The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 2

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

“Defamiliarizing the work ethic”: Weeks and Postwork Imaginaries

As stated in Part 1 of this essay, the purpose of Kathi Weeks’s study of Max Weber is to examine the historical development of the work ethic’s rationalising spread, with the intention of gesturing towards a reconfiguration of the status of work beyond the deep-rooted ethical validation presently firmly entrenched in mainstream societal views. Weeks concludes the first chapter of The Problem With Work – her identification of the five antimonies previously discussed – by highlighting the fractured and inconsistent qualities of the rationale behind work, claiming that it can and should be contested (77).[1] In the course of making such a statement, she draws on several other writers and thinkers who can be broadly grasped under the consciously-adopted label of postwork scholarship. Specifically, Weeks quotes from the work of Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, two of the authors of “The Post-Work Manifesto” (with Dawn Esposito and Margaret Yard, orig. 1998), one of the earliest adopters of this label (76-77).[2] This manifesto, first published in Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler’s Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (1998), proposes an “alternative direction” to the culture of downsizing and jobless futures of contemporary postindustrial modernity, with a new shared ambition of shorter working hours, higher wages, and additional free time (Aronowitz, et. al., 31-80; esp. 31-33). The “Post-Work Manifesto” helped to formalise a series of radical ideas concerning the end of a work-based economy, many of which found their way into Weeks’s book. For this section of the essay, we will examine some of the central themes of what Weeks names postwork imaginaries, and further assess the reception of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in relation to the emerging postwork school of sociological thought.

The first common feature of a postwork imaginary is a demand for fewer working hours, or, in the most radical of cases, a reconfiguration of the capitalist economy that would reduce the position of work in people’s lives to a minimum. Social action that rallies around the objective of a reduction of work is not a new phenomenon, however, it has been notably absent for quite a long time. For example, in Volume 1 of Capital Marx documents the struggle in England for a reduction of the working day for factory workers between the years 1833 and 1864 (Marx: 389-411). Partially as a result of protest and strike action, the legal working day was reduced from 15 to 12 hours for women and “young persons” (13 to 18 years), and a series of industry-specific legislation was brought in during this time which reduced (and in some cases eliminated) night-work for children and women (ibid.). The passing of the Factory Act of 1850 and subsequent legislation had a global influence; following the American Civil War, the General Congress of Labour in the US convened in Baltimore in 1866 to support the “eight hours’ agitation”, in an attempt to reduce the “normal working day” to eight hours for all workers (ibid.: 414). It was assumed by figures as significant as John Maynard Keynes that as society became more affluent, there would be an even greater desire to reduce working hours further. In 1931, he predicted that one hundred years hence the ideal amount of time spent working would be three hours a day, or fifteen hours a week.[3] That the critical space for resisting current working hours today appears so closed-off is for Weeks a sign of the continuing grip of the work ethic’s reification of the current standard of time allotted to work: we work for eight hours a day because we must, regardless of our economic standing (3). Only through resisting the work ethic, then, can a general reduction of working hours be achieved, and must be achieved as a response to the ongoing precarity and scarcity of sufficiently-paid and meaningful work.

The other key demand of postwork advocates is that of an increase in the general share of wealth; more specifically, a re-evaluation of the demand for wages in sectors of work that traditionally have not been waged, especially domestic labour. However, there is some reluctance from postwork thinkers, Weeks included, about returning to the approaches of 1970s feminism, and attempts to wage housework (113-118). “One would be hard-pressed to find a political vision within feminism that has less credibility today than wages for housework”, says Weeks, yet, with a number of caveats it is a subject (rather than a project) worth revisiting for the purposes of formulating new responses to the current inequalities of work (114). Weeks rejects these movements’ central demand, because, as demonstrated above in the discussion over the ethic’s simultaneous capacity to include and exclude new demographics into its fold, the approach of waging housework “threatened to resolidify this labor as women’s work performed in the family” (114, 148-149). It is not only the ethics of work, but waged work itself that, in its current incarnation, is a source of division and alienation (137). However, the advantage of such an approach to overcoming labour struggles was the public and political attention given to the movement as a whole, and texts such as Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (orig. 1973) in particular (148, 119).

Weeks’s real interest, however, is “in remaking wages for housework”, rather than in reviving failed approaches to applying the current wage system to the household (118, emphasis added). Recent interest in the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI or simply “basic income”) have inspired Weeks and other postwork advocates with alternative economic paradigms to those currently normalised by the dominant ethics of work. Weeks proposes that a UBI could offer a more pragmatic solution to the problem of socioeconomic inequality that is a consequence of the work ethic’s undervaluation of “feminised” forms of labour (147, 150). UBI would provide not only a better perspective on the crisis within work than the wages for housework demand, by offering “tangible benefits to a broader constituency”, but would also avoid further entrenching division across lines of gender (ibid.). This is because UBI, in the form Weeks advocates, would not function as a reward for distinct categories of workers, but would be granted to all citizens universally and unconditionally, “regardless of their family or household relationships, regardless of other incomes, and regardless of their past, present, or future employment status” (138). The purpose of UBI would be to provide a “floor” to individuals, a regular amount of money that would ensure a minimum standard of living without a dependence on waged work.[4] It is important to Weeks’s proposal, however, that the terms on which UBI is negotiated ensure that the current rights of individuals be protected: in order for it to pose a sufficient challenge to the problems of waged work, UBI would have to serve as a standalone income and not a means-tested welfare payment or a supplement to existing incomes (138-139). Presented in this way, “basic income not only recognizes but offers a response to the inability of both the wage system and the institution of the family to serve as reliable mechanisms of income distribution” (147).

For postwork writers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the shift towards an economy predicated on UBI is an increasing necessary solution to problems surrounding the increasing automation of jobs and the shrinking job market, as well as the reduction of workers’ rights and the commodification of labour (Srnicek & Williams: 85-127). In their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015),[5] they make the link between the importance of UBI and the work ethic as a cultural obstacle to its achievability, in a pair of chapters indebted to Weeks’s The Problem With Work (ibid.). As Srnicek and Williams understand it, the work ethic has become ingrained into “our very self-conception”, to the extent that many cannot appreciate a meaningful life outside of work (Srnicek & Williams: 124). Much work is also seen by them to be disempowering, and harmful on both physical and psychological levels (Srnicek & Williams: 121, 124). It is imperative therefore that the concept of work-in-itself as an “ultimate good” be re-evaluated (Srnicek & Williams: 122). The advantage of UBI is that it would have the potential to destabilise the current ethos of work: given a basic income, much “hazardous, boring and unattractive” work would fall out of favour, meaning that the wages for work of this nature would have to increase (ibid.). This would lead to a gradual change from a profitability-based system of value for work to a meritocracy based on the nature of the work itself, loosening the hold of the dominant work ethic through economic necessity (ibid.). Yet it must work both ways: in order for UBI to gain acceptance to a general public,[6] the values surrounding work also need to change (Srnicek & Williams: 125-126). Srnicek and Williams illustrate their hypothesis of a mutual relationship between UBI and the perceived values of work using the image of the positive feedback loop, borrowed from cybernetics, but they admit that in order for this loop to open, the change in work values would need to have happened first (Srnicek & Williams: 122, 125). They suggest that there already exists in the “real desires of people” a dissatisfaction for work that could be tapped into given a “counter-hegemonic” push against the conditions of work, and a widening of the “Overton Window”: the “bandwidth” of cultural acceptability of “realistic” ideas in mainstream public discourse (Srnicek & Williams: 126, 131, 134).

