In the last few months I have begun to explore philosophical pessimism, although not in writing and not on syntheticzero. It might seem strange to do so now, given that syntheticzero is above all a site dedicated to the exploration of ideas and practices that we have decided to group together as post-nihilist praxis. The term “post” requires no lengthy exegesis, it simply serves to indicate that our exploration of praxis is taking place after nihilism. In certain respects it could be said that this self-important designation- “post-nihilist praxis”- is merely the jumped up rebranding of existentialism carried out by a bunch of people who aren’t merely para-academic but exist nowhere near inside the academy.
Perhaps it is necessary to refresh ourselves briefly on the nihilism that the curators of this blog think has taken place. We are committed to a certain set of epistemic outcomes of scientific discovery. To phrase this in another way we fully affirm the negativity of the nihilism unleashed on the world by capitalism. We are against all and any attempts to therapeutically, immunologically or nostalgically deny these realities. Such denialism must be regarded as the disavowal of reality in favour of a psychotic hallucinatory-delusional substitution of that reality. As such explorers of post-nihilist praxis often speak of being against Transcedentalisms, or the reactive attempt to cling to models of sacredness that have become emptied of their content- even if they retain the dangerous vitality of desperation. Consideration of these truths must extend to their consequences for ethics and politics, no matter how uncomfortable this might be. If we maintain any unquestioned advocacy of positions traditionally associated with our own theoretical, political and ethical backgrounds- whether these be around our philosophical readings, our inherited values, or our activism and/or professional ethics.
Is it really so easy to forget that nihilism? Is it really so easy to forget the multiple and convergent streams of nihilism that Nietzsche described as a slow burning but ultimately violent catastrophe. In an early version of my own attempts to write- to write to understand, dis-invested as I am from academic thought- I called my own appreciation of the concussive blunt force trauma of nihilism “catastrophic thought”. Is it so easy to forget such a catastrophe? We are already like the neurology patient admitted to the hospital after a car crash and who now cannot remember what happened to him. How did we get to this hospital bed? And the nursing staff have to try to cajole us to stay in the bed or at least on the ward, telling us again, an edge of irritation in their voice, that we have had an accident and that it isn’t safe for us to wander off. Except that we have not just had an accident, we are an accident. Except it in Nietzsche’s image we have not just been hit by a car- a few broken bones and some slight disorientation- but we have been fundamentally pummelled by the lunatic potency of nature:
For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that no longer wants to reflect
Here is Nietzsche describing the slow catastrophe as also a hurtling vortex that shreds everything in its path, everything in its way, a river that having burst its banks will rage onwards to tear down homes and ruin infrastructure, drowning children and animals and the strongest men, dividing us up into the drowning and the drowned. The violence of river bursting its banks in the amphetamine image of a hyper-disaster conjured up by the catastrophizing imagination- the catastrophe doubles itself in thought- is one that tears bodies to shred as easily as concrete. If Nietzsche had access to the apocalyptic imagination of our cinematic disasters he might easily have spoken of a tsunami, and pictured the giant waves that sweep across an new York, leaving a scene of total devastation in the eerie silences of a dark submerged world. That world would go on to freeze over and become totally inhospitable to human bodies. If the film is hilarious in the way all this takes place in a few minutes- the freezing over of the cold world taking seconds- then Nietzsche’s torrents take a life time or more to wash away all the structures in their path. Like a blast-wave in slow-motion, the river that no longer reflects unleashes the invisible geological powers of erosion before finally accelerating and revealing itself in its terrible sublime power.
In the image of the river Nietzsche provides a dark naturalistic metaphor that doesn’t pretend that humanity can ever erect any sovereignty over nature. All our dwellings, whether little houses on the horizon or the skyscrapers of our dreams of a vertical colonialism of the heavens, will be undone by the necessary and inevitable monstrosity of the churning wall of water. And with it everything will be swept away from us, all the familiar trappings and stage-setting of home and familiarity, of the heimlich. Here we can move from the cinematic images of The Day After Tomorrow to the realities of the immediate post-Katrina situation
In the aftermath of the hurricane, and amidst the abandonment of the civil and political authorities of the black population to fend for itself, the entire landscape is fundamentally altered. It becomes obliterated of its richness and its detail and the human figures, at least in this aerial shot, are completely disappeared in favour of a weird abstract landscape that resembles nothing so much as a circuit board or some rocks jutting out from wet sand at the beach.
