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.

Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life – Theodor Adorno

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption – Thodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections On A Damaged Life, No. 153, p.247

Theodor Adorno

Writing about Theodor Adorno’s works presents challenges to even the best reviewer. Seeing as I’m hardly one such, I think it best to break things up just a bit, if for no other reason than clarity. And clarity about this little work is necessary, because for all its datedness, its rootedness in the historical moment of its creation, it is still a very important work of a very important person. I wouldn’t go as far as one reviewer from The Observer, quoted on the back cover, that it contains Adorno’s “best thoughts”. For all it is short, it covers an enormous range of the human experience.


Why Minima Moralia? In what way was Adorno’s life “damaged”? Adorno speaks to the first in his dedication to his friend and colleague, Max Horkheimer:

[T]he relation between life and production, which in reality debases the former to an ephemeral appearance of the latter, is totally absurd. Means and end are inverted. A dim awareness of this perverse quid pro quo has still not been quite eradicated from life. Reduced and degraded essence tenaciously resists the magic that transforms it into a facade. The change in the relations of production themselves depends largely on what takes place in the ‘sphere of consumption’, the mere reflection of production and caricature of true life: in the consciousness and unconsciousness of individuals. Only by virtue of opposition to production, as still not wholly encompassed by this order, can men bring about another more worthy of human beings. (p.15)

In other words, the best we can hope for in late capitalist society is a view of the moral life at its bare minimum.

As to the damage, he writes in No. 13, p.33:

Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated, and does well to acknowledge it to himself, if he wishes to avoid being cruelly apprised of it behind the tightly-closed doors of his self-esteem. He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him, however flawless his knowledge of trade-union organsiations or the automobile industry may be; he is always astray. . . . The isolation is made worse by the formation of closed and politically-controlled groups, mistrustful of their members, hostile to those branded different.

On Style And Method

Minima Moralia is described as “aphoristic”. The problem with such a description is that it really isn’t. The masters of the aphoristic reflection rooted in philosophical commitments, Nietzsche and the French/Romanian pessimist E. M. Cioran, wouldn’t recognize Adorno’s work as the same as theirs at all. The latter two gentlemen are “masters” precisely because they are able to reduce their most important insights to the shortest, pithiest of sayings. Many are only a sentence or two in length. At his shortest and clearest, Adorno cannot reduce what he wants to say to such things. His insistence on dialectic as the only method worthy of pushing through the crudity and totalitarian tendencies of late capitalist thought leaves him with the necessity of offering his thoughts less as aphorisms and more as incomplete reflections that nevertheless offer the reader a chance to see a prodigious intellect at work.

Thus it is that, in his attempt to offer short observations, Adorno has little choice but to leave the understanding of “short” to those who know this word can have many meanings.

And yet . . .

No. 144, pp. 224-225, speaks of the political power of art in an age where art  is degraded:

In the magic of what reveals itself in absolute powerlessness, of beauty, at once perfection and nothingness, the illusion of omnipotence is mirrored negatively as hope. It has escaped every trial of strength. Total purposelessness give the lie to the totality of purposefulness in the world of domination, and  by drawing the conclusion from its own principle of reason, has existing society up to now become aware o another that is possible.

Adorno could have simply written: In its transcendence art offers an alternative that is better than the present.  Precisely because he cannot write such a thing due to the demands both of method and style, however, we are left with this far more engaging, and I might add beautiful, paean to the power of art.

Minima Moralia

As I worked my way through Part I, my first thoughts were that Adorno was doing little more than using his platform as a philosopher of some repute to bitch about the conditions in which he found himself in wartime America. I even thought of including the picture below to best capture the tenor and tone of what I was reading:

A somewhat fair description of some of Adorno’s Minima Moralia

For example, here is No. 21, p. 42:

We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something nonsensical and implausible about it: here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap.

No. 25, pp. 46-47:

The past life of emigres is, as we know, annulled. Earlier it was the warrant of arrest, today it is intellectual experience, that is declared non-transferable and unnaturalizable. Anything that is not reified, cannot be counted and measured, ceases to exist.

No. 28, on p 48, is really quite amusing.

The shortcomings of the American landscape is not so much, as romantic illusion would have it, the absence of historical memories, as that it bears no traces of the human hand. This applies not only to the lack of arable land, the uncultivated woods often no higher than scrub, but above all to the roads. These are always inserted directly in the landscape, and the more impressively smooth and broad they are, the more unrelated and violent their gleaming track appears against its wild, overgrown surroundings.

