Thinking: Pathological, Inhuman, Dark, Dead
Pour paraphraser Scott Fitzgerald, nous pourrions dire que le signe d’une intelligence chamanique de premiere ligne est la capacite à voir simultanement selon deux perspectives incompatibles.
Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Métaphysiques cannibales
To reach the limits of the possible, it is necessary to dream the impossible.
What is a thought experiment if not an application of abstract assumptions in circumstances different from their suspected scope and at the same time a refusal of all application of thinking? The persistence in the unstable parameters of a certain abstract schemata and a gestural intuition that doesn’t stabilize in any correct application reveals things as being least defined by their stable, identifiable and specific components. Knowledge is dynamical and not essential, it is production, not the static analysis of what is. ‘What is’ will never be the same once it is thought.
Heretical thinking is a form of mad insistence on the generative and dynamical process of any classificatory schema rather than on the classification itself, on the microcosmology of any act of separation, on the very (un)reason of distinction within any kind of system.(1) Or it may be fanatical insistence on an ontological flatness with the least possible compromises in the absolute depressive feeling toward everything there is: thing, relation, event, even contradiction.(2) One is schizophrenia, the other is depression, but there are many types of germinative pathologies. Thought experiment entails bouts of pathological thinking and disease remission in order for it to become available in a known form of expression. And it has unknown consequences.
Roger Caillois contended that “[f]rom whatever side one approaches things, the ultimate problem turns out in the final analysis to be that of distinction: distinctions between the real and the imaginary, between waking and sleeping, between ignorance and knowledge.”(3) Pathological thinking lets itself lead by the paranoid doubt that wherever it cannot distinguish anything there is nevertheless something and that whatever seems distinct and separated might in fact pertain to a system it does not recognize as a whole. To think sharply in fuzziness and foggy in clear day.
Indeed this paranoia has to start with the idea of the ‘self’, both the thinking and the given experience of a ‘self’. Pathological reason is a pendulation between the humiliating idea of self as junk and the resignation that self is not an underlying essence to which to return but is instead a hypothesis(4) – the junk basis of our capacity to know. Affectively it corresponds to an oscillation between unknown and the worst, between analysis and paralysis, between dead thinking and deadly thinking. It oscillates because it cannot reconcile the methods it applies – and it is guilty of applying frames of knowing that exclude each other: “To quote Scott Fitzgerald, we could say that the sign of a remarkable shamanic intelligence is the capacity to view simultaneously along two incompatible perspectives”(5) Dead Thinking is the irreconcilability of thinking and life.
What is a thought experiment if not a mimicry of the thinking of its object, a propensity to stretch and fold the thinking matter into the shape of the object of thinking? Following naturphilosopher Schelling, “[b]eing (objectivity) is always merely an expression of a limitation of the intuiting or producing activity. There is a cube in this portion of space, means nothing else but that in this part of space my intuition can be active only in the form of a cube. The ground of all reality in cognition is thus the ground of limitation independent of intuition.”(6) In other words, “when I think of a cube my thinking takes the shape of the cube”.(7) Without this limitation one cannot abstract, because abstraction is an extraction, a reduction (abstract comes from the Latin abstractus which means drawn away, past participle of abstrahere to drag away, detach, pull away, divert). I have to stop all other forms of intuition and to activate a finite space of reasoning and only then the necessary distance for classifications and different logical operations becomes possible. The limitation of intuition is actually the condition of possibility for objective reasoning.
Not only does thinking involve an operation of mimicry in order to transform and order the environment into its available abstract operations: “There is a cube in this portion of space, means nothing else but that in this part of space my intuition can be active only in the form of a cube.” Conversely, the dislocating force of ideas manipulate the materiality of thinking and change their very substance. “Signs don’t come from the mind. Rather, it is the other way around. What we call mind, or self, is a product of semiosis.”(8) As in the naturphilosophical thought both idea and matter pertain to nature and all reasoning is a pendulation between thinking and nature, thinking recapitulates nature and nature recapitulates thinking. “Our thoughts are like the world because we are of the world. Thought (of any kind) is a highly convoluted habit that has emerged out of, and is continuous with, the tendency in the world toward habit taking”.(8) The production of concepts is a production of nature: “‘all philosophy must go about either to make an intelligence out of nature, or a nature out of intelligence’, the making in question is not arbitrary or voluntaristic, but naturalistic on both sides. That is, that ‘nature IS a priori’ is the ground of all Schelling’s transcendental experiments, regardless of which direction they take, whether ‘animating laws of nature into laws of mind’ or ‘materialising laws of mind into laws of nature’”(6)
At the same time Schelling suggests that there is a mimetic aspect to thinking, taking the ‘shape’ of its object. Of course it would be easier to imagine this mimicry in a cartoonish way, like Tom’s brain taking the form of Jerry. For a ‘dead thinker’ there are good reasons to recognize that neither thinking is entirely the brain(9) nor the object is an ideal recognizable form but rather a dark vague substance like black ponds of ooze. In the age of Anthropocene and the coming catastrophe as a result of climate change and global pandemics a new mode of thought and action must emerge, another subjectivity of the non-subject, haunted by the weird, the impersonal, the inhuman. How are human thinking and affect being molded by the global scale extinction? How does human thinking take the shape of its own inexistence? How is intuition active in a shapeless shape that is its own negation? Or, as Claire Colebrook puts it: “How would theory confront the absence of theoria: ‘life’ without the human look? Life without praxis, life without meaningful action, life without production or labour: such would be theory after theory, or theory that opened itself to the thought of extinction.”(10) This is the experiment of dead thinking. What kind of nature does this dead thought produce, what is the nature of this surplus of extinction?
