Among The Truthers by Jonathan Kay

Conspiracy theories, . . . are both a leading cause and a symptom of this intellectual and civic crisis. When a critical mass of educated people in a society lost their grip on the real world – when they claim that George W. Bush is a follower of Nazi ideology, that Barack Obama is a Muslim secretly planning to impose Sharia law on America, that the United States government is controlled by Israel, or that FEMA is preparing to imprison political dissidents in preparation for a totalitarian New World Order – it is a signal that the ordinary rules of rational intellectual inquiry are now treated as optional. – Jonathan Kay, Among The The Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, p. xix

Canadian journalist and author Jonathan Kay

On November 5, 2017, 26-year-old Devon Patrick Kelley entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX. He’d already begun shooting before he opened the doors. By the time he walked out of the church just a few minutes later, 26 people were dead – including the 14-year-old daughter of the church’s pastor, Frank Pomeroy – and 20 more were wounded.

This past Monday, two people were arrested after they berated and threatened Rev. Pomeroy at the church. According to Slate;

In the rant, [Robert] Ussery denied the victims’ existence and demanded to see the birth certificate of Pomeroy’s 14-year-old daughter, who was killed in the attack. “He said, ‘Show me anything to say she was here,’ ” Pomeroy said. . . .

Ussery, 54, and [Jodi] Man, 56, believe that mass shootings, including the Nov. 5 massacre at the church, are hoaxes organized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. On Ussery’s website Side Thorn, he also claims the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, never happened.

In a story from just yesterday, CNN reported a senior political appointee to HUD, while still just a right-wing radio commentator during the election campaign in 2016, trafficked in stories that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chair, John Podesta, participated in Satanic rituals that included drinking the blood of children:

A senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development spread a false conspiracy theory that claimed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman took part in a Satanic ritual, a CNN KFile review of his tweets show.

John Gibbs is a former conservative commentator who initially joined the HUD as the director for Strong Cities and Strong Communities, a program aimed at spurring economic development at the local level. . . .
On Twitter, Gibbs made multiple references to a conspiracy theory started by far-right bloggers claiming Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta took part in a Satanic ritual.
This particular theory morphed into what became known as Pizzagate, the story that Clinton and Podesta used the basement of a popular pizzeria in Washington, DC to hide children kidnapped for an international child sex ring. That Comet Ping Pong didn’t actually have a basement didn’t stop Edgar Maddison Welch from entering the restaurant in December, armed with an AR-15. He only surrendered when he was convinced there were no children in the non-existent basement.
Once upon a time, following conspiracy theories was kind of fun: whether it was the Grassy Knoll shooter in Dallas in 1963, the fake Moon landings of 1969, aliens and Area 51, or some combination of some or all of these and more, it was marvelous to read people carrying on as if they were the secret proprietors of expertise that foiled the US government’s involvement in a variety of events that demonstrated the criminal nature of various parts of our state apparatus. Of course, even a casual survey of post-WWII American history shows the involvement of the US government in all sorts of nefarious business, from the Tuskegee syphilis study, MK-ULTRA that included dosing unsuspected people with LSD, the CIA’s involvement in a variety of coups d’etat, from Iran and Lebanon to a variety of places in Latin America. Then of course there was Lyndon Johnson’s constant lying about our progress in Vietnam, Watergate, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that resulted in the murder of several high-profile members of The Black Panthers by police, and the conviction and imrpisonment of Indian Right’s Activist Leonard Peltier for the murder of an FBI agent, after a trial so ridiculous the feds got caught lying in court during the trial.
The difference between the latter conspiracies and those offered earlier is these latter actually happened, were sometimes well-known, perhaps not in detail but in general outline, at the time they occurred, and became well known because many people involved, whether out of conscience or fear of prison, spoke openly about them. That there are criminal conspiracies, including those involving major institutions of our federal government, is obviously true. That these conspiracies prove the existence of other conspiracies far deeper and darker and even, in the case, say, of our knowledge of intelligent alien life, world-changing, is a leap of logic that some people make.
Interested in answering some questions regarding the 9/11 Truthers – how educated, seemingly intelligent people bought into nonsensical claims regarding what happened on September 11, 2001 – Canadian journalist and author Jonathan Kay spent several years investigating the rising tide of American conspiracists. Ranging over Truthers, Birthers, British Reptilian conspiracist David Icke, and more, Kay’s book is less a catalog of the varieties of conspiracy theories as it is one of those odd, journalist-turned-anthropologist journeys trying to find out why it is people who don’t think the way the journalist believes they should (the “rules of rational inquiry” quoted above, in Kay’s case) believe all sorts of things; the stream of stories since the 2016 election profiling Trump supporters is the same type of story, often showing readers far more about the idiosyncrasies of the author than their purported subject.
In Kay’s case, it is precisely that phrase regarding “rational inquiry” that gives the game away. While we actually never discover the reasons engineers, retired military personnel, doctors, and others who would seem to qualify as well-educated are in the midst of conspiracy-mongering; we do, however, learn that Kay believes Marxism is a kind of conspiracy theory; that conspiracists exist on both the left and right (true enough, I suppose), without ever discussing which kinds of conspiracists have influence in American culture; that post-modernism allows conspiracy theories to be taken as seriously as any other “rational” discussion of current events; and that things like white privilege are the fictional creations of underqualified minority academics.
The book is dated. Published in 2012, Kay writes several times about doing final edits toward the end of 2010, it came out before the rise of the barrage of “false flag” claims about mass shootings. These erupted almost immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting in December, 2012, with people claiming the entire event never occurred; that grieving parents were “crisis actors” and the children, like Rev. Pomeroy’s daughter slaughtered last November, never existed. With Pizzagate in the fall of 2016 – a more absurd tale is difficult to imagine – one would have thought we’d reached peak-conspiracy. Alas, with Donald Trump’s election as President, conspiracy-mongers now have one of their own in the White House. Trump has appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show; white supremacist Jim Hoft and others at his Instapundit blog now have White House journalist credentials, with photos of Hoft and others flashing the White Power signal while standing in front of the Presidential podium in the WH Press Room. The proliferation and mainstreaming of nonsensical stories of aliens, state-sponsored domestic shootings to bring about the confiscation of weapons, that global warming is fake (this one is helped out by the fossil fuel industry and members of both Houses of Congress), and more is all the more disconcerting for the fact the President has shown his willingness to traffic in them.
I found Kay’s book underwhelming precisely because I learned little I didn’t already know about various conspiracy theories while learning a bit too much about Kay’s biases. These include a soft-spot for false equivalencies, a serious lack of understanding regarding post-modern theory, and a refusal to understand efforts to alter how we speak to one another when it comes to matters of race and sex in order to dismantle how we think about others. While it may well be the case that America is so inundated by conspiracy-mongering that our “shared reality” is undermined, it might also be the case that, now as ever, the numbers of those adhering to one or another such “theory” continues to be relatively small – hardly “a critical mass” – but is now far more visible with the advent of the Internet as well as a fellow-traveler in high office. Precisely because he refuses to take seriously matters of the structures of power built into both our language and our efforts at “rational inquiry” (which he never actually defines), Kay is unable to see that this is not a matter of numbers, because they’re just not there; it is, rather, a matter of power, cui bono, as the Romans wondered.
In the case of our contemporary conspiracy mongering, it is a status quo that is old, facing senescence, yet still holding enough power to keep the pot of our public discourse stirring with the toxic nonsense that are conspiracy theories.

