Saturday, August 8, 2015
So in the future, the sister of the past, I may see myself as I sit here now but by reflection from that which then I shall be.
Introduction: Report from the Interior
In his lecture on a recent theoretical model known as Accelerationism, British philosopher Ray Brassier provides what is perhaps the most lucid and effective critique of this model’s champion on the political right: fellow Brit and ex-philosopher Nick Land. I must profess something of a fascination with Land if only for the latter’s obscure withdrawal from academia (some rumors attest to psychotic breakdowns) and subsequent emergence as a figure of a new, heavy philosophical conservatism whose adherents have labeled neoreactionism (or NRx). In his 1992 study, The Thirst For Annihilation (published prior to his enigmatic transformation), Land traces Western philosophy from Kant to Deleuze and finds himself spiraling a dark drain of representationalist impotence, approaching that liminal realm where language discovers its base materiality. Leftist strategies proliferate in the early Land, most noticeably in his compelling essay, “Kant, Capital and the Prohibition of Incest” (1988); but after his strange 180 degree turn, Land emerged as a right-accelerationist promoting capitalist intensification – a kind of thanatropic capitalism, a free market free-for-all unto the extinction of humanity itself. Brassier’s lecture offers an eminent critique and dismantling the of illogic that underpins Land’s neo-capitalist (perhaps even post-capitalist) dogma, a dogma that has found its way into various dark corners of internet, but also into the portrayal of pessimistic philosophy in pop-culture venues such as HBO’s True Detective.
In his critique, Brassier sets up a series of complex theoretical strategies in Land’s thought only to subsequently expose their weaknesses. Ultimately, Land’s argument reduces to a general principle, which Brassier calls “intensive materialism”: material production is a libidinal process that occurs with or without human assistance, so we might as well go along for the ride – unleash world markets and let capitalism fully express itself. Brassier’s central point zeroes in on the “with or without human assistance” component; for if, as Land suggests, intensification happens regardless of human intervention, then it becomes difficult to justify the need for any human agency whatsoever. Brassier qualifies Land’s right-wing pessimism as a kind of “mad, black Deleuzianism” – an uneven warping of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus from leftist commitment to the material bases of representation, to the nihilist fantasy of matter-as-formless-process. To put this in more contemporary political-speak: the representational forms of identity (race, gender, disability, etc.), class, religion, political power, etc. do not matter; all that matters is the formless production of matter itself, the generation of new assemblages.
In other words, who you are (or what you think you are) doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we contribute to the exponential accumulation of material processes – an accumulation that Land associates with capitalist development and expansion.
The problems that spawn from this thorny proposition are numerous and, in many cases, irksome; but as Brassier contends in his talk, contemporary philosophical thought must necessarily grapple with them. Intriguingly enough, Land has accused Brassier of a kind of “philosophical conservatism” for his insistence on dealing with intensive materialism in a conceptual manner: “He accused me,” Brassier states, “of philosophical conservatism by insisting on translating what he took to be the pragmatic back into the theoretical. But I want to insist that this is necessary, because this ‘machinic practicism’ that Land insisted on leads to a kind of practical impotence.”[i] Brassier argues that without theoretical substantiation, practical application will often (if not always) encounter contradictions. This rejoinder reverberates with a glaring accusation often leveled at various brands of postmodern theory: that its relativism renders it incapable of achieving any real change; it flounders endlessly in the shallow waters of abstract concepts and deconstructive critique. It is an accusation that more than a few contemporary scholars have felt the need to address.
While I do not think that Brassier would agree to being lumped in with typical postmodern thought, I do think he would sympathize with the association. However, I also strongly believe that Brassier’s entire project (which includes his 2007 study Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction) revolves around the problem of escaping the relativist dilemma, of puncturing the pasteboard mask and braving the dangerous territory of the outside – the space beyond identity, culture, the human… even life itself. The notion of the outside has posed a problem for philosophers since Parmenides (which is to say, since the dawn of Western philosophy itself – I’m not as familiar with non-Western philosophical traditions, but it’s fair to say that Zhuang Zhou identified the problem in the fourth century BCE), and it has become a particularly stingy issue since the high tide of postmodern thought, which found significant welcome in literature departments throughout the Western world. However, while many scholars today set their sights toward the vast beyond, aiming for something less ambivalent than postmodern theory, many of the problems raised by notable postmodern thinkers remain unresolved today. In fact, some of these issues may only appear resolved due to Western societies’ dissatisfaction with the paradoxes of postmodern argument and subsequent dismissal of them altogether. In many cases, the means of surpassing postmodern thought resembles the very disagreement taking place between Brassier and Land: that is, society dismisses postmodernism for translating pragmatic issues back into theoretical ones. What can we ever hope to accomplish if all we ever do is talk? (I won’t bother to mention how many times I have heard conservatives levy this rhetorical question at liberal politicians)
Another reason for society’s dismissal of postmodern philosophy, in my opinion, has to do with the timbre of nihilism that rings throughout its many treatises. However, recent years (I would say in the past decade, but it’s more likely that the cultural fascination goes back to 9/11) have witnessed an interesting trend, one that finds its apotheosis in the first season of True Detective: a popular fascination with the nihilistic, or even pessimistic, symptom of postmodernism. Nick Land’s NRx is another example, albeit one that takes a right-wing conservative stance. Other examples include various popular cable television shows such as Humans (AMC) and Orphan Black (BBC America), and films such as Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015). While the texts exploring the liminal bounds of humanity and culture fascinate me, I want to make an effort to explore the ins and outs of this postmodern issue, and to trace its lineage back to modernist literature of the early twentieth century. In other words, the philosophical ideas explored by True Detective (which I take to be the seminal example of postmodern concern in popular culture) are not new, nor are they resolved by the show; but they are cast in a new light, a light that working philosophers such as Brassier and Land have noticed: the shade of deep cosmic horror, the petrification of the human. I want to work my way toward this issue of horror, but first I want to simply address the question of the postmodern; then, once we have settled on some terms and what they mean, I intend to circle back around to the current quality of contemporary Continental philosophy and theory – a quality that I think Brassier captures with his phrase, “mad black Deleuzianism.”
