attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: addiction

objective nihilism (reprise)

This time from Michael of Archive Fire.

“Man can build his greatness on the nothingness that crushes him.” – André Malraux

Levi Bryant has yet another brilliant post up (here) discussing the aim of Speculative Realism (SR) in relation to nihilism and extinction more generally. I think Levi is on target with his comments about how North Americans seem to be working through our growing realization of the possibility (probability) of extinction in the face of ecological collapse (among other calamities). I believe this “awareness” is still mostly registering on subconscious levels – i.e., biologically as toxins, ecologically as climate, hurricanes, floods – and denied or obfuscated on political and ideological levels, but it is definitely becoming expressed.

The following are some key passages from Levi’s post:

Everything hinges on asking why the critique of correlationism– the most contentious and controversial dimension of SR –has arisen at this point in history. Why have so many suddenly become impassioned with the question of how it is possible to think a world without humans or being without thought? It is such a peculiar question, such a queer question, such a strange question. Why, after all, would we even be concerned with what the world might be apart from us when we are here and regard this world? There are, of course, all sorts of good ontological and epistemological reasons for raising these questions. Yet apart from immanent philosophical reasons, philosophy is always haunted by a shadow text, a different set of reasons that are not so much of the discursive order as of the order of the existential and historical situation and which thought finds itself immersed at a given point in history. Over and above– or perhaps below and behind –the strictly discursive philosophical necessity for a particular sort of thought, is the existential imperative to think something. Here the issue is not one of establishing how a certain philosophical imperative demands a response to a strictly philosophical question, but of addressing the question of why a particular question begins to resonate at all at this point in history and not in others…

…if I were to hazard a guess as to why the critique of correlationism, the thought of a world without humans, has suddenly become a burning one, then my suggestion would be that this is because we are facing the imminent possibility of a world that is truly without humans. If it has become necessary to think the possibility of a world without humans, then this is because we face a future– due to the coming climate apocalypse –of a world that truly is without humans…

Culture can be seen as a symptomatic thinking through– veiled and concealed, while nonetheless present and on the surface right there before our eyes –of the Real of its historical moment. This seems to be the case with apocalyptic films and movements in recent decades. What we seem to be thinking through is the possibility of our own extinction or, at the very least, the extinction of the world as we know it.

Speculative Realism is important because several of the authors involved seem interested in operationalizing the need for novel understandings and engagements with the creeping potencies of the nonhuman and the precarious. SR offers widely dispersed possibilities for reconsidering human thought and behavior after the hideous yet enlightening realizations of being-in-a-material-world.

My sense is that North Americans currently tend to reject such realizations and then bury the accompanying dread of finitude and animality through consumption and/or fantasy – with T.V or crystal meth no less than simply commodities – in order to sooth the pain of their existential fears and resentments. To be sure, there are variances in the manner people respond but i believe the push and pull of consumption and distraction remain paramount.

I’m reminded of Ernest Becker’s work in this regard:

“Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the power¬lessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? Luis Buimel likes to introduce a mad dog into his films as counterpoint to the secure daily routine of repressed living. The meaning of his symbolism is that no matter what men pretend, they are only one accidental bite away from utter fallibility. The artist disguises the incongruity that is the pulse-beat of madness but he is aware of it. What would the average man do with a full consciousness of ab-surdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a “useless passion” because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies. As Ortega so well put it in the epigraph we have used for this chapter, man uses his ideas for the defense of his existence, to frighten away reality. This is a serious game, the defense of one’s existence—how take it away from people and leave them joyous?” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p.58-59)

As Heidegger argues with tremendous force in Being and Time, humans are fundamentally coping-beings. By composition and disposition we seek to make-sense and understand ourselves. We are the weirdo-beings that give a damn about being – creatures required by circumstance to adapt. But what adaptations are possible for us this late in the ‘game’?

As Levi states:

It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very well have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.

I believe the task of intellectuals (and not just philosophers) today is to indulge rather than mask the nihilistic forces of contemporary life – forces which manifest in both subjective and objective ways. Partaking in the dark revelations of current ecologies can only push us further towards more earthly, or creaturely, that is to say materialist modes of thinking and doing. Thinking the visceral and consequential facticity of intercorporeality entails thinking about our intimate connections as immanent achievements (our continuity with ‘nature’) and our vulnerability (or precarity with-in ‘nature’) simultaneously. We will have to effectively integrate the facticity of matter as matter in order to generate useful and mutually understandable expressions and sentiments among participants (or at least those of us left behind, so to speak). The practical motivations of material and speculative adaptation and communicability are at the core of any possible species of ecological and humanist thought.

