Jeff VanderMeer – Annihilation (2014) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #3]

Jeff VanderMeerAnnihilation (2014), in Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (London: 4th Estate, 2018), pp. 1-197. 

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (110) 

In addition to a work of speculative fiction (or New Weird), a treatise on imminent (/immanent) ecological horror and post-Anthropocentric survival, and (as the 2018 film adaptation makes painfully clear) an extended allegory for cancerous pathologies and the deindividuated self-destruction of cell programming, Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation is also a work of fiction that takes the power of the written word very seriously. The novel’s central objective discovery (absent entirely from the film, which I will now abstain from referring to) is of a passage of writing: a sort of fungal flora growing out of the wall deep inside the subterranean vertical tunnel named by the narrator as “the tower”. The content of this passage is obscure, and ultimately, it is decided by the narrator, unimportant: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner […]”. This text, however, has an agency all of its own: its message is not disseminated through interpretation and relay, but inhalation. “I was unlucky – or was I lucky? Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the W chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out. I pulled back, but I thought I had felt something enter my nose, experienced a pinprick of escalation in the smell of rotting honey.” (27) 

Before noting the effects of this textual contagion, it is worth considering one or two things about the hosts. The “characters” of Annihilation are anything but “rounded”, or psychologically multilayered; instead going by their ascribed job titles – the protagonist is “the biologist”, for example, joined on her expedition by “the surveyor” and “the psychologist”, married to “the husband”, etc. (From page 11: “we were always strongly discouraged from using names […]. Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while we were embedded in Area X.”) These figures assert their processes over their personalities (see also Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Plateaus 4 and 5 of A Thousand Plateaus). Consequently, they function as bundles of collective affects (or elements of effective culture), ready for any potential becomings. This is seen in the biologist’s modulation into Ghost Bird: a xeroxed tulpa identified by what she calls a “brightness” emanating from within. She even identifies herself as a “demon” during her gunfire exchange with the alienated surveyor. (The significance of the demonolgical to theory-fiction is explored in Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, and several posts on this blog.) 

But while the reader may be inclined to see these effected changes to the narrator’s subjective being (as well as those effected on the topography of the environment which has become known as Area X) as harmful, they are instead described in more ambivalent terms. While the destruction of said subjectivity is acknowledged as a loss of rational certainties and adequate means of expression (something Eugene Thacker calls misanthropic subtraction), the encounter with the script is more positively affirmed as an opportunity for escape from individuation and passage to the becoming-multiple. The meeting with the Crawler, late in the novel – a being which can barely be perceived, let alone apprehended – is the pivot for said deindividuation. While weird fiction is known for having a penchant towards authoritarian scientists becoming subjected to unnameable cosmic horror (a trend perfected by Lovecraft), VanderMeer’s protagonist is willing to embrace the transformative potentials of the loss of certainties gathered from her encounters, in a way that these predecessors found themselves unwilling or incapable of. The author’s intention was to provocatively suggest Area X and its inhabitants as a “best case scenario” of ecological mutation – the cancerous expansion of alien becomings effectively shielding the Earth from the mass extinctions it inevitably faces. As current occupants of the planet (“ghosts roaming a haunted landscape”, as the husband poignantly acknowledges), it might indeed be the case that intense organic modifications may be the only means of preserving life on an uninhabitable Earth. (This, of course, is not a get-out clause for avoiding collective environmental action – it is obviously vital that we do everything in our capacity to save life on Earth while the opportunity for doing so is still open to us.) The ending of the novel – Ghost Bird preparing for a deeper descent into Area X, without any suggestion of ever returning – may constitute the first steps into this experimental new form of becoming; a sort of de-colonialist subversion of Colonel Kurtz. “I’m well beyond you now, and travelling very fast. […] I am not returning home.” (196)

Origins of Theory-Fiction is a series of blog posts/short essays exploring some of the critical texts of the emerging question of the embedded and stacked relationships between text and concept, fiction and “reality”. The purpose of this series is to gesture towards a concrete, working definition of the term theory-fiction, without being prescriptive, reductive, or exhaustive. As well as identifying some of the foundational theoretical works and literary hybrids to which this label has been assigned, this series will also examine key individual works of image, sound, and writing that allow us to further understand this provocation, and to test the limits of its usefulness and applicability. The titles of each of these posts is not necessarily the title of the theory-fiction under discussion, but rather the provocation for thinking about the theory-fictive mode. There is also no significance to the numbering or order of their production: they can be read independently or in any order desired.

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Two Questions Concerning Applied Ballardianism

RM: Immediately in The Drowned World, you have the fictional theory of ‘neuronics’ playing a really important role. You have to buy into that theoretical position to be compelled by the story. This is what theory fiction means to me. It’s not a genre but more a question, or even a problem: in what different ways can the two cross over, and in what ways to they need each other?[1]

Two questions come to mind when discussing the above quote by Robin Mackay, itself a response to Simon Sellars’s Applied Ballardianism (which has dethroned Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as the archetypal “theory-fiction” text). 1) What is Ballard’s role in the development of this “question” of theory-fiction? And 2) What does theory-fiction mean in relation to this text?

First of all, Ballard is responsible (directly and indirectly) for many of the concepts that were incorporated and built upon in the earliest ruminations on theory-fiction. I am here thinking of Mark Fisher’s Flatline Constructs, which places Ballard in a rhizome connecting him to Baudrillard, McLuhan, Freud, William Gibson, “Deleuze-Guattari” and others. Central to both Fisher and Sellars’s understandings of theory-fiction is Ballard’s characterisation of inner space, as a Spinozistic interpretation of bodies as capable of both affecting and being affected. As sites of pure Event, bodies are inseparable from the landscapes they inhabit, and so Ballard’s “inner” is in fact a folding-out onto “outer” ground; a cybernetics, or, more precisely, a geo-traumatics.  In The Drowned World, we see the submerged landscape producing psychological and physiological symptoms within the bodies it contains; in The Atrocity Exhibition, the same kinds of changes are apparent, though this time, they are brought about via immersion within the “media landscape”. Ballard conceives of mediatization as a  generalisation of trauma, evoked through the repetition of violent and unprecedented images, and for which the body experiences schizophrenic breakdown and overspill of affect. Ballard’s T- character(s) in The Atrocity Exhibition attempt a form of “catastrophe management” through repetition and re-enactment of televised events: the Kennedy assassination, the Monroe car crash, and so on. These rituals are simultaneously themselves responses to the traumas brought on through mediatization, attempts (by Ballard and his characters) to represent these events and their associated affects as the only legitimate and rational response, and a continuation of the logic of breakdown – a positive experiencing of the trauma mode as a deterriorialization, leading to inorganic breakthrough.[2]

These ideas are what make Ballard’s key works (The Drowned WorldThe Atrocity Exhibition, and Crash) theory-fiction: the texts cannot be approached without engaging with them on these terms. Sellars would concur. His explanation for the experimental form adopted by Applied Ballardianism is that it is the result of trying to faithfully capture and respond to a particular Ballard quote: “The most prudent and effective method of dealing with the world around us is to assume it is a complete fiction conversely, the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.[3] The book – and perhaps by extension, Ballard himself – also interpret theory-fiction in another way. “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind”, says Ballard.[4] Our thoughts and perceptions are always-already pervaded by the fictional “mode”, including any “theory” we might derive from or within it. Given this, the role of effective writing is to invent the reality.”[5] Hence the shift from Ballard’s earliest fictions – the ones that fabulate an extraordinary natural event (The Drowned WorldThe Crystal World, et al) – to the immediate (or im-mediate) traumas of unnatural (sub)urban life (CrashHigh-Rise).

Sellars’s book reads as an account of trying to “invent the reality” of its writer’s psychic life in the most authentic conceivable manner – as a “memoir from a parallel universe”. But it succeeds as theory-fiction in a third sense, not directly related to the two outlined above. The novel’s (?) parallel narrator begins by attempting to render Ballard as a latent philosopher, who uses the shell of fiction in order to disseminate deep-seated “truths” about the real world (Def. 1). Yet – and it’s no spoiler to reveal this, all fiction requires dramatic tension after all – this task does not play out as the narrator expects. The planned exercise quickly becomes a living-out of Ballard’s “extreme metaphors”, an experiencing and intensifying of psychic traumas across the fault lines of the narrator’s entire life. “Why did I always shove aside the positive implications of Ballard’s work, the message of resistance it carried, in favour of the dark desires that had driven his characters to reach that point? I suppose it reflected my own cynical worldview, my own fatal inwardness that ensured I found little joy in anything.”[6] Ballard’s own moralistic framework guaranteed that he himself, when faced with a precarious juncture, would always take the blue pill: “Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down.” Sellars’s doppelganger, without the framework, the grounding of thought and desire, is free to take the path to psychosis. “Dangerous bends ahead. Speed up.”[7]

It is this exposure of a lack of grounding in the narrator’s interpretation of his deep assignment that,  perversely, re-inverts Applied Ballardianism into a cautionary tale. In every interview, Sellars is adamant: “It’s a mistake to read a political agenda into Ballard – or Applied Ballardianism. I don’t advise it.[8] But the book, and it’s author’s message, Negarestani shows, are hardly apolitical; instead, their engagements with politics demonstrate a

playing precisely [of] the multi-level game with different political resolutions at different levels. […] Depending on the resolution at which the game is played, the book is replete with fundamentally different sociopolitical visions of our world. There is no contradiction here, only competing actual worlds which – and perhaps it is simply a bad habit – we are accustomed to calling the world. It is the conflict between world versions and their respective visions that is, in fact, the very constitutive element of what we name ‘reality’.[9]

Sellars has characterised the book as an exercise in failure, failure of the very idea of applying Ballardianism – at least in the sense his narrator attempts, as an ideal for living. As his life becomes mediatized by the very media warning him against its dangers, the narrator’s journey amounts to an exploration of inner space in the term’s most restricted sense: as a solipsism, or phenomenology. Now the character sees orbs in the sky, ghosts on airfields, Ballardian ley lines, everywhere. Cast adrift from the media Events central to Ballard’s texts, the narrator’s theory-fiction has folded back in on itself, as conspiracy theory. It’s no wonder that he briefly turns to the Mandela Effect as a potential re-grounding agent, for unifying his cognitively dissonant memories.