The Spectacle Of The Void by David Peake

This is the dilemma of being human: believing that something needs to be communicated – a feeling, a thought, an urgent message – and not being able to communicate it; or, having made an attempt at communication and ultimately failing, causing irreparable harm. – David Peake, The Spectacle Of The Void, p. 11

Lovecraft’s Vaginal horror Cthulhu. As Stephen King once wrote, is it any wonder the guy had weird ideas about sex and probably died a virgin?

There’s a notion in semi-pop philosophy that I kind of like: It’s called “The Weak Anthropic Principle”. The idea is actually a mixture of commonsense, about both ourselves and the larger Universe. It states that human consciousness as it has evolved is precisely the kind of consciousness one would expect to evolve in the Universe as we understand it. It’s admixture of order with a chaotic element that itself is governed by mathematical laws would, in all likelihood, evolve consciousness similar to our own, with its own understanding of order and acceptance of contingency and limited disorder that provides us the freedom both to imagine as well as figure out the Universe in which we live. With too much order, there would be no imagination, no room for any spark of insight that escapes the rationally resconstructed idea of knowledge. With too much chaos, the physical, chemical, and biological rules that create the needed stability for life itself, then evolution including consciousness, wouldn’t exist.

In other words, it isn’t a Matrix. It isn’t God. It isn’t a demiurge. It’s just the laws of probability with their openendedness that create the condition for a consciousness like our own to evolve. We are not so much special because of consciousness as we are the Universe having evolved to contemplate itself by using the very laws of the Universe to do so.

My recent foray into a species of recent explorations of philosophical pessimism, The Spectacle Of The Void, makes up in repetition what it lacks either in insight or originality. The argument that the facts of our own  finite existence, combined with the evolution of human consciousness, which allows us to ponder that gap between our own contingency and the enormity of our Universe as well as the limits of our own ability to comprehend somehow, inexorably, leads to a kind of meta-existential horror in which we understand existence itself and human consciousness in particular as ethically vicious fails on so many levels it’s a wonder it carries on.

Perhaps the most egregious failure of philosophical pessimism is its combination of privilege and hubris. It takes someone with the time and education to consider these matters fully to articulate a philosophical notion of existence itself as evil; it takes a hubris that would make the Greek gods blush to insist that the best – indeed the only – response to the nothingness that is the limit both of our ability to think as well as what awaits us at the end of our contingent, limited life, is to end the entire species. No consciousness, no evils that flow from it. It’s the kind of logic any first-year philosophy student would be proud of.

The thing is, that nothingness, that limit both to human thought and existence, well, that’s not really a big deal, is it? I mean, really, when you think about, after a long life, the rest of death all too often seems like a blessing, particularly to those who are going through it. “But what about . . .?” demand so many voices who insist that certain kinds of death – the death of a child or spouse; young people dying needlessly in wars; the accident of genetics or environment that bring on diseases from cancer through MS to early-onset Alzheimer’s that destroy the human brain and body piece by piece – are morally wrong and proof enough that our Universe is one of singular horrors of which consciousness is the most evil, in need of destruction.

To all those who point out those horrors of disease and intra-human self-destruction, I can only say, “Well, it’s kinda always been this way, hasn’t it?” We lose some diseases – smallpox, say – and we gain others – like the Hanta Virus that emerged in the desert southwest of the US a couple decades ago, a hemorrhagic disease carried by fleas on desert animals. Europe’s age of internecine war is largely over while Africa’s enters its own stage of slaughter over much the same reasons as Europe’s in the 20th century – land, resources, and control over wealth and its production. This isn’t so much an evil as it is just kind of the way human beings and the world are made. A “making” that created our consciousness of that making as well as the “how” of that making. Nothing evil or immoral about it. The evils are the diseases we continue to seek to end; the evils are the human need for power and control over resources for the pursuit of personal and national wealth at the expense of others. These are things we continue to fight against. To struggle with. Rather than insist our consciousness of them renders us incapable of action, that it would be better if the human species cease reproducing in order to end them, that self-same consciousness gives us the tools to work to solve these problems.