Of course, we could take up the lines purposed by Laruelle or Brassier, or the eliminativists, or cleanse our phantasies in the rhetorical psychedelica of Timothy Morton, or even come up with our own codes and performances capable of limiting thought and opening us to the intercorporeal facticity of life – to Life as Flesh – but even this would be just a start. The important work to be done is decidedly practical and not necessarily academic (as Levi notes above). We must build new infrastructures.

The reference to ‘coping-beings’ and to the work of Ernst Becker (and in the Terror Management Theory that is inspired by his work) are particularly interesting. This is the direction I’m moving in as well, albeit in a way that is more willing to immerse itself in that nihilism. The new infrastructures that Michael is talking about are, I think, the materiality of the self-conscious meaning productions that I discuss as coalitions in favour of death here.

Of course I am quite happy to state that any attempt at the coming work that Michael talks about as both philosophical and practical is just another coping-mechanism. The thought of extinction is a coping with the possibility of extinction, a rendering it into the relative safety of a fantasy cognition. In the language of TMT the new infrastructures Michael is calling for would be called cultures and in my terms it would be machines of meaning-production. Yet part of me keeps on hearing the question; why cope? why go on? And, as I repeat again and again, the only answer I can come up with is a certain human addiction to living. My temptation is altogether more Schopenhauerian, more ‘literally eliminativist’: what if the only work left to us weren’t recovery or salvage but merely the possibility of a self-managed extinction? Only those who still refuse the truth of our possible extinction could regard this question as horrific.

This might not be horrific but I think we are constitutionally unable to follow such a program. Indeed, what we have essentially hit on in all this talk of culture, infrastructure or meaning-production has already been hit upon before. To add to Michael’s list of Heidegger and Becker, and to my own addition of TMT, we should really add Peter Wessel Zapffe’s concept of anchorings. In order to grasp the concept of anchoring I quote from Zapffe’s essay ‘The Last Messiah’ at length:

Anchoring might be characterised as a fixation of points within, or construction of walls around, the liquid fray of consciousness. Though typically unconscious, it may also be fully conscious (one ‘adopts a goal’.) Publicly useful anchorings are met with sympathy, he who ‘sacrifices himself totally’ for his anchoring (the firm, the cause) is idolised. He has established a mighty bulwark against the dissolution of life, and others are by suggestion gaining from his strength. In a brutalised form, as deliberate action, it is found among ‘decadent’ playboys (“one should get married in time, and then the constraints will come of themselves.”) Thus one establishes a necessity in one’s life, exposing oneself to an obvious evil from one’s point of view, but a soothing of the nerves, a high-walled container for a sensibility to life that has been growing increasingly crude. Ibsen presents, in Hjalmar Ekdal and Molvik, two flowering causes (‘living lies’); there is no difference between their anchoring and that of the pillars of society except for the practico-economic unproductiveness of the former.

Any culture is a great, rounded system of anchorings, built on foundational firmaments, the basic cultural ideas. The average person makes do with the collective firmaments, the personality is building for himself, the person of character has finished his construction, more or less grounded on the inherited, collective main firmaments (God, the Church, the State, morality, fate, the laws of life, the people, the future). The closer to main firmaments a certain carrying element is, the more perilous it is to touch. Here a direct protection is normally established by means of penal codes and threats of prosecution (inquisition, censorship, the Conservative approach to life).

The carrying capacity of each segment either depends on its fictitious nature having not been seen through yet, or else on its being recognised as necessary anyway. Hence the religious education in schools, which even atheists support because they know no other way to bring children into social ways of response.

Whenever people realise the fictitiousness or redundancy of the segments, they will strive to replace them with new ones (‘the limited duration of Truths’)- and whence flows all the spiritual and cultural strife which, along with economic competition, forms the dynamic content of world history.

The craving for material goods (power) is not so much due to the direct pleasures of wealth, as none can be seated on more than one chair or eat himself more than sated. Rather, the value of a fortune to life consists in the rich opportunities for anchoring and distraction offered to the owner.

Both for collective and individual anchorings it holds that when a segment breaks, there is a crisis that is graver the closer the segment to main firmaments. Within the inner circles, sheltered by the outer ramparts, such crises are daily and fairly painfree occurrences (‘disappointments’); even a playing with anchoring values is here seen (wittiness, jargon, alcohol). But during such play one may accidentally rip a hole from euphoric to macabre. The dread of being stares us in the eye, and in a deadly gush we perceive how the minds are dangling in threads of their own spinning, and that a hell is lurking underneath.

The very foundational firmaments are rarely replaced without great social spasms and a risk of complete dissolution (reformation, revolution). During such times, individuals are increasingly left to their own devices for anchoring, and the number of failures tends to rise. Depressions, excesses, and suicides result (German officers after the war, Chinese students after the revolution).

