says he'd never heard of JayZ.) Anyway, speaking of conspiracy, Uncle Glenn's team got hold of it, and Beck did a spot about how Eugene Thacker works at the New School, where some other people used to work who used, in the first half of the 20th century, to advocate eugenics.... After a sort of "think about it, people" pause and a meaningful gaze into the camera, Beck went on to advocate for Vince Vaughan's t-shirts instead. That's philosophy in TV and radio, folks.) A bemused Thacker remarked that doubtless more people had his title than had read his book. Like I said, almost mainstream. Which is to say, almost passé.
This fate had already befallen the last crop of nihilisms, the carnival of deconstruction. I want to argue for (if not unassailably establish) a clear descent of spirit from deconstruction to this more recent philosopho-horror, despite the latter's tending to arise amidst fellow-travelers of speculative realism, who present a stance opposed to the linguistic turn of which deconstruction was supposedly the nth degree. Deconstruction likewise passed from cutting-edge to what-did-you-expect, and likewise did so via mass entertainment. Slowly and inexorably, nudge by meta-wink, American TV in the '90s became rotten with hipness; nothing was taken quite seriously; just "seriously enough" to keep the money a-spending --a sly "heh, get it?" hanging in the background like a billboard. "But wait," I hear someone say -- "what? -- why blame deconstruction for that? And anyway, Derrida isn't a nihilist... is he...? I mean he's all about the free play of the signifier...." Like most questions about deconstruction, this one has to be answered, Yes and No. On a certain exoteric level, I think it is quite defensible to hold that Derrida was more or less what Rorty thought: a liberal ironist. But where Rorty just shrugged off the corrosive effect ironism had on liberalism, Derrida -- more the philosopher -- was clear (yes, clear) that there was no way of theoretically heading off irony at the pass. In a great deal of ostensibly "deconstrutive" work by a generation of grad students and teachers, this ironism turned into an end in itself. If these days it's more frequent to object to Derrida as a stylist than as a philosopher, it's only partly because the latest academics think his questions are beside the point; it's mainly that they simply and without much ado stipulate his basic positions, and regard a basic mastery of "deconstructive" moves as just part of the academic toolbox. If someone does argue with Derrida, it's usually a straw-derrida who "argues" that "everything is language," or some such. But the take-downs of Plato, the cavalier regard of the tradition as something to bend to your own agenda, the clever drive to trip up Aristotle or Rousseau or Kant -- that's here to stay. (I know, I know -- "basic positions," indeed! The reductionism of it! But I'm not going to write a six-paragraph sidebar of intro-to-deconstruction.) I learned a great deal from reading Derrida and I honestly count myself among those who can read him for pleasure; but I think there is no question but that some of the allure of deconstruction was its apparent licensing of a free-for-all which spun off some downright awful work. Whether it was any more awful than work produced under any other fashion is disputable. But the close affinity between deconstruction and hyper-ironism is not. Deconstruction was a fixation upon the mise-en-abyme, a vertigo of criticism; and part of its thrill was its apparent capacity to undercut any and all received stories. It was, in short, not "conservative" in the sense Amod Lele uses the term.
What is often overlooked about Derrida’s work, especially his early work, is that it was also scary. A lot of his imitators merely enjoyed playing with nihilism, as if they had defused it, though of course the frisson (if any) of their texts depend upon there being a real danger, and edge, to them. To be sure, this cannot all be laid at Derrida's door. It was the inevitable conclusion of the trend which Lionel Trilling had observed about his students in his 1961 essay "On the Teaching of Modern Literature":
I asked them to look into the Abyss, and, both dutifully and gladly, they have looked into the Abyss, and the Abyss has greeted them with the grave courtesy of all objects of serious study, saying: “Interesting, am I not? And exciting, if you consider how deep I am and what dread beasts lie at my bottom. Have it well in mind that a knowledge of me contributes materially to your being whole, or well-rounded, men.”It was wanting to eat this cake and have it too that gave rise, in the generation after Trilling, to the aforementioned bad faith of hip hyperironism, as it pooled and shallowed-out from Ivy League to Madison Ave. Hundreds of glib instructors teaching the latest deconstructive tricks did further this, mostly unknowingly I'd bet; they were generally liberals who didn't think things through. Derrida himself knew better, and his Abyss is actually frightening, if you read him with an eye unjaded by overfamiliarity. Here is the conclusion of his famous essay "Plato's Pharmacy" on the Phaedrus, in Dissemination. Even thus excerpted, it's a long quote, but I have my reasons for offering it at length:
Plato mutters as he transcribes the play of formulas. In the enclosed space of the pharmacy, the reverberations of the monologue are immeasurably amplified. The walled-in voice strikes against the rafters, the words come apart, bits and pieces of sentences are separated, disarticulated parts begin to circulate through the corridors, become fixed for a round or two, translate each other, become rejoined, bounce off each other, contradict each other, make trouble, tell on each other, come back like answers, organize their exchanges, protect each other, institute an internal commerce, take themselves for a dialogue. Full of meaning. A whole story·. An entire history. All of philosophy.
