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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People Of The Lie

The purpose of this book is to encourage us to take our human life so seriously that we also take human evil far more seriously – seriously enough to study it with all the means at our command, including the methods of science. it is my intention to encourage us to recognize evil for what it is, in all its ghastly reality. – M. Scott Peck, People Of The Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil, p.44

Dr. M. Scott Peck

Dr. M. Scott Peck

Is evil a human condition that can be identified, diagnosed, treated, and perhaps cured? Do evil people, as opposed to evil acts, which all of us commit on rare occasions, exist, often just below the radar? What would a psychology of evil look like?

In this older work, clinical psychiatrist M. Scott Peck set himself the task both of defining and describing human evil, as he encountered it in his practice. In a long chapter, he set out what he called the beginnings of a psychology of evil, because, he insisted, there wasn’t then one worthy of the name.

The case studies he offers are certainly chilling, sad, frustrating, and curious. In one case study, among the many alarming bits of information related, parents gave their teenage son, already in the midst of a spiraling depression, the very gun their older son had used to commit suicide. When I read that, I was quite horrified. In another chapter, dedicated wholly to a case of a woman who was his patient for four years, we watch the unfolding, and unending, saga of a manipulative woman really doing the only thing she does well – getting Peck in a tizzy each and every time she comes to his office.

Here’s my question, and it’s one that Peck’s book doesn’t answer at all: What possible benefit accrues from labeling these people “evil”, as opposed to other, clearly defined diagnoses that satisfy current DSM criteria without the added moral burden of calling these people, as opposed to their actions, evil?

In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant was an unassuming professor of philosophy, teaching Christian Wolff’s popular introductory book on metaphysics. In the late 1770’s, he asked a question that revolutionized western philosophy: What is added to a thing by claiming some thing – not just a quality, nor a substance, yet nevertheless complete and necessary – had being. Wasn’t it enough, acknowledging that it existed that saying “being” was part of what made it exist? Of course, Kant realized that if he discarded the notion of “being” it opened up a whole passel of questions he had to face squarely in order to convince other philosophers he was on to something. Thus was Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy begun.

So, I ask the question again: What is added to a description of persons already acknowledged as living with a particular mental illness by calling them “evil”, not in a metaphysical but in a “scientific” sense? To my mind, nothing at all. Whether one is a religious person or not, the added moral weight of defining an individual, as opposed to particular actions that person takes, as evil would make any kind of therapeutic action far more difficult. Which does not mean people should not understand particular acts as evil. I’ve stated any number of times, however, that labeling particular acts and behaviors is less an act of moral courage than it is a parlor game for moral poseurs.  A five year old recognizes “bad” acts, in adults and peers, and is quick enough to call them out. For a psychiatrist to write an entire book based on the premise that evil is difficult to recognize and therefore in need of scientific diagnosis is false on its face. It may well be that Peck, who has admitted that his religious conversion to Christianity came late in life and was rooted in a personal experience of the divine, had the realization that psychiatry, as a science, was perhaps deficient in its willingness to pose both moral as well as medical questions when confronting particular patients. This, however, doesn’t excuse him – or anyone else – from applying a simple logical rule: If there are two explanations, the simpler one is probably correct. Despite the complexity of the diagnostic tests in the DSM, they are actually far easier to use than a moral judgment upon a person.

Peck offers a chapter on possession and exorcism, insists the phenomenon is real, then claims that the events were so convoluted and detailed they would require a book. He has, at this point, offered up three or four case studies that lasted from a few days to four years; by his own admission, the exorcisms lasted only several days at most. It seems a bit odd that he wouldn’t even attempt, perhaps, a composite sketch of what he witnessed, particularly since he claims – again without any evidence – both possessions involved Satan himself.

One of the more famous – or notorious, depending upon your point of view – is that of the young German woman Anneliese Michel. Diagnosed with gran mal epilepsy at 16, she subsequently began hearing voices that told her she was eternally damned. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, diagnosed with depression and the general label “psychosis”. By the mid-1970’s, however, Anneliese became convinced that conventional treatments were inadequate to address what had come to believe was a case of demonic possession. Priest after priest refused her parents’ requests to research and petition the Vatican, insisting he continue with conventional treatments. They finally found a priest who was willing, after just one visit, to ask Rome for permission that was soon granted. Over the course of months, several times a week, two priests gathered in her bedroom and performed the Rite. During that time, Anneliese refused to eat or drink, becoming dehydrated and malnourished. In July, 1976, she died from complications incurred from those chronic conditions. The priests and her parents were arrested, tried, and convicted of criminally negligent homicide. In my opinion (and, yes, I’m neither a Roman Catholic priest nor a German lawyer) that was the right course of action. When Anneliese began asking for a priest rather than follow medical advice, it should have been clear enough she was no longer capable of making rational decisions regarding her own care. Rather than feed her delusion, her parents should have consented to continued psychiatric treatment. In a clinical hospital setting, she would not have been allowed to starve herself, nor have her delusions of possession reinforced by months of fruitless exorcisms.