The Spectacle Of The Void offers the reader nothing particularly new or interesting, especially if one has read other recent works of a similar bent. The idea that horror is about “nothingness”, besides being wrong, is only outdone by the claim that horror is the result of the contingency of interpersonal communication and the limits of understanding between people. This latter is no more a source of horror than are urban legends. We are, it needs to be repeated, limited contingent creatures who inhabit an unbounded but finite Universe that operates according to mathematical laws and meta-laws that determined, in the first nano-seconds after the Big Bang, the limits and possibilities of variety within the then-natal Universe. As such, we have the freedom to imagine all sorts of wonders and horrors; we also are limited in how much of that imagination we can bring into actual existence.

Real horror would be a Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more order than ours has: A Universe in which imagination, freedom, even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible. Real horror would be Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more chaos than ours has: A Universe in which space-time has no direction, or changes randomly; a Universe in which it were as easy to put a broken glass together as it is to break it; a Universe in which human life lasted mere moments, or centuries. A Universe, in other words, in which imagination, freedom, and even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible.

That is the source of horror: Not an active void that steals even our ability to comprehend it as void; but a world that would permit, say, a creature like Cthulhu to exist, or in which human beings aged backwards, or in which the thermodynamic, space-time clock were not bound by any laws. A world in which murderous revenants, shape-shifting humanoids, evil shadows, creatures of pure evil intent on human destruction were at all possible is not a world in which human beings would or could live with any hope of maintaining anything like sanity. Horror fiction takes our fear of chaos, gives it shapes and names and faces and teeth and claws and allows us to face it and destroy it (or have it destroy us, as sometimes happens).

The idea that human consciousness is an active evil that needs to be destroyed for the benefit of the Universe at large is kind of silly. The idea that human existence is an active evil we should seek to end is ethically horrible, considering it views other human beings as inherently active agents of evil, in need of destruction. The fascism that lurks behind the idea that we human beings are some kind of deformation the Universe coughed up before it had a chance to apologize needs to be called out as it is. The idea that we human beings use horror fiction as a way of expressing the long-repressed “reality” ignores what horror fiction, when done well, really is and how it works.

There should be better works on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy than the ones currently available.

Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror Of Philosophy – Eugene Thacker

This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. – Eugene Thacker, Tentacles Longer Than Night, Vol. 3 Horror of  Philosophy, p.4

Ray Milland in The Man With The X-Ray Eyes. Having been pushed to the edge of sanity by his ability to see through not just clothes and stone, but reality itself, he has ripped his eyes from his their sockets. The last line, dropped from the final print, was his agonizing declaration, “I can still see!”

While I’ve had my share of nightmares, including those that leave me waking up screaming, only once as a child of about eight or so did I ever have a Night Terror. Upon waking from a nightmare, I always know what is and is not real, that I was asleep and am now awake, that it was nothing more or less than my brain scaring me.  That Night Terror, however . . . I awoke to see a large patch of blood on the ceiling of my room. It had dripped into a spreading pool on my bed. I screamed and screamed. It wouldn’t go away. My father came in to see what was wrong and he started to sit down in that spreading pool of blood! I told him not to sit down and when he asked me why, in that instant, the blood, the dark patch on the ceiling, the pool at the foot of my bed, that horrid plop of the drops – it was all gone. I tried to tell my father what had happened, but the impossible part was making clear to him that what I had seen and heard and felt wasn’t just a dream. It was, in fact, a horrible reality that may well have begun while I slept, but chased me into the waking world, leaving me terrified.

In the third and final volume of his series Horror of Philosophy, Eugene Thacker offers what is, in effect, a lengthy study of various literary themes in (mostly literary, although some Manga as well) horror fiction. Blurring the lines between literary criticism and philosophy – something that is really quite irritating, to be honest – Thacker’s major premise in this work, as in the previous two volumes, is that when human thought confronts its own limits, it encounters that which can neither be thought nor spoken, yet seems to demand to be named and spoken and described.

Except, really, what’s so horrifying at the thought of human beings limited in their abilities? We can’t run very fast. For our size we’re far weaker than other animals. Consciousness (the villain in Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race), when combined with our sociability and language, are the tools with which we’ve been equipped to survive in a world in which there are the eaters and  the eaten. Other than the fear of being eaten by another creature (which, let’s face it, is pretty terrifying), what’s so awful about the reality that our world isn’t about anything, that we’re contingent, limited creatures, and that not just ourselves, but all that we know and all we will never know will disappear? It is what it is, after all.

Horror fiction, whether literary horror, genre horror, novels, or films, or manga all present us with a variety of questions, including important philosophical questions. When done well, we confront not just the literal (or figurative) horror on page or screen; we also confront that which frightens us most. The pay-off, of course, comes when that horror is defeated. Contemporary horror, particularly in film, offers the disquieting idea that, in fact, the horror is not overcome. Indeed, it seems to insist over and over that there is no escape from the horror that awaits us – whether that be death itself, a protracted dying, or a madness so thorough one’s very self becomes irretrievable.

Last week, I watched for the first time in 20 years the last movie that truly scared me. Event Horizon is about the attempted recovery of the first ship designed to travel faster than light. It had been lost, but has suddenly appeared in a decaying orbit above the planet Neptune. Along for the ride is the man who designed the ship, played by Sam Neill. When asked about the whole faster-than-light travel being impossible, Neill goes into a discussion about creating an artificial singularity which would, theoretically, bend space-time, allowing the ship to travel immense distances in an instant.* When they arrive on the ship, they find the crew missing, a haunting yet indecipherable log entry, and the occasional uncanny event, such as seeing dead loved ones, or those left behind on earth, or worse.