I. “Writing is always rewriting”: Rethinking Postmodernism
The most important component of the title of this section is the “re” in “rethinking.” In 1988, Jean-François Lyotard published an essay titled “Rewriting Modernity,” in which he insisted on a very specific meaning of “re”: “Essentially linked with writing in this sense, the ‘re-’ in no way signifies a return to the beginning but rather what Freud called a ‘working through’, Durcharbeitung, i.e. a working attached to a thought of what is constitutively hidden from us in the event and meaning of the event” (26). In Freud, as in Lyotard, the idea of repetition is not simply a visitation of the same, but an intensive archeology of past events; so when Lyotard sets out to “rewrite” modernity, he is not intending to provide an alternative history juxtaposed against the traditional one, but rather a reinvestigation and expansion of that traditional history itself. What lies hidden within the folds of modernity, Lyotard asks, and how can it expose new vectors of thought, new historical agencies? Lyotard’s compelling conclusion (if we can call it a conclusion), which he already notes in his earlier text, The Postmodern Condition (1979), is that modernity is already its own rewriting: “The point being that writing it is always rewriting it. Modernity is written, inscribes itself on itself, in a perpetual rewriting” (28). Without going into too much detail concerning Lyotard’s abstract piece, we can say that the very attitude of modernity includes an awareness of where it is headed, of what comes after it. In other words, modernity is “constitutionally and ceaselessly pregnant with its postmodernity” (25).
This has been a popular way to think postmodernity in the Humanities for some time now. Fredric Jameson, possibly the eminent living theorist of postmodernism, offers (in his 2002 book, A Singular Modernity) a rich rewriting of his own, illuminating a kind of second modernity, or subsequent realization embedded within the consciousness of modernism itself:
[…] this is a shadowy and prophetic realm, a realm of language and death, which lives in the interstices of our own modernity as its negation and denial: a realm nourished by structuralism but in no way premonitory of postmodernism, since virtually by definition it cannot itself be realized as a separate historical period, yet one whose Utopian promise, very much like Heidegger’s, lies in the disappearance from it of anthropomorphism and humanism […] (62)
Jameson explicitly aligns this immanent consciousness with an intense skepticism toward the human, its limits and definitions, but suggests that it cannot be designated as a temporal or historical moment. It exists, always already, as a symptom of modernity’s structure, its own internal logic. Jameson owes much of his conceptualization to Michel Foucault’s four historical moments, or epistemes, in The Order of Things (1966), the last of which Foucault has no distinct name for, but which he describes provocatively as an “unthought” space, an uncanny double of the modern human that haunts its hierarchies and concepts. In both Jameson and Foucault, this ultra-modern space, or consciousness, is not a potential future or moving-forward of modernity, but rather a glimpse of the dark underbelly of modernity itself. It is the specter of that which we are not.
Following the precedent established by Lyotard, Jameson, and Foucault, we would be wise to say that postmodernity, as a kind of cultural awareness or consciousness, is not any actual historical period. The very notion of post-modern implies something after the modern moment, a historical happening that follows our current moment; and thus logically implies a happening that hasn’t happened yet. Despite the attractiveness of permitting such a paradoxical temporality (perhaps the topic for another discussion), I claim that we need to avoid temporalizing the “post” of postmodernity. Instead, we must recognize postmodernity as an important element of modernity itself, and a necessary detail for understanding modernity. In this sense, we should consider why we choose to describe our contemporary society as postmodern (or, for that matter, as anything that suggests a temporal succession – post-postmodern, post-9/11, post-capitalism, post-technological, etc.). Here we must turn to the most cunning social theorist of complex self-description: Niklas Luhmann.
Jameson commends Luhmann for the way in which the latter offers a means of understanding not only postmodernity, but modernity as well, as a mode of signifying. In other words, Luhmann translates the difference between modernity and postmodernity into a choice between different theoretical languages: “The novelty of Luhmann’s thought lies in the transformation of earlier empirical features of ‘modernity’ into the language of an abstract formal process (with a subsequent and remarkable expansion of the variety of materials Luhmann is able to rewrite, in the extraordinary body of work he has left us)” (Jameson 89). As Jameson indicates, Luhmann has left numerous texts on the subject, the most substantive probably being Social Systems (1984); however, for the purposes of this essay, we can benefit from looking at Luhmann’s considerably shorter and specific text, “Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?” (2000). According to Luhmann, postmodernism does not designate any quantifiable or empirical attribute of our current environment, but reflects a way in which we describe reality. This statement necessitates an obvious paradox involving the claim of self-description: “The description of postmodern society is itself a postmodern description, a description that includes its own performative ‘speech activity.’ If this is meant by ‘postmodernity,’ the term cannot say what it means, because this would lead to a confusion of constative and performative components of communication and in consequence – i.e., to its deconstruction” (40). What Luhmann tells us, plain and simple, is that if the notion of postmodernity means the way in which we describe postmodernity, then every descriptive statement of postmodernity necessitates a further description. Postmodernity inaugurates a feedback loop of description, a ceaseless inquiry into that very same feedback loop.