Once the water recedes the landscape is shown in the full extent of its ruination as every habitation is rendered into the grainy botches of colour that suggest what was once a wall or a window, leaving only the carcasses of buildings or the architectural outlines of where a building used to be. The road cuts through the scene in the image above but now as a pure scission that lacks any sense of logistical connection to a wider machinery of civilisation. The city, as space of human and nonhuman vitality, goes silent in the aftermath as the places of exchange and sports games and garrulous late night drinking, dark corner drug deals and violence, animal copulations, infrastructural buzzing and industrial humming, the machinic sonic landscape of the motorway and the automatic door- in short the inhumanism of “urban living”- goes silent. For a while after the initial deluge and prior to the panicked frenzy of terrified survivors the city resembles nothing more than an Anselm Kiefer canvas:
This is the only painting to have ever made me cry. I am perhaps an insensate philistine who just doesn’t get high art. It’s possible. It wouldn’t bother me if it were true, except insofar as some image of a cultured man haunted still haunted me. I was in my 20s. I was a depressive young man. At first I couldn’t see what I was looking at. Then the large canvas began to resolve itself: the perpendicular image, looking down from above, and the scrubbed out, wasted, cancelled outline of a city that began to disappear as it rose upwards, as if stretching above the earth would lead to an auto-destruction in ephemeral indistinction, the city just evaporating as it refuses to fuse with the sky, thereby undoing even the most terrestrial orientation points of the endlessly cited “horizon” and all its weight of tragic finitude, all from the impossible subjective perspective to which I, as viewer, was joined . Of course it wasn’t so long after 9-11 but I feel that the reason I cried was much more than this proximal-social event, no matter how horrific. The painting, with its inclusion of barbed wire (security; weapon) and dirt and sand (rubble; remains) seemed to exceed the constraints of spatio-temporalisation in any one place or time. It seemed as if this were the view from the Will, as if this were the cannibalistic and utterly inhuman destructiveness of the horror in itself, the despair in itself, the sorrow in itself, of the world looking down upon its own representation and attempting to undo it all in one flight. The image in its full reversibility: are these ruins or buildings still under construction? Was I witness to a quiet world-without-us or destructive angel ushering in a world fundamentally posed against us?
The blurb from Tate goes like this:
This horrific vision of urban sprawl was inspired by Kiefer’s visit to Sao Paulo in Brazil. Tangled copper wiring signals the breakdown of communication. The city is engulfed in an apocalyptic haze, which Kiefer created by spreading dust and earth across the painting, then burning parts of its surface. According to Hebrew mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife, a seductive and demonic airborne spirit. In Kiefer’s painting, Lilith seems to bring destruction from the air upon Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist buildings.
A breakdown of communication. The end of transmission. Isolation. Lilith the First Woman. The rebel against Man who came not from his body. The Patron of Abortions. Her name meaning chaos. She who is represented as a she-demon throughout mythologies. She of whom it is written in the Dead Sea Scrolls’ exorcism text Song for a Sage
And I, the Sage, sound the majesty of His beauty to terrify and confound all the spirits of destroying angels and the bastard spirits, the demons, Lilith. . ., and those that strike suddenly, to lead astray the spirit of understanding, and to make desolate their heart.
In the moments of the collapse during which everything is sunk in a state of submergence there is only the strange thick and heavy darkness that weighs down on bodies and makes their every movement- unless they have been adapted for the water- too slow. In the heavy darkness where dark bodies move with eerie effort and one cannot breathe a bizarre choreography takes place among alien organisms that glow with their own sickly illumination. Then the waters recede. The flood is over. There was no ark. What survived? Where am I? How did I get to this place?
If I have gone too far with the liquid analogy, morphing it from streams to furious bank-bursting river, to crashing tsunami, to demons of gnostic and Talmudic origin, to the depths of the midnight zone before letting it slip back into nothing so dramatic and over-wrought as the Biblical Flood, with a little moment of tender self-dissolution thrown in along the way, it is because the explosive impact of the annihiliating forces of cognition cannot be overstated. Indeed, in other contexts the word apocalypse might be deployed, where it not that the word implied some impossible final seeing through things to the world as it is without us. All of this might be regarded as just excess were it not for the fact that it perfectly captures this destruction.
The flood is the drowning is the asphyxiation of the human being that lies at the heart of humanism and religious thought and which carries on only as the little corpse propping up an even smaller hallucination. The outcomes of the corrosive acid flow of Nietzsche’s predicted nihilistic torrents need to be remembered once again. Here they are posited as fundamental presuppositions around which we oriented our poor and self-indulgent thinking.