The combative strategies Weeks employs against the ethics of work differs somewhat from those proposed by Srnicek and Williams, in that hers are centred around actions of the refusal of work, rather than primarily on wider cultural reconfiguration (13-14). Refusal as a strategy against the inadequacies of work derives from the tradition of 1970s autonomist Marxism: some of the texts already cited contribute to this body of work, namely those of Baudrillard and Dalla Costa and James.[7] According to the autonomist tradition, it is the actions and insubordinations of collective workers, and not capital or labour power, that have served as the driving force of class history: it is the collective working-class that serves as the “locus of political agency” (93-94). Refusal thus serves the collectives as a vital tactic of regaining and exerting power over the conditions of their work, including the number of hours spent doing labour (96-101). Weeks believes that refusing work provides workers with an opportunity not only to regain control over their lives, but the means of overcoming the work ethic itself. At its core, this can be

a refusal of the ideology of work as highest calling and moral duty, a refusal of work as the necessary center of social life and means of access to the rights and claims of citizenship, and a refusal of the necessity of capitalist control of production. It is a refusal, finally, of the asceticism of those – even those on the Left – who privilege work over all other pursuits, including “carefree consumption.” Its immediate goals are presented as a reduction of work, in terms of both hours and social importance, and a replacement of capitalist forms of organization by new forms of cooperation. It is not only a matter of refusing exploited and alienated labor, but of refusing “work itself as the principle of reality and rationality”.[8]

Although not himself explicitly a postwork thinker, many of the foundational ideas surrounding Weeks’ and the other postwork theorists’ understanding of the necessary stages towards thinking beyond the work ethic align with Weber’s much earlier proposals in the Protestant Ethic. In particular, Weber’s suggestion that the ethic is irrational – “so little a matter of course” – and therefore unnecessary for the worker to try to follow or emulate, leads directly to Weeks’s proposal to defamiliarize the ethic, to “render strange” (Weber: 54; Weeks: 43). Yet there is an important distinction to be made here. Weber was a rationalist: although he appears to denounce the Puritan rationalization project of which the Protestant ethic is an element, he does not seek to supplant the idea of a rational society. Instead, Weber attempts to preserve rational thinking from what he considers to be the irrational ethos of work, by demonstrating the multiple nature of rationality; how it is possible to “rationalize life from fundamentally different basic points of view and in very different directions” (Weber: 78). From the very beginning of the Protestant Ethic, Weeks observes, Weber addresses the readers as “denizens of the rationalized world” (45). Yet, as we have seen, Weeks is interested instead in shoring up the antimonic nature of the work ethic – its complementary rationalist and irrationalist tendencies – stepping back from the necessity of a rationalized society, and providing a more nuanced response to the problem of the perception of work. To be precise, unlike Weber, Weeks does not feel the need to put rationality first in her critique of the work ethic. Her approach to defamiliarization is not to show how historical and current ideas surrounding work are irrational, but to move from a rationalist to a utopian discourse: a mode of discourse enabling “a relativizing of the present, to mark it as a contingent product of human history and, thereby, to open the possibility of a different future” (205).

Conclusion

Weber’s Protestant Ethic has been influential on the formulation of an identifiable concept of a work ethic by contemporary studies of the nature and value of employment. In the book, Weber demonstrates how a Protestant Ethic developed along lines of religious development in the seventeenth century, and the transformative impact this had not only on how work was organised and extracted by employers, but also how work was perceived across the whole of Puritan society. By focusing on the calling as the incentive by which worldly activity came to be arranged, Weber succeeds in his attempt to illustrate the irrational fervour by which work was, and still is, undertaken, accepted as part of the natural order, and allowed to develop under industrial capitalism after the system of belief which had borne it no longer dominated. Weber illustrates that the totalising effect of work on an individual’s life, or a belief in the inherent value of work, were not always common features of the attitudes towards work, and that these ideas emerged from a specific point in history and as the result of a specific religious doctrine that promoted individualism and proposed intangible rewards for those showing themselves to be the worthiest in the eyes of God. Later theorists on the sociological and cultural roles of work have been able to utilise the Protestant Ethic as a starting point for thinking about the new challenges posed by work, and how the (very) old spectres of the Protestant ethic have continued to haunt the current values of work. The ethic today, now a secularised but still religion-derived work ethic, often acts as a blockade to the new problems of work and the means of taking them on. Of the five antimonies Weeks uses to define the “new” work ethic, three are derived from the Protestant Ethic directly, and the other two (subordination and insubordination, exclusion and inclusion) can be found to some (albeit limited) extent in Weber’s later comments in that book about the persistence of asceticism in the industrial and modern work ethics.

Weeks’s responses to the current problems of work – normalisation of inequality, underemployment, the unsustainable necessity of wages for all – are organised around the idea of the refusal of work, as predicated by the autonomous Marxists of the 1970s. The current perceptions of work, which are often taken for granted as natural, need to be denaturalised, to be rendered strange, in order for their inconsistencies and undesirability to be exposed and ultimately rejected. UBI and the need for fewer working hours are some of the main innovations being put forward by Weeks, and postwork academics as a whole; their adoption would, Srnicek and Williams believe, help to invent new ways of perceiving the relationship between workers and employment at the same time as cultural shifts around attitudes to work would help to reconfigure these policies as desirable to the many. Radical changes to the work-based economy, such as full unemployment, do not serve necessarily as goals, but as provocations, part of a utopian way of thinking around which new movements rejecting the dominant conditions of employment can be contested. Weeks is one particular thinker who has analysed the negative formulations of the work ethic as illustrated by Weber, and identified the utopian possibilities for social change dormant within the Protestant Ethic’s historicist thesis.

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography).

[2] Aronowitz and DiFazio wrote in 1994: “the quality and the quantity of paid labor no longer justify – if they ever did – the underlying claim derived from religious sources that has become the basis of contemporary social theory and social policy: the view that paid work should be the core of personal identity”.

[3] In “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” (Keynes 1931: 358-374).

[4] Weeks’s model for UBI is based on Phillipe van Parijs’s definition put forward in “Competing Justifications of Basic Income”. See van Parijs (1992: 3-43).

[5] See also my own “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams” (2016).

[6] Srnicek and Williams point to a number of early proposals and trials of various forms of basic income in the recent past, including in the US under Presidents Nixon and Carter, but chalk their failures up to perceived problems in funding by both opposing politicians and the general public (Srnicek & Williams: 118, 123). Regardless, the authors insist that “most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion” (Srnicek & Williams: 123). More recently, a vote in June 2016 on implementing basic income in Switzerland suggested that only 23% of the public actively supported the proposal (BBC News, “Swiss voters reject basic income plan”).

[7] Baudrillard: 141. “It is no longer then a question of an internal, dialectical negativity in the mode of production, but a refusal, pure and simple, of production as the general axiomatic of social relations.” (Emphasis added.) Dalla Costa & James: 10. “If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.”

