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.


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.


[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)


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

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: ü (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.


[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.


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

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

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: ü (2008) “05_MILLION_LITERS”.

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

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

The “Image” of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] See Bergson (2002b).

[11] See also Bergson (2002a).

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



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

Works by Deleuze and Deleuze & Guattari:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works by other authors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

O’Sullivan, S. (2016) “Acceleration, Hyperstition and Myth-Science”, available online at

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining “hyperstition”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography & Filmography

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

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

Works by Deleuze and Deleuze & Guattari:

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

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

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

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

Works by other authors:

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

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

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

Fisher, M. [as mark k-p] (6th July 2004) “Hyperstition/ Superstition”, available online at

— [as mark k-p] (2nd August 2004) “D/G: Capitalism/ The Thing/ Fictional Quantities”, available online at

Goddard, T., Gilbert, J., Barton, J., Adams, T. & Mackay, R. (2017) “Mark Fisher Memorial”, Urbanomic, available online at

Greenspan, A. (25th June 2004) “The ‘hype’ in hyperstition”, available online at

— (26th July 2004) “Hyperstitional Carriers”, available online at

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

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,

O’Sullivan, S. (2016) “Acceleration, Hyperstition and Myth-Science”, available online at

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

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.


Hyperstition (film), (2016), dir. Roth, C., available online at

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


[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).

There Is An Alternative: A Tribute to Mark Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

Mark Fisher (1968-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[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.

Epistemic Dam, or What Shadow of the Colossus Tells Us About Public Security and Societies of Control

The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal worlds. Rather it was an affair of vague psychological symbolism and æsthetic association—a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes.[1]

The term gamespace, when used in relation to video games, has been used in the past to denote a seemingly conceptual playground that is then analysed in relation to other social paradigms, including economies and political organisations, across lines of intersection. Less often considered is gamespace as an optical realm, with the illusion of real physicality: an aesthetic playground akin to cyberspace, but with the necessary distinction of being topographically constructed by a team of developers, as opposed to a perpetual, “open-source” project akin to a complex organism. Here I am going to borrow the term magic circle, introduced by Johan Huizinga in his classic study on game theory, Homo Ludens (1949), but used more recently by “new media” and “New Games” journalists to explain the theoretical boundary between the virtuality of the video game as it exists as a set of rules and conventions and the outside space of the gamer, and then subsequently to determine the transparency and porousness of this boundary. What I want to explore is this second definition of gamespace, i.e. the three-dimensional polygonal models of the video game as a physical territory; for the sake of convenience I will employ a new word – gamescape. This will involve a recognition of video games as being qualitatively different from previous forms of play. A gamescape is not simply an imaginary location embedded in a real one, conceived purely from the rules and objectives undertaken by the player, and only ideologically separate from the world it exists within; but a deliberate place that exists independently of such rules and objectives, bound within the magic circle.

Most video games are inherently mimetic: they require a sense of “role play” and the imagination of the player not only to control their actor,[2] but to transport themselves into the gamescape; in short, to believe in the environment they are vicariously exploring. Roger Caillois defined mimicry as one of the four basic categories of play, alongside agon (games of skill and competition), alea (games of chance), and ilinx (games that produce sensations of “vertigo”, or dizziness, such as amusement rides or rollercoasters).[3] “With one exception,” wrote Caillois, “mimicry exhibits all the characteristics of play: liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time. However, the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed—rules for the dissimulation of reality and the substitution of a second reality.”[4] By this he means that although gamespace constitutes a closed-off territory for the purposes of gaming, it can never be confused as primary reality: the player knows this if she is to consider her activity play at all. The gamespace must be considered “a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe.”[5]