The horror of Event Horizon comes when that enigmatic log entry is deciphered. Apparently the cost of breaking the laws of physics is more than just the ability to move between the stars in an instant; it also propels you into a dimension of what Neill’s character calls “pure choas. Pure evil.” For me, this right here, is the most horrifying thought. Not that our Universe places a limit upon our abilities to travel long interstellar distances. It is, rather, the idea that there exists somewhere a place in which chaos rather than the ordered regularity of our Universe rules. A place where things like cause, effect, time, matter, energy have no meaning. While such a place is certainly possible, in theory, it is a place in which life would be impossible; the horror would be to find oneself trapped in such a place with no hope of escape.

The idea that the world and the Universe are quite indifferent to humanity and its concerns is neither new nor particularly frightening. It certainly carries with it, contrary to Thomas Ligotti’s insistence, no negative categorical imperative, that we human beings should end ourselves once and for all. How it’s possible to make the leap from the “is” of inhabiting a Universe where our very existence is an accident of circumstance to the “ought” that we should, therefore, end ourselves is quite impossible for me to figure out.

Whether it’s a Manga series about spirals (and this does sound quite terrifying), a Poe story about a maelstrom, one of Lovecraft’s many stories about indescribable horrors he goes on in some detail about, or a radio play about a darkness that seems to have teeth (and, yeah, this one would be pretty scary too), this idea that human beings encounter the unknowable, therefore confront our own limitations and thus have some kind of existential revelation about our own limitations and irrelevance is also at the heart of one of Stephen King’s better short stories from the 1980’s. Included in the collection Skeleton Crew,  the story “The Jaunt” concerns itself with a family about to embark on a trip to Mars via teleportation. While the family waits, the father tells his son the stories he knows about how teleportation was invented. When asked why they have to be put to sleep before using the teleporter, the father offers the wild suggestion that, even though in the physical realm, teleportation happens in an instant, there might yet be something . . . in . . . that instant that is beyond our ability to comprehend. So, of course, the story ends with the family arriving on Mars. The son, however, didn’t take his sedative, remaining awake during the teleportation only to discover that “in” is far bigger and more horrible than it is possible to imagine.

Everything else is just a variation on this simple formula.

I find it fascinating to believe that our being a contingent, limited species is somehow a source of angst, whether metaphysical or existential. Oh, I’m sure it is for some people. By and large, however, the idea that the Universe really doesn’t care one way or another about us human beings seems to illicit shrugs more than screams of fright. To select obscure pieces (with the exception of Dante’s Inferno and various works by Poe and Lovecraft) that would open up the possibility of this paradoxical encounter between that which cannot be yet it, that which cannot be explained yet is described incessantly ignores the variety of topics laid bare by horror fiction in its sheer variety: fear of sex and becoming an adult; fear of the ambivalent relationships we continue to have with friends and family members who have died yet continue to be a part of our lives; fear of the possibility that science just can’t explain everything; fear of our annihilation, whether through natural or artificial cataclysm; various political fears. A fear of the unnameable “Nothing” that brings human thought  both to an abrupt end yet causes it to work harder just doesn’t seem, well, very scary at all.

There are things that horror fiction and philosophy share. There are ways each can inform the other beyond an exploration of the boundary regions of human thought and experience. Most of all, both are simultaneously base yet vaunted exercises of the human imagination. It would seem to me a multi-volume work on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy might explore these commonalities rather than propose a singular topic – das Nicht – as the core not only of horror, but of the horror of philosophy.

*Never mind that, by passing over the event horizon of the singularity, the ship and the people on it would be stripped of their materiality, reduced to elementary particles that would forever be trapped within the singularity. I know science fiction loves to travel faster than light, but, yeah, not so much.

Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 2 – Eugene Thacker

“But what’s it mean,” Roy cried, agonized. “What is it for?”                                                                       “Not for anything. It exists.” – Parke Godwin, Waiting For The Galactic Bus, p. 212

The proposition that governs this book, Starry Speculative Corpse, is that something interesting happens when one takes philosophy not as a heroic feat of explaining everything, but as the confrontation with this that that undermines thought, this philosophy of futility. Certainly there is a bit of tongue-in-cheek in this method of reading philosophy as if it were horror; and, like all methods, it is not to be taken too seriously. But the focus in the sections that follow will be on those moments when philosophy reveals the thought that undermines it as philosophy, when the philosopher confronts this thought that cannot be thought. – Eugene Thacker, Starry Speculative Corpse: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 2, pp.14-15

The surface of Venus, taken by the short-lived Venera 12 lander, sent by the Soviet Union and landing in 1975.

I loved reading Stephen Jay Gould’s essays in Natural History magazine. I remember one – which I tried to find online but couldn’t – from early in the 1990’s. He was discussing popular discourse regarding the impact of a full-on nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, viz., that it would, to quote an oft-used phrase, “destroy the world.” Gould took issue with this. While it is true the vast majority of flora and fauna both would be wiped out due to a variety of causes, from radiation poisoning to the extended freeze of nuclear winter, “life” would continue in a variety of forms.

Having made this much clear, Gould returns to the matter at hand – the horrific results of nuclear war – and insists that it would most likely result in the extinction of Homo sapiens sapiens. For this reason alone, ethical, scientific, and political effort must be used to prevent it from ever happening. While it’s certainly a parochial point-of-view – we should care about nuclear war because it would bring about our extinction – that certainly doesn’t make it invalid.