It isn’t easy living in a paradoxical world, and Luhmann has suffered his fair share of critics. But we would be mistaken to read Luhmann’s theoretical model as one of pragmatic impotence; in Luhmann’s view, paradox is the key to the development and complexification of self-observing systems. The very paradoxical crux identified above compels systematic reorganization. Such a model may explain processes of complex development, but it remains incapable of explaining how a system interacts with its environment, or (what we have called above) the outside. Indeed, Luhmann insists that no system can interact intentionally with its external environment. As William Rasch explains in “Immanent Systems, Transcendental Temptations, and the Limits of Ethics” (2000), an external environment “can have no direct causal relationship with a system. All changes in a system are internally determined; the environment merely serves as a ‘triggering’ device, a ‘perturbation’ that is the catalyst for internal activity, but not the determining factor of how that activity takes shape” (75). Systems theory, in other words, grants the existence of an outside, but appears to deny that a system can gain access to the outside in any meaningful way.
The premise of exiting a system is of utmost importance for Nick Land and his fellow neoreactionaries. From this perspective, the fundamental component of any truly libidinal system (meaning any system truly dedicated to the intensification of matter) must be the ability of its denizens to leave it. Exit ensures the highest degree of freedom within the system, including the freedom to withdraw. System theorists, however, question the efficacy with which one can truly exit a system. On the surface, such skepticism might seem misplaced, but only if we leave the assumptions of NRx exit strategies unperturbed. Put explicitly, neoreactionaries advocate the freedom to abscond from the material institutions or apparatuses of a city-state, yet maintain the stability of their own established program. The contradiction becomes obvious at this point: the only thing NRx cannot exit is NRx itself; and this contradiction exposes the fallacy beneath the rhetorical grace of many NRx writers. Namely, that NRx views itself as a program of action derived from axioms beyond culture or history; thus, any material institution can fall prey to the whims of history, but NRx principles remain steadfast. Of course, such a view is irrational at best because NRx only makes sense from within a certain historical framework.
Exit itself, in other words, becomes a kind of transcendental fantasy. Various contingent exits may be possible, but there is no ultimate exit, no possible escape from history itself. New institutions will always arise, and new methods of restriction will always manifest. A neoreactionist rejoinder may be that the possibility of new regulatory systems is not a sufficient argument against exit, since (as per systems theory) there is no causal relationship between human behavior and the institutions that eventually come to govern them. I would agree with this point; however, I would also suggest that certain correlational dynamics are stronger than others, and that among a people whose principles encourage free markets we will frequently be able to observe the apparently contradictory emergence of regulatory apparatuses. There is no causal relation occurring here, but merely the repeated pressure on isolated systems within the larger structure to preserve and protect their own interests – to guarantee their own survival. The very things NRx advocates loathe – protectionism, corporatism, etc. – are analogous to adaptive survival methods. The interests of humans and nonhuman social systems are thus set at odds, and this disagreement circles back to Brassier’s critique of Land’s political vision. When you devise a program modeled on the inhuman compulsion of matter to reorganize and intensify, regardless of human intervention, then you cannot complain when those material processes produce institutions that regulate and control. The argument that these institutions are effects of human intervention is beside the point since, as Land insists, this libidinal intensity is happening anyway.
What I have tried to demonstrate via this argument is that NRx presents an illogical solution to the problem of postmodernity by imagining its own postulates as produced outside of history. The notion of ultimate exit, in other words, would be a kind of merging with the absolute ideal presence of NRx’s core principles. This is why, as is so often the case on Nick Land’s blog, he praises engagement with the outside: “The Outside is the ‘place’ of strategic advantage. To be cast out there is no cause for lamentation, in the slightest.”[ii] However, the very notion of the outside engenders its own paradox. It reintroduces the limits of thought and practice, and constructs new definitions around the exiting subjects. There is no “outside” of history, no “exit” from history; there is only the question of its possibility, the imaginary approach of the cosmic veil, which I imagine as an asymptote eternally approaching its axis.
This question of possibility, this asymptotic approach of the outside, is analogous to the space imagined by postmodernity. Postmodernity grapples with the obscurity of the outside, and this grappling is a fundamental vector of postmodernity itself. Postmodernity is modernity’s enhanced gravitational compulsion toward its own negation, that which it is not – the outside. I use the term “gravitational” here with utmost precision. Postmodernity heralds the coming of what has been called, in recent decades, the singularity: the point in our cultural-historical development when technology reaches a rate of expansion beyond our ability to comprehend (borrowed from the notion of a gravitational singularity, or black hole). The question of postmodernity includes the notion of futurity, but is not the advent of a future moment. It is only the compulsion of modern thought toward its subordination to the outside, as well as the thought of this compulsion.
It is Inspector Heat regarding the body in pieces. (1907)
It is Stephen Dedalus contemplating his shadow under the sign of Cassiopeia. (1922)
It is Clarissa Dalloway intercepting Septimus Smith’s signal from beyond the grave. (1925)
It is Quentin Compson discovering Henry Sutpen’s almost-corpse. (1936)
It is Robin Vote offering her body to a terrified dog. (also 1936)
It is the Invisible Man leaving his underground sanctuary. (1952)
It is Lyle Bland dreaming of history subsumed by a thinking Earth. (1973)
It is Rust Cohle witnessing a vision in the heart of Carcosa. (2014)[iii]
This list is far from complete, and doesn’t even breach the nineteenth century. I merely wanted to show that the compulsion I am identifying – the signal to which various characters and writers are responding – is not a postmodern phenomenon; or at least, it is not postmodern in any historical sense of the word. It is a modern phenomenon, a phenomenon concomitant with the development of modern consciousness itself.