Another flaw of the system is the fact that various danger fronts often require very different firmaments. As a logical superstructure is built upon each, there follow clashes of incommensurable modes of feelings and thoughts. Then despair can enter through the rifts. In such cases, a person may be obsessed with destructive joy, dislodging the whole artificial apparatus of his life and starting with rapturous horror to make a clean sweep of it. The horror stems from the loss of all sheltering values, the rapture from his by now ruthless identification and harmony with our nature’s deepest secret, the biological unsoundness, the enduring disposition for doom.

We love the anchorings for saving us, but also hate them for limiting our sense of freedom. Whenever we feel strong enough, we thus take pleasure in going together to bury an expired value in style. Material objects take on a symbolic import here (the Radical approach to life).

When a human being has eliminated those of his anchorings that are visible to himself, only the unconscious ones staying put, then he will call himself a liberated personality

Anchoring is thus a term for all those means by which we protect ourselves against meaninglessness that the threat of extinction opens up in this historical period and, of course, the joint threat of a very real extinction actually taking place.

So I agree. We shouldn’t turn away from the objective nihilism of the world, nor should we allow that nihilism to crush us into the ‘dust of this planet’. But if we are to build, to create, then we can only do so based on the knowledge of the emptiness of all our constructions, whether those things- and all the other things that compose the cosmos- are potent agents with their own agenda or not. The issue confronting humanity isn’t one that can be lost or won in debates about realisms or objects or concepts of life either. It is only one that can be won by openly admitting a cosmological pessimism, a materialist pessimism, that is self-conscious of the nothingness of which is partakes and generates.

Being alive is a problem of addiction

A coalition in favour of death. Why did I use that turn of phrase in my previous post? Because it is impossible to be against death. All of our illusions and our self-deceptions, all our methods for safe-guarding us from suicide and self administered extinction, are impossible to maintain. We affirm death because in affirming death we affirm our drive to live. And it is being alive which is the problem, not death. Death is the solution to the problem of life that none of us wants to endorse.

I want to speak in the naive language of a child for a while.

What is the problem then? Being alive. Being conscious of being alive. So excess consciousness is the problem? Only insofar as it puts us in this strange place. But let’s not think consciousness is the enemy. It is only because of consciousness that we could develop the complex social systems required for the kind of meaning production work that we all engage in (which I am here engaged in) to safe guard us from what that same consciousness reveals. It is as if consciousness itself were an uncertain masochist.

It is cosmos that lies at the heart of the problem. Cosmos is what makes us what we are. Here I mean cosmos to designate that which has made us what we are, including ourselves and everything else we have been shaped by. But of primary concern is the fact of our evolutionary heritage, our Darwinian facticity. We evolved a while ago. Not long by cosmological standards but long enough by our own. We evolved for a world that appeared brute and hostile and that wasn’t keen on letting us live. We evolved for conditions of scarcity. We evolved as survivalists. A survivor is someone who isn’t dead yet. We are all of us not dead yet. The yet is crucial. We will die, we know it, and so we are already dead…but the organism keeps going. Living is a prelude to dying.

All this because of the initial conditions of the universe. That’s right. The cosmos, the universe, nature, that which made us and which we are a partial thing of (a thing among all the other things). Living is the problem. And so it is that cosmos is the enemy that we identify. Everything that is is an accident and an aberration. There is no need for misanthropy. Misanthropy is just the negative image of anthropocentrism; of the human love affair with itself. All that exists does so against itself.

Our illusions and self-deceptions, our constitutive ability to not go mad and kill ourselves, to wake up every morning and live the banal and mediocre lives of our banal and mediocre times, is an astonishing feat of consciousness. But consciousness is not separate from cosmos. It is cosmos itself that equips us with the tools to heroically achieve the fact of waking up, going to work, playing a video-game, wanking, fucking, getting fat or laughing with friends at something stupid.

Cosmos is the Enemy that allows us to identify it as Enemy and which proceeds to give us the ability to lie to ourselves and so achieve what we call living. Attempts at living are biologico-aesthetic triumphs of cosmos. They keep us tethered to the world. So they keep us from going mad. But what good is that when our sanity keeps us rooted in suffering?

Worst, we can’t even claim it is a cruel trick. Cosmos is indifferent to us. The natural mechanisms of evolution which resulted in our brain, with its capacities and incapacities, are also totally indifferent. It is all blind, accidental, ignorant and supremely without purpose.

Does it matter? This is what I come to with the idea of the coalition in favour of death. With this knowledge, and with the knowledge of the inescapability of this condition, we are presented with a choice. Stop living or adopt which ever lies and illusions you like. Which ones are good? The answer is none. Well then, which ones cause you (and, if you are like me, others) the least suffering.

A coalition in favour of death might be seen as that which is post-catastrophic. It’s already happened. We exist. And unable to cease in our meaning producing labours we can’t get out of existence. I myself even work in a field that involves stopping other people from getting out of existence. I am a cruel and vicious monster who tethers those who can’t go on to the world.