"he ekhe touton logon . . . the sound of these arguments rings so loudly in my head that I cannot hear the other side."
In this stammering buzz of voices, as some philological sequence or other floats by, one can sort of make this out, but it is hard to hear: logos beds itself... pharmakon means coup... "so that pharmakon will have meant: that which pertains to an attack of demoniac possession, or is used as a curative against such an attack" ... an armed enforcement of order... a shot fired... a planned overthrow... but to no avail... like cutting through water.... and a stroke of fate... Theuth who invented writing... the calendar... dice... kubeia... the calendar trick... the unexpected theatrical effect... the writing trick... the dice-throw... two in one blow... kolaphos ... gluph... colpus . . . coup . . . glyph . . scalpel... scalp... khrusos... chrysolite ... chrysology...
Plato gags his ears the better to hear-himself-speak, the better to see, the better to analyze.
He listens, means to distinguish, between two repetitions.
One ought to distinguish, between two repetitions.
-- But they repeat each other, still; they substitute for each other .
-- Nonsense: they don't replace each other, since they are added ...
-- Precisely ...
One still has to take note of this. And to finish that Second Letter: "...Consider these facts and take care lest you sometime come to repent of having now unwisely published your views. It is a very great safeguard to learn by heart instead of writing... to me graphein all'ekmanthanein.... It is impossible for what is written not to be disclosed. That is the reason why I have never written anything about these things... oud'estin sungramma Platonos ouden oud'estai, and why there is not and will not be any written work of Plato's own. What are now called his... Sokratous min kalou kai neou gegonotos... are the work of a Socrates embellished and modernized. Farewell and believe.Read this letter now at once many times and burn it ...
-- I hope this one won't get lost. Quick, a duplicate... graphite... carbon... reread this letter... burn it. il y a la cendre. And now, to distinguish, between two repetitions....
The night passes. In the morning, knocks are heard at the door. They seem to be coming from outside, this time....
Two knocks... four...
-- But maybe it's just a residue, a dream , a bit of dream left over, an echo of the night... that other theater, those knocks from outside....
Now read that back to back with Lovecraft:
And then I heard the other voice. To this hour I shudder retrospectively when I think of how it struck me, prepared though I was by Akeley's accounts. Those to whom I have since described the record profess to find nothing but cheap imposture or madness in it; but could they have the accursed thing itself, or read the bulk of Akeley's correspondence, (especially that terrible and encyclopaedic second letter), I know they would think differently. It is, after all, a tremendous pity that I did not disobey Akeley and play the record for others - a tremendous pity, too, that all of his letters were lost. To me, with my first-hand impression of the actual sounds, and with my knowledge of the background and surrounding circumstances, the voice was a monstrous thing. It swiftly followed the human voice in ritualistic response, but in my imagination it was a morbid echo winging its way across unimaginable abysses from unimaginable outer hells. It is more than two years now since I last ran off that blasphemous waxen cylinder; but at this moment, and at all other moments, I can still hear that feeble, fiendish buzzing as it reached me for the first time.I want to linger for just a moment on this last phrase of Lovecraft's. If you remember your Badiou, or even your Descartes, you can guess why "infinity" would be relevant here. Badiou is explicit in desiring to "secularize" the notion of infinity, to strip it of the numinous aura theology has always found there. (Speaking theologically, he's right of course. There is nothing "holy" about infinity per se, and we're indebted to Badiou for reminding us of this. Like everything else, infinity is a symbol, and we didn't need Lovecraft to point out that it is at best an ambiguous one; already Pascal had famously expressed his terror at "the silence of those infinite spaces.") But a laicized infinity is one thing; a blasphemous infinity another -- in fact, the opposite. If I may do a little Structuralism 101 here, something can only be blasphemous -- the word "blasphemy" only has meaning -- if it is granted that there's such a thing as worthy worship, adoration, love. Lovecraft here is trading off the sense that something in the horrible sound feels like an affront to the Holy; and although of course Lovecraft doesn't believe there is such a category, his attempt to drive home the extreme horror occasioned by hearing the recording relies on this -- is, so to speak, living off the capital accumulated in an earlier, and expressly religious, culture. You can't blaspheme anything except the Holy. If "the idea of the Holy" has no traction for you, well, then the most you can do in that direction is offend people -- usually people you regard as small-minded, as lying to themselves, already. Which, let's face it, may give you a short-lived rush of power, but is pretty low-hanging fruit, and you're fooling yourself if you make it anything like an index of artistic integrity or philosophical radicalism. I'll return to this question of the blasphemous at the end.
