Life is one of our most basic concepts, and yet when examined directly it proves remarkably contradictory and elusive, encompassing both the broadest and the most specific phenomena. We can see this uncertainty about life in our habit of approaching it as something at once scientific and mystical, in the return of vitalisms of all types, and in the pervasive politicization of life. In short, life seems everywhere at stake and yet is nowhere the same.
In After Life, Eugene Thacker clears the ground for a new philosophy of life by recovering the twists and turns in its philosophical history. Beginning with Aristotle’s originary formulation of a philosophy of life, Thacker examines the influence of Aristotle’s ideas in medieval and early modern thought, leading him to the work of Immanuel Kant, who notes the inherently contradictory nature of “life in itself.” Along the way, Thacker shows how early modern philosophy’s engagement with the problem of life affects thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, and Alain Badiou, as well as contemporary developments in the “speculative turn” in philosophy.
At a time when life is categorized, measured, and exploited in a variety of ways, After Life invites us to delve deeper into the contours and contradictions of the age-old question, “what is life?”
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
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About the Author
Eugene Thacker is associate professor in the Media Studies program at the New School.
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By EUGENE THACKER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife and the Living (On Aristotelian Biohorror)
Nature proceeds little by little from things lifeless to animal life in such a way that it is impossible to determine the exact line of demarcation, nor on which side thereof an intermediate form should lie. —Aristotle
1.1 SUPERNATURAL HORROR AS THE PARADIGM FOR LIFE
In the early twentieth century a unique literary genre emerged that combined horror, myth, and developments in science and technology. The stories tended to be concept-driven rather than plot- or character-driven, and, though they often utilized well-known motifs such as the mad scientist or alien invasion, more often than not they moved towards a singular affect: the terrifying and sublime conclusions to be drawn from a view of the world as an utterly unhuman world.
Writers such as H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert E. Howard are often associated with this type of writing, which appeared throughout the early twentieth century in pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, and the like. The pulp magazines dubbed this kind of writing "weird fiction," though Lovecraft himself preferred the more literary term "supernatural horror." Its mid-twentieth-century inheritors were TV shows such as Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, and its contemporary influence can be felt in the Japanese horror boom of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
I mention this "cult" tradition because many of the stories contain thought-provoking insights into the concept of "life"—and, specifically, into the limits of such a concept when it is thought of in exclusively human-centric terms. Consider the late-period works of Lovecraft as an example. In these stories, one often finds three forms of life: There is, first, the world of the living and the nonliving (plants, animals, human beings), existing within the human-centric world of society, politics, and science. This is a world in which we find characters weighted down by deeply ingrained ways of thinking about the world—rural vs. urban, regional vs. global, civilized vs. primitive, race vs. species, ancient vs. modern, and so on. In the midst of this all-too-human world, Lovecraft's characters discover remnants—often at a distant, furtive archaeological dig—of an advanced form of life that confounds all human knowledge about life as we know it. These types of beings—the "Old Ones"—are often characterized as an advanced race of other-dimensional beings that are discovered to have existed eons prior to the appearance of human beings. This is the life that is so ancient it is alien.
This in itself is cause for horror for Lovecraft's characters. The strange, alien facticity of the remnant throws into abeyance all human presupposition—history, biology, geology, cosmology—concerning the human and its relation to the world. This alone qualifies Lovecraft's stories as science fiction. But there is another element that pushes the works into that intermediary zone of supernatural horror and "the weird." In addition to these two forms of life, there is also a third form of life that appears in Lovecraft's stories. This third form of life often resists easy description, either in terms of the human world, or in terms of the Old Ones. Sometimes this third form of life is given an awkward name, such as "Elder Things" or "Shoggoths." Clark Ashton Smith once used the term "UbboSathla," while Frank Belknap Long used the phrase "the Space-Eaters." William Hope Hodgson preferred the more menacing and shapeless term "the Watchers." However, while this form of life is often named, more often than not it represents the very horizon of human thought to think this third form of life at all—hence Lovecraft's characters obliquely refer to them as the "nameless thing"—or better, in Ambrose Bierce's phrase, "the damned thing."
This third form of life is, then, the nameless thing that is living, with all the contradictions this implies. It is described by Lovecraft's characters in ways that are poetic and highly articulate. In "The Shadow Out of Time," for instance, the central character not only discovers remnants that this third form of life had actually once been alive, but, to his horror, he also discovers that they are still alive. The narrator begins, in a classically unreliable mode, by evoking the unreality of his situation: "Dream, madness, and memory merged wildly together in a series of fantastic, fragmentary delusions which can have no relation to anything real." But this is not enough, for what is then evoked is the strange objectivity of these delusions: "There was a hideous fall through incalculable leagues of viscous, sentient darkness, and a babel of noises utterly alien to all that we know of the earth and its organic life." Finally, the delusion itself is revealed to be not only something "real," but, more importantly, something dormantly alive: "Dormant, rudimentary senses seemed to start into vitality within me, telling of pits and voids peopled by floating horrors and leading to sunless crags and oceans and teeming cities of windowless basalt towers upon which no light ever shone."
There is more here than the menacing monster of classic creature-feature films. In these passages, what is horrific is not just that such nameless things are still alive, but, more importantly, that in their living they evoke in Lovecraft's characters the limits of thought—the limits of thought to think "life" at all. The very terms of human thought fail to encompass the nameless thing. In Lovecraft's novel At the Mountains of Madness one of the central characters attempts to describe the Shoggoths—an oozing hyper-complex form of life composed of mathematically grouped dots and a multitude of eyes:
Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes—viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells—rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile—slaves of suggestion, builders of cities—more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more amphibious, more and more imitative ...
Lovecraft's characters are not insane—in fact, the source of their horror is the realization that they are not hallucinating or suffering from "exhausted nerves." With the requisite melodramatic flair, Lovecraft's characters often express the wish that they were simply hallucinating or dreaming, for then they could dismiss what they encounter as pure subjectivism, and the self-world dichotomy would remain intact. The problem is that Lovecraft's characters come to verify this third form of life—but in a manner that is incommensurate to any form of rational verification. The very categories of matter and form, actual and potential, origin and finality, growth, decay, and organization—all these categories of thought flounder before a form of life that is at once oozing and mathematical, formless and geometric.
This third kind of life, the "nameless thing" so often described by Lovecraft, is a paradigm for the concept of life today. The concept of life encompasses so much, from the most reductive biological viewpoint to the most open-ended ethical or existential viewpoint. When definitions or criteria for life are given, even these are subject to modification and revision. There is a sense in which the major problem concerning life has to do not with its definition, and whether such a definition is possible, but with the very plasticity of life, a shape-shifting quality exhibited in all the different ways in which we use the concept to correlate to the different phenomena that are deemed to be living—the plasticity of all the different ways in which life is thought and shaped, all the myriad ways in which life reflects upon itself and shapes itself, all the forms of existence, resistance, and insistence that life is.
This invites us to consider a more general set of problems concerning the concept of life today. We can briefly summarize some of these. There is, first, the polyvalence of meanings for "life." Here life means so many things that it does not mean any one thing. If the concept of life encompasses everything from the physical organism, to socioeconomic living conditions, to the life that is subject to ethical and legal decision-making, to the entire planet itself, then there is a sense in which almost nothing is excluded from life. This is a synchronic dimension in which, at any given moment, and in any given context, there are such a wide range of meanings for "life" that the term ceases to have any stable meaning at all. The limit of this is, of course, relativism. If life means everything, then life means nothing.
Despite this polyvalence of meanings, some can be viewed as more dominant than others. Here the apparatus of social norms, disciplinary specialization, and institutional legitimacy all come into play. Although everything and anything may come under the term "life," there is also a sense in which some things are more living, or more essentially living, than others. The hegemony of scientific concepts of "life" has had an impact that reaches far beyond scientific specialization. Here "life" is that which fulfills a descriptive list of behavioral criteria in natural systems (Does it contain DNA? Does it display adaptive evolutionary behavior? Does it maintain itself by exchanging matter and energy with its environment?). This is as true of biology historically speaking as it is in current fields such as systems biology, biocomplexity, or even astrobiology. Whereas the polyvalence of meanings of life point to a synchronic dimension, the scientific hegemony of life points to a diachronic one. The scientific grounding of the concept of life obtains a normative power that itself may change over time (from mechanism to vitalism to organization to information, and so on). The limit of this is not relativism but rather reductionism. In some instances this becomes a case of checking off the appropriate boxes.
However, this specialist notion of life is doubled by its opposite, which is the banalization of the term "life" in everyday language. In English, one regularly hears the phrases "lifestyle," "quality of life," "that's life!," "get a life!," and so on. Often this quotidianism points to the central category of experience in relation to life. And experience itself comes to overlap almost perfectly with the concept of life; there is no experience of life, because experience is life. Life is the flux and flow of living in the world; life is the experience of being alive, of living in time and through time. Unlike the above cases, in which the concept of life is distributed along synchronic and diachronic axes, here life obtains a pragmatic quality, as the very phenomenon of life in its being lived. Life is simply the experience of living, and vice-versa. But this too has a limit, and that is universalism. Everything that happens to a person is part of this flux and flow of life. Life becomes everything and anything that can possibly be experienced, and what can be experienced becomes the totality of life.
This leads to a fourth usage of the concept. When life is taken as subjective experience, life is projected from subject to object, self to world, and human to nonhuman. Another name for this process is anthropomorphism. The life that is fully commensurate with experience and the phenomena of living tends to become a life that is rooted in a living, experiencing subject. And, since a reflexive awareness of living is implied in the very idea of life as experience, this also means that life becomes a human-centric concern. Life in this sense really means life-for-me, or life-for-us. This has clear political implications. Life is the privilege of designation and the status that designation accords. Life is granted or taken away, not given. Life is classified or stratified; perhaps it is designated rights, perhaps one speaks for this or that form of life, perhaps some lives are more worth living than others. Life may be named, constructed, instrumentalized, it may itself become a form of power. This is not simply a pragmatic dimension, but a political or biopolitical one. The difficulty here lies precisely in this nexus between "life" and "politics," for if life is not exclusive to the human, or a privilege of the human, then the question becomes: can there be a politics of life in terms of the nonhuman or the unhuman?
These are the contours of any attempt to think the concept of "life." The effects can be seen not just in the cultural expressions of these problems, but in the metamorphoses of the concept itself—its variability, its lability, its plasticity. However, with so many definitions of life, and so much knowledge produced about this or that form of life, the more basic question of "life itself" does not disappear. In fact, it becomes more pronounced. In other words, the various and often competing epistemologies of life in the end point back to a more fundamental question concerning an ontology of life ... and to what extent such an ontology is possible.
It is for this reason that a return to Aristotle's project is worthwhile. But let us be clear. This is not to suggest that Aristotle provides any new perspectives or alternatives, much less an "answer" to the question of life. What we can suggest is that Aristotle sets out a framework for thinking about life whose influence can still be discerned to this day. That framework is really a limit—and it is a limit that must be "overcome" if we are to continue thinking about our current situation of biopolitics and necropolitics, immunity and community, bare life and precarious life, and so on. And the key to moving beyond the Aristotelian paradigm lies not in the search for an alternative perspective; what is needed is not a new theory of life, and not an undiscovered, forgotten, or underappreciated alternative. What is needed is a critique of life. And the key to overcoming the Aristotelian ontology of life lies in the fissures within that ontology. We are jumping ahead a little here, but for the time being suffice it to say that these fissures are not lacunae or lapses in argument—rather, they entail the development of a logically coherent, and yet a necessarily contradictory concept of "life."
1.2 ARISTOTLE'S DE ANIMA AND THE PROBLEM OF LIFE
The text given the title De Anima occupies a strange position within the Aristotelian corpus. On the one hand, it undertakes an investigation into the principle or essence of life, and thus overlaps with the ontological concerns of the Metaphysica and the logical treatises. On the other hand, this ontology is concerned not with "being" or "substance" in itself, but specifically with the phenomena of life, suggesting that the De Anima is more a natural philosophy. This aligns the De Anima with the so-called biological treatises, such as Historia Animalium (On the History of Animals), De Partibus Animalium (On the Parts of Animals), De Motu Animalium (On the Movement of Animals), De Generatione et Corruptione (On Generation and Corruption), and the various treatises given the title Parva Naturalia. This distinction is also played out in Aristotle's biography. Between his time as a student of Plato in the Academy, and his return to Athens later in life to found his own school, the Lyceum, Aristotle spends a number of years in and around the eastern Aegean, where he observes, describes, and catalogs the diversity of natural life. No doubt this period in exile comes to be foundational for Aristotle's natural philosophy. In this way, there are two Aristotles—there is Aristotle-the- naturalist, describing animal anatomy and physiology, and the vital processes of growth and decay, and there is Aristotle-the-metaphysician, developing fundamental metaphysical concepts concerning substance, accident, causality, form, and so on. In the De Anima these two Aristotles come head-to-head, resulting in a number of interesting contradictions.
Excerpted from AFTER LIFE by EUGENE THACKER Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Life and the Living (On Aristotelian Biohorror)
1.1 Supernatural Horror as the Paradigm for Life
1.2 Aristotle’s De Anima and the Problem of Life
1.3 The Ontology of Life
1.4 The Entelechy of the Weird
2. Superlative Life
2.1 Life With or Without Limits
2.2 Life as Time in Plotinus
2.3 On the Superlative
2.4 Superlative Life I: Pseudo-Dionysius
2.4.1 Negative vs. Affirmative Theology
2.4.2 Superlative Negation
2.4.3 Negation and Preexistent Life
2.4.4 Excess, Evil, and Non-being
2.5 Superlative Life II: Eriugena
2.5.1 Negation in the Periphyseon
2.5.2 The quaestio de nihilo: On Nothing
2.5.3 The quaestio de nihilo: Superlative Nothing
2.5.4 Dark Intelligible Abyss
2.6.1 The Apophatic Logic
2.6.2 Negation in Frege and Ayer
2.6.3 Negation vs. Subtraction in Badiou
2.6.4 Negation and Contradiction in Priest
2.7 The Dialetheic Vitalism of Negative Theology
2.8 Ellipses: Suhraward ī and the Luminous Void
3. Univocal Creatures
3.1 On Spiritual Creatures
3.2 Life as Form in Aristotle
3.3 The Concept of the Creature
3.4 Univocity I: Duns Scotus vs. Aquinas
3.4.1 Univocity in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
3.4.2 Univocity in Duns Scotus’ Opus Oxoniense
3.4.3 The Common Nature of the Creature
3.5 Univocity II: Duns Scotus vs. Henry of Ghent
3.5.1 Univocity in Henry of Ghent
3.5.2 Negative vs. Privative Indetermination
3.5.3 Absolute Indetermination
3.6 Univocity III: Deleuze’s Scholasticism—Three Variations
3.6.1 Spinoza et le Problème de l’Expression
3.6.2 Différence et Répétition
3.6.3 Cours de Vincennes
3.7 Univocal Creatures
3.8 Ellipses: Dōgen and Uncreated Univocity
4. Dark Pantheism
4.1 Everything and Nothing
4.2 Life as Spirit in Aquinas
4.3 The Concept of the Divine Nature
4.4 Immanence I: Eriugena’s Periphyseon
4.4.1 Natura and the Unthought
4.4.2 Universal Life
4.4.3 Four Statements on Pantheism
4.5 Immanence II: Duns Scotus’ Reportatio IA
4.5.1 Univocal Immanence
4.5.2 Actual Infinity
4.5.3 The Pathology of the Triple Primacy
4.6 Immanence III: Nicholas of Cusa’s De Docta Ignorantia
4.6.1 The Coincidence of Opposites
4.6.2 The Folds of Life
4.6.3 Absolute vs. Contracted Pantheism
4.6.4 Speculative Pantheism (Deleuze’s Interlocutors)
4.7 Pantheism and Pure Immanence
4.7.1 The Insubordination of Immanence in Deleuze
4.7.2 Scholia I: The Isomorphism of Univocity and Immanence
4.7.3 Scholia II: The Vitalist Logic of Common Notions
4.7.4 Scholia III: The Life of Substance
4.8 Dark Pantheism
4.9 Ellipses: Wang Yangming and Idealist Naturalism
5. Logic and Life (On Kantian Teratology)
5.1 The Wandering Line from Aristotle to Kant
5.2 Critique of Life
5.3 Spectral Life and Speculative Realism
5.4 Ontotheology in Kant, Atheology in Bataille
5.5 The Night Land