The coalition in favour of death is identical to the coalition against death in everything except it’s self-consciousness. It is in this way completely absurd, occasionally tragic, but is nonetheless willing to endure depressions and anxieties for what episodic bursts of joy there might be. Why? I can’t answer that question. I remain only capable of stating that we are addicted to living.

And I stress, this is all the result of cosmos…all the result of material processes that are quite nonhuman and quite indifferent to the fate of human beings. The accidental self-organisation of matter in just such a way, forming and reforming itself, and you get a human mind in-capable of perceiving the horror of existence.

I say terror, and I say horror, but isn’t this little bit of writing another attempt to domesticate the cosmic forces. A friend of mine puts it in this way: we live in a universe which is really just a stomach dissolving itself. What’s more there isn’t even a stomach separate from the things inside it. Everything is a dissolving stomach. But I am still sitting here, about to watch a film, anticipating my girlfriend getting back from holiday. I am addicted. I know I am addicted, but I cannot get clean.

Wikipedia: classic hallmarks of addiction include: impaired control over substances/behavior, preoccupation with substance/behavior, continued use despite consequences, and denial.

Therefore: classic hallmarks of Addiction include: impaired control over being alive, preoccupation with being alive,
continued living despite consequences, and denial that being alive is wrong.

Some people advocate strategies of getting clean, of detoxification and finally emancipating ourselves from our condition as junkies. I’m not sure this is possible. Even the suicide affirms that the horror of existence is meaningful enough to end their life. And all that is gone is there consciousness and there being alive. Existence rumbles on.

A coalition in favour of death is a coalition against death that is self-conscious. It sees that all we have is the dream from which we can’t awake and so decides to dream lucidly. Play with it. Salvage something. Being alive might be the problem but being dead isn’t much use. It is Emile Cioran’s old joke; why kill yourself, you always do it too late.

A friend of mine told me that I didn’t really think nonexistence would be better than living. I told him he was wrong. What he failed to understand is that the recognition that nonexistence would be preferrable is not identical to the desire or nonexistence. Having been born I am addicted. Just as addicted as he is. I am simply aware that my pleasures and my joys are elements of my addiction. I don’t want to be rid of my addiction, although lots of people do.

I’m not sure anyone ever came up with an argument that proves it is wrong to kill yourself… but likewise I don’t think anyone has ever come up with an argument that proves it is wrong to stay alive. Life is wrong, living is just living. Or rather, living is just attempted living.

Am I trying to take the teeth out of pessimism? No. Because pessimism and nihilism aren’t the same thing. I am a pessimist, that does not mean I am a nihilist. Although…

In fact Addiction has always been a metaphysical condition. Neurobiologically speaking, a substance misuser develops a chemical dependency on a given substance. This is why psychiatry now speaks of alcohol dependency rather than alcoholism. The alcohol dependent person has an illness which is treatable, whereas the alcoholic is a kind of being that that person has. This, at least, is the linguistic idealism behind the change of name, as if people were not dynamically related to the categories that medicine might want to impose on them.

There are people who are addicted to behaviours, who do not have the problem of substance dependence. This is closer to what it is to be addicted to being alive, I think (although this is all intuition). Addiction refers to something to do with the will, whatever that concept might refer to…whether it is something which is free or is not. All I am trying to show here is that dependency is a medical concept whereas addiction is metaphysical. It is about a pathological state of affect…of having formed excessive attachments to particular things despite those things being detrimental to the addict.

Neurophilosopher Alvoe Noe has written on addiction. He wrote that

For the addict, everything becomes a means to an end, and nothing can be an end in itself. Other people, situations, work, family—these become mere opportunities for self-regarding adventure.

Let’s reformulate that again.

For the person addicted to life, everything becomes a means to an end, and nothing can be an end it itself. Other people, situations, work, family- these become mere opportunities for being alive. We live in order to live. We’re addicted.

What does that even mean? It looks like nonsense.

But that’s the point. Being alive is meaningless. All those things above can’t be ends in themselves. That is Kant’s Christian vision.

But more to the point, the meaninglessness that is revealed is nonsensical and because of that meaninglessness is shown itself to be meaningless.

The threat of meaninglessness, of nihilism, that dawns on us when we realise our dearest ideals are all deceptions that we can’t shake we, is dispersed like cigarette smoke when we also realise that given that meaning is generated by us and is not secured or anchored in the cosmos then it doesn’t actually matter if they are deceptions.

We create them. They are created. Just the same as the cosmos created us. Because we were created by blind and stupid drives of the cosmos doesn’t make us any less real.

There is the surface of meanings, aesthetics of meaning. The coalition in favour of death enjoys the creativity and malleability this implies. It sees the ruins of meaning and plays inside them.