Darkness: the Impossible and the Non-non-contradiction
Thought does not illuminate the Real, but projects its own real shadow upon what it cannot see.
A heretical thought is a thought capable of reforming its very basis. It is a thought destructive of its foundations and possibly of its founders too. How does thinking supersede cognitive thresholds, how does thinking produce itself anew? Is the overcoming of reasoning borders equivalent with the impossible made possible? Throughout history, before and after Greek philosophy and logics were founded, mystics and visionaries, heretics and so-called religious dogmatists alike were the ones concerned with this triumph over what is regarded as the possible, with a shadow-knowledge that embraces darkness and the inaccessible unknown.
The Russian mystical thinker Shestov gives in his book “Athens and Jerusalem”, where he opposes Greek thought to mystical thought, a radically simple definition of knowledge. Knowledge is “that something which differs essentially from us” and “enters into us”.(11) His contention is that this strange and alien character of knowledge is immediately tamed by an operation of identifying its nature with the nature of the knower: “Having put this question, he will be satisfied only when he will have proved, or imagine himself to have proved, that the subject and object of knowledge do not differ and are at bottom one and the same thing and that, consequently, the impossible does not exist”.(11)
The impossible in a cognitive operation is thus identified as the new, the alien, what is propelled beyond the cognitive environment maintained by thought limitation (in the sense of Schelling’s cube). Knowledge as something “which differs essentially from us” and “enters into us” is the body-horror of philosophy and reveals a fear at the base of all knowledge. Fear of knowledge is a confrontation of the inside with the outside: the feeling of horror that “the outside will come and negate whatever the self is”.(7) Hence, “epistemology is the affective linchpin between nature as exterior and nature as interior”.(7)
Mystical thinking has always dealt with the embrace of the impossible, most evidently in the tradition of via negativa which was opened in the 6th century by Dionysius the Areopagite. Via negativa promises a union with the divine by following a negative path. There are two ways to talk about the divine, one is the discourse of negative theology, in which the unknowability of God is demonstrated logically through a series of negative statements, the other is the allegorical and poetical path of “darkness mysticism” suggesting the forever hiddenness of the divine “beyond the pale of human thought and comprehension”.(12)
A cognition of the impossible is tangent to a theology of darkness (tenebrositas). The introduction of nihil in thought experiment enveils in thick clouds and dark mist the logic of enlightenment which spreads its first rays from the luminous mysticism of Saint Augustine. The pathology of nihil contamination is described by the 9th century Irish mystic Eriugena in the language of uncertainty and vagueness: “I feel myself to be surrounded on all sides by the dark clouds of my thoughts (nebulis ualde tenebrosis cogitationum)”.(13) Whereas blurriness and imprecision are slowly perforating any stable epistemological grounds, nihil and darkness hide an absolute ontological alterity, the divine alien which can only permeate cognition affectively, through extreme experiential states such as fear and horror. For Eriugena the divine is at once “superlative positivity and yet the nothingness of negativity”(13): “while the divine in itself is supereminent, beatific light, the divine causes are darkness and shadow, waste (inania) and void (uacua).”(13) This nebulous realm of knowledge is described by Eriugena as the “dark intelligible abyss”, a germinative horror ingrained in any matter of light.
Similarly, the 14th century mystical thinker Meister Eckhart reveals that “nothingness is the only thing to speak about when you speak of the divine”. In his 16th century poem and commentary “The dark night of the soul”, John of the Cross has indeed a deep dramatic involvement with the impossible, revealed in night of senses, in the dissolution of spirit: “darkness of the senses and darkness of the soul leads to a limit known as divine darkness”(14). Positing the unknown before the known could produce a methodology of fear, a philosophy of horror and uncertainty: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark”(14). Complicity with anonymity and with the indiscernible ungrounds any stabilized, all-too-earthly knowledge: “To come to be what you are not you must go by a way in which you are not.”(14) Finally, to oppose the law of non-contradiction formulated by Aristotle in his logics (at the basis of any valid philosophical statement) is to know the divine: “To face the impossible when the possible slips away is to know the divine”(14).