To recapitulate, we see Applied Ballardianism as theory-fiction in a threefold sense. Firstly, it is a theoretical exploration of the ideas of Ballard’s fiction, conveyed in the “truly authentic” form of (quasi-)Ballardian fiction. Secondly, it is an extension and  critique of these Ballardian concepts (his original theory-fiction): specifically, of the traumas brought about by the ungrounding and deterritorializing effects of immersion within the media landscape. Thirdly, and finally, it is an expression of the traumatic effects of Ballard’s theory-fiction on the individual, and a warning against untethered free-falls through inner space. I believe that Sellars is saying, in effect, that dissociation must bottom out somewhere. The ground awaits any such schizoid free-fall, and this ground may resemble any number of things: conspiracist paranoia, hard concrete, hikikomori, windshield glass… Yet, I don’t see all theory-fiction as bad religion. If we can keep our grounding in sight, we might be able to foresee and avoid what lurks behind the cracks in reality, and at the same time, produce the condition for original thought and expression.

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars & Robin Mackay, “So Many Unrealities”, Urbanomic (10th December 2018), available online at https://www.urbanomic.com/document/so-many-unrealities/.

[2] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (New York: Exmilitary Press, 2018 [1999]), pp. 84-96.

[3] J.G. Ballard, from the 1995 introduction to Crash. Cf. Sellars & Mackay. The quote appears in Applied Ballardianism: Memoir From a Parallel Universe (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2018), pp. 39-40.

[4] Ballard, introduction to Crash.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Applied Ballardianism, p. 239.

[7] Ibid, p. 223.

[8] Sellars, “Simon Sellars on Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Tadas Vinokur for Aleatory Books (17th December 2018), available online at https://www.aleatorybooks.com/simonsellarsinterview.

[9] Reza Negarestani, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin (Reading Applied Ballardianism)”, Toy Philosophy (9th August 2018), available online at https://toyphilosophy.com/2018/08/09/mene-mene-tekel-upharsin-reading-applied-ballardianism/.

Response to Gregory Marks’s “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”

I don’t use Twitter, and so I sometimes miss out on conversations about subjects that interest me. It was only recently, when I was reading Simon Sellars’s interview with Robert Barry for The Quietus,[1] that I came across a reference to a list of notable works and influences of theory-fiction that “attracted a lot of attention” over the summer. Its author, the PhD student Gregory Marks, compiled suggestions from theory-fiction enthusiasts into a four-page bibliography that begins with Lucretius’s De rerum natura and ends with Sellars’s new book Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. That version of the list can be read in full here.[2]

Marks later in the thread gives his definition of theory-fiction broadly as

a theoretical text which blurs the lines between theory and fiction by drawing attention to its artifice. I’ve played loose with the definition to include auto-theory and works of experimental or philosophical fiction important to the development of the genre.

He then lists his general criteria for inclusion as the following:

  1. Communicates theory through fictive devices — not philosophical fiction, but fictive philosophy.
  2. Practices theory outside the confines of the “high” academic style.
  3. Occupies the growing intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy.
  4. I want to read it.

Now, with my understanding of theory-fiction, as built up through multiple engagements with the term, I find both the above criteria and many of the inclusions on the list difficult to fully support. This is a thorny subject, and due to my time being preoccupied with other factors in my life lately, I haven’t managed to respond before now. But a few days ago, Marks posted a slightly revised version of the list on his blog The Wasted World.[3] A key development with this new list is the introduction of sub-categories, making it much easier to navigate, but more importantly, to critique and engage with. I’m therefore going to spell out my concerns, firstly with the above criteria, and secondly with each of the sub-categories, with a view to clarifying my position on what does and doesn’t constitute theory-fiction. Clearly the list is more suggestive than exhaustive, and I’m therefore aware that this may amount to an exercise in extreme pedantry on my part. But it’s never been a consideration of mine that theory-fiction ever needed a canon, and the prospect that this list may be misconstrued as authoritative has prompted me to fashion an (admittedly subjective and equally illegitimate) appendix to the exercise. This is not designed to be an attack on Marks or the list itself, but a rejoinder or alternative perspective to a subject I feel strongly about and wish to engage with on slightly different terms. I’m also not planning on fully redefining theory-fiction here and now, but instead indicate a more nuanced position over a series of blog posts currently in the pipeline.

***

Firstly, let’s return to the criteria above. #4 can be dismissed entirely, as one person’s interest in a particular text clearly does not a theory-fiction make. I also wish to eliminate #2. Theory-fiction may be seen, and I’m disinclined to contend, as a stylistic engagement, and many certified examples of theory-fiction texts do indeed deliberately eschew “academic” formalisms in favour of more poststructuralist or sf-inspired attempts at original expression,[4] but theory-fiction does not appear to be bound to this implied basic opposition between “high” and “low” stylistics. The fact that many of the entries precede the establishment of what is now considered the academic style somewhat discredits this criterion, as does a closer look at some of the more recent examples. “Barker Speaks: The Ccru Interview with Professor D C Barker”,[5] for instance, employs academic style to full effect (an interview for an ostensibly academic journal, complete with a list of publications that lead to a dead end when Googled), and yet is for me perhaps the paradigm for all published theory-fiction of the last twenty years (perhaps though this is a topic of discussion for one of those upcoming blog posts). It’s not its opposition to academic style that makes “Barker Speaks” theory-fiction, but its decidedly extra-academic content and lines of inquiry.

That leaves us with #1 and #3. Let’s start with #3. Although broadly agreeable and somewhat difficult to counter, there nevertheless seems to be something a little nonspecific about “the intersection between reality, fiction, theory, and fantasy” that could probably benefit from a fleshing out. Is fake news theory-fiction? What about Socratic dialogues? It’s clear that Marks is trying to lower the price of admission into the canon, but it remains confusing as to how far exactly to take the murky zones between fiction and reality, theory and fantasy as sufficient qualifiers. Yet this is not itself an issue when paired with #1, the communication of “theory through fictive devices”. All in all the strongest qualifier, this criterion does well to prioritise “fictive philosophy” over “philosophical fiction”. It explains why, for example (and despite my personal reservations), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon makes the list, but, say, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea does not. The latter has a philosophical content, of course, but it does not do philosophy; its content does not constitute a theoretical exercise in itself. There is therefore a connection in theory-fiction between form and content: form must be contingent with the theoretical task undertaken by its writers, and not chosen purely for aesthetic reasons.

***

From this general conclusion, we can begin to scrutinise some of the sub-categories which Marks has divided his theory-fiction canon into. Please note that within each of these there are exceptional and ambiguous inclusions that are difficult to disassociate from the category headings (not all of them are listed below). This may perhaps lead one to suggest that it is the categories themselves, and not the individual books that are questionable (as ever, it is both that must bear scrutiny). In addition, naturally, I am not familiar with every text listed, and therefore my ignorance is bound to play a part in shaping my critique and any counter-critique that might be conceived (which I welcome). The list has at least provided me with a plenitude of good suggestions for future reading material, and so has succeeded in that respect.

First off, we can discredit “sci-phi” as little more than a list of influential sf, the form of which does not itself produce new theoretical orientations (discuss). The tripartite “theoretical fiction” categories, which identify in turn “fiction”, self-writing (this is where Applied Ballardianism has been placed), and poetry/drama as theory, also fall at this hurdle. We do not see in Beckett’s The Unnamable, for example, the novel as a theory, as much as a vessel for ideas surrounding the nature of the novel itself. If we are being generous, we might suggest The Unnamable as a case of form identifying new possibilities for itself, but in this case is this not what art does, not theory? As I understand it, theory denotes rendering aspects of the world legible and sensible (order out of chaos) – even if, through theory-fiction, they take a somewhat mystified and convoluted route – and it is not immediately apparent that these texts do that.[6]

Returning to the basic question, Is this text in itself theory, or is theory merely something it provides?, it becomes doubtful whether to admit poetic theory, or “theory which foregrounds its artifice”: although (as gestured already) not inaccurate to describe theory-fiction as stylistic invention, there is in actuality a greater emphasis on what that style does to advance its theory. There are again, however, some ambiguous inclusions: Baudrillard’s The Ecstasy of Communication is placed here, which, according to Jason de Boer’s reasoning, must qualify as one of the first attempts towards the development of theory-fiction.[7] I would also asterisk Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, Derrida’s The Post Card, Flusser and Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for further consideration,[8] whilst recovering certain valuable sections of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Poetic theory’s prose counterpart, narrative theory, is similar. This time it is the likes of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, Michel Serres’s Biogea, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World that perhaps make it out the least unharmed. Identifying two of those three as being published in the last decade shows an emerging pattern.

The only remaining category to explore is “cybernetic theory fiction”, or “theory as cultural hype”. In their entirety, these texts undoubtedly make up the core of theory-fiction discussions we are now beginning to see. Many of them are even self-defined as such. The back cover of Arthur Kroker’s Spasm contains the earliest mention of the term I have so far found.[9] Mark Fisher’s influential dissertation Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction was completed in 1999 and remains online to this day (thanks Exmilitary).[10] The extent to which theory-fiction may function as marketing hype is another interesting facet of the whole concept we must return to another time…

Notes

[1] Simon Sellars, “One Small Node of Reality: Applied Ballardianism”, interviewed by Robert Barry for The Quietus (15th September 2018), available online at http://thequietus.com/articles/25293-applied-ballardianism-simon-sellars-interview.

[2] Gregory Marks, et al., “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, Twitter (12th July 2018), available online at https://twitter.com/thewastedworld/status/1017427669338607616.

[3] Gregory Marks, “A Theory-Fiction Reading List”, The Wasted World (3rd November 2018), available online at https://thewastedworld.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/a-theory-fiction-reading-list/.

[4] Applied Ballardianism may be the newest archetype of this idea of theory-fiction as xeno-academic theoretical exercise. Sellars developed the book out of a PhD thesis, eventually junking its original form because of a growing dissatisfaction with academia more generally. The finished form of the text is that of a fictionalised memoir of an “insane alterative version” of the writer living in a universe parallel to this one. See “One Small Node of Reality” (note 1 above).

[5] In both CCRU, Writings 1997-2003 (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2015) and Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (Falmouth/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2011), pp. 493-505. Both are listed by Marks under “Cybernetic Theory-Fiction”. For reasons repeated throughout this essay, neither collection can be considered in their entirety as theory-fiction, but the CCRU’s/Land’s total output most definitely qualify as influential to its development and reception.