I seem to have strayed. I contradict myself. I’m not sure I’m right about any of this. But if I am right, then I don’t have to be… I just have to keep going.

Cosmic pessimism and addiction

So, while Schopenhauer himself was a curmudgeon, and while he does state that this is the worst of all possible worlds, his philosophy ultimately moves towards a third type of pessimism, one that he never names but which perhaps we can christen: a cosmic pessimism.x For Schopenhauer, the logical endpoint of pessimism is to question the self-world dichotomy that enables pessimism to exist at all. But such a move would entail a shift away from the relation and difference between self and world, human and non-human, subjective attitude and objective claim. Instead, it would entail a move towards an indifference, an indifference of the world to the self, even of the self to the self. Cosmic pessimism would therefore question even the misanthropy of moral and metaphysical pessimism, for even this leaves us as human beings with a residual consolation – at least the world cares enough to be ‘against’ us. Schopenhauer’s cosmic pessimism questions ethical philosophy’s principle of sufficient reason – that there is an inherent order to the world that is the ground that enables reliable judgements to be made regarding moral and ethical action. It also questions the fundamental relation between ethics and action, whether of the Aristotelian first principles type, the Kantian-axiomatic type, or the modern cognitivist-affectivist type. Cosmic pessimism seems to move towards an uncanny zone of passivity, ‘letting be’, even a kind of liminal quietism in which non-being is the main category. In cosmic pessimism, this ‘indifference’ is the horizon of all ethics. As an ethics, this is, surely, absurd. And this is perhaps why Schopenhauer’s ethics ultimately ‘fails’.

– Eugene Thacker, ‘Philosophical doomcore’. Read in full here.

No self-world relation, the impossibility of such a relation. Under Schopenhauer’s gaze the question of whether the shark should eat the child makes no sense as it is part of this self-world (the child is the image of ourselves, the shark the image of the world). If there is but one Will in Schopenhauer it would be a question of the individuated wills (shark-child) being phenomenal instances of the noumenal  Will. The question is thus should the Will eat the Will? A question then of a kind of cosmic suicide of the real. Should the real be allowed to consume itself? What would it mean to answer negatively, except that one hasn’t paid enough attention to entropy?

Lurking everywhere: undermining and idealism.

But, the Will operates like a death-drive integral to objects in this cosmic pessimism (cosmos is a term I’m using more and more instead of nature- it denatures nature quite nicely). The temporality of all objects leads to this same result: death, disintegration, disappearance. Autopsy vitalism sees the living object as if from the perspective of it’s disintegration and knows that the apotheosis of all things is catastrophic. If Schopenhauer undermines objects (operatives/operations) that is because deathdoes undermine objects. Not out of viciousness but out of the law of existence, its sole irrevocable law. This is the meaning of Inevitability. All cosmological things are constructed, be it by evolution or the processes in physics and chemistry, the written or spoken articulation of concepts (as in dynamic nominalism), by research, poetic experience, and so on. All cosmological things are subject to catastrophe. In this sense all things are subject to the law that Paul Virilio reserves for technological objects that the accident shows us the truth of the substance and, in this way, that ‘the accident is “invented”, it is a work of creation’ [1]. Destruction reveals those powers, those capacities or operations, of an object that would otherwise remain withdrawn and, simultaneously, reveals that the catastrophic moment was always nascent within that object. As such, destruction and creation are conjoined and can’t be surgically or magically separated.

If Schopenhauer’s ethics fail perhaps it is because, when scrutinized, all ethics fail. Yet, as the strap line of this blog contests in it’s Beckettian reiteration, we can but fail again and again, failing a little better every time. Why? There is no reason why. The best I can think is compulsion, need, and, as I have written elsewhere, addiction. But perhaps addiction should be raised to a metaphysical principle. The cosmos: take it or leave it. That’s what it boils down to. And if you choose to leave it, you’re still right there.

[1] Paul Virilio. Interview in le Monde. Here.


Something good is happening. The addiction to living kicks. An intoxication. Let’s not dwell or think too far. Tonight I am a yea-sayer. Tonight I taunt the lepers dwelling in the caverns of my mind; the ghoulish things can sleep. Let’s not ask how long for, let’s just be glad the sun is tinted with something living. Desire washes everything a happier colour…I breath and feel my lungs fill. Perhaps this will be snapped away in a day, a week, a month or so. Perhaps…who cares for contingency when everything is contingent… a ceaseless accident that at times delivers an experience that makes you believe it all might be worth it.

Abject audiences; who are you?

