utorak, 16. travnja 2013.

Eugene Thacker - We’re Doomed

Thacker je jedan od najzanimljivijih današnjih teoretičara - kozmički pesimizam, Ligotti, horror filmovi i filozofija, black metal i metafizički mrak, okultizam i tehnologija, poganizam  i sablasti, biopolitika i svijet "nakon života"...
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Cosmic Pessimism

Eugene Thacker
continent. 2.2 (2012): 66–75

We’re Doomed.
Pessimism is the night-side of thought, a melodrama of the futility of the brain, a poetry written in the graveyard of philosophy. Pessimism is a lyrical failure of philosophical thinking, each attempt at clear and coherent thought, sullen and submerged in the hidden joy of its own futility. The closest pessimism comes to philosophical argument is the droll and laconic “We’ll never make it,” or simply: “We’re doomed.” Every effort doomed to failure, every project doomed to incompletion, every life doomed to be unlived, every thought doomed to be unthought.
Pessimism is the lowest form of philosophy, frequently disparaged and dismissed, merely the symptom of a bad attitude. No one ever needs pessimism, in the way that one needs optimism to inspire one to great heights and to pick oneself up, in the way one needs constructive criticism, advice and feedback, inspirational books or a pat on the back. No one needs pessimism, though I like to imagine the idea of a pessimist activism. No one needs pessimism, and yet everyone—without exception—has, at some point in their lives, had to confront pessimism, if not as a philosophy then as a grievance—against one’s self or others, against one’s surroundings or one’s life, against the state of things or the world in general.
There is little redemption for pessimism, and no consolation prize. Ultimately, pessimism is weary of everything and of itself. Pessimism is the philosophical form of disenchantment—disenchantment as chanting, a chant, a mantra, a solitary, monophonic voice rendered insignificant by the intimate immensity surrounding it.
In pessimism, the first axiom is a long, low, funereal sigh.


We’re Still Doomed.
No one has time for pessimism. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. Whatever our temperament, happy or sad, engaged or disengaged, we know pessimism when we hear it. The pessimist is usually understood as the complainer, forever pointing out what is wrong with the world without ever once offering a solution. But more often than not pessimists are the quietest of philosophers, submerging their own sighs within the lethargy of discontent. What little sound it makes is of interest to no one—“I’ve heard it all before,” “tell me something I don’t know,” sound and fury, signifying nothing. In raising problems without solutions, in posing questions without answers, in retreating to the hermetic, cavernous abode of complaint, pessimism is guilty of that most inexcusable of Occidental crimes—the crime of not pretending it’s for real. Pessimism fails to live up to the most basic tenet of philosophy—the “as if.” Think as if it will be helpful, act as if it will make a difference, speak as if there is something to say, live as if you are not, in fact, being lived by some murmuring non-entity both shadowy and muddied.
Had it more self-assurance and better social skills, pessimism would turn its disenchantment into a religion, possibly calling itself The Great Refusal. But there is a negation in pessimism that refuses even such a Refusal, an awareness that, from the start, it has already failed, and that the culmination of all that is, is that all is for naught.
Pessimism tries very hard to present itself in the low, sustained tones of a Requiem Mass, or the tectonic rumbling of Tibetan chant. But it frequently lets loose dissonant notes at once plaintive and pathetic. Often, its voice cracks, its weighty words abruptly reduced to mere shards of guttural sound.


Maybe It’s Not So Bad, After All.
If we know pessimism when we hear it, this is because we’ve heard it all before—and we didn’t need to hear it in the first place. Life is hard enough. What you need is a change of attitude, a new outlook, a shift in perspective... a cup of coffee.
If we have no ears for pessimism, this is because it is always reducible to something as reliably mutable as a voice. If pessimism is so frequently disparaged, it is because it brings everyone down, determined as it is to view each day as a bad day, if only by virtue of the fact that it is not yet a bad day. For pessimism the world is brimming with negative possibility, the collision of a bad mood with an impassive world. In fact, pessimism is the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world, a confusion that also prevents it from fully entering the hallowed halls of philosophy. If pessimism is so often dismissed, this is because it is often impossible to separate a “bad mood” from a philosophical proposition (and do not all philosophies stem from a bad mood?)
The very term “pessimism” suggests a school of thought, a movement, even a community. But pessimism always has a membership of one—maybe two. Ideally, of course, it would have a membership of none, with only a scribbled, illegible note left behind by someone long forgotten. But this seems unrealistic, though one can always hope.


Anatomy of Pessimism.
Though it may locate itself at the margins of philosophy, pessimism is as much subject to philosophical analysis as any other form of thought. Pessimism’s lyricism of failure gives it the structure of music. What time is to the music of sorrow, reason is to a philosophy of the worst. Pessimism’s two major keys are moral and metaphysical pessimism, its subjective and objective poles, an attitude towards the world and a claim about the world. For moral pessimism, it is better not to have been born at all; for metaphysical pessimism, this is the worst of all possible worlds. For moral pessimism the problem is the solipsism of human beings, the world made in our own image, a world-for-us. For metaphysical pessimism, the problem is the solipsism of the world, objected and projected as a world-in-itself. Both moral and metaphysical pessimism are compromised philosophically; moral pessimism by its failure to locate the human within a larger context, and metaphysical pessimism by its failure to recognize the complicity in the very claim of realism.
This is how pessimism makes its music of the worst, a generalized misanthropy without the anthropos. Pessimism crystallizes around this futility—it is its amor fati, rendered as musical form.


Melancholy of Anatomy.
There is a logic of pessimism that is fundamental to its suspicion of philosophical system. Pessimism involves a statement about a condition. In pessimism each statement boils down to an affirmation or a negation, just as any condition boils down to the best or the worst.
With Schopenhauer, that arch-pessimist, the thinker for whom the philosopher and the curmudgeon perfectly overlap, we see a no-saying to the worst, a no-saying that secretly covets a yes-saying (through asceticism, mysticism, quietism), even if this hidden yes-saying is a horizon at the limits of comprehension. With Nietzsche comes the pronouncement of a Dionysian pessimism, a pessimism of strength or joy, a yes-saying to the worst, a yes-saying to this world as it is. And with Cioran yet another variation, futile yet lyrical, a no-saying to the worst, and a further no-saying to the possibility of any other world, in here or out there. With Cioran one approaches, but never reaches, an absolute no-saying, a studied abandonment of pessimism itself.
The logic of pessimism moves through three refusals: a no-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-for-us, or Schopenhauer’s tears); a yes-saying to the worst (refusal of the world-in-itself, or Nietzsche’s laughter); and a no-saying to the for-us and the in-itself (a double refusal, or Cioran’s sleep).
Crying, laughing, sleeping—what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent?


Cosmic Pessimism.
Both moral and metaphysical pessimism point to another kind, a pessimism that is neither subjective nor objective, neither for-us nor in-itself, and instead a pessimism of the world-without-us. We could call this a cosmic pessimism... but this sounds too majestic, too full of wonder, too much the bitter aftertaste of the Great Beyond. Words falter. And so do ideas. And so we have a cosmic pessimism, a pessimism that is first and last a pessimism about cosmos, about the necessity and possibility of order. The contours of cosmic pessimism are a drastic scaling-up or scaling-down of the human point of view, the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time, and all of this shadowed by an impasse, a primordial insignificance, the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought—all that remains of pessimism is the desiderata of affects—agonistic, impassive, defiant, reclusive, filled with sorrow and flailing at that architectonic chess match called philosophy, a flailing that pessimism tries to raise to the level of an art form (though what usually results is slapstick).


Song of Futility.
An ethics of futility pervades pessimism. Futility, however, is different from fatality, and different again from simple failure (though failure is never simple). Failure is a breakage within the heart of relations, a fissure between cause and effect, a fissure hastily covered over by trying and trying again. With failure, there is always plenty of blame to go around; it’s not my fault, it’s a technical difficulty, it’s a miscommunication. For the pessimist, failure is a question of “when,” not “if”—failure as a metaphysical principle. Everything withers and passes into an obscurity blacker than night, everything from the melodramatic decline of a person’s life to the banal flickering moments that constitute each day. Everything that is done undone, everything said or known destined for a kind of stellar oblivion.
When scaled up in this way, failure becomes fatality. Fatality is the hermeticism of cause and effect. In fatality, everything you do, whatever you do, always leads to a certain end, and ultimately to the end—though that end, or the means to that end, remain shrouded in obscurity. Nothing you do makes a difference because everything you do makes a difference. Hence the effects of your actions are hidden from you, even as you deceive yourself into thinking that, at last, this time you will outwit the order of things. By having a goal, planning ahead, and thinking things through carefully, we attempt, in a daily Prometheanism, to turn fatality to our advantage, to gain a glimpse of an order that seems buried deeper and deeper in the fabric of the universe.
But even fatality has its comforts. The chain of cause and effect may be hidden from us, but that’s just because disorder is the order we don’t yet see; it’s just complex, distributed, and requires advanced mathematics. Fatality still clings to the sufficiency of everything that exists... When fatality relinquishes even this idea, it becomes futility. Futility arises out of the grim suspicion that, behind the shroud of causality we drape over the world, there is only the indifference of what exists or doesn’t exist; whatever you do ultimately leads to no end, an irrevocable chasm between thought and world. Futility transforms the act of thinking into a zero-sum game.


Song of the Worst.
At the center of pessimism lies the term pessimus, “the worst,” a term as relative as it is absolute. The worst is about as bad as it gets, “the worst” as “the best” in disguise, shrouded by the passage of time or the twists and turns of fortune. For the pessimist, “the worst” is the propensity for suffering that gradually occludes each living moment, until it eclipses it entirely, overlapping perfectly in death... which, for the pessimist, is no longer “the worst.”
Pessimism is marked by an unwillingness to move beyond “the worst,” something only partially attributable to a lack in motivation. In pessimism “the worst” is the ground that gives way beneath every existent—things could be worse, and, things could be better. “The worst” invariably implies a value judgment, one made based on scant evidence and little experience; in this way, pessimism’s greatest nemesis is its moral orientation. Pessimism’s propositions have all the gravitas of a bad joke.
Perhaps this is why the true optimists are the most severe pessimists—they are optimists that have run out of options. They are almost ecstatically inundated by the worst. Such an optimism is the only possible outcome of a prolonged period of suffering, physical or metaphysical, intellectual or spiritual. But does this not also describe all the trials and tribulations of each day—in short, of “life?” It seems that sooner or later we are all doomed to become optimists of this sort (the most depressing of thoughts...)


Song of Doom.
Rather than serving as a cause for despair, gloom and doom are the forms of consolation for any pessimist philosophy. Neither quite affects nor quite concepts, gloom and doom transform pessimism into a mortification of philosophy.
Doom is not just the sense that all things will turn out badly, but that all things inevitably come to an end, irrespective of whether or not they really do come to an end. What emerges from doom is a sense of the unhuman as an attractor, a horizon towards which the human is fatally drawn. Doom is humanity given over to unhumanity in an act of crystalline self-abnegation.
Gloom is not simply the anxiety that precedes doom. Gloom is literally atmospheric, climate as much as impression, and if people are also gloomy, this is simply the by-product of an anodyne atmosphere that only incidentally involves human beings. Gloom is more climatological than psychological, the stuff of dim, hazy, overcast skies, of ruins and overgrown tombs, of a misty, lethargic fog that moves with the same languorousness as our own crouched and sullen listening to a disinterested world.
In a sense, gloom is the counterpoint to doom—what futility is to the former, fatality is to the latter. Doom is marked by temporality—all things precariously drawn to their end—whereas gloom is the austerity of stillness, all things sad, static, and suspended, a meandering smoke hovering over cold lichen stones and damp fir trees. If doom is the terror of temporality and death, then gloom is the horror of a hovering stasis that is life.
At times I like to imagine that this realization alone is the thread that connects the charnel ground Aghori and the graveyard poets.


Song of Spite.
There is an intolerance in pessimism that knows no bounds. In pessimism spite begins by fixing on a particular object of spite—someone one hardly knows, or someone one knows too well; a spite for this person or a spite for all of humanity; a spectacular or a banal spite; a spite for a noisy neighbor, a yapping dog, a battalion of strollers, the meandering idiot walking in front of you on their smart phone, large loud celebrations, traumatic injustices anywhere in the world regurgitated as media blitz, spite for the self-absorbed and overly performative people talking way too loud at the table next to you, technical difficulties and troubleshooting, the reduction of everything to branding, spite of the refusal to admit one’s own errors, of self-help books, of people who know absolutely everything and make sure to tell you, of all people, all living beings, all things, the world, the spiteful planet, the inanity of existence...
Spite is the motor of pessimism because it is so egalitarian, so expansive, it runs amok, stumbling across intuitions that can only half-heartedly be called philosophical. Spite lacks the confidence and the clarity of hatred, but it also lacks the almost cordial judgment of dislike. For the pessimist, the smallest detail can be an indication of a metaphysical futility so vast and funereal that it eclipses pessimism itself—a spite that pessimism carefully places beyond the horizon of intelligibility, like the experience of dusk, or like the phrase, “it is raining jewels and daggers.”


Song of Sleep.
A paraphrase of Schopenhauer: what death is for the organism, sleep is for the individual. Pessimists sleep not because they are depressed, but because for them sleep is a form of ascetic practice. Sleep is the askesis of pessimism. If, while sleeping, we have a bad dream, we abruptly wake up, and suddenly the horrors of the night vanish. There is no reason to think that the same does not happen with the bad dream we call “life.”


Song of Sorrow.
Nietzsche, commenting on pessimism, once castigated Schopenhauer for taking things too lightly. He writes:
...Schopenhauer, though a pessimist, really—played the flute. Every day, after dinner: one should read his biography on that. And incidentally: a pessimist, one who denies God and the world but comes to a stop before morality—who affirms morality and plays the flute... what? Is that really—a pessimist?
We know that Schopenhauer did possess a collection of instruments, and we also know that Nietzsche himself composed music. There is no reason to think that either of them would ever banish music from the Republic of philosophy.
But Nietzsche’s jibes at Schopenhauer are as much about music as they are about pessimism. For the pessimist who says no to everything and yet finds comfort in music, the no-saying of pessimism can only be a weak way of saying yes—the weightiest statement undercut by the flightiest of replies. The least that Schopenhauer could’ve done is to play the bass. I’m not a big fan of the flute, or, for that matter, wind instruments generally. But what Nietzsche forgets is the role that the flute has historically played in Greek tragedy. In tragedy, the flute (aulos) is not an instrument of levity and joy, but of solitude and sorrow. The Greek aulos not only expresses the grief of tragic loss, but it does so in a way that renders weeping and singing inseparable from each other. The classicist Nicole Loraux calls this the mourning voice. Set apart from the more official civic rituals of funerary mourning, the mourning voice of Greek tragedy constantly threatens to dissolve song into wailing, music into moaning, and the voice into a primordial, disarticulate anti-music. The mourning voice delineates all the forms of suffering—tears, weeping, sobbing, wailing, moaning, and the convulsions of thought reduced to an elemental unintelligibility.
In the collapsed space between the voice that speaks and the voice that sings, pessimism discovers its mourning voice. Pessimism: the failure of sound and sense, the disarticulation of phone and logos.
Have we rescued Schopenhauer from Nietzsche? Probably not. Perhaps Schopenhauer played the flute to remind himself of the real function of the mourning voice—sorrow, sighs, and moaning rendered indistinguishable from music, the crumbling of the human into the unhuman. Failure par excellence of pessimism.


Song of Nothing.
In Buddhist thought, the First Noble Truth of existence is encapsulated in the Pali term dukkha, conventionally translated as “suffering,” “sorrow,” or “misery.” The Buddhist teachings are clear, however, that this is an objective claim, and not simply one point of view among others. Existence is suffering and sorrow—and yet this is not, the teachings tell us, a pessimistic attitude.
It is likely that Schopenhauer, reading the Buddhist texts available to him, recognized some filiation with the concept of dukkha. But dukkha is a multi-faceted term. There is, certainly, dukkha in the usual sense of the suffering, strife, and loss associated with living a life. But this is, in turn, dependent on the finitude and temporality of dukkha, existence as determined by impermanence and imperfection. And this ultimately points to the way in which both suffering and finitude are grounded by the paradoxical groundlessness of dukkha as a metaphysical principle—the insubstantiality and the emptiness of all that is. Beyond what is worse to me, beyond a world ordered for the worst, there is the emptiness of dukkha as an impersonal suffering... the tears of the cosmos.
In this context, it is easy to see how Schopenhauer’s pessimism attempts to compress all the aspects of dukkha into a nothingness at the core of existence, a Willlessness coursing through the Will. Though one thing for certain is that with Schopenhauer we do not find the “ever-smiling” countenance of Buddhism—or do we?
The texts of the Pali Canon also contain lists of the different types of happiness—including the happiness of renunciation and the strange happiness of detachment. But Buddhism considers even the different types of happiness as part of dukkha, in this final sense of nothingness or emptiness. Perhaps Schopenhauer understood Buddhism better than he is usually given credit for. Thus the experiment of Schopenhauer’s philosophy—the point at which a Western pessimus and an Eastern dukkha overlap or exchange glances. Empty sorrow, a lyricism of indifference. The result is a strange, and ultimately untenable, nocturnal form of Buddhism.


Cioran once called music a “physics of tears.” If this is true, then perhaps metaphysics is its commentary. Or its apology.


Pessimism would be more mystical were it not for its defeatism. Mysticism is much too proactive for the pessimist, and pessimism too impassive even for the mystic. At the same time, there is something enviable about mysticism—despite its sufferings. There is a sense in which pessimists are really failed mystics.


You, the Night, and the Music.
In a suggestive passage, Schopenhauer once noted that, “music is the melody to which the world is the text."
Given Schopenhauer’s view on life—that life is suffering, that human life is absurd, that the nothingness before my birth is equal to the nothingness after my death—given all this, one wonders what kind of music Schopenhauer had in mind when he described music as the melody to which the world is text—was it opera, a Requiem Mass, a madrigal, or perhaps a drinking song? Or something like Eine kleine Nachtmusik, a little night music for the twilight of thought, a sullen nocturne for the night-side of logic, an era of sad wings sung by a solitary banshee.
Perhaps the music Schopenhauer had in mind is music eliminated to non-music. A whisper would suffice. Perhaps a sigh of fatigue or resignation, perhaps a moan of despair or sorrow. Perhaps a sound just articulate enough that it could be heard to dissipate.


Teach me to laugh through tears.


Pessimism always falls short of being philosophical. My back aches, my knees hurt, I couldn’t sleep last night, I’m stressed-out, and I think I’m finally coming down with something. Pessimism abjures all pretenses towards system—towards the purity of analysis and the dignity of critique. We didn’t really think we could figure it out, did we? It was just passing time, taking a piss, something to do, a bold gesture put forth in all its fragility, according to rules that we have agreed to forget that we made up in the first place. Every thought marked by a shadowy incomprehension that precedes it, and a futility that undermines it. That pessimism speaks, in whatever voice, is the singing testimony to this futility and this incomprehension—take a chance and step outside, lose some sleep and say you tried...


Is there a music of pessimism? And would such a music be audible?


The impact of music on a person compels them to put their experience into words. When this fails, the result is a faltering of thought and language that is itself a kind of music. Cioran writes: “Music is everything. God himself is nothing more than an acoustic hallucination.”


If a thinker like Schopenhauer has any redeeming qualities, it is that he identified the great lie of Western culture—the preference for existence over non-existence. As he notes: “If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads.”
In Western cultures it is commonly accepted that one celebrates birth and mourns death. But there must be a mistake here. Wouldn’t it make more sense to mourn birth and celebrate death? Strange though, because the mourning of birth would, presumably, last the entirety of that person’s life, so that mourning and living would the be same thing.


To the musical idea of the harmony of the universe corresponds the philosophical principle of sufficient reason. Like the music of mourning, pessimism gives voice to the inevitable breakdown of word and song. In this way, music is the overtone of thought.