[8] Weeks: 99 (some emphasis added). The quotation in the last sentence is taken from Baudrillard: 141 (emphasis added).

Bibliography

Aronowitz, S. & Cutler, J. (eds.) (1998) Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation, New York/London, Routledge.

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

BBC News (2016) “Switzerland’s voters reject basic income plan”, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36454060.

Dalla Costa, M. & James, S. (1975) The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, third edition, Bristol, Falling Wall Press Ltd.

Keynes, J.M. (1931) Essays in Persuasion, London, Macmillan and Co., Limited.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

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

Van Parijs, P. (ed.) (1992) Arguing for Basic Income: Ethical Foundations for a Radical Reform, London, Verso.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

Advertisements

The Work Ethic and “Postwork Imaginaries”: From Max Weber to Kathi Weeks // Part 1

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

The Culture of Work and Its Problems

A work-based economy presents several problems to individuals and collectives, and whilst there is a strong historical precedence for challenges made against the conditions of work, rarely is the notion of work in its entirety contested. For those willing to confront it, such as Kathi Weeks, the problem of work exists on the cultural level, in the social mentality. The dominant ideals of work, put crudely, are as follows: work is an inherent good, regardless of what is being produced; work is a valuable, even honourable way of spending time; work is an economic necessity for all, regardless of personal wealth, whether a minimum-wage employee or investment banker; all should aspire to full-time employment whenever possible; work allows us to be creative and expressive, and is perhaps the primary means of defining ourselves. Yet the realities of work are often very different, often limiting or curtailing worker autonomy and imagination, often highly demanding to the body and mind, often precarious, and a means of disempowerment of the many and empowerment of the few. Many people derive no satisfaction from working; some work only because they feel they have no other choice, and accept the drudgery and suffering as the price for relative stability and security.

The leading beliefs about work, which are perhaps best examined in the United States and Western Europe, culminate in a work ethic, with historical and religious precedence. Max Weber, in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (orig. 1905) set out to identify the conditions under which the prevailing ideals of work were first established, locating a larval forbearer arising from the many Puritan sects of the seventeenth century, and establishing itself most firmly in the United States shortly thereafter through the likes of Benjamin Franklin. This Protestant ethic shares much with the work ethic of today: a focus on individual accumulation over collective responsibility, an inner righteousness to working activity (what Weber calls a “worldly asceticism”), and an implicit mistrust in (sometimes moral condemnation of) the lazy or workshy, to name a few examples. Weber’s task is to demonstrate the irrationality of the current work ethic, stripped of its spiritual qualifications, unable to justify its senseless espousals.

Weeks’s objective is more radical. As a prominent academic in the emergent discussions on postwork politics, her own investment is in the contestation of the value of work in all of its current forms. In her book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (2011), she uses Weber’s analysis to springboard into late twentieth and twenty-first century issues relating to the conceptions about work; her goal being ultimately to expose the work ethic’s inconsistencies and demonstrate measures designed to reject them. In what follows, I will examine Weber’s groundwork on the Protestant Ethic and worldly asceticism, before turning to Weeks’s characterization of it, and its influence on her understanding of the contemporary work ethic. The essay will end with a look at the expanding field of postwork criticism and Weeks’s position in it: how the goals and strategies of postwork sociology contribute towards a defamiliarization and dissolution of the demanding conceptions of work.

Weber, the Protestant Ethic, and “Worldly Asceticism”

Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has been firmly established as the primary source for tracing a genealogy of the work ethic, as well as of strong relevance for any study of labour more broadly. Central to its critique of the transformation of the nature of industrialised labour and its domineering position in workers’ lives is Weber’s characterisation and analysis of the ethical relationship between work and the worker; how work began to be valued differently in the United States and Europe following the Reformation, and how the varying influences of the major forms of Protestantism culminated in both a worldly asceticism and a Protestant ethic which continue to haunt us to this day. “Weber’s brilliant study”, Weeks remarks, “introduces the essential components, fundamental dynamics, and key purposes of the new ethic of work that developed in conjunction with capitalism in Western Europe and North America” (Weeks 2011: 39).

Before we investigate the heritage of the work ethic as identified by Weber in Protestant developments following the Reformation, let us briefly identify the ambit of the book; more specifically, the notion of a spirit of capitalism, and its role in generating and maintaining the Protestant ethic. “The most fateful force in our modern life,” capitalism is for Weber “identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” (17).[1] A capitalistic economic action, therefore, is “one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit” (ibid.). With capitalism defined thus, it is the book’s central conceit “to ascertain whether and to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that [capitalistic] spirit over the world.” (91). However, Weber is persistent with his refutations that the capitalist spirit emerged directly and necessarily out of a Protestant ethos. Firstly, the “impulse to acquisition”, which does not form part of Weber’s definition of capitalism, clearly predates the Reformation; perhaps, Weber suggests, “it has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all countries of the earth” (17). Conversely, the thought that “it is possible to deduce the Reformation, as a historically necessary result, from certain economic changes” must also be resisted (90-91). This is because “certain important forms of capitalistic business organization” can be traced throughout all cultures and all times (ibid.). However, Weber’s intention is to show that the global industrialised capitalism of the early twentieth century did in fact emerge out of a series of doctrinal and profit-driven changes within a developing American society.

Weber identifies Benjamin Franklin’s “Advice to a Young Tradesman” (orig. 1748) as containing the beginnings of the age of the capitalist spirit “in almost classical purity”, and is also the starting point for his chapter in the Protestant Ethic intended to derive this spirit (48). Franklin’s advice is this: “Remember, that time is money”; “The good paymaster is lord of another man’s purse”; “The most trifling actions that affect a man’s credit are to be regarded”; “Be aware of thinking all your own that you possess, and of living accordingly”; “For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds”.[2] The tone of these words suggest to Weber not merely an imparting of valuable knowledge, but an ethos, in which “[t]he infraction of its rules is treated not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty” (51). Here Weber has identified the Protestant ethic, in which the activities of work are to be undertaken for a higher moral purpose than individual or familial subsistence: the acquisition of capital becomes the end in itself to which the worker ought to submit (53-4).

Weber’s concern is with the “irrational element” of an ethos in which the injunction to work is identified as a calling; as “an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions (as capital)” (78; 54). There is nothing natural about the worker’s submission to the work ethic, or to the belief in work as an act of moral fortitude, nor is there anything necessary about such beliefs to all denominations of Christianity. Yet they are essential to the productivist demands of the capitalist society, which must overcome the traditionalism of the life lived under religion (63). Furthermore they seem obviously unnecessary to the secular individual, once exposed to Weber’s historicist logic. The dominant position Weber offers is that a worker “does not “by nature” wish to earn more and more money, but simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose” (60). There was, he concludes, a conceited effort to motivate the working class into producing more capital than was necessary for the means to their individual consumption.