True contact between beings is established only by mute presence, by apparent non-communication, by that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer. – E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born

If I give form to a life through narrative it can only be one which is given to an audience. When I narrate, when anyone narrates, it is always in relation to someone. In general, we narrate ourselves to friends, to lovers, to policemen, judges, employers, colleagues, teachers and students, to parents. A striking lack of the plural in this; I never narrate myself to a mass or collective. I always narrate to someone in particular. Except here; on the internet I address myself to no one. Much could be made of the narcissism of this except that the writer always imagines his audience, even if his actual audience is not many people at all. The no one in particular is any one at all, an equality of responding to an unheard call. Yet who is it I imagine reading this? You could say I imagine a multitude but I can never imagine that (what would it mean to imagine a faceless plurality?)

No; I imagine you are reading this, and I know that you are reading this. I don’t have the actual details and what I imagine of you may be widely off the mark; but it is a you which I think of reading this. ‘You’ lack concreteness but remain a ‘you’.

What is curious is that I can write about an unheard call. You haven’t asked me to narrate, to try and give form to a life; you haven’t accused me of a crime or prompted me with curious questions. So why narrate in this way? In part, I suspect, it is in order to assemble the you to which I respond. That is, it is in order to pre-empt the demand that I give myself a structure to an other, to crystallise and reduce the complexity of this psychic system into the stereotypic image of a person, an individual human being.

In assembling the you to which I respond, in order to assemble the ‘I’ which I am now elaborating, enacting, performing through writing, I reveal to myself something fundamental: the demand to narrate is autonomous of the narrating agent and the audience.

The story I tell you and the one who tells it never coincide; the one who is addressed and the one I imagine I am addressing never coincide, for all I can have access to is a story about you assembled from the concrete interactions I might have in the visceral domain and the imagined ones in this virtual domain.

The I and the you, behind the various permutations of narrative construction that you and I both design of our other (the process occurring in you as much as in me), never come finally in to contact. I remain withdrawn somewhere, if I exist at all, behind my story of myself and you behind my story of yours, a visa versa. What we have in common is this simultaneous withdrawal and exposure. I can’t help but think once more of the metaxu; that which connects as it separates (Simone Weil gives the example of a prison cell wall that although separating two prisoners from one another nonetheless allows them to communicate in Morse code by tapping on its surface).

What is more, although there is certainly some ontological system that remains in place, the narrative ‘I’ obliterates its previous incarnations again and again but in doing so it also obliterates the previous relation, the previous way of accessing the withdrawing exposure, between itself and ‘you’. Each self-narrative is a mixture of fact and fabulation, a marginally to absolutely imperfect representation, that cannot help but contain within itself the representation of the ‘you’ which it addresses, even where that ‘I’ knows very well the ontological autonomy of the system it is representing.

This is especially visible in the case of disruptions in, I suppose, the I-Thou relationship, such as in relationship phase transitions. The friend becomes the lover and so the I and Thou must be reformulated in light of this new fact, while a new independent system is produced in which the actual subsystems of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ (as lovers) are nested. I have to tell a new story about myself and about you; the story of two friends becomes the story of coming into being of the newly produced system. ‘There was always a chemistry between us’; ‘you always looked at me in a certain way’; new and mystical knowledge may even appear in the form of the ‘I always knew…’.

A constant flux of revisions then. A ceaseless epistemology of becoming layered thick upon our ontological being. The neurophilosophy of Thomas Metzinger [1] has a language for this: the self, which does not exist, is transparent to itself. Transparency here fundamentally means that it cannot appear to itself so that what it is is necessarily mistaken. It is this transparency that always haunts the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, and so which haunts their relation, that produces the possibility of ethics.

For Judith Butler [2] this ethics arises from the failure to know oneself and the failure to know the other; ethics arising from a failure in the ethical relation. In a minimal sense, although Butler goes on to say much more, one of her contentions is simply that this failure in knowledge in regards to the self and other is what sustains ethical engagement. After all, every time we address one another in a manner approaching ethics, every time I judge you for instance, there is a gap in what I am judging, what you actually are and how I understand these things as well as a gap in and from myself; there is a splitting, the opening up of something aporetic.

Although she does not say it, I suspect that Butler is talking about something akin to the undecidable- that condition of the decision that confronts the decision with its own impossibility [3]. How can I judge you when I know you only partially, and via that same mixture of fact and fabulation? A judgement can only be one that is aware of it’s own partiality and the relationship between judged and judge must be one that knows the arbitrary and inauthentic nature of this division. Similarly, it has to take account of what lies in common with ‘us’; that we both are simply making ourselves up, within the bounds of the limits set upon narration (biology, history, social relations, neurology, the laws of phsyics and all the rest of what constitutes our facticity).