"Ia! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!"
But though the voice is always in my ears, I have not even yet been able to analyse it well enough for a graphic description. It was like the drone of some loathsome, gigantic insect ponderously shaped into the articulate speech of an alien species, and I am perfectly certain that the organs producing it can have no resemblance to the vocal organs of man, or indeed to those of any of the mammalia. There were singularities in timbre, range, and overtones which placed this phenomenon wholly outside the sphere of humanity and earth-life. Its sudden advent that first time almost stunned me, and I heard the rest of the record through in a sort of abstracted daze. When the longer passage of buzzing came, there was a sharp intensification of that feeling of blasphemous infinity....
("The Whisperer in the Darkness")
To be sure, it is itself a kind of deconstructive move to counterpose these passages from Derrida and Lovecraft, with their buzzing voices, their intimations of "outside...", even their references to a "second letter", which, despite seeming like a bit of a stretch, is surely fair game by the anarchic "rules" of deconstruction. In the mid-90's in many English departments, one could have make a whole term paper just out of the sentence, "though the voice is always in my ears, I have not even yet been able to analyse it well enough for a graphic description." (Just think about what Derrida did with Nietzsche's umbrella...). There are many such passages in Lovecraft, which I'll omit for the sake of keeping this manageably readable, but it's important to underline that for Lovecraft's fiction, the "beyond" or "far away" from which comes the horror is also very close, all too close. One might say that there is no hors-texte:
"What do we know," he had said, "of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers."This last passage, with its arch promethean tone about overcoming human beings' narrow perception-mechanisms, is important for the way it shows the dovetailing of a certain scientism with horror. It is in this arena that deconstruction's scary tone has recently resurfaced. Indeed, I am pleased to note that this experiment of mine (I copied it out of an old notebook) has been validated by Thacker:
I would argue that this makes philosophy interesting. Particularly if one "mis-reads" philosophy in this way. If we were to adopt a method, it might be this: read works of philosophy as if they were works of horror.... something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this thought that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility.Certainly there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought.That's from volume 2 of Thacker's trilogy, Starry Speculative Corpse. (Excerpt here.) Thacker doesn't identify what he's doing as deconstruction, but his self-description of his method as "mis-reading," complete with scare-quotes, is lifted out of deconstruction's play-book, and he has the good faith to acknowledge that there's something like a joke to it; like a commercial from 1996, it's not to be taken too seriously.... And yet, the joke is very ambiguous. I do not think he can concede that, as David Chapman contends, nihilism is silly.
Note, especially, the point at the end: that the "unthinkable" is part and parcel of horror. Now Thacker is well aware that philosophy, and more particularly, theology, has repeatedly opened up upon a kind of unthinkable, and yet that it has not always ended in horror (or some desperate warding-off thereof). But he seems to take it as read that science has today cut off recourse to the theological. You can't read Thacker (or any number of others*) without sensing the overlap between horror and scientism, though perhaps you do need to read a little more than the t-shirt; and perhaps, too, Thacker would't put it like that. (Besides Ray Brassier, other names that occur to me here are Nicola Masciandaro, Ben Woodward, and of course Reza Negarestani, whose Cyclonopedia opens with a scene that wears its Lovecraftianism on its sleeve, and whose The Mortiloquist features and foregrounds a thematics of torture and biological corruption that would give Poe or Sade or Clive Barker something to think about. More recently, Leon Niemoczynski has begun to articulate what he calls a "bleak theology," in what I consider a different but related register.)