The spirit of capitalism, Weber shows, had a number of “traditionalist” obstacles which it had to overcome. Perhaps the most significant of these was the incentivization of the worker to produce more than was in their immediate interests. As an increase in wages would only result in a reduction of hours invested by the individual worker, the replacement of piece-rates by time-rates was a necessary development for capitalism, as identified by Marx (Weber: 59-60, Marx: 686). In addition, a powerful new incentive needed to emerge, one that would resonate on both personal and spiritual levels. The formulation of new Puritan forms of Christianity, and a new country, the United States of America, provided this incentive with a fertile opportunity. Weber argues this incentive takes the form of the calling, which arose out of the development of Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism, and the Baptist sects (54, 95). Their common achievement was the foundation of a worldly asceticism which became the character of the set of morals that industrial labour functioned within, eventually outliving their religious origins.

Weber goes on to detail the changes to the dominant moral worldview brought about by Calvinism in particular. The most influential Calvinistic import brought to the developing ethics of work was in the form of the doctrine of predestination, which also continued to be the case to varying extents for the later Puritanical religious sects immediately following it (98). The belief that an indistinguishable few were for eternity already elected by God for eternal grace may be considered Calvin’s defining innovation to the Christian religion (ibid., 102-103). Weber untangles a series of consequences which the normalisation of predestination had on both religious belief and the world of work. Firstly, the doctrine of predestination was intended to minimalize the influence of the Church on the individual worshipper’s bond with the means of his (possible) salvation; it was not possible for the Church to in any way influence or mediate this divine relationship (104-106). As a result, a worshipper’s only confidant was God: the confession booth was stripped out of the churches, denying the congregation “[t]he means to a periodical discharge of the emotional sense of sin” (106). Secondly, the lifting of the emphasis on the burden of sin reduced the significance of inward reflection in the religious life. What was deemed necessary for God was “social achievement of the Christian”, the building of society on the foundations of Christian law (108). “The source of the utilitarian character of Calvinistic ethics” lies in the nature of a work directed “in the interest of the rational organization of our social environment”; consequently, this work takes on “a peculiarly objective and impersonal character”, which colours the nature both of fraternal relations and the relations between labour and labourer (108-109).

As a result, Calvinism was able to transform the Christian faith from an emotional commitment to an “intense worldly activity”, in which true belief was shown through righteousness of duty rather than dubious sentiment (112, 114). And this new worldly activity was the concern of all, despite the belief that only the actions of the elect were significant when it came to salvation. Since the predestined are indistinguishable from the rest of humanity and known only to God, it was necessary for society to become a “unified system” of rationalizing activity (117). The religious individual had to believe in their membership of the elect, for “implicit trust in Christ” – a trust which must be shown outwardly – was the only means to certainty of grace (110). The Calvinist therefore aspired to the saintly life. Religious activity evolved under Calvinism from a sole element, represented by the individual good deed, into the entire mode of a worshipper’s life, determined by a distinct ethical conduct rooted in a lifetime of good works (124-5).

The final chapter of the Protestant Ethic is given to the naturalization of the accumulation of wealth within the Puritan purview. Here too it is possible to gain insight into Weber’s genealogy of a Protestant ethics of work adapting into a worldly, modern capitalist sensibility. Using Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory – “the most complete compendium of Puritan ethics” – as a primary source of evidence, Weber charts the changing opinions concerning the moral value of wealth, and the shifting permissibility of spending and accumulation (155-157). This is done by marking a crucial distinction between the dangers of wealth in itself as a source of temptation away from the path towards God’s grace and the acquisition of wealth through the toil of “God’s work”, which was not only seen as acceptable, but morally righteous (156-157, 163, 172). The needless or frivolous spending of money on the distractions given by culture, the arts, sports, or any other “indulgent” recreational pursuits were strongly discouraged by Puritan codes of conduct, as man was believed to be “only a trustee of the goods which have come to him through God’s grace” (167-168, 170). There was a tendency therefore under Puritanism for “accumulation of capital through [the] ascetic compulsion to save” (172). This, combined with the “psychological effect of freeing the acquisition of goods” brought about by both the Calvinist reduction of sin and the prominence of bookkeeping as a measurement of the bounty of God’s grace (as a result of labouring in His calling), had a dramatic and profound effect on the transition of the status of wealth from being the property of State and Church to an aspirational object of an individualistic moral pursuit (170-172).

Thus, the Puritan ideal became that of a kind of wealthy middle-class, for whom the fruits of their labour were able to be seen without ostentation or frivolity, but with a “sober simplicity” which allowed the “thankfulness for one’s own perfection by the grace of God” to shine through (171, 166). The emphasis Weber places on performance is significant, for reasons already apparent from the Calvinist influence on the elimination of Catholic redemption and confession. Yet in the context the ascetic movement which Baxter belonged to, the signs of spiritual righteousness became calcified into both an accumulation of wealth and, more importantly, “the development of a rational bourgeois economic life” (174). This, for Weber, is the modern work ethic’s primary mode and inheritance from worldly asceticism. For it was only as the centrality of religion began to release its grip over Western civilization that the accumulation of wealth increased its prominence over daily life (176). “Then the intensity for the search for the Kingdom of God commenced gradually to pass over into sober economic virtue; the religious roots died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness” (ibid., emphasis added). The ideal Puritan was now a worldly figure, rooted in his belief of a good conscience; however this conscience “simply became one of the means of enjoying a comfortable bourgeois life” (ibid.). With the blessing of God behind his back, he was able to “follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so”, especially when, beneath him, he could be confident of the presence of a force of “sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God” (177, emphasis added).

The aim of the Protestant Ethic is to provide a study of the development of a certain mode of thinking about the relation between the individual Christian during the flourishing of the manifold Protestant sects, and their submission to work, and the influence on this mode of thinking on later secularised workers of the modern era. Beginning with an unfolding of the spirit of capitalism, identified in Franklin’s sagely “Advice to a Young Tradesman” as “time is money”, Weber gradually pieces together over the course of the book the precise developments brought on by Calvinism and the later Puritan sects which established a worldly asceticism; in which the compulsion to work, and to exploit the working activity of others, gained a powerful new theological justification (178). Finally, with the transformation in the way in which the acquisition of wealth was perceived, from an unintentional side effect of the moral limitations of spending to an accounting of God’s bounty entrusted to his predestined people, the ethics of industrial labour which have endured to the modern era were set in motion. With the approaching of the secular age, the modern economic order emerged out of a shrinking ascetic one; its sense of mission, of utilitarian rationalisation outliving its distinctly Christian carapace. “Victorious capitalism”, says Weber “rests on mechanical foundations”, the foundations of an objective, emotionless work ethic towards an abstract and indefinable goal; it needs the support of religious asceticism no longer (181-182).

Thus, the story the Protestant Ethic tells is in one sense that of how under Protestantism, working people came to be trapped within these mechanised cycles of labour by their own incentives to work, and how their descendants in the modern era continued to maintain this ethic, despite its contradictions. For the Puritan of the seventeenth century, work was absolutely necessary not only as a means of economic survival, but as a guarantor of Divine blessing and prosperous afterlife; for the modern worker, such prevailing confidence in the Almighty is no longer present. Weber’s book, therefore, is a useful starting point for understanding the paradox of the work ethic in modern capitalist society; however, to be able to account for its peculiar developments since, newer sources need to be introduced.