None of this is to say that access to the outside, in a very real sense, is absolutely impossible. Nor is it to say that the compulsive questioning of postmodern theory is entirely impotent or incapable of inaugurating change. Even the irrational urges of NRx strike a tone of truth, although not for the reason its advocates imagine (hence “irrational”). What I am trying to say is that access to the outside, or to the actual moment that postmodernity imagines, implies such a revolutionary process, an evolutionary leap in directions unknown, that it necessarily evades the strictures and definitions of human thought. From this point of view, “singularity” is perhaps the most fitting term for what postmodernity swings toward – but what is the upshot of this seemingly deterministic position, of this perpetual gravitation toward negation?
II. “Maybe the Singularity happened years ago”: Retrospective Dialectics
Theodor Adorno, along with his colleague Max Horkheimer, set the tone for the twentieth century when he exposed our cherished institutions of science, industry, and capitalist rationality, as nothing more than modern versions of older mythic thought. Where Hegel’s philosophy of history could only incorporate the Holocaust and horrors of the Gulag as inevitable and necessary components of teleological progress, Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical approach reveals the totalitarian tendency embedded within the secularism of Enlightenment modernity: “For enlightenment is totalitarian as only a system can be,” they write; “Its untruth does not lie in the analytical method, the reduction to elements, but in its assumption that the trial is prejudged” (18). By dismissing myth in a kind of ritual sacrifice, enlightenment falls victim to the very mythic cycles of which it accuses its antithesis. Adorno and Horkheimer invert Hegel’s own dialectical philosophy in order to use it against itself – a kind of dialectical autoimmunity. In the words of Ray Brassier, with whom we are already familiar, their Dialectic of Enlightenment performs an impressive “‘dialectical psychoanalysis’ of Western rationality” (Nihil 33).
The two authors were not unaware of the deep otherworldly horror that lurked at the heart of the twentieth century’s technological advancements. “Enlightenment’s mythic terror springs from a horror of myth,” they go on to tell us; “It detects myth not only in semantically unclarified concepts and words, as linguistic criticism imagines, but in any human utterance which has no place in the functional context of self-preservation” (22). Everything, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, reduces to its pure functionality under industrial (approaching post-industrial) capitalism: “the more heavily the process of self-preservation is based on the bourgeois division of labor, the more it enforces the self-alienation of individuals, who must mold themselves to the technical apparatus body and soul” (23). In other words, enlightenment’s iconoclastic disruption of older mythic processes retains myth’s totalitarian proclivities in its ruthless assimilation of modern subjects to the material processes of production. In what we perceive to be instruments of human hope and progress there lurks a darker dehumanizing strain, a machinic energy that mobilizes itself around the quantification and homogenization of human labor.
Adorno and Horkheimer offered an unprecedented revisualization of twentieth-century capitalism that collapsed totalitarian disaster in with the rationalization, mechanization, and automatization of the Enlightenment. But even more intriguing than their radical indictment of modern science is their illumination of how science, despite its claims to expand human reason and knowledge, in fact pits the human against itself, urging human subjects toward a self-negating inversion whereby thought itself can be said to evacuate the knowing subject and come to inhabit the inanimate, unknowing world. Brassier identifies this diagnosis as the “thanatosis of enlightenment” in his appropriately titled chapter: “the thanatosis of enlightenment marks that point at which the transcendental subject of cognition is expropriated and ‘objective knowledge’ switches from expressing the subject’s knowledge of the object to the object’s knowledge of itself and of the subject that thinks it knows it” (44). This is not an easy notion to grasp due to the very conceptual breach it describes. It is impossible for us to think thought without the institution of a self with which to think, in which to think; the humanist self has, for over a century now, been the locus of rational thought, the enlightenment subject. When we make this deceptively innocent statement we insinuate a host of subtle conditions, one of which is crucial to making sense of rational humanist thought since the Enlightenment: namely, that the self-as-organizer of thought is also the self-as-producer of thought.
What might we stand to gain if we reversed this second premise – thought-as-producer of self?
We would have to associate thought, in this case, with inanimate materiality. Thought belongs to the body rather than the mind, engendering the paradox of the thinking corpse. In any practical sense, we might say that a thinking corpse is simply a regular, living human body; but what to make of the animated corpses that proliferate in literature and film? These corpses are often portrayed as thoughtless zombies, but in the first and most famous example – Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein – the paradox comes to life as much as the disparate body parts do: Shelley presents her readers with a philosopher-corpse, a defiant Promethean. In Shelley’s masterpiece, we discover not only a self that begins to think, but a system of thought that produces a self – a literal assemblage of material body parts, each classified according to anatomical science, all of which comes together to give rise to something irreducible to those parts and inexplicable from them: “I see by your eagerness and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted,” Frankenstein tells us; “that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject” (32). Frankenstein appeals to forbidden knowledge in order to prevent future scientists from making the same mistake that he did; but Shelley appeals to this notion in order to avoid having to explain what is conceptually inexplicable. In other words, there is no real-world secret to reanimating corpses, and so any description of one descends from science fiction to fantasy. Rather than engage the fantastical, Shelley opts for the aporia of scientific reasoning; a space in which knowledge fails, the unthought. To this degree, her work maintains the status of science fiction as well as gothic horror.