I am now deep into Thacker's trilogy and have also read After Life and much of his work with Alexander Galloway, The Exploit: a theory of networks (pdf here). You can look to the links above, or listen to this lecture, for a representative introduction to this set of themes in Thacker's work; or read a different one; see too this or this from Craig Hickman for some introduction if you aren't familiar. In the Dust of this Planet begins (and means to begin) where Lovecraft's narrators usually end -- sure enough, with "that which cannot be thought:"
The world is increasingly unthinkable.... to confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all -- an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.But we might start even before page one, with the Table of Contents:
Preface ~ Clouds of UnknowingThe three numbered chapters, the three-six-nine of the sections, and the little Latin teasers all give whiffs of a medieval tradition, as though Thacker's book were a kind of grimoire. He draws freely but selectively from Pseudo-Dionysus, Eriguena, the Beguines, the Carmelites. (My guess is that much of his readership doesn't know this tradition -- over a thousand years of it -- very deeply. If they are relying on Thacker for their introduction, this is a bit like relying on Derrida for your introduction to Plato.) (In volume 2, he turns to the Zen-inflected Kyoto school. Here there are some precedents, for Buddhism and horror are not strangers to each other.) He has mined this theology for whatever is relevant to his argument, and of course there's plenty, for this is where one finds the great works of negative theology, the impossible articulation of what Ps.Dionysius called the divine darkness.
I Three Quæstio on Demonology
II Six Lectio on Occult Philosophy
III Nine Disputatio on the Horror of Theology
"The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids"
You can see how a phrase like that would appeal, and appeal it has. In the past ten years or so, this "Dark" has been a proliferating meme. Dark Materialism, Dark Pantheism, Dark Ecology, Dark Enlightenment (this one, somewhat different in nuance, is Nick Land's neoreactionary way of conflating the Enlightenment project with the dark ages). The main point in common which I am considering here is the way "Dark" signals the limits of thinking in a way that carries an emotional resonance of allure and dread. A primary philosophical precedent for this is in the aforementioned Christian tradition of negative theology -- the awareness that any discourse about God, Who is wholly and unequivocally beyond any of our categories, can only proceed by negation and tend towards paradox. Thacker's work, like a good deal of this recent trend of "dark" a/theology, tries to show -- or rather, to take as stipulated -- that the overwhelming-of-thought in Ligotti or Lovecraft is more or less the same as in Ruysbroek, Eckhardt, The Cloud of Unknowing, and so on. One can make some headway with this strategy, for after all, as St Gregory of Nyssa writes,
one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and—lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible—believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.Nonetheless, I have not discovered (though I would like to -- please tell me if I am missing it) in any of this recent "Dark" trend any work that really wants anything to do with the possibility of actually meeting the living God; I suspect the authors would be frankly amused at the very notion, or perhaps, a little horrified. Great Cthulhu is downright cuddly compared to the "FIRE" Pascal wrote of, for instance. All these "dark" a/theologies draw extensively upon negative theology for tropes of liminality, unspeakability, radical disjuncture that somehow remains radical presence; all are very interested in the swamping of our capacities. But they drain this tradition, either systematically or through advised negligence, of anything that would actually have to do with creation, redemption, and above all, with love. "Infinity" is appropriated, here as in deconstruction, as a feature of mise-en-abyme, and becomes not the occasion for philosophy to glimpse the wider context of its attempts at articulation, but instead as a kind of brute feature.
