reading notes from In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker.
when you are “nowhere” physically, you are “everywhere” spiritually…Never mind if you cannot fathom this nothing, for I love it surely so much the better. ~ The Cloud of Unknowing
The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all
The world is human and non-human, anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic, sometimes even misanthropic. Arguably, one of the greatest challenges that philosophy faces today lies in comprehending the world in which we live as both a human and a non-human world – and of comprehending this politically.
Philosophy has repeatedly returned to this problem of the non-human world. While in philosophy circles today it may be called “correlationism,” “accelerationism,” or “atmospheric politics,” for earlier philosophers this same dilemma was expressed in different terminology: the problem of “being-in-the-world,” the dichotomy between “active” or “passive” nihilism, or the limits of human thought in the “antinomies of reason.”
all of these interpretive lenses – mythological, theological, existential – have as their most basic presupposition a view of the world as a human-centric world, as a world “for us” as human beings, living in human cultures, governed by human values.
But this world-for-us is not, of course, totally within the ambit of human wants and desires; the world often “bites back,” resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us. Let us call this the world-in-itself.
The world-in-itself may co-exist with the world-for-us – indeed the human being is defined by its impressive capacity for not recognizing this distinction. By contrast, the world-without-us cannot co-exist with the human world-for-us; the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world.
the world-for-us is simply the World, the world-in-itself is simply the Earth, and the world-without-us is simply the Planet.
In a sense, the real challenge today is not finding a new or improved version of the world-for-us, and it is not relentlessly pursuing the phantom objectivity of the world-in-itself. The real challenge lies in confronting this enigmatic concept of the world-without-us, and understanding why this world-without-us continues to persist in the shadows of the world-for-us and the world-in-itself.
horror is not simply about fear, but instead about the enigmatic thought of the unknown.
As H.P. Lovecraft famously noted, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” Horror is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable.
Certainly a short story about an amorphous, quasi-sentient, mass of crude oil taking over the planet will not contain the type of logical rigor that one finds in the philosophy of Aristotle or Kant.
mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck. Or, as Plato once put it, “hair, mud, and dirt.”
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.3
That demons really exist seems to be verified by the cross-cultural acceptance of supernatural forces of some type, that may be rendered to varying degrees as animalistic or anthropomorphic, and that display a general antagonism towards all of humanity (and in some cases, the world itself).
it seems that our technologically advanced, scientifically hegemonic, and religiously conservative post-millennium world leaves little room for something as fanciful as demons
Elaine Pagels's widely-read The Origin of Satan makes the clearest point: the demon is inseparable from a process of demonization, and this process is as much political as it is religious.
The demon becomes a name, a placeholder, a designation that signifies at once that which is outside and, because of this, that which is a threat.
One way of understanding the non-human aspect of the demon is to understand the demon less in a strictly theological sense, in which the demon is an intermediary creature between the supernatural and natural, and to understand it in its ontological function as a way of thinking about the relation of the human to that which is non-human.
And we as human beings certainly have a panoply of ways of relating to the non-human, be it via science, technology, politics, or religion. But the non-human remains, by definition, a limit; it designates both that which we stand in relation to and that which remains forever inaccessible to us. This limit is the unknown, and the unknown, as genre horror reminds us, is often a source of fear or dread.
As part of the exorcism, Jesus commands the name of the demon possessing the old man: “Then Jesus asked him, 'What is your name?' 'My name is Legion,' he replied, 'for we are many.'“5 The name “Legion” (λεγων) is tricky, for it is not clear from the passage whether it is a single demon speaking in many voices, or if it is a multitude of demons speaking in a single voice. Indeed, the very name “Legion” appears to devolve upon itself, the name of the Many naming itself as One.
After this rather dramatic episode, something interesting happens: the villagers, witnessing the entire spectacle, become fearful of Jesus and his healing powers. With some urgency they politely ask Jesus and his followers to leave the village.
the demons called “Legion” are never present in themselves, but only via some form of earthly embodiment (the old man, the herd of pigs, the wind, the sea). In a sense, they are strangely pantheistic, announcing themselves only indirectly.
