Mark Fisher – Flatline Constructs (1999) [Origins of Theory-Fiction #1]

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

 

Mark Fisher. Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction (1999), available online at  https://web.archive.org/web/20080325013155/http://www.cinestatic.com:80/trans-mat/Fisher/FCcontents.htm.

How appropriate, that the most important textual resource for examining the genre-concept of theory-fiction – perhaps the only full-length treatise on the subject to date – would relegate its primary definition of the term to a footnote in one of its final chapters? (Doesn’t this always seem to be the way?) “It might be worth a parenthetical note here”, Mark Fisher finally admits, in Chapter 4.4 of Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction, “making some attempt to unravel what’s at stake in the emergence of the – new? – mode, theory-fiction”. This unravelling is of a term defined largely by the work of one philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, and the many pitfalls and entanglements that have resulted in the variegated readings and misreadings of this work. Taking the most straightforward, “cold” reading of the orders of simulacra which informs Baudrillard’s (often controversial) social analysis – this being theory-fiction as a dialectic of two distinct and straightforward categories, “theory […] on the side of the real and fiction […] on the side of the imaginary” – makes little sense, and is borne out of a presupposition in which “reality” is singular, stable, and objective. Baudrillard’s work, on the other hand, suggests two possible reconfigurations of the conceptual and fictive modes. Fisher:

  1. Fiction as theory. This option further subdivides: (a) Fiction in the form of theory (fiction that uses, or incorporates academic conventions: examples here include T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Nabokov’s Pale Fire). (b) Fiction performing as theory. This, potentially, could include any fiction offering theoretical resources of some kind.
  2. Theory as fiction. This is theory presented in the form of fiction. The most well-known exponents of this mode – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard – are hardly new. At its most radical, what is at stake here is more than the disguise of theory as fiction, or fiction as theory, but a dissolution of the opposition itself. Two, related, claims, one descriptive, the other prescriptive emerge from this: (1) all theory is already fiction; and, (2) theory should abandon its assumed position of “objective neutrality”, and embrace its fictionality. But something happens to fiction here; it is no longer, simply, on the side of the imaginary.

Moving beyond both the first-order of simulacra (metaphor, resemblance, parody) and the second (representation, equivalence, pastiche), it is Baudrillard’s third-order simulacra which is most clearly associated with the categorical smearing that defines theory-fiction as a question, or “mode”. The feedback between fiction and reality under the third order, Fisher shows, occurs on the same plane of consistency: no transcendence (or psychological projection), only immanent foldings and unfoldings (implexion). Take cyberspace as an example. Beyond, of course, its globally distributed material infrastructure, where is it? Answer: it is not simply in “this world”, nor does it constitute an entirely delocalised “other” world (where it would be incapable of affecting this “first” world). Rather, cyberspace “constitutes a fold in the world that is nevertheless a real production – an addition – to the world as such.” Cyberspace therefore is not a copy of the real world, but a constituent part: it can never step outside of the world to a vantage to conduct its tracing. This is what theory-fictions are, according to the Baudrillard-Fisher definition: implexed hyperobjects which produce hyperreality. (We must be confident, however, in our understanding of hyperreality not as an explicit “death” of objective, singular reality, but rather of the death of the fictional as a discrete mode of ontologisation: “it is fakery – not reality as such – that is impossible now.”)

It is in the hyperreal – the (de)simulation of the world – that enables the memetic (as opposed to mimetic) propagation of the fictional quanta known as hyperstitions (not named as such here). For it is when a particular fiction gains a purchase on the “actual” (but could such a concept be maintained on the plane of immanence?) that it, in the Ccru parlance, makes itself real. There is a parallel here with capitalist realism as neoliberal insurrection: as Fisher later maintained, the genius of such a manoeuvre was to radically invert the collective assertion of reality, such that what was, prior to its realisation, thought to be impossible emerged, a posteriori, as inevitable. Hyperstition assumes both autonomy and agency, but then, so do people assume autonomy and agency in (“undead”) technical machines: “According to Wiener, when confronted with cybernetic machines, human beings found themselves behaving as if the systems possessed agency. Since the systems cybernetics produced behaved at least quasi-autonomously, they naturally gave rise to the belief in non-human (and non-subjective) agencies”. The return of animism and demonism in cybernetic postmodernity is seen by Fisher as an undoing of the psychoanalytic categories of the individual psyche and of an individualistic account of organic life (unsustainable on the single plane of consistency). In their place, Fisher posits Spinozist bodies, defined by their extensions in spacetime and their affects, which fictional quantities are as capable of assuming as “living” organisms.