(Life of Moses)
This is the academic-philosophical equivalent of the false sublime, what Brandon at Siris recently called, in an excellent post, the fake-awesome. In entertainment, this fakeness centers upon various spectacle that aims to be impressive and usually just feels flat. Brandon gives three characteristics of the false sublime. He points out that because
the sublime, or genuinely awe-inspiring, is by its nature overwhelming. Precisely what makes it sublime is that it in some sense exceeds our capacity to take it in,,therefore
The fake-awesome tends toward incoherence.This first aspect means that false sublimity confuses, and in practice it generates what Harry Frankfurt calls Bullshit. I've blogged a good bit about this before. If you remember back to the '90s, you'll recall that deconstruction was on the Most Wanted List for bullshitting by the defenders of Reason and Truth, and not always on trumped-up charges. Nonetheless, deconstruction's moves got predictable, and of course there was a counter-attack which used (not always prudently) deconstruction as a new way of drawing a Kantian "limit" to reason alone which would again "make room for faith;" to use deconstruction as a new vocabulary and occasion for the "return to religion." (Levinas was especially important here, though not always deeply understood.)
Against this, Badiou, Meillassoux, and Brassier -- to name only three -- made various strong rejoinders. Each seems to be arguing for a thinkable absolute, and so apparently is articulating a set of arguments that would seem to be opposed to the "unthinkable" of horror; and yet their thought has repeatedly been appropriated (and Brassier has expressly abetted this himself) in this nexus of "Dark" metaphysics, materialism, etc. The reason for this is that the "absolute" in every case winds up being precisely chaos, the aleatory unreason to which reason devolves when it decides to dispense with itself. In his third volume, Tentacles Longer than Night, Thacker unpacks this in the context of Poe's "The Black Cat:"
the narrator continues, if I can’t explain it then there must be someone else who can. In lieu of this, he can only hope that someone else (doubtless we, the "dear readers") will come along and provide an explanation, some explanation, any explanation.I would suggest that the "crisis" in question is one that arises precisely because the "leap of faith" has been ruled out in advance. Kierkegaard, with whom everyone associates the phrase, asked:
What cannot be accepted is that something happened for no reason. But this event is not just an everyday event. It has the character of being out-of-place, of not fitting into our everyday or even scientific modes of explaining the world. It threatens the order of things produced by we human beings, living human lives in a human world largely (we presume) of our own making. That something, that event, might threaten this order of things, and that it would happen for no reason -- this is, for the narrator of "The Black Cat," the real horror. It is a thought that cannot be accepted, without either abandoning reason and descending into the abyss of madness or making the leap of faith into religion and mysticism. It is as if, before Poe’s story has even begun, the horror tale itself is in a state of crisis.
When people nowadays -- as is in fact variously announced -- will not stop at love, where is it that they are going? To worldly wisdom, petty calculation, to paltriness and misery?To which the answer is, pretty much: Yep.
(Fear and Trembling, "Prolegomena.")
A different variant of this denial of sufficient reason, associated with Žižek and Badiou (and later with Meillassoux) associates the upheaval of the without-reason with a special category, what Heidegger called Ereignis, "Event." Badiou assimilates this to a Deleuzo-Mallarmean throw of dice. One of the most perceptive and articulate young philosophers I know of, Pete Wolfendale, a man who is staunchly aligned against any back-door "return to religion," nonetheless pegged this a couple of years ago as an attempt to keep, as it were, the prerogative of divine freedom without any divine. In the excerpt I'm going to give, Wolfendale traces a genealogy of this, which I am not going to unpack here, but I leave it in because his concluding account of the inversion of Leibnit's theodicy is so damn brilliant. Speaking of
the dominant axis of indeterminism in contemporary continental thought,Wolfendale goes on to note how
[t]he combination of this vulgar Kantianism, or neo-Leibnizianism about Freedom with a resistance to theism (be it derived from the Heideggerian rejection of onto-theology or the Lacanian rejection of the big Other) demands a strong form of metaphysical indeterminism, in which nature is always ‘fractured’, ‘incomplete’ or simply subject to the whims of a ‘hyperchaos’. This is because the natural order is supposedly insufficient to account for the alternative causal order of Freedom (the Lacanian symbolic, the Badiouian Subject/Event, Fichtean facticity, etc.), meaning that there must be points at which something other pokes through into nature. Yet this supplement can’t be conceived as itself governed by sufficient reason without collapsing into some kind of positive theology. This is the point at which the neo-Leibnizians part ways with Leibniz. However, the effect of foreclosing the supplement to sufficient reason constitutes a turn to negative theology, albeit a more extreme form of it than the traditional judaic variety (even that of Levinas, for instance). We might call this a negative deism. Whereas Leibniz’s God freely chooses the best of all possible worlds, because his essence contains infinite goodness, the deviant Leibnizian non-God of the negative deist has no essence to speak of. It is the equivalent of Lovecraft’s Azathoth – a non-sentient, absolutely indifferent, writhing hyperchaos.In short, incoherence has for this metaphysics become an ontological principle. Wolfendale opines that this indeterminism is actually politically dangerous, and his diagnosis is worth attending to, but I'm not going to follow it here because as is so often the case with his posts, I can't do it justice without making it more or less the whole occasion of a very careful point-by-point treatment. What I do want to underscore though is that, although I disagree with Wolfendale about the issue of theism, I strongly concur that those who want to take this tack are more or less cheating, trying to have things both ways; an aversion to theism is strongly and almost Freudianly joined with a deep draw to the moves of theology. It's hard not to see this as the latest chapter of the secularization Carl Schmitt posited in the famous opening of Political Theology's chapter three.