I’m left disheartened by Peck’s book, not the least because his case studies and arguments are so uncompelling. There is very little moral seriousness in calling people evil. It is an evasion of moral responsibility, and very often distorts the reality we confront. As for evil actions, like giving your child a gun that his older brother used to kill himself, it’s easy enough to see them for what they are. Name-calling, however, is for children, and too often the whole matter of labeling either an event or person “evil” is just that, a child’s game that leaves us no clearer-minded about that with which we have to do. In all honesty, I would prefer psychiatry leave matters of moral judgment to philosophers and theologians, judges and juries. I can’t imagine how calling people evil could ever be helpful.

Maeve Louise Heaney, “Theological Aesthetics in Contemporary Theology”

[O]nly revelation can set the standards for beauty. – Maeve Louise Heaney, Music As Theology: What Music Says About The Word, p.195

Of all the concepts we westerners have dragged along through the centuries, few are as misunderstood, contested, and relegated to the irrational and even incomprehensible as “beauty”.  Any writer on aesthetics will say pretty much the same thing; around the time Immanuel Kant wrote The Critique of Judgement, and set the determination for beauty within the the perception of the individual subject – even if, as Terry Eagleton points out, he insists that the perceiving subject does so as if following a universal law – the ability to speak coherently about beauty as something that inheres in objects, particularly object created by human beings, has become nearly impossible.

This situation was not made easier when modernist artists began to accept this particular bit of nonsense, creating non-art, anti-art – consider Dadaism as a kind of combination of both – and even pop art.  By denying the reality of beauty, accepting only that some might find something worth purchasing in any particular piece without any need to discuss “beauty”, we have been left through much of the modern era without the ability to discuss beauty.

In the midst of this, starting in the middle of the 20th century, the concept of beauty returned, at least to theological discourse, in a big way,  Theologian and later Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, in which he returned the concept of “beauty” to how we talk about God.  In his footsteps have followed many who have tried to expand upon him, cover up his deficiencies, argue various points, but even Heaney concedes that any theological aesthetics worth its salt has to go through von Balthasar.  To that end, of all the thinkers whose work she surveys in this very long chapter, it is the prolific Swiss Cardinal-to-be who receives the most attention.

And for good reason.  Grounding beauty in the revelation of God, von Balthasar set forth on a journey across the centuries and thinkers, looking at how they spoke of the beauty of God.  That beauty is a quality or characteristic of the Godhead flows from the inner Trinitarian life of the Three Persons, whose perfect love overflows in to a Creation filled with that love and called very good.  That “very good” links both the ethical and the aesthetic, demonstrating that our good Creation, even fallen, still holds beauty within it.  We humans, created in the image of God, have the capacity to create beauty, broken and sinful as it might be.  We can recognize beauty because it is a part of who we are as creatures of a Creating, Good, Beautiful God.

Of all the mistakes made since Kant, making “taste” – perhaps the most important part of any theory of beauty – completely subjective.  Yet, without a common set of categories that define taste, we are left adrift, even should we allow ourselves to contemplate the notion of beauty.  I wrote about the issue of taste yesterday and if anything was clear from that discussion, taste must expand beyond the individual, and must push the individual outside his or her comfort zones in an effort to appreciate beauty of all sorts.  In a day and age in which we are exposed more and more to the beautiful as imaged across cultures, this becomes necessary, especially if we Christians are going to be in conversation with others very different from ourselves.

You lethargic, waiting upon me,
waiting for the fire and I
attendant upon you, shaken by your beauty

Shaken by your beauty
Shaken. – William Carlos Williams, Paterson

One of the most difficult issues with which to contend when it comes to beauty isn’t how to define it, or how we can perceive it together.  It is, rather, the actual rarity of true beauty.  Having once sat for twenty minutes in front of a Jackson Pollack painting, I can attest to the fact that it nearly impossible to do so without ending up changed.  As music, more immediate and all encompassing an art form – something all the authors Heaney examines, and a position she herself holds as central to any musical theology – captures the whole person in a way no other art can (she briefly mentions, without much explanation, Don Saliers’s idea of synesthesia, which would have been important), beauty in music is even more rare.  It is rare for whole pieces of music to be so beautiful, although many would regard Mozart or Bach as coming close.

For me, it’s little moments that push me beyond the music in a way that takes my breath away, makes me see and feel and experience that which I can only call holy.

“June” is a pretty song, a series of tension-and-release moments in which instruments and voices are layered upon one another in what should be a pretty familiar formula.  Between 4:11 and 4:25, something happens that makes this more than just something pretty.  That combination of voices and instruments, of the build-up and release of tension becomes something truly beautiful.  The first time I heard this, who knows how many years ago, I sat up in my seat.  I played the whole song again.  That tiny little 14 second snippet came along and I knew it – this was Beauty with a capital “B”.  It is so short, catching even the casual listener by surprise that it is almost easy to miss.

I concluded from this that true beauty is fleeting, not because of the sinfulness of humanity or the world.  True beauty is fleeting because, unlike ugliness, unlike the banal, unlike even the Good and the True, true beauty transcends not only our ability to grasp in its fullness; like the love of the Godhead it overflows and overpowers those who encounter it.  Beauty is nothing more or less than revelation in action.  We humans can know beauty, and music can convey beauty, because beauty defines the Divine-Human Encounter, particularly the Incarnation of the Son of the Father through the Spirit in Jesus of Nazareth.