Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 will be uploaded shortly.

The emerging field of cultural studies that has been variously named the energy humanities, petrocultural studies and petrofiction seeks a new critical method to interpreting the arts, particularly literature. In his 1992 essay “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, the author Amitav Ghosh asked the question: If the oil industry is the twentieth century’s equivalent of the Spice Trade, why are there so few literary responses to it? This is a question which has driven a new wave of cultural critics, historians and writers who collectively seek to read pre-existing works of literature through both their implicit and explicit consumption of energy. This new engagement, in turn, can serve a cultural or political function. When a text is situated historically (both date of setting and publication) within the various crises surrounding the real uses of oil, it is hoped that the humanities can function as part of the more general response to our problems with energy consumption (see Yaeger 2011).

And these problems are numerous. Humans’ lives have revolved around the consumption of energy for as long as recorded history, whether in the form of wood, sunlight, or biopower (ibid.). In a real sense, human life is impossible without thermodynamic energy transfers; they dictate the organization of societies, economies, healthcare, and much more besides. But the “modern” forms of energy, specifically oil, pose new devastating challenges. The sheer volume of oil consumption since World War II has compounded the environmental impact of the preceding dominant energy sources significantly, raising CO2 emissions to a peak now almost impossible to climb down from. Economically, too, oil appears miraculous, especially to the global North: as an inexpensive resource, it has made home and work life much more comfortable on an individual level, and has ensured greater amounts of capital be kept in the hands of fewer people (Smil 2008: 1-2). As Irme Szeman says, “It requires surprisingly little effort to produce an alternative history of the past century in which oil plays the role of the central protagonist directing and organizing human life activity.” (Szeman 2012: 3) Yet as reserves deplete and temperatures rise, it is precisely this centrality of oil which must be overcome.

I wish to examine a body of work hitherto underrepresented in discussions of petrofiction: genre horror literature, and in particular, the sub-genre (of sorts) known as weird fiction. In several weird short stories and novels, oil has a unique function: as a horrifying, unstoppable entity which, upon encounter, reveals humanity’s insignificance and finitude. From the beginning, petrocultural studies have engaged with modes of horror,[1] and it seems apt to continue this trend into new critical territory. If the energy crisis does indeed evoke horror, then an examination of the forms this horror may take may help us conscious of the energy crisis to better realise our role in its unfurling petrodrama.

The aim of this essay is twofold. Firstly, it is to establish horror fiction (particularly weird fiction) as a genre of legitimate interest to petrocultural studies. This will be achieved by granting focus to texts which directly or indirectly allude to the substance and environmental effects of oil. The primary two examples chosen here are the H.P. Lovecraft short story “The Colour Out of Space” (1927), and the Dean Koontz novel Phantoms (1983). Secondly, in this essay I will be exploring precise philosophical connotations of “petrohorror”. The relationship between horror and philosophy has already been significantly documented, and to attempt a complete integration of this pre-existing scholarship into the domain of petrocultural studies would be too grandiose a task here, so I will be mostly limiting myself to an analysis of the central thesis of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Volume 1 (2011). In the introduction to his book, Thacker defines horror as the encounter with the limits of rational thought, a thought for which the language of philosophy fails to adequately express. This I argue is similar to the horrors of the fossil fuels crisis, within which there is no singular coherent narrative which accurately conveys our species’ and our planet’s present situation, or potential or necessary future orientation.

Weird energy

Weird fiction is a genre tag which was first applied to short stories such as those found in the American pulp magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories (the former’s print run began in 1923). It categorizes a blend of fantasy, horror, and science fiction which deals primarily with “alien” beings, existing within hidden realms and usually imperceptible to humans, but which manifest themselves under particular (if sometimes undisclosed) circumstances. In doing so, the characters and settings of the story are unsettled, as is the reader, by the prospect of a disruption to what was previously considered the rational and natural order. Undoubtedly the archetypal weird fiction author was H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Frequently published in the aforementioned pulp publications, the scope of Lovecraft’s fiction encompasses a vast and barely coherent genealogy of monstrous entities, woven together in a lore known to fans as the Cthulhu Mythos.

Within this group of stories, all the conventions and literary techniques of weird fiction can be traced. Lovecraft’s prose is grandiose, archaic, and mystical, yet it is always tethered to an empirical or scientific framework, narrated by a distinguished and respectable New England professor: the collision of these two contrasting effects pushes the tone of the Lovecraftian story into the degree-zero of the uncanny. As author and Lovecraft scholar Michel Houellebecq explains, “the trajectory of this collision is traced by a precise and firm line that becomes more dense and more complex as the story progresses, and it is this narrative precision that converts us into believers of the inconceivable.” (Houellebecq 2008: 81) And this element of inconceivability, which tears through and makes a mockery of the anthropocentric “laws of nature”, is almost entirely indescribable or “unnameable” as well. There is a great example of this in “The Colour Out of Space”, wherein the farmer’s wife, having witnessed “things in the air which she could not describe”, is able only to communicate through wild gesticulations and incomplete speech: “In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, […]” (Lovecraft 2014: 323).[2] Thacker describes the push-pull of Lovecraft’s literary style, the simultaneous hyperbolic description of the landscape and the essentially minimalist (non)description of the forces which disturb it, as “misanthropic subtraction” (Thacker 2012: 177-178). (We shall return to the full implications of what this concept might suggest in the second part of this essay.)

“The Colour Out of Space,” one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated short stories, concerns a land surveyor who has been sent to an area known by locals as “the blasted heath”, where a new reservoir is to be constructed, for the benefit of the townspeople of nearby Arkham. His meeting with a local man, the elderly Ammi Pierce, leads the latter to recount the tale of Old Nahum Gardner, who had in the 1880s owned a ranch on the prospective site; a ranch that in Nahum’s time had been visited by a meteorite. This extra-terrestrial object exhibited unusual properties, such as rapid cooling and shrinking, and when a group of scientists from the local university drilled into a section it released a strange globule, which reflected bands of indescribable colours. At least this is how it is portrayed by Ammi: he also states it was “only by analogy that they called it colour at all.” The substance popped when hit with a hammer by one of the scientists, leaving a spherical cavity where it had been (COS 317).

Over the coming months, the Gardner ranch slowly began to undergo supernatural transformations: the vegetation grew abnormally large and became luminous in the dark for a while, before turning grey and brittle and quickly disintegrating altogether. Nahum’s wife and sons, one by one, descended into madness or otherwise disappeared entirely. And the well water had become putrefied: this was discovered by Ammi when he visited the ranch. After a gruesome final encounter with Nahum, Ammi called for an investigation of the well, wherein the bones of two of Nahum’s sons and several animals were discovered. Additionally, the well contained an unusual slimy substance; later at night the well was seen to be displaying the same luminous qualities as the colour found in the meteorite. In the final scene of Ammi’s tale, he tells the surveyor that he and the other men witnessed a shaft of the colour’s light “pour” upwards into the sky. Concluding his story, Ammi expresses grave concern that the new reservoir will bring up a water supply still contaminated by the colour, and this could potentially lead to the deaths of several Arkham citizens. The surveyor mirrors this sentiment to the reader, but also states that he will continue with his work regardless: “I hope the water will always be very deep – but even so, I shall never drink it.” (ibid: 339-340)

Dean Koontz’s 1983 novel Phantoms is set in the Californian mountain town of Snowfield. Returning from her mother’s funeral with her younger sister Lisa, Dr Jennifer Page soon discovers that the town’s entire population of around 500 are either dead or missing, with bodies littered everywhere. She is unable to diagnose their cause of death, or understand why the corpses are bloated, bruised, and unable to decompose. She calls Santa Mira County Sheriff Bryce Hammond, who brings a squad over to investigate. Sensing high-level risk, Hammond calls an old ally, CBW (Chemical and Biological Warfare) Civilian Defence Unit General Galen Copperfield, for military assistance. Unable to leave due to the possibility of contamination (although disease or poisoning are looking less likely as causes of death), the group spend several hours overnight waiting for Copperfield’s unit, mostly in hiding from a giant moth which has savagely killed one of the officers.

Meanwhile, the incident begins to receive major press coverage, and in London, the eccentric (and for some time discredited) anthropologist Dr Timothy Flyte is informed that his name, as well as the name of his book The Ancient Enemy had appeared on a mirror in Snowfield, and he is encouraged by his publicist to travel to the town to rejuvenate his career. The next day, the CBW division unit arrives, and although initially sceptical of Hammond’s claims soon fall victim to a pair of gruesome deaths themselves. They are then contacted by “the ancient enemy” itself, through a computer terminal, describing itself as a demon and asking for Flyte personally, so that he may become his “Matthew” and chronicle it. Later Flyte arrives and Dr Sara Yamaguchi of the CBW unit makes some progress in identifying the creature responsible for their torment. It is an entity living below the Earth’s surface with the ability to alter its DNA structure and take any form, as well as break off parts of itself and operate independently of its nucleus. This substance is revealed to contain a large variety of hydrocarbons, giving it similar properties to petrolatum (petroleum jelly). The survivors develop a weapon made from Biosan-4, a bacteriological invention currently being tested to eat away at oil spills, and using this weapon they defeat the ancient enemy. However, a remnant appears in the woods outside Snowfield to the escaped murderer Fletcher Kale, as well as motorcycle gang leader Gene Terr, and suggests to them that by worshipping it and carrying out its commands, namely killing the survivors, it will one day return. A few days later the two men storm the hospital and attempt to carry out the task, but are finished off by the surviving officers (Koontz 1990).[3]

It should be immediately apparent to petroculturalists that both substances in these stories – the colour and the ancient enemy – are analogous to energy resources or their waste: oil, “natural” gases such as shale gas, and nuclear runoff such as thorium. Both substances are deliberately mercurial, constantly undergoing change and being of limited perceivability at a time to human observers. They are “unconscious” in the sense described by Patricia Yaeger: following from Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, Yaeger suggests that the symbolic dimension of a text reveals its underlying thermodynamic processes, as an “energy unconscious,” which interferes with the dominant narrative of energy abundance, and the “touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light” magic realism of contemporary modes of living (Yaeger 2011: 309-310). Likewise, the fictional slimes lie hidden underground, beneath human perception, feeding and growing stronger, until they are brought to the surface, and corrupt and shake the faith in the human narrative.

By human hands, the iridescent colour is drilled out of a giant space rock which shouldn’t be there, only to leak out and slowly corrupt the local biosphere, and eventually its human inhabitants. This is a clear analogy for the discovery of oil beneath the Earth’s surface, and its applied scientific and cultural usages which were beginning to occur in the period between the story’s two settings (1880s and 1920s): the appropriation of an “alien” substance for human consumption.[4] The egregious ballooning of the vegetation, which initially burn brightly with an alluring, almost neon-like luminosity before crumbling to grey ash, also mirrors the pattern of “exuberance and catastrophe” as investigated by Frederick  Buell.[5] The ancient enemy, which is effectively called oil by Koontz, also takes on a multitude of forms and names, one of which is Proteus, the Greek god of change and mutability. It epitomises the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transferred from one state to another, with some escaping as heat (when disguised as a dog, the ancient enemy becomes “painfully hot” whilst metamorphosing in the arms of Officer Gordy Brogan (Ph 334)).

Both of these stories are unambiguous with their depictions of the weird: scientists are informed of the presence of an unidentifiable object, which they deny can exist in an ordered universe, and are then disproven by these objects’ monstrous, life-threatening exhibitions of their qualities; qualities which imitate those of the real-world ooze, oil. This would lead to the conclusion that oil is a weird substance, and can be investigated using these genre concepts alongside those of “canonical” petrofiction.

