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.

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Jeffrey F. Keuss, “Tom Waits, Nick Cave, And Martin Heidegger: On Singing Of The God Who Will Not Be Named”

Only by walking away from that to which we cling for certainty and solidity can we enter into a life faith and transcendence. – Jeffrey F. Keuss, “Tom Waits, Nick Cave, And Martin Heidegger: On Singing Of The God Who Will Not Be Named,” in Beaudoin, ed., Secular Music & Sacred Theology, p.157

This final essay in the collection takes readers on the rollercoaster ride of mysticism, apophatic theology, God’s denial and affirmation in the same breath, and the strange worlds of Cave, Waits, and Heidegger.  In a sense, it pushes the entire project of theologizing from secular music (I wouldn’t dare call either Cave or Waits popular, although they do have huge followings, particularly among fellow musicians) to a whole new level.  In particular, using Heidegger, whose lectures on Holderlin form the axis around which Keuss asks his questions about the theologies present in these two performers begs as many questions as its answers.

Like Zechariah’s stunned silence [in Luke 1], Heidegger finds in this silence of the sacred (or rather “sacred silence”) a mourning of language, which is also the mourning “of” the Sacred (in the double sen of the genitive case) through Holderlin’s mourning for the vanished gods of ancient Greece and Christianity.  According to Heidegger, this act of mourning will never be accomplished as a Freudian work of mourning which overcomes its lost object.  Neither will this mourning lose itself by clinging to this object in a melancholic fashion.  As with Nick Cave shouting a triumphant “I’ve been hiding all away,” and Tom Waits declaring like a Southern carnival barker that “God’s away on business,” Heidegger presents the act of sacred mourning as the act of letting the vanished gods become what they always have been: vanished. (p.165)

All this mourning, this not-naming what needs to be named even in the knowledge that it cannot be named because it is not in the way that other beings are is rooted in the mystical theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius:

Since it is the Cause of all beings we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings (kataphasis), and more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations since it surpasses all being (apophasis).  Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this; as it is beyond privations, it is also beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.(quoted on p.154)

Beginning we Cave, we have an artist who asserts his denial of any personal God who nevertheless gave a lecture broadcast on BBC in 1996 entitled “The Flesh Made Word.”  In it, Cave sounds an awful lot like Friedrich Schleiermacher, of whom I would neither attribute atheism, mysticism, nor a preference for the apophatic denial of God’s relationship to Creation:

God is a product of a creative imagination and God is that imagination taken flight. . . . Christ, who calls himself both the Son of Man and the Son of God as the occasion warranted, was exactly that: a man of flesh and blood, so in touch with the creative forces inside himself, so open to his brilliant flame-like imaginations, that he became the physical embodiment of that force: God. . . .  What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. . . .  Just as we are divine creations, so must we in turn create.  Divinity must be given its freedom to flow through us, through language, through communication, through imagination.  I believe this is our spiritual duty, made clear to us through the example of Christ. . . . Through us, God finds his voice, for just as we need God, he in turn needs us. (quoted on pp. 159-160, ellipses in original)

While God might be absent for Cave on a personal level, the creative life brings out the Divine in all of us. Precisely because of the Jesus’s creative imagination, he was the Son of God, the Divine made flesh, fully human yet fully divine precisely because he was, to use Schleiermacher’s terminology, overflowing with God-consciousness.

In 1998, Cave was invited to offer an introduction to the Gospel of Mark for Canongate publisher.  Of the Jesus who emerges from this particular Gospel, Cave writes:

The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist.  Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through  His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow.  Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity. . . .   Christ understood that we as humans were forever held to the ground by the pull of gravity – our ordinariness, our mediocrity – and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. (quoted on p. 163, ellipsis in original)

This is a remarkable interpretation of the life and sacrifice of Christ, as viewed through the lens of a musician.  That the life of the Christian, and the communities that became the Church, is to be a life outside the ordinary, calling people beyond the mundane, has been a staple of Christian theology since the beginning.  That Cave, with no theological training, could see in the Jesus portrayed in St. Mark’s Gospel this very reality demonstrates no mourning at all for a lost God.  Rather, it demonstrates the recognition that incarnation, however one defines that term, involves something more than just the miraculous; it involves drawing from the ordinary, and pushing, pulling, prodding toward the extraordinary.  That Cave understands Christ’s crucifixion as an aesthetic rather than theo-political act also suggests there is a link, at least for Cave, between the beautiful and the good and true, something that Heidegger denies precisely because “the beautiful” is part of that empty space where we mourn our ability to speak what we use to speak but can no longer.

Waits is another case altogether.  Admitting in an interview quoted in the essay that he has difficulty discussing matters of personal faith, his music nevertheless is drenched with messages from God, for God, the cry for an absent God, the demand for a life lived knowing Christ is coming.  That Waits’s artistic universe is peopled by the dregs of society – one-eyed dwarfs, a spent piece of used jet trash, drunk stalkers, horrifying carnival barkers – only makes his theological musings all the more interesting precisely because his is a world filled with those outside who are not so much looking for a way in as they are seeking salvation, here and now, without necessarily apologizing for who they are.  As Keuss writes on  p.163:

Where is God in Tom Waits’ universe?  He is both present and “away on business” at the same time.  God is both at work finding evil to defeat and seemingly indifferent to the very same suffering.  This both/and of God’s elusive nature as here and not here draws the listener into a deep and necessary dissonance whereby locating God in Waits’ conception is never predicable or convenient.

Not at all the empty space opened up by Heidegger’s combination of mysticism and modernity, this is, rather, the dialectic of immanence and transcendence which is both understood yet never exactly clear; the mystery of the Incarnation in which God is fully human and fully Divine without either determining or limiting one another; this is the God of the Christian confession whose coming is expected, even anticipated, even as God’s people cry from their hearts that it be soon.

Claiming both Cave and Waits speak the unspeakable a la Heidegger’s loss of any language for the Holy, resulting in a mourning, is belied both by the artistic and other output of both.  There is no mourning here; there is, rather, joy and celebration, even as the demand for the Divine presence is called for in the recognition of its absence.  Cave and Waits speak the Name that cannot be spoken because they have the audacity of the artist who recognizes, in the life and work of Jesus, a fellow-traveler who dared call himself the Son of God.  Heidegger’s preference for a mournful silence in the wake of modernity’s rejection of any language for the Holy just does not fit with the description of the work Keuss invokes.  Indeed, it isn’t the mystical, apophatic Platonism of silence in the face of the ineffable as much as it is the audacity of the faithful to speak to that which is both/and – both God and human, both immanent and transcendent, both present and not-present.

This collection of essays, capped as it has been with this fine piece with which I disagree most strongly, has been an adventure of learning.  As this is precisely the journey on which I have set myself – to work through the possibility of theologizing from popular music – both the good and bad, the insightful and lost, the right and the wrong offer opportunities to think more clearly about the subject matter.  It has also given me my next reading project!  I’ve had Charles  Taylor’s A Secular Age for years without having read it.  Intimidated by its size, I am now encouraged through the discipline of this site to wade into the deep waters of Taylor’s sweeping historical adventure to modernity’s rejection of the sacred.