Throughout Starry Speculative Corpse, we are presented with the insistent notion that behind all that is, including even the thought about this notion, nothing at all. From Descartes’ “Evil Genius” who tricks all of us into believing there is some thing when in fact there is nothing through Nietzsche’s laughter not only at the pretensions of much of the Enlightenment project but at the abyss that stared into him a bit too long; from the mystics whose apophatic theology was so complete they were confident in saying “God is nothing” to Arthur Schopenhauer’s recasting of Kant’s phenomena and noumena to representation and Will, where this Will is, in the end, nothing; all of this is offered as “the horror of philosophy,”  that is, the point at which (to use a metaphor Thacker employs) human thought becomes an ouroboros, swallowing not only it’s own tail, but it’s body and head as well. Before this “Nothing” that operates as the that nothing upon which human life and thought rest and to which all that is – not just human but cosmic existence – shall return at some future time-beyond-time, all all-too-human efforts to make sense of the world faces, should a certain species of intellectual honesty be employed, it’s own negation. A negation that negates even itself yet still remains . . . nothing.

For some reason, Thacker and others believe this is a horror beyond measure, bringing on not just existential but ontological dread as we face that which we cannot call by a name because it is nothing. Not just the brevity of existence, but the varieties of pains and terrors we face; not just the fact that we human beings too-often arrogate upon ourselves the meaning and purpose of the world; not just human extinction, but the final, “asymptotic” demise of the final elementary particle as thermodynamics works its terrible magic; all of these combine to demonstrate the futility and emptiness of existence. Including philosophy.

One point to which Thacker returns again and again is the necessity of setting to one side any kind of anthropocentrism in our philosophizing, in particular when we encounter what he has already named the “world-without-us”. Again and again, I have to ask, “Why?” It is we humans who are doing the philosophizing. Of course our viewpoint is going to be anthropocentric. The whole goal of such thought has always been understanding ourselves and the world in which we find ourselves as it impacts us. Anything else would be . . . it wouldn’t be philosophy, certainly. In fact, it would be impossible. That there is a world-without-us, the “unhuman”, to use another of Thacker’s terms, is neither a new thought nor even all that interesting. It certainly is only a source of dread should we contemplate finding ourselves in such a place.

I used a photo from the Soviet lander Venera to make clear that, far from terrifying, the idea of a world-without-us, is as mundane as the so-called “extremophiles”, various fauna and flora that exist in extreme conditions of heat, radiation, acidity, and cold. That there are bacteria that are happy living inside radioactive rocks does not make our understanding of “life” questionable; rather, it shows that we need to continue to expand that to which the word applies (and set to one side the silly idea that there is some metaphysical principle, “Life”, that sits behind each and all instances of living creatures, determining and limiting them, separating them ontologically from “non-living” things). Anyone who lives with chronic pathological depression could tell Thacker that meaninglessness in and of itself isn’t frightening; nor is death; nor pain. What depression can  teach us (not a “Depressive Realism”) is that there are those who live with this “Not” as an everyday reality, rather than some metaphysical principle. It is possible to not-live yet affirm that life in and for itself is most certainly worth continuing. With the exception of those for whom this “Not” becomes too much and end their lives so their outward existence now reflects their inner lives, to live with Depression is to face the abyss as it stares back and refuse to blink.

There is little in this survey of apophatic theology and Western philosophy that is either very scary or, to be honest, presents philosophy with a horror that sends it into a crisis. The “Not”, the “Nothing”, whatever word we wish to use to describe our inability to grasp non-existence, has always been there and will continue to be there.

Returning to Stephen Jay Gould, in the late-1980’s he published a book entitled Wonderful Lifein which he not only recounts the history of our understanding of the Burgess Shale and its reexamination, but muses on what might have been had not that entire ecosystem been wiped out in a mass extinction event hundreds of millions of years ago. One firm conclusion is there would be no species known as Homo sapiens. The radical contingency of all that is, up to and including each individual, who might not have been had different germs cells united to create each unique individual, is not a source either of existential angst or cosmological pessimism. It is, rather, the beginning of wonder, the wonder that something as strange as “life”, represented by the millions of creatures that have lived, do live, and will live long after human beings are extinct, exists at all. It doesn’t need reasons.

That it is, well,  that’s enough. The rest is, well, nothing.

In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror Of Philosophy, Vol 1 – Eugene Thacker

If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet. – Eugene Thacker, In The Dust Of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol 1, pp. 158-159

Professor and author Eugene Thacker

Where does human thought fail? What is the Event Horizon of philosophy, the boundary point that, should one venture past, results in ultimate destruction with no possibility of escape? For the West, at least (less so in the east, particularly in various strains of Buddhism, but we’ll come to that later), that boundary line is quite simply “that which is not”. Even at a semantic, grammatical level, such a sentence is meaningless; after all, the pronoun “that” needs a positive referent, and the “not” is the nullity of all content, even the nullity of the null.

Yet philosophy in the west, particularly in its middle, onto-theological phase from late antiquity through the Renaissance, has demanded that this not be so. It is only in post-modernity, particularly with regard to our reflections upon global climate change, where we come face to face with something that cannot be named except through negation. If Kant posited a phenomenal world, the thing-for-us, which may or may not be a result of or reflection of the thing-in-itself, that never-knowable yet necessary postulate of a noumenal world, Eugene Thacker asks us to add thing-without-us. He puts it another way early on, distinguishing among world (the world-for-us), Earth (the world-in-itself), and Planet (the world-without-us). Corresponding to this, he also proffers the human, the non-human, and the unhuman. However one seeks to understand this named unnameable, we find ourselves confronted with a horror defined as cosmic: that for all that we human beings have achieved and will achieve in the future, the Universe in fact doesn’t care one way or another about human beings. Indeed, given what we know about the time-scales involved at a Planetary and Cosmic Scale, humanity is no more significant than any other form of life.