[6] Aside from the aforementioned Applied Ballardianism, there are two more inclusions in the otherwise discreditable “self-writing as theory” category that can probably, in my opinion, be salvaged. Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory and Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie both caused me to reconsider what I thought it was that theory-fiction could be said to be or do, being that (as far as I am able to verify) they are both very directly truthful accounts that nonetheless seem to simultaneously provide new theoretical scope for their respective subject matters (and the self-writing form seems to aid in this) and somehow bend the limits of the (pre-established, obviously inadequate notions of the) possible around the narratives they present. Theory-fiction? Probably yes. Possibly something else altogether.

[7] Jason DeBoer, “Fierce Language: The Fatal “Theory-Fiction” of Jean Baudrillard”, in The Absinthe Literary Journal (Spring 2000, available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20110707075611/http://www.absintheliteraryreview.com/archives/fierce4.htm). DeBoer writes of Baudrillard:

Theory, as a series of signs of equal value, is rendered impotent to affect or interact with the real. It is always productive and never destructive, although what it is capable of producing is merely more signs. Baudrillard realizes this, and this futility, once realized, he cannot ignore. Theory must return to the critical, productive enterprise, where it resumes its reproduction, or it must take its own futility as its object and become “fatal”. By abandoning meaning and becoming fascinated with itself, fatal theory must ultimately cease to be theory as such, eventually turning to more literary or fictive strategies. […] A theory self-aware of its own impossibility to transcend signs must forget the real and try to disappear into its own empty form.

In fact, a more interesting reading of poetic theory would be as the foregrounding of the implied artifice of theory itself, and perhaps de Boer’s reading works in this context.

[8] With the former two texts, it’s difficult to ascertain whether their theoretical content really benefits from their forms; whereas with the latter two, one might question to what extent these are “theoretical” texts at all.

[9] Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993). The back cover promises “[a] theory-fiction about the crash world of virtual reality[…]”. Kroker is probably best known as the co-editor of the online journal Ctheory.

[10] Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/2008032501_3155/http://www.cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm. Republished in 2018 by Exmilitary Press.

Thanks to Gregory Marks for consultation and clarification on an earlier draft of this post.

What Is Affect? (or, Gestures Towards an Outline for an Ethics of the Encounter)

I wrote this essay a year ago for a writing competition. I present it here in unedited form.

I

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is not an object of recognition but of a fundamental encounter. (Deleuze 2014: 183)

Something throws itself together in a moment as an event and a sensation; a something both animated and inhabitable. (Stewart: 1)

Something forces us to think. It’s as though, through a crack of circumscribed reality, the Outside seizes upon us, shattering everything we thought it meant to know, to feel, to be. At the centre of every significant (political, cultural, personal) event lies a breakthrough, which is itself the desired object of an encounter. The encounter feeds on us, it eats us, disinterestedly, without ceremony; sometimes immediately; sometimes it merely infects us, grows slowly in the lower intestine, gradually working on us from inside. We know of the encounter, because it affects us. It produces affect.

Affect is the desired harvest of art, of literature, of thought. It is the digestive acid of the encounter. We feel it wash over us. It continues to dissolve us, it tingles, it “shimmers” (Barthes: 101).[1] However we see fit to define our lives, however it is we choose to spend our time (when that choice is indeed available to us), when we are asked a variation on the question “Why is it you do what you do?”, the unnameable answer is “to experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

In H.G. Wells’s short story “The Door in the Wall” (1911), the protagonist Lionel Wallace recounts his first (and only) true affective encounter, experienced when he was too young to comprehend its enchanted strangeness, its weirdness, and the significant impact it was to have on the remainder of his life. A small boy, four years old, brought up “so sane and “old-fashioned,” as people say,” finding himself alone in the streets of West Kensington, cutting a wretched figure (Wells: 146-147). “[H]e recalls a number of mean, dirty shops, and particularly that of a plumber and decorator, with a dusty disorder of earthenware pipes, sheet lead ball taps, pattern books of wall paper, and tins of enamel” (ibid.). A moment of unprecedented emotional distress. The green door forces itself into this most mundane and hostile of moments. Something about this door, in this wall, is electromagnetically charged with affect.

There’s no reason why it should be.

“Then, he said, he had a gust of emotion” (ibid.). The young Wallace opens the door, as the reader expected him to do. He enters a world of elongated elfin figures and placid wild panthers, children playing delightful games, and books, the pages of which “were not pictures, […] but realities” (ibid.: 148-150). A world that ought not to be, in which “as one played one loved…” (ibid.). In less than an hour, Wallace has been transformed irrecoverably.[2]

 

II

Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. (Deleuze & Guattari: 164).

“But how does one encounter, or live in pursuit of affect? How may we recognise an encounter?” For Gilles Deleuze, an encounter happens as an elevation of each of the faculties to the limit of their “transcendent exercise” (Deleuze 2014: 187-188). “Each faculty must be borne to the extreme point of its dissolution, at which it falls prey to triple violence: the violence of that which forces it to be exercised, of that which it is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, yet also that of the ungraspable (from the point of view of its empirical exercise)” (ibid.).

It is for this reason that an affective encounter cannot be recognised, only sensed; it prefigures the exercise of the faculties in a “common sense”, one common to us (ibid. 183-184). Hence it appears to us as a Something: we cannot be sure of what. But we can feel its effects upon us. Because affect is intensity (Massumi: 15-16, 27). It exists in-between states of action and being acted upon (Siegworth & Gregg: 1), between movement and rest: it “moves as it feels” (Massumi: 1, 15). The encounter is an event through which nothing is prefigured and, in Gilbert Simondon’s terminology, the encounter is itself preindividual – a continuous field of potential functions “out of phase with formed entities” (ibid.: 27, 34).[3]

Thinking in terms of affect presents us with an opportunity to reconceive the structuration of subjectivity as “an assemblage of body memories and preindividual affective capacities […] a new ontology of bodily matter, beyond the autopoiesis of the human organism” (Clough: 9). There is a missing half-second between receptivity of electrical impulses through the skin and the brain: sensation occurs recursively, the body’s capacity to feel prefigures recognisable traces of thought (Massumi: 28-29). Or rather, conscious thought reduces universal affect in the individual act of recognition, as (posthumous) emotion or cognition, “smooth[ing] over retrospectively to fit conscious requirements of continuity and linear causality” (ibid.: 29-30).

Something evidently happens beyond our capacity to understand it when we are affected by external stimuli. How might we characterise this unknowable Something, when there is “no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect” (ibid.: 27)? We can try grasping at words, concepts, transitory expressions: “an intelligence beyond rational calculation”, an excess, “a faceless love” (Berlant: 2, Siegworth & Gregg: 13, Negarestani: 207). Misanthropic subtraction, the Lovecraftian descriptive technique: the unnameable void around which a thousand apophatic names circulate (Thacker: 177-178). The Outside, its teeming affects, and what it brings to the definition of the body. “Affect marks a body’s belonging to a world of encounters”, but also, at the same time, its “non-belonging” (Siegworth & Gregg: 2).

Because affective experience is not really “for us”, but rather absolutely impassive, emotionless, neutral. It does not “arise in order to be deciphered” (ibid.: 21). It happens in spite of us. Sometimes the door just appears. It does not care for our convenience. We are optimistic; it is cruel. Cruel optimism: “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a significantly problematic object” (Berlant: 24). Our subjectivity is shaken in its presence. But we need affect: it enhances us, extends us spatio-temporally, the “us” that we recognise. Affect “is integral to a body’s perpetual becoming […], pulled beyond its seeming surface-boundedness by way of its relation to, indeed its composition through, the forces of encounter. With affect, a body is as much outside itself as in itself – webbed in its relations – until ultimately such firm distinctions cease to matter” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3) Body becomes assemblage:

a multiplicity […] made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Deleuze & Parnet: 69)

Affect could also be named “the virtual”: a singular mass of infinite tendencies, a multiplicity of potentialities. Subjectivity and duration are understood as parallel to their actualized, differentiated outcome, or their capture in a present that marks our understanding of being, our self-awareness (Deleuze 1988a: 42-43). The encounter occupies an “impasse” (though not an exclusively temporal one), within which one may “sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic,” and perceive “those processes that have not yet found their genre of event” (Berlant: 4). The emergence of affect is therefore a “two-sided coin”, the transversal[4] cross-communication of the virtual and the actual, “as seen from the side of the actual thing”, at the virtual’s “edge” (Massumi: 35, 31)[5]. The actual thing, the individual body’s access to the virtual (the affective) is possible because of the existence of the past as an “ontological present” (Clough: 13). The future, on the other hand, is never foreseen, and is a limitless source of creativity (Siegworth & Gregg: 21).

The presence of affect reaches the presently-existing individual as a hyperstition: a narrative that makes itself “real” to the subject through travelling from the “future” to recursively re-engineer the conditions of its existence (Ccru: 74), like the Terminator. We are affected through narrative disruption, whether as violent shock, or as an imperceptible “background” effect, the kind of which happens continuously without our conscious awareness: a “perception of [a] self-perception” of an imperceptible happening, a perception of one’s own vitality, which “cannot but be perceived” (Massumi: 36). In order to re-engineer ourselves in terms of affect, we ought to develop and utilise new “experimental writing” techniques, that strive to “capture a shift in thought happening to the writer and which the writer is inviting”; to open ourselves up to new affective futurities (Clough: 14).

 

III

No one has yet determined what the Body can do. (Spinoza: III, 2, def.)

Philosophers might think to go to the premier on thinking affects, Baruch Spinoza, in search of a point of origin for an ethics of the encounter. This is a good intuition, but Spinoza’s elaboration on the affections [affectio, affectus] must be grasped precisely. Deleuze proposes three perspectives: 1) affections as the modes of substance in themselves, as “God’s attributes”; 2) affections as images, or that which happens to the mode; 3) affections as durations between the affective images, and inseparable to their existence (Deleuze 1988b: 48-49). Affectio refers to the state of the body affected upon; affectus is the transversal passage from one state to another – the former as “ideas”, the latter as “feeling affects” (ibid.). “By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (Spinoza: III, D3).[6] Both “affections” suppose a certain interaction between a thinking mind and an acting body, but it is only really with affectus that this interaction is complexified (more faithfully represented), and a “correspondence” – between mind and body, internal causes (actions) and external stimuli (passions), the affective body and its potential to be affected – can be understood to be taking place (Hardt: ix-x). And the body’s capacity is unknowable: it requires continuous immersion/feedback from “the field or context of its force-relations”: the unknowable attributes of God, a perpetual “not-yet” (Siegworth & Gregg: 3). God is understood as Nature, “encompassing the human, the artificial, and the invented”, pulling the strings of both the body and the mind (Massumi: 36, Hardt: ix-x).