Returning to Brandon's post on the pseudo-sublime, the next characteristic he mentions is almost a kind of defense against the horrifying implications of the aleatory -- a warding-off of the spectre of Azathoth:
the most basic experience of sublimity seems to be when we experience something capable of terrifying us but under conditions in which we can be exhilarated rather than fully terrified. At least, historically that is one of the most common kinds of experience associated with it. If you are going to fake experience of the sublime or truly awesome, one has to manufacture something analogous to this.This means that
The fake-awesome tends toward violence.One could argue that "violence" is a relative term, but if we say destruction, we are very close to the unacknowledged cosmological idols of our time. In fact even in Meillassoux's (barely) more hopeful aleatory cosmology, creation is infinitesimally rare; destruction is the order of the day. Why destruction? Because under the aleatory non-regime there are far, far more -- infinite orders of magnitude more -- ways for things to fall apart than for things to "fit together" in an order. (Meillassoux might want to object here that with transfinite magnitudes, this is not the case. I am unpersuaded.) Moreover, the great sign under which Brassier's Nihil Unbound is written -- the sign of extinction -- is a special case of destruction, the destruction of mind. Some philosophy in this register -- David Benatar's Better Never To Have Been, for instance -- will valorize extinction to the point of commending it as a species-wide programme. Benatar does not promote mass suicide; he advocates what one might call radically negative population growth, by voluntary and if possible completely unanimous non-procreation. Violence? Yes, indeed, his absolutely sincere "voluntary" notwithstanding. I might go on (and might cite Wolfendale again) to argue that philosophy of this stripe will and indeed must wind up valorizing upheavals politically, which equates, in practice, to more pedestrian meanings of "violence." I'm not sure about this, however, and although I can come up with some obvious instances, I'm pretty sure these could be matched by counter-examples, so I won't press the point.
Of course, in the context of pop entertainment about which Brandon was originally writing, examples abound, and you hardly need to think about it to rack up a score or so, big or small, from movies and television. This is also true for Brandon's third characteristic:
The sublime is something so great that in comparison to it we are small; but also so great that even our capacity to recognize its greatness is a mark of our own greatness. The pseudo-awesome cannot capture the latter part; but it can do a lot to imitate the vastness of the sublime and awe-inspiring. Thus the fake-awesome has a tendency to try for experiences that are bigger and bigger and bigger, even if it comes at the expense of valuable small things,which means that, in sum:
The fake-awesome tends to involve big spectacle trumping all other features of a story.And if you press this far enough, you will get "spectacle" that by its very being-experienced swamps and undoes the beholder. The blasphemous horrors that drives Lovecraft's narrators mad.
The sublime is Pascal's infinite silences, the enormity of the physical universe which can crush a human being; but it is also, crucially, the human being, the thinking reed, who knows the universe as the universe does not know the human. The pseudo-sublime of the "horror of philosophy" trades upon severing this connection. The sublime does indeed leave us, in a sense, emptied and incapacitated; take this as an end in itself and you get all the Nameless Horrors of Lovecraft and Ligotti. This -- Pascal's terrifying infinite spaces, without the rest of Pascal -- is of course a cosmic indifference; but in order for it to work as horror, it is also, by a kind of sleight-of-argument, an indifference which is indistinguishable from malevolence. This Lovecraftian pseudo-sublime is the fun-house inversion of a theological version of the problem of evil, which we can compress into a parallel formula, according to which God is a benevolence apparently indistinguishable from indifference. (It's important to note too that whether one aspires to follow the Tao, cultivate the apatheia of the saints, or striving after the Eightfold Path, one is aspiring to a sort of indifference oneself.)