This poses a problem for the video game designer: how to create an entertaining recreational experience in a gamescape that allows the player freedom over their actions, to explore, to make mistakes, and so on; but that simultaneously is structured by rules, challenges, and objectives. These two poles roughly correspond to what Caillois called paidia (“uncontrolled fantasy”, or a lawless gamespace) and ludus (a rigid and ultimately “purposely tedious” approach to game design).[6] It seems to me as though the video game designer must compromise between paidia and ludus design for their gamescape to be effective. Too much freedom and the experience actually becomes less liberating and more quotidian, and the illusion of participating in a mimetic, escapist fantasy is diminished (online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft bypass this issue to some degree with the organisation of players into “guilds” who then work together on agreed group objectives). If on the other hand the game design places too much emphasis on completing set tasks dictated by the character’s limitations or environment (if for example certain objectives need to be fulfilled in sequence before new contents, such as levels, items, or vehicles, become available), the game feels too “linear”, or too much like a thankless task.

On bridge of Dam
On top of the “beta dam” in Shadow of the Colossus, an area usually inaccessable in the final game

The balance between paidia and ludus can be ultimately understood as the extent to which the player is able to explore the gamescape freely and the opposite extent, to which the player is denied freedom; their actor instead being directed by the space itself, i.e. the designer’s will for the game’s content to be accessed in a specific way. Video game narrative may be considered as a series of non-interactive video segments (“cut-scenes”), strung together through the player’s actions; but this intermediary play, the bulk of the game, is as essential to the player in understanding the game’s narrative structure. How this narrative is authored may be the player’s choice, but the list of options, broadly speaking, are limited to the range of options offered by the designer. Whereas Marcel Duchamp spoke of the “art coefficient”, or the difference between an artist’s intent and the spectator’s subjective interpretation, as being the process by which art (or narrative) is constructed,[7] in a gamescape the designer can implement all manner of physical obstacles and handicaps to limit player experience, and steer the narrative away from the player’s desires.

Atopian paidia

In spite of this, it can be observed that video games have gradually employed a greater degree of non-monotonicity[8] as their history develops, with the player being trusted more to explore territory and implement their own ludic objectives through increased paidia. Partly this is for technological reasons. The leap from 2D to 3D gamescape design, as a result of greater processing power, was instrumental in this aspect. Earlier 2D games were nearly entirely level-based, i.e. divided into separate, independent stages: the basic objective being to move from one side of the screen to the other (usually left to right) while defeating enemies and avoiding hazards. Early examples of commercial three-dimensional games, such as Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo) heralded the arrival of a form of gamescape not previously technologically possible. Instead of resembling a kind of scrolling, interactive tapestry, as in earlier entries in the Mario series; the Nintendo 64 version begins with a 3D model of the princess’s castle grounds, and immediately feels like a more “realistic” experience. Instead of being littered with enemy monsters to defeat or clear directions, the player is able to navigate this initial model from Mario’s perspective free of penalties or time limitations. The emphasis is on control and fluidity of gameplay, and the sense (if only illusory) that the player is not bound by the invisible, guiding hand of the game’s designers. This castle garden’s structure is deliberately closed, using steep hills and other unnavigable terrain. In this sense game designers can be said to be not only landscape gardeners but cartographers: they dictate the edges of the map and make it virtually impossible to escape.

Another milestone of video game paidia is the Grand Theft Auto series. In these games, the gamescape is a single, fluid model: a whole virtual city, populated with ordinary people, traffic, police force, and of course law-breakers and criminal activity. The vast, interactive area embodies the developers, Rockstar Games’s attitudes towards player control and discovery, and is the primary reason for their massive successes. With little to no restrictions on what the player is able to achieve, no two experiences are alike, and with every (legal and illegal) temptation lurking around the corner, GTA is as close to Caillois’ definition of unrestrained mimicry that a video game is likely to get. McKenzie Wark, in a detailed study of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002, Rockstar Games), described this kind of gamespace as atopia. Built on what Foucault called “heterotopia”, or “other space”, an ideal at a remove from the common dysfunctional space we usually inhabit; atopia can instead be considered a “complete gamespace” – completely ordered and self-sustaining, with no requirement of externality, and existing seemingly everywhere.[9] Vice City is not a parallel universe, it is perfectly assimilated into ours. It is all-pervasive, and as an arena of play, it illustrates our own, “imaginary” gamespace better than any other. Wark goes as far as to label Vice City a “negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow,” which possesses a self-governing system of laws. “It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.)” The game internalises transgression: in this way it is not even necessary to promote it. Law itself is “part of a larger algorithm”; the player manoeuvres their actor over the game’s physical “surfaces” in order to “intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm.”[10]