In his reading, Anthony Sciscione classifies “The Colour Out of Space” as an example of “symptomatic horror”, which, as he explains, is a term applicable to “works that attempt to encounter the radically non-human without recourse to ontological presence and positive conceptualization, instead channelling the incompatible agency through its effects on the landscape and representing it in the text primarily with reference to the discursive and hermeneutic gaps it occasions.” (Sciscione 2012: 131-132) Although Phantoms doesn’t rely on “discursive and hermeneutic gaps” in the same way as “The Colour Out of Space” does (Ammi’s tale is full of “gaps […] where his sense of logic and continuity broke down” (COS 314), making its teller an unreliable narrator in conventional literary terms, but entirely credible in terms  of the weird), it also can be considered “symptomatic”, in that the antagonizing force is revealed through environmental effects (on the victims’ bodies) rather than through direct initial encounters. Sciscione calls this corruption weirding; a term used to describe the odd disturbances effected by these alien forces’ proximity, and the resultant uncanny effects. “The Colour Out of Space” contains several pages of unusual changes on the Gardner ranch brought about as a result of the colour; in every detail, there is something “not quite right”. For example, trees grow “too” thickly to be considered healthy, as a result of the poisoned water, resulting in “inconsistencies” between what is and what ought to be, according to their human observers (Sciscione, 137, 143-4). Similarly, a large proportion of Phantoms is used to illicit confusion regarding the condition of the corpses, which are swollen and bruised all over, yet without showing signs of decomposition, nor blood or broken bones or skin. It could be argued too that the global ecological effects of oil consumption are weird in this phenomenal sense; an idea which will be returned to later in this essay.

Concepts of oil

Now that the legitimate interest of oil to authors of weird fiction has been observed, we can begin to investigate oil through philosophical “concept horror,” which will eventually lead to Thacker’s understanding of horror as the encounter of the limits of philosophy. In the Editorial Introduction to Collapse IV, subtitled Concept Horror, Robin Mackay asks:

What if, prising the more disturbing elements of modern thought loose from their comfortable framing as part of an intellectual canon, we were to become fully attentive to their most harrowing consequences? What if, impatient with a consideration of their claims solely from the point of view of their explanatory power and formal consistency, we yielded to the (perhaps ‘unphilosophical’) temptation to experiment with their potentially corrosive effects upon lived experience? If the overriding affect connected with what we ‘know’ – but still do not really know – about the universe and our place in it, would be one of horror, then, inversely, how might the existing literature of horror inform a reading of these tendencies of contemporary thought? (Mackay 2008: 4)

This loose explanation of philosophy’s liaison with genre horror literature is designed to open many streams of conceptual engagement. The anthology’s many essays offer a variety of responses to the horror and weird labels, but where the whole volume appears unified is in the contributors’ attempts to utilise horror’s disruptive and weirding qualities to dislocate thought from the dominant “philosophical” framework. This critical technique is employed by the essayists in Collapse IV to practice new incarnations of phenomenology, theology, and metaphysics.

These practitioners of concept horror have all the conventions of horror and weird fiction at their disposal, yet of the selection it is oil which takes many of their imaginations. There is a consensus of what, conceptually, oil is, or a shortlist of what it could be. Many of these imaginative descriptions are inspired by Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, a work that simultaneously encompasses speculative theory and speculative fiction to create a highly original interpretation of Middle Eastern politics both ancient and (super)modern, and of which oil itself is a principal actor. Here then is an effort to describe oil as it resides in the works of Negarestani, Benjamin H. Bratton, Robin Mackay, McKenzie Wark, Ed Keller, and Eugene Thacker; all themselves heavily influenced by the “paleopetrology” of Dr. Hamid Parsani, the subject of Cyclonopedia. Oil is an autonomous, global agent which takes the control of the socio-political biosphere (the Earth), as the xeno-agent from within, as its primary aim. Flowing from a unified source, beneath the vast desert regions of the Middle East, oil corrupts human relations using (Islamist) religion, capitalist economy, and warfare (or jihad); permeating the entire globe in its viroid contamination. On a molecular level, oil embodies death, as “hydrocarbon corpse juice”, or “Devil’s excrement” (Negarestani 2008: 25-28); or “the planetary archive of putrification and cumulative decrepitude”, or “meat” (Bratton 2012: 48). But on a number of more disturbing levels, oil is also life, produced from photosynthetic processes and stored across eons as “buried sunlignmht” (Mackay 2012: 29); gifting it some consistency with Bataille’s theory of solar economy. It is also an animative force, “poison[ing] […] with absolute madness”, infecting (individual and social) bodies and manipulating them in a reverie of “petropuppetry” (Negarestani: 20).

There is one further element of the Parsanian/Negarestanian school of oil theory that must be mentioned: that is, it comes in two variations, elucidated in Negarestani’s later essay “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View” (2010). Much of what has been described in the previous paragraph would be classified by Negarestani as belonging to the “biogenic” theory of oil: oil as having been formed from hydrocarbons of existing planetary biomatter under immense pressure, heat, and time. The counterpart to this interpretation is the “xenogenic” or “abiogenic” theory. Liberally inspired by astrophysicist Thomas Gold’s theory of the “Deep Hot Biosphere”, the contention here is that the hydrocarbons from which our planetary oil is formed originated in deep space, before becoming trapped inside the earth. Furthermore, the bacterial processes which create oil may be more continual, even renewable, than otherwise thought. Oil is no longer a “fossil fuel”, but an alien “xeno-insider” which has always been there, potentially a signifier of the origins of life on Earth. Furthermore, this xenogenic oil displaces the role of the Sun to merely one lifegiving celestial body amongst many, exploding Bataille’s “solar hegemony” entirely (ibid.).[6] Whilst Negarestani upholds both theories as viable during Cyclonopedia, it becomes evident that his imagination finds greater riches in the latter.

Thinking the unthinkable

Contentious, even objectionable as these theories may immediately be from an ecological standpoint, taking them as serious approaches towards literary interpretation leads to some fascinating insights into the more horrific elements of petrofiction, as we investigate Thacker’s particular strain of thought and its relevance to discussions within the energy humanities. In The Dust of This Planet opens with the author’s ecological concerns, and charts the pathway along which they will be encountered:

The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. […] The aim of this book is to explore the relationship between philosophy and horror, through this motif of the “unthinkable world.” (Thacker 2011: 1)

For Thacker, for thought to be able to approach “unthinkable” territory, it must overcome the assumptive, pre-given modes of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, and to do this, new terminology must be implemented. The world-for-us (also called the World) is that anthropocentric conception to be broken out of; the world-in-itself (the Earth) is the paradoxical anthropocentric attempt to think of the world without the human, or the world as it “ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us.” (ibid.: 4-6) The world-without-us (the Planet), on the other hand, can be imagined by the human: as a mediatory state between the human and the non-human, this is the Planet as represented in post-apocalyptic fiction and that which forms the basis for the ecocritical incentive (to “save the planet” is to preserve the human as much as the terrestrial body) (ibid.). The Planet is described by Thacker as “a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific.” (ibid.) And once again, this horror finds its ultimate expression in the form of ooze, or oil.

It would seem necessary, if we are to take seriously the crisis of energy and its impact on humanity, we would need to think in terms of the Planet, and not just the World as we see it. To attempt to perceive even partial or temporary solutions to the problem of our current levels of energy consumption is to think one step ahead of an oncoming threat we can barely even identify; in effect, to think beyond that which is already beyond us. It also requires a degree of ethical engagement: to act not on our own behalf as such, but for the Planet, and the future generations which are to inhabit it.

A large proportion of Timothy Morton’s work has been to designate global warming, the earth, and combined human environmental impact as “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013). From a human perspective, hyperobjects are massive in both temporal and spatial terms, making their causation difficult to identify. Among their many properties, they are “viscous”, meaning that they “stick” to us. They are pervasive, persistent, and difficult to think outside of (we are always inside hyperobjects) (ibid.: 2, 27-37). They are also “nonlocal”: in a sense, they are themselves not the physical objects they are manifested as, but somehow operate on another plane of spacetime, spanning vast epochs on huge timescales (ibid.: 2, 38-54).

Within this terminology, oil too is hyperobjective. It is incalculably vast (no-one can say for sure exactly how much is left), has formed over millions of years, and its usage will leave an impact for a time period far beyond the humanly imaginable. This is suggested by Thacker, when he writes that “any attempt to point to or isolate oil is futile, precisely because it is fully continuous, not only with the Earth, but also with modern industrial society” (Thacker 2011: 93). Furthermore, oil holds a totalitarian grip over our imagination: to adapt a famous quote attributed to Frederic Jameson, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of oil consumption. Yet despite this, observes Caroline Edwards, it is simultaneously “absent” from cultural discourse (Edwards 2015), usually providing merely an unconscious input (to return to Yaeger’s term).

But in addition to these invincible attributes, oil is “horrifying”: in Morton’s vernacular, this word applies to an immediate timescale (affecting within five hundred years), as opposed to “terrifying” (thirty thousand years), and “petrifying” (one hundred thousand years) (Morton: 58-60). As a hyperobject, oil is all three of these, but it is chiefly the first which concerns us. As Graeme Macdonald observes, projections of this horror may be fictional, but at the same time, “all too horrifically unreal.” (Macdonald 2014: 133) As something actually observable to humans, horror both shocks and humiliates us, reveals our flaws and limitations, and entices a feeling of helplessness. Yet it is not immediately apparent that, in Thacker’s sense, the horrifying expresses the limits of the knowable. The terrifying and the petrifying certainly do: those timescales are unimaginable. But I would argue that the “horrifying” timescale cannot be so easily separated from the effects of terror and petrification; rather, that it is the very overwhelming immediacy of the energy crisis that freezes us in our tracks and compels us to silence, as much as it is the unimaginable consequences beyond our lifetimes. In this way, objects of horror can be symbols for what lies beyond their visceral immediacy.

Notes

[1] Ghosh began his “Petrofiction” essay by alluding to the history of oil as “a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic”, and “a story that evokes horror, sympathy, guilt, rage, and a great deal else” (29-30).

[2] Hereafter COS.

[3] Hereafter Ph.

[4] The beginnings of the U.S. oil industry are fictionalized in the quintessential work of petrofiction: Oil! by Upton Sinclair. It is interesting to note that both Oil! and COS share a journal publication date (1927), suggesting that the oil consciousness typically thought of as having originated fully after the Peak Oil crisis of 1973 may have had a much earlier episode worthy of further investigation.

[5] Buell, F. (2012). In his usage of these terms, Buell draws heavily on Catton (1980).

[6] See also Bratton: 48-52; Smil: 67-68.

Bibliography

Bratton, B.H. (2012) “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books: 45-57.

Buell, F. (2012) “A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance”, Journal of American Studies, Volume 46, Special Issue 02, May 2012, 273-293.

Catton, W.R., Jr., (1980) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press.

Edwards, C. (2015) “Peak Oil in the Popular Imagination”, Alluvium Vol 4., No. 4, available online at https://www.alluvium-journal.org/2015/09/07/peak-oil-in-the-popular-imagination/.

Ghosh, A. (March 1992) “Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel”, The New Republic, 29-34.

Houellebceq, M. (2008) H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life [H.P. Lovecraft, Contre le monde, contre la vie], trans. Khazeni, D., London, Gollancz/Orion.

Koontz, D. (1990) Phantoms, London, Headline Book Publishing.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2014) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, ed. Klinger, L.S., New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Macdonald, G. (2014) “Improbability Drives: The Energy of Sf”, Paradoxa, No. 26, 111-144.