Darkness is “the blindspot of knowledge that inhabits all the knowledge”(15), it is the impossible immanent in possibility. The aporetic knowledge is a succession of endless negations, asymptotically close to a knowing of the divine, although this knowledge never fulfills and can only possibly prove the implacable unknowability of God. Moreover, darkness mysticism demonstrates the inappropriateness of using logics and deductions to approach the superlative, proposing instead a fear-philosophy of the senses driven by the horrific intensity of paradox.
We are thus firstly confronted with a weak impossible. The weak impossible is inherent in processes of knowing, it is Shestov’s “impossible” and reason’s self-reform. Its correspondence in mathematics would be the catastrophe points theorized by René Thom. Catastrophe points are probabilities of perturbation which by extrapolation could constitute the border between two apparently alien reasoning spaces. In a seemingly homogenous zone these perturbation events happen producing a discontinuity of overall laws that govern that particular system. An example would be the formation of cyclones out of random gusts of wind. Secondly, there is a strong impossible: that which is impossible to think and possibly deadly to feel. This latter is closer to the “dark abyss” and the “darkness of unknowing”(14) of the mystic tradition. Extinction is the global scale weak impossible that confronts the human with the strong impossible of thinking its own inexistence.
If we subtract the God from darkness mysticism, we are left, as Eugene Thacker is writing, with a “mysticism of the unhuman”(12), or we could say, a dead-thinking of the impossible. The divine is essentially the alterity, the absolute Not-I, the strongest negation of the human, the impossibility of non-contradiction (the non-non-contradiction). This mysticism of the unhuman could be a more appropriate form of knowing a universe that is indifferent to the human, a world-without-us that is without us both before and after the extinction of the human species.
In the Russian thought there have been two apparently disconnected ways of escaping the world-for-us. A reading through the concepts of extinction and world-without-us would give a different perspective on the 20th century Russian mysticism. A contemporary of Shestov and a religious marxist, Nikolai Berdiaev writes in his book “The Meaning of the Creative Act”: “We are not of the world and we should not love the world and what is in the world”(16). The world-for-us is thus discarded in favor of the cosmos (the world-without-us). For Berdiaev the divine knowledge is granted only by escaping the world to find a cosmos of full “creativity”, for this is in his view the meaning of creation – an absolute freedom (we could say potentiality) embedded in a cosmos ready to repudiate an all-too-human world.
Although it must be said that Berdiaev was accused (including by Shestov) of being anthropocentric, there is a layer in his thinking that absolutely embraces the impossible and rejects the world-as-home. His anthropocentrism is heretical in the sense that he gives a divine measure to the human. The primary guilt of his thought is the optimistic idea that there is meaning, when most probably the meaning is total indifference. A heretical reading of his notion of anthropocentrism would be that the unknown, darkness, the unhuman is immanent to the known, light, the human. An account of the unhuman is made possible by our own very humanness. Eugene Thacker points out that “one of the greatest challenges that philosophy faces today lies in comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world – and of comprehending this politically”.(12)
Interestingly, “The Meaning of the Creative Act” had been written just a few years before Malevich painted the 1915 “Black Square”- which was to replace the religious paintings that, in Russia, used to be placed in the upper corner of rooms. Malevich provides another interesting example of the relation between communism (see the less known text of Malevich at the death of Lenin) and religion.(17) His black square is a form of “darkness mysticism”, the tabula rasa of representation on which to construct a new social order and a suprematist aesthetics. The color black is the absolute non-color while at the same time containing all the colors. Black abducts the “plague of colors” reflecting nothing. By persisting in watching the black in black, a dark contagion of sight occurs and, like in the Greek statues with two black holes instead of eyes, it only reveals the shadow projected by the human seeing on everything that it cannot understand: “Thought does not illuminate the Real, but projects its own real shadow upon what it cannot see”.(18) Against the Western oculocentric tradition and demonstrating the inverse of the extramission theory of sight, a dead thought projects rays of darkness in the daylight upon what it can really see.
The second direction of escape that we will not treat at length here is not intensive but extensive. It is found in the Russian cosmist movement, a communist project to physically exit the Planet, recognizing a final irreconciliation between man and nature. Nikolai Fedorov, one of the prominent cosmist thinkers has written his “The Philosophy of the Common Task” in the late 1880s. The common task is a plan for the human race to escape the Planet: “storm the heavens and conquer the earth”.(19) In a recent article about the connection of Russian cosmism with the contemporary accelerationist project (which finds the only way to exit capitalism in exiting this world) Benedict Singleton concludes: “In isolated form, this is the characteristic gesture of cosmism, what we might call the ‘cosmist impulse’: to consider the earth a trap, and to understand the common project of philosophy, economics, and design as being the formulation of means to escape from it: to conceive a jailbreak at the maximum possible scale, a heist in which we steal ourselves from the vault.”(20)
In a cosmic staring at the world-without-us the black square seems to have enveiled the whole universe. The accidental human world will eventually fade into the eternal night of a cosmos. The impersonal form, like in ‘it rains’ lurks behind the banal and familiar, even while basking in the sun. “The mind does not find itself faced with an apprehended exterior. The exterior. . .remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no longer given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it.”(21) The night is a swarm of points that does not enter our bodies but it is already inside. We carry darkness inside a body that is not even ours.