The player’s behaviour in Vice City is not inherently transgressive: the game itself facilitates violence, theft, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, and so on, and presents them amorally, as methods of acquisition and progression. Video game play cannot be considered transgressive unless it breaks the rules by which it is defined, and manipulates the algorithm in unexpected ways. This requires disrupting the boundaries of the magic circle: to be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by the cartography of gamescape and construct new methods of play. Certain examples in video gaming demonstrate that it is possible to disregard the rules of play within a defined magic circle and still participate in self-sufficient activity that can only be defined as play.

H6-i5 beta lands
“Mountains of madness” floating in the sky over the Forbidden Lands

Sub-liminal palaeontology

Whereas in GTA players were made to actively transgress manifestations of the law to reap reward, Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team Ico) had players follow the law to the letter, and ultimately lose for it (or at least reveal an ending that spelled disaster for the actor). The game’s premise was to defeat sixteen cyclopean, ancient beasts (colossi) in an order set by the immaterial, polyphonous deity Dormin, and thus save the princess from death. All promotional material for Shadow of the Colossus placed the enemy colossi as the game’s unique selling point, but as many players derived enjoyment from devising strategies to take down their immense opponents, others were quickly captivated by the scale of the environment they were able to explore. The GTA series has a similarly massive gamescape, yet in SotC the terrain is almost entirely empty: no smaller challenges or side-quests exist, and only one opponent is generated at a time, at a location disclosed by the authoritarian Dormin, and pinpointed by the player using a compass-like sword. Nor is it possible to complete the challenges out of sequence (if a player arrives at a colossus arena prematurely, no opponent will be waiting for them). As other video games moved towards non-linear design and player choice, SotC deliberately chose one of the most linear schematics imaginable.

In effect, the game is divided into sixteen levels, which consist of the following: navigating the expansive Forbidden Lands in the direction indicated by the sword, discovering the beast, and calculating and executing an offensive strategy, at which point the player is teleported back to the central compound (the Shrine of Worship) to pursue the next enemy. What elevates this monotonous exercise is doing exactly what is “forbidden”: exploring this infinitely empty, Edenic landscape. Unlike other games which often award desertion from the primary objective with unlockable content or upgraded skills, there is absolutely no gamic advantage for going AWOL in SotC (if anything, the likelihood of getting lost constitutes a noticeable disadvantage). The player and the actor are most bonded here, in flouting protocol to investigate the knowingly sublime and excessive, not for profit but for the sheer decadence of it all.

Bridge behind entrance
Hacking the game can reveal some unusual and memorable computer-generated visual effects

Of course the game has been constructed precisely so that players can find metaphysical rewards within its gamescape; interestingly, it is precisely because of taut ludic conventions that paidia is able to creep in. But it can only be expected that from this point paidia would be converted by the players back into ludus, that a small group of fanatical players would create their own games using the available tools of the gamescape and often considerable skills of using external software to navigate the underlying properties which make up the game: the game code itself, a kind of sub-gamescape. Like DNA, the “code” which determines the direction and rate of protein growth in living organisms, video games are composed of a single extensive program, an ur-text which is responsible for everything from facilitating the narrative, deciding which sound files play as a result of certain actions, and, perhaps in this case most significantly, the game’s graphics: i.e. the gamescape and all its contents. If the hacker is lucky, he (in virtually all cases it seems to be a “he”) will find certain leftover content not implemented into the final version of the “game”, and not intended to be accessible to the player. For many, this is the goal of their investigation. Seeking out this hidden data is a kind of palaeontology: it can be studied and used to reveal the various stages of the game’s evolution, akin to carbon dating, and thus further speculations can be made over the design of the finished gamescape and its previous incarnations.