The “not-yet-ness” of the affective body, or the assemblage of affective becomings, can be interpreted as a provocation (Siegworth & Gregg: 9), or a “cluster of promises” to be made possible – or sometimes, humiliatingly, not (Berlant: 23-24). The Spinozian body is defined in terms of “relations of movement and rest”, or rather, a capacity to enter into states of these relations (Massumi: 15). These are the movements of a becoming, an actualization taking place not in us, but in the mind of “God” (ibid.: 36). We cannot “think” our way into affective encounters. Affect cannot be contained in the image (of thought), being of a “purely transitive” nature; but we must let the movements of becoming come to us (Deleuze 1988b: 49). As individuals, or “singular essences”, we are defined by our capacity for being affected, beyond which we cease (ibid.: 27). We owe it to ourselves, then, to attempt a fashioning of affections beneficial to ourselves; a transition from (internally-caused) actions to (externally-caused) passions (Hardt: x). From the confused, fluctuating Inside to the necessarily passionate joys of the Outside (ibid., Deleuze 1988b: 51).

 

IV

The code said: GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU. NOW EAT YOUR MIND. (Acker: 38)

An ethics of the encounter, then, would be a gay science, in which the body is reconfigured as an open assemblage of states allowing for a maximum enabling of interference from the Outside, a relinquishing of (conceived) bodily autonomy, a reimagination of the relationship between the individual and the world, and an assertion of one’s vitality: “circuits and flows […] the form of a life” (Stewart: 2). Thinking affectively, we can no longer interpret the body as a “closed system drawing energy from the outside, thus drawing the body back into homeostasis and equilibrium”; in a way that would lead “inevitably to entropic heat death” (Clough: 16). We reside with the Something, the unactualized, that which allows one to live “in and through that which escapes them” (Massumi: 35). An outwards unfolding, an opening of the self, an invitation to the Outside, “becoming an ever more sensitive worldly interface” (Siegworth & Gregg: 12).

However, to attempt a singular, universalizing ethics of affective encounters is impossible, as no comprehensive definition of the preindividual affect can be established. There are factors to be considered, such as how affect approaches the bodily assemblage. Much is to do with the angle of its arrival: for the assemblage during the encounter, “affect is the whole world [the Outside]: from the precise angle of its differential emergence” (Massumi: 43). In other words, the Outside, what we feel, is “already angled” upon its approaching us (Ahmed: 37): we encounter only actualised or selected “eidetic variations”, to borrow a term from phenomenology. Thinking of the angled dynamic thresholds between the interfaces of bodily assemblages and worlds helps us to recognise affect as “an aesthetic or art of dosages” (Siegworth & Gregg: 16). One ethical response to affect may be to appreciate the ordinary: the continual, minimally disruptive affective activities that “pick up density and texture” as they surge through our quotidian lives (Stewart: 3). Or we may choose to be bold and open ourselves up further to the Outside, making of ourselves “a good meal”, offering ourselves to the Sorceress Druj, the Mother of Abominations, as did Dr Hamid Parsani.[7] Of course, we need to be aware of the limitations of all approaches. Like Lionel Wallace, we cannot truly prepare for the door, or the effects of an immersion into the other side. In outlining an ethics of the encounter we are but grasping into the darkness, experiencing the undifferentiated with our ignorance. An affective ethics could also get us in trouble (“I’m sorry, officer, I couldn’t help it, I was motivated by forces beyond my comprehension.”) But, to remain faithful to our vitality, we ought not to be timid.

One common experience of “ordinary affects” is in the aesthetic experience, for example that offered to us through literature. This is common to many readers: whether from the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time, six volumes of Akira, an aphorism, a proposition, whatever it may be. Readers occasionally are transformed by books: sentences, passages, chapters leap out; they redefine literature for us, they teach us how to read, and how to conceive and experience life anew. Again, approach to the text is significant, and it benefits us to be open when cultivating affect. It is not the text itself that produces affect for us, just as it is not the body in isolation that is affected, but the text’s immersion into a field of forces and relations, and its position as a gateway for us to encounter them, that briefly exposes us to such affirmative joys. The book is an open system; we ought to read it as a resonating chamber of the Outside.

This intensive way of reading, in contact with what’s outside the book, as a meeting of other flows, one machine among others, as a series of experiments for each reader in the midst of events that have nothing to do with books, as tearing the book into pieces, getting it to interact with other things, absolutely anything … is reading with love. (Deleuze 1995: 8-9)

As though the right book possesses the right combination of figures, words, and sentences to open oneself out into infinity, like a Borgesian library, but only when approached in the right way, under fortunate circumstances. It is important to acknowledge that we do not know what to expect from art: what is likely to affect us, and how. Nothing is prefigured, therefore we are in no position to make demands from books, genres, writers, etc. Crime and Punishment may do nothing for us, even if we want it to, and Watership Down might reduce us to tears. Of course, there is a certain predictability, an emergence of self-knowledge as we experiment with styles and genres, and we learn to recognise the subtractions of affect we most frequently enable, through its capture as emotion. But preconceptions do not get readers far. Immersion in worldly knowledge, abolition of images and blocks, dissolution of the threshold of the Self and the Other.

As alluded to above, the affective forms a field of forces and relations around the differentiated subject, the dynamic bodily assemblage. Reading and writing are forms of wrestling with these forces of our perpetual becoming, our self-flourishing. Reading can be considered a form of experimental writing: an autoethnography, a self-flourishing. Through reading, we may grasp “the materialities and temporalities of bodies” and reassemble them, extend them outwards, and resonate with affirmative vitality (Clough: 4). Return to the preindividual, the pre-emotive, the unformed, the unthought. Our enablers: texts, bodies, images, sounds, languages: extended infinitely, the Library of Babel. Literature as lines of flight, hyperstitions, orientations of the future. Affect enables us to rethink thought, from cogito to immanence. A rewriting of the self, and of the potentialities of future becomings.

 

“Why is it you do what you do?”

“To experience affect. I believe I encountered it before, but I was not ready.”

 

Notes

[1] See also Siegworth & Gregg.: 10-17.

[2] See also Fisher: 26-31.

[3] Some punctuation from the original has been removed.

[4] “Transversality is a dimension that tries to overcome both the impasse of pure verticality and that of mere horizontality: it tends to be achieved when there is maximum communication among different levels and, above all, in different meanings” (emphasis added). Guattari: 113. From Félix Guattari’s concept of “transversality”, Brian Massumi defines “transduction” as “the transmission of an impulse of virtuality from one actualization to another and across them all” (emphasis added). Massumi: 42.

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Emphasis added

[7] See Negarestani.

 

Bibliography

Acker, K. (1988) Empire of the Senseless, New York, Grove Press.

Ahmed, S. (2010) “Happy Objects”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 29-51.

Barthes, R. (2005) The Neutral [Neutre], trans. Krauss, R.E. & Hollier, D., New York, Columbia University Press.

Berlant, L. (2011) Cruel Optimism, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Borges, J.L. (2000) “The Library of Babel” [“La biblioteca de Babel”], in Fictions [Ficciones], trans. Hurley, A., London, Penguin Books: 65-74.

Ccru (1999) “Ccru Glossary”, in Abstract Culture: Digital Hyperstition, London, Ccru, 69-79.

Clough, P.T. (2007) “Introduction”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-33.

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

— (1988b) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [Spinoza: Philosophie pratique], trans. Hurley, R., San Francisco, City Lights Books.

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

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

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 164.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (2007) Dialogues II [Dialogues], trans. Tomlinson, H. & Habberjam, B., revised edition, New York, Columbia University Press.

Fisher, M. (2016) The Weird and the Eerie, London, Repeater Books.

Guattari, F. (2015) “Transversality”, trans. Sheed, R., in Psychoanalysis and Transversality: Texts and Interviews 1955-1971 [Psychanalyse et transversalité], trans. Sheed, R. & Hodges, A., Los Angeles, Semiotext(e): 102-120.

Hardt, M. (2007) “Foreword: What Affects Are Good For”, in Clough, P.T. & Halley, J. (eds.) The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, Durham/London, Duke University Press: ix-xiii

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

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

Siegworth, G. & Gregg, M. (2010) “An Inventory of Shimmers”, in Gregg, M. & Siegworth, G.J. (eds.) The Affect Theory Reader, Durham/London, Duke University Press: 1-25.

Spinoza, B. (1985) Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, Volume I, ed./trans. Curley, E., Princeton, Princeton University Press: 408-617.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham/London, Duke University Press.

Thacker, E. (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.

Wells, H.G. (1974) “The Door in the Wall”, in The Complete Short Stories of H.G. Wells, Twenty-second Impression, London, Ernest Benn Limited; New York, St Martin’s Press, Inc.

Featured image credits: Pixabay.

Common sense as philosophical “misadventure” in Deleuze and Flaubert

I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the Warwick Continental Philosophy Conference (WCPC) 2018, which ran with the theme “Identity and Community: Metaphysics, Politics and Aesthetics”. Thanks to the organisers, other speakers, and attendees, especially those who gave me feedback on that earlier version.

What I propose to investigate is the usage of a quotation in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (orig. published 1968), which is taken from Flaubert’s final novel, unfinished and thus unpublished during his lifetime, Bouvard and Pécuchet (orig. published 1881). The quotation in question is this: “Then a lamentable faculty developed in their minds, that of noticing stupidity and finding it intolerable.”[1] In a biography of Flaubert, Michael Winock has the following to say on the development of the novel’s two central characters:

Now proverbial, these two names are among the most illustrious figures of stupidity in French literary history. […] But though they acquire an awareness of generalized stupidity, up to the end of the existing manuscript they themselves display a naïveté, gullibility, and lack of common sense that relegates them to the world of stupidity. (Winock: 415)

By the end of this paper, I wish to show that what Bouvard and Pécuchet display is not a lack of common sense as such, but that their stupidities point instead to an awareness and possession of a great deal of common sense, provided that we approach the text with the Deleuzian definition of this concept. Deleuze’s account of common sense emerges from his engagement with and criticism of what he calls in Difference and Repetition the image of thought, in a chapter of the same name, and concerns a specific function of the faculties of thinking as distributed evenly and uncritically. It is for the most part unrelated to other uses of the term, which crop us variously throughout philosophy and elsewhere; however, it is an adequate means to subvert what is being considered as stupidity, or what is specifically called bêtise or the stupidity of the bourgeoisie, in regards to Flaubert’s work.