The Patron Saints of Pessimism.
The patron saints of pessimism watch over suffering. Laconic and sullen, the patron saints of pessimism never seem to do a good job at protecting, interceding, or advocating for those who suffer. Perhaps they need us more than we need them.
Lest we forget, there do exist patron saints of philosophy, but their stories are not happy ones. There is, for instance, the fourth century Saint Catherine of Alexandria, or Catherine of the Wheel, named after the torture device used on her. A precocious fourteen year old scholar, Catherine was subject to continual persecution. After all forms of torture failed—including the “breaking wheel”—the emperor finally settled for her decapitation, a violent yet appropriate reminder of the protector of philosophers.
There are also patron saints of music and musicians, but theirs too are sad stories. In the second century, Saint Cecilia was also subject to persecution and torture. As she knelt to receive the blade that would separate her head from her body, she ardently sang a song to God. It took three attempts before she was fully decapitated, all the while she continued, perhaps miraculously, to sing.
Does pessimism not deserve its own patron saints, even if they are unworthy of martyrdom? But in our search, even the most ardent nay-sayers frequently lapse into brief moments of enthusiasm—Pascal’s love of solitude, Leopardi’s love of poetry, Schopenhauer’s love of music, Nietzsche’s love of Schopenhauer, and so on. Should one then focus on individual works of pessimism? We could include Kierkegaard’s trilogy of horror—Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Dread, and Fear and Trembling—but all these are undermined by their fabricated and unreliable authors. Besides, how can one separate the pessimist from the optimist in works like Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, Shestov’s Postetas Clavium, or Edgar Saltus’ under-read The Philosophy of Disenchantment? Even in cases where the entire corpus of an author is pessimistic, the project always seems incomplete—witness Cioran’s trajectory, from his first book, On the Heights of Despair, to the last unpublished notebooks of acrid and taut aphorisms. And this is to say nothing of literary pessimism, from Goethe’s sorrowful Werther, to Dostoevsky’s underground man, to Pessoa’s disquiet scribbler; Baudelaire’s spleen and ennui, the mystical Satanism of Huysmans and Strindberg, the hauntologies of Mário de Sá-Carniero, Izumi Kyoka, H.P. Lovecraft, grumpy old Beckett... even the great pessimist comedians. All that remains are singular, perhaps anomalous statements of pessimism, a litany of quotes and citations crammed into fortune cookies.
Patron saints are traditionally named after a locale, either a place of birth or of a mystical experience. Perhaps the better approach is to focus on the places where pessimists were forced to live out their pessimism—Schopenhauer facing an empty Berlin lecture hall, Nietzsche mute and convalescent at the home of his sister, Wittgenstein the relinquished professor and solitary gardener, Cioran grappling with Alzheimer’s in his tiny writing alcove in the Latin Quarter.


There’s a ghost that grows inside of me, damaged in the making, and there’s a hunt sprung from necessity, elliptical and drowned. Where the moving quiet of our insomnia offers up each thought, there’s a luminous field of grey inertia, and obsidian dreams burnt all the way down.


If pessimism has any pedagogical value, it is that the failure of pessimism as a philosophy is inextricably tied to the failure of pessimism as voice. I read the following, from Shestov’s The Apotheosis of Groundlessness:
When a person is young he writes because it seems to him he has discovered a new almighty truth which he must make haste to impart to forlorn humankind. Later, becoming more modest, he begins to doubt his truths: and then he tries to convince himself. A few more years go by, and he knows he was mistaken all round, so there is no need to convince himself. Nevertheless he continues to write, because he is not fit for any other work, and to be accounted a superfluous person is so horrible.

A talk given at “A Special Form of Darkness—Arika Episode II,” Glasgow, 26 February, 2012.

Open Commentary to Eugene Thacker's "Cosmic Pessimism"

Gary J. Shipley, Nicola Masciandaro
continent. 2.2 (2012): 76–81
Comments on Eugene Thacker’s “Cosmic Pessimism”
Nicola Masciandaro
Anything you look forward to will destroy you, as it already has.
—Vernon Howard
In pessimism, the first axiom is a long, low, funereal sigh.
The cosmicity of the sigh resides in its profound negative singularity. Moving via endless auto-releasement, it achieves the remote.
Oltre la spera che piú larga gira / passa ’l sospiro ch’esce del mio core” [Beyond the sphere that circles widest / penetrates the sigh that issues from my heart].1
The axiomatic sigh of the pessimist is in a way the pure word of philosophy, a thought that thinks without you, speaks where you are not. The live pneumatic form of the soul’s eventual exit from the dead body’s mouth, the sigh restores consciousness to the funeral of being, to the passing away that is existence. Pessimism speaks in piercing aphorisms because first it sighs. “Beyond the sphere passeth the arrow of our sigh. Hafiz! Silence.”2
… pessimism is guilty of that most inexcusable of Occidental crimes—the crime of not pretending it’s for real.
To the pessimist, the ‘real’ world—the world on whose behalf we are expected to wake up in the morning—is a ceaseless index of its own unreality. The pessimist’s day is not an illumined space for the advancement of experience and action, but a permanently and inescapably reflective zone, the vast interior of a mirror where each thing is only insofar as it is, at best, a false image of itself. Within this speculative situation, inside the doubleness of the mirror, pessimism splits into two paths, false and true, one that tries to fix pessimism (establish a relation with the mirror) and decides in favor of the apparent real, and another that totally falls for pessimism (enters the mirror) and communes with the greater reality of the unreal. These two paths are distinguished by their relation to pessimism’s guilt vis-à-vis the world’s reality-project. The first form, that which remains pessimism for the world and puts on a smiling face, stays guilty to itself (i.e. unconscious) and thus turns hypocritical, becoming at once the pessimism of the commoner who really just wants things to be better for himself and the pessimism of the elite who wants to critically refashion reality in his own image. The general form of this worldly, hypocritical pessimism is the impulse to ‘make the world a better place’, which is the global mask under which the world is diurnally made worse. The second form, that which follows pessimism away from the world and ceases to put on a smiling face, refuses guiltiness as itself theessential Occidental mode of pretense and turns honest, becoming at once the intelligent pessimism required of all ordinary action and the radical pessimism necessary for self-knowledge: seeing that no one is capable of doing good. The general form of this universal, honest pessimism is the impulse not to worry, to give up and embrace dereliction, which is the only real way the world is actually improved. Where worldly pessimism is the engine productive of interminably warring secular and sacred religions (good-projects), universal pessimism strives hopelessly for the paradise of a supremely instantiated pessimus: things are getting so bad that there is no longer any time for them to get worse; things are so constantly-instantly worst that this is BEST. Cosmic pessimism is the mode of universal pessimism which can yet discourse with the world, which has not chosen silence and can spread the inconceivably BAD NEWS in an orderly form (kosmos) that the world can understand (if it wanted to).
… the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world.
That is what the world is (the result of a confusion between the world and a statement about the world).
… a generalized misanthropy without the anthropos. Pessimism crystallizes around this futility—it is its amor fati, rendered as musical form.
Pessimism’s love of fate is a blind love, a love of the blindness of being human in a cosmos conceived around the human’s eclipse, a heavy levitation in the contradictory space between the inescapability of its having been and the impossibility of its will-be. Pessimism’s song of futility is a sensible way of loving fate, with a minimum of eros, by means of a kind of matrimonial love of the fatal. As music, pessimism stays open to the irreparable and the inexorable without the binding of affirmation, in the apparent absence of the radical, infinitely surplus will that absolute amor fati seems to require.
Crying, laughing, sleeping—what other responses are adequate to a life that is so indifferent?
“Unless a man aspires to the impossible, the possible that he achieves will scarcely be worth the trouble of his achieving it. We should aspire to the impossible, to absolute and infinite perfection [….] The apocatastasis is more than a mystical dream: it is a norm of action, it is a beacon for high deeds [….] For true charity is a species of invasion [….] It is not charity to rock and lull our fellow men to sleep in the inertia and heaviness of matter, but rather to arouse them to anguish and torment of spirit.”3
… the impossibility of ever adequately accounting for one’s relationship to thought.
“The paroxysm of interior experience leads you to regions where danger is absolute, because life which self-consciously actualizes its roots in experience can only negate itself [….] There are no arguments [….] On the heights of despair, the passion for the absurd is the only thing that can still throw a demonic light on chaos [….] I live because the mountains do not laugh and the worms do not sing.”4
It took three attempts before she was fully decapitated, all the while she continued, perhaps miraculously, to sing.
According to the earliest account of Cecilia’s martyrdom, the beheading turns out worse. After not severing her head in three strokes, “the cruel executioner left her half dead” (seminecem eam cruentus carnifex dereliquit).5 Cecilia’s effortlessly powerful endurance of the three strokes—a fitting icon for pessimism as an art of dereliction—demonstrates the “passivity and absence of effort [….] in which divine transcendence is dissolved.”6
There’s a ghost that grows inside of me, damaged in the making, and there’s a hunt sprung from necessity, elliptical and drowned. Where the moving quiet of our insomnia offers up each thought, there’s a luminous field of grey inertia, and obsidian dreams burnt all the way down. Like words from a pre-waking dream.
There is no reason to think that they are not.
1. Dante Alighieri. Vita Nuova. ed. and trans. Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. 1995. 41:10.
2. Hafiz of Shiraz. The Divan. trans. H. Wilberforce Clarke. London: Octagon Press. 1974. 10.9.
3. Miguel de Unamuno. The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations. trans. Anthony Kerrigan. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1972. 305-6.
4. E.M. Cioran. On the Heights of Despair. trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1992. 9-10.
5. Giacomo Laderchi. S. Caeciliae Virg[inis] et Mart[yris] Acta. . . Rome. 1723. 38.
6. Georges Bataille. On Nietzsche. trans. Bruce Boone. London: Continuum. 2004. 135. See Nicola Masciandaro. “Half Dead: Parsing Cecilia.”

A Commentary on Eugene Thacker’s "Cosmic Pessimism"
Gary J. Shipley

Pessimism is the refusal to seek distraction, the refusal to remodel failure into a platform for further (doomed) possibilities, the refusal of comfort, the acceptance of the sickness of healthy bodies, the cup of life overflowing with cold vomit. If, as Ligotti suggests when discussing Invasion of the Body Snatchers,1 humans prefer the anxieties of their familiar human lives to the contentment of an alien one, then the pessimist, we could argue, represents some perverted combination of the two, preferring (presuming he has a choice) the defamiliarization of human life to the contentment of its unquestioned mundanity.
The quasi-religious state of mind that Wittgenstein would mention on occasion, that of “feeling absolutely safe,”2 is a state the pessimist could only imagine being approximated by death, or perhaps some annihilative opiate-induced stupor. This Wittgensteinian commingling of certainty and faith looks every bit the futile gesture, a mere rephrasing of collapse or partial collapse. The only certainty open to the pessimist is that of the toxic formula of life itself—a formula known and lacuna-free. Certainty, far from being the gateway to deliverance, becomes the definitive impediment; and the possibility of salvation, as long as it remains, becomes crucially reliant on postulations of ignorance, epistemic gaps, a perennial incompleteness: “the perfect safety of wooed death […] the warm bath of physical dissolution, the universal unknown engulfing the miniscule unknown.”3
The height of Leibniz’s Panglossian insanity nurtured the idea that our knowing everything—via the universal calculus—could be accurately described a triumph, as opposed to a nightmare in which our every futility is laid bare. Stagnancy and boredom are perhaps two of the greatest ills of Western civilisation, and the most potent pessimism tells you that you’re stuck with both. The most we can hope for, by way of salvation, is to throw open our despair to the unknown.
The fact that Schopenhauer’s pessimism stopped short of morality and allowed him to play the flute, as Nietzsche complained, highlights the predicament of a man who despite having adorned nothingness with a smiling face still found himself alive. The demand here is that it be felt: a cross-contamination of intellect and emotion. The safety net of numerous parentheses makes for a failed philosophy, rather than a philosophy of failure.
Depressives make bad pessimists, because, unless they choose to die, living will always infect them with necessities of hope, forcing them to find something, anything (all the various “as ifs”) to make existence tolerable. For as Cioran observed, while “[d]epressions pay attention to life, they are the eyes of the devil, poisoned arrows which wound mortally any zest and love of life. Without them we know little, but with them, we cannot live.”4 And even when cured of our depressions we’ll find ourselves consumed, eaten alive by the hyper-clinical (borderline autistic) mania that replaces them: a predicament captured all too clearly in the microscriptual fictions of Robert Walser, where spectral men and women stifle their depressive madness with protective comas of detail, their failed assimilations buried beneath thick crusts of remote data. Like Beckett’s Malone their stories may have ended, but cruelly their lives have not.
Pessimism is an extraneous burden (a purposeless weight) that makes everything else harder to carry, while at the same time scooping it out and making it lighter.
If pessimism had a sound it would be the harsh non-noise of tinnitus—the way that every person would hear themselves if they refused their distractions long enough to listen: a lungless scream from the extrasolar nothing of the self. The music of pessimism—if indeed we can imagine such a thing—is the reverberating echo of the world’s last sound, conjectured but never heard, audible only in its being listened for. The one consolation of this hollow paradox of audibility being, that “he will be least afraid of becoming nothing in death who has recognized that he is already nothing now.”5 The pessimist suffers a derangement of the real, a labyrinthitis at the nucleus of his being: he’s the stumbling ghost relentlessly surprised that others can see him.
If Cioran’s refusal is manifested in sleep (when even saying ‘no’ is too much of a commitment), then Pessoa’s resides in the dreams inside that sleep. Pessoa chooses to exploit the fact that he’s being “lived by some murmuring non-entity both shadowy and muddied”6 by growing more voids to live him. His is a Gnostic breed of sleep, “sleeping as if the universe were a mistake,”7 a sleep that dreams through Thacker’s cosmic pessimism (“a pessimism of the world-without-us.”, “the unhuman orientation of deep space and deep time”8), through the critical error of there being anything at all when there could be nothing.
The metaphysical pessimist is someone who, however well life treats them, still desires to wake from it, as from the poisonous air of a bad dream.
Pessimism is a paradox of age, being simultaneously young and old; its youth residing in a refusal to accept the authority of existence (its rich history, its inherent beneficence), a refusal to “get over” the horror of what it sees with its perpetually fresh eyes, and its maturity in the unceremonious disposal of the philosophical playthings (those futile architectures) of adolescence. As Thacker remarks: “Pessimism abjures all pretenses towards system—towards the purity of analysis and the dignity of critique.”9 A sentiment shared with Pessoa, who duly categorizes those that choose to enact this futile struggle: “The creators of metaphysical systems and of psychological explanations are still in the primary stage of suffering.”10
If the pessimist has shared a womb with anyone, it’s with the mystic and not the philosopher. As Schopenhauer tells us: “The mystic is opposed to the philosopher by the fact that he begins from within, whereas the philosopher begins from without. […] But nothing of this is communicable except the assertions that we have to accept on his word; consequently he is unable to convince.”11 The crucial difference between the mystic and the pessimist is not the latter’s impassivity and defeatism, but his unwillingness/inability to contain in any way the spread of his voracious analyticity, his denial of incompleteness, his exhaustive devotion to failure.
The truth of our predicament, though heard, is destined to remain unprocessed. Like the revelations of B.S. Johnson’s Haakon (“We rot and there’s nothing that can stop it / Can’t you feel the shaking horror of that?”12) the pessimist’s truths are somehow too obvious to listen to, as if something inside us were saying, “Of course, but haven’t we gotten over that?”
Pessimism is simple and ugly, and has no desire to make itself more complex or more attractive.
The true moral pessimist knows that the Utilitarian’s accounts will always be in the red. He can see that for all his computational containments, his only honest path is a negative one, and that such a path has but one logical destination: that of wholesale human oblivion.
Thacker notes how at the core of pessimism lies the notion of “the worst,” through which death is demoted by the all-pervasive suffering of a life that easily eclipses its threat. And so with doom made preferable to gloom, death begins to glint with promise, “like beauty passing through a nightmare.”13 But even among pessimists suicide is, for the most part, thought to be an error. Schopenhauer, for instance, regarded suicide a mistake grounded in some fundamentally naïve disappointment or other. Pessoa too thought suicide an onerous escape tactic: “To die is to become completely other. That’s why suicide is a cowardice: it’s to surrender ourselves completely to life.”14 There is a call here to be accepting of and creative with the puppetry of your being, an insistence that it’s somehow a blunder to attempt to hide in death from the horrors you find inlife.15 Tied up with this perseverance is the slippery notion of the good death, for maybe, as Blanchot warns, suicide is rarely something we can hope to get right, for the simple reason that “you cannot make of death an object of the will.”16
“Even in cases where the entire corpus of an author is pessimistic, the project always seems incomplete,”17 and this is not simply because the project itself belies something yet to be disclosed, but because the project itself is a thing waiting. It waits on a cure it knows will not come, but for which it cannot do anything (as long as it continues to do anything) but wait.

1. See Thomas Ligotti. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. New York: Hippocampus Press. 2010. 91.
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein. “A Lecture on Ethics.” Philosophical Review. (74) 1. 1965. 8.
3. Vladimir Nabokov. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage. 1989. 221.
4. E. M. Cioran. The Book of Delusions. trans. Camelia Elias. Hyperion. 5.1. (2010): 75.
5. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. vol. 2. trans. E .F J. Payne. New York: Dover. 1966. 609.
6. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 67.
7. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 35.
8. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 68.
9. Ibid. 73.
10. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 341.
11. Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation. vol. 2. trans. E .F J. Payne. New York: Dover. 1966. 610-11.
12. B.S Johnson. “You’re Human Like the Rest of Them.” in Jonathan Coe. Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson. London: Picador. 2004. 177.
13. Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. trans. Richard Zenith. London: Penguin. 2002. 415.
14. Ibid. 199.
15. “Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.” Anne Sexton. No Evil Star: Selected Essays, Interviews and Prose. ed. Steven Gould Axelrod. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1985. 92.
16. Maurice Blanchot. The Space of Literature. trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1989. 105.
17. Eugene Thacker. “Cosmic Pessimism.” continent.. 2.2 (2012): 75.


By Eugene Thacker19 March 2013
Image: Thomas Ligotti

In Thomas Ligotti’s recent work of non-fiction, Eugene Thacker discovers a ‘concept horror’ innate to philosophy – the self-recognition of knowledge’s inevitable defeat

The idea of an American pessimism is an oxymoron. In a culture that thrives on entrepreneurialism, pharmacology and self-help, ‘pessimism’ is simply a fancy name for a bad mood. In a culture that prizes the can-do, self-starter attitude, to be a pessimist is simply to be a complainer; if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. To live in such a culture is to constantly live in the shadow of an obligatory optimism, a novel type of coercion that is pathologised early on in child education in the assessment: ‘Does not like to play with others.’

If one were to compile a list of contemporary American pessimists, the list would be short, though Thomas Ligotti's name would likely be on it. To most who are familiar with his work, Ligotti is known as an author of horror fiction. His 1986 debut Songs of a Dead Dreamer immediately set him apart from his contemporaries. Filled with dark, lyrical prose, it displayed an unabashed appreciation for the tradition of the Gothic. It was composed of short texts that were difficult to categorise, and that barely contained narrative and plot. When it was published, Songs of a Dead Dreamer stood in direct contrast to much horror fiction of the 1980s, characterised as it was by slasher-style gore and violence, and a more brutalist approach to language. Ligotti's writing, by contrast, tended more towards an effusive, contorted prose that revealed almost nothing – though each of his pieces was steeped in a sombre, funereal mood more reminiscent of the ‘supernatural horror’ tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. All the horrors – the real horrors – remained hidden in a stark, unhuman nether region beyond all comprehension, and yet instilled directly in the flesh of the narrators or characters.

In a career that spans almost 30 years, Ligotti's work has remained committed to this tradition of supernatural horror and, given the trends, fads, and wild mood swings of the horror genre, such a commitment is an admirable anomaly. Which brings me to Ligotti's most recent book, The ConspiracyAgainst the Human Race (hereafter Conspiracy). Ligotti fans may find this book puzzling at first. For one thing, it is not a work of horror fiction; for that matter, it's not a work of fiction at all. But to call it a collection of essays or a treatise of philosophy doesn't quite do it justice either. Ligotti does comment at length on the horror genre and on a number of authors, from Anne Radcliffe and Joseph Conrad to Poe and Lovecraft. But Conspiracy is not just a writer's personal opinion of other writers. Similarly, Ligotti does spend much of the book reflecting on pessimism, reminding us of the freshness of grumpy thinkers like Arthur Schopenhauer, while also pointing to more obscure or forgotten thinkers, such as the Norwegian philosopher and Alpinist Peter Wessel Zapffe. But Ligotti's approach is much too eccentric and uncompromising to be considered academic philosophy, and as a book Conspiracy is unencumbered by reams of footnotes or jargon-heavy vocabulary. Finally, Ligotti does address a number of topical issues in Conspiracy – research in cognitive neuroscience, the natalism/anti-natalism debate, global warming and over population, transhumanism, Terror Management Therapy, the popularity of Buddhism, and the self-help boom, among others. But the aim of the book is not simply to be topical, nor to present a ‘pop’ introduction to a difficult topic.