Frankenstein is only the first in a long line of the living dead. I appeal to Shelley’s text here not to examine this trend, but in order to connect with what I perceive as the persistent mystery of materiality in later speculative fiction – a mystery that retains the horror of the gothic and the supernatural. My primary example in this case is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), following Shelley’s famous work by one hundred and fifty years. In this difficult yet wondrous novel, Pynchon’s erratic cast of characters – centered on the bodily gifted Tyrone Slothrop – attempt variously to uncover or conceal a global conspiracy beyond the power of language to comprehend. The primary antagonism, shrouded in mystery, is that between the human world and the Other Kingdom: a realm of death, extinction, and the inhuman. One character in particular, Lyle Bland (Slothrop’s uncle), offers particularly poignant, hallucinatory visions of the material horror concealed upon and beneath the earth: “Bland, still an apprentice, hadn’t shaken off his fondness for hallucinating. He knows where he is when he’s there, but when he comes back, he imagines that he has been journeying underneath history: that history is Earth’s mind, and that there are layers, set very deep, layers of history analogous to layers of coal and oil in Earth’s body” (600). In Bland’s imagination, the earth becomes a viable, threatening presence, a living creature that bleeds oil and thinks history. The horror of human experience and discovery, in this scenario, derives from our submission at the forces of cosmic matter – gravity, magnetism, even death itself. Like Frankenstein, Pynchon invokes the danger of the poles, the magnetic and meteorological wastelands of ice and snow: “We only wept for Sir John Franklin and Salomon Andrée: mourned their cairns and bones, and missed among the poor frozen rubbish the announcements of their victory. By the time we had the technology to make such voyages easy, we had long worded over all ability to know victory or defeat […] What did Andrée find in the polar silence: what should we have heard?” (599). For Pynchon, the poles are liminal regions, spaces that tease the possibility of access to the Other Kingdom; but they are also spaces of horror, spaces in which the Other Kingdom threatens the human world with signs that defy meaning.[iv]
It is no coincidence that horror films such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) find mention in Pynchon’s novels. Despite their humor, which at times reaches absurdist levels, these texts are concerned overwhelmingly with the horror that underlies human existence. Pynchon’s earth is comprised of layers, each layer composed of its own history – the world itself is a multifarious nesting of histories, competing narratives in a quest for global dominance. Nearly all of Pynchon’s novels involve conspiracy theories, but these conspiracies remain forever just out of reach, inaccessible to language. Science, language, mathematics, history… all come together in an uncanny but effective whole, gesturing toward models and systems that human characters remain haplessly caught up in. In many respects, the Pynchonian vision foretells Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s complex geophilosophy, articulated early in their massive collaboration, A Thousand Plateaus (1980), in the provocatively titled chapter, “10,000 B.C.: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?).” In their unique combination of earth sciences and philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari construct a significantly developed model for talking about the material world (including human beings) as confluence of systems. To make a long story short, the old dialectic between thought and thing – phenomena and noumena, in Kantian terms – gets reconstituted as part of an endless series of productive processes taking place in the universe. Deleuze and Guattari even explain human social systems, such as language, religion, history, etc. in geophilosophical terms such as strata, plane, assemblage, and body without organs.
Deleuze and Guattari are also perceptive in their inclusion of intentional language and thought; that is, they realize the importance of accounting for human agency in their remarkably antihumanist model of the world. It is here that I want to venture my own preliminary – and speculative – thesis of what I call the retrospective dialectic. To an extent, this is a redundant terminology; all dialectics are virtually retrospective, meaning their retrospection emerges via an interaction between material processes and involved agents capable of evaluating past events. Reality, Hardt and Negri remind us, is not dialectical; and to paraphrase their argument in Empire (2000), we might say that the future – and thereby history – is dialectical.[v] This is not to regurgitate the Hegelian model, laid out in his lectures on history that were published in 1837, despite the fact that Hegel’s own philosophy of history is also retrospective, meaning that individuals can only observe the historical dialectic in action from a future position – the knowledge of historical development is only available to those who look back on past events, thus making Hegel’s dialectic perpetually virtual (although Hegel does insist that the movement of world history itself is dialectical, regardless of whether intelligent humans are studying it or not). Hegel provides us with perhaps one of the most intellectually stimulating and intense views on the paradox of what we call history: that by reifying history as a thing always-already in process, we prohibit ourselves from observing it directly in the present. Those who act in Hegel’s present, the movers of history, always act under a certain ruse, swayed by energies that remain inaccessible to their own consciousness.
As a modern materialist, I concede that there are energies of history – material processes, international powers – that move and shape our live; and I agree that the full topology of these energies remains inaccessible to us. I disagree, of course, with the notion that history develops positively and toward a final end, and I hold this view precisely because any dialectic of history demands a perpetual future in which the dialectical model may virtually exist. Without the future, we are left only with a metaphysics of historical progress, a world spirit as Hegel called it. Real history – real in a material sense – requires an as-yet-unrealized future to complete it. Otherwise, we travel through dead time, empty homogenous time as Benjamin called it.[vi] Time beyond our control. In a basely material sense, it makes sense that all time is beyond our control; nothing being absolutely necessary, contingency wreaks havoc on certainty in constancy. Yet it also makes sense that, in a purely statistical sense, knowing the past allows us to somewhat predict the future, and in some cases to predict it with an impressive degree of accuracy. The concept of the future empowers the present, even if our decisions turn out to be catastrophic. Linear time allows only for a conformity between the past and present, linearity being model of hegemonic history; but the future cannot be mapped onto a single lineage, even when predictions yield results. The future can only ever be a series of possibilities, perhaps even infinite possibilities: Schrödinger’s cat is alive or dead, or both, or neither, or vanished entirely. When the future enters into the picture, history finds itself troubled; its historicity trembles before the gravity of the potential event.