There are several reasons why SotC should prove attractive to these kinds of players; all of them relate in some way or another to conventional or recent views on aesthetics. In the conceptual sense, SotC is quite clearly sublime: the diminutive hero must battle with monsters of such immensity that the screen can often only capture them in part. Likewise, the Forbidden Lands are sublime: containing vast mountains, forests, deserts, ruined temples and forts; but more importantly, they are empty (or at least seem to be) – free from human presence, and inhabited only by the occasional bird or lizard. Between fights, the atmosphere is existential, alien, even Lovecraftian: the game’s orchestrated soundtrack is not present (It creeps in only as the player approaches a colossus), reducing audible sound to howling winds and the actor’s footsteps. As a result, anything visible or audible to the player may become a source of intrigue, particularly if it resembles a human construction (such as a ruined pillar or the strange stone rings which populate the desert), or potentially the hand of an even elder race (the scale of the Shrine of Worship and the bindings on some of the colossi suggest an inhuman precedence).[11] Such accents in an otherwise barren landscape actually enhance the player’s alienation, awe, and fascination, as well as the scale of his surroundings. One is reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of another formally crafted gamescape, the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”[12]

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

The emptiness of the mystical Forbidden Lands entices players to project any kind of meaning on what is not there, based on what is, and what should be or ought to have been. The results of expert hackers and compilers of unused SotC content, such as Michael Lambert, who goes by the YouTube username Nomad Colossus, have revealed to more casual players the scope of Team Ico’s initial project. The most significant discoveries made are the remnants of “test areas”, used by the game developers to try out battles with colossi before their designs were finalised – and there is a high probability that unused, deleted colossi designs once occupied them.[13] Even more startling is a complete model of a dam that seemingly had no other but decorative purposes. Lambert’s current conclusions are that, despite official indications from Team Ico that the finished model of the Forbidden Lands is entirely based on the placement of the finished 16 colossi arenas, and would be “completely different” if more were incorporated; that “there never was a different map”; and the “beta” content is evidence of a shrunken final design “planned at the outset”, rather than a complete rebuild.

Map_all extra lands
A version of the in-game map restored by Lambert to include the “inaccessible” locations – the territory floods over the map
Beta + retail colossi locations
Locations of the game’s sixteen colossi (red) and speculated territories for the discarded eight (blue)
B2 model_cut
Section of a probable colossus test area partially remaining in the finished game

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

Eddo Stern uses the term artifact as an explainer for unintended phenomena within video game gameplay. In computer science, the term is more familiar, used to refer to “undesired cosmetic disturbances” which result from compression of jpeg or mp3 files, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file; all of which pre-empt an “unperfected aesthetic disturbance”. In gamescapes, artifacts can reveal themselves unexpectedly, but more commonly are prompted by erratic or methodological player actions. Regardless, all artifacts are extra-diegetic: they disturb the narrative flow orchestrated by the game designer, and often the senses.[14] In turn, they invert old and invent new diegetic and aesthetic forms.