Some of this has the air of an Old World petty aristocrat arriving in “vulgar” America and seeing and experiencing all that confirms his bias. Adorno merely dresses up his complaints in the dialectic of critical theory, trying to make them sound less bitchy and more authoritative. This reaches a kind of absurd, quaint, and comical peak with No. 75, pp. 116-117:

Probably the decline of the hotel dates back to the dissolution of the ancient unity of inn and brothel, nostalgia for which lives on in every glance directed at the displayed waitress and the the tell-tail gestures of the chamber-maids. But now that the innkeeper’s trade, the most honourable of the professions in the sphere of circulation, has been purged of its last ambiguities, such as still cling to the word ‘intercourse’, things have become very bad.

Were these the only things about which Adorno wrote, I would have set the work aside. There is so much more. Reflections on patriarchy and feminism. Thoughts on how society has distorted sex and the pursuit of love. And always, always the constant refrain that the culture industry dictates both the limits and terms of what is and is not permissible, not because of bourgeois morality so much as it serves as a functionary of the larger forces of production.

On patriarchy and sex, he reaches a kind of stylistic and insightful peak in No. 112, p. 174:

The bourgeois needs the [harlot], not merely for pleasure, which he grudges her, but to feel himself a god. The nearer he gets to the edge of his domain and the more her forgets his dignity, the more blatant becomes the ritual of power. The night has its joy, but the whore is burned notwithstanding.

In No. 124, p. 194, Adorno writes the following on the insidiousness of the culture industry’s distortion of small ‘d’ democracy through the medium of film, in this case 1946’s The Best Years Of Their Lives:

When, in the most successful film of a year, the heroic squadron leader returns to be harassed by petty-bourgeois caricatures as a drug-store jerk, [the elite] not only gives the spectator an occasion for unconscious gloating but in addition strengthens them in their conviction that all men are really brothers. Extreme injustice becomes a deceptive facsimile of justice, disqualification of equality. Sociologists, however, ponder the grimly comic riddle: where is the [American] proletariat?

In the midst of it all, however, comes my favorite, No. 114, pp. 177-178. It is nothing more or less than a quaint, charming recollection of the power of real human encounters upon children. Reading it, I thought more of Adorno’s friend Ernst Bloch. In both tone and style, it sounds far more like the more-than-occasionally whimsical Utopian than the hard-boiled critical theorist:

When a guest comes to stay with his parents, a child’s heart beats with more fervent expectation than it ever did before Christmas. . . .Among all those nearest him, as their friend, appears the figure of all that is different. The soothsaying gypsy, let in by the front door, is absolved in the lady visitor and transfigured into a rescuing angel. From the joy of greatest proximity she removes the curse by wedding it to utmost distance. For this the child’s whole being is waiting, and so too, later, must he be able to wait who does not forget what is best in childhood. Love counts the hours until the one when the guest steps over the threshold and imperceptibly restores life’s washed-out colours.

I was reminded of a Christmas when my older sister’s housemates came up with her. Older, attractive (this was important, I won’t kid you), seemingly exotic as both were from the deep south (my sister attended The University of Southern Mississippi), these women brought with them something more, something that cannot be defined but only described. Adorno captured it precisely in this beautiful reflection on those moments from our lives that imprint upon us something of the “more” that lies outside our usual run of experience.

Adorno’s Minima Moralia offers something for anyone seeking something akin to understanding. It is particularly timely as it deals forthrightly with the horrible reality of Fascism at a moment in our collective lives when we hover on the brink of sinking into its barbaric depths. While I do think there’s at least some justice in Georg Lukacs observation regarding Adorno having taken up residence in “The Grand Hotel Abyss”, it should never be forgotten that what drove Adorno, as it did Lukacs, Bloch, Horkheimer, and the rest of the early-20th century Marxist and critical theorist, was a deep passion for real human justice, a society in which human beings could truly be free human beings, rid once for all of the threat of totalitarianism. In this little work, even at its moments of grousing, we encounter a powerful thinker reflecting on his particular experiences and how they might serve as a guide through the morass.

The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance Of Horror by Thomas Ligotti

Human suffering will remain insoluble as long as human beings exist. The only truly effective solution for suffering is that spoken of in [Peter] Zapffe’s “Last Messiah.” It may not be a welcome solution for a stopgap world, but it would forever put an end to suffering, should we ever care to do so. The pessimist’s credo, or one of them, is that nonexistence never hurt anyone and exsitence hurts everyone. Although our selves may be illusory creations of consciousness, our pain is nonetheless real. – Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, 2010, p.75

Author Thomas Ligotti

I think it no accident that two of the most influential western thinkers arrived at similar conclusions regarding the status of existence, even though they began with very different assumptions. I also think it no accident that these conclusions were first articulated in the aftermath of World War I. The Second World War may have surpassed it in terms of global destruction and body count, but the horror of trench warfare, both in Belgium/France and Russia, and the destruction of European Imperial dynasties was a cataclysm from which millions never recovered.