Speaking of history in terms of gravity suggests that there is something toward which we are gravitating, and this would appear to contradict the contingency of the future. Gravity introduces an element of determinism that cancels pure chance. In the context of this discussion, historical gravity appears as an effect of emergent systems: evolution, industry, technology, global finance, imperialism and colonialism, etc. – the forces that shape historical development. In The Illusion of the End (1992), Jean Baudrillard configures history in this way, unleashing a ruthless critique on ideological notions of history such as teleological progress. Baudrillard provides a compelling image for conceiving of humanity’s place within historical development:
Has the history, the movement, of the species reached the escape velocity required to triumph over the inertia of the mass? Are we set, like the galaxies, on a definitive course distancing us from one another at prodigious speed, or is this dispersal to infinity destined to come to an end and the human molecules to come back together by an opposite process of gravitation? Can the human mass, which increases every day, exert control over a pulsation of this kind? (5)
Baudrillard’s cynical vision recycles our original binary of inside/outside. He asks whether it is possible to conceive of a human subject, or consciousness, existing beyond the contours of historical development; if we can “exert control” over history, then we must be able to theorize history, meaning we have to establish some kind of space outside of history from which to observe and evaluate it. The logic of this proclamation derives from the very same logic of observation as elucidated by Luhmann: that in order to identify and describe something, a system must make a distinction between itself and the object of description. Such a distinction thereby implies a space other than that of the described object. In this case, that space must be located outside of history.
It is likely that most readers share my reaction to this deconstructive move: there is no outside of history. No matter what we do, we are suspended in history, to paraphrase Niels Bohr. The outside of history – what would also be the end of history – appears only as an effect of the system of history designating itself, an effect of the system of knowledge that allows for an object called “history.” This effect is necessarily an illusion, or fantasy; but it is a constitutive fantasy, a fantasy that underscores the logic of the future. This is where the full weight and paradox of a retrospective dialectic comes into focus. Our history is very much a history of the future, just as Heidegger pinned us nearly a century ago as Sein-zum-Tode, as subjects of being-toward-death. We operate according to a constitutive futurity that fixes our sense of consciousness. There are analogous paradoxes for both consciousness and history, but it is the latter that concerns us here. The discovery of the future manifests as a curious doubling of itself – a doubling that necessitates itself and its double. The retrospective dialectic requires a constitutive virtual future from which a virtual subject may retrospectively analyze its history. This virtual future thereby constitutes its own past – our present – as a retrospectively known history, but also as a necessary condition for the existence of the virtual future in the first place. In other words, the present can never exist in its own right but always conditionally. The immanence of the present is unknowable. Furthermore, the retrospective dialectic always presupposes yet another virtual future beyond whichever one comes into existence (this is the rupture of nonlinear time); no matter the rate of historical acceleration, there remains an unachievable asymptote: the pure, infinite space of futurity itself. The outside in all its unmanageable chaos.
This outside is what we have called the historical singularity, which – as Peter Watts muses in his novel Blindsight (2006) – could have “happened years ago” (50). The final phase of retrospection is the attempt to reconcile the possibility that the present may, in fact, already be the future: that that which we reflect upon may not be the past, but the present itself. That the discovery of the future has thrust us, unknowingly and unwillingly, into the interminable chaos of the virtual – all of us angels of history, borne on an accumulation of earth and time.
III. “You begin to cease to be”: Consequences of Inhabiting the Outside
The discovery that we already inhabit the future, or the outside, resembles the horror experienced by Lovecraft’s narrators at the sight of Cthulhian monstrosities. Many of Lovecraft’s narrators, upon discovering a radical nonhuman ecosystem living alongside (and often superior) to our own, experience feelings of dread in which consciousness and sanity collapse, as in this exemplary passage from the end of At the Mountains of Madness (1931):
The words reaching the reader can never even suggest the awfulness of the sight itself. It crippled our consciousness so completely that I wonder we had the residual sense to dim our torches as planned, and to strike the right tunnel toward the dead city. Instinct alone must have carried us through – perhaps better than reason could have done; though if that was what saved us, we paid a high price. Of reason we certainly had little enough left. Danforth was totally unstrung, and the first thing I remember of the rest of the journey was hearing him light-headedly chant an hysterical formula in which I alone of mankind could have found could have found anything but insane irrelevance. (96)
The profit of Lovecraft’s corpus lies in its insistence on the world – the universe – as ultimately resistant toward human occupation and exploitation, and indifferent to humanity’s existence. The drawback of such nihilism – cosmic nihilism, it has been called – becomes apparent in Lovecraft’s uncomfortable position on modernity. In much of his work, the cause of horrific occurrences are often tied to atavistic anxieties, usually involving practices of interbreeding that result in humans of remarkably subhuman appearance. Lovecraft’s distinctly racist descriptions of certain characters find their correlates in the author’s own nonfictional declarations on the topic: “The Negro,” Lovecraft once wrote, “is fundamentally the biologically inferior of all White and even Mongolian races” (qtd. in Miéville xviii). Today, Lovecraft’s bigotry is no secret, and is openly and anxiously discussed by scholars of his work; but I am concerned with the implications such bigotry has for the contemporary state of critical theory, particularly such models as systems theory and other movements in Continental philosophy.