What, then, is to be made of the twofold definition of theory-fiction outlined above? Clearly, 1a appears ludicrous: “academic conventions” are not what defines theory at all, and a novel is no more philosophical than another simply because it uses footnotes. I would be inclined to support 1b, were it not for the strange emphasis on performance. This is ambiguous, but it seems to indicate a retreat from the third-order back to the first (resemblance). Regardless, the offering of theoretical resources is actually a very helpful descriptor for a broad categorisation of theory-fiction texts that are (ostensibly) conceived in fictive modes. Defined in this way, these kinds of theory-fictions offer more than the concerns of literary theory – themes, perspectives, devices, and the like – and imply a shifting of the contours of the realistic – what the world which “contains” this fiction could possibly be (and indeed, escape from this model of containment in itself).

As for “fiction-theories” (a meaningless inversion of terms, yet equally legitimate to the former alignment), it is again necessary to delegitimise theoretical works using literary conventions as mere resemblances (the Nietzsche-Kierkegaard model indicated above) as sufficient in itself, and to move instead in the direction of the “dissolution of the opposition itself.” It is clear, however, that while for Fisher this move inevitably leads to the “descriptive” claim that theory is already fiction by default, this does not seem to happen in reverse: while hyperreality effaces the grounding for theory to remain objective (therefore always-already inherently fictional), fiction must work hard in order to migrate over to theory. One might argue here that this argument in fact widens the gulf between fiction and theory further, by illustrating that the criteria for each are radically different. There are no ready-to-hand “fictive resources” that theory can simply implement; fiction is instead defined here in terms of subjectivity and the orders of simulation. But perhaps there is a way through this if we consider what is gained as fictions move from one order of simulation to another.

Perhaps there is one more section of Flatline Constructs that could help to clarify the process by which texts become configured as theory-fiction, and this is the difference between metafiction and hyperfiction (in 4.7). For Fisher (via Brian McHale), metafiction operates within the meta-system illustrated by Douglas Hofstadter’s strange loop. This is a superstitional device which embeds or disguises authors within the fictions they have written, giving them the status of characters and helping to bury the origins of the work. In this model, Hofstadter maintains, there is always an “inviolable layer” that prevents the loop from fully closing, and the author of the work from fully disappearing: there remains here, however entangled, a hierarchy. The model Fisher appeals to in the case of the hyperfiction is that of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, the constantly additive structure which repels unity and overcoding, and the ability to leap out of itself. With the rhizome, hierarchy “is radically abolished”, and fictions propagate instead by infection of the collective imaginary – from within. Using this transition from a first or second-order simulation to a third-order – from metafiction to hyperfiction, from mimesis to “memesis” – could we appropriate a set of fictive tools by which to analyse the Real seeping in? Surely, it would seem, this what a speculative fiction-theory would describe, and indeed, possibly enact.

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Two Questions Concerning Applied Ballardianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

[4] Ballard, introduction to Crash.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Applied Ballardianism, p. 239.

[7] Ibid, p. 223.

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

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

Corridors of Time: Templexity and Entity

In Chrono Trigger, Square’s classic time travel role-playing game from 1995, a band of time-displaced adventurers team up to prevent an apocalypse, by changing the course of events leading up to its happening. As part of an optional subplot, during a respite from the exhaustion of incessant time leaps and bounds, the adventurers rest near a campfire and reflect on the course of evets that has lifted each of them from their respective time locales and brought them together across epochs. In a moment of unprompted philosophical interrogation, the characters contemplate the idea that their reality has been shifted by some unbounded agent, and is dependent on the desires and piecemeal memories of this “Entity”:

Robo: I have come to think that someone, or something wanted us to see all this.
The different events over time, that we have witnessed.
It is almost as if some entity wanted to relive its past.

[…]

Magus: …so who is this Entity?

Robo: It is unknown, whose memories these are. It may be something beyond our comprehension.

The game’s time bandits are gathered, and are able to navigate their linear time line, as a result of the sudden appearance of portals, or “Gates”, into their world. Gates are fixed phenomena which link specific spatio-temporal singularities to one another. If a Gate becomes overloaded with travellers during a single attempted leap, they are pushed to “the space-time coordinates of least resistance” – a sort of Art Deco-inspired liminal zone known as The End of Time. Gates therefore, Robo hypothesises, could be deliberate ruptures in the fabric of space-time, caused by a higher-dimensional being unable to transport itself back through time. The characters’ union, in this case, would serve to recreate key historical events as the “memories” of this Entity, or even to replace them with alternatives. These interventions, therefore, would constitute an aesthetic exercise for the Entity, a method of rendering its world legible and scalable through the act of transforming its surroundings into the sensations and materials of art.