In Marburg, Germany, a young Martin Heidegger insisted that at the heart of existence is “The Not”. This “Not” is not just the negation of all affirmations. It is the negation of all negations as well. Human existence, Heidegger understood years before Freud proposed something similar, is “a being toward death.” Dasein, that untranslatable word that refers to each and every being that finds itself cast into the world unprepared and even unawares, finds itself an actor in a play already in progress, doing the best it can with the tools it is given. What drives Dasein, however is not some metaphysical force, or the appeal of virtue, or God or Satan or angels. At the heart of all existence is this “Not” that creates for all being a “being toward” death, the pursuit of our own negation that is, paradoxically, negated by this very same “Not”. In short, there is no wizard behind the curtain because there is no curtain, no behind. There is “Not”.

In the same decade, young Swiss pastor Karl Barth insisted that the triumphalism of much western Christian theology rested on a false sense of our relationship to God. Having returned to study the Christian Scriptures closely, Barth understood that at the heart of the Gospel message was a Divine “No” that brooked no argument, that lay waste to any and all human claims to righteousness, goodness, and the eventual progress toward the Kingdom on Earth. While Barth also said there is a Divine “Yes” that follows that “No”, he was at great pains through millions of words to strip Christian theology of any notion that everything we humans have built, up to and including the Christian Church and its theology, stands under the final, cataclysmic verdict, Nein. Left to our devices apart from the divine activity of the Triune God in the passion of Jesus Christ, human beings are and will always be bound for destruction.

In the 9 decades since these thoughts were first offered, thinkers great and small have wrestled with them. To no avail. Stripped of the pretenses with which we console ourselves – even our biological name, Homo Sapiens sapiens, is a joke we play on ourselves – we human beings are little more than pigs rooting in our own shit and muck, devouring whatever enters our mouths, our genetic programming pushing us to rut with anyone available in order to keep the species going, then living out our days watching our bodies decay from the inside out, the pain of our long dying never matched by any real pleasure or joy by which we convince ourselves that, contrary to these naked realities, “we” really “are”. Consciousness, in whatever way we understand this particular word – and there’s not even a guarantee that it refers to anything at all, particularly something that separates us from other species on Earth – is the result of blind accident, a mutation like our opposable thumbs and upright posture that may, at one time, have offered a marginal survival advantage but now, after millennia of misuse has long outstayed its welcome. Through consciousness, most people assume, we “are” human. Except, alas, all “consciousness” has done is left us aware that we have not been, and will not be again, and that what happens in between those twin darknesses has no meaning whatsoever.

In a nutshell, the above paragraph summarized much of the description of human existence offered by Ligotti in his interesting, thought-provoking work. Rooted in the work of little-known Norwegian thinker Peter Wessel Zapffe, embracing the pessimism of Schopenhauer, and offering as our only hope for relief from suffering the extinction of the human race, Ligotti’s is not so much a “pessimistic” philosophy as it is one of horror and despair. Which is no surprise, considering Ligotti’s main claim to fame is as a horror novelist. How better to present the horrible truth at the heart of existence than through the symbols and conventions of weird fiction?

Reading Ligotti, you realize fairly early on there will be no life-line thrown to escape the bleak, frightening presentation of existence as, in his own words including capitalizations, MALIGNANTLY USELESS. We are offered no solace in love, no comfort in courage, no respite in family or community. We human beings are not what we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, the very notion of a “self” is just one of the many ways through which we attempt to console ourselves that being alive is a moral good. Our sense of ourselves as a “self”, a unique, contained, integrated individual is nothing more than the creation of a neurotic mind desperate to shield the harsh reality from breaking in and destroying our minds completely (Freud understood as much, yet counseled that in this case the illness was preferable to the cure). Heidegger’s “Not”, Barth’s Nein, these extend even to our very selves. We are uncanny to ourselves, little more than animated puppets with nothing pulling our strings yet never fully free to “be” as we would wish to be. This book is much as the reality Ligotti describes – barren of reason, hope, and any soft, mitigating consolation to make it more palatable.