First of all that there is no meaning to existence. There is absolutely nothing meaningful about our existence and even the idea of speaking of lives that matter to anyone except those who are doing that living is an excessive indulgence. This denial of meaningfulness ultimately extends to any full blown existentialist sense that we can or should construct our own meanings via the establishment of a Big Project. We are of course all involved in projects if these are considered on the small scale: they range from getting dressed in the morning, to making coffee, to going to work, to getting drunk, to paying a mortgage. From the perspective of my understanding of this for post-nihilist pragmatics it means that there is no ultimate way to differentiate any activity from any other. All supposedly meaningful human activities are equal to one another insofar as they are all ways of coping with being alive. A friend of mine gave me a wonderful quotation from Frank Sinatra to express this levelled equality of coping mechanisms:
Basically, I’m for anything that gets you through the night – be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniels
If it has any more elaboration or specification in different contexts (ie. the dualism of the hyphenated with” indicating one is potentially both coping with and coping by means of) this is the basic ground floor sense with which I use the term coping.
This is identical to the same idea expressed by Thomas Ligotti that whatever a human being is doing s/he is merely trying to kill time. This insight comes to me with the highest weighting for praxis because it implies that there is no good or bad way to cope, there is only appropriate and inappropriate ways; or, if that is too abstract at this first pass, we could say that there are more or less harmful modes of coping-with being alive.
To be even more concrete I will provide an example from my working life. I work with drug users who will come into my clinic with all kinds of moralism in their heads, and this moralism that they have introjected from society- coming forth in judgements that “I am scum” or “I don’t deserve to be alive”- is often precisely what keeps them in the throes of an escalating drugs addiction. I will work with many of these clients in an effort to extract this noxious moralism so as to undo its destructive effects.
One of the first and most modest ways I try to do this is by pointing out to the client that his heroin use is identical to another person’s gym obsession and a third person’s drinking every night or a fourth’s practice of Buddhist meditation techniques. All of these practices are attempts to cope, the difference for my client is that her coping mechanism has become excessive and has narrowed her existence to one obsessive and eclipsing ritual. Almost all of my clients will tell that they are coping via the protocols of neurochemical escapology and almost all of them are- by the time I see them- completely sunk into the chemical dystopia described by Deleuze an Guattari:
Drug addicts continually fall back on what they wanted to escape: a segmentarity all the more rigid for being marginal, a territorialisation all the more artificial for being based on chemical substances, hallucinatory forms, and phantasy subjectifications (285).
I don’t want to dwell on addiction here but I feel like we could criticise Deleuze and Guattari here for seeing only the segmentarity of the drug addicts- curious use of a facialised expression- and avoiding the wholeness that the drug using body is raised up to when it is “high”. It may be that in a separate post it will be necessary to explore how the immersion into chemical states is identical with the desire that has in other times and places been seen as the experience of a oneness with God. The invulnerability of the heroin user as it is expressed in something like Cain’s book certainly does not resemble the image given by D&G. This extended aside on the drug user may seem unnecessary- and it is- but it allows us to discuss the meaninglessness of existence from another side.
The bad segmentarity of the addicts life can be imagined according to this composite description: wake up and search for any dregs of last hit; cook up and take a charge; start thinking about where to get the next hit; go and do the stuff one needs to get the money to get the next hit; find somewhere to take a charge; undergo processes of immersion into the full emptiness of the tranquillity of heroin’s “gouch”; repeat. This picture will obviously vary widely but this is the classic generic picture (ie. all the variances have been abstracted from it) of the addict’s day. In addiction one is either high, anticipating the high or one is in a state of withdrawal.
One is either in the rituals of getting or being or coming down from equilibrium. In the final analysis the bad segmentarity of the addict is just an accentuated version of what all of our days look like. Indeed the addict may be more fully engaged in her project despite the fact that she is aware that there is absolutely no meaning in her activity whatsoever. The addict’s immersive oblivion strips their world of emotion and distressing memories, forces away any cares or terrors and provides her with a complete and total experience that we- as non-addicts from the outside- can only understand as escapism. But this is precisely what each of us is doing, except that we are attempting to get at meaning while the addict understands that there is none to be had and actively enacts that meaninglessness.