Of particular interest to me is the implication these reflections might have in therapeutic contexts such as counselling and psychotherapy. In Butler’s text she responds to the common idea that the goal of psychoanalytic interventions is to provide the analysand with the opportunity to produce for themselves a coherent story of who they are and how they came to be here (even acknowledging the necessary exclusion of facticity which, having occurred prior to the emergence of the subject in question, can never be accounted for in narrative). Butler refutes this by drawing attention to the relational dyad of analyst and analysand where the analyst, via transference, is a kind of holding place of the analysand; where his ego should be we find the other. As such the other, the analysand’s ‘you’, interrupts his ‘narrative reconstruction’ or the attempt to construct a coherent form of a life. The life and the narrating of the life become contingent upon this interruption. Interestingly this places the idea of ‘biographical interruption’ at the very heart of biographisation rather than leaving it as an intruding and traumatic effect of some break in the story (such as is affected by major phase transitions such as the death of a lover). All this is a long-winded way of reaffirming the ‘cut-up’ nature of the stories we tell ourselves which can only be assembled from the fragmented, directionless day-to-day of living (now we turn on the TV, now I am on the phone, now I have several internet browser tabs open which I skip between, now music plays, now I am eating).

Butler tells us that the narrating ‘I’ does not, first of all, narrate but prior to this has to be brought into and assent to the norms of narrativisation; to learn to speak in this way rather than that. Butler goes on to construct a developmental history that begins with my being brought into the fold of language by the other through mimesis (the infant learns to speak by copying the parent’s speech) and thereby being brought into the scene of the address. I can be addressed and I can address others (and myself?) only by and through language. This all happens because I am addressed by another and as such my being brought into the fold of language is always done in response to that address, in an attempted response to an address made to me in a language that is the language of that other. For Butler this address also occurs in nonlinguistic forms: injury and trauma demand that we respond to them.

Via a meditation on the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious (which it now occurs to me might be reformulated simply as ‘that which cannot be narrated/that which grammar has no access to’) Butler locates the analysand’s speech as an attempt to bring possess what it can never posses. For Butler the unconscious is formed as a kind of faulty protective mechanism that is required ‘as a way of managing- and failing to manage- that excess [of the other]’ (p.54). As such the role transference plays is the reconstruction of the original excessiveness of the other; to activate what cannot be narrated because it is not mine, the unconscious.

Drawing on other psychoanalytic thinkers Butler formulates this in a manner that explicitly formulates the analyst as being ‘recruited’ by the analysand who, although she cannot own her unconscious, can nonetheless incorporate the analyst into her schema- she can use the analyst, who must let herself be used, in order to have them stand-in for the primordial excessive other. It is worth noting that in this Butler’s concept of psychoanalysis takes on the inauthentic air of the simulation, the distorted repetition of some original event. Particularly drawing on an analytic theorist called Bollas, Butler cites the role of the analyst as having to allow herself to become ‘situationally ill’ and ‘to become lost in the patient’s world’. The analyst then is to become an object of abjection-for the analysand.

In my understanding of this, the analyst’s role is to enact an abjection-for the analysand. In one example provided Bollas reveals how a patient of his who had been abandoned by his father and left feeling deeply alone had recreated this feeling in Bollas himself by becoming wilfully silent during analytic sessions. I get the sense that this expressive idea of therapeutic work, which demands a willingness to self-dispossession on the therapists side of things, is more dramatological and simulation based than Butler suggests. I could easily see in this a model to understand the notoriously difficult to treat patient who has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that more or less names this resistance to be treated. Therapists, nurses and counsellors who work in close contact with those who have BPD frequently suffer burn-out and disillusionment, becoming depressed, frustrated, angry and sensing that the other just doesn’t care, is a lying, manipulative attention seeker. Disregarding the attention-seeker accusation (who in therapy isn’t therapeutic seeking attention?) the Butler-Bollas notion of psychoanalytic work is one that might understand the BDP client as attempting to re-enact in the mental health worker his own experience of the world, or at least some primal, formative experience. The BPD client is manipulative in the sense that he is attempting to , the sense in which all of us manipulate others, reproduce in us his own condition. When the worker turns from compassion to loathing of someone with an illness like BPD might it not be because we are experiencing the excess of that other that they cannot otherwise express? (An obvious limit to this would be the case of the psychoses).

Butler states that Bollas calls this kind of working one that aims at ‘articulation’, and she reminds us that not all articulations are narrative or even linguistic. Butler’s intentions exceed my own and it is here that I part with her. At root I must agree with what she has been saying which amounts to this:

within the narrative there is always something resistant to narrativisation.

the narrating ‘I’ can never speak about its facticity in anything like an authoritative manner; it is always groundless.

there always remain those things that might be articulated but cannot be spoken.