So then, what kind of book is Conspiracy? It is first and foremost a book about pessimism; but it is also a pessimistic book. While it contains critical insights into the heights and pitfalls of pessimist thinking, it also contains stunning indictments of our many pretentions to being human: ‘As for us humans, we reek of our own sense of being something special’; ‘What is most uncanny about the self is that no one has yet been able to present the least evidence of it.’iConspiracy constantly hovers around that boundary between writing about pessimism and simply writing pessimism, and nowhere is this more evident than in Ligotti's own brand of pessimism, which is at once uncompromising and absurd:

Nature proceeds by blunders; that is its way. It is also ours. So if we have blundered by regarding consciousness as a blunder, why make a fuss over it? Our self-removal from this planet would still be magnificent move, a feat so luminous it would bedim the sun. What do we have to lose? No evil would attend our departure from this world, and the many evils we have known would go extinct along with us. So why put off what would be the most laudable masterstroke of our existence, and the only one?ii

Different though it is from his previous work, Conspiracy is very much a Ligotti book, both in style and in the ideas it contains. In fact, I would argue that Conspiracy is the logical next step in Ligotti's trajectory as a writer. While the book is ‘philosophical’ in a general sense, in reading Conspiracy one gets the feeling that Ligotti has pushed the boundaries of horror fiction to the limit, where the next step would be to abandon the fictional elements altogether, dispensing with narrative, character, and plot, in favour of the ideas of horror fiction. It is not difficult to see a continuum stretching from the short, abstract mood pieces of Edgar Allan Poe, to Lovecraft's ‘documentary’ approach to horror, to a generation of post-war horror authors such as Ramsey Campbell. Lovecraft himself noted this in his 1927 essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, where he argues for an understanding of the horror genre in terms of thought – and the limits of thought – more than character, setting, or plot. It is an approach that, as Ligotti notes, characterises nearly all supernatural horror fiction:

In the literature of supernatural horror, a familiar storyline is that of a character who encounters a paradox in the flesh, so to speak, and must face down or collapse in horror before this ontological perversion – something which should not be, yet is.iii

This is horror fiction that is solely concept-driven, and the next step would be to abandon narrative altogether, or perhaps to sublimate narrative into a kind of non-fictional horror. In Conspiracy, Ligotti's writing moves from horror fiction to a concept-horror.iv On one page he will engage in a critical examination of a philosophers such as Albert Camus or Miguel de Unamuno, and on the next page his writing will amorphously slide into the prose poetry Ligotti fans will be familiar with: ‘Then it begins.This can't be happening, you think – if you can think at all, if you are anything more than a whirlwind of panic’; ‘This is the whispering undercurrent that creeps into your thoughts – nothing is safe and nothing is off limits’;

No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone... Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us.v

It is no surprise that the idea of pessimism lies at the core of Conspiracy, and in particular the status of pessimism in an era of radical changes in the environment and global human culture. That idea is encapsulated in what Ligotti calls Zapffe's paradox (named after the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe): the height of consciousness is to have revealed the uselessness of consciousness. A variant of this is given by the 19th century German philosopher, poet, and bank clerk Philipp Mainländer, who was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer: ‘the knowledge that life is worthless is the flower of all human wisdom.’vi Yet another variant is given in Ligotti's own words: ‘Nonhuman occupants of this planet are unaware of death. But we are susceptible to startling and dreadful thoughts, and we need some fabulous illusions to take our minds off them.’vii The problem is at once a problem of logic and an existential problem – dare we say, even, a religious problem. In Ligotti's exegesis, there is a negativity inherent in everything that exists, from inorganic matter to conscious thought, such that at its most developed state it negates itself (or consumes itself, or fulfils itself). The form of the problem is that, in its most crystalline form, X is tantamount to the negation of X.

Zapffe is an important figure for Ligotti. He not only extends the pessimistic diagnosis of thinkers like Schopenhauer, but he steadfastly refuses any panacea or redemption to the situation. Ligotti summarises the mountain-climbing philosopher's position:

As Zapffe concluded, we need to hamper our consciousness for all we are worth or it will impose upon us a too clear vision of what we do not want to see, which, as the Norwegian philosopher saw it, along with every other pessimist, is ‘the brotherhood of suffering between everything alive.’viii

In this situation, Zapffe diagnosed the various means that we as human beings have developed for staving off the radically misanthropic tendencies of consciousness (these include strategies such as isolating such thoughts from our everyday lives, anchoring them in belief systems such as religion or science, distracting ourselves with the here and now, and therapeutic sublimation of such thoughts in artistic expression). Zapffe's conclusions were starkly anti-natalist: not only should we cease to procreate, he suggests, but we should consider the best means by which we as a species can facilitate an extinction that is, in Zapffe's opinion, both inevitable and long overdue.

But Zapffe is only one of many personages that makes an appearance in Conspiracy. There is, as one might expect, a discussion of Schopenhauer and his thesis that all living beings are blindly driven by an anonymous and indifferent ‘Will-to-Life’. But there is also the German Schopenhauerian and suicide, Philipp Mainländer, who suggested a ‘Will-to-Die’ inherent in all beings, living or not – and who speculated on the possibility of God's suicide to correlate with that of human beings. And then there is the Italian writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, who offers the idea that human beings are the puppets or playthings of unknown forces that may or may not exist – a conspiracy without conspirators. Such thinkers hold a privileged position for Ligotti. Their brand of pessimism refuses any redemptive move towards something beyond pessimism. Pessimism in this view is not simply a practical form of realism, keeping our feet on the ground and preventing us from getting lost in delusions of grandeur. Pessimism is also not simply another name for secularism, bolstering a renewed faith in human choice and action after the cold shower of the death of God. In short, in Ligotti's hands, pessimism stands in contrast to a ‘heroic’ pessimism that ultimately serves human goals and aspirations (and this comes through in Ligotti's more critical comments of thinkers such as Camus, Unamuno, and contemporary scholars such as Joshua Dienstag and William Brashear).ix

One of the ideas that best characterises Ligotti's brand of pessimism is that of the puppet. A leitmotif in much of his work, the puppet is for Ligotti the exemplar of concept-horror, an uncanny manifestation of the life-like that seems to blatantly contradict what we think we know about the world. ‘We need to know that puppets are puppets’, Ligotti notes. ‘Nevertheless, we may still be alarmed by them. Because if we look at a puppet in a certain way, we may sometimes feel it is looking back, not as a human being looks at us but as a puppet does.’x Our relationship to an enigmatic, indifferent world in which we are embedded is similar, Ligotti contends, to that of the puppet:

Human puppets could not conceive of themselves as being puppets at all, not when they are fixed with a consciousness that excites in them the unshakable sense of being singled out from all other objects in creation. Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own – that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you – it is not possible for you to believe you are anything but your own master.xi

This is what intimately ties horror to philosophy – not that philosophy, which explains everything, would explain horror, making it both meaningful and actionable for us, but that philosophy – all philosophy – eventually discovers within itself a hard limit to what can be known, what can be thought, and what can be said. If works of supernatural horror are ‘philosophical’ it is not because they have explained anything – quite the reverse.

And in a sense this also means that what characterises pessimistic philosophies, particularly the kind that Ligotti is drawn to, is that they have internalised this lesson from the literary tradition of supernatural horror – thinkers like Schopenhauer, Mainländer, or Zapffe unknowingly write philosophy as if they were writers of horror fiction; they make this shift from a philosophy of horror to a horror of philosophy:

Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees – a blunder of blind nature, according to Zapffe, that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are – contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?xii

This also means that this kind of thinking, in which horror and philosophy mutually imply each other, must also confront the obvious contradictions that are internal to it. Conspiracy is fascinating in this sense because Ligotti is constantly aware of building up a thought that must eventually undermine itself (and this is, no doubt, the reason for the carnivalesque, gallows humour that runs through much of the book). At one moment Ligotti will argue for a relation between the self and the world based on conspiracy – the world as perennially working against us, if only by virtue of our being mortal beings ephemerally existing in finitude and temporality. But at other moments Ligotti will acknowledge that this too is, in a way, the height of humanist thinking, though a perverted humanism that is still able to conceive of human beings as being the centre of the universe (love me, hate me, but let me know that you care...). Here Ligotti will argue for a relation between self and world based on neutrality, indifference, anonymity. And perhaps this is the horror of horrors – the blankness of the world, the blindness of being. Ligotti's thinking constantly wavers between these two aspects of pessimism, between indifference and malignancy, the neutral and the worst

Above all, Conspiracy is a document of the pessimist's dilemma: that the worthlessness of life and its philosophical realisation tends to become worthwhile (a ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’). And in this, Conspiracymight be characterised as a form of ecstatic pessimism, a pessimism that is resolutely misanthropic and without redemption, but that also must constantly bear witness to the failure of thought that constitutes it.xiii Yet is a crumbling of thought that Ligotti has borne witness to again and again. Ligotti's 1994 book Noctuary contains a short piece, ‘The Puppet Masters’. It consists of a brief confession of an unnamed narrator who appears to have secret conversations with the puppets, dolls, and marionettes that lay about his room: ‘Who else would listen to them and express what they have been through? Who else could understand their fears, however petty they may seem at times?’ In an uncanny reversal, the narrator begins to suspect he too is a puppet; and the human-like puppets are also alarmingly unhuman. They are mute and indifferent, like puppet masters. The narrator continues, recapping one of Ligotti's recurring motifs, that of the puppet without strings, the conspiracy without conspirators:

Do I ever speak to them of my own life? No; that is, not since a certain incident which occurred some time ago. To this day I don't know what came over me. Absent-mindedly I began confessing some trivial worry, I've completely forgotten what it was. And at that moment all their voices suddenly stopped, every one of them, leaving an insufferable vacuum of silence.xiv

Eugene Thacker is the author of several books, including Horror of Philosophy (Zero Books) and After Life (University of Chicago Press). He teaches at The New School in New York

Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Hippocampus Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0982429693.

i Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, pp. 52, 101.
ii Conspiracy, p. 104.
iii Conspiracy, p. 16. The literary theorist Tzevtan Todorov has provided what is still the classic study on this phenomenon in his book The Fantastic.
iv For more on the notion of concept-horror see the journal Collapse, volume IV 2008:http://www.urbanomic.com/pub_collapse4.php.
v Conspiracy, pp. 220, 221
vi Quoted in Ligotti, Conspiracy, p. 37, from Mainländer's main philosophical work, Die Philosophie derErlösung (The Philosophy of Redemption).
vii Conspiracy, p. 28.
viii Conspiracy, p. 27.
ix We might also include, in this list of ‘self-help’ pessimists, Roger Scruton's rather bland The Usesof Pessimism and Alain de Botton's rather naive Religion for Atheists, both of which argue in favour of the healthy side-effects of pessimist thinking.
x Conspiracy, p. 16.
xi Conspiracy, p. 17.
xii Conspiracy, pp. 51-52.
xiii It is tempting to include others under this rubric of ecstatic pessimism: Ray Brassier, who also provides the Foreword to Conspiracy, and whose work engages with the philosophy of science; Reza Negarestani, whose work charts a path between horror and mathematics; and my own recent writing, which has been increasingly drawn to the aphorism. See Brassier's book Nihil Unbound; Negarestani'sCyclonopedia and his recent work ‘The Non-Trivial Goat’ (http://issueprojectroom.org/drupal/event/reza-negarestani-florian-hecker); and my piece ‘Cosmic Pessimism’ (http://continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/viewArticle/84).
xiv "The Puppet Masters," in Noctuary (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995), p. 172.


By Eugene Thacker

Image: Image: Junko's performance at A Special Form of Darkness, Tramway, Glasgow February 2012

Travelling to the outer reaches of vocal performance, a recent event featuring noise artists Junko and Keiji Haino opened up the anti-political space of ‘unvoice’ – writes Eugene Thacker

In late February, the dead of winter, the arts organisation Arika held a three-day festival titled A Special Form of Darkness. Located in the Tramway, a former railway station in the South of Glasgow, Arika has been organising events like this for a number of years. Their events often have different themes, though they consistently pull together music, film, performance and ideas into an evocative, heady constellation.i

My reason for writing about the event has to do with the two vocal performances that closed the second and third nights. One was by Keiji Haino, a figure who needs no introduction for those interested in the noise and experimental music scenes. Influenced early on as much by Antonin Artaud as by Butoh theatre, Haino quickly carved out a highly eclectic and uncanny musical style, often focusing on voice and guitar (his 1973 performance Milky Way is the sound of a weeping galaxy). An accomplished improviser, Haino’s many projects are evidence of his range, from free improv ensembles, to the avant-rock group Fushitsusha, to straight-up noise works such as The Book ofEternity Set Aflame , to black ambient projects such as Nijiumu. Haino has also performed on a range of instruments, from the hurdy-gurdy to the Theremin, and has collaborated with everyone from Toru Takemitsu to John Zorn.

The other performance was by Junko, a member of the legendary noise group Hijokaidan, which began as an extreme performance art collective in the 1970s, before focusing more on noise. Early Hijokaidan performances were notorious not only for their all-out sonic assaults, but for the way they would push the boundaries of music and performance into the material domain (there are stories of Hijokaidan performances culminating in vomit and piss on stage). In the 1980s and 1990s, Hijokaidan was at the forefront of the kind of ‘power electronics’ style often associated with Japanese noise, which favoured feedback, distortion, and all the desiderata of sound and hearing. Over the years, Junko herself has developed a unique and unparalleled vocal style, both in her many collaborations and in solo projects (the pinnacle of which is the vinyl record Sleeping Beauty – a vocal noise performance on side A, and on side B the same track, in reverse).

Junko’s performance, which closed Saturday’s events, was so transparent it defies commentary. And yet, here I am, writing. In the main performance space of the Tramway – a large, cavernous, brick-lined hall, remnants of a long-gone railway station still in evidence – there is a bank of seats. In front of it, a modest stage, a diffuse spotlight, and a single microphone stand, flanked on either end by two towers of speakers, all black. In person Junko is unassuming, reserved and soft-spoken. On stage, things are different. Without further ado, Junko walks on stage and proceeds to shriek at full volume… for an hour. After which, she curtly bows and walks off the stage.

Now, it’s hard to impress anyone these days, and even harder to be sincere in your effort not-to-impress-anyone. And, in describing Junko’s performance, it’s hard to avoid the cynic’s reply that it’s just a conceptual piece, a one-liner. But, as old school as this sounds, something different happens when you’re there actually listening to Junko for the duration of an hour. At first the sheer cathartic intensity of her voice is what comes across. Junko’s shrieking is high-pitched and delivered in an unrelenting assault.

After this, you notice... subtleties in the shrieking. After all, not all screams are alike. Sometimes Junko seems to be speaking/screaming in a kind of made-up language, or a language spoken so loud that it breaks down into phonemes. At other times her voice trails off in a bizarre, frenetic vibrato, transforming the shrieking into a kind of ‘noise opera.’ And at other moments shrieking is simply that – a voice filling to absolute capacity the upper frequencies of hearing, a density that becomes so full that it is strangely flat, the space between your ears and Junko’s voice collapsed into a thick, aural, opacity. And all of this, by the way, without any effects or overdubbing – just a microphone and some very powerful lungs. Speaking, singing and screaming – all co-mingled and confused in a vocal cacophony that is at once self-effacing and defiant.

Haino’s performance, which closed Sunday’s events, takes up this theme of articulating and disarticulating the voice. In the same space, but in almost complete darkness, Haino presented a sequence of short vignettes, each one employing a different use of voice, at the limits of the voice. Proceeding methodically, Haino’s performance began with nearly inaudible, barely emitted squeaks, which evaporate as soon as they are heard, as light as smoke. Gradually these are interspersed with low, guttural rumblings that evoke those bass notes that you can feel in your stomach. This gives way to sections that employ stark contrasts in pitch and volume. Each time there is sound, there is also silence. Then, suddenly, a weird, falsetto supplication is shot forth, before dying away in the midst of the large, cavernous space of the Tramway.

With Haino, the result is to, in effect, undo the vocality of the voice; the voice does everything except vocalise as a voice, it does everything except sound like a voice, the voice becoming unhuman. Hanio’s vocal performances always elicit this idea of the voice as a form of unhuman expression, the voice extended beyond speaking, emoting or singing. Listening to this, in almost total darkness, along with everyone else in the audience, the effect is akin to visiting a planetarium – an acoustic planetarium with a stellar banshee as your tour guide. There are no planets or nebulae, but only sound on the verge of being emitted, or sound on the brink of dissipation.

In this performance, as in his other works, Haino makes no attempt to hide his fascination with mystical traditions, particularly those in which suffering is made manifest as sound. But in this case Haino’s supplications are interwoven with abrupt shifts in pitch, tone, or microphone feedback. The pleading voice is sometimes undermined by other sounds (feedback, distortion, sounds from the body), but these are themselves byproducts of the voice. In the end, the sonic drama Haino performs is that of the supplicating voice undermined by its own enunciation, by the innate fragility and dissipation of the voice’s failure to sustain itself. And so it tries again, and again it dissipates. Gradually Haino’s performance did take the voice into the terrain of noise, utilising a series of pedals to double back his voice on itself, eventually resulting in a wall of dense noise, where voice and feedback become the same. There was even a section where Haino appropriates elements of monophonic chant and the mantra, sounding like an eerie, forlorn, crooning monk. All of this gives the impression less of a performance or a musical composition, and more of the kind of askesis found in mystical traditions of the East and West – ‘voicing’ as a spiritual exercise, one in which the vocality of the voice is purged, in the process releasing strange, dissonant tones that are, in the end, only traces.
Different as they were, the performances by Haino and Junko remind us of the long-standing ambivalence of the voice in mystical traditions. In medieval mysticism, communication and mediation are all-important means of relating the divine to the human, often via a voice, a vision or the divinelogos itself. These divine ‘messages’ or intermediaries are then transmuted into language, and codified in the form of confessions, spiritual guidebooks and scholastic treatises. But the communication of the divine doesn’t always proceed so smoothly. Often words break down into mere shards of sound, and the message that is mediated encounters only a horrific muteness and the incapacitation of grammar.
Angela of Foligno, for instance, expressed her experience of the divine through an unhuman shrieking. Around 1291, Angela received a divine vision on her way to a church in Assisi. When this vision ceased, the overwhelming experience caused Angela to fall to the ground and begin screaming (somewhat melodramatically, as several townspeople and friars come to watch the spectacle). Angela described this feeling of dereliction in her Memorial:

I began to shout and to cry out without any shame: ‘Love still unknown, why do you leave me?’ I could not nor did I scream out any other words than these: ‘Love still unknown, why? Why? Why?’ Furthermore, these screams were so choked up in my throat that the words were unintelligible... As I shouted I wanted to die. It was very painful for me not to die and to go on living. After this experience I felt my joints become dislocated.ii

Angela’s vision is not just a divine voice but, more accurately, an unhuman voice, a voice that cannot be heard, a voice that Angela describes as ‘in and with darkness’, a voice that is ultimately ‘unspeakable’. The moment she recounts this episode to her scribe, who then reads it back to her, Angela strangely claims not to recognise the text at all.

Angela’s case is not unique in medieval mysticism, though her account contains among the most intense meditations on the relation between voice, word and sound. Hearing an indescribable, divine voice, Angela herself is overcome in a confusion of speaking and screaming, words broken down into a vocal suffering that eventually takes over her whole body.

This breakdown of the voice not only occurs with the divine but also with the demonic. Over a century prior to Angela’s experiences, the monk Guibert of Nogent recounts his confrontations with demons in his Monodiae, or ‘solitary songs’:

One night (in winter I believe) I was awakened by an intense feeling of panic. I remained in my bed and felt assured by the light of a lamp close by, which threw off a bright light. Suddenly I heard, not far above me, the clamor of what seemed to me many voices coming out of the dark of night, voices without words. The violence of the clamor struck my temples. I fell unconscious, as if in sleep, and I thought I saw appearing to me a dead man... Terrified by the spectre I leapt out of the bed screaming, and as I did so I saw the lamp go out.iii

Guibert’s account, not without its own dramatic flair, reads like a passage from the ghost story tradition of Algernon Blackwood or M.R. James. But, like Angela, it also details a supernatural, sonic exchange – to the cacophony of demonic voices, these ‘voices without words,’ Guibert himself can only scream in reply.