Indeed, the addict might be the most honest human being there is as she injects chemicals into her body to get at a state of temporary enlightenment, cutting through all the bullshit that surround the demands for being productive or engaging in a community and so on. We try to uncover mediate jouissance through sublimation in activities like writing and thinking- and forming communities to tell each other how clever or stupid we each are. The addict’s jouissance is chemical and machinic and immediate and doesn’t pass through any outside or other. The addict’s problems begin from the outside and the standpoint of a society of lunatics that jealously guard the right to access the fleeting state of oblivion. The problem reaches its crescendo in the fact that the addict is the perfect image of the Buddhist desire not to desire. That the addict is hooked means that she is never able to fully immerse herself into oblivion whilst simultaneously being unable to remain in her own personological prison; she is caught in a cruel movement between escape and imprisonment just as in Schopenhauer’s account of existence as a pendulum swinging between boredom and despair.
So let’s be clear that the nihilism of contemporary thought- and here we are talking about the scientific or Enlightenment reason- reveals to us that there is absolutely no meaning to anything we do. This means that there is also no meaningful conclusion to our existences. The pain and misery that we endure is utterly pointless. The dead and mutilated bodies of history pile up upon each other in a mountain of flayed flesh and electrocuted brains, as images of dead Syrian children flutter across our screens, and executions are consumed as spectacle and our every action assists in the reproduction of a malignant social system that murders and devours countless lives…and none of it matters, none of it ever reaches a moment of redemption. Even if the communist historical utopia is achieved this does nothing to redeem the deaths and the suffering. It remains pointless to all but those who cradle those lives in their arms. Whatever false image of redemption there is must always be local. It can only ever be the redemption of those I know and love or at least have come into some kind of contact with. Against all the sentimentality of warm feelings for the species it is impossible for me or you to care about the unknown person x who at this moment is doing something we do not know what. If that sounds banal and obvious then let’s move on.
Without meaning and without an historical horizon of retroactive meaningfulness (redemption) there is also no sense in which things have a point. This may risk repetition but it twists itself away from meaning to move towards purpose. What’s the point? is a question asked by the resigned and the depressed, those who know there is no use to any particular action, or at least no transcendental criteria against which to measure the usefulness of any action. Here we are again at the equality of coping mechanisms. To say there is no point is to say that all action is equivalent and as such is equally equivalent with no action at all. There is no intrinsic reason for reading rather than getting high and perhaps given a different set of local or proximal determinants and a different position in the chaotic web of causality we would indeed be shooting up right now.
As a consequence we are forced to ask why it is some of us value working for others or for even for ourselves. Here I mean to question many of our immediate and reflexive political positions. Those who work for freedom or liberation or a just society are those who Max Stirner declared as haunted by normative abstractions. To update the language we can say that these are psychotics who are more attached to hallucinations and delusions to flesh and blood. If we criticise them for this we have to recognize that that too is pointless. The great causes of the left are not to be taken as automatically and obviously valuable or worthwhile. If there is no meaning and no point to human life then why in the hell should anyone care about equality or justice? The only answer might be that a friend gave me when I asked him why he was a socialist: “because I like those things and think other people I like should have them too”. The tricky thing about his honest answer- which isn’t to suppose all other answers are lies- is that the same could be said of aristocracy. The outcome of our exposure to the nihilistic radiation might be that our commitment to the left, insofar as we have one, is disrupted, disturbed or even destroyed.
All of this segues with the absence of any intrinsic purposes in the cosmos. It is not just humans that lack any reason to exist but everything. Every material existent exists on the basis of a pure contingency and equally may as well not exist from the stand-point of being. This means that there are no human or animal intentions and that there are no historical goals or cosmic teleology. Tempting though it is to claim that the teleology of everything is its own apocalyptic destruction- insofar as everything that exists seems to be impermanent and therefore moving ceaselessly to its death- this might simply be pushing the facts of what will happen to our bodies onto a cosmos that might be infinite and eternal. The realities are that we do not know, although we are all aware of Ray Brassier’s scientifically backed speculations to the contrary.
If there is a purpose to human life it is immanent to our biological make-up. As such the most robust concept of purpose we can have is that given to us by the crudest of biological reductionists and evolutionary psychologists- that is those who have made peace with Darwin’s dangerous idea-: that we are here quite by accident and for no supernatural or supernormal reasons, and that while we are here we are, most of us and most of the time, compelled to survive in order to reproduce. And when we reproduce we do it for no reason- although just like the addict, or the dementia patient who performs actions entirely without conscious intent, we’re able to come up with plenty.