Mackay, R. (2008) “Editorial Introduction”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 3-28.

— (2012) “A Brief History of Geotrauma”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 1-37.

Morton, T, (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re:press.

— (2010) “Outlines for a Science Fiction of the Earth as Narrated from a Nethermost Point of View”, in World Literature Today 84, 12-13, available online at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Fiction+by+Reza+Negarestani.-a0225794206.

Sciscione, A. (2012) “Symptomatic Horror: Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space””, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 131-146.

Smil, V. (2008) Oil: A Beginner’s Guide, Oxford, Oneworld.

Szeman, I. (2012) “Introduction to Focus: Petrofictions”, American Book Review, Special Issue: “Petrofictions”, March-April 2012, Volume 33, 3.

Thacker, E. (2011) In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, vol. 1, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books.

— (2012) “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans”, in Keller, E.; Masciandaro, N. & Thacker, E. (eds.) Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, New York, punctum books, 173-180.

Yaeger, P. (ed.) (2011) “Editor’s Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources”, PMLA Special Issue 126, 2, 305-326.

Featured image credits: übermorgen.com (2008) “05_MILLION_LITERS”.

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Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 2

This is the second of a two-part essay. Part 1 can be found here.

The “Image” of Thought

Chapter 3 of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition stands apart from the remainder of the book as an engagement not primarily with difference itself but with the nature of thought – particularly the kind of thought which philosophy “ought” to be concerned with. Together with Guattari, Deleuze summarised what the preoccupation of all philosophy ought to be, in the late-career What Is Philosophy?: “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts”; furthermore, they clarify: “we already had the answer, which has not changed” (1994: 2). When we look back at “The Image of Thought” (2014: 171-221),[1] then, we ought to be able to trace the purpose of the invention of new concepts as necessary for removing philosophy’s most damaging obstacle, that which inhibits the development and evolution of thought itself: the “dogmatic” image, which has persisted as a mainstay of much philosophy since at least Descartes (171-76). This dogmatic image of thought consists of eight postulates, identified and elaborated upon by Deleuze in detail throughout the chapter. By examining each of these postulates, we will gain an appreciation for how Deleuze is redefining “concept” as “image” here, and so, it is hoped, it will become possible later to recognise how Deleuze navigates through concepts such as “the virtual”, “the actual”, “the possible” and “the real”; and therefore, finally, we can assess the relevance of Deleuze’s project to the criteria of the definition of hyperstition we have already studied.

Contesting Descartes’s cogito (“I think…”) as being pre-established in philosophy, Deleuze wishes to expose the manifold errors of adopting the image of thought, in representing “the presupposition that there is a natural capacity for thought endowed with a talent for truth or an affinity with the true, under the double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of thought.” (173) This criticism, I argue, is not primarily addressed to Cartesianism, but Kantianism: this is expressed later in the chapter with recourse to what Deleuze identifies (renames) as “good sense” and “common sense” complimenting one another as “two halves of the doxa”, the Cogitatio natura universalis (177; 180). Good sense here refers to the affinity between thought and the true as established by the thinker, derived ultimately from the opening sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.[2] Common sense, on the other hand, concerns a natural Image of thought itself, the example given by Deleuze (besides Descartes and Kant) being of Plato’s Theaetetus. Each of these texts (the Second Meditation, the Critique of Pure Reason, and Theaetetus[3]) uphold the model of recognition by which the meaning of thought is defined (177). In this “transcendental” form of recognition, the faculties converge into a unity which is considered as thought, yet is not in itself a faculty, but merely an “align[ment] with the form of the Same” (therefore a “common sense”). This form, for Deleuze, “has never sanctioned anything but the recognisable and the recognised; form will never inspire anything but conformities.” (ibid., 178) These three features – good sense, common sense, and the provision of thought as recognition, constitute the first, second, and third postulates of the image of thought. Good sense and common sense are elements, to which recognition is a form through which the image of thought is understood; a form in which the faculties are invited “to exercise themselves upon an object supposedly the same” (173-174, 217).

Another form of the image of thought related to recognition is representation, the fourth postulate. Representation is briefly summarized by Deleuze as incorporating “identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to the determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgement, resemblance with regard to objects.” In other words, a reduction of the faculties to identification of the Same. Deleuze draws from Plato’s Republic to distinguish between things which do not provoke thought (i.e. those which we merely recognize) and, in Plato’s words again, “those which force us to think”.[4] From this fragment of the Republic, Deleuze decides to draw out the question of Socrates’s interlocutor: is it in these latter instances, when we are unable to recognise, that thinking occurs? Yet Deleuze is quick to refute this possibility, for the reason that doubt does not shock us out of the sensible (aiesthēton) but merely reinforces postulates of thought’s image such as good sense: this gesture is still wholly representational, and does not in any way lead to the destruction of this image (182-3). This distinction allows Deleuze to further state that “concepts only ever designate possibilities” (ibid.), a comment which echoes Bergson’s insight that there are more possibilities for each real thing than their reality presupposes (Bergson 2002b: 229), an idea which will be examined in more detail in the following section of this essay.

The fifth postulate of the image of thought concerns error, specifically the constitution of error as “a possible misadventure of thought”, which for Deleuze is wholly mistaken (194). Not only does error testify to a form of common sense, as a mere negative of the rational orthodoxy upheld by the Theaetetus, Descartes, et al., error is reduced by the image of thought to a mere fact or false solution, “arbitrarily projected into the transcendental”, and masking much more serious challenges to thought, namely the “terrible Trinity” of stupidity, madness and malevolence (194-96). Deleuze wishes to reaffirm these enemies of thought not as obstacles, but as “structures of thought as such” (197), albeit undesirable ones. Of these, it is stupidity (bêtise) which for Deleuze is most in need of redefining as a transcendental problem by philosophy, as “no more than an empirical determination, referring back to psychology or to the anecdotal – or worse, to polemic and insults” (ibid.).[5] When confused as an effect or subsidiary of error, stupidity becomes a “lamentable faculty” (to quote Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet[6]); whereas it ought to be identified as an illusion which leads philosophers to present badly-constituted problems, problems which take us away from the necessary purpose of philosophical enquiry (199-200).[7] Such is the sixth postulate, the postulate of designation, or of the proposition itself; which relates back to how Deleuze understands philosophy’s understanding of the word “sense” in this context, as “the condition of the true”, (200-1). In cases of designation, truth or falsity are assigned to the proposition rather than the outcomes; in this manner, and as the result of a badly-posed question, sense is falsely constituted, and non-sense is incorrectly identified as error (ibid.). Instead of enslaving sense to the true and the false, Deleuze instead wishes to establish within sense the “relation between a proposition and what it designates”; and reposition truth towards “matter[s] of production” (ibid.).

Sense is located “in the problem itself”; this problem in turn having derived from the proposition (205). A further falsity – the seventh postulate – is made by philosophers when they approach the solution as constitutive of the problem itself, and that by arriving at the correct solution, the problem is neutralised (206-207). “We are led to believe that problems are given ready-made, and that they disappear in the responses or the solution. […] According to this infantile prejudice, the master sets a problem, our task is to solve it, and the result is accredited true or false by a powerful authority.” (ibid.) The problem is the territory where the binary of sense-nonsense (or false sense) must be located; thus, the problem becomes for Deleuze “at once both the site of an originary truth and the genesis of a derived truth.” (ibid.)

At this stage in the chapter, Deleuze introduces signs in relation to problems: signs “cause problems” and are developed in a symbolic field, and constitute the limit for each of the faculties (213). It is by elevating each of the faculties to its transcendent exercise – through the encounter with the sign – that thought is able to constitute new sense, and the task of philosophy can begin, and well as our “learning” of it (213-214). Deleuze’s name for true learning (beyond the dogmatic image of thought, beyond engaging with badly-expressed problems and their solutions) is apprenticeship, or the “education of the senses”: it is through apprenticeship that the faculties (in “discordant harmony”) are subjected to an original violence, and sensory (and therefore philosophical) knowledge can be grasped (213-215, 191, 183). An apprentice “constitutes and occupies speculative problems”, and learns by constructing and immersing in a “problematic field”, (214). Deleuze illustrates this point using Leibniz’s idea of the sea as a system of singular points which conceptualise differential relations through their degrees of variation; apprenticeship is akin to learning to swim through this sea, to “conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective Idea”, thus establishing a real (sensorial, perceptual rather than conceptual) basis for knowledge (ibid.).[8] In contrast, Deleuze sees in philosophy conducted under the image of thought attempts to acquire knowledge through the dictatorship of method, another manifestation of common sense or corroboration of the faculties, and therefore, finally, the eighth postulate (215).

In “The Image of Thought”, we see Deleuze answering the question, “Where to begin in philosophy?” by examining how thought itself comes into being. Conceptualising the genesis of thought is problematised under the Cartesian-Kantian dogmatic image of thought: an image which manifests and universalises good sense and common sense, through the forms of recognition and representation; misapprehends error as an external “misadventure” to the process of thought, and the true obstacle, stupidity, as derivative of error; locates the basis of the truth-falsehood binary in solutions, therefore in the construction of non-philosophical problems as normative to philosophy; and conceives knowledge as the attainment of solutions through regimented method as the basis of philosophical learning. Deleuze is unambiguous here: this image is something to be entirely abolished. Unlike in his previous work Nietzsche and Philosophy (orig. published 1962), where a new image of thought was proposed to replace this negative one (Deleuze 2006: 104), Deleuze in the 1968 text makes it clear that it is “not a matter of opposing to the dogmatic image another image”, but that new possibilities for thought can only be revealed through the excision of that image (194). This leads to the conclusion that for Deleuze, the notion of an image here is itself representational: the image of thought masks thought’s true genesis and operations through abstraction and reduction, through reproduction of the Same rather than original insight. Images are not always the site for the creation of new problems or concepts, but carriers of unthought, a “misosophy” which must be resisted (183). The image can inhibit the encounter necessary to thought itself.

From this Deleuzian perspective, we can see the image in several of the elements of the definition of hyperstition. The construction of representational problems leading to solutions wary of error but not stupidity reflects hyperstition’s production or adoption of coincidence-intensifying carriers that are used to deploy “knowledge” without its bondage to authorship. It is important to distinguish this from superstition, whereby an idea is multiplied through belief, not image. Put simply, hyperstition cannot occur without either the creation, or more frequently, the alteration of an image: in the example of “The Geology of Morals”, the image is the interface of the text itself, a philosophy-image infected with literary features and thus disfigured. Yet original thought can be generated within “The Geology of Morals”, thus hyperstition, while an image, is not an image “of thought”, or the kind of inhibitor Deleuze finds in Descartes and Kant: it is form, not content. However, it is a form which hides its own reflection, its point of becoming or of genesis, thus appearing to self-emerge into the present point in time without ontology.

It is clear that in hyperstition-as-image we do not get the original violence or encounter Deleuze is looking for to create new concepts, as long as this hyperstitional image and process is considered representational. But we have not yet proven that this is necessarily the case, only noted the similarities between a hyperstition-image (carrier) and a Deleuzian image as derived from “The Image of Thought”. In order to finally determine if from the evidence gathered from this chapter it is possible to conclude whether hyperstition effects thought through representation only, or if the narrative being carried by hyperstition can effect itself in “reality”, we need to do the following: 1) establish within Deleuzian thought the relationship between image and the virtual; and 2) establish the relationship between the virtual and the possible, which for Deleuze (by way of Bergson) is a pre-condition for the real.