SotC’s hidden artifacts certainly make for compelling viewing to players who would otherwise be unaware of the presence of large, physical manifestations of data beyond unattainable horizons: objects that to borrow Robin Mackay’s term can be regarded as aesthemes. These mountains, this dam; their “deep resonance and transcendent qualities […] make appeal to a transcendent self which, through sensory experience, is innately touched by ideas that are equally transcendent.”[15] Aesthemes convey the transformative properties of the artistic phenomenon without relying on falling back on Kantian sublimity or Duchampian co-authorship; they exist independently of the subject’s relation to the ideas that subject conceives, and furthermore in this instance amount to a reconceptualization of both subject (the player) and aesthetic content (the fractured gamescape and implied gamespace).[16] The search for beta content in SotC, of which the dam is the end result, demonstrates the emergence of new guerrilla modes of play outside of the game’s physical boundaries, which in turn defies the designers’ understanding of players’ capabilities.  To its core, hacking is an ontological activity. Practitioners transform gamespaces, and themselves become transformed subjects, free of the autistic behavioural algorithms[17] which they were ultimately expected to endure to be considered players at all. When these subjects are able to navigate the hero Wander – to allow him to “wander” from his omnisciently scrutinised assignment, which is to rescue the damsel Mono (a name implying singularity and restriction), they simultaneously stretch the magic circle from within and play outside of Team Ico’s jurisdiction. They cross over an epistemic gap: in real terms, they gain knowledge of the game’s construction, as an archaeological discovery, a gnostic journey, a technophilic qabbala.

It is disheartening, therefore, that this new ontology of gaming has met with such unambiguous resistance. Previous attempts to acquire accurate information about SotC’s development from Team Ico have caused communications to cease, and this policy is unlikely to change.[18] Much has been made of the game’s “artistic” qualities, which the developers evidently worked hard at to achieve, not only by promoting a minimalist, creative and beautiful experience, but also by the scope of the player’s possible actions and concealing ugliness. Director of the project Fumito Ueda has stressed clearly his preferred interpretation: in an interview he stated “I think [the game] holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.”[19] But by doing so he revealed himself to be less of an artist and more of a manipulative auteur. There have certainly been artists working in more traditional media that have objected to a spectator or a critic’s evaluation of their work, but here is a case where the artists involved have actually been able to impose an interpretation of their own choice – romanticism – and have insinuated that any actions taken to reject the suggested readings and facilitate reinterpretations are akin to criminality. This seems especially confusing as the whole objective of the game is to search for the colossi to fight, and to explore the Forbidden Lands in order to do so.

The player’s impulse to flaut the rules imposed by gamespace relates to Heather Alexandra’s concept of ludic tension, or the tension exerted on the player to uphold ludic and diegetic elements of a game at the expense of forming an individual game narrative. Alexandra conceives this tension as an active, affective, “emotional” force which indirectly forces a singular interpretation or gaming experience. The game “transubstantiates into a noumenon, a platonic idea in the mind of the player.”[20] It becomes little more than interactive film, antithetical to paidia, bland and unadventurous. This is not to suggest that a noumenal, monotonic vision of the game is Team Ico’s, but when there are so few other “legitimate” forms of play within SotC, there seems to be a lack of foresight concerning the degree to which ludic tension would be resisted and lose out to the persuasiveness and intrigue of the game’s huge, mysterious territory.

Dam_Devil image
The dam may have been a backdrop to a fight against a deleted colossus, Lambert speculates

Controlling gamespace

One is tempted to think of the Forbidden Lands as a self-contained disciplinary society, akin to the juridical and prison systems described by Foucault; a fixed space overseen by its creators from the Panopticon, poised to reproach deserters and troublemakers. But it would be more accurate to observe Team Ico’s microcosm as a Deleuzian control society instead. “Enclosures are molds,” said Deleuze, “distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other”.[21] As we have seen, the gamescape of the Forbidden Lands may be fixed, if ultimately inconceivable; yet the gamespace fluctuates with every new discovery. As a result, Team Ico fail to enclose their version of SotC: its grand yet imperfect programming is penetrable, therefore its designers can only modulate its image and dissuade multiplicity of that image; disguising its atopia as heterotopia. This method of control is harder to diagnose than disciplinary instruction, which can easily be challenged or rejected outright, which is often exactly what happens when, for example, artistic institutions announce compromising plans for the sake of further monetization. But that it has managed to creep its way into artistic content, into the magic circle is insipid, and should not go unnoticed.