Weeks Reads Weber: The Antimonies of the Work Ethic

In The Problem with Work: Feminism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Weeks identifies a conundrum central to the social conventions surrounding work. The very worst qualities of a work-based economy include issues surrounding unemployment and precarity, and, to varying extents across sectors, the physical and psychological tolls that come with the monopoly work has and is expected to have on the lives of individuals (1).[3] Why, then, is there not more active resistance to work; why is it rare that the notion of work itself, and not only the conditions of work, is a site of contention? (ibid.). Weeks’s immediate answer relates to the interrelationship of work (waged work in particular) and the individual identities of workers, or what she calls “work’s privatization” (3). The workplace has been reconfigured as a private space, a place where workers often spend a significant portion of their time, and where they “often experience the most immediate, unambiguous, and tangible relations of power that most of [them] will encounter on a daily basis” (2-3). As the relations between workers and their employers has begun to be acknowledged as contractual, so has the “tethering of work to the figure of the individual” become normalized (4). Today, work is often considered a necessity by individual workers to personal economic stability, to the extent that this idea of a necessity of waged labour prevents any suggestion of an alternative to a wage-based economy from taking hold (3-7, 36). Weeks’s ambition with The Problem with Work is to rehabilitate “certain strands of 1970s feminism” and Marxism, and by doing so gesture towards “developing a feminist political theory of work that could pose work itself […] as a political problem of freedom” (21, 23). Beyond even this challenge is lies the horizon of “postwork imaginaries”: novel ideas of trajectories positing future societal possibilities that not only eliminate the current moral dimension of labour, but even more radical suggestions of an economy that does not depend on waged labour as an ideal for all persons (30, 36).

The first stage of the project underlying Weeks’s The Problem with Work is the requirement to identify the emergence and construction of the (perceived) ethics of work. For this endeavour, Weeks enlists the help of Weber’s critique in the Protestant Ethic. The aim of the analysis in Chapter 1 of her book is to show the gradual transformation of the Protestant ethic, as already identified by Weber, into an industrial and postindustrial one, and attempt “to account not only for the ethic’s longevity and power, but also its points of instability and vulnerability” (31). From here, the future of the work ethic can be posited and contested (ibid.). Weeks intends to do this by reviving the notion of the refusal of work from the tradition of autonomous Marxism, rallying behind two demands which would lead in the direction towards postwork: those of a basic income and fewer working hours (13, 32-33). What Weeks explains as her interest in these two demands is in “their capacity not only to improve the conditions of work but to challenge the terms of its dominance” (33). Starting with a rereading of Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic, therefore, Weeks intends to repossess the imaginative space surrounding the ethics of work with a postwork politics, allowing the current domination of the belief in an economy of necessary waged labour for all to subside (227-8).

Weeks identifies in Weber’s original analysis a set of five antimonies derivative of the work ethic, which continue to persist across its many incarnations (42). Three of these stem from the ethic’s own prescriptions (ibid.). In the first case, the ethic motivates both rational and irrational behaviours, as Weber repeatedly alludes to (ibid.). “[T]he work ethic is irrational at its origins and to its core,” Weeks says, “and yet it is prescriptive of what is taken to be the most rational forms of practical economic conduct” (ibid.). This is seen in Weber’s invitation to think of the Protestant ethic as a carrier for the belief in work as a response to the calling; it is here for Weber that an “unlikely confluence of the rational and irrational can be found” (ibid.). However, for Weeks, the very irrationality of work-as-calling is clearly “abstract” and an idea that Weber “may have struggled […] to bring into focus” (43). To understand it, the very idea of the rationalization of working values “must first be rendered strange”, or defamiliarized (ibid.). Weber has a twofold approach to defamiliarizing the work ethic: by shoring up its irrational character from both the (historical) traditionalist perspective which predated it, and the (modern) secularist perspective which can no longer qualify it (ibid.). Regarding the latter, in moving the analysis ahead to the industrialist and postindustrialist periods of production, Weeks notes the shift in focus for the work ethic from “the question of mobility in the afterlife”, towards “its achievement in this life” (46; see also Weber: 176). A further development in the twentieth century came in the repurposing of work in the creative imagination, as a means to self-expression and self-satisfaction, as also suggested by Michael Rose (ibid.; Rose: 77-92). Rose draws on a number of studies, including one from the Aspen Institute conducted in 1983 which suggested that approximately one in seven workers listed “expressive work values” as being part of the “core motives” for working; and furthermore, that there is a positive correlation between workers motivated by the expressive potentialities of work and a “strong work ethic” (Rose: 90-91).

The second antimonic pair Weeks derives from Weber’s analysis is the simultaneous productivist and consumerist values promoted by the dominant varieties of the work ethic (42, 47-51). In the Protestant Ethic, this opposition is enunciated in the idea of the worldly asceticism, itself for Weeks a somewhat contrarian phrase that combines the worthiness of methodological production over the gratification of consumption found in the ascetic mentality on the one hand, with the status of individual goods as “rewards” for a lifetime of dedication to labour for the grace of God on the other (47-49). In all iterations of the work ethic, in fact, the phrase “functions not despite, but because of, the pairing of terms” (49). As the notion of a work ethic develops further in a direction away from its Puritan roots, furthermore, the awkward relationship between productivism and consumerism is shown to weaken more still. The Fordist model of mass production brought with it a perceived equivalence between productive work and “leisure time”; workers now “were expected to do double duty as ascetically indulgent consumers” (ibid.). Finally, in post-Fordist production, a mode which places greater emphasis on “immaterial” labour, such as in the services sector, the relationship between employment and income (what is “produced” and its implicit monetary value) becomes more difficult to determine, therefore likely more precarious (50-51). As a result of these developments, the Protestant ethic of Weber’s analysis is reconfigured under the Fordist and post-Fordist models; the “mandate for savings” gives way to “the prescription for the rationalization of mass consumption” (50).

Thirdly, Weeks identifies in Weber the antimony of a drive within the work ethos as a means towards individualistic independence, at odds with an implicit social dependence at the heart of capitalistic work relations (42, 51-55). An analysis of wage relations demonstrates this dichotomy between a subordination of the worker to the source of income, and the status of the accumulation of money as “the sine qua non of self-reliance” – a view developed during the industrial period, once the Puritan stigma surrounding public displays of individual wealth had been shed (51-52). The work ethic provides an “individualizing discourse”: as the Protestant sects reduced the sense of communal responsibility through the doctrine of predestination, individual moral responsibility became rationalized (52). The social permissibility of judging one’s neighbour, and the false equivalence of the impoverished with immorality are therefore borne out of a worldly reconfiguration of moral goodness on the actions and intentions of the individual (rather than the community) (53). Beyond even this, the individualistic paradigm exemplified by the ethos of Fordist labour serves as “a disciplinary mechanism that constructs subjects as productive individuals” (53-54). This is because the effects of a perceived individual autonomy are only internal to the worker: the work ethic constructs “docile subjects” from within, by promoting “the individual’s constitution in relation to and identification with productivist norms” (ibid.). The worker, therefore, finds themselves striving towards individualistic and personal goals available through waged labour, yet must submit to a hierarchical chain of command and give up a degree of autonomy in order to attain this wage (55-57).