Comparing Deleuzian-Bergsonian and hyperstitional conceptions of the “real”

We have established that the Deleuzian image is a representational structure: the negative function of the image of thought within transcendental empiricism is as an inhibitor of thought’s becoming. Furthermore, if we are to eventually conclude that the fictions hyperstitions adopt as their carriers are themselves images (which Deleuze will refer to as virtual multiplicities), then it follows that these images are concealed by the hyperstitional form itself: the image’s point of genesis is disguised through literary techniques such as misauthorship, resulting in trivial statements without philosophical value. But if “The Image of Thought” is to be used to verify this, we need to recognise Deleuze’s relationship with transcendentalism. For it is not precisely clear, according to Miguel de Beistegui, that Deleuze’s primary interest in transcendentalism is indeed genesis: Deleuze’s ontology “exceeds […] identifying the real conditions of experience”, in its incorporation of becoming (de Beistegui 2010: ix). The point of departure in Deleuzian ontology is a specific form of the transcendental, the transcendental as “the pre-individual horizon from out of which the empirical is generated” (de Beistegui 2004: 248). This is not a Kantian transcendental Idealism, wherein the Idea is identified as the problem, and situated in the faculty of reason; but a transcendental for which the real itself is the problem, more specifically “the virtual side of the real, or the pre-individual, proto-actual within the individual or the actual.” (ibid., emphasis added) The entire difficulty for Deleuze’s relation to transcendental philosophy, therefore,

consists in replacing the problem of conditioning, in which the phenomena are legislated only in relation to their form, and the structure of experience envisaged only in relation to its possibility […] with that of genesis. (ibid.: 249)

Deleuze concludes in “The Image of Thought” that “the transcendental is answerable to a superior empiricism” (Deleuze 2014: 188). In his own philosophy of transcendental empiricism, transcendental becoming cannot be measured by an empirical scale “precisely because it apprehends that which cannot be grasped from the point of view of common sense” (ibid.). We must therefore keep the transcendental and the empirical modes of becoming distinct, and decide which of these pertains to the becoming-real of hyperstition.

A further point on the matter is made by Ray Brassier, who makes the strong contention that Difference and Repetition is to a large part “a particularly audacious rewriting of Kant’s 1st Critique in the light of Bergson’s Matter and Memory.” (Brassier 2007: 163) Using Bergsonism as a “scalpel”, Deleuze re-arranges the transcendental so that the Transcendental Analytic “is supplanted by an account of spatio-temporal individuation” (ibid.). Thus in transcendental empiricism,

the individuated entity is the actualization of a virtual multiplicity, and it is individuation as ultimate determinant of actualization which ensures the exact coincidence of the ideal and the real, and hence a perfect fit between ideal genesis and empirical actuality. (ibid.: 163-164, emphasis added)

The language of hyperstition always refers to the narrative becoming “real”: translated into the Deleuzian-Bergsonian register, this places hyperstitional becoming entirely on the transcendental/ideal side of transcendental empiricism. It is therefore false, along these lines, to interpret the becoming of hyperstition as an empirical actualization, with the pre-hyperstitional narrative as a virtual potentiality. The relationship between the virtual and the actual in Bergson (wherein the former is the pre-condition for the latter) is a key basis for the book Bergsonism (orig. published 1966). In it, Deleuze disentangles the virtual and the possible from two points of view. The first directly opposes the possible with the real, and the virtual with the actual: from this, Deleuze shows that the virtual is not actual, yet can (and does) possess a reality; and likewise, the possible may have an actuality (Deleuze 2014: 272; 1988: 96).[9] The other point of view is that of the possible’s realization, when subjected to the two essential rules of resemblance and limitation (what Deleuze would later recontextualize in “The Image of Thought” as the functions of the postulate of recognition) (Deleuze 1988: 96-97). This is not what occurs in cases of the actualization of the virtual, as we shall see later, because the rules of actualization “are not those of resemblance or limitation, but those of difference or divergence and of creation.” (ibid.) For a real thing is simply a possibility with the quality of reality added to it; an actual thing, on the other hand, operating through difference, does not resemble its virtual counterpart, but must “create its lines of differentiation in order to be actualized” (ibid.). So as to further clarify the distinction between the possible-real and the virtual-actual, let us pause to give each of these binaries some thought.

Bergson gives a detailed exposition of the possible and the real in the first chapter of The Creative Mind.[10] Reality is characterized by Bergson here as “progressive invention”, and “the continuous creation of unforeseeable novelty” (Bergson 2002b: 226, 223). The reason such reality is novel and unforeseen is that despite the fact that it shares a resemblance with its corresponding possibles, these possibles can only be sensed after the real has come into existence (ibid.: 229-30). To demonstrate, Bergson describes an incident which occurred during the war (WW1), when someone came to him to ask for his insight into the future of literature. Bergson’s reply was it was not possible for him to answer this question at the present moment; however that from the moment of its coming into existence, “it will have been possible” to give the answer at that very moment (ibid.). Possibility is not a precursor to reality: possibility is, rather, the “image reflected behind it into the indefinite past”, and it is from the moment of genesis we can sense it (ibid.). Furthermore, possibility does not simply emerge from the point of becoming and thrown back in time; rather it is immanent, without sense: a “phantom awaiting its hour” (ibid.). Using this logic, Bergson establishes the real as that without precursor, a novelty that creates its own possibility.

However, Deleuze identifies Bergson’s ultimate preoccupation not with the possible but with the virtual (Deleuze 1988: 97-98). This is because, Deleuze says, the possible is a “false notion, a source of false problems” (ibid.). The real is pre-existent to itself, already-given; hence, we cannot understand from the possible anything “either of the mechanism of difference or of the mechanism of creation.” (ibid.) Deleuze’s conception of the virtual and the actual from Bergson’s own concepts, duration and élan vital, is intricate and not at all immediately graspable (it has also been the subject of several studies). As we have already established from Brassier, the terms “virtual” and “actual” refer to empirical instances of becoming, unlike the transcendental becoming which the possible undertakes when acquiring the attribute of reality. For Deleuze, the virtual image exists “beyond the turn in experience” (such as we find in the brain) at a point of convergence of the “lines” that have broadened out from a divided notion of representation (ibid: 24-29). Representation must be divided in order to restore differences in kind: for Bergson, their absence has meant that the distinction between duration and extension in representation has been lost, and has become the “whole source of the false problems and the illusions that overwhelm us” (ibid.: 22-23).[11] The process of actualization is brought about by this divergence and differentiation of duration, of the image, or virtual multiplicity (ibid: 42-43). The multiplicity actualizes itself “by creating lines of differentiation that correspond to its differences in kind” (ibid.). Thus, unlike with realization, whereby the real object always resembles one of its infinite possibilities, an actualized multiplicity results from a process of differentiating itself from its virtual counterpart. On a conceptual level, both the virtual and the actual are expressions of Bergson’s duration: precisely, it is the virtual in the moment it is being actualized (ibid.).

Ultimately, it must be decided whether the hyperstitional carrier is, as I have suggested based solely so far on its commentators’ and practitioners’ use of language, a transcendental possible image that is made real; or, alternatively, an empirical virtual image that is made actual. Thus we can determine whether hyperstition actualizes, or, as is claimed, “makes real”. (We ought to remember here that there can be no crossing of the two: a virtual image is always-already real; however, a possibility can never be actualized.) Let us for a moment assume that the former of these two is the correct statement. Bergson is explicit in “The Possible and the Real” that the idea that reality itself can be put back into the past and thus affect the present is “something I have never claimed”; this is true only of the possible (Bergson 2002b: 229). If hyperstitional narrative is at any moment real, then, before this retrojection occurs, it must be considered possible. However for Bergson and Deleuze, possibility can only be established following the coming-into-existence of the real: we cannot, therefore, observe a pre-hyperstitional narrative. Yet this statement seems to contradict the whole re-purposing aspect of some hyperstitions, such as “The Geology of Morals”. For any hyperstitional narrative to realize itself, it must by some method or other distort reality in order for it to come into being: thus, “the real” is forced to become its own measure, which it cannot do.

What if, then, we consider the second of these statements to be correct, that the hyperstitional narrative is an actualized virtuality? After all, as we have stated multiple times, the virtual narrative is always real by default. As Deleuze states elsewhere in Difference and Repetition, the virtual is but one aspect of a real object, “as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension”; thus, works of art are determined by their virtual structures. (Deleuze 2014: 272-73). That the process of hyperstitional becoming is an actualization does not work for two reasons. Firstly, a virtual object is always real, but as such, it must resemble a possible that has preceded it (even if this possible is only a mirage reflected back from the real object’s point of genesis). As we have already seen, a possible cannot be established for hyperstitional narrative, because the very process of hyperstition undercuts this reality in order to effect the narrative as “real”. Secondly, a prior case of actualization for hyperstition cannot be verified. This is not to rule out tout court any actualization, only that a true hyperstition – a text without author or origin – has not yet definitively materialized. Professor Challenger can be attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle; Professor Daniel Charles Barker can be attributed to Nick Land; and we have no sufficient reason to suggest that any currently anonymous narratives could not be traced genealogically in principle.

Conclusion

We set out to establish whether the “real” as understood in the definition of hyperstition could be understood in the sense offered by Deleuze, from the perspective of “The Image of Thought”; and therefore, whether this chapter could be definitively considered a precursor to this original definition. It has proven that no substantial connection could be established, and that, therefore, the claim that hyperstition “makes itself real” could not be fully legitimized using Deleuze’s terms. The process by which thought comes into being is through actualization, and this does not appear to be true for the processes of hyperstition. However, there are clear similarities between examples of hyperstition and Deleuze’s thinking in both “The Image of Thought” and other texts by Deleuze (especially the later writings with Guattari). This study of the relationship between Deleuze’s philosophy and hyperstition is one of a deliberately limited scope; perhaps to end, I might suggest areas for studying this relationship further.

In the introduction to their final collaboration, What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari make reference to what they call “conceptual personae”. On the surface, there are similarities between the hyperstition which requires a carrier to make itself real, and the concept needing enunciation from a philosophical figure (the “friends of wisdom” from which philosophy is defined) (Deleuze & Guattari 1994: 2-3). Any study of Deleuze and hyperstition which does not explore the connections between hyperstitional carriers and conceptual personae, such as this one, is one with an obvious limitation.[12]

Deleuze’s engagement with the idea of superstition could be a subject for further study. In particular, the crusade against superstition has had a long philosophical tradition, the genealogy of which can be traced through the “secret link” of thinkers Deleuze has previously called his allies: Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, and (as previously mentioned) Hume (Deleuze 1995: 6). “The Image of Thought” does contain a fleeting reference to superstition in the line of these philosophers: when discussing the “negatives of thought” having been caught up in the notion of error (the fifth postulate), Deleuze acknowledges the attempts of these philosophers to restore the “absurdity” of superstition to a genuine danger or misadventure of thought (Deleuze 2014: 196). The first stage of a study into Deleuze’s encounters with superstition would have to approach the Latin term religio as used by Lucretius, carefully translating it as to not suggest “religion” as such but, as Ryan J. Johnson identifies, a majoritarian system of false beliefs (Johnson 2017: 224). By elucidating a precise meaning of superstition, such a study could progress towards understanding the influence of this trajectory of thought on Deleuze; and finally, may strengthen Deleuzian understandings of hyperstition.

