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Could it be that the more we know about the world, the less we understand it? Could it be that, while everything has been explained, nothing has meaning?
Extending the ideas presented in his book In The Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker explores these and other issues in Starry Speculative Corpse. But instead of using philosophy to define or to explain the horror genre, Thacker reads works of philosophy as if they were horror stories themselves, revealing a rift between human beings and the unhuman world of which they are part. Along the way we see philosophers grappling with demons, struggling with doubt, and wrestling with an indifferent cosmos. At the center of it all is the philosophical drama of the human being confronting its own limits. Not a philosophy of horror, but a horror of philosophy. Thought that stumbles over itself, as if at the edge of an abyss.
Starry Speculative Corpse is the second volume of the "Horror of Philosophy" trilogy, together with the first volume, In The Dust of This Planet, and the third volume, Tentacles Longer Than Night.
|Publisher:||Hunt, John Publishing|
|Edition description:||Vol 2|
|Product dimensions:||5.57(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.51(d)|
About the Author
Philosopher Eugene Thacker thinks and writes about a world of natural disasters, emerging pandemics, and the looming threat of extinction. Existence, he writes, is becoming increasingly “unthinkable.” He has written on a range of topics, from philosophy to science fiction and horror. Thacker is the author of a number of books, including After Life (2010), and In the Dust of this Planet in his Horror of Philosophy series. He is Associate Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York.
Read an Excerpt
Starry Speculative Corpse
[Horror of Philosophy, vol. 2]
By Eugene Thacker
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Eugene Thacker
All rights reserved.
Starry Speculative Corpse
Descartes' Demon. Sometime around 1639, René Descartes sat down at his desk to write. At issue for him was a simple question concerning knowledge. Philosophy, theology, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, and the natural sciences all claim to know things. From them a cumulative understanding of the self, of others, of the world, and of the cosmos is made possible. But how do we know that what we know is actually true? What is the foundation on which these disparate fields of knowledge are based? Are there questions that cannot – or should not – be asked, lest they undermine the knowledge they are designed to produce? How much uncertainty is tolerated before knowledge becomes doubt, and when does doubt come to a stop, if ever?
An abyss opens up. For Descartes this was a personal as well as a philosophical problem. As he writes, "Some years ago I noticed how many false things I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful were the things that I subsequently built on them and therefore that, once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and I should begin again from the most basic foundations ..."
Being the astute thinker that he was, Descartes set out a method for addressing this problem. The task was, as he notes, ambitious, and Descartes writes that he had been waiting for a "mature age" at which to undertake this project. Whether the age of forty-three was the right age or not is hard to say. He felt he had been waiting long enough, even too long, and so, Descartes writes, "today I appropriately cleared my mind of all cares and arranged for myself some time free from interruption. I am alone and, at long last, I will devote myself seriously and freely to this general overturning of my beliefs."
The result of these exercises in skepticism are well known to students of philosophy, and, when The Meditations on First Philosophy were published in Paris in 1641, they immediately attracted a whole range of responses, not least of all from the ongoing debates over the relationship between philosophy and theology, reason and faith.
Descartes' most lasting application of his methodological doubt comes in the first of his meditations, where he considers how our senses deceive us. Dreams, hallucinations, painting, and other examples are discussed as instances in which we think we know something based on sensory evidence, and are in fact deceived. But at least in these instances we can learn, from experience, to distinguish dream from reality, and the image from the thing itself. Our senses are reliable, if used properly.
But Descartes pushes his doubt even further. What if our senses are, by definition, deceptive? What if deception is, as it were, hard-wired into our very modes of being? Descartes raises this question through a kind of thought experiment:
Therefore, I will suppose that, not God who is the source of truth but some evil mind, who is all powerful and cunning, has devoted all their energies to deceiving me. I will imagine that the sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and everything external to me are nothing more than the creatures of dream by means of which an evil spirit entraps my credulity. I shall imagine myself as if I had no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses at all, but as if my beliefs in all these things were false.
Another abyss opens. Often dubbed the "evil demon" or "evil genius," here we see Descartes pushing his doubt to an extreme point, a point at which no knowledge is possible because nothing is for certain. One thought is as good or as bad as another, everything relative, arbitrary, haphazard, pointless. Subject to continual deception, prey to the cunning of unknown entities, dismembered and insubstantial, Descartes has let himself to stand on the precipice of philosophy and peer over the edge. And what he finds there is a terrifying abyss, where there is neither certitude nor knowledge, nor even a single thought – just a tenebrous, impassive silence.
"But this is a tiring project and a kind of laziness brings me back to what is more habitual in my life." Can we blame Descartes for stepping back from the precipice? Thinking is hard work, yes, but the negation of all thought is, perhaps, harder. What Descartes inadvertently discovers is at once the ground and the greatest threat to philosophy, the question that cannot be asked without undermining the idea of philosophy itself.
Traditionally, the Socratic tradition in philosophy has a therapeutic function, which is to dispel the horrors of the unknown through reasoned argument. What cannot be tolerated in this tradition is the possibility of a world that cannot be known, or a world that is indifferent to our elaborate knowledge-producing schemes. Descartes' Meditations begin – and end – in this mode. But along the way there are gaps, fissures, and lacunae in the philosophical edifice. With the evil demon Descartes stumbles upon a horror intrinsic to philosophy: the thought that philosophy cannot think without undermining and annulling itself. In order to continue its work, philosophy must ignore it, or gloss it over, or skip it altogether.
And so, in the following meditation, a foundation is provided by Descartes, in his famous formulation cogito ergo sum: "... let him deceive me as much as he wishes, he will never bring it about that I am nothing as long as I think I am something. Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be state that this proposition 'I am, I exist' is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind." From this flows an entire legacy of philosophical thinking, in terms of Cartesian space, Cartesian dualism, and the privileging of human consciousness over all other forms of being.
But it is not so easy to shake Descartes' demon, which continues to haunt his philosophical treatise to the end. It is always there, threatening to undermine whatever conceptual edifice Descartes has constructed. Better to not deal with it at all – and continue philosophizing. Descartes even confesses: "I am like a prisoner who happens to enjoy an imaginary freedom in his dreams and who subsequently begins to suspect that he is asleep and, afraid of being awakened, conspires silently with his agreeable illusions."
* * *
Kant's Depression. On the 12th of February, 1804, Immanuel Kant lay on his deathbed. "His eye was rigid, and his face and lips became discoloured by a cadaverous pallor." A few days following his death, his head was shaved, and "a plaster cast was taken, not a mask merely, but a cast of the whole head, designed to enrich the craniological collection of Dr. Gall," a local physician. The corpse of Kant was made up and dressed appropriately, and, according to some accounts, throngs of visitors came day and night. "Everybody was anxious to avail himself of the last opportunity he would have for entitling himself to say, 'I too have seen Kant.'" Their impressions seemed to be at once reverent and grotesque. "Great was the astonishment of all people at the meagreness of Kant's appearance; and it was universally agreed that a corpse so wasted and fleshless had never been beheld." Accompanied by the church bells of Königsberg, Kant's corpse was carried from his home by torchlight, to a candle-lit cathedral, whose Gothic arches and spires were perhaps reminiscent of the philosopher's elaborate, vaulted books.
In his book A Short History of Decay, E.M. Cioran once wrote: "I turned away from philosophy when it became impossible to discover in Kant any human weakness, any authentic accent of melancholy, in Kant and in all the philosophers." Indeed, for many, the name of Immanuel Kant has become synonymous with a certain type of elaborate, grand, system-building philosophy that characterizes works such as The Critique of Pure Reason, first published in 1781. Indeed, so decisive was the impact of Kant's later, "critical" philosophy that textbooks on the history of philosophy often refer to philosophy before Kant and "post-Kantian philosophy." The significance of Kant's philosophy is, however, counter-balanced by its notorious difficulty. Reading through the table of contents alone, with its dazzling and labyrinthine array of sections, sub-sections, and sub-sub-sections, is a task in and of itself. Nevertheless, if Kant's philosophy achieved one thing, it was a renewed optimism in philosophy, much in line with Enlightenment ideals concerning the advantages of secular reason and the "maturing" of humanity as a whole. Reading through Kant's works, with their patient and rigorous divisions and sub-divisions, there is a sense of philosophy as an all-encompassing, totalizing endeavor. Philosophy, in its Kantian modes, knows everything – it even knows what it doesn't know.
That Kant suffered from depression may come as a surprise, especially given the ambition of his philosophical books and the enthusiasm of his wide-ranging intellectual interests (his lecture courses cover everything from philosophical logic to anthropology to chemistry to predictions about the end of the world). But in 1798, in a letter to a colleague on the topic of "the art of prolonging human life," Kant commented on his own struggle with depression. The comments are rare for Kant, both in the sense of being personal and in the way they serve as a confession of weakness. In typical fashion, Kant first defines depression as "the weakness of abandoning oneself despondently to general morbid feelings that have no definite object (and so making no attempt to master them by reason)." A thought without an object is a troubling thing in Kant's philosophy; it can lead to endless train of fickle thoughts without any ground, similar to the speculative debates in Kant's time over the existence of God, the origin of the universe, or the existence of a soul. Reason becomes employed for no reason – or at least, for no good reason. At issue for Kant is not just the employment of reason over faith or imagination, but the instrumental use of reason – reason mastering itself, including its own limitations. This was as much the case for everyday thought as it was for philosophical thinking: "The opposite of the mind's self-mastery ... is faint-hearted brooding about the ills that could befall one, and that one would not be able to withstand if they should come."
And when the coherence of reason is threatened, so is philosophy. Or rather, so is the philosopher. A little later on, Kant offers this strange confession: "I myself have a natural disposition to hypochrondria because of my flat and narrow chest, which leaves little room for the movement of the heart and lungs; and in my earlier years this disposition made me almost weary of life."
Elsewhere Kant drops hints of this depression. In the Critique of Judgement, for instance, he allows that "misanthropy" is preferable, and even has the character of the sublime: "Falsehood, ingratitude, injustice, the puerility of the ends which we ourselves look upon as great and momentous ... these all so contradict the idea of what men might be if they only would, and are so at variance with our active wish to see them better, that, to avoid hating where one cannot love, it seems but a slight sacrifice to forego all the joys of fellowship with our kind."
But Kant does not give in so easily to this "pathology" of thought. Philosophy is the panacea. Kant distinguishes "philosophizing" from "philosophy," though both play a therapeutic role in reason's self-mastery. Philosophizing, for Kant, "does not involve being a philosopher," but instead "is a means of warding off many disagreeable feelings and, besides, a stimulant to the mind that introduces an interest into its occupations." At another level, there is "philosophy" proper, "whose interest is the entire final end of reason (an absolute unity)," and which "brings with it a feeling of power which can well compensate to some degree for the physical weaknesses of old age by a rational estimation of life's value."
This is all fine, from the critical distance of philosophical self-mastery. But things get a little more complicated when Kant discusses depression (in the same essay he also discusses boredom, diet, and sleep). What Kant doesn't consider is that reason might actually be connected to depression, rather than stand as its opposite. What if depression – reason's failure to achieve self-mastery – is not the failure of reason but instead the result of reason? What if human reason works "too well," and brings us to conclusions that are anathema to the existence of human beings? What we would have is a "cold rationalism," shoring up the anthropocentric conceits of the philosophical endeavor, showing us an anonymous, faceless world impervious to our hopes and desires. And, in spite of Kant's life-long dedication to philosophy and the Enlightenment project, in several of his writings he allows himself to give voice to this cold rationalism. In his essay on Leibniz's optimism he questions the rationale of an all-knowing God that is at once beneficent towards humanity but also allows human beings to destroy each other. And in his essay "The End of All Things" Kant not only questions humanity's dominion over the world, but he also questions our presumption to know that – and if – the world will end at all: "But why do human beings expect an end to the world at all? And if this is conceded to them, why must it be a terrible end?"
The implication in these and other comments by Kant is that reason and the "rational estimation of life's value" may not have our own best interests in mind, and the self-mastery of reason may not coincide with the self-mastery of us as human beings (or, indeed, of the species as a whole). Philosophical reason taken to these lengths would not only make philosophy improbable (for how could one have philosophy without philosophers?), but also impractical (and what would be the use of such a "depressive reason"?). What Kant refers to as depression is simply this stark realization: that thought is only incidentally human. It would take a later generation of philosophers to derive the conclusion of this: that thought thinks us, not the reverse.
Legend has it that Kant's final word on his deathbed was "enough" (genug). The aged peripatetic philosopher of Köningsberg let out a word that was also a sigh, and depressive reason seems to have had the final say.
* * *
Nietzsche's Laughter. Nothing is more indicative of human culture than the obsessiveness with which it has depicted its own planet. When the Earth was decentered from the universe by Copernican astronomy, this was more than compensated for by the innumerable images of the Earth produced over the years by artists and scientists alike. The Earth was, and is, in many ways, still at the center of things. In this sense, the first televised images of the Earth can no doubt be regarded as the pinnacle of a species solipsism, one that has its underside in the many computerized film images of a disaster-worn, zombie-ridden, apocalyptic landscape. We are so fixated on the Earth – that is, on ourselves – that we would rather have a ruined Earth than no Earth at all.
Astronauts often refer to their first view of Earth as the "overview effect," suggesting that the view of the Earth from space produces a shift in consciousness – that we as human beings are not separate from the planet on which we live. The general message is that of sublime wonder and unity: national boundaries disappear, and over its surface the planet reveals strange, luminous patterns of color, cloud, and light (otherwiseknown as cities, smog, and the electrical grid). Thanks to digital technology the overview effect can now be an everyday experience.
However, in its appeal for a planetary consciousness, the overview effect tends to reveal something different – the indifference of the planet vis-à-vis our repeated attempts to render it meaningful. It is in this context that one is reminded of Nietzsche's oft-quoted passage from "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense":
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of "world history" – yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
Here Nietzsche gives us a different take on the "overview effect." In this version, we have never been one with the planet, nor does the planet require our cleverness and technical ingenuity to save it – from ourselves. It is tempting to imagine Nietzsche himself as a present-day astronaut, going up into space, turning back and seeing the Earth, and noticing the contrast between the indifferent, glittering planet and the equal indifference of the busy and clever animals on its surface. No doubt Nietzsche's ill-health would mean that he would fail to complete the astronaut training. And so he would settle for writing it down.
Excerpted from Starry Speculative Corpse by Eugene Thacker. Copyright © 2014 Eugene Thacker. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
1 Starry Speculative Corpse 1
Horror of Philosophy
2 Prayers for Darkness 17
Afraid of the Dark
Tomb of Heaven
Divine Darkness (Dionysius the Areopagite)
The Dark God (Meister Eckhart)
In and With Darkness (Angela of Foligno)
Dark Contemplation (The Cloud of Unknowing)
The Dark Night (John of the Cross)
Excess of Darkness (Georges Bataille)
An Exegesis on Divine Darkness
The Black Universe
Nothing to See
Black on Black
3 Prayers for Nothing 62
Nothing and Nothingness (Heidegger, Sartre, Badiou)
God is Nothing (Meister Eckhart)
Four Definitions of Nothing
Logic of the Divine
Metaphysical Correlation, Mystical Correlation
Death in Deep Space (The Kyoto School)
Absolute Nothingness (Nishida)
Towards Emptiness (Nishitani)
4 Prayers for Negation 101
What Should Not Be
On Absolute Life
The Ontology of Generosity
Schopenhauer and the Negation of Life
The Riddle of Life
Life Negating Life
Better Not to Be
Logics of the Worst
The Specter of Eliminativism
5 Last Words, Lost Words 150
The Relinquished Philosopher
A Very, Very, Very Short History of Philosophy
Here… Everything is by Design
What You See Is What You Get
What to Do With Thought
Born in the Ruins of Philosophy
Variations on Misanthropy (Brassier)
Towards a Philosophy of Futility