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.