For all this horror can be defined and named, pushed by philosophy to think about this results in more than simple existential angst. Rather, we are left facing that which is not, a “thing” that is no-thing, having a name that is unnameable. It is Thacker’s interesting thesis that in horror fiction we human beings wrestle with precisely that which both is not and cannot be, yet not only is, but is the ungrounded ground of existence itself. Precisely because we move beyond dialectics through paradox to the unspeakable, we are confronted with a horror to which human beings have given various names over the centuries – from God to the Devil to the Will to the Abyss – always recognizing we are in the realm of a negative onto-theology that strips these names not only of content, but referent even as that to which they point nevertheless brings horror and awe.

In this first of three volumes on Horror of Philosophy, Thacker introduces the reader to a variety of ways of thinking toward the point where thinking ends, offering us ways that horror fiction has done much the same, only through a narrative framework that not so much answers the question as presents the problem. Lovecraft and Lieber, Dennis Wheatley and James Blish, Christopher Marlowe and J. G. Ballard are among those presented as, in various ways and various styles, nevertheless offer the reader (or in Marlowe’s case, since he was a playwright, the viewer) a glimpse of the particular problem: Is it possible to encounter that beyond which a word such as “encounter” has no meaning? Indeed, no word, including meaning, has meaning?

Using in particular Scholastic methods of the QuaestioLectio, and Disputatio, Thacker asks us to consider everything from the “Black” in “Black Metal” to whether “blasphemous life”, as presented by Dante in Inferno is or can even be conceived as a thing when it might well be an inherent contradiction, death-in-life. In the process we consider B-movies like The Blob and Caltiki The Immortal Monster, classics such as Goethe’s Faust, and, serving as a kind of Coda or Postlude, a reflection upon an Internet poem of uncertain origin, entitled “The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids”.

It is in Christian mysticism, more than anywhere else, however, that Thacker finds the best analogy to contemporary horror fiction as a genre willing to accept the unnamed as unnamed, the darkness as void, nothing as precisely that. Apothatic Theology, or Negative Theology, is a way of arriving at God by the act of subtraction, yet always leaving something, “Being”, on the table. In mysticism, even that is swallowed up in a light so bright it is indistinguishable from absolute darkness. Whether it’s Teresa of Avila’s sense of her self being shattered in the divine presence, St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul,  or the anonymous Great Cloud of Unknowing, it is in these texts in particular where we face that which is presented only as allegory, or perhaps as unmitigated realism (in the case of H. P. Lovecraft), and to which philosophy proper points yet can never arrive: That which is not yet must be considered. It is the unthinkable thought of certain schools of Buddhism, in which one thinks about not thinking about thinking.

It is a Void so vast and terrible that, as Lovecraft’s characters often say, they cannot even afford the luxury of insanity once faced with such a horror. To consider not only the “world-without-us” but what Thacker often refers to as “the unhuman” is to contemplate the thought that existence itself is, like its opposite, also swallowed up by it: Nothing at all.

I am interested to see where Volumes 2 & 3 take these provocative and frightening thoughts.

Dialectic Of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno

A happy life in a world of horror is ignominiously refuted by the mere existence of that world – Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 93

Adolf Hitler glowing in Speer’s “Cathedral of Light”, Nuremberg, 1936. Far from some atavistic howl from our ancestral past, National Socialism is the logical result of the whole modernist enterprise.

I tried reading and writing about Dialectic of Enlightenment last spring. Unfortunately, I wasn’t up to the task, at the time, of finishing the work, so I set it aside. Now, months later, energized to read as much as possible, I decided to sit down and read the work before Christmas. For me the result is far more satisfying. Living with an illness like depression saps one’s enthusiasm, to say nothing of a person’s ability to really comprehend the world. When the depression is in abeyance, that’s the time to jump at the chance not only to do things you enjoy, but to enjoy them while you do them!

It’s impossible to write simply or clearly about this best-known work to come from the very public face of the Frankfurt School. I say “best known” because, well, it’s the title bandied about when people start talking about “critical theory”, as if knowing the title was entree enough into some self-important group of thinkers. This is hardly the most important, and certainly not the most complete, work either gentlemen wrote, either as coauthors or separately. Dialectic of Enlightenment gets its authority and power from the particular historical circumstances that underwrote the work. Few that I’ve encountered who have written or spoken about Dialectic pay much attention to the subtitle: Philosophical Fragments. For all both men were dedicated to the idea of systemic thought, there is nothing at all systematic about Dialectic. It is precisely as it is billed (something the authors themselves emphasize in their “Preface”): Fragments, scattershot observations on a matter far too large, for too important, to be treated as a whole in a short period of time. The best Horkheimer and Adorno can do is offer a brief, inadequate description of their understanding of the term “Enlightenment”, and how it is precisely in this philosophical and cultural movement dedicated to the liberation of human beings from either human or natural authority resulted in the subjugation of humanity to the most horrific terrors of the 20th century. From there, there are discussions of The Odyssey, the works of The Marquis de Sade, the operations of “the culture industry”, the place of anti-Semitism within the authors’ larger understanding of Enlightenment. Finally, some brief observations, reminiscent of Adorno’s Minima Moralia, appear at the end.

In many ways, Dialectic serves as a philosophical indictment – much akin to the legal one that would later be brought in Nuremberg – against the Third Reich. In the process, however, it is a far broader statement, carrying chilling implications for us more than half a century later.