Nick Land, for example, is open about his advocacy for HBD (human biodiversity), which posits that genetic differences between various human subgroups (for instance, white Europeans and black Africans) may account for differences in intelligence and other traits. Cautiously avoiding these more recent instances, Brassier insists that Land’s work opens a doorway to thinking more seriously about global modernity, provided we bear in mind the ideological pitfalls of Land’s reasoning: “The challenge of Land’s work cannot be circumvented by construing the moral dismay it (often deliberately) provokes as proof of its erroneous nature, or by exploiting the inadequacies in Land’s positive construction as an excuse to evade the corrosive critical implications of his thought. Nor can it be concluded that this alternative philosophical path cannot be further explored” (“Introduction” 53). Brassier is as interested in articulating a philosophy of the nonhuman as much as Land was (and perhaps still is), but he avoids the crucial question when approaching any kind of posthumanist (or anti-humanist) methodology: what of identity?
The resistance toward much systems-theory, complexity-theory, or emergence-theory materialisms has to do with their disposal of human identity; and those who have been hegemonically excluded (black, gay, queer, woman, etc.) from identities of privilege may feel a certain wariness at critical theory’s attempt to dissolve the human. Those who never had a chance at inclusion would, after all, appreciate their place alongside the rest of humanity. Certain approaches to emergence and complex systems seem to (and perhaps do) diminish the importance of identity and the politics of inclusion. Jameson makes this point crucially clear in his treatment of Luhmann when he accuses the latter of succumbing to the internal forces of advanced market capitalism:
[Luhmann] rules out the maintenance of welfare-state-type mechanisms or the return to even those milder forms of government regulation that have come to seem sensible after the worst excesses of the free market period. In such passages, then, Luhmann’s ostensibly sociological theory of modernity can be seen to unmask itself as conventional free market rhetoric and the ideology of deregulation. (92)
Without dancing backwards into the dense political logic of identity and exclusion under capitalism, we can understand Jameson’s critique of Luhmann as the same critique that Brassier levels at Land, albeit in very different language. Like Land, Luhmann insists that systems evolve of their own internal logic and material conditions, and that there is little to be done to causally influence any system from its outside – for example, human consciousness and agency stands little chance against the material logic of advanced global capitalism. The material intensification of systems subsumes all human interference.
Nick Land, Niklas Luhmann… the plot thickens.
Systems theory is academically dangerous because it suspiciously precludes commentary on political issues such as identity; it signals a departure from the more humanist institutions of self and subject. In opposition to such humanistic tendencies, systems theory posits a new kind of subjectivity, a new kind of agency – an agency of the outside. What does such an agency look like? How are we to imagine a perspective beyond culture, beyond history… beyond the human? This is the primary, and perhaps futile, question: how are we to envision a form of life – an actionable form of life – that does not approximate the manifest image of humanity?
Inhabiting the outside is not an easy task. In fact, I would venture that it is an impossible task; but this does not mean that we cannot drag the outside with us, to keep it always in the periphery, to persist in our awareness of its imposing proximity. Pynchon unveils one such example of this model in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) when Dr. Hilarius encourages Oedipa Maas to persist in her (possibly) delusional fantasies: “‘Cherish it!’ cried Hilarius, fiercely. ‘What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to others. You begin to cease to be’” (113). Hilarius encourages Oedipa, in this climactic scene, to retain her paranoiac anxiety. The capacity for a subject to cohere, in Pynchon’s postmodern conspiracy mystery, is reliant upon its capacity to maintain a purely speculative, and yet complementary, sense of otherness. This otherness, for Hilarius, is constitutive for human subjectivity; a self must preserve some sense of paranoia about the world lest it dissolve into schizophrenic madness. Paranoia, in a sense, serves as a kind of egoic defense against schizophrenia.
Thomas Pynchon gives us many examples of selves collapsing gradually toward the outside: Herbert Stencil’s search for the mysterious country of Vheissu, Oedipa Maas searching for the secret of Trystero, Tyrone Slothrop trying to uncover the conspiracy involving his magical penis and the Schwarzgerät. However, for the final movement of this essay I want to look toward a work of contemporary speculative fiction by Iranian author Reza Negarestani: the 2008 text Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. This dense and convoluted text deserves mention in the same breath as the novels of Pynchon, and its subject matter raises many of the same issues we find in the works discussed above. In one of the few scholarly treatments of the text, “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity)” (2012), literary critic Kate Marshall (following China Miéville) asks what it would mean for a text to present a narrative “from a nethermost point of view” (153). Negarestani’s work (which Marshall treats as a novel) offers a new vision of a threatening outside in the image of a living earth that narrates its own stories via oil (if that’s not Pynchonian, I don’t know what is). Negarestani ties this vision to literary practice in his discussion of hidden writing: “Instead of layers and levels, Hidden Writing populates subways, sunken colonies, a social commotion teeming underneath” (63). Hidden writing means code. It is pattern and structure embedded within a different kind of formal organization – an organization that bespeaks a superficial semantics, while the content of the hidden writing emerges as a substructural constellation within the textual body. Such constellations have fascinated modernist writers since Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus pondered the signals of Cassiopeia (and posited his own coded interpretation of Shakespeare’s corpus). Both Joyce and Negarestani explore the complexities of language and matter, and expose the horrifying limit at which base materiality troubles the efficacy of linguistic meaning.