The greatest issue with Team Ico’s univocal control is that it is undemocratic. We can define democracy as the citizenry (demos) having control over that which has control over them (i.e. the instruments of control in that society: government, economic institutions, etc.). While it should never be a goal in itself, free democratic movement should be able to operate independently of and exist as a challenge to law and modular tension. Renegade action demonstrates effective methods of undermining state control and revealing artifacts blocked by intelligence agencies. Yet how we interpret this information and the measures which were implemented to disguise it from us are more important than the mere acquisition of anti-democratic secrets. Consider the news stories back in April 2016 regarding the leaking of over 11.5 million files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which unveiled extensive levels of tax evasion from wealthy elite figures from global finance and politics.[22] One name leapt upon by the British media was prime minister David Cameron, whom it had been revealed received £200,000 as a tax evasive measure in 2011. To contain further scandal, Cameron took the unprecedented step of publishing his personal tax records for each year of his premiership up to 2014-15. However, this seemingly reconciliatory measure quickly spread into a witch hunt, wherein every senior UK politician was so mistrusted by the public that by failing to follow Cameron’s lead they could be interpreted as suspicious or underhanded.[23] Others went further, implying perhaps rightfully that the distinction between politician and non-politician was misleading, pointing instead to overseas multinationals’ abuse of the global tax system as more significant; yet this measure escalated further into a weak admission that no-one should be exempt from publicising their tax returns.[24] Thankfully the demand for further transparency was quickly curtailed, before the emphasis shifted from naming and shaming public individuals to the “nothing to hide” mentality that apologises for any private security breach nominally covered by the Data Protection Act.

The obvious message here is that revealing information regarding others may escalate into revealing information regarding ourselves (something Julian Assange would know all about). “Tension” over our behaviour is not only a coercive force used by figures of governmentality to incite particular responses, it is also something we project onto ourselves, our peers, and our communities. We ourselves present a large risk to our own security and privacy:  the social media profiles, image feed, and string of security passwords we’ve been encouraged to litter throughout the internet are just a fraction of the evidence that we are as much participants of a control society as we are its victims.[25] We too possess our fair share of artifacts and aesthemes; sometimes we even leave them in plain sight.

Nevertheless, democratic self-control is important; this includes the right to decide our own paths free of tension, observation or persecution. It is even necessary and expected to some degree for cartographies to leak outwards: control societies “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[26] Data leaks that remap socio-political ontologies, as a result of unsolicited action, can be internalised, like any predictable behaviour. Freedoms of thought and expression run like viruses through our algorithmic megastructure, creating ruptures that heal themselves, allowing the host to grow stronger. New rules are made by allowing old ones to be broken. Yet the size and shape of the rupture dictate the nature of reconstruction; in atopias, individuality can mean the difference between meaningless propagation and practical, ontological influence.

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close


The aesthetic case for Team Ico’s control paradigm is a valid, and not ineffective one. The linear gameplay of SotC helps to develop the intensity of the player’s action and sense of challenge to a crescendo, in an otherwise permeable gamespace. Yet the implications of the actions of play in within a defined territory inevitably permeate outwards, into a larger but less defined space. Consider Huizinga’s comments made immediately following his use of the phrase “magic circle”:

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.[27]

While it is preferable to play a game that is aesthetically appealing than one that is not, disruption of a game’s order is an equally valid method of play: educational, creative, skilful, vertiginous. Caillois dedicated a whole chapter of his study to the “corruption of games”, and spoke positively of the “desire for disorder and destruction” associated with ilinx.[28] The magic circle can be thought of as a positive barrier, a shield from the outside world where ordinary laws  are suspended; but more often we see this barrier being pushed both inwards and outwards. Refusing to accept any boundary as immobile and opaque not only leads to new forms of play, but also fluid ways of self-conception and effective relationships with control societies that lie outside its territory. Once atopia is fractured, and gamespace changes from an ideological subsistency to a fragile ecology, we affirm play as the means of collective social and cognitive development once more.