For Butler, and I am powerless to disagree, this means that a self-narrative, the narrativised form of a life, is always from the outset, maybe even at the moment of that initial mimesis of the infant, a failure. The narrative ‘I’ obliterates not only its forerunners, those ‘I’s I once was, but also itself at the moment it leaves my mouth. The narrative ‘I’ is itself a necessary breakdown. As such, such procedures as narrative therapy, whilst useful and successful with some clients (let’s not forget the Dodo effect), meets its immanent limit. The narrative does not necessarily give a form to a life but it is always a dramatically failed attempt at doing so, no matter how ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ those narrative might be. It is also congruent with the seductive provocation written by Nikolas Luhrmann that ‘Humans cannot communicate; not even their brains can communicate; not even their conscious minds can communicate. Only communication can communicate’ [4].

In the end the ‘I’ speaks and nothing much is said but this shouldn’t tempt us into abandoning narrative, merely a recognition of its necessary limits. Likewise this doesn’t imply that other forms of ‘articulation’ are more authentic.

What does this means for my ‘you’ in these narrations, these attempts at living? In effect it doesn’t much matter who my imagined audience is and what your actual singularity is or is not. In reading you are an abjection-for me. I make you into this abject just as the client makes the therapist abject. I suppose a consequence of this is also that any listener can also made into an abjection-for, perhaps hence why it is that in everyday conversation we so rarely truly listen. Therapeutic work, and let’s not pretend that writing is usually a kind of therapeutic practice, is thus not simply the co-production of a narrative between, by and for, the one who addresses and the one who is addressed, which are constantly shifting positions in the back and forth of visceral conversation but become hypostatised in writing, is a system in which a simulated abjection might remain as the fundamental side-effect. I am thinking of the side-effect not as merely an undesired consequence like the drowsiness that comes with antidepressants or the risk of agranulocytosis that comes with the antipsychotic drug clozapine.

Instead this side-effect is closer to a Virilian ‘accident’ [5]; it is the accident that is produced coextensively with the product- the possibility of a car crash that comes into being the moment the first car was assembled. Even stronger though is the sense in which abjection-for is the disavowed goal of both therapeutic work, writing and, to go too far, an ethics built on the neurobiology of empathy. In producing a broken performance of selfhood I also inflict that broken performance of selfhood on ‘you’. Maybe this is also the reason why I have previous spoken of how we inflict ourselves on others, in a reversal of Sartre’s ‘hell is other people’ slogan; and likewise, perhaps this explains why it is that today, in a society of exponentially intimate connections that lack all intimacy, brought about by the abolition of privacy through everyone’s ability to be telepresent to anyone, we withdraw from one another more and more. No one wants to talk intimately any longer because no one wants to risk following into this state of abjection; no one wants to carry the burden of the excess that the other cannot quite cope with or express.

If life today makes us all into addicts, if it is only though the metaphors of addiction and resilience that I can conceive of having a reason to live at all in this world now, then this labour of abjection is not so surprising. What is surprising is that it is still possible to make affective attachments at all; to develop mutually enriching friendships and love relationships. There again this is only surprising from within the overriding affirmationist ethos wherein any negativity, any pessimism, any abjection cannot be admitted to occur, let alone be desirable. First, ‘I’ reduce myself. Then ‘I’ reduce you so ‘I’ may produce myself in my address to you. Finally, as I come undone before you, I have brought you into my interiority as witness and as tool while you remain forever outside me. I have lost the ability to tell you who I am, what this life is, which previously I had been so sure of. In our interaction neither of us is who we are. We are ourselves undecidable, aporetic, abject together, equal to one another in our dissolution as soon as we open our mouths to speak. This explains why I chose to use Cioran’s quote at the opening of this post; if there is something like genuinely authentic relating between us they are only those of silence…and anyone who has been with others in silence for any period of time will know just how unbearable that is.

Thank you for letting me fall apart, I hope you fell apart too. Of course, there is always the temptation, the invitation, and the expectation of reply. You are on the internet; comment, cross-blog, link, ‘follow’, ‘like’, and so on: accuse me of something, accelerate decomposition.


On the one hand I can’t help characterise the stubborn going on of human lives as driven by compulsion, irrationality and addiction. The same thing stated outside the language of deficit; we human beings are the bearers of an incredible existential resilience. Yet this isn’t just the idea of psychological resilience, though surely it includes it. Rather, the individual human being, being only the name of a particular kind of system among others, owns its share in an ecological theory of resilience. Typically defined, ecological resilience is said to be: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks”.[1]. An important reminder here; all systems eventually fail, all resilience reaches thresholds beyond which it is incapable.

Resilience, first of all, in the face of Exhaustion.


Why go on living? The answer must encompass the irrationality of this insistent attachment, this inability to depart the earth even while it swallows one whole. It’s a compulsion also, a compulsion to endure the lows in the name of the highs. And having said that it becomes obvious. There is only one word for this kind of behaviour. Addiction.

I am an addict and I don’t know what I’m doing and I hurt.