Weeks supplants the three antimonies drawn out of Weber’s Protestant Ethic with a further two, that can be evidenced by the work ethic’s historical development and application beyond the period that concerns Weber’s study; in particular, with reference to “the dynamics of class struggle, antiracism, and feminism” that gained momentum in the industrial era onwards (42, 57). This section of Weeks’s study also marks a transition from a Weberian to a Marxist focus, from a religious and doctrinal mediation to one centred around the historical role of state violence (57). Weeks finds Weber lacking a certain recognition: that while the Protestant Ethic frequently demonstrates the work ethic’s deployment as a means of workers’ subordination, it does not examine this movement’s antimony, that workers have also been able to exploit the capacity for insubordination offered by the concreteness of normalising employment legislation (57-61). The unwitting effect of the work ethic’s disciplinary force is that the goals of higher wages and greater social mobility can “serve as ideals around which workers can struggle for reforms”, in the form of union action and demands, for example (59). Weeks posits an “alternative work ethic from below” emerging, based on similar principles to that derived from institutionalized Protestantism, however taking the “idle rich”, and not the “shiftless poor”, as its object of scorn (59). Weeks cites Jean Baudrillard, whose book The Mirror of Production (orig. 1973) demonstrates the emergence of a “working class” as a direct result of insubordination to the dominant work ethic and “appealing as a collective identity” (ibid.).[4]

One last antimonic pair Weeks identifies in her definition of the work ethic concerns its dualistic tendencies towards systematic inclusion and exclusion, as has been charted by the multiple drives towards gender and racial equality within the employment sector (42, 61-69). Weber’s Protestant Ethic has no such focus; however Weeks believes that a careful study of each of these liberatory movements, and the successful changes that have been implemented as a result of their influence, can provide strong models for postwork imaginaries (68). Of particular importance to Weeks is how the work ethic extended its reach towards women and people of colour, and at the same time denied them identification with the bourgeois class for whom the ethic was primarily (in both senses) intended (61). She notes how in the early industrial period, some white men in the United States could identify their status as waged industrial workers with qualities of personal freedom, wielding an influence partially through “the energies of racism, ethnicity, and nationalism” (61-62). Thus, “the norm’s exclusions based on race, nation, and ethnicity fueled its inclusiveness in terms of class” (62). The moral righteousness of work continues to haunt the industrialist and postindustrialist eras, and the lingering questionability of the working commitments and habits of non-US nationalists served as an opportunity to “legitimate one’s economic privilege” over these groups (ibid.). A similar effect can be seen through the treatment of women based on the wagelessness of domestic labor being “reconceived as nonproductive women’s work” (63). As illustrative as attempts to gain recognition for female and non-white workers can be in imagining a postwork future, these struggles have also demonstrated a strange counter-effect; in that they have unintentionally provided the work ethic the opportunity to further mutate and spread its influence onto these additional demographics, to access “new forms of labor, and to reaffirm its power” (68).

Notes

[1] All bracketed numbers in this section of the essay are page references, taken from Weber (see Bibliography). This rule applies to the current section of the essay only.

[2] Franklin (48-50). The last of these quotations is taken from “Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich” (orig. 1736). Some italics from the original have been removed.

[3] All bracketed numbers in this and the immediately following sections of the essay are page references, taken from Weeks (see Bibliography). This rule applies to these sections of the essay only.

[4] Baudrillard 1975: 155. “The ethic of rational labor, which is of bourgeois origin and which served historically to define the bourgeoisie as a class, is found renewed with fantastic amplitude at the level of the working class, also contributing to define it as a class, that is to circumscribe it in a status of historical representability.”

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production [Le Miroir de la Production], trans. Poster, M., St. Louis, Telos Press.

Marx, K. (1990) Capital Volume 1 [Das Kapital: Buch 1], trans. Fowkes, B., London, Penguin Books.

Rose, M. (1985) Re-working the Work Ethic, London, Batsford Academic and Educational.

Weber, M. (1974) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus], trans. Parsons, T., Twelfth Impression, London, Unwin University Books.

Weeks, K. (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Durham (NC) / London, Duke University Press.

Featured image credits: Still from the film Office Space (1999), dir. Mike Judge.

Petrohorror and Unknowing: Petrocultural Engagements with the Limits of Philosophical Thought // Part 2

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

Clinging on to dear life

Reading the theories established in the first part of this essay together, we can now investigate the themes associated with them in concept horror, especially those which are underrepresented by the conventional body of petrofiction; and to integrate the wealth of theoretical terms and practices discussed up until this point into our readings of the chosen stories: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”[1] and Dean Koontz’s Phantoms.[2] To begin with: the idea of emergence, the how and why of the oily substance’s collision (and collusion) with the lives of its victims. There are three possible culprits: human agency, the substance’s own agency, and the aleatory agency of chance. All three are culpable to some extent in both stories. In “The Colour Out of Space”, it is the meteorite from unknown regions of deep space that provides the colour with its entrance: there is no knowing whether it falls to earth by coincidence or whether it is somehow directed to a place where it could be recharged (the Gardner ranch) before continuing with its journey, but fortuitousness seems to play some role in the colour’s trajectory, and in addition, it does actively effect change on its surroundings for its own gain. What is unambiguous is the human role in its progression: there is an obvious moment of release when the scientists crack the rock open, but human agency is also shown in the story through the agricultural maintenance of the ranch, providing nutrients and shelter (the well) for the parasite to thrive.[3] In Phantoms there exists a more observable negotiation between the Ancient Enemy and the human characters, however this is made clear this is purely for the benefit of each respective side, never mutual. And as with any work of fiction, there are deliberately constructed moments of chance incorporated into the narrative, such as the accidental release of the killer Kale, and the general orchestration of the group of characters which possess the right characteristics (muscle, scientific knowledge, medical skills) needed to save humanity.

As these substances emerge, they bring to the surface with them questions surrounding the distinctions between the living and the dead, the organic and inorganic, and the natural and “that which ought not to be.” These distinctions are tested thoroughly through the process of contamination, usually leading to the reanimation of the dead, as is the case with murdered officer Wargle in Phantoms;[4] or takeover of the victims’ autonomy or natural behaviour, as with everything animal, vegetable or mineral inhabiting the ranch in “The Colour Out of Space”. Is this not also how we imagine the role of oil itself – creeping into and taking over, such as in the cases of industrialisation, the replacement of manual workers with fuel-guzzling machines, many times cheaper and more powerful? In these contexts, the idea of “petropupptry” no longer seems so outrageous, especially when considered alongside similar imagery employed in canonical petrofiction.[5] The recurrence of this visual metaphor across distinct work of fiction implies a common aim, namely, to convey the flows of oil (or oil-capital) as it infiltrates the global, social, or ideological body. These bodies often display what Negarestani terms “zones of emergence”: holes or porosities serving as entrances and exits (Negarestani 2008: 49). For the victims of Phantoms, their faces are often fixed in paralytic screams, their mouths serving as a reminder of their horrifying physical destruction from the inside. Even more disturbing is Nahum Gardner’s death as witnessed by Ammi Pierce, who tells of the “brittle”, “distorted parody that had been a face”, culminating in the line: “That which spoke could speak no more because it had completely caved in.” (COS 329-330) The gaping well and the porous meteorite can be considered continuations of this theme.