Finally, a future study can be hypothesised wherein the question of if or how we can “learn” (in the Deleuzian sense of apprenticeship), or produce original thought using the hyperstitional image is resolved. We have already concluded during the course of this essay that the narratives of hyperstition are not themselves images of thought, but the “fictional quantity” is still a kind of image, therefore a concept; and that images for Deleuze have the potential to inhibit the encounter necessary for the original violence of thought to occur. As philosophical-literary theory-fictions, hyperstitions are designed to convey knowledge of a kind to their readers, whether that knowledge be of a geophilosophical nature (as in “The Geology of Morals”) or of petropolitics (as in Cyclonopedia). Precisely how this original violence comes about, if it can even be established that it does, is not something which was concluded during this essay. Perhaps this was due to the limited insight into Deleuze’s understanding of “image” as can be gathered from “The Image of Thought”. A fuller study of hyperstition’s engagement with Deleuze possibly may use alternative sources such as Bergsonism and Cinema 2: the Time-Image (orig. published 1985) –  both of which have much more detailed expositions of image in Deleuzian-Bergsonian philosophy – as the basis for the formulation of an answer to the question of hyperstitional learning.

 

Notes

[1] All subsequent uncited page references in this section will be attributable to Difference and Repetition (Deleuze 2014). See bibliography.

[2] “All men by nature desire to know”. Aristotle (1984: section 980a21).

[3] Compare Descartes (1984: sections 24-34); Kant (2007: 133-38, 146-47); Plato (1978b: sections 185a, 187a).

[4] Deleuze quotes from the Republic, Book VII: section 523b (Plato 1978a): “… some reports of our perceptions do not provoke thought to reconsideration because the judgement of them by sensation seems adequate, while others always invite the intellect to reflection because the sensation yields nothing that can be trusted.—You obviously mean distant appearances, or things drawn in perspective.—You have quite missed my meaning …” (Deleuze 2014: 182).

[5] Compare Horkheimer & Adorno’s closing comments in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002: 214): “Stupidity is a scar. It can relate to one faculty among many or to them all, practical and mental. Every partial stupidity in a human being marks a spot where the awakening play of muscles has been inhibited instead of fostered.”

[6] “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable.” Flaubert (1976: 217, emphasis added).

[7] The distinction between “nonexistent” and “badly-stated” problems is elaborated by Deleuze in Bergsonism (Deleuze 1988: 17-21).

[8] Compare Leibniz (1989: par. 33.).

[9] Deleuze locates the beginnings of this line of thinking about the virtual in Proust’s “formula”: “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract”. See Deleuze (2008: esp. 39-40; 2014: 272-73).

[10] See Bergson (2002b).

[11] See also Bergson (2002a).

[12] O’Sullivan has begun to highlight these connections (2016: 7, 13, 24). I also intend to pursue this line of inquiry in a follow-up essay sometime next year.

 

Bibliography

Numbers following dates in citations refer to page numbers, unless otherwise stated.

Works by Deleuze and Deleuze & Guattari:

Deleuze, G. (1988) Bergsonism [Le Bergsonisme], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., New York, Zone Books.

— (1989) Cinema 2: the Time-Image [Cinema 2: l’Image-Temps], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Galeta, R., London, The Athlone Press.

— (1995) Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], trans. Joughin, M., New York, Columbia University Press.

— (2006) Nietzsche and Philosophy [Nietzsche et la philosophie], trans. Tomlinson, H., New York, Columbia University Press.

— (2008) Proust and Signs [Proust et Signes], trans. Howard, R., London/New York, Continuum.

— (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

(with Guattari, F.) (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso.

Works by other authors:

Aristotle (1984) Metaphysics [τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά], trans. Ross, W.D., in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes, J., Volume Two, Princeton/Guildford, Princeton University Press, 1552-1728.

Bergson, H. (2002a) “Images and Bodies”, trans. Paul, N.M. & Palmer, W.S., in Key Writings, ed. Ansell Pearson, K. & Mullarkey, J., London/New York, Continuum, 86-123.

— (2002b) “The Possible and the Real”, trans. Andison, M.L., in Key Writings, 223-232.

Brassier, R. (2007) Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

De Beistegui, M. (2004) Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology, Bloomington/Minneapolis, University of Indiana Press.

— (2010) Immanence – Deleuze and Philosophy, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Descartes, R. (1984) Meditations on First Philosophy [Meditationes de prima philosophia, in qua Dei existentia et animæ immortalitas demonstrator], in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., and Murdoch, D., Volume II, Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1-62.

Flaubert, G. (1976) Bouvard and Péchuchet [Bouvard et Péchuchet], trans. Krailsheimer, A.J., Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Horkheimer, M. & Adorno, T.W. (2002) Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments [Dialektik der Aufklärung], ed. Schmid Noerr, G., trans. Jephcott, E., Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Johnson, R.J. (2017) The Deleuze-Lucretius Encounter, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Kant, I. (2007) Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], trans. Kemp Smith, N., Revised Second Edition, Basingstoke/New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Leibniz, G.W. (1989) “Discourse on Metaphysics (1686)” [Discours de métaphysique], trans. Ariew, R. & Garber, D., in Philosophical Essays, Indianapolis/Cambridge, Hackett Publishing Company, 35-68.

O’Sullivan, S. (2016) “Acceleration, Hyperstition and Myth-Science”, available online at https://www.academia.edu/19888801/Accelerationism_Hyperstition_and_Myth-Science.

Plato (1978a) Republic [Πολιτεία], trans. Shorey, P., in Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Hamilton, E. & Cairns, H, Ninth printing, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 575-844.

— (1978b) Theaetetus [Θεαίτητος], trans. Cornford, F.M., in Collected Dialogues of Plato, 845-919.

Evaluating Deleuze’s “The Image of Thought” (1968) as a Precursor of Hyperstition // Part 1

This is the first of a two-part essay. Part 2 can be found here.

The term hyperstition was coined by the partially-anonymous Ccru (Cybernetic Culture Research Unit) in the late 1990s, to refer to a specific instance of the relationship between fiction and reality. Many of the early adopters of the term (notably Reza Negarestani, Nick Land, and Mark Fisher) were postgraduate students and academics who, at the same time as exploring the cultural ramifications of hyperstition, were also directly engaging with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, to various degrees and means.[1] More recently, hyperstition has re-emerged as an idea of philosophical interest, for example in the documentary film Hyperstition, directed by Christopher Roth and uploaded to Vimeo in 2016. A revived interest in hyperstition is also currently observable in academic Deleuze studies, with recent work on the subject being published by Ben Woodard (2015) and Simon O’Sullivan (2016).

This essay will explore the philosophical relationship between the idea of hyperstition and Deleuze’s work in a particular way. Specifically, it will focus on a single definition of hyperstition, and one chapter from Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition (2014, orig. published 1968). In “The Image of Thought”, Deleuze seeks to trace the ontology of thought itself, by asking the question of how thought comes into being. Superficially, this question resembles the question concerning the mechanics of hyperstitional narratives’ supposed coming-into-reality.[2] There are four major objectives to this essay. Two of these will be achieved in Part 1 of this essay (this part), with the other two being the subject of Part 2. The first objective is to establish the precise underpinnings of the 1999 definition of hyperstition. Secondly, a chapter from Deleuze’s own book with Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1987: orig. published 1980), will be examined, in order to establish this chapter as an early example of a text that meets several of the criteria for hyperstition. The third objective of the essay will be to show how this precise iteration of Deleuze’s image of thought inhibits original thinking. From this, we can infer Deleuze’s usage of words such as “image”, and what they might mean for hyperstitional becoming. The final objective of the essay is to attempt to utilise the tools of Deleuzianism identified up to this point to critique the process of hyperstition as it is claimed in its definition: as a fiction making itself “real”.

Defining “hyperstition”

The earliest available concrete definition of the term hyperstition (to this writer’s knowledge) is the one found in the final edition of the short-lived Ccru-edited journal Abstract Culture (1999). Not only do the journal’s editors add the subtitle “Digital Hyperstition” to this last issue, they also incorporate a glossary of over one hundred neologisms – playfully and deliberately obfuscating words inspired in equal parts by the cyberpunk aesthetics of William Gibson, the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, and poststructuralist texts such as A Thousand Plateaus[3] – the usage of which is almost entirely confined to the Ccru’s own writings. The entry for “hyperstition” is reproduced below:

Hyperstition: Element of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials. Hyperstition operates as a coincidence intensifier, effecting a call to the Old Ones. (Ccru 1999: 74)

I wish to put aside the (for present purposes, unnecessary and extraneous) reference to Lovecraft’s “Old Ones” which rounds the definition off, and instead propose separating it into the following four elements. I will expand on each of these briefly, ending on the initial claim of the definition concerning the real, which will take much longer to unpack and will lead us into the primary focus of the essay. For this reason, I have listed them in reverse order:

i) The operation of hyperstition as a coincidence intensifier.
ii) Reference to time-travelling potentials.
iii) Reference to fictional quantities.
iv) Hyperstition as element of effective culture which makes itself real.

i) The phrase “coincidence intensifier” is suggestive of the already-established English word with which hyperstition shares a related meaning: superstition, or the (often unwarranted) association of everyday phenomena with the supernatural; fragments of narratives often spread through word-of-mouth, and invested in particular actions, objects, symbols, and times of day or year. Superstition has at times been considered an enemy of philosophy, antithetical to its many definitions and ambitions. For instance, Hume, for whom superstition constituted a “false religion”, identified “weakness, fear, melancholy, [and] ignorance” as its sources; and its manifestations a result of cases when “real objects of terror are wanting, the soul, active to its own prejudice, and fostering its predominant inclination, finds imaginary ones, to whose power and malevolence it sets no limits.” (Hume 1985: 73-4) Hence for many, the correlation between these phenomena and their supposed effects, having no basis in natural or empirical causes, is purely a result of the imagination and can be attributed to individual episodes of coincidence.

The first element of hyperstition therefore implies an acceleration of coincidence generated in cases of superstition. Two early entries on the Hyperstition blog, posted a few years after the Abstract Culture issue, aim to clarify the distinction between super- and hyperstition. The earlier post, by Anna Greenspan (25th June 2004) claims that the aim of hyperstition is to “flatten the transcendence of superstition.” The latter term, she continues, is grounded in “degrees of belief” not intrinsic to the former: hyperstition does not need to be “believed” as such: it operates purely as hype, or the viral contamination of narrative without basis in the conditions of fear or insecurity identified by Hume. Greenspan’s short post garnered a range of responses, including a follow-up post by mark k-p (Mark Fisher, 6th July 2004), who added that superstitions “fail to decode the relationship between belief and reality in the way that hyperstition always does.” In other words, the belief element of superstition is always self-perpetuating: on the superstition appearing to “come true”, faith in the “lucky” object or method is reinstated, and not given the opportunity to be proven ineffectual. Hyperstition, on the other hand, has no belief and no object, and because of this absence of any need for validity in order to operate, its effects upon reality are all the more “intense” when they are indeed operated.

ii) The phrase “time-travelling potentials” is in itself imprecise, and in need of some external qualification. On its surface at least, it implies the possibility for hyperstition to decouple itself from chronological time, or to function on different scales or dimensions of time. Suhail Malik (speaking from the year 2022) introduces Hyperstition (film, 2016) by explaining that “the film presents a disruption of linear time.” Nick Land would illustrate this aspect of hyperstition using James Cameron’s The Terminator: a machine that travels back in time from the future in order to alter the past (Land 2011: 422). A later example is cited by Armen Avenessian and others in the Hyperstition film, this time from continental philosophy. Quentin Meillassoux characterizes his arche-fossil (or ancestrality) as being “anterior to ancestral life”, and referring to “a non-given occurrence”: an object which retroactively comes into existence as an imprint on the past, therefore an “ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness […] in the midst of a space and time which are supposed to pre-exist [it].”[4] Meillassoux also speculates on how a time “anterior to the possibility of experience” (Brassier 2007: 52) may re-emerge to “destroy every determinate reality,”[5] in a recursive activation of latent unrealised possibilities, obeying as yet unknown laws and principles.