The essence of enlightenment is the choice between alternatives, and the inescapability of this choice is that of power. Human beings have always had to choose between their subjugation to nature and its subjugation to the self. With the spread of the bourgeois commodity economy the dark horizon of myth is illuminated by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose icy rays the seeds of the barbarism are germinating. Under the compulsion of power, human labor has always led away from myth and, under power, has always fallen back under its spell. (p.25)

Precisely because the Enlightenment is the philosophy of the bourgeoisie in their effort to overcome the aristocracy; precisely because it succeeded beyond expectations; and precisely because “freedom” and “power” – terms without any solid definition or historical or material referent – are malleable, it is easy enough to offer to the oppressed the “freedom” to choose which chains they would prefer. This is honoring both the spirit and the letter of the inexorable law of the class struggle as well as the terms set forth by the Enlightenment’s originators.

This is a point the authors drive home in their excurses on The Odyssey and the works of de Sade. Most clearly in Odysseus’ passage past the Sirens, we have the Enlightened man honoring the spirit of the challenge the Sirens pose and by passing through destroying their power. The men who’s ears are stopped continue rowing, ignoring Odysseus’ pleas for them to untie him. Lashed to the mast, Odysseus passes the Sirens, having succumbed to their call yet unable to move toward them. As such, Odysseus is the very model of the successful bourgeoisie, toppling the then-decrepit system by adhering to its rules. Through such clever defiance-through-obedience, Odysseus arrives at his home in Ithaca, the successful property owner now sure of his position, watching the watch fires around his land.

de Sade, in the authors’ view, offers the dark side of Enlightenment thinking. Stripped of the pretenses of faith, unable to successfully argue against any crime, such thinking easily becomes a tool in the hands of the violent to justify everything from incest to murder. Indeed, de Sade’s characters do so with as much rigor as an Encyclopedist but without any care that they are defending violence against other human beings.

The dark writers of the bourgeoisie, unlike its apologists, did not seek to avert the consequences of the Enlightenment with harmonistic doctrines. They did not pretend that formalistic reason had a closer affinity to morality than to immorality. While the light-bringing writers protected the indissoluble alliance of reason and atrocity, bourgeois society and power, by denying that alliance, the bearers of darker messages pitilessly expressed the shocking truth. (p. 92)

In the workings of “the Culture Industry”, with its commodification of that which cannot be bought or sold; its relentless drive toward a mediocrity that drains any truth from the products it produces; to the endless advertisements that give away the game by making clear the goal of the whole enterprise; in all this the authors see and hear, perhaps in the distance, the baying of the Teutonic Hound unleashed by Hitler and Goebbels. By offering up nonsense as art, and conversely insisting that art is nothing but nonsense, consumers are hedged about on all sides by billboards impossible to see over or around. Whether it’s yet another studio movie, a jazz record, or an article in a magazine that is indistinguishable from the many pages of ads in that same magazine, the American worker is trained as to consume what is offered, being told that is all that is offered, that anything else is nonsense. In The Culture Industry we encounter the workings of late capitalism reducing everything not only to something to be bought and sold, but a kind of Pedagogy, How To Consume Crap And Be Grateful.

The discussion of anti-Semitism is perhaps the weakest section of the book. Falling back on a social psychopathology in which the anger of the proletariat is directed against an Other who is presented as an alien deriving its sustenance from their work, there is far less of the negative dialectic on display here than elsewhere. While it certainly rings true in many ways, overall it is inconsistent with much the rest of the work.

For me, the power of Dialectic comes precisely in it being more historical artifact than a living text for us. For all we here in the United States stand poised on the brink of sliding into our own fascist nightmare, beyond the general observation that such is the fate of any decrepit capitalist society, the work offers little more than a description of masses of people, trapped within systems of production and historical forces beyond anyone’s ability to control. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the “system” is now a perpetual motion machine, grinding all beneath its movement into the future. Yet again, we are in the presence of great diagnosticians, or perhaps social and cultural pathologists at the end of an autopsy. We have a cause of death.

We lack, alas, any offer of a way to avoid such a fate. Perhaps there is none. To consign Western civilization to the horrors of our own worst tendencies, however, doesn’t do justice to the millions who see as clearly as Adorno and Horkheimer did, yet fight on nevertheless. It is to them we will owe whatever future lies beyond our particular predicament.

Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay On Kitsch & Death – Saul Friedlander

Ultimately only the nothingness remains. – Saul Friedlander, Reflections Of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch And Death, trans. Thomas Weyr, p.70

The Reichstag an empty shell, Berlin burns as the Red Army seizes the city, 1945

In 1932, at the behest of a Committee of The League Of Nations, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud engaged in an exchange on the questions both of the nature of war and its possible solutions.* Of interest here is Freud’s discussion of the so-called “death instinct”, which he related to an inversion of our instinct for self-preservation, which usually involves aggression.. . . .

I would like to dwell a little longer on this destructive instinct which is seldom given the attention that its importance warrants. With the least of speculative efforts we are led to concluded that this instinct functions in every living being, striving to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter. Indeed, it might well be called the “death instinct”; whereas the erotic instincts vouch for the struggle to live on. The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward against external objects. . . .But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

Often thought to be at the very least optimistic regarding the efficacy of psychoanalysis to help individuals heal their hidden pains and those deeper illnesses that often cripple them, in fact Freud was far less sanguine about the possibility of improving either the individual or human society. The pervasiveness of this “death instinct”, for Freud, set limits upon any balance that psychoanalysis could achieve, either in the individual or in society. Even at our best, a part of us pursues our self-destruction with more or less strength and purpose.