With both Angela and Guibert we have the expression of a sound that cannot itself be vocalised, anunsound that can only be negatively expressed in the collapse of sound and sense, speaking and screaming. What is articulated is not simply the perfectibility of a divine sound, nor is it the elegiac confidence of a human sound, a human poetry singing the harmony of the world. Instead, what we find in cases like those of Angela and Guibert is the articulation of the failure of the voice, its failure to speak, to enunciate, to communicate. The frailty of the human voice is given voice, at the same time that it becomes strangely unhuman. All this gives the failure of voice, this unsound, a tragic tone – a tone of lamentation or mourning of the voice, by the voice.

The classicist Nicole Loraux calls this the mourning voice. Set apart from the more official, civic rituals of funerary mourning, the mourning voice of Greek tragedy constantly threatens to dissolve song into wailing, music into moaning and the voice into a primordial, disarticulate anti-music. Juxtaposed to State mourning, Loraux argues for an ‘anti-political’ mourning that is, at the same time, not just apolitical. This is the mourning of Electra, Antigone, Cassandra, Iphigenia. As Loraux notes, in Greek tragedy, these scenes of excessive mourning not only threaten the more constrained, civic mourning of a funeral, but they also unbind all the discourses that constitute the polis, such that speech becomes screaming, and tears become curses or condemnations:

In passages like these, which depict threnody as a melodic wailing, it appears impossible to reduce lamentation to moaning. In almost every case, even if the cry dominates, music, whether it be soft or loud, is evoked at the same time.iv

The mourning voice delineates all the forms of threnos – tears, weeping, crying, sobbing, wailing, moaning, and the convulsions of thought reduced to the degree zero of intelligibility. Loraux again: ‘...in the tragic world all moaning tends to consider itself music.’v

While they exist in very different contexts, all these examples present us with a basic form of musical negation – a voice that undoes itself in its being ‘voiced,’ a voice without vocality, an unhuman voice. The mourning voices of Keiji Haino and Junko, of Angela of Foligno and Guibert of Nogent, and of Greek tragedy, all vocalise a negation inherent in the voice itself – words disintegrating into phonemes, speech buried in the viscera of the throat, weeping itself rendered as a song. This is perhaps where we might discover an anti-music that is not simply that of silence or found sound. Such an anti-music would have to be predicated on a certain failure of voice, and above all the failure of the human voice to speak at all – let alone speak reasonably.vi This anti-music would have to be a kind of pessimism of music, a sorrowful and studied negation of music, its luminous disintegration into a quiet noise, an infrasonic cacophony. In the collapsed space between the voice that speaks and the voice that sings, anti-music discovers its mourning voice. Between the failure of words and the song without lyrics, anti-music encounters the ultimate failure of sound and sense. In this form of sonic pessimism, sorrow, sighs and moaning become indistinguishable from music. And perhaps this aptly describes the core of what pessimism is: the disarticulation of phone and logos.

‘A Special Form of Darkness’
Arika, Episode II
24-26 February 2012

i While this isn’t an event review, it’s worth mentioning the participants, to give a sense of the range of work presented: an ‘abject noise’ performance by Deflag Haemorrhage/Haien Kontra, a sound and video installation by Walter Marchetti, a conversation between Ray Brassier and Thomas Metzinger, lectures by Mark Fisher and Alexi Kukuljevic, performances by Malin Arnell/Clara López/Imri Sandström (a re-enactment of a Gina Pane performance) and Dawn Kasper, a voice performance by Junko, a media lecture by Evan Calder Williams, an ‘inhuman Grand Guignol’ composition by Taku Unami, and a performance by Keiji Haino. I gave a reading of ‘Cosmic Pessimism.’ Throughout the event Iain Campbell also conducted a series of short performance pieces with audience participation.
ii Angela of Foligno, ‘The Memorial’, in The Complete Works, Paul Lachance (trans.), Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1993, p. 142.
iii Guibert of Nogent, A Monks Confession, Paul Archamabult (trans.), University Park: Penn State University Press, 2006, pp.51-52. Thanks to Nicola Masciandaro for introducing me to this work.
iv Nicole Loraux, The Mourning Voice: An Essay on Greek TragedyIthaca: Cornell University Press, 2002, p.59. Thanks to Barry Salmon for his ongoing conversations about Loraux's book.
v Ibid., p. 67.
vi This calls for a more extensive cross-cultural examination. See, for instance, Howard Slater's recent review of the 'outernational' vocalist and musician Ghédalia Tazartès (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/guttural-cultural), whose voice Slater at one point describes as 'gutteral sonorous inarticulacy.'


By Eugene Thacker

Image: Arthur Schopenhauer

Objectively pessimistic or just plain grouchy? Schopenhauer’s ethics, which threw out positive conceptions of freedom and the human will, might put anyone in a bad mood. But, writes Eugene Thacker, standing on the brink of manifold disasters we ‘humans’ have much to learn from this dismal world view
Do pessimists have an ethics? If they do, do they always expect the worst, even in the face of well intentioned actions? For that matter, wouldn’t the true pessimist be unethical, precisely in the sense that they would be incapable of action?
The problem is that pessimists still do things, even if all they do is complain. This is the double bind of a pessimist ethics – decision without efficacy, acting without believing, the abiding sense that, ultimately, everything will turn out for the worst, all will be for naught. We could peruse the highbrow halls of literature and philosophy for exemplars of pessimism, but perhaps this is the wrong place to look. Take the case of Glum, one of the characters in The Adventures of Gulliver, a cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera in the 1970s. In the cartoon, Glum was notorious for his pessimistic outlook, expressed in his monotone, droll phraseology: ‘We’ll never make it...’ or simply ‘We’re doomed...’ Glum not only stood out from his more optimistic, idealistic and chivalric counterparts (which was basically everyone else in Gulliver’s crew), but he often had the knack of delivering his pessimistic proclamations just when they would be the most unhelpful, (when taken prisoner, when drowning at sea, even when free-falling from a cliff) that is, when the gloomy fate of the adventurers seemed to beobvious beyond stating. Never mind that Gulliver’s crew seemed to be miraculously saved at the end of each episode; even the miracle itself was not enough to convert Glum, who never ceased to remark the futility of all action.
But Glum is not just a pessimist, he is also a part of Gulliver’s roving band of do-gooders. In other words, even though he never seems to tire of reminding us that ‘we’ll never make it’, Glum goes along with things all the same. A contradiction presents itself – in spite of his pessimistic attitude, Glum not only states the futility of all action, but he then goes on to act anyway. He does not leave Gulliver’s group, he does not shut himself up in a desert cave, he does not enjoy his solitude and write existential meditations on the virtues of suicide. Of course, there may be an eminently practical reason for this: to whom would Glum complain if he were alone? Yet nobody wants to hear him. In a sense, Glum’s droll pronouncements are a challenge to the ethical world view of Gulliver and his crew – that there is good and evil, that the difference between them can be discerned, that action can be moral and have moral effects, that the ‘healthy’ attitude for any adventurer in life is to be positive and try your best, that life is ‘out there’ to be lived. Glum is the dark stain on the glossy veneer of an ethics reduced to self-help. And yet he continues to go along with things.
At first glance, Schopenhauer – that arch-pessimist of philosophers – presents a similar case. Judging by his rather curmudgeonly outlook, it would appear that for Schopenhauer, ethics would be about as necessary to philosophy as self-consciousness to a stone. In fact, Schopenhauer often cited an analogy borrowed from Spinoza: if a stone thrown through the air were conscious, it would fancy that it moved itself through the air of its own will and of its own accord.
Until recently, readers would have had to look to Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, for anything like a pessimist ethics. In it one would find statements here and there about the suffering of the world, about how it is better not to have been born at all, and so on. But there is little in the way of a sustained, critical examination of the topic. Thankfully, a new English language series of Schopenhauer’s work will help to diversify the image of the pessimist philosopher; at long last, readers of Schopenhauer will have scholarly editions of his works available to them.i
The ‘Cambridge Edition of the Works of Schopenhauer’, edited by Christopher Janaway, published its first volume in 2009: The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, also edited and translated by Janaway, and comprising two long essays by Schopenhauer written several years after his better known work, The World as Will and Representation.ii The ethics essays not only build upon this latter work, but they also isolate a fascinating lacuna within Schopenhauer’s darkly cosmic metaphysics – in a world bereft of foundation or meaning, a world constituted by an indifferent, inhuman ‘Will’, how should one act?
Schopenhauer published The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics in book form in 1841. However the two texts in it were originally submitted to essay competitions. The first competition was hosted by the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences, for which Schopenhauer submitted his essay ‘On the Freedom of the Human Will’. The second competition was hosted by the Royal Danish Society of Sciences, for which Schopenhauer wrote the essay ‘On the Basis of Morals’. To his delight, Schopenhauer was awarded the top prize for the first essay. As Janaway notes in his introduction, this recognition was a boost for the now middle-aged Schopenhauer, struggling to gain recognition in the shadow of his more popular contemporaries Hegel, Fichte and Schelling – for whom Schopenhauer felt nothing but spite.
Delight soon gave way to chagrin, however, in the case of the second essay. Schopenhauer was the only person to submit an essay, and yet the Royal Danish Society refused to grant him a prize – or for that matter, any recognition at all. They pretended he didn’t exist. To add insult to injury, in their comments on Schopenhauer’s essay, the Royal Danish Society members would also reference ‘distinguished philosophers’ such as Hegel. One can only imagine the absurdity of the situation for the pessimist from Danzig. When Schopenhauer published both essays in book form in 1841, he made sure to note that the second essay was ‘not awarded a prize’, and added lengthy retorts and rants against the Royal Danish Society’s comments on the essay. He would also make incisive remarks concerning ‘journal writers sworn to the glorification of the bad’, of ‘paid professors of Hegelry’, of Hegel’s philosophy as a ‘colossal mystification that will provide even posterity with the inexhaustible theme of ridiculing our age’, and of German Idealism generally as a ‘pseudo-philosophy that cripples all mental powers.’
Fisticuffs aside, it is important to note that in the case of both essays, Schopenhauer was in effect prompted to write about ethics; he was prompted by the announcement of the competition itself, but also by the particular questions to which contestants were to reply. The questions posed by the organisers in each case provides Schopenhauer with something to push against, and I would argue that it is this kind of philosophical ‘resistance’ in his writing that makes The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics still relevant today.
In the first prize essay, the question (originally posed in Latin) was, ‘Can the freedom of the human will be proved from self-consciousness?’ For the second prize essay, the question, this time longer, was, ‘Is the source and basis of morals to be sought in an idea of morality that resides in consciousness, and in an analysis of the remaining basic moral concepts that arise out of it, or in another cognitive ground?’ To both questions Schopenhauer answers in the negative. No, he says, the human will is free only insofar as the ground of human will is free – that is, only insofar as a more fundamental, abstract, and non-human Will is free. For the second question Schopenhauer also answers no, and he even goes so far as to question the presumption that human morality has anything to do with reason at all, choosing to instead explore the concept of compassion (Mitleid) and the vaguely Eastern notion of loving kindness (Menschenliebe) as the basis for morality.
In The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer had attempted to radicalise Kant, presenting a two-sided view of the world. On the one hand the phenomenal world of appearances, bodies, objects and nature – the world of Representation; on the other hand, that which grounds that phenomenal world, but which is itself not any Representation, and is instead an anonymous, indifferent, blind striving – the world of Will. Schopenhauer remained convinced that, even though the world as Will remained inaccessible to us as human beings in the world of Representation, there was a connection between them, particularly in the living body. The body and life were, for Schopenhauer, this nexus of the Will in Representation, of an undifferentiated Will in an individuated human will, of the non-human in the human.
While this would seem to steer things inevitably towards an ethical philosophy, The World as Will and Representation does something altogether different. It is, of course, concerned with the human world and the human capacity for making sense of the world, but by the funereal fourth book of The World as Will and Representation, ethics drops away in favor of discussions on mysticism, Eastern philosophy, pessimism and the enigmatic idea of not-willing or ‘Willlessness’. To be more precise,The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics highlights a gap within The World as Will and Representation – how to connect the indifferent and inhuman world of Will with the all-too-human world of Representation?iii
In the first essay – ‘On the Freedom of the Will’ – Schopenhauer breaks down the long-standing debate in ethical philosophy over freedom and necessity. He distinguishes between different types of freedom (physical, intellectual, and moral), arguing that freedom is essentially a negative concept, the absence or removal of an obstacle to action. Schopenhauer’s primary target is the illusion of purely self-conscious acts, the presumption that freedom derives directly from willing (the notion that, as Schopenhauer says, ‘I am free if I can do what I will’). But what grounds this isomorphism of freedom and will? As Schopenhauer notes, one would have to inquire not just into the doing based on willing, but the willing of the willing of doing, and so on. One either follows this question to infinity, or one must presume a paradoxical groundless ground, a Will for all willing that does not itself will anything.

Likewise, Schopenhauer distinguishes three types of necessity (logical, mathematical, and physical). While he maintains the freedom-necessity pair, he also attempts to show that they can only be properly related outside the sphere of the human subject. If, as Schopenhauer argues, freedom is a negative concept, then it is also the absence of necessity. But the absence of necessity, taken to its logical conclusion, entails a notion of ‘absolute contingency’: ‘So the free, as absence of necessity is its distinguishing mark, would have to be that which simply depended on no cause whatsoever, and would have to be defined as absolutely contingent; a highly problematical concept, whose thinkability I do not vouch for, but which in a strange way coincides with that of freedom.’iv Passages like these betray, in an interesting way, Schopenhauer’s ongoing ambiguity surrounding ethics – particularly the investment of good faith in the human that Schopenhauer thinks he needs in order to think about ethics at all. In an analogy he develops later on, Schopenhauer likens the human being’s bloated over-reliance on free will and choice as being as absurd as a self-conscious pool of water: ‘That is exactly as if water were to speak: “I can strike up high waves (yes! in the sea and storm), I can rush down in a hurry (yes! in the bed of a stream), I can fall down foaming and spraying (yes! in a fountain)… and yet I am doing none of that now, but I am staying with free will calm and clear in the mirroring pond.”’v
If the first essay is primarily concerned with critiquing the individuationist and humanist notion of ethical action (freedom vs. necessity), then the second essay – ‘On the Basis of Morality’ – tackles the broader question of the ground of ethics itself. It is no wonder Schopenhauer was not granted a prize for this essay – from the start he contentiously implies the stupidity of the question, while also noting the ‘exuberant difficulty’ of the problem of grounds. Here Schopenhauer’s target is Kant; but his extended critique of Kant is also laced with admiration. As Schopenhauer notes, Kant’s greatest contribution to ethical philosophy was to tear it away from eudaimonia (happiness, well-being). Whereas for the ancients virtue and happiness were identical, for the moderns virtue and happiness are related as ground and result. The axiomatic approach of Kant focuses less on eudaimonia and more on the practical aspect of ethical action. But here Schopenhauer is quite critical, for Kant’s categorical imperative, with its emphasis on the ‘ought’, can only lead to the absurd idea of a totalising ‘ought’:

In a practical philosophy we have to do not with providing grounds for what happens but rather laws for what ought to happen even if it never does… Who tells you that what never happens ought to happen?vi

In short, Schopenhauer sees in Kant’s categorical imperative a church masquerading as a court of law: ‘Conceiving ethics in an imperative form, as doctrine of duty, and thinking of the moral worth or unworthiness of human actions as fulfilment or dereliction of duties, undeniably stems, together with the ought, solely from theological morals, and in turn from the Decalogue.’vii Schopenhauer later riffs on Kant’s ethics as having a mystical, ‘hyperphysical’ core:

[…] in the Kantian school practical reason with its categorical imperative appears as a hyperphysical fact, as a Delphic temple in the human mind, from whose murky sanctuary oracular utterances announce without fail not, unfortunately, what will happen, but what ought to happen.viii

And here we see Schopenhauer directly attempting to build a bridge between the ontological claims ofThe World as Will and Representation and the ethical claims of The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. The upshot of this, as Schopenhauer chooses to state with some subtlety, is that ‘in this the human being is no exception to the rest of nature.’ix That is, insofar as freedom is impersonal and unhuman, the human is simply part of a larger field that is at once metaphysical and ethical. Paradoxically, Schopenhauer’s thinking moves towards something we can only call an unhuman ethics.

Of course, the major challenge is how to re-conceive of ethics given this unhuman metaphysics. In the second essay Schopenhauer gives us hints of such an ethics, setting up two pairs of ethical concepts: the poles of self-oriented action and other-oriented action, and the poles of well-being and woe. From this he derives his two key ‘positive’ concepts that close the essay: that of compassion (Mitleid) and that of loving-kindness (Menschenliebe). He shifts the debate away from the preoccupation with human reason and law. At the same time, his discussion on compassion remains open-ended; one senses that for Schopenhauer compassion is not limited to the feeling of one human being for another, but that it can be open to perhaps, strange, unhuman compassions – with the animal, the plant, the rock, the ocean, the cloud, the swarm, the number, the concept, or what have you. Such compassions, such instances of ‘suffering-with’, can range from sentiments of dread and horror to sentiments of affinity and the loss of self. Similarly, Schopenhauer’s ever-eccentric appropriation of Eastern thought, and his concept of loving-kindness is not simply a love of the human for the human, but quite the opposite – one loves the human only as a starting point for loving the unhuman.

Here it is important to note that Schopenhauer’s pessimism is of a particular type. Philosophical pessimism is generally of two types: a moral pessimism and a metaphysical pessimism. In moral pessimism, one expresses an attitude about the world that takes the worst possible view of things. The moral pessimist at his or her height can take any phenomenon, no matter how apparently joyful, beneficial, or happy, and turn it into the worst possible scenario (even if only to note that every positive only paves the way for a negative). This is the typical view of the glass being half-empty. Note that moral pessimism is pessimistic because its view is pessimistic, irrespective of what is happening in the world. The tendency to take the worst view of things, or the tendency to always expect the worst, is about an interpretation of the world, not about the world in itself.

This changes once one moves from moral pessimism to metaphysical pessimism. In the former one expresses an attitude about the world, whereas in the latter one makes claims about the world itself. This is the view that it is the objective property of all glass in itself to be partially empty. Metaphysical pessimism is more than just a bad attitude, it makes claims about the way in which the world in itself is structured or ordered. For the metaphysical pessimist, the world itself is ordered in the worst possible way and is structured such that it always leads to the worst possible ends. For the metaphysical pessimist, saying that this is the worst of all possible worlds is less a case of being grumpy and more a statement about the radical antagonism between the world itself and our wants and desires.

While Schopenhauer expresses both of these types of pessimism, he remains dissatisfied with both, for both rely on a stable division between a human subject and a non-human world within which the subject is embedded. The only difference is that with moral pessimism, we have a subjective attitude about the worst of all possible worlds, and with metaphysical pessimism we have an objective claim about the worst of all possible worlds. But both views, being concerned with ‘the worst’, implicitly rely on an anthropocentric view – either one is stuck with a bad attitude or one is stuck in a bad world. (As Sid Waterman once noted, ‘I see the glass half full, but full of poison.’)

So, while Schopenhauer himself was a curmudgeon, and while he does state that this is the worst of all possible worlds, his philosophy ultimately moves towards a third type of pessimism, one that he never names but which perhaps we can christen: a cosmic pessimism.x For Schopenhauer, the logical endpoint of pessimism is to question the self-world dichotomy that enables pessimism to exist at all. But such a move would entail a shift away from the relation and difference between self and world, human and non-human, subjective attitude and objective claim. Instead, it would entail a move towards an indifference, an indifference of the world to the self, even of the self to the self. Cosmic pessimism would therefore question even the misanthropy of moral and metaphysical pessimism, for even this leaves us as human beings with a residual consolation – at least the world cares enough to be ‘against’ us. Schopenhauer’s cosmic pessimism questions ethical philosophy’s principle of sufficient reason – that there is an inherent order to the world that is the ground that enables reliable judgements to be made regarding moral and ethical action. It also questions the fundamental relation between ethics and action, whether of the Aristotelian first principles type, the Kantian-axiomatic type, or the modern cognitivist-affectivist type. Cosmic pessimism seems to move towards an uncanny zone of passivity, ‘letting be’, even a kind of liminal quietism in which non-being is the main category. In cosmic pessimism, this ‘indifference’ is the horizon of all ethics. As an ethics, this is, surely, absurd. And this is perhaps why Schopenhauer’s ethics ultimately ‘fails’.