In a study of Justin Cronin’s petrogothic vampire novel, The Twelve (2012), Macdonald explains the vampiric transformation of oil-victims into oil-subjects as follows:

Here is the zombified expression of extended oil, a world where petroleum, despite everything, remains undead. Its deathly brilliance, its accelerant uses, allows a form of desperate survival, and, as is explained, the ironic monstrosity of this is that the monsters themselves require the life of humans to extend, as permanently untapped deposits for future consumption. For humans, who create the monster-filled future, are themselves the ultimate, “organic” form of energy supply. (Macdonald 2014: 137)

Here we have the symbiotic relationship laid bare, wherein not only is oil an energy supply for humans, humans are themselves an energy supply for oil. In this relationship, both participating bodies are “undead”: too valuable to be left to either surface or ground, their interaction involves both a surfacing (surging upwards or seeping out) for oil, and a katabatic descent for humans (drilling and extraction). The way in which we use “undead” energy reserves to animate our lives is mirrored by oil’s ability to transfigure its (human) subjects into becoming-undead prey.

The reversal of roles in the dominant energy narrative (wherein usually it is people who are “exploiting” natural resources, the roles of master and slave being strongly defined), the victimisers becoming the victims, and “we [no longer] use oil, oil uses us”, is called “anthropic inversion” by Thacker (Thacker 2012: 176). The intermediary agent, the Earth (the world-in-itself), is pivotal here too. Not merely a milieu to be weirded (in Thacker’s terminology, it is the World(-for-us) that is weirded; the Earth is always weird), the Earth dictates the conversation between the two energy resources (human and oil) through its own surface-ground dynamics, and by this process becomes the true victim, the contaminated body, dying of heatstroke.

The nature of this interaction may help to explain oil’s agency and mission objectives. Both the colour and the Ancient Enemy are survivors: rare, endangered, and in need of its own form of biopower. And while human need for oil may be more socio-political than Darwinian, the (short-term) security and massive acceleration it has provided to both the developed and developing worlds ensure that any future downscaling of its consumption may be logistically and psychologically painful. Consider Nahum’s continued “listless” and “mechanical” drinking of the clearly poisoned well water: “he had by that time become calloused to strange and unpleasant things.” (COS 324) His sentiment seems a precursor to our current energy crisis, our age of continuing exhumation of “tough oil” we know is bad for us, yet a “safer” investment than alternative energy sources.

Horror of philosophy

As explained already, for Thacker horror is an attempt to conceive of the world-without-us philosophically, but in a “non-philosophical” way. This statement assumes that philosophy is by definition concerned with the world-for-us as its sole avenue of inquiry, and that horror deflects philosophical inquiry from the foundation that the world is the world-for-us to the world-without-us. This for Thacker is symptomatic of the decoupling of thought from the individual mind: in the same way that the world is not really a world-for-us, thought itself is also not “ours”; it too occupies a hyperobjective distance beyond our immediate selves, specifically in the “lacunae in the World and the Earth.” Thought is planetary (residing in the world-without-us) (Thacker 2011: 7-9).

In his essay “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans” (2012), Thacker posits a pathway out of anthropocentric and anthropomorphic thinking altogether, using another petrohorror short story, Fritz Leiber’s “Black Gondolier” (1964), as his case study. He frames the experience of the weird encounter in four stages: the transformation of the human from a rational subject into simply another expression of the fundamentally weird object; or the “unhuman”, defined as “a limit without reserve, something that one is always arriving at, but which is never circumscribed within the ambit of human thought.” (Thacker 2012: 173-80) The first stage is mere subsumption of the unhuman into humanistic frameworks, or anthropic subversion. Following this is anthropic inversion, as alluded to above. This is the recognition of “something else”; of having been discovered by the autonomous, creeping unhuman, rather than being the discoverer.

The third level is ontogenic inversion, the moment in the story wherein the faith of the human protagonist is shaken entirely by the realisation that humanity itself is simply “one instance of the unhuman.” Let us pause for a moment and consider the implications of this shift in perspective. The victims of petrohorror narratives are no longer negotiating with an outsider monster for the purposes of its own enslavement and consumption, they themselves are negotiating with their own monstrosity. In these terms, the ancient enemy’s prophesy/threat of returning at the end of Phantoms takes on a new meaning. Perhaps the “human” victims of Snowfield are themselves separated parts of this paternal “Legion”, suggested by the itching beneath Kale’s skin (Ph 426-430). Not only are anthropomorphic descriptors (terms such as “intent”, “sentience”, or “agency”) no longer easily applicable when recognising the unhuman, it cannot even be thought of as “other”. When faced with the monster of the weird story, the victims are foremost victims of themselves; the limits of their capacity for thought. Their crisis is a crisis of the inside, not the outside, and only a reckoning with the unhuman that is the collective self (what is thought of as humanity) will suffice.

A negotiation with ourselves, then, is shown in works of petrohorror be the adequate response to the looming energy crises which dominate our own human narratives. Yet, as horror narratives, we should be aware that delving deeper into them, the more “rational” we make them in an attempt to understand them, will also produce further horror still, as noted by George Sieg (Sieg 2008: 30-31). A confrontation with our energy future requires much more than systemic behavioural changes, mutually agreeable international policies and treaties, vast economic investment and infrastructure, and so on; it also requires a questioning of how we choose to conceive of and represent ourselves, and what we (collectively) are really capable of – an idea that for many is much more frightening even than oncoming environmental disaster.

In this sense, global warming really is a philosophical concern – the frameworks of existentialism, ontology and phenomenology are starting points in considering how to think philosophically about the crisis. But before using it, we must first be aware of what happens to thought when the thinking subject is exposed to the unhuman. During his moment of ontogenic inversion, the third level of inversion as mentioned above, Daloway, the protagonist of “Black Gondolier”, is able to conceive of the human as an indifferent instance of the unhuman. “At this point”, Thacker writes, “thought falters, and here we enter a fourth stage we can call misanthropic subtraction.” This is represented by the Lovecraftian technique of utilising euphemistic, analogical phrases such as “the unnameable”, in conjunction with baroque, over-gratuitous descriptors; and for Thacker they together constitute “a singular epiphany concerning the faltering not just of language, but of thought as well.” Attaining “the thought of the limit of all thought”, results in a “black illumination” by which the unhuman is treated by the subject as an indifference towards the human (Thacker 2012: 177-180). Human thought, finally, is therefore a property of the unhuman (Thacker 2011: 93-94).

Thought, then, is like a resource we borrow for the purpose of understanding. It too is a hyperobject: we cannot easily think “beyond thought” (of death, for example); it cannot be easily localised according to the contours of the brain; and so on. If we then define philosophy as the creation of or engagement with concepts and systems of thought designed to broaden our awareness and understanding,[6] the relevance of going beyond philosophy in the context of going beyond oil consumption begins to emerge. Not only does the energy crisis replicate the classical thinker’s predicament of needing to work beyond the limits of their epistemological framework when that framework becomes unsustainable, and to cognise an unstable future ahead of time; the energy crisis also finds its parallel in the autophagic process of thinking, the self-effacing of the individual consumed by their interaction with logical propositions and postulates.