I can’t help but think that the narrative component of Chrono Trigger would greatly amuse Nick Land, whose e-book/extended essay Templexity investigates the logical inconsistencies of the time-travel narrative while at the same time detailing a new methodology for critically understanding the ways in which time (as granularised fictional order) has folded our social and cultural histories. From H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, right up to Land’s primary case study, the 2012 science fiction blockbuster Looper, time-travel narratives have been unanimously concerned with the transportation of bodies (or characters) from a present moment to either a (pre-)historical past or imagined future, often at the expense of a study into the mechanics of temporal disorder itself. It is though narratives presented in this way, inflexibly, that we have come to understand “time-travel” as “the dramatization of something else”,[1] and to which the reader is posited as outside spectator. Such conceptions are riddled with paradoxes, however; some of which even have names: the Grandfather Paradox, the Bootstrap Paradox, and so on. Put simply, to transport a body through time would require the body to have always appeared at every point of temporal insertion, which would result in the displacement of genesis, endless duplication, the feeding of time machines and portals into themselves, and all sorts of unimagined bizarre inconsistencies often left unaccounted for in time-travel fiction.

For “time anomaly” to exist, therefore, it must have always been present, or not at all (§5.4). For Land, his resident city of Shanghai represents, indeed functions as a certain kind of time machine, one that operates through the cultural erasure and nonspecificity of Art Deco. Both “excess code” and “the sign of a vivid yet unspoken modernity” (§5.2), Art Deco architecture and visual motifs impose a stringent narratology on Shanghai’s storied and variegated cultural legacy, connecting it to both everywhere (heterotopia) and nowhere (utopia). A narrative line of linear progression (modernism) decodes what is otherwise a progressive urban development, layered by means of spiral temporal geometry (#7.8).[2]

Could an “Entity” exist inside such temporal spiromorphism, or does templexity’s positive cybernetics necessarily absorb this alien matter back into its own feedback cycles? Does the Entity survive templex entropy? It’s not immediately apparent if Robo’s AI ESP merely reveals the fourth wall of Chrono Trigger’s gamescape or is suggestive of a potential Paradox within Land’s thesis. Taking Templexity’s temporal cybernetics to their logical extension, there could be no demonology, no divinity, within the templex spiral, without acceding that any physical or metaphysical phenomena between dimensions would also be subject to time’s disordered loops; therefore one would also have to acknowledge time anomaly as a genuine entropy.[3] There would also, in effect, be nothing for the Entity to do in a self-regulating system, besides inhabiting the role of audience member.

Perhaps somewhere in Land’s critique of the misconceptions of “time travel” in fiction lies some of the answers as to why Chrono Trigger – for all its technical innovations, exemplary gameplay and soundtrack – always seemed underwhelming as a game organised around the conceit of time travel mechanics. One would begin the game for the first time expecting a break from the linear progression that forms one of the most common criticisms against the role-playing genre, only to discover a frustratingly similar experience.[4] The purity of its main plot is unaffected by the player’s strategic interceptions across its timeline (except for those officially sanctioned by the developers) – there is no possible temporal terrorism that has not already been scripted in advance, and time locales feature as navigable settings rather than opportunities for narrative splintering and splicing.

If, as Land suggests, time travel is the dramatization of something else, Chrono Trigger displays its narratological order through the displacement of characters across a series of causal events, providing the player with an interactive story that is not so much created as revealed. Real templexity, on the other hand, is always a production. Linear causality is self-reinforcing, as the chain of events do not allow for straightforward reversions (§8.4). Could the game’s events be a dramatization by and for an atemporal Entity, that itself still resides within the confines of the narrative it has caused and directed? Such a being would be incapable of transporting bodies through time, and so it rightly comes as no surprise that the Entity dreamed by Robo at the campsite never emerges beyond its unsubstantiated idea.

Notes

[1] Nick Land, Templexity – Disordered Loops Through Shanghai Time (e-book: Time Spiral Press, 2014), §1.6. All bracketed sections henceforth refer to this text.

[2] “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” – Mark Twain (misattributed).

[3] This entropy, by which feedback loops appear self-producing, is what connects templexity to Capital: “As it mechanizes, capital approximates ever more closely to an auto-productive circuit in which it appears – on the screen – as something like the ‘father’ of itself (M → C → M’)” (§9.4). Capital, as represented by Looper’s silver and gold bars, can only survive a (linear) time travel narrative (the hyperinflation that accompanies the printing of precious metals) through the elimination of time paradoxes, as achieved through “reintegrat[ing] a singular timeline” (§3.0-§3.4), and imposition of the “cinematic order” (§2.4).