I found myself intrigued as I read, finding much to commend in Ligotti despite the atmosphere of despair that hangs over the book. In stripping existence of any illusion, we come face to face with the real horror we have all too often converted into smaller, manageable horrors. Ligotti does so without apology. This horror, that we as creatures have become, through the paradoxical working of natural selection, the negation of creation, is the kind of thing H. P. Lovecraft considered in his stories of beings with unpronounceable names and terrible designs upon us and our world: enough to drive us mad should we see it or hear it in its terrible reality. As a “contrivance of horror”, the kind of cosmic nihilism at the heart of Ligotti’s presentation surely is the most frightening of all: That our existence is nothing at all.

For all I would commend this book as an important corrective to the flood of bullshit too often presented to us in the guise of “motivational speaking” and “Christian literature”, it is important to note that, even though they may very well be the consoling lies of those desperate to shield us from the terrible truth of our existence, the fact is there are things that make life not at all MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Among these perhaps comforting lies is courage: that virtue that pushes human beings to live through all sorts of horrors and pain, big and small. Whether it’s the courage of the soldier who steps in front of a bullet or jumps on a grenade meant for others; the parents of a child born with incredible deficits who nevertheless strive to give that child a life of relative ease; those who work to make our collective lives more humane; these things are as real as the horrors from which they might shield us.

Along with courage is the sense, an intuition that may well be rooted in biological imperatives, that human life, in and for itself, is valuable. Not just our own lives, for which we may or may not care much at all, but the lives of others. Human beings are valuable simply because they exist. They are that rare thing, indeed: another like us deserving of our care, our assistance, conspirators in our desire to keep the darkness at bay. The preciousness of human life may well come from our understanding that nothing lies behind what is, including ourselves as conscious beings. In our desire for the care of others, we are not only protecting ourselves from the horrors of our consciousness of our own nonexistence; positively, we are affirming that human beings are and ought to be creatures subject to care and concern.

Finally, there is love, a word absent from Ligotti’s work. For Karl Barth, at least, it is Divine Love that negates the negation at the heart of creation. Indeed, the first negation is not at all part of the Divine plan but rather the result of human being believing it possible to stare into an abyss from which God sought to protect us. Pushed to consider life in all its variety, most people conclude that, in whatever shape it makes itself known, love sits even more deeply in existence than the terrible “Not” that is so horrible it is its own negation. In the faces of those who often crowd our lives with their presence, in the feeling of a child’s arms around the neck, in that most precious encounter between human beings, an encounter that brings with it a kind of mindless pleasure, we understand we are in the presence of a mystery far more deep than the simple realities of a world stripped of pretense.

Ligotti muses at one point on the fleeting nature of beauty and pleasure. Whether it’s the horrible pleasure that comes from the use of some narcotics, or the transcendent pleasure of sex, Ligotti and I agree on this: At its most supreme, pleasure is a fleeting moment that all too often pushes us to an eternal pursuit for it to happen again and again. For Ligotti, the reality of pleasure is given the lie as something valuable in and of itself precisely because it is so fleeting. For me, however, those moments of sublime pleasure, however they’re experienced, are testimony to the fact that the truly transcendent pleasures in this life – the sounds of a musical piece that bring goosebumps; a vista of sun and land that overwhelms our senses; that moment of human union that we shroud with mystery yet sometimes disparage as little more than the result of biological imperative – must needs be fleeting. Despite Ligotti’s claims, the horrible truth that may very well be the totality of our existence, can indeed be seen without madness ensuing. A moment or two longer of some fleeting pleasure that pushes outside the experience of that pleasure, however, we are quite sure will destroy us. A marvelous ending, to be sure, but an ending nevertheless.

In other words, we can live – perhaps not happily, certainly never easily – with the idea that we are not at all what we believe ourselves to be and that the nothingness that sits at the heart of Creation is the final truth. I’ve known many, including myself, who have stared long into that particular abyss and come away more or less psychically intact. That with which we cannot live, however, is the truth revealed in moments of rapture that there is a blinding, all-enveloping promise of love, an affirmation of existence as, far from MALIGNANTLY USELESS, but rather something sublime to be defended at all cost precisely because the negation of the “Not” at Creation’s core is a pleasure beyond our mortal abilities either to comprehend or sustain. These are no more “illusions” than are our intuitions that we hear a transcendent Nein to all our pretenses and neuroses that would deny that very same No. To claim otherwise isn’t so much pessimism or nihilism as it is a denial of the reality of all our experiences and intuitions, including those that lie at the heart of Ligotti’s desperate view of existence.