Thinking with Death
Death, understood as the principle of decontraction driving the contractions of organic life is not a past or future state towards which life tends, but rather the originary purposelessness which compels all purposefulness, whether organic or psychological.
Humanity is a petrified fiction hiding from zero, a purgatorial imprisonment of dissolution, but to be stricken with sanctity is to bask in death like a reptile in the sun.
Reason can be defined as the ratio of separation of the self from the environment. At least the illusion of this separation is a necessary trick to make the individuality, the natural concept of ‘self’ a sustainable form of organization. The birth of narcissism, of identity, of A=A coincides with the an extensive discontinuity between the self and environment. Discontinuity entails classification and thus a certain kind of order but it itself is accidental, contingent. In order to distinguish one needs limitation for the world is unlimited. All distinctness is a question of borders, but also of inhibition. It is a question of life and death: “To be the world one must stop being in the world”.(12)
A human drive to be the world is to be found in Freud’s account of the death drive in his “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” – the compulsion of the organic to return to the inorganic. Death precedes life and hence is a return, not a way out. In our descent towards the understage of annihilation we hit not the “glass ceiling” as in the seemingly upward boost of corporate jobs but the wall of the floor – a dark jerk vomiting us back to our petit cosy human world on and on: “The floor is also a wall”.(22)
The view of life from the perspective of cosmic economy reveals the momentary arrest of energy by this metastable organic formation followed by its dissolution, its final release of this energetic luxury. Death is the a movement of reintegration into the downwards flow of the cosmos, a re-inscription in the economical vague matter, before finally hitting the zero, the blank, the nihil: “Death, wastage, or expenditure is the only end, the only definitive terminus.”(22) Nick Land in his “Thirst for Annihilation” relies on Bataille’s concept of expenditure: a general, solar expansion of Marxist thinking, where consumption is cosmic and production happens because there is always an excess. We are arresting the energy of the sun only to let it go and the upwards boost of life is merely a “deviation from blank”, a digression from this general movement of irreversible loss: “Life is able to deviate from death only because it also propagates it, and the propagation of disorder is always more”(22).
According to the second law of thermodynamics in any system that uses energy entropy increases. Heat dissipates illustrating a tendency towards even temperatures everywhere, towards an energetic flatness which makes energy unavailable for work. The apogee of the tiredness in every system is heat-death – the cosmic exhaustion of useful energy, the final triumph of entropy (useless energy), the end of the universe. Thus thinking with death is thinking of death as a tiny step ahead to catch up with the downward tendency of the universe, with the decaying ratio of chemistry. It is to hit the wall of the floor and stay there worming for desperation that the earth will not even keep its dead, let alone the living.
Production of life and defiance of death in the capitalist “total subsumption”(23) through “cloning, digital agents, downloaded minds, transplanted organs, the whole gamut of the cyberpunk imagination scattered all over the cultural landscape”(24) is a false route of escape. The circulation of death is just another solar capitalist wastage on the way to the great nihil unbound forever from life, to the eternal night of the senses.
In his essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” from 1935, Roger Caillois identifies an instinct d’abandon underpinning the camouflage of animals. Written at the same time as Bataille was releasing his main work, he contends, using facts from biology studies, that animal camouflage is not a utilitarian defence mechanism but it is part of biological organism’s compulsion to become-space, to become its environment. It is the drive of the non-human animals towards indistinction. Creatures such as the insects Phyllia imitate the color, texture and even imperfections of the green leaves they feed on. Far from being a self-preservation strategy, the camouflage of these insects becomes deadly in an usual way. Two observations have been made. One is that the perfect resemblance of these insects with the green leaves they feed on starts being confusing even for themselves to the extent that they engage in a deadly act of collective cannibalism. The other is that in their compulsion to assimilate the space they are inhabiting the mimetic insects imitate so accurately the leaf they occupy and eat to even include its rotting process. To achieve this dangerous «teleplasty» (the mimicry of the leaf) the Phyllium performs a self-induced decay through autophagia. These weird creatures start eating themselves in order to resemble the rotting leaf. Ray Brassier sums this up very well: “Mimicking the death of that from which it draws nourishment, the Phyllium becomes the living index of its food›s decay for its own vital appetite”(25).
The psychasthenic drive of letting go of the self and returning to the inorganic by mimicking its very image reveals a post-self behavior, a compulsion stronger than life itself. The self is a gap, a differentiation from space, a de-assimilation of the environment. The primary condition for the existence of a self is precisely its original indistinctness, its indiscernability, hence the thanatotropic regression. From the perspective of the Phyllia, dead thinking is a thought that eats itself in a total abandonment of survival. It is the triumph of the consumption (in Bataille’s sense) through self-consumption.