This question of indistinguishability is at issue, but perhaps not pressed far enough, in the famous "parable of the invisible gardener" which John Wisdom (who deserves to be known for more than this little story) used to illustrate an argument concerning the relevance of empiricism to theism. Two travelers return to find their garden mostly wasting away but a few plants surprisingly robust. "It must be there is a gardener who tends these," says one. But no neighbor has seen such a gardener, rejoins the other. "Perhaps he comes at night," the first replies. "But there are no footprints." And so it goes, back and forth. Anthony Flew stretched this story to turn it into a parody of incorrigibility, but in fact Wisdom was not primarily making this critique; he he was showing that the same empirical experience was amenable to various interpretations:
Each learns all the other learns about the garden. Consequently, when after all this, one says "I still believe a gardener comes" while the other says "I don’t," their different words now reflect no difference as to what they have found in the garden, or would find in the garden if they looked further.... One says, "A gardener comes unseen and unheard; he is manifested only in his works with which we are all familiar. The other says, "There is no gardener." And with this difference in what they say about the gardener goes a difference in how they feel toward the garden, in spite of the fact that neither expects anything of it which the other does not expect.The point here is that a benevolence apparently indistinguishable from indifference is distinguishable -- in its effects on how one feels -- from an indifference indistinguishable from malevolence. (A further question is whether either one of these is a coherently conceivable concept.)
The ontological exaltation of the aleatory leads us to a weird mutation -- the opposite of the Kantian aesthetic principle of "purposive purposelessness." In the blind Oops-universe, humanity and indeed all sentience is a purposeless purposiveness. Kant's aesthetic is remembered in part for the way he deploys the difference between the Sublime and the Beautiful; and I suspect that one reason why the false sublime Brandon so skillfully describes is now so ascendant, is that we have too drastically separated these. As though anything that pleased also flattered, as though beauty was by definition ideology. (It seems worth underscoring Addison's account of the sublime as "agreeable horror." My sense is that in this fixation on all things Dark, there is some conflictedness about the "agreeable" here -- a strong motive to foreground the disagreeable as much as possible, all the while trying to forget that, after all, it is motivated to do this.) It may seem a small thing, but Dostoevsky did not say that sublimity will save the world.
I mentioned Benatar's anti-natalist book Better Never To Have Been (also cited, by the way, in the interview with Pizzolatto about True Detective), the title of which comes from the mocking advice Silenus gave to King Midas' question of what was the best thing for man. "Never to be born," the satyr told the appalled king. And, for good measure, "And next best, to die. Soon." I've written many times about this melancholy conclusion, and I maintain that those (like Ligotti) who believe philosophy is intentionally holding this notion at bay are right. Where I part company with them is to hold that the Socratic prescription of an examined life is truly a cure intended in good faith. "Examination" is not just a high-sounding name for its opposite (denial) or a subterfuge for distracting yourself with "bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct." The disagreement about this is, again, the cleavage plane between two apparent indiscernibles which are in fact the occasion for a decision. Is the universe an indifference indistinguishable from malevolence, or is it a benevolence indistinguishable from indifference?
One of the ways -- probably the privileged way -- that these visions differ, is how they plays out in the question of prayer.