It is from this perspective that Thacker can equate the boundaries of human(-driven) thought with the horror of philosophy; and by extension, we are able to associate this strand of extra-philosophical inquiry with the horror of ecology. This is Thacker’s understanding of the horror of philosophy:

the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language. (Thacker 2011: 2)

This new association of concept horror with the energy humanities can be used to uncover themes within petrohorror which have greater resonance in our understanding of the oil crisis. Many observations regarding emergence, agency and autonomy could be made here, but we must be careful not to reduce our usage of these terms to the anthropic. The relative indistinction uncovered by Thacker between human subjectivity and weird objectivity must be maintained if we are to utilise the concept horror methodology.

One way in which to think through this is to consider the oil creatures of petrohorror, the colour and the ancient enemy, as what the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl termed “intentional objects”. A large influence on Timothy Morton’s own phenomenological hyperobjects, intentional objects behave oppositely to real objects, which as we attempt to grasp the essence of them, “withdraw” from us, and become unknowable.[7] Intentional objects, on the other hand, are always present, immanent, encroaching even (Harman 2008: 353). Crucially however, these two objects are interlinked. Oil is both a real and intentional object, as are the colour and the ancient enemy: this is another of their weird qualities. According to Graham Harman, an intentional object is “both always and never present.” (ibid.: 362) Oil both withdraws into our unconscious and oppresses us with its presence; the threats of petrohorror monsters are simultaneously observable and unmeasurable, and “express their reality only by drawing neighboring objects into their orbit.” (ibid.)

A quality such as “agency”, therefore, can be understood as associated with weird objects such as oil beyond the level of anthropic inversion, if viewed as an expression of its intentionality, and not merely an endowment of a “human” attribute. The colour has the intention to regenerate itself using the earth’s resources, and the ancient enemy’s agenda also implies a certain logic regarding its own survival. Our unhuman agency – to grow stronger, to consume – is witnessed in the reflection of these narratives; and in the case of Phantoms, the enemy is eventually overcome through an observable negotiation, and recognition of the other. What is clear, when recognised in this way, is that these stories do not present the kind of human morality – the anthropo-guilt – which is often expected from ecofiction; instead providing complex, unprecedented, horrific occurrences for which no singular blame can be directly administered.

Conclusion

In “Petrofiction”, Ghosh made a distinctive claim. “The truth is”, he wrote, “we do not yet possess the form that can give the Oil Encounter a literary expression.” (Ghosh 1992: 31) However, by considering the body of work I have called petrohorror, this claim can be contested. Surely, Ghosh did not consider “The Colour Out of Space”, Phantoms, and “Black Gondolier” works of petrofiction: his usage of the term “Oil Encounter” seems to refer to a specific instance of emergence, a West-meets-East narrative that largely adheres to the pre-established mould set by colonial and postcolonial literature. Yet many years on from 1992, and given the substantial advances in our awareness of the oil crisis, it is now apparent that oil encounters are universal. For us then, petrofiction must be multidirectional and non-monotonic, and aim to utilise new literary forms to express not merely a singular historical event, but a much wider series of environmental effects and consequences. It is this revised definition of petrofiction, and its integration into ecocriticism, which the petroculturalists since Ghosh have sought to identify and exemplify.

This revision of the genre (if, indeed, this term is adequate), I argue, allows and benefits from the inclusion of the works of genre horror I have identified. Petrohorror, bolstered by the philosophical investigations of concept horror, brings into focus the immediate fear and dread of a substance difficult to objectify; a substance we cannot think beyond, as it is fully integrated not only with “our” thinking, but which itself takes on the form of thought, which cannot be thought of beyond itself. In a sense, petroculturalists attempt to seek new perspectives on the Lovecraftian unnameable thing, and to use empirical data and rational discussion to cognise the extent of its impact on the future. Petrohorror, through techniques such as anthropic inversion and misanthropic subversion, constructs allegorical manifestations of the thing in question, and plots which bring to the surface the paralysing, chaotic responses to our encounters with it. The result of these inversions is that narratives can begin to adequately represent a disjointed, “unnatural” world, of plastic,[8] of seemingly boundless energy and capital, that makes a call for a “return to nature” even less convincing, and forces us to invent progressive, anterograde solutions to the eco-pocalypse facing us.  The palliative potential of the petrohorror genre, as the energy dilemma reaches peak urgency, would be to show its readers that although humanity’s actions have resulted in an age of global horror, reactionary stasis would only further problematise the crisis.

Notes

[1] Hereafter COS.

[2] Hereafter Ph.

[3] There is an unambiguous anti-industrial, even transcendental streak running through Lovecraft’s story, a reaction to the unreasonable demands of expanding urban environments, creeping into his beloved New England home, which of course is the primary concern of the metanarrative here. The new reservoir being built perhaps suggests “The Colour Out of Space” be read as a revenge story against encroaching modernity, in which case Lovecraft’s own ecological views may be of secondary concern.

[4] The narrator describes the fatal attack as follows: “Wargle moved erratically across the street, jerked this way and that, heaved and writhed and spun, as if he were attached to strings that were being manipulated by a drunken puppeteer.” The victim shortly re-emerges later in the story, continuing the theme of reanimation beyond the boundaries of life and death. Ph 152 (my emphasis).

[5] For example, in John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil , there is a visually arresting scene which physically enacts a petropuppet danse macabre: a Texan oil baron and a senior Civil Servant attach strings to a government official, and together the three perform a song-and-dance number (McGrath 2015: 156-157).

[6] This is primarily a Deleuzoguattarian definition, derived from What Is Philosophy? (1994). Negarestani recurs this idea by defining philosophy as a “program”; “the primary focus of this cognitive program is to methodically urge thought to identify and bring about realizabilities afforded by its properties (theoretical and practical intelligibilities pertaining to thinking as such), to explore what can possibly come out of thinking and what thought can become.” (Negarestani 2015)

[7] “To represent a globe or tower is to witness a specific configuration of colors, textures, shadows, and physical co-ordinates. But if we see presentation as object-giving rather than presentational, we shift our focus toward the essential nucleus of the perception”. (Harman 2008: 352)

[8] “For Earth, the rendering of organic life on the surface of its crust into subterranean mineral fossil fuels is a core vascular labor. As oil, plastic is life recycled. So that the plasticity of plastic – the real compression-decompression effect of oil as the ultimate fate of the living thing – long predates the physical possibility of its composition by animals (humans) as the chemicals we call “plastics.” That futurity is ancient.” (Bratton 2012: 47)

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.

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

Harman, G. (2008) “On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 332-364.

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.

McGrath, J. (2015) The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, ed. Macdonald, G., London/New York, Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

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

— (2015) “What Is Philosophy? Part One: Axioms and Programs”, e-flux #67, available online at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/what-is-philosophy-part-one-axioms-and-programs/.

Sieg, G. (2008) “Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: The Gnosis of the Victim”, in Mackay, R. (ed.) Collapse IV, Falmouth, Urbanomic, 29-54.

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.

Featured image credits: übermorgen.com (2008) “04_MILLION_LITERS”.

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

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

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 Fredric 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 2008: 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 Fredric 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”.

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.