This is the dreadful return of thought to nature by following very organically and in only one direction the epistemological movement proposed by Naturphilosophie (the oscillation between thinking and nature). Collapsing thinking and nature is the end of epistemology. Before engaging in this incredible account of the organic revolt against identity, Caillois had already opposed the instinct of self-preservation in his “Art on Trial by Intellect” associating what he called ‘pure’ art and science to a certain intactness of the self. In the face of extinction we are faced with the idea of self as junk, as being no-one(26). Dead Thinking is a thought that irreversibly compromises the self.
Caillois finds the drama of the psychasthenic compulsion played out in the difference between action and representation, between human at the center of Cartesian coordinates and the realization that this reference point (that constitutes the self at least in the modern tradition) is just one among others. Thus “legendary psychasthenia” is an onto-epistemological disturbance played out between personality and space. To illustrate this pathology Caillois uses the response of the schizophrenic to the question where are you?: “I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I›m at the spot where I find myself.”(3) He goes on to explain: “To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them. Then the body separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put.”(3) Finally we get to the fear of darkness approached from a different perspective but which certainly leads us to the germinal night of the mystic: “The magical hold. . .of night and obscurity, the fear of the dark, probably also has its roots in the peril in which it puts the opposition between the organism and the milieu.”(3)
Caillois correlates the undermining of one’s sense of the self with Minkovski’s psychiatric definition of schizophrenia as inhabiting a “dark space”. He quotes Minkovski: “Dark space envelops me on all sides and penetrates me much deeper than light space, the distinction between inside and outside and consequently the sense organs as well, insofar as they are designed for external perception, here play only a totally modest role.”(3) We recognize in the dark space of the schizophrenic the night where we sense the “il y a” of Levinas and the same affective state of horror when being stripped of one’s subjectivity, when drowned and stifled by the pitch-black presence. Being digested by the night is for Levinas the only way to sense what he calls the “existence without existents”, an absolutely impersonal and anonymous verb “there is” that pervades all being.
Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure suffers from the same malady of confusing himself with his environment, always pendulating between life and death, within multiple perspectives and invaded terminally by an unbearable vagueness of being. Thomas is akin to Minkovski’s schizophrenic in that he inhabits the space of groping and hallucination: “The night was more somber and more painful than he could have expected. The darkness immersed everything; there was no hope of passing through its shadows, but one penetrated its reality in a relationship of overwhelming intimacy. His first observation was that he could still use his body, and particularly his eyes; it was not that he saw anything, but what he looked at eventually placed him in contact with a nocturnal mass which he vaguely perceived to be himself and in which he was bathed”.(27) As the mystic or as the one who stares into the black square: “[Thomas] saw nothing, and, far from being distressed, he made this absence of vision the culmination of his sight”.(27)
The affect of horror is bound to a process of de-personalization, of exteriority becoming interiority and vice-versa that we fully recognize in Minkovski’s description of schizophrenic perception, in darkness mysticism, in the grasping of Levinas’s “il y a”, in mimetic insects’ “assimilation of space”, in the dark space of Thomas the Obscure. Indeed, as Caillois is writing “[l]ife takes a step backwards”(3) towards a frightening perception of a self engulfed by space, towards an “unhuman phenomenology”(28). This phenomenology is not involved in correlating the body to the world but in recognizing a materiality of the body capable of registering the “great Outdoors”(29), or the world-without-us. Horror might be the only possible affective and cognitive reconciliation with the extinction to come, with an Anthropocene left to no geologists to study.
On Life and the End of Healthy Thinking
It is very hard to determine what is actually particular to life, its own ‘own’. Eugene Thacker doubts that life limits itself to the lived experience and opens thought to an idea of life as something unnameable, inhuman as H.P. Lovecraft’s “the nameless thing”. Our thinking recognizes life as its source, but what makes us so sure that thinking does not transcend life and annihilate it in an indifferent and contingent manner? Ray Brassier contends that “thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of the living.”(25) Thinking extinction intensely can produce ruptures, humiliations, ungroundings. We are in a time when we recognize that the nature is queer, that the earth is alien, that our thinking may betray life. One of the operations of a dead thinking or of a thinking-with-extinction is to disarticulate the main joints of modern thought: human-thinking-life.
The de-linking of thinking and human cannot be reduced just to the acknowledgement of reasoning processes at the basis of today’s capitalist value production such as computation and algorithms. Whitehead invites us not to start to explain mankind in terms applicable to lowliest forms of life but it seems to him more truly empirical and more sensible to construe the earlier forms by analogy to the later forms. Following this reasoning, algorithms would be less thought of as products of human thinking which have progressively lost their human character and instead human thinking would have something as inhuman as this mode of reasoning which is performing autonomously.
What will the radical unbinding of life from human, of thinking from human and of thinking from life produce at the level of practice and theory? Indeed neither human thinking be it practical or theoretical can save the world nor the unhuman mode of thought (algorithms) can decelerate its destruction. We are doomed and our (in)human thinking burrows its way blindly and indifferently towards its own non-being.