Despite their different orientations, The World as Will and Representation and The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics are united by a common approach, and that is an inversion of metaphysics and ethics. Schopenhauer tends to begin with human experience, even and especially if that experience is one that mitigates against the illusory coherence of the subject. All of Schopenhauer’s rants concerning pessimism and the limits of human knowledge dovetail on this strange counter-experience, the experience that the subject is not a subject, the experience of the dissolving of the principum individuationis. Part of Schopenhauer’s strategy is to undo the notion that the subject is separate from the world it experiences, that it relates to, and that it produces knowledge about. Part of his strategy is also to prod the notion, which he inherits from Kant, that there is an inaccessible, unknowable, noumenal world ‘in itself’ from which we are forever barred access. Both of these issues deal with the problematic category of the human – the human being as living in a human-centric world, accessible or not, that always exists ‘for us’ as human beings.

The question of ethics becomes especially pertinent here. Schopenhauer’s essays refuse relying on either the human individual or the group as its foundation, much less any discussion on human nature, the state of nature, or what have you. Schopenhauer also refuses relying on either intuition (or any innate, moral faculty) or law (as in the axiomatism of Kant). Instead, Schopenhauer zooms-out from the traditional, humanist ethical discourse to the larger issues of ethics as the self-world relation – or, really, ethics as the impossibility of this relation. In fact, while Schopenhauer does not go this far, I am tempted to suggest that The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, when read alongside The World as Will and Representation, poses the problem of an ethics without the human. Given our current concerns with climate change and global disasters, the time would seem ripe for an exploration into such an ethics. But an unhuman ethics would have to avoid both the pole of an all-too-human ethics (in which ethics takes place exclusively and solely within the spheres of law and policy), and the pole of a romantic ethics (in which the ethics of animals or the environment presumes a naïve notion of nature).

The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics puts forth some key philosophical points that resonate deeply with our so-called posthuman era. The first is that Schopenhauer displaces the ethical discourse of free will by externalising human will as an unhuman Will. He does this through a questioning of the basis of human will and his negative concept of freedom. Though he does not name the anonymous, abstract Will as such, his critique of the human-ethical subject points in this direction. And this leads to another point, which is that Schopenhauer constantly shifts the scale of his discussion of ethics beyond the human institutions of religion, law or politics. This is a contentious point, for, as Schopenhauer well knows, this non-human aspect of the world can never be proved as such (nor would any such proof prove anything). But in his criticisms of the traditional terms of ethical philosophy, one senses Schopenhauer’s ontological commitment to some metaphysical principle in excess of the human. And it is here that The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics comes into focus. Schopenhauer does not divide the unhuman Will from the human, all-too-human will, but is constantly at pains to show their immanence to each other, the Will in the will (or Will-in-will), as it were. The individuated human being is what he wills, but this will is also the Will, the human also the unhuman.


By Eugene Thacker

Increasingly DIY and nihilistic, it's not surprising that contemporary philosophy is drawn to the untilled fields of undead subculture. Recent book, Hideous Gnosis, unleashes a bloodthirsty plague of para-academic commentary upon Black Metal, but, asks contributor Eugene Thacker, ‘how to talk about a music that refuses to be talked about?’
The book Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium is based on a symposium held in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in December of 2009. Now, for many, the idea of an academic symposium dedicated to black metal is about as ridiculous as a black metal band with songs like ‘The Subculture of the Tritone Chord and its Posthuman Discontents’ or ‘The Hegemony of Your BiopoliticalJouissance. Certainly those familiar with the various mutations of cultural studies – particularly in the US – will not be surprised to find academics talking about culture and music. But that metal, that most anti-intellectual of all musics, could be the topic of intellectual inquiry would seem to be the height of absurdity. Either these guys take themselves way too seriously, or they’re so self-aware of being ‘meta’ that they end up enjoying themselves just a little less. One imagines professors giving the ‘horns’ sign during a lecture for emphasis (definitively replacing the more tentative ‘bunny quotes’ gesture). At the very least one would hope to find all speakers donning corpse paint or monkish, hooded robes. Whatever the case, the event caught the attention of the New York Times, which ran an article on it immediately.i A short time after the symposium, the talks – along with additional essays – were collected together in book form as Hideous Gnosis (a second symposium, entitled ‘Melancology’, is planned for January 2011 and will be held in a London anatomy theatre).
Hideous Gnosis Book
Image: Hideous Gnosis book
I’m being a little droll here because I myself am one of the contributors to the Hideous Gnosis book. Whether one comes to it from philosophy, cultural studies, political theory, or some other field, cultural commentary always places one in a tenuous position. As a scholar and academic one treats the material one is commenting on with a certain degree of seriousness and rigour; but as a fan (or consumer…) one is also aware that, at the end of the day, it’s all a big joke. So I begin this review with the following: ‘black metal theory’ not only challenges what is or isn’t black metal, but it also challenges what cultural commentary is, and the claims it makes.
The symposium and Hideous Gnosis book is the brainchild of Nicola Masciandaro, who teaches at Brooklyn College and is trained in medieval literary studies. Hideous Gnosis is a strange kind of book – it’s not exactly an academic anthology, in that the texts range from poetic evocations of black voids, to black metal manifestos, to band interviews, to historical essays and scholastic commentary. It’s also not quite music journalism, in that many of the texts are quite demanding, freely dropping quotes from Carl Schmitt, Arthur Schopenhauer or Michel Foucault instead of album reviews or the requisite history of the genre.
In music writing of this type, one typically finds a focus on one of four things: musical form, lyrical content, subculture and aesthetics, or politics and ideology. Each contribution to the volume touches on all of these to varying degrees, but what really distinguishes the writing in Hideous Gnosis is that each contribution revolves around a fundamental contradiction: how to talk about a music that refuses to be talked about? Or better: how to think about a music that negates all thought (in so far as ‘thought’ denotes order, system, and the production of knowledge – by human beings, for human beings)? As Masciandaro has noted in an interview, ‘there’s lots of resentment toward a sensible discourse around black metal… . Its center of gravity is an essential negativity…’ii
Poster for Hideous Gnosis - A Black Metal Symposium
Image: Poster for Hideous Gnosis - Black Metal Theory Symposium
This central antagonism runs through nearly all the writing in Hideous Gnosis. That no one can agree on what is or is not black metal is not surprising – every music genre is defined by such debates. What’s more interesting is that in Hideous Gnosis, each attempt to think about black metal also puts itself forth as an antagonism, as a negation – an anti-natural nature, an anti-political politics, and an anti-philosophical philosophy.
Some of the authors think about black metal in terms of nature – but a concept of nature quite different from the romantic-hippie view of a nature beneficial for us (much less a nature we are ordained to save), as well as from the blood-and-soil view of nationalism. A casual look at black metal album covers and song lyrics reveals an ambivalent approach to nature, at once predatory and decaying, undergoing a constant metamorphosis that produces nothing. This is reflected in much of the writing: Steven Shakespeare’s more poetic text evokes pantheism, Schelling, and the idea of ‘absolute sound’; Aspasia Stephanou traces the motif of the wolf, lycanthropy and the forest in black metal; and Anthony Sciscione comments on its themes of cold and fire.
Other authors think of black metal in terms of politics – but a politics that attempts to avoid the poles of right and left, nationalism or ecology. Scott Wilson discusses the concept of sovereignty in the history of political thought, contrasting the archetype of the warrior to the soldier in black metal; Joseph Russo points out the central role that the body plays in black metal, albeit an ambivalent body of decay and rot; and in a sort of tête-à-tête the essays by Benjamin Noys and Evan Calder Williams approach black metal from different viewpoints – Noys questions both the left-wing and right-wing tendencies of black metal (both retaining a fidelity to Carl Schmitt’s maxim ‘remain true to the earth’), while Williams sees black metal as raising the stakes on what politics can mean, imagining a body politic without a head, a ‘war by the human in the name of the inhuman.’iii Whereas for Williams, black metal’s antagonism is really about the ‘war of totality against itself’, for Noys the best black metal can manage is the kind of self-reflexive ‘meta-fascism’ one can also find in punk and industrial music.
In addition to nature and politics, still others in the Hideous Gnosis volume think of black metal in terms of philosophy – or mysticism – because in black metal they increasingly become one and the same. Erik Butler examines black metal in relation to early modern monastic traditions; Hunter Hunt-Hendrix provides a manifesto for ‘transcendental black metal’; Masciandaro utilises the medievalcatena or ‘chain’ form of writing to comment on the relation between black metal and cosmos (order); Niall Scott provides some ruminations on black metal as a form of religious confession; and my own contribution borrows the Scholastic quaestione to trace the role of demons and demonology vis-à-vis black metal.
Whether Hideous Gnosis definitively answers questions about nature, politics, or religion is beside the point. Nearly all the contributors agree that there is something here worth thinking about, though what that is differs a great deal from one text to another. Strangely, while I imagine the Hideous Gnosiscontributors are also fans of the music, almost no one defends black metal, at least not to the hilt. And, in a way, black metal is indefensible – which makes it both appealing and frustrating for the philosopher.
Poster for Melancology - Black Metal symposium pt2
Image: Poster for Melancology - Black Metal symposium part II
Music and language exist in an antagonistic relation to one another. The most verbose and baroque of writers often trip up when writing about music and its effects – for instance, while music was central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy, in The World as Will and Representation he only manages to scribble down a few paragraphs, and even those are riddled with vague comments about music as some kind of inhuman, cosmic ‘Will’. At the same time, music bears a close relationship to poetry, with its emphasis on meter, cadence and rhyme. Many a classical composer has set pieces to poems – indeed western classical music, from the liturgical texts of Christian masses to modern opera, is so closely tied to language that it is nearly impossible to separate them. This back-and-forth is perhaps best symbolised by John Cage’s anthology of writings, scores and performance texts enigmatically entitled Silence.
If there is an antagonism between music and language, things get even more messy when we consider language about music. There’s something superfluous about music criticism, let alone something so grotesque as a philosophy of music. As with any specialised field, everyone has their opinion, debates ebb and flow, and the alibi of subjective aesthetic experience serves to keep the discussion or debate alive.
All of this is fine. But it is when we come up against a music that is so saturated with antagonism – both internally and in its relation to the world – that we see how these antagonisms endemic to music become apparent. I would argue that black metal is an example of such a music. There is a certain impasse in black metal, an abyss at its core that is, in a way, what black metal is. My own take – and many may disagree with this – is that the abyss at the core of black metal shares many affinities with negative theology, and what scholars often refer to as ‘darkness mysticism’.iv I would even argue that to understand black metal beyond a music genre, a marketing category, or a subcultural style, and to understand it aesthetically and politically, one has to read Dionysius the Areopagite or John of the Cross. This is the musical equivalent of negative theology – without god. One of my favorite quotes from Hideous Gnosis comes from Erik Butler, who reminds us of why metal is heavy:
The heaviest metal found on Earth is uranium: enriched uranium is plutonium, a substance that conjures up the Lord of the Dead. Heavier elements occur only in space, where Pluto mournfully orbits the Sun at a distance of 3,666 million miles. Somewhere still farther off in the void floats the philosopher’s stone, black metal.v

We live in a time of levitation; everything from the information we process to the bodies we wear is portrayed as weightless, mutable, and subject to infinite, personalised variation. At the same time, we are constantly reminded of just how leaden and earth-bound we are, from the thick, viscous oil that seeps onto the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, to the sheer biomass of waste produced by the world’s major cities. Perhaps this is why metal is heavy – not because it is about nature, politics, or religion, but because it gets at a central ambivalence surrounding material culture.
I’m also reminded of Blake’s famous line about the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of industrial London – perhaps mills similar to the steel factories outside the schoolhouse in Aston, where a young Tony Iommi listened to their incessant, inhuman churning.

Nicola Masciandaro (ed.), Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium, New York: Createspace, 2010.
ii Ibid.
iii Hideous Gnosis, p. 136.
iv On darkness mysticism see Denys Turner, The Darkness of God, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
v Ibid., p. 30.


i For years, those reading Schopenhauer in English have had to make do with the Dover editions which, while important, left something to be desired for the student and scholar. In addition, the advent of inexpensive, print-on-demand technologies has issued in a flurry of Schopenhauer reprints, but with varying degrees of editorial quality – many are marred by poor copy editing, uneven translation and even poor page layout and design. Given this, this series is a welcome intervention.
ii The bibliophile in me cannot help but make some rather unctuous comments on the book itself. In a publishing climate afflicted by successive cutbacks, Cambridge has, thankfully, spared no expense – the cloth edition is printed on thick, high quality paper, along with a minimal yet classy jacket design. Janaway, a leading Schopenhauer scholar, editor and translator, has included an informative introduction, along with bibliography, varia from different editions, a glossary and other elements one expects to find in scholarly editions.
iii Schopenhauer wrote the two ethics essays after the first edition of The World as Will and Representation; but he would also produce two further editions following The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. In a sense, then, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics stands in between the early and later Schopenhauer.
iv Schopenhauer, The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, Christopher Janaway, (ed. and trans.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 36.
v Ibid., p. 63.
vi Ibid., p. 125.
vii Ibid., p. 129.
viii Ibid., p. 148. Given this critique, Schopenhauer does rescue certain elements of Kant’s ethical philosophy. In particular, Schopenhauer does something interesting with the freedom-necessity pair he had already examined in the first essay. Necessity, as sufficient ground, is an extension of the phenomenal world of appearance, the domain of the individuated human will, what Schopenhauer calls the ‘empirical character’ of the human being. To this is contrasted freedom, which Schopenhauer had already defined in terms of absolute contingency, and which he allies with the Kantian noumenal world, the Will in itself that is nevertheless manifest in the human being, what Schopenhauer calls the ‘intelligible character’.
ix Ibid., p. 174.
x Cosmic pessimism is further explored in my In The Dust of This Planet – Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, Zero Books, 2011.


By Eugene ThackerDouble Negative Feedback' expresses the hope that the chaos unleashed by the cybernetic loops
Image: Still from Nino Oxilia's Rapsodia Satanica (1917)
Doomed divas, the stars of Italian silent cinema, bring the sacrificial passions of the mystic down to earth, producing new and radical effects - writes Eugene Thacker
I begin with the closing scene from the 1917 film Rapsodia Satanica (Satanic Rhapsody), directed by Nino Oxilia. In it, a demon appears to the aged Countess Alba D'Oltravita, played by silent film diva Lyda Borelli. The demon makes her an offer: you will have eternal youth and beauty, but in return you will forever be unable to love. The Countess accepts this Faustian bargain - beauty for love - and what ensues in the film is a series of wonderfully torrid, impassioned, and ultimately tragic love affairs, as the young Countess, now the impresario of the Castle of Illusion, struggles to confront her life as ahorror vacui. In the final scenes of the film, the Countess (as if having come to the realisation that love is indeed colder than death), finds herself inside a room littered with roses. From there she enters a room of mirrors, where she finds herself lost amid shrouds and dim lights. From this play of images she slowly wanders outside into a courtyard, with the night breeze blowing her shroud over her face. She continues to wander beyond the courtyard and into the dark forest ahead. With only her silhouette visible, we see her gradually disappear into the embrace of an enigmatic and shadowy figure.
The dense symbolism of films like Satanic Rhapsody is at once classical and modern. The play of rose and mirror is juxtaposed with the modernist dilemma of nature (outdoor gardens, forests, and lakes) versus artifice (Art Nouveau interiors and ornamented design). And these, of course, turn back on the dilemma of gender, passion and subjectivity in the era of industrial factories, war and Futurism. During this period, the Italian silent film brought together elements of culture that not only helped to shape modern film genres, but more importantly prompted reflection about the spiritual and the material. Films such as L'Inferno (1911; an adaptation of Dante) and Maciste all'inferno (1924) outlined the contours of the horror film, with their struggles between good and evil, and fantastic voyages to the underworld. Other films, such as Assunta Spina (1915), Malombra (1917), and Ma l'Amor Mio non Muore (1913; Everlasting Love) did the same for melodrama and romance, placing strong, often defiant, female characters within the turbulent confines of European modernity.
Angela Dalle Vacche's book Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema is a wonderful account of this period and these dilemmas. But my reason for writing about it here has less to do with film studies, gender politics or modernism than with the astounding performances in these films.i We know the basic plots of many of them - complex, conflicted characters drawn into sordid love affairs that obviously are not going to work out, resulting in unrequited love, melancholy, madness or death. This is the birth of melodrama in film. And with these films comes a host of issues particular to the time and place of their production - the modern woman, the city and the factory, new forms of class struggle and so on. But what still amazes me today are the scenes in nearly every diva film, in which the main female character - played by divas such as Francesca Bertini, Pina Menichelli, and Lyda Borelli - has a cataclysmic revelation about the essentially tragic nature of her love, and possibly all love, insofar as it is intimately related to loss and death. These revelations far surpass the revelation of the first flowerings of love. They are affective realisations, and their main manifestation is in and through the flesh. The whole body is wracked with convulsions of emotional terror, the eyes bug out transfixed on a point far away in space, people around one don't know how to react, one's hair comes undone, and one's clothes are formless and dishevelled (make-up is still intact but that's only because it heightens the emotional effect).
Image: Still from Nino Oxilia's Rapsodia Satanica (1917)
These sorts of scenes are so bizarre that to reduce them to psychoanalysis (e.g. hysterical fits) seems too tame; really they evoke pre-modern accounts of demonic possession or its exact inverse, mystical ecstasy. What is interesting about the diva films is their undercurrent of terror and tragedy - a Gothic love that exclaims, as the heroine of a certain film does, ‘only in death can we truly belong to one another.' Or, as the characters in another diva film state, ‘in the graveyard of the soul, love will bloom.' I would even say that these films are exemplary of a modernist secular discourse surrounding mysticism and the forms of its mediation. But there's a difference from the traditional accounts of the mystical itinerary - the primary way in which the diva film interrogates mystical experience is not via prayer, but via passion.
Passion is strange. On the one hand, we are accustomed to the romantic notion of passion as tied up with a range of emotional and psychological states that are, for better or worse, peculiarly human states. One may have a passion for music or film, one may have feelings of passion for another person, and there are of course crimes of passion. But philosophers tell us again and again that passions are neither within our control, nor are they about us as human beings living out our human natures. Descartes, for example, wrote a treatise known as The Passions of the Soul (Les passions de l'âme, c. 1649), in which he emphasised the connection between passions in the baser, more mechanistic sense (as with the instinctual drives of animals), and passions as they touch the human spirit, making the subject not only aware of his or her passions, but moving them to action based on them. The discourse on passions during the Enlightenment would take this further, as shown in the works of Kant, Burke and Adam Smith on the passions. There is an economy of passions intimately tied to moral and ethical discourse, an economy that ranges from empathy to antipathy.
Image: One of Lyda Borelli's moments of cataclysmic revelation
But it is Spinoza who gives us what is perhaps the strangest and, in a way, most uncompromisingly materialist view of passion. Passion is at once the most extreme form of human expression, and yet the most unhuman, anonymous and alien thing. In Spinoza's metaphysics, passions are a material and energetic property of the world, and while we human beings may have an acute awareness of passions acting in and through us, there is no reason to think that passions begin or end with the human subject. The key to understanding passions, for Spinoza, lies in their ‘passive' quality. Passions have a strange anonymity to them; they appear to come from without, invading and possessing the self until we mistake the effect for the cause. Anterior to what we feel, to the feelings that we possess and that are our feelings, there is the background flux of affecting and being affected (the ‘modes'), and ultimately of a single continuum coursing through the world (‘substance'). In Spinoza's world, we seem to be effects of a cause that we as human beings can neither intuit nor comprehend.
This idea of ‘unhuman passion' is at the centre of early cinema, particularly those films that deal with passion in the genres of horror and melodrama. Dalle Vacche's book provides a case study for the latter genre. She focuses on the figure of the diva in early Italian film - actresses who portray female characters who at once refuse the normative roles placed before them (both cinematic and social), while also choosing to embrace the passions that possess them. The diva is, without a doubt, a highly romanticised figure in the history of film, often represented as a strong female character who loves defiantly and uncompromisingly. Because of this, the roles played by silent film divas such as Lyda Borelli are often tragic roles - in many instances, love unavoidably overlaps with death.
However, the point is not simply about unrequited love, illicit affairs or the allures of the femme fatale. Instead, Dalle Vacche points to links between the terms diva and divine, suggesting that the diva in early melodrama is really a modernist incarnation of the mater dolorosa - the sorrowful mother, an archetype in Renaissance art (most famously portrayed in Michelangelo's Pietà). The diva is thus placed ambivalently ‘within an oscillation between mystical-visionary and hysteric-melancholic postures.' Indeed, many scenes from diva films feature long takes that function as a sort of tableau vivant of the mater dolorosa, the diva frozen in a cataclysm of melancholy, depression or mourning.
Image: Michelangelo's Pietà housed in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
But while the Renaissance mater dolorosa was governed by the motifs of maternal sacrifice, the silent film diva represents a challenge to this classical link between passion and mysticism. The Renaissance mater dolorosa is self-sacrificing and self-effacing before a paternalistic God and a sacrificial son. Divine law governs the passion and suffering of this figure. The silent film divas do not simply reverse this by resorting to the '80s power-suit version of gender politics. Instead, in many films the diva undergoes a self-effacing process, one that both challenges social norms, while making the diva's relation to gender ambivalent. Either the diva is forced to normalise - and we feel a different kind of tragedy take place - or the diva opts for the only avenue left open, her own death. Despite the themes of illicit romance and lost love, in Dalle Vacche's hands the diva film is really about the horizon of gender, and the horizon of the human itself. In fact, one could argue that in some diva films it is the human itself that is effaced. As Dalle Vacche notes, ‘the society in which the diva lives accepts a woman only if she fits within a self-effacing role of some kind [...] her general way of suffering stems from either the painful choice to remain in the past or the lonely decision to break the rules.'ii If the Renaissance mater dolorosa represents a sacrifice of the divine for the human (Christ as the sacrificed god-man), then the diva film represents the sacrifice of the human for the divine - but ‘divine' understood here more in terms of passion and the unhuman. Clearly, there is no happy ending to the diva film. But it is equally clear that, in challenging gender as a whole, the diva's defiance is also directed towards the human per se. And it is passion that becomes the means, or the medium, through which the diva effaces the human.
It is in this sense that the diva's melo-dramatic itinerary bears more similarity to the mystical itinerary than to the banal and interminable therapeutics of the modern, psychoanalytic subject. I think this is the underlying critical point of Dalle Vacche's study, and indeed of early melodrama film in general. In her book, Dalle Vacche shows how an intersection of influences informed the diva film: early 20th century theosophy and occultism, Bergsonian vitalism, Gramscian Marxism, the Decadentism of D'Annunzio, the Ballet Russes, Art Nouveau fashion and the motif of the circus. But the thread that runs through all these influences is that of the diva as the mystic of modernity. In the diva film, passion is always embodied - wracked with suffering, the diva's body contorts and twists, is suddenly stiff with grief, then slumps into an inert mass on the bed or the floor. Passion is always material - the diva's clothes become shapeless, formless shrouds around her body, contrasted by the stark, minimalist set design that surrounds her. The diva is spiritual precisely in this material sense.
The diva brings together a densely embodied sense of passion with a spiritual affectivity that can only be described as demonic or ecstatic. While many diva films inevitably lead to the diva's death, the diva film rarely dwells on her corpse. Neither is there any vision of beatific light. Instead, as in the closing scenes of Satanic Rhapsody, the diva simply abandons the entire theatre of human drama; she wanders off into the night forest, having already disappeared behind veils of clothing, curtains and partitions. This type of mysticism, in which it is the human itself that is sacrificed, brings together the erotic and the mystical, leading to what Georges Bataille described as ‘the gulfs of terrifying darkness that belong equally to them both.'iii In this moment, exemplary of the ‘dying to oneself' found in so many mystical texts, the diva embodies this ambivalent combination of the height of passion with the depths of sorrow. ‘At the very moment when it is poured out in extravagant profusion life has an aim that seems to contradict the losses it so feverishly makes sure of.'iv

Eugene Thacker <thackere@newschool.edu> is a New York based writer and the author of Horror of Philosophy (forthcoming from Zero Books). He teaches at The New School and is a scholar-in-residence at the Miskatonic University Colloquy for Inexistent Cryptobiology
Angela Dalle Vacche, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, University of Texas Press, 2008

i Clips of the diva films are available on the book's accompanying DVD, Diva Dolorosa.
ii Angela Della Vache, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, p.7.
iii Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), p.222.
iv Ibid., p.231.


By Eugene Thacker,
Demonology is not simply the study of demons, but of noise's assault on signal - a media theoryavant la lettre, writes Eugene Thacker

According to Socrates, it was a demon that prevented him from entering a career in politics:
It began in my early childhood - a sort of voice which comes to me, and when it comes it always dissuades me from what I am proposing to do [...] It is this that debars me from entering public life, and a very good thing too, in my opinion, because you may be quite sure, gentlemen, that if I had tried long ago to engage in politics, I should long ago have lost my life, without doing any good either to you or to myself.'i
While we may thank Socrates for listening to his demon, the demon's presence is not some miraculous event, but an everyday phenomenon; the daimon is always by his side, and it obtains a strange intimacy, always keeping him company, and, in this case at least, providing good advice.
Image: Still from William Friedkin's The Exorcist, 1973
But aside from Socrates, we hear little about the demons of other philosophers. Perhaps this is because philosophers, being reliant on their principles of sufficient reason, have no need of a companion-demon. The second a demon appears to Descartes in the midst of his Meditations, it is just as quickly dismissed by him. With this in mind, let us begin with the following: while philosophers have spent much time debating the opposition between being and non-being, theology spends its time thinking about inbetween being, intermediary being, or being-in-the-middle.
For theologians such as Aquinas, such intermediary beings, such as angels, served an important function: they not only provided a conceptual and doctrinal guarantee that there was indeed a reliable connection between the earthly and the divine, but they also served to manage, govern, and mediate that boundary itself. While God may forever lie beyond the pale of human comprehension, and while human beings are, well, just all-too-human, it is in that middle zone of angels, demons, and other ‘spiritual creatures' that everything happens. Early Judeo-Christian theology, with its complicated amalgam of pagan and Neoplatonic influences, imagines a whole cosmology, a ‘celestial hierarchy' extending from the divine itself to the lowliest worm that feeds on corpses. Angels (angelos) are by definition messengers and mediators; sometimes they actually deliver messages from the enigmatic muteness of God to chattering, noisesome human beings, and at other times they simply serve to govern the boundary between earth and the heavens - an angel of protection, an angel of vengeance, a recording angel...
This is all well and good for the orthodox and the faithful. But what happens when the intermediary beings fail to mediate? Or when they refuse to mediate? What happens when they negate the very act of mediation, in a kind of negative mediation? This of course is the story of the fallen angels. So for every angel, upholding and governing the order of the cosmos, there is an anti-angel that perturbs, destroys, and disorders; for every angelology there is also a demonology. Demonology is, on a historical level, part and parcel of the long, dark history of persecutions, inquisitions, and witch hunts in early modern Europe. As a field of study it was less given to metaphysical speculation and more to the pragmatic task of defining, classifying, and demonising activities that were deemed heretical to the Church. That said, treatises of demonology - many of them written as how-to manuals by inquisitors - also contain within them a fascinating set of concepts concerning communication and noise, connection and disconnection, mediation and anti-mediation.
It is this context that I find Armando Maggi's book Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology of great interest. Maggi has written a great deal on demonology, and he can be counted among a current generation of scholars who are interested in the political and philosophical aspects of demonology.ii But I should also say that I'm ‘mis-reading' Maggi's book a little. His focus is on the way in which demonology treatises interpret demonic possession through the lens of language, rhetoric, and performativity. Maggi's over-arching question is deceptively simple: if angels are messengers of the word of God, then whose words do demons speak? For Maggi, demons do not deliver anyone's message; they do not speak anyone's voice. In the extreme example of demonic possession, the demon is the communication of noise, the mediation of nothingness:
Like a flame burning everything it encounters [...] demonic language utters chaos and annihilation [...] If a good angel is the linguistic statement connecting a speaker with his interlocutor, a devil is the memorial of a perennial exclusion from meaning.iii
If divine beatitude is the culmination of religious subjectivity, ascending towards a union with the divine (that is, towards total immersion, total immediacy), then demonic possession is the dissolution of the subject, its scattering and dissipation (an absolute disconnect, total opacity, total inaccessibility). In this regard I read Maggi's emphasis on language, rhetoric and performance in a wider context - that of media, mediation, and the current obsession with global connectivity, the absolutism of sharing, and total accessibility.
Maggi's book also avoids the usual analyses of well-known texts, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, and the well-worn approaches to the topic based on race and gender. Instead, he focuses on equally important but underrated works, such as Sylvestro Mazzolini da Prierio's De Strigimagarum Daemonumque Mirandis (1521), the compendium book Thesaurus Exorcismorum (1608), and the ambivalent mystical experiences of Maria Maddalena de'Pazzi. Maggi may not realise it, but the treatises he discusses, with all their concerns over language, communication and connection with the supernatural, make for some very interesting media theories.
Image: Martin Schongauer, St. Anthony Tormented By Demons, ca. 1470-75

A case in point is Prierio's De Strigimagarum. Prierio was a Catholic theologian and Dominican monk. In the early 16th century, he served as an inquisitor in Lombardy, during which time he was named Master of the Sacred, an appointment he held until his death. A papal favorite, Prierio was engaged in a series of attacks and criticisms against Luther. Like many demonology treatises of the time, De Strigimagarum is concerned with both theoretical and practical matters - formulating a coherent theory of demons and demonic activity, and outlining a series of procedures for the detection and punishment of such activity.
Maggi highlights this treatise because in it, demonic possession is not the mysterious and sudden eclipse of a human subject, body and soul. Instead, Prierio posits a method by which the demon possesses, or speaks through, the human being. Drawing on Augustinian theories of the speech of angels, as well as Thomistic theories on the analogy between angelic intelligences and human cognition, Prierio suggests that there is an order and a code to demonic possession in which the demon utilises logic as a way of invading the human being. For Aquinas, angels traditionally manifest themselves via certain signs that human beings can read. These include the apprehension of visions and voices, as well as the witnessing of unusual phenomena in nature. The movement is a unilateral one, from a God beyond speech and silence, to the mediations of angels, who produce a ‘language' that human beings can read, thereby indirectly connecting the human to the divine. By reading these signs backwards, with, of course, the right kind of scriptural and theological knowledge, one could affirm communication with supernatural creatures, while also decoding their divine messages.
The demon's logic is, of course, a perverted logic. For Prierio, demons are also concerned with communication with the human being, though their motives are quite different. Demons do make contact with the human, and they do attempt to express themselves through signs, codes, and symptoms. But while angels were understood to manifest the divine presence (‘messengers of God'), demons neither have a God whose message they are delivering, nor, for that matter, a coherent message that would benefit, assist, or caution the human subject. For the possessed, all that remains is the inability to speak, a mouth that doesn't utter words but that vomits, and a language of non-sense and babbling. In short, the mediation of demons is that of hyper-communication (babbling, nonsense, speaking in tongues), the unspeakable body (convulsions, vomiting, self-mutilation), or silence (melancholy, catatonic states). Demons do mediate, but in a negative or contradictory way.
As an inquisitor, Prierio was concerned with the pragmatic aspects of demonic activity, a concern already outlined in treatises such as the Malleus Maleficarum: how can one identify a case of demonic possession? What signs should one look for? If demonic activity is suspected but not proven, how can one bring out the demon into the open? As Maggi shows, Priero (borrowing from Aristotle and Aquinas), focuses on the syllogism as the way in which demons possess the human being. Just as the syllogism uses the conclusio to connect the universality of the praemissa maior and the concreteness of the praemissa minor (as in the famous ‘therefore Socrates is mortal...' example), so is it the function of the angels to connect the transcendence and unity of God to the fragmented and fallen nature of the human. As Aquinas notes, ‘to go from one extreme to the other it is necessary to pass through the middle.'
In Prierio's theory, demons intercept messages, re-direct and modify them, and sometimes mimic the language of both human and angel. One is tempted to say it: while angels ensure effective and clear communication, demons insert noise into the system; if angels are systems adminstrators, then demons are hackers. The picture Prierio creates is of a whole invisible layer between the earthly and the divine, with words, images, memories, prayers, and phantasms projected and directed between the human and God, with angels sorting and filtering the messages. It is in this middle layer, this preternatural ether, that demons intervene. In fact, Prierio even goes so far as to postulate that demons occupy the air, and this allows them to be formless and metamorphic, to be carried along on the wind and to become any form and any shape. Maggi concisely summarises Prierio's theory of demons:
The medium of the devil's conclusio is the air [...] The air signifies the devils' ‘ungroundedness' [...] a devil can either ‘move the air' to reproduce a specific human idiom, or he can ‘move the air' to shape a bodily figure through which he can have sexual intercourse with a creature.iv

This strange mixture of corporeal (anti)communication is also found in another of the texts Maggi considers, the Thesaurus Exorcismorum, compiled and published in 1608. While the Malleus Maleficarum established demonology as an official practice in theological, political and juridical terms, the Thesaurus provided the blueprint for the central technique of inquisitors and priests - the exorcism. The Thesaurus is actually composed of a set of individual treatises, with titles such as Fustus DaemonumFlagellum DaemonumDispersio Daemonum, and Fuga Satanae, all composed in the late-16th century, and comprising an imposing tome of over a thousand pages.
Image: Vomit from beyond
The Thesaurus is first and foremost a practical manual, with the primary aim of making present that which is hidden. As Maggi notes, demons ‘speak in order to subtract presence from the world.'vDemons manifest their presence only through negation, withdrawal, and obfuscation. It is because of this that the exorcism is significant - it aims to force the presence of an absence, to clarify the obscure. The inquisition itself, directed towards the suffering and tortured body of the possessed subject, also carried out its investigation on the level of language, signs and codes - names and incantations, remembrances and confessionals, cries and sobs. Speech must be substituted for silence.
The Thesaurus provides a framework for this spectacle of divine sovereignty, precisely situating the demonic vis-à-vis the divine. One of the treatises in the Thesaurus is clear on this point:
Threefold is language. The first kind is the language of deed; the second of the voice; and the third is of the mind. God speaks with the language of deed. Human beings speak with the language of the voice, and angels speak with the language of the mind.vi
The level of voice (the human) becomes the battleground where the exorcist must separate human from non-human utterances, and distinguish authentic human language from the simulacra of the demon. Whether through external signs (strange behaviour, cold chills, sudden pain, convulsions) or through internal signs (strange thoughts, words, or phrases in the mind), the demon is adept at embodying and performing the language of the voice, and at performing the human itself. Indeed, sometimes the external and internal signs become one and the same, as with one exorcism Maggi mentions, in which the exorcist gives the possessed person a potion of herbs, vinegar and olive oil, exorcising the potion with the words ‘I exorcise you, natural blend, which is able to induce vomit, in the name of God the Almighty, creator of your healing virtue...' Drawing an analogy to the parable of Jonah and the whale, the exorcism commands the possessed human subject to enunciate the name of the demon in the act of vomiting. The demon's name is hurled forth, and, at least in this case, communication is synonymous with vomit. This is emblematic of many of the texts Maggi discusses - a form of demonic mediation that manifests itself at once through negation and absence (the demons never speak in their own voice, never show their face), and yet through what Georges Bataille once called a ‘base materialism,' one of bodily fluids and divine vomit.
Today, we no longer believe in demons. Our global, networked cultures are at once too religiously fanatical and too hyper-rational to allow for the kind of cosmologies thought up by early modern demonologists. We do, however, like to remind ourselves that demons once existed, and the franchise of the exorcism movie is a testament to this fascination with that in which we no longer believe - from silent film era ‘documenatries' such as Häxan, to Hollywood hits such as The Exorcist, to recent genre films such as The Last Exorcism. However, Maggi's treatment of the topic suggests something different. His analysis of demonology treatises shows us a detailed and nuanced theory of mediation and communication, set within the framework of divine sovereignty.
At its limit, the demon and demonic possession constitute a premodern form of anti-humanism: ‘For the devil, an act of knowledge is always equivalent to an act of annihilation'.vii In Maggi's hands, demons are far from anthropomorphised and psychologised tempters or tricksters. They are identical with the elemental sphere, with the materiality of words, signs and codes, with the enigmatic, tempestuous and sometimes malefic non-human world. Demons and demonic possession in this sense are not about the subject and its always-fragile boundaries, and they are not about the human (or posthuman - the human through the side-door); instead demons are a stand-in for the limits of our ability to comprehend the world, either in terms of the human or the divine. ‘By reading natural signs (winds, clouds, animals' expressions), devils are able to bring about storms, plagues and floods. Moreover, by reading a human being's gestures, facial expressions, linguistic intonation, a devil can produce a ‘discourse' able to erase that human being's soul and body.'viii
Eugene Thacker <thackere AT newschool.edu> is a New York based writer and the author ofHorror of Philosophy (forthcoming from Zero Books). He teaches at The New School and is a scholar-in-residence at the Miskatonic University Colloquy for Shoggothic Atheology
Armando Maggi, Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology, University of Chicago Press, 2001.
i Plato, Socrates' Defense (Apology), trans. Hugh Tredennick, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton University Press, 1989), 31D.
ii In this regard I mention works such as Alain Bourreau's Satan the Heretic, Stuart Clark's Thinking With Demons, Nancy Caciola's Discerning Spirits, and Maggi's In the Company of Demons, as well as the work of scholars such as Richard Kieckhefer and D.P. Walker.
iii Maggi, Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology, p.5.
iv Ibid., p.35.
v Ibid., p.96.
vi From Complementum Artis Exorcisticae, cited in Maggi, p.109.
vii Maggi, p.41.
viii Ibid.


Eugene Thacker
Bio-politics. A question: what is the “bio” of biopolitics? Contemporary theories of biopolitics often emphasize medicine and public health, political economy and governmentality, or the philosophical and rhetorical dimensions. But if biopolitics is, in Foucault’s terms, that point at which “power takes hold of life,” the moment in which “biological existence was reflected in political existence,” then it follows that any theory of biopolitics will also have to interrogate the morphologies of the concept of “life” just as much as the mutations in power.[1]
            It is remarkable how the concept of “life itself” has remained a horizon for much biopolitical thinking.[2] There is, for instance, the naïve position, in which one presumes something called “life” that pre-exists or exists outside of politics, which is then co-opted into specific power relations (e.g. political economy, public health, statistics and demographics). The problem with this approach is that it forces one to accept a concept of life that is either excessively vague (life-as-experience) or reductive (life as a molecule, life as data). The presumption of a pre-existent life also puts one in the dubious position of arguing for a protectionism regarding life, effectively making the removal of politics from life the goal of the critique. While we may disregard this position as naïve, it is important to note how it surreptitiously haunts contemporary critiques of medicine and health care, from “big pharma” to the ongoing debates over public health security and bioterrorism.
            The opposite of this is the cynical position, in which one assumes that there is no extra-political, essential concept of “life itself” that is then co-opted by politics or recuperated in power relations. Life is always already political, not only at the literal level of medicine, but also in the way subjects are interpolated at the level of social, economic, and political life. Life is a concept that is not only constructed within scientific discourse, but equally within political discourse – even when that discourse articulates an “outside” called natural law, human rights, or bare life. A more sophisticated as a form of critique, the problem with the cynical approach is that it can end up leveraging critique on behalf of an empty concept. Since there is no pre-existent life that is co-opted by power, one is left with either dispensing with the concept altogether – a difficult task, since the concept of life remains politically operative in a variety of contexts – or one argues for a renewed concept of life that has yet to be envisioned – in effect producing a concept of pre-existent life similar to the one in the naïve position.
The Problem With Multiplicities. Perhaps what life is, or how it is defined, is less important than the question of whether something called “life” comes under question at all in biopolitical theories – and one that is also not simply an empty yet functional shell. Michel Foucault’s Collège de France lectures offer several ways of addressing this dilemma. In Foucault’s 1978 course, biopolitics is often characterized in terms of multiplicity – but the particular multiplicity of the collective, aggregate life that is the population. Foucault mentions three examples of epidemics as correlated to particular forms of power. In the Middle Ages, leprosy is aligned with sovereignty, and its ritual dividing practices and exclusion. The example of plague during the 16th and 17th centuries is, for Foucault, aligned with disciplinary power and its practices of inclusion and ordering. Finally, Foucault mentions smallpox and vaccination as an example of a third type of power, the apparatus of security, which “pulls back” and carefully observes the outcome of an event, so as to selectively intervene. It is from this third type of epidemic that Foucault isolates a power that stitches together medicine, politics, and a concept of “population” – that is, an awareness of a novel object of power that is defined at once by its multiplicity, its temporal dynamics, and its statistical fluctuations. What emerges, Foucault argues, is a form of power that operates at the level of highly-specified perturbations, one that intervenes at the level of the flux and flow, the manifold circulations, that is the population itself. “Circulation understood in the general sense as displacement, as exchange, as contact, as form of dispersion, and as form of distribution – the problem presented is: how can things be ordered such that this circulates or does not circulate?”[3]
            Biopolitics is unique in Foucault’s analysis because it expresses power as a problem of managing circulations and flows – something like biopolitical flow. It makes use of informatic methods, including statistics, demographics, and public health records, to insert a global knowledge into the probability of local events; it identifies and reacts to potential threats based on a whole political economy of the regulation of state forces; and, instead of a dichotomy between the permitted and forbidden, it calculates averages and norms upon which discrete and targeted interventions can be carried out. In a striking turn of phrase, Foucault suggests that, in this correlation between a distributed power and a distributed life, the central issue becomes “the problem of multiplicities” (le problème des multiplicités).[4] In this sense, biopolitics “is addressed to a multiplicity of people, not to the extent that they are nothing more than their individual bodies, but to the extent that they form, on the contrary, a global mass that is affected by overall processes characteristic of birth, death, production, illness, and so on.”[5]
If we follow Foucault’s leads here, then the “bio” of biopolitics has to be understood as a concern over the governance of “life itself,” and this notion of life itself is principally characterized by what Foucault describes as the processes of circulation, flux, and flow. The problem of multiplicities is therefore also a problem concerning the government of the living, the governance, even, of “life itself.”  This is, to be sure, life understood as zoē andbíos, as biological life and the qualified life of the human being, but it must also be understood in terms of what Aristotle called psukhē – a principle of life, a vital principle, the Life of the living.[6] While human agency both individual and collective is implicated in this notion of life as psukhē, it is also an non-human, unhuman form of life – one that nevertheless courses through us and through which we live. Thus the primary challenge to biopolitical modes of power is this: how to acknowledge the fundamentally unhuman quality of life as circulation, flux, and flow, while also providing the conditions for its being governed and managed. Biopolitics in this sense becomes the governance of vital forces, and biopolitics confronts what is essentially a question of scale – how to modulate phenomena that are at once “above” and “below” the scale of the human being.
Dead Tropes, Resurrected Bodies. In biopolitics, the conjunction of life and power raises the specter of the body politic, a figure of political philosophy that is at once anachronistic and yet continually resurrected. Foucault, for example, talks about both the “anatomo-politics of the human body” as well as the “biopolitics of the population.” In his Collège de France lectures, Foucault points out that biopolitics conceives of a body that  departs from the anatomical and mechanistic body politic of Hobbes’ Leviathan. While this is true, the logic of the body politic continues to inform the concept of biopolitics, especially considering the centrality of a concept of “life” for both concepts. What is needed, then, but a way of thinking biopolitics in relation to its figural dimension – not just a biopolitics, but apoetics of biopolitics.
The figure of the body politic resolves a number of conceptual problems: it not only posits a form of political organization nested in the truth of the body’s anatomy, but it also implies a further analogy between the life of the natural-biological body and the life of the collective body, be that configured in terms of the political-theological community, the organismic nation-state, or, more recently, the global informatics of the multitude. Consider the primary question that occupies every discussion of the body politic – its building-up or its construction. We know the conditions for the need of a body politic – the state of brutish nature, the war of all against all, “man is a wolf to man,” and so forth. Once this irrevocable and universal mistrust of the human is established, how exactly does the body politic come to be? Quite simply, piece by piece, part by part, limb by limb. The Leviathan gives us what is perhaps the clearest example of this building-up process, one in which “thesovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistratesand other officers of judicature and execution, artificial jointsreward and punishment…are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural…counselors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memoryequity and laws, an artificial reasonand willconcordhealthseditionsickness; and civil wardeath.”[7]
            The Leviathan is, of course, picking up on a long tradition of analogizing the body politic and the body natural. Plato offers what is perhaps the earliest coherent example in the West. In the opening discussion of Republic, Socrates suggests that the question of justice in the individual should be sought by analogizing to the question of justice in thepolis, the latter simply an individual “writ large.” What results is a view of the polis as an integrated, tripartite order based on a tripartite anatomy of the human body: the philosopher-king (the head, or reasoning part), the auxiliaries or soldiers (the torso, or passional part), and the peasant class (the groin or productive/reproductive part). Today, this building-up of the body politic has today become a mainstay of dystopian science fiction. In the graphic novel V for Vendetta, the government establishes its oppressive unity through a pervasive, high-technology surveillance system which is the “eyes,” the “ears,” and the “hands” of the body politic.
Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979)
The Gothic Body Politic. The body politic is built up, but it can also break down. The building-up also leads to a problem, however, for if the body politic can be constructed, then is it not also vulnerable to the inverse processes of destruction, dissolution, and decay? This is a major preoccupation in the literature of the gothic, which dwells on the processes of decay and degeneration, paradoxical processes that are at once generative and yet destructive. Consider the following passage:
I am filthy. Lice gnaw me. Swine, when they look at me, vomit. The scabs and sores of leprosy have scaled my skin, which is coated with yellowish pus. I know not river water nor the clouds’ dew. From my nape, as from a dungheap, sprouts an enormous toadstool with unbelliferous peduncles. Seated on a shapeless chunk of furniture, I have not moved a limb for four centuries. My feet have taken root in the soil forming a sort of perennial vegetation – not yet quite plant-life though no longer flesh – as far as my belly, and filled with vile parasites. My heart, however, is still beating. But how could it beat if the decay and effluvia of my carcass (I dare not say body) did not abundantly feed it? In my left armpit a family of toads has taken up residence, and whenever one of them moves it tickles me. Take care les one escape and come scratching with its mouth at the interior of your ear: it could next penetrate into your brain. In my right armpit there is a chameleon which endlessly chases the toads so as not to die of hunger: everyone has to live. But when one side completely foils the tricks of the other, they like nothing better than to make themselves at home and suck the dainty grease that covers my sides: I am used to it. A spiteful viper has devoured my prick and taken its place.
 Relentlessly perverting the classical body politic inherited from Hobbes, the text continues its anatomical litany, moving down into the nether regions of the body:
Two small hedgehogs, that grow no more, have flung to a dog – which did not decline them – the contents of my testicles; inside the scrupulously scrubbed scrotal sac they lodged. My anus has been blocked by a crab. Encouraged by my inertia, it guards the entrance with its pincers and cause me considerable pain! Two jellyfish crossed the seas, at once enticed by a hope which did not prove mistaken. They closely inspected the two plump portions which comprise the human rump and, fastening on to these convex contours, so squashed them by constant pressure that the two lumps of flesh disappeared while the two monsters which issued from the kingdom of viscosity remained, alike in colour, form, and ferocity. Speak not of my spinal column, since it is a sword.[8]
This is from Les Chants de Maldoror, the enigmatic 19th century text by Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautréamont. What we are given here is something like a gothic body politic, one that is still built-up, but that is ridden with natural decay and monstrous hyper-growth. This body politic is not simply sick, lacking some essential component or nutrient that would make it healthy again. Instead, it seems to exist in this state of growth-decay as its natural state. In the gothic body politic, the body politic has not simply died, but there is also no “getting better.” It remains a sovereign body, seated on a calcified throne – in fact, violently fixed there through the sword-backbone (perhaps the same sword depicted in the frontispiece to the Leviathan). What Lautréamont gives us is not an anatomical body politic, but a necrological one, a body whose natural state is this contradictory hyper-decay, at once generation and dissolution.
            The gothic body politic therefore opens onto the inverse of the building-up process – the process of decay and dissolution. Not surprisingly, this is also a major motif of the body politic concept. But it is rarely foreground in the same way as the “heroic” building-up process. Often it is expressed in the somewhat furtive, later chapters dedicated to the “diseases” of the body politic. Here the figure of the body politic takes hold in a way that is, from Plato onwards, strikingly modern. Hobbes, for instance, is forced to acknowledge that if “concord” is analogous to “health,” then “sedition” would have to correlate to “sickness,” and “civil war” to the death of the body politic itself. The body politic is not only built-up, but it is also governed by a logic of anti-production, a breaking-down. Hobbes gives us such an image in the Leviathan: “Though nothing can be immortall, which mortals make; yet, if men had the use of reason they pretend to, their Common-wealths might be secured, at least, from perishing by internall diseases…”[9] The problem, for Hobbes, is when the body politic is dissolved, “not by externall violence, but intestine disorder” – is the cause of such disease to be located within the anatomy of the body politic itself, and if so, are such pathologies of the body politic in fact innate or internal to it? Hobbes ambivalently affirms this, noting that “[a]mongst the Infirmities therefore of a Common-wealth, I will reckon in the first place, those that arise from an Imperfect Institution, and resemble the diseases of a naturall body, which proceed from a Defectuous Procreation.”[10]
Here Hobbes is aware of a central dilemma in the figure of the body politic. Insofar as the body politic is predicated on an analogy to the human body, it is also vulnerable to the contingencies and pathologies of the natural body. Plato also demonstrates an acute awareness of this dilemma. Early on in the Republic, Socrates follows up his analogy of the body natural and the body politic with a medical qualifier: “there is an exact analogy between these states of mind [justice in the individual] and bodily health and sickness.”[11]As Socrates notes, “health is produced by establishing a natural relation of control and subordination among the constituents of the body, disease by establishing an unnatural relation.”[12] The implications of this are laid out in detail near the end of Republic: “Just as a sickly body needs only a slight push from outside to become ill, and sometimes even without any external influence becomes divided by factions within itself, so too doesn’t a city that is in the same kind of condition as that body, on a small pretext…fall sick and do battle with itself, and sometimes even without any external influence become divided by faction?”[13]
Despite their historically different points of reference (Hippocratic medicine and Greek democracy for Plato, mechanism and the English Civil War for Hobbes), the commonality between them is this way in which the construction of the analogy has brought with it a dilemma concerning the pathologies of the body politic. And, in both thinkers, this leads them to assert what is perhaps the central lesson of the figure of the body politic – that the greatest threat to the body politic comes from within. This in itself – more than the literal, anatomical analogies – ties the figure of the body politic to biopolitics. If the latter, in Foucault’s treatment, deals with the governing of “life itself” in terms of circulation, flux, and flow, then biopolitics can be understood as the management of the circulations that constitute the body politic – not an opening-up or a shutting-down of the body politic’s boundaries, but a calculated pull-back and targeted perturbation within this flux and flow, within this “problem of multiplicities.”
Poetics and Pathos. The body politic – whether it is built up or breaking down – is always an issue of form, figure, and the figurative, always an issue of a poetics specific to a politics.
Aristotle give us what remains a basic premise of poetics – the relation between poetics and pathos, or affect. As is well known, Aristotle’s case study is tragedy, for it is in the weighty and serious matters of Greek tragedy that one finds the intimate coupling betweenpoiesis and pathos. Tragedy delivers in dramatic form some statement about, for instance, fate and determinism, and this has the effect of a release, expunging or a purification in the audience members. This effect thus turns into an affect, something that flows and that circulates among those present at the play. This then encircles the effect of this affect as something “common,” as something collectively experienced. The combination of these three elements – circulation/flow of affect, the feeling of purification, and its collective aspect – is famously dubbed “catharsis” by Aristotle.[14]
The term catharsis has connotations that draw together a notion of healing that is inseparable from a ritual or social function. Catharsis is “purgation” or “purification,” both terms that denote a ritualistic process by which a body or bodies are made clean and free of any elements that would threaten the coherence, not only of the individuated body natural, but of the body politic as well. The pathos of catharsis is thus a process of separating out, of expunging, of rendering homogenous, of forcibly articulating an interior and an exterior. But it is also important to note that, in the Poetics, it is not only the feeling of release or purification that defines catharsis, but the fact that it circulates. Catharsis is less an emotion and more an affect – it proceeds by a sort of logic of miasmatic contagion or swarming, passing from stage to amphitheater, from actor to audience, and between one audience member and another.
If catharsis is the indissociability of poetics and pathos, then what kinds of pathos are produced? There is, for example the pathos of sympathy and empathy in moral philosophy. If, generally speaking, sympathy is “feeling-with,” then empathy is “feeling-in.” The latter is often taken as a more extreme version of the former (which is why, in science fiction, “empaths” are often used to detect what an alien creature is feeling). While Kant argues for an axiomatic approach to ethical relations based on sympathy as an innate character of human beings, Burke argues for a passage from sympathy to empathy as the basis for ethical relations. Burke’s famous example is itself rather gothic – the witnessing of a public execution, and the pathos it produces in the observers. One passes from a more distanced feeling-with (acknowledging the fear that must accompany the executed), to a more dangerous feeling-in (the hypothetical that the executed could also be me), and then – ideally – to a final pathos, a kind of feeling-together, in which I recognize my common humanity with others present at the execution. Thus pathos is not just feeling or emotion, but the circulation of such feelings or emotions. Putting pathos into circulation implies that the tonality of such feelings or emotions are experienced as a passing, as a circulation, and as a connecting.
Death governs the circulation of pathos in Burke’s example. But it is not a scene of total extinction, for something persists or resists afterwards – that is, pathos persists and becomes something like anti-pathos, or antipathy (“feeling-against”). Something still circulates and flows, some affect swarms throughout a given collective site that becomes the basis for the commonality of pathos. Burke no doubt chooses this scene for its dramatic effect – it literally has a stage, an audience, and an a tragic event. This is similarly highlighted by Artaud’s essay “The Theater and the Plague.” For Artaud, interested precisely in this theater of swarming affect, the pathos that circulates and flows is not simply a quantized emotion felt by receptacle-like individuals; rather, pathos is at once a form of life – identified with breath – and also a form of contagion. The same affective principle that is life-giving is also life-destroying, not through negation, but rather through an excess that is part and parcel of that life-principle. Breath is life, but a form of life that endlessly circulates, that in fact cannot not circulate. For Artaud, pathos is also pathological, in the sense that it is a form of life defined by its propensity for circulation and flow.
 Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979) 
Pathological Life. The duplicity of pathos – donation and negation, feeling-with and feeling-against, crossing-over and dividing – is directly tied to an ontology of life that is defined in terms of pathos. Poetics is, for Aristotle, indelibly connected to life: “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life.”[15] But at the same time, this life-affirming aspect of catharsis often functions through its inverse, and objects that would normally be repulsive, such as a corpse, become objects of understanding: “We take delight in viewing the most accurate possible images of objects which in themselves cause distress when we see them (e.g. the shapes of the lowest species of animal, and corpses).”[16]
In the De anima, Aristotle notes that any attempt to think about life must encounter the problem of pathos, or affections. Aristotle’s initial move here is to distinguish an inquiry concerning “life itself” from an inquiry concerning living beings. The real challenge, for Aristotle, is to seek “the first principle of living things” rather than any analysis living things, viewed individually or as a species. It is this principle that Aristotle refers to as psukhē, traditionally translated as “soul” but better translated as “life-principle.”[17] A basic distinction is made, then, between an essence or principle of life – psukhē – and the myriad of specific living things such as plants, animals, and people. We might, then, suggest that Aristotle here posits a difference between “Life” as an ontological foundation, and “the living,” or the various specific instantiations of Life.
Yet, at the beginning of the treatise, this search for a principle of life immediately opens onto a number of problems. For one, Aristotle notes that the distinction between a principle of life and living things raises the question of their relation. Is psukhē, the principle of life, “in” each living thing entirely, or is it distributed or shared among particular living things? What, then, is the relation between Life and the living, between psukhē-as-principle andpsukhē-as-manifestation?
The crux of this apparent confusion may not lie in the inexactness of Aristotle’s prose, but rather in the way in which relation itself is conceptualized. In Book I Aristotle’s initial response is to suggest that psukhē is quasi-autonomous with respect to living things. While there can be affections peculiar to psukhē itself, there can also be other types of affections that are specific to living beings – but then this also means that those affections specific to living things are indirectly specific to psukhē in itself. And this is where the language of pathos becomes important. As Aristotle notes, the “affections of the soul also present a difficulty. It is unclear whether all these are shared also with the ensouled thing or whether some one of them is peculiar to the soul itself.”[18] One the one hand, pathosis central in that it connects psukhē in itself to the various instances of psukhē – pathosconnects Life to the living and vice-versa.
Aristotle’s comments on pathos are noteworthy, for the relation between psukhē as Life and as the living seems to hinge on the meanings that relation itself – pathos – has in this nexus between Life and the living. Here pathos is less like emotion and more like a relation, “what a thing undergoes.” A body – be it plant, animal, or human – undergoes or is capable of undergoing any number of affections. Thus, affection (pathos) is itself the relation between Life and the living.
But now the question is, if pathos is in some way constitutive of the very relation between Life and the living – that is, if pathos actually conditions psukhē – then why would pathosneed to be purged or expunged? If pathos conditions life generally, then the purification ofpathos would seem to amount to a de-conditioning of life, to a negation of life, the anti-pathos. The central political question that the example of Greek tragedy poses is “what does pathos purge?” If one of the functions of pathos in this case is to cleanse, purify, and re-articulate the body politic, then what are the criteria that define what is to be purged, expelled, and healed? The answer – posed, for example, by Aeschylus’ Oresteia – would seem to be that it is not only a person or a person’s wrongful deeds that are deserving of purgation, but it is a whole class of persons, actions, of life-forms, that constitute that which must be purged. Again, “tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life.” It is not so much persons or actions that must be purged, but a chain of events, temporalities, and bodies – forms of life that are marked as threatening to the coherence of the body politic. In such instances, pathos becomes pathological, not just by its propensity to circulate and flow, but by the way it raises the political problem of managing such circulation and flow. This class of life-that-is-marked-for-purgation is that which we can call pathological life.
If pathos designates not just emotions of suffering and pity, but circulations of affects, then what would a “pathology” be in this context? From the modern epidemiological standpoint, what is pathological is a virulent microbe, abetted by the technologies of transportation, global trade, and the passage of peoples and animals across borders. One of the central affects of epidemics, plague, and pestilence is their pervasiveness, their seeming to at once be tied to stigmatized “others” but at the same time capable of connecting the most unlikely conjunctions of bodies, economies, and territories. But these ways of thinking give us an image of pathos that is, like the pathological life of disease, at once everywhere – in the air, all around us, pervading the very space of the body itself – and yet which must “emerge” from somewhere – even if this “somewhere” lies in the nebulous grey zones of an orientalized “East” or a biopoliticized and racialized “other.”[19]
But an epidemic is not just the passing of a “thing” like a message along a channel. What circulates are also affects, affects that are also relations of bodies. In fact, epidemics illustrate, in a highly ambivalent manner, the way that bodies are affects and vice-versa. So, if pathological life is not simply the biological life of the virulent microbe, and if it is not simply the representation of the patient’s suffering, then what is the relationship betweenpathos-as-circulation, and the view of the body politic as constituted by circulation, flux, and flow?

I Am Legion. Interestingly, the characteristics of pathological life are central to early modern demonology, which identifies a pathos unique to the politico-theological interests in the body politic. We can suggest, then, that there is a hidden genealogy to this Foucauldian biopolitics of flux, flow, and circulation. Not surprisingly, the descriptions of demonic possession during the early modern era often overlap with descriptions of epidemic disease. There are, of course, a number of precedents for this analogy in early Christianity. The most well-known of these is the scene in Mark 5 (also repeated in Luke8-9), in which Jesus, passing through a village with his followers, performs an exorcism on an old man possessed by demons. Jesus asks the demon’s name, and a multitude of voices rings out “I am Legion, for we are many.” The demons are then cast out of the old man’s body and into a herd of swine, which are then driven off a cliff. Word of Jesus’ healing powers spreads throughout the village, and, in fear, the villagers ask Jesus to leave. The entire scene is depicted in quasi-medical terms, the exorcism as a “healing” or “curing.”
In the “I am Legion” fable we see pathos stratified in the three ways we’ve mentioned. The demons are explicitly identified – and identify themselves – as a multiplicity, not only by the multitude of voices that ring out, but by the multitude of quasi-material demonic bodies that inhabit the single body of the old man. There is also the animality of pathos in the herd of swine, which themselves swarm in a kind of “dance of death” frenzy. Here pathos is implicitly linked to the many animal instances of swarming in insects, flocking in birds or bats, or schooling in fish. Finally, pathos is also expressed in a linguistic dissemination of word-of-mouth. The exorcism incites both reverence and fear in the villagers, and word spreads to such an extent that Jesus’ reputation precedes him to the next village.
Scenes such as this provided Scholastic demonology with a set of references against which individual cases of demonic possession could be verified, judged, and incorporated into Church doctrine. The result was not only a new set of juridical procedures, but an new discourse and way of thinking about the supernatural in terms of the unhuman. This culminates in the early modern debates over the ontological status of demonic possession – works such as Jean Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des sorciers, Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonium, and Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, each shape this debate. Each text makes claims about the role that medicine plays in either dispelling demonic possession, or distinguishing it from other non-supernatural causes (e.g. epilepsy, melancholia, trickery). They draw out the boundaries of the demonic, which become formalized in the great “handbooks” on demonology, such as the Malleus Maleficarum. In this way, the attempt to control epidemic disease, like that of the attempts to control cases of demonic possession and their potential heresies, is, in modern terms, a “problem of multiplicities”; or, to be more precise, the political challenges posed by epidemics and demonic possession point to a key relationship, that between sovereignty and multiplicity.
Spiritual Biopolitics. Though medieval thinkers from Anselm to Peter Lombard had commented on Satan and the Fall, it is Thomas Aquinas’ treatise De malo (On Evil) that serves as the blueprint for Scholastic demonology. Aquinas’ treatise places the demon within an ontological framework of Aristotelian naturalism, examining not just the Biblical Satan, but the demon itself as a kind of life form – as a perturbation within the “flow of life,” the spiritus. Aquinas considers demons to be intermediary beings like angels, lacking the absolute omnipotence of God but also lacking the limits of mortality of human beings. The theological and ontological status of spiritual creatures was, in effect, an act of boundary-management between the natural and supernatural.
It is in the final eight questions of the De malo, in which Aquinas addresses the impact of demons in the human world, where the question of spiritus is raised. While Aquinas acknowledges the existence of demons as such, his dismissal of demonic powers is strangely modern – demonic signs, possession, and necromancy are all given Aristotelian-naturalistic explanations. This is the case when Aquinas discusses the impact demons can have on life processes such as generation and decay, and in particular on the lives of human beings. Aquinas explains demonic possession as a mis-application of demonic intellect outside of its appropriate domain (this alone distinguishes demons from angels). The demonic is the aberrant intellect, that then results in the aberrant form of life that is the possessed subject.
The technique by which the demon does this is through a perturbation of spiritus, a term which Aquinas uses in its theological sense of “life-spirit,” “breath,” or “flow of life.” Borrowing from Aristotelian hylomorphism, Aquinas suggests that demonic possession operates neither in the purely supernatural realm, nor purely in the mind of the possessed, but in the intermediary flux that connects them:
Therefore, what happens in the case of those asleep regarding the apparitions of dreams from the local movement of vapors and fluids (spirituum et humorum) can happen by the like local movement achieved by devils, sometimes in those asleep, and sometimes in those awake. And in the case of those awake, devils can sometimes indeed move internal vapors and fluids (spiritus et humores) even to the point that the use of reason is completely fettered, as is evidently the case with the possessed.[20]
Spiritus is precisely that which mediates the natural and supernatural, earthly and divine – as well as managing the distinction and separation between them. The result, according to Aquinas, can be as simple as erratic behavior or as opaque as necromancy and the raising of the dead. Aquinas makes a key point here, however – the demon does not possess the power to create life, though it may have the impression of animating and re-animating. This is because, for Aquinas, the demon itself is not living; it does not have animation in the Aristotelian sense of living, natural beings. And yet it can have the effect of animating. The demon, then, seems to be that which can animate but which itself is not animated; that which perturbs and disturbs the flow of life but which is not itself living.
While Aquinas grants little in the way of real effectiveness to demons, this question of animation and vitalization remain an important part of Scholastic demonology. As Maaike van der Lugt notes in a recent study, the question of demonic generation is not just a question of whether angels or demons have bodies, but whether they partake in the vital processes that having bodies afford. This includes generation and decay, but also digestion, putrefaction, respiration, even communication. In her readings of Scholastic thinkers, van der Lugt focuses on the idea of “demonic generation,” or the capacity of the demon to take on human or animal life qualities:
In the theological discourse, the concept of the possessed body presupposes and is opposed to the notion of life and the human person. The Scholastics had refined and made more precise this distinction between the possessed body and the living body in a series of questions concerning the activities of angels and demons at the moment of their appearance…Were they capable of feeling, of moving, of speaking, or eating, or, finally, of generating life? Could they, according to the expression of Saint Thomas, exercise the opera vitae?[21]
There was, first, this taking on of vital properties are the “vital works” or “vital signs” of the demon, what Aquinas and other Scholastics referred to as opera vitae. But the opera vitaepresumed a more basic action, which was the occupying of the body, and by extension, the occupation of vital or life forces, resulting in the possessed or “assumed” body, thecorpora assumpta. The corpora assumpta, or the endowing of (human) life to the non-living (demon), produced a strange disunity within the body, manifested in the vital signs oropera vitae of the demon.
            Not only was Scholastic demonology – and the Church laws that elicited it – concerned with the identification and verification of the demonic, and not only was it important to be able to distinguish divine possessions from demonic ones, but there was also a concern with the “spiritual biopolitics” of life-forces or principles of animation, a biopolitics of spiritus. As Alain Bourreau notes, “[d]ivine rapture was the mirror image of diabolical possession, which itself was held in the obscurity of extracted confessions, denials, or medical loopholes. The analogous nature of possessions, either divine or diabolical, was the result of a similarity in the modes of action of the spiritus, of the divine spirit, either angelic or demonic.”[22]
There is a further twist to this biopolitics of the demon. In Scholastic demonology, demonic possession involves not just the life of the demon itself as a supernatural creature, but the vitalization of the demon by the body of the possessed. In this sense, demonic possession is not an appropriation of body or life, but rather the taking-on of life-processes. It is the “ensouling,” in Aristotelian terms (empsukhē) of that which is not living, the vitalization of the non-living. This is an important distinction. Demons often possess non-living things as well as living bodies. This is what Boureau refers to as the “epidemiological” demon, the demon that enters the host unawares, either through food, via objects, or even as borne on the wind. The demon – that which is not animated but which animates – is also that which animates the inanimate – objects, mists, clouds, even the bodies of the dead. Demons can thus often take on an “elemental” quality. In such cases, the demonic becomes almost purely abstract, becomes nearly identical to multiplicity itself.
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Zombi 2 (dir. Lucio Fulci, 1979) 
Medical Demonology, Theology of Plague. At stake in the development of Scholastic demonology is the extent to which a form of power is produced that at once establishes and governs a supernatural – or, we might say, unhuman – field of circulations and flows. At stake, in other words, is the governance of the unhuman itself, the biopolitics of life-beyond-life – perhaps, even, a supernatural biopolitics.
            In cases such as these, medicine and theology are brought together in ambivalent ways. There is, first, what we might call “medical demonology,” or the ways in which medicine and medical knowledge came into relation with religious doctrine on, for instance, necromancy or the existence of demons. As early modern scholars have noted, medicine does not simply debunk or secularize demonology, quite the opposite. If anything, medicine comes to complete demonology, or at least serve as an arbitrator in disputed cases of demonic possession. The debate between Bodin, Weyer, and Scot is instructive. Bodin, an important early theorizer of sovereignty, argues for the reality of demonic possession – a threat to the religious order is also a threat to the secular order, and sovereignty undermined in the divine is also an undermining of sovereignty in the earthly. Bodin writes his treatise as an explicit retort to Weyer, who, as a physician, tentatively argues for a more medicalized and secular view of demonic possession. But even Weyer’s text is filled with uncertainties; medicine’s role is not simply to debunk all cases of demonic possession, but to distinguish authentic cases from inauthentic ones (which may be symptoms of melancholy, epilepsy, or hysteria). If Weyer allows for the real existence of demons, then Scot goes the distance and argues for a general dismissal of the reality of demonic possession – again, medicine serves as the fulcrum of his argument, explaining the supernatural by recourse to the natural.
            While that explanation varies, from the theological to the medical, and while the response varies, from persecution to diagnosis, what remains constant in medical demonology is the concern over the governance of the circulation and flow of pathos. If medical demonology pits medicine against a theological event, then we can also think about the inverse – the case in which theology is pitted against a natural-medical event. We can call this the “theology of plague,” and it involves, quite simply, religious explanations of epidemic disease. Not surprisingly, the “angry God” motif is a recurrent one, both in the classical context – Thucydides reports it as a popular explanation of the plague of Athens – as well as in the Christian context – for instance, in the many accounts of the Black Death. But more than the angry God or references to Revelations, these narratives of epidemic disease often contain a number of insights into the politics of plague and pestilence. Chroniclers of the Black Death often note how epidemic disease brings with it a disruption of social hierarchy and political order, often necessitating forms of intervention, from enforced quarantines, to the shutting up of houses, to the mass graves and legal interdiction on public gatherings, festivals, plays, and funerals.[23]
            All of these cases take place in an early modern or even pre-modern context. At the same time, they overlap significantly with contemporary concerns over global pandemics and biodefense. What if biopolitics is not simply immunological, but also demonological? Demonology, in this case, would have to be understood less as the all-too-human drama of temptation and sin, but more in terms of the governance of circulation, flux, and flow. It would also revolve around a phenomenon that is radically unhuman (the anti-pathos), or that serves as that which does not fit within the human framework. And it would also involve a form of life or vitalism that is often expressed as a contradiction (generative decay, the bestial and divine, communicable communication). In short, if biopolitics is demonological and not just immunological, this is because it raises the problem of the management of ambivalently vitalistic flux and flow – that is, the politics of unhuman life.
Poetics of Biopolitics. The classical term nekros encapsulates many of dichotomies of the biopolitics concept. In its traditional sense, nekros names the corpse, the body that is no longer living. When, for example, Odysseus holds funeral rites for his deceased companions, it is the nekros that is cremated. But when Odysseus makes his way to the underworld, what he encounters is not simply the dead body or the corpse, but “the ghosts of the dead” (nekuōn kataethnēōtōn).[24] Here nekros names “the dead” as a form of life, one that resists any reliable distinction between the living being and the corpse. And this second type of nekros is also a collective, politicized form of life (ethnea nekrōn, the “nations of the dead”).
Nowhere is this more effectively demonstrated than in Dante’s Inferno, where we see stratifications of the living dead that are at once the product of divine punishment and, as such, are meticulously managed as massing or aggregate bodies. In the sixth circle, where Dante and his guide Virgil come up to the giant, fortress-like gates of the infernal City of Dis. Guarded by hordes of demons, Virgil must enlist divine intervention in order to pass through the gates. Once Dante and Virgil enter, what they see is a city in ruins, an uneven landscape of burning, open graves:
And then we started moving toward the city (terra)
  in the safety of the holy words pronounced. 
We entered there, and with no opposition.
  And I, so anxious to investigate
  the state of souls locked up in such a fortress (fortezza), 
once in the place, allowed my eyes to wander,
  and saw, in all directions spreading out,
  a countryside (campagna) of pain and ugly anguish.[25]
In this landscape, at once terrafortezza, and campagna, Dante and Virgil come to across another type of terrain – that of a landscape of open graves:
the sepulchers make all the land uneven,
  so they did here, strewn in all directions,
  except the graves here served a crueler purpose: 
for scattered everywhere among the tombs
  were flames that kept them glowing far more hot
  than any iron an artisan might use. 
Each tomb had its lid loose, pushed to one side,
  and from within came forth such fierce laments
  that I was sure inside were tortured souls.[26]
This harrowing vision of a field of burning graves blurs the boundary between corpse, grave, and the terrain itself. The scene prompts Dante to ask Virgil, “Master, what kind of shades are these lying down here, buried in the graves of stone, speaking their presence in such dolorous sighs?” His response: “There lie arch-heretics of every sect, with all of their disciples; more than you think are packed within these tombs.”[27]
In Dante’s version of the dead walking the earth, the living dead are explicitly ordered within the City of Dis; indeed, the living dead are the “citizens” of this city. Furthermore, as Virgil notes, the living dead are politicized: they are the heretics, those who have spoken against the theologico-political order, and, importantly, who have do so from within that order. In this way Dante links the heretics to the other circles of lower Hell, including the “sowers of discord” (who are meticulously, anatomically dismembered) and the “falsifiers” (who are ridden with plague and leprosy).
Nowhere else in the Inferno are we presented with such explicit analogies to the classical body politic. The City of Dis is, of course, very far from the idealized polis in Plato’sRepublic, or the civitas Dei described by Augustine. The City of Dis is not even a living, human city. Instead, what we have is a necropolis, a dead city populated by living graves, by the dead walking the earth. The City of Dis is, in this guise, an inverted polis, an inverted body politic.
Again we have the ambiguous vitalism of the “shades,” as well as their massing and aggregate forms. But here the living dead are not simply an instance of judgment or divine retribution; in fact, they are the opposite, that which is produced through sovereign power. This sovereign power not only punishes (in the famous contrapasso), but, more importantly, it orders the multiplicity of bodies according to their transgressions or threats. In the Inferno, the living dead are not only a threat to political order, but the living dead are also organized and regulated by sovereign power. Sovereign power determines the living dead through an intervention into the natural workings of things, thereby managing the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. It does this not only to preserve the existing theological-political order, but also to identify a threat that originates from within the body politic.
Within this mortified body politic we witness two forms of power – a sovereign power that judges and punishes, but also a regulatory power that manages the flows and circulations of multiple bodies, their body parts and bodily fluids. In this way, Dante’s underworld is utterly contemporary, for it suggests to us that the body politic concept is always confronted with this twofold challenge – the necessity of establishing a sovereign power in conjunction with the necessity of regulating and managing multiplicities.
 L’Inferno (Gustave Doré, 1857)
Living, Dead. This is a remarkably persistent motif, and one finds in the contemporary low-brow example of the living dead. The peculiar sub-genre of the zombie film has, for many years, provided us with different cultural expressions of Dante’s living dead. The American and Italian traditions are the most prominent examples in this regard. While early Hollywood thrillers such as White Zombie or Revolt of the Zombies placed Western doctors and heroes within the context of voodoo and colonialism, American zombie films after George Romero’s landmark Night of the Living Dead (1968) place the living dead within a decidedly post-industrial, American context, self-reflexively stressing the “silent majority” and the uses of political satire.
By contrast, the Italian tradition of zombie films displays parts of both the early and later American traditions. Though many well-known directors have dabbled in the genre, it is Lucio Fulci who has explored (some would say exploited) the motif of the living dead in the most detail. Fulci’s zombie films not only pick up on the idea of the colonial encounter as a medical encounter, but medical power is always linked to the supernatural – perhaps we can even say, sovereign – power to raise the dead. Critics of Fulci dismiss his work, noting that Fulci basically made one film, over and over. Admittedly, it is hard to deny such dismissals, for Fulci’s films, such as the cult classic Zombie (1979; released in Italy asZombi 2), The Beyond (1981), or the strangely uneventful City of the Living Dead (1980), repeatedly present an archetypal scene, one that visually encapsulates each of the films – that of the dead walking the earth.[28]
There is, to be sure, a political romanticism to these modern variants of the living dead; eventually, the multitude prevails through sheer persistence, and all symbols of hierarchy eventually fall. But more than this, what is instructive is the way such films demonstrate the problem of biopolitics as the governance of circulation, flux, and flow. These scenes of the dead walking the earth often signify moments of retribution, the living dead – themselves the product of a medical-sovereign power – taking vengeance upon their creators. Similar scenes are found in Romero’s zombie films: Dawn of the Dead (1978),Day of the Dead (1985), and, more recently, Land of the Dead (2005), all contain key, climactic scenes of the living dead as a massing, contagious movement through the fences, barricades, and bunkers that human groups construct to manage them. The spaces through which the living dead move – houses, suburbs, malls, city streets, military bases, and corporate towers – all become porous spaces to the miasmatic logic of the living dead. They not only occupy the borderland between the living and the dead, but between the One and the Many, sovereignty and multiplicity. Their massing and their aggregation is not only a matter of number, but also of circulation and movement (albeit a maddeningly slow, persistent movement…). The movement of such massing and aggregate forms is that of contagion and circulation, a passing-through, a passing-between, even, in an eschatological sense, a passing-beyond.
In these archetypal scenes of the dead walking the earth, the living dead are driven by an ambiguous vitalism. Occupying the grey zone between the living and the dead, the zombie is “animated” in an Aristotelian sense; put another way, the living dead are living precisely because they are a construed threat. But, at the same time, they are the not-living because they are excluded from the body politic and the fortifications of security and political order – especially when they always reside within such spaces.
From this perspective, what begins to become apparent is that biopolitics always implicates an ontology of life that is nevertheless is always attempting to supersede. That ontology is at once medical and theological, medical demonology and the theology of plague. Something that decomposes and that is living; perhaps this conjunction betweenpsukhē and pathos, between life and circulation/flux/flow, is the central dilemma for biopolitics today – the intelligibility of the “bio” of biopolitics.
 ~ * ~ 
Coda: The Incorruptibles. Theologians often talk about the incorruptibility of the corpses of saints, corpses touched by divine intervention and miraculously impervious to the temporal processes of decay. The corpses of mystics such as John of the Cross and Teresea of Avila are counted among the Incorruptibles of the Catholic Church. By contrast, I would like to be absolutely corruptible – nothing of my body would remain, not even the clothes I’m wearing or the notebook in which I’m writing. Finally all words and memories would evaporate, leaving not even an echo or resonance. It’s a political fantasy – but no less fantastical than the Incorruptibles.

[1]           Note: This text is derived from a talk given at Amherst College in 2009. Some of this material is found in modified form in my book In The Dust Of This Planet -  Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 (Zero Books, 2011).
                  [1] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. I (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 142.
[2]           An important exception is the work of Roberto Esposito, whose trilogy Bíos,Immunitas, and Communitas examines the philosophical underpinnings of biopolitics as a concept.
[3]           Foucault, Sécurité, Territoire, Population – Cours Au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004), p. 16.
[4]           Ibid., p. 12.
[5]           Foucault, Il Faut Défendre la Société – Cours Au Collège de France, 1976 (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 1997), p. 216.
[6]           This idea is further explored in my book After Life (University of Chicago Press, 2010), pp. 1-24.
[7]           Hobbes, Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994 [1651), “Introduction.”
[8]           Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror & the Complete Works of the Comte de Lautréamont, trans. Alexis Lykiard (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1994), pp. 142-43.
[9]           Hobbes, Leviathan, Part II, Chapter XXIX (“Of those things that Weaken, or tend to the Dissolution of a Common-wealth”).
[10]         Ibid.
[11]         Plato, Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (New York: Penguin, 2003), 444c, p. 153.
[12]         Ibid., IV, 444d, p. 154.
[13]         The Republic of Plato, trans. Alan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), VIII, 556e, p. 235.
[14]         Aristotle, Poetics, trans, Malcolm Heath (New York: Penguin, 1996), 1449a24-28. Aristotle’s famous definition is as follows: “Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete, and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts; performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification (katharsis) of such emotions.”
[15]         Ibid., 1450a15.
[16]         Ibid., 1448b10-14.
[17]         Aristotle, On the Soul / Parva Naturalia / On Breath (Loeb Classical Library), trans. W.S. Hett (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000 [1936]). Aristotle reiterates several times: “Let us then, taking up the starting point of our inquiry, say that the ensouled is distinguished from the unsouled by its being alive” (II.1.413a).
[18]         Ibid., I.1.403a.
[19]         See, for example, Sheldon Watts, Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
[20]         Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Richard Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), q.III, art.iv,
[21]         Maaike van der Lugt, Le Ver, le demon, et la vierge: les théories médiévales génération extraordinaire (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2004), p. 238.
[22]         Alain Bourreau, Satan the Heretic: The Birth of Demonology in the Medieval West, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 174.
[23]         Literary accounts, from Boccaccio, to Defoe, to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark, all take up these basic motifs – the disruptive event, the lack of adequate explanation, the political shutting-down, and the ensuing threat of social chaos.
[24]         The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin), XI.39.
[25]         Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 2002), Canto IX, lines 104-111. Italian consulted at the Digital Dante Project, dante.ilt.columbia.edu.
[26]         Ibid., 115-123.
[27]         Ibid., 124-129.
[28]         The final scene in Zombi 2 depicts the living dead slowly descending on New York City (they are crossing Brooklyn Bridge – apparently zombies come from Brooklyn…).

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