[4] One of the game’s selling points is the option to view multiple endings, a novelty at the time of its original release. However, the vast majority of these endings are essentially out of bounds to the player until their characters have gained enough experience points, by which time the game’s linear main plot is likely to be close to its denouement in any case.

Featured image credits: screenshot from the game Chrono Trigger (Super Famicom/Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Square: 1995).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

There’s no reason why it should be.

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

 

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

III

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

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

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

 

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Why is it you do what you do?”

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

 

Notes

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

[2] See also Fisher: 26-31.

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

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

[5] Emphasis added.

[6] Emphasis added

[7] See Negarestani.

 

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured image credits: Pixabay.

Common sense as philosophical “misadventure” in Deleuze and Flaubert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

[3] See also Nietzsche: §16; Toscano.

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

(un)known(1): A retrospective of Autechre’s inhumanist aesthetics

I’ve produced a one-hour mix of the tracks featured in this essay to accompany it. All tracks by Autechre are published by Warp unless otherwise listed.

Can all art be defined by human enjoyment of it? If it is generally done so, is this a mistake? How can we be certain that art is loyal to us, that it is on our side alone? The problem with defining art subjectively is that, as soon as we choose not to recognise it, it is no longer there. Visual art becomes mere images; language loses all symbolic value; auditory art becomes undesirable noise. Are we content to accept such a selfish, transitory definition of art, or will we be forced to rethink it? Let us for a moment propose that art is a synthesis between affective stimulus and an affected participant who affirms it in the act of recognition. Such an encounter with an art object would necessitate its a priori status as pre-art, with a virtual art status ready to be engaged. Surely then, if there are other forms of intelligence, belonging to biological or artificial beings capable of recognition, the aesthetic capacities of a pre-art can be tapped into in ways other than those known by the human. Let us go a step further, and abandon the concept of human subjectivity as understood in its “rational animal” variants: singular, concrete, constant. Could new ways of aesthetic judgment be developed along this train of thought, new appreciations born out of new methods of perception?

I am not proposing that the music of Autechre allows us to achieve this. At best it is a representation of what music made by or for non-humans might sound to human ears and minds, one based on necessarily limited understandings of the non-human world (as captured and schematized by humans using the sciences of mathematics, biology, geology, etc.). But, given that nonhuman thought by definition encompasses faculties, sensations, and syntheses unknowable to us, the construction of representative maps and diagrams remains for us a vital exercise in understanding thoughts and feelings beyond our limited range of possible experience.

I wish to take a chronological approach to Autechre’s oeuvre. Specifically, I wish to select a few compositions from across their nearly 30-year career which illustrate an increasing unfamiliarity over that time. I want to consider the group’s progression from the warehouse rave scene of the early 1990s, constructing music for a particular place and function, towards more abstract and diverse territories, and posit this trajectory as a consistent attempt to reinvent the listening experience in terms of the new and unexplored. I believe that by circumventing our expectations as listeners, Autechre allows us not only to develop new ways of understanding art, but also opens up the possibility for a more general inhumanist aesthetics for other beings and purposes.

“Flutter” (1994) [Anti EP: 150.0 bpm]

Early Autechre is a period of experimentation with sound and identity. Cavity Job (1991: Hardcore Records), Lego Feet (1991: Skam), Incunabula (1993), Basscad,EP (1994), and Amber (1994) showcase diverse engagements with hardcore, bleep, rave, and hip hop: sometimes aggressive, sometimes languid, always colourful and new. Each of these records is both singular and comparatively safe for what would come next: a response not so much to musical genre, but to British law:

(1) This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose—

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

(b) “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

(Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 63)

Autechre’s reply:

Warning. Lost and Djarum contain repetitive beats.
We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law.
Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.

(Autechre 1994: Anti EP)

“Leterel” (1995) [Tri Repetae: 150.0 bpm]
“Hub” (1997) [Chiastic Slide: 83.3 bpm]

Further journeys into the abstract ensue when Autechre dislocate their music from any straightforward sense of time. Genres of electronic music are often differentiated through bpm ranges : 120 bpm (moderato) for house, 160 bpm (allegro) for jungle, etc. Autechre take their pick for each separate composition, and the juxtaposition of tempos on each release add to the sense of nonlinearity. It’s not that the bpms themselves are especially strange, but how they are measured. Another common indicator of timing in dance music is the placement of kick drums. “Leterel” and “Hub” reduce the number of kicks to a minimum, creating a sense of tension and unease over long distances. One effect of this unusual rhythmic pattern is that it pulls the listener’s ear in, and gradually both listener and music fashion together an alienating effect akin to hypnotism.