If the anthropological demon is an attempt to reveal the nature of the human to the human, then we can say that the mythological demon is an attempt to reveal the non-human to the human
the human can only understand the human by transforming it into an object to relate to (psychology, sociology), while the human can only relate to the objective world itself by transforming the world into something familiar, accessible, or intuited in human terms (biology, geology, cosmology).
all “those who make reason slave to appetite.”
While Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas had written extensively about the nature of evil prior to this period, the idea that a distinct field of study devoted to the topic – as well as to its practical application in combating and rooting out evil – does not really emerge until the late 15th century.
Summis Desiderantes Affectibus (1484)
Demonology is commonly understood to no longer be of contemporary relevance; it is an unfortunate and anachronistic offshoot of late Medieval and early Renaissance theology, the stuff of the imaginative fancy of modern horror films.
Alain Bourreau, Nancy Caciola, Stuart Clark, and Armando Maggi, has done much to tease out the philosophical and political aspects of demonology in its historical sense
Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches, 1486).
Part I, which argues that witches and witchcraft really exist, and are a threat; Part II, which deals with how witches and witchcraft can be detected and exposed; and Part III, which outlines the protocols for carrying out the trial, sentencing, and punishment or execution.
One role medicine played was in the cultivation of a general miasmatic or contagion-theory of demonic possession. In this pre-modern understanding of contagion, the demon is conceptualized in much the same way we saw earlier – as a paradoxical manifestation that is, in itself, “nothing” or non-being.
Although witch-hunting manuals proliferated throughout the period, the Malleus Maleficarum set a new standard, encompassing theology (Part I), medicine (Part II), and law (Part III) into a single work.
Johann Weyer's De Praestigiis Daemonium (On the Trickery of Demons, 1563)
Jean Bodin's Démonomanie des Sorciers (The Demon-mania of Witches, 1580)
Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)
Weyer's De Praestigiis Daemonium is noteworthy for being one of the few treatises that expresses criticism of the excesses of the with-hunts and witchcraft trials.
As if to accuse both witches and inquisitors of a too-provincial, all-too-human mindset, the Discoverie of Witchcraft suggests that, in so far as there is a concept of the demon, it has to be one of which we can have little or no knowledge.
Such contradictions stretch the limits of language. Indeed, one of the by-products of the flurry of writings on demonology was the development of a new language and a new set of concepts for thinking about the supernatural
Here again we arrive at the concept of the demon as a limit for thought
True, demonology is a theological phenomenon, tied up with historical debates about the nature of evil, and the politics surrounding the witch-hunts. True, demonology is also a cultural phenomenon, as the poetic, literary, cinematic, and video game examples demonstrate. But demonology ceases to be interesting if it is taken as being “merely” historical, or “only” a fiction. If demonology is to be thought in a philosophical register, then it would have to function as a kind of philosoheme that brings together a cluster of ideas that have, for some time, served as problematic areas for philosophy itself: negation, nothingness, and the non-human.
What would such an approach to demonology look like? To begin with, demonology would have to be distinguished from anthropology, in which the demon is simply a stand-in for the human and ruminations on the nature of evil in human beings. Demonology would also have to be distinguished from pure metaphysics, in which the demon functions as a stand-in for the pair being/non-being. Denying the anthropological view means considering the world as not simply the world-for-us or the world-in-itself, but as the world-without-us. Likewise denying the view of metaphysics means considering the unreliability of the principle of sufficient reason for thinking about the world (not sufficient reason but a strange, uncanny, insufficiency of reason). A philosophical demonology would therefore have to be “against” the human being – both the “human” part as well as the “being” part.