This fascination with hidden writing and encoded matter does not designate the presence of sinister conspiracy theories, even if Pynchon’s novels concern themselves overwhelmingly with potential conspiracies. In Pynchon’s world the conspiracy emerges as a possibility because conspiracy is one of the most (perhaps the most) effective ways for human subjects to comprehend complexity that exceeds their cognitive abilities. Fredric Jameson makes this point plain and simple in (of all places) his 1991 study, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:
Conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt – through the figuration of advanced technology – to think the impossibly totality of the contemporary world system. It is in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that, in my opinion, the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized. (38)
For Jameson, the “outside” is the system of global capital; anyone who advocates even remotely for any kind of intensification or occupation of the outside betrays her sympathies toward capitalist development, and thus exposes her claims as symptomatic of capitalist ideology.[vii] In this piece, I do not want so hastily to make an anti-capitalist argument; it seems reasonable enough, for a speculative piece, to assume that there exists an outside beyond even the Anthropocenic expansion of modern industry. Even Land connects capitalism to a deeper, cosmic materiality – an immanent production of matter and energy. But is it possible there is something even more removed? An outside beyond processes of production, beyond technologic complexity? The prospect of an outside that utterly defies human perception – not only comprehension, but base apperception – evades theorization; but this does not preclude us from asking what such an outside means, even if this meaning exists only for us.
To inhabit such an outside would mean to be completely ignorant to the fact that we inhabit it, and unable to delineate the contours of this outside upon positing its existence. The hermeneutics of the inside/outside distinction preclude us from speaking about what is outside, since the outside definitionally beyond the capacity of language to grasp. If we align this outside with the notion of futurity that ultimately includes our own death(s), then we concede that the eventuality of the future – its existence as a potentiality – refutes its inclusion within the bounds of language: “the posterity of extinction,” Brassier writes in Nihil Unbound, “indexes a physical annihilation which no amount of chronological tinkering can transform into a correlate ‘for us’, because no matter how proximal or how distal the position allocated to it in space-time, it has already cancelled the sufficiency of the correlation. What defies correlation is the thought that ‘after the sun’s death, there will be no thought left to know its death took place’” (229). We are all walking corpses; the sight of the dead repulses us because it reminds us of what we already are. Ethics no longer reduces to a submission to the other (as Levinas writes), but a submission to the outside – a submission to the inanimate. A submission to the body itself as an assemblage of inanimate matter.
At this point, the matter of ethics becomes unavoidable; and yet this would introduce an entirely separate discussion building upon the suggestions presented above. And I, for one, am not prepared to set out on this discussion (nor am I in the mood, after completing this piece). I will only venture the following weird claim. This cannot be an outward ethics. We should not speak of the rights of viruses or of avalanches. Rather, an inward ethics is necessary – a reverse ethical model in which the very concept of right finds itself consigned to the dustbin of history. We have much to be thankful for, but our rights are not among this group. Rights are not necessary for the sanction of action. Rights atomize the individual and draw the origin of proper action in an ineffable metaphysics of pure rationality – rationality devoid of cultural context. Against this idealist conception, I venture that rights are the product of material relations, not the a priori rule that governs them. Systems are necessary for the sanction of action – not rights. Action derives its logic from the internal dynamics of a system, and systems make the initial distinction that designates their own interior. Ethics, if we can still use this term, cannot rely on the notion of right; it must rely on the material organization of systems – psychological, neurological, biological, but also political, economic, and linguistic. And such ethics only make sense in juxtaposition to the outside against which they defend. There is no such thing as a necessary ethics. There are only ethics contingent upon the internal identification of specific systems.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Trans. Chris Turner. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.
Brassier, Ray. “Editors’ Introduction.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Eds. Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2012. 1-54.
–. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage, 1994.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
–. A Singular Modernity. New York: Verso, 2012.
Lovecraft, H.P. At the Mountains of Madness: the Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, 2005.
Luhmann, Niklas. “Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?” Observing Complexity: Systems Theory and Postmodernity. Eds. William Rasche and Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 35-49.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Rewriting Modernity.” The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.
Marshall, Kate. “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity).” Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. Eds. Ed Keller, Nicola Masciandaro, Eugene Thacker. Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2012. 47-57.
Miéville, China. “Introduction.” At the Mountains of Madness: the Definitive Edition. New York: The Modern Library, 2005. xi-xxv.
Negarestani, Reza. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Melbourne: re.press, 2008.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
–. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 2006.
–. V. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012.
[i] All Brassier quotes are taken from his lecture on accelerationism unless otherwise noted. The lecture can be watched here: http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2010/09/accelerationism/; and read here: https://moskvax.wordpress.com/2010/09/30/accelerationism-ray-brassier/.
[iii] The fictional references are not listed under the works cited, but I would be more than happy to give out titles and/or publication information to those interested.
[iv] An example of this can be found in Pynchon’s V., a novel that also presents the Polar Regions as obscure and dangerous realms. One character, Godolphin, declares that the “‘barrenness of that place howled around me, like a country the demiurge had forgotten. There could have been no more entirely lifeless and empty place anywhere on earth. Two or three feet down I struck clear ice. A strange light, which seemed to move inside it, caught my attention. I cleared a space away. Staring up at me through the ice, perfectly preserved, its fur still rainbow-colored, was the corpse of one of their spider monkeys. It was quite real; not like the vague hints they had given me before. I say ‘they had given.’ I think they left it there for me. Why? Perhaps for some alien, not-quite-human reason that I can never comprehend’” (221).
[v] See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000, 128.
[vi] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, Trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken, 253-264.
[vii] This is the essence of Jameson’s critique of Luhmann. See Jameson, A Singular Modernity, 92.