“Fold4, Wrap5” (1998) [LP5: 78.1 bpm]
“Drane” (1999) [Peel Session: 104.0 bpm]

Rhythmic dislocation continues on these more melodic tracks, but the sense of contrast between the percussive and lead voices is perhaps stranger still. “Drane” in particular, with its four-note mantra, undulating hi-filter slices , and snarling bass note that serves as this track’s marker, make for an unsettling, yet warm and resonant combination. That each of these elements are descending in pitch (although independently of one another) seems to assist in binding them. This has the feel of dance music, but dance music for what?

“Parhelic Triangle” (2001) [Confield: 130.3 bpm]

By contrast, all that marks “Parhelic Triangle” out as dance music is a consistent looped bass (also descending) and snare. It’s a track almost entirely composed of texture: its form feels shifting, unstable, unreliable. It seems to test the mind’s capacity to replicate its image. “Intelligent Dance Music” is often derided as a genre tag, but tracks like this subvert its snobbery into a hyperliteralism. Suppose another form of intelligence were to make sense of this – would its ability to represent this arrangement lead it to places we ourselves are incapable of? For us, in any case, the track’s floating, machinic form marks for us the beginning of a decomposition.

“Gantz Graf” (2002) [Gantz Graf: 123.0 bpm]
“Surripere” (2003) [Draft 7.30: 120.0 bpm]

“Gantz Graf” is truly inhuman music. It can only be followed by human thought after multiple exposures. At first it seems indescribably complex, but perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s merely rambling, schizoid, unrepeating. It even breaks a couple of times, only to re-emerge in new assemblages. “Surripere” has a more readily identifiable cadence, but that itself is swept away by not-quite-onbeat snares, on a detour that jettisons the perceived intended journey. Calling such music “inhuman” is not to say that it does not feel, or that we can identify nothing from within it. Clearly, something is perceived that resembles emotion, or intelligent design (whether in the form of a dancefloor utilitarianism or another, perhaps nonrecreational usage). It does indicate, however, a certain reprogramming of the listening subject. And the rhythmic hypnosis induced by such music constitutes a methodology for this.

“Sublimit” (2005) [Untilted: 83.5 bpm]
“known(1)” (2010) [Oversteps: 84.0 bpm]

One way of recognising the Other is when it strays into the spectrum of the known, where it can be captured by familiar semantics and patterns of identification. The intricate, accelerated drum programming of “Sublimit” differs from the sparse, languid “Leterel” immensely, but is no less disarming and tough to penetrate for the listener. Yet it blooms into something substantial, even majestic, as it pursues its determined route. By a wholly different measure, “known(1)” is entirely nonpercussive, relying on strange interplays between elements both ancient and futuristic. Could “Sublimit” be described as sublime, and “known(1)” considered beautiful? Would this be a disservice to both the categories and the pieces involved? No, there is no need to refer back to such labels. Surely it is more intuitive and informative to allow the music to cut its own trenches, and force us to engage with them as they are in themselves.

“feed1” (2016) [elseq1: 84.0 bpm]

The most recent stages in Autechre’s always-diffractive chronology, albums such as Exai (2013) and elseq1-5 (2016) challenge established musical experiences formally through their extended tracklists across multiple discs (120 minutes across two discs for the former, 247 minutes across 5 discs for the latter). Across such expansive formats appear multiple degrees of experimentation: uncategorizable arrangements of sound that indicate a group of ever-increasing artistic singularity. “feed1” is but one expression of the distance Autechre have travelled from a distinct musical scene towards an absolute creative individualism. It forces one to think: “Is this listenable? What value can I extract from this?” But are habitual markers necessary? Is recognition? Art such as this inverts the relationship between itself and its audience (however flimsy and unhelpful this relationship is formulated): it exists beyond us, has no care for us. It has a stubborn value, which we may in fact recognise should we come to draw something of its uniqueness from it, and embrace its indifferent complexity as widely as possible.

Featured image: The Designers Republic (2016): “elseq1-5”.

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

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

Clinging on to dear life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror of philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

[1] Hereafter COS.

[2] Hereafter Ph.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weird energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concepts of oil

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking the unthinkable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

[2] Hereafter COS.

[3] Hereafter Ph.

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Image” of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[10] See Bergson (2002b).

[11] See also Bergson (2002a).

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

Bibliography

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

Works by Deleuze and Deleuze & Guattari:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works by other authors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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