If anthropology is predicated on a division between the personal and the impersonal (“man” and cosmos), then a demontology collapses them into paradoxical pairings (impersonal affects, cosmic suffering). If ontology deals with the minimal relation being/non-being, then demontology would have to undertake the thought of nothingness (a negative definition), but a nothingness that is also not simply non-being (a privative definition)
Then again, would there not be a basic problem in positing or hoping for the existence of a field dedicated to negation and nothingness? Is it possible for one to make the claim that demontology exists, without becoming ensnared in an endless theater of the absurd? Perhaps the only thing for certain is if something like a demontology could exist, it would not be made any more respectable because of its existence – for nothing is more frowned upon than nothing…
Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia
In this mixing together of different speculative traditions, one finds: Greek natural philosophy (Aristotle) and cosmology (Pythagoras), Neoplatonism, Renaissance alchemy, Egyptian Hermeticism, Christian-Scholastic theology, and Jewish mysticism.
First published in 1531, Agrippa's De Occulta Philosophia Libri Tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy) presents a veritable compendium of Renaissance philosophy, theology, mysticism, science, and magic. While Agrippa began writing the Occult Philosophy as early as 1509, the work itself went through a number of editions, with an English translation appearing in 1651
The basic philosophical commitment of Agrippa's Occult Philosophy is that there is a basic distinction between the world as its appears to us, and the “hidden” or occulted qualities of the world which, though they are not apparent, are all the more important and essential in gaining a deeper knowledge of the three worlds (elemental, celestial, intellectual). While most of the Occult Philosophy is dedicated to detailing, often in a very practical way, the process of revealing the hidden essences of the world, the world as such doesn't always lend itself to being revealed
the hiddenness of the world that we find ourselves thrown into, a hidden world which, regardless of how much knowledge we produce about it, always retains some remainder that lies beyond the scope of our capacity to reveal its hiddenness
Today, in an era almost schizophrenically poised between religious fanaticisms and a mania for scientific hegemony, all that remains is the hiddenness of the world, its impersonal “resistance” to the human tout court.
Whereas traditional occult philosophy is a hidden knowledge of the open world, occult philosophy today is an open knowledge of the hiddenness of the world.
whereas traditional occult philosophy is historically rooted in Renaissance humanism, the new occult philosophy is anti-humanist, having as its method the revealing of the non-human as a limit for thought…
Here the motif of the magic circle serves as a boundary between the natural and supernatural, and the possible mediations between them that are made possible by the circle itself. Hence the magic circle is not only a boundary, but also a passage, a gateway, a portal.
Here blobs, slime, ooze, mists, and clouds are prevalent, being not quite pure nature and yet not quite pure supernature
All incarnations of the magic circle “are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”21
Marlowe brings together two shadowy bodies of knowledge of the Elizabethan era: that of occult philosophy and its connections between the microcosm and macrocosm, and that of the ongoing controversies over and persecutions of witchcraft and demonology.
Faust gazes upon a symbol of the earth spirit (Erdgeist), leading him to a second contemplation. Modern commentators have debated what exactly this earth spirit is – another name for an alchemical symbol, a pagan symbol linked to cyclic or seasonal time, or a Romantic personification of nature
The magic circle is both what allows the “hiddenness” of the world to reveal itself, as well as that which protects the human subject from the rational unacceptability of this hidden, world-in-itself.
The knowledge gained by black magic is neither the knowledge of the world as given to us by the divine Logos, nor is it the knowledge produced by the machinations of human reason. The knowledge of black magic is – or claims to be – a knowledge of the world as essentially hidden, rather than given (religion) or produced (science). The knowledge it lays claim to is, for this reason, occult knowledge, but knowledge that is only made apparent within the topography of the magic circle
In Blish's near-future scenario, we get glimpses of a number of modern institutions, including the Consolidated Warfare Service, the Reformed Orthodox Agnostic Church, government think-tanks on weaponized anti-matter, a report titled The Effects of Atomic Weapons, and secret arms deals that feed directly into the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
Demons, saucers, fallout – what's the difference? Those are just signs in the equation, parameters we can fill any way that makes the most immediate sense to us. Are you happier with electrons than with demons?”36
the “Electric Pentacle”
Professor Garder, “Astral Vibrations Compared with Matero-involuted Vibrations below the Six-Billion Limit.”