All images taken from Nomad’s Blog and used with permission.


[1] Lovecraft, H.P., At the Mountains of Madness. In Klinger, L. (2015) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, pp457-572.

[2] The tem “actor”, proposed by James Clinton Howell, is given to the game’s playable character(s). Howell, J.C. (2007) “Driving Off the Map”, Deltahead Translation Group, available online at

[3] Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games [Les jeux et les hommes]. Trans. Barash, M., Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, p12.

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

[7] Duchamp, M. (1957) “The Creative Act”, transcript from Session of the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Available online at Radical Art [].

[8] Reza Negarestani defines non-monotonicity as “a synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In: Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (eds.) #Accelerate, Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp425-466.

[9] Wark, M. (2006-7) “ATOPIA: on Vice City”, in GAM3R 7H30RY, version 1.1, published online by Institute for the Future of the Book [], pp101-25 (my italics).

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

[11] My own constraints here prevent me from exploring the full potential of the similarities between the Forbidden Lands and the work of Lovecraft; needless to say they are extensive.

[12] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London, Pan Books, p135.

[13] Lambert and others have collaborated in the past to gather as much information as possible about all the colossi, including those that were scrapped during various stages of the game’s development. SotC’s director, Fumito Ueda, is reported to have initially conceived of the game having 48 colossi; at an early stage this number was reduced to a more realistic 24, and “halfway through production” this number thinned out again to 16. A few screenshots of the 8 discarded at this point exist, and using these images and the few sections of mountains hiding beyond the game’s natural borders, this group of dedicated fans have collectively made some detailed yet sound hypotheses. See more at Nomad Colossus (2011) “Unused/Beta Colossi”, available online at Nomad’s blog []; Nomad Colossus (2015) “Shadow of the Colossus – Beta colossi recap & update”, video uploaded at

[14] Stern, E. (2002) “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, available online at

[15] Mackay, R. (2014) “Neo-Thalassa: A Fantasia on a Fantasia”. In Mackay, R., Pendrell, L. & Trafford, J. (eds.) (2014) Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp97-105 (my italics).

[16] Mackay, comments in “Discussion”, Speculative Aesthetics, pp113-4.

[17] Corruption of the phrase “autistic conversational algorithms”, in Stern, “A Touch of Medieval”.

[18] Nor is this policy unique to Team Ico. Lambert and his associates have been turned away multiple times, and have reached the conclusion that “it’s extremely difficult to get Japanese developers on the record about anything regarding unused [content] in their games or even the specifics of the game’s development.” According to a journalist at Gametrailers, some of video gaming’s biggest development teams, including Nintendo and Square Enix, are extremely sceptical about disclosing any production secrets to the public. Nomad Colossus, “Unused/Beta Colossi”.

[19] In an interview with Daniel Robson (Edge #261, November 2013). Ibid.

[20] Alexandra, H. (date uncertain) “Ludic Fuckery, Dynamics, and Emotional Response”, TransGamer Thoughts, available online at

[21] Deleuze, G. (1992) “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), pp3-7. Available online at

[22] E.g. Harding, L. (2016) “What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak”, The Guardian, available online at

[23] Boffey, D. (2016) “Cameron faces questions over £200,000 gift from mother”, The Guardian, available online at; Riley-Smith, B. (2016) “Every MP under pressure to publish tax return [sic] after David Cameron reveals income”, The Telegraph, available online at

[24] Murphy, R., (2016) “What Can MPs’ Tax Returns Actually Tell Us About Dodgy Dealings?” Interview by Sam Wolfson for Vice [].

[25] Cascio, J. (2005) “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon”, available online at

[26] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénic]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p8.

[27] Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, London/Boston/Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p10. PDF available at

[28] Caillois, p24. For more regarding the concept of ilinx within video games, see Bateman, C. (2006) “The Joy of Ilinx”, Only a Game, available online at