To understand what is being meant by “common sense” here, we may begin by relating it to another term, what Deleuze variously calls “opinion” and doxa. What philosophical opinion proposes, say Deleuze and Guattari in a later text What is Philosophy?, “is a particular relationship between an external perception as state of a subject and an internal affection supposedly common to several subjects who experience it and who, along with us, grasp that quality.” (144)[2] When something is perceived (Deleuze and Guattari offer the example of a piece of cheese which is brought before us), it is simultaneously recognised by one or more of its external qualities (which of these qualities is chosen may be arbitrary – let us say, in the case of the piece of cheese, its smell), and reflected upon, or evaluated based on what its perceiver feels about the quality extracted (for example, we may dislike the smell, and by extension not only this piece of cheese but our idea of cheese in its entirety). This is a simple model for how opinion is formed. Opinions such as these become doxa – i.e. philosophical – when they are related to other, similarly held beliefs, those of the group or society, and are found to be agreeable and uncontentious (thus establishing an orthodoxy). Thus, statements of opinion can assume the form of statements of truth. Deleuze illustrates this with the phrase “everybody knows.” “Everybody knows, in a pre-philosophical and pre-conceptual manner …”: pre-philosophical, because the formation of opinion is not itself good philosophical practice, but at the same time, deemed necessary in order for philosophy to assume a beginning. Philosophy must be founded on a kind of thought that is not its own, because it exists in the face of and as a differential to the unknown and unknowability – i.e. chaos. To give thought the “consistency”, or grounding it requires not to collapse back into indetermination (Deleuze & Guattari: 42), it must strike out with a concept, which is in turn built around an “implicit presupposition”. In a pure sense, philosophy does not have a beginning without a priori presuppositions, as the opening sentence of the chapter “The Image of Thought” claims: in fact, that all philosophy must enact on presuppositions which threaten to unground it is one of the discipline’s most forthright problematics. The question for us then becomes: How can philosophy account for or combat doxa without collapsing back in on itself, back into undifferentiated thought and unknowability? Or, put another way, where (and indeed how) does philosophical opinion end and philosophical certainty begin?

This problematic of implicit presuppositions is compounded when left unchallenged, and becomes the basis for a dogmatic image of thought by which all future philosophy is modelled after and aspires to imitate. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze identifies the image of thought of modern European philosophy (that which begins with Descartes, but which has earlier precedents in Plato and so on) by eight postulates, the first two of which we have just now begun to encounter in the nascent form of the phrase “everybody knows…”. Let us differentiate them more closely.

The first postulate relates to the virtuous and admirable qualities of thought belonging to good thinkers. Good sense presupposes that recognition is a universal, identical faculty, its operation having no need for philosophy, and that good thought has an undeniable “double aspect of a good will on the part of the thinker and an upright nature on the part of thought.” (173) Deleuze follows Nietzsche’s critique in regarding with scepticism the claim to universal good will or cogitatio natura universalis implied by the postulate of good sense, which imply an affiliation between thought and the will to truth, between a thinking subject and a desire for knowledge of a “moral” fashion (Nietzsche: §1, §6, §34), because, says Deleuze, it is implied that “only the good can ground the supposed affinity” between them (174). Good sense is will to truth, and truth is by extension virtuous. The thinker of truth is therefore predisposed to exercise an essential goodness expressed by thought’s upright character; a thought which, in itself, “knows what it means to think” (177).

The second postulate describes not the innate character of thought but its distribution. Common sense is the means by which good sense applies universally, to all thinking subjects. We are led to believe by the image of thought that two or more thinkers, provided their capacities for thinking are able enough, will always arrive at the same solutions to philosophical problems, regardless of any differences between their approaches and circumstances. Again, “everybody knows”, because to know is to recognise not only one’s own sense of what is correct, but the general distribution of the correctness of a given thought: it is shared by all good thinkers, hence it is truth. This recognition of universally held ideas is the basis for philosophy conceived under the dogmatic image of thought.

Recognition of good sense, common sense, and opinion functions thusly. In a general sense, firstly, to recognise is for all the faculties to converge upon a “supposed same object” in a “harmonious exercise”, as a process of identification (176). To recognise good sense, therefore, is to identify the noble qualities of truth intrinsic to good thought itself, and by extension, its thinkers: the convergence of the faculties enable the similarities between the perceived qualities of thought and the abstract goodness of truth to be determined. Recognition of common sense requires identifying good will as common to all thinkers: what is identified with the faculties here are the similarities between the good sense of an individual (the self) and its perceived consistency among thinking subjects. Lastly, recognition provides the model of doxa its consistency via the faculties’ convergence upon “an extension and criteria that are naturally those of an “orthodoxy”” (Deleuze & Guattari: 145-6): opinionated truth is established based on the group’s reproduction of the Same. To found truth on the model of recognition, therefore, is to relegate truth to consensus: what is “good”, “right”, and agreeable according to the criteria of what “everybody knows”.

It is a good idea at this point to understand the exact nature of Deleuze’s criticism against the image of thought and its resultant philosophy, the philosophy of good sense, common sense, and opinion. The first consideration is that of the relationship between image and representation. For any definition of common sense, a generality of accepted meaning is required. As Deleuze says, it only takes a “surly interlocutor” to express the opinion that their thoughts are not represented by the consensus to call that consensus into question (173). The treatment of thought as a natural faculty belies what is seen by Deleuze as “a depotentialisation and normalisation of thought”, in the words of Alberto Toscano, and, to continue, “Deleuze promotes the suspicion that such presupposition (or perhaps we should say such imputation) of thought hides an ‘interest’ […] in speaking for others by speaking universally”. (Toscano: 5) Thus, such philosophy is distracted from its purposes of understanding thought, being, and so on, and reduced to a competition for the establishment of the most general or authentic representation. Thought becomes analogical, and not critical: this is problematic, for the myriad components of representation bear upon each of the faculties differently: “identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to the determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgement, resemblance with regard to objects” (181). A distribution of the “unspecified concept” of common sense across multiple faculties opposes this specificity of function.

Another element of Deleuze’s critique of common sense relates to the way in which the image of thought handles necessity. We will recall the problems brought to bear on thinking by the expressions “everybody knows”, and “no one can deny”. François Zourabichvili has reconfigured the central concern of Deleuze’s chapter – the difficulty of establishing a beginning in philosophy – as the problem of necessity, “how to arrive at a necessary thought” (Zourabichvili: 44). Deleuze’s critique then, for Zourabichvili, is that of the position of truth as being necessary under the image of thought. Necessary thought – what is recognised as truth – must be verified not by itself but beyond, by an “exterior”. However, the image of thought suggests that this judgment of truth has been “interiorized”, not as an outward process, or engagement with an outside, but as an innate content, a reproduction of “what must be said or thought” according to naturally endowed pre-philosophical notions. An internalization of the means to recognising truth also provokes the question of the validity of this philosophy’s claim to grounding. The function of a grounding is to differentiate in kind between received opinion and the basis for what is known: it is to objectify knowledge, to make it determinable and workable. This is of course undermined by a doxastic version of ground, which is itself no more than opinion on a more numerous scale (many subjectivities of the same idea). Deleuze’s critique, therefore, questions the necessity of a truth established without external verification, and how thought derived in this would be able to affirm an outside it ignores (ibid: 44-51).

The final aspect of Deleuze’s critique of the image of thought is that it is simply too limited, and produces philosophy that is too unambitious for the tasks of approaching varieties of thought that are beyond itself. To some extent, this ties back to the problem of necessity: what need do philosophers have of a kind of thought that is capable only of recognising itself, especially, as he says, when common sense itself “shows every day – unfortunately – that it is capable of producing philosophy in its own way” (178)? But this problem also concerns the image of thought’s inability to challenge its own grounding or resulting methodology, or even to recognise its embedded dogmatism – what Deleuze calls the image’s “disturbing complacency”, its somewhat terrifying struggle for the “trophy” of the cogitatio natura universalis (179-180). Later in What is Philosophy?, he and Guattari will go on to warn of the “fate of philosophy” being under threat from such a “philosophy of communication” (Deleuze & Guattari: 146), but the sentiment of the earlier work is the same. The concept of recognition is a hammer, and with it, all philosophies are variations on the same nail: “form will never inspire anything but conformities.” (178)

What is needed for philosophy is not a convergence of the faculties but a splitting open of their established formation under the image of thought; an assertion of difference and an “original violence” wherein each separate faculty is brought to the limits of their respective powers. This is what is prevented by common sense, which seeks to stymie original thought by maintaining a baleful harmony of consensus, and a false idea of its own necessity as thought’s primary ground; a necessity relative to its own conditions, as opposed to an absolute necessity of thought asserted through a “fundamental encounter” with the outside (183-186). As Zourabichvili has shown, Deleuze manages to maintain that there is no contradiction between the act of beginning in philosophy and philosophy lacking a primary foundation. What Deleuze calls for is not grounding but an act of universal ungrounding which rejects the model of recognition and affirms the outside from within, as immanence (Zourabichvili: 51-52).