iii) The original Ccru definition of hyperstition contains another ambiguous term: this time “fictional quantities”. Only a few further references to this precise term can be found on the Hyperstition blog; most substantially one by Fisher (2nd August 2004), who identifies an early, if fleeting, usage of it by Deleuze and Guattari in their earliest collaboration, Anti-Oedipus (orig. published 1972):

The primitive machine is not ignorant of exchange, commerce, and industry; it exorcises them, localizes them, cordons them off, encastes them, and maintains the merchant and the blacksmith in a subordinate position, so that the flows of exchange and the flows of production do not manage to break the codes in favour of their abstract and fictional quantities [quantités abstraites ou fictives].[6]

There is no evidence to suggest, however, that there is any unique significance to this phrase. One might be inclined to speculate that Fisher and the other contributors to the Hyperstition blog are merely delighting in the apparent “coincidence intensifying” aspect of a phrase appearing in an earlier Deleuze and Guattari text after using but prior to their acknowledgment of it (therefore making the phrase itself a time-travelling hyperstition). Instead of insisting on a precise meaning to the phrase, it is more reasonable to conclude that “fictional quantities” is merely a synonym of a term such as “fictional elements”, “fictional entities”, or simply “fictions” or “narratives”: specifics of character, plot, setting, etc., or narratives in their entirety. Indeed, each of these terms can be observed in later brief summations of hyperstition;[7] references to “quantities” are scarce after 2004. Thus, it appears that to the majority of hyperstition researchers, the unusually-worded phrase carries no substantial meaning not already indicated by more common terms such as “narratives”; nor is the phrase’s appearance in Anti-Oedipus considered to be of unique relevance.[8]

iv) The most substantial element of the definition, from a philosophical standpoint, is this one: hyperstition is an element of “effective” culture that “makes itself real.” There are two primary implications working in tandem here. The first implication is that narratives – or, at least, the kinds of narratives found in hyperstitions – “effect” themselves in a way that suggests degrees of autonomy, mis- (or even non- or self-) authorship, and significant reworkings of conceptions of ontology. Furthermore, this notion of a narrative “effecting” itself, or making itself “real”, necessarily carries an underlying political dimension. Narrative is commonly understood as being given or exchanged, or of being of epistemological value – which is attributed to the teller, not that which is being told. Accepting the literal implications of hyperstition means that narrative is now liberated from the chain of signification-signifier-signified altogether, and able to speak for itself. Additionally, for better or for worse, hyperstition can in principle be implemented into progressive political strategies as a means to change the prescribed (perhaps hegemonic) future, and open up new ways of “mak[ing] the future an active historical force in the present.” (Srnicek & Williams 2015: 127)

The second implication is that the ways in which these narratives effect themselves involves a passing into “reality”.[9] The initial problems with this statement are numerous. In what sense is the word “reality” being invoked here? How are we to recognise non- or pre-hyperstitional narratives, if not “in” “reality”? To what extent is this move to “reality” contingent, and how exactly is it effected, and on what levels? Some of these questions are answerable using what has been understood regarding the other elements of the definition, however. Central to every understanding and usage of hyperstition is its manipulation of time: narratives from the future effecting changes on our past or present, therefore reorienting (or “inventing”) the future[10] beyond the already-established image taken to represent it. This, I will argue shortly, takes us to the central preoccupation of several of Deleuze’s projects, including his conception of the image of thought. As for “reality”, it needs to be established whether the sense in which the word is being used by hyperstition theorists is identical, or in any way related, to Deleuze’s sense of “the real”, which itself needs to be disentangled from a further term with which it is often conflated: the “actual”.

“The Geology of Morals” (1980) as an early example of hyperstition

Before visiting these earlier Deleuze terms, however, let us by way of example turn to a chapter (“plateau”) of A Thousand Plateaus which I believe may be considered an early hyperstition, and surely inspired the Ccru’s early experiments with the form, notably “Barker Speaks” (Ccru 1999: 2-9; Land 2011: 493-505). Doing so will identify some of the literary tactics implemented in hyperstitions in order to make them both autonomous and “real”. Deleuze and Guattari introduce “The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?)” (1987: 39-74) with this sentence:

The same Professor Challenger who made the Earth scream with his pain machine, as described by Arthur Conan Doyle, gave a lecture after mixing several textbooks on geology and biology in a fashion befitting his simian disposition. (Ibid: 40)

The reader immediately encounters a fictional character, one that may already be familiar to them from Conan Doyle’s The Lost World series of books: unambiguously, as Deleuze and Guattari inform us, this is a similar Professor Challenger who is now the subject of their account of a lecture of which they were in attendance. We can deduce their presence at the lecture from the numerous examples of direct address (“Challenger quoted a sentence he said he came across in a geology textbook. He said we need to learn it by heart […]”), references to the restlessness of the audience, and details regarding the intonation of the speaker’s voice (ibid: 40, emphasis added; 42; 57). If by the end of the plateau the reader has still not deduced the blending of fictional and non-fictional forms at play, its conclusion should leave no room for doubt:

Disarticulated, deterritorialized, Challenger muttered that he was taking the earth with him, that he was leaving for the mysterious world, his poison garden. […] Challenger, or what remained of him, slowly hurried toward the plane of consistency, following a bizarre trajectory with nothing relative left about it. (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 73-74)

As readers, we can treat “The Geology of Morals” as either literary fiction or philosophy; or alternatively, as an entirely new form inspired by the two. I suggest the name “theory-fiction”, based on the appearance of this descriptor on the back cover of Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008), itself an accomplished work that draws from the conventions of hyperstition.[11] Using the fictional Professor Challenger as a “carrier” or “puppet”[12] allows Deleuze and Guattari to frame the philosophical content of the chapter from an original angle, and ultimately allows them to philosophise in new ways. Greenspan outlines the purpose of the carrier in hyperstition, and charts its intended effects (26th July 2004). Firstly, she observes, carriers “tag collective production,” therefore compounding anonymity of author(s), and eventually “mark[ing] true discoveries”. In this way, even “Deleuze & Guattari” is a means to confuse original authorship of ideas and concepts (we can never be certain which new concept has come from Deleuze and which from Guattari: although we can try to infer from their previous writings, it is safer to cite this third source, the non-author Deleuze & Guattari).[13] Importing another voice for new avenues of thought to develop further masks original authorship, and, most significantly, weakens or renders ineffectual the relationship between the author and the authored, granting the authored text agency (in Professor Challenger’s case, he is emancipated from both Conan Doyle and Deleuze & Guattari). From the “author’s” point of view, notes Greenspan, the carrier is a means to “populate thought”; particularly, they “allow ‘you’ to think things that ‘you’ don’t agree with” (ibid.). For Deleuze and Guattari, Professor Challenger’s experiments with geology, biology, and linguistics can be read alongside, and not necessarily as a continuation of, their own “authored” work elsewhere in A Thousand Plateaus and beyond: it maintains a distinct identity, at a remove from the remainder of the already fragmented book.

Furthermore, it makes Challenger real, at least in appearance, in the sense that he no longer “belongs” to any particular fiction and can be (to the uninitiated) cited as a legitimate source of information. Essential to this appearance is that the academic form and style are rigorously upheld. The use of citations, endnotes, and references to “real” people (such as Hjemslev[14]) throughout “The Geology of Morals” ensures that, despite the playful integration of fictional elements, it is a work intended to be taken seriously. These formal aspects would be expanded upon greatly in the Ccru’s first identifiable attempts at hyperstition: “Barker Speaks”, for example, is presented as an interview with a legitimate professor of “Anorganic Semiotics” (with a list of publications at the interview’s end), and is only given away by references to “Kingsport College” and “MVU” (Miskatonic Virtual University, Mass.) – deliberate in-jokes for fans of Lovecraft (Ccru: 2; Land: 493). One final attribute of these hyperstitional texts used to generate the effect of reality to the reader is the complexity of the subject(s) they enunciate: their confusing and disorienting nature, their plundering and splicing of complex terminology and ideas from multiple disciplines may or may not be of intellectual value, but regardless, the intended effect is in part to resist easy disentanglement (and therefore revealing) of the text’s formal manipulations by which it functions.

“The Geology of Morals”, therefore, is an example of hyperstition, because it matches the four criteria of the definition we have established:

i) The operation of hyperstition as a coincidence intensifier. The idea of Professor Challenger as a real person is intensified by his appearance outside of Conan Doyle’s fiction, suggesting perhaps that The Lost World is a fictionalisation of a real person (to the unfamiliar).

ii) Reference to time-travelling potentials. Conan Doyle died in 1930; Challenger therefore appears in no official stories beyond this date, ergo his readers have a fixed quantity of Challenger literature from which to imagine the character. By relocating Challenger to 1980, Deleuze and Guattari retroactively alter Challenger’s genealogy, which itself affects future Challenger reception (once again, only to the unfamiliar).

iii) Reference to fictional quantities. Not only is Challenger a narrative, Deleuze and Guattari’s entire project becomes operative on the level of the fictional. This in itself, however, does not reduce its usefulness as theory; but it does question the roles and forms which theory can take.

iv) Hyperstition as element of effective culture which makes itself real. Through diminishing or disguising the role of the author, the fiction’s point of genesis is subverted. Effecting a form of time travel, in which its conception in the mind and the works of a singular author did not constitute its point of entry into the world, the fiction is set onto the trajectory of “becoming real”. This question of the “real”, however, still needs to be addressed.

Bibliography & Filmography

Note on abbreviations: Every effort has been made to differentiate between the Hyperstition blog (active 2004-2008), and the film of the same name (Hyperstition (2016), directed by Christopher Roth). As such, the names “Hyperstition (blog)” and “Hyperstition (film)” are used whenever possible.

Numbers following dates in citations refer to page numbers, unless otherwise stated.

Works by Deleuze and Deleuze & Guattari:

Deleuze, G. (2014) Difference and Repetition [Différence et Répétition], trans. Patton, P., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

(with Guattari, F.) (1972) Capitalisme et schizophrénie: L’anti-Œdipe, Nouvelle édition augmentée, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit.

— (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Capitalisme et schizophrénie: L’anti-Œdipe], trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd.

— (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [Capitalisme et schizophrénie: Mille plateaux], trans. Massumi, B., Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press.

Works by other authors:

Brassier, R. (2007) Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Ccru (eds.) (1999) Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition, London, Ccru.

Dosse, F. (2011) Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives [Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari. Biographie croisée], trans. Glassman, D., New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, M. [as mark k-p] (6th July 2004) “Hyperstition/ Superstition”, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003532.html.

— [as mark k-p] (2nd August 2004) “D/G: Capitalism/ The Thing/ Fictional Quantities”, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003761.html

Goddard, T., Gilbert, J., Barton, J., Adams, T. & Mackay, R. (2017) “Mark Fisher Memorial”, Urbanomic, available online at https://www.urbanomic.com/document/mark-fisher-memorial/.

Greenspan, A. (25th June 2004) “The ‘hype’ in hyperstition”, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003428.html.

— (26th July 2004) “Hyperstitional Carriers”, available online at http://hyperstition.abstractdynamics.org/archives/003707.html.

Hume, D. (1985) “On Superstition and Enthusiasm”, in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Miller, E.F., Revised edition, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, Inc., 73-79.

Laboria Cuboniks (2015) “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, available online at http://www.laboriacuboniks.net/.