We are meat processing information carrying bundles of information across time and places. We are prompted to do things because they feel good or- more often- because we want to avoid things that feel bad. This is the brutal and blunt stupidity of our existence as neurologically advanced- in our own estimation at least- hominids. As meat-information machines we generate for ourselves a sense of self that we carry around with us and occasionally update as required. We cling terribly to this little hallucination as if it mattered and routinely cling to the hallucinations of others as if they mattered at all. This usually results in the formation of in-groups and out-groups and the adherence to a set of memes or cultural systems that anchor us together in these groups. The seeming purpose of these group formations is to allow us to better bind together in order to survive and reproduce. There are a number of ways this can be carried out and some are more hierarchical or egalitarian than others. From this perspective every single article of philosophy and every single grouping whether fascist, communist, women’s institute or football team is a surrogate or substitute for the absence of meaning, purpose and the exposure to corporeal and ontological vulnerability that is signified by the word “death”. All our death denial systems are security systems are shelters and bunkers in which our little sacks of meat and chemicals, with their fibrillating tissues suffuse with an electricity that will cease without adequate levels of potassium. hunker down and hide.
Potassium is more important to the human being than any amount of freedom.
There is also no final escape into an afterlife which would be the ultimate form of self-deception. By this I mean that there is no ascending to heaven, no rebirth in the Karmic cycle, no hippie becoming-earth and no Schopenhauerian return to the Will as thing in itself and no absorption into the universality of Flesh.
If we are looking at all this as the baseline outcomes of nihilism then we’re also looking at a post-moral condition. I have tried to unsuccessfully defend this under the name of “psychopathic realism” elsewhere. Perhaps the problem is that this is a position that cannot be defended from within the discourses of ethical theory which we should see as having been swept away by the technoscientific naturalisation of normativity as just another artefact of our brains that lack any and all prescriptive force. Either you feel bad or you don’t. Either you have empathy and compassion or you don’t. And if you don’t we can’t condemn you- all we can really say is we don’t like your behaviour and you’d better regulate it to fall in line or else we’ll arrest you, psychiatrize you or otherwise imprison-cure-kill you.
Our species also stands poised at a moment where it appears as though we could ourselves be obliterated from the planet after having wrecked so much damage on the planet through our economic system. Anthropocene-Capitalocene: isn’t this another academic squabble when the real question comes down to whether our species wants to survive or not? And if it does then what politics is it willing to engage in? Or would it be better, perhaps, to quietly go off into that “one last midnight” while we have the chance. Certainly, everything the majority of us do suggests that a blissful and ignorant slide into material catastrophic destruction and extinction is our preferred outcome.
Finally as has been stressed by everyone worth listening to, our cognitive capacities have not been designed. They especially have not been designed in order to gain access to truths or to the world in itself. We are prone to systematic error and delusion much of which may not be correctable. Our kluged systems of cognitive representation may be woefully inadequate for self-understanding and so our first-person phenomenological perspectives must be questioned (if not dispensed with) in terms of the apparent veracity. This means that experience- so beloved of much of the contemporary left- is not necessarily a privileged point of access to understand anything, whether it be oneself or a social system.
These are the reasons why I have turned to pessimism. These are already the positions of contemporary pessimists- although there are other varieties of pessimism that are more metaphysical and less scientistic in nature. I have turned to pessimism then because the “objective nihilism” revealed to us by Darwinism, neuroscience, technoscience, the multiple thoughts and threats of extinction and- allow me my own favourite speculation- the possibility that the human race is nature’s suicidal impulse. That post-nihilist praxis is about finding ways of living in and through nihilism in among the ruins of the semantic and material collapses means that it cannot not be pessimistic.
Ultimately pessimism is the judgement that it would have been better never to have been born because coming into existence is a harm rife with meaningless and pointless suffering that cannot be redeemed. All that exists is sorrow and even our joys are tricks or cons played on us to keep us going, to keep us getting through the day. The moment that post-nihilist praxis departs from this is in the assertion that as long as one keeps on living one is still in the search for a method of coping until the organism finally gives up. But the pessimist also says this and if the post-nihilist pragmatist hasn’t accepted that the world is horror and misery even with its legitimate moments and stretches of happiness then she hasn’t been paying attention to the outcomes that motivated her search to begin with.
In short the pragmatist who is not share the depressive realism of the pessimist is either still in the pre-nihilistic phase or has leapt clear out of the water and back into the comfortable island of denialism.