Before we lose sight of this paper’s focus, I will finish this section by applying Deleuze’s critique of common sense and recognition to the philosopher he associates most strongly with those concepts’ expressions, and who I have been ignoring up until this point: Descartes. For it is Descartes who opens his Discourse on the Method by saying “Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world” (Descartes 1985a: 111); who elucidates recognition using the piece of wax in the “Second Meditation”, and who introduces philosophy to the cogito, perhaps the real starting point for the modern image of thought. This last point is especially relevant to the formation of a “philosophy of common sense” for Deleuze. The cogito establishes in philosophy the thinking subject, which binds all the faculties together, and “thereby expresses the possibility that all the faculties will relate to a form of object which reflects the subjective identity” (176). The necessity of the thinking subject is little more than a supposition: Descartes establishes it in relation to outward perception, declaring questionable conclusions such as “if I convinced myself of something then I certainly existed” in the “Second Meditation”, and justifying them by supposing that whether these perceptions are authentic or illusory is irrelevant, because his indisputable good sense tells him that they do not seem to be false (Descartes 1985b: 17-19). Hence Deleuze’s objection to the cogito as a “false beginning”, and one of the most prominent illustrations of doxastic thought, as well as the pervasiveness of common sense thinking.[3]

***

Now in this second half, I will mount the challenge of common sense to Flaubert’s final novel, and that often-quoted sentence, to argue an alternative reading to that of the critique of stupidity. The theme of stupidity is encountered consistently throughout Flaubert’s works, and has unsurprisingly led to a number of interpretations as to its significance. It is important, therefore, to take this theme seriously, and to better acknowledge its presence within the novel. In his essay “Fantasia of the Library”, Foucault pairs the idea of stupidity in Flaubert’s novels with that of sainthood, arguing that Bouvard and Pécuchet represent but a more comedic expression of sentiments found in earlier characters, such as Charles Bovary and Saint Anthony. Here we have two copyists who, coming into a large inheritance and wanting to escape the tedium of city life, decide to move to the countryside, where they will spend their autumn years undertaking any discipline of the sciences and arts they decide upon. Bouvard and Pécuchet consult books before applying themselves to agriculture, chemistry, archaeology, history, politics, religion, physics, metaphysics, and everything in-between; each time ending with failure or disaster, and each subsequent pursuit beginning with renewed zeal. When, by the end of the published work (which was to compose but the first of two sections) they finally resign themselves to defeat, they agree to take up copying once more: the subject of their copying being the many bodies of knowledge they have accumulated during their renaissance. It is not their faith in learning they have renounced at this moment, argues Foucault, “but the possibility of applying their beliefs. They detach themselves from works to maintain the dazzling reality of their faith in faith.” (Foucault: 107) The “lamentable faculty” sentence occurs right before this moment, between the loss of intellectual territory for their passions to roam free, and their reaffirmation in the activity they have always known and practiced, repetition.

The stupidity of these two characters arises from their attitudes towards forms of knowledge they do not possess, and are likely beyond their understanding, and how these attitudes relate to their views and treatments of the characters which surround them. Bouvard and Pécuchet may be characters of limited intelligence and success, but this is not what makes them stupid. It is instead their reasoning behind their desire to learn, the methodologies they consider appropriate for doing so, and their expectations that an acquisition of specialist knowledge will elevate their stature in their community, even when they themselves have treated this community with scepticism, which defines the bêtise Flaubert attempts to elucidate, and that was the object of the writer’s personal scorn. We see early in the novel, for example, that the two men wish to try their hands at their manor’s garden, so as to become what they consider to be “country gentlemen”. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, A. J. Krailsheimer describes their reasoning in the following way:

they are ignorant; the way to dispel ignorance is by acquiring knowledge from authorities; experts who write books must be more authoritative than peasants who merely do what their fathers had done before them. Book in hand (or at least in head) they plant trees, stack hay, treat animals and so on with sovereign disregard for the experience of those around them, whose whole lives have been spent more or less successfully exercising skills quite unsupported by theory. (Krailsheimer, in Flaubert: 9)

This observation demonstrates the somewhat contradictory relationship the characters, and Flaubert himself, have with received ideas. It was Flaubert’s intention to include within the second half of the novel a Dictionary of Received Ideas, a sottisier comprised of the popular yet unsupported and inaccurate remarks shared amongst the middle classes. Entries for this dictionary would be fashionable topics of conversation that were worthy of ridicule because their dislocation from reality would compound the more they resonated among people who considered themselves superior for fashioning their perspectives on the world on more refined sources. The stupidity for such entries is realised, says Jonathan Culler,

not because the facts on which they rely are false but because the particular meanings offered do not exhaust an object or concept and because they place it in a self-enclosed system of social discourse which comes to serve as a reality for those who allow themselves to be caught up in it. (Culler: 160)

We can see something similar with Bouvard and Pécuchet’s gardening: the appeal to elite opinions, which stand in for the entirety of their thinking on the subject. The two protagonists’ journey from one subject matter to another, moreover, and as Krailsheimer notes, follows a logic of “first principles”: they associate their failures with an unfamiliarity of a more fundamental body of knowledge – in the case of their experiments into agriculture, which end with an explosion, this is decided to be chemistry – and send for new books which will grant them the perspective they currently lack (Krailsheimer: 10). Yet we may observe that they are also trying to avoid another variety of received idea, those that they have identified among the peasantry, and are equally as unchallenged.

It is perhaps testament to their stupidity, therefore, that Bouvard and Pécuchet are capable of avoiding uncritical opinions they witness in various practitioners (farmers, doctors, priests), yet are swayed by alternatives that cater more to their imaginations, which we are probably supposed to accept are written by less experienced authorities. These pretentions, which arise out of stupidity, seem to feature across the spectrum of the society the novel depicts: high and low culture, bourgeoisie and proletariat, each incapable of escaping their own brands of received ideas. Flaubert once said that bêtise was “formidable and universal” (in Culler: 158), and though perhaps most readily espoused by the leisurely middle classes, remained an inescapable feature of the human condition. No doubt there is a wider historical-political dimension to Flaubert’s preoccupation with the emergent forays into knowledgeability attempted clumsily by the middle classes. Hugh Kenner has placed the novel’s beginning at more-or-less precisely fifty years after the Revolution: this being a similar age as Bouvard and Pécuchet, they are therefore “untainted by the least memory of a time when knowledge, which is power, was the preserve of the few”, and the ideal heroes for this uninhibited new world (Kenner: 9). Yet of course, these heroes are not immune to the lamentable faculty they perceive all around them by the novel’s denouement. “The only way to transcend a commonplace is to make it serve your own purposes, to make it an instrument, a means of thought”: these are the words of Sartre, speaking on Flaubert’s life and ambitions (Sartre: 619), and although the philosopher considers the novelist a failure in this regard, we may identify this as the position of his characters when they commission their large double writing-desk and set to work on the task of copying once again.

Stupidity, as encountered in Flaubert’s novel, is an opportunity for hastily and badly drawn conclusions to enjoy similar rights to established facts and certainties; to quote Jonathan Culler once more, it “negates ordinary meaning to replace it with an open and exploratory reverie.” (Culler: 185). Deleuze’s account of stupidity in “The Image of Thought” is not like this. He quotes from the novel in order to illustrate the misattribution of error as the sole negative of thought. Recognition, with its endless procession of the Same, he argues, reduces philosophy to the construction of problems, each with its own pre-packaged solution which can be worked towards using good thinking. In this case stupidity is subsumed by error, which exists externally to the mind endowed with good sense, and stands in for everything philosophy is supposed to overcome:

According to the hypothesis of the Cogitatio natura universalis, error is the “negative” which develops naturally. Nevertheless, the dogmatic image does not ignore the fact that thought has other misadventures besides error: humiliations more difficult to overcome, negatives much more difficult to unravel. It does not overlook the fact that the terrible Trinity of madness, stupidity and malevolence can no more be reduced to error than they can be reduced to any form of the same. Once again, however, these are no more than facts for the dogmatic image. Stupidity, malevolence and madness are regarded as facts occasioned by external causes, which bring into play external forces capable of subverting the honest character of thought from without – all this to the extent that we are not only thinkers. The sole effect of these forces in thought is then assimilated precisely to error, which is supposed in principle to include all the effects of factual external causes. (195-6)

Deleuze wishes here to reinstate what he calls thought’s “misadventures” – of which stupidity is one – as “structures of thought as such.” (198) If a false solution is derived from a philosophical problem, it is not predetermined that an error has arisen out of confused or badly applied thinking. The mistake instead lies in the problem’s relation to sense, and in “making stupidity a transcendental problem” (197). It is instead for Deleuze a problem of individuation, of which the cogito has played its part. Stupidity occurs when individuation “brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form” – in other words, when an answer is provided that bears little or no relation to the question being asked, questions that are derived from undifferentiated contents which resist the form being imposed on them (199). Bouvard and Pécuchet represent for Deleuze the “fractured I” of individuation, their stupidities a ground that exists between them, composed of the unthought itself (ibid.).

Conversely, perhaps we ought to consider Bouvard and Pécuchet’s simultaneous critique and appropriation of received ideas not as examples of bourgeois stupidities in a straightforward sense, but consider the relation between received ideas and common sense. Both are concerned with what is popularly believed to be true, and both derive this truth paradoxically from this very popularity of the sentiment being expressed, allowing the most vocal and forceful opinions to triumph. The problem with aligning received ideas with stupidity is that doing so masks stupidity’s true relation to original thought. A stupid thought is usually a novelty or aberration in relation to the problem it sets out to solve: if examined closely, it displays a process of original thinking gone astray. A received idea, on the other hand, is derived from a source its thinker believes to be reputable: it does not require original thought but borrowed solutions. Therefore, I conclude that an idea derived from common sense is a kind of received idea. Whereas Flaubert’s received ideas have as their source the echo chamber of bourgeois society, Deleuze’s common sense takes the image of thought’s erroneous suggestions of universal distribution of good sense (specifically Descartes’s) as its occasion to turn away from original thought. To rewrite the object sentence of this paper, would be to claim that the lamentable faculty Bouvard and Pécuchet find intolerable is an awareness of received ideas, distributed everywhere, unavoidable, unoriginal, and tending towards the universal.

Notes

[1] Flaubert (1976: 217). Difference and Repetition translator Paul Patton uses a slightly different translation of the quote: “A pitiful faculty then emerges in their minds, that of being able to see stupidity and no longer tolerate it…” (199). I judge the two variations to be of similar meaning in relation to the contexts I apply to them here, and have therefore chosen to maintain A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation throughout this essay for the sake of consistency.

[2] Unlabelled bracketed numbers refer to pages in Difference and Repetition (see Bibliography below).

[3] See also Nietzsche: §16; Toscano.

Bibliography

Culler, J. (1974) Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, London, Elek Books Ltd.

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

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

Descartes, R. (1985a) Discourse and Essays, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I, trans. Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D., Cambridge/New York/Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 109-176.

— (1985b) Meditations on First Philosophy, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II, 1-62.

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

Foucault, M. (1977) “Fantasia of the Library”, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Bouchard, D.F., trans. Bouchard, D.F. and Simon, S., Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 87-109.

Kenner, H. (1989) “Gustave Flaubert: Comedian of the Enlightenment”, in Bloom, H. (ed.) Modern Critical Views: Gustave Flaubert, New York/Philadelphia, Chelsea House Publishers, 5-22.

Nietzsche, F. (1989) Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future [Jenseits von Gut und Böse: Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft], trans. Kaufmann, W., New York, Vintage Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (1981) The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857 [L’Idiot de la famille de 1821 à 1857], trans. Cosman, C., Volume I, Chicago/London, University of Chicago Press.