This is not a crazy out-of-left-field application. The question of prayer is as old as philosophy. From Plato on, it has been asked, what sense it can possibly make to pray. (It is at issue in significant portions of the Laws, a dialogue which is almost a litmus-test for "kinds of philosophers" -- far, far too many sneer at the Laws as a work of Plato's ostensibly conservative, curmudgeonly dotage.) Does it make sense to speak to -- to petition, thank, praise -- an apparently indifferent Divine, a "presence," if that's what God "is," which philosophy cannot but construe, a la negative theology, as absence? And -- if so -- how? What sort of sense? In my opinion, the most extensive and deepest meditation that prayer has occasioned in modern philosophy is the introduction to Book III of Rosenzweig's Star of Redemption, "On the Possibility of Entreating the Kingdom." Getting into Rosenzweig's book will make this post officially Too Long ("too late," you are saying under your breath), so I'm going to leave off; but I want to underline the way the recent crop of the "dark" philosophies that flower in the chilly hothouse of horrorology and hauntology all -- or almost all (Masciandaro may be the exception) -- absent themselves from this question. They want to make use -- sometimes with considerable apparent erudition -- of the metaphysics of mysticism, of magic and demonology, but seem to me (though I'd love to be corrected) to be universally allergic to the question of prayer, without which none of the tradition of negative theology matters, for that tradition is one not of discourse, but of practice. Ps. Dionysius, Eckhardt, St Teresa of Avila, aren't spinning theories. They're speaking of experience.
When it comes down to it, though, it isn't a question of the "plot" or the argument of any of these "dark" works. Thacker's account is different from Land's, which is different from Masciandaro's, and so on. But the general esprit is unmistakable: this is philosophy that doesn't just believe that the world is empty of meaning, or even that this emptiness is horrible, but that takes a certain bleak delight in this emptiness; and moreover sees its countenancing of this horror as evidence of its strength, even if a strength-in-abjection. Well, who can blame people for taking what cold comfort they can? Bertrand Russell made the stance of quiet desperation in the face of an indifferent universe into a sort of noble ethical imperative. The more recent stance of horror-philosophy or vice-versa is what is left when all ethics has been digested into aesthetics, and aesthetics into its opposite. It can still appropriate the tags of previous contexts, but what it can offer is at most a sort of attempt at blasphemy. You get this loud and clear with Land. More often, it's just a fake sublime -- magic circles and paraphernalia, gibberish ("Ia! Shub Niggurath!") and violence, overwhelming emotions and the "unthinkable" -- but no devotion, humility, or indeed even address. But any theology, even an atheology, divorced from prayer is simply not real. What I say about God is of no interest, not even to me, except insofar as it effects what I do. The place where doing and saying intersect is the performative, and prayer is performative theology par excellence. This means, to return to an earlier point, that blasphemy -- also a performative, after all -- can be a kind of para- or inverse prayer, albeit always parasitic on prayer itself. To be sure, as C.S. Lewis wrote,
All prayers always, taken at their word, blasphemeLewis' point is that of negative theology: every literal statement about God is a lie. And if there were only the literal, that would be the end of it. Lewis' faith is that there is more, and not just "more" but something else: the poem concludes with a petition to God to translate "our halting metaphor" into the "great unbroken speech."
And with this metaphor of translation, there is a question of (non-)identity of (in)discernibles. What are the "terms" of this imagined speech? What would it mean for it to be "unbroken" (say, into particular "words")? And by what "translation" can blasphemy be sanctified? We could well deem this yet another occasion for deconstruction, construing every prayer as dangerously supplemented with an admixture of blasphemy. But in order to do this, we'd have to grant that there is such a thing as prayer.
* One thinker who has worked on Lovecraft and who I have left out of account here is Graham Harman. While I strongly agree with Harman's claim (in "On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl") that "nothing resembles science fiction more than philosophy does," this is at least in part because I concur in principle with Derrida that the line between philosophy and literature "in general" is far from clear. Harman's specific considerations and appropriations of Lovecraft seem to me idiosyncratic, at least in the context of these other thinkers (Thacker, Brassier, Land, etc). It would be more interesting and pertinent here to consider Harman's own metaphysics as a species of, or as an alternative to, horror, for it can certainly be argued (and has been) that the "withdrawal" Harman posits of every real object whatsoever, is a modulation of another theme from negative theology. This is an argument Harman rejects:
The response of object-oriented philosophy is that this claim sets up a false alternative between two extremes: direct propositional access to the world on one side and ignorant silence on the other. But these are really no different from the two false alternatives of Meno's paradox, both of which Socrates opposed with philosophia, a love of wisdom without direct access to wisdom.I have some sympathy with this rejoinder of Harman's, though I do not take "negative theology" as a slur and believe it is more continuous with philosophy than his critics want it to be. But as readers are well aware, this post is long enough.