Land, N. (2011) Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, ed. Mackay, R. & Brassier, R., Falmouth, Urbanomic; New York, Sequence Press.

Massumi, B. (1992) A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari, Cambridge, MA/London, MIT Press.

Meillassoux, Q. (2008) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency [Après la finitude. Essai sur la nécessitié de la contingence], trans. Brassier, R., London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, Melbourne, re.press.

O’Sullivan, S. (2016) “Acceleration, Hyperstition and Myth-Science”, available online at https://www.academia.edu/19888801/Accelerationism_Hyperstition_and_Myth-Science.

Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, London/New York, Verso.

Williams, A. (2013) “Escape Velocities”, in e-flux #46, available online at http://www.e-flux.com/issues/46-june-2013/.

Woodard, B. (2015) “Negarestani in R’lyeh”, in Buchanan, I., Matts, T. & Tynan, A. (eds.), Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Literature, London/New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 191-209.

Filmography:

Hyperstition (film), (2016), dir. Roth, C., available online at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hyperstition/167803565.

The Terminator (1984), dir. Cameron, J.

Notes

[1] Since the passing of Fisher in early 2017, it has been suggested that the term hyperstition was his own creation. See Mackay, in Goddard, et al. (2017: 10).

[2] The mechanics of hyperstition’s “becoming” have been of particular value to some political theorists in recent years. References can be found in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work and the manifesto of the anonymous “xenofeminist” collective Laboria Cuboniks (both 2015).

[3] Particularly the more imaginative early Anglo-American readings of Deleuze and Guattari from the likes of (A Thousand Plateaus translator) Brian Massumi and (eventual Ccru de facto leader) Nick Land. See Massumi (1992); Land (2011).

[4] Meillassoux (2008: 10, 20-1). See also Brassier (2007: 49-52).

[5] “It is perfectly possible to conceive of a time determined by the governance of fixed laws disappearing in something other than itself – it would disappear in another time governed by alternative laws. But the only time that harbours the capacity to destroy every determinate reality, while obeying no determinate law –  the time capable of destroying, without reason or law, both worlds and things – can be thought as an absolute. […] It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.” (Meillassoux: 62, 64)

[6] Deleuze & Guattari (1984/1972: 153/180) (emphasis added).

[7] See, for example, Woodard (2015: 194); O’Sullivan (multiple references); Williams (2013: 9).

[8] For this reason, I will most commonly be using the term “narrative” from this point onward in place of “fictional quantity” or “element of (effective) culture”. This also means that “narrative” will be a used as a synonym for any fictional aspects, for example character or plot.

[9] Until I have established the given meaning of “reality” in hyperstition, I will continue to employ scare quotes when handling this term and its variants.

[10] See Srnicek & Williams (2015: esp. 75, 127, 138).

[11] From the back cover of Cyclonopedia: “At once a horror fiction, a work of speculative theology, an atlas of demonology, a political samizdat and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a work of theory-fiction on the Middle East, where horror is restlessly heaped upon horror.” (Emphasis added)

[12] See the somewhat obtuse entry for “Puppetry” in Cyclonopedia’s glossary: “In string theory, puppetry is the traffic zone of data between possessor and the possessed, the puppeteer and the puppet.” (Negarestani: 242).

[13] The question of authorship has pervaded the credited collaborative works of Deleuze and Guattari for many years; there have especially been many attempts to diminish Guattari’s role in the partnership. This question is also how François Dosse opens his biography of the two writers: “Who was the author? One or both of them? How could two such different men, with such distinct sensibilities and styles, pursue their intellectual agenda together for more than twenty years (1969-1991)?” Dosse: 1.

[14] Even the historically verifiable linguist Louis Hjemslev is described by Challenger as “the Danish Spinozist geologist, […] that dark prince descended from Hamlet” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987: 43).

Update: October 2017

After spending a year away from orbistertius, in which I worked on an MA in Philosophy and the Arts at the University of Warwick, I’ll be resuming my activities on the blog as of next week.

I have been busy amassing a body of work since around December of last year, covering areas such as aspects of the energy and medical humanities, postwork sociology, and more besides. Following a short break away from writing, I am ready to begin the process of editing and sharing much of this work publicly. An essay on the hyperstitional qualities of “The Image of Thought”, a chapter from Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968), will be uploaded in revised form in the coming days.

Following these essays, I plan to continue to research and communicate new developments on expanding interests, and I have many ideas already about what forms they will take. As is always the case my time will be divided between the many conflicting impressions upon it, both foreseeable and unforeseeable. However, I plan to take orbis seriously in the coming months, so that by the end of the year there will be many reasons to revisit the site. I may also be involved in additional extracurricular developments, which I’ll be sure to share as they approach their ferment.

Josh.

There Is An Alternative: A Tribute to Mark Fisher

It was a great sadness to hear about the passing of Mark Fisher this weekend. As both a cultural critic and theoretician, Mark’s writing was at once highly engaging, original, and accessible to his many audiences. A founder of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru) during his years studying at the University of Warwick during the mid 1990s, Mark was one of a number of talented individuals who, in blending together Deleuzoguattarian thought and emergent AI theories with cyberpunk and junglist aesthetics, set a precedent for some of the most memorable and vital contributions to twenty-first century intellectual and artistic culture. Mark was instrumental in helping to develop the term “hyperstition”, and later popularised the concepts “capitalist realism” and “hauntology” in two essential volumes for Zero Books. It was his writings in the latter – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014) – as well as posts on his own blog K-Punk, which first attracted me to his subjective and genre-defying writing style, and became a key inspiration for my own ventures out of (and back into) academic writing.

While he may not have been as revolutionary a figure to philosophy as Kant or Heidegger were (although with the traction and prescience Capitalist Realism has proven to have, anything is possible), few writers outside of fiction for me have been able to construct a complete, palpable image of their being-in-the-world – his relationship to the past and projection of the future, through music, film and theory – and in a field of academia which tends towards blandness and the illusion of objectivity, it is this directness and playfulness that will perhaps be missed most. Here are a few quotes from Ghosts of My Life, which express to me precisely the qualities of Mark’s work that made him so unique:

In England, working class escape is always haunted by the possibility that you will be found out, that your roots are showing. (37)

A secret sadness lurks behind the 21st century’s forced smile. This sadness concerns hedonism itself, and it’s no surprise that it is in hip-hop – a genre that has become increasingly aligned with consumerist pleasure over the last 20-odd years – that this melancholy has registered most deeply. Drake and Kanye West are both morbidly fixated on exploring the miserable hollowness at the core of super-affluent hedonism. No longer motivated by hip-hop’s drive to conspicuously consume – they long ago acquired anything they could have wanted – Drake and West instead dissolutely cycle through easily available pleasures, feeling a combination of frustration, anger, and self-disgust, aware that something is missing, but unsure exactly what it is. (175)

Darkside jungle projected the very future that capital can only disavow. Capital can never openly admit that it is a system based on inhuman rapacity; the Terminator can never remove its human mask. Jungle not only ripped the mask off, it actively identified with the inorganic circuitry beneath: hence the android/ death’s head that Rufige Kru used as their logo. The paradoxical identification with death, and the equation of death with the inhuman future was more than a cheap nihilist gesture.  At a certain point, the unrelieved negativity of the dystopian drive trips over into a perversely utopian gesture, and annihilation becomes the condition of the radically new. (31)

Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

A memorial fund has been set up to help support Mark’s family. It can be found here.

Doctor Octopus: A Reading of Deleuze’s “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (1993)

This is the edited transcript of a short presentation I gave at the University of Warwick on the 14th November 2016, as part of a series of seminars called “Topics in Philosophy and the Arts”. I gave what I thought to be a highly subjective yet spirited analysis of “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, a chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (1993); itself drawing heavily on Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), as well as the remaining body of Melville’s fiction.

I should preface by saying that I do not intend to cover everything in Deleuze’s essay, not only due to time constraints, but also because there are many passages that are best read in the wider context of Deleuze’s philosophy. So instead I wish to hone in on the points most relevant to our discussion on philosophy and the arts, and construct a particular reading of an essay which is itself a particular reading of a short story.

“Literature is a health.”[1] This is Deleuze’s claim in the Preface to Essays Critical and Clinical, not irrelevantly one of the final works within his oeuvre to be published before his death in 1995, and of which “Bartleby; or, The Formula” is a chapter of. This statement might lead one to begin to engage with what Deleuze has to say here in terms of his own biopolitics. However Daniel W. Smith, one of the translators of the volume (however not of the particular essay we will be looking at) instead interprets this statement in terms of a specific relation between literature and life;[2] one which finds its precedence in earlier works of Deleuze, specifically his study of sadomasochism in Coldness and Cruelty, as well as in select quotations in the Guattari-assisted What Is Philosophy?:

Through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. […] In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess[3] is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death.”[4]

There are obvious parallels with this interpretation of literature as healthcare and the function of the character Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which we will now turn our attentions to.

The thrust of Deleuze’s reading of Melville’s short story hinges, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eponymous character’s now infamous turn of phrase, the statement “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze reads this sentence as the key to the text’s understanding. He begins:

“Bartleby” is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever. It is a violently comical text, and the comical is always literal. It is like the novels of Kleist, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Beckett, with which it forms a subterranean and prestigious lineage. It means only what it says, literally. And what it says and repeats is I would prefer not to. This is the formula of its glory, which every loving reader repeats in turn.[5]

Now, before we proceed with Deleuze’s essay, we need to decide what he means by this word, formula. What immediately came to mind for me was a mathematical formula: an equation that could be used by us as readers as a means to translate the literary architecture of the story, its space, and the characters who inhabit that space. And I still don’t entirely wish to discourage that reading, because I think it still can be a fruitful one. However, I wish to nuance this definition of formula slightly further, and suggest that we instead treat Bartleby’s formula as an incantation or magic spell, a specific set of syllables that transform the rationalities of the attorney narrator, and effect real change on us readers’ textual interpretation.

I think what Deleuze is reaching for with the word formule is a kind of medieval sorcery of words, of which Bartleby, by appointment of Melville, is the witch doctor tasked with healing us of our narratological neuroses. But it is not a soothing treatment. The Formula is “ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake”; it “eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred.”[6] Perhaps most significantly of all, the Formula is responsible for “hollow[ing] out a zone of indiscernibility”.[7]

What does Deleuze mean by this phrase, which he repeats in a variety of guises: zone of indiscernibility, zone of indetermination, zone of indistinction? A clue may be offered by another quick hop over to What Is Philosophy? and a reading of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s many ruminations on what they term the “concept of concept”:

What is distinctive about the concept is that it renders components inseparable within itself. [Each concept] has a zone of neighborhood [zone de voisinage], or a threshold of indiscernibility, with another one. […] Components remain distinct, but something passes from one to the other, something that is undecidable between them. There is an area ab that belongs to both a and b, where a and b “become” indiscernible.[8]

Melville and Deleuze both understand literature, and perhaps we would like to extend this reading to all art, as a necessary complication of the act of interpretation itself. Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly, this is one of its intrinsic functions. Bartleby hexes the attorney and the aesthetician alike with his Formula, and renders the literary work derationalized and uncategorizable: an approximation of the Universe’s boundless chaos staged as absurdist comedy routine. Undercut by a deterritoralized American language, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is surgically lacerated by the Formula, creating vacuous zones on its surface that invite deeper inspection. It is no longer a question of subject or object, author or character, art or nonart; dialecticism is now ineffective and unwanted. Subject and image, in their encounters, cause friction, this friction causes slippage, and they are no longer bound to one another. Their “unnatural alliance” establishes “a “hyperborean”, “arctic” zone”,[9] as smooth as the “arctic sublimities” of Duchamp’s Fountain, if we recall Arthur Danto’s parody of George Dickie’s challenging of the artworld’s narrow criteria.[10] The alien Bartleby exhales ambiguity, barricading the story from the rigorous, institutionalized analytic practices and techniques of Euclidian, earthly minds[11] with an inhuman cloud of unknowing, that perhaps cannot ever be fully penetrated.