Toscano, A. (2007) “Everybody Knows: Deleuze’s Descartes”, available online at http://www.academia.edu/709449/Everybody_Knows_Deleuzes_Descartes.

Winock, M. (2016) Flaubert, trans. Elliott, N., Cambridge, MA/London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Zourabichvili, F. (2012) Deleuze: A Philosophy of the Event, together with The Vocabulary of Deleuze, trans. Aarons, K., Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction to Inorganic Demonology: Reza Negarestani and The Exorcist

This is an edit of a transcript for a presentation I gave as part of “Remarkable Things: The Agency of Objecthood & the Power of Materiality”, a conference on the power and value of apotropaic art, hosted on 10th March 2018 by the University of Warwick’s Humanities Research Centre. Special thanks to Kathryn Thompson and the organisers of the event.

What I want to talk about today is an idea I’ve encountered that I think bears an interesting relationship with the subject of today’s conference (apotropaic objects), the inorganic demon, which is a term that appears in Iranian philosopher Reza Negarestani’s 2008 book Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials. As a text that appropriates elements of fiction in order to synthesize new methods of doing philosophy, Cyclonopedia has been important to my research for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve presented on any part of its much vaster whole. Although not a structurally integral concept to the book – in fact, the elucidation of the inorganic demon appears as an endnote to the main text – a closer examination of the concept will hopefully serve to intrigue and provoke some of the ideas surrounding objecthood as understood vis-a-vis both popular philosophical traditions and apotropaic studies. Regardless, the tone of this presentation is not meant to be philosophical in a classical sense, but more speculative, accessible, and open-ended.

Simply put, Negarestani’s inorganic demon is a relic or artefact of ancient origin, which houses or otherwise allows a demon to interact with the human world. They are most typically found in narratives of the supernatural horror or fantasy genres. However, I don’t wish for us to demote our understanding of the inorganic demon to a comfortable dark mirror image of the wholesome apotropaic object. I want to propose that the relationship between the apotropaic object and the inorganic demon is more intricate and less oppositional, using the example of the Sumero-Assyrian demon Pazuzu as it is presented in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and by Negarestani and others.

As suggested already, Negarestani introduces the term “inorganic demon” in a somewhat obtuse way. He buries it in the notes of Cyclonopedia’s prophet, the renegade archaeologist Dr Hamid Parsani, who functions in the book as a sort of complex mouthpiece for Negarestani and the quasi-real Hyperstition collective’s speculative ideas. The book’s first clearly defined chapter details Parsani’s investigation into an obscure Zoroastrian relic called Khaj-e-Akht or the Cross of Akht, which is described by its researcher as

an inorganic demon, a sentient relic with the ability to numerically grasp all the undercurrents and inconsistent events of the Earth as modes of narration. (Negarestani: 13 – emphasis added)

The term does not recur elsewhere in Cyclonopedia, save for in a lengthy endnote, where it is given a thorough treatment. Before examining that let us first be aware of the qualities of the Cross of Akht just detailed. Of course, the intelligence Negarestani-Parsani takes the cross to be not merely a passive, insensate piece of wood, but “sentient”, active, and possessing some degrees of intelligence and agency. (How we are to define these latter terms is of course a matter of contention, a conversation which cannot take place here if brevity is to be maintained.) From the quoted sentence we are also informed that the Cross of Akht’s affective capacity incorporates the potential to tap into the recessive narratives of the Earth as they flow beneath the topsoil; a mode of narratology Negarestani elsewhere refers to as “petropolitics”. This also qualifies the Cross of Ahkt as a “hyperstition”, or a fictional element with agency, which occupies a host (such as a reader) with the intention of crossing over into reality. In the way we might believe in a superstition after experiencing some coincidental “back luck”, we as readers believe that Hamid Parsani is an actual figure, or the Cross of Akht is an actual object, and they somehow transcend their fictional beginnings. This is an important function of the inorganic demon, so now I will present a sort of edited summary of that endnote I mentioned earlier, as to familiarise us with the basic principles of inorganic demonology.

Inorganic demons,[1] also called a xenolithic artifacts, are usually depicted in horror and science fiction as objects made of inorganic materials such as carved stone, wood, or metal. They exhibit a series of dualisms intended to deceive the humans that encounter and uncover them: they simultaneously exhibit a sensuous tactility (“provocatively exquisite” in form) and an immaterial permanence; they are local, yet elsewhere; they represent the pinnacle of human scientific endeavour, yet are highly impious and mocking to anthropocentric modes of existence – physics, philosophy, religion, and so on.

Their autonomy alone marks their outsideness to the human and its ecology, the planetary biosphere; this is why they are frequently associated with alien life forms and defined by the prefix xeno- (outside). (Negarestani: 223)

The role of the inorganic demon is that of a facilitator of the Outside, a generation of symptoms that fold the interiority of anthropocentrism (the limits both of human knowledge and its fullest capacities) outwards, and allow the Outside in, to take advantage of the human host’s specific capabilities: communication, mobility, influence, and political power.

All inorganic demons (or relics) exist in relation to one another through a common lineage: a complex demonological framework of three distinct classes. First-class relics are whole objects; second-class relics are fragments of a whole relic, sometimes scattered, sometimes requiring a ritual regathering in order for their activation to take place. Finally, third-class relics are contaminated objects, having come into contact with higher-class relics: of less potential, but still containing the possibility of ruination. The demon’s ability to transfer its centre of power is therefore not limited to human hosts; however, we must remember that such a manoeuvre is purely a strategic means of survival, not an ultimate goal.

Fortunately, at this stage Negarestani has provided us with a sort of seven-point plan, almost like a “life cycle” of the inorganic demon as it passes from sentient relic to activated contaminant within a host body and back again into deactivated slumber (although of course, these demons are immortal, and occupy living qualities only by proxy). I’m going to run through these stages quickly before turning to the case example, that of The Exorcist. I should reinforce that these seven points constitute the entirety of Negarestani’s writing on the inorganic demon in Cyclonopedia; this is the extent of the detail available:

a) We are told that the inorganic demon is “parasitic by nature”, and that their systems of possession are activated by a range of human states of fascination with the objectivity of relics: their extension through local physical space, or “realism of objects”. The demon is ignited not only through its untimely awakening, but entices the prospective host through its tactility and unearthly aesthetic qualities. This is of course why a demon would choose a mysterious and beautiful object over an ordinary or uninteresting one as its counterpart on the physical plane: it makes it easier for it to get inside us.

b) The demon exacerbates its victim’s fascination through “xeno-excitations”, synthesizing what we might describe as “wisdom” in the victim. We’ve already seen how the demon’s objective is to funnel the Outside through its host: this includes alternate knowledges and modes of perception, ways of sensing and thinking beyond what is ordinarily knowable. Think of Tolkien’s Ring, how it not only draws in all that it comes into contact with (human, hobbit, elf, etc.), but how when worn grants insight into unseen and unheard forces.

c) This is when symptoms of possession begin to develop and manifest themselves. The victim is overcome with “incurable afflictions” and “progressive maladies”. This is because of either the demon’s preliminary attempts to prepare the host for inhabitation, or the host’s nervous recoil to the accommodation of the foreign body. Both of these triggers ought to be recognised simultaneously. The demon’s approach to transformation of the subject, or “reprogramming the logic of organism”, can be viewed as the very stimulation of the host’s adaptation to Outside logics, logics posed by Negarestani as inherently overwhelming on the level of anthropomorphic subjectivity. The inorganic demon’s infiltration poses such insurmountable challenges to human conceptions of the subject-object duality that breakdown occurs at the very level of the subject.

d) The organic subject and inorganic demon-object are now seen to intertwine in a way considered to be inextricable through conventional methods and treatments. Transference from the inorganic relic to the sentient host has given way to affirmation (unconscious affirmation on the part of the subject). The demon’s intelligence has now irreversibly augmented that of the host, now existing side-by-side in an outwardly schizophrenic configuration. The demonic agent is now secure, and conventional techniques of separation may prove fatal to the subject.

e) Affirmation of the embedded demonic sentience gives way to activation. For this to happen, the demon’s nervous system, or “spiritual matrix”, must “be charged by sufficient external stimuli from the human host.” This takes the form of a feeding upon the human’s extreme affective capacities, when we may consider a human quality to be at its most “pure”: pure joy, fear, pain, piousness, or faithlessness, for example. According to Negarestani, the demon is aided immeasurably in this endeavour by the “absurdity of human openness”, humanity’s spiritual vulnerability to the imperceptible Outside. These comments suggest an image of human bodies rather like a computer connected to a vast, exponential network without antivirus software installed, hopelessly requiring several updates. Negarestani also characterizes this state as a “Call” or an open invitation to the inorganic demon as agent of the Outside.

f) Separation of inorganic demon and host is possible only through the use of another demon, but of course this allows the consequences of awakening another inorganic demon to play out. Through this new influence, the original demon succumbs to what Negarestani calls its “forsaken status”: the spiritual matrix is closed, and the demon returns to hibernation in its inorganic state. Interestingly, Negarestani suggests here that human sovereignty is dependent on the hibernation of inorganic demons, who would otherwise suppress the narrative of human singularity if able to run amok.

g) Finally, the inorganic demon is deactivated only on returning to its original “lair”, the unique location for its eternal rest. The object it embodies is then relegated to a mere treasure, a demotion from the possessing to the slave classes of reliquology.

This imagining of the inorganic demon that I have just detailed suggests many provocative things about the nature of the object as traditionally understood by what I suppose we ought to be calling anthropic materialism. We could summarise the key features of such an a priori understanding as follows: that objects are made up of matter; they exist either merely physically, or else ideally, in the image of the mind; they do not possess an intelligence or a point of view; they exist primarily in relation to what we call “subject”, the invariably more noble study of philosophy. Of course these are only crass generalizations on my part: we could point in several directions for examples wherein objects are approached in more favourable ways, for example in the role of AI or object-oriented philosophy. And as well of course there is the more theoretical work being done on apotropaic artefacts, of which the inorganic demon exists as a cruel counterpoint or sadistic challenge. It would be misleading, however, to label the two classes of enchanted relic as somehow opposing one another in function and intent – an Eros and a Thanatos each vying for our attention. We will see how through its appearances in The Exorcist, as well as in Middle Eastern tradition the demon Pazuzu is able to illustrate the pliable motives and strategies employed via its representation as an inorganic demon, and how we might further consider the supposed objectivity of objects.