I offer this by way of Introduction as one possible explanation for the piece missing from Saul Friedlander’s essay on the state of Nazi historiography in the late-70’s and early-80’s in Europe. While fastening upon the incongruous ideas of “kitsch” and “death” as ways to understand what he calls “the unease” that comes from encountering a new wave of artistic explorations of Nazi Germany. For all these concepts can account not only for that frisson, but also the unease that comes from a vague fear that, by attempting to explain the years from 1933-1945 in Germany, we come perilously close to mimicking (thus the preposition “of” not “on” in the title) the very attraction that resulted in Germany pulling the Western World down around it in its death throes.

Of kitsch, Friedlander quotes Abraham Moles, who wrote that it is

pinnacle of good taste in the absence of taste, of art in ugliness – a branch of mistletoe under the lamp in a railway waiting room, nickeled plate glass in a public place, artificial flowers gone astray in Whitechapel, a lunch box decorated with Vosges fir – everyday Gemutlichkeit, art adapted to life where the function of the adaptation exceeds that of innovation. (p. 25)

Of death, Friedlander means nothing more or less than both the event itself as well as our mixed feelings of horror and fascination regarding it. Mixed together, Friedlander contends, we experience a “frisson” that thrilling chill up the back of encountering the unexpected, something that brings with it both fascination and unease. While Friedlander concedes the need for a new discourse on Nazism, this essay concerns itself with how this discourse, encountered in literature and film, leads terrifyingly close to that which it seeks to illumine – the attraction of the person of Adolf Hitler and the ideology and practice of Nazism. His is an essay less of explanation and more of caution.

The work is short, yet filled with references to films as different as The Night Porter and Hitler, a Flim from Germany; books as different as Steiner’s The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. and The Ogre. Friedlander sets to one side Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum as being part of an earlier discourse regarding Nazism, while Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is far too problematic for inclusion. Through it all, Friedlander is exercised to demonstrate the marriage of kitsch and death that is at the heart of the new discourse’s attempt to portray the reality of the times, all the while more-than-flirting with the very same attraction that left much of the world desolate. He writes on p. 26, “Beneath today’s reflection, one catches a glimpse of certain fundamental components of yesterday’s Nazi hold on the imagination.”

Friedlander, however, cannot escape a central reality of the Third Reich: “One couldn’t insist too much on the primordial aspect of the theme of death in Nazism itself”. (p, 41)

Beyond economic or political objectives, what formed the basis of the Nazi world view, what drove Hitler and his acolytes, “was the fascination that destruction and the love of death exercised on them.”

He brushes up against the truth in his chapter on the man Hitler (as well as the persona as portrayed in biography and fiction):

The fact is under Nazism Hitler was indeed the object of desire, not necessarily the actual person , , , but the idealized image of the chief expressing both a universal sentimentality and the attraction to nothingness that sometimes seizes contemporary crowds. (p.76)

It is impossible to overstate the erotic imaginary regarding Adolf Hitler. Usually sentimentalized, these expressions only made all the more clear the real passion Hitler and his movement aroused not just in this or that person but in the whole German nation. Friedlander, however, isn’t willing to take this insight too far as a tool for satisfactory discourse on the Reich or its Fuehrer A dedicated historian, Friedlander sees in this so much irrationality, a jury from which there is no appeal.

Yet he concedes that understanding, even with the aid of the new discourse, the marriage of kitsch and death, the original appeal of Hitler and his movement seems to defy explanation:

The emotional hold Hitler and his movement maintained on many Germans to the bitter end, and well beyond the frontiers of the Reich, the spell it wove for so many people, the actual mutation of behavior it set off, defies all customary interpretation . . .(p, 120)

Because he’s an honest historian, Friedlander understands the centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazism itself as well as to its historical and political practice and policies. At the heart of this movement lies something beyond traditional political or economic historiography. This inability to comprehend the horror is the result, in part, from what Friedlander sees as the mutilations of language used both by the bureaucrats of mass death as well as historians in describing the events of the Final Solution. Both operate not least to protect those for whom linguistic and literary clarity would offer only madness. In the slaughter of the Jews of Europe, we have to do with those extra-dimensional beings of which H. P. Lovecraft wrote that seeing them fully would destroy the human mind. Thus it is our language is sanitized in order to keep us from too close a brush with the unimaginable. Comprehending this confounding reality leaves not only what was then a new discourse, but Friedlander himself, with an unease, precisely because, as Friedlander writes at the end of his essay, “Submission nourishes fury, fury clears is conscience in the submission To the opposing needs, Nazism – in the constant duality of its representations – offers an outlet; in fact, Nazism found itself to be the expression of these opposing needs. Today these aspirations are still there, and their reflections in the imaginary as well.” (p. 135)

As we Americans live through our own precarious moment – a moment during which the end is not yet clearly in sight; shall we recover from the collective madness of a plurality of our fellows or plunge into an abyss that will bring about destruction on a scale not even imaginable? – it is important to keep in mind that the piece missing from Friedlander’s study of a new form of discourse disregarded, on some kind of principle, the very thing the Third Reich demonstrated so clearly: We human beings can, through a variety of historical and social processes, end up not just proposing but actively seeking not just our own destruction but the destruction of all that is. It took six years, much the rest of the world, and tens of millions of dead finally to  bring down these angels of death. We might yet halt our fall, should we only recognize the sometimes erotic desire for our own collective destruction that can lie deep within the human heart. We ignore this not only to our own peril, but that of much of the rest of the world.

*I’ll be referencing the exchange included in Einstein On Peace, although the exchange is also included in Basic Book’s International Psycho-Analysis Library edition, Vol. 5 of Freud’s Collected Papers under the title “Why War?”