From Deleuze’s point of view, the Formula is a transformative utterance. Its purpose is to render the literary environment in which it is heard so weird as to escape from the sovereignty of the interpreters, the literary and aesthetic theorists, and thus evade all attempts of rational codification. In this respect, this essay is no different from Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic against the domestication of the paradigm of desire, encompassed in the figure of the psychoanalyst. Deleuze champions Melville and a handful of other “great novelists” as cultivators of

a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist. […] Once it has reached that sought-after Zone, the hyperborean zone, far from the temperate regions, the novel, like life, needs no justification.[12]

Likewise, our own enjoyment of literature ultimately transcends all notions of art theory, and remains fascinating to us. So perhaps too, there can be no art without our failure to know why it is art, or why we are drawn to it or revere it. Our hermeneutics must account for the human limitations we impose on the artwork when we try to interpret its possible meanings. This is not to say that there is no intellectual worth, or indeed no intellectual pleasure in trying to identify the specific features or phenomena which account for the aesthetic experience; however, in doing so, we can only gain truths about Life as we perceive it. The radiant sights which leave Melville and the great writers short of breath and with bloodshot eyes attest to something less anthropocentric, and many times more complex, and overall healthier: nonhuman things, living within a nonhuman conception of Life. Bartleby’s Formula – I would prefer not to – thus can be read as an essential rejection of all prescribed methods of aesthetic interpretation, and a liberation of the artwork from symbolic or metaphoric necessity. Our future art and future philosophy ought to equip us with a greater vocabulary to describe what we may only be able to envisage now as the “irrational”.

Notes

[1] Deleuze, G. (1997) “Preface to the French Edition”, in Essays Critical and Clinical [Critique et Clinique], trans. Smith, D.W. & Greco, M.A., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: lv.

[2] Smith, ““A Life of Pure Immanence”: Deleuze’s “Critique et Clinique” Project”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: xv.

[3] Smith refers here to the likes of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze himself, who suffered from respiratory ailments throughout his life.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 172.

[5] Deleuze “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: 68.

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

[8] Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy?:19-20.

[9] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 78.

[10] Danto, A. (2005) “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art”, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press: 35.

[11] These are Ivan’s words in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When discussing his scepticism of God with Alyosha, Ivan concludes that if God were truly to exist, he would surely have to exist outside of three-dimensional space, “where two parallel lines meet”; a concept he admits is entirely beyond the comprehension of his “Euclidian earthly mind”.

[12] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 82. Emphasis added.

Mandela Effect, Truth Affect

One increasingly popular internet meme/conspiracy theory doing the rounds is something known as the “Mandela Effect.” Its origins lie in the claims of “paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who began to gain popularity shortly after the widely publicised death of South African president Nelson Mandela in 2013. In a series of internet comments, Broome claimed to recall a memory that suggested that Mandela had actually died several years previously, during his incarceration in the 1980s. Soon she had attracted a sizable number of followers and contributors to her website mandelaeffect.com, many of whom also claimed to possess a similar memory. Other examples of alternate collective memories shortly emerged thereafter, ranging from the correct number of US States being 51 or 52, to the name of a popular series of children’s books being titled “The Berenstein Bears”, as opposed to “The Berenstain Bears.” For Broome and her followers, these inconsistencies are not simply a malfunction of group psychology or the result of fallible or unreliable memories, but convincing evidence of a different kind of phenomenon altogether. Multiple theories co-exist, but they all point toward one conclusion: that through one means or another, our reality has experienced some sort of fundamental, if barely perceptible, change, whether it be through some form of time travel,[1] interference from parallel universes,[2] a “glitch in The Matrix” effect,[3] or a result of CERN’s probings into the unknown depths of quantum physics.[4]

Clearly these theories are both premature and immature, not to mention vague and extremely difficult to validate. In every case I’ve encountered, the only shreds of evidence that have manifested are either individual or collective testimonies, or so-called “residue” (pictures of old VHS tapes or other products with misspelled names, that apparently constitute “traces” of the former universe or timeline) – hardly the “absolute proof” many believers suppose it is. I’m not an expert in group psychology by any means, so I couldn’t identify the particular cognitive tricks and lapses at work within those experiencing the Mandela Effect, however David Emery indicates that it may have something to do with “confabulation”, an unconscious technique used by people to bridge gaps and imperfections in memory.[5] Despite being able to validate or explore this idea further, I find this easier to accept than any of the more adventurous explanations, which all seem to require an understanding of memory as picture-perfect and filmic. Many of these alternatives, despite their entertainment value, can be dismissed with a cursory swish of Ockham’s razor.

On a somewhat unrelated note, it’s interesting to compare the scepticism of believers of the Mandela effect to something like pro-Second Amendment lobbyists in the U.S. Whenever a high-profile shooting has taken place in recent times, the typical response of ardent gun owners has not been one in favour of disarmament and the reduction of lethal weapons in circulation; rather that private gun ownership is necessary precisely because of the threat of extremists. Violence is tacitly encouraged under the auspices of defence, in the same way that wars and overseas military campaigns are euphemistically (and cynically) referred to as “peace missions”. Similarly, the more evidence accumulated that, when considered rationally, would weaken the claims made by Mandela effect believers, the more this very same evidence is inverted by these believers into “proof” that, when measured against their and other claimants’ memories, there has genuinely been an alteration of our given reality. That is, contradictory evidence will only strengthen the side who chooses to believe their argument is right, as the very basis of their rationality has shifted out of sync with everyone else’s. One could easily go as far as to say here that at its core, the conspiracy theory phenomenon is deeply and inherently conservative, as it relies on an unquestionable belief in an unorthodox, radically paranoid, and even metaphysical ideological dimension of reality, cutting through the miasma of cognitive dissonance and providing neat answers to complex global problems.

I’m much more interested at this stage in exploring the role of affect in theories like the Mandela effect, specifically in the wider context of what is frequently being identified as a “post-truth” or “post-facts” media landscape. In such a landscape, traditional sources of information are said to be losing authority, leaving the individual in a complex state of mistrust and unease; left to the mercy of personal emotions which are themselves vulnerable to manipulation and political scavenging. In some ways, this is nothing especially new. Adam Curtis traces one form of this media-induced scepticism back to the era of Richard Nixon, whose career-destroying anti-liberal paranoia was directly reciprocated by the very media engine that brought him down.[6] Yet today’s post-facts condition, wherein big data is eschewed in favour of soundbites, “clickbait” titles, and an almost gladiatorial one-upmanship between competing news sources and prospective political leaders, the results are even wider-reaching.

As has been noted, we live now in a society governed by sentiment much more than raw information. As the market for “facts” has become increasingly oversaturated with loud words and vibrant images, and information’s currency therefore devalued, public opinion counts for much more today than the authoritative register of a media “expert” or leading politician.[7] Actually, the most successful voices in these fields nowadays are those who propose what, on paper at least, appear to be radical alternatives to those espoused by “the establishment”, which has been a recurring source not only of hopeless disappointment and failure, but also irritation. A space for alternative points of view and genuine social, economic, and political change is absolutely necessary, yet genuinely positive (and achievable) modes of transformation are frequently drowned out by populist sentiment, often vigorously nationalistic and retrograde, and whose source is usually depressingly close to those with the relevant economic might in the first place.

In these troubled waters, the validity of a fact is much less important than its impact, and how it chimes with an individual’s inner sense of truth. A good testing site for this idea is in recent public reactions to the scale and impact of immigration. For those wishing to give voice to (in other words, politically exploit) anti-immigration sentiment, no statistic or opinion from leading sociologists suggesting that immigration is actually beneficial to an economy is verifiable: there are always opposing statistics and experts, and despite being on a weaker side of the argument both quantitatively (i.e. number of voices and stats) and qualitatively (i.e. the weight of these voices’ qualifications), the flattening out of intellectual authority means that people place more faith than ever before in what they feel to be the truth, based on sensory perception (e.g. the correlation between the presence of migrants in their neighbourhood and that neighbourhood’s stagnating community and local economy) and the enticing promises of popular, media-friendly anti-establishment figures and parties (Nigel Farage and UKIP, Marine Le Pen and Front national, Donald Trump).

The Mandela effect manages to build on and further proliferate the most dangerous aspects of the inwardly-facing post-facts perspective. This conspiracy is a reaction to and a symptom of a world which is now so untrustworthy that even the sensory perception necessary for post-facts to attach themselves is no longer reliable. “Hard” evidence and “soft” subjective experience and recollection undergo a radical subversion, trading places with one another, so that now only subjectivity can be considered trustworthy, and sensory evidence merely useful in reinforcing the idea of an altered reality.

In my last post I considered the similarly ungrounding and subversive tactics of hyperstition, as a subplot within everyday narratives programmed to burst out and become reality.[8] But the essential difference between hyperstition and the Mandela effect is this: while the former is decidedly inhuman and insensitive to the sway of public opinion, the latter is overconsciously human and reliant on the rejection of prominent realisms in order to take hold. Instead of depending on a stable and fixed image of reality, whilst simultaneously knowing that this is not the case, as hyperstition does, the Mandela effect burns its bridges in regards to finding a concrete place to call home, and therefore falls prey to the mutability of its own slippery truth. Reality may alter around it, yet if it does, there is no credible reason not to suggest that the very memories that it relies on to throne it cannot be simultaneously altered in time. One day too, perhaps on another timeline, the theory may be nothing but residue of an alternate view bloggers and conspiracy theorists once touted to explain the glitches in their personal holey narratives.

The mimetic spread of the Mandela effect ungrounds the very basis of what we consider our historical past, and therefore our identities, to be, but this is not its problem. Its problem is that it appoints the radically unreliable and highly mutable human memory as its sole bearer of truth and conviction. What is needed instead is an economy of voices, reliable facts and empirically rigorous evidence to help us to understand our worlds more fully, including what is in our power and interest to change in them. Not a simplification, but a complexity.

Notes

[1] shane (2016) “CONSPIRACY THEORY – THE MANDELA EFFECT”, video available online at https://youtu.be/_3l8idr9QFE.

[2] ReignBot (2015) “The Mandela Effect | Explained”, video available online at https://youtu.be/y6x0ErYV1tE.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacob Israel (2016) “Huge Shocking Mandela Effect List Absolute Proof”, video available online at https://youtu.be/iw-YiEnHJ4s.

[5] Emery, D. (2016) “The Mandela Effect”, available online at Snopes.com [http://www.snopes.com/2016/07/24/the-mandela-effect/]. Further possible psychological causes and contributors to the Mandela Effect are listed by the website Debunking Mandela Effects (2016), [http://www.debunkingmandelaeffects.com/common-explanations/].

[6] flowelch (2010) “Adam Curtis – A Film about how all of us have become Richard Nixon.” Video available online at https://youtu.be/fxV3_bG1EHA.

[7] Davies, W. (2016) “Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit”, Political Economy Research Centre, available online at http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/thoughts-on-the-sociology-of-brexit/.

[8] Carswell, J. (2016) “A Note on Hyperstition and Hidden Writing”, available online at orbistertius [https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/a-note-on-hyperstition-and-hidden-writing/].