Cyclonopedia pazuzu p116 no caption
Figure 1: Pazuzu-demon

To note the general characteristics, features, and capabilities of the demon Pazuzu and what they might signify for the film’s narrative, we can turn to Cyclonopedia one last time.[2] The most relevant to this discussion include the association of Pazuzu with the dust of the southwestern wind. As a “dust enforcer”, a scavenging agent from the Outside, Pazuzu’s methodology involves the whipping up of dust clouds and soups, and subsequently the relaying of diseases and plagues. For Negarestani, this dust-harvesting and -disseminating activity signifies the infiltration of the ancient demonical into the global politics spiralling around the perpetual and insoluble conflicts of the Middle East, which are able to draw in the ideologically disparate West through its’ nations’ addiction to oil. This forms part of Pazuzu’s “schizotrategy”, defined as “[s]trategies for being opened (by), not being open (to)”, (242) the methodology of possession. Aiding this mission are the demon’s two pairs of wings and specific configuration of its arms – the right pointing upwards and the left downwards, which “suggests a swash-backwash model of epidemics”.

The following film clip is taken from the opening of the film. To quickly summarise: the film opens on an archaeological site on the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh, in and around modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq, where we see the protagonist Father Merrin uncovering two crucial artefacts which later play important roles in the narrative, which is what I want to concentrate for the remainder of the presentation. This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, a power manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what the last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

This is Merrin’s first real encounter with the power of Pazuzu, which is manifested in above all other things the wind (note west-southwest direction behind the statue), and also the dust being carried by the wind, which we can see in big clouds at the end. Both the novel and the screenplay describe Merrin and Pazuzu here as “ancient enemies squared off in a massive arena”, which is what this last shot is trying to convey, before the narrative relocates to Georgetown, Washington, where the victim Regan MacNeil is staying, and the remainder of the events take place.

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Figure 2: St. Joseph’s medal excavated at Nineveh
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Figure 3: “Amulet” head of Pazuzu statue excavated at Nineveh

I’m now going talk about the relics themselves, which are excavated by Merrin in the scene prior the one shown above (this is all in the first ten minutes of the film), because I want to explore the question of how Pazuzu’s awakening in northern Iraq relates to his presence being felt in a relatively distant and indirect manner elsewhere in the world. The two objects I wish to concentrate on are these: the first is a small medal, which is not actually unearthed by Merrin himself but another archaeologist, and immediately afterwards a stone object discovered by Merrin, which is referred to as an “amulet” in both the novel the film is based on and the screenplay (both written by Blatty), which is in the shape of the head of Pazuzu. Now the biggest mystery of the film is undoubtedly these two objects and how either of them or both of them, possibly working separately or in tandem, are able to unlock, transfer, and subsequently contain Pazuzu, and thereby set in motion the events of the narrative to come. The straightforward answer is that there is no obvious, nonspeculative pathology of these objects, but it appears that their role in driving this narrative is indispensable.

Let us first examine the medal. The first thing about it that we are asked to consider is its position as an anachronism within the site where it is found. Merrin tells us: “This is strange”, to which his colleague replies: “Not of the same period.” (although this is apparently a mistranslation of the conversation conducted in Arabic: according to William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist, From Novel to Film, Merrin is actually saying “What’s this doing here?”, an even more explicit foreshadowing). This medal does not appear in the novel as such, save for in the form of the “Saint Christopher” owned by the other protagonist Father Karras, and therefore was a revision made more significant considering the otherwise relative faithfulness of the adaptation.

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Figure 4: St. Joseph’s medal with inscription visible

The inscription reads “Sancte Joseph ora pro nobis”, or “Saint Joseph pray for us”. The Christian Saint Joseph is a patron of, among other things, people in doubt, children, and dying people, and naturally is a more recent revered figure than those of the ancient Assyrians of Nineveh where the medal is unearthed. Father Karras wears a visually identical medal around his neck, which during a dream sequence is seen falling onto a stone floor, possibly the stone steps outside the house where the MacNeils are staying. Karras’s medal is torn from his neck during his final struggle with Pazuzu. Following this, and Karras’s pleas to “Take me!” and not Regan, the demon transfers its centre of power into him. Now possessed, Karras jumps from the window and falls to the base of the steps, leaving the medal still inside Regan’s bedroom. Following this climax, the MacNeils’ housekeeper Sharon retrieves the medal and gives it to Chris MacNeil (wearing the white gloves: I know you can only see the hands in these shots). Chris then gives the medal to Father Dyer, Karras’s friend at Georgetown University. This is where the original cut of the film ends, but in the Extended Cut, Dyer gives the medal back to Chris and asks her to keep it herself, either as a memento, a confirmation of Chris’s journey from atheism to Christian faith (and we ought to remember that Blatty was a devout Catholic); or as holy protection, the much-lauded apotropaic object.

The second object, the amulet head of Pazuzu, does appear in the novel, although in that version of the narrative it is not unearthed by Merrin personally as is shown in the film. In both versions, however, Merrin’s colleague does utter the line “Evil against evil” upon Merrin’s inspection. But there is something additionally strange to this depiction of Pazuzu, in that it seems incomplete. Being that it is a head only it is missing the key features associated with the demon, such as the four wings and the specific posture of the arms, which we see immediately in the next scene, where Merrin travels to the statue on the site of the palace of Ashurbanipal. Given the importance of these features in Pazuzu’s representation, we can only conclude that a body did or still does exist and has become separated over time.

As for the missing body, we may look across to Georgetown after the mysterious death of Burke Dennings, whose fall to the bottom of the steps prefigures Father Karras’s. Here the detective Kinderman discovers what is described in the screenplay as “a fragment of clay from a crudely made sculpture”.

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Figure 5: Lieutenant Kinderman at the stone steps, overlooked by Regan MacNeil’s bedroom
1.09.03 statue body
Figure 6: “Fragment of clay” found at the base of the steps by Kinderman

This is as clear it can be made out, and admittedly it still isn’t very clear. I’ll leave it to personal speculation as to whether this is supposed to be a Pazuzu body or not. Personally, I think this was made by Regan during the early stages of her possession, as she is shown in the film to be a keen sculptor and illustrator. Perhaps this is an attempt at a “regathering” of the fragments of Pazuzu’s inorganic demon, or maybe a new host body for Regan to impart the demon onto, regardless this is an unsuccessful attempt. I also want to return to the Karras dream sequence alluded to previously, where the Saint Joseph’s medal was dropped, and highlight this zone at the base of the steps as a point of convergence for many of the supernatural phenomena of the narrative. This is also where Karras dies while hosting Pazuzu, his being the “body” that replaces this one of the sculpture, this time more successfully, albeit at the cost of a man’s life.

As I’ve already suggested, the question of these objects’ journey across the narrative and the logics of their transportation is perhaps secondary to their seemingly active/ated inhuman sentience and implied causality. Which brings me back to Pazuzu itself and its manifestations around Regan, particularly in her room where she is bedridden for most of the second half of the narrative. I feel it is here where the complex relationship between the condition of the objects as sources of contamination (or inorganic demons) and sources of inoculation or protection (or apotropaic artefacts) can be most visibly examined.

0.55.59 open window following death
Figure 7: The ever-open window in Regan’s bedroom

In the room we have features resonant with what we know about Pazuzu: the open window though which an icy wind blows through serves as a portal for the Outside to infiltrate (consider it is Pazuzu itself that keeps opening it – being opened by rather than being open to). There are the physical, and if we choose to be pious, moral signs of deterioration within the victim herself; the sickness of body and mind brought about by the plague of the demon’s inhabitation. And at the centre we have these objects in proximity: the small statue outside the window, which we may assume is either causing or worsening Regan’s condition as a second- or third-class relic; and the St. Joseph’s medal worn by Father Karras during his visitations, which we might believe to be a protective relic for the priest, and instrumental in driving Pazuzu out of Regan. The counterparts of the two objects which were found buried together in Nineveh, and which signify the beginning and ending of the narrative.

Now, if we return to Negarestani’s notes on the inorganic demon with all of this in mind, we can observe the xeno-excitations caused by Merrin’s contact with the amulet, the progressive maladies and otherworldly consequences enacted by the host (Regan) through another fragment of the same amulet (whether original or not is unimportant), the subjective reprogramming and schizophrenic changes, and, finally, the imposition of another spiritual object as a method of exorcism (the medal but also the holy water and other Christian paraphernalia). But if we consider how Pazuzu is defeated, it is not through a deactivation of the inorganic relic but murder (suicide) of the host (Karras) – martyrdom, if we wish to go that far. Regan is healed, as we can see at the end of the narrative, but only through what amounts to a temporary fix, with the potency of the inorganic demon undiminished and therefore free to possess again. And this is where we may see Pazuzu’s host object as not only a source of malevolent power, but also as its own perverse apotropaic object. For if we follow this interpretation to its limit, we find The Exorcist to be not a story of salvation and purification via the magnificent power of Christ, overcoming the hideous polytheisms of an ancient and frightening otherworldly past. What we find instead is an atheistic and amoral overflowing of nonlinear narratives, subverting the dominant Christian one at every turn. We see Pazuzu in its other role, that of a protector of still further unfathomable Outsides, more terrible afflictions tearing at the anthropocentric known universe. We know this Pazuzu was worn as an amulet, as a desire to let the demon inside the host, to ward off Lamashtu, who was said to kidnap and consume children. In conclusion, we ought to read The Exorcist not as a triumph over pre-Christian superstition, but as a hyperstition, an actualization of recessive narratives on both fictional and metafictional levels, driven in this example by the concrete objectivity of autonomous relics.

Notes

[1] The following exegesis (until section break) is of note 4 (223-225) of Cyclonopedia (see Bibliography and Filmography below).

[2] Specifically, the chapter “The Dust Enforcer” (113-121).

Bibliography and Filmography

Blatty, W.P. (1974) William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist from Novel to Film, Toronto/New York, Bantam Books.

Blatty, W.P. (2011) The Exorcist, London, Transworld Publishers.

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

The Exorcist Wiki (no date) “St. Joseph’s medal”, available online at http://exorcist.wikia.com/wiki/St._Joseph_medal.

The Exorcist [film] (1973), dir. Friedkin, W.

Pazuzu image (Figure 1) is a scan of Cyclonopedia (116). Featured image and all other images are screenshots taken from The Exorcist.

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 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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

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

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

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

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

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