Capitalism is solar, vital, the promise of light and progress, the aiming of success. A healthy, alive thinking is the promise of the sun, the guarantor of a successful life, away from the misery of cosmic affairs. In a time when everything from advertising, career advisers, life coaches, even products themselves promise intense ‘experiences’, when “the enemy of marketing is cognition”(30) and the obsession of managers are emotions, thinking with death promises nothing. That nothing is either frightening or experienceless.
Even death becomes an experience-business worthy of the 1965 film “The Loved One” with grandmothers turned into diamonds, tombs into football trophies, Twitter accounts working from the after-life, angel-phones to talk to the inorganic from your bed, luxury coffins and funerary spectacle. Decay is to be hailed(31), otherwise we would propel our loved ones into the outer space to transform them into tiny satellites of the Earth, as in the above-mentioned film (due to the real estate business that makes even graveyards scarce). Resembling an anecdote, an American man who bought a property signaled it to be a cemetery in order to chase away the possible homeless who would have entered the property without permission.
Thinking with death is entering such property to grow trees and veggies on tombs, to embrace the neophytes of the inorganic and reject any private property. Thinking with death is taming the “plague of colors”(32) that signals the advent of the new aesthetic yoke. One looks both into the earth and the feet or away from the earth and the head to reach for an indifferent universe from which there is no escape. Away from the “plague of colors” is the cold “shadow at the bottom of the world”(32).
Thought Eats Nature
In “The Function of Reason” Whitehead defines the function of Reason as being “to promote the Art of Life”. But the art of life has nothing to do with the survival of the fittest. “The fallacy is the belief that fitness for survival is identical with the best exemplification of the Art of Life. In fact life itself is comparatively deficient in survival value. The art of persistence is to be dead.”(33) Sustainability could never be one of life and by any means is it brought by a life entirely subsumed to capital, right on the contrary. Acceleration of capitalist production with its total engulfing of experience, affect, knowledge and cognitive capacities is an acceleration not towards the ecological or social sustainability but towards the ontological sustainability of being dead. The inorganic is far more persistent than the organic and their complicity is a process of regression following the “compulsion of the organic to return to the inorganic”. Freud sees death as preceding life, hence the death-drive, the thanatropic regression, becoming-inorganic or in other words the psychological urge to annihilate the distance to the environment, to become the world and let go of the Reason that “promotes the Art of Life”. The only way to adapt to the environment is to become the environment, that is to be dead. As Whitehead explains the doctrine of adaptation to the environment is flawed as the upward trend of evolution “has been accompanied by a growth of the converse relation.” “Animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves. They have built nests, and social dwelling-places of great complexity; beavers have cut down trees and dammed rivers; insects have elaborated a high community life with a variety of reactions upon the environment.”(33) Hence: “higher forms of life are actively engaged in modifying their environment. In the case of mankind this active attack on the environment is the most prominent fact in his existence”.(33) Even the most “intimate actions of animals are activities modifying the environment”.(33) We manipulate nature through breathing.(34)
If reason is the ratio of separation from the environment, the apparition of what we call consciousness and so called higher forms of reason seems to be also a discontinuity, a fuzzy zone of catastrophe on the contingent evolutionary paths. A discontinuity between the environment and the organism to the point that the latter does not recognize the former as being of the same class. Without the illusion of differentiation through extensive and intensive thresholds of discontinuity thinking identity would be impossible. The apogee of identity-centered thinking, of narcissism and thus of this illusion of separation from the surrounding nature is to be found in modern thinking beginning with Renaissance and continuing with enlightenment, with the industrial and technological eras that follow. This thinking is life-oriented, is bound to ideas of progress and growth. It is an instrumental reason, all-too-human and without the horizon of its self-induced catastrophe.
To be aware of the uselessness of consciousness is linked to the experience the horror. “I think therefore I am” is transformed by Thomas Ligotti into “I think therefore I am and one day I will die”(35). Once consciousness appeared something dark and abysmal found its way worming inside the bland thoughts of humankind. A healthy thinking perceives consciousness and reason as being something advanced. But from the perspective of a dead thinking consciousness and reason can equally be accidental protuberances. If reason and higher forms of consciousness may seem to have played a function of adaptation, now it is clear that they are just convoluted ways to annihilation. Human comes from the Latin “humando”, meaning to bury. There is a Romanian proverb that “whomever digs somebody else’s pit, falls him(her)self into it”. This could be the quintessence of ecological thought today, we are fully facing the mouth of this deep dark pit. Humans have been engaged in an attack upon the environment, in an autophagia that they do not recognize until it is too late.
“chasing one’s tail”
The notion of environment itself is a life-centered notion being the one that encloses, that encircles primarily life. Mechanical circles, pressure circles, thermic circles, chemical circles are cycles of displacement between maximum and minimum points. The sun – the giant sphere of atomic explosion feeds this planetary transformation of distinction and separation into circulation. To be separated from the environment is to be part of the encircling movement that uselessly wastes solar energy in its reach towards the void. The libidinal force of circulation twisted the ur-environment (the prebiotic soup) with a force that made it spit out the animism of forms. “Plankton coral, polyps, mollusks, fish, mammals, cetaceans” all twisting and moving in circular motions. The equatorial circle, the circle of fire, the cyclone – all “delineate a system of cycles, a circle of circles”. “The recipe for the soup is the encyclopedia”.(36)
The circle is traced in multiple ways between the self and its environment. First, the Ouroboros, the mythical snake eating its own tail, its very body. The snake’s autophagia is a gastronomical act upon oneself, where there is no environment. The self is itself the environment. And environment is the encircled self, a round zero of self-annihilation and eternity: “To be the world one must stop being in the world.” The point where the snake eats is fuzzy, there is no clear demarcation, no final bite to break this infernal organic circle. Circles like the Ouroboros are moving but you can never grasp their movement because they do not coincide with themselves.(37) What goes around comes around.
The lamprey is a snake-looking animal, a primitive aquatic organism that has made the first step towards a healthy thinking. Lampreys are parasitic, having a fierce round mouth without any jaws but which encircles more concentric rows of strong teeth that dig into their prey to feed on their cold-blood circulation. Before the act of predation they take out their long tongue and they switch their function from predator to prey. They turns themselves into a prey (their tongue) in order to individuate themselves, to make the distinction between them-selves and the prey. Rotating roles between predator and prey is a technology to avoid eating oneself. If the ‘I’ cannot recognize itself as ‘I’, it will become autophagic. The self is a trick, an externalization of their own image in order to be able to make the distinction between the self and the other. “The nervous system is an organ of alienation.”(38) The Ouroboros is exactly one step back from the snake-looking lamprey, it is a logical paradox, an impossible being and non-being at the same time. The snake rotates in itself, while the lamprey rotates outside itself.
In his “Le Parasite” Michel Serres takes La Fontaine’s fables among his multitude of references to talk about the human centered-ness in popular moralizing stories and to develop his ontology of parasitism. In one of these famous fables, Serres discovers another weird example of a contradictory thing, being and non-being concomitantly. Another paradoxical creature, a blunt piece of organic matter opposing with full force the Aristotelian excluded middle of logics. A weird chunk of creature humbly but strongly opposing the identity-principle that has guided most philosophy. The negation of narcissism in the brash assurance when affirming that A=A. A wood chopper sees an almost frozen snake outside. In a gesture of absolute anthropocentric charity, he takes the animal into his home to give it warmth and shelter. Of course, as soon as the creature recovers from freezing the snake becomes the wild dangerous animal that wants to ‘bite the hand that feeds it’. The man thus takes his axe and cuts the animal in three: trancher le serpent, trancher in French means cut and moreover following the Latin origin of the word, to cut in three, trois. Trancher means also decider, to decide, trancher la situation.(39) And here comes the incredible thinking of Serres: he goes further visualizing the three parts of the snake. The head, the middle and the tail. What interests us is the most obscure part, the middle. The one at the same time being and non being, the excluded third – the excluded middle. We are faced with a fully abstract parasite, with that immanent mistiness in humans as well as in matter, what refuses to be an object of knowledge or just an element in a chain of inference. It is a parasite that interrupts thinking, the catastrophe point, the cognitive impossible. It is a chopped piece of Ouroboros, a paradox from paradox.
Likewise Brian Massumi when talking about the body and affect demonstrates that a body does not coincide with itself.(40) A body does not coincide with its present, it is foreign matter in excess: potentiality and actuality at the same time, abstractness and concreteness. Affect is a dark concept and the body a blurry thing of contradiction.(41) The concept of recursive causality that Massumi uses to talk about this contradictory body entails the effect being part of the cause. The feedback loop is a loop that not only feed the effect, but also feeds the cause with the effect. It is an incomplete Ouroboros, eating partially its tail. How does recursive causality complicate the problem of global warming. If thought eats nature, how does extinction feed back on thinking?
Talking about “dark ecology” and the “noncontradiction thought-virus”(37) introduced by Aristotle to propose a philosophy of ambiguity and contradiction Timothy Morton contends that also “a fish doesn’t coincide with itself” illustrating the discontinuity problem in evolution. The process of evolution is faced with a temporal discontinuity. There is surely a threshold, a rupture of continuity between human beings and primates for example but one can never point to the border between the species going back to natural history. Timothy Morton explains this using Sorites paradox according to which there is no possible point while placing grains of sand one on top of the other where one can say: this is a heap. In a similar way, for a man losing progressively his hair there is no moment to point the passing to the stage of being bold. Evolution is weird and life forms do not coincide with themselves. They are fuzzy just like the Ouroboros.
What if this excluded parasitic third is the world which refuses to be an environment, the circle let loose, the world-without-us? Is it not the impersonal nature of ourselves that lurks upon us, the parasite that interrupts all meals, all life, all thinking? No wonder zero is a circle because it is the middle part of the snake seen in section, it is the contradictory Ouroboros, a contour of the black sun that the Earth is encircling to the point of its hot annihilation.
In a fully epistemological loop, “[b]y turning back upon itself, nature is the source of self-knowledge, it is itself the origin of the science of nature”.(36) Thought and nature are chasing each other in a spinning movement that we call knowledge, the encyclopedia. The loop is going downwards just to leave a deep darkness in the middle of the ‘environment’. “To chase one’s tail” is to designate a point of no progress, of stagnation, a negative feature of human action. This is what modernity has done from an ecological perspective and we are infinitesimally close to big moment of the catch.
Epilogue: The Real Black Box
One of the most familiar emotions is fear of death. But truly in these times when death seems much more powerful, when the rate of extinction of species is the most accelerated in the history of the planet, time has come to stop thinking from the point of view of life and embrace the perspective of death. Dead thinking is not to feel frightened while facing death but to sense the dread of the dead face to face with the living. Dead Thinking is not a thinking that slides neatly on the surface of the earth, but it buries itself with the dead to think from the underground, in the thick rare air of putrefied blackness, dark fungus, in the swarming of worms.
Looking through a non-human perspective life-giving oxygen is death for anaerobic bacteria who inhabited the earth before the Oxygen catastrophe took place about roughly 2.45 billion years ago. Photosynthesis-conductive cyanobacteria (blue-green algae that are symbiotically incorporated now by all plants on earth) started taking over, outnumbering by far the other anaerobic organisms and produced one of the biggest extinction events on earth. Dead Thinking is the asphyxiation of healthy thought in murky microbiological affairs and in even murkier human ones.
We fully inhabit in the age of bacteria.(42) Anaerobic bacteria are the ancestors of today’s extremophiles: barophiles, piezophiles, psychrophiles, thermophiles who thrive in extreme environments – hot, cold, acidic, dark, highly pressurized, high radiation and toxicity levels, low O2 levels, low consumption of carbon sources. Minuscule animals like the bacteria Deinococcus Radiodurans or the deep-sea archeon Thermococcus profundus, like the Devil Worm, the jumping spider or the tardigrade turn out to be the most persistent organic forms of life, the ones that will surely survive the human apocalypse. These are the survivors of the extinction to come – the weakest and peripheral, almost imperceptible forms of life – in fact that are barely recognized as life.
Complexity is not persistent and life will escape the less it stands out to us as life. Dead Thinking is about trying to live, think and act from the deadly perspective of the current gloomy ecological conditions. To play on the understage, in the real black box of extremophiles and worms.
1. Example of contemporary heresies: Meillasoux who takes the concept of contingency as the generative element of any ontology, that is at any given moment the actual parameters of nature can change, even a God can take over the universe; Karen Barad focuses on the performativity of matter (agential realism), on the doings of matter instead of on its stabilization into things and objects. She calls intra-action the generative split in things that we subsequently take for granted as representation; Ray Brassier regards the disenchantment of the world through the acceleration of modernity and enlightenment as an embrace of nihilistic thought which is in perfect conformity with the indifference and tendency towards entropy and annihilation of nature itself.
2. Tristan Garcia, Forme et Objet. This is also to acknowledge the thought experiment entailed in flat ontologies from Whitehead to Latour, Levi Bryant, the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman and the ontological theory of depression in the flat world and absolutely lonely things of Tristan Gracia.
3. Roger Caillois, Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia
4. Reza Negarestani, Frontiers of Manipulation – lecture
5. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Metapysiques Cannibales
6. Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature after Schelling
7. Ben Woodard, lecture
8. Eduardo Kohn, How forest thinks
9. see the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and of philosopher Brian Massumi
10. Claire Colebrook, The Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume One
11. Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem
12. Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of this Planet
13. Eugene Thacker, After Life
14. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul
15. Eugene Thacker, Divine Darkness – lecture
16. Nikolai Berdiaev, The Meaning of Creation
17. Claude Karnoouh, Arta si Politica – lecture
18. Nicola Masciandaro, Secret: No Light Has Ever Seen the Black Universe
19. Nikolai Fedorov, The Philosophy of the Common Task
20. Benedict Singleton, Maximum Jailbreak
21. Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents
22. Nick Land, Thirst for Annihilation
23. see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri
24. Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, Heat-Death
25. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound
26. Thomas Metzinger, Being No-one
27. Maurice Blanchot, Thomas the Obscure
28. Dylan Trigg, The Horror of Darkness. Towards an Unhuman Phenomenology
29. Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude
30. Meme control conference, London
31. Stefan Tiron, Putrescience. Decomposing Knowledge on the Bottomless Pit
32. Thomas Ligotti, The Shadow at the Bottom of the World
33. Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason
34. Luciana Parisi, Contagious Architecture: Digital Control and Aesthetics – lecture
35. Thomas Ligotti, Thinking Horror
36. Michel Serres, Hermes
37. Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology – lecture
38. Reza Negarestani – lecture
39. Michel Serres, The Parasite
40. Brian Massumi, Navigating Movements
41. Alina Popa, The Second Body and the Multiple Outside
42. Stephen Jay Gould, The Evolution of Life on Earth