In Hodgson's Carnacki stories, the Electric Pentacle is a hybrid of magic and science that, in stories like “The Hog” serves to invert the traditional uses of the magic circle. Instead of providing protection and serving as a barrier between the natural and supernatural, the Electric Pentacle actually focuses and intensifies the passage between them, whereby the “hidden world” reveals itself as a sort of extra-dimensional monstrosity.
The Borderlands,” an episode of the classic TV series Outer Limits. Aired in 1960
If the occult detective genre still attempted to strike a balance between science and magic, Outer Limits episodes like these make a claim for bleeding-edge science as the new occultism, and electromagnetic laboratory chambers like the one we see as the new magic circles
If the lab is the circle, then the lab experiment is the magical ritual
Lovecraft's short story “From Beyond,”
This dissolving of boundaries between the natural and supernatural is also found in the work of contemporary authors influenced by Lovecraft, including Caitlín Kiernan, Thomas Ligotti, China Miéville, and filmmakers such as E. Elias Merhige. In Lovecraft's story, what results is a “subtractive” magic circle, swhich by its very receding into the background bizarrely flattens all dimensions into one.
We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.“42
Uzumaki adds yet another dimension to the magic circle motif we've been tracing. The spiral is, in one sense, an abstract, geometrical shape. It has no actual existence in the world, except as a manifestation in the form of a spiral (a snail's shell, a slice of fish cake). This paradoxical state means that the spiral can only be said to negatively exist – the spiral in itself is never manifest except as a spiral “in” some thing, in the world.
To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all…but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown – the shadow-haunted Outside – we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.”50
In a kind of perversion of Kantian philosophy, Lovecraft and Ito suggest that the world-in-itself is only “hidden” to the extent that our phenomenal experience of the world is determinatively a human one.
It is a kind of non-human, anonymous “magic” without any “circle” to inscribe it. What would this mean? For one, it implies that any magic without a circle is also a magic without human agents to cause, control, or utilize magic. But what would magic without the human mean? What would it mean to have revealed to us the hiddenness of the world without any human to evoke that revelation?
The magic site is, simply, the place where the hiddenness of the world presents itself in its paradoxical way (revealing itself – as hidden). In some cases magic sites are like magic circles, constructed by human beings for specific purposes. This is the case with the mad scientist theme in the Lovecraft story. More often than not, however, the magic site spontaneously happens without any human intervention.
Whereas the magic circle involves an active human governance of the boundary between the apparent world and the hidden world, the magic site is its dark inverse: the anonymous, unhuman intrusion of the hidden world into the apparent world, the enigmatic manifesting of the world-without-us into the world-for-us, the intrusion of the Planet into the World.
Ooze may also be metamorphic and shape-shifting, as with the organisms classed as myxomycota, which, during their life cycle, may alternately behave like plants, fungi, or amoeboid organisms. Despite their differences, mists and ooze are two examples of the ways in which the “hidden” world reveals itself, and often with strange and weird effects.
One of the insights of Carl Schmitt's 1922 book Politische Theologie (Political Theology) is that the very possibility of imagining or re-imagining the political is dependent upon a view of the world as revealed, as knowable, and as accessible to us as human beings living in a human world.
The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology.“65
“the metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of political organization.”67
In a sense, it is hard to escape the sense of living in a world that is not just a human world, but also a planet, a globe, a climate, an infosphere, an atmosphere, a weather pattern…a rift, a tectonic shift, a storm, a cataclysm. If the supernatural in a conventional sense is no longer possible, what remains after the “death of God” is an occulted, hidden world. Philosophically speaking, the enigma we face is how to confront this world, without immediately presuming that it is identical to the world-for-us (the world of science and religion), and without simply disparaging it as an irretrievable and inaccessible world-in-itself.
Can there be a philosophy of “life” that does not immediately become a concern of either Being or God? To what extent is “life” as a concept always situated between a non-ontological “life itself” (the view of science) and an onto-theology of the life-beyond-the-living, or afterlife (the view of religion)?
In Lovecraft's prose, the Shoggoths are the alterity of alterity, the species-of-no-species, the biological empty set. When they are discovered to still be alive, they are described sometimes as formless, black ooze, and sometimes as mathematical patterns of organic “dots,” and sometimes as a hurling mass of viscous eyes. Formless, abstract, faceless. In an oft-referenced passage, what the narrator expresses is the horizon of the ability of the human characters to think this kind of “life”:
At the center of blasphemous life is this idea of the living contradiction. Blasphemous life is the life that is living but that should not be living. This contradiction is not a contradiction in terms of medical science; the blasphemous life can often be scientifically explained and yet remain utterly incomprehensible. If it is a logical contradiction, it would have to be one in which the existence of true contradictions would not only be admitted, but would be foundational to any ontology. In logical terms, the assertion that there are true contradictions is often referred to as “dialetheism.”78
dialethic biologies, contradictions
the divine character of an impersonal, indistinct, and immanent existence.”136 This sense – of an unhuman, indifferent, planet, can only be expressed in us as a “powerless horror.” However, “this horror is ambiguous.” Its ambiguity is that which Bataille attempts to get at in his earlier texts, such as “The Congested Planet.” It is a dilemma expressed in the contemporary discourse on climate change, between a debate over the world-for-us (e.g. how do we as human beings impact – negatively or positively – the geological status of the planet?), and a largely unspoken, whispered query over the world-in-itself (e.g. to what degree is the planet indifferent to us as human beings, and to what degree are we indifferent to the planet?).
can there exist today a mysticism of the unhuman, one that has as its focus the climatological, meterological, and geological world-in-itself, and, moreover, one that does not resort to either religion or science?
“geomantic shifts in the nature of thought,”
Long considered unworthy of serious scholarship, the study of mysticism and mystical writing was largely inaugurated in the 20th century by Evelyn Underhill's book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (1911). Underhill elucidates the logic of mystical thinking, paying particular attention to mysticism as a systematic practice, as well as to the psychology of mystical experience. As she notes, “if we may trust the reports of the mystics…they have succeeded where all others have failed, in establishing immediate communication between the spirit of man…and that 'only Reality,' that immaterial and final Being, which some philosophers call the Absolute, and most theologians call God.”137
Darkness mysticism is not only figuratively but historically the dark underside of mystical thought. Even at the apotheosis of divine communion, darkness mysticism retains the language of shadows and nothingness, as if the positive union with the divine is of less importance than the realization of the absolute limits of the human. Darkness mysticism is “mystical” not because it says yes to the therapeutic, anthropocentric embrace of God, but because it says no to the recuperative habits of human beings to always see the world as a world-for-us.
Henry Annesley's Dark Geomancy
As Otto puts it, “'void' is, like darkness and silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every 'this' and 'here,' in order that the 'wholly other' may become actual.”141
a dark mysticism of the world-in-itself
For Nishitani, then, the only way beyond nihilism is through nihilism. And here Nishitani borrows from the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā, conventionally translated as “nothingness” or “emptiness.” In contrast to the relative nothingness of modern nihilism, which is privative, and predicated on the absence of being (that is, an ontology), Nishitani proposes an absolute nothingness, which is purely negative and predicated on a paradoxical foundation of non-being (that is, a meontology).
The motif of decay has been developed up most recently by Reza Negarestani, who discusses “decay as a building process” in his article “Undercover Softness: An Introduction to the Politics and Architecture of Decay,” Collapse V (2010), as well as in his chapbook Culinary Exhumations (Boston: Miskatonic University Press, forthcoming). Negarestani adopts two approaches to understanding the concept of decay – that of mathematics (derived from Medieval Scholasticism as it developed at Oxford) and that of architecture (particularly the architecture of morphology and transformation). There is much to expand upon here in the relation between architecture and resurrection. The ruin may be one conceptual link between them.
Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles de Quadrupèdes, òu l’on Rétablit les Caractères de Plusieurs Espèces d’Animaux que les Révolutions du Globe Paroissent avoir Détruites.
Journal of Literary Psychoplamsics (volume 4, issue 6), ed. Sonia Haft-Greene, on “The Post-Mystical,” which features